Category Archives: simulation

Second Chance for Second Life?

thumbby Hap Aziz

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education website, Jeffrey R. Young has an article titled, “Remember Second Life? Its Fans Hope to Bring VR Back to the Classroom.” I do remember Second Life, and I actually used in some college courses I taught about eight or nine years ago. It was primarily a tool where I could gather with students for additional lecture time outside of the classroom, and often it was a combination of socializing and course content Q&A. Fortunately, my students were comfortable with technology (the course was on the subject of digital design), otherwise I would not have been able to provide the technical support to get the students signed up, logged in, and comfortable in the environment. The technology is smoother now, but I wouldn’t recommend it for students not confident in their online computing skills.

The history of Second Life is interesting in that it began as a possible game world framework, but the development environment was so robust, SL morphed into an open-ended virtual space that really had no particular purpose. This was both its advantage and its curse, as enthusiastic users that saw potential in the technology worked at finding a purpose for the platform. Many higher education institutions acquired space in SL, and educators used it for lectures, office hours with remote students, and a variety of other activities somehow connected with learning. And while the individual users may have designed unique personal avatars, the education spaces, for the most part, were representation of real campus locations (or at least could have been real). There are a number of reasons SL was unable to sustain itself at its heyday level of engagement, and Young explores them in his article in connection with the latest tech wave of Virtual Reality innovation. Second Life, in fact, is looking to ride the new VR wave with its Project Sansar (indeed, if you go to the SL site, you’ll see that you can explore SL with the Oculus Rift, which is a step in that direction).

Will the addition of 3D VR breathe new life into Second Life? As a technology, there is no question that VR has great novelty out of the gate. But I still believe that without some sort of meta-narrative point to drive engagement, SL could go through another bubble-burst cycle. By “meta-narrative,” I mean that Second Life itself needs to have a point, rather than offer itself up as an environment where users can do anything they want. Why enter a virtually real world to “just hang out and look around” when we can much more easily accomplish that in the really real world?

1 Comment

Filed under avatars, colleges and universities, education, emerging technologies, future technology, games, Hap Aziz, higher education, higher education institutions, holograms, narrative, simulation, technology, virtual classrooms, virtual college, virtual reality, virtual worlds

The Seduction of the Senses

thumbBack in October of 2011, I wrote an almost tweet-length blog entry on the transformation of education through an accident of technology (read it here). While I didn’t provide any details regarding that particular technology, if you have heard me speak on the topic, you know that I’m referring to the invention of  the alphabet.

My basic premise is this: human beings evolved to learn a particular way, which is through the use of all our senses in combination with lived experiences and traditions passed down from generation to generation, usually in one-to-one (or one-to-few) relationships. There were natural limitations to that education paradigm regarding the storage of information, the ability to pass on information without personal presence, and the facilitation of one-to-many teaching and learning relationships. The invention of the alphabet (first hieroglyphic and then later phonetic) essentially removed those limitations over time; however, at the expense of introducing an entirely new barrier to learning content: the requirement to learn how to code and decode symbolic information–the requirement to learn how to read and write before learning actual content.

The invention of the alphabet changed the way in which humans learn, and our model of education reflects the necessary prerequisite of literacy before learning: the first years of schooling is focused on teaching our children how to code and decode the alphabet in order to unlock content stored and conveyed primarily through text. Ultimately, the way in which our civilization has set up the learning enterprise is not the way we humans are built to learn; yet here we are at a point in history where a convergence of modern technologies is dangling the promise of another possible transformation to education. The digital technologies that appeal to our dominant senses of sight and sound have become sophisticated enough to meaningfully engage and (apparently) facilitate learning without the need to code and decode the alphabet. Hand some iPads to a room full of three-year-olds and watch what they learn to do without having to read a word.

This phenomenon hasn’t been lost on educators. There are studies on the use of video games to enhance the education experience (“Effect of Computer-Based Video Games on Children: An Experimental Study” and “Digital Game-Based Learning in high school Computer Science education: Impact on educational effectiveness and student motivation“); there are books and articles published on the subject (What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy and “4 Innovative Ways to Teach with Video Games: Educators from around the Country Share Their Best Practices for Using Educational and Consumer Games to Improve Students’ Engagement and Performance“); organizations have been created and conferences are held to share the latest best practices and even how to secure grant and investment funding for new and innovative learning video games (Higher Education Video Game Alliance and GDC Education Summit); and there are even education games being produced by Nobel Laureates (Nobelprize.org). Intuitively this seems to make sense, and I’m not going to present or argue data here. At the very least there are the educators who feel it might be beneficial to have learners as engaged in course content as players are in their game content.

