Aligning Narratives: Theories of Situated Cognition, SLA, and Game Studies

For the last, oh…I dunno, say, four months I have been reworking my submission to L2 Journal, at the cost of me actually doing any real game development. I just finished up a section of the article, which describes the applicability of 3D-DGBL, specifically its first-person ilk, for second language acquisition (SLA). A dry theory read, granted, but I just wanted to put it out there in the off chance that somebody in the blogosphere might find it interesting. Once I get this beast of an article off my chest, I promise (myself, at least) to get back to doing some actual game development and posting some nice screen captures. Anyway, here it is:
The essential insights that theories of situated cognition afford our current discussion are, that knowledge is contextualized within physical and sociocultural spaces, and that it is also inextricably bound to the intentional action of actors within these spaces. For our purposes here, this triad of knowledge, setting, and actors will be understood as a “problem space,” or a unique constellation of “alternatives that a problem solver has available and the various states that can be produced during problem solving by the decisions that the problem solver makes in choosing among alternatives” (Pirolli & Greeno, 1988, p. 182). The example of an airplane pilot serves to illustrate how these triadic components function together within a problem space (cf. Hutchins & Klausen, 1996). A pilot undoubtedly understands the thin airfoil theory that describes the dynamic lift of an aircraft, although the mere understanding of this theory cannot help her to get the aircraft off the ground. Rather, it is the practical application of this theory in a physical setting – the flight deck – and the assistance provided by other members of the flight crew – the sociocultural setting – that cause the aircraft to fly. The flight deck and its instrument displays represent a transition point between the internal mental processes of the pilot and the external action of flying the aircraft, functioning as environmental tools that shape, support, and ultimately direct these processes. In essence, the pilot “thinks” through the controls in a manner that would not be fully realizable or even possible in their absence. Members of the flight crew also interact with the pilot according to scripted behavioral protocols that recognize and reinforce their specific role in the flight deck hierarchy. These members also utilize profession-specific language forms to relay the information provided by their individual instrument panels and to convey their thought processes to the pilot. The activity of flying the aircraft unfolds in real-time and is a product of the complex and dynamic interplay of human know-how, communication patterns, specific actor roles, and the machine environment.

Seeing knowledge as being contextually situated has a profound impact on both teaching and learning. In particular, it fundamentally alters how a student interacts with a problem space, with other people within the space, and similarly influences the form that knowledge assumes. For example: although pilot training consists of theoretical courses on the ground, it is also complemented by a substantial practical component both in the air and in flight simulators. Learning about how the flight deck functions in real-life is dramatically different than classroom-based discussions of the same topic and involves a complex process of hypothesis formation based on an understanding of theoretical knowledge, testing this knowledge within a real or simulated problem space, receiving feedback, and modifying and retesting the manner in which knowledge is made actionable. Performance feedback is provided not only by the instrument displays, or the condition of the immediate physical environment, but also by more experienced members of a flight crew whose job is to train the pilot and evaluate her competency. Learning, therefore, involves a process of “knowledge negotiation” between a more advanced practitioner and a neophyte as the latter becomes encultured within a particular community of practice and develops increasing competence with its practice-specific narratives (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Vygotsky (1978) suggests that the process of negotiation is mediated by a zone of proximal development (ZPD) between the teacher and learner, or “the distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers” (p. 86; cf. Del Río & Álvarez, 2007). As the learner becomes more adept in navigating a problem space and more integrated into the community of practice cohabiting the space, this guidance is gradually withdrawn, or faded, until support is no longer needed and the learner is naturally operating at the level of a more competent peer (see Daniels, 2007, pp. 317-322).

Narrative has an important role to play in the negotiation of a problem space and the process of becoming encultured within a specific community of practice. Bruner (1991) notes that people apprehend reality and organize knowledge by means of narrative structures and, furthermore, that these structures are the primary mode of communication underlying all human interaction. This narrative mode stands in contrast to the “logico-scientific” mode of structuring and transmitting knowledge, which, according to Bruner (1986), “attempts to fulfill the ideal of a formal, mathematical system of description and explanation. It employs categorization or conceptualization and the operations by which categories are established, instantiated, idealized, and related one to the other to form a system” (p. 12). Although logico-scientific mode is useful in describing the natural world in terms of causes and effects, it falls short in “constructing and representing the rich and messy domain of human interaction” (Bruner, 1991, p. 4) by myopically focusing solely on the general and the paradigmatic at cost of the unique, the fleeting, and the personal. Narrative, on the other hand, is uniquely positioned to account for these characteristics of human interaction as they focus on, among other things, unique patterns of events over time, the relation of these events to larger events, and the intentional states of the actors who move these events forward.

