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Reluctant Reader but Avid Gamer

The free Booklist Webinar “Reaching Reluctant Readers” featured prominent representatives of top Reluctant Reader publishers. While interesting from the perspective of a librarian, the presentation contained some disturbing facets applicable to this class.

Just so you know, it was not all doom and gloom! On one side of the issue was Carrie Gleason, childrens book publisher at James Lorimer in Toronto,which is distributed through ORCA in the US. Their book War Games is centered around a male protagonist who deals with his father’s deployment through a videogame called Desert Death. Andrew Wooldridge, Publisher at Orca, explained “as technology changes, there are now more ways to reach reluctant readers.” He went on to discuss this in some length in relation to expanding their presence in the digital realm in order to work with teachers and institutions, as well as to cater to a wider variety of learning styles, language proficiencies, and reading abilities.

OK, now on to my issues with the webinar. Dan Verdick, Director of ABDO Marketing went on a self proclaimed “rant” about matching publications contained within library collections to student interests. In other words, comics can be worthwhile reading too! Not even a minute later, however, he was talking about books that took place during WWII that could appeal to the Call of Duty crowd. He stated that it was disturbing that 99% of boys play videogames in the US and 65% of those play them every day. According to Verdick, “these statistics are depressing.” It was surprising to hear such a strong proponant for the use of comics and graphic novels to teach Common Core Standards and vocabulary skills completely discount the potential use of videogames for this purpose. But he wasn’t alone.

Jason Wells, Executive Director of Publicity and Marketing, and Susan Van Metre, publisher, at Abrams Books for Young Readers also presented on this topic. They specifically promoted “The Jewel Fish of Karnak” by Graeme Base as a book centered around ancient Egypt lore that includes puzzles “to get students away from video games and gadgets.” Yet just prior to saying this, they talked about their Topps Books series: chapter books for readers ages 7-9, focused on sports, that include collectible trading cards and links to websites where they can create their own teams, personalized avatar, and interact with other readers. This is me not getting on my soap box to rant about hypocrisy in publishing, yada, yada, yada.



As an HCI student at the School of Information, one thing immediately jumped out at me about the kindergarten reading for next week: the model described in the article—imagine, create, play, share, reflect, imagine—is quite similar to the iterative design process, where prototyping, testing, analyzing, and refining an interface or product is a cyclical process. It’s an approach that fosters creativity, while recognizing that mistakes will be made, and provides an opportunity to correct those mistakes and improve the product considerably. Over the last couple of decades it has become standard practice in much of the HCI design community.

The article touches on the learning tools kindergartners use—finger paint, wooden blocks, and the like. In HCI, we use CSS, JavaScript, and Photoshop. Kindergartners share and reflect creations with fellow students; designers share reflect with customers and other designers. In both scenarios, the process invariably returns to imagining—and re-imagining—both the original as well as new concepts and designs. It took the design community some time to reach this approach. And to think that kindergartners knew all along…

(Also, a somewhat interesting coincidence is that the wikipedia entry for iterative design includes a brief section describing the Marshmallow Challenge, a design challenge in which participants are asked to build the tallest free-standing object with a marshmallow on top. Kindergartners are apparently more successful in completing this task than b-school students.)

Dr. Seuss

So i spent the weekend in Chicago and went to the Museum of Science and Industry (a fantastic museum by the way) where they are having a special exhibit on Dr Seuss. It’s $5 extra but honestly I would have paid the museum price plus that just for the exhibit. Its not even the best put together exhibit but the material they have on him and the way they present it is fantastic. After that exhibit I can honestly say that Dr. Seuss is my new hero. Reading his work as a kid I never really took the time to reflect on his work but looking back at it how he was a terrific humanitarian. But this is all beside the point I wanted to talk about. One perticular quote of his they had on a wall really stuck out to me. He said,

“I like nonsense. It wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living. It’s a way of looking at life through the wrong end of a telescope. Which is what I do. And that enables you to laugh at life’s realities.”

