Journal Index
Tuesday
Feb232010

Leveling the Playing Field in Early Math Learning, With Games

I had the pleasure this evening of attending a lecture on preschool math education by Dr. Robert Siegler, who is a visiting professor at my grad school alma mater, Teachers College, Columbia University.  Math is my favorite educational topic in children’s games, because I hated math so much as a student.  I can really identify with students’ frustration and confusion, and I think that makes me a better designer of math games.  I came to the lecture hoping to hear tips on ways math topics can be presented, so I could use them in designing games.  I was pleasantly surprised when he began to present research on board games similar to Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land.  I blogged about this research back in August, but I had forgotten Dr. Siegler’s name, and my invitation to the lecture didn’t say anything about games.

In the United States, there is a correlation between a child’s socio-economic status and his or her eighth grade math achievement scores.  This is not as true in Canada, Germany, Sweden or Japan.  In the US, differences increase with schooling.  In other words, preschoolers in poor communities test behind preschoolers in wealthier communities, and the gap only gets bigger as students progress through school.  What can we do to lessen this gap in the US, and at what grade level should this problem be addressed?

Siegler argues that we need to correct this problem in preschool.  Sample number line estimation taskStatistics show that if you start behind, you stay behind.  It is important to improve preschool students’ understanding of numerical magnitudes, or meanings.  A kid who can count from 1 to 10 may not know which is bigger, 6 or 4.  We need to help children create a linear representation of numerical magnitudes.  Students should be able to perform well on number line estimation tasks (see illustration).  These tasks allow assessment of relation between numbers and magnitude.  Chinese kindergartners are ahead of US kindergartners in number line estimation.

Playing numerical board games might play a crucial role in forming numerical magnitude understanding.  The greater number a game token reaches, the greater number of discrete movements the child has made, spoken, moved in distance, and time spent playing. Thus, playing the game provides visuospatial, kinesthetic, auditory, temporal cues to numerical magnitudes.  Students who played a number board game (similar to Chutes and Ladders) did far better on four math tasks than students who played a color board game (similar to Candy Land). 

What features of board games are critical to student learning?  Siegler & Ramani (2009) studied linear counting board games, and circular counting board games, both clockwise and counterclockwise.  They found that linear board games are much better for the improvement of numerical understanding, addition, and other math skills.  Perhaps most encouraging of all, children who started out testing the worst showed significant improvement in post-tests after playing linear counting board games.
Siegler & Ramani also discovered that it matters how you play the game.  Counting on from where the player was on the board (i.e., 32, 33, 34, 35) led to more improved skills than counting from one each roll.  Playing the game with students four times was enough to have significant effect on math skills.

Implications for game design: Siegler recommended exposing kids to numbers bigger than 20 in preschool.  Instead, we should go up to 100.  Video games, and adults playing board games with children, should count on when possible, rather than counting from one each time.  The child can count along from one with their fingers, if it helps the child to keep track of how many numbers they’ve counted off.

Wednesday
Feb172010

Live Blogging presentation by Will Wright - What Makes Games (Good) for Learning

Getting ready for Will Wright to take the stage at NYU's Skirball Center.  He's famous for designing Spore, SimCity, SimAnt, SimEarth, and of course, The Sims series.  I'm excited to hear what he says about educational games.  Many of his titles are considered educational games today, though I don't believe they were originally marketed as such, with the possible exception of Spore.  It's very odd, but things that get classified as educational games often aren't games at all.  Things in that category usually more closely resemble interactive worksheets than games.  There's often only one right answer, and sometimes the game is only playable if you already know the material it contains.

There was a discussion on Twitter recently about the poisonous reputation of the term 'educational game'.  Jason McIntosh said a witty metaphor about books that I really liked.  "This is an educational book! It's not like those OTHER books - this one tries to TEACH you something!" It isn't often that people talk about books being educational or not.  I suppose if a person was insistent about getting an educational book, someone would probably hand them a textbook, or at least some non-fiction.  Why do people treat games so differently?  I don't think they should.

photo by Scott TraylorTime to start!  They're having technical difficulties with the presentation.  It's 6:15 and Will is sitting on the stage cross legged with a laptop in his lap.  They've decided to do the question/answer portion first.

