Monday, December 21, 2009

Real-Life US Army Simulation

Just found an extremely facinating video on the CNN website detailing how American soldiers prepare for deployment in Iraq. Apprently, the US Army has developed a National Training Center at Ft. Irwin in the Mojave Desert which realistically simulates all of the stresses a soldier will face on deployment in Iraq. There is even a mock Al-Qaeda organization, complete with a terrorist leader, which stages attacks against the soldiers and organizes political assasinations:

A great way for soldiers to synthesize knowledge and activate transferable mental schemata. Obviously creating such an opportunity for high school and university foreign language students would be out of the question, but a digital game-based learning approach could replicate some aspects of the experience in a scalable and more economical fashion. Much like the
Tactical Iraqi game developed for the US Army, but without the guns. Seems like the military understands the usefuleness of simulations and gaming as learning platfroms; I just wonder when foreign language instructors in higher education will get it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fußgängerzone Sign Turnaround

Finally got the turnaround for the pedestrian zone sign finished and posted on YouTube:

For the pole and brackets holding the sign I applied a galvanized metal texture to the meshes and created a bump map on the same texture to give them a more authentic feel. The signs themselves just have specularity and reflectivity maps applied, breaking up the reflection of the surface a bit and mimicing the weathering that such signs would encounter without altering the surface of the signs as a bump map would.

Researching information for the graffiti on the back of the middle sign, I came across the concept of Stasi 2.0 (English here), a current civil rights hot topic in Germany regarding the use of current and emerging technology for preemptive security measures. I like the stencil on the back of the sign, however there appears to have been some stretching when I unwrapped the meshes that is distorting the graffiti somewhat. Perhaps also add a few stickers as well? In any case, here is an improved render of the sign:

Looks a lot better. Now I'll need to think of some other objects that can be found in the pedestrian zone and model them next.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pedestrian Zone (Fußgängerzone) Sign

Just finished putting the bump and specularity maps on the sign for the pedestrian zone and did a quick render:

Looks pretty good, nein? I was thinking of doing a quick turnaround render before I went home, but will probably do this tomorrow once I come back to the office. Anyway, I'd still like to add a few things that you would normally find on the back of these signs, such as graffiti and stickers. I'm still not sure what the exact layout of the pedestrian zone will be like. I am trying to keep in mind that the game narratives will be uncovered and supported by the layout of the virtual space, so I'm aiming for a combination of sociocultural authenticity and ludic functionality. Inother words, its gotta be fun and intuitive to play, while also being true to life.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Streetlamp Created

Finally got a streetlamp object made for the level where the player will be inserted into the game. Here is a quick turnaround of the mesh, complete with a bump map applied to the glass panels of the lantern itself (and some additional tweaking done to the raytracing for mirror reflection and transparent refraction rendering):

I felt less than inspired on the music track for the video; perhaps next time will be better. In any case, the insertion level will hopefully replicate the pedestrian zone found in an older German village and will help the player become accustomed to the game interface (e.g., navigation in a virtual 3D space and game controls) as well as establish some of the backstory. I'll be developing more game objects in the near future, including some signs for player navigation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Student Newspaper Article and Final Findings

I was interviewed a few weeks ago by a student reporter from The Pendulum, the student newspaper here at Elon University. The interview dropped off my radar until just a few days ago when I noticed that an article on my efforts to develop a 3D-DGBL to teach beginning German had finally been published. The article sounds like I already have the project fully developed (which would be nice), but in actuality I'm still very much in the development phase.

I just finished the Fall 2009 semester with a final in German 321, the course I am using as a testbed to develop dialogue for the game. Although I do not have any pictures to post of the final, an important dynamic of gameplay emerged that will need to be addressed in the final game: the tension between playing the game simply to collect points and as a way to assemble cultural knowledge. Some players decided to play the game as quickly as possible (to beat the clock) and to complete the level objectives as expeditiously as possible. Although this is certainly a legitimate way to play the game, this unfortunately resulted in a superficial examination of the cultural spaces in which the game dialogue was couched. In sum, players would play fast but not go deep.

At the end of the final I theorized with the students ways to overcome this problem. We came up with the following:
  1. Award "culture points" to players who dig deep into the culture (e.g., pursuing hints dropped by NPCs about contemporary German culture or events). Through some type of algorithmic function, these culture points would improve the overall points that a player earns during the game (total points multiplied by a logarithm of culture points to increase the overall score?).
  2. Structure the level challenges so that all but one can be completed (thus preventing the player from advancing to the next level). Game resources are earned based upon player interactivity with cultural topics in the level, thus allowing the player to complete the level
Both suggestions are very good and perhaps both (or a version thereof) can be incorporated in the game as a way to encourage player interaction with sociocultural topics. This will certainly be a topic to revisit in the future. Now on to 3D model development with Blender...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Visual Learning and Game Maps

Now that I have my article on digital game-based learning out the door and the semester is gradually coming to an end, I have had much more time to spend on Blender and creating 3D models. Although directly related to the research I am conducting on 3D-DGBL environments and their eventual application for second language acquisition, I have been pleasantly surprised (but sometimes also frustrated) by the demands that this project has been placing on the right hemispehere of my brain. In a way, however, the project is moving me towards a holistic fusion of research, art, and creativity that I have found lacking in my academic career up to this point. Here is the result of this fusion thus far:

Feeling that the video was by itself rather boring, I also spent a few hours this last weekend mixing sound loops and samples from FlashKit and The Freesound Project. Granted, I probably will not have a career in techno any time soon, but it certainly was fun trying to line up the images with the music.

