Master of Games

Today is the first day of #INF541. First, I must thank my long term friend and colleague Judy O’Connell. Judy’s inspirational vision and determined leadership at CSU has taken what was once a grass-roots, bloggers cafe conversation about technology, information and learning (in the era of read/write web) into a comprehensive set of courses at Masters level. While many have remained on Twitter or other social media to attempt to raise the profile and scholarship of technology in the classroom, Judy has placed it front and centre of University education.

INF541 is a Masters unit in Games Based Learning. I took a sabbatical from my PhD in Games Media to write the course with Judy and in doing so, it pressed home the importance of integrating game-like designs into learning. I was particularly interested in using the work of people such as Sara de Freitas and David Buckingham to connect game based learning to broader, well established calls for a more robust and relevant media education in both schools and higher education.

While the so called “Web2.0″ movement gained the attention of teachers a decade ago, so far the grass roots efforts have gravitated towards individual Twitter fame and pop-up consultancies over any real attempt to expand the research around the impacts on teacher belief, changing practice and ultimately the outcomes of students themselves.  Emotional appeals to authority get attention in the always-outraged Twitterverse, but saying ‘children are at risk of being left behind or ill prepared for the future’ is untrue. This has been the claim for decades and debunked on numerous fronts including the 1970s call for de-schooling society as children are not ignorant or unable to make sense of the world for themselves.

We know very little about the impact of the commercial world’s deliberate targeting of children as consumers though the media. Hashtagging teachers, seeking out consultancy gigs are particular concern of mine these days — they enjoy a position of trust, yet seem to be oblivious to the fact they are making economic and social capital by exploiting children’s (perceived needs). Games are part of the media-lives of 98% of adults and children in Australia, and yet they are routinely banned in schools and completely ignored by the hashtagging ‘feel good’ debates on Twitter, usually primed not through experience, but linear Question, then Answer routines. One of Buckingham’s central arguments is that people think that if they are doing things with technology then they are doing media education and they‟re not.

INF541 explores games, their characteristics and their connections with media cultures. While it uses select focused works of scholars, it also accepts that teachers need to also find and explore much broader media-sources to understand more about how people come to know games, why some ideas in games take hold (such as Minecraft) and other’s don’t. It’s been a real pleasure to work on this course and try to connect games to other courses in Information Studies at CSU. Part of this is a little daunting. INF541’s sister courses have been designed by people whom were in the vanguard of the grass-roots movement a decade ago, and now are successfully, leading, writing and researching at a global scale. People such as Julie Lindsey and Ewan McIntosh, both of whom I first met in 2008 in a blogger’s cafe and whom have a solid reputation among connected networks online and have also made the move to a more academic frame.

It’s hard to imagine even a few years ago, when I did my Masters in Educational Technology, that there could be a unit about games based learning, or that teachers would see it as a viable and important part of media education. It highlights the fast-culture that has been brought about by global connected conversations and access to media. You’re welcome to follow along in the #INF541 media stream, and I’m sure I’ll be blogging the trip.

Do games teach game-making?

I’m yet to resolve the true value of playing something like Minecraft in school. I can think of many really dull/functional uses of technology such as dumping a PDF online so kids can do the electronic worksheet. Games are perhaps the furthest technological activity (technically and culturally) from the e-worksheet, level one SAMR activity.

This leads me to wonder just what kids are learning when playing something like Minecraft. Is all their learning like this? or is it just one teacher swimming against a resistant culture of ‘getting through content’ and loading up the evidence binder. I wonder if kids who are playing MWGs or immersed in Doritos, Mountain Dew and Illuminati pop-culture can learn to make games, or even follow instructions to make an RPG from a guidebook.

