June 9, 2006


- Editor's Note
- Opening Note: Kurt Squire on education and games
- Glancing at the C3 Blog
- Closing Note: Hugo Liu on Katamari Damacy

--------------- EDITOR'S NOTE ---------------

Welcome to this week's Weekly Update from C3. We encourage you to send any comments or questions you have on the pieces by Kurt Squire and Hugo Liu to me for future inclusion in the weekly update. Also, be sure to even check out or even participate in our blog, as many of you are already doing. The second part of Hugo Liu's piece will appear in next week's newsletter as the opening note.If you have any questions or comments, direct them to Sam Ford, Editor of the Weekly Update, at samford@mit.edu.

--------------- OPENING NOTE ---------------

Centers of Expertise in a Digital Age
By: Kurt Squire

As far back as 2001, if you used “video games” and “education” in the same sentence, people thought you were crazy. Video games were mindless diversions at best – “murder simulators” at worst. Now, thanks in no small part to CMS activities, particularly the games to teach project led by Henry Jenkins and funded by Microsoft iCampus, there is a new initiative games and learning initiative springing up every other week.

Yet, we’re only beginning to understand how these environments work, and many questions remain for the field. How do we meld academically valued thinking and compelling game play? How do we reconcile the need for players to explore, discover, and experiment with the need for specific learning outcomes? We have yet to create the “killer app” for game-based learning, but we are starting to get some tentative models for how these environments work.

Over the past few years, I’ve argued that off-the-shelf consumer games like The Sims and Civilization offer unique opportunities for exploring some of these questions. Because these games are designed to survive in the marketplace, they already have a level of polish and refinement uncommon to educational software – particularly that produced in universities. This polish allows researchers to better understand key issues without expensive development costs, including what motivates people to play games, what the user experience is like in a complex gaming environment, and how game play supports collaboration. With modding tools, designers can prototype game changes quickly and cheaply. This allows designers to focus more energy on designing the social structures around the game, which previous research has shown to be as important as designing the educational media.

While working at MIT on the games-to-teach project, I completed my dissertation studying the pedagogical potential of Civilization III in high school world history classes. Working with teachers at the Media and Technology Charter School in Brookline, I created a modification of Civilization III based loosely on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel. This mod sought to provide players a geographical / materialist based interpretation for the rise and fall of civilizations. Players picked up not just historical and geographical concepts and terminology, but also arguments for how and why civilizations form and evolve. This allowed the teachers to discuss important historiographic concepts such as the nature of historical theory and argument. Most importantly, it gave kids who were turned off to the study of history pathways for becoming inquisitive learners in the domain.

There were challenges to implementing this curriculum as well. The unit was difficult to implement in 45 (even 75) minute blocks. It took even experienced gamers dozens of hours to play. Even then not every kid loved Civ – some students would rather have just “read the book” (although it’s an open question as to whether “just reading the book” would have been better for them). After completing the study, I couldn’t help but think that maybe we were missing some of the real potential of Civilization for learning.

Over the past two years, I’ve been extending this work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison funded by the Academic ADL Co-Lab. With Levi Giovanetto, Ben Devane, and Shree Durga, I’ve been designing and researching after school programs for underserved, minority students. The idea is to give kids opportunities to really go deep with the game by playing in a supportive gaming community, researching how developing game expertise affects their school performance and identities outside of school.

And for a number of these kids, the program is succeeding. We have kids as young as 8 years old not just playing Civilization, but building their own scenarios. One student built a model of the war in Iraq and is now attempting to build a revolutionary war mod. Others are more into redesigning the game to make it better balanced.

We’re noting patterns in how this expertise develops. Most students begin with an interest in a particular game strategy that is usually tied to historical events or figures. One player for example, was very interested in the Vikings and the intersection between geography, technology, and history. Another became interested in the Great Wonders. Once kids build this interest and skill, a desire to be creative with the game authoring tools emerges. By the end of the experience, what the game is “about” becomes quite different for each student. As an extreme example of this, one student told us that he wanted to become a Senator some day as a result of playing Civilization.

Whether or not this is exactly the case (we have to be leery of self-reported data like this), it’s clear that the Civ camps are functioning as sites that nurture and extend kids’ interest in academic areas and develops their gaming expertise which has pay-offs in other areas.

To highlight the central role that expertise plays in this process, we’ve started thinking of these environments as “centers of expertise”. Building off of Kevin Crowley’s notion of islands of expertise, they seek to build students’ interest, knowledge, and skills, but we conceptualize them as distributed across people, social structures, tools, and institutions. A critical component of this program is that it is designed to bridge school and home – taking previously isolated areas and linking them so that kids’ out of school interests have pay offs later. Mentors play a critical role in opening pathways for players so that their emerging interest in gaming extends into new areas.

These centers of expertise are also unique in that players aren’t just learning a pre-determined body of knowledge, but they are learning to ask new questions and generate new knowledge in response to their particular questions. As kids decide to build an historical scenario, they quickly must using a variety of resources to determine unknowns. They must use web resources, web communities, and other digital and non-digital tools to answer their questions. Our next goal is to extend this community beyond this center -- letting students publish games for other players. Some will help us set up new centers, giving them a voice in determining the future of these centers. We see this model -- where kids are given increasing levels of responsibility in running the community as absolutely key to learning in the digital age, where age and institutional certifications mean less than expertise and entrepreneurship.

Kurt Squire is an assistant professor in the Educational Communications and Technology Division of Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a leading scholar on educational gaming.

