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).

Minecraft vs Minecraft Story Mode

Minecraft Story Mode is not Minecraft, but an example of the increasing interest and ability of game developers to engage children in what amounts to a neo-novella.

Neo-novellas are interactive, animated, short stories written for adults (which children also enjoy). It’s a game, but it’s not Minecraft. If you want a review of Story Mode, I suggest Meta Critic here. This post is about why Story Mode is new cultural move for the brand.

It’s been widely accepted that the uptake of digital media doesn’t divorce the user from older media. New iterations become part of the  cultural aesthetic and processes carried on by society. Story Mode brings a new set of adventures to the Minecraft brand, finally being more recognizable as a text type than the original game to parents. It actually has a story and characters that deliver on the narrative.

While this ‘port’ from one popular cultural artifact (Game of Thrones, Walking Dead) might not be a more than another remediation, it provides a key bridge between the original sandbox game, which is mostly autotelic in nature, to one which is clearly a consumer-driven product that expands the franchise. For parents who didn’t see the ‘point’ of Minecraft, this new title presents itself in a much more recognisable form. Unlike the developers other titles, Minecaft Story Mode isn’t bound by it’s original ‘show’. It’s likely that they can sell ‘new adventures’ to players for the foreseeable future. The hardcore Minecrafters will carry on with their creative labours and server-owners will continue to farm ‘mini-game’ players. Story Mode isn’t Minecraft. It’s a game which is based on Minecraft, paying closer attention to YouTube popularity than the original game.

Story Mode is a potential gateway game from endless hours of personal creativity and mini-gaming (which comes with many issues for parents) to a game which leads kids into the well-established narrative-games. It remains to be seen if Story Mode has any new ‘literacy’ value to children, but it certainly has tremendous cross-platform economic value to the developers.  It also serves to mask some of the concerns parents have over Minecraft “over use” and the kind of trading, collecting and behavioral conditions present on mini-game servers. Minecraft has effectively had a sizeable PR overhaul in Story Mode as well as another injection of cash for its owners.

Blooming Confusing

I have a confession. I collect Blooms adaptations. It seems like the making up new Blooms is a very popular pass time of teachers using the Internet these days. Most of them don’t feel particularly interesting, but I tend to bookmark them as I find them as a sort of personal Blooms Museum. Every now and again I find one that is interesting such as this.

Vivians-New-Bloom-April

You can grab a copy from the author here and get a better quality version. What I like about this is that it’s a loop, not a triangle. It’s also a good attempt at describing the typical problem-solution cycle evident in video games. The author is proposing that these stages can be constructively aligned with Blooms taxonomy.

If you are teaching though an enquiry process, then this loop is relevant. Rather than learning being a series of steps, which might take place over several days or weeks – consider how this could be uses as a daily activity loop. I’d argue that if a child is involved in this cycle – and more importantly can IDENTIFY where they are in the loop at anytime, then it’s highly likely they will be reasonably engaged and productive. Of course the key is to make sure they are immersed in a learning episode that uses these stages.

The start here, I’d suggest is a good way to pre-test and find a way for students to make something that reveals their interests, knowledge, skills, assumptions, biases and errors. All to often lessons seem to start without doing this at all. If the kid can get 60/60 on a pre-test, then why would they bother doing the task.

Think of a video game, the first thing you get to do is choose gender, race, class and a small selection of gear to get started. We all have our preferences here … as we’re often used to playing (learning) in a certain, familiar modality. There’s nothing wrong with allowing kids to work from their preferences – comfort zone – as ultimately they are going to have to move away from it with the problems you set later.

This loop is something that can be actively tracked and reinforced to students during the enquiry. It can be designed into the sequence of learning with ease. It doesn’t have to use the rigid language of Blooms (high to low) and I’ll declare here that I think this is too dogmatic for modern learners anyway. I think this is a pretty innovative way of looking at learning-loops, and if kids get to try and repeat these loops, know where they are, and why they are doing it — then it’s going to help reinforce the essential value of enquiry based learning.