Working with images, sound, and the unstructured nature of 3D game environments has led me to ponder how best to teach with new and emerging media. A lot of what we do in the classroom today is print-based and very linear: Students and instructors move from Point A to Point B, whereupon a test is administered. New media requires us to step back and look at the whole environment as a potential platform for learning, one that is not contrained by previously employed instructional paradigms. For instance, the anti-capitalism graffiti I grabbed off the Web and applied to the side of the fountain (did you see it in the video?)

also tells a story in itself, and these small, individual, visual components need to be harmonized with the overarching story of the 3D-DGBL environment. The challenge, I suppose, is recognizing (and somehow working with) the fact that some instruction will be delivered through a visual channel via images and other instruction through a purely audio channel via spoken language. The final instructional package, so to speak, will be a uniquely individual syntehsis of these different channels. So, how will I fit this image into the game I am planning and its story arc? I'm not sure. Perhaps as an underlying tension between leftist and right-wing elements similar to what was experienced in the Weimar Republic during the 1920s and 1930s.

I've also been thinking a lot about the spatial flow of the game, and how all the well-received professionally developed 3D games use the virtual space and NPC action as a way to direct the player. These thoughts have been fueled in part my my own work in developing a 3D game, in part by the book on video game spaces by Michael Nitsche I am currently reading. The map I have developed so far (see related post) seems a bit too open-ended and may not give the player/learner enough direction in order to accomplish specific level tasks. I'll certainly revisit this topic at a later date as I start to crank up my Unity3D training. In any case, I've been thinking of narrowing down the pedestrian zone into which the player/learner is first insterted at the beginning of the game - something based on a small German town like Harburg, Bavaria or Neuhaus an der Pegnitz.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Getting My Blender Chops Back

It has been a few weeks (months?) since focusing intently on Blender, and I have been having some difficulty getting back into it. I thought I would start out small and finish work on the center point of any pedestrian zone - the fountain - but this has proven to be somewhat of an arduous task. Particularly difficult was the lip of the fountain's basin. Apparently I had inserted too many edges into the lip in order to give it a rounded feel, which caused no little amount of texture stretching when I worked with the UV map. Ah, the frustration! I even tried moving away from image textures toward procedural textures and inserted unwrapping seams nearly everywhere I could, just to avoid the stretching, to no avail.

As the picture above shows, I finally removed some extra edges in the lip and was able to finally get a grip on the excess texture stretching. For fun, I also added a bump map to the image, tweaked the specularity a bit, and also changed the lamp color to produce the warm type of glow that you get on a summer evening.

The final image shows the basin lip of the fountain, complete with grouting between the stones. Oh...and anti-capitalsim graffiti, which I often see on my trips to Germany, especially in university towns. I was planning to put some anarchy graffiti on the fountain, but this particular image just seemed to speak to me, so I grabbed it off the Web, modified it a bit in GIMP, and inserted it into the color map. In the coming days I will be working on the bump map for the fountain and perhaps tweaking the mesh a bit to round the fountain lip off.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Back in the Saddle and Paper Out the Door

Finally made it back to Elon University after a whirlwind couple of days in sunny San Diego at the 2009 ACTFL conference. I had many excellent opportunities to share ideas about 3D digital game-based learning with interested colleagues. Many thanks to all I met at the San Diego Conference Center and who visited my poster presentation!

I was also able to send off a paper draft to The Modern Language Journal. I'm making a PDF of it available here on this blog in case somebody out there would be interested in reading it. In any case, I would appreciate any feedback or ideas that you may have.

Now that I have the paper out the door, I will be getting to know Blender and Unity3D more in-depth. The idea is to have a playable level prototype done within the year. Perhaps fodder for more research articles or a possible book in the future? With more time to focus on the development of the game, I will be able to post more images and movies in the coming weeks. Should be fun!

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Going to California

I have not been blogging for a few weeks now as I have been busy with other things, such as getting ready for the upcoming ACTFL Conference in San Diego, teaching my German language courses this semester, and finishing a research paper on the pedagogical applications of narrative in first-person 3D gaming interfaces of the single-player computer role playing game (CRPG) genre. Lots of stuff to do and, unfortunately, some of my 3D development work with Blender and (now, probably) Unity3D has had to take a place on the back-burner. I just purchased the Unity Game Development Essentials book and am eager to spend some more time with it (click here for a review of the book).

Since I will be leaving in a few days for California, I've been busy getting my presentation materials ready. I finally finished them today and am posting them here on my blog in the off chance that somebody, somewhere might find them interesting:
  1. Poster Presentation: Poster
  2. Poster Presentation: Handout
  3. Session Presentation: Power Point
  4. Session Presentation: Handout
Now that I got the preparations for the ACTFL conference out of the way, I will be putting the finishing touches on the research article, a link to which I will post here later. I've been thinking about submitting the essay to The Modern Language Journal instead of L2 Journal as the latter has a 8,000 word limit (including references) and I am now sitting at. . . let me check. . . 9,844 words. And I still have not written a conclusion. The Modern Language Journal has an upper limit of 12,000 words (excluding bibliography), and recent article have looked at digital games in second language acquisition, so perhaps this would be a better forum for me.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Unity Available for Free!

Just cruising around the recent postings on BlenderNation and came across the news item that the Unity 3D game engine and editor are now being released under a free indie license. Apparently there is tight integration between Blender (and other 3D applications) and Unity, which will allow all development in the DigiBahn Project up to this point to be brought into Unity without a bump. After reading the article on Gamasutra and checking out all of Unity's features myself, I am definitely going to download this package tomorrow at the office and begin playing with it on my own. Or, as soon as the article is out the door. More on this topic at a later date...

Sunday, October 25, 2009

ACTFL Poster Presentation and Handout (Thanks, Inkscape!)

I spent the time this weekend working on my poster presentation for the upcoming ACTFL Conference, which will be held 20-22 November in San Diego, California. I will be chairing a panel at the conference, presenting my own paper, and also doing a poster presentation: Should make for a busy and exhilarating couple of days. I've been several times to San Diego, so the thrill of going to a new city for a conference won't be there, but next year's ACTFL will be in Boston, where I have never been; I should start making plans to attend. I played around with several different graphics programs, including Fireworks and GIMP, before I finally found Inkscape. Fireworks didn't seem to fit my purposes, and for some reason was running too slow on my computer, and GIMP is more for photos. I didn't want to spend the money on Illustrator, so I gave Inkscape a try. I was impressed with the ease of use and the wide range of options available. Making a 48 in. x 48 in. poster was a cinch, and I was even able to export a .png file with a 300 dpi resolution, which I can take to the printer, in a matter of seconds. Here is a smaller version of the file for the Web:

And here is the handout for the poster presentation (also with Inkscape):

Coming up soon: The slides for the panel presentation (alas, with PowerPoint).

