The Case for Video Games

Let me start out by saying that, as  father, I worry that my own kids are playing video games too much. As soon as I say that, I sound like an old fogey who wants to give them the boot out the door and say, “find some friends, don’t get into trouble and come back for lunch.” As a technology teacher, though, I see the value in some games (not all) and so I often have this conflict between parent and teacher in me.

So I was intrigued by the article in Edutopia by Dr. Judith Willis, a neurologist, about gaming. In “A Neurologist Makes the Case for the Video Game,” Willis look s at the phenomenon from the perspective of the brain. She talks about the dopamine flow that comes from challenges and success, the adaptive skills that come from solving problems in games, and the incremental feedback (the progress bar) that drives players forward through intrinsic reinforcement.

Willis then shifts her piece to the classroom, making connections with the merits of video gaming with establishing a system of learning. She notes that frequent check-ins, individualized goals and success, and reflective practice are all elements of gaming that could come into play (pun alert) in education.

Classroom instruction that provides opportunities for incremental progress feedback at students’ achievable challenge levels pays off with increased focus, resilience, and willingness to revise and persevere toward achievement of goals. The development of students’ awareness of their potentials to achieve success, through effort and response to feedback, extends far beyond the classroom walls. Your application of the video game model to instruction encourages the habits of mind through which your students can achieve their highest academic, social, and emotional potentials. — Willis

Does this mean we should rush to set up video games on all the computers in our classroom? No. But it does point again to re-thinking a natural response that “games are bad” and “that’s too much screentime.” Even so, I will be sending my kids outside today for a few hours. The sun is finally out, and they need the fresh air. Some things never change.

Peace (in the gaming),

Gaming on my Mind at the CCCC

I am continuing to think about the idea of gaming and how it might (or might not) fit in my curriculum. This summer, as part of our Western Massachusetts Writing Project SummerWrite, I will be leading a summer camp programming for middle school students around gaming and game design, and this morning, at the Conference on College Composition and Communication in Atlanta, I sat in on a session entitled “Leveling Up: Gee, Gaming an the Composition Classroom.”

Three smart Phd student presenters from Purdue University — Alex Layne, Jessica Kaiser, and Jessica Clements — talked about the idea of gaming from various angles. I imagine I was one of the only elementary teachers in the crowd, but I found it intriguing how these three are situating gaming from various stances.

Layden (“Gaming the System in a System of Games”) established the social nature of gaming and made the metaphor of the academic classroom as a game system in and of itself. She also railed against the concept of “gamification,” in which traditional learning activities are put into a new box with the idea of a “game” on it. Layden rightly noted that the idea of gamification comes from the marketing arm of the business world.

Gamification “…tricks students with cosmetic changes to make something more appealing. Students will see right through this,” she explained. Instead, educators should work to use the gaming lens to restructure the classroom experience for learners. Although she did not offer specifics on how this would be done (which would have been nice), she noted that, in some ways, “…a teacher and a dungeon master may not be all that different roles.”

Kaiser (“There’s Nothing Casual About This Gaming”) jumped into the divide that exists in the gaming world around hard-core games (those that fully immerse you in their worlds and which require hours of playing time to reach the end of the quest) and casual games (which take a few minutes to play but are often now very social in nature.) Kaiser noted that while casual games get scoffed at by some hard-core gaming fans, the majority of players of these games are women. Her talk turned on how some populations — women, minorities, etc. — can feel left out of the gaming worlds that are not designed for their interests.

Clements (“A Tale of Two Gamers”) offered up a more personal perspective, turning an inquiry lens on her own gaming experiences with her husband. She conducted a indepth research project into both of their histories around gaming and their views on gaming (which stemmed from them playing Mario Bros. on the Wii). Her idea was to look at how we view writing as a social practice and see if her own inquiry matched up.

What she concluded was quite opposite. While she is a strong academic writer, her own gaming preferences are for more solitary, competitive-driven experiences. Her husband, on the other hand, was not a strong academic writer (she says) but grew up as a very social gamer, and continues to be so today.

Clements adds that expectations of writers value the solitary person over the social group in most classrooms, but she wonders if gaming ideas might allow some struggling students to have another way into literacy practice.

It was all very interesting, and a lot to digest, and (as you might expect) very academic. It would have been nice to have seen or heard about more classroom experiences where gaming is at the center of learning, and what that has meant for the students. I guess that is another road of inquiry that I need to take.

