Gen Con is back in Indianapolis, and today was the 10th annual Gen Con Trade Day affair—a special day Gen Con sets aside for panels aimed at library, education, and business interests. As an accredited journalist, I again had the privilege to attend these events—and I’m really glad I had the chance, because they’re extremely interesting.

(I’d link to my coverage of last year’s Trade Day, but our old site is still down at the moment. When it’s back, I’ll try to remember to update this piece.)

Get Your Game On

The first panel I took in was called “Get Your Game On,” presented by Jennifer Pizzuto and Erin Preder, elementary and high school librarians who started a games club at their library. They discussed some of the challenges that presented themselves—such as a fairly complex sign-up policy for clubs that used the same interface as the school’s sports activities, requiring parental input and medical information. But they also talked about how helpful gaming was to kids in learning—especially English-as-Second-Language kids. They use games like Story Cubes (which I reviewed on the old TeleRead, and also can’t currently link right now) to promote writing and speaking. (I suggested they might want to look into Storymatic as well.) Pizzuto and Preder made their slide deck available as a Google Document.

Developing a Tabletop Game Unit Using Lucy Calkins

The next panel I attended was called “Developing a Tabletop Game Unit Using Lucy Calkins,” given by sixth-grade teacher Sarah Bonilla. In a densely-packed presentation, she stepped week by week through the seven-week program she teaches sixth graders on how to design and pitch a board game. The program uses the popular “Writing Workshop” process developed by Lucy Calkins, particularly with regard to her lesson layouts and the “spiral approach” to teaching concepts in which students frequently revisit things they learned earlier.

The class starts by exposing students to as many different games as possible, and having them choose one of them as a “mentor game” to exemplify the kind of game they want to make. The students are also instructed to write a story that will inspire the concept behind the game. After that, they form up into teams and brainstorm the rules and concept behind the game. Then they make a pitch to a “game publisher,” in the person of Mrs. Bonilla’s husband. They take notes on his feedback and use it to improve their games.

Later in the course, they refine their games and use their homes’ and the school’s desktop publishing capabilities to create more refined, professional-looking pieces. They playtest the game and make improvements based on the feedback they receive, playtest each others’ games, and finally pitch their refined game to an actual game developer. At last, they give presentations, and Mrs. Bonilla hosts an award ceremony to honor the students who worked especially hard or especially respected the feedback they received.

Gamification: What the Research Says

After lunch, the third panel I attended was “Gamification: What the Research Says,” given by doctoral candidate Cameron Hayes. Hayes had read as many extant books and papers on gamification as he could find, and his panel came with a bibliography that covered the front and back of two sheets of paper, in fine print.

Hayes discussed the difference between games and simulations, and then turned to “serious games” (aka “applied games”), in which the game is designed for a primary purpose other than entertainment (such as education). The problem with “serious games” is that they are all too often more pedantic than enjoyable, a situation Hayes referred to as “chocolate-covered broccoli”—something that is “good for you” whose “fun” window-dressing is insufficient to disguise its pedagogical nature.

He also noted that classes that used games, in a “game-based curriculum,” are often referred to as “gamified,” but “gamification” usually refers to adding game-style elements to a non-game activity, without any specific game being involved. Two important psychological terms in gamification are “flow,” the feeling of being fully immersed in an activity, “in the groove” and completely absorbed in what you’re doing, and “fiero,” the feeling of pride and accomplishment you get from completing something difficult. Ideally in education, you want both “flow” and “fiero” working together.

He also brought up the psychological theory of Constructivism, which says that humans general knowledge and meaning from the interaction between their experiences and their ideas—so learning has to be individual, not one-size-fits-all. This theory tends to be strongly connected with the idea of gamification and using games in education, given the individual nature of gaming experiences.

Next, Hayes discussed several relevant books and authors, such as What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee. Hayes called Gee a little dense and scholarly for beginners, but suggested that Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal is a much better place to start. Among the other resources he brought up, Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term “flow,” got a mention, as did the paper “Our Princess Is in Another Castle: A Review of Trends in Serious Gaming for Education” (PDF).

