Mud Puddling

Posted December 6th, 2009 by wonko

…now I had this idea for a unit, taught at Year 9 level, involving students creating a virtual environment. It was part 3D, part Browser-world, and mostly in a text-only world. Their task was [I thought] fairly simple: design and make a place, embed a narrative so you have a sense of being there.

Text only? Surely those things have not existed since the mid 90’s, when graphical interfaces took hold?

After wrestling with an odd command set, and a partially hacked version of a Mordor MUD [a textiverse], allowing “builder” class players to construct objects, creatures and feature rooms, groups set about imagining an alternative reality.

The design spec was fairly open-ended [I was determined not to hold those motivated back]: at least 25 rooms, 5 objects and 3 creatures – could be set in past, present, future, could represent fact, fiction or anywhere in-between. Each room had to be described – 5 lines of text minimum [a juicy paragraph describing what it was like to be there]. Once they had done this, they had to echo this textiverse in a browser-based, multimedia capable MOO with the aim of getting them to reflect on the effects of interface on the quality of the experience.

The results astounded me. Honestly.

Year 9s usually hate English, more specifically, they go through a sort of larval stage where a grunt is considered an extended conversation, writing is not something they do [except on their mobile phone].  One group wrote a 45 page planning document, 38 of which were room descriptions – 10pt Courier New … do the maths. Some groups did a good job, most were extraordinary in their writing. Rich, interesting, narrative-laden descriptions, character-based non-linear fiction that you could get lost in. I meddled in the middle, helped them out with the obscure command set, fixed stuff that went pearshaped but the effort and work was theirs. They brought their friends in to see what they had written.

This is new to me, and I like it. Year 9 kids getting so involved with creative writing and constructionist/constructivist learning that they were in during lesson, chose to continue before school, lunchtimes and in the evenings making stuff, trying things,  crafting. It was not even like I spent a whole lot of time with the command set, just gave them the basics and wrote a reasonable reference book with some exemplar code and left them to it.

Some struggled with the game-place divide, and had difficulty just describing the place [they had the full set of building tools, so could craft weapons, armour, monsters and rewards] and I sort of let them play, realising that it takes a level of maturity to conceive pure narrative space in what was essentially a game environment, but wow – no, I mean WOW. Some randomly picked rooms from the hundreds made include:

a cruise-ship journey from hell:

You look around and your eyes are drawn to the lion’s head on the wall that takes away from the free mints on the counter. The timber flooring is wet. It looks like there are wet footprints coming from the south. The curved desk with a glass finish and wooden vinyl façade makes you feel like this cruise has blown your budget big time. But before you take a handful of mints and go steal some shampoo from your shower, a tuscan flower in a blue vase takes your mind off your financial difficulties. The floor tiles match together to make a snowflake. The scent from the flower smells like a cheap cologne. You can hear the buzzing of a fax from behind the desk. There is a painting on the wall which cost more than your house. The tiles look so expensive that you don’t want to stand on them and a marble arch reaches up to the ceiling making you feel small there is some computer equipment sitting on the desk that looks out dated compared to the rest of the room. To a give some extra flavor there a 55 inch LCD TV mounted on the wall.  The TV, instead of showing the Rugby, shows a map of the globe and how far you are on your journey so far and how much longer before you hit dry land. The TV is lacking speakers but there is music playing from a radio that adds to the experience.

… a journey in time:

Inside a Worn Time Capsule
You stand still for few minutes before realizing that something has happened to you and your surroundings. You had walked through the door, yes, but.. Why were you in the same room? You closely examine the room that you are in, and you realize what has happened. The machines that were once buzzing and active are now in disuse – the casings have rusted, and the buttons and over half of the levers are either missing or broken. You.. have travelled into the future. The question you ask yourself is why you were the test subject for such an experiment? Were you sent here for a certain purpose? Is there.. a task ahead?

or a street market from a dystopian future:

You stand amidst the northern part of a big market where trading, selling and buying takes place. The owners of the different shops are calling out and trying to attract more customers, while everyone else is talking extremely loud at each other. All sorts of people can be seen here, including doctors, businessmen, tourists, government officials, beggars and much more. You see scrambled rows and columns of shops and stores of varying sizes being set up here that sell assorted types of food, such as veggies, red meat, seafood, canned food, sweets, frozen food, and much more, and the mixed smell of all these food is making this area fairly unpleasant. Stores seem to be competing with each other, as they are paying close attention to each other’s prices and lowering their own, which in the end is good for the consumer. There appears to be a narrow pathway between two of the stores, but you are unsure where it leads to. The market continues south from here, and the exit onto Bails Street can be seen to the south-east.

I learnt a lot from this exercise. Most importantly, I learnt that students will engage if they have some control over what they are making, when they understand the guidelines and personally engage in the task. The enthusiasm and non-verbals from the teacher is also an important factor – assume they will have difficulty and guess what – they will. Tell them it is “hard” and guess what – they will struggle with it.

2 Responses to “Mud Puddling”

  1. wonko

    …no, it was not all peaches and cream – some groups needed reminding of the deadline, some students procrastinated and got lost in the whole game-aspect before being brought back to the task with a little less time than they needed to do the job, some groups were dysfunctional [I formed partners randomly – most worked, some did not], some group members did not see the task as something they could not leave until the last moment [did I mention these were boys?], some needed constant patting on the head for reassurance. I am pleased to say they ran the full gamut of response [sir – what is the _minimum_ we have to do?] and so on. Generally, however, the response to the task was extraordinary and I am lining up to do a modified version of this task next year with the next cohort.

  2. wonko

    Asset management was … interesting. I allocated to each boy 25 rooms, 10 objects, 10 monsters. As they were all builder characters, they had the ability to edit everything [including mine and other people’s assets – interestingly I did not find any evidence this happened deliberately – given ALL commands were logged there was some accountability for actions, and I sorta threatened to remove their privileges if they chose to destroy some one elses asset – a threat that was possible as there were 2 in the group, but I hated having to roll out a threat – I mentioned these were boys, right?]. In their group, between them, they had double that allocation which I thought would be tons [I did have kids asking for extra, having gone berserk on their design without realising the scope of the task of embellishing each asset]. Some groups used up ALL of their assets, some not so, not sure how I could have done it otherwise.

    Their evaluation – part personal reflection, part self-determined criteria as a measure of “success” indicated they enjoyed the old-school world in that it forced them to think creatively, add details to surface ideas that would otherwise be missed, that it was like living a book … yes, you read that right. Neat huh?