Serious games: FATWORLD

FATWORLD is a video game about the politics of nutrition. It explores the relationships between obesity, nutrition, and socioeconomics in the contemporary U.S. The game’s goal is not to tell people what to eat or how to exercise, but to demonstrate the complex, interwoven relationships between nutrition and factors like budgets, the physical world, subsidies, and regulations. Existing approaches to nutrition advocacy fail to communicate the aggregate effect of everyday health practices. It's one thing to explain that daily exercise and nutrition are important, but people, young and old, have a very hard time wrapping their heads around outcomes five, 10, 50 years away.

You can choose starting weights and health conditions, including predispositions towards ailments like diabetes, heart disease, or food allergies. You'll have to construct menus and recipes, decide what to eat and what to avoid, exercise (or not), and run a restaurant business to serve the members of your community.

FATWORLD comes with numerous foods, recipes, and meal plans, or players can create their own from the foods in their pantry or their imaginations.

via FATWORLD – The Game.

Tinkering and Technology

Before this all slips my mind, I wanted to post some thoughts about the conversation I led at Educon 2.2 last weekend called Tinkering Towards Technology Fluency. I had a few slides prepared, and a general list of things I thought would be interesting to discuss, and some questions in case there was a lot of deadly silence. Well, that didn’t happen! What happened was that we had a really interesting conversation, which wandered a bit but no one seemed to mind. That’s the cool part about Educon, the conversations are the point. I learned as much from everyone there as I hope they learned from some of the things I shared.

What I’d like to do here is provide a short skim through the topics I brought to the session. I think many of them either support themes I’ve posted about before, or will in the future. I plan to return to them in the future and explore each one in depth.

This is such a rich area for two main reasons:

  1. Unstructured time is undervalued by School.
  2. Tinkering supports technology and technology supports tinkering.

Random thoughts in no particular order:

Humans yearn for tinkering and playful activity
The popularity of the Food Network, HGTV, and shows like Monster Garage  illustrate how people want to learn from watching others DO things they love. Work is interesting when you can see it happen, and people are interesting when they work. Make magazine is awesome.

Tinkering is social
Yes, there is the stereotype of the lone tinkerer in his basement. But more often, tinkering is a shared, social experience. Social learning with no structure or single, all-knowing teacher can happen! Leveraging the power of social learning seems like something we should be thinking about in this day and age.

French for tinkering, using found objects, playfulness in creation. (Wikipedia)

Tinkering/bricolage vs. the scientific method/analytical design
Seymour Papert, the father of educational technology, defined two styles of problem solving: analytical and bricolage. School only honors one style. What are we losing? (Who are we losing?)

“The bricoleur resembles the painter who stands back between brushstrokes, looks at the canvas, and only after this contemplation, decides what to do next.” Sherry Turkle

Tinkering and gender
The book by Sherry Turkle that I couldn’t remember in the session was “The Second Self”. I also forgot to mention this crucial connection to tinkering and gender issues in technology. Turkle says that tinkering is a “female” approach to technology, calling it “soft mastery” (as opposed to the “hard mastery” of linear, step by step problem solving, flowcharting, and analytical design). However, these “hard” styles are often taught as being superior, with “soft mastery” styles deemed messy or unprofessional. Again, who and what are we losing by ignoring (and denigrating) alternative learning and problem-solving styles?

Tinkering requires similar conditions to project-based learning and games in the classroom. Implementation brings up similar questions
Teachers who are looking at project-based learning or games are struggling with the same issues that arise with tinkering. Time, space, overwhelming curriculum requirements, tests, etc. These all need to be solved in similar ways, and teachers are doing this all around the world. Sharing is important.

More connections with games
James Paul Gee (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy) says that we should examine the attributes of gaming such as identity and agency and how to bring those to the classroom. We are being too literal with “games in the classroom.” The attributes of tinkering are similar. We have to be willing to give students agency and allow them to develop their own identities as problem-solvers and learners.

Why is tinkering learning?
Tinkering is a uniquely human activity, combining social and creative forces that encompass play and learning.

The problem with the scientific method
A pet peeve of mine is this structured monstrosity called “the scientific method.” We teach it to children like it came down on stone tablets. It’s not how science really works. Science is about wonder and risk and imagination, not checklists.