I want to try this out with middle-schoolers. I want to ask them to

  • Create fictional characters and use them to explore a rich setting
  • collaborate with your friends to tell a dynamic story
  • explore themes and issues that matter to you
  • make meaningful choices and drive the story forward

I would like them to make an information system that encourages people to change their beliefs, were a group of individuals struggle with each other and the world to uphold their beliefs. I don’t think that playing games, even complex ones creates the ability to do this. In fact, I think that video-gaming makes this so super simple that there is limited choice, just the illusion of choice. What is therefore make in a game is the agenda and story of the game developer and game industry, not the imagination and creativity of game-makers and players.

Goodness, the sun’s come up and I’ve got nothing … eeek.

The Pedagogy of Power

In an age of instant communication, what happens at school can quickly go beyond school. The convenience of mobile phones and email have become part of the teacher-pupil-parent triangle. Absences are logged and text messages sent forth to parental phones. If the homework is late, then email the parent and let them know what’s going to happen. In my experience, mass emailing people isn’t particularly useful in terms of motivation or focusing student interest. I’m a parent and though it’s hard to tell what my teen is actually doing at school, I have to trust that the teacher is managing the day to day situation — and I don’t want or need a running report on the timeliness of homework, nor a text to let me know he’s gone to the loo twice in a day.

The flip side is of course the invasive nature of helicopter and lawn-mower parents. Maybe some of them have too much time on their hands, or remember school with such bitterness and disappointment that they are ready and willing to text and email at the slightest hint that the teacher might be giving the student a hard time occasionally. Anyone who’s been teaching for more than a few years will testify that hard-line teachers (shouting, rule making, punishment issuing, stern face types) don’t have much in the way of power (which they assume is automatic) nor are they building any communication capital where it matters — helping kids learn.

As we are learned from flame-wars and the back and forth of fans and haters in social media, electronic communication is a poor medium in which to attempt to mediate or motivate. While I think it’s great that parents can ‘drop in’ and see what kids are going at school – via their class blogs and other media, I have some concerns about the value or impact of using text and emails as levers of power in the teacher-pupil-parent triangle.

There’s a lot of human value in meeting a parent and showing them their children’s work. Even if that work isn’t the ‘best’ in the group or has elements missing. It’s a place to start a conversation which says we are all important. I’ve been looking for research into the impact of teacher to parent emails and text on student behavior and/or achievement in school and drawn a blank for the most part. The nearest I came was a 2009  study in Singapore of 3000 teachers over 2-4 years in high school. The researchers were interested in whether or not having (not having) ICT competencies hindered the use of email. They found that less than 3% of emails were from teacher to parent (or visa versa) and only 6% was between teachers and students. Some 65% of teachers emailed a colleague more than once a week.

Research studies have repeatedly reported that students engaging in communication with teachers beyond the classroom help develop greater academic and cognitive achievement, intellectual and personal development, career and educational aspirations, and institutional persistence. Interestingly, parents initiated most of the emails to teachers and teachers used email mostly to report problems with behavior.

I find this quite interesting from a social and cultural perspective. Email seems to be used primarily to reinforce existing power-relations and maintain cultural reproduction of knowledge and power within the teacher context. Personally, I am not a fan of emailing anyone that I can reasonably have a face to face with about important things. I don’t mind emailing companies to get prices or make some arrangements due to being geographically challenged or time poor, but to me, there is no evidence to suggest the education and socialisation of children is improved by sending out emails and texts to parents. Maybe someone is researching this and I haven’t found it … but I wonder if this is a growing trend in schools?

Playing, Learning and PBL

This year, I took up a classroom teaching position at the International Football School on the Central Coast. Having been part of the vanguard of PBL in Australia, via Parramatta Marist and doing my part to promote it as a teaching methodology. Over recent years, I’ve introduced many teachers to PBL – grass roots and also formally teaching using it and towards it at Macquarie University. It was always going to be interesting revisiting PBL after several years in higher education — and to see whether or not, theory land is in fact useful in practice.

