Play the Past launched!

I’m happy to report that Play the Past, a collaboratively edited & authored blog about cultural heritage and games, has launched.

Actually, Ethan, our intrepid leader, says it best:

At its core, Play the Past is a collaboratively edited and authored blog dedicated to thoughtfully exploring and discussing the intersection of cultural heritage (very broadly defined) and games/meaningful play (equally broadly defined). Play the Past contributors come from a wide variety of backgrounds, domains, perspectives, and motivations (for being interested in both games and cultural heritage) – a fact which is evident in the variety of topics we tackle in our posts.It is very important to note that Play the Past isn’t just about digital games, its also about non-digital games (boardgames, tabletop games, collectible card games, etc.), alternate reality games (ARGs), barely games (a term originally coined by Russel Davies – no, not the Doctor Who Russel Davies – and built upon by our very own Rob MacDougall), and playful mechanics (or “gamifying” as its been recently called).

We are also very interested in exploring the spectrum of approaches to games – from the more “philosophical” (as some might call it) games studies side of things, to the more practically applied serious games/meaningful play side of things (and just about everything betwixt and between).

Drop by and see what’s happening!

Serious Games for Archeaology & Imagining The Past

Ruth Tringham and her team at Berkeley continue to do extremely interesting work! I’ve just come across this course description for ‘serious games for archaeology‘, a course that asks probably *the* most important question when it comes to the content of historically-themed video games:

[…]We will explore and learn to critically analyze existing games that deal with archaeology, history, and the past. How, for example, does the game “Colonial Williamsburg” that MIT is developing differ from more popular games such as “Civilization”? We’ll discuss why it is that the commercial game producers are not interested in the educational value and content of their games.[…] (emphasis added SG)

That’s the nub, right there. Why does it matter that the Taliban can be swapped out of Medal of Honor without any consequences to game play? These are questions that historians and archaeologists need to address. In a similar vein, that was the motivation behind our paper from this past summer on a theory of good history through good gaming.

Players of history games are interested in the past and in the big questions that drive historical scholarship. In this way, games have the potential to draw players into the discipline if we can discover the best way to express history though simulation. But what research do we draw on as we study how to accomplish this transformation? This essay is the product of a meeting of historians, educators, and gamers who joined previously separate lines of inquiry to identify literature and models that we believe form the foundation for developing a theory of good history through gaming.

Rolling your own: early draft

I thought I’d try something different. I’m giving a paper at a conference before too long, and I thought I’d solicit feedback on it *before* I give it: I’ll write the thing in public. I am always such crap when it comes to properly formatting citations etc, and I have a mental block when it comes to words that sound alike… so please be gentle. Feedback in the comments, please.

This terrifies me, to some extent, but I watched a similar experiment unfold on Grand Text Auto a while back, which had excellent results. And so, I offer:

Rolling your Own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals

Shawn Graham – University of Manitoba, Grand Canyon University

Making modifications to existing commercial games is a strong and vibrant sub-culture in modern video gaming. Strictly speaking, ‘modding’ refers to actually changing the rules by which a game operates, but a less rigorous definition includes scenario building, or the set up of the pieces on the game board. Many publishers now provide tools to make this easier, as part of their marketing strategy. Talented individuals who make and release mods or scenarios for popular games such as the Civilization franchise have been been plucked from the fan communities to employment with the publishers (Jon Shafer, lead designer of the upcoming Civilization V, is one notable example).  Most scholars who have focused on Civilization have addressed its narrative of technological progress and American exceptionalism (REFS); others have concentrated on how the game can be employed in classroom settings, its anachronisms and theoretical outlook on history (Sid Meier famously stating that he did not set out to create a work of history, he wanted to create a game). In this piece, I wish to focus attention on the fansites as the locus for learning.

I too wanted to use Civilization for paedegogical ends in my online classroom. With the help of participants on, I created a scenario (with one rule change; thus a mod) to address a problem I was having in my Introduction to Roman History class. I carefully crafted a scenario to reflect the events of AD 69, the Year of the Four Emperors, devised an assignment to go with it, and launched it on my students. It was a flop. Its lack of success I suspect is due to the ‘creepy treehouse’ phenomenon (Stein, 2008), referring to the urban legends surrounding treehouses built with no other purpose but to lure children. In online learning, the ‘creepy treehouse’ plays out as a use of some aspect of social media that does not emerge naturally from the class dynamic, but rather is imposed from on top and thus feels artificial to the participants – an instructor who requires every student to post 3 times a week to the class blog, for instance.

In this paper I explore just how my experiment with modding and scenario building ended with a ‘creepy treehouse’. That experience refocused my attention to the fansites themselves and the participants who helped me build my scenario. This points us as educators to an under appreciated value of game-based learning using commercial video games. When we ‘roll our own’, it is the aspect of creating it in public that might have the greatest educational impact. The nature of the fansites promotes the kind of learning we labor to facilitate in our online classrooms, spontaneously and from the bottom up: teaching without teachers.

