Category: For K-12 Teachers


I have been neglecting this site for this past year because, frankly, I got tired of being on the computer!!!  Since I’ve been teaching, both face to face and online, a good portion of my day is spent in creating materials, reading online discussions, and grading digital assignments.  And by the end of the day, just about the last thing I want to do is do some more sitting – either in front of the computer or one of my game consoles.  Hence …. few hours playing games and even fewer opportunities to review selections for educational purposes.

I have, however, continued to explore serious games, digital gamification, and online fitness communities.  FitBit and LoseIt have joined HabitRPG and Nerd Fitness as part of my self-improvement suite.  I’ll write more about these old and new favorites, but I would first like to introduce a mobile game that has become my new – healthy – addiction:  Ingress.

What It Is

Ingress (Wikipedia entry) is an augmented reality game for smartphones.  It uses your phone’s GPS feature to associate your real life physical location with a place in a science fiction world where exotic matter is leaking into the world through portals.   You play a member of one of two opposition factions among the world’s human population and attempt to control portals and regions of the Earth’s surface on behalf of your faction.

Game play at the basic level is pretty straight-forward.  You drive, bike, or walk around with your smart phone – and use your phone to interact with the game world.  When you find a portal, you use your phone to interact with it, supporting or trying to destroy the portal’s control system (and then gain control over it for your faction).  In essence, it is a world-wide game of capture the flag …. with millions of flags scattered on every continent and in every city.

But like any good game, there are levels of complexity available for the interested participant.  The game has a complex back-story and a current events mystery unfolding in a series of episodic online stories and organized, real life events in select cities.  And if the narrative is not of interest, the strategic creation of links between portals and subsequent control of areas is reminiscent of a game of chess played on a grand scale.  While it is fairly simple to learn to play, playing it well will take some time and experience.

The Good

There is a lot to like about this game.  For one thing, it gets me up and away from the computer.  When I talk to parents and educators about computer games for learning, one of the first objections is that kids spend too much time sitting already.  Trust me …. this game will get them out of their seats and searching for portals to control, particularly if their friends are also playing.  I introduced my husband to the game, and now one of our favorite Saturday outings is to go take a long walk in order to play Ingress together, and we are often walking a few miles in order to get “just another one.”

Portals are also placed – deliberately by the game makers (Google) – to coincide with real life points of interest, such as museums, libraries, historical markers, memorials, and scenic outlooks.  And players are rewarded with badges if they visit a large number of unique places.  This feature has prompted me to visit sections of cities – and points of interest – that I had no idea existed.  It’s been a fun way for me to get out of my routines and go some place new for a walk.  And it encouraged me to go exploring on a recent, out of town trip.  I can see this used by parents …. and maybe teachers ….. to encourage kids to go visit culturally important locations and learn more about their neighborhoods and cities.  Carefully, of course.

With the science fiction back story to the game, and the continually evolving mystery, this game could also be very helpful in encouraging students to read and write.  The narrative is engaging in itself, and students could be asked to propose theories about what is happening based on the clues that are dropped periodically in the game’s news releases.  I’ll admit that I’m usually more interested in walking around and gaining control of territory, but I can see the potential for the language arts in this game.

With two teams working to control sections of the world, there is also, naturally, room for teamwork.  Each faction has its own Google group as well as a way to chat from within the game, and teams in many locations arrange for meet ups to socialize and plan strategy.  Teams need to work together to mount strategies to control territory …. and also to block the opposing team’s strategies to gain control of the same spaces.  It is generally a lot of fun, and so far, I have not had any negative encounters – even when near an opposing team as they were trying to wrest control of a portal from me.

Cautions

That being said, as I mentioned earlier, parents and teachers (and everyone else) should use caution in playing this game.  Just as with geocaching, it can be easy to leave your comfort zone for areas that are not safe.  You need to remain alert and aware of your surroundings, not stepping off of cliffs or balconies in an effort to reach a portal …. don’t laugh.  There is a portal in my city that is barely reachable by carefully stretching over a railing.  I’m not sure how it got there, but it is a lesson in caution.

Given how the game is played, it is easy for kids to get involved and play as peers with and against adults.  As a relatively new player, I’ve probably been schooled by more children that I would like to know.  But do be aware that the game is one of competition, and new players will be at a disadvantage for many levels, having their hard work destroyed by higher level players who see an advantage …. and who don’t know that they may be playing against a kid. So long as players understand that the game really is one of shifting control back and forth …. daily  ….. it is fun.

Drawbacks

While the game does encourage movement, a lot of players – myself included – simply drive from portal to portal.  Most locations are readily accessible from the street or a convenient parking lot, and it is easy to be lazy or in a hurry …. trading a seat in front of the computer for a seat in the car.  For people who are mobility challenged, this is a blessing – you can play with the best of us.  But it also sorta defeats one of the big draws of the game.

