May 3, 2010

Kino Masks Your Screen for Customized Distraction Blocking

I was asked recently by a professor for ideas on how students could limit the digital distractions of their life. I knew that a few products were out there but did not have any names to give him quickly. Low and behold, as I was engaging in some digitally enhanced procrastination myself, I discovered an article on Life Hacker about Kino.

Kino is literally a desktop mask that hides the background on your big, gorgeous screen so that you can focus on the task at keyboard ... saving attention so that you finish the project and can later put the digital real estate to good use watching Iron Man 2 trailers. This puts it into the category of tools that self-aware procrastinators, like me, use to manage ourselves. It ranks along side habits such as turning OFF my cell phone, shutting down my email program, and setting a timer in World of Warcraft. These actions make sure that I can hit a project hard, complete it, and move on to actually watching Iron Man 2 in the theater.

Problem is that they are all voluntary. And there's the rub. None of the tools to eliminate distractions work unless a person (student or teacher) wants to engage in them. Oh sure, parents and lab administrators can install programs to actually take the decision out of the hands of their students, but is this really necessary? Or is it actually counter-productive? At some point, teens and young adults (and older adults) need to start self-regulating by turning off distractions or turning on the distraction-muting programs themselves. As any early childhood educator will tell you, learning to self-regulate is a major life skill. If a 13 or 23 or 33 year old hasn't mastered that one yet, it is time for some remedial training.

Truth is, teens and college students are more capable of choosing to limit social media than we may think. Reports are coming in that they are logging off Facebook and other sites in order to improve grades and achieve other goals. One of my favorite blogs, Zen Habits has a list of tips for teens to manage the balance between goals and socializing via media.

The key is that, no matter how hard it may seem, you have to decide that you're in charge of how much of the data stream you will enjoy - and when. I'll keep posting tools to help whenever I find them!

Posted by bjohnson at 12:00 PM

February 27, 2010

Play Responsibly

These days, whenever I blog or speak about the value of video games as educational tools, I almost feel like I should a bumper sticker like those you see on the delivery trucks of alcohol distributors: "Play Responsibly!"

Yes, we all know that some people (adults are as vulnerable to this as kids) spend too much time playing computer games. Do I really have to say it? I do not advocate that anyone spend too much time playing video or computer games. I similarly do not advocate that anyone spend too much time watching TV, reading, running, or hiking in the woods (don't scoff...I have relatives who can't hold a job because of hunting, fishing and trapping addictions - somehow we never hear about those in the media!).

Unfortunately, "too much" is something that people need to define for their particular situation. I can't give you a number, which frustrates parents who ask me how much time their kid should be spending playing games. The answer they are looking for is really, "less than what he is spending now" ... that negotiation needs to be taking place between the kid and his (or sometimes her) parents or guardians.

My general rule of thumb, especially for parents or worried spouses is this ... figure that it is a hobby or a sport. How much time is reasonable for someone to spend - for instance - on reading fiction for pleasure or stamp collecting or something sedentary like that? Use that as your guideline and suggest other, more acceptable uses of time.

A note to parents: if you look at some of the more popular games ... World of Warcraft is one ... you CAN set time limits for how long a child is in the game. Use these tools if necessary in conjunction with discussion and modeling of appropriate behavior. If you have a hobby, use it to discuss the appropriate balance between getting the necessary stuff done ... and having some fun too. Kids need to learn how to balance fun and necessity, so look at this as an opportunity to teach some important life skills. It's not easy, but it is essential for all of us to learn to play responsibly.

Posted by bjohnson at 2:42 PM

December 28, 2007

Review: PeaceMaker

OK, educators in history, social studies, Middle-East culture, and political science, here is a game for you! You'll need to do some work to fit it into your curriculum, but this game has all the marks of a useful educational game that remains challengingly engaging while fitting in both content and episodic/experiential learning.

The game is PeaceMaker by Impact Games. It is a single-player, stand alone turn-based-strategy game available for both the PC and the Macintosh computer platforms. With 3-D graphics and stereo soundtrack, this serious game competes effectively with current commercial entertainment games in look and feel, which adds its appeal among current and new gamers.

Like most turn-based video games, PeaceMaker differs from the stereotypical video game in that it does not sport a lot of blood, shooting, or explosions. The only violence seen comes on the news footage used to illustrate the results of poorly-timed moves. These increase the level of tension and violence in the game, which also generally decreases the player's score and lessens the likelihood of winning. In short, violence is not overtly or covertly rewarded.

