Category Archives: creativity

Are Indie Games an Answer for Curriculum Development?

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

PBS has produced a mini-documentary titled, “The Creativity of Indie Video Games.” This seven-and-a-half minute exploration into the phenomenon of the independently-produced video game raises some interesting questions regarding the potential development of games specifically as education content tied directly to learning outcomes. While the mini-documentary itself does not address the education issue, watching the piece while keeping in mind education needs will trigger some pretty interesting “What if?” ideas. I invite you to have a look and post any thoughts you might have.

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Filed under computer games, creativity, crowdsourcing, education, education course content, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, Indie games, learning outcomes, simulation

Bringing Computer Games into the Teaching and Learning Environment

HapBlogThumbnailby Hap Aziz

In conversations regarding the use of games within contexts of education, there is often great enthusiasm for the transformative potential of integrating computer games in the teaching and learning environment. Kurt Squire has observed that good games allow students to explore a wide range of knowledge areas by motivating them to understand rather than to memorize content—and even to expand their understanding to other related knowledge areas. In fact, the potential for computer games to positively effect learning outcomes has been observed and commented upon by numerous researchers. Even more broadly, entire educational environments can be built using game frameworks to improve learning outcomes by promoting elements of challenge, collaboration, and engagement.

In order to better comprehend the complexities of infusing educational activities with computer game content, it is instructive to consider the more generalized challenges of leveraging computer software and related technologies in the classroom. There are significant difficulties for faculty when it comes to utilizing new and continually-evolving technologies. The “technology-adoption cycle” described by Patricia McGee and Veronica Diaz depicts a timeline in which a faculty member requires about three to four academic terms to comfortably adopt a learning technology solution, and that it takes additional time to actually produce improved teaching and learning outcomes. In part, this is due to the hesitancy among faculty to experiment with the multiple tools that are concurrently available (which to choose?), and therefore faculty move much more slowly by examining a single tool or solution at any particular time. Ultimately, the relentless pace of change among available tools along with the relative lack of information regarding the best practices for tool adoption acts as a de-motivator to the use of any tool—computer games included. It has been further pointed out that students adopt new technology tools much more readily than faculty, and that institutions of higher education (particularly) suffer from limited budgets with which to support faculty, move courses online, and otherwise integrate the new tools.

While studies have made use of commercially available software as well as software developed by design for specific learning environments or applications, there is little research that applies to the specific scenario of game software created by individual instructors for use in their own classroom situations. The field is not completely unexplored in terms of research, but the work is spread over a wide variety of academic disciplines (including psychology, anthropology, sociology, history, and literature) with few linkages between them. This is due largely to the fact that the modern computer game software so highly prized by students for entertainment value and praised by educators for engagement potential is extremely time consuming, resource intensive, and cost prohibitive to develop. The amount of time available for the development and modification of gaming scenarios that can be used in the classroom as well as the availability of computing resources greatly influence the manner in which computer games can be utilized as a component of education.

We do know, however, that computer games have potential educational value. Computer games have been identified as useful instruments that facilitate the acquisition of knowledge through the adoption of specific learning strategies (a cultural characteristic of the information society), and that computer games present immersive experiences in which learners—the players—develop abilities to solve complex problems in a variety of situations. Further, faculty themselves attribute value to the use of computer games. In a 2002 study by McFarlane, Sparrowhawk, and Heald of opinions regarding the potential as well as the limits of computer games, faculty involved in secondary education reported very positive views of adventure games in particular (as a subset of the simulation computer game genre).

The opinions captured, however, were tempered by the admission that using these types of computer games in secondary teaching is made difficult by the lack of time to complete complex games and by the need to cover specific educational curriculum, for which the games are not tailored. Kurt Squire asserts that the main disadvantage of using computer games in the classroom is the time-consuming nature of thorough game play for both students and faculty. Begoña Gros further refines this sentiment by observing that developing the sequence for appropriate activity within a commercial game is a time consuming instructional design exercise in itself. Certainly, this is a significant challenging to utilizing off-the-shelf computer games for instructional purposes.

