Increasing access to games?

Constantly trying to decipher the many, many reasons for not working with games in education, one “popular” argument has, unsurprisingly, to do with economy.

If schools must buy licenses for e.g. an entire class to play a game, that is frequently the one single reason why they won’t go down that road. Games are often considered “the risky bet”, and it seems safer to buy books (analog or digital).

Yes, many interesting games are free or cheap, and often a demo of a game will be sufficient to explore aspects of that particular game.

Even so, full games are to be preferred in most cases, and in addition to the price, the issues of finding these games or demos and the technical barriers of “making them work” is like an insurmountable wall:

The Wall

The Wall

A few initiatives are currently mitigating this barrier, as MinecraftEdu makes Minecraft more accessible and cheaper, Portal 2 is free through “Steam for Schools”, Sim City Edu seems to moving in this direction etc.

Despite these important efforts, the field is fragmented and the examples scarce.

What can be done?

I am not specifically talking about learning games, but all games relevant to education (which all good games can be, in one way or another).

Would it be possible to create a platform, that simultaneously makes relevant games more easily accesible logistically, while also being cheaper or even free?

How would such a platform be designed? Developed? Maintained?

Who would use it? Who would support it?

Why would developers participate in this?

I don’t know the answers, but what I am currently thinking is this:

Lower economical barriers

For games to be used in education, they must be cheap or free.

Can we launch an initiative, that supply relevant and interesting games without the sometimes very high costs accompanying those games?

Lower technical barriers

Alongside economy, technical barriers are obstructing the adoption of games in education.

Some games are too demanding in terms of computer specs, other games only available for platforms schools don’t have access to, or games are difficult (or assumed to be difficult) to get up and running.

It should be easy and straightforward, not getting in the way of playing and exploring the game.

Ideally available for all platforms without installation in some fancy cloud’ish manner.

Curation

While the techical issues may be prominent, so is the actual process of finding relevant games.

Any such platform should therefore be about more than simply making games available.

It should make relevant games available, and thus also offer a curation process. Right off the top of my head, I would love to see games like Spec Ops: The Line (yeah, I just finished that one) and Walking Dead (great for an exploration of ethical & moral issues) be part of something like this.

This would also mean, that individual agreements would have to be negotiated with each developer (and/or publisher etc.).

Business models:


bag_dollars (Medium)

For this to be interesting, developers need to consider participating to be meaningful. Value can be created in different ways:

  • CSR – what companies do to be respected and appreciated in society. Would game developers see the value in becoming a benefactor in education? This is not in itself a possible revenue stream, but might indirectly lead to that.
  • Increased regular sales – in continuation of the above, having access to these games in education, and seeing the effort of the developer might create sympathy and interest with students and teachers, who would, in turn, buy more of these games outside school.
  • Subscription – it could be possible to build a service, that schools etc. would subscribe to.
  • Extra value packs – like DLC & IAP, it might be an idea to sell material, that makes the exploration and use of the game richer in some way. As an example, many teachers would need a guide of some sorts.
  • Donations – as has been shown by the Humble Bundle (by the way, go buy the current Indie Bundle) and others, many people are happy to donate (/pay more than required). It is plausible, of course, that these dynamics are completely different in education.
  • External sponsors – there is an increasing interest in the possibility of private companies sponsoring education, and that might be leveraged here.
  • Other suggestions?

I would love to see this be developed as a non-profit initiative, but obviously funding is important if this should ever become reality.

I assume (and might be wrong) that this would not impact sales/profits in a negative way.

Some kind of verification process would be required to ensure (or increase the plausibility) that you are actually a teacher (e.g. Steam for Schools requires an email from a educational institution, and you need to be verified).

What do you think? Would anything in this direction even be a worthwhile effort? Is it a good idea? Is it feasible? Do you have anything else to add?

Writing about video games

I want to write about video gamesI have long felt a growing urge to write more about video games.

“But you already do”, even the most occasional reader of this blog would probably argue.

They would be right.

I do write about games, and as often as possible.

What I have come to think about, however, is, that most of my writing about games is carried out in a somewhat detached manner. I am not so much writing about the specifics of games as I’m writing about games in broader contexts, their potentials for learning, their cultural values and so on.

This is all important stuff, and I am very much a contextually minded person.

Even so, I would never neglect or downplay the importance of identifying, analyzing and understanding the specific parts and characteristics of games.

On the contrary, I relentlessly maintain that understanding games is pivotal regardless of our motivation to approach games in the first place, and that we must thus bridge the gap between the learning-centered “game based learning” and the game-centered “game studies”. It is, after all, the affordances of games that make them games and thereby sets them apart from all other media. My preoccupation with larger contexts has always existed in a dialectic interplay with more specific investigations, yet I haven’t been sufficiently explicit about this.

As an immediate consequence of these deliberations, I’ll start writing more about specific games and/or selected components of games. I guess that what I’m aiming for is some sort of video game criticism. You won’t see me reviewing games, though I may share my feelings about a game. You will, on the other hand, see me writing about anything from narrative, characters and dialogue to game mechanics, interfaces and social dimensions.