Friday, October 23, 2009

Aligning Narratives: Theories of Situated Cognition, SLA, and Game Studies

For the last, oh...I dunno, say, four months I have been reworking my submission to L2 Journal, at the cost of me actually doing any real game development. I just finished up a section of the article, which describes the applicability of 3D-DGBL, specifically its first-person ilk, for second language acquisition (SLA). A dry theory read, granted, but I just wanted to put it out there in the off chance that somebody in the blogosphere might find it interesting. Once I get this beast of an article off my chest, I promise (myself, at least) to get back to doing some actual game development and posting some nice screen captures. Anyway, here it is:

The essential insights that theories of situated cognition afford our current discussion are, that knowledge is contextualized within physical and sociocultural spaces, and that it is also inextricably bound to the intentional action of actors within these spaces. For our purposes here, this triad of knowledge, setting, and actors will be understood as a "problem space," or a unique constellation of "alternatives that a problem solver has available and the various states that can be produced during problem solving by the decisions that the problem solver makes in choosing among alternatives" (Pirolli & Greeno, 1988, p. 182). The example of an airplane pilot serves to illustrate how these triadic components function together within a problem space (cf. Hutchins & Klausen, 1996). A pilot undoubtedly understands the thin airfoil theory that describes the dynamic lift of an aircraft, although the mere understanding of this theory cannot help her to get the aircraft off the ground. Rather, it is the practical application of this theory in a physical setting – the flight deck – and the assistance provided by other members of the flight crew – the sociocultural setting – that cause the aircraft to fly. The flight deck and its instrument displays represent a transition point between the internal mental processes of the pilot and the external action of flying the aircraft, functioning as environmental tools that shape, support, and ultimately direct these processes. In essence, the pilot "thinks" through the controls in a manner that would not be fully realizable or even possible in their absence. Members of the flight crew also interact with the pilot according to scripted behavioral protocols that recognize and reinforce their specific role in the flight deck hierarchy. These members also utilize profession-specific language forms to relay the information provided by their individual instrument panels and to convey their thought processes to the pilot. The activity of flying the aircraft unfolds in real-time and is a product of the complex and dynamic interplay of human know-how, communication patterns, specific actor roles, and the machine environment.

Seeing knowledge as being contextually situated has a profound impact on both teaching and learning. In particular, it fundamentally alters how a student interacts with a problem space, with other people within the space, and similarly influences the form that knowledge assumes. For example: although pilot training consists of theoretical courses on the ground, it is also complemented by a substantial practical component both in the air and in flight simulators. Learning about how the flight deck functions in real-life is dramatically different than classroom-based discussions of the same topic and involves a complex process of hypothesis formation based on an understanding of theoretical knowledge, testing this knowledge within a real or simulated problem space, receiving feedback, and modifying and retesting the manner in which knowledge is made actionable. Performance feedback is provided not only by the instrument displays, or the condition of the immediate physical environment, but also by more experienced members of a flight crew whose job is to train the pilot and evaluate her competency. Learning, therefore, involves a process of "knowledge negotiation" between a more advanced practitioner and a neophyte as the latter becomes encultured within a particular community of practice and develops increasing competence with its practice-specific narratives (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Vygotsky (1978) suggests that the process of negotiation is mediated by a zone of proximal development (ZPD) between the teacher and learner, or "the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers" (p. 86; cf. Del Río & Álvarez, 2007). As the learner becomes more adept in navigating a problem space and more integrated into the community of practice cohabiting the space, this guidance is gradually withdrawn, or faded, until support is no longer needed and the learner is naturally operating at the level of a more competent peer (see Daniels, 2007, pp. 317-322).

Narrative has an important role to play in the negotiation of a problem space and the process of becoming encultured within a specific community of practice. Bruner (1991) notes that people apprehend reality and organize knowledge by means of narrative structures and, furthermore, that these structures are the primary mode of communication underlying all human interaction. This narrative mode stands in contrast to the "logico-scientific" mode of structuring and transmitting knowledge, which, according to Bruner (1986), "attempts to fulfill the ideal of a formal, mathematical system of description and explanation. It employs categorization or conceptualization and the operations by which categories are established, instantiated, idealized, and related one to the other to form a system" (p. 12). Although logico-scientific mode is useful in describing the natural world in terms of causes and effects, it falls short in "constructing and representing the rich and messy domain of human interaction" (Bruner, 1991, p. 4) by myopically focusing solely on the general and the paradigmatic at cost of the unique, the fleeting, and the personal. Narrative, on the other hand, is uniquely positioned to account for these characteristics of human interaction as they focus on, among other things, unique patterns of events over time, the relation of these events to larger events, and the intentional states of the actors who move these events forward.

Whereas the logico-scientific mode concerns itself with truth statements and general paradigms, the narrative mode revels in the slippage between personal and communal interpretations of events, between local knowledge and larger communities of practice. As our pilot-in-training moves forward through the education process, she will interact with the narratives that inform her immediate environment, interacting with them and learning from them according to her personal trajectory of participation (Wenger, 1998). As Greeno (1998) notes, "regularities of an individual's activities, in a trajectory that spans participation at different times in a community and participation in different communities, are characterized as the individual's identity, which is coconstituted by the individual's relation to the communities and by the relation of those communities to the individual" (p. 6). The pilot-in-training's sense of individual identity, then, provides her with a subjective entry point into the narratives that contextualize her actions and thoughts, granting her access to a "plot" that helps her to organize the problem space in her mind, script the behavior of the actors within this space, and interpret the behavior of the machine environment. She will have, for example, a different script for landing the plane than for taking-off. These scripts, essentially subjective "stories" of the narratives that constitute reality, are not monolithic and unchangeable structures, but instead must be continually validated, augmented, and corrected by the communities of practice that cohabit a problem space. They must, as Bruner (1991) describes, be "constituted in the light of the overall narrative" (p. 8) through a process of hermeneutic composability that shapes, directs, and explains these stories within larger epistemological contexts. Seen within the context of our discussion of teaching and learning, the interaction of personal stories and communal narratives implies that knowledge is not only created through internal cognitive processes but must also be substantially supported by external sociocultural contexts, communities of practice, and negotiated meanings. Knowledge, then, is a very fluid commodity that is actively constructed at the intersection of competing narratives, personal and communal, and is the result of thinking and acting.

