Games in the Classroom (part three)
30 Jul 2007

Games in the Classroom (part three)

Twenty years ago, playing games over a

30 Jul 2007

Twenty years ago, playing games over a distance might have meant that you played turn-taking games like chess over email, and you were cutting edge. I remember people playing chess through snail mail! You would make your move and wait for a reply.

What is happening now is taking place in real-time in virtual environments that are interactive and look better than many films. Decisions, actions, and communications happen like they would in a face-to-face conversation, but they are done through a proxy, that is first and second-person perspectives with an avatar: a graphical representation of yourself in the game space.


Here is my avatar in Second Life.

He is a mix of Yoda, Pei Mei, Zatoichi, Master Po, and Real Ultimate Power. I would have liked to have made him old, but this is only possible if you learn to use some tools outside of the game to create more specialized characters. There are many who do this custom avatar creation, and the cool thing is that you could make your avatar something other than a person. Maybe a virus or a mailbox.

In fact, many people are already creating a comfortable living creating products for in game use. If you have not seen it yet, there are already success stories of people capitalizing on the new economies that virtual worlds have created.


In this Business Week article, one school teacher in Germany has made substantial gains flipping virtual property!

Imagine that you have the tools and access to build in these environments. In Second Life you do. You can visit models of the Sistine Chapel, Yankee Stadium, or even visit government agencies like the Center for Disease Control. You can build what you like on your virtual land.

What make this kind of play appealing is the ability to play and communicate when you want, and the possibility of meeting people from all over the planet. The prospect of building models and interacting in this environments should be very appealing to educators. This is an extension of the diorama. (Tomorrow I will talk about a project using these ideas in the classroom).

Virtual relations.

Just walk up to another avatar and find out where they are from. I was showing my supervisor around Second Life and we met a person from Austria. It was nice to try and speak a little German. We had opportunity here to practice language with a native speaker. This is a way to internationalize our classroom experiences. Why not use this for language practice? Go to Paris 1900 if you want!

Maybe we need both worlds. The virtual and the real.

Our colleagues, students, and yes, even our grandparents are logging on and playing with tens of thousands of people a night.

This all goes way beyond contact and communication.

But can chasing virtual characters in modern versions of capture the flag help kids prepare for a new economy?

The games are developing with the players, by the players, and we are at the beginning of what Henry Jenkins calls Convergence Culture, where consumers –us/we–are shaping the media and commercial landscape—how we sell, what we sell, and how we use it. We are telling companies how they should run their businesses

. . . if they want to do business.

This is what we are going to face as educators. It is my feeling that we already are.

I would like to put forward a simple idea here: This is the new economy.

Go and see for yourself. Get a subscription to World of Warcraft, Star Wars Galaxies, Lord of the Rings, or Second Life. These are interactive communities where people participate and interact for recreation, socialization, and employment. Younger students? Try Teen Second Life, Quest Atlantis, or Whyville.

We are creating what we want, when we want it.

This seems to be the games movement: FLEXIBILITY ON DEMAND.

Games are challenging and deep, but also designed for beginners with low initial usability demands. Imagine if no one but experienced players could play . . . there would be no new market for game companies to sell to.

Games are also modifiable.

Jason Hill, one of my students from the Video Games as Learning Tools course I offer at the University of Minnesota presented on how he and his colleagues in World of Warfare customize their Graphical User Interface (GUI) to be more useful and immediate for the tasks they regularly engaged in his game experience. Here is an image from his game experience:


You will notice the complex symbol systems that represent behavior and action, as well as status and inventory.

What Jason described in the presentation of his project, was that many players were not satisfied with the user interface and had delved into the code to modify the interface to be more useful and applicable for the user’s style of play. You can see here that these are complex interfaces that aid the player in their quest, help them manage resources, as well as control the character. To make them work for your purpose in learning and doing is to have some control and purpose.

