Social camera


I got to handle a Nex-5N yesterday, thanks to Timo, and it felt very good in the hand — lovely size and weight, easy to grip and manipulate. And when kitted out with the beautiful Zeiss 24mm f/1.8 lens it’s still small and nifty — much smaller than the review photos make it look.

What I want out of a camera is something that doesn’t get in my way — as I travel and walk, and as I take photos or shoot video. It also needs to be as inconspicuous as possible. On Thursday, Mads (23 Video) showed me his iPhone 4S video kit, a perfect lightweight assemblage of monopod, iPhone and OWLE:

Mads demos his iPhone video kit Mads demos his iPhone video kit Mads demos his iPhone video kit Mads demos his iPhone video kit Mads demos his iPhone video kit

Living off the iPhone (4) camera for much of this year has been most interesting, and once again I’ve found myself wondering how long it will be before we see traditional camera manufacturers incorporating the social and contextual into their cameras in imaginative and fulfilling ways. Christian Lindholm wrote last week: ‘Imagine a camera manufacturer turning the camera into … a social app platform for imaging. … who is going to do this. … This is in my mind the future of digital cameras, a social camera. A type of 21st century extension of the Brownie box’. (Of course, it may be all too late for any kind of triumph — skating to where the puck is, not where it’s going to be. I think of John Gruber’s comment on the ‘iPhone 4S Camera Made by Sony’ story.)

I overlooked this interview with Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom in my last post:

“What interests us are the natural limits in terms of how many people are owning these phones, whether that’s Apple, or Android or whatever it is. I don’t foresee a future where people don’t have some sort of phone that’s like a computer. I don’t foresee a future where those phones don’t have cameras in them. That spells a future where smartphones are the status quo. You have to ask yourself how you allow people to communicate what’s in their lives,” says Systrom. “I don’t like the idea of Instagram as a photo sharing service, and I don’t think it is,” says Systrom, “it’s very much a communication tool, it’s a visual communications tool. The printing press did something really big for the world when everyone could get books in their hands and read. I’m not saying we’re a printing press, but I am saying technology pushes people forward in some way and unlocks potential. We’re not focused on how we can make toys, we’re focused on how do we change the world in some real way. Like, how many companies have been handed the opportunity to get 15 million users in the first year? Not many. We want to take this ticket and ride.”

Whatever dedicated camera I buy this year will surely look strangely isolated in just a few years — capable, for sure, of being linked up to the larger world, in which my photos are taken and then shared (made part of conversations), but only by making the tiresome journey from hardware to software to web to social networks, a journey that, increasingly, is just being taken care of by the cameras most of us now carry with us every day: ‘iPhone photography is so much more though. It’s the ability to instantly capture what you see, edit and share it with someone or everyone’. (HT Alex for this link.)

What I want out of a camera is something that doesn’t get in my way. There will be times when I most definitely do not want to go the social, digital route, but I do want the “it just works” option.

Let’s Adore And Endure Each Other

Not good enough

Black lab

8 years ago this month, I joined Flickr, but I don’t think I posted anything there until July that year. Was I, even then, hesitating and thinking, ‘is this good enough’?

… somehow creating an environment where people started to believe that their photos were not good enough for Flickr. I mean, really, how did we ever let that happen? I was speechless the first time a friend said that me and for the record: It was never part of the plan. How did we ever let people think that there is one measure of photography? How did we let people imagine that a medium which gave the world both Ansel Adams and Garry Winogrand (a photographer who died with a reported 10, 000 rolls of undeveloped film in his studio and who said that every time you take a picture you are hopefully risking failure) and everyone else in between was about any other than the joy and the discovery of the possible, foofy equipment and technique and measures of “good”-iness be damned?

Since then, the Instagram steamroller has come along and earned its success fair and square by making a thing that is genuinely fun and easy and immediate to use. There’s a lot about the larger project that I find problematic but you can not fault them their ability stripping away all the cruft at the intersection of photography and our Interphones. And all it took to get a whole crowd of people who I know and were intimidated (apparently) by Flickr (of all things) genuinely interested again in the act of photography was, let’s be honest here, a heavy application of 1970’s vaseline-porn filtering to their pictures.

