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January 03 2012

15:20

The Pedagogy of Play and the Role of Technology in Learning

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The goal of the videogame "Civilization" is to build a civilization that stands the test of time. You start the game in 4000 B.C. as a settler and, with successful gameplay, can create a civilization that lasts until the Space Age. Throughout the game, you need to manage your civilization's military, science, technology, commerce and culture.

One doesn't read "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" to develop strategy before playing the game. One starts by playing. This is true for all videogames. You start by exploring the world with curiosity and begin to develop a hypothesis of what you're supposed to do. Through trial, error, pattern recognition, logic and chance you continually reformulate your trajectory.

This model of learning is not only effective for videogames but for all digital tools, and I would argue that play -- especially in the digital sense -- is emerging as a pedagogical keystone for education in the 21st century.

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Stuart Brown, M.D., explains in his book, "Play," how a range of scientific disciplines have revealed the importance of lifelong play. Playfulness amplifies our capacity to innovate and to adapt to changing circumstances. Adults who are deprived of play are often rigid, inflexible and closed to trying out new options. Play is an active process that reshapes our rigid views of the world.

The power of play

Play is also a powerful vehicle for learning, something that's been underscored for me in my work at San Francisco University High School where we began a one-to-one iPad program in the fall.


The iPad has been hyped as a device that will revolutionize education. And, while I've witnessed glimmers of this potential, it isn't microwavable. Migrating from an analog to a digital environment sounds simple enough, but the reality has been more disruptive.

Disruption can signal the onset of innovation, but this isn't comforting to the
organizations and individuals that are at the epicenter of such turbulence. Yet with a

schema of play, we can start to mitigate the resistance to change.

Creating a 'sandbox'

The virtues of Apple's intuitive interfaces have been widely extolled, and while you don't need to be computer-savvy to navigate the operating system, there still is a learning curve. As we've designed training programs to make the learning curve as frictionless as possible, I've noticed that sessions that put a premium on play were not only more effective at cultivating the targeted skills, but also encouraged a growth mindset.

The atmosphere of play created a sandbox where both students and faculty could explore the features of the device and apps with the spirit of curiosity and experimentation. Rather than solely being guided through this virtual landscape, they were learning how to orient and guide themselves. Within this learning model, the teacher or trainer shifts into more of a coaching role. The value of this approach extends beyond the classroom because students begin to develop a self-reliance that enjoys independent experimentation and exploration.


Play is vital for normal cognitive, social and emotional development. It reduces stress and increases well-being. Absence of play leads to maladaptive behavior.

As positive as play is, it requires the ability to make mistakes. It implies being able to entertain multiple scenarios and outcomes. Bubble logic, i.e., our testing culture, is diametrically opposed. Our systems of education haven't prepared us to think and act playfully, nor do our institutions of work by and large encourage this behavior. Yet it is this kind of playful disposition that is the muse of all great thinkers, artists and innovators.

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Joichi Ito, the director of the MIT Media Lab, in a recent New York Times essay emphasized the correlation between innovation and play. In Ito's view, retaining childlike qualities such as idealism, experimentation and wonder is vital for innovation. In his words, "I don't think education is about centralized instruction anymore; rather, it is the process establishing oneself as a node in a broad network of distributed creativity."

Play is about exploring the possible. In times of rapid change, exploring the possible becomes an essential skill. We don't have maps for the territory of tomorrow. As a result, all citizens must become explorers of this emerging world. The best way to prepare for the emergence of the future is to learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty. To be comfortable with uncertainty, one must remain fluid, receptive and creative -- in a word: playful.

Aran Levasseur has an eclectic background that ranges from outdoor education to life coaching, and from habitat restoration to video production. For the last five years he's taught middle school history and science. From the beginning he's been integrating technology into his classes to enhance his teaching and student learning. He recently gave a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. Currently he's the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School.

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August 03 2011

18:51

The Literacy of Gaming: What Kids Learn From Playing

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"When people learn to play videogames," according to James Paul Gee, "they are learning a new literacy."

This is one of the reason kids love playing them: They are learning a new interactive language that grants them access to virtual worlds that are filled with intrigue, engagement and meaningful challenges. And one that feels more congruent with the nature and trajectory of today's world.

As our commerce and culture migrates further into this emerging digital ecosystem it becomes more critical that we develop digital literacy, of which videogames inhabit a large portion.

Gee, a linguist and professor of literacy studies at Arizona State University, thinks we should expand the traditional definition of literacy beyond reading and writing because language isn't the only communication system available in today's world. And there is no better example of a new form of media that communicates distinctive types of meaning than videogames.

The literacy of problem-solving

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Although games can be immensely entertaining, it would be a mistake to consider them as only a form of entertainment. Games are fun, but their real value lies in leveraging play and exploration as a mode of learning the literacy of problem-solving, which lowers the emotional stakes of failing.

In Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk, Do Schools Kill Creativity?, he reminds us that our educational system has stigmatized mistakes. As a result, kids are frightened of being wrong. Yet if we are not prepared to be wrong than we won't be able to come up with anything creative or solve complex problems. Videogames, on the other hand, embed trial and error into the foundation of gameplay.

Kids aren't naturally great at gaming the first time. They develop mastery through disciplined practice -- a path marked by dead-ends, wrong turns and blunders. Yet gamers aren't angst-ridden about making wrong decisions because games encourage a growth mindset. Mistakes are how one figures out what doesn't work and provides the impetus to zero in on what might.

Conversely, the game of modern education revolves around right and wrong answers. Now this kind of learning may be appropriate in some instances, say, when you want a student to remember the capitals of countries. That method is important, but it can only take you so far. It certainly can't penetrate more sophisticated, and I would argue, more important questions, such as: How does geography shape culture?

Games on the other hand, cultivate problem-solving, that, with that right kind of scaffolding, could begin to gain traction with these more exploratory questions and knowledge.

