Yesterday I found myself sharing a narrow edge of parking lot marked “Taxi” at the train station in Ypres, Belgium, with a Flemish man who was pacing back and forth. He was late and clearly ahead of me. I was feeling defeated at the prospect of finding my way to a small cemetery outside of neighbouring Poperinge, 15 minutes away to visit the grave of my great uncle, Vincent Mulligan, who at the young age of 21 had lost his life working as a stretcher bearer for the Canadian Field Ambulance at The Battle of Passchendaele. I had one hour to meet back up with my group of touring educators and at that moment I realized that it was not going to happen. That is when “it” started.
“It” is the deep thanks and appreciation that the Belgian and French people hold for Canadians, whose soldiers fought alongside their countries not once but twice in the past century. You read about it or see news clips that sound interesting for fleeing second then disappear in seconds for the next story but it is another things to experience how authentically and demonstrably they want us to know what the efforts of the Canadian Corps means to them. The feeling remains strong even removed by a few generations.
My friend Katy meets me at the adjoining Belgian Fries shop where she asks, in French, about how to book a cab. The woman across the counter realizes we are Canadians and drops everything to place a phone call. She waits with us by the curb to ensure that we connect with the driver, all the time reassuring us that he won’t be long. She understood our task and it becomes her mission to get us to the cemetery.
The cabbie pulls-up and the pacing man immediately jumps to the back door. When he realizes that the driver motions for us to come I brace myself the the backlash. Instead, the driver calmly suggests that he drop of the other man first, then take us the 16 km to Poperinge to find my great-uncle’s grave. Both men were very interested in our trek. En route, he driver explains that his great-grandfather had been gassed during the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915 but somehow survived. Immediately we made a connection with him. By the time we arrived at the Nine Elms British Cemetery out in the Flemish farm lands, he insisted on joining us our the search for the headstone. It became his purpose to make sure we were successful.
We when we finally found Row 9, plot F.1 our driver took all the pictures so that Katy and I could make a grave marker rubbing. I felt badly that we were consuming all his time but he reassured me that this was what he would rather be doing. I could see it in his face. He drove us back to Essex Farm, where John McRae wrote In Flanders Fields, to meet up with the rest of our tour group. When he dropped us off, he asked if he could use our trip as the subject of his daily blog. It was important to him to have my permission to share my personal family moment even though I would never know or see his post. He was quite a guy.
It is hard for us as Canadians to feel the deep sense of appreciation that the Belgians feel towards our nation. Even 3 generations removed from the First World War, their thanks is strong, authentic and palpable. It was a good reminder to me that the First and Second World Wars were fought on these people’s land. Those battlefields were their farms, villages and town. The memories, history and family members form both our nations are embedded in the landscape.
Can mobile media enrich an act of remembrance? Can visitors to memorials, cemeteries and historically significant sites use it to connect with people from past generations and gain perspectives on their lives? There is no question that mobile phones can be a distraction and an unwelcome annoyance. They inform, entertain and connect us, but in the process also interrupt and even intrude into our time for quiet thought. In the next few days, I hope to get a clearer answer to these questions.
Today, I join 36 educators travelling to France and Belgium for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. It will be a five day First World War time shift to Flanders and the Arras region. The highlight will be the 100 year anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial on April 9th. Vimy’s significance is controversial. It has meant different things to different people over the past century. Pivotal battle, legend or myth?: the impressive monument in northern France is said to leave an impression on visiting Canadians that is hard to put into words. I am looking forward to experiencing it for myself.
My Social Studies 10 classes and I have been researching members of the Canadian Expeditionary Force who died at Vimy Ridge between April 9-12, 1917. There are many excellent lessons and resources online that can be used to investigate the records and correspondence of Canadian soldiers. We have been using The Canadian Letters and Images Project from Vancouver Island University and Veteran Affairs’ Canadian Virtual War Memorial to collect digital artifacts from soldiers across the country to create a Walk of Remembrance app. These digital artifacts have been loaded into an interactive app using the ARIS Games platform (Augmented Reality Interactive Storytelling) to be used by visitors on educational tours to Vimy.