The Year of the Four Emperors

The death of Nero launched the Empire into a period of turmoil and civil war, with four Emperors being declared in various parts of the Empire, in quick succession. My introduction to Roman history class were struggling with the period. Vespasian was the last of the four contenders to be declared Emperor by his troops. In looking at the period, my students were explaining Vespasian’s success in pacifying the Empire and consolidating his hold on Rome in terms of his later role as Emperor: “Of course Vespasian would win the civil war because Vespasian was the Emperor.” This is to put the cart before the horse. As I discussed the period with them, I realized that part of the problem, aside from confusion of cause and effect, was a poor understanding of the realities of Mediterranean geography and of the difficulties of communications in a pre-industrial world (factoring in the time it took for news to travel and how that influenced the political dynamic).

I wanted my students to understand the contingency of history, that Vespasian’s eventual triumph was not fore-ordained, and that physical and political geography played a role. Thus I embarked on the creation of a scenario, using Civilization IV. Civ IV comes with a piece of software for setting up scenarios, the ‘world builder’. I quickly became frustrated with using it. It is meant to allow the player to place all of the different pieces on the map, to set up the starting positions for the game. Many of its features are disabled, and cannot be unlocked until the player adds a line of code to the Civilization initialization file. This information is not provided by the game’s documentation, but rather comes from the fan sites. Trying to unlock the worldbuilder led me to the modding community (indeed my post relating what the unlock code is, is consistently the most visited post on my research blog).

As I became more and more excited about the possibilities of scenario building, I came to rely more and more on the fan sites for help (principally, Civilization IV was built using XML to describe nearly every object in the game. By adjusting the information in the XML, one can change the names of leaders or cultures (or add more); one can adjust the game calendar so that each turn represents a single day, week, or month. One can add ancillary information to set the scene for the scenario when it opens, or prevent certain kinds of technology from ever being ‘discovered’ (a world without gunpowder, for instance). How to find this information, how to change it, was all courtesy of the fans.

Eventually, with the help of ‘Carloquillo’, I had a working scenario of the Roman world in AD69. The aim was to outmanouevre the other claimants to the throne, whether politically or militarily (the ‘Senate’ would examine the balance of power in Italy periodically, and declare one or the other of the rivals to be the ‘Emperor’ – thus simulating the ineffectualness of the Senate at this period). The scenario was not perfect of course – Vespasian kept converting to Judaism if the artificial intelligence was allowed to play as him. I devised an assessment exercise for my online students. Instead of writing the final paper, I would instead have the students play the scenario through. At set intervals, they would take a screenshot of the world map, and record a narrative of what was going on in their counterfactual history (they would be its historians). Then, to conclude they would identify and address the similarities and differences between the game’s version of ‘history’ with what had in fact happened in the past (which would make a virtue of Vespasian’s conversion to Judaism, for instance). My hope was that in playing the scenario the students would begin to appreciate the difficulty of Vespasian’s position, initially; how difficult it was to act; what an accomplishment it was in fact to manage and control such an enormous hetergeneous territory; and by identifying anachronisms better understand the important concepts of the period.

This is the point where the scenario failed. A number of my online students did indeed have copies of Civilization IV. I offered the scenario to these students as an alternative to the final assignment, confirmed that some of them were playing it, and waited to see what would happen. While feedback on the scenario was positive – “this was a fun scenario, sir” – to a person, none took up the offer to play the game for credit, turning in standard essays instead. I asked why, and every response was evasive. I initially put it down to the conservatism of students: everyone understands how essays work as far as grading goes, but maybe a game-for-credit was a step to far. I have not tried this scenario again in a classroom setting because I now realize that the major error I made was that I sprung it on my students without any kind of preparation. There was no buy-in, because it was a ‘creepy treehouse’. I selected the period to model; I had made it; it was my representation. Of course there could be no buy-in.

But there was one mitigating factor. The thread I started on Civfanatics asking for help attracted the attention of 14 other players (very nearly the same size as my class). They helped me to build it, they asked questions about the period, and they suggested ways of accomplishing what I wished to model using the game. The scenario that I uploaded to that thread was play-tested by them, and has since been downloaded nearly 1000 times. On the Civfanatics site, my role as a university instructor did not put me in any privileged position vis-a-vis the other participants; I was just one of many people who enjoyed the game.

Learning did happen as a result of my experiment in scenario building. It just didn’t happen in my classroom.

Assessing the educational value of online discussion forums

The major learning management systems used by colleges and universities rely on a twenty year old metaphor: the bulletin board, or discussion forum. Students make posts, leaving messages commenting on some topic. Posts are organized into threads (thus mixing metaphors). Similarly, Civfanatics relies on posts and threads. Significantly, online courses rely on the instructor to keep the discussion flowing, to push it into the interesting areas, and to assess the students’ learning in the forums. While Civfanatics has ‘moderators’ who monitor the discussions, their role is solely to make sure that topics are in the right place – don’t post your wish list of features for Civilization IV in the area marked for scenario swapping, for instance. There is therefore no authority ‘in charge’ of any discussion on Civfanatics. What order there is is in a given thread is largely self-organized. The literature of formal online learning can usefully be explored to assess what kind of learning is taking place in these self-organized forums. In the thread that I started, I clearly learned about how to simulate using the game. But what of history?

