Camera Obscura: Alternate Reality for the Classroom
An alternate reality game that teaches photography to 7-12 grade students: making education more effective, engaging and awesome.
Camera Obscura: Alternate Reality for the Classroom
An alternate reality game that teaches photography to 7-12 grade students: making education more effective, engaging and awesome.
All right, class. Raise your hand if your high school gave you the chance to follow an awesome science fiction mystery, discovered through a professionally produced web series as part of an immersive alternate reality game that unfolded in the space around you, realizing along the way that by playing the game you were mastering course content and developing real-world skills.
We didn't think so.
Now raise your hand if you wish your school experience was like that.
Now picture this: It's the start of a new semester. Unsuspecting photography students enter the classroom thinking how easy this class will be, or maybe hoping that for the next several weeks they can just stay on their preferred side of the camera's lens. The teacher gets up to give the usual spiel, and as a part of explaining the format of the class, he introduces the students to a website. You know, one of those websites that teachers use in class to show how tech-savvy they are? Groan.
The site involves using forums to peer-review each others' work before entering themed photography contests. There's some silly dice thing that adds value and difficulty to the contests, but the students can choose which projects they do, and there are no hard and fast deadlines. The day wraps up, and students think, hey, at least this class is a little different.
A few days pass, and as the students complete projects on the site they encounter clues that there may be more going on here than meets the eye. The first one is a distorted video of a teenage girl who seems to be asking for help.
When they show it to their teacher, he claims not to know what's going on, but soon strange things start appearing on the website, in the classroom and all around the school: inexplicable technical drawings, mysterious phone numbers, links to a mobile app, messages from someone named Liz, and videos telling her story. The students begin to discover what's happening to Liz, and before long they have a whole new reason for taking pictures...
What is Camera Obscura?
Inspired by great ARGs like I Love Bees and The Book of Jer3miah, Camera Obscura is a digital photography curriculum that seeks to apply transmedia storytelling and alternate/augmented reality gaming to the classroom. The curriculum is fully compliant with academic standards, but uses an unconventional approach to instruction.
How does it work?
Students engage in self-directed, competitive photography projects via a custom website.
As they encounter and follow clues on the site, in the classroom, and in other media they discover a science fiction alternate reality web series that uses story-based elements to reinforce class content in an engaging manner. Check out the pilot episode below:
The photography projects take on major significance in the plot of the web series, and student performance determines the outcome of the story, which has multiple endings.
What makes you think this is a good idea?
Gamification has been gaining ground as an instructional method and has been applied in a wide variety of industries, including education. Adam, one of our co-creators, has been using gamified curricula in several of his classes, and has seen a dramatic increase in student engagement and performance.
We believe an entire curriculum conceived as a cohesive gaming experience has the potential to revolutionize the classroom environment, making school something students look forward to because the presentation of the material makes learning voluntary, enjoyable, and directly relevant to something the student cares about.
Aren't you just trying to make teaching easier?
Teaching is hard. Ridiculously hard. We are all for lightening the load on our teachers, but having said that, this kind of classroom is actually a bigger challenge to manage than a traditional one. The self-directed nature of the game means that every student is doing something different: something the teacher has to keep track of and be ready to support. Many times teachers can prepare specific material for specific days. Camera Obscura requires teachers to be ready to handle any question about any course content at any time. Additionally, an ARG requires the teacher to be constantly anticipating what students will do. As the primary game runner, the teacher has to always be one (or several) steps ahead, and be looking out for students who seem to be losing interest or falling behind.
Fortunately, our system does remove the necessity of daily lectures and lesson planning, (sort of) which allows teachers more freedom to focus on individual and small group issues like the ones above. Fewer lectures is a huge win for the students, too!
Won't this get boring for kids after a while?
We don't think so. Adam has already implemented the basic website in his classes this year, and students have remained engaged throughout the course. There are lags in interest or effort, but this is why the ARG element is so important. Not only does it keep students engaged, it actively reinforces the course content.
