What a little bug with a sword taught me about learning

Screenshot from the gameplay of Hollow Knight
Hollow Knight on Steam

These last few months at home, I’ve been playing a lot of video games. I started with relaxing ones, like Stardew Valley, tried my hand at some first person shooters like Overwatch (not my greatest strength), and replayed a few old favorites from childhood, like Mario Kart. I definitely do not identify as a hardcore gamer — I play games on Easy mode, I embrace the word “casual,” and I’m really not interested in the gate-keeping ferocity that comes with that identity.

But I found myself at home with a spooky little action-adventure game called Hollow Knight. You’re a little bug with a nail for a sword, exploring a vast underground kingdom. As I played this summer, I saw how video games are a type of learning environment. Here’s some things that Hollow Knight reminded me about learning:

Non-linear Learning

This game is laid out like a big, interlocking web of pathways. Because there’s no one way to complete the game, you can access areas that you’re not strong enough to face yet. It’s easy to get in over your head, but it’s also a chance to experiment and creatively beat the game. Just like there’s no one path to knowledge, you can approach this game in multiple ways and get different results, even different endings to the story.

Threshold Concepts

At the beginning of this game, you are very weak, and the skills you gain build on one another. It’s very satisfying to earn a new ability and then immediately put it to use on the next level. A threshold concept in education is like a portal that opens up “a new and previously inaccessible way of thinking about something” (Meyer and Land, 2003). In Hollow Knight, we’re talking about parts of the game that are literally inaccessible until you learn a new skill, like a passage underwater or a really high platform to a new level. You’ve got to jump before you can double-jump, you know? 

Mapping

Concept art for the elaborate map of Hallownest, the world Hollow Knight takes place in

When you enter a new area of the game, you don’t have a map right away. You have to fill it out yourself as you explore. You can even see your little knight scrawling on the map, recording travels and lessons learned. This design adds to the satisfaction of exploration, as Nevada Dru says for video games blog Bits & Pieces: “When you have no map and no idea where you are going in a new area, the world feels dangerous and unknowable. When you finally find that map and see all the areas yet to be explored, finding and uncovering their secrets is exciting.” I love how discovery begets more discovery. This makes me want to incorporate more mapping in my classroom activities.

Patience

I’m notoriously impatient in a video game. As soon as I enter a boss fight, I want to get right up on the guy and finish the battle as soon as possible. But Hollow Knight does not reward this approach — there’s timing to every enemy’s attacks, and you’re going to need a lot more strategy than just “hit him really fast!!” I learned to slow down, pay closer attention, and it paid off. Practicing patience also boosted my confidence; even in tough spots later in the game, I’d think to myself, “I can do this.”

Failure

Patience leads me to another important element of this game: repeated failure. After you use up your health, you die and have to start from your last save point. It’s very easy to fail in this game, especially when you enter a new section or are facing a boss. The number of times I’ve died in this game is probably in the thousands. But aside from sometimes losing your money, the stakes for failure are pretty low — you just gotta get back up and try again. It felt good to persist, to make progress, to do something over and over. And surprisingly, after you’ve done it once, like timing out your jumps perfectly to navigate a room of spikes, you’ve got it and you can do it again.

Walkthroughs

A video game walkthrough is a step-by-step guide to help a player navigate either the entire game or specific sections of it. Sometimes they’re text tutorials, and sometimes they’re video. When I’d get stuck in a tough part, I’d watch someone else complete that area in a YouTube walkthrough, and suddenly I could do it too. I found that watching someone else “do the thing” makes it possible for me to achieve it. It’s like having a mix of a tutor and a role model, and it’s especially helpful when it comes to challenging tasks.

It’s nothing new that video games could have educational purpose. But in a summer separated from my students, it was comforting to find learning in leisure.

Gotta Catch ‘Em All: Campus Engagement with Pokémon Go

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Beth M. Whittaker, Director of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library and Associate Dean of Distinctive Collections at the University of Kansas.

