In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy, James Paul Gee challenges the assertion that video games are a “waste of time” by discussing the potential of good video games to encourage deeper forms of learning and enjoyment of players. According to Gee the best video games echo the best theories of learning in education, encouraging active and critical learning, rather than basic “skill-and-drill” methods of instruction (4). The games Gee refers to specifically offer players the chance to take on a virtual persona and navigate a complex and interactive world.
These games allow for learning in the contexts of the following principles of learning, situated cognition, New Literacy Studies, and connectionism. Situated cognition maintains that learning “is fully embodied in (situated within) a material, social, and cultural world,” and is more than just what happens inside the human mind. New Literacy Studies reiterates the sentiment that learning goes beyond the constraints of the mind, and includes “social and cultural practices with economic, historical, and political implications.” Connectionism insists that humans are adept at recognizing patterns and learn best when they can link abstract principles to actual experience (9).
According to www.ratedgamergear.com, education, learning and thinking, are inherently social processes. We read and interpret different works depending on the social community with which we identify. Becoming a “gamer” includes more than simply learning to play the game. Often it leads players to online information, connecting the individual to a larger community of people, or affinity group, with the same interests and similar “identities.”
He describes gaming as a semiotic domain or “an area or set of activities where people think, act, and value in certain ways” (19). Semiotic domains, gaming for instance, contain “languages” with which participants must become “literate.” According to Gee video games can encourage players to engage in active rather than passive learning as the new player begins to navigate the game design. Players are able to try on a new personas, act out and explore their values, and solve problems as they arise within the games. When a player reaches a certain level of understanding of a game they can start to think reflectively about the games parts and begin to critique it or make innovations.
Gee does not argue for the use of video games in classroom instruction, or that players always learn valuable content. Rather, his point is that well-made video games, though difficult to learn and master, can encourage active and critical learning in a way that players find enjoyable; they illustrate sound principles of learning that the education system should consider. Players do not have to get it done quickly and get it right the first time, rather they are free to explore, hypothesize and learn from experience.
It is worth noting that Gee’s discussion of video games does not focus on content or related issues of misogyny in gaming culture, for instance. While he argues video games are neither inherently good or evil, the importance of community in learning indicates a need to investigate the effects on individuals of potential exclusion by the community. It would be interesting to hear Gee’s thoughts on the effects of misogyny encountered by female gamers within the “affinity group” of their semiotic domain.
“The 1066 Game gets you right in amongst the battles, allowing you to directly control every barrage of arrows, cavalry charge and defensive stand taken by your armies. Mini-games add to the tension of issuing commands, and a distinctive portrayal of medieval warfare is delivered by the striking visual and dramatic animation.” –So says one of the game’s sites.
If you don’t know the history of the Battle of Hastings, watch this or this.
1066 purports to be a historical portrayal of the battle, but I’m confused how powerful the taunting tactic is in this game. I lost twice because my men kept being berated by insults such as “OOZING PUS WOUND” or “ILL-BORN FEN RAT!” My archers really couldn’t really defend against such a foul-mouthed offense.
Did it make me think about military strategy back then? Sure. Did it make me finally look up what the Battle of Hastings was? Yep. But, was the game fun to play? Not really, because it’s bit cumbersome and inconsistently balanced. I would attempt to move some of my men, and then the computer I was playing would fire off some arrows, some insults, and then even move some men–all while I couldn’t do anything. Bloody frustrating, that is. Cool animations though.
The Jamestown Online Adventure gives a “choose your own adventure” style of learning about how colonization works. According to its own descriptor page, “[i]n 1606, some 105 adventurers set off from England to try and establish the first permanent English colony in the New World. They settled in what is now the state of Virginia and called their colony first James Fort, and then James Towne, in honor of James I, the King of England. The early years of the colony were nearly a total disaster.”
I like how you learn about geography, how the land was being carved up, and where it would might be best to try to live along the coast–or not. No matter what choices you choose, you get a report telling you how you would’ve fared, and then explanations about how it really was under the headings “now we know.” I wish the window/viewer for the game was bigger so that the text was easier to read, especially for the report when the text gets heavy and historical. (Hopefully we could prevent the tl;drtendency.)
