Reading Mass Effect

So I just finished playing Mass Effect (5 years to late, some would say), and as my #140game review above goes to show, I really appreciated the experience – much to my own surprise. While the game has its flaws, it offers such a compelling universe with enormous scope, rich cast of interesting characters, exciting storylines and meticolously detailed backstory, that I was entirely engrossed (almost) from start to finish.

As with any game I play, ME had me thinking about the connection between games, game design and learning. Obviously, ME is not a learning game in any traditional sense, but this doesn’t prevent me from eagerly learning a great deal while playing.

Allow me to take a little detour.

A few days ago, I attended an “innovation camp”, where groups of students from Denmark, Sweden and Germany were tasked with developing game concepts along with business & marketing plans etc. I gave a talk, in which I tried to provide inspiration and broaden the scope, so these students would have a slightly better foundation for creating innovative concepts, also outside the realm of “entertainment games” (you can see my presentation here). Alongside a bunch of general considerations and various examples on how learning is core to playing games, I also talked a little about my own experiences playing Mass Effect. I talked about how I was driving around strange planets looking for valuable minerals and how I was talking to even the most peripheral characters. When seen from the outside, most of what you do in a game like Mass Effect seems trivial, boring, silly, a waste of time. While absorbed in the game, however, it’s a completely different story and learning even the weirdest things make perfect sense.

In continuation of these ponderings, I received this very interesting reply to the above tweet:

What Justin Eames is touching upon here, obviously, is the question if games like Mass Effect and other games with large amounts of text foster better reading skills?

My immediate reply:

Of course, there’s a huge difference between correlation and causation. I don’t know for sure whether or not there’s any link whatsoever between the abundance of text in RPGs and players of those games being good readers (I don’t even know if they are). If indeed there’s a link, it might be for all sorts of reasons, e.g., as suggested, that games with much text cater to strong readers. In continuation, games are no magic cure to easily ensuring highly developed reading skills.

Despite those usual disclaimers, I find that my concrete experience playing Mass Effect do tell me several things about learning, not least in relation to reading. What a game like ME does, is that it creates a context, in which the actions you perform in the game makes sense to you as a player (I’ve written several times about the importance of context). Mass Effect encourages players to read as a part of progressing through the game, and, at least to an extent, reading is a natural component of playing. I mean, you don’t have to read through the very elaborate codex, but I felt it made a valuable contribution to my play experience. Spending 20+ hours playing (and that’s just the first game of three), I would like to know a little more about the backstory.

The Mass Effect Codex

You don’t play to read, but you read to play, and to further enrichen the experience of playing.

This is interesting at two levels:

Using actual games in education to support learning in relation to the game (as with reading in Mass Effect), and/or using games as inspiration for designing the context around learning in education. Learning in education should to a much larger extent be embedded in a context, in which the actions of the learners are experienced as relevant and meaningful.

Any concrete experiences with this? Harnessing the context of a game to support improving reading? Or any other skills and/or competences? Or designing education along the lines of games?

GAMEiT Handbook

The GAMEiT EU-project is nearly over, we’ve had a conference and the GAMEiT handbook has been available in a limited print edition for about a month, and now it’s also online as well. I’ve written several chapters, and as always, I’d be happy to hear your comments, critique, questions.

Read or download below:

Download handbook!

GAMEiT Conference – post mortem

I’ve been working quite a bit lately, not least because of the GAMEiT Project, which is now coming to an end. Last Thursday we hosted the GAMEiT Conference in Copenhagen, and I wish to thank everybody, who contributed to it being exactly as I had hoped: The speakers, who did a very impressive job illustrating the fascinating diversity of games in education. The participants, who seemed passionate about the field, and eager to get things moving. Our partners in the project, who have been an important source of inspiration, sparring & exploration. A huge thank also goes out to Anders Høeg Nissen, our moderator, who kept his cool despite us being late, an emergency evacuation, periodically lack of coffee, several program changes & the usual chaos.

All in all, I’m left with a very good feeling, but there’s no laurels to rest on, really. We need to keep moving, and hopefully the conference helped us rally more people to our common project – the distribution of knowledge on games & learning. I urge you all to consider this:

What do we do from here?

Let me do a very short recap on the day. First off, it’s worth mentioning, that we experienced several changes to the program, which ended up looking like this:

GAMEiT Program

 Tim Rylands really kicked things off with his (always) spectacular performance . Tim has a very engaging way of doing talks like this one, and he showed us how games can be used to work with storytelling, language, building relationships and an wide array of related topics. What I also like about Tim’s work, is that he makes it very clear, that working with games in education doesn’t mean, that you’re only working with games. You can see all the amazing stuff presented by Tim collected right here and you can also read Tim’s take on the conference over at his very nice blog.

