Fun and games


Last night, before I hit the hay, I played a game on our tablet. Yup. Actually sat down in the sun room and, for about 30 minutes, played World of Goo by 2D Boy, an older game but one I really like. We bought this game a few years ago, for our Wii, and just got it on the tablet, and it worked just fine. Was fun too.

The object in World of Goo is to collect goo balls by building various structures towards a small vacuum pipe, which sucks out the requisite goo balls needed to get to the next level. All structures built are governed by the laws of physics, and different levels have different obstacles that your structures need to get around. Last night, for example, I had to build a bridge across a chasm – see below – and needed to ensure that that the front end of the bridge was not built in a manner to cause the back end to lift off ground and topple. And that’s one of the easier levels.

bridgeOK, so what’s with World of Goo and playing these games? Well, a few months ago, I went to an education technology conference up in Baltimore and heard several teachers talk about their use of games in their classrooms – and, no, they weren’t talking about Oregon Trail. Justin Eames, a tech teacher in Baltimore, shared that he used the narrative exploratory game Gone Home in his classroom, and a quick search of that game led me to the website of Paul Darvasi, a high school English teacher in Toronto who’s using Gone Home as a text in his senior English class.

Gone Home is sure not Oregon Trail. It’s a first person game with no pre-set goal. Katie Greenbriar (which is you, as you play the game) comes home to find her family’s mansion empty and wanders through it on a mission of discovery, looking at household objects, finding notes and other items, creating a path or narrative through this abandoned house. Through a text, as Paul Darvasi would say. In fact, Paul writes in his blog that when he first read a review of Gone Home, he asked himself, “Was this a video game critique or a book review?” Here’s more from Paul’s blog:

The game opens in the mansion’s covered front porch, it’s pitch black outside, and a thunderstorm rages. Katie drops her bags and finds an enigmatic and worrisome note from her younger sister, Sam, pinned to the front door. The note sets up the game’s key conflicts – where are Sam and her parents? What happened to the family while Katie was away? What secrets are harbored in the family’s new home? Will she encounter ghosts and ghouls on this dark and stormy night, or simply some skeletons in the closet?

Gone-Home-Video-Game-WallpaperThese teachers and what they had to say at the conference and then Paul’s blog about using Gone Home in his class piqued my interest: What games are teachers using in their classrooms, beyond what I might call content-focused skill-and-drill games? How’s the use of games such as Gone Home, one not built for the K-12 classroom, changing a typical classroom – and just what does learning look like in those classrooms?

So I started my own playing/gaming with World of Goo, thinking about how a teacher of physics or physical science might use it to support/explore content from the class. Not sure I have any thoughtful answers just yet, but, yes, even World of Goo has spurred research: See this paper by Florida State’s Valerie Shute and Yoon Jeon Kim, called Does Playing the World of Goo Facilitate Learning? In it they write

Our beliefs motivating this research are twofold: (a) it is important to develop valid models and assessments for complex knowledge and skills that are required for success in the 21st century; and (b) assessments can be embedded within video games to support such skills that are currently not being assessed and supported. Our goal is to illustrate how people can develop educationally valuable skills (e.g., problem solving and causal reasoning) by playing a well-designed video game that is not explicitly developed for educational purposes.

gonehome3I know that I’m just nibbling at this new area – new for me, that is – and I feel strongly that well-designed games, whether specifically for the classroom or not, can be an important part of a teacher’s instructional arsenal. Imagine a classroom where an online game is central to the work of the teacher and her students, where it might serve as the text, as Paul is doing with Gone Home, or be an environment for a connected series of scientific experiments, all building on skills learned from the previous, as World of Goo seems to be. Imagine students playing the game on their own or in small teams. Imagine them coming back to the larger group, for discussion, or going off to a corner to write and think about their learning. Imagine the teacher’s role, as she coaches her students as they play the game, as they write, as they share ideas and discuss. Imagine students learning both content and processes or skills, such as the steps to the scientific method. Yes, it’s like the best classrooms that we’ve already seen, in many ways. But with that game at its center – and a well-designed, multidimensional game – it might also be very different.

I look forward to sharing more as I learn. This will be fun, I know. Yes, fun and games. Fun and games and learning too.

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