Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Minecraft Survival Mode Competition: Using Gamification & Game-based Learning to Teach Societal Needs

Welcome to GBL Airlines… My name is Jon Spike, and I’ll be your pilot for the flight. We are expecting clear skies and smooth flying to our final destination. In case of emergency, your desks can be used as a flotation device. Please be sure to stow your backpacks under your seat and keep your seats in their full upright positions.”

I spoke the words in a darkened classroom, with two rows of desks arranged in lines of three extending to the back of the room. From a distance, the congested students appeared to be aboard a commercial aircraft, and most definitely in “Coach.” I stood at the front, giving my best impression of a seasoned commercial jet pilot. Behind me, a video playing on the projector revealed the inside of an airplane from a first-person view.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re currently approaching 30,000… oh, oh no. What? Where did he… Ummm, ladies and gentlemen, we appear to have lost our copilot. We should be fine if… what? No! How is that...? Okay, ladies and gentlemen, we have lost both pilots. Please prepare yourself for impact. Tuck your head between your knees and cover the back of your neck. We’re going to make a water landing. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Prepare for impact…

As the students watched the above video and listened to my voice, the situation became clear: they were going down, and the world they would enter was Minecraft: Survival Mode. Once the plane crashed, the view switched to a first-person view of a Minecraft avatar swimming back to the surface, seeing an uninterrupted biome waiting to be colonized.

And here lies the rub - two rival societies have emerged from the wreckage of the plane crash, and they cannot agree upon the rules, regulations, and goals for their new utopia. So what happens? An inevitable competition to determine who can create the greatest society. Let the games begin…

Before we delve into the details of the game, let me clarify a few finer points. I have done the great “Minecraft Survival Competition” for two years now. Both years started with me crashing an imaginary aircraft with my students aboard, yes, but the first year had no built-in competition. Rather, the only goal was to create a functioning society. We designed rules, punishments, chose a government, and tried to survive, but nothing more. To say it did not go very well is an understatement. Students stole from each other mercilessly, destruction of property ran rampant, and students did not band together very much at all, except with their friends.

I stepped back from the grand experiment and asked where I went astray. I had asked students to work together and live in harmony. In addition, I offered suggestions on how they might achieve such a place. What went wrong?

For starters, the students had no definition nor any incentive to create a “great” society. Instead, they ran with their version of a great society - one where they had enough resources for themselves and their “pack,” and where they got to have the fun they wanted. The only incentive, perhaps, was goodwill toward others, and sadly that did not quite have the pull I had hoped. For the next year, I realized I had to fix those two issues. Students must have an incentive, and they must have a definition of what denotes a “great” society.

To define a great society, I first toyed with the idea of letting students submit criteria and go from there. However, I felt like this might take a bit too much of our prep time, so I instead took my main goals for what I wanted students to achieve and what was realistic to achieve in the game, and went from there. Here are the achievements and their “points” below:

Points Awarded/Deducted
Judge Ruling (Yes/No & How)
Person dies
No (unless extreme circumstance)
Observed griefing (being disrespectful to fellow players, stealing, destroying, etc)
Yes - if judge sees griefing or has reason to believe griefing occurred
Best system of food production
Yes - winner determined by instructor panel
Best housing network (number of houses, number of people with shelter, etc)
Yes - winner determined by instructor panel
Best SINGLE structure (creativity, design, usefulness, etc)
Yes - winner determined by instructor panel
Best preservation of resources (trees, animals, space taken up in world, etc)
Yes - winner determined by instructor panel
Greatest Society Name
yes - winner determined by expanded panel

As shown here, not only do students have a DEFINED understanding of what we have defined as a “great” society, but they also understand what is at stake. Every death, every effort toward conserving resources, and every decision they make comes with associated point values for their team. Unlike the previous year, their actions could help their society climb closer to having the single greatest structure, or cause the senseless death of a classmate. With a small ounce of competitive gamification of Minecraft, students had motivation to create a great society and look out for each other. In previous years, students had asked other students for food, supplies, and help surviving the night, and had been ignored. This year, students realized that they must not only be concerned with their own survival, but also the survival of others. Each death was another point lost, and every wasted moment gave up ground to the other class in terms of the points for creating the greatest food production, building network, and more.

