Little Big Planet 2 has just been announced by Sony, setting its fans into a spiral of oozing admiration and excitement. They've made two million levels already on the crowd-sourced game/gaming engine. Now kids are being encouraged to make more, with the Hastac/MacArthur Foundation competition.
The last event we had was small and beautifully formed - and the participants got a great deal out of it, me included. The discussion is of a high level, with people informed from their personal experience or perhaps just popping in for the first time on a particular subject, using my blog post as a starting block.
If you're wanting some East coast US lunchtime professional development, some after-school discussion on the East Coast, or post-dinner rants in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, please join us to share your own strategies, findings, great stories from the classroom, and importantly let us know what the barriers to innovation in your classroom might be and what leaders could do to make more game-based learning happen.
How do I join in?
Register your interest now. This takes only a couple of minutes. At the time of the event make sure that you are near a mobile or landline telephone, as this is as hi-tech as things need to be - you'll be called back so you can take part and pose your questions to me and other participants. The computer will let you see the chat and any web links participants share.
Try to join the chat a few minutes before the conference starts and make sure you share your name and location with me in the chatroom so that I can bring you in on the discussion.
[A summary of my Game-Based Learning talk, with all the bits that I didn't manage to cover in 18 short minutes]
Gaming affects and infects so much of our lives to the extent many of us don't recognise its beneficial effects any more. It's no surprise that educators need to push a "games-based learning" agenda just to help education communities and leaders start to realise some of the untapped potential that comes when we look at games from the point of view of creating systemic changes in learning and learning spaces.
For a start games seem to raise our expectations from the moment we launch them, like a Hollywood blockbuster, and then engage us for as long, sometimes longer. I'll long remember the day I returned from a day teaching to find my wife, newly adorned with a copy of the Sims, still in pyjamas and rather hungry - she'd been too busy feeding, washing and dressing her virtual friends to do any of the above to herself. Or my mother, who, on a stay over with us could still be found at 2am fighting Eastern European-type terrorists in Call of Duty.
The fact is that the opening of a game lets us know that we're in for as much joy as the drah-drah, drah-drah of the 20th Century Fox drums:
Challenge is different from fun
Games also manage to help us achieve two things that are also essential for learning. Firstly, we get quite quickly into a sense of flow where, like my wife playing Sims, we lose track of time around us and are absorbed into in-game time. Secondly, we're provided with challenges that are, it seems, perfectly pitched at our zone of proximal development - not quite too hard to understand, not quite too easy to make them boring.
The result of these three factors - raised expectation, flow and Vygotskyism - is a level and intensity of engagement with content that film, TV, books, even live football matches fail to achieve to quite the same level. I'll take suggestions of any of the above that achieve the emotion of a video-game for 20 straight minutes - about the least amount of time we spend on one.
But these faces are not just exhibiting 'fun', and in some cases would suggest the opposite. Games offer more than just fun, and for leaders this is vital to understand. It might even be worth stressing that fun is of secondary importance of all to the notion that games challenge in ways traditional linear media (from feature films to textbooks to PowerPoint presentations) generally do not at such regularity with such power and impact.
Gaming as part of a wider media literacy
Gaming is not just about offering challenge, which nearly always indicates learning. Gaming, and specifically play, make up a large part of our understanding of media literacy, and engaging the senses on more fronts would, I'd like to suggest, make for some fascinating transmedia learning experiences.
A good model to think about where gaming fits into the new media literacies our youngsters (and their parents and teachers) need are Henry Jenkins' New Media Literacies. They can be summed up thus:
Play — the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem-solving
Performance — the ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery
Simulation — the ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes
Appropriation — the ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content
Multitasking — the ability to scan one’s environment and shift focus as needed to salient details.
Distributed Cognition — the ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities
Collective Intelligence — the ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal
Judgment — the ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources
Transmedia Navigation — the ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities
Networking — the ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information
Negotiation — the ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives, and grasping and following alternative norms.
Some games make no attempt to teach our youngsters about the wider
connected world, being more about skills development in a particular
(subject-focused area) e.g. Dr Kawashima's Brain Training. But generally, video games are superb at hitting a lot of these new media literacy bases, beyond the obvious ones of play, simulation and multitasking. In this paragraph from a stream of enthusiastic consciousness about game-based learning in a Scottish nursery/kindergarten room, we see that the game itself is secondary to game-inspired activity, and this is how games tend to hit so many of our literacies framework:
Caring for goldfish in playrooms, bringing in fish from fish counters on ice and investigating these, children’s drawings and paintings inspired by pet pictures by artists such as Monet and Andy Warhol, visits to Pet shops, visitors in to nursery linked to pets, photographs by children of their own pets and home links, use of video camera and digital camera by children in playroom, pet corner made and designed by children where they dress up as pets to be sold, use money etc etc, sensory area with linked activities, emergent writing and mark making at all areas in the nursery where the children record what they are doing, the list goes on.
