CGI awarded ETS grant for game-based assessment project

Transformational Play

Games can be designed to enable players to step into different roles, confront a problem, fail safely, make meaningful choices, and explore the consequences.

The Arizona State University (ASU) Center for Games & Impact (CGI) has been awarded a grant with Educational Testing Service (ETS) to explore the affordances of game-based assessments, with a focus on informing future design and development of interactive computer tasks for National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) assessments.

“In our project, we will build a new game-based assessment item using Unity3D technology to engage learners within in a 3D role-playing game scenario that they are invested. Here, they will be demonstrating what they are able to do by working through a game scenario in which they are making decisions, receiving scenario-based feedback, and having opportunity to optimize their decision.” said Sasha Barab, Professor and Pinnacle West Presidential Chair in the Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University, and Director of the ASU Center for Games & Impact.

3D World Image for ETS Blurb

Student learner navigating 3D environment.

The game-based assessment system proposed would reveal more than an individual’s ability to identify a right answer; instead, it would provide data on the individual’s ability to use what they know to solve a problem in which they are invested, as well as their ability to leverage and optimize their performance using consequential feedback from the scenario. This will allow learners to reveal a greater range of ability, at the same time making the test-tasking situation a positive experience for all.

“The Center’s hope is that this is the first stage of an initial set of game-based strategies focused on enhancing the quality, meaning, and enjoyment of large-scale assessments,” added Barab.

Project development will begin in late spring and will continue through 2015.

The Center for Games & Impact (CGI) mission is to investigate, innovate, and cultivate game-infused solutions to society’s biggest challenges with the goal of unleashing the unique power of videogames to create sustainable solutions for society’s biggest social, cultural, scientific, economic and educational challenges.

PBS Kids’ new online world launches (via USA Today)

Learning, Literacies and Technologies at ASU Teachers College

ASU Teachers College’s graduate programs are listed in the top 20 (among 245 public and private graduate programs nationwide) of the 2015 U.S. News & World Report Best Graduate Schools rankings released earlier this year. In Arizona, the Teachers College ranks first among graduate programs in the state. Masters candidates and graduates looking to take educational transformation, innovation, and research to the next level are invited to learn more about and apply to the ASU Teachers College new Doctor of Philosophy in Learning, Literacies and Technologies.

Kelly Tran, Graduate Student Fellow

Kelly Tran, Graduate Student Fellow

Teachers College graduate student, Kelly Tran, said she chose the Learning, Literacies and Technologies (LLT) program specifically for the award-winning faculty, including Dr. Elisabeth Gee, associate director for the Center for Games & Impact and Tran’s adviser since joining the program.

“The support we have received as first year doctoral students has been tremendous, and it is clear that the new LLT program has been made a priority,” said Tran who is also a graduate student fellow with the Center, “It’s rare to have such access to mentorship and resources. I’ve learned more about research by working on social impact and games projects than I ever expected to my first year.”

“We are really proud to be a part of ASU’s Teachers College and many of the initiatives that the Center has been able to advance as part of our mission to investigate game-infused solutions to society’s biggest challenges, focus on innovating and transforming education in the United States and around the world. Among the reasons we can carry out our research successfully the exemplary graduate students LLT students we have working with us this year. We are excited to work with new LLT program students in the next year as the program grows,” said Sasha Barab, executive director for the Center for Games & Impact.

From the ASU Teachers College Website:

The [LLT] program draws from a rich array of theoretical perspectives, research traditions and content disciplines that enable graduates to address the complex nature of research in schools and other educational spaces, and advance their scholarly contributions to education. Students graduate equipped to develop interdisciplinary approaches to complex problems and issues.

View the LLT Program Guide for additional information including a list of program courses.

A Tale of Two Cities: Rhetoric in Two Environmental Video Games

This is the first post from our new contributing blogger, Michael Springer. Michael is a Faculty Development Associate at Bryan University where he builds websites, manages a tutoring center, and gets to play with a lot of technology. He writes about video games and education on his blog, Playing with Education.

Few video games wrestle with tough environmental topics and Michael is very interested in exploring this issue. Some post-apocalyptic narratives use global warming as a backstory, explaining the social collapse that took place before the game began, like the Fallout series. However, video games that try to illuminate the problems that face our environment are scarce. This is the first in a series of posts exploring the rhetoric in a few of these games.

Why would Chevron fund a video game about global warming?

This was a question I asked myself after discovering Energyville, a simple “educational” game available at Designed by the Economist Group and financed by Chevron, the game’s apparent goal is to educate players on environmental issues. Another game with a similar premise is Energy City, which was designed by JASON Learning, a non-profit company that develops games focused on teaching science.

Screenshot from Chevron’s Energyville. Possible energy sources line the bottom of the map; current energy levels are on the upper right.

Screenshot from Chevron’s Energyville. Possible energy sources line the bottom of the map; current energy levels are on the upper right.

Both games are reminiscent of management simulation franchises like SimCity or Civilization, although the range of player actions are stripped down and simplified. The player takes an existing city and must find ways to generate enough energy to keep city life moving while also not destroying the environment. As years go on and more decisions are made, the environment will either improve or grow worse depending on the player’s choices.

