Typing of the Dead

One skill I wish I had of developed as a child is the ability to touch type. Don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful education, learnt to program and many other really valuable skills, but just never became a proficient touch-typer.

Is touch typing still a valuable skill when it seems we are moving inexorably to touch screens and very soon augmented-gesture and brain-controlled interfaces?

If it is (which I think it is), Typing of the Dead is fun.

The Typing of the Dead is an older game that is really a mod of the arcade classic House of the Dead. The game is styled on a railed first person shooter, but instead of shooting zombies with weapons you need to type out phrases and words to kill them. Doesn’t sounds very good – but it is surprisingly likeable and could be a nice addition to any teaching & learning about touch typing.

Learning Through Games: Student Success Stories

The Inaugural Games for Change Australia/New Zealand Festival was recently held in Melbourne on November 15th & 16th. I was delighted to be one of the Curators for the conference together with having the opportunity to give a brief talk.

Find the recording & slides to Learning Through Games: Student Success Stories below.

The Learning (2.012) Continues

How cool is this?

After attending my Game-Based Learning extended session on Day 1 of Learning 2.012 and skyping her class during the session, Naynay Montilla has taken the concept of game modding and put it straight to use in the classroom.

During the session we talked about trajectories of student participation when ‘gaming’:

  • All students start as a newb
  • Students start gaining a certain level of mastery
  • Students start investigating winning strategies, optimal strategies, counter strategies etc.
  • Students start asking ‘What if…”

What happens if we change the rules? What variations can we introduce and how does this affect game play? Can we add bias to the game?

The original game in this instance was called the Game of 31. It is a two player game that is played with a standard deck of playing cards. The students from the International School of Manilla have got to work, added a variation and re-named it “Beachball: First to 21.”

Have a listen to one of their Grade 1 “Explanation Experts” explain their game ūüôā

Game Theory is not the Theory of Games

(see previous Games? In Learning? I’m Confused…)

Game Theory is a branch of applied Mathematics which looks at competitive situations where two or more people have conflicting interests – it is not the theory of using games in learning.

Game Theory has been applied in many situations and contexts through history, most notably the Cold War, Global Politics, Economics and of course games like Poker, Rock, Paper, Scissors, Nim and Liars Dice (see this post РRed Dead Redemption)

The Prisoners Dilemma is synonymous when introducing Game Theory. Summarized briefly:

Two criminals, Prisoner A & Prisoner B are put in different rooms and given a similar deal. If one implicates the other, he may go free whilst the other receives a 10 year sentance. If neither of the crimanals talk, both are given 1 year sentances, and if both implicate each other, they each receive a 5 year sentence. 

Each criminal has an optimum strategy of implicating the other, and thus in equilibrium each receives a harsh punishment, but both would be better off if each remained silent. (This is assuming that both Prisoner A & B are rational) 

There are various iterations of the Prisoners Dilemma and it has been seen in popular media in various guises over the years:

(See Golden Balls & Game Theory for a nice explanation here)

John Nash, a famous mathematician and Nobel Laureate, whose work in game theory provided insight into the forces that govern chance and events inside the complex system of daily life, was made famous by popular media in the movie, A Beautiful Mind. This excerpt from the movie looks at Nash as he begins to formulate his idea of the Nash Equilibrium – for which he would later win a Nobel prize for his contributions in Game Theory.

A Nash Equilibrium is a state in the game where no player has an incentive to deviate. Each player’s equilibrium strategy is known by the other players, and no player has anything to gain by changing only his own strategy. When all the players in this case go for the blonde, every player can increase his payoff by deviating.¬†

One of my favourte instances of Game Theory is the Truel. Breifly:

Mr. Black, Mr. Gray, and Mr. White are fighting in a truel. They each get a gun and take turns shooting at each other until only one person is left. Mr. Black, who hits his shot 1/3 of the time, gets to shoot first. Mr. Gray, who hits his shot 2/3 of the time, gets to shoot next, assuming he is still alive. Mr. White, who hits his shot all the time, shoots next, assuming he is also alive. The cycle repeats. If you are Mr. Black, where should you shoot first for the highest chance of survival?

(Hint: Think from the points of view of Mr. Gray and Mr. White, not just Mr. Black.)

See a Truel in action in the Clint Eastwood Western The Good, The Bad, The Ugly.

So Game Theory is a branch of Mathematics that uses vocabulary like Nash Equilibrium, complete/incomplete information, zero sum, variable sum, optimal strategy, deviation, expected value etc. – it’s not the Theory of using Games in learning.

