Category: Xbox

No Need to Reinvent the Wheel to Revolutionize Educational Video Games

(Fellow blogger Tom DeRosa and I are trading posts this week. He runs the excellent blog, I Want to Teach Forever. Be sure and take a look at his book, too.  Details after the article – JR)

I am not a gamer. I don’t own any consoles, and the only game I play with any regularity is Tetris online. When I look at video games today, I usually see them through the eyes of an educator. This is why I’m so convinced that everything we need to make paradigm-shifting educational video games that kids will actually play has already been created. Instead of starting from scratch, educators need to team up with innovative video game studios and merely tweak the powerful learning-based game models that already exist.

My revelation came over winter break as I was visiting my family in New Jersey. What was to be a very busy holiday turned into a week of me sitting on my Dad’s couch, sick as a dog. My father has an xBox 360 and regularly plays games that involve running around and shooting things (first person shooters or FPS in gamer parlance), none of which I’ve had interest in. This year he was focused on a game that was very different, where he was given a wide open world with innumerable choices and methods of achieving goals and completing tasks: Fallout 3, widely regarded as one of the best xBox titles ever (if not best video game ever).

It is a mix of first person shooter, role playing game (RPG), puzzle (in the vein of Myst or Riven) and open-world exploration (like a single player Second Life) on a scale that by all accounts is hard to find elsewhere. In this game, you make decisions that change your character, and who you are changes the possibilities of what you can do.  You solve difficult problems, most of which have more than one answer. It’s the kind of thinking that we want students to do in school, that we know they need for college and beyond, but it often gets buried beneath rote memorization and test-prep strategies.

Fallout 3 represents a world of well-designed, immersive, and most importantly popular video games that have most or all of the structural elements that make learning possible. These elements are now fairly common in top games:

  • Players make decisions that effect not only themselves, but the world around them.
  • Players are faced with multi-step problems that require logic and reasoning skills.
  • Collaboration and cooperation is encouraged (if not required).
  • An engrossing story creates a context that’s fun and far different than their school-influenced concept of “learning”.
  • Players are given small, specific tasks to complete, keeping meaningful goals in clear sight.
  • Each small task completed is often part of a bigger picture, and each one opens up the possibility for other tasks that keep the player going.
  • Most tasks or problems have multiple solutions.
  • A comprehensive, fairly automatic system tracks players’ achievements, and can be referred back to at any time.
  • There’s some level of freedom to explore and to choose which tasks they will do first (or at all).
  • Often, tasks require or would be made easier with background knowledge of a subject players might not already know about. They are often forced to look up and learn about these topics if they truly want to reach their goals.
  • Players are encouraged to go back and replay part or all of the game differently in order to reach measurable goals.

If you replaced the word “players” with “students” above, wouldn’t this list appear to be the features of an excellent, high-achieving classroom?

The immersive video game of today encourages, even requires learning and higher order thinking. The structure is there. More importantly, let’s not forget that these games represent the most popular and ubiquitous games available, with a generally bigger audience than movies and TV shows.

The only thing missing is for educators to partner with the studios to incorporate content across the curriculum, taking advantage of what’s already there. Isn’t that what the best teachers always do?

This is a guest post by Tom DeRosa, aka “Mr. D” of I Want to Teach Forever. You can find more ideas, resources and inspiration for teachers on his blog, or in his book Ten Cheap Lessons: Second Edition.

What Can We Learn from The Settlers of Catan?

I’ve been catching up with my paper copy of the April issue of Wired, and came across a great article by Andrew Curry on what is widely considered the world’s greatest board game: Die Siedler von Catan, or in English, The Settlers of Catan.

The story Curry weaves is fascinating. Germany is the world’s epicenter for boardgames, selling hundreds of thousands every year and drawing fierce competition for the annual Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year), the Pulitzer Prize of German boardgaming.

Master gamesmith Klaus Teuber spent four years perfecting Settlers, running beta versions past his family and tweaking the competitive elements. Released at the Essen Game Convention in 1995, it was an instant hit, and has gone on to sell over 15 million copies in 30 languages.

