Tag Archives: learning

Portals and Intutitions

22 Jun

If you haven’t yet heard, Valve announced Teach With Portals, a new initiative to help students learn about physics by playing Portal 2.

Let me just take a moment to point out that they’re getting some basic but highly non-obvious stuff right. They’ve considered the issue of distribution and maintenance, for example; installing software on school machines is a non-trivial problem. They’re also distributing lesson plans. As with Dread, asking teachers to write their own lesson plans means you’re talking to a much smaller population of potential adopters. Having lessons available on the site also means the kit doesn’t have to add lots of hours to a busy teacher’s day.

There’s been some discussion about the limits of Portal, and yes, I won’t argue that it’s not a perfect representation of physics. One of the things that games seem to do well, though, is help people develop intuitions about physics. Even if a representation isn’t entirely accurate, it can help people develop better heuristics and models for thinking about the problem space as a whole. For example, Squire, Barnett, Grant & Higginbotham asked kids to play with an electromagnetism-simulating game. Kids who played didn’t have a good grasp on the terms and notations of electromagnetism, but they did get a sense of the forces and dynamics involved.

Of course, the lesson plans on the site suggest kids won’t exactly be playing Portal – they’ll be participating in structured, inquiry-based lab activities using Portal. It still sounds like more fun than my high-school physics class, but playing and using a game for not-playing aren’t quite the same thing. I wonder whether players are more or less likely to form usable intuitions when they know their play has a serious purpose.

Still, as someone who believes games prepare you for future learning, I love that the project supports both open-ended play, and also supports connecting that play to formal physics concepts. They’re getting at both the preparation and the future learning.

In related news, I just watched the new Miegakure video. Miegakure is a four-dimensional puzzle-platformer. You, the player, can only ever see three dimensions of the game at any given moment – but by controlling which three, and using the fourth dimension cleverly, you can solve the complex spatial puzzles of play. It sounds like a four-dimensional version of Crush, which I thought was a great and underrated game, and is explicitly inspired by Flatland. Even though the player can’t experience the fourth dimension directly, the player can intuit how it works from using it as a tool to solve problems.

I’ve heard mathematicians talk about having intuitions about the way higher dimensions behave. I’ve always wondered how they managed it, when I can barely understand the concept without making my head hurt. Miegakure makes me think that the problem is that I’ve had things backwards. If I could find a way to grasp the intuitions – for example, by playing a game – then the concept would be much less difficult for my conscious brain to grasp.

A four-dimensional game, though, might provide very different intuitions from a three-dimensional game. Maybe we average folks don’t have enough basic knowledge of what four-dimensional space feels like to build useful mental representations. On the other hand, maybe the intuitive effects would be much stronger than with three-dimensional physics games; after all, we have tons of everyday experiences with three dimensions, so the game provides much less additional benefit.

I can’t wait for Miegakure to come out so I can play it. I also can’t wait to find out to what extent it’ll change the way I think about space – and what that means for how we develop intuitions from games.


15 Jul

I just came across a great study out of MIT about how game manuals get used – but not by people! Professor Barzilay and her team created a computer program that learned to play better by reading the manual.

This is potentially a very big deal. Reading – or, as the artificial intelligence folks call it, natural language processing – is one of those problems that theorists thought would be solved fifty years ago, but turned out to be way tougher than expected. Because there are so many ways to express any given concept, it’s extremely difficult to translate text into the underlying logical concepts that a computer can understand.

As part of her research, Barzilay developed a program that could play the game Civilization. The program didn’t know much about the game, but it could move the cursor, see what was on the screen, and tell whether it had won or lost the game. Over time, the program learned to play the game more and more effectively – winning up to 62% of its games. But next, Barzilay decided to let the program examine the text of the game’s manual. It didn’t know what the words meant, but it could figure out what words appeared in the game and compare them to words in the manual, then take relevant actions. Using this strategy, the program’s win rate shot up to 79%.

As the MIT article points out, this research shows a possible new direction for natural language research. But what excites me about this is how strangely similar it is to the way that people use game manuals.

Jim Gee writes about game manuals and “situated meaning.” He argues that for most people*, the words in the manual are just words. We don’t easily translate them into the actions we’re supposed to take while playing. Instead, we play the game, and then use the manual to help us understand what our actions mean. Reading about, say, the V.A.T.S. in Fallout 3 is very different from using  it, then looking it up in the manual for additional insight. In the latter case, we already have a sense of what the V.A.T.S. does** because we have experienced it, and we know how our use of it may or may not serve our larger goals in the game. All of a sudden we have a specific and meaningful context in which to make sense of the words in the manual – which, otherwise, are just words.

