A Whale Of A Tale!: Ricardo Pitts-Wiley Brings Mixed Magic to LA

Last February, I announced here the release of Reading in a Participatory Culture, a print book, and Flows of Reading, a d-book extension, both focused around work my teams (first at MIT and then at USC) have done exploring how we might help educators and students learn about literary works through actively remixing them. Our central case study has been the work of playwright-actor-educator Ricardo Pitts-Wiley from the Mixed Magic Theater, who was successful at getting incarcerated youth to read and engage with Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick by having them re-imagine and re-write it for the 21st century. You can read more about this project here. And you can check out the Flows of Reading d-book for free here. 
If you live in Los Angeles, you have a chance to learn more about Pitts-Wiley and his work first hand. I’ve been able to bring Ricardo for a residency at USC this fall, which will start with a public event at the Los Angeles Public Library on September 26. Ricardo is going to be recruiting a mixed race cast of high school and college aged actors from across the Los Angeles area and producing a staged reading of his play, Moby-Dick: Then and Now, which will be performed as part of a USC Visions and Voices event on Oct. 11th. You can get full details of both events below. I hope to see some of you there. We are already hearing from all kinds of artists here in Southern California who have sought creative inspiration from Melville’s novel and used it as a springboard for their own work. But you don’t have to love the great white whale to benefit from our approach to teaching traditional literary works in a digital culture, and we encourage teachers and educators of all kinds to explore how they might apply our model to thinking about many other cultural texts.
For those who live on the East Coast, our team will also be speaking and doing workshops at the National Writing Project’s national conference in Boston on Nov. 21.
Thursday, September 26, 2013 7:15 PM
Mark Taper Auditorium-Central Library
Thu, Sep 26, 7:15 PM [ALOUD]
Remixing Moby Dick: Media Studies Meets the Great White Whale 
Henry Jenkins, Wyn Kelley, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley

Over a multi-year collaboration, playwright and director Ricardo Pitts-Wiley, Melville scholar Wyn Kelley, and media expert Henry Jenkins have developed a new approach for teaching Moby-Dick in the age of YouTube and hip-hop. They will explore how “learning through remixing” can speak to contemporary youth, why Melville might be understood as the master mash-up artist of the 19th century, and what might have happened if Captain Ahab had been a 21st century gang leader.

* Part of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles and Los Angeles Public Library’s month-long citywide initiative “What Ever Happened to Moby Dick?”


Henry Jenkins is Provost’s Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He has written and edited more than fifteen books on media and popular culture, including Spreadable Media: Creating Meaning and Value in a Networked Culture with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. His other published works reflect the wide range of his research interests, touching on democracy and new media, the “wow factor” of popular culture, science-fiction fan communities, and the early history of film comedy. His most recent book, Reading in a Participatory Culture: Remixing Moby-Dick for the Literature Classroom was written with Wyn Kelley, Katie Clinton, Jenna McWilliams, Erin Reilly, and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley.

Wyn Kelley teaches in the Literature Section at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and is author of Melville’s City: Literary and Urban Form in Nineteenth-Century New York and of Herman Melville: An Introduction. She also co-author Reading in a Participatory Culture: Re-Mixing Moby-Dick in the English Classroom with Henry Jenkins and Ricardo Pitts-Wiley. She is former Associate Editor of the Melville Society journal Leviathan, and editor of the Blackwell Companion to Herman Melville. A founding member of the Melville Society Cultural Project, she has collaborated with the New Bedford Whaling Museum on lecture series, conferences, exhibits, and a scholarly archive. She serves as Associate Director ofMEL (Melville Electronic Library), an NEH-supported interactive digital archive for reading, editing, and visualizing Melville’s texts.

Ricardo Pitts-Wiley is the co-founder of the Mixed Magic Theatre, a non-profit arts organization dedicated to presenting a diversity of cultural and ethnic images and ideas on the stage. While serving as Mixed Magic Theatre’s director, Pitts-Wiley gained national and international acclaim for his page-to-stage adaptation of Moby Dick, titled Moby Dick: Then and Now. This production, which was presented at the Kennedy Center for the Arts in Washington, DC, is the centerpiece of a national teachers study guide and is featured in the book, Reading in A Participatory Culture. In addition to his work as an adapter of classic literature Pitts-Wiley is also the composer of over 150 songs and the author of 12 plays with music including:Waiting for Bessie SmithCelebrations: An African Odyssey, andThe Spirit Warrior’s Dream.

The More We Know: Academic Games Research and Industry Collaboration (Part Two)

The last time I reported about iCue on this blog, it was part of an overview of the work of The Education Arcade. In what ways were the choices made on iCue informed by the Education Arcade’s previous experiences developing prototypes for “serious games”? What are some of the factors which have made it hard to get university-based games research beyond the prototype stage and into the world where it might have greater impact?

There is a lot of pushback in the system where change is required.  If there is a change required in the way teaching and learning are perceived, then it is much harder to get adoption.  As such, the teachers never really came for the games, but rather the other parts that they could adopt or adapt and plug into existing structures. In turn, NBC didn’t take the games as seriously; they didn’t grow the more innovative or risky ideas, and, due to the financial crisis in 2008, they couldn’t really even update them.

Thinking about how we moved from previous work into this project, we were working in a much more constrained space then we were used to.  Rather than having the flexibility to build something rich and multi-faceted as we had with Revolution, we were working in the narrower starting space of media archives and integration with the AP curricula.  That restricted the game space, but provided perhaps more realistic constraints than we were used to working within.

What do you see as some of the major hurdles which academic researchers face in terms of working with industry partners?

There are certainly competing interests.  In academia, we can take a longer view, learning and refining over time.  These learnings are valued in and if themselves.  Of course, we also need a successful product, but we can take the time to get there carefully and be thorough. We can be risk prone in the short term.  In industry, pressure to return revenue quickly creates risk aversion.  Even though NBC News’ then-CFO, Adam Jones, protected iCue against those pressures more than the average project, it still had to make compromises that we had to stomach. For instance, there was early hope that the site would feature remix tools for young people to author their own content, but NBC Standards and Practices department shut down that talk almost immediately.

What factors make the education marketplace a particularly challenging one to navigate?

There are big issues around who pays for products, and who makes the decision to buy.  Are schools paying? Can a teacher make the decision, or must they appeal up the food chain to their principal or district? Are parents going to pay? Would any of these stakeholders accept a free-to-play model with sponsored advertising?  Then, depending on these factors, how do you design and market the product? There are also issues of metrics and measurement—how do you show that your product is working?  Does it leverage existing metrics (which may be poor), or new metrics (which aren’t yet implemented or validated)?

Further, are the schools and teachers even ready for the product, both pedagogically and technologically?  Do they have the preparation they need to use the tool effectively?

Finally, if you can settle all of those questions but have a new product approaching learning in a new way, how do you communicate that to your audience?  It can be difficult to transmit that kind of messaging through the standard, narrow channels to schools and teachers.


If you could go back and time and leave a message for yourself at the beginning of the process, describing what you now know, what would it say?

Instead of moving our research team to an evaluation position on the project, stay on the design side.  Convince NBC News that the need to sell something quickly shouldn’t obscure the original vision of what this product might do in the hands of students (where it never really got).

We would also push back on timelines and growth models.  We might have seen more success if we had started in a more targeted area and grown from there. That would have almost certainly been a more effective model instead of jumping all in right away, diluting much of the opportunity for participatory learning and deeper learning experiences.

What challenges did you face working with the educational establishment? Were teachers ready for what iCue sought to do? Were students?

Teachers might have been ready, but ultimately the site lacked the depth and frequency of updates it needed to really achieve its goals.

Students might also have been ready, but iCue was a space populated with teachers when they arrived, perhaps sending the signal that it wasn’t a space for them.

The jury is still out on whether students can and will come to an academic social space like iCue was envisioned to be.  That is an interesting question that we continue to explore in our work.


Eric Klopfer is Professor and Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at MIT.  Klopfer’s research focuses on the development and use of computer games and simulations for building understanding of science and complex systems. He is the co-author of the book, Adventures in Modeling: Exploring Complex, Dynamic Systems with StarLogo, and author of Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games from MIT Press.  Klopfer is also the co-founder and President of the non-profit Learning Games Network.

Jason Haas is Graduate Research Assistant in the Media Lab and in The Education Arcade at MIT. His research focuses on the design and efficacy of learning games. Recent research and design has been for The Radix Endeavor, a Gates Foundation-funded MMORPG for science and math learning. Previous research has involved the role of narrative in learning in the casual physics games Woosh, Waker, and Poikilia and in large-scale collective intelligence gaming  in Vanished.

Alex Chisholm is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Learning Games Network, a non-profit organization bridging the gap between research and practice in game-based learning.  He has collaborated on product and program development with Microsoft, LeapFrog, NBC Universal, BrainPOP, Federal Reserve Bank-New York, and the Hewlett and Gates Foundations, among others.


The More We Know: Academic Games Research and Industry Collaboration (Part One)

The following is an excerpt from the foreword I wrote for a new MIT Press book, The More We Know: NBC News, Educational Innovation, and Learning from Failure, which was authored by two of my former MIT colleagues Eric Klopfer and Jason Haas. Klopfer and Haas are part of the Learning Games Network, a joint initiative between games-based learning researchers at MIT and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it describes the iCue project, which began while I was still back in Cambridge.

First, a bit from my foreword, and then, over the next few installments, an interview with Kopfer, Haas and Alex Chisholm about this book, which recounts some of the potentials and pitfalls in collaborations between industry and academia:

Three immovable objects walked into a bar. The first was the current world of corporate media (and especially what remains of traditional network news), the second was the current world of higher education (as it lurches towards new funding models and institutional practices), and the third, perhaps, the most immovable and intractable of them all, was the current policy and institutional mess we call public education (which is shaped by a profound mismatch between what we know of how students learn and policies setting standards that in no way reflect those insights). Each wanted to buy the others a drink, give them something that might ease their stress, sooth their tempers, or at least let them forget their problems.  But they couldn’t agree on what the ingredients of this beverage should be, or how it should be paid for, or how they should decide what it should contain, or what kind of relationship would be implied by the buying and selling of drinks, or in what order they should be drinking or….

[Imagine there’s a punchline somewhere around here.]

This is the story of the book you hold in your hand reduced to the level of a farce, as in you’d best keep laughing in order to keep from crying. But of course, the iCue saga is more than a farce. It might also be called a tragedy, in which the best of intentions are waylaid, malformed, and brought low through a series of fatal flaws which prevent each of these institutions from fully embracing change, which block them from seeing the future that the others see so clearly, or which require them to sell out what they value the most if they are going to make any progress forward.  Yet, calling the story you are about to read a tragedy is to imply that it was a perfect failure from start to finish.

And we all know nothing’s perfect.

In fact, as The More We Know makes clear, there were many localized successes along the way and as a consequence of the efforts described herein, other good things have happened. It is rather a story about imperfect failures and imperfect successes, about unintended consequences, unreached goals, and unanticipated results.

It is also an epic, involving a constantly changing cast of characters, each embodying as any good epic does, the contradictions of their times, and featuring multiple heroes, who push greater boulders up to the tops of high hills, only to watch them roll back down again.

The More We Know is also an adventure story set on the bleeding edge of innovation and reform, one which will offer some guideposts for those of you who would follow in the protagonist’s footsteps. There are relatively few post mortems on how great ideas and good intentions do not always turn out the way we expect. I would probably put this on my book shelf next to Brenda Laurel’s Utopian Entrepreneur, which describes the rise and fall of Purple Moon and the girls game movement, or perhaps Sandy Stone’s account of working at the early days of Atari. It certainly, as the authors suggest, provides a personal and extended example to illustrate some of what Mimi Ito has told us about the creation of educational software or what Collins and Halverson have suggested about the resistance of educational institutions to new technologies and practices.

Whatever its genre, The More We Know is the story of the people in the trenches on the front lines of media change and the authors, themselves key participants, tell it very well here….

