Saturday, December 21, 2013

Game Design in Education

What makes a good educational game? 

This semester I included a section on games and game design in my authoring tools course, a graduate level course in the Educational Technology MA.  It's the first time for this unit, so I was interested in how it was going to go, and I kept the parameters and assessment loose.   I'm very happy with the work, and I hope many of the students continue with their games.   

As I review the students' work I' have made some observations on what would make a good educational game:

Fable Table Game
Fable Table: A game where students create fables
from remixing elements of existing stories.
  1. The game cannot simply be an assessment (any Jeopardy-like game is a nonstarter).  
  2. At its best, the game should teach something, not just reinforce.
  3. The game should give a kids with a variety of subject area knowledge a chance to be engaged. e.g. it doesn't reward kids for what they came into class with.
  4. The game mechanic should be the message. i.e. the skill, habit, knowledge should be baked into the game play.
  5. Engaging and fun
  6. Simple instructions
  7. Low barrier to entry
  8. Try to avoid a zero-sum/winner-take-all objective 

The element of luck helps to move the game from an assessment and gives kids with different abilities a fighting chance at engagement, dice, wild cards, switches, and reversals.

Competitive games that have a strong assessment element just reinforce traditional teaching and reward the advanced students and stigmatize the struggling students.

I must admit that I was a skeptic to games in education.  For every student who loves Monopoly, there's one who hates it.  However, there's something about the 'timelessness' of games that makes me respect them too.  Almost every civilization has used them for teaching, culture, and socialization.

Here's the actual assignment:

Develop a Game

Games have been defined as:
“One or more causally linked series of challenges in a simulated environment” --Adams and Rollings
“A system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome.”-- Salen and Zimmerman

You will design a board game, a card game, video game, online game, a web-based game (not a webquest).
Game Criteria
Your game should have:
  • A worthwhile objective for playing the game. This is not the objective of winning the game, but the objective of playing the game…e.g. the game objective of SuperBetter is to score a certain number of points but the objective of playing the game is to get mentally and/or physically healthy.
  • Inviting and low-barrier to entry (invite people to continue once they start and increasingly challenge them them as  they continue)
  • 3-6 core mechanics (main, important actions a player does).  “The mechanic is the message”
  • Increasing challenge
  • Rules

Feel free to think of an existing game and modify it.  
Your game should have a short explanation (3-4 pages) and a working model.

  • A description of the objective of the game
  • A description of the core mechanics and an analysis of why they work in the service of the objective of the game.
  • A description of the rules
  • A description of how the game would be played, with an emphasis on how it starts and how it gets more challenging
  • Influences or inspirations (this can be other games, books, experiences)
  • A working prototype of the game (card game, board game, etc.)



We use the work of Institute of Play's Gamekit as well as these books.


Koster, R. (2004). A theory of fun for game design.  Phoenix, AZ: Paraglyph Press.

Mcgonigal, J. (2011). Reality is broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.  New York, New York: Penguin Books.

Salen, K.  (2007).  The ecology of games:  Connecting youth, games, and learning (p. 278).  Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Salen, K, Torres, R, Wolozin, L, Rufo-Tepper, R, & Shapiro, A. (2011) Quest to learn: Creating the school for digital kids.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.  Available online at

Salen, K. & Zimmerman, E. (2004). The rules of play.  Boston, MA: MIT Press.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Visitors from H.R. College of Commerce and Economics, Mumbai India

Last week I had the privilege of presenting some of my work to a group of educators from Mumbai.

My focus was on how remix (the digital thing kids do at home and post to Youtube) has important connections to history, culture, cognition and globalization...and it can be a powerful teaching tool.

After the talk they gave me so many new ideas, I was starting to regret that I talked so much in my presentation.

Below is the presentation, and an article about their visit from

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Creative Constraints and Teaching

According to The Design Council, six 8-studded Lego
blocks can be put into over 900 million different combinations.
The core of the issue is this:  when you tell most people to 'be creative' on demand, they'll freeze. When you give them 3 crayons, 6 legos, or 17 syllables, they'll make something interesting.   They'll learn, they'll think deeply, they'll get creative.

This concept has been employed by playwrights, computer programers, architects, and CEOs.  It's worth looking at in detail. 

