A question of culture… and games.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks: presentations, games, panels, games, travel, panels, games, mixed in with new friends and old, and a couple of drinks. But there’s one thing that seems to have kept resurfacing over that time: culture; and our ability to mold it, nurture it, change it, and bask in it. The topic of culture also seems to have been triggered by games, and the baggage that comes with them.

Duke photo

We all love to celebrate culture, but we hate to be the ones to try to acknowledge its flaws. This seems to be the case with education. The reason for this is that it is impossible to talk about the opportunities of curriculum change, technology, or teacher skills without considering the impact of any one of these within a particular school culture. And with about 9,500 schools in Australia, that’s a pretty big number of variants in school culture. Implementing changes like these can be easy if you have a culture where innovation is the norm, and doing things differently is the way things get done. However this would be the exception. Generally any culture resists change because it establishes itself in the longevity of the people, places, and practices that have stood the test of time. These are often good and productive elements of culture, except when they stagnate and imagination wanes, then you’ve got problems. That’s where games come in as a vehicle for shifting culture, either strategically as a way to shift the models of learning and creativity, or subtly in the technology and resources being introduced.

So you can imagine why games meet with such cynicism and resistance in education settings: because they were stowaways on the great ship of technology that has been sweeping schools. Teachers want the tech, but not the games that kids want to play. Kids want to play, but not in the way school wants them to. The school makes rules, but not the ones that help kids feel empowered. The kids look for loopholes and alternatives, in the same way they do in games. Yes it’s a spurious point, but it’s the same game schools have been playing with cyber-safety: build a bigger fence around the ‘pool of websites’ so that kids don’t drown (and is less risky for the school). The only problem is that schools are trying to build a fence around a veritable  ‘ocean of websites’, all the while kids are not learning to swim. Games are in the same boat: schools would rather shun the external world that kids inhabit, because they are a threat to school culture. If that is in fact part of school culture then I would argue that the school has no real culture, but a series of rules enforced to artificially maintain a culture that is more like the world the adults once inhabited. Sorry to be beating up on schools, it’s not their fault. They are trying to implement an archaic curriculum, supplemented by the assumed panacea of technology.

Lets move the focus on culture towards libraries because they are tied with the same constraints. Libraries can be anything they want to be, but what happens when the community wants them to be something else? Libraries are the mirror of society, they reflect the knowledge, the tools, the heritage, and the stories of communities in all sorts of settings. This makes them pretty complex places: a giant spice rack of all kinds of cultures, housed within a culture of their own. So it is interesting when games are introduced into this mix. They are at once a saviour and a black-hole: engaging youth and new people, but expensive to maintain and complex to program around. They also push buttons in the same way as the do for schools: they create noise, they make people gather in groups, they distract people for other more important studies. This is where the games communities come in. They generally love libraries, or have vague recollections of one, and are energised by the opportunities of having public space to play in. It’s the same context in which students want to play games in their school libraries. It is an acknowledgement of a culture, based around the concept of play, that brings people together. It also presents a pretty powerful springboard for libraries, especially when you realise lots of people want to participate. It only took a couple of days at PAX Australia (and a panel on The Playful Library) to be reminded of just how rich, diverse, and wonderful the games communities are. As for the noise, the groups, and the distraction: this is actually quite negotiable, once you’ve opened your mind and your spaces to them. It was refreshing to see these very concepts being challenged in New Zealand at the Auckland Library Youth Services Hui.

I made a lot more sense in this article on Games and learning for SCIS (Schools Catalogue Information Service), but that was before I turned the lens onto culture. In fact I am not so sure culture is the target now, I should qualify it and say workplace culture. This seems to be the place where it becomes clear just how far you can take those words of ‘risk’, ‘innovation’, ‘imagination’, and ‘play’. Workplace culture will only show its beauty and its repulsion when you put these words into practice – and it seems most of us, including the students, are still trying to figure out why it reacts the way it does.


