Tuesday, April 16, 2013

PAX East 2013 - Gaming & Education

March was a busy month for me convention-wise. I got home from Learning Solutions and then a handful of days later I was back on a plane heading out to Boston for PAX East. For the non-gamers in the audience, PAX East is a 3-day convention devoted to all things gaming, from console and PC videogames to board games. For me, this trip was mostly just for fun, but there was a professional connection as well: PAX tends to have sessions on gaming and education. I managed to fit two in my schedule and thought both were worth sharing.

Also, thanks to one of the con attendees who sat near me at both sessions (@lordsillion) you can watch footage of both of them. Bonus points if you can find me in each video.

In which I sidetrack to rant about how gaming & education is discussed at conferences

Before I start on the actual content of the sessions I saw, I just needed to get a bit of ranting out of my system.

I've got one foot firmly in the world of education and training, the other in gaming. Alas, at both learning and gaming conferences this doesn't appear to be commonplace. Conference sessions on gaming and education, as a result, tend to be in one of the following two frustratingly basic flavours:

Learning Conference:
"You wouldn't believe it, but those games your kids waste their time with and that you use to kill time while waiting in line CAN ALSO be used for learning too! Fancy that!"

Gaming Conference:
"OMG! There are totally people using games to help people learn stuff. Let's now talk for an hour about games only meant for elementary school students."

I am so tired of seeing yet another session where the content is all for newbies. So why do I keep attending these things? Because once in a blue moon one of these sessions actually bothers to go beyond the very basics.

Alas, this was not one of those times. So if you already have a sense of how gaming and education fit together, I'm not going to have anything new to tell you here. Feel free to run away... or, better yet, tell me about some conventions that consistently talk about gaming & training at a more advanced level that I can show up at. For those of you not thoroughly entrenched in both worlds, though, you might enjoy this writeup of the PAX East sessions.

Session: Saving Education With Game Design

Speaker: Steve Swink

Video: Click here

Apparently the original speaker for this session got tripped up at the Canada/USA border, so this guy, an independent game developer who has created multiple educational games, was brought in to cover for the session. Thankfully, it was a decent substitution as I wouldn't have guessed he was a last minute replacement if he hadn't mentioned it himself.

His session started started off like so...
I know, not my best photo.
Point 1 was frustrating as I felt Swink used it as an opportunity to paint all education with the same lousy, unnuanced brush. He constantly tried to make the point that schooling is all recall and regurgitation of information, which I'd absolutely disagree with. Based on some of the stuff he mentioned, it's clear HIS experience with school wasn't great, but he made way too much of a jump in assuming his experience is everyone's. So yeah, he irritated me a bit here.

He did win me back, though, when he started talking about the power that immersive simulations have in teaching people how to interact with real situations and understand how smaller actions can chain together to have larger effects. His example was the game Civilization, a sim that manages to encapsulate the basics of how civilizations grow and decline all within highly amusing gameplay. What do you think teaches the general concepts of civilization building better: reading about how it's done or actually doing it yourself? My money is on the latter every time.

So Swink has, as a result of this thinking, been working on creating games that use the power of simulations to help kids learn two real-world skills: persuasive writing and critical thinking. These games include:

  • The Doctor's Cure: Users play as an investigative reporter trying to solve several town mysteries. They talk to townspeople, collect evidence, and then write news articles based on their research.
  • The Mystery of Taiga River: A park is experiencing a rapid decline in their fish population and it's up to your friendly neighbourhood water quality scientist (the user) to find out why. Players work to examine water quality, analyze evidence for what local groups may be contributing to the problem, and come up with a hypothesis for why the fish are dying and how it can be stopped.
"All your fish are dead"? You monster!
There are some core factors in both games that help them work as effective learning tools:

  • They immerse players in a realistic scenario where the skills they're being asked to practice would actually be used. Players can see that they're not learning content for the sake of learning; it actually connects to the real world. 
  • They also create a safe place to practice and experiment using their skills. People can learn both through successes AND errors. 
  • Player choices have consequences, most of which aren't obvious. This helps players feel the choices their actions in the game are meaningful. 
  • The games aren't stand alone pieces. They are tied in to the rest of the school curriculum.

Did these games actually work? An initial test with at-risk students in Arizona indicates yes. While playing The Doctor's Curse, these students wrote more than they ever had in the past and at a noticeably higher skill level than they had prior to playing.

