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The general principle to put players in control of their flow channels is to design the game’s challenge structure in a way that concurrently escalates risk, relief, and reward, and not just over time, but “stacked” at any given gameplay moment.

A brief essay on “flow” in game design that I wrote for my university’s news room page.

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Breaking Down Siloed Educational Subjects & Learning with Computer Games: Finland Leads the Way

Recently, I asked about the possible effects of “one-size-fits-all educational methodology with predetermined curricula and standardized testing” and, especially, “conditioned learning of siloed educational subjects detached from personal experience in large classes solely determined by year of birth.” That, of course, was purely a rhetorical question as these effects are clearly visible to everybody. Rarely do schools instill in us a deep and abiding love for learning and for the subjects taught, the historical events envisioned, the works of literature read, the math problems solved. Rarely do we fondly remember our school days and sentimentalize them into nostalgic yearnings for a lost pleasure. In my 2013 inaugural lecture “Knowledge Attacks!: Storyfication, Gamification, and Futurification for Learning Experiences and Experiential Learning in the 21st Century” which, alas, I still haven’t managed to put online, I developed two sample scenarios to break down educational silos in our schools.

The first sample scenario took off from the topic of “calculus,” typically siloed and restricted to “math” courses. Why don’t we confront students instead with the exact same problems Newton and Leibniz faced and connect the invention of calculus with learning content from its historical context: Newton’s Principia and the Great Plague of London; the English civil war and the Bill of Rights; the baby and toddler years of the Scientific Method and the principles of rational inquiry; the Great Fire of London and modern city planning; the formation of the United Kingdom and colonial power struggles; the journalist, author, and spy Daniel Defoe and Protestant work ethic; the transition from Baroque to Rococo in painting and music; the Newtonian telescope and Newton’s laws of motion; the dissociation of physics and metaphysics. Interim summary: math, physics, philosophy, religion, English language, history, geography, music, art, literature, astronomy. Oh, and sports: the evolution of cricket during this time in post-restoration England as the origin of professional team sport.

Or “democracy,” aspects of which are usually siloed in history courses and/or a variety of elective courses like “politics” or “citizenship.” What if students were given the task, perhaps in a time-travel setup, to convince the Athenian assembly in 482 B.C.E. via political maneuvering to distribute the new-found silver seam’s wealth among the Athenian citizens instead of following Themistocles’s proposal to build a naval fleet? So that the Battle of Salamis would never happen, the Greek city states swallowed by the Persian empire, neither the Roman republic nor large parts of the world become hellenized, and the European Renaissance as we know it would never happen? The potential in terms of learning content: the dynamics of democracy and political maneuvering; the history of classical antiquity; general economics, trade, and the economics of coins and currencies; the structure and ramifications of democratic systems built on slave economies; Greek language; rhetoric; comedy and tragedy; myth; Herodotus and the beginnings and nature of historical writing; geometry; the turn from pre-Socratic to Socratic philosophy; sculpture and architecture; ship building; astronomy; geography; the Olympic Games. Strategy, probably—especially naval strategy if the plan to change history fails to succeed: Salamis from the point of view of Themistocles on the side of the Greeks and from the point of view of Artemisia—the skillful and clear-sighted commander of a contingent of allied forces in Xerxes’s fleet—on the side of the Persians. Infinite possibilities.

Now, what’s being introduced in Finland right now as “cross-subject topics” and “phenomenon-based teaching” looks quite similar in principle to my developing concept of “scenario learning.” As the Independent's headline puts it, “Subjects Scrapped and Replaced with ‘Topics’ as Country Reforms Its Education System”:

Finland is about to embark on one of the most radical education reform programmes ever undertaken by a nation state—scrapping traditional “teaching by subject” in favour of “teaching by topic.” […] Subject-specific lessons—an hour of history in the morning, an hour of geography in the afternoon—are already being phased out for 16-year-olds in the city’s upper schools. They are being replaced by what the Finns call “phenomenon” teaching—or teaching by topic. For instance, a teenager studying a vocational course might take “cafeteria services” lessons, which would include elements of maths, languages (to help serve foreign customers), writing skills and communication skills.

More academic pupils would be taught cross-subject topics such as the European Union—which would merge elements of economics, history (of the countries involved), languages and geography.

This sounds exciting already, but there’s more:

There are other changes too, not least to the traditional format that sees rows of pupils sitting passively in front of their teacher, listening to lessons or waiting to be questioned. Instead there will be a more collaborative approach, with pupils working in smaller groups to solve problems while improving their communication skills.

Many teachers, of course, aren’t exactly thrilled. But a “co-teaching” approach to lesson planning with input from more than one subject specialist has also been introduced; participating teachers receive a “small top-up in salary,” and, most importantly, “about 70 per cent of the city’s high school teachers have now been trained in adopting the new approach.”

And even that’s not the end of it. A game-based learning approach, upon which my scenario learning concept is largely built, will also be introduced to Finland’s schools (emphases mine):

Meanwhile, the pre-school sector is also embracing change through an innovative project, the Playful Learning Centre, which is engaged in discussions with the computer games industry about how it could help introduce a more “playful” learning approach to younger children.

“We would like to make Finland the leading country in terms of playful solutions to children’s learning,” said Olavi Mentanen, director of the PLC project.

Finally, from the case studies:

We come across children playing chess in a corridor and a game being played whereby children rush around the corridors collecting information about different parts of Africa. Ms. Jaatinen describes what is going on as “joyful learning.” She wants more collaboration and communication between pupils to allow them to develop their creative thinking skills.

What I feel now is a powerful urge to immediately move to Finland.

(h/t @JohnDanaher)

 

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Austin Walker, whose eye-opening article “Real Human Beings: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs and the New NPC” I referenced in an earlier post, writes terrific video game criticism at New Statesman, Paste Magazine, or ClockworkWorlds.

Great if you could spare a few bucks to support his work on Patreon. Critical voices like his are sorely needed.

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#ECGBL 2014: The Pitfalls of Gamified Learning Design

The first #ECGBL2014 presentation I attended was “Experimenting on How to Create a Sustainable Gamified Learning Design That Supports Adult Students When Learning Through Designing Learning Games” (Source) by Charlotte Lærke Weitze, PhD Fellow, Department of Education, Learning and Philosophy, Aalborg University Copenhagen, Denmark.

Weitze’s paper relates to a double challenge so crucial for designing game-based learning solutions that you’ll see me coming back to it on this blog time and again. One side of this challenge is students burning through content way faster than educators and game designers are able to produce; you just can’t keep up. The other side is the challenge of practicing complex, non-siloed learning content within game-based learning environments that are incompatible with practices such as rote learning, flash cards, repeat training, or standardized testing.

In other words, it’s non-educational games’ “replay value” challenge on screaming steroids. Among the most promising solutions is mapping the “learning by teaching” approach to designing content, i. e., having students design fresh game content as a learning-by-teaching exercise. Obviously, both effectiveness and efficiency of this approach depend on the number of students that are part of the system, where output will exponentially take off only after a certain threshold has been reached, both numerically and by way of network effects.

