Games animals play

Play is an important part of animal development, as with child development: animals learn to hunt and fight just as children learn to perform tasks and socialise.  And as with humans, animal play isn’t just limited to learning for future survival, but is a valuable part of day-to-day wellbeing.  Providing adequate mental stimulation and engagement is particularly important for captive animals, confined in relatively small environments where normal behaviour such as hunting is very limited, and with feeding and other activities subject to external schedules.

The TOUCH (Technology to Orangutans for Understanding and Communicating cross-species for greater Harmony) project, based at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University’s School of Design, is working on the design of digital systems to enable humans and orangutans to play games together – and, in particular, games where orangutans will almost certainly beat their human competitors.  Orangutans perform particularly well on games similar to pelmanism that rely on visual memory, and will almost invariably out-perform any human challenger.

The Hong Kong orangutans aren’t the first to engage with computer games: Samatran orangutans at Zoo Atlanta have been using them for several years as researchers attempt to understand their cognitive processes in order to help plan interventions to increase the survivability of the species in the wild.  Where the TOUCH project differs is in looking at games primarily as entertainment for non-humans, and as a focal point for enhancing cross-species communication and interaction.

In both projects, as in others, tangible rewards such as food or ‘social praise’ from their human playmates are provided to help train the animals to play within the rules or framework of the game, but many are content to continue playing even without such rewards: game play itself is ‘inherently rewarding‘ for them.  Playing within the rules, or consciously transgressing them, is fundamental to a ludological view of games: construction of the fourth wall, acceptance of the ability to only go up ladders and down snakes and the impossibility of going up snakes or down ladders, is what gives play structure and meaning.  YouTube is full of wonderful clips of all kinds of animals interacting with digital games, but not playing in the sense of following rules; the actual pleasure they get from them is also debatable.

Engaging cats in digital games, either solo or with a human partner, is the focus of Cat Cat Revolution, which is exploring the development of games on the iPad to enable this.  The project’s video, below, shows some varying results, but it’s clear that the game captures the attention and curiosity of the cats, in particular the youngest kitten in the study.  Similarly, iPad Game for Cats, a free game with paid-for additional levels available, clearly provides great entertainment for cats of all sizes.  Unlike TOUCH, which found that many of the orangutans were very happy to play purely for praise and interaction, the extent of the engagement between feline and human participants isn’t clear: while it’s obvious that the humans are getting a great deal of pleasure from playing with and watching their pets, the cats seem interested purely in the game with the human interaction being incidental (but then, they are cats ;) ).


These studies are fascinating.  Positioning animals as digital gamers, and knowing participants within multiplayer, multi-species games can enable us to learn so much more about them, ourselves, and the nature and universals of play.  Most of all, improving the welfare of captive animals and potentially increasing their ability to survive in the wild through skills learned through digital play would be the greatest outcomes of all.

Of course, like kids everywhere, sometimes it’s not the game but the box it came in that provides the most entertainment ;)

Under development: xGames

xgames-logoThe xGames project, a collaboration between Reid Kerr and Anniesland colleges, has been running for nearly a year and is currently in the final stages of piloting its innovative use of wireless xBox360 controllers for classroom quizzes.  Funded as part of the JISC Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants: SWaNI (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) FE programme, the project has produced a highly user friendly question editor to allow complete novices to quiz and game design to easily author questions.  These questions can then be played in one of several games designed by the project on a large screen linked to a standard Windows PC fitted with USB receivers for up to four wireless xBox controllers.  Using wireless controllers is crucial as the range of the sensors allows a great deal of flexibility in classroom set up, permitting the use of breakout groups to discuss topics and feedback, for example.  Additionally, xBox controllers are familiar to many learners who are more confident using them than PC gaming.

The video below demonstrates the system’s use in a primary school classroom, and the engagement and enthusiasm of the children is immediately obvious, with lively discussions about the quiz questions and clear enjoyment of the session, the immediate indication of correct and incorrect answers providing instant feedback to the pupils.  The use of the large screen allows the teacher to constantly maintain a clear overview of the progress of the entire class, allowing her to identify topics that are generally not understood and which require whole class revision or struggling individuals within the group.  Discussion amongst the older group of college students is more muted, but their focus on the game mechanics and subject matter is evident.