PBL (project based learning) is something teachers do variously. Its most striking difference between other constructivist approaches or nuances is perhaps it’s language. Terms like ‘driving question’ and ‘critical friends’ are common sign posts for students, while other terms being used in PBL language such as ‘stations’ are well used among teaching more broadly. PBL uses this language to differentiate itself, and it’s no surprise that PBL teachers actively use differential language to represent themselves online. As someone deeply involved in technology, I’m really interested in providing a realistic ‘media education’ (which includes games, design thinking etc). I am in the media camp which believes school education has not achieved this to date for numerous social and political reasons. (see David Buckingham etc).  I have been keenly observing my middle-schoolers and their technological habits of mind and in that, just how un-schooled they have become though increasing media access. I never bought into the Tapscott or Prensky view of kids as technological experts and it seems from initial observation that kids do indeed annex games-system thinking from their schooling (no evidence to show here). Just a feeling I get from discussions. For example: I can have a deeply complex discussion about the mechanics of FIFA 14/15, and then have to show the same kid how to ‘share’ a file using air-drop.

I guess I need to point out that IFS is quite a unique place. Firstly, stages are taught in one open learning space with a ratio of about 1:25 in middle school. Secondly, kids are massive (and I mean massive) football or tennis players. Classrooms are LOUD most of the time, tools such as projectors and whiteboards are at best awkward. There is no default power-play relationship between student and teacher, and this is really useful in building relationships, rather than giving instructions. Kids are really motivated when teachers hand-shake and hi-five them into the room (and out of it later). It’s a small behavior which kids really warm to and links the soccer-field social-rules to the classroom effectively.

While experts like to proclaim “kids need to find their passion”, these kids are already passionate about football (soccer) or tennis and each day spend at least two hours with professional coaches such as Lloyd Owusu among many others. Kids arrive to the OLS (open learning space) at 11.30 and we do four hours until 4pm. Much of what is being done is in a block mode, so every teacher is supporting others all the time. We have no staff-rooms, permanent walls and no one calls me Mr.Groom which is great.

PBL is not just about giving kids an open ended problem to solve. My take away from working with US PBL at New Tech High School was that shared values and culture underpin the ideology, collegiality and success of PBL programs. While many have ‘gone PBL’ in their classroom at the individual level (often humanities based teachers), few schools have adopted PBL as a core post-modernist approach to learning and working with kids. When they arrive at 11.30, they have been doing what they love for two hours. Most are a bit tired and usually hungry. Most are getting up at 6am to get to school, travelling over an hour each way.

.Right now I’m working on creating game based learning infrastructure (towards fostering 7 positive habits of mind). The kids will be doing most of this of course. I’m drawing on scholarly works (old habits die hard), rather than some pithy Internet graphic. It’s a  systems approach for establishing the social culture and individualised behavioral supports needed for schools to be effective learning environments for all students. Reduce this down on medium heat to ‘game based learning’ for those on Twitter who don’t read long sentences. This also goes along with what I said before – membership – where there is no binary war between traditional and PBL methods.

Membership means:

  • Common Language
  • Common Experience
  • Common vision/values

These are the ‘outcomes’ of attempts to gamify learning. Our kids are members of a team, and we want to make sure that membership transfers from the field to the classroom as easily as possible. The last thing we need is a ‘field’ vs ‘classroom’ mentality. The game is not about remembering seven positive habits of mind (thats just the communication layer) the game is about supporting social competence, academic achievement and safety (PBL). The outcomes are therefore concerned with data collection; pedagogical, technological and social practice and systems. These support decision making, student positive behaviour and staff behaviour.

Ultimately, PBL is about a school environment which is predictable (I hate the teacher slow-release approach — what are we doing today?). It’s also positive, safe and consistent. It uses classroom and non-classroom, student and family sub-systems to sustain it. For example, calling every parent at least twice a term to talk about a range of school topics, not just a single child’s grades or behaviour.

This means the game must:

Define behavioural expectations, teach them and monitor and reward appropriate behaviours. It needs to provide corrective consequences for not doing so — and how students engage with this as a system — is information based.

