Bill MacKenty

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Mastering uncertainty: A predictive processing

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 06 - January 2023 at 01:48 PM (one year ago) 1025 views.

Why do we seek out and enjoy uncertain success in playing games? Game designers and researchers suggest that games whose challenges match player skills afford engaging experiences of achievement, competence, or effectance—of doing well...

Yet, current models struggle to explain why such balanced challenges best afford these experiences and do not straightforwardly account for the appeal of high- and low-challenge game genres like Idle and Soulslike games. In this article, we show that Predictive Processing (PP) provides a coherent formal cognitive framework which can explain the fun in tackling game challenges with uncertain success as the dynamic process of reducing uncertainty surprisingly efficiently. In gameplay as elsewhere, people enjoy doing better than expected, which can track learning progress. In different forms, balanced, Idle, and Soulslike games alike afford regular accelerations of uncertainty reduction. We argue that this model also aligns with a popular practitioner model, Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun for Game Design, and can unify currently differentially modelled gameplay motives around competence and curiosity.

Full article (locally hosted) here.

Linked article here.

Procedural fantasy weapon generator

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice Teaching Diary on 13 - December 2022 at 05:47 PM (one year ago) 631 views.

If you ever needed to procedurally generate a fantasy weapon with a history, backstory and special abilities, here's your code!

Here is the file on github, enjoy. I had quite bit of fun making this. Here's some sample output: 

Long ago, during the age of Destruction, Gnomish smiths forged Yosyur Wargebas's exquisite crossbow. The wood on this weapon is constructed in a spiral-shaped combination of dark wood and exotic wood, it is clear careful and extraordinary craftmanship went into the creation. This weapon is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, and is a veritable work of art. You have +2 on any rolls to pick up romantic partners while holding this weapon. This weapon is sentient. Moving your hand near it, you can feel a vague sense of neutral uncertainty. For 30 years, this weapon was used as a table ornament in the modest home of Prince Fumbledick, who was unaware of its importance.

Long ago, during the age of Light, Dwarven smiths forged Vosgrolin Bloodshield's flaming scimitar. Elegantly crafted in a spiral-shaped combination of semi-precious gems and rare metals, it is clear careful and extraordinary craftmanship went into the creation. This weapon is aflame, and does 4d6 fire damage. This weapon is sentient. Moving your hand near it, you can feel a vague sense of neutral pessimisticness. This weapon was once stolen by a goblin. When the litch who owned the weapon found the goblin, he punished the goblin severely, which is why goblin soup is now a popular dish amongst evil wizards and litches.

Long ago, during the age of Doom, Dwarven smiths forged Erirnoick Orehead's exquisite whip. Elegantly crafted in a helix-shaped combination of rare stone and semi-precious gems, it is clear careful and extraordinary craftmanship went into the creation. This weapon is a masterpiece of craftsmanship, and is a veritable work of art. You have +2 on any rolls to pick up romantic partners while holding this weapon. This weapon is sentient. Moving your hand near it, you can feel a vague sense of unaligned uncertainty. This weapon was once wielded by a young Kawian apprentice, who later became a fearsome warrior.

Different categories of games in education

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 14 - November 2022 at 03:19 AM (one year ago) 408 views.

Nuance and discernment, baby

I've used three different kinds of games in my classroom. 

The purpose of this blog post is to help teachers understand the differences, similarities, and characteristics of the three types of games. 

COTS - Commercial, Off the Shelf game. I've covered COTS games for a while. COTS games are designed for the mass market - they are designed for enjoyment, challenge, and fun. COTS games can often cost many millions of dollars to make, and a hit game (AAA title) can generate hundreds of millions of dollars. COTS games are increasingly being released for the personal computer and consoles. COTS games offer: 

  1. High production value (very high quality graphics and sound)
  2. Low technical problems and very strong technical support 
  3. Strong user communities (fan sites, active forums, etc...)
  4. Often these games have very active modding communities
  5. Work on a fairly new machines; older computers (more than 3 years) might have problems.
  6. Run locally (from the internal hard disk) 
  7. Have exceptionally good gameplay
  8. Very good tutorials, which check for understanding
  9. Adjust difficulty based on the players skills
  10. A game kids want to play at home 

Edutaintenment Many teachers are familiar with these titles - Millies Math House, Reader Rabbit, Sammy's Science House The hallmark of these games are kid-friendly graphics with gameplay that follows a "solve these problems and get to the next fun thing to do". Sometimes players are asked to do something like bowl for math problems. 