6:20pm Introduction:  Will Wright’s games trust in the minds of young people, and it has already influenced a generation.

Demographics important to game publishing.  Information Absorption Constant (3000) ÷ Age = Info you can absorb in a minute.  Games have reputation that's not good at all.  When he helped curate an exhibit that included video games, he got looked down upon by comic book people(!)  Story about book absorbing a monk so thoroughly, people thought it was the devil, back in the early days of books. Television = failed opportunity for education.  "I wish there was a dial to turn up the intelligence of the programming.  There's a dial called 'brightness', but that doesn't work." - Unknown.  Cycle: Entertainment -> Artistic Expression -> Recognized for learning. 

We run models in our heads constantly, to understand what's going on, help us make decisions.  We look for patterns everywhere, even when they don't exist.  Metaphors, schemas & symbols.  How many members of a particular demographic group does it take to screw in a lightbulb?  Schema for what happens when you walk into a restaurant.  Animals have food/danger, flight/flee schemas.  Our ability to read another person through empathy is remarkable.  Act differently around friends/co-workers/family.  We have a limited amount of experience to build schema out of.  Toys help us expand our experiences. Talking to friends helps us build schema off of their experiences.  Stories on TV/books/plays/movies too, and interactive play experiences.

6:35pm People used to play games until they started having kids, but now it's more common to play games with kids.  Casual games are often popular with people who used to play games and have less time now.

Archetypes.  Captain Kirk is a typical captain archetype.  Lost is a remake of Gilligan's Island storyline.  Some stories take place in world's unlike our own, but there are always familiar similarities to our own.  Change small things, different outcome.  Groundhog Day is game like, different sequence of events each time.  Hollywood often exagerrates archetypes from real life.  Even the NYTimes dreamed up a graphic of what Bin Laden's underground hideout must look like.  Games allow us to explore possibility spaces. 

6:46pm Play builds models in imagination.  Games test models.  (You can swap models and imagination in these sentences.)  Treasure Island resulted from drawing a map, Robinson Crusoe looked at it and imagined what could happen there.  Creative abilities in Grand Theft Auto are amazing, don't have to do with the missions.  Games have success/failure loops.  Will's games have interesting failure states.  Failure states are a great way to learn that games do well.

6:53pm People say games don't produce emotional experiences like movies do, but that's not really true.  6:56pm Talking about Russian rockets and failures / survival / things they learned.  6:58pm: People send him a lot of game design ideas.  Many kinds of fields can feed to good game ideas.  The player will build an internal model of your system.  The game designer should consider what model the player will build.  Even looking at the game packaging, a person is building a model in their head of what the game is.  When he made The Sims, first called it a dollhouse, which is accurate, but really turned away males.

7:03pm Future of gaming - games push computer technology forward, mobile devices too.  Graphics, physics, simulation.  Fractal entertainment.  Entertainment is being personalized.  50 people on one airplane could all be watching 50 different movies.  Games used to be immersive if they were good.  The whole outside world disappeared.  Today there's more emphasis on group interaction in games, and NOT ignoring everyone else in the room.  Fun is watching your friends play.  More real world context, like Rock Band.  Future, more games that are aware of where you are.  Future: Turning players into producers, i.e. Spore.

We're running out of time and he's speeding through the rest of his deck.  I could barely keep up the blogging at the regular pace!  Oh noes!  Motivation is the issue, not access.  Lighting fire, not filling pail.  Time playing x social relevance = world impact.  Build different models of where the world goes from here.  300 slides!  Oh my!  We're out of time!

Friday
Jan152010

Building a Preschool iPhone Game, Part 2

When I left off at the end of Part 1 in this series, I had found the developer and graphic artist I wanted to work with.  Finding them has turned out to be the most important part of the whole process.  Every day I work on this project, I'm very thankful for both of the individuals I'm working with.  Not only are they very skilled at what they do, but they're very easy to get along with, and never seem to fret when changes need to be made.  They're both as dedicated to the game's success as I am.