Say what you want about those goofy filters (and I am the last person to call that particular kettle black) but they have been a startlingly good device for getting people to play at taking pictures again.

Aaron Straup Cope (via Paul)

A long time ago, I’d set out on a road that would have led me to being a much more confident photographer, but then necessity bit, along with a determination to be independent, and I sold my expensive Nikon camera bodies to help fund a change of degree course. That was the right thing for then, but it did cauterise part of me.

A little part of what’s been happening to me now, over the last few months, flows from Instagram. It’s got me playing and messing around, fooling with the filters, yes, but, above all, just noticing more — simultaneously loosening up and attending. And along with this goes a pleasure in the social flow — what my mother, 94, said today about Instagram when I showed it to her: ‘It’s so … conversational ’.

A few things written recently about Instagram have stuck in my mind. Dan Catt, My first Instagram Christmas, a nervous step away from Flickr:

… flow, connection, joining in of everyone’s experience, a bit like a pictorial version of twitter. … Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoy Flickr. It makes me think about photography, inspires possible projects to play with, upload proper photos taken with my proper camera. But when there’s something happening (often involving the kids, a cat or a visual joke I know my friends will get) I find myself reaching for the iPhone and uploading to Instagram.

Dan Williams on this: ‘Why I never got into flickr: it’s for ‘proper’ photographers only and my friends weren’t on there.’

Tom Insam: ‘I’ve started to quite like the ambient pictures that it gives me’ (describing Carousel, which brings Instagram to the Mac — and have you tried his Flickrgram?). He goes on:

… these models — “shoeboxing” verses Instaagram-style “lifestreaming” — are two entirely different usage models for a photo sharing site. Flickr was built for the streaming case (it’s got a photostream as the main thing you see) but recently the shoeboxing is rather swamping the streaming, and the two models just can’t coexist in the same contacts list - the uploads of the shoeboxers will swamp the incoming streams of people who just want to follow streamers. Instagram, on the other hand, by utterly ignoring the needs of shoeboxers, has been able to build a much better streaming experience.

It reminds me of Twitter, where the same thing has happened.

(Shoeboxing vs lifestreaming … and for Instagram users, an archive-less future? Tom Insam, again: ‘Are they going to realise in a few years that they’ve not built up any meaningful history in this service? When they want a photo they remember taking, and can’t get it, will there be pain? Or will no-one care?’.)

Anyway, I’ve been playing and fooling around. Whilst wondering which dedicated camera I might buy next, I’ve got so much pleasure from using my iPhone, learning more about what it can do well and what it can’t, and why user mistakes and hardware shortcomings might nonetheless be portals to discovery and new ideas. And there are those filters. (And tilt-shift. Haven't used that much.)

Robot face

Another lost toy

Bike and snow

Why did Instagram catch on so? Paul did a great job of snagging some pieces about this (see, eg, Nate Bolt’s ‘Why Instragram is so Popular: Quality, Audience, & Constraints’) and I’m in his debt. Here’s Clive Thompson (Wired, December 2011):

In old analog cameras, many such filter “effects” were a chemical byproduct of the film, so photographers became expert at understanding the unique powers of each. Fujifilm’s Velvia film, with its high saturation and strong contrast, attracts photographers looking to capture the vibrancy of nature, Instagram cofounder Kevin Systrom notes.

But casual photographers rarely developed this type of eye, because they just wanted to point and shoot. What Instagram is doing—along with the myriad other photo apps that have recently emerged—is giving newbies a way to develop deeper visual literacy.

The quirky and the quotidian, domestic and intimate … A sense of place, of the world we’re shaping and being made by … It’s been great fun (each little act one small creative counter-blow to the wearisomeness of routine), and over time it’s seemed like someone has been teaching me, my eye.




