Category: Online Communities


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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Just got my reminder to drink some water from ...

Just got my reminder to drink some water from Bloom app. And I did… 8 oz, yo! cc: @mindbloom (Photo credit: jennyonthespot)

Since I took a MOOC on Gamification through Coursera, I’ve been on a real gamification kick, focusing primarily on online tools for self-improvement rather than business or marketing uses of the techniques.  My latest exploration has been in a nicely done personal development site called Mindbloom.

What It Is

There are loads of games (I use that term loosely here), apps, and sites springing up with the aim of assisting users to improve aspects of their daily lives in order to improve their health and well-being.  Many of these products and services focus on narrow slices of life – such as encouraging exercise (cf Fitocracy, Zombies, Run!, Nike+, and Map My Run), or a combination of exercise and healthy eating (like Nerd Fitness and Spark People).  Mindbloom goes well beyond the norm by encouraging users to establish a life balance in seven areas:  relationships, lifestyle, career, health, spirituality, creativity, and finances.  And it does it with some nice features and a different slant on the gamification genre.

The Good

There really is a lot to like about Mindbloom.  It takes the points, badges, and leaderboards features of many similar sites and turns them around.  There are points (called seeds) and levels which afford the user with options to either buy new themes or to open up further customization through uploading visual and audio media for use on the site.  But the standard, competitive leaderboard is replaced by a forest of friends – who are chosen by the user – that one is encouraged to support through sharing of resources.  Since users can see (and potentially compare) the health of each others’ trees, competition remains a potential focus for those who choose that lens.  But the display also can be used for cooperation and support if users prefer to interpret the display in that manner.  Likewise, there are badges to be earned and displayed in a user’s profile, but they are prominently displayed.

Additionally, the interface for Mindbloom is a lovely, artistic layout designed to be a relaxing setting for one’s tree, which is the representation of the user’s healthy life balance (or lack thereof).  Sounds of nature and thematic music complete the basic interface.  Most of the icons and action buttons reside in the bottom of the window, and can be pulled out as needed to perform the various tasks, such as setting to-dos, completing tasks, or calling up a customized slide show of inspiring images, quotes, and music.

Finally, Mindbloom takes self-determination to the max with this self-improvement site.  The user picks what life areas to work on, creates the tasks, can upload images, quotes, and music, and picks what themes to display.  The user is given daily suggestions of tasks that they might want to add to the list, but the choice is entirely up to the user.  Whatever you need to work on in your life, you can use this application to remind yourself of how you will do it, and as you complete tasks, you’ll gain sunshine and rain to make your tree …. or that of a friend ….. healthy.

Room for Improvement

On the down side, as a gamer, I found Mindbloom (like SuperBetter) simply too easy.  You can neglect your life and your tree for weeks and still level up, gaining fewer seeds, but still gaining a substantial handful.  There is also no mechanism for differentiating between really easy tasks and those that are real challenge goals for a particular user.  Hence, I tended to create easy tasks and then just mark them right off, which only exasperated the ease of the system.  It’s a small point, but part of playing a game … or even participating in a gamified process …. is mastering challenges.  And there really are none here.  If you are looking for a stress-less lovely to-do list, this fits the bill, but don’t look for a challenge anywhere.

The other thing that makes Mindbloom an interesting trial that I won’t actually use seriously is the challenge of finding friends to include in my forest.  The ability to engage in this self-determined winnowing of whose progress I view is nice on one hand, but it can also derail the social aspect of the game if you don’t have friends with  similar interests.  In my case, friends and family are already happy with their to-do systems, took a brief look at this one and moved on, leaving me with a very sparse forest.

In the end, I think it is a lovely (really beautiful) online program with some gamification elements to encourage self-improvement.  And it is a very good example of how gamification can take advantage of cooperation as well as competition through use of a clever framework of growing lives together.

You haven't lived until you've died in MUD. --...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been collecting dissertations (and theses) about virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games.  This is my list thus far …. if anyone knows of others, please share.  This would especially be helpful for all of us who are breaking new ground at institutions that don’t currently have professors well-versed with this type of location for research.

Bruckman, A. S. (1997). MOOSE Crossing: Construction, Community, and Learning in a Networked Virtual World for Kids. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

King, E. M. (2011). GUYS AND GAMES: PRACTICING 21ST CENTURY WORKPLACE SKILLS IN THE GREAT INDOORS. University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Long, B. T. (2008). Online Communities on the MUVE: Using Second Life to build an Online Peer-support Community for Pre-service Teachers. University of Dublin.

Smith-Robbins, S. (2011). Incommensurate Wor(l)ds: Epistemic Rhetoric and Faceted Classification of Communication Mechanics in Virtual Worlds. Ball State University, Muncie, IN.

Steinkuehler, C. A. (2005). Cognition and learning in massively multiplayer online games:  A critical approach. Unpublished Dissertation, University of WIsconsin, Madison, WI.

Second Life

Image via Wikipedia

Yea, I’m slow.  The announcement that Second Life would be adding a user-selected display name came out months ago, but I am just getting around to logging pixels on the topic of what this means for educators.

While I’m preparing to duck here, I have to say that, as a teacher, I actually welcome the idea of having display names and user names.  I realize that there are issues to work out, especially during the transition.  However, I think it would be particularly useful to be able to greet a student in world without having to sort through a cheat sheet to try to line up a bizarre Second Life name with a name on my class list — a list that is, inevitably not handy at the moment when I need it.  For class purposes, I would be able to require a student to use his or her real name when doing school-related work … at least if the student wanted to get credit for course participation for that day.  It might be useful to be able to switch that name more often than weekly, since I’m sure many students do not want to be identifiable when not at my educational build, but for selfish purposes, my aging mind welcomes the ability to remember one name per student.

My current work around has been to use the various roleplay combat system attachments or roleplay name changers, which bring about their own issues such as scripting lag and the association of school with gaming and roleplay activities.  The display name option is, you have to admit, more elegant.

It will no doubt take time for us to adjust.  I am fortunate in that I do not have any scripts currently that rely upon user names for security or other reasons, since I base my scripting on active group membership.  But, I am looking forward to this, and other recent updates announced over the summer.  For good or ill, Second Life remains one of the more accessible and usable user-created content platforms available to the average user.

Facebook has a fan page for people who study ancient history!!

History of the Ancient World (http://historyoftheancientworld.com) is a clearing house website for all things about the ancient Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, and Chinese.  Run by Peter Konieczny and Sandra Sadowski, it does not list any official sponsor.  Their curation efforts pull together a wide variety of online sources including articles, news, video, books, and games.

And now, they have added Facebook to the mix!  More than a thousand people have indicated that they “like” the Facebook page, which features highlights from the History of the Ancient World website.  Traffic in the discussion forum is sparse at this time, but several articles (some from scholarly sources) are being tagged by Facebook readers as interesting.

Take a look at how the ancient world is garnering new attention and drawing fans!