I’m not ashamed to say it: “I play Pokémon Go.”  Or perhaps, more accurately, “I STILL play Pokémon Go!” Although much of the excitement of the popular AR-based mobile game has died down since its launch in 2016, the game continues to evolve and develop, bringing in new players and drawing back those who left. Nowhere is this more evident than on college campuses. While my love affair with Pokémon Go started, as it did for many adult players, as a way to encourage myself to walk more, it’s become a major way I interact with my community and navigate the world around me. In short, it makes me a better librarian, providing me with new ways to connect to students and faculty and promote the library.

Lawrence, Kansas is home to a large, active group of “PoGo” players and the University of Kansas (KU) is a prime spot to play, full of Pokéstops and gyms, dense with opportunities to “catch ‘em all!” Pokéstops are virtual location markers tied to a set of GPS coordinates. When a player “spins” a Pokéstop by interacting with it on their phone, they receive useful items and points. At a gym, you can do battle with Pokémon, or participate in solo or group “raids”. The beautiful North Gallery of Spencer Research Library is a Pokéstop, but it’s reachable from outside the building, too. Spencer had nothing to do with it: stops and gyms are assigned by the software company Niantic based on a complicated set of factors I don’t even pretend to understand. I could probably figure it out through careful research if I wanted to, though. I am a librarian, after all.

One aspect of the game that may come as a surprise is that it is designed to be interactive, and gameplay frequently encourages collaboration over competition. Faculty, staff, and students communicate through a chat app to find rarer Pokémon and to coordinate our group raids. I love to read messages like, “There’s a wild chansey at Spencer Research Library.” Chansey, in the Pokémon universe, brings good luck and happiness to those who catch it, and who couldn’t use more of that?

Our library is off the main campus thoroughfare, hidden behind Strong Hall, KU’s large administrative building, and not particularly easy to find. Since players interact with the game on the screen as much as they do with the physical world around them, it’s actually easier to find some places virtually than in person from the app’s aerial view. Recently a group was planning to battle a raid boss Pokémon at the gym at the Campanile, a campus landmark near my office, and a new player on campus asked where that was. The response, “Behind Strong Hall” obviously did not come from a librarian. I clarified, “Actually it’s behind Spencer Research Library, where we have a great exhibition on display about Helen and Kenneth Spencer.”

When I’m on campus, I’m usually wearing my KU Libraries lanyard, and I make no secret of the fact that I work for the libraries. I’ve had people ask me questions about fines, or mention that they visited the Spencer Library for a class and that “it was so cool!” I’ve met faculty and graduate students I never see inside our doors and I think it’s fair to say dozens of undergraduates think of me as “their” librarian. I have shared information about our student book collecting contest, directed people to campus parking options when they come to a raid, and reminded people when severe weather was imminent. All of this helps personalize a large campus, and feeds into my goals to help students succeed.

The PoGo community has served me well when I travel, too, including a recent visit to Cleveland for ACRL, where I chanced upon a group during a special lunchtime raid event. I tagged along with them for half a dozen raids as we made our way closer to the Cleveland State campus. Afterward, I joined two students at a Starbucks to trade Pokémon. We talked about their plans after graduation, and I was reminded of one of the universals of academic libraries everywhere: students can always use a sympathetic ear, a cup of coffee, and someone to help them navigate the world around them. I like to think I’m putting a human face on the library, both at KU and across the PoGo community, even if that face is known mostly by the name of my avatar, “Pokemom.”

So if you see me standing around on Jayhawk Boulevard with a group of people, looking at my phone, and, to be honest, probably yelling and screaming if I don’t make the catch, please know that yes, I’m playing Pokémon Go.  Most weeks, I do end up meeting my goal of walking 50 km. I collect potions, candy and stardust, all while playing a game that connects me to my campus and community.

P.S. After I submitted this to ACRLog, Niantic launched Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Although I’m only at level 7 in this new augmented reality mobile game, I suspect it will share many of the same benefits for connecting with campus communities, especially given the popularity of the Harry Potter franchise. Time will tell!

Make it Work! Starting a Makerspace in an Academic Library, Phase 1

ACRLog welcomes a guest post from Hannah Pope, Emerging Technologies Librarian at Appalachian State University.

Makerspaces are cropping up in libraries everywhere, but the process for creating one of these areas in an academic library can often be layered and confusing. This is especially true for librarians and staff who have had very little prior makerspace experience. A factor that can make the process even more difficult is the lack of agreement over what exactly a makerspace is. My personal definition is: a makerspace is a place where patrons have access to tools where they can create and innovate while simultaneously inspiring one another as a community. Like with all things in libraries, that definition can be up for debate!

