Story in games. Something we seem to be trying for, but continue to struggle with. Perhaps it's even worse for educational games: we are told that narrative engages learners and helps to situate content, but it's not clear whether we need a full fledged story instead of just a little bit of fiction to accomplish our goals. Worse, get it wrong, and your audience could see through it and dismiss the whole idea since they know you have an educational agenda.
I've been thinking lately about interactive storytelling. The way that I understand it, interactive storytelling involves a story world instead of a fixed plot. In this world are non-obvious choices that players can make to affect the overall story in a meaningful way. There are many different story lines or plots that could emerge from a single story world. While many games have story pieces with interactive game elements thrown in between them, I'm not convinced I can think of a game whose overall story could be truly and meaningfully affected by game play. (See, for example, my discussion on L.A. Noire.)
Could educational games benefit from true interactive storytelling? Perhaps not all subjects need large, elaborate story worlds that focus on theme, character, and so on, but maybe the ability to affect the story would help learners make sense of a few interconnected topics.
Chris Crawford says in his book on interactive storytelling that "stories are complete patterns that communicate a special kind of knowledge to our pattern-recognizing mental modules" and that "storytelling’s value arises in an attempt to convey a complex mesh containing many linkages." I figure giving users control over what nodes in the mesh they want to see next or letting them discover the linkages through meaningful choice must be a powerful way to learn new concepts.
It's more obvious how some subjects, like history, might benefit from the use of interactive storytelling, but it's not so clear for something like computer science. From my extensive experience using CS Unplugged activities, I can say the use of fiction in the activities helps kids and young adults grasp what are otherwise abstract concepts much more quickly than without it. How might a more complex game or storytelling experience enhance this understanding?
One example I have been thinking about is the activity for finite state automata. I never tell students exactly what we're going to be learning about while describing how the activity is going to work; I just promise I'll make it clear later. Once I start talking about pirates, nobody seems to mind. After all the students make their way from Pirate Island to Treasure Island, recording their routes along the way, we build up a complete map on the chalk board and compare how long each of them took for their routes.
Because the pirates are only allowed to ask to use shipping lane A or B at each island (at which point the island tells them where they will end up next), the routes are actually a series of A's and B's. With these written out, I tell the students we just made our own language, and each valid route to Treasure Island is a word in that language. The "Pirate Code," if you will. Then we can start talking more and more abstractly and even work through some other puzzles involving state machines that reveal interesting characteristics of the languages they represent.
I know the students understand the concept at a basic level because they are able to solve the puzzles without too much help. But what if we wanted them to understand on a deeper level? Maybe we're working with second year university students who need to go quite a bit further with the concept, for instance.
Would designing a more elaborate pirate world that had characters with goals and motivations help? Perhaps the player would somehow have the ability to choose what map to apply to a particular situation and see the consequences of that choice reflected in the story. It might make them think about why that happened in the context of the properties of the map they chose, and then figure out how to choose a map that would result in an outcome more to their liking the next time. (Naturally, these maps could grow to be more complex than simply representing shipping lanes.) Even if the story (and the player's ability to control it) only serves to focus the player's attention on important pedagogical details, it seems like it could be hugely beneficial.
Yet the question still remains: can this win come from a simpler fictional layer or a non-interactive story? I don't know the answer, but I'm starting to think that running a few experiments to find out could be very worthwhile. (Assuming, of course, that we can figure out this whole interactive storytelling thing in games in a more reasonable way!)