Evidence of Enhanced Cognitive Control in Older Adults after Video game Training

neuroRacerA recent study by Joaquin Anguera and the Gazzaley lab at UCSF reported that older adults who receive training on a customized driving simulator demonstrate improvements on tasks that demand divided attention. Performance benefits achieved by the simulator last for 6 months, and the resulting performance of the experimental group exceeded that of a 20-year-old control group that received no training. Electrophysiological measurements in this group also provided evidence for relief from the decline of brain wave activity associated with a decline of cognitive control in advanced age.

Anguera J.A. et al., (2013), Nature. 501: 97–101. doi:10.1038/nature12486

The Gazzaley Lab at UCSF  

Endless Summer Ended

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 1.09.04 AMSummer research programs transpire in the blink of an eye and take an eternity to complete simultaneously. The paradox arises from the incredible challenges that must be accomplished during such a short period of time. Time moves slowly when you are solving a difficult problem, and time moves swiftly when you realize you only have a day to solve it. During the York Summer Research program, a majority of my students decided to work on projects related to neuroimaging. However, two students worked on projects related to game-based learning. I’m happy to say that they both met their goals.

…there is also a need to prepare students in psychology for programming challenges that they will inevitably face. Students in the behavioral sciences are being asked to program stimuli, data analysis routines, and web sites in their graduate careers.


One of the goals of our program is to foster student collaborations between departments. Psychology students would serve as designers, students in the media arts would provide in-game content, and students from the computer sciences would work on programming. While this goal remains, there is also a need to prepare students in psychology for programming challenges that they will inevitably face. Students in the behavioral sciences are being asked to program stimuli, data analysis routines, and web sites in their graduate careers. Students who come to graduate school with experience in programming will be better prepared to meet those challenges. Consequently, if students have completed their designs in my lab, they are encouraged to program their own games.

The student designer of iSketch had no programming experience and, as I mentioned in a previous post, our plan was to have her work in UML before coding. UML provides a clear path to translating a design into code. To plan a UML diagram is to “think” in code. Understanding the logic of how the pieces fit together is more important than learning the syntax of the programming language. Our student designer spent the summer transforming her game design and rules into accurate UML diagrams, use-case scenarios, and user interface mockups. She also built the initial digital prototype for the user interface in our game engine. Having a digital prototype helped us realize that students would not be able to complete sketches from photographs in one minute. Sketching was possible in the paper prototype, but working with a mouse slows things down quite a bit. We decided to use words as models instead. One advantage to using words is that the user brings more of their imagination to the game.

The digital prototype with photos

The digital prototype with words

Barcode Scanning Game Platform

I was lucky to get a student this summer who already had significant coding experience and an interest in hardware. With the help of Eric Tyrer at York College, the student developed a barcode/QR platform for games. Mobile devices are ubiquitous, but teachers don’t always have a means to incorporate them into the classroom. Using the barcode system, an educator can print their own barcodes, affix them to anything they want, and create games where students retrieve the codes to win. Personalized messages or instructions can appear on the phone. The best part about this project is that the student completed all the coding with minimal assistance in a new language (Objective-C) in 6 weeks.









I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the students who worked on fMRI projects in my lab over the summer. The students worked hard to assess existing pedagogies for neuroimaging. They evaluated several software packages from the perspective of high school students who were interested in learning about neuroscience. The posters are included below:



Casualties of War Games

wargamesNo, this post doesn’t have anything to do with the continuing conversation about violence in videogames. Rather, I wish to comment on the rising “casualty list” in undergraduate research programs. Specifically, there appears to be a rising attrition rate in my lab during the last few semesters. In general, there has been a difficulty maintaining communication with students, students have failed to meet several milestones, and students have had to withdraw from sponsored programs because participation threatens their full-time employment. Other investigators have commented on these phenomena, and so they are worth discussing.

A.I.C. Time

I give my students a tremendous amount of freedom to encourage independence and creative problem solving. We decide upon milestones, and we have a weekly lab meeting. Apart from that structure, the students must be disciplined and communicative to meet their milestones. There has never been a problem during the first three years of the games-based learning program. Last semester, however, there was a serious issue with discipline in my lab. Of the three students who were collecting data, two failed to show up for several of their own experiments, two students failed to issue participation credit via the Research Subject’s Pool, and one student declined an opportunity to present at a national conference. All three students failed to meet major milestones, and I had to pick up a lot of the slack so they could collect data for their projects. While this problem is not necessarily endemic, conversations with other mentors lead me to believe I’m not alone here. Part of the problem, of course, exists because undergraduate researchers are learning how to work independently. Yet, there are other factors that hinder their success, particularly at urban universities. Several of my students are parents who also contribute to the income of their parents’ family as well. They have kids, a full-time job, and go to school full-time. These responsibilities limit the amount of time they have to sit and solve difficult problems. Game design and programming require extended periods of concentration analogous to writing a novel. Students need serious “ass-in-chair” time to make any headway on these problems, which is prevented by their fractured schedules. One solution to this problem would be to provide students with substantial year-round support that competes with their current wages. Some colleges have reported success in integrating undergraduate research programs with existing work-study programs. I hope to implement a program like this in the future.

Communication Let Me Down

If you are following this blog you’ll notice there is a large gap between this and my last post. One reason for that gap is that I attended a few conferences in June. The other is that my students, who were left on their own to complete a number of tasks for their projects, did not meet enough milestones to report on. Last month, a syllabus and daily communication protocol was established using a cloud-based agile development tool called TeamBox, which is a Google App that launches from the browser. TeamBox also has a free mobile app that will allow students to communicate from anywhere. While the mobile app might seem like a luxury to some, I have found that students are more likely to respond to communication on their mobile devices than in an email. All communication was moved to TeamBox so that students could (1) visualize their task list, (2) communicate their daily progress, (3) ask questions, and (4) compare their progress to that of the group. Students also had access to a Lynda.com account to learn basic programming. Finally, students were given instructions on how to install Unity, our game engine, and find the relevant tutorials. By the end of the first month, two students got as far as completing the Unity tutorials and completing online courses in programming fundamentals and object-oriented programming. Five other students abstained from the summer program either because poor communication caused them to miss the application deadline, or they couldn’t take time off from their full-time job. Another student wisely decided to take the summer off so she could care for her newborn.

Communication has been difficult with all of the students but one. I make myself available to students 24/7 via email and phone, but I limit my communication with them to business hours. While I’m always available to answer any questions they have, I don’t communicate with them apart from posting the weekly task list. Nevertheless, most students fail to respond to task lists, won’t return communication until weeks later, or fail to respond at all. In the professional world, this sort of behavior would result in some form of punishment or loss of incentives. Any psychologist/manager knows that the best way to shape a behavior is via a combination of reward and punishment. However, undergraduate research assistants are essentially volunteers. We can reward them, but there is a limit to the amount of punishment we should use. Even if you explain that their grade depends upon performance, that fact doesn’t appear to affect behavior. Punishment might also scare them away from research forever, which is an unacceptable outcome.

Implementation of a daily Scrum has been a failure. Students simply could not get in the habit of checking Teambox on a daily basis. Fortunately, the solution presented in the previous section would also address the problem of communication. If students were paid to participate in research throughout the academic year, there would be no need for maintaining communication outside of the lab. Students and mentors would be insured of quality interaction on a regular basis.


One of the goals of the lab is to broaden female and minority participation in psychology and neuroscience. Learning how to code is a large part of that mission because many tools in neuroscience require programming skills.

Two students are making great strides toward learning how to code in a game environment. Unity is not designed to teach people how to code, but there are advantages to learning object-oriented coding in Unity. First, Unity provides intuitive feedback for successes and failures. Because Unity is a 3D game engine, a programmer can see the effects of their code on the 3D world. Second, Unity practically forces programmers to develop good object-oriented practices like encapsulation, abstraction, inheritance, and polymorphism. Unity attaches little scripts to each object in the environment, which prevents students from the ill practice of developing a single “God Script” to manage the entire game. Third, Unity Script (an implementation of the Microsoft .Net framework that looks like Javascript) is very easy to learn. Memory management and garbage collection are handled automatically, and the syntax is very forgiving. Type casting and working with arrays is much easier than in C#, which is also available in Unity.

Another success in our lab has nothing to do with game-based learning but everything to do with including women in programing. Four female high school students entered my lab in the summer with a strong interest in neuroscience. I have previously resisted involving high school students in my fMRI research because there is a high barrier to entry. Students must be fluent programmers in Matlab to be of use to the lab. However, this summer, I decided to develop a project to specifically expose high school students to fMRI research. The students will learn how to navigate open-source software tools for MRI data analysis and write about their experience. They will install the tools themselves, learn how to use them, access a public MR image database, and attempt to generate a novel research hypothesis. Given the project duration, it is not likely that we will complete a full project. However, the students will document their experience along the way, and that data will be used to improve the program for future students.

So, There is a War

Engaging students in game-based learning and undergraduate research is war after all. We are fighting outdated pedagogy, poor communication, demands on student time, and ill conceived funding structures. For students to succeed in this endeavor, they need to be well armed with faculty support, time, and funding. I’m convinced that capitalizing upon existing work-study programs is critical for the success of undergraduate research. As the current Director of the Office of Undergraduate Research at York College, I look forward to implementing this change if the system will allow it. Game on!

Introduction to the Summer Projects: “Brain Slap!”

brainSlapGame-based learning is becoming codified by academics around the country, but there are many aspects of gaming that are still difficult to measure. Despite roughly ten years of academic research on gaming, most operational definitions for games fail to generalize, and new games are devised daily to stretch and break the definition du jour. While psychology has done a good job of developing a method for describing human behavior (i.e., psychophysics), we shouldn’t despair if we can’t develop a grand unification theory of “gaminess.”

While psychology has done a good job of developing a method for describing human behavior (i.e., psychophysics), we shouldn’t despair if we can’t develop a grand unification theory of “gaminess.”

There is a race to determine which game mechanics are the most relevant and effective for education. Perhaps the most popular game mechanic in academic circles is “flow,” the act of adjusting task difficulty in accordance with player performance. We decided to take a closer look at flow in the context of game-based learning.