In our classrooms, we were teaching our students that media change takes place through evolution rather than revolution, but in our labs, we still wanted to change the world, we wanted to blow down the walls and reshape core institutions, and we were painfully, awkwardly, sweetly naive. The path forward turned out to be harder than idealists predicted but not nearly as impossible as skeptics and cynics might insist.

The book you hold in your hands describes some of the walls we hit and the ways our faculty,research staff, and students worked around and through them. My hope is that readers will take from this the right set of lessons.  We succeeded sometimes, failed sometimes, and learned a great deal always about what it takes to make change in the imperfect world around us. The More We Know is not a warning to “avoid this path – there be monsters here”; it is a challenge to “follow us if you dare.”




The More We Know is, in some senses, what game designers would call a “postmortem.” What do you see as the value of this genre of writing and why do you think we see so few postmortems coming out of academic research projects compared to their prominence within the games industry?

Much of this boils down to how differently industry and academia perceive “failure.”  There is a perception within academia that funding follows success, and that small, successful projects attract bigger funding.  In industry, there is (at least sometimes) a feeling that failure can lead to learning for teams, which, in turn, become more fundable based on that learning.  This means that in academia we only want to talk about successes.

There is another issue, though.  For academia, we perceive failure to be a failure of our product—the thing we made.  But in industry one can perceive failure any place in a system – failure of marketing, timing, audience, etc.  They can think about the whole ecology surrounding the product.  Academics aren’t as prone to thinking about these things as much.  As such, we feel the failure to be much more personal,  even as the failure of academic products can be attributed to many parts of that ecosystem as well.


Describe to us the iCue project. What were its initial goals? What problems was it intended to address? What partners did it try to bring together?


Stated simply, the iCue project was originally conceived to bring younger people to the NBC News brand while supporting important learning goals through the repurposing of old media assets and the creation of a new digital experience.  More pragmatically, NBC News needed a cost-effective strategy to digitize its vast archives without breaking the bank.  Education and the perceived abundance of technology funding in schools provided the roadmap for what this project could possibly be.

The original pitch for iCue was that it was one part media archive, one part social learning network, and one part learning games and activities.  iCue was imagined to provide young people with media and tools for learning in a more engaging way, creating a bridge between the curricula and traditional media their teachers were comfortable with on the one hand and the interactive world in which they’ve grown up on the other. It was intended to be supplemental, enabling teachers and students to engage with it in support of Advanced Placement curricula in English Composition, U.S. History, and U.S. Government.  Since NBC News is a broadcast company with radio and television assets extending back to the very earliest days of broadcasting, project leaders sought to bring together a diverse set of education, archive, and print partners, including the College Board, Washington Post, and the New York Times, among others.



Eric Klopfer is Professor and Director of the Scheller Teacher Education Program and The Education Arcade at MIT.  Klopfer’s research focuses on the development and use of computer games and simulations for building understanding of science and complex systems. He is the co-author of the book, Adventures in Modeling: Exploring Complex, Dynamic Systems with StarLogo, and author of Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games from MIT Press.  Klopfer is also the co-founder and President of the non-profit Learning Games Network.

Jason Haas is Graduate Research Assistant in the Media Lab and in The Education Arcade at MIT. His research focuses on the design and efficacy of learning games. Recent research and design has been for The Radix Endeavor, a Gates Foundation-funded MMORPG for science and math learning. Previous research has involved the role of narrative in learning in the casual physics games Woosh, Waker, and Poikilia and in large-scale collective intelligence gaming  in Vanished.

Alex Chisholm is Co-Founder and Executive Director of Learning Games Network, a non-profit organization bridging the gap between research and practice in game-based learning.  He has collaborated on product and program development with Microsoft, LeapFrog, NBC Universal, BrainPOP, Federal Reserve Bank-New York, and the Hewlett and Gates Foundations, among others.

What We’ve Learned About Games and Learning: An Interview with Kurt Squire (Part Three)

In the book, you discuss, in relation to Montessori Schools, the concept of “normalization,” to explain why some learning environments support students in their natural desires to learn. Yet, implicit in that critique is the recognition that some of this desire to learn has been trained out of the current generation of students through standardized testing and other familiar schooling practices. Given this, what steps would we need to take to create a mind-set among students which would allow them to fully benefit from the kinds of playful, participatory and passion-based modes of learning you describe in the book?

Absolutely. In writing the book, I became captured by how profound this idea is that learning should involve a cycle in which people 1) develop an interest or curiosity, 2) engage in activity to satiate that curiosity (usually developing skills in doing so) and then 3) wrap up and reflect upon that work. For Dr. Montessori, that was the core “game play cycle” of learning, and it works for me. To really embrace this, we’d have to acknowledge that any time you’re learning something “for school” or “for a test” it’s arguable whether or not you’re learning.

As an example, James Wertsch did some excellent studies around the fall of the Soviet Union in which he asked if History had to be believed to be understood. Wertsch was interested in to what extent Estonians “bought” the history of the Soviet Union that they had been taught along side their own family histories. It turns out that Estonians didn’t fully resist Soviet sponsored history but didn’t entirely buy it either.

And that’s a good metaphor for what happens in school. Studies of students’ experience in history, chemistry or physics reveals that they can parrot back what they’re supposed to know pretty well (more or less), but only when we’re truly engaged does it make a change upon us as people. Restated, learners (perhaps adaptively) don’t always make themselves available to being changed by formal schooling.

Playful, participatory learning to me does a lot of things. Play, as Eric Zimmerman describes, often times involves an invitation to come and try on a new mode of being. It suggests a mutually agreed upon suspension of disbelief. Participatory culture involves a commitment that if you invest in this activity, you can and should have opportunities to shape its outcomes, including the rules by which it operates.

To make this vision a reality, I think we need to acknowledge that learning requires something like Mimi Ito’s cycle of hanging out, messing around and geeking out. We need spaces in which there is low stakes involvement in new ways of being, and then clear trajectories toward becoming fully functioning participants. I don’t think it’s feasible to reorganize schools tomorrow by this logic by any stretch. However, we can use the edges of the system (summer school, extended school days) to introduce spaces for hanging out and then (ideally) use more formal, organized periods for geeking out.

All of this involves the assumption that learners are autonomous, sense making agents who organically seek out learning experiences, though.

When people talk about bringing games into the classroom, they often act as if there were only one kind of game. Yet, throughout the book, you are attentive to the issue of genre, both in terms of the affordances of different kinds of games for teaching different kinds of content, and in terms of different kinds of gamers having preference for different kinds of game play experiences. How central do you think issue of genre should be to discussions of games-based learning?

One of the first questions I remember asking you, Henry, when I got to MIT was about genres. Educators are not trained to think about genres. Social scientists tend to think about stable lists of features inherent to fixed categories. Genres, in contrast, are historically contextualized and serve as one mechanisms to organize communication across cycles of production and consumption. Without them, we have only horrible art film that no one understands or cares about unless they are paid to do so. Genres also embody crystallized patterns of story, character, interaction and so on that are known to work which provide designers springboards to work from. Hopefully I didn’t bastardize your position too much.

Educators designing games need to understand and use genre in very specific ways. Educators struggle with the fact that our audiences have differential experiences with game genres. As an example, I can’t assume that every student in a class has played First Person Shooters and intuitively understand the genre’s controls or tropes (such as move through spaces to clear it of enemies). If you’ve never done it, it’s fun to sit down with someone new to a genre and watch them puzzle through the most basic of ideas (why can I interact with one object but not another?). Genre knowledge is a bizarre and interesting thing, and it makes you re-realize one more reason people enjoy parody.

As the lead of a design shop, we use genre all the time in very strategic ways. For example, we’re currently working on a game about stem cells that we hope will some day teach most every adult the basic concepts of what stem cells are (and are not) and how they might contribute to a science of regenerative medicine. Our designers, Mike Beall and Ted Lauterbach had this brilliant insight that you could build a game around stem cells through “virtual life mechanisms” represented through a Bejeweled type interface (see figure 1).

Building on Bejeweled bought us a lot of things for free. If you see this interface, already you know that you’re going to be manipulating symbols that might interact with one another toward building an overarching pattern. This is a form of computer interaction that 10,000,000s of people know about. We can use it to communicate ideas, much as documentarians use the mystery genre to tell stories in history or science.

Other times, we want to be in the business of inventing new genres. Trails Forward is a game that tries to take the rhythm and timing of fantasy sports, as well as sense of playing with reality, and create a new genre of “real life data prognostication” (or something like that). Basically, we’re experimenting with the idea that the world is full of data that makes an excellent game board. There should be game experiences we can build by giving people compelling choices on top of these data systems, and then as researchers we should be able to study what they do.

We’ll see how it works, but both examples capture the idea that you always design in terms of genre, but sometimes you’re trying to reach a goal (reach a lot of users, sell a lot of games) which requires using well understood genre conventions, and other times, you’re trying to innovate which means building on genres but also being open to new ideas.

In terms of building teams, I think it’s crucial to have people who share a common love for certain genres but who secondarily are well versed across them. Games borrow across genres so rapidly and productively that you can’t afford to have a group locked into one.

Your phrase, “replaying history,” is interesting because it implies both reimagining the past through “what if” scenarios and it also implies replaying the game, changing variables, and seeing how they impact the outcome. Both seem to have been part of the practice when you brought Civilization 3 into a world history classroom. Both imply an understanding of history as a process, a logic, a system, rather than as a body of content. How does this relate to current understandings of how history should be taught?

Current thoughts on History tend to focus on moving away from names and dates and toward understanding history as cycles of interacting systems. Definitely history as a process (and, geography as well) are key to how people think about it in those domains. My own thinking with Civ is colored by the idea that world history is a unique challenge in that the world across 6000 years not bounded by nation states requires letting go of organizing categories, which isn’t easy to do.

One key difference may be that history as a field is very wedded to the concept of narrative. History through games involves narratives but not in the same ways. Some of the most interesting work in history seeks to use tools like AR engines to get kids playing and building historical games.

One common concern about bringing games into the classroom is that they are still heavily gendered outside of school with boys more likely to be heavy gamers. What insights has your research brought us into the different experiences of girls and boys working with games-based learning?

So far, our research has shown that consistent with broader research in education, games themselves aren’t as important (as a medium) as the content of the games. Meaning, building a game that involves non-obviously stereotyped genders in which players use science to make a difference in the world tends to increase girls self efficacy. For example, we built a game in which players are doctors analyzing CT scans to help patients. In our studies, girls began with lower self efficacy than boys but after playing the game, passed them along several measures. These results match results others in science education in which teaching science in the service of helping others tends to promotes girls’ development. (Oddly, we also found that girls did better with Supercharged).

So far, counterintuitively we’re seeing that games tend to work better for girls, compared to boys.

One thing I’m reminded of as we do these studies is that school, as a game, really stinks for girls (especially in middle school). The classes we observed with Supercharged involved girls mostly trying not to stand out during class discussions for fear of being branded a nerd. Games disrupted this to the point where they were able to participate along new lines in which they were much less at risk for being socially ostracized.

As I look at games and education for girls, I’m much less struck by how this medium will systematically exclude girls and much more by how gender in our schools advantages and disadvantages boys and girls in different ways at different periods in time. I’m especially concerned with the plight of low income boys (including whites) who construct identities entirely oppositional to schooling and how games could be a route to re-engage them. Poor boys (including whites) aren’t especially beloved in this society, and reports abound at how they are gumming up principal offices and sucking up teacher time through behavioral issues.

Games offer an opportunity to speak to each of these populations and potentially tailor learning experiences to each. We’re a long way from getting there, but disruptive technologies like the iPhone, iPad and disruptive forces like iTunes suggest that the predominant order of schooling could change sooner rather than later.

Kurt Squire is an Associate Professor of Digital Media in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Interim Director of the Education Research Integration Area at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. He is the author of over 75 workson digital media and education and most recently Video Games & Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age.

