Pervasive Games as a Model for Pervasive Learning

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This thing that I have become so passionate about goes by many names. Games-based learning, quest-based learning, gamification, etc. etc. etc. Some of these names have positive connotations and at least one of them has some very, very negative connotations. I tend to use games-based learning and gamification interchangeably and I often tag posts that focus on games-based learning with the gamification tag, even though I don’t consider what I am doing gamification. I suppose I do this because teachers who are interested in one are often also interested in the other and, like me, may use one or the other depending on the course and the students. I have found, though, that I am moving farther and farther away from gamification and closer and closer towards turning my courses into full-fledged games. Hence, I see what I am doing as games-based learning; while my students aren’t playing video games (which typically characterizes GBL), they are playing a game; the game just happens to be the class. Sometimes this game involves role playing face-to-face or via a virtual environment like Second Life;  sometimes it involves completing quests to unlock new quests; sometimes the role-play and the questing center around a shared narrative that the players create via their decisions and actions; and it always involves communicating and collaborating with other players via social media.  If you add all of those things up, I think that there’s a pretty good argument to be made that what I am really doing–and what I want to do better–is turning learning into a pervasive game.

In Pervasive Games: Theory and Design, Markus Montola defines a pervasive game as “a game that has one or more salient features that expand the contractual magic circle of play spatially, temporally, or socially.” In other words:

In pervasive games, the magic circle is expanded in one or more ways: The game no longer takes place in certain times or certain places, and the participants are no longer certain. Pervasive games pervade, bend, and blur the traditional boundaries of game, bleeding from the domain of the game to the domain of the ordinary.

There are some common characteristics of pervasive games that illustrate this expansion: the whole world becomes a playground (players’ everyday environments become the game space), there is no such thing as a temporally-defined play session (play can and does occur at any time), and playing with outsiders (people who happen to be present in the game space during game play can become inadvertent and unsuspecting NPC’s). To further illustrate what a pervasive game is, I’ll use the example of Google’s Ingress. In Ingress, the player takes on the role of the game token (a flesh avatar) and their phone takes on the role of a weapon within the game. The objective of the game is to use their phone’s GPS to locate and “hack” portals of energy that are leaking out into the surrounding environment. These portals are located in the player’s local community: historical landmarks, governmental buildings, art installations, etc. The player is competing to claim as many portals as possible for their faction (either the Enlightenment or the Resistance) before players aligned with the other faction can do so. There is also a narrative thread that provides meaning to the energy, the portals, and the player’s role in and motivation for capturing them that the player can discover by locating and solving puzzles via websites, social media, and the portals themselves. The game is much more complicated than my summary suggests and I think that this video documenting one particular world-wide Ingress “operation” can do a better job of illustrating the capacity for pervasive gaming to engage and motivate:

So, what does this have to do with learning? If we consider the rhetoric that surrounds education right now, we can clearly see the connection. The new mantra of education is “21st Century Skills.” What specifically characterizes 21st Century Skills is debatable and has not been exactly pinned down. But what is clear is that the majority of schools–both K12 and higher education institutions–are not doing a very good job of helping their students attain these skills. We know that at least some of these skills include abilities such as problem-solving, disciplinary flexibility, adaptability, networking, collaboration and cooperation, technological adeptness, creativity, critical and analytical reading and thinking, and the willingness to be a lifelong learner. These skills are essential to surviving and thriving in the new information-based economy–one characterized by frequent career changes, a technology-dependent infrastructure, and the need for innovation and creative problem-solving within a global context. The old-school (pardon the pun) method of education just does not teach these kinds of skills or prepare our students for this kind of economy. In order to develop this new kind of mindset, we need to encourage our students to recognize and embrace learning opportunities both inside and outside of the classroom; to make connections between disciplines and between those disciplines and their passions; to transfer their social networking and technology skills from Facebook, YouTube, and video games to the classroom and, eventually, their careers; and to apply what they’ve learned about collaboration and cooperation from MMORPG’s and ARG’s to problem-based learning scenarios and service learning projects. So, in many ways we really want learning to be like a pervasive game: always “on;” expanded beyond a single physical space or time frame; encouraging connections across multiple platforms and environments; triggering and integrating multiple ways of thinking, interpreting, learning, problem-solving, and acting; and requiring creative interactions with both other people and the local environment.

