Body Defenders: A Germ’s Journey

In my last blog on Plans and Updates, I mentioned the video game I worked on to test the capabilities of Gamestar Mechanic – Body Defenders: A Germ’s Journey. This is just a quick update here to provide the link (above). Gamestar Mechanic just (finally) approved the custom backgrounds I made.

level 2 screenshot

The Lymph System (Body Defenders’ HQ)

Aidan turned out to be a very helpful resource on this project. He tested the game and offered several really insightful ideas. Thanks buddy. Pura vida.

Plans and Updates

Time flies by quickly on our new adventure. It feels like I just blinked and May is already gone! We’ve been doing a lot of travelling and visiting as I’ve mentioned in the last few posts. At the same time, we’ve been continuing to unschool and have some fun updates. Deb and I have also started planning our return. True to our nature, our “return” may take some unorthodox twists.

But first, I have to describe our most amazing boat trip. We had some good friends (and our young adults’ god parents) visit recently. We saw them in Nosara and then they came to stay with us for a few days. While here, we wanted to go on a catamaran cruise. It is off-season here now and when we booked, we were the only four on the boat (Aidan and Vie did not seem to be interested). When we went on the trip, there were still only the four of us and so we had this whole amazing boat to ourselves! It was a magical experience. I think I took about 100 photos of Deb.

SONY DSC

Deb at sunset. One of my favorites.

Our last unschooling updates were just before Vie and I left for SakuraCon in Seattle. Since then we’ve had a few changes, including getting used to calling Vie by the nickname “Nev.” It is short for “Never”, which, I think, has to be the perfect nickname for a 13 year-old going on 16. J

“Nev” and I had started working on a video game project for unschooling. We were going to actually build Body Defenders, the video game I prototyped in grad school in which you play the immune system defending the body against germs. We started out using Gamestar Mechanic, a fabulous site for teaching core game design and mechanics to young adults without overly focusing on either coding or visual design. Our original goal was to use this as a “warm-up” to solidify our game design skills before moving to a more robust game engine like Construct 2*.

As we got into the project, Nev realized video game design wasn’t really the “thing.” Perhaps I was projecting my interest or perhaps the path was a little too much too fast. We got far enough in where I did a fun little game in Gamestar Mechanic called A Germ’s Journey so I could learn the tools. You can actually go there and play it (I will put the link out once Gamestar Mechanic approves it for publishing). Aidan was my avid play-tester. I think it was more fun for me than Nev though.

Nev switched again but this time to something where we see some strong passion: writing. I saw Nev writing for hours at and on the way home from SakuraCon. It was an interest many years ago and it seems Nev has rediscovered it. Deb and I are excited because we see real interest. Nev is working now on the elements of good creative writing. Combined with the skills Nev is honing in illustration, we could see a path to a graphic novel in the future. There is a short story in progress, but we can’t see it quite yet. Meanwhile, check out one of Nev’s latest illustrations for Mother’s Day:

mum n mnm

Nev’s Mother’s Day card

Aidan has continued swimming on the Country Day swim team and has enjoyed that a lot. He is starting to get a swimmer’s build but hasn’t quite gotten the competitive attitude yet. Swim season is ending soon and we’ll need to find a new activity for him.

Meanwhile, Deb and I added a project on history and religion. Aidan had been asking about world religions and so this was a good “teaching moment.” We let Nev and Aidan choose an event, time, or country to study more deeply. They had each covered a few topics in various school years, but had not covered much breadth. Nev chose the American Revolution and Aidan chose the Crusades, which was a good mix of history and religion.

Deb architected this unschooling project really well. There are, of course, readings which we help the young adults find and some guiding questions on each topic. She also brought in some movies such as Kingdom of Heaven, The Patriot and The Crossing. We let Nev and Aidan also find and try some video games that are based in the era. We were a little more limited there and didn’t find anything of note. We also wanted them to look for their own material so they get a good feel of the diverse points of view on any history subject.

We are a few weeks in and they are starting to work on their final “deliverable”; a presentation on their subject with a point of view. They can make it as multimedia rich as they want and this gets them looking at art images, broadening their exposure more. They only have to present to us, but that skill, along with developing good skills in how you communicate are key. Aidan has had a lot more experience with this from University Cooperative School but Nev had virtually none.

Along the way, we’ve had some good discussions about war, points of view, “good” and “bad” guys and a number of other higher level themes that translate to today’s events. We can’t wait to see what they do in their presentations.

