Tag Archives: video games

Using eSports to Drive Virtual Engagement outside the Online Classroom

In my previous blog entry, I made the statement that it is a mistake trying to replicate the on-ground classroom experience in the online learning environment. Generally speaking, that’s a good statement. So it might seem contradictory to present the rise of eSports as an example of positive trending in online education–if one were to think of eSports as a replication of traditional team sports and sporting activities. There are, in fact, a growing number of colleges and universities with eSports programs (here is one list).

One of the reasons eSports is effective at improving engagement is that it acknowledges the importance to the learner of what takes place outside of the virtual classroom. The majority of efforts to raise learner engagement (and ultimately retention) in online classes focuses around addressing issues directly related to the classes. A lot of faculty training things like participation in discussion forums or grading in a timely and thoughtful manner. Providing tech support so learners’ time online (in class) will not be interrupted.  But there is little done to engage the learner outside of their virtual classroom environment. Leadership likely wonders, “what would be the point?”

The point, certainly, is that educators have long acknowledged what happens outside the classroom is important to learners. It’s part of the reason behind all the extracurricular activities. The beautiful landscaping. The dining experience and varied menu of food items. The bookstore. Student Union. All of that. Oh, and yes, the sports for both student athletes and student spectators. What are the analogs to these activities and facilities for online learners?

It’s exciting that adoption of eSports in higher education is starting to grab hold and grow. It’s still a new cultural shift, though, and it’s not something with which even online students are familiar. That’s why the news that eSports is gaining a foothold in secondary education is so exciting. If learners are exposed to something in their high school years, they’re more likely to bring that with them as a cultural expectation, and it will give them greater comfort with their education experience. This article in Engadget is a good read. The author points out that “Many teachers (and parents) still see video games as a waste of time.” What’s not a waste of time is the effort made to increase engagement for online learners. That represents tremendous value. With the technology being as widely available as it is, along with the ubiquitous familiarity that many online learners already have with the content, the value can be realized with a very low cultural cost.

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Filed under computer games, eSports, games, Hap Aziz, high school, higher education, Uncategorized

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.


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

Playing Action Games Can Boost Learning

Here’s an interesting article on how video game play can influence learning. I’d give a deeper analysis, but, uh, I need to get back to my game of Destiny on the PS4….


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Filed under computer games, games, Hap Aziz, learning, video games

Identifying Great Video Games for Education

by Hap Aziz

In her blog post “10 Surprising Ways to Spot a Great Video Game,” Shira Lee Katz lists 10 characteristics of video games that have value for learners. Additionally, she provides two example video games for each category, and she provides a brief description of each game along with the intended player age range. Though the game examples are all for learners in elementary school, the characteristic categories can be applied to all age groups at any education level. It would be quite instructive to build such a list for the college-aged population.

Now, an article I would really like to see would be “10 Surprising Ways to Spot a Great Course.” A great hurdle to overcome, of course, is that we do not have a convenient mechanism for learners (or other educators, for that matter) to try out or review courses before actually taking them. Until there is better visibility into the course experience (whether it is online, face-to-face, or any combination in between), it will be exceedingly difficult to compare courses on a wide scale and develop a true rating system that allows the learner-as-consumer to make informed choices about course selection.


Filed under computer games, education course content, education technology, face-to-face instruction, games, Hap Aziz, online education

Jane McGonigal: Gaming Can Make a Better World

by Hap Aziz

I’ve always been a proponent of the sentiment that people learn best when they play. In fact, people of all ages can learn some very significant things when they are playing–things about the world, society, each other, and themselves. Learning is, of course, a prerequisite to doing. By encouraging game play, we can expect some very good and important changes to take place within the game playing community in terms of what they have learned how to do. And if we spend enough time playing the right kinds of games, we might even be able to solve some of the world’s most challenging problems.

Ready for some brilliant inspiration? Take a look at Jane McGonigal’s TED video below.


Filed under computer games, games, simulation

More Avatars: Playing with Gender in Simulation and Narrative

by Hap Aziz

In considering the “classic” definition of the term “avatar” of vessel for God on Earth, we are immediately put into the frame of mind of a one-way relationship or control, much like a puppet-master and marionette: the one pulling the strings while the other gives expression to direction received. However, in the play environment, we find that there is a more sophisticated relationship between gamer and character. When the gamer becomes immersed in the simulation environment and the narrative unfolds, he or she sees events from the perspective of the avatar. It is as though these events exist for the avatar’s life, separate from the gamer… and as though the events would continue even without the gamer’s participation.

