Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Shall we play a game (part III) - Demographics and Hidden Curriculum

In the first part of the series we explored Game Goals and how they influence the educational impact.
After today, there is probably about one more post in this series, namely because I am hoping to share feedback that I have received from teachers and gamers about the series so far, but it may take a back seat to my need to rant about PARCC tech requirements soon. Fair warning.

People are not Lemmings:
Considering the Demographics of Gamification

Popular Puzzle Platform Game Lemmings challenged players to solve
the puzzle before the lemming followed each other to their doom.
In the last post, we dissected the millions of hour played by gamers in the United States and distinguished the games by type, noting that the educational value, particularly what is noted in the research, refers to specific types of games that make up a portion of the games that are a) played or (as some have pointed out on social media) b) may be appropriate to be advocated in a school.

Additionally, there is a lot of data being collected about how different types of games appeal to different people. Genre preferences have been noted with regard to age, access to computers, and family income.  Some of the best data has been scraped from Facebook by the folks at Data Genetics regarding gameplay by age and gender (from 2010):

Call of Duty 4, a First-Person Shooter style game with a strong collaborative component (local or over the internet) is one of the strongest gender-biased games tracked, with over 92% of players being male. Conversely, the infinite matching game Bejeweled Blitz is a casual game that flips the demographic to almost 80% female. Similar analysis shows that changing the subject or theme of the game (but keeping similar mechanics) only slightly shifts the demographics. Casual games tend to trend female (although there is cross-gender appeal) while non-casual games heavily favor male interests.

Thus, as we begin to consider educational technology that leverages the "gaming" label, we have to understand that not only are games not created equal in terms of mechanics and desired skills, but that the appeal of certain games will not be universal in the classroom. Simply put, just because it is a "Game" does not mean that every student will be drawn to it like killer robots to surviving humans (ROBOTRON 2084, how i loath thee)

It's A Secret: Identifying the Hidden Curriculum when It is All Hidden

In the last post, we identified game genre by mechanics. Mechanics are important because that is what you DO in the game (hence, that is the skill that is developed through practice). We have also noted that mechanics is a huge driver in terms of appeal to various demographics. But it is important to note that mechanics is only a part of the overall game. Games are comprised of characters, setting, and in many cases plot and theme. These story elements are the subject of our next consideration.

Most people going through a traditional education program get exposed to the deconstructionists and their ideas of the hidden agenda. I remember in 3rd grade getting new textbooks that suddenly had names of Hispanic origin and girls playing dress-up as doctors and lawyers. A hidden curriculum that had revolved around Caucasian dominance and stereotypical gender roles in the workforce was being, at least, partially addressed in my Grammar textbook.

"Gaming-as-Learning" is full of hidden agendas. In fact, it is even marketed as such. How many ads have been in recent flyers/vendor halls/edtech magazines with catch phrases like "She won't even know she's learning" -- At the point that we have to keep the idea of learning under a bushel, our ears should begin to perk up.

Interlude: A Fashionista Nightmare
My 10 year old was playing a game on her phone (Top Model - Correction: I was informed by my now 11 year old that the game was actually TOP GIRL - The fact that both of these games are in my app store is sad) with a consistency that I found disturbing.  It was a casual game where the player took on the role of a fashion model. While the initial concern was one of screen time, when we sat down with our daughter, she began to describe the game-play:
A Casual Game with a Message -
Just the wrong one
  • When models were doing a photoshoot, they were judged based on the STYLE of clothing, skimpier the better - points awarded accordingly
  • After the photoshoot, they have to run down and get food. If they spend money on SANDWICHES instead of COFFEE and CELERY, they will gain weight and not fit in the clothes worth the most points.
  • In order to avoid paying real money for "upgrades", you may need to rely on your BOYFRIEND who was also able to sit in judgment based on weight, attitude, style, etc.
In discussion, my daughter was able to identify the game mechanics that she liked (choices, casual play, achieving goals, virtual interaction with characters), but did not pick up on the messaging until it was drawn out. The discussion continued as we identified traits in herself and her friends that the game was reinforcing or discouraging. After a long discussion, sometimes awkward discussion, she removed the game from her phone (and discovered the SIMS)
End Interlude

Teachers who use educational games are conveying messages beyond the skills taught in the classroom. Hidden agendas can be as simple as the choice of badge (candy vs. smiley faces) for correctly solving a math problem, the amount of violence and gore that is acceptable in the name of strategic gameplay, or stereotypes that may be present in any number of plot lines.The content of the game can convey messages more effectively than passive worksheets or textbooks ever could for the same reasons that gaming itself is so persuasive -- behavior is modified to accomplish the goals -- in other words, students are taught to ACT differently based on game cues!

But there is an opportunity here: Schools, classes, teachers, and students should be encouraged to approach
the game as a subject for study as well as a tool for skill development or an amusing distraction. At some level, we have to be cautious that we are not letting bad messages get the official school seal-of-approval. But we should also use the games as artifacts for deconstruction. By teaching students to ask critical questions about story and mechanics and feedback, we teach them much more about critical thinking than they might be exposed to when deciding if the best way to kill the pig is with the red bird or the blue one (although to be fair, the red one can carry a light saber).

Up Next (final part???):

  • Creativity vs. Linear Gaming - The MineCraft Effect
  • Gamers' Views on Classroom Gaming

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