MicroMuseum, Sessions 5 & 6 – Setting the Location

The youth spent two whole days of their spring break with MicoMuseum for our 5th and 6th sessions. And boy did we get things done!!

The first day we explored children’s games designed by Toca Boca, as well as their augmented reality game, and AR experiences created by GeoMedia.

MicroMuseum Day-Long Session

MicroMuseum Day-Long Session

MicroMuseum Day-Long Session

MicroMuseum Day-Long Session

We also visited the 12 possible exhibits that could become the basis of the “MicroGames” (instead of “minigames”) we will be prototyping for MicroRangers.

We weighed the pros and cons of each site and brainstormed interactive AR experiences around each one.

These included the Kelp Forest / Gut microbes:

2014-04-17 10.19.09

Elephants / Tuberculosis:

2014-04-17 10.18.59

and Armadillos / Leprosy:

2014-04-17 10.27.07

Another exciting thing that we got to do was Skype with Jeremy from GeoMedia (the company who will be making the AR prototype we design!). Everyone had a chance to ask questions and learn more about AR from someone in the business.

MicroMuseum Day-Long Session

At the end of session 5 we looked at how interesting the sites were, how plausible the scenarios were and how educational we thought they were.
Then we voted to come up with our top five sites!
(drum roll please…)
Our top 5 sites and their microorganisms:

It was sad letting some of the other exhibits and game ideas go but it is also exciting to start focusing and designing more. Plus we need to toughen ourselves so we will be ready to whittle down to just two very, very soon…

In our second full day session, we were able to dig deep into the five sites that made the cut from the original dozen!

We dug deep into the scientific content and explored how microbes are integral to each of the five exhibit sites. For example, we watched this video on coral bleaching and the microorganism zooxanthellae.

We also dug deep into our creative powers, thinking up awesome games, characters and interactions for each site. There were costumes, accents and very descriptive names…

Our day culminated in a beta-test walk-through (everyone with a giant microbe in tow). We went to each of our five sites and used a cardboard iPad, live youth actors and paper cards to walk through how the MicroRangers game may ultimately work!

Everyone did a great job researching, creating and getting things done!

Here’s the Bonus Learning Activity for this week:

They buzz. They bite. And they have killed more people than cancer, war, or heart disease. Here’s the question: If you could wipe mosquitoes off the face of the planet, would you?

Listen to this radio story and think about it! Leave a comment. :)

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Is Minecraft Just A Shiny Bauble?

Tomorrow I will be on a panel at the 11th Annual Games For Change Festival, addressing The Minecraft Experience. Chatting with the moderator (Nick Fortugno) in advance, he asked me a question that led to this post. My memory is terrible, so I have to paraphrase, but he essentially asked me: How can we tell if Minecraft is more than just a shiny bauble? In other words, it looks great (that is, the level of youth engagement is off-the-charts and insane) but how do we know there’s any there there (that is, is learning taking place?).

As an educator, this is a familiar question, one we have asked and will continue to ask whenever we bring youth digital media into learning or educational contexts. And it strikes me as a formula:

1) Can the digital media or tool create a “need to know” around the content or skills we want learners to acquire,
2) Can it meet that need once ignited, and
3) If so, does that satisfy our educational goals.

In other words, effective digital media for learning needs to pass through the following equation:

Generate Need to Know + Address That Need = Learning Goals Met!

So let’s apply this to Minecraft. First, does it generate a need to know amongst its players? That’s a no-brainer, as that might be the secret sauce that makes Minecraft such a draw for youth around the world. Minecraft is a problem-solving AND problem-generating space. When you start in Minecraft it offers enough interesting challenges to teach you how to use the game to, eventually, create your interesting challenges. Case in point: once my son learned the basics of using red-stone to allow a button to launch an arrow (the initial challenge: follow the instructions to build this device) he developed a new challenge to pursue on his own (how could he devise a system to hold a sheep in place so it could be hit by a flaming arrow but be released the moment it caught on fire to learn if it could resist the flame when running).