Fish plate

Sunrise over St Paul’s

Blue screens of death, Chiswick Flyover, Hammersmith




Boots, gloves, scarf …

The Measure of Love

The enchanted loom

Symphony of Science has recently posted ‘Ode to the Brain!’:


‘Ode to the Brain’ is the ninth episode in the Symphony of Science music video series. Through the powerful words of scientists Carl Sagan, Robert Winston, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Jill Bolte Taylor, Bill Nye, and Oliver Sacks, it covers different aspects [of] the brain including its evolution, neuron networks, folding, and more. The material sampled for this video comes from Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Jill Bolte Taylor’s TED Talk, Vilayanur Ramachandran’s TED Talk, Bill Nye’s Brain episode, BBC’s ‘The Human Body’, Oliver Sacks’ TED Talk, Discovery Channel’s ‘Human Body: Pushing the Limits’, and more.

Carl Sagan:

What we know is encoded in cells called neurons
And there are something like a hundred trillion neural connections
This intricate and marvelous network of neurons has been called
An enchanted loom

Wikipedia — Enchanted Loom:

The enchanted loom is a famous metaphor for the brain invented by the pioneering neuroscientist Charles S. Sherrington in a passage from his 1942 book Man on his nature, in which he poetically describes his conception of what happens in the cerebral cortex during arousal from sleep:

The great topmost sheet of the mass, that where hardly a light had twinkled or moved, becomes now a sparkling field of rhythmic flashing points with trains of traveling sparks hurrying hither and thither. The brain is waking and with it the mind is returning. It is as if the Milky Way entered upon some cosmic dance. Swiftly the head mass becomes an enchanted loom where millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern, always a meaningful pattern though never an abiding one; a shifting harmony of subpatterns.

The “loom” he refers to was undoubtedly meant to be a Jacquard loom, used for weaving fabric into complex patterns. The Jacquard loom, invented in 1801, was the most complex mechanical device of the 19th century. It was controlled by a punch card system that was a forerunner of the system used in computers until the 1970s. With as many as thousands of independently movable shuttles, a Jacquard loom in operation must have appeared very impressive. If Sherrington had written a decade later, however, he might perhaps have chosen the flashing lights on the front panel of a computer as his metaphor instead.

According to the neuroscience historian Stanley Finger, Sherrington probably borrowed the loom metaphor from an earlier writer, the psychologist Fredric Myers, who asked his readers to “picture the human brain as a vast manufactory, in which thousands of looms, of complex and differing patterns, are habitually at work”. Perhaps in part because of its slightly cryptic nature, the “enchanted loom” has been an attractive metaphor for many writers about the brain …

Oliver Sacks:

We see with the eyes
But we see with the brain as well
And seeing with the brain
Is often called imagination

‘Whole orchestras play inside our heads’ (Sagan).


from ‘Nonobject’, Branko Lukić

— from Nonobject, Branko Lukić & Barry Katz

Telling the difference between constraints and the limits we impose on ourselves (or accept — compromises?). We surely need to be continually shaken out of ourselves in order to assess and reassess that one.

Nothing that shakes us should be spurned, be it ever so small.

Newspaper Club

Last week, just as term finished, the team behind a school magazine, Black & White, published issue 72. What made this issue different was that they had chosen to run with Newspaper Club. Kudos to Tom Turner (Year 12) for leading the student team in this new venture. (I should make it clear that, beyond chatting early on with Tom about Newspaper Club, I’ve played, and play, no part in this.)

Black & White

I love what Newspaper Club is doing. I’ve got five of their things. Things Our Friends …

Things Our Friends Have Written …

The BBC/AHRC 8 Essays,

8 Essays

James’s intriguing, enigmatic and playful Immanent in The Manifold City — or, How To Travel Through Time In The Nineteenth Century, a celebration of Walking Stewart,

Immanent in the Manifold City

Buy it!

Chris’s As It Is To-Day, ‘A 12 page newsprint periodical collecting and collating the best of literature from travel guides, treatises, pamphlets, books, receipts and ephemera. Each looks through the lens “of to-day”, revelling in the present and present history, whether from the 18th Century or the 20th.’

