Bill Watson with Feedback and Iteration for Games in Education | Episode 136

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Photo credit: Kevin O’Shea.

Bill Watson is an Associate Professor of Learning Design and Technology in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Purdue University and director of the Purdue Center for Serious Games and Learning in Virtual Environments. His research focuses on the critical, systemic change of education to realize a personalized paradigm, including the application of technology such as video games and digital badges, and the envisioning of new learning management systems to support this paradigm.

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Full episode transcription

Rob 00:38 Engagers welcome to another episode of the Professor Game podcast and this time we are with an associate professor Bill Watson. Before we get started before we do that intro, we want to know, Bill, are you prepared to engage?

Bill 00:51 I am prepared.

Rob 00:53 Let’s do this because though Watson, as I mentioned, is an associate professor of learning, design and technology in the department of curriculum and instruction at Purdue University and he’s also the director of the Purdue Center for Serious Games and Learning in Virtual environment. His research is definitely focused on the critical systemic change on education to realize a personalized paradigm, including the application of technology such as video games and digital badges and the envisioning of new learning management systems to support this paradigm. Is there anything that we’re missing? Anything else that you were working on? Anything else you wanted to let us know before we get into the interview?

Bill 01:31 Well, we may get into it a little bit in the interview. We might not, but um, recently I’ve also kind of expanded things to attitudinal learning, so how can we design instruction to shift people’s attitudes and ultimately change their behaviors? So that’s another kind of new aspect that wasn’t where I started, but my research has kind of led me to that and I find that pretty exciting as well.

Rob 01:50 Yeah, it sounds definitely exciting. And what does a regular day or schedule for you look like? Again, typically we know we are in these strange times, but whatever you want to go for. If it’s nowadays or you know, a few weeks ago, what, what does that look like? What are you doing on a daily basis?

Bill 02:06 Sure, absolutely. Well, in these strange days, these days, I’m getting up and helping my son with e-learning, which is tons of fun. But beyond that, actually, my day to day job hasn’t changed immensely. You know, we’re not on campus, but my program has an entirely online master’s program in addition to our face-to-face programs. So typically I’m teaching, uh, you know, whatever courses I’m teaching, whether online or face to face. So this semester, the course I’m teaching is a course on the design of educational video games. And that one was online before all of this broke out. So it’s kind of been the same with that of working with students around the world and teaching them. And then of course, I’ve got my research that I’m working on and uh, my other duties to the university as well. So that’s kind of the day to day of where I’m at. And part of that work is, uh, you know, the grant projects that I’m on. And not all of those are game-related, but some of them are. So that’s kind of where games are crossing with me and my to day life.

Rob 02:59 That sounds very, very exciting. And talking about excitement. We always like to start off as well our interviews with this sort of backward question. In a way we would like for you to tell us a story of a time of course that you set up to do something great too with the games, with all this research that you’re doing or a project, something related to this whole area of games and learning. And of course you set out to do something but you know, you ran into this first attempt in learning or fail as we also know it. And of course this led you to have some sort of learning experience as well or want to know how you sort of got out of that. We want to be there with you and learn from that experience that you had.

Bill 03:34 Yeah, absolutely. So, you know, I grew up a gamer. Some of my earliest memories are playing video games with my older brothers. There’s an old arcade game called Phoenix that as one of my earliest memories was playing that in the pizza restaurant of our local small town that we lived in. And my oldest brother would have me stand on a chair and I would hit the uh, the fire and the shield buttons while he moved this spaceship around. So, so I, I grew up a gamer playing tabletop games and video games and all that. So it was always kind of in the back of my mind. And my first job in higher ed out of my master’s work was as a lecturer of computer technology at IUPUI in Indianapolis. And that particular campus is interesting because it’s about half the students are kind of your traditional students and about half of them are adults who are coming back from the workforce to get a degree.