Of course there are pitfalls. One obvious pitfall is that students—with the exception of game design students, of course—are students, not game designers. And while, along more reasonable approaches, they don’t have to design fully functional games by themselves with game mechanics, rules, and everything, it’s still hard to design entertaining, i. e., “playable” content for games without at least some game design knowledge from various fields—prominently balancing, guidance strategies for player actions, or interactive storytelling. This was one of the reasons why, regrettably, Weitze’s experiment, where students also had to build the content with software, fell short.

As for the experimental setup (which employs the terminology of James Paul Gee’s more interaction-/discourse-oriented differentiation between little “g” games and big “G” Games), students design and build little “g” games for a digital platform within the framework of a “gamified learning experience,” the big “G” Game, which includes embedding learning goals and evaluating learning success. The little “g” games in this case are built for other students around cross-disciplinary learning content from the fields of history, religion, and social studies in a three-step process consisting of “concept development, introduction and experiments with the digital game design software (GameSalad), and digital game design” (4). Moreover, this whole development process (within the big “G” Game) had to be designed in such a way as to be motivating and engaging for the students on the one hand, and to yield evaluable data as to its motivational impact on individual learning successes on the other.

Experiences from this experiment, unsurprisingly, were described in the presentation as “mixed”—which is academic parlance for “did not fucking work as planned at all.” The problems with this setup are of course manifold and among these, “focus” is the elephant in the room.

There are far too many layers, especially for an experiment: the gamification of game design processes for learning purposes (the big “G” Game) and the design thereof with in-built learning goals and evaluation strategies; below that, then, the game design processes for the little “g” games including, again, learning goals and evaluation strategies. In other words, the students were supposed to be learning inside the big “G” Game by designing little “g” games in groups with which other students in turn would be able to “learn from playing the games and thus gain knowledge, skills and competence while playing” (3)—all that for cross-disciplinary content and executed in a competitive manner (the big “G” Game) by 17 students and three teachers none of which had sufficient game design experience to start with, and under severe time constraints of three workshop sessions of four hours each.

Besides “focus,” the second elephant in the room is “ambition,” which the paper acknowledges as such:

In the current experiment the overall game continued over the course of three four‐hour‐long workshops. Though this was a long time to spend on an experiment, curriculum‐wise, for the upper‐secondary students, it is very little time when both teachers and students are novices in game‐design. (3)

Plus:

This is an ambitious goal, since a good learning‐game‐play is difficult to achieve even for trained learning game designers and instructors. (3)

And the nail in the coffin, again unsurprisingly:

At this point [the second workshop] they were asked to start considering how to create their game concept in a digital version. These tasks were overwhelming and off‐putting for some of the students to such a degree that they almost refused to continue. This was a big change in their motivation to continue in the big Game and thereby the students learning process was hindered as well. (7)

Finally, what also generated palpable problems during this experiment was the competitive nature of the big “G” Game. While the paper goes to some lengths to defend this setup (competition between groups vs. collaboration within groups), I don’t find this approach to game-based learning convincing. Indeed I think that for game-based learning this approach—competition on the macro-level, collaboration on the micro- or group-level—has it upside down: that’s what we already have, everywhere. Progress, in contrast, would be to collaborate on the macro-level with stimulating, non-vital competitive elements on the micro- or group level.

Game-based learning can provide us the tools to learn and create collaboratively, and to teach us to learn and create collaboratively, for sustained lifelong learning-experiences. Competition can and should be involved, but as a stimulating part for a much greater experience, not the other way round. The other way round—where collaboration has to give way to competition as soon as things threaten to become important—is exactly what game-based learning has the potential to overturn and transcend in the long run.

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#ECGBL2014: Welcome and Keynote

Last year’s ECGBL 2014 (8th European Conference for Game-Based Learning), October 9–10, in Berlin, which included the satellite conference SGDA 2014 (5th International Conference on Serious Games Development & Applications), was located at Campus Wilhelminenhof in Berlin Oberschöneweide and hosted by the University of Applied Sciences for Engineering and Economics HTW Berlin. The conference was opened by Dr.-Ing. Carsten Busch, program chair and professor of media economics/media information technology, followed by an introduction to the HTW Berlin by Dr.-Ing. Helen Leemhuis, faculty dean and professor of engineering management.

Then, the keynote. Oh well.

How to put this politely. To be sure, there are occasions and circumstances where it is a good idea to engage with stakeholders outside academia by inviting industry representatives to academic conferences as keynote speakers, but in this case it rather wasn’t.

The invited speaker was Dr. jur. Maximilian Schenk, formerly “Director Operations and member of the management team” of the German VZ network (which has gone down in history for, among other things, setting the bar for future copy-&-paste operations spectacularly high by copying Facebook literally wholesale, down to style sheets and code files named fbook.css or poke.php), at present managing director of the BIU (Bundesverband interaktive Unterhaltungssoftware / German Trade Association of Interactive Entertainment Software). He addressed his audience of highly qualified postgraduate, postdoc, and tenured veteran researchers from the fields of game-based learning and serious games across a wide range of disciplines verbatim with:

You are the specialists so I won’t go into your terrain, so instead I will tell you something about the fundamentals of serious games that you have to understand to know what making serious games is all about.

During the stupefied silence that followed, Maximilian Schenk acquainted the audience with the BIU and its sundry activities, explained how the traditionally bad image of gaming in Germany, including serious games, was changing as it had been found out that “games make people smarter” (evidence: Spiegel), pontificated about “games as a medium” from “tent fires, maybe 10,000 years from now” to today’s video games (by then my brain had finally thawed and started to hurt), and ended his thankfully brief keynote with an enthusiastic barrage of growth forecasts relating to game-based learning/serious games industries whose outrageously optimistic numbers were inversely proportional to the amount of actual evidence corroborating these numbers.

While appreciated in general, it was rather obvious that the keynote’s briefness had taken the organizers by surprise, and Carsten Busch jumped in to introduce, with all the little tell-tale signs of hurried improvisation, the Swedish Condom08 gamification project. This presentation—its general drift into inappropriately didactic terrain notwithstanding (“What did you learn?”; “What technologies were used?”)—turned out to be enjoyable and stimulating.

And so the conference began. Follow-up posts are in the pipeline.

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Brianna Wu:

Something has to change. I have 3 games to get out the door–Revolution 60 PC, which is almost done, Cupcake Crisis and Project: Gogo. My team needs me leading them, not fighting Gamergate.

I’m not sure what the answer is. I might start a Patreon for an assistant to help with all these Gamergate tasks. I might just start doing less. But, I do know I’m going to lead GSX more this week and fight Gamergate less.

I got into the game industry to make games. And it’s time for me to get back to it.

Exactly.

Only, for Brianna Wu and some others it’s way more difficult to get back to work so if it comes down to Patreon assistance, count me in.

Also, Brianna Wu:

If I were being honest—I’m more than a little resentful. The vast majority of our male-dominated games press wrote a single piece condemning Gamergate and has been radio silent ever since. The publishers are silent, the console makers are silent. And so, Anita, Zoe, Randi and myself are out here doing the majority of the work, while everyone whines about wanting it to be over.