Before my eyes, I saw students creating low-income housing, free-to-use chests of supplies, community gardens, and much more. Neighborhoods popped up, and classroom discussions about how to handle resource shortages and unruly citizens took place. At one point, we held a trial, complete with eyewitnesses for both the prosecution and defense, along with closing statements from the accused and the accuser. The whole class served as jury, and the student found guilty agreed that his sentence was fitting for his actions. All told, three students were put in the jail during the exercise - two by teacher observation of “griefing” (deliberately causing destruction or harm to other players and their creations), and one by the aforementioned trial.

For those interested in running their own Minecraft Survival Competition, I have created a Google Folder with some helpful starter resources. The contents of the folder include:

  • Minecraft Survival Mode Rules
  • Minecraft Survival Mode Template (for students to explain WHY they deserve to win a certain category)
  • Minecraft Survival Mode Student Response Sample (for modeling how previous students have responded)
  • Creating a Society Google Presentation (great visual for aiding in a discussion about what a society may need)
  • Minecraft Plane Crash Video (A neat way to begin the “story” of your Survival Competition)

Although this particular Minecraft Unit went well, I am even more excited for what the future holds in terms of game-based learning and exploring the topic of designing a cohesive society. Recently, a game called “Eco” from Strange Loop Games met its Kickstarter goal of $100,000. The game promises to take the idea of forming a society based on utilizing the land and resources to prevent a horrific catastrophe by working together in a voxel world. The game starts with the same premise as the Minecraft Survival Competition and creates more concrete means of designing a community, including the built-in features of creating laws, monitoring resource usage, and developing a functioning economy based on both currency and labor contracts. The possibilities of such a game are endless and really help students see how their decisions impact others in their community.

Games present us with the unique ability to take a perspective, assume a role, and empathize with one another. Minecraft and Eco are two promising means to help your students see their significance in society - take the leap and try one of them out!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Video Games as Experiential Texts: A Gone Home Tale

Before I even begin to start talking about my experiences utilizing Gone Home, an exploratory video game, as a literary text in a high school classroom, I must give a hearty shoutout to Paul Darvasi, the man who inspired me to pursue the unit. His blog, Ludic Learning, is a must-read if you are interested in an in-depth discussion of games as more than just entertainment consumables, but rather vehicles for higher-order thinking conversations and meaningful curricular tie-ins. Many of the pieces I will discuss are inspired from his works, and I will give credit accordingly.

To be honest, giving credit to Mr. Darvasi is a good way to begin, because it was his blog that brought me to this idea. I started following the #gbl (Game-based learning) hashtag on Twitter because games have always been a large part of my life. I can still recall watching my brother play Chrono Trigger and Earthbound, becoming absolutely engrossed in the storylines and gameplay. I loved books - don’t get me wrong - but these stories felt so alive because the decisions my brother and I made impacted how we experienced the story. Narrative now plays such an incredible role in commercial games, and it’s because we, as a society, still demand to hear a great tale to be told.

After reading Paul’s blog, I had the chance to pitch the idea of teaching Gone Home to my Chief Technology & Information Officer, Curriculum Directors, and also a teacher who I thought would be a good fit to co-teach the game with me. Everyone gave me incredible support, looking past the “video game” stigma and seeing a chance to let students analyze a different medium. I thought of the best way to tell the story, and I decided the way that makes the most sense is to break it up into the various area readers might want to find out more about regarding the unit. To honor this, I have broken up the body of this post into three sections: The Unit Plan and Setup, Assessments, and Student/Teacher Feedback


When I met with the co-operating teacher, the first determination we made was what outcomes we wanted to see from our students. Our first determination (since it was a combination literature/Science Fiction course), was that we needed all students to demonstrate textual analysis involving a collection of examples of literary terms found in Gone Home. The best part is that the games is absolutely FILLED with characterization, symbols, themes, allusions, tone, mood, and influential setting decisions that make for wonderful analysis opportunities. We offered students a variety of options such as: finding Science Fiction allusions, analyzing how different objects in the house symbolize characters, and how the setting influenced the narrative and storytelling. This would be their prime task moving forward in the unit.

