Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Little Big Planet in the Classroom

Today we played Little Big Planet.

No, seriously.  We pulled the couches out from the walls, sat down, and engaged in epic 3-player platforming action.*  The students, needless to say, were thrilled, even if none of them had played Little Big Planet previously.**  They scuffled along through the first few levels, each group of three getting just enough play time to whet their appetites and to become comfortable with the basic controls.  Meanwhile their classmates played games of their own: Apples to Apples, Chess, and "Trumps," a card game similar to Whist or Spades. 

* It would have been four, but the fourth controlled wouldn't recognize the PlayStation, and I didn't have the USB cable to plug it in with.

** Isn't this generation supposed to be all game all the time?  How have they not played LBP?  I was even more shocked to discover this than I was when I heard they had not seen The Princess Bride.

Now hold on, you're thinking, how could you possibly get away with doing that in a high school creative writing class?  Games are for wasting time, for eating away at kids' brains and turning them into useless zombie-people, right?

To which I can only respond: yes, and soon my zombie army will be complete.

Actually, my reasons for playing Little Big Planet stem from the core values of the class: collaboration, dialogue, and metacognition.  The playing itself doesn't really hit those - there's a degree of collaboration, but the other two are limited - but it's not what you do that counts, it's how you do it.  On the front end of our LBP adventure we used LBP's character creator to imagine a story snippet involving a zombie-pirate, and then worked on a (seemingly unrelated) mini Design project.  On the back end, we designed games of our own using the materials available in the classroom (from Apples to Apples to dice, cards, chess pieces, and so on).  Tomorrow, the students will be writing essays about the design of LBP, their learning while playing it, and their own experience designing a game.  And then we'll be talking about how all of that connects to creative writing.

How does it connect to creative writing?  Easy, it's creative, and it's writing.  Playing a game is constructing a narrative.  Designing a game is even more so, because you have to build into your design the learning and narrative-building of your potential player.  Is that any different from writing, where you have to build a narrative, ensure that your audience can read (and sometimes learn to read) your work, and be engaged?  Perhaps the outcome is different - indeed, there's no question that the outcomes of game design and creative writing differ - but the processes might have a lot in common, after all.

That's certainly my bias, and that's a big part of why I've made design a pivotal part of my curriculum.  But it's no good doing design and restricting it to writing in the narrowest sense of poems, short stories, and essays.  The real value of design, to a writer, is taking it to other areas: games, architecture, movies, and even other-class-interrupting-presentations (about which I will remain mysterious).  Thinking outside the box - letting "writing" become bigger than just words on a page and letting "design" replace "creativity" - is a great way to become a better writer (and maybe even a better, or at least more interesting, person?).  And, what's more, a great way to learn how to become a better writer, which is the real thing.

It's no accident then, that as we wrap up our mini design projects - including game design - tomorrow with finished products, an essay, and a discussion (see, playing PlayStation can lead to actual work) we'll start looking at Invisible Cities,* start trying to repaint the campus and the city and the world in which we live in terms of both design and literature.  Having digested, or at least partially chewed, all of that, the students will be drafting a proposal for a final project.  My hope?  Collaboration, and a shortage of traditional short stories and poems.  If the lot of them want to, say, write an interactive fiction computer game as a team and publish it on the Kongregate Arcade...  Frankly, I'd be thrilled. 

* For the longest time I couldn't decide whether I should do this work in the prose week or the poetry week.  And then I realized that, duh, it belongs in the design week.  It is, really, a quintessential "design literature" book.  Heck, they even read it in architecture programs, or so I've heard.

So why Little Big Planet?  Well, it fits into what I'm doing.  But I used it not just because it fits, but because I want to model imagination, stepping beyond the bounds of what's expected, breaking "the rules."  We played Little Big Planet today because it was fun, but also because it was a small, trivial, and totally essential step towards a set of entirely original, creative, and against "the rules" final projects.* 

* Or at least I hope so...

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