Reality is Broken (is broken)

I’m reading Reality is Broken by Jane McGonigal as part of a VSTE book study.

I do not like it. I find myself vacillating between anger and nausea (despite liking isolated elements). I started to break down this book point by point but found it tedious and repetitive to do so.

Essentially, the author’s point is that reality is broken because it isn’t like games- which by the way are super awesome (always). There are huge, vast, amazingly arrogant assumptions made about games and their applicability to all people in all contexts but that’s par for the course for this type of book. The statement that I couldn’t pass on was –

reality is too easy – location 400

Really? Maybe McGonigal is observing other people. Most people I know seem to have their hands full with reality. There’s an entire blog dedicated to people who publicly document that they can’t tell the difference between an Onion satire and reality.1

Even if we assume that reality is too easy for our populace2, the author spends most of the book arguing against the very things that make reality hard.

The exact nature of this “satisfying work” is different from person to person, but for everyone it means being immersed in clearly defined, demanding activities that allow us to see the direct impact of our efforts.

Life is often difficult because real activities are ill defined and it may take years to see the impact of your actions.

Blissful productivity is the sense of being deeply immersed in work that produces immediate and obvious results. The clearer the results, and the faster we achieve them, the more blissfully productive we feel.

I’m not sure this is true but it sounds like it’s making life a lot easier to me. Most of the pieces from staying at the edge of your ability level, to choosing what work you do, are all about making life easier.

It doesn’t really matter. I agree with the concept this book should have stressed- that we can apply many of the principles of game design in a variety of ways to make other things better and more pleasant. Like most edtech presenters, it seems that the author’s goal was to create statements that people would tweet rather than aiming for rationale, accurate things to say. The extended soundbite as novel is an unfortunate byproduct of our times. This could have been an interesting book.

A few random things from when I thought this book would be worth arguing about —————-

The book starts with a quote from Edward Castronova.

“If it3 happens in a generation, I think the twenty-first century will see a social cataclysm larger than that caused by cars, radios, and TV, combined…. The exodus of these people from the real world, from our normal daily life, will create a change in social climate that makes global warming look like a tempest in a teacup.”

First, I’d argue that cars, radios, and TVs did not cause a “social cataclysm.”

If we ignore that, maybe we could see this as a fresh cataclysm if it was a movement from work hours to games/virtual worlds but it isn’t. It isn’t an exodus from “normal daily life” but rather a possible change in diversions. McGonigal later references that gamers watch less hours of TV- seeming to back up the concept that this is a shift of leisure time rather than a radical reordering of work/gaming balance.

This is one of those things that’s fun to say but doesn’t hold water. It wouldn’t make me as angry if it weren’t so prevalent in popular “research” books right now and horrifically evident in most anything to do with educational technology. It makes for a pithy twitter-able quote but that’s about it.

It’s a bit counterintuitive to think about the future in terms of the past. But as research director at the Institute for the Future … I’ve learned an important trick:to develop foresight, you need to practice hindsight.

Yep. Never heard of anyone who studies the past in an attempt to figure out what’ll go on in the future. GENIUS!!! Make that person research director for the Institute for the Future. Also, you should make some sort of saying about an original thought like that so people can quote you. Something like . . .

Study the past, if you would divine the future. – Confucious

Look back over the past, with its changing empires that rose and fell, and you can foresee the future, too. – Marcus Aurelius

The best prophet of the future is the past. – George Byron

Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. – Everyone

“There is zero unemployment in World of Warcraft.”

There is also zero unemployment in Disney Land. What a stupid, stupid thing to bother writing.

Oh and the one footnote I looked at gives no support to the statement it references.

Even professional drummers have remarked that it serves as a reasonable approximation of real rock drumming.

Links footnote 14 to this article about a guy who made his real drum kit into a controller for Rock Band. Nothing in there about approximating “real rock drumming”. Nothing even close to that statement.

1 Then when told it’s satire, either don’t know what that means (and make no effort to find out) or worse simply think “well, it should be true” and add it to the mental armor against reality.

2 We have, after all, already solved all those problems around pollution, energy, famine, war, suicide, addiction, cancer, obesity, homelessness, space travel etc.

3 Lots of people playing online games and getting involved in virtual worlds.

Education Innovation in NYC

I made a 24 hour visit to NYC to check out two of the schools in their iZone project. It’s worth reading a little more about the concept at their site.