In the classes that I teach, when I assess a discussion forum, I am looking for posts that demonstrate an understanding of the material; that engage with others’ thoughts and comments; and which push the conversation forward. In truth, my rubric is not overly elaborate. A more rigorous rubric and approach is proposed by Uzuner (2007). Uzuner makes a distinction between ‘educationally valuable talk’ (EVT) and ‘educationally less valuable talk’ (ELVT). He situates this distinction in the traditions of Vygotsky’s 1934 insights concerning language and how “knowledge building is created between/among people in their collaborative meaning-making through dialogue.” Uzuner’s approach therefore is firmly rooted in a constructivist approach to education. Uzuner suggests that EVT, in the context of discussion threads, is

a particular interactional pattern in online discussion threads characterized as dialogic exchanges whereby participants collaboratively display constructive, and at times, critical engagement with the ideas or key concepts that make up the topic of an online discussion, and build knowledge through reasoning, articulation, creativity, and reflection. (2007)

On the other hand, ELVT is talk “that lacks substance in regards to critical and meaningful engagement with the formal content or ideas that are discussed in the posts of others in an online discussion” (2007).  Uzuner then provides examples of different kinds of EVT and ELVT, with 11 different kinds of EVT, and 5 kinds of ELVT. I reproduce Uzuner’s two tables below:

Table 1. Online Conversations and Educationally Valuable Talk (EVT) Indicators

Indicator Acronym Defined Examples Source
Exploratory EPL Recognition of some confusion/curiosity or perplexity as a result of a problem/issue arising out of an experience/course readings; posing a problem and enticing others to take a step deeper into it. “I wonder…….”

“I am not sure if what the author suggests…….”

“In the article X, the author said …. This brought up a few questions in my mind ….”

Mercer (1994);

Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2001)

Invitational INVT Inviting others to think together, to ponder, to engage by asking questions, requiring information, opinion or approval. “Jane says …….. What do you think?”

“Do you think ……?”

“The authors suggest …., no?

Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Argumentational ARG Expressing reasoning (with analogies, causal, inductive and/or deductive reasoning etc) to trigger discussion “If teachers ……., then ……..”

“Teaching is like …………..”

“X is important because …….”

Kumpulainen (1996)
Critical CRT Challenging or counter-challenging statements/ideas proposed by others OR playing devil’s advocate “I agree that …. However, …….” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Heuristic HE Expressing discovery (similar to “A ha!” moments or expressions like “I find it!”); directing others’ attention to a newly discovered idea. “I did not know that there is a name for XXX. I think XXX is …..Has anyone experienced that too?” Kumpulainen (1996)
Reflective REF Examination of past events, practices (why/how they happened) or understandings in relation to formal content “I’ve noticed that I had a tendency to ….. After reading X’s article, I’ve learned not to ……” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Interpretive INTP Interpretation of formal content through opinions that are supported by relevant examples, facts, or evidence. “In my opinion X is …… Y is a good example of why …….” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Analytical ANL Interpretation of content through the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of others’ understanding “The original question was … Joe said … Mary said … As for me ….” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Informative INF Providing information from literature and relating it to course content/topic of discussion “I read an article about X once and the author said …. You can find more information about this in …” Kumpulainen (1996)
Explanatory EXPL Chain of connected messages intended to explain/make clear OR statements serving to elaborate on the ideas suggested in previous posts “I want to build on your comment that ……..” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)
Implicative IMP Assertions that call for action OR statements whereby participants formulate a proposal/decision about how to achieve a certain end based on the insights they gained from the course readings/discussions “Teachers should / should not ….”

“X must not be forced ….”

Uzuner & Mehta (2007)

Table 2. Online Conversations and Educationally Less Valuable Talk (ELVT) Indicators

Indicator Acronym Defined Examples Source
Affective AF



Short posts that ONLY contain a statement of personal feelings (likes & dislikes)

Short posts that ONLY contain appraisal (praising & thanking someone)

Questions or comments that add social presence to the discussion but do not contribute new information.

“I never liked Math either”

“Thank you for offering your insights into ….”

“I have been to your country once and I visited X, Y, Z when I was there”

Garrison, Anderson & Archer (2000)
Judgmental JA


Short posts that ONLY contain brief statements of agreement without elaboration

Short posts that ONLY contain brief statements of disagreement without elaboration.

“Yes, I agree with you ….”

“I do not think so”

Kumpulainen (1996)
Experiential EXP Posts that only contain personal experiences, narratives, descriptions that are not followed by reflection “I did the same thing when I was teaching X. “I did A, B, C. It was fun” Kumpulainen (1996)
Reproductional REP Repeating/reproducing the ideas mentioned/proposed in the previous posts without elaboration “You are right, X is …… “ (followed by a sentence) Kumpulainen (1996)
Miscellaneous MIS Opinions that seem to be off topic OR statements regarding technical problems/course logistics “I am unable to open Jay’s file…” Uzuner & Mehta (2007)

Uzuner’s schema thus provides a route for understanding the educational potential of the discussion forums on Civfanatics. I therefore assessed the posts in the most-viewed scenario in the Civilization IV – Scenarios forum, John Shafer’s WWI Scenario.[1] This scenario was first posted on May 6th, 2006. To date, it has been viewed over 94 000 times; the most recent post was on January 19th, 2009. There are 311 posts in this thread. I read each post, and tallied the kinds of educationally valuable or less valuable talk that was occurring.

