Why we need to Play History

November 18, 2007

In the last few years there has been a wealth of interest in games for learning. A growing body of research on the educational value of games underlines the ways the can engage students like no previous media. There are now conferences and journals dedicated to games and learning, the MacArthur foundation last year granted 50 million dollars to different groups to build educational games, articles in Nature and Science have explored the potential for games to simulated health emergencies and elicit scientific thinking. In short there is a lot of interest and excitement about the potential for games, many of these games are under-construction and many are ready for students and teachers to start playing.With all the interest and infrastructure that has been invested in games for learning there is no comprehensive spot for connecting teachers with the resources which have now cost foundations and universities hundreds of millions of dollars. Many of these games are rapidly built, tested, and promptly shelved, often never having been played by more than a handful of students. It is clear that there is a need to connect these games with teachers. Bringing this bleeding edge technology and learning theory to the finger tips of teachers around the world through a web community.

Aggregating these games is simply not enough. Teachers are overworked, underpaid and often stretched to the limit. This project’s success is contingent on making it as easy as possible for teachers to find high quality content related to their immediate needs in only a matter of minuets. By enabling teachers to search for games by time periods, historical keywords, educational standards and associated lesson ideas the tool would be built to make it as easy as possible for teachers to integrate high quality games and simulations into their daily plans.

As more teachers begin to use the tool it will have the potential to engage other audiences. Several communities have emerged in the last few years as places for independent game developers to share their games with the public. Once Playing History reaches a critical mass of teachers and potential classrooms to play these games it can become a spot for developers to try building games for the classroom with easy distribution across the world. This has the potential for building a community where these developers respond directly to the needs of practicing teachers improving the quality and quantity of games available for theses purposes.

Once this relationship is cemented it will become a rich resource for educational researchers. Through a separate interface researchers will be able to track which games are successful at what times in what parts of the world giving them further information to inform game design.

There is something tragic in the fact that so much money is being spent to develop so many amazing games and simulations, but those resources are often lost and kept out of the hands of the teachers who could put them directly into use. With a small investment in Playing History we can connect the research and development community with the teaching community and in so doing tremendously benefit both groups.


Sidenote: RIAA, DMCA, Comic From xkcd

November 15, 2007

I thought this would add to our discussions of DRM.

From xkcd


Another day, Another blog,

November 12, 2007

File this under shameless plug. My fiance and I, in part inspired by this course have started a new blog. Posts at Firstpast.org, will explore the history of children’s non-fiction literature. You can see the first few posts. The first post explains what its all about, the second analyzes a few images from children’s books about curie and Albert Einstein, the third post takes a quick look at kids books about Osama bin Laden. If you like what you see consider adding it to your daily feeds!


If They Use It, They Will Fund: Life Cycle for Expert Search Portals

November 11, 2007

There is no way around it, it will take substantial effort to keep Playing History viable for the future. This is a common feature for expert search style tools. The good news is that all sorts of groups already do it, including CHNM‘s History Matters. There are substantial costs, while there are strategies for off setting those costs the bottom line is that if it is useful and used it will become something worth funding and maintaining for the future.

Cost: Links break: In the ideal situation this site links to some 3000-5000 games, these links will need to be checked and updated over the entire life of the project. There are of course some tools for automatically checking them, but often sites will also change their content, requiring at least someone to check the links on an annual or bi-annual basis.

Mitigating that Cost: It might be possible to connect with a publisher to publish editions of a dead tree version, one might be able to roll the limited money related to the books into biannual refresh of the project.

Another option: As the site becomes more of a community it will be possible to involve power users from that community to contribute content. On the most basic level, giving users the ability to flag broken links would reduce the need for checking them, beyond that power users could recommend and review games they have found and used.

Unlike an archival, or web article style project. These types of projects are often concerned with preserving their projects for the ages. At least for the time being, I am not. At least initially there really wont be that much of value to save. The site will function more as a web portal, and the content is really at the end of the link after your search on someone else’s server.

