Making Functional Grammar Explicit: Game Design-Enhanced TBLT Lesson Plans for “Firewatch”

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Firewatch fan art

Introduction

In our review of Firewatch, we concluded that it would make an excellent video game for Game Design-Enhanced TBLT (GD-TBLT). It’s heavy narrative weight means that within the game there is a large amount of language and other literary devices that can be exploited for all kinds of learning, not just second language teaching and learning (L2TL). In fact, while I was doing research for both the review and the lesson plans, I came across another teacher who used Firewatch to teach literary skills to high school students in the Netherlands.

This imaging of teaching however, will be slightly different in frame. First, I have chosen to focus in on the form/function of narrative choice in these lesson plans. These Firewatch lesson plans focus on making explicit to students the relationship between language functions and language forms. Or, descriptions of what we are doing and the explicit and specific words we use to do those things.

This post will first begin by discussing the current EFL situation in regards to functional grammar and then to a broad explanation of the narrative genre in games and how they handle conversational choice. This will lead straight into the lesson plans where we will re-introduce the model used and then provide specific details for teaching forms and functions using Firewatch in a GD-TBLT L2TL lesson.

The EFL situation

EFL Grammar

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A perfect example of EFL textbook grammar.

Most L2 students know a certain kind of grammar. It’s often presented as “correct” grammar and, if they have opportunities to use the language, they know it is often not how people really speak at all.

A good example of this happened recently in an advanced conversation class I currently teach. I asked the students to listen to a question that was asked in an interview Stephen Colbert did with Adam Conover. I asked to write down exactly what the question was. The answer to which was, “So like, uh, you’re married, right?” Five words, plus the vocalization uh. What my students heard was, “are you married?”

Very little of what the students heard matches what was actually said. And this is common in my experience amongst advanced L2 learners. They have reached a point in their learning where they largely understand what people say and, for the most part, can communicate their own thoughts without too much difficulty. These same students often still feel like they don’t speak well and teachers often try to console them by saying something like, “no, you speak very well!” (for my thoughts on positive evaluation, see here).

I think this is a mistake. A small one, perhaps, but a mistake anyway. I’m not entirely sure what would make my students feel like they do speak well, but I have gleaned some insights and I think, in part, what limits advanced students is that they communicate well enough that they can ignore linguistic items (words/grammar/paralinguistic features) that are not directly related to meaning. Items that communicate social place, experience, insider status and so on. Things like the “so like, uh..” in Adam Conover’s speech. Things we often think of as disfluency or incorrect grammar.

Functional grammar and usage-based linguistics

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In contrast to the traditional book-grammar that many (if not all) L2 learners encounter, functional and usage-based (UB) approaches to linguistics attempts to capture language as it is really used by speakers. These two forms or approaches to the study of grammar are not exactly the same, but each has a useful perspective that I think counter-acts the sometimes limiting effect of traditional grammar teaching.

For our purposes, the aspect of functional grammar that is useful here is the focus on why we say what we say in specific situations. There are multiple ways to say “hello” for example. What motivates us to say, “Good day, sir” in one context and “sup?” in another. FG expounds on the situated nature of language.

UB linguistics is similar. It does away with the idea of “intuitions” in the traditional sense or “logical” explanations of grammar based on older languages (such as the famous grammar rule never split an infinitive). Instead, UB takes the usage of the people who use the language to perform their lives and tries to categorize statistically in an emergent and dynamic system what kind of language forms are possible. UB relies heavily on big data sources and has really only become a viable form of linguistic investigation now that we have much more and much better access to the language patterns of people via technology and the internet, though the approach has been around for much longer.

Taking principles from each (and other sources), the field of L2 education developed tasked-based learning and teaching (TBLT). It focuses, in its many forms, on providing students with authentic, useful and meaningful language forms that they will need to use to complete specific linguistic functions. (For more on GD-TBLT, see here).

The Game Situation

Narrative choice

Interaction in games is limited by the technological advancements of the hardware/software and the creativity/openness of the developers.  For this reason, for most of digital gaming history, games have been dominated by combat (and still are, for the most part). It is easy to see why. Mechanically, early games revolved around using points on the screen and clicking to interact. It makes sense that an easy narrative for that mechanic would be something like shooting, either a gun, a plane or a fantasy wizard casting a spell. Either way, the mechanic is similar.