New York City has designed the iZone to free schools from the compliance-oriented culture that has inhibited real innovation in our nation’s schools. Schools within the iZone are provided the resources and support to pioneer new models that transform what schools look like, personalizing instruction to the needs of each individual student, and dramatically improving student achievement.


The following comments are based on about two hours at each school during which we toured a few classrooms and got a variety of people related to the school telling us various things. Add my own biases and other personality issues and you’ve got a fairly superficial view of things but it’s probably more than you had before. I freely admit that this is surface level and probably more reflective of my own opinions than any sort of objective reality.

School of One

The School of One

To organize this type of learning, each student receives a unique daily schedule based on his or her academic strengths and needs. As a result, students within the same school or even the same classroom can receive profoundly different instruction as each student’s schedule is tailored to the skills they need and the ways they best learn. Teachers acquire data about student achievement each day and then adapt their live instructional lessons accordingly.

My one sentence description: A math curriculum that tries to use software and algorithms to create daily differentiated schedules and experiences based on student performance on task based activities.

That’s a convoluted sentence, no doubt. To make it more plain, they have students doing a fair amount of work within a LMS type system where they can track “mastery” of concepts through multiple choice quizzes. They take those data, combine it with self reporting on preferred learning styles and start to build schedules for students that take those things into account.

What I liked-
It makes sense to-

  • change instruction for individuals based on demonstrated results and preference.
  • use computers to help students efficiently memorize basic content and master basic skills.
  • offload some of the work of differentiation onto computers.
  • offload a chunk of low level grading to computers where the data can be tracked and broken down in more useful ways that actually change how and what students are taught.

Expanded Notes

The learning is done in one large long room- think giant shoe box shape. I believe they had to tear down walls to create it. The rationale is that having one giant room will result in teachers holding each other accountable and that it saves time (extends the school year was the way it was stated) by eliminating time lost by moving to different rooms. I’m not sure how that works as it seems like the students would still have to move, although the distance would be less.

The focal point on entering the room is a large monitor displaying student names indicating where that student should be (see image above- names blurred out of paranoia). There are various rough sections with signs. You have students involved in direct instruction, doing 1:1 online tutoring, participating in various online activities with a guide circulating to help if needed.

It is fairly loud due to the fact that there are numerous teacher led direct instruction sessions going on at once. Teacher instruction looked traditional in form and manner while we were present. “Class” sizes were smaller than the 30 or so you’d see in most classrooms (10 on average?) but some seemed to be in the high teens if not twenties. Whiteboards were in use and seemed to act as impromptu walls in many cases.

It seems like it’d be hard for students to make connections to teachers in this situation because of the way kids move from teacher to teacher. This was brought up as well, citing the importance of the teacher-student relationship and learning. The reply was essentially- “Students don’t get stuck with bad teachers all year either.” I’m not a fan of that reply.

Another aspect which had me thinking some was that teachers had core lessons they taught. Like, I might be the “multiplying fractions” guy or the “area of quadrilaterals” guy. In order to deal with the way students shift, teachers needed to cut down on prep time so they became “experts” in certain specific lessons. There are some positive aspects to teaching the same content to a bunch of different students, multiple times in a day/week/year if you are breaking it down and really learning from it as a teacher. I, as an individual, might also go crazy. I like some variety and feeling of linear progression in how I teach students. I’m not sure I’d get that in this system. It’s hard to tell.

They are trying new things. They are new things that seem to be custom made for the kind of multiple choice tests that are currently in vogue. There are pieces that are worth thinking about but I’m not sure how this system, as a whole, would fare under different testing conditions.

Anyway, that ought to break up the parade of #ds106 posts. I’ll save the second school for another post, as I’m rapidly approaching 900 words here.

Ethical Choices and Transgression in Games

Tom has been gracious enough to let me back in the door to blog my experience at the Gaming + Learning + Society conference this week.


Ethical Choices and Trangression in Games
MicroPresentations by Manveer Heir, Anthony Betrus, Monica Evans, David Simkins, and Erin Hoffman

This rapid-fire session felt like TED on speed.  Each presenter had 7 minutes to present, then the floor was opened for discussion.  There were a couple clear themes that resonated with me.