Several questions come to mind when we consider the use of video games in education. How do we align gameplay with course learning objectives? What technology is required to play games, and how to we ensure access across the digital divide? What is the time commitment necessary to play the game to the point of content relevancy? Perhaps one of the most important questions to answer relates to the cost of game production. The new generation of computer games that is so attractive to so many educators and education policy makers is very expensive to produce in terms of time, development personnel, and funding. Everone seems to want to build the AAA game title in order to excite students about the history of English literature, but who can realistically hire dozens of developers and pay millions of dollars over the course of a year or more to produce that game? How did we get to the point where this is a serious question?

This is all a result of the seduction of our senses when it comes to modern video games. Everyone loves the breathtakingly realistic game visuals and film-like quality. And just like a blockbuster motion picture, the soundtrack and voice talent can tremendously enhance the experience. Make no mistake: these are characteristics that draw in game players, and educators see these as the same characteristics that will draw in learners. However, these characteristics aren’t what make games effective for either entertainment or education.

When imagination is combined with the power of abstraction, the artifact used to engage players (or learners) is a secondary consideration. That’s why a person is able to get as much enjoyment out of reading The Lord of the Rings trilogy as from seeing the films. Or why the same person can play either Call of Duty or chess and enjoy them both as games of war. The power of abstraction is amazingly effective when it comes to experiential engagement.

And it’s that power of abstraction that may allow us to “dial back” on the need for the AAA educational game with the AAA development requirements. As much as I welcome the digital media revolution that is poised to re-engage all of our senses in learning, I would suggest a more technologically humble approach to educational game design that would leverage less resource-hungry production models and recommit to the process of coding and decoding symbolic information: the old-school text adventure game from the genre of Interactive Fiction computer games.

What makes Interactive Fiction (IF) so appealing in the context of education are the same things that are problematic in using more multisensory intense simulation-like games. IF games are less difficult, resource intensive, and costly to develop. As a result, they can be customized for specific learning scenarios, and it is conceivable that micro-teams of instructors and storytellers might build IF game scenarios for individual assignments, tightly aligned with course learning objectives. There is existing research that addresses the learning efficacy of IF games (much of it dated from the mid- to late-1980s mainly because that was when IF games peaked in popularity), and the findings are largely positive regarding learner engagement.

While the traditional IF game was truly a text-only experience, the genre has expanded to include simple illustrations that supplement the narrative experience. In this way, a visual component is added, and the development effort remains low. The result is something that might be more akin to an Interactive Graphic Novel (IGN) rather than the traditional IF game. Consider the IF game 80 Days, designed by Inkle Studios. In a field of games dominated by 3D simulations and fast-paced shooters and RPGs, 80 Days is a testament to the power of abstraction and solid narrative. In a review of the game published in PC Gamer magazine, the reviewer (Andy Kelly) wrote the following:

80 Days can be funny, poignant, and bittersweet. It can be sad, scary, exciting, and sentimental. It all depends on the path you take and the choices you make. The story deals with issues like racism and colonialism far more intelligently than most games manage. Every trip is a whirlwind of emotions, and by the end you feel like you’ve gone on a personal, as well as a physical, journey.

And because there are so many branching paths, it’s extremely replayable. I’ve gone around the world seven times now, and every journey has felt like a new experience. Every time you complete a circumnavigation, additional stories and events unlock, giving you even more incentive to try again. It’s also brilliantly accessible and easy to play, making it the perfect game to share with someone who never, or rarely, plays them.

In other words, this IF game is exactly what we look for in an engaging game experience. What’s interesting to note is that the game was widely praised and recognized for the quality of gameplay. The New Yorker magazine listed it as one of The Best Video Games of 2014. Not only did 80 Days make Time magazine’s Top 10 list, but it it was ranked as the number 1 game for 2014. The fact that 80 Days garnered so many awards and accolades is a strong indicator that the IF genre doesn’t need to take a backseat to AAA titles.

I am not advocating an abandonment of the use of AAA games in education. Rather, it’s important that we use development resources wisely, matching gameplay to learning outcomes. It may make complete sense to pair robust multimedia experiences with particular capstone courses, for example, or in classroom settings that ultimately touch a large number of students. And as the cost in time and development declines while the capability of the production technology improves, we’ll no doubt see more opportunities to integrate AAA games into curriculum. In the meantime, graphically-enhanced Interactive Fiction is a tool that can help educators provide engaging and pedagogically relevant gameplay learning experiences to their students in relatively short order at relatively low cost.

3 Comments

Filed under computer games, digital divide, education, education course content, education funding, education technology, future technology, games, gamification, government funding, grant funding, Hap Aziz, higher education, instructional design, Interactive Fiction, Interactive Graphic Novels, learning, learning outcomes, narrative, play, simulation, text adventure, Text Adventure Development System, text adventure games, Uncategorized, video games

The Significance of Experiencing Learning

thumbIn a previous blog entry, I wrote about the future of education as depicted in Science Fiction, realizing even that genre does not often share a vision of the learning enterprise. And when it does, the teaching and learning endeavor is protrayed most often as rather unchanged from the present day approach. Yes, there are exceptions such as the direct-to-brain information downloading technique utilized for skills training in The Matrix, but that’s rare. (Hogwarts from the fantasy world of the Harry Potter stories is an absolute disaster as an education model.)

