A Game on Rails: the Utility of a Preset Path

I would classify most of my classroom as an “Open World”. Outside of a few required tests and minor activities my students are generally free to explore different elements of the main quest, various side quests, and ranking challenges in their own way and pace. My intention with the large amount of structured choice is to give a feeling of exploration and, with a related narrative, a sense of world building. I say structured choice because I find that unlimited freedom is often more paralyzing than liberating. Like most video games the ability to have a meaningful choice is present but limited; hopefully in a narrative or thematic way that does not feel confining. Even Open World games like Grand Theft Auto and the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim have barriers. In GTA the player has to complete certain series of missions before new areas of the map are unlocked; sounds like Unit structures to me. In Skyrim the player can venture to most places on the map from the beginning of the game… but it is not a good idea since some of the enemies will be far to powerful and/or the storyline shifts the landscape depending on how far the narrative has progressed. This feels like good lesson design as well; yes a student could read about the Reconstruction Era but it doesnt make much sense without the context of the Antebellum period.

Some games make these limits and barriers less subtle. On a recent trip to the Arcade my boys were fascinated by this game.

It was a Jurassic Park themed “Shooter on Rails”. The conceit is that the players are one a helicopter (and then a boat or truck) and they must shoot the dinosaurs as they jump towards the players. The game follows a preset path which gives rise to the “on rails” designation. If you are not a “gamer” but have seen Wreck It Ralph the Shooter on Rails design is the basic concept of Hero’s Duty. Games like the Call of Duty series give at home players this feeling too. Anyways, the major distinction for these types of games from other First Person Shooter or Open World Games is that player cannot deviate from the preset path.

In an Educational World more and more focused on giving students more and more choice where can the Game on Rails concept be useful?

Onboarding – Figurative Set of Rails

Onboarding is the video game concept that a player has to be taught how to play the game in a quick and engaging fashion. There was a period in gaming when video games started with a tutorial; a short introduction that walked the player through each of the core mechanics. The problem with tutorials is that they are often disconnected from the game and the actions learned are not in context. Onboarding blends the learning of core mechanics into the larger game elements like narrative while earning points necessary to rank up. The classic example of this is the opening of Super Mario Bros. Every core mechanic, from jumping on enemies to gaining power ups, is encountered by the player in the first few moments of the game.

When thinking about onboarding on rails Skyrim offers an excellent example. You can see it here on YouTube.

Skyrim Opening Scene

The player is being transported on a cart and though the avatar can look around the drive is predestined toward an execution space. The player is introduced to the lore of the game universe and simple directional movements. The video skips part of the onboarding where the player inputs his or her name, selects a ‘race’, and designs the avatar’s look. Then after the video ends the player is introduced to the jumping, weapons, and battle mechanics through a series of minor crisis as a dragon wreaks havoc on the village. This knowledge is all gained through action and in context but it the player has little choice in the path from starting the game until escaping the Dragon. Their is one choice where the player follows one of two characters which sets up the guilding system but even this is a forced choice and what follows is fairly similar regardless of the choice. After escaping from the first dragon the game universe is more of an open world concept.

So what does this mean for the classroom? Putting students ‘On Rails’ fpr the first few days of schools is not necessarily a bad thing. Choice is an important engagement element of a Gamified (actually any) classroom but students need to be taught the rules and mechanics expectations before they can go and explore. Take the first few classes and build a story around the classroom that factors in the important elements of the class. This could be a literal story like what I am doimg with my gamified class narrative and delivery system (read more about this here) or it could be more figurative. What makes your class unique? What will students need to understand to be successful? Why should they care about the content and skills? The most important element is that you shouldn’t tell them this but let them engage with the story through them DOING something. This is why I think the game on rails is good for onboarding. All of the students get tonstart from the same foundation and can then diverge from there.

Review Game – Literally on Rails

Another concept I am really psyched about since seeing my boys play is creating a literal game on rails for review. This is still in the half baked phase but my core concept is that a small group of students will be attached together – maybe having to hold a rope. One student is responsible foe holding a limited amount of pre-made ammo (paper balls). Another student is responsible for throwing the balls at the “enemies”. A third will be responsible for talking and providing answers to me – the guide.

The group will be “on rails” as I lead them through a predesignated path through and around my school. Prior to the “game” every student will create 5 questions aboit the previous unit. As an AVID school my students are familiar with creating Costa’s Leveled Questions. Students not in the touring party will be stationed at various points along the pathway. Their goal is to touch me (nervous about them touching other students). The tour group is expected to defend me by hitting the attacking students with a paper ball. Of the Attacking student touches me the Tour group has to answer one of the student’s questions. If the question is answered correctly the tour continues. If it is incorrect the group gets an X. Three Xs and the tour ends. The winning group will finish the tour with the fewest Xs!

I would love to hear all of your ideas on ways that “Games on Rails” could be used in the classroom. Tweet ideas at me with @MrPowley!

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