To watch teens persist for long stretches at a video game or skateboard trick gives us Gen X and Baby Boomers a lot to think about. Why can they focus on this so diligently but are so markedly less engaged in school? Lots of research has revealed the power of game-based learning and the folks at Istation have taken that research to heart.

During my career as a science and language arts instructor at Columbus Signature Academy New Tech High School, I have come to appreciate and have a great reverence for educational games as instructional tools. Especially games that are immersive, authentic and highly interactive. The paradigm shift that the world has come to see with gaming is that games are best used as instructional tools embedded in the day-to-day process of content mastery, as opposed to fun rewards used perhaps at the end of a project or unit. Games work for learning, and teachers would be remiss to ignore that potential.

Istation’s new reading program Timeless Tales 2.0: NexLevel, created for middle school learners, takes users on an absorbing exploration in a game-based platform. I recently took a tour of the game. Immediately, a somewhat “meta” experience occurred as my screen went into a digital meltdown. I have to admit that, for a second, I was tempted to pull the control-alt-delete trick as I thought maybe I had just done something terribly wrong to my computer; no, that was part of the game. Am I, perhaps, showing my age?

In short time I was introduced to the problem, as narrated by the inner personality of the computer itself (named “Sage.”) It seems that, in the game, a catastrophic data loss has occurred and Sage needs me to sort out what happened. I then found myself in “The Hub,” a mall of sorts where students (the “Hubsters,” or characters in the game,) gather and interact. My job was to explore the hub and collect information (clues) that might help explain what was going on with this data corruption/loss situation.

I moved the mouse around the hub and over the characters. In doing so, I gained access to pieces of an unfolding story. Text messages, social media posts, and fliers on a message board offer clues about the personalities of the main characters. Appropriately, these clues are revealed in the same ways that authors allow the personalities of characters in stories to unfold, such as through direct and indirect characterization, looks, and actions.  Along the way, narration gives some insight into the ways that the characters’ personalities are being revealed and the user is offered the chance to add information to a “notebook” for future reference.

One of the aspects of the game that struck me as measurably different than other educational games that I have used in class was the free-form nature of this game. It immediately reminded me of the games that I watch my adolescent sons play on the gaming console in the basement. The open-navigation aspect of the game is something that those of us that are somewhat older did not necessarily have when we were playing games back in the 80’s and 90’s. For today’s kids, though, it is totally second nature to have to “wander around” and figure out how to play on one’s own. In fact, it seems to be how they prefer their games.

The Hub also contains a “Portal” to the non-virtual world that I was supposed to pass through with Sage. Unfortunately, the Portal was out of power. In order to “power it up,” I had to go to the Arcade and power up my own spelling and vocabulary skills. Before going in, though, I had to get past the bouncer, who was a rough looking character. As the game does throughout, it reminded me that looks can be deceiving and so as we judge characters in books, we should be wary of our assumptions that we make about people based on their appearances.

The concrete activities in the Arcade are framed as retro-style arcade games. The Card Match game asks the user to assemble rows of cards with definitions and context. The “Laboratory Lockdown” game was also a somewhat traditional spelling game, but was framed in a way that awards users for achieving levels and adjusts the difficulty based on the relative success of the user.

Once in the Arcade, I was unable to leave until I had demonstrated proficiency of all of the levels. Certainly, I suppose that if one is considering the middle school user as the audience member, it is entirely appropriate to make them double down on vocabulary and spelling for some time before returning to The Hub. For me, though, I had seen what I wanted to see there and was more interested in getting back to the other features of the game; thus, it made me wonder what kind of control the teacher has in allowing students to move more fluidly through the game once the initial exploration was complete.

Also included are interesting passages akin to reading prompts on standardized tests that really get at the development of a character profile based on clues provided by the author. There is an emphasis on reading at a certain pace but also demonstrating comprehension of that reading and applying the mantra of WALTER (Words/Actions/Looks/Thoughts/Effects/Responses) in creating the character profile. At the very end of Level 1, the extent of my exploration, there is a reflective summary of the whole experience, and, appropriately, more checks for comprehension.

My impression of Istation’s Timeless Tales 2.0: NexLevel is very favorable. I gave it to my son, a seventh grader, and he was able to navigate the game with little trouble. The content itself challenged him and I could tell that, without knowing it, he was immersed in the challenge. In fact, after a while, I told him he could be done whenever he wanted. Not surprisingly, he did not surrender the game easily! I think middle-level educators would be wise to give Istation a look; among game- based platforms, it easily stands out.

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