Storytelling and scaffolding

by Kate Raynes-Goldie

In earlier posts, I’ve touched on the importance scaffolding in our project. Scaffolding is a concept used in education whereby learners are provided support structures which are gradually removed as learning advances. Scaffolding is like training wheels, but with more levels. The concept has informed both what we are creating, but also how we are creating it. For example, in creating the game design workshops, our goal was to create appropriate scaffolding to enable the children to meaningfully engage with the game design process. At the same time, scaffolding is also an important element of game design. The level structure of many games can be seen as scaffolding that gradually gets removed as the player advances in their skills. In the tutorial stage, most of the activities are scaffolded and the player is guided through learning the necessary basic skills. As the levels advance, players are are given access to more skills and more challenges. In this way, the structure of many games actually mimic the way people learn, which could potentially make this element of games quite useful as a teaching tool. This is something we are exploring.

What we’ve also been discovering is the usefulness of narrative as a learning scaffold. In Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture, he details how the world of Harry Potter is used by children and young adults to teach themselves media and conventional literacy skills (thanks to Melanie McBride for putting me on to this). According to Jenkins, young fanfic writers use the pre-created worlds and characters as scaffolds to help them practice their own creative skills. Writers also help each other to improve through fanfic communities. They read each other’s work, provide feedback and generally encouraging one another. After honing their writing and editing skills, young writers can eventually remove the scaffolding and begin creating their own worlds. In a sense, Harry Potter fanfic communities provide the tutorial level for creative writing.

Most of all, Harry Potter fanfic communities make learning to write fun. Part of this fun comes from the enjoyment of reading and writing about the Harry Potter universe. Part of the scaffolding that the narrative provides, then, is fun and motivation to get and stay engaged. In the two privacy game prototypes we’ve tested so far (one with a strong narrative component, the other without) the feedback from everyone has been how much they liked the story, or missed it when there wasn’t one. In our prototype that required trust evaluation skills to uncover the overarching narrative, Mary (one of our young co-creators) observed that the game helped her to reflect on trust and privacy but did it in a way that was fun and engaging. As she put it, she did not feel like she was learning, even though she was, which she liked.

Mary’s comments are interesting in the context of what we’ve been hearing from the group. The children have told us that they turn off when they feel they are being engaged in a disrespectful or heavy-handed way, for example when they are asked to memorize privacy skills or threats, rather than being given broader skills to make their own decisions. Narrative can be used to not only make things fun and engaging, it can create a space where these broader skills are learned.

Narrative can also create opportunities for experiential learning through empathy and critical distance. As Jenkins described with Harry Potter fanfic, writers could use the pre-created characters to write about their own experiences from a less personal, more critical distance. Jenkins gives examples where young authors would practice writing from other people’s perspectives, such as the adult characters. In the same way, games can the experience of being someone else, for example through roleplaying or being asked to carry out certain quests. In this way, players and readers can experience being someone else, thereby gaining insight into other people’s motivations, concerns or fears. Such insight into other people is critical for making good trust evaluations which ultimately enable good privacy protection skills.