Going Virtual with Casual Games: Strategies for Teaching during a Pandemic


Part 1 The Power of Stories: Teaching Interactive Narrative, Interpersonal Relationships, and Identity with “Florence”

David Seelow, Ph.D.©

People learn best through stories. This has been true since pre-history. From drawings on the cave walls of Lascaux, to oral narratives like The Epic of Gilgamesh to the tragic dramas of Sophocles up to the birth of the novel, comics and hypertext fiction, stories convert experiences of the world and emotional truths no other form of communication does so well. The emergence of the Internet and related technology platforms has had a profound, but problematic impact on storytelling. On one hand, the Internet allows for a wide range of people to publish their work without the professional gatekeeping of print culture. This gives more people a voice, but often an unedited and unpolished voice.  The fragmented nature of web text with its emphasis on headlines, visual impact, and pervasive hyperlinks works against sustained, and deep reading replacing thoughtful reflection with superficial skimming, a lack of focus and, consequently, a transient effect on the reader. This argument has been cogently made in popular form by Nicholas Carr (2011). Like all writers, he has detractors, but I believe the evidence more than bears him out. My own classroom experience witnesses a steady decline in how much students read, and that is a serious impoverishment of our culture and these students educational experience. How would one teach the 18th century novel today?

gggggggggggAs digital natives, today’s students are born into a visual, technology dominated world of information overload, where much of the information is distorted, poorly argued, or simply unimaginative. Instructors at every level of education need to both use the technology that exists, but also counter its negative impact with enhancing the positive potential of the media.  Games are a new media form that uses a highly interactive narrative style characteristic of web based technology. Like with early hypertext, the reader chooses the path the story takes. This style was anticipated by Choose Your Own Adventure stories, but the fun aspect of such storytelling wears thin after elementary school and hypertext fiction has never amounted to anything to get excited about. You do not find Virginia Woolf or Gabriel Garcia Marquez like storytelling on the web. However, as I will write elsewhere, video games and their precursors, game books, present some particularly good interactive stories. For now I want to focus just on a casual game a story, i.e., one that can be told in small slices, and read on a smart phone without loss of the narrative experience.

The small narrative game Florence (2018) by Mountains, a small Australian studio represents an excellent opportunity to teach interactive narrative as well as engaging in vital social emotional learning any story about relationships entails. The game is short- broken into Six Acts and these acts broken into what could be called scenes-though they are called chapters- 20 in all. The story is communicated entirely through vision and touch, absent of words. Most chapters or scenes are only 1 to 2 minutes in length. This visual storytelling suits today’s students and the ease with which you can read a scene and return to the larger narrative later is perfect for students to read at home and discuss through an asynchronous forum or a Zoom session.

The story’s protagonist, Florence, is a 25 year old Chinese-Australian woman who meets and falls in and out of love with an Indian man. The interracial relationship provides a larger arena for discussing the impact of culture on interpersonal relationships as well as the prejudices and biases that such relationships expose. What impresses me about this story is how the game’s mechanics perfectly move the narrative. Most interactive narratives require the player to make choices along a branching narrative where different choices, whether of action or dialogue, push the story in different directions. Not so with Florence. The story is linear and the narrative progresses through the players touching the phone’s screen and completing puzzles of various kinds. As noted in a review published in Wired touch plays a critical role in the storytelling, linking the player to Florence through tactile storytelling, ideal for the smart phone platform.

"The touch play here serves two purposes. It keeps the player engaged in the story, yes. But it also centers touch itself, bringing the body, the movement of  the player's fingers and hands, into the experience, connecting touch with the game's emotional tenor. With your own hands, you make this story happen. You open boxes and help Florence's boyfriend unpack when he moves in. You brush Florence's teeth. You share food. With gestures and taps, you interact with the world the way Florence does, with your own two hands (Muncy, 2018)."

Each chapter is a mini game with slightly different mechanics. For example, in the chapter “Memories,” you meet a 7 year old Florence working on art. How the player maneuvers objects with his or her finger on the screen will make a painting. Your creativity parallels Florence’s creativity. However, the painting returns later in the story to play an important thematic role. Many of these mini games are simple and chapters mundane. When Florence wakes and brushes her teeth you simply move the brush back and forth on the screen with your finger and that action moves the toothbrush. The lead Designer Ken Wong, acclaimed designer of the casual game, Monument Valley, explains how these simple actions capture the essence of what the story conveys:

"‘Brushing teeth represents the mundanity of everyday life. In comics they would call it a “slice of life”, something based on real human lives and real human experiences. It’s not intended to be difficult, the idea is that anybody can get through this and have a nice experience. Later in the game when Krish is in Florence’s life, tooth brushing symbolises that they have fallen into a routine.’"