Focusing on the process, not the content

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Much of the critique leveled at videogames is oriented around their content. In Everything Bad Is Good For You, Steven Johnson writes of a hypothetical high school English teacher admonishing videogames' lack of content: "There's no psychological depth here, no moral quandaries, no poetry. And he'd be right! But comparing these games to 'The Iliad' or 'The Great Gatsby' or 'Hamlet' relies on a false premise: that the intelligence of these games lies in their content, in the themes and characters they represent."

Games are based on problems to solve, not content. This doesn't mean that game-based problem-solving should eclipse learning content, but I think we are increasingly seeing that a critical part of being literate in the digital age means being able to solve problems through simulations and collaboration.

Videogames, and the type of learning and thinking they generate, may serve as a cornerstone for education and economies of the future.

In their book, Rethinking Education in the Age of Technology, Allan Collins and Richard Halverson state that "policymakers interested in preparing students for success in the 21st-century economy would do well ... to appreciate how skills developed through navigating virtual environments might pay off in the workplace ... [and how] the new skills and dispositions of the gamer generation will transform the workplace. The gamer generation will push for work environments to incorporate more virtual aspects in fields, such as market analysis, and social and economic modeling. Gamers, for example, have abundant experience making big decisions, coordinating resources, and experimenting with complex strategies in game-based simulations."

Making the most of gaming for your kids

Although videogames have great potential to be powerful vehicles for learning, there is no guarantee this will happen. Just as there is no guarantee that someone will understand the themes and symbols of "The Lord of the Flies" by simply reading it. As a result, kids need parents, teachers and their peers to engage their gaming in thoughtful ways. While there could be a long list of recommended practice, for simplicity sake I've reduced the list to three preliminary suggestions.

  1. Play games. Otherwise how can you have meaningful conversations about them? Not learning how to play games would be akin to talking about "The Lord of the Flies" without having learned to read.
  2. Connect games to books, movies, TV and the world around them. By thinking about games beyond their boundaries we can cultivate pattern recognition across media platforms and parlay the problem-solving of gaming into the real world.
  3. Have your students or kids collaborate with other peers to analyze and interpret games, as well share strategies. There has been a raft of research in recent years that extols the wisdom of the crowd and the logic of the swarm. Through collaboration and networking kids can learn to enhance their own perspectives, ideas and, perhaps, contribute to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Read more in the Kids & Media series on MediaShift.

Photo of kids playing videogames by Sean Dreilinger on Flickr.

Aran Levasseur has an eclectic background that ranges from outdoor education to life coaching, and from habitat restoration to video production. For the last five years he's taught middle school history and science. From the beginning he's been integrating technology into his classes to enhance his teaching and student learning. He recently gave a talk at TEDxSFED on videogames and learning. Currently he's the Academic Technology Coordinator at San Francisco University High School.

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August 01 2011

18:27

Screen Time for Kids: Balancing Fun, Learning, Media Creation

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This week, MediaShift will be running a special series on navigating the relationships between kids and media. Stay tuned all week as we explore topics like this one.

When it comes to videogames and apps, what’s a parent to do? On one hand, we’re bombarded with messages about the perils of letting kids play with computer games and gadgets. On the other, we’re seduced by games and apps marketed to us as “educational.”

It’s a tricky line to navigate. The spectrum of kids’ apps ranges from “baking” cupcakes to crushing war demons. Most of them have some educational aspect — at the very least kids learn what ingredients are used in cupcake baking, and the physics of launching Angry Birds at just the right angle to kill the piggies. That’s learning, isn’t it?

Therein lie the vague boundaries. Not all games are educational, and not all are shallow forms of entertainment. Many are marketed as educational tools, but in fact, most have some elements of both. The trick is to figure out what we want kids to learn and to experience. To clump them all into one category is to miss out on a huge treasure trove of learning opportunities. Real learning apps have a set of criteria that qualifies them as educational, so rather than writing them all off as a waste of time, parents can figure out what their kids are exposed to.

Engagement and Learning

“We don't ever want to separate engagement from the purposes of learning,” said Daniel Edelson, Executive Director and Vice President of Education and Children’s Programs at the National Geographic Society at a cyberlearning conference this spring. “When you're engaged with activities that have learning goals, you can connect the dots between engagement and learning. If you use engagement in its broadest possible sense when people are paying attention because of bright lights and activity, then you don't find that connection.”

Enter the parent. A young child is not necessarily going to figure out if she’s learning or having fun. And in the best cases, that line is blurred without the child even knowing it. She’s collecting information about bugs and plantlife with apps like Project NOAH. She’s creating original stories — complete with exposition and denouement and background music — with digital storytelling apps like Toontastic.

So should parents feel guilty allowing their kids to play games on mobile gadgets?

“Most parents don't understand the need for their participation,” said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who says she specializes in children’s media use. “It's a small population who gets it.”

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Simply put: “No,” says Dr. Michael Levine of the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, which recently released a study called Learning: Is There an App For That. “Kids see their parents using mobile phones all the time. It’s only natural for them to want to use them too. And from the data in our study it looks like many parents are letting their children use them responsibly - with restrictions and in moderation. We recommend a balanced media diet that consists of content that is fun, educational, and doesn't take up too much time in a given day.”

Tools to Create Content

That said, Levine cautioned parents to stay vigilant about screen time. “We would be quite concerned if young children, especially pre-schoolers, began to dramatically increase their mobile screen time,” he said.

A screen is not just a screen, though. The one-way interaction between TV and the couch potato is far different than an absorbing Scrabble play-off with a friend on a mobile phone.

“Nobody's saying, ‘Give your kid a Gameboy, so he can be quiet and go sit in the corner,” said Andy Russell, co-creator of Toontastic at a digital media and learning conference. “We're giving them tools to actually help them create content. The new devices allow us to do new things that we haven't ever been able to do. But the world of ‘edutainment’ has dug us into a hole where most people think games only create a solitary experience.”

In fact, many apps invite multiple players, social interaction with peers, and a call to go outdoors, either with specific instructions or with the child’s own imagination. When my daughter and her friend were deciding how to spend their Saturday afternoon last week, their indoor play turned into an outdoor movie that they scripted, and that I filmed and edited for them with my iPhone.