First, Manveer Heir was the only presenter to focus on gaming from a non-MMOG.  Heir pointed out that most modern games follow a black and white model of ethics–the kind of ethic you see in Star Wars, for instance.  In this framework, the choices of the players are very limited and do not accurately reflect the world around us.  He is advocating for a more “grey” ethic where the choices available to the player are vast and, at times irreversible.  In this grey ethic, the player would experience a larger pallet of emotions.  For instance, if you, as the player, are faced with a scenario where killing a closely aligned character would save a mass of people, and you knew you could not simply save and return if you didn’t like the results, you are going to spend some time determining the reletive value of that choice.  You might experience grief or regret instead of simply blindly choosing to kill knowing you can go back if you want.  Heir sees four key elements to a game that truely pulls off a grey ethic:

  1. Narrative (the player must be emotionally invested; narrative must be in line of the mechanics of the game)
  2. Consequences (must have significant ones for gamer’s choices)
  3. Obstacles (can make the decisions more complecated)
  4. Permanence (Saving and going back circumvent permanence–instead, create a series of key moments in the game that cannot be reversed and change the outcome of the game)

My first reaction was that these four keys translate into a developers nightmare.  Heir would agree.  He pointed out that producers would look at a branch of game play that might only be used, say, 10% of the time (when a player made a certain pivotal choice) and simply cut it. This model for game development does not seem cost effective to the bean counters, but it would move games closer to a life-like experience.

Educators are not bean counters.  Educators see the intrinsic value of creating an ethic that has more than two choices.  And I, for one, believe this type of development, though labor intensive, would provide opportunities to create scenarios for the classroom that are not about simply “winning” or “experiencing”.  A game could be about why you make the choices you do.  The value is in the conversation/reflection after playing.  Students could be places in losing battles in the Civil War and allowed to make different choices than those actually made, or they might be a genetic scientist who has to determine where the line between progress and abuse of power is with their work.  The game would move from a linear simulation to a playground for exploration.

The other presenters focused on online communities (World of Warcraft and GoPets).  The common thread in these presentations was that there was no specific ethic (Black, White, or Grey).  The designers of the game leave those choices up to the players.  In place of an ethic, these games rely on the reputation of the player and the “guild” to guide the players.  This opens the door for abuse and intollerance, but ultimately puts the responsibility on the player.

Educators often fear introducing a game that allows for killing and abuse.  This is why we gravitate to Second Life in the classroom instead of World of Warcraft or EVE.  But putting those constraints on the students means cutting away a vast set of scenarios that could be used as teachable moments.  If our students are playing these games outside of school, and these games are shaping the student’s perception of the world.  Shouldn’t we be open to these games in school if for no other reason than the convesations we could have about the choices we make in games and how they would translate in our real lives? Designing 8-bit Learning Games for a $10 computer

Tom has been gracious enough to let me back in the door to blog my experience at the Gaming + Learning + Society conference this week.

Designing 8-bit Learning Games for a $10 Computer
Presented by Derek Lomas

Derek Lomas wants you to join his open-source educational software revolution.  Lomas, along with two other partners, founded Playpower when they realized educators was lacking a rich, open-source developer community.  He has fond memories of games like Lemonade Stand, Oregon Trail, and Math Munchers (and points out that some teachers are still using these game in their classrooms).  These games were simple, effective, and totally engaging.  Playpower would like to bring back the experience of trekking across the planes or building a neighborhood empire out of squeezed fruit.  “Teens love these indie games.  They get it.  And not simply because they are ‘retro’.”  It seems the field is ripe for educators to turn back to development:  An audience that loves the style;  A platform with restraints (limited graphics, RAM, etc.) that actually benefit the home developer.  The only piece missing is a central place where geeky teachers can go to solicit help, learn the language, and share their goods.  Playpower wants to develop that place.

Lomas’ first project is to pull together/create a set of tools for a “$10 computer“.  That computer, a platform that includes a keyboard with a cartridge slot, a mouse, and two game controllers, runs on an old Nintendo/AppleII processor (which is now in the public domain) and is sold all over the developing world.  With a little help from indie coders, Lomas and his partners hope to create an set of tools that would help educators, students, and programmers create new content that would be passed to distributors who would package the games in the computer kits.  Sick, I know.  So, with all the ingredients in the kitchen, it is just a matter of pulling them together to give new life to these simple machines.

I asked Lomas how the ed tech community could help with Playpower’s greater goal.  “I think it is important to know the history of educational games.”  He would like to create an archive of sorts that would include a catalog of ed. games over the past 30 years.  This resource would include snippets of game play and reviews from educators on the value of the game.  Ideally, the cream of the crop would be available to download and play.  You can help by suggesting great games from the past (and past would include yesterday) that should be included in this catalog.