Risk and design – what happened in engineering in the 80s
When I went to engineering school, they taught us to use the “waterfall” design methodology. Every stage was planned and went in order. Then in the 80s everything changed.

What happened? Computers. Digital design and modeling decreased the cost of making mistakes. You could try things out with little risk or cost. It’s called the spiral design method, or rapid prototyping, sort of like tinkering with an audience. It’s why Google is always in “beta”. Of course it doesn’t work for everything, you can’t release a “beta” skyscraper or tinker a space shuttle, but for digital products, what’s the harm?

The problem is that school hasn’t caught on to this design methodology. What do we need to do to get school design courses to catch up to the real world?

What can we learn from other unstructured (but successful) school activities?
This also connects back to a post I wrote called Technology Literacy and Sustained Tinkering Time which connected the ideas of Sustained Silent Reading to using technology in less structured ways. Schools have embraced Sustained Silent Reading in the face of scripted curriculum and standardized testing – what can advocates for constructivist education learn from this?

Technology literacy without tinkering time is hard to fathom
Maybe we should be talking about technology fluency anyway. Literacy is such a low bar.

Teaching risk free design is so 20th century.

More later – your feedback on what to tackle first is welcome!


Teacher PLC at the Learning Games Network

Teacher PLC | Learning Games Network

Are you a teacher interested in using games in the classroom? Help design a new Professional Learning Community (PLC) at the Learning Games Network.

The PLC will provide a forum for teachers to share experiences and ideas for using existing games in the classroom, as well as discuss ideas and concepts for where games could fill gaps and niches in curricula. Teachers involved in technology will also have the opportunity for professional development in workshops with developers and producers.

Be sure to fill out the short survey to share your interests and sign up for more information. Pass this on to other educators interested in games!


New report from the EU on Games in Schools

A new research report – How are Digital Games Used in Schools has just been released by a group called European Schoolnet, a consortium of 31 ministries of education in Europe. This study was sponsored by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe , representing companies in the interactive software industry.

How are Digital Games Used in Schools covers  the use of games in schools in Europe: video games, computer games, online games that run on consoles, computers, handhelds or mobile phones.

Full report (180 page PDF) – English version
Synthesis report (40 page PDF) – English version

The researchers interviewed over 500 teachers, 30 decision-makers, and included 6 case studies and a review of the scientific literature. They came to some interesting conclusions, both from a teaching and learning standpoint.

  • “The teachers who are involved in these practices leave nothing to improvisation in their pedagogical use of these games; on the contrary, they prepare them very carefully.”
  • “Experiments in the classroom use of games are bringing teachers together in a community of practice, and associating the whole educational community and parents around the pupils’ achievements.”
  • “Practices centred on games rehabilitate more traditional teaching tools in the eyes of the pupils.”

European Schoolnet also established a social network as part of this study for teachers interested in using digital games in the classroom.

From the conclusion – “The investigations that have been made show that electronic games favour a way of learning that is particularly in tune with the modes of learning now regarded as effective. The table below summarizes several major principles of learning that are now known and recognized. It relates them
to the characteristics of electronic games and the modes of use that they generate. The correspondences that
emerge argue in favour of a‘re-opening of the case’ [of using digital games in the classroom].”

Report table

Full report (180 page PDF) – English version
Synthesis report (40 page PDF) – English version


Two new white papers on games in education

Two white papers were released last month from The Education Arcade at MIT. Both are about video and computer games for learning, but look at this issue from slightly different angles.

Moving Learning Games Forward looks at games, learning and education with a long lens. It provides a detailed historical analysis of how computer games first were used in schools and proceeds through the heyday of educational software in the 1980s to the present move to web-based games. I was very pleased to see how much of this mirrors my presentation on Games in Education for the K12online conference, but of course, my 20 minute presentation barely skims the surface where they dive deeply. I’ll be adding this to my Games in Education resource wiki for sure!

The paper goes on to lay out some ideas for how learning games should be designed, and has great references and sources for additional reading. This is a must-read for educators seriously interested in games in education.

The second paper, Using the Technology of Today in the Classroom Today, is slightly narrower in focus. It is written for classroom teachers interested in bringing games and simulations into the classroom, with practical suggestions and case studies to help with planning and implementation.


Games that encourage student teamwork and collaboration

Freechild Article | “Why Play Games…” By Adam Fletcher.