“Most parents don't understand the need for their participation,” said Dr. Gwenn O’Keeffe, a pediatrician who says she specializes in children’s media use. “It's a small population who gets it.”

Russell says game designers should also take responsibility in guiding parents on how to interact with the games and their kids. “The failure is not the technology, but how we communicate to parents,” he said.

BEYOND SCREENS

Regardless of how educational or engaging a screen can be, O’Keeffe says emotional connections are lost without face-to-face contact. “If they’re looking at a screen, they can't see the emotional response,” said O’Keeffe, who believes screens should be kept out of the hands of kids under 5 years old. “It's about empathy and they're having trouble learning that. Do you really need to turn on the DVD in the car? Do kids really need the Gameboy in the grocery store? We all have to use the screen as babysitter sometimes. But to always use a screen that often is a problem.”

But gaming advocates argue that social connections are built into most games. That sharing tactics and strategies help cement the learning experience — and connect players to each other in ways that haven’t been done before.

As researchers dig deeper into the ramifications of games and apps on young minds, parents will have to navigate the gray areas between absent-minded parenting and the smart use of technology.

Photo of boy with iPad by Mark Glaser.

Photo of girl with an iPad by Alec Couros via Flickr.

Read more about how technology wires the learning brain and suprising truths about videogames.

Tina Barseghian is the editor of KQED's MindShift, an NPR website about the future of education. In the past, she's worked as the executive editor of Edutopia, a magazine published by the George Lucas Education Foundation, as well as an editor at O'Reilly Media and CMP Media. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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June 27 2011

18:00

Silicon Sisters Builds Videogames for Women by Women

The stereotypical videogame player is a young male under age 18, but study after study has shown that the majority of the game-playing population does not fall into that demographic. Only 18 percent of gamers are under age 18, and women over 18 represent a significantly greater proportion of this population (37 percent) than do boys age 17 or younger (13 percent).

With the explosive growth in social gaming, particularly on Facebook, more games are being targeted at women. Games like Farmville and Pet Society, while not explicitly aimed at women, have been embraced by an older, female gaming population.

But what about girls? Videogames are increasingly considered an important tool for learning. And even though plenty of women do play videogames, there is still a sense -- particularly among girls -- that games are a "boy thing."

Building Games for Women, Girls

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That girl-gamer audience is the focus of the Vancouver, B.C.-based gaming studio Silicon Sisters. The first female-owned and run videogame studio in Canada, Silicon Sisters is committed to building games for women and girls by women and girls.

Founded by former Radical Entertainment executive producer Kristen Forbes and former Deep Fried Entertainment COO Brenda Bailey Gershkovitch, the studio released its very first game, School 26, to critical acclaim back in April. (We featured the game in an April round-up of the best new educational apps of the month.) The studio plans to release its next School 26 game -- Summer of Secrets -- next month.

The School 26 games are geared toward tweens and teens, and the storyline is built around the very complicated social hierarchy of high school. You play the game as a young girl who's a newcomer to a school. She comes from a nomadic family, which has made it difficult for her to maintain long-term friendships. As she enrolls in this, her 26th school, she strikes a bargain with her parents: If she can make friends, they'll stay put.

So the player of School 26 must help the character do just that: build friendships and navigate the sticky, awkward and sometimes awful moral dilemmas of school. These range from power struggles to peer pressure, romance, betrayal, alienation, acceptance -- all real and relevant situations that girls face every day.

The player must select appropriate emotional responses to certain scenarios and answer quizzes that provide insights into players' personalities. The emphasis here is on empathy and networking.

All talk, no action

That's a very different set of goals and behaviors than what most videogames encourage. There isn't swordplay here. No princesses to rescue. No alien invaders to vanquish. There isn't “action.” There's “talk.” The rewards aren't cash or weaponry. The skills honed in School 26 aren't the ability to time your jumps or dodge bullets or land killing blows. Of course, there are plenty of casual games aimed at tweens that aren't action-oriented, and there are lots aimed at girls. But unlike many games that target this girl market, there is no emphasis on shopping, fashion or beauty in School 26.

The Silicon Sisters say all their games will emphasize this sort of “social engineering” — an emphasis on relationships and communication. These are important skills for girls and women to develop, the studio argues, and will allow them to navigate the sometimes treacherous social situations.

As the female gaming population grows, it's likely that more companies will begin to cater to this market. But as it stands, there still aren't a lot of games that meet women and girl gamers' needs. A recent report by the entertainment market research firm Interpret, titled "Games and Girls: Video Gaming's Ignored Audience," argues that the female gaming market is far more nuanced than some of the “casual-centric reputation” suggests. Indeed, 44 percent of those who responded to the survey say that they prefer genres other than exercise, music, and casual games -- the kind that are most often marketed to women and girls.

But making games for girls isn't simply about providing good entertainment. Some of girls' reluctance to play videogames may have other repercussions: a lack of familiarity with or comfort around technology, for example, and a missed opportunity to learn more about science, technology and engineering.

Audrey Watters is an education technology writer, rabble-rouser, and folklorist. She writes for MindShift, O'Reilly Radar, Hack Education, and ReadWriteWeb.

mindshift-logo-100x100.pngThis post originally appeared on KQED's MindShift, which explores the future of learning, covering cultural and tech trends and innovations in education. Follow MindShift on Twitter @mindshiftKQED and on Facebook.

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April 13 2011

15:30

Newsgames Can Raise the Bar for News, Not Dumb It Down

Earlier this month a group of journalists, game designers, and academics gathered at the University of Minnesota for a workshop on newsgames. I was there, as was fellow Knight News Challenge winner and San Jose Mercury News tech business writer Chris O'Brien. After the event, Chris wrote a a recap of the meeting here on Idea Lab. TechCrunch's Paul Carr penned a grouchy reply, and O'Brien responded in turn.

