Gamification in Education

08 Feb 2015 13:06 | Armelle Loghmanian

Gamification in Education,
interview with Ian Harper 

by Corina Ciechanow and Armelle Loghmanian


Ian Harper

The Bradfield Company Limited

Ian, you are the spiritual father of the digital story and educational tool 'Inanimate Alice'(1), could you first introduce Alice to us?

From time to time Inanimate Alice is referred to as a game. My first task, then, is to clarify that it is not a game but a story about games and the people who make them, conveyed in such a way that the resulting production – an interactive, audio-visually illustrated, narrative - has the look and feel of a game-like world.

Our protagonist, Alice, grows up dreaming of one day becoming a videogame designer. Over the series of 10 episodes - 5 completed to date and the 6th in production - we see her develop her skills from the stickman character she draws when she is 8 years old to the highly rendered 3D game images that are typically found in high-priced AAA game titles. By the end of the series, those final episodes will have the look and feel of such titles while still being primarily a reading experience.

It is Alice who is narrating her story; as we experience each episode we see the world through her eyes. Written from the point of view of a mid-twenties professional, successful in her career and looking back over her life, viewers are given impressions of Alice’s circumstances and technical capabilities at various points along the way. Each episode is incrementally more complex and 'improved' than the one preceding it, the structure reflecting Alice's artistic skills as she grows older. For example, the recently released episode 5, where Alice is 16, provides a selection of 3D visuals within a two dimensional, linear, storyline while episode 6, where Alice is 18, will be the first episode to be a fully immersive 3D reading experience….just like being inside a videogame.

It’s a story about Alice's travels around the world - firstly with her parents, then on her own during her Gap Year and finally in pursuit of her career goals.

The narrative also tells of her career journey and the relationship she has had with the game character she has been developing, seemingly all of her life. Uniquely, Alice has only ever designed one character, her "best friend" Brad. She just keeps making him better and better. For the record, Brad is the manifestation of the internet world we all seem to occupy these days. Everyone stares at screens, small or large, for endless hours and so, in many ways, Brad is the personification of the screen and our relationship with technology.

I read in Wikipedia that Inanimate Alice was named a ‘Best Website for Teaching & Learning’ by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) in 2012. You also told me it has been incorporated into literacy and digital curricula in the United States and in Australia. Inanimate Alice being an entertaining tool, how is it then that it ended up becoming a tool in the Education sector?

The story started out as an entertainment, written and developed as the backstory to a transmedia film/game title I had the impression would resolve many of the issues I saw in the earlier works of that genre. Rather than create a game, the creative team came up with the idea of a story with embedded puzzles and mini-games that would provide a deeper impression of what the story is about. Very simple to start with, the challenges become progressively more complex with each subsequent episode. They act as a primer for those who are unfamiliar with videogames.

Early on, from our website statistics, we noticed that most of the site users were teachers and, importantly, that they represented almost all of the returning traffic. At that time, we decided to actively support those teachers in the use of Alice as an educational tool.

There are several factors that make a transmedia story such as ‘Inanimate Alice’ a popular tool in Education. Firstly, that the approach to visualisation embraces the same techniques as videogames. The products of this technique immediately capture students’ attention. This level of engagement greatly facilitates the teacher’s job. Also, the interaction and many embedded games ensure it remains compelling on re-reading and delving deep into the various topics that are discussed in the episodes.

In particular, Inanimate Alice has an extra interesting twist. Our protagonist is a girl who is going into the videogames industry; a rare event in that currently male-dominated environment. We want to avoid stereotypes by creating a role model with Alice and making the point of promoting the videogame industry and the wider ICT sector among girls.

Could you mention the ‘gamification’ elements present on Alice?

There are a number of facets to the production that demonstrate the benefits to educators of working with a story constructed in this way:
1. The script, spare on first reading, has been carefully authored by an award winning novelist who is also a professor of digital media. The quality of the text makes it suitable for the deep reading and re-reading necessary for academic investigation, while the audio-visual backdrop provides a compelling level of engagement that attracts students and teachers alike.

2. Multiple layers that run alongside the main thread of the story provide themes that allow teachers to expand into areas that are of interest to them. Layers and themes provide opportunities to teach across the curriculum, not just reading and writing. Peer pressure and bullying, for example, is the core theme of episode 4. Even after several viewings of the episodes teachers find that there is more to uncover. Even then, most folks entirely miss the fact that there is a strong branding theme running through the episodes. The branding of children is an issue of deep concern to many these days yet we seem to be so inured to branding that we overlook it entirely.

3. Superficially the interactivity provided may appear rather simplistic to begin with. It has been designed in that way to ensure a minimal barrier to entry. By the time we reach episode 5 Alice has produced a fully playable skateboard game with scoring and time constraints that provoke challenge and raise excitement. Perhaps the more important interactive element, one only latterly understood, is the opportunity for students to contribute their own episodes to the storyline. In the long wait for episode 5 to be released, hundreds of "unofficial" episodes fives have appeared, created by eager students. We have seen many of these and enjoyed having students take Alice on adventures to places we would not have imagined. Now, with the release of the “official” episode 5, we have showcased just a few of them on the site. More will be appearing. Students are encouraged to develop episodes and to paint Alice into the scenery local to where they live.
The team behind Alice continues to guide teachers on how to get the most from working with the series. We are showcasing the work of those teachers and students who fully embrace its potential as in the wonderful example of Kentucky Teacher of the Year Kristal Doolin:

What are the main benefits of this approach? Do you have tangible elements to evaluate this effect?

Although personal computers have been in existence for over 30 years and increasing numbers have found their way into classrooms, only now are we starting to see the big shift towards digitally-delivered education. This transition is a one-way street. As we move inexorably towards 1:1 classrooms (where every student has their own device) new start teachers are heard to say “I don’t do paper.”

The other big change fast appearing is the move away from textbooks with their year-long agendas to content acquisition in “bite-sized chunks”.

As a ”born-digital” title Inanimate Alice responds to the demands of digital delivery and availability according to the needs of a particular lesson. The highly-engaging quality of the work means that the teacher has the immediate attention of every student in the classroom. Through revisiting the storyline from time to time both teachers and students benefit from building on a story that keeps on growing, keeps on providing more and more strands that pull readers in.

The story is motivational for those who think that one day they might aspire to a career in the digital arts. Through the provision of interactive challenges and the ability to create their own episodes young people feel that they are part of the story.

Although the title has a large audience of teachers and their students around the world a substantial number of whom provide anecdotal evidence of their successes, we have yet to undertake the formal research that will provide the necessary measures of those successes. We know that Inanimate Alice works and works very well; the results are palpable. We need to put some numbers around that and hope to do so this year.

There is a big opening market on gamification, could you explain to our readers the misconception you see that prevents women to enter the digital media business?

I see some misconceptions about women in professional roles and how those misconceptions can be detrimental to women's prospects even before they start out looking at a particular sector. It is an interesting juxtaposition that approximately 80% of teaching positions are held by females whereas in the videogame industry only one-in-five are female. Clearly, educators are not pointing girls towards jobs in the games industry and surely this is a problem.

Let's take the current impressionable example I feel that is misguided by Bill Gates and others, that in order to get into the digital world you need to be able to code. Now we see schemes being proposed where kids will be spending a good deal of their time learning to code. This is not wrong, but it is a misrepresentation, one that can put the idea into young people's heads that "there is no point me trying to get a job in games, if I cannot code."
In the same way as you don't need to be an engineer to be in the oil and gas business, you don't need to be a coder to be in computer games. As it matures, the videogames industry -and the wider marketplace of digital jobs- needs professionals across many disciplines, not just coders.

Key to addressing this misconception is getting across messages that, to put it crudely, don't "blow them off too early". My view is that we need to focus more on the Art and Culture aspects of game creation - not just the coding. Let's focus on the wider digital media sphere.

We could take a look at the example of the team we have put together for Episode 6 of Alice.....this is not a game of course, but it is becoming more game-like all the time:
  • Creative : 2 Male/2 Female
  • Educators : 1 Male/4 Female
  • Business - Project Management, Marketing/PR : 1 Male/2 Female

Rather than holding to the idea of how wonderful it would be to code, I feel sure that capturing the attention of young people through Art and Culture will underscore the greater success. As software becomes more sophisticated there is less need to code and more call for artistic vision to stretch the capability of the existing tools.

Both the publishing and education sectors have greater gender equality than video games. As we see publishing meeting technology and becoming “born-digital” we envisage a future that today’s eBook publishers can only dream of. As education moves inexorably towards nationally delivered digital agendas we can expect the gender balance pendulum to swing back. It is to be hoped that Inanimate Alice will have a part to play in making that happen.


(1) Inanimate Alice site:

Short Biography

At the tender age of 50 and with a raw idea in his head Ian Harper attended the UK’s National Film and Television School to learn how to write for the screen. With two screenplays under his belt he has created the role of digital novel producer developing plans for a studio to complete the Inanimate Alice series while producing five further titles in a similar vein.

Contacts Details
Production Company - The Bradfield Company Limited:

Disclaimer -    Any views and opinions presented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Bradfield Company Limited, nor do they constitute a legally binding agreement.

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