Games can generate more engagement than traditional classroom methods, and can provide “artificial relevance”—assuming the game avoids the “chocolate-covered broccoli” problem, students will learn without realizing they’re learning. Competitive games have mixed results, however, because not everyone wants to compete. In order to educate, games must satisfy three contexts: content knowledge (an understanding of the material itself), pedagogical knowledge (the teaching based on that content), and technical knowledge (how fun the game itself is). The pedagogical knowledge doesn’t necessarily have to come from the game itself—it could be from a teacher who presents lessons based on it.

After that, Hayes discussed various fields in which studies had shown gamification worked well or not as well. The best fields for gamifying study content are language arts and social studies. Games do especially well in teaching language—even in games relating to other subject matter. The thing about the games is that they have to have the educational content built-in—it can’t just be tacked on, or kids will ignore it.

Science and math were a mixed bag. Games were often shown to improve engagement but not actually help kids’ scores much on tests. However, games were shown to improve retention over longer periods of time, even when their original test performance hadn’t improved.

Finally, Hayes noted that engagement and motivation are areas where games should shine, but engagement and motivation don’t always lead to academic success. Fantasy elements increase engagement—if you’re trying to guess the weight of a unicorn, it’s always more interesting than if you’re trying to guess the weight of a horse. In the end, Constructivism is about engagement and interaction with learning, not passively receiving it—and critics of Constructivism also tend to be critics of gamification. And Hayes added that teaching game design rather game play can be useful as well—which seems to tie back to the previous panel I’d attended.

Play’s the Thing: Integrating Games into One-Shot Academic Library Instruction Sessions

The fourth panel was called “Play’s the Thing,” presented by academic librarian M. Catherine Hirschbiel. This short panel focused on how to teach college students good research habits and the ability to locate an “awesome source” on which to base a paper. Hirschbiel had found that the best way to catch student’s attention was to incorporate elements of gamification into the instructional periods, as she demonstrated in this panel by dividing us up into teams and having us compete on Internet picture searching. (The search ended with a trick question, as she prompted us to try to find an image that wasn’t actually available online, but via a library database—a way of emphasizing that not every informational resource can be found on the Internet.) Hirschbiel also demonstrated a game in which students were prompted to identify what a particular source was, and whether it was primary or secondary.

An assessment of students’ performance after the courses showed that students who had these courses were more likely to have better research habits, and were more confident in their ability to find quality sources for academic papers.

Mad Skillz at the Library

The final panel I attended today was “Mad Skillz at the Library,” presented by librarian Matt Jensen from the Chicago Public Library. Jensen discussed the library’s “YOUmedia” program, launched in 2009 with the goal of developing production-centered programming for teens, and as often as possible by teens. Jensen explained that the library had come around to realizing that it was a good idea to engage kids’ interest when they had the chance, as soon or later those kids were going to be voters with the power to help or hurt libraries via legislation.

The YOUmedia program works on the basis of the acronym “HOMAGO,” for “Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out.” It’s built around the idea of “Connected Learning”—identifying kids’ interests and developing material to engage them in ways that could be useful later in life. To support this idea, the library came up with the “Mad Skillz” initiative—making educational videos to help other library staff and interested kids learn to do things in the library’s maker space. Jensen showed a YouTube video on using a vinyl cutter to create screen printing designs for T-shirts as an example. He noted that some kids had been able to use these techniques to launch their own shirt printing business.

Jensen was critical of 3D printers, feeling that they received a lot more publicity than their current level of advancement actually deserved, and also that many students were only interested in them for as long as it took to print out a Goku or Pikachu or other simple toy.

During the Q&A session, Jensen offered tips on reaching out to companies and foundations for money and material resources. Many companies—Target, Pearson, even LEGO—have funds set aside for precisely that kind of outreach, and all that’s necessary to do is ask. Afterward, Jensen brought out some iPads the library has configured with creativity applications for attendees to play around with.

In any event, this panel was a great example of the way that libraries don’t have to be only about books anymore, but can use arts and crafts as a way to reach out to kids in their community and get them interested in taking advantage of all library resources.

And in a broader sense, Gen Con Trade Day is a great example of how games and related matters can be used by educators and libraries alike.