Game designing, again. At last.

I haven’t designed, written or coded a digital games in … a long time. Years. Too many years. My first attempts, back in the early 1980s on a Sinclair ZX81, were unsurprisingly crude. A few programs did make it into computer magazines as boringly long code listings for people to type in; there’s a vague recollection of being excited by this, and not realising for several years that I wasn’t getting paid for my work.

I did, however, get paid for a basic (in every respect of the word) flight landing simulator which was published as an actual game that you bought on a cassette and spent an eternity loading. But not richly paid as it sold five copies on the shelf of Evesham Micros (when this was a tiny store in Evesham, the location of which ironically is now my solicitors), and I was left with a stock of C60 tapes from WHSmith in anticipation of doing multiple production runs to keep up with demand. Thankfully, I’d cornered the market at school in Panini football sticker trading (irony: never liked football) and so I was able to support failed enterprises such as ‘Independent 13 year old Game Designer and Publisher’.

Snippet from text adventure I’m designing

Rolling forward over a third of a century and I’m using an online service called inklewriter to, well, write Interactive Fiction. I’ve never, to be honest, got on well with traditional branch-oriented Interactive Fiction. You know, “To hit the goblin, turn to page 36; to run away from the goblin, turn to page 112”; that kind of book. Typically, I’d become quickly bored and try to reverse-engineer the entire story by reading it sequentially to figure out the path to the end. The better – or more frustrating – IF books were designed so you’d have to read the entire thing, and draw a complex graph, to figure this out.

Me: more of a location-oriented computer game player; the classic text adventures from Infocom, or The Hobbit from Melbourne House, and the like. “Exits are North, South, or West” – that kind of thing. Over the years since, I’ve tried various bits of software that help (or claim to help) the construction of such stories, but with limited success or interest held. Twine, for example, I’ve been playing around with of late but has some fussy shortcomings that bog me down to the point of giving up. I may return to it in the future as it has some interesting functionality, to be fair.

Pulling in a picture from my Flickr account
Pulling in a picture from my Flickr account

However, more recently – and this may yet come to nothing – inklewriter is proving intriguing and surprisingly easy and fast to work with. It has very limited options in terms of look and feel; just one style of display (see the screenshots in this post of things I’ve been writing with it), though you can incorporate some outside content and interesting randomness within. And the logic operations are also few and simplistic – but, I’ve noticed, just about functional enough to make something like a location-oriented games possible.

I’m a little reluctant to say more at the moment because, as said, this may still go wrong. Also, spoilers and meta-spoilers. Oh, and it’s a free and web browser-based bit of software that isn’t actively supported, so it may disappear at any point and is therefore somewhat risky to use.

Another text adventure snippet
Another text adventure snippet

But there’s some potential here so I’m tentatively building an Interactive Fiction adventure that, surprisingly to me, is starting to take a playable shape. There’s a major arc plot, an end-goal, a fair amount of content already, and several puzzle concepts at various stages of implementation which provide different degrees of difficulty. Construction and testing are a fun exercise and it’s forcing me to confront game design decisions in a logical and unavoidable manner. More on this as it hopefully progresses; I’m keeping a design log which is already useful and, if and when it’s all done (there is a rough plan for this), this log and other materials, as well as the game itself, will be publicly available.

The journal of Digital Culture and Education

I’ve been accepted onto the editorial board of the journal of Digital Culture and Education. This particular online journal:

…is devoted to analysing the impact of digital culture on identity, education, art, society, culture and narrative within social, political, economic, cultural and historical contexts.

They have a nice archive of articles. It’s good – and healthy – to read academic research writing which isn’t just about games, but covers other aspects of online and digital uses. It’s also an Open Access journal, so content within is free to read.

In addition, I am currently:

Previously, I was also a member of the editorial board of Ariadne, specialising in games and gamification in the library and information science sectors.

Jisc Digital Media gamification infokit

Jisc Digital Media have just launched their latest infokit, concerning Gamification. I am the researcher and author behind it.

This work took a bit longer than planned, for several reasons. One of which was the trip into the heart of gamification being somewhat long and winding; there’s only so many points and leaderboards you can look at before you start going a bit Benjamin L. Willard. A few of the systems I looked at are listed in the infokit; there were more. (Too) many more.

