Exploring Inanimate Alice

A playful approach to literacy and learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by Amanda S. Hovious

CREDIT Inanimate AliceMaria Montessori observed it. Jean Piaget observed it. Lev Vygotsky observed it. What did they observe? All three made the observation that young children learn language and literacy skills through their interactions with the world around them. Play is the natural process by which children come to understand their environment. Learning through play does not end in early childhood. That is just the beginning. However, as children enter primary school today, they all but lose the opportunity to learn through play. Recess has been replaced with writing workshops. Learning is ‘not supposed to be fun.’ Teaching to standardized tests has become the norm. It doesn’t have to be that way.

The evolution of digital media has triggered a renewed interest in the link between play and learning. Interest in game-based learning is becoming more mainstream, thanks to the rhetoric of education reform. Transmedia storytelling has emerged as a form of game-based learning, and Inanimate Alice has emerged as an exemplary of that form.

Inanimate Alice is a ‘born-digital novel’ – born from a movie screenplay and integrated game concept by series producer Ian Harper. It’s a mash-up of digital narrative, movie and gaming elements. It’s a masterpiece of transmedia storytelling. Award-winning author Kate Pullinger lent her talent to the story, and the innovative digital artist Chris Joseph directed it. Inanimate Alice was named a 2012 Best Web Site for Teaching and Learning by the American Association of School Librarians.

The story follows the international journey of Alice as she grows up to become a game designer at the world’s largest gaming company. In episode 1, Alice is 8 years old. By episode 4, Alice is 14 years old. 10 episodes are planned, with episode 5 currently in production.

What makes Inanimate Alice playful?

Inanimate Alice uses gamification to add playful design elements that engage the learner, and help the story unfold.

Gamification is the use of gaming elements in non-game environments. It is a trend that can be seen in industries as diverse as business, marketing, environment, health, entertainment and education. Inanimate Alice exemplifies the good in gamification, and five characteristics make it a playful approach to literacy and learning:

  1. Endogenous value. In Inanimate Alice, the games are a part of the story. Alice wants to be a game designer when she grows up. You play the games that she has created. By episodes 3 and 4, the outcome is dependent upon the game. Playing the games helps you authentically experience the story.
  2. Narrative. Narrative evokes emotion, and the narrative in Inanimate Alice is a motivating factor in playing the games. However, in transmedia storytelling the narrative has less depth than other forms of storytelling. Interactivity replaces depth, and the lack of depth motivates you to fill in the details in the same way that writing fan fiction does. Inanimate Alice has inspired people of all ages to continue the adventures of Alice through their own digital creations.
  3. Role play. Role play is an imaginative gaming element that also triggers emotion. In Inanimate Alice, you never see Alice, but you do see the world through Alice’s eyes. Essentially, you take on the role of Alice. By episode 4, you can easily imagine yourself as the character. Episode 4 has the most complex game (a labyrinth), and the emotional involvement you get from imagining yourself as Alice is a strong motivator for trying to successfully find your way out of the labyrinth.
  4. Virtual assistant. Do you remember Clippy, Microsoft’s animated paper clip assistant? Well, as annoying as that might have been, having a virtual assistant in game play is essential. A virtual assistant provides just enough help (e.g. clues) in the game to prevent you from completely giving up. In education, that’s called scaffolding, and in serious games virtual assistants are called pedagogical agents. In Inanimate Alice, Alice’s imaginary friend Brad is your virtual assistant.
  5. Choice. In reality, there are people who are game-averse. Sometimes they are not game literate. Sometimes they simply do not want to play. Participating in gaming elements should always be optional. Otherwise, gamification can backfire. In Inanimate Alice, you are given the choice to ‘read only’ or ‘read and play the game.’

How can Inanimate Alice be used for teaching and learning?

The transmedia nature of Inanimate Alice makes it a flexible tool for teaching and learning. Students inherently develop multimodal literacy, game literacy and problem solving skills by immersing themselves in Alice’s sensory rich world. Educators can use Inanimate Alice as an across-the-curriculum teaching tool that meets multiple learning goals, including digital and information literacy, cultural diversity and awareness, social-emotional development, and spatial visualization skills.

Multimodal literacy is a skill that children develop naturally. In the sensory rich environment of play, children intuitively combine speech, text, sound, games, music, and art. Similarly, by combining text, images, music, movie elements and games, transmedia storytelling organically reflects the multimodal nature of play. Inanimate Alice provides an opportunity to bring that type of play back into the school environment.

Problem solving is also a natural part of child’s play. Whether solving a puzzle, building a bridge with blocks, or engaging in pretend play, a child is learning to solve problems through trial and error, feedback and strategy changes.

Similarly, the embedded games that Alice has created, and that later drive the story, provide opportunities for practicing problem solving skills. Even better, the increasing complexity of the games helps develop game literacy, which is really the literacy of problem solving.

Inanimate Alice can be seamlessly integrated into the curriculum. To promote digital literacy, lesson plans have been developed that are aligned to the Common Core State English Language Arts Standards for Reading: Literature. These can be requested via the project’s web site.

Inanimate Alice can also be tied into units on cultural awareness and diversity. Transmedia storytelling facilitates role play through its interactive nature, and role play improves students’ abilities to grasp multiple perspectives. In Inanimate Alice, each episode takes place in a different country, and reflects a different culture. Students play the part of Alice, and take an increasingly greater role in the story with each subsequent episode. By harnessing the power of that role play, teachers can use Inanimate Alice as an inspiration for guided discovery lessons on the cultures and countries represented. Students not only gain deeper cultural perspectives, but they also develop information literacy skills as they engage in finding, evaluating and using information.

The themes that run throughout Inanimate Alice are ripe for lessons that enhance social-emotional development. Alice is an only child and a lonely child as she travels the world with her parents from episode to episode. She is often fearful as she faces potentially dark situations, from the fear of her father being lost in episode 1, to the fear of being left home alone in episode 2, to the much darker fear of looming danger in episode 3. In episode 4, Alice must deal with peer pressure and bullying. Alice’s fears can help students create stronger emotional connections with the character, and provide opportunities to open up conversations about feelings.

Finally, Inanimate Alice provides a seemingly unlikely opportunity to help students develop spatial visualization skills. Spatial skills are considered essential for math learning, and with the Common Core’s greater emphasis on math and STEM, Inanimate Alice can be used as a gateway to develop those skills. In episode 4, Alice gets lost in an abandoned building, which is essentially a 3-D labyrinth that you must navigate through in order to end the story. To further expand upon that skill as a class, students can build a 3-D maze that replicates the abandoned building.

Play is not the Opposite of Work

As Mark Twain once quipped, “work and play are words used to describe the same thing under differing conditions.” In that respect, whether learning through work or learning through play, you are still learning either way. Play is not the opposite of work.

Learning through play is learning by doing, and as we continue to move toward learner-focused instruction based on intrinsic motivation, interest in game-based learning will continue to grow. The multimodality of transmedia storytelling creates opportunities for flexible adaption of this medium across multiple disciplines. Transmedia storytelling is a tool that offers a playful approach to integrate technology into literacy and learning; and Inanimate Alice serves as an exemplary model of transmedia storytelling.

Amanda S. Hovious is a librarian, instructional designer, and educational technologist. Her primary area of expertise is consulting on and designing instruction for 21st century literacies in K-12, public and academic libraries. Contact her through designerlibrarian.wordpress.com

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Are you an edtech leader, trendsetter, or the creator of a cool edtech tool? The 2014 EdTech Digest Awards extended entry period runs until October 18, 2013. There is still time to enter. For full details, write to: victor@edtechdigest.com


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