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).

Apple and Google don’t really care about game content.

This week, a mobile video game has received a lot of media attention. The game has now been removed from Apple and Google’s online stores after a social media based campaign  highlighted the outrageous material, which deliberately named and represented in game characters ‘aboriginal’ and required the player, at some point in the game, to ‘kill’ them. You can read about this, and what Google and Apple did here.

This is a failure of governance. Apple and Google are under no obligation to ‘review’ any game against the Australian Classification board associated with film, television, consoles and computer games. Secondly, the material content in this game plays out in numerous other mediums such as film and television quite differently. Numerous TV drama’s have shown people from different cultural and social groups beaten and killed for entertainment. For the cowboy to save the day, there have to be ‘bad guys’ to shoot and we watch the hero put down ‘bad guys’ from first person angles constantly.

The outrage against this game is of itself part of the interactive entertainment discourse in which interactive entertainment has been represented as MORE dangerous than other media.

Social media – and the public sphere is now in a constant state of outrage. Most people in Australia have watched a TV show and seen a movie where anti-social behavior is amplified to a point where they find it repugnant and vile. Of course TV and film have avenues of complaint, but will push the moral and social boundaries in pursuit of their art. For example, the BBC seem to relish drama which boarders on the horrific and sick, shot in moody half-tones, where animals and humans are tortured and abused. Robson Green is an actor who appears time an again in this ultra-violent dramas – but no one’s running a petition to ban Robson Green or have him reform his thinking. Apple and Google similarly claim they are ‘actors’ and not the producers.

At no point am I suggesting that this game has any merit at all. But this outrage should be applied to ALL games which Apple and Google publish, circumventing scrutiny and responsibly with what I’ll call the “Robson Green clause”.

While I think the correct decision was to remove this game (which is not a BAN in the sense that it has broken any law) the issue remains that media violence in other media is pervasive and remains the biggest concern of parents when it comes to allowing children to watch TV or see movies. In fact parents are far less worried about video games than film or TV – a point the media often gloss over in pursuit of an easy panic-piece.

The evening news offers thin warnings before launching into highly graphic images in order to ignite particular fears and responses, just a TV drama casts the audience as passive observers or all manner of horrific acts — as part of leisure time ‘fun’.

Last week I watched a panel presenter on  entertainment show #theprojecttv ask a woman (who filmed her now deceased baby, coughing with whooping cough). In the live cross, he asked the woman – what it was like to watch her baby in that condition?  — clearly inferring, – watching your baby die?. The director had already cut to the woman to capture her emotional response. Why did he ask this and not some other question at this time? Because it’s high drama to see the poor woman’s eyes well up when re-visiting a traumatic and devastating moment. This is entertainment, with a superimposed #theprojecttv hashtag silently asking for responses – but for what useful purpose?

I found it at best ignorant and at worse – violent. The premise of the bit-piece was that a “woman released a video of her baby with whooping cough to raise awareness” – the Robson Green clause again.

To me, the biggest question here is why Google and Apple are not subject media regulation in their ‘apps’? After all, they want to be part of society and cannot simply expect to profit from it without being held accountable – like the rest of us.

Apple and Google avoid it, because ‘video games’ are simply ‘software’ and stand outside legislation. Banning the game is simply a response to both companies expending social capital in the backlash — and so seek to reduce it and of course, avoid any comment. In fact, neither company report statistics on ‘game sales’ at all. They don’t have to, so while you read about the market-size of video games — these figures don’t include anything more than a guess or a a tidbit of data dropped by some marketing guy.

The CTIA – The Wireless Association, an industry trade group, collaborated with the ESRB to largely apply ESRB’s rating system to mobile devices. It was launched in 2011, with Apple and Google being notable abstentions from subscribing companies.

The question now becomes: why are these media giants avoiding their corporate responsibility towards mobile games – at the whole of market level – and what can the public sphere do to make them provide transparent vetting of games?

Don’t be fooled, this is not an oversight. Both companies make (but are not reporting) a lot of money from mobile games. Both companies have created their own ‘rating’ guide and refuse to participate in any third-party regulatory body. Therefore, the content of any game (which children and adults can access) goes though no useful ‘vetting’ as the ‘spokesman’ puts it. — And I’m talking here about the MATERIAL — whereas there are clearly some games which promote alarming behavior in players – such as habitual use, paid leveling and in-game purchase regimes.

It would be great to see ‘journalists’ try and put this debate to these corporations — and not to take the easy story about material content, which no doubt they picked up on from the re-share rate on Facebook and Twitter.

The mobile game market is a huge problem and needs far more scrutiny than it’s getting.