Table 3. Educationally Valuable Talk in Shafer’s WWI Scenario thread

Kinds of Valuable Talk # of instances
EPL 10
ARG 28
CRT 22
HE 3
REF 13
INF 18

Table 4. Educationally LessValuable Talk in Shafer’s WWI Scenario thread

Kinds of Less Valuable Talk # of instances
AF 2
AA 0
ASP 79
JA 11
JDA 11
EXP 14
REP 14
MIS 184

A straight tally would suggest that the ‘less educationally valuable talk’ carries the day, with 315 posts to ‘educationally valuable talk’s 137. But this misses some important dynamics. The ‘miscellaneous’ category captures two distinct kinds of posts – ‘how do I install this scenario / it didn’t work’ queries, and more complex play-throughs of the scenario, reporting what exactly took place. These latter posts are actually quite valuable, in that since the scenario is a kind of simulation, each play-through records a different kind of trajectory through all of the possible outcomes of the scenario. It’s a kind of sweeping of the scenario-as-simulation’s ‘behavior space’ (cf Graham 2009) and so provides important fodder for other kinds of educationally valuable talk.

The development of the forum follows a distinct trajectory. Shafer introduces the forum on May 6th. A flurry of appreciative posts and ‘how do I…’ technical queries ensues for about 50 posts, followed by a second phase of play-testing and reporting of bugs. Educationally valuable talk picks up in this second phase as various individuals pick up on items in the play-throughs. By post 79, the conversation has turned to how to best represent the carnage, social, and strategic impact of trench warfare given the procedural rhetorics (though not framed in those terms) of the game. This phase continues for around another 100 posts, and includes discussions on the real world impact of the Russian Revolution on the War, and how this should best be simulated. There is a strong concern throughout these posts for verisimilitude and ‘authenticity’ – but what constitutes authenticity is debated. A flame war erupts in post 92 on this very question, and is eventually quelled by Shafer who notes that this is just a game and is meant to be engaging. In post 103, another individual suggests modifications to the scenario, and actually begins another thread elsewhere on Civfanatics to improve and expand on Shafer’s work. In posts 171, the author uses the scenario to leap into counterfactual history, and propose quite a complex counterfactual based on his play throughs of the scenario. By September of 2006 most of the heat has gone out of the thread, and most subsequent posts are again of the ‘how do I make this work’ or the play-through variety. This continues until the thread goes dormant in January of 2009.

The other aspect that needs to be considered, to give fullness to Uzuner’s approach and Vygotsky’s insight, is the social aspect. Who is talking to whom? I mapped out the pattern of social interactions in the forum as a kind of network. If ‘DoctorG’ addressed ‘JLocke’, then I connected the two individuals. If ‘KobatheDread’ posted a note recounting a play-through, I mapped that as a response to Shafer’s original post (since everything posted is public, in a sense, every individual is connected to every other individual, and so for the sake of analysis and simplicity, can be disregarded from the network). If Shafer responded to Koba quoting JLocke, I connected all three together. The resulting network is more-or-less star shaped, with Shafer in the middle and everyone else radiating off as spokes. However, there are clumps of highly interconnected individuals representing sub-conversations and discussions that developed in the forum.

Figure 1: Conversation in the WWI Scenario Thread as a Social Network. Shafer is in the exact center. There are 59 individuals.

[network diagram of pattern of social interaction in the threads; mostly starshaped, but interesting cluster of connections spins out of it]

Using the Keyplayer program from Analytech (Borgatti, 2008), I assessed the most central individuals in this network; that is, the individuals whose removal from the forum would result in a disrupted graph, or would ‘break’ the conversation. Keyplayer reported that the removal of Shafer, Jlocke, Dom Pedro, Kitten of Chaos, and Koba the Dread would cause this network to fragment almost completely. These individuals between them account for a majority of the educationally valuable posts made in the forum. This is quite interesting from the standpoint of an online educator, in that it suggests that we can determine from structure alone the individuals who are making the greatest contribution to the learning going on in a forum.

This was a forum without an official leader, or any one acting in the role of ‘teacher’. The contrast with my own Year of the Four Emperors thread is striking.[2] My thread began on May 16 2006, and went stagnant by September. Fourteen individuals contributed, and noticeably, aside from my own initial post, there is a large absence of EVT, unless you count the technical ‘how-to’ posts I made, and the play-through reports. As a social network, the graph is entirely centered around me, in a star shape. Why the difference? I think I once again created a ‘creepy treehouse’. It was all about me. I was also very upfront about my identity and the use I wished to put the scenario, which made it more of a curiosity than a scenario that got people excited.

Rolling your Own: Lessons Learned?

If we are going to ‘roll our own’ scenarios or otherwise use commercial video games like Civilization in our teaching, we need to approach it more from the point of view of a fan, than as a teaching professional. Otherwise, we create artifacts that do not create the kind of response that we wish. Learning is obviously going on in the fan forums, and using tools like Uzuner’s typology is one way of assessing what kind of learning is happening. The pattern of social interaction, and the evolution of those discussions are also extremely important it would seem. One would need to study a much greater number of the threads to see the fuller picture – this is an area where text mining could be usefully employed. Perhaps we can emulate the way these discussions tend to evolve, and foster game-based learning in our classrooms that way. As an example to the online educational field, the idea that structure might be correlated with educational impact (and thus could be measured automatically) is intriguing, and needs to be explored further.

