Looking for PB n’ Games?

If you’re looking for us this spring, come find us at some of these events!

Digital Media and Learning Conference
March 6-8
Boston, MA

MassDigi Game Challenge
March 7-8
Cambridge, MA

Cambridge Science Festival
April 18-27
Cambridge, MA

Posted in Conferences

The Games (and Education) of the Future

I was nine years old when I stopped enjoying school, and my father, an educator himself, was surprised.

“What changed?” He asked me. I considered the question as seriously as a nine year old can, and told him.

“Last year, in second grade,” I explained, “we did fun things, like write poems for Halloween. This year, our Halloween homework is to memorize these spelling words. It’s boring! Why don’t they ask us to do something fun with the spelling words, like write a poem using them?”

For years, my dad used that story as a quick explanation of how games can be educational without being complicated. And yet still, twenty years later, education across the United States is suffering and students are “bored” in most classes. Read more ›

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Posted in Education

Which came first: the Curriculum or the Egg?

Chicken and the eggDeidre Witan and I have recently been part of some interesting chicken-or-the-egg discussions. They typically go in this cycle:

“If more games were used in classrooms, students would be more engaged and would learn more.”
“But students will never learn until the curriculum changes to better reflect what they need to know.”
“But the curriculum will never shift until we have new models for teaching.”
“But we won’t have new models unless we embrace technology and make use of it to create games, so students can be more engaged.”

…and so on. In brief, here are the two sides to the argument. You can decide which came first. Read more ›

Posted in Education

This is your Brain on Video Games

Source: www.personal.psu.edu

Source: www.personal.psu.edu

There have been plenty of studies on the benefits of crossword puzzles and other brain teasers in the elderly – playing “games” boosts their memory, and strengthen their cognitive skills. Now, new studies are showing that video games can also improve memory.

My favorite quote from the article:

“‘While previous studies have shown differences in brain structure of video gamers, the present study can demonstrate the direct causal link between video gaming and a volumetric brain increase. This proves that specific brain regions can be trained by means of video games,’ says study leader Simone Kühn, senior scientist at the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.”

But please, don’t take my word for it: read it for yourself!

Posted in Education

The Theory of Prior Knowledge

“Read the following paragraph once through, and then read the questions at the bottom before re-reading the paragraph. Then fill in the answers.”

Most of us are familiar with these instructions. We saw them on the SATs, on reading comprehension quizes, and sometimes even heard them repeated by teachers. But why is re-reading considered so valuable? What are students expected to get out of the paragraph that we couldn’t see the first time? Read more ›

Posted in Education

Can Video Games teach Social Development?

On Friday, Benjamin Herold of Education Week hosted a webinar on “Using Video Games to Assess Students’ Noncognitive Skills.” His premise was that video games can positively impact students’ social development.

Introduction: How are Students Successful?

Angela Duckworth, Associate Professor of Psychology and James Gee, Presidential Chair and Professor of Literacy Studies joined him. Professor Gee began by reviewing the concept that school is about helping students to create identities. He said the ideal is to, below any other identity, create in each student “the identity of being a proactive, hopeful, resilient learner.” Professor Gee acknolwedged the difficulties with this – many students will struggle to have hope when their lives may seem hopeless, and may struggle to be proactive when they feel they have no choices. He also reviewed the “Matthew affect,” well known in reading and math, where early successes give rise to more successes, and early failures give rise to more failures.

To Professor Gee, there are a series of steps that will bring learners to being proactive, hopeful, resilient learners, and thereby successful students, including:

  • Nurturing parenting (mentoring)
  • Interactive Reciprocal Talk
  • Pretend Play
  • Lots of Experiences in the world
  • Passion
  • Integration into identity
  • Persistence past failure
  • Efficient strategic goal-directed problem-solving with flexibility and creativity

In short: the amount of language a child hears at a young age is directly correlated to their success in school. But success in school requires students to be able to correlate language to experience. In other words, students need to be able to understand the meaning behind the language – run, for example means a feeling in the body of the legs moving, and not just a word defined as “faster than walk.”

Video Games Provide Perspective

One of the key ways students pick up noncognitive skills is by taking the perspective of other people. This can happen through pretend games (pretending to be someone else) or through video games, such as the Sims, which is meant for entertainment but provides students with other characters with specific experiences and reactions and emotions. In order to teach students about specific perspectives, you could provide them with specific challenges (such as being a single parent, or homeless, or in a certain job) to simulate perspectives in the Sims game.

Portal has a similar situation, where students take on the perspective of a Physicist, and since the game is collaborative, students can share what they learn. In this game, students explore similarly to how they might by reading a novel, but they are challenged to express their perspective because they must find solutions that can only be discovered by acting from the physicist’s perspective.

