Archive for the ‘External Collaborators’ Category

Original Cyborgs: Disability and Technology | Yahoo! Accessibility

May 24th, 2011

Check out Jen Cole’s post Original Cyborgs: Disability and Technology | Yahoo! Accessibility. on the Yahoo web site. Jen’s an external collaborator in the EDGE lab and is always full of insights. it also mentions the lab and it’s work, and alison gaston, one of our grad students.

Tinkering with Minecraft: Learning from the EDGE

May 19th, 2011

By Melanie McBride

This is a picture of learning in action. It’s what happens when you go off-road and really explore and test the limits of things and disaster becomes success. It’s also the basis for meaningful, autonomous and open ended learning and play. And the starting point for EDGElab’s exploration (and destruction) of Minecraft.  DANGER: reading the rest of this post may cause: dizziness, disequilibrium, panic … and, possibly, a new way of thinking about games-based learning and play.

In a lab devoted to experiential design and gaming environments (EDGE lab), we’re mostly known for our adaptive design projects. But we do other stuff here too, like researching autonomous learning and play in games and virtual worlds. For example, Vlad Cazan’s hacks to the Kinect, our Digital Natives study of children’s situated, informal gaming, our explorations of parents playing MMORPGs with their kids and the tensions between adults ideas of learning and play and those of children. We thought it was time to put the ‘G’ in EDGElab and share our recent descent into the terrors and pleasures of learning from the ‘edge.’

What is Minecraft?

For those of you unfamiliar, Minecraft is an insanely popular Lego-like construction and building focused ‘sandbox’ game that is offered as a free online version and a complete paid download ($20 CND). Choosing either single-player or multi-player mode, the player arrives in a rugged terrain with an empty inventory and only the found resources of the world to gather and craft. While there is currently no starting area or introductory tips, thousands of excellent player-created tutorials like “How to Survive Your First Night” currently serve the “how to.” There are two basic modes of gameplay in Minecraft: “peaceful,” which is all about just creating and exploring without all the monsters; and “survival,” same as above but with the addition of monsters. Beyond the peaceful/survival modes, players have used server-side mods to hack the game for all kinds of other gameplay mechanics such as PvP (player versus player), leveling, questing, farming, economies and more.

‘Ya, so?’

Believe it or not, not all of us were on board with this game. The gamers in the lab (and by gamers I mean those of us who love games and gaming culture across a variety of platforms and genres). But the non-gamer skeptics were, well, skeptical. As Jason likes to say, ‘ya, so?’ “I wasn’t interested. And what I heard bothered me a bit.” When he first saw it, he found it “totally visually overstimulating and overwhelming.” For Jason, and those like him (Jason is one of the autistics in the lab), Minecraft seemed to present more problems than opportunities. Among the questions we typically ask of games and learning environments:

  • Does Minecraft promote autonomous play and exploration? (if so, in what ways?)
  • Is the game open ended or close ended (definitions needed)
  • Do I have to guess “what’s in your head” to play?
  • How much customization, adaptation or modifications can I make?
  • What types of gameplay and mechanics are promoted (or left out)?
  • Does the game support or promote making, creating or critical thinking (or memorization/mastery/repetition?)

Unpacking assumptions

Minecraft presented interesting opportunities and challenges for each of us – critically and otherwise. So before we could start investigating the more practical questions of teaching or learning with Minecraft (or, even why to “teach” at all), we needed to ‘unpack’ a few things about who we are as, players, gamers, learners and how our assumptions, prior knowledge, lived experiences and biases mediated our perceptions and experience of the game. For some of us, the open-ended play felt like a better key to learning than following rules, for others, viewing tutorials or achieving mastery within the bounds of the game. Jason wanted to explore the “liminalites” (i.e. break it), Vlad wanted to make to adapt it (i.e.hack it), Noah wanted to explore (i.e. tiptoe through the tulips), and I wanted to, among other things, create a PvP battleground (i.e. engage in combat with my colleagues). Remarkably, the autonomous explorations (and collisions) of our differences resulted in enormously creative (and sometimes dangerous) tinkering, learning and play.

Melanie observing the rift caused when Vlad showed Jason how to make an enormous TNT sphere and set it off

Jason created this enormous glass sphere using the sphere tool and then filling it full of water

We all found our way in through a combination of self-directed inquiry, hand-holding, occasional pushiness and open-ended exploration. This led us to further modify, augment and scaffold the game to our own interests and needs rather than those defined by the game or some “best” or “right” way to play it. Vlad was integral to showing us all the ways we could alter, control and monitor a great number of variables via hacks and mods to our server install. For Jason, it was about removing the elements he didn’t like – not adding more: “I started liking Minecraft more once I could remove the game from it.”

Early on, Vlad pointed us to the “many videos on youtube and tutorials online showing what people have built.” But what inspired him the most were, as he put it,  the “mods or plugins that were used to add to the game, for example the motorized minecart mod way before electric rails were even introduced. This led to a greater appeal of being able to install and run these mods on my own server. Since we had a server at the EDGE Lab I was lucky to be able to use it and try all these things out.” As for myself, a long time WoW [link]player, there’s a feeling of affinity, community, mastery and connection arises from participating in the larger culture of a game in the form of player-created resources and showcases.

