Games are not stable: Is this a problem for teachers?

Following on from my post on Pokemon Go! which contained a few plus and minus points for school use, I thought its worth also raising the issue of ‘versioning’.

Commercial games react to numerous factors in their design. The portability and ease of distribution via online ‘update’ technologies allows them to significantly change features of the game – or delete them entirely with little or no notice to players. For example, Go! removed the ‘tracker’ all together in it’s first update – because it didn’t work. This feature was supposed to let players know how far away the creatures are. There was a backlash from players on Twitter, but never the less, the update removed it. Some players reported being reset to level 1 with no recovery options and the radar of interaction was dropped by some 30 meters.

Decent teachers don’t make up lessons overnight, but develop units of work which are released over a year or more. For those using games, the selection of ‘which game’ should therefore be based on a set of core-archetypes (collecting, organising, sharing etc.) and not designate “features” of the game, as they are likely to change.

I think Go! is a fun game, but also over-rewards players for time-spent rather than any critical thinking. As a game, it doesn’t require high-order thinking. Players are rarely punished, other than being forced to wait or walk. The taxonomy of collecting is simple to learn too, but so far has little hint of inter-player trading or battles away from portals gyms with other players. I hope we get there, but right now, it’s not.

The ‘fun’ factor is important, but so too is the depth of reasoning and critical thinking that is required in a constellation of other titles, many of which require the player to develop the ability to create and organise information and materials in a taxonomy – or battle other players. In many ways, Go! is an oddity in the genre of a casual-game, in that it uses GPRS and looted the Ingress geo-location database, rather than come up with a system in which players could collect and become ‘portal’ makers themselves. Given the volume of players in comparison to Ingress – there doesn’t appear to be a reason not to do allow this in terms of ‘fun’ or ‘leveling’, but rather an experiment in getting players to move to a particular space for a particular time.

The updates do make the game harder, in the sense that less information is available to the player, which means they are likely to spend more time and ‘browse’ the area more than last week. If this was a shopping-reward app, then it’s not hard to see why this would be useful and why allowing players to make ‘portals’ would be far less attractive.

So while many teachers (inc me) have explored the game in class with students, we still have a responsibility to children – over and above fun. Right now, there is very little being said by Nintendo or their partners about the road map and that’s a problem for programming quality learning episodes. Unlike Minecraft, Go! has a much smaller ‘core’ to work with – and zero community involvement (remember Minecraft was built on user-mods and Ingress on user created geo-location portals, using a taxonomy of tools (power-ups, attack and defend, charge and re-charge, with an global ‘chat’ system and a two-faction ‘war. It even allowed ‘missions’ to be created by players for players.

Go! has none of this – but is clearly very popular, and already the Edu Hashtaggers are having outdoor-meet ups (with other teachers) about it- but is that really enough for it to be chosen over other games in the limited time teachers have available for ‘play’ so far?

It seems that the decades of research into games isn’t getting to the teacher-audience at the professional level it needs to and in many ways (to me) Go! is backward move towards the tragedy of EdTech – homogeneity and casualising complex things rather than having — a robust media/technology — evidence based approach to games and muves. But Go! get’s attention and is fun, so for now – it’s worth watching, but personally, it doesn’t warrant 10 hours of my precious class time, because the taxonomy of games-in-learning simply doesn’t support un-cooked and unstable commercial offerings – even if they are popular. Go! has to be part of bigger agenda if it is to be more than the new Google Wave.



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.

Twitter and Facebook are not where kids are heading. Meet Kik and Oink.

There is a myth, perpetuated for little more reason than it’s sellable-fallacy, that kids are gravitating to Twitter and Facebook. From this point, numerous arguments have been made in the sub-culture Alan Lavine brilliantly described as “Edlandia” – a sharp and humurous hat-tip to Portlandia the TV show (relates to MOOCS).

There is pervasive notion that the issues today are the same as those even three years ago. They might continue to sell this obsolete rhetoric to Edlandians, but kids are using very different networks – and here’s why.

Kids are being given hand-held devices. iPod touch, low end Androids and so on. They are no using desktops, laptops or TABLETs. If Edlandians paid attention to advertising data and sales data as much as they do their Twitter feed-bowls they’d know this.

Kids are heading to Instagram and Kik because they are essentially the two messaging services that appeal.

Instagram being the ‘selfie’ universe that screams “I am am here” and Kik the natural successor to MSN Messenger, saying “I belong”.

