The Museum of Me: Exploring and Exhibiting Identity with the Video Game, What Remains of Edith Finch
Susan Rivers, iThrive Games, USA, Michelle Bertoli, iThrive Games, USA
AbstractThere are currently too few appealing, developmentally appropriate methods for engaging teens in their own social and emotional learning in educational settings. Commercial video games offer rich, mediated, interactive narrative experiences that can be integrated into the classroom to support teen students’ core academic knowledge as well as their social and emotional resilience. This session will demonstrate how educators are using the award-winning video game and digital "museum," What Remains of Edith Finch, as the basis for a curricular unit to engage high school students in building literacy skills as well as key aspects of resilience, including autonomy and self-awareness. What Remains of Edith Finch is an award-winning narrative video game that tells the story of an 18-year-old girl's, ostensibly cursed, family history through the mechanic of exploring her childhood home, which has become a museum preserving the identities of her family members, most of whom have succumbed to tragic fates. The presenter will describe how this digital museum can be used in educational settings to explore with teens how they become aware of and represent their identities publicly and privately through a series of lessons that include game play and cover topics including: how objects can be used to define and perform identity; self-expression on social media; healthy and unhealthy coping mechanisms and the labels associated with them; family and social influences on identity formation; questions of diversity and socio-cultural differences in understandings and expressions of identity; the impact of choices on identity and questions of fixed versus malleable traits; and more. Attendees will leave the how-to session with a road map for how to integrate existing digital games into classroom instruction to support teens’ holistic development, including how to integrate the guiding principles of universal design and social and emotional learning.
Keywords: Teenagers, resilience, social and emotional learning, video games, identity, literacy
There are too few appealing, developmentally appropriate methods for engaging teens in their own social and emotional learning in educational settings. Commercial video games offer rich, mediated, interactive narrative experiences that can be integrated into the classroom to support teen students’ core academic knowledge as well as their social and emotional development. This paper describes how and why educators are using the award-winning video game and digital “museum,” What Remains of Edith Finch, to engage high school students in building both literacy skills and social and emotional skills. Players of What Remains of Edith Finch interact with the narrative told by an 18-year-old girl while exploring her childhood home, which has become a museum preserving the identities of family members who have mostly succumbed to tragic fates. We demonstrate how this digital museum can be used in educational settings with teens to explore how they become aware of and represent their identities publicly and privately. We share a set of lessons designed for the high school English language arts classroom that include gameplay, artifact creation, and rich discussions about identity of self and others.
Need for Innovative, Emotion-Centered Learning Approaches for Teens
Despite the evidence that attending to teens’ social and emotional needs is critical to their learning and development, there are too few appealing, developmentally appropriate methods for engaging teens in their own social and emotional development in educational settings. Social and emotional learning (SEL) refers to educational strategies designed to teach students social and emotional knowledge and skills, including self- and social awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, and relationship skills (Greenberg et al., 2003). SEL programs vary widely in their approach but typically require multiple lessons delivered by teachers using discussions, role plays, or lectures (Jones et al., 2017; Jones & Bouffard, 2012). SEL activities tend to focus on two change agents: those that provide skill-building opportunities for individuals and those that modify features of the environment itself (CASEL, 2003; Catalano et al., 2002). A seminal meta-analysis established that SEL programming is critical for well-being, relationship quality, and academic success (Durlak et al., 2011), with some programs yielding positive outcomes nearly four years later (Taylor, Oberle, Durlak, & Weissberg, 2017). Economists estimate a 1:11 cost:benefit ratio for evidence-based SEL that yield positive returns including achievement and positive social behavior (Belfield et al., 2015). The positive impact of SEL on students’ long-term adjustment likely is due to increased social and emotional competencies (Taylor et al., 2017).
There is strong alignment between social and emotional competencies and college- and career-readiness standards (Johnson & Weiner, 2017) and a demand for evidence-based programs for students at the high school level. There is, however, a lack of evidence-based SEL programs specifically designed for teens (Williamson, Modecki, & Guerra, 2015). The needs of students in upper grades (9-12)—e.g., agency, autonomy, respect, and identity formation—are distinct from those of younger teens and children, requiring different approaches for supporting their social and emotional development. The heavily teacher-led lecture and discussion format of existing SEL programs at the lower grades (pre-kindergarten through grade 8) runs counter to teen preferences for learning and engagement. SEL interventions that are effective with younger students in elementary and middle school classrooms (Williamson et al., 2015) cannot simply be aged up with teen-infused language, examples, and imagery, such approaches feel patronizing for increasingly independent and savvy teens (Yeager, 2017). Further, SEL programs available at the high school level are less likely to show the same impacts as programs for children in elementary classrooms (Durlak et al., 2011; Heckman & Kautz, 2013). The most recent review of evidence-based programming for middle and high schools endorsed only 9 programs out of the 380 reviewed as meeting standards for impact (CASEL, 2015).
