Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why The Most Important Question In Game-based Learning Is "Who Will Fund The Game Genome Project?" (Part 2 of 2)

What's Missing From This Picture?

I hate Monopoly.  If there was a time when I liked Monopoly, I can't remember it.  Even today, when I dream of hell it features an endless game of Monopoly played with Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot (Don't ask...).

What if game C in the image above (and also featured prominently in Part 1 of this series) is Monopoly?

All the cool databasing and meeting and organizing in the world aren't going to help me learn if I absolutely hate the game that is supposed to teach me.  Resolving this problem is tricky and it starts with the question, "What is a game?"

I am a big fan of Bernard Suits definition of a game: "Games are a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles."  
Note:  At this stage, it is typically obligatory to write a lengthy discussion about all the other definitions of "game" and how Suits succeeds in part and fails in part...blah, blah, blah.  You can find this sort of stuff anywhere - just Google it.  So, in the interest of time, let's just pretend I have already written this essay (OK, OK, "brilliant essay", if you insist).  Now we can get to the point.  
The key thing that the Suits' definition adds to the discussion of games in the context of learning is that games are voluntary.  Think about it.  If, at some level, the learner is not motivated to play the game by the game itself, it isn't really a game for that learner (kind of like The Hunger Games aren't really games for Katniss Everdeen...).

What Is The Game Genome Project?

If the missing piece from the picture above is the preference of the learner/player, then the question becomes, "How do we determine those preferences?"  To put it another way, if Rock and Country and Classical were insufficient to define musical preferences, why should we think that Role-playing, Collectible Card or First Person Shooter are good enough to define game preferences?

The truth is, we shouldn't.  The Game Genome Project would seek to do to games what the Music Genome Project did to music - break games down into their component parts, validate the relevance of those parts in determining player preferences and then test that system so that we can reliably predict game preferences across learners/players and genres.

Some of this kind of work is already being done, albeit without the focus on education.  Take a look at BoardGameGeek, for example.  BGG is arguably the web's best resource for tabletop games and its advanced search feature allows users to search by hundreds of categories, subcategories and mechanics as well as by number of players and playing time.  

The tens of thousands of amateurs and professionals who have contributed to BGG over the years have done very good work in crafting all these elements of board games but which of these categories actually matter?  And what about video games?  Do any of these categories and subcategories cross over?  

Yes, there is a lot of work to do but imagine if such a system were fully realized.  Teachers could go to one site, input their students preferences and the teacher's learning objectives and a list of games would pop up.  Even more important, a student, faced with a learning challenge could input his or her preferences and the learning objectives and find a list of games that would make the effort not only fruitful but fun.  

The ability to reliably connect learner/player preferences in games to learning objectives in classes across the full spectrum of tabletop and video games would, in turn, transform game-based learning from the pedagogical technique du jour to a lasting  and important part of the educational landscape.

Who Will Fund The Game Genome Project And Why Is This Question So Important?

If I am right about the importance of the Game Genome Project to the future of game-based learning, then who will fund it?

The first possible source is, of course, private investment.  A Pandora-like game recommendation engine makes about as much business sense as Pandora itself.  Pandora, however, let's you listen to music it thinks you will like and then makes money when you buy it (and ads, of course, but that would be true for any website).  

Since most games take longer than 3 minutes to play (or even to download...), it is unclear to me if this business model would work as well (or at all) for games.  More importantly, private investors are unlikely to want to invest in the hard work of tying learning objectives from all of the various curricula to the games.  It is something that only someone with deep pockets and a financial incentive (like an educational publisher?) might be able to attempt.

Government could do this, of course.  It looks like a good NSF or Dept. of Education grant, perhaps.  The military or intelligence community could certainly do it but would be highly likely to focus almost exclusively on a narrow range of skills and games.

Whoever will do it, it will have to be done. Until we are able to connect game to learning objective and learner to game, game-based learning is likely to remain a niche teaching technique, full of unrealized potential.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Why The Most Important Question In Game-based Learning Is "Who Will Fund The Game Genome Project?" (Part 1 of 2)

Way back in 2000, two researchers, Will Glaser and Tim Westergren, began what was then called The Music Genome Project.  It was designed to categorize music by more than 400 different "genes" or characteristics of the music.  The goal was to build a better music recommendation engine.

Today, this project is better known as Pandora.

Glaser and Westergren's fundamental insight was that breaking music down into broad general categories such as Rock or Pop or Country wasn't very useful when it came to making recommendations.  Some people liked music with male vocalists or heavy beats or a fast tempo and no one liked all of country music or everything produced that was labelled "rock".  

In fact most people liked a little bit of everything.  Sure, they had genre preferences, but that didn't keep the Jethro Tull fanatic from liking (and buying) the occasional Mike Oldfield album (ahem...not that I know anyone who would do such a thing...).

Thus the Music Genome Project was born.  By analyzing the genetic makeup of each song, the Project wasn't just able to better dissect individual pieces of music.  It was actually able to make reliable cross genre recommendations.  Oh, you like this driving, 120 beats per minute, sung by a female vocalist with lots of guitar distortion rock anthem?  Then you might also like this hip-hop track with many of the same musical genes!

What Does This Have To Do With Game-based Learning?

This isn't going to sound that earthshaking but it was to me the first time I realized it:  All games teach.  You can design a game that will explicitly (or implicitly) teach something like math or grammar but you don't have to.  With all of the good games, both video and tabletop, that are out there, it is not difficult to find a game that can be used to teach almost any K-12 and many university level subjects.  

How many classrooms routinely use Monopoly, for example, to help teach basic addition and subtraction or units of currency?  Monopoly certainly wasn't designed with this purpose in mind but it serves that purpose nonetheless.  

While I might be bold in my assertion that every subject is covered, I would argue that, if I am wrong, I am not wrong by much.  This is the golden age of gaming.  There are more games being produced (and more good games) than at any other time in human history.  The selection is already immense and growing.  In fact, it might be more accurate for me to say that, while I might be wrong, I won't be for much longer.

So, to put it more formally, you can connect all games to one or more learning objectives (See image to the left).  I am using the term "learning objective" loosely here.  Your learning objectives may come from a formal document, such as the common core, or from a less formal desire "to teach these darn kids something about X".  

Given the prevalence of formal standards in modern education, however, it is pretty easy to imagine (though infinitely less easy to actually do...) professional educators and gamers sitting down together and dissecting every game for the learning objectives that each game addresses (i.e. the things each game teaches).

Eventually - and, of course, you would start with the most popular games and the most important learning objectives - you would have a database that could answer the question, "What game teaches this?"  Almost certainly, multiple games will cover the same learning objectives and some games will cover more relevant learning objectives than others.  It is conceivable that a teacher would be able to query this database and find a single game (See image below) that adequately addressed all of the learning objectives for a particular block of instruction.

Next:  What's Missing From These Pictures?