The next question was a bit tricky - how do we assess their analysis of Gone Home as a text? Thankfully, Paul Darvasi again came to the rescue. In one of his blog posts (found HERE), Darvasi discussed how he had students “annotate” the game by taking screenshots that correlated to their research. We loved the idea, but decided to take it one step further. Instead of having students collect the screenshots in one document and writing an essay in another, we realized it would be better to have the students reflect right in their annotation template. In the screenshot below, you can see what it looks like in action. If you would like a Google Doc Template of the Gone Home Analysis Template, click HERE. As mentioned before, it is adapted from Paul’s similar analysis template found HERE.

In addition, we used Screencastify and Quicktime Screen Recorder (on a Mac) for students who wanted to differentiate their analysis and provide a video reflection on the artifacts they found that helped characterize the important cast members, identify themes emerging from the text, and connect the text to other Sci-fi pieces they had analyzed previously. Students were able to record themselves walking around the house, picking up various items, all while using their built-in microphones or earbud mics to record their verbal thoughts about the artifacts. It made for some great final products that enhanced the overall experience. Once again, props to Paul Darvasi for inspiring this idea through his student who chose to give a video game review of Gone Home during their unit. Although we did not have nearly as many students choose this option (I think it has something to do with students hating to hear their own voice), it was a nice change-up to the typical textual analysis.

Unit Plan & Setup

We’ve talked assessment, but what did the day-in, day-out look like with our Gone Home unit? As Paul Darvasi mentions in his epic Gone Home blog, the first step is transferring the concept of analyzing a textual piece to analyzing a visual medium. Thankfully, I had some experience in the past with this concept. When I taught 11th grade Composition, we used Pixar animated short films as a large-group and small-group text to hone our film analysis skills before “reading” The Dark Knight as our film analysis group text. We utilized tons of different Pixar shorts: "Gerry’s Game", "Day and Night", "La Luna", and "Paperman", just to name a few. Students first watched the shorts to take in the raw story and characters. From there, they took part in a few rounds of analytical re-watching, a great skill that students don’t always look forward to doing (ask students to re-read an entire novel, and you get glares. Ask them to re-watch a well-developed, meaningful animated short, and they’re in before you finish the sentence). Students took screenshots of key moments reflecting characterization, theme, and symbols, and took copious notes on their reactions to these moments.

With this method of annotation in mind, the cooperating teacher and I realized we must make sure our students had this type of note-taking and visual annotation skills in place. We started by working together the first two days to work on how to capture significant objects, moments, journal entries, and much more. Much like Darvasi did with his students, we surveyed the initial rooms of the Greenbriar Mansion from Gone Home, with students bringing up what they found in a 15-minute scavenger hunt of sorts. We discussed what significance a number of trophies for the older sister (our character) might have to the younger sister, who appeared to have more eclectic and creative objects associated with her. We pulled together impressions from our own relationships with siblings to begin to define why the game designers chose certain objects to introduce us to the Greenbriar family in the beginning, and set the tone for the rest of the unit. The students now knew their task - become a documentarian and historian of this family, both collecting significant artifacts and interpreting their role in the family’s complex narrative. We gave students enough time to play the game and even replay the game, which I like to call the “Replay with New Lens” approach. How do students approach a text with their knowledge of the plot, characters, and themes? What moments change with your advanced knowledge? What objects take on a new meaning?

Finally, the students filled out their screenshot and analysis matrix in whatever method they best saw fit. Some students collected all of their photos and then reflected at the end, while others collected and reflected simultaneously. We had a few cumulative talks about their “found items,” but what I loved about this unit was the level of individuality and freedom given to the students. Instead of us telling them where to go or what to collect, they were free to experience the story and choose what they found to be significant.

Student & Teacher Feedback

One of the most important steps a teacher should take is to gather student feedback after each unit - what worked well? What needs to be tweaked? I find this information invaluable - it helps me jumpstart the revision process for future classes. After the Gone Home unit, the cooperating teacher and I surveyed the students to gauge their thoughts about the unit.

