Tag Archives: Games

Unplug the Games: The value of human to human play

This summer we’re teaching a series of optional free camps at Computers4Kids. The goal is to provide a fun and engaging experience, but also introduce concepts that might pique the students’ interest. Last week I observed a phenomena that I had noticed before — a definite lack in students’ problem-solving skills. This wasn’t in an unfamiliar content area, but a simple game of 20 questions where the items were familiar animals, foods and objects. It was hard to watch the student stymied by the task. He wasn’t able to construct questions, even with prompts, that would lead to him guessing his hidden animal. He seemed frustrated and embarrassed, but other students lent him support and he was able to succeed eventually. This game that seemed so familiar to me and most of the students was clearly foreign to him.

Observing this interchange made me think about how important games are to children’s development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills. How many hours of my childhood  journeys were occupied with searching for objects that started with certain letters or fit into different categories, guessing a word, or out-spelling the driver? Thinking about strategy, getting tricky, and being clever were all skills that offered gratification and reward. Successful thinking was play and fun. It was valued.

Certainly many of these experiences can be duplicated on smartphones. There are plenty of free or cheap apps with guessing games built in, some lacking a few key components:

  1. An authentic feedback loop. It’s more gratifying to hear a peer or adult congratulate you for fresh thinking or more efficient guessing than canned computer feedback, no matter how intelligent the system is.
  2. Evolution of gameplay. When you’ve planned the same game mile after mile, you begin to shift the rules and boundaries to keep the gameplay challenging and new. The negotiation of the rules to keep play fun, challenging, or to make it appropriate for different levels of players is a critical skill for young players.
  3. Reading the opponent. When people play games against one another, they observe the strengths and weaknesses of the other’s play. Predicting a player’s next steps is often crucial in competitive games. Being able to parse the psychology of a colleague is a valued skilled in real life.
  4. Spontaneity. Humans almost always bring a sense of unpredictability to gameplay. While a computer algorithm can be analyzed and predicted, humans tend to ignore logical steps and respond “irrationally”; sometimes a perceived “losing” move is a strategically savvy one. Many computer programs aren’t equipped to play the long game.

Certainly I don’t disdain computer games and apps completely. I can’t stop playing a Tetris clone on my phone, but I see that games still need to come out of the digital sphere and into our human one. Sitting in the backseat affixed to the smartphone is no substitute for playing a game of I Spy out the window. Just because an activity is lo-fi, doesn’t mean that it’s not valuable.


Problem-Solving Play

Part 2 of a 6 part series reviewing examples of the 6 activity modes.

A review of Problem-Solving play:

Problem-Solving play is commonly encouraged via inclusion of puzzles, both in educational games and in commercial titles such as Myst. Here, there are specific rules for the activity sequence and the solution to the challenges. Even if there are a number of challenges within a given game, they are generally well defined, and undertaken independently. The problems may be hierarchical, requiring one problem to be solved before moving on to another, or the problems may be parallel and unrelated. Problem-solving may be fast-paced and reliant upon hand-eye coordination, or it can take a slower form where logic prevails.

Factory Balls 2 I lurve this game. Using a variety of tools, the player transforms white balls into 30 colorful variations with stencils and paints. Players must perform the transformational steps in a particular order in order to create the proper effect, but are not pressured by any time limits.

Little Wheel Here you look for a series of step by step puzzles hidden within the scenery. Like Factory Balls there is a particular sequence of steps to follow, but the ingredients and elements are hidden. I never can fathom these games.

Meta Games: This is the Only Level, Obey the Game and Take Something Literary play with the notions of game play and require players to solve puzzles that are fluid and require the knowledge of gameplay conventions. Novelties or deep exploration of game play? You decide.

Balance games: Tons and Tons of these. Red Remover, Super Stacker 2, Splitter 2, and  Perfect Balance 2 are just a few of the different ones where the player attempts to balance or unbalance objects in a worlds with consistent physics. These may have time constraints or not.

Light-bot:Use programming commands to cause a robot to follow different sequences of action. Like the Logo for this decade.

Matching games: Bejeweled and Bubble Shooter are two of the most famous, but most feature matching 3 more objects with like characteristics often with a time component.

There are tons more games with problem-solving activities. Game rules are typically fairly simple and straight forward. Problem-solving is easily combined with Active, Strategic and Explorative activities.

Introduction to the 6 Activity Modes

A few years ago I was working on some research that required me to analyze the game playing preferences of different children. I started off trying to use the existing game taxonomies to categorize their preferences, but found that they weren’t descriptive enough. Two games might both be puzzles, but have vastly different feel of play. After meditating on it for a while, analyzing a bunch of games, and looking back at the preferences of the students. I came up with the following 6 activity modes to describe the play that takes place within games. Multiple activity modes can appear simultaneously or sequentially in a single game.