As an early advocate and creator of newsgames who has spent the last several years researching and writing about the subject, I'm encouraged to see debate flaring up on the subject. But it's important to note that there's not one sole position for or against newsgames. For my part, I can't embrace either Carr's critique or O'Brien's defense.

Carr's riposte boils down to this: If people can't process news without having it turned into a game for them, something's tragically wrong. That's not the position I advocate, of course, so it's heartening to see O'Brien respond so quickly with objection.

But O'Brien's response isn't right either. His retort amounts to: Games are an increasingly popular medium that can keep people engaged; since news doesn't seem to be doing so, why not try something that does?

He's not fundamentally wrong, of course. Games are becoming increasingly popular, and they can capture people's interest differently and sometimes more effectively than other media.

How Games Engage

But vague ideas like popularity and engagement aren't the interesting aspects of games.

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In fact, there are many different sides to newsgames. My co-authors and I identify seven different approaches to the form in our book "Newsgames: Journalism at Play," including current events, infographics, documentary, literacy, puzzles, community, and platforms.

But the most interesting aspect of games in the context of news is their unique features as a medium. Games communicate differently than other media: They simulate processes rather than telling stories. For this reason, games are great at characterizing the complex behavior of systems.

While traditional methods of newsmaking like writing and broadcasting may seem more sophisticated and respectable than videogames in theory, the opposite is true in practice. In fact, the type of knee-jerk, ad hominem rejoinder and rapid-fire retort that Carr's and O'Brien's posts represent offer a superb example of precisely what's wrong with news today -- online or off. Personality and gossip reigns, while deliberation and synthesis falter.

Because complex characterizations of the dynamics underlying events and situations are already scarce in the news, to accuse games of trivializing civic engagement risks hypocrisy. But it's more than that: The forms of traditional storytelling common to written and broadcast journalism just can't get at the heart of systemic issues. They focus instead on events and individuals, not on the convoluted interconnections between global and local dynamics.

Yet, systemic issues are the most important ones for us to understand today: economics, energy, climate, health, education—all of these are big, messy systems with lots of complex interrelations. As we put it in "Newsgames": "Games offer journalists an opportunity to stop short of the final rendering of a typical news story, and instead to share the raw behaviors and dynamics that describe a situation as the journalistic content."

Intoxication with Games

Despite their recent dispute, O'Brien and Carr share something in common: an affiliation with Silicon Valley-oriented publications. Over the past year, the Valley tech sector has become intoxicated with games, particularly the runaway growth of social network games and the promise of "gamification," the application of arbitrary extrinsic rewards for desired actions on websites or smartphones.

In championing newsgames, I'm advocating something different and more sophisticated than low-effort user acquisition, blind trend-hopping, or crass incentives. It is a value completely at odds with both Carr's critique, and one that O'Brien's defense doesn't adequately capture.

Newsgames don't make news easier and more palatable; that's the negative trend the media industry has embraced for three decades, from USA Today to Twitter.

Instead, newsgames make the news harder and more complex. We shouldn't embrace games because they seem fun or trendy, nor because they dumb down the news, but because they can communicate complex ideas differently and better than writing and pictures and film. Games are raising the bar on news, not lowering it.

January 19 2011

15:06

How Can We 'Gamify' the News Experience?

One of the biggest emerging conversations over the past year in Silicon Valley is around "gamification." Simply put, this is the idea of applying game mechanics, particularly those found in videogames, to all sorts of non-game experiences.

After following this conversation for many months, I've come to believe that over the next decade gamification will profoundly reshape the way we experience the web, to the same degree that social media and networks redefined the web last decade. To that end, I've been thinking in the broadest terms what that could and should mean for how we can reinvent digital news.

To carry this thinking forward, I'm announcing the launch of a new project: NewstopiaVille. The goal is to explore how game mechanics can be applied to reinvent the way we produce, consume and interact with news. My hope is that by thinking as ambitiously as possible about this idea, I can accomplish two things.

First, I want to get the concept of gamification on the radar on every news organization so that it becomes a central part of their discussions as they continue to push into digital media.

Second, I want to build a prototype of a fully gamified news experience. There won't be a single solution that makes sense for every news organization. But I'm hoping to demonstrate the possibilities to inspire others to pursue their own concepts in this area.

To be clear, all I have at this point is what I think is a big idea. I don't have any funding. I don't have a demo. And I don't stand here pretending to be an expert in the realm of videogames. In fact, until fairly recently, I wouldn't have even thought of myself as a gamer. That has changed as my own kids have plunged into videogames, bringing me along with them.

Let me start by elaborating on what I see happening with gamification.

About Gamification

Even if the term is new to you, the elements are probably not. Gamification suggests features like leaderboards, progress bars, rewards, badges, and virtual goods. Now that we live in a time where the majority of people play videogames of some kind, often many hours each week, it's fair to say that these kind of features have become widely familiar.

What has begun to change in the past year or so is the growing push to take these common elements out of the videogame experience and incorporate them into sites across the web. That's been driven in no small part by the explosive success of social games like FarmVille by Zynga. But it's also being pushed by a generation of developers raised on videogames, which have become one of the most popular forms of entertainment.

While it's easy to dismiss some of these games as trivial, in fact, they succeed because they take sophisticated approaches to tapping into fundamental human psychology. Developers use those lessons to build experiences that deliberately guide people to perform tasks and behave in specific ways.

Gamification represents a powerful intersection between videogames and social networking. Developers have seen the deep level of engagement these games create. And they have witnessed how games built around cooperative, non-competitive structures have gained a mass appeal.

That has led to a growing number of developers asking, "If I can get someone to spend hours harvesting virtual crops and feeding digital sheep, is there a way to take those same dynamics and get people to do something even more meaningful?"

Virtual Goods

Though not a gamer, I got started on this line of thinking about a year ago with the subject of virtual goods. I was staggered that people were willing to spend billions of dollars on virtual goods. In fact, I wrote about this idea last year when I asked, "Why will people spend $1 to send you a virtual beer on Facebook, but not to read a news story online?"

