Hap Aziz on Game Design, Educational Software Development, and Learning
By Hap Aziz, Adventist Health System
Q: Would you mind sharing your professional history with us first, so we can get a better sense of you and your background?
A: For most of my career, from 1996 to 2015, I’ve been working in higher education in some capacity: as an administrator leading academic or technology departments, a faculty member, or a consultant helping various institutions across the country develop their own academic programs. Prior to that I worked in the private sector developing various kinds of computer software (including computer games). Going back to the early- to mid-1980s, I worked as a communications engineer designing broadcast television and radio coverage models, and I was part of the team that developed Motorola’s first cellular phone test system in Washington, DC. For the past two years, I’ve been involved in learning and development and organizational effectiveness for the largest not-for-profit healthcare system in the country.
Q: When you look at your career, do you see recurrent themes and continuing interests?
A: When I was in my early teens, I read an essay by Isaac Asimov that influenced me greatly. While he was best known for his science fiction stories, Asimov wrote prolifically on a wide range of topics, and in this particular essay he talked about choosing careers. His point was that, especially in the United States, we have the ability to earn a living doing almost anything we like—so choose something you love to do rather than a profession which could be a source of unhappiness and dissatisfaction throughout your lifetime. I took this to heart.
Additionally, my parents instilled in me a love of learning and education. Ever since I was a little boy, my father encouraged me to be “a man of letters” (and it was years before I understood what that meant). I’ve always had a love of science and technology, and as soon as computers became personal, I was all about teaching myself how to program—especially text adventure games involving story telling and problem solving.
Fast forwarding through my years of work, I can see where these themes have consistently resurfaced in both my professional and personal pursuits: learning, technology, and narrative.
Q: You’ve worked in private industry and in the public sector. Between the two, broadly speaking, which do you prefer? Why?
A: This is a difficult question for me, because I see the benefits and pitfalls of both areas. I prefer the creative flexibility I find more often in private industry overall, and often solutions are implemented more slowly in the public sector. However, I think a robust public-private partnership offers the best of both worlds, with good accountability for the citizen-consumer.
Q: Why is learner engagement important in learning, and what can teachers do to encourage this? What are some strategies to create learner engagement for different types of learners with different learning needs?
A: There has been quite a bit of research done on the subject of engagement, and I could barely scratch the surface here. If we think of engagement as the method by which learners see the relevance of what they are learning, it becomes more evident as to why learners would invest their time and energy in the mastery of a subject matter area. I mentioned earlier that one of the recurring themes in my life is the idea of narrative, and I strongly believe that weaving narrative into the teaching and learning process is one of the more effective ways to improve engagement, perhaps even regardless of the type of learner. It seems to be an almost universal trait of people that we learn through the story telling process, especially when the stories are collaboratively constructed.
Teachers can encourage engagement by building relationships with their learners. If we as educators can better understand what makes our learners “tick,” we increase our own ability to make the subject matter more relevant. We are uniquely situated to find and make those connections, and in this, our experiences represents a great strength.
Innovative Course Designs
Q: What sorts of innovative course designs have you been involved with? What inspires your innovations in course designs? How do you fit the innovative course designs to the respective learners? How do you know if a learning design has been successful or not?
A: Innovative course design can be a very subjective topic. I’ve had conversations with educators who felt that putting a video camera in the back of a classroom and recording the entire class session for delivery on YouTube was innovative, because students watching the video would “get exactly the same experience as the students in class.” I don’t have the space here to list the reasons I disagree with that model! For me, innovation has two key criteria: 1) what drives learner engagement, and 2) what improves learner outcomes in a measurable way.
Often course design innovations may depend on the makeup of the learners. Years ago, I developed one of the first game design degree programs at a popular media school, and I created a course that combined the mathematics of game design with the story-telling aspect. Think of it as authoring narrative brain teasers that could be solved by the application of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. I hired a literature teacher for the course, and it turned out to be quite successful based on both the criteria I listed above.
Whenever possible, I like to build course activities that incorporate techniques (and technologies) that match the subject matter. At one point in my career I was the Dean of a technology and design school, and I worked with the faculty to develop an online course on network administration. We structured the course so that the learners would receive a PC kit as part of their materials, and the would have the opportunity to construct the PC as part of the course work. Then, they would use the constructed PC to configure hardware and software as assignments. In another program I developed, there was a course in which there were lessons on understanding the physics of acceleration and motion. Sine the school was in Orlando, FL, I put together a partnership with Universal Studios so that the learners could go and ride the roller coasters with accelerometers to take real-world measurements.
For each of these examples, the faculty and I would evaluate the efficacy of the courses based on the actual learning outcomes. The cycle of assessment and adjustment was important to us, so we weren’t hesitant to make changes to our material if the results didn’t justify the approach. And we’d always take learner feedback seriously when it came time to redesign.
About Computer Game Design
Q: What have your experiences been with computer game and educational software development? What were typical work processes in the design and development work?