The game also puts quite a strain on your smart phone.  I am still running an older model iPhone, and the battery does not last very long while playing this game.  My husband’s new iPhone holds up far longer, and I have simply gotten an auxiliary mobile power source to support longer gaming sessions ….. when I’m not in the car with the iPhone plugged in.

And … of course …. it does require a smart phone … or an iPad.  Originally released only for Android, it’s been out for about a year for the Apple platform.  But the requirement of a fairly robust device will put the game out of reach for some students.

Summary

On the whole, I really like this game.  It is encouraging me to get out and explore new sections of the city and to walk a good deal more than I have been during the cold winter.  I’m looking forward to reading more of the narrative and getting to know some of my team mates ….. and even members of the opposition …. in local Ingress meet ups.  If you are an educator or a parent, this game has potential to be an engaging alternative to the traditional computer or videogame, and it would be a lot of fun to do as a family.

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SW:TOR [1085]

SW:TOR [1085] (Photo credit: brianjmatis)

If you have a Star Wars fan in your household, you have probably heard of this online multiplayer role-playing game from BioWareand LucasArts, which extends the rich narrative and choice structure of the Knights of the Old Republic single-player games into the online, multiplayer realm.

This game is interesting to educational researchers because of the way it blends narrative story telling and player choice with social and group gaming activity.  This is one multiplayer game in which group activity, which awards social points, has a direct effect on the quality of gear that a player can purchase.  Teams are easy to pull together in this game, and there is a refreshing variety of group encounters that include everything from simulated team sports (Huttball is a riot) to more traditional group combat and player-vs-player battles.  As with many group role playing games, the teamwork and strategy required to achieve many game goals are a good way to teach people of all ages to contribute their character’s abilities and their own ability to collaborate in order to succeed.

As with the other games in the Knights of the Old Republic series, a player’s choice of actions in the game affects a character’s moral alignment, either toward the Light Side or toward the Dark, which also affects the type of equipment that can be purchased, aspects of the narrative, and how non-playing characters react to the character.  This can be an interesting challenge and opportunity to discuss moral choices in difficult circumstances.    Characters on the Republic side and choose evil actions, and those on the Imperial side can choose good ones.  It is an interesting activity to work at making a Light Sith or a Dark Jedi to see the ramifications of choices and actions.

However, in many ways, this is a very traditional role playing game, and as the folks at Common Sense Media point out, much of the activity in the game focuses around the classic combat between good and evil.  In this case, however, the narrative puts the combat into context more directly than any other MMORPG that I have played, and I have occasionally been able to use the decision system to avoid some combat situations.

If you work with teens, you will probably have been hearing about this game, which released over the winter break.  New buzz may be surfacing now because a major new patch will open up a new system, called the Legacy system, which will allow players to craft not only characters but families of characters that can share abilities and experience. Be prepared for some interesting family trees that will mimic the drama and pathos of the movies!

Osmos, running under Wine

This weekend, as I was coming home from the MacArthur Foundations’s Emerging Scholars Conference on Assessment, I experimented with the demo of a new (to me) indie game, Osmos.  The game has been out for a couple of years, since 2009, and was recommended to me by fellow attendees who have purchased the Indie Humble Bundle, which not only gets players great games but also helps support a variety of charities.

Developed by Hemisphere Games, this lovely game worked for me on many levels.  My first impression is that it is just a beautiful game visually.  The graphics are very high quality and the motion of the little cells (one of which is yours to control) is very smooth.  Add the very lovely soundtrack, and you have a wonderful, meditative game suitable for relaxation while you do a little learning.  I played it on the plane in order to unwind – using an average set of headphones to block out some of the background noise.  I have to tell you, I would have played for the entire trip home if my battery had not run out … I’ll be looking to see if this is going to become available for the iPad!

Once I became comfortable with the controls, I was able to see how an understanding of physics was helpful.  This game reinforces an understanding of thrust mechanics as well as inertia.  Plus, the player must balance resources since the little cells move by expelling part of their matter but must grow larger than competing cells in order to survive.  Hence, players learn to move efficiently, take advantage of Newton’s Laws, and be patient.

The game does allow the player to speed up time if you want to see results quickly, but I decided to be more patient and let cells glide around as part of the unwinding process.  But just be aware that, in a classroom setting, you might want to control the speed of each level to reinforce the learning objectives and fit the game into your classroom schedule.

On the whole, I love this game and recommend it highly.  While it gives a nod to the biological reality that organisms ingest smaller organisms, it is not a violent game, which makes it appealing for school use.

  • Osmos (giraffeandllama.wordpress.com)
  • Osmos (wired.com)

I made the plunge into the world of Minecraft last weekend when I wasn’t invited to a beta testing weekend (for an unnamed MMORPG, but if you know me, you know which one).  Minecraft has been getting a LOT of buzz of late.  Even while it was still in beta, it had millions of users, and teachers were using it in K-12 classes to teach computer science, writing, collaboration (in multiplayer mode), English, and progression of crafting.  It just released into verion 1.0 on the same day I decided to buy a copy, and I have to say that I’m pleased with its functionality and stability so far … although all I’ve played at this point is the singleplayer, survival mode.