Borgatti, Steve (2008) Keyplayer

Garrison, R., Anderson, T., & Archer, W. (2000). Critical Inquiry in a text-based environment: Computer conferencing in higher education. The Internet and Higher Education, 2 (2-3), 87-105.

Graham, Shawn (2007) ‘Vespasian, Civ IV, and Intro to Roman Culture’.

Graham, Shawn (2007) “Re-Playing History: The Year of the Four Emperors and Civilization IV” Case Study, Higher Education Academy Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology, United Kingdom.

Graham, Shawn (2009) Behaviour Space: Simulating Roman Social Life and Civil Violence. Digital Studies / Le Champ NuméRique, 1(2). Retrieved January 25, 2010, from

Kumpulainen, K. (1996). The nature of peer interaction in the social context created by the use of word processors. Learning and Instruction, 6(3), 243-261.

Mercer, N. (1994). The quality of talk in children’s joint activity at the computer. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 10, 24-32.

Stein, Jared (2008) ‘Defining the Creepy Treehouse’

Uzuner, S. (2007) Educationally Valuable Talk: A New Concept for Determining the
Quality of Online Conversations
Journal of Online Learning and Teaching 3.4

Uzuner, S. & Mehta, R. (2007, August) Aiming for educationally talk in online discussions. Paper presented at the Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching – MERLOT Seventh International Conference, Sheraton New Orleans Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1962). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Original work published in 1934).



The Game’s the Thing

I’m headed of to the Niagara peninsula next month, for Playing With Technology in History.

Here’s what I thought I’d talk about :

Shawn Graham, “Rolling your own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals”

Making modifications to existing commercial games is a strong and vibrant sub-culture in modern video gaming. Many publishers now provide tools to make this easier, as part of their marketing strategy. In this paper, I look at the nature and quality of the discussions that occur on the fan mod sites as a form of participatory history. I also reflect on some of my own forays into modding commercial games in my teaching of ancient history: what works, what hasn’t, and where I want to take things next.

I’m looking at a lot of the literature on online learning right now, about how to assess the educational value of formal discussion fora (usually in the context of learning management systems), but I’m thinking it’s equally applicable to the fansites. Hmmm. Kevin’s also asked me to take everyone through the process of developing a mod or scenario in Civilization, ideally having something built at the end of the day. Again I say, hmmm. It’ll be fun, but I need to think how best to do that in a useful way that says something interesting and intelligent about history. Here’s Rob’s thoughts about the same conference and the idea that the ‘funnest’ narrative is going to be the one that wins. Civilization as a game is certainly about crafting narratives through play.

I need to dust off my copy of Civ. With one thing or another (including a small fire in the power supply of my computer yesterday!) I haven’t had a solid block of time to play/craft in what feels like ages.

Learning with Digital Games – Nicola Whitton

I’ve just gotten my hands on an (e-)inspection version of Nicola Whitton’s Learning with Digital Games: A Practical Guide to Engaging Students in Higher Education.

From the introduction,

Two recent UK studies provide evidence that students may not be as comfortable with technology for learning and new ways of working as is commonly assumed. In a study of student expectations of higher education, IPSOS MORI(2007) found that while the group of potential students who took part in their study had grown up with technology they did not value the use of technology for its own sake, but instead put a high value on face-to-face teaching and traditional teacher-student interaction. A recent study by CIBER (2008) also provides evidence that the assumption that young people who are brought up in the information age are more web-literate than older people is false. Although young people show an apparent ease with computers, they rely heavily on search engines and lack critical and analytic skills. In fact, the study claims, character traits that are often associated with young web users, such as lack of tolerance of delay in search and navigation, are actually true of all age groups of web users.

This followed a section dealing & dismissing with ‘digital natives’, that old saw. I like it already! I would love dearly to give you the page number for that reference, but the e-inspection software does not allow me to copy text, so I typed it all out – then my browser reloaded, and the page was reset to 1.

Would you accept that excuse from a student? Of course not… :)

(The same digital version, minus bookmarking and annotation tools, can be viewed here). The companion site is here.

Anyway, this looks like a tremendously useful book. Whitton targets her approach explicitly at higher education, from a constructivist point of view. I should’ve ordered a paper copy. You should too!

From the publisher’s blurb:

Written for Higher Education teaching and learning professionals, Learning with Digital Games provides an accessible, straightforward introduction to the field of computer game-based learning. Up to date with current trends and the changing learning needs of today’s students, this text offers friendly guidance, and is unique in its focus on post-school education and its pragmatic view of the use of computer games with adults.

Learning with Digital Games enables readers to quickly grasp practical and technological concepts, using examples that can easily be applied to their own teaching. The book assumes no prior technical knowledge but guides the reader step-by-step through the theoretical, practical and technical considerations of using digital games for learning. Activities throughout guide the reader through the process of designing a game for their own practice, and the book also offers:

A toolkit of guidelines, templates and checklists.

