by Amanda Wilson
Six months ago, writes Amanda Wilson, I would have said that games in the class were not a way for children to learn mainly because I never thought of them as educational tools. I never really connected education with entertainment.
Pupils tend to want games that look fun and will not consider the educational aspect; teachers tend to want a very structured approach that compliments the vision of the subject they are delivering. Trying to deliver content we think suits both the learner and the teacher has been a difficult challenge.
I've been watching, and watching and rewatching a video called Play, by David Kaplan and Eric Zimmerman. It's a film which envisages a possibly not-too-distant scenario in which games have become totally immersive. The line between game and reality blur — over and over again.
The first time I watched it I didn't quite 'get' it. The second time I understood it a lot more. The third time I was able to completely enjoy it, and after that I started to think about the possibilities for the ed tech teacher.
I don't think many teachers would feel comfortable showing this to a group of students. A pity, really, because there is so much rich discussion you could have with them. However, there are some risqué elements, like a scene where the main character grabs a woman's breast, followed by some choice words by the recipient of this unwelcome contact, and one with Japanese schoolgirls, which is clearly tongue-in-cheek but which may be unwise to show to a class. Anyway, watch it and decide for yourself.
But if there is a good chance that you will feel unable to show it to your students, why am I bothering to mention it?
Well, there is always the possibility of showing selected scenes, to illustrate points for discussion.
However, even if you watch it only with colleagues, perhaps as part of a team meeting or a staff training day, there is much to discuss. I have always believed, and found, there to be value in having an intellectual discussion for its own sake. This is especially important for teachers: ours is an intellectual profession, so we need to practise being intellectual.
If, having watched the film, you don't think you can use it, pass on the details to colleagues teaching media studies. They may find it interesting to consider how the lines between film, game and reality are not very apparent. There is also a video, on the Future States website (see below), showing the making of the film. I don't think it's very revealing myself, but it may be interesting for students to glimpse what a real film set looks like.
So what sort of issues does the film raise?
One is a moral issue about how points are accumulated. Watch the thug in the first sequence, to see what I mean at its most obvious, but the issue is repeated throughout the film.
Another is to do with truth — not only in the sense of distinguishing game from reality, but in terms of integrity. Look at the choices faced by both the politician and the psychiatrist. There's an element of humour there, but perhaps like much humour it touches a nerve.
There are underlying issues as well, to do with genuineness. For example, all the options presented to the psychiatrist appear to have equal weight. Do professionals like psychiatrists, doctors, even teachers, really ask questions which have no greater value than any of the alternative questions they might have asked instead?
But perhaps this is all getting too deep. Watch the film, which lasts just under 20 minutes, and see what you make of it.
A little background: I found out about this by looking at the Sliced Bread blog, where Tony Searl wrote an article called Future State. I chose to read that at the suggestion of my random blog reading generator.
See also the two articles cited in the References section.
On the topic of games, the forthcoming issue of Computers in Classrooms, the free (woo hoo!) newsletter, is a games special, with articles about 'serious' as well as 'educational' games (the distinction is not mine), reviews and original research from a student's dissertation and BESA, to cite two, plus some great prizes to be given away.
#gbl10 A colleague of mine, when asked by a primary school teacher how best to prepare her class for secondary school answered, without hesitation, "De-skill them." That was around 6 years ago.
Twelve years ago, asked to show a group of newly-qualified high school teachers examples of excellent practice in ICT, I arranged a visit to a local primary school.
Around the same time, a geography teacher showed me what he'd been doing with his year 9 students (14 year-olds) in the realm of data-handling.
"What do you think of that?", he beamed.
"I think it's brilliant.", I replied. "In fact, I thought it was brilliant when I saw it in a Year 4 class last week."
Not the best way to make friends and influence people, perhaps, but the point was well-made, and still holds true today: if you want to see innovative, exciting, engaging ICT, you're more likely to strike lucky if you visit a primary school than a secondary school.
Don't get me wrong: I'm not knocking the teachers. I think that in an environment that puts such a high premium on getting the grades, any teacher who tries something different, and therefore a little risky, is either supremely confident or somewhat unhinged. Possibly both.