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Percentages of games presented at E3 2017 at the major conferences

At the same time, language and communication have been too messy, too complex to be able to model well enough and provide passing authenticity to the player. Games have traditionally been more linear in their narratives. Sandbox, open-world and procedural games have opened up the world of language and communication since then. And with better language models and technology, developers’ ability to use communication as a primary mechanic has become more and more possible.

Firewatch is (one of) the latest in this genre, and it follows the basic format of most narrative-based games like it. The player is given an input from the game (in Firewatch usually in the form of Delilah) and their task is to choose a specific response from a list of two or three options. After selecting one, Delilah responds, or doesn’t, depending on the choice of the player.

In Firewatch this kind of communicative interaction plays the role of hint-giving. From the conversations with Delilah, the player can figure out how to perform their primary task (using the map and compass to move to specific points in the game), as well as useful tips for completing those tasks. In addition, Delilah can (possibly) give hints about the game, if the player is paying attention.

Importantly, the player does not have to respond to Delilah, and this choice itself has its own consequences. Sometimes even, the player is unable to respond, because each communicative act has a time limit, much like real conversations.

Conveying choices quickly

The challenge of responding to Deliliah under a time limit mimics in a certain way the feeling we all have when we are in a conversation and the other person fails to respond quickly enough. In real-time conversation, you don’t have time to think, if you don’t know how to respond to someone, that fact alone is a response and there are social consequences for it.

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The walkie-talkie icon indicates a dialogue choice (which has a time limit, the vertical white-to-orange line. The eye icon indicates a hint mechanism if the player needs it.

Games like Firewatch that have strong conversation mechanics need to capture this fact if they want the conversation to feel natural.

A problem with giving time limits to players however, is that they won’t have time to read through the exact words (the forms) in the possible responses. And the forms themselves may take a little bit of time to figure out what they are actually saying (the function).

For this reason, it’s much more efficient for Firewatch to present to the player a list of communicative functions that the player can choose from, rather than forms. after choosing a function, a specific form is performed, from which the player can get additional information.

Form and Function in narrative games

As a teacher who wants to help students draw connections between the various functions and forms that they need to communicate in a language, it’s important to know if the forms and functions of a specific game like Firewatch meet my needs. So, I watch a play through of the game to find out. The following is a non-complete list of functions in the game.

Functions:

  • receiving and following directions in game
  • Responding appropriately to colleagues and managers
  • Making small talk with managers
  • Introducing yourself at work
  • Getting someone’s attention
  • Asking for clarification about directions
  • Inconveniencing other people (girls at the lake)
  • Joking to deal with insecurity
  • Asking open questions in small talk about background
  • How to deal with conflict at work (Delilah goes quiet)
  • Making value judgements about small events (finding camera = “neato”)
  • Asking closed questions with specific detail (who are these guys? [context])
  • Apologizing for previous anger
  • Asking questions that might be personal (question
    )
  • Building a joke together
  • Using taboo language to express closeness/sympathy (she has dementia / fuck)
  • Interrupting a conversation to make a new observation (talking when the “eye” icon pops up)
  • Giving special details
  • Making inferences or guesses about what happened in the past.
  • Giving and receiving advice about future actions
  • Giving comfort about difficult problems or situations
  • Speaking politely and obscuring language so others don’t pick up the meaning
  • Making reports to a manager (“report” function)

There is obviously a lot of things happening communicatively in the game. But, this list includes a lot of functions that the player has little to no role in controlling. And if we are interested in using a GD-TBLT framework, what difference would it make to play Firewatch for form and functions, if the player has no agency or choice in those conversations? The teacher may as well show a TV interview or talk show.

From this list, I created a smaller list of functions that involve the player directly controls.

Functions the player has a choice in:

  • receiving and following directions in game
    Responding appropriately to colleagues and managers
  • Making small talk with managers
  • Introducing yourself at work
  • Inconveniencing other people (girls at the lake)
  • How to deal with conflict at work (Delilah goes quiet)
  • Interrupting a conversation to make a new observation (talking when the “eye” icon pops up)
  • Making inferences or guesses about what happened in the past.
  • Giving and receiving advice about future actions
  • Giving comfort about difficult problems or situations
  • Making reports to a manager (“report” function)

From this smaller list, I think a good GD-TBLT lesson would focus on to learn vocabulary, grammar and pragmatics.

