Pedagogy Report

Teaching Shakespeare

For primary and secondary school teachers, introducing Shakespeare for the first time can be a daunting task. Long held misperceptions about Shakespeare and his plays make capturing and maintaining students’ interest seem like an uphill battle. The three most common complaints, from teachers and students alike, are that:

  1. Shakespeare’s plays are “high culture” entertainment appreciated only by the highly educated;
  2. that they are boring and irrelevant; and
  3. that the language in which the plays are written makes reading them too difficult a task, especially for younger students (Blocksidge, 2003; Cohen, 2007; Haddon 2009).

These are all concerning complaints, but the third charge—that of the plays’ difficult language—is perhaps the most pressing and direct impediment to teaching Shakespeare effectively.


A Digital Solution

Play the Knave presents the challenging language of Shakespeare through a medium about which many students are already enthusiastic: video games. As a karaoke-style video game that players use to perform scenes from a variety of Shakespeare’s plays, Play the Knave honors the traditional method of teaching through performance, but it does so with a twenty-first century twist: the game uses the motion-capture technology that many students have experienced via their Xbox entertainment systems.

How it works

  1. Players select a scene to perform from the play of their choice and then customize a production of that scene, choosing a theater stage as their setting; a soundtrack to set the mood; and a costumed actor as their avatar.
  2. Players choose from among 6 levels of play, which vary by language speed and difficulty .
  3. Players then animate their avatars on their virtual theater stage. In whatever way they wish, players express their characters’ lines as these appear on screen. The game utilizes a Kinect camera to track players’ bodily movements, so that the avatar appears to mirror the players’ movements in real time.

Feature-based benefits

  • Karaoke style: Play the Knave presents the script to players in a karaoke-esque fashion, lines from the script appearing in sectioned intervals. However, with no score, our players have full reign in determining how individual lines are to be read. They choose which words to emphasize and when, and thus the game encourages players’ creativity and unique interpretations.
  • Script difficulty levels: Although players of the game read Shakespeare’s original language, the game presents that language in varying degrees of difficulty. The game offers two versions of the script for each scene (Abridged and Full).
  • Motion-capture technology: Play the Knave takes advantage of motion-capture technology to reinforce the physicality inherent in Shakespeare’s plays, which were written to be performed by actors, not simply to be read. With the use of a Kinect camera, the game tracks each player’s movements and translates them to the player’s corresponding on-screen avatar so that it appears as if the avatars are mirroring the players in real time.

Technology and Interpretation

Players can experiment and get creative with the motion-capture technology, using their actual and virtual bodies to express their understanding of the text. Some might be concerned that the game’s digital interface allows students to forget their physical bodies and fixate on the screen, but the opposite turns out to be true. Because the Kinect is an inexpensive and low-tech form of motion capture, the digital avatar does not perfectly represent players’ movements, and thus students become critical consumers of technology, realizing its limits as well as its benefits.

Figure 3: Students at an installation at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts (Davis, CA)

 Play the Knave’s motion-capture technology enhances the benefits of teaching Shakespeare through performance. Whereas students performing scenes in the conventional way can become so preoccupied with reading or reciting their lines that they neglect to fully develop their physical performance through movement and gesture, users of Play the Knave have expressed greater awareness of their physicality after playing the game:

“I learned I am not as physical an actor as I perceive myself to be.”

“One of the best features of Play the Knave is seeing the avatar move in tandem with yourself. It makes for good fun and heightened engagement.”

Players of the game confirm that their desire to move their avatars in interesting ways lead them to interpret Shakespeare’s text to find cues for movement. For example, when asked to reflect on her experience with the game after playing the “Out, out damned spot” scene from Macbeth, one student admitted not being “initially sure how to physically perform the scene” as she had never read or seen Macbeth before; however, she also pointed out how the text became a source of guidance for movement:

“When the Doctor comments that she wrings her hands, I started doing just that, and as I read through Lady Macbeth’s lines, which convey her urgent need to clean her hands, I started to frantically scrub my hands to mime washing them.”

Despite no prior knowledge of or preparation for the scene, the student was able to concentrate on the best method of performance as the game forced her to do what English teachers everywhere endeavor to get their students to do: close read the text.

Having students perform a scene from a play not only enables them to use their own judgment on the best method of performing their parts, but also gives them an understanding of what it would take to provide an entertaining performance of the particular play they are enacting. With the gaming technology of Play the Knave, the best-case scenario of student performance is made more achievable and simply more enjoyable for students. The scrolling script relieves students of the pressures of memorization; the differing levels of Shakespeare’s text enable students to develop comprehension while they play, encouraging them to level-up until they reach mastery of the language; and the experience of moving an avatar turns an educational exercise into a fun exploration of digital media.

If you think Play the Knave would be an interesting resource for teachers and/or the general public, please visit Steam winter 2018 to purchase the game.  If you’re curious about our work and would like to know more, we invite you to like our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter @PlayTheKnave.
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