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. SHALL WE PLAY?

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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Calling Young Gamers. Share your AHa! Moment!

My friends, Alex Chisholm and Andrew Blanco from the Learning Games Network asked me if I could use this blog to help them spread the word of some exciting new activities designed to engage young gamers/media makers and to encourage reflection on the value of games for education. Both are causes close to my own heart, as regular readers will know. Here's what Blanco has to say about the initiative: Lights. Camera. Action! Tell us what you think a learning game looks like. Share a story about a connection you made between something you did in a game and something you had to learn in school.

From the Learning Games Network (LGN) comes an interesting inspiration for user-generated content. A recently established 501(c) (3) non-profit organization, established by former MIT CMS Director of Special Projects Alex Chisholm, the MIT Education Arcade's Eric Klopfer and Scot Osterweil, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Kurt Squire, LGN was formed to spark innovation in the design and use of video games for learning. In addition to bringing together an integrated network of educators, designers, media producers, and academic researchers who all have a hand in creating and distributing games for learning, they're also bringing forth opportunities for youth to contribute to conversations, research, and development. It's a no brainer for today's students to share their perspectives in a more participatory role as the future of education is shaped.

The first of two efforts is a video contest, notable in its invitation to students to help inform educators and designers with their own thoughts on video games as tools for learning. Requiring entrants to create their own two-to-three minute YouTube videos, the contest offers two themes from which students can choose.

(1) The first challenge asks them to describe an "aha moment" they've personally encountered: "If you've experienced that spark of realization, that moment of epiphany between an idea from a game and something you learned -- at school, at home, or anywhere else -- tell us about it in your video."

(2) The second puts students in the role of teacher or coach, asking them to describe an

idea for a learning game they would employ to help others learn: "What kind of game would it be? What would it help players learn? Why would your video game be a better way to learn something? In your video, tell us what challenges players would face and how they would learn from them."

Contest rules can be found at http://www.aha-moment.org. Students must be 13 years old and above to enter; there are separate categories for middle school, high school, and post-secondary students. Thanks to sponsorship by AMD, the first place prize for each category is a 16-inch HP Pavilion dv6 series notebook, powered by an AMD Turionâ„¢ X2 Ultra Dual-Core Mobile Processor. Deadline for submissions is midnight on July 31, 2009.

A second, longer term initiative is LGN's Design Squad. With game design and production requiring many rounds of iteration during which details are play-tested,tuned, and enhanced, Design Squad members will learn about the development process and the integration of gaming into both formal and informal learning settings, as well as serve as a pool of rapid-reaction testers and reviewers during the creation of learning games by LGN and other organizations that are part of its network. This is a great opportunity for students to play an important role in creating innovative new learning games, enabling them to contribute to design discussions, play testing, production reviews, and early marketing concepts. LGN aims to amplify the voices of today's students among the companies, writers, and designers that are trying to better understand how games are both a powerful media for education and a challenge to develop if one doesn't understand what makes an engaging and rewarding experience.

LGN is looking for highly motivated, creative, and articulate middle school, high school, and undergraduate students to (a) participate in exclusive workshops and online sessions with leading learning game designers, producers, marketers, and researchers;(b) regularly review and test learning games that are in development; and, (c) work both locally and virtually with LGN member organizations across the U.S. Design Squad members in the Boston area will work with the LGN team in its newly established Cambridge studio, a stone's throw from the MIT campus. Interested students between the ages of 13 and 20 can send a note to designsquad at learninggamesnetwork dot org. Or, if you're a teacher or parent who would like to nominate a student, please contact LGN.

LGN plans to review inquiries and send applications to interested or nominated students

through the end of July before announcing the LGN DS 2009-2010 team in time for back-to-school.

Questions about the Learning Games Network can be directed to Andy Blanco, Director of Program and Business Development, andy.blanco at learninggamesnetwork dot org.

Augmented Learning: An Interview with Eric Klopfer (Part One)

For the past five years, Eric Klopfer has helped to lead the Education Arcade, the MIT based research group which is seeking to explore the pedagogical uses of computer and video games. One of his biggest contributions has been to insist that our research reflect the realities which teachers encounter with trying to deploy learning games in the classroom. Well before the Arcade launched, Klopfer has been doing cutting edge work on Augmented Reality Games. Here's a description I wrote four years ago for Technology Review of one of the games he helped to create:

In early February, a powerful demonstration of augmented reality took place at Boston's Museum of Science. Eric Klopfer, an MIT professor of urban studies and planning, along with a team of researchers from the Education Arcade (an MIT-based consortium devoted to promoting the pedagogical use of computer and video games) conducted what they called "a Hi-Tech Who Done It." The activity was designed for middle-school kids and their parents. Participants were assigned to teams, consisting of three adult-child pairs, and given a handheld. For the next few hours, they would search high and low for clues of the whereabouts and identity of the notorious Pink Flamingo Gang. Thieves have stolen an artifact and substituted a fake in its place. Thanks to museum's newly installed Wi-Fi network and the players' location-aware handhelds, each gallery offered the opportunity to interview cyber-suspects, download objects, examine them with virtual equipment, and trade their findings.

Each parent-child unit was assigned a different role--biologists, detectives, or technologists--enabling them to use different tools on the evidence they gathered. As I followed the eager participants about the museum, they used walkie-talkies to share information and to call impromptu meetings to compare notes; at one point, a hyperventilating sixth grade girl lectured some other kid's parents about what she learned about the modern synthetic material found in the sample picked up near the shattered mummy case. Racing against time and against rival teams, the kids, parents in tow, sprinted from hall to hall.

I was with one of the teams when they solved the puzzle. A young girl thrust her arms in the air and shouted, "We are the smartest people in the whole museum!" What a visceral experience of empowerment! The same girl said that everyone else in her family was smart in science but that on this occasion, she felt like a genius.

Talking to the parents afterward, one woman told the research team, "This is the longest time I've ever spent having a substantial conversation with my son in as long as I can remember--without any fighting." Many of the others had in the past dragged their kids to the museum kicking and screaming. This time, however, these same kids wanted to go back and spend more time looking at exhibits they had brushed past in their investigations.

The activity had forced the kids to really pay attention to what they were looking at, to ask and answer new questions, and to process the information in new ways. These kids weren't moving in orderly lines through the science museum; they owned that space. It wasn't a sanctuary; it was their playground.

But there was nothing chaotic about their play. This was hard work, and it engaged every corner of their brains. Though the robbery was imaginary, the kids had to go through something akin to the real-world scientific process to solve the mystery--gathering evidence, forming hypotheses, challenging each other's interpretations, and in the end, presenting the data to the judges to see how close they came to figuring out all of the case's nuances.

As this description suggests, Klopfer's games blend fantasy and reality, combines the capability of location-aware mobile devices with the power of direct observation, and merge together individual and collaborative modes of problem solving. And what's more, Klopfer has been working with teachers to get them not only to deploy his own games but to develop their own games which take advantage of the resources and concerns of their own local communities. He's been a huge influence on the games-oriented students who have come through the Comparative Media Studies Program, leading to thesis projects such as Karen Schrier's Reliving the Revolution, which simulated the first shots of the American revolution. And I recently featured Klopfer's handheld work as part of an account of the history of our serious games research.

Now, it's my pleasure to direct your attention to Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games, newly released from the MIT Press. As the title suggests, he shares some of the insights he has gained from his extensive research on mobile and augmented reality games, research which will be of great interests to those interested in developing their own learning games as well as to teachers who want to harness the power of gaming through their classrooms. The book is written in the matter of fact and pragmatic style I've come to associate with Klopfer. He reflects back on his own work, offers frank assessment of the existing mobile games space, and proposes some basic design and instructional principles which should guide all future work in this space. If your ideas about learning games begin and end with the commercial marketplace, Klopfer will shake up many of your preconceptions, offering radically different approaches to what a learning game looks like which take advantage of social dynamics and real world spaces rather than relying on 3d graphics and complex AI. He offers a model of what we can do right now for very little money using existing technologies.

He was kind enough to agree to an interview here. In part one, we explore in more depth his concept of augmented reality games and in the second part, we will explore the field of serious games more generally.

Most contemporary mobile games consist of casual games ported onto the mobile phone. Yet such games do not exploit most of the unique properties of mobile technology. How do you define those properties and what do you see as the limits of current games being developed for such platforms?

I think that in the near term mobile games for cell phones will continue to primarily take the form of ported casual games. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, these games fit the playing habits of people playing mobile games. That is, they can be played for a few minutes at a time while riding the train, standing in line, etc. Second, the development costs of mobile games is disproportionately high, primarily because of the current need to develop a single game hundreds of times for each different phone and carrier. As the industry moves towards consolidation of platforms through things like the iPhone, Windows Mobile, Symbian, and Google's Android, I think we'll start to see developers make a move to develop new and interesting games on mobile devices. We've already seen this on the Nintendo DS, which has broken a lot of new ground in the mobile games space, and also has sold phenomenally well.

Because of the powerful hardware in cell phones, I think we'll see even more innovative work on this platform.

When Kurt Squire and I sat down to make our first big push into mobile educational games we defined a number of characteristics that we attempted to tap into, namely:

  • portability - can take the computer to different sites and move around within a location
  • social interactivity - can exchange data and collaborate with other people face to face
  • context sensitivity - can gather data unique to the current location, environment, and time, including both real and simulated data
  • connectivity - can connect handhelds to data collection devices, other handhelds, and to a common network that creates a true shared environment
  • individuality - can provide unique scaffolding that is customized to the individual's path of investigation.

These principles have guided much of our work, and we're starting to see more of this in the marketplace. Apple is going to make a big push for mobile games on the iPhone and this will mean taking advantage of these unique properties, and other companies will follow.

Much of your own work has focused on the development of augmented reality games. Can you explain that concept and offer some illustrations for the kind of work you've done in this area?

Augmented Reality, as we define it, is a digital layer of information spatially overlaid on the real environment. While others narrowly define this space to include heads up displays using helmets and goggles with precise positioning providing real time visual overlaid information, we use the term broadly enough to include location-based games on handhelds and mobile phones which provide additional virtual data or information at given locations. Specifically we focus on what we call "lightly" augmented reality. That is, we provide a minimal amount of virtual information, and players use a lot of real world information as a part of game play.

For example, our most recent game TimeLab, starts with a video that sets the players 100 years in the future when global climate change has wreaked havoc on Cambridge. They are then sent back in time to present day to study ballot initiatives that could potentially remediate the effects of global climate change in the future. Players walk around the MIT campus and surrounding areas collecting information (real and virtual) on methods of reducing climate change and the impact of climate change on Cambridge. For example, at one point they look across the Charles River to the Hancock Tower that currently uses a beacon to provide information about the weather, and consider whether a more comprehensive weather warning system could be of use to warn future area residents of frequent severe weather. As players stand on Memorial Drive near the MIT campus, they consider how 100 years in the future that location is often under water from floods, and think about ways that those floods could be prevented. In the end, the players choose a number of ballot initiatives that they must debate, and through some simple game mechanics ultimately find out whether those measures are approved and what impact they have.