So, to summarize, sims can be a useful way to help prepare learners to interact with complex systems and experiment with the content they're learning in a safe place that provides useful feedback.

Session: Gamification and Learning: Does Anyone Need Some "Stinking" Badges

Speakers: Sam Abramovich [Researcher, University of Pittsburgh], Peter Wardrip [Researcher, University of Pittsburgh], Yoon Jeon Kim [Researcher, Florida State University], Ross Higashi [Roboticist, National Robotics Engineering Center], Meghan Bathgate [Researcher, University of Pittsburgh]

Video: Click Here

So yeah, a session entirely on badges as gamification... a contentious issue these days. Honestly, I felt like the panel did a good job of explaining not just what badges are, but what makes a badge worthwhile and what makes it a waste of time.

Can badges really be this helpful? Yes, if you use them in ways that aren't idiotic.
Is a badge something these speakers thought would magically make people do tasks they were otherwise disinterested in? Not a chance. And if this is the view people have of badges, then it's no wonder people have been dissatisfied with them.

What badges are great for, they stressed, is this:
  • Providing a means of showing you accomplished a task/skill: This is much like how badges in Scouts/Guides work. The badge itself is a way of noting your achievement and showing it to others, much like a certificate or degree. It could also be used as an alternative to traditional assessments.
  • Showing others what you're interested in: The specific collection of badges a Scout/Guide might have varies from person to person. That's because kids get to pick from a large number badges that are possible to achieve. By choosing what badges to try and earn (and which to put off or even ignore completely) they curate data about what they're interested in. Game achievements/trophies function in a similar way. Looking at, for instance, my personal set of PS3 achievements may not encapsulate everything about me as a person, but you sure can infer a heck of a lot about who I am as a gamer from it.
  • Seeing connections for how one skill leads to another: For badge systems that have badge prerequisites, a map of the progression from one badge to others (how you can "level up") can help people understand how learning one skill leads to learning others and assist them in planning long-term goals.
Oh look! None of these point suggest that badges in and of themselves are a major motivator. They also didn't suggest that that badges themselves are the way you teach information. They instead claim that badges are better at creating a portfolio of your skills/accomplishments, can be used to establish your identity to others, and help you understand how one skill can connect to others. As one of the panelists said, "Badges are not the learning themselves. They're an identification that learning has taken place."

Here's what I feel is the big gap between how badges are often used and what research suggests they're actually good for. So many of the instances that we see of lousy gamification these days involve using badges to try and motivate people to do actions they otherwise wouldn't bother with. That might work for the occasional person who's a bit completion-obsessed, but most people just can't be asked to care about badges that don't mean anything to them. And that's what makes these types of projects fail. Gamification projects (or at the very least badges) then unfortunately get unfairly pegged as a failure rather acknowledging the real problem: that gamification was used incorrectly.

So, going back to the session, the panel speakers said that you need to ask yourself the following questions when you want to use badges effectively:
  • What kind of badges will your users actually care about?
  • Who ARE your end users anyway?
  • What situations and settings will these badges be used in?
  • What ecosystem will your badges exist in?
  • What set of standards will you build into your badge system?
  • How can you make sure your badges are recognized for what they are by others?
That last question is the one that has broader implications for badges if, as the speakers suggest we should, we use badges as a type of portfolio of skills. If your badges follow you from school to school and/or job to job like a transcript or series of job reviews, then there needs to be some understood standard for what they mean. For instance, because of the standards in Scouts/Guides, a merit badge in Archery earned by a kid in Orlando, Florida is still recognized if that kid moves to Las Vegas, Nevada. The badge has a standard series of requirements to earn it and those standards are universally recognized (well, at least universally recognized within a particular group).

That's where I suppose broad adoption of badges might fail. While I'm actually quite attached to the idea of badges as a portfolio of your accomplishments and skills, I suspect that wrangling a single system for all schools and employers to acknowledge and grant badges where the value of each badge represents consistent achievements/skills (and is consistently recognized) is nigh impossible. Could a school system, single employer, or university pull it off to make internal transfers and class/career planning easier though? I'd say absolutely yes. In fact, if you watch the video of the session you can hear the speakers talk repeatedly about a LEGO program that did just that.

More so than any other point, in the end the most repeated theme from this session was that we can't expect badges to do the heavy lifting of motivating people to learn or do things. They're much better used to chronicle, curate, and connect instead.

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