The app is intended to enrich the experience of visitors to the area in and around Vimy Ridge as they walk through commemorative spaces like cemeteries, countryside and villages. When the user opens it, they are presented with a short bio, photo and selection of personal correspondence, such as a letter, poem or postcard from a family member. The goal is to introduce a “welcomed interruption” while visitors walk through a memorial space that evokes a connection with the soldiers across time. The men featured in the app will not necessarily the those memorialized at any given site, but their artifacts reflect the the shared dislocation of family members between the Western Front and home.
I am interested in how this app could be used as a place-based learning activity in future educational tours. In particular, I am curious to see how students experience the past in an environment where the location - rather than a textbook, website or teacher - mediates the experience.
Each soldier’s information is brief and is delivered at timed intervals of 45-90 seconds so that the visitor can continue their walk without having to become engrossed in their phone. The artifacts are collected into the app inventory and linked to an ESRI ArcGIS Story Map Journal that plots each soldier's information and media to their home town using geographic information system (GIS) technology. Users can revisit and explore the artifacts at a later time.
I applied many of the lessons that I learned authoring the First World War learning game, Though Poppies Grow. My technical challenges were to create an app that was easy on power and data, functional in areas with unpredictable connectivity, and unobtrusive for the user. ARIS includes the flexibility to use a timing function rather than rely on locational triggers like GPS. It also allows players to download the media beforehand to reduce data usage. The limited number of soldier profiles delivered at intervals will hopefully allow users to stay present in the walk while still perceiving the media as enriching rather than distracting.
My students enjoyed the research process which we connected to The Big Six Historical Thinking Concepts. They also like the prospect of creating a learning resource that can used by students abroad. I anticipate a range of feedback from my educator friends who are willing to do The Walk of Remembrance activity at Vimy Ridge. My hope is that mobile location-based apps can increase empathy, enrich meaning and provide historical perspectives for people while they reflect on collective memories in the future but that remains to be seen. I am looking forward to finding out.
Download ARIS Games from the Apple App Store, then search "Vimy Walk of Remembrance" to begin.
I playtested Though Poppies Grow with 6 colleagues on September 30, 2016 and I now see from first hand experience the value and importance of the process. There will always be issues that surface. Some will be subtle adjustments to mechanics or simply adding some guiding instructions. Others will be glaring misfires or omissions that the designer does not allow themselves to see because they are too augered into the project. In the words of Jesse Schell, games for learning scholar, “the overall user experience is far more important than focusing on mechanics and design.” The Kitsilano teachers who played TPG appeared to value the experience, so by Schell’s measure the playtest tilted in favour of a positive and worthwhile learning resource.
The focus of a game designer in a playtest is to observe the users playing the game to determine problems, unintended consequences and see how they approach challenges. I would like to say that I resisted the urge to intervene but I could not help myself at times, especially when a few of the testers were having connectivity and account issues while others were impatient to move ahead.
I was relieved that ARIS operated glitch-free for the entire test. After weeks of unpredictable and sometimes unexplainable triggering problems, I can confidently report that all game objects, media and triggers worked without a single issue. The only problem on the technical side was dropped and lagging network connections with one of the players that were specific to his phone.
Testers were told to bring ear buds to counter the loud traffic, and to be sure that their phones were fully charged at the beginning of the game. The group completed scenes 1-4, then jumped ahead to the last one so that all downtown locations could be accessed without having travel the longer distance by car to Hastings Park to play scene 5. Even with this reduction in game play, two of the group members would have run out of power after scene 4 if another member had not brought a portable battery pack with him. My lesson here: the size and scope of a game must take power into account when playing mobile games.
The most significant observation I had was that the distance between locations combined with the social nature of traveling in groups inevitably lead to players moving in and out of the game flow and their connection with the story. This disjunction was compounded by texts, phone calls and social media notifications on their phones. Despite these disruptions, the teachers purposefully tried to re-engage with the game; however it was obvious that their attention and immersion had been diminished. I expect that this effect would be more problematic with students.
