Highlights from GLS 5.0

2009 June 14

Below is just a limited taste of the digital smorgasbord of educational games and research presented at this year’s Games + Learning + Society conference held last week in Madison, Wisconsin.

Re:Activism is an urban street game played at the Come Out and Play festival that teaches participants about the history of activism.  Teams race through New York City visiting historic sites of protest and conflict, learning about past events and staging real-time protests.  One unintended consequence of the early game design was that teams who “won” (by visiting the most places and completing the most tasks in the least amount of time) often learned less than teams who “lost” (by engaging in length discussions with people who either participated in protests or were interested in the history).  As a result, the game designers are continuing to modify the point system in order reward those who engage more deeply with the subject matter.  Colleen Macklin, the director of PETLab, says they have put on the game for area students and would be glad to offer it as a professional development game for social studies teachers.

There were over a half dozen presentations that suggested how games might be used to improve literacy.  Cosmos Chaos! is an educational adventure game designed to help 4th graders struggling with their reading.  Players collect words, learn their meanings, and them use them to solve challenges.  The game is played on the portable Nintendo DS so that kids can play outside of school.   Designers at Arizona State University’s SMALLab (Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab)   are developing a game to teach ELL students idioms, a challenging subject of second language instruction.  Students pick an idiom card (eg. “running nose”) and then act out the idiom in a space where they act out 3D movements and gestures.   Other projects are evaluating commercial games that provide authentic contexts and motivations for developing literary skills.  One researcher is studying adolescent players of The Sims who use the game’s digital authoring functionality to write, share, and improve multi-chapter stories.    Another group from the Curriculum and Instruction department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who hosted the GLS conference, are analyzing the reading performance of adolescent male participants in an afterschool program where they played the massively multiplayer online (MMO) game World of Warcraft.  So far the study shows that participants performed about two-grade levels higher on game-related texts than school-related texts (taken from social studies textbooks that the participants were assigned in school).

Conspiracy Code was developed by 360Ed for the Florida Virtual School, an entirely online k-12 school started in 1997. The game has been billed as the “First-Ever Complete Online Game-Based High School Course.”  It was the only history game presented at the conference that was not part of CPB’s American History Civics Initiative.  A teacher from Florida Virtual School gave an overview of the game and then let session participants play a demo.  The demo trains students and teachers how to play the game, which unfolds in a futuristic mall-scape (Time Warner Building meets Futurama) where players must stop a vast conspiracy to erase history from the world.  Students must master how to move through the space along with a set of tools and secret powers (use your radar pings!  now the sleep guitar!) which help them collect evidence used to solve historical problems.  To novice gamers, the learning curve just to play the game (much less learn history) seemed steep, though the presenter made a point of saying that the various functionalities are introduced gradually.  If you’re wondering about the history, so were many of us who played the demo for 25 minutes without the distraction of any historical content.  More promising was the series of nine or so assessments, which ranged from in-game tagging of evidence and concept mapping to more conventional graded writing assignments.

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1 Comment
2009 June 14
Josh Brown permalink

Thanks for the report, Leah. It will be interesting to hear more about what’s behind the games. Since we’re in the social history “biz,” I was most curious about Re:Activism. I can’t tell from the website how much actual content/learning arises from participation. Clicking on the Google map, I was struck that some incidents–such as the 1857 police riot–hardly rate as “activism.”

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