Archive for the 'Gaming' Category

MinecraftEDU Progress @ WGS

We’ve had our MinecraftEDU server running for over a year now, and I thought it would be a good idea to document some of the initiatives that are starting to bear fruit. I am lucky that one of our technicians is an experienced Minecraft user and enthusiast, and setting up our server and giving me remote desktop access was a breeze for him. It has taken me a while to cement the process of starting, saving and creating new maps but essentially we can have as many Minecraft “worlds” as needed, but only one of them can be running on our network at any one time. This is useful because I can designate worlds for specific purposes, give classes their own world and have some free time lunchtime worlds where the action is more free flowing and less purposeful.

I have a Digital Leader program where students volunteer their time to come along to help assist the lunchtime Minecraft sessions. I have a trolley of laptops with suitable graphic capabilities, and every lunchtime I am a travelling roadshow with 5 different buildings hosting Minecraft @ Lunchtime on their own allocated day of the week. The Leaders help with setting up, troubleshooting and technical advice. One Leaders also looks after the Teacher Controls and monitors activity, reminding players about respect and fairness. Originally we had sign up sheets because the whole concept was so popular – and it became a really good option for some of our students who struggle to make good choices out in the yard at break times. Now, we generally take the first dozen kids who are asking, balancing it up if we see someone new and asking some super regulars to take a break to fit them in. It seems to organically work without over-organisation.

Slowly but surely, a few curious teachers have asked for some support to see if MinecraftEDU could be used as part of their learning program. Our Vietnamese teacher was the first, using a new world with a Year 2 class to build Vietnamese temples and other buildings as part of cultural learning. He didn’t need much support but has remarked about the engagement with the task and how the students have looked at architectural features from images from the web and sought to incorporate them in their designs. This has also made them open to the information sharing around the purpose of the temples in Vietnamese culture provided by the teacher. Another teacher wanted her students to showcase their learning on animals (I think she was doing information reports) by reproducing a habitat or enclosure suitable for their animal to live in, along with providing key facts for visitors to read on a Minecraft sign.

Another teacher wasn’t sure what she wanted to do but was impressed by the engagement factor she saw during her building’s lunchtime session. She saw the collaboration and design, and thought that maybe we could tie it into Mathematics. For this class, I created a perfectly flat world and got the students to build their own house and fence it off as a way for everyone to experience some initial success. This was a Year Five class and it ranged from highly skilled kids who use Minecraft daily at home to students who had only ever heard of it. I set the task and reminded them that they could learn from each other and that sharing skills was something to be encouraged. The engagement was amazing, hooking in all students even the ones who could be described as quite disengaged. The sharing of knowledge went well, and there have been some great examples of working together that I did not anticipate. There is one student who has limited English skills, having missed the opportunity to be part of an English-intensive New Arrival Program class because of where the family initially settled in Australia who finds it hard to succeed in a traditional setting because the way instruction and tasks are delivered. However, in this task, she worked with three other students (and friends) who are bilingual (and proficient in her first language) and together they scaffolded the task with her, working collaboratively to produce a co-located set of townhouses, that also included new features like a linking pathway to other students’ buildings. Our plan is to link this to Mathematics by exploring the mathematical properties of each building – shape, measurement including perimeter, area and even volume.

frontviewmc

Front view of a house under construction in the flat world.

birdseyeviewmc

Bird’s eye view of houses under construction – perspective is another concept easily explored in a manipulative way in MinecraftEDU.

It is great to have as many worlds as needed but I discovered a pitfall last week. I was working in my office when two students from the Year Five class burst in with agitated looks on their face. “Mr. Wegner. Some other kids are in Minecraft and they’re destroying all our stuff! All our work is getting ruined – we need help!”