What We’ve Learned About Games and Learning: An Interview with Kurt Squire (Part Two)

In the design world, “fail and fail often” has become a mantra. What were some of the most instructive failures you experienced working on the first phases of the Games to Teach project and how did they inform later developments in games-based learning?

Oh, there are so many. I have to start with Supercharged, though, which I still get requests for to this day (and the longer it sits, the better it becomes in my memory). We de-emphasized art production and style prioritizing the real-time simulation, for reasons including too few artists at MIT, the fact that scientists didn’t really care if it looked good but did care if it was an accurate simulation, and funders’ interest in having a fully 3D game. We could — and probably should — have prototyped much more in 2D and put the story and fiction through more cycles of refinement.

The biggest failure, though, is that we weren’t up front enough about these limitations and failures. The nature of academics (in this area, at this time) required foregrounding successes (which we had). I wish, though, we had been more candid about our failures and implored our colleagues not to make the same mistakes we did.

This is one area I gain inspiration from the game developer’s community. It’s not uncommon to see a game developer throw down at GDC and challenge designers to stop making the same mistakes. In fact, they create a space for it through sessions such as the game designer’s rants. I can easily imagine Harvey Smith or Eric Zimmerman threatening to disown any colleagues who repeated their mistakes. We don’t have any space for that.

A few things we did right: Offering a suite of games instead of “one game to rule them all”. Mapping out genres and affordances. Using academics as a chance to explore concepts like Augmented Reality. Experimenting with commercial game engines and tools like Neverwinter Nights to understand their potential for education. In retrospect, I wish we would have been even more daring. The work on Environmental Detectives has blossomed to the point where there’s now a Spanish class at the University of New Mexico that uses iPods to get kids in their community learning Spanish, and there’s a direct line between a conversation between Eric Klopfer, Walter Holland, and Philip Tan at MIT and a classroom full of kids who realize that they can learn Spanish by becoming actively engaged in Spanish speaking neighborhoods, and that’s pretty cool.

Throughout the book, you address the constant push for “evidence” that games-based learning works and for measures to assess participatory culture’s value in the classroom. What is the current state of our knowledge about the success of such practices? What criteria should we use to evaluate the kinds of projects and programs you are describing?

The current state of the evidence is that we’ve privileged certain questions (i.e. “Is this working to meet educators’ learning goals) over basic questions such as “Is this a good game, when judged by the standards of participatory culture?” We haven’t had, that I’m aware of, an educational game that has inspired fan fiction, for example. We need to stop evaluating games primarily by evidence for learning gains along relatively constrained measures and develop more robust measures to understand whether games are inspiring interest in target domains, connecting learners to new social networks, or leading them to produce things.

These critiques aren’t wholly new, but I think as educational researchers, we may have copped out on answering these questions. It’s easy to blame No Child Left Behind or even Race to the Top, but the real challenge and opportunity is to design a game that might, say, connect youth to more wide reaching social networks and then to empirically demonstrate how a game succeeds in doing so. (Fortunately, the geographically-based nature of school districting and “sequestering” model of educational assessment ensures that schools will look relatively weak as comparisons).

I want to see mechanisms for measuring if playing an educational game inspires youth to create a work of fiction, a film, or build a game. We need to develop longitudinal research programs that analyze youth development over time and begin to model how youth who participate in such a game playing (and production) network differ from those in more traditional environments. This means getting beyond statistical models borrowed from agriculture (which involve simple causality), and looking more broadly toward areas like data mining or machine learning. These kinds of analyses happen now in marketing through sites like Facebook; let’s hope it finds its way to education.

Early in the book, you cite Will Wright as saying that anyone who wants to design an educational game should “start with systems.” What do you see as the value of games for teaching systems-thinking and why is this approach so central for redesigning American education?

Most games can be productively understood as simulations — representations that seek to depict systems evolving over time. It’s one thing that games (especially Will’s) do that other media do less well. Even relatively linear fighting games include fighting “systems” that must be mastered to excel. You might argue that even adventure games — the most linear of games — require players to take a step back and to understand the game as a system in order to succeed.

The importance of systems understanding is something near and dear to me personally. My own undergraduate education was in Interdisciplinary Studies, and my course work involved studying natural and social phenomena as systems rather than as discreet disciplines. The world itself does not naturally occur by disciplines, which is something I think we often forget the longer we live with categories such as biology, chemistry and so on. Research on the cutting edge of each of these disciplines crosses over into others as we try to understand phenomena.

The global challenges we face today — from global warming to poverty to the Middle East — won’t be solved by single solutions. The painfully simple, yet still instructive September 12th game arguing that a war that kills innocent civilians only breeds new terrorists is a good example of something games do more easily than other representational systems.

We have to guard against fetishizing systems thinking, I think, just as we need to guard against computational, design, logical, procedural, metacognitive, or critical thinking, all of which at one point or another were offered as “the new Latin” (or the new Algebra, or more recently Logo). There is no panacea, but there certainly are models of thinking that are of increased importance in today’s work. So far, none of these ideas has itself cured the world’s problems. We might also go too far in dismissing how Latin / Algebra / Logo may not have solved all of society’s ills, but they can be robust ways of thinking (or toolsets) that people employ. I’ve met many people who trace their love of language to an inspiring Latin teacher or their love of programming to Logo. But I digress.

As you note, many teachers express concern that games are not “perfect simulations,” that there are built in biases in the ways they represent the world. How valid is this concern?

I don’t see this as a valid concern, any more than the concern that a book would have authorial bias or that a filmmaker would employ a frame. We need more, not less critical understanding of how particular media shape the kinds of messages they tend to produce (to paraphrase McLuhan). I’d rather see a teacher use a horribly biased game and use it as a springboard for conversation than to treat a text as the ultimate authority.

You advocate passion-based learning, such as that which surrounds games, yet, as you note, many educators insist that learning is a discipline and that students should value learning for learning’s sake. How can we resolve this disagreement about the role of pleasure and personal interest in schooling?

My wife, Constance Steinkuehler likes to distinguish between “learning for learning’s sake” and “learning the things that I want you to learn for learning’s sake”. Meaning that when pushed, even the most liberal educator who wants to inspire a love of learning may not be entirely comfortable with a student who loves learning about monster trucks or bow hunting. Indeed, it’s hard to separate the ideal of learning for the intrinsic value of learning from the content itself.

For example, the scientists I’ve met working at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, for example, tend to describe their work in terms of a passion for understanding the universe, or even unraveling the mystery of how stem cells form IPS cells and then somehow know how to self-organize into tissue and organs. They don’t, however, spend a lot of time talking about learning for learning’s sake although many (not all) come across as genuinely inquisitive.

So, we have evidence that most people will throw themselves into passion-based learning, whether it’s a passion for bow hunting or a passion for writing fan fiction around The Gilmore Girls, which schools usually don’t recognize. We have a set of values that are recognized in formal schooling, although it often doesn’t match up well with what people in the world care about.

I like the idea of promoting genuine inquisitiveness as a value (or passion) that schools should produce. I can’t think of any better way to kill inquisitiveness than No Child Left Behind, which depending on the day, I might chalk up to being an unfortunate consequence of that legislation or a designed attempt to stifle independent thought.

Either way, we need to acknowledge that most people organically develop passions for things. These passions may not be the same that parents, teachers, or society might want them to have. Liberals like me tend to offload this concern toward a general “love of learning” without really considering that there are certain things we “want” them to love or develop passions for. I think we’d be much better off if we did, and asked, “What kind of a curriculum would truly inspire a love for history, biological systems, or an inquisitiveness toward the world?”.

To borrow a page from James Paul Gee (and yourself Henry), we do (in America at least, I think) have an uneasy relationship with pleasure, particularly with kids. Perhaps it’s our Puritanical roots, but Americans seem peculiarly suspicious of pleasure, which in most cases I’ve studied, is wrapped up in learning (as is perhaps pain). Pleasure is often something to be denied (especially so for women, who are socialized to care for others before themselves). One of my favorite political thinkers, Al Giordano often challenges his (very liberal) readers to fully embrace pleasure, and you can almost see them wince at this challenge to simply do things that make them happy. Fortunately, Henry, this isn’t a quality I associate with you.

Kurt Squire is an Associate Professor of Digital Media in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Interim Director of the Education Research Integration Area at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. He is the author of over 75 workson digital media and education and most recently Video Games & Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age.

What We’ve Learned About Games and Learning: An Interview with Kurt Squire (Part One)

In his new book, Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age, which is one part memoir, one part research report, Kurt Squire — now one of the country’s top researchers on games, learning, and society — tells the story of how we met. Squire, then a young graduate student from Indiana University, working on games-based learning, “crashed” a salon I was hosting at the Game Designer’s Conference, and struck up conversations with Will Wright, Brenda Laurel, Randy Heinrichs, and Warren Spector. Over the course of one heady evening, he demonstrated to all of us that he was someone who was on the cutting edge of thinking about the challenges and opportunities of bringing games into the classroom.

We met at the right moment, because back at MIT, we were launching Games to Teach, a Microsoft-funded initiative to explore what kinds of games for what kinds of subjects might have an impact on American education. Half way through the night, I went up to Alex Chisholm, the red-haired wonder who was my primary advisor in those days, to ask “Who is that guy?” and by the end of the night, Alex came to me to suggest we seriously hire him to be the research director for our serious games initiative. To this day, I think we all hold up that night as an illustration of the importance of seizing every opportunity that presents itself and being ready when there’s an opening in the conversation to share what you know.

In this book, Squire recounts his own remarkable history at the intersection of games and learning, going back to when being an expert player of Pirates! bailed him out of a tough spot in a history class, through the work he did at MIT as the driving force behind Games to Teach, through his projects at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he helped to establish the Games, Learning, and Society conference, now the keystone event in the movement to explore the many different models for how what we learn through games might be brought into formal education.

The Games to Teach Project started with the idea of developing conceptual prototypes for a wide range of different kinds of games which might be pedagogically valuable, exploring different disciplines, different game genres, different contexts where gaming could be deployed. We wanted to jump start the conversation. At the time, the models for learning games seem impoverished, and we thought if we could create vivid “thought experiments” that might inspired people to start building actual learning games. As it happened, when we were done mocking up screen shots and developing design documents for these imaginary games, they were so vivid that people found the documentation on line and tried to order the games for their classes. Moreover, the game designs were so forward thinking that we still get such requests, although fewer of them, down to the present day.

The thinking became so vivid for all of us that Microsoft was soon pushing us to build actual games — not part of the original grants as written – and giddy with excitement, we tried to build some stuff despite not really having at the time the full technical capacity to create what we envisioned. As a result, we built two (barely) playable games — Supercharged!, which was focused on electromagnetism, and Revolution, which was focused on Colonial Williamsburg.

The efforts at MIT evolved into the Education Arcade, which has now succeeded in completing games like Labrynth which is very much out in the world, under the direction of Eric Klopfer and Scot Osterweill. And Alex Chisholm is one of the leaders of the Learning Games Network, a non-profit organization that aims to support innovation in the design and use of games for learning. Another book about a subsequent Education Arcade venture, iQue, will be appearing later this year.

Squire’s book, Video Games and Learning, is incredibly engaging and enlightening — both in terms of its account of how games-based learning took shape as a paradigm in American education (the guy has a knack for being at the right spot at the right time and pushing things forward) and about why and how games might inform a shift in how we think about the learning process. If you’ve been wondering what all the fuss about games is about, the book is for you, but I have to say, as someone who has been invested in this space for more than a decade, there was much that I also learned by reading through this book (even about our own projects!)

In the following interview, which I plan to run over three installments, Squire explores what we have learned across the past decade plus of research, what the current state of the field is, and where the next phases of development may lie. As always, Squire is bold, original, provocative, but also deeply grounded in both gaming culture and educational research.

Throughout the book, you draw on your own experiences as a gamer, designer, and teacher to help construct your arguments. In what ways has your approach been informed by being part of the first generation to grow up playing Super Mario Brothers? Will the views of teachers and parents towards games shift as more and more of them also played games in their youth (if not now)?

