Imagine you’re a Canadian teenager in the spring of 1944. The world is at war and you know many who have gone to Europe to fight. A central question defines your life: once you’re 18 years old, should you join them?

For students in Craig Brumwell’s Grade 11 Social Studies class at Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver, this historical dilemma is given powerful new life and relevance through the most commonplace of devices: their smartphones.

Using a game-based geolocation app called ARIS (Augmented Reality Interactive Storytelling), Brumwell created a narrative that places students in the role of an actual student who attended the school in 1944. As they walk around the building, they unlock digital media such as archival photographs, fictionalized video conversations, and interviews with surviving veterans that put their historical contemporaries’ experiences in context.

Ultimately, the students must write a journal or a letter to their parents explaining their decision to go to war or not.

“The game part is an activation stage, and it leads into a larger discussion about the nature of sacrifice and commitment,” Brumwell explained. “The unlocking of different media through GPS and just going through those familiar spaces makes it a much more immersive experience for the kids.”

To create the game narrative, Brumwell dipped into the school’s rich archive. At one point in the game, the students interact with a GIS map which plots the homes of former Kitsilano students who were killed, injured or went missing during the war.
At the game’s conclusion, the students return to the commemorative plaque in the school’s foyer, where they learn the fate of “their” student.

“At first it’s just a name, but then they go back into the school and find that person on the wall and they have a big hard gulp at that point,” Brumwell said. “It has a huge emotional impact.”

Brumwell received a 2015 Governor General’s History Award for Excellence in Teaching for his game. He said he plans to apply the principles of virtual storytelling to other projects and subjects in the future.

“Now that you can take various types of media and locate it on maps, it makes it an embodied experience for students,” he said. “You’re talking about their own world and using their favourite technology outside the classroom.”

It's Geography Awareness Week! Teachers, tell us how you use technology to engage students in geography for a chance to win a copy of The Ultimate Canadian Geography Quiz book!