As It Is To-Day

And now this from school:

Black & White

There was a very peculiar thrill to seeing the impact at school of Black & White appearing in newspaper format. Walking into our staff room and seeing it being read by several colleagues and knowing how it had been made … as clichéd as it sounds, here was something both familiar and new.

Chris’s newspaper went with me to London last week. I loved it. You can read about the background to it on his own blog: the past is a mirror of the future.

By the time As It Is To-Day got to me, I’d just about stopped treating these newspapers as things–I–should–handle–carefully and was actually ready to read them like newspapers. So on the train, amidst all the copies of the Metro and the Evening Standard, I read As It Is To-Day, issue 1, the London Special. I could quote lots here, but you should go buy a copy — it’s very good.

From Hints to Railway Travellers, 1852:

It is well to have a newspaper—or say this book—in your hand, to resort to in case tiresome people will talk—a purpose that railway travelling was never intended for.

From The Heart of London, 1925:

In two thousand years’ time will there be brambles growing on Ludgate Hill, I wonder, and will a shepherd graze his sheep in Piccadilly Circus? It happened to Thebes and Carthage … There are great days in store for those who will shake up our dust and worry our ghosts, and even attempt to discover our gods.

(And, of course, I liked this from London As It Is To-day, 1851: ‘Within a short distance of St Paul’s, is situated the Post Office, the Money Order Office, St Paul’s School …’.)

Schools and young entrepreneurs

There was a piece on ReadWriteWeb earlier this month about the Teens in Tech conference: ‘They haven’t learned that the sky is not, in fact, the limit - and for god’s sake, don’t tell them.’

Teens In Tech Conference 2010 from ReadWriteWeb on Vimeo

In January, Stephen Heppell, quoted in the Guardian, said of the iPad: ‘It’s gorgeous, I want one, but I want to see children and teachers develop for it … nearly there.’

I’ve been meaning for some time now to say something here about what George Burgess, a final year student at St Paul’s, has been doing. I’ve known George for three years and he’s the most business savvy student I’ve ever come across. It’s in his blood: he operates with a shrewdness and an eye for opportunities. George is alert to changes in the game:

‘The idea that anyone, all the way from an individual to a large company, can create software that is innovative and be carried around in a customer’s pocket is just exploding. It’s a breakthrough, and that is the future, and every software developer sees it.’ — Apple’s Game Changer, Downloading Now, NYT, 6 December, 2009

Late last year, George had his iPhone app, GeoRev, accepted and on 24 November it appeared in Apple’s store. You can read about it on his website, EducationApps. From George’s press release:

GeoRev is designed to help students revise for their Geography GCSE exam and consists of 600 multiple-choice questions. These questions are separated into 15 topic areas with both foundation and higher tier options. The topic areas aim to incorporate the majority of material required by major exam boards.

GeoRev is the first of many revision apps Burgess will produce as part of his business, EducationApps. The business aims to produce high quality education applications for the iPhone and iPod touch which help pupils to learn and revise for exams.

Since then, he’s released a free, LITE version of GeoRev with only 150 questions, with the aim of sparking further interest in the full version by giving users an opportunity to try it out first. (When I spoke to George in early February, he’d sold over 400 copies of GeoRev, now priced at £1.19.)

Not standing still, he’s gone on to release two Economics apps, with revision notes for Units 1 and 2 of Edexcel’s AS Level Economics. The notes are split into topic areas and there’s a search function to allow users to quickly find relevant material (particularly helpful for homework). ‘I’m currently working with teachers to try and produce the following GCSE apps before Easter: Maths (a basic version of this might be available within the next two weeks), Chemistry, Biology, Physics and RS. I’ve also received permission from OCR to use their word lists in the making of my foreign language apps. I’m therefore working with a developer in Australia to get these started.’

Oh, and over Christmas his seasonal Trivia Quiz made it into MacWorld.

