National STEM Centre Talk – Videogames & Learning

Hi again. This blog post has a few similarities to the post from the SteamCo event in Liverpool a few weeks ago but this time round, as the talk lasted a full hour, the transcript that’s below only ended up being the starting point of a much wider discussion over the role of videogames in schools and learning as a whole. Some of the topics we touched upon included: – How the sound of a creeper in Minecraft is much more scary than the event of being blown up – Why Mario is a role model for the non-engaged learner – A number of games that could feature on the Stephane Bura’s interactive narrative map and much, much more too numerous to go into here. As before, the presentation slides are attached to this blog for you to look at alongside the talk transcript and can be seen via the IanMattSTEMMegaJamPres link. Suffice to say, if there are any questions, or you would like to add anything to the conversation, please leave some messages below or on my twitter feed @ianrmatt

STEM Centre Megajam Talk             Videogames and Learning

My name’s Ian Matthews and I’m a radical proponent for the argument that says the way we teach in this country is wrong. I am also, however, sick of being told this by TED talk types who stand up in places such as this and attempt to look troubled for all our sakes. It’s all very well having concerns about learning strategy but solving it shouldn’t rely on patronising dictats from authority figures who may have forgotten what it is like on the shop floor as it were. So I propose a middle ground. A way that will attempt to accommodate the fact that teachers who are actually present in classrooms and who will still be presided over by the likes of Ofqual, Ofsted, and numerous other governmental departments regardless of whatever academic idealisms there might be out there can be sure is relevant to them. Over the course of this talk and discussion, I’m hoping not to preach to you but to involve you in a discussion that highlights some of my ideas about the planning, delivery, and assessment of sessions through the effective deployment of videogames and digital tech in your teaching. If at any point you would like to discuss anything that is raised, please feel free to get involved either here in the room by raising hands or, if you are so inclined, via my twitter account @ianrmatt using the hashtag #STEMmegajam. It will help to have some note paper or note taking device to jot down some answers to some questions as we go through the next twenty minutes or so, so if you can get some materials ready, that would be great.

Think back to some of the videogames that you have played in your life. Close your eyes and let one come to your mind. Don’t overthink it; just go with whichever is the first one to pop up. Imagine you’re replaying that game from the point that just came to you. Stand there for a moment. Look around the gamespace. What’s there? What can you see? What can you hear? Write down three or four things that stand out. Single words will do. Good. Now first of all, don’t worry about what you’ve written but instead, think on this. When you were thinking about those things where were you, physically? Were you inside the environment yourself or where you sitting in on a sofa looking at a screen where all these things were happening? Hands up if you were in the environment itself? There’s the first thing I want to say about videogames and recall of information then. Remembering them tends to find that we experience the content of videogames as if they were contextual to us. Unless the game is particularly different to the majority of mainstream gameplaying styles, we don’t recall playing them as if it’s secondary to us. We’re there and active within the environment. Remember this fact as we’ll refer back to it later.

Now, look at your words again. The images and sounds you have written down no doubt represented something to you when you recalled them. It might be a sense of foreboding or achievement, perhaps. Now close your eyes again and think about how each of those stimuli made you feel. As before, don’t overthink it, just allow the image or sound to mean something to you. Write down the feeling next to the initial word. Once we’ve all done that and before we look back at this bit, one further thing. Next to that feeling, try to express how you feel the game created that emotion within you. It might be one of two things. Firstly, it may have been through a narrative device, such as a cinematic musical score, ‘lighting’ or story revelation. Alternatively, it may have been through the gameplay itself; maybe a sound effect, a timer countdown, or a specific game mechanic. Write down what you think prompted the feeling as well then and whether you think it’s a narrative or gameplay device that lies behind it. [Discuss]

It’s interesting how games can be seen to create these sensations and emotional responses within us isn’t it? Whilst it may not be surprising that a game, something designed to be entertaining on some level, might affect our mindsets, the way in which it is accomplished might not be something we reflect upon. But we most definitely should. [Pick some-one] What was the first game you ever played? What did you have to do? How did you do it? What were some of the characters in it? What music did it have? [do they hum it] Excellent. At the risk of divulging your age, how long ago do you think you played that game for the first time? Have you played it recently? [get to a participant who only played the game a long time ago but still remembers it well] Can you see then that what you’ve managed to show it that the context of gaming helped you learn something? It’s interesting what we can remember when we don’t have any real concern of the recollection of it being important later.