Previously, we designed a simple card game to teach students about structure-function relationships in neuroscience. The first iteration of our game was a fast-paced and very fun. However, our data analysis revealed that the students were performing at ceiling levels, which meant they could have been pushed to learn more content. Admittedly, we created the game under a serious time constraint and didn’t incorporate flow into our game.

Our hastiness actually resulted in an opportunity for us to quantify the effects of flow. Our first iteration serves as a baseline to which we can compare subsequent versions of the game that include flow. Specifically, we are interested in the speed-accuracy trade offs that occur when task difficulty increases. In cognitive psychology, accuracy is typically inversely proportional to speed. However, attention and motivation also contribute to this relationship. Accuracy and speed can improve in proportion when a student is appropriately engaged, and we predict that games with flow mechanics will improve engagement and, in turn, improve speed and accuracy. The poster for the original iteration of the game follows:


Introduction to the Summer Projects: “Warped”

biasMost games developed in our lab are self-contained and completed within one year. However, one project is too large for any one student to complete, and thus several students will develop the game in stages over a period of years.

The game is designed to introduce students to cognitive biases and then eventually develop simulators that train students to avoid their own bias. There are over 100 recognized cognitive biases in the psychology literature. Most of the biases fit neatly into one of several categories (e.g., social biases, memory biases, and decision making biases). The first iteration of our game was designed to introduce students to a small number of biases. Students observed two non-player characters in conversation and then decided which cognitive bias was made during the conversation. Students performed well, but the game was visually primitive and felt like a multiple-choice test.

Our initial success with the cognitive bias game motivated us to expand our learning objectives. We wanted students to go beyond mere exposure and actually practice making unbiased judgments. To meet this objective, it was clear that we were going to have to develop an immersive 3D environment. We wanted to place students in a more realistic social environment where they get to choose which friends to keep based on the nature of their conversations. Players are rewarded for keeping friends who make statements that are free from bias. Simultaneously, keeping a biased friend makes it difficult to complete tasks in the game because they are constantly feeding you misinformation.

Correctly identifying cognitive biases will lead to fewer obstacles for the player and a clear path toward completing game objectives.

We also wanted to establish a relationship between the game environment and player performance. If players perform poorly, the environment will become visually skewed and warped, making it more difficult to complete game objectives. Correctly identifying cognitive biases will lead to fewer obstacles for the player and a clear path toward completing game objectives. The project abstract follows:

“A vast amount of information bombards our senses, and selective attention must be used to filter out information that is not behaviorally relevant. Similarly, heuristics are cognitive short cuts that allow us to make decisions quickly. Heuristics prevent us from being mired in deliberations that would halt everyday progress. However, the use of such short cuts is automatic and comes at a price. Cognitive Biases are untoward effects created by using heuristics. Cognitive psychologists have identified over 100 such biases. For example, the “confirmation bias” occurs when an observer forms opinions based only on affirmations of their schema, as opposed to evidence that falsifies their schema. College freshmen are at-risk for making poor decisions that could impact their academic careers as well as their professional careers. Consequently, we set out to create a game where students could learn about cognitive biases and practice avoiding errors in decision making. Game-based learning is particularly effective when students need to practice a skill again and again. Our game allows students to practice making judgments in the presence of false statements. Players observe non-player characters (NPCs) interacting in a game world. Several of the NPCs engage in conversation, and one of the characters makes statements that reveal a cognitive bias. The player must identify the NPC making the error and label the cognitive bias in order to win valuable resources. Performance on a post-game assessment of decision making is predicted to be better for students who played our game relative to those who learned about cognitive biases from text-based sources.”

Introduction to the Summer Projects: “iSketch”

artlyWhile game-based learning is now accepted as legitimate pedagogy in education, game-based therapy is on the fringe of acknowledgement in the medical community. Despite major organizations like Games for Health, the knowledge that positive affect speeds recovery for several major illnesses, and the fact that mental health can be improved by shaping behaviors, you’d be hard pressed to find a doctor who would prescribe a course of games for depression or anxiety. Can you imagine an insurance company paying for an Xbox 360?

There is a general lack of awareness among students about therapy, social support, social services, institutional support, and how unmitigated stressors can lead to anxiety and depression.

The truth, however, is that many freshmen who enter college could benefit from play, which is known to relieve stress and provide practice for future adult behaviors. Freshmen enter college with more questions than answers. They come from highly structured high school environments, where they are told which classes to take and when to take them. Stress occurs when freshmen are suddenly asked to make several important life decisions while also being bombarded by new concepts and practices from professors and administrators. In addition to these stressors, many students are working full time, supporting their own families, or contributing to the income of their parents’ family. At York College, these non-traditional students are typically the first in their families to go to college, which implies that they have little guidance in the process.

Freshmen entering college are also unaware of the mental health challenges they face. Apart from students in the health sciences, few students receive formal training on anxiety and depression. There is a general lack of awareness among students about therapy, social support, social services, institutional support, and how unmitigated stressors can lead to anxiety and depression. According to several models of depression and anxiety, self-esteem is critical to sustaining mental health. A student who is overly pessimistic, blames themselves for external frustrations, or lacks the ability to self-sooth will be at risk for depression.

Consequently, we developed a game to help improve the self-esteem of students on a difficult artistic task. Most people feel they lack artistic talent, and that it would be difficult or impossible to develop artistic talent. Yet, many artists report that artistic talent is the result of training and practice. The goal of “iSketch” is to use art therapy to improve self-esteem in students that are “at-risk” for depression. We predict that students with low self-esteem or low confidence in their ability to draw will have higher reports of self-esteem after learning to draw with the game. It is our hope that this improved confidence will generalize to other domains.

There are some difficult challenges in conducting this experiment. First, without the supervision of a licensed therapist, it would be unethical to use this game to expose students to specific stressors that provoke anxiety. The game is not meant to be a post-traumatic therapy for anxiety or depression. Rather, the game is designed to foster confidence before serious stressors are presented. Second, we can’t objectively measure the quality of the art produced by the subjects, and thus we can only provide feedback on self-reports of quality. The game can directly affect self-esteem but not absolute drawing ability, which is satisfactory considering our goal is to improve esteem. The remaining details are provided in the project abstract:

 “Art Therapy is a variation of psychotherapy used to promote self-expression and self-confidence through drawing, sculpture, or painting. When used in conjunction with traditional therapies, it may alleviate pain associated with various pathologies or painful treatments like chemotherapy. While there is a paucity of research on the subject, art therapy appears to be more effective for subjects when used as a method for distraction. College freshmen are known to be at-risk for depression. Learned helplessness and pessimism are thought to contribute to this depression, and thus therapies that bolster self-esteem are known to help. Consequently, we developed a game where college freshmen learn to draw as preemptive therapy. We seek to improve self-esteem by demonstrating that difficult drawings can be accomplished with practice. It is predicted that reports of self-esteem will be enhanced because our drawing game can adapt to user performance in real time. Volunteers from the York College Research Subjects Pool will play a game where they have to complete several drawings in response to photographs or creative challenges. Upon completion, subjects will rate the success of their attempt. The self-reports of quality will be used to adjust task difficulty in succeeding trials using psychophysical staircase procedure. If this program is successful, we will consider developing a method to include exposure therapy in a game. Under proper supervision, a therapist might use our game as a safe way of introducing potentially stressful content to a patient. The therapist can use the game to regulate exposure therapy in a quantitative manner.”

Introduction to the Summer Projects: Lerpz Behaves

lerpz_jumpNearly all of the undergrads working in my lab this summer have completed a design for their game, tested the game mechanics using paper prototypes, and are heading into digital production. The first of these games is what actually pushed our lab into coding digital games. From day one, this student expressed a desire to learn programming, and the temporal dynamics of her game made it difficult to implement as a board game. A digital game was a logical choice, but we were concerned about the amount of time it would take to produce the game. To keep the project from stalling, we decided to modify an existing tutorial for the Unity3d game engine “Lerpz Escapes.” The creation of visual assets and animations is extremely time consuming and involves specialized artistic skills. Consequently, “modding” an existing game is a great way of saving time. The original game from the Unity tutorial is a 3D platformer where the main character, Lerpz, needs to collect 20 fuel cells to unlock a spaceship to escape his captors. Our student designer wanted to develop a game to teach people about operant conditioning. Consequently, we will mod the game to provide opportunities for the user to shape the behavior of the main character as he completes various tasks in the virtual world. The project abstract and attached poster provide a more detailed view of the project:

Inexperienced parents may have difficulty encouraging desirable behaviors in their children. Even though applied behavioral analysis (ABA) is widely used in education and healthcare to shape the behaviors of healthy and developmentally challenged children, many young parents are not offered formal training in ABA. Parents of children with autism spectrum disorders, who are generally knowledgeable about ABA, also have problems encouraging verbal expression in their children because the child’s internal desire to communicate is difficult to identify. Game-based learning is known to be effective for teaching lessons that require practice. Consequently, we developed a game where potential parents could learn and practice ABA. Relative to text-based methods of teaching ABA, it is predicted that game-based methods will result in better retention of core ABA concepts. Volunteers from the York College Research Subjects Pool will play a video game presented in a web browser. In the game, players will apply ABA to a character that needs to complete tasks in the game world. The character will display desirable and undesirable behaviors along the way. Players will be required to shape the character’s behavior to complete the tasks. Game mechanics will be used to promote player engagement, sustain attention, and facilitate learning. Control subjects will spend an equivalent time with the core concepts of ABA in a web browser, but with no game mechanics. If game mechanics demonstrate improved learning relative text-based methods, we will broadly distribute the game to universities across the country.

And So it Begins… Again

keepCalmLast year I documented the development of several games designed by high school students and college undergrads in a six-week program sponsored by the Department of Education. Over the course of the summer, I mentored seven students and we produced seven board games for education or social impact. Even though there were some bumps and bruises along the way, the students made it to the finish line and learned valuable lessons about design, education, behavior, data analysis, public presentation and working independently. All of the high school students have been accepted to excellent colleges, and the undergrads all went on to produce excellent games in my lab during the year.