Thanks again for inviting me to do the interview, Henry. That intermingling of gamer/ designer/ teacher was indeed deliberate, somewhat stolen from you.

It remains to be seen how the Nintendo generation ultimately will react, but my suspicion is that the overall constraints of schooling select out people interested in promoting participatory learning from the teaching profession, with the exception of select mavericks. The evidence so far (consistent with other research on teacher practices) suggests that many teachers initially teach the ways that they themselves were taught. The surveys we’ve done reveal that it’s a unique breed who enters the teaching profession straight out of school. If you like computers, mobile devices, or social networking, it’s often times the last place you go. Those who enter and stick with the profession often times align with the values of schooling as it exists.

There are these windows of time for those who make it past that 3-5 year window where we find teachers who are incredibly creative and do wonderful things with games that surpass anything I’d ever do. We worked with Tina Kurz and teachers in Oconomowoc Wisconsin who, for example, took our stock “game curriculum” and built an entire course around kids building games for mobile devices based on their local community. Jeremiah McCall has a wonderful book, Gaming the Past that is the clearest discussion of how to teach with games that I’ve seen. A team of teachers and principals here in Madison recently took a games course and redesigned their school to be all about place-based inquiry — not turning it into a school about games — but rather remaking their school to be both responsive to local needs and the broader reality of participatory digital culture.

One interesting historical footnote (I think) is that many of us exploring games and learning actually were raised with Atari, and then after the crash in the 1980s, moved to the Commodore, Apple, or other computers, when there were no more games available. Computer gaming post Atari (which Steven Kent covered nicely in The First Quarter, featured an organic oscillation between game play and game creation as we bought books teaching us to program games in BASIC and then modified them to do more interesting things. Alex Games and I wrote about this in “History of Computer Games in Education” and tried to capture how during that brief window, games for learning existed and thrived, but more importantly, digital gaming had this real sense of tinkering associated with it. I think a lot of people who have used games for learning actually came from that era, and it provides a good template for both thinking about consumption and production as well as authentic participation.

The logic of the book follows the shift in the field of games-based learning from designing games for use in school (or bringing existing games into the classroom, as you have done with the Civilization series) to developing games-based literacies which encourage kids to think of themselves as designers. What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of each approach? Can you explain some of the factors which led to this shift in emphasis?

One advantage to teaching with games that already exist is that creating a fun, engaging game is no easy task, and when you work with an existing game, you (should) have something that is capable of developing and sustaining interest. Many good teachers actually use this as their starting spot: Give me a good engaging game that is about the content and I’ll create the contexts to help kids go beyond the game.

The down side is that few games are connected well to particular theories of learning or pedagogical goals in a domain, so it’s actually a lot of work for teachers. Something Jeremiah McCall does, which I like, is to treat games as interpretations that students are challenged to critique. This move immediately positions students as critical consumers of information and opens the door to design, which is just brilliant. Many of us hope, though, that some day a suite of games will capture the intrinsically interesting aspects of academically valued domains and / or require thinking in those domains to play them well right out of the box, which requires a mature field of educational games.

One of the interesting historical tensions, I think, is that in the learning sciences, there’s an inclination to design learning interventions based on theory as a way to test that theory (see Ann Brown’s excellent work on design research), but relatively little explicit value for elegant design. No one design necessarily flows logically from theory, and good designs often have connections to multiple theories. I think James Paul Gee’s work does a nice job of demonstrating how good commercial games can be understood through a variety of lenses (to pick up on Jesse Schell’s metaphor of lenses). Most games even use Skinnerian reinforcement schedules in the service of more intrinsically driven learning, which suggests how what works in the wild may actually be captured by quite a few theories of learning.

Through our work on the Games to Teach project, we were among the first to map what games-based learning could look like. What do you see as the biggest changes in the space of games and education over the past decade plus since we did our initial prototypes? Why do you think we still have so few functional models of what games that teach look like, despite the enormous interest which has been focused around this topic at both games and learning science conferences?

Now we have multiple groups that take for granted that we should design educational games in direct conversation with entertainment games. Many educational games employ entertainment games tools, build on entertainment game design processes, and seek to map game mechanics on to ways of thinking. Although none of them have been a runaway hit, we can point to games like Resilient Planet, Labyrinth, Game Star Mechanic, Kodu, iCivics, Dimenxian Algebra, Surge, and Cosmos Chaos (to name a few) are all legitimate learning games and operating in this space. We’re way beyond Reader Rabbit.

We also understand games as media much better now. In 2002, Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play was just coming out, as was Gee’s influential book. More recently, papers like the Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics framework or books like Jesse Schell’s Game Lenses and Traci Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop have advanced how with analyze and build games. We now have designers in the field who read these works as high school students and undergrads.

The big challenge though is that we still underestimate design and aesthetics. Too few educational designers do what The Education Arcade did and brought someone like Scot Osterweil into a design team so that you have talented game designers, educators, and pedagogical experts working side by side. Many funders would considering it “wasting money” to invest in such talent. On a basic level, University HR, which has to approve such hires, often times will reject such a hire because it doesn’t fit their models of academic staff. Further, the funding mechanisms for games research systematically devalues design expertise, treating design as an afterthought, existing only to serve the research.

We also don’t invest in groups enough over time, instead treating projects as one offs. We need groups (and communities) to work collaboratively over time to build on ideas, test them, iterate and improve upon them and then release them to the public. As an example, there is a constellation of ideas around role playing to learn science where you can trace a real intellectual lineage connecting Chris Dede’s River City, Sasha Barab’s Quest Atlantis, Eric Klopfer‘s role playing games, Filament Games’ Resilient Planet, and then our game Citizen Science, which is a collaboration with Filament. (Note that those project each involve dozens of people and are far from solo efforts). There’s a model of civic engagement through multiplayer role playing games just waiting to be scooped up by industry, once the market is there.

Educators / Academics also don’t understand the importance of what many in the industry call polish. What constitutes “good enough” for most educators wouldn’t cut mustard in the competitive marketplace of entertainment games. Grant funding and the academic research enterprise systematically pushes against creating anything with polish (grants notoriously promise too much and are given too little, and then are asked to skimp on design and not cut corners on research).

I think that educators also systematically undervalue art and aesthetics. Educators (especially academics) most often thrive in text-driven cultures and rarely equipped to understand — let alone build — visual and interactive media. The approach I’m pursuing now is to really invest heavily in Art Production and Aesthetics, taking these ideas very seriously and seeing if we can’t brand our lab for creating games that don’t skimp on either of these areas. Whether it pays off remains to be seen.

Kurt Squire is an Associate Professor of Digital Media in Curriculum & Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Interim Director of the Education Research Integration Area at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. He is the author of over 75 workson digital media and education and most recently Video Games & Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age.

Shall We Play? (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I delivered one of the two keynote addresses at the USC Teaching with Technologies conference. This year’s theme was “The Connected Mind.” I chose to spend my time talking about the value of play, a theme which has surfaced several times in my recent talks, so I wanted to share the core ideas from this presentation with you here.


In many ways, I am speaking to you today under false pretenses. This talk is not primarily about teaching with technology. After spending two decades of my life at MIT, I have almost reflexively become that guy who challenges claims about technological determinism and who stresses the importance of the culture which informs the design and deployment of tools.

These themes are explored more fully in the white paper which I wrote for the MacArthur Foundation on Learning in a Participatory Culture. New media tools and platforms have affordances which support new kinds of learning, but those forms of learning are also very strongly informed by participatory practices, many of which have a history far older than the web. Today, in focusing on play, I am going to be drawing heavily on ideas that emerged prior to the introduction of digital games, but which continue to be relevant in rethinking our pedagogical practices. If we embrace the values of play, we may find ourselves toying with new technologies and insofar as these participatory practices are closely associated with some of the new platforms of the Web 2.0 era, we may also find that in working with these tools, we are drawn towards a reappraisal of the value of play in our teaching.

This is also not a talk about games-based learning. Through the work I did almost a decade ago at MIT with Kurt Squire, Philip Tan, Eric Klopfer, Alex Chisholm and others on the Games to Teach Project, I have been an early and frequent advocate of games-based learning. I both share James Paul Gee’s belief that good game design is also good pedagogical design and have worked to model what games for education might look like. But in talking always about games, we may under-estimate the value of more open-ended forms of play and of play as a general disposition in the educational environment. These are the themes I want to explore more fully today.

This is also not a talk about gamification, a term which is being used far too often today, as if it could adequately sum up the larger movement towards games for change. To me, gamification as a concept grossly simplifies what research on games-based learning has shown us over the past decade or so. When the Games to Teach team worked with content experts, we sought ways to embed information from the curriculum, knowledge from the text book, into activities in the games. We asked each expert what knowing this allowed people to do and then we sought to capture those activities through the game design and mechanics so that they provided deep motivation for the learner to master these concepts.

At the heart of this model was intrinsic motivation. The power of games is in part that they provide such clarity in defining the roles and goals, that they helped us to know what to do and how to do it, and as such, they motivate deeper forms of learning. Gamification, at its worst, rejects a theory of intrinsic motivation in favor of one based on extrinsic motivation. That is to say, it attempts to motivate “proper” or “desired” behavoirs through attaching points to otherwise mundane and uninteresting activities. For example, Foursquare represents a gamification of consumer loyalty programs.

One might argue that this version of gamification does not in any significant way break with current educational practices which may be why it has been easier for schools to embrace than the more challenging kinds of learning games which were proposed in the past. Our students learn NOW in schools not because they value what they are learning but because they have been taught to value grades. And where their grades are not strong, they plead for extra credit points, which represents another way of adding points as rewards or incentives to behaviors valued by their teachers. I do believe we can learn much from games but I sure hope that what we take away from them goes deeper than most current models of gamification.

But, for the moment, I want to push games aside and talk about play. The distinction I am making here comes from an essay by the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim. Here’s what Bettelheim tells us:

‘Generally speaking, play refers to the young child’s activities characterized by freedom from all but personally imposed rules (which are changed at will), by free-wheeling fantasy involvement, and by the absence of any goals outside the activities itself…’

Bettelheim thus links play to freedom, experimentation, personal investment, and process, all values to which I will return later in this talk.

“Games, however, are usually competitive and are characterised by agreed-upon, often externally imposed, rules, by a requirement to use the implements of the activity in the manner for which they were intended and not as fancy suggests, and frequently by a goal or purpose outside the activity, such as winning the game.”

We might think about the game, Candyland, as an ideal transitional device — a game which teaches young players the basic mechanics of board games, one which often plays a key role in socializing us into the world of games. For Betteiheim, learning to play games represents an important step in the socialization process — learning to accept outside and sometimes arbitrary constraints on one’s behavior for the purposes of social reciprocity and delayed gratification.

“Children recognize early on that play is an opportunity for pure enjoyment, whereas games may involve considerable stress.”

So, while learning to play games is a step forward, it also is accompanied by some kinds of losses — in terms of personal expression and immediate pleasure. People cheat at games, for example, as a way of coping with the anxiety of competition in ways that they do not generally find it necessary to cheat at play. Indeed, it is not clear what cheating at play would look like given the lack of social constraint on individual expression it entails.

By that same token, institutions find it much easier to incorporate games, which preserves the notion of rule-driven activity, rather than play, which is often understood as a kind of anarchic freedom from any and all constraints. So, schools often treat most forms of play as minimally a distraction, more often a disruption, of school practices, hence the concept of “class clown” which runs through educational literature. In other cultures, the clown is an educator who invites us to re-examine existing hierarchies and structures, taking the world apart and putting it back together again, where-as the clown in our schooling is seen as an unwelcome rival for the classes attention, a challenge to discipline and a disturbance of learning.

In part, this is because our puritan culture maintains a world view in which play is the opposite of work. We have decided that schooling should be about work rather than play, and as such, we are driving down the creative impulses of our students. No wonder that many are seeing a crisis of creativity in contemporary America!