Meanwhile, the rest of the industry is doing what they do best, which is nothing.

Spot-on.

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#GamerGate Isn’t Over But

#GamerGate isn’t over. Actually, GamerGate might never be over. Or at least won’t be for a very long time. And it can’t, because institutionalized misogyny—very much like its sibling institutionalized racism the consequences of which are as visible and as lethal as ever—is, indeed, about institutions and institutionalized practices. GamerGate is not about “issues.” Neither legitimate issues nor pseudo issues—instead, the whole GamerGate edifice is built upon maintaining systemic privilege within our predominant power structures, structures that are completely transparent and therefore invisible for those who enjoy these privileges, but starkly reflecting and often painfully visible for those who don’t.

This asymmetry, in turn, engenders very different flavors of “ideology,” which complicates things considerably.

Everything that’s enmeshed in these transparent, invisible power structures will be perceived by those endowed with privilege as “natural”—race relations, gender relations, how we are educated, how we work, how we love, how we fight, how we die. In contrast, every voice that tries to question or change these invisible power structures—toward visibility, respect, equal opportunity, whatever it is—will be instantly “marked” and highly visible and therefore inevitably be perceived as “ideological” against an otherwise “natural” background, much like a cloud on a spotless, blue sky.

This perceived naturalness, however, is a kind of “deep ideology”—I’m loosely following Michel Foucault here, and Judith Butler—which is glaringly obvious as such for the non-privileged and disenfranchised. And this “deep ideology” in turn—now loosely following Niklas Luhmann here (I told you it’ll complicate things!)—serves recursively as both cause and effect with respect to the underlying power structures in that autopoietic system (i. e, a system where the functional product of its cooperating parts is the organization that creates these parts) we call “society.”

So if you enjoy white, straight, male, cis, able-bodied, or mentally unimpaired privilege, you need to develop a “systemic awareness” which lowers the transparency and makes the invisible visible, and then we’all might be able to actually talk. It’s certainly not easy to develop this awareness all by yourself from scratch, but you don’t need to—there are people who walk amongst you who, if you ask in good faith, are sincerely willing to help! So especially if you’re a straight white dude who prefers to remain ignorant about the relative privileges you enjoy, and there is always a point where remaining ignorant becomes an active decision indeed, pardon me that henceforth your name will be known as Douchebag.

Let’s translate all this into gaming terms. John Scalzi once put it like this: for the privileged, life is like playing an MMORPG on the lowest difficulty setting and remaining blissfully unaware of it.

Still too abstract? Here then, let me help you out with this one:

“25 Invisible Benefits of Gaming While Male” by Feminist Frequency

That’s why GamerGate is not an “issue” we can “solve”—it’s a systemic problem we’re confronted with every day on countless occasions. Systemic problems take many forms, in the gaming industry and society at large as well. Whether, in the case of misogyny, it’s death, rape, and terror threats against female developers and critics and cosplayers and every female voice that’s raised in traditionally male-dominated contexts, whether, in the case of racism, it’s the constant terror you experience as a person of color even if you’re not getting shot six times with your hands up and unarmed or strangled to death on camera by law enforcement officers who act with impunity. Systemic problems have many faces, and they’re usually much uglier than you think they are.

And that brings me to Cultural Criticism, the very purpose of which is to lower the system’s transparency, to denaturalize what appears natural, to make the invisible visible, to expose structural privilege. What Anita Sarkeesian does is cultural criticism, and the mind-boggling amount of threats and invectives directed at her from within the “gaming community,” enriched with massive amounts of hate-filled misogyny and a generous helping of antisemitism, was—and is—terrifying. If you’ve followed her Twitter mentions—or those from Leigh Alexander or Brianna Wu—you couldn’t but stare in utter disbelief at the misogynist hordes that popped out of the ground like spawned from dragon’s teeth. And for all of us who self-identified as male “gamers” up to this point in time, in a way this also meant that, suddenly, these misogynist hordes were us.

But not only “us gamers”—from early on, I noticed many familiar names from the “atheist community” joining GamerGate’s ranks—actually, the same assholes who want to keep atheism “pure” without contaminating it with social issues, who hurl Social Justice Warrior at you as an insult, and who call cultural critics pointing at their straight white male privileges “bullies.” Sounds familiar? Exactly.

And it’s the same familiar idiots who accuse you of misandry—“How does being a misandrist make you better than a misogynist?” blah blah—while a) taking ironic misandry literally (taking things literally where you shouldn’t is a well-oiled rhetorical ploy) and b) pretending to not see that all this is not at all about individual likes and dislikes, but about a huge systemic imbalance where misogyny is baked right into the distribution and availability of resources while misandry is not. In society, “misandry” does not wield any perceptible power, and it’s a non-issue if there ever was one. But, as a reminder, misogyny isn’t an “issue” either—it’s part of the systemic problem I outlined above, and these kinds of problems are not solvable without changing the underlying structure, sometimes wholesale.

Now Ethics in Journalism, in contrast, is indeed an “issue.” And that’s why GamerGate supporters are profoundly disinterested in it at the end of the day. Does anybody really have to point out the great number of problems endemic to video game journalism? I think not. These problems have been bugging us for years and years and not a week goes by without something happening that reminds us. Since when, then, are Ethics in Video Game Journalism’s biggest problems female indie developers working or not working on Call of Duty clones and/or having a video game journalist boyfriend who never wrote a single line about her games, or Kickstarter-backed female critics, or Patreon-supported female artists?

Are these really our problems in video game journalism?

Witch King: “No man can kill me.”
Eowyn: “I am no man.” [Stabs him]
Witch King: [Shrieks] “GAMERGATE IS ABOUT JOURNALISTIC ETHICS!” [Dies]
@sween 4:08 PM – 20 Oct 2014

But! wouldn’t it be possible, however remotely, that GamerGate—which, to remind you, was kicked from 4chan, of all places; whose merry members laughed it off when confronted with their endemic combination of death threats and doxxing because “nobody’s been killed yet!”; and whose leading figures are really quite endearing characters—be rescued by funneling it into the collecting tank of their own pretense, into a true consumer movement?

No. Here’s why:

The entire movement is like dragging a net through sewage, picking up every vile sexist/homophobic consumer. It’s unsalvageable.
@Spacekatgal 4:21 PM – 15 Nov 2014

GamerGate is about as salvageable as the MRA camp or those who take their political and aesthetic inspirations from tinfoil agendas and Stürmer illustrations. Talking of which: it was breathtaking to see how GamerGate acolytes shamelessly deployed Nazi imagery, especially against Anita Sarkeesian, while at the same time insulting feminists as “femiNazis” on a regular basis, all without the slightest cognitive dissonance. But there’s more—and this is a feeling I truly share with Elizabeth Simins: despite many holocaust comparisons floating around, it was GamerGate’s illustrated self-image (in several variations) of intrepidly resisting the “media conspiracy” tanks on Tiananmen Square that really knocked me off my feet.