One unexpected outcome in the way the game was played was a pair of teachers who were sharing a phone alternated speaking the dialogue of the conversations. This is an example a post-game survey suggestion to have players operate in small groups interacting with each other. They could share the reading task to remove the crowding around the device and mediate the requirement to read long passages of text on a small screen. The group as a whole pointed to the need to be able to stretch all visual media like photos, maps and manuals excerpts.
The gamer in the group pointed out the problems with the points system. First, the points have no impact on the game play in Episode 1, so they appear as add-on. The second is that in the identity mechanic, players could gain points by repeatedly selecting the same minorities before advancing to the next stage. He suggested an effective fix, where negative points would be awarded prior to disclosing the options that allows the player to advance. This solution would also addressed the emotional targets of frustration and possibly build empathy towards the player character.
It was clear that some testers were more interested in the subject and story than others. Those that were more interested tended to discuss the game media and narrative while others operated more as collectors seeking game points. My thoughts on this are to reframe the activity as an interactive story with some game elements rather than a game, which most gamers will greet with expectations of a win-state, strategizing and above all - choice, which in TPG are not true choices. They are designed to ultimately convey that the soldiers in the First World War had virtually none.
Another issue was that some players became disoriented locating common vantage points between the game map and real life. Some were not clear that this was an objective. Game info notes or instructions in the opening video should solve this issue. Similarly, some players did not use the pinch-and-zoom function on the map to pan back from a location and orient themselves to the streets and intersections. Two players confused the arrow in the plaque icon with walking directions. I will be replacing all of the generic icon with game specific ones in the final version.
The playthrough confirmed the recommendations that Dr. Jim Mathews made to me recently about the pedagogical and logistical launching of this type of historical learning game. He suggests having classroom session where students conduct a play-through version of the game and have a chance to interact with the media before attempting it on location. This serves the purpose of introducing the game, fielding common questions and watching some of the video that is difficult to hear outside. A version of the recruitment and training mechanics could be done inside or on the the school field. I could adjust the GPS version of the game to bring-in new elements to the narrative and a mechanic that builds on one mastered in the classroom so that students would not be playing the exact game twice.
Ultimately, Though Poppies Grow is a multi-site, multi-stage learning unit. I designed the game to be an interest building activity that would connect to historical inquiry activities on the post game companion site. Mathew’s pre-game scaffolding suggestions are effectives means to begin the unit and increase the likelihood that the learning outcomes will be achieved, and the students enjoy the experience.
I have read I should not invest too much into a single playtest. Educational game companies playtest formally and informally on a weekly basis with new testers. Even so, the efforts of my colleagues to help me out by playing TPG and providing feedback have given me a good deal of observations and ideas from which I can iterate on the game. Distance, engagement and interactivity have surfaced as my main functional challenges. The most important elements from the learning perspective are the emotional targets like injustice, dejection and anticipation that are designed to stimulate interest to the social and historical issues connected to the First World War. This remains to be my main challenge.
I am in Madison, Wisconsin this week for the ARIS Summit, and GLS12 - the Games+Learning+Society’s annual conference. Attendees are typically academics, designers, game lab creatives and teachers. They are ahead of the curve on the subject of games and learning because they represent a big piece of the brain power behind its development.
Like most conferences, the best conversations happen when the sessions are over and the socializing begins. As the ARIS attendees sat around the Terrace, the university’s iconic social hub, there was a moment when the talking stopped and everyone’s attention went to their screens. A “lure” had been dropped on the patio which became rife with Pokemon just waiting to evade capture and be trained.
It is not a stretch to expect this crew to embrace the cultural phenomena of Pokemon Go. Both it and ARIS are after all, mobile locative augmented reality games, meaning that players must be on the move to play them. I was anticipating some lively conversation from the group that would go beyond the explosion of articles, tweets and Youtube videos on the subject. Of course, they did not disappoint. After all, they not only saw it coming, some of them played a role in the ground work that made the game possible.
