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 …

Creative Writing Games for Stage 3 and above

I don’t like ‘ice-breakers’ as a rule. They tend to be far too pushy for people who are naturally introverted. So as I thought about kicking off a new set of Year 7s this week, I opted to create a simple writing game which later we’ll use as the basis for art making – drawings made from text. This is an example – and great for getting people who think they can’t draw to write (and then make a drawing). The game is designed for table work, so I’d suggest 2-8 players. It lasts about an hour. You’ll notice in the games that there are objects. For my purpose these things are simply concepts, but they could be physical things or even mathematical formulas etc., It’s a pretty low tech game, but I guess you could do this online.

The aim of the activity is to get students to think creatively and to critically follow rules to re-frame their original position. Let me know if you use it or modify it! Creative story writing game.

Active Production Networks: Simplifying PBL for middle-school with media.

Next year, I’m labeling my teaching as ‘active productive network’ based (APN). This is based on Goodyear (1992) SHARP learning cycles. Among several other scholars interested in how networks produce and reproduce knowlege, Peter Goodyear at Sydney University is someone I recommend you discover.

The key idea in APN is that it places students in a persistent, iterative corporeal and hyper-mediated process of rendering tacit knowledge (the things we are required to teach) inside local working practices (and cultures) through a share-able media interchange.

Unlike the ‘flipped classroom’, APN doesn’t attempt to jump-start learning with a media blitz, compensate for a lack of time, money, resources or make a shallow effort to reform teacher behavior to the technological determinism of Web2.0. It relies on every day culture. While  SHARP learning pre-dates YouTube and the subsequent rise and dull fall of Web2.0, APN learning is socially designed and embedded in today’s media culture. The re-production of knowledge, error checking and correction occurs through and because of this network culture. To me, this allows children to explore decision-making processes which have been traditionally denied in schools — even schools which claim to be “Voodle Sites” and so forth.

20141216_084116In this model, there is a pre-defined structure to the learning, where membership allows for constant, mediated, peer-review which I don’t see the same as PBL’s ‘critical friends’ approach. There is also an expert-prompt, which I don’t see the same as a lesson hook.

For example, we might start by asking why do some soccer fans sing and others don’t at matches?. Then we design experiments to find out, collect some raw data, then share and report what we find. The process of designing the experiments is not the same as selecting a method, or being told what method would work best from the outset (classic teaching).

The APN cycle is simpler than PBL, and closer to research than to art or design methods such as design thinking. Inside it, students provide and are provided with persistent peer review (even though as individuals they come and go) online. All they need is a simple communications interchange. The cycle is simple to follow and focuses on the social design of networks which actively reproduce information effectively. First, research problems and questions are defined. Next, experiments are designed which students think will help them process the problem (some will work better than others). The network produces raw data (which can be re-used by anyone) and finally the product appears through student reports and discussions. The discussion of the method (experiment) and the data is vitally important. Some students will repeat the cycle, others will come to a conclusion (at that point). The environment can be open or closed social-media, an open or close video game, open or closed online course … and much more.

Anyway, this is something that I’ll be using in order to compress the seven step PBL process (which does not take into account media networks or cultures) into four in order to accelerate and increase the active cycles that can be had in the classroom (middle school). Here’s a diagram I drew, based on Goodyear (1992; 2014) and the open source bio medical research site design ( The main aim (for me) is to use media spaces as social design, not necessarily an ePortfolio … and so the hunt for the right tool/space to do that begins.

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?


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.