Posts Tagged ‘Area of Study’

My last post on this topic generated more real world discussion than the rest of my posts put together. I want to clarify a few things and add one more point.

There are layers to the way a game can be analysed. Like a novel, a game has character, setting, plot, theme, and style. Analysing what these convey about the idea of belonging is the first layer. Like a film, a game has visual and aural elements: colour, depth, music, camera angle, shot length, and dialogue. Analysing these is the second layer. Unlike a novel or a film, the audience is more than a reader or a viewer, she is a PLAYER. Analysing the experiences of the player is the third layer.

User Generated Content

Some games, most notably Little Big Planet, the Sims games and the all consuming Minecraft, offer players the opportunity to do more than interact with the world of the game, they offer the opportunity to build it. These games aren’t really my area (I prefer novels and films where the composer has done most of the work for me) but if they’re yours, it is worth considering the level of engagement you have within a game where the sense of achievement comes not only from conquering the world but also adding to it.


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The Area of Study in the HSC requires students to choose related texts. It’s generally a good idea to choose at least two texts that are different text types from your core text and from each other. For example, if your core text is Immigrant Chronicle, choose a novel and a film, or a short story and a website. But what about video games? Video games are probably the most engaging text type for a large proportion of HSC students. The problem is that most students (and most teachers) don’t know how to analyse them effectively. Here are some tips with examples.

In a video game belonging can result from character or mechanics. The very best games use both strong characterisation for the player-character and of other characters in the world and game mechanics that draw you into the game. For a game to work for the AoS, the story needs to be about belonging or offer an element of belonging through the player-character.


Games often have a player-character who doesn’t belong. They are a loner because only they can save mankind, turn back the tide etc (otherwise, why are they doing it?) There is to be something special about the character and therefore marginalising and alienating. What is this attribute and how is it shown within the game?

Adam Jensen, the protagonist of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, undegoes a series of augmentations that enhance his physical attributes but also make him an outsider in a world suffering moral panic over the ethics of transhumanism. One way his uniqueness is expressed in the game is through his name: Adam is a biblical allusion to the first human, suggesting that augmentation is the way forward for the human race but also that it may result in moral degradation. It is also relevant to note that Adam, although portrayed as the father of humanity in the Bible, begins life alone.

Other aspects of belonging/not belonging to look for in the protagonist and other characters include:

  • shared purpose (World of Warcraft)
  • belonging in a personal relationship (Mass Effect 2)
  • estrangement from family (Red Dead Redemption)
  • feeling out of place/time (Assassin’s Creed)
  • cultural marginalisation (Dragonage)
  • individual enriching a community (Fable II)
  • alienation from a community (Fallout 3)

The above list is just a starting place for you to see some possibilities. Although novels and films also engage viewers through the experiences of characters; it is games that draw the player in and give them some control of the story.


Game play draws players into the world of the game and, more than other text types, offers a sense of belonging through textual engagement because the player is an active participant rather than a passive observer. There are a number of ways games offer a sense of belonging within the text to players.

Character Customisation: many games, mostly RPGs, allow you to make choices about your character. These range from basic (playing Commander Shepard as a male or female character in Mass Effect) to complex (the thousands of combinations available in World of Warcraft). Customisation allows players to have a character that they feel reflects themself, or an ideal or otherwise repressed version of themself. Many games also allow further customisation of the character–learning new skills, or buying new clothing and equipment–as the player levels up. This continual reward enhances a player’s feeling of connection to and belonging within the game.

Discoverable Items: older games only allow players to interact with a limited number of objects. Newer games tend to offer more discoverable items, allowing the player wider choices as to what may be important and also enhancing the modality of the player’s experience of the world. Compare an old platformer like Commander Keen, where the player-character could only move in two dimensions and only interact with enemies and bonuses, with the more recent Little Big Planet, where many of the levels have a limited third dimension (fore, mid, and background), allowing the player greater interactivity and connection.

Point of View: video games may offer first person or third person viewpoints. In first person (most often seen in first person shooters or FPSs) the player is the character, or rather, the camera is the character. This view limits the player to what the character sees. This can be very effective in games like Deus Ex: Human Revolution, where the player can experience that character’s disorientation first hand. That is not to say that games in third person cannot also offer the player a strong sense of connection; however, the perspective of the game is worth commenting on in you responses.

Emergent Game Play: this is a fairly recent innovation in games and what it means is that the choices you, the player, make within the world of the game have meaningful consequences within that world. This is, in my opinion, one of the most engaging aspects of modern games. Emergent game play ranges from a non-player character noticing your new hat in Fable, to your entire experience of Mass Effect 2 being shaped by the decisions you made at the end of Mass Effect.