I have lots of questions about the impact that Pokemon Go will have on locative educational games, starting with will it be a good or bad thing? For the first time, teachers, researchers and gamers can finally explain the basic game mechanics of platforms like ARIS and MIT’s Taleblazer in a single, intoxicating phrase - “it’s like Pokemon Go.” Anyone who has tried to explain this type of game to a teenager and convince them that walking, versus sitting to play a game can be a good thing, can now get their full attention with this simple sound byte. My concern is the expectations that may come with the comparison.
It is early times in the life of Pokemon Go. Readers have undoubtedly encountered clusters of people in public spaces, heads down staring into their phones or wading obliviously into traffic. There are daily accounts in the media of groups intruding onto private property, pursuing Pokemon into risky locations, and even “Pokestalking.” It is even arguable just how much participants are actually looking-up from their screens long enough to truly take-in the stops and sites along the way. At the same time, the potential value of getting outside, investigating new places and rediscovering others cannot be denied. Niantic, Pokemon’s game parent company, knocked it out of the park.
An interesting aspect of the game is that it provides minimal instructions. Online videos and forums on the topic are increasing daily, but the best way for players to learn is by having a good old-fashioned face-to-face conversation with a friend, or talking to strangers at Pokestops and PokeGyms. The sheer number of players available to provide advice makes learning how to play the game very easy. All you have to do is talk to that person nearby who is clearly playing the game alongside of you. It is hard to say whether or not this socialization dynamic was deliberate. Maybe Niantic was just trying to beat the competition to the chase. Regardless, the Poko-community loves sharing what they know.
So will students who are being asked to play an educational mobile locative AR (Augmented Reality) game demand the same user experience (or “UX) as Pokemon Go? Teachers will have to be careful to describe the similarities in broad, qualified terms and emphasize the differences. Otherwise, they may be setting themselves up for push-back by saying that the game in question is ‘like” Pokemon. A safer approach may be to ask them who enjoys it. That way, student interest can be piqued with lots of space to make a comparison rather than a promise.
Will students be so conditioned to flicking Pokeballs and powering-up their characters for battle that any locative AR game that does not do the same will be considered lame and uninteresting? Will their familiarity with exploring and collecting draw them into activity in a bigger way? It all remains to be seen. One thing for sure is that students will have lots of suggestions, which could be the best “lure” possible, especially for classroom-based game design and authoring. My fingers are crossed.
Are historians gamers? How about librarians, museum programmers, archivists, and social studies teachers? Do they have anything to offer game designers? I would normally guess “no” but after a week long Historical Thinking Summer Institute sponsored by Canada’s History Society at the Museum of Vancouver (MOV) where I had the opportunity to engage with these professionals, consulting with domain specialists will be part of my game design process from now on.
Even aside from the conversations, just being surrounded by this community of historians while focusing on new, active strategies to teach history with games creates an environment where ideas emerge. One such emerging idea may lead to improved teacher confidence in using games by making the learning outcomes more recognizable, their application less mysterious, and ultimately encourage them see the value of learning games (also known as serious games).
The conference focused on the “Big Six” historical thinking concepts: historical significance, evidence, continuity and change, cause and consequence, historical perspective, and the ethical dimension, developed by Peter Seixas at the University of British Columbia (the guiding approach in new provincial curricula for teaching history in Canadian schools). We discussed pedagogy, explored MOV, visited the Gulf of Georgia Cannery, went on a historical walking tour of the Athletes Village area with John Atkin, and listened to a presentation by UBC history professor Tara Mayer. We also mashed ideas, suggested priorities, argued approaches and talked about possibilities. In the process, I gained a clearer understanding of participant’s reservations towards including games in their practices on one hand, and their optimism that games could provide some value to history education on the other.
There are good reasons for historians and game designers to be cautious of each other. Historians have seen feature films and TV shows reinvent and spin historical accounts in the name of entertainment. They justifiably assume that games have an even higher capacity to do so. Games are designed to evoke emotional responses and encourage the taking-on of character’s identities. Historical thinking deliberately takes emotions out of the mix. It emphasizes understanding the historical perspectives of people in the past by making evidenced-based inferences about them, rather than “identifying” with them.