And this, of course, is where Minecraft gets the most attention – it is JUST so sticky. And that’s when you fear you’ve lost your kid, the rabbit hole can be that deep. This aspect is often most evident to, and present in the minds of, those new to games-based learning. When I ask someone new to Games For Change about why they have come, why they are starting to explore the educational potential of games, their first response is often the same, and undeniable: kids love games. You can almost taste the desperation (which we all share) to get learners to want to know what we aim to teach. Another case in point: after my first day at the Festival I came home and told my son about the presentation from UNICEF on their Block By Block program, which engaged communities in public space design. His response? “Do they have our town?” Before I’d finished the sentence he already wanted to do engage in urban design! It’s easy to see why many people think Minecraft has the potential to solve ANY learning problem.

Minecraft Event, Education, 1/23/2014

But of course, that’s not enough, not JUST reaching youth, not JUST creating a need to know. We then have to look at the next part of the formula, and ask if Minecraft is actually robust and flexible enough to go deep into the content.

I think this question lies at the core of Nick’s question: Is Minecraft only good at teaching what we might consider standard games-based learning (e.g. creativity, systems thinking, etc.) or can it actually be harnessed to teach curricular-based content. I think this is still an imp0rtant and open question. And the answer will differ depending on both the content and the context.

For me, the content is science learning and the context is an object-oriented natural history museum. So what have we seen so far? In the past year, we rarely used Minecraft on its own. Leveraging both our exhibit halls and existing features and mechanics within Minecraft, we have introduced youth to the science of farming, and poison, and geology. We have also gone beyond vanilla Minecraft to bring in new mods that allow us to raise dinosaurs (then visit real fossils in our halls) and, as I described here recently, the Shedd Aquarium has been developing marine life (on beyond squids!).

So, for us, Minecraft attracts the youth into our Museum-based educational programs and is designed to ignite their interest in science. Once ignited we then use it to explore their emerging interests in paleontology, archeology, geology, and more.

But does it add up? Have we been able to ignite their interest and then support them to meet that interest in a way that satisfies our science learning objectives?

Maybe. Just maybe. I don’t think we know enough yet to say one way or another. But finding out is what the work before us should be designed to find out.


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Me and the Games For Change Festival: Where to find me

Tomorrow begins the 11th annual Games For Change Festival, with a projected attendance of 800 people, over four days. What a difference 11 years makes! When we co-founded it in 2004, we could barely schedule enough speakers for a half-day affair, and just filled the room with 42 people.

But what people! Connie Yowell, of the MacArthur Foundation, who would launch a few years later their Digital Media and Learning Initiative, which funded research, programs, publications, networks, tools and more that would initiate a dramatic shift in our understanding of learning in a digital age. Carl Goodman, who would become the Executive Director of The Museum of the Moving Image, which has developed two excellent exhibits on games, hosted many years of the Machinima Festival, and numerous youth education programs using game design. Eric Zimmerman, co-founder of GameLab, one of the most original, independent game studies in NYC which, amongst other things, would lead to the development of Quest to Learn (the NYC game-design based school) and Ayiti, one of the earliest and best examples of a game that treated game play as serious as its content (poverty in Haiti). And these are just three of the many amazing attendees. Together they represented the worlds of foundations and public policy, museums and non-profits, independent game designers, and more.

What made the Festival so special? It brought them all togther.

I was reminded of all this not simply because these are the hours of calm before my week of fun, inspiration, networking, frustrations and exhaustion, but because USA Today just posted their excellent article, “11 years on, Games For Change festival maturing.” I have to feel pride when I read, “It’s hard not to notice how big, and perhaps how mainstream, the little event has become.” Not because I deserve ANY credit for its massive growth – that happened AFTER I left – but because this has been a movement I have rooted for since day one. And nothing would excite me more for the issues it addresses, the discussions it supports, and the synergies it sparks to reach a broader audience.

Closer to home, if you want to reach me this week, look no further than Games For Change.

Tuesday, April 22 - I will be Speed Networking – “Enjoy morning networking opportunities with leaders in the game-world and experts in other fields who are using game-thinking to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.”