The general feel of the games is really fun math or reading worksheets. These games are fun, and build basic skills. They are valuable and good learning tools. In my context of games in education, these games generally don't fit well. They are a little to oriented to the drilling model (but who says drilling has to be no fun?). Characteristics of edutainment titles: 

  1. Marketed exclusively for schools / education
  2. Content-specific (titles focusing on math, reading, spelling, foreign language, etc)
  3. Marketed for specific age or grade levels
  4. ESRB ratings are often intended for general
  5. The back-story of the game is minimal
  6. Gameplay is generally segmented and measured around learning objectives 


Serious games Serious games are a relatively new phenomena (although people have been seriously playing games for a long time). Here's wikipedia's view on the matter; I like what they say. I think of serious games a single-topic, highly specific semi-simulations. Serious games have similar profiles: 

  1. They are usually web-based
  2. They usually have a very specific theme (peace in the mideast, health sim)
  3. They are not meant to be in-depth simulations, they are meant to model the most important dynamics of a system
  4. They are short-term games 
  5. They are deliberately designed to teach, explain an issue, or clarify the dynamics of an issue

Of course, playing  a game invites a healthy dissociation and leans heavily towards recreation. As much as I have tried over the years to integrate incredible student passion playing games and learning, I have failed.

If you really want cream-of-the-crop, high-level learning with games, ask kids to develop models and simulations. It takes a long time to do this well, but learning is magnificent. 

My kids want to use Unity3D for a science project

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 11 - April 2013 at 01:42 PM (11 years ago) 298 views.

From an excellent 6th grade science teacher comes this question. My answer is beneath. I have a couple guys in 6th grade who are dead set on doing a science fair project involving video games. Both guys want to use a program called Unity 3D. 

How in the hell do I turn this into a project with an authentic research question such as "What affect does __________ have on _________?" 

If you have any suggestions or could help me point these kids in a different direction, I would be most appreciative. This is tricky to get right. In a nutshell, you have to be much more strict about the instructional design than with other activities your kids might want to try. The problem is sadly universal. The boys will absolutely light up about this project. They will go full-nuclear in their enthusiasm, energy, and time with this. But at the end, there is a very good chance they will not meet your learning goals. 

They will tell you, brimming with excitement, "look! we made this guy's arm move, and we put in the radioactive monsters that blah blah blah". And you will ask, "have you met these learning goals? And they will pause. And there will be this uncomfortable silence, and then they will say "look at the tank we built!". This is the same thing when kids build a powerpoint presentation that is all fluff, and no content. So if you are willing to hammer them with oversight (and I mean a daily check-in against an obnoxiously clear rubric), then I say go for it. 

Also, please know this project will take longer than other projects because the kids are going to want to do everything, all at once. One last thing: If your kids do choose to use this learning tool, and they manage to model their science project as a simulation, it will be a very powerful learning experience. I can't think of a better way to learn than to create a simulation or a digital representation of an idea. I'm curious how you will proceed.

7th grade Minecraft Project

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 10 - June 2012 at 10:04 PM (12 years ago) 318 views.

The tl;dr version: Our 7th grade went on a field trip and re-created the visited city in Minecraft (learn about minecraft here). It didn't go as well as I hoped because I didn't plan well enough with all the teachers. Lots of awesome-sauce when kids started using the game (which is why we love games in education). 

A slightly more thoughtful description of the whole thing: 

Our 7th grade recently visited Zamosc (wikipedia-linkage here). It was a great trip. Everything about this trip was wonderfully planned; the learning prior, the planned exploration and interdisciplinary questions when the kids were in Zamosc, and the post-trip learning and projects. In many ways, this trip was a text-book example of how to really make the most of a field trip. One of the old post-trip activities was to build a cardboard building in the city. Here's the learning: Zamosc is a very rare (and is listed on UNESCO sites here) example of a perfectly planned and realized Renaissance town. The city was designed and built along the principals of the human body, with the brain or head being the palace, the heart being a cathedral, yadda yadda yadda - read more about Zamosc here). 