My big revelation this past week was to recognize the complementary potential of games and any domain subject. Games commonly generate player interests in the characters, events, and stories that extends beyond the games themselves. The game world is replete with online forums, Youtube channels, conferences, and other places where players discuss and theorize on the settings and storylines. League of Legends, Civilization and World of Warcraft are prime examples. Researcher James Paul Gee refers to this as the the “Affinity Group Principle” where people are bonded through common interests, endeavours and practices.
Unpacking this behaviour has lead me to recognize that it is based on wonder, “what if’s” – or phrased in educational terms – inquiry. Games by their very nature do this. They make us want to know more about the problem placed before us. Initially this may be to progress through the game, but we are far too hard-wired for curiosity not to wonder more about the settings, characters, and situations games depict. Learning games could potentially emphasize the generation of questions, and then connect to activities that deal with domain specific outcomes that have been collaboratively designed by teams that include history professionals.
The appeal of this approach to game design is that the game and the learning activities are separated. The exploration, discovery, and identity-making that generates an emotional response and ultimately stimulates questions from players are not interrupted by the need to “edu-fy.” The formal learning activities can be presented as just that - companion activities - rather than embedding them into the game. When students claim that educational games fail when they “feel like school,” this is no doubt what they mean.
The attraction of this approach, from my perspective as a classroom teacher who is, so far, uninitiated into more formal design strategies, is that the game and the learning activities are related but also distinct. Serious Games begin with learning outcomes and require specialized approaches like the Design, Play, and Experience (DPE) Framework to combine theory, content and design. I will take this deeper dive over time. Until then, separating game play from learning activities while designing for the integration of both feels like good way to go. From the perspective of history educators, this distinction potentially make using games for learning more attractive and practical. I am hoping that my colleagues in the historical community agree.
What do teachers and game designers have in common? According to respected games researcher and linguist James Paul Gee, they are both designers of learning. In the case of good teaching design, the systems they create combine resources, collaborations, mentoring, and tools. Games are one of those tools. Some are educational but most are designed for the entertainment market. The question is, can commercial games really be a legitimate part of a learning system?
Teaching the First World War is a good example. There are a number of video games that use this conflict as a setting for their game play but most are historically inaccurate to some degree or include fictional elements. Like all commercial games, they have to be fun in order to sell. Not surprisingly, most teachers would reject virtually killing people as part of that enjoyment, but games deserve a closer look. They have a place in learning, but it must fit with a teacher’s objectives and the system being designed.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is an emotionally charged 2D puzzler game presented in graphic novel form that tells the interconnected stories of four characters who travel through war-torn Belgium and France. As players progress through the various game challenges, historical facts and collectable objects are unlocked. Despite the fictitious elements in the story, players sense the despair, loss and devastation of the war. Verdun: 1914-1918 is a multiplayer first-person shooter game where players experience simulated trench warfare in a variety of historical battlefields. The authenticity of the settings, uniforms, and weaponry creates a particularly immersive player experience. The futility of the First World War battle strategies and impending sense of inevitable death is well conveyed to players.
There are a number of ways that historical thinking concepts can be developed using these games. One approach is to determine the accuracies and inaccuracies presented in the gameplay using primary source analysis to corroborate or reject the information presented. The ethical judgements and conclusions communicated through the games also provide opportunities to discuss today’s conflicts and reflect upon the degree that our current perspectives have changed or remain the same.
Games offer learning through what Gee calls the situated meaning principle - or learning through action. Contextualized Information is experienced as players actively problem-solve their way through challenges like puzzles, quests, and confrontations. This information becomes meaningful when associated with the images and actions needed to meet a goal. Games are not linear. They allow the player to assume different identities, consider multiple perspectives, and investigate different strategies to solve problems. They provide a context in which to learn, even if that context is a simulation or story.
Perhaps the most direct benefit of games is their ability to stimulate interest on a wide range of topics. Play Valiant Hearts or Verdun and you will find it difficult not be hooked by some event, description, condition, or injustice that increases your curiosity about the First World War. These motivating and familiar tools have currency in the everyday lives of students, who intuitively navigate and understand them. They can be a valuable part of any teacher-designed learning system.