Finally, are there “two sides” to this story? Well, yes—in the very sense that there are “two sides” to the story when it comes to the dangers of tobacco use or to climate change. Exactly like in the latter cases, GamerGate’s spin is a true “manufactroversy,” a manufactured controversy.

Which this tweet illustrates best:

Should women be allowed to create and play video games without fear of being murdered in real life? Let’s hear both sides of the story.
@Hello_Tailor 5:12 AM – 15 Oct 2014

And yes of course that tweet is sarcastic, bitterly so. But at that point things had literally advanced to a state where at least some people were confused enough and read and reacted to it literally.

Which raises the question: if #GamerGate isn’t over, might never be over, or at least won’t be for a very long time because it isn’t about “issues” but about invisible systemic privilege, what should we be doing next?

Well—I think we should keep our defenses up, collectively protect vulnerable colleagues and friends, and strike back swiftly and decisively if need be, but we should not let this toxic masculinity-fueled GamerGate nonsense eat up our time and energy anymore. Instead, let’s put our time and energy into more valuable endeavors that might, in the long run, make a difference.

For us, actually, now is a better time than ever for developing great games that can make a difference.

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The “Actually, It’s About Ethics in Journalism!” Game

The game “Actually, It’s About Ethics in Journalism!” pitches the player against hordes of badly coded Turing bots set up to propagate a fictitious media conspiracy.

The challenge is how long the player can either argue against, or ignore, an unrelenting onslaught of non-sequiturs and escalating threats and invective before her brain melts or she is driven from home.

This game has been released on Twitter, and you can play it for free!

It’s still in beta so here’s your invite: sign up with the key phrase #GamerGate and you’re good to go. Please note: especially if you are a woman, you might not be able to sign out again. Ever.

Enjoy!

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Brianna Wu Is Third Woman Since August to Be Driven From Home by Death and Rape Threats for Views on Gaming

After attending the European Conference on Game-Based Learning in Berlin last week, I was looking forward to writing about exciting papers and newly-won friends (and a few scientific lemons, to be sure). But with what’s still going on, unabated, under the false flag of the #GamerGate hashtag, business as usual isn’t an option. Chattering away unperturbed about how games make you smarter, drive innovation, are great educational tools, have a bright economic future, and whatnot, while ignoring the disgusting reality and real-life consequences of a spectacularly vicious misogynist attack on our co-gamers makes you nothing less than an accomplice—just ask your history teacher, or possibly your (grand-)parents, how these mechanisms work. And I’m especially looking at you, Intel. [Annotation: Intel made good for it big time.]

And lo and behold, it isn’t just the “gaming community” where this kind of hate cancer has erupted in our midst lately, so I can take two paragraphs from PZ’s “Sunday Sacrilege” post and apply it here by changing four words, marked in italics:

There’s also a really low bar set here. Valuing diversity—the idea that the gaming community should be equally welcoming to all races and sexes—and valuing equality—that everyone in that community should have the same status—are such basic ideas that it’s shocking that anyone could regard their promotion as a sign of a corrupting conspiracy by Social Justice Warriors. Who the fuck would argue with those ideas? Virtually no one. Definitely no one that we would want to accommodate in the gaming community.

Demanding that part of the responsibility of being a gamer should also mean being a decent human being who wants to build functional, useful communities doesn’t sound like a particularly onerous expectation to me. Of course, what that also means is that the gaming industry needs to broaden its goals to serve a larger proportion of the population.

So that’s what we have to demand and defend now? In the one-and-twenty? This is just incredible.

I expect everybody from the scientific community to take a stand against #GamerGate, to not look away. I expect important gaming sites and gaming news sites to resist getting bullied into silence, and I most certainly expect the big players in the video game industry to set course toward diversity and equality, both for their companies and for their products. Because, as I already quoted in a previous post, if you’re a big player in the games industry you are very probably, and that applies to #GamerGate as well, part of the problem: “When your leadership isn’t gender-balanced, it’s tough to have a balanced customer base.”

* I like to thank Elizabeth Simins for providing this article’s headline for free.

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What’s Wrong with NPCs?—One of Numerous Questions Austin Walker Nails Perfectly

In most video games most of the time, non-player characters are the meat in the player character’s power fantasy sandwich. It might taste great and satisfyingly fire up the player’s neural tastebuds, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with it: what should be virtual human beings are pure objects instead, designed for a comprehensive toolbox for emotional and cognitive manipulation. “Good” NPCs suffer horrible fates to provide the player character anger and motivation, “bad” NPCs suffer horrible fates to provide the player character entertainment and moral exemption.

Of course, this is not at all native to video games. It’s rampant in every other media, including literature—from lowly entertainment thrillers the like of Peter Benchley’s Jaws, skillfully dissected by Wayne C. Booth in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction, to the lofty heights of highbrow prose.

To quote myself:

When Sindbad tells the tale of his next-to-last voyage to his guests in Barth’s The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor, the narrator paraphrases Sindbad’s exposition in a rather revealing way: “He makes it to shore, as always, this time with a handful of others, whose next job in his story is to die and leave him the sole survivor. (11)” A treatment which confirms the old adage that it is always a good thing to be the protagonist in one’s story—a motif Barth also plays on in the embedded “Story of Jaydā the Jewel of Cairo” or in his second novel The End of the Road. Barth, all things considered, does not seem particularly perturbed by casting aside his supporting cast in general and his cast­aways in particular, an assumption supported by his opinions on the sub­ject articulated in his essay “A Body of Words” from Further Fridays[.]

Killing off or otherwise utilizing purely fictional characters for the sake of the story or the sake of one’s argument might, after all, not be a completely innocent endeavor.

How we handle NPCs in games is at the core of Austin Walker’s terrific post “Real Human Beings: Shadow of Mordor, Watch Dogs and the New NPC” at Paste magazine. But it’s much deeper than that. Walker’s post touches on how a “new generation” of NPCs as a promising possible remedy exacerbates the problem instead through mainstream story patterns; on the seemingly ineradicable use of binary oppositions which still tailor stories to be experienced from the “natural” default perspective of the White Western Male; and on the absurd, disheartening lopsidedness of the player character’s agency arsenal:

I can’t touch anyone.

This has been bugging me since I started playing Watch Dogs. When I see the man playing trumpet at the park, I can’t tip him. When I hear that someone’s father has cancer, I can’t transfer money into their account—though I can drain their already meager savings further.

And now, these crying people, I can’t hug them. Not that I should—not that Aiden Pearce should be in this space at all. But I am, and I want to hug them. I want that so much more than the ability to do harm, but it’s all I can do.

But what about educational games? Surely, these must be different! After all, NPCs in educational games are rarely designed to be killed but to be talked to, to be helped out, to be cooperated with. Yet, I would argue that most educational games suffer from the exact same problem—when virtual people are means to an end, it doesn’t matter whether it’s an admirable end or a reprehensible end. As long as these virtual people’s only function is to provide students with a learning environment and behavioral incentives, educational games are only superficially different from Shadow of Mordor or Watch Dogs.