So it's not surprising to hear Edith, the young lady who complained last year that she and her friends were being under-taught in ICT, bemoan the fact that games in her ICT lessons are an add-on, a reward at the end of term. Not only that, the games she showed are pretty one-dimensional to say the least.
Having said that, I do think there is a place for such games, as long as you take into account various factors. It comes down to appropriateness: if it helps the student learn in a challenging and engaging way, that's fine. But the teacher should still aim to raise the game (pardon the pun) as soon as possible. My yardstick is how much perspiring the student is doing: if they're too relaxed, not even breaking into a sweat, the activity is not challenging enough.
Before making way for Edith, I should like to observe a couple of things. Firstly, that despite Edith's deprecatory comments, the fact that she knows the terminology associated with spreadsheets presumably means that her teachers haven't done such a bad job after all.
Secondly, and Edith did mention this, games are useful for what students can learn from playing them. So if students can learn about modelling from a game, that's OK. If not, then a challenging project involving spreadsheet modelling is absolutely fine: contrary to what is sometimes said, spreadsheets are not inherently boring; they just look that way!
Enough! Listen to Edith.
There is a special games-based learning issue of the free newsletter, Computers in Classrooms, coming out in April. Some brilliant prizes plus fantastic articles! Sign up now!
#gbl10 The word that popped into my mind at the end of the conference was 'inspiring'. That's good. There's a chance that when you've believed in and seen the efficacy of games for learning, for many years, that you can become harder and harder to please until you reach the point where nothing excites you. The technology is exciting, obviously, but more exciting than that is what people are doing with it.
I took the opportunity to look at so-called 'serious games', as I'm familiar with the school-based work that's going on, so my viewpoint will reflect that a certain extent.
#1 Fresh air and daylight
Not much of that, I'm afraid. I spent most of the time in artificial light and in darkened rooms. At least the breaks were long enough to be able to nip out and get some oxygen. But this, of course, is more a reflection on the venue than the conference itself. The Brewery, where the event was held, is a very pleasant environment. Just no daylight in several rooms.
#2 Can we move now?
Some of the sessions did seem a little long, but the long breaks compensated for that I think. At least, I didn't feel that my blood had stopped circulating!
#3 Where are the kids?
There were 10 year-olds showing off their programming skills at the 2Simple stand, and at least one person I know brought his son along. However, as far as I can see there were no children physically in evidence as part of the programme. Fortunately, two or three speakers included video clips of youngsters playing and reflecting on games. I think that's important.
#4 Plenty of 'down' time
This was an excellent aspect of the conference. For example, the lunch break was so long that it was possible to go for a walk and still have time to eat lunch and talk to people. The terminology used was good as well: 'socialising' and 'reflecting'. At many conferences, there is a relentless torrent of 'stuff', and hardly any time for reflection. This was different.
#5 Good speakers, on good topics
No complaints about the topics, but some of the speakers could do with a few lessons in presentation. For example, why did two speakers assume the audience could read print and diagrams that had obviously been designed to be read on paper? Or were we expected to bring telescopes? And since when has it been acceptable for speakers to address the audience with not just one hand in their pocket, but both hands in their pockets? Is that how you speak to people you respect?
Fortunately, some speakers were excellent, in terms of both content and style of delivery, and all speakers had great content to share. I've come away with a lot of information to process, and a lot of information that will be useful in my work, which is what I'd hoped for. So overall, I'm pretty satisfied.
#6 Let the people speak
As well as plenty of time for networking there was usually time for questions after a talk. Also, the seating was 'wedding style' with gorups of tables so people could converse with each other. There were two ' unconference ' sessions, Mirandamod (# mmgbl in Twitter) and Teachmeet . Unfortunately, they were both on at the same time, which I thought was a great pity.
#7 I wanna be connected
The wi-fi was excellent, and the Twitter stream great fun. There was a Twitter game too, which I didn't take part in, and the tag to be used was made clear (#gbl10).
#8 Who else is here?
It was nice to meet lots of people I know and quite a few I didn't. I was not able to find a delegate list, but in these days of data protection legalities perhaps conference organisers are reluctant to take chances. The Twitter stream is always a good way of finding out who else is around too!
#9 Decent accommodation
Well, I can't complain because I stayed at home and commuted each day. Someone I know stayed in a new hotel for half-price. There are always good deals around throughout the UK.