Bill 04:22 So in seeing those students it was a really interesting mix because those who are fresh out of high school were often just highly disengaged and you really had to work to try to lead them to any sort of learning that might be occurring. You really had to kind of spoon feed them everything while the adults who had been out of school, you know, for quite a bit of time, often, you know, over a decade were really trying to ring all the learning they could. They saw the direct relevance to what they were learning to their careers. They would question ask why offer alternatives. So they were very intellectually engaged and, and that as an instructor really led me to go back and get my doctoral degree to say, well, first of all, what sort of instruction can I get to engage those students who aren’t engaged?

Bill 05:07 And I went in with that mindset that video games could potentially be that answer. You know, I had grown up playing Oregon Trail as a, as a lot of people my age had in school. And while I enjoyed the game, I didn’t necessarily learn that much from it because we were just told to go play this game and you’re going to learn from it. But in my mind I was like, well, I love video games. If we could use video games for learning, maybe that’s a way to reach these students. So I went back for my doctoral degree, for my dissertation work. It was designing this educational video game for one of my classes that I taught. And what I’ve found, there was a couple of kind of hard lessons learned. One was that as I was a full-time student and a full-time instructor, uh, had limited time for developing a game.

Bill 05:48 So I worked with a student to develop it and had one who kind of went AWOL on me. So I lost quite a bit of time and development, had to get a replacement and kind of start from scratch there. But in turning my design and realizing my design, making it a reality, another thing that I learned was that not everyone is gamers and they don’t all have that kind of game or mindset because one of the forms of engagement I decided to target was a challenge, in the game and kind of, I guess you would call it gamer humor. So I had when, uh, when people would fail in the game, I would have a big finger come up on the screen pointing at them saying, you know, like, you’re horrible, you failed, or something like that. Um, which I thought was funny and, uh, when I ran the game to collect data, the gamers and the class loved it and they’re like, Oh, that’s great.

Bill 06:35 You know, I’m horrible. I sucked, I’m going to get in there and try it again. So they loved it. They thought it was funny. It made them want to get in there and try again. What I found was those who are not gamers in the class were actually kind of offended by that. They’re like, who are you to tell me I’m bad? You know, you’re supposed to be more supportive than this and that sort of thing. So it was just a very kind of different mindset for me of like, Oh, you know, well not everyone are gamers and I can’t just, you know, put on my gamer glasses and say, everyone’s going to treat this the same way. So that was one aspect that really the big fail, I kind of learned with that. Again, my first educational game that I designed was how important it was to have very clear, consistent feedback throughout the game.

Bill 07:13 Because what I had was the students playing the game and, and my thought was, well they’re going to play it at least once, maybe a couple of times and they’re going to kind of figure out where they went wrong at the end of the game. By withholding feedback, you know, I did have some but not as clear as it needed to be, they really struggled to get the learning outcomes I was looking for in the lessons from that. So you know I did go back and fix that game up some. I quickly transitioned, you know, to my position at Purdue so that that kind of course went away cause that’s no longer the area I teach. But that was a real central lesson for me was one that, you know, not all my target learners are going to be gamers and two, really the importance of very clear and consistent feedback in the games, which is something, you know, I had learned in my degree on instructional design. I had learned that, um, but I hadn’t brought that over to the gaming realm. And so that was something that I really took away from that moving forward was, you know, we learn by making mistakes in games, but if the feedback’s not clear about what that mistake was and how we can, uh, take a different approach, uh, it’s hard to be engaged in the game itself and it’s hard to learn from it.

Rob 08:16 Absolutely. And I would say if you because you were mentioning that this was something that you sort of knew already in a certain capacity, I’m guessing as well that at some capacity you also knew that like if you’re going to design for someone if you’re creating a learning experience for someone, you have to get to know that person. And if you get to know them, you would probably have found out at that point that they were not all gamers or they had some sort of different sort of spectrum for humor. So I think those two lessons, and I think they’re key, not only because of the importance that they have but also to highlight that sometimes those things that we kind of know that we’ve been told these things and maybe we’ve even experienced them ourselves, It’s not easy to always keep them sort of front of mind.

