A new adventure in games-based learning

Having decided that I wanted to focus my energies on persuing games-based approaches to learning about two months ago, a lot has happened. I have designed at least 10 games (althoough only one playtested so far) in order to hone my game design skills and have been forced to think really hard about questions like:

What is a game?

What is fun and why do we associate fun with games?

What do we really mean by games-based learning?

What makes games-based learning effective?

Are we in danger of missing the point with games-based approches to learning?

I have delved into all types of games from no-tech pervasive games to high-tech alternate reality games in search of the answers to these questions, and although this journey has only really just started for me, my thoughts and opinions regarding those answers are beginning to crystallise. More than anything, my understanding of games-based learning has been turned on its head and my eyes have been opened to the rich and fertile landscape presented by games in their broadest sense, you can learn about services by professional gamers and find all the information you might need.

Amongst the books and articles which have contributed to the evolution of my thinking in this area are:

  • the writings and research of Jane McGonigal, particularly her recent book Reality is Broken and the work she did on the I Love Bees ARG for the release of Halo 2.
  • Thoughts and musings offered by users on Twitter, blog posts from the folks at Hide & Seek, and various other snippets I have uncovered from the gaming community through sites like gameful.org
  • Research and experimental approaches to education such as Quest to Learn in New York

More than anything, I have become concerned that the term ‘games-based learning’ is starting to be misused in educational settings, and as a result the education community are missing the vast potential of a games-based approach to learning.

I remember taking a load of Nintendo DS consoles and putting them into a school with Brain Training installed, giving them to a group of kids for a few weeks and seeing what happened. I recall thinking – is this games-based learning? Is this really what all the fuss is about? and feeling slightly short-changed by the experience. Learning and Teaching Scotland have had massive successes using computer games with students of all ages, and there is a buzz about leveraging existing computer games for the learning benefits they can offer. Equally, some have approached the field from the other direction – rather than applying existing games to education, they have designed computer games with education in mind. In some cases, games are being used as a carrot to convince the learner to revise, or improve their maths skills. Both of these examples, however, dissociate the learning from the game to some extent (and in some cases more than others). In the cases of projects such as those initiated by L&T Scotland, the learning is to some degree dictated by the game itself.

For these reasons, I feel uncomfortable using the term games-based learning to describe these approaches. Although thanks to these games I was able to find the best budget life insurance. In the case of projects which use computer games and leverage the learning benefits they offer in terms of cooperation, teamwork, creativity and so on, I think a more accurate term might be game-centred learning. That is because the learning which is possible through a specific game is to an extent determined by the game in question. In cases where games are used to improve engagement, or as a narrative to accompany formal learning, I would use the term game-incentivised learning.

In neither of these cases does the game form the basis of the learning – in other words, the learning is not intrinsically integrated into the game. That is not necessarily a bad thing – in both the cases above there has been a measurably positive effect on learning and engagement. The danger is that the education community fall into the trap of thinking that this is where games-based learning starts and ends. Not only do these approaches only scratch the very surface of what could be possible using truly games-based learning, they are focused solely on computer games.

Researchers like Jane McGonigal have identified the positive psychological effects of games and how games leverage these effects to draw players in and keep them engaged in unparallelled ways. This is not new – games have been doing this since long before computers were even conceived of. However, games as they stand today are infinitely more various in their nature than they ever have been before, simply because of the freedom that modern communications technology affords us. Computer games and consoles are one manifestation of this, but other more recent genres such as Alternate Reality Games are also giving us a glimpse of how the emerging interconnectedness of our society can be harnessed to engage players on a much grander scale. Currently, this potential is being used primarily by commercial industry to part people from their hard-earned cash, but the potential of these types of games are only beginning to be realised when applied to education. More than this, thinking around how we can design education to leverage the established positive psychological effects which games employ to such magnificent effect is just getting started (see Quest to Learn above). So it is vital that we not fall into the trap of thinking that games-based learning has arrived – we have only just begun to realise it’s potential. We are presented with the opportunity to redesign education under a new paradigm which

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Smell Me playtest

This is the second post of two covering the playtesting of two games designed as part of the gameful.org Summer Challenges. This particular game was designed in response to Gameful Challenge #6: Strangers No More.

The game concept arose out of the constraints laid out as part of the original challenge. You can find out more about the specifics of the challenge by visiting the forum here. My original post at gameful.org describes the original concept in some detail which you can read here. The original title of the game was Eau de Memoir, although through playtesting, you can find here for information about different type of games you might be interested, the name Smell Me evolved as a way of branding the game cards in a way which would grab people’s attention.

