Tag Archives: education

Counterplay 2014: Make People Play

I’ve been in touch with Mathias Poulsen, applied games evangelist working in Denmark, for several years: we have a shared interest in authentic contexts within games for learning. And so it was without any hesitation that I accepted an invitation from him to speak at a new conference he was organising based around the central idea of playfulness.

Counterplay a festival of play and games – brought together three aspects: playful learning, playful culture and playful business. More importantly, the sense of play extended to the whole event, with the fascinating cultural spaces in beautiful Aarhus used to great effect.

The 360° rainbow roof of Aarhus's ARoS art museum

The 360° rainbow roof of Aarhus’s ARoS art museum

Starting in Aarhus’s forward-thinking main library (games consoles and playful areas mix with the shelves of books), Mathias opened the conference by describing his aims in creating it, and then we were straight into an excellent opening keynote from Thomas Vigild (Head of Vallekilde Game Academy, Copenhagen) which looked back at classic definitions of play and linked them to modern examples in games and experiences, with a good sense of humour. The theme which I found most interesting was pausing within play: allowing us to reflect on our actions, think about what might be next, and strategise.

Splitting into the three tracks then, I caught a talk by Santeri Koivisto (Teacher Gaming LCC, creators of Minecraft Edu) who explained how they help teachers across the world to utilise Minecraft and now Kerbal in helping students to create landscapes, structures and stories for themselves. I switched to the culture track then, to hear Steen Nielsen – the Gaming Librarian from the Aarhus Library – talk about their plans for a new library building currently being built on the waterside. The interior has been designed around the ideas of children and adults playing, with media and traditional play spaces built in to the structure. Steen also described the kind of activities they run within the current library: from board game evenings to mini alternate reality games.

After lunch Kirsten Campbell Hughes from London’s EduGamesHub described the trials and benefits of creating and running the LEGup meetings. Mathias then hosted the first of three ‘open space’ discussions – two of which I participated in. The first asked how we could promote a culture of playfulness, and produced some great examples of small playful aspects from around the group (such as slow ninja fights for groups, or juggling to focus the mind). The second, the following day, split into various groups – and mine held a deep and engaging discussion about how we could introduce play and games into more schools and universities (create playful examples within teacher training or staff development days; and provide teachers with a few simple but powerful games to engage students in difficult skills like group work, reflection, problem solving etc.).

Godspanen cultural area

Godsbanen cultural area

At the end of the main talks we headed over to Godsbanen – where a Spilbar had been set up (game bar) in one of the warehouses. The area is a reclaimed space for artists, designers etc., and the warehouse housed a number of collaborative multiplayer games on consoles, kinects, and card games. I had great fun playing the unreleased Joust with the Kinect. More card games were played throughout the delicious meal, and we ended up finishing the night in (of all places) a Sherlock Holmes theme pub, complete with slightly creepy waxwork models and a displaced, thematically, karaoke bar.

There were play spaces within the main conference, and on the second day I spent some time watching and playing with beat blocks, music tiles and the utterly fun/frantic modular floor tiles from Playware. The sessions started with Phil Stuart showing examples of well-designed digital games; Harald Warmelink describing his PhD study linking online gaming/gamers to playful aspects of the  work environment; and Jean-Baptiste Huynh (the man behind Dragon Box) describing his national Norway Algebra Challenge – the success of which, and interesting model, came from a co-ordinated staged launch across the country with students battling against each other (modelled on the MOOC concept – learning small chunks at the same time). I then shared my thoughts about using simple contextual games to create authentic learning experiences – including some interactive Lego modelling – before Henrike Lode (designer of the excellent Machineers learning game, which I first saw a few years ago when Henrike was just graduating) gave an impassioned speech about killing off ‘edutainment’ and bad gamification, and gave us four examples of games where both the game and the learning had been designed properly together, to maximum effect for each.

I must make a quick mention here of the fabulous group of people at the conference, which provided for some fascinating discussion and shared learning across the two days and evenings. Special mention has to go to Zuraida Buter, playful curator of many things including the Global Game Jams, and Mathias, Henrike, Santeri, Thomas and Tobias mentioned elsewhere here: who made my trip much more valuable with their insights and long discussions over coffees and Danish beer.

Closing slide from Miguel Sicart: make people play

Closing slide from Miguel Sicart: make people play

The conference was wrapped up in perfect style: firstly with an experiential look at how Tobias Staaby uses zombie games (The Walking Dead and Last of Us) to teach complex psychological and ethical concepts to his classes (stopping for group discussion/voting at key decision points in the narrative). Miguel Sicart then provocatively claimed that games should die: but went on to make the clever observation that play and playfulness are what we need to aim for. A game may help people to become playful (although equally, so could objects or other people), but ultimately the game will be forgotten, whereas a sense of play can pervade and live on, through other experiences. It was a rousing call to arms – and finished the conference on a perfect slide:

make people play

Congratulations to Mathias for a truly excellent and immersive first conference: a playful format, playful topics, playful participants from diverse sectors, and a game which is set to play for many more rounds yet.

