Technology “with a soul”: games and education

Technology “with a soul”: games and education

Technology with a soul? Whatever this might mean for you, It’s a trend that I noticed, and I see it growing – I realized it especially after my two latest jobs as a trainer, in two very different contexts.

I just came home from a residential seminar of 10 days on storytelling and education in Czech Republic, followed by a week on digital creativity with Minecraft in Italy, at Digital Summer Camps for teens by H-Campus (I think you will soon read something about it…) and for quite some days I had these thoughts in my head.

Technological humanism?

I’ve always been rooting for a positive impact, an improving, humanizing effect of technology: since the days of BBS and civic networks I have seen computers, networks, the internet putting people together, letting them talk, learn, exchange knowledge and information – in short, doing good to themselves and to others.

I’m hooked on technology as version 2.0 of humanism: for this reason, I guess, I jumped on the chair while I was following on Engadget the keynote by Jobs introducing the iPad (my god was it 2010?!?) when at one point he pulled this slide:

" technology and liberal arts" the presentation of the iPad

Then social media spread worldwide on the wings of mass distribution of connected devices, giving global visibility to widespread ignorance, racist and angry fascism and illiteracy. All stuff that obviously was already there, as the experiment of radio broadcasting the contents of the answering machine of Radio Radicale in Italy back in the distant 1993 (!) proved well; still the certainty to get away with it and not lose the face was a rare commodity.

For me it was a strong blow, accepting that at the same time my thing became eventually (?) everybody’s thing, and among them, an inconceivable percentage of assholes was included.

Teaching technology, and then teaching with technology

This is also the reason why I started working in education to technology, before, and with technology, immediately after – and doing so many things in these few last years (super hard,, badly paid, complicated things…) which today make me so proud, from Prairies of the Web activities to  ImageME, to the foundation of coderdojo Brianza and CampusLaCamilla.

I found out I’m not alone, indeed I found out to be part of a community of similar beings, who recognize themselves on the fly, and even if they can get tangled up in endless discussions at a very high rate of nerdism, for sure in the meantime they are helping the world, trying to teach a generation or two that technology can and should be mastered and used to your advantage, instead of you getting used by it. Besides, they do – we do – it all with fantastic methodologies, that should really be taught to the world of education and schools. However this is another matter, although it is my obsession 🙂

Working with educators, youth groups leaders, teachers, etc., more and more I talk about gamification: not only because I’m a hopeless nerd but also because I am convinced, with Jane McGonigal, that reality is broken and games can improve it, and with James Paul Gee, that education has much to learn from video games.

Games that were not there before

Therefore I can only greet with joy the rise of video games that try to make players live experiences somehow able to  teach, them something, for instance transporting the player in those famous different contexts which are so difficult to understand (those of war, hunger, exploitation etc.) to jump away from the idiotic talking-without-knowing, that is the worst scourge nowadays.

It is probably also the result of platforms like Games For Change, working since 2004 to promote an idea of video games that includes (besides the fun) the possibility of a social impact, of a change in perspective, in short, of education. Perhaps in this last period we are ripening the fruits of this sow, or maybe it’s just a coincidence, but I’m convinced that coincidences do not exist.

Last year, while preparing for Solidarity goes online and… – a workshop I held in Sarajevo for the kickoff meeting 2015 of the Academy of Central European Schools, I was looking for material to refer to the tragic recent history of the city, and I stumbled upon This War Of Mine. The game, released in 2014, for the first time in my memory, presents the war from the perspective of not-soldiers, based on the stories of numerous civilians trapped in the tragic siege of Sarajevo.

A mix between simulation and strategy, thanks to its dark cartoon graphics it manages to carry the player really deep into that tragedy. In addition, the developers decided to donate part of the income to War Child UK, that just since the Yugoslav conflict, works with children in war zones. After this partnership, the game got an expansion (as they say in slang, a DLC) which also introduced children, in the house under siege where the story takes place.

Technology with the soul - This war of mine

Liyla and The Shadows of War, released this year, is an app (here’s the Android version) developed by a Palestinian programmer, surely inspired by This War of Mine, either for the graphics, and for the game dynamics. The game, technically a platform is fairly short and simple, and tells the story of Liyla, a Palestinian girl, during the siege of Gaza. Also here, as in the previous title, the place is not declared openly, but anyone with a little’ familiarity with the sad, difficult Israeli-Palestinian situation will recognize many of the most well spread facts.. Here things get interesting: Apple in fact, after publishing the game, asked the developer to move it from section Games of their AppStore, to News or something similar.