Concrete examples of different types of game-based learning using six case studies.

Examples of games that show active and experiential learning

Practical examples of educational game design and development.

This professional guide upholds the sound reputation of the Open and Flexible Learning series, is grounded in theory and closely links examples from practice. Higher Education academics, e-learning practitioners, developers and training professionals at all technical skill levels and experience will find this text is the perfect resource for explaining “how to” integrate computer games into their teaching practice.

A companion website is available and provides up-to-date technological information, additional resources and further examples.

I have had my own experiences with game-based learning in my classes so I’m looking forward to reading Whitton’s recommendations for design and implementation, to juxtapose with my own experience.

Masters and Doctoral Theses on Serious Games

A list maintained by Katrin Becker at SFU, ‘Serious Games Pathfinder‘:

The following is a list of Master’s and Doctoral theses that have been completed that have to do with serious games (and in some cases more broadly with digital games). Doctoral Theses are marked in bold. You can get more info on each thesis by clicking on the associated ‘details’ link.

Note: I am just starting to develop this list. So far, almost all the theses are Canadian ones. If anyone has a thesis they would like me to add, please let me know the following:

Name, Title, Year, Degree, Country, Institution, Department, Abstract, URL to the thesis (If you are willing, I’d like your nationality too).

Please send info on theses that are about DIGITAL GAMES ONLY (I am not interested in theses about Game Theory (i.e. math), ELearning, Virtual Spaces, Social Websites, Blogging, Graphics, AI, … UNLESS they specifically focus on applications to or for digital games)

I reproduce below the listing she has for 2008:


details Applications of CSP solving in computer games (camera control) Ali, Mohammed Liakat
details The invention of good games: understanding learning design in commercial video games Becker, Katrin
details Gamers as learners: Emergent culture, enculturation, and informal learning in massively multiplayer online games Chu, Sarah
details Consistency Maintenance for Multiplayer Video Games Fletcher, Robert D. S
details Homeless: It’s No Game – Measuring the Effectiveness of a Persuasive Videogame Lavender, Terrance
details The “Heat Game”: an augmented reality game for scientific literacy Rees, Carol
details Beyond Fun and Games: 
Interactive Theatre and Serious Videogames with Social Impact Shyba, Lori
details Believability, Adaptivity, and Performativity: Three Lenses for the Analysis of Interactive Storytelling. Tanenbaum, Joshua Glen
details Adolescent problem gambling: relationship with affect regulation, Internet addiction, and problematic video game playing Taylor, Robyn N
details Video game expertise and visual search and discrimination Wu, Sijing
details Computer-aided exercise Yim, Jeffrey W.H

