Games & Civic Awareness

As a recent explorer in the world of educational gaming, I’ve learned that games really do have much to teach–but not just about “content”, skills or problem-solving skills.  I’m talking about a game’s ability to reveal ‘how things work’–in organizations, cultures and politics alike and in doing so help us to see a particular point of view that we might otherwise miss.  Usually this POV is designed to raise awareness and highlight flaws in political systems, organizational processes or as in the case of Peacemaker, global conflicts.  Peacemaker and Ayiti are two examples of such games, but they’re certainly not the only ones.  In fact, those examples are part of a subset of games that are known as “Persuasive Games”.

Persuasive games have the power to help us see how these process work–and perhaps by doing so, civic awareness could lead to civic engagement.  What follows is a short (not comprehensive) list of other persuasive games to check out:

Of course, these games beg the questions:

  • Who gets to decide how these games are written?
  • How does the player differentiate between “facts” provided by gameplay and “assumptions” that the game is based upon?
  • How do we know that what we’re playing closely mirrors “real life”?

Peace…in your time?

Peace?  …Not easy if you’re playing PeaceMakerPeaceMaker is produced by Impact Games and is a game / simulation that puts the player in the driver’s seat as either the president of Palestine or the president of Israel.  A game trailer and demo is available on the PeaceMaker site.

I consider myself barely informed on what is the confusing political landscape that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  This game however, has helped to somewhat broaden my perspective.  As president of either country you get to make strategic decisions about implementing security measures, exercising diplomacy and reconstruction efforts (with multiple options for each).  You can choose to play the game in one of three difficulty levels:  calm, tense, or violent.  If this weren’t complicated enough, you have to make choices while balancing approval ratings with factions within your own government, the ‘opposition’, not to mention the perceptions of the U.N. and the U.S.

This game is rooted in historical context and is “inspired by real events”–so much so that the choices that you make often result in videos from news footage and/or reports of what happened when similar choices were made in history.  I personally find that this game answers a couple of different questions for me having to do with factional divisions and cultural expectations that influence political choices.

Further, there is an in-game “advisor” in the form of a pop-over window that players can consult before taking ‘actions’.  There is both a national advisor as well as a foreign advisor, so the difference between the internal and external views of the impacts of choices made is extremely compelling.  Here are links to some screenshots on the Peacemaker website:

PeaceMaker is an award-winning game that provides hands-on gameplay as it situates the learner in the middle of the conflict, all the while challenging the learner to solve the problem from their perspective.  As the tagline goes, “PeaceMaker: Play the News.  Solve the Puzzle”.



One of the items that I picked up from Prensky’s book “Digital Game-Based Learning” was a reference to a game called “Objection!”.  Objection! is a game that puts the player in the role of a defense lawyer who must judge the validity of a prosecuting attorney’s questions.  Objection! ( is challenging, so if you play the demo, don’t let the “old-school” graphics fool you!

This game is straightforward and well-designed–which is probably why it’s been certified for use by state bar associations, not to mention amazingly well-reviewed by the legal community (

The gameplay goes something like this:  The prosecuting attorney presents a question.  The player then has to choose whether the question is “proper” or whether it’s not based on whether its “vague”, “argumentative”, “hearsay”, or any one of a multitude of options.  There’s contextual information for wrong responses, partial credit and contextual information for so-so responses, and some questions can have more than one correct answer.  Meanwhile, an animated courtroom judge plays the role of the “judge” and will occasionally look at his watch if you’re taking too long and tell you why you’re wrong when you answer incorrectly.

Frankly, if you haven’t had legal training, expect to get stumped multiple times.  I must confess that all the Perry Mason, Columbo and Law & Order that I’ve seen over the years didn’t really help my gameplay all that much :-).

Objection! is one of several series produced by Transmedia Inc., who “develops computerized trial simulations designed exclusively for trial attorneys and approved for CLE credit in 19 states.”

‘Game-based Learning’ – Attention spans

I recently read the book, “Digital Game-based Learning” by Marc Prensky.  [ Prensky, M. (2001). Digital game-based learning. In: McGraw Hill. ] Although I have a critical view of some points made by Prensky, I think there are a couple items that are worth a look over the next post or two.

Presnky cites research previously mentioned by Malcom Gladwell in The Tipping Point, regarding attention span in children while watching Seasame Street.  In (a very condensed) summary, the kids were divided into 2 groups–one that had toys to play with and another group that didn’t.  The kids that had toys watched TV 47% of the time, while the other group watched TV 87% of the time.  What’s interesting is that both groups were tested  for their retention of content from the show–and there was no difference between the scores of the group.  In short, this suggests that the kids were able to successfully multitask.