Some of you out there may be thinking, "this is a great concept, but I'd rather fund something that has to do with a more important class like math, science, or reading."
Well, we agree those classes are important, but Adam doesn't teach any of those, so he's not qualified to create curricula for them. Additionally, elective classes like the ones Adam teaches are a little more free to use unconventional approaches like this one because there's not as much pressure. We think all classes should be gamified to some extent, but that will take some real groundwork. Most parents, students, and school administrators are more tolerant of experimentation in a class like photography.
How do we know we can trust you?
Everyone involved with the project is here because we love the concept and care about the kids. Here's our team:
Adam - Adam has 11 years of experience in theatre, film, and media production. With an MFA in media design, he's been recognized for his writing and graphic design. He's also directed seven short films and been involved with countless other productions. Adam's passion is creative projects that have a positive impact on his community and the world. He currently teaches filmmaking, photography, and stage crew at a K-12 charter school in Ogden, Utah, and his attempts to deal with classroom challenges are the genesis of Camera Obscura.
Liz - Liz is about to graduate from high school (with many honors to her name) and has taken Adam's classes. She devoted most of her senior year to helping write, develop, and refine Camera Obscura. She's the co-founder of the project, and the star of the web series. Liz's work on the game has earned her awards and recognition.
Teauhna - After learning about this project at a local film festival, Teauhna was asked to come aboard as a key member of the production crew. She is an experienced educator and filmmaker who has directed and edited several short films, taught animation and video editing, and volunteers with local film festivals.
Shana - Shana Lyris, star and creative team member on the popular web series The Socialist is a key member of our cast.
Gabe - Another of our leads, Gabe teaches drama and has acted in many stage and screen productions.
Russ - Russ is an accomplished film composer whose work you've already enjoyed in the pilot episode. He's kindly agreed to score the remainder of our series as well.
Jeff - As an experienced audio engineer, Jeff will be taking the lead on the sound elements of the production.
E.J. - Local artist E.J. Keyes will be creating concept artwork for the show, some of which will be available as a reward for backing us at certain levels.
Kevin - A game that revolves around photography needs a resident photographer, of course! Kevin is ours. His work has been featured by Utah's Hogle Zoo, among others, and will have a prominent place in our game.
But don't take our word for it...
Other people are excited about Camera Obscura too! The project was recently featured by the School Improvement Network (SINet), a group that creates professional development resources for teachers. Their videos on the game are available as part of Edivate, a subscription-based website for educators, but here's what Jeremy Tuttle, content specialist for SINet had to say:
"The work that Adam Figueira and team are doing offers new experiences to students that are rarely explored in academia. This project looks to the future of education by reinforcing higher-order thinking and championing 21st century skills. With the combination of real-world relevance, gamification, and significant content, students are more engaged with the work they do and feel compelled to own the quality of that work, which are characteristics all educators strive to see in their students."
Wasn't that nice? Several months ago when we were just getting started two awesome guys and veteran ARG designers named Jeff Parkin and Jared Cardon were kind enough to share some of the lessons they learned with us and help get us pointed in the right direction. Jeff and Jared created The Book of Jer3miah through Brigham Young University and Tinder Transmedia. The recently worked with NASA and the National Science Foundation to create DUST, a science educational ARG. Here's what they had to say about gamification and our project:
And speaking of amazing people we love with all our hearts, here's the generous and radiant Shana Lyris - you may recognize her from The Socialist - who plays one of our most important characters:
Stay tuned for more endorsements from our community and team members!
More about Gamification
Here's that great information we hinted at very subtly and only once in the video! Read on!
Games of some form have been a part of human life probably forever. They've been used for entertainment, for passing on cultural values, for training in various disciplines, and for imparting life lessons. Little children learn about the world by playing games that imitate real life with a heavy dose of imagination. Take a minute to ask yourself the question, what's wrong with that?
