Five hopes for 2016

A new year is upon us, and who knows what it will bring. Global peace, or global chaos? Advances in medicine and science, or pandemics and problems?

However, this is a game research website so I’m restricting my hopes to game-related ones. Here’s five.

1. Google Scholar is still around at the end of the year. I’ve come to rely on GS a lot – though not exclusively – in recent times for picking up on game research articles and papers. Google Scholar Alerts in particular is a nifty thing for being rapidly told when a cool researchers work has appeared. While it’s not the only service of its kind – there’s also academia.edu and researchgate, as well as databases researchers inside a university can use – it’s still a pretty useful source of materials and notifications about materials. The problem is that Google has a habit of shuttering niche services (Reader was far more popular and that didn’t survive), but I’m hoping they won’t take the axe to Scholar, especially as the tiny number of GS staff – less than ten – means it costs very little to maintain. Plus, looking at own citation graph which is starting to tail off is a good nudge to publish more.

2. Let the next Zelda game be a classic. Whenever it appears. Everyone has a different view on the Legend of Zelda games franchise. I really, seriously, enjoyed Ocarina of Time on the N64, to the extent that work was neglected for two months while exploring it as much as the internal system allowed (and occasionally, progressing the main quest). Since then, other Zelda games have fallen short. I didn’t like the constant moon-crashing-into-you time pressure of Mask, and the sailing of Windwaker, though initially lovely, soon became samey. Thus, a classic Zelda game would be most welcome. With just some elements of previous ones, such as shooting arrows while riding a horse, though original enough not to be a total remake. Also, it would be nice to see it available actually in 2016. While Nintendo do the quality-perfectionist-finished-when-its-absolutely-finished development thing more than most, there are limits and many other distractions for expectant gamers.

2.1 While we’re in Nintendo territory, a new Animal Crossing game for the Nintendo 3DS, please. There’s next to no chance of getting that, and I’m not picking up any 3DS-AC vibes so am not counting on that as a hopeful hope. Alas.

3. Reasonable reporting and consideration about Virtual Reality hardware, software and systems. Especially in academia (where you would think that cooler heads would and should prevail) we’ve often seen the “Tech X will disrupt education” vs “The Tech X is dead” polarising divide which doesn’t help anyone. Social media and its tendencies to be a platform for shooting off, and amplifying, pithy soundbites, is not always a great help either; edtech is often complicated and nuanced – like it or not. There is going to be a lot of ephemera around VR for the remainder of this decade at least; too many venture capitalists and companies have sunk too many dollars into this particular tech, and they want their investment plus a bit of profit back. But, as it does, this is leading to a giddy numbers headline race while not answering the reasonable issues educators have (note you can swap out VR for another tech in these questions):

  1. How much will VR cost (that’s the total cost of everything, including time to learn, set-up and run the tech in a educational situation)?
  2. Are there relevant and independently analysed examples of VR use in education?
  3. Is there independent research showing it works in education i.e. VR gives “better” results than using other tech, or no tech at all, in comparable pedagogic scenarios?
  4. How supported and sustainable is VR tech? Will the same kit still be relevant, useful and actually usable across several academic year cycles?
  5. Can the robust and relevant pedagogic evidence for VR to date be summarised in an easy-to-read manner?

…and not uncited “Look, LOOK, at my massive bar chart!!” graphical sales guesses I mean forecasts for 2019.

4. Running on from that last hope, it would be good to see Jisc and similar organisations in other countries more fundamentally commission and update reasonable, useful, timely and evidence-based guides and reports on gaming and other technologies. Yes, there’s an element of self-interest here as I am one of those people who occasionally writes a few of these. But they are needed, especially – as in the previous point – where educators otherwise just encounter polarising arguments and grandstanding while looking for more relevant materials. In the recent case of Jisc it is pleasing to see guides gradually come back to the foreground as something open, free and useful that they provide. Having an explicit guide search option for reducing costs is also pretty useful in these times; the most feedback I received about the gamification infokit compiled last year for Jisc Digital Media concerned the low-cost options as opposed to expensive shiny systems (see 8.5 and 8.6). It would be good to see many more such guides commissioned and updated regularly, not just for games, gamification, virtual reality and augmented reality but for the wider spectrum of other technologies which educators may consider investing in and using.

5. Please: just one decent regular TV series on video games. The UK hasn’t had one since BITS and that was a very long time ago. It’s a weirdly strange thing, this almost total lack of intelligent game analysis on TV, especially as this particular medium outsells most other in the wider entertainment sector. The BBC in particular has a regular film review show, and book review and author programs, and even regular gardening programs – but no games show. It can be done on mainstream TV; Charlie Brooker hosted an excellent documentary on games not that long ago…

…but it was just a one-off, not a series or regular TV slot. So we’re back to games being pretty absent from terrestrial TV, and predominantly mentioned in the mainstream media for some negative reason, whether accurate or just blatant opportunistic bandwagon joining. Just one, weekly, fifteen minutes show that considers the wider range of digital and analog games which a large proportion of the viewing audience choose to indulge in, doesn’t seem much to ask. Or maybe it’s really too late and the audience has already gone to other places.

Anyway; that’s my wishlist. I wish all games researcher, developers and players everywhere a great year of great games, no matter what else happens.

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.

The DuoLingo experience

At the end of last year, I met up with the Jisc Futurist again for what’s becoming our seasonal meal out. This one was ‘winter’, spent indoors in a pleasant Mediterranean restaurant. Once I’d gotten used to DMs and RTs illuminating on his watch, we were served some excellent vegetarian and burnt animal foods.

Med food

And in our meals one thing we regularly do is, inevitably, discuss DuoLingo at some point. Martin has young children who do this, without parental support or prodding, so he sees how they use it. I keep coming across DuoLingo (and am using it, albeit haphazardly) as it keeps being mentioned as the flagship for gamification-enhanced education, though the gamification and game elements are arguably the least interesting (neat though they are).

DuoLingo is a persistently interesting example. As TJF points out, there are a lot of people using it; the kind of numbers that the education sector need to keep an eye on. It’s free, easy to use, quick to get started, and there’s the nice intrinsic hooks of achieving through earning gamified things and learning a language at the same time. In fact it’s so easy to get going (old tech is fine; seconds, not minutes, to start) that there’s little excuse for EdTech commentators to not try it before commenting.

And, and this may be the attribute that makes it so usable, it is ferociously quick to move through a lesson – even though you have to achieve more right answers than wrong. Got a few minutes? You can do a new lesson or repeat a previously completed one.

basics

It’s not perfect. Languages come out of an incubator somewhat rough around the edges, and not of academically rigorous quality. Volunteers, rather than certified experts, develop this initial content. Speech and sound, vital to speaking a new language correctly, is of variable quality. And the translations that players are given (which are part of the business model) are sometimes random, irrelevant or things you will never say.

But it’s been around for a few years and the numbers do add up. And by that I mean the large number of users/players/learners, and the proportion reaching advanced stages and completing (as opposed to MOOC drop-out rates). Not everyone benefits; there’s always losers. While taxi drivers complain about Uber taking away their business, there’s less in the press about the language teaching and translation sectors taking substantial damage with individuals fearing for their futures. But it’s happening.

mistake

So, yes. Worth a “play”, at the very least.

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).