Women and ethnic minorities are still greatly underrepresented in technical fields, and providing these students with technical challenges before they get to graduate school should provide them with additional opportunities for success.

This year, I plan to make changes to the program based on our experiences, and I’m blogging about the process to assist any educators who might want to implement game-based learning in their classroom. Three of the undergrads in my lab were accepted to the program, and several others will be participating unofficially. In July, high school students will be admitted to the program, and I anticipate that some will be assigned to work with us as well.

The undergrads have already worked with me for a semester. Each student has designed a project and presented the design at the annual conference for the York College Office of Undergraduate Research. I will present these designs individually in future postings but, for now, I’m going to briefly outline the goals for the summer.

All of the undergraduates have expressed an interest in developing digital games, and we are going to try and make this happen during the summer. None of the students has any experience with coding. Thus, anyone who has ever coded knows that this is an ambitious if not impossible project. However, our goal is only to make a digital prototype by the end of summer, and then we will refine the prototype during the following semester.

Most of the games you see produced for education (e.g., gamesforchange.org) are designed and built by professional teams. On a few projects, students participate in design, but there are relatively few projects where undergrads learn how to code by building a game. Digital games offer an excellent opportunity for students to learn valuable 21st century skills. These skills will help students to design experiments, create stimuli, manipulate data, and communicate ideas during their careers. Women and ethnic minorities are still greatly underrepresented in technical fields, and providing these students with technical challenges before they get to graduate school should provide them with additional opportunities for success. Programming for games is also a great way of learning how to code because, compared to some coding environments where the coder is dealing with abstractions, the game environment provides immediate feedback when the code is correct or not.

I’ve developed a streamlined program to get my students on the path to coding as quickly as possible. Experience has taught me that communication, coordination, and feedback are the most critical elements when working with students. Consequently, we are going to use project management software and agile development (a.k.a., SCRUM) to help us meet our goals. Unlike previous projects where we had a more relaxed pace, we will implement a daily scrum with weekly milestones. My first task was to select team management software in the Google Apps store. We have been using the cloud and Google Apps to exchange most of our design documents. I can say right now that I wasn’t very pleased with the offerings. It was difficult to find an app that was suitable for non-profits and education. Many of the apps were available for free, but finding affordable software for more than five users was a challenge. Many offerings were also too complicated for use with small teams. I decided to go with Teambox because the interface was fairly intuitive, and we could add up to five users for free. Recently, I have used a syllabus for my Independent Study students. The syllabus contains readings, program goals, contact information, etc. The syllabus has proved to be very useful but, for the summer, the syllabus will only be used on the first day. After the first day, the team will move communications and planning to Teambox.

Our team will be using the Unity3d game engine (www.Unity3d.com). There are many game engines available, but I’ll just keep the discussion short by stating that Unity is the clear winner for students learning to code and complete real games. The interface is very organized and intuitive. The coding environment is friendly. The tutorials and documentation are superb. The engine reinforces basic concepts of object-oriented programming. And it publishes to several platforms without a hassle.

Another bit of software that I’ve been using for UML is LucidChart (www.lucidchart.com). UML allows programmers to plan their code before they get buried in the syntax, and LucidChart is an excellent, low-cost offering available via Google Apps. Finally, I purchased subscription to Lynda.com for my students ($29/month). Lynda.com offers a wide variety of technical courses that are better than anything you’d find via Codeacademy or in a MOOC. If you don’t want to purchase a monthly subscription, you can get by with purchasing the courses listed below on DVD for around $25 each.

Knowing full well that most of these tasks will be backlogged, here is the cue so far. Let’s see what happens!


ToDo      Backlog        Completed

Before Week 1 

  • Establish a Gmail account, input and share your calendar, create a Google Drive
  • Read sections 1 and 2 of the text
  • Complete the Basic Human Subjects Program at https://www.citiprogram.org/ and print your final certificate as a PDF.
  • Play as many games in the gallery at GamesForChange.org

Week 1 – First milestone

  • Accept the invitation to TeamBox via Gmail and view the tutorial (the invitation will be from robertoduncan at the Transformative Games Initiative). Respond to the first task called “Syllabus” in Team Box
  • Read the “Aligning Game Development, the Scientific Method, and Learning Outcomes”
  • Read the SCRUM reference card
  • Download and install Unity3d on your favorite development machine
  • Read the Unity User Manual
  • Complete the “3D Platformer” tutorial available in the asset store.
  • Get acquainted with the Unity Component Reference library
  • Get acquainted with the Unity Scripting Reference Library
  • Complete the Foundations of Programing: Fundamentals on Lynda.com
  • Complete the Foundations of Programing: Object-Oriented Design on Lynda.com
  • Learn about the State Machine Pattern (http://unitygems.com/fsm1/)
  • Complete the Mechanim tutorial to finish your orientation with the Unity interface.
  • Go through the Scripting Overview at http://docs.unity3d.com/Documentation/ScriptReference/index.html




Embracing the Chaos

Game TheoryI recently participated in panel about integrating primary literature into the classroom. Faculty from various departments exposed their motivations, tricks, successes and failures in attempting to introduce difficult reading to undergraduates at my college. In my class, students participate in two research projects of their own design. I make the assumption that they will be referring to web sites that are not peer-reviewed, and consequently I encourage them to start off with those sites and follow the trail to the primary literature. In that sense, I embrace the chaos of what I know will happen anyway. Students will consult Google, Wikipedia, and Ask.com before they consult the Journal of Theoretical Whatchamawhosit. For me, one of the critical elements of game-based learning is to acknowledge the true motivations and behaviors that are beyond your control in the classroom. Students have personal motivations for attending college, taking your class, and completing this particular assignment. Some of them will latch onto an artificial motivation because they are “good boys and girls,” and others will recognize their inner motivations, rebel agains the assignment, or align the assignment with their intrinsic motivation. Accordingly, all of the exams in my online classes are open book. I can’t prevent students from cheating during an online exam, and thus all of the questions demand extrapolating knowledge from the course to new situations. The answer won’t be in the book, but the book may be used as a reference to help solve the problem. This process could be improved upon. Our dreaded exams might actually become a mystery to be solved, a puzzle, or a game. Recently, a professor at UCLA was recognized for allowing cheating on his exam. Peter Nonacs allows students to complete the test in his Behavioral Ecology class using any means available. The exam focuses on game theory for natural selection, and he approaches the assessment process in the same way. Can you imagine students looking forward to an exam?


TGI Listed in Daily Edventures “Heros in Education”

Anthony Salcito, the Vice President of Worldwide Education at Microsoft, has listed the Transformative Games Initiative as global hero in education on his blog Daily Edventures. Salcito’s blog interviews a new educator every day with the intent of describing the current landscape in education. His goal is to optimize the application of technology and maximize student achievement. The interviews include many perspectives on education and the use of technology in the classroom. Interviewees include educators of various disciplines from all over the world. Even Bill Gates contributes to the conversation!

Aligning Game Development, the Scientific Method, and Learning Outcomes

Contemporary practices in game development do not always serve the scientific method. As the merits of game-based learning are now recognized by higher education, we must work to reconcile the two practices to generate research programs that are both scientifically sound and adaptable to rapidly changing environments. Traditional implementation of the scientific method involves creating a falsifiable hypothesis and rigorous testing. Rejection of the hypothesis results in valuable information and a new set of hypotheses that alter the course of the research program. Planning, development, implementation, analysis, and reporting typically occur in discrete steps. In the world of software development, this approach is called the waterfall method. Software developers consider this approach outdated because the technological landscape changes too rapidly. Products that are developed using the waterfall approach can be out of date by the time they reach market. Consequently, software developers have adopted a method called Scrum that allows them to bring a product to market very quickly while making adjustments along the way.

Traditional laboratory practices and educational game development conflict with each other because they operate according to radically different time scales. Scientific research programs typically have a long delay between conception and analysis, which provides little room for adjustment.

Scrum gets its name from rugby, where players take turns advancing the ball to the goal by any means necessary. The process is built around rapid sprints, iterative development cycles that include design, implementation, prototyping, and testing. While a development team might start with a clear plan, they don’t know what problems will emerge along the way. These agile development cycles provide room for compensation in the event of failure. Scrum development teams are small (3-7) and the iteration cycles are fixed and short (1 day to 1 month). At the end of a sprint, a vertical slice is taken to determine the status of all processes involved in product development. If a feature is not completed, it gets placed into a backlog where it may be integrated back into development depending on the team’s priorities and abilities. Backlogged features can even be added to a product after the launch date in the form of software updates.

Traditional laboratory practices and educational game development conflict with each other because they operate according to radically different time scales. Scientific research programs typically have a long delay between conception and analysis, which provides little room for adjustment. Changing multiple variables during the course of an experiment is recognized as bad science because it complicates interpretation of the data. On the other hand, game designers don’t know what changes will need to occur during development to meet the demands of the players. Adopting the waterfall approach can hinder the creative process by limiting a designer’s ability to adapt to player feedback.

Traditional scientific practices can also hinder learning outcomes. The long delay between conception and analysis means that junior scientists have relatively few opportunities to test their skills. For example, there was a four-year delay between the design of my PhD thesis and the final analysis. Conversely, Scrum sprints offer several opportunities for learning. While this iterative process is possible in some scientific research programs, it is not common to most. Few students design a perfect project on their first attempt, and thus the more opportunities a student has to learn from failure the better. By encouraging multiple quick iterations, Scrum offers more opportunities to learn. Consequently, we might be doing our students a disservice by sticking to traditional scientific methods.

