Dads who know better and the powerlessness of pink

A few weeks ago, the Pharyngula blog had a post about the powerlessness of pink. A toy catalog advertised microscopes and telescopes for kids and they included “special” pink ones “for” girls. The best part, of course, is that the pink ‘scopes were not as powerful as the regular microscopes (600x magnification vs. 900 or 1200x and 90x vs. 250 or 525x).

This is of course, lame for so many reasons and it carries various absurd implications, etc., but it isn’t all that unfamiliar for anyone who has reviewed the types of video games that are designed specifically for girls. For the most part, video games for girls are insipid. Check out the screen grab from the Tinkerbell DS game: outfits and material possessions. Really? Just about every/any game that has ever been designed for the pink ghetto has a clothing/ outfit fetish.

Oh good, this game has outfits in it! Phew! AmIRight?
Oh good, this game has outfits in it! Phew! AmIRight?

I can say a lot on this topic, but for now I just want to focus on one thing. Why stop at “outfits”? Why not go the next level?

What annoys me most about the girl-game outfit fetish isn’t necessarily that 1) all little girls don’t really care about outfits (and the second a video game box goes pink, I promise you outfits are involved, if not for your avatar than for a horse or puppy/kitty)  or that 2) the idea of having content revolve around outfits paralyzes any hope of designing a cognitively captivating game. Rather, what bothers me is that this interest some girls have in fashion or styling can link into some legitimately challenging and fascinating problem spaces, and this never seems to be taken advantage of. Fashion design, as Tim Gunn has shown us, is tricky business. It requires serious spacial intelligence, design thinking, and problem solving. Looking at two-dimensional patterns and fabrics and cutting and stitching them to fit onto a 3D person is an engineering feat if ever there was one. So why stop at just “outfits”?

In the more male-dominated game universes of racing games or god-game strategy games, successful titles frequently have sequels, and those sequels Continue reading “Dads who know better and the powerlessness of pink”

Designing games as Vernier Probes

Many moons ago when Jim Gee first published What Video Games Can Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, he painted a portrait of a gamer engaged in an immersive world where the gamer is lost, for hours, in meaningful play as a soldier in WW2 or a Greek god.

Probes help teachers do what they were all ready doing, but a little bit better
Probes help teachers do what they were all ready doing, but a little bit better

What Gee was talking about  is that schools should rethink their design to be more akin to games. What if curricular design had as much depth as the design of major commercial video games? For the most part, this topic was never explored. Instead, media and foundations alike concentrated on funding the development of educational games. Fair enough. I certainly won’t complain because this is my passion and livelihood. In our excitement, however, some critical ideas were confused…

…Here is the problem. Gee argues that games, unlike schools, offer deep, meaningful, and somewhat inefficient learning experiences. This is in contrast to schools, where we go for shallow and aim for efficiency. Standards, for instance, are all about efficiently know which kids will know what key information by when.

So realistically, what does that mean about the games we design for schools? If schools won’t dedicate 40 hours a week to history or science, why design games that demand just that? This is where the original funding for games in education started to head: trying to recapture the magic of best-selling commercial platform games. Continue reading “Designing games as Vernier Probes”

Science Game Review: Shape it Up

Several months ago I had been researching geology games to inspire me with some ideas for our upcoming curriculum over we are working on.  Searching for free educational games online is a painful process (but I’m working on it….more on that later) and finding anything interactive was hard enough, much less something I’d call a game.

volcanoRecently, I came across  Shape it Up, which is my favorite geology interactive so far.   Players try to make one landscape look like another by choosing a force of nature (volcano, wind, water, glacier) and choosing a time period.

This is a wonderful game for young kids.  There are several components that I think can be added or modified in order to make the game more sophisticated for middle school kids. Continue reading “Science Game Review: Shape it Up”

The trouble with games in schools

Parents start to disengage with their childrens learning at adolescence
Do parents start to disengage with their children's learning at adolescence?

At the EdubloggerCon Unconference this year, I ran into a woman who had a great insight for me.  I told her a little bit about what I did (produce  core science games for middle schoolers) and my ambitions for the conference (thinking about design consideration that will ease game implementation in the classroom, and she quickly said,  “Parents. You have to get it to the parents, make them put pressure on the schools.  That is the only way it is going to happen.”

It’s a compelling point and it made me reflect on some of the awards Operation: Resilient Planet Game was up for this year, awards we ultimately  didn’t win.  Many of our fellow finalists, and the ultimate winners, were targeted toward elementary school math and reading.  The games were designed to give parent’s progress reports, thus demonstrating a core understanding of a certain thriving market.

So these winners kind of figured some stuff out.  Parents have the tenacity and desire to get their kids playing games in order to learn.  And perhaps, as these types of efforts gain popularity among involved parents, schools receive pressure to bring these technologies into schools.

But what about those of us who are making games aimed for older kids?  Games with core, but challenging content?  Will we ever capture parents?  Will parents ever sign on to learn how their kids are doing on acquiring science content?  Tweens start to get a little scary for parents.  Parents back off.  Parents are less involved with their kids learning.  And besides, science is still seen as being periphery to skills like math and reading.  Will we even accomplish the first step towards getting parents to think about games for kids out of elementary school?

This is still a nascent field, but it was certainly odd to find our game about trophic models and ecological population counting methods going toe-to-toe with games where fairies and cowboys hold your hand as you master short and long “a” sounds.

At any rate, I think the unconference-goer I mentioned at the start of this post is on to something, and I think I see her poignant observation playing out with younger students.  I just really hope that despite my hunch, parents do remain interested advocates of their kid’s education beyond  2nd grade. It may not be the only way to get quality educational games into the classroom, but it is certainly vital.