Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Games for Health

Carrot not stick.
Almost a year ago, I wrote an article called ‘Games Based Healing’ which featured games that help people learn about illnesses, how to self-heal and more through games.  This article featured games to help those with dementia, autism, cystic fibrosis, depression, stroke, dyslexia and post-traumatic stress disorder.  Since then, I have come across a few more articles about how games are helping people to learn about, cope with and beat health issues.


Depression featured in our post previously mentioned, however, this great article also argues that games could have great potential to help people with depression.  It lists 3 games/apps: Depression Quest, SPARX and MoodTune which have been developed specifically for people with depression.  The article also discusses a therapist’s use of games in sessions.  She uses them as a therapeutic tool to get children talking and working through their troubles.  A gamer’s perspective is also shared, suggesting that games have positive and negative effects for people suffering from depression, but that games specifically designed to treat depression can be fantastically useful.


A game for helping stroke victims recover was also featured in our previous post.  However, a game, Stroke Hero has also been developed to help teach children to recognise the signs of a stroke.  The game has had great success so far.  Click here for more information.


Wellapets is a game designed to help children handle their asthma.  The game features a pet dragon which the player must look after, including giving them their inhaler.  It aims to motivate positive behaviour change, reduce stigma, teach about symptoms and how to avoid common triggers.  Read more here.


Again, Autism featured on the previous list.  However, this article features a list of apps that have been designed to help children on the Autism spectrum to communicate.  There are quite a few apps, some of which are free and some not.

Breast Cancer

Cancer Research UK has developed a game to help them analyse a large amount of genetic data collected from their studies.  The game is called Play to Cure: Genes in Space.  Players are encouraged to go on space missions, but the game environment maps directly to scientific data.  It might be a little difficult to get your head around just how they have managed this, but this sort of innovation is a fantastic use of games and perhaps we’ll see more of it in the future.  Click here to read more.

I hope this emphasises that games can be used in a wide variety of ways and that games based learning is extremely broad.  Games are as varied as any other medium and can be used as such.  And as this post hopefully suggests, games can do a lot of good and help a lot of people.

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Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Is Games Based Learning the Solution to Student Engagement?

I recently came across an article from Edutopia entitled, ‘Kids Speak Out on Student Engagement’.  The article is a teacher’s summary of 220 students’ responses when asked what engages them.  Interestingly, they could mostly be answered, if only in part, by games based learning.  Below is her list, with my comments about how GBL could help.