Interestingly, though, when we work with teachers in professional development programs focused on learning and teaching the new media literacies, they consistently gravitate to play out of the 12 social skills and cultural competencies we’ve identified through our work. Here’s how our white paper defines play as a literacy: “the capacity to experiment with one’s surroundings as a form of problem solving.” Today, we are pushing beyond play as a skill to think about play as a disposition — a way of seeing oneself and the world through new creative lens which depend on suspending real world consequences and encouraging a process of innovation and creativity.

Educators are sometimes drawn to play for the wrong reasons — because they seek to entertain their students. I sometimes hear various lay theories of “stealth learning,” the idea that we can smuggle in learning disguised as play into schools and students will have so much fun that they will overcome their resistance to the schooling process. In many ways, I see this as like that moment in Tom Sawyer where Twain’s protagonist sells others in his cohort into helping him white wash the fence by convincing him that doing so is great fun. This is perhaps the same kind of trap that we fall into when we talk about gamification — a confusion between intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. Play is not disguised learning; play IS learning.

Jean Piaget captures this sense of the value of play when he tells us that “play is the work of childhood.” He rejects any simple opposition between play and work, suggesting that play is the most important work children perform, because it is through play they acquire basic knowledge and skills fundamental to their culture. A kitten plays at stalking. In a hunting society, children play with bows and arrows. And in an information society, people play with information and interfaces.

We can rehearse and acquire core skills and knowledge through play because play lowers the stakes of failure. One of the activities we’ve developed through Project NML for thinking about play is called “Fail and Fail Often,” and it uses the casual game, Bloons, to get people to reflect on the strategies of experimentation and calibration they apply in solving problems in games. This is a totally addictive game in part because it is so simple and the way you move forward through the game is to try different strategies, most of which will not work. Through this process, we learn basic things about the physics of the game and how different materials respond to us. We can compare this with the role failure plays in schools: children are afraid to fail and teachers are afraid to tell their students that they are failing. As a result, students do not take risks which might push their performance forward and they do not get the feedback they might need to better calibrate their efforts.

Lately, as I’ve talked about the value of play for learning, I have started to identify a series of properties which help us to better understand the core principles of play. I call them the Six P’s of Play (though this remains a work in progress and may end up with fewer or more Ps before all is said and done).

1. Permission. Before we can play, as adults, as students, we have to give ourselves permission to do so. This is of course different for many children who play often and only stop playing when they are prohibited from doing so. The concept of permission is closely linked to what game theorists call the “magic circle,” that is, a mental bracket which we put around our activities which changes their affect, their meaning, and most of all, their consequences. Within that magic circle, we lower the consequences of risks; we agree to engage with each other with good humor; we try hard but do not take the outcome as seriously as we would if we performing the same activities outside of a play context. I love the example of the little girl who is sweeping the floor — we would understand her activity differently if she were doing chores or playing house, even though the actions would be the same. In a school culture, where there is a long history of prohibiting play, we must work very hard to give signals when play is an acceptable mode of engaging with the activities and we have to build up trust with our students that we are not going to retrospectively count their play against them.

2. Process — Play values process as much or more than product. Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salens make the point that the most efficient and effective way to play golf is to walk right up to the hole and plop the ball into it. But we would not see that as a very fun way of playing golf. Instead, we create as many obstacles as possible — we use strange implements, we move far away from the hole, we create sand and water obstacles, we slope the landscape to give us less effective control over the outcome. In an education system now focused so heavily on how students perform on standardized testing, performance based on product completely displaces performance assessed based on process, yet play’s value is focusing our attention on the experience itself, in the moment, in the process. It asks us to be aware of how we do things as much as on what we do. This is why play can be helpful in supporting the acquisition of basic skills which can be rehearsed and valued on their own without regard to the finished product.

3. Passion –The Gates Foundation has found that an increasing number of young people are dropping out of school not because they are incapable of performing what’s expected of them but because they are bored. Work in the Digital Media and Learning Field tells us that we need to recognize the rewards of passion-based learning, of students pursuing those topics which they care about most deeply and using these interests to motivate and sustain other kinds of learning. Mary Louise Pratt has a great story she tells about her son’s baseball card collection and how talking with him about it pushed him to learn more about history (as a backdrop to the key games in baseball history), geography (as a context for where the teams come from), architecture (as a way of discussing different stadiums), and math (as a way of playing around with batting averages.) This brings us back to Bettelheim’s notion of play as open-ended, free-flowing, self-determined, and thus as something which is experienced as a site of freedom and passion.

4. Productivity — Play is highly generative, despite or perhaps even because of its focus on process rather than product. I am very fond of the photographs which Martha Cooper took in the 1960s and 1970s of children’s street play in New York City. These images show the imaginative ways that children transform their geographic environments through their play, claiming space even in relatively inhospitable environments where they are free to explore and interact; these images also show them taking up everyday materials around them as raw materials for their own play, transforming them from their mundane functions through a clever recognition of their underlying properties and affordances. And of course, they do the same thing with their bodies and with their social relations, performing new roles, trying out new structures, redefining old situations. This is the sense in which play can be linked to creativity. While in the spirit of play, old rules and structures are suspended, allowing us to look at the world in new ways, and allowing us to transform and transcend our environments.

5. Participation — Play occurs in a social context which invites us to enter into the fun. We do sometimes watch others play, to be sure, and this represents what educational theorists call “legitimate peripheral participation.” We watch with the anticipation of future participation. We watch to observe how others perform, to learn new skills, to appraise our own performance, or simply because we do not yet feel in the right spirit to play. But watching in this case is also a form of learning and is of a very different kind than watching which occurs when we know we will never be able to participate, when we feel that our participation is not welcome, when we anticipate not being able to do what’s expected of us. As we sit in classrooms where no one offers up answers and no one is engaging with the learning process, we could learn a lot by going back to the ways that young people are introduced to a new kind of play and the ways that ideally they are encouraged to participate. (Of course, I don’t want to romanticize this. As someone who often was not picked for teams in school, I know that the promise of participation can become cutting if we experience exclusion rather than engagement.)

6. Pleasure — Pleasure is the byproduct of play. The search for pleasure is often what motivates play. This takes us back to Bettelheim’s point about the stress around winning a game versus the relative freedom of participating through play. The game remains an operationalization of play, it represents a stress on the outcome that undercuts play’s focus on process. And thus, a game may offer pleasure to some but with no guarantees and often a strong threat of displeasure if we lose the game. Thus, while it is very valuable to bring games into school, it is also important to provide contexts for more free and open-ended forms of play, which can offer pleasure to all who participate, rather than offering rewards to those who win.


Ethics and Game Design: A Conversation (Part Two)

One goal of the book is to help identify design principles that encourage game designers and players to reflect more deeply on their ethical choices. What would a designer learn from studying the contents of this book?

COLLEEN: You ask the question I’m super invested in and excited about! On one hand, I think we have to be careful about what we mean by ethical choices in the context of designing and playing. Both design and play are inherently transgressive (if they are any good). They push against the boundaries of rules and norms to create new experiences. At least, this is what many of us (designers and players) aspire to. I think what’s really exciting about the collection of essays in the book is how each author defines ethics on their own terms, but also in complementary ways. I think the book gives designers the freedom to consider ethics not just as a property of games (to shoot or not to shoot?), but as an active engagement with players, context, and culture. Considering ethical choices as a way of thinking about game design and where and how games take form expands the boundaries of what we think about when we consider a game. The playing field extends beyond the game itself to the social context and the rhetorical perspectives (intentional or otherwise) of its creators (to borrow from Ian Bogost’s model of persuasive games).

Do ethical concerns emerge differently in single-player and multi-player games? If so, how are the social dimensions of games being harnessed to encourage greater ethical reflection?

MIGUEL: Even though much of my work is focused on single-player games (as I understand them being the singularity that allows us a deeper understanding of games as ethical systems), I think the right answer to this questions is to say that we, scholars and sometimes developers, don’t often think about ethics and multiplayer, and how to harness the social for creating this kind of meaningful play. I mean, the social is always moral (and political), so I guess we are taking it for granted, and focusing much more on this solitary experience (clearly influenced by other media that some could understand operate this way, even though careful reading of say Brecht shows that even epic theatre understood the audience as a social body, even though the experience of the play was individual – but I digress). In other words: we tend to forget multiplayer, and social dynamics, when thinking about the design of ethical gameplay, and we focus too much on either single player, or how the rules/mechanics of a system will affect a single player, even in a multiplayer game.

I think there is much work to be done regarding multiplayer ethical gameplay design. I feel that games like Diplomacy, or Defcon, or even RPGs (specially the swedish school of “jeepen games”) have understood how to design particular multiplayer mechanics that generate ethical gameplay. Of course, backstabbing is one: but how does it work? Does it always generate ethical gameplay? How about harnessing empathy, solidarity, other values that are at play in multiplayer contexts? This question you’re asking points us, I think, in the right direction: how to include the social, that which cannot be proceduralized, into the design of ethical gameplay?

My answer? By understanding how does a game system operate when creating ethical experiences (high abstract order), and then trying to think about mechanics that translate that into player-to-player behavior. I think the “Fragile Alliance” multiplayer mode in Kane and Lynch does this very well, for example: being a traitor is fun, but it’s also a moral decision, one that is recognized so by both the game system and the game players, both reacting to a particular ethical choice.

COLLEEN: Adding another real person into the equation certainly changes the game. Interacting with unpredictable real people demands dynamic ethical choice-making from the start. You can’t really grief an NPC! I think, however, it’s more difficult to for designers to harness ethical choice-making in these social situations. In MMORPGs to grief or not to grief is really a player choice – like bluffing in human-human poker – these are not “designed” ethical choice moments. They are emergent aspects of play which designers don’t always anticipate. This unpredictability is the magic of games and I think it’s also where ethical play is more complicated and interesting. The complexity of emergent play – particularly in social play – can’t always be harnessed, but it can be sought after. I think the flip-side to this fairly optimistic view of social and ethical dimensions is where we see social games designed around behaviorist concepts to

generate responses like addictive play, social coercion, and perhaps the worst evil of all, spam. I think there are definitely some ethics to consider here. Do we need a game design code of ethics?

Several of the writers note that all games are in some sense “ethical systems.” Yet, certain games recur across many of the essays, suggesting that there may already be a canon of “ethical” games within this new field. What are these games doing which makes them such rich examples for research?

MIGUEL: Well, what the games I tend to analyze do right is to think about ethical gameplay beyond the basic consequentialist dilemma posing in a black-and-white moral universe. When we think about ethical gameplay, we immediately fall prey of the binary dilemmas, of the clashes between right or wrong, or between greater and lesser evils. Which I think it’s often both too ethically coarse and a waste of time. Games can contribute to fostering our moral values, but they can only do so inasmuch as they first address us, players, as moral beings, then challenging our values and forcing us to reflect about our very notion of morality.

Binary dilemmas just help us corroborate our values – we don’t need to challenge them, we act by them. The canon of “good” ethical games presents us with challenges beyond choices, a way in which we can use play to learn, develop and evaluate our own morality, both as players and as citizens. The games I find the most interesting are those in

which either there are no choices (Shadow of the Colossus) or the choices have effects I cannot easily predict by trying to understand the algorithms behind the game, therefore effectively making me develop ethical, and not instrumental strategies (Fallout 3).

KAREN: There are quite a few games that were mentioned regularly throughout the book collection and across multiple authors–games that could be considered part of a growing canon. These were typically games that attempted to include some type of ethical components or questions, or game play that ascribed some type of morality points to how you behave in the game. Some of these games, such as Mass Effect, Red Dead Redemption, and Fallout 3, incorporated a system (which varied from being transparent to opaque), where depending on your choices (e.g., actions in the game, or your dialogue selections), your avatar would be placed on a scale that was related to his or her ever-changing honor, ethics or morality. As a result, different options or interactions would open up due to your avatar’s status on this scale. Other games did not use an ethical lever as part of describing your avatar, but offered an ethical choice that had certain direct outcomes, such as in Bioshock I/II. There are also some games that bring up specific ethical issues or concerns through their game content, narrative or other mechanics, such as Super Columbine

Massacre RPG or the Grand Theft Auto series. Thus, many of the authors in this collection analyzed the extent to which these games truly support ethical thinking, and provide the ability to experiment with one’s own ethics and values, as well as which types of principles might better support this. I am personally interested in the moments in games when players have difficulty deciding what is right or appropriate to do, and how they think through those decisions.