Whereas the logico-scientific mode concerns itself with truth statements and general paradigms, the narrative mode revels in the slippage between personal and communal interpretations of events, between local knowledge and larger communities of practice. As our pilot-in-training moves forward through the education process, she will interact with the narratives that inform her immediate environment, interacting with them and learning from them according to her personal trajectory of participation (Wenger, 1998). As Greeno (1998) notes, “regularities of an individual’s activities, in a trajectory that spans participation at different times in a community and participation in different communities, are characterized as the individual’s identity, which is coconstituted by the individual’s relation to the communities and by the relation of those communities to the individual” (p. 6). The pilot-in-training’s sense of individual identity, then, provides her with a subjective entry point into the narratives that contextualize her actions and thoughts, granting her access to a “plot” that helps her to organize the problem space in her mind, script the behavior of the actors within this space, and interpret the behavior of the machine environment. She will have, for example, a different script for landing the plane than for taking-off. These scripts, essentially subjective “stories” of the narratives that constitute reality, are not monolithic and unchangeable structures, but instead must be continually validated, augmented, and corrected by the communities of practice that cohabit a problem space. They must, as Bruner (1991) describes, be “constituted in the light of the overall narrative” (p. 8) through a process of hermeneutic composability that shapes, directs, and explains these stories within larger epistemological contexts. Seen within the context of our discussion of teaching and learning, the interaction of personal stories and communal narratives implies that knowledge is not only created through internal cognitive processes but must also be substantially supported by external sociocultural contexts, communities of practice, and negotiated meanings. Knowledge, then, is a very fluid commodity that is actively constructed at the intersection of competing narratives, personal and communal, and is the result of thinking and acting.

Current sociocultural approaches to SLA similarly focus on the intersection of the personal and the communal, with particular attention being paid to the linguistic artifacts that emerge at this intersection. Underlying these approaches is the assumption that language acquisition is not only an intra-mental process, or one that occurs solely in the head of the language learner, but is also inter-mental in the sense that it is situated within communities that share and shape a common linguistic system. Language acquisition is, as Lantolf (2000) summarizes, essentially a dialectic process of internalizing the linguistic system of a specific community of practice, which in turn then effects the manner in which the language learner both thinks and acts: “we come to organize and regulate our own mental and physical activity through the appropriation of the regulatory means employed by others” (p. 14). Influencing the manner in which a person both thinks and acts, language acquisition can be seen as a form of identity construction, shaping not only the internal thought processes of an individual but also influencing how the person functions in sociocultural spheres. This insight is of tremendous import for learners of L2 language and cultures as, according to Ros i Solé (2007), they achieve proficiency “by exercising agency and projecting and resituating themselves themselves in the new community of practice by engaging and dialogically building their L2 identities with their audience and sociocultural context. They take positions of power and exercise their agency in the relations established in the second language” (p. 205). The examination of personal narratives as a mediational artifact has therefore been especially useful in revealing how this process of internalization unfolds as these narratives demonstrate, in an intimate fashion, the manner in which language learners reconstruct their social selves within the context of new linguistic and cultural communities. As Ros i Solé (2007) concludes, narrative analysis “permits us to approach identity in a context specific fashion, as narratives are a form of discourse conveying events that take place in a particular place and time and can be traced to a particular life” (p. 208).