A: I had been developing computer games informally since the early 1980s. My first products were text adventure games published on cassette tapes and distributed in plastic baggies at first at computer user group meetings in the Washington, DC, area. They were programmed in the versions of the BASIC programming language that came on computers such as the IBM PC, the Commodore C64, the Texas Instruments TI 99/4A, and the Tandy TRS-80. Later I expanded to simple graphic games, and I was able to expand my business to mail order, advertising in a variety of hobbyist newsletters.
That’s how I got started. The “rest of the story” involves me coming to Orlando and eventually forming a real business with some partners, where we created some very popular utilities software for the Commodore Amiga computer. From there, I went into game development, first with some partners and eventually as an independent design consultant. One of the games we created in 1995 was called Tonio Tee, and it currently has a place in The Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY (and can be seen here: http://www.museumofplay.org/online-collections/22/66/109.10805).
Much of my game development work has been related to education. I find the challenge of developing play-related software that also drives learning outcomes to be quite satisfying. Again, I focus on aspects of narrative for improved engagement. Very recently, I worked with a company that builds AI-enabled admissions systems to help direct high school graduates into colleges and universities to fit their needs. My contribution was to create the actual conversation-setting scenarios for their AI assistant.
The work process is a fairly straightforward software development process with a long design phase that often involves a lot of research and story development. This is where there are some differences, and the design phase appears a lot like writing a book. Ultimately, the story will weave together the components of the game play. For example, I’m currently working on an educational game based on the events that took place in Williamsburg, VA, just shortly before the signing of the Declaration of Independence (see my work here: http://historicalwilliamsburg.com). In addition to the research, I had to develop my desired learning outcomes, and also the actual play mechanism to deal with natural language parsing, object manipulation, geographical navigation within the confines of Williamsburg, and conversations with historical figures.
Personal Professional Legacy
Q: How would you characterize your legacy in terms of computer games and educational software? Why?
A: I’ve never really thought of anything I do as legacy-aware. What I would hope is that some of the techniques I’ve learned or developed will be used by other educator-developers as a way of engaging learners. I am very much a proponent of using play to learn, and it is my sincere hope that others understand and even expand on that philosophy. Several years ago I attended a conference session in which the New Media Consortium (NMC) was releasing its most recent Horizon Report. The conversation was centered on the contrasts between formal and informal learning, and it was clear to me that the educators in attendance were having a challenge at understanding the concept of informal learning outside of their academic spheres thought. After enough back and forth discussion, I felt compelled to point out that what everyone was calling informal learning (and much heated discussion over its functional mechanism), the rest of the world simply referred to it as “play.”
Q: How much are learner needs considered in game design contexts? Educational software?
A: Learner (or player) needs are the most important aspect of game design. Certainly, this is the case when considering commercial games that aren’t necessarily tied to educational markets or audiences. If you don’t consider the player, it’s very difficult to make games people want to buy and play. But even for learners in academic settings, this is just as important. Without considering learner needs, engagement will be hard to come by. This isn’t to see that learners’ needs are somehow separate from content mastery and assessment success. However, content mastery and assessment success are effectively enhanced when the learner is interested in successfully completing the game.
In 1997, Dr. Seymour Papert of MIT wrote an essay entitled “Does Easy Do it? Children, Games, and Learning.” In the essay, Papert makes the case that while game designers focus on engaging the players, instructional designers think more of learning objectives and assignments from a traditional delivery standpoint. The result is that while players will spend hours upon hours trying to master a game, learners have very little desire to spend more than the bare minimum completing their course work. Instructional designers could improve their practice by incorporating game design methodologies. Today we understand this to be the “gamification” of learning, and I’m a strong proponent of this model.
Q: You have worked with Disney, Sony, and other companies to provide interactive software. Would you please share some of your insights from respective projects?
A: A surprising amount of research goes into the creation of commercial software, focused primarily around usability and engagement. From design to pre-publication, there are many opportunities to test with focus groups and to observe how users will respond to the product. As a result, there are points at which some design changes can be made to improve the product. Compare this to the course design process, especially for online courses. It surprises me how still we do not incorporate focus groups into the course design process, or even solicit robust feedback from learners at the end of a course to incorporate into the next cycle.
Q: How do you design interactivity that results in the desired impacts and effects?
A: This is a big topic to cover, deserving of its own article actually! There has been much work done in the fields of interactivity and user interface design, which I believe go together when we are looking for desired impacts and effects. Here it pays to know the software landscape, and borrow (appropriately) from designs that have been proven successful. Look at courses that have worked well for other institutions and organizations. Talk with the developers, if possible. Connect the dots back to the end user outcomes. In many ways, there is still as much art as science to the design process. For a short bit of advice, I strongly recommend building a storyboard, and then run focus groups to test the flow (from a paper-based or manual perspective). This will let you know if you're starting out in the right direction as far as your audience is concerned.
Q: What is the International Game Developers Association (IGDA)? Why did you start this organization? What did you hope to achieve with it? How has this organization fared over the years?
