Thoughts on Games
- The Meaning[lessness?] of Play October 23, 2012
I just got back from the Meaningful Play Conference at Michigan State University, which is all about games used for good – education, learning, medical uses, teaching empathy, or providing complex information in an interactive way. It was well worth attending, and I really appreciate MSU for putting it on. However, after the conference, I have found myself split into two personalities: excited Greg and skeptical Greg, on the following question:
Gregs, this conference is about almost exactly what made you passionate about games. Is it all you expected it to be?
excited Greg: Well, it's pretty awesome. There have been some amazing speakers, like Phaedra from IBM who described, pretty convincingly I think, the way that games and game-like systems are going to seriously change business development and other types of complex systems. The analogy that really connected was comparing how one manages a complex distribution system for goods (like getting supplies to Haiti) to how Ender used a game to control Earth's defense from the Hive (see Ender's game if you don't know). In fact, a large part of my own talk is about how we are good at making effective games to develop intuition about simple systems (addition, subtraction, grammer), but not as good in complex systems (business process, electrical systems, etc.). Well, Phaedra and IBM are working on it!
skeptical Greg: harumph... folks here are always talking about motivation as the thing that makes games so special, but that's just bullshit. Motivation doesn't come from games, doesn't come from badges (also touted here), and doesn't come from activities which are mapped from reality. Motivation comes from reality itself! Motivation to save the forests doesn't come from a Save the Rainforest game, it comes from having a personal experience in the forest and choosing to deeply care. And let's be honest at what a lot of this stuff is – it's not games, it's simulations. Phaedra's “games” are huge process simulations. The work at U of Madison W is also largely simulations. It's the simulation part which is allowing us to even approach the coolness of reality in the digital world, and our response is “ooohh, look how cool this simulation is”... but guess what guys, reality is just sitting out there waiting for us to enjoy it – so stop f-ing around and let people engage it directly!
excited Greg: Well hang on there – simulations are important to allow many people to experience something that right now only a very few get to experience (like being a great leader in Civilization, or managing some huge business process for food aid in Haiti, or doing surgery on a Cow (yeah, there was a game where you get to do surgery on a cow!)). That's important so we can build empathy about other people in other jobs and so we can track that data about our game experiences which we can use to improve the experience in real life.
skeptical Greg: You've identified an important point - increasing shared experiences and empathy - but games aren't the answer. Games are not a cure-all, and if we build them to be cure-alls then we're selling ourselves short. The RIGHT solution to transfer knowledge is to get skilled members of the community directly involved in the process of education, so instead of playing a game about being a doctor, you go spend a day with a doctor who shares her experience with you, or taking part in a project with a local ecologist working on cleaning up the lake. Games are one more way that communities are trying to outsource their responsibility for transferring knowledge, skills, and experiences to the next generation. And if motivation doesn't emerge from those personal connections and experiences, then that kid sure as heck isn't going to respond to the designed motivations in an educational game either. So let's put our money into building real civic engagement and genuine personal connections which will introduce learners to the amazing world we already have, not the inferior one we're spending billions into making up.
I'm not sure who's right, but certainly as I get older the skeptical Greg gets louder and louder in my brain. I think games have a really important role to play, but I would be disappointed in a world in which games are the primary mechanism through which we are motivated.
We are learning to treat our motivations as a science on a massive scale. One could imagine meaningful games turning into what food diets have turned into – humanities desire to pin the tail on a moving and complex target system where, in the end of the day, we do as much harm as good. Or perhaps we'll hit the nail on the head and make huge changes for the good... I dunno. In any case, it'll be interesting.
- Games in Education – an alternate perspective April 4, 2012
It's been a while since the last post. I've spent most of my time banging my head against an Arduino hoping that it would do what I wanted it to. Later, I realized that you had to “program” it in a “language”... as you can see, I'm new to electronics
But I've also been refining some ideas relating to games and education which I'd like to share. I do not claim that anything written below is new – it is simply my personal synthesis of experience and discussion on this topic.