Assessing Noncognitive Skills

Angela Ducksworth began her portion of the presentation by defending noncognitive skills. Non-cognitive skills, she pointed out, are “just as strong a predictor, if not a stronger predictor of academic outcomes than IQ and other traditional measures of academic achievement.” For example, a student with good self control and perseverence may do better in school (and post-school) than a student who is naturally a quick reader or good at arithmatic.

“Playing is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles” she quoted Sean Slade, but in the attempt to teach noncognitive skills, the obstacles become very necessary. Professor Ducksworth reviewed some of the ways that researchers find how students are learning these skills. A quick overview: it takes a lot of work. The research shows that, in order to find precise assessment of what students are doing, these games need to be clearly measured and the students need to get consistent feedback as well as opportunities to provide feedback and reflection on how they think they’re doing.

Can Video Games be a Powerful Tool?

If it was just up to the games, then yes. Sadly, since the technology is moving so much faster than our brains, it’s very difficult for the current teaching generation to embrace the abilities of the games. It’s hard to slow down our teaching styles – surveys and multiple choice tests are certainly “quick” ways to determine students skillsets.

I hear this as a call to game designers and developers. We need to work extra hard to provide teachers with “easy” ways to evaluate students’ progress. Let’s get on it.

Posted in Education

Board Games, or Bored Games?

Back in April I taught a two-week course on game design to a classroom of twelve high school students. I was awed by their talent, their intelligence, their unique perspectives, and their commitment to creation. But one thing stuck out to me more than anything else.

Every single student was under the misconception that games are only fun on digital devices.

Most students' favorites are video games, not board games.

Most students’ favorites are video games, not board games.

As an introductory exercise, I asked each student to tell me his or her favorite game. Every game was either a phone, Xbox, or video game. So we went around the circle again, and this time I asked for favorite non-digital (“real life”) games. This time, every student named a physical activity. Try as I might, I could not get a single answer of Risk, Monopoly, or Trivial Pursuit.

I wasn’t surprised. A gamer myself, I first enjoyed Settlers of Catan in college, and I never even attempted Trivial Pursuit until I had experienced bar Trivia games.

Why are we bored?

When I asked the students what was wrong with board games, I got a series of answers, which I’ll share here.

“My mom makes me play those.” In other words, if we force the “educational” aspect, we can actually manage to make games not-fun!

“I’m not good at them/don’t understand those games.” So, digital games have an easier point of entry.

“It’s just the same thing over and over.” In other words, the game does not make for a good playmate.

With this in mind, I gave the students their first assignment: to create a fun, engaging board game.

Making it fun

Immediately, the complaints began, with one chief among them: “but I wanted to make a digital game, so it would be fun!” I challenged the students by telling them a theory I have had for a very long time: if you can’t make a fun game, then you can’t make a fun digital game.

Faced with the option to either admit defeat or prove that their games were worthy of becoming digital, I suddenly had a buzzing classroom. At the end of the day we played each game. I’ll review one particularly challenging game, and one particularly successful game.

Game of LifeThe first, based on the game of Life (which none of the students had heard of until they began their research) might be considered a traditional board game. The players had currency, which they were able to spend. Then, based on the results of their choices, the players could make further choices. Although the students struggled with how to make it more fun, they acknowledged that it would be a difficult digital game to make enticing as well – it relied heavily on visuals, which they had created on paper, but that alone wasn’t enough to make it engaging.

obstacleThe second game was envisioned as a fast motion casual game. When I asked them to translate it into real life, they made a timed obstacle course, where the player had to pick up items along the way to collect bonus points. It was (as you might expect) great fun, and they were also easily able to make it into an engaging and educational phone game.

Why does it matter?

It matters because too many teachers, parents, and administrators are making the same mistake my students made. Too many people are assuming that digital means fun, and paper work is busy work. Sadly, digitizing education is not the same as gamifying it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we should stop trying. As education is moving to be more and more digital, we have an incredible opportunity to explore new ways of engaging students. We just have to remember that the goal is to be engaging, not just to be digital.

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Posted in Education

The Learning Tools All Classrooms Share

The-Wizard-the-wizard-of-oz-6502639-445-334“You wouldn’t have believed me. You had to learn it for yourself!” So says Glinda the Good Witch, at the end of the Wizard of Oz (belated spoiler alert for anyone who never had a childhood).

Perhaps in 1939, when the Wizard of Oz first came out as a film, experience as a learning tool was a novel concept. It’s a sad truth that many teachers still struggle to use authentic experiences in the classroom. Yet I can understand why. It’s much easier to teach a class on fractions than it is to help 30 student bake cookies to experience the concept. And it’s easier to teach angles without supervising a classroom of 30 amateur architects. Luckily, there are two tools that create authentic experiences without requiring high-stress lesson plans.