On the other hand, I believe that all games (and any type of artistic expression) to some extent embody and express values–from everything through their modes of production and distribution, their mechanics and rules, to their cultural touch points and the ways subcultures form around them. For example, how a game is staffed or advertised may

have ethical implications, and there are values embedded in the way a particular game’s world is designed. Again, while many games mentioned in the books more directly present ethical content and mechanics around ethics, potentially any game could be a site of interest because of the ways they were used, written about, or played with other people. For example, what is the function of using cheat codes in games?; how do players negotiate with each other in a given game, particularly ones that require social interaction?; and what are the rules around play? Any game can be a beneficial site for exploring ethical issues.

Interestingly, I’ve noticed that in the past few years, many games, particularly RPGs, have had more direct ethical components and have been quite popular. I believe this may be because games enable you to experience a new perspective–a new role–and one’s ethical identity is an important part of this perspective. Being able to access diverse

ethical perspectives is perhaps even necessary for fully appreciating humanity. Through play, we are able to access new ways to experience the world, understand humankind, reflect on our identities, our destinies, our pasts and our mysteries. We may never fully answer these questions, but hopefully games can help us approach them.

Other essays describe so-called “serious” or “educational” games which are created specifically to foster ethical reflection. What are these games doing that’s different from those already on the market?

COLLEEN: I’m not sure these games are doing anything different on a formal level, but they are certainly coming out of different development contexts from AAA titles, or “mainstream” videogames. Many of the games referenced in the book are the result of a different economic model: research funding and university/not-for-profit labs. In the last 5-10 years some exciting models have taken form in New York (I have heard it referred to as “The New York School”) where there’s lots of cross-pollination between academia and industry, enabling lots of low-risk experimentation and new funding possibilities/models. Out there in Cali you guys have some very exciting things happening as well, particularly at your institution, Henry! I think in order to build games that take risks with content and gameplay, there needs to be these kinds of alternative spaces and collaborations to experiment and learn.

The market is definitely changing and diversifying as well. Over the last month console sales dropped and mobile game sales skyrocketed. More distribution platforms for all kinds of games will definitely also help “serious” and “educational” games reach wider audiences, and exist across different platforms and in different contexts.

Games encourage what James Paul Gee describes as “projective identification.” How is this concept linked to notions of “empathy”? What role does “empathy” play in fostering ethical reflection through play?

MIGUEL: As a Virtue Ethicist, I would argue that empathy is one of the core virtues that needs to be fostered in order to achieve the good life. However, in games, empathy presents itself in a different way. Let me start with a question – what or who do we feel empathy for in games? In the case of multiplayer games, the answer is easy: other players. Therefore, any game that includes some kind of systemic reward for behaviors that are empathetic will foster that value, and hence maybe not provoke ethical reflection, but have an ethical outcome.

In single player games, though, what is the object of empathy? AI researchers aspire to create empathy for artificial agents, but I am not certain we are there yet. We do feel empathy though for characters and locations, that is, not for the way a particular agent behaves, but for the role a particular agent plays in the game narrative or fiction. So using this instinctive care for the plot (if you wish to call it so – there is no story requirement, and open-world games also foster care for the place), developers can create engaging ethical

experiences based on one of the values that are cardinal to fulfilling the good life. Play, then, becomes valuable.

COLLEEN: I love how you connect empathy to Gee’s concept, because in many ways I think Gee has developed a more nuanced – and realistic – model for empathy in games. The role of empathy is key to ethical thinking, since ethical possibilities are always in flux and specific to the situation and people/entities involved. Gee’s concept of projective identification goes beyond just trying to understand another person through reflection or thought, it’s a verb – learning how to think like someone else by playing them – and by practicing them. That said, I think bridging these experiences between the game and the real world is where the reflection is potentially more potent. The game is a practice space, but it is inherently limited. In many cases, players are not just identifying with the roles they are playing, they are trying to understand what the game – or the game’s designers – will reward and they’ll play accordingly. In “trw” (the real world) there

are many more possibilities and while stuff learned in the game can be tried out, it will likely produce very different results.

KAREN: This question is of particular interest to me, as I am currently

writing my dissertation on the relationship among play, empathy and ethical thinking! It was also an integral part of the game I co-designed, called Mission U.S.: For Crown or Colony? I outlined the design process for this game in one of the chapters in the book, called, “Using Mission U.S. For Crown or Colony? to Develop Historical Empathy and Nurture Ethical Thinking.” Mission U.S. is developed by Channel 13/WNET, Electric Funstuff, historians from CUNY and researchers from EDC. It is an adventure game that teaches historical thinking skills to Middle School students. The game, which centers around the Revolutionary War and Boston Massacre, invites the player to explore 1770 Boston as printer’s apprentice, Nat. We argue that through playing the game, the player and avatar form a new avatar-self relationship that embodies both the social conventions of 1770 Boston and the modern-day knowledge of the player. In a sense, we can argue, the player projects his or her identity onto this avatar, thereby

strengthening the ability to see through the eyes of Nat, and empathizing with Nat’s 1770 context.

So, although I’m still thinking through this complicated question, my hypothesis (and gut reaction) is that empathy plays a strong role in fostering ethical reflection and reasoning (in games and outside games), because it enables a person to take on a new role, project

one’s self into that role, and to perceive the world through those new eyes and from within a new ethical system. Similarly, empathizing with another person in any context allows one to think through their perspective, and start to consider other’s points of view, which is

helpful when deciding what is right and wrong in a given situation. In the practice of argumentation, for example, it’s one thing to tell your side, but it’s a stronger argument if you know what the other side is thinking, and how to incorporate that into your thesis. People are really good at stating their opinion, but not as good as considering other’s opinions and building an argument that predicts and addresses contrary opinions. Yet, as citizens in a democracy, it is absolutely necessary to be able to empathize with others so we can judge ethical issues more holistically, argue our opinions more substantially, and decide the best solution to complex issues. From my experience with Mission U.S. and beyond, I think that games have the potential for helping support “projective identification” and empathy,which in turn can help people become better ethical thinkers–and more

engaged citizens.

Karen, the American Revolution was the subject of both your thesis project at MIT and your new initiative, described in the book. What lessons did you learn from your student work that has informed your new project? Why do you think the American Revolution is especially rich as a context for exploring the kinds of historical questioning that have been at the center of these projects?

KAREN:Yes! How lucky was I to work on two interesting history-focused

projects?! Working on my MIT Comparative Media Studies masters thesis project, Reliving the Revolution, was definitely a strong impetus for developing this book collection. It also helped me to shape the game design for Mission U.S, a game that teaches kids historical and ethical thinking skills. Reliving the Revolution is a location-based GPS-enabled game that lets players to step into the shoes of historic figures involved in the Battle of Lexington, and relive the events leading up to and after the battle, so they can figure out together who fired the first shot. To do this, the players explore present-day real-world Lexington, MA, and also interact with virtual historic figures and objects accessed through a mobile device. The purpose of my project was, in part, to help students start to realize that historic moments are interpretable, and that there were many perspectives on what happened during this specific moment. Likewise, I believe all moments–both past, present, and future–are interpretable. I believe that being able to critically analyze these moments, and consider other’s perspectives, helps us be better at deciding what is right or wrong in a given context.

History is a great way to practice interpretation, analysis, multiple perspectives and empathy–all important components of understanding complex social and ethical issues. Some may balk, but historical thinking and ethical thinking are, to me, not very different. History just adds another dimension to a moment–time–which affects how you

analyze a particular context. To be a good historian, you need to embody a historical time period, and its unique values, morals and norms. I would argue that historians could (and do) readily apply their skills to current and future moments. When playtesting Reliving the Revolution with Middle School students, I was pleased to see how

naturally the students translated their skills to thinking about current events, and wondering how, for example, the War in Iraq would be written about differently in textbooks there versus here.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to apply my experience to a new game, Mission U.S.: For Crown or Colony, which was developed as part of a Corporation for Public Broadcasting grant, and as I mentioned earlier, designed by Channel 13/WNET, Electric Funstuff, historians at CUNY, and EDC. The climax of Mission U.S. is the Boston Massacre, which the player, in the role of a printer’s apprentice named Nat,

experiences first-hand. Yet instead of showing one version of the event, we built the game so that each student in a class could potentially see totally different versions of what happened. To do this, we created eight different vignettes about the Massacre, some

that displayed the Loyalist/British take on what happened, and some that leaned more to the Patriot perspective. The choice of vignettes that are presented are randomized for each player. After playing the Boston Massacre module of the game, the students then have the opportunity to discuss with their peers why there were multiple interpretations and perspectives on the event. Later, they also have the ability in the game to participate in a deposition where they could tell an officer what they think happened at the event–their testimony even has consequences on their game play. I know it sounds

crazy, but even just the idea that there can be other points of view on the past–and that kids can be active arbiters of historic moments–is an epiphany for many young students. Most students just get fed history facts from a textbook! But being critical thinkers of past

and present moments is necessary for developing engaged citizens in a democracy and a globally interconnected world. No one opinion or interpretation is enough, so we all need to be responsible for considering many points of view and appropriately expressing our own.

I hope this collection will inspire everyone to find ways–perhaps through games and play–to teach these important skills to young people (and adults, too!).

Colleen Macklin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Design and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City and Director of PETLab (Prototyping Evaluation, Teaching and Learning lab), a lab focused on developing new games, simulations, and play experiences for experimental learning and social issues. Projects range from a curriculum in game design for the Boys and Girls Club, a card game for the Red Cross Climate Centre, and big games such as Re:Activism and the sport Budgetball. In addition to work in social games and interactive media, her research focuses on the social aspects of the design and prototyping process. In this vein, she is working with the Social Science Research Council on a prototyping approach to creating innovative mobile learning spaces with youth, public schools and cultural institutions, with funding through the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Member of the game design collectives Local No. 12 (see backchattergame.com) and The Leisure Society. India China Institute Fellow (2006-2007). Interactive work shown at Come Out and Play, SoundLab, The Whitney Museum for American Art and Creative Time. BFA, Media Arts Pratt Institute, graduate studies in Computer Science, CUNY and International Affairs, The New School.

Miguel Sicart is Assistant Professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, where he teaches game design. He received his Ph.D. in game studies 2006; taking a multidisciplinary approach to ethics and computer games, he studied issues of game design, violence and videogames and the role of age-regulation codes. His book, The Ethics of Computer Games, which is based on his doctoral work, was published by MIT Press in the spring of 2009. He is currently working on developing a design framework for implementing ethical gameplay in digital games.

Karen Schrier is a doctoral student at Columbia University, where she is finishing her dissertation on ethics and games. She also currently works full-time as the Director of Interactive Media at ESI Design, an experience design firm in New York City. Her first co-edited book, Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values through Play, was published last March by IGI Global; the next book in the collection will be published in early 2011. Previously, she worked as a portfolio manager and executive producer at Scholastic, where she spearheaded digital initiatives for the Corporate and International divisions. She has also worked at Nickelodeon, BrainPOP and Barnes & Noble’s SparkNotes. Karen was the Games Program co-chair of the ACM SIGGRAPH Conference in 2008 and 2009, currently serves on the advisory boards of the Computer Game Education Review (CGER), and is an adjunct professor at Parsons The New School. Karen has spoken on games and learning at numerous conferences, including GDC, SIGGRAPH, AERA, Games for Change, NECC, and SITE. She also helped develop numerous games and digital properties, such as Mission U.S.: For Crown or Colony?; Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge, and Scholastic.com; and Nickelodeon’s ParentsConnect. Her digital and non-digital games have been featured in festivals such as Come Out and Play. Karen holds a master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT and a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College.