Key moments worth exploring in class occur early on. For instance, an authority figure appears- whether a teacher or parent (you could read either as applicable)- and squashes Florence’s creative spirit. School goes from artistic exploration to dead routine, from free expression to rote regurgitation. This is a teaching point. Ask students to recall when they had their creative urges thwarted and how this affected them.

Sreen Shot: Authority’s Disapproval

In the scene “Music” Florence hears notes and her body levitates as she follows the notes, much like an animal might follow a smell, to its source. The source ends up being a cellist in a public park. Soon a bike accident will bring Florence face to face with Krish, the Indian cellist, and this begins their relationship. Young love provides another theme to explore. Romeo and Juliet is often taught in 9th grade, and the great things about good stories, is you can read them at many levels of education with different levels of sophistication. Shakespeare can be read, performed and studies in middle school, high school, college and doctoral seminars.

However, the deeper theme of Florence, does not concern interracial relationships so much as gender inequality. Simon Parker from The Guardian provides this insight:

As in La La Land, this is a story in which a woman stifles her creative yearnings   in order to support those of the man with whom she is romantically involved. Florence encourages Krish to enroll in a music course, literally pushing him to the    college’s front door. The painting set that he buys her as a thank you, meanwhile, sits idle on her desk, buried under a stack of accounting (Florence’s mother told her daughter when she was a child to set down the paints and focus on more bankable subjects, so shares culpability). The subtle differences in the   way in which Florence and Krish support one another’s dreams is telling.

Exploring gender inequality early on with students is extremely important, but rarely done. Dating violence and harassment- meaning exploiting or manipulating (e.g., sexting etc.) another gender-starts early, as early as dating occurs, and girls, along with non-heteronormality genders need to be made aware of gender expectations and roles, some invisible to young people, and how asymmetrical power situations can damage one’s self-esteem and growth. A driving theme of the game is Florence’s struggle toward independence and confidence that necessitates learning not to sacrifice one’s interests for another under the presumption that other person’s dreams are more important than your dreams. No better description of this sad gender unbalance exits than Virginia Woolf’s brilliant explanation of how women have served as men’s distorting mirror for centuries, “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size” (A Room of One’s Own, 1929). This famous quote can serve as a provocative discussion prompt where students can provide historical, literary and personal examples.

In addition to the themes and discussion topics of ethnic identity, interracial relationships, and the power dynamics of a patriarchal culture that overtly and covertly discriminates against females and minority genders, there are three aspects of the game that promote excellent active learning activities.

Florence’s storytelling power resides in its use of metaphor and symbol. In a narrative without words metaphor and symbolic language becomes a priority. It is an excellent opportunity for students to understand and use metaphor as a communicative tool. For instance, how to you teach the need to compromise when two different parties need to come together? A relationship is itself a metaphor for how different parties need to cooperate to succeed. Chinese-Australian and Indian can also be thought of as Republican and Democrat, or the United States and China. In Chapter Ten, “Moving In,” Krish moves into Florence’s flat (apartment). Two separate spaces must now become one shared space. How do you make this happen? The chapter does this by having the player unpack Krish’s belongings from a box and place them on a shelf.  Of course, the space is already filled with Florence’s belongings, so which of Krish’s belongings, often symbols of his culture, will be displayed and which remain in the box? This mini placement or sorting type game embodies the challenge of cooperation. Have students bring in a box of their important items, make pairs, and the two students must place x number of items- say 5 of the 10 they have onto a common space. It is a perfect exercise for blended learning.

 Another blended learning opportunity occurs in Chapter Eight, “Explorations.” Krish and Florence explore the city, maybe Sidney or Melbourne, and take pictures of memorable activities. The player touches spots on a city map and a picture, like the one below, materializes just like in the old Polaroid instamatic days. Students might not know much about Polaroid. Therefore, this presents a great opportunity for scientific extension activities and learning about a great America scientist Dr. Edwin Land (1909-1991), the founder of Polaroid (1937) (see extension activities below) and inventor of the Polaroid Land Model 95 camera (1948). However, students are all too familiar with instant pictures taken by their ubiquitous smart phones and posted to Instagram, same idea- different technology. Unfortunately, the smart phone’s camera has facilitated the obsessive taking of selfies which is symptomatic of a strongly narcissistic aspect of our culture. Counter this trend, by asking students to move around their local- neighborhood, city, village, campus etc., and take pictures of places they consider important and include in the photo someone other than themselves. They can then create a visual story or a vison type board or storytelling map to share with the class. This exercise expands their sense of place as well as connection to others.