The games, screenshots for which can be found under the games menu on the project site (software will be available from this site in due course), are designed using industry standard software such as XNA Game Studio, 3D Studio Max, Fireworks and Illustrator, with the question editor using a Visual Basic form for generating plain text files containing the question stem, distractors and correct response.  Unlike a commercial system such as Quia, questions are stored in a shared public folder so they can easily be shared and reused by teachers in different institutions.  XGames has generated interest from FE and, particularly, schools, and may well see further uptake as an affordable and easily adopted way of bringing game based learning into more classrooms.

Badges, identity and the $2million prize fund

You’ll almost certainly have noticed some of the excitement that’s suddenly erupted around the use of badges in education.  Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s the latest in a long line of ‘game changers for education’, maybe you’re even hoping for a slice of that $2million prize fund the HASTAC Initiative, Mozilla and the MacArthur Foundation are offering for work around their adoption and development through the Digital Media and Learning Badges for Lifelong Learning competition.  Supported by a number of significant entities, including Intel, Microsoft and various US Government departments, the competition offers up to $200k each for a number of projects around content and infrastructure for badges for lifelong learning, as well as an $80k award for a research project in ‘Badges, trophies and achievements: recognition and accreditation for informal and interest-driven learning’ together with two smaller doctoral student grants, and student and faculty prizes.  That’s a decent amount of cash available for – what?

This is all based around Mozilla’s Open Badges Initiative, which attempts to provide an innovative infrastructure to support the recognition of non-traditional learning and achievement for professional development and progress.  Drawing upon the widespread use of badges and achievements in gaming and the current trend for gamification, the project is described in gamified language, claiming that badges can help adopters ‘level up’ in their careers via the acquisition and display (sharing) of badges.  There’s a fair point being made here: gamers can develop a profile and express their individual identity as gamers through the display of achievements they earn as they play, which can then be shared ingame through the use of special titles or on appropriate fora through signatures and site profiles.  Achievements reflect the different interests a player has (their weighting on the Bartle scale for example) as well as their skill.  Within a fairly closed community such as a single game, a suite of games or a website, these achievements have significant value as the viewers are other gamers for whom the achievements have meaning and value.

LarsH on Stack Overflow’s response to the question ‘why are badges motivating?‘, asked over a year ago but still very relevant, sums this up eloquently:

We like other people to admire us.  As geeks we like others to admire us for our skills.  Badges/achievements stay visible in association with our online identity long-term, unlike individual questions and answers which quickly fade into obscurity.

If I play a game and get a great score, it’s nice, but it means little to others unless they have the context of what typical scores are for that game (and difficulty level etc).  Whereas an achievment is a little more compact of a summary of what you’ve accomplished.

Badges also give us a checklist whereby we can see how far we’ve come since we joined the web site – and how far we have to go in order to be average, or to be exceptional.’

LarsH’s comments were in the context of participation in an online community which awards badges for numbers of ‘helpful’ answers to questions and other contributions, but the underlying theme is the same for all contexts: the notion of building a persistent persona associated with achievements and success that endures beyond a single assessed instance (one play through a game, one helpful answer) which which it is specifically associated.  It creates a sense of status and implies competence and trustworthiness, which in turn can inspire others to emulate that behaviour in the hope of seeking similar recognition, or indicate that this is a trusted individual to ask for advice or guidance from.  Badges not only provide recognition of past contributions but also an implication that future contributions can also be trusted and an incentive to participate usefully.

Being able to capture and reflect this sometimes quite fine-grained information in other contexts would indeed have some advantages.  But as soon as these awards and achievements are looked at by someone outside their immediate context, they immediately lose a large part of their value, not because they’re worthless outside their original context but because the viewer lacks the expertise in the field to be able to trust that the badge reflects what it claims or to understand the implications of what it claims.  The value of the badge, therefore, isn’t inherent in the badge itself but in the assertions around it: that is was issued by a trustworthy party on reliable evidence to the specific individual who claims it.  A lot like, say, a traditional certificate for completing an accredited course, perhaps…

As Alex Reid (no, not that one) says, ‘passing a high stakes test to get a badge is no different than the system we already have’, and a lot of the problems around developing a trustworthy system are those that have already been faced by traditional awarders.  Comparisons to diploma mills swiftly emerged in the aftermath of the competition announcement, and it’s not difficult to see why: if anyone can issue a badge, how do we know that a badge reflects anything of merit?  Cathy Davidson’s vision of a world where employers hand out badges for ‘Great Collaborator!’ or ‘Ace Teacher!’ is nice (if far too cutesy for my tastes), but it’s not exactly hard to see how easily it could be abused.

