Connected Learning Teacher Inquiry

Chocolate and Change: Gaming for Social Justice

Curators notes:

This resource highlights game design as a strategy to foster CIVIC ENGAGEMENT in the classroom. It follows the journey of one teacher as she supported two of her students in designing and testing a video game about a controversial issue that they were interested in - the perils of the cocoa industry. It demonstrates an innovative strategy for helping students engage in civic action while also developing literacy skills.


Christina Puntel shares the experience of doing a Descriptive Review Process with two students’ who created a game based on studying the United National Millennium Development goals.

Teach-ins: “Resist together the obstacles that prevent the flowering of our joy”

In Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, Linda Christensen writes, “Students need opportunities to think deeply about other people—why they do what they do, why they think what they think. They also need chances to care about each other and the world.”  This was how I described the teach-in about this unit to my students:

We will host a workshop for other classes at Parkway Northwest.  In this workshop, we want your peers to analyze the role we play as consumers in the global marketplace, especially how our spending decisions impact others. You will create an active, hands on presentation, and invite your peers to take action about the cocoa trade. You will guide participants in a learning experience you design for them. You can do this any way you want, except you may not use PowerPoint. As part of your learning experience, you should also include some action that your peers can take to make a better world. your peers should walk away with an increased awareness about the role of the consumer in social justice issues.

If you walked into my classroom during the preparations for these mini-conferences, the air would be buzzing; our “liminal space” was ALIVE!  Students were choreographing in the halls, the drama group was rehearsing, students were busy researching, while others huddled around a piece of paper writing outlines for their group rap.  My role in those moments was one of a conductor of an orchestra, a connector, a catalyst.  Try this website!  Look at the work of this film maker!  You might want to check out GoAnimate to make that come alive!   As Paulo Freire writes in Pedagogy of Freedom, “there is a relationship between the joy essential to teaching activity and hope. Hope is something shared between teachers and students. The hope that we can learn together, teach together, be curiously impatient together, produce something together, and resist together the obstacles that prevent the flowering of our joy.” (69)

As I walked around the room visiting groups in the throes of deciding how to share their research, I noticed Brandon and Tre, two freshmen, looking perplexed.  I’d seen these two in the library at lunch, listening to music and hunched over the computers.  I didn’t know them very well.  I knew Brandon attended a Tech Camp at a local community organization and that he had way more experience creating digital work than I.  When I met with them, they both were at a loss about how to share their research about the perils of child labor in the chocolate industry as well as the promise of fair trade and local cooperatives.  Around this time, I had just watched Jane McGonigal’s TED talk about how gaming can make a better world.

“Do either of you know anything about how to make games?” I asked them. Tre could work in Scratch. Brandon wanted to show us a website he’d started playing around with at his Tech Camp that summer.  It was called GameStar Mechanic.

Cocoa Thief: Descriptive Review of the Work

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.


    • 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 – A mummy represents an injured worker for example.
    • “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 is 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.


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