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Adeeb Syed

Hero’s Journey Conversation Card Game

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Project Summary: This “Dream Toy Project” is a guided-storytelling and conversation-starter “game” to foster media literacy between parent and child. I designed and created this project after interviewing a child about his interests.   
Context: Harvard Graduate School of Education prototype project (Spring 2019)
Technologies: Laser cutter, Inkscape, Cura, playing cards, acrylic board
Project Duration: 1 week

Inspiration and Influences

For this project, I drew inspiration from two big ideas:

(1) the research literature surrounding coviewing/joint media engagement and
(2) Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

The New Coviewing

In 2011, the Joan Ganz Cooney Center published a report entitled The New Coviewing: Designing for Learning Through Joint Media EngagementAlthough the report’s research findings and conclusions would be exceedingly commonsensical if read 50 years ago (as many of the early criticisms of television are the exact problems identified and surfaced in the report), it nevertheless provides some good models for thinking about the various dimensions of coviewing and joint media engagement. 

The main reason I gravitated towards the report, however, is because it aligns with a non-technocentric view of educational media (which I discuss at length in this post on Virtual Reality in education).  As a brief summary, the technocentric position, as outlined by Seymour Papert, among others, is that learning is fundamentally about people and cultures first and technology second:

Technocentrism is the fallacy of referring all questions to the technology; not asking how we use these things.

Similarly, the Joan Ganz Cooney researchers lament the prevailing technocentric view of educational media:

The stereotype of singular engagement in media has influenced how media are designedas if all users are isolated individuals. It is time for that to change.

Challenging some of the fundamental assumptions of media design, they shift the question from asking what design choices are embedded in media to: “How can we design outside the interface?”  

Two ways of exploring the dimensions of how we might think about designing outside the interface is through considering coviewing and joint media engagement, defined formally below:

Coviewing refers to “occasions when adults and children watch television together, sharing the viewing experience, but not engaging in any discussion about the program.  Coviewing is considered a form of mediation, because it has been shown to have positive effects on children.” 

While coviewing increases the likelihood that children will learn from the media they consume, joint media engagement goes further.

Joint Media Engagement (JME) refers to “spontaneous and designed experiences of people using media together.  JME can happen anywhere and at any time when there are multiple people interacting together with media.  

Modes of JME include viewing, playing, searching, reading, contributing, and creating, with either digital or traditional media.  JME can support learning by providing resources for making sense and making meaning in a particular situation, as well as for future situations.”

Parents are the key JME partners when young children are involved, having a profound impact on the learning that emerges when children engage with and around media.

Parental JME involves creating opportunities for conversation, providing spontaneous just-in-time explanations, and responding meaningfully to questions.  Furthermore, parents are the key to successful JME because children learn a great deal through observation, especially when parents model productive dispositions, thereby communicating the value of specific approaches of engaging with and around media.

The inherent value of these interactions (again, which would have been common sense 50 years ago) is that they create opportunities that go beyond what is “built in” to the media itself and help children create their own self-directed learning opportunities “outside” of the media interface.

ad from 1950s showing family around a TV

Joint Media Engagement through parental mediation refers to the role that parents play in managing and regulating their children’s experiences with media.  The authors highlight three styles that have been identified by scholars over the years:

      1. Restrictive Mediation: refers to rules about the content and frequency of children’s television viewing;
      2. Social Coviewing: refers to parents and children watching television together but not necessarily discussing what they watch;
      3. Instructive Mediation: is the middle ground between the two, in which parents and children watch television programming together and talk about it throughout the viewing process.

The crux of my learning design focuses on the instructive mediation type of parental mediation.  Essentially, I designed and created a conversational storytelling game/tool that would help a parent scaffold meaningful conversations about the nature of storytelling while simultaneously modeling media literacy skills through those conversations.