George ran his first idea for an app (GeoRev) past the school and then drew up a contract with our Head of Geography: they co-wrote the questions and answers (George is studying Geography at A Level). Once version 1 was out of the door, he began working on new features for version 2, including random testing and beat-the-clock.

He’s happy for me to re-tell the story of how, in our junior school, he got into some trouble … as a result of his business sense. Travelling quite often between the UK and the States, he noticed how his friends liked the American sweets he brought back. So he started bringing them back in quantity and selling them on. That’s what business people do, but it’s not quite the form traditionally expected of school pupils. (Bruce Chatwin got into trouble as a schoolboy at Marlborough College when he exercised his discerning eye and bought stuff from the local antique shops that he knew would fetch a good price in London. In his case, the local dealers got together to protest to Chatwin’s headmaster: Chatwin was destroying their credibility, they said …)

One thing I find admirable in what George has done is that he’s done it at all, whilst still at school. He’s not the first, of course: there’s a long line now of school-aged innovators seizing the reins, writing code and changing the world a bit.

In George’s case, he didn’t write the code for GeoRev himself. Like me, he’s not a coder, but unlike me he had the idea for an app, knew what it should do and what it should feel like, found a developer in Pakistan and commissioned the work. And in order to do all this, he approached my colleague, his Geography teacher, and invited him to enter into this business proposal, contract-based, clearing the idea with the school as he went.

Since George got his first app on the market, other GCSE revision apps have started to appear. He’s swift to watch for new competition, seeing what each does and appraising the strengths and weaknesses of their products — ‘this developer produces quite boring and basic apps (including the ICT one), which consist only of audio commentary with some notes on the screen’; ‘these ones only cover science but look quite good, with a similar approach to mine (multiple-choice questions)’; ‘this developer just produces revision flash cards with text and pictures’.

It will become a crowded space and then there’ll be the inevitable shake-out. That’s his challenge. Ours is to respond adeptly to this most significant change in empowerment: not just to tolerate or learn to cope, but to create the ethos which encourages entrepreneurial initiatives and offers guidance and support — not least in avoiding the pitfalls. I’ve seen more complicated, student-driven initiatives just recently, and one thing we can bring to all this is a sense of realism about legal and other issues surrounding these ventures. But ‘realism’ must not be a reason for dampening enthusiasm. We’re here to guide and enable, as best we can, as these young entrepreneurs aim high.

Things you might try to pass on

I find it hard to believe that the Paxman/Kissinger encounter on ‘Start The Week’ occurred all the way back in 1999 (here’s a Guardian piece about it, too). (I heard it live and I’d love to hear it again: all these years on, a kind of acoustical aftershock is still resonating in my head.) It’s recalled in the first comment to a 2002 post by David Weinberger. Weinberger calls Kissinger a ‘disgraceful, banal man’.

I came across a quotation from Kissinger recently that struck me. (That’s thought-provoking in itself — to come across something that seems important said by someone for whom, at best, you don’t much care.) This is from Nat Torkington’s excellent O’Reilly Radar post earlier this month, Rethinking Open Data. The last sentence is his own.

Henry Kissinger said, “each success only buys admission to a more difficult problem”. I look forward to learning what the next problem is.

In the same post, there’s a lovely bit which runs:

As Krishna was told by Arjuna, “a man must go forth from where he stands. He cannot jump to the Absolute, he must evolve toward it”. I’m just noting that, as with all creative endeavours, we learned about the problem by starting to fix it. …

Conveying something valuable about life’s complexities and problems — that’s one of the very best things in teaching, whether done within a disciplined area of study, in guiding an enthusiasm or individual project or in being alongside someone in the larger matters of living itself.

Bucky tweet.jpeg

I liked very much what the Guardian reported Rowan Williams said recently in a lecture about Dostoevsky: ‘he loved Dostoevsky’s characters because of their soul-searching and sharing of other people’s burdens’. And there was this (the words are Williams’ own):

Irony is when you recognise that your own sense of dramatic power is always something that is going to be absurd in the light of truth. The readiness to cope with that absurdity is something that you have to learn in order to grow up.