Next Post: Game-Based Learning

Games? In Learning? I’m Confused…

Confused Sonic by ~EdoBean

It’s evident from recent weeks that many are confused when talking about games in the same breath as education. This is understandable. The question, “What is a game?” still¬†elicits¬†varied responses depending on who you talk to.

Most fields of study have been around for thousands of years, have fairly clear¬†definitions¬†and boundaries and have a vast body of knowledge to draw from. Whilst games in various forms have been around as early as 2600BC (see Exploring Games Through Culture) and are a universal part of human experience, definitions from Callios, Huizinga, Salen, Zimmerman, Pearce, Wittgenstein etc. have no real agreed definition of what a ‘game’ actually is.

Whilst there is no concise definition that is universally agreed upon, we can draw from the literature and by examining many of these definitions and synthesising this work into something that is coherent, we can establish a baseline for our discussion around games. Briefly, the common elements are:

  • Games are an activity that generally have an uncertain outcome.
  • Games have rules and to a degree, conflict.
  • Games have a clearly defined set of goals.
  • Games are artificial, safe, make believe, and they are outside ordinary life. This is sometimes referred to as the players stepping into the ‚ÄúMagic Circle‚ÄĚ (see Games, Play & Porous Membranes)
  • Games are voluntary
  • Games are systems
  • Games are a medium unto themselves and a form of art

If we now add relatively new fields like game design and gamification into the mix, you can start to understand where the confusion comes from.

Meeting with Donald Brinkman from Microsoft Research in Melbourne recently and having several meetings the DEECD folk (who have not long completed their serious games and virtual worlds trial), it is important that there is a shared understanding of not only the literature, but also of a critical vocabulary – a set of words or common language that enable us to have meaningful discussions around the use of games, and at the higher level, allow DEECD folk to make informed choices and decisions in regard to policy development.

This common understanding is important otherwise we risk propagating misconceptions and misunderstanding which has implications for a learning method that is just starting to gain real traction in education circles. Understanding the differences between Game Theory, Game-Based Learning, Game Development & Gamification is paramount to elevating the dialogue.

Misconceptions that I have come across recently include:

  • Game Theory is the theory of using games in learning.
  • Gamification is the use of games in learning.¬†
  • Gamification could be seen as dumbing down the curriculum.¬†
  • Game Design & Development is digital only.¬†
  • That the study of games needs to be integrated into a subject.

This is part 1 of a series of posts that will look into the differences and similarities between Game Theory, Gamification, Game-Based Learning and Game Development.

Mindsets of Nostalgia

Extroverted or successful people in social situations tend to be sensitive and appropriately responsive to verbal and nonverbal cues. 

On the nonverbal level, much information is communicated telepathically without our conscious awareness. Humans have evolved to notice body language and subtle clues during social interactions that allow us to adhere to societies norms. Maintaining eye contact with someone portrays confidence, but staring at the eyes of another person for too long won’t win you any friends.¬†Mimicking another’s body language can lead to positive social outcomes such as an unspoken rapport or a sense of unconscious trust, and yet mimicking another’s dialect or accent is a bit weird (and yet I am guilty of this).¬†Yawning can perhaps signal boredom and disinterest, and yet research suggests that yawning serves an important neurological function in improving alertness and concentration, lowering stress and regulating brain temperature. Verbal conversation functions simarlily; people who talk too much are annoying, but so are people that hardly talk at all. Over a lifetime people develop and learn the implicit social rules of responsiveness to a greater or lesser degree.

When engaging students in immersive gaming environments, people new to the medium talk about the difficulty they have relaying information due to a lack of visual body language clues, the lack of ‘control’ or the ‘impersonal’ feel of the space. Granted, it’s a little different at first but this is due to the medium’s affordances differing to traditional settings in both style and space – it’s not really the space itself though, but that the space demands a shift in control, and as a consequence people feel uncomfortable. Giving up this power/control struggle is seen as relinquishing one’s duty as a teacher – but this mindset is one that is steeped in tradition and nostalgia.

The Greek word for “return” is nostos. Algos means “suffering.” So nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. ‚Äē M. Kundera

The story of Odysseus is a good illustration of nostalgia as it was originally conceived. Odysseus’s epic 10 year journey can be seen as a hero experiencing nostalgia as he struggles to return to the way things were and get back to his home and ultimately his wife in Ithaca.