We cannot ignore SEL programming for teens. Nearly two decades of neuroscientific research has revealed that adolescence is a critical period for learning; the great plasticity (remodeling and growth) of the brain in adolescence makes it a period when youth are exceptionally susceptible to environmental influences (Giedd et al., 1999; Jensen & Nutt, 2015; Steinberg, 2014). The teen brain undergoes its last major restructuring starting in puberty, pruning synaptic connections that are used rarely, strengthening those that are used often, and increasing connectivity across regions via increases in white matter volume (Lenroot & Giedd, 2006; Lenroot et al., 2007). Teens have incredible learning potential and faster learning curves than adults (Jensen & Nutt, 2015). Given this enhanced learning potential, what teens spend their time learning matters.
Repeated activation of a specific collection of neurons as a result of engaging in a particular behavior will actually result in structural changes that strengthen the connections among those neurons, which in turn will make them function more efficiently. (Steinberg, 2014).
Thus, adolescence “is the time to identify strengths and invest in emerging talents” (Jensen & Nutt, 2015, p. 80). Habits developed in teen years have the potential to last a lifetime.
Commercial Video Games Offer Promise for Innovative SEL for Teens
Many commercial video games offer rich, mediated narrative experiences that can be integrated into the classroom to support not only teen students’ core academic knowledge but also their social and emotional development, including identifying their strengths and talents (Dunlap & Rivers, 2018; Farber, 2018; Gee, 2007). Thoughtfully integrating games into standard academic curriculum has incredible promise to offer teen players multi-sensorial experiences that are joyful, challenging, deeply social, agentic, relevant, and engaging (Rivers, 2018). Indeed, there is emerging evidence that games can positively impact cognitive (Bediou et al., 2018) and social outcomes (Granic et al., 2014).
Our multidisciplinary team is using the award-winning video game and digital “museum,” What Remains of Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow, 2017), as the basis of a high school curricular unit designed to support teens in building literacy skills—both in media and English language arts—as well as key aspects of social and emotional development including autonomy and self-awareness. Autonomy and self-awareness are necessary components of developing a cohesive identity, a critical process that supports thriving throughout adolescence and across the transition into adulthood (Kroger, 2006; Poliner & Benson, 2017).
Designing High School Curriculum with What Remains of Edith Finch
What Remains of Edith Finch is an award-winning narrative video game where the 18-year-old, titular character searches her abandoned family home to uncover the truth behind a disturbing family secret. The house is a sort of ramshackle museum, where artifacts are touchstones that reveal her family’s inner life. The rooms of her family members, some adults and some children, have been preserved perfectly following their passing. Players play as Edith, seeing the house through her eyes, listening to her narration, and moving her hands—which wear beautifully knitted fingerless gloves—to explore items in the rooms. When the player (as Edith) handles items in the rooms—whether a comic book, a poem, a photograph, or divorce papers—short interactive vignettes are activated that focus on a different character’s memory at a decisive moment. Players can play individually on their own consoles (currently available on PlayStation, XBox, or a PC), or as a group with players taking turns at the controller and projecting to a large screen. (For tips on how to use games in classrooms, see http://ithrivegames.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/educatorpacket.pdf).
We designed the curricular unit, Museum of Me, to encompass and fully leverage the rich interactive narrative of What Remains of Edith Finch to support teens on a journey of self-inquiry by fostering social and emotional development within the framework of a high school English language arts (ELA) class. The learning objectives, summarized in Table 1, for Museum of Me align with both ELA learning standards and SEL standards and include: explore identity and character, compare and contrast public and personal narratives, examine how possessions represent and maybe misrepresent aspects of identity, explore motives for behavior linked to meaning and purpose, and analyze and reflect on self and others.
Museum of Me advances a vision for the 21st-century high school English classroom that nourishes youth hearts and minds by synthesizing creativity, collaboration, critical thinking, making, and contemporary narrative forms. Here, we present the unit’s design philosophy and share examples of its implementation to serve as a model for teachers who would like to duplicate the experience or create their own game-based curriculum.
Museum of Me: A Game-Based Approach to Marrying English Language Arts and Social and Emotional Learning
The Museum of Me was developed using the guiding principles of social and emotional learning and development and English language arts standards, including media literacy. We also adhered to universal design for learning principles to meet teens where they are developmentally, engage teens deeply in a learning experience driven by their own interests, and provide opportunities for teens to contribute and learn meaningfully by offering multiple entry points and engagement strategies (e.g., Meyer et al., 2014). Proclivity in playing video games is not essential as many games lend themselves to group play.