  1. Working with their peers – the original article explains the power of collaborative learning and discussion.  Many games are designed to be played together and many that aren’t designed this way can still be used in groups.  Games can spark discussion and debate, even if learners are working/playing ‘alone’.  Games can encourage students to problem-solve collaboratively and improve their communication skills.
  2. Working with technology – of course GBL doesn’t have to involve technology, but that is the main focus of our blog.  Therefore, games are a great way to get students working with technology in an exciting and productive way.  The article also explains that technology can allow powerful ‘learning by doing’.  An immersive game can help people learn knowledge and skills in a more meaningful way.  And as the article hints, technology (and often gaming) is so prevalent in young people’s lives that it makes little sense for school to be technology and game-free.
  3. Connecting the real world to the work we do / project based learning – good game design should help learners connect their learning to the real world.  The games should be relatable and relevant.  All of these things can help motivate students and allow for better memory encoding.  Games can be used as part of a larger project.  However, a good serious game almost acts as a project in itself.  It could allow exploration, learning, problem-solving, creativity and develop the student’s understanding/skills from start to finish.
  4. Clearly love what you do – this is about the teachers.  If you are reading this now, it is likely that you are interested in, or maybe even passionate about GBL or innovative, 21st education.  Therefore, bringing a game to the table is likely to be something that you are excited about and that will rub off on students.  
  5. Get me out of my seat! – The article explains that students learn most when they are active.  Not all games are built for movement, however some are.  For example, see our articles, ‘Kinect Games Based Learning’ and ‘Proof of the Pudding…’ (this one explains one of our games based workshops where the children or adults are encouraged to get out of their seats to negotiate, problem-solve, prioritise and more with other individuals and groups).
  6. Bring in visuals – a good game will have meaningful visuals.  These can make concepts clearer and motivate learners.  For example, in our game, mentioned above, the children are put in charge of a town, which they have to improve by making purchase decisions.  The town graphic, as well as the reports, change according to their decisions.
  7. Student choice – games can be very good for encouraging self-directed learning.  The article also mentions having a choice of activities related to a topic for different levels.  Games can be wonderful for allowing learning at the student’s pace and level.  Often games advance when the student has mastered the initial knowledge and skills.
  8. Understand your clients – the kids – this one is obviously very dependent on the teacher’s attitude.  The article explains how important the culture of the classroom can be for encouraging learning.  Allowing learners to play games at school has the potential to bring about a lot of respect for the teacher.  This is especially true if the learners are given freedom to play the game as they wish.  Games can be very self-directed but structured which can encourage a positive environment in classrooms.
  9. Mix it up! – Obviously games are a great way to mix things up.  They get people doing an activity that is unlike the norm, which can wake people up and keep them motivated to learn.  The article also talks about multiple learning styles (e.g. auditory, kinaesthetic).  See our article ‘Games Based Learning Supports Multiple Learning Styles’ for more about this.
  10. Be human – the article finishes by reminding teachers to have fun themselves.  GBL can be a great way to break up the monotony, spark the imagination, bring fun into learning, wake people up, inspire and so on.  These things are important for teachers as well as students.  The article also suggests asking students what engages and motivates them.  How about going to work tomorrow and asking your students what they would like to see more of in the classroom?  Or maybe even if they would like to try GBL?

For the original article, click here.

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Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Future of Games in Education Infographic

This week, I just wanted to showcase a fantastic infographic from GameSalad full of stats about why games are fantastic learning tools right now and why they will continue to be in the future.  I think it speaks for itself.

For the larger, original, please click here.

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Thursday, 6 March 2014

Games Based Learning – A Danish Experience

Recently, I was lucky to be invited to Aarhus in Denmark by the British Embassy Copenhagen / UKTI (UK Trade & Investment) to exhibit and network at the Knowledge is Great Conference. The conference was an opportunity for British and Danish companies along with educators and civil servants to discuss the future of games based learning.

So what did I take away from Denmark regarding games based learning? Firstly, schools get 50% funding towards the purchase of existing or bespoke digital resources. The Danish games based learning professionals were concerned about what would happen when the funding was removed in the coming years. A valid comparison was made to the demise of e-Leaning credits in the UK. Investment by schools could simply fall off a cliff. Civil servants from the Ministry of Education recognised this as an issue but were happy to let the market take control. Personally, I couldn’t help feeling that it would be nice to have a UK funding cliff to fall off, but I believe there is a place pump prime the industry.

But encouraging take up is not all about pump priming the supply side. There are demand side deficiencies as well. Specifically, teacher take up of games based learning. Here there are strong parallels to the UK situation. Teachers, while intrigued by games based learning, are reticent to take the leap rather like a novice player in a platform game. Pernille Korzon Dünweber from Serious Games Interactive made the point that there was a place for funding teachers in the use of games based learning.

Kristian Emil Andreasen (kanda) observed that the conference wasn’t attended by any entertainment games companies. I responded that there wasn’t intrinsically a problem with that; because while games based learning and entertainment games are obviously related, their design premise differs. Specifically, games based learning should be designed with learning at the forefront and not be crow barred in at the end. But, I think Kristian's point does have a broader significance, which was the point he was really raising, that games based learning needs to be fun and not just worthy, else students will reject it.  Designers need to strike a balance between game play and learning outcomes.

Following on from the importance of game design, at the start of a group discussion, the facilitators asked the group to name their favourite game of all time. While this was a simple ice breaker, it revealed the Achilles Heel of part of games based learning industry. Of the 20 people in the room, half struggled to name a computer game that they had ever played. Clearly, for a lot of people at the event, computer games are more theory than practice.