One feature of my work that I'm going to explore more is the concept of 'creative constraints'.  It's been a big but unspoken part of a lot of work that I do, including the six sounds project.  In the six sounds projects, participants get a short tutorial on audio editing, and then have to create a one minute story using six sounds (phone ring, engine, heart beat, match strike, splash, crickets).

It's been a popular activity for ISTE, NJAET, and classrooms around the world.  I've heard comedies, dramas, sci-fi..and quite a few camping stories.  This goal of this isn't just to teach audio editing--but the power or remix, the power of people to take the same group of items and synthesize them into new kinds of creative blends.

I've experienced this myself and used it in my teaching. However, I've only recently focused on the research behind this phenomenon--'creative constraints'

The concept of creative constraints is that creativity and innovation are fostered not by complete freedom but by limits.

In my research on creative constraints I've come across examples from poetry (Lehrer, 2011), computer engineering (Mayer), management, architecture (Sturt, 2013), and improvisational comedy (May, 2013).  It's also one of the fundamental principles of game design (see Salen and Zimmerman's seminal work The Rules of Play--the title tells the story).  Any time a concept is useful to playwrights, computer programmers, and CEOs, it should be taken note of.

When people work within restrictions, they test boundaries, challenge assumptions, and innovate with a set of resources.

One recent example of this in my work was when I was with a group of English teachers in Massachusetts.  They were struggling with teaching The Odyssey.  Kids were frustrated with the language and lost with the plot.  The textbook's emphasis on the historic background was not helping matters.   So, we brainstormed on the 'big ideas' of The Odyssey.   What ideas, language, knowledge and skills do you want kids to have from this?   We came up with the concept of a hero's exciting and serendipitous journey and the use, beauty and power of epic similes (similes and metaphor are some of the original remixes, IMHO).  We came up with the recipe for the 3-Minute Epic.

The 3-Minute Epic employs filmmaking, remix, and creative constraints to engage students in these ‘big ideas’ of epic poetry.

In the Three-Minute Epic students must create an adventure story with a set of ‘items’—particular images, sounds, and epic similes from The Odyssey. This can be a model for working with other literature or history topics.  They can use a variety of technology--from PowerPoint, Photostory, iMovie, or Final Cut Pro.

However, sophisticated editing and technical skills are not one of our goals, so I would keep this as simple as possible (hint, PowerPoint).

For Students:

For this project you will create a three-minute digital story using existing language and media.

It should be an adventure of a 'hero'. It is up to you to determine, and eventually explain, what is adventurous and heroic about your story.

Your final project should have images, narration, and sound effects; music is optional.

In your story, you need to use the following similes from the Odyssey. ( What kinds of experiences can these descriptions apply to?):

  • some animal surrounded, dreading the gangs of hunters closing their cunning ring around him for the finish...
  • some lion of the wilderness that stalks about exulting in his strength and defying both wind and rain; his eyes glare as he prowls in quest of oxen, sheep, or deer, for he is famished, and will dare break even into a well fenced homestead...
  • an octopus, when you drag one from his chamber, comes up with suckers full of tiny stones...
  • a judge at the end of a day at court, who’s settled the countless suits of brash young claimants, rises, the day’s work done, and turns home for supper...

You need to use the following images in your story:


Striking a Match

You need to use the following sound effects in your story:

Beating Heart

Chirping Crickets


  • It must be between 2 and 3 minutes
  • There has to be a story with a beginning, plot, and conclusion (extra credit for starting "In Medias Res")
  • You can cross genres and mix your epic with true life, drama, modern, comedy, detective, romance, action, fantasy, horror, scifi; the setting can be contemporary, historic, fantastic, etc.
  • No profanity or use of personal information
  • It can have characters and a narrator, just characters, or just a narrator.
  • You can add images, sound effects, and narration, but you must use the quotes and media above
  • You can get pictures from the Web or use original images (e.g. a close up of a group member as the hero/villain)


Story is between 2-3 minutes (pass/fail)

25% Plot Elements--story is entertaining and coherent with an engaging beginning, action throughout, and a clear conclusion.

