SXSW 2006 Panel: Serious Games for Learning

Monday, March 13, 2006

SXSW Page about this panel

[Jim Bower came off great during the panel, so Tikva, Gilad, and I arranged to meet him later in the evening. He came by the Iron Cactus and we sat around for several hours talking about Whyville, ITP, our Design Expo class, etc. Jim might even come speak at ITP the next time he’s in New York. Very cool. Very smart, easy-going guy.]

Brazell: [Introductions.] The Fifth World. The teraflop challenge of 1995. Produce a computer capable of operating at one teraflop. Cost at the time? $100,000,000. Today? $300 (Xbox 360). By 2011? $1? 2021? Free?

4th generation computing: Ubiquitous computing. A system on a chip, on one platform. Very small. Could be used in a tooth that could control the amount of saliva in your mouth. Why? Certain drugs cause dry-mouth, which can be a serious problem. So, a 4th generation computer allows control of biological and neurological problems.

Coopers law: The capability of wireless communications has doubled every 2 1/2 years since Marconi’s wireless in 1885.

What’s driving this? Science and technology convergence. Bits. Genes. Neurons. Atoms. That’s the 21st century architecture. Nanobionics: interfacing neurons with chips.

Why is this important in the context of serious games? “A renaissance learning evolution is required…”

BioSim 1.0. A serious game. The simulation is the human genome. They stuck that data into a video game for learning. Kids act as a macrophage running around the human body. And. They look for new real features within the genome. The most serious game is constructing the game designed to teach.

A study of the video game industry was done by IC^2. Modders. What’s the new stuff that stands out? Create your own content. This is happening in the video game world, as well. Self-organized innovation networks. Take tech from one domain — gaming and entertainment — and move it into other domains. Games for learning. Games for health. All sorts of stuff. VSTEP. A game that includes a full model of Rotterdam, used for security training. Game made by the UN World Food Program.

Kaplan: Two years ago I listened to that speech. I represent the Army. Retired. Mission: To train soldiers and people. And the Army is going down this road of games. So we can’t always bring soldiers to the US to train them. We sometimes have to send civilians to the battlefield. What’s the best way to communicate with those soldiers? The age is changing. Our kids today are wired. Grew up on Nintendo and Xbox and things like that. The Army is transforming. Built during the Cold War. Not like that anymore. Broad range of soldiers, 21-45. What’s the best way to train them? The requirement was to redesign existing courseware from level 1 to level 3, a more interactive, immersive environment. SCORM conformant. Had to be web-based and stand-alone. Students were squad leaders and had to coordinate an evacuation to a brigade hospital. And other scenarios. [He’s using a PowerPoint presentation that’s hard to transcribe.] We have a digital gap. It’s age. We use cellphones and wired devices on the battlefield, now. Very hard to do, especially when you’re 45. The Army today is blogs, RSS, podcasting, cellphones, IMing, podcasting, wikis, etc. Social construct today: Blogger, Skype, Gmail, Xanga, Yahoo! Messenger, etc. How can we accommodate the Army, incorporating these things? On the battlefield, wherever they may be?

We developed the Medical Leadership Trainer in conjunction with UT and SMU. A video game for learning using AI, machinima, and such. Cutting edge combat sims. Cost millions. We need to train thousands of people constantly. And new recruits are generally gamers.

What is MLT? Unreal engine. [And various other things.] We can make it look like any environment. They plan, execute, and learn. Youth are leading the transition to a fully wired and mobile nation. Communication is the key to learning.

Bower: This is all being invented by 8-14 year olds. I watch that through I’m superid. How do we engage kids? [Shows a video about Whyville.] Numedeon spends no money on marketing. 1,000,000 users by 2004. Whyville is dominated by females. [Showing his own PowerPoint presentation that’s hard to transcribe.] Whyville kids stick around. [Shows a slide about a kids who’s been using it consistently since 2000 and was just elected to the Whyville Senate.] Whyville gets 400 monthly pageviews per user — more than Disney. More people than Denver. Has a newspaper that’s quite good. Girls enjoy games with communication and interaction more. Whyville works through sponsorships from various places.

Introducing Carvatars!

Advertising. Girls 9-14 spend more time on the internet than watching television. Advertising is catching up.

Carvatars. Scion / Toyota is a sponsor. And they want to know how to do marketing on the internet. Banner ads are not the way to market on the internet. The internet is interactive. It’s not a CNN poll, either. It’s humans engaging themselves creatively. That’s interactive.

