#WeAreOLC: Narratives and Storytelling in Gaming


Madeline Shellgren and Adam Davi (Co-Chairs, 2019 TechnologyTest Kitchen)

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GAMING AND VIRTUAL REALITYWith the idea of stories being a connecting element throughout all of our conference activities, we are creating a variety of opportunities for you to share your story and to hear the stories of others. We’re calling this initiative #WeAreOLC. As the #WeAreOLC initiative unfolds, you will see a series of blog posts focused on how we (the members of the steering committee) are using storytelling to create a memorable and impactful 25th Anniversary experience.

As you have (and will see) throughout the #WeAreOLC storytelling blog series, there are many ways we can look at storytelling as it relates to digital and online learning and the work we all do with the OLC. In the Technology Test Kitchen (TTK), storytelling has been used since the TTK began. This year, we (the TTK co-chairs) will be incorporating and threading gameful elements into the structure of the TTK to guide and frame participant engagement. With this in mind, in this post we’ll be briefly talking about narratives and storytelling in gameful learning and what you can expect from our storytelling in the TTK this year. 

We see storytelling as an integral part of teaching and learning. Why games and gameful learning and how does storytelling fit in? As mentioned above, the TTK will feature some gameful aspects this year. Not mentioned: we both love games and have long been personally invested in gameplay of various sorts. We could (at length) list resources about the intersections of gaming and education, but to get you started, check out James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003) for a fantastic entry point (or check out any number of articles written about his work, like this one, if you want something shorter than a book for a basic frame of mind to begin to dive in). In a nutshell: games have the potential to provide powerful learning environments if designed and facilitated well. That said, when it comes to adding gameful approaches to transformative teaching and learning spaces in particular, storytelling is at the heart of the process. In fact, in writing this piece, we had a hard time thinking of a single transformative game near and dear to our hearts that didn’t rely on storytelling. As we reflected on this point, we came to agree on a few things about storytelling and its impact as it relates to gameful learning:

  1. The best stories are those stories you don’t want to put down. Dungeons & Dragons is a great example of this. A role playing game, it is notorious for leading to sessions that can last anywhere from an hour to multiple years, with folks coming back for more, to push the story and the game further (building community in the process). For gaming and gameful learning, a well developed narrative makes the game feel ‘real’ and contributes to that feeling of always wanting to play the game. When we consider this as it relates to education, the combination of stories and gameful elements (if well-thought out and intentionally aligned) will lead to long-term and sustained engagement.

  2. It isn’t always easy to map out an entire curriculum and align it with a broader narrative or purpose. However, if you think of a course or a unit as part of a story, we can leverage story structure (like story arcs) to guide alignment practices. Story arcs ask us to consider pacing and content packaging through a ‘story-within-a-story’ model. You can picture the utility of this in gaming through the idea of mini-quests (which are fun, challenging, and engaging in their own right, but which all contribute and point to some concluding moment). In this way, storytelling assists with alignment to a broader narrative or purpose and calls on educators to more critically consider their level of intentionality (i.e. the ways and extent to which they tie things together to create more meaningful learning experiences).

  3. Well known in the gaming world are first-person experiences and avatar creation. We bring these up here for a few reasons. First-person games allow users to take on a variety of roles and become immersed in the story through someone else’s perspective. We can imagine how this concept might be useful in the context of classroom situations where learners might not have immediate access or personal ties to content (e.g. a learner struggles to understand the importance of responsiveness as it relates to a given technology’s accessibility because they’ve never been in the situation of having to think about it before). Avatars have been incorporated into educational spaces as a safer, more inclusive way for learners to see those different perspectives, share their own, and learn from others. Storytelling provides multiple entry points through which learners get to imagine or reimagine themselves, engage in difficult conversations, and take on new or different roles. If you are curious about the relationship between storytelling and equity, you can check out the previous blog post in this series “#WeAreOLC: Equity and Identity in Storytelling.”