That’s good.


One of the things which brightened up our Christmas holiday was the arrival on 23 December of these datadecs:


(After years of large trees both real and, recently and unappealingly, fake, we were given this wee-but-living tree. As one of our sons said, ‘Not so much minimalist as miniature’. Give it time.)



A lovely present: many thanks to Russell, Tom and Ben at RIG, and to Andy — who writes,

For Christmas 2009 the Really Interesting Group wanted to create a a gift comprising a series of 4 unique decorations based on each recipient’s use of the Flickr, Dopplr, and Twitter. Having used a couple of the software APIs they were thinking about using (flickr and dopplr) and with experience of rapid prototyping we worked together to turn the data into something physical. … Three of the four Datadecs are laser cut and one is rapid formed. For the laser cutting I developed a series of Processing sketches to generate cutting paths and the snowmen were generated using RhinoScript.

As Phil summarises it:

The snowman’s head size represents the number of followers I have on Twitter. The cloud and its rain represent my year’s trips on Dopplr. The blue shape shows the apertures of my photos on Flickr. And the red shape is the amount of music I played during the year, got from

More about these datadecs and their making in Andy’s post, and see, too, RIG’s page about them, Twitter mentions and Flickr tagged photos.

Very struck by these. Julian Bleecker: ‘this association between things materialized and things quantified is really significant’.

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‘We run videogames in our heads’

James Paul Gee

It was a very great pleasure to welcome James Paul Gee to talk at school, shortly before we broke for half-term. James spent an hour in conversation with our students, examining what games and learning have to do with each other. He was in the UK to speak at Handheld Learning 2009 and this is his talk from there:

At the heart of both talks, besides his zest for life, learning and a passionate engagement with his subject, is the critically important idea of situated meanings and their role in learning: ‘Comprehension is grounded in perceptual simulations [of experience] that prepare agents for situated action’ — Barsalou (1999).

Some photos of slides James used at St Paul’s (which illustrate what he means when he says, around 5m 50s into his Handheld Learning talk, ‘Our schools don’t use the best principles we know about learning, but our popular culture does’):

James Paul Gee

James Paul Gee

James Paul Gee

Many students who came to hear James talk had read Steven Johnson’s Everything Bad is Good for You (2005) and will have recalled Steven’s discussion of James’s thinking. Here’s Steven on ‘probing’, that process in learning to play a videogame where the player ‘probe[s] the depths of the game’s logic to make sense of it’ — exploring the rules, yes, but also something subtler and more complex, ‘the physics of the virtual world’:

The games scholar James Paul Gee breaks probing down into a four-part process, which he calls the “probe, hypothesise, reprobe, rethink” cycle:

  1. The player must probe the virtual world (which involves looking around the current environment clicking on something, or engaging in a certain action).
  2. Based on reflection while probing and afterward, the player must form a hypothesis about what something (a text, object, artefact, event, or action) might mean in a usefully situated way.
  3. The player reprobes the world with that hypothesis in mind, seeing what effect he or she gets.
  4. The player treats this effect as feedback from the world and accepts or rethinks his or her original hypothesis.

Put another way: When gamers interact with these environments, they are learning the basic procedure of the scientific method.

It might be useful to summarise here James’s six headline slides from his Handheld Learning talk about what characterises videogames: an experience of being simultaneously inside and outside a system; situated meanings; action orientated tasks; lucidly functional language; modding; passionate affinity groups. From his talk to us, some points I jotted down:

