Learning from the experts: How do you frighten the life out of teenagers? Here is a recipe: you take the demon child from ‘The Exorcist’, the scary corridor shots from ‘The Shining’ and a number of killer psychopaths from ‘Scream’, you mix them all together and, hey presto, you have got ‘Hotel 626’! Why would you want to scare teenagers senseless? Why, to sell stuff of course! Amazingly, ‘Hotel 626’ – an interactive video game – was designed for promotional purposes! But it is nothing like the infomercials we watch on TV. While the ingredients are familiar, the cooking method employed and the spices used simply blew my mind away! No wonder it won the most prestigious marketing award, the Cyber Lion, in 2009. As I mostly teach teenagers I can just imagine them glued to the screen, hearts pounding, totally absorbed – totally focused and I ask myself: ‘Can we not design equally effective materials?’ To get an idea of what the game is like, just watch the short clip below.
‘Hotel 626’ – The Game: You need to check into the hotel. Significantly, the game asks for permission to use your webcam and your mobile phone number – as well as access to your Facebook friends. Then the action starts and you wake up inside the hotel of your worst nightmares. The lighting is dim and ominous creaks suggest that staying put is not an option. You can hear your shallow breath and your heart pounding. Your task is ‘simple’ – you have to stay alive and get out. To do this you run down the corridors blindly searching for an exit. While looking around you find yourself in the room of a serial killer – and find your own picture among his would-be victims! Then you get a phone call – on your real mobile phone! A creepy voice gives you some instructions. There are a number of things you have to do and you have to make sure you do them right, or else…
You need to take a picture of a dangerous psychopath and lull a demon baby to sleep (creepy doesn’t even begin to describe it!). At some point you find yourself in a small room with a maniac wielding a chainsaw. You barricade yourself inside a closet but it’s only a matter of time before he gets you. All is not lost however – you can send a message to your friends and ask them to help you. If they agree, they need to scream into their microphones and hit as many keys on their keyboard as they can in order to distract him – in the confusion, you might just escape. In another twist of the plot, players find themselves presented with a dilemma: they see two pictures of real Facebook friends of theirs and they have to choose who is going to live and who is not long for this world… If you manage to avoid being devoured or hacked to pieces you eventually get to a door. The door is locked. If only you could find a way to open it… (Game description in Lewis 2013 – p. 214)
Applications in the field of ELT: This game proved to be hugely addictive with teenagers. As Tom Chatfield says, the power of video games to motivate and transfix players is awesome 1 (TED talk – 0:30). So, what can we learn from this? What are the key elements that we can perhaps transfer to our teaching?
Tailoring: To make the game more attractive, the designers have ‘tailored’ it to teenagers’ preferences and lifestyle. Notice the genre (horror!), the medium (a computer on-line game) and the use of the social media. If we are teaching teenagers and we want them to read, it might make sense for us to give them stories like ‘The Baskerville Hound’ (Doyle) or ‘The Black Cat’ (Poe) rather than ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ (Dickens). Computer-based adventures (e.g. ‘Cluefinders’ – see below) are more likely to appeal to them than board games. And of course, if we can incorporate the use of the social media in classroom work, students are more likely to be motivated as it is in our interests to break down the distinction between ‘classroom’ (boring) and real life (exciting). 2
The importance of story lines: It is one thing for people to have to solve problems, it’s quite another if these problems are embedded in a story-line and are part of an overall objective. Hotel 626 does have this of course, which is why it is so gripping, but the principle can be used in an educational context as well. One of the best applications of this principle I have seen is the ‘Cluefinders’ series produced by The Learning Company. Each adventure follows a group of children as they collect clues in order to solve a mystery, recover a lost treasure or save someone. Intended for American children, these games use a variety of tasks to teach 7 to 10-year-olds elements of Geography, Arithmetic, Reading Skills and Vocabulary. As all the interactions are in English, I have used these with my students and they loved them! 3
Interactivity: By ‘interactivity’ I do not simply mean that the subject does something but that the action changes as a result of what they do. Having control over what happens is a huge motivator (Gilbert 2006 – p. 21). In RPGs like Hotel 626 it’s the player who decides what happens next. Alas, most of what happens in class is far from interactive. Even if the students do things, it is usually the coursebook or the teacher who decides how things will unfold. A notable exception is the ‘Survivor’ game which I came across in a resource book (Anderson 2004 – p. 54). Students have to survive on a desert island and they have to take decisions at different stages. Depending on what they decide they move to different locations where they are confronted with a new problem. It is essentially very similar to a ‘Cluefinders’ adventure only it does not employ technology. Despite that it has proved enormously popular with my students.
