Friday, June 28, 2013

The Fluid Ether is Live

After several long months of refinement, I'm happy to say that The Fluid Ether (formerly know as World of Physics: Fluids) is now live!  You have find it in the App Store, or as a desktop download from our website.  It's a fluid mechanics simulation game, now equipped with a level editor, challenge levels, and new artwork. If you want to know more, read about the plans for the entire Ethers series.

How can you support the game? Why I'm glad you asked.

  1. Download the game!
  2. Write a review of the game for the App Store.
  3. Give me feedback on the game.
  4. Tell more people about the game! Tweet @IridescentLA or to our facebook group.
  5. Make a level in the level-editor and add to the game’s content.
  6. Sign up to our newsletter to get more info about the game and future games in the series.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A n00b guide to achievements in games

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

I’m a big believer in learning from history. Educational badging is derived from “achievements” in games, and so it seems useful to understand the historical use of achievements in games before thinking about badges in education. I say “historical” because achievements themselves aren’t really that old, commonly traced back to the 2005 Xbox live platform, but badges in education are even newer, first appearing around 2009 or so. What an age we live in, where eight years back can be considered outdated.

Anyway, this post is for you gamophobes out there, those of you that wouldn’t touch a game controller with a ten-foot-pole. I’ll assume you are unfamiliar with the achievement system in games but are really interested in using badges in education (but I think this can also be fun for you gaming oldtimers who will appreciate a playful look at achievements).

Ok, so I’m going to assume you gamophobes are total game n00bs (in fact I assume you are such a n00b that you don’t know what the term n00b means, so I’ll define it here as “a beginner”).

Friday, June 21, 2013

If a game is assigned as homework, is it still a game?

This article is cross posted on the Iridescent blog.

Ok, it's two days after the event and I'm coming off the high that was the 10th Games for Change festival.  Admidst a storm of great panels and discussions, the Wednesday morning panel featuring James Gee, Katie Salen, and Justin Leites was really my favorite event of the conference.

There was one really interesting question that was brought up, but insufficiently addressed in this session. The question actually resurfaced in the following panel, and drew a mix of strong head nods and head shakes, splitting the panel in half on the issue.  Here was the question: "If you give a game as a classroom assignment, is it still a game?  Or has the fact that it is assigned and required mean that there is something fundamentally lost from the experience of playing the game?"

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Science simulation games and MDA (Mechanics, Design, Aesthetics)

At the Games for Change conference yesterday, I heard an interesting talk by Zachtronics, who has developing a starch simulation game for Amplify Learning. To summarize the talk (and I may get pieces slightly wrong as I wrote this down), there are three components to a game design process, Mechanics (what the game does) then Dynamics (what the player does), then Aesthetics (what the player experiences as they play).  In making a science simulation game, Zachtronics considered at which part of their process to insert "the science."

Their claim was that inserting science in the mechanics left nothing for the player to control, and made the final product look more like a simulation than a game.  Inserting science into the dynamics, on the other hand, led to an interesting gameplay, and so that's the route they took.  This meant that it was up to players to complete the final pieces of the simulation, they had to push the pump button to move oxygen from the lungs to the stomach, or flick molecules around to make them combine into ATP. 

I played this game at the Amplify booth for a bit, and to me it was a pretty fun simulation game.  I have no doubt that it can teach students something about how our bodies work. But something bothered me a bit about how their design framework for simulation games.

I consider SimCity and Civilization the epitome of good educational simulation games, and I think if we were to measure those games against this framework, they'd do poorly. SimCity actually put the "social science" of urban planning in the mechanics, and leaves the arrangement of the pieces in the simulation in the dynamics.  Players don't drive sims from home to work (which would be putting the social science in the dynamics), rather they segment out residential and commercial districts. The dynamics involves manipulating the social science, rather than aiding along the simulation of the social science.  To me that's the key that makes these games work.  SimCity put the social science in the mechanics rather than the dynamics, but as a consequence they were not able to be grounded in real world content.  Meaning, their cities don't necessarily look like any real cities, and that's a direct result of putting social science in mechanics rather than dynamics.

I think the problem results from whether we have a focus on content or concept (a point I've belabored before). If we want SimCity to simulate the growth of an actual city, like New York, then yes we need to focus on putting the social science in the dynamics.  But if we rather are just concerned with capturing city growth mechanisms well, then the social science goes in the mechanics and the dynamics becomes arranging the pieces of the simulation. The resulting products that don't look like any real city, but they capture the processes that have shaped real cities.

I think the same goes for the Zachtronics game.  Are we concerned with representing the actual human body, or with the conceptual nature of how the parts of a human body work together?  Zachtronics clearly was interested in the former and I think did the best job they could with that constraint, but I think aiming towards the latter will always produce a more engaging and educational game.

As a comparison, I'd offer Guts and Bolts from BrainPop's Game Up website, which I think captures the same content at the Zachtronics game, but did a better job of inserting science in the mechanics, so to speak. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

Badge based gamification: is this just the thing that education needs?

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

Before these trends get too overblown, I’d like to dissect and compare two terms that are on their way to becoming the next big thing in education: gamification and badges.

Gamification is a very broad term, that basically involves applying components of games to things that are not games, to make more addictive, enjoyable, and/or game-like experiences.  A very broad term, as there are many types of games with many times of components, that can be applied many other contexts in many different ways.