Current sociocultural approaches to SLA similarly focus on the intersection of the personal and the communal, with particular attention being paid to the linguistic artifacts that emerge at this intersection. Underlying these approaches is the assumption that language acquisition is not only an intra-mental process, or one that occurs solely in the head of the language learner, but is also inter-mental in the sense that it is situated within communities that share and shape a common linguistic system. Language acquisition is, as Lantolf (2000) summarizes, essentially a dialectic process of internalizing the linguistic system of a specific community of practice, which in turn then effects the manner in which the language learner both thinks and acts: "we come to organize and regulate our own mental and physical activity through the appropriation of the regulatory means employed by others" (p. 14). Influencing the manner in which a person both thinks and acts, language acquisition can be seen as a form of identity construction, shaping not only the internal thought processes of an individual but also influencing how the person functions in sociocultural spheres. This insight is of tremendous import for learners of L2 language and cultures as, according to Ros i Solé (2007), they achieve proficiency "by exercising agency and projecting and resituating themselves themselves in the new community of practice by engaging and dialogically building their L2 identities with their audience and sociocultural context. They take positions of power and exercise their agency in the relations established in the second language" (p. 205). The examination of personal narratives as a mediational artifact has therefore been especially useful in revealing how this process of internalization unfolds as these narratives demonstrate, in an intimate fashion, the manner in which language learners reconstruct their social selves within the context of new linguistic and cultural communities. As Ros i Solé (2007) concludes, narrative analysis "permits us to approach identity in a context specific fashion, as narratives are a form of discourse conveying events that take place in a particular place and time and can be traced to a particular life" (p. 208).

Seen as a site of sociocultural mediation between the personal and the communal, the native and the foreign, narrative functions as a "third place" in and through which an individual can refashion her identity and reexamine the roles she plays within a new community of practice (cf. Kramsch, 1993, pp. 233-259). Block (2007) characterizes this refashioning process as a negotiation of difference between the individual and her environment, her past and her present, noting that the "fissures, gaps, and contradictions" it produces frequently gives rise to an ambivalent sensation of "feeling a part and feeling apart" (p. 864). The tension inherent in this ambivalence provides fertile ground for sociocultural approaches to SLA and examinations of personal narrative have played a key role in uncovering the ways in which individual identity is restructured as a learner moves into a L2 language and culture. Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000), in their analysis of autobiographies of bilingual writers, discovered that personal narrative represents "a space where identities are reconstructed and life stories retold in the security of the double displacement granted by writing in a second language" (p. 162). Like spoken language, which people use as an organizational tool for structuring reality, narrative brings "past events (i.e. occurrences involving other people) into the present and for projecting the present into the future. In so doing, people are able to make sense, that is, make meaning, of what they do and of what others do with them" (pp. 171-172). Narrative, then, serves as a vehicle for projecting and situating the self into a new community of practice, although it can also function in reverse as a means of making this community meaningful to the self. In her examination of an intermediate-level ESL writing exercise, Kramsch (2000) found that students would use narrative to reencode the story on which the writing exercise was based so that it could be understood within a framework of their own life experiences. The resulting narrative, situated at the intersection of intramental and intermental language acquisition processes, revealed "the dialogic construction of rhetorical roles through the written and spoken medium that students experience themselves as both private, individual, and public, social sign makers" (p. 151). Finally, shifting their focus from written texts to oral life histories, Coffey and Street (2008) found that personal accounts related in spoken fashion manifest clear structural differences and employ dissimilar narrative strategies from those related through a written medium. The authors conclude that learning a foreign language and culture is a layered process that constructs personal identities through time by making use of a range of cultural narratives as resources to create "figured worlds" (p. 454). At the moment of telling, however, these figured worlds "are shaped by the interpersonal dimension of narrative performance and are developed further through learners' cross-cultural, ethnographic-like experience" (p. 462).

The narrative mode is important for SLA, therefore, as it reveals not only that narratives are situated within specific social and cultural contexts and transmit the core values of the communities of practice that inhabit these contexts, but also that these narratives are ultimately negotiated on a personal level based on the identities, needs, and unique subjectivities of people seeking entrance to these communities. Each person provides a "plot," as it were, whereby these dominant narratives can be interpreted and internalized, creating a life "story" that can be evaluated as an independent artifact of this interaction. Many computer games manifest a similar core dynamic. Providing simultaneous audio and visual input, and moved forward primarily by player interaction, which in turn is guided by a backstory that situates the player within the game world, the narrative provided by computer games is highly immersive and necessarily participatory in nature. The immensely popular Half-Life 2, a 3D science fiction first-person shooter, has, for example, a rich narrative that is developed by a wide range of non-player character (NPC) dialogue, in-game physics, dramatic staging, scripted transitional sequences, level design, interactive 3D models, and sound effects (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Train Station Square, City 17 (Half-Life 2)

A substantial part of the narrative in Half-Life 2 is visual and spatial in nature, representing a type of "invisible storytelling" that used "shapes and symbols to tell a story similar to the way letters and words are used to compose a written narrative" (Van Zelfden and Alexander, 2007). This narrative, in turn, produces a type of virtual record that gives "every location in the game a sense of place, history and verisimilitude" (Parkin, 2009). The virtual spaces of Half-Life 2, and those rendered by many first-person 3D gaming interfaces, for that matter, can therefore be experienced as a narrative text that the player figures in the very moment that an action is performed within the game, a process that Aarseth (2004) describes as giving rise to a "ludic pleasure" that is rooted in the "kinaesthetic, functional, and cognitive" challenges of managing a virtual topography (Art of Simulation section, para. 2). The figured worlds that unfold through this interaction, each one being slightly different based on player input, performance, and personal preference, are a direct result of the player feeling her way through the contours of the game world on a physical, mental, and emotional level and, as a result, form a unique story that is as singular as the players who interact with the game. They are, in sum, the product of a personal reaction to a simulated community of virtual practices.