EduGamesHub

A slightly overdue mention of a great resource and group in London who are focussed around educational game development and use. Set up by Kirsten Campbell-Hughes in 2011, with Martha Henson joining her in 2012 after working on some of the fabulous games in the Wellcome Collection (amongst other great things), edugameshub is an informal blog collecting together some great posts from designers, developers and teachers around educational games. They also run  #LEGup gatherings in London for educational game developers and designers, for those in or visiting the area.

I was invited to write a blog post for the hub last month around the use of games in adult (/higher) education, which can be seen here:

..but the rest of the site (and the meetups) are well worth checking out while you’re there.

New Traditional Games for Learning: A Case Book

New Traditional Games for Learning: A Case BookShiny new copies of a rather special book arrived in the post today.

Around a year ago, I started to seek out examples of games used in education that eschewed the usual focus on digital, and instead focussed on more traditional forms: using cards, or dice, or group activity, to engage learners and teach them through playing.

With my co-editor Nic Whitton, we uncovered thirteen fascinating examples of truly creative game design – all built around learning aims, but with a focus on core game design principles. In most cases, the development costs were minor: materials used ranging from blank cards and felt-tip pens, to short-run boxed board games. More importantly, none of the creators are professional game designers – they are teachers, lecturers, trainers who identified a need in their own context.

What this book presents is therefore something we’re very proud to have assembled: thirteen important, fascinating and useful case studies which span a range of educational levels and modes, that provide anyone interested in developing good, engaging (and most of all, fun) learning games with a wealth of ideas and advice. As a coda, the book finishes with a chapter by a professional board game designer who describes the tricks of the real trade.

It’s available later this month direct from Routledge, or from Amazon (with a Kindle version to follow soon).

GLSIG May 2013 – Huddersfield

For our latest face-to-face meeting of the Games and Learning Special Interest Group (GLSIG) we made our way north to the beautiful town of Huddersfield, to be welcomed by a very generous Andy Walsh as host at the town’s University.

Huddersfield campusWith ten members present (and others joining in online through the live-blogging we debuted this year), we launched straight in over lunch to playtest a new card-and-description game I’m designing for the Engaging Visitors Through Play event at the end of May. That event is for museum professionals, and my aim was to teach them about simple contextual games through a simple contextual game involving curating a group of artefacts. The play test was incredibly helpful, simplifying my overly-complex rules and producing a much leaner game.

We then launched into the main session of the afternoon – new member Simon Grey (University of Hull) setting up four Raspberry Pi’s and launching Minecraft on each of them. Simon uses this set-up to teach basic programming skills to his students, and he took us through the method. Many of us had some background in programming in the dim and distant past, and we found ourselves learning loops, if-else statements and functions in Python, whilst seeing the results in technicolour lego blocks within Minecraft. It was a highly engaging way to learn (programme-see a reward) and we followed our practical test with a good discussion about this method and its potential, over some magnificent cake.

We finished the first afternoon with a deep delve into games and learning theory, Nic Whitton leading us through a structured set of themes to crowdsource our collective knowledge of work in the field. This proved to be a highly useful, thought provoking task for all, and neatly finished off our aim to mix theory and practice in all GLSIG activity.

Jackalope?

One of the strange beasts overlooking our table

For the now-traditional evening games, drinks and deep conversations, Andy led us to a quite remarkable pub (The Grove – more real ales and mythological stuffed-creatures-on-shields than you could shake a jackalope at). We played some weird and wonderful independent card games (We Didn’t Playtest This At All, Zombie Dice and Diggity) – all interesting in their own way, with Diggity taking the most time to work out a strategic approach to – and shared our knowledge of (and played through a few too many) drinking games.

Friday morning saw us shake off any wooly heads with my and Nic’s Game Design Workshop (a 60-120 minute fast-paced game creation experience which we’ve now run successfully for a wide range of participants) – our two teams coming up with a pair of highly original games within the space of 50 minutes. We then merged with online GLSIG members to discuss potential ways to free up time and gain funds for research and practice in the field: whether small local practice, or bigger inter-institution projects. In the process, we resurrected the SIG’s parked Ninja Badges project and set it back in motion for the coming year. SIG business then rounded off the 24-hours, and we all set off happily back to our various corners of the UK.

Deep in game design mode

Deep in game design mode

Another excellent event, and one which mixed theory and practice particularly well: giving us all tangible things to take away and implement, in addition to new theoretical avenues to explore. Special thanks go to Andy and the University of Huddersfield for being fine hosts, and to all the GLSIG members who played active and playful roles.