After Tim came Oscar García Pañella straight from Barcelona. Providing us with a quite different – yet very related perspective. Oscar is a multimedia engineer, and his students are building – among other digital products – serious games for very real world clients. Oscar had been wondering, why some of their courses with seemingly interesting content didn’t become very good experiences, and he boiled it down to one thing: the method of delivery, the design of the learning context. They changed it completely, and ended up with the much more authentic real-world scenarios. This resonated very much with me, as I’m constantly talking about the context, and trying to think along the lines of authentic contexts when designing student projects. Oscar also talked about game design principles, how they’re (also) important for serious games, and how we often see education differ from the great learning experiences in games.

Oscar also tweeted one of the central questions of the day:

We had a very delicious lunch, after which I had tasked myself with an impossible mission; to describe the amazing work being done by teachers at GameIt College in only 30 minutes. Despite (or because of?) my rapid-fire, machinegun-like talk, I don’t feel I conveyed anything but a basic idea; have the courage to risk failing. See for yourself, as you can access my presentation right here:

Peter KjaerWith me talking about what can be learned while working with games, it was only appropriate to hear from actual game students. I had promised students from GameIT College, yet this (also) changed during the process of planning. Instead, I had invited Peter & Line from “Spildatamatikeruddannelsen” in Grenå. They have been developing serious games for two different “customers”, and they provided us with some very deep & impressive reflections on important principles of learning games and the learning springing from developing games.

Next up was André Chercka, a Danish teacher, who’s been working with games like Battlefield & Minecraft in his math classes, and he provided us with some very interesting experiences from his own practice. In Battlefield, he made students do measurements and calculations related to speed, scale and land mass. In Minecraft, his students were building stuff, calculating the size of surfaces etc. Be sure to follow André, as he’s currently trying out new approaches.

To finish the day, I had challenged Danish game journalist Thomas Vigild with the task of explaining “how games are culture”. Despite his initial statement, that “this was almost too hard”, he did a mighty fine job. One of his central ideas was the notion of “conversational gameplay”, stating that we talk with the games we play. According to Thomas, games should follow these rules for “good conversations”:

Thomas Vigild's rules for good conversations

Anders Høeg Niessen facilitated a concluding Q/A session, where collected some of the different strands. One interesting issue, which surfaced at the end, was the lack of formalised “meetings” between game developers and educators. How could we create a better platform for interaction between those making and those using games for learning purposes? I’ll make sure to follow this issue, as it’s one of my special interest topics.

We had a twitter-backchannel running throughout the day, and I’m working on archiving all the tweets. For now, just look at #gameitconf.

I took some (pretty bad) pictures with my phone, which are available here:

Oh, and Thursday was also the day, when we presented the GAMEiT Handbook, which consist of a number of chapters on game based learning, written by the partners in the project.:

GAMEiT Partners

A particularly deep-felt thank goes out to Ebba Køber from NADE, as she did all the hard work turning our trivial Word-files into a very nice book – which actually looks & feels like a book:

GAMEiT Handbook

GAMEiT Handbook - table of contents

It is currently only available in the print version, but we’ll soon supply an online version – for free, of course. We’re simply happy to share our experiences from the project; no strings attached. If you’re really impatient, take a  look at my introductory chapter & the one on “learning by producing“.

Learning by producing

As we’re now quite close to our first deadline for the handbook in the GAMEiT-project, I’ll publish yet another draft.

Whereas the first draft chapter I published here was intended to provide an overview of the field of game based learning, this one is more specific.

Based on much of the writing on game literacy and the perspective of developing video games, I attempt to illustrate how the entire process of developing games in education is indeed a valuable entrepreneurial process involving a slew of skills and competences.

But hey, some people (who know me) would say, you’re no game developer?!

I fully acknowledge this, and I don’t intend to become one, really. I am very happy with my current position, navigating between and talking to researchers, game developers, consultants, educational practitioners – and people like myself, who are not easily categorizable.

What I do intend is therefore to “connect the dots”, creating an overview, showing how education can learn from what takes place outside the walls, and how developing games resonates with a wide array of skills and competences highly valued by contemporary society – also outside the game business.

Whereas I thus often position myself at a distance, trying to maintain an overview, my fabulous colleague and game master at GameIT College, Anders Vang Pedersen, is actually a game designer, and thus far better at the actual development. Much of what I describe has been carried out by Anders and merely observed by me.

