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A slightly belated write-up of my Children’s Media Conference experience in July.

This year was my first CMC, and it was great. Good sessions, good conversations.

On the Wednesday Kirsten Campbell-Howes and I, under the #LEGup and edugameshub banner, produced a workshop on turning existing IP into a good educational game. We had around 25 attendees from various organisations and agencies, some of whom, such as Aardman, who had a property they already wanted to work with, and others who were coming at it without something in mind.

Over the course of the afternoon we alternated between group exercises intended to develop a game idea into a full pitch, and informal chats on particular aspects of the process with our expert panel. We had Chris O’Shea of Cowly Owl, Josh Hutson of Nightzookeeper, Mahesh Ramachandra of Hopster, and Phil Stuart of Preloaded, all sharing their wisdom and anecdotes about the games they’ve created over the years. Personally, I learnt a lot from these guys during the workshop and during the prep for it. Hopefully our attendees did too.

The final pitches were impressively detailed, and really rather good, especially considering how little time people had to put them together. You can read a write up for the session with various takeaways here.

Our slides are below:

I was also on the panel for “Achievement Unlocked! How to design, make and sell successful educational digital games”. It aimed to be practical session on the process and business of educational games and was produced by Antonio Gould. We got into budgets, one of my favourite topics that I wish people would share more on (but I also get why they don’t). For the record, when I said that you could potentially get a reskinned game with a basic mechanic for under 10k, I didn’t mean that that was necessarily a good idea… especially for an educational game which usually needs to address specific learning outcomes. You can listen to the session here.

As with the above session, most other sessions have their audio and presentations online, and I recommend having a prowl around the site. Other talks that I thought were interesting were:

The opening keynote from Dylan Collins of SuperAwesome certainly caused some debate. Definitely didn’t agree with him on all counts, but it was still thought-provoking. Can watch the whole talk on that link and do some grumbling/nodding of your own in response.

The research sessions are worth a look. I caught one on pink and blue and gender, which had some interesting info but I didn’t feel really went into sufficient detail about whether the causes of gender differentiation might not be a result of subtle conditioning such as toy colours in the first place.

Andrew Manches’ talk on Transformational Technology went into some fascinating areas of research around embodied cognition and gesture theory. Did you know that our gestures often demonstrate the physical and embodied ways we think about apparently abstract concepts such as number, by imagining them like blocks in front of us, for example? And by disrupting the gestures, you can disrupt the ability to think? There were 9 research sessions in total and I will definitely be having a trawl through the rest that I missed.

The Learning Landscape session brought together a huge panel of experts who debated statements such as “Brands and businesses have no place in the classroom” (I think we need to be much more cautious about this, one panellist thought it was a great idea though); “No one wants to play an educational game”; “There’s no evidence that digital content enhances learning” and “Teachers are afraid of technology, so they won’t use your work anyway” etc. You can read the write up here.

One of the other workshops sounded brilliant, and I’m sorry I couldn’t attend, as was running my own. Olivia Dickinson and Jon Spooner ran a Collaborating with Kids session, which invited 35 local kids along to work with adult attendees on a selection of mini workshops within the workshop. It sounded insane and fabulous. The report is here. Top takeaway: children will be brutally honest, and also: “everyone needs a monkey sidekick”, apparently.

And the definite highlight of the conference was Ylva Hälllen from SVT in Sweden talking about Minimello, basically the X Factor with toilet rolls, as part of the Innovation Forum session. It sounded brilliant. Kids make characters out of toilet rolls, send them in, and they then turn up on the Minimello TV show with songs written specially for them, in the style of their character. The songs were hilarious, and whole idea was just beautiful. You can read the report here and or just watch an episode on YouTube (with subtitles).

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I spent Monday and Tuesday of this week at EVA, the Electronic Visualisation and the Arts conference for which I was lucky enough to get a bursary to attend. It’s a multidisciplinary event, which describes itself as being about “electronic visualisation technologies in art, music, dance, theatre, the sciences and more…” It was certainly diverse. Some presentations were technical or academic, others were more practical, and they were on a range of subjects from a wide variety of institutions and individuals. “Electronic visualisation” covers an lot. I left quite inspired, if wondering on earth to do with all the ideas now whirling around my brain. I highly recommend it.

Here are some of my highlights from the two days I spent there. For the full proceedings go to http://ewic.bcs.org/category/17656#.

Creating Magic on Mobile

My paper kicked off the day, so let’s get that out of the way. I presented (with Alex Butterworth of Amblr) on “Creating Magic On Mobile”. You can read the full paper here, which discusses our experiences creating the Magic in Modern London app for Wellcome Collection (when I worked there as Multimedia Producer). It’s a geolocated treasure hunt set in Edwardian London so the paper covers the use of GPS, audio-visual content and a map based interface to create a historical semi-fictionalised narrative.

It also contains a call for more imaginative use of mobile in cultural organisations, and shows how we attempted to do this with Magic in Modern London, but also some of the challenges we faced along the way (such as trying to overlay a 1908 map onto google maps). It was a pretty experimental project, but also very ambitious, and we learnt a huge amount along the way. It played a large part in my drive to help set up ME:CA (Mobile Experiences: Cultural Audiences).