The reason had to do with the emotional context around those goods. But while I felt news organizations should be thinking about virtual goods, I realized that this was too limiting in isolation. The power of virtual goods comes in the context of an experience. I needed to think more broadly, and that led me into conversations about gamification.

The trap one can fall into is with gamification is to break it down into various tools and try to use a grab-bag approach. Stick a leaderboard here, a few badges there, and believe you've "gamified" your website. But used in that way, these tools will have minimal effect.

The reasons the best videogames succeed is because they offer an all-encompassing experience. They leave players with a profound sense of happiness by allowing them to accomplish a series of goals. And they tap into a central desire to do something with meaning, to be a part of something larger than yourself when you team up with others to accomplish shared goals.

Think about that: A desire to be part of something bigger, and to do tasks that are meaningful. Those are core, shared values that motivate the very best journalists I've known in the most successful newsrooms.

The concept of game mechanics is not entirely new in the context of news. I can recall several years ago talking to news executives who were fascinated with Digg and wanted to understand how game theory could help them. The problem comes with focusing too narrowly on the tools, like Digg's leaderboard. To really leverage the potential of gamification, it has to be central to the entire structure of the news experience.

CityVille Lessons

In that regard, I can imagine any number of areas where game mechanics might address some of the most important and challenging questions facing news organizations:

  • How do we improve commenting?
  • How do we get more people to participate in creation and processing of news and information?
  • How do we think differently about monetization?

Let me just give one example related to the last question. In recent weeks, I've been playing CityVille, the latest game from Zynga. The goal is to construct a city by accomplishing a series of tasks, like harvesting crops to supply stores, which then earn you coins. It's free to play and each time you begin, you have a set amount of energy that allows you to accomplish about 30 tasks. Once you run out of energy, you have a few choices.

First, you can take a break and come back later when your energy builds back up.

Second, you can ask your friends in the game to send you free gifts of energy that allow you to keep playing. This rewards you for being super social, and building up a big network of friends that you've helped accomplish other tasks.

Third, you can spend real money to purchase energy. You can do this by buying Facebook credits, or "buying" CityVille cash which you can then spend in the game to buy energy. The money and the credits are not one-to-one. So $2 of real money gets you $15 of CityVille money. This is an important psychological break that makes people feel like this is a trivial expense to feed their desire to keep playing.

Applying It to News

Think about how that could work at a news site that uses some kind of metered revenue model. Someone who is a free member gets to do 30 things: Read an article, post a comment, contribute to a news task. When they run out of credits, they could ask their network for more credits. Or, they could buy some more.

The ability to induce someone to do this would rest on the success of the larger experience a gamified site has created.

Let me also pause here to make another distinction. I consider this project to be distinct from the idea of "newsgames." While there are certainly similar dynamics, I think of them as complimentary.

For me, newsgames represent a way to reinvent storytelling. It is a contained object. (Here's a broader history of newsgames.)

Gamification is about bringing game mechanics to the entire platform and experience of news and information.

These two concepts certainly can and should fit together. I've thought about this relationship as I've watched my son play his favorite online game, Star Wars: Clone Wars Adventures. In the game, a player creates an avatar, usually a Jedi, who wanders around the virtual world. At times, he enters various rooms where he plays more specific games, such as a snow speeder chase.

Gamification would be about shaping the entire news experience for someone. At times, as they move around that gamified news platform, perhaps there would be rooms or spaces where they enter to play more specific newsgames. That would be one of many tasks that might allow them to earn rewards, or build their reputation or earn experience points.

Getting Started

But the question, then, is where to start? As I said before, it would be a mistake to begin by focusing on the various tools, the technology, or the protocols. Figuring out which of these to use would be something that would come at the end of the design process, not at the start.

Where I want to start is by asking the larger questions that I think are critical to the success of any game: What is the goal? What is the mission? What is the experience we want people to have?

From there comes a longer list of questions about what exactly we want people to do. What are their motivations? How do we reward them? How do we keep them moving through the game? What are the levels and rewards?

Next Steps

My next step: In the coming months, I'm going to accelerate my personal research and interviewing in this area. This coming week, I'll be attending the first ever Gamification Summit in San Francisco, and next month I'll be at the Game Developer's Conference.

I'll be blogging along the way at NewstopiaVille.com to share my thoughts and to hopefully get lots of feedback. Most importantly, by making this a public discussion, I'm hoping this will bring folks forward who want to take these ideas further.

In a few months, I'll try to gather these folks together for a more focused discussion. I'm thinking this might take the form of a meetup/bar camp/or hackathon. The goal being to produce something tangible that can test some of the ideas that have been formulated, and to figure out what resources would be needed to create a real prototype or demo.

As I said, I don't pretend to have all the answers. Just a serious curiosity driven by the belief that I think this is potentially a really big idea.

If you agree, then I hope you'll help me.

December 14 2010

15:05

A Brief History of Newsgames: Combining News + Videogames

The newsgames project, which this year won a News Challenge grant, began two and a half years ago with a single question: What is the relationship between videogames and journalism? With the help of the two dozen fellow students at Georgia Tech who've joined us over the past five semesters, we identified and explored seven categories of newsgames on our class blog and in our book, "Newsgames: Journalism at Play". Below is a brief overview of the book in order to encourage people to read the findings of our research.

Current Event Games

The earliest examples of newsgames were games that editorialized about current events. Georgia Tech alumnus Gonzalo Frascas was responsible for one of the first. Kabul Kaboom -- a game based on the Activision classic for the Atari VCS -- comments on the absurdity of providing aid to a country while simultaneously bombing it. There was also September 12th, which was an indictment of the United States' tactical missile strikes on Middle Eastern cities. It sent the message that, rather than killing terrorists, these strikes harm innocent people and give civilians reason to take up arms. Current events games can also report on stories without an editorial line, like Wired's Cutthroat Capitalism. Additionally, just as there are news sources dedicated to celebrities and gossip, there are tabloid games like So You Think You Can Drive, Mel?

