Thursday, March 29, 2012

Katie Salen

Katie Salen is a professor at DePaul in Design, and director of the non-profit Institute of Play, which runs two public game-centered schools in Chicago and New York called Quest to Learn. I have a fantasy of getting to work with these schools at some point, or being part of a similar project here.

She spoke this year at SXSW in Austin, and they put up the audio of her presentation. I was so interested and engaged I started taking notes. That led me to do some rewinding (so to speak) to get some of it right and listen with intent.  Finally I decided to share them, in the hopes that it might support others in going to listen to the talk. If you're interested in applying lessons from other areas to teaching, this is for you. You do not have to be interested in games to get a lot out of her talk.

I was not so focused on whom she was quoting and missed some of the companies or games they made. Sorry!

Notes:  Dr. Salen says...
Make learning irresistible now.
  • Not about preparation for the future
  • Not about efficiency and productivity of education (i.e. teaching more kids more quickly or for less money)
  • About engagement, present potential of people including children.
Play is rooted in the now.

Design principles: the idea is to take theory to forge design principles that synthesize and apply the theory.

Sometimes listening to a presentation, there’s a single sentence as a takeaway that helps. As she has listened to game designers, she's noted 'what do game designers think about that resonates with design for learning.' (This talk is her overview of the best takeaways she's found.)
  • how to engage people
  • structure for challenge, motivation, feedback, and to incentivize

Portal: Trying to move someone through a level, to hit the beats. There was an early level that players couldn’t get through. They can’t see the door directly in front of them, if there’s too much drama.  What they learned was “Don’t shoot the player while they’re learning.” Create a safe-space when people are trying to learn.

Shift from design for learning to design for engagement.

Little Big Planet: created a badge for building levels so players built spam levels. Never incentivize things you expect players to do. Instead incentivize the unexpected and original.

Failure: practice as repeated failure. Musicians know bad practice and good practice. Take the thing you’re failing at, and keep hammering at it. Make it hard for yourself. This turns failure into a positive act of creativity. You make decisions about the things you need to fail at vs. failure as a thing to avoid at all costs.  So start with state standards, but design classroom experiences that do not look like taking tests.

Media Molecule: in the original Little Big Planet there were not enough tutorials, because of the push to publish. But players chipped in. Now for Little Big Planet 2 they intentionally left space for contribution. They expected codesign. Supported it by having the “Elite Creators Group” in Little Big Planet 2 who designed great levels, but also tutorials at the same time. Leaving a gap. Applying to teaching, consider what can young people teach each other? Value peer to peer exchange. Design community. It’s not the product, that’s their material. If social interaction matters, you have to design the community for interaction. What do cemetery rows of desks support? Communication of one to many.

Valve: developing levels and puzzles, and how they are playtested. Single player puzzles were designable, but they couldn’t make the collaborative puzzles hard enough. Fundamentally different design problem. Most challenges today in classroom only deal with individual problem solving, fueled by individual assessments. Assessment people can’t solve the free rider problem, how do you know someone is not participating and letting others solve the problems. So they make assessments individual, secretive affairs.

LBP: share, communicate and collaborate is opposed to the idea of sorting and classifying, which is common in school, primarily because of assessment.  The problems in design for community belong to design for interaction. (In general she kept referring to the design space for x belonging to the design space for y. I want to think some more about how this applies to teaching teachers, and how common teacher problems generalize.)

Design Principles
1)    Create a need to know. (Games do this well.)
2)    Create a need to share. (Opportunities and need.)
3)    Create an infrastructure to enable sharing. (Designing mechanics.)

There were several comments that relate to assessment:
  • Valve: new feature allowing players to playtest each other’s levels. Game design isn’t theoretical, you have to build it and try it. Whole curricula are designed and distributed before testing.
  • John Beech: value of feedback to the designer. “A computer can’t say if art is amazing.”
  • Games are rich data spaces. The danger of moving to stat-driven models is focusing on what machines are good at assessing.
Alex: bias towards and emphasis on jamming. Jamming is a common game-design culture, but less common in education. Put in constraints. The original LBP had infinite depth, but the final version only had 3 levels, because the restriction pushed designers. Game designers understand the importance of rules. Rules are so natural they are unseen, or they push the players to develop excellence. Might go from a lot of rules to less; constraining how many things are possible. This increases challenge, laying the groundwork for jamming. (A problem worth solving. Lord knows that in education we have plenty of these.)

Some games work on the 3 Pass Rule for learning outcomes for players:
1)    Learning one thing.
2)    Practicing that thing and learning another.
3)    Synthesizing what you’ve learned.

Are schools putting in constraints that push creativity or shut students down?

Design for collaboration is linked to design for play. Students feel imaginative, are hard working and collaborative. We want them thriving now, not being prepared to thrive.

Lonely Planet: Empowerment. Giving people the ability to make something. I remember making my first computer game in Basic on my first computer. Made copies and sold them at the playground for 1 lb a piece. That feeling for me is what I mean by empowerment.

Not about stuffing content in games, or games as a substitute for textbooks, but that feeling.

Takeaways. These are here big points gleaned from all these game designers.
1)    Design for friendliness. Environments that are well and healthy. Interactions are reciprocal and positive. This doesn’t mean they are noncompetitive. (Starcraft 2)
2)    Enable good practice. Students are skilled at finding out what’s on the test, which
3)    Qualitative feedback.
4)    Keep challenge constant.
5)    Make sharing a gift.
6)    Minding the gap. Design opportunities with holes that give students opportunities to fill the gap. Don’t make gaps around the wrong things.
7)    Don’t shoot the player while they’re learning.

In the questions and comments, two particularly education relevant points were raised.
  • This is what Dewey was advocating at turn of the 20th century without the infrastructure to make it realizable.
  • Higher ed? Grad school has a lot of these features. Baccalaureate? Not so much.
Just having listened to this, it came up multiple times in response to an observation today. Some of the ideas are powerful, especially as relate to engagement. I encourage all teachers to give it a listen, as your students love the games these designers have made. But if you are also a fan of games or game design, or game use in education, it becomes a must listen.

Need video to pique your interest? Here's a couple year old clip of Dr. Salen from Edutopia.

Photo credits: Portal - hunterseekerhk, Sack Boy - Simon Owen Design, StarCraft - Kim Pierro; from Flickr.

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