The Interest Driven Curriculum and Online Affinity Communities

The more I explore informal affinity communities, like the Civ modder community, or the RPG Maker Community, the more intriguing I find them. While the communities are themselves interesting, I think there are lessons in these spaces for rethinking more formal learning environments. This post is an attempt to refine some of this line of thinking. For the last few weeks I have been trying to put my finger on exactly what that something is. There are lots of individual things, for example the way participants in these communities learn to give and take criticism is important. But, I think there is something much bigger here too.

Here is what I have for the moment. The most important thing that happens in these spaces is that participants experience what it feels like to commit to a project, invest in it, and over a long process, see it grow. At the heart of these communities, I think the real value is in their ability to let a participant chase their own interest and get a feeling for how pleasurable that interest chasing experience is.

Everyone needs to find Flow
This is fundamentally about experiencing a kind of motivation. Csíkszentmihályi calls these experiences flow. It’s a terrible name, but a critical concept. Flow is a kind of single-minded immersion in a task. It is a pleasurable experience, and it is a fundamental part of developing competence and eventually expertise in a domain. The idea of flow can get rather squishy, but it does describe the generic experience of developing competence and mastery across a wide range of domains.

What troubles me, is that I think many young people never get to experience flow in school, and if they do, only experience it in a single domain. I think places like the RPG Maker Community, and Civ Modders sites could serve as tools for schools to use to help give this experience to all students.

I will borrow an argument from my high school gym teacher as an example of what I think schools need to do in this area. My gym teacher frequently explained to the class that the real value of gym class was for for every student to feel what it is like to exercise frequently enough to be healthy. Without that gym class, many of the students would never have felt what being healthy/ fit was. Without that frame of reference, many students who never exercise would not have any idea of how good it feels to be healthy.

If students are not experiencing flow in schools there is a good chance that they will never have a frame of reference for how good it feels to develop competence in a domain they are passionate about. Schools do a reasonably good job at demonstrating some kinds of motivation to students. Every student experiences extrinsic motivation (do your homework or you fail the class), and many students internalize that carrot and stick, (If I do well on this assignment I will go out for ice cream). However, I don’t think many students get to feel what it is like to feel the kind of intrinsic motivation that comes from flow, and without ever knowing what that feels like, what it feels like to get lost in your work, what do those students have to compare their later experiences in work and life with?

There are places in schools that provide these kinds of experiences, like music and art classes, and theater and athletic programs. However, when students experience flow in a single domain, they are likely to attribute the positive experience associated with flow to the domain. For example, a student that experiences flow as a violinist may well become convinced that playing violin is the only thing that makes them feel that way. In this case, they become convinced that there is one thing that they can do. Beyond the need to have this kind of flow experience, I think we need to think about helping young people find that experience in a range of fields.

The Interest Driven Curriculum
When thinking about the value of the Civ Modder’s space, or the RPG Maker Community, what I find most striking is that these spaces and communities provide a powerful means to engage in flow experiences. There are a wide range of other interest driven communities like these. Flickr has hundreds of active photo pools where budding photographers can engage in the same kinds of experience. Galaxy Zoo has a very active community of participants exploring and teaching each other about astronomy. Places like fanfiction.net provide the same kind of experiences for writing about a range of characters from popular media.

Imagine if, for an hour or two a day, schools told students to chase their interests. Facilitators for this kind of experience could well send kids interested in making video games to explore the RPG Maker or Civ communities, Flickr for those interested in photography, fan fic for the kids excited about their pokemons. I think the best way to get students to experience flow is to let them chase their interests. These kinds of web communities provide a great place to get to feel that. At this point, those interest driven experiences of competence are only available to the students that discover them on their own. If we think that equity is one of the most important values of our education system I think we need to seriously think about how we can get these kinds of experiences in the schools.

So Who Are the RPG Makers? Preliminary Survey Results

I am excited to report that i have finished gathering data from my RPG Maker VX community survey and am well on the way toward finishing interviews with a subset of the respondents. For more information about this project see my previous post. At this point I thought I would share a cursory overview of some of the interesting preliminary survey findings. For those survey research junkies out there I should make clear that this survey is part of a qualitative research project. It was developed strictly as a means to gather descriptive data to provide a broader context for analyzing discussions on the site and interviews with community members. For details on the survey methods and response rates jump down to the last section of the post.