The Hero’s Journey, or “Monomyth”

Narrative and storytelling are not only incredibly important to the inner lives of children, but they are a key aspect in their development — their way of coming to know and understand the world around them.  Research on the neuroscience of narrative and memory show the positive impact narrative has on learning capabilities:

As stories from childhood are linked to positive emotional experiences, they provide an insight into the patterning system by which memories are stored.  Our brains seek and store memories based on patterns (repeated relationships between ideas).  This system facilitates our interpreting the world—and all the new information we find throughout each day—based on prior experiences.  The four-step structure of narrative—beginning (Once upon a time…), problem, resolution, and ending (…and they all lived happily ever after)—forms a mental map onto which new information can be laid.

While these findings are, yet again, commonsensical (since cultures all over the world have engaged in complex and structured storytelling long before the advent of neuroscience), I am arguing here that mere exposure, whether implicit or explicit, to the structural elements of narrative are not enough for developing robust media literacy skills.  For much of pre-industrial human history, narrative and storytelling were intimately tied to the transmission of a culture’s “truths” and mores — their way of creating meaning about the world and their place in it.  Since these stories were mostly oral, we can safely assume that conversational meaning making (in the JME sense) was an inherent and integral part of passing stories down through history.

In contrast, in today’s media-rich world, there is very little time for young children to probe, ask questions, and reflect on the endless stream of media with which they engage.  What’s worse, many of today’s parents were once children who also grew up with a media illiterate childhood and, as a result, have a distorted sense of “normal” media engagement. 

So while the structural elements of storytelling are quite naturally readily available to children through easily accessible media, what is often absent from engagement with and around digital media is how and why meaning is mapped onto the syntactic structure of stories.

One way of thinking about meaning is to consider Joseph Campbell’s articulation of what he calls the Hero’s Journey, or the Monomyth:

image of hero's journey

While not as universal as its name suggests, the main contours of the “monomyth” is still an archetypal narrative structure found in many, but certainly not all, of the myths of countless cultures.

Interestingly, the monomyth is also used as a template for many TV shows and films.  The Star Wars film franchise was probably the first to adapt the formula with great commercial success, while also completely and truly revolutionizing the toy industry.  Testament to Star Wars’ success at adapting the monomyth formula, the Power of Myth documentary featuring Joseph Campbell and Bill Moyers was even filmed on George Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch. 

The lessons learned from Star Wars certainly did not escape the eyes of Hollywood and Disney (which owns  Marvel and now even Lucasfilms).  They have also found the monomyth to be an extremely lucrative formula that, when combined with the latest and greatest production techniques, can continually capture the attention of most people without much innovation in storytelling

What’s even more strange, and this is one sense in which the “power” in the Power of Myth displays itself, is that knowing about the structure does not really affect its impact.  Viewers suspend belief while re-encountering these mythic tales updated to align with modern cultural sensibilities.  Marvel’s success at standardizing and adapting the formula has even led to a university level class that explores how the Marvel movies in particular use the monomyth. 

But exposure to the monomyth’s structure should not be relegated to universities or formal educational environments.  Even a child as young as five, with conscious parental mediation of the JME variety, can meaningfully engage with powerful ideas about storytelling, develop media literacy skills, and explore what it means to be a hero (or villain).

Lastly, one other reason I decided to use the monomyth as a design influence is because the series of media products associated with the Marvel Cinematic Universe are not isolated.  They are an extremely comprehensive and continuous transmedia-rich franchise that this young child will absolutely grow up with (much like many people grew up with Star Wars). 

My hope was that early exposure to these ideas of storytelling and meaning, mediated through the love of a character that this child naturally gravitated towards, would provide a significant and powerful throughline for his long-term inquiry and development.

Every Marvel movie he may watch thereafter would thus be a turn on the flywheel, compounding this deep sense of meaning-making well throughout his development into adolescence and adulthood. 

Learning Design

Learning Goals Summary

As I mentioned above, one of the key benefits of incorporating Joint-Media Engagement principles into any learning design is that it can foster lifelong media literacy skills, create a culture of inquiry within the home/family, and can cultivate a mental toolkit for critically and meaningfully engaging with different types of media. 

With the limited time and resources allotted to me, my learning design goals were thus mainly concerned with creating something that any parent and child could easily use together without much prerequisite knowledge of narratology.  Put another way, the learning design was such that “the card game” aspect would no longer be necessary once either the parent or child (hopefully both) have internalized some of the ideas of the Hero’s Journey. The tool would work its way into the mind and no longer need to be physically used. 

