Tag Archives: Education

Pax Part 3 Education Through Play

You must choose carefully the panels that you want to see at Penny Arcade Expo. You’re not going to to find a quiet indie games Q & A to chill out and learn something interesting. Every panel lines up at least half an hour before the doors open. Sara knew which panel she wanted to go to as soon as we got into Seattle. It was called Education Through Play. Since she is a teacher, this was right up her alley. We didn’t know what would be discussed here, but we joked that if we played our cards right, maybe her professional development money could help pay for our hotel.

As PAX Panels went, this one was especially packed. The room must have been filled with at least 400 people. Late-comers were being turned away from the door. The panel had started late because several of the panelists from the east coast had been grounded by Hurricane Irene.

The first speaker was James Portnow, CEO of Rainmaker games and writer of the web series “Extra Credits”. He started talking about how the American Education, which was based on the 19th century Prussian model, could no longer cope with the challenges of today. We all know the educational potential of games. No one has ever had to sit a 10-year-old down to memorize all 150 pokemon. If we could somehow harness this emotional power that games have, we could have a world where the United States is first in Math, Science, and Literacy.

The speech was a barn burner. The audience was on their feet. The question and comments line snaked all the way back to the door. You could feel the energy crackling in the room.

It was then that I realized why so many people had come to Penny Arcade Expo. It wasn’t to see the latest games, It wasn’t to play in the tournaments, it was for validation. Outside of that convention hall, the work-a-day world believes without hesitation that games are frivolous and decadent, and by extension so are the people that play them. Here, everyone was a gamer. Games bring joy and meaning at PAX. Why wouldn’t you want to change the world with that kind of passion?

I hope everyone in attendance at the Education Through Play panel realized just how important they are. The change we’re seeking through video games isn’t going to come from administration or school board approval. It’s not even going to come from passion or good ideas. This change is going to come from the hard work at every level of the education system. It’s going to be the teachers who incorporate the games into their lessons, the IT staff that help them set everything up, the parents who recognize how the games have awakened a passion for learning in their child and demand that kind of instruction as they progress from K-12.

We just don’t know how games will work in the classroom…yet. Next year, I hope to see a panel or even a series of panels focused more on the practical applications of games in education. We can have all the validations we want, but at the end of the day, it’s the individual that brings the bright ideas to the table and creates a new reality. Because as Ken Robinson said, “when kids walk in the classroom and you close the door, you are the education system.”

Cranking it out: On Being Prolific

I’d like to write down one of those unwritten rules: Better Prolific than Good.

It doesn’t matter how good your ideas are, or if you know what you’re talking about. The public at large would rather see 10 mediocre works of art than 1 superlative opus. This applies to books, movies, software, furniture, or any other human endeavour. It doesn’t matter how good it is. Society is more likely to encourage you if you just keep cranking it out.

This applies to the highest levels of business and achievement. Electronic Arts got big because it could produce a Madden game every year for the past 20 years. Apple has a yearly product cycle. If you don’t like the current model, just wait until next year. Even perennial products like Coca-Cola have to keep producing ads to keep their product in touch with people.

Even if you are bad at what you are trying to do, being prolific is a win-win proposition. The more you produce, the more you’ll be able to look back on your prose or code and think, here’s where I can improve, here’s where I can work on my game. It becomes a process called “Deliberate Practice”. I’m reading all about it in Talent is Over-rated by Geoff Colvin. If it’s mentally demanding, repeatable, provides constant feedback, and not necessarily fun, it’s kind of practice that’ll take you from struggling to world class.

A lot of people say that we lose our capacity to be prolific in grade school. It’s where we develop our fear of failure. I disagree. That damage is done at the post-secondary level, where your entire grade is based on 4 papers and an exam. That’s 4 opportunities for feedback before you are judged for all time. If you fail, it’s another grand to retake the course. In grade school, the feedback is constant. Teachers work every day to find new activities to develop student understanding. There are many opportunities to mess up an assignment, but there are just as many opportunities to improve.

I have yet to find a K-12 teacher who wouldn’t give their eye-teeth for a class full of students who try to find new ways to learn the material. Meanwhile, as an adult I’ve been scolded for not taking a professor’s perspective on Ginsberg. Take a look at the Clayburn Middle Youtube channel. Almost all the videos have been shot and edited by students. If Clayburn has any problems, I can guarantee you those kids behind the cameras aren’t part of it.