Current definitions of nostalgia generally follow a sentimental longing for the past, especially in reference to how things used to be better (whether they were or not).¬†Games have now been around for long enough that it‚Äôs not uncommon to encounter people thinking romantically about the good old days of gaming, when 20 cents got you three lives and there were no such things as health packs. (Personally, the other week, I found myself wanting to play the classic old arcade game Pengu…)

Nostalgia creeps into our everyday lives without people giving it any thought – the floppy disk icon for the save function in Microsoft Word or the most recent example of nostalgic nonsense of cc’ing someone on twitter when including them in a tweet.

Carbon copying was the technique of using carbon paper to produce one or more copies simultaneously during the creation of paper documents. With the advent of email, the legacy of ‘cc’ was kept and¬†referred¬†to sending someone who was a secondary recipient of an email a copy of the original. With Twitter this isn’t necessary, and yet people insist on ‘cc’ing…

Nostalgia causes ignorance. When you long and constantly think about the past you do not pay attention to what goes on in front of you and you apply old ways of thinking to new questions. You do old things in new circumstances. This isn’t to say we should ignore the past. We learn from others and become well-versed in the literature, but we see further than others because we stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us.

Will we ever overcome the nostalgic yearning for the good old days of education? Maybe. What we can do now though is have an open mind and come to the realisation that everything changes. Celebrate the power of being in the now and have a rational perspective on things. We cannot be dismissive of new ways of learning and new environments. An incredible amount of hubris and arrogance is involved when spending 5 minutes with something and then being dismissive of it. Playing a game for only 5 minutes is like listening to classical music for 5 minutes and then making a judgement Рyou are not going to be able to understand the nuances or the complexities in that short time frame.

Gaming environments are empowering for the introverts among us. They give introverts a sense of freedom, social agency and confidence that they would not have otherwise. The doubters need to throw away their nostalgic yearnings because many are using this as a way of avoiding the present – and by not thinking about the present, you risk your students’ future.

Games, Play & Porous Membranes

Game scholars often distinguish between two modes of play, ludic and paidiaic. Ludic from the Latin ludos, describes structured, rule-driven, competitive games relating to play or playfulness, while paidiaic describes unstructured play in open-ended metaverses that are often co-created by their inhabitants – or as Celia Pearce describes them in Communities of Play, “Paidiaic environments are designed for spontaneous play and creative contribution.‚Ä̬†

The two modes of play can be thought of on a spectrum – too much toward one end the game risks becoming a grind whilst too much in the other direction the game can often feel pointless (if a game at all), and indeed this game/not game binary distinction is often discussed when exploring the differences between games and virtual worlds.

Fixed Synthetic worlds such as World of Warcraft & Skyrim are characterized as ludic environments as they are primarily defined by Blizzard & Bethesda, who have complete control over narrative, world rules, mechanics and design. On the other end of the spectrum we have co-created worlds like Minecraft that include affordances for the customization of the environment that allows players to engage in content creation within the parameters of the world’s design. These paidiaic environments typically have no set storyline and are open for interpretation by the player, allowing players to build their own spaces and express their creativity.

Screen Shot 2012-06-10 at 12.46.06 PM

Regardless of where the world falls on this spectrum we see evidence of emergence as play ecosystems or communities of play that transcend the original game space.

The term magic circle was coined by Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1872‚Äď1945) in his work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Huizinga basically states that the magic circle of a game is where the game takes place. To play a game means entering into a magic circle, or perhaps creating one as a game begins. The magic circle was often thought of as a circle where belief could be suspended, sacrosanct, one which bounds play in time and space from ‘reality.’ This definition is starting to blur as evidenced by our work with students from around Victoria in¬†Quantum Victoria @ Massively Minecraft.

Quantum Victoria @ Massively Minecraft is for kids aged 4-16 in Victoria exploring digital citizenship, creativity and imagination using the video-game Minecraft. Hosted by Jokaydia as a pervasive online game environment, our current game has over 65 Achievements that children can undertake and each can be mapped to the ISTE NETs Standards for students using technology in learning.

Whilst originally developed as an innovative model for outreach in the STEM disciplines, we are seeing students mature and develop skills like self-efficacy, sharing, negotiation, conflict resolution, thinking skills, empathy and most importantly leadership.