Marketing will depend on the degree of engagement. Depends on people being challenged and being engaged in play and education. So McDonald’s has to set up advertising in such a way that kids get engaged by the product. They’ve declined to participate in the Whyville nutrition area. So how does your product stand up in this kind of an environment? And how does it change when someone is engaging in and learning about your product? Kids will find out if something you advertise is bad for you. Getting kids into the Scion plant. Getting them into designing a Scion. Right now you can pick from 54 different colors. A year from now, you’ll be able to send a .jpg and design it yourself. God help us, it’s coming. And it’s going to fundamentally transform how marketing, sponsorship, and education is done.

Whalen: I work for Ignite Learning. We do: Science. Social studies. Math is on the horizon. Mostly interactive videos — things you click and watch. Somethings go more in-depth. And that’s what I’m going to talk about now.

We create a whole environment for the students. We call it “Reality, Inc.” The student is an employee-in-training. Reality, Inc. is like a consulting firm. Mortimer Gravitas, the CEO, tells kids their goals and updates them on their progress. [Shows an example of the science game — “When Monkeys Fly: Mechanical Advantage.”] There’s offline material that supports the immersive environment. All of the audio is repeated in visual text. Ignite is in agreement with multiple intelligences theory: people learn in different ways and repetition is important. It’s important to understand that it’s important to make mistakes. You haven’t failed,, you’ve learned something. So we want to get the monkeys to get the bananas. So… [He plays with it.] Because of the grade level, it appeals to humor and entertainment. So it’s fun enough to capture the student’s imagination and attention.

Brazell: Questions.

?: Why do people learn so well in games?

Bower: I have a three hours lecture here, which I can bring up called “The Brain and Learning.” So. When I grew up I played chess. Video games are called games, but there’s something fundamentally different than chess. In chess, there are rules, but no predictable path to success. In games, there are rules, but you’re trying to suss out what the designer wants you to do. So the question is not, why are they more effective. It is: Why do they reflect the way we really learn? The more they involve play, the more they create engagement, and the more you tie into a profound way in which our species learns. About Whyville: The rules that apply to our designs are the rules of physics. The structures are based on physics. The solutions are people working together to figure out the solutions.

?: With Whyville and advertising. What age range are you targeting and what’s your ethical stance.

Bower: I’m okay advertising to someone who can’t buy it. The justification PBS originally gave to allowing sponsors to have slots was that advertising could be educational. But this convergence between marketing and advertising and really engaging people really changes the rules. More legit: A sugar-cereal commercial during cartoons? Or having kids understand something about the manufacturing of cereal. All are rules right now allow advertisers to trick people. We have built in control over the ethics because unethical companies realize they don’t want to work with us. So the school nutrition group is very interested in working with us.

Kaplan: America’s Army has millions of users online. 9 million. It’s a recruiting tool, I want you to realize that. Teaching kids about 10%-20% of what the Army learns through this game. Now we’re looking at recruiting and advertising to a lower age group.

?: Can liberal arts be taught in this same way?

Bower: Well, writing is a liberal art and we have 500 articles a week sent to the Whyville Times. Kids can do just a good a job as our artists. They’ve made 1,500,000 face parts. The Getty is concerned because the kids show up knowing more than the docents. The separating in universities between science and liberal arts and whatever is artificial. Most people work in all of these fields. And in good schools these mix up all of the time because that’s how we naturally are.

Whalen: [Hard to transcribe.] The focus in social studies is not just dates and people: it’s making connections.

Kaplan: Kids are hardwired. They can pick things up quickly and multitask constantly. They do 15-20 things at a time. And if we want to keep them in education, we have to build these constructs for them to communicate and figure things out. Help them figure things out. Coach them down that lane to bring together all of those tools and let them figure it out. They love to discover and build and they do it with social construct.

Bower: This is not easy, the design of this stuff. It’s much easier to just say, “this is what you should know.” That’s why most universities are based on this model. It’s much more challenging to design the structure and it’s hard to evaluate and explain what’s happening.

?: Most of these are PC-based. Do you have plans to make place-based games actually at the supermarket or McDonald’s or wherever?

Bower: our engine is Java. Anything that runs Java can run this.

Kaplan: We’re Java-based, also. we’ve tested our model on a PDA and cellphone. Haven’t even told the Army yet.