As adults, we think we’ve figured it all out. We don’t think we have to go through the embarrassment of learning anything new. However, the world’s changing so fast that we have to learn new things no matter what we do. It’s best to get comfortable in that situation. The only way to do that is to be prolific.


Sense of Entitlement

Now, I trust all of you, so I’m hoping you can help me weigh in on this.

About once a week I see a thread on Fark.com like this one about a news story concerning youth unemployment, debt, or other factors in a failure to launch. Each and every one of these threads devolves into a raging flame war between people who believe young people aren’t working hard enough and twenty-something college grads who can’t get jobs.

I wonder why some people get so angry when college grads expect to get better jobs using degrees they paid thousands of dollars for. Why shouldn’t they? The government expects them to. Billions in student loans go out to colleges and universities every year with the expectation that they produce graduates that make enough money to pay those loans back. The US is facing another debt crisis because they can’t collect on these education investments.

Moreover, it’s not like getting a degree just involves smoking weed and arguing about Sartre. Students spend hundreds of hours doing research and writing papers in order to graduate. In essence, they paid for the opportunity to work hard at something. Does that not mean anything in today’s economy? Even if someone is over-qualified for a position, isn’t a degree a written guarantee that a person can get up in the morning and follow through with their degrees?

Probably not, given that there are millions of people out there with these degrees. It’s almost as if an important human element is now missing from the hiring process. We’ve put so much stock in degrees and certificates, but all we’ve done is create a soulless buyer’s market. Where is the future of industry going to come from if we don’t create a path for new workers?

Abstinence Gaming

Researchers at the University of Florida are working on an  video game that attempts to educate pre-teen Latina girls on how to resist peer pressure to have sex. Players will don motion capture suits to interact with the characters on the screen to practice proper social responses. Now, forget for a moment that it’s abstinence education. Forget that it’s the result of a $434,000 government grant. What we have here is a group of adults who have completely misunderstood children and video games.

The most obvious flaw in this project is the graphics. How is this game supposed to engage anyone if we’re scraping the bottom of the uncanny valley with these character designs? It seems like the researchers believe that realism is the most important aspect of engaging people through video games. Most best selling video games often feature cartoon avatars, or at the very least highly stylized human avatars. There is an entire genre of school simulation games like the Persona series that are based on simpler technology and would be way more entertaining and effective than this awkward monstrosity.

The game also seems to treat decision making as if it were some kind of pavlovian response. There are way more factors going into a child’s decision to use drugs or have sex than remembering to “just say no”. No matter how realistic the graphics might be, it’s much harder to model factors like the involvement of a parent, the availability of birth control, or the feelings you’ll have to manage when it’s a childhood friend applying the peer pressure. If you can express those concepts, your game might become entertaining, but then it’ll run the risk of being accused of glorification. Some parents think that just learning about a bad behaviour in an engaging way constitutes glorification. It’s a risk that educators run into more often than they should.

Dealing with peer pressure is an important part of being a child. The more education you have about peer pressure, the better equipped you’ll be to make good choices. However, if we design that education based only on adult assumptions about children and concepts adults are comfortable with,  all you’ll be left with is a half million dollars worth of creepy CGI corpse-children.

The Other 364 Days of Anti-Bullying

These days, people seem to really like  gestures where they get to “raise awareness” for causes. You have Earth Hour, posting your bra colour for breast cancer, and literal mountains of coloured rubber bracelets, ribbons and bumper stickers informing people on the dangers of “blank”. Yesterday was anti-bullying day, when people everywhere showed their support for the teased and the downtrodden by donning pink shirts for the day. Maybe I’m just a general downer, or maybe it’s because I don’t own a pink shirt (the closest I have is lavender), but I really think that this has nothing to do with actually stopping school bullying.
If you go to Pinkshirtday.ca, you are invited to take the pledge to wear pink on April 14th, and that you will not tolerate bullying. What does that mean exactly? Do you fight back when someone teases you or your friends? What if “Hey, stop that” doesn’t work? How do you comfort someone who has just been bullied? Jumping on the awareness bandwagon is all fine and good, but it takes more than that to deal with the practical, everyday questions that make up the issue that is bullying. Even if we provide kids with more education about it, as a culture we need to come up with acceptable ways for everyone to deal with people who are just meanies. As my educator wife would say, “Every day is anti-bullying day.”