I must admit, one of the more fun aspects of teaching has nothing to do with instructing, but has everything to do with observing. I particularly enjoy watching the patterns that develop amongst my students when using software. In some instances the patterns are based upon mimicry (actually, I bet all of them are, but I don’t always see the original inspiration), where I demonstrate something, and then everybody executes the task the same way. This occurs during lessons when I am teaching.
The real fun begins when people are put in front of new software with no instruction, but with self-motivation. The self-motivation is what propels the exploration of software through the hardships and failures which will occur frequently during the process. In these particular cases, the self-motivation comes from the want to play. My students are exploring all of the games on the computer.
When I re-imaged the lab machines, I asked my students what they wanted; they wanted games. So I got them games (a topic for a later post). All genres were covered, from racers to shooters; RPGs to card games. I had never played most of them, I just read reviews and compatibility lists and performed the installs. I didn’t even test them, hoping my students would do the brunt of that so that I could clean up the image for end-of-term maitenance.
Games can be difficult to learn. They have different interfaces from one another, they utlize the keyboard in unique fashion, and almost every interface method is context sensitive: a mouse might control the view of an shooter at one second, and then be used to navigate a menu the next. The opposite of this interaface mishmash is the desktop and more basic button-and-menu applications that all use the same metaphor. My students are getting pretty good at those. But put them (or anyone new to computers) in front of games, and some interesting use-patterns crop up:
- The Split-Screen Racer – This one is my favorite. I installed a game called Racer, and one of the menu options that pops up is the option to split-screen the game so that two people might play using only one keyboard. A regular use-pattern I have observed is that people open the split-screen, but then never play on the second screen and focus their efforts on the right screen, most likely because that car is still controlled by the arrow keys. I am waiting for the day someone is able to play both screens at once!
- The Looker But Not a Mover – The second most common. These are the students who open up a First-Person shooting game. Assault Cube in particular drops you right into an environment, no need for menus or setup, so it’s popular. Of course, it also comes with no instructions, and I will fully admit, the concept of using the keys W, S, A, and D for moving your body in the game is about as far from intuitive as using a nuclear bomb to stop an oil well (oh snap, current events commentary!). As a result, I will often see students loooking around (controlled by the mouse), but not able to move from their current position.
- "The Keyboard Doesn’t Work"-er – It’s not that the keyboard doesn’t work, it’s that only two buttons work: Y or N. Again, this one is in Racer. When quitting the game (via the Esc-key), the whole game stops and in the middle of the screen the user is presented with a question, "Really ready to end? (Y/N)" What does that even mean?! For those who use English as a second language, this is about the silliest interface decision ever. Quirky and affable, sure, but when we are talking ESL, we need direct and specific. At this point, the game only accepts response from the Y or N key, leaving some of my students stuck.
- The Atleast-Part-Is-Working Player – One particular game, Tile Racer, doesn’t seem to work on my computers. It’s a racing game, but it’s very slow, and I haven’t diagnosed what the problem is. However, when opening the game and getting into a level, even though the visuals and controls are heinously slow, the music works fine. It doesn’t help that it’s actual songs with lyrics and not just background sounds. Combine this with no visible quit button and seemingly no response from keyboard input, and you have students who are perfectly content to listen and try to figure out if they can get other parts to work.
- The I-Am-Going-To-Ignore-This-Terrible-Wailing-And-Pretend-Like-Everything-Is-Ok -er – Aright, this one has nothing to do with games, but is a use-pattern related to the Uninterruprible Power Supplies (UPS). See this previous blog post about this particular case.
That about wraps up some of the more memborable use patterns, after less than a week of the new software. I will keep everyone updated as to anything else that develops.