A: Technically, I did not start the IGDA, though I did work with one other person (Dave Weinstein of Red Storm Entertainment) to merge two previous organizations. Prior to 1998-1998, there were to main computer game developers organizations: The Computer Game Developers Association (CGDA) which served the United States community, and the International Game Developers Network (IGDN) which served the international community. I was on the board of directors for the CGDA, while Dave was on the board of the IGDN. I was tasked by my board to explore the possibility of merging the two organizations, and so I reached out to Dave. He and I worked to lay the groundwork for a merger, and ultimately the membership of both organizations voted to approve it.
The combined organizations took the name of the IGDA (http://igda.org), and it has grown and thrived over the years. One of the initiatives I was involved in at the beginning was the establishment of a Special Interest Group for developing game design programs, and today that group is still active, along with many others. The IGDA sponsors many game-related gatherings and conferences on a yearly basis.
Q: What is the state of serious gaming in higher education? In K12? Are there potentials that may be better explored and developed?
A: Another big topic! There has been a lot of material published on the topic easily available online, and I would suggest dipping into the literature for a comprehensive picture. This particular article is interesting to me: http://www.lde-studentsuccess.com/news/serious-gaming-in-higher-education. Although written with a higher-education audience in mind, I think much of it applies to K-12 as well. I think there are some disagreements in the field among researchers and educators. Before we see the next leap forward in terms of serious games, as a field we need to agree on a definition of the role of play in education, and what it means to be on task.
I look at it this way: if you are a football player, your coach may have you do push-ups as part of your training routine. Yet at no time during a football game would you perform push-ups. In the same way, educators should be creating casual games (push-ups) that supplement the content-focus of serious games. Without casual games, serious games quickly become pedantic.
Q: Do you see barriers in the adoption of serious gaming in higher education? K12? If so, what?
A: There's still argument as to the efficacy of serious games (see my comment above about casual games), and until that is resolved, adoption will be spotty.
Q: You have worked with IMS Global Learning on Learning Tools Interoperability (LTI). What is LTI, and why is it important for online teaching and learning? How widely adopted is LTI? What are some of the next steps in the advancement of LTI?
A: An easy way to understand LTI is to think of the app store for your phone. It's a very simple matter to find an app you want, and then download it to your phone for immediate use. The process takes a few minutes. In the same way, LTI should allow a user of a learning platform (like an LMS) to find an app that brings added functionality, and then "download" it for use on the LMS without having to to through a long implementation process, involving your organization's IT team. The flexibility, speed to effective use, and environment customization capabilities are very exciting. For more information on LTI, I suggest going to the IMS Global Learning Consortium website here.
Doctoral Studies and Dissertation Research
Q: Would you mind describing your doctoral studies and your dissertation research?
A: My degree is in Curriculum and Instruction, and the focus of my research was how learner engagement among middle school students could be improved by incorporating Interactive Fiction into the curriculum. I designed a qualitative research project in which 8th grade Social Studies students created branching scenario computer games as assignment artifacts rather than writing reports or giving presentations. I taught the students how to use a web-based branching scenario authoring tool (called Inklewriter), and I also taught them the basics of the “choose-your-own-adventure” genre of computer game. Over a four-week period of time, the students developed their artifacts.
After completion of the assignments, I conducted interviews with a portion of the classes to determine their experiences and their levels of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral engagement. I then coded the interviews and reported my results, which demonstrated increased levels of engagement, as reported by the students.
Current Research Interests
Q: What are some of your current areas of research interest, and why?
A: My current areas of research interest expand upon the themes of my dissertation work, and I’ve been focusing on the use of narrative, especially in the form of Interactive Fiction, to enhance curriculum and improve engagement. I’ve been working with institutions and organizations to design education materials that incorporate more narrative-friendly content, and I’m continually seeking partners to adopt my methodologies in their practices.
About the Author
For the past three decades, Dr. Hap Aziz has been transforming learning through play as an educator, interactive experience designer, and learning technology visionary. Hap has worked extensively to create new methods and compelling experiences for adult learners in both physical and virtual learning spaces through the implementation of serious play techniques and technologies. Hap has partnered with dozens of colleges and universities to launch complete learning management ecosystems, online academic programs, and professional development training that considers pedagogy through the lens of narrative, interactivity, and engagement.
Hap has served on the Board of the International Game Developers Association and was responsible for the merger between the Computer Game Developers Association and the International Game Developers Network. Hap launched the first game design degree program at Full Sail University, and he has designed, advised, and managed digital design, game, and technology programs at several higher education institutions. Hap currently serves as the Director of Learning / Learning Officer for the Adventist Health System, with over 80,000 employees across 45 healthcare facilities. An accomplished speaker on learning and play, Hap presents at conferences and appears on television to discuss learning and technology topics of the day. Hap holds a BA degree in Computer Science from Rollins College, an M.Ed. from Nova Southeastern University, and he obtained his Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Florida.
Note: This Q&A was conducted with Shalin Hai-Jew.
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