Getting Hands-on with Virtual Spaces: An Approach to Students’ Unequal Prior Experiences of Digital Media

by Lawrence May

In educational settings that engage students in analysis and development of digital games and interactive media, a key equity issue and pedagogical challenge is the varied levels of prior encounters and experiences with relevant digital media students bring with them. This challenge becomes more acute in contexts where cohorts have a high proportion of students from a low socioeconomic status and demands responsive and inclusive pedagogies. In this essay I provide an example of an extended teaching activity in which a small group of students with varied levels of fluency with digital media were introduced to the concept of micronarrativein digital game design. This was a hands-on activity using arts and crafts materials within which key narratological and digital media design concepts were stripped down to their core elements.

Context and Cohort

The teaching described in this lesson plan was implemented in Auckland, New Zealand, in a tertiary education institution classified as a private training establishment (PTE), a type of education provider distinct from universities and defined by their private ownership and a traditional focus on vocational training. The entry requirements to take up study at such providers are in many cases lower than at universities and polytechnics, and the vocational focus of PTEs has historically attracted higher proportions of students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. At the time that this teaching was undertaken, a number of PTE providers had successfully developed and won the right to confer bachelor’s and bachelor’s (honors) degree qualifications, including the institution in which I taught. This institution expanded from its prior narrow, vocation-focused qualifications in two-dimensional and three-dimensional animation to a three-year bachelor’s degree in animation (with an optional honors year), bringing with it a broader focus on game development, digital media design, critical theory, academic practice, and professional practice.

Students already engaged in the institution’s existing one-year qualifications programs were given the opportunity to enter this bachelor’s program, and those who did were placed in a bridging program—a six-month pathway that recognized their prior learning in animation arts and granted them an accelerated version of the degree’s first year. Thirteen students joined this bridging program and, as part of the Interactive Narrative: Theory and Design course, participated in the activities that this lesson plan describes. The level of digital media fluency among this group varied considerably. A poll taken during the first week revealed that while five of the students had a “deep” history of engagement with and fluency in video game texts, the remainder had very limited digital media literacies and experiences to draw upon. When students discussed their play histories, socioeconomic status emerged as a key factor for some who had lower levels of digital media fluency, with access to platforms and games limited by financial constraints. However, it was also apparent that student background and prior experience with digital media cannot be cleanly and consistently correlated. One student who had not played a single digital game before commencing the course did not identify socioeconomic barriers in their pursuit of play but noted that they had so far avoided interactive digital media out of disinterest.

Irrespective of the underlying reasons for such inequity in digital media fluency, the disparity in prior experience with digital and interactive media posed a challenge for all lecturers in the program, whose job it is to prepare students to graduate as experts in video game and interactive media design and development. As these media are increasingly adopted as objects of study at all levels of schooling and higher education, questions about students’ fluency regarding these platforms will become more pressing for a wide range of teachers and in a wide range of settings.

Curriculum: Micronarrative and Environmental Storytelling

Midway through the course, the thirteen students were introduced to a number of concepts related to the construction, interpretation, and function of virtual environments in video games. Understanding the significance of spatiality and spatial design is crucial to the development of narrative experiences for players. As Henry Jenkins observes, game designers “don’t simply tell stories; they design worlds and sculpt spaces,” and their “choices about the design and organization of game spaces have narratological consequences” (2004, 129). For players, there is an interconnection between space and narrative in that uncovering “space, its drama, and meaning goes hand in hand with the gradual comprehension of events and objects into narrative context” (Nitsche 2008, 45). This recalls Michel de Certeau’s description of storytelling as being fundamentally “a spatial practice” (2011, 115) within which our consumption of narrative can be linked to the “search for believable, memorable, and primitive spaces” (Fuller and Jenkins 1994, 64).1 Spaces, Fuller and Jenkins explain, are “acted upon, explored, colonized” and in turn become narrativized (1994, 66). To explain this process Rob Kitchin and Scott Freundschuh adopt the concept of cognitive mapping, which they introduce, quoting geographers Roger Downs and David Stea: “cognitive mapping is a process composed of a series of psychological transformations by which an individual acquires, stores, recalls, and decodes information about the relative locations and attributes of the phenomena in his everyday spatial environment” (2000, 1).