After I had verbal confirmation from both of them that they were interested in the project, it was time to get things going legally and officially.  It was a little bit scary to take something that was just an idea in my head and begin investing serious money in it!

As I mentioned in Part 1, I didn't have enough money to pay a developer upfront.  I'm not even sure how much a developer costs, but I only had a few thousand dollars to spend.  My developer agreed to a profit share agreement, where each of us would split whatever income the game makes from the iTunes Store.  That allowed me to spend the money I did have on paying the graphic artist, and on the legal fees that would be involved in establishing a company and getting contracts written. 

It took me almost two months to go through the whole process of incorporation.  The iTunes Store will only let you sell an app under a legal name, either your own, or an official corporate name.  It didn't seem right to sell a game we made together under only my name.  Plus, there were other benefits to incorporating, like keeping the finances separate from my own bank account, and having legal protection for not producing the game in my own name.  I read up on small business laws, which was the most time consuming part.  I weighed the pros and cons between forming an LLC or an S-Corp, and then hired a lawyer to help me file the necessary paperwork.  I was lucky and found a friend of a friend who specializes in small business law and gave me a good rate.  Once the ball was rolling on that, I hired a different lawyer to help me with the contracts for my developer and graphic artist.  I could have used the small business lawyer, but I had met someone who specializes in interactive media and video games while I was attending Boston GameLoop, and I decided to go with him.

We had a team conference call so the three of us could talk through the plans for the project.  Much of what we talked about was already in the design document I had written, but it was good to talk through it and make sure we were all on the same page.  The developer talked with the artist about the specs and file requirements she would need.  I didn't understand 100% of what was said because some of it was pretty technical, but I wrote it all down anyway. When the call was over, I typed everything we discussed in an email that we could all refer back to.

Since then, everything has taken place via email and file exchange at box.net.  The graphic artist sent me some pencil sketches, and after just a couple of back and forths, she arrived at art that I fell in love with.  The programmer got a first build together pretty quickly, too.  The first couple of builds were only playable on the computer, but it wasn't long before she had a build that ran on the iPhone itself.  Meanwhile, I took care of everything that needed to be done to get into the Apple iTunes Store.  Those things are all listed in this handy article, so I won't repeat them here.

In the past several weeks, there has been a lot of QA testing by the programmer and myself.  That means we play the game over and over to see what wonky 'bugs' occur that shouldn't be happening, and we record them in a spreadsheet.  The programmer then works out kinks in the code so the bugs don't happen anymore.  It can be time consuming to QA because once you observe a bug, you have to reproduce it a few times to confirm what conditions cause it to happen.

We have also made a few tweaks to the conditions that affect the game's difficulty, but now we're ready to watch some kids play the game and see how difficult they find the game to be.  I am most curious to see if kids understand how to play the game, because when the game is released, we won't be there to tell each player what to do.  I'm doing my best to make the game play intuitive without using formal directions, so we'll see how clear it actually is when I observe some kids play.  Watch this blog for more about the kid testing process and intuitive play in Part 3.

Picture of a toddler playing with an iPhone by jessica.garro, shared via Creative Commons.

Tuesday
Jan052010

STEM Game Challenge

For the past several months, I have been concentrating on producing the iPhone game I designed, and job hunting.  I haven’t been doing much work on new designs.  But in late November, President Obama announced a STEM Game Challenge.  It’s part of a larger effort to step up Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education in public schools.  In recent decades, the United States has not scored well in international tests of science and math abilities.  We need to change that if we’re going to continue to be a successful nation.

President Obama’s live webcast got the design fires cooking again on the back burner of my mind.  Designing a STEM intensive video game is a truly challenging problem.  I recently came across this really excellent article that outlines all of the things one must consider in educational game design.  One line that rang particularly true for me was "Topics should not be forced--games should be one medium among many for learning in and out of the classroom." There are many attempts at games about topics like photosynthesis, but most of what results is not a game at all, but a more typical rote classroom activity.