Ethics and Game Design: A Conversation (Part One)

A year or so ago, Karen Shrier, an alumna from the MIT Comparative Media Studies program, asked me to contribute a forward to a book she was co-editing on Ethics and Games with David Gibson. The opening of the piece I wrote for her book gives some sense of how I personally think about these issues:

What a videogame does at heart is teach you how, in the midst of utter chaos, to know what is important, what is not and act on that” — Colonel Casey Wardynski

“I’m reviewing the situation. Can a fellow be a villain all his life?” or so asks Fagin, the scheming and ruthless mastermind of an army of thieving young boys, at a key moment in Oliver!, the musical based on Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist. Fagin’s “situation” may be an odd place to start in thinking about the potential role of games in providing ethical and moral instruction–after all, Dickens used Fagin to embody the negative influences which besieged young men when society turned their backs on them–but bear with me.

In Oliver!, through the song, “Reviewing the Situation,” we have a character digging deep into his own goals, values, and place in the world, and openly proclaiming that his experiences as a “villain” make him ill-suited to most of the trappings of a “normal life.” Fagin’s self-reflection leads him to construct and test a series of scenarios (marrying, joining respectable society, getting a job, living alone, freeing the young men in his employee, reaching old age), each embodying an alternative version of himself. Fagin plays out their consequences as a series of thought experiments, before pulling back and deciding to “think it out again.” In the course of “Reviewing the Situation,” Fagin engages in a range of different cognitive processes–projecting alternative versions of himself, and speculating about possible choices and anticipating their consequences–all in a particular kind of mental space that has no immediate consequences for his current social situation, though it has the potential to reshape the way he sees himself and his place in the world. Here, for example, he explores what it would be like to work for a living: “Is it such a humiliation for a robber to perform an honest job? So a job I’m getting, possibly, I wonder who my boss’ll be? I wonder if he’ll take to me…? What bonuses he’ll make to me…? I’ll start at eight and finish late, At normal rate, and all..but wait! …I think I’d better think it out again.”

Now consider a typical adolescent, seated in front of her computer screen, beginning to construct a character for a role playing game, and facing the same range of questions about her potential identities and goals. Should she join the dark horde, embrace a life as a villain, commit atrocities on other players, and in the process, begin to experiment with and potentially exorcise the darker side of her own personality? Or, should she become one of the good ones, going out to do heroic deeds, sharing the loot with others in her party, rescuing those in distress and helping newbies learn to play, and developing a sense of responsibility and accountability to others in her guild? Should she design an avatar that reflects the way she sees herself or should she embrace a fantasy radically different from her real world personality or situation and in so doing, see what it might be like to walk in a different set of moccasins?

Like Fagin, she can try on different personas, test different scenarios, and imagine alternative moral codes through which she might navigate the challenges of her day-to-day existence. She has the option of taking risks, dying, rebooting, and exploring another course of action: “I think I’d better think it out again.” While young people have often found it difficult to anticipate the future consequences of their current actions, the game offers her a powerful tool through which to accelerate life processes and thus play out in the course of an afternoon several different scenarios and their consequences. And through in-game cameras that allow players to record and replay their actions, she can literally review the situation, going back to key choice points and retrospectively evaluate where she went wrong and how bad decisions led to negative consequences. Seen in this way, the computer game constitutes an incredible resource for self-reflection and personal exploration, one with rich potentials for moral and ethical education. No other current art form allows such an intense focus on choices and their consequences; no other art form allows us this same degree of agency to make our own decisions and then live through their outcomes.

Over time, Karen’s project expanded into two edited collections, the first of which is already out in the market, the second of which will appear late this year or in early 2011. If you want to buy the first book, Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values Through Play, Karen’s publisher is generously offering readers a chance to buy a copy at half price if they follow this link. You can see the table of contents for the collection here. The second book will be called Designing Games for Ethics: Models, Techniques, and Frameworks.

Taken together, the two books bring together an impressive array of game designers, theorists, and critics, representing a mix of people working on mainstream commercial and alternative “serious” games production, a global community of people trying to think through the core issues implied by the books’ titles. I read the first volume with great interest (and no small amount of pride at seeing my former student at the center of such an effort): the topic is one which deserves more attention than it has and the book offers us some important ways to complicate the typical arguments around games and media effects. These books are important not only to those deeply invested in games but to the growing community of people invested in new media literacies and education, given the centrality of games to the cultural lives of young people and the importance of encouraging self reflection and ethical skills.

In the hopes of calling more attention to this project, I asked Karen if she would do an interview for this blog. The interview has grown into a conversation between Karen and two of her contributors, Miguel Sicart (IT University of Copenhagen) and Colleen Macklin (Parsons The New School), which explores games (in many forms) as ethical systems and as vehicles for shaping the empathy and identification of their players.

As the book’s preface suggests, ethics and games is an “emerging field of study.” What role do you see this collection playing in generating interest and awareness around this topic?

Karen: A major goal of my co-edited collection, Ethics and Game Design:Teaching Values through Play is to bring together the diverse and growing community of voices and begin to define the field of ethics and games, identify its primary challenges and questions, and establish the current state of the discipline. To start to unpack this, I brought together experts from a variety of perspectives–such as computer science, art history, education, philosophy, law, game design, management, media studies, and psychology. These designers, practitioners, educators and researchers wrote almost 40 chapters on everything from the ethics of Farmville‘s game mechanics; to a case study on designing Train, a non-digital game about the Holocaust; to the types of ethical play styles of teenagers. Our goal is to encourage game designers to think through and address ethical questions and issues in their designs; to motivate educators to seek new ways to support ethical thinking and reflection through play; and to inspire researchers to develop relevant frameworks and methodologies, design principles and theories for understanding this complex field. Attention to this field is essential for developing citizens who can think deeply about ethics; fully engage with complex issues; reflect on their values; and decide what is right for them, their families, their societies and the world.

My hope is that the collection will provide the foundation to start an engaged, rigorous dialogue around games, play, and ethics. The book collection, however, is just the first step in building a larger community of researchers, policy makers, journalists, educators, game players, and designers who are interested in moving the question beyond whether games are inherently good or bad, to how games and play can support ethics and citizenship skills.

And wow, it was a lot of work putting this collection together, but it was totally worth it.

Games and play are fundamental to all human societies and have historically been used explicitly and implicitly to teach values. What lessons can we learn from thinking about pre-digital games as “ethical systems”?”

MIGUEL: First of all, I am not sure we should make a pre-digital/digital divide without mentioning what makes digital games so unique. It may be possible to argue that in fact, there is nothing unique to digital games, and therefore what we learn from thinking about non-digital games is also valid for digital games.

In the case of ethics and games, I’d argue that there are at least two unique elements in digital games that differentiate it from the past: one, the possibility of single player games, and more importantly, of solitary play. Digital games have afforded single player games that make players engage alone with the game system. Two, the black-box effect (rules are invisible to players and have to deduct them from play – and they are not discussable/easily modifiable) is stronger in games. Of course, there are mod communities and hackers, but still, the access to rules and their configuration is much more complicated than in non-digital games.

In terms of thinking about morality, this implies that there are significant differences with the non-digital world. Essentially, I’d claim that morally interesting non-digital games make it complicated to claim that games can be understood as ethical systems, since the role of the social (which is, in my opinion, always bringing in the political and the moral) is deeply intertwined with the systems design. In other words: how much of the ethical analysis of a non-digital game can argue for the morality embedded in the system, and how much can it refer to the moral social play? With digital games, specially with single-player games, we can have an optimal sample: from the rules, through the player, we can deduct the values, and given the black-boxing of the system, we can claim that those values are inscripted there by designers.

So, after this digression (apologies!), what I want to say is that maybe we can learn from digital games how to look at non-digital games as ethical systems, without the role of the social. And therefore, what we can learn from pre-digital games is that multiplayer is always ethically interesting, and that negotiation of rules, sportsmanship and player-to-player behavior, that is, many of those elements external to a systems-centric understanding of games, are fundamental for the ethics of play. Because what pre-digital games tell us is precisely that: play is moral (regardless of Huizinga’s claims), not only because there are many players, but also because the systems are of ethical interest.

I guess I haven’t much answered the question as rephrased it and answered what I actually wanted to answer. I’ll give a shot at a short answer then: pre-digital games can help us trace the history of play as a moral activity, as one used to teach, educate and promote a number of values in our society by means of systems designed to embody

and foster a number of values.

COLLEEN:I think we can learn a lot. From a cultural perspective, looking at

the historic trajectory of games engaging with social and political issues is pretty exciting. I am thinking here of Situationist Games, The New Games Movement, Buckminster Fuller’s World Game and the recent surge of “big games” fostered by festivals like Come Out and Play and (for the first time this year) IndieCade. In fact, many big games bridge pre and post digital games, gaming in and with the real world, which might happen to include and use computers (i.e. mobile devices). These kinds of games take place out in the streets actively blurring the edges of the magic circle and raising all kinds of interesting questions about what happens when public space and game space, game rules and social norms collide. If an ethics is a dynamic negotiation between people and/or entities, I think this kind of negotiation between spaces – inside and outside the game, digital and nondigital – is a productive place to start thinking about “ethical systems.”

In the chapter I contributed, I talk about the design of a big game called Re:Activism, which so happens to have “serious” content, but that’s not the part that is so interesting to me on an ethical level. What I think is interesting are the complex relationships between the designer, the player and the publics that encountered the game.

Much of the debate about video game violence would assume that games as a rule exert a negative moral and ethical influence on players. How might the essays in this book complicate such an understanding of their impact on players?

MIGUEL: Even though this is something Karen should answer, since she’s the editor, let me chip in: I think this collection helps describing why players are moral beings, arguing strongly against the implicit discourse of the computer game player as a moral zombie that is so ubiquitous in popular press and anti-videogame literature. Players are ethical agents, and they have moral fail-safe systems that help them engage with the ethical complexities of computer game play.

KAREN: Again, the purpose of this book is to move the conversation away from simply demonizing games as violent or inappropriate, to really understanding why games are so controversial, and determining the potential (and limits) of games to help us think about and reflect on ethical issues and complex social dynamics. Building on what [one Ethics and Games collection contributor] Nick Fortugno said at a talk a few years ago, there are books that embody what many would consider negative ethics (e.g., Mein Kampf) and books that embody positive values (e.g., The Bible), but we should not deem books themselves as evil or good as a result. As we have seen throughout history, the introduction of each new medium incites fear that it will negatively affect our youth. This happened even during the movement from orality to the written word, where educators were worried that writing things down, rather than memorizing all texts by rote, would destroy young minds. We need to be open about what games can do, rather than focusing on some specific content in a few particular games. Or, at least let’s talk about why certain violent content bugs us, or let’s reflect on what types of cultural dynamics are at work when some people strive to ban all games.

Thus, many of the authors in this book start to complicate ethics surrounding games, and investigate the nuances of the player and game relationship. For example, Erin Hoffman takes a philosophical approach to understanding the purpose of death in games, and how violence and death may serve to help us contemplate the human experience. J. Alison Bryant and Jordana Drell take a more educational approach and investigate how families play video games together to see how to better foster dialogue about values through group play. Just like ethics themselves, no one feels these issues are black or white, but something to be discussed and deliberated.

Moreover, I want to make it clear that in editing this collection, or designing games, I personally do not seek to decide for someone else what is right or wrong, morally appropriate, or socially acceptable. Rather, I believe there is a need to equip young citizens with the ability to reflect on their values, consider other perspectives, make

complex arguments, and decide what is right in a given context. After all, values are constantly shifting from offline to online, transnationally, and across peer groups and social contexts. How you act at work is different from how you would act on an online parenting discussion group. What is appropriate in one country may not be relevant in another, and what you on the playground may be interpreted differently than in the boardroom. The way we individually and collectively vote on issues today may be different to how we cast our ballot in twenty years. We need to be our own arbiters of right and wrong during complex moments and shifting contexts.

I do feel that games provide a unique opportunity to practice these types of skills.