After hearing me blather about games and education, one of the teachers approached me and asked if we could try minecraft instead of the cardboard paper towel rolls. This project was her idea, not mine. So we decided to try building a city in minecraft that echoed the principals that we learned about in Zamosc. The kids were given rubrics, parents were notified, pre-built minecraft servers were purchased (Hey multiplay, how about some love for educational and non-profit folks with some educational pricing?). We bought user licenses (thank you, minecraft EDU), installed the clients on the kids computers, and set off! This project was run with four 7th grades (2 teachers, 2 classes each). Immediately, I noticed one class was taking off whilst the other wasn't quite. 

Coincidentally, I spent much more time planning with one teacher, and barely any with the other. Related to this, I didn't spend enough time with the middle school technology coach to plan this activity (I am the director of technology at our school). The coach was very helpful, but again, without clear planning, the project had some holes in the boat from the start. Right away we saw some some great stuff. In one class, kids learned very quickly, helped each other, and began building. Whenever we use computer games (or any game) in education, the enthusiasm and energy goes nuclear. Especially with our boys, their engagement and involvement was a wonderful thing to see. In the other class we ran into technical problems (I'll get to that in a moment), and some "what do we do now" questions. The kids built their cities fairly well. Based on our criteria, it was clear they understood the principals of Renaissance city ideals and had lovingly built their cities to reflect the same. By that measure, this project was a fantastic success. Here are four screengrabs that don't do any justice to the hard work of our kids. However, as noted above, I cant really walk away and hand anyone a trophy. 

Next year? Maybe. But this project had all the classic marks of a first-time run. In the interest of sharing our success and failures, here's the list-o-things-you-should-think-about: 1. Classic: plan, plan, plan. I walked this through with one teacher, and not the other. It showed. I also didn't include the technology coach enough. Big oops. 2. Superflat world worked well for us, we used creative mode. 3. Using a company that rents pre-setup servers was a win for us (all we worried about was bandwidth) BUT.... 4. Better to have a separate server for each class - much easier to manage. So with four 7th grades, I should of had four separate servers. 5. The only plug-in's I used were noTNT and one that stopped lava. 6. I didn't whitelist, and I should have. We had some vandalism that took away from the fun. 7. Kids love games. like, REALLY love them. Watching the time, energy, and motivation they poured into this project was satisfying. If I had put even an hour of more planning time into this, it would of been a home run. 

Other teachers noticed this project, I hope to have more takers next year!

Quivering Communist Zombie Space Death - Part 1

Posted in Educational Tech Design Games in education Practical Advice Text-based gaming on 06 - May 2011 at 07:58 PM (13 years ago) 351 views.

I'm developing a new game, Quivering Communist Zombie Space Death. It's a text based game with an integrated (hardcoded) space system. What this game means, and why I'm developing it, is what this post is about.

Quivering Communist Zombie Space Death (herein qczsd) is a game where players take on the role of humans desperately trying to save the earth from quivering communist zombies in space. The game is deeply educational, deeply funny, satirical, blatantly ribald, and of course most of all, fun. Basic mechanics are all textual! The player creates a persona (over-the-top stereotypical), get's a ship, and flys on different missions to take out the zombies. There is a leveling up mechanism, and "buy better crap for your ship dynamic". The zombies will be AI bots, and there will be all sorts of funny in-space dangers.

Here's the website:

I'll be blogging frequently about qczsd - talking about my journey of learning as I create this new game. Let's start, though, with the first task to make this game.

We are using trusty pennmush, which can be found by clicking here and hspace, which can be found by clicking here.

Let's start off with the first student assignment. Let's see where they go with this one:

We are going to work with an accurate model of our solar system. What does this mean? It means that we are going to try to accurately model the planets, their distance from one another, mass, and even their moons. We of course also need to know their location from each other. What we are NOT modeling is orbits and gravity (I'll write the "difference between fun and realistic" post later).

So, finding the names, mass, and distance of our solar-system planets is as easy as a simple google search. It might help to cross-reference them so we know the numbers are right. But we will eventually need to represent the location of the planets on a XYZ grid. Here's where it get's kind of interesting.