Wednesday April 23 – I will be moderating a game design competition – Shoot For the Moon – that will award $25,000 to one of three contestants who want to help an Israeli non-profit reach their goal of getting an unmanned craft to the moon. Should be fascinating. More here.

Thursday April 24 - I will be participating on the half-hour long panel, The Minecraft Experience, with enough heavy hitters that we could spend a day and not finish tackling the topic. Come see how fast we can talk!

Saturday, April 26 – I will be supporting the AMNH booth at the first G4C Public Arcade at the Tribeca Family Festival Street Fair. It will be pterosaurs all day – come play Pterosaurs: The Card Game, buy your own copy to take home, experience the free augmented app that lets you hold your own flying pterosaur, and, if you’re lucky, you might get your own 3D printed pterosaur vertebra.

Phew! It’s going to be some week.

All this reflecting both into the decade-plus past and into the next few days got me curious to see what I could find online about my contributions to past G4C Festivals. In reverse chronological order:

2013: Does Games For Change Have a Future? (a reflection on the past and next decade)

2013: How New Definitions of “Games” & “Change” Have Transformed the G4C Festival

2011: Me on NY1 talking up the Festival:

2011: I interview Jessy Jo Gomez for “Trends in Gaming: Youth Designing Games” (Just try not to get all teary!) and participated in the Inspiring Digital Kids With Game Design Workshop.:

2010: The Games for Change Serious Games Toolkit was launched, featuring curriculum, research and more on our game Ayiti: The Cost of Life and I coordinated this panel: Spreading Serious Game Design: Global Kids’ Playing For Keeps Capacity Building Program:

2008: Launched Hurricane Katrina: Tempest in Crescent City, presented on this panel, and gave this insanely fast presentation on the history of everything serious gaming:

2007: With Ayiti: The Cost of Life we won the first Games for Change (“GaCha”) Awards.

2005: Here’s a blog post that describes my presentation about Playing For Keeps. “He was moving too fast for me to even transcribe his slides, never mind what he was saying… and it was all gold.”


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James Paul Gee on Museum-based Learning, the Maker Movement, and How Not To View a Cézanne: An Interview

Last month a number of our digital youth learning projects were mentioned in an article in the New York Times (re: At Play in Skies of Cretaceous Era). While the article largely focused on our new exhibit on pterosaurs and its digital interactives, it also referenced our work with both Minecraft and trading card games. The same article featured a single quote from my friend/mentor/hero James Paul Gee. When I reached out to him about it, he shared the following reflection: “You know, in interviews some of the most important stuff never gets in. It’s an amazing thing.” JPG talking about games, digital learning and museums? Amazing indeed. And I wanted to know what he said. I invited Jim to share some of his thoughts with us on the topic. And he did, as well as on the importance of evidence-based reasoning, how science museums and the Maker Moment might save us from ourselves, how NOT to look at a Cézanne, and much much more.

Hi Jim. As you know, a few years ago, when I had to decide about accepting my current position at AMNH, one of the people whom I made sure to speak with was you. Your advice was really instrumental–.

Jim: I remember that. Thank God the job worked out.

Yes, more than I could have dreamed. Thank you. And now that it has, and I heard that you were speaking with somebody about it, I was really excited to get your take. So when you think about what we’re doing here at the American Museum of Natural History with digital learning, where does your mind go?

Well, my mind goes to the fact that, at least for me, museums have often been a very textual experiences. I have always been taken by the fact that, at art museums, what you do is you walk up to the picture so you can read the little caption. Then you walk back so that you can look at the picture. That gives you a hell of a lot of exercise, but its pretty stupid.

It is not just that the digital revolution brings us the capacity to move beyond this textuality. It’s that we kind of always misunderstood textuality. I mean, language in text is given meaning through the experiences that you’ve had in life, right? Just like with a video game, you understand its manual because you played its game. You know, the reason people can’t understand a physics book is not that they don’t know the English words in it; it is because they’ve never experienced much of what it is about, they haven’t been in the world the text is about. This has always been to me one of the big problems with museum.

