#INF541 Critical Reflection

As a gamer myself, entering #INF541 felt a bit like being a pig in mud – splashing about in my own backyard.

What is interesting though is that I came into the course with two quite strong opinions – games are entertaining, they are fun, and you can learn so much from them (as I did growing up) but also that games can indeed become addictive if you are not careful (as I found out when I was younger playing World of Warcraft). I was torn then, as I could see the promise in digital games for learning, but also cautious as to their use, especially with youngsters.

I began to reconcile these opinions within the first few weeks however, as Module One directed us to look at games as possibly misunderstood and under-estimated. Games are not just the AAA titles you see plastered through the newspapers and on shelves. There exists numerous genres and cultures and types, from serious games to social action games. Games are texts, multimodal, arguably more complex than traditional texts as the interplay between narrative, social elements, music and sound, and embodiment of different identities, and how these weave together, can construct deep meaning (as I mentioned in my Remediation and Storytelling forum post). They are emblems of our multimodal, complex times, and should have a much more prominent position as contexts to develop literacies – both traditional, information, transmedia, and visual literacies (Connolly, Stansfield & Boyle, 2009). I explored this ideas in later blog posts – Got the Manual, Can’t Play the Game and Designed Information Behaviour.

One “aha!” moment I had (amongst many others) was that, obviously, very few games are out-of-the-box aligned with curriculum, which places the role of the teacher in framing the use of the game as central. Games are not “set and forget” affairs – they need to be used critically and judiciously by educators – just like any text, tool, or activity in class. Pre, during and post game reflections can be used (Van Eck, 2006) or characters and settings extended from the game into other areas, for example. What is interesting in this case is that game designers and school instructional designers come from very different realms of understanding, so game integration therefore needs an intermediary (like a teacher) to pull from both sides, drawing out good learning experiences.

Furthermore, the benefits of students designing their own games, and the kinds of competencies this develops (Navarrete, 2013), struck a chord with me too, as did how to inject elements from effective games into offline, classroom life (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004).

One aspect of this course I found personally and professionally appealing was the wiggle room to explore tangents in my thinking. This occurred early on when an element of a reading piqued my interest, the benefits of cross-functional teams. I wrote a blog post on that topic, and really found it meaningful to reflect on my own experiences and link them with what I was reading.

The assignments also gave me the opportunity to “go down deep” into areas of game-based learning which I found to be personally relevant and interesting. While the broadness and “openness” of the second assignment was initially daunting, the collaborative nature of the proposal and wiki submission process helped magnificently in tightening my focus. Helping others with their submissions, as I did with Jo, Penny, Jon, Graham, and Miriam was an effective way to “walk the talk”, as a part of the participatory nature of this Masters. It’s something which I will persevere more with next semester though as to be honest, it’s not something I’m particularly great at yet, as is engaging with a wider range of the cohort, not just the people I know quite well from other courses. Twitter, as always, provided fast and furious methods of communication through the #INF541 hashtag – although I’d like to try to question and probe more over this network, as it can sometimes become a bit of an echo-chamber.

Getting caught up in the play, rather than the regular reflection, is also something which I probably could have done a bit better with. While I contributed to most of the forum posts, my reflective blog posting was probably not up to scratch. I should have spent less time immersing myself in game! This though, is another self-identified goal for next semester.

Overall, I’ve really relished the opportunity to put something I’m personally passionate about into an academic, critical frame. I’ve learned a lot, and will be taking much of my new knowledge and understandings with me to my new job posting in China, as an IT coach at a big international school. I’ll be in the perfect position chip away at the lingering notion that games are somehow only for social recluses, and to use games as powerful contexts for great learning. Onwards and upwards!

References

Connolly, T., Stansfield, M., & Boyle, L. (Eds.). (2009). Games-Based Learning Advancements for Multi-Sensory Human Computer Interfaces: Techniques and Effective Practices. IGI Global.

Navarrete, C. C. (2013). Creative thinking in digital game design and development: A case study. Computers & Education, 69, 320–331.

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E., (2004). Rules of play: Game design fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Van Eck, Richard. (2006). Digital game-based learning: It’s not just the digital natives who are restless. EDUCAUSE Review, (20), 16-18.

Designed Information Behaviour

From a reflective prompt in Module 4:

Can you identify critical elements of information behaviour, and how those elements would apply to game narrative and construction?

When we talk about knowledge networks, it’s often in relation to social networks, collaborative authoring, curation, Web 2.0 tools, meta-data etc; our massive web of connections and information flow, as enabled through technology. As the scale of these networks grow and more nodes become connected and connecting, so the value of the network increases – the information is amplified, the learning possibilities exponentially growing (although not without it’s quality, copyright, and privacy issues).

The information is worth accessing, therefore. It allows old information to be paired in new ways, and creativity to flourish amidst the torrent of burgeoning connections while taking advantage of the “wisdom of the crowds”. It’s a new way to look at knowledge, and your role in it, and therefore requires new kinds of literacies to make sense of, access, critically appraise, and contribute to this information web.