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Mathletics: 1+1=1.5

My daughter’s school recently ran a month-long trial of the “next generation in online Math learning platform” – Mathletics (http://www.mathletics.com).

It’s a site which aims to augment maths teaching/practice for children from 4 to 13. Its ‘next generation’ label comes from the online and gaming aspects which “students love”. I sat down with my daughter to find out how she responded to it.

On logging in, the first thing she did was create an avatar, and choose a character to guide her through the site (so far so good). She then started work on two challenges set by the school: nothing new here – just a series of maths questions with an answer box (just as you might see on paper) – on a right answer, a tick; on a wrong answer, a cross: no feedback or hints on approaches. To complete the challenge, all ten questions have to be answered correctly; any errors, and the whole ten questions (same ones, in order) have to be attempted again.

As a result, she soon got frustrated and gave up on these challenges, then spent a good 30 minutes changing hair, backgrounds, colours etc. on her avatar (the avatar area takes tips from Moshi Monsters et al, and inherits something of the same engagement level). No maths learning here though.

The one redeeming ‘next generation’ feature is a live challenge mode, where you can play against other students from around the world. On starting, you are assigned three other competitors, and a countdown clock starts, as mental maths questions appear on screen: the aim being to answer more than your competitors in the time available. This certainly attracted both of us, but within seconds frustration was back, as all three of the competitors stormed ahead (easily beating our combined efforts): there is no obvious option to filter competitors to different age ranges or skill levels to provide a challenge, rather than an impossible task.

All in all, Mathletics is a poor example of gamification – applying apparently ‘motivating’ aspects of games and playful activities (in this case, the use of customisable avatars and competitive aspects with avatar-rewards) to what is essentially a very traditional try-and-repeat approach to teaching. The gaming aspects add nothing to the experience other than temporarily diverting (and non-learning) activities around the edges.

Experiential Education, Augsburg 2012

As part of an interesting collaborative research theme I’ve been exploring with experiential educator Jule Hildmann (Train the Trainer) around the links between ‘initiative games’ in experiential education, and the development of deep context in games for education, we co-authored a paper for the Internationaler Kongress für erleben und lernen (International conference for experiential learning), Augsburg, Germany, 28-29 September 2012.

Jule has developed an idea called ‘Simple Things’ which gives trainers simple tools to develop, structure, run and reflect on initiative games, in order to achieve learning objectives. Initiative games are often used in experiential education, and might be as simple as building the tallest tower with blocks – through to complex team challenges such as getting everyone safely across a fast-moving stream. Jule’s approach, and one which chimes with my own research, is to use metaphor around such activities, structuring them so that they reflect real situations, surroundings and challenges from participants’ own contexts. So crossing the river is not simply a group challenge: the river might be a strong weakness which the team are keen to overcome in real life, and the opposite shore the new direction they want to take.

A card-sorting initiative gameWe ran a 3-hour workshop around the exploration of these themes in Augsburg, in both German and English. By asking the participants to play a couple of short initiative games, and then apply metaphor to the games for their own context (which they visualised in some impressive plasticine and pipecleaner models), we encouraged participants to develop activities with the learning context in mind, rather than applying outcomes to preset activities.

A metaphor-modelThe workshop was a great success, and encouraged us to continue our conjoined research in this area: look out for more work in the future. The remainder of the conference was interesting to me as something of an outsider to the field, and allowed space for a lot of reflection on how approaches and features might move from the predominantly outdoor/active space of experiential education, to the more formal classroom or online spaces in HE.

Augsburg, one of South Germany’s oldest towns

Call for articles: Engagement, Games/Simulations and Learning

Simulation & GamingTogether with Nicola Whitton, Manchester Metropolitan University, we are guest editing a special issue of Simulation & Gaming on the important theme of Engagement, Simulation/Gaming and Learning.

We are seeking submissions from a range of viewpoints and theoretical bases, using a variety of research methods and approaches, as well as articles that provide a practical perspective grounded in research.  We hope that this symposium will offer a holistic and critical analysis of engagement – as well as related ideas such as motivation, commitment, immersion and flow – and an evaluation of its relevance and value in the sphere of educational game and simulation design, implementation and debriefing.

We encourage a variety of different types of articles related to engagement, simulation/gaming and learning, including topics such as:

  • engagement theory from different disciplinary perspectives
  • the relationship between engagement, games and learning
  • factors influencing levels of engagement with games and simulations
  • case studies evidencing engagement in games and simulations
  • ways in which to evaluate and measure engagement
  • engagement in reflection and debriefing with games and simulations

The full call for articles can be downloaded here (pdf).