Seen as a site of sociocultural mediation between the personal and the communal, the native and the foreign, narrative functions as a “third place” in and through which an individual can refashion her identity and reexamine the roles she plays within a new community of practice (cf. Kramsch, 1993, pp. 233-259). Block (2007) characterizes this refashioning process as a negotiation of difference between the individual and her environment, her past and her present, noting that the “fissures, gaps, and contradictions” it produces frequently gives rise to an ambivalent sensation of “feeling a part and feeling apart” (p. 864). The tension inherent in this ambivalence provides fertile ground for sociocultural approaches to SLA and examinations of personal narrative have played a key role in uncovering the ways in which individual identity is restructured as a learner moves into a L2 language and culture. Pavlenko and Lantolf (2000), in their analysis of autobiographies of bilingual writers, discovered that personal narrative represents “a space where identities are reconstructed and life stories retold in the security of the double displacement granted by writing in a second language” (p. 162). Like spoken language, which people use as an organizational tool for structuring reality, narrative brings “past events (i.e. occurrences involving other people) into the present and for projecting the present into the future. In so doing, people are able to make sense, that is, make meaning, of what they do and of what others do with them” (pp. 171-172). Narrative, then, serves as a vehicle for projecting and situating the self into a new community of practice, although it can also function in reverse as a means of making this community meaningful to the self. In her examination of an intermediate-level ESL writing exercise, Kramsch (2000) found that students would use narrative to reencode the story on which the writing exercise was based so that it could be understood within a framework of their own life experiences. The resulting narrative, situated at the intersection of intramental and intermental language acquisition processes, revealed “the dialogic construction of rhetorical roles through the written and spoken medium that students experience themselves as both private, individual, and public, social sign makers” (p. 151). Finally, shifting their focus from written texts to oral life histories, Coffey and Street (2008) found that personal accounts related in spoken fashion manifest clear structural differences and employ dissimilar narrative strategies from those related through a written medium. The authors conclude that learning a foreign language and culture is a layered process that constructs personal identities through time by making use of a range of cultural narratives as resources to create “figured worlds” (p. 454). At the moment of telling, however, these figured worlds “are shaped by the interpersonal dimension of narrative performance and are developed further through learners’ cross-cultural, ethnographic-like experience” (p. 462).

The narrative mode is important for SLA, therefore, as it reveals not only that narratives are situated within specific social and cultural contexts and transmit the core values of the communities of practice that inhabit these contexts, but also that these narratives are ultimately negotiated on a personal level based on the identities, needs, and unique subjectivities of people seeking entrance to these communities. Each person provides a “plot,” as it were, whereby these dominant narratives can be interpreted and internalized, creating a life “story” that can be evaluated as an independent artifact of this interaction. Many computer games manifest a similar core dynamic. Providing simultaneous audio and visual input, and moved forward primarily by player interaction, which in turn is guided by a backstory that situates the player within the game world, the narrative provided by computer games is highly immersive and necessarily participatory in nature. The immensely popular Half-Life 2, a 3D science fiction first-person shooter, has, for example, a rich narrative that is developed by a wide range of non-player character (NPC) dialogue, in-game physics, dramatic staging, scripted transitional sequences, level design, interactive 3D models, and sound effects (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Train Station Square, City 17 (Half-Life 2)


A substantial part of the narrative in Half-Life 2 is visual and spatial in nature, representing a type of “invisible storytelling” that used “shapes and symbols to tell a story similar to the way letters and words are used to compose a written narrative” (Van Zelfden and Alexander, 2007). This narrative, in turn, produces a type of virtual record that gives “every location in the game a sense of place, history and verisimilitude” (Parkin, 2009). The virtual spaces of Half-Life 2, and those rendered by many first-person 3D gaming interfaces, for that matter, can therefore be experienced as a narrative text that the player figures in the very moment that an action is performed within the game, a process that Aarseth (2004) describes as giving rise to a “ludic pleasure” that is rooted in the “kinaesthetic, functional, and cognitive” challenges of managing a virtual topography (Art of Simulation section, para. 2). The figured worlds that unfold through this interaction, each one being slightly different based on player input, performance, and personal preference, are a direct result of the player feeling her way through the contours of the game world on a physical, mental, and emotional level and, as a result, form a unique story that is as singular as the players who interact with the game. They are, in sum, the product of a personal reaction to a simulated community of virtual practices.