Surely, though, the “cultural” perspective is vastly improved in educational games? Well, we’ve come a long way, but—no, not necessarily. Case in point: The Radix Endeavor, a STEM MMO in development from MIT’s Education Arcade and Filament Games, supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The players enter the land, or island, of “Ysola” and become part of an underground movement to secretly conduct scientific research, which is forbidden, to free Ysola from the tyranny of the “evil Obfuscati.”

Predictably, this premise is labeled strong storytelling:

The key to making a game engaging to students is a strong narrative. “What’s important is to take that engaging narrative and that incentive system and put some stakes into the world to keep it feeling like an engaging environment and a place that students really want to be,” said Susannah Gordon-Messer, education content manager for MIT’s Education Arcade. In Radix, the player’s task is to help citizens of a fictional earth-like world gain knowledge about math and science, a privilege denied by the land’s rulers.

You can certainly see where this is going.

And indeed, while the player characters might or might not be native inhabitants of Ysola (the descriptions aren’t too clear on this point), it’s easy to figure out from above’s marketing shtick and—unmistakably, no prior deconstruction experience required—from the Radix Trailer voice-over descriptions such as “interact with Ysola natives and see how you can help them on their quest to knowledge” (00:28), “make use of every resource to help the natives better understand their world” (01:04), or “You are not alone on this endeavor! Join with many other players to help Ysola natives!” (01:40) that the game stumbles flailingly into the familiar trap of a cultural perspective where nobody understands and solves the problems of an exotic people better than the Western visitors.

To wind it up, a tentative forecast from Austin Walker’s post—you should go and read it now in full—of how NPCs could be designed instead:

In a recent episode of the podcast Three Moves Ahead, guest Chris Remo opines about how Jordan Mechner’s The Last Express communicated the lives of its NPCs, who went about their own schedules, had their own conversations, and paid little attention to the player’s motivations. He says that the game gave “glimpses of other people’s interior lives without regard for how they may relate to the player’s.”

This is a beautiful thing that we often forget that games can do.

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European Conference for Game-Based Learning

This week, I’m off to the ECGBL 2014 in Berlin, including the SGDA 2014 satellite conference.

Not sure if I will have time for blogging but if not, bear with me—there’ll be no shortage of posts about conference papers soon.

If anyone reading this blog also happens to attend this year’s ECGBL and wants to connect, check betweendrafts.com/hello-world for every possible channel to get in touch.

 

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It’s All in Your Head: How Do We Get People to Understand Programming, Math, Literature?

The negative motivational potential of programming textbooks and tutorials is second only to the motivational potential of how we teach math. And while visual “learning by doing” systems like Khan Academy’s Computer Programming online course seem like progress, they’re sugarcoating the problem instead of providing a solution.

Bret Victor, two years ago, in his eye-opening essay “Learnable Programming”:

We often think of a programming environment or language in terms of its features—this one “has code folding”, that one “has type inference”. This is like thinking about a book in terms of its words—this book has a “fortuitous”, that one has a “munificent”. What matters is not individual words, but how the words together convey a message.

Everything else—a must-read—follows from there toward building a mental model. The concept of building a mental model is based on an interesting premise: “A programming system has two parts. The programming ‘environment’ is the part that’s installed on the computer. The programming “language” is the part that’s installed in the programmer’s head.” The inspiration to build on this premise, as Victor remarks, came from Will Wright’s thoughts on interactive design in “Sims, BattleBots, Cellular Automata God and Go: A Conversation with Will Wright” by Celia Pearce:

So what we’re trying to as designers is build up these mental models in the player. The computer is just an incremental step, an intermediate model to the model in the player’s head. The player has to be able to bootstrap themselves into understanding that model. You’ve got this elaborate system with thousands of variables, and you can’t just dump it on the user or else they’re totally lost. So we usually try to think in terms of, what’s a simpler metaphor that somebody can approach this with? What’s the simplest mental model that you can walk up to one of these games and start playing it, and at least understand the basics? Now it might be the wrong model, but it still has to bootstrap into your learning process. So for most of our games, there’s some overt metaphor that allows you approach the simulation. (Game Studies: The International Journal of Computer Game Research Vol.2 Issue 1, July 2002)

That, of course, holds important implications for game-based learning design—not just for teaching programming, but that’s a particularly obvious example. In game-based learning design, bootstrapping must take place both at the system level and the content level: the GBL model must be designed in such a way that you “can walk up to it and start playing,” and the same thing applies to how the learning content is designed so that the player ”can walk up to it and start learning.” (A fine example of Hayden White’s The Content of the Form principle at work, incidentally.)

As of now, there is no shortage of games that try to teach programming to kids, but just browsing the blurbs opens jar after jar crawling with inadequacies, to put it mildly. Games aimed at teens tend to float belly up the next time you check (yes I’m looking at you, CodeHero), or remain perpetually promising but unfinished like Dre’s Detox. And you won’t find anything remotely suitable for adults or seniors.

Obviously, if we managed to create games that teach how to code along the lines imagined by Bret Victor, we’d create new generations of coders who could put to good use not only the principles they’ve learned, but the principles with which they’ve learned what they’ve learned, to create great game-based learning designs and experiences for the future.

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Intel, responding to criticism that they caved to demands from the misogynist #GamerGate mob and pulled their ads from Gamasutra:

We apologize and we are deeply sorry if we offended anyone.

No, Intel, that’s not how to do it. Here’s why:

Jebus, but I hate that poor excuse for an apology. It happens all the time; someone says something stupid and wrong, and instead of saying, “I was wrong, I’m sorry and will try to change,” they say, “I’m sorry you were offended by my remarks”—suddenly, the problem lies not in the error of the speaker but in the sensitivity of the listener.

That’s not an apology. It’s a transparent attempt to twist the blame to fall on everyone else but the person who made the mistake.

The only thing this “apology” demonstrates is that Intel’s PR department is run by spineless weasels.

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What About #GBL and the Humanities?

Whenever you watch the rare event of big chunks of money flying in the direction of serious GBL development like wild geese in winter, you can bet your tenure on it that it’ll be all about STEM. But education isn’t just Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—it’s about a zillion other things too! And that includes Social Sciences and the Humanities.

The humanities, despite being ridiculously underfunded, are doing fine in principle. And if we care at all about what kind of society, political system, historical self-image, or perspective on justice should be shaping our future, or what public and individual capacities of critical and self-critical thinking, introspection, and levels of general knowledge to make informed decisions about anything and everything we want future generations to have at their disposal, then we should be as deeply interested in bringing the humanities and social sciences into game-based learning than we are already with respect to STEM.

Because if you aren’t interested in such things or can’t motivate yourself to take them seriously, then you’d better prepare for a near-future society best represented right now by FOX News and talk radio programs, comment sections of online newspapers, and tech dudebro social media wankfests.

That said, there are at least two fatal mistakes the humanities must avoid at all costs: neither should they put themselves on the defensive about their own self-worth, nor should they position themselves conveniently in the “training” camp.