Over the course of the next several months, I am going to be sharing with you the process of creating and implementing a new makerspace. A little background first: I am the Emerging Technologies Librarian at a mid sized university located in the mountains of North Carolina. Our library has been progressively moving into a more innovative direction, and the makerspace has been a natural extension of that growth. Although there has been a lot of institutional support, we have encountered numerous issues leading up to the creation of the space…

Space Issues

Like many of you, our library suffers from a distinct lack of space. To remedy this, we began a massive library renewal project which heavily featured weeding old materials and the creating of new learning spaces. While our building is only a mere decade old, it quickly became apparent that the changing physical landscapes of libraries were not represented in the original building plans.

Many of you are working in a similar situation; either the library is in an older building, or the current space that you have just never quite seems to accommodate what you need it to. We’ve all been there. The important thing is find a space that will work for you and the makerspace that you are trying to build. There are many factors that should be taken into account that are too numerous to list here, but a few important ones include: Is there enough space for the equipment you want? Will you need access to an outside wall to ventilate your machines? What flavor should your makerspace be? Luckily, my library has finally gotten to the stage of the process where the area for our temporary makerspace has been cleared out. Whew! One hurdle down. That being said, it is a temporary space. Although we will be offering a variety of machines to work with, our space will not reach its full potential until we construct a better ventilated area in the near future. The important thing for right now is that the makerspace program will be able to start helping students and faculty in the early spring.

Creating a Makerspace Theme or Lack Thereof

I mentioned before that makerspaces can have a certain ‘flavor’ or theme. This is especially true in universities. Some can concentrate on arts-based programming and learning, while the most readily recognized types include STEM capabilities. The nature of your makerspace is ultimately up to you – and the patrons that you serve. Even though some makerspaces tend to focus on providing machines and tools that are related to certain areas, others contain a hodge-podge of anything and everything. The makerspace in my library will definitely fall into that category. The people at my library and within our community have a wide range of interests, and our makerspace will reflect that.

Equipment and Budget

Once you have the space and theme, it is time to decide what to purchase for your library’s makerspace. Rule of thumb: always overestimate the cost! When purchasing for a makerspace, there are going to be unforeseen costs to making it all run smoothly, including replacement parts, supplies, and required accessories. While there will always be new and exciting things to buy, it is important to remember that the needs of the patrons come first, so stick to the budget. It is also imperative that the physical space is taken into account. It wouldn’t be a good idea to purchase five 3D printers if you don’t have enough the space to house them. Ideally you would have someone who had the expertise to run each of the machines that you choose to buy. While it is expected that there will be at least a bit of a learning curve, it isn’t generally a good idea to buy a variety of machines if no one in the library has used them before. Getting more people involved is always a good idea, but if you or your staff don’t have any training, starting out slowly in regards to equipment may be the best approach. Academic libraries commonly start a 3D printing service before they move into full makerspace territory. This gives the library a sense of patron demand, and it also allows for staff to learn the equipment properly. My library has used this model and it has been very successful so far.

The lack of physical space didn’t keep us from implementing a 3D printing service, but now that there is a designated makerspace, we need more equipment to fill it. As I mentioned, our makerspace is going to be as eclectic as the student body that we serve. We will have a CNC machine, vinyl cutter and 3D printers, as well as a sewing machine for e-textiles and electronics in the main workspace. I am also creating an area that is specifically for instruction so that classes and workshops are surrounded by the ‘making’ environment as they learn. In addition, we are also tagging on a more nontraditional makerspace element – a virtual reality and gaming room. The room will have multiple gaming consoles as well as the HTC Vive and Microsoft Hololens available for students to explore. We also provide software so that patrons can create video games. The variety of equipment speaks to the varied interests of our students, faculty, and staff.

Developing Curriculum

One of the most vital parts of creating a successful makerspace is developing instruction and activities that highlight student potential. Even though my space was not open this semester, I still conducted workshops about 3D printing, 3D design, Arduino and e-textiles. By offering up these opportunities, I was able to introduce the campus to some of the technology that we currently have and build momentum for the makerspace opening in the Spring. I also partnered with a number of professors who incorporated the technology into their classes.