Infographics

Infographics, while different on the surface from how we typically imagine games, actually have a common experience with gaming. While many infographics -- like the bar charts that colorfully adorn the front page of the USA Today -- are simplistic presentations of numbers, good infographics serve the purpose of making sense of complex data.

Journalists can use infographics to guide readers through data in the same way a game guides players through rules. Like games, digital infographics enable manipulation, exploration, and variable outcomes. For example, American Public Media's Budget Hero gives players not only the daunting task of balancing the nation's budget, but also forces them to do so within the constraints of self-selected goals. A balanced budget means nothing if the player fails to live up their promise to increase the salaries of public school teachers.

Documentary Games

Documentary games are a familiar form of newsgame because they resemble the historical scenarios major game developers have tackled in games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. These series, of course, have little to no journalistic content, but they serve as a way of imagining the documentary game form. Some documentary games exist as spatial realities, like a recreation of the Berlin Wall during the Cold War. That game produces a familiar setting in 3D, but fails to recreate the experience of living in Soviet-occupied Berlin.

In addition to spatial realities, there are operational realities. This type of documentary game recreates the way an event unfolded. John Kerry's Silver Star Mission, by a company called Kumar\War, positions the player as Senator Kerry when he was a swiftboat pilot in Vietnam. The player tries to reenact the military maneuver that earned him his Silver Star. The purpose of the game was to question the plausibility of the event, an issue that had been raised by the media during the election. A successful mission is supposed to absolve Kerry; a failure condemns him.

Lastly, there exists the potential for a procedural reality. It is a reality that doesn't just recreate a place or reproduce an occurrence, but operates under a set of rules and logic determined by real world events. It helps explain not only what happened, but how it happened. PeaceMaker, a game about Israel and Palestine, plays out the conflict according to a set of rules that govern how each side responds to the other. In doing so, the player can experiment with different policy choices on each side, revealing the extraordinary complexity of the matter.

Puzzles

Puzzles have long been a familiar form of games in the news. The crossword puzzle, originally the word cross, is over a hundred years old. In the 1920s, crossword-mania swept the United States, leading to, ironically, the New York Times condemning crosswords as a "sinful waste."

Puzzles have served the important purpose of drawing people to the newspaper. We would all like to say we first flip to the important events of the day, but in reality people open up the paper to the sports section, the comics, and the daily crossword or Sudoku.

Puzzles tend to be void of journalistic content; however, in a world where the casual gamer has turned to Bejeweled and Facebook games, perhaps journalistic significance will bring readers back to playing the news. The Crickler is a hybrid crossword-trivia game that requires players know current events. And Scoop! gets its crossword solutions from the headlines of website feeds. The relationship between the news and the puzzle is one that would do well to be rekindled.

As has been explored in extensive research, games have the ability to teach. In the process of examining newsgames as learning aids, we arrived first at an obvious answer: There are of course games that teach the practice of being a journalist. Games like Global Conflicts: Palestine put the player in the shoes of a reporter covering the story, helping them to learn to ask the right questions and take accurate notes.

We also came to the realization that the lesson here is not only about becoming a journalist -- it can be about understanding the importance of journalism. In other examples, watchdog media help the player through games like Beyond Good & Evil and Fallout 3, and intrepid photojournalist Frank West's survival of a zombie attack in Dead Rising means nothing without uncovering the truth behind the living dead outbreak.

Community Games

Another type of game is what we call community games -- an umbrella term we came up with to describe everything from big games and scavenger hunts to alternate reality games. As the name implies, these are games to be played with and within a community. Some, like World Without Oil, which asks players to blog and create videos about living in a world where peak oil has caused prices to skyrocket, exist entirely online.

Others, however, like collaboration between the Rochester Institute of Technology and the Rochester Democrat-Chronicle newspaper, encourage readers and players to make a connection with their local community. Picture the Impossible offered puzzles to play online, scavenger hunts in the city, and clues to riddles hidden in the pages of the printed paper. From what was reported, the game was at least moderately successful. And, more importantly, it showed a news organization willing to take a risk on something new.

Platforms

Which brings us to our final category of newsgames: Platforms. In the loosest sense, a platform is anything you build that makes it easier to build other things. Once you've devised the inverted pyramid structure of the news story, you don't need to reinvent the printed format every time you want to publish.

Platforms aren't about building things entirely from scratch. We encourage news organizations to take a look around them to see what resources they already have available. Fantasy football does this on a weekly basis by assigning points to on-field results. It's simple, but wildly successful.

Play the News turned reading into a prediction game. Each story was crafted such that it involved stakeholders and outcomes. After reading through the material and viewing supplementary media, players could predict how an event might play out. Not only did they base their game on existing material (the events of the world), but they designed it so it could be syndicated to other news outlets, which could then use the game to draw readers to their site.

There are all sorts of tools out in the world just waiting for someone to make creative use of. Making a game doesn't have to be about learning to program from scratch -- it can be about taking advantage of things that have already been built. It can be as simple as putting a real news ticker into the Times Square of Grand Theft Auto, or, as complex as using current events to change the system dynamics of your global political strategy game, like in Democracy 2.

The variety outlined in these categories should be encouraging to journalists. What we found is that there is an amazing range of opportunities to experiment with new ideas, and we hope that news organizations are willing to try new things.

September 02 2010

16:21

The Cartoonist Aims to Bring Newsgames to the Masses

The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of "newsgames" -- videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.

The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.

Early Newsgames

Our project strives to enhance the online viability of local newspapers and to lower the technical barrier required to produce videogames with editorial intent. We see it as as an extension of, rather than a replacement for, the tradition of editorial cartooning. The creator of the earliest newsgames, Gonzalo Frasca, was the first to describe his work as "playable political cartoons." The French-language history and geography textbooks Frasca encountered in high school featured many cartoons drawn by an artist from Le Monde, and they were, according to him, all that made civics education bearable.

