The scene is right out of a survival horror movie. A yellow school bus unloads a group of eager young campers, ready to meet their counselors and settle in for some summer camp fun. Instead, they are greeted by a horde of groaning zombies advancing at them from an open field. The staff frantically hand out three foam Nerf darts to each incredulous camper and suggest they start running. The rest of the day is spent hiding and defending in a desperate bid to evade the droves of undead.
Hours later, the bus is back to gather the exhilarated survivors. But it’s not over yet. Before they board, a jeep pulls up and a suited man jumps out and opens a briefcase filled with more foam darts. He distributes them liberally, along with plain business cards printed with the name “INGSOC.” As abruptly as he arrived, he speeds off in a cloud of dust, leaving a pack of mystified campers in his wake.
This is one of the many schemes cooked up by Meghan Gardner and her team at Guard Up to engage students in learning.
Inspired by an elixir of live-action role playing (LARP), video games, and choose-your-own-adventure-style bedtime stories she had dreamed up for her daughters, Gardner envisioned a program where learning occurred within self-determined narrative adventures. After participating in a LARP, she thought “Why not kids instead of adults? Rather than learning an invented language, why not Latin? Instead of alchemy, why not chemistry?” Gardner hired a group of teachers with live role-play experience and launched a series of day and overnight camps that operate with what she terms “story-based education.”
Guard Up opened a full-time facility in Burlington, Massachusetts, in 2001. The company offered weekly classes in fencing and swordsmanship for all ages, as well as story-based educational adventures. Guard Up then launched educational summer camps that eventually became the largest part of the company. Despite being unplugged and device free, much of the adventures play out like a story-rich video game. Gardner’s background in anthropology, film, martial arts and fencing (she even taught a course in underwater defense with Navy SEAL trainers), as well as a passion for storytelling, explains her interest in both sword play and using stories to educate.
The camp included narrative elements from the very beginning, but became more deliberately educational in 2010. Today, campers can choose to survive a post-apocalyptic adventure in the Zombie STEM Summer Camp or journey to the fantasy world of Sidleterra in Wizards & Warriors STEM Camp.
But how does education take place when running from zombies and battling 9-foot witch kings?
Applying Learning in a Real-World Fiction
Immersive narratives and embodied actions combine to engage players in a range of learning. Campers can play in story worlds drawn from literature, mythology and history. The name “INGSOC” that was printed on the business cards may seem familiar because it is the political ideology from George Orwell’s dark classic, 1984. Gardner remembered one resourceful young camper who went home and immediately researched the name on the internet. Within minutes of discovering the source he was out the door and on his way to check out a copy of the novel from the local library.
“The next day at camp, a huge group of kids, holding their Nerf blasters, surrounded this one boy who was reading out of 1984,” said Gardner. “He reads about INGSOC and says ‘Guys! We can’t be friends with them … but we can infiltrate them.’ ”
This illustrates how an informal, story-driven environment can motivate students to take ownership of their learning. Similarly, when the players encounter Latin spells and scrolls, they are driven to learn and decode the classical language. Schools and libraries become resources to help students make sense of an unfolding narrative, solve problems and take action inside the game. Gardner feels that one of Guard Up’s biggest accomplishments is having students use school as a resource to practically apply abstract knowledge. She believes that by giving students greater agency, they will better transfer and accommodate learning into their lives.
Research supports the approach. A study conducted with medical undergraduate students in Brazil found that using a cooperative role-play environment to teach cellular biology was preferred by the participants and produced equal or higher retention than traditional lecture-style classes. The researchers state that “by telling a story in which everyone takes part, there is greater student interaction and, as a consequence, we may expect better performance in their construction of knowledge.” Rather than one-way teacher transmission, knowledge is co-created by the students, which may lead to better long-term absorption of the material.
A Computer Game Without Computers
Each summer, dystopic works of literature like Animal Farm, The Island of Dr. Moreau or I Am Legend are creatively adapted to structure the zombie apocalypse. The texts are not used in a wholesale linear fashion, but act as general guides to help inform an emerging story. Gardner aims for campers to be the masters of their own destiny, and the decisions they make alter and redirect the plot at every turn.
“When I first arrived I thought it would be people running around and hitting each other, but it’s not. It’s about reacting to the consequences of your actions and the responsibility that comes with it,” said one 13-year-old camper.
“We go where they want to go in our story. We give the learner the agency and autonomy to control their own outcome,” said Gardner. “There’s a lot of improv, but improv with some guidelines.” The affordance to play in a responsive environment is key to engaging players in video games, but Gardner exports the method off the screen and into the real world. “In this age of technology, so few kids are unplugged and playing pretend. We are a computer game without the computers.”