Some would argue that augmented reality games don't look or act very much like commercial entertainment titles. Is that an advantage or a disadvantage in terms of getting teachers to engage with these activities?

In most cases this is an advantage. Game is still a four-letter word in most schools, and teachers will sometimes ask us if we can call it a "simulation" or "technology-enabled activity" instead. I'm less concerned with the label than with the learning and engagement so I usually oblige. In terms of the actual experience, while students sometimes elaborate 3D games with holographic images to emerge from the handhelds (this is MIT), they quickly engage with our much more primitive map-based interfaces. Finally in terms of game play, the format of the games are quite flexible and can be changed by the teachers or the students themselves to create games that involve varying degrees of collaboration and competition.

You've developed tools which enable teachers to design educational games that are appropriate to their own locations. Can you give us a sense of how educators have been using those tools? How might my readers get access to those tools?

Our Outdoor Augmented Reality Toolkit, which is a drag and drop authoring tool for location based games on Windows Mobile devices, has been used by dozens of researchers and educators around the world. We're putting the final touches on our first public release, which should be available within the next few weeks on our website (http://education.mit.edu/drupal/ar).

In many cases teachers are using this to localize an existing game that has been created elsewhere. At a minimum this means importing new maps and GPS coordinates, and making sure that players need not walk into the middle of a road or a lake to get the information that they need. But ideally, this means making some changes to the content to localize it a bit better including some local history and personality, or incorporating unique features of the geography.

The tool is easy enough for a non-programmer to use (technically) to create an AR game from scratch. But this still requires a fair bit of thought in terms of the actual game design. We expect this feature to be used by educational institutions like museums, zoos, and science centers. In many cases we expect that teachers will wind up doing this kind of design as a class activity, rather than solo, and we're designing new versions to specifically support this kind of design.

Your augmented reality games combine elements of simulation with the direct observation of the real world. Why is "reality" an important element to tap for educational games?

Many of our AR games are built around socio-scientific problems, that is issues that require both an understanding of the underlying science as well as an understanding of the social and real world context for the problem. We've found that the AR games do a good job of integrating these two components. When using AR to study problems that are seemingly "entirely scientific," players tend to think more holistically considering many of the subtle real world constraints - how will this impact me or the people I know? What will the community think? How will this impact what I see around me? It is much harder to generate these kinds of considerations in a purely virtual experience we have found. Many of our games are explicitly designed around these tradeoffs.

Eric Klopfer is the Director of the MIT Teacher Education Program, and the Scheller Career Development Professor of Science Education and Educational Technology at MIT. The Teacher Education Program prepares MIT undergraduates to become math and science teachers. Klopfer's research focuses on the development and use of computer games and simulations for building understanding of science and complex systems. His research explores simulations and games on desktop computers as well as handhelds. He currently runs the StarLogo project, a desktop platform that enables students and teachers to create computer simulations of complex systems. He is also the creator of StarLogo TNG, a new platform for helping kids create 3D simulations and games using a graphical programming language. On handhelds, Klopfer's work includes Participatory Simulations , which embed users inside of complex systems, and Augmented Reality simulations, which create a hybrid virtual/real space for exploring intricate scenarios in real time. He is the co-director of The Education Arcade, which is advancing the development and use of games in K-12 education. Klopfer's work combines the construction of new software tools with research and development of new pedagogical supports that support the use of these tools in the classroom. He is the co-author of the book, Adventures in Modeling: Exploring Complex, Dynamic Systems with StarLogo, and the author of Augmented Learning: Research and Design of Mobile Educational Games for MIT Press.

Games and Social Responsibility -- Perspectives from Shanghai

Shortly after the start of 2008, I traveled to Shanghai to attend the International Games and Learning Forum, an event organized by the MIT Education Arcade team in collaboration with Peking University and funded by the Hewlett Foundation. The gathering brought together some leading American thinkers (including Sasha Barab, Eric Klopfer, and Scot Osterweill) about the pedagogical potentials of games with their Chinese counterparts in education, government and industry. Special thanks to Alex Chisholm who organized the event. This fascinating series of conversations started broadly with a consideration of the current context of digital games in China and ended with a concentration on the value of games as a resource for teaching foreign languages. Here I want to share with you some impressions about the current state of games in China which emerged from these exchanges.

The concept of the 'social responsibility' of games companies was a much more central concept to these conversations than in an American context. The western discussion of 'serious games' is framed by the assumption that pedagogy is an unrealized potential of the medium but without any expectations that games companies have an obligation to create games which might transform societies. Perhaps because of the ways that media industries in China seek to walk a line between some emerging capitalist impulses/opportunities and an overarching state economy, the industry representatives at this event sought to continually reassure participants that they were fully aware of their ethical and social responsibilities. These responsibilities operate at multiple levels -- not simply a repressive notion of ethical responsibility (focused on what they exclude from games in order to protect impressionable young people) but also a generative notion (what they included in games in order to promote national culture or ethical self-consciousness). And it is this affirmative or generative notion of social responsibility which holds open the greatest promise in terms of promoting a serious games movement in China.

One attendee went so far as to link this focus on serious games to the United Nation's statement on children's rights which identified a 'right to play' as a fundamental expectation. (It's hard to imagine such a U.N. resolution playing a central role in any American discussion of games given our national disdain at the moment for such international agreements, but one can imagine such a fit carrying greater weight in China at a time the country is courting global respectability through hosting the Olympic games.)

Game Addiction

Let me break this down a bit more. First, I was struck by how little of the conversation about the negative social impact of games centered around issues of media violence or even sex. I had noted a similar disinterest in games violence when I had visited China five years ago in the wake of a tragic fire in a cybercafe started by a high school student frustrated that he was not being allowed to access the internet or play games. My essay on this incident for Technology Review is reprinted in Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers. Basically, I argue that the Chinese had little interest in the argument that games violence causing real world violence. Rather, the incident was read in terms of concerns about the breakdown of traditional community life and the loss of the moral influence of the extended family in Chinese culture, both of which were seen as a consequence of rapid cultural, technological, and economic changes. The incident was also read partially in relation to a focus on 'games and internet addiction.'

We need to be careful about taking this 'addiction' rhetoric at face value even though there are some highly publicized incidents where Asian youth played games to the point of physical collapse. For one thing, Chinese youth used cybercafes as their point of access to both games and the internet. To some degree, the Chinese government is using a rhetoric of addiction to rationalize their periodic crackdowns on young people's digital access, knowing that concern about media effects is more likely to be accepted by western governments. In that sense, addiction rhetoric does some of the same work that the Firewall does in terms of restricting youth participation in the online world.

The addiction rhetoric, though, carries force within China where it is connected to a number of concerns which the Chinese have about their children's culture. First, at a time when aspects of capitalism are reshaping Chinese society (especially in Shanghai), addiction rhetoric gives the Chinese a way to talk about the impact of leisure culture and consumer capitalism on their lives. Playing games is problematic precisely because it is unproductive (or seen as such). This focus on unproductive play rather than productive labor takes on particular significance when you recognize that time spent playing games was time “stolen” from exam preparation in a culture where one's future (and that of your family) often rested on how well you perform on standardized testing. It is the high pressure nature of Chinese education which helps to account for the attractiveness of games as a cultural outlet.

Of course, this focus on play is not unique to Chinese youth, even if the forms that play takes breaks along generational lines. On most residential streets, you can see people squatting around a card game, Chess, or Mah Jong, the game providing a context for face to face interactions within the adults of the community. Many of the public parks we visited on this trip included plastic playground equiptment, not aimed at small children but rather targeted at senior citizens, who used them to exercise. Seniors are being encouraged to play but that play is organized around keeping young and improving their physical health (that is, play is redefined as enabling self improvement). Chinese youth, by contrast, are more likely to be interacting online (or within the closed space of the cybercafes) and often to be playing games with people they do not meet face to face.

This brings us to a second aspect of gaming from a Chinese perspective: government policies have promoted birth control and the single child family. Several folks in the Chinese games industry stressed the ways that online gaming reflected the loneliness and isolation of single children who were forced to reach out beyond their own families or even local communities in search of playmates. Whether understood literally or metaphorically, this link between the one child family and the debates about games addiction helps to explain the intensity of this concern.

Finally, the games addiction debate takes on a historically and geographically specific reference point. Several of the speakers talked about the addiction to western games as the modern equivalent of the opium wars, with games suspected as vehicles for inculcating western values or simply as distractions which insured that Chinese youth would under-perform in other aspects of their lives. Here, we can read the introduction of games consoles alongside ongoing debates in China about the appropriateness of recognizing Christmas, an alien holiday which never the less fit well with the gift giving focus of traditional Chinese culture (and in effect, extended the shopping season around Chinese new year.) Walking around Shanghai one saw strange overlaps between the decorations that still lingered from Christmas sales campaigns and the decorations which had already appeared in anticipation of New Years celebrations. I was amused by a sign I spotted in the Shanghai airport wishing visitors a "Merry Chris". The rest of the world talks about putting the Christ back in Xmas, but here, it is the Mass which has dropped off altogether as Kris Kringle and not the Christ child becomes the icon for this merchant's festival. Games, not surprisingly, are popular gift purchases during these holiday seasons but like Christmas, they were often understood in terms of unwelcomed western influences upon Chinese cultural traditions.

So, on one level, the social responsibilities of games companies were framed in terms of managing games addiction with the companies falling all over themselves to talk about devices and programs they have developed to limit the amount of time Chinese youth spent playing games. There are parential controls which allow adults to set and enforce fixed limits on how long their children can play. And games produced by Chinese companies are designed to provide stop points appropriate for the anticipated limits set on game play. One speaker at the conference even suggested a plan which linked access to game worlds and assets to performance on exams. Good test scores might translate into tokens which could be redeemed in games, thus providing gamers with a stronger incentive to spend time studying.

There was also a great deal of discussion about the need to develop games which encourage families to play together, insuring that gaming helps to reinforce strong family ties rather than representing one more factor of modernity which separated youth from the influence of their parents. (This is a society where a group sitting down to lunch is still given a single menu with the expectation that the patriarch will order for the entire group.) One Chinese games industry speaker described the ways that games focused on national culture might bridge generation gaps: young people could use games to help older players to master new technologies while adults could use game play to transmit traditional cultural values and practices.