How does this apply to game learners?  The theory is that kids who play games (probably lots of games) develop skills that allow them to multitask, and to successfully divide their attention between tasks. Although this characteristic has its disadvantages (Loss of ability to reflect, according to Prensky, and I think there are limits to how much we can multitask), learning activities that target this type of parallel processing could be valuable.  Although I generally agree with this idea, I disagree with Prensky that this is symptomatic of gameplay.  Rather, the fact that we live in an information age that requires that we adapt to filtering, analyzing, and using large volumes of data (think day-traders for instance) is perhaps more emblematic of why this type of cognitive processing is important.

Regardless of the cause, if multitasking (to a certain degree) is a skill that we possess, then perhaps games can make a difference in how we cultivate this skill to help people learn.  Is it possible that a reasonable amount of multitasking could lead to greater engagement, while challenging the learner to track and analyze information?

Gaming “Beyond Edutainment”

I’d like to share my thoughts on a dissertation I’ve recently run across on educational gaming titled “Beyond Edutainment Exploring the Educational Potential of Computer Games” (Simon, E.-N. (2005). Beyond Edutainment. IT-University of Copenhagen, Copenhagen.).  Although a comprehensive review is beyond the scope of this blog, I think this dissertation offers an incredibly useful and insightful view on  educational gaming.  Simon Egenfeldt-Nielson, is currently CEO of Serious Games Interactive.  You can find an abstract, BibteX/RIS citation on CiteULike.

Egenfeldt-Nielson offers a comprehensive overview of educational gaming research and educational games in general going back to the 70’s.  Moreover, this dissertation’s study revolves around a group of high school students in Denmark who learned history by playing the game Europa Universalis II.  Both empirical and constructivist approaches were used in the study.

Egenfeldt-Nielson’s dissertation also offers a theory on educational use of computer games that is rooted in experiential learning theory, and is centered around Kolb’s learning cycle.  Among the points that Egenfeldt-Nielson raises includes the importance of balancing “concrete” in-game experiences with teachable moments facilitated by the instructor.  Moreover, Egenfeldt-Nielson provides an analysis of additional factors that play into integration of games for teaching and learning, including cultural and market forces.

One of the most fascinating aspects to this study for me is found in the reactions of students who used Europa Universalis II to learn history.  Despite similar learning performance by the groups examined in this study, some students were critical of whether or not they were “learning” history.  The game (simulation) was well-grounded in historical context, but allowed for students to play in such a way that events unfolded uniquely, and as a direct result of their choices.  So, if a student encountered a situation that didn’t reflect what they had otherwise learned about historical events they might have thought they had missed out on learning something about history.

Therefore, this begs the question—what does it mean to learn history?  Is history the sum total of what we learn of kings, battles & dates of important events?  Is it possible for games such as Europa Universalis to help us learn the –how’s, why’s, & what if’s as well?  If that’s the case, then this raises another question—what should we expect educational games to do for us?  Must they provide everything, soup-to-nuts, that we need in an educational interaction?  Do they need to provide interactivity, engagement, learning context, and content (let’s not forget content) in addition to opportunities for collaboration, reflection & social relevance?  Or, can we find ways to use, or even design games to address specific aspects of the learning experience?

The Cost of Life

Ayiti, the Cost of Life is a game created by high school students in the Global Kids (Digital Kids Media Initiative Program), in partnership with developers from Gamelab (and supported by Microsoft’s partners in learning initiative, btw).  The game is hosted through Unicef, who also provided background on support for youth and education in Haiti, which forms the basis of the setting of the game.  In Ayiti, players participate as part of a Haitian family as they learn, work, and live.  The objective of the game is straightforward–help the Hatian family make decisions that will enable them to earn a living, help their kids become educated, and keep everyone healthy through different seasons and unexpected life occurrences over a period of 4 years.

As I played through several iteration of this game, I was struck by the complexity of balancing life in a small family in Haiti.  This experience highlighted just the challenge–you might say the cost–of life.  We take public education somewhat for granted.  It’s by and large free, and the system provides built-in opportunities to graduate.  In this simulation, education was most definitely not free.  Well, I should say you could take the cheap/free path but in Haiti, this far from guarantees an education.

