Lesson Plan: Teaching Research with Sam Barlow’s Her Story

Usually when video games appear in the college classroom, they are objects of analysis. We critique them as if they were a book or a movie. But, in teaching their content, we rob them of their pedagogic potency. Games facilitate play, and by offering teachers new and unfamiliar decision spaces, games can be used to support and expand how we teach writing and research.

This lesson uses Sam Barlow‘s 2015 game, Her Story, to help students master the core skills of research. The game presents players nothing more than a database of short, fragmented videos drawn from several police interviews. Players have access to a simple search engine that answers any query with only five entries. This technical limitation forces players to carefully construct their research questions in order to piece together the game’s narrative.

Learning Objectives

This lesson hopes to provide students with a crash course in research fundamentals without boring them to tears. By the end of the experience, students should be able to synthesize huge amounts of data, form research questions, and deliver an argument supported by specific evidence.

Along the way students will develop several important research skills:

  • Time Management
  • Effective Note-Taking
  • Executive Decision Making and Delegation

Assignment Length

Four 50 minute sessions or three 75 minute sessions.

Required Materials

One computer and copy of game for every group of five students.

Students and teachers must have the ability to install the software and store save game files from one session to the next.

Access and Adaptability

Her Story includes English subtitles. The play of the game is “turn-based” which lends itself to collaborative play. The game does feature some descriptions of domestic violence.

Screen capture from the game with subtitles displayed.

Assignment Description

Over the course of four sessions, students will play the game Her Story in small groups. They will be asked to synthesize a huge amount of information which will force them both to take notes and to constantly adjust their note-taking process while improving their research technique.

Session One

Before getting to Her Story, students will need some small-scale challenges. Divide the class into a number of groups (4-5 students per group). Each group receives one handout consisting of three short stories by Lydia Davis. They are uncredited, unlabeled, and without date. Everyone in the group will first take notes by themselves and try to figure out what they might know about the author, the context of the stories creation, and the substance of each story. After writing notes, students will discuss their findings and attempt to arrive at a shared position about the works. Then the instructor should transition the class to a general discussion about the works and an evaluation of each group’s claims.

Session Two

The main goal of this day is to familiarize students with Her Story. During session two the game will be played collectively, ideally with a classroom projector. Each of the groups will take a turn leading the class. From that group, one volunteer should be responsible for playing the game and two or three volunteers should go to the room’s dry erase board as note-takers. The class (with some guidance) should decide each search query and provide suggestions to the note-takers. After every few searches the instructor should step in to take account of what was learned and ask students to formulate and sharpen their research questions. Sometime should also be set aside to discuss the note-taking strategies and the ways that they might be improved. Then swap out the volunteers for the next group and repeat the exercise.

Session Three

Groups now have a chance to work alone. For this session they will receive minimal instruction. Instead they are tasked simply with completing the game. One student in each group will play the game while the others are responsible for taking notes. Students should rotate positions during play so everyone has a chance to experience the game. Towards the end of class play should be paused so groups can share what they’ve discovered and begin to map out the next session’s strategy.

Session Four

For this session students will begin to arrive at the game’s ambiguous ending. At this point I tell students that they are welcome to search the internet for answers to some of the game’s riddles. Students will soon find a bustling community of players who are also interested in solving the game. Some of these players have constructed elaborate answers to the game’s central questions, but it will be up to the students to decide if they can trust each source.

Skills Workshop

This lesson plan offers teachers a way to easily integrate a digital text into their course design without requiring extended skills workshops or elaborate deliverables. That said, instructors may wish to expand their engagement with Her Story by incorporating supplementary lessons and software. Two options are presented below.

Game Design with Twine

If teaching a design practicum, an instructor could easily incorporate Twine into a lesson plan. Twine offers students an easy game design platform that, like Her Story, relies on turn-based and input-driven gameplay.

Teachers could easily use the DWRL’s Game Jam lesson plan to quickly teach the basics of Twine. With these skills in hand, numerous final project designs become available. For instance, students could attempt to adapt sections of Her Story into a text game or could attempt to transform one of the course’s other texts into a Her Story style game.

Note-taking Software

Depending on the classroom resources, teachers may be able to offer instruction in note-taking software such as Microsoft’s free note-taking program OneNote, Evernote, or even Google Docs.

Her Story provides an ideal proving ground for students to test their mastery of note-taking software. Instructors could even assign each group a different program and then compare the usefulness of each.

Assessment Suggestions

Instructors can create a wide range of capstone assignments to this lesson. In the past both formal papers and in class debates have been productive.

In-Class Debate

Each group must answer these questions by the end of the final session. Then pair off each group against one another and have each group trade answers with its partner group.

Before he next class meeting, groups will prepare both an opening statement and a list of evidence in support of their position as well as a short list of rebuttals for the group they were paired with. In a series of short presentations, each group must present their argument and be questioned by the opposing group.

Traditional Essay

Her Story ends with two questions. Answer them and explain your reasoning in a short 300 to 500 word essay. You are welcome to use other sources but you should always provide citation.

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