Jamestown is finite compared to 1066, so if I had to choose between the two I would choose the sodding archers and the enemy’s archaic put-downs. Both taught me a bit more about history though, so both score points in my book for that.
There is an Einstein Quote, “if you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” The two games I researched were Cotton Millionaire and Argument Wars and both these games engage the player with simple versions of complex issues, economics and civics respectively, for the purpose of growing understanding.
It’s the beginning of the industrial revolution and you’re the advisor to a businessman with some money to invest; you have the opportunity to make a fortune. The framing of the advisor is mentioned once and then abandoned; perhaps because it is a tool for inclusivity: only white men were owners at this point, but anyone can be an advisor. There is a single avatar, a blonde-ish white man, and despite the inclusive language (and by inclusive I mean carefully politically correct) at the end of the game, if you fail, you go to debtor’s prison when the avatar is incarcerated.
This game is of a very simple construction. It consists of four choice points and the value of the choices are carefully weighted so that it is almost impossible to not make it to the end of the game. I had to purposefully choose what I knew to be the worst choices to get tossed in jail in only three turns.
I have one major complaint about the construction of the game itself and that is there a semiotic shift between the first and second turns. In turn 1, you select a map location and it tells you about your choice before you pick it; this is not the case in later turns which I found irritating but having read some more of Gee, interesting. I understand the first turn, having presented the goals of the game, they then present you with information relating to the options and you make the choice and then it is explained why this was or was not a good choice.
In the later turns you just have to guess and to me this is counterintuitive of what the goal of the game seems to be. Especially considering the frame that you are the advisor to the industrialist, the goal would be to use your knowledge to make good decisions, the later turns where you are guessing and then find out if you guessed right is, to me, gambling and not constructive game-play.
The point of Argument Wars is to teach students both about the constitution and how to construct cohesive arguments. Play is dictated by connecting ideas to the key argument of the case. I played a case about the 4th Amendment so the ideas were all related to illegal search (probable cause, warrants, the special circumstances of a school) and the rights of minors.
As you make your arguments, the Judge tells you how you are doing and awards points based on how relevant your argument is to the case at hand – and in some cases, how well you can construct a sentence based on that argument. You have options populated by the computer, you just have to choose.
While some parts of the game are abrasive – the ridiculous posturing of the avatars and especially the music – it is actually quite well designed. The game play is consistent, the objectives are clear, and you have the option of retrying the case on the other side. As a legal game, that is I think the most important aspect, being able to see and argue both sides of an issue. The screen at the end of the game that tells you if you’ve won or lost the trial also tells you how the actual case turned out.
Both of these games have their flaws and neither is, to my knowledge, directed at any age group outside of school, but the simplicity makes engaging with the ideas presented both fun and informative. It is especially the secondary benefit of Argument Wars, the construction of supported arguments that I like best because to win at one thing, it requires building a skill in another.
Stories from Main Street and The Will to Adorn are projects created by the Smithsonian Institution that are very different in subject matter and in execution but which share the element of encouraging members of particular marginalized groups to contribute their own stories to the endeavors. Both projects have websites and accompanying apps for mobile devices, and it is in these mobile apps where the two projects are most similar.
Institution Traveling Exhibition Service’s Museum on Main Street (MoMS) program. MoMS works to bring the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibitions to cultural institutions serving the small towns (defined as having an average population of 8,000 people) of rural America. The Smithsonian staff envisions that their programs help to bring together the residents of such towns to share their stories with each other, fostering community pride. The MoMS website allows people from anywhere in the country to contribute photos, videos, audio recordings, and written stories pertaining to their experiences in rural America and to experience the content contributed by participants.
The Will to Adorn project, begun in 2010 by the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, “explores the diversity of African American identities as expressed through the cultural aesthetics and traditional arts of the body, dress and adornment.” The project appears to have culminated with an exhibit, demonstrations, workshops, performances, hands-on visitor participation activities, and daily fashion shows at the 2013 Smithsonian Folklife Festival held on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The website seeks to provide an explanation of the questions and goals addressed by the project and provides some sample photo and video content, but it does not offer a means of exploring the full content of the project.
