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8th May
written by Tom Banaszewski
With the rise of electronic entertainment, we are seeing games reach a very prominent status in everyday life. Modern culture is increasingly dominated by electronics, and the new games that electronics have made possible are compelling creations that suck away huge amounts of time. At such a time of adjustment, it’s a good idea to go back to the roots of games, and think about why they exist in every human culture, why children of all ages play them, and what important role they play in the development of our brains. – From Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun

I’ve been to a lot of conferences. And most of them are often disappointing because the presenters are not effective public speakers or the workshop sessions do not really match the description in the conference program. This conference was different. I left inspired to teach with games and with a long list of valuable resources. More importantly, I left with important ideas to share with colleagues and not just a laundry list of links to add to my delicious account. The research around the role of electronic games in learning continues to expand. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech (GO JACKETS!) Indiana and Wisconsin Universities all recognize that computer games can add to our explorations of determining what works in our classrooms. What’s often misunderstood by many parents and teachers is that there’s a HUGE difference between the games Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty and games such as Civilization, Animal Crossing, Little Big Planet and MYST.

The WOW STUFF: Carnegie Mellon Professor Jesse Schell’s talk. Create situations for students that demand SHARING of ideas, talents, skill-sets. Replace grading system with an Experience Point system. Similar to how video games are structured, students earn points and level-up by completing assignments and tasks. No gray area for how you’re doing in the class.

Gaming Literacy. Ewen McIntosh’s talk. Gaming is its own literacy, part of the New Media literacies. There is a growing chasm between schools that continue the entrenched model of teaching to the test and those that recognize a need to spend more time clarifying what does it mean to be literate in the Digital Age.

Games that support writing development. As an English teacher and digital storytelling facilitator, I’m interested in the grammar of not only quality literature, but also that cross-section between literature, movies and now games. What literacies do we develop by interacting with a game version of a classic novel? By deconstructing a movie, graphic novel or game version of the Odyssey? By creating our own version or a choose your own adventure game version? Tim Rylands has been touring the UK schools showing teachers and students how to use the classic game MYST to spark creative writing as well many other a few other games-based writing projects. There’s a lot potential in the using the Choose Your Own Adventure story model for engaging reluctant writers. I plan to test out a few ideas where students create interactive fiction/CYOA stories using either iWeb, Wikispaces or an online tool that allows you to then make your story available via the iTunes store to be played/read on the iTouch/Phone/Pad.

Scotland’s Consolarium. Maybe because it’s much smaller compared to the UK and US that this country is able to convince so many of their schools that games-based learning is effective practice. The Consolarium site documents clearly the work they’ve accomplished and makes it accessible to all teachers via their national intranet. Spend a few minutes checking out their Sharing Practice section and you’ll get a sense of what “games-based learning” means in a classroom context. Ollie Bray and Derek Robertson were excellent representatives and speakers on the work of the Consolarium. Be sure to invite them to your next edu-tech conference!

Games and Simulations. We’ve come a long way since Oregon Trail, Math Blasters and Carmen San Diego. Or have we? Tom Snyder Productions was the pioneer in the US in this field. The Decisions, Decisions series is still one of the most effective pieces of educational technology software I’ve used in my nearly twenty years of teaching. But they are no longer in business. In their place are companies like that allow free access to their web-based simulations or “serious games” in hopes you’ll hire them to develop a simulation for your company, school or learning need.

TOOLS for making your own games. It keeps getting easier, but that doesn’t mean students are making better games. The same principle applies to Powerpoint presentations, digital stories, podcasts, short films – kids need plenty of practice to proficiently produce anything that makes sense. In addition to programming /game-making tools like Scratch and Alice, you can now use the game engines Unity or Platinum Sandbox. The XBox even has an easy tool for making games – Kodu. Looking forward to testing that out. 2DIY is another set of game-making tools. The Nintendo DS now has a Do It Yourself game-maker called WarioWare.

There’s much more to review here, but for me it was the ideas that I took away that are most important to share. Two of them resonated with me: James Huggins of Made in Me reminded us that too often the emphasis is on the relationship of the child to the software instead of encouraging the child’s relationship with the natural world. His Land of Me game provided an engaging story development tool that then provides items the child can print out that encourages play based on what was created in the game.

The second idea, more an observation of schools’ resistance to adopting practices that clearly work for children, was related to Dorothy Heathcote’s drama in education legacy. For close to fifty years, her work has engaged children in nearly all environments. She’s proven that drama is a powerful tool for helping students achieve meaningful learning, yet drama in education is still only included in 25% of our schools – maybe less. In twenty-five years, will this be the same attitude of games-based learning?

And now the games.

  • Farmville – Facebook game that raised over $1 million for Haiti earth quake repairs (yes, there is some controversy too).
  • Little Big Planet – PS3 game that has over 2 million user-generated levels from people all over the world
  • UK Channel 4 History Games – Trafalgar Origins, Bow Street Runner and 1066 are web-based
  • Routes to Better Science – Great set of games and even better mystery to unravel using your science clues
  • Nintendo DS Games being used in schools – Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, Professor Layton

A few other reviews of the conference from other attendees: Dawn Hallybone , Ben Betts

Check Teach Me This for more games-based learning resources.

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