Serious Games

On the other hand, many of the speakers defined the social obligations of games companies in a more generative sense -- in terms of the introduction of elements into the game play which are seen in more positive terms by the adult society. Games in China, then, are seen as part of a national cultural policy aimed at restoring pride in Chinese history and cultural traditions, traditions which were severely disrupted by the Cultural Revolution and just now beginning to gain some traction in the society once again. Parents worry that their offspring are being drawn to alien cultural experiences --not only games but also anime and comics from other parts of the world -- rather than embracing aspects of their own cultural tradition which adults want to see transmitted to the next generation. The computer here is seen as an important educational resource, one which prepares Chinese youth for a greater engagement with the world beyond their borders.

At the conference, several Chinese game designers proudly displayed games which included historically accurate and precisely realized recreations of historical villages and cities from pre-20th century China. They have filled these historical recreations with artifacts replicated from cultural museums or used them as settings to re-enact cultural rituals, such as wedding ceremonies. Many of the games were based on classical Chinese literature, especially Three Kingdoms.(For more on the relation of games to Chinese cultural policy, check out this earlier blog post.)

One participant noted that western games did much better in the cities but Chinese games rooted in traditional cultures were expected by more rural consumers. Such a distinction makes sense if we see games as part of the process of modernization, westernization, liberalization, and capitalization of China. Those young people who will have the most contact with western travelers or business men were being educated through their play to understand the world beyond while those who would have the least contact were more invested in protecting their national culture from outside influences.

Social responsibility was also being expressed in terms of promoting games which encouraged ethical reflection and thus transmitted the country's philosophical traditions and in terms of the potential educational uses of games. Games companies had a much stronger commitment to the development of serious games, even though most of them were no closer towards developing a business model to support edutainment titles than their counterparts in the west.

One unfortunate downside of this emphasis on games as a means of transmitting national culture was a tendency to link the idea of educational games to a particular kind of content -- to this idea of historical reconstructions -- rather than to a pedagogical process. Several of us in the group of westerners attending the conference were struck by how little our Chinese counterparts spoke about game play as a learning process, saying very little about what you did in the games and much more about the worlds that players could observe. At a western conference on serious games, there is much more likely to be a schism between educators who have a curricular focus and game designers who insist that good game play is necessary for games to be able to motivate or facilitate learning. As a result of this conceptual gap, the two delegations spent a lot of time talking past each other rather than sharing insights about the challenges of designing educational games.

The western participants were more likely to embrace games in terms of a conception of enrichment activities -- things we might learn which went beyond national standards and exams. The Chinese were, as a whole, much more likely to embrace drill and practice models of educational gaming with all education understood in relation to school policies and testing practices.

Piracy and the Chinese Games Industry

This discussion was also shaped by the particular character of the Chinese games industry which is being profoundly shaped by the culture of media piracy. All we had to do was to walk outside of our hotel and we could see a thriving business in the sell of illegal copies of western media content -- games, software, films, television series, and music. I spotted several Hollywood films on dvd which had not reached the screens in the states at the time I had left for the trip. Walk anywhere in the city and you will get accousted by row after row of merchants asking you to "Lookie, Lookie" at their "Watches, DVDS, ipods, suitcases, pocket books, shoes", all knock offs or copies of western produced goods.

I spoke with one college aged young woman here who offered a range of explanations: western copyrighted materials were priced too high for most people to afford; the government set limits on how many western media properties could be imported legally and there was aggressive censorship of anime and manga (with almost no Japanese content available legally here). The black market was the only place they could go to access such cultural goods, allowing them to work around both political and economic obstacles to access.

Yet, the presence of the black market also made it difficult to make a profit off the distribution of their games in this country and caused equal difficulties for local games producers. The game company folks explained that there was almost no legal market in China for platform or pc based single player titles since there was no way to stop the rapid distribution of such materials at low prices through the black market. The only kinds of games which could make money were multiplayer games, where companies could create incentives for buying legal copies. These games were funded on subscription models or on the basis of the sale of assets and services. This focus on multiplayer experiences, then, forced the Chinese companies to compete within a space where production costs and labor demands are highest and this made it very hard for commercial companies to embrace a serious games model, even in the face of the other strong policy incentives for them to do so.

Another factor pushing against the wide spread embrace of instructional games in China has to do with the technical infrastructure of their schools. A government official from the Education ministry described a 10 billion dollar national program to insure that every school in the country had at least one computer. While Urban Chinese youth enjoyed increased access to digital technologies at home, at school, and through the cybercafes (more on this next time), the rural youth still had little or no direct access to computers. So, a school which has only one computer would not be equipt to integrate computer games into its normal instructional practices as anything beyond the focus for teacher demonstrations. No wonder there is so little focus in their thinking about game play experiences: games may be seen much more as a simulation technology performed in front of the classroom than as anything that young people get to actually play themselves.

From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Six): Common Threads

This is the final installment in our multi-part series showcasing the serious game projects of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. We haven't exhausted our projects but this sample gives you a taste of the range of different paradigms we have deployed. Here, I offer my own thoughts about what these projects have in common, suggesting that they collectively represent a distinctive contribution to the field of games and education. Over the past decade, researchers associated with MIT's Comparative Media Studies Program have been exploring the pedagogical potentials of computer and video games. Rather than adopt a one-size-fits-all solution, we have explored different models for what might constitute the ideal learning game. In the process, we have tested different genres and delivery platforms and mapped alternative models of collaboration between academic institutions and commercial partners.

Underlying these games have been some core principles:

1. Our games are designed to fit within specific learning contexts, addressing the real-world problems that educators confront. Each represents a different strategy for addressing such factors as the structure of the school day, limited access to technology, the teacher's unfamiliarity with games, and integration within existing curricular frameworks, all of which might prejudice teachers, parents, or principles against game-based learning. Our goal is to develop games that can be used widely across a range of schools and communities, not simply prototypes for laboratory research.

2. Our goals are never to displace the teacher but rather to provide teachers with new resources for doing what they do best. Our games are part of a sequence of learning activities, introducing new concepts or providing experiences that can become the basis for further discussions and writing exercises. Game play often occurs outside of the classroom, much as homework extends and supports schoolroom learning. For example, the Palmagotchi encourages kids to keep an eye on their evolving ecosystems at odd moments throughout the day, while teachers can work through problems from the games to explain basic principles. Increasingly, our games are designed to support customization and localization, so teachers can adopt the games to their own instructional goals.

3. We share a belief that play represents a meaningful strategy for making sense of the world around us: the best games inspire a process of exploration and experimentation. As students play games, they test hypotheses about how the world works, revising them based on their experiences; they develop new strategies for solving problems; and they make new connections between previously isolated bodies of knowledge. These games are designed to tap what students already know (as occurs when they get into character for a role-playing game like Revolution), and they help young people master complex problems that might otherwise seem insurmountable (as when they cite multimedia materials to draw connections between current and historic events in iCue or when they tap different kinds of expertise to solve the real world challenges posed by Charles River City).

4. We seek to make every element of the game design intellectually meaningful and personally rewarding: from the knowledge transfer system in Revolution to the puzzle design in Labyrinth, from the card-based interface of iCue to the exchange mechanisms in Backflow. We want to make sure that students and teachers spend more time acquiring valued skills and knowledge and less time mastering the game technology.

5. We see game play as a social rather than an individual learning opportunity. We build into these games opportunities for students to share insights with each other (through, for example, the exchange of theories within the AR simulations or of strategies in the in-game FAQ in Labyrinth), and in the process, to foster peer-to-peer learning. Students are most likely to master information when they use it to solve problems and share it with others, articulating what they have learned.

6. Last, but certainly not least, we design our games to be fun. These games were designed by gamers and we've learned what we can from existing entertainment titles. A game that fails to engage the student will fail to motivate learning, no matter how rich its intellectual content may be.

Taken as a whole, these principles shift our focus away from the design and deployment of serious games and onto the processes and resources that support serious gaming.


Jenkins, Henry with Ravi Purushotma, Katherine Clinton, Margaret Weigel, and Alice J. Robison, "Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century," report prepared for the MacArthur Foundation, Fall 2006. http://www.projectnml.org/files/working/NMLWhitePaper.pdf

Squire, Kurt and Levi Giovanetto (Forthcoming), "The Higher Education of Gaming," Work in Progress, presented at Games, Learning and Society Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, 2005.

Francis, Russell. "Towards a Theory of a Games Based Pedagogy," Transforming Learning Experiences Online Conference, JISC Innovating e-Learning, March 2006.


Wright, Talmadge. "Creative Player Actions in FPS Online Video Games: Playing Counter-Strike." Game Studies Dec. 2002. http://www.gamestudies.org/0202/wright/

From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Five): iCue

In part five of our series on serious game projects involving the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, we focus on iCue, a soon to be launched collaboration with NBC News. iCue emerged from conversations between the MIT Education Arcade and NBC News in early 2006. Product development is being managed by NBC News and the NBC Technology Growth Center in New York, with portions of the information architecture, technical implementation, and game engine being executed with iFactory in Boston. The MIT Education Arcade continues to work with NBC News to research user behavior and performance, supporting NBC's product and educational programming development. Project leaders include Alex Chisholm, Eric Klopfer, Scot Osterweil, and Jason Haas (MIT); Adam Jones, Nicola Soares, Laura Sammons, Michael Levin, Kathy Abbott, Soraya Gage, Mark Miano, and Beth Nissen (NBC); and Glenn Morgan, Sean Crowley, and Ruth Tannert (iFactory). iCue: Tapping Social Networks to Foster Civic Awareness

By Alex Chisholm

NBC News has been working with the MIT Education Arcade to develop iCue, a web-based educational media product that is at once a media archive, a portal for learning activities and games, and a social network connecting teachers and students around the country in shared learning activities designed to enhance their understanding of current events and American History. The project was designed to address the seismic shifts in the ways young people acquire news and information about the world around them, shifts which are having an adverse impact on the markets for network news. Gone are the early evenings when families gathered around the television to catch up on the day's events as narrated by genteel anchormen such as John Chancellor, David Brinkley, and Walter Cronkite. Today's audiences, especially young people, consume news and information through channels that are available 24/7 across the web, mobile phones, and other handheld digital media devices. One need only glance at year-to-year Nielsen ratings data to recognize the steep downward trend in viewers of the evening network news broadcasts. During the May 2007 television sweeps period, network news viewers across the "Big Three" - ABC, CBS, and NBC - totaled roughly 21 million per night or just less than 7% of the U.S. population. By contrast, Apple sold 21 million iPods during the 2006 holiday shopping season. NBC has embraced the iCue project in hopes of better understanding how this generation of news consumers will relate to their content, while providing a resource for teachers and students to enhance critical thinking and writing skills across the curricula of U.S. History, Government and Politics, and English Language and Composition.