I was going to start work on the next project after history – namely math and science. We wanted to start that less popular subject with some history of math and science to provide some good context and not just start with math equations. Deb is picking that up as I got a bit “distracted” with another project.

Ana Domb Krauskopf, the director of the interaction design program at University Veritas, asked me to teach a class there in August. This was the school where I gave an evening talk back in February. Ana also asked me to speak at her Experience Design Summit also in August. She came out for a “brain spa” day with Deb and I where we brainstormed the class, other speakers for the Summit, and possibly doing an executive workshop in 2015.

My world just got a whole lot busier overnight. The class will be Visual Language and the Representation of Complex Information. Essentially it is about information visualization, a core component of interaction design. Fortunately, I have done a lot of industry work in this area across several different companies. It is a lot of work to pull a new class together but I (and Deb when I can grab some of her time) will have a lot of fun.

The evening program class is 4 weeks in August. I will do the Tuesday class remotely and then take the bus to San Jose to be there in person for the Thursday and Saturday classes. I’ve already met the group of talented and diverse students and am really excited to see what they can do.

Finally, we are also starting to plan our return. Originally, we expected to come back to Seattle in October…and we still are. Prior to that though, we are looking into jumping to Spain for several weeks. September and October here on the coast of Costa Rica are very rainy and are the deep part of the off-season. Many people we know will be away and many businesses close during these months; i.e., it is pretty dead.

Deb, in another of her creative moments, thought we could leave Costa Rica early and move to Spain for a few weeks. September is a great time to be in Spain and we already know the language, at least reasonably well. Mostly.

We are hoping to excite the young adults with some castle visits and some “living history.” Aidan can learn a new cuisine along his cooking path. Most importantly, we can use this precious time we have even more effectively. We will be out exploring vs. arguing with reasons for staying indoors. The plan is brilliant. We have a number of logistics to work out though, along with everything else. And now, time is feeling very short.

Time is an interesting thing. A year, for example, seems a long time, and indeed, it can be. It can also be very short. We’ve found routine here and things to fill our time, punctuated by the occasional, magical experience. I think though that I, at least, and perhaps all of us to a degree, take for granted where we are and what we are doing. Perhaps it has ceased being novel.

I know Aidan and Nev can’t wait to go back – to varying degrees. Neither are really taking advantage of this opportunity as much as we would have liked. Every person I’ve spoken to who lived in another country growing up look back at it as a rare, life-changing experience. However, most said that at the time, they too, wanted to go “home.”

If only we could have the foresight of many years from now when we are in the here and now. What would we do (have done) differently? I think about that almost every day now, not wanting to miss an opportunity here – especially getting to know my young adults better. And yet, still, I find that I could do better.

At some point we will need to return to work and our pre-adventure lives. One thing will be different, at least for me. I will have a different perspective on what I do with time. And that perspective extends to work, what we do, who we spend time with, where we live, and almost everything else. “Passing time” is now an abhorrent phrase. There are so, so many things to experience. Fortunately, we still have a lot of “time” left here. Hopefully, we will all put it to good use. Pura vida.

* As a postscript on game engines, we are really in a period of time similar to the desktop publishing revolution, which I lived through. When desktop publishing tools came out, it made this skill accessible to far more people and non-designers started using them and did some amazing (and some horrible) things. Now, we have a number of excellent game engines available to help develop full video games. I looked at nine of them, narrowing to three. The range was from simple tools for kids, like Scratch, to robust tools like Unity 3D which was used for a number of professional games. I had chosen Construct 2 as a good balance between simple and accessible, and power and customization. I found two good overviews of these tools in case you are interested: 5 Free Game Development Software Tools To Make Your Own Games and the more basic Tools for Binning Game Developers.

Gamification

One of the approaches that we’ve been using for unschooling as part of our new adventure is something called gamification. I’ve referenced this a few times in the past but I’ll go into this in a more detail here and why we think it is a powerful educational approach.

What is gamification?

There are a few good definitions for gamification out there. We like Gabe Zicherman’s definition:

“Gamification is the process of using game thinking and game dynamics to engage audiences and solve problems.” (gamification.co)

In terms of what Deb and I are trying to do with Aidan and Vie’s unschooling, gamification.org talks about it this way:

“Gamification is a business strategy which applies game design techniques to non-game experiences to drive user behavior.”