This is a community of young people:
Most of the community members are between the ages of 16 and 24, and of those most are between 18 and 22.  As I will document through analysis of discussions and interviews the members of this community are developing sophisticated practices for taking and giving criticism as well as working collaboratively. In this space young people are both the teachers and the learners. While critics frequently lament students motivation and hard work it is clear that this communal space is providing a place for young people to cut their teeth as artists, designers, critics, and producers of digital media.


This is a global community:
45% of the sample reports living in the United States. The rest of the group is spread across Europe, South America, and Asia. A majority of community members reported English as their native language (64%) the remaining 36% represent a smattering of other languages, including Spanish, French and Japanese.

These young people are not just playing around
Most of those surveyed have been involved for more than a year and report spending a considerable amount of time each week on writing, design, and art projects for their games. Group members show significantly different amounts of time spent on different parts of projects. Some spend the bulk of their time writing others spend the bulk of their time creating game artwork.


This is a place where young people are first exposed to programing

RPG Maker VX includes a scripting system, Ruby Game Scripting System, which extends the Ruby Computer Programing language. Nearly all (83%) of the community members report that they have used the games scripting system, and 35% of the respondents reported that working with RPG Maker was their first experience with computer code.

These young people strongly identify with hits from the “RPG Cannon”
When asked about their favorite video games participants cited a mixture of current and “classic” games. To get a quick sense of the kinds of games which appeared most frequently, scan the word frequency chart I generated with Wordle bellow. This is just the raw frequency of individual words, but it is easy to see the trends which emerge around some of the most famous super Nintendo role playing games and franchises. The Final Fantasy series, Chrono Trigger, Legend of Zelda, Secret of Mana, Breath of Fire, all appear prominently on respondents lists of favorite games. It is worth keeping in mind that many of these games were original released around or before the majority of these community members were born.

As RPG Maker allows players to make these kinds of games, it makes sense that these kinds of games are also part of their list of favorites. While some might think of the kinds of graphics and formats for games which RPG Maker creates are a weakness of the software, there is good reason to believe that these gamers love for SNES RPGs connects them to a kind of game and experience which they find deeply engaging.

Surveying a community without boundaries:
It is best to develop a survey with a specific population in mind. Part of the difficulty of surveying a diffuse community like the online community associated with the RPG Maker VX site is in defining the boundaries of that community. The site has over 40k members, and during any given visit to the site nearly twice as many non-members are viewing the discussion boards as members. It would be impossible to accurately sample non-members who visit the site, there is no trace of their visits. With that said, instead of setting upfront criteria for who counted as a community member (based on post count, or number of visits, or the length of time they have been involved in the community) I decided to create a sample of individuals who had logged in within the last week. While this will inherently sample more frequently involved users it would also include a sizable segment of other more infrequent visitors. To sample a cross-section of community members in a given week I used the sites member search system to sift through the total number of folks who had logged in over the proceeding week, in this case it was 1740 members.  From there I sampled a randomly selected group of 160 members. I have received 85 responses, giving me a respectable 53% response rate.

Limitations with the sample
In accordance with George Mason’s human subjects review boards requirements I did not contact anyone who either did not list their age or listed their age as less than 18. In the process of creating the sample I rejected individuals that fell into these categories. Most individuals did list their age and only 10 of the randomly selected members listed themselves a under age 18.

While the response rage is acceptable, I will note two reasons for why members may not have responded. The community message system has used as a mass emailing system for bots. In many cases potential respondents required me to offer a range if kinds of evidence to demonstrate that I was in fact a human before they would click the link to take the survey. Aside from fear of bots, in two cases I heard from individuals who were uncomfortable taking a survey in English because it was not their native language. This suggests that the survey may not fully capture the international character of the community.

Becoming Storytellers and Game Makers in the RPG Maker VX Community

A while back, I wrote a post about a very neat piece of software called RPG Maker. I never really got to building a game with it, but I have become fascinated with the community that has come together around the software.  This post begins a series of entries about a research project I have started to explore how this community is scaffolding game players into game makers. In this post I will briefly outline some of the interesting. The image below shows an screen shot from Prelude to Identity, a well received game in the community.