Designed initially as a resource for students taking courses as part of the College Board's Advanced Placement (AP) Program, iCue includes video clips from the NBC News and Universal radio and film archives to support teaching and learning of core concepts, people, and places. In subsequent years, NBC plans to support additional subjects in World History, Literature, Language Learning, Science, and Mathematics across the K-12 curriculum. iCue deploys an innovative media player modeled upon a technology students have used for decades in the classroom, in the library, and at the kitchen table: the index card. NBC has designed its "CueCard," a two-side media player that plays video on its face and then "flips" onscreen to enable students to annotate, comment, share, and discuss multimedia materials as part of online discussion groups organized around their own social, or learning, networks. Students collect CueCards in their online digital portfolio for reference, cataloging them for use in their online writing exercises, activities, and games.

Games? What happens when the card "technology" is considered into the domain of gaming? First, there are the traditional card games such as Go Fish, a matching game, or Poker, a complex strategy game. Then, there are the collecting of baseball and other sports cards and the fantasy sports games that are fueled by players' performance statistics. Or, consider the global collecting, role-playing, and strategy card games such as Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which have inspired a generation of kids to master and manipulate hundreds of fictional characters and their attendant powers and properties the way a NASA systems analyst might analyze complex data sets.

Each card represents a unique set of people, places, things, and ideas - embodying information students need to master for their coursework. The CueCards interface allows students not only to view and annotate media artifacts, but also to share and play with those cards to map connections among the represented concepts. In one challenge, students are asked to put into chronological order a series of CueCards that represent different events in the Civil Rights era, encouraging students to think about timelines in the U.S. History course. In another, students are challenged to match video clips and newspaper articles of Japanese internment camps of the 1940s with reports of suspected "terror" suspects at Guantanamo Bay after 2001. In yet another, students are asked to make connections between the suffrage campaign of Susan B. Anthony and the presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Through our formative research, we have observed students drawing on pre-existing knowledge, new ideas presented via the CueCards, and peer-to-peer discussions to generate new conceptual maps; their "answers" draw on different kinds of evidence - video, newspaper, and primary documents - to demonstrate solutions. Students share the pathways they have found with teachers and peers, inspiring both online and classroom discussion around important events and concepts. The process shows history not as something fixed, which is often the impression after reading a traditional textbook or encyclopedia entry, but as a dynamic and evolving discipline as students draw many different links between events and agents and resolve conflicting perspectives.

We are mapping and analyzing the thinking processes that shape students use of iCue. Do they focus on one type of resource over another in solving the game's challenges? How do they integrate information from several media sources and how does this affect what they learn? How will teachers use iCue to supplement their classroom and homework assignments? How do different socio-economic levels, urban vs. rural geographies, and varied Pre-AP educational offerings affect students' iCue experience? To qualify this, we are evaluating student understanding in several ways: (1) concept mastery exercises (e.g., fill in the blanks, multiple choice questions, etc.) both within and outside of the game; (2) group discussions with students; (3) player performance, where awareness and mastery of important concepts can be measured by student advancement through game levels and scoring; and, finally, (4) natural language-based research tools that enable us to analyze forum discussions and blogs. Our aim is to tap students' interest in games, participatory culture, and collective intelligence to get them to engage more closely with history and current events.

Alex Chisholm is founder of [ICE]3 Studios, a media research and development consultancy that creates transmedia entertainment and educational properties, and is currently developing several projects with NBC Universal, including an educational media product for NBC News, fan research around NBC's Heroes (with IPG Media's The Consumer Experience Practice), educational games for NBC Weather+Plus, and online games for NBC Olympics-Beijing 2008. He is Co-Director of the Education Arcade at MIT, and over the past seven years has collaborated on research, product, and program development with Microsoft, Electronic Arts, Sony Pictures Imageworks, the American Theatre Wing, LeapFrog, NBC Universal, and the MacArthur Foundation.

From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Four): Labyrinth

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This is part four of a multipart series documenting the thinking behind some of the key serious games initiatives which have come out of the Comparative Media Studies Program over the past few years. Learning Games to Go was a partnership between MIT's Education Arcade, Maryland Public Television, Macro International, and Johns Hopkins University, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. The ongoing project began in early 2006. Participants in the design process included Kristina Drzaic, Dan Roy, Alec Austin, Ravi Purushotma, Elliot Pinkus, Evan Wendel, and Lan Le, under the leadership of Scot Osterweil. The game was designed and storyboarded by students and staff of the Comparative Media Studies Program, with final development handled by Fablevision, a publisher and software developer. The completed game will be distributed by Maryland Public Television, which has also taken on responsibility for teacher training. For more information about the project, check out Dan Roy's CMS Masters Thesis, "Mastery and the Mobile Future of Massively Multiplayer Games." Images here show original artist sketches by CMS students Evan Wendel and Kristina Drzaic, coupled with their final execution by Fablevision.

Labyrinth: Playing with Math and Literacy

By Scot Osterweil

Conflicting expectations place a major burden on our educational system. We expect our schools to be inclusive of all types of learners, while demanding a unitary measure of student success and a one-size-fits-all curriculum. We expect teachers to be talented professionals while paying them low salaries and even lower levels of respect. We expect schools to overcome problems of poverty, class, and race while we have no solutions for these problems in the society at large. And we demand that all our schools be above average (displaying our own failure to grasp math and statistics).

Game-based learning is similarly burdened by conflicting expectations. Educational games must be open-ended and exploratory, but they must "cover" the curriculum. They should be content-rich, but they can't cost much to produce. They should be engrossing, but shouldn't take too much time from classroom instruction. Children should enjoy them as much as commercial games, even though they address topics that students don't appear to be interested in. All of these contradictions are enough to send a game designer screaming from the room. The good news is that educators are finally paying attention to the power of games for learning; the challenge of all good design is to find solutions for competing needs.

Our mandate with the Learning Games to Go (LG2G) project was to create a game that addressed middle school math and literacy.2 The game needed to be mobile and to employ cutting-edge technology, but it also had to address the needs of underserved populations who have little to no access to mobile technology, especially of the cutting-edge variety. To make our job harder, we were determined to create a game that would make a difference in the marketplace, not just a demonstration project that would never be seen beyond its test audience. We learned a good deal by talking with middle school teachers. Needing to prepare their students for high-stakes tests, teachers were leery of committing precious class time to new technology, but they identified ideas that weren't getting through to their students and hoped we could somehow take care of them. They didn't want to introduce technologies they couldn't manage themselves, but they lacked the time to master new technologies. Teachers recognized the attraction of games to their students, but they couldn't justify games - with all the social baggage the word carries - to administrators and parents.

Labyrinth (working title) sought to resolve these competing demands - it is a puzzle adventure game in which you, the player, wander the corridors of an underground factory populated by monsters. These monsters have been kidnapping people's pets, apparently for nefarious purposes. Your job is to uncover the monsters' secret plans, free the pets, and restore order to the world. Along the way you solve a host of confounding puzzles. And along the way we hope we've solved the challenges presented to us as designers.

The Class Time Dilemma

Teachers tell us that in a high-stakes testing environment, their days are full just covering the mandated curriculum. They can't imagine spending large blocks of time on a game. Labyrinth can largely be played as homework. It is web-served, so no matter where kids play the game, teachers can log on and assess how students are progressing through the challenges.

If kids play the game on their own, they are more likely to engage with it in a spirit of discovery and experimentation. Kids need the opportunity to approach mathematical problems with the same determined inventiveness they exhibit when mastering somersaults or shooting hoops. Labyrinth players will be exposed to a host of new skills to master at their own pace and in their own fashion. When the core concepts underlying the puzzles are eventually introduced in school, kids will be "ready to learn," having achieved mastery over the same concepts through game play.

Imagine a teacher coming into a classroom and saying, "Today I'd like to introduce variables. I know I've never used the word here before, but I also know you students are already experts on the subject, because you've all mastered this puzzle." She then projects a Labyrinth puzzle and discusses how it relates to the topic. She gets the students comparing notes about how they solved the puzzle, and she helps them connect their own experience to math concepts. She uses the puzzle as a visualization tool to make textbook ideas more concrete, and perhaps this process actually fortifies her own understanding of the concept, improving her teaching along the way. Far from asking her to devote hours to the game, we've given her a way to quickly incorporate the game into the lesson she was already preparing to teach.



What About the Curriculum?

No single game can treat every subject in a given curriculum, but Labyrinth adheres to the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. We know from our work with educators that many prescribed concepts are never fully mastered by struggling math students. All but the best curricula, even those that adhere to the NCTM standards, teach math procedures without promoting real understanding of the underlying concepts. So, we focused Labyrinth around the "big ideas" of mathematics, including proportionality, variables, graphing, geometry and measure, and rational numbers. For example, students encounter a vending machine, and have a set of coins of unmarked denominations. They must develop strategies for feeding the coins into the machine so that they can figure out which coins have which values (i.e. solving for variables). While playing, they develop mental models of variables and devise strategies for solving such problems. They are building a scaffolding of ideas, models, and habits of mind that they will be able to apply to their formal schoolwork and to their lives as thinking adults.

The Literacy Component

While Labyrinth is primarily a math game, it is also designed to promote literacy. Literacy in the 21st century will not just be about reading text, but about making sense of a whole range of communications media, learning to become a producer of new media content and a participant in online communities (Jenkins et al., 2006)

Two features of the game target these new literacy skills. Labyrinth replaces cut scenes with comics, using sequential storytelling to relay back story and other information needed to navigate through the game world. Comics employ a wide variety of powerful visual devices, while still giving children the freedom to read and reflect at their own pace. Comics are the perfect bridge between watching and reading. And we wanted young people to develop better skills at understanding the interplay between words and images.

Labyrinth also promotes writing. We know that kids who otherwise don't write may spend hours posting hints and solutions to game FAQ websites. Accordingly, we've built the FAQ right into the game, and given kids the incentive to write. Students playing the game are enrolled in teams with fellow students. To improve the team's overall performance, players will aid lagging members by writing messages that help them solve the game challenges. The puzzles have different solutions every time they are played. To give effective aid to their teammates, kids can't just share answers, but need to communicate problem-solving strategies. We contend that if students read and write about their thinking, there will be benefits to their reading, their writing, and their thinking.

Meeting the Needs of Underserved Students

Disadvantaged kids don't uniformly have access to the same technologies at home. They are most likely to have video consoles, but development licenses for the Xbox and Playstation are prohibitively expensive, and are not usually granted to educational game producers. The same licensing difficulties apply to popular handheld devices like the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP, though there are signs that "thinking games" are gaining acceptance on these platforms. Cell phones are mobile, but not ubiquitous with our target audience, and the proliferation of incompatible platforms makes cell phone development extremely expensive.

Thanks to after-school programs and libraries, as well as the rapid penetration of broadband, the Internet-enabled computer seems to be the device likely to reach the most kids through more hours of the day. A web-served game can be accessed anywhere, and thus affords all players, including the underserved, maximum mobility.

