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Video Games and Learning: Week 2

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Learning how to play

I’ve made it through the various videos and readings for week #2 of Video Games and Learning.  Really good stuff.  A few highlights for me:

Scot Osterwiel’s notion of “play”… searching for the fun in the concept at hand. That failure should be entertaining and provide feedback

David Gagnon’s piece on situated learning.  When designing video games for learning, think about the concept being taught as the killer strategy to beat the game.  So that means you have to get inside the concept sufficiently to think of it as actionable rather than a body of knowledge.  Got to get my head around that.



I was also thinking more about something that Kurt Squires said during week #1 when listening to two of the writers on the AMC series Breaking Bad talk about the process of creating their stories (in this Fresh Air podcast).  Squires talks about the way a well designed video game will pull you through the experience.  The Breaking Bad writers talked about pulling their audience along, rewarding them here, confusing them there, with each character or story insight being delivered at just the right time for maximum satisfaction. Nice.

There was yet another parallel when the BB writers talked about the process of writing. They jot down ideas, fragments of the story they want to tell, on index cards and post them up on a big cork board. Then, working together they refine, reorder, flesh out.  Often times, they explained, one index card will be fairly abstract…something like “Jesse confronts Walt.” and the details have to be worked out.  An ill-defined problem in a well-defined problem space?

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Video Games & Learning: Week 1

Kurt Squire and Constance

Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkueler

I am enrolled in the Video Games and Learning MOOC, taught by Constance Steinkueler and Kurt Squire (University of Wisconsin, Madison).  I signed up for this course when I first heard about it, a few months ago. I’ve been a long time fan of Steinkueler and Squire’s work and was eager to hear what these two vibrant thought leaders had to say about games and learning. No brainer.

This is the course’s first week (still time to sign up, if you’re interested) and they started us out at just the right pace.  The first assignment included six videos totaling about 40 minutes (each video, but one, was no longer than five minutes).  The first of the videos featured our two educational “hosts”, seated together, in a warm and welcoming dialogue about the course to come and how they got into the field.  Nice touch. All the videos are professionally produced, interesting, and snappy. Looks like they’re also going to pull in James Paul Gee for some of the video content, from his books in and around Learning by Design.

Screen shot 2013-10-04 at 3.45.36 PMThe level of material seems just about right – not to technical (with 32,000 enrolled, there’s going to be a huge range of backgrounds, not to mention native tongues) but meaningful enough to make it worthwhile. The course feels very plan-ful – the organizers have clearly thought it out carefully, applied best online teaching & learning practices, and seriously invested themselves.  Here’s an example of nice touch – they consistently use a playful drawing technique to unite elements of the course and remind us of the art & design underpinnings to games.

In addition to the video assignments, there was an infographic (for a lighter diet) and a wonderful, comic-style document, explaining the “theory of fun“, excerpted, no doubt, from the book by Ralph Koster by the same name.  I’ve looked through that treasure twice now. Some really good stuff in there –  asking (and answering) what drives us to seek out products and experiences that are truly fun and entertaining.  It’s storyboard look is so engagingly presented, you just slide right through it.

After the readings and videos, the first week’s assignment was to choose a video game (your choice) and play it for 30 minutes.  Then record a 1-minute video of yourself, reviewing your experience, with the principles you’ve just learned about in mind.  How did the game engage you?  How did you learn the game?  What auditory cues did the game use? What did you like/not like? How did it keep you coming back?

Temple Run screen shot

Temple Run screen shot

I chose the game Temple Run, which I could download for free on my iPhone.  Here’s the place where I confess that I am not a gamer.  I have dabbled here and there.  At one point, I could wangle a pretty mean game of Pac-Man (and Ms. Pac-Man).  What I know about videogames and the gaming culture I’ve gleaned from my two 20-something sons and from reading what smart people like Squires, Steinkueler, and Gee have to say.

I have to say that my 30 minutes with Temple Run went by in a flash. I will be playing it again, I’m sure. It was fun.  Easy. And mildly addictive (as in, “surely I can get better at this…”).  Temple Run is fueled with a simple concept: you are an Indiana-Jones-style treasure hunter, you’ve just stolen a golden idol, and you are dashing out of the Temple with a flanx of demonic-sounding monkeys close at your heels.  Your job is to run, jump, slide, turn grab coins and get out of there without being eaten by the monkeys. The game starts with a simple tutorial (I didn’t even know I was in a tutorial) that gives you screen prompts to learn when to swipe in order to make your hunter jump, slide, and turn. Once I’d had a few successful runs in the tutorial mode, the screen gave me an encouraging “You’re Ready!” and the game began for real.  The first few times those demonic monkeys got me in the first 15 seconds of play (are they actually eating me?).  Then, I quickly got the jumping move down and got better at anticipating the turns.  Soon I was running over 500 meters (maybe a minute) and gathering gold coins along the way.

Just about the time I was getting a wee bit bored with it, a screen popped up telling me that I have the option of going to the store with my coins for some upgrades.  Sure. I bought a multiplier of some kind so that my gathered coins were worth more(?) – I think, not too sure.  This game does not burden you with a lot of explanation – the emphasis is on try it again.  And again.

By the time I stopped I was successfully running 1000 meters and had some serious coinage.  Fun.  Here’s my video:

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