One of the most fascinating results surrounded the students’ ability to “read” Gone Home like a text. In the question shown below, 43 percent of the students said it was easier to analyze than a traditional short story, novel, or film. Forty-eight percent found it to be comparable, and only nine percent found it more difficult. I think these numbers show how our youth culture responds to visual literacy and multisensory narratives, as this form of storytelling has really just begun to take off. Other questions regarding whether the characters and setting were easier or harder to analyze yielded similar results, showing that the game provided a text rife with literary elements, deep character portraits, and a rich narrative.

Another one of my favorite responses from the students related to their opinion about games in education. The students were asked if they thought video games belonged in classrooms, and 48 percent responded that they COULD have a place in education if done correctly. Exactly zero students said games should play a large part in education, and 13 percent said that games did NOT belong in education. I definitely concur with the students - games are not always the best medium for “living” a skill, but they definitely can be a meaningful platform if implemented effectively for the task at hand.

As for the teacher feedback, all I can say is that my co-teacher asked what other games I thought provided literary elements in a well-told narrative immediately after we finished. She marveled at the students’ positive response and enjoyed that they were able to analyze a new medium outside of the standard text and film methods students have seen for years.

To close, I ask you to consider how we can create unique experiences for students to help them hone a skill or gain appreciation for a narrative. In what ways can we immerse students in content, regardless of subject area? Students want to take an active role in their learning, so what methods can we employ to make this a reality?

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Five Great Games on the Chrome Store for Applying Educational Skills

One of the pitfalls of educational games is that they are often content tucked inside of a mindless arcade game, trying to convey information and reward the end user with a carrot - such as being able to place a piece, fire a weapon, or defeat an enemy. The best kinds of games are experiences - places where the user takes on an identity, gets placed in a situation or simulation, or embraces a meaningful challenge. The games below not only are free on the Chrome Web Store, but they also cover one or more of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning in Action. In this pyramid of categories, the games in this list capture some of the various ways learning can be demonstrated. Enjoy!

Bloom’s Skill: Analyzing
Content Covered: Geography

Pursued is a clever spin on the games Geoguessr and GeoSettr, two sites that allow users to create Google Street View guessing games of where the user is based on what they can see around them. Pursued is this same concept, but set to a timer and with more of a game-like interface. In Pursued, users can take on user-created challenges to figure out what city they are in before the time runs out. I actually felt a genuine sense of panic while playing, furiously clicking around corners to find clues regarding the city I was dropped in to begin each round.

This game helps sharpen analytical skills, as students must utilize the clues around them and what they know about the geography of different areas of the world and popular cities to piece together where they are. Students must take in all of the different pieces of information, from the landforms in the distance to the street signs and landmarks to make an educated guess. The best part? Users can create their own rounds of Pursued, allowing the teacher to create levels based on areas they are teaching!

Bloom’s Skill: Applying
Content Covered: Engineering, Mathematics

I have to give credit to Eric Curts for writing this article, which brought me to Cargo Bridge, an addicting game available now on the Chrome Store. Cargo Bridge has a simple premise - you have an expanse to cover with “anchor points” on the map, and you must help some loyal workers cross the bridge, pick up their “cargo” and bring it back without the bridge collapsing. As players progress through the game, the types of materials change, upping the critical decision-making and demanding more out of students.

Applying different engineering and mathematical concepts gives students the chance to utilize the tools they learn and practice them in a competitive situation. The added beauty of games for this purpose is the “failure to learn” principle, which lets students tinker with the wrong ways to solve a problem until they discover a design that works. Such is the beauty of games - applying knowledge is a necessary factor to have an advantage over sheer chance and luck.

Bloom’s Skill: Analyzing & Evaluating
Content Covered: Internet Skills & Research

It’s an oldie but a goodie - “A Google a Day” is sort of a hybrid game (more like a “Challenge”, really), built to test a person’s Google search skills. The premise is simple: A Google a Day asks you a question that requires some research, and you get to Google to your heart’s content to find the answer. However, these questions most likely will not be solved by conventional means - you cannot simply repeat the question in a Google search bar or type in keywords. It might require some piecing together, usage of Google Street View, or more to get to the bottom of the question.

It will take a good mix of analyzing and evaluating to determine what will help land the user at the right answer. Evaluation will come in determining what sources and info will get you closer to the answer, while analyzing will be necessary in piecing together multiple searches to find a common thread. While it makes for a fun critical thinking diversion, A Google a Day could be contextualized in a research portion of a Social Studies or English classroom, or within a Computer Applications course.

