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Nina K. Simon, agent of change

Agent of Change: Nina K. Simon

Nina Simon’s crowdsourced search for a title for her upcoming book leads me to bring a fine word out of penultimate obscurity: particibility. By which I mean the amount or degree a thing is able to be participated in. To me particible gets at something that participatory glosses over, which is the quality of participation afforded. A key distinction where any game is concerned, but double-dog-especially for social (and socially relevant) games such as World Without Oil – which are notable for their very high quality of participation.

Nina is Museum 2.0, which is how we met – she wrote about WWO soon after it concluded (and coined one of the most apt descriptions of the game: WWO “was a huge growing, twisting network of news, strategy, activism, and personal expression”). She’s helped bring me into the world of museums, which has been a most fruitful introduction… Because, in a word, museums want to become more particible, and WWO-style open gameplay could be key to accomplishing that.

Getting back to that book title: I’m put off by Participatory Museums, because participatory is a tag museums assign themselves, and can I trust how the museum defines participation? Very often, no. I’m attracted to Particible Museums because to me the word particible speaks of openness to participation as defined by the visitor. And in the end it’s the visitor, and only the visitor, who decides; participation is a feeling she or he gets (or doesn’t get). Photo by Musebrarian via Flickr.

Alice in Wonderingland: Museums and alternate realities

Alice in Wonderingland: Museums and alternate realities

World Without Oil figured into a talk I gave earlier this month at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle, as a guest lecturer for the UW Museology program. “Transforming Museums: Can Museums Learn From Games?” summarizes a lot of my philosophy about games and my outlook for the role of serious games in our common future. You can listen to the talk via this MP3 file and view the slides via this SlideShare presentation; the talk is about half an hour and there’s another half-hour of Q&A.

My thanks to Nina K. Simon for recommending me to the Museology program and to Whitney, Maya, Kylie and her sister Kari, and the other welcoming folks in Seattle.

Faithful forwarder Laurel refers us to this article in the Boston Globe about happiness studies – will new data about what actually makes people happier change our policies as well as our thinking? This quote from it caught my eye:

Others have begun to think about how happiness data might change where people live. For example, the trade-off between house size and commute length is familiar to every suburbanite, but as Cornell economist Robert Frank has pointed out, the two things affect our mood in different ways. While we quickly adapt to a bigger house and start taking it for granted, research suggests that a long, trafficky commute is something we never adjust to, and that even grows more onerous with time. Work like this could give added heft to arguments for policy measures like higher gas taxes, and for zoning laws that concentrate housing and cut down on traffic and commuting distances – arguments that now tend to be cast chiefly in environmental terms, but which also might push people toward decisions that make them happier in the long term.

This echoes discoveries made in the World Without Oil game. People engaged in the game made similar discoveries: when the oil shock made their commutes more painful in the wallet, people began to rethink the exurban lifestyle. One wonders if serious alternate reality games might be a way for researchers to cross-check their happiness studies?

The change doesn't happen all at once

The change doesn't happen all at once

Jane McGonigal blogged recently about “experience grenades” – games like World Without Oil that can be worldview-changing for their players. Why “grenade”? Experiencing the game is like pulling the pin, she says. Playing the game isn’t necessarily any big thing. It’s sometime later that the “experience” goes off and your worldview gets changed.

This of course is nothing new: I think many of us have had a “grenade” experience with a really great book, movie or other work of art. But I believe the game experience inherently packs a more powerful explosion. Books and movies put a layer of abstraction between you and the experience that games don’t; in some sense you are always “in” a game in a way that you never are with a book or movie. And ARGs in particular really enhance being “in the game.” (There’s no avatar, for one thing; it’s really you.) When there’s no set narrative except the one being created by the players – a la Superstruct or SF0 or World Without Oil – the immersion gets stronger still.

This concept is important for decisionmakers to internalize as they ponder funding for a game. Traditional metric structures for assessing impact do not carry over well to the game sphere, precisely because of phenomena such as the experience grenade. Just as socially collaborative projects such as Wikipedia are revolutionizing how business gets done, alternate reality games are revolutionizing what activism is and what brands do – and yeah, that change is arriving right now, with explosive force. Photo by Stephen Poff via Flickr.

Here’s a timely blog post by Philip Trippenbach of the BBC about Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). Philip is responding to Dan Hon’s rousing closer at the Let’s Change The Game: ARGs For Charity And Education Conference in London (a conference I should have attended, considering all the Friends of WWO there are at the BBC). Dan’s key point was that ARG designers suck, but said in a very sympathetic and helpful way, and Philip has riffed on that with an eye towards the future of journalism.

