Category Archives: Reviews

Too Many Apps

It’s only been four years since the Apple app store was launched, but there are over a half million apps available. In addition there are also all the apps that are embedded in websites and in Google’s store. How do we possibly focus on getting our key tasks done while being told that we need to try this or that new life-changing app? Here are some techniques that I’ve been using to good effect:

Reading Headlines
I don’t read every blog and article the moment it comes out. If I read tech blogs everyday I’d get whiplash. Every new app and tech company is going to change the world. Except they don’t. I wait for the hue and cry to die down and let others weed out the technologies that won’t last. I resist the need to try every last fix-all solution by remembering my History of Ed Tech professor showing us the lantern slide, blackboard, tape player, TV, etc that was going to change the education world and bring in a golden age of human development.
Asking Questions
When a technological break-through lasts long enough to make it worthwhile to invest, I ask friends who I respect what the educational applications are, what the limitations are, and what’s the likelihood that it’s going to be around for a while. Even if there is no cash cost for using a tool, the time and energy that a user spends learning the tool has a price and that becomes a complete loss if the app is going to be absorbed or cut (e.g. Google Wave).
Rejecting Tools (even popular/useful ones)
There are some services that I don’t I need. Spotify is probably great, but I haven’t been convinced that it will add value to my life. I like music, but I’m not an audiophile. I often want it to provide background to other productivity. I mostly don’t want it to bother me. I’ve collected a pretty good iTunes library and I’ve curated some pretty great Pandora stations. I know that Spotify probably is great, but I’m cheap– I don’t want to add another subscription to get the features that really set it apart from competitors. I also want to minimize the amount of time that I spend taking care of my technology– each app that we install means another tool with its own updates, subscriptions to manage, privacy to consider. When we adopt and adopt again we’re devoting more of our time to means not the ends. I’ve got 3-4 ways to listen to music I like already, I’m not sure that I need to add another.
Following Instincts
Sometimes a new app just seems great, a no brainer. If it’s appealing, easy to use, with a clear educational component– then yes, I use it– hello I don’t reject apps just because they’re new. I’m not a crazy luddite. I hope that I am merely a thoughtful luddite. Following my instincts has made me reject any locator type program like foursquare as creepy and unneeded even before I read articles like this.
Investigating on Need
I figure out what I need to do before searching out the app. I don’t find an app and try to shoehorn it into a curriculum or task just to say that I used something new. Using this method we’ve found apps to calculate percentage change, to create secure passwords and teach students how to use javascript.

One technique that has proven invaluable for me is accepting that I can’t stay abreast of every innovation. I shift the focus back from the shininess on the web, and back to the reality of what I really want to do and accomplish. Freeing myself from being an early adopter has definitely reduced my anxiety about what I am missing.


Word Vine

While there are plenty of games that get it wrong, I thought I might review a couple of games that get it right. Word Vine is one such game. It’s premise is simple: link words to create inter-connected compound words on branching relationship. An easy level uses tree, sauce, apple, trunk. I’m stuck on a hard level with time, tower, prime, bell, cow, cash, machine, gun, minister, ivory, tower, zone. So what do I like about this game this morning (and last night, for a really long time)?

  • Simple task– It is well within my skill set to make compound words and to click and drag small icons onto a hotspot.
  • “Educational”– I’m not shooting stuff. I wouldn’t be anyway, but I like figuring out this little verbal puzzle.
  • Visual– Solving the harder puzzles requires tapping into some region of the brain that handles visual relationships; it’s difficult to solve the harder puzzle (at least for me) without physically (virtually) dragging the word shapes onto some of the twining branches.
  • Aesthetics– It’s pretty. I like the soft greens.

I’m always trying to figure out how to combine content and gameplay. I can envision a social studies content game which links concepts, dates, and historical figures. How about a branching vine of German philosophers or early 20th Century artists?



As usual I am curious how to merge the worlds of voluntary online activity with educational outcomes. I just voluntarily spent hours playing Pixelvader for no good reason. When I get caught up in a game or other online activity like that I ask myself several questions:

  • What kept me engaged?
  • What did I learn and how will I use it?
  • And, of course, What am I going to take away for future design?