technology with the soul - Liyla

But then is Liyla a game or not? Definitely yes, according also to this post of the specialized site on the topic, and I would add, that’s why it drew attention. The request from Apple was then canceled, unlike what had happened a few years before to the made-in-Italy title PhoneStory

This Android and iPhone game, released in 2011 was a strong denunciation of environmental and social impact behind the retrieval of raw materials in Africa and to the construction in China of iPhones, and it was unilaterally withdrawn from the Apple AppStore – If I remember correctly, for the first time ever. The developers have kept the game available on their site, and donated part of the incomes to movements that fight the exploitation of natural resources and of human workforce behind the production of devices.

technology with the soul - phonestory

A few weeks ago, still War Child UK, evidently learning the lesson of This War Of Mine, launched HELP: The Game, on sale on  Steam. Basically the organization asked several game developers which we could call indie (including Rovio, the one of Angry Birds) to donate a week of their time and knowledge, to create a series of games to be sold together (i.e., in slang, a bundle) donating also the whole income to projects for children. Some of the developers just simply donated a game, others have tried to build something that could have an impact in the same way of the games described before..

technology with the soul - Savannah

Savana describes the life of some children in a village in Mozambique, while Never Mine demonstrates the use of a great tool I didn’t know about, and that I discovered thanks to the game. It is the Mine Kafon, a wind-powered tool, able to safely detonate landmines left in the ground. It’ was created by the young maker Massoud Hassani, born in Kabul and raised around the world, up to graduate in Holland in 2011 precisely with Mine Kafon as graduation project, to be then built with a Kickstarter campaign. Here Hassani speaks to CNN, while this is a screenshot from the game, where a Mine Kafon is at work in a minefield and needs to be somehow supported in its work:

Technology with the soul - the MineKafon of Never Mine

Malkia is the story of a woman with eight children, widowed by a war, who must strive to feed and raise her children, collecting resources with long journeys on foot around, transforming them alone or with the help of the family, up to build a local economy that can also take advantage of the external support of microcredit.

Technology with the soul - Malkia

To end this list, Emily: Displaced is the story of a little girl and her family, that starting from a context of war, will follow the long and dangerous path of so many migrants, looking for refuge and safety in distant lands.

Technology with the soul - Emily Displaced

Then I cannot avoid to mention here my almost-neighbors WeAreMuesli, who, as they say, are into unconventional storytelling through video games, starting from their debut Twenty Months. It is a historical reconstruction of 20 months between 1943 and 1945, when Italy was half occupied by Allied armed forces, half under the control of the nazi-fascist Republic of Salò, the King had escaped to the South to ask the Americans for shelter and all throughout North and Centre, groups of armed resistance to the dictatorship had developed . The game was sponsored by the City Council of one of the capitals of this resistance, the industrial city of Sesto San Giovanni, awarded with Gold medal for military value for the behavior of its citizens during those facts. Twenty Months is a series of multiple-choice dialogues, based on stories collected from citizens who were there during those years, who participated in the resistance or have supported it.

Technology with the soul - Twenty Months

In addition to these titles, and to others that you may wish to report, I just discovered a new example of gamification of positive behaviors, I would like to report even if it isn’t exactly the same thing we were talking about so far.

It is YouHero, an app developed between Italy and London, which will support you offering or asking for help on various topics, with a structure recalling the time banks (but less complicated and less… bureaucratic of some of its made-in-Italy accomplishments ). From the SOS help message to hammer a nail to the request for professional services such as a lawyer or a barber, it is a technology to rebuild good-neighbourly relations and local social connections at the time of dormitory towns, as even the various communities of Social streets in Italy and around the world try to achieve.

Technology with the soul - YouHero

At this point it’s time for a clarification: it is clear that in all these examples, effectiveness is given by playability (at different levels) of the products, and gamification skills can’t be improvised – or if they are, you will pay the consequences. Maybe some of these games may even seem boring – I did not try them all, but I loved all those I could play. In any case, this is an essential feature: games are made to be played first of all, and if they aren’t somehow exciting, you do not play them. The so-called serious gaming, if it’s not gaming, it’s not on my radar!

It is also worth to say that I am not against games “of war”: although I am not a fan of the best-selling shooters, I don’t see anything wrong when a person of consciousness, at the proper age, would cope with stress or boredom by going on a mission with a (virtual) weapon in his hands. The important thing is being aware of what you are doing, and above all, do it at the proper age, as I said.. The signs by PEGI could give some help on this, but it is parents’ work, to check and see what their children play with – one should not blame the games, just as you cannot blame a car being driven by one without a license.

That being said, I’m curious to see if the trend will continue; I’ll try to update the post accordingly, and if any of you readers wants to help is always welcome.

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