William Bullock

You know, we walk in there, often without a lot of experience – about contextualized things like natural history objects or paintings, or the history they’re part of, or with the worlds they were in. And then all we get is a bunch of text (usually by some authority figure who’s simply putting it in an historical context.) Now interactivity and digital media lets you present these images and lets people have a variety of experiences through which they can deepen their understanding of the objects they’re seeing, including the words associated with the objects and texts.

You know, if you go into a painting museum, you tend to have the paintings regimented historically, right? Well, it’s all richer than any one scholar’s particular perspective. You know, Walt Whitman was one of the only two major poets America produced in the 19th century (the other one being Emily Dickinson).  People wonder: How did this guy – who didn’t have much of a real education – get to be such a great poet? One thing people didn’t realize is that in Europe, when people were being taught the history of literature and poetry, they were readings books that were in chronological order. But evidently, in Whitman’s time, American textbooks put poetry from all different periods together, just thrown together in a book. So Whitman didn’t read the stuff historically. He was as likely to read an old poem as if it was modern as he was to read a modern poem as if it was old. He didn’t see progress through time as what constituted the canonical. As a result he was able to draw on a whole bunch of traditions almost simultaneously.  Well, that’s a different way of experiencing poetry – and happened in his case to make him a great poet.

My point just is that text and the objects need to relate to the experiences people have had before coming to the museum, and we have to write texts (or give experiences) that are beyond the one frame that an authority figure has made based on a body of scholarship. I mean, natural history, of course, since it is history, we are going to put it in chronological order. But, you know, there are all sorts of relationships in natural history.  In evolution, these relationships are very multifaceted, right? You don’t have to walk through it in time; you can put objects from very different times together. Think of convergent evolution – when animals don’t share a history together, but they share a similar morphological structure. So I’m just saying there are many ways to organize any collection of objects. Think how powerful it would be to have a Tyrannosaurus rex and then a finch next to it, since we now realize birds are dinosaurs. A person will say, “Wow, look how powerful evolution is. We went from these animals that are famous for being big but gave rise to ancestors who are famous for being little.”

At this point, I explained to Jim that in fact, in 1995, the Museum did just that, re-arranging our dinosaur halls to show evolutionary relationships among the animals, rather than chronologically. More info on that here.

Jim, Let’s see if I got this right. The language museum’s supply to contextualize an art piece or artifact requires previous knowledge to properly understand. But for people who don’t have that previous knowledge or experience, their museum visit might fall flat. However, digital tools can now offer those experiences before they arrive, or while they’re here, or afterwards to help provide that context, to help them create meaning.

That’s true, but it’s not just that. It is of course important to give people those experiences, but I’m saying two additional things.

One thing is we want to give multiple types of experience so they can experience the object in different ways, not just some authority-structured way.

We also want to be able to see the museum itself as an experience, right? So, what is an experience? An experience is something you use in the future. You have an experience so that you can use it in the future to think through. So, yeah, you want to be giving people the experience they need to think through the museum in multiple ways. But the museum itself could be an experience for adults and children to use for thinking out in the world. Because that’s what experience is. So, yes, they have to bring experience in to understand the museum, but we hope they get new experiences in the museum that let them go out in the world and act, and think, and look in a different way.

Otherwise the museum is dead.

Did you just say, “Otherwise the museum is dead”?


Have you been to a museum in the last six months?

No, I’m not a fan of museums.  I don’t like libraries or museums.  I never liked them.

Do you know why?

Yeah, I do know why. Because I had an experience in life some decades ago. I was a real philistine around painting, and I had no understanding of why anybody would stare at one. I was going to go on sabbatical, and I had to go to Washington, D.C. so I decided to try to learn how to appreciate paintings. My idea was that if you go to a museum and you sort of walk through it you’ll learn to understand paintings.  Well, I can tell you – it doesn’t work.

So, I got some books. One thing they suggested is, if you really want to understand a painting, then stand in front of it for a long time. And that’s a very interesting thing because, you know, after visiting a museum you might wonder, “Did I see most of the collection?,” or all of it, or a lot of it, or wonder what you have missed. But this is actually saying something different: you should only see a little of it.