What exactly is a game?
All games, from Doom, Monopoly, Risk, to Hopscotch and Four Square share two simple, common elements: objects (physical and theoretical) and rules (often but not always including rules relating to the game ending, ie the winning condition). We play games to have an experience that keeps us coming back – either by engaging our basest desires like a rat pressing a button for more stimulant, or our loftiest interests like genuine curiosity and creative pleasure.
Technically, we could define a game as a system causing repeated player experiences within some rule and object set.
Speaking more directly, let's call games a tool for generating experiences, usually with the goal of selling the most units (as most games are made with profit in mind).
What exactly is education? (loaded question? check!)
Wikipedia has Dewey's definition - "Education in its broadest, general sense is the means through which the aims and habits of a group of people lives on from one generation to the next." That definition is far too general when my intent is to discuss our US K-12 educational system specifically. So I'm going to create a definition which is more specific. Feel free to disagree, but I think that education, as it's currently structured, is a tool for explaining theories using paper and pencil testing to determine its success. Its lofty goal may be something like "to create happy, productive, well adjusted members of society", but on a day to day basis the above definition is probably more accurate. Simply put - theory is taught first (lectures, reading assignments from textbooks, etc.), while experience (problem sets, projects, homework) is used afterwards to reinforce the scaffolding of theory. This is how most education achieves the goal of "true comprehension" of a topic.
On the other hand, experience can be the sole prerequisite to application - knowledge of theory is not strictly necessary. Does a 6 year old understand the theory of gravity? Of course not, yet she still manages to catch a ball thrown to her. Furthermore, experience alone can identify novel pathways of understanding and application. For example, Jimi Hendrix's guitar playing was heavily influenced by the fact that his father forced him to play a right handed guitar, though he played it with his left hand. Through insane amounts of practice doing someone “wrong”, he developed a unique and innovative style and technique. Finally, experience alone builds intuition (aka the outcomes of our brain's statistical models), which is the basis for the development of theories... so experience can (and necessarily does) build theory!
The only downfall of experience is it takes time... lots of it! That's one area theory comes in so handy – we can bypass repeating experiences by applying theory, which allows us to engage in more complicated, more advanced, or more interested experiences further up the chain of thought.
If our purpose is to teach skills which can later be applied, then it is clear that experience needs to not only play a role, but play a primary role. We should not teach theories without experience – we should foster experiences which will manifest theories.
That's where games come in. They are literally built to generate repeated experiences! If we put our mind to it, we can probably build them to generate the types of experiences which will manifest useful theories in the players without ever having the state the theory out loud.
An example – the electricity game
Let's imagine the following simple game. Each player is supplying power to houses in a city, and let's say that each house lights an LED. Players must invest in power plants (2V, 3V, 6V, and 9V batteries) to generate the power. As they build more houses (ie more LEDs) on the same circuit, the LEDs get dimmer and dimmer. In order to supply full power to each house, they are then forced to upgrade their power plants (ie use bigger batteries). In a simple way, they are learning relationships relating to electricity – more LEDs requires more batteries.
But this is only a very general understanding - only slightly more complex than kids learning that turning the light switch on causes the room to light up. Now let's imagine we continuously displayed the voltage and current (in amps) outputted by the battery. Ah ha, now we have a new piece of data for our players to correlate to LED brightness. They will quickly learn how the system current changes as LEDs are added to the system. That's actually a pretty complicated relationship!
Now let's take the next step. Imagine that the power lines connecting the LEDs provide some resistance in the circuit (as they do in real life). Not only does connecting LEDs influence the system current, but the number of connecting power lines and their length does as well.
Ok, now let's imagine instead of using batteries, which supply a fixed voltage, we use solar panels which have a more complex power profile. Do you know what happens when you add an LED and a resistor in series with a solar panel? After playing the game 10 times, the players will!