Fortunately, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel to reconcile these two radically different approaches. In brief, we adopt Scrum within a larger, slower moving research plan. The precedent for this approach comes from a philosophical dialog between Karl Popper, Thomas Kuhn, and Imre Lakatos. Popper is considered by many to have made a critical contribution to the scientific method by canonizing the process of falsification. According to Popper, scientific hypotheses gain little strength from positive evidence. Rather, hypotheses can only be falsified by negative evidence. For example, a person who believes all ducks are white must revise their schema the moment they witness a black duck, and this revision occurs regardless of how many white ducks they have seen in the past. Kuhn and his contemporaries rebutted against naïve falsification by asserting that no single experiment could be used to prove or deny a hypothesis because hypotheses exist within a larger framework created by the current dogma of the day. To wit, medical students are often told “Half of what we are teaching you is wrong, but we don’t know which half.” Kuhn posits that no theory fits the data perfectly, and thus all theories must be rejected unless naïve falsification is relaxed to include a modicum of probability. Lakatos was a student of Popper, and he reconciled the two arguments by insisting that major research programs are not necessarily subject to naïve falsification but individual experiments are. Thus, a research program does not need to be abandoned just because one experiment doesn’t support the hypothesis. Rather, individually falsified experiments can provide valuable clues that lead to revised research programs or major paradigm shifts in the field.

Most science operates within the framework proposed by Lakatos. Major research programs are proposed in grants and experiments are conceived to test predictions made by the program. Research results are shared publicly, and the field gravitates toward the most likely explanation for a phenomenon. A reliable body of knowledge is constructed by generating novel predictions that challenge the status quo. The good news is that this approach also suits educational game development! Each game developed in a lab is an experiment that can be used to test the hypotheses of a slower moving research program. By this standard, games that radically challenge standard educational practices are likely to bare the most fruit. While many games will fail to contribute to education, a few games will have the potential to alter the course of education forever. Thus, traditional scientific practices can be fortified by the rapid development methods of Scrum. Additionally, students can work quickly on several games and have more opportunities to learn. From the student’s perspective, this model is certainly better than waiting six years for data to trickle in!

Teen Angst, Epilogue

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This is the last in series of posts about rapid prototyping for game development with high school students. I will use one of our games, Teen Angst, as a case study for what to do if things don’t go according to plan.

Teen Angst had the broadest scope of any of our games. The plan was to use game mechanics to shape decision making about three topics that most interested teenagers: relationships, substance abuse, and nutrition. Players answered a series of questions based on scenarios that were presented via PowerPoint (Figure 1). Points for four resources (Health, IQ, Friends, and Money) were gained or lost depending on the most likely consequences of the decision.

There were several design flaws in the game. First, there was no means of controlling flow. Task difficulty was not adjusted based on performance, which typically results in either boredom or frustration for the player. Second, we adopted a linear narrative that limited choices to only a few options. While the psychology literature indicates that too many choices can paralyze a person with indecision, the game world is full of examples where presenting players with more choices increases their engagement with and enjoyment of the game. In the game world, having a choice means the player is in control of the outcome, and thus they are more likely to engage with the system. As educators we should capitalize on this phenomenon and reconcile it with what we already know – ownership of the learning experience is critical to learning outcomes. Third, the game was unbalanced. In a perfectly balanced game, all the probable outcomes have an equal likelihood of occurring. A perfectly balanced game (e.g., “tic-tac-toe” or “rock-paper-scissors”) is also called a zero-sum game because opponents have an equal opportunity to win. The reward-punishment contingencies in a game, the player resources, or other factors that affect the final outcome can also be out of balance. In our game, the reward-punishment contingencies were not evenly distributed across resources. Even though the number of questions pertaining to the topics and resources were balanced, the point allocation for each topic-resource combination was not balanced. For example, players had more opportunities to gather resources for Health than the other resources.

We were aware of all of these design issues going into data collection, but we didn’t realize they would have such a strong impact on the data. Six high school students participated in the experiment, but the data for one was removed because the instructions weren’t followed properly. Subjects played the game and provided responses on answer sheets. As I mentioned in a previous post, there was an error in creating the answer sheets, which made it difficult to relate individual answers to their corresponding questions. However, we were able to compare the points earned from the first half of the game to points from the second half. The prediction was that players would earn more points in the second half because of practice effects.

Interestingly, performance exceeded chance levels during the first half of the game (Figure 3), which suggests that subjects were attentive and understood the rules. Nevertheless, contrary to our expectations, performance decreased during the second half of the game (Figure 2). Data were combined across all subjects and all categories (i.e., Relationships, Drugs, and Nutrition). For each resource (i.e., Health, Relationships, IQ and Money), performance during the second half of the game was worse than for the first half of the game, c2 (1, N = 157) = 80.067, p < 0.0001). Similarly, performance during the second half of the game was worse when data were combined across resources (Figure 3), c2 (1, N = 157) = 25.28, p < 0.0001). This decrease in performance might be attributed to fatigue. However, it is more likely that this effect is the result of an imperfect game design. The data were consistent with post-game interviews where the players reported being bored.

After six weeks of hard work, a result like this could be devastating to a student. At worst, the student might doubt the scientific method and loose interest in science. It is critical to spend as much time with the student as possible to confirm that they understand the value of impartiality, learn from failure, and persist in their quest for truth. I found it useful to recount my personal experiences with failed experiments as well as examples from famous scientists. Shifting the focus to improving the game was also helpful. However, it was particularly interesting to find that the student found some solace in knowing that her results were important because they provided evidence for the lab’s overarching hypothesis, namely, that properly employed game mechanics are useful for education. In her case, an imperfect design resulted in a baseline to which future iterations of the game will be compared. We both learned a lot from each other, and the student is sure to benefit from this experience in the future.

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Face Finder, Epilogue

Face Finder is designed to teach students about their own cognitive biases for ethnicity and gender. Players work to solve a murder mystery by guessing the identity of five characters (Killer, Accomplice, Witness, Bystander, and Victim). Players update their guesses during each round of play, and they cast a final guess after the 40th round. Players base their guesses on clue cards, face cards, and character cards. Only character cards are required to solve the crime, but we predicted that players would choose face cards that demonstrate an in-group bias for benevolent characters (i.e., Victim and Bystander) and an out-of-group bias for malevolent characters (i.e., Killer and Accomplice).

Nine high school students participated in the study, and they reported their ethnicity in alignment with one of the five ethnicities in the game (Caucasian, Asian/Pacific Islander, Indian/Middle Eastern, Hispanic/Latino, and Black). Players were informed that categories were loosely defined and to choose the one they identified with the most. The rules of the game were described in a previous post. Before describing the data, I should mention that there were errors made during data collection. Rather than making a guess for all five characters on each round, players only made a guess for one character. Consequently, feedback for each guess was too specific and players guessed the identity of the characters more quickly than we envisioned. To compensate, we collected data from the second round of play, where players were more likely to select any ethnicity they wanted for the characters.

Data were analyzed relative to a baseline. Because there were five ethnic categories, a player had a 20% chance of selecting their own ethnic category as the Victim or Bystander. There was an 80% chance that they would identify a Killer or Accomplice as out-of-group. Subjects’ guesses were categorized as supporting our prediction or not. The number of guesses that agreed with our prediction (24 out of 36) were counted and compared to the number expected by chance. A non-significant trend was observed for each category (Figure 3), where subjects were making more in-group biases for Bystander and Victim and more out-of-group biases for Killer and Accomplice (Chi-squared, p > 0.10). A significant trend was observed for all guesses summed across categories, and this trend was greater than expected by chance (Figure 4)(Chi-squared, p < 0.05). We observed ethnic biases for judgments of character in our game, and this data was further supported by qualitative reports from the subjects themselves. Players reported making judgments based on the ethnicity of the Face Cards when they were irrelevant to the task.

Despite the errors we made in collecting data, our game proved to be a valid tool for exposing ethnic bias, and it may serve to educate students about cognitive biases in general. Clearly, a replication with more data is required. While the current iteration of this game focused on ethnicity, we have yet to analyze the data pertaining to gender. Also, this game could also be adapted in the future to expose other biases. The student designer recently revealed that she had an interest in exposing biases associated with sexual orientation and gender identity. I’m excited to see if she will develop this variation of the game on her own.

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Multitasker, Epilogue

Multitasker is probably the most fun game we generated over the summer, which is not a surprise considering we hijacked the mechanics from popular board games. The game was created to teach students about the bottleneck that occurs in decision-making. Even though we are capable of processing multiple stimuli at the same time and making multiple simultaneous responses, we can only make one decision at a time. Psychologists call the delay between decisions, the psychological refractory period. We predicted that students’ attitudes toward multitasking would change after playing a game that pushed their decision-making abilities to the limits.

Ten high school students ended up participating in our experiment. They played a game where they could perform up to four tasks simultaneously. The tasks included (1) molding figures with clay, (2) drawing pictures, (3) guessing a mystery word, and (4) performing various physical activities like hopping on one foot. Attitudes were assessed using pre- and post-game surveys about multitasking. Subjects indicated their attitudes using Likert scales ranging between 1 (highly unlikely) and 5 (highly likely). For each survey, ten questions (e.g., “I feel that it is possible to accomplish many things at once”) were included with their opposites (e.g., “I do NOT feel that it is possible to accomplish many things at once”). The twenty counterbalanced questions were used to verify the reliability of the survey. After data collection, the sign of the responses was adjusted so that all responses had a similar polarity (i.e., increased ratings reflected positive attitudes toward multitasking). Data were combined across all subjects for each question (Figure 1).* For most questions, ratings during the post-game survey decreased relative to the pre-game survey (paired t-test, p = 0.004). Data were also combined across subjects and questions (Figure 2). Mean ratings during the post-game survey were lower overall than for the pre-game survey (t-test, p < 0.0001). Error bars reflect 95% confidence intervals.

Our data reinforce the notion that people believe they can multitask, but those attitudes can be changed via experience. Teenagers are particularly vulnerable to negative consequences of divided attention because they are more frequent users of mobile devices, and they typically lack the experience to keep from using those devices in risky situations. The game was the most fun to play because people were physically active. In an academic environment where students are sedentary, the more physical activity your game demands the better.

*Data for one question (7) and its mirror opposite (17) were removed because they were ambiguous. The pattern of statistical results was similar when they were included (all p < 0.05).