Students are engaged in artefact creation, collaborative building, Machinima, Fan Fiction, thematic Journal writing together with learning about aspects of Computer Science. The Achievement System that has been built augments the game Рstudents can complete the Achievements if they want but they are not required to. The Achievements are not sequential, meaning that students can jump in and out as they see fit. What we are finding is that students want to complete these Achievements in their own time Рas Celia Pearce states,

“Especially in co-created worlds, productive play becomes a major engine for emergence, the prolific player-producers can play a significant role in emergent cultures. The creation of artefacts is identified as an expression of social agency, promoted by feedback that encourages player-producers to produce more.”

Students as young as 12 years old are taking ownership of the space and exhibiting leadership well beyond their years. This feature of emergence was intended – having students teaching and mentoring each other so that the space becomes a self-sustaining learning/play community.

The magic circle coined by Huizinga can be better described as a porous membrane with culture invading the game world, and the game invading culture. (eg. Students designing and creating Creeper’s on our 3D printer similar to this one).

Screen Shot 2012-06-10 at 12.26.59 PM

Western culture demands that play be productive – many say that to be seen in a positive light it requires a metamorphosis from play to creative output. The irony here is that whilst much of students work in a paidiaic environment like Minecraft would be seen as unproductive by those who don’t ‘game’, the reality is that at all times students are engaged in community building, identity building and social construction of knowledge whilst under the guise of ‘unproductive’ or free play. This is in stark contrast to those who try to emulate the power/control climate of the classroom – whilst genuinely trying to engage students using GBL in the classroom, they are in fact just replicating a 100 year old paradigm and not seeing these spaces for what they allow – radically different types of learning. (in relation to a previous post: Play Ecosystems.)

Einstein said that,

“Play is the highest form of research.”

Most adults above a certain age will struggle to ever make it back to a place where they will permit themselves the freedom to play. But they should at least give the time for students to engage in the pursuit of this form of research Рsummarized succinctly by Celia Pearce,

“Play has a life of it’s own. It can be guided, but never controlled.”

Perpetual Testing Initiative

The Perpetual Testing Initiative for Portal 2 was released as DLC on May 8th. Originally,¬†in order to create custom levels or maps for Portal 2, the Hammer Engine needed to be used – now Valve has put level creation into the hands of all with it’s simple to use in-game editor. Below is a map that I put together in about 5 minutes – granted it’s never going to win a prize for aesthetics or level of difficulty – but what it allows is rapid prototyping of ideas and for students to be engaged in iterative design where they design, test, modify, test, modify, get their peers to test, modify and so on.

portal2 2012-05-11 14-40-15-65

I have written before about how this game can be used as a vehicle for students to learn about physics concepts such as gravity, momentum, energy, conservation laws and even modern physics such as Einstein-Rosen bridges from the theory of general relativity. An example is the concept of ‘flinging.’

Essentially ‘flinging’ is using the properties of gravity, transferring energy from kinetic to potential and vice-versa, in order to build up enough momentum to traverse distances that would be normally impossible.


In order to make high-quality maps, Hammer will still need to be used to apply textures and lighting effects (by importing your maps created into the SDK) – as this functionality in the in-game editor is quite limited. Overall though, it is excellent – if you haven’t yet played Portal 2 go buy it now – it’s only $6.99 on Steam.

Play Ecosystems & Why You Can’t ‘Teach’ Games

from http://minecrafteduelfie.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/kids-are-just-kids-sometimes.html

“I caught up with her after the lesson and she said she had a lot of trouble with them, they were not listening to her instructions when asked to not to dig tunnels into the mountain and generally being uncooperative. I must say I am a little disappointed in the students, however does the saying “kids will be kids” excuse the behaviour?

I have been very upfront with the students about how what we do in class, while being used to teach them, is also being used to help other teachers see how this can be used in classrooms to make learning more interesting, both at our school and further afield…

Now I have this class tomorrow, and I will be having a discussion with the class about what they did, and what it means for them, me and other teachers. So my question to you is, how would you approach this situation?”

Roger Caillois in Man, Play & Games (building on Huizinga [1938|1950]) describes the essential characteristics of play as being: 1) free (not obligatory) & 2) uncertain (outcomes are not determined in advance). The emergent behaviour in games and virtual worlds like Minecraft, arise out of a complex interaction between players and the affordances of the play space they inhabit Рthe affordance of the play space leads to a dichotomy of freedom v control. Freedom in a relative sense compared to absolute freedom (but still freedom) as opposed to the culture of control in the classroom. In this case the teacher is trying to exert control over a space where she has none Рthis is why as Lisa Dawley from Boise State explains,

“We don’t teach games, we game games.”