How do astronomers (you know, the dolts who didn't even see the communist zombies coming) measure and represent distance in space? What scale of measurement do they use? How do they represent mass? Let's start with a simple assumption (that might be wrong). Let's say the very center of the sun is 0,0,0. Where would the center of the sun's closest planet, Mercury, be? Students should answer these questions and have the answers in the comment of this blog post as soon as they can.

Interview with scholastic - Play to Learn

Posted in Educational Tech Design Games in education Practical Advice on 16 - February 2011 at 05:36 PM (13 years ago) 318 views.

Many thanks to the folks at Scholastic for this great story about computer games and learning (pdf here). I was interviewed for this, and it's always nice for people to ask what you think.

I'm getting my "first year as a tech director" stuff out of the way, and then I plan on aggressively adding games to the learning at my school, and evangelizing games and learning here in Poland. For the curious, I've set up a doorway portal for games and learning here.

Thank you Baruch

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 28 - April 2010 at 03:16 AM (14 years ago) 334 views.

Thanks to all the great students at Baruch today - we had a great presentation about games and learning. Here’s some links for you:

1. the presentation: (also embedded below)
2. Rules of Play
3. Marc Prensky
4. James Gee
5. David Williamson-Shaffer
6. Bartle Test
7. Nick Yee

Computer games during the summer

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 15 - April 2010 at 05:24 PM (14 years ago) 309 views.

Interested reader Trent asked:

The only question that I have is how would this be used outside of the classroom? I know of several way that it can be used in the classroom, I am trying to focus on Visual Data Analysis outside.
For example, how can kids learn using gaming during the summer.

I answer here:

Your question deserves a lengthy response, and I am short of time at the moment. However, I hope to point you in the right direction.

Games are educational in different ways. I think the best way to use computer games to learn is through guided instruction. For example, a teacher would present an idea, students would spend some time in the game world exploring a specific idea or concept, and then the teacher and students would construct meaning from the experience through some sort of discussion or project.

There are other people (who are much smarter than I), who argue merely playing games is educational - Google James Gee for some thinking on this topic. To be honest, there are different types of games, different types of learning, and many different ways we define "educational". It get's a little tricky, but you get the idea.

So to specifically answer your question, games could be used during the summer with a mentor or guide to help guide the student as they play. This is a key point in my opinion - if kids "just play" then any measurable academic achievement will be hard to come by. However (and this is important) there is a hell of a lot more to learning than what we can measure on some test.

In your question you specifically ask about visual data analysis. All games represent their "worlds" visually and graphically. In Eve Online, there is a little green sphere that represents my shield power, and another the represents my hull strength. I've sadly watched many times as these little green graphs have turned yellow, and then red, and then I learn about floating through space.

So here's an idea: pick ANY commercial off the shelf game, and pick apart it's UI. I would ask my students:

1. what is this graphic representing?
2. how is this graphic convey meaning?
3. why is this graphic in the specific space it is in?
4. how does this graphic change?

And then, once your students have begun to see behind the curtain of the game UI,

ask them to redesign the game UI using some free tool and explain how their choices represent meaning graphically.

oh, and by the way, if you're serious about visual data, you need to grok Edward Tufte. Really. I'm not kidding. go to one of his conferences. It will be the best $300.00 you have ever spent on professional development.

Frontline’s digital nation documentary

Posted in Educational Tech Design Leadership Games in education Practical Advice Teaching Diary on 03 - February 2010 at 08:37 PM (14 years ago) 364 views.

I sent this email to my faculty - in the high school and elementary school:

Last night PBS aired a remarkable documentary about digital life in 2010.  I found the documentary truly, truly, exceptional. I would really appreciate if you could take the time to watch this - perhaps this evening or this weekend.

Last week I sent you a link to a study that stated the average child spends 10.4 hours a day using some type of media. I think we could all benefit from a discussion about how technology is changing the way our children learn, think, and see the world.

I hope to lead a more thoughtful discussion about computers, media, and learning this year. Until then, I would really appreciate if you could watch this documentary.

