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Life After Twitch: An Interview with Margo Nanny

Gamasutra talks to noted designer, educator and CGDC presenter Margo Nanny about her experiences in teaching children through gameplay.

April 24, 1998

17 Min Read

Author: by Gloria Stern

Who is Margo Nanny? Margo Nanny is the Senior Designer/Producer at Interactive Learning. Margo started as a middle school Math games teacher. In 1987 she turned Disney's Donald in Mathmagic Land into an early HyperCard/videodisk prototype. She became a founding member of Apple's Multimedia Lab where she designed activities for the Visual Almanac. She co-authored, CountDown and Planetary Taxi (Voyager Co), and co-designed SimTown for Maxis. Her most recent product is a kid's code cracking product called Top Secret Decoder (HMI). This January she helped gather 45 education software industry luminaries to spend a day discussing the future of the educational software industry.

Is it possible to provide children with needed skills and talents simply by making use of the processes inherent in new media?

This is accomplished by working with ideas in complex environments like simulations or construction kits and by developing a sense of representational systems as seen in music programs or kids programming environments like Cocoa. My last product was called Top Secret Decoder by Houghton Mifflin Interactive. On one hand it was a kids' product to create and crack codes, but on the other hand it was a great environment to give kids an experience in playing around with representational systems. One code had an animal for each letter. One code would print out gibberish and when you folded the paper in half and held it up to the light you could read it perfectly. These are just tiny examples. The possibilities have barely even been thought about.

Basically humans are stuck in many frames of reference related to time and space. So...technology can allow us to get a unique point of view. It can also allow us to speed up and slow down time which lets us see things we can't see from our normal human perspective. (we're also stuck in a framework where time just moves at it's own pace).

So the point of view we take can be orchestrated to create a superior environment for learning?

The technology enables us to get unique points of view. A favorite example is one from the Apple Multimedia Lab 10 years ago. We created footage of kids on one of those playground merry- go-rounds. Four kids sat on the merry-go-round and we spun it. One of the kids on the merry-go-round rolled a ball to the person straight across from her. The ball however seemed to make a 90 degree turn and roll exactly to the person on her left. It seemed soooooo weird to the people on the merry-go-round. However we also shot the footage from directly above the merry-go-round and then used the computer to mark the placement of the ball as it moved. With the technology we were able to see that the ball actually moved more or less in a straight line, it's just that as the merry-go-round moved the person to the left ended up being in the straight-across position by the time the ball got there. It's an interesting example of how we can't always see what's happening because of our point of view. The people on the merry-go-round couldn't believe the ball moved in a straight line until they used the computer to trace the path. This example always interests me because here we are living on a spinning earth and there are probably plenty of things happening that we don't realize just because we're stuck in this point of view.

And by permitting the student to participate in this type of activity, it enables learning to take place at a faster pace?

The process of participation definitely accelerates the learning activity, but the question is always, what kind of participation? With the estimation game (CountDown) as well as with the solar system game (Planetary Taxi) the most profound interaction was not between the computer and kid but between kids and kids. The kids would sit there and discuss their guess and share their strategies. This interaction turned the game into a human experience with a concept in which the child would have to articulate her ideas to a friend. That's where all the mental structure around the concept is put in place in the child's brain, even if the child doesn't know much about the concept. Through this interactive experience of discussing it with a friend and then applying conjectures in an interactive software environment the child becomes totally ready to learn about the concept in a more formal learning environment in which a teacher brings final substance to the idea and helps it all make sense. That's the great feeling we all get when we participate in a well done lesson where we really get it, and realize that we've learned something new and interesting and valuable.

The child's interaction with the technology is also important and again we have to look at what is involved in it. The main question which Seymour Papert put so aptly in his book "The connected Family" is, "Is the child programming the computer or is the computer programming the child?

It would appear that both need to take place. In order to take advantage of the processes and the content, a certain amount of learning must occur at the onset. The distinction becomes hard to recognize. In gaming, the rules of the game are used to introduce the player to the manner in which to proceed. Is there an equivalent factor in education?

The field of education has uncovered basic principles that help to explore the idea of active cooperation. If we really want computers to help children enter the 21st century we need to use them for higher level thinking activities in which the child is creating, designing, building and representing ideas, not simply becoming a correct answer machine herself. Activities such as simulations, creativity programs, construction kits, or kids programming languages end up being highly compelling because the child creates a framework in her mind which holds all the constraints of the program and then she works within that framework to create something of interest. This is the greatest kind of interaction because it uses multiple intelligences rather than simply reinforcing a specific kind of thinking.

It's hard to know which comes first - the concept needed to teach or the example that clearly demonstrates a principle. It is amazing how like puzzles/games these elements are...but I suppose that has to do with the medium and its ability to support interactivity.