If we’re going to imagine the future, it is the direct-to-brain (d2b) downloading process that seems to be most interesting as a truly new education paradigm. Not only would it effectively address learning outcomes achievement, it would dramatically reduce the time required to acquire knowledge and master skills (at least as the fictional process is defined). To be sure, there are obvious technology hurdles to be overcome: creating the brain-machine interface and determining how to encode information so that it can be accessed through the standard memory recollection process are two of the more obvious challenges. But let’s say we crack the technology. Could people actually learn that way and ultimately retain what they learned?

To run through this thought experiment, it would be helpful to use a fictional model that defines the process and provides a framework for our assumptions. While the concept of digital compression of information fed into the brain has been used several times in Science Fiction (Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, Whedon’s Dollhouse, the Wachowskis’ Matrix trilogy), it is the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light” that is based on the central theme of the digital information transfer and what actually takes place in the “learner’s” mind during the process.

Written by Morgan Gendel, “The Inner Light” is about remembering the experiences of a lifetime without having to live through that life in real time. Briefly, the technical scenario within the plot is this: an alien probe finds Captain Picard and creates a wireless link to his brain. Through the link, the probe downloads an entire lifetime’s worth of experiences into Picard’s brain. From his perspective, it is all completely real, and he thinks he is living that life: having children, learning to play the flute, suffering the death of his best friend, having grandchildren, and watching his wife grow old and eventually die). In real-time, however, only 25 minutes has elapsed. When the download is complete and the link is broken, Picard discovers the entire life he lived was just an interactive simulation of experiences placed in his memory… and that he now knows how to play the flute as he learned it in his simulated life.

What interests me about this particular concept of d2b downloading is that it addresses the context of experience in memory. Whatever a person learns, whether it is the alphabet, discrete facts such as names or dates, complex lines of reasoning, or sequenced physical skills like playing the flute, the act of learning is wrapped in a broader experience of what the person was doing during the learning activity. How important is this, especially when it comes to having the learning “stick”?

In 1890, Williams James noted that human consciousness appeared to be continuous. John Dewey observed much the same thing, and in 1932 wrote:

As an individual passes from one situation to another, his world, his environment, expands or contracts. He does not find himself living in another world but in a different part or aspect of one in the same world. What he has learned in the way of knowlege and skill in one situation becomes an instrument of understanding and dealing effectively with the situations which follow. The process goes on as long as life and learning continue.

Dewey is telling us that learning is a continuum, and lessons learned (formal or not) become the foundation for lessons yet to be learned. Certainly this makes sense to us intuitively, and there is research indicating pre-established schema expedites more rapid memory consolidation in the brain. Which is a way of saying that we learn things more quickly if we already have a context for understanding what we’re learning.

But what are the implications for d2b learning as Picard experienced? What Picard experienced, while not logically flowing from his past life (he was, after all, just “dropped” into a new life story), was a narrative built upon the concepts which he already understood: marriage, friendship, birth, death, and so on. And when he learned a particular skill–playing the flute–it made sense to him in that he already knew what a flute was, what playing a flute involved, and so on. There was not anything going on so “alien” that it would not fit into the pre-existing schema he had been constructing since his own birth.

Perhaps more significant is that the skills that Picard learned had a subjective real-time element even though the simulation was digitally compressed. In Picard’s mind, he learned to play the flute because he actually practiced playing the flute, over years in subjective time. Therefore, when he picked up the flute in the real world, he was drawing on the memories of his experience of practice. It wasn’t that he just woke up with a new skill that came out of nowhere.

Interestingly, there is evidence that mental practice can improve real-world performance at some activities such as sports or music. One study had participants mentally practice a sequence on an imaginary piano for some time daily, and the participants displayed the same neurological changes as those who practiced physically instead. It’s possible that mental practice and physical practice both activate the same brain regions involved in skills learning.

Experience, though, is multifaceted, and it is not simply a dispassionate sequence of events, recorded and played back in some documentary style. In learning, there is the idea of how engaged the learner is with the subject matter at hand, and again it doesn’t matter if the topic is the Pythagorean Theorem or Lord Byron’s poem “She Walks in Beauty.” Jennifer Fredricks talks about three types of engagement that may influence learning: cognitive engagement: what we are thinking about our learning; behavioral engagement: what we are doing while we’re learning; and emotional engagement: what our feelings are about our learning. It seems difficult to imagine that a simple d2b data dump would involve all three of those categories, unless the d2b transfer allowed a person to live what was being learned.