Also, Lomas wants to see a rebirth of teens being taught programming that would be augmented with game design and development content.  This 8bit revival would be the perfect playground for this type of class or after school program.  Students who are hardcore gamers would get to know the entire process of developing a game in a manageable framework.  Look for a Playpower game design contest for students in the near future.

Educational Gaming Must Move Beyond Parlor Tricks

Tom has been gracious enough to let me back in the door to blog my experience at the Gaming + Learning + Society conference this week.


Have you played Passage yet?  If you have 5 minutes, it is worth downloading and playing it through once.  It will give a little context to this reflection and you will avoid all spoilers below.

Passage caused a flurry of chatter a year an a half ago.  Jason Rohrer, the creator, wanted to make a simple game that simulated the span of life and illustrated how the choices we make effect that timeline.  In the game, there is no real goal.  Sure, you are collecting points for various activities and choices (trying not to spoil the experience for those of you who have not played it yet), but, in the end, the point of the game is the experience itself.  Not the score.  It has been hailed as the first video game to bring the player to tears.  The power of the play is multiplied when you look at the simple, classic design of the game.

After playing through Passage a couple more times, I began to realize that this brilliant game was the direction gaming in education needs to move.  We need to move away from the perception that educational games teach the elements on the periodic table or how to conjugate verbs in Spanish.  Gaming has the potential to give students a medium to explore complex problems that lack black and white answers.  Rohrer is a strong proponent of open environments that allow for multiple “right” answers for the challenges of a game.  In a non-linear game like this, the value is in the discussions between players about why they made certain choices.

I am hopeful that my next few days in Madison will yield some amazing food for thought as I begin building a few games next year with a small group of teachers.

Interviews with Jason Rohrer

Study of gamers at IU School of Education

Media advisory: Study of gamers at IU School of Education: IU News Room: Indiana University

The reason for the research, Appelman said, is that the learning style has changed for today’s students, but the content delivery has not adapted. In the standard method of teaching, teachers deliver content and expect memorization, reading, and other work to translate the learning into performing a task.

“Students today are absolutely bored with that approach,” Appelman said. “What they want to do is to dive in immediately and say, ‘Give me a task that I can learn from.'” The primary learning method gamers employ, he said, is trial and error. “This generation has no problem with failure. They ‘die’ hundreds of times a day, but they learn from that.”

Wouldn’t work for everything but it’s definitely worth thinking about. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out.

iQuiz and iQuiz Maker (Updated)

iTunes has released a new game for iPods called iQuiz (available through the iTunes store). Aspyr is now offering a new free quiz maker for Macs (PC to come). Could be an interesting review tool. You could have students produce questions and answers and create a review quiz from the best submissions.

via TUAW

UPDATE: Aspyr has now made iQuiz Maker available for PCs. (Thanks, Mike)

Ian Bogost on Persuasive Games


Ian Bogost was on The Colbert Report last night. Bogost has a new book, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, about rethinking the value of video games.

From the book description:

Videogames are both an expressive medium and a persuasive medium; they represent how real and imagined systems work, and they invite players to interact with those systems and form judgments about them.

He mentioned a series of persuasive games he had produced to illustrate his theory, and as he described one of the games, I suddenly recognized it. Dissaffected, a game that places your on the service side of a Kinkos, must have popped on my radar last year. I played it for awhile, then became frustrated with the way I was being treated by the customers and never went back to it. I never realized the significance of my reaction. It is an interesting simulation of the service industry. Bogost has added a number of games to his catalogue, and I recommend exploring the games with your classrooms in mind. This could be a wonderful way to stimulate conversation and reflection.

Ian Bogost’s Blog

Chore Wars


I saw this Wednesday on Wonderland, Thursday on MetaFilter, and was reminded of it again on BoingBoing late Friday night.  You get others to sign up and assign experience points (XP) for completing chores.  I finally asked the “How would this fit in a classroom?” question the third time I saw it, and I came up with two ideas.

1.  Use it as a creative homework incentive program.  Students get XP for completion of work.  “Prizes” are awarded for the best  performance.  You know, the usual, but within a “gaming” framework.

2.  Use it to map out a group project.  Teams get to map out the tasks necessary for completing the assignment.  Tasks are giving point values based on difficulty or time commitment.  Once a student completes a task, they give themselves credit.  The XP becomes a gauge for individual participation levels.

Clearly, there would be issues with this site, as there are fight scenes that you would find in any role playing game which might not appeal to all students/parents.  But the idea of integrating gaming, organization, and accountability in a classroom has appeal.

Chore Wars