I went to investigate and found a teacher had given her students some “free time” to use the MinecraftEDU server without really knowing what it all entailed. The Year Five class had been working in their world the previous afternoon while I had been at a meeting, and so I hadn’t had the chance to save their map or change the world over to one where collateral damage wouldn’t be such an issue. In one way, I was pleased that the Year Fives viewed their Minecraft work as learning that they valued and were upset to have destroyed. But I had to work out how to minimise the damage. In the end, I got the offending (unwittingly and an apologetic teacher who didn’t know that there was more than one world) class to stop, and change over to a lunchtime world but chose NOT to save the Year five class map. That meant that it would revert back to the last time I had worked with the class on the Tuesday. It did mean that any changes made on the Wednesday when I was out were gone but it was preferable to saving a world that had the effects of rampaging Year Twos thinking they were in a fun zone, not realising that they were messing with other students’ work and learning. So, monitoring which world is up and when is key to ensuring that students’ learning is preserved.

Middle Aged Gaming

We bought a new Xbox during the Christmas holidays, complete with Kinect. Apart from the bundled games, the first game my youngest son bought was NBA 2K13 as the house has sort of gone basketball mad over the last 18 months. Despite my interest in games, I have never really gotten into any serious games.

Until now.

The first thing I like about this game is that is a sports sim. It may well be a product of  my childhood where I wasn’t given any opportunity to play any form of competitive sport until I was sent away to boarding school at the age of twelve. I had just started wearing glasses so I didn’t play any of the team sports where they might get broken – football being the one sport that I enjoyed watching but was too poorly skilled in and too terrified of to participate in. Maybe I had very little physical skills to start with or because other kids had spent their childhood chasing and hitting balls around ovals and courts, by the time I had become a young adult my keenness to play sports like football and basketball were tempered by a huge lack of coordination and strength. So, a game where I get to be the supremely talented athlete appeals to me on that level, satisfying that part of my psyche that has been undernourished from any sporting recognition throughout my life.

A week or so after getting the XBox I bought a few other games for myself – Forza, the game that satisfies those car lovers who couldn’t afford the type of machinery shown in the game in their real life (or couldn’t afford to drive in the same manner even if they could), Madden NFL 13 and NHL12. All are great games and really fun to play but they still have fallen by the wayside when compared to 2K13. Driving fictional cars is OK in small doses for me, Madden is great but my reactions are a bit slow and being Australian means that I don’t have an innate understanding of the intricacies of the American gridiron game, and NHL is very hard to play when you have no idea what you are doing.  Meanwhile, I understand basketball. The last two years of watching my son play every Friday night and Saturday morning has rekindled an interest in a game that I haven’t taken a lot of notice of since Michael Jordan retired.

So I have started to spend a lot of free time on this game. It is the single biggest reason that blogging has gone from a crawl to a almost-standstill on this site. I don’t watch a lot of television but I’ve been putting off watching the stockpiled episodes of series that I do like (Treme, Boardwalk Empire, Luther) in order to get a fix of NBA fantasy. So, I’m trying to unpack here why this game has affected me more than any other, why this has been my hook into gaming (for the moment) and why I am prepared to spend my free time (which isn’t a great deal after family and work commitments) on this digital fantasy.

The first part of the game that grabbed my attention was the MyCareer mode. In this, you create a player giving him the attributes, skills and looks you want before letting him loose in a Rookie game where he will be picked by in the Draft by an NBA club. Again, a psychologist could probably have a field day looking at gamers’ NBA avatars and comparing it to the reality hunched over on the couch. My player has my own name,  long shaggy hair (probably because my own hair is thinning and unremarkable), multiple tattoos and is 6′ 7″ and extremely athletic. Make of that what you will! Basically, you then play games with the club that recruits you, seeking to improve your scoring and efforts on defence to earn Skill Points (or Virtual Coins on XBox live) which can be spent to upgrade skill areas which make you a better player who then scores and defends better and earns yet more Skills Points. Continuous improvement is the goal – and achievements along the way showcases that improvement. You get offered endorsements, make the front page of Sports Illustrated, make the starting line up, get invited to the All Star game (definitely not achieved yet) and hopefully play on a team that makes it all the way to an NBA championship.