Here’s another fabulous article and set of resources from Adam Fletcher of The Freechild Project. The article is about playing games with students and youth groups to encourage teamwork, model constructive, collaborative behavior, and develop a shared sense of mission.

Games can be a catalyst that brings both cohesion and energy to any group, and a welcome addition to a teacher’s “bag of tricks”. Two categories of games are especially helpful in setting a tone of collaboration and teamwork for students.

Cooperative games emphasize participation, challenge, and fun, rather than sorting out winners and losers. These kinds of games teach teamwork, empathy, and trust.

Initiative games have players attack a problem and solve it. They teach leadership, problem solving, and collaboration.

“Why Play Games…” is more than just a list of games. It includes practical information about how to choose them, how to introduce them, how to create reflective activities that further magnify the impact of the game itself, and tons of additional resources.

Teachers who lead student tech clubs know that the success of the group depends on much more than tech skills. Teamwork and a sense of mission result in the “we” being more than the “me” and can take a student tech team to the next level.

This isn’t just for student clubs either. If you want students to unlearn the competitive habits that have been drilled into them and work cooperatively, these games will work in classroom situations too. Collaboration and communication may be “21st century skills” but having students play them out in game situations is a timeless idea.

Give this short article a read and I guarantee you will learn one new thing today! “Why Play Games…” By Adam Fletcher

Selected additional resources (there’s a lot more if you click on the article link):

  • Brand-new (and free) guide, The Freechild Project Guide to Cooperative Games for Social Change by A. Fletcher with K. Kunst. “This insightful new guide will help community workers, teachers, activists, and all kinds of people find fun, engaging, and powerful activities that promote teamwork, communication, and social justice.Click here for a free download.

More on Flunking Spore…

Last week I blogged (Flunking Spore – video game failed by scientists) about Science magazine’s Oct 24 review of the new video game Spore that outlined the problems of looking at the game as a way to learn biology. Not only did multiple scientists give the game poor grades for science content, but a documentary promoting the game misleadingly used interviews with scientists that implied endorsement.

Now, Eric Klopfer and Kurt Squire, co-founders of the Learning Games Network, respected researchers and proponents of games in education, respond to “Flunking Spore.” In two articles (part 1, part 2), they tackle some of the objections, and provide a their point of view. While they agree that the basic science in Spore is not appropriate as a substitute for biology curriculum, they defend the game as a breakthrough in user interface and design.

Kurt Squire argues that Spore is easily recognizable to a veteran game player for what it is, a game of design, where the player is the master of a make-believe universe.

What I think gets lost here is that players actually have relatively sophisticated ways of interpreting games like Spore. While I share the author’s concerns about games reinforcing people’s naive conceptions about science, Spore, I would argue, is so clearly a design game that most “literate” gamers quickly see that it’s a design game, and regard it as such.

OK, I agree here. But most people who aren’t veteran game players won’t see this subtle point. We know that people learn a lot from games, but we don’t quite know what to call it. It’s not learning that can be described in the traditional vocabulary of school. This is a deep problem of games&learning not being equivalent to games&schooling. Spore wasn’t going to bridge that gap even if it was as educationally significant as advertised.

The problem I have is simpler than this.

The game is being promoted, mostly by National Geographic, as a game that teaches biology. Scientists were tricked into doing interviews that were used to promote the game as a way to learn biology. Shame on National Geographic for exploiting interest in games for learning to promote their programming.

As much as I understand the inclination to find the tiny nugget of learning in any game, I hope that Eric Klopfer and Kurt Squire would use their influence in the learning game community to address the issues of the misleading and patently false promotion of this game. Part 3, perhaps?


Flunking Spore – video game failed by scientists


The potential of video games for learning has been the subject of much recent curiosity and debate. How many times have you heard…“If only we could combine the engagement of video games with real (meaning school) learning…”

Spore is a new game that is being promoted as just such a hybrid. It’s the latest brainchild of Will Wright, the world-famous designer of unusual, yet popular games like The Sims and Sim City.

If anyone could design a breakout game that combines learning and fun, Will Wright is the guy.

Spore is a game where you create a single-cell organism that evolves. Keeping your creature alive and growing is the goal, and you can design and improve your creatures as generations go by and gain sophistication. Eventually they gain intelligence, and you have to deal with tribes and civilizations, deciding on war and peace, and eventually going out into outer space to explore and/or conquer whole worlds.