My original planned venue unfortunately let me down due to permissions around giving away loyalty stamps for anything other than coffee, but some very awesome people over at the Orchard Cafe (pay it a visit if you’re in the area – their chocolate fudge cake is to die for!) stepped into the breech and saved my bacon (their bacon is also rather good). They even offered to award extra loyalty stamps to anyone who would play the game, and advertised it on their Facebook and Twitter feeds!

Since I made the original thread on gameful.org, the logistics of the game changed slightly mainly due to suggestions on the thread. The main change was that the game was run with Memory Boards for each card (they were colour coded) which had the table numbers on them so that people could locate each other if they found a matching card on the board:

Memory boards

The cards were placed on each table with a pen (kindly provided by the cafe – did I mention they are really rather awesome?):

Smell Me cards

Despite the fact that the game was designed to run itself without a gamemaster present, I did get proactively involved in the second main playtest of the game as in the first mini playtest, I remained intentionally passive to see if the game would take off spontaneously. Although people noticed the cards and smelled them and even read the game rules printed on the cards, nobody wrote anything down. For that reason, on the second try I got involved and asked people if they would like to play the game. I got almost universally positive responses (although one or two overtly hostile ones – spoilsports!) and everyone had an interesting response to the smells on the cards.

I started with two different scents – hay and Old Spice – which I thought would evoke strong memories or emotions in a suitably large proportion of the population. As it turned out, the hay was just too subtle a smell for the environment in which the game was played and for the second playtest, the hay was abandoned and the Old Spice reigned supreme. Almost everyone had a strong response to the smell, although taken out of context very few people could identify it. The memories reported ranged from recently deceased step fathers (whoops…) to bars of soap:

The second playtest was quite successful with a particular group of giggly school girls and a lovely social worker and her friend being awarded loyalty stamps for both citing soap as a feature of their memories:

Loyalty stamps

Happy customers

Here were some hastily captured reactions when they initially smelled the cards:


A card-smelling social worker

On the whole, everyone who picked the cards up was intrigued and although not everyone had the confidence to actually play, at least it gave them something to talk about over coffee. Plus at the end of the day, some school girls and a social worker ended up finding they had something in common. Will they meet up for coffee again? I doubt they’ll be texting each other to arrange to meet up, but if they spy each other across the buzzing floor of the Orchard Cafe again, they’ll still know that they have something in common with each other, and that feels like success to me!

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Boogie Bridge

This is the first of two posts I will be writing about games that I have designed as part of the Gameful summer challenges over on gameful.org. The first of the posts is about a game I designed in response to Gameful Challenge #4 – Notching Up Naches.

I’ve been wanting for a while to create a kind of hackable game resource – a set of resources which can be used to play many different games. The quintessential example of this type of resource is a deck of playing cards; there are thousands of games which have been designed by players using playing cards and which are constantly evolving.

I decided to use the deck of cards as the basis for my resource, so ended up designing a deck of cards which I’ve tentatively named the Dance Deck. You can find out all about the deck by reading my original post over at gameful. You can download the deck here if you want to create a game yourself! The gameful post also explains the first game I’ve designed with this deck – Boogie Bridge. It is a game that aims to make traversing the face of the earth (or at least little bits of it anyway) a little more rhythmical and interesting!

Today I managed to squeeze in a little playtest of this game with a few friends of mine and I’ll be detailing the results of the playtest in this post. I decided to go small scale with the first playtest – one team of four players. None of the team members had ever heard anything about the game until I explained it to them about 5 minutes before they played. Here’s the motley crew in all their finery!

The first ever Boogie Bridge team

The course was created by chucking down four coins which we scratched together between the five of us.

I spent about 2 minutes explaining the game to them, after which they all decided they were happy enough with how it was all meant to work. Next, the music! For this first ever round of Boogie Bridge, the team unanimously decided upon TGIF by the lovely Katy Perry. They also unanimously decided that this particular track fit firmly into the Clubs suit – songs you might get down to in a club, so Clubs was selected as the trump suit. Next, the hand was selected by the team leader, and here it is:

Boogie Bridge hand

The team leader Paul (who is rather a groovy mover) was happy that he was familiar with all of the dance moves in the hand and was ready to jump right in. The game itself was captured on video:

The scoring was loose for this first playtest, but essentially the team would have earned the face value of all non-trump cards and twice the face value for trump cards in the hand for each person to successfully cross the bridge (so 42×4=168 points). It’s the ‘successful’ bit which is the vague term here – does the order in which they perform the moves matter? What constitutes a correct execution of a particular move? Some of those hair tosses looked decidedly moshy to me… I think I quite like the fact that some of the aspects of the game’s rules are open to interpretation – it sits well with the intended hackability of the game and the deck. After all, show me two families who play Monopoly with the same set of rules!