It’s getting harder and harder to justify an independent, transmission based, written word based, education model, as students are growing up into a knowledge ecology which is collaborative, participatory, and multimodal.

Apologies – I digress…

What I really wanted to talk about was the additional layer of information behaviour which digital games activate, in addition to the ones we normally talk about – the social networks / knowledge tools and platforms both in and out of games / Web 2.0 stuff. Actually, we probably don’t talk about those enough, but regardless, I want to venture into this “designed” aspect of digital games.

The mechanics of a game add to the information ecology circulating around the experience. The game designers want you to learn as you progress, and there are particular ways this is designed into games – either diegetically or non-diegetically (I’m pretty sure those are proper words). Gradually drip-feeding in more challenging content is the classic way this occurs; players become overwhelmed with information if it is all just introduced at the start. Smart design of challenges and encounters allows you to naturally learn what you need to do to progress, whereas (in my opinion) a more cumbersome approach is through popups and tooltips and tutorials running you through things, breaking the immersion.

When you think about it like this, you can make parallels with what “good learning” can look like in schools – naturally introduced, purposeful, part of a bigger picture, intergrated, not siloed, part of an authentic experience.

Teachers have a role to play, just as game designers do – to “tilt the landscape” of learning towards discovery rather than overt knowledge transmission. We can choose to set the learning amidst natural, authentic, purposeful progression, or be the kinds of teachers which break immersion by constantly “popping up” and giving unneeded tutorials.

What I’m saying is that I think it’s always better to learn something yourself or go out and seek it yourself, rather than a higher power teaching you it, and good teachers can make this happen, just like good game designers can in effective, immersive digital games.

Got the Manual, Can’t Play the Game

Kids have game manuals, but no opportunity to play the games, says James Paul Gee.

In other words, students are learning discreet pockets of knowledge and skills without the opportunity to use them purposefully and authentically.

You can spell the words, but you can’t string together a good conversation.
You know the scientific method, but haven’t done a proper investigation.
You know what an adverb is, but can’t write a lovely description (see what I did there…)
You can define collaboration, but don’t work well in a group.
You know your addition strategies but can’t use them at the supermarket.

Basically, you can talk the talk, but can’t walk the walk. And while the above examples are a bit tounge-in-cheek (there are lots of scientific investigations and lovely descriptive writing going on everywhere), when looking at the big picture, education probably does skew itself the way of knowledge, rather than knowledge + application. Hell, it’s easier to assess right? If all assessment was real life, collaborative, impactful, rich projects how on earth could the Government ever gather the data they need to justify their political and economic decisions? It would be chaos!

This, for me, is one of the great affordances of digital games. They can bridge that gap between learning something and stopping right there, or learning something and then applying it. Games or simulations offer a context in which you can embody your learning – you can BE a scientist, an entrepreneur, an explorer, a historical figure. The experience of actually using learned knowledge and skills makes learning stick and makes sure it’s helpful. It’s a safe place to practise the application of knowledge and skills too – games make it OK to fail.

We don’t need to stop teaching content, knowledge and skills. What we do need to do is start embedding it within rich, experiential learning scenarios. Games offer a chance to do this.

Digital Games: Cross Functional Teams and Collaboration

#INF541 Online Reflective Journal – Blog Task 2


There are a class of digital games which require the formation of “cross functional teams” (Gee, 2005). Cross functional teams are “a group of people with different functional expertise working toward a common goal.” The ability to take on and respect these different roles is a sign of good, healthy collaboration rather than simple “group work” where participants work side-by-side but not together.

To access the best gear in World of Warcraft, for example, groups need to be formed in order for certain content (raids or dungeons) to be successfully completed. The kinds of challenges the groups face demand there be a character up front sucking up all the damage from the big bad guy (a tank), someone staying out of trouble healing (a healer) and three other characters doing damage to the big bad guy (DPS – damage per second characters). Characters specialise in their areas and need to stick to their role if the encounter is to be successful; you cannot win a dungeon if your group comprises solely of one class or of people not sticking to their assigned roles (read: a Leroy Jenkins).

Players must understand their character’s abilities and roles, but also integrate and coordinate smoothly with the group as a whole, embodying what James Gee calls “cross-functional understanding” (2005). What you get then is a group coming together in a shared endeavour, each character an integral part of the puzzle. These dungeons constitute an “Affinity Space” – a place where experimental learning happens, where newbies and masters unite, knowledge is dispersed and leadership is flexible. In a World of Warcraft raid group you learn and grow together; fail and succeed together.

A group of people working together, taking different roles, communicating and collaborating? This is good stuff – stuff which indeed hits on many aspects of what we consider to be elements of good learning experiences:

  • It flexes many of Guy Claxton’s characteristics of powerful learners, most notably that of experimentation and the virtue of sociability (Claxton, 2013).
  • It takes a cue from not only a constructivist view of learning, where learning emerges from experiences, but also a connectivist approach where learning is strengthened and enhanced when nodes of knowledge (players) connect and diffuse knowledge.
  • It is an interactive approach to learning, not one in which learners are passive receptacles (Becker, 2011).