Yet how these worlds unfold is a topic of intense debate within the field of game studies, although the tenor of the debate has subsided somewhat as of late. At the heart of the debate is whether to consider a game primarily in terms of its rules, which support specific processes of gameplay (ludology), or in terms of the narrative structures it employs, which are revealed to the player during gameplay (narratology). Although admitting that games and narrative share similar structural traits, and that narrative can be applied a posteriori to gameplay as an interpretive framework, Juul (2001) goes on to argue that the experiential narrative of games is fundamentally different from other forms of narrative in that game interactivity demands player action and input in the present moment in order to move the narrative forward: “[. . . ] the game constructs the story time as synchronous with narrative time and reading/viewing time: the story time is now. Now, not just in the sense that the viewer witnesses events now, but in the sense that the events are happening now, and that what comes next is not yet determined” (Time in the Computer Game section, para. 2). In a similar vein, Kücklich (2003) notes that “narrative is not an inherent feature of games, but something merely implemented virtually, i.e. as a possibility. The actual construction of narrative is always done by the player by taking the signs on the interface and interpreting them further” (Narrative section, para. 2). The act of generating narrative in a computer game, then, is a form of interactive semiosis, requiring the player to make sense of in-game signs and their relationship to each other the moment in which they are presented. However, whereas Juul seems to suggest that there is very little distance between narrative and story, or between in-game events and the personal interpretation of these events, Kücklich argues that the interactive semiosis fostered by gameplay unfolds through a process that necessarily creates a third space in which this interpretation must occur. Conceptualizing a computer game as a system of signs that resist the player by virtue of their secondness, Kücklich notes that the process of interpretation will cause the player to bring these signs into relationship with each other: “This whole process takes place on a level that cannot be located within the game, but exists merely as a projection of the player’s mind. In this model, narrative is something that unfolds because of the players attempts to make sense of the game. The basic resistance, or secondness, is necessarily unstable, since the player cannot help but interpret this state, thus causing the semiosis to change to a state of thirdness” (Narrative section, para. 5).

Lindley (2002) similarly notes that the ludic aspects of gameplay, which occur at a lower level of game interaction, generally have very little to do with the narrative development of a game at a higher level, causing a split between individual actions that occur within a game and the framing of these actions within the narrative of an overarching story. He suggests, however, that this split may simply be a question of how a player approaches the game, specifically what mental gestalt, or pattern of interaction, provides the cognitive background underpinning all player performance within the game, and for what mental gestalt the game is originally designed. A gameplay gestalt, such as can be found in the “twitch” gameplay of first-person shooters (e.g., iterative patterns of “run – aim – shoot”), supports non-semiotic patterns of performance that separate the player from the narrative by creating “a form of dissolution of consciousness into the moment, acting against the strong incorporation of moments into an unfolding story structure. . . [it] is an operational pattern rather than a mechanism for learning declarative facts” (p. 213). This type of gameplay stands in stark contrast to gameplay designed to support a narrative gestalt, which is “a cognitive structure allowing the perception and understanding of an unfolding sequence of phenomenon as a unified narrative” (p. 209) and requiring the negotiation of “a varied emotional and thematic space of character interactions, where progress becomes a matter of developing emotional and thematic understanding” (p. 214). Seen from the field of cognitive load theory, this competition between gameplay and narrative gestalts may suggest a split-attention effect (Mayer & Moreno, 1998) that results from overloading the visual channel with feedback on player performance while simultaneously using the same channel to convey narrative structures. The irony, then, is that the very action supported by computer games as an interactive, experiential medium, which allows narrative to unfold, may, in the end, also prevent narrative from being understood as a unified, cohesive whole unless in-game action can be skillfully and properly managed. This observation is important for our discussion on 3D-DGBL in SLA as it highlights a potential obstacle to opening a space within a game that, similar to the third space that emerges during the second language writing process, allows the player to separate individual performance from in-game narratives, or the real sociocultural narratives they represent, and to reflect on questions related to identity formation within specific communities of practice. Although the mastery of basic operational patterns is undoubtedly useful to have when navigating a foreign language and culture, optimized gameplay, at least for SLA purposes, will seek to merge gamplay with larger narrative questions such as player identity formation, with the result that “[p]lay oriented toward characterization requires the moves of the game to be geared toward answering the question ‘who am I’ as a character within the game world” (Lindley, 2005, Narrative section, para. 8).

