Model Romance

For Valentine's Day, Santa Cruz computer scientists unveil a prom-themed role-play that could portend a new frontier for game-based learning.

February 14, 2012
Game-Based Learning

Designated as the annual climaxes of romantic life in America, Valentine’s Day and prom night make a compatible match. Both come with culturally reinforced blueprints that necessitate purchasing flowers, securing restaurant reservations, and attending fastidiously (if only for a night) to matters of dress and hygiene. Both brim with pressure and expectation. And both come with excesses of teenage melodrama that many college students — and professors, for that matter — may be relieved to have left behind.

At the University of California at Santa Cruz, however, a team of faculty and graduate students are taking the occasion of Valentine’s Day to bring prom, and its surrounding machinations, back into frame. The university’s Center for Games and Playable Media is unveiling Prom Week, a role-playing video game in which students can inhabit various characters and help shape their fates in the days leading up to the big dance.

There’s Monica, the popular queen bee who is bored with prom and looking for a new angle to keep things interesting. There is Edward, the disaffected ex-cool kid whose newfound identity as a goth and a poet faces the ultimate test as prom raises the stakes on his abdication of a coveted spot in the in-crowd. There is Kate, the shy wallflower who is struggling to square her understanding of her own status with a recent prom invitation from the popular Nicholas.

And then there is the game-player, who has the privilege of inhabiting each of these characters in turn; giving them general direction as the virtual high schoolers negotiate the crucial week before prom. The idea is that playing out scenes from multiple perspectives will deepen the players’ understanding of the competing narratives as they unfold on top of one another.

“Valentine's Day is our release date because we've created the first game that actually lets you play things like friendship and backstabbing, romance and cruelty,” wrote Noah Wardrip-Fruin, an associate professor of computer science at Santa Cruz, in an e-mail. He said that the goal of the game, ideally, is to “nudge characters out of their stereotypes” and “make this a week that really matters in their lives, instead of another week of living in their default way.”

Yet Prom Week — which is the work of four graduate students and two professors, with help from dozens of undergraduates — was not designed to teach students anything in particular, Wardrip-Fruin says. It is meant to be taken much the same as a novel or a film, he says.

“I hope it causes people, through the gameplay, to reflect on being caught in your own limited conception of yourself,” Wardrip-Fruin says. “The gameplay is about moving these characters out of those comfort zones and into ways of living that may be more rewarding — or, at least, more intense.”

The educational promise of Prom Week, he says, lies in its framework of artificial intelligence that underlies the social dynamics that the game simulates. The Santa Cruz developers, who built Prom Week over the last four years on a grant from the National Science Foundation, hope the game will lay a foundation for further games that use the same principles to achieve more specific learning objectives. (For example, Santa Cruz is also involved in the SIREN project — an international effort to develop games to help teach students conflict resolution skills in the context of the European Union.)

“What we want to do is make social relationships playable,” says Wardrip-Fruin, noting that most commercial game developers are more interested giving players a more thrilling experience of moving through space and destroying things.

“We think that requires long-term investment in developing new approaches to artificial intelligence and new game play designs, and having those two things push back and forth on each other,” he says. “Universities are in a great position to do that, and unfortunately most of the gaming industry isn’t.”

Prom Week, meanwhile, is a prototype with plenty of limitations. But Wardrip-Fruin and his colleagues seem to have at least produced something that plumbs the nature of human romance with more integrity than a Hallmark card.

“The game really is about the kind of thing Valentine’s Day is about: romance, and also crushing disappointment,” he says. “And hopefully the game captures both those kinds of things.”

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