Teacher Craig Brumwell Designs a Mobile Game with ARIS to Create Emotional Impact for His Students

Dilemma 1944
Craig Brumwell — Vancouver Canada

High school social studies teacher Craig Brumwell actually wanted his students to compare themselves with others. He wanted them to think about the students who had once walked their hallways, used their lockers, competed on their athletic fields. Most importantly, he wanted them to think about those students who graduated in May 1944 and were immediately faced with a life-changing dilemma: whether to enlist in the Canadian Army, a month before D-Day. And he wanted those comparisons to help his students talk about what commitment and sacrifice means to them today.

When he heard the oldest parts of Kitsilano High School were being torn down, Craig knew it was finally time to use the decades of archival photos and composites that had lined the old hallways for years. But how?

As Craig learned in a graduate course in Educational Technology, situated learning theory may provide a solution. (Thinkers Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger first discussed situated learning — how it emphasizes that learning takes place within an authentic activity and context. In some cases, the learner starts to take on the actual practices, language and ways of thinking or identity of the subject.) Craig used ARIS to create a situated documentary game called “Dilemma 1944” to convey the impact of the Second World War. In the game, players travel back to Kitsilano High School in Vancouver during WWII, where they become a graduating student struggling to decide whether to join the Canadian forces fighting in Europe and Asia during this pivotal time in history.

At the ARIS Summit earlier this month, we got a preview of this fascinating game. We caught up with Craig to learn how he designed the game to be so successful in eliciting empathy in his students.

“I wanted to do something where the kids would connect with the photos and people on the wall,” Craig said. “I had a hunch they would be interested. They’re surrounded by these old photos every day, looking at them in the halls, pointing out their hair-dos and costumes.” He also wanted them to connect to the names on the large, bronze WWII memorial plaque in the school’s front foyer.

He wanted the game to challenge the common attitude that his social studies students have long held — that people “back then” were “brainwashed,” or simply not as smart. “My hidden agenda in making a game was for my students to realize that under those same conditions, they might think differently than they do today.”

As he scanned in the school’s archival photos, the game began to gel in his mind. Following the situated documentary model and referencing Dr. Jim Mathews’ “Dow-Day,” Craig searched for an event specific to his school during World War II. He discovered Parade Days, where the student body would watch the cadets march for the different military branches. One Parade Day held more significance than all the others — it took place just one month before D-Day.

“In May 1944, people could still say we’re as likely to lose the war as win it,” Craig said. “I knew this Parade Day was the event I wanted to focus the game on. It was the emotional pivot point that I was looking for.”

Original images of the parade game used in the game.

Once he discovered the event, he knew the game player had to be someone with a big decision to make — to fight in the war or not.

“I thought it was a long shot, but I hoped that students would bite on it if they were presented with the right narrative,” Craig said.

Games like Dilemma 1944 often ask players to think and act like people far different from themselves. Linguist and education theorist James Gee states that good games provide roles that players can identify with and become emotionally invested in, which is necessary for deep learning. Also, good games provide information just when the player needs it so that they can make the sort of choices that are required.

When the day finally came for the students to play Dilemma 1944, Craig grouped them into teams of four so each student would have a data-enabled mobile phone. As the students walked the school property, they viewed item icons that overlaid their line of sight with period photographs, connecting them to past Kits students through place and time. They viewed original Canadian news reels and interactive maps to help them consider the scope and impact of the losses on families in the community. They had fictitious conversations with characters from the past — an argument with a mom, a chat with a classmate, and advice from a principal.

Soon, it was time to pause the game to reflect on their experience and respond to the dilemma themselves. They wrote a letter to a loved one explaining their decision to enlist or stay home.

QR Code used in Craig’s Game

They resumed the game inside the school, where they scanned QR codes to discover what happened to the students. They recorded their thoughts and photos as they connected to students from decades past. The final QR code triggered video interviews — one, a POW survivor as told by a family member; another, a WWII veteran who shared in his own words what it was like to enlist in the Navy at 18 years old.

Finally, they were directed to the large memorial plaque in the school’s front foyer.

WWII memorial plaque in school’s the front foyer.

“That was the moment when you saw the penny drop,” Craig said. “When they realized they would go in and see if they survived the war, that was like a death march. It was very quiet as they walked down the hall to see if their name was on the bronze WWII memorial plaque. It made it real for them in all those ways that we hope Place Based Learning will do. It hit all the buttons in the right way.”

The advice Craig would give for other game designers is to follow your interest. “An art instructor at Emily Carr University once told me, ‘Make sure that whatever you make in art is important to you, because if it’s not important to you it’s not important to anyone else.’ My family thought I was crazy for working on the game late into the evening. But if you feel an interest and it’s authentic, then a lot of things will work themselves out. Follow that thread. Feel a little emotional about it. That emotion will transfer to the kids. They will pick up on your passion!”

*Craig’s students aren’t the only ones who “picked up on his passion.” He has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award for Excellence in Teaching History, and the Government of Canada Award for Teaching History for Dilemma 1944.**

Craig explains how and why he used a situated documentary to teach his class
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