There appears to exist, then, a challenge and an opportunity for the education community to develop computer games that address both curricular specificity and resource-demanding characteristics. A Problem Statement for more in-depth research might be fashioned like this:

While there are indications that computer and video games may have positive impact on learning outcomes among secondary students, integration of game content within assignments and exercises is problematic due to 1) the lack of “off-the-shelf” games that align well with existing curricular standards, and 2) the great difficulty of developing game content specifically for particular content needs.

The key is to construct engaging computer games specifically to meet curricular needs, and to provide faculty with the tools to be able to develop the game content themselves (or with minimal assistance) in a time frame that is comparable to that for the development of other course content; i.e., in a matter of weeks and months rather than over the course of months or years (as is the case for commercial games).

In regards to developing games to meet curricular needs, educators and game developers have partnered to build content that might tap in to the vast potential of the education market. However, these efforts have yielded titles focused primarily on early childhood audiences such as Reader Rabbit, Math Blaster, and the Magic School Bus, to name a few. Unfortunately, there has been little progress in the development of games for the more sophisticated late-adolescent (secondary school) student. This is unusual, since this age group can be considered to be the core of the multi-billion dollar game market. While there have been some successful game franchises of greater sophistication, including the Civilization, Sim City, and Railroad Tycoon franchises, these titles regrettably do not meet the criteria of “ease of development” for faculty, nor are they inexpensive to produce.

The seemingly insurmountable obstacle to the concept of small-scale computer game development—at least for games that will engage students meaningfully—is that the quality and narrative complexity of these games dictates development cycles that go well beyond reasonable instructional design time frames. But must this always be the case? Fortunately there are other game genre options that are fit-for-purpose, customizable, and relatively inexpensive to develop and produce. Several researchers point to the Alternate Reality Game (ARG), which is a type of Interactive Fiction game that unfolds over a period of time, and that includes a series of puzzles to be solved collaboratively in order for the players to progress to subsequent stages. There are advantages in working with Alternate Reality Games: primarily, they are lo-fidelity (which means they do not require the resources for development as do typical high-end commercial computer games. As a result, the games are much less expensive to design and implement, and they can be aligned with curriculum to ensure that specific learning outcomes are met.

Looking deeper specifically at the Interactive Fiction component of Alternate Reality Games, we are able to identify a tremendous opportunity. There already exists an established form of the Interactive Fiction computer game genre that facilitates meaningful and engaging interaction with the player (student), and this type of Interactive Fiction (IF) game is simple enough for a single faculty member to develop compelling experiences. IF games are straightforward for players to understand the format and immediately engage in play, and IF games have the added benefit of being able to maintain the full form of the original text (on any topic) that is being implemented in the IF format.

The good news is that there are a large number of available game production middleware and gaming engines that have been developed by the industry in order to mitigate the rapidly growing costs of development. These game engines are available to educators at greatly discounted rates, and often free of charge. Inform (http://inform7.com) is one such game engine that has been created in order to facilitate the development of robust Interactive Fiction titles. Quoted from the Inform website:

Inform is a design system for interactive fiction based on natural language. It is a radical reinvention of the way interactive fiction is designed, guided by contemporary work in semantics and by the practical experience of some of the world’s best-known writers of IF…. Inform is used in the classroom by teachers at all levels from late elementary school through university. Playing and writing interactive fiction develops literacy and problem-solving skills and allows the development of historical simulations.

Given the cost of the Inform software tool (free), the learning curve for the game engine itself (fairly low with the program code grammar and syntax primarily English-based), and the relative ease with which custom game scenarios may be developed in short time frames by small teams or individuals, creating Interactive Fiction-based curricular activities for students at the secondary level and above is a strategy worth exploring further. There are other Interactive Fiction game engines such as Text Adventure Development System (TADS, http://www.tads.org/), Curveship (http://curveship.com/), and Adrift (www.adrift.co/) that may be utilized effectively as well, though they require more knowledge of computer programming conventions to varying degrees.