Rob 08:58 I mean sometimes we, it’s easy too that we forget them at some point that we sort of pass by and don’t realize that we forgot sort of our own, not principles in the sense of, you know, our ethics and so on, but that we do forget something that we thought was key and we’ve always gone for and talked about it. Applying it and applying it over and over again is what actually gets us to do that. So I think that’s a wonderful story. Thank you very much for telling it today in the podcast. Is there anything else you’d like to add? Because I think it was fantastic feedback. I don’t want to sort of break your great learning from that.

Bill 09:31 No, no I think you’ve summed it up very well. And you know even to a degree what I was teaching, cause actually that course that I was implementing this in was a systems analysis and design course where I was stressing to the students the importance of doing your upfront analysis and getting frequent feedback and then not carrying that over myself to the game design certainly came back to him.

Rob 09:52 There you go. So I’m sure again this is not about being smarter or knowing everything. Sometimes it’s about the application. You know we do things, we test it out, we see what happens and we get that feedback from what our designs are. And that’s a fundamental step. That iteration that you made is great. And taking a spin on this and actually going for one of those challenges that you faced, you know, sort of head-on and actually had some success on, I mean like trying to design, this was your first educational game. I’m sure you’ve made other projects in the future. Is there a story that you sort of, a highlight for you that you’d like to bring up? And again, we want to be there for those maybe things you’d attribute part of that success to?

Bill 10:33 I guess when I’m thinking about what I bring in the processes, I bring, you know, one thing that I try to always make sure that I do is one, remember that games can be fun and games can be creative. And trying to make sure that I have that upfront of uh, you know, any project I come to, what it can be and that you don’t necessarily have to box yourself in. So I think that the creative aspect is something that I often find with my students and my students that I teach about game design is that a lot of times it’s almost, they enter into games almost with a sense of, I don’t know, sheepishness or shame and that, you know, we’re learning this is supposed to be serious stuff. And I remember actually I had someone at a conference come up to me and say, yeah, but you know, should learning really be fun.

Bill 11:21 And you know, my answer at that point was like, well, yes it, you know, it should be when you see students come into schools when they’re young, they’re highly motivated and excited about learning, but they uh, they quickly can have that drummed out of them. Uh, and the current systems. So something that I always try to bring to people is to be creative, to be fun, to look at the engagement aspect and focus on that and don’t box yourself in before you have to. So that kind of translates to, you know, as you said, first of all, understanding the context and the situation and kind of why do we need a game here? What’s going to be the benefit of a game, but then looking at what games do well and how can they be that hook and how can they engage people and how can we be creative and do things with games that we couldn’t do otherwise.

Rob 12:09 Absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a key lesson as well, like realizing that that potential that we sometimes maybe forget like if you want to make a game and the game is not supposed to be fun, then why is it a game and not the typical you know. Well why don’t you just put a reading there? I mean you do have to make sure that the learning is there. You definitely want to make sure that the learning is there and it’s sound and you know, you’re not teaching people something that is not true or not precise, but if you’re doing it through a strategy like using games for this, learning to keep the engagement high or how do you keep the engagement high? You want people to have our listen to some level of fun to be engaged with this. And that’s something that you actually have to design for. That’s something that you have to keep sort of front of mind as you were mentioning. So when you’re creating these games for education, I’m guessing that you have some sort of strategies, some processes, some steps that you do. Can you run us through that? I mean, let’s say you’re starting to design a game today or tomorrow. How do you get started? What are the next steps? Like what would an outlook be for you in that sense?

