Learning Computing through Game Experiences

Learning Computing through Game Experiences

Learning Computing through Game Experiences
P. Fishwick (http://www.cise.ufl.edu/~fishwick)
Computing Culture
The field of computing is found in a wide array of disciplines including information science, computer science, and computer engineering. The culture of computing, including its formal languages, practices, and practitioners, has permeated the broader cultures of society at large. We use digital devices including smartphones and video recorders on a routine basis, and this use has changed how we think. Programming a digital video recorder (DVR) requires knowledge of tree structures, state machines, and other fundamental formal constructs found within computer science. This knowledge is learned through informal experience rather than through formal means (e.g., taking a university course). Therefore, there is a general need to teach non-computer specialists about core computing concepts because of their cultural significance. People should learn about computing, as they learn mathematics, because of its ubiquity in modern life.
Roadblocks and Opportunities
One challenge in learning computing relates to the need to entice the learner into computing through something that they find interesting and relevant. Certain games serve as a general opportunity to address this challenge since there is a pre-existing culture of game players, and one need only use this as curricular vehicle for introducing learning objectives. Games are developed using multiple disciplines, and players of the games cross disciplinary boundaries; World of Warcraft is probably played just as frequently by artists as programmers. However, there is a more significant set of roadblocks in bridging the areas of SEAD (Malina and Strohecker 2012).  One of them is so basic as to be easily overlooked: writing vs. building. Some of our core approaches in the SEAD disciplines are oriented toward writing. Computer scientists write code or programs, as do humanist scholars who write the “scholarly edition.” The assumption of the former group is that algorithms, and most resulting code, are written. For the latter group, writing is the fundamental rhetorical device supporting criticism. Can we challenge these assumptions? Can an algorithm be defined by an analog machine (Fishwick 2012), and can the humanist’s rhetorical mandate employ audiovisual artifacts? The visual and musical arts offer opportunities in attempting this challenge: perhaps algorithms can be designed like skyscrapers, and criticism can be defined by perceptually-enabled interaction? Malina has created a phrase he calls the “crisis of representation” (Malina 2012), which characterizes the problem. SEAD Disciplines tend to be segmented using representational norms. The norms should be challenged by exploring new representations.
Game Experiences
The need to inform the general populace of computing can result in several different approaches; however, I suggest one specific approach based on interactive game technology. This approach involves exploring new representations for computing artifacts. I propose learning computing through game experiences. Consider, for example, two game experiences initiated by the same author: Minecraft and 0x10c (Notch 2012). Minecraft is a “block game” where blocks are mined, and a subculture of Minecraft has resulted where players use raw game materials to construct digital circuits (Minecraft 2012). The emerging game 0x10c is centered on the use of programming a virtual machine (DCPU-16) whose function serves as an in-game experience involving piloting and controlling a space ship. Aspects of computing, rather than being used to create games (i.e., writing game code), are instead used as virtual environments whose experiences involve learning computing. In Minecraft, one can create circuits out of virtual blocks and in the planned 0x10c, one can program a virtual computer for steering gameplay. The proposed goal is not to learn computing by authoring game code, but to leverage game-based social networks, culture, and gameplay as means for introducing computing concepts.
Aesthetic Computing Class
Many games and mods of those games can be used to create experiences that reinforce, or introduce, formal concepts found in computing. I have taught a class at the University of Florida for the past decade called Aesthetic Computing (AC 2012, ACP 2012). The purpose of the class is to broaden the representational possibilities for formal structures found in computing by using the arts and humanities as guidance. The products from this course have evolved over the years, and this past year, students used games and game engines to represent computing constructs such as data, equations, and code. One of the Spring 2012 class projects (Tadayon, Wilson, and Vo 2012) involved a simple Petri net using Minecraft features including dispensers, eggs, lava, and pistons. Figure 1 shows a side view of the Petri net. The redstone blocks in Minecraft are necessary to model message propagation needed for simulation modeling of the Petri net.

Figure 1: Side view of Petri net in Minecraft (from Tadayon, Wilson, and Vo 2012)

