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Cocoa Thief: Descriptive Review

Written by Christina Puntel
January 15, 2015

What do you see? In the first part of the Descriptive Review, my colleagues shared what they saw/noticed in the video game that Tre and Brandon created, as well as their walkthrough.  As I listened, I began to see different facets of the game and walkthrough emerge through the inquiry process.  The game, which can be shared with others online, is a quest game with a five minute time limit.  It has a title, Cocoa Thief.  The directions tell the user what controls to use in order to collect cocoa beans, avoid overseers (snipers!), and escape the field.  My colleagues shared how they saw a postcolonial society represented in the game.  The inequities of society were reflected in the difficulty level of the game.  The game was hard to play!  My colleagues noted how the creators demonstrated a procedural understanding of the cocoa industry, from farm to factory.  As the round continued, describing the design of the game from the visuals to the sound opened me up to see how Brandon and Tre reflected the duality present in cocoa production.

Here, the duality of the lushness of the cocoa plants as well as the hardships and hazards for those harvesting the pods remind the player of the perils inherent in the cocoa industry. Below, a mummy represents an injured worker:

 “Are you protected with Fair Trade?” Information bubbles popped up (where exclamation marks appeared on the screen) to interrupt play and give the player information about the cocoa trade, from field to factory:

What’s working in the piece As we continued with the Descriptive Review, I listened as my colleagues described what “worked” in the piece.  By purposefully looking at what works, we rise against the prevailing winds which assess student work through the lens of deficiency. Brandon and Tre were valued as game makers, researchers, and collaborators for social justice.  In the walkthrough, one of my colleagues pointed out that Brandon says, “it’s all about patience,” the patience needed to create the game, develop the characters, and make it playable

  • Designed for play The design of the game also worked for the audience.  The use of different blocks (forest, industrial) as well as the familiar design made it visually appealing.  My colleagues noted that since the game was hard, they had to interact with it over and over and over again.  The fact that it was hard meant they had to take time out to play.  This brought forth a sense of shared understanding.  One colleague shared that games are motivating and engaging for students. She found herself getting very excited each time she made a little bit more progress. 
  • Complexity of the quest Brandon and Tre came alive in the work as the conversation continued.  I realized that I was seeing them in a new light.  When I grade work in class, I very rarely feel “close” to a student, or gain deep insight into them as makers, designers, workers for peace and justice.  Through this process, I saw Brandon for the first time as someone who worked hard to produce a very complex game, with Tre as lead researcher and tester.  Since the game is built very effectively on the basic conventions of a quest, this led me to wonder how much time both students have spent playing, reading, and generally interacting with the quest genre.  Further, I realized how complicated the game must have been to put together.  Neither student does much talking during group discussion or even in small groups.  This game let me see the hard work they put into creating a tool that talks for them. 

  • Interactive Brandon and Tre are also not highly interactive in class.  Tre is great at keeping pace with me during instruction or in small groups, and Brandon might lift his head from his notebook once or twice during a class, but neither are highly interactive.  However, my colleagues pointed out that the interactivity needed to get better at the game over time worked as a way to engage in learning the content and think about social justice issues.  Another colleague suggested that as a teacher and a parent, the embedded meaning works — “my child and my students could learn something from a game that is fun to play.”  As one colleague pointed out, games are just “cool ways” to share knowledge, experience, and understanding. 

  • Collaboration and balance The game was fun to play, but, as I mentioned before, it was hard! One of my colleagues who understood the workings of GameStar Mechanic pointed out that “balance is one of the notions of GameStar Mechanic — student is playing with that notion of balance and thinking through how hard it can be in terms of reaching the tipping point.”  Brandon spent some time trying to explain this notion to me as they were creating the game.  When my colleague noticed this concept, it validated Brandon’s process.  This also made Tre’s role in the creation of the game (testing, playing, revising, offering suggestions) equally vital.