A game developed in Flash can be played on almost any connected computer and won't be blocked by school or library networks, as it won't need to be downloaded. There isn't a better platform if we are serious about bridging the technology gap. A Flash game will also be stable on the widest range of devices. We are researching the potentials of playing Labyrinth on handheld computers and hope, by the end of our funding cycle, to identify and develop specifications for the specific handheld technology that has the broadest reach. In the not-too-distant future it should be possible to port Flash games to devices like the Nintendo DS, which at this moment looks like the handheld with the greatest potential penetration of the market.

Overcoming the Classroom Technology Hurdle

Labyrinth makes few demands on teachers. Once the teacher has inputted a class list, students can log on directly without teacher assistance. As with any other good electronic game, built-in tutorials let players gradually master challenges without additional instruction. Teachers can turn their kids loose on the game, and then wait a week and ask students to teach them how to play. In doing so, students will display competencies teachers don't realize they possess.

Although we hope teachers will also play and master the game, we want to respect the constraints under which they work. If teachers don't have time to learn the game, there will still be a mode in which they can play single puzzles and introduce them into class discussion.

Overcoming Resistance to Games

Finally, we hope that Labyrinth will be a game that is both entertaining and thought provoking, capturing young people's imaginations while still earning the acceptance of teachers and the approval of parents. Our approach respects all that is inventive and exploratory in play while challenging students to grow intellectually. If we succeed in these goals, we hope to offer a model for what a good learning game should be, one that resolves the contradictory demands schools place on this emerging technology.

Scot Osterweil is the project manager for the Education Arcade and is currently running "Learning Games to Go," a federally funded project designed to develop mobile games that teach math and literacy to underserved youth. Formerly the Senior Designer at TERC, a nationally known research & development center devoted to math and science education, Osterweil designed Zoombinis Island Odyssey, winner of the 2003 Bologna New Media Prize. This is the latest game in the Zoombinis line of products (Riverdeep/TLC). Scot is the creator of the Zoombinis, and with Chris Hancock he co-designed the multi-award winning Logical Journey of the Zoombinis, and its first sequel, Zoombinis Mountain Rescue. Scot is the also the designer of the TERCworks games Switchback and Yoiks!, the latter also with Chris Hancock.

Scot's other software designs include work on the educational products Tabletop II, Tabletop and Tabletop Jr., and IBM's The Nature of Science. At TERC he participated in research projects on the role of computer games in learning, and on the use of video in data collection and representation. Previously, he worked in television, on the production of Public Television's Frontline, Evening at Pops, and American Playhouse, and as an animator on a wide range of programs. He is a graduate of Yale College with a degree in Theater Studies.

From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Three): Backflow

This is part Three in a multipart series showcasing the serious games work being done by the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. Today, we focus onBackflow, one of the games developed this summer as part of our newly launched Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Lab. Under the guidance of Eric Klopfer, Judy Perry, and Marleigh Norton, Backflow was developed by Zulfiki bin Mohamed Salleh, Neal Grigsby, Chen Renhao, Nguyen Hoai Anh, Wang Xun, Fabian Teo, Brendan Callahan, Guo Yuan, and Hoo "Fezz" Shuyi from the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. To download Backflow, visit the GAMBIT homepage. Backflow

By Neal Grigsby, Philip Tan, and Teo Chor Guan


The GAMBIT Summer Program

The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab was established in 2006 between MIT's program in Comparative Media Studies and Singapore's Media Development Authority as a five year project to sponsor new research about video games, to development new and innovative games, and to train students from Singapore's tertiary education institutions, its universities and polytechnics, in preparation for entering the games industry. The GAMBIT name refers to the many axes along which the project aims to generate research: Gamers, Aesthetics, Mechanics, Business, Innovation, and Technology.

The project adheres to the ethos of "applied humanism," which is the conceptual core of the Comparative Media Studies program. All CMS research projects share the goal of putting theoretical research into practical application, of testing theoretical precepts in contexts outside of the academy, for example in the realm of childhood education (the project for New Media Literacies), the media industry (the Convergence Culture Consortium), and journalism (the Center for Future Civic Media). For GAMBIT, this philosophy demands not only the generation of writing about games, but also the development of games themselves in support of research goals.

In 2007, GAMBIT research managers prepared for their first summer of game development. They selected over 30 students from Singapore based on the strength of their academic records, portfolios, and their demonstrated passion for video games. Successful applicants were flown to MIT to participate in the equivalent of a professional internship, the GAMBIT summer program. Over a short 9 week period, they worked closely with MIT students and faculty to develop 6 new games, each designed to answer a specific research question.

Most of the research questions and initial game concepts came out of a semester-long process of investigation, preliminary research, collaboration between academic departments, and, finally, the selection of brief written proposals. They were chosen based on mutual interest from faculty at MIT and Singaporean institutions, and the viability of projects for such a short development cycle. For each game, the faculty member in charge of the research would meet with the development teams at the beginning to outline the project requirements and help in brainstorming game ideas, and then reconnect systematically throughout the cycle to ensure ongoing compliance and provide help when needed.

In addition to the specific research goals of individual teams, there were also some shared goals. Games should be innovative but should not ignore the lessons of thirty years of gaming history, that is, they should retain what is interesting and successful about current games. The teams should strive to meet the academic research goals, but also aspire to a professional level of polish. Most importantly, the development of the games should contribute to the education of the team members, to expand their intellectual and professional horizons. To this effect, the first week of the 9 week program was spent in orientation, with faculty and staff lecturing students on game design, usability, animation, and related topics. In addition, local game industry professionals provided insider perspectives on design challenges and careers. This week-long orientation served as a tool-kit to help prepare the students for the intense 8 weeks of software development that followed.

With such a short development cycle, and a demanding variety of projects to complete, the organization and management of teams was considered of highest importance. Teams were kept small in the context of software development, with just 7 members each, but taken together exceeded the threshold for effective centralized control. Therefore, they needed to be relatively self-sufficient and able to respond to challenges with speed and independence. Each team consisted of students from a variety of backgrounds and specialties: two programmers, two artists, a test lead, a game designer, and a project manager. In addition, a wildcard 2-person team of musicians provided audio services to all of the game teams.

Programmers were, of course, responsible for writing the software itself, and artists for the generation of art assets such as character designs, backgrounds, menu screens, etc. The day-to-day tasks of the test lead would change often throughout the cycle, but always with the intention of placing him or her in a position to represent the interests of the end user. In the early design phase, the tester would assist in design tasks, but while the researcher and designer might come up with innovative, "blue sky" possibilities for their games, the tester was to help keep their feet on the ground, to remind them of their responsibilities to the player. Later, the tester would be responsible to systematically evaluate each new iteration of the game.

The designer was responsible for translating the educational goals of the project into a game concept and play mechanics. However, GAMBIT designers were encouraged to put their egos aside and serve more as facilitators of the design, as design leaders rather than authoritative authors. Each team member needed to feel a sense of ownership over the design if they were to successfully complete the project requirements. After all, the project would be their full time job over the next two months. The team could not afford to have even one of its members feeling disengaged, or believing that their ideas had not been taken seriously by the rest. In addition, while it was thought that the Singaporean students would be very technically adept, GAMBIT hoped to engage the students on a much more creative level than had previously been demanded of them. Therefore the concept for the game should come from the team itself and should be selected by consensus, with the designer stepping in as tie breaker when necessary.

Finally, the project manager would keep the team on track to finishing their project. A flavor of agile project management called "Scrum" offered a reasonable fit with the demands of the project. For the purposes of Scrum, those working on the project are divided into three categories: the product owner, the Scrummaster, and the team. The team consists of everyone who works closely on the project, those fully committed to doing the work that will turn ideas into reality. The product owner represents the long-term view of the project, often advocating for the software end-user or the requirements of the larger organization. The Scrummaster makes sure that participants adhere to the rules of Scrum, which calls for short daily check-in meetings (the daily scrum), the management of development cycles called "sprints," and other details of the process. The role of Scrummaster tracks fairly closely with the role of "project manager" in other paradigms, and indeed GAMBIT project managers became Scrummasters.

In the GAMBIT summer program, the researchers were assigned to the role of product owner. He or she would work with the team to set and prioritize the goals of the project, but would not need to dictate exactly how those priorities were met. The work would be divided into four two-week sprints. At the beginning of each sprint, the product owner would collaborate with the team to prioritize a list of product features called the "product backlog." The team would select the amount of product backlog they believed they could achieve, which would become the "sprint backlog," and define for themselves the best way to realize these features. At the end of each sprint, the team would be called upon to demonstrate new functionality to the product owner in a "sprint review" meeting. Each cycle also offered an opportunity to discuss and refine the rules of Scrum itself to better serve the personalities of the project and the team. Running the teams this way demands that team members have to produce not just work from individuals (code, concept art, music, design documents) but also an integrated, testable and ever-improving game every other week. By adhering to this program of "iterative development," teams would have a better chance of actually producing a finished product after eight weeks of development.

The use of Scrum project management was both an adaptation to the stringent requirements of the project and an experiment in its own right. As many of the professional visitors who lectured GAMBIT students would attest, most game companies operate with a development cycle that perpetually concludes with "crunch time," or a period of company-wide overtime. One of the goals of Scrum is to eliminate crunch time by making sure management decisions are not based on unrealistic expectations. The team estimates the development time for each feature and management is forced to accept the team's estimates or make an explicit decision to scale back the project. Even in companies that have adopted the Scrum management system, however, crunch time is often unavoidable due to the demands of the commercial marketplace. As a fully funded educational research project, GAMBIT enjoyed relative independence from these demands, even as it aspired to a professional product. The managers of the project discouraged overtime as much as possible to engender a more healthy workplace environment and create a model of "sustainable development."

Backflow: The Game

Existing mobile participatory simulations such as Palmagotchi use the peer-to-peer connective capabilities of Palm and Windows Mobile handheld computers to embed a group of players inside a simulation. While each individual device is inexpensive, purchasing enough devices for an entire classroom can be a prohibitive expense for many schools. To address this, researchers from MIT Teacher Education Program worked with the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab to develop a game for a platform more popular among teachers and students: the mobile phone. Mobile phones are a challenging game development platform in comparison to dedicated gaming consoles or the PC, with relatively tiny screens, low system memory, and low-powered microprocessors. However, every mobile phone is a communications device, incorporating networking technologies that are well suited for participatory simulations.

To that end, a team of students from the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab were given a number of new mobile phones from a variety of manufacturers, and set to the task of developing a game that would run reliably across at least two of the devices. The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab was established in 2006 between the Program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT and the Media Development Authority of Singapore as a five-year project to sponsor new research about video games, to develop new and innovative games, and to train students from Singapore's tertiary education institutions in preparation for entering the game industry. In 2007, over 30 Singaporean students were flown to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to participate in the equivalent of a professional internship. Over a short 9-week period, they worked closely with MIT students and faculty to develop 6 new games, each designed to tackle a specific research challenge head-on.