Image from popular RPG Maker Game Prelude of Identity

Daily Composition on the RPG Maker VX boards

Everyday several hundred members of the RPG Maker VX Community read through a new set of project development posts on the community’s forums. In each of these posts amateur game designers, primarily between the ages of 18 and 24, share 500-1000 word game proposals for community critique. These posts include elements of traditional composition, like the proposed games setting, characters, and storyline. They also include elements unique to games as new media, like the proposed game’s mechanics, artwork, and audio. Over the next few days, each of these proposed projects receives extensive feedback from the community. After substantial revision, refinement, development, and continued engagement with the community, some of the community members’ complete their games and share them with the group.

For an example of some of the thoughtful kinds of design and composition that goes into creating game maps see Mr. Moo‘s video of a follow up game Crescendo of Identity.

Short Outline of Project Methods

I have received permission from my schools human subjects review board to explore the community through a diverse set of methods. I have started conducting a survey to get a sense of community members activity, behaviors, and participation. In a few weeks I will start and a set of interviews with community members to get a deeper sense of how members understand their participation and explore some of the various roles they are taking on. My goal is to then use the survey and interviews to help add texture and context to a detailed analysis of community interactions as preserved on the message boards.

I have already started to get back survey results. I am excited to share some of the preliminary information here in the next few weeks.

Evolution in Spore: A Case Study in Player Agency

Spore is not a good game for learning about evolution. As many have eloquently articulated the games mechanics clearly place the player in the role of intelligent designer. With that said, I think this case provides an interesting moment to explore the relationship between the role the game puts players in and what players do with that role.

While I would agree that the game does not teach people about evolution, I haven’t seen anything about how players are actually understanding and interpreting the game. This is indicative of a trend across game criticism and scholarship. Instead of exploring how games are understood by their players, they are most frequently analyzed with the assumption that any perceived in adequacies in the mechanics of a game will transfer uninterrupted into the minds of the games players.

To underscore the problems that arise in this kind of thinking I present an extreme case. Below is Youtube user, KyoraMishiso’s interpretation and presentation of the game. Kyora is a young aspiring cartoonist who reports her favorite artist as Enriquo Rermi. Two years ago she posted this video, titled. “Spore Evolution” Below is her video.

In this example Kyora has used the game as a platform for telling a story. She is using the game, not the other way around. She took the mechanics of the game and filled in the gaps in the games treatment of evolution with her own knowledge. She then created this video, which has now been watched more than 60,000 times, to articulate her interpretation of the game. While I see no reason to accept her understanding of the game as anything more than a personal one, quite frankly, an understanding of how one individual engages with the game is more than most analysis of the game which I have seen.

I offer this example to illustrate one way in which a player has engaged with the game. With that said, this sort of example should provide a wake-up call to individuals that think understanding games does not require understanding how players understand, interact with, and make use of their game play experiences. While analysis of the game as artifact can provide valuable information about it’s creator’s intentions those intentions are just one layer of a games meaning. Each player brings their own experience into dialog with the artifact to make their own meaning, and I think this example helps illuminate the need to understand the meaning players make as they co-construct their experiences in games.

I think cases like this point out how frequently those interested in studying games start out by asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking, what does a game mean; we should be asking what does a game mean in a given context? We should be looking at how are players using the game and what kind of agency they are expressing through interaction with the game. What argument is the games creator making and how are it’s players understanding, misunderstanding, agreeing with, rejecting, or otherwise complicating that meaning?

A Walk Down Edutainment Lane: Or, What Target Taught Me About Serious Games

Apparently war game sims sell, even oldish ones. Last weekend I took a quick walk through the games section of our local Target to see what new Wii and DS games looked fun. After picking up a copy of Cooking Mama, I took a gander at some of the games on the next row of shelves. The next aisle over offered an extensive selection of games, each priced to move at $9.99.

It is kinda like the minor league for commercial video games. There are major league veterans, like Civilization III, riding out their final years. Other games, like the rack of historical battle games pictured above, just never had what it took to make it to the majors.