Interestingly, there may be a resurgence in Interactive Fiction taking place from the standpoint of computer entertainment. Leigh Alexander argues that the penetration of smart phones and tablets into the consumer market is creating a broad field of devices ideally suited for IF content. Additionally, Alexander states that the publishing industry is looking for new ways to leverage the ebook format, and IF fits the criteria of engagement and interactivity. In his article “Interactive fiction in the ebook era,” Keith Stuart makes a similar observation regarding IF and ebooks. At the 2011 Open Source Conference (OSCON) in Portland, Oregon, Ben Collins-Sussman presented “The Unexpected Resurgence of Interactive Fiction” (http://www.oscon.com/oscon2011/public/schedule/detail/19193), making the case that the development tools now becoming available are positioning IF for mainstream acceptance once again.

There may yet be a perfect storm forming for the development of games suited to the teaching and learning environment, and Interactive Fiction does appear to be a very likely genre for curriculum integration. The IF game engines are available and very accessible to the non- or novice-programmer. The format is well-suited to be an ebook replacement for the traditional classroom text book. Perhaps most importantly, IF game scenarios can be readily authored to meet specific learning objective needs, even to the assignment level. This is where potential for computer games in the classroom may ultimately be fully realized.

Just for fun, here’s a brief Inform tutorial.

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Filed under Alternate Reality Game, computer games, creativity, Curveship, eBooks, education, education course content, education technology, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, high school students, higher education, instructional design, Interactive Fiction, learning outcomes, narrative, smartphones, tablets, technology, Text Adventure Development System, vintage technology

Legacy Systems and the Anchors that Work Against Change

by Hap Aziz

Back in October, 1995, a small computer company called Be, Inc. (founded by former Apple executives), released a new computer into the marketplace. This machine was called the BeBox, and from 1995 to 1997, less than 2000 of these computers were produced for developers. The BeBox had a lot of unique features going for it such as dual CPUs, built-in MIDI ports, and something called a GeekPort that allowed hardware experimenters both digital and analog access directly to the system bus. One of my personal favorite features of the BeBox was the pair of “Blinkenlight” stacks on both sides of the front bezel. Functioning like a graphic equalizer, they depicted the real-time load of each of the CPUs in the machine.

But as exciting as the hardware was to computer geeks like me, the real revolution was in the Be Operating System, or the BeOS, as it was called. Written specifically to run on the BeBox hardware, BeOS was optimized for digital media applications, and it actually took full advantage of modern computer hardware with its capabilities of symmetric multiprocessing, true preemptive multitasking, and a 64-bit journaling file system (which for practical purposes meant you could shut off power at any time without going through a shut-down process, and when you turned the machine back on, you would find that your open files were still intact).

BeOS was able to accomplish all sorts of things that Windows, the Mac OS, and Linux could not by shedding nearly all of the legacy “baggage” that the other operating systems continued to carry. The Be team was free to rethink the underlying software systems paradigm at the very deepest levels, and the results were truly astounding to those that saw the BeBox in operation.

The moral of the story is that the greatest transformation is possible when we rethink processes and technologies that have been in place for years, decades, and even generations. This is significant when we think of education, because the majority of our education systems are indeed legacy systems, designed and implemented to facilitate processes that were put into practice over a century ago. Even our “modern” Student Information Systems and Learning Management Systems are limited by the “legacy anchor,” and as a result, we see little true transformation in the teaching and learning space. Education timelines are based on year “blocks” of content, and each block is targeted to a particular age group of student (why is every student of approximately the same age grouped in the same grade?). The foundation of the classroom experience is still the lecture, and with online courses we work to “fit the lecture” into an asynchronous mode. Assessment and evaluation processes are, well, pretty much the same as they have been, only with more variation in execution. Schools and institutions of learning are hardly any different than they were in the 1700s–a group of students go to a building where they meet in a room and work with a single instructor. Even in the online environment, we build virtual analogs to the physical world: a group of students go to a URL where they meet in discussion forums and still work with a single instructor.