Bill 13:17 So a lot of times what I start with is like I said, first of all, what is the context? What’s the problem? What are we trying to solve with the game? And as a game necessarily the answer there, because I have had people come to me with proposals before where they’re gravitating to the idea of games because that’s interesting to them. But it’s not necessarily the answer for every situation. So first of all, you know, as we mentioned the importance of analysis of who are the target learners, what’s the context, how is it going to be implemented? But beyond that, I’m also trying to take a look at as part of that understanding how can we extend the learning beyond just the game. So to me it’s really important that the game is the hook. The game is engagement. The game presents the problem and helps learners try to figure out how to solve it.

Bill 14:03 But that doesn’t mean we have to limit the learning to the game. And I had mentioned, you know, my own experience with games in school, uh, was Oregon trail, which is, you know, an American history game. And we were told to go play this game and we were going to learn. And what I did as a gamer was play the game and gravitate towards the gameplay aspects that were interesting to me. So that translated into hunting in this particular game because they had guns and I could shoot things. Well, you know, there’s a lot more going on in Oregon trail than just the hunting aspect. But that was what I gravitated to. And so while there were learning opportunities, I really didn’t take them out of the game. So, um, you know, something that’s really been a core aspect of how I plan to use games and try to use games is that the games are going to hook us in there and they’re going to engage us.

Bill 14:49 But the learning doesn’t have to be limited to them. And in fact, if we can expand it beyond to non-game activities, you know, that’s fantastic. One of the studies I had was taking a look at a high school history teacher who had been using video games to teach for a number of years. And he mentioned kind of the same sort of lessons that he had learned. He had started off and said, you’re going to play this game and learn from it. And then quickly the gamers were dominating the game, just focusing on the gameplay and not any sort of learning aspect. This was a world war II history game. So he was trying to use it to teach how the end of world war one led to the start of world war II and had the students playing different countries. And what happened on the first turn is the student who was playing Germany turned around in the tech Japan, which was completely at odds with the goal of the game.

Bill 15:38 You know, game gameplay, let alone learning. And he did it because his friend was over there. So they were, you know, approaching the game from a gameplay mindset. And he quickly realized he needed to set up a sort of facilitation approach to manage their learning and help them shift from a pure-play mindset to okay, it’s okay to play and have fun here, but we also need to be mindful of our learning. And that means that we need to be reflective. We need to think about, you know, what choices are available to us, what choices we made. We need to think about what we might do differently, what our expected outcomes are and why. So in watching him facilitate this game, we went in and watched him before he used games where he was just kind of teaching as normal class. We watched him as he was teaching the game and the way he watched after they were done playing games.

Bill 16:23 And what we saw was a very black and white situation of going from a traditional teacher-centric learning environment where he was the one doing all the talking, providing all the energy, you know, he was trying very, very hard to engage these students telling jokes, asking them questions, and still by the end of the class, the vast majority were just completely zoned out and completely disengaged from the learning that was going on. Then when we watched the game, it transformed into this very loud energetic environment where the students were running around in groups asking questions, planning what they were doing. They were talking about the game and talking about the game, talking about their class and history over lunch and in the hallway. So it just completely transformed from a teacher-centric environment to a learner-centered environment where the students were in control. They were pushing their learning, they were actually reading their textbook, which was not required reading at this point to try to get clues for how to win the game.

Bill 17:16 So it was just a very, very different sort of environment. And in watching him do that and watching him facilitate this, it was very clear to me that he was implementing very similar strategies to how we facilitate problem-based learning, which is, you know, another popular learner-centered approach in my field that we recommend. So I really think the facilitation of learning around games can be very important. It’s also important to know why you’re using them or what learning outcomes you want to get from them. And then structuring an environment that’s going to really ensure as best as possible that learning will kind of come from that. So always that’s kind of where I start particularly with, um, when you’re doing game development, oftentimes you have limitations for exactly what all your, the scope of what you’re able to achieve. So I always start with understanding what we’re trying to achieve and why, how games are fit for it and what we can do both in-game and out of the game to create an environment that’s going to be pushing that learning as far as best as possible.