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Decision Maker, Epilogue

Decision Maker turned out to be a simple but fun strategy game for 2-4 players. We didn’t make it past the paper prototype because we only had 6 weeks. However, it wouldn’t take much work to publish it as travel game or a digital game. The student designer was faced with difficult lessons to teach, Prospect Theory and decision-making. A scaffolded reading list was essential for getting her up to speed on Prospect Theory. She demonstrated a clear understanding of the topic, developed a good experimental paradigm, created a game mechanic that complimented the lesson, and collected all her data on time. Like many of our student projects, there were errors in data collection that we were lucky to recover from. Nevertheless, the student really proved herself by completing the data analysis, figures, and poster with minimal assistance.

In the game, players made judgments about prospects that were composed of a probability and a value (e.g., 25% chance of winning $400). Players indicated the sure bet (e.g., $110) they would accept in lieu of the prospect. Normally, people behave irrationally when challenged with extreme probabilities or values. They tend to overestimate the utility of prospects with small probabilities and high values. Our game allowed players to practice decision making under these unusual circumstances. We predicted that decision making for extreme prospects would improve with practice.

We averaged the sure bets placed by the subjects and expressed them as proportion relative to the expected utility. If subjects were behaving ideally, the proportion would be close to 1. If they overestimated the utility of the prospect, the proportion would be greater than 1. We compared data between two sessions of game play. There was little difference between these sessions when players were judging probabilities within a “normal” range (6 to 99%). When players first started placing bets on extreme prospects (0.02 to 0.99%), they consistently overestimated the utility of the prospect (Figure 1). However, with practice, they were less likely to overestimate the utility for extreme prospects! Practice had a clear affect on their ability to make accurate decisions (Figure 2). Keep in mind that when subjects were playing the game, they were required to spin a spinner and watch the prospect play out in real time. For extreme probabilities, they might have to get the spinner to land between 0 and 1% several times in a row for the bet to pay off. The physical act of spinning the spinner made the prospect more visceral, which helped students appreciate how unlikely it is to win extreme prospects.

I consider this game a huge success because the student was sufficiently challenged by the material, and she overcame those challenges to produce a fun educational game that had a quantifiable affect on learning outcomes.

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Teen Angst, Part 1

I jokingly described the last game our team was struggling with as a helicopter going down in flames. Fortunately, that game is now in good shape and we are heading toward play testing. However, with only two weeks left in the program, there is still one last game to develop for the high school students. If the previous game was a helicopter in flames, then the current game is a flaming helicopter sitting in the bay of a cargo plane filled with fire ants, hurdling at breakneck speed into the side of mountain. And each ant has its own tiny airhorn to insure the journey is as unpleasant as it is lethal.

Sometimes I just need to vent.

Conflict appears to be an inevitable part of the artistic process, but that struggle must be weighed against its impact upon the relationship of the participants. People should always come first, especially students. However, there may be some bumps and bruises along the way. I used to live in a self-imposed utopian fantasy where all collaboration was effortless and combat free. But then I saw Mirra Bank’s film The Last Dance, a documentary about the collaboration between Maurice Sendak and Pilobolus. Sendak, most noted for his book “Where the Wild Things Are,” is a brilliant storyteller. He is a master storyteller who can use linear narrative to convey powerful ideas in simple ways. By contrast, both the origin and the creative process of the dance group, Pilobolus, borders on anarchy. The group was created by atheletes who considered themselves outsiders to the modern dance world, and their choreography is borne from unstructured improvisation.  During their collaboration on a dance piece about the holocaust, Sendak and Pilobolus butted heads constantly, and their falling out almost caused them to abandon the project. However, the creative struggle resulted in a brilliant compromise between improvisation and storytelling that could not have been achieved by either party alone. We have a similar struggle when working with students. We must develop a tangible product of genuine scientific merit and social impact while retaining student interest in the scientific process. In working on this game, I learned that it’s sometimes necessary to momentarily sacrifice one of these goals in order to make it to the finish line. The reward for making this sacrifice is that all three may be restored upon completion of the game. A momentary sacrifice of the project goals may serve to regain student interest, which in turn fuels the project forward.

There were several difficulties in designing this game. It took a long time for the student to feel secure with her topic. This lack of security most likely resulted from not spending enough time learning about the topics in detail. She also found it very difficult to implement her topic as a game because she did not fully master the principles of game design. As I discussed in a previous post, switching topics is fine, but the penalty can be severe when time is short. Students typically switch topics because they don’t have the skills or resilience to overcome obstacles in the design process. This lack of experience and patience, at its worst, can result perpetual topic switching that leaves the student with nothing to show for their effort. It’s our responsibility as facilitators to urge them forward, even if you have to be momentarily villainized as a slave driver.

When a project is going well, the best thing an advisor can do is step aside. It might be counterintuitive to step aside when a project is not going well. We reached a point in the struggle to come up with a design where any suggestions I made were met with immediate resistance. I remember several times in my graduate student days when I resisted all input from my advisors. I knew that any suggestions by my mentor meant more work, late nights, and missing my friends. It was far easier to push against the people that were trying to guide me than it was to do the work necessary to fix the project. While you might be able to convince a graduate student to forgo a party to spend a Friday night pipetting until dawn, you are guaranteed to have a more difficult time with high school students. Teenagers are not always rational agents. The prefrontal cortex of teenagers is still developing connections to the rest of the brain, which limits their ability to make deliberated decisions or control emotional outbursts. Nevertheless, teens are incredibly shrewd. They know how to maximize a short-term reward and minimize short-term punishment. Unfortunately, they are not terribly great at deliberated decision making or delaying gratification. They often fail to see how a little bit of effort at the outset of a project could save them weeks of agony. Of course, this phenomenon is ubiquitous in adults as well but, as any parent will tell you, the effect is exaggerated in teens. Thus, sometimes you have to step aside to let students learn for themselves. Just make sure to be available when things are about to run off the rails. Sometimes, the freedom you give the student renews their interest in the project, which provides the necessary motivation to complete the work.

Teen Angst is designed to educate teenagers about the effects of substance abuse, unprotected sex, and nutrition. All three of these topics were considered by the student designer to be the most important topics for her age group. Players make decisions about these topics and their decisions have various positive and negative effects upon four resources: health, IQ, relationships, and money. The object of the game is to respond to all the decisions while maintaining positive resources. While we had no qualms about the topic, there were many battles fought over the game mechanic. Specifically, the student was very much wedded to the idea of a linear narrative, like that found in movies or books. Game designers continue to struggle with developing interesting linear narratives in games because games are all about free choice and linear narratives are not. While linear narratives offer a dramatic story arc, the story in a game is more often an emergent narrative that is derived from player choice. Players interact with agents in the game space, which results in a story. Some stories in games are very rich (e.g., Bioshock or Spore), and other stories are merely implied (e.g., Chess). My suggestion was to develop a role-playing game (RPG) about teen issues. Instead of doing battle with monsters like you would in a classic RPG, the players would have to “do battle” with various social situations involving sex, drugs and nutrition. My prediction was that the game would play like a pen-and-paper version of the popular strategy game, The Sims. Unfortunately, my suggestion did not go over well with the student. She didn’t understand the conflict surrounding linear narratives, and thus I stepped aside. The student went ahead with a straightforward question-and-answer game that plays much like a Choose Your Own Adventure book. The problem with trying to write a story like this is that you can’t account for every scenario a player might make in advance, and thus you resort to forcing the player to choose between a limited number of options, which makes the experience behave less like a game and more like a multiple choice test. To her credit, she quickly hacked a version of the game in PowerPoint that minimized this problem. Rather than sending players on a new story trajectory with each decision, players would receive a brief tale about the outcome of their decision before returning to the main story arc. To sum, the order goes like this: (1) Main story scenario, (2) Specific question, (3) Feedback and allocation of points, (4) a vignette describe the consequences of the players actions. While players testing the PowerPoint version of this game will not be fooled, a fully digital version of the game will give the player the illusion of real choice even though all choices return the player to the main narrative.

The second challenge we faced in this game was that it was too easy. Because the player only had a few options to choose from, it was difficult to scale the difficulty of those options. The correct answer was always obvious, and it made the game very boring. Consequently, we modified each question to have positive benefits for one resource and negative consequences for another just like a game of “Would You Rather.” For example, a player might be asked to choose between going to a party and making friends (but failing a test) or staying home to study (but not making friends). There are no correct answers, and decisions are guided by player preference. Point totals are allocated according to the real life severity of the consequences (as determined by the student designer’s interpretation of the scientific literature). Questions and answers are infused with real data and lessons from various authoritative sources (e.g., drugabuse.gov, an authoritative website sponsored by the NIH).

It appears that we have averted our helicopter crash yet again. I’ve found that students struggle with experimental design, but they have creative ideas and they are very willing to design materials for the game. Now that we have solidified the core mechanic, I’m eager to see how she implements these ideas in her game. We are already a week over our time budget so, we have to playtest and collect data next week!

Face Finder, Part 1

And sometimes you get unlucky. Sometimes designing a game or an experiment takes days, weeks, or months of tweaking multiple variables. It’s like flying a helicopter. Move the stick and the other controls have to be adjusted to compensate. As you panic, you and your experiment hurdle to the ground in a screaming ball of flames.

A student approached me with an interest in racial prejudice and cognitive bias. Both of these topics have been studied in great detail, and there are educational programs designed to teach students about racial stereotypes. However, to my knowledge, there aren’t any games that educate students by exposing them to their own cognitive biases. Consequently, we though it would be good idea to have students participate in a mystery game where they had to find a killer via clues and mug shots. We anticipated that players would demonstrate an in-group bias for their own race** and an out-group bias for other races. Specifically, they were expected to identify other races as the perpetrator more often than members of their own race. They were also expected to identify their own race as victims more often than other races.

We were particularly interested in an effect reported by Hilliar and Kemp (2008). In their experiment, faces were morphed between stereotypical Asian and Caucasian faces, and subjects were more likely to report these morphs as Asian when they were labeled with an Asian name rather than a European name. Unfortunately, every game mechanic we came up with introduced a confounding variable into the experiment. There is an art to identifying confounds and younger students typically lack the experience it takes to find them. As facilitators, we should weed out the confounding variables without destroying the student’s self esteem. My solution is to first notify the student that you are working in parallel on a new design. At this point, the student is already aware there are difficulties with the experiment, so the news is not too surprising. Then, take the best suggestions the student made during lab meetings and write them down. Include as many of these contributions into your design as possible. Graduate students are well accustomed to having their experimental proposals nitpicked in order to make them stronger. However, younger students often feel the war being waged on the experimental design is a personal attack. Because it is more important to keep students interested in science, I recommend keeping the academic lashings to a minimum. Show the student what the problem was, how to improve the design, and let them know their contribution was essential. You don’t want to turn into this guy.