What kept me engaged?

This game isn’t rocket science (although it did have a rocket ship). You shoot stuff. Typically I am not a huge fan of shooting stuff. I have poor reaction time and seemingly no motor skills. This equals no “twitch” speed which is required by most shooting video games. However this game incorporated strategic purchasing of rocket ship accessories. Once you equipped your rocket with further weaponry, defensive gear or speed, you played a quick shooter with simple arrow key controls (no keyboard combos which I can’t memorize or implement). At the each of the 10 levels you got to buy stuff.  I love buying stuff. You could go down a level and generate quick cash to earn more gear. If after a certain point you realized that your gear strategy was flawed you could reset with no penalty and try another tactic by purchasing differently.

So for a player like meTM the engagement factors are:

  • Multiple modes of play– There’s some strategy and action.
  • Low risk– It’s easy to practice at the lower levels, The game never ends until you choose, If a strategy doesn’t work, it’s very easy to try another one.
  • Low learning curve– There’s not a big story, Gameplay was understandable and predictable.
  • High feeling of success– I beat a good numbers of levels, I understood what I needed to do in order to win when I did not, Consequences were predictable and avoidable.
  • Low brain power– I was tired and wanted to unwind, this game didn’t necessitate huge thinking, but just enough to make me feel smart during late night play.

What did I learn and how will I use it?

Within the game, I remembered that sometimes it’s better to be close to a large object to hit it quickly, but if it has a particular offense, it’s best to step back to have greater maneuverability. Somehow that seems important as a life lesson to me this afternoon. I also determined that personally, avoidance is a more native strategy than aggression. I wish that there was some grand content takeaway that i could reference, but sadly, I haven’t yet thought of a productivity correlation, but I am thinking on it and will update when I think of it.

What am I going to take away for future design?

Obviously I will consider all of the things that makes a player like meTM remain engaged. I also rememembered that not all players are like me. But I think my biggest takeaway is this: Any game that keeps a player playing is successful. We can argue points about genres, playability, modes, all those various game-geek issues players like to argue. But, despite the fact that this game is likely no more than a 3 on imagination, innovation and creativity, I kept playing.

keep playing

IBM CityOne goes live

I was a bit excited this morning to see that IBM’s CityOne had finally launched. I’m always a fan of innovative games with real life applications and I am currently searching for activities to use with my high school students. Billed as a SimCity-like experience, but with an educational side, I was expecting to have some fun building a city to my specifications and doing some high level problem-solving.

That build-up would indicate some disappointment– and indeed there was. The glossy cityscape I viewed was inviting and attractive. A small icon indicated my first problem to solve. I clicked, exposing the specific city-planning issue related to water. Three solutions were presented with various pricetags. I choose the most expensive, most comprehensive solution and was presented with some boilerplate response. Mousing and clicking over the screen to find my next challenge I determined (perhaps incorrectly) that I had no more challenges. I ended this first of ten rounds thinking that I couldn’t make much progress if I only had ten challenges to solve.

I made it to turn 7, barely. By this round I had begun to have challenges from all 4 areas (water, energy, retail and banking), but they all had the same basic format. There were few of the identified game attributes– little challenge, no suspense, I had no idea what I was competing for or against and I didn’t know how or why I could fail– and I didn’t really care.

I was attracted to the game because of this line from Gizmodo: “The idea here, presumably, is that it’s always a good thing to educate the populace about the these sorts of problems, and, hey, who knows, someone might unwittingly stumble on a solution we can actually use.” This is hard to see how that could happen  because all of the activities are call and response. There is no room or opportunity for players to create their own innovative solutions.

This seems like a marketing/training tool go awry. To launch the game I had to enter detailed personal info– not surprising– but the limited options for industry or occupation indicated to me that IBM had a  target audience in mind. One of the follow up questions asked you to indicate if you were a software purchase “decider”. Many of the game solutions included using software (presumably developed and marketed by IBM) to clean up a variety of perceived major city issues.

It’s disappointing to me that this game is so lame. I have no problem with companies reaching out through games– I just want them to be fun. There was no fun to be had.

This post originally appeared in October 2010 on The Total Learner Experience