At the heart of the badges initiative is the far older issue of identity management.  As our badge ‘backpack‘ is intended to gather badges awarded in a range of different contexts, how are we to be sure that they all belong to the one person?  As the example above of Alex Reid, American academic, versus Alex Reid, cage fighter, cross dresser, Celebrity Big Brother contestant and ex husband of Jordan, demonstrates, names are useless for this, particularly when the same person can be known by a number of different names, all equally meaningful to them in the same different contexts the backpack is intended to unify.  Email addresses have often been suggested as a way of identifying individuals, yet how many of us use a single address from birth to death?  In the US, social security numbers are far too sensitive to be used, while UK National Insurance numbers aren’t unique.  Similarly, how is a recruiter to know that a badge has been issued by a ‘respectable’ provider on the basis of actual performance rather than simply bought from a badge mill?  Unique identification of individuals and awarders, and accreditation of accreditors themselves, whether through a central registry or decentralised web of trust, is at the heart of making this work, and that’s not a small problem to solve.  With the momentum behind the OER movement growing and individuals having more reason and opportunity to undertake free ad hoc informal learning, being able to recognise and credit this is important.  As David Wiley notes, however, there’s a difference between a badge awarded simply for moving through a learning resource, and one awarded as an outcome of validated, quality assured assessment specifically designed to measure learning and achievement, and this needs to be fully engaged with for open or alternative credentialing to fulfill its potential.

There’s also a danger that badges and achievements can be used to legitimise bad or inadequate content by turning it into a Skinner box, where candidates will repeatedly undertake a set task in the expectation of eventually getting a reward, rather than because the task itself is engaging or they’re learning from it.  Borrowing from games can be good, but gamers can be very easily coaxed into undertaking the most mindless, tedious activities long after their initial value has been exhausted if the eventual reward is perceived as worth it.

Unlike, say, augmented reality or other supposed game changers, it’s not the underlying technology itself that has the potential to be transformative – after all, it basically boils down to a set of identity assertion and management problems to be solved with which the IDM people have been wrestling for a long time, plus image exchange and suitable metadata – but rather the cultural transformation it expresses, with the recognition that informal or hobbyist learning and expertise can be a part of our professional skillset.  Are badges the right way of doing this?  Perhaps; but what’s much more important is that the discussion is being had.  And that has to be a good thing.

Under development: VWVLE

The VWVLE project, or Supporting Education in Virtual Worlds with Virtual Learning Environments to give it its full name, has been funded as part of the JISC Learning and Teaching Innovation Grants round 5 to examine the wide range of emerging pedagogical opportunities offered through the integration of virtual worlds and web-based virtual learning environments.

Led by the University of the West of Scotland, with partners including Imperial College London, The Open University and the University of Ulster, the project builds on the considerable experience and expertise the project team have developed through their work on SLOODLE and the use of games for learning within virtual environments.  SLOODLE (Simulation Linked Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment) provides seamless integration between the virtual world Second Life and Moodle, the popular open source VLE.  Pilot courses will see students in engineering, computing and medicine explore aspects of the core question of how web-based virtual learning environments can effectively support learning and teaching in virtual worlds, particularly focusing on personalisation and reuse of content, and gaming in VWs, and demonstrating the applicability of such technologies across different institutional and disciplinary contexts.

A number of outputs will be produced, including guidance for practitioners, a range of extensions or plug-ins for Moodle/SLOODLE, and a guide to producing reusable content in virtual worlds which will attempt to address some of the issues that present a significant barrier to the easy and effective exchange of such resources.  The emphasis on the integration of VWs and games with educational systems such as VLEs will both highlight the pedagogic benefits of such integration and attempt to clarify and address the challenges of doing so.  By making explicit the range of technologies and support resources relied upon by educators working with VWs, and identifying and sharing good practice, the project can make a real impact on practice in this area and future activities.

Assessment of games based learning

It was well worth the early start today to attend a fascinating webinar presented by Nicola Whitton of MMU on ‘assessment of game based learning’.  Part of the successful series of webinars hosted by the Transforming Assessment project funded by the Australian Learning and Teaching Council and based at the University of Adelaide, this was the second of two events focusing particularly on games in education.