Yet how these worlds unfold is a topic of intense debate within the field of game studies, although the tenor of the debate has subsided somewhat as of late. At the heart of the debate is whether to consider a game primarily in terms of its rules, which support specific processes of gameplay (ludology), or in terms of the narrative structures it employs, which are revealed to the player during gameplay (narratology). Although admitting that games and narrative share similar structural traits, and that narrative can be applied a posteriori to gameplay as an interpretive framework, Juul (2001) goes on to argue that the experiential narrative of games is fundamentally different from other forms of narrative in that game interactivity demands player action and input in the present moment in order to move the narrative forward: "[. . . ] the game constructs the story time as synchronous with narrative time and reading/viewing time: the story time is now. Now, not just in the sense that the viewer witnesses events now, but in the sense that the events are happening now, and that what comes next is not yet determined" (Time in the Computer Game section, para. 2). In a similar vein, Kücklich (2003) notes that "narrative is not an inherent feature of games, but something merely implemented virtually, i.e. as a possibility. The actual construction of narrative is always done by the player by taking the signs on the interface and interpreting them further" (Narrative section, para. 2). The act of generating narrative in a computer game, then, is a form of interactive semiosis, requiring the player to make sense of in-game signs and their relationship to each other the moment in which they are presented. However, whereas Juul seems to suggest that there is very little distance between narrative and story, or between in-game events and the personal interpretation of these events, Kücklich argues that the interactive semiosis fostered by gameplay unfolds through a process that necessarily creates a third space in which this interpretation must occur. Conceptualizing a computer game as a system of signs that resist the player by virtue of their secondness, Kücklich notes that the process of interpretation will cause the player to bring these signs into relationship with each other: "This whole process takes place on a level that cannot be located within the game, but exists merely as a projection of the player's mind. In this model, narrative is something that unfolds because of the players attempts to make sense of the game. The basic resistance, or secondness, is necessarily unstable, since the player cannot help but interpret this state, thus causing the semiosis to change to a state of thirdness" (Narrative section, para. 5).

Lindley (2002) similarly notes that the ludic aspects of gameplay, which occur at a lower level of game interaction, generally have very little to do with the narrative development of a game at a higher level, causing a split between individual actions that occur within a game and the framing of these actions within the narrative of an overarching story. He suggests, however, that this split may simply be a question of how a player approaches the game, specifically what mental gestalt, or pattern of interaction, provides the cognitive background underpinning all player performance within the game, and for what mental gestalt the game is originally designed. A gameplay gestalt, such as can be found in the "twitch" gameplay of first-person shooters (e.g., iterative patterns of "run - aim - shoot"), supports non-semiotic patterns of performance that separate the player from the narrative by creating "a form of dissolution of consciousness into the moment, acting against the strong incorporation of moments into an unfolding story structure. . . [it] is an operational pattern rather than a mechanism for learning declarative facts" (p. 213). This type of gameplay stands in stark contrast to gameplay designed to support a narrative gestalt, which is "a cognitive structure allowing the perception and understanding of an unfolding sequence of phenomenon as a unified narrative" (p. 209) and requiring the negotiation of "a varied emotional and thematic space of character interactions, where progress becomes a matter of developing emotional and thematic understanding" (p. 214). Seen from the field of cognitive load theory, this competition between gameplay and narrative gestalts may suggest a split-attention effect (Mayer & Moreno, 1998) that results from overloading the visual channel with feedback on player performance while simultaneously using the same channel to convey narrative structures. The irony, then, is that the very action supported by computer games as an interactive, experiential medium, which allows narrative to unfold, may, in the end, also prevent narrative from being understood as a unified, cohesive whole unless in-game action can be skillfully and properly managed. This observation is important for our discussion on 3D-DGBL in SLA as it highlights a potential obstacle to opening a space within a game that, similar to the third space that emerges during the second language writing process, allows the player to separate individual performance from in-game narratives, or the real sociocultural narratives they represent, and to reflect on questions related to identity formation within specific communities of practice. Although the mastery of basic operational patterns is undoubtedly useful to have when navigating a foreign language and culture, optimized gameplay, at least for SLA purposes, will seek to merge gamplay with larger narrative questions such as player identity formation, with the result that "[p]lay oriented toward characterization requires the moves of the game to be geared toward answering the question 'who am I' as a character within the game world" (Lindley, 2005, Narrative section, para. 8).