Working with the MIT Teacher Education Program, the team chose to address environmental issues in their simulation. The original concept had the player directing the flow of sewage through a series of pipes using switches, with the option of shunting the waste to his or her neighbor, helping to clear the game screen but potentially inviting retaliation. The game would simulate a system of environmental exchange and the interdependencies of environmental actors. The basic mechanic also offered the possibility to support a fun, casual-style single-player game themed around recycling, in which the player's frantic button mashing would direct recyclables in the waste stream to the correct recycling bins.


Other than the title of the game, Backflow, everything else in the original design had to change in order to accommodate testing feedback and hardware realities. A game in which players flushed waste to each other in real time required the mobile phones to be constantly connected to the Internet and maintain synchronization between all players. Network latency limitations and subscription costs made such a system very difficult to realize. Furthermore, game testing suggested that a multiplayer game based on "tragedy of the commons" would not be very fun to play.

The basic single-player mechanic of sorting garbage by flipping switches on pipes remained, but the multiplayer aspect was scaled back to work asynchronously, with interactions between players recast as an exchange of resources in a stock market-like system. Instead of dumping garbage on each other willy-nilly, players would negotiate to share waste capacity. The game designer hoped to use this waste market to simulate the process of "cap and trade" emissions credit trading, a strategy that has been used successfully in the real world to limit greenhouse gas emissions in a free market.

The final game is best described as a hybrid of several genres: a casual puzzle game, a city simulation, and a resource trading and management game. The player begins by registering a new account and creating a new city. New cities start at 45,000 residents, a value that will change with the success or failure of the player's ability to properly recycle. A maze of pipes extends from the city at the top of the screen to several recycling bins and a sewer near the bottom. The player uses the keys on the mobile phone number pad to direct items to the right place: glass to the glass recycling, organic waste to the sewer, and so on. If the player sends a recyclable item to the correct bin, the game rewards some raw materials of that type. These materials can be used to build efficiency upgrades for the player's system. But if the player makes a mistake and sends waste to the wrong bin, the pollution level for the city rises.

At the end of a round, the game calculates the city's pollution level, and adds or subtracts residents accordingly (based on the assumption that clean cities are more attractive living spaces than polluted ones). Also between rounds, the player may decide to buy system upgrades or trade resources. Players soon realize that they can easily build up a scarcity of one type of material and a surplus of another, making trading necessary for advancement. Urban growth increases the complexity of the pipe system and the speed of the waste stream. "Winning" the game means finding a balance of population and waste processing ability that a player can manage.

Despite the challenges of a new and constrained platform, the students successfully created an online mobile phone game in 9 weeks. Much of the success of Backflow is a testament to the team's adaptability: they faced the limitations of the technology and the feedback from real players and adjusted the game design and development plan to make a functional, playable, and engaging game faithful to the spirit of the MIT Teacher Education Program.

Philip Tan is the executive director for the Cambridge operations of the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab, a multi-year game innovation initiative hosted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is concurrently a project manager for the Media Development Authority (MDA) of Singapore and a member of the steering committee of the Singapore chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA).

Prior to his current position, he worked closely with Singapore game developers to launch industry-wide initiatives and administer content development grants as an assistant manager in the Animation & Games Industry Development section of MDA. He has produced and designed PC online games at The Education Arcade, a research group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that studied and created educational games. He complements a Master's degree in Comparative Media Studies with work in Boston's School of Museum of Fine Arts, the MIT Media Lab, WMBR 88.1FM and the MIT Assassins' Guild, the latter awarding him the title of "Master Assassin" for his live-action roleplaying game designs. He also founded a live DJ crew at MIT.

Teo Chor Guan has more than 14 years of experience in systems engineering for computer graphics and games. Her wide range of experience spans from 3-D graphics research at the Institute of Systems Science in Singapore to building air traffic control systems for MacDonald Dettwiler & Associates in Canada. She has also worked as a software developer at Electronic Arts (EA) Canada for over six years. She holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Electrical and

Electronics) from the National University of Singapore and a Masters in Computer Science from Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, Canada. In Singapore, she had worked in the Games Development Group at the School of Design at Nanyang Polytechnic. She was also the Software Engineering Manager in Lucasfilm Animation Singapore before joining Media Development Authority (MDA) as the Program Director for GAMBIT.

Before coming to MIT, Neal Grigsby worked at LookSmart.com in San Francisco for seven years, wearing a variety of hats including editor, ontologist, and content producer. He joined the Comparative Media Studies program in 2005, where he wrote his master's thesis on narratives of adolescence, including a look at representation of youth in video games. He got his feet wet in game design at the annual Storytelling and Games in the Digital Age Workshop, where he led the winning team in 2007. While a student at CMS he worked on the Project for New Media Literacies, producing educational video and curricula about media production for an audience of teens and young adults. Neal earned his bachelor's degree in film studies from UC Berkeley, which was also where he met his wife, artist Rebecca Bird Grigsby.

From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Two): Handheld Projects

This is part two of a multipart series showcasing the serious games projects associated with the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program. Today, we focus on the work which Eric Klopfer and colleagues have done through the MIT Teachers Education Program using handheld games. Palmagotchi was built by the Teacher Education Program with the help of lead developers, including Victor Costan and Kyle Fritz. Development of the Handheld Augmented Reality Games is largely supported by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education StarSchools initiative, in collaboration with the University of Wisconsin and Harvard University. Lead Developers on the Augmented Reality project include Ben Schmeckpeper, Tiffany Wang, Kirupa Chinnathambi, RJ Silk, and Lisa Stump. klop5.jpg

Thinking Outside the Classroom: Two Mobile Simulation Approaches to Enhance Student Learning

By Eric Klopfer and Judy Perry

As mobile devices become more accessible and affordable, more and more students are carrying mobile technologies such as personal digital assistants, cell phones, portable gaming systems, iPods, and iPhones in their backpacks. What will learning look like when these powerful handheld computers are as ubiquitous as calculators? Here we describe two software applications designed by the MIT Teacher Education Program for handheld computers: Palmagotchi, a networked evolutionary biology simulation, and Handheld Augmented Reality Games, a toolkit for creating location-based role-playing simulations.

Simulation games, in particular, can leverage the anywhere/anytime nature of mobile computing, extending student engagement with content beyond face-to-face classroom time and asking learners to synthesize digital information with real-world observations.

Our synthesis of the constructivist and situated learning paradigms leads us to design activities that are social, authentic and meaningful, connected to the real world, open-ended and containing multiple pathways, intrinsically motivating, and filled with feedback. While many technologies can foster some of these design elements, mobile learning games are particularly well suited to supporting them all.

Guiding principles that informed our designs include:

Fostering deep personal engagement through role-playing immersion: Each student plays an integral part in a larger system (a fruit fly in a population, a potential carrier in a viral disease model). Many commercial off-the-shelf games are designed around extrinsic rewards - points or award structures that are easy to measure. In role-playing games this could be wealth, as well as the level of your character. In our games, personal investment provides an intrinsic motivator to explore and master game strategies, and therefore better understand scientific models and curricular content.

Engaging students in highly social settings that encourage multi-player collaborative problem solving: Students using our games interact with their classmates in real time, discussing observations and negotiating interactions through both open and moderated discussion. Students typically spend only a fraction of their time actually looking at the screen of the PDA. In one study, which analyzed student behaviors using our handheld simulation games, "looking at the screen" was not one of the top five most common behaviors. Instead, students were talking, writing notes, interacting with other students, analyzing data, and walking around. This approach engages a wider range of students, including those who are not typically engaged by the individualistic structure of traditional coursework and homework.

Encouraging active participation and knowledge-building: During game play, students are active, often walking around and/or moving from player to player to observe and compare data. Game actions require both digital and face-to-face interaction.

Providing teachers with a flexible model of implementation: The overly structured materials of science kits or packaged software do not typically allow teachers to express their creativity and use the skills that led many into the profession. On the other hand, giving teachers a tabula rasa is unworkable. The majority of teachers do not have the time or expertise to design entire lessons. Our game designs provide teachers without software programming backgrounds with well-formed and easily customizable activities. Teachers can feel a sense of ownership over materials that match their specific instructional needs.

Enabling cognitive "Flow": In these games, the reward is Flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990), "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake." Flow is marked by extreme concentration, pleasure, focus, reward, and even exhaustion. Activities that lead to Flow display clear goals, high concentration, feedback, appropriate challenge, personal control, and intrinsic reward.



"Casual games" are the fastest growing and perhaps largest genre of video games. Casual games can be played a few minutes at a time, typically during down time (waiting for the bus, for a few minutes over lunch, etc.). Casual games are often played on PDAs (handheld computers like the Palm or Pocket PC), the Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, and increasingly on Smartphones (e.g. Windows Mobile phones and iPhones) and cell phones. The Tamagotchi, a game involving virtual pets, offers one powerful model for the educational use of these platforms. Tamagotchi's simple design, along with the emotional bond between player and pet, results in a game that is simple to learn, allows for increased mastery, can be played casually a few minutes at a time, and yet sustains interest and interaction. Such an approach doesn't interrupt or impede the "business" of the school day.

Palmagotchi, a ubiquitous multiplayer handheld game, is based on a flexible networked platform called myWorld, and builds off of past work developing mobile peer-to-peer participatory simulations, such as The Virus Game. Palmagotchi allows students to become part of a dynamic biological process referred to as co-evolution. Palmagotchi's underlying model is loosely derived from Darwin's observations of finches in the Galapagos Islands. The "virtual pets" in Palmagotchi are birds and flowers that live within a larger simulated ecology that also includes predators and changing climate patterns. Students gain a deeper understanding of fundamental ecological, genetic, and co-evolutionary processes as they nurture their creatures.

The player's goal is to keep the lineage of his or her birds alive within the larger ecosystem, mating with other birds to produce and raise independent offspring before the parent bird dies. Each participant's handheld computer (a Windows Mobile device) starts with a small number of birds and flowers. Each bird has its own unique set of genetically determined traits (e.g., beak length, metabolism, ability to flee from predators, survival during cold weather, etc.). Ultimately, individual flowers' and birds' survival demonstrate their interdependence within the ecosystem. An accelerated "game time" allows students to observe and analyze general trends across multiple generations.

The game doesn't just convey specific information; playing the game allows students to conduct thoughtful, collaborative scientific inquiry. Initial implementations show that students (and teachers) are highly engaged in the process of maintaining their virtual pets over days or even weeks of play, learning the underlying science to improve their performance. They regularly find time outside of class to engage deeply in the game. Class time has been used effectively to discuss data and related biological processes, meeting the content standards required of students and teachers while maintaining high engagement and interest by all. The platform upon which Palmagotchi is based is being used to develop other new games for the science curriculum.