There is a lot to like about this award-winning game. The player takes on the role of leader of either the Israeli or Palestinian leader, but the goal of the game is really to find an solution acceptable to not only the player but the opposite faction as well. This is a win/win or lose all game. Neither side can decimate the other if the player wishes to win. While one side or the other can be unhappy about the status, the dissatisfaction of either side cannot dip beyond a certain level before the game is declared lost.

The game itself educates the player about the history and the various competing factions in the Middle East without being didactic, embodying procedural rhetoric effectively. The game's introduction is brief but ends with an interactive time line of the major events that lead up to the status, in 2007, of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. More in-depth information can be requested by the player as he or she weighs options, and the game's feedback system provides additional information about the current situation and probable outcomes as the game progresses. One of the most interesting aspects of this game is the number of factions (local and international) whose opinions must be heeded (to varying degrees) and whose needs must be met in order to achieve peace in the region. The complex interplay between these groups illustrates beautifully how processes can be used to make a point. In this case, the point is that balancing these competing needs over the long term is an extremely difficult task. While it is easy to write that, it is difficult to play it, and I repeatedly lost while trying to find a way to manage the opinions of local and international organizations. That is the difference between rote and episodic learning - and I will never read the paper in the same way again.

Content-wise, players quickly learn where the major cities and regions are located, who are the major factions involved, where holy sites are located, and what barriers hinder a peaceful co-existence. They also must learn - and remember! - historical facts in order to progress in the game. There are too many choices and configurations to allow random guessing, so students will be motivated to learn and quickly recall information.

There is also no one right path through the game, and some random elements will prevent any two gaming sessions from working out the same way. Hence, your students can't use each other's solutions, although they might be able to share strategies to see how well they generalize to different game sessions. From this, educators can make use of game debriefing time to see if students can form theories about conflict and conflict resolution - or turn it around and see if specific theories about what should be done in the Middle East would work under the game assumptions and rules.

Further, the game can be played from either the Israeli or Palestinian perspective, and the game designers encourage everyone to try the game both ways since each leader has different challenges to meet. Even if you do not have time to let everyone play both sides, the competing faction in the conflict is not demonized. In this game world, your opponent is someone with whom you need to cooperate and with whom you share some goals. This is a refreshing look at conflict that is worth bringing into the classroom for its own sake.

You can try it out for yourself for free, although you can only make a limited number of moves before you need to buy a license. At under $20, it is not particularly expensive, and a good deal cheaper than most commercial titles these days. With a promise of lesson plans under development, this game is worth considering as an addition to your spring semester.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:09 AM

December 10, 2007

Food Force

Food Force is a single-player game about global hunger and the complex multi-stage process of getting food relief to needy areas.

Developed by the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) for a relatively modest price of $350,000, Food Force had been downloaded and played by an estimated 4 million players by 2006. An impressive 1 million players had played it within the first 6 weeks of its release. Through this game, the WFP hoped to generate interest among children in the so-called developed countries about global hunger.

This non-violent video game, specifically designed for children aged 8 to 13, has been so highly successful, in part, because it incorporates key features of successful, commercial video games. Six action-packed missions must be completed in a specified amount of time and are scored – with room on the game’s web site for players to post their top scores. The quality of the game itself is a major factor in its popularity. With full-motion video cutaways, 3-D graphics, and a narrative story in which the player is cast as the hero figure, this game looks like many modern commercial games.

Despite the adoption of features common to the action game genre, Food Force still is a game with a message. Through the game, the player is introduced to the various aspects – and difficulties – of food aid operations. The player must pilot air craft, negotiate with rebels, rebuild food production infrastructure, design optimum ration packets, and decide what assistance offered by various countries will actually help in the effort. Through playing the various missions, players come to understand that food aid is a complex, multi-stage process.

Sections of the supporting web site can aid educators who want to integrate the game into their curriculum, with links to related educational sites. The game is a free download from the associated web site and is available for both PC and Macintosh computers.

Posted by bjohnson at 6:33 PM

November 27, 2007

The Encyclopedia of Educational Technology

One thing I love about the web, even if you're avoiding work or killing time, you can't avoid running across useful web sites! Makes you want to find a quiet cabin off the grid .... but, never mind that! Here is what I found:

The Encyclopedia of Education Technology is a searchable and categorized list of topics pertaining to the intersection of technology and education. It is multimedia enhanced, written for educators, and contains references, suggested uses for technology and links for more information.