Finally, focusing primarily on how narrative structures in computer games can be leveraged to create meaningful play, Salen and Zimmerman (2004) do not draw a sharp distinction between narrative and play, instead arguing that the underlying question is not whether "if games are narrative but how they are narrative" (p. 379). The authors describe two forms of narrative that can be found in the dynamic structures of digital game systems: embedded narrative, which is pre-rendered narrative content that exists in a final form before a player's interaction with the game and provides the kind of narrative experiences that linear media forms such as cinema provides, and emergent narrative, which occurs in unexpected and uniquely different ways when the player interacts with the underlying rules, or algorithms of a game system. Meaningful gameplay and narrative experiences, they conclude, are achieved by addressing the goals, conflict, uncertainty, and core mechanics inherent to a game system (pp. 385-390). Yet all these these building blocks of narrative game design, the authors assert, can be subsumed under the rubric of the game as a virtual narrative space, in which "[e]very element. . . brims with narrative potential. The narrative components of a game are not just the backstory and cutscenes. Any representational element can be a narrative descriptor, an opportunity for you to communicate the story you want your players to experience. . . Nothing is irrelevant: every piece helps tell the story, which is greater than the sum of its parts" (p. 401). Seeing a game system as composed entirely of narrative descriptors, which "imply a representational logic that limits and constrains the design of a space of possibility" and which allow "for the integration and discernability of all elements contained with game world, a world whose setting describes the limits of its own action" (p. 403), allows us to make points of connection between the narrative structures found in a 3D-DGBL experience, the real sociocultural narratives that the game system virtually attempts to mediate, and the goals of a SLA classroom. Just as a foreign culture and language will allow or disallow certain actions in real life, so too will a game system empower or limit player performance based on the narrative structures made available within the system itself. The key concern, so it seems, is how best to ensure that the narrative structures simulated in a 3D-DGBL space closely resemble those in the real world so that meaningful play – and therefore meaningful learning – can occur.

By aligning descriptions of narrative as articulated in theories of situated cognition, current SLA approaches, and ongoing debates within the field of game studies, a more nuanced and informed understanding of the role that 3D-DGBL can play within SLA emerges. As we have seen above, theories of situated cognition stress the highly contextualized nature of knowledge and learning, both being dependent on the communities of practice that occupy a given sociocultural space, the actions of actors within these communities, and the manner in which new actors are brought into a community. Knowledge is not so much "in the heads" as it is "between the heads" of these actors, and the environment that surrounds them determines which actions are performable and the manner in which they are ultimately performed. Furthermore, as narrative structures give a voice to the intentional states of the actors who perform these actions, they allow for a very personal means whereby knowledge is transmitted and evaluated. In a sense, then, narrative represents a point of connection and intersection between the personal and the communal, micro- and macro-narratives. SLA research into narrative structures focuses almost specifically on this point, noting that the process of adopting a new linguistic system, or community of practice, is a complex process of identity formation that is negotiated between the individual, her past, the perceived future, the linguistic system, and people who make use of this system. A 3D-DGBL experience adapted for SLA purposes would be unique in that is would allow a language learner, albeit virtually, to "play" a community of practice, become familiar with its narratives, associate these narratives with 3D representations of real sociocultural spaces, and begin the complex process of identity formation before actual immersion abroad. Furthermore, the current discussion in game studies simply corroborates what proponents of theories of situated cognition have long suspected: That the semiotic encoding of an experience – of turning action into narrative – is central to the learning and knowledge transfer processes. After all, narrative structures are the means whereby we organize our experiences, classify them, relate them to others, and store them for future reference. Encouraging the formation of mental narratives, therefore, is an integral and essential step toward meaningful and permanent learning. However, computer games also show us that this can be difficult to do, as the medium itself can coopt the message and actually work counter to the production of narrative. Clearly, articulating best practices for encouraging narrative development in immersive 3D learning environments, including 3D-DGBL, will be one of the central and pressing issues as SLA moves forward in the 21st century. The remainder of this article will be a step in this direction, to suggest guidelines for developing and testing 3D-DGBL environments for SLA contexts.


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Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Game Background Story

I'm sitting in my office, looking across the Fonville Fountain Plaza and making some Blender renders for the upcoming 2009 ACTFL Conference, where I will be presenting a poster on DigiBahn game development, when it occured to me that I have not yet actually blogged on the background story of the game. What's it all about, anyway? This is what we got so far:
Conrad Schaeffer, a young 20-something journalist working for the Associated Press, just landed an assignment that any rookie reporter would dream of getting. Tasked with covering the story of Nazi gold that went missing after a suspicious train derailment, in which several guards were killed, Conrad is putting his fledgling German skills to the test for an assignment that could very well make or break his new career. Having just arrived at the Stuttgart Central Train Station, Conrad must quickly assemble facts regarding the robbery from available media, eyewitnesses, and word-of-mouth before the trail grows cold. To further complicate the issue, a mysterious blonde German woman suddenly appears, claiming to have inside information regarding the robbery. Can she be trusted, or does she have ulterior motives that could possibly cost Conrad more than just his job?
The idea of the stolen Nazi gold is actually something I came up after several long discussions with students about a catchy and immersive background story. I was actually rather hesitant about using it for a while, secretly wishing that students would be interested in something else besides Germany's Nazi past and wondering how the game would play with high school parents.

After mulling it over in my mind for some time, however, I'm thinking now that perhaps this is not such a bad idea. I invariably have several students every semester who start German and who are interested in recent German history, and such a game might perhaps be a way to broach this topic while learning German in the process. The topic also meshes nicely with films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Goldfinger, which undoubtedly are in the students' collective pop-culture consciousness and shape their perceptions of Germans and Germany, so the game could potentially use this background as a way to attract and retain student interest. Finally, the topic of Nazi gold is also the grist of numerous conspiracy theories, which are good for hours of endless speculation. So, in sum, I think the topic of stolen Nazi gold providing the framework for a background story is perhaps not such a bad idea afterall, and could potentially appeal to a wide range of younger students, provided that the game also presents historical facts accurately and doesn't peddle in stereotypes.

Friday, October 16, 2009

First Test of Prototype Game Level - Paper Version

As part of their midterm, students in the intermediate conversational German course tested what they had developed so far today in class. Over the past few weeks, students in this course have been researching assigned identities for the NPCs in order to develop more realistic depth of character. I am hoping that this research will result in more carefully articulated characters instead of typical German stereotypes and that students' work in small groups will help them to formulate connections between their NPCs that will, in turn, create more authentic gameplay. Research consisted of using available library resources, databases, and online materials to flesh out the sociocultural backgrounds of the NPCs more fully and the dialogue they developed based on this research was to be augmented by our class discussions of our weekly reading topics (e.g., East-West German relations 20 years after the fall of the Wall).