Well, as always, any comments are welcome, and not least if you’re a game developer. Do I get anything completely wrong? Or do I miss important details? If you want to have a say in the handbook, I would love quotes from developers – either in the comments, via Twitter or just contact me.

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Conference on game based learning

As I announced on Twitter earlier today, I’m currently working on a conference to conclude the GAMEiT-Project in a way, which mirrors the overarching purpose of the project – to explore the field of game based based learning (in practice) and to share all relevant knowledge found along the way.
The conference is being held in conference facilities at Park Inn Copenhagen Airport Hotel the 13th October 2011. The hotel is very easily accessible no matter where you’re coming from.

So far, so good (literally and figuratively).

Project GAMEiT

Being the one responsible for planning, coordinating and executing the conference (with help, of course), I’m thus likely to leave my usual mark of openness and transparency on both the process of planning and the conference itself. I’ll attempt to include external partners, announce everything on Twitter (with #gameitconf), and invite inspirational people to introduce projects.

We’ll have a number of keynote speakers (to be announced soon), who will represent some of the most interesting developments in the use of games in education.

Another important component is an open “call for posters”. Again, in accordance with the ambitions of the project, the purpose is to support a more inclusive approach to knowledge-sharing. We want to create at the conference a platform for (primarily) practitioners to tell about the amazing game-related project, they have just carried out. Let me know, if you have done something interesting with games in education, and would like to share it with all of us at the conference (ca. 10-15 minutes).

In conclusion, we’ll introduce the most important findings from our own project; either as a concluding panel or a serie of short talks. In the project, we develop a handbook, which will be available in print for the participants, of course.

Overall schedule will look something like this:

9.00-9.30 Arrival, registration & coffee
9.30-9.40 Welcome – by GAMEit
9.40-10.40 Keynote 1
10.45-11.30 Keynote 2
11.30-12.30 LUNCH (+ perhaps a minor exhibition by developers etc.)
12.30-13.00 Mathias Poulsen with students
13.00-13.50 External contributors (along the lines of Teachmeet and similar initiatives)
13.50-14.30 Keynote 3
14.30-15.00: Panel/Q&A

Pricing is not completely in place, yet count on something around 1000,- DKK (130 €) everything included.

Follow the progress and announcements here, on Twitter, contact me for more information (which will be available soon), if you want to suggest yourself or others as speakers, or if you have any kind of questions.

Oh, and the conference will be in English.

We are looking very much forward to welcoming you!

Intro to game based learning

I’ve been happy participating in the EU-funded “Project GAMEiT” for quite some time, and now we’re in the final phase.

As one of our goals is producing an introductory handbook to the field of game based learning, I’m currently in the process of writing several chapters for this handbook.
One of my most challenging tasks is always identifying that which is not common knowledge in order to avoid becoming too esoteric when talking about games and learning. We all run this risk when diving deep into one or another field, and I keep reminding myself not to stay in the depths, but rather to frequently resurface. I’m obsessed with the idea of sharing knowledge, and I really wish to contribute to both broader and deeper insights regarding games – in general as well as in educational settings. My sharing only really makes sense, however, if I actually manage to step back and “borrow” the perspectives of others.

Project GAMEiT

I’m trying hard, but I’ll probably never be flawless in this aspect (or in any other, for that matter).

In addition to sharing, I have this ideal of being transparent in my work (and as a person as well). I hate hidden agendas, manipulation, secrets. I’m naive that way, but I’ll strive to stay like this.

Anyway, the sum of my rambling is that I like to expose my work and my thoughts and put them to the test before they’re finished (when is a thought ever finished – no, seriously? It’s all just one big process to me).

First chapterHere’s the first of my chapters for the handbook as a very rough draft with room for improvement. I’m also working on a more concrete one regarding game literacy and game development in education, which I’ll present soon.

Read if you like, and please comment – also (not least!) if you disagree, miss something, have questions or simply hate it:

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New to games & learning?

I keep writing about how I perceive and work with games in education.

If you are new to the field, however, there are far better ways to get up to speed.

Why not listen to the worlds’ finest experts across research and practice?

Sit back & watch!I always try to do that, and now I’ve attempted to aggregate some of the best videos from around the web & world, where truly inspiring and passionate people are introducing their perspectives on games & learning.

Each video is accompanied by a few of the most relevant links as well as a brief introduction, yet I don’t want to take too much focus away from the actual videos; they’re what matters in this post.

Sit back, watch ’em all in a row, or come back later.