Bloom’s Taxonomy

In 1956, only 17 years after The Wizard of Oz made it to the big screen, Benjamin Bloom led a committee of educators to propose a new theory. The theory, now commonly known as Bloom’s Taxonomy, is laid out as a visual hierarchy, dividing learning into 6 different categories.

Bloom's TaxonomyAt the lowest level is Memorization, or the abiliy to merely parrot back a concept. If a student learns that the question “Which fraction represents 50%?” should be answered with “1/2,” then the student is unlikely to remember the information longterm, and even if the information stays, the student will be unlikely to be able to use the information well.

Personally, I will never forget that DNA stands for “Deoxyribonucleic acid.” I repeated that with my 10th grade class every morning for 180 days. But the memorization alone did not help me – I’m sad to say, to this day I have no idea why it’s Deoxyribonucleic acid, or what acid has to do with genetic code.

The next level, Comprehension, is the ability to understand basic facts relating to the concept. In the fractions example, a student would be able to see a number divided in half, and recognize that this is both 50% and 1/2.

Beyond that comes Application. Similarly to comprehension, application requires an understanding of the basic related facts. However, application assumes that the concepts are now understood to a degree that the student could see half of a pie, or half of a group, or a silver dollar, and note the connections between them, applying the basic concept of “1/2” to unrelated situations.

At the top of Bloom’s taxonomy are three more levels of learning: Analysis, Synthesis, and Evaluation. These are the areas where authentic tasks come into play. An architect uses a variety of math skills by evaluating which one is appropriate to a situation, and then using the understanding to analyze the information. A musician synthesizes a variety of basic techniques to create something new, evaluating which technique will best serve the new piece. And so on and so forth.

The First Tool: Teaching to Learn

StudentsFew classrooms have musical instruments, architectural firms, and baking supplies at the ready. But every classroom has a large number of students, and students can teach one another.

Teaching, as it turns out, is one of the most effective authentic tasks students can participate in. By teaching concepts to one another, students pick up on the gaps in their own knowledge. Creating lesson plans and answering questions while teaching their peers allows students to dig much deeper into material than they ever would when simply memorizing or answering questions on the same material.

Who knew? Teaching is a tool every teacher has at his or her fingertips. It serves as both a way for students to learn information, and further as a way to evaluate how much of the information they have understood.

The Second Tool: Playing and Creating

Along the same lines as the benefit of teaching to learn comes the benefit of creating to learn. Specifically, creating games. When students play games, they are often challenged (if the games are well done) and learn from the experience. Many times, students are able to use skills such as our hypothetical fractions to succeed in the games, thereby helping them reach the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

But wheras a student might win a game by mere luck, when the student is responsible for building the game, he must understand the content. If the student doesn’t know the answers, she cannot create a game that provides them.

Does every classroom have access to computers? No. But not all games are computer generated. And every classroom has access to students, with minds, who enjoy games.

Have you had students teach one another in your classroom, or create games using their knowledge? What was your experience?

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Posted in Education

Mass Digi on Zeebi

“Would you be interested in having a team of college students design and develop an idea of yours, over the course of 11 weeks, and provide you with all of their work at the end of the summer, for free?”

As they say, it’s an offer you can’t refuse, so when Mass Digi‘s Managing Director Monty Sharma asked, we said yes.

The Summer Innovation Program

Every summer, Mass Digi offers a Summer Innovation Program to college students interested in game development. For the students, it’s an opportunity to hone design, development, animation, audio, and production skills over 11 weeks, from June to August. It’s an amazing resume builder, not to mention a one-of-a-kind learning experience.

And for local game design startups like PBnGames, it’s a chance to mentor the next generation of game designers, and get some free labor to boot. It’s a win-win situation.

Week 6: The Halfway Point

Yesterday Jessica, Greg, and I met with the student team to review their work on Zeebi Lab. I’ll sum up our reactions in one word: WOW. In 6 weeks, they built a prototype, designed a series of new Zeebis, and best of all, they were already thinking ahead to what we’ll need when they’re finished with their work.

Meeting with the team

They approached us about creating code that could be easily swapped out to update Zeebi behaviors, a long list of potential future design and development ideas, and a host of other ideas ranging from additional levels to Zeebi merchandising. Sure, selling Zeebi stuffed animals might be getting a little ahead of ourselves, but I love the way they’re thinking!

We’ll make sure to update with their final work, come August. Hard to believe they’re more than halfway through the summer.

Posted in Zeebi Lab