Top 100 Learning Games, according to Upside Learning

From the Upside Learning Blog

  1. It is All Fun and Games…And Then Students Learn- Kapp Notes, July 30, 2008
  2. Building Better Learning Games- Learning Visions, April 9, 2009
  3. Marc Prensky – Digital Game-Based Learning
  4. Gadgets, games and gizmos for learning- Clive on Learning, January 29, 2008
  5. How to Delight and Instruct in the 21st Century
  6. What Makes a Learning Game?
  7. Serious Games Blog
  8. mLearn08: MiLK: students building mobile learning games in higher education by Debra Polson- Ignatia Webs, November 12, 2008
  9. Marc Prensky – Twitch Speed, June 17, 2009
  10. Using computer games in education- ThirdForce Blog, January 30, 2009
  11. Digital games and learning gains (PDF), June 17, 2009
  12. Learning in Immersive worlds: A review of game-based learning
  13. Army War College – digital game resources
  14. Immerse Yourself in Another Language- Kapp Notes, June 3, 2008
  15. Resources: Games and Gaming in Education- Don’t Waste Your Time
  16. Which name is better – Serious Games or Educational Simulations or…?- The Learning Circuits Blog, October 13, 2007
  17. Interactive learning with game-based design principles
  18. More Educational Games- Kapp Notes, August 7, 2008
  19. Examples from TWITCHSPEED.COM Digital Game-Based Learning, June 17, 2009
  20. The Art of Making Video Games- Kapp Notes, June 10, 2008
  21. Linking Commercial Games with Defense
  22. Colleges Play Games- Kapp Notes, May 27, 2008
  23. Casual Games get Serious, June 17, 2009
  24. Aspects of Game- Based Learning
  25. Walk a Mile in My Shoes: Games Let You Do That- Kapp Notes, July 30, 2007
  26. Educause
  27. Digital Game Based Learning
  28. Good Video Games and Good Learning
  29. Digital Games: A Motivational Perspective
  30. The use of computer and video games for learning
  31. For a Better World: Digital Game and the Social Change Sector
  32. Games for Change – Toolkit
  33. Lego Games
  34. Additional Resources for Digital Game-Based Learning
  35. Why Are Video Games Good For Learning?
  36. Teaching Educational Games Resources
  37. using the technology of today, in the classroom today
  38. Simulation Games – A Learning Tool
  39. Video games and the future of learning
  40. moving learning games forward
  41. 36 Learning Games to Change the World
  42. Game Development Research
  43. BBC School Games
  44. Yes You CAN Create E-learning Games- Bozarthzone , June 22, 2007
  45. Apple Learning Games
  46. And You Thought Mechanical Engineering was Boring- Kapp Notes, August 14, 2008
  47. Adopting Digital Game-based Learning: Why and How- Upside Learning Blog, March 26, 2009
  48. ZaidLearn: 75 Free EduGames to Spice Up Your Course!, December 11, 2008
  49. A Theory of Fun- Clive on Learning, August 16, 2007
  50. Games e-Learners Play, April 29, 2009
  51. The treatment matrix- Clive on Learning, August 5, 2008
  52. PDF: Serious games: online games for learning (PDF), June 17, 2009
  53. Where games, sims and 3D worlds meet- Clive on Learning, June 24, 2007
  54. The Top 5 Platforms for Creating Educational Video Games « Educational Games Research, June 17, 2009
  55. Caspian’s ILS taxonomy- Clive on Learning, November 17, 2008
  56. 24 Questions about computer games and education- The Learning Circuits Blog, August 8, 2005
  57. Casual and Serious Digital Games for Learning – Some Considerations- Upside Learning Blog, April 17, 2009
  58. Clark Aldrich’s Style Guide for Serious Games and Simulations: costs for simulation, December 11, 2008
  59. Gadgets, Games and Gizmos: Learning Algebra in a Game- Kapp Notes, November 19, 2006
  60. Latest Issue of The Escapist Focuses on War Games and Gaming, September 23, 2008
  61. Games and the Gamer Generation: Keynote- Kapp Notes, August 10, 2007
  62. Games and Learner Assessment- Kapp Notes, May 30, 2008
  63. World Bank: Serious Games and Urban Planning, October 30, 2006
  64. Top 10 Educational Games of the 1980s- Kapp Notes, September 20, 2008
  65. Game Studies 0102: Cultural framing of computer/video games. By Kurt Squire, June 17, 2009
  66. It’s Monday, Are You Stressed? Relax with a Unique Video Game- Kapp Notes, October 29, 2007
  67. Confessions of an Aca/Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins: From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part Four): Labyrinth, November 14, 2007
  68. Save Planet Helios from ecological devastation!-3D Game by IBM- Kapp Notes, August 29, 2008
  69. Serious Games: Slideshow of examples from an event at Harvard Business School, December 13, 2007
  70. Email Games, June 17, 2009
  71. Trends with Games, December 23, 2008
  72. Learning Circuits – ASTD’s Online Magazine Covering E-Learning
  73. Learning in Video Games
  74. Hong Kong Digital Game Based Learning Association
  75. Gadgets, Games and Gizmos: MMORPG in ICT Education- Kapp Notes, January 16, 2007
  76. GDC’s Serious Games Summit- Upside Learning Blog, April 3, 2009
  77. Rapid authoring for immersive games and sims- Clive on Learning, January 26, 2009
  78. Gadgets, Games and Gizmos: ESL in SL- Kapp Notes, February 13, 2007
  79. What is a Game? The Art of Computer Game Design, June 17, 2009
  80. TCC09: Digital Learning Environments: Context Sensitive and Imaginative Classes in Second Life, April 14, 2009
  81. Why Most Off the Shelf Commerical Games Will Not Work in Education? And What Is The Alternative?, June 17, 2009
  82. Textra Games, June 17, 2009
  83. Shootorials: Kongregate Teaches You How To Make Your Own Games, October 22, 2008
  84. Predictions for 2009, December 30, 2008
  85. Simulations – Are They Games (PDF), June 17, 2009
  86. Serious Games Enhancing The Rehabilitation Environment, June 17, 2009
  87. Training Games, June 12, 2007
  88. Eight Myths About Video Games Debunked, June 17, 2009
  89. Computer Games and the Military: Two Views, June 17, 2009
  90. Serious Games, June 17, 2009
  91. Social Sites, Design, Informal Learning, & Brain Games, May 4, 2009
  92. Groupboard, May 7, 2008
  93. Why Do People Play Games? – The Art of Computer Game Design, June 17, 2009
  94. Video games are good for you!, February 13, 2009
  95. Army is to Spend $50 Million in Edutainment for Troops, November 25, 2008
  96. Playing with Our Heads – Why Video Games are Making our Kids Smarter-and more obedient, June 17, 2009
  97. Federal Consortium on Virtual Worlds, November 19, 2007
  98. Examples of Games Based Learning, June 17, 2009
  99. Interesting Web Sites for Game-Based Training, e-Learning and Education:, June 17, 2009
  100. Fourteen Forms of Fun, June 17, 2009

On Learning in Video Games

The incomparable Escapist has another excellent article that we, who are interested in serious games for teaching and learning, would do well to consider:

When I was a tutor in college, my biggest challenge was dealing with students who thought my job was to make learning effortless and fun. They were often incensed that I could only help them if they were already willing to work hard. Over and over they’d ask in a tone reserved for bad wait-staff at a restaurant, “Hey, isn’t it your job to make sure I learn this?” Fortunately, a poor grade on a quiz or assignment was usually enough to remind them that learning was ultimately their responsibility, not mine.