For a game to succeed in a school environment, it has to fit the constraints of the school realities.  In most schools, that means limited internet access, limited work stations, and limited time.  Many class periods are under an hour, and when you subtract the time it takes to walk to the computer lab as a class and get 30 students settled at 30 machines that may or may not work, you’re left with a short play session.

The trickiest consideration though, is that you have to fit in an established curriculum.  Teachers are usually told exactly what to cover over the course of the academic year.  If you build the greatest science game in the world, a teacher may not be able to use it with her students if she already feels she doesn’t have enough time to cover the required curriculum.

Video games are a natural fit to teach STEM related skills, because many commercially produced games involve problem solving and collaboration skills.  (For more on this, see research conducted by EDC.)  When designed well, games help players hone the 21st century skills that employers look for today.  To be a successful scientist, you can’t merely follow established procedures 100% of the time.  Much of the student experience of STEM subjects in public school is about how well they can execute an established procedure, so video games are a great opportunity to let students do something completely different. 

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the STEM Game Challenge.  It's exciting that the President of the United States is acknowledging the potential of video games as a learning environment in such a powerful way.  This could turn out to be the best thing that's happened to educational games in a long time.

Picture of a game at the Museum of Science and Industry by croncast, shared via Creative Commons.

Sunday
Dec272009

How to Land an Internship in the Children’s Television or Video Game Industry

Blogs are about sharing wisdom and opinions. One thing I have collected a lot of wisdom about is interning in children’s television. I began my career working in children’s television, before I transitioned into video games. All of my experience with internships, both being an intern, and hiring and supervising interns, is in children’s television. I believe much of the advice in this article would apply to finding an internship in the video game industry as well.

1) Have a concise, one page resume. If you're just starting your career, you should be able to summarize your relevant experience on one sheet. Getting to the point is a virtue in all media. Don't use your resume to tell your life story. You must realize that the employer will receive hundreds of resumes in response to an advertisement.  
Keep in mind that whoever looks at your resume will only glance at it for a few seconds before moving on to the next one. You have precious little time to show them that you are the intern they’re looking for. List your most relevant qualifications first, even if they are projects you completed for a class or school club. Work experience is great to mention too, but if thus far you’ve only worked at the Dairy Queen or a local grocery store, the employer may be more interested in projects you produced in class. This is especially true if they won awards or special recognition. Put those things up top. I'm not talking about listing courses you took. I'm suggesting you list the works you completed.

2) Don’t just submit resumes to advertised internships. Do whatever you can to pursue other avenues as well. 

  • Ask your professors if they have colleagues in the industry they would be willing to introduce you to. If those people are not personally hiring interns, interview them about their career anyway. At the end of the interview, ask if they have a colleague who might be hiring interns.
  • For the television industry, you can pick a show you’re interested in and watch that show’s credits. Write directly to production coordinators and production assistants by name. People in those positions are usually involved in hiring interns. Once you have some names, you can either:
    • Contact them via LinkedIn or email. See more on this below.
    • Search the internet for the production company's postal address. People enjoy receiving mail, and chances are good they’ll open your envelope. I’m a big fan of the old-fashioned paper resume. In this email heavy culture, they help you stand apart. Plus, your resume will now be taking up physical space on the recipient's desk. Small, yes, but it's more difficult for them to ignore than a one line entry in an email inbox.
    • Find the main phone number for the production company and ask the receptionist for the production coordinator or production assistant by name. It's important to use that name you found in the credits, because receptionists are usually strong gatekeepers. If you know who you want to talk to, they're not likely to question you about it. If you get voice mail, don’t leave a message. Try again later. When you do get through, be very brief. Introduce yourself by name as a student at X University and ask if this is a good time to talk for a moment. If it is (or even if they say it isn’t) ask if they are hiring interns at the moment, and if so, may you send a resume direct to their attention? At which address or fax number? Now you can begin your cover letter by thanking them for the phone conversation. Hopefully they will remember your name, which should help raise you to the top of the pile.