Kathleen Stokes from Nesta spoke enthusiastically about games based learning from a UK perspective and talked about students becoming makers as well as consumers. Roll on the Year of Code, I say.

All in all, I would say Denmark and the UK are similar in terms of games based learning. There seems to be an enthusiastic but slightly frustrated band of developers, a government that is keen to promote games based learning and an education system that is still getting to grips with what it all means.

Highlights of the trip other than games based learning were happening upon the Aarhus Cathedral which, while fairly utilitarian from the outside, has an amazing interior with some spectacular frescoes. Vivien Life (British Ambassador to Denmark) kindly hosted a lovely evening meal at Nordens Folkekøkken. Also, I had a chance to visit the art gallery (ARoS). Your rainbow panorama by Olafur Eliasson on the roof of the gallery is a unique and amazing experience. I am told that Den Gamble By open air museum is also very impressive, but I didn’t have time to see it.

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Thursday, 27 February 2014

Collaborative Gaming: The Ultimate Case Study

One of the most common ways in which games can be used in an educational environment is for collaborative gaming.  An entire class focusing on one game is far easier to manage or control than many small groups or everyone at a different computer and it also promotes skills such as teamwork or communication.  We have looked at some of the benefits or difficulties involved with this previously but recently an extremely interesting example of collaborative gaming has emerged and, although it isn’t in an educational environment, there are a lot of interesting phenomena that have arisen and we can learn a lot from it in terms of the dynamic of a large group working towards a goal.

A screenshot from TwitchPlaysPokémon - courtesy of http://imgur.com/V9D2Tfi

TwitchPlaysPokémon, whose creator has expressed his desire to stay anonymous, is hosted on twitch.tv, a website more usually used for streaming a game live as you play it, but it has one vital difference: the controls are not entered by one player; they are entered in a chat box to the side of the live video stream of the game.  This means that multiple people from anywhere in the world are in control of the game at any one time and, since it has entered the consciousness of the general public, there are often ten commands being entered in a second and sometimes many more. The game of Pokémon Red (1996) lends itself well to this format; as a strategy game it can be played in an infinite number of ways and it rarely punishes missteps seriously, ensuring a level of unpredictability in progress while also guarding against heavy, demoralising setbacks which would potentially scare off people interested in contributing.  Despite this, it was still expected that some challenges in the game would prove too much for the community at large and it was certainly not expected that they would ever actually finish the game.  However, the combined efforts of the globe’s nostalgia-fuelled gamers have overcome all of the game’s gym battles (the major challenges in the Pokémon series), leaving only the final section of the game and the final boss battles to go.  During the past two weeks or so, there have been moments at which approximately 150,000 people have watched simultaneously, as well as landmark moments showcasing the power that a shared goal and a fun interface can have over a group of people working together.  Of course, there have also been low points and some sections which require a specific sequence of buttons to be pressed can take hours (or in very rare cases, days) to overcome.

How the Group Tackles Issues

Of course, this is the most extreme example possible of a collaborative game; there is probably never going to be another situation where 150,000 people could press the same button on the same game at the same time and it is even more unlikely in an educational environment.  As such, there are some quite major issues with gameplay, but the ways in which the community has reacted to them is enlightening and encouraging.

The first and most obvious of these is that with so many people inputting commands, any section that needs extended precision is almost impossible (such as the dreaded Ledges, which earned their capital ‘L’s).  One of these, a room involving floor tiles that can send you back to the entrance of the room had taken up to 26 hours without any progress.  This motivated the creator to introduce a ‘democracy’ mode, which takes the most popular command over twenty seconds and enacts it, creating precision but it is excruciatingly slow.  This has sparked a backlash from some sections of the community, who believe that democracy mode defeats the point and the game should be completed entirely in the original ‘anarchy’ mode.  The majority of gamers are not particularly concerned about the purity of the experience and so it creates a fascinating phenomenon.  After an obstacle has been impeding their progress for a large period of time, usually several hours, the votes will flood in for democracy mode and they will complete their task before immediately sliding back into anarchy mode so that they can continue the game ‘properly’.