What It Is

Minecraft is a sandbox game – which means that it has no rules or set roles.  The player decides what to do and what success means.  At first, this can be a little frustrating because, like life, making choices and giving up other possibilities is a bit of a challenge.  Until you know what you CAN do, it is hard to decide what to try.  So, I took a look around the Internet and the Minecraft wiki to see what other players have been doing.  I was blown away by images of fancy castles, a replica of the Globe Theater, and old-fashioned masted ships.  Ok, so the world really is wide open in this game.  I had a high bar to meet.  And that’s just in creative mode.

You can also play the game in survival mode or hard mode.  So far, I’ve just tried survival mode, which gives a little spice to creativity.  Monsters come out of dark places (like the night and caves) and don’t necessarily go away during the day.  This means that the player must take measures to survive while building and pay attention while exploring.  My character died quite a lot at first, but then I started to develop strategies (with the help of tutorials), buildings, and weapons.  Now, while I need to be cautious, I haven’t lost a great deal of resources or time for a few (real time) days.

Hard mode looks like it plays more like the traditional MMOG with a lot of potential for monsters and fighting.

So, the player can pick the type of game experience desired and set his or her own goals.  In survival mode, the character does level up gradually, with the defeat of monsters and resource animals.  As the player/character progresses, there is a technology tree.  While the educator (and former classics minor) cringes at the use of gold and diamond armor), I am greatly enjoying the challenge of playing a stone-age farmer who is trying to find enough ore to craft iron weapons and armor while also keeping myself fed and housed.

It Ain’t Easy

The best thing is that Minecraft is a challenging game.  Resources are scarce and spread out.  And they are unpredictable.  Unlike World of Warcraft, mobs do not stay in the same place.  Resources spring up in various locations.  Monsters appear randomly – sometimes almost out of nowhere.  There is serious risk/reward assessment to be done, and planning ahead, being prepared, and playing smart are rewarded.

This game could be used to help players work on mapping.  With days only 10 minutes long in real time, you want to be efficient in navigating lest your character be caught away from shelter at night.  A lot of calculation practice could also be supported so that students would calculate how much of a resource they needed to achieve a crafting goal or how far they can move from shelter before they need to turn back.

And history …. oh how I love history learning opportunities.  With resources so scarce, students could really understand why cities are built near certain juxtapositions of resources such as mountains for ore, water for irrigation, pasturage for animals, etc.  And why stone-age buildings were built as they were.  And why the Romans, with their roads and aqueducts were able to roam the continent and into Britain.

Roman roads … as my character roams up and down hills, I’m really appreciating the Roman road …. and I’m planning to build more than a few now that my little farms (finally irrigated) are starting to generate a surplus of food that allows me to travel more and spend less time on finding food!   The world is vast enough that it is easy to get lost, and so students would also begin to understand why either mapping or signposting were necessary before the GPS was invented.  Of course, once the map and compass are developed in Minecraft, this is less of an issue.  Nevertheless, students each have to get to that point of technology creation first.  Which means that they need to do old-school navigation before they can tech up.

I’m going to experiment next on stone towers and try a Roman villa to see which keep out the monsters at night better while letting me feel a little less claustrophobic (stone buildings have their limits!).  I’ve been keeping my character’s living quarters in my mines up to this point with torches for light.  This works just fine, but the view is a little dull over time.

I find myself intrigued by questions of what types of building, crafting, food gathering, defense, and exploration strategies will work, especially pulling ideas from historical periods.  The cost/benefit equation feels very “right” to me – and I look forward to seeing how historical solutions to survival problems will  play out.

It Ain’t Perfect

It’s a game.  The technology progression is short and skips the bronze age (and steel — although you do get chain mail).  Torches burn forever, and water doesn’t evaporate or sink into the ground once you irrigate your fields.  Still, for an inexpensive indie game, the basic ideas are there for use by a clever teacher.

The graphics are very basic and old-school.  It gets a little annoying at times, but it also loads quickly and movement is smooth through the world.  It’s kinda like playing Legos, but that also makes calculation of volume for building pretty straightforward.

I’m planning to play this for the next month, until the new Star Wars MMOG from Bioware comes out.  Then, I might alternate between them after that.  Having a world in which to build anything without worrying about prim count (a la Second Life) but having some imposed challenges and limits is highly interesting, even for an adult.  I’d love to try this with a middle-school after school program!

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A few students have asked for instructions for uploading to UMD’s official ePorfolio system, so I created this short page of instructions.  I think uploading is not hard, but organizing the vast amount of material (much of which is uploaded automatically by the system) is confusing for many students.

It’s a constant game of give and take, trying to find solutions are that robust, easy to use, and appealing to users.  I recommend that our students at least use this a place to store artifacts and materials during their school years, although they may want to use a different solution to share and present their public brand to future employers.