Colleen Macklin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Design and Technology at Parsons The New School for Design in New York City and Director of PETLab (Prototyping Evaluation, Teaching and Learning lab), a lab focused on developing new games, simulations, and play experiences for experimental learning and social issues. Projects range from a curriculum in game design for the Boys and Girls Club, a card game for the Red Cross Climate Centre, and big games such as Re:Activism and the sport Budgetball. In addition to work in social games and interactive media, her research focuses on the social aspects of the design and prototyping process. In this vein, she is working with the Social Science Research Council on a prototyping approach to creating innovative mobile learning spaces with youth, public schools and cultural institutions, with funding through the MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Member of the game design collectives Local No. 12 (see backchattergame.com) and The Leisure Society. India China Institute Fellow (2006-2007). Interactive work shown at Come Out and Play, SoundLab, The Whitney Museum for American Art and Creative Time. BFA, Media Arts Pratt Institute, graduate studies in Computer Science, CUNY and International Affairs, The New School.

Miguel Sicart is Assistant Professor at the IT University of Copenhagen, where he teaches game design. He received his Ph.D. in game studies 2006; taking a multidisciplinary approach to ethics and computer games, he studied issues of game design, violence and videogames and the role of age-regulation codes. His book, The Ethics of Computer Games, which is based on his doctoral work, was published by MIT Press in the spring of 2009. He is currently working on developing a design framework for implementing ethical gameplay in digital games.

Karen Schrier is a doctoral student at Columbia University, where she is finishing her dissertation on ethics and games. She also currently works full-time as the Director of Interactive Media at ESI Design, an experience design firm in New York City. Her first co-edited book, Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values through Play, was published last March by IGI Global; the next book in the collection will be published in early 2011. Previously, she worked as a portfolio manager and executive producer at Scholastic, where she spearheaded digital initiatives for the Corporate and International divisions. She has also worked at Nickelodeon, BrainPOP and Barnes & Noble’s SparkNotes. Karen was the Games Program co-chair of the ACM SIGGRAPH Conference in 2008 and 2009, currently serves on the advisory boards of the Computer Game Education Review (CGER), and is an adjunct professor at Parsons The New School. Karen has spoken on games and learning at numerous conferences, including GDC, SIGGRAPH, AERA, Games for Change, NECC, and SITE. She also helped develop numerous games and digital properties, such as Mission U.S.: For Crown or Colony?; Scholastic Summer Reading Challenge, and Scholastic.com; and Nickelodeon’s ParentsConnect. Her digital and non-digital games have been featured in festivals such as Come Out and Play. Karen holds a master’s degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT and a bachelor’s degree from Amherst College.

He-Man and the Masters of Transmedia

The other day I flew back to Cambridge at the request of Scot Osterweill, the research director for The Education Arcade, in order to participate in the Sandbox Summit, a fascinating gathering of game designers, toy makers, television producers, children’s book authors, and educators drawn together through their shared interests in “how media is changing our play and how play is changing our media.” I had been asked to give a keynote address which would share some of my thoughts about transmedia entertainment in a way that might be relevant to people who were shaping children’s culture.

As I was pulling my thoughts together for the talk, I stumbled onto an article in I09, one of my favorite blogs about geek culture, which listed the “ten most unfortunate Masters of the Universe Toys.” I shared the blog post with my son, now 29, who had grown up as part of the “He-Man” generation and we both took great pleasure in realizing that he had at one time had almost all of their examples in his collection and that we both remembered all of these toys. There was, for example, Moss-Man, an action figure covered in green fuzz; Stinkor, an action figure that smelled and looked like a skunk; and Mosquitor, an action figure which contained a red blood-like fluid.

And I began to ponder why these toys had been such a memorable part of his childhood and what it meant that the generation of young men and women who were, in many cases, controlling the production of transmedia entertainment had come of age playing with this particular media franchise. In some ways, contemporary transmedia is being produced by kids who grew up playing with He-Man to be consumed by kids who grew up playing Pokemon.

Peggy Charren, who formed Action for Children’s Television and lobbied the Federal Communication Commission to regulate childrens programming, would have had an explanation. At the time, she argued that Heman and similar programs were simply “half hour commercials” which had no redeeming value, because they “blur the distinction between program content and commercial speech. Children are attracted to the concepts of the shows and don’t fully understand the selling intent behind them… [This has become] a gold mine to station managers and toy manufacturers, but a commercial nightmare to most parents.” She and her allies argued that the stories and characters, she feared, were being sacrificed in order to turn the cartoons into advertisements for tie-in toys and as a consequence, these toys were going to stifle youngsters’ imaginations. Charren’s critique of these toys has taken deep roots among the professional classes, as was reflected by the many different ways these concerns got evoked by speakers at the Sandbox Summit. I do not mean to make light of these concerns, though I have also always found myself resistant to the language used to critique these toys, which often assumes that the play around these fictional narratives necessarily reproduces the terms of the original stories without creating a space for the child’s own imaginative contributions.

There is no denying that Mattel had a clear commercial interest in producing the program and extending our experience of watching the show into a line of associated toys. And the same can be said of contemporary transmedia entertainment content which is often funded by the branding and promotional budget for the media property. Minimally, transmedia extensions are selling the “mother ship.” Often, they are creating alternative sources of income – they are products in their own right just as the He-Man dolls are.

Yet, I don’t think we can reduce the experience which young people had playing to He-Man to simply the selling and buying of commercial commodities, however distasteful such toys seem to many academic parents. After all, all of us have bought many commodities in our lifetime, most of which we forgot as soon as we had consumed them, yet these particular toys have become part of the shared memories of my son’s generation in part because they were tokens of stories and entertainment experiences which were deeply meaningful to them. More than that, though, these toys became resources for their own imaginations, tokens which they used to claim a space for themselves within the stories.

Whether they fully recognized it or not, when media producers sold these toys to our children, they also told them things about the nature of the story – the story you saw on the screen was not complete and self contained; these characters had a life beyond the stories we’ve been sold and told, and what happens next is literally and figuratively in the hands of the consumer. These toys were in effect an authoring system which encouraged young people to make up their own stories about these characters much as the folk in other time periods might make up stories about Robin Hood or Pecos Bill.

Children have long played with the core narratives of their culture, as might be suggested by the fact that Tom Sawyer played Robin Hood, Anne of Green Gables King Arthur, and Meg of Little Women Pilgrim’s Progress, each central stories of their own time. In the 20th century, mass media displaced many traditional stories, but it does not follow from this that children’s play with narrative was none the less meaningful to them as a way of trying on adult roles and asserting their own ability to build on and revise core stories that matter to them.

As a father during that period, I have vivid memory of the intense pain of stepping barefoot on some molded piece of plastic when I was called into my son’s bedroom at night to comfort him about a bad dream. I’d pick up the plastic shield, sword, or pick ax, and grumble, “grrrmble snarl Teela” and my son, a stickler for details, would correct me, “No, Dad, that belongs to Sorceress.” These details mattered. I often reflected at such moments (or at least I did when the pain of my punctured flesh subsided!) on the ways that this attachment to distinctive shields, say, mirrored the detailed descriptions of the shields and weapons of the different Greek heroes found in Homer, suggesting that heraldry in some forms remains an active element in stories across history.

The accessories were extensions of the characters, reflections of their personalities, artifacts of their stories, and signs of their capacities for action. Each character was connected to every other character through complex sets of antagonisms and alliances and each character bore their own mythology which could become the point of entry for a new as yet unrealized story. He-Man was teaching his generation to think not just about individual stories but about the process of world-building and part of the pleasure of collecting these toys was to demonstrate their mastery over the lore of these worlds.

In some cases, the characters would be deeply embedded in the aired episodes and in other cases, they would exist only in the background or only in one episode and often these were the characters most vividly remembered because they became the child’s own possession, their backstory fleshed out from their own imagination, their personality constructed from their own playful performances. Each of the characters had different personalities (and thus demanded different voices) and over time, you would learn their verbal ticks, the quirks of their personality, and the sound of their voice, even though no two children would necessarily perform these characters in the same way. We might think of these characters as in effect avatars, an extension of the child into a virtual or imagined world, and see these constant shifts between personalities as a predecessor of what we would describe as identity play in adolescence.

Of course, the performance doesn’t end there. The child themselves might become He-Man or some of the other characters through Halloween dress-ups and the web is full of yellowing family photographs of children of my son’s generation physically embodying the heroes of their programs. Their mothers (or in my son’s case, their grandmothers) might be coaxed into decorating birthday cakes with images copied from He-Man coloring books. And those lacking coloring books (or possessing artistic temperaments) would draw their own pictures of these characters which gave another tangible form to their fantasy lives. My son wrote countless stories which he dictated to his mother and I about He-Man and in the process, he moved from playing with physical objects to playing with words and with the basic building blocks of narratives.

In many ways, Masters of the Universe was already a transmedia story, at least as much as the technology of the day would allow. He-Man not only appeared in the Filmnation-produced cartoons but his story was extended into the mini comic books which came with each action figures, on the collector cards and sticker books and coloring books and kids books, each of which gave us a chance to learn a little something more about Eternia, Castle Grayskull, and the other places where these stories took place.

And of course, He-Man was only one of the many media franchises which were producing action figures. My son collected figures from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and the World Wrestling Federation, not to mention a smathering of Transformers, Thundercats, Silverhawks, and many other toy lines. Once they were removed from their packages, these toys could be mixed and matched to create new kinds of stories, which might involve meet-ups and cross-overs unlikely to occur in commercial media (though there was at least one DC comic where Superman and He-Man combined forces) but almost inevitable once kids got their hands on the toys.

Sometimes an action figure would stand in for another character not yet acquired much as an actor plays a fictional role and in other cases the pleasure was in experimenting with the boundaries between texts and genres, with the mixing of characters forcing them to rethink the scripts. The cross-over points to the generative dimensions of this action figure play – the ways that kids would move from re-performing favorite stories or ritualizing conventional elements from the series to breaking with conventions and creating their own narratives.

I never understood the parents who feared such toys would stifle my son’s imagination because what I observed was very much the opposite – a child learning to appropriate and remix the materials of his culture. The fact that these stories were shared through mass media with other kids and that they were some vividly embodied in the action figures meant that it was easy for children to have intersubjective fantasies, to share their play stories with each other, and to pool knowledge about the particulars of this fictional realm.

So, is it any surprise that as this generation has grown older, they have continued to use these stories, characters, even the toys themselves as resources for their own creative expression? The web is full of amazing fan art in which artists lovingly recreate the assemblage of action figures and accessories they enjoyed as a child, much as earlier generations of artists sketched or wrote stories about the stuffed toys of their childhood imagination. (Think Winnie the Pooh or Raggedy Ann and Andy for earlier kinds of toy focused stories.)

There is a whole genre on YouTube of action figure movies, movies which may lovingly recreate the specific images the filmmakers remembered from the source material but may also playfully evoking the mixing and matching of characters that were part of toyroom play.

This same aesthetic of action-figure cinema gave rise to Adult Swim’s successful Robot Chicken series, which also mixes and matches characters or recasts them to achieve desired effects. Here’s one of their spoofs of the He-Man characters.

And I am particular fan of the web-based Skeltor Show, which remixes and remasters footage from the original He-Man cartoons for irreverent comedy.

All of this suggests that these toys left a lasting imprint on the imaginations of the generation that grew up playing with them.

When I speak to the 20 and 30 somethings who are leading the charge for transmedia storytelling, many of them have stories of childhood spent immersed in Dungeons and Dragons or Star Wars, playing with action figures or other franchise related toys, and my own suspicion has always been that such experiences shaped how they thought about stories.

From the beginning, they understood stories less in terms of plots than in terms of clusters of characters and in terms of world building. From the beginning they thought of stories as extending from the screen across platforms and into the physical realm. From the beginning they thought of stories as resources out of which they could create their own fantasies, as something which shifted into the hands of the audience once they had been produced and in turn as something which was expanded and remixed on the grassroots level.

In that sense, the action figure is very much the harbinger of the transmedia movement.

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