STEM games … is that it?

In recent years, access to media has undergone a transformation as mobile devices (e.g., smartphones and tablets) now allow families to provide their child with screen time opportunities throughout the day. One of the biggest concerns around this is the total time children spend doing it with the suggested message that they could/should be doing something else, such as playing sport, reading, homework or walking the dog – which is better for them. This assumes any of us can live in outside the media-machine anymore.

The media has been telling us the media (not theirs, the other guy’s media) is bad for society. Therefore, more screen time means more games, which will make you fat, lazy, anti-social and addicted to [insert seven deadly sins]. No longer can you only throw birds at pigs – or something like – you must also watch a movie about it while eating angry-birds popcorn and cola. It’s only a matter of time before Minecraft gets a movie … I mean, it’s a no brainer in terms of rendering power – and I bet Steve is voiced by that guy who played Lex Luther in Superman vs Batman.

This franchise consumerism becomes the media reality for children who endlessly sample and drop games. So kids are learning not to try harder, try again or get another chance … they are learning to quit and move on because it’s easy.

Rather then worrying about children playing games, parents should be worried about why 40% of children stop playing the game within 24 hours and despite all the micropayment options to ‘buy’ success (see raft of Internet articles about parents losing thousands of dollars on vitual game goodies) – the average ‘value’ of micropayment games is five bucks – ever. Where Jane McGoniswhatsername made a tidy fortune from her obligatory ‘gamification’ TED talk, painting an image of a generation of un-tapped gamers ready to save the world. Nope, the reality is that online games are wireless (app) games are played and rejected all the time. Kids are trying LOTs of games and persisting with FEW. PC games continue to be in decline and consoles need to invent new user experiences (ie – virtual reality headsets etc.,) to remain competitive with the ‘casual gamer’ phenomenon.

So where are we in education this week – still banging on about Minecraft Edumacation. The Australian game industry is expected to increase at a 7.3 percent compound annual rate to $2.4 billion in 2016 and what is the ‘innovation agenda’ – an hour of code, making up some games in OER applications such as Scratch and offering a STEM competition to students. Let’s be clear, Australia is: early adopting; good at making games; great at animation; is a multi-billion dollar part of the estimated $40 billion dollar global industry and we have one competition, for kids – about 4 in a group who will win some yet to be announced prize. At the same time, the government is talking about ‘innovation’ and STEM and politically campaigning on some ‘apply here’ funding for STEM projects — as though schools haven’t thought of it.

And how can I forget, the BIG one – schools are going to teach kids to swim too.

In summary, we have kids who play, but most drop out of in their first or second play session. We have a constallation of games with very little research to know which are good or bad for learning (or anything else) and we’re going to focus on a) making stuff in Minecraft Education (swoon) or doing an hour of code (off the clock) and hoping some teachers with run after school projects to win a (unknown) STEM prize for a game — which will almost certainly be edumacational.

It’s been a frustrating week in my head … or maybe I’m cranky as Overwatch beta closed. It’s time we addressed this — it’s time we stopped pretending and decided whether or not we want students to have a real in-school experience and shot at the interactive entertainment jobs (of the future) or not. Time, money and resources (a three word slogan).

p.s. Overwatch is out on the 23rd and you should buy shares in Blizzard before then (as if I know anything about the share market).

What to expect on day one of a school Minecraft Server

I’ve been around Minecraft Servers with kids for a few years, founding the successful vanguard project “Massively Minecraft” a few years ago. Now I’m ‘back’ so to speak, in a school and have had a couple of terms under my belt, I’ve decided to create two new servers – a PC/Mac server and a Minecraft PE server. In school we don’t really have accessible computers, but every child has an iPad Mini. We’ve already got Minecraft PE on the iPads, so it won’t be too hard to build on that platform.

So yesterday, I “/opt” a few kids to see what happens. Of course I carefully selected the kid I thought would make the best First Op and explained the basics of what is expected etc., That kid then invites other kids who then nag No.1 Op for similar /Op power. Ten minutes later they are playing PvP in their new arena. An hour later, other kids have joined and the number climbs past that magic number seven. At this point … and this is the salient part, the power play between /Op vs Non-Op inevitably results in a few /kicks followed by a /ban.

Why does this happen? Well it’s complicated, but suffice to say that Minecraft is far more tribal than most teachers using it would like to admit. Minecraft doesn’t appear in a classroom as a neutral space where bygones are bygones. The nature of the game-space shifts the power-balance – both actually or perceptually. Another reason is that it provokes a much needed discussion about what makes this server a learning based server rather than a mini-game server (where most kids spend most of their time these days). While the server is booted with essentials, permissions, core-protect, world-guard etc.,  the key move is to make sure you have a resilient and trusted First Op who can manage and report on events that transpire — good and bad.