A Walk Down Edutainment Lane


Alongside these games, I also found a slate of old edutainment favorites, Math blaster, Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego, all the games I use to play on 3.5 floppies. What are these games doing here? The original Math Blaster was released in 1987, Carmen Sandiego in 1985, and Oregon Trail in 1971. While these editions are clearly updated, for example Math Blaster is now in 3D, from what I can gather they are really just better looking ports of the original games. Are these the educational equivalent of Mario and Donkey Kong? Are the core ideas behind these games so strong that we just haven’t topped them, or do publishers just go with what’s safe? Furthermore, what is the market for these games? I would assume the audience for these titles is still the same, targeting parents who want to buy educational games for their kids, it’s just that now they’re marketing to parents that grew up with these same games.

Simulation As A Way of Knowing: First Reflections on Will Wright's Keynote at the 5th Annual Innovations in e-Learning Conference.

It’s not everyday that one gets to swoon as a big time fan boy. Will Wright spoke at the Innovations and e-Learning Symposium and I had the chance to stake out a spot right in the center of the room and soak up a bit of Wright’s visionary gamer visions. Beyond making some of the biggest games of all time (SimCity, The Sims, and Spore to name a few), Wright is also one of the most thoughtful game thinkers around. Below are a few of the pieces in his approach to his sort of games that I think are the most interesting/ innovative/ and crucial.

picture-20

1. Simulation itself is a powerful, and constant way in which everyone understands the world. We are always creating models of what will happen, how people will react, based on our schema’s and our experiences which ultimately inform our actions.

2. The games he builds create possibility spaces. You make your own stories, you have the ability to restart and take a different branch. On a very basic level this like the branching narrative you get in those old chose your own adventure novels. The bigger sandbox worlds we see in things like Civilization, The Sims, and GTA offer much more sophisticated multidimensional trees, but the concept is the same.

3. For Will when gamers play games they are actually reverse engineering the game as they play it. While a parent watching their child play Wolfenstein might be taken back by the violence Wright suggests that Kids see the higher level of abstraction the power-ups, a door to the next level. In their minds its more like playing chess.  They are abstracting the grammar of these game worlds. Inside the mind of the player they are honing in on the elements, the design decisions, the mechanics that make the game work and testing their theories, making choices and taking the feedback the game provides to refine and improve those theories. In his opinion the “Best games are the games you keep playing after you walk away from your computer. The games you keep playing through in your own imagination.”

I have a lot of mental digestion to do on this talk, but I have one first thought. If we need to think seriously about the role of the reader when studying a text that need is at least ten times greater when studying the relationship between the gamer and the game. The possibilities afforded by the game are just so much larger. I have some more thoughts on this but I will pick them up later.

Design Rationale: Playing History

This week in Clio Wired: Creating History With New Media each of my classmatees has been diligently working on composing a design rationale for each of our projects. Below is my rationalization. You can also view it as this PDF.

Related to this I thought folks might be interested in the slides for the presentation I gave on Playing History at the American Association of History and Computing’s conference over the weekend.

Re-mixing The Tech Tree: Build Your Own History Of Science

A few weeks back Rob Macdougall posted a great essay about using the game Civilization’s approach to the history of science and technology as a point of entry into conversations about models for representing the history of science and technology more broadly. Rob’s students picked apart the way the game allows players to develop science and tech. Student’s then proposed their own ideas for how to model the history of science in a video game.

There is a lot of excitement about games and education but so much of that fervor misses a crucial point at the heart of Rob’s assignment. Games, like other media (books, articles, films, etc.) express arguments in their content. But it’s not just the content of the games that make arguments. In most cases the most compelling arguments in games are actually embedded inside game mechanics. As Rob’s students uncovered, the structure of the tech tree itself makes assumptions about how progress, science, and technology work.

Rob’s assignment is in fact so fun that there are all sorts of gamers that do exactly this sort of thing for fun. Civilization has a sizeable Moder community, which spends a tremendous amount of time building, tearing apart, and remaking the way science and technology work in the game. For an indication of the tenaicty of this community take a look at this book length post on editing tech trees in Civ 4. More impressive than the posts length are the 150 comments from modders thanking and critiquing the work. For another view on the community check out this Civ Asia scenario. Many of these moders are going well beyond tweaking the game, for example in this thread some are working on put different civilizations on completely indpendent  trunks.