This is why an over-emphasis on 'play' as a reason to harness the potential of gaming could be unhelpful in understanding why games are so powerful as learning contexts or tools; there's a lot more than play involved in effective learning that has gaming at its core or point of inspiration.
Therefore, to make sure we can stretch the literacies of our youngsters we, as teachers, might think about how we shape the social and learning environment in our classrooms and online to start filling in some gaps.
Why bother learning new media literacies in the first place?
Good question, with an easy answer. The creative industries are the fastest growing and already significantly large sector in most of the Western world, and increasingly in the Far East, too. In South America it has arguably been the profession of choice for many years, creating a world-class advertising and marketing industry throughout the continent.
Yet, I feel, the largest differential in this set of industries, spanning fashion to design to technology to games manufacture to filmmaking, will not be the cost of doing business - quality counts above price for the products and services of these industries, and outsourcing is generally done to highly paid niche experts, not to lowly/under-paid mechanical Turks on the other side of the planet. The differential factor will be the ability of its practitioners, accounting for a pace of growth twice that of the rest of the British economy, to continually out-smart competitors with a global understanding of these wide skills bases. Filmmakers have to understand the potential of gaming, game-manufacturers will have to understand how data sets and social networks can make their experiences ever more rich and realistic, fashion designers will have to understand how core technology can make their clothing better or help sell it more effectively.
Therefore, the largest differentiator is possessing 'hybrid talents'. Hybrid talents are ones that understand the potential of other sectors' work, but also where it fits within a larger systemic understanding of how users/customers/learners operate within a complex set of literacies. Without this latter understanding, how are we going to produce media that is both challenging while not being out of the user's depth, and how are users of that media (learners or customers) going to be able to understand ever more complex games and narratives of the kind Janet Murray describes in the brilliant Hamlet on the Holodeck?
This is a genuine challenge. In the past two years I've seen that the success ratio for digital media to gain investment is about 1.5%. That is, for every 250 ideas generated by people only 4 manage to bring that understanding of the wider digital ecology in which they will survive. A lack of hybrid talent means most people lose out, it means our creative industries lose out.
Creating games that fit in the wider media ecology
Games that achieve this understanding of the wider digital ecology meet with phenomenal success. While most of the Routes Game flash minigames played in isolation through Miniclip receive huge numbers of plays, the repeat engagement with the subject matter remains far less than when those same games are played embedded within the context of a long-line narrative, community challenges and a murder mystery.
Sneeze, pictured, a game designed to understand the spread of disease, is an example of this phenomenon, having received over 15m plays alone.
Similarly, traditional linear movies are increasingly using games as a means not just to market the film but to add to the experience of watching the film. Last year's Sherlock Holmes release was accompanied by an online flash game 221b.sh.
The agency who created this were at pains to make sure that the film/brand of Sherlock Holmes would "be in a better state after their work than when they picked it up". That is, the game they produced had to extend the storytelling in ways linear film could not. If you take one of the many comments of players/viewers of the film, they succeeded:
Why games & playfulness are particularly good at changing behaviour
If you were to only read the red-tops you'd believe that the only behavioural change that games can engender was one of feral violence and sleep deprivation. Looking closer, though, we can see how the ingredients of good games can work in the real world, by making 'fun', engaging and even challenging acts as simple as choosing to take the stairs instead of the escalator:
Adding play to signage is more likely to achieve the desired result, too (picture, right). Across the UK we see anti-speeding signs that achieve results not by telling us off, or snapping us and punishing us at a time long after the offense, but by smiling or "looking sad" when you speed. The results of this playfulness have been disproportionately more successful than punitive measures.
Likewise, a gaming philosophy underpins our attitudes towards the punishment for speeding. In the UK, it is nearly a machismo statement to claim you have earned three or six points on your licence. In Italy, where any measures to reduce machismo in driving will be used to great effect, you start off with 12 points and then lose them as you speed or break the law in other ways.
More directly, we see gaming elements at play in social apps designed to inform, educate and spread around the web, creating more change in habits - MirrorMe is a good example of this.