If there is one thing that playing Valiant Hearts: The Great War and Verdun: 1914–1918 has confirmed with me, it is that games live-up to their promise of immersiveness and embodiment extremely well. The process of designing games, with its multiple iterations and rapid prototyping, results in products that enable players to experience events like the First World War in a range of ways that sets them apart from other media. In an industry that now surpasses both music and movies, their popularity is a surprise to no one. Perhaps their effectiveness is more surprising.
Games for learning do not share same scope of interest — especially when they are “imposed” onto students. This does not mean that they are bad, second rate or that teachers should not be using them. In fact, most teachers and students would be surprised at the educational value that they offer. I challenge anyone to play the two games mentioned and not be surprised and enthusiastic about the learning possibilities they envision after doing so.
So here is my question to myself: why invest my time and effort in designing a mobile game for the Vimy Centenary? Me — a neophyte gamer with zero programming skills and only a cursory understanding of game theory and design. My answer is that I get it. I see their value and potential for games in a wide range of educational applications and I recognize the possibilities they hold for learning in the future. Students today spend many hours of their waking days playing games. In the process, they share a cultural literacy that is foreign to most of the teaching generations who drive their education.
Younger generations are now hardwired for design and system thinking but we as teachers have limited resources to leverage these skills. Reading and writing texts will always be primary core literacies but the means by which people experience their lives will continue to change. Education will not be immune. In fact, teachers and researchers are important players in determining how these changes will take place.
Like it or not, games already dominate popular media. If you are still denying or ignoring this fact you have only to look at Virtual Reality (VR). The HTV Vive and Oculus Rift are the leading edge of goggle-like headsets released this Spring that will immerse you in other worlds, responding to your gaze and motions and making you respond to them. Virtual Reality and its senses-overlaying cousin, Augmented Reality (AR) are expected to disrupt the mobile market by $120 billion by as early as 2020 (Dig-Capital, 2016). This new technology will change many industries but the majority of VR applications will be in games.
Ten years from now or sooner, learning games that include Augmented and Virtual Reality will likely be as common place as the students who design them. New curricula should include the multi-literacies that are emerging from these and other new media and technologies.
What am I doing if I am not programming a video game? My project it is an investigation of the game-design process where I will be creating multiple iterations, canvasing the opinions and producing a mobile geogame that does not attempt to replicate entertainment and educational versions. It will likely include elements of student design that build out from the main game and connect with learning activities outside of the game itself. One thing I know: it will change - a lot - before it takes its final form.
Hello, my name is Craig. If you are reading this we most likely know each other or have a connection through friends, family or colleagues. I am a secondary school social studies teacher from Vancouver, British Columbia will complete my Masters of Educational Technology degree from UBC at the end of this year. I have just started my penultimate course - an independent directed study - that focuses on my main interest, games and learning.
I have set myself the task of designing and creating a mobile game. The finished product will likely be some combination of game and interactive story for Canadian students touring Vimy France in April 2017 for the centenary of this pivotal First World War battle. At ten days-in I am already overwhelmed but excited with the process.
I am realizing that my motivation for the project has been driven as much by ignorance and optimism as it has by my belief that games, mobile media and place-based learning have a healthy future in education. I am eager to shed my rookie-gamer /dilettante status and match my interest and enthusiasm with some deeper gaming and design chops.
The advice that I have received so far and the sources I have read all say the same thing: play games to know games, iterate rapidly, seek feedback of those who matter - and listen to them. Jesse Schell, iconic game designer and scholar at Carnegie Mellon University calls-out listening as the most important skill of a game designer: listening to your team, audience, client, game and yourself (2015, p.3).
He also says that “Your first ten games will suck - so get them out of the way fast,” and, “if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough” (2015, p.5). However, my favourite Schell quote so far addresses the need to include as many different perspectives as possible, and speaks to my limited experience and lack of programming skills:
"Game design is more art than science, more like cooking than chemistry" (2015, p.xi)
I have no team but I have a plan...
I invite you to follow my progress on the website connected to this blog where I will be posting game reviews, design documents, links to prototypes, significant findings and reflections.
Schell, J. (2015). The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. CRC Press.