25% Mix--narration and media elements complement each other; audio is clear and read with appropriate tone

20% Required Elements--all required media and quotes are used appropriately to tell a story; similes compare different things

20% New Elements--new images, sound effects and music advance the story

10% Hero and Adventure--each member of the group can explain why the main character is a hero and why the story is an adventure (odyssey, epic, etc.)

References on Creative Contraints

Lenrer, J. (2013) Need to create: Get a constraint. From Wired Magazine Online, retrieved November 23, 20013 from

May, M. (2013). How intelligent restraints drive creativity. From Harvard Business Review Blog Network, retrieved November 24, 2013 from

Meyer, M. A. (2006). Creativity loves constraints. From Business Week Online, retrieved November 29, 2013 from

Sturt, D. (2013). Creativity: How constraints drive genius. From Forbes Online, retrieved November 24, 2013 from

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Sound of Science: Remix and STEM

Here's a course that I am teaching for the HP Catalyst Academy--it's called "The Sound of Science"

It's interesting
It's free
You can register here.

This mini-course explores the educational possibilities of digital audio creation in physical and life sciences. Digital audio is a powerful and growing medium inside and outside of education, and participants will learn how to use it to communicate complex topics, capture field experiences, enhance visual inspections, and augment real or hypothetical locations — all with common hardware and free software. Explore ways to edit, mix, use, and teach with accessible audio editing technologies. Four projects within the mini-course will build upon educators’ technical, creative, legal, and ethical knowledge and skills.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

From Blocks to the Boardroom: A Systems Approach to Educational Technology

Why does technology often seem underused in classrooms?

What's the best framework for using technology in educational setting?
blocks to robots book
What can systems thinking teach us about the use of educational technology?

How can technology be used effectively in a class with a wide range of learners?

When you drop a new species into an environment, why does it often die or wreak havoc on the host ecosystem?

The last question may seem out of place, but I believe it offers a key to why technology often underperforms in educational settings.  By 'underperform' I mean it does not match our experiences with this technology outside of schools, such as with an iPad, or it just seemed so much better on the showroom floor.

fifth discipline bookThese are the questions I plan to investigate in Using Integrated Software in Spring 2014.   I've found some interesting research--from technology in early childhood education in Bers' From Blocks to Robots to Senge's Fifth Discipline.  We'll also explore Universal Design for Learning, Khan Academy, and flipped classrooms in between.  Our focus will be on the environmental factors that enable successful uses of technology--a systems approach.

 The course will be a combination of short research papers and hands-on technology projects.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Maker Movement

I've been introducing the concept of makerspaces to different students and people (as well as being a participant observer at a fewmakerspaces). It connects and extends my work in DIY media, and I've found it to be a lot of fun for me and my kids.

Enjoying Soldering at Hoboken Makerbar 

The Makerspace movement is a relatively grassroots phenomenon in which people meet to explore a variety of DIY Projects. These can include sewing, microcomputers (Arduinos and Raspberry Pis), 3D Printing, video making, toy making, welding, etc. Though microcomputing and 3D printing are common activities, the maker movement is characterized by a variety of digital, mechanical, and craft activities. Here are some helpful links.

Seven Things You Should Know about MakerSpaces 

How Making Stuff Makes Science More Appealing to Kids from PBS News Hour

Make it @ Your Library from School Library Journal

ReMaking Education: Designing Classroom Makerspaces for Transformative Learning from Edutopia Magazine

Monday, July 22, 2013

Shakespeare for Everyone: Working with Students with Severe Disabilities

This is some work I'm doing at a school for students with multiple disabilities.  