Jeffrey T. Nealon in Post-Postmodernism: Or, The Cultural Logic of Just-in-Time Capitalism (Stanford: Stanford UP, 2012):

The other obvious way to articulate the humanities’ future value is to play up the commitment to communication skills that one sees throughout the humanities. For example, Cathy Davidson writes in the Associated Departments of English Bulletin (2000), “If we spend too much of our energy lamenting the decline in the number of positions for our doctoral students, … we are giving up the single most compelling argument we have for our existence”: the fact that we “teach sophisticated techniques for reading, writing, and sorting information into a coherent argument.” “Reading, writing, evaluating and organizing information have probably never been more central to everyday life,” Davidson points out, so—by analogy—the humanities have never been so central to the curriculum and the society at large. This seems a compelling enough line of reasoning—and donors, politicians, students, and administrators love anything that smacks of a training program.

But, precisely because of that fact, I think there’s reason to be suspicious of teaching critical-thinking skills as the humanities’ primary reason for being. The last thing you want to be in the new economy is an anachronism, but the second-to-last thing you want to be is the “training” wing of an organization. And not because training is unnecessary or old line, far from it; rather, you want to avoid becoming a training facility because training is as outsourceable as the day is long: English department “writing” courses, along with many other introductory skills courses throughout the humanities, are already taught on a mass scale through distance education, bypassing the bricks-and-mortar university’s (not-for-profit) futures altogether, and becoming a funding stream for distance ed’s (for-profit) virtual futures. Tying our future exclusively to skills training is tantamount to admitting that the humanities are a series of service departments—confirming our future status as corporate trainers. And, given the fact that student writing and communication skills are second only to the weather as a perennial source of complaint among those who employ our graduates, I don’t think we want to wager our futures solely on that. (187–88)

Everybody who’s involved in a rare GBL game pitch for the humanities or social sciences that travels down this road should turn the wheel hard and fast in a different direction—or get out and run.

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Cas Prince over at Puppyblog about the declining value of the indie game customer (slightly densified):

Back in the early 2000s, games would sell for about $20. Of course, 99% of the time, when things didn’t work it was just because the customer had shitty OEM drivers. So what would happen was we spent a not insignificant proportion of our time—time which we could have been making new games and thus actually earning a living—fixing customers computers. So we jokingly used to say that we sold you a game for a dollar and then $19 of support.

Then Steam came (and to a lesser extent, Big Fish Games). Within 5 short years, the value of an independent game plummeted from about $20 to approximately $1, with very few exceptions.

Then came the Humble Bundle and all its little imitators.

It was another cataclysmically disruptive event, so soon on the heels of the last. Suddenly you’ve got a massive problem on your hands. You’ve sold 40,000 games! But you’ve only made enough money to survive full-time for two weeks because you’re selling them for 10 cents each. And several hundred new customers suddenly want their computers fixed for free. And when the dust from all the bundles has settled you’re left with a market expectation of games now that means you can only sell them for a dollar. That’s how much we sell our games for. One dollar. They’re meant to be $10, but nobody buys them at $10. They buy them when a 90% discount coupon lands in their Steam inventory. We survive only by the grace of 90% coupon drops, which are of course entirely under Valve’s control. It doesn’t matter how much marketing we do now, because Valve control our drip feed.

Long, rambling, and eminently realistic long-form post everybody interested in gaming culture and indie games should go and read from A–Z.

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At ProfHacker, Anastasia Salter has collected five recommendations for critical readings on games and learning. A quick check of my own personal library (and memory) reveals that from these I’ve read only two, namely James Paul Gee’s What Videogame Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and Jesper Juul’s The Art of Failure.

But except Gee, publishing dates are in the neighborhood of 2013/2014, and my backlog is disheartening anyways.

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From Ian Bogost’s talk at the 2013 Games for Change conference:

When people talk about “changing the world with games,” in addition to checking for your wallet, perhaps you should also check to see if there are any games involved in those world changing games[.] The dirty truth about most of these serious games, the one that nobody wants to talk about in public, is they’re not really that concerned about being games. This is mostly because games are hip, they make appealing peaks in your grant application, they offer new terrain, undiscovered country, they give us new reasons to pursue existing programs in order to keep them running.

Maybe what we want are not “serious’ games, but earnest games. Games that aren’t just instrumental or opportunistic in their intentions.

Nails it.

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Don’t Let Your Simulation Game Become a Shit Sandwich

According to a 2011 metastudy by Traci Sitzmann in Personnel Psychology, declarative and procedural knowledge and retention were observed to be higher in groups taught with computer-based simulation games than in groups taught without, and even self-efficacy was observed to be substantially higher—surprisingly high, I might say. But that isn’t the whole story.

Common knowledge, and often among the main rationales for developing computer-based simulation games, is that wrapping entertainment around course materials will boost motivation. Motivation, hopefully, for learning new skills and not merely for playing the simulation game.

But do we know for sure that this works?

Two key simulation game theories propose that the primary benefit of using simulation games in training is their motivational potential. Thus, it is ironic that a dearth of research has compared posttraining motivation for trainees taught with simulation games to a comparison group. A number of studies have compared changes in motivation and other affective outcomes from pre- to posttraining for trainees taught with simulation games, but this research design suffers from numerous internal validity threats, including history, selection, and maturation. Also, the use of pre-to-post comparisons may result in an upward bias in effect sizes, leading researchers to overestimate the effect of simulation games on motivational processes.

Sounds bad enough. But there’s more! In a corporate environment, motivation is intimately linked to work-motivation—think of it as a special case of transfer of learning—but which, it turns out, hasn’t so far been tested in any meaningful manner at all:

However, the instructional benefits of simulation games would be maximized if trainees were also motivated to utilize the knowledge and skills taught in simulation games on the job. Confirming that simulation games enhance work-related motivation is a critical area for future research.

Also, there’s something else. How well declarative and procedural knowledge, retention, and self-efficacy are raised depends, according to this meta analysis, on several factors. The best results were observed for games where work-related competencies were actively rather than passively learned during game play; when the game could be played as often as desired; and when the simulation game was embedded in an instructional program rather than a stand-alone device.

Lots of implications there. And ample opportunity to turn your corporate simulation game into a veritable shit sandwich: when the game is merely the digital version of your textbooks, training handbooks, or field guides; when the replay value is low; and when you think you can cut down on your programs, trainers, and field exercises.

In other words: a good simulation game will cost you, and you can’t recover these costs by cutting down on your training environment. Instead, a simulation game is a substantial investment in your internal market, and you better make sure to get the right team on board so that motivation will translate into training success and training success into work-motivation.

Paper cited: Sitzmann, Tracy. “A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instruction Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games.” Personnel Psychology. Vol.64, Issue 2 (Summer 2011). 489–528.

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I-Chun Hung and Nian-Shing Chen at Oxford University Press blogs:

When younger learners study natural science, their body movements with external perceptions can positively contribute to knowledge construction during the period of performing simulated exercises. The way of using keyboard/mouse for simulated exercises is capable of conveying procedural information to learners. However, it only reproduces physical experimental procedures on a computer. […]

If environmental factors, namely bodily states and situated actions, were well-designed as external information, the additional input can further help learners to better grasp the concepts through meaningful and educational body participation.