I am sure that some kids would love /Op power in the classroom to /kick or /ban negative behaviours, but sadly mass education insists no one leaves until they are of an age. I am also sure that no talk about cyber-bullying ever considers children in a situation now where social space is in constant negotiation and power-play. On day one of a school server, it’s not really about whether the kids make something pretty, or whether the levers and ‘teacher powers’ of the Edu version perform the crowd-control which teachers often demand from unfamiliar technological tools in ‘their classroom’. Day one is about understanding the dynamics of your kids — in this space — and how you can then plan for Day 2, where those dynamics play a critical role in the design of the game-space. For example: are you going to have factions? are you going to rank players and give them ranked powers … how are they going to move from map to map etc.,

This is one of the things I recall was important to Wes when he was conceptually designing Skoolaborate (Second Life Based Teen Global Project). Wes often talked about making worlds where kids could explore heuriscs. A heuristic is a mental shortcut that allows people to solve problems and make judgments quickly and efficiently. These rule-of-thumb strategies shorten decision-making time and allow people to function without constantly stopping to think about their next course of action. They can of course lead to bais and habitual behaviours … but really what is important on Day One is to be actively thinking about the heuristics that will be going on (promoted and demoted) in the behaviour of players towards their learning. This comes to a large extent through the design of the space – what’s in the game and what mediation/monitoring is going on outside of it. No teacher can afford to be ‘in-game’ all the time — and it’s a good idea to shut the server at a reasonable time, so kids still get that important sleep and spend time with their family. But … Day One should be a massive learning experience that produces some interesting data from the server log. Going over that data will paint a clear picture of the ‘world’ that exploded into life — and from that you should be able to sit down the First Op and peers to negotiate.

Google Feud

This game is interesting. Its called Google Feud.  Its super simple and could be really amazing if you could add your own terms for class. Oh how the conceptual frame and subjective frame might be more compelling. As it is, its interesting to play, and then discover what people are typing into google. Warning: you are going to loose time to this.

What makes Minecraft a highly motivated community

A lot of the discussion about why teachers might use video games in their class has centred around the belief that video games are motivating. It’s also the central controversy about children playing games at home — they are so motivating that they are reluctant to put them down. Education often puts forward the theory of flow — to suggest that once motivated, children are in an optimal learning zone, a view presented by Jane McGonigal (2012) from which she claimed games are optimal learning environments, which predicated the launch of her book – Reality is Broken. It’s a compelling story, bursting with emotion, pop culture and ‘common sense’ – a way to rescue the shallowing of society and death of childhood. I don’t believe this is the case, or rather that video games have somehow found secret success factors no one else has.

For most people, tweenager and above, the construction of success is now deeply linked to their construction of themselves. This is partly visible in the identities, routines and rituals that they engage in. This engagement is also one based in consumerism, where material objects are part of personal expression and communication – their Y-Phones, Tablets, Game Consoles etc., These things all combine to influence their overall motivation towards everything. For example, it influences what they say and how they behave when told to get off the Xbox in the same way it draws them to it. Parents and teachers are not dealing with opposing forces — good and bad machines, books, games, behaviours and so on, but with one behavior.

Motivation is bound by two things for the ‘screenage’ generation, expectancy and value. Expectancy is comprised abstract elements: confidence, experience, importance and success. Value is perceptive: extrinsic motivation, social motivation, achievement motivation and intrinsic motivation. These things are so complex and variable, that video games are not universally motivating, nor are they a way to engage the disenfranchised or isolated members of society. Reality is not therefore broken, but variously experienced — particularly outside of the snow-globe of TED Talks.

People enjoy games because game-designers put ‘community’ to work. To me, this is at the heart of games-based-learning and project-based-learning. Community has numerous subtle components, however four main archetypes need to be considered when we’re talking about motivation and what spaces kids are in that might tap into that: Participation; Cohesion; Identity and Creativity.

Consider Minecraft not as a game but as a community space: it’s physically located on a device, but conceptually located in media consumer culture. It has the necessary attributes of a ‘good community’ and therefore is more likely to motivate players to participate. This is what all game designers are learning to do, and is critical to the commercial and every day pop culture discussion of those games inside their respective communities.

Now ask yourself, how connected is my kid to the local corporeal community: re-visit the four factors and ask yourself are they participating in ways that are sustained over time, have they become part of a core-group and do they have an emergent role in that group. Do they find cohesion? Is the group supportive, tolerant, allow turn taking, responsive, funny and playful. Do they have an identity? Is the group self-aware, does it share vocabulary and language, does it give them a personal space and brand … and finally, is the community creative?