This was originally posted on the Folger Shakespeare Library's Making a Scene Blog in July 11, 2013 and reposted here.
Shakespeare can be a powerful tool for the cognitive, emotional, social, and linguistic development of all kids.
I saw this phenomenon when working with the students of A. Harry Moore School in Jersey City, a comprehensive school for students ages 3-21 with severe medical, physical, and cognitive disabilities.   This year a group of 14 students did a variety of production-based activities with Shakespeare, culminating in a performance of The Winter’s Tale in June.
Students take a bow after performing The Winter's Tale.
Students take a bow after performing The Winter’s Tale.
A production-based approach is where kids come to understand Shakespeare through performance and technology—using Shakespeare’s Language.  It’s based in the Folger Teaching Method, and it’s great for all kids for several reasons.
1)      It is a deeply immersive experience.  In this case, students were dancing, sheering sheep, getting pursued by bears, consulting oracles, and coming to life from marble statues.  They were engaged like they would be in a fun game or an exciting sport.
2)      These are fault tolerant activities.  You do not have to do it perfect or right to make it work well.
3)      There is a wide zone of engagement.  It’s been said that engagement occurs when there’s a balance between skills and challenge.  If a person is over-skilled, then boredom sets in.  If a person is over-challenged, then frustration sets in.  A teacher can easily balance skills and challenges with a production-based approach.
4)      It’s a great tool for building students’ executive function.  Executive function is a relatively new and helpful way of looking at brain activity.  It’s a combination of planning, working memory, multiple perspectives, and impulse control.  The methods of a production-based approach develop executive function.
Here are a few of the activities that worked for us.
One of the activities we used was “Shadows,” a method for students to get familiar with the physical space of the theater, experiment with their range of motion, and understand the contrasting emotions of the main character of The Winter’s Tale, and the catalyst for the action of the play, Leontes.  In “Shadows,” one student acts as “Good” Leontes and another student follows as his “Shadow,” enacting contrasting lines from “Good” Leontes.  Leontes wore a white mask or hat, and Leontes’ shadow followed wearing a black mask or hat.
LeontesLeontes’ Shadow
Stay your thanks a whileWell said, HermioneToo hot, too hotI am angling now
Seven-Minute Version
To better understand the plot and the language in the play, the students frequently performed “Winta: The Seven-Minute Winter’s Tale”.  Every student enacted at least one line as a teacher read the narration and cued the students.  The lines were designed for both readers and nonreaders, who would say their lines with a prompter.
NARRATOR:  Leontes is sorry (12).  But it’s too late.  His wife is dead and his baby is gone.  Antigonus has taken Perdita to Bohemia and leaves her in an abandoned place (13).
Student lines:
12)  I have deserved all tongues to talk their bitterest.
13) There weep and leave it crying; and, for the babe is counted lost forever, Perdita.
Emotion Chart
AHM Emotion Chart
Chart with different degrees of emotions
A frequent reference during many of these activities, rehearsals, and performance was the emotion chart.  It offered visual cues for nonreaders and some subtle emotional distinctions for the more dramatic players.  It was based on the work of Christine Porter in Mary Ellen Dakin’s Reading Shakespeare with Young Adults.
AHM Shakespeare 2013 -3
Three students smiling after performing The Winter’s Tale
Creating sound effects for the play–using voices, Foley techniques, and audio editing tools–was fun, engaged us in the text, and was a real crowd pleaser during our performance.  We used the Audacity audio editing program to create numerous sound effects (e.g. party, bear, sheep, crying baby, stone breaking apart).
Adaptive Use Musical Instruments
AHM Shakespeare 2013-4
Student using AUMI
One piece of software that was particularly useful was Adaptive Use Musical Instruments (AUMI).  It allowed students with limited mobility to create music for the show.  A user can create music or activated sounds with a variety of gross motor movements.
Embedded Word Files
To use the sound effects and music during the show we embedded they audio in a Word document.  These sounds added production value and also worked as a memory device for the actors.  Embedding mp3 files in a Word document is a standard, though underused, feature in Word that proved valuable during activities, rehearsals, and performance.  We opened the file with the script and played the sounds along with the production.
AHM Embedded Word File
A screenshot of a Word file with audio embedded
Good Script and Prompting
Our director Terry MacSweeney from Actor’s Shakespeare Company did an excellent job of abridging Shakespeare’s language to a 30-minute show.   He devised a system of cue cards, scripts and prompters that aided our actors just enough.
In Conclusion…
This was the Actor’s Shakespeare Company’s fifth production at A. Harry Moore.  This year the work was a part of the NJCU Educational Technology Department’s Partnership and Projects Program.
The production was organized by Marissa Aiello, a speech language pathologist at the school, with assistance by Matt Masiello, a speech language pathology intern.
Christopher Shamburg is a Professor of Educational Technology at New Jersey City University.  He is a workshop leader and consultant for the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Education Division.