ARGs that don't suck

Changing the game: ARGs that don't suck

What cheers me is that consensus says: World Without Oil didn’t suck. It’s the counterexample to Dan’s rant, and Philip derives five takeaways for journalists, things they can learn from games like WWO:

• Network effectively
• Focus your public with a challenge structure
• Be platform agnostic
• Tell stories collaboratively
• Interact

I think the upshot is going to be more and better ARGs: more democratic, more participatory, more relevant. Photo of SleeperCell volunteers by Adrian.

Cutting education to save fuel

Losing muscle: saving fuel by cutting education

It’s my last day of vacation here in Arlington, Vermont, where gasoline is $3.79 a gallon or so (it’s still over $4 back in Cali) and the winters are long and warmed with fuel oil. Our hosts had friends over last night, and I asked a man named Hamilton what the winter would be like. “Cold” was his laconic answer.

At current prices, winter can cost residents here $6000 or more in fuel oil. Hamilton went on to relate that a fuel-oil supplier he knew was already carrying about $750,000 in debt from last year, when suppliers faced customers unable to pay who are facing freezing temperatures. Who will step in this year, I wonder. And the next, and the next.

Meanwhile, an article in the New York Times describes how schools across the nation are dealing with the triple whammy of skyrocketing fuel costs and more foreclosures and the recession: cutting bus service; cutting hours (and in some cases, days); restricting travel; generally saving money any way they can. “The big national picture is that food and fuel costs are going up and school revenues are not,” said Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, according to the article.

As the school year begins, teachers will be playing oil mini-crises with their students in their classrooms, using the World Without Oil lesson plans. Students not of driving age may have difficulty relating to gas prices, but underheated houses and four-day school weeks will connect them more directly, alas.

In the World Without Oil game, the players imagined what would need to be done if petroleum suddenly became more expensive or otherwise hard to get. In the game, the players wrestled with cutbacks of essential services. What does it say that schools across the country are going to four-day weeks? The oil crisis of 2008 continues. Photo by bitzcelt via Flickr.

Peak Everything

Peak Oil, Peak Everything

Found this well-titled article in GQ about peak oil. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s the (inevitable) moment when the supply of oil hits its peak and then starts to decline. Although it seems like it would be an easy moment to recognize, it’s not: Britain’s North Sea oilfields, some of the best managed in the world, hit their peak in 2000, and it took the oil field managers about a year to realize what had happened. The data are even more confusing when you’re talking about global oil production, and thus you have a debate raging right now as to whether we are approaching peak oil worldwide or whether we have in fact already passed it.

The peak oil bell curve is often taken for an ironclad rule, and in many ways it is, but it’s useful to remember that its curve essentially plots human behavior. Hubbert’s curve defines how humans extract oil in a relatively free market. Humans can modify the shape of the curve, and there’s some evidence that through advanced extraction techniques, we have been pulling oil forward and extending the top of the curve a bit. What IS ironclad about the bell curve, however, is the area underneath it: there is only so much oil. If you pull oil forward to ease today’s curve, it creates a sharper drop ahead.

The term peak oil is shorthand for the abrupt change caused by the shift from an upward slope, when the system encourages people to use more oil, to a downward slope, where the system takes oil away from people, when every day less and less oil is available. What worries people is that, psychologically, this is a potentially devastating transition for humans and societies to undertake with something as fundamentally useful as oil.

Easing this psychological transition was what the World Without Oil game was all about. A serious game is the perfect way to broach matters that we’d otherwise put out of our minds. It asked “what if?” and let people imagine what the first temblors of change would feel like. People played for the reasons that Sharon Astyk puts forth in her excellent blog, Casaubon’s Book, and emerged from the game better able to understand where we are, what has happened to Sleeping Beauty, and what we need to do now.  Photo by Ben+Sam via Flickr.

More students are learning at home

More students are learning at home

In the oil shortage chronicled by the players of World Without Oil, the resistance to telecommuting quickly went by the wayside, so to speak. Employers were eager to relieve their workers of the commute burden – infinitely preferable, in their eyes, to helping them with their fuel bills.

And now, here in the real world, an article in the New York Times relates how gas prices have driven students, so to speak, to taking classes online. The article reports online enrollment is up 50% to 100% in some schools, and “the greatest surges have been registered at two-year community colleges, where most students are commuters, many support families and few can absorb large new expenditures for fuel.”

Can employee telecommuting and virtual business travel be far behind? Thanks to loyal reader Laurel for the tip. Photo by wrumsby via Flickr.