Here is a reply I received from a teacher:

I did watch the Frontline documentary, “Digital Nation,” last evening, and I must say that it was, as is customary of Frontline, very incisive and comprehensive.  Many parts of the program, particularly those addressing the effects of technology on young people, were very unnerving.  The situation in Korea should be seen as cautionary to the western world, particularly to us here in America with our almost idolatrous love for all things technological.  That poor Korean mother has already “lost” her son to computer games, as far as I’m concerned because the son as lost his soul to the machines.  I felt both sad and angry when I saw that part.

For my part, as an educator and specifically as a language educator, I have very mixed feelings about the use of technology in the classroom.  On one hand, it has made it possible to access, literally, the world with the click of a mouse.  But I am equally concerned about the “losses”:  the loss of true attentiveness; the loss of the printed word; the loss of community and relationships and the increase of anonymity and the impersonal.  “Digital Nation” posed many, hard questions about this but offered no easy answers.  That’s where we come in.  But it is very important that those questions get asked.

Best way to learn programming for a 16 year old? Build a game….

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice Teaching Diary on 28 - April 2009 at 05:00 PM (15 years ago) 328 views.

I work at a school for gifted kids.  One of my great joys is having long, highly detailed technical talks with the kids.  When I first started working at this school, I was shocked when I engaged in a 45 minute debate about cross-side scripting with a 7th grader (13 years old).  I mean, this kid REALLY understood his stuff.

Yesterday I had another such conversation. One of our students is just eons ahead of his peers as a programmer and geek. He generally likes to frolic with low-level code, device drivers, and small servers.  He has a well-reasoned philosophy that light-weight, locally compiled code connected to the cloud is better than scripting languages and monolithic programs.  Really neat stuff.  We don’t see eye-to-eye about everything, but from a geek point of view, he is a delight. He is, in every sense, an implementor.

So, part of discussion yesterday was around “what to do” with a program. Like, what direction to take.  After a few seconds thought, I told him to write a game! As I reflect, almost all of my programming knowledge and experience came from designing games, hacking games, and rolling my own game. Even now, I occasionally hack at a multiplayer text-based game and continue to learn. Time and complexity be damned! I’m sure he will write something really fun, and I can’t wait to play with it.

This is the magic I see in computer games - observe the time, enthusiasm, and energy they spend with computers. It really is intriguing.

Now. A Practical Note (tm) - Making / modding a game takes a long long time in my opinion, not for in-class work. However, as long as there are good guidelines for outcomes (so the kid doesn’t spend 10 hours making a flaming sword with an accurate heat ratio) hacking at a game is a delightful way to learn.

Board games in the classroom?

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 30 - December 2008 at 11:22 PM (15 years ago) 282 views.

Another beautiful question:

Hello, I am a fifth grade teacher and would like to use games to help the students learn. My school, though, does not have the resources for computer
based games. I was wondering if their were any simulation board games that I could use. I was thinking something similar to Avalon Hills Blitzkrieg. I
have heard of some that teach the pioneer life. I have been scouring the internet for help but have come up with nothing. I thank you for any help.

My answer:

Hey Craig!

Nice to meet you.  Actually, board games have more educational value than computer games, in that players often see the mechanics behind game outcomes, whereas computer games people only see outcomes. 

Any teacher can make anything education (almost.) The key thing is to ask the kids to think about what they are doing.  So you can play great games, but if you don’t ask the kids to reflect on the experience, then while minimally educational, they won’t get as much out of it.  I hope this makes sense - it’s the basic “how games in education work” message I’ve been pushing for years now. 

Create essential questions about XYZ. Teach the kids about XYZ, play a board game, reflect on the experience, build assessment tools. This is bread and butter teacher stuff.  The game will get your kids very excited and involved. Make sure they know all the rules, and ask them how this game is (and isn’t) like your topic of study.  Ask them to simulate certain scenarios.

I love that you are looking at war games - fun and exciting. Here’s a list I think you can use with 5th graders:

1. Diplomacy
2. Axis and Allies (there are different theaters - all work)
3. Risk

There are more, of course - but as long as you use strong instructional design, you’ll be fine.

Good luck, and please keep me in the loop.

2008 Conference Notes Games in Education Conference

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 19 - August 2008 at 07:45 PM (15 years ago) 293 views.

The Right Circumstances for Games to work in Education (1.8mb pdf file)


Railroad Tycoon III in the classroom

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 19 - July 2008 at 06:59 AM (15 years ago) 309 views.