Another problem with the format is that due to the scale, there is a thirty-second lag, rendering many commands obsolete at best and a hindrance at worst by the time there are actually registered.  Again, the hivemind arguably exceeds expectations in dealing with this, often only overshooting targets once or twice before arriving at the destination.  Sometimes, when preparing for big events, the community organises itself via the forums and chat facilities and is capable of entirely pre-empting the lag.  This shows an impressive level of communication, given that hundreds, potentially thousands, of people are entering commands for something they won’t see for another thirty seconds.

Both of these demonstrate an innate desire to progress and to achieve.  The gut reactions of most contributors is to do what is best for the communal goal and it is heartening to see people automatically working together without instruction, although since this is accessible to anyone on the Internet, there are of course a small number of trolls whose sole purpose is to disrupt the game, an extremely easy task when a single disruptive command can halt progress.  However, even more impressive heights have been reached.  Pokémon is a strategy game and as more progress has been made, some members of the community have considered and developed their strategies to deal with both the actual game and the control system.  They show independent research (e.g. finding and distributing this map), critical thinking and even presentation skills as they develop methods to beat certain parts of the game (taking into account the unusual challenges presented by the format), before presenting their findings to the community at large via chats and forums, often in the form of an annotated document or map.  The input format is effectively a vote: if enough people approve of the suggestion they will attempt to enact it and will eventually overpower the others.  There have been suggested strategies which have been considered, rebutted and then ignored and there have been strategies which on the face of it seem counter-intuitive but have been enacted, showing that the majority of the community has a high level of communication.  Astonishingly, there has even been what must be a rare example of organised trolling, when a group of trolls worked together in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to render the game unwinnable at one of very few points where this is possible.


When watching the stream and following the chat, it is possible to get a sense of a cross-section of the players’ mentalities and the way they play.  There are a few clear types of regular players, some of which mirror player types we have discussed before on the topic of MMO games.  Using this article as a guide, we can clearly identify Socialisers and Philanthropists.  There are many people who are playing for social reasons, and in fact the meme culture which has rapidly sprung up around this game is impressively diverse and being added to with playful faux-religious fervour.  It is arguably the star of the show and almost certainly the main reason people have not lost interest is due to the narratives and binding references being constructed as they go along.

In fact, it is extremely difficult to identify anyone playing solely for achievement’s sake, like the Player type in the cited article.  There are some players whose main goal is progression but they still have in mind the social aspect and also the chaos with which this game began, as shown by the immediate regression to anarchy once democracy has served its purpose.  I would add a couple of new types: Purists, who are devotees to the anarchy system and believe that it should be adhered to at the cost of progress; and of course, Trolls, whose main goal is the disruption of the game.  It seems as though all players have purity in mind but as frustration over a specific obstacle grows, we often see them drift towards democracy to facilitate progression.  Purists are the players who staunchly vote anarchy even at this point and could be considered similar to the Free Spirit as they put their personal journey ahead of the collective desire.  However, they are not necessarily hugely creative either so I consider them different.

Fan-made art inspired by the game - courtesy of http://imgur.com/F5NA7RK

Lessons for Educational Games

While this specific format has major problems blocking it from use in education, it could be used with tweaks and editing.  Without being actually used, it still has lessons to be learned with regard to group dynamics.  We can see that when left to their own devices with a goal to achieve, a group of people will work towards a common goal, strategise to overcome more difficult obstacles, and implement rudimentary democracy to make contested decisions.  Ultimately, it may not even be necessary for a game to have any educational content; children (and some adults) could learn those valuable lessons from this exact game.  On top of this, the fictional world and characters facilitate the creation of the culture and memes that surround the game, which glues the community together and promotes discussion and sharing ideas.  Oftentimes, games where learning is spontaneous can be more powerful than when learning is explicit and can feel forced.  For a game to be used educationally, it doesn’t have to be designed with education in mind.  Any game can be an educational game, it just depends what you want to teach.

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