I just finished Play Dead's Inside for Xbox One and I have no idea what just happened. I never played their last game, Limbo, which I understand to be pretty similar. Inside is a 2-d Puzzle-Platformer. It is essentially a series of puzzle rooms. Most rooms are built around a theme that is stretched and pushed to it's boundaries before introducing you to a new element. I didn't know the game was even coming out (a rarity for me given my intense consumption of gaming media) but there's no way you can avoid hearing about it now. It was all over every gaming podcast for the last two week. It isn't my typical kind of game but I wanted in on the ground floor on this one.
The game is only about 4 hours long and I finished it in 4 sittings with the last being a nearly 2 hour push of me saying to myself "just one more room." I think I liked it. I honestly don't even know what else to say about it. It is something that must be experienced.
Still, as I was playing I viewed it through my teacher lens. My first thought was "too bad, another game rated M so I can't use it in class." The game's rating, it appears at first, is strictly due to the violent deaths you will suffer. It really wasn't clear why these deaths were even in the game at first. It builds a bit of tension I suppose but it is as minor as can be. There's almost no penalty for dying save a 5 second load time and perhaps a need to replay about 30 seconds of a puzzle.
It seems to me, and I could be way off here, that the violent deaths are there precisely to ensure the game is rated M and the "right" people play it. A kid would not enjoy this game. I feel like the developers were saying "we know who our audience should be." The violence isn't to appeal to that audience but to target it.
Or, maybe it is gratuitous and I'm over-thinking it. In any case, unfortunately, the game is not classroom appropriate. However, the developers make three assumptions in the game that I think we can all take back to our classrooms.
1) They assume this isn't your first video game.
The game just starts. You're a boy. There's a wall on your left. Good luck. There is no tutorial whatever. You are never told where to go or why to go there. It is also close the opening of Super Mario Bros. as one can get. This game though doesn't even have a clock counting down. You could just stand there forever if you felt like it.
The devs know though that if you found this game on the Xbox digital store you've played games before. The game will give context clues here and there (basically lights on various objects) but at no point does it tell you how to play the game at all.
Why should it? You already know.
Think about what this means for how we give instructions in our classrooms, especially these first few days of school. Why do we spend time teaching students how to be students?
They already know.
I wrote about this last year and I'm more convinced than ever. If you are spending time going over rules and procedures the first few days of school you are simply doing it wrong. Teach the procedures as they come up and assume your students know how to be students. Most of them do and the rest can learn by watching. Why would I post a rule like "Respect Others" on my wall? Isn't that an expectation of all students, in all classrooms throughout history?
I mean, Inside could have told me to push A to jump over the (SPOILER) first tree stump but they knew I've been pushing A to jump since, well, Super Mario Bros.
Rules and tutorials aren't engaging. They aren't fun. If they aren't absolutely necessary - drop them! I still have rules, of course. I just send home a flyer with them and then we're done. I don't have discipline problems. My kids know I respect them as students precisely because I don't waste their time.
2) They assume you can figure things out.
A few times in the game I wanted a hint system. A few of the puzzles I just stared at them not even able to figure out what I supposed to be figuring out. I've played plenty of games in the past where eventually the object you can interact with will glow, pulse or otherwise say "HEY I'M RIGHT HERE YOU CAN DO THIS BRO!" This game doesn't do that. It doesn't help at all.
Three times I went outside the game and I got extra help from Walkthroughs. In one of the cases I felt justified - like I just would not have gotten what the game wanted me to do. The other two were more "d'oh!" kind of moments. After the 3rd time I realized that all I had to do to solve every puzzle in the game was ask myself "What is different about this room than the last one (or ten)?"
The game doesn't really repeat any puzzles but it has many variations on the theme. The developers assume you'll figure out what new wrinkle they've added without telling you "Hey, we added a new wrinkle."
I think in our classrooms we are too quick to answer questions. I know, I know, we want to help. It's in our blood. It is why we are teachers. I hate seeing my kids struggle to the point of frustration. I do not want them to reach the point where they want a Walkthrough! My fear of that though has too often led me to simplify things and thus remove some of the excitement and learning potential in them.
I've gotten to the point where I almost never answer a question. I will simply respond with another question. Some of my students hate me for it. Cindy was so annoyed by it that she started doing it to me in return. She stopped talking to me altogether except to ask open ended questions! 7th graders are needy. They will take any help I offer and more. By very early showing them that I assume they will figure most things out I eliminate many of those needy questions. A little bit of struggle is good for them. I am very careful to watch for that frustration point but I have to risk letting them hit it.
Games wouldn't be very interesting if every puzzle piece just glowed for you - our classrooms wouldn't be either.
3) They assume you will learn.
The game's first puzzle (push A to jump over the log) is not particularly exciting. It would be much less exciting if that were also the game's second, 18th and last puzzle. Some games beat you down with repetition. They figure, this mechanic was good enough once we should use it over and over again. Inside really doesn't do that. The developers rarely re-use a mechanic and every single time they do there is a twist to it. They assume you'll learn how to use this new version of the mechanic just like you learn to use the original one.
Do we assume our kids will learn?
Are the activities you build for May the same as the ones you built for September? Mine often are and it is something I need to greatly work on. My kids struggle mightily at the beginning of the year. I put tasks in front of them unlike any they've seen before. I trust they'll figure it out. They do.
But, then what?
I put very similarly styled tasks in front of them for the next 9 months. Sure, the content changes and my expectations for their products go up but I don't really twist or advance the mechanics. As a result by about January my class is seen as the easy one. I know it isn't, I know it is still comparatively difficult but why don't I push them further?
The game just keeps building and building until a final 30ish minute segment that is a treat to experience. The final set of puzzles seemed very easy to me. I rolled right through them with only one minor hiccup. Stepping back though these puzzles were WAY more complex than any in the game previously. They mixed mechanics in brand new ways and never once doubted that I had learned enough along the way to figure it out. The sequence is built brilliantly on momentum and simply would not work without the assumption of my learning.
I'm not sure I loved the game but I definitely loved that closing sequence.
I hope my classroom can be set up in that same way this upcoming year. I want it to feel like a building momentum until we hit the final segment and roll strongly to the end. That is only going to happen if I can, right now, in the planning stages, assume my incoming kids will learn along the way.
I do recommend playing the game (it will be out on PC via Steam next week) and considering what it has to say about learning and progress. If nothing else it will leave you thinking!
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