Finally, focusing primarily on how narrative structures in computer games can be leveraged to create meaningful play, Salen and Zimmerman (2004) do not draw a sharp distinction between narrative and play, instead arguing that the underlying question is not whether “if games are narrative but how they are narrative” (p. 379). The authors describe two forms of narrative that can be found in the dynamic structures of digital game systems: embedded narrative, which is pre-rendered narrative content that exists in a final form before a player’s interaction with the game and provides the kind of narrative experiences that linear media forms such as cinema provides, and emergent narrative, which occurs in unexpected and uniquely different ways when the player interacts with the underlying rules, or algorithms of a game system. Meaningful gameplay and narrative experiences, they conclude, are achieved by addressing the goals, conflict, uncertainty, and core mechanics inherent to a game system (pp. 385-390). Yet all these these building blocks of narrative game design, the authors assert, can be subsumed under the rubric of the game as a virtual narrative space, in which “[e]very element. . . brims with narrative potential. The narrative components of a game are not just the backstory and cutscenes. Any representational element can be a narrative descriptor, an opportunity for you to communicate the story you want your players to experience. . . Nothing is irrelevant: every piece helps tell the story, which is greater than the sum of its parts” (p. 401). Seeing a game system as composed entirely of narrative descriptors, which “imply a representational logic that limits and constrains the design of a space of possibility” and which allow “for the integration and discernability of all elements contained with game world, a world whose setting describes the limits of its own action” (p. 403), allows us to make points of connection between the narrative structures found in a 3D-DGBL experience, the real sociocultural narratives that the game system virtually attempts to mediate, and the goals of a SLA classroom. Just as a foreign culture and language will allow or disallow certain actions in real life, so too will a game system empower or limit player performance based on the narrative structures made available within the system itself. The key concern, so it seems, is how best to ensure that the narrative structures simulated in a 3D-DGBL space closely resemble those in the real world so that meaningful play – and therefore meaningful learning – can occur.

By aligning descriptions of narrative as articulated in theories of situated cognition, current SLA approaches, and ongoing debates within the field of game studies, a more nuanced and informed understanding of the role that 3D-DGBL can play within SLA emerges. As we have seen above, theories of situated cognition stress the highly contextualized nature of knowledge and learning, both being dependent on the communities of practice that occupy a given sociocultural space, the actions of actors within these communities, and the manner in which new actors are brought into a community. Knowledge is not so much “in the heads” as it is “between the heads” of these actors, and the environment that surrounds them determines which actions are performable and the manner in which they are ultimately performed. Furthermore, as narrative structures give a voice to the intentional states of the actors who perform these actions, they allow for a very personal means whereby knowledge is transmitted and evaluated. In a sense, then, narrative represents a point of connection and intersection between the personal and the communal, micro- and macro-narratives. SLA research into narrative structures focuses almost specifically on this point, noting that the process of adopting a new linguistic system, or community of practice, is a complex process of identity formation that is negotiated between the individual, her past, the perceived future, the linguistic system, and people who make use of this system. A 3D-DGBL experience adapted for SLA purposes would be unique in that is would allow a language learner, albeit virtually, to “play” a community of practice, become familiar with its narratives, associate these narratives with 3D representations of real sociocultural spaces, and begin the complex process of identity formation before actual immersion abroad. Furthermore, the current discussion in game studies simply corroborates what proponents of theories of situated cognition have long suspected: That the semiotic encoding of an experience – of turning action into narrative – is central to the learning and knowledge transfer processes. After all, narrative structures are the means whereby we organize our experiences, classify them, relate them to others, and store them for future reference. Encouraging the formation of mental narratives, therefore, is an integral and essential step toward meaningful and permanent learning. However, computer games also show us that this can be difficult to do, as the medium itself can coopt the message and actually work counter to the production of narrative. Clearly, articulating best practices for encouraging narrative development in immersive 3D learning environments, including 3D-DGBL, will be one of the central and pressing issues as SLA moves forward in the 21st century. The remainder of this article will be a step in this direction, to suggest guidelines for developing and testing 3D-DGBL environments for SLA contexts.

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