A bit more than a week ago, I began an educational experiment with my 8th grade ELA classes. Back in 2011-2012, I bought a copy of Microscope, “a fractal role-playing game of epic histories”, written by Ben Robbins and published via Lame Mage Productions. I’ve read of other teachers using the game as a learning tool, and for years I've wanted to do the same.
The set up for Microscope is simple enough. I randomly divided the 8th graders into groups of three or four students per group. Each group’s work is recorded in a shared document. I then randomly assigned each group one of five Big Pictures. Within an 8th grade class, every group has a different Big Picture. One of those Big Pictures is this:
Refugees carve out a new life in a distant land.
After establishing the groups and assigning each group a Big Picture, the students got to be creative, but within a few guidelines. The process moves between collaborative and non-collaborative. For the latter parts, each student gets his chance to establish more or less by fiat an aspect of the epic history the group creates. Continuing the history being written by one group for the above Big Picture, we see these facets, beginning with the Bookends, which are the start and the end of a group’s fictional history:
Beginning Period: Nuclear war has broken out, and nobody is safe. The only way to escape is up, defectors must enter the space capsule and leave behind earth to reach Mars.
Ending Period: The colonists' peaceful time on Mars has ended abruptly. The indigenous aliens oppose the colonization and fight for their land. Warships emerge from the emptiness of space seeking to reclaim their land. After a long war, the colonists lose, but they manage to board a space capsule and flee to their former planet Earth.
After the Bookends, the group decided on the Palette. This gives each student a chance to include or exclude an element from the shared story. The Palette is not collaborative, but one student cannot outright contradict what another student has already stated.
Included Elements: planets, Mars, NASA/space organization, plague/disease, and a human tyrant
Excluded Elements: children, Asteroids
After the Palette, each student gets to participate in the First Pass, during which he gets to add either another Period or an Event within a Period. This starts the process of fleshing out the fictional timeline by adding elements that occur between the Bookends. For example:
Period 1 - Time on Earth: Nuclear War leads to nuclear fall leaving Earth uninhabitable. A group of humans flees Earth in hopes of establishing a new life elsewhere.
Period 2 - Time in Space: After humans stole the spacecraft, they flew into space looking for a new planet to live on. Their engine broke down and they had to crash it into a planet that was discovered as Mars.
Period 3 - Time on Mars: After the humans land on Mars they find ways to survive on this unknown planet and must work together to survive.
Event 3.1 - The War between Humans and Aliens: After a brief time of uneasy peace between aliens and humans war breaks and life is in jeopardy for the Humans.
As our experiment with Microscope continues into the fourth quarter, the students will increase the detail of their fictional histories. They shall add characters. They shall act out short scenes to explore the outcomes of conflicts that they invent. The students’ points of view shall jump back and forth from the macro to the micro. While their work ends up in chronological order, the creative process itself is not constrained by fictional time. What the students choose to explore need not be sequential.
Along the way, the students learn and reinforce some valuable skills. Collaboration is not easy. Strong personalities have to tone it down to ensure everyone has a voice. Quieter personalities find themselves thrust into the spotlight, having to at least briefly take on a leadership role within the group. Attention must be paid to cause-effect in order to construct narratives that make sense. Elements of characterization come up, especially regarding motivation and consequences of choices.
The 8th grade gentlemen are done with the initial steps of the Microscope system. The ten groups have good starts made for their respective fictional histories. When we return from Spring Break and the last quarter of the school year begins, this experiment in team storytelling shall continue.
I am eager to see what their fictional histories reveal.
Correction: In the original post, I stated that Ben Robbins, author of Microscope, was a teacher. Mr. Robbins has since corrected me. Mea culpa maxima.
The Knights of the Mightier Pen gather in the hallowed halls of the Regis School in Houston, Texas, to share their tales and poems.