Bloom’s Skill: Creating
Content Covered: Any (though Social Studies and Math are a good start)!

Let’s put it bluntly: Build with Chrome is just plain FUN. Take a basic collection of legos, set it in a virtual world accessible on any PC with internet, and you have Build with Chrome. Users have a blank slate to build with legos just like the old days, but no limit on supplies except for the shapes and space offered. Another kicker? The user can “place” their creation on Google Maps, letting students create a nice, virtual “collage” of buildings on the web-based program.

At the very tip of Bloom’s, we have creating, one of the most important skills to hone. Build with Chrome provides a versatile, free option for students to design to their heart’s content. All they have to do is design a creation and either screencapture it or even screencast it with an audio reflection. With these methods, teachers have an innovative assessment to see learning in action.

Bloom’s Skill: Understanding & Applying
Content Covered: Biology

Cellcraft is a clever arcade game with a humorous storyline that helps teach the development of a cell. In the game, you begin as a basic cell, being slowly taught the parts of the cell and what it needs to thrive by living its life and completing challenges based on cellular needs and situations. Cellcraft presents a unique way to learn the vocabulary and functionality of cells, going past memorization and absorption to understanding the concepts by doing what the cell must do and applying what the game teaches you to situations presented along the journey.

Sure, Cellcraft is billed as an edugame, but the design is a demonstration of how games with the goal of subtly teaching core subjects can still be engaging and experience-based rather than answering trivia questions to get to shoot asteroids out of the air.

What games do you know of that help show learning in action? What skills do you see games teaching effectively? Feel free to comment below:

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Making Our "Way": Video Games as Artistic and Collaborative Learning Tools

Are video games art?

That question haunts me to this day. One of my writing heroes, Roger Ebert, opined on this question a few years before his death - his verdict was very clear. Video games can NEVER be art. As a rabid fan of his reviews and writing, I was absolutely heartbroken. What does he mean video games cannot be art? Ebert took concern that no game had captured a masterful performance of aesthetic, purpose, and craft to earn the title of “artistic” in his eyes.

In the classroom a few weeks ago, however, I feel that I saw a video game become art.

The story, as all great ones tend to do, begins far before an inconsequential session in a PC lab with a video game and some students. It began on a professional development day in a Green Bay high school, where I had the chance to talk about strategies for implementing experiential games in the classroom. Shortly before leading the course, I got a quick rundown of the different subject areas of the attendees: social studies, math, physical education, health, Spanish, and … American Sign Language!? Amazingly, a game immediately popped into my head when I saw that last course.

A few months ago, I saw an article about an incredible “experiential” game called “Way” - everything I read about it said to simply play it and don’t ask any further questions. So I did.

The first major discovery was what the game intended to do. I started out alone in a platformer world, discovering I could run, jump, move large boxes, show three distinct emotions, and wave my arms in a seemingly empty world. But then… someone joined me from afar.

My blue avatar was joined in a split screen with a second red avatar, and I suddenly realized I had no control over this second avatar. However, I discovered the person on the other end was trying to tell me something. After gawking at them for what seemed like hours, I finally realized the person was signaling me to jump to the left. Of course! This person elsewhere in the world could see the path on my screen, but I could not. With no audio or text communication, the challenge was clear - we must use our facial expressions and gestures to guide each other through the unseen world.

After what seemed like an hour of cooperative and collaborative play through the platformer world, we made it to the end. I will NOT spoil the ending, but let’s just say the last part of the game convinced me that video games absolutely can be art. I even got a bit emotional at the sheer genius of the ending - a perfect way to wrap a game about breaking down communication barriers.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago. I had talked to an ASL teacher about using Way, and she was amazingly excited about it. We decided to use what I like to call the “Cold” Play - a style of game-based learning implementation where the students play the game and then reflect after, with no indication of how they should perceive the game beforehand. The reactions were incredible - frustration, bemusement, wonder, anger, cheekiness, and even a bit of jubilation transpired in the two sections who piloted the game.