Meanwhile, as I was getting ready to write this, I saw this video link about gaming and learning. Game scholar Constance Steinkuehler reflects on how gaming can matter, particularly teenage boys and literacy. She saw an afterschool program as a “third bridge” between school and games for the boys in her program.

Constance Steinkuehler from New Learning Institute on Vimeo.

Peace (in the games),

Making a Video Game, part 1

gamemaker test

I will never to be accused to being a “gamer,” which is not to say that I don’t appreciate the world of video gaming. I spent many (perhaps too many) hours of my childhood and teen age years, playing Atari and Nintendo and other game systems that I was pretty decent at. I kicked butt at Pong, and was a master at Donkey Kong, and I could discover many hidden Easter Eggs in other platform games whose names have since escaped me (Legend of Zelda seems to be one that stays with me).

These days, though, I mostly watch from afar as my own boys play on the Wii or their iPod Touch or on the computer. We limit their time in the gaming world and put the brakes on some games that we deem inappropriate, but still, it is fascinating to see how far gaming has come and to wonder about where it is heading, and to consider what value gaming might have in the classroom.

I am in the midst of writing an article about gaming in the classroom, with the emphasis on how it might be used for learning. Critical thinking, collaboration, design principles and more are all at the heart of good gaming architecture. One of the focus points of the article is the emergence of tools for users of games to create their own, and it only seemed logical that I should go through the process myself. In other words, I need to come up with a concept and try to develop and publish a simple game as if I were a student.

This post is the first bit of reflection on how that project is slowly developing.

My criteria for finding a good game creation platform was not all that scientific. I wanted something free (that could potentially translate into a no-cost project for my classroom), easy to use (this being relative, of course); and the ability to publish my game at some time in the future, if I wanted. The platform I decided upon, after some research, is GameMaker 8. I downloaded the software on Saturday morning and opened it up, with my older sons looking over my shoulder. They’re interested, too, particularly with the possibility of creating a game for their iPod (I need my Mac and a program called GameSalad – that’s for another day).

GameMaker 8 begins with a handy tutorial on making a simple game, involving moving fruit and the user collecting points by mouse clicking on the fruit (harder than it sounds). The tutorial was easy enough to follow, although the software is bit more complex than I thought it would be. I realized quickly that this is a whole new world for me, so the various elements and vocabulary that might be common in gaming systems for regular users are somewhat foreign to me. Still, the tutorial, with screenshots, was made for beginners like me. I made my simple game with bouncing fruit (and wondered, why fruit? When does fruit ever run away from us? I remember fruit being elements of some of the original video games that I played as a kid, too. Odd.)

At one point, I added a sound to the apples when they are clicked by the player – nothing fancy, just a little zing to indicate success — and my older son asked, “Why did you do that?” to which I answered, “Because I could,” and realized that I was echoing an answer often made by one of my students when they come across something cool. I kept the sound on the apple but realized I would have to try to be more thoughtful. A game that is overloaded with media and options is not very playable.

Ok, so I made my fruit game. What’s next?

What I really want to do is create a game with some sort of narrative backdrop. Again, one of the elements of my article is how “story” has infused a lot of the innovative gaming (Think of Spore, with its story of evolution, for example). I can’t get too complex because my knowledge of GameMaker is limited, and the software has limits, too (although an upgrade for $25 suggests more possibilities for game design).

So, here is my “story” of my future game: a student has woken up late, missed the bus, and must rush to get to school. Along the way, the student encounters obstacles, including a dog chasing them, nipping at their heels. The student gains speed by gathering things (what? I don’t know. Pencils, computer mice, erasers, etc.) along the way. So, this is a Maze Game, I realized, and I think it is doable for someone of my skills. I’m not all that certain the “story” will be evident, but it will at least guide me along as the developer.

Looking at the GameMaker site, I realized there are tutorials on creating maze games, so that is my next step. I’m going to spend some time with the tutorials and begin the task of making a basic maze game, with my own story concept lurking in the background. And I would probably benefit from drafting a paper version of the game, too, to help keep my focus. I also had this vision of writing a story of this running-late student (Running Late – possible name of game), with the game yet another element of the storytelling (and maybe a Google Search Story, too?) so that the story itself becomes multi-modal and engaging for the reader, who also becomes a player in the story.

Now, how would you pull all that off in the classroom?

Peace (in the sharing),