The design also took into account the sensitivities surrounding a parent’s role with their child.  It was not intended to replace or restrict what a parent does best, which is to know, truly understand, and invest in their child’s development.  Instead, it was deliberately designed to be as open-ended as possible and allow parent and child to fill in the gaps and explore the fruitful void.

Much like the best designed games, I wanted to create just enough constraints that would allow the “players” to direct the “play” that would emerge.  This way, a family’s unique culture and history could seamlessly integrate to the types of questions that a curious child may ask.

Another learning design goal was to enable a young child to feel empowered in expressing his or her “mind” and voice: to create the time and space to allow for the development of opinions about heroism, even if we (in the adult world) may think it’s wrong, strange, or incomplete. 

The Child 

Is Killmonger the Villian or the Hero? Ought a 5 year old get to decide?

After interviewing the 5 year old boy, who I will refer to as the “The Child” (to protect his privacy and whose cuteness rivals that of another “The Child” above), I shared my findings with a small group in my class.  Aside from his interest in playing soccer, his favorite and most exciting thing to talk about was his hero: the “Golden Black Panther”.

What’s a golden black panther?

Confusion abounded among my peers and I had to explain that who he was actually referring to was the villain, Killmonger, not the eponymous hero Black Panther.  This was followed by some nervous laughter and a flurry of questions: 

“Was the movie really age appropriate for a 5 year old?”

“Didn’t his parents say anything about Black Panther as the real hero?”

“Don’t they know his name is Killmonger?”

I was surprised by their surprise.  

The thought never really crossed my mind and the nervous laughter seemed to suggest that some sort of correction was needed, which was even stranger.  It felt that The Child needed to be “instructed” on who the real hero was and why…instead of letting the nuance work itself out. 

From my interview and conversation with The Child, he was so excited and clearly motivated to be like the Golden Black Panther.  Although only 5, he clearly had his reasons.  When I was thanking his parents as he left, they were very aware of his choice of hero and didn’t feel the need to correct anything (which I also thought was the right move). 

What’s interesting about this is that there has been an increase in the representation of antiheroes over the years, heroes that do not really look like or act like the traditional hero.  The Child may very well be tapping into this interpretation of Black Panther — somehow grappling with the same nuance that adults do.

Arguments for Killmonger as an anti-hero aside (which one could certainly make), The Child clearly did not know that Killmonger was a “villain”.

I thought it would be a great opportunity to engage in a bit of joint media engagement and create something that would model what it might be like to think about what it means to be a hero and let The Child develop his own ideas through a conversation. And through repeated conversations, The Child might develop a mental toolkit and sensitivity to the many representations of heroes he will likely be exposed to as he grows up. 

In sum, I think 5-year-olds ought to decide for themselves who they think a hero is without overbearing evaluation and need for “correction”.  Luckily for me, his parents felt the same way and this inspired me to make the design decisions that I did. 

Killmonger, or the “Golden Black Panther”

Extending the Developmental Capabilities of Children

Another core element of my learning design was a reaction to an assumption inherent in my peer’s reactions — one that is unfortunately widely held amongst educators. When I described my plan to create a game-like learning tool that would assist in understanding the hero’s journey, many said it would be too difficult or complex for a 5-year-old to grasp such complex and abstract concepts as “heroism.”  

I certainly understood where the sentiment was coming form, the “research” on early childhood development. But what’s so interesting is that while it may very well be true that this may be beyond a child’s developmental capabilities, it does not follow that we should therefore preclude the opportunities to include such experiences in learning design the exposure to such ideas or concepts, especially in a way a parent can open and be a constant bridge for the child.

Jean Piaget’s Developmental Theory

Jean Piaget was a Swiss psychologist whose original and arguably controversial research, when they first appeared in the 1920s, resulted in new insights into how children think, reason, and perceive the world.

As Dorothy Singer mentions Piaget’s background was extremely interdisciplinary, his longtime collaborator describing him as “by vocation a zoologist, by avocation an epistemologist, and by method a logician”.  At the age of 10, Piaget had published many articles in the biological sciences, and then became enamored with philosophy, especially the branch known as epistemology, or the study of knowledge.