One could argue that through experience players are not learning anything – they are just accumulating experiences and making simple correlations. They “don't really get it”. I have a fundamental disagreement with this perspective. An experienced-based perspective is different, but not worse, than a theory-based perspective and can even sometimes result in more accurate predictions than a theory-based perspective alone (most people have experienced this in their own lives, I'll leave you to think of an example).
The real kicker – motivation
Ok, so we can use games to repeat experiences and develop intuition about useful stuff. That's great, but only if you can convince someone to repeat the experience – ie to keep playing the game. Because games are inherently open ended and broad (just a bunch of objects and rules), the motivation to play can vary from pure competitive spirit, to cooperative / collaborative enjoyment, to social interaction and even creating artistic beauty in the game result. While not easy, creating a good game which people want to play again and again is almost always possible because so many motivational sources can be used. As compared to working on repetitive problem sets, a good game has motivation embedded in the learning itself.
In addition, the desire to win a game motivates players not only to learn from in-game experience, but to seek additional information to achieve better results. So a player in our power plant / house game example who learns Ohm's Law will be able to more accurately predict the game outcome than someone who has not learned Ohm's Law. So not only have we built experiences, we've incentivized the seeking of theory.
A call to action
I have seen and played many examples of existing educational games. We are not even close to achieving the maximum benefit to education. Here's what we should be striving for:
- The concept that games are fundamentally “tricking” students into learning needs to disappear. The concept that games are not preparing kids for the “real world” needs to disappear, or at least we should recognize that problem sets and traditional assignments are no more preparing kids for the “real world” than games are! Games are one of the best tools in our toolkit for incentivizing repeated experience building. The fact that they are fun proves they are repeatable, not that they aren't working.
- Educational games should be integrated with curricula, so that when students are ready to “seek theory” to improve their game results or engage their curiosity sparked by a game, the knowledge and resources to do so are already provided. This exists today, but could be vastly expanded in scope and application.
- Games should integrate multiple subjects to provide a unique and unified experience. Information in life does not come neatly packaged into “History”, “Language”, and “Math”. Those are boxes we create for the purposes of theory building. Instead, we should let students identify the presence of those boxes through repeated play of integrated games which involve aspects of all of those subjects. Perhaps they will not identify those boxes at all, and instead come up with entirely new and useful ways of classifying information!
- The creation and sharing of games should not occur behind closed doors or in a vacuum. Game players should be game makers and be able to access the tools for innovating new and unique games.
- Games should not just be used for kids – the idea of “life-long learning” should include games as regular, if not primary or sole, component.
- 8 hours of game playing should teach students as much or more than 8 hours of traditional education.
Next steps at Austic Labs
Board Game Camp (way way cooler name to follow) – we're going to create a day camp for kids (ages 10 – 17-ish) to Design, Build, and Market a board game. This is a project based, entrepreneurial learning exercise using real world skills to accomplish a real world goal. Finished games will compete in the Chicago Young Inventor's challenge and get reviewed by local game industry professionals. We have the tools and space at Maker Works to accomplish this goal. A press release will soon follow, so stay tuned!
Educational games with integrated curriculum components - Using the current games we're working on, I'd like to integrate further learning components into the art/illustration, narrative, and game mechanics components. This will include learning math, english, and art concepts as a holistic part of the game experience. Each game will include these curriculum components (and a teacher's guide) as part of the finished product. The goal is to create a better way to learn, and a better way to teach. This is a longer term goal (within the next year), but I'm very excited about it!
Update from existing games
We're still cranking on The City, and we're also working on a Traffic game which I'm quite excited about. Here's Rachel's newest pictures from The City which I absolutely love. Right now this character is called Dagney Taggert but that will probably change in the final version. Ooops, Yvonne just pointed out that her name should be spelled Dagny, not Dagney - it'll get fixed in the next revision!
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