Despite being the sole author of the infokit, there have been a lot of influences on it. These include Karla Youngs with chat and comments, Martin Hamilton (Digital Futures) and Jon Knight for various chats about gamification, and Lawrie Phipps (lawrie : converged), with whom I had a long chat on a barge several years back about the value(s) of technology in education. Some of that talk has stuck in the mind and was influential on the chapter concerning gamifying your learning situation.

The quality writing of several academic education specialists has also been useful and thought provoking. These include Lorna Campbell (Open World), David Kernohan (Followers of the Apocalypse), Nicola Whitton (play think learn) and Sheila McNeill (howsheilaseesIT). The writing of Richard Hall (Richard Hall’s Space) was especially influential on the appendix concerning academia as a gamified system. And Rachel Bruce is always awesome to bounce academic ideas off, no matter the timezone.

I’ve also spoken to, heck, a *lot* of teachers (especially) and lecturers through 2015 about gamification. Their views have been … diverse, and often strongly worded. But always useful.

Jisc Digital Media gamification infokit

My own thoughts on gamification – specifically, gamification in education – are … complicated. To greatly simply: the attractiveness of gamification, from a ‘shiny’ perspective, is clear. As is the possibility of nudging or motivating or engaging a part of a cohort. However, the dangers are also clear; some students who were doing okay before gamification came along could be demotivated, repelled or excluded by a gamified learning system. And many other things can go wrong; it’s not surprising that the longest chapter in the infokit deals with issues, problems and weaknesses. Vendors are everywhere, selling the shiny. And that shiny may or may not work; many factors influence, and the research base is in a state of catch-up. Even if it does work, that shiny may be expensive; vendors don’t do sales pitches because they love the smell of leaderboards in the morning, either.

Additionally, there are data privacy concerns. Generating micro-data about learning performances of students is one thing. Showing comparative performances in a leaderboard, or some other game mechanic, is another. Doing the same for schoolchildren: even more problematic. Storing and displaying gamified data about their classroom behavior, as opposed to learning performances: seriously problematic. Where there is personalised data, there is usually, eventually, a marketplace for it.

But returning to the issue of expense and cost, one area that seems positive is the homebrew, DIY, low tech, low complexity, gamification scene. Sticky stars on wallcharts; google spreadsheets adaptations; gamification plugins for WordPress, Joomla and Drupal; extensions for moodle; additional functionality for your VLE. Structures and content which you can build yourself, without losing control, data privacy and a huge chunk of budget to some third-party company. Systems that do not overawe the students who were happily working anyway, before people suggested gamifying their learning processes. There could be something there. More quality research, as ever, would be useful.

And there are other positive attributes. Badges are a distinctly interesting thing that have been around for a long time; since probably the first organisation and ranking of people in any way. Open Badges are especially interesting, as they seem to be solving some of the problems within digital badges. They also won’t ruin your departmental budget.

If you read the infokit, I hope you find some of it interesting. I don’t expect you to agree with all of it; in fact, some parts should incite discomfort or profound disagreement in many people; if they don’t, I’ve probably failed. But I hope the final section makes you ponder (though please do not quit your job in academia because of something in there; I do not want that burden on me).

Enjoy.

Review: Understanding Gamification

I reviewed the ALA report “Understanding Gamification”; it can be found in Ariadne.

The print version is a little pricey, but it’s free to read online or download each chapter. Overall, the report is a pretty good text if you are new to the concept.

Understanding Gamification

Virtual World Watch

It’s taken a bit of time but the files for the Virtual World Watch (VWW) service are now all back online. The introductory and index page is elsewhere on this website.

Though now a fading memory, VWW took up a chunk of working life for several years towards the end of the last decade. It kicked off when Andy Powell, ex-colleague from UKOLN and then the Director of Research at the Eduserv Foundation, spotted I was spending some time in Second Life, wandering around the various education sites. He got in touch and asked if I’d like to do a report for them on this subject.

Which I did. The response to the report was somewhat unexpected. Many – and I mean many – academics in UK universities and colleges appeared out of the woodwork and got in touch, some using the report to justify their work to their peers, others using it as leverage to obtain either internal or external funding to continue their research, or to find peers doing similar work in other UK universities and colleges.