I don’t think that you necessarily have to turn your class into a pervasive game in order to achieve this kind of learning. But I think that by studying pervasive games and how they work to engage and motivate players, we can figure out how to better prepare our students to adopt pervasive learning attitudes and habits. Here are some techniques outlined in Pervasive Games: Theory and Design that I think teachers could co-opt and integrate in order to encourage pervasive learning:

  • integrate authentic physical space and physical artifacts as game content to encourage players to interact with their local community in new and exploratory ways; use the community’s ambience and history to make it part of the game; use the game to direct players to interesting locations at interesting times
  • make the player’s body a de facto game token
  • integrate virtual and augmented reality to mix the physical and virtual game content
  • spatial expansion is about discovery and changing perception–> expose the unseen and make the familiar strange
  • temporal expansion makes play available at all times–> the game is always “on”
  • the rules of the game can change over time to scaffold play and keep players’ interest
  • design tangible experiences–> the player is doing something incredible through their own efforts that they’ll want to talk about afterwards
  • surpass expectations–> establish expectations then squash them with an unexpected maneuver
  • escalate previous experiences
  • link task structures so that success in one challenge directly influences the chances of success in another
  • force collaboration through interdependence
  • make players do things for real (find a book, scale a wall, create a chemical reaction, navigate a landscape)
  • foster networking to ramp up collective knowledge
  • create the 360 degree illusion–> indexical environment (real space), indexical activity (real action), immersive role-play
  • this is not a game–> use ordinary reality as a sourcebook
  • sustain a responsive game world–> lots and lots of interactive feedback (between game master and players and players and players)
  • the goal is for a collective story to emerge; the players tell the story based on their communal experiences; you shouldn’t have to tell the story to them
  • foster arenas where the story can emerge–> discussion forums, debrief party, etc.
  • design for sensory immersion–> audiovisual, 3-D, stereophonic surroundings
  • design for challenge-based immersion–> create a satisfying balance of challenges and abilities
  • design for imaginative immersion–> becoming absorbed with the stories and worlds and feeling for or identifying with a game character
  • create alternate endings and allow the players to determine the true ending

I’ll leave how to apply these strategies to a learning context up to your imagination. But I believe that they provide some very fertile ground for transforming learning for our students in the same ways that pervasive games have transformed what it means to play a game.

Dave Szulborski said of Alternate Reality Games–a type of pervasive game–that “[i]n an ARG, the goal is not to immerse the player in the artificial world of the game; instead, a successful game immerses the world of the game into the everyday life of the player.” I believe that in education, the goal is not to immerse the learner in the artificial world of school, but instead to immerse learning into the everyday life of the learner. Pervasive games offer a set of guiding principles that could very well help us do just that.

Remixing Learning Spaces: Two Resources and Some Thoughts

photo credit: horizontal.integration via photo pin cc

In making the classroom analogous to a skatepark, I’ve mainly focused on designing the learning opportunities that await students within the skatepark. This is because, at this point, this is the only aspect of the skatepark that I have control over. Just as important is the architecture of the skatepark itself, but, unfortunately, this isn’t something that can easily be controlled within the college classroom. Unlike K12 teachers, we aren’t assigned to a permanent room across multiple semesters nor are our assigned rooms only used by us (they’re likely to also be in active use by as many as 5-6 other instructors during a given day). We don’t have a way to create displays of student work nor are we able to create distinct spaces within our rooms, such as reading areas, group and quiet study, or technology stations. In fact, our existing spaces are distinctly adverse to anything other than factory-style instruction, with students lined up in rows of individual desks facing the instructor and their podium and whiteboard (and the only electrical outlet).

While I don’t bemoan having to come up with new bulletin board ideas every month, there are certain aspects of the K12 classroom that would be nice to have in the college classroom. This is especially true once we begin to transform our spaces into 21st century learning environments. Our existing environments are often 30 years old (if not older), in the case of my building, and even newer “smart” buildings were designed and equipped for the type of lecture-focused instruction that was still dominant in the late-20th century, with projectors and an instructor computer station to add the veneer of being grounded in pedagogically-relevant technological innovations. Since I’m a member of a committee whose goal is to identify the necessary characteristics, criteria, and components of a 21st century university, this disconnect between what needs to go on within our classrooms and what our classrooms are designed to allow to go on is an important one for me. But it’s also important to me because I struggle daily with the limitations that these spaces place on what goes on in my learning skatepark.

