Quest Boise 2014 Keynote: Lee Sheldon

This is a very summarized version of Lee Sheldon’s Keynote presentation for Quest Boise 2014. Any mistakes are my own. When the session video becomes available, I’ll post it here. 

Quest Boise 2014

Speaker: Lee Sheldon, Associate Professor for Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Presentation is about troubles in ed games, what he’s doing now, how to sell games in the classroom to other people. He says he’ll digress like crazy.

He started out in Hollywood, wrote over 200 tv shows, last 20 years have made and written games. Created first writing for games course. He says to Google him for specifics. Next commercial game from Harmonics, is called Fantasia: Music Evolved (based on Disney film of the same name).

Persuasion Games

There will be no mention of zombies in this talk. He lied, he mentioned one. Zombie College is for kids wanting to get into college. We expect students to be intelligent, how to get them into college with a game. Shows some promo material. Nothing in the gameplay will help at all. It promises but doesn’t teach.

Mathblaster, most famous of early ed games. You shoot the answer and people thought that was a great idea. Hasn’t changed in the many years its been around.

Issues that affect education games

  • Call them serious, educational, transformational, games with a purpose. None of these fall under a single umbrella. He suggests a better word: APPPLIED. It is what we add to any other game, and it also has two syllables (which is better, in his opinion).

“Play to learn” problems

  • Too much design in isolation, making same mistakes as everyone else and not learning from each other.
  • Not age-appropriate – kids are playing everything from Angry birds to shooters
  • Too focused on gender – lots of shooters for males, should think about games being accessible to everyone
  • Too literal or too abstract –
  • Badges – reliance on extrinsic rewards – gold stars – by themselves, it isn’t that great
  • Homages – homage to types of games, like tower defense for math
  • Gameplay defeats pedagogy –
  • Pedagogy ignores fun

We need balance! Between the teaching and the fun. Keep that word balance in mind. We need to know what games are doing wrong/right, what kids are playing outside of games, need to find a sweet spot between literal/abstract, need balance between intrinsic/extrinsic, demand better ideas from developers, gameplay and pedagogy should balance each other.

The Multiplayer Classroom – designed class as a game

Good morning, you all have a F. However, you can all level up.

Things he does to engage them:

  • Creating avatars (investment) – personal and real for them
  • Students teaching students –
  • Learning by failing – after a wipe, get up, repair, and try again. In the MPC, students are allowed to take the exam over again.
  • Grading by attrition – they level up and get XP. They only accumulate XP and can’t fall backwards. Concentrating on moving forward.
  • Rewarding attendance – shouldn’t punish them for missing class, we should reward them for learning
  • Intrinsic rewards – gives a midterm exam, 40 questions, 30 of those are solo (do by themselves), 10 questions not worth as much but if one member in a guild gets that question right, they all get credit for it. Turns out they don’t slack off but want the peer acclimation when they help the group.
  • Collateral Learning – want to know what happens next – create cliffhangers at the end of classes (end of the narrative)
    • occurs at the convergence of two distinct undeniable forces: gameplay and storytelling and the human attributes of curiosity and imagination.

Some of His Projects

The Lost Function – game that teaches pre-algebra –

Lost Manuscript 2: The summer palace cipher – built in emergent reality lab – teaches mandarin and chinese culture (current project) – learning the tea ceremony (Kung Fu Ceremony) – mixture of vr and rl

These Far Hills – inspired by Irish folk song about immigration to US – Take an Irish family and build a biosphere on Mars – woman in 40s with kids, everyone is engineers and scientists – game starts with first baby born on Mars – dad is driving you really hard to learn learn learn but don’t know why he’s being so hard on you but halfway through the game you find out he’s dying and he won’t see the settlement completed – you finally make it rain through the biosphere, and through the glass you can see his grave in the Mars field

Some Things Collateral Learning Doesn’t Need

  • video games
  • badges
  • computers
  • sometimes we do not even need classrooms

Ongoing Benefits

  • Students learn the same material with more retention than in non-multiplayer classrooms
  • Class performance is ultimately measured in the same way as multiplayer classes
  • Benefits of the multiplayer classroom are carried over to traditional classes

Pitching: How to sell games in the classroom

It will become easier at some point to get buy in to use games in the classroom.

Who do you pitch to? Students! This is the easy one. Most students are of the gamer generation, even if they don’t play games. Gamers are harder to convince, actually, as they can identify a bad game. Most students know what you are talking about when it comes to game terms. He hates the word gamification. Students are the easier sell.

Other teachers are slightly more difficult sell, particularly who have been teaching the same way for a while. For those who want to strike out on their own, show don’t tell.

Parents are getting easier because more and more of them are of the gamer generation, but they want to know their kids will do better.

School boards are much more difficult sell.  Show success stories, based on case studies from his book.

State Standards Committees (he didn’t do the fed government or above because he gets depressed) which respond to things they can measure. In NY they call them digital measures which only respond to statistics. Don’t worry about this level, start at the bottom (kids).

Results from multiplayer classrooms

Actively engaged classes: average on midterm was A, higher overall grade up to B, almost perfect attendance, come early to class, positive results from middle school to university level, positive results from poverty level students, special ed students, and ELL, positive results continue after leaving a multiplayer classroom, even if education continues using traditional methods

Resources for finding statistics

International Game Developers Association

  • Game Ed SIG
  • Learning and Education Games SIG

Entertainment Software Association

Linked In Groups

Some Numbers

  • 31 is the average age of today’s gamer
  • 71% gamers are age 18+
  • 17% gamers are boys under 18
  • 36% gamers are women 18+
  • 48% of all gamers are female
  • 91% of parents who are present when games are purchased or rented
  • 68% parents who believe game play provides mental stimulation or ed
  • 62% gamers who play games with others
  • 55% families who spend time together


I asked the following question: Lee, do you find that students have an issue with the graphics as compared with commercial games? Does it interfere with their connectedness with the storyline?

His response: A few years ago he would say yes but not so much today. He’s got a game now, “Secrets”, which is basically low-tech as you can get. He thinks its the quality of the presentation and the material. He doesn’t think the quality of the graphics, because of mobile games and Facebook this current generation of gamers is a lot more forgiving.

Do you have links to resources for your games?

There are some in the book, and some at the college.

How do you respond to pushback from students? I don’t want to play a game, just teach me what I want to know.

It’s the integration into the game that’s the issue, not the game itself.

Any examples of non-digital games?

Mostly in his classrooms. Like ARGs, pieces of them on the Internet. They are gone because they only existed for that space of time.

Do badges require an ecosystem or culture to be effective?

He doesn’t use badges in games. He just wants them to decide what happens next. Any time there is a reward its built into the world of the game. Its a reward that has meaning beyond than just a reward. Has to have context.

How does implementing the multiplayer classroom in 6th grade look different than in the college classroom?

Look at case studies in book. Rewards were things like script to buy school supplies. Depends on the situation.

How do you address the continuing of the narrative when students miss classes?

He was the head writer for a soap opera, Edge of Night, and the average watcher would only view a few episodes a week. He included coffee table scenes, little prods that remind people of the storyline so they would know what had been happening.


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