By now, anyone studying or working in journalism understands the great loss to news revenue caused by the shift of classifieds to online sources such as Craigslist and eBay. It is our contention that the abandonment of staff cartoonists at many papers -- a tragic and highly visible symptom of overall budget cuts during the recent recession -- represents a similarly vital loss, though of a different kind. For over a century, editorial cartoons drew attention to issues of local importance and generated a sense of regional pride. Their contribution to the wellbeing of local papers has never been easily quantifiable, but it's clear that they've always served a pivotal role in maintaining product loyalty and funneling readers toward the rest of the paper.

Appeal of Puzzles

Games accomplish a similar goal: Studies by the New York Times, the London Times, and a number of local papers showed that a significant percentage of their readerships bought the paper primarily for the puzzles. Although the crossword retains its loyalists, and despite the advent of Sudoku having ushered in a new generation of puzzlers, the rise in popularity of online web game portals represents yet another threat to the growth and retention of news readerships.

The new online news media require a new form of game, one that draws from the accessibility of arcade games and the capability of videogames to present an editorial opinion. Indeed, The Cartoonist has uses far beyond interactive cartoons, and as a result we will be changing the final product's name to reflect its broad potential. More on that as things progress.

Once it is fully developed, our studios will work with local reporters, columnists, and cartoonists in Atlanta and Santa Cruz to introduce them to the authoring system. Later, we'll make the tool and its source code available to everyone, from veteran cartoonists, to indie game developers, to citizen journalists. Until then, we'll be publishing findings, problems, and points of interest twice a month on this blog, along with other articles on our own Newsgames and Expressive Intelligence Studio websites. We look forward to your questions, comments, and continued support.

16:21

The Cartoonist Aims to Bring Newsgames to the Masses

The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of "newsgames" -- videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.

The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.

Early Newsgames

Our project strives to enhance the online viability of local newspapers and to lower the technical barrier required to produce videogames with editorial intent. We see it as as an extension of, rather than a replacement for, the tradition of editorial cartooning. The creator of the earliest newsgames, Gonzalo Frasca, was the first to describe his work as "playable political cartoons." The French-language history and geography textbooks Frasca encountered in high school featured many cartoons drawn by an artist from Le Monde, and they were, according to him, all that made civics education bearable.

By now, anyone studying or working in journalism understands the great loss to news revenue caused by the shift of classifieds to online sources such as Craigslist and eBay. It is our contention that the abandonment of staff cartoonists at many papers -- a tragic and highly visible symptom of overall budget cuts during the recent recession -- represents a similarly vital loss, though of a different kind. For over a century, editorial cartoons drew attention to issues of local importance and generated a sense of regional pride. Their contribution to the wellbeing of local papers has never been easily quantifiable, but it's clear that they've always served a pivotal role in maintaining product loyalty and funneling readers toward the rest of the paper.

Appeal of Puzzles

Games accomplish a similar goal: Studies by the New York Times, the London Times, and a number of local papers showed that a significant percentage of their readerships bought the paper primarily for the puzzles. Although the crossword retains its loyalists, and despite the advent of Sudoku having ushered in a new generation of puzzlers, the rise in popularity of online web game portals represents yet another threat to the growth and retention of news readerships.

The new online news media require a new form of game, one that draws from the accessibility of arcade games and the capability of videogames to present an editorial opinion. Indeed, The Cartoonist has uses far beyond interactive cartoons, and as a result we will be changing the final product's name to reflect its broad potential. More on that as things progress.

Once it is fully developed, our studios will work with local reporters, columnists, and cartoonists in Atlanta and Santa Cruz to introduce them to the authoring system. Later, we'll make the tool and its source code available to everyone, from veteran cartoonists, to indie game developers, to citizen journalists. Until then, we'll be publishing findings, problems, and points of interest twice a month on this blog, along with other articles on our own Newsgames and Expressive Intelligence Studio websites. We look forward to your questions, comments, and continued support.

April 08 2010

18:01

Glaser & Son Review the iPad

The conundrum with the iPad is that it's exciting to consider a sleek new form factor for getting news, movies, TV shows, games and web browsing -- but it's less exciting to be first in line to pay the most for the least. We all know the first version of a technology product costs the most and is missing the most features. So I considered myself lucky to get to play with an iPad on loan before delivering it to someone in Europe (where the iPad isn't available yet). I get to test drive it, but don't have to pay.

So I brought in my junior device expert (and 7-year-old son) Julian Glaser to help me compare the new iPad to the Kindle 2 and the iPhone. Julian helped me test out the Kindle 2 in a Glaser & Son review on MediaShift last year. While I was interested in how web surfing, typing and news apps looked on the iPad, he was more keen on gaming and reading books.

We braved the masses mid-week at the Stonestown Galleria Apple Store in San Francisco, where the 16GB models quickly sold out. We settled for the 32GB model for $599 along with a $40 case. The store was filled with high school kids hanging out after school who wanted to test drive iPads, but not buy them. The Apple Store was starting to look like the bowling alley arcades from my childhood.

Julian had not experienced the iPad hype, and had no idea what it was all about.

"So it's like a big iPhone but it lets you read books?" he asked.

"No, you can actually read books on an iPhone too. There is a Kindle app on the iPhone," I told him.

"Oh yeah, I've seen that," he said. "But what kind of games are on the iPad?"

Julian had already spent hours on my iPhone playing games and downloading his favorite free ones (and earning money with chores to buy paid apps). So we gave the iPad a spin, downloading some games, news apps, and books -- paying for some, and getting others for free. Below is our first take on what we liked and didn't like with the iPad, and how it stacked up against the Kindle 2 and iPhone.

Design/Interface

There is no instruction manual for the iPad because you don't need one. If you've used an iPhone or iPod Touch, you know exactly what does what on the iPad. There's the volume switch, the main (or "home") button on the bottom front, and the place to plug it in or connect it to your computer. One new switch lets you lock the portrait/landscape flip that happens when you rotate it. Otherwise, it's all simple and neat. Similarly, the iPhone operating system is familiar and easy to navigate.