The proposition was a simple one: experiment to see what the iPhone and iPod Touch could add to the reading and writing experience. Making it was a genuine challenge for us, for Learning and Teaching Scotland and the award-winning developers SixToStart, whose work on Penguin's WeTellStories made them the best choice to give this groundbreaker a chance:
“Readers have to work out what they have to do in the story to progress,” says Adrian Hon, who created the application and co-founded Six to Start with his brother Dan. “The story might say something like ‘the witch went up to the door and knocked three times’. The player would then have to tap on the phone three times in order to advance. Or they might read that the house fell to the right and they have to tilt the phone to the right to read about what happens next.”
The goal is to encourage young people to write their own stories and include their own “gestures”.
Once a tale has been created, users can upload them to the TapTale website, where other registered users can download and read them. Registered users can also provide feedback on any tale via the website, by slotting pre-written statements into a form.
The app helps students get started by modeling what it expected, with none other than an award-winning writer to get the creative wheels greased. In 2006, Naomi Alderman won the Orange Award for New Writers, and she now offers a growing selection of exclusive taptale stories, written just for the screen space and gestural potential of the iPhone. They're also available to read on the Taptale website.
She's also offered up a selection of free-to-view writing challenges for educators wanting to use the app in their classrooms, or assign challenges for homework on the iPod Touch or iPhone.
Brian Clark, working with LTS on trialling the project, describes how it might be used in practice this term:
TapTale’s primary goal is to promote literacy through the reading and writing of tales using the tap, tilt, shake and swipe functions of Apples touch screen devices.
When creating a tale, pupils are asked to write chapters using the touchscreen keyboard on the device. In order to progress from chapter to chapter, the reader must use one of the tap, swipe, tilt or shake sequences. It is up to the author of the tale to decide what action must be taken for the reader to see the next chapter.
Once a tale has been created, users can upload them via the device to the taptale website. This allows other registered user to download and read their tales directly on the device. Registered users can provide feedback on any tale via the website using a ‘fridge magnet’ style form. Anyone can read the tales created directly from the site, but of course the tapping and tilting functions are not possible in this view.
My favourite part of this exercise may not even be the iPhone app itself. Rather, the online peer-assessment community we've developed is, I think, a first (though I'm happily corrected). I wanted to see a fridge-magnet approach to student feedback, something that would allow structured feedback to take place but not just in a "tick-box" fashion. I think I also wanted to hark back stylistically to the days of scholastic readers that I had when I was aged four in primary school, learning how to read for the first time. The result is quite a delightful way of helping students - and the general public who stop off by their writings - to learn new ways to provide "two stars and a wish" type feedback to each other anonymously, while maintaining the integrity and safety of a learning site used by young people.
The system prompts you to use one of the many critiques that Derek and I thrashed out over a boring train trip or two, to accept it, before pushing up the next set of options. Go and have a play on one of Naomi's stories and you'll see how challenging some of the vocabulary is yet how easy the interface is: struggleware if ever there was any.
Criticism of the iPhone for learning
As development work began in the early days of summer 2009, we hit criticism straightaway: "kids don't have iPhones, schools barely allow mobile phones, and in the current straightened times we shouldn't be investing in the most expensive-per-inch handheld technologies around". It was the same criticism hurled back in 2004 when I was making podcasts with and for the students in my secondary school. Fittingly, it is my old education district, East Lothian, that is the first to put itself forward to try out these devices and see what, indeed, they might add to the learning process.
We're ready for a resounding tumbleweed to be heard on the question of any educational advances here - no-one's done this before, and we just don't know what it has to offer that paper and pen don't. Likewise, I'd be curious to see what the tactile approach to story reading and writing brings to those kids who have less motivation to read, who have trouble structuring their stories. I also think the online writing community platform we've developed offers a creative, supportive environment that, in brilliant classrooms may well exist, but which is hard to achieve well all the time in every classroom with the timetable constraints we all face.
One final really interesting point is that one of the first criticisms of the app from a student has been: "it doesn't allow me to add pictures to my story". Interesting, and perhaps valid in a world where apps are laden with features, features, features.
Taptale is relatively simple. It's about making writing and reading as simple as possible, while forcing the hand of the writer into doing certain things: providing constructive feedback, reading for inspiration before writing, thinking about timing and story structure through the gestures.
Above all, though, it's about the written word, not the graphic, the design or the picture.
If anything, the lack of features is what makes this app special, what's going to make it work well. Children will, lo and behold, have to think about how to describe what's in their mind's eye, not just photograph it with the cellphone camera or Google it, right-click it, save it and insert it. Stripping all that away is, if anything, at least one educational advance we'll have made.