Here’s a few examples of my gaming memories. [Sonic, Half Life 2, Football Manager]

Can you see how our mindset is essentially being ‘positively’ tampered with in order for us to learn new techniques in which to accomplish something in order to progress onto a higher level on which we can accomplish something else. And we’re not using these in classrooms all the time, why?

To further hammer home my point, imagine the current classroom scenario switched round to games. Imagine if you had a game and you were told that you were going to spend a six month period preparing to play a game in which you knew you had to defeat its main boss but that you weren’t actually allowed to play it, only revise for it by attempting hypothetical scenarios that could be part of the games content. You’d only get one shot at it, you wouldn’t be allowed to talk about it with anyone whilst you were playing, and the actions you took in it would even define your perceived intellectual ability in later life. How difficult would that game be now?

Or… To make my analogy even more obvious, imagine if we attempted the same approach in teaching kids how to swim.

Yeah, yeah, Ian you might say. Fair enough, that’s a nice intellectual teaser but that actually since the purpose of games is to serve as entertainment rather than as prelude to actual assessment, that this argument doesn’t hold much water (if you’ll forgive the previous swimming reference). Well, that’s not an unreasonable assertion in of itself, but to show you how I square this circle, I want to show you two things. One of them is a game called One Chance and the other is this little thing here [Romo]. Hopefully with these, I’ll be able to show you how our current practises tend to put the cart before the horse, somewhat, if we think that defining the assessment outcome is more important than the experience of learning and how we can do something about it.

To discuss One Chance first, in this markedly retro looking game with its blocky graphics and tinny audio, you play a character called John who is a father, a husband, and the guy who discovers a cure for cancer. Quite the hero, it would seem. However, as the opening statement tells us, “In six days, every single living cell on the planet Earth will be dead. You have one chance”. It doesn’t say what the one chance will be for or even what actions you have to perform. It simply situates us within a sphere of influence (the game) in which we have agency over a character and an insinuation that we will be encouraged to act in a way that we feel appropriate to the situation in which we are placed. As the game unfolds and the choices that are presented to us become ever more stark, we simply attempt via trial and error what it is we feel as though we are being implored to achieve. There are academic terms for what is occurring here but from an education perspective, this lack of direction allows for what I call a Learning Rhetoric to be placed alongside the on-screen events and / or action.

Think of it this way, if we are given agency over a situation it creates a particular relevance to the player/learner. When given control of something, a toy, a game, a car even, our innate desire will be to explore the limits of the thing which we hold or the character we are inhabiting. At no point in this scenario do I really need to explain what the player/learner must accomplish in terms of how to press the right buttons as the innate desire to explore covers this. Instead, I can set questions that relate to the task at hand – in One Chance’s case, how would you feel if this happened to you? Describe the actions you might have done differently and so forth. I as an observer (rather than teacher) can just gauge the response within ‘safe’ parameters and potentially set questions to determine how and why certain choices were taken and relate them to scientific ethical assessment objectives, say. [Are there any questions so far – try to relate to explicit scenarios within the room]

So as we can see, adopting a route through a game such as One Chance under the supervision of a teacher and his or her Learning Rhetoric, the player/learner will have been producing ‘work’ in definable areas such as defining personal identity, producing mini-outcomes, taking risks via customisation and pretty much all of the areas that you can see highlighted here. These areas of learning were defined by an academic called James Paul Gee and these pretty much define where I’m taking my PhD studies over the next few years. However, what for me unlocks the true potential of using appropriate game texts in learning is how such a narrative and your contextual involvement in it, as we defined before, right at the beginning of the talk activates an empathetic response.