A few of my favorite moments:
  • The first student to “finish” the game was paired with a stranger from Russia - he had no idea until the end, and he thought it would be funny if he had somehow met his future Russian wife via “Way”
  • Two students sitting two seats from each other never realized they were paired up until they beat the game and I pointed it out to them
  • Many students figured out they had been paired up with someone in the room by peeking around, but this did not help them complete it any faster. Those students who used hand gestures and expressions had a better success rate
  • Some of the students actually used sign language in the game, even with the limited range of motion with the arms of their avatars
  • Lots of frustration. Lots of people who wanted to give up, yet still tried to prod their virtual partners on

I was not present for the following class when the students reflected as a group on the game, but I am positive they had plenty to discuss. Why was the game so frustrating? What skills did you need to hone with your partner? What systems or mechanisms did you establish to communicate? How does this relate to life? How does it relate to American Sign Language?

I could really see “Way” being used for a variety of purposes - to build teamwork, to teach perspective, to help teach the importance of failing, and how crucial nonverbal communication can be. I highly recommend checking out “Way” game at I also made a promotional video about “Way” in education below - hopefully it helps you visualize how this game qualifies as “art” - no matter what Ebert may say.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Listen to the Marshmallow: Lessons in Education from Big Hero Six

There’s something about Pixar films that always get to me. A Pixar film has such a delicate mix of humor, emotion, great characterization, and a clear message that comes through in the end. In Up, we discovered that life is a collection of adventures, and we must always find one to embrace. Marlin and Dori from Finding Nemo helped us realize that one cannot spend life afraid to live.

Last night, I had the chance to go see Big Hero 6, another great installment of the budding Disney/Pixar partnership. As I watched the film (which is a must-see, in my opinion), I could not help but think of how many themes in the animated flick applied to education today. The top three, in my mind, are shared below:

1. Don’t settle for easy; go for the route with the highest ceiling

In the film, a professor at a local Technology Institute gives the teenage protagonist, Hiro, some sage advice: what you’re doing right now is very easy for you and you’re satisfied, so maybe our university would not be a good fit. We only want to push you, to challenge you to reach your fullest potential.

Shouldn’t we expect the same out of ourselves and our students? One of the quotes I try to hammer away at students is “be better than Powerpoint”. I am all for giving students choice in their activities, but sometimes they fall on the tools and projects they find to be “easy”. Sometimes we, as teachers, must push students to try projects and activities they might not actively pursue themselves. I am reminded of a few colleagues like Tim Weldzius, who is having his students create greenscreen video newscasts using WeVideo, or Jen Vanremortel, who had her students create parody songs and videos using GarageBand and iMovie.

2. Look at a situation from another angle - turn it upside-down

We often approach the same lessons the same way, year after year. Why? Because it “works”. In Big Hero 6, the team of heroes the main character assembles get stymied by the antagonist because they look at a situation as black-and-white. They do only what they know they can do, not thinking outside the box. With our approach to lessons , we are often taking the “safe” path, afraid to turn it upside-down.

With this lesson, I am reminded of my colleague, CC O’Malley, who felt like skits and worksheets were not offering her ESL students every opportunity to have genuine chances to practice English speaking and decided to embark on creating a virtual world where her students can interact in any imagined situation. We are in the process of working towards this world, as the picture below shows:

3. Put others’ needs before your own

Baymax, the iconic, marshmallow-esque character you probably recognize from the Big Hero 6 trailers and commercials, gives perhaps the most important lesson of all. In the film, his only robotic directive is to make sure the health and well-being of those around him are addressed. Through his compulsive urges to cure all of those around him (even Hiro’s incurable “puberty” symptoms), he instills this lesson in Hiro, which pays off later in the film (I will say no more, as to not ruin the end).

I know teachers are saying, “Wait, of course I put others before myself!” That fact I do not question. But how often do we push this message? How often do we pelt students with the concept of selflessness? Is it something we tell them, or something we SHOW them? Give them opportunities to do selfless acts. Give them the chance to SEE a selfless act. Most of all, give them the choice in what they do, and watch with bated breath as they start CHOOSING to head up selfless acts.

The other two lessons are great, yes, but teaching the act of selflessness is our greatest job. Pixar understands this well - hopefully we do too.