Taptale stories are free to view on the website throughout the pilot. The app is free in the UK from the iTunes store.
Games Based Learning is one of the fastest growing conferences focused
on the positive impact that video games and social media are having on
It will be one of the first major events at which I'll be speaking as part of the wider work of my new digital media and education company, the straight-up and no-nonsense NoTosh. More on that at the end of this week.
There's already a fascinating mix of speakers, from such a wide variety of backgrounds (education, military, healthcare, entertainment, corporate training) that discussions are bound to be outstanding:
Patrick Dunn has spotted the four big differences in the design principles of those making intranets and elearning platforms on the one hand, and video games on the other:
E-learning designers believe that people learn through "content".
They assume that encountering content will lead people to change their
behaviour. Games designers believe that people learn through
"experience". They assume that having experiences - doing and feeling
things - leads to change in behaviour.
E-learning designers believe we must be "nice" to our learners in
case they go away. They assume that the relationship between the course
and the learner is a weak one so that if there's any significant
challenge, the learner will give up. Games designers believe that we
can challenge people and they'll stick with it. Indeed, it is
progressive challenges that form much of the motivation for gamers.
E-learning designers believe that we learn step by step (hence
linearity, page-turning etc.). Game designers believe we absorb lots of
things all at once (hence HUDs, complex information screens etc.).
E-learning designers believe that learning experiences are
emotionally neutral (in spite of all that's written about the
importance of emotion in learning). Games designers always seek an
"angle", an attitude.
You can spot this chasm a mile off. I did when I launched my latest social 'game'.
It's an iPhone app to help people spot how much they're drinking and compare it to the reality of how much their friends are drinking (research shows that people reckon their friends consume more than they actually do, thereby leading to a vicious circle of binge drinking).
Experience? Check. Challenges? Check. Multiple ways in and things to do? Check - when we added the Facebook Connect element at the backend of the game, it started to have real meaning as friends could see what each other were actually consuming (it's generally a lot less than they thought). An attitude? Double check.
On the other hand, the Government-subsidised app from the National Health Service has clearly been developed by, well, not a game designer. It looks like an app version of the Drinkaware website, and the iTunes Store reviews would suggest it has all the amusement of that, too:
All content, no narrative. No form of challenge - it's too easy to use. Only one thing you do - tell it how much you drank last night, with no social element (adding a social element means that the number things you can end up doing heads into the stratosphere). And attitude? It looks as if the committee that designed and approved this killed any attitude the designers may have wanted to inject.
Given the target audience of both apps (game-playing young men and women who drink too much and haven't done anything about it despite Government campaigns about alcohol units, drink driving and other dangers), the game-makers have produced, I believe, a better app that should achieve more. For a similar budget (or less) the great institutions of Government could look to game-makers rather than ad agencies for their next campaigns.
So could educators and intranet makers.
To this, though, I would add that video games designers have been slow in general to pick up on the potential of social gaming, and for the most part educators are still just not interested in it - it's hard enough to convince non-gamers of the benefits of video game use in the classroom without hinting that, God forbid, they can connect users through Facebook. On the other hand, elearning designers picked up on the potential of social-network-like features relatively quickly, producing social worlds and 'bebo-esque' models for interaction and learning, along the lines of, say, Honeycomb (disclosure: I was on the design consultancy team for this).
The chasm is there, but I'd disagree with Patrick: it's not uncrossable. It's also not about gamers and webheads "meeting halfway". Rather , there is a creative opportunity for game-makers and webheads to work together towards new horizons, leaving those chasms back in the decade where they belong.
Scotland's games industry makes more cash for the UK than the film industry. My six-figure investments this year in the sector seem small-fry when held up against the seven-figure investments made by independent companies themselves in the hope theirs will be the next big hit. Dundee's Realtimeworlds has had to attract over $80m to produce its 2010 release, APB, above.
Yet, as Jack Arnott points out in his Guardian column, the daring and skill demonstrated in studios around the world is barely honoured in our annual plaudits. You rarely see end-of-year "best of" or "top ten" lists in your glossies that include video games:
For games, however, [these end-of-year lists] acquire some extra significance. The lists you may find dotted around national newspapers this Christmas reflect an increasing slice of cultural cache for a still emerging medium. For a lot of people, arts critics especially, video games are still very much a poor relation to their more well-established siblings.
Even in its own media-luvvy domain, games are still looked down upon by those who see the craft of film-writing or programme-shooting as more, well, 'noble'.
