Games-based assessment hacks

Minecraft Pixel Map by Andrew Mason

Minecraft Pixel Map by Andrew Mason

This week a student designed a project to learn the conventions of video game reviews. He decided to review the multi-player co-op mode of Portal 2, a new physics-based puzzler mixing teleportation, mad science, and a strangely endearing passive-aggressive, maniacal artificial intelligence.

We negotiated the project in that I asked him not to play the single-player campaign in class so it wouldn’t be spoiled for me. Relationships come first in the games-based classroom.

The student wrote his design document about what he would do, how he would do it, why he wanted to undertake this project, and what he expected to learn from it. The second piece of writing produced from the project will be his review, modeled after online video-game reviews from the publications he reads when deciding whether or not to buy a game. On the way towards that project, he’s playing through the co-op campaign with different classmates as they complete their own work and have some time to sacrifice for games-based learning.

In watching students play Portal 2, and in looking back at our work with the Wii, iCivics, Minecraft, and experiments with works like Civilization IV, I’m beginning to think about somewhat formalized ways to use games to assess students’ learning and social behaviors.

I think it would be great to use games to help develop a learning profile for each student willing to play them.

Here are some of my thoughts:

  • Take any first person console or PC game using a controller with dual analog sticks – or take the Wiimote and connect it to the off-hand nunchuck peripheral. Watch a student play with the controller. Is he or she able to use both sticks effectively to look around while moving, or does he or she primarily use one stick at a time? If he or she uses one stick at a time, which is it? Does it match up to the students’ right- or left-handedness? Does the student look at the controller or at the screen while looking and moving? How can this observation be used to assess hand-eye coordination and right/left independence? Can you find a student with musical or sculptural aptitude by observing their hands on a controller? Can you set up physical education activities and light occupation therapy practice for kid who experiences developmentally inappropriate difficulty handling a controller?

  • Drop a gamer into Minecraft, or any sandbox game that doesn’t intimidate the player with its complexity (I’m thinking of the Civilization, Sim City, and Sims franchises here). Observe the student’s play. Does he or she immediately start exploring? Does he or she immediately set some kind of goal and begin working toward it? Does he or she ask for help with the rules or purpose of the game? Does he or she balk or become defensive or critical of the game when he or she finds out that there is no purpose or traditional rule set? Can you determine kids’ comfort levels with project-based learning and self-directed learning from observing them at play in sandbox games? Can you assess a student’s level of intrinsic motivation and/or dependence on extrinsic motivation based on his or her reaction to a game-like environment without traditional rules or score-keeping? As an aside, can you identify students with systems and architecture aptitudes from sandbox games?

  • In some kind of level-based platformer or puzzler, pair up a student playing with purpose and a student playing just to play or to hang out with a friend. Observe how the two players negotiate their relationship. Who leads? Who influence the other’s play style? Who coƶpts whom to play with or without purpose? How do the players resolve their differences in motivation and purpose? How do they problem-solve? Whose ideas are tried in what order and balance? Can you assess students’ aptitudes for leadership, collaboration, and problem-solving from observing such pairings?

I also have some slowly coalescing thoughts about hacking, which in this case means running or installing a program that lets the player assign his or her avatar resources and characteristics that are normally achieved through gameplay or not enabled in the game proper. My students routinely hack Minecraft to build what they want to build. Some run hacks to pad their inventories with the tools and materials they want to use. However, I’m most interested in the work of students running hacks to change the game’s texture packs and to make the game into something else. Using a hack called MCEdit, several students are now loading their Minecraft saves into MCEdit, which is essentially an AutoCad environment that lets players terraform their world and build large-scale structures.

One student wrote a design document and listed to audio copies of Greek myths and the Iliad while building a model of the Parthenon at a 1′ to 1 bock ratio inside MCEdit.

There’s a golden creeper statue inside.

But what happens when the best way to accomplish your self-directed goal inside a sandbox game is to hack the game? Is the future of game-based learning – and problem-solving and collaboration – in helping one another change the rules of a game to suit our goals? Has that always been the game for the elite at school and in society? How do we help students hack the right things? How do we agree on the right things to hack, because isn’t the Internet a hack for the way school is right now?

Hacking contributes to transparency, wider access to success, and a wider definition of what’s permissible in a system. It can also obfuscate, limit, and constrain.

Why aren’t we teaching it? What does a kindergarten hack look like? How can boys hack middle school? How can disadvantaged schools hack resources? How can we constructively, ethically, and legally hack testing, scheduling, and staffing? What other questions should we be hacking?

  1. Really enjoyed seeing your thinking on this topic surfaced, Chad. Anther reason besides the critical ones you’ve already laid out to support hacking and hacking ethos, it seems to me, is that hacking gives students agency in understanding that virtual environments are constructed. By people. Thinking out loud here, but I wonder if the ability to “hack school,” as you put it, would give kids a deeper understanding that school, too, is human construct (versus, for instance, a monolithic institution unable to respond to the needs of individuals).

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.


  2. Hacking definitely requires and develops understanding and participation – it would be great to teach a hacking-school class both to help kids see school as a human construct and to see how it systemically discourages meeting individuals’ needs ;) Let the humanization of school begin – on a kajillion levels.


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