On signing up for Kik, it will go off and find your friends from other places. No age verification process – choose a name and you’re in. It doesn’t bother to mention it’s geo-locational by default either. Kid’s like it, because Kik automatically builds your close network (the one that matters most) for zero effort. If you missed the Blackberry Messenger phenomenon (we didn’t get that in Australia) – then Kik is the same idea, just on a way bigger scale.

Kids are interested in friend based networks. They don’t waste time talking about PLNs ore trying to self-justify why they send hours a day gazing into a piece of glass like the Edlandians. Kids are mildly interested in the famous and idioms constantly pushed to them by the media if they are bored. Kik ensures every person is a media outlet and a brand at a younger age. It’s massive with tweens, and probably all new to you right?

Intragram says “I am here” and Kik’s multi-participant ‘group’ conversations say “I belong” – or more worryingly, I’m an outcast. The potential for cyber-bullying is mind-melting.

Why is Kik not like Twitter?

Firstly, Kik won’t appeal to those who’ve build a business using Twitter to sell themselves as a brand. Like video-games, you probably won’t hear about it at ISTE this year at all. It holds no value, apart from being represented as an example of ‘bad internet’. It’s ‘bad’ because it won’t work as a direct selling layer. It would be great for messaging colleagues. Kik provides ‘small networking’ where they are selling ‘massive networking’. If you didn’t know better, you’d believe MASSIVE is mandatory in all things right now.

Twitter is, (as forums are) – a shopping mall of entertainment and opinion, where no one really knows who you are – nor do they actually care. Twitter for Edlandians is free feeding bowl of chaotic ideas, resources and events. In between these tweets are the irrelevant ‘self-advertising’ of consultants still feeding off false idioms, first aired in 2007.

Is Kik like Google Plus?

I’ll set Google Plus aside here, as it seems to be a growing source of productive groups. G+ doesn’t work for the Twitter salesman, not those who want a free feed. G+ appears to me to foster more productive communities of practice (which are nothing new) – See – The Well. Google Plus however is populated by the grown-ups.

Is Kik like Facebook?

Facebook is of course the archetypal villan in media-representation of cyber-bullying and the ‘slippery slope’ of failing young people. Like MSN Messenger, My Space and Bedo, Facebook has a connected identity with a generation that will fade in it’s appeal to the next.

Kik will be the network your tweens will want – and probably already have. They know you know about Facebook and Twitter – Kik is like texting (or so it appears to a-typical adults). But it’s not. It’s a very private, geo-located fishbowl that is growing fast.

Kik lets them see if their friends have seen their message. There’s no age verification, seemingly no teen safeguards on the connected app OinkText. If you are a parent, I doubt you’ll like Oink Text. This add on nag-app, pushes ‘randoms’ looking to chat. They call it a friend finder. Hello Yahoo Chatrooms, circa 1998 – A/S/L. Who remembers them? Not the Edulandians thats for sure. Savvy tweens will avoid Oink Text (and others) but the lonely, the disaffected and the vulnerable I could well imagine meeting some very dubious characters through it.

Is Kik like Linked In

Ah Linked In. This is where people make profiles when they have no reputation, relevance or ability to use social media. Its laughable how people use it give themselves grandious titles to fool the world into thinking they are something they are not. Here’s a wake up, if you are only on Linked In, you don’t blog, you don’t tweet and you don’t do something outside that phoney profile, it’s a 200 foot billboard saying “I am a n00b, who’s faking it”. So no, Kik is not like linked it, it’s not a desperate business card or forum.

If I’m a teacher should I be worried?

Yes. Kik is one of a number of tools like this, all of which give kids the friend-networks they crave – and lock you out of. Talking about using Twitter to the Kik-Gen will make you appear a dinosaur. Kik has no educational or pedagogical value whatsoever.

If I’m a parent should I be worried?

Yes, most schools have no clue what Kik (and others) are, how they function or where. They are focused on the fallacies being fed to them by the media and Edlandian consultants. You need to know what Kik is, because you’re kids probably do already. It’s not like Facebook, it’s more like hyper-SMS messaging. What I’m saying is, even the Edlandians who think they are on the cutting edge of educational technology are sadly illiterate.

What else is there to worry about?

How about Snap Chat? Essentially, photo-sharing app, Snapchat lets you determine how long the recipient can view your picture or video, from 1 to 10 seconds. After that, it self-destructs. Young people love it for sending goofy selfies to one another for a laugh. You can imagine what they can do with this when it comes to bullying.

Why do kids use Kik, Instagram and Snap Chat?