It is like bird watching. Bird watching is better done by staying in one place waiting for the birds than, if you came to see a lot of them, traveling all over.

So then I went every day and sat in front of the Cézanne. They only had one Cézanne so that was easy. All day. But that still didn’t work. It had text written on it. So then I read some books and I still didn’t appreciate it. So when I came back to Boston, and I was dating a new girlfriend, in order to impress her I took her to the museum of art. We’d go around and look at the paintings and she knew we were in front of a Cézanne. I said, “You know, he is really an important painter. That’s really a good painting.”

She said, “Why?”

And I said, “In reality, I haven’t got the foggiest idea.”

Then an old Irish guard came up to us, when he heard this. He said, “Well, do you know why that painting is a good painting?”

I said, “No. I don’t.”

He said, “Look.” He said, “Look how that line and that color has this effect on that panting.” And of course all the museum experience that I had had that did not seem to be going any place had prepared me to realize that he was just telling me a way to look at the painting. All of a sudden that painting clicked in my mind. I saw why it was a beautiful object, why he was an important painter, and I’ve loved Cézanne every since.

So, you see, that’s what I mean by museums as an experience.  I had to have experiences in them to prepare me for this guard to show me where to put my eye and think about it. But when he did that, that redeemed all my experience, and allowed me to now enjoy museums. But the way I go to a museum now is I pick some stuff I’m going to look at and I take my time. I look at it and then I go home. I no longer worry about if I did it in the right order, if I saw the important stuff, or if I saw everything. And I no longer walk up to the little text. So that’s just my way of consuming it.

So let’s move away from talking about the museum as experienced by the general public and talk about museum education for youth, and the opportunities for engaging youth around, in my context, science in a Natural History museum. In my new position I focus on using digital tools through game design and game play, through digital fabrication, and through other forms of digital media production. We just launched a card game we’re actually selling in the store now –.

I heard about that.  That sounds great.

Thank you. It is designed with our youth, which is a new thing for us. We never had youth making something with the museum brand on it before, so we’re, in part, educating ourselves about how it is possible for youth to be not just consuming a game like that, but helping to produce it.

It’s an obligation if you’re a learning organization that the experience that people have in museum are future oriented. That is, they can take them out in the world and think in new ways and use them. Because that’s what human experience is about.  So, then the question is for me: What sorts of experiences are you giving people?

Now, one thing that came out in the New York Times interview is that the journalist kept obsessing [over the pterosaur exhibit interactives and] over the question: Is this stuff really games? I said that’s really the wrong point. You want to ask: is it good interactivity? Is it a good interaction with objects in the world and words, such that I feel I’m a participant in this and I’m gaining something that I can be future-oriented with for my own development. It is the interactivity that is crucial.

Now, in the case of science, again, we can run into the very same things we just said, because there is an authoritative take on science: Science is what people in universities do. It’s what we write in journals. You could decide we’re going to introduce people to that ideology, which is just like, you know, saying the painting museum is just about art history. But we live in a day and age in which America has an utter disdain for evidence. People think the earth is 6000 years old. They think that we should double the carbon in the air. They think that evolution never happened. People are immersed in a world in which things are determined by their ideology. So for me science has a basic respect for evidence, and a basic respect for evidence is something that isn’t only done in a university. All of us in the world, if we’re going to survive, have to pay careful attention to what the world tells us, so that we don’t get hurt and so that we can accomplish our goals, right? We have to really pay attention. If you do something to the world we have got to ask, “What did it do back?” Because the world, if you mistreat it, will bite you back, as it is with global warming.

As you move into the Maker Movement it tells people: Let’s think about how the world works and how we’ve got to pay attention; We just can’t believe anything we want; We have to interact and respect each other, by offering evidence, or paying attention to things. I think that’s great. The Maker Movement is really foundational, on a lot of levels. People trying to design a plane cannot engage in ideology because it won’t fly.

I cannot think of a more important thing to do than to do that, right?

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Pterosaurs: The Card Game Now Available for Online Purchase

All I can say is WOW!