When I pushed the front button mistakenly in trying to turn it on, Julian grabbed it and pushed the Power switch and laughed at my mistake. About the only design flaw we found was the weight of the iPad, which feels heavy after a lot of reading. Perhaps future iPads will have lighter batteries. And the virtual keyboard takes time to master, being bigger than the iPhone virtual keyboard and smaller than a regular keyboard. However, I got over my initial frustration with the iPhone keyboard, and figure the same would be true with the iPad's -- practice over time would make it easier.

Games

julian labyrinth.jpg

Julian's major concern was the games. Would they have what he wanted, and would he have to pay for them (with my money)? He quickly navigated the App Store to find the category of his choice (free games), and downloaded Labyrinth Lite HD, Fast & Furious Lite, iPlay Bowling, Air Hockey and his iPhone fave, Rat on the Run. The quick downloads and big screen were a great combination, meaning he'd get to gaming faster.

The Labyrinth game was an inventive take on the old Wooden Labyrinth tilt maze where you try to keep the metal ball from rolling into holes in the top. This game included magnets, cannons shooting at you, and buttons that opened gates. We were both hooked on it. Julian's favorite iPhone game, Rat on the Run, gave him a lot of enjoyment, even though it was basically ported over and didn't have anything new on the iPad. Even without iPad-specific features, the games wowed us just by offering more screen space and vibrant colors.

Here's Julian's take on games while playing Air Hockey:

News Apps and Browsing

I was curious about the various news apps for the iPad, so I downloaded apps from the New York Times, ABC, NPR, BBC, USA Today and Reuters. The only magazine app I saw was the Time magazine app for $4.99 per issue. I liked that the N.Y. Times and USA Today apps used the bigger screen real estate to mimic the look of a print newspaper, with stories laid out on what looked like a front page. By clicking on the first couple paragraphs of a story, you could see the whole story. That alone was a bonus in reading on the iPad vs. the iPhone, where you'd need about 10 finger swipes to get to the bottom of a story. On the iPad, in many cases, the whole story filled the page.

What I didn't get to experience was a news app that really used the iPad in an innovative way, combining text, video, audio and photos in an integrated manner. Sure, Reuters did have video alongside stories, but they seemed more web-like than app-like. I did enjoy USA Today's "Day in Pictures" feature, as those photos really popped on the iPad. What was more surprising was how good it looked to just fire up Safari and browse news sites like NYTimes.com, where the videos played without a hitch. Being able to double-touch to make text bigger or smaller worked easily. I did notice that videos didn't load correctly on the CBSNews.com home page.

Books

kindle vs ipad small.jpg

Is the iPad really a Kindle-killer, as we'd heard? There's no doubt that when we put the iPad side-by-side next to our Kindle 2, it made the Amazon device look like an old TV set from the '50s. The black-and-white Kindle looked gray and old next to the color iPad with its massive screen. While we didn't read long enough on the iPad to know if the backlit screen would cause our eyes to hurt, we did know from experience reading on the iPhone that it wasn't too bad for a few hours.

On the positive side, reading books was easy and pages turned with ease. Picture books for kids looked much better in color on the iPad, and images were laid out within the text. On the Kindle 2, many picture books had strange formatting that broke up images from the text. On the not-so-good side, Julian couldn't find most of the books he wanted in the iBooks app, and ended up settling for a Berenstain Bears book about Sunday School. Search after search came up blank for him in the iBookstore. But both of us liked all the free books that were available because their copyright had expired.

Hear Julian talk about why he liked reading books on the iPad more than on the Kindle:

Screen

The big screen on the iPad is simply gorgeous, and makes it easily the device of choice when it comes to movies, games, photo-viewing and even web browsing. It's tough for the iPhone to compete with the iPad when it comes to all that multimedia entertainment. It seems like a natural for viewing shows or movies on the road for kids, but the bummer is that there's no way for it to play DVDs. I noticed that it does get fingerprinted up pretty badly after a serious Julian gaming session, but I don't really see the fingerprints so much when the iPad is on. Having a case that lets you stand the iPad up on a table could make a difference in reading newspaper or magazine content at breakfast, or watching a movie on the go.

Pricing

There are two ways to look at the pricing of the iPad: 1) It's too expensive for what it can and can't do. Other devices can do all the things an iPad does. 2) It's cheaper than most laptops and can do most of the things a laptop can do, while taking up less space. So perhaps the iPad fits in the category of "netbook" as a compact laptop, but it has no physical keyboard. There's a better chance people will opt for an iPad when they have more disposable income, the features improve, the prices drop, and their other devices become outmoded.

Bottom Line

The iPad is a simple-to-use, elegant device that takes the tablet computing genre and does it better than anyone else. The battery life is long and impressive, and the speed at startup and while using apps is better than any laptop around. It is missing some key elements such as a camera, USB port, expandable memory and swappable battery, but it's possible those features will come in time.

The iPad is a bundle of possibilities and potential. While the first apps out of the gate were decent, it's the apps that will make the iPad a must-have for a broader group of people. While news apps look great, especially with integrated photos and video, there's still a wide range of "what ifs" to come that could get people to pay more for traditional journalism. The biggest one being: What if the news experience on the iPad was really built for multimedia, really built for interactivity and really worth paying for?

And the bottom line for Julian was what came out of his mouth when I asked him if he wanted to use the iPad before he went to school yesterday morning: "iPad! iPad! iPad!" He was hooked.

Hear Julian sing his iPad song:

More Reading

Apple iPad Review - Laptop Killer? Pretty Close at AllThingsD

Apple iPad WiFi review at PC Magazine

iPad Reviews - The Good, Bad, and Ecstatic at PC World

Review - iPad Apps Cool, but How Many Will You Buy? by AP

Looking at the iPad From Two Angles at NY Times

Verdict is in on Apple iPad - It's a winner at USA Today

What do you think about the iPad, if you've had a chance to review it? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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February 07 2010

16:39
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