 

 

 

Great games for under ten bucks?

In an effort to start collecting the use of games in the classroom, I’ve make a really short Google Form here in which I’m asking people to recommend a game for the classroom, which costs under ten dollars. The results of what people put into this are shared on this response form. We know people are using Minecraft, Portal etc., but for many schools free or cheap is an essential criteria for choosing a game.

I’m asking for simple information: the game name, a link if you have it and to choose what platform and game type best describes it from a list (or add your own). Finally, just let people know why you recommend it.

The aim is simply to start to collect what games are being used in a spreadsheet of data that you can use for your own purposes. No names or personal information please … this is anonymous crowd sourcing. Open to anyone, teachers, students and parents!

Thanks for your input

Negotiations of Play

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I’m pleased to say that I’ve posted my project website for my thesis, called Negotiations of Play. This is designed to support parents and to capture the experiences of Australian parents and caregivers of children aged 4-12. Right now you can leave your email address if you want to notified of then the study commences. I expect that this will take about 12 months to collect.

Overall, there is no research into what parents and children think about online games or how parents mediate them in Australia. Much of the reports in mass media tend to discuss statistical data which they use to inductively to tell parents what they should or should not be doing. The dominant literature which voices concern focuses on, and extends the long running negative ‘media effects’ debate by experimental psychology. The positive often focuses on theories of ‘flow’ and the design of games and player behaviours, especially fun, motivation and enjoyment.

My approach is somewhat different in that I am interested in the broad negotiations between the media and families and inter-family conceptions of the role video games play in family life as media markets, which to me plays a key role in developing both adult and childrens literacy. The market benefits though reproductive process helping expand what games can do. Evidence of this can been seen in the rise of new forms of games which negates much of the ‘violence in games’ claims these days. I see what games do as establishing what I’m calling a neo leisure class. People in constant negotiation with game designers and media producers through the cultural production of their avatars and game-identities. In particular, I’m interested in network mediated culture which I think is largely ignored or overlooked in game-studies, yet as every Steam or Xboxer knows is an essential site for identity, socialising and play.

I have many people to thank for getting me to this point: Not least: My wife and kids and our household’s game characters – Vormamim, Vorsaken and LollykingOMG each of whom have played an important role in developing my interest in the issues and controversies of parenting the gamer generation. Then there are those whom I know in-game by gamer-tag (anonymously represented here). Next, those whom have contributed significantly to what I now call ‘work’ – the ones who I ‘talk to’ on Twitter, but also those who have been working on using games for over a decade in Australia: Judy O’Connell, Bron Stuckey, Jo Kay, Kerrie Johnson, Westley Field and countless others in Australia and overseas such as Derek Robinson and Peggy Sheehy, two people I see as key critical thinkers in what games can do to improve kids lives, especially those kids who are increasingly being marginalised by educational technology’s neoliberal-elitism.

Finally, and not least my PhD supers Professor Catharine Lumby and Dr. Kate Highfield who have been amazing in the last year of my life and lit the darkest of days when I’ve needed it most. A few more essentials, Dr. David Saltmarsh who has really expanded my thinking and coffee drinking and Mal Booth at UTS Library who shares a love of ink-pens, Alfas and innovation.

Values in play: A discussion

It’s been said that media is always arbitrary, it comes loaded with values. I like to look at games as having embedded values, co constructed by the player and the designer. These are now so complex no one experiences a game in the same way. Game values, and often reflect social and cultural understandings shared between people and groups. For example, fairness, where opposing players expect the other to abide by the rules.

What I’d like to invite you to do, is to contribute a game title and the values that you believe it encompasses. They might even appear contradictory as you list them. My goal is to develop a list of values that you see in games you play.

I’ll kick off with Team Fortress 2: competition, comradeship, humour, ambition, compassion.

Serious Play Conference

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If you’re interested in serious games, serious play and so forth, there is a conference on right now using #seriousplay which is throwing up some interesting ideas, research and resources. My good friend Bron Stuckey is presenting on Gamification along with Peggy Sheehey and Knowclue Kid, I only wish I could have tagged along.

The website for the conference is here. For a mere $50 a year, you can become part of the Serious Games Association too (here).

For an example of the kind of work being done in this field, have a look at this ‘social clues‘ game for children with autism. I don’t think lacking social clues or empathy towards others is necessarily limited to autism — perhaps playing this game might help the ‘normal’ people to be more inclusive and empathetic — not least in the workplace later in life.

Another great resource is called Preloaded. This to me is where the future is — people who understand media-games-education working with libraries, museums, and broadcasters to bring great games into learning though methods other than the belief of the current local educational czar who may or may not be interested. Preloaded is well worth spending time exploring.

