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).


Negotiations of Play


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.

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.

What’s in your fantasy school arcade?

By now you’ve probably worked out I’m a fan of using video-games, and see them as essential to any effort to use digital-media with school children. At the same time games  are “Vegas’ed” — meaning moved off the strip — by many school systems — in favour of media-forms they see as less controversial. This isn’t just software — we’re talking here about physical space — actual walk-in spaces in schools. In an era of open-plan, idea-paint and primary coloured cube-chairs — no ones building arcades.

Imagine you had 20 arcade cabs in a school where kids could go and choose to play one or other game. What would you include on the machines? Why would being able to wander in and play it — be educational or useful?

Most kids don’t play video-games it turns out.

A consistent comment I get from parents, experiencing anxiety and feuds with boys over video games is that “the game” is ruining family life and addictive. There is an imagined cultural portrait in which boys are habitual game users who become anti-social and disconnected.

A report has emerged from the annual E3 Games Showcase (for next years titles) that paints a different story – one likely to be ignored by mass-media. 

In 2010, the Entertainment and Software Association famously told us that only 18% of game players are under the age of 18. In 2011, they said 29% of gamers were over the age of fifty. They also said that women over the age of 18 represented significantly greater proportion of game-players (37%) than boys 17 or younger (13%).

Most significantly for parents, the average age of a video game purchaser is 41, and of those roughly half are female – despite ongoing controversy over the way women are represented in games. 19% of these gamers – pay to play – in online games, but 65% of all gamers play online with other people.

At E3, they released more information for 2013. The average age of player has fallen to 30 years old (from 37) and the largest segment of gamers are 36 and older.

For parents whom might other wise assume game-developers target kids, the reality is less than 20% of kids play games at all. Of the $20.77 billion dollars spent in 2012, more than half is spent by players over the age of 30 who have been playing for 13 years or more. Of that 45% of female. Despite the media-haters focus on violence and sexualisation in games – 90% of the games made have an “E” rating – as in “everyone” and of that 78% of the players play with other people for at least one hour a week and 35% of families consider ‘gaming’ to be a family-activity. In extensive studies of parent opinion of ratings, almost 90% said they used the ERSB ratings system in decision making. Despite anecdotal comments that parents pay little attention to ratings – it is worth saying over 90% of games are either E (Everyone), E10+ (ten and over) or Teen (T).

Game Based Learning – Start Here.

This post presents there ares of consideration, and what to consider when thinking about using a computer or video game as the technological environment for game based learning. It might help you think of how to evaluate various games in pre-selection. Please note that I don’t believe game based learning needs a video game at all, but many people have asked me “which games” and on what devices and platforms, so I hope this helps to start a conversation and thinking critically about the options you might have. To me, making games ‘okay’ is a win – but there’s little cudos in using educational games alone – so really here I’m talking about commercial titles.

Choosing your game

  • Browser compatibility? – Which browsers can they be played on? Many of your students will want to play the games you’re offering on their desktop and laptop computers. If the game you wish to use is accessed from a browser, you need to check that students have access to it – and it functions beforehand.
  • Plugins or software required? – You’ll want to know just how complex the game is. Do students need to download software in order to view them? Will the game pass through the firewall (the number one reason games are kept out of learning). Does the game need to authenticate to the Internet – even if it is actually installed on the local machine.
  • Device compatibility? – Not all games can be played on all devices. You’ll want to know which devices can be used so that you can prepare to support them. For example: Minecraft on the PC is quite different to Minecraft on an Ipad or Xbox. Many ‘app’ games, designed for mobile platforms have no equivalent on the PC or OSX Apple platform. So consider when and were the game will be played – what group sizes, level of supervision and so on – this will help you select the best device for you to use as a game platform – it might not be the one you think of first.
  • Do they play games? – Many students don’t play video or computer games. Some don’t like them, some are not allowed – you can’t assume all kids love video and computer games. Find out what games they do play … you may find from this you decide not to use a video game at all, but start to think about using your classroom as a game-space, and in doing so might create a role-play, use dice … all manner of alternatives. Don’t assume games based learning means video and computer games.
  • Data Collection? – Consider what data the game will collect (be that a video game or not).  Computer and Video Games collect a stack of data – some of it more useful than others. Consider, when choosing a game – what metrics you need and what would be great to have. This is one reason I like Minecraft on a server – it’s dripping in data, where as on an ad-hock LAN or iPAD, I get far less data – almost none in fact. Next consider what data the game is sending where. You need to make sure your students don’t accidentally push data to public spaces, if your school is against it (and in reality, most have no policy or idea about game-data)  yet.


You’ll want to get to the heart of things by asking specific questions about the features and functionality that  your students need. I see game based learning emerging most strongly from a social emotional learning perspective, so the functionality I think matters most looks like this.

  • Can students play without overt supervision? Learning in GBL is fundamentally about trust between the teacher and the student. If you don’t feel you can trust them – then let me assure you they will not trust you when you say they are going to learn by playing games. It’s a total deal breaker – if kids can’t play without overt supervision in the game and platform you choose – then the experience will be always be less.
  • Is the role for the teacher as a ‘trusted adult’ or as a supervisior?Can you afford the time to police a game inside or outside of it? What is the imperative you MUST be there (and that is a MAJOR question, as I don’t believe you should be in THEIR game – but I’ve worked out how and why over a few years, so you’ll need to resolve it too).
  • Single player Mutli-player cop-opt or Multiplayer use? This ranges widely according to e-Book vendor. Some packages offer unlimited use of e-Books meaning that any number of readers can view and download the same e-Book at the same time while others only offer single use of e-Books, similar to a print title being checked out. There are also variants that will offer a limited number of users at once.
  • Sales/Pricing Model? – can I buy bulk licenses for the game? Do I need to get game cards? How to I manage user accounts? Does the school own them? Do the kids own them? Are there educational pricing (warning educational games are not the BEST examples of games at all)
  • Game fees and Server costs (Annual, one-time, etc.) – There is most often a platform fee and it’s usually annual or monthly so you’ll want to find out how much this is. Don’t get caught by ‘free’ or ‘self-host’. Take Minecraft for example, to self-host is indeed free only, but when you cost in the time it takes to build, manage and stay in tune with modifications and changes, buying into managed hosting will work out substantially less in my experience.
  • Cost of the game Games are on many platforms and devices, all with very different price points. I have created games using cheap 20 sided dice and free online Interactive Fiction creation sites for a few dollars – I’ve also created them using virtual worlds with server rentals of thousands of dollars. There are many games, such as Myst or those on the game platform Steam which cost a few dollars – so in may ways games are inexpensive compared to other classroom software.