So, this becomes very addictive because I am playing out a career. After a while, I realised that I wasn’t very good and wondered how to restart the player I had in a new career. This actually led to me looking online for Xbox gaming communities and forums where I could hopefully gain some better insight to get some better results. YouTube had gamer created tutorials showing various move options – so I adopted a couple that I thought would be within my capability and took to the virtual practice court. In my bid to become a better player, and looking for ways to fast forward the process, I found an answer on a forum that offered a quick fix – using Microsoft XBox points to buy Virtual Coins. We had some spare points after Josh had bought some small games on XBox Live using a $25 1500 Points redeem card so in a bid to be a player who could at least sink some basic shots, I actually spent some real money to improve my player. Not a lot of money, mind you, probably $5 or so but the point is that the desire to become better had me parting with actual dollars.

YouTube also revealed a way to create the perfect player in terms of maximum skills by accessing unlimited Skills Points. So I quickly had to learn how to format a USB drive to transfer files from the XBox hard drive, how to download some pieces of hacker freeware, and how to modify the save files and profile files so that it was possible. This was fun but felt like cheating so I applied the hack to a new profile and created a fictional player with over a billion Skill Points and upgraded him to the maximum possible in every skill category available. It was still my slow reactions and gameplay choices happening but I could now pull off many more ambitious shots with this character and be able to achieve the Career Achievements more readily. Interestingly, I have barely used this character but have spent about 90% of my time on my first MyCareer player. The longer I play, the more I learn about how some choices in the past would have improved my progress. I made my player 26 years old as a rookie (subtracting twenty from my current age) but on reflection should have made him 20 as now my career will peter out six years earlier than what could have been possible.

One of the important milestones is to become a starter, one of the five best in the team and the best in the team at your chosen position. Here hindsight shows that I made some poor choices that led to diminished opportunity. Several years into MyCareer, I had been playing well for the Atlanta Hawks and had reached the end of a season playing well off the bench. I was a free agent able to court offers from several teams interested in my talents – and three of them were offering to make me a starter. One was the team I was in and the one I should have stayed with as I already knew the style of play of the team but again, something from deep from within my brain was attracted to the offer from the Chicago Bulls. As the whole concept of 2K13 is about playing out the fantasy of being a premier NBA player, being a starter on the famed Bulls was too tempting to resist. But this fictional Bulls team were hard to play with, Derek Rose wouldn’t pass to me and the team had a mediocre year missing the playoffs. I tried to rectify the situation by requesting a trade to another team, the Warriors where my starter status lasted five games before I was relegated back to the sixth man role.

One of the features of digital games is the ability to do over when things go awry. I could and still can scrap this mediocre career with its mature age start, poor trade requests, uncapitalised starting roles and do over from the beginning again with a much better knowledge of how to play this thing to a higher level. But something addictive has me hanging onto this imperfect first effort – maybe it’s the giving up of all those Virtual Coins, maybe it’s all of those invested hours building this thing up, I don’t know.

Or maybe it’s the connection with my young son when we play head to head and the bragging banter about each other’s MyCareer player. He plays this thing a lot differently. He’s created over half a dozen careers already and never got past two or three seasons. He’s started a team in the Association mode and filled it with AllStars and enjoys playing with an unbeatable combination of LeBron, Kobe, Chris, Dwight and Kevin. He doesn’t do the same mode game after game, switching things around at an unsettling (for me) pace.

So what does this all mean? I don’t really know – I am just unpacking the thoughts in my mind to try and work out why this game has unlocked my middle aged gaming focus, what are the elements of this game that creates community out on the web and why the fictional version can be more fun than watching the real thing. If anyone wants to play amateur shrink in the comments, your insight and linking to digital gaming in general is most welcome. Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to go and suit up for the Lakers.

On the free throw line.