There’s food for thought to keep you going for several days, I suppose.


James Paul Gee

If there’s one person who really must be considered absolutely central to the field of games and learning, it’s James Paul Gee. In “What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy“, Gee elaborately examines the principles of games, effectively showing why he perceives “games as learning machines“.

Quite recently another prominent figure, Henry Jenkins, did an interview in 1234 parts, which covers many of Gee’s important ideas.

David Williamson Shaffer

By writing “How video games help children learn” and leading the Epistemic Games Group, David Williamson Shaffer also positioned himself right in the middle of the field. His main interest seems to lie in creating video games as “powerful contexts for learning“.

Here’s David in an enlightening conversation with Gee:

Katie Salen

Most of the people I mention here can’t really be confined to one single category or discipline. This very obviously holds true when talking about Katie Salen. She’s a game designer and theorist, co-author of the widely acknowledged game study tome, “Rules of Play“.

She’s also Executive Director at Institute of Play, where they want to “acti­vate a next gen­er­a­tion of engaged cit­i­zens” by “lever­ag­ing the power of games”. Institute of Play is a driving force behind the marvelous, highly innovative and extremely inspiring game-based school “Quest to Learn“.

Kurt Squire

Back when I wrote my own thesis, I read a lot of Kurt Squire‘s work on Civilization and game based learning in general. I’m also looking forward to reading his upcoming book, “Video Games and Learning: Teaching and Participatory Culture in the Digital Age“.

Constance Steinkuehler

Constance Steinkuehler is studying “massively multiplayer online games (MMOs or virtual worlds) from a learning sciences & new literacy studies perspective”. She’s got some very fascinating perspectives on how people interact, learn and solve problems in e.g. World of Warcraft. Take a look a some of her current studies; lots of interesting articles to read.

Michelle A. Hoyle

As Steinkuehler, Michelle is also doing a lot of research in and on interaction and learning in World of Warcraft, particularly in relation to “social knowledge construction, persistence, and constructing communities of practice”. Michelle is one of a growing number of terrific people, whom I’ve only met because of Twitter, where we’re frequently having inspiring and valuable discussions. The presentation to go with the video is here & here in a commented version.

Tim Rylands

As I watched Tim enter the conference room on a Segway in Copenhagen last autumn, I knew I was in for a treat. Tim is a spectacular speaker, delivering a slew of ideas and readily available tools for learning, yet what really sets him apart is the incredible passion with which he presents all of this. As his blog title indicates, it’s about using “ICT to inspire”, which he also does on Twitter.

Derek Robertson

Learning and Teaching Scotland is doing some really impressive work with games and game based learning, which is often explored at the Consolarium-blog as well. Derek Robertson is a key figure in this, and he’s been doing several exciting projects with games, e.g. “Using Dr Kawashima’s brain training in primary classrooms“. Oh, and he’s on Twitter, of course.

Jane McGonigal

Jane McGonigal is not preoccupied with learning per se, yet she does want to save the world, and such a tremendous undertaking can hardly be achieved without including learning. I thus sincerely recommend taking a look at her work, including the recently released book Reality is broken, and following her on Twitter.

Extra Credits

To end on a somewhat lighter note, take a look the very entertaining and enlightening “Extra Credits” series. This episode is devoted to “tangential learning“, trying to illuminate how playing games can make us more interested in learning more about certain topics.

What is “game based learning”?

Questioning Game Based Learning - what is it?

Easter is coming up, and I feel like shutting down the thinking. At the same time, though, I feel like defining stuff (two contradictory feelings, it would seem).

I am always considering and exploring game based learning, and an inherent part of this process is wrestling with a feasible definition. It is very difficult to study and/or practice any given subject, if is not possible to define and demarcate the subject concerned. Therefore, we must seek an answer to the question:

What is game based learning?

This is not a question easily answered, and proposing a definition is certainly a daunting and difficult task.

At the moment, talking about game based learning might prove hard, as no common frame of reference exists. Many people look to Wikipedia for answers, and so do I. Here game based learning is defined as:

Game based learning (GBL) is a branch of serious games that deals with applications that have defined learning outcomes. Generally they are designed in order to balance the subject matter with the gameplay and the ability of the player to retain and apply said subject matter to the real world.

If we accept the above, game based learning is nothing more than a genre of serious games, i.e. games developed specifically for learning purposes.

This does not describe my perception of game based learning at all.

To me, game based learning is about much more than the game, which is “just” a tool to support learning.