Further stand-alone snapshot reports were commissioned by the Eduserv Foundation. Then, the Foundation went full-in and funded a more holistic service – Virtual World Watch – for a few years. As well as the snapshot reports, VWW produced:

  • A bundle of conference presentations, especially in 2009.
  • Podcasts where I interviewed UK academics who were using virtual worlds.
  • Tweets, Facebook postings, and other social media.
  • Several articles in academic journals and other media; for example [1] [2] and [3].
  • And, of course, collecting data. Lots and lots of lovely data.

Thankfully, we quickly moved away from VWW being solely about the contentious virtual world Second Life, though throughout the life of the service SL remained – arguably regrettably – the predominant virtual world in UK academia.

This was a good time for research into this particular technology; as well as the Eduserv Foundation funding VWW and a variety of other virtual world projects, Jisc also supported several projects across various programmes. There was a lot of activity; at one point every UK university had someone using this particular technology for research or formal/informal learning, with some institutions (more the newer ones) using it across courses and departments, sometimes over several academic years. This led to some spreadsheets containing lovely data – for example:

VWW snapshot data spreadsheet

(and I am so glad I archived all of this data)

However, the data collection and dissemination was definitely not problem-free. The range of funding for this techology against other EdTech technologies, a dislike of virtual worlds (or anything that looked like a game) in academia, and the (very unhelpful) over-the-top hype in some parts of the media over Second Life contributed to a Marmite-effect, with more than a few vocal academics being entrenched in either near-evangelical advocacy or near-hatred of the technology. Interesting times, though sometimes weary on social media.

The high-point for this specific iteration of technology interest, funding, use and discussion in UK academia was probably around the spring and summer of 2009. The keynote at the Jisc RSC Northern conference on virtual worlds in April of that year was especially fun to do – and a big event (side point: even back in 2009, 23 of the 25 speakers at that event were tweeting). The slides from the event are probably the best summary to come out of the Virtual World Watch project:

After several years, things were wrapped up with VWW. All of the snapshot reports, plus three other reports I wrote under my own steam, are online and free. Between them they contain a large amount of data, much of it deliberately unedited (and sometimes frank) survey responses. Do use, but please use responsibly, attributing authors and using their text responsibly and in context.

Overall it was an interesting experience, though it feels somewhat unfinished. It’s good to see that quality research has been continuing elsewhere in this field in UK academia (example), though with significant changes in technology, funding, practice and all manner of other attributes, things seem startlingly different now to even just half a decade ago.

Now, deep into 2015, there’s two pieces of contemporary research I’d like to do if or when funding becomes available:

  1. Another snapshot of virtual world use in UK academia, which would also include a comparison of the data to that of the previous snapshots. I’ve kept all of the contact and other data from the VWW service, so that’s one starting point.
  2. A clear-headed analysis of the (still) contentious reasons for and against the use of virtual worlds in education, possibly involving interviews with pro- and anti- academics from back then, and now.

I’ll see what happens (and if you are a potential funder then please do get in touch). It would be interesting, and hopefully useful to the education technology community, to be able to provide an enlightened and unbiased retrospective, especially as virtual reality emerges as a viable EdTech.

A digital games in learning infokit

May in this year included the lunch-launch (or launch-lunch?) of the Jisc Digital Media infokit on Digital Games in Learning. You can find From Flappy Bird to furthering learning on their website.

Why? Because lunch.

Infokit and cheesecake

Why the infokit? Because it’s needed. Digital (and analogue) games in learning have been around for decades. Like skateboarding and the Internet, they are not a new concept, and whether people like them or not, they aren’t going to go away.

Which presents two related problems:

  1. How do people use games to “help” with teaching and learning?
  2. And, based on increasing experience, how do people avoid using games that don’t help with teaching and learning?

The second problem is as interesting as the first, and is becoming more pressing as a new wave of Gamification consultants and companies work their way around UK academia, looking for opportunities in some cases to do good work, but in others to tarmac a layer of league tables and points over learning systems in exchange for large bags of cash.

Mobile tech

With the demands of learners to, well, learn quicker, faster, better, the effectiveness of salespeople and vendors, the buzz around Games in Learning often obscuring the more nuanced research, the popularity of gaming, and the pressures on teachers and facilitators of all ages of students, it’s easy to be seduced by the allure of digital games. Unfortunately, though there isn’t (yet) a large hole in the ground filled with copies of a disastrous edutainment game, there is a long history of academia throwing a lot of money at digital games and not getting back what they wanted, needed, or thought they were getting in return.