Learners like this. There is plenty to recommend it. Take a look at Constance Steinkuehler’s thesis. There is plenty in her study of online literate activities and informal scientific reasoning to give you an idea how you might reverse engineer content to validate gaming as a productive classroom tool.

Further, the graphical user interfaces (GUI) are the precursor to the interfaces and controls of many new computer mediated machines. My former neighbor worked on a project that used video game GUI for controlling unmanned military vehicles. He told me that game players were much more adept at controlling the vehicles than non-game players. Much of our equipment will use GUI like video games.

So not only are students learning to play these games with very complex user interfaces, but they are modifying these interfaces to suit their style of play.

The same is happening with open source communities where HUD (Heads up displays) are being created to connect Second Life to Moodle (an open source learning management system), so that we can begin to link embodied performance and description of experience to an online grade book. Imagine moving beyond traditional distance education and offering shared simulations that are SCORM compliant, which allows for the action to be the assessment given the right scripting and activity.

So, with all of these new tools waiting to become more cost friendly, we might want to think about getting on board before the train leaves the station.

We can do this with school too.

Education and other services may be delivered like this in the future. These virtual worlds can be connected to when convenient, and can be turned off just as easily.

But this is really not all I want to tell you about.

We are already seeing the potential for using these environments for distance learning and hybrid models for classrooms. With my supervisor Renee Jessness, I am currently designing online content for virtual worlds for Minneapolis Online using technologies developed in open source movements like Sloodle.

Make no mistake, as educators, we are making progress.

We are also working to put established curriculum, like Kurt Squire’s work on Civ 3 on Moodle so that students can play the game Civilization and get course credit while improving knowledge of history, cultural geography, and accelerating their reading and critical thinking. There are other games we are beginning to integrate as well. Try Political Machine, Labyrinth, Making History, Freedom Fighter 56, Star Wars Legos, Pirates!, Harvest Moon, Pet Pals, River City, Wolfquest, Creature Control, Dance Dance Revolution, and of course, Guitar Hero!
We are also integrating traditional content into hands on studies with amazing equipment.

I was a little tough on Minneapolis’ magnet programs and did not tell the whole story. We are making progress. Wendie Pallazo, director of Career and Technical Education at Minneapolis Public Schools has just purchased a Rapid Prototype Machine as part of the CTE Engineering program, where content is embodied in Project based learning. Imagine that you take your design from the CAD software and you print off what you designed with a 3dimensional object printer.

What if we combine this with games and online environments?

The process of manufacture and distribution can be a costly process in getting products to shelves. But what if these virtual products were connected to a distribution and production system that would allow you to have it at home instantly?

So you go to virtual Target, and Target has shelves of virtual products to sell you. And in addition to selling you the object, you get the tool kit to modify the product, and, you are encouraged to change its design and sell it on Target’s virtual shelves to other virtual customers. What if you go to check out where there is an RPM machine that will print off your design in a 3d model? Myabe you can modify in the store and at home. Maybe you get a designer’s cut — I don’t know.

This is convergence culture and the logical extension of the AMAZON model of customer recommendation. Design it online, print it at home.

The products we design may be available to us by RTM 3d printer like Wendie just purchased for one of our high schools. I ti s nice that our students will experience technology like this first hand.

People are also using these environments to produce more media.

How about that lamp you mod’d online at virtual target? Print it!
What if you want a book?

How about the Espresso® book machine . . . print off one book at a time.

It is not just about products, it is about information and entertainment too.

There is Machinima, Fan Fiction, Play-throughs, and Mods.

People are learning dangerous sports and serious professions without the risk of injury because game of technology. There are peripherals that enable virtual kayaking with simulated water feel on the paddle; how about new fields like distance surgery—and ps. video games help surgeons in their accuracy.