Keynote: Steve DiPaola “Future trends: Adding Computational Intelligence, Knowledge and Creativity to Interactive Exhibits and Visualization Systems”

Steve DiPaola (a “computer based cognitive scientist, artist and researcher”) gave a fascinating keynote that covered several of his projects. The notes from his talk are here http://dipaola.org/eva13/. These included.

  • A beluga whale pod interactive simulation at the Vancouver aquarium being used both in gallery and as oart of scientific research. This installation allows visitors to observe particular behaviours and test out scenarios.
  • Teaching evolution through art: using “evolved” artworks to help people really get what evolution means, particularly challenging in America, where 60% of people don’t believe in it (apparently). This was done as part of Darwins 200th birthday celebrations.
  • Analysis of Rembrandt’s works to understand his compositions and techniques and their affect on the eye path of the viewer. This work came to the conclusion that Rembrandt had an impressive understanding of vision science 200 years before anyone else.
  • A project to create life-like (ish) 3D avatars that people can speak through to address people remotely, and perhaps anonymously (e.g. scientists having a digital conversation with the public from another country).
  • An analysis of Picasso’s “Guernica” 40 day period of creativity. This mapped all the works created during this prolific period onto a timeline to try and understand the nature of his creative process, how ideas evolved, and how he was influenced by other works.

Timelines

Timelines were also feature of other talks, such as this about “representing uncertainty in historical time”, I didn’t see this presentation but did see the demo later, which looked at turning the works of a composer into a timeline that mapped them against their first performances. Can’t find a link for this, but I was impressed, as with the Guernica project above, at the way a putting data into a timeline can reveal new insight.

More museums and mobile (with added AR)

There were a couple of other museum mobile projects, both of which used augmented reality (AR) in different ways. Timeline Newcastle looked interesting, and quite similar to Streetmuseum in overlaying archive photos onto the modern city (if I understood it correctly). I was particularly interested to see that the Smithsonian Natural History Museum have a very ambitious app in the works called Skin and Bones. It will focus on 14 objects, giving different levels of engagement with each, based on their framework for visitor preferences called IPOP (ideas, people, objects and physical). So for visitors who want to hear about people, they have a meet the scientist option, for physical – an activity, for ideas – an exploration of a scientific concept, and for object – a detailed study of the skeleton some of which used AR to overlay the skeleton with an animation.

I was interested in their concept of using it to raise “visual literacy” ie, helping visitors to understand and interpret what they were seeing  and in doing so increase dwell time in the galleries. They had recognised that users were spending little time in this gallery, except for at a few “hero” skeletons, and surmised that people weren’t finding it interesting because they didn’t know how to make sense of what they were seeing. So in the app, for example, it will show you how a particular venomous snake’s jaws hinge back into their mouth and how you can see that in the skeleton.

They have an impressive (and expensive sounding?!) user testing plan. They are creating two apps,  one without AR and one with to see how that affects visitor interaction, and will be using a beta app path analyis tool called Look Back to help with this (although this feature is also apart of GA mobile analytics as well).

Keynote: Linda Candy “Creativity and Evaluation: Supporting Practice and Research in the Interactive Arts”

This was an impassioned call for making evaluation a key part of the creative process in a keynote from writer researcher Linda Candy. It’s not just about evaluating impact, but also creating new knowledge and new works, she said (but impact also still important, I would add!) and should be fully embedded in practice. For artists creating digital interactive works there are also usability issues they should be testing (do people understand how to interact with it, for example? Is it within reach of children/wheelchair users?).

Obviously, as a huge fan of evaluation, I am very much down with this. Evaluation isn’t just about fulfilling the tedious criteria of funding bodies, but is more about understanding and improving your own work. The evaluation work I’ve done on games has been some of those more interesting and thought provoking work I’ve done.

Other assorted interesting presentations: critical robots, doomsday clocks and more

There were several other interesting demos and presentations.

Stop, my brain is full

There was a whole other day of this that I missed, probably for the best, as by the end of it my head was spinning.

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As I sat in the audience at a session called “Learning To Game or Gaming To Learn?” at last Wednesday’s BBC Academy’s Fusion Summit on games in Salford, I became rather frustrated. The session had been billed thusly:

How far should broadcasters use games as a vehicle for learning? Join some of the finest minds in the field as they wrestle with the future of learning games and the controversial subject of gamification.

On the panel were Mark Sorrell (Hide and Seek), Carlton Reeve (Play With Learning), Tom Kenyon (NESTA), Phil Stuart (Preloaded), John Milner (Bitesize, BBC Knowledge & Learning), and they were being questioned by Kate Russell of BBC Click. Undoubtedly a great line-up, yet it was all rather unsatisfying, and also rather familiar.

This is my attempt to explain and unpick this frustration, which is actually a more general frustration with the way educational games are so often treated with scepticism and distrust. This isn’t really a criticism of those involved in the panel, since it was just playing out in the same way that these sorts of discussions always do, and probably are always expected to.