Exciting research. Add to that implications from Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis and the general question of the vanishing of movement and physicality from learning processes as an as yet underresearched psychological—or even philosophical, think peripatetics—observable.

This is a direction we should follow through in game-based learning research with some financial muscle, so to speak.

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A Design Paradigm for Serious Games

How serious games are developed has changed quite a bit since Gunter et al.’s paper “A Case for a Formal Design Paradigm for Serious Games” (link to PDF) from 2006, but that doesn’t invalidate its point of departure in principle:

We are witnessing a mad rush to pour educational content into games or to use games in the classroom in an inappropriate manner and in an ad hoc manner in hopes that players are motivated to learn simply because the content is housed inside a game.

While this paper is neither a rigorously written research study nor exactly informed by deep knowledge about the psychology of learning (all three authors have their backgrounds in the technology of learning), and the concluding “method for creating designed choices” falls flat on its nose as this paper regrettably fails to define “choice” in this context, we can still extract its basic idea, strip off its naïve linearity, and expand on it.

In brief:

The basic design process for educational games should occur within a three-dimensional space whose three conceptual axes are: Game Mechanics, Dramatic Structure, and the Psychology of Learning. To simply try and “map” these parameters onto each other in a largely linear approach that, among other things, is destined to lose sight of participatory elements and agenticity rather quickly will run into problems and lead to bad games. And the best approach to build such a matrix for a given objective is to create a collaborative team with top-notch professionals from all three areas, i. e., game design, narrative design, and the psychology of learning and motivation.

Paper cited: Gunter, Glenda A., Robert F. Kenny, & Erik Henry Vick. “A Case for a Formal Design Paradigm for Serious Games.” The Journal of the International Digital Media and Arts Association. Vol.3 No.1 (2006). 1-19.

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The Trouble with Game-Based Learning Research

From a 2013 Research Roundup on Game-Based Learning:

While serious games have been embraced by educators in and out of the classroom, many questions remain. What are the possible effects of digital gaming, connectivity and multitasking for younger learners, whose bodies and brains are still maturing?

Let me rephrase this just a bit:

While 20th century-style classroom learning has been embraced by educators all over the world, many questions remain. What are the possible effects of one-size-fits-all educational methodology with predetermined curricula and standardized testing, conditioned learning of siloed educational subjects detached from personal experience, and large class sizes solely determined by year of birth, for younger learners whose bodies and brains are still maturing?

What this comes down to is this. With their defensive positions reflected by arguments as well as study designs, game-based learning proponents often paint themselves into a corner. You just can’t conclusively identify (let alone “prove”) the effects and effect sizes of a particular teaching method for all times, ages, and contexts. Moreover, it’s proponents of that archaic industrial processing of learning and learners that we, somewhat misleadingly, call our “modern educational system” who should scramble to legitimite their adherence to outdated structures and methods, not the other way round.

Another thing that’s screwed, of course, is that from twenty studies on game based-learning listed by this particular research roundup mentioned above, only three are freely available — “Video Game–Based Learning: An Emerging Paradigm for Instruction” (Link); “Gamification in a Social Learning Environment” (Link to PDF); “A Meta-Analytic Examination of the Instructional Effectiveness of Computer-Based Simulation Games” (Link). And from the other seventeen arcticles’ overall ten sources even the excellently-equipped university and state library I’m privileged to enjoy research access to does subscribe, again, to three.

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From education game-maker FilamentGames:

Commencing Operation Play, a call-to-arms for all believers in the positive impact of game-based learning! From September 15th–19th, we’re celebrating educators that utilize game-based learning in their classrooms and the benefits games can have on student engagement and understanding. We’ve partnered with some of the most powerful forces in the industry to build a hub of teacher resources for adding game-based learning to your classroom curriculum.

On board for digital games are, among others, MIT’s Education Arcade and Institute of Play’s GlassLab.

Worth checking out. I almost missed this.

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Frank Catalano at GeekWire about the possible consequences of Microsoft’s acquisition of Mojang for TeacherGaming and MinecraftEdu:

With the Mojang buy, Microsoft will have an automatic presence in two hot and growing areas of importance in K-12 schools: STEM education, and game-based learning. It could choose to:

  • Maintain the licensing and direct support relationship for TeacherGaming’s MinecraftEdu,
  • Distribute Minecraft directly to schools as a Microsoft Education initiative (perhaps also buying TeacherGaming), or
  • Let education-specific efforts wither as it pursues world domination in mass market video games.

Early indications are somewhat promising, if not yet specific.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s activities notwithstanding, Microsoft’s past in edu is checkered, to say the least. While Microsoft’s new CEO Satya Nadella indirectly confirmed that Ballmer’s departure marked the end of Microsoft’s platform-centric “domination” strategy, it will take time until we know whether that’s just marketing lingo or a real change of heart.

Remember the time when education was one of Apple’s rare strongholds and Microsoft proposed to pay out $1.1 billion in legal settlements from a class action law suit “in Microsoft software to needy schools”?

Be wary, we should.

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Learning “Trust” With Co-op Games

A circulating story about a grey parrot performing unexpectedly well in a setup of the classic 1972 Stanford Marshmallow Experiment reminded me of a related study from 2012, “Rational Snacking: Young Children’s Decision-Making on the Marshmallow Task Is Moderated by Beliefs About Environmental Reliability” (paywall). Takeaways from the latter were: the original test’s setup didn’t control for trust (and probably other factors as well), and the dependent variable of self-control is at least “moderated” by the perceived reliability of the environment—trust—in personal delay-of-gratification success or failure. (About the parrot, alas, I have nothing useful to say.)

One can be reasonably sure that both factors, i. e., trust and self-control, are indeed highly correlated in real-world settings. From there we can assume another confounding factor pertaining to both the original and the follow-up study that hasn’t been controlled for, namely, social background. Reliability isn’t just a matter of character, but also a matter of circumstances: people can be unreliable und untrustworthy not because they are unreliable and untrustworthy, but also because their personal environment and circumstances force them to be. For a taste of how this works, play the terrific Papers, Please!.

In fact, your unreliability and untrustworthiness in real-world settings can be a function of naked necessity, and the more precarious your personal circumstances are, the less you can afford being reliable and trustworthy. It can start with the promise of a birthday present you couldn’t keep because you needed to have the refrigerator repaired that just broke down, or for a visit to the zoo or your daughter’s all-important afternoon baseball game because you finally didn’t dare leave early from work even though you had asked for permission.

Now think again about the results of the original Marshmallow Experiment’s follow-up studies:

In follow-up studies, Mischel found unexpected correlations between the results of the marshmallow test and the success of the children many years later. The first follow-up study, in 1988, showed that “preschool children who delayed gratification longer in the self-imposed delay paradigm, were described more than 10 years later by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent.”

What needs to be done, actually, is factoring in the participants real-life environment reliability which, stunningly, hasn’t been controlled for throughout these studies.