Derk Solko of and Jesper Juul both have nice quotes. Pete Fenlon of Mayfair Games, the company distributing English versions of Settlers, helps to fill in details regarding its popularity:

“When a lot of us saw it, we thought this was the definition of a great game … In every turn you’re engaged, and even better, you’re engaged in other people’s turns. There are lots of little victories—as opposed to defeats—and perpetual hope. Settlers is one of those perfect storms.”

A hint at the educational potential of the game could be found in a comment by Russ Roberts, an economist over at George Mason, who indicated Settlers was perfect for teaching the free market system to his children. Settling the game’s island requires the administration and trading of resources. Different resources become scarce or plentiful and require skills to manage and barter.

The next frontier the game has to conquer is the American marketplace, where traditional titles hold sway. Herr Tauber indicates the plan is to introduce video game versions for the Xbox and PC. The hope is this will provide the boardgame version of The Settlers of Catan a stronger foothold in the American marketplace (nearly a quarter million copies have sold in North America since last January).

German boardgames in general are showing impressive gains in popularity over here. Jay Tummelson of Rio Grande Games estimated his company sold a half million licensed copies of German games for American markets last year. Meanwhile, Herr Tauber has launched to introduce the game to audiences online.

Curry, A. (2009, April). Monopoly killer: Perfect German board game redefines genre. Wired, 17(4). 60-72.

Latest Nielsen Findings Show Interesting Video Game Statistics

We’re always hungry for more data on video games, the more recent the better. The good folks over at Nielsen have been recording console use for some time. They figure if an activity is taking place with a television set, they’d better collect that data. Also, they have monitoring software for computers that collects gaming and software usage from volunteers.

This newest report from Nielsen on video gaming, for both console and computer use for 4Q 2008 has some interesting info. Read my write-up for Associated Content here.


Study: Roommates with Consoles May Cause Lower GPAs

One of those lovable academic rapscallions at The Irascible Professor, namely Dr. Sanford Pinsker, recently discussed a paper by Ralph Stinebrickner, over at Berea College, and Todd Stinebrickner, over at Western Ontario.

The Stinebrickners published their paper in the Berkeley Electronic Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy. At first glance, the study would not attract the attention of researchers interested in videogames. The title and abstract do not hint at videogames, but rather the mundane effect studying has on college student grades.

Subjects were recruited from Berea, where roommates are randomly assigned. Students assigned to roommates who brought a videogame console system to college with them spent less time studying than those whose roommates did not bring a videogame system. To wit: if you go to college without a gaming system, and your roommate brings one (Playstation, Xbox, or Wii), your grades will suffer. Dr. Pinsker summarizes:

At Berea, those students whose (randomly selected) roommates had video games earned significantly lower first-semester GPAs: for males, 2.74 vs. 2.98; for females, 3.03 vs. 3.16. Students with a roommate who brought a video game to college report playing video games 4.06 hours per week; students with roommates who did not bring a video game report spending 0.79 hours per week. The first group spent 2.9 hours a day studying; the second group reports spending 3.6 hours a day studying.

I’ve discussed this paper before, back when it was a work in progress. As I pointed out then, the effects gaming consoles have on GPAs as shown in the paper, while statistically significant, remain negligible in practical terms.

Military Outreach: Giant Videogame Lures Recruits

Joseph De Avila has an interesting front page article in The Wall Street Journal this morning about Virtual Army Experience, a life size videogame the Army trucks out to state fairs and other events to give potential recruits a taste of military action.

There are four versions of the exhibit, which cost about $9 million to develop. Almost $10 million is spent each year setting up the exhibits at various venues around the country such as Six Flags Amusement Parks. The exhibits are huge, almost 20,000 square feet, and involve life size Humvees, helicopters, and “guns” that visitors can use to “shoot” bad guys on large video screens.

Participants enter a dark, inflatable dome. They climb into one of six modified Humvees or two Black Hawk helicopters. Each vehicle, mounted with fake M-249 Squad Automatic Weapons and M-4 rifles, faces three huge screens where the videogame is projected.