With a bit of TLC it would be very reasonable to keep such a site operational for 7 years, at which point if it was successful, lets say tens or hundreds of thousands of users, it would warrant further investment to migrate to PHP 15 or whatever were up to then. If it is not successful I am sure someone will have built a better mouse trap and the world will continue to turn.


How Research Databases Changed My Life!

November 11, 2007

Does anyone else remember the joy of the first moment when you realized what Proquest’s Historical New York Times does? Sitting in a library resource presentation, the librarian clicked in the little search box and in a few seconds was searching the entire full text of the hundred some years of history of the New York Times. Not only is it a fantastic way to kill a weekend, as a historian interested in twentieth century America its a indispensable first stop for almost any research project.

In particular, these sorts of databases provide a amazing platform for jump-starting projects. For a specific example when I first started exploring children’s books about Marie Curie and Albert Einstein I made a brief virtual stop at the OCLC’s Worldcat. From their advanced search pane I was able to search for the keyword “Albert Einstein”, and only English language juvenile literature. I could then sort and search them, (This was one of those moments where Zotero would have been a godsend) but most importantly the OCLC counted them for me. When I did the same search for Marie Curie I found, much to my surprise that there are more children’s books about Curie than Albert Einstein, or for that matter any other scientist. By switching Juvenile to non-Juvenile in my search perimeters it was easy to see that this is exactly the opposite of trends in books about scientists for a adult audience. (Yes I know “Adult Audience” is a clumsy term, it is really too bad that ‘adult biographies’ sounds like something that would be bought at an adult bookstore)

With about half an hour of work I had acquired information about over a thousand books, cataloged the information, and was already brimming with questions all because of the amazing aggregate power of Worldcat. Now this was by no means definitive, and I did end up spending 7 hours paging through the 19 editions of the H. W. Wilson Company’s Children’s Catalog on a upper floor of an obscure library finding out which of these books were recommended to libraries over the last hundred years, but I may not have had the impulse to do so if not for the quick and easy search power of Worldcat.

In short both examples demonstrate the way the research database has transformed how we start projects. I will post a few more links with some other ideas for ways things have changed tomorrow!


How Much Will It Cost!

November 4, 2007

As I have thought about this project it has become apparent that there are several different levels on which it would be possible to proceed. I decided to post them here to bounce them off an audience. Below I have laid out what I would do with grants of varying sizes. Does this look like a good use of money?

Cost: Just About Nothing
This scenario would require me picking up a bit more knowledge of PHP and MySQL. I would start to catalog games in a database and then build a PHP front end for the site. It may well be that there is something ready made that I could bend to fit my purpose. ( I don’t know that much about Drupal or other CMS tools those could well be the way to go). From there I could manipulate Google’s custom engine to search the games sites directly and the contents of the site itself. Many of the more flashy features, a “Games Backpack”, a portal for games developers, integration with state standards, would all have to wait till the site received more funding. The only expense, outside of my time, would be to register the domain and host the site.

Cost $50,000
With $50,000 things would probably be very similar. Most of the money would go toward contracting out the design and site layout to a web designer/programmer. The goal here would be to build a stable and attractive site with a database backend that I could then populate with information on the games that I aggregated. Any money left over would be spent on interns, or a graduate assistant to help me aggregate the content. Hiring a designer would both improve the quality of the site and also rapidly increase the speed at which the site could be operational. By contracting out the web design I will be able to focus more on the content, improving the quality of both.

Cost 150,000
$150,000 would allow me to develop more of the features I initially laid out. Here I would consider hiring a web designer/programmer to work full time for a year, and then use the remaining money to hire interns or a graduate assistant to aggregate the content. Ideally, with this much money I could spend most of my time evangelizing the tool, working to build our user community making the project attractive enough to acquire additional funding to extend Playing History’s capabilities.

Cost 300,000
With 300K I would hire the same people that I did in the 150k scenario, but I would hire them for an additional year. This would allow us to spend much more time integrating user feedback and rolling out more of the stages I discussed earlier. In all the scenarios the goal would be to work toward acquiring additional funds to extend, expand, and add additional functionality.

Those are rough outline of how I have been thinking about funding the project. So, doe it sound feasible? Are there big things I am leaving out?