This morning I delivered a box of Pterosaurs: The Card Game to the AMNH store (where all profits go to the Museum). By the end of the day I could see the decks available for sale on our online store (see bel0w). It has been some amazing journey from the first session of #scienceFTW, the program which incubated the game, to today.

I am so proud to work at an institution willing to be so innovative while enabling youth to participate in the development of a game that is both fun and educational.

Buy the cards here.

Buy the cards here (and don’t forget the free app to make the pterosaurs fly off your card).

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MicroMuseum, Session 4: Iterative Design & The Hall of Ocean Life

In our fourth session of MicroMuseum we looked at the process of iterative design and how it relates to what we will be doing over the next two months. Each youth picked a random piece of paper bearing one of the following phrases: design goal, rules and constraints, develop prototype, playtest, revise goal, and repeat. They were then challenged to find those with the same phrase then arrange themselves amongst the other phrases in the order of a good iterative design process. It was a good physically embodied way to make concrete these abstract ideas.

We then introduced the teens to the initial game design for our project  – MicroRangers: Keeping the Balance – but more on that in the future.

To advance that work, we visited the Hall of Ocean Life to imagine the types of interactions and games that could be part of MicroRangers (should that Hall be included). Working in groups, they were challenged to locate an exhibit that matched a randomly distributed description, learn about it, then offer a short pitch about how they might use an augmented reality experience to inform others about the imagined microbial interactions within the depicted dioramas.

For example:

Kelp Forests: Algae, such as the giant kelp are very important for human health for many reasons, including their use in thickening things like ice cream and toothpaste. Seaweeds are also used to wrap sushi rolls, but their cell walls are very hard to digest – that is, unless you’re Japanese. The gut microbes of Japanese people contain genes that can break down those seaweed cell walls. Using genetics, scientists learned that those genes came from bacteria that live on seaweed in the ocean and were horizontally transferred to the gut microbes.

Polar Seas: Up in the frozen Arctic, single-celled algae trap energy from sunlight and, using photosynthesis, convert it into sugars that form the basis of the food chain. The algae can grow in clumps under the ice, which will break off and float around, giving food to the tiny little grazing organisms that swim near the surface. However, scientists recently discovered that global climate change, which results in thinning ice pack, has a surprise consequence. Because more light travels through the thinner ice, the algae grow fast – so fast that they become heavy and sink to the bottom instead of floating near the top. Although the algae may not go to waste because bottom-dwelling creatures will consume them instead, the scientists are unsure how this may affect the overall Arctic ecosystem.

Deep Sea: Though the depths of the ocean do not receive any sunlight, some deep-sea fish have evolved a partnership with bacteria that can use a chemical reaction to produce light – a phenomenon called bioluminescence. The bacteria are often housed in specialized organs on the fish that they can cover up when they don’t want to be too flashy, or open up to expose the light from their symbionts. The fish can use the glows to signal to potential mates, attract prey, warn off predators, or communicate with each other.

As we were in the hall after closing time, we had the ocean-sized room to ourselves, which was a blast. Here are a few photos:







This Week’s Bonus Learning Activity

Next week we are going to play the popular mobile game Plague Inc. As a bonus learning activity, download the game, destroy humanity with two of the organic diseases below (no nano-viruses please), and write a comparison in the comment section below about the different strategies employed by the two plagues OR by humanity in response. For example, does the bacterial plague destroy humanity in a way different from the fungus? If you only want to focus on one plague, we will be trying the viral one – so feel free to practice and bring in your best strategies for infecting the world.


Next Session Reminder
No program on Tuesday!
Wednesday 10:00 am – 4:00 pm
Please bring lunch
Wait near Teddy and we will pick you up

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MicroMuseum, Session 3: Are You With Me Or Against Me?

This third session of MicroMuseum was brought to us by the words “Parasitic,” “Commensal“, and “Mutualist“. In other words, different type of relationships.

To start the day, the teens were paired up and challenged to act out a skit in which either:

  • one person benefits while the second person is harmed
  • both people benefit
  • one person benefits while the second person is neither harmed nor receives benefits

For some reason, bags of pretzels played a key role throughout all of these relationships.

Untitled Continue reading

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