MinecraftEDU Observations – FWIW

I’ve been running some Friday afternoon sessions with a small group of middle primary students on our relatively new MinecraftEDU server. I’m running this as part of a small research project to explore what links to learning are possible and useful using Minecraft as the forum. I know that Minecraft can be a successful vehicle for learning – my son shows me this with Massively Minecraft, and there are a multitude of Dean Groom blog posts to cement the point home. I also read another informative blog MinecraftEdu Elfie that share first hand experiences of using this tool within the classroom. I’ve also been out to a nearby local primary school where a teacher, David Tucker is doing fabulous things with students from a wide range of cultures and social backgrounds. So, I know that the potential is there – but my school’s question is definitely along the lines of – “What could this mean for our kids?”

So, the group of students is my test bed for some action research on a weekly basis, which is a bit infrequent for my liking. But I thinking that a secondary goal is to create some awareness and teacher buy-in, so a slow build up is OK with me for the moment. My other issue is that I’m not a big Minecraft fan personally, lacking motivation and patience to get much past creating a very basic house and mastering flying around the world. So, I recruited real expertise to run the teacher function of the MinecraftEDU set up in the form of a very knowledgeable Year Six student who had the right blend of responsibility, ability to listen to layman style goals (from my mouth) and willingness to improvise for the benefit of a group of younger students. This student has been awesome, bringing a steady hand to the controls within the teacher interface, and he has been constantly offering ideas to make each session a worthwhile experience. He has suggested treasure hunts, separate zones for specific activities and even worked on griefer-management strategies. In his classroom, he’s just another quiet kid but in my sessions, he has grown in confidence to display real leadership and decision making skills – a real commander-in-chief, allowing me to take on a more observational role and see what kids will actually do in the Minecraft environment.

David Tucker’s classroom had highly developed concepts where he had students working in pairs researching and building castles, while EduElfie has his students building models of DNA in the Science classroom. But I decided to start with a much blanker slate. Basically, I wanted a blank “world” where the invited student researchers would be free to create their own choices of buildings etc. I wanted to see what learning naturally evolved without too much teacher intervention – could the kids be self directed learners within MinecraftEDU. I liked the idea of a “teacher” moderator role and found the ideal candidate in the before mentioned student who has explored the meta-controls to a much greater depth than I could. I certainly didn’t want anything being held up by my lack of knowledge. So, the kids came, logged on and I logged in as well as a casual observer to see what would unfold.

One interesting thing that I noted early on was that the students all started building structures in close proximity to each other. In a world where no one was restricted by borders, everyone clustered together within elbowing distance of each other building structures that were so close to each other that I could barely fly between them without colliding with a wall (that could also be my lousy mouse control within Minecraft). And some of the social and play problems that plague our students out in the yard started to replicate themselves in Minecraft – instead of arguments and interference in others’ games, we had “griefing” issues and lava pouring out of walls. So social skills and play skills are another potential application for the MinecraftEDU environment.

I’ve seen some great sharing and collaboration between the students over the term. Students have paired up in their building ventures, some have sought help and expertise from the older moderators to improve their tool sets and crafting abilities. Quiet students have come out of their shell to be quite animated in a liberating display of self-consciousness loss, and for a number of our ESL students, using the common language of English to describe quite complex processes to others has led to improvements in their oral abilities.

Another important thing to note has been the difference between the two modes of “Survival” and “Creative”. With my students, Survival brings out a tense, almost agitated atmosphere where decisions have to be made quickly and instinctively. Voices are high, the pace is frantic and it seems to be every player for him or herself. A switch to creative mode changes the mood significantly. Voices are calmer, more interactive and the deeper thinking and creative side of students has enough time and space to make an impact. Some kids enjoy the Survival mode as it is most game like, and aligns more with the experience they would have on a console game but there are some who find this mode to be too intense and something they don’t like. From a learning point of view, Creative seems to hold the most potential for our students.

From this research group, I am thinking that I now need a volunteer classroom for 2013. A place where this tool can help engage learners to meet some of the capabilities and achievement standards of our new Australian Curriculum. Time to scout out that teacher.