While the previous seminar looked less at assessment and more generally at games and pseudo-games such as Second Life, Nicola’s talk drew a sharp distinction between play, play worlds and simulations.  Games don’t need to have awesome graphics or vast budgets to succeed: great learning designs may be gamelike without the author ever consciously intending to design a game.  Games might ‘mashup the real world and the game world’ in imaginative and creative ways, but

lecture theatres aren’t particularly effective in real life, so reproducing them in a world where you can fly just seems really strange

I feel as though I’m SL-bashing again, but I found it really refreshing to have someone state so clearly that no, just because something’s virtual doesn’t make it a game, its the nature of the interaction between learner and content that does.  It doesn’t make it a more or less legitimate learning tool either, but the distinction is important as they both have valuable but different things to offer, and represent very different learning models.

Nicola distinguished between the use of games as an assessment tool and the assessment of games based learning, an important distinction that often seems to be overlooked.

Assessment within games offers some valuable elements: it can be automated, repeatable, potentially integrated in the learning process, impartial.  External assessment, defined here as any non-game assessment activity, by contrast, is capable of greater creativity, more tutor control, but is also more time-intensive and can be unconsciously partial.  Higher levels of learning such as analysis and critical thinking are far more difficult to assess by any automated method, including games, as they attempt to use quantitative methods to assess qualitative outcomes.

Games often have a binary, win or lose outcome that doesn’t accurately reflect the subtleties of degrees of competence or ability, and which can be counterproductive to learning through play when used as assessment.  By using external assessment processes and disassociating game performance from course grade, games can provide a safe learning environment in which failure in the immediate game context can actually be invaluable for further learning and growth.

As with any other form of assessment, including pen and paper tests, expertise in the assessment format – in this case, gaming literacy – can significantly alter the outcome of the assessment.  As always, assessment must genuinely assess the intended learning outcomes and not, for example, the ability to navigate effortlessly through the game world (a major issue even for experienced gamers when it comes to Second Life) or familiarity with general gaming conventions.  This suggests that assessing game based learning within the game environment would be a preferred approach, but while teachers may find it relatively easy to integrate innovative approaches within their teaching practice, applying this to assessment, particularly higher-stakes assessment, can provoke hostility from higher authorities.  Nicola did, however, reference the SQA’s GamesSpace initiative, presented at a CETIS special event earlier this year, as an example of a national assessment authority embracing such technologies for a major qualification strand.  GamesSpace is particularly worth noting as it allows the assessment of process and not simply product and incorporates human rather than automated marking: the candidate uses an avatar to progress through a series of role-related tasks, priorities and activities which are recorded in a format identical to the pen and paper alternative for manual human marking.

Learners too may demonstrate some hostility towards games as teaching aids – but this resistance is something that has been observed in relation to other innovative approaches too. Anything that appears to trivialise learning or that can be interpreted as trying to make learners ‘not feel they’re learning‘ can provoke scepticism and resistance in learners.  It can be hard to get away from the priviliging of traditional models of teaching and learning, from the scholars seated at the feet of the master, from the three essays in three hours make-or-break finals paper.  When learners can see the value in using such approaches, they are generally very willing to engage with them – learners are in general pragmatic, strategic and outcomes-orientated, whether their teachers like it or not.  Interestingly, Nicola’s research has demonstrated that a ‘propensity to play games for fun is in no way related to an inclination to play games for learning.’  She also cast some healthy scepticism on the oft-quoted finding that women play puzzles while men play shooters, pointing out that these findings come from surveys completed by self-selecting groups and can’t be taken as gospel; as a women who’d far rather shoot pigs than click cows I find it good to have my preferences acknowledged :)

The two sessions offered very different views of a sometimes controvertial field, and regardless of personal opinion these varied perspectives were invaluable.  This excellent series of seminars will be continuing for the rest of this year and into 2011 and is well worth engaging with, as is the rest of the project’s extensive and highly informative site.

X3D working group goes open

X3D logo

The Web3D Consortium has just announced that its standardisation activities will now be open to the public, enabling non-members to participate in development of the specification at all stages rather than just during the public review prior to final approval.   There is still the opportunity for private discussion limited to consortium members for those concerned about commercial or other factors, but the overall emphasis is clearly on making this as open as possible.

X3D is an open ISO standard for representing information about computer generated 3D environments and objects.  Unlike its predecessor, Virtual Reality Modelling (or Markup) Language (VRML), X3D features integration with HTML, and extends the range of effects supported.  X3D is supported by some high profile systems such as the Blender design tool and Sun’s Project Wonderland.