While both websites are rather celebratory in the sense of bringing to prominence topics that have generally been excluded from mainstream historical and cultural practice, the projects and websites are very different in tone. Unlike Stories from Main Street, Will to Adorn projects itself as a scholarly endeavor, with researchers actively seeking to distill meaning from the evidence that they gather through the project. Whereas I did not find any user participatory element on the Will to Adorn website, collecting user content and allowing site visitors to explore it is the raison d’etre for Stories from Main Street, which to me has a very haphazard feel to it. Specific geographic location at the level of the town is also an important aspect of the Stories from Main Street content whereas local geography does not appear to figure significantly into the Will to Adorn website.
Despite the stark differences between the two websites, the mobile apps for these projects are actually quite similar. Both apps allow the user to record their own stories related to the topic of the project and also to listen to stories that other people have contributed. Aside from imagery, presentation-wise, the apps are pretty much identical. The Stories from Main Street app was built using Roundware, which bills itself as “an open-source, participatory, location-aware audio platform” that does pretty much exactly what both of these apps do in term of recording audio, being able to add some metadata, uploading content, and being able to select, to a certain extent, the content that will be streamed to the listener. Will to Adorn most certainly was also built using Roundware, but I did not see a credit for it in the app.
Recording content to contribute is (theoretically) easy with these apps. Start by pressing the “Add a Story” button on the main page. On Stories from Main Street, you then have a choice of six general topics from which to choose- Life in Your Community, Sports – Hometown Teams, Music – New Harmonies, Food – Key Ingredients, Work – The Way We Worked, and Travel – Journey Stories. You then identify yourself as a man, woman, boy, or girl, and finally you are asked to choose one specific question (from a provided list of four to six questions) about the subject you selected. Doing so brings you to the recording page, where your question is displayed for you at the top. When you’re ready, press the record button (I recommend the large button at the bottom; I had trouble with the smaller buttons in the middle of the page) and there will be a three second countdown. Then you will have a minute and a half to discuss your chosen question. When you’re done, press stop, and you will then have the option of listening to what you recorded, rerecording it, and uploading it (or you can exit the recording section without posting by hitting the cancel button at the top of the screen, which takes you back out to the main menu).
I chickened out at the point of actually uploading content. I’m not from a small town, and although I did record an answer to one of the Travel section questions, I was afraid of sounding like I was an Easterner mocking something from Midwestern culture that I don’t understand. I gather that the app uses your phone’s GPS to attach location information to your recording when you upload it, which is curious, because geography is such an important part of the Stories from Main Street website and a person may be inspired to record something about their town while away from home or conversely may wish to talk about a small town they’ve visited before from the comfort of their own home, which means the content may have an inaccurate geolocation if it’s based solely on the location of the phone at the moment of recording. On the website, users are able to type in the appropriate location for their content.
Will to Adorn works similarly to Stories from Main Street, although the metadata Will to Adorn collects is a bit more nuanced. After pressing “Add a Story,” the app asks for your age (15-19, 60+, and then each decade in between). They ask for gender, but in addition to the expected male and female, there are also options for “trans” (with an asterisk that goes unexplained) and “other” (which could mean all sorts of things). You then select from one of six broad geographic areas (Alaska and Hawaii I guess have to content themselves with being from the West). Will to Adorn only gives you the choice of a total of five questions to answer. However, and this is kind of key, once I made all of these selections, the screen looked like it was going to send me to a recording screen similar to Stories from Main Street. Nope.
Black empty screen of doom. I have to presume that the app was tested before it was released, so maybe it’s just not compatible with my iPhone 6, because not being able to record on an app whose whole purpose is to be able to record is rather a problem. And I was more willing to answer and submit to this site (“What are you wearing?” seems like a mostly harmless question). At any rate, images on the Will to Adorn website show recording pages nearly identical to those in the Stories from Main Street app, although you may get up to two minutes to discuss your clothing choices. Website text also indicates that you can attach photos to your story submission too, but the app does not show user images anywhere, and I did not see on the website either the archive of user submissions or a way to record and upload stories so I cannot verify this aspect of the app’s functionality.