Borrowing from complexity theory, an environment such as Minecraft can be¬†characterised¬†as a play ecosystem. It has been designed to facilitate networked play, and has specific features and affordances (freedom & uncertainty) that differ significantly from school environments (control & certainty) – but at it’s core is the fact that it hinges on intrinsic motivators of students wanting to be there, and the fact that students’ experiences are not obligatory and certain. Many educators and indeed parents differentiate between a time for play and a time for learning without seeing the vital connection between them – play is not unproductive – saying that we need to cover ‘x’ in ‘x’ amount of time misses the forest for the trees.

The teacher in the example above, introduces a magic circle of freedom and than attempts to battle the affordance of the space – in MInecraft you can’t tell students to build a model eye for example – more likely it should be creating a space and designing the ‘activity’ in such a way that¬†they want to create an eye. The game world is non-linear which has its own rule set – trying to overlay a rule set that doesn’t make sense to either the game or the player will not work out that well in most cases.¬†This post doesn’t touch on the social aspects of such a space – but I echo Dean Groom’s comments.

My only suggestion would be to lose the specifics – instead introduce students to a fairly broad driving question, and then giving them sufficient time, see what they are capable of. Trust the students and maybe, just maybe, some of them will surprise you.

Cloak of Darkness: Using IF for systems thinking

Having first written about using Text-Based Adventures in education back in 2009, my interest in them as a tool for teaching programming concepts, game design, literacy and systems thinking has been renewed. Exploring Interactive Fiction (IF) design systems such as Inform7 and Adrift, I have found Quest to be probably the best for small projects ideally suited to K12 education. The desktop client is currently for PC only, but a beta Chrome Store Quest app is now available for use on any platform.

Following the tutorials available to¬†familiarise¬†with the tool, I decided to attempt to write my own small game based on Roger Firths “Cloak of Darkness” specification. This is the programming equivalent of ‘hello world’ in the IF space. Firths specification for this game are as follows:

There are just three rooms and three objects.

The Foyer of the Opera House is where the game begins. This empty room has doors to the south and west, also an unusable exit to the north. There is nobody else around.

The Bar lies south of the Foyer, and is initially unlit. Trying to do anything other than return northwards results in a warning message about disturbing things in the dark.

On the wall of the Cloakroom, to the west of the Foyer, is fixed a small brass hook.

Taking an inventory of possessions reveals that the player is wearing a black velvet cloak which, upon examination, is found to be light-absorbent. The player can drop the cloak on the floor of the Cloakroom or, better, put it on the hook.

Returning to the Bar without the cloak reveals that the room is now lit. A message is scratched in the sawdust on the floor.

The message reads either “You have won” or “You have lost”, depending on how much it was disturbed by the player while the room was dark.

The act of reading the message ends the game.

You can play my attempt at Cloak of Darkness online at http://www.textadventures.co.uk/review/468/ 

In the classroom, I would have students first play one of the Infocom Text¬†Adventures¬†and perhaps unpack verbs, nouns, game mechanics, space and narrative and maybe even get them to do a mapping exercise of the world in question. (A discussion could also be included about Choose Your Own Adventures and Fighting Fantasy.) This would be followed by an introduction to the Quest editor and a discussion about verbs, nouns, objects, rooms, dialogue, first, second and third person narrative perspectives, If->Then statements, attributes etc. and their first project would be to create their own version of the “Cloak of Darkness.”

This would be approached by having them map out the required rooms on A3 paper and then use brainstorming cards to map out their proposed game. Students would be routinely asked to go through the process of rapid prototyping and iterative design by having their peers playtest and provide feedback. By engaging in something like this, students are building their skills and confidence leading up to their final project, which would be a game of their own design. Assessment of their final project/game would include:

Competence – the game should handle the user interactions expected for a piece of interactive fiction.

Immersiveness – the degree to which a player loses him or herself in the game world.

Completeness – the world should have a reasonable number of room and objects.

World Design – non-linear story with several puzzles to solve.

Prose Quality – the room descriptions should draw the player into the game.

Interactivity – the player should have interesting objects and environments to manipulate.

Fun – the game should entertain the player and motivate him or her to play often.

A question that educators at all levels should ask themselves is “What would you do with a computer if their was no internet access?” Using Interactive Fiction enables students to engage with game design whilst not having to worry about skill in designing digital art – and it is a great literacy workout too.

IF resources:

Welcome to Interactive Fiction

IF Delicious Stack

Interactive Fiction Wiki

Zork Library

Brainstorming Cards

Interactive Fiction Authorship

Play IF Cheat Sheet