Students came to class today armed with their dialogue on 3 x 5 index cards and were provided prototype evaluations sheets to evaluate how the gameplay functioned. It seemed to me that this testing and evaluation was a critical part of the entire development process as students finally understood how their individual components fit into the big picture. A paper-based walk-though is standard operating procedure in many game designs studios early in the development process. I found this procedure difficult to fit into the academic calendar, however, thinking that it would perhaps be akin to midterm testing. I will have to think more carefully of how to apply external design assessment models in an academic setting in the future.

Below are the comments (verbatim) provided by the student prototype testers and their respective questions:

1. What seemed to work particularly well with the prototype test?

  • Using ideas in class with my character's conversation, mostly of unemployment and discrimination.
  • General game will work well when finished.
  • Getting food and money.
  • The individual conversations.
  • The character stories that we worked on.
  • Some cards led the player to his objective well / were appropriately complex.
  • It flowed within each person's cards, but not as a whole.
  • When we all sat here together it seemed to come together more easily, when we met out of class is was all unclear, also since we finished our cards we realized the missing connections.

2. What did not work so well with the prototype test?

  • We all didn't realize how crucial the connectors were so it was more individualistic I think.
  • Everyone did not really know what was going on. It was unclear.
  • No one was sure which objectives to do or how to lead the players to certain objectives; we didn't know who the player was; some cards were not so conversational; some information about the objectives was contradictory between different NSCs.
  • Connecting goals in a realistic way.
  • Relationships / interactions between people.
  • Finding some objectives.
  • It would have been nice to know the background of the player beforehand. Should coordinate our cards better.
  • Weaving other characters into my conversation.

3. Were there any moments when gameplay seemed to lag? What will you do to correct this in the next design iteration?

  • Throughout later note cards, it was hard to find conclusions to the conversation.
  • When there were dead ends. Not all goals were addressed. Mine was too involved.
  • Just from uncertainty on how to play.
  • The interaction and relationships between the characters.
  • It was hard to find a person who had a branch to a specific objective. Sometimes you can talk to a person for 5 minutes only to get the same objectives that you just got. We have to have more interconnections.
  • Some cards were too conversational and not enough about the objectives -> include more references to objectives or other NSCs who can help with the objectives.
  • Yes, it was because it was the first run through I think if we all had see what others had done before it would be more clear.
  • Only when there was a dead end and no connection.

4. Were there any challenges that were particularly easy to solve? Or too difficult? What will you do to correct this in the next design iteration?

  • Some answers went directly to the goals too easily.
  • Getting food, almost everyone could lead there.
  • Some cards made the answers to the objectives too easy -> hide the answers under a few more layers of conversation.
  • Geldautomat and Döner were easy. Telefonkarte was hard. We just have to keep working to connect all 6 objectives.
  • Geldautomat was too easy (lead player along more).
  • Too difficult: Telefonekarte, Untergang. We will correct by having people actually lead to these objectives.
  • Mine were too long and involved. Others seemed to be fine.
  • Figuring out order and connections between each card.

5. What are you going to do in the next design iteration in terms of character development?

  • Research more the other characters, integrate them into my conversation.
  • Go more into depth, maybe throw in some "Easter eggs," More clues.
  • Incorporate other players more.
  • Do more than just give the answer right away. Create more relationships with other characters. Help lead to most / all of the objectives.
  • I am going to connect more other players and have a way to reach all 6 goals from my character.
  • Write the part of a player for an American journalist; reference/lead the player to others who can help with each objective; more information about my character in the dialogue and more the objectives a little harder to achieve; reference class topics / current events when possible.
  • Mention other objectives, add in "is there something I can help you with"
  • More connections with other characters, not leading to a dead end right off the bat. For me: Zeitungen.

So, to summarize: It seems that students will need to work more carefully on how to weave their dialogues into a cohesive whole that can lead the player along specific challenge paths, but without being blatantly obvious so that gameplay becomes predictable and boring. Also: the students will have to figure out how to incorporate game objectives into their dialogue in a manner that seems to occur naturally and conversationally. As for many of the students the game seemed to "come together" for the first time only during the prototype testing phase, this is something that needs to happen sooner in the semester, rather than later. Here are some images from today's prototype test:

Left to right: Elizabeth Leman and Matt Trucksess figuring out points of connection between their characters. Elizabeth's character is an apprentice auto mechanic by Volkswagen, trying to help the player, a rookie reporter from the USA, navigate the intricacies of the German pedestrian zone.

Left to right: Christine Mader, John Lesko, and Matt Trucksess hammer out the details of their game components. Christine's character wants to have a smoking ban in Germany.

On other fronts, I am still working on my submission to L2 Journal and I will probably hold off all 3D mesh and texturing development until this article is behind me. Once I have that done, I will be working almost exclusively on the game and getting up-to-speed with Blender (and Python).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Been Really Busy. Sorry.

Sorry that I have not had the chance to put any new posts up. As I had anticipated, teaching responsibilities this semester have put a slight damper on my development activities. In addition, I have also been investing more effort into the research side of the endeavor - and reaping the benefits! I have two articles coming out in the next few months: one in The Language Educator and the other in Computer Assisted Language Learning. I will post more here on these articles later.

I'm also working on a piece right now for L2 Journal, a new online journal based at the University of California. The first effort at publishing here was rejected (which I would have to agree with - it was a half-baked idea), so I'm reworking what I got into an examination of narrative structures in 3D computer games as a potential means of supoprting second language acquisition. Hopefully, the second time around will be better. And then, well, I'm thinking of focusing more on Blender to get one game level designed and use what I have learned in this push forward with a book project. Gotta feed the tenure beast, right?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Toward More Perfect Textures

I have been playing with GIMP to create the textures for the fountain. Although not as "intuitive" as, say, Adobe Photoshop, I have found GIMP to be adequate for my needs. It is also free, which it great for an indie game producer/university professor with a tight budget yet big ideas.