----------- NEWS FROM THE C3 BLOG -----------

TV Market for Young Children Expanding. A new study shows that a growing number of young children and infants are watching television, as marketing for infants expands. This has opened a whole new round of debate about what such media saturation means for child development.

"Extreme" Wrestling Show to Sci Fi. WWE is relaunching the Extreme Championship Wrestling brand on the Sci Fi Channel, but the company will have to prove itself both to the hardcore ECW fan base and to Sci Fi fans, as well as general WWE fans. Could it be a clash of fan bases?

Saved by the Bell Receives BrokebackTribute. A fan video uses the score from Brokeback Mountainto provide a tribute to the relationship between characters Zach and Slater from Saved by the Bell. The popular fan-created video has appealed to those who grew up with the teen comedy as a staple television show.

ABC Loses Ad Lead/DVR Viewers Battle. ABC saw its battle with advertisers to include DVR viewers fall apart this week and also fell into second place for ad rates to CBS. What does this debate over the 30-second spot mean for the industry in the long run?

Bono Fan Tribute to Samuel L. Jackson Promotes Film. A fan-generated video parodying Bono's singing style is a tribute to actor Samuel L. Jackson and his upcoming film Snakes on a Plane. The popular video is yet another instance of how fans are creating free grassroots marketing for the upcoming film release.

The Tonight ShowMonologues on iTunes. A major push to release Jay Leno's monologues on iTunes brings forward the question--when is it still the Tonight Showif it loses its temporal setting?

Network Neutrality Debate at Height. For those who come to the Internet with a focus on deregulation and a free market, what does the current drive of service providers toward abandoning network neutrality mean? Will this further drive a wedge between service providers and content providers, even those who exist simultaneously within the same conglomerate?

Bluegrass Music Fan Culture. Scholars find that bluegrass musicians share one thing in common with their scholars, critics, and fans--a vast majority of them like to try their hand at performing. What could we learn from the participatory culture of the bluegrass genre?

L. Brent Bozell and the Indecency Fine. L. Brent Bozell pops up in almost every debate about decency and family viewing, now taking credit for the current congressional debate about increasing the fine for "indecency" by adding a zero.

--------------- FOLLOW THE BLOG ---------------

Don't forget - you can always post, read, and carry out online conversations with the C3 team at our blog: http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/

--------------- CLOSING NOTE ---------------

Katamari Damacy
By: Hugo Liu

A katamari is a sticky ball that can capture objects in the world smaller than itself by rolling over them. As the katamari amasses objects unto itself, it is increasing capable of capturing larger and larger objects. Katamaris may start at the scale of thumbtacks and matchbooks, but within one continuous playable session, kamataris can grow to the scale of people, buildings, or even islands and rainbows. On this simple premise, Namco crafted the Playstation 2 title, Katamari Damacy, a cult hit since 2004. But it is much more than a video game-- I'd like to seduce you into the thesis that the rolling of a katamari is an adventure in perspectivism, and serves as an illuminating metaphor for understanding consumer culture as a manifold.

The experience of rolling katamaris has been described by players as surreal. Certainly there is delight in mowing down crayons, or houses, or islands, but what is utterly ticklish is rolling crayons one minute, five minutes later rolling the house that contained the crayon, and then ten minutes later rolling the island that contained the house that once contained the crayon. These three granularities are bridged by hundreds of intermediate granularities-- the player graduates from one to the next, but each change in scale is so slight that it is barely perceptible; hence the uncanniness of rolling a house when only five minutes ago, a book was even too big to be rolled up.

The other experience close to the present transcendence of scale was accomplished by the Eames' 1977 documentary short, "Powers of Ten," which zoomed audiences from galaxies to atoms and back. Yet the Katamari franchise--there are now three titles in this series-- strikes a new nerve. It provokes an analogy to life and culture because it traffics in the plenitude of consumer goods. Most everything in the game can be consumed or acquired, just as it is rollable in the game. Even the largest of objects in the game-- like ships, skyscrapers, and islands-- are in real life collected by some select sultans.

However, in both the game and in real life, the subset of goods that can be consumed is tethered to the locality of the scale that one inhabits. A katamari with the diameter of six feet can roll persons, tricycles, and canvases, but it cannot yet roll a building because that object is too big, beyond the horizon of means. Nor is it any longer satisfying to roll trifles like crayons and thumb-tacks-- they are too small to bother with, beneath the horizon of languishing desire. Analogously, real life consumption accords with one's economic and cultural capitals. An upper-middle class income affords access to a bounded subset of consumer goods; yachts and multiple real estate holdings are likely beyond the horizon of means, while commonplace goods and services are beneath the horizon of languishing desire and no longer beg to be consumed. If we consider both the dimensions of economic ability and cultural know-how, a two-dimensional model of locality emerges-- atop of which we can plot consumer goods and services which target particular coordinates. Then, we could understand that the function of retail outlets like Walmart, Target, and Marks & Spencer is to market and sell objects collected about a particular coordinate. To be successful, outlets should not only identify the coordinates of their target customers, but need also to decide where their offerings should lie along the spectrum bounded by the horizon of languishing desire and the horizon of means. This begs the question... is there a sweet spot to be along this spectrum that compels the greatest consumer desire? Again, Katamari Damacy holds the answers.

...to be continued.

Hugo Liu is a post doc with the Comparative Media Studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with MIT's Media Lab. He researches artificial intelligence and design aesthetics.


Compiled and Edited by Sam Ford (samford@mit.edu)

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