What is interesting is considering these informal, affinity based groups alongside the idea of identity and social inclusion as well. It allows students to experiment with different roles and identities, ones which could be altogether different from those they embody on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t matter how fast you run or what clothes you wear or what your recent writing sample was scored at – in a MMO (massive multiplayer online game) it comes down to how well you know your class, how well you can work together, communicate, collaborate and trust each other. Participation in affinity spaces can bridge barriers and bring people together.

Setting up experiences where students get to be a part of a cross functional team can therefore lead to great learning in and of itself, but can also be used as a springboard or scaffold into offline collaboration too. Cross functional teams are valued hugely in many areas because they can flexibly meet challenges and deliver creative outcomes. Helping students to be active participants in these kinds of groups – to be able to take on different roles (a leader or a follower, a devil’s advocate, an experimenter, or a dreamer) – is good stuff. The importance then would shift into reflecting deeply on your online experiences and taking those learnings into group projects, social interactions, and collaborative learning IRL. Thankfully there are strategies and tools that can assist this – de Bono’s Thinking Hats and NoTosh’s Design Thinking tools spring to mind.

Digital Games are not just the past-time popular media would have you believe, but powerful spaces for learning and powerful prompts into other learning. Using cross functional teams as a training ground for offline collaboration and social inclusion is one of these.

So – who do you want to be today? A tank, a healer or a DPS?


References

Becker, K. (2011). Distinctions between games and learning: A review of current literature on games in education. In Gaming and Simulations: Concepts, Methodologies, Tools and Applications (pp. 75-107). Hershey, PA: . doi:10.4018/978-1-60960-195-9.ch105

Claxton, G. (2013). What’s the point of school?: Rediscovering the heart of education. Oneworld Publications.

Gee, J.P. (2005). Good video games and good learning. Phi Kappa Phi Forum, 85(2), 33-37.http://dmlcentral.net/sites/dmlcentral/files/resource_files/GoodVideoGamesLearning.pdf

Game Based Learning – Game On!

I’m a gamer at heart. Have been since Dad bought home a brand new Apple Mac IIe sometime in the late 80’s. I played everything from Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, to Oregon Trail, to Lemmings, to the original Prince of Persia, and haven’t stopped since. After high-school I took a tumble into World of Warcraft and spent a good (read: very good) amount of time in Azeroth. I was in a serious raiding guild, even. I’ve since moved away from the MMORPG scene and am enjoying my PS4. I’ve just finished playing The Last of Us, which was a brilliant, captivating story and enjoy pwning n00bs via epic headshotz in Battlefield 4.

I’m also an educator, passionate about leveraging the affordances of the digital age for good learning.

Naturally then, I have come to this most recent paper in my Masters programme, “Game Based Learning”. Here is where my current thinking is at regarding gaming and education and it’s challenges and opportunities…

Games have the ability to be platforms for great learning or platforms for mindless consumption. I’m not saying that mindless consumption is a bad thing – I do it all the time, but only at home after a hard days work and when the 2 year old is asleep. School is for learning and challenging and growing the skills, knowledge, and dispositions people need for an increasingly digital future-world. Games are risky, perhaps, at school, because game-design is based on elements which immerse the gamer into the game world, keeping them wired in and playing. Educators need to be careful, critical, and judicious when selecting how to best use games for good, solid, helpful learning.

You can ham-fistedly, haphazardly introduce games into the classroom without considering their effect. Much like app selection, it’s important to choose games with a critical eye. Is this just fluffy, round the edges learning, or will the experience of the game truly bring about deeper understandings and authentic learning. Is the game a skill and drill game (which has it’s place) or a sandbox game? Games such as Minecraft and apps such as Explain Everything are powerful platforms where students can be flexing their creative muscles and producing innovative, personality-filled learning, for example.

But where might games fit? The technology is here, the will is here, but if we are mandated by the Government to be focusing heavily on reading, writing and maths, and being judged by the public and the Ministry on our reading, writing, and maths data in league tables and such, is there room for the judicious use of games? I certainly hope so, but can’t quite see how they might fit together just yet.

It’s my intention in this paper to find where the two may meet – gaming and traditional school stuff we have to do.

There is the other side of the coin here too – building the skills, knowledge, and mindset a programmer / creator of games requires. This is amazing, authentic learning, so rich in both skill development and dispositional development. To have students growing up understanding the world around them is created and create-able by themselves, not just there to be consumed, is powerful learning.

I’m also interested in this lingering notion that gaming is for socially-inept weirdos. I’ve felt it myself when explaining to people how I spent a few hours playing a certain game on the weekend. They don’t quite get it. The only people I can really talk with about gaming is my 7 – 11 year old students! What cultural, social pressures would gaming in a classroom face? Quite a hefty amount, I presume.

So that’s where my current thinking is at regarding gaming in education. A slight inch of sceptiscism which I’m finding odd considering my years and years of gaming experience, but mostly curiosity and interest and a true desire to find out how games could fit into the multitude of other competing considerations which swirl around schools. I’m really looking forward to exploring these challenging questions further.

Game on!