In terms of the listening aspect of these apps, after pressing the “Listen” button on the main page and waiting for what seemed like a rather long period of time in both apps for content to load, the app will start playing recordings from the collection. Stories from Main Street defaults to the recordings in the “Life In Your Community” section. Users can flag the content, like it, or if you’re inspired to record your own story, there’s a record button there too.
The user does have the option to choose to a certain extent which stories they will hear on the app. On Stories from Main Street, the “Modify” button at the top of the screen allows you to select one of the six content areas and to further narrow down by what specific question(s) you want to hear about. The “Refine” button in the same spot on Will to Adorn allows the user to narrow by age, gender, region, and specific question. No audio played for the first two questions that I selected to listen to on Stories from Main Street, so perhaps no one has actually contributed stories related to those particular topics, but I did have success on my third try. Interestingly enough, on the sports section, there were more question options to listen to than there were to record on your own. And in the Travel section, the “favorite journey” answers were mostly about going to a large city rather than a small town.
I’m not sure that anyone’s actively curating the user responses. There was a recording on the Stories from Main Street app that I heard where some kids were messing around doing a recording and one of them used a slur. In another one, a young man discussed how he and his friends as teenagers would go to the river, drink moonshine, get high, and watch alligators. One snippet was simply “[town name] sucks.” And a recording I heard on Will to Adorn started out as a heartfelt commentary about a certain style of dress but then suddenly turned into a profanity-laden tirade on the subject. I’m not sure if it’s a matter of not wanting to censor what people say or if the Smithsonian is just relying on the community to use that flag button to police the content. There also doesn’t actually appear to be very much content to curate on either site. According to the Stories from Main Street website, there are 519 contributions in the archive. Will to Adorn appears to have far fewer stories than that, as I heard much of the content at least twice while listening to the stories.
While some of the stories contained in the Stories from Main Street and Will to Adorn archives are genuinely interesting, honestly, I really don’t get the point with either of these apps. The stories are snippets of two minutes or less that are for the most part divorced of context. Neither app displays any metadata about the audio that’s playing, so if particular facts are known about the contributor of a recording, the listener won’t have that information. And the contributors don’t always give you much information in their recordings. For example, if a person opens up their recording in Stories from Main Street with “In my town…,” well, which town? How would I know that if the subject doesn’t actually say it in their recording? Assuming the geolocation attached to the recording is correct (an issue with Stories from Main Street that I discussed earlier), the listener doesn’t know what it is and doesn’t have a great way of determining if the speaker is talking about life in Boise, Birmingham, or Burlington (and Wikipedia tells me that there is a Burlington in 24 of the U.S. states!). Maybe I’m missing the forest for the trees, but I’m a details kind of person.
Many of the recordings on Will to Adorn sound like they were made at the Folklife Festival, and the participants there were generally asked by volunteers about their name, age, and location and were sometimes asked to elaborate on their responses. But the following is the extent of one non-Folklife Festival story on Will to Adorn: “How I feel when I have it on—it makes me feel beautiful.” Have WHAT on? Disembodied from all context, this particular snippet doesn’t seem to me to add much to the conversation about creating meaning and forging identity through one’s attire.
Another interesting context issue with Will to Adorn concerns race. The project as explained on the Will to Adorn website specifically concerns how African Americans express themselves through dress and other adornment. The app invites anyone to contribute their story, which is perfectly fine. But the app does not provide a way to self-identify by race or ethnic/cultural background unless you choose to speak to that issue in your recording. So I guess I don’t understand how any user contributions added to the project’s database from the app could be marshaled as evidence for the original conception of the project.
Context for these stories aside, I also just don’t understand not why “there’s an app for that” but rather why the public would download either of these apps and use them over and over again. Sure, one’s smartphone provides a really convenient way to record very short stories, but I don’t really see much of a reason for an individual to do this more than once or twice. There is no essential tie to a physical place for either of these apps that would prompt a user to open up the app and learn something about that location through the project’s content. There could have been on Stories from Main Street, but there’s no way on the app to search for a particular location to find content related to a place where you happen to be or might be interested in knowing more about. Stories from Main Street does provide a link to the project’s website on the main page (Will to Adorn does not) where visitors can search for audio on a map. Similarly, given the limited amount of content in these collections, I’m not sure why anyone would use the listen function on either app more than a couple times, particularly on Will to Adorn. I’m not saying that the effort to collect and share people’s thoughts on these apps is uninteresting and completely devoid of value, I’m just struggling to see why someone might keep these apps on their phones and use them more than a very few times.
