August 12, 2008

Interactivity in gaming: are we there yet?

I've managed to get along to the gaming for learning day of the Edinburgh Interactive Festival, a fest not about interactivity in its broadest sense, but about gaming. I'm wondering whether the organisers have built in a bit of slack for what we all know will make the games industry more successful in the long term. The title of the event offers huge potential to expand a rather quiet conference floor, and the word "interactive" offers more scope for gaming than the public exhibition space would have us believe.

Though social interaction through gaming can be seen oozing through education projects of the kind we see coming out of the Consolarium, most of this interaction is engineered by the combination of a superb teacher, guidance from a full-time gaming specialist and the stamp of approval from the national education agency. The interaction is not engineered by the commercial, off-the-shelf game itself, designed instead for entertainment for oneself rather than entertainment with others. The interaction is coming from the framework of teacher, classroom and planning. The one relatively recent and significant exception to the rule would be the Wii.

Where games are used in learning, there is significant social interaction whose scaffold is the teacher - the way the students play the game, the way they talk about the game, the tasks they undertake and then the way they reflect about their learning. The teacher plans and prepares the play of the class.

Education does social interaction
Take Kim Applin's use of Endless Ocean at Meldrum Primary School: a game that provides a rich graphical interest is used much the same as Rylands and co would use Myst for creative thinking and writing. They record species they find on their 'dives', write about what it feels like to dive to the coral reef, design their own fish, make Crazy Talk animations of their creations. It's great. But all the support, ideas for taking the game for learning and the outcomes are done within the context of a curriculum, which Kim refers to repeatedly, and it is a teacher, not the students, choosing the rough direction of travel for interactivity.

Education has done well to use computer games or video games to enhance or create new contexts for learning, but the methods and outputs, though digitised, more varied and of increasingly higher production values, hold much in common with the process and output of the primary school classic Granny's Garden, which I was playing in 1986. Students play game, in a group or individually or both, teacher structures activity around social interaction between students, students create objects and (mostly) linear stories, illustrations, movies, iStories, podcasts. If this is, rather simplistically put, the process we see re-modeled in 2008, where can we take things in 2009 and beyond, to encourage some truly student-led and student-structured interactivity? Moreover, where can we take commercial or online games that are played outside the classroom, with no teacher to scaffold activity?

(Un)interaction in the 'real world'
In the real world, outside school, it's going to be rare that kids get as much out of their games in terms of social interaction and, in turn learning. Even forgetting the learning argument for the moment, the "ticky box" approach to applying games to learning and curriculum, we can see that the games industry has, by and large, left social interaction to the domain of the educator, the enthusiastic parent or precocious child. After all, is 10 seconds of abuse of our competitors before playing Halo really interaction? Is text chat with strangers during our F1 racing really interaction?

Truly engaging, long-term interaction with endless opportunity to build upon requires something more profound, more complex and hard-to-grasp to happen: people need influenced by other people (not by the computer-generated, limited characters), actions need to be completed with other people (not with a game's cues). Social interaction from within the game (and not through the imagination of a teacher and his/her students) is where the games of the future will find themselves. ARGs may not be the elixir (or they might be) but they have more of the kind of true inherent interaction I'm talking about than any other gaming interaction we can see.

The challenge for those working in education is threefold. Truly interactive gaming such as ARGs, from a player's perspective, are hard impossible to predict and can't be preplanned to fit in with curricular goals. They are incredibly challenging to author, arguably more so than recreating a 3D copy of something we've already played, on a game-making application like Missionmaker. Finally, they require the use of social and mobile tools that are misunderstood and maligned in most education circles: social networks, blogs, video podcasting sites and, above all, cell phones.

This is where gaming, and particularly gaming for learning, has to go eventually. I'm heartened when self-confessed glutton-for-punishment Susan Yeoman ends her talk on educational uses of gaming by pressing the importance of pubishing and sharing output from game-playing with as wide an audience as possible on the web. Sharing, listening to feedback, collaborating and republishing ideas is much tougher than picking a game off a shelf which has rich graphics for stimulating creative writing or which trains our brains in mathematics or foreign languages.

Above all, really making games social within and of themselves further asserts the roles of learners, not teachers, as the ones who direct and plan learning, regardless of whether it 'fits' into a curricular plan. If it works, with the complicity of talented teachers and informed parents, then we really are headed towards something of excellence.


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Wonder if anyone mentioned

80% of Scottish Schools and now rolling out in 3 other countries

25,000 players pupils
almost 50/50 boys and girls
Great engagement from Scottish Teachers
Shortlisted for Bett Award.

Some commercial games would give a lot for this level of engagement and we have learned a lot about serious gaming and curriculum.

Rolling out to primary schools with new version this year thanks to support of Young Enterprise Scotland.