What Remains of Edith Finch invites players into the Finch home, which is crammed with books and vestiges of previous inhabitants. Edith’s narrative is accompanied by animated words, a nod to the literary roots of the game’s fundamental concern with storytelling. The focus on personal stories helps students think about how their own stories might be “written” and “rewritten.” The lessons support teens to unpack their own identities and to reflect on what they share about their identities with others—both consciously and unintentionally. During and surrounding gameplay, students explore how environments (digital and physical) can advance narrative and character with an emphasis on identity. They reflect on and explore through class discussions, writing, and other multi-media projects how objects can be used to define and perform identity; expressions of self on social media compared to more private spaces; healthy and unhealthy coping strategies and the labels associated with them; family and social influences on identity formation; diversity and socio-cultural differences in understandings and expressions of identity; the impact of choices on identity; and which components of identity are considered to be fixed and which are malleable.
Table 1 delineates the learning objectives for the Museum of Me. Students explore the “museum” that is What Remains of Edith Finch, and as they do, over the course of 12 lessons, they examine essential questions about the nature of identity, the identity of the characters in the game, of themselves, of others. Each lesson is about 75 minutes in length and includes several projects completed out of class time. Students work to connect the game’s narrative to understanding their own identity as well as how social media is used to create identity today. A culminating project is creating their own multi-media museum to represent their identity, as forged across the unit.
|Table 1. Museum of Me’s Learning Objectives|
|Students will be able to:
We designed the Museum of Me lessons to support teens in a deep exploration of their own identities as well as those of the Finch characters. Table 2 includes sample activities from the lessons. The lessons prompt reflection on how and why they share their identities with others—intentionally or unintentionally, and what they choose to share or not share. Formative and summative assessments throughout invite teens to create multimedia expressions of their own identities and those of the Finch characters as a form of active engagement and experiential learning. Across the unit’s lessons, teens have opportunities to practice and strengthen their social and emotional skills in ways that respect and meet their developmental needs at this stage in life.
|Table 2. Sample of Museum of Me Activities|
An initial pilot test of the curriculum, led by one of the curriculum’s creators (Darvasi), demonstrates that the unit is compelling and relevant to an ELA course and, importantly, is engaging students in explorations of identity that are relevant beyond the classroom. The pilot site was a senior-level English class in an all-boys private school in a major Canadian city. One gaming console (PlayStation) was available for group play during class time, with gameplay projected to a large screen.
Darvasi noted the following from the pilot test:
The meme assignment was a huge hit, and they were much more open about themselves via this than the initial questionnaires . . . They LOVE the game so far. They didn’t want class to end.
I’m learning lots about my students I didn’t know, even with individuals I’ve taught for two years. That is certainly significant.
The final projects are some of the most thoughtful I have seen in all my years of teaching.
Students were highly engaged throughout the unit, demonstrating in their projects, efforts to work with the curricular material and productively struggling with concepts of identity. The final projects (just submitted at the time of this writing) were, according to the teacher, among the most interesting work products submitted across many years of teaching. Students varied in the extent to which they explored identity of the characters in the game versus their own identity. One student created a game-inspired model of his own identity story, with a set of puzzles the teacher needed to solve to gain entry to pieces of the story. Other students created interactive stories of identity (their own or characters from the game) using Twine, an open-source online tool for creating nonlinear, interactive stories (www.twinery.org).
Student engagement in the first pilot was high and growth in understanding how identity can be expressed and the influences on its expression were evident in classroom discussions and the student projects, both across the lessons and in the summative project. Additional pilot tests are underway to examine if the curriculum can be used effectively by educators who were not involved in its development and in other school settings (e.g., co-ed, public). We intend to make adjustments where necessary to support the wide-spread adoption of the curriculum for its use in a variety of settings. We are also designing additional curricular units using different games, addressing other learning objectives for social and emotional learning and development using English language arts standards.
Museum of Me is a game-based curricular unit for high school classrooms anchored equally by both English language arts and social and emotional learning standards in its design. Using the compelling narrative game What Remains of Edith Finch, students interact with and immerse themselves with explorations of identity—their own and others’—in its many facets.
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Rivers, Susan and Bertoli, Michelle. "The Museum of Me: Exploring and Exhibiting Identity with the Video Game, What Remains of Edith Finch." MW19: MW 2019. Published January 15, 2019. Consulted .