Now, learning to trust or not to trust is a bit more complicated than “learning whom to trust or not” as an educational objective. “Trust” has a context, often a dynamic one. If children don’t understand this, they will have no clue what to do or what’s happening, e. g., when it comes to intermittent trustworthiness because circumstances compel a basically trustworthy person to be trustworthy most of the time, but not all of the time. And we know from Behaviorism that intermittent rewards (i. e, reinforcements) trigger certain classes of hormones that are not only highly addictive, but change behavior in unexpected and overwhelmingly socially negative ways.

When “Trust” as an educational objective has to take dynamically changing contexts into account, many of the game mechanics used in educational games are not even close to being useful, and that applies to corporate trainings as well. But how can we create dynamic contexts?

Well, Storification! A dramatic structure, turning points, ever higher stakes, unforeseen predicaments, and a “story world” where every action has its consequences, though not necessarily the expected ones. Obviously, in an interactive, participative game where the player can expect to have agency it’s neither possible nor desirable to “script” all these elements beforehand. As of now, the single best way to experience such situations, and experience them in perfect safety!, are still old-fashioned pen-and-paper roleplaying games—true, authentic “co-op” games through-and-through.

And that’s exactly what we’re going to have to create in the field of game-based learning: a plot-driven, context-rich co-op game that dynamically evolves through interactions between players who enjoy true agency. Which would be almost too easy with Strong AI as a “game master,” but as long as we can’t have that, we must work with what we have. Which, actually, is quite a lot—with MMORPG mechanics and mixed AI/Tutor systems leading the way.

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From the Games and Learning Publishing Council’s National Survey of Digital Game Use Among Teachers:

Digital games are becoming a more regular part of the classroom, according to the nearly 700 teachers who responded to the survey.

Of those teachers who use games in the classroom (513 respondents), the majority of respondents (55%) use games in the classroom at least once a week and another quarter have kids play games at least once a month.

The GLPC survey found that a majority of teachers still use desktop computers to play games (72%) and a sizable group (41%) is using interactive whiteboards. But still, tablets have quickly grown to equal the whiteboard usage.

That’s a lot, actually, but I think it’s reasonable to expect a slight selection bias here, i. e., that teachers who use digital games in their classrooms are a bit more likely to respond to this survey than those who don’t.

Add to that another survey, quoted on GLPC’s website:

This growth of mobile technology was also highlighted in a new survey from the technology and education firm Amplify. That survey found that of those not using tablets 67 percent plan to invest in them in the next 1–2 years.

Again, quite a lot. Yet, “Interactive” and “mobile” don’t necessarily translate into “collaborative,” and I wonder whether tablets are particulary suited for collaborative game-based learning (which playing games in the classroom was all about in the first place).

Also, I wonder how those numbers would compare to a similar survey in Germany—oh wait, I don’t.

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About two months or so ago, I threw a few remarks about LEGO’s new “Female Scientists Research Institute” into that Black Hole commonly known as Facebook, raining on the then-ongoing “LEGO finally gets it!” parade by reminding everybody that this set was not a regular product but a) fansourced as a winner of the annual “Idea” competition and b) a limited edition.

And so it goes. Shortly after the launch, from the New York Times:

Within days of its appearance early this month, the Research Institute—a paleontologist, an astronomer and a chemist—sold out on Lego’s website and will not be available at major retailers, including Target and Walmart. Toys “R” Us did carry the line, but according to associates reached by telephone at two of its New York stores, it sold out at those locations as well.

Lego said the set was manufactured as a limited edition, meaning it was not mass-produced.

So there’s that.

And the problem is…well, take one guess. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox over at Harvard Business Review (emphasis mine):

Why did it take until 2014 for the world’s second-largest toy maker to offer girls (and their toy-buying parents) products they might actually want? (After all, even Barbie has been an astronaut since 1965.)

Perhaps it has something to do with the profile of LEGO’s management team, comprised almost entirely of men. The three-person board of the privately-held company is all men, led by CEO Jørgen Vig Knudstorp. The 21-person corporate management team has 20 men and one woman—and she’s in an internally-facing staff role, not connected to the customer base or product development. When your leadership isn’t gender-balanced, it’s tough to have a balanced customer base. The new “Research Institute” range was proposed by geoscientist Ellen Kooijman on one of the company’s crowd-sourcing sites. But it begs the question, is there really no one inside the company who might have come up with the radical idea of having women scientists feature in a 21st century toy company’s line? […]

Don’t hold your breath, though. Despite its first-day sold-out success, LEGO has decided not to continue the Research Institute line. It was only a “limited edition.” So girls, back to the pool. The guys in this boardroom don’t seem to want to give you any ideas… let alone seats at the table.

Read the whole piece—LEGO should be deeply ashamed. But the exact same problem haunts the videogame industry, and the cultural expressions that attach themselves to it; under the protective cultural umbrella of predominantly male C-level execs, we’re not only stuck with equivalents of “limited editions” in the videogame market, but also with that howling mob of male gamers descending on everything that’s not sufficiently catering to their dicks.

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From last August’s Serious Games Conference Kick-Off in Joburg, South Africa:

[Ernest W.] Adams mentioned “stealth learning” as a very effective way to convey a specific message in a serious game. He said Lufthansa has a game called Virtual Pilot that challenges gamers to fly to the designated city with increasingly fewer aids. They say “Land at city X,” and all you have to go on is a map of the region showing red dots (cities) within country boundaries, and you must choose the right city to proceed. Success then removes the dots representing the cities, and you must guess where the city in question is, and you’re awarded more points the closer your chosen spot is to the actual location. The final level removes country boundaries as well, stretching your memory and knowledge to the maximum.

While a fun game in its own right, what you don’t realise as you play is that you now know what cities Lufthansa flies to as the game doesn’t show cities the airline doesn’t service. Sneaky!

Seriously?

I have the greatest respect for Ernest Adams so I believe he mentioned this game as an example for the underlying mechanics in principle and not for its quality as a serious game in general. Where to begin: advergames as serious games? learning a brand’s flight destinations as an educational objective? flight destinations that—give me a sec—we can check out anytime anywhere on our phones courtesy of Google Search or Lufthansa’s own nifty app? the lack of an incentive system to retain the geographical knowledge gained (except for use in repeat games)? knowledge, moreover, that you need to succeed in the first place? the lack of any game mechanism that makes this knowledge relevant to the player beyond earning points toward a finite total?

You can check out Lufthansa’s Lufthansa to Europe Destination Game for yourself. Bring Flash.

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Ready to Go, But Not Yet Publishing

just drafts is one part news ticker with commentary and one part real-time research about game-based learning and game-based education, game design, and game-related media ethics. Other game-related topics (storytelling, branding & marketing, copyleft wars, gadgetry, and so on) you’ll find at my flagship blog between drafts in various categories.

News ticker posts will feature a quote like this one from an external source, only longer.

To that I will add a commentary, preferrably not much longer than the quote. The post’s headline will link not to the post itself as expected, but—indicated by an arrow at the end of the post title—directly to the source of the quote (a principle I picked up from John Gruber’s site and fell in love with over the years along with #4a525a). A permalink for the post itself will be provided at the end of the post; see below, in blue. Research posts titles, in contrast, will have no arrow and behave like good, old-fashioned blogposts.

Yee-haw! See y’all soon.

 

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