Forest Hike Screen Shot

Finally, jigsaw type puzzles feature prominently in Florence. Many chapters have the player move pieces around the screen to fit into a puzzle. The puzzles are a perfect metaphor of relationships. At first pieces are tough to fit together, then them fit together seamlessly, and, finally, all too often do not fit together at all. Have students practice their own metaphoric meaning making using Minecraft or LEGO. These two products require building, and like a relationship which also requires building, the player must fit a variety of pieces together to make a whole structure that survives the challenges brought by the passage of time.

Together Florence and Krish ScreenShot
Apart: Florence and Krish Screen Shot

In conclusion, Florence’s beautiful integration of story with game mechanics in a series of imagistic snap shots of a relationship’s rhythm represents an excellent example of casual game storytelling crafted for a cell phone. The game works well for both high school and college classes in areas such as creative writing, digital storytelling, the digital Humanities, visual communication, contemporary literature, psychology, interpersonal communication, and the short story. The game can be paid effectively with a silent movie, Romeo and Juliet, the film Zebrahead (Drazan, 1992), about a young white male and black female’s relationship, Adrian Tomine’s graphic novel Shortcomings (2007) and similar works.

Extension Activities and Opportunities

Chemistry/Physics/Art

1. Have students read Land’s Scientific American article (“Experiments in Color” 1959) for historical context on instant photo development. You can also draw parallels with Land and one of his modern computer savvy admirers Steve Jobs.

2. Reproduce Land’s experiment demonstrating “retinex theory” and “the Land effect” which concerns color theory and perception. This can be expanded into discissions of how Land’s ideas have been developed in digital photography and software.

3. Have some fun and ask students to go into the field- i.e., anywhere but the classroom and find examples showing aspects of Land’s theories like color constancy, i.e., the exact same shade of gray can appear as two different shades when adjacent to each other.

Film

As Florence tells a nonverbal story, show students an old silent film that depicts relationships and talk about how silent film’s storytelling achieves its effects. D.W. Griffin’s True Heart Susie (1919) offers an excellent example for parallels with Florence. Susie, played by the great Lillian Gish, makes a few unappreciated sacrifices for a man only to end up losing him to a more fashionable woman.

Literature/Graphic Novel

Graphic novels make excellent companion texts to Florence because of the emphasis on art as a primary mode of storytelling. Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings (2007, paperback Drawn and Quarterly, 2009) would be a superb choice. This story features a male Asian American protagonist, Ben Tanka, and his relationship with a more self-identified Asian American girlfriend, Miko Hayashi. It is a subtle and profound representation of relationships in relationship to ethnicity, especially Asian ethnicity.

Next Up: Part 2 of the series will focus on the game Kind Words, the ideal game for starting 2021 on a positive note. The game is perfect for students, teachers, and all school personnel.

*** If you want consultation, or professional development help with online learning, course design, game-based learning, games in the classroom, comics in the classroom, film, or Language Arts/Literature contact me at: davidseelow@gmail.com.

Purchase or recommend to your library out book Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels (McFarland, 2019), a practical guide to classroom teaching with new literary forms.

Works Cited

Campbell, Ollie. “The Lead Designer of Monument Valley Deconstructs His Latest Game, Florence,” Milanote, retrieved from https://milanote.com/the-work/lead-designer-of-monument-valley-deconstructs-his-latest-game-florence

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. W.W. Norton & Co., 2011).

Muncy, Julie. “Florence Is a Mobile Game That Captures the Power of Touch,” Wired

3/2/2018, retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/florence-touch-mobile-game/

Parkin, Simon. “Florence review – girl meets boy meets iPhone game,” The Guardian, 3/3/2018, retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/games/2018/mar/03/florence-iphone-video-game-review-simon-parkin

Taggart, Emma. “Get an ‘Instant’ History of How Polaroid Revolutionized Photography,” My Modern Met, 15/6/2020, retrieved from https://mymodernmet.com/history-of-polaroid/

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Harcourt, Brace& World,1929.

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