But let’s not forget that Minecraft is still, essentially, in-development and missing conventional learning structures (starting areas, tutorials or hints) that creators intend to build in gradually over time. Vlad notes, “with the new achievement system in version 1.5 I think it will be a lot easier for new users to learn the basics of the game and surviving that first night. The one thing that I have always enjoyed about minecraft is the fact that there is no right way of playing the game. In essence you are making your own games or adventures inside this game” (i.e. achievements… we hates ‘em, don’t we precious… It burns, it freezes!).  Markus Persson, the game’s chief developer says, “free building mode is fine and dandy, but for many people it will ultimately become boring once you’ve got it figured out,” which is true for the player who is interested in those challenges though may not apply to those who, like us, are more interested in using Minecraft as a crafting tool – to design our own game mechanics and play them with our friends.

Now that we’ve experimented among ourselves, we are planning a research paper about open-ended approaches to Minecraft for learning and teaching. For now, we thought our most transformative and transgressive insights could be summarized in a 5 “dangerous” things approach, which we encourage you to hack, modify and extend in your own way!

5 Dangerous Things (to try in Minecraft)

The following 5 things are inspired by Gever Tulley’s 50 Dangerous Things approach to learning through experimentation – and danger! We’ll rate these according to types of risk:

1) Get lost
Frustration, lost time
When you first arrive in Minecraft you have the greatest opportunity for open-ended exploration of all: getting lost. Being lost in the wild’s of your New World, there are no landmarks, no map, no compass.  Everything looks – almost – the same. For the unarmed-orienteer, being lost presents you with a number of interesting, time consuming and frustrating learning opportunities. Everything is new and unexpected – just like in a good story: hills and valleys, rivers and trees, animals and beasts.

2) Play with fire (and lava and TNT)
Death, loss health, loss of stuff
Most people talk about Minecraft in terms of creativity and crafting.  But what about destruction? Minecraft offers a wonderful assortment of dangerous elements to play and learn with. Like fire and lava. My favourite Minecraft Tutorial captures the beauty of learning with fire. There’s nothing like falling into lava or catching fire to teach you the value of each. TNT is an explosively fun thing to play with that delivers one-of-a-kind results and “creations” – especially when it detonates “by accident” while you’re friends present (which brings us to #3!)

3) “Grief” or kill your friends
: Death, smack talk, taunts, loss of friendship
A variation on Gever’s “poison your friends”, griefing is all about doing not nice things to other players – intentionally. It’s an experience few of us have had online and fewer still admit to doing or enjoying. It’s that ‘rough and tumble’ dimension of learning normal to sport, combat or natural play. Griefing or killing your colleagues generates surprise, shock, adrenalin and, hopefully (if you choose the right one), laughter. OK, we’re not talking about the really mean spirited griefing driven by a desire to really hurt somebody’s feelings but playful pranksterism. For example, not every friend will appreciate being covered in lava, set in stone and decorated with torches and signs that say “HA HA AFK!” – but some might.


4) Hack the game
Unintended results, Lag, server meltdown
One of the benefits of running Minecraft on your own server is the ability to customize it in all kinds of crazy ways. As Vlad explains, having mods, plugins or enabling special privileges “lets you create things that you would never have even thought about in the past. Scripts like ‘world edit’ can enable the creation of superstructures in very little time, something that might not have been attempted if scripts like that were not around.” From an adaptive design standpoint, the ability to customize a play or learning experience is at the heart of what we’re researching – and this ‘maker’ ‘hacker’ spirit runs counter to the notion of ‘expert/teacher driven’ structures in which the learner’s needs, ideas or ways of being or doing are secondary to those of the power holder or system in which they are located.

5) Get Op’d, play in God mode
Loss of peer respect, addiction to power and control!
“Op” (operator) is when a player has access to server commands and the ability to acquire items and increments of items similar to “all weapons” cheats. Instead of getting stuff through gameplay, the Op just types in the ID and quantity and voila, 65 saddles, 50 diamond pick axes, 25 monster spawners or any other object that might time, effort or luck to get. That this might “ruin” the game is precisely the point. As with Godmode (i.e., you never die), once you remove built in challenges and expose the “time” sink of games, you have new challenges to think about: like making your own fun. God mode is about exploring the limits of Minecraft itself … without concerns for lava plunges while building or running out of food (it gets tired after a while). You just keep building, exploring, digging, blowing things up. Advice: play the game normally for at least a few weeks so you experience the challenge of obtaining things legitimately.

Finally, this post is not intended to explain how you ought to learn or play with Minecraft. It’s just a summary of our explorations, discoveries and disasters. All of which, we could only find by tinkering, testing and breaking the rules.