This is not to say that games easily could be swapped with any other available tool. Games do definitely have special affordances, which make them particularly well suited for facilitating learning. In its essence, playing is learning, which Jesper Juul also states in Half-Real:

Playing a game is an activity of improving skills in order to overcome these challenges, and playing a game is therefore fundamentally a learning experience.

Perhaps this is game based learning?

To me, this is the basic premise of game based learning. Games offer a situated practice, where we as players must acquire the skills, knowledge and competencies needed to beat the game, thus echoing John Dewey’s mantra, learning by doing. Such mechanics promote a feeling of experienced relevance, where we learn what is necessary when it is necessary. This is often contrasted by the formal learning in school, where the curriculum content is considered irrelevant by many students, because the purpose is not necessarily clear, and because it is not used in a situated practice.

When playing World of Warcraft, it is often considered important to be able to speak English – if you don’t, you learn it to play the game. When playing Civilization, it is important to understand the logic of history, the history of technologies etc. In Sim City, you must learn some of the inner workings of a town, and in Global Conflicts: Palestine, you must think like a journalist and acquire seemingly contradictory perspetives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In addition, I do not consider game based learning to be restricted to the use of serious games or other games developed specifically with learning in mind. Any game or genre could be used, it is only a matter of the didactical goals.

Games provide contexts for learning; so far, so good.

Next, it is absolutely imperative that we always remember, that games cannot provide us with a miracle; they are no “silver bullet”, as researcher Kurt Squire stated in “Changing the Game: What Happens When Video Games Enter the Classroom?” several years ago.

Ben Williamson at Games in Schools-conference

By themselves they are of no or very little value in any educational situation; it is only by designing the learning context around the games, that we can hope to harness the potentials of games.

This point has been advanced with growing impact recently, and any overly optimistic hopes have probably been curbed by now. Futurelab is doing interesting work, and has contributed to game based learning with several publications. In “Computer games, schools, and young people“, Ben Williamson suggests, that games should be perceived as teaching tools:

Viewing games as ‘teaching tools’ is a useful distinction because it highlights the key role that teachers play in defining the purposes for their classroom use, in planning activities, and in providing curricular context.

I agree with Williamson, as “defining the purpose”, “planning activities” and not least “providing curricular context” are enormously important components in order to successfully practice game based learning. It cannot be overestimated!

In the light of these deliberations, I arrive at a dynamic working definition (which is very much subject to change, and please do comment or criticize):

Game based learning describes an approach to teaching, where students explore relevant aspect of games in a learning context designed by teachers. Teachers and students collaborate in order to add depth and perspective to the experience of playing the game.

Exploring Game Based Learning

“We aim to identify, collect, test and distribute good practice in game based learning.

Our project will result in a framework of game based learning pedagogy.”

The Project GAMEiT Logo

The above is the proclaimed mission statement of the currently ongoing Project GAMEiT, in which I am lucky enough to actively take part.

In many ways, this project is right up my alley.

The obvious one: it is all about games, and further exploring how they can be creatively applied to support learning. I often argue that we know enough to start using games in education, yet we always need more knowledge. I hope and believe that our project will mark another step forward in this direction.

Even more important is the central focus on distributing this knowledge, making it easily available to teachers wanting to begin using game based learning. We are developing courses to teachers, which we supplement with a comprehensive handbook describing the most important aspects of GBL, case studies, inspiration to new approaches etc.

Both the harvesting and distribution of knowledge were among my primary focal points, when I begun this quite adventurous and eventful journey of mine. With this in mind, GAMEiT brilliantly encapsulates my initial intentions, and the ground I have covered this far. (If only the time to come is going to be half as exciting, I would be perfectly happy!).

GAMEiT Partner Countries

I am particularly fond of this project due to the fact, that it is a project supported by the European Commision and their “Leonardo da Vinc” programme“. The technicalities of this are certainly less interesting than the fact, that I get to work together with very skilled and passionate people from different European countries.

Being the curious kid on the block, I really appreciate every opportunity I get to meet new people, exchange thoughts and ideas, and contribute to the progression of a common project.

It is always a great pleasure and source of inspiration to participate in a project like this, acquiring fresh perspectives, learning about practice outside  DK, and being confirmed in the value of my priorities until now.

Partner meeting in Project GAMEiT

At the moment, we are carrying out fieldstudies, describing chapters for the handbook and meeting online every month. Great things are in the making, and updates will be posted here and over at the official site.

Below is the text “GAMEiT in a nutshell”, in which we aim to introduce the project to anyone interested. Please, read it if you like, and feel (very) free to comment below, or contact me for further information.

Click to show the text in fullscreen.

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