  4. Relevancy is a key concept to consider when designing learning experiences. Relevant content provides opportunities for learners to relate to the material, the learning environment, and the other learners in that space. In thinking about how this is incorporated into gaming, we see it through customization and through those games that allow players to choose their own paths and define their own storylines. These “choose-you-own” models provide the context for learners to identify with the stories you tell in your educational spaces (whether that be through the characters, problems, situations, etc.), as well as see connections and apply new knowledge to future situations. These built-in choice structures value learner agency and have the immense potential of putting into question structures of power and control in educational spaces.

  5. Finally, the gaming world has creatively used storytelling to increase incentives to act. Whether it be through individual quests, leveling up, or earning experience points or other awards, narratives provide the framing, the context, and the details through which learners can understand the implications of actions/inactions, making stories real and making stories matter.

With all of this in mind, this year the Technology Test Kitchen is inviting you to be a part of a story. With the goal to create an immersive space for attendees, we have designed the TTK experience such that you can choose the path you wish to take during the conference as you navigate your use and learning of educational technologies. When you enter the TTK area this November, you will be transported into a space-themed story and incentivized to act through mini-missions. We will ask you to take on the role of a space traveler as you work towards becoming a ”Galactic Pathfinder” — an educator who leads through diving into new content, learns with others, and takes that new learning into their own educational contexts.

Everything that will happen within the TTK this year will relate back to one consistent story theme. We are using story to hopefully increase your desires to come back and visit the TTK more than once during your time at OLC Accelerate, through intentionally structured activities and gameful, space-themed incentives. Our ‘storyscape’ will provide opportunities for customization, as a way for you to see yourselves in the challenges we’ve designed and find relevance in the material and strategies you engage with. In this way, storytelling has not only provided the foundations for our design approach to the 2019 Technology Test Kitchen, but will also guide your learning journey throughout your time at OLC Accelerate. You can check out more about the 2019 TTK at the program’s conference webpage

We conclude here by encouraging you to continue following along (or hop into) the #WeAreOLC storytelling blog series and efforts. It is, of course, our hope as co-chairs of the TTK to utilize storytelling in the Technology Test Kitchen to build community around feeling comfortable learning about and entering into importantly critical conversations regarding educational technologies. As members of the broader OLC community, though, we are excited about leveraging storytelling to bring meaningful change to how we all educate and learn, and to, importantly, grow together.


We know that we would not be where we are today were it not for your contributions over the last 25 years. With this in mind, we first invite you to share your own OLC narrativesYou can join in our quest to story the past (so that we can better prepare for the future) by submitting one or more of the following to this GOOGLE FORM:

Share your story

We want to highlight you and your work or contributions to making OLC what it is today. Create a blog post, a twitter post, etc. that we can share with the other members of our community. Here are a few prompts to get you started.

    • How did you first get involved with OLC?
    • 25 years (then and now): What kinds of technology were you using 25 years ago and what technology do you engage with now?
    • What is one of your favorite OLC experiences?
    • Who composes your OLC community (i.e. the people you have met along the way and always enjoy seeing)? Tell a story that shares about your relationship.
    • How do you support inclusion, diversity, equity, and advocacy in your teaching and learning and how has this evolved in the past 25 years?

Share a visual memory

They say a picture is worth a thousand words and we encourage you to help us collect memories from the past. Scour your archives for photos, videos, documents, or other resources that tell a story of your experiences with OLC. We’ll share them with the OLC community through our social media channels as our way of saying “thanks for being a part of OLC” (remember, we’re hoping to build a history of OLC for the last 25 years).

We hope that you join us by following along with the series, as we articulate our shared commitment to a more inclusive, equitable, and humanizing OLC through engaging in individual and collective storytelling. Thank you for sharing your stories with us and for being an important part of our community. #WeAreOLC.

Works Cited

Big Thinkers: James Paul Gee on Grading with Games. (2008, August 12). Edutopia. Produced with support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/video/big-thinkers-james-paul-gee-grading-games.

Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Madeline Shellgren, Michigan State University (Co-Chair, Technology Test Kitchen at OLC Accelerate 2019)
Adam Davi, University of Arizona (Co-Chair, Technology Test Kitchen at OLC Accelerate 2019)


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