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The ingredients of a strong essay are:

An Establishing Statement. This allows you to demonstrate your personal understanding of the module, and because it focuses on the module rather than on the question (we’re getting to that) you can prepare it in advance. This gives you something to write so that you’re not staring at a blank exam booklet or computer screen for too long. This should be the very first sentence in your essay and it should include key words from the rubric but also have a personal twist to show that you’ve thought about the key ideas in the rubric and gone further with them. A pithy quote can often make a good establishing statement. For example,

“Part of the beauty of literature,” argued F. Scott Fitzgerald, is that “you discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”

I like this one because it’s about belonging through textual engagement, which, as an English teacher, is my favourite way to belong.

Thesis statement. This is your one-sentence answer to the question. A lot of essay questions will give you a thesis statement, others will give you more space to argue your specific interpretation. It should include key words from the question and appear early in your introduction. The thesis should be something arguable but it should be stated as if it is fact.

This question gives you a thesis statement:

‘An individual’s interaction with others and the world around them can enrich or limit their experience of belonging’

This one gives you space to write your own:

Explore how perceptions of belonging and not belonging can be influenced by connections to places.

Topic sentences. A topic sentence is a mini-thesis statement. It should support your thesis the same way that a beautiful corinthian column supports the pediment of a Greek temple: with elegance. It should be concept based rather than focused on a specific text or composer; this will allow you to write integrated paragraphs. Taking the above thesis here are some topic sentences:

1. An individual’s interaction with others can enrich their experience of belonging.

2. An individual’s interaction with the world around them may also enrich their experience of belonging.

3. However, negative interactions with the world and others can limit an individual’s experience of belonging.

These are obvious (and, to be honest, a little dull) however, they support the thesis, leave room for integration, and remind the marker that you’re answering the question. You may also notice that topic sentences 2 and 3 have linking words in them (also, however); this gives the essay flow and helps the argument to hang together. Without them, responses can sometimes read like three or four separate essays rather than a single sustained argument.

Concluding statements. Conclusions are the most difficult part of essay writing and, to make it even harder, they don’t just come at the end of a response. Each paragraph needs a concluding statement that explains how the evidence proffered supports the thesis. A popular way to begin is, “Thus it can be seen that…” however, I prefer something simpler such as a restatement, in different words, of the topic sentence. An example of a concluding statement for the first topic sentence above could be:

Through relationships, individuals find and nurture an enriched sense of identity.

Strong sentences make strong paragraphs, which make strong essays.

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Creative writing remains a key aspect of the HSC English exam, I think, because teachers and educational administrators fear that students will do no creative writing unless it is assessed. That said, writing a story for the Area of Study is not like other creative writing. Like the other sections of Paper 1 and Paper 2, there are boxes to tick and hoops to jump through. Here is a checklist of the skills you need to showcase and the elements you need to include.

  1. A message about belonging. Your story needs to be more than just about the theme of belonging, it needs to have a message or a moral, almost like a thesis statement for an essay. The difference between a theme and a message is the difference between a statement of fact and a statement of opinion; for example, “belonging” is a theme; but “people can choose where to belong” is a message. If you’re struggling to make the message clear in your story, you can have your character reflect on what s/he has learned about belonging; however, the best way to do it is through
  2. Character development. This needs to be shown through the protagonist’s choices and actions. The audience must be able to see that the protagonist’s sense of belonging, or at least their perception of it, is different at the end of the story from what it was at the beginning. To do this you need a clear
  3. Structure. The one I suggest is a three act structure (similar to a film).
    1. In Act 1 we are introduced to setting and character; we see the protagonist’s everyday normal world and we find out about their sense of belonging or not belonging.
    2. At the beginning of Act 2, something happens to draw the protagonist out of that world or to make him/her look at it differently. This is the challenge to their sense of belonging/not belonging. We also see their response to this challenge.
    3.  Act 3 is the resolution. Some possible resolutions include the protagonist finding a new sense of belonging, having their sense of belonging reinforced, realising that they belonged all along, or realising that it’s ok to not belong. No matter how good your character or structure, it won’t get you the marks unless you also
  4. Use the stimulus, address the question. The stimulus, whether a quote or an image, needs to be central to your story; don’t just refer to it at the beginning and then ignore it as you get on with regurgitating your memorised narrative. You also need to be aware of the question. Sometimes the instruction is to write about a particular aspect of belonging or to write in a particular textual form. You must also
  5. Include literary techniques (but don’t overdo them). Dialogue is a common short story technique and there should be some in your story, particularly in action moments. Starting with dialogue generally isn’t a good plan and don’t overdo the “tags,” screamed Mrs Langford tucking her hair behind her ear as she turned once again to write on the whiteboard. One technique I rarely see, which you should be in a position to use, is literary allusion. You’re studying at least four texts (not including related texts) and you’ve no doubt read others. It’s ok to say someone feels as outcast as a replicant on Earth or as sad as a Danish prince. Some other techniques that I’ve seen used effectively are metaphors and similes (used sparingly to reinforce key ideas or images), sensory imagery (what does belonging smell, taste, sound, or feel like?) and extended metaphors or motifs; which should be introduced in your
  6. Title. The title should be short. It should foreshadow and it should intrigue. It’s ok to come up with a title as you write and add it last.