Combine the costs to an individual family for education with a life of hard labor for those not educated with the costs of basic necessities, and you have conditions that promote sickness rather than wellness and promotes a struggle to live rather than an struggle to consume.

I found Ayiti very enlightening.  According to the game designers, there are win scenarios, although I haven’t yet learned enough to reach them.  Props to the game designers for coming up with such an engaging, important simulation that educates people, while raising awareness of poverty as well as the basic right to be educated.

Test your knowledge, donate rice!

In my recent search for cheap (or free) educational games, I ran across an interesting concept by  This organization works with sponsors like the UN World Food programme to donate rice to people around the world.  The site basically presents questions to test your understanding of vocabulary by presenting words in a way that increases difficulty with each right answer.  For every answer you get correct, will donate 10 grains of rice.  Although this may not seem like a lot, consecutive gameplay over a brief period of time can generate quite a lot in terms of donation.   Why, do you ask doesn’t FreeRice just give away rice if they have it?  The answer can be found in their FAQ.

From the FAQ:
“FreeRice is not sitting on a pile of are earning it 10 grains at a time. Here is how it works. When you play the game, sponsor banners appear on the bottom of your screen. The money generated by these banners is then used to buy the rice. So by playing, you generate the money that pays for the rice donated to hungry people”

This is a neat, neat little challenging game that provides motivation through the satisfaction derived from helping to feed those in need.  It’s simple system of increasing the difficulty of gameplay as you progress also helps to encourage repeat play.

If that weren’t enough, there are several different categories of questions that range from english grammar to chemistry, geography & math.

Answer the question, save the world.

Math is exciting? Really?

If you’re a kid who’s played one of the math games offered by Tabula Digita’s DimensionM series, you might think so.  I learned about DimensionM from the recent 2009 NMC Summer Conference in Monterey (thanks to Bryan from NITLE!).  As part of my survey of the educational gaming landscape, I downloaded & played a couple of games from the DimensionM series.  The series is designed to help elementary and middleschoolers learn about algebra.  In one version of the game, I found myself applying my knowledge of cartesian coordinates by using a HUD (heads-up display) to navigate my way through a mission.  Unlike most game-based HUDs, this one uses an actual coordinate system, complete with negative numbers.  The game demo did a good job at balancing immersion with checks for understanding, while staying “in character” — not an easy thing to do.

After digging around for some press, I read an article from a local NY news station titled, “Video Game Competition Puts Math To The Test”.  The news article highlights a video from an actual live game competition where students put their skills to the test in what’s known as the DimensionM 2009 MegaBowl Tournament.  The tournament is a math competition that uses a multiplayer game system that lets kids compete.  Very Neat – O.

To game or not to game?

Most of the recent posts have focused exclusively on Second Life and virtual worlds.  However, I’d like to turn my attention towards another, albeit related platform–educational gaming.  One of the most interesting aspects about gaming is its interdisciplinary nature.  From the complex cross-section of skills needed to design an educational game, to the cross-section of skills that one puts to use to play games such as World of Warcraft or Civilization, games (or simulations if you prefer that term) have the potential to engage, immerse, and challenge us.  Serious games such as Global Conflicts, Latin America to serious games platforms such as CivWorld (which uses the Civilization game platform to build academic content) provide immersive opportunities for learning.  What are the educational benefits of gaming?  What are the affordances of gaming platforms?  What are the barriers to adoption?  Is it possible to customize or build course-specific simulations affordably?

Plato & Second Life — beta

Last semester I was asked by a philosophy professor here @ SEU if I could build what will be SEU’s first Sim Second Life.  Of course, I said “yes!”–after which time I decided to figure out how to build what was asked.  As it turns out he wanted a recreation of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave–from his work, The Republic.

I took the opportunity to dive headlong into SL — from sculpties to particles to LSL and invisible prims — and constructed what is now a working draft of a sim.  The main premise behind the Allegory of the Cave centers around the question of what life would be like if all we knew came from watching flat, 2-D shadows that were cast on the back wall of a Cave.  We, in fact, would be chained to our family members and would live life this way,  until one day we would escape our bonds and venture into the world outside.  We would of course return to tell our family members what life was really like, but of course…they wouldn’t believe us.  So, our version of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is an attempt to help students explore this concept by presenting them with a cave, and with the opportunity to experience this story for themselves.

The build isn’t complete since the educational content–including background materials and quizzing system still need to be installed–but the core of the simulation is functional.  To visit, go to this SLUrl: .

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