Lucas Gillespie: Minecraft in School wiki
Strategies for teaching minecraft in schools

Noobing it up in Minecraft: Survival, Making, Sharing
An extended post about my introduction to Minecraft April Playdate

April 25th, 2011 April Playdate was run at the EDGE Lab by Atmosphere Industries is a new forum for experimental games in Toronto. We’re a small band of designers interested in seeing what happens when you take games off of screens, and plant them in the everyday world. This is just as much about exploring the possibilities of interconnected mobile & ubiquitous devices, as it is a reinvention of playground games and make-believe. We run a series of sandbox events, with the aim of getting people to play, create, and discuss games.

Attendees came from the following orgs: The Labs, Ryerson University, Forest Games, Gamercamp, and Effects-Based Analytics

We’re looking to see more events in collaboration with the Atmosphere Industries crew in the future.

Gone Gitmo

March 4th, 2011

University of Southern California website featured EDGE Lab External Collaborator and USC Annenberg senior research fellow Nonny de la Pena and “her work developing immersive journalism — a field with the potential for building a fundamentally different way of experiencing the news by offering a “first-person” experience of the events described in news stories.” You can read more at Introducing a News Medium in Which You Are There.

The EDGE Lab hosts the Gone Gitmo project Nonny co-created with Peggy Weil. And here’s a short video of the project.

Gone Gitmo joins the EDGE Lab in Second Life

February 10th, 2011

Gone Gitmo: Keep Gitmo Open campaign on fully funded!.

We are thrilled to announce that our pitch, KEEP GITMO OPEN on the community funded supporting site,, was a success!

In fact, it went way beyond our modest goal of funding the SL maintenance fee for a year, as among the 33 supporters (thank you!) was an angel:EDGE Lab at Ryerson University in Toronto has agreed to host the site.

Along with Jason Nolan, the director of the Experiential Design and Gaming Environments (EDGE) Lab, we hope that opportunities arise to not just archive the project, but find people to help make it thrive in the EDGE research environment. Many thanks to Jeremy Hunsingerfor making the match! Watch this space for announcements of the move and future activity.

Tracey Kennedy

October 25th, 2010

Tracy L.M. Kennedy is a PhD Candidate in Sociology at the University of Toronto. Her doctoral thesis investigates how Canadian households have domesticated ICTs. Tracy is also a research consultant in virtual and physical worlds, and has co-organized several blended reality events in Second Life. Tracy sees the value of building relationships between academia and industry; she has worked with Intel’s People and Practices group researching people’s online privacy concerns, and with Microsoft’s Community Technologies group and Games User Research group researching women’s online gaming experiences. Moreover, she has collaborated on research projects about video games, gamers, virtual worlds, and MMOGs with several universities across North America. Tracy teaches part-time in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture & Film at Brock University on topics such as virtual worlds, video games, digital culture and social media. As an avid cross-platform gamer, Tracy spends her work and leisure time exploring the socio-cultural implications of interactions in online gaming spaces.

EDGE project:
Traditional didactic modes of learning have fallen under considerable scrutiny; lecture styles with a top-down approach and problematic power relations between teacher and student have situated information delivery often as linear and static. Archaic methods of knowledge transfer and learning strategies are not only mind-numbing but also do not allow for nor encourage constructive interaction between students, and between students and their teachers. Researchers have long since argued for a more interactive and empowering pedagogical style of learning and knowledge construction inside and outside the classroom (Briskin & Coulter, 1992; Brown, 1992). Previous literature has considered the use of ICTs and video games in the curriculum and notes the need for creative interfaces that encourage learner-centered activities (Aguilera & Mendiz, 2003; Gee, 2003). Moreover, virtual environments have been touted as transformative spaces that can encourage innovative learning strategies which ultimately work to change the design and delivery of the formal curriculum (Hobbs, Gordon & Brown, 2006).

Given the pedagogical potential of online spaces, Tracy is interested in how children and youth integrate these spaces (virtual worlds, social networking sites and so forth) into their daily practices and how they collaboratively co-construct knowledge and meaning across a variety of social locations. These constructs and meanings represent informal learning experiences that are rooted in peer-to-peer culture and curiosity and play. As such, Tracy’s research explores the significance of these informal learning practices and the role this takes in the formal learning processes of the classroom.


Yuka Kajihara

October 15th, 2010

Sara Grimes

October 15th, 2010

Sara Grimes

Dr. Sara M. Grimes joined the Faculty of Information in the summer of 2010, as Assistant Professor in Children’s Literature and New Media. Her research interests are in children’s media culture(s), play studies and critical theories of technology, with a special focus on digital games. Her previous work includes explorations of children’s virtual worlds and online communities, examinations of online marketing targeted to children, discussions of the legal and ethical dimensions of virtual property, and analysis of discursive representations of the child gamer within popular film and advertising. She has also collaborated with Andrew Feenberg, adapting his theory of instrumentalization to construct a framework for the discussion of games as systems of social rationalization. Sara’s work has appeared in journals such as New Media & Society, The Information Society, The International Journal of Media & Cultural Politics, and Communication, Culture & Critique. Her current research explores various dimensions of child-generated content, including the legal and cultural implications, within the specific context of entertainment-driven user-generated content (UGC) games such as LittleBigPlanet and Spore.

Melanie McBride

October 15th, 2010

Megan Boler

October 15th, 2010