  • Active Play

The gameplay mode most often thought of in connection with computer and video games is the active mode. In this mode, the player must respond quickly, using rapid-fire techniques, “twitch” speed, and combinations of keys or buttons to achieve the goals of the game. The game clock and/or threat of character “death” often provide structure and consequences. In games that shape play around action, the story lines frequently emphasize dichotomous conflict where the player embodies good against an evil opponent. Many of the most popular commercial games, including “shooters”, arcade-style games, and puzzles incorporate active modes into their game play.

  • Creative Play

Creative play offers the opportunity to create elements during play.  Some games provide opportunities to develop characters’ skills or appearance or to build or modify aspects of the environment. SimCity and the Tycoon games allow players to determine the components, layout and palette of cities, golf courses, roller coasters, and theme parks, while other games allow selection of character powers and appearance. Other creative elements in games can include free-form drawing, or the use of stamps to design printable or email-able documents that the player can use during or outside of game play.

  • Explorative Play

Another activity mode widely experienced in games is explorative play, where physical space and travel is simulated through the layout of the game arena. By hiding certain areas from view, the player is allowed to discover new areas and challenges in turn. Explorative play can be easily modified by the addition of other activity modes. Many three-dimensional “shooters” combine active and explorative play, where players find their way through virtual buildings or cities while dodging bullets and shooting enemies. Slower-paced educational games often pair exploration of an area with problem-solving activities.

  • Problem-Solving Play

Problem-Solving play is commonly encouraged via inclusion of puzzles, both in educational games and in commercial titles such as Myst. Here, there are specific rules for the activity sequence and the solution to the challenges. Even if there are a number of challenges within a given game, they are generally well defined, and undertaken independently. The problems may be hierarchical, requiring one problem to be solved before moving on to another, or the problems may be parallel and unrelated. Problem-solving may be fast-paced and reliant upon hand-eye coordination, or it can take a slower form where logic prevails.

  • Social Play

Social play can take a number of different forms. It can be the interactions between players and game characters or between the players themselves. This mode often provides the opportunity to manipulate the behavior of game characters, providing a god-like level of power. Interacting in a multi-player mode allows interaction between players in whatever manner the game allows, be it fighting, cooperating or romancing. Another form of player interaction takes place when two individuals use the same computer and station to control characters or action, when they must cooperate to some degree. This activity provides players with support, camaraderie, and/or help.

  • Strategic Play

Strategic play emphasizes the manipulation of resources–military, financial, or “human”–over a longer term. In games that emphasize problem-solving, achieving pre-set goals determines progress, while games that encourage a strategic mode of play often enable players to select their own or the computer’s benchmarks. Games that can include strategic activities include The Sims, titles in the Tycoon series, Civilization, and the Age of Empires. Few educational titles have incorporated this play mode into their games.

Creating Losing Designs

We spend a great deal of time planning for learner success. Do we ever create the ability for learners to lose? Should we?Our society puts a premium on “winning” — nowadays it seems like every team gets a trophy — not just the winner. Americans are culturally bound to the ideal of winning. However, in the real world people lose all of the time: athletes lose games and tournaments, politicians lose elections. In high stakes situations like these, losing has a real consequence. How does this affect learning?Low stakes losing occurs every day. When we lose, we tend to either give up, or continue to practice to overcome the failure. Any casual gamer is familiar with losing and attempting to overcome the loss by quickly replaying the game. Losing, in this context, can be a big motivator, driving the will to practice, which can lead to increased skill. Learning to lose effectively is actually a skill in itself. Resiliency in the face of losing and using strategies to improve is an important life lesson and professional skill. If losing always equates to complete failure, then learners stop striving, stop attempting creative solutions, and see themselves as incapable.In learning design, a primary goal should be to create an atmosphere where losing is acceptable and intrinsically motivates the learner to try again. The potential learning value from this type of experience is measured not by how often the player loses, but by how much they improve through repeated practice.

In your training design include opportunities for low stakes losing before learners are thrust into their high stakes, real-world situations — be it a qualifying exam or on the job performance.

Recommendations for a “losing” design:

  • Make content available on demand so that learners can review material as needed
    • A common mistake is being overly controlling with content. If the goal is for learners to gain knowledge and skills, shouldn’t they have free access to the tools that can make that happen?
  • Communicate how the learner is performing relative to passing scores or via peer-to-peer review as appropriate
    • By communicating how comparatively well they are doing, learners can better sense where they can improve. This also gets their competitive juices flowing.
  • Allow plenty of practice opportunities before the final assessment occurs
    • If the only time that learners can demonstrate knowledge is a final graded test, their opportunities to “lose” are reduced to one high stakes moment. Build in low stakes assessment opportunities that prepare learners for the one that counts.

This post originally appeared in July 2011 on The Total Learner Experience.

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?


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