April 20, 2010


I hate to start out blogs with this .... but this blog is about a concept that is NOT ready for education ..... yet. Before I could require students to use a social networking application for class, I would HAVE to ensure their privacy and allow students to control who sees different types of information. And, I'd also have to include some sort of statement on my syllabus about the fact that harassing another student using the tool would be grounds for disciplinary action. *Sigh* You can teach students content, but you'd think their parents or kindergarten teacher would have taught them to be human beings ... but onto the tool ....

The tool, as it says in the title is Foursquare. This social networking app for the iPhone, Droid, and the Blackberry makes use of the ability of smart phones to know where they (and presumably you, the owner) are located (called "location awareness"). By combining your location with information (created by others) about where other things (businesses and other people) are located, you can record where you are over time and broadcast that information to others nearby. In the social world, that lets you find your friends on a night out. It also lets you see where your friends have been, giving you some indication of places that you might find fun and interesting too. That's assuming that you enjoy the same things that your friends do ... or are extremely open to new experiences.

As an educator, I get excited by this because of the "tip" and "to do" feature built into some apps, like Foursquare. This could allow me to map out an experiential tour of a city or a building or ecosystem for my students, using the "to do" feature. For each location, I could have them look for something specific or do something ... like take a water sample or a picture of a building. And they could also make notes of their own at each location, uploading the results of a water sample, for instance.

Once done with the tour, I and the class could access the notes each student put up. By combining observations over time, we could show how research teams actually DO analyze samples, show the variations in data and how we use statistics to assess them, map results, etc. This is not a new idea - researchers such as John Martin and Kurt Squire have been working on augmented reality games for science inquiry for several years. The stunningly wonderful thing is that these simple apps made for social networking could be re-purposed for education. And given the number of students who already have these "phones", we rapidly loose the need for specialized, expensive single-purpose devices ... needing only to address how to provide access for students without the means to own a smart phone.

And while I cannot argue that smart phones are inexpensive, they are still often much cheaper than the laptops we have been requiring them to purchase through various laptop initiatives. Plus, the phones are significantly more resilient as well as able to access data much more effectively in the field.

Something to think about ... and for some bright developer to create for Foursquare. If you want to see an educational use of this program, check out and follow the History Channel's excellent list of tips in Foursquare. They even have a tip to see the Minnehaha Falls!

Posted by bjohnson at 9:05 AM

December 1, 2009

Currently playing: World of Warcraft

Yeap. After experimenting with Second Life (again) for 9 months, I'm shifting my leisure activity back to a polished game while I await the release next year of the Star Wars MMOG.

Yes, I research in WoW at times. More often, however, I still play it for fun.

Why? It runs smoothly and looks great. I know that the art style is not for everyone. It is a little more cartoon-like than, say, Guild Wars or Lineage. But there are still many times when I move into an area and just look around, appreciating the hard work some artist put into designing even out of the way, infrequently visited areas. It's lovely, and is a special break in the middle of winter in the northern US. For people who live in urban areas, I imagine this aspect is even more compelling.

The game has many dimensions and appeals to many levels of game play from casual to hard-core. Depending upon my mood, I can run around an unspoiled wilderness to explore, fish, and gather herbs or engage in a major battle to free a fortress with a hundred other close friends and allies. This explains some the game's huge popularity, and a reason why my family all plays it together. Anyone can legitimately participate in the game and can pick the activities and level of difficulty that suits them.

You can even decide, strangely for a multiplayer game, how socially you want to play. My husband generally plays by himself, happily completing quests and depressurizing from his very social and stressful job. Where my daughter and I tend to be more social players, actively contributing to our guild's progression through the hard, end-game battles.

And, it is simultaneously, a place where I can go to challenge myself to master skills I'm not good at (a hunter who cannot kite or jump-shot ....oy!) while also ensuring that I can accomplish something and mark it off my "to-do" list even if the rest of the day has been a bust.

So, it is a game I come back to again and again for recreation between bouts of playing other games for work. A rough life, I know. But someone has to play the other games to explain them to you!

Posted by bjohnson at 7:37 AM

November 17, 2009

World of Warcraft Pro and Con

Catch this article about the uses and abuses of the fantasy MMOG World of Warcraft: http://curbonline.com/world-of-warcraft.

Posted by bjohnson at 9:41 AM

September 22, 2008

My Weightloss Coach (Nintendo DS)

This cute, little game provides playful, positive enforcement of healthy lifestyle behaviors that should help most people make improvements gradually. Its major emphasis is on getting you to move more, an essential factor in sustained weight loss and long-term health. Focusing on easy adjustments, such as a gradual increase in daily step count, this product should fit into the life of most American adults. It accommodates a wide variety of pre-existing fitness levels, allowing you to count nearly any movement from housework to karate in your daily minimum of 30 minutes of exercise.