I can’t stop thinking about how elegantly he phrased it. That is exactly how i feel about tv, movies, books and video games. The man really was ahead of his time and the world is a better place for had having him in it.

can videogames make you nicer?

This week’s reading deals with violence in videogames, and how we are able to separate reality from fiction (just as we do in books, movies, and even enhanced photos). I wonder if people do research on whether videogames can make you a better person? A nicer one? Would that game be appealing? I wonder because I think games are a tool: they can help you act out fantasies that you would never do in real life (say, steal people’s cars, rescue a princess from a dinosaur, etc). It can also be a learning tool, as we’ve talked about. But what about a “life” tool? Does anybody remember reading “Highlights” magazine, and the Goofus and Gallant comic strip? It was supposed to teach you how to behave, and be proper, and it took advantage of how easy it is for kids to absorb material through comic strips. Is there a game out there that is equivalent?

Here’s a video that talks about the benefits of gaming – fast forward to the 2 minute mark to see some analogues between kids who play civic minded games and its correlation with charitable giving. (They also cite a UM study, but don’t share the author’s name or the name of the article, which is frustrating).


The Perfect Game

I just saw a random commercial for Google Chrome featuring Brian Kingrey, who won a million dollars for pitching the perfect game in a videogame. Before all this, his students (did I mention he is a music teacher?) had purportedly never even heard him mention baseball. How did he do this? Mr. Kingrey was able to pitch his perfect game by avidly researching the players and the game for 2 weeks straight, learning players’ strengths and weaknesses in reality, and then applying that data to their digital counterparts.

Watching the commercial does not depict Kingrey leading a healthy lifestyle. For the better part of the commercial, he sits indoors with the blinds shut eating Little Debbie cinnamon rolls from a wrapper. Apparently he even called in sick from work on the day he competed. But…it paid off. With a little editing and a different outcome, this could be a have been a PSA about the potential negatives of being a gamer. As it stands, however, Brain Kingrey is now a music teacher, gamer, completest, baseball statistician, millionaire, and a new face of the Google Search engine.

Why Second Life failed.

Well isn’t that convenient – I just came across this article on Slate (thanks to Facebook’s auto-sharing “Washington Post Social Reader”) about why Second Life has failed:

Getting straight to the point, they argue that Second Life doesn’t have one true job that it excels at. Unlike Google which we need for quick & effective searches, the iPod that gives us on-the-go access to our vast music collections, or even Square that gives us an easy, inexpensive way to collect money in the offline world, Second life is “like a job candidate with a fascinating résumé—fluent in Finnish, with stints in spelunking and trapeze—but no actual labor skills.”

Second Life needs to be like a “breakfast milkshake for commuters” – it needs to exist for a specific purpose, i.e. “supply[ing] a breakfast that is filling and nonmessy and cupholder-compatible.

Do you use Second Life for a specific purpose, or do you find it to be a hodgepodge of all these different experiences and purposes, which therefore dilutes your experience?


I have been thinking about cheating a lot, especially since I’m doing a LOT of it in Braid… .and it’s made me think about the ramifications in real-life education. I’ve always wondered why all exams aren’t always open book. For example, in math, if you’ve never learned how to multiply, there is a high likelihood you will not be able to figure out 322×200 = ? on the exam, even if your notes are in front of you. I don’t think I’ve ever faced a situation on the job where I wasn’t allowed to ask my colleagues and superiors about things I don’t understand. It’s encouraged. I guess, is it really cheating, or just guided learning?

I looked up some articles on cheating and student behavior and a lot of them focus on “rationalizing” cheating behavior. I find this interesting because that inherently sets up an environment that cheating IS wrong. A lot of this involves getting answers when you’re supposed to work individually (take home exams) but… in work, do you ever work alone? Isn’t the way a lot of people learn programming by looking at and deconstructing other people’s code? What Barry said in class struck a chord: it’s a systemic issue. Fundamentally, we’re creating environments where the test of knowledge isn’t analogous to how we understand our eventual use of this learned information.