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.

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.

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

What she makes is Minecraft is your life.

The majority of positive debate about games is assimilationist. It attempts to explain what players are and what they do within the game-studies canon and is often autobiographical in nature. This focus on differences in the nature of reality isn’t particularly useful or informative if you’re a parent, or instructional if you’re a teacher.

For parents, talking about their children’s obsession with Minecraft is the reality. This belief is key, and is a product of irrationally constructing this belief (from the multiple meanings possible) — as media consumers. Their own construction of a safe-useful-productive ‘technologically mediated’ lifestyle is as consumers. Having been subjected to media-messages their whole lives, they focus on the individual child’s actions, responding emotionally to a conflicting array of images and messages which informs them of what successful, healthy parenting looks like. The behavioral response solicited from the media is choose this and reject all others. It’s annoying when children don’t reject it and when you find out why they reject it, it becomes alarming.

We know that product symbolism is an increasingly important strategy in marketing and that it targets families. Using Belk’s (1988) consumer theory of the “extended self” rather than the more common “the second self” from media theory, I suggest that seeing her as a player, where she creates and uses a game character (avatar) to interact with the biome is incorrect. She is using the game as an extended self to reproduce what she knows and is curious about. She has little fascination with the representation (character), but deeply interested in what it can (do) as a result of her interactions and ideas. Put simple, it’s a way of playing “families”.

The power and significance of saying “I’m a Minecraft player” is symbolically important. Parents might say “she plays Minecraft too much” because they are trying rationalize and predict her consumption as an  individual. This has a calming effect, as it glosses over the all important factor of her being part of the consumer community which parents introduce children to as a natural part of contemporary life. This means that she is using Minecraft to reproduce what she sees around her as real life and test it’s plausibility and believability. She is not playing because she is extraordinarily gifted, frustrated with school, or trying to escape reality (which is not broken). She’s playing because it’s a way to reproduce her life through play (naturalistic) and understand the complex media communications between adults and adults and computers as they go about their own lives.

She’s playing Minecraft as an extended self,  which she has more power and control over the inputs and outputs of the synthetic world than she does outside the game. The consumer society is weird to kids, with helicopter parenting, bluetooth cupholders and endless Facebooking of food. None of that feels as normal as parents assume it should.

If she’s playing too much then this is likely to be somewhat of a mirror to the overall family consumption (or avoidance) of media and technology, not because she’s addicted or trying to escape reality. Let me pick up on that. Reality is not broken as McGonigal claims. McGonigal focus on the individual as being “not good at life” which is fundamentally misleading as it treats game players as a minority discourse from the outset. Reality for children are parents hooked on consumer culture communities such as Facebook and Twitter and as such see themselves as part of a global culture which seems to combine corporeal and synthetic communications — and that is something that kids then feel they need to learn (to be a good kid) which frustrates parents rather than pleases them — as kids tend to be allowed games.

I argue that Minecraft in schools is more about the teachers own relationships with consumer culture communities as it is about learning. She’s not playing Minecraft to learn in school, she’s playing to reproduce what she believes is the reality adults create or want, and therefore Minecraft is creates further pluralistic confusion. Teachers of course follow the assimilation canon, claiming that Mincraft is “good learning” and that it should be “part of learning” by which they mean, their preferred lifestyle. No one is wondering how this affects kids already confused by the technologically mediated consumer society.

My hypothesis is that parents who complain their kids are hooked on Minecraft have themselves been assimilated deeply into consumer culture though buying and using products such as the iPhone and iPad — that they don’t see the significance of their child’s play. She’s playing Minecraft as a way to make sense of the most important things in the world — her parents — and is confused about why parents choose one media over another, which is bad, which is good and so on. To get her off Minecraft means getting off Facebook and Instagram, putting the phone down, turning off the TV and co-playing consistently over a long period of time. Minecraft is a mirror of our lives, and we don’t always grow old gracefully do we?