Barzilay is essentially taking Gee’s insight and putting it into practice. She lets the computer make sense out of text in the context of play. Did this insight from the manual help me win the game? Which pieces of the manual are related to the in-game actions I’m taking now? These are questions Barzilay’s program asks itself – but they’re questions we human beings ask ourselves, too.


* I think we all know someone who insists on reading the whole manual before starting a new game – but even they probably have trouble applying what they’ve learned until they get a chance to play.

** Of course, different people use the system differently. In my case, I often used the V.A.T.S. to see where enemies might be lurking in the environment, because they would be outlined in red against a dark background.

On Playing Nurse

17 Jun

I’ve been trying to pull together my thoughts on gamification, but I haven’t figured out how to pick out a chunk that’s blog-post-length. So instead I’m going to tell you about nursing my husband through surgery, which was my main non-dissertation activity through most of May, and why it’s made me think carefully about pleasure, process and rewards.

My husband needed to have some growths removed from his throat, which is not a risky surgery but has quite a long recovery time. It’s also extremely painful. I knew my job as nurse would involve both physical care and keeping an extremely cranky patient entertained.

I was, I admit, dreading the experience. I am neither especially patient nor particularly nurturing. When my alarm went off for yet another middle-of-the-night round of medications, would I just be irritated by the whole experience?

It turned out that the answer was no. Sure, some of the 4am wakeups weren’t so fun. But I found it deeply satisfying to fall into a task-based routine, an almost monastic existence. I had two humidifiers, three cases of Gatorade, a giant bottle of pills, and a comfortable chair from which I could see my husband’s sleeping face. I learned I couldn’t expect to get much writing done, but I could enter bibliographic data into Mendeley, or read those articles I’d always meant to get around to, or finally copy-edit the paper I’d intended to finish months ago. Yes, I’d be periodically interrupted, but the interruptions and the work and the napping and even the sleep deprivation were all of one piece, woven together into a world that made coherent sense from the inside even as it was a step away from my ordinary life.

Here’s what I didn’t do. I didn’t give myself points when I administered medication on time. I didn’t collect the empty Gatorade bottles to symbolize the triumph of calories successfully administered. I didn’t advertise my activity through social networking, though I did use it to update my community on how the recovery was going.

I did, I admit, wear a nurse costume. But only once, and no, you can’t see the pictures.

This is the heart of what I have to say about gamification: that what’s meaningful about it is not any particular trappings or techniques, but whether we can successfully create a magic circle within which certain activities become important, necessary and right. I played nurse, and it was magical. I want to figure out how to get people to play learning in the same way.

Electing the Smart Guy

4 May

Ill Doctrine, of all people, got me wondering: can we fix our cultural hostility to electing smart people to office by fixing the way we teach?  At the end of his video, he talks about how electing the smart guy trips people’s high-school sense of inadequacy.  But what if we designed our schools to make more students value intelligence, not just in themselves but in others?

Perhaps I’ll move this book farther up on my reading list and see where things go.  Oh!  And I’m sure Alfie Kohn has something useful on this topic.  Plus we know from Carol Dweck that people’s hypotheses about the nature of intelligence matter for how they learn; I bet it matters for how they think about others’ learning too.  I can’t recall offhand whether she’s taken any data on that, but given how generally awesome her work is, I wouldn’t be surprised if she just happened to have some.

If you wanted to look at this in a naturalistic context, you can quantify the degree to which a school emphasizes competition and compare attitudes across schools.  On the other hand, I wonder how you could start to measure a school’s intellectual culture?  I grew up in a school culture that valued intelligence – the smart kids were the cool kids! – but my partner had the opposite experience.  I bet that plays into things too.

I cannot get too distracted by this idea right now, but I’m totally putting this on my “learn more about later” list!

Mashable on Social Gaming

17 Feb

Mashable has a nice piece on social gaming … except I’m a bit puzzled by how they’re using the term.  They talk about social games as “immersive environments that simulate real-world problems,” but the term “social games” reads to me as being about who plays and how they play together.  Still, it’s a well-written piece, and does a nice job of showing that learning doesn’t have to look like traditional schooling.

Whatever Pokemon Does So Well

22 Jan

The Phylomon Project tries to “do whatever Pokemon does so well, but with the reality of biodiversity and ecology providing the content.” Which would be great, if they appeared to understand what the thing Pokemon does so well is.

I don’t mean to slam the project. They’re already about ten steps ahead of most educational game designers! They’ve chosen an appropriate game reference for the type of learning they’re hoping to achieve. Learning about real-world species has elements of collecting, categorizing and memorizing, just like Pokemon – and unlike certain other projects, kids’ independent engagement with Pokemon is more than just wishful thinking. It’s an excellent choice.

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