The most critical improvement in the new game was that it now relied upon a more robust experimental paradigm. Rather than using ethnic sounding names and morphed faces, players will make judgments about several faces from five major racial groups attending York College (Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, Indian, and Black). 40 faces from each racial group will be combined to yield 200 faces (Figure 1). Within each racial group, 20 faces will be male and 20 will be female. The game is still a mystery/who-done-it, and the object of the game is to accurately identify the perpetrator, an accomplice, a witness, an innocent bystander, and the victim. Each of these characters represents an archetype associated with a particular emotional valence, ranking from negative to positive. For example, an accomplice is typically regarded as negative, but not as bad as the perpetrator. Players rank faces in the game using these characterizations similar to a Likert scale. We predict players will more likely identify members of their own race as victims, bystanders, or witness. Conversely, players are expected to identify members of other races as perpetrators or accomplices.

The core mechanic of this game is similar to Mastermind Challenge (a two-player version of the classic Mastermind), Guess Who (a pictorial variation of 20 Questions), and Clue. Like a combination of Mastermind and Guess Who, each player will attempt to identify the five characters that their opponent selected before the start of the game. Opponents are allowed to answer simple “yes-no” questions on each round of play, and players are allowed to adjust their guesses based on this feedback. However, unlike these games, players will be making judgments based on both faces and clues that are revealed on clue cards during each round of play (Figure 2). Face cards are accompanied by character cards, which indicate certain qualities about the character. After 40 rounds of play, the players guess who the five characters are, most likely revealing a racial bias.

Game play commences with the reading of a story that describes the mystery. Players are told that each story comes from a real life case. Player tokens are placed on a game board and five location cards are placed on the board to make its appearance resemble locations described in the story (Figure 3). Face cards and character cards are arranged in piles (Figure 4) according to the five character categories (i.e., Perpetrator, Victim, etc.). Face cards and character cards are shuffled within each category. Players take turns picking a face-character pair for each of the five categories. These selections are noted on answer keys and placed in envelopes. For each round of play, players will roll a 4-sided die and move a token on a game board to one of the locations along the shortest path possible. Locations are spaced far enough apart so that, on average, it takes 10 turns to get from location to location. During each round of play, five face cards and five character cards are flipped over for each player to reveal the faces and character information. Then, a clue card is flipped over. Clue cards ask one “yes-no” question about a character type (e.g., Victim) using the context of the story, and that question is meant to reveal something about the character’s four traits (“what,” “where,” “why,” and “when”). For example, a question intended to reveal information about the Victim might read “Was the victim seen in his bedroom between 9pm and midnight on the night of the crime?” This question is designed to get at “when” information for the character. Character cards all have checkboxes to indicate yes or no for the four traits. If the “when” box is checked in this example, the player should conclude that the character was present during the crime, and this character might be the Victim. For each round of play, a new set of cards is revealed beneath the previous set. After the first round of play, players can switch any set of cards from one category with another set from the same category and hazard a guess. The opponent indicates whether the guess is correct with a simple “yes” or “no,” and how many are correct without revealing which ones are correct. When a player lands in one of the five locations on the board, they must Report to the Chief Inspector. During the report, they must stack all the cards from previous rounds of play, making them inaccessible for swapping. Statistically, this should happen about every 10 rounds of play, and thus players will do this four times during the game. The final guess is made after 40 rounds of play and after the player has visited the final location. If you’re still reading this, welcome to the flaming helicopter crash that is experimental game design.

While the game could be played only with character cards, the inclusion of face cards allow us to expose the player’s bias. While each character within a race-gender classification has a unique character card, there may be characters from other races or genders with a similar card. Eventually, players have to start making judgments about faces in addition to character traits, and that is how we intend to expose racial bias. While judgements of character cards are explicit, judgments of face cards are implicit. The distribution of faces, clues, and character traits had to be carefully balanced within each character category. Within each category (e.g., Perpetrator), there are 40 face cards and 40 character cards that correspond to each round of play. 20 of the faces are male. Within that group, there are four members from each of the five racial groups. Each of those four faces is paired with a unique character card.

While the experiment and the game mechanic are in far better shape, there are many things that could be improved. There are no tangible resources to manage in the game. Nevertheless, not every game requires physical resources. And managing resources might actually make it easier to keep track of the characters, thus making the game more about record keeping. Similarly, writing down clues might make the game too easy. Consequently, the one boundary that we have imposed on players is that they are not allowed to take notes. More important, however, is that the game lacks a method for controlling flow. I’m concerned that the game will either be too easy or too difficult. Only play testing will determine whether that’s the case. Finally, in writing this post, I realized that it should be possible to combine character and face cards, but I’m forgetting why I didn’t do that in the first place. Why do I have a sense of dread? What am I doing in this helicopter, and where are we going?

**I use the term “race” to indicate the socio-cultural group or ethnicity that the player identifies with.

Hilliar, K. F. and Kemp, R. I. (2008) Perception, vol. 37, pp 1605-1608.

Multitasker, Part 1

In this post, I’ll describe the progress we’ve made on a second game for the York College summer research program. We only have six weeks to design the games, collect data, and present our results at a local conference. There might be time to shower and eat.

Sometimes you just get lucky. A student comes to you with an interest that turns into a pithy concept that’s easy to implement as a game. One of my students expressed an interest in multitasking. This issue has received a lot of attention in recent years due to the rapid proliferation of the Internet and mobile technology. Most people, particularly my college students who text during lectures, operate under the illusion that they can multitask. The illusion of multitasking is convincing because they we can accomplish more than one goal at a time by rapidly switching between tasks. People who operate under this illusion are not entirely misguided. We have an enormous capacity to process large amounts of sensory information from various modalities (e.g., sight and hearing) at the same time. And we have the ability to execute multiple motor commands at the same time (e.g., walking and chewing gum). However, we are particularly terrible at making more than one decision at a time. In attention research, this phenomenon is referred to as a “bottleneck.” As a demonstration, try to read a book while listening to the news. At some point, if you are absorbing the reading, you will miss some critical information on the news. Hal Pashler’s laboratory at UCSD has done revealing experiments on multitasking. They found that when subjects were attending to a stimulus, decisions made in response to a second stimulus were delayed until after a decision about the first stimulus was made. Our educational objective for Multitasker was to demonstrate to students that performance suffers when you attempt to multitask. We predicted that students who played the game would have a different opinion of multitasking relative to students who did not play the game.

Because we have very little time to make this game, we opted to make a board game. Another advantage of making a board game is that players can be challenged with very physical tasks, which we hope will make the lesson more evident. The core mechanic of the game revolves around trying to complete up to four tasks at the same time. A timer will be used to insure players perform each task for a sufficient period of time. We decided to adopt a few of the mini-games in Cranium (i.e., drawing and sculpting). However, some of the tasks will be modified so they can be performed simultaneously. Additionally, we might have to find tasks where the fail state is obvious. For example, it’s obvious when you drop a ball during juggling, but it might not be obvious when a person stops drawing or sculpting. Also, we are still looking for two tasks that can be accomplished with either a foot or using the voice.

To insure that players will not be overwhelmed immediately by performing four tasks at once, the number of possible tasks on any given round of play will be determined in advance in a series of levels. In level 1, the role of a four-sided die will be used to assign the one of the tasks to the player. In level 2, the role of the die, even or odd, will be used to pick two tasks. In level 3, the role of the die will be used to pick two tasks, but the player can choose the third task. In level 4, all four tasks must be performed. If a player successfully performs three challenges in a row, then they advance a level. However, if the player fails a given trial, they are moved back a level. Thus, flow is maintained by introducing and removing tasks. It’s worth noting that this method of using a 3-up/1-down staircase is standard in psychophysics. The object of the game is to be the first to complete Level 4, performing all four tasks three times in a row.

While the core mechanic of the game, objective, and reward/punishment schemes are designed, we are still looking for a fun method of providing feedback. In a previous post, I provided arguments for starting the design process with an educational objective and a game mechanic before designing the user interface. However, as I also mentioned, you can get surprising results from developing the three in parallel. Even though there are still details to complete for the game mechanic, my students also designing a toy that will serve as the centerpiece of the game. They toy will have several functions: (1) It will act as a repository for the game materials; (2) It will act as a method of keeping score and ranking the players; (3) And it will hopefully convey a message about student life. Raph Koster and Jessie Schell both indicate that user interface should be a fun toy. It’s an invitation to play, and I’m hoping my students can come up with some fun ideas that go beyond the traditional game board (a.k.a. “Game Bored”).

Decision Maker, Part 1

Now that I’ve explained our lab’s method of game development and rapid prototyping, I’m going to briefly explain the rationale for some of the games in development and describe the progress we’ve made in the past two weeks. Keep in mind that we only have six weeks to design the games, collect data, and present our results at a local conference. It’s a sprint.

Decision Maker is designed to teach students about decision-making and to help them make better decisions under uncertain conditions. Decision-making was thoroughly studied by Danniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, who are considered the fathers of behavioral economics. Kahneman received a Nobel Prize for their work in 2002 (after the passing of Tversky in 1996). Their model of decision-making was called Prospect Theory and, in the classic paradigm, subjects must choose between a sure bet (e.g., $100) and the prospect of winning a lottery (e.g., 50% chance of winning $214). The utility of each prospect is defined as the probability multiplied by the value. In our example, the prospect would be the wisest choice because the overall utility of the bet, $107, is higher than the utility of the sure bet, which is $100.  What Kahneman and Tversky discovered, however, was that people often behaved irrationally when presented with bets that had extreme probabilities or values. The astronomical prize money and the misperception of extremely low probabilities explain why people would pay $5 for a state Lotto ticket when the odds of winning are overwhelmingly against the player. While Prospect Theory has been around for years, there have been few efforts to shape behavior given this knowledge. Merely telling people how to make decisions is not enough to alter their behavior. Consequently, Decision Maker is designed to train students to improve their decision-making skills for extreme probabilities and values.