Next semester, I will be expanding the instruction by adding more courses and creating e-learning modules for patrons to use when learning about the new tools available. There will also be more outreach activities that will consist of directed projects that revolve around one or more machines within the makerspace. The opportunities for expansion are endless!

Are any of you creating makerspaces in your libraries? Stay tuned for the next piece of the makerspace journey.

Game Up Your Unconference

Last weekend I was delighted to head down to the University of Maryland for THATCamp Games, an instance of the popular humanities and technology unconference devoted specifically to games in education. It’s been a while since I attended an unconference — my last one was LibCampNYC in 2009 — and THATCamp Games reminded me how much I enjoy the unconference format. Capping registration at about 100 people and eschewing formal presentations means lots of opportunities for discussion and conversation among the participants, and lots of opportunities for learning. At this particular THATCamp the attendees were highly diverse, from faculty and staff in higher and secondary education to educational technologists to game industry folks to students. While there weren’t a huge number of librarians there, I wasn’t the only one, and of course the topics we all discussed are relevant to academic libraries as well as other educational organizations.

I’m an avid gamer and have long been interested in games-based learning, though it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve begun to incorporate games and game mechanics into my own teaching. I’d like to use more games in my research and information literacy instruction, especially to leverage the research behaviors that are a built-in to so many digital (and non-digital) games, and I appreciated that the unconference began with a day of workshops called BootCamps which offered hands-on experience with thinking through and creating instructional games. I know of at least one library that’s used the application Inform to create a text-based interactive fiction game (Bioactive at the University of Florida), so I went to a BootCamp on Inform and had the chance to play around with the software, which doesn’t require much programming knowledge.

Two of the BootCamps discussed using ARGs — alternate reality games — in educational settings. I’ve always found the idea of using an ARG for education intriguing: ARGs are immersive experiences that incorporate many beneficial attributes of games, like asking students to take on a new identity, and scaffolding knowledge and skills. But many ARGs are long, detailed, and involved, and I’ve struggled with the practicalities of integrating something so time-intensive into my instruction, which tends to be mostly one-shots. During the two BootCamps we worked on specific activities that I found really helpful in thinking about strategies for my own teaching, one an example of a narrative puzzle, and the other an exercise in which we broke into small groups to brainstorm a subject-specific ARG. The facilitators emphasized that when designing an ARG the game objective and the learning objective must overlap completely, which seems like sound advice for designing any educational game.

I’m also interested in exploring ways that librarians can use games in collaboration with other faculty to strengthen students’ research competencies. During the unconference proper there were several sessions on adding game-like features to classrooms and courses. In a session on “Badges Done Right” we discussed using badges and other game structures like experience points for grading or other forms of recognition within a course. There was also a session about building gaming into the learning management system, with examples of both a commercially-produced and a home-grown LMS. There’s no question that the trend in “gamification” is complex, and we spent much time discussing the benefits of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. However, for faculty using game mechanics like badge or XPs I can think of lots of possibilities for librarians to collaborate. (“Wikipedia fact-checker” badge, anyone?)

Like any good conference there were lots of interesting-sounding choices at every timeslot (and a phenomenal number of tweets), so I’m grateful that a shared, public Google Docs folder was created early on. There are notes from nearly every session, and if you’re interested in games and education I encourage you to take a peek.

Play The Big Game At ALA In Anaheim

Sure, there is lots of game playing at ALA Annual, but now there’s a real game you can play – and if you like scavenger hunts – this one is for you. The game is for everyone attending the conference. It is called California Dreaming. Now, you can play the game individually, but apparently it works better if you get on a team. Here’s the good part. There’s an “academic librarian” team and it will compete against teams of school librarians, public librarians, special librarians, something called “Library Society of the World” (don’t ask) and students. C’mon. Do any of these other groups stand a chance against academic librarians? Of course not.

If you want to find out more about California Dreaming check out this blog post. You will get more details on how the game works, how to join a team and all that good stuff. And you thought that ALA in Anaheim wasn’t going to be fun. Guess you were wrong.