I’d argue some schools have massive community and others are people-factories that pretend they are a community. The thing with games is, there is no pretending. Games which are motivating have communities that are motivating … which is why gamification at school or work is not about points, badges and rewards — it’s about community.

Is your school global or snow global?

image

Is your school global or snow global? That was the question sketched out by @kevinhoneycut this week. I liked the question and the ease of which middle schoolers could reflect on their own lives with it. For me, it makes a great, short, getting to know you project. .The image of the snow globe, famously used by Pixar, can be easily extended to escapism, globalization and consumer filter bubbles. All great fodder for visual arts and design … I hope this turns out to be a global collaboration with my American friends. Its been a long time since I got to do this. Boom.

Does Minecraft cure helicopter parenting?

This post is for parents, who are worried about Minecraft. More than that, it’s about the worry intentionally created by media reports which use Minecraft as a vehicle to their own ends. In short, this piece is why you should be highly suspicious of popular news media reports about Minecraft.

To illustrate this, I’ll use this recent report and discuss it in some detail to illustrate my point. The article poses the complex problem question “Are parents to blame for the popularity of Minecraft?”.

This is a nonsense question, suggesting parents are once again failing children and childhood. Its the same rhetoric which has been hurled at film, music and television — and roundly de-bunked as junk by numerous studies and scholars in several disciplines for decades. In short, media does not cause parents to fail at anything, let alone being a parent. Next we are introduced to a philosophical complex problem in an effort reinforce the media-panic. A better question would be “What makes media popular among children?” because Mincraft is a media text situated among digital-games which are a substantial part of cultural literacy. This is nothing unique about literature being popular in our society.

While a lot of research has been done towards film, TV and music, there is very little which looks at digital games, and none which looks specifically at Minecraft and therefore why Minecraft might be extra-ordinarily popular in comparison to the other media. One thing emerging from most current research is that children multi-layer they media interests. For example, playing Minecraft, making videos about it, drawing pictures, writing, role-playing as well as reading books (Minecraft was the number one purchase in school-book buying schemes in 2013 in Australia). Is Minecraft therefore a ‘cure’ for a complete failure of parents to mediate in the face of media panics and volaorization of technological commodities such as games, mobile phones and tablets as the headline suggests?

It seems highly unlikely, but on the surface, it appeals to the natural fears of parents about the role of technology in the lives of their loved ones. No parents in their right mind would use technology or media in a way which hurts children — unless they are stupid, which is what is being implied by ‘helicopter’ parents.

At the end of this post, I’ve linked to a good discussion of Minecraft’s potential impact on media in the future, for a generation building rather than responding to action games. Again, while really interesting, there are no studies I’m aware of attempting to track or understand this potential. The field of study that is games, media and society is in fact relatively small. The only agreement is that like film and TV, games reflect society. One question we know little about is about how children’s play is altered by an audience. This matters because parents are being positioned here an audience, either supportive or in opposition to conceptions of both video games and parenting. Evidence from sociologists and educators suggests that children who use media with a supportive audience do better in academics and social situations. There’s no reason to think that supportive parenting towards gaming is now a sign of a poor parenting or a cure to bad parenting.

We’re also not sure which parents the writer is talking about, what type of family context is this — and what age are the children. The reason Minecraft is popular, is because of many things, parenting I’d argue plays a very small cultural role, but probably an economic one, given Minecraft is commercially purchased. The title of the piece is therefore misleading in order to be ‘seen’ by meta-search and sensational enough to be amplified by parents and friends of parents whom have previously encountered a deficit debate about parenting and digital games — and have purchased Minecraft. It’s a headline which explores the un-answerable topic of the “death of childhood” which has also been shown to be a myth and de-bunked in the literature.

As if the headline isn’t loaded enough, the article goes on to attempt to connect adult choices towards media (regulation, mediation) to consequential choices they made for their children. From the outset the parent is assumed to be dumb and over-obsessed with supervision, and for a child ‘growing up digital’ this in invasive and harmful. “Growing up digital” (Tapscott) is an argument that has been criticised. Among media scholars, there are counter arguments for this type of technological deterministic view of childhood.  In particular, it assumes there a pre-existing demand by children for Minecraft, and therefore parents are generationally in-capable of being effective parents. The term ‘helicopter‘ parenting is another contested concept, yet laid on here in order to further claim that modern parents are unable to mediate personally or on behalf of their children (saving children from the media is a recurring theme in parental criticism). Clearly many parents grew up with video games and the Internet, the old verse new user lens is seen increasingly as simplistic among scholars, but remains popular in news media such as this.