Kids don’t use Instagram, Kik or Snap Chat just to communicate. They use it for three more important things, which parents need to wrap their heads around.

  1. Identity (who am I, maybe I’m this, what happens if I say that, is this version of me good?) It’s a messy business in real life, now amplified in the digital.
  2. My Community (do I fit it, am I normal, who is like me, who can help me, can I help them) The digital world is full of illusions that we identify with – it share a lot with how we find comfort and shared experience in music and video games too.
  3. Finding solace and comfort (It’s good to know someone cares, that there is someone to reach out to, someone to listen when seemingly no one else does. Its dangerous thing to seek online, but in lieu of finding it in RL, it’s just a tap away).

Why do they like video-games like Minecraft? Because it feeds them the 3 things they “think” they want most from technology (and life).

The point of this post is in to highlight my growing frustration with the commercialisation which has corrupted Edlandia. While I’ve been advocting for games in the classroom (not very successfully), it seems I might as well point some other things the rhetoric ignores.

The current generation of 7 year olds don’t need teaching about Twitter, Blogs or Wikis. They simply need you to be aware of, and understand what they do use – which will have an impact on how they see themselves, others, the world – and YOU.

This of course plays havoc with the current commercial market of Edlandia which would have you believe something entirely different is happening. I’m Type217 on Kik, see ya on the Tween-side soon.

Minecaft, Jeb and Jack’s mum

It has been said, more than a few times Minecraft is addicting kids. What this addiction is ( spending time being creative and learning how to use the Internet to reach ambitious computing goals) is less clear.

This post is for a kid called Jack, who replied to a previous post, saying how he didn’t think he could talk to his mum about Minecraft. So here’s some stuff that looks at why that might be, and what to do about it.

According to ‘gratification theory‘, kids and adults are drawn to media to meet their psychological needs (information, entertainment, social interaction, mastery, control and so on). As games are absorbing, they can act to reduce children’s anxiety and worry too. It sone reason I think teachers should think long and hard before rolling into kid-game-worlds with their subject mastery agenda. Yet it seems they are keen on gamifying their classrooms … regardless of whether this is a good thing or bad – it’s popular.

Some kids might be rich, they might have everything – but still feel alone. Minecraft might help them with that feeling. This is one of numerous plausible situations where a kid might find Minecraft a place to go to sooth unpleasant thoughts and feelings which are not being met by other games or other media such as Facebook or YouTube.

For each kid I’ve seen play or met during playing Minecraft – they are often interested in two things – self expression and social interaction. This is something they feel they are getting -regardless of parental belief of this. To the kid, this is real and concrete as that is how kids brains work.

Several studies have shown that kids watch television and play video games for entertainment, to spend time with family and when they are bored. Minecraft does this, but it also provides self expression and social interaction (beyond the family hierarchies)

More interestingly, kids choose games which suit their mood, where as adults tend to use media (television, video, the Internet) to improve their mood. For parents – young children are experimenting with social interaction, building knowledge and skills where as teens are using it to relax and escape. If she’s in the mood to be creative, she’s in the mood to play Minecraft. This doesn’t mean she’s in the mood to play Dishonoured, or that Dishonored would change her mood. Theres no association between wanting to play Minecraft and wanting to play an R-Rated game, but this doesn’t stop the media inferring it.

Minecraft is perhaps a new (and therefore more noticeable) media. But it’s still a media. Calling it ‘addictive’ serves to simplify games in the mind of adults lacking schemas and knowledge of games. The media is not particularly moral, ethical or interested in child development and is never un-biased or transparent.

For most adults, learning about Minecraft is hard (too hard). It doesn’t have an easily accessed ‘story’. Adults learn though stories not facts. For example, many people know about the story of Steve Jobs vs Bill Gates. They don’t know too many facts.

They probably know about the Facebook guy or the two guys that made Google, yet probably don’t know who Jens Bergensten is. But chances are, their kids know who Jeb is – and of course Notch. In case you didn’t know, Jeb is the lead developer for Minecraft, not Notch.

If you like, Jeb is one of the most important people in the game world – and from all accounts, a very nice guy – someone who I don’t think for a second would be anything less than an amazing influence on my own kids – should they ever meet him. To my kids, Jeb seems real. He’s not like Apple or some game studio – he’s a person, who appears on videos and is talked about all the time. If you like, Jeb is that neighbourhood kid that parents hear about, but don’t know. There is the story of Minecraft, the story of Notch and the ballard of Jeb. See below for a quick intro to what I mean.