In an interview with National Geographic, Will Wright talks about, “…the breakthrough science that’s revealing the secret genetic machinery that shapes all life in the game Spore.” National Geographic has made a documentary, called “How to Build a Better Being” that is being sold by Spore publisher Electronic Arts in a deluxe version. (National Geographic website promoting the game.) The documentary positions Spore as solid science, complete with supporting interviews with scientists.

Now the bad news..
This month’s Science magazine (the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) decided to put this to the test. In Flunking Spore, author and “Gonzo Scientist” John Bohannon played Spore with evolutionary biologists, and concludes,

“…the problem isn’t just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong–it’s meant to be a game, after all–but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong.”

Anyone interested in games and education needs to read this article. It’s a wake-up call about this game’s relevance to education, and parallels much of the wishful thinking that dominates the games and education discussion.

And worse, when Bohannon went to interview the scientists who appeared in the National Geographic video, he found that they had not been told that their interviews were going to be used to promote a video game. He quotes Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois who worries that science has been hijacked to promote a product. “I was used,” says Shubin.

After playing the game, the scientists Bohannon interviewed gave Spore failing grades across the board.

“Spore’s biology grades rolled in like a slow-motion train wreck. For organismic biology–genetics, cell biology, reproduction, and development–Gregory and Eldredge smacked Spore with a D-. The game flunked evolutionary biology outright with an F. According to Gregory and Eldredge, “Spore has very little to do with real biology.”

And it’s interesting to me that in a TED talk from March 2007, Will Wright demos Spore and makes no such claims. Who decided to push this as a game where you could learn about evolution and biology?

OK, so perhaps Spore isn’t going to change the way biology is taught in school, but does that mean that someday, someone, isn’t going to design a game that does? Trying to keep an open mind and never say never is always good policy, but when Will Wright fails, and the promotion is based on sleight-of-hand, if not blatant lies, it’s discouraging.

On Monday, my presentation for the online conference K12online 2008, Games and Education will go live and there is some discussion of the problem there. I’ll update this post with that link when it’s available.


Grand Theft Auto 4 and other thoughts about video games in education

Back when Halo 3 released, I wrote a blog post about how the massive sales of this product would dwarf any kind of educational video game sales. I didn’t even tackle whether video games in schools are a good idea or might help students learn academic subjects. But that doesn’t matter. No matter what you believe, it’s an idea whose time will never come.

In short, simple math and economics points out the predictable failure of creating top quality educational video games for the classroom that can compete in this market.

Here were my points:

  • In one week, more people bought a copy of Halo 3 than there are teachers in the United States.
  • Every public school in the U.S. would have to purchase 100 copies of a game to match the sales of Halo 3.
  • Back then, Halo 3 was reported to have cost $30 million dollars just to develop the game.

Now let’s pretend you are a video game company…
Let’s say you believe that video games can revolutionize education. You know the market is small, so you run the numbers. As an advocate, you are insanely optimistic about your chances to sell an educational video game to schools in the United States. To make the most of your chances to make a sale, let’s pretend you could design it so that it covers all subjects and grade levels, and correlates to content standards of all 50 states. You do your best to make sure that it is fun to play no matter if you are 5 years old or 18. Even knowing that 2% is a pretty good market penetration, you might gamble that you could get 10% of all schools in the US to purchase your game. And maybe you’d decide that your game is so educational that they will pay $100 for it, double or triple what normal games sell for. And hey, you won’t need to pay a sales force or buy advertising for your game because it’s so good that it will sell itself!

What do you get? Even with these wild claims and ridiculously optimistic estimates, the BEST you could do is generate sales of about a million dollars, not even enough to pay the production costs of one mediocre game.

Now here comes Grand Theft Auto 4 to blow those numbers even further out of the water. According to Wired News (GTAIV Budget Tops Gaming Records), “Grand Theft Auto IV’s meticulously designed, nuanced world required almost 1,000 people to craft, and final costs for the production were around $100 million…” That’s at least three times as much as Halo 3 and doesn’t even count the cost of marketing and sales.

So the next time someone says, “hey, I hear kids like the video games, why don’t they make an educational one” look them straight in the eye and ask them what they are smoking.