The behavior we want to drive, pretty simply, is an interest in learning. We think all of the rest will follow.

Where it started for us

Deb and I both worked with an education focus in our graduate design work at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1995. I focused most of my work there on games and education, even though at the time we didn’t have a word for it. For me it came from a profound but simple insight that came when I was observing kids.

I had a project where we had to teach a chapter of a science book to middle schoolers in inner city Chicago using interactive media (like all of those old “educational” CDs that were out at the time). Many of these kids could not read and the vocabulary of the textbook was daunting. I chose the immune system chapter, because I loved biology and did graduate work on this subject at Stanford. The vocabulary in this chapter was particularly tough and few kids even wanted to read it. It wasn’t “coming alive” for them.

I didn’t know these kids well and so as part of my design process – understand, create, iterate – I went out and researched what they liked to do. At the time, Mortal Kombat was a popular standup arcade video game and these kids were all spending a lot of time playing it. I’d watch kids play and asked them questions. They had such deep and thorough knowledge of these video game characters. Things like:

“…if you want to defeat Scorpion when you’re playing Sub-zero, and Scorpion throws his ‘air throw’ move, then you need to counter with ‘cold blast’ and then…”

I was stunned. There was not much difference between that and real immune system interactions. For example:

“…if you want to defeat Streptococcus (a bacteria) then you need to use a B-Cell, (not a Killer-T Cell) and have it shoot antibodies at the bacteria so that complement (cellular dynamite) can attach to it and blow it up…”

I’m not making this up; it’s real biology.

Instead of just adding interactive media to the same content as the textbook, I basically created a prototype of a video game called Body Defenders where the kids could play different immune system cells (“characters”) and defeat various types of germs. In doing so, they’d focus on all of key immune interactions and the vocabulary would come as part of the game. It was such an easy format to work with that I could actually go beyond their textbook and teach them college level immune reactions.

killer t cell

A Killer T-Cell in Body Defenders

The kids loved it. More importantly, they learned everything that was in their science textbook chapter and a lot more. I learned that games offered a powerful tool for learning – something I continued to pursue in grad school with other kids and other projects.

Why it works

There is a ton of material out there on the subject of gamification, why it works, and how it works. I’ve included some good references here and on our Resources page.

We’ve likely all seen the incredible engagement many video games create. There’s a simple, basic process at work: challenge, achievement, reward. This is a basic behavioral process in us; it is not tied to games per se. Simply put, when we encounter a challenge and accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, achieve a result, etc., we are rewarded with a small release of dopamine. It’s a brain chemical tied to motivation and reward and when our brains release it, we feel good. Really good. And we want more. So we try to do whatever it was that produced the dopamine again.

This happens outside of games too of course. For example, I just got a boost in yoga last week when I managed to achieve a pretty tough pose I had been working on. But that pose, like many challenges, was tough enough that I could not just do it over and over. Even if I could, doing the same challenge again has a lesser effect.

Games, particularly video games, create a succession of different challenges that can be “achieved.” Unlike many things in the physical world, you can do these a lot more frequently and get that dopamine effect more often.

I mentioned Ananth Pai in a previous post. He’s the educator that brought gamification directly into his Minneapolis classroom and took a failing third grade class and increased their math and reading scores incredibly, surpassing other grades and other schools. His story, and his success, is inspiring. He uses this approach every day and it works. You can see some of what he dos at Team Drill Head.

What I really like about gamification is the impact that it has on fluid intelligence. According Raymond Cattell, a psychologist that first proposed this theory, there are basically two types of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence. Crystallized intelligence comes from prior knowledge and experience. It’s based on facts or “book learning.” We accumulate it over time. It describes most of the type of learning that most of us have grown up with (and been tested for).

Fluid intelligence is very different. It is the ability to think logically and solve unfamiliar problems in novel ways. It is a key component of pattern recognition, abstract thinking, problem solving, and quick reasoning, Not surprisingly, it has very strong ties to innovation, creativity, and the ability to effect change (something else I’ve written about).

What is particularly interesting is that you can indeed increase your fluid intelligence according to Andrea Kuszewski. She discusses 5 ways:

  • seeking novelty
  • challenging yourself
  • thinking creatively
  • doing things the hard way
  • networking

It turns out that you can find all of these playing most modern video games. (Thanks to Gabe Zicherman for connecting a lot of the dots here. He talks about all of this and more in one of his videos.)