Game developers take on game-based learning

You know how these things start: a tweet about some new research into the benefits of game-based learning spawns 45 tweets and all sorts of thinking about the intersection of games and learning. Yeah, that old chestnut. What was exciting about this tweeting flurry was that the insights and perspectives on what makes a game a learning experience came from game developers, not teachers.

The conversation was sparked by my tweet about an Australian study from Macquarie University for the NSW Curriculum and Learning Innovation Centre which highlighted the benefits of game-based math. The research was carried out by Dr. Kristy Goodwin, who highlighted the following benefits in the Mangahigh Extended Evaluation report (PDF):

  • Improved student learning outcomes,

  • 100% teachers reported that games had improved student learning,

  • 83% of students reported that the games helped their learning,

  • 94% of students reported that Mangahigh was more enjoyable than traditional modes of mathematics instruction,

  • Teachers reported enhanced student confidence which may lead to greater engagement and motivation, and

  • Instant feedback contributed directly to a more transparent learning process.

Getting acknowledgment that games have a role to play in learning and education is always good news – except the use of the phrase ‘Digital Game-Based Learning’ just seemed unnecessary and overly academic. This report added to the growing global body of significant research into the value of games in learning environments. Learning through play, who knew right? Der.

No, the really exciting bit was that I had only been recently reflecting on being more engaged with my Twitter followers who are either game developers or those that support the games community. This kind of report provided the fuel to get the conversation started. Very quickly game developers Andrew Goulding (@brawesomewaffle), Ben K (@AussieBen), and Andrew Duval (@_AndrewDuval) got involved in a tweet-chat about games and their impact on learning.

A few things became central to the conversation that followed. First, my initial point that other factors are crucial than just dumping the game in a classroom of students: that time and again the tech/game is only as powerful as the capacity of the teachers to make it meaningful in the context of the students’ work, otherwise it’s just a stupid way to crowd an attention-seeking, disjointed, and desperate curriculum. This means that teachers have got to start understanding games as a separate medium, the same as they might do with books or films, in order to appreciate the mechanics, design, and opportunities they offer. And there’s only one way to do this: play them.

Second, the way games are funded in Australia has a history of being pretty sporadic. Given that Australia has developed games which have stood their own ground on the world stage makes for a very impressive story – but that’s for another time. Certainly when it comes to the funding of educational games, things get even more lean. The US has gone quite a way to making in-roads on developing better educational games, thanks to the funnelling of major philanthropic investment from groups like the MacArthur Foundation, the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre, and the Gates Foundation. Of course the scale of these organisations do not exist in Australia, and neither does the kinds of support and thinking for games-based learning. This is gradually changing however, with examples like Knowledge Quest, Mathletics, LiteracyPlanet emerging as some examples of ways games can be built around learning outcomes.

Third, most people who grew up with games know that making a game educational is not the only way learning happens; and edutainment has a horrible history of trying so hard to gamify learning to make it ‘fun’ that it sucks all the fun out. And those who make games are even more qualified to have insights on this area, as Andrew Goulding pointed out –

The second comment by Andrew nailed it, in my opinion. It highlighted something often overlooked by those wrapped up in edutainment, and the same affliction teachers have when they use a tool, resource, or game that they don’t fully understand. Mechanics and motivation matter. I think this tweet would make great context for a panel program with educators and game developers. Andrew Duval qualified this by saying –

That last comment by Andrew Duval would also make a great public debate for educators and developers; and parents for that matter. There is such a pressing need to better educate people about how games function, their purpose, and their potential for teachable moments. For far too long games have been lumped together in the bucket of mindless violence, subconscious gambling, and meaningless story – it’s worth remembering that other mediums have all gone through this societal evolution; consider music, films, comics, and even books. Andrew Goulding wrapped it up towards the end with this nice insight –

While there is still so much to learn about game-based learning, there is also clearly a need to have more conversations like this, with a wider audience of experienced developers, designers, educators, and learners. It can start and end with everyone playing their way around a room full of games of all genres and platforms, coming together to explore perspectives and experiences, and building a better awareness that the answers often lie in communities we’re not connected with enough.

Also check out: Mangahigh and Dragonbox App