Just in time for summer vacation, the Manitoba Teachers Society has prepared a gameboard with 66 great web destinations (and World Without Oil is one). Fun! Edify yourself – visit all 66! Save gas! Sightsee on the Web Highway

The ed4wb.org logo“We hear a lot of chatter about the price of gas these days. Most of it is just complaining and finger pointing. The few ‘solutions’ bandied around seem to have to do with biofuels and drilling for oil in new locations –- both problematic in their own ways. How can we get people to start thinking out of the box and looking at other alternatives? Seems like the following approach to involving and engaging people with important issues could be used in a lot of other educational contexts.” — The Education for Wellbeing site, talking about the World Without Oil game archive and our Lesson Plans for high school teachers.

by Education Week“Games that center on realistic problems can help develop many important skills, ranging from teamwork to problem-solving to understanding relevant content,” says Eric Klopfer, the director of the Teacher Education Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of the book Augmented Learning. “In many ways, these games are more scalable and classroom-friendly than other video games, in that they don’t require special technologies or even extensive training. World Without Oil is a great example of how this could be possible.” Nice article about Alternate Reality Games in Education by Katie Ash. Reminder: you can find WWO lesson plans for high school teachers at http://worldwithoutoil.org/teach


I’m at the Games 4 Change conference in New York. It actually begins Tuesday, June 3, but today there was a preconference event, “Game Design 101,” an intensive program to give possible Serious Game funders and collaborators a head start on the behavior of game designers and the elements of game projects. I went because, well, I can always use a good review of the basics of my profession.

One of the interactive exercises was “designing a game in 1 hour.” In the picture above, our first-round facilitator, Mary Flanagan (director of tiltfactor lab), waves goodbye flanked by my teammates Anne and Tam. Our team eventually came up with a food politics game called “One Potato Two Potato,” a card game that explored the many complex factors behind where your food comes from. You play from the POV of a potato farmer.

Tomorrow I’m on a panel entitled “Alternate Reality Games for Change,” sitting with some pretty heavy hitters (Jordan Weisman, Frank Lantz) and moderated by Peggy Weil. Go WWO!

Finger Lakes Environmental Film FestivalThe Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF) is “a one-week multimedia interarts extravaganza that reboots the environment and sustainability into a larger global conversation, embracing issues ranging from wars, health, diseases, music, digital arts, cinemas, popular cultures, fine arts, experimental media, literature, economics, archives, AIDS, women’s rights, and human rights.” I was pretty delighted to find that World Without Oil earned a place in the exhibition of serious games at FLEFF this year, curated by Ulises Mejias of SUNY Oswego. From his notes: “World without Oil… was entirely a discursive, transmediated experience, as open as human expression itself. The goal, according to Sebastian Mary, was to facilitate ‘collaborative problem-solving to escape the boundaries of gaming and become a real-world way for distributed groups of people to address a problem they cannot fix by themselves.'”

The WWO Lesson Plans have only been out for a week or two, but some early-adopter teachers are already putting them to use in their high school classrooms. . . and industrious students are blogging, commenting, and posting videos like this one and this one. Cool!

WWO Lesson Plans at PBS - Independent LensVia Independent Lens, ITVS has published the World Without Oil lesson plans on the Public Broadcasting System website – PBS.org. The announcement went out Thursday in the PBS Teachers newsletter for April 20-26, 2008. So that’s a big honor – and a nice way to direct teachers to this novel way to engage students with energy policy, sustainability, and the role energy plays in the American economy, culture, worldview, and history. The lesson plans now include an independent study track, so self-directed students can get themselves into the serious game. You can also find the lesson plans on the WWO site, right here at worldwithoutoil.org/teach.

WWO Lesson Plans
Or almost complete, anyway – finishing touches this week. Teachers, have at it! Your comments welcome.

Lesson Plan Six - World Without OilUpdate: Lessons 4, 5 and 6 are now online, and the last plans are in editing and will be posted soon. See the Overview page for teachers!

League of Extra Ordinary ScientistsJane McGonigal has exciting news – she’s announcing “The X2 Club” this week, a massively multiplayer science game. She says X2 is “an alternate reality game, light on fiction and heavy on real-world data, that scientists will play” and that the game “combines collaborative forecasting (World Without Oil-style) and prediction markets with RSS feeds of scientific journals and popular science publications.” Should be the sort of thing that many WWO players can get their teeth into: a fiction with fact close underneath.

Horsepower, at the Long Island Museum.
Horsepower

Transbuddha includes World Without Oil in its 2007 game review. Alphamonkey writes that WWO is “a way of getting people thinking about how we can shift the world into being less dependent on oil, and it succeeds on just about every front.” WWO is the only ARG to make TB’s cut, but the thoughtful ‘Buddha honors many serious and educational web games, most notably February’s Climate Change and Against All Odds, November’s game of the month.

Another story about Alternate Reality Games in The Escapist – noting among other things the launch of two other serious/educational ARGs following World Without Oil, Never Rest and Help Me Solve A Mystery.

It was the world's first serious alternate reality game, a cooperative pre-imagining of a global oil crisis. Over 1900 players collaborated in May 2007 to chronicle the oil crisis with their own personal blog posts, videos, images and voicemails. The game ended after simulating the first 32 weeks of the oil shock, but its effects continue, as game designers analyze its unique gameplay and we all watch the continuing drama with global oil prices and supply.