MAS (Minecraft Avoidance Syndrome)

I just finished watching The Fellowship Of The Rings last night. I think I may have watched The Two Towers when it came out in the cinemas but I definitely haven’t seen the final film in the trilogy yet – which is why I bought the triple set when it was on special at JB Hi-Fi late last year. I have a bunch of other big movie DVDs that I picked up because they were a good price and because I hadn’t ever watched them in the cinemas. Not because I am cinema-phobic. Far from it. I love watching a good movie on the big screen as much as the next person. But the family experience means that this has been a diet of animated flicks over the past decade.

The other factor stalling my consumption of quality movies and meaty television mini-series has been my infatuation with the internet over the past decade, and my all consuming entanglement with Web 2.0 / social media over the past six years as well. So there is a lot of good stuff that I haven’t watched – a sizeable backlog that I would like to enjoy as I make the time. And as I moved into my new role as an Assistant Principal, I have started to allow for time on weekends and the occasional weeknight to simply chill out in front of the TV, and let a story flow to me.

But I actually want to write about Minecraft.

The prelude of this blog post will serve a purpose as it contextualizes my current position.

I think that Minecraft is awesome. I have never come across something that has grabbed kids’ attention quite like this before, and I’ve tried to work in various ways to incorporate it as part of our school’s learning programs and choices. I have two sons who both love it and play Minecraft a lot. Both play it on their tablets and the youngest also likes to get online on the family PC or my MacBook. When I mentioned Massively Minecraft and the community opportunities on offer there, he couldn’t pester me enough to get him signed up and active.

Massively Minecraft is also awesome. What Jo and Dean (and others) have created with the kids and adults of that community is simply stunning and a tribute to true and meaningful innovation. The different options, the levelling up system, the connection to other kids and simply a space that my son feels an integral part of are all part of this. Unfortunately, Josh has been stuck with my original Minecraft account with the online name “grahamwegner” but he doesn’t really care. He has listened carefully when I’ve explained (as best I can) who set the whole thing up, and he would excitedly tell me about snippets of chat he’d had with Jokaydia (aka Jo Kay). “She’s the only person online who calls me Josh!” He also came across Dean one day who typed in something along the lines of “Why isn’t your Dad in here as well?”

It’s a good point.

See, even without actually going into Minecraft and building something for myself, and becoming part of a community, I know that it all has great worth. I’ve sat and watched my son show off his amazing creations, helped him take a screenshot that he can upload to the Massively Minecraft Forums and helped him scroll through the various options available to help with levelling up. I’ve seen that he has collaborated, and cooperated and fended for himself when dealing with others within the Minecraft world. I’ve seen him develop skills for searching, watching help videos and scanning webpages for key information that he needs.

I’ve walked around my school where I can be accosted by up to five or six different students asking me about when Minecraft will be happening in our school, whether it will be on at lunchtime that day or whether I have any spare student accounts. I will have students offer me information about crafting, and how many pieces of obsidian are required to create a new substance, speaking to me as if I’m a person who spends a reasonable amount of my free time immersed in the Minecraft universe. And it is an important point that I think that Minecraft is more of a virtual world in the gaming sense when compared to other gaming systems popular with students which depend on a linear pre-fabricated storyline where the game player role plays in someone else’s version of reality or fantasy. If I’m noticing this level of interest from my students and my own kids, then surely it follows that I too should be a Minecrafter.

But sadly, I am not.

I haven’t taken the plunge and joined Josh in the Massively Minecraft community, so I can build for myself and connect with others. I’ve stalled and I’m not entirely sure why. It does have something to do with time – not a lack of it, but a choice about what to do with it. I read everything that Dean Groom posts on his blog and I know that gaming is important and that has a role to play in learning today. But I fear my own incompetence. I worry that it will become the thing that replaces my Web 2.0 all consuming phase. And selfishly, I worry that I may never get around to watching the final Lord Of The Rings film.

But I also fear that it will be impossible to champion something without some first hand working knowledge. That would make me no better than all of those gurus who point to their Powerpoint punchline and state ” the future of learning is in gaming” but who couldn’t tell a Creeper from Herobrine.

So, slowly I am going to set aside some time to get better acquainted with Minecraft. This is my public commitment to do so. Help keep me honest.

