Thursday, November 13, 2014

5 Signals that an "Educational Game" Isn't Really a Game

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

Kids love games, but why do they hate educational games? The short answer is that most aren't truly games, because being gamelike means a lot more than having flashy graphics and a point system. As an educational game developer, I think one of the most damaging aspects to this industry is when people call things games in order to get kids to play them when they clearly aren't games.

How can you spot the fake games masquerading as educational games? Here are a few signals I've picked up on over time.

1. When walking through a demo of the game, the game designer stops to say "And this part is where the learning occurs."

The learning should be everywhere, not in one part of the game. If you can compartmentalize the part of the game that is about learning, you did something wrong. One such example would be breaking up the game to show a player an instructional video- if you are using a video to teach, then you are not using the gameplay to teach.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Function vs. Aesthetics in data visualization

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.
To me there are two aspects to data communication: aesthetics and functionality. Aesthetics is obvious, it’s the visual appeal of a graphic, but functionality is less obvious. Graphics have a functional purpose, which is to highlight patterns and trends in data in a visual way. A graphic is functionally successful when it is easy to understand the patterns in the data. This seems arbitrary, but in fact it can be quantified-- you can measure the time it takes someone to process different graphical representations of the same data set. From this, you can derive principles that lead to graphics that have high functional value, or short interpretation times. For more info, read Tufte (on the Iridescent reading list!).

Given my background, I’m of course approaching the issue as a scientist, and as you might guess, science is almost entirely concerned with graphic functionality. Scientists are commonly working with extremely complex and inter-related data sets, and determining patterns from such data can be tricky. Using default graphics options can lead to visual clutter when dealing with complex data, and so many scientists take a lot of care in thinking how to present their data in ways that highlights the patterns they wish to emphasize. That being said, scientists place little care in aesthetics, often providing very ugly, but easy to understand graphics.

This is something I cared a lot about in grad school. I felt that someone’s ability to understand my data and take something away from my presentation was highly dependent on my ability to present that data clearly. I could have done an absolutely stellar research project, but with poor visuals few people would be able to understand or appreciate what I had done, so I put a lot of time into understanding data visualizations. (This desire to have people understand research is not common to all scientists-- some just want to do really interesting research and could care less how many other people know about it). I took several courses in science communication, had a great advisor and fellow grad students who gave great data visualization feedback, read a lot of Tufte, made science posters with Ioana, and still spend a lot of time learning how to use data visualization tools like R and Illustrator. Anyways, I don’t always nail it, but I try to do the best I can in finding the best functional way to present data.

That being said, I have very little understanding of aesthetics. I still cringe when I look at outfits I picked out for myself as a kid in old pictures, I’ve always had a horrible color sense. What this means is that I might do a really good job figuring out what elements of a graph should all be the same color to aide pattern recognition, but choose a god-awful color to represent them.

But is there a conflict between an aesthetically pretty graphic and a functionally useful graphic? Not necessarily, and I can certainly think of graphics that do both effectively, like Napolean’s march:

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Similarities between Communism and the Common Core

This article is cross-posted on the Iridescent blog.

When I was on my high school debate team, we would discuss all kinds of philosophical principles "in theory." I remember several discussions about Communism in which the common tagline was: "It was a good idea in theory, too bad it didn't work in practice." That phrase always bothered me. To me, a good idea was something that worked. If something couldn't be put into practice, it just wasn't a good idea, in theory or practice.

Understanding human nature is a vital component to an idea being good. If you have an idea for how people should interact with each other, but that idea doesn't respect aspects of human nature and psychology, then it's just a plain bad idea. And that was the problem with Communism to me, it didn't respect how people work. It didn't respect our intrinsic needs for agency, competency, and ownership. If you are designing a solution for people, it has to work for people, it can't just be "good in theory," in some abstract, idealistic sense of the word.

More recently, I've come to understand a similar sentiment in Silicon Valley entrepreneurial world. Venture capitalists aren't just looking for a good idea. They are looking for someone who has a good team behind them and can lead them to success, someone who understands the market and how to reach users: in sum, they are looking for someone who understands people, both internally in building their team, and externally in getting users. Great ideas are a dime a dozen: great realizations of great ideas are rare gems worth funding. In other words, you can't get funding with a great idea in theory: you need to have a great idea in practice.

Now, let's shift to the Common Core. First a distinction- I want to distinguish between the Common Core framework, and the system of high stakes achievement tests used to determine whether students have passed the tests. Sidenote: by high stakes, I mean there are consequences for both students and for teachers based on the results of the tests- a low stakes test can evaluate how smart students are, but low and high scores have absolutely no consequences for students or teachers, they simply give feedback on how well the system is doing. When states "adopt" the Common Core, it typically means they adopt both of these things, they aren't just giving their teachers a new set of standards to teach, they are also implementing a system of high risk testing.