Faced with a scenario that we are told is hopeless, do we still pursue a positive outcome by persevering at work, or do we consider other options? The game offers choices such as whether or not to stay at home with your wife and daughter in light of the problems for instance but now is where the title of the game becomes prophetic. The browser you play in remembers who you are and if you’ve played it before. If you don’t like the choice you make, you’re led to believe that that’s it. Tough. You might save the world. You might not. You might be selfishly ignoring the world’s plight for your own gratification or you maybe throwing away your one chance at happiness. And what if you’re actions aren’t appreciated by everyone. What then? Might someone take the choice away from you?

Through its design, One Chance makes us yearn for the chance to play games as we ‘normally’ would. To be able to learn from our ‘game over’ mistakes and reattempt to ensure we get the outcome we want within the game’s environment. Where a ‘failure’ is actually a learning experience that rather than demotivates us, re-energises us instead. And that’s why we need games in classrooms. It is scenarios such as these that allow teachers to channel a far greater opportunity for learning than purely didactic explaining by rote. Not only are the philosophical questions going to be far easier to tackle with the immediacy of situations such as this one here but if you were attempting to teach a learner maths in a grounded, visceral way, surely it could be accomplished in a game such as Minecraft where you can plot area, fractions, multiplication questions and so forth. Similarly, talking about the dramatic intentions of Shakespeare in Macbeth is going to be far more simple if we were to set it to the background of playing in landscapes and vistas such as this one. How much easier do you think it could be to talk about the importance of the land to the character when you as a teacher have set a learner the task of conquering the kingdom themselves? When Lady Macbeth says “Glamis thou art and Cawdor thou shalt be” can you not see how a GCSE student might feel more connection to it from a perspective of agency in a game such as Skyrim?

To me at least, this shows that we therefore don’t need curriculum frameworks to engage learners in complex thinking; we need games. We need what James Paul Gee calls semiotic domains in which active learning can take place in ‘safe’ environment whereby a fail only encourages a learner to try again rather than give up. We need to tap into the intrinsic desire that learners have to beat their own high score or retry for a different outcome. And we should encourage this revisitation. We wouldn’t trust a doctor or an engineer who did it right once twenty years ago but hasn’t done this for a while, so why would we think our ability to learn in its truest sense can be quantified in this way?

To do this though, we need teachers to feel comfortable in choosing and deploying game texts. That needs concerted action and a commitment to continually develop our knowledge about what is available out there. It might also be worthwhile to incorporate our findings onto a continuum such as this [Stephane Bura’s interactive narrative map] so that we can keep a record of appropriate texts for specific purposes. [I’ll let you have a look at that for a moment – if anyone wants to add to this or has any questions about this, we will revisit this at the end though]

And that then brings me onto Romo. As a ‘specific text’ my company designed him to be an educational toy that might help teach computing. However, with a little directed input from me, not only is it now a bespoke solution for the new KS1 and KS2 computing curriculum, it is also a cross-curricula device that I intend to be useful all over school. The way I achieved this was to tap into the processes I’ve outlined here today. I don’t consider myself a computing guru, far from it. What I did have though was a knowledge that many other teachers are as unfamiliar as I was but that they didn’t have the benefit of the time I had to study the expectations. As such, I ensured that the processes that Romo can live out – such as programmable movement, control, and elicitation of an emotional response within the user – would help teachers unfamiliar with the concepts of computing and programming to be able to teach it to learners that may be more confident than the teacher themselves.

So far it’s been a runaway success and I deliver web events, CPD sessions and all sorts with this little guy. This is because both he and I can show that you don’t need to be an expert; you just need that environment in which you can try again and feel as though you’re learning how to as a result. And it’s only when we see that as the assessment goal rather than a series of stats first tasks can we then be said to be providing the best and most effective learning experiences within our classrooms.

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