  • 700 games design courses have started in US universities in the last six years.
  • “We’re a profoundly contradictory people”: we worry about violence and videogames and GTA is put in the spotlight, yet a very violent game like Postal goes largely unnoticed and America’s Army is free — funded with tax-payers’ money! (James talks about America’s Army here.)
  • Games are not like books: Doom has a poor story (and graphics), but very good mechanics and mechanics really matter in our appreciation of a game. Warren Spector thinks story is very important to games. The creator of Doom doesn’t. Of course, if it’s got good mechanics and a good story …
  • The modern world handles knowledge distinctively, working with large, broad, cross-disciplinary themes.
  • If education is only about standard skills, it will only get you a job with standard skills (probably off-shore). In the US and UK, three-fifths of workers are in the service industries.
  • Success at school may square with the job you get, but it doesn’t predict how well you’ll do in your job.
  • Games are about problem-solving. Our problems are now all complex ones — complexity and complex systems interacting. You must be able to think way beyond standard skills.
  • Cross-functional teams, a feature of games such as World of Warcraft, require very high order skills — greatly valued in high-tech firms. Working in such teams is exceedingly intense and demanding.
  • A game like Portal creates an embodied feel for physics and provides continuous assessment of your knowledge (performance). The game itself guides the experience.
  • James Paul Gee

  • Good games makes you feel smarter than you are. Play first, learn later (situated meanings). Where school fails is when it’s like a bunch of manuals without the games — and that’s also a very good way to make the poor look stupid.
  • Yu-Gi-Oh cards and their associated ecosystem are a striking example of geeking out with passion. Here’s a card James took from a seven year-old — who understood it completely (complex, technical language made lucidly functional by being married to action in the game) and explained it to him:
  • James Paul Gee

  • Modding: not only ‘How can I use what this game design has given me to my best advantage?’, but also ‘How can I improve/develop this?’
  • James Paul Gee

  • As Will Wright said, my games designers can make better stuff than 90% of players — but not the other 10%.
  • Recommendations: Half-Life; Deus Ex (1); System Shock; Flower (PS3); Braid. My colleague, OIly Rokison, chipped in with Fable 2.
Here’s an interview with James from Gamezone, 2007:

What is it specifically about video games that help people learn?  Does it have more to do with the gameplay than the story, the visual content or the characters?

My book covers 36 good learning principles built into good games like System Shock 2, Rise of Nations, Arcanum, or even Tomb Raider: The Last Revelation.  But there are many more.  Let me just give a few examples.  First, humans are terrible at learning when you give them lots and lots of verbal information ahead of time out of any context where it can be applied.  Games give verbal information “just in time” when and where it can be used and “on demand” as the player realizes he or she needs it.

Second, good games stay inside, but at the outer edge of the player’s growing competence, feeling challenging, but “doable.”  This creates a sense of pleasurable frustration.  Third, good games create what’s been called a “cycle of expertise” by giving players well-designed problems on the basis of which they can form good strategies, letting them practice these enough to routinize them, then throwing a new problem at them that forces them to undo their now routinized skills and think again before achieving, through more practice, a new and higher routinized set of skills.  Good games repeat this cycle again and again—it’s the process by which experts are produced in any domain.

Final example: good games solve the motivation problem by what I think is an actual biological effect.  When you operate a game character, you are manipulating something at a distance (a virtual distance, in this case), much like operating a robot at a distance, but in a much more fine-grained way.  This makes humans feel that their bodies and minds have actually been expanded into or entered that distant space.  Good games use this effect by attaching a virtual identity to this expanded self that the player begins to care about in a powerful way.  This identity can then become a hook for freeing people up to think and learn in new ways, including learning, or least thinking about, new values, belief systems, and world views, as the Army realized in building America’s Army.  If you stick with it, The Elder Scrolls 3: Morrowind does this brilliantly and people play the game very differently depending on the different ways in which they have invested in their character.  We would do better at teaching science in school if kids really invested in a scientist identity.  But you have to make it happen, you can’t just say “pretend.”

You can read a recent paper written by James and Elizabeth Hayes, his wife, here: Public Pedagogy through Video Games.

‘Passionate affinity groups’. That stays in my mind when I’m thinking about school and how education works, doesn’t work … and is changing. Here’s James’s slide about the qualities these groups exhibit, from his Handheld Learning talk:

Screen shot 2009-10-30 at 10.05.14.png

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