Category Archives: Activities

Content I’ve written, and other things relating to digital games that I’ve done.

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.

On gamification

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

This one 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. Many more. And I don’t love the smell of leaderboards in the morning.

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. 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 otherwise doing okay can 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.

On top of this, 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. Hmmmm.

But returning to the issue expense, one area that does produce positive vibes for me personally, 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 (if it isn’t “dead” yet). Stuff that you can build yourself, without losing control, data privacy and a huge chunk of budget to some third-party company. Stuff that doesn’t overawe the students who were happily working away anyway, before people suggested gamifying what they did. There could be something there. More quality research, as ever, would be useful.

And there are other positive things. 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 have solved many of the problems within digital badges. They also won’t ruin your departments 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 don’t want that burden on me).


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. Lots of academics in UK universities and colleges appeared out of the woodwork and got in touch, some using the report to justify what they were doing 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, or having similar views, in other UK universities and colleges.

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

  • A bundle of conference presentations, especially in 2009.
  • Podcasts where I interviewed UK academics who were using virtual worlds.
  • Tweets, Facebook postings, the usual 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 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 lots of that lovely data – for example:

VWW snapshot data spreadsheet

…all of the data of which I (thankfully) archived away.

However, the data collection and dissemination was definitely not problem-free. The range of funding for this against for other EdTech research, 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 generation 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 it 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.

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 the significant changes in technology, funding, practice and all manner of other attributes, things seem startlingly different 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 snapshot from several years ago. 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.

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, now. 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 oil their way around UK academia, looking for opportunities 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 (increasingly indebited customers) 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 academics throwing a lot of money at digital games and not getting back what they wanted, needed, or thought they were getting in return.


But … there are also been success stories. Digital games and environments which have been, or are, used either accidentally or deliberately as pretty darned good educational things. 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 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 “good feels” stuff – be put into other game-based learning systems?

Dessert described

Anyway; have a look at the infokit. There will be a lot of additions over time; the structure is deliberately designed to make the content easy to update. The infokit is tilted more towards academics who have little or no experience of games – those perhaps more easily seduced by their apparent and actual uses – and 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 nom. 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.