Angela Rustemeyer

In Germany, according to recent estimates, about four million adults with German as their mother tongue cannot read and write sufficiently enough to have a chance for employment with a living wage and to participate in social, cultural and political life. In 2011, research results are expected that will probably correct this number upwards. Winter Festival, a new computer learning-game should motivate young adults who have difficulties in reading, writing and arithmetic, to learn.

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic as a Digital Adventure

An Educational Game for the Functionally Illiterate

“Travel is educational”, says a German proverb. Therefore if a person goes to a foreign country and learns interculturally there, then nothing new is happening: Alexander von Humboldt already did that.

His modern namesake, Alex, who discovers a different world in the Winter Festival game, is no typical traveler. He finds himself in a strange place without wanting to be there, and he doesn’t travel in space but in time. At home he has nothing but bad luck, trouble and difficulties: no job, no money, and soon perhaps, no home. When reading a letter which announces his eviction for his rent arrears, he faints. He wakes up almost five hundred years before our time in a medieval city. Its ancient residents don’t regard the man dressed in jeans and sneakers as hostile, but on the contrary quite suspiciously. Alex quickly finds out that they all have one problem: they can hardly read, write or count. In order make them friendly toward him, Alex helps them with his knowledge – and becomes more and more entangled in an adventure that will require a clear view and tactics. When he finally returns to his own world, he has gotten rid of his own insecurity and awkwardness.

Winter Festival takes advantage of the familiar and doesn’t shy away from clichés. Snowflakes fall across the screen onto the dark walls of a town. A witch languishes in the tower of shame, nuns guard secrets in the monastery. Players know these things from the medieval novels and medieval spectacles with which the entertainment industry has blanketed Germany over the past few years. But it is still exotic enough to allow for an escape from reality. Some people may be too enlightened to be able to do this. But even for those who may not fully engage in the story, the game still has something to offer. For example, the subtle humor in the pictures: Winter Festival fills the immaterial digital space with the heavy matter of earlier times, with stone and wood. And thus the smooth display always shows rough grained beams, which almost leave behind the smell of resin.

Strange and Familiar

When a computer game is being developed, making something both strange and familiarly appealing is important, explain Barbara Cramm and Maik Neudorf from the German Adult Education Association. They are responsible for the content and the teaching methods in Winter Festival and had to ensure that the game would be well received with those who will use it. The players should be adults who cannot read or write properly. In order to provide them with a new learning resource, the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research funded the development of Winter Festival.

Game creators need to know their clientele. So the first order of business for Cramm and Neudorf was to find out as much as possible about the potential users and what they want from a computer game. It was clear that the game would appeal to people who have at least rudimentary skills in reading and writing. This is the case for most adults in Germany who have literacy problems: they are not primary illiterates; they have partially learned to read and write but without really commanding it. They are thus classified as functional illiterates. Because of negative experiences at school, at first they are often reluctant to get involved in classical teaching in a course. Cramm, Neudorf and their colleagues assumed that especially younger people with deficits in reading, writing and arithmetic would be much more prepared and able to cope with computer games.

The new game does not claim from the beginning to be teaching people reading, writing and arithmetic. Rather it is giving an opportunity to those who already have low skills to train and consolidate them. However, it also encourages people, with the help of a computer, to learn more, for example at ich-will-lernen.de, the Ger-man Adult Education Association learning portal for the low-skilled. It can also be used to support learning for people who already attend a course at an educational institution in order to make it more attractive in spite of bad memories they might have from their time in school.

In order for the game to be a success, the team had to respond creatively to the specific experiences of people with literacy problems. They even had to orient themselves regarding the decision on the setting of the game. The choice of the medieval city setting was not arrived at by accident: The idea was to find a location that differs significantly from the here and now. To depict the real lives of people with deficits in reading and writing would be a contradiction. This limited the options for action and actors: Aliens visiting Germany in 2010 was discarded because of the realistic connection to place. Through Alex, the time traveler to the Middle Ages, an avatar was finally found that presented opportunities for identification. Alex is more advanced in reading, writing and mathematics than the people he meets. In the present he is not among the winners. But in the historical context he is a sought-after expert, and the players, who slip into his role, will be it with him.

Winter Festival brings the players into specific situations where daily life and work life mirror the post-industrial society at the beginning of the 21st Century. But only mirror: melancholic realism is avoided; scenes that people with reading and numeracy problems experience in the real world as oppressive or even threatening are humorously transformed. For example, if travelers in the medieval town need to operate a ticket machine, then the device is similar to the ticket machines in German railway stations of the present, but – of course – is made of wood, and the tickets are for carriage rides and are paid for with talers (old German coins).

In order to verify the possible acceptance for those that Winter Festival is intended for, the authors let the game be tested in the various stages of its preparation by people who, as adults, were learning to read and write. Even the choice of the graphic style was a result of a survey on Ich-will-lernen.de, the learning platform of the German Adult Education Association, where many people make up for their lack of basic education. In usability testing, the developing Winter Festival was then tested and commented upon by participants in literacy courses. Thus the game could be improved even further – not according to the mainstream in the gaming industry, but according to the interests of the intended users.

The Games within the Game

Winter Festival pulls the players into its narrative flow. It appears as an organic whole. But a number of separate learning sequences are integrated in the story. This makes the game a flexible learning and teaching medium.

Winter Festival is based on the knowledge that situations trained for in computer games can more easily be solved in reality. In the course of the story, Alex continually lands in a difficult situation. To master it, the player has to use his/her reading, writing and mathematical skills. Even at the gate of Bronnberg (the city) a guard waits who only grants Alex admission after he has worked out a math problem with him, whose solution will bring him a lot of money. And so it goes: In a total of thirteen mini-games Alex (aka the player) helps an innkeeper, a journeyman carpenter, a nun in the infirmary of the monastery and many others, and in turn gets support from them and thus progresses during the course of the game. Everything fits into the story, but is well-calculated: In an entertaining way, the players get insight into areas of employment in which low-skilled workers in Germany today have opportunities, such as gastronomy, simple craft activities or care. Work materials for the use of Winter Festival in classes, among many other explanatory notes accompanying the game, support its transfer to the working world of today.

Winter Festival adheres to the principle of not punishing or frustrating its players. The difficulty-level of the mini-game is variable and is fit unnoticed to the skill of the player: Depending on how often the player of a mini game requests the solution, the following challenges of the game are either increased or reduced.

The games within the game are fun because they are not child’s play: All interaction is graphically designed to conform to adult language and content requirements. That is what makes Winter Festival so different from older educational software that was transferred directly from primary school education for adult functional illiterates.

Award-winning – no Borders?

Thanks to the support of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research Winter Festival is available for free in Germany. In the year it was completed, the game was already requested thousands of times by students and educational institutions. Three years of intensive cooperation between the German Adult Education Association, the umbrella organization of the largest provider of Lifelong Learning in Germany, the Adult Education Association Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the Fraunhofer Institute, the Institute for Adult Education and the game producers Daedalic has been worthwhile.

Can Winter Festival be used globally? The answer is not easy for its authors. A special attraction lies precisely in the post-industrial perspective and the playful alienation through the jump into a pre-industrial world. This works especially where the information society has already been established. Elements of Winter Festival are surely universally transferable. This is especially true for the mini-games: With a little creativity they can even be adapted to an environment in which computer-based learning is not possible. “When we planned Winter Festival, we had only one very simple, timeless form of play in mind, not virtual learning,” said Barbara Cramm. “That’s what the mini-games build on, and they can also be reduced to that again.”