These two disciplines of biology and philosophy became very intimately intertwined in Piaget’s work.  It’s important to note here that for much of human history, most viewed infants as passive beings with not very much going on in the brain or mind. It wasn’t until the 20th century and psychologists like Piaget that people began to view cognitive development beginning at birth, leading to the idea that infants and children are always learning and thinking in their own ways.

Development is a biological term referring to physical growth over time, but when applied to psychology it refers to the growth of an individual’s thinking, emotions, and strategies for coping with the environment.

Some view development as a smooth and continuous process, while others see it a series of distinct stages.

Dorothy Singer, in a Piaget Reader, explains:

Piaget regarded the child as a philosopher who perceives the world only as he experienced it. The child is born into egocentrism. The child sees himself as the center of the universe, with everything revolving around him and occurring solely for his pleasure. Children can understand only what they have experienced themselves, and expect adults to see things exactly as they do”

It is important to note here that by “egocentrism,” Piaget does not mean selfishness; he means that a child simply believes that everyone sees the world in exactly the same way he does.

“Piaget defined intelligence as an individual’s ability to cope with the changing world through continuous organization and reorganization of experience. Reasoning is the essence of intelligence, and it is those reasoning processes which Piaget studied in order to discover how we know” (13).

According to Piaget, the mental structures necessary for intellectual development are genetically determined. These mental structures, which include the nervous system and sensory organs, set limits for intellectual functioning at specific ages. As these structures become more developed through maturation, the child can use them more effectively to deal with the environment. A young child has fewer and less-developed mental structures and less experience than the teen-ager or adult.

Although Piaget in his later years wrote that psychologists relied too much on the notion of a stage, they are still useful and still used to distinguish and describe cognitive developmental milestones

You can read more about Piaget’s 4 Stages of Cognitive Development here

The Developmental Capacities of Children in Informal Learning Contexts

In the Ted Talk entitled “The Effective Use of Game-Based Learning in Education” above, Andre Thomas provides an extremely powerful example of the limitations we put on children’s developmental capacities and, consequently, what we believe they can achieve. He mentions how many students (and even adults) have trouble learning the periodic table of elements and remembering all 118 by heart.

He then provides another chart, its content equivalent to over 10 periodic table of elements. Thomas goes on to state that 10 year-olds not only know this chart and their various relationships by heart, but even more amazingly, they still remember the detailed aspects of this chart 10 years later.

He reveals that the chart in question is of various Pokemon and the relationships of their various abilities, which has many more components than a typical periodic table of elements.

I highlight this example to discuss some of the problems with the literature on developmental stages.

Kathleen E. Metz, in an influential paper entitled On the Complex Relation Between Cognitive Development and Children’s Science Curricula“(1997) highlights this tension, stating that: 

There exists a tendency in the cognitive developmental literature to attribute shortcomings in children’s thinking to their developmental stage, with the assumption that the deficiency will resolve itself at a more advanced stage […] If educators assume that a particular weakness in children’s thinking will automatically disappear at later stages of development, the tendency will be to forgo consideration of how the weakness might be ameliorated (Metz, 1997, emphasis added).

The problem is that much of this research is done with respect to what children learn in formal, school contexts. If similar studies were done using the Pokemon example above, and other examples similar to that, I can’t help but wonder what results the developmental research would yield – and more importantly, how those results would impact instructional design.

The Pokemon example also involves various dimensions of self-directed, intrinsic motivation, something sorely lacking in traditional school environments. No one has forced any child to memorize a complicated Pokemon chart and encode it into their long-term memory. At the same time, not every fan of Pokemon would go so far as to memorize such a chart.

Although Metz primarily references science education, I think her caveats apply to the developmental literature on learning more generally, especially to what forms of instruction are possible and not possible in traditional school environments:

[…] educators cannot assume that age characteristics are simply a function of development in the sense of immutable cognitive characteristics of the stage. While some age-correlated weaknesses may be fairly robust at a particular stage and readily ameliorated at a subsequent stage, other weaknesses may to varying degrees respond to instruction, and still others may constitute an enduring challenge at all ages and all levels of expertise. For the advancement of both cognitive developmental theory and instructional practice, we need a research base that more adequately makes these distinctions (Metz, 1997, emphasis added).