Designing games that are fun, educational, and able to collect data for scientific purposes is challenging. After the educational objectives of our games are established, we develop experimental protocols that will allow us to assess the behavior we wish to shape. Then, we develop game mechanics that compliment those experimental protocols. Our lab uses Tracy’s Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop and Jessie Schell’s Game Design: A Book of Lenses to ensure we address the most critical elements of game design. While it’s not necessary to adhere to this particular order, I recommend starting with a good scientific experiment. However, it is sometimes useful to develop the experiment and game mechanics in separate “sandboxes.” I often ask students to simultaneously design an experiment, a game mechanic, and a fun toy/interface to play with. Combining the results of independent endeavors often produces interesting and unexpected surprises.

Fortunately for Decision Maker, there are several experimental paradigms from behavioral economics to consider. We adopted a method of adjustment paradigm where players indicate the sure bet they would accept in lieu of a given prospect. Players will be presented with positive and negative prospects, and prospects will vary widely in probability and value. The set of probabilities and values were randomly generated to make the mental computation of utility difficult (e.g., 0.2% chance of winning $10,147). Using the staircase method typically employed in psychophysical experiments, the difficulty of the decisions will increase when players make more correct decisions, and the difficulty will decrease if they make errors. The staircase allows us to find the threshold where decisions become less reliable, and it keeps players in a state of flow (where the task is optimally challenging without being too frustrating or too boring). While multiple ascending and descending staircases can be interleaved, we decided to go with a simple descending staircase with consistent step sizes between trials. Our prediction is that subjects who play our game will preform better on a post-test of decision-making relative to control subjects who received equivalent practice in decision making without using games.

After the experiment was designed, we developed the game mechanics. Some of these mechanics are more clearly defined in Tracy’s book, but I’ll briefly define them here. Objectives describe what the player is trying to achieve in the long run. They can describe intermediate goals or the ultimate win/fail states of the game. Resources are items in the game that you are either acquire or get rid of to achieve your objective (e.g., the pieces in Chess or the money in Monopoly). Feedback mechanisms are implemented in games to inform the player about their performance (e.g., point totals or badges). Reward/Punishment Contingencies describe how and at what rate the game will react to a player’s decisions. Different contingencies can have dramatically different effects on behavior. For example, more work is typically elicited from pigeons if rewards are intermittent rather than consistent. With effective contingencies and feedback mechanisms, behavior can be shaped quickly to help the player achieve their objective. Of course, games don’t always have to be friendly. Unreliable feedback mechanisms can be used to achieve a different effect. Flow has been defined in detail elsewhere. Students should focus intensely on how to use all the other mechanics and standard psychophysical procedures to elicit a state of flow in the players. The staircase method should be the starting point when considering flow. Finally, boundaries are rules that prevent players from acting in a particular way. While limiting player behavior might appear to be a fun killer, boundaries often have the opposite effect. For example, soccer is really only fun because players are not allowed to use their hands. This game mechanic is best employed when you are not making progress on a design. If a student is functionally fixed on a particular design that is not working, introduce a boundary to change the designer’s frame of reference.

The core game mechanic for Decision Maker rests on how prospects are presented to the player and how the player evaluates those prospects. Prospects will be presented on playing cards along with scenarios related to student life. Players must write down the sure bet they would accept in lieu of the prospect. The correct utility of the prospect will appear on the back of the card. Players are rewarded for correct decisions by receiving a card and they are punished by not receiving a card. The objective of the game is to accrue more cards than your opponent before the deck of cards is exhausted. After a choice is made, the player spins the dial of a spinner and watches the gamble play out in real time. It’s important to note that, just like the state Lotto, players can win on rare occasions even if the choice to gamble is incorrect. Immediate feedback is implicit when the player flips the card to see the correct answer, but feedback is also available by comparing how many cards each player has collected relative to the opponents. We didn’t really feel the need to impose boundaries in this game because the behavior is fairly controlled and we didn’t want to further limit our players. Because we are developing this game as a board game, implementing a psychophysical staircase procedure was a little trickier. We decided to introduce levels into the game. Each level will have it’s own spinner and deck of cards. During early levels, the player will evaluate relatively easy prospects (i.e., within the range of reliable decision making). If the player successfully answers a certain number of questions, they are advanced to the next level where more difficult decisions have to be made. If a player doesn’t accrue a significant number of cards at the end of a level, they must go back and replay that level. Thus, student must improve on their evaluation of difficult prospects in order to win the game. Spinners for the early levels will be marked to indicate probabilities from 1 to 100%. Spins for the advanced levels will represent extreme probabilities by requiring the player to make several spins in a row within a target zone (e.g., the bet for a 0.25% prospect pays off if the player gets the needle to land between 0 and 5 twice in a row). The physical task of spinning the spinner several times for low probabilities will hopefully reinforce the notion that it’s unwise to bet on rare outcomes! Players will keep track of their own score. Players must maximize their winnings and finish with the most number of cards to win the game. If a player finishes the game without having the largest total on their scorecard, all players purge their cards and the final level will be repeated until there is a winner.

To make the game more fun, we plan to add a number of physical tasks that also must be completed before advancing to the next level (e.g., stack all the blocks that come with the game Jenga). Players will have a limited time to complete mini-games, physical feats, or puzzles to pass to the next level. The addition of these puzzles will add variety to the game and allow players to take a break from performing mental calculations. Additionally, some game cards will introduce “windfalls” or “calamities” into the mix. Windfalls might spontaneously grant the player an extra turn, extra cards, or allow them to circumvent the physical task. Calamities might require the player to loose a turn, give up cards, or move back a level. To maintain balance between competitors, players with fewer cards are more susceptible to windfalls and players with more cards are more susceptible to calamities.

Our plan is to have a working prototype of this game in the next week and play test all our games so that we can collect data the following week. Subsequent posts will describe our other games and the progress made in this game.

York College Summer Research Program

Welcome to the first in a series of posts related to rapid prototyping and game development with students. York College hosts the CUNY Summer Undergraduate Research Program (C-SURP) for high school students and undergraduates. The program is competitive, pays a stipend, and culminates in paper and poster presentations that can be applied toward college admissions or scholarship applications. I currently have nine students in my lab this summer, six of which are participating in C-SURP. All of the students are developing games of their own, but each student works on every game in the lab. The design process is collaborative, but students serve as project manger for their own game. To support this collaborative environment, I have adopted the principles described in the Valve Handbook for New Employees, which encourages collaboration without authoritative leadership. My goal is to create a sandbox where students can develop ideas without fear of criticism. I view my role as a facilitator who only intervenes to ask critical questions if a student is veering toward hazardous territory. If things are going well, I shouldn’t be talking at all.

The primary research objective of the lab is to study the efficacy of game-based learning in various disciplines. We incorporate principles from cognitive psychology, neuroscience, education, and game design to create effective learning systems. To that end, each student’s project is a study of learning in itself. Students are both the creators of a learning experience and students of the design process. My goal is to engage students in the subject matter of their choosing by involving them in design. By designing games, they must master the material related to their subject and then create a tool to teach those lessons to other students.

There is clearly no single best practice for educational game design. Even so, game designers have agreed that a certain number of elements are commonly found in successful games, and successful games are more likely to result from certain design processes. I’ve found that it’s critical to have frequent (but not necessarily daily) scheduled meetings and then allow students to break into groups as they see fit. Weekly meetings are not enough because students typically forget what they were supposed to accomplish by the time they get around to working. Cognitive psychology informs us that spaced learning is most effective, and professionals in the creative arts will attest that having a regular work regimen sets the stage for those “Eureka” moments in the creative process. Fortunately, for educators, this process is easy to implement in a class that meets two or three times a week.

During our group meetings, I ask students to review any progress they made or problems they encountered since the previous session. This practice is common to lab meetings. However, there is one critical difference. When solutions to problems are explored, it is important not to criticize any proposed solutions. Every member must be able to freely express any wacky idea that comes to mind if the appropriate solution is going to find it’s way to the surface. Reserve critical review of the game until after it has reached a stage where it can be prototyped and tested. As a facilitator, you run the risk of discouraging student participation if you start dropping logic bombs on brainstorming sessions. If you’re looking for a fun way to get this idea across to your students, play a round of “yes-and,” an improv game where students take turns building a story using the phrase “Yes, and” while avoiding the phrase “Yes, but.” It’s harder than it seems.

As a facilitator your primary job in the brainstorming sessions is to make sure the discussion is focused on the problem while remaining impartial. Having a dry-erase board in the room is critical for keeping track of all the ideas that emerge during the session and, more importantly, for making associative links between seemingly unrelated ideas. Student participation will run the gamut from incredibly-insightful-but-shy to extremely-loquacious-but-unfocused. The dry-erase board is a wonderful tool for focusing the unfocused. Ideas can be rapidly sketched as they come to light without the fear of running off the rails. Asking biographical questions is a great way of drawing out the shy students. Even the most reluctant students I’ve had in the lab will respond to personal questions about their interests, opinions, or experiences. You can use the answers to those questions to start a dialog about how to apply those attitudes toward the design of their game. At the end of each session, each student agrees on what needs to be accomplished before the next meeting. I’ve found that taking a picture of the dry-erase board is a quick and dirty means of backing up the day’s efforts without having to take additional notes.