Admittedly, this is all conjecture over a Science Fiction idea, and for now, there is no way to run any actual tests. The potential for d2b learning is intriguing in that it may provide a solution for many of today’s education challenges, provided the technology is even possible. At the same time, it presents many questions regarding the true nature of the learning process. We are analog beings that make use of our senses in real-time to learn from the world around us. If we somehow could bypass our senses and compress years of experience into minutes of transfer time, how would we interpret the experience? How would we remember what we learned, and what would those memories feel like to us? Based on what we know today, I’d say that learning is not possible without experience. Whether it is real or virtual may not matter, but without an experiential framework, transfered information is just noise without meaning.

5 Comments

Filed under consciousness, direct-to-brain, education, experience, future technology, Hap Aziz, learning, narrative, neuroscience, Science Fiction, simulation, Star Trek, technology, virtual identity, virtual worlds

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.

Leave a comment

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

Gamification of Education: Balancing Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

by Martin LaGrow

The bleeding-edge blogosphere of education is alive and well, and the topic du jour is gamification.  It is a concept that is already being utilized aggressively in other markets, but there is a lot of debate about whether it has a place in education.  As with most new trends, we are dealing with evolving terminology with no pre-established definition.  As gamification takes on different directions in different contexts, no doubt people will be using the term without an agreed-upon understanding of what it is.  Gamification of education is not just the addition of games to academics—that concept is as old as education itself.  We can all think of games we played in the classroom as kids that complemented learning.  Nor does it necessarily speak toward the application of gaming technology to education.  Rather, gamification is the application of the mechanism and structure of gaming to a traditionally non-game focused context—in this case, the classroom.  According to Joey Lee and Jessica Hammer’s insightful paper, Gamification in Education: What, How, Why Bother?, gamification is “The incorporation of game elements into non-game settings.”  The website GamifyingEducation.org goes into more detail, expanding the definition as it applies to education to include “…the use of game mechanics and dynamics like badges, leaderboards, and actions…for improving motivation and learning in informal and formal settings.”

Before discussing this in the context of education, let’s take a look at how gamification has infiltrated another industry:  health and fitness.  Virgin’s Healthmiles program is a classic example of gamification in action.  Designed to assist employers in promoting healthy lifestyles for their employees, the Healthmiles program exemplifies all of the hallmarks of gamification.  Employee progress toward a healthier lifestyle is quantitatively tracked.  Participants earn badges for various accomplishments, “level up” when they reach certain milestones, and can even compete against coworkers and other program participants through social networking.  Successful attainment of goals is also incentivized with HealthCash.  Virgin has successfully capitalized on the principles that make gamification effective.

Proponents of gamification in education see it as a cure for the malaise affecting our schools.  Students lack motivation.  Efforts to engage them through traditional means are failing.  On the surface, gamification seems like it may be the solution.  According to gamification.org,

“Gamification… doesn’t rely on internal motivation (emphasis mine). Instead, it’s using the oldest tricks in the book: providing instantaneous feedback, egging on the competition, and rewarding even tiny steps of progress. Gamification assumes that the player isn’t especially motivated — at least at the beginning — and then provides barrels of incentives to ramp up that motivation.”  In other words, proper application of external motivation can prime the pump, if you will, of internal motivation and drive success.  While this may be true to a point, it is certainly not a panacea—and some will respond more to this type of motivation than others.

Let’s apply this logic to the Virgin HealthMiles program.  It’s a great notion—after all, who doesn’t want to be healthier?  Who doesn’t agree that exercising more and feeling better about themselves is important?  And this program rewards and incentivizes what we all know we should be doing!  So what rate of participation would you expect in such a program?  Seventy-five percent?  Fifty percent?  According to Virgin, “Our approach…attracts an average of 40% of employees.”  Clearly, external motivation cannot drive success in a vacuum!  While forty percent of employees taking steps (literally) toward a healthier lifestyle is certainly a good thing, what contributes to the 60%, on average, that do not participate in the program?  The answer, in part, is lack of intrinsic motivation.

Applied in an academic context, while gamification can certainly be an effective tool to produce desirable results in some measureable contexts, it is no replacement for internal motivation.  Students need to understand the value of the tasks that they are performing in order to achieve sustainable learning.  A life-long learner is not fostered by extrinsic motivation.  When the motivator is removed, the learner must understand the value of learning for its own sake.

Gamification certainly can and should play a role in the evolution of education.  However, as in all things, it is wise to avoid extremes.  Gamification is rooted in incentive theory.  Understanding this, before any major shift is made toward gamifying education in any context, it is important to understand other theories of motivation (drive theory, humanistic theory, arousal theory, etc.) to best address the needs of all learners.

2 Comments

Filed under computer games, education, education technology, games, gamification, Martin LaGrow, simulation

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!

Leave a comment

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!

Leave a comment

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