The feedback from the players was that they enjoyed the game and understood intuitively the moves which were on the cards. Doing a quick scan through the deck, they got most of the moves just from the names, but a few they said they would need a demo to get them right. One pertinent point that was made was that they weren’t sure when they would play this as they couldn’t see themselves carrying around a deck of cards everywhere they went. One way of addressing this would be to turn the deck into an app – so you shake the phone to deal a hand after selecting the right number of cards, pick a track and suit and provide a link to the demo videos of any moves they needed demonstrating. Another option might be to turn this into a game akin to Street Pole Dancing where a city is peppered with stickers which tell the players which moves to perform at each step along various ‘bridges’ which have been created in appropriate places.

Most importantly, I asked the players how it felt to successfully coach another player across the bridge, and I think one team member’s response sums it up perfectly – “It made me feel a little bit warmer and fuzzier inside.” Nuff said!


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Zapp! experiment number one

I recently created Zapp! – a totally web-based QR code reader, and released it into the wild. It was originally designed to make navigating around the internet easier for young learners and those with SEN, anyone who finds it hard to use a keyboard. I’ve been meaning to put it to the test with a learner who has close to zero literacy, namely my 3 year old daughter, to test whether it really is that accessible. This evening I finally got round to doing it and my wife decided to film the whole thing. It was the first time she had seen it in action also and being a part-time teacher herself, I was interested to see what her reaction was to it. The results are below:

We had a stilted start, having issues getting the laptop positioned correctly and making sure her fingers weren’t covering the code, but these obstacles are easily overcome with judicious formatting (i.e. having space either side to allow for holding it on both sides) or printing multiple copies of the code on a sheet as I’ve seen being done elsewhere. The only other obstacle we ran into was having to click on the Flash ‘Allow’ button the first time the reader fires up but she could handle doing this herself given a little practice. One other thing to note is that you’ll have to allow popups the first time you use the tool. We didn’t in our case because I’d already done it during development.

You’ll notice from the video that Zapp! works even when the reader window is in the background, meaning you get a completely seamless browsing experience. I’m incredibly pleased with the result, and the robustness of the reader is quite astounding (not my achievement, but totally down to Kasper Kamperman whose code the reader is based upon) when compared to other readers I have used which are really picky about having the code in exactly the right place.

In the case of this test, the reader was fired from a desktop shortcut. This is easy enough to achieve on Windows or OS X. In the case of Windows, you just right click the desktop and choose New->Shortcut, then type in the web address http://zapp.grokbox.co.uk/opener.html. In the case of OS X, you simply type the address somewhere (say a text editor), then highlight it and drag it onto the desktop. With Windows, it’s easy enough to add a custom icon to the shortcut (right click on shortcut -> properties -> change icon… -> choose icon .ico file) and if you want to do this, I’ve created the necessary .ico file here for you to download and use. I haven’t found any way yet of changing the shortcut icon in OS X but I’m sure there must be a way.

One other option is to make http://zapp.grokbox.co.uk/opener.html the homepage of your browser, so that when it opens, the reader pops right up and your young learners can browse away to their hearts content.

By the way – my wife’s reaction in the video was totally spontaneous, I honestly didn’t bribe her with anything to get such a positive reaction…honest!

Why not give Zapp! a try right now? Simply snap a picture of this code with your phone:


or print it out, then click on the Zapp! button below to launch the reader:

Finally, hold up the picture you took to your webcam and voila, you’ve been Zapped!

I have big plans for Zapp! such as keyboard-free logins and more. So stay tuned and please use the tool and feedback with any suggestions and reactions.


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Welcome to our new blog! I shall be posting here about the activities I am involved in under the grokbox hat to do with work in schools, tools I develop or use, cool stuff I find whilst trawling the LoL net and other musings around the area of technology and innovation.

Grokbox was recently formed after I left the employment of Worcestershire County Council due to budget cuts from central government. Before the end came, I was working with schools in the county developing their use of technology for learning helping them step tentatively into the connected world beyond the four walls of their classrooms. I was in charge of informing them of health recommendations as well. I was able to work with them to learn about medicinal plants, so that they would be educated in the different types of medicines. I enjoyed that aspect of my responsibilities considerably as to many it was an eye opening experience that could help them further down the line start your campaign from here.

Alongside the front-line stuff I got a little time to spend on development projects like sending robots down to the British Museum, building virtual cholera hospitals and bending Uniservity to my will. Now that I work for myself, I hope to have more time to spend on league of legends those things and finally bring some of the many ideas bubbling around my head into being.

So if you’re in need of some innovation, like something I release into the wild, don’t like something I release into the wild or just fancy a natter about geeky stuff, please do get in touch! Now, is really important to be healthy, for that goal, try hormone replacement scottsdale, its your best option.

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