So if games are inherently bad or even if good games go bad, then you’d think that those who make them are bad or go bad too. They are presented by the media at least as a type of  anti-culture, like Nirvana or Slayer. Making millions by addicting kids to games. However we still have cigarettes and numerous things we know kill people. For example, if two countries want to war – why to they need guns? Why not just go and do some hand to hand? Well because people like to win – and tools help them win. In the media war on gaming, presenting them as the greedy bad-guy harming innocents in an excellent story.

But that isn’t the story I see, what Minecraft says to kids (to me is) – anyone can have a regular job, and still be in the running to do something they really love one day – and right now you can start making unique things from your imagination.

It might not be a cure for cancer, feed the world or regain flagging western interest in religion, but to many kids, Minecraft at least improves their spatial cognition, co-ordination and fine motor skills and is a social-network in it’s own right. It is far less toxic than Facebook (peer-pressure to create rather than be a target/entertainer) – and leads to the all important positive self-identity and agency all kids benefit from – if parents use it for a media-healthy diet.

Minecraft is not linked to poor general health. You won’t get fat, sick or become stupid playing Minecraft. All kids are notoriously poor at managing time. This is why parenting experts have argued for routines for decades. Negative things such as sleep deficit,  less time undertaking heathy activities, mental health, education problems and so on, cannot be attributed to Minecraft any more than they can be attributed to television viewing – and numerous large studies have shown no association between screen-time and physical activities.

Kids are complicated, unique and individual. There is no A-typical gamer. Kids, like adults can make unhealthy lifestyle choices – when they lack information and experience. They can easily suffer from fear, anxiety and phobias, yet studies have shown there is no constant link between screen time and these things.

In short you can’t blame Jeb for the epidemic in childhood obesity (in fact he’s kind of skinny, but we can’t suggest he’s anorxic’s pin-up) ,. We can’t see Minecraft as the problem for monumentally un-imaginative classrooms, poor school funding, prejudice against people of colour, gender or ability either. But the media can, and does many of these – maybe not the Jeb bit.

Society can do that perfectly well without video games. It might do better with them. As young kids are concrete thinkers, the violence and monsters in Minecraft  (or other games) has far less impact than seeing repeated natural disasters on TV or annual ‘biggest loser’ – which form concrete associations about the world and them. They know they are unlikely to meet a creeper, but the world does tend to kill people with trees and fat people are probably going to die sooner rather than later.

If you are a parent, then take some time to sit down and watch the Minecraft Story. It’s a great documentary. It’s just $8 or if that is too much you can also get it from the Pirate Bay for free (on purpose). You’ll begin to see what kids see in it – the other alternative is to watch Dr.Phil and others recycle fear and moral panic about games … something it seems parents are doing. It’s not a game, its a story which you can be part of. For most parents I’ve shown it to, the people at Mojang are exactly the kind of people many parents hope their kids will associate with – or be like. (I do a parent thing where we watch the film and un-pack it, it’s kind of fun).

And finally, the topic of agression. I accept only this (so far) … because this is what the research says about media violence, and games are a part of that medi – yet have unique properties. This means in all the research, games are the least studied, the least known. In over 30 years of research, there is evidence that media contributes as much as any other studied contributor to community violence. There is  a disproportionate amount of media coverage about violence in ‘game media’ compared with other (television, radio, Internet, film and so on) which has a disproportionate impact on public views. This has been found in hundreds of studies over decades.

In short – in all the various forms of media, games are singled out more often and therefore seen as worse yet wholly unsupported in scholarly research which doesn’t see more games or more game-time as contributing to kids and [insert concern] as being a inevitable convergence. In education, there is a similar problem – that eventually subject-mastery and technology will converge. It’s a convenient idea at best to push an agenda, but unproven no matter how much people will it to be true.

Parents don’t have the kind of ‘knowledge structures’ needed to make sense of video games, especially Minecraft. It’s what they call – you are what you eat. If all you eat is an unhealthy diet of media-hate and opinion, then when she’s busy on Minecraft, all you see is negative.

If Minecraft has raised concerns, then this isn’t a bad thing. It’s like finding out eating Burgers and 10 liters of Coke a day is bad for you. It’s an opportunity to think  about media more broadly – for yourself. It’s something worth doing, so you are more likely to do it. Thinking for yourself is fast becoming a lost-art in a culture addicted to media-feeds on Facebook, Twitter and so on. Surely not! I am so not addicted to social-media. Sure you are … you just don’t have a hand-controller.