Players fire air-pressured guns, meant to mimic the recoil and kickback of real ones. The ethnicity of the bad guys they shoot at is ambiguous. The rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire blares from the game’s speakers and the Humvees shake from the simulated blasts of roadside bombs. Some participants hoot and holler. Despite the nature of the game, there is no blood or guts on screen.

Scores are higher if players only shoot people in uniform; they lose points for firing indiscriminately or at noncombatants.

After the videogame experience, players meet with real soldiers in a sort of “debriefing” that focuses on a positive military message. Participants fill out contact information before playing. Those meeting the Army’s criteria are contacted by recruitment personnel shortly after. About 55,000 people visited the exhibit last year, and about 2,200 met criteria and expressed an interest in volunteering for military service.

The military always faces criticism for its recruiting efforts, from being kicked off college campuses and in some places chased out of town. Naturally, the notion of using videogames for recruiting has faced sharp criticism, too. De Avila spoke with one young man who brushed it off, saying, “Beer companies have hot women. They have a videogame.” Due to complaints at a music festival in Wisconsin, the Army modified the game portion of the exhibit so players shot targets instead of the usual race-neutral terrorists.

De Avila, J. (2008, July 28). War games: Army lures civilians by letting them play soldier. The Wall Street Journal. p.A1.

One (Video Game) Controller to Rule Them All: Game Technology Invades the Military

Military reporters were buzzing this week about the new Universal Control System (UCS) from defense contractor Raytheon. The device is designed to control unmanned aerial vehicles (AEVs), and borrows liberally from videogame technologies.

Mark Scott from BusinessWeek reports from England:

On display at the biennial Farnborough Air Show in Britain, this next-generation ground control system for the likes of General Atomics’ Predator UAV has more in common with the Sony (SNE) PlayStation 3 than with the Northrop Grumman (NOC) F-14 Tomcat made famous by the classic 1980s movie Top Gun.

David Hambling over at Wired notes a variety of videogame technologies are finding their way into military applications.

- A Wii-mote controller is used for bomb disposal robots

- X-box contollers are used for piloting drones and robots

- The world’s fastest computer, to be used for nuclear simulations, is made using chips originally designed for gaming systems

- DARPA is developing technologies for ground forces from gaming chips that include radar, mapping, and tracking of enemy forces in real time while a soldier is in combat

Hambline, D. (2008, July 19). Game controllers driving drones, nukes. [Online]. Retrieved July 20, 2008 from

Scott, M. (2008, July 16). Raytheon taps video games to pilot drones. BusinessWeek. [Online]. Retrieved July 20, 2008 from

The Top 5 Platforms for Creating Educational Video Games

Several games out there claim to be educational. Some are more or less so, depending on how one defines “educational.” The list of potential platforms for creating educational videogames is long. Many a fine game has been coded in a variant of BASIC or C, for instance. This list tends to focus on platforms for games created by university researchers and governmental organizations. In that regard, I make a value judgment by inferring that, in general, a game created by a governmental entity, a museum, or university personnel tends to be more “educational” than others.

Anyway, that’s my bias in creating this list. I’d love to hear additional ideas or justifications for inclusion regarding a platform I’ve left out.

1. Neverwinter Toolkit

Commentary: Many solid educational videogames have been developed to run on one of the iterations of Neverwinter Nights using the Aurora Neverwinter Toolkit. Many of these have been designed by teachers for their classrooms, and not released to the general public.
The game itself is completely modifiable, making it fairly easy to manipulate for desired educational outcomes. Teachers can insert dialogue, send students on quests to hunt for artifacts or other virtual ephemera, and set up pedagogical situations within the game. Although it’s a full 3-D virtual interactive environment (VIE), complete with anthropomorphically correct avatars, its runtime requirements are relatively light.

Example: Revolution continues to be the defining mod for Neverwinter Nights, showing what’s possible on the platform. Although it’s getting old (ca. 2004), Revolution continues to draw interest from academics and others.

Main Site:


2. Civilization III

Commentary: Professors and teachers have long been enamored with the idea of using games in the Civilization series for teaching history and social studies. Even better is the idea of modifying the game so that students can garner specific objectives. Nebulous concepts such as characteristics leading a people group toward dominance over their neighbors, as well as more concrete concepts such as locating settlements near water to help ensure success, are transmitted to players in the game. Modifying Civilization III is encouraged by its parent, Firaxis Games, with players urged to upload their maps and mods to the main site.