Don’t try to do too much in your story. Too many characters, too many events, too large a time span, or to many ideas will derail your story and ruin your time management. Simpler is better.

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Paper 1 Strategy

A friend of mine, an English teacher, recently said to me (and her class), “In an exam, don’t think; just recall.”

I like this idea but it only works if you’re prepared; not just with your textual knowledge and essay writing skill but with a specific strategy for managing your precious time.

Here’s my suggested strategy for Paper 1.

Tactic Time (mins) Count Down Clock
Reading Time
Read the texts in SI 5 2h05m
Read the S1 questions 3 2h02m
Glance at the question in SII & SIII 2 2h
Writing Time
Annotate the texts in SI, underlining quotes and making note of techniques, tone, purpose, and aspects of belongin 5 1h55m
Answer the questions in S1, except for the last one, allow 2 minutes per mark 20 1h35m
Answer the last question in S1, ensuring that it has a clear structure and a strong thesis (like a mini essay) 15 1h20m
Annotate the stimulus and plan your response for SII. Your plan should include your story’s message about belonging and a brief plot outline 5 1h15m
Write your story 35 40m
Annotate the question and plan your response for SIII. Your plan should include a strong thesis and 2 to 4 supporting ideas 5 35m
Write your essay 35 0

Leave each section as its time expires. If you finish another section early you can go back and complete it.

It is worthwhile investing in a countdown timer to keep track of your timing. Don’t trust in your school’s clock alone as exams can be delayed and start at 9.03.45 (or some other random time) that makes keeping track difficult.

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So you’ve done the Trial HSC, your papers have been marked and returned to you. You have moved up or down in the rankings (or you’ve remained static). You’re either joyous or in despair.

What do you do now?

Hold onto those trial papers. Grab a sheet or two of paper and rule up four columns. The first two columns should be skinny, 2-3 cm wide, and the second two should be wide. Title the columns as follows:

  1. Section
  2. Mark
  3. Things I did well
  4. Things to improve

Start with Paper 1 Section 1. Write P1S1 in the first column and your mark out of 15 in the second column. Then read over the mark sheet and your paper for comments. List the positives in dot point form in the third column and the negatives in the fourth. It should end up looking something like this:

Section Mark Things I did well Things to improve
P1S1 11
  • Identifying poetic techniques
  • Answering the question
  • Using quotes
  • Identifying visual techniques

Rule off that row when you’re done and do the same things for Sections 2 and 3; then start on Paper 2.

When you’ve got comments down for each section, read over your table. Grab a highlighter and highlight any comment that appears more than once. For example, you may not have quoted enough in Section 1, Section 3 and Module C. It can be trickier for Section 2; however, if a Section 1 comment was that you didn’t identify sufficient literary techniques and a Section 2 comment was that you didn’t use enough literary techniques, count that as a double comment because identifying and employing are two sides of the one skill.

Once you’ve finished analysing and highlighting, make a to-do list. This list may include filling in gaps in your summaries and notes, practising a particular skill, or memorising quotes. Example:

To Do

  • Memorise more quotes from Hamlet
  • Add film techniques to summary of Blade Runner
  • Learn more visual techniques
  • Practise writing integrated paragraphs

Turn this list into an action plan and plug it into your study schedule.


  • watch youtube clips of Hamlet’s soliloquies, read along
  • re-read Mrs Langford’s Blade Runner viewing log and add film techniques to notes


  • write 3X ten-minute paragraphs for Belonging, submit to English teacher for feedback
  • review list of visual techniques from glossary


Note: If your Trial HSC papers don’t have much in the way of comments on them, give them to your English teacher or tutor and ask for more detailed feedback.


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I found this exercise in the Writing Challenges podcast, which is published by Warwick University. I have adapted it for the specific needs of creative writing in the Area of Study.

Step 1: pick up a Belonging print text. This could be your core text, one of your related texts, a text from a Section I practice or a print stimulus from Section II.

Step 2: close your eyes and point to a word. Copy out the phrase in which the word appears, starting two or three words before and continuing two or three words after. You now have a phrase that is five to seven words in length.

Step 3: using this phrase as a starting point, write for five minutes. Don’t think, don’t plan, don’t worry about spelling, grammar, and punctuation, just write.

Step 4: read over what you have written. Then read it, word for word, backwards. Choose a phrase that, backwards, has one of the following characteristics:

  • it has energy;
  • it creates a strong image;
  • it has never been written before in English;

and underline it. The phrase needs to make some sort of sense. When I did this activity, the phrase I ended up with was, “better plan clock the like” – so I wrote a story about someone called Clock who needed a plan.

Step 5: write a short story that incorporates your phrase. It might be something a character says, or become a description of a place. Try to limit your writing to no more than 40 minutes.

Bonus creative writing tip: The Bronte sisters used to write sitting together in a small room. Each day became a competition to see who could write the most and who could write the best story. Try doing the above exercise with a study buddy and swapping phrases.

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