One of our favorite examples of a video game that really pushes these boundaries is Portal (I and II). If you haven’t seen it, it’s probably unlike any other video game you’ve seen. You can play solo or work with someone else as robots solving some clever and difficult interactive problems as part of a rich and very humorous story line. I just learned that you can now create your own levels – something for Aidan and Vie to try.

How we use gamification in unschooling

In our unschooling with Aidan and Vie, we don’t rely solely on gamification, but it is a big part. And no, Aidan and Vie don’t play video games all day, as much as they might like to J

In general, we try to use many of the game mechanics, or tactics, involved in gamification. There’s a pretty good white paper overview of many of these (as applied to use in business). Essentially, as part of the different things Aidan and Vie are working on, we look for opportunities to bring in some of these game mechanics. I talked before about giving Aidan and Vie a “paper quest” to write a paper about the difference between two video games. It was a collaborative project that ended with a 28 page multimedia paper. We also borrowed a game concept of defeating a boss and turned into a grammar “test.”

Part of their regular unschooling involves several great online tools that involve game mechanics. One of the more general tools we use is DIY.org. It has broad topic coverage and basically provides a “gamified” framework for working on various types of activities, such as making videos, cooking, illustration, etc., that can fit into the regular “curriculum” that the young adults have worked out with us. They really like earning achievements there.

We also use some other tools for specific things. For example, Vie and Aidan use StudyStack to supplement the Spanish lessons they take with a local teacher here. Deb and I are even getting into it, although we prefer Duolingo. This well-designed, and well gamified, site has leaderboards, achievements, levels, challenges, etc. all around learning Spanish, We get to compete with some of our friends. You might want to try it out if you are planning a visit!

Of course, as Ben Franklin wrote, “All things in moderation.” and that certainly includes gamification. What gamification is not, for us, is something that touches every aspect of unschooling. For example, Deb’s brought in much more discussion and group work. It also doesn’t mean that we need to use technology in every aspect of what we do. In fact, we are still working to find ways to tone that down even more. Hopefully, we’ll be creating a baking card game with Aidan in the near future as one example of bringing in gaming without technology.

We are still working continuously with the young adults to tune their unschooling and try different things, not all of which involve gamification. Some things seem to work well. Others don’t and we learn from those. My challenge continues to be more around “how” we help them with unschooling more than “what” they focus on. The parent-child dynamic can often affect the learner-helper dynamic and we haven’t found gamification to help there, yet.

Why it matters

We think gamification is an important trend in general and one that applies beyond learning. Businesses are waking up to its potential. As one data point, Gartner notes that “by 2015, more than 50 percent of organizations that manage innovation processes will gamify those processes.” (Gartner) This is the world our young adults are growing up in.

On the flip side, we see schools struggling to keep up with what they have to teach and how they teach it. As I mentioned in Why We Decided to Unschool, there are growing demands on what teachers have to cover in their curricula, producing more and more homework and focusing on memorization. Take a look at the heart-wrenching documentary Race to Nowhere for some sobering reality here.

The focus of the schools in most cases is on what to learn i.e., developing crystallized intelligence. It’s easy, and reasonably non-controversial, to test for after all. Far less time is spent on how to learn or how to look at problems creatively and solve them in novel ways; i.e., fluid intelligence.

Now consider that, according to IBM, “90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone”. When the current middle and high-schoolers reach the working world in a few short years, much of the “prior knowledge” that they’ve learned in school will be out of date.

What good, then, is the radically increasing body of knowledge students must learn in school when a good deal of it may be out of date? More importantly, with the majority of school and after school work focused on developing “prior knowledge,” where is there time for learning how to think creatively and differently about solving new problems? We are giving students fish and not teaching them how to fish.

Whether you believe that the “video game generation” is or will be different than their predecessors, there is no doubt that video games and technology in general are influencing this generation heavily. I might argue that for those kids that play video games, some of the most valuable, and “evergreen,” types of learning probably comes from those video games.

Now imagine combining the two approaches. There is plenty of room still for learning “things.” Working with that, we can add new ways to learn – ones that inspire kids and not keep them up late and stressed about their homework and tests. Hopefully they would be better innovators and problem solvers. They world they inherit will need more of that.

That’s essentially what we are trying to do. We won’t get it right the first few times but we’ll keep refining it and we’ll continue to share progress along the way. It’s very Intentionally Off Path. Pura vida!