The way it tracks your calorie intake each day is particularly friendly, and a great improvement on most fitness programs I have tried for handheld devices. Tossing aside detailed lists of foods that make recording intake a time-consuming chore, you select foods from categories based on average number of calories for average-sized servings. Nearly any food can be accounted for, even when eating out.

The program is educational in a friendly way and provides customized feedback and suggestions based on your preferences and the results of mini-assessments. You have daily objectives and challenges to meet - some are playful and funny. But every objective met is rewarded in terms of miles traveled to interesting sights.

There are some downsides and places where the game can be improved. The provided pedometer is a little bulky. After I dropped mine for the last time, I picked up a $5 replacement that works just fine; you just enter the numbers by hand. The food lists also do not give you feedback on nutritional value of choices. The program itself reminds you to eat a diverse diet, but you could live on junk food with this game and still make your objectives. Finally, there is no way to correct mistakes, and I frequently have to fudge (no pun intended) what I eat in order to log something close to equivalent in calories.

For the classroom, this sort of game has a major disadvantage: only one user can use any particular cartridge and save data. There is no multi-user capacity with this game, unlike some other education titles (think BrainAge). That's particularly sad since there are mini-quizzes included in the game to test your knowledge about nutrition. It would be fun to compete with other players to improve scores and advance the furthest around the world!

Posted by bjohnson at 11:58 AM

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

September 11, 2007


Travian (http://www.travian.us/) is a browser-based multiplayer real time strategy game with simple, straight-forward game play. Basic memberships are free.

Each player is the chieftain of an evolving community, developing resources and buildings and gaining territory. The number of choices is limited, which makes it easy for new players to be acclimated quickly. There are three types of civilizations, four resources. The types of buildings and fighting units are significantly higher, but players have time to get used to those details during the first few days as the core village develops. Many aspects of game play should appeal roughly equally to male and female players, which can be a tough balance to juggle.

Activity reports may involve violence (opponents raiding villages to carry off resources and kill military personnel), although there is room for diplomacy and negotiation with other players. Violence is never seen, however. The player is far removed from the action, getting letters and reports about results without actually seeing conflicts. Depending upon the player’s inclinations (and actions of other players), the focus of the game can be upon creating a flourishing civilization or military strategy or both. There seem to be few, if any puzzles or mysteries in the game, so the tilt of the game play is more to the male-attractive side of the spectrum, but with opportunities for both genders to enjoy the game.

Travian requires socially oriented play since no one can avoid the actions of other players in this game. The top players on each server are in wide-flungalliances. The quality of the interaction between characters is entirely up to the players. Think Civilization but with people behind the other players rather than a good artificial intelligence program.

The setting is marginally fantasy-based, being an idealized medieval setting. This is not a Tolkein-ese world, nor is it a neighborhood you can imagine living in. The neutral color scheme for the cartoon-quality graphics is easy on the eyes and should appeal to a wide range of players.

Some aspects of the game will probably appeal more to boys than girls, however. The lack of a female character (the only identifiable individuals are all various types of male fighters) with whom the player can identify, trial and error early game play, and the real time strategy genre itself may turn some girls off the game. The core point of the game is to control and develop territory – which will not appeal to all kids.

Educationally, it is potentially useful for teaching ratios and change over time. Planning community development can fit into many lessons on math and information technology, social studies, or history. Players need to consider the effects of upgrading a wheat field vs. another resource, for instance, in order to keep their people fed and secure. It is also good practice for negotiations, team building, and may shed light on points of history (such as why cities where build where they were).

For schools, the two biggest challenges will be getting around the network firewall to access the site and explaining to parents that this game is an educational experience.

However, he pace of the game may also be a problem for some players and schools. Building up resources takes many hours of time in real life. The good news is that a player does not need to be logged into the game – this process takes place automatically in the persistent world. It has the potential to teach patience and planning, and get around the frantic pace of many console games. The bad news is that, since the game is active 24/7, players may feel a constant need to check up on the situation in their village.

Travian is a fun way to engage some basic planning skills over a relatively long period of time in which short bursts of activity are focused on the game. It could be used to reinforce concepts like ratios, cost-benefit analysis, team work, strategic planning, It is a game in which choices make a great deal of difference, and a player can definitely go backwards in the standings unless he or she learns to play well, which should give players an incentive to understand classroom concepts in order to achieve their goals.

Keep in mind that this, like any game, will not teach concepts and skills. It may pose the problem statement that will get kids interested in learning some concepts. Or it can be used to reinforce and get them to practice skills to which they've been introduced. It should be integrated into a larger lesson plan. And always plan for the worst - which in this case would be that a game server would be unavailable during your lesson or class time.

If you try it and like it, let me know. Better yet, spread the word to colleagues!

Posted by bjohnson at 8:09 AM