In many video games, a great deal of narrative information is embedded in the environment around the player in a fragmented and passive form. These portions of story are contained in what Henry Jenkins describes as “micronarratives” (2004, 125)—small, sometimes ephemeral building blocks of narrative that can feed into, complement, deepen, or even distract from the core story of a game text (126). Common examples of micronarrative objects in video games include posters on walls, newspapers with headlines or stories the player can read, graffiti in the virtual environment, the personal effects of characters in the game, readable diaries, the content broadcast by in-game radio stations, and so on. By interacting with and exploring a virtual space, which involves encountering micronarrative objects, players build a cognitive map that “ties spaces together in a meaningful way, assembles events in a spatial order, and positions the human in relationship to them” (Nitsche 2008, 162), thus generating or augmenting their narrative experience.

Lesson Plan

To ensure that this module—crucial for students’ ongoing understanding of developing and designing for interactive narrative experience and directly connected to a summative assessment—was successful required curriculum design that accounted for this particular cohort’s unequal digital media fluency. To achieve this, I designed a number of lessons to place the students on an equal footing with respect to prior experience with games and to ground the core theoretical concepts in accessible, tangible, and practical activities. These activities required the students to work in small teams over five consecutive days of two-hour classes, and each team had to construct props using arts and crafts materials in order to stage a physical space as if it were an environment encountered by players of a zombie genre video game.


Students were prepared for the module with an introductory lecture and class discussion, readings, and guided play of two video game texts. The lecture material included

There was an assigned reading set for students for this lesson plan comprised of “Narration of Things: Storytelling in Dark Souls via Item Descriptions” by Franziska Ascher (2015) and Gonzalo Frasca’s “Sim Sin City: Some Thoughts about Grand Theft Auto 3” (2013). Students completed these articles a week prior to the introductory lecture and, in groups of three or four, were given a week to formulate responses to a series of questions about them. I also assigned the games Gone Home (2013) and Outlast (2013), and the three questions they were given to guide play (one of which they had to answer in the formative blog) were

  1. Was the use of micronarrative objects in your chosen game(s) engaging? Explain your answer.
  2. Was environmental storytelling used in an effective way in your chosen game(s)? Why/why not?
  3. How could a particular micronarrative object or objects be improved in your chosen game(s)?

Additionally, each week students would play selected video game texts, guided by a reflective question requiring a short (under 500 words) written answer in an ongoing, formative blog primarily intended to improve textual analytical skills. A number of video games were installed on computers at the institution, and we set aside three and a half hours each week for students to play them, ensuring that a lecturer was present to provide assistance. We expected a minimum of two hours of play per week, but students could spend more than the allocated time by utilizing the computers throughout the week when the classroom was available.

Of the preparatory components of this lesson plan, access to digital media texts is most crucial to mitigating inequity in students’ proficiency with video games. It can, however, be difficult in many institutional contexts to make such resources available, often for financial, bureaucratic, or practical reasons. I was fortunate to have the support from institutional leadership for the initiative and, thanks to the institution’s qualifications in three-dimensional animation, an abundance of high-specification computing equipment available on campus. Providing students with timetabled sessions in which to play the assigned video game texts meant that those less experienced with and fluent in digital media could draw upon their peers or the lecturer for support with some of the more basic aspects of computer gaming—navigating software interfaces, engaging with control mechanics, interpreting virtual spaces, and so on. The additional, non-timetabled access to these computers and games allowed less confident and proficient students more opportunities to play, including opportunities to fail, repeat, and learn freely at their own pace and without peer observation adding unnecessary pressure. The ongoing student blogging associated with this play ensured that students, at all levels of digital media fluency, were regularly taking stock of their play experiences and capturing critical reflections. Students were encouraged to read one another’s entries—and it was evident that in this small group most were doing so each week—which allowed those with less gaming experience to “see” the same video game texts through the eyes of more confident players and expand their conceptual and experiential understanding of the case study texts and of play more generally.

Main Activity

During the first of five consecutive teaching days for the Interactive Narrative: Theory and Design course students were divided into three groups and provided with

Each group determined amongst themselves a lead narrative designer who would represent them in discussions with me and with the other students throughout the week—a small measure to ensure clear and simple lines of communication and coordination and to simulate to some extent the professional experience of work in a studio environment where production units might be organized under a producer, lead artist, or senior programmer. At the time of this teaching, the institution was expanding its physical campus and a number of small rooms (intended as shared office spaces) were empty, awaiting utilization, so I was able to allocate one room to each group.3 Groups were also given a position in the gameplay/narrative timeline—one at the beginning of the hypothetical game, one halfway through, and the final shortly prior to the game’s conclusion.