  • Talk to kids about what they have seen online (in games, on TV as well)
  • Find out about the factors than enhance negative impacts of media (everyone has a screen in their pocket, the Internet is un-regulated, the media has a commercial agenda, pain and suffering gets human attention – so sells ad-space and so on).
  • There is no evidence that cartoon violence or fantasy (Harry Potter, Bugs Bunny, Minecraft) is harmless yet media constantly uses violence as a way to condition children that it can be used in lieu of being correct, to get your own way and as a punishment for non-compliance with the norm-behaviours. This is often exaggerated in television and film as fantasy telling a morality tale (See any Disney film ever).

We know being a good role model with your own media use and encouraging alternates – walking the dog, riding a bike, painting, reading and so on have positive impacts on kids. However, if a parent comes home, eats and settles down to an evening of television most days – this is un-heathy for the child. If the parents reads or listens to music and never turns on the TV, this too is un-healthy. If they carry a smart phone – and use it to socialise virtually and exclude the child (under 13s are usually banned) this in un-healthy for the child. If they watched Die Hard and said to their kids “its not appropriate, you can’t watch it”, this is unhealthy.

So before bagging Minecraft – take a look at the totality of media use in the house. Then try watching The MInecraft Story with your kids … you never know, it might be the first step in connecting the kids world and talking about it.

I hope Jack’s mum reads this … he feels like he can’t talk to you … and he wants to.

Minecraft Dilemma

Minecraft Dilemma

A school in Sweden has made Minecraft compulsory. Settle down, this is a headline – Minecraft didn’t become a subject like Maths or Science, just another ‘thing’ schools make kids do during some appointed time. Mums against Minecraft will be horrified still.

This is a dilemma, as it’s impossible to make learning compulsory, however I get the point that as an immersive experience, some students would perhaps find it of use. How you’d measure that is another matter – especially as standardized tests are lump-hammers. Other comments immediately called for ‘evidence’ that it would be edumacational. A standard volley these days, but indicative of the cultural assumption that other parts of academic activities are more educational. This is the belief that what has proven true in the past is stable and improvements can be made every year.

I am not denying the nobility of that idea, but as this comment reflects, schools seem to assume while technology is useful in modernity, and notionally see this as ‘computer assisted learning’ – they remain unable to deal with the potential that it is only now that accepted educational theory from respected scholars like Dewey and Pappert can be leveraged though well designed games. Note that I am talking about ‘networked independence’ and ‘learning’ – not ‘teaching’ as an act.

I am also not suggesting that this would be true for all learners, or that having an adult teach something is not a worth while and valid part of childhood development – far from it – as there is plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise, though like games, there is no universal truism. For many kids (one of my own) not understanding how he learns, means he will tune-out. Many teachers do this too, “oh, video-games … I can’t learn anything from those” … and tune out too.

Tune back in – it may well be that kids can play games in learning episodes that don’t rely on teacher’s to police it, or put it in a lesson-cage at a certain time of day. This again is well documented in early childhood research. Games are useful for learning in many ways – however the outstanding problem with schools and teachers is pedagogy – something that remains dominated by teachers. Game design remains dominated by imagination and controversy – as games are also a form of art.

Art is education. Playing a guitar teaches you many things, and draws the learner into ever deeper learning. It is only objective bias that argues, picking up a game controller is time-wasting entertainment – mostly in order to deny the possibility that a more of the school-day can be given over to greater freedom of choice, liberty and art – not less. I do advocate for Minecraft, but endorse the sentiment in this comment completey. Learning is not better is you put it in a straight jacket and assume a teacher has to teach it.

I argue this lack of attention to games, and right now Minecraft is part of the reason parents are picking up the heat at home and concerned about the amount of time kids are playing it. When they think ‘is this learning’ – they imagine what learning looks like. If it looks like lessons, cells and bells – then you know what most will decide.

Games like Minecraft are a role model for how learning could occur – and schools as a function of society still refuse to accept their resistance to change the day to day regime is setting a bad example to kids and parents. Teachers are a function of school, so it’s futile to say they ‘don’t get it’. They do a good job, inside the parenthesis of the job. When people say “I’m stuck in traffic, the correct reply is, no … you are the traffic”. This to me is the  impass in educational technology right now. The gurus that espoused Web2.0 can’t see past it – because web2.0 dogma is based on computer assisted learning. You can sell that to schools, but clearly you can’t sell it to all teachers and only a handful of students.

Great to see Minecraft in schools – but better to see schools operate more like Minecraft.