Category Archives: vintage technology

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

Entrepreneurship and Instructional Content: Using Kickstarter to Fund Games for Education

by Hap Aziz

The development of course content, especially at higher levels where students are more sophisticated and discerning regarding their academic materials, has always been a challenge. It is important to be able to strike a balance between cost of development (both in resources and labor), instructor expertise, and turn-around time (or development time in response to current or recent events that might have an impact on the course learning objectives). Basically, it has been a question of what can the instructor build by him or herself, in time for the upcoming lessons, that isn’t going to involve a budget request from the department. Because of this dynamic, the “promise” of computer games transforming the education landscape has never really been realized, it if the prevailing thinking around this doesn’t change, neither will the landscape. What likely needs to occur is a shift in the expectation of games in education; designing a learning activity that plays like Modern Warfare–or even Angry Birds–is well out of reach of faculty skills and department budgets.

A possible pathway out of this impossible maze of twisty passages involves two strategies to be executed simultaneously:

  1. Utilize game formats and development tools that individual instructors can use effectively
  2. Be creative in finding methods of funding (and the funding should only need to cover relatively small amounts)

It is with both of these points in mind that I developed the Historical Williamsburg Living Narrative Kickstarter project. To the first point, I selected an “old school” type of computer game that can be developed quite effectively by a single person; an instructor who wishes to build something small scale in time for the upcoming semester, for example. To the second point, I decided to fund my project through Kickstarter, a crowd sourced funding model in which backers make donations rather than investments (meaning that if the developer is able to raise the funding, there is no pressure that the project become profitable enough for repayment).

My idea is simple: if instructors can use a form of computer games such as Interactive Fiction (a form that the literature shows is effective even with reluctant readers), they would be able to develop smaller game exercises that can be integrated into their curriculum, and expanded upon over time. With Kickstarter funding covering some relatively minor miscellaneous costs, there would be no significant budgetary impact to take into consideration.

(In fact, we could go even further and consider the creation of an education-specific form of Kickstarter. Imagine institutions tapping into their alumni base for course material development or even program funding on a smaller scale.)

I invite you to review the Kickstarter project by clicking here. The funding window is open until early June on that project. You can find additional material on the project at the official project blog by clicking here. Please feel free to share your thoughts, and I’ll be sure to report back throughout the development process.

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Filed under colleges and universities, computer games, cost of education, crowdsourcing, education course content, education technology, games, gamification, Hap Aziz, higher education, Interactive Fiction, Kickstarter, Kickstarter.com, technology, vintage technology

Taking a Stroll Down 16Kb Memory Lane

by Hap Aziz

On this day of Peace and Goodwill, one of the traditions that our family shares is that of gift giving. And while that’s certainly not the point of the day, it’s a fun tradition, especially when there are children in the house. Over the years, I’ve gotten quite a few “high-tech” gifts, as that’s what my family knows I particularly enjoy. This morning we opened our presents to each other, and now as we’re getting ready for Christmas dinner, I have a few moments to relax and reflect. So what better way to spend the time than to write a blog entry, right?

Today I started thinking about how much various technology items cost when I first got them; that’s a game I like playing with myself from time to time. For much of my life, I was a dedicated early adopter of all sorts of gadgets. Computers, CD players, PocketPCs, the Apple Newton… I was always looking for the newest tech invention to add to my collection. Well, as the gadgets have become more complicated and more expensive, I’ve become much more comfortable waiting a little bit before picking up the latest and greatest. It may not be the latest anymore when I get it, but the significant price drop is always appreciated. Sometimes I’ll even wait long enough to find a cool piece of tech gear on eBay at a fraction of the original price.

Here are some of the devices I’ve picked up over the years:

  • The original IBM PC (in the picture above) – this machine came with a whopping 16kb of RAM, a single sided floppy drive with a 160kb storage capacity, and a green monochrome monitor. The CPU ran at a blistering 4.77 MHz speed. The total cost to me, monitor included, was about $2700 in 1981.
  • Sanyo CD audio player – my first entrance into the world of digital music, when my entire collection was still all in vinyl. It played a single CD at a time, had no remote control, and cost $800 in 1985.
  • 10 Mb hard drive – when it came time to upgrade my IBM PC, I found a great deal on a hard drive. 10 Mb of storage space (I’d never fill that up!), and only about 5 pounds. I got it cheap at $600 in the late 1980s. (Yes, that was 10 megabytes of storage space.)
  • Hewlett Packard fax machine – in 1988, the communications consulting partnership I had needed to receive and send documents by fax. We considered leasing a machine, but we decided to make a purchase for the long-term instead, picking up the machine for a cool $2800. (By the way, the original cost of fax machines was so high, FedEx–“Federal Express” at the time–started its Zap Mail service which was based on using fax machines in FedEx offices to get mail between locations within two hours.)
  • NEC 3D Multisync monitor – Sometime in the early ’90s (though I can’t recall the exact date), I was so thrilled to get this $700 video monitor. It gave me an incredible 1024 x 768 interlaced resolution on an expansive 14″ CRT. (Last year I just bought a 24″ LCD monitor capable of a full 1920 x 1200 resolution for about a third of that cost.)
  • Dell Pentium computer – this was the first generation before Pentiums had any numbers, and it ran at a blazing 75 megahertz. The computer (not even including a monitor) set me back a whopping $5000, and that was in 1994 dollars.
  • Yamaha CD R/W drive – this was a tool necessary for my game company to burn master disks for reproduction. The drive had a 4x read speed and a blazing 2x write speed, and I got the drive for the bargain basement price of $3,000 in 1995. By the way, each recordable disk was a gold master, and they ran $10 apiece. This was about 17 years ago in 1995.
  • Online BBS service – before the ubiquitous Internet and World Wide Web, I paid an hourly rate of $12.95 for my blazing 1200 baud connection (I could dial it back to 300 baud for $9.95 per hour). Ah, the good old days of getting a $400 montly bill to get an online text service in the mid-1990s.

There’s a whole lot more, and I’m afraid to do a full inventory–I don’t need to think about how much money I’ve spent to stay in the hi-tech club, especially now with my 401k taking a beating. But the more important point is the fact that the cost of technology has dropped so dramatically over the years, and it continues to do so. Free market innovation and competition takes the lion’s share of the credit in that regard. All I can say is, keep the gadgets coming!

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