Students had the remainder of the teaching week—ten full hours of timetabled class time over five days—to draw upon the craft materials and tools provided in order to stage and dress each room in such a way that it communicated key narrative information about the game’s story and the imagined player’s progress through it at each of these three points. Students were advised to use any and all materials they had and to utilize the physical space as fully as possible, so long as they avoided any permanent damage to the environment. Students were also made aware that after concluding this activity, other lecturers and students in the institution would be invited to explore the rooms and fill out surveys reflecting on the key details of the game’s plot, characters, and play experience that they discerned from the staging and the micronarrative artifacts.

Making the Virtual Tangible

As the students designed their rooms, they had to work closely together to imagine and generate a fictional space that aligned with their narrative briefs. Students crafted prop objects such as weapons, laptop computers, and furniture; embedded micronarrative detail into ephemera such as official documents, newspapers, and posters; and used large sheets of kraft paper to add detail to the structures of their imagined buildings. The more morbid debris of a zombie apocalypse setting included pools of blood, body parts, and footprints, which also acted as signifiers of in-game activity and movement by other characters. This experiential approach provided a mode of engagement that de-emphasised deep proficiency with existing digital media texts and instead afforded students productive and creative agency on a shared, more level playing field. Students who had previously identified themselves as lacking confidence and as being less familiar with video game media thrived in the activity, as the fundamental characteristics of micronarrative and environmental storytelling became the focus, uncoupled from the potentially alienating context of software interfaces and digital play activity. The crafting of the rooms and the artifacts they contained allowed students to experience the sensations of immersion, avatarial perspective, and interaction with space and objects in direct and embodied terms, as well as to understand how these sensations are the product of deliberate constructions and arrangements. Over the course of the week, the lead narrative designers also conducted careful negotiations with one another to ensure continuity and accuracy was maintained between the three temporal positions of the rooms in the imagined plot of the game. Again, a concept that can appear abstract for those not fluent in digital media—temporality in a virtual space—was made accessible to all students by their ability to simply visit another group’s staged room and discuss the implications of what they could see in relation to their own narrativized space.

By adopting pedagogical practices that emphasize accessible, physical, and tangible practice for students, the inequity among student cohorts caused by differing levels of prior experience and fluency with digital media can be somewhat mitigated. The approach to curriculum design in this lesson plan is one hands-on way to respond to digital inequities among students while teaching fundamental game studies and digital narratology concepts.

1 Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue.

2 I am happy to share the PowerPoint presentation that I used in this lecture, and those interested in the presentation may email me at for access. In it, I use the readings by Franziska Ascher (2015), Gonzalo Frasca (2003), Jenkins (2004), Jenkins and Fuller (1995), and others, and offer my own more colloquial explanations along the way.

3 In institutional and physical settings without such spaces available, instructors can adapt the spatial requirements of this lesson plan.

Works Cited

Ascher, Franziska. 2015. “Narration of Things: Storytelling in Dark Souls via Item Descriptions.” First Person Scholar, April 22, 2015.

Certeau, Michel de. 2011. The Practice of Everyday Life. Trans. Stephen Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Frasca, Gonzalo. 2003. “Sim Sin City: Some Thoughts about Grand Theft Auto 3.” Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research 3, no. 2 (December).

Fuller, Mary, and Henry Jenkins. 1995. “Nintendo® and New World Travel Writing: A Dialogue.” In CyberSociety: Computer-Mediated Communication and Community, edited by Steven G. Jones, 57–72. Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

Gone Home. 2013. Developed by The Fullbright Company. Windows, OS X, Linux, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch.

Jenkins, Henry. 2004. “Game Design as Narrative Architecture.” In First Person: New Media as Story, Performance, and Game, edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan, 118–30. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Kitchin, Rob, and Scott Freundschuh, eds. 2000. Cognitive Mapping: Past, Present, and Future. New York: Routledge.

Nitsche, Michael. 2008. Video Game Spaces: Image, Play, and Structure in 3D Game Worlds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Outlast. 2013. Developed by Red Barrels. Windows, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, OS X, Linux, Nintendo Switch.

Lawrence May ( leads a team responsible for digital learning and teaching innovation at the University of Auckland. His doctorate examined collective gameplay, experiences of emergent narrative, and the role of the ludic zombie in mediating emergent processes. Digital narratology, the figure of the zombie, horror games, and digital pedagogies are ongoing research interests.