Playing games at uLearn
The pre-conference theme at this year's uLearn was titled "Permission to Play". As the day unfolded, and during my own session in the afternoon, I noted how apt that title was. We were giving delegates permission to get out of their chairs and have fun. The learning, and for the meta cognitives, the learning about learning, was sneaked in under the radar.
I had smashed four books together. Two were about learning design, and two were about games design. Essentially, we set up a learning environment based on well-established principles of constructivism, and then we overlaid a symbolic games language. These sources came from recognised authors listed at the bottom of this article. Then we created and played a sample game within this framework, and at the end, asked each other how it went. For me, it was a way to get peer feedback about my incubator project, and for the delegates, it was an introduction to how easy it is to make games that can be played out in an environment wider than the classroom and augmented using near zero cost tech. All you need, really, is the light scaffold of ARGEF (Alternate Reality Games in Education Framework) that I have just described, and a free mind.
First failure, but try again…
In an earlier blog post, I wrote about the spectacular failure of my first analog mission. It was a puzzle game in which a wooden puzzle called the Locked Cross was disassembled, and each piece was packed into a luscious and mysterious blue purse with a gold cord for hanging it around a player's neck. Then the purses were hidden around the venue, which served as the game environment. The first mission failed because we were playing in a sprawling venue and relying on Twitter for communication, but there was a no-Tweeting policy in place. Oops. This time, we played the game in one room, and I facilitated by good old-fashioned unmediated voice and gesture. Success! Serious fun was had, and the players cooperated to solve the puzzle. Step up you geeks, you Meta Cognitives!
The type of game that fits with learning
What were we doing here? We were playing a teeny, tiny pretotype of a cooperative pervasive game — the very type of game I believe is a tight fit with learning. While an air of healthy competition exists at one level, it is only when the players start to cooperate that they will beat the game. Pervasive, because it can be played over an hour, for the duration of a lesson, over a day, a week, or a whole school year. It scales. It can scale from the six players in one room that we had, to thirty players in the school grounds, and potentially beyond to national champs.
Let the game begin…
In the uLearn workshop, we scaled it to twenty-four players in three teams of eight playing over about fifty minutes. I situated the learners, but only the minimum to get started; I certainly did not explain each rule or nuance; more, I laid back into the process. I believed that, though not prescribing the play too heavily, the rules would still emerge. The constructivist learning environment we built comprised a table and chair for the Game Controller, three coloured paper ribbons (red, green, and blue) trailed away from the game controller's desk to a table and chairs for each of the red, green, and blue teams, then the ribbons converged again on a table for the whole group final exhibit. Built on constructivist/constructionist principles defined by George Gagnon and Michelle Collay, it's a static thing until you introduce resources, people, and rules of play.
Now, we overlaid the symbolic games design language, Machinations, on our constructivist-learning environment. We did this simply by drawing the symbols on a sheet of A4 paper and placing them appropriately. At intervals, the Game Controller would release three more resource units (clues). These flowed from the Source into the common Pool. The teams grabbed the resources as soon as they became available, taking them back to the team table for processing. Quickly, before they disappeared down the Drain, the clues were Traded, Converted, or Retained. Each resource was a clue to a famous scientist. So, if your team had both “BORN IN GERMANY 1879” and “BORN IN CROATIA IN 1856” then you know you need to Trade. If after five rounds your clues are making no sense at all, then maybe you need to “Convert”. Converting is like switching all your letters in Scrabble, you miss a turn.
At one point, the Trading got really hot. Players were shouting across the room. Every game has its internal economy, and we elected to have a free market model because our time was limited. Positive feedback loops heat the game up, speed it up, and raise the stakes. Negative feedback loops get the game back under control. What do we do if we think we've guessed our scientist? “I don't know”, I said. “Make up the rules as you go”. We could lodge our guess, but pay a penalty if we're wrong! Yes, what kind of penalties could you impose? And in this way we workshopped three things:
- the framework
- the game
- what game mechanics are and are not useful in a game designed for learning.
I think we could have done it for longer, and got deeper into it. But I, for one, had a lot of take-aways from just the half-day.
In the final outcome the work of Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and Otto Hahn all contributed to the Large Hadron Collider, which was the whole group exhibit. At the end we talked about how the game could be augmented by mobile technology. We discussed the use of open source maps, Global Positioning System, NFC tags, iBeacons, and good old QR Codes. We also found some time to go off and play The Walk, a game from Six to Start, where you walk in the real world to advance through a virtual world of distributed narrative, and Ingress, where the whole world is the board on which you play a game that is like capture-the-flag meets geo-caching. One of our teams captured the Sky Tower. Yay!
The key: keep it achievable for students to design themselves
But here's the challenge. Keep it achievable. Keep it so the students can design the game themselves within a sufficiently flexible framework that many ideas can be accommodated. Think cheap readily available tech. Start talking the language of games when you come up with your lesson plans. Be prepared to relinquish some control and just have fun. Every session doesn't have to be an all-out success. Failure is success in progress. You could say that’s what it is learn through play.
Constructivist Learning Design: Key Questions for Teaching to Standards by Gagnon, George W., Jr. and Michelle Collay
Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design (Voices That Matter) by Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans
A Mind For Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (Even If You Flunked Algebra) Kindle Edition by Barbara Oakley
Designing Virtual Worlds by Richard A. Bartle
The Walk from Six to Start
Ingress from Google