In looking at resources dealing with what kinds of spaces are needed for students’ current learning needs, I’ve found two that have been especially thought-provoking. The first is this infographic by Aimée Knight:

For me, what stands out about Knight’s argument is the focus on the students’ needs, rather than on the requirements of technology:

The focus of classroom design needs to be on people, not technology. When the focus is placed on active, social, experiential learning, technologies move into the background.

This seems to be a focus that is missing from many other studies of 21st century classroom design (see, for example, the 21st century classroom design guru David Jakes’s website). In addition to the infographic, Knight and Mark Sample have published a Google Doc from a brainstorming session on Hacking Campus Spaces that took place at THATCamp Piedmont 2012. Along with a summary of the brainstorming session, the Doc contains several links to various resources on how others are re-thinking and remixing university spaces.

What the infographic does for me is to solidify my own thinking about how best to re-design the physical space within which I create learning opportunities for my students. Much more vital than any accommodations made to my technology needs is the ability for my students to have access to the spaces and resources that they need, technological and otherwise. At various times during a class meeting, my students may need to work as a group, work as individuals, access the internet and word processing or presentation software, brainstorm, collaborate on various types of writing and media, conference with me, present, and instruct one another (and even me on occasion). For me, one product from the early days of factory education that still holds value for the 21st century classroom is the individual writing tablet (I’m a big fan of the method known as whiteboarding). Of course, we have the electronic equivalent, but right now the large majority of my students don’t have iPads and many don’t have laptops. Even once my university institutes its iPad initiative and gives all incoming freshman their own electronic slate, that will still not cover all of my students. But if all of the walls of my classrooms were equipped with a whiteboard (or chalkboard, which is more environmentally friendly), then all of my students would have the ability to write, brainstorm, and collaborate on a canvas that could be shared or reserved for personal use, immediately erased or recorded for posterity (I’ve considered creating the $2 interactive whiteboard, but haven’t figured out the logistics of adapting the technique to the college classroom).

Thoreau, the genius of simplicity, said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin, and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.” The transition to a 21st century learning environment is not quick, easy, or inexpensive and requires clear priorities. Obviously, re-designing classroom spaces is not at the top of the priority list and will entail a large financial expenditure at the same time that universities are facing a reduction in federal and state funding and a rise in operating costs. But there are simple and low-cost ways that we can make our existing spaces more user-friendly for our students. I would rather my students be able to view themselves as the focus of the classroom, with tools as simple as electrical outlets, whiteboards, and modular, multi-purpose seating (or even a few tables to supplement the existing seating) at their disposal than to have all of the technological bells and whistles out there at the front of the room for me to use.

So, how am I currently dealing with the limitations of my classroom spaces? As best I can. My students are often movers and shakers, rearranging desks into groups or semicircles, contorting their bodies in order to view various areas of the room and to look at their classmates as they talk, traveling en masse from our classroom to the computer lab or as individuals to a study carrel in the hallway. The front of the classroom is still the hot spot because it’s where the projector is aimed, the only whiteboard is located, and the electrical outlet offers the ability to plug in gadgets when batteries wane. My hybrid classes, which depend much more heavily on students’ ability to use mobile internet devices, collaborate, and have small group discussions, currently meet in the library because it affords class, group, and individual seating arrangements and access to raw materials, such as reliable wi-fi, plugs, laptops that can be checked out, and coffee (thanks to our newly-installed coffee bar).

So, before we begin advocating for a wholesale overhaul of our spaces and risk the failure that is inevitable when demanding a huge financial output for uncertain results and questionable reasons (after all, our administrators might well argue, haven’t the existing spaces functioned for hundreds of years?), lets take a step back and ask whose needs are we advocating for. It does make my job infinitely easier when I have the ability to switch my students’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video or to project a student’s blog so that the entire class can see it. But in my ideal learning environment, it’s the students who turn each others’ attention to a website, slideshow, or YouTube video and students are often working together to revise a peer’s blog post in situ. While my technological needs often overlap those of my students, it’s their learning needs that have been ignored for far longer and that are in more immediate need of attention.

Or am I totally off my pumpkin?