Using Blender to export UV maps on which to create the textures was hardly easy: It seemed to take me forever to get a handle on the idea of the texture channels, not to mention that key parts of the interface were spread over different parts of the application. Perhaps the upcoming Blender 2.50 release will address some of these issues. Anyway, here is what I got so far:

I was particularly please with the water and rust stains I was able to replicate using the GIMP airbrush tool and grabbing samples from stock photographs of rust. Nevertheless, there are still some areas I would like to address in my second attempt at creating a more perfect model texture:
  1. Remove seams: Blender unwraps a 3D mesh along predetermined and computer-generated seams. Here, the rust stain actually crosses a seam, making it visible to the viewer. Although the seam here is not so noticable (compared to the other side of the fountain and the lip of the basin), seams can be reapplied in a different pattern to an existing texture map, thereby allowing edges to be graphically altered and minimized.

  2. Smooth stretching: The curved surface of the basin lip introduced a lot of image distortion when the texture was applied to the mesh. After unwrapping the UV map, I will probably have to go in an manually tweak the map in order to minimze stretching.

  3. Create bump map: Although the stone texture looks fine if you look head-on at the fountain, the way that the light plays on the fountain at an angle creates the sense that the fountain is "unreal," are carved too perfectly. This is not the feeling I want to create with a fountain that has been exposed to the elements for years. A bump map will break up the surface reflection a bit, thereby creating the sense that the stone has texture. I will also have to cut down on reflection a bit, too.

  4. Resize textures: The main pillar in the center of the fountain has, I believe, the right sized texture applied to its mesh. The grain of the stone appears to be the right size for the mass of the structure and, accordingly, just feels right. The basin, however, is another matter and the stone grain just looks too large.
In any case, a second (or even third) stab at it will hopefully create a more realistic sense of actually being there. Once that is done, I should probably start looking at some Python programming to structure the player interactivity with the object...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Old Rusty Pipes

I spent Saturday afternoon playing with the procedural textures that ship with Blender to create the water pipes on my recent project, the fountain that will go in the center of the pedestrian zone. Thinking about how these pipes should look like, I thought that they would have been exposed to the elements for some time and would exhibit natural pitting and wear. As they are in a damp environment, they would be slightly mosit and reflect light, but not too much as to be distracting. The black iron would have slighter areas of grey highlights. After tweaking the settings and numerous test renders to get the texture just right, I came up with the following:

I have already grabbed a sandstone texture off the Internet that in the coming days I will apply both to the pillar in the center of the fountain, the basin itself, as well as to produce a bump and specular map. When I'm all finished, I will create a turntable render and post it here. I'm particularly pleased with the reflection off the water and the slight surface distortion. We'll just have to see how the remainder of the project develops.

And here is a screen capture of the complicated Blender interface, which is gradually becoming more manageable:

The large image size (1920 x 1200) is the native resolution of my computer screen. Next time: Applying the stone textures!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

More Student Work on NPCs and the Bologna Process

We spent a fair amount of time in our last class period fleshing out the NPCs for the DigiBahn game. Here are some images of the work that the students produced on the whiteboard:

The students will be working in small groups over the course of the next week, working with library resources and databases to expand the backgrounds of these NPCs, articulating connections between their NPCs, and reflecting on how this context and background influences the use of language and aids in identity formation.

In class next week we will be moving away from the experience of playing the text-based interactive fiction version of the game, which has hopefully given us some ideas on how to structure the 3D version, and will begin a week-long discussion of Germany's role and responsibilities in the European Union. I thought that an examination of the Bologna Process would be interesting for them and highly relevant as students. Should also be useful in formulating the NPCs, as well.

Finally, one last image of a render I recently did:

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Hast du Durst?

Since every Fußgängerzone needs a fountain, I've been busy these last couple of days modeling one in Blender in my spare time. Creating the basic shape was fairly easy, as was making an animation for the water in the fountain:

And here is the original image on which the design of my 3D model is based:

I was impressed with how easy this was and how good it looks! In the future I will work on getting the mesh textured, and then will make a final turnaround render. Maybe I can even get water to come out of the spouts? Of course, the game will not have the same level of visual quality that the render has, but I still think that we can get some basic funcionality established. I'll have to look at the Yo Frankie! open Blender game, which has water in it, to see how they did it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

DigiBahn Comes to the Intermediate German Conversation Course

Over the last few days I have been attempting to create a fusion of my research and teaching agendas by getting students in my intermediate German conversation class involved in the DigiBahn Project. In class we have discussed - auf Deutsch, sogar! - language as a sociocultural tool that we use to structure reality and, in turn, which ultimately shapes and informs our identities. We also broached the topic of language as a sign system that can be manipulated and experienced in a playful manner in order to construct meaning. In a way, approaching class in this manner is a huge gamble for me as it represents a dramatic break from the way I have taught similar courses in the past and I am not exactly sure how the students will react to the project. I am excited, however, to see where this fusion of new technology and classroom instruction will finally take me (and the class) and what type of 21st-century pedagogies will ultimately be developed. Initial feedback from the students seems positive and we spent the end of last class beginning to flesh ideas out on the whiteboard:

Students (left to right): Alexander Howard, Christine Mader, Elizabeth Leman, Melanie Reyer, Alexander Hudson, Christian Monson, Matthew Trucksess, and John Lesko.

John Lesko (l.) and Alexander Hudson (r.) wonder how (and if) it will all fit together.

Arndt has a problem with the bottle, Jana is a widow living in Stuttgart, and Florian grew up in the former East Germany. What will they have to say to each other and how will their respective backgrounds influence this interaction?

Unfortunately, we spent too long in class discussing other things, so I will have to revisit the design phase in the next course. The primary ideas, that I hope to visualize on the whiteboard, are that language can be seen as a sociocultural space of playful possibility and conversational opportunity, which unfolds based on a person's interaction with this space and the people who occupy its communities of practice. Over the course of the week we will also be playing an earlier text-based version of the game, Ausflug am Wochenende nach München, to get ideas on how to develop the NPC dialog for the 3D version.