Using games as a means for teaching computing concepts can be seen as a form of serious gaming, although in this proposal, no new games are proposed. Instead, learning is facilitated by starting with existing game cultures such as the one around the game Minecraft. The opportunity for leveraging these cultures and adopting game-based materials as raw elements for novel representations of computing constructs separates this proposal from other work. The root idea is not new, as formal structures such as universal computers and calculators have been constructed from Legos and Tinkertoys and numerous other natural or engineered materials. The proposed curricular improvement is to build upon the past use of toy objects for constructing analog computers and to 1) broaden this concept  to allow for multiple formal constructs (not only arithmetic units and universal computers), and to 2) employ game cultures, such as Minecraft, as a basis for exploring new representations of formal constructs. The assumption is that if players are drawn into subcultures of games, this sociological phenomenon can assist in learning new concepts that are contextualized within those subcultures. It is feasible to take this approach in learning any new concept, however, this proposal is based on computing concepts as a starting point.
Stakeholders and Suggested Actions
The broad, and varied, target population for concepts defined in this white paper are 1) the students who learn formal concepts of computing, 2) educational researchers who wish to explore the effectiveness of new representations on learning, 3) agencies concerned with learning (e.g., MacArthur Foundation, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the National Science Foundation), and 4) game authors and companies. Classes can be co-taught by SEAD discipline-specific teachers who wish to explore representational challenges outside of the norm: building algorithms and programs rather than writing them, and simultaneously exploring their rhetorical values within game cultures. Specific suggested actions include the following:
1.    Stakeholders: Educational Institutions (at all levels including K-12), Agencies promoting computing education (Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Science Foundation).
Opportunity:  Learning computing concepts
Challenge: To teach computing, which has been identified as a national priority given the emphasis in STEM
Suggested Action: Study the employment of games and game engines for teaching basic concepts in computing such as iteration, branching, recursion, and object orientation. By using games, we are leveraging popular game culture, which is common in the “millennial” population who grew up with console and mobile games. Often the learning of computing within games involves new representational forms for computing concepts. One approach has been explored by Fishwick (University of Texas at Dallas) in a field he pioneered called aesthetic computing. The aspect of this field related to computing in game experiences is called virtual analog computing (ref. http://www.utdallas.edu/atec/docs/virtual-analog-computing.pdf). The use of games naturally leads to interdisciplinary skills required to develop game environments, including areas within the arts and humanities as well as STEM subjects—a manifold direction captured by the STEAM initiative.

2.    Stakeholders: Educational Institutions (at all levels including K-12). Agencies promoting interdisciplinary and trandisciplinary activities (National Science Foundation).
Opportunity: Bridging diverse disciplines
Challenge: To provide an approach to bridge science and engineering (STEM) with the arts and humanities (i.e., STEAM emphasis)
Suggested Action: Use games as shared virtual infrastructures in which to combine, integrate, and connect different disciplines across the academy from the arts and humanities to science and engineering. Often, disciplines involve research in topics that are distinct and separated from other areas; however, as illustrated by the multi-decade successes of the cinematic special effects and  computer gaming industries, teams based on diverse talents and knowledge areas can work effectively together. Some game environments, especially those that are multi-user shared spaces, can be catalysts for this convergence, and a promotion of the STEAM concept. For example, computer scientists can work on algorithms and automation, humanists can identify and create narratives and critiques, and artists can create new sensory experiences.

3.    Stakeholders: National Science Foundation
Opportunity: Enhanced study of the embodied mind
Challenge: To leverage the UT Dallas transdiciplinary ATEC center hub, and its new 160,000 sq. ft. space to better understand the relevance of the body to areas of cognition such as language in general, and formal languages (such as those in computing such as data and code), specifically.
Suggested Action: Through the use of experiments and formal methods in social and behavioral science, strengthen current knowledge for embodied cognition (Varela et al. 1992) and “simulation” theories of cognition. To what extent do metaphors involving gestures and body sensations (movement, orientation, tactile sensation, sound) embed themselves in the artificial artifacts found in computing? What are the thought processes underlying modular coding, conditional branching, and understanding of large-scale, complex, data structures? To answer these questions will require scientifically grounded research and human subjects. Where embodiment does play a role in cognition connected with these software artifacts, new forms of representation will be required to leverage, and capitalize upon, the embodiment hypotheses. Game environments provide an excellent breeding ground for the human subject experiments as well as constructing the highly sensory embodied experiences.
AC 2012. Aesthetic Computing 2012 Course. http://www.cise.ufl.edu/~fishwick/ac/2012/
ACP 2012. Aesthetic Computing Best Project Videos. http://www.cise.ufl.edu/~fishwick/ac/2012/bestproj.html
Fishwick, P. A. 2012. Aesthetic Computing. In: Soegaard, Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.). “Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction”. Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction-Design.org Foundation. Available online at http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/aesthetic_computing.html
Malina, R. 2012. Commentary on: Fishwick, Paul A. (2012): Aesthetic Computing. In: Soegaard, Mads and Dam, Rikke Friis (eds.). “Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction”. Aarhus, Denmark: The Interaction-Design.org Foundation. Available online at http://www.interaction-design.org/encyclopedia/aesthetic_computing.html
Malina, R. and Strohecker, C. 2012. http://seadnetwork.wordpress.com/sead-white-papers-steering-committee/
Minecraft 2012. Redstone Circuits. http://www.minecraftwiki.net/wiki/Redstone_Circuits
Notch 2012. 0x10c Space Game Wiki. http://www.the0x10cwiki.net/0x10c_Wiki
Tadayon, R., R. Wilson, and P. Vo. 2012. Petri Nets in Minecraft. Accessed June 8, 2012. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUR3xqPWU1I

Varela, F. J., Thompson, E. T., and Roach, E. 1992., The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience, MIT Press.

Virtual Analog Computing, Fishwick, P., http://www.utdallas.edu/atec/docs/virtual-analog-computing.pdf


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