Keeping up with players without the magic of lightning-fast processors can be an epic challenge. At any given time, the staff will build props and costumes, apply makeup, play a host of characters, and maintain constant radio contact with mission control, where maps and figurines are used to orchestrate the unfolding adventure. Every night, the team gathers to alter and tweak the story, and to make all necessary preparations for the next day. To help with the demanding task, they maintain a database of easily deployable “pocket plots” or modular story fragments that can be inserted to respond to the players’ unscripted decisions.
Media scholar Dr. Henry Jenkins terms these “micronarratives” and identifies them as a prevalent storytelling feature in popular video games. The technique lets players enjoy the freedom and agency of self-expression, while still loosely following a larger story arc.
“Certain plot points are fixed whereas other moments can be expanded or contracted in response to audience feedback without serious consequences to the overall plot,” wrote Jenkins.
The Heroic Journey to Intercultural Understanding
Although the Wizards & Warriors Camp emphasizes STEM learning, campers also benefit from a healthy exposure to global cultures. The camp sidesteps standard Lord of the Rings-style fantasy plots in favor of storylines drawn from world mythology and indigenous oral histories. The narratives are woven together according to the hero’s journey, a recurrent narrative pattern that mythologist Joseph Campbell identified as common to all cultures. Notably, the universal but episodic structure of the hero’s journey is often applied as a flexible template for storytelling in video games.
Camp policy dictates that a non-Eurocentric culture be used every other year, so in addition to the tales of the Romans, Celts and Norse, they include Japanese myths and indigenous oral histories. To treat these traditions with sensitivity and avoid the pitfalls of cultural appropriation, Guard Up contracts consultants to guide and advise them every step of the way.
“This year, we chose both the Abenaki and Arawak tribes to explore because they were very different from each other in location,” said Gardner. “We had Claudia Fox Tree, a local Arawak educator, counsel us on the story, props and regalia, and enlisted the help of Jim Bruchac, Abenaki educator and author from the Ndakinna Education Center in upstate New York.”
Gardner affirmed that indigenous people do not consider their stories myths — they are a collective history transmitted by oral tradition. Similarly, the indigenous vestments are not costumes but regalia, as they are not disguises but a genuine expression of culture and tradition. These efforts toward sensitive representation are transmitted to the campers, fostering a mindset to more respectfully encounter other cultures.
UNESCO advocates for including intercultural understanding in curricula to encourage a sense of global citizenship in an increasingly connected world. A 2010 UNESCO report states that “respect for cultural diversity falls within the social dimension of peace, equality and human rights, underpinned by the cultural context, within and through which learning occurs, and which forms the basis for inter-linkages between the various sustainability dimensions (i.e., socio-political, environmental and economic).”
A sensitive exposure to other cultures adds an ethical dimension to the experience, reinforced by the camp’s emphasis on compassion, courage and honor as the highest virtues to which the young heroes should aspire.
Sneaky STEM: Designing Spells with Physics
Beneath the realm of sword and sorcery lies a foundation of hard science. Heroes begin their journey by affiliating themselves with one of several guilds, each offering instruction in a different branch of science. Chemistry is learned to brew potions in the Mages’ Guild, while members of the Healers’ Guild become versed in the rudiments of biology and first aid. “To get first-level spells, mages have to learn basic physics which they then use to cast them,” explained Gardner. “We have 7-year-olds running around the camp reciting Newton’s Laws of Physics.” As players progress they can design and teach their own spells as long as they can scientifically defend them before a Board of Mages. Teachers and education graduate students are hired by the camp to sit on the guild boards, be camp counselors and also develop the camp’s curriculum.
Scientific knowledge helps the heroes prevail, so they are motivated to research, consult with their teachers and librarians, and master the content to ensure that their spells don’t backfire. Gardner calls the approach “sneaky STEM” and laughs with equal mischief and delight when she speaks about the campers learning “subversively.” The informal environment of a camp grants the freedom to experiment in a way that might be challenging in formal school settings. “Standardized tests limit a teachers’ ability to creatively engage the student,” said Gardner. “I don’t know how many times I’ve heard teachers complain that they have to teach to the test.”
Intergenerational and Inclusive
Despite the constant menace of monsters and zombies, testimonials from the intergenerational campers repeatedly express a sense of acceptance, inclusion and belonging. The camp brings together a range of ages from 7 years old and upward, but unlike the age silos in schools, all age groups interact in an atmosphere of collaboration and mentorship. Like more traditional summer camps, older campers can become CITs, which is when they get to wear the monster costumes. Although the camp was about 70 percent boys at its inception, Guard Up has formed partnerships, offered scholarships, and targeted promotion to substantially increase its female population. “The counselors make a big effort to not differentiate between genders, “said one 16-year-old camper. “They refer to everyone as heroes. No one cares — just be you.”