Here are 10 values that I’m putting into this project to help kids learn within a game-liek system. This is a list I have stuck on the wall behind my modest desk space … it helps me to make sure I’m providing useful supports to the system (PBL and beyond).

  1. Know what is expected
  2. Have the materials and equipment to do the job correctly
  3. Receive recognition each week for good work.
  4. Have a critical friend or mentor who cares, and pays attention
  5. Receive encouragement to contribute and improve
  6. Can identify a person at school who is a “best friend.”
  7. Feel the mission of the school makes them feel like they are important
  8. See the people around them committed to doing a good job
  9. Feel like they are learning new things (getting better)
  10. Have the opportunity to do their job well

It’ still only week 4, so I don’t have much in the way of student data to know how well this will work (if at all). However, it has been long enough to know that simply using PBL language or funky-activities won’t help embed the core ethos and point of the school itself. Over the next few weeks, I’ll share and plot the progress of some of this … it might help others I guess.

Positional Symmetry

People are telling me, and I am reading that blogging is dead. It has suffered the ‘dose response labor’ virus carried by Twitter and other micro channels. The mythic hero on Twitter is one who says they are connecting, but in truth are providing consumer production under the same illusion of eventual mega pay back that gamblers crave as they buy scratch cards or pump coins into a machine.

This dose response causes necks to bend, hand joints to wear and numerous new health concerns. Add the competitive nature brought by personality power plays and any blog that fails to feed the doser: seven things, how to or other link bait is doomed to be ignored. I’m glad I was blogging back in the day, just as I’m pleased to say I saw the Stone Roses in Manchester … But if blogging has to be reduced to dosing, in order to find a conversation then I guess it’s time to get the bus to somewhere new. I guess it all depend. On where you sit in the game … Whether you think you’re a power player or have a better load out advantage … Or maybe blogging is just about earning money …


But blogging at the beach is a great way to spend 10 minutes wondering what happened to all the great bloggers … And why they didn’t dose up Twitter … Where are they now?

How online games are hooking kids and fooling parents.

When parents say “kids are spending too much time playing games” it encompasses a very broad cultural understanding of what they mean. Broadly speaking, parents are concerned, all be it covertly, about their part in providing children with unprecedented access to digital entertainment. While the 1990s saw parents criticized for allowing children to watch too much TV and using DVDs as improvised babysitting, many of those kids are now beginning to raise their own families. The cross over parents — those who had kids between 2000 and 2010 tend to see  using the Internet and watching TV and Movies less holistically than newer parents who appear to be keen to give toddlers and young children mobile devices as soon as they develop gross motor reflexes. For many pre-schoolers, their lives have been back grounded by games.

What parents don’t often know is that the vast majority of games young children play are intentionally designed as persuasive games. They are designed to attract players in order to commodify (make money from) children and parental willingness to give children games over doing something else with them. There is a cultural lie circulating parental debates which attempts to associate excessive game-play with consoles and PC/OSX games. This has a long research and sociology-political association with negativity and consumerism. In short, it’s easy to blame games for thing children (appear) to be doing, despite fraught parental objections and cafe-conversations about how terrible this is for our society. In the mean time parents tend to believe online games are less ‘dangerous’ than consoles and PC games. This is of course ridiculous.

By far, the type of games young children play are designed for the web and mobile. As much as 92% of persuasive games are designed for this audience, and over half of these are what are called adver-games. Very few of these games are designed to be downloaded and run on a PC or Mac (although educational efforts often do so, yet are a small proportion of the market).