I got this great question and thought I’d answer it here:

Wow, great site. I teach 8th graders and avidly incorporate games into my
classroom and in an after school strategy gaming club. We play Civ II,
Stronghold, and Medieval Total War II.

This year I will be teaching a class of 10th grade American History and am
excited to use the demo of Railroad Tycoon III (official site) with the students. Do you
know of any lesson plans or links to sites that give suggestions on how best to incorporate Rail Tycoon 3 into the classroom. Thanks so much.

First of all, my congratulations to you! It sounds like you are pretty advanced.  I applaud your efforts to use games in your classroom. I’m running an after-school program next year for text-based games - maybe we can compare notes. I suspect your strategy gaming club is more fun, though. I once ran a micro-armour club after-school club and the kids loved it (despite the complexity of a paper-and-pen rule set). 

First of all, some lessons on railroads and the Transcontinental Railway (via this google search) :

1. General lesson plans for the industrial revolution (but not directly tied into Rail Road Tycoon III)
2. PBS Railroad lesson plans
3. Discovery Railroad lesson plans
4. Edsite Transcontinental railroad lessons
5. Another decent looking lesson for railroads - with an emphasis on reading

The second part of your question, “links to sites that give suggestions on how best to incorporate Rail Tycoon 3 into the classroom” can be answered here:

When I’m using games in the classroom, I don’t think ” I have a game, how can I use it to teach INSERT LESSON OBJECTIVE HERE ?”.  Instead, I think “I have to teach LESSON OBJECTIVE HERE, are games the best choice, and will they do the trick?”.  I’m sure you are using games wisely - but please read some basic criteria I’ve discussed before decided to use games in your classroom.  And please remember, the single most important part of using games in your teaching is instructional design. As I often say, if you stick a kid in front of a game for an hour, and expect something magical to happen, you are going to be disappointed.

You are teaching 10th grade American History, and I’m sure some part of that teaching will involve the transcontinental railroad. In New York State, there are plenty of standards you could use. The cool thing about Railroad Tycoon series is the simulation element - so you could ask your kids to set up some “what if” scenarios, and perhaps incorporate the game into a bigger role-play in your classroom.

You could also use Railroad Tycoon to talk about economic development during this period.  From wikipedia:

The objective of the game is to build and manage a railroad company by laying track, building stations, and buying and scheduling trains. The game models supply and demand of goods and passengers as well as a miniature stock market on which players can buy and sell stock of their own or competing companies.

I hope I’ve answered your question - again, I’d like to offer my congratulations to you, and I’m eager to hear how Railroad Tycoon works for you!

The right circumstances for games in education to work

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 24 - April 2008 at 03:35 AM (16 years ago) 321 views.

That games in education “work” is without question. When used properly, games can uniquely motivate, teach, and encourage our students. If you really use games effectively, you can motivate poor performing or under-performing students; you can help bright students ask important questions and relevant questions about themselves and their world; you can help gifted kids simulate highly complex systems.

However, it is not simply a matter of sticking a kid in front of a computer game and hoping for the best.  There are a specific set of circumstances which must coalesce in order for games to work.

The Right Teacher

A good teacher must plan a lesson, measure learning, and ask the right question at the right time. Using computer games for learning, a teacher must have special clarity concerning learning objectives, scope, and assessment. But the teacher must also have strong technical acumen, a sense of adventure, and positive experience playing games.

Asking the right questions and setting context before the game is played is important. The right teacher will probably understand regularly interrupting game play is a bad idea. After the game is over (perhaps in the next class), it’s critical to debrief and discuss the learning experience.

Being a geek helps.

The Right Students

When planned well, games work for 90% of the students I’ve encountered (of all ability levels).  However, there is a group of students who simply don’t “do” computer games - no big deal, it’s simply not their thing.

Gifted and talented students require special mention here.

First of all, when I talk about gifted and talented students, I’m talking about the top 5% of the top 5%.  These students are quite rare, but you must understand something about this kid: they grok patterns REALLY quickly. And as we know, games are essentially really fun patterns (here and here). They also seem to have higher-than-average motivation to learn. 