Training and development.

Game Based Learning is not one thing and there is a lack of agreement in what it is. This is not surprising, as for decades scholars have also disagreed what games and what they do. There are workable taxonomies, ways to plat a series of lessons, how to create wonder, foster creativity, self-discovery and so on. The best training you can do is to play games – seriously – download something like World of Warcraft and play the entire free trial. Block out a day and grind away – taking notes about how the game is teaching you. This process can take a while – so think about getting someone to come and do some training and development – take a short cut. You will still need to play, but knowing why and what to look makes it easier. DO NOT GO TO ONE OF THESE DIDACTIC COMMERCIAL COURSES EVER. They are hopeless, only there to make money – and are a total waste of money.

Rethinking how we serve up presentations … Lunchlady2.0

This weekend, I took time off from gaming, and decided to see if I could use iPhone/iPad in different ways to present media to big TVs and projectors. I am wondering how to escape the traditional lecture, and if an iPad can be used a little like a server or an audience feedback system. For example, can I show a diagram on projector, allow others to see it on their iPad, and then to see if they can annotate it in some way and share it back. Next, can I ask a question, then allow the audience to watch videos or other content on their iPad as they need it.

I was specifically trying not using AppleTV which is tied to iTunes (booo) and using it in ways that full-mirroring won’t accomplish. Plenty of people bought iPad One. It seems the ‘magic’ didn’t extend very well to video-out, as full mirroring was never included, leading to plenty of ‘apps’ being developed to try and do it. There are plenty of useless ones, that crash or do nothing — WebShow I’m talking about you. This post is about how to create a cheap-media server from your Mac – and use it to stream video and images to projectors, and allow other people to pull them from you to their own devices – via local, wifi and 3G networks.

Air Video works and is rather clever. Anyone who has tried to load movies in to iTunes knows how Apple’s magic won’t extend to formats that Apple doesn’t see as white, but black magic, such as dot avi. The work around has been to use Handbrake to convert your rogue file to a format iTunes does like, and I have to say, Handbrake does an excellent job, but of course takes time, and locks your video into your iTunes account as is the way with the Colditz of digital rights management.

So Air Play is more a media server. You install the server add-in on a Mac and you are all set for wifi-streaming. Install the Air Play App on your iPad, find the folder of media you want to share stream it to your iPad. An excellent solution for those who are thinking about having video-resources and believe that people are mobile, not desk-bound. Air Video works over local network and over internet (including 3G). There is a free version, which would be fine for ‘consumption’, and a cheap paid version that does the conversion stuff. Air Video also works with your iPhone.

Best of all it  supports live conversion and offline conversion where the entire file is converted upfront. It lets you customize the conversion settings, zoom and crop the video. This means you can create or scrape video from the internet using popular tools such as iShowYou ($20 screen capture, which I use all the time) or KeepVid, which allows you to back up your YouTube videos to MP-whatever.

Now if you also want to push this media to a projector, not just an iPhone or iPad, then just spend $20 on an RGB out connector and a 3.5mm audio line to your speakers and off you go to the big-screen. This is kind of cool, especially as you can stream things over 3G and over distance. No more file conversion, no more having to keep videos on public servers – for under $50.00 you have your own media streaming rig and file conversion toolbox.  Although the iPad One has to await iOS5 to get full mirroring, to use all the apps in video out mode, I was more interested here in thinking how to use a desktop Mac as a media server, and then how to use that to allow ad-hock use of video files. Air Video achieves that, not least in the fact it would be entirely possible to use iShowYou to record a lecture or a lesson activity and then to have the immediately available.

In addition to this, I played with ImageBank ($0.99) which also has a basic server rig, so allows you stream photos to your iPad. Now if you just want to make still slides, this thing will allow you to present a set of images. On the desktop, you set a folder for your image set (which you can also password protect). It has an autoplay mode, shuffle and manual controls, which will allow you to flick back and forth between images – and send them out to your projector. Another option is Cinq which again has a iPhone/iPad client and a server rig. This one also allows you to pull images from your network in Facebook.  Cinq will pull images from iPhoto, but also manages to deal with a remote folder on your ‘home mac’ so if you are taking images with your iPhone or iPad Two, you can send these directly to your iPhoto or other folder via wifi or 3G, and of course anyone with access to that can immediately collect them. In the version I have, it refused to work with Twitter, and I’m not sure the ($2.99) asking price for ‘ad-free’ was worth it – perhaps if it pushed images to Facebook or Twitter, but as it is, it worked like ImageBank for free.


A brief history of Educational Technology

You may have missed this one. I certainly did, thanks to Kristina for pointing it out. It’s amazing to think it’s almost 2 years old. I like the up-beat dialogue and reminded me how fast time moves, and how slowly some of the messages do. It would be great to think how to pick up where this left off, and I wonder what you’d include if the video was doubled in length to reach 2011.