#10 Lots of choice
There were three main strands, and you could mix and match, on each of the two days. The only time I thought choice inappropriate was that between Mirandamod and Teachmeet , as I've already said.
#11 Post-conference information
Well, the Twitter stream is still going strong at the time of writing (#gbl10), and the conference website should have links to lots of videos of the talks next week.
#12 If you're going to advertise, tell us
Well, I suppose that if, as I did, you go to sessions on serious games you have to expect advertising. I have to say, though, that one or two talks felt like just one long TV advert. Happily, there was plenty of good content too, so perhaps we can regard the talks as ' advertorials '. I'm not complaining, just observing.
#13 No text please
There was a lot of printed material for the taking. I just wrote down their website addresses. There were CDs available on some stands too.
#14 Start and end on a high
Well, the conference got off to a good start with a nice video and thumping music; the talks were good too! The closing keynote, by Jesse Schell was superb. And it was great to have the prize draws afterwards, even if I didn't win anything! Graham Brown-Martin certainly knows how to organise a conference.
Over to you
I'd be interesting in learning how you found the conference, and the 'wow' moments for you. If you like, contribute a paragraph or two to a forthcoming newsletter, described in the next paragraph.
I'll be writing about the conference, or certain aspects of it, in greater depth in the special Games issues of the Computers in Classrooms newsletter , due out in April. It has a great line-up of contributors and lots of interesting information and reviews.
If Games-Based Learning is something you’re interested in, or something you don’t know much about but would like to explore, you’ll be interested in these 3 events.
The Games-Based Learning Conference 2010
The first one I’d like to mention is the Games-Based Learning Conference in London. This takes place on the 29th and 30th March, and I would say it’s essential to attend, for the following reasons.
- I think – and have always thought – that games have tremendous potential for education, as you can see from my case study. It’s great to have a conference dedicated to this subject.
- I attended the conference last year, and found it extremely stimulating. I met or attended sessions by people who are not on my radar at all.
For example, I attended a short presentation by someone developing a so-called ‘serious game’ (I thought all games were serious; but what’s wrong with having fun anyway?) for a particular organisation at the time. As I had already arranged a visit by a group of teachers to the company to look at their IT systems, I was able to ask our host for a special detour to find out more about the simulations it had commissioned.
I also attended one or two talks by academics, some of whom came from abroad. These talks brought an extra dimension to my understanding and knowledge of games-based learning.
- Like the Handheld Learning Conference, which is also organised by Graham Brown-Martin, the GBL Conference has a very vibrant, upbeat, celebratory atmosphere. At the end of the Handheld Learning Conference in October 2009 I scribbled one word on my notepad: ‘exhilarating’. The GBL Conference is similar.
- The organisers have been sensible enough to invite Derek Robertson of Scotland to give one of the talks. They’re doing brilliant things in Scotland – so much so that, having attended a Scotland-centred session at the Handheld Learning Conference, half of us were ready to emigrate there and then!
There’s an early bird discount if you book by the 31st January. The cost will be £345 + VAT, a saving of around £250. In addition to a fully inclusive 2 day conference, there is a social networking evening with drinks and the choice of an additional workshop hosted during 2010 in London by Playgen. Also, every ‘early bird’ will receive a FREE digital camcorder so that they can record parts of the conference that interest them. Hopefully this will encourage some video blogging and uploads to YouTube, etc, which should make an interesting addition to the usual Twitter stream and the more official Blip TV videos of the keynotes. There are also two newsletters available at:
To find out more about the conference programme and to register, go to the conference’s home page. And don’t forget: Early Bird registration ends on the 31st January.
Computer games, learning and the curriculum: uneasy bedfellows?
Another, very different, event you might like to attend is the Mirandamod event on the 9th March at the Institute of Education. Run under the auspices of Mirandanet, an academic group founded by Christina Preston, these typically take the form of a seminar at which two or three guest speakers give a presentation and the rest of us chip in, followed by a debate. What makes the experience quite rewarding is the following:
- Unlike a conference, the atmosphere is a bit more intimate. I’m not talking about candlelit dinners intimate, but with a smallish number (around 20 or so) it’s easy to get to talk to most people there.