So instead of asking ourselves if we will be able to compete with these kind of learning environments, we should be asking ourselves when we are going to join in the fun. The biggest foes we face as educators are apathy, learned helplessness, and irrelevance. You will not find those words in the same sentence with Play and Fun. According to Mumford and Huizinga, play is representation and the ability use analogy and metaphor. According to them, this is how our culture was created and the way we perpetuate and share it.

It takes a really disciplined kid to put down the controller and pull out the textbook from school. So why should they?

And as we all know, many are not disciplined in this way. If you speak to most professionals who deal with young people, you will probably find them telling you that kids struggle with the ability to delay immediate gratification. Many young people, and one middle-aged educator I know of for sure, would much prefer to play video games than diagram sentences and do second-drafts of papers. I think we struggle even as adults. Parents and people who play and develop games have much to teach us about learning and delivering instruction, and as educators, we should position ourselves to ask for that help

Parents have learned that they can leverage these games to get kids to do things that they don’t want to do. And believe me, they do. Many young people have at least one gaming platform at home: Xbox, ,Xbox 360 GameCube, Wii, PlayStations 1, 2, & 3, as well as handheld game platforms like the Game Boy, Game Boy Advance, the PlayStation Portable, the Nintendo DS. Parents understand that they can get their kids to do things by using games in a token economy. Some parents take it a step further, and play the games with their children. This is smart parenting. If you are afraid of what might be hiding inside, you should go in and take a look.

Tell me,

How in the world can we compete with this?

Why would we compete with this?

Why are we not teaching like this?

Like I said, there are not the games your father bought you.

They are complex, dynamic, interactive, highly engaging, and evolving with the players: good games are great teachers.

Video games represent a great opportunity for teachers and students to connect, and not just because games are fun and they encourage play, but because it allows us to share experience and be on the same level. It allows them to see an adult learn a new thing as a beginner.

And believe me, you won’t be an expert in the beginning. Modesty and humility are wonderful when mixed with openness, eagerness to learn and share, as well as a little collegian competition. And many young people are great teachers as well as great competitors. And they do want to help you.

When I have played games with young people, I have been able to talk about the experience with them and model my reflective process. When I non-judgmentally share my experiences of the game and how I felt, and how I am making sense of what happened in the context of my values, I get a chance to talk at a whole different level of discourse. I give respect and seek to understand before I seek to be understood. This is a great way to model metacognition, affective processing, and courteous sportsmanship– a few things the world could use!

One of the coolest things we do on games is debate. The CQ Researcher has a nice article on this,a and after we have had a careful reading, we debate about things like violence and games. I asked students if we should teach kids that are seven years old to play Grand Theft Auto®. The classes have generally split half & half. The method comes from Johnson & Johnson and it is this method of creating constructed controversy and debate; it allows me the opportunity to moderate a controversial subject and suggest that we can disagree, learn from each other, and not be at war because we think differently. And the kids have great takes on why we have violence and how games might play a role.

Maybe adoption of these new approaches to play and learning can help us continue our progressive evolution. It is clear the next steps involve ubiquitous computing devices like PDAs and phones. If we all have access to the web, will we be creating hybrids between real and virtual field trips. Folks at the MIT Media lab have been doing this already and are calling them participatory simulations and augmented reality.

We can extend this by having our open source LMS capture data online as students solve the mysteries and provide the data and construct critique and evaluation supporting their findings and position.

Further, assignments that are uploaded using the built in quiz tools and other auto-grading features can evaluate the data as assignments/quizzes and give feedback, clues, and progress in the grade book in real-time. We can give scavenger hunt assignments for our museums, historic sites, government centers, and imaginary futures mapped out in real space. And these don’t have to be fictions; they can be real problems that need solving.

So when we talk about games, we are talking about what is current and maybe a little out front into the future. There is so much happening connected to these tools and so many ways that they can be used and connected.

Tomorrow I am going to share a little about my use of games for teaching literacy and literature. I will offer some approaches to teaching games as game studies and how I improved reading performance with my eight graders.

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