Barometers in both games measure environmental impact and keep track of budget and the passage of time. In these major ways, the two games are identical. But in a couple of important ways, the arguments made by these games are quite different.

Screenshot from the JASON Project’s Energy City. Interest groups are on the lower left; current power level is in the glowing bar on the right.

Screenshot from the JASON Project’s Energy City. Interest groups are on the lower left; current power level is in the glowing bar on the right.

Political Pandering and Petroleum Perpetuity

While playing video games, players are “taught,” through a system of rewards and punishments, what actions will lead to the best outcome. For example, players of Super Mario Brothers will learn that jumping on turtles is usually a good idea, while jumping on fireballs is not such a good idea.

When the game world overlaps in a meaningful way with the real world—for example, when you are playing a video game about global warming—this procedural training of players can create a rhetorical argument. Players attempt actions and learn through trial and error which actions lead to negative outcomes. These players can then choose whether this rhetorical argument applies to the real world or not.

After repeated playthroughs of Energy City, one of the take-home messages is “Do everything your citizens tell you to do.” Several interest groups make suggestions about what you should or should not do on each turn of the game, and the consequences for ignoring these requests can derail your attempt to preserve the environment. Your Health Council tells you, “This city suffers from dirty air and obesity! Build bike paths right now!” The business lobby says, “You have to spend money to make money. Spend at least $40 this turn.” For each request you ignore or disobey, a financial or environmental penalty will effect you. The correct play in Energy City always seems to be to follow public whim. Once your people have been appeased, you can then evaluate whether you have the money left to do what you actually think will have the most impact.

A Request from the Health Council in Energy City

A Request from the Health Council in Energy City

This aspect of the game is unique in that it does not ignore the politics of policy change. I struggled for quite a while before realizing that my very first priority should be pleasing the public, and making the smartest decision should come as a second priority. That said, the player is beholden to only four interest groups, and all of these groups have reasonable and attainable requests, so it is still a vast simplification of the political pressures on those involved in making environmental policy.

Energyville does not illustrate the political complexity of making changes to the environment, but it does make an argument of its own: “Petroleum is really, really important.” During a playthrough of Energyville, I received a warning. “Though alternative fuels can reduce the need for petroleum, airplanes and a significant portion of ground vehicles will continue to rely on petroleum for fuel.” In Energyville, you cannot mix and match energy sources. Electricity and petroleum are distinct and each has their own uses. In Energy City, though, any form of energy can power anything.

This is a striking rhetorical difference, and both games make simplistic yet opposing points. Energyville argues that petroleum will continue to make up a “significant portion” of our energy. No other options are presented by the game. Moving all ground vehicles away from petroleum-based fuels is not an option. Reducing our reliance on airplanes is also not a possibility. No player action can move us to a sustainable set of energy sources, and the game does not present this as problematic.

On the other hand, Energy City makes it clear that conservation and research are both necessities in fixing current environmental problems. Players have the option to research new energy-producing technologies like fuel-cells, then use that research to begin moving away from the non-sustainable energies of the early game. Players also have a variety of conservation options, which cause gradual improvements in air and environmental quality.

In contrast, Energyville does not allow scientific breakthroughs, and you also cannot use conservation as a broad strategy for dealing with energy issues. In Energyville, “conservation” is a one-click option that cuts down slightly on your energy needs, and the gameplay does not make it clear what this concept even means. For each energy source, a red “Learn More” button can be clicked to reveal a wall of text providing sources and information. You can either click the “conservation” button or you can ignore it and click a different button. In neither case are you presented with a rhetorical argument about conservation.

Embracing Variety

The two games agree on one important rhetorical point: it is best to make use of a number of energy sources, not to rely heavily on just one or two. In Energy City, you must continue to rely on non-renewable energy sources through the early game as you develop alternatives. Only by embracing all available alternatives can you move away fully from fossil fuels. Energyville requires a set of energies that include both electricity and petroleum. Maintaining a variety of energy sources protects you from randomized events that occur between years. So, both games recommend diversifying energy.

The consequences for not doing so are similar as well. Relying too heavily on non-renewable energy will degrade the environment and cause you to lose. Adding renewable energies too quickly can cause you to run out of money, which also means game over. Both games require players to embrace variety and keep an eye on multiple metrics, considering both cost and environmental impact.

None of this answers my initial question, though, about why Chevron would finance an environmental game in the first place. In the next post, I will examine this question and take a look at what has so far been missing from the rhetoric of these environmental video games.

The Making of Pepé, Part 1: Learning to Make a Game with Processing.js

Sam Robison is a computer science major and a student worker in the Center for Games & Impact Innovation Lab. Sam joined our lab in at the start of the Fall 2014 semester and Pepé the Penguin is the first game he programmed. In this series, Sam overviews making this game with processing.js, iterating the game by revising the code, and finally, the series will wrap up with a tutorial for you to code your own version of the game which you can then modify as you learn more. 