A Game Design-Enhanced TBLT Frame

Introduction

This lesson plan will utilize the Bridging Activities model (BA) of GD-TBLT that we have mentioned and used in previous posts (see). Briefly, BA is broken into cycles that begin with an Exploratory stage where the player/student is given some direction, but mostly freedom to explore the game world and the attendant communities to collect useful language for both playing the game but also talking about it.

Next, the student Examines the language they have found in the game/community and compare it to their previous knowledge or to a different context/situation/perspective. Both the Explore and Examine stages are heavily influenced by the theory of Language Awareness (LA).

Finally, after collecting and analyzing the language found in the game/community, the player uses that language in a real way. This is through either Reflection or by practice. In particular, the student needs to either use the language in the real game community or needs to act as if they are.

Unlike most “practicing” using games and the BA cycle, students have an actual context that is possible to interact with (the game and the community). Practice is meaningful in a way that most classroom practice is not and it inherently transfers the language use out of the classroom and into the real world.

Learning goals and objectives

This BA cycle will focus on a few things.

  1. Help the student develop their own sense of character and personality with Henry.
  2. Learn the basic mechanics of the game.
  3. Focus on the personality of both Henry and Delilah.
  4. Notice the language that Henry and Delilah use to talk and the relationship to their personality.
  5. See how other people (both in class and online) feel about Henry and Delilah’s personalities.
  6. Communicate (in class and in the community) your thoughts and guesses about Henry and Delilah’s personalities and motivations.

Background

I imagine this whole process of playing, learning and using would take about six hour-long classes. If it is possible, playing the game outside of class could make it into four class periods.

This lesson assumes at least four students, (for pair and group work) but those activities could easily be altered for fewer students. In addition, it is assumed that the teacher could use the classroom as a site for play.

BA Cycle 1 – introduction to the characters, personality and the game

Objective: Students will be able to navigate the game introduction in pairs. They will make choices about their character’s personality as the game prompts them to and compare their choices with other students to find contrasts in both personality and plot development.

Explore: Play through the tutorial with a partner. Both decide which answers they would choose. Talk through any difficult language/grammar. Decide what kind of broad personality their “Henry” will have.

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The opening of the game is a text story creator. You make small, binary choices about henry’s story.

Examine: Switch partners and the second player makes their choices. Note any story differences that occur depending on the choices you make in the tutorial. Check with another pair about their personality choices and story differences.
Extend: Reflect on the personality differences between you, your partner and the other pair. What kind of person is Henry? How will he deal with his boss at the firewatch?

BA Cycle 2 – Mastering the game mechanics and introducing the boss/worker dynamic

Objective: Students will be able to notice and collect language and game tools to successfully play the game. Including using the map and compass, the direction keys and getting useful information from the game dialogue.

Explore: Play the first day of the game. Note any important tools and language you will need in order to complete the games primary goals and tasks.
Examine: How does Henry talk to Delilah and vice versa? What language do they use to give work? How is this similar to your experience with work or with teachers and students? With a partner, think about the way this class began. How did your teacher talk to you and give you tasks/goals?
Extend: Reflect on how Delilah, your teacher and/or your boss use language with you. The way you use language to give directions or tasks to other people. What’s the difference? What examples can you find?

See the following video of day 1 for an example of the types of things the students will need to notice.

BA Cycle 3 – Developing an understanding of the personality and character of Delilah and Henry

Objective: To notice and analyze the choices the player makes to respond to Delilah and note the difference in form and what this says about Henry and Delilah’s personality / relationship.

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The student would notice the “report fireworks” as the *thing* they will *do*.
firewatch form
And this reply as the *specific form*

Explore: Play the game. As you play, make special note of the dialogue choices you make. How does Delilah respond to you? Write down the dialogue option you chose along with a paraphrase of Delilah’s response and attitude.
Examine: Compare your choices with a partner. Are your approaches similar or different? Are your Henry’s personalities the same? Is Delilah the same person? How would you have responded in those situations? Come up with some language that could express your own personality.
Extend: Reflect on personality’s role in communication and culture. How does your personality change the way you interact with others and the way they interact with you?