Game designers, on the other hand, have no such luxury: They must constantly strive to make the learning process in games as fun and painless to players as possible. And paradoxically, the better they have gotten at teaching gamers the mechanics of their games, the less patience gamers have for instruction. This race between diminishing attention spans and less intrusive training has been a major force in gaming’s ongoing evolution, influencing which genres have flourished and which have foundered.

[read the rest of the article here]

Canadian Historical Review – article on game for history

I’m happy to say I had a hand in this article.

History computer games have become an economic and cultural phenomenon, and historians should seize the opportunity to participate in their development. Players of history games are interested in the past and in the big questions that drive historical scholarship. In this way, games have the potential to draw players into the discipline if we can discover the best way to express history though simulation. But what research do we draw on as we study how to accomplish this transformation? This essay is the product of a meeting of historians, educators, and gamers who joined previously separate lines of inquiry to identify literature and models that we believe form the foundation for developing a theory of good history through gaming.


Les jeux vidéo à thème historique sont devenus un phénomène économique et culturel, et les historiens devraient saisir cette occasion de participer à leur développement. Les personnes qui jouent à des jeux historiques s’intéressent au passé et aux grandes questions qui mobilisent la recherche historique. Par les jeux, il est peut-être possible d’attirer les joueurs dans la discipline, si nous parvenons à découvrir la meilleure façon d’exprimer l’histoire par la simulation. Mais à quelle recherche faisons-nous appel quand nous étudions les moyens de réaliser cette transformation? Cet essai est le produit d’une réunion d’historiens, d’éducateurs et de spécialistes du jeu qui ont relié des pistes de recherche jusque-là indépendantes afin de repérer les études et les modèles qui, croyons-nous, serviront de base à l’élaboration d’une théorie de bonne pratique de l’histoire par le jeu

Don’t Knock the Aztecs: Civ for History, WoW for German

Still have folks in your department who dismiss games as…, well, games? Then you need to check out this article in the latest edition of the Escapist.  Todd Bryant has been experimenting with using games like Civ IV in history classes. This is no unthinking use of the game, though. For Bryant, the value lies in exploiting the gap between ‘real’ history, and the way that history is modelled (or argued, as it were: see Bogost) in the game:

A student came to my office last week and asked for help setting up a LAN game of Civ IV in one of the college’s computer labs. He was going to play my Age of Conquest mod scenario with some friends that afternoon. While I showed him in the menu how to set up a multiplayer game, he shared his strategy to play Spain and attack the Aztecs. It’s a bad idea.


For the class, students had to play the game in addition to their readings and discuss whether the scenario accurately represented the period. One of the key concepts students should have learned about was the role of belief systems as described in the book The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other.” In essence, the book and the game make the same argument: Had the Aztecs viewed the world differently, their clash with the Spanish conquistadors would have been radically different.

He goes on to describe exploration of language teaching through immersing students in a German server for World of Warcraft. Mein Gott! Das ist wunderbar! (all that I remember from a freshman German class; that and a song set to the Blue Danube… perhaps if I’d been gaming language, things would be different…)

There are people doing similar things with Latin, as it happens (I had experimented with old school text adventures for Latin teaching, but this might be a bit more *sigh* exciting) … sign the petition now!

Interacting with Immersive Worlds Conference II – registration open

The second edition of Brock’s Interacting with Immersive Worlds Conference is taking place this summer. Registration is now open. I was able to attend last year, and it was the highlight of my conference season. Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend this year, so I’m going to miss out on some brilliant sessions.

Interacting with Immersive Worlds
An International Conference presented at
Brock University, St. Catharines, Ontario
JUNE 15-16, 2009

Register to attend at:

Focusing on the growing cultural significance of interactive media, IWIW will feature academic papers organized along four streams:
-Challenges at the Boundaries of Immersive Worlds features creative exploration and innovation in immersive media including ubiquitous computing, telepresence, interactive art and fiction, and alternate reality.
-Critical Approaches to Immersion looks at analyses of the cultural and/or psychological impact of immersive worlds, as well as theories of interactivity.
-Immersive Worlds in Education examines educational applications of immersive technologies.
-Immersive Worlds in Entertainment examines entertainment applications of immersive technologies, such as computer games.

The IWIW conference also features 4 keynote speakers:
-Janet Murray, Director of Graduate Studies, School of Literature, Communication and Culture, Georgia Institute of Technology
-Espen Aarseth, Associate Professor, Department of Media and Communication, IT University of Denmark
-Geoffrey Rockwell, Professor, Department of Philosophy and Humanities Computing, University of Alberta
-Deborah Todd, Game Designer, Writer and Producer, and Author of Game Design: From Blue Sky to Green Light

Visit the conference Web site at

Organizing Committee:
Jean Bridge, Centre for Digital Humanities, Brock University,
Martin Danahay, Department of English Language and Literature, Brock University,
Denis Dyack, Silicon Knights, Catharines, Ontario,
Barry Grant, Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film,
David Hutchison, Faculty of Education, Brock University,
Kevin Kee, Department of History, Brock University,
John Mitterer, Department of Psychology, Brock University,
Michael Winter, Department of Computer Science, Brock University,
Philip Wright, Information Technology Services, Brock University,