The claim “more than a quarter of players are under the age of 15” is meaningless. Where does this figure come from? What platforms? Is this active players or licence sales? Let me give you are more interesting figure — 98% of all humans in America, Australia and the UK play digital games. In 2012, In America, 21% of people were under the age of 15, which would make Minecraft’s player base nothing extraordinary at all. In addition, this figure is used to bolster the claim that Minecraft’s “endless nature” is key to this astonishing unremarkable player-base.

This leads into a complex arrangement of types-of-play. Minecraft does have limits, there are technological rules and processes which dictate what play can be. The biggest reason ‘endless play’ should be considered false, is that just about all animals (inc humans) go it, and they do it their entire lives. Play is, by it’s nature an endless human quality, unless some medical issue prevents it.

Perhaps the most spurious element is that this ‘endless play’ is seen as opposite to the current arrangement parents have to allow play to go on, which he calls “one more level”. Minecraft does actually have levels in the game, there are numerous subtle ways to measure advancement. There are many other games which allow auto-didactic exploration of ‘open worlds’. Mincraft’s is a sandbox game, and by it’s nature, allows players to create and manipulate it. To be even more simplistic, Lego is a sandbox game, but the resources are far more limited to the player. As Lego is a toy parents provide children in greater quantity to Minecraft licences, then the so-called arrangement (in terms of play-management) doesn’t break any arrangement. Furthermore, it may be that Minecraft is the only game a parent provides, and this ‘nul’ argument is worth exploring before making such a claim. The arrangements (to use the term) parents make with children over the use of media are very complicated and so far, little research has been done towards this. Even less has looked at children under the age of 15. In fact most game-research has focused on adolescents using lab experiments. Birmingham did some work in the UK with children and families several years ago, but this was limited and focuses on ‘educational games’. It did show something relevant here — the conceptions parents and children have about what constitutes ‘constructive play’ vary between families. It’s hard therefore to ask “Do parents …”  without much further clarification of who is being talked about.

Finally there is a visual aesthetic to the piece, the introductory text is high on claims and low on facts. The invitation made (using the grinning face) is to watch the video-discussion. This video is not made for parents, it’s made for game-audiences and to build further audiences. This tactic is well used by news media to increase circulation and not worry about evidence at all. Children are concerned (the research shows) what their parents think about media in general. Depending on the age of the child, those concerns vary. Given the mode of the presentation, this isn’t aimed at young children. The language is complex and hard to process for young children. Rather than present much in the way of facts, the video resorts to pop-camera work, fast cut-away moments of random footage and of course, slap-stick comedy. By the second minute, it’s pretty obvious this is simply ‘entertainment’.

I don’t have any-problem with pop-culture, but as this appeared on my timeline, it probably has been picked up by one if not more teacher-parents whom I’m connected to in someway. It’s indicative of the kind of cultural-media-leaks which occur when game culture attempts to expand it’s audience, and is interesting to me because of that. As a parent, the video is a roller coaster of unproven claims about parenting and society which should not be taken too seriously, despite the headline. There are many great video’s which talk broadly about digital games (even Minecraft) which talk about the benefits (and problems) of games in our society. As a rule, those which attempt to connect parenting failure to games are hardly worth your time, because there is so little we actually know about relationships between children and adults are being shaped by digital games. One thing we do know, is that up to now, attempts to connect ‘bad parenting’ with other media has been proven to be almost always rubbish.

I recommend you watch Extra Credits for a bit of debate and entertainment on the topic.

Event: Epic Learning! Games in Edu Day, 26th August, Sydney.

Having left the UNSW and what was the management of my third LMS migration, there are a number of things I’m finally getting to do, and most importantly with people I respect, admire and love to work with. I don’t generally talk about that — but I will talk about “Teachers In Front” which is a venture I’ve started with Dr Bron Stuckey. It’s something both of have wanted to do for a few years, but circumstances never really allowed. Now it does.

In somewhat of a rescue mission, we’re pleased to announce a first public games and media event on the 26th August in Sydney. Held at the MAC ICT Center (to whom we’re really grateful), it will be a great day SHOWING how games have been implemented and sharing concrete ways to do it yourself. The aim of “Teachers In Front” is not talk about what people could do, but to build on existing success and scholarship. While it would be simple to add to the rhetoric, we’re only interested in helping people grow their own agendas and finding ways to demonstrate and own that success in their own right. So this event is what that looks like … where all the talks, demos and discussion are orientated to the attendees questions and ideas. Thinking on your feet kind of thing.

I hope you’ll come along if games, gameification and media interest you. Download the Flyer if you want, or you can just head over to the website, read the blurb and sign-up. If you have questions … just ask!