Coming up with the game idea

Pepe Concept Art

Concept art for Pepé the Penguin

Around a week after I started working at the innovation lab the the student team was tasked to come up with a game using Processing.js. The only requirement was that the game would need to demonstrate sound because it would be used as an example to teach middle school students how to use sound in Processing.js. The student team, comprised of Angelica Monserrate, Victoria Janacek, and myself, brainstormed some ideas about what would be a good game to make. We decided on a frogger-style game where the main character is penguin whose desire is to cross to the other side. The game was named Pepé the Penguin, and I took on the task of coding.

Getting started with Processing.js and Pepé

The start was slow because I had never worked with Processing.js. The coding language functions like Java mixed with Javascript. Its use of Javascript graphics made things a bit easier. For example, I was able to construct everything in the game with two commands: fill(r, g, b) to color the objects, and rect(x, y, width, height) to create the rectangles.

Pepé the Penguin game image with labels for the elements.

Pepé the Penguin game image with labels for the elements. Pepé moves from the bottom of the screen toward the top and must dodge the seals along the way.

The first step was to set the size of the playing field. I made it 300×500 pixels and then set the background color to blue to represent water with 3 white rectangles to represent snow. One little black square represented Pepé.

The next step was to figure out how to make Pepé move. The first thing I found was a built-in processing method called keyPressed() that could be implemented. keyPressed() is called when any key is pushed and will run the code inside of the method. I wrote it up so that when an arrow key was pressed the box would be redrawn a certain amount of pixels over in the direction chosen.

I then ran into a new problem. The keyPressed() method only updated the view when a key was pressed, however I wanted the seals to be running across the screen all the time not just when a key was pressed. I asked the lab director, Adam Ingram-Goble, how to fix this problem and he gave me an article to read about the game loop. The game loop is a practice where input is taken from the user, calculations about how to handle it are taken, and finally those calculations are used to draw the background. This fixed my problem because the game loop does not wait for the player’s input if nothing is entered. I went on to program the seal objects and ran into a problem because in processing.js you cannot declare your own play loop method. You have to use theirs, which took me a while to find (hint: it’s named draw() ).

Adding challenge for the player

At this point I had the seals moving across the screen and was able to move the character. The next step was to add collision detection for the seals and Pepé. I did this by checking all four of Pepé’s corners to see if they were within the bounds of the current position of the seals. If Pepé hit a seal it subtracts a life and sends him to where he started. The next logical step was to add a display of how many lives were left in the upper right corner and update that with each pass of the playloop.

The loose (left) and win (right) screens for Pepé the Penguin.

The loose (left) and win (right) screens for Pepé the Penguin.

The winning and losing screens were the next step. I made the win screen green and with text that said, “You Win! Press n to play again”. The lose screen is red and says, “You Lose!!! Press n to play again”.

Finally, the sound requirement

At this point the game was almost finished! I just had to figure out how to add sound to Processing.js. I researched how to do this for a long time and came up with nothing. Then, I found an article showing how to play sound with CSS and adapted from that to use JavaScript. I decided to import the file to the document with HTML5 and use JavaScript code to play the sound file. I figured since the game would be embedded on a web page that it would not hurt to try adding sound this way. I got this working but only with local sound files. I decided to look through rights-free music and sound databases that I could pull music from to get the game to work. I found a balloon popping noise that I used for when Pepé collided with a seal, an explosion noise for when he lost all of his lives, a harp-like noise for when he made it to the other side and a techno song for background music. Adding the working sound and music finished up the first iteration of the game!

For, the next post in this series I will walk through how I cleaned up the code for Pepé the Penguin a bit and you will be able to play the game for yourself! In a later post, I will also walk you through how to code a basic version of this kind of game with processing.js for yourself – then we will turn to game mods for things like art, sound, and new game mechanics.

Game-based Approach to Teacher Education at ASU Builds Essential Skills (via Games and Learning)

The Center for Games & Impact is incredibly proud to announce that the Joan Ganz Cooney Center has officially released their case study about the innovative teacher training program Quest2Teach. This initiative is created in partnership by the Center, E-Line Media, the Sanford Inspire Program, and ASU Teachers College faculty and leaders including, Professor Jim Gee, Dean Mari Koerner, Kate Weber, and other ASU faculty and students.

“We are the first case study that Cooney is featuring in their series called “Teaching with Games,” which will profile five of the most creative programs out there aimed at teacher professional development,” said Dr. Anna Arici, director of the Quest2Teach program, “This is great visibility for the Center for Games & Impact, E-Line Media, and our collaborations with ASU, the MLF Teachers College, and Sanford Inspire to innovate teacher education.”


“One of the major trends within education is the idea of developing personalized learning tools that allow a student to develop skills at their own pace. But teaching a teacher how best to use newly created game-based tools takes a different kind of professional development.

That’s where Arizona State University’s Quest2Teach comes in…”

Click here for the full Quest2Teach profile on the Games and Learning website.

Click here to learn more about Quest2Teach.

Additional information is also featured on the Institute of Play’s website:

Top 5 Learning Games from GLS 2014 Showcase

Gaming Research at ASU (via ASU Magazine)