The social element: According to Lieberman (2013) the number one priority for humans is to establish and maintain strong bonds with their social group. This is even more so with teenagers. Given this fact, it is amazing that in the field of Education the ‘social’ element is often considered to be the enemy of learning (Lieberman – RSA talk [18:05] – click here). Advertisers and game designers are of course miles ahead. In WoW for instance, people get to go on missions with their friends (Gottschall 2012 – Chapter 9) while in the hugely successful ‘Farmville’, you have to water your crops at regular intervals, or they will die. How can you do that when for whatever reason you are busy? Why, you rely on your friends of course. You text them and ask them to water them for you! (McRaney 2013 – p. 225). Notice how cleverly this is done in ‘Hotel 626’ – remember how you can save yourself from that maniac? (See also Chatfield’s TED talk – 12:25).
Personalisation: The other noteworthy element about ‘Hotel 626’ is how it has been made to feel real by incorporating elements from your everyday life. Notice little details like the pictures of yourself you see in the maniac’s lair, the appearance of your Facebook friends in the game and the brilliant touch of the phonecall you get on your actual mobile phone! As Fine (2005) points out, we cannot help ourselves; as human beings we are the centre of our universe and everything that has to do with ourselves is far more likely to motivate us than most elements which simply have to do with the outside reality or other people. It follows then that any learning activity which involves personalization, whether it is relating adjectives of personality to our relatives and friends or giving a talk about our actual hobbies or making a Brainshark slide presentation with the pictures of our last holiday is likely to increase motivation.
Arousal: A final noteworthy point is that of arousal. Notice how in the game the player is always in a state of high alertness. Make no mistake – this is one of the main reasons behind the attraction of games like WoW or even blitz chess! There are two reasons why one might consider using high-arousal activities in class. The first one is that high arousal often means you remember things better (see below!). So, activities like wall-dictation for instance, where students have to run back and forth, or high-intensity time-pressure competitive games like ‘Just a Minute’ can pay great dividends in terms of information retention. But there is another reason as well; high arousal activities (e.g. riding a roller-coaster) involve the secretion of chemicals that make us feel good. Incredibly, this has a spill-over effect (Saloway, Yale Courses, Lecture 9) 4. To put it simply, your students may come to like English lessons, partly because they feel good after such an activity!
What was being advertised?: You will never guess… Never in a million years. The answer is:… Doritos chips! Incredibly, neither the logo nor the product itself appear during the entire game. Except in the last scene that is, when players come to a dead end. There is only one way out, but the door is locked. As demons, madmen etc are hot on the player’s heels they have to think of something – fast! For the opening mechanism to be activated, the frantic teenager has to hold a code or marker up to a webcam. Fortunately that code is printed on a bag of Doritos chips which happens to be lying around… Under such circumstances, it’s hardly surprising that the brand name is indelibly etched on the player’s memory! Did the idea work? Well, when the game was first launched, 2 million bags of the target flavours were sold within 3 weeks…
1 Tom Chatfield’s short TED talk offers very interesting lessons for Educators – and the lessons do not just have to do with video games. Notice how ‘Hotel 626’ makes use of points 4 (Instant Feedback), 5 (Uncertainty) and 7 (Other People). To watch the talk, just click here.
2 Tailoring goes far beyond the classroom. During the first gulf war, the US troops suffered a disproportionate number of eye injuries from shrapnel etc. When the army looked into it, they discovered soldiers hated wearing their goggles because they thought they were ugly. Solution: they designed cooler goggles (Hallinan 2009 – p. 214)
3 To get an idea of what the tasks look like, just click here. You can see a number of tasks at 15:31, 18:30, 1:04:30, 1:14:55 etc.
4 For the phenomenon of misattribution, see Salovery P., Yale Courses: Introduction to Psychology (PSYC 110). Lecture 9 – 43:55. To watch the talk, just click here.
[This article first appeared in the IATEFL ‘Learning Technologies’ SIG NL]
Anderson, J. “Teamwork” Delta Publishing 2004
Chatfield, T. “7 Ways Video Games Engage the Brain” TED Talk, YouTube 2010.
Fine, C. “A Mind of its Own” Icon Books 2005
Gilbert, D. “Stumbling on Happiness” Harper Perennial 2007
Gottschall, J. “The Storytelling Animal” Houghton Mifflin 2012
Hallinan, J. “Why We Make Mistakes” Broadway 2009
Hotel 626 trailer: “Psychology and ELT – Technology and Motivation” YouTube 2014
Lewis, D. “The Brain Sell” Nicholas Brealey Publishing 2013
Lieberman, M. “Social” Oxford 2013
Lieberman, M. “Making Social a Superpower in the Classroom” RSA Talks, YouTube 2013
McRaney, D. “You can Beat your Brain” Oneworld 2013
Saloway, P. Yale Courses “Introduction to Psychology” Lecture 9, YouTube 2008