Frankly, it is awesome and looks like a wonderfully useful tool!

Posted by bjohnson at 5:06 PM

November 19, 2007

Parent Game Review

It is still in beta, but What They Play is a surprisingly useful site aimed at parents who either buy games for their children or who still exert influence over what their kids buy - and play.

I say "surprisingly useful" because the site is well designed and usable as well as being informative without being preachy. Previous entries into the adult-guidance website market have tended to obsess about undesirable aspects of video games such as violence, sexuality, substance use (alcohol in particular), and glorification of criminal activity. This site does not shy away from pointing out that these elements are part of many popular titles, but it describes the content much as a movie reviewer would. Reviewers also remind readers of each game's ESRB rating, which - like a movie rating - should be a first-line guide to any parent wondering if a game is appropriate for his or her child.

The site is searchable via a number of factors. Look through titles by platform, age recommendations, or genre (yes, Virginia, games fall into genres like any other media), or popularity. You can even do searches based on multiple criteria, a rarity among similar sites.

For each game, you can read a reviewer's description, see related games, view the age range other parents think should play this game, and read comments from other parents. You can even join in by voting for the appropriate age range for a game, adding a comment of your own, and tagging the game using Facebook or DiggIt.

I have to say that the one thing I'd like to see on the site is a way to rank each game, similar to ranking a book at - and then allowing for visitors to search for a game by player ranking. Other than this one, small feature, the site is a welcome tool for parents who want to be informed when advising their children in making often very expensive purchases!

Posted by bjohnson at 9:43 PM

April 24, 2007

Civic Engagement In Virtual Worlds, Digital Video Games, And Fan Fiction Sites

Black and Steinkuehler quote a common concern regarding the increased engagement with electronic media: that civic engagement is declining as a direct result (Black & Steinkuehler, forthcoming). It is beyond the scope of a short blog post (or even a long one!) to question the findings of this report, but I can offer examples of intensive civic activity centered on the running of some fan fiction sites.

No doubt it has been noted elsewhere that these fan sites, groups in virtual worlds, and guilds (or their equivalent) in multiplayer games are generally self-organizing. This may be a trivial task in the case of small fan movies created by one or two people, but it often becomes necessary to reflect upon the challenges of organization, control and authority as endeavors become large. Text-based fan fiction sites can become as large as the Gungan Council ("The Gungan Council," n.d.), which still boasts over 8,000 members. Such numbers spark a need and an interest in making some sort of explicit governance to maintain order, provide direction, set rules, and enforce them. Such a monumental task is often beyond the abilities of the founders (usually a core of 1 to 6 members), overwhelming them and causing some sort of decision to spread the administrative load. Such decisions often spark debate and reflection about the topics civics instructors only wish their students would take seriously. Questions such as how to organize the community and how to select leaders are often only the first round in grappling with the challenges of community governance. Questions of security and methodology in running elections arise, effective transfer of power is often not a simple matter, and coping with legacy rules and practices once a new set of leaders is in place vex even the most dedicated new leader.

And this call for a fair system in running a community does not always arise from within, prompted by an internal need to off-load responsibilities. It can come from outside the leadership circle of a reasonably popular site, which was the case with the Jedi Temple ("The Temple of the Jedi," n.d.). When the membership of this group approached 200, pressure from active members forced the ruling group of seven to eventually declare democratic elections. This lead to them to restructure the ruling Council, establish a transparent set of rules for admittance and advancement through the membership levels, and establish firm rules for acceptable behavior on the discussion board as well as rules for dealing with infractions of those rules. Over the course of nearly a year, the public debate on these topics was certainly engaged and often heated as members debated the best forms of government, the ideal qualities of leaders, how to grant sufficient power to leaders but restrict them from inappropriate use of such power and so forth. While the quality of these discussions varied greatly, some members showed exemplary rhetorical technique and ability to reason clearly on issues from the domains of philosophy, sociology and political science.

Admittedly, this is a somewhat dramatic example, but it is indicative of the level of group organization that occurs with any fan fiction site. What many people miss in looking at fan sites of all types is that, whenever people come together to achieve some goal, they must organize themselves in some fashion to achieve that goal. This is civic engagement at its most fundamental, grass-roots level. It is reminiscent of the agora of Plato in which every man present has a voice in running the community. Members of these fan sites take voicing their opinion very seriously and are often willing to be involved, over long periods, with an endeavor that is by no means fun but is otherwise rewarding.