Either the concept or the example can come first. For instance, with Planetary Taxi a teacher wanted us to think about the concept of a scale model of the solar system so we just played around with ideas until someone got a truly original one. With the marbles the activity was first and we started thinking about how to apply the technology to the age old activity of estimating beans in a jar. Unfortunately most design tasks today go something like this: A publisher wants a product to compete with the Jump Start Series because it's a big seller to anxious parents who want to be sure Johnny knows his basic skills. So the designer is asked to come up with 15 language arts games that reinforce the skills listed in the California State Framework for Language Arts for 3rd 4th and 5th grade. This sort of design work doesn't leave time for very original thinking.

Curious about how all this work came about.  Just how is your work accomplished? Are you given a problem to solve? Do you meet with the producer and then do the research? Do you have dialogs with the end user - Or do you write via assignment for a particular age group? Or is the eventual use a blank while you are working? Do you work in isolation? Or is it a team effort where you bounce ideas off each other?" Her answer shed some light on producing concepts for educational purposes that holds true for all creative development.

Generally someone has a concept for a product. Sometimes it's the publisher. Sometime we get a good concept and pitch it to a publisher. Right now that's difficult since as one publisher said "All we're interested in now is 'meat and potatoes' which is essentially reading and math with a licensed character". However once there's a concept then a team is brought together and we start hashing it out. From here on it's always a team effort though it does take one lead designer to hold the vision together. My own method is to start by having creative conversations with people I know who have thought much about similar things. For Planetary Taxi we hung out with people at the exploratorium. For our last product Top Secret Decoder we spent quite a bit of time with Scott Kim, a visual wizard and puzzlemaster (in the gaming community) who had created amazing fonts which were so puzzle like that they could be turned into unique visual codes. Generally we collect many ideas and then start honing them down until we have a coherent product. Usually the end result is about 40% of what we'd hoped for when we started. When it comes down to time and budget there are many compromises.

The way in which the material is used influences its effectiveness. Here is where interactivity and the resulting participation becomes significant. Participation accelerates the learning activity - (as demonstrated in the estimation unit.) This proven technique, which is such a major part of new media instruction, can be made use of for the teacher's, as well as, the student's advantage. Does this princpal hold true regardless of the learning objective?

School most strongly reinforces only two kinds of intelligences "Linguistic" and Logical/mathematical" The others that are often left behind are Spatial, Bodily kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, and the newly defined Naturalist intelligence. (These kinds of intelligences were defined by Howard Gardner a professor of Education at Harvard who developed the theory of Multiple Intelligences).

I can see where spotlighting intelligences usually overlooked would improve the quality of education. It isn't as clear exactly how that's done.

Basically back at the multimedia lab we were making a thing called The Visual Almanac which was our sample of 2000 images and sounds with about 20 interactive pieces showing what could be done. We brainstormed hundreds of ideas and shot some images and then each just picked one as a challenge and developed an idea around it. The best ideas were not new.

The marble idea came from years of having asked kids to guess how many marbles there were in a jar and realizing that the technology could help create an experience in which the kids could focus on the estimating rather than on the counting the marbles. It takes a long time for a 1st grader to count 250 marbles. Much better to have the computer do that if the goal is to move the first grader onto the estimation concept. After playing with the image of the marble jar on the videodisc for a year we (Bob Mohl, a wild and crazy MIT Media Lab guy) were asked to make it into a CD game. This was when we got the idea to expand the math and use images of objects stacked or piled in different ways so that kids would notice some piles were sort of countable because they had patterns (like a rectangular pyramid) and other piles were just piles and you really had to guess.

So, some of the ideas evolve from the nature of the work, itself.

Other ideas came out of conversation with teachers. The high school physics teacher told us he spends a week creating a scale model of the solar system out on the football field. He has the kids do all the calculations and then if the sun is the size of a grapefruit they discover that Pluto is the size of a grain of salt and is a football field away. We thought maybe the technology could help speed up this concept of the relative size of planets and the scale of the solar system. So we thought we'd make the sun about 8 feet (a weather balloon) and then calculated that the solar system would be 6 miles long. So we got a piece of footage from the California Hwy dept of a VERY straight desert road and we laid out the planets along the road so as you drive past the first planets would go by quickly and the other would take a long time (many seconds) to get to. The image is so striking that you never really forget it once you've seen it. And getting to manipulate it yourself helps imprint it. Thus kids in a very short time have a strong impression that those inner planets are really close and the outer planets are really far away. This is something they never really get from making those planet mobiles in 4th grade. They do get it in the Football field model but it takes so long to get there that it doesn't seem that dramatic.