The obvious answer: nothing at all. In fact, it's really effective. Yet for some reason as we grow older we insist on leaving our first methods of learning behind. Gamification takes the principles that make games engaging, positive, and effective and applies them to learning. It's not the same as giving kids a game that's vaguely related to a subject and asking them to extract the relevant lessons, it's a return to the way humans natively learn: by figuring things out through experience.
The difference is that with gamification we're tailoring the experiences to encourage certain types of learning, and shortening the process of cause and effect to make the results of specific actions easy to see. There are some key elements that have to be present for gamified learning to work:
1. The game has to be voluntary. Even the most fun games lose their appeal if you're forced to play them. Voluntariness contributes to a sense of agency, or empowerment to take charge of your own life.
2. A positive scoring system. Traditional schooling uses a grading scale that encourages a fear of failure because students are punished for every mistake. A gamified system builds credit from the ground up (the way learning actually works), rewarding every effort by using a leveling system or some similar mechanic. This creates a safe environment for meaningful critique because there's no fear. Every attempt results in progress, but better attempts result in more progress.
3. An engaging story, base mechanic, or concept. Not all gamified education has be be couched in an alternate universe, but there has to be some element of fun that keeps the players wanting to come back. This should be designed to make the learning itself desirable, and stories are especially powerful in this regard. It shouldn't be distracting or separate from the learning, though.
There's a lot more we could say about gamification, and we'll be happy to discuss it with you, but for now let's keep it focused on Camera Obscura.
Many teachers will tell you that some students don't seem to want to learn no matter how you present information. This is sometimes because they've come to think of learning as a chore. In reality, we learn something from everything we do. Camera Obscura attempts to make the game so enjoyable and the learning such an integral part of the game that there's no meaningful distinction between the two. Adam has already seen gamified curricula engage students who wouldn't respond to anything else, and this makes us hopeful for our project.
Players start at level zero and gain points by completing photography projects with cross-curricular application. As they level up they earn multipliers and other incentives that help them level up faster, increasing the reward for playing as the game goes on. This leveling system tracks progress in a positive way while working within established grading conventions.
The game unfolds in a truly immersive transmedia environment. Game content is delivered via the website, social media accounts for the characters in the game, printed material, audio files, images, and an augmented reality app that lets us plant digital clues in the physical environment of the school. The game can be integrated with other classes by placing clues in class materials and creating photography projects that support the curricular goals of other teachers. Engaging students on multiple levels through quality storytelling in as many media as possible keeps them excited about the learning experience and motivated to perform well. Because it's fun!
Sounds cool, but where will the money go?
Thanks! Our main goal with this campaign is to raise funds for the web series portion of the game. The pilot you saw above was produced by one of Adam's classes, which consisted of 9th-12th grade students, as a class project.
Those students will still be involved with this project once it's funded. They will each receive paid internships to work on the production, and will be working alongside professional filmmakers and others.
A good portion of the money will go towards raising the production values of the series. We had no budget for the pilot, and half of our equipment was falling apart. While everyone on the project will be paid, they've all agreed to work at generously low rates so we can afford to purchase quality professional gear to work with, rather than rent used equipment. When the shoot is over, this gear will be used by the students at Adam's school, which otherwise lacks funds to supply these kinds of resources.
Money we raise above and beyond our project goal will be put towards improving other components, such as our website and a custom mobile app designed to protect students while more fully integrating the alternate and augmented reality aspects of the game.
Tell me about your timetable
- June 19, 2015 - Campaign closes.
- June 22, 2015 - We wipe the silly grins off our faces and start contacting backers who have earned creative input or other contributions to the show. The silly grins reappear on our faces.
- Mid July, 2015 - We begin intensive production on the web series, while continuing both grins and collaborations with backers.
- Early August, 2015 - Principle photography ends, with scaled back production continuing on later parts of the show. Post production begins.
- Late August, 2015 - Adam implements a trial run of the game in his classroom while post production continues. Choirs of ethereal spirits rejoice.
- September, 2015 - Production finishes.
- October, 2105 - Post-production finishes. Begin delivery of physical rewards for backers.
- November, 2015 - All backer rewards sent.