Perhaps, if we believe that traditional civic engagement is faltering, we need to examine why voters are not interested in the ballot box but will spend hours structuring communities built around their hobbies, interests, and popular media.

Black, R. W., & Steinkuehler, C. (forthcoming). Literacy in Virtual Worlds. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer & P. Smagorinski (Eds.), Handbook of Adolescent Literacy. New York: Guilford.

The Gungan Council. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2007, from

The Temple of the Jedi. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2007, from

Posted by bjohnson at 12:17 PM

May 18, 2006

Relationships in Virtual Worlds

File this one under the category "The more things change, the more they stay the same"....

My daughter (a teenager) wrote me to ask for money recently.

She was away from home and had - no surprise - overspent a bit. Just stuff she needed for survival, really, but prices are often higher than expected in a new place, and so she was nearly broke with more necessary expenses staring her in the face.

In her defense, she pointed out that she wasn't wasting money. She was buying food and tools she needed. And she was learning a trade - two, in fact. But the cash wasn't coming in as quickly as she'd been expecting in her new location, so could I spare a bit to help her out. She'd even agree to pay me back. Or trade me something for it. In fact, she offered to let me come to her shop and pick out anything I wanted. Anything.

Now, that was a pretty generous and responsible offer. She has a nice shop, and I've often envied her items for sale but never purchased anything.

We did the usual dickering over "how much do you need" until I finally just sent her half of what I had, which ended up being 5 silver pieces and 26 copper....

"Huh?" I can hear people say as they read that last line.

Yeap. 5 silver and 26 copper. Which is not a huge sum of money anywhere, especially where we were - in World of Warcraft. I don't know what that works out to in US dollars since I haven't seen any official or unofficial exchange rate posted for this virtual world, unlike those of Lineage, Second Life, or Gaia Online. But it really doesn't matter. The important thing was the relationship between mother and daughter gamers playing peers in a virtual world, but often finding ourselves replaying - and sometimes evolving - our relationship as parent and child even in an alternate world.

Virtual worlds and the games played in them often get a bum rap from social observers and educators as being escapist and isolating. A place for social misfits who live on Cheetos and Mountain Dew and who have no social life outside of their world of pixels. An easy way for people to avoid the messiness of real relationships or a trap for those who tend toward addictive behavior and who abandon reality in favor of an alter-ego.

To some extent - with some people - this negative impression is well-deserved. However, I would question that virtual worlds, computer games, or video games are any more (or less) isolating than the television set, which has become the center of many people's evening life. As authors such as Putnam have observed, American society has already shifted a great deal away from engaging in structured or unstructured face-to-face social activities. We are often alone when engaging in leisure activities for a variety of reasons, including convenience and the challenges of scheduling things into our too-full days.

I am often struck by the observation that what we do as part of the gaming "community" is really very similar to what others around us do, with only a minor focus shift. My daughter and I talk about events that take place in Gaia or in WoW in a fashion similar to how people around us talk about their favorite TV shows. LAN parties replace the Sunday afternoon sports gatherings (after all, how often can you stand to see the Vikings or Twins lose?). Online meetings to discuss the direction the guild will take next follow similar paths of social interaction as do the club discussions about the next soccer or hockey season - with the same 5% taking an active, leadership role whether online or not.

Slowly, social research is taking place and finding - in general - that online communities mirror face-to-face ones in structure and in fulfilling a social need. For a beginning list of resources, you can check Constance Steinkuehler's MMOG research page to get a taste of the beginnings of social research into online cultures. But more needs to be done - following methods used to investigate any other culture - so that we develop an understanding based on research and observation rather than our own fears about how things that are different are to be suspect.

It is my tentative hypothesis that, the more we look into these worlds of pixels and our own imaginations that we will find that we recreate face to face society within the virtual one. With its good points and its not so good ones. And that includes how we form relationships and interact with one another.

As Joel Greenberg notes in his blog, Friends Talking (, "if you feel dizzy thinking about Second Life and virtual worlds, stick with it. It soon becomes familiar because ultimately, it's about people." And about the relationships between them.

Posted by bjohnson at 9:58 AM