3) Consider an internship in research. Research departments are responsible for making sure the target audience will enjoy, understand and be able to use the media that is created for them. Watching children interact with shows and games first hand is invaluable to developing your understanding and making you a better writer or producer. And who knows, you may decide to pursue a career in research! Even if you still have your heart set on production or writing, you can use your internship in research as an opportunity to meet people in those departments.
Some kids’ TV shows and video game licenses are researched on the academic level, to prove that media can truly benefit the children that use them. Sometimes these studies are run by university professors, but often they are run by researchers who work for the production companies. Search your college library for scholarly journal articles about current shows like Sesame Street, Dora the Explorer and Blue’s Clues. Read video game research put out by places like EDC, and the Institute of Play. Contact authors you’d like to work with, talk about what you found interesting in their report, and ask if they’re hiring interns.

4) Pick one or two companies you’re particularly passionate about working for, and focus your energies on getting an internship there. If you don’t get hired this semester, just try again next semester and the next until you get through. But remember that big name places like EA or Nickelodeon can afford to be choosy and often prefer candidates with an internship or two already under their belt. Apply to your dream companies, but also apply at smaller companies to get your feet wet.

5) Apply early. Companies don’t all hire interns the same way colleges admit new students. The application deadline isn’t set in stone. If a producer happens to meet a great intern in January or February who will be available in the summer, then in the producer’s mind, the summer internship is already full. That said, many places will have rolling openings, or many availabilities, so submit your resume often. Hiring an intern is something that often gets pushed to the bottom of the to-do list over and over again until it becomes a last minute scramble. Apply early, but be patient.

6) If at all possible, use an address that’s local (within commuting distance) to the place you are applying. Many internships are unpaid. A hiring supervisor in New York City may feel guilty about bringing someone all the way from the middle of the country to earn a $10 a day stipend, and their guilt might keep you from rising to the top of the pile. This isn’t fair to you, but remember too that hiring managers are burdened with the responsibility of making sure someone good fills the position. They may worry that if they hire you, you’ll bail out at the last minute once you face the realities of how expensive it is to live in the city. That will leave them in the lurch. If you are planning to live with your Aunt Tilly while you intern, use Aunt Tilly’s address on your resume. You can explain in the job interview, if the topic comes up.

A note on contacting someone via email: 
First, try LinkedIn. LinkedIn is an increasingly popular social networking site that is specifically focused on making career related connections. Some LinkedIn users have their permissions set so anyone with an account may send them a message. Use this to your advantage. It’s what LinkedIn was created for. Sending someone a message on LinkedIn should not be confused for trying to add a person to your network. As LinkedIn states in many places, network connections are for people who already know one another. Similarly, contacting someone on Facebook for the purposes of finding a job or internship might not be well received, because Facebook is an environment for people who already know one another.

If you’re unable to contact the person you’re trying to reach via LinkedIn, you may be able to figure out what their email address is. Most large companies assign every employee’s email address according to the same schema, like firstinitiallastname@ourcompany.com. So, if you have an email address for one employee, you’ll be able to make an educated guess at what another employee’s email address will be.
First, figure out the domain name the company uses for email. This is often the same domain the company’s website appears under, but not always. Once you know it, Google that domain name and the word ‘email’. Right now, we’re looking for any employee who has published his work email address on the web, maybe in a conference proceeding or presentation slideshow. So for example, if I was targeting Ubisoft, I’d search “email ubisoft.com” and browse results. If you’re unsure of the email domain name, you can use the company name instead. If that doesn't work, look for conference presentation slides (on SlideShare and conference websites) from anyone at the target company, and see if there's an email address on the last slide in the deck.
Once you have located one employee’s email address, copy that format with the name of the person you’re trying to reach. For example, if I dug up Joe.Smith@ubisoft.com, and I’m trying to reach Sally Simpson, I would send an email to Sally.Simpson@ubisoft.com
Whether you're contacting someone on LinkedIn or via email, remember not to make a pest of yourself. Be brief, and send one message. If you don't hear a response, follow up in two or three weeks. If you still don't hear anything back, let it go.

Once you've snagged that internship, check out my follow up article on how to succeed as an intern and make them want to hire you full time.

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