There are a couple of challenges you will undoubtedly face when working with students in game development. First, students will come to you with an idea, together you will work to refine that idea into something tenable, and then they will come back to you the next day with a completely different topic. Many students are not academically resilient. When they encounter a problem that results in an appreciable amount of effort, it is easier for them to choose a new problem to solve. This is not a failure! This is a fine example of lateral thinking. Normally, I would encourage students to explore all the possibilities. However, most projects are under a time constraint so, you must help them not to exceed their “time budget.” Students switch from topic to topic because they are blissfully unaware of the vast amount of information they must absorb to complete the project (aren’t we all?). In my experience, when left alone, students who can’t settle on an idea will switch topics until they run out of time (sometimes this lasts an entire semester). As a facilitator, you have to intervene. I recommend introducing game elements to keep them on track. Give them a task list so they can monitor their own progress. Introduce a boundary that will hasten their work and make it more game-like. In game design, boundaries are used to limit a particular behavior, but it’s the act of limiting that behavior that makes the game fun (e.g., not using your hands in soccer). For example, to keep my students from spending too much time on an idea, I might give them a time limit for each stage of the process. As an alternative, you can also introduce friendly competition between students in the form of a race, or provide rewards for completing stages on time.

Students will also get frustrated at the difficulty of the readings and the amount of time it takes to sift through a seemingly endless pile of literature. Do you remember what it was like to read your first peer-reviewed journal as an undergraduate? Imagine being given a stack of readings like this as a high school student! As a facilitator, one of your other important jobs is to cull the reading list. However, it’s critical that you let the students discover information on their own. No matter how well we curate and scaffold the reading list, students do not like being handed a pile of papers. It makes them feel like they are being forced to do work. Let them start with searches on the Internet, even if it leads to dubious sources. When they find sources they like, augment those readings with a highly refined list of your own. Explain outright that you are giving them this list to save them time. Now that they have done some work on their own, they will appreciate the list. I typically prescribe a chapter from an undergraduate text, a good review article, and less than three peer-reviewed articles that are directly related to the subject matter.

Finally, the students might not understand or identify with the logic of game-based education. Fortunately, this is an easy lesson to teach. Start by having students talk about the games they’ve played, what games they like, what games they didn’t like, and what they may have learned from the games. You’ll probably have to step in and stop the discussion! Then, have them play some state-of-the art educational games at Gamesforchange.org. Explain that these games may or may not be the best examples of how to teach a lesson. They should have fun playing the games, but also encourage them to review the games with a critical eye for improvements. Follow the game playing session with a crash course in game design. Explain the critical elements like objectives, win-loose states, resources, boundaries, and reward-punishment contingencies. I try to explain these elements from the perspective of behavioral psychology because, ultimately, all behavior in games can be explained using well-tested models of behavior from psychology. Try to keep in mind that we are using games as tools to shape behavior. If we do our job, our games will produce measureable changes in behavior that can be quantified. When you have finished, introduce a few readings on game design, particularly Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop or Jessie Schell’s The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.

Now that I’ve introduced my method of introducing game-based learning to students, I’ll follow up with a few posts on the games we’re working on and the day-to-day progress on those games as they develop.


York College Transformative Games Initiative

I’m very happy to announce that there is plenty of interest and support among the faculty, students, and administration to officially launch the York College Transformative Games Initiative. The objective of this committee will be to provide information about game-based learning, organize local efforts to incorporate games into the classroom, and analyze the results of these efforts in order to make improvements. The committee will operate under the direction of Xin Bai from Education, Michael Smith from Performing and Fine Arts, and myself. While our roles may be overlapping, I will be primarily handling the science underlying game design, issues related to in-game assessment of student performance, assessment of game efficacy, and administration of the committee. Xin Bai will oversee issues related to educational technology. And Michael Smith will manage issues related content, asset, and media creation by students and faculty. If you want to be included as a member of this committee or if you want to learn more about how games can be easily incorporated into your classroom, please send me an email. In a future post, I will provide the rationale for game-based learning and provide a list of peer-reviewed articles and books that document the science behind game-based learning. Announcements of the first committee meeting will take place here and via York College e-mail.  In the meantime, I’m happy to answer any questions you might have here.

CUNY Games Network Interviewed by New Learning Times

NLTedlab_logoThe New Learning Times, a publication of the EdLab at Columbia University Teachers College, posted an interview of the CUNY Games Network. The interview summarizes the planning committee’s experience with the 1st Annual CUNY Games Festival on January 17th, 2014. Members of the CUNY Games Network advisory board discuss games in Higher-Ed, planning the conference, and supporting CUNY’s overall mission with game-based learning.

Read the article at The New Learning Times.


Utopian Studies Seminar

The Utopian Studies Seminar is hosting a discussion of Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia (2009), which offers a chilling vision of a future neo-­liberal world order. Possible Worlds, Alternative Futures will discuss the implications of Towfik’s work for utopian and ludic studies. The projects is co-sponsored by the CUNY Games Network.

Tuesday, December 10th at 4:15 pm, CUNY Graduate Center, Room 6417

12-10-13 Utopia Flyer


York College Offers Course on the Art and Sound of Video Games

Close up of a graduation cap and a certificate with a ribbonDr. Sarah-­Kate Gillespie and Dr. Tom Zlabinger, Assistant Professors of Performing and Fine Arts at York College, have created a course where students learn about games, art, music, culture, and media from a critical perspective. The course is team taught and offered both through Music and Fine Arts to all students regardless of their major.

For more info: sgillespie@york.cuny.edu or tzlabinger@york.cuny.edu

Course Description and Flyer

Bernie DeKoven to Speak at NYU Game Center Today

Reposted from gamecenter.NYU.edu

Bernie DeKoven is a game designer, a theorist of play, and a professional purveyor of fun.

He was a seminal figure in the New Games Movement of the 1970s, a group that created large-scale public play events. His book The Well-Played Game, republished this year by MIT Press, is a landmark work that argues for a radical re-conception of how people engage meaningfully through play. Many of the most important trends in games today, from indie games and art games to game jams and big games, have roots in Bernie’s influential ideas.

Join us on Thursday evening as Bernie talks about his life making play happen, in dialog with NYU Game Center Director Frank Lantz. Two days later, Bernie will lead a New Games Workshop – an unforgettable outdoor afternoon of play.

Lecture Series: Bernie DeKoven
Pfizer Auditorium
5 Metrotech Center, Brooklyn, NY 11201
October 10, 7:00pm

New Games Workshop
Meet at 2 Metrotech Center and we will go to a nearby park.
October 12, 12:30pm

Both events are free and open to the public.

RSVP here

CUNY Games Fest 2014: CFP Extended for Posters and Arcade Game Demos!

We’ve had a great response to our Call for Proposals for the first annual CUNY Games Festival — thanks to all who’ve submitted proposals! After taking a second look at our conference space, we noted we still have room for a few more Posters and Arcade Game Demos. Consequently, we’re extending the CFP deadline for Posters and Game Demos only to Friday, November 1st.

If you’ve been thinking on submitting a proposal, here’s your chance! Submit your proposal here.

Note that conference acceptances for Presentations and Shorts will be sent on 10/18 as originally scheduled. Acceptances for Posters and Game Demos will be sent on 11/10.

Please help spread the word! We look forward to seeing you on January 17th and 18th at the CUNY Games Festival!

Discussions on Games and Play in Utopian/Dystopian Literature

The Utopian Studies group at the Graduate Center will be hosting a series of book discussions focusing on games and play in utopian and dystopian literature. The meetings are open to the public and we welcome your participation. Our first meeting will be Tuesday, October 8 at 4:15PM in Rm.6417 at the Graduate Center. We will be discussing Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, a famous novel that will hit the movie theaters later this fall. At subsequent meetings, we will discuss Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia, and Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken. The CUNY Games Network is co-sponsoring these events.

More information is included in the attached flyer. Please come join us for a great discussion.
Center for Humanities Flyer

Final day to submit for the CUNY Games Festival: Oct 1!

UPDATE: 2nd Day added to conference! (details below)

Mark your calendars. The first annual CUNY Games Festival will take place on January 17, 2014 at the CUNY Graduate Center. This one-day conference to promote and discuss game-based learning in higher education will bring together faculty, students, game designers, and other domain experts from various disciplines. Open to the public, the conference features an Arcade, where attendees can play learning games and games-in-progress, and sessions to address such questions as:

Apart from engaging college students, what real learning can happen through games?
What relevance does the broader debate about gamification have to higher education?
Should games be read, analyzed, or even replace texts in a course?

The plenary session includes a diverse panel of scholars and game designers: John Black (Teachers College, Columbia University), Robert Duncan (York College, CUNY), Joey Lee (Teachers College, Columbia University), Anastasia Salter (University of Baltimore) and Eric Zimmerman (New York University).

Interested in presenting? Read the guidelines and submit your proposal!


We are also adding a special second day to the festival. From 10am to 5pm on Saturday, January 18, we will host a more informal day of playing popular board and card games, and offering feedback to educational games that attendees have created. Feel free to bring games of your design; we will have game designers on hand! During this time we will get to know each other better and hopefully discover opportunities for future collaborations.

Classroom Inspiration from Online Multiplayer Games

avatarChris Bell, a designer of the award-winning “Journey” (That Game Company), gave a presentation at the 2012 Game Developer Conference that is now online in the GDC Vault. Chris shared his observations about several online multiplayer games that are designed to bring people together. He cited language as a major barrier to building friendships online. Players who want to connect might not be able to because the designer didn’t account for language. Visible appearance might also be a barrier that keeps people from bonding over a shared interest. In the online world of avatars, people from various walks of life can alter their appearance and meet people they otherwise might not in the real world. Bell indicates that the goal of the designer in the online multiplayer experience is to create friendships before prejudice can take effect.

In the classroom, where players cannot hide behind an avatar, this design imperative is even more difficult to overcome.  As instructors, we must design experiences that allow learners to identify each other through their academic affinities rather than their hairstyle. Rather than assigning learners to teams, we should let teams form naturally around affinities. Simple idea is to have learners write down their topic of interest on a piece of paper. The instructor can go through each topic in front of the class and ask students how topics should be grouped. After grouping, students congregate at various points in the room according to their affinity. There may be some drawbacks to this method, but the some of the advantages follow:

  1. This method splits up students who only cluster together because they are friends rather than sharing a common interest.
  2. It gives the group project some direction at the outset.
  3. It allows shy learners to express their opinions without being overshadowed by more dominating learners.

If you have an idea to improve upon this method or incorporate more game mechanics into the idea, please post in the comments!


Learning by design