The tech tree is such a facinating entity that it provokes all sorts of gamers to get into heated arguments about how the history of science and technology works. In the face of this sort of evidence it is hard to support notions that limitations in the way Civ models history give gamers a poor conception of the way history works. On the contrary the enthusism of these moders seems to suggest that the mechanics of Civ provoke gamers to think more deeply about the nature of science and technology.

Strategy and Scope: Readings In Digital Humanities Project Management

One of the first steps in constructing a digital humanities project is to define your strategy and project scope. This week in our creating history and new media class we had a great discussion about a topic most of the class had not really considered, what I would call project management in the digital humanities. Our discussion centered on two books, Communicating Design: Developing Web Site Documentation for Design and Planning and The Elements of User Experience: User-Centered Design for the Web. Both books tell roughly the same sort of story, Communicating Design focusing more on working as part of a team and Elements focusing more on the conceptual layers involved in a digital project. Both proved to be invaluable assets to our conversation.

[openbook booknumber=”0321392353″]

The books hit home two central points for digital humanists. First, although both books are effectively about making websites the first two thirds of each book has nothing to do with (what I sense most folks think web design is about) laying out content on pages. This brings us to the second crucial point in both the books. That part of the books that isn’t about laying out content is all about users, your hypothetical users; What do they need/want? Why would they come to you instead of some other project? And a slew of other fundamental questions.

The class assignment for this week dovetails quite nicely with this set of readings. Each group’s goal was to set out their projects strategy and scope, a document fundamentally grounded in the first two thirds of these books. I have posted our groups scope and timeline below. Jim Safley and I drafted it through a Google doc. I posted some language left over from a grant application I had worked on last semester and edited it down a bit to something I thought would better fit our time constraints (little) and our funding (none). Over the last week or two Jim and went back and forth editing the doc and the timeline to refnie our conception of the project.

Strategy and Scope: Playing History

A flurry of interest has arisen around the potential of digital games, simulations and interactives to promote humanities learning, spurred in part by a growing body of research on the value of educational games. Foundations and universities have invested millions of dollars into developing these games, yet many are built, tested, and promptly shelved, played by only a handful of students during the pilot testing phase.

There is no comprehensive directory to connect teachers with these resources. If high quality educational games, grounded in current academic knowledge and at the forefront of the digital technologies, are to reach teachers and their students, there is a clear need to build a collaborative directory for sharing information.

Playing History offers a chance for the humanities to take the lead in integrating educational games in the classroom. The project team will aggregate information on approximately 30 games that are currently available online. We will make these resources available to teachers and students through Omeka, a standards based, open-source web publishing platform.

The resulting website will allow teachers to search by time period and historical keywords, helping them to integrate the games into their lesson plans. Together, these efforts will lay the foundation for a communal directory, offering teachers a place to review games, attach lesson ideas, and eventually add additional games.

Through development of this collaborative directory the project will begin to shed light on the best approaches for developing future education web community projects as well as insight into the state of historical games and simulations available to educators.

It is unfortunate that so much money is invested toward developing educational games but they are largely unknown to the teachers who could put them directly into use. With a comparatively small investment in Playing History, we can create a single place for teachers, historians, and educational researchers to find, evaluate, and use the highest quality games.

Playing History Work Plan

2/09, Create “game” data schema (see Appendix)
3/02, Install and modify omeka, map schema to Dublin Core, create “game” item type
3/11, 10 game sample set added
3/23, Sitemap and wireframes
4/06, Design rationale
4/20, XHTML/CSS mockups
4/27, GuestLogin plugin and RateReview plugin
5/03, Additional 20 games added to repository
5/04, Final Project

A Few More Site Ideas For Playing History: This Time From Mega Man

One more round of site theme ideas. I think I might really like this round. Do folks like these more or less then the last batch? I did not fill in all the content for these, just a few boxes and headings to give a sense of the concept. Each of them would take a bit more work. These are generated out of cut up shots from mega man, so I would be mushing and chewing on those original images a bit, but I thought I would share these.