Starting the session with a discussion about gamification didn’t help. Russell acknowledged that it wasn’t going to go down well with some of the audience, and winced as she said it (as I did writing it, ugh). So much has already been said on this subject, whether gamification is just pointsification, whether it mistakes the extrinsic trappings of gaming for the reason why people enjoy games, whether it should be reclaimed as just meaning adding game mechanics to content and so on.

Most people do seem to understand it to mean pointsification, and I can’t see this having any more than limited value. In this context, it’s also a total distraction. This isn’t really what people are talking about when they talk about games based learning in my experience, so it’s a shame it took up so much of the panel’s time. In fact, it’s a shame gamification has taken up so much time on so many conference panels and sessions over the last couple of years, can we possibly move on from this now?

But it was the next few questions that troubled me more. Russell asked “do educational games work?” And “where’s the evidence?” Now, it’s not that I think we shouldn’t ask these questions, but it seems that these questions are all anyone ever asks about educational games. The implication always seems to be that one should be hugely sceptical of such an outlandish and possibly even NEUROLOGICALLY DANGEROUS (more on that later) concept, and that educational games exponents had better have some seriously good evidence up their sleeves if we are to countenance allowing their nutty ideas into our schools and homes.

This makes me weary. It is really such a leap to see that an activity so absorbing as playing a good game, could be harnessed for learning of some sort? An activity whose very essence is about learning, as you must do to improve in any game? Does it trouble people that much that it might be possible to have fun whilst learning? (Note: not that learning in and of itself can’t be fun, but if there was a better way of educating children that all of them would really enjoy, shouldn’t we be really happy about that and keen to explore it further?) Some of the panel did indeed make some of these points, but were rather on the back foot in the face of this slightly negative questioning. Asked to think of evidence off the top of their heads, they were unsurprisingly unable to cite any academic papers in support of their position.

Gran Turismo Academy was mentioned (by Mark Sorrell IIRC) where players were put in real cars, and performed brilliantly, despite only ever having played the game before.  It’s a great example, but in the rest of the discussion little other evidence was mentioned and the conclusion was that there wasn’t much out there. I couldn’t think of any either off the top of my head at the time, but a google search shows there’s a fair bit out there. I’m pretty sure the military wouldn’t be so keen on using games in their training if they didn’t have some good evidence, for example. But maybe all of us involved with games for educational purposes should be better versed in the literature (and there is definitely a discussion about better dissemination about this sort of research and evaluation to be had at some point).

Testing the efficacy of games in learning is always going to be tricky though. For example, testing existing games may show that some of them are poor learning tools, but you couldn’t conclude from that that all games are poor learning tools or that it’s impossible for games to work in this way. And perhaps this is a rather back to front approach anyway for those making the games. Using what we know about the science of learning and good gameplay to make great educational games, with the majority of the testing taking place in formative stages would surely be more effective?

This week I read the Nesta Decoding Learning report, which makes a similar point about starting from good learning principles when creating digital educational tools, and which I highly recommend. I’ve also had a number of discussions recently with people who are indeed working on this basis, which is great, and it may be that this line of thinking isn’t news to many people working on educational games and technology.

So why do we always end up on the back foot in discussions like this? Why is the default position apparently one of scepticism? Responding with examples of the odd good game based learning initiative or stats about how the games industry is huge, broadly equal in terms of gender, not just played by teenage boys in their…snore… doesn’t appear to be making a difference. I hear this defensive tone so frequently and, hands up, have definitely been guilty of doing this myself in the past. Especially to audiences I assume will be sceptical (science types, for example). I promise to stop doing that now. But I have heard this discussion about whether or not educational games can work so frequently in conferences, articles and from people outside the “industry”, and it never seems to move on.

Perhaps we’re doing it wrong. As I tweeted at the time, perhaps all this defensive navel gazing is counter-productive. Perhaps it’s merely reinforcing the impression that the scepticism is right. I think many others in this area, like myself, know in our hearts that there is much potential here; that there is something in games which could work really well for increasing people’s understanding of subjects, situations, and systems. There may well be aspects of learning that games are not good at too, of course, but I don’t think it’s so far-fetched to think they could be very powerful educational tools.

Let’s not allow the likes of Susan Greenfield and her Daily Mail pleasing nonsense about video games set the agenda around this. She might not be able to point at any actual evidence for her claims, but we can. (On another note, if she thinks games have so much potential for evil, they must be powerful things, and therefore have potential for much good too. And of course they change the brain, as any repeated activity will, and this is not necessarily a negative response, as well she knows. But I digress). Let’s not sit back and wait for others to confer respectability on this area, let’s set examples, continue to do great work, and let’s talk instead about how to deal with the real and meaty challenges facing educational games: reaching teachers, funding projects, being heard above the noise, and so on.

On that note, we do actually get into the genuine issues around games based learning at the London Educational Games Meetup group (LEGup). Please do come along to talk games, share learnings, tell me I’m full of crap, or tell me how you think we can change the tune on this issue.

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