Example: The History Canada Game from Canada’s National Historical Society and The Historica Foundation shows how a country’s history can be explored through gaming.

Main Site:


3. Flash

Commentary: When it comes to creating an educational game for a museum or government agency’s online site, Flash is the program of choice. As popular as it is, there are beaucoup sites with Flash games, some purporting to be educational. Unfortunately, many are very low on learning quotients, requiring little more than thoughtless arcade skills. On the other hand, many museums and governmental agencies have added excellent educational games to their sites that teach kids something, and promote the organizations’ goals at the same time.

Example: America’s CryptoKids is a collection of Flash games and activities from the US National Security Agency. The site shows how government and museum sites can create games in Flash to attract younger audiences online.

Main Site:


4. Java

Commentary: If you’re going to make a serious game for the Web or other applications, and you don’t want to use Flash, then Java, the cross-platform language from Sun, remains an excellent choice. A major plus is the language is ideal for mobile phones and other devices, as well as for many types of computing platforms.

Example: The National Library of Virtual Manipulatives from Utah State University offers a variety of online Java applets designed to convey mathematical concepts. Originally funded with an NSF grant, the site now offers a CD version by mail.

Main Site:


5. XNA for the Xbox & Windows

Commentary: A relative newcomer to this group, Microsoft’s XNA is designed to create games for Windows and the Xbox. In a huge usage boost late last year, Microsoft released XNA free to universities and college students. According to their promotional department, over 300 universities worldwide have adopted XNA as a platform for teaching programming skills. Although it has only been freely available for a few months, look for this platform to become heavily used by universities to create educational games in the future.

Example: The XNA Creators’ Club has a role playing starter kit, Role-Playing Game, that allows developers to easily drop in content.

Main Site:

Wii Go to School: Academic Uses for the Popular Console

The latest issue of Edutopia has an article by Laila Weir on Wii-learning: teachers finding academic uses for the Wii in their classrooms. Rather than using a game designed purely for educational purposes, these teachers are adapting existing games for the classroom.

Here’s a thought: Why not take a tech platform that kids are already nuts about and put it to use? That was the thought at Cumberland Elementary School, in West Lafayette, Indiana, where first-grade teacher David Brantley used a parent donation to buy three Wii consoles. Brantley integrated some of the Wii’s games and online channels into lessons on weather and geography. The result: “A great virtual map and globe activity,” he says.

Justifying its use by citing research showing benefits to learning in multiple modalities, the teachers often use the Wii for games with math, language, and logic exercises.

- Sports games provide opportunities for score keeping and math

- Bowling in particular provides several opportunities for number crunching

- Wii’s Big Brain Academy helps with reasoning and logic, but flashes loser and winner signs which may hurt self esteem; teachers combat this by prepping students on being gracious winners and losers

- Using the Wii has helped motivate “reluctant” students

My take: teachers have been adapting technology for classroom use since time immemorial, and this is just the latest example. It’s heartening to see a positive attitude toward gaming in the classroom. I suspect the family-friendly and easy-to-engage approach the Wii has taken helps ease it into the classroom over more “serious” consoles like the Playstation 3 and Xbox. Who can deny the Wii a role in the classroom when it’s being used in the gym and in nursing homes?

Weir, L. (2008, June). Wii love learning: Using gaming technology to engage students. Edutopia. [Online]. Available:

Why We Shouldn’t Ban “Ender’s Game” From AP Reading Lists

I was interested to read about a recent kerfuffle erupting over Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game. A parent protested the book’s status as required reading in AP English at a junior high school in Alvin, Texas (near Houston). The parent was concerned about violence and profanity in the book.

