Students Take Shakespeare Video Game Into Area Classrooms

Play the Knave classroom projects Shakespeare
English students Kristen Hartley and Meghan Palu saw a big difference between watchers and players.

A dozen UC Davis English majors recently played a video game with area elementary, middle and high school students. While the students had fun, the goal was to see how “Play the Knave” might improve their reading and writing skills and make the works of William Shakespeare more accessible.

“Play the Knave” is an augmented reality video game developed by Gina Bloom, a professor of English in the College of Letters and Science and others in the UC Davis Digital Humanities Lab, the ModLab. Players choose a script, an avatar, sounds and setting, then perform scenes from Shakespeare karaoke-style. A motion-sensing camera picks up the players’ movements and maps them onto 3D avatars that mirror the players’ movements on a screen.

People playing play the Knave
"Play the Knave" in use.

The English students used the game to examine a number of learning possibilities:

– Understanding iambic pentameter by moving avatars along with the rhythm of lines.

– Recognizing the function of punctuation by moving avatars.

– Learning good narrative practices through a character telling a story.

– Seeing how playing versus watching the game affects comprehension.

“This is precisely the kind of work that makes the College of Letters and Science, and indeed the university as a whole, stand out,” Bloom said. “It showcased a really special opportunity for undergraduates at UC Davis to participate in research while preparing for their chosen careers and contributing to our Northern California community.”

Play the Knave” has been under development for about five years and has been presented around the world, including at the Australia New Zealand Shakespeare Association, Shakespeare Association of America conference, “Chicago Shakespeare 400,” the Utah Shakespeare Festival, and the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario, Canada, and been featured on the BBC’s news channel.

Expanding to classrooms

Two years ago, Bloom realized the game would be especially applicable in K-12  teaching and learning. She began looking for undergraduates who wanted to become K-12 teachers.

Her student Amanda Shores was tutoring at Bridge, an after-school program for at-risk or high-need students in Davis, and suggested that students could develop literacy skills using the Knave platform. She and other UC Davis students did workshops at Bridge that were successful enough to show how it might work in classrooms. UC Davis students were recruited and trained to teach using “Play the Knave.”

Putting game to the test

The students worked in schools during the spring quarter and recently presented their findings at the UC Davis ModLab where the game was developed.

One area they examined was how performing versus watching the game affected understanding of Shakespeare.

At Pioneer High School in Woodland, Kristen Hartley and Meghan Palu saw significant differences between players and watchers, with the players learning more than the watchers. But they noted that those who volunteered to perform may have been academically engaged students already interested in Shakespeare.

May Qin and Natalie Hill at Douglas Middle School in Woodland found only minor differences in engagement between performers and watchers, but they thought this revealed the different ways people learn.

“Some students are better at kinesthetic learning,” Qin said.

Students at Sierra Middle School in Vacaville, where Rachel Cowen, Jordan Azevedo and Yoonah Ko worked, found watching students play a scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream was more engaging than reading it. Seeing it performed made the middle schoolers think more about how actors move and how important that is to storytelling, Cowen said.

Mariela Sanchez and Emily Stack used Macbeth to explore gender issues with students at Pierce High School in Arbuckle. They found that students were more open the cross-gender casting once they saw it enacted through gameplay.

“They felt girls could play Macbeth and boys could play Lady Macbeth,” Stack said.

Sharing the tools

Play the Knave setting
Avatars and set from "Play the Knave."

What the students did and learned in those classrooms will be shared. The lesson plans they developed will be available on the “Knave” website, and “Play the Knave” kits with hardware and software have been created for schools to borrow.

“The research the students have done and the materials developed alongside and as part of that research will have an immediate and material impact on other K-12 teachers and their students,” Bloom said. 

This isn’t the first time UC Davis students have played a big role in “Play the Knave.” During the past two years, about 70 students—mostly undergraduates—developed much of the game content by editing scenes and scripts, testing the game, writing plot summaries and instruction manuals, and finding or creating soundtracks.

The “Play the Knave” teaching program has been supported through donations from Margaret Jepsen Bowles, who earned a bachelor’s degree in English from UC Davis and was a long-time educator.

“UC Davis faculty are supposed to demonstrate excellence in teaching, research and service,” Bloom said. “’Play the Knave’ has enabled me and my students to integrate these three areas, which too often are segmented from each other. The teaching and community outreach we do with ‘Play the Knave’ is informed by our research on the game, and vice versa.”  

— Jeffrey Day, content strategist in the College of Letters and Science