My one critique of developmental psychology in general is the very same criticism that coviewing seeks to address: that many of the assumptions inherent in the design of certain media, such as the television, are that children watch shows/movies alone. While this is unfortunately certainly true, this need not be the case. 

A parent who models how to watch television actively can instill worthwhile habits and contribute to media literacy more generally, greatly extending the developmental capabilities of the child — even if we cannot measure it. 

Designing the Board and “Pieces”

As with many of the projects of this course, I was limited to certain materials. I basically only had an acrylic board to work with as my main material.

Other materials included pen and paper for the initial Create your Character section, which was to be initiated and scaffolded by a parent. The idea was for The Child to imagine himself as a superhero who experiences the monomyth him or herself.   I also included some small action figures for when other characters “appear” in the narrative.

I reduced the Monomyth to 8 Stages:

      1. Call to Adventure
      2. Will You Accept the Call?
      3. New Superpowers
      4. Your Mentor
      5. The First Battle
      6. The Belly of the Beast
      7. The Final Battle
      8. A New Hero

Each stage was accompanied by cards to foster discussion that should be initiated by a parent. The choice of a circular design was very deliberate and my hope that this shape, rather than something linear, would emerge in a conversation between parent and child. 

I used a deck of cards that would be flipped over to drive the narrative forward at each stage after a dice roll to symbolize “struggle”. The cards include other Marvel superheroes as characters because I know for a fact that The Child will be watching these Marvel movies over and over and into his adolescent years.  I used these other characters very deliberately to draw a connection between the monomyth and all the Marvel movies he watches, not just the Black Panther. 

One thing I want to note is that Stage 6, The Belly of the Best, always leads to a failed dice roll and forces a “failed state”. This design choice was to ensure a discussion takes place about failure and how every hero must endure failure and making mistakes. (I thought this would connect nicely with his other main hobby, soccer playing). 


Technical Challenges

As with other projects I completed for this course, such as the Augmented Reality Music Theory Toolkit, I had limited time and access to resources.  I ended up purchasing those cheap toy figurines of Marvel characters (I am competing against the mighty production value of Disney, after all) to help foster some imaginative play. I decided to make all the cards by hand — a very painstaking process. 

I wanted to use the Marvel red color but unfortunately only had access to a blue acrylic board.  However, I was able to find an Avengers font that I knew The Child would immediately recognize. I was sure to include his name to invite him to the “game”. 

Conceptual Challenges

I struggled over the choice to represent the monomyth as a circle or a non-linear line (the way most story structures are depicted). I decided to stick with the circle and all of its archaic energy. 

Learning Design Challenges

Although the assignment was a “Dream Toy”, many did not understand my design. I did not have much time to explain what Joint Media Engagement was and how I was actually designing outside the interface of a screen, within the culture of the home, and that the end product was aimed for the parent-child relationship, not just the child. 


Personal Reflection

In a strange way, this project was more for The Child’s parents than The Child. 

In fact, when I gifted the “dream toy” to The Child, he was more interested in the small action figures initially. As stated in the report, however, the onus is on parents to initiate joint media engagement strategies at home. 

Without their initiation, media literacy and serendipitous conversations are unlikely to emerge. 

I wish that Marvel, with their nearly unlimited resources, would create materials such as these to foster active consumption of their media. 

Most of my learning design work tends to focus on reflection. Without that, very little is passed to long-term memory and it’s hard to say one has “learned” much at all when this doesn’t occur.  

Similarly, the principles of co-viewing/joint media engagement outlined above is something that permeates through all my learning design, as well. What most people don’t realize is the co-viewing/joint media engagement is really about culture, not technology. It is much harder to measure and it also takes time to develop. 

Future Work

While I won’t work on this particular project in the Marvel context (as I do not want to be sued), another spiritual successor is in the works for a different context and will include children’s books and web-based games. 

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