Badges are really an equally open-ended idea as I described previously. The term badges can mean anything from a boy-scouts style skill badge, to a leveling or ranking system, to simply adding points to an activity. I think there is value in separating out these different types of badges, but for the purposes here I will group them all together into any kind of tangible or intangible item received as recognition for proceeding through an activity.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The costs to gamify education

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

In a previous post, I laid out what it means to gamify education (short answer is: incorporate best teaching practices).  If you read that post, it should be pretty clear that those ideas are quite far from our current educational system.  Gamifying education means doing so much more than giving kids badges or points when they turn in homework. It requires a massive overhaul of the structure, values, and philosophy of our school system.

That may sound drastic, and I don’t at all mean to solve the education problem in a two-page blog post.  But I did want to highlight some common classroom practices as a case study, just to emphasize the many ways that they violate gamification principles, and what gamification-friendly solutions might look like.  I’m going to continue using the same delineation from my first post between the Rules (the formal structure of a lesson plan) and Play (the experience created by the implementation of a lesson).

Monday, May 20, 2013

Gamification and Education: the Core Principles

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

I always like to say the gaming industry has done in 30 years what the educational industry hasn't been able to do in 300, namely make self-sustaining learning.  The reason games are fun is that games are learning tools, and people inherently like learning (or more specifically we have an intrinsic motivation towards competence).  I like to think of the gaming industry as a hotbed of educational innovation-- games only sell if they are good at letting people learn, so the game industry has gotten extraordinarily good at creating learning.

Thus we come to gamification, a term spawned from the idea that if only we could put these game elements into other situations, we could make those situations so much more fun and engaging.  But as described above, if games are learning tools, “gamifying” an experience simply means improving the learning that occurs in an experience. In this light, education seems to paint itself a ready target for gamification efforts.  But, what exactly does it mean to gamify education?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Let there be life! (to this blog)

After sitting in the dusty annals of google search engines for almost a year now, I hereby declare this blog active!  This blog won't feature much original content, but will be a collection-house for all my random writings, musings, and projects that are taking place in various parts of the online stratosphere.  I will slowly be updating the about pages and keeping content sorted and nice over the next few months.  If you like what you see here, leave me a comment! Maybe I'll give you a cookie (internet or not-internet kind, your choice).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The problem with MOOCs, you see, is that...

Cross-published on the Iridescent blog.

...I don’t like them very much. It was Thursday morning, and the Mozilla Teachtheweb MOOC was about to kick off. I was languishing in a simple decision: should I try out yet another MOOC or give up on them altogether?

This would be my third MOOC, the first two being pretty big failures. In both previous MOOCs (one on Coursera and one on Skillshare) I was part of the 80% that dropped the MOOC in the first few weeks after registering. Why couldn’t these MOOCs keep my attention? It certainly wasn’t the topic or the instructor, as both previous attempts were highly interesting topics taught by great instructors. The format was the problem, I decided.  As the noon kickoff time for Teachtheweb, approached, I listed off the reasons I didn’t like MOOCs:

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

My interview with Barry Joseph about Phone Apps

A conversation about phone apps led to an interesting interview I had with Barry Joseph, back in March 2013. In my attempt to link all my articles I've written back to this blog, I wanted to make sure that I had a reference to this really great interview.  If you haven't read it, I encourage you to check it out.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

What are badges, and how will education use them?

First published on the Iridescent blog on 1/24/13.

Badges are soon to be, if not already, a hot topic in education.  Yet unlike many other hot topics, it’s a little unclear what badges are and why they might be useful. Badges have baggage, meaning badges are entering education with a complex history of varied uses in non-educational settings. Before we can effectively implement educational badges, we have to unpack and understand the baggage.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

The Khan Academy Controversy: a perspective on revolutionary ideas

First published on the Iridescent blog on 9/14/12.

The Khan Academy is arguably one of those products that can revolutionize education.  And in fact, this is being argued quite extensively lately. All this controversy has got me thinking about a simple question: is the Khan academy a revolutionary take on education?  To answer this, I'm first going to summarize some of the controversy that has invaded the blogosphere, then I'll offer some of my thoughts, and finally I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Intrinsic Reward Structures in Games and Learning

First published on the Iridescent blog on 5/7/12.

This is a quick follow-up to the last post on games and education, I’d suggest reading that first, or at least the section on “Reward Structures,” before jumping here.  

After writing my last post, my girlfriend Hannah posed a question that has constantly bothered me over the past few weeks. Are there any intrinsic reward structures in real life?  

The Role of Games in Education

First published on the Iridescent blog on 4/15/12

Games are highly addictive learning tools, that are for the most part not directed at educational topics. Yet I would argue that there is nothing preventing games from hosting addictive, engaging, educational content. These ideas were formed primarily from James Gee’s writing, my experience playing games, and my experience making games.

How can we make games, that people want to play, more educational?

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Questioning the hypothesis

First published on the Iridescent blog on 4/9/12.

This is cross-posted on Sciencefare.

In my recent NSTA talk, I advocated a view of the scientific method that did not include the hypothesis. What blasphemy! I felt like Galileo speaking out against the Church or something. But let's face it, hypotheses are stupid and irrelevant for science in our modern age. At best, they are an artifact from the past that has long, long lost its purpose.

Now, I may have ruffled some feathers but I want to point out I'm not the only one - Douglas Llewellyn's session at NSTA 2012, "The Role of Argumentation in Inquiry" session also threw hypotheses in the trash. Additionally this excellent compilation of quotes just published on brainpickings (many from actually scientists!) makes many of the same points I make here. My favorite view of the scientific method, over at, doesn't emphasize hypotheses either.

So what is my point? To summarize, I argue that there are three main reasons why hypotheses should not be a part of science education:
  • They aren't used in all scientific disciplines equally, or at all.
  • When used, they aren't a necessary part of the process or the focus (questions are the focus).
  • Educationally, teaching hypotheses makes an otherwise intuitive process more formal and unfriendly.