Steven Poole argues that gamers learn to care for their characters to the point of feeling grief at their loss. This may be driven by the fact that gamers see events through their characters’ perspective most often (Poole, 2000). This phenomenon is not limited to computer games; Gary Fine found that table-top role playing gamers became very invested in the “lives” of their characters to the point of cheating to protect the favorites (Fine, 1983).

So we see that there is a relationship that changes or affects the gamer in potentially significant ways. This becomes even more interesting when we consider the willingness of many male gamers to “try on” female forms in the games they play. Carol Clover considers this process a way to play with pronouns, so to speak, during the course of a narrative (Clover, 1992). And we do see this quite frequently: the Tomb Raider series of games features a female character, while the Virtua Fighter series is nearly half female characters — and both games are played predominantly by males.

Yet there is a disconnect between the simulation and the narrative where the willingness to swap genders ends.  In considering the original Battlestar Galactica versus the remake, we see counter-example: a large number of males who were unwilling to accept the Battlestar Galactica remake cite that the characters Starbuck and Boomer were originally males as reason for their reticence.

Gonzalo Frasca argues that “unlike traditional media, video games are not just based on representation,” and that, “even if simulations and narratives do share some common elements,” they are essentially different (pp. 221-222). This is a key distinction, and one that explains why while a boy might play as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, he likely would not want to play with a Lara Croft doll. There is some difference, it would seem, in the way gender is considered in simulation versus narrative.

Which leads me to the question: What are the boundaries of those differences, and how might we leverage that knowledge in utilizing avatars to educate and promote awareness of gender roles in the real world?


Clover, C. (1992). Men, women, and chain saws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fine, G. (1983). Shared fantasy: Role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frasca, G. (2003). “Simulation versus narrative.” In Wolf, M. & Perron, B. (Eds.), The video game theory reader (pp. 221-235). New York: Routledge.

Poole, S. (2000). Trigger happy: The inner life of video games. London: Fourth Estate.

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Filed under avatars, games, gender roles, narrative, simulation

Connecting Game Avatars with the Real World

by Hap Aziz

While my thoughts are focused on avatars, I’ll take a slight detour before the end of 2011 to explore the topic a little deeper. I promise I’ll tie the topic back to the whole EPS theme before too long.

The concept of avatars and the possible technology ramifications have been a staple of Science Fiction for many years, and certainly avatars as devices of identity have been a part of the computer and video game experience since the late 1970s.

The picture below is a screenshot of the video game Space Wars from 1977. Space Wars was the first vector graphics video game, and the player-controlled spaceships were the first avatar representations produced on computers. (It is important to remember that an avatar is not simply a representation of a person or lifeform that a game player can self-identify as being. An avatar can also be any object or entity that a player can control.) The idea of the game was simple: control your spaceship and destroy the enemy ship while avoiding being sucked into the gravity well of the point singularity in the center of the screen.

Now consider this passage from the Hugo and Nebula award-winning Science Fiction novel Ender’s Game:

“… there was the simulator, the most perfect videogame he had ever played. Teachers and students trained him, step by step in its use. At first, not knowing the awesome power of the game, he had played only at the tactical level, controlling a single-fighter in continuous maneuvers to find and destroy an enemy. The computer-controlled enemy was devious and powerful, and whenever Ender tried a tactic he found the computer using it against him within minutes.”

– Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game, 1985

Ultimately, it is within the context of what the main character Ender believes to be the game, that he actually destroys the enemy in the real world. It is interesting to see how far technology has taken us… and how far we have to go in order to meet the scenarios created in our imaginations. In fact, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) has been putting out RFPs asking for simulation systems that function very similarly to the way in which Ender’s training system functioned. Today, game manufacturers are driving hardware to create realistic simulations that create incredibly complex and immersive environments.

At this point in time it is difficult to foresee where all the simulation and avatar technology will lead, but it is obvious that there’s an important role for it to play in education. There are challenges in terms of costs, development resources, and curriculum integration, to be sure. One of the greatest hurdles will be in equipping faculty to implement these technology tools on a classroom-appropriate scale, and empowering faculty with the skills and resources to build useful simulations on their own. There is also a tremendous opportunity for the development of intelligent avatars that could be used as tutors or Personal Digital Teachers individualized for every student, residing on a smart device, and powered by the EPS. Perhaps not by the end of 2012, but that’s something which I am certain will come to pass.


Filed under avatars, education, Educational Positioning System, future technology, games, Personal Digital Teacher, technology