One of Josh’s builds in Massively Minecraft.

Australian Video Game Ratings – Issues For Underagers

Last year, I bought a copy of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare as I thought it would be interesting to play a game aimed at adults and in a genre that I would not usually gravitate towards. We have a Wii system and I hooked up the Wiimote and nunchuk ready to get into video warrior mode. I think I played it twice before getting bored and nauseated by the motion caused by my unsteady gameplay. A couple of months later I traded it in alongside a few other disused games of my son’s in order to buy a DS Pokemon title for him.

But unlike, many of my teaching colleagues when I heard kids in the upper grades talking about playing COD at home, I knew they weren’t playing a virtual fishing game. In Australia, all of the Call of Duty titles carry a M 15+ rating. Interestingly, this seems to be used a guide rather than as a rule as I have heard kids casually tell me that “everyone has this game” and “my parents bought this for my birthday”. I’m pretty sure that many of the pre-orders for the latest installment Black Ops were from the 13 years and under brigade with either very open minded  or possibly naive parents (maybe a combination of both) collecting the coveted goods so that bragging rights would be in place for school the next day.

Australia has a mixed approach in rating video games. On one hand, Australia is seen as quite liberal with the Call of Duty games available without guardian approval or assistance from the age of 15. In North America, the ESRB rates the game’s starting age at 17, in Britain the age is 16 and Europe’s PEGI sets the bar at 16 years of age. But there is also a large list of games that are banned here that can be bought under different rating systems elsewhere in the world. So, are there dangers in allowing younger primary school aged students access to these more mature themed games?

A blog post by Carlton Reeve, highlights some of the potential dangers:

I think it’s right to be concerned about the underage use of games like Call of Duty (COD).  Increasingly parents are succumbing to perceived peer pressure and allowing their children to play these games because ‘all their friends are.’ I know lots of parents that have decided it’s okay.

I think there are a number of reasons to be concerned.  It’s not just the gratuitous violence that risks becoming normalised, COD and alike are riddled with bad language, sex and other adult themes.

It’s odd that many of us regulate our children’s access to TV but feel that the violence presented in games is somehow different and therefore harmless.  But visual realism in these games is increasing.  What’s more, it’s participatory.  COD Black Ops has a gruesome torture scene, Modern Warfare 2 has terrorists murdering innocent civillians in an airport, and the player can join in.   Computer games present violence in the same manner that porn shows sex – entirely casual and inconsequential.  I can’t imagine many of us would be comfortable with our children watching 18 certificate films but the content in video games is basically the same.

Killing is the point of these games – it is relentless and mindless.  But that might not be an issue to those of us who know better.  There is no evidence to suggest that playing violent video games makes well-adjusted players more violent in the long term but there is ample research that shows a rise in aggression and drop in empathy immediately after playing.  Current studies suggest that violent games can exacerbate underlying psychosis, that is, if you have a tendency to be violent, first person shooters will make it worse.  Thankfully most of us aren’t psychopaths and by our early-mid twenties most of us have settled into our skins.  Young people are still ‘solidifying.’

One of the possible solutions in making these sort of games less accessible to the under 15′s of Australia is the elimination of the MA 15+ category and the creation of a new R 18+ category where only an adult could buy games of that classification. The logic says that it would be less likely a child could talk their parent into buying a R rated video game as the internal alarm bells should be ringing clearly in that responsible adult’s head. But I still continue to be amazed (in a negative sense) at the sort of content that students I have known over the last few years have had exposure to with their parents’ knowledge and blessing. At times, I feel very conservative!

Many serious adult gamers want the kids out of their space as well. There is a wealth of reading at the Australia Needs A R18+ rating for video games website, where the reasons for such a move are clearly outlined. And interestingly, my own state is willing to go it alone in such a move with a decision about dropping the MA 15+ rating for the R 18+ due in July. Will it change the behaviour of video gamers under the age of 15? We’ll have to wait and see if the talk of COD gameplay becomes nostalgic around the schoolyard.