It has been a while since I’ve read it, but I don’t recall being annoyed by the level of profanity in Ender’s Game. In contrast, I recently finished Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson. This book was overly laced with profanity. One of the lead characters is Bobby Shaftoe, a rough and ready US Marine who frequently drops the F-bomb whether planting corpses with false information intended for the Nazis or killing Japanese soldiers in the Philippines. Shaftoe comes up with a cornucopia of imaginative profanity, and spews it out page after page. I just don’t recall nearly so much profanity from the Mormon author Card in Ender’s Game.

What intrigues educational gaming advocates about Ender’s Game is the vision Card painted of training and educating with games. For instance, videogames were used effectively as battle simulators to train soldiers. Battle simulators are old news nowadays, but not in 1985. Kurt Squire and Henry Jenkins noted in 2003 the prophetic value of Card’s book for educational gaming:

In Orson Scott Card’s 1985 science fiction novel Ender’s Game, the Earth is facing a life-and-death battle with invading aliens. The best and brightest young minds are gathered together and trained through a curriculum that consists almost entirely of games—both electronic and physical. Teachers play almost no overt role in the process, shaping the children’s development primarily through the recruitment of players, the design of game rules, and the construction of contested spaces. Games become the central focus of the students’ lives: they play games in classes, in their off-hours, even as part of their private contemplation. Much of the learning occurs through participation in gaming communities, as the most gifted players pass along what they have learned to the other players.

As a parent myself, and educator to boot, I can certainly empathize with parents wishing to shield their children from inappropriate material. However, I also like to read the books my kids read. We’re all active readers. There are books that express worldviews I don’t agree with, and when my children read those we talk about the role of fiction and how we can enjoy a book or a movie or a television show while disagreeing with its worldview. This holds in videogames as well.

My oldest has rediscovered Oblivion on the Xbox, and has been leveling up a thief. He can sneak into a town and steal the shirt off a guard’s back and get away with it. But, we’ve discussed how thievery is not what we’re about in RL. I remind the kids of the time one of them walked out of the nearby country store with a pack of gum without paying. When I discovered it, we drove back to the store and paid for the gum. We are not thieves; it’s part of our morals, part of our worldview. However, leveling a thief in Oblivion, a fictional environment, is okay just as reading about a character who is a thief is also okay.

And so it goes. While I empathize with a parent wanting to monitor the fiction their child reads, I can’t agree with banning Ender’s Game from an AP reading list. The violence in the book involves killing enemy space aliens, and I don’t recall it being gratuitous or overly bloody. Battle scenes are common in many books for young people, including the Narnia series and Tolkein’s Middle Earth tales.

Finally, I was interested to find out the book is required reading for Marine privates wishing to level up to corporal. According to the Marine spokesman quoted in the news article, the book is about leadership in combat; therefore, the Marine Corps says aspiring corporals should read it. I’m sure Bobby Shaftoe would approve.

Jenkins, H., & Squire, K. (2003) Harnessing the power of games in education. Insight, 3, 5-33.

Tompkins, J. (2008, June 15). Alvin ISD mother protests novel. The Facts. [Online]. Available:

Caterpillar Grades Joystick Controls

Previously I’ve blogged about the military using console controllers on new equipment such as robots. The controllers are easy to integrate into computerized military machinery, as they are USB-based and provide an intuitive interface for young soldiers raised on videogames.

Now, American construction equipment leader Caterpillar has performed extensive corporate research resulting in a motor grader controlled by two joysticks. Ilan Brat over at The Wall Street Journal reports:

While older models of the earth-moving machine, which is used to smooth and level dirt on roadways and other construction projects, had as many as 15 levers in addition to a steering wheel and several foot pedals, Caterpillar’s latest version has two of the controls normally found on videogame consoles.

Brat states the new controls are the fruit of seven years effort involving 900 customers and an amazing 110,000 hours of field testing. Care was taken to ensure that “old” operators, used to the previous controls, could handle the new controls as well as before.

The old way of operating graders often involves a “whole body” experience that is tiring on the driver. It also is difficult to skill up, and learning curves can be steep.

The new joystick method is much easier on the body, and easier to learn. As a new generation takes over construction and road maintenance, they’ll find some familiar controls to maneuver heavy equipment.

Brat, I. (2008, June 23). A joy(stick) to behold. The Wall Street Journal. p.R5. [Online.] Available: