Tag Archives: gaming

A Unique Game

usb drive

Have you ever played Chain World?  I didn’t think so.  I haven’t either.  Only one copy exists and you can only play once.  It’s based on Minecraft, which is an open-source sandbox-style game in which players build things out of textured blocks.

The important distinction is that Chain World exists completely on a USB drive.  The rules of the game are essentially build what you want (though explicit signs are forbidden), save the game when you die, and pass it on to someone else.  After you’ve played, you are forbidden to discuss your experience or to ever play again.

These rules, if observed, would make for a very compelling gaming experience.  In most games, the stakes are relatively low because you can always restart and, in many cases, continue where you left off.  In most games, death is not final.  In Chain World, it is.  This heightens the overall experience tremendously.

The complete story of this game, as well as the discussions that the game fostered around religion, charity, following the rules, and how seriously gamers take themselves, can be found in Wired Magazine.  It’s a compelling read.

How does the story of this game relate to the ESL classroom?  Clearly, the religious debate is likely beyond the scope of most classrooms (and this blog), but the question of whether to follow the rules is an interesting one.  The Chain World experience was designed with a specific set of rules that create a very specific and unique experience.  But if a player breaks a rule, or plays the game in a way that the designer did not intend, can it still be a valuable experience?  Imagine the first person that put checkers on a chess board.  Did someone say, “That’s not what that board is for!”?

In your classroom, do your students ever break rules or react in ways that you did not plan for?  Of course they do.  While this is frustrating, it can occasionally lead to very valuable learning experiences.  I’ve had lessons go off track right from the beginning when a student asked a question that was not related to the lesson, but turned out to be something that the whole class wanted or even needed to know more about.  These unexpected and unplanned classes are some of the most interesting I have every taught and some of the most appreciated by students.

When I use games in an ESL classroom, I occasionally encourage students to find out what happens when you break the rules or even break the game.  (Not in the sense of throwing the computer across the room, but in the sense of going somewhere that is officially “out of bounds” in the game.)  This exploration is part of what makes learning through games so exciting, which can increase motivation for language learning.  This same exploration of the boundaries of a language can also be an exciting part of language learning.  (Can I use this word this way?  How about this way?)

Languages, like games, have specific rules that speakers, and players, choose to follow.  Chain World, although a relatively simple game in execution, provokes some very interesting discussion on lots of engaging topics, including how to figure out what the rules are as well as whether and when to follow them.

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The First 150

New header image drawn with Processing.

I recently published by 150th blog post and WordPress dutifully informed me immediately after I pushed the button.  I thought it would also be a good time to take a look back at vast history (over two years!) of ESL Technology.com.

Top Posts:

Outside of “homepage” and “about me”, the most popular posts of all time are (page views in parentheses):

Interactive Whiteboard FAQ (Wii) (1866) This post summarized a lot of answers to questions I had when I first started working with the Wii-based interactive whiteboard and for a while was among the top links in Google searches for “Wii” and “interactive whiteboard” (IWB).  There has been lots of development in the DIY IWB in the last couple of years, but this post still has lots of good information.  The DIY / edupunk spirit is a common thread throughout this blog.

How do I know my IR LED works? (982) Again, a great insight for DIY IWB users.  The gist: Most cellphone cameras can view infrared.  Intrigued?  Read the post.

Hacking Kinect (756) This is obviously a much more recent post, as Micorsoft’s Kinect came along after the Wii.  As soon as it got cracked open, thanks to a bounty put on someone opening it up, YouTube got flooded with videos of people doing interesting things with it.  People are still interested judging by how often this post is viewed.

Mashable Interactive Whiteboard Activites (743) This post documented a treasure trove of activities for IWBs that are mashable, adaptable, and tweakable if you don’t mind pulling back the curtain and taking a look some basic HTML.  It’s always fun to have to learn and do a little problem solving before being rewarded with your own custom-made classroom-ready tech.

Other highlights:

These next four posts aren’t in the most-viewed, but maybe they should be.

Teaching with Google Images – This was a simple post about how Google Images can be used as a quick reference with English Language Learners (ELLs).  This generated more feedback than most posts, so it must have struck a chord.  I was glad to both highlight a specific technology / website and also give teachers a quick and simple tip they could use in the classroom.

Google Translate – Google does amazing things.  If translation improves as quickly as most other technologies, the profession of language teaching, and the motivation of our students, will look radically different in 20, or even 10 years.  Will students still want to learn another language when their Android phone can translate interactions in 50 languages on-the-fly?  I think so, but not for the reasons they do now.

Computer Games in ESL – Video and computer games have advanced so dramatically in the past decade, they have really become interactive texts.  They have taken their alongside television, music, books, and movies in popular entertainment.  In fact, my local newspaper reviews as many new video games as new movies.  Can we continue to ignore the influence of these games on our students?  I think not.

Are you ready for some football? – As I mentioned above, I am really interested in simulations, games and gaming, but this simulation (of a game) is decidedly analog.  In fact, I designed it for use with one six-sided die.  I’ve used it with several groups of students and it quickly gives them a good understanding of the strategy involved in American football.  Try it for yourself.

Finally

I’m changing up the look a bit.  I created the sketch at the top of this post in Processing, an easy to pick up, hard to put down programming language I’m currently learning.  I tweaked it a bit in Photoshop before making it the header for my image.  It was time for a change and time to make something myself.  Maybe I’ll change it again after another 150 posts.

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Genetics for Kids

test tubes

Over the past ten or twenty years, the news media has become saturated with stories about genetics.  But do you really understand how genes interact?  A new genetics simulation being developed at Ohio State can help.

The simulation begins with a series of cartoon faces from which the user can choose to populate the gene pool for the next generation.  (The term “parents” is used, but more than two can be selected.)  This process can be repeated several times to create successive generations of cartoon faces.

Over 50 “genes” are incorporated into the faces (affecting everything from the dimensions of the head and other features to how asymmetrical the face is and whether the eyes follow your mouse or not) and the genes of the “parents” interact to produce the subsequent generation.  You can also adjust the amount of mutation, which leads to a wider (or narrower) variety of offspring.

Another interesting feature is the ability to view genotypes.  This allows you to view a graph under each offspring representing which genes come from which parent.  You can also choose two faces and drag them to the Gene Exam Room to view to what degree each gene is represented in each face.  This also allows you to see the effect of each individual gene.  You can even increase or decrease the representation of each gene to see how it changes each face.

What can you (or your students) do with this simulation?  Imagine the faces are puppies and you want to develop a new breed that is cute (or whatever other trait you’re interested in.)  This simulation clearly demonstrates how breeders (of animals, plants, etc.) select for certain traits and refine them over generations.

Or imagine the choices you  make in the simulation are not choices, but represent the effects of the environment.  For example, say the Sun grows dim giving people with big eyes that can see in low light an advantage over people with small eyes.  This advantage results in a higher percentage of offspring surviving and a wider representation in the gene pool.  What effect would this have after several generations?

Think of how much richer students’ discussions of designer pets and natural disasters will be after they have “experienced” the process instead of just reading about it.  In addition to genetics, this simulation can also stimulate interest in probability (how likely are offspring to have certain characteristics), design (ideas behind evolutionary design were the impetus for the interface), as well as all of the social issues behind decisions we are now able to make regarding genetics.

In terms of ESL teaching, I think giving students something interesting to do and then having them talk or write about it is a great way to get them to practice English.  This genetics simulation is simple but interesting enough that it could generate lots of interesting ideas for students to talk about.

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Web Browsing in 3D

3D glasses

Everything else is available in 3D (movies, televisions, the real world), so why not 3D browsing?  I recently came across this demo video of a 3D browsing experience created using WebGL, HTML5, Javascript and the Mozilla Audio API.  Is this the future of Web browsing?

I’m not extremely fluent in all of these technologies (for more info, see Flight of the Navigator), but as a demo, this is pretty impressive.  To me, it looks a little like Second Life with tons of screens out to the internet.  In other words, slick and different, but I’m not sure how useful, or even how truly integrated this experience would be.  Would you rather navigate to different places on the Web by moving through a 3D space or by Ctrl-Tabbing to the next open tab in your browser?  Maybe I’m old-school, but the latter seems far easier to me.

Of course, there are lots of other demos posted online and it will be interesting to see where this goes.  Checking your favorite Twitter feeds in-game would certainly blur the line between the gaming experience and the real world, but is this necessary?  Probably not, but maybe that’s not the question to be asking with whiz-bang technology like this.  It certainly opens up interesting avenues for the greater integration of a wide range of technologies.  Where that takes us will be interesting to see.

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Google Labs

beaker

If you haven’t visited Google Labs, you should check it out.  This is the experimental, work-in-progress part of Google where users can see what’s next, or at least what the engineers at Google are tinkering with

Some projects that started in Google Labs have graduated to become fully-fledged parts of the Google experience.  These include Google Scholar, Google Docs, Google Maps, and many others.

Other projects have stayed in the Lab, sometimes continuing to develop, other times seeming to arrive at a conclusion that may or may not be further integrated Google-wide.  Some of these are may be interesting for language learners and teachers, though how to use them is not always immediately obvious.  A few of my favorites are below.

set of fruit imagesGoogle Sets

This was the first experiment I ever encountered in Google Labs and I always come back to it.  Enter a list of items in a set, and Google with guess other items in the set.

It’s easy to imagine how this was envisioned as a way to improve the search experience — sometimes searching for synonyms can be more productive than the original search terms — but it almost has the feel of a Scattergories-like party game.  (Can you find a set that Google can’t guess?)

In a way, Google Sets is kind of like thesaurus, but its kind of not.  At the same time, if students can get hooked by it’s game-like nature, it could be a good way to discover new vocabulary.

books arranged by color on shelvesGoogle Ngrams

In its endless pursuit to make it possible to search everything, everywhere, across all time, Google has scanned millions of books and made them searchable.  This is not without some controversy as authors and publishers are concerned that their books are being given away for free online.  Currently, Google only makes passages of copyrighted books available in its search, as opposed to the entire work.

In the meantime, Google has made the entire corpus available and easy to search.  Though not as robust as the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), Google’s simpler interface may be easier for non-linguists to use and understand.

Students of English can not only compare the frequency of several words and / or phrases, but can also see how the relationships between the search terms have changed over time.  For example, see how ain’t has precipitously fallen out of favor since peaking in the 1940s.  Or, see the how the use of subject pronouns has changed, in part as a result of he no longer being considered the generic.

motorcycle gogglesGoogle Goggles

This one isn’t as language-oriented as the previous two examples, but it is a remarkable glimpse into the future.  Google Goggles are a way of performing a Google search, but instead of typing in search terms, upload a picture from your smartphone.  This can include anything from a book cover to a landmark.

Given the rise in popularity of smartphones, just think of how much language is available to ESL students through these devices.  Walking down the street, a student can snap a picture of something unfamiliar and find links to all kinds of related information.

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Building Blocks 2.0

pile of cell phones

If I told you we were going to play a game by stacking a bunch of smart phones and moving them around, you might get a picture in your head like the one above.  But there is actually a simpler, more fun way to go about this.

Last weekend, I discovered Scrabble Flash in the toy aisle of my local grocery store :

Each of the five game pieces is a small, location-aware blockwith a screen that displays a letter.  By rearranging the blocks, words are formed.  The blocks are all aware of each other, so they can tell you when you have them arranged to spell a word.   Several different games can be played with this remarkable little interface.  Apparently, Scrabble Flash was released in time for Christmas last year, but I didn’t notice it until now.  For about $30, I may have to pick this up for myself.

When I first saw Scrabble Flash, I thought it might be a commercial manifestation of Siftables, a similar interface designed by an MIT student that I wrote about a couple of years ago after seeing this TED talk.  It turns out that Siftables are now Sifteo:

Both Scrabble Flash and Sifteo are block-like computers that are aware of the others in their set.  Scrabble Flash is not as robust with only three games available on the monochrome display.  But it is available now and the price is reasonable.  Sifteo blocks are full-color screens that are motion sensitive and connect to a computer wirelessly, which means more games can be downloaded as they are developed.  But they won’t be available until later this year and I suspect the price will be higher than Scrabble Flash.

Is this the future of language games?  That would be a pretty bold prediction.  But clearly as we all become more accustomed to using apps on our smartphones, these kinds of “toys” will begin to feel like a very familiar technology.  Scrabble Flash is an affordable entry point, but I’m excited that Sifteo is actively seeking developers to create more games.  They already have several learning games but there is potential for many more.

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Game-Based Mashups

love spelled in playing cards

I love a good boardgame and I love a good mashup.  So, when I read about the Boardgame Remix Kit on GeekDad, I had to write about it.  I don’t own the kit (which comes in ebook, book, card, and app form) yet, but I did take a check out the free Valentine’s Edition download, which looks like a lot of fun.

The first game, WLTM Humpty Dumpty is a kind of madlibs game in which players create personal adds based on Trivial Pursuit cards (WLTM = Would Like To Meet).  The second turns Monopoly into a game of Divorce! in which players use their money to pay lawyers to fight over property.  (I have to admit, my first reaction to this game was that it might be about as much fun as going through a real divorce, but after reading the rules, there is some strategy involved that could be fun to play.)  The other two games are based on Scrabble and Clue.

How can these games be used in a classroom?  Like other forms of media (books, movies, music, etc.), there are several ways in which these games can be used.  Students can play them and report back on their experience.  This could be as simple as Was it fun? and How do you play? to evaluating whether the game accurately simulated real life.  For example, was Divorce! similar to a real divorce?  Why or why not?  Students could also compare the original version of the game to the mashup version.  Finally, students could use these mashups as inspiration to seek out other versions of existing board games or even to create their own.  All of these could be fun ways to practice English on Valentine’s Day.

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