There’s a noob in the room

I have written quite a lot by now, yet as a video game critic I am but a novice, an untrained rookie. I will take the plunge, risk complete failure, and hopefully my inexperience will gradually change in the days, weeks, months and years to come. As with anything I do, I consider the process just as important as the end state, and I think of this as yet another learning process closely intertwined with my other activities.

This overlap is important, and I clearly don’t see this as going in an entirely new direction. If you are particularly interested in “games in education”, please don’t see my new efforts as being irrelevant to you. As already stated above, understanding games is central to implementing games in education. This is true no matter how we go about doing that, yet completely inevitable when we intend to strengthen students’ video game literacy. If this connection is not entirely clear, I recommend reading a recent post by the ever-thoughtful “Brainy Gamer”, Michael Abbot. I’ll make no attempt at hiding, that guys like Abbot are outstanding sources of inspiration, always reminding me that the best game critics are already making invaluable contributions to the general understanding of games, and this should not be forgotten in educational perspectives.

As a teaser, here’s the game I’ll write my first post about:

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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Who’s playing games?

Most of us know the common stereotype depicting a gamer as a somewhat obese teenage boy never leaving his room due to a fundamental lack of social skills.

Well, gamers are not what they used to be (whether they actually used to be as described above is uncertain).

During recent years, several quite interesting developments have thoroughly shattered any traditional knowledge of the demography of gamers. Today, many people are playing games, even though those same people just a few years back would probably have dismissed the activity of playing all together.

Let’s have a quick look at who is actually playing today.

One often cited source of knowledge about the composition of the gaming audience is presented by the Entertainment Software Association. The data can be found in the annually published reports “ESSENTIAL FACTS ABOUT THE COMPUTER AND VIDEO GAME INDUSTRY” or in the video below:

Even though this might be surprising to some bystanders, another survey recently showed even more radical challenges to the good old stereotype. Initiated by PopCap Games (developer of the magnificent Plants vs. Zombies), the survey focused on the rather young, yet explosively growing genre of so-called “social games”.

If you  haven’t seen much of neither games nor Facebook lately, you might wonder what defines a social game? (you might also wonder how you managed to avoid all the fuzz, but that’s another matter). I’m fond of stealing, so why not borrow a definition from Gamasutra, where social games are described as “essentially games created to be playable within existing major social networking websites”. In most cases, this means games playable on Facebook (at the moment, that is). Right now, Farmville is by far the most played game with more than 80 million monthly active users (see Appdata). Who would have thought, that growing crops and buying red tractors could become that popular?

Back to the survey, which shows, that the average player of social games is a 43-year old woman.

A 43-year old woman.

Sorry for the repetition, but I was puzzled when reading this for the first time. Below you find a couple of illustrations from the report:

Gender of players of social games

Age of players of social games

Employment status of players of social games

(see the entire report or the press release).

From scarcity to abundance

It is beyond the scope of this post to provide an in-depth explanation of the comprehensive broadening of the video game audience. I will, however, sketch out some of the most likely reasons for the remarkable turn.

  • The field of games was once somewhat uniform, characterized by many games appealing to pretty much the same target groups (the obese teenage boy). This has fundamentally changed. The breadth and depth of available games is now enormous, catering to a wide array of different tastes and preferences. On important factor has been the move away from hardcore games towards casual games, which make smaller demands on the player regarding time, skills etc. This development was dubbed “A Casual Revolution” by video game researcher, Jesper Juul.
  • In addition, many newer games are developed primarily with pleasant, social situations in mind; pleasant social situations outside the virtual world of the game. The console Nintendo Wii, and the console games Guitar Hero and Rock Band are all prime examples, that games are no longer just confined to the computer screen. These are games/consoles, where the most important part is playing with your friends in the living room.

I will probably be able to elaborate further on these topics in a future post, so hang on.

But play a game or two in the meantime, please.

The future of games?

There is no telling what the future holds. This is obvious, of course, yet most people keep trying, and this is no less true when looking at the video games business.

Everybody is trying to predict, what is going to be “the next big thing” – the next Pac Man, Wii or Farmville. The next “killer app”, the next “blue ocean” ready to be conquered.

The last couple of weeks, gaming sites all over the world have converged on a presentation held by one Jesse Schell. This guy caused quite a stir, and most people seem to be overly impressed. Such consensus always makes me a bit sceptic; dunno why, I just seem to distrust majorities. On the other hand, however, I am not one to remain in opposition just for the sake of it, and the presentation actually is quite interesting and thoughtprovoking. Don’t take my word for it, but have a look for yourself:

I must admit, that I actually did not know Jesse Schell, though he seems to be quite respected in the games business. Well, I will surely be following him in the future, as he must be considered prone to come up with other inspiring stuff. It would be a pleasure to disagree with the guy just for the sake of disagreeing, yet his perspectives are ensnaring. Games are clearly both ubiquitous and prolific, breaking out of their confining boxes, blowing established target groups apart in the process. Did you know, by the way, that the average player of social games is a 43 year old woman? And how about playing to achieve better MS Office-skills?

Schell hopes for games to make us better people, trying to optimize our “performance of living” in an effort to maximize our “score”. This might seem a tad naive, yet what is the matter with ambitious hopes and dreams?

Now excuse me, I gotta go brush my teeth – desperately need the points.