When I started cheating in Braid, what I learned was a method. I had to learn that it’s possible for me (that is, I understood new a new capacity of gameplay) to use enemies as literal jumping boards to get what I want (puzzle pieces). I think that’s why my favorite tests in college were essay exams. You could have your notes in front of you, but the fundamental test was one of explicating themes. It really tested understanding, and there was no one right answer, which is nice.

Randomly, my most loathed exam questions were always those True/False ones – so, so tricky.

Today was the first time that the grading system in our class made me rethink how I approach our work.

My wife and I have a busy weekend ahead of us (two concerts, one baby birthday, trip to Grand Rapids and back), and given all that, I thought, “What if I don’t do the reading reaction this week? Would it really affect my grade? Will I get anything less than my goal if I don’t get that 5K points?” As someone who attended a mid-level state school in another part of the country and largely squandered his undergraduate GPA on less-than-academic pursuits, I feel incredibly lucky to be at UMich, and initially, the thought of not doing all the work that is assigned makes me feel as if I am not appreciating (respecting?) the opportunity I have in being here. On the other hand, don’t I do this already? Do I not invest relative amounts of energy to assignments and readings based on their importance to my grade and to my learning. Is it possible that our grading system in this class simply instantiates or formalizes the impulses that we are already engaged in regarding prioritization of workload?

On Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle fame) said that he attempts to locate his characters’ emotional core and then use that core as a guide for the character’s motivation. For some characters, this is fear. For other characters, it could be rage. I operate out of guilt, and the guilt of not doing all the assignments to the best of my ability sometimes weighs heavily on me. But our grading system in this class obviates the need for guilt as a motivator and instead focuses on utility. I’m just curious how much utility stands at the center of individuals’ emotional core as a guide for motivation.

Thomas Suarez-6th Grade App Designer

I stumbled on this TEDx talk by Thomas Suarez, a 6th grade student in South Bay (California, I’m assuming, San Francisco area). Thomas designs web apps for iPhones and iPads, he also started an app design club at school.

My first thoughts on this, and I might be going out on a limb, were ‘well, this is great for a kid from (most likely) an upper middle class household who have the resources to allow their kid to have iPhones and iPads, as well as pay for his apps to be in the App store, but what about kids who have none of this?’
This is where gaming in schools really hits the rail for me, because we are talking about perfect world scenarios for kids learning from educational gaming and technology, when some of those kids may be more worried about where their next meal will come from, or if they’ll have somewhere to sleep. How are we going to bridge this divide of the haves and the have-nots.
Of course, let’s not forget that schools can and should be providing this access, but they aren’t. Whether it’s due to budget cuts, lack of expertise, or general disinterest from staff (they’ve been doing what they do for a long time and they’ll be darned if some young punk is going to come in and try to change them. Can you tell I’ve worked with teachers). So, technology, gaming, and learning theory aside, how are we really going to implement programs like Thomas wants?

No, it’s not 42. And besides, the ultimate question isn’t “What is the meaning of life?” It’s “Why are people so damn addicted to Angry Birds!?!?”

Charles Mauro, a human factors engineer, looked into this big question himself. What compelled him to explore the Angry Birds phenomenon is in the numbers: Worldwide, people spend 200 million minutes a DAY flinging bad-tempered fowl at green helmeted swine. That translates to 1.2 billion hours per year. To put that in perspective, a total of 100 million hours has been put into creating and editing content on Wikipedia, since its inception. Mind. Blown. (And all hope humanity lost)

So, what did Mr. Mauro conclude? Why do we spend our time like this? It has to do with the game’s simple interaction model. But it is not simply that the UI is simple; it is both simple and engaging. Why? Because of “the carefully scripted expansion of the user’s mental model of the strategy component and incremental increases in problem/solution methodology.”

He also goes into many little details that make Angry Birds unbelievably addicting: (continued after break) View full article »