I took my boys to see Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker this week. Since The Force Awakens came out in 2015 both of my older boys have been all in. They know the lore and the characters and have embraced the entire mythology. I was pleased with the 2015 reboot. It was nostalgic but put some new twists on the story with a more diverse cast, a female protagonist, and millennial-made villain. At the risk of offending my dozens of readers I was thrilled with The Last Jedi. It felt different with a genuinely feminine point of view and a message that tried to break away from the black and white Jedi-Sith dichotomy. I particularly loved that Poe thought he was rescuing the fleet but actually was the cause of the destruction of the escape pods. It was a wonderful encapsulation of toxic masculinity and white privilege. My boys didn’t get this interpretation but they were introduced to strong female leads and got to see that good and bad is a grey area… and the best lightsaber scene in all of the films:
The Rise of Skywalker was… fine.
It had great chases, exciting lightsaber scenes, and lots of explosions. It touched on all of the little Star Wars pleasure points you could hope for but I left wanting more. As I was watching I kept feeling like I was watching a Return of the Jedi retread which turns out I wasn’t the only one (The Ringer Review). Like most things I tend to think about how this applies to the classroom and why this movie left me feeling a bit wanting. I realized the reason I was less engaged was the lack of consequences.
The movie feels like a kid playing with their toys. The favorite pieces are all out and get to have a special little moment. The problem though is that when play time is over the toys need to be put away undamaged otherwise there will be nothing to play with tomorrow. Here are some spoilers – the director, JJAbrams, consistently relies on fakeouts and misdirection to make the audience think characters are in danger or have them make a sacrifice only to hit the reset button by the end of the film. Here is a short lost I made after my first viewing.
- Rey accidently killed Chewbacca!? (nope, there was a 2nd transport ship that was off screen)
- C3P0 Memory Wiped?! (nope, R2D2 has a memory backup)
- Rey throws away Anakin’s/Luke’s lightsaber?! (nope, force ghost Luke catches it)
- Finn sacrifices himself on the capital ship?! (nope, Falcon gets there just in time)
- Rey kills Kylo Ren!? (nope, she Force Heals him and makes him good again(?))
- The Falcon is on fire! (Oh, wait… its fine… and better than ever…)
- Ben killed Han Solo in The Force Awakens to prove Ben is fully evil (but in this film ghost Dad shows up to say it’s ok… Well its a “memory” but acted out as if Han were a force ghost)
Every time the story presented a difficult choice the answer was the elimination of any consequences. The result of this choice was the loss of stakes and any emotional connections.
The only time a major character faced consequences it was done because there was literally no other option. Leia is in this movie even though Carrie Fisher died before filming. Leia, the mother of Kylo Ren/Ben Skywalker sacrifices herself to try to pull him back from the dark side?
Everyone knew going into the movie that Leia’s role was going to be limited (and wow it was noticable how they used leftover footage) but knowing this was Leia’s end removed the emotional heft from the sacrifice. Darkside Kylo Ren was turned back into Lightside Ben Skywalker but this sacrifice was also telegraphed so heavily that what was supposed to be a stunning tear jerking moment was just ok. In part this was because the movie clung so tightly to the Return of the Jedi format that it was fairly obvious that Ren/Ben was playing Darth Vader who would have to sacrifice to save the real hero Rey. In both of these situations the telegraphing of the result removed the consequences which removed the engagement.
This is an education blog though… not a culture blog… so what does this have to do with the classroom or even game inspired designs?
At its heart, gamification and game inspired designs attempt to understand a player’s (student’s) motivation for engaging with the activity. A central tenet in creating opportunities for engagement through game design is allowing players autonomy. Usually this takes the form of allowing choices within the structure of the design. Often the choices will lead to different outcomes which could be the reward at the end, the skill being mastered, or some other consequence. The player makes their decision based on the possible consequences of their actions. Success and rewards are usually an option but failure also has to be an option as well in order to learn and grow.
I have been struggling with the concept of grades recently. Over the last semester and a half I have been developing a standards based grading system. Since starting gamification I have developed other core principles as well. For example, grades should provide feedback, should not factor in student behaviors, and ought to tell a story about the student’s growth. Reflecting on my 1st semester Standards Based Grading experiment I attempted to de-emphasize number grades by using the Power Law Function, allowing retakes, and eliminating “zeros”. In retrospect these were pretty radical steps and I had forgotten an important element – grades matter to the students… and parents… and administrators. The system was new and complicated and made students nervous. Ed Reformers can complain about old practices and justify new schemes but at the end of the semester every student wants to know their grade. Moreover they want a grade they believe is legitimate and want to know that the consequences of their actions matched the expectations.
In gamification circles we go to great lengths to provide students with alternative motivators to number/letter grades. Gamifiers offer narratives, XP, items, badges, choices, play, exploration opportunities. All of these are good and beneficial for many students. Sometimes game players are motivated by collecting the high score. My sons love playing Battlefront II and their most recent favorite mode gives them points for defeating different types of enemies. They care about racking up the kills of certain types because it gets them more points which allows them to open up new character types later in the round. They are motivated because they care. There are many paths to creating engaging opportunities for students – grades are one (but not the only) possible path to creating a meaningful consequence.
I’m sure that in a few years my frustration with The Rise of Skywalker will lessen. The Star Wars universe is expansive and more stories will surely come. I am already thrilled with the possibilities the Mandalorian demonstrated in its season finale on Disney+. For now though I am going to take away the idea that meaningful consequences matter – for both good storytelling and for good classroom experiences. (and adding Baby Yoda helps 😉