Despite the fact that I think the term serious games should be sent into a very dark corner of technology's past, I agree that commercial sectors can nearly always learn from the education world's successes and, importantly, failures, too.

An interesting and somewhat surprising take on games in learning Ewan. First of all thank you for referring to me as a full-time game specialist although that's not quite what I am. In essence I am at heart a teacher who endeavours to use technology in as informed way as possible to enhance teaching and learning. My experience and professional development over the years as a teacher, University lecturer led me to develop a real interest in the value and worth of games in the classroom. My post at LTS gave me the remit to take games based learning forward in Scotland and as a result, via the Consolarium we have done wonderful things in helping teachers throughout Scotland to possibly rethink what technology is and how a simple piece of kit such as a DS can transform the affective and cognitive growth in a classroom. You seem to suggest that what teachers in Scotland are doing in relation to using some games as the contextual hub for learning is akin to the Emperors new clothes. After all Granny's Garden did work in the 80's but that was because it was embedded in sound principles that teachers still value today-this is because they work. Kim Aplin's presentation yesterday was described as breathtaking, beguiling, incredible, amazing by many of the people that I spoke to. She is an example of the substantial numbers of teachers out there who are rediscovering the power of contextual learning and how the dynamic and culturally relevant domain of games can help them in this regard. The joy and enthusiasm for learning in the classrooms where we have our work going on right now is palpable. There is some truly excellent work happening and some very many truly excellent teachers out there who get it. I do think that the Consolarium's work has changed things but it seems you feel we are doing more of the same.

I'm not sure we need to be asking where we go next....although LTS is looking at games design, virtual worlds, ARGs and MMORsand how these can work well in clasrooms we must not forget that we are right here right now and that we need to take as many people as possible forward with us, hence a major focus on low skilld threshold technologies such as games consoles. Although in the foothills of this work, LTS and their partner authorities and teachers in Scotland are, I believe, undoubtedly at the head of the expedition in making games work in the classroom in as accessible, relevant and informed way as possible.

I do look forward to hearing more about how you plan to take games forward and I wish you success with this.

By the way, I know it's an old text but get your hands on Mr Togs the Tailor (SCCC) from 1982. It's an old'un but gold'un but will explain why I am so keen on contexts for learning.

The post isn't arguing against the amazing stuff that's been done over the past couple of years, Derek, by any means. On the contrary, that work speaks for itself, and I've long praised it on this blog and other platforms.

This post is really about games design in itself, and the next challenge of taking the social interactions that teachers such as Kim are constructing with their talents, and somehow enhance the game itself with the techniques we learn from her and others' work.

So we're talking about the games themselves, not the practice of the teacher here.

The underlying pedagogy is superb, and that hasn't changed from those excellent teachers I had when I was playing Granny's Garden. It's not a case of Emperor's New Clothes, since there are many teachers in 2008 who don't fully enhance the teaching and learning in their classrooms with the underlying active learning, assessment for learning and collaborative work that laces every successful games-based learning project we've seen. The messages still need repeated.

But in the meantime, I'm keen to see where the game itself can go into the future. Since Granny's Garden games have improved in terms of creativity of interface and content, but the social aspect of most games hasn't changed to any large degree.

I'm not pretending to know how more meaningful social interaction between players will look like, but I don't think it begins and ends with the Wii, and I don't think it lies in the so-called "serious" games scene either.

Sorry for any misunderstanding of what I'm saying about the Consolarium. Have no fear that I admire the profile-raising of the past two years, and will continue to look forward to moves in the next years, too.

Regardless of your return to Derek I must comment. I work incredibly hard to support and encourage staff to embrace new ideas and use new technologies. I am incredibly proud of everything Aberdeenshire and in particular Kim has done to embrace games based learning. It took a great deal for her to stand in front of an unknown audience and share what she is doing. We struggle, really struggle to get colleagues to share their practice with others and your blog entry appears to be the reward. I really feel that the teaching profession is under incredible pressure to respond to constant change. The DS, Wii and PS3, in my eyes are new technologies and are in classrooms fairly quickly. I understand you wish to challenge etc but come on ....


The work you and your colleagues do is superb and this blog post is clearly nothing but praise for that, and a desire to explore how we make games more inherently social. I'm not alone in sharing this view; its one that is challenging the gaming industry at the moment to come up with consoles like the Wii and social platforms for playing, such as ARGs.

We are interested in games and simulation as pain free assessment tools and used "serious gaming " in this context.
So stand corrected on being out of touch - look at the numbers though what a successful pilot.

We have got to support all teachers and anyone in Scottish education who is pushing the envelope and promote all the developments that are happening across Scotland - not just those in our own backyards.

Anyone fancy a game of pmog - great learning tool and not invented here.

All the best

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

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.

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