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.