This is a very striking example. One thing the technology can do is speed up the time it takes us to "get" an idea which makes it's impact more profound somehow.

And putting the process in the technological arena helps to do this?

Hopefully we can create environments in which kids can play around with concepts. The environment may not actually teach the concept, but by playing around the kid gets an intuitive sense of the idea such that when a teacher brings it up the child has already "got it". One of our first examples of interacting with images was a simple little game with a jar of marbles. We shot a picture of a jar of 250 marbles. Then we took one marble out and shot another picture of 249 marbles. Removing one at a time we took pictures all the way down until the jar was empty. We put the pictures on a videodisk and made a little estimating game. Guess how many marbles and the image would count down your guess and you'd probably find many marbles still in the jar so you could make another guess. A first grade teacher told us that she used this in her class as an activity station and later in the year when she got to her estimating unit she gathered the kids around and started talking about the concept of estimating. Finally one kid said "Oh! It's like those marbles." And suddenly like lightening the whole class "got it" because they'd been playing with the images of marbles all year. The teacher was amazed because rather than spending a week on estimating she only spent two days and felt the kids understood it better than in previous years.

A light goes on for the kids because of the special configurations possible by using a computer.. That's the same thing that happens in a good game, Isn't it?

People often polarize our industry into two distinct camps. At one end, gamers use cutting-edge technology to build killer entertainment. At the other end, educators apply tried-and-true (read: out-of-date) technology to build brains.

And you're saying that we can use the resources of the industry: software, hardware and the creative elements, to lead both gaming and education?

The educational software industry over the past 10 years has yielded a few little "golden nugget" engines that have allowed users to make profound conceptual leaps through software experiences. A probability machine that dynamically flips 10,000 coins per minute and enables us to watch the dynamic graph change and grow can alter our thinking on the topic forever. Software pieces which enable us to manipulate time and space can allow us to grasp things in new ways. There are plenty of profound examples which use technology to help the brain make interesting conceptual leaps, yet these products have never come to the forefront. Meanwhile the latest clone of Command and Conquer or JumpStart 4th grade are heralded by the industry as leading us all down the road to success.

Involving students in the process of learning is unquestionably beneficial. Educational psychologists declare that we learn by seeing, by seeing and hearing, but best of all, by participation. Computer technology permits interactivity of a very high order.

Through interaction with interesting activities the user can construct ideas. Generally the reason a great lesson from a great teacher is so compelling is because our experience makes us ready for it. We've already constructed a framework in which to place the information. Interactivity has a tremendous potential to help kids construct such frameworks. Consider what children go through becoming adept at SimCitychat. Consider all the concepts such as management of resources, population's happiness, government, balance of taxes. But simulation doesn't "teach" those ideas, they just create rich environments in which kids encounter them. But an instructor who later teaches those ideas to an audience of SimCitychat players would probably have a somewhat captivated audience.

There is no question that using the computer in service of education has a great many features that cannot be obtained in any other way.

Both the gaming industry and the educational software industry are acting in a short sighted fashion by driving their product design entirely from the latest software fad and short term bottom line. The goal of this round table is to look at what both industries have learned in the past 10 years and talk about ways to develop software that has the best of both worlds in it. Currently the educational software industry tries hard to make interesting games which can satisfy both the consumer and the education market but the environments are flat, the technology old and the outcome rather dull.

Meanwhile high tech consumer game developers continue to crank out shoot-em-up games with beautiful technology, fantastic environments, engaging interaction but zero level content. It is hoped that the CGDC conference can become a place where these issues can be discussed with hopes that over time some of the game developers will think about creating games with real content which can actually benefit the conceptual thinking of users.

The round table to be presented at the CGDC "Getting an Educational Bang From your Killer Game" is specifically for those who might want to take on the challenge of combining great gaming and conceptual content for products of the future.

The gamers have technology, excitement, and pacing, often in fantastic 3D environments. The educators have the keys to creating conceptual experiences which build minds and make complex ideas come alive. The goal is to consider the possibility of a cross-breeding, the merger of game technology with educational content, one to grab kids attention and one to give them something they can take away. Consider the possibilities that could evolve if a portion of the high-tech game developer community started using their skills to develop software that provided quality educational experiences as well as quality game play.

The big message is this: The gamers have fantastic technology and the educators have fantastic content. The world simply can't afford for these two groups to go their separate ways any longer with the gamers out there using their incredible technology to build the next "killer" game while the educators end up with only those products that can be programmed in Director. There must be a way to start turning the heads of the gamers and finding ways to interest them in taking their wonderful game engines and somehow applying them to fantastic content. I don't know all the answers for how to do this, but I certainly believe with all the brains in the gaming industry that it shouldn't be too hard to work together to figure it out.

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