What would true transformation look like, given the technologies that are available now? How would we write a new, legacy-free education operating system for the 21st century? Those are two very big questions that could spawn a series of lengthy discussions (and, frankly, I need to write a book about it), but I have a few principles that I would offer up:

  • Education should be non-linear from the perspective of time spent on task. That is to say, a concept such as “4th Grade Mathematics” where all 9 year old children are expected to learn the same content over the same amount of time should go away. Little Julie may master fractions and long division in three months while little Stanley may take half a year. At the same time, little Stanley might be happily absorbing 18th century American literature, while little Julie is still working on more basic reading comprehension skills.
  • Places of education should be built to meet specific learner needs rather than be built around the same specifications of classroom space, administration space, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and so on. Why does every elementary school look like every other elementary school, and not just across stretches of geography, but across time as well? The elementary school I attended in the 1960s would function with little modification for my daughter who is in elementary school now. Surely learners (at any age group) are not a monolithic group with singular needs, yet we build places of education as though they are.
  • Education should offer multiple pathways forward rather than a single path that results in matriculation to the “next grade” or failure and repetition of the previous grade. In the world of computer game design, multiple pathways forward is commonplace, allowing players with various skills to progress according to his or her particular strengths–and in making progress, the player is often able to “circle back” and solve particular challenges that he or she was unable to complete earlier in the game. In the same way, a learner may bypass a particularly challenging content area, yet come back with greater skills acquired in a different “track” better able to solve the original challenge.
  • In fact, the idea of “grade levels” is in many respects antithetical to the concept of the lifelong learner. Why measure start points and end points as set dates on a calendar? Rather, education milestones should be set and achieved on a skills-mastery framework, and this process is ongoing for the true lifelong learner. The ramifications of this would be profound on a social level (the singular graduation moment may no longer exist), but from the perspective of personal growth and fulfillment, the benefits could be tremendous, and there will certainly be just as many–if not more–opportunities for celebrations of achievement.

Ultimately, bringing significant transformative change to the education-industrial complex will require rethinking of almost every segment of the teaching and learning process, including the manner in which we engage technologies to support that process. Being willing to discard our legacy baggage will be extremely difficult for many. Yet doing so will be the only way in which we might remix our 21st century technologies of smart devices, mobile connectivity, social media, the Internet, and more into an educational system that meets the diverse needs of our 21st century learners.

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Filed under children, colleges and universities, computer games, creativity, education, education technology, effective practices, emerging technologies, face-to-face instruction, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, Internet, Learning Management Systems, learning outcomes, legacy systems, online education, smartphones, social media, Student Information System, tablets, technology, virtual college

Kickstarter and the Paradigm of Crowd-sourced Funding

by Hap Aziz

This morning I was on the Good Day morning show that airs on Fox 35 in Orlando, Florida. The topic of the segment was Kickstarter.com, and the funding of creative projects through the crowd-sourcing models. Kickstarter, of course, has gotten some fairly extensive media coverage so far this year. There may be more funding for the arts through Kickstarter than through the National Endowment for the Arts this year (more info), and Kickstarter has broken through to the foreground of the collective cultural psyche, even appearing on the IFC series Portlandia (more info).

Browsing through the individual projects, you can get a quick picture of the kinds of ideas people are hoping to fund. It is also possible to gain a sense of what types of projects gain funding, and what fails–although that’s not black and white. The idea needs to be well thought out, of course, but the presentation of the idea itself must be reasonably polished–enough so to inspire some measure of confidence in the potential donors. Perhaps most importantly, the person or people behind a particular project should have strong and extensive social networks that they can leverage for donation opportunities.

Kickstarter is not without criticisms and critics. One of the complaints is that so many of the projects on Kickstarter are, well, junk ideas. Tech blog Gizmodo.com recently ran this piece on why they are done with Kickstarter. It would seem that like so much of everything else on the Internet, it is exceedingly difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. Yet, I don’t think that many people would deny the attractiveness of the model.