BA Cycle 4 – To gather more perspectives on the personality and relationship of Henry and Delilah from the game community

Objective: Students will explore the game community to get different / varied perspectives on Delilah and Henry’s relationship and personalities and then plan a new approach to playing the game and making dialogue choices.

reddit firewatch
reddit.com/r/firewatch – and a search for “personality”
firewatch community
A snapshot of the conversation about Henry and Delilah’s relationship in the first conversation.

Explore: Go to a community page. Search for “personality” or a related word (e.g. anger, sarcastic, quiet person). How do people on the board feel about henry and the Delilah’s personality? What words do they use to describe their interactions with the game?Examine: Compare with a partner your findings. Or Compare two different threads/communities. What is the approach most people use for talking with Delilah.
Extend: Make a plan for a new plan for talking with Delilah. Has it changed.

BA Cycle 5 – Making clear the dialogue choices and the personality of the resulting forms

Objectives: Students will re-examine the dialogues in the game between Henry and Delilah to test their beliefs about their personalities, making specific note of the dialogue choices and the actual words that appear in the game.

Explore: Finish the game / replay parts of the game in pairs. Make special note of the responses you give Delilah. Together note the differences between the option the dialogue box gives, and the actual words that Henry says. Switch off partners/controllers after about 30 minutes. Or so.
Examine: Look over your list of functions and forms. Are any of the confusing? Surprising? Or what you expected? Why? Compare with another pair your list of f/f pairs and your reactions. Make a list of words/grammar that is new to you.
Extend: Think about one or two of the dialogues, their forms and functions. What are other ways that Henry could have performed the same function, but with different forms? What would the difference have been in Delilah’s response? Would they have fit Henry’s personality?

BA Cycle 6 – Contributing to the game community with a perspective on the personality / relationship of Henry and Delilah with evidence

Objective: Students will collect and finalize evidence of their perspective on Henry and Delilah as characters. They will re-examine the game community posts to collect language that will help them express their thoughts according to community norms.

Explore: Go back to the community page and re-examine the personality content that you previously looked at (or other related content). When people talk about the personalities of the characters in the game, how do they do it? How do they introduce their ideas? What important words signal their opinions or facts? How do they finish their ideas? How do other people respond to them? How do they express (dis)agreement, counter-factuals, ask questions and give opinions?
Examine: Compare posts about personality. Who’s ideas or posts get the most replies? Who’s ideas are most controversial? Cause the most debate? Are the most accepted?
Extend: Write your own comment on the board using your collected experience and the writing guides from the community. Plan out exactly why and how you write the words you do by providing a function note for every form you write. Either post it to the community itself, or use a closed class community. Comment on each others posts (given x criteria).

final product
An example of a model that students might follow for their final contribution to the Firewatch community. *spoilers*

Conclusion

Other options

Of course, there are other ways to go about using Firewatch for L2TL. In the beginning, I expected to create a lesson plan centered on the idea of photography in Firewatch. A major activity of players in the game community is to post beautiful game and real life photos of landscapes. Another option would be to focus more closely on the language of giving directions in the game and contrasting that with a textbook example of “go left, turn right”.

In the end though, narrative-choice games provide an excellent opportunity to explore forms and functions in a goal-oriented and motivating way that doesn’t rely on abstracted examples.

Limitations

Doing this kind of lesson is difficult and I’ve assumed maybe the most unlikely classroom possible. I don’t know how many teachers could perform such a lesson, and that certainly is a big limitation.

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, Firewatch is a narrative game that is trying to tell the specific experience of a specific set of characters. In this way, it limits the possible choice of the player to explore the narrative of the game as say, a woman. This is not to say that women would not benefit from taking the perspective of a 40 something man (this is something women do a lot in literature and media, actually). There are of course benefits to doing so. But providing some choice in this may be better for individual students.

A solution might be to include a variety of narrative-choice games and generalizing the BA cycles slightly, so that they do not refer to a specific game. This is entirely possible and I think a game like OxenfreeLife is Strange and Night in the woods could be offered as options, not just Firewatch. Each of these games take different perspectives and different kinds of characters (Night in the woods’ characters are anthropormorphized animals).

(as a note: I have not played any of those games, but I have seen plenty of reviews of them, which is why I think it may work. As a teacher though, I would want to play and examine each of them for their usefulness in GD-TBLT.)

 

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