I’ve not yet found a clear and consistent way for gifted kids to use games to enhance their learning - however, there is great promise in the modding community, and in the building of their own games. I wrote a brief piece about my confusion how to use games with talented kids. But I am increasingly aware that building complex systems fits well into the gifted realm (and games model complex system really well).

The Right Parents

It’s ok if your parents are clueless about technology, but you might run into some trouble with parents who are afraid of computers or computer games.  This is where clear planning plays an important role. If you can approach a parent, and clearly explain the activity, and demonstrate learning objectives, most parents will see that this isn’t a waste of time. It also helps if you’ve spent some building relationships with parents and at parent groups.

As if it needs to be said, this is an area where your choice of game, and your learning objectives will be tested. Most parents have a finely tuned bullshit meter. If you say “we are playing World of Warcraft and the kids are learning about swords”. You will have earned the right for them to complain to you and your administrator.

The Right Game

I have an opinion that the best type of game for use in education are COTS games (more).  Not everyone shares my opinion, for perfectly good reasons. However, as you read on, please understand I’m giving you my opinion - that COTS games are the best choice for games in education.

A game has to be a good game before it can be a good educational game. This is why I shun edutainment titles, and games designed especially for education (there are some magnificent exceptions).

This isn’t to say there isn’t value in edutainment titles, just not the kids of education I’m talking about here. So here is what makes a game educational:

1) The game has an educationally-accessible context (historical, contemporary, hard science-fiction)
2) Game play has genuinely educationally-accessible content (Age of Empires has a great educational context, but lousy educational gameplay)
3) Success depends on intelligent choices and decisions (not twitch)
4) Failure exists and teaches when it happens. It is possible to lose
5) The tutorial is crystal clear, and checks for understanding
6) There are multiple victory conditions
7) The feedback model is short - students can quickly see how a decision effects a larger whole picture
8) The game becomes increasingly challenging and difficult

You have to get four things right when you use a computer game:

It has to work right and well.  Technical problems are disastrous in games in education. Short classes and limited technical support make technical problems a serious issue.

It has to be fun. It doesn’t get boring.  A guiding mantra should be “if it’s not fun, why do it?”.  This is why we always think about the game first and then educational potential.

It has to be challenging at different levels of abilities.  Some students are naturally interested in technology and games, others are not.  As much as something which is very difficult can cause problems, so can something which is very easy.  Levels of difficulty help alleviate this situation.

The game need to be accessible for different types of players (ala Bartle player types). Explorers, achievers, griefers, and socializers.  There should be something in the game for everyone.

The Right Administrator

If you are working in a school with colossally stupid administrators, you will not be able to use games in your classroom.  However, I’ve found most administrators are not stupid. Most of them are open to new methodologies, but demand some sort of evidence or plan. 

I often talk about building credibility and trust with administrators. It is important to build trust with your building leaders. Games in education are a novel thing,and frought with potential failure. Most administrators should approach the topic with a measure of distrust. Thus it is up to the teacher to provide clear learning objectives and clear plan for using games. 

The Right Support

The right support comes from the teacher who is using the games in class.  In my experience, schools often have little technical support.  If there is a technical problem, the teacher must be able to solve the issue in class. It’s really that simple.  I suppose I could of put this in the right teacher section, but support deserves it’s own mention.

Some answers to some common questions:

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 17 - July 2007 at 07:19 PM (16 years ago) 303 views.

1.  How can teachers who haven’t yet used video games in the classroom get started?

Play them!  I suggest you snuggle into a comfortable chair and try your hand at ANY of the following titles:

Sim City (any version)
Civilization (there are 4 versions, play any of them)
Age of Mythology (any version)
Age of Empires (any version)
Muzzy Lane - the Calm and the Storm

I’d stick with these. There are a bunch of games, which although quite popular, would be spectacularly inappropriate for the classroom.

2. What if there’s only one computer?

This is a common scenario in many schools. I would shy away from using the above games in a one-computer classroom for a couple of reasons:

  1. It’s tremendously distracting for other students
  2. Games in the classroom work when we buffer the learning activity with questions and discussions before and after. This would be difficult with only a few students.
  3. Three or four kids can play around a single computer - but no more. I think managing time would be tough (if each group played for 40 minutes).

I would however, strongly recommend a computer lab for these activities (we could talk about the dysfunctional relationship many schools have with their computer labs if you want). If you have jigsaw learning games might work in a one-computer classroom.

