Comment & Opinion

Inside the Game: Adding education to High School Story

Jennifer Young on learning through play

Inside the Game: Adding education to High School Story has partnered up with US developer Pixelberry Studios to highlight its candid stories on the trials and triumphs of a startup game studio whose debut title High School Story stayed in the top grossing top 100 chart for a year.

This series of articles will provide a mix of drama, detailed learnings, and actual numbers from their experience launching and supporting a top game.

In my previous life, before mobile gaming, before I worked at Pixelberry Studios, I was a teacher.

I helmed an after-school program preparing middle and high school students for college, I tutored students in reading and writing for the SAT, and inspired by my experiences working in urban schools in Oakland, I pursued my Master's in Teaching.

So I was ecstatic when I was asked to be the lead content writer for an educational feature devoted to teaching SAT vocabulary for our hit game, High School Story.

With college admissions becoming more competitive and the pressure to succeed on SAT tests ever-increasing, test prep certainly felt like an important issue to our core demographic.

Additionally, traditional in-classroom test prep courses are pricey, and we wanted to help level the playing field for teens whose parents couldn't afford them.

A polling feature in our game told us how stressed our players were about the SAT

Of course, there were a few concerns about adding an educational component into our game.

The biggest was that High School Story was doing really well, and we were worried about doing anything to jeopardize that.

It hit #10 in Top Grossing, stayed in the Top 150 on the app charts for over a year, and had an enthusiastic following of teenage fans who loved our game and posted nonstop about it on tumblr.

Our education map

How could we put SAT test prep into the game in a way that would be both effective and wouldn't alienate our existing users?

Storylines that resonate

The solution was a separate narrative from the main High School Story game that promised new stories and adventures. To do that, we introduced a new character named Kallie.

Our new character specifically devoted to education

Kallie is a new transfer student to your school who's introduced right when you open the Extra Credit feature.

She's a girl who loves to read and write and has a big vocabulary, but she hasn't had much experience in a high school social setting and is very shy.

She's the one who introduces you to new SAT vocabulary inside story challenges.

[Kallie] introduces you to new SAT vocabulary inside story challenges.

You learn words from her in the context of helping her navigate social situations like getting ready for her first high school party, helping her on her first 'date', and gossiping with her about her first crush.

She also provides motivation to learn new words; players want to understand her way of talking and become her friend.

An educational feature that teaches and reinforces

As far as teaching SAT vocabulary, it was important to me as an educator that we taught words in an organic way that allowed players to learn them.

I didn't want to just throw vocabulary at them, and it wasn't enough just to quiz or to have them learn by rote memory, which only really worked for short-term learning.

I knew from research and teaching that players would learn words more comprehensively when they were motivated, when they interacted with them in context, and when their learning was reinforced in some way.

We constructed a map that tracks the player's progress.

The system is set up so that players learn five words at a time over a series of four nodes. So for instance, the first four opening nodes are a cohesive unit that teaches and tests five target words.

The four nodes work together to increase learning of the target words. There's an opening story challenge setup, a minigame, another minigame, and a concluding story challenge.

The structure of nodes

Here's an example: The overarching plot of the four-node stretch is that Kallie has a study date with a Julian, a cute guy she has a huge crush on, and they're going to study for a test in her room.

There's just one problem. Her room looks like it's a kid's room because all of her stuffed animals are lying around, and she's completely mortified about this.

You're given a multiple choice question where you tell her she doesn't have to be embarrassed, establishing the definition of mortified. For the rest of the node, you help her hide her stuffed animals, and four more words and definitions are introduced in a similar manner.

A sample of an introductory question. Using context clues, you learn the definition of a target word

The second and third nodes following are minigames where you identify synonyms.

A sample of our minigame. 'Mortified' is one of the target vocabulary, and you match it with 'embarrassed' by dragging the bubble to 'mortified' in the corner

The fourth challenge node takes the player to the conclusion of the story introduced in the first node and reviews the five vocabulary.

Here is example:

A sample of a conclusion question. Using context clues, you identify the correct use of 'mortified'

In this case, Kallie's crush Julian arrives very shortly after you and Kallie finish shoving all of her stuffed animals under her bed, and he asks why you're both out of breath.

Kallie says that she's just embarrassed to have started studying without him, and you support her by saying you are both 'mortified'.

Extra Credit: The results

Overall, we're happy with Extra Credit, and it seems to be working.

The months after Extra Credit launched, we saw our average session length go up from 6.20 minutes to 6.77 minutes with a 9.2% increase. The total time in-app also went up by 15%.

We saw our average session length go up from 6.20 minutes to 6.77 minutes.

I'm really proud to be a part of the educational content in High School Story.

We've created a format and story that teaches words in a fun context. And we've introduced players to Kallie - and seen so much enthusiasm from fans for her story and her personality that we know she fits right in with the world of High School Story.

Jennifer Young is a designer, producer, and writer at Pixelberry Studios.

Through partnerships with non-profits, Pixelberry's hit game High School Story has taught millions of players about tough teen issues, like cyberbullying and eating disorders.

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