Augmented Reality

Augmented Reality (AR) devices superimpose a virtual overlay of data and experiences onto a real-world context. Augmented Reality can employ a variety of technologies, ranging from head-mounted displays to simple mobile devices. We have focused our research and development on "lightly" augmented realities, which require a small amount of virtual information and can be performed on handheld computers, and more recently on cell phones. These technologies support explorations and learning in the students' natural context, their own community and surroundings.

For example, Charles River City, loosely based on Chris Dede's MUVE "River City," was one of our early Augmented Reality games. In this game, students follow an outbreak of illness coinciding with a topically relevant event in the Boston Metro Area. One of the first runs started out like this:

The July 1st, 2004 headline of the Boston Globe reads "26 More Fall to Mysterious Illness as DNC Looms". A rash of disease has swept through Boston; and - with the Democratic National Convention coming to the city in a few weeks - citizens, politicians and health officials are all concerned. What is the source of the illness? Is this an act of bioterrorism or a naturally occurring event?

Players are told that a team of 20 experts is brought in to investigate the problem, including epidemiologists, physicians, public health experts, laboratory scientists, biologists, computer scientists, and environmental specialists. This group must work together to evaluate case reports and available surveillance data, investigate the cause and source of the outbreak, assess risk, communicate with the professional and public communities and identify and implement effective remedies. The teams collect and analyze environmental samples, hospital records, patient histories, clinical samples, and testimony from community members. The team must determine its findings and propose actions very quickly in order to assess the risk, diminish societal fears, and solve the problem. Our initial research on AR simulations (Klopfer, Squire, and Jenkins 2003; Klopfer and Squire 2004) demonstrates that this technology can effectively engage students (notably, female students have responded very well) in critical thinking about authentic scientifically based scenarios and enhance their interest in IT.

In order to scale our research and enable AR games to reach a wider audience, we have developed an AR Toolkit that allows designers, teachers, and even students to develop their own games. Using this toolkit, we have already built AR simulations in many content areas over the last few years. Games have been implemented in such diverse areas as environmental science, colonial American history, epidemiology, math, and English. These activities also support students' development of critical 21st-century IT skills including computer-mediated collaboration and information sharing, managing uncertainty, and analyzing complex systems.

The power in AR lies in truly augmenting the physical landscape, creating digital content closely tied to real-world locations, and thus supporting direct observation as well as data analysis. To extend these learning opportunities, we are enhancing our software and experimenting with new classroom practices to make it easier for teachers to localize and customize their games. This will enable educators to focus their efforts on meaty "curricular" tasks of narrative, data analysis, and even game design, with minimal effort spent on the technological aspects. This nearly invisible technology embodies the principle of technology adapting to the classroom, though in this case, the classroom is the entire world.

The Future of Educational Handheld Games

A user-centered - and thus "teacher-centered" - design approach greatly enhances the likelihood that teachers (on whom the success of these experiences ultimately lies) will be able to successfully integrate these technologies into the classroom. Educational software designs, like Palmagotchi, leverage the portability of mobile devices to integrate learning across students' everyday lives, allowing teachers to tap game-based learning without losing valuable classroom time. Similarly, our AR toolkits allow teachers to customize games to local conditions, setting their own pedagogical goals and moving learning beyond the school walls. Such games engage students in multi-sensory, kinesthetic, collaborative experiences. Such games offer students engaging and motivating experiences, while enabling students and teachers to investigate important ideas.


Eric Klopfer is Associate Professor and Director of the Scheller MIT Teacher Education Program. The Teacher Education Program prepares MIT undergraduates to become math and science teachers. Klopfer's research focuses on the development and use of computer games and simulations for building understanding of science and complex systems. His research explores simulations and games on desktop computers as well as handhelds. He is the creator of StarLogo TNG, a new platform for helping kids create 3D simulations and games using a graphical programming language. On handhelds, Klopfer's work includes Participatory Simulations, which embed users inside of complex systems, and Augmented Reality simulations, which create a hybrid virtual/real space for exploring intricate scenarios in real time. He is the co-director of The Education Arcade, which is advancing the development and use of games in K-12 education. Klopfer's work combines the construction of new software tools with research and development of new pedagogical supports that support the use of these tools in the classroom. He is the co-author of the book, Adventures in Modeling: Exploring Complex, Dynamic Systems with StarLogo, and author of a forthcoming book on mobile games and learning from MIT Press.

Judy Perry is Research Manager of the MIT Teacher Education Program. She currently oversees design, development and research for several projects involving games and simulations for handheld devices, including location-based Augmented Reality projects, and Participatory

Simulations including Palmagotchi. Prior to becoming a researcher at MIT, her work included television and web production, and content development for educational toys. She holds a B.A. in American Studies from Yale University, and an Ed. M. in Technology in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part One): Revolution

This is the first installment of a five part series showcasing the evolution of The Comparative Media Studies Program's thinking about Serious Games. Each installment will focus on a different games-related project, while a conclusion will describe the commonalities in how we think about games and learning. I am starting this series this week to reflect the fact that we are hosting a Communications Forum event today focused on Games and Civic Engagement. The idea for Revolution emerged as part of the Games to Teach Project, funded by a Microsoft iCampus grant, and later became the flagship project for the Education Arcade. It was a complicated project spanning five semesters, starting in Fall 2002 and extending through Fall 2004. It was designed by a team of graduate and undergraduate students, working part time while taking classes. Participants included Philip Tan (Producer), Matthew Weise (Game Designer), Brett Camper (Lead Programmer), David Lee (3D modeling), Giovanni Mendoza (Art), Cassie Huang (Character Design), James Tolbert (Animation), Nicholas Hunter (Programmer), and Bertha Tang (Art).

In a spelling bee, a kid is challenged to memorize a lot of words, there's a fair amount of pressure, and it's kind of grim. If they get a word wrong, the buzzer goes off, they're told they got it wrong, and they are out. There's never a discussion about why they got it wrong, how they could have reasoned about the word to get it right. There's never really much of a discussion about how that word could be used in speech. In fact, the goal for a spelling bee is to learn all sorts of words that you will never use in common speech.

Compare that with a game of Scrabble where kids sit with the letters in front of them and are moving them around, thinking endlessly about all of the different combinations of words and which ones are real. They try to play one and there's a discussion about whether that's a real word or whether that's a real form of the word. Through that process, kids are engaging deeply not just in spelling but in word usage and they're having fun while they are doing it.

-Scot Osterweil

Popular accounts of the Serious Games movement have often fallen back on the image of the computer as a "teaching machine" that "programs" its users - for better or for worse. The fantasy is that one can just plant kids in front of a black box and have them "learn" as if learning involved nothing more than absorbing content. Those who fear that games may turn normal youth into psycho killers similarly hope that games might transform them into historians, scientists, engineers, and tycoons. At the same time, teachers express anxiety that their pedagogical labor will be displaced by the game console.

Putting the emphasis on the program to deliver content has often led to highly rigid and pre-structured play experiences, carefully regulated to conform to various state and national curricular blueprints, with little chance for emergent play or creative expression by the players. In other words, most commercial edutainment titles look much more like spelling bees than Scrabble.

For the better part of a decade, researchers associated with the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program (through Games to Teach, The Education Arcade, and The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab) have been researching the pedagogical potentials of computer and video games. We have adopted a range of different models for what an educational game might look like - from mods of existing entertainment titles to augmented reality games, from role-playing games to collectible cards - and how they might be produced - including several recent collaborations with commercial media producers and professional game designers. Our games straddle academic fields, including History (Revolution) and Current Events (iCue), Math and Literacy Skills (Labyrinth), Science (Palmagotchi), even Waste Management (Backflow). What links these various projects together has been a design philosophy that focuses less on serious games and more on serious gaming. We see games not so much as vehicles for delivering curricular content as we do spaces for exploration, experimentation, and problem solving.

We do not simply want to tap games as a substitute for the textbook; we want to harness the metagaming, the active discussion and speculation that take place around the game, to inform other learning activities. Researchers have documented not only the ways that conversations around recreational game play reshape the player's perceptions of violence and the social bonds being expressed through play (Wright, 2002), but also the informal learning communities that have grown up around game, such as Civilization 3 (Squire and Giovanetto, Forthcoming), enabling participants to learn world history even as they improve their game performance. Many of our games rely on the mechanics of meta-gaming to get students to articulate what they have learned from the play experience.

This is hardly a new idea: consider the Model United Nations as a well-established pedagogical practice in American social sciences. Essentially, the Model United Nations is a role-play activity where students are assigned to represent delegates from different countries and work through current policy debates. Students don't show up and start playing: the role-play motivates library and classroom activities leading up to the formal event. They don't just stop playing: a good teacher builds on the role play by having students report back on what they learned through presentations, classroom discussions, or written assignments. A hallmark of our serious games projects is that we factor the context and process of play into our game design, insisting that much of the learning takes place outside the box as the experience of gaming gets reflected upon by teachers and learners in the context of their everyday lives.

In this series of posts, we look back on some key milestones in our program's exploration of serious gaming. In each case, we will explore how our understanding of instructional activities rather than curricular content shaped our design choices. Each project represents a different model for how a pedagogical game might work in relation to current educational practices; each also reflects a shared vision that sees play as a key component of learning.

Revolution: A Historical Simulation of Colonial America

By Brett Camper and Matt Weise


Revolution was a total conversion mod of the popular PC game Neverwinter Nights modeled on Colonial Williamsburg. In this classroom-based multiplayer experience, each student would take on the role of a different resident on a single day in the spring of 1775. Students would adopt a variety of classes, races, genders, and political perspectives as they relived the debates surrounding the American Revolution.

The starting idea was broad: to create an online historical simulation for classroom use. We knew we wanted the game to be online, allowing students to learn together socially. And we knew we wanted to base the game on Colonial Williamsburg, which has a long tradition of historical learning through role-play. We felt such a game would be great opportunity to apply our values of learning as exploration and expression rather than rote memorization.

From the outset, Revolution was meant to be an educational game designed by people who were gamers first and educators second: if your game isn't fun, its educational goals don't matter. We wanted to leverage design principles that we knew worked, or at least could work, from successful commercial games. If we could create a game that looked and sounded on par with store-bought games, and that used familiar interface and game-play concepts, we could create an experience that escaped the negative image of "edutainment" while leveraging new media literacies for pedagogical ends.