Videogames and Australians

It would be incorrect to assume Australians have responded to the phenomenon of videogames in the same way other nations have. In a sense today’s contemporary gameplay is a global network of servers and players whom preference certain games or genres. However, despite the ease of access to international information about videogames, childhood, parenting and school, very little information is based on national evidence and is not one single progression of discussion, study or debate – but a multitude which often have little in common aside from the term videogames.

I argue that videogames are essentially grouped into three periods of study and interest. Each period of study has seen increasing diversity and technological advancements of videogames and gameplay. I make a point of also separating videogames and gameplay because they evoke quite different conceptions and emotional reactions in both adults and children.

The first period is pre-2001. I realise that between the mid 1970s and 2002 videogames made many technological and cultural advances, but in terms of study, this period was concerned mostly with what games are, what play is and the effects of video games on society. It followed a long tradition of viewing media with suspicion and conducting experiments with small groups of participants to try and guage how playing certain games (mostly violent and sexualised) altered the behaviour of the sample subjects. As numerous scholars have argued, the methods used to do this are suspect and they made many assumptions, demonised and simplified games to the point of being little more than an erant-interactive film. Despite the claims from clinical science, it has not been shown to lead to real-life violence in any predictable way.

The second period is between 2001 and 2009. This is essentially because this period of scholarly interest and research began to look more deeply at the assumptions being made about videogames. In the literature, you will find many respected media, sociology, game and educational academics began to write about and discuss new dimensions of games and critically appraise the ongoing claims about aggressive and habitual behaviour in real-life. People like Marc Prensky, Jasper Juul, James Gee, Henry Jenkins and James Seeley Brown expanded the field of research (and potential research) well beyond the realms of science, economics and mathematics. This era also is the foundation of the majority of ongoing debate about videogames in popular culture. It plays out in newspaper, magazines, television and websites on a daily basis.

The essential question is usually: Are videogames bad for childhood development (and therefore society) and what should be done about it.

The answers probably lie in the third period of research and study of videogames, which can best be described as beginning. In Australia and prior to 2008, videogames were treated in national studies as a leisure activity. In that regard a videogame was treated like a trip to the movies, playing a game of soccer, listening to music or reading a book. It was not treated as a media-text with unique properties. It was not investigated in the public domain in association with or in preference to the kind of media-choices that families take in their stride in 2014. Most significantly, it was not treated as a form of literature nor something which was used in education or the workplace.

We therefore know very little about videogames and Australians right now. We have seen reports of statistics, but these often focus on simple demographics and size of the market. This is unsurprising given the close association some scholars now have with the games industry — and how secretive the game industry is about their data and their customers players.

In 2008 we knew that most parents were not overly concerned about aggression, violence or so called addictive qualities of video games. We also know that those parents with children aged 12 and over we considered to be the first generation of children to have grow up with access to video games and that over half had played video games as a child and continued to do so using a computer. Again, no specific details on the type of computer or game and even less about consoles and handhelds.

We can’t compare todays figures with older figures because there have been significant revisions to how videogames have been classified and how questions have been asked at the national level. For example, videogames are now considered part of children’s ‘screen-time’ use, but as most parents know — that use varies as does children’s access and the type of games they can play at any given available time. No data is being collected on the use of screen time or games in education, despite the billions of dollars of educational technology funding lavished on teachers and school systems since (weirdly) 2008.

What we do know is that the media presents videogames in ways intended to gain the attention of parents: either as customers or to perpetuate the same ‘media effects’ panic which has been rolling though popular media since the 1930s. We do know that all children and the vast proportion of adults play video games of one sort or another in the home, where as the vast majority of teachers and students (identity switch) do not. It strikes me as bizarre that some teachers are now expressing new interest in game-based-learning as though our culture has not already embraced it as media entertainment and used it to make sense of the world from the inside out for a very long time.

Videogames are a prolific and much enjoyed form of media entertainment in Australia. Despite ongoing media panic, Australians have not had the level of negative emotional reaction to videogames as might have occurred in other nations. We can’t assume that data and facts from PEW (American Life) can be generalised to Australia in the way the Aussie Dollar is a bit like the US Dollar.

We don’t need to hide from teaching and studying games, and games don’t have any excuses to make. The fact that Australians are highly likely to engage with complex, computational problem solving from pre-school onwards despite un-ambitious and media-conservative educators and narrow media ownership whos dislike of games is obvious — is quite remarkable.

So if anyone questions why you’d want to use videogames in school or home it is fair to say that as a media-text we see far more value in them than media reports broadly admit and far less danger than they claim.