Pizza

But … there are also been success stories. Digital games and environments which have been, or are, used either accidentally or deliberately as education facilitators. Over delicious sourdough pizza, the Jisc Futurist and I conversed on the uses of Minecraft in particular, and how it compared to Second Life from an ease-of-use-in-academia perspective.

And we discussed – and persistently came back to – DuoLingo, the free online language learning system which is addictive compelling to use, without the need for external motivations. Why does it work? How does it work? What are the makers of it getting out of it (that one’s interesting)? How can DuoLingo be used within formal teaching, or even UK FE or HE? How can elements of DuoLingo – either concepts, systems or the more “feel good” attributes – be put into other game-based learning systems?

Dessert described

Anyway; have a look at the infokit. It’s tilted towards academics who have little or no experience of games – those perhaps more easily seduced by their apparent and actual uses – so experts may not glean so much of use from the texts.

The dessert, by the way, was an orange cheesecake (chosen because of the logo color of the infokit funders). It was delicious. Thanks to Martin for an enjoyable lunch, and to Karla, National services director of Jisc Digital Media, for her considerable help and professionalism throughout the development of this infokit. By the way, you might want to check out the other guides they have funded and host; there’s quite a few.

Cheesecake

Once more unto the gamification breach

(How one word can ruin a classic phrase, any phrase, but I’ll come back to that)

It’s the first of December. The shortest day is soon here; the earliest sunset, for those of us who like walks in the woods, somewhat earlier. Christmas saturates the TV, the High Street and the online Street. My gym is quiet, never a wait for the rowing machines, for one more month until the New Year resolution people make an appearance or two.

And today I’m starting a new piece of work, in the tricky, controversial and sometimes deeply annoying niche of Gamification in Education. Over the next few months I’m synthesizing existing and emerging research, and actual examples, with some critical leeway. The format of the completed and public work is not strictly cast in stone but is currently slated as ten lumps of text as headlined in this snapshot from the contract:

snapshot

I’m glad I’m doing this work. It snugly complements a larger framework of Games in Education research, with a defined timescale, that I’m knee-deep in. And there’s a long-term itch, this gamification in education issue I’ve been wanting to scratch, now that there’s a substantial amount of contemporary research to read. Some of which so far has inspired, some has left me with an empty nihilistic feeling, and a fraction has made me quietly despair for either the future of humanity, or education, or the notion that the end-point of research is no longer to add to the sum of human knowledge.

But of the better research in gamification and the related-but-not-the-same field of games in education, Nic Whitton‘s excellent “Digital Games and Learning: Research and Theory” book concludes, in part, with:

“…I believe that the current hype over gamification will die down, as it is shown not to be a motivational panacea, and the market will become saturated with points, badges and leaderboards. However, there may be a gradual shift towards more sophisticated models of gamification…”

…and I have a gut feeling Nic will be proved right. Ian Bogost, a game culture critique and digital cow curator, entertainingly (with a point) takes a sceptical stance on gamification:

“More specifically, gamification is marketing bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business, where bullshit already reigns anyway.”

At the other end of the tech-in-ed spectrum are many who fly various pro-gamification banners, including the problematic badges for everything brigade (an early title of the 3,000+ word specification for this work was ‘Badges are not the only fruit’). No, badges. Everywhere. Personally, I’ll be curious as to how much my feeling on gamification has shifted come the end of this work. It should be more nuanced; if not, I’ve done something wrong. Whether it’s more pro- or anti-, and whether the feeling is the same with gamification as applied to (or forced on) education, is another thing.

As a side-point and conclusion here, a small part of the problem with gamification is … the word gamification. It sounds horribly artificial, something dreamt up by the marketing team from hell. Perhaps it was? Some find it difficult to say. And it’s five syllables so it really slows down a piece of writing or monologue, and trips up the speaker or reader, pointlessly. Say ‘’gamification’ fifteen times (no badge for doing that) and see how annoying it is by the end.

Those three factors, combined, possibly prejudice and pre-load much impartial discussion. I’m also not looking forward to reading it, and writing it, many times a day for a few months so one of the very first things that will be done – partially to offset bias, and partially to maintain sanity – will be to try and find an alternative or workaround.

Wish me luck (or, at the least, the retention of objective sanity).