Initially, one of our biggest challenges was to design for the time constraints of the typical classroom period. Public school teachers typically have an hour or less to get the students settled down, introduce the game, teach the students how to play, have the students play the game, get the students to stop playing, and have a coherent discussion afterward. So how might we design a complete and compelling game play experience under these constraints? We were intrigued by commercial games that use fixed time limits to shape player experience, compressing complex processes into finite units of game time. The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask, for example, is about helping people as they go about their daily lives in a single town over the course of a fixed time period. The time limit focuses the player on the social space of the game, since Link only has a short time to affect events that will happen with or without him. Inspired, we focused Revolution's time frame into a single day. This day in our virtual Williamsburg would equal 40 minutes of class time, and would represent a key turning point in the Revolution. We wanted players to log into the game and find themselves in a living, functioning simulation of colonial America. The simulation would function with or without player intervention. Players could explore the era's social and political norms by trying to shape events, or they could simply sit back and observe.

Students would learn about history just by mastering the rules of the game, because the rules were abstracted from historical research. We wanted to get away from the drill-and-test model of public education and to challenge the master narrative of history. Instead, we wanted to focus on the choices historical agents made and the conditions under which they made them.

Realities of Development

Our aspirations for Revolution were quite high. Not all of them could have been achieved even with a full-time development staff with years of experience. As with any game project, we had to cut many features and completely redesign others. As we realized we could only implement a fraction of our original design, we tried to preserve our core design goal - to create a genuinely emergent historical simulation.

Our first decision was to forego coding Revolution from scratch and make it as a mod of an existing game. Using an existing engine enabled rapid prototyping and design. Using an existing engine also improved production quality - graphics and sound would already be at a level students would associate with professional games. Since many game companies offer modification tools to consumers for sharing new content, we wanted to explore the advantages of modding for developing serious games.

After much consideration, we settled on the Neverwinter Nights toolset. Neverwinter Nights is an RPG series for the PC that was specifically designed by its makers, Bioware Corp., to support modding projects. There was already a very robust culture of player-made NWN mods, which we could tap for inspiration and experience. We wanted to create a socially dynamic world where students would interact with both player-controlled and non-player-controlled characters, and NWN was built for character conversation, a feature we felt was crucial to the social world we wanted to model.


Technology Wrangling

Game scholar Ian Bogost identifies what he calls "procedural rhetoric" - the notion that a game system's design imparts an ideology. We wanted students to learn how a colonial society worked by interacting with a system, a system designed to embody the ideas we intended. Yet we didn't want the conventions of the NWN toolset (shaped by the commercial role-playing game genre) to transform our historical content in undesired ways. It was not always easy to leverage NWN's existing design limitations in ways that helped, not hurt, our pedagogical goals.

Accurate historical dress, for example, was challenging. In Colonial Williamsburg, men would remove their hats when entering a house. However, in the NWN toolset, hat models are not separate from head models. We could not effectively remove a hat without removing the character's entire head. So we were stuck with characters that either wore hats or were perpetually hatless. We decided to have hats on at all times. This was not 100% historically accurate, but it was less inaccurate than the alternative.

We also had a great deal of difficulty managing violence in NWN. Leaving violence out of a revolutionary setting would not convey the proper historical content. On the other hand, we'd have a disaster if we let students fight whomever they wanted at any time. Our solution was to allow students to be violent, but to have consequences. If one character punches another, they will be briefly arrested and released. While the law in 1775 was not nearly this forgiving or swift, this solution at least kept the students in the simulation and engaged with the historical setting.

Given that there was so much of NWN we could not change, we wanted to at least ensure that the conversation system would enhance the fidelity of our historical simulation. Luckily, it turned out to work better than we ever imagined.

Modeling the Social Dynamics of 1775

Revolution's conversation system evolved from a critique of how knowledge transfer typically occurs within the RPG genre. In many RPGs, information passes between characters as if by magic with no focus on the mechanisms of human communications. One of our development team members described a situation in The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind in which he killed a man, who claimed with his dying breath that his son would avenge him. When the player walked immediately to the son's house, he was promptly attacked. We understood what the designers of Morrowind were getting at: actions have social consequences. But these consequences simply flipped on and off like a light switch. We wanted students to focus on how information flowed through a colonial society and what factors blocked information from passing between different social circles.

NWN's conversation system was well equipped to produce this desired effect. We started by making computer-controlled characters remember what they were told. Then, when they were within a specific range of another character, they would go over to them and share the knowledge they had previously received. A player could pass one piece of information to a non-player character and then watch the news spread virally across town. Once we realized that we could make such a "gossip" system work, we saw all sorts of new pedagogical possibilities. While we originally envisioned a game focused around trades and jobs, much like a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, we began to re-center Revolution around the social and informational mechanisms of the era. In effect, we made Revolution a game about the oral culture of late 18th-century America. Students would need to understand how this oral culture was shaped by the social, political, racial, and gender strata of the time in order to play Revolution effectively.

A player's reputation, for example, could be adversely impacted by gossip surrounding her beliefs or actions, increasing the stakes of political choices. Revolutionaries could pass word to their supporters without information falling into the hands of the Redcoats or their Loyalist supporters. Because information would not pass certain social barriers easily, players had to figure out how to inform everybody about a local rally. If the player's avatar had an upper-class status, the information would spread more easily among the upper class. Gender and race would have similar effects. In this way, different players could work together or against each other in trying to manipulate the flow of information.


Other affordances of NWN allowed us to build in opportunities for students to reflect back on their experiences. Russell Francis, a researcher from Oxford University, asked Revolution players to write diaries or construct machinima movies recounting the events from the perspective of their fictional characters. This process allowed them to share their very different experiences in the game with classmates and gave researchers insights into what they learned and how they learned through their role-play. Francis found that players often combined things they learned in the game with insights from their own lives or things they had read in other accounts of the period. For example, one student, who played the part of a house slave, described feelings of isolation or tension with field slaves as a result of her privileged access to the master. This sense of alienation emerged as much from what she brought to the game as from anything we had programmed into the simulation. Such accounts helped us to better appreciate the ways that the mechanics of role-play enabled students to consolidate what they had learned about the period and communicate it with others.

Matthew Weise is equal parts gamer and cinephile, having attended film school before segueing into game studies and then game development. Matt is a producer for GAMBIT and a full-time gamer, which means he not only plays games on a variety of systems but he also completes (most of) them. Matthew did his undergrad at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he studied film production before going rogue to design his own degree. He graduated in 2001 with a degree in Digital Arts, which included videogames (this was before Game Studies was a field). He continued his research at MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, where he worked on Revolution with The Education Arcade. After leaving MIT in 2004 Matt worked in mobile game development for a few years, occassionally doing some consultancy work, before returning to work at GAMBIT.

Brett Camper is an independent game developer and writer. He received a master's

degree from MIT's Comparative Media Studies program, where he was a designer and

technical lead on The Education Arcade's Colonial Williamsburg: Revolution

project. He subsequently acted as The Education Arcade's research manager, and

has also worked in digital media as a program manager at RealNetworks. He is

currently a senior product manager at eMusic, the leading digital subscription

service for independent music.

Why Grand Theft Auto Should Be Taught in Schools?: An Interview With David Hutchison (Part Two)

Yesterday, I ran the first part of an interview with David Hutchison, author of Playing to Learn: Video Games in the Classroom. In the first part, he discussed his ideas about the place of games in education and about the value of teaching young people to think critically about the games they play. Today, he takes up the question of the place of game design activities in school and addresses some of the criticisms about the pedagogical uses of existing game titles. This part of the discussion is timely since Katie Salens, a major advocate for teaching young people how to think like game designers, will be speaking as part of the CMS colloquium series this week. Watch this blog for information about the podcast of this event. Some of your exercises are designed to get students to tackle design problems and to begin to make their own games. This is very much along the lines of the kinds of design literacy which Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salens have been advocating. What do you see as the value of teaching students to think like designers?

I would say that several of the activities can be used as exercises that aim to get students to think like game designers, but it is the Afterword that highlights the important role that game design can play in schools, if only in a cursory way, given that game design is not the main focus of the book.

I like to think of students as moving from being consumers of media, to being critics of it, and then creators of it, so game design is the natural next step once a number of the investigative activities in the book have been completed.

The value comes from seeing students as something more than "students" in schools. What I mean here is that teachers should consider casting students in a variety of creative roles, such as "authors" and "scientists" as they study language arts and science for example. A sixth grade student who writes a story is an author and he or she should be honored as such, perhaps by having their story published, illustrated, bound, and placed in the school library for other students to borrow.

It is a similar process for video games. By seeing themselves as a team of game designers, a group of tenth grade students can work through the very same game development stages that professional designers go through: brainstorming a story idea, pitching that idea to others, writing a story, scenario, and dialog, collecting and designing assets, programming the gameplay, and testing and distributing the game.

The above process certainly sounds daunting and of course it takes a great deal of time and commitment to produce a video game, but the good news is that are now a number of terrific educational game engines that students and educators can choose to use. Several of them streamline the game development process, so that students can focus on creative learning activities, rather than the minutia of programming their game in a professional C+ game engine.

Many educators might agree that games can be powerful motivators of learning but they also may communicate a great deal of misinformation about the world, especially given the fact that most commercial games are built for entertainment rather than educational purposes. How would you respond to this critique?

Even misinformation provides teachers with an opportune teachable moment in my view, if only to correct that misinformation and investigate how it came to be.

Consider the example of Battlefield 2142, the multiplayer first-person shooter which is set in a post-apocalyptic world, in which the effects of global warming have reduced the habitable landmass on Earth to a fraction of what it is at present. The battle for control over what little habitable landmass remains is the basic premise that underlies the battles the player fights in the game.

Environmentalists and teachers may wish to take issue with the science that underlies the premise of this game, but the game itself provides teachers with a hook for getting students to consider the implications of dramatic climate change. Although there is now general agreement among scientists that climate change is occurring today and that humans are (at least in part) responsible for causing it, there are competing views among researchers as to the long-term effects of climate change on the planet - some of the changes may even be positive from a certain perspective.

What is represented in Battlefield 2142 may be an extreme view, but there are other dire predictions from climatology experts that teachers can reference as they talk about the issue of global warming with students.

Teachers can also reference the game as they discuss the ways in which the popular media represents scientific research more generally, as well as alarmist views of the future. A key question here may be the role that games, such as Battlefield 2142, potentially play in undermining serious research on climate change. My view is that the game highlights one of the most important social consequences of dramatic environmental change - the competition over increasingly scarce resources - which some environmental and military analysts - I think of Thomas Homer Dixon in particular - argue will lead to more wars in the coming years.

That's the premise of the game and it is represented, at least in a general way, in some of the futuristic military scenarios that see environmental change as a national security issue.

David Hutchison, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Education, Brock University (Ontario, Canada) where he teaches courses in educational foundations (history of education) and social studies.

David is the author of two books in the fields of environmental education and the philosophy of place. Growing Up Green: Education for Ecological Renewal was published in 1998. A Natural History of Place in Education was released in the spring of 2004.

For more information, check out his website at www.playingtolearn.org