So I began giving some thought to the idea of more specific Kickstart-like sites, with tightly controlled review processes that adequately vet proposals before releasing them for donation requests (Kickstarter does have a light review process and a set of criteria for participation). Of course, I thought of the possibility of a higher-education version of Kickstarter, and then I saw this article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: “Professor Hopes to Support Free Course With Kickstarter, the ‘Crowd Funding’ Site.” Certainly, there’s a potential market for the concept, and with a more rigorous review process, institutions of higher education could tap into their strong social networks of students, alumni, and community partners (referring back to my earlier point on what makes for successful funding). There are even arguments to be made why the crowd-sourced model could be used to supplement more traditional grant funding at institutions for a wide variety of projects.

I think the idea of a higher-education version of Kickstarter has some merit, and given my own professional network within the higher education environment, I’ll be exploring the idea to see if it might have wings. Keep watching this space for development on that front.

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Filed under creativity, crowdsourcing, government funding, grant funding, Hap Aziz, higher education, Kickstarter, Kickstarter.com

Game Developers’ Conference 2012: Wrapping Up from an Education Perspective

by Hap Aziz

The Game Developers’ Conference (GDC 2012) has reached endgame here in San Francisco, and there are many thousands of weary game developers, producers, artists, designers, investors, educators, and miscellaneous interested parties bugging out and heading home. I’m one of them. What I thought I would do over the next several posts here is take some of the session descriptions and provide some commentary on the relevance and relationship of the topics to the landscape of teaching and learning. I’ve seen many interesting potential connections between the game industry and education during my attendance in years past, and this time around was no exception. In fact, I saw greater engagement and participation from educators during this year’s conference than I have before. That’s quite heartening to those of us who see the potential for gaming techniques and technologies integrated with the mission of education.

More to come, so keep watching this space!

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Filed under announcement, colleges and universities, computer games, creativity, education, education technology, games, Hap Aziz, simulation, technology

Game Developers’ Conference 2012

by Hap Aziz

The Game Developers’ Conference is taking place in San Francisco this week, and I’ll be in attendance from Wednesday through Friday. I’ve been a regular attendee since the late 1990s when I served on the board of the Computer Game Developers’ Association. Back then, David Weinstein of Red Storm Entertainment (who served on the board of the International Game Developers’ Network) and I were charged with merging the CGDA and IGDN. We did, and that’s how the International Game Developers’ Association was born. Attending the GDC is a homecoming of sorts, where I get to connect with some of the wonderful folks I’ve met since I started developing software for the Amiga computer many years ago.

My interests now aren’t purely about game design, but I value the opportunity to apply game development techniques to the teaching and learning experience. I expect I’ll learn quite a few things this year, and I hope to bring back some great news and information to share in this blog. For those of you that plan to be at the conference, let me know, and perhaps we can meet and swap notes. And for those of you unable to attend but interested in something in particular, shoot me a note and let me know; I’ll be happy to do some research for you!

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Filed under announcement, computer games, creativity, education technology, emerging technologies, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, simulation, technology, video

Kickstarter and Freedom from Publishers in Game Development

by Hap Aziz

Gameindustry.biz online has a brief article stating that Brian Fargo, founder of Interplay, will fund a sequel to the RPG game Wasteland using Kickstarter, and over the past few days his Twitter feed has revealed his thinking around the crowdsourcing model, with implications for the level of freedom developers would have not having to take publisher money to get the job done. The potential for innovation (and not having to always go the “safe” route) is tremendous. To individuals and smaller game design companies, this is very appealing, and for those of us that have been developing computer games since the late 1970s, this really has the feel of “garage development.” I’m looking to jumping (back) into development with my Williamsburg Interactive Fiction game project. It’s a humble reboot for me, but it takes me back to the pre Infocom days, when Scott Adams games on cassette tapes were all the rage.

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Filed under computer games, creativity, crowdsourcing, games, Hap Aziz, Interactive Fiction, Kickstarter, Kickstarter.com