At a time when closed, proprietary players such as Linden Labs are seeing large numbers of layoffs, with inevitable concern from Second Life’s active education community about the potential loss of a huge amount of work and resources should this trend continue, adopting an open approach to development seems a very sensible decision.

Gotta catch ‘em all

I might tell myself that I hate gaming achievement systems and see them as a cynical way of artificially extending the lifetime of content while simultaneously making one loathe it, but I’m still a sucker for a challenge, even if it involves learning how to use MS Word…

Ribbon Hero (yes, I know) is a Microsoft concept test designed to help players learn more about features of Word and improve their efficiency in using them.  Rather than being presented with a cringingly patronising video tutorial, a terse set of text instructions or that paperclip, the player is given a brief task to complete, with hints available if they get stuck.  Successfully completed challenges award a varying number of achievement points depending on whether it’s finished with or without hints, within a certain timescale or with the minimum number of steps.  And it’s startlingly effective.  I learned more about the features of Word in the half hour I spent achievement hunting than I’ve done in the more than dozen years I’ve been using it before today.  By incentivising ‘working it out for yourself’, Ribbon Hero also makes the player think far more about the processes and patterns of how Word works, genuinely improving their efficiency with other tasks outside those offered by the game itself.  I was surprised at just how effective this approach was, and wouldn’t be at all surprised to see similar game-based training systems used in other products.

Spotted via the June 2010 issue of PC Gamer.

The Great Flu: the game

This blog is nothing if not topical, so I spent some time today looking at The Great Flu, a free, browser-based game designed to introduce players to the nature of viral epidemics and means of controlling them.

The game offers players the choice of five levels of flu severity (game difficulty), a €2 billion budget and a range of actions of varying effectiveness, such as sending researchers to afflicted areas, distribution of facemasks, stockpiling vaccines and antivirals, and closing schools, airports and public markets.  Taking various actions triggers various pieces of supporting material such as mocked-up news coverage and messages from governments or regional authorities.  The game also provides interesting information on the nature and spread of earlier flu pandemics.

Even at what is supposed to be the hardest level, the game is very fast to complete and very easy to ‘win’ (it took more effort to infect large parts of Europe for the screengrab above), but while it doesn’t offer much gaming challenge it is a very useful and quite fun resource for understanding the topic.

Via New Scientist.

JISC resources on MUVEs and gaming in education

JISC have released several new publications recently looking at ways in which multi-user virtual environments and alternative reality games can be used in education.

Alternate reality games for orientation, socialisation and induction by Nicola Whitton of Manchester Metropolitan University reports on the experiences of the ARGOSI project, with which our own Scott Wilson was involved.  The project aimed to support student induction in university and acquisition of required library and information skills using a range of resources such as character blogs and supporting websites.  Student participation in the activity was disappointing, although consistent with participation in such games in general, and the report is possibly most useful for its analysis of where things did not go right – for example, the this is not a game aesthetic  that is fundamental to ARG design may actually be rather inappropriate in a resource designed for students who are already in an unfamiliar and potentially challenging environment.  The lessons learned from this project, and the extensive resources produced by it, make this a very useful study.

Second Life is the undisputed MUVE leader in terms of uptake both within and beyond HE,  and three JISC publications look at how newcomers and the more experienced can develop their practice within the system.  Getting started with Second Life offers exactly what you’d expect, a guide to everything new users need to know from how to register and log in for the first time to some guidance on teaching and course design, some advice on how to address institutional concerns, and a few useful pointers to further reading.  One significant omission is the lack of a list of relevant educational sims (impermanent though they may be) and support systems such as the SLED and Virtual Worlds mailing lists – as the guide itself observes, loneliness and the inability to find interesting locations are two of the biggest factors underlying SL’s massive new user attrition rate.

Modelling of Second Life environments reports on the MOOSE project based at the University of Leicester, which looks more deeply at design and delivery issues around learning in MUVEs and identity and socialisation issues arising from the use of avatars in virtual worlds.

Finally, Open habitat: multi-user virtual environments for teaching and learning points to the Open Habitat magazine, an attractive report on how MUVEs were used with students of art and design and philosophy to understand the nature of virtual group interaction and community building.

All these reports provide valuable information and insights into using MUVEs and aspects of gaming in education, and help to demonstrate the increasing significance of both in current educational practice.