The same snootiness is still visible in education despite the work of dedicated, tax-payer funded units like the Consolarium and legions of empassioned expert teachers like Mark Wagner. Video games are on a joint-pegging with the television and the internet in children's media habits, yet tend to feature only on the last day of term for most youngsters. The potential to learn in the game, as well as learn from their production, is lost to all but the most culturally open and connected of educators who want to expand their students' understanding of gaming beyond simply picking up another coin.
As we hurl ourselves into the last days of learning this decade, we might not see top ten lists of computer games in our holiday special bumper magazines. It is with hope, though, that more educators will realise: videogames are not just for Christmas.
In about two months I'll be unveiling my latest commission with Channel 4's Innovation for the Public Fund.
Broadcast reports that we are commissioning Dan and Adrian Hon’s Six to Start to develop a creative writing game for the iPhone and iPod Touch, backed by national education agency Learning and Teaching Scotland. The game, currently under development, aims to help users tap deep into their imaginations and develop their creative writing skills by responding to writer challenges through their iPhone. They say we all have a novel in us, and ‘All Write’ will help users find it.
Six to Start is a highly successful developer specialising in digital storytelling with recent notable successes such as the We Tell Stories series for Penguin Books. Learning and Teaching Scotland have over the past three years developed a world-leading reputation for developing gaming for learning. The partnership will lead to both a mainstream game available in the iPhone App Store, and a teens' version for use in schools.
This is how Adrian puts it:
“All Write is the perfect tool for budding short story writers – it encourages people to get their ideas down wherever they are, and share them with the world. We’ve made storytelling into a fun and enthralling experience by posing imaginative writing challenges, and providing some great new pieces of original fiction from Naomi Alderman, a winner of the Orange Prize for New Writers.”
All Write is the latest in a series of projects developed in Scotland by Channel 4’s Innovation for the Public fund (4iP). Announced as part of the Channel’s Next on 4 strategic blueprint and endorsed by the Government’s Digital Britain Report, 4iP is a major new initiative to encourage innovation on digital platforms.
By helping young people and new audiences to discover the joy of reading and creative writing, All Write illustrates how digital media can serve a meaningful public purpose.
“New and emerging technologies and their informed application in the teaching and learning setting is an area of particular focus for Learning and Teaching Scotland. We are very keen to explore the potential that handheld mobile learning tools can bring to schools and in that regard we are delighted to be partnering 4IP and Six to Start in the design and creation of a bespoke iPhone/iPod Touch learning app that will encourage and facilitate a community of ‘imaginative writers.’”
All Write will be launched worldwide this August on the iPhone App Store. Pic credit: New iPhone
Of all the gaming consoles out there the one I always come back to is the Nintendo DS. It's small, its touchscreen means I don't even need to use a stylus, and the battery life is astounding. The new Nintendo DSi which has just been announced in Japan, due for launch in Europe in the Spring of 2009, opens up the potential even more for the use of gaming consoles as part of a one-to-one computing initiative, for the same price as the current model.
At the recent Emerge 1-2-1 Conference in Calgary, I made the point that I didn't feel the future was in laptops, despite the strong belief from other speakers that the laptop was the only "spread bet" option for learning, able to cope with the maximum demands of the classroom and home. I've always felt that mix and match is the best way forward, much in the same way as we tend to use technology in 'real' life: the right tool for the right job.
Cue the new Nintendo, with its built-in camera and web browser. For most web browsing a small screen and awkward navigation is fine, because most people are not blogging 1000 word theses, but they are Googling and then reading. For most photography in the classroom you don't need high-spec cameras. Learning logs need quick snapshots of progress, and the 0.3 megapixels of the DS, while paling in comparison to most camera phones, will suffice for this purpose.
Spore launches today, unleashing one of the most in-depth creative and, even in advance of its launch, socially active games I've seen in a while.
I've not managed to get my hands on a copy yet and, frankly, have some equally important things that need seen to before I get a play, but thankfully some of our Oz educator cousins have been at it already and have blogged their (overwhelmingly positive) thoughts. The game will be/is thankfully available on a more "interstitial" basis on the Nintendo DS and mobile platforms, for those of us whose concentration and energy spans are on the shorter side. Above all, though, is the promise of plenty of web action to pull the collective enthusiasm and understanding of the game of its players.
Back at Easter I was pitching the idea of Sporeversity to EA, something which may indeed have evolved into the as-yet-unlaunched Spore wiki on the main website. In any case, if they don't do it (and even if they do) the fans will be creating their own networks to describe their virtual lives as well as their real ones. Indeed, if you've had a play, do give me a quick ping so edu.blogs.com readers and I can see your thoughts on it, too.
School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.