- The event is live-streamed, so we receive comments and questions via Twitter and through the FlashMeeting videoconferencing system.
- There’s a nice variety of speakers and attendees. This time, for example, Handheld Learning Award winner Dawn Halleybone will speak, as will Colin Harrison, Professor of Literacy Studies at the University of Nottingham, and Dominic Preston (Christina Preston’s son), who will talk about marketing issues.
I will be chairing this event, and look forward to meeting you in person or seeing you online. To find out more about it, read the details, and register, online.
Computers in Classrooms Games in Education Special Edition
The final ‘event’ is the publication of a special Games-Based Learning edition of Computers in Classrooms, my free e-newsletter. I have invited a number of guest writers to give their perspectives on games in education, and there will be reviews as well a prize draw for an award-winning game. Only subscribers will be entered into the draw, and as a subscription doesn’t cost any money, what are you waiting for?
If you have experience of using educational games, or of games in an educational setting, or views, why not share them with your fellow travellers on this road to enlightenment? I can accept articles ranging from ultra short (140 characters), to almost ultra short (50 words) to average (600 words) to rather detailed (1500 words). But get in touch to pitch me your idea first!
If discursive writing isn’t your thing, do have a look at my 50 Ways To Contribute To A Website. There’s sure to be something there to appeal to you!
That edition will be coming out in April, after the Easter break. There are some other great issues planned as well, including a post-BETT special. If you’d like to look at past issues and sign up (did I mention that it’s free?), just go straight here:
A short while ago I wrote about my first ‘wow’ moment in educational technology. It concerned using a computer to simulate the workings of a concept in Economics known as ‘the multiplier’. It’s not important what that actually is. More to the point is the fact that it was through using a simple computer program that enabled students to get the concept in an instant, simply because the results of their actions could be seen straight away.
That wasn’t a game as such, but it’s relevant because, just a few years later, I had my students playing a simulation called Running the British Economy. Utilising both the Treasury model and the latest Treasury statistics, the game involved manipulating a number of economic variables in order to keep the economy on an even keel between inflation on the one hand and high unemployment on the other.
Now, the game had value right out of the box. Students were given access to the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s goodie bag, and found out after five game years how successful they’d been, as measured by the simple issue of whether they’d been voted back in after a pretend general election.
OK, Sim City it wasn’t, but it was complex, realistic and, crucially, gave feedback on the effects of changing tax rates, interest rates, government spending and many other things. My students ‘got’ it. I entered them for a national competition, and they came second, beating even a team from a private school. They learnt more in the few weeks of playing the game than I could have taught them using traditional methods in a whole term.
But for me, the real value of the simulation became apparent if you decided to try and break the rules – in order to find out what the rules actually were.
So I instructed the class to go for full employment at all costs. Increase government spending. Reduce taxes. Go for it! They succeeded. Within three game years there was 99% employment. There was a slight problem that inflation was running at around 1,000%, but we’ve got to make sacrifices, right?
However, the prospect of riots in the street and the government being lynched didn’t appeal much, so we went for the opposite: zero inflation at all costs. We did it too! Within a year of cutting all non-essential services (health care, police, armed forces, education) we had a negative rate of inflation: prices were actually falling! I’m sure the 2% of people who still had jobs were delighted.
What we discovered from all this is that the Treasury model was based on Keynesian economic theory – which is fine if you believe that to be an accurate descriptor of how the economy works. If, like Margaret Thatcher and others, you do not believe that, then the ability of simulations like Running the British Economy to predict outcomes is seriously called into question.
As a result of mis-playing the game in the way we did, my students and I were able to uncover the underlying assumptions of the economic model being used. That led us on to rich discussions, not only about the assumptions in this particular case, but the fact that they were not made explicit anywhere. How far might other economic ‘predictions’ – such as the one which states that if you reduce State benefits you’ll get more people into work – be based on models whose assumptions are questionable? Perhaps even more to the point, the assumptions you start with determine the result. What playing the game in this showed us was that there’s no such thing as an objective economic model, whatever the pundits try and tell you.
This is just one example of how a game or simulation was used as a means of bringing about some very deep learning in quite a complex area. If you’re interested in how games can be valuable in education, you’re in luck because there are three important events coming up. I’ll be writing about those in a separate article.