3. What are some examples of clear learning outcomes for using games such as Civilization, Sims or Sim City in the classroom?

With Civilization, there are clear connections between science, growth, transportation, civil rights, history, and war. In Sims there are clear connections between working, education, and lifestyle.  In Age of Empires, we can see the relationship between kings, peasants…and we can ask kids to think about economics (cost/benefit, limited resources, etc…)

The truth is, any teacher can create good connections with these games…it’s about planning and assessment.

4. What are some of the most popular games teachers are using today?

Hmm. Popular? I’d say Sim City is probably the king of the hill. As we investigate games in education, Civilization emerges as a top contender, and Muzzy Lane’s title, the Calm and the Storm, is a great title (Muzzy Lane is an important step forward for games in education - I’ll tell you why in another blog post). I would also look at Age of Empires series.

5. What are the top three to five tips you would offer teachers who’d like to start using games to enrich curriculum?

1. Plan
2. Plan
3. Plan


The more specific you are with your learning objectives, the higher chance you have to succeed.  I think is true for any learning activity, not just games!

10 easy ways to miss the boat

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 17 - July 2007 at 06:06 PM (16 years ago) 300 views.

I encounter many teachers who are interested in using games in their classroom.  Most of them ask me how they can use games, and the nitty-gritty details surrounding lesson structure, assessment, and the like.

I decided to approach this questions backwards - what would be the best way to make sure games don’t work?!

1) Don’t plan anything. Just buy a random game and make the kids play it.

2) Don’t ask any important questions before they start playing.

3) Make sure you don’t connect playing the game with other learning activities - the kids should be isolated and disconnected from learning.

4) Ensure you don’t have clear learning objectives - be as foggy as possible.

5) Make sure you won’t assess the instructional activity

6) Choose a game that isn’t fun, or is a thinly veiled drill-and-kill activity. don’t use a COTS game.

7) Make sure you choose a game that does not allow saving and restarting from save points

8) Make sure you don’t talk to your technician about using games. Make sure you don’t check that the game works on your computers.

9) Under no circumstances should you play the game. No way. Make sure you don’t know anything about the game.

10) Choose a game that only allows one way of playing - make sure you VIGOROUSLY squelch any exploration or curiosity about the game.

Using Civilization in class

Posted in Games in education Practical Advice on 07 - July 2007 at 08:47 PM (about 17 years ago) 303 views.

Got a great email question about using civilization in the classroom:

  Could you give me any details you have on how I could devise a programme
  that allows students to do this, or could you put me in contact with a
  school that has done this? I am sure there is much more to it than
  explaining the game and then letting them play for a few lessons, so please
  help me make it as worthwhile and brilliant as possible.

The key point is objective clarity: what do you want your students to know?  That Civilization is a brilliant learning tool goes without saying it’s fantastic, and your students will be highly motivated and engaged.

1. I want to enrich student understanding of history by _______________ . (describe the activity)
2. When students are done with this educational activity they will understand _____________ . (be very specific - what will they know?)
3. I will prove they know more about ____________ by ______________ . (assessment)
4. Before they start playing, I will ask them the following Key Questions:

5. After they are done playing (about 10 minutes before class is over) I’ll ask them to answer the questions again.

Here’s some specific suggestions about actually using Civilization:

1. Make sure everything works - the game is installed, no technical hiccups. Make sure the kids can save

2. Tell the kids when they first play “when you first start playing, you are going to be very confused. You will only be confused for about 30 to 45 minutes, and then you will understand how this works, so please be patient”.

3. Attach a computer to a LCD projector and play the game while the kids watch. Make sure to vocalize EVERYTHING you are doing ie: “Now I’m going to start building a granary…I’m going to click on the civopedia link to see what benefits I get from a granary.”

4. If you think your kids can handle friendly competition, set up a civilization score chart

5. Don’t interrupt game play - let them get into “flow”. Give them 10 minute warning and then 5 minute warning prior to the activity ending

6. Allow for open reactions and responses - this is why you got into teaching, yes? To help students make connections about themselves and the world around them.

If I may direct your attention to some relevant blog posts:

I wish you the best of luck, and please don’t hesitate to ask more questions!!