What do you think? How might these apps be improved to increase their current interest and/or enduring value? Without a great deal of context, what can we learn about the subject matter of the projects by listening to these recording snippets?
The advent of digital technology allowed a greater exchange of knowledge and ideas to enter homes at an astonishing new level. This change brought information and services straight to users that before may have required someone to actually leave their home to seek it. The advancement of mobile computing technology furthered the trend of information coming directly to people but without restricting its access in one physical place. Many cultural heritage institutions have noticed these changes and adapted to become not only places that house information, but resources that increasingly push it directly to their patrons wherever they may be. The affordances of this new media also allow institutions to bring their materials into geographic space, adding another layer of interpretation and context while bringing to the public’s attention that history is all around us.
Histories of the National Mall
One site that takes advantage of mobile application and a spatial understanding of history is Histories of the National Mall created by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media run using our old pal, Omeka. Taking their own advice from their report Mobile for Museums, the site is device independent, made to run on a web browser allowing for use across desktop, laptop, and mobile and is not a native downloadable app that needs tailoring for each device. As the title indicates, the site is an interface for learning about the histories of the national mall through maps, explorations (short examinations based on questions people might have about the mall), people, and past events. Most of these sections can be filtered into different historical periods. Some of my favorite sections, and much to my chagrin, are the great explorations of unmade designs of the nationalmonuments. There are also a number of scavenger hunts that send you to a specific part of the mall and have images of places for you to find. Once you find the images, you tap or click them and can read or listen to more about it.
The key feature of this site is the map, which has over 300 points containing historical information, audio, video, images, and documents. The user can filter by each of those categories as well as by place and event. As stated above, the site is web browser based and largely looks the same when using on a desktop/laptop or a mobile device. Using GPS, Histories of the National Mall centers the map on the user’s coordinates and locates them within historical context. What is good about the map is that there are no set way to explore the points, you can wander around and discover new facts and events that shaped the environment all around. This allows the user to set their own narrative in a serendipitous combination of explorations.
While Histories of the National Mall is a ready made site, Aris Games is both an open source application to create geographically based games and a mobile app to play the games. The back end is not the scary coding or programming that some in the cultural heritage sector may fear, but a simple interface so even those without the technical skills can make the games with the infrastructure invisible to them. One downside to the Aris created games not encountered in the mall histories site is that the mobile app is only available on Apple products and has a much more limited audience because of it.
The Aris editor interface to create is simple but it is by no means easy to understand without first reading the manual or viewing the helpful video tutorials on certain topics. It is important to understand the different elements (especially non-obvious ones such as scenes, plaques, and locks) and how they function so you can create a working game. The games are largely tours or explorations of certain areas. Building a game is based on creating “scenes” or different scenarios that the user can encounter as they travel around. You can make conversations for the user to have at each location that can lead them further into the game. All of the features you create can be mapped to a certain location to create an exploratory geographic environment. This feature is unfortunately cumbersome to use as the only way to find your points is through precise GPS coordinates or by dragging the point to where you want with no way to search for your general location so you can get there quicker. Also there is no way to see how your game will look in app without having and opening the app. Since I have an Android device, I needed to borrow an iPhone to do this. Despite these drawbacks, Aris editor is a good way to make games without requiring programming experience.
Playing the games is fairly simple but, as mentioned above, does require downloading their Apple based app. Inside the app you can play any number of games created with the editor. You can either find games based on your geographic location, sort by popularity, or search for a specific title. Aris provides a demo that will give you a good overview of what it is like to play these games (avert your eyes if you dislike semi-obsolete media):
Overall, National Histories of the Mall and Aris Games are good examples of the creative ways spatial history and mobile technology can work together to engage the public. By embracing this new trend and the ubiquity of mobile phones, institutions will add layers of meaning, attract a wider audience than before, and bring content out from behind closed doors.