Many kids head to online game sites to play games. These sites contain a mix of games, some persuasive and some not. What most share in common is popularity and advertising messages. This is what fuels their hosting and generate their vast profits. Research has shown that this type of peripheral advertising does influence what children say and do. Persuasion in key to sales and it comes as no shock that over 90% of games kids play (often snack games) combine heuristics of psychology (responses and actions that are almost automatic), marketing and designs which affect player perspectives and understandings. Whether the advertising material is embedded in the game, or the surrounding advertising material, I argue that most kids are surrounded my marketing messages constantly. They are being sold real and virtual items, and most importantly ideas. One of the most dangerous being the idea that tapping for hours and doing busy work is fun (wave to Candy Crush everyone). The purpose of much of the online and mobile games parents are pushing children towards (or allowing them to play) is persuasion in the form of consumer action.

By far, the player is represented in these games as a natural form (humanoid) compared to abstracted (pac-man) or geometric (a box). This is not unintentional. The aim of these games is not to immerse players in the most wonderful, imaginative or socially responsible games ever created. They are made to promote products and ideas, to create competition and to build brand capital. It’s all the rage in advertising and marketing — party because parents are totally asleep at the wheel, conditioned (often by psychologists) to focus on console game content and myths about making kids violent or fat.

So when parents say “too much gaming” its useful to consider what, where and why they are playing. Chances are kids will be playing persuasive games in parental ‘downtime’ unsupervised — as the game is used as a pseudo babysitter. Over time, as kids are allowed to play these games almost constantly, they believe that play and consumer goods are a normal association. It’s only when they want to play console games like Battlefield or GTA that parents tune into the cultural negative dialogue, often completely annexing their own role and history in providing access to the most predatory forms of gaming — persuasive games designed to sell products and ideas.

Personally, I buy a lot of games for my kids. I test drive them all and make sure that they cycle though games of different types with different characteristics. I point out the adver-traps of mobile and online games and encourage them to select games which are designed to be games. That isn’t as easy as it looks.

Here’s an example of a game which a parent has made. It’s super simple, and illustrates that when a child likes a brand or product, that it isn’t necessary to wait for the brand-persuasion and instead make your own game!

Compare the the subtle design of the companies kid-focused website –  notice how kids can look at all the engines (which they can buy). Also look at the way games are used to promote paid-TV. Even if your are not interested in games, there is a form of cultural amnesia happening in education about brands, products and ideas. While teachers often celebrate the brilliance of Apple and Google, much less is talked about when it comes to how they use these products for persuasion. The comfortably numb position is to believe that they are making efforts towards ‘social good’, however I argue this is a most naive stance educators can take as it endorses brands rather than demand they respond to educational needs and research.

Shared interests vs daily passion

Whats the difference between shared interests and shared passion? People often seem to confuse the two, as shared interests is a reasonable compromise for fitting in and belonging to a group. We’re happy to find other people with similar interests and outlooks as it means working with them is all the more rewarding. On the other hand, plenty of people don’t share our interests. The worst are the self interested Napoleons who care nothing for alternative views, methods or interests at all.

Shared passion is about everyone having a dream-like, gritty determination towards similar individual or shared goals. As I’ve discovered in the last week, getting to chase down that passion with people who have gone down that hard road before in their own lives is akin to a learning mana potion. By the time the kids show up mid-morning in our 4 teacher, open space PBL classroom … All 80 of them have spent two hours with tennis and soccer coaches who share the same passion. I remain convinced that many people undertake teacher training to get a job, and many are yet to find their subject passion at under graduate level. Unlike many countries, a prior passion is not assessed in the current University enrollment scheme. Its a shame, as I really think teaching without a passion is a lie and contributes to the drop out rate of the profession (along with insular ideologies and political fluffery).

It’s difficult to therefore compare any place I’ve been teaching at to this … The shared love of the game, the community hopes and effort that backs the kids means that teaching begins on a high every day and the kids have a natural affinity and kindred passion that really changes the dynamic of the classroom.

Makes me wonder why schools insist on homogeneous approaches which as Kieran Egan said “ensures no one truly becomes an expert of passionate about anything” … Something that technology can’t overcome anymore than chalk could. Two hours a day to follow your passion before entering the more general landscape of politically assembeled “learning” clearly works wonders …