- January, 2016 - The first semester of implementation ends. The team issues a collective shout of jubilation, and a report on the project's success. Second trial semester begins.
- June, 2016 - Second trial semester ends. Adam and Liz report on progress and announce any planned changes.
- August, 2016 - After completing any changes to the game, the finished curriculum is made available to other teachers and schools.
See the rewards column on the right side of the page for complete information, but here are the highlights:
$5 - Your name in the credits, our undying Love and Affection (L&A).
$25 - Added to that, a one-of-a-kind behind-the-scenes, signed Polaroid snapshot.
$50 - Add a DVD of the completed web series, and an exclusive T-shirt!
$100 - Add a photo of your face (or a face of your choosing) to appear in an episode of the show!
$230 - Credits, L&A, and a limited edition print of Camera Obscura concept art by award-winning local artist E.J. Keyes!
$350 - Rewards up to $50 level, plus you (or a Person of Your Choosing) will get to be an extra in one of our episodes! Must be available to come to Ogden, UT during the production period.
$500 - Credits, L&A, T-shirt, and you get to choose a Humiliating Ritual to put one (or more) of the game creators through, with video evidence! You also get to choose a Funny Expletive for one of our characters to use during an episode.
$1,000 - Rewards up to $50 level, and we will lovingly feature your photography in the series or on the gameplay website.
$1,300 - Credits, L&A, and write a 3-5 minute Easter Egg Episode of our series to be featured as part of the game. You'll get an exclusive copy of your finished episode. Limit 3!
$2,500 - Credits, L&A, T-shirt, full access to the story treatment, a one-hour video conference (or meeting, if you're local) with the creators to discuss story ideas, and a signed copy of the script. Limit 5!
Speaking of extra money, here's what you'll get for helping us reach our stretch goals:
$118,750 - At 125% of our funding goal, we'll send an exclusive signed poster (possibly stained by many Tears of Joy) to everyone who backed us at or above the $25 level.
$142,500 - At 150% of our original goal, we'll take time away from our Ecstatic Dancing to send a USB drive with the show's original soundtrack to everyone who backed us at or above the $50 level.
$190,000 - Once we recover from having reached 200% of our goal, we'll make a Special Thank-You Video featuring the cast and crew recognizing by name everyone who backed us at any level. We will grovel in gratitude at your figurative feet, and perform many Embarrassing Gestures of Thankfulness on camera for all of our supporters to see.
Thank you for your support
We love you. Come get a hug!
Risks and challenges
Once we have funding, our primary risk will be production delays. Here are some of the things that could cause them:
1. Trouble scheduling with backers whose rewards include creative input or an appearance in the game.
2. Weather or health related issues.
3. Equipment malfunction or loss, or delays in acquiring needed items (such as shipping delays).
In addition to being creative professionals, many of us are teachers or students. This is good, because it means we can put in full-time hours on the project during the summer. If we experience enough delays, though, we will have to push production back into the school year, which means evenings and weekends only. Gathering everyone will be a greater challenge, and shooting periods will be much shorter. This could cause delivery of certain backer rewards (notably DVDs) to be significantly delayed.
In creating our production schedule, choosing locations, and writing our script we're keeping efficiency and shooting speed near the top of our priority list, but we've budgeted for contingencies and will have the money to finish in spite of delays.
If we reach our stretch goals, we'll be purchasing equipment for a second camera unit, which will dramatically speed up production. This will help to compensate for any slow downs.
Because we're purchasing rather than renting equipment, we'll be able to hang on to those resources even if we go beyond our current schedule. Warranties will help in the event of equipment failure, and our contingency budget is large enough to cover replacement even of major items, so unless several big things disappear or fall apart in ways that aren't covered by warranties, equipment trouble shouldn't cause a fatal disruption.
Of course, all our footage and other critical digital assets will be backed up and stored with layers of redundancy.
In the event that we are delayed, we will be very up front with our backers and give realistic updates to our completion schedule. We are committed to finishing no matter the difficulties.Learn about accountability on Kickstarter
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