Rob 18:12 That makes a lot of sense. And I just have a quick follow up question to that because one thing that we’ve observed is that after playing a game, a simulation, one of these environments where students are very engaged and of course it’s very well tied to the learning objectives, sometimes sort of to cement or to set that learning in a stronger fashion. One of the things that we’ve seen and we’ve used in new and further success is that stage of the debriefing, is that something that you’ve seen also is that helps or aids the learning and makes it improve or cement over time?

Bill 18:46 Yeah, absolutely. And that was a kind of followup article we published after that first case study was taking a look at this and say how can we facilitate learning around there? How can we take some of the strategies for problem-based learning facilitation and apply them to this sort of approach where the game is serving as the problem and the facilitator is helping structure learning around that and certainly reflection. Reflecting back on that and questioning is a really big piece of that. So, um, that’s definitely a core aspect of uh, too often gamers in particular who are used to playing video games, they make decisions they think very quickly and they move forward very quickly without necessarily going back and debriefing on what happened and why and how things might be different. So that’s a core aspect of facilitation is to help people. And this was something we observed in this teacher when he was teaching the class, was that the students would be very loud talking to each other and running back and forth to set up a strategy with the different groups.

Bill 19:43 So it was a very loud environment. He would be walking around the classroom answering questions, but every once in a while he would be able to pause the game and say, okay, everyone stopped, you know, hands off the mouse, hands off the keyboard, turn and look at me. Let’s talk about what just happened. Let’s talk about why that happened. Is that what you expected? You know, would you do things differently than other times? So that debriefing with something that was happening, sometimes he was stopping gameplay to do it. Other times they were talking about it after gameplay concluded for that day. So that was definitely a key aspect of what we observed and something that I think is really important.

Rob 20:14 Absolutely. Absolutely. I have sort of the same observations. I was very curious about what you had seen and that’s definitely a key aspect. Like you’re giving people both the permission to sort of absorb that learning and sometimes even like pointing it out. Sometimes you even learned already something but you don’t realize that that’s something that’s new within your system and that that’s a new tool that you can utilize under other circumstances and that is a fantastic opportunity to do that. So always like setting time as you were mentioning during or at some point after like understand what happened here. I think is definitely one of the keys to this whole strategy for sure. For sure. And Bill, what would you say is, we’ve been talking about one of these things, maybe about the, about the whole debriefing, but maybe it could be the debriefing, maybe it could be definitely something else as well. Would you say that there is some sort of best practice or some strategy or some, you know, step that you would say, well if you do this when you’re creating these educational games that will definitely help you have a better game or you know, do it faster or whatever metric you want to improve?

Bill 21:31 Sure. I mean I think always for me it’s a matter of testing, testing, testing and getting that feedback. Uh, so I’m a big proponent of kind of quick and dirty assessment of how the game and its design is going. So that means as soon as you have something you can get some feedback on to do so. That’s something I pushed for my students a lot in the educational game design class is you don’t want to go so far down the road that once you get the feedback you’re unable to respond to it. So I think it’s really important that just in all aspects of the game to be getting feedback on your ideas. As soon as you can get something on paper, you know, you don’t have to wait for it to be produced digitally to get feedback on it. So I think constant feedback in that iterative cycle of design, evaluation, implementation and redesign is really important that, you know, I think that process, it’s really problematic to be designing in isolation and just like we talked about the struggles I had earlier where basically I was doing that and things were not working out and what I thought was a sound design ended up not being a sound design.

Bill 22:36 If I’d been getting feedback on that earlier, I could have been tracking those issues prior to it being such a problem to make changes in the actual development of the game. So, um, that’s always the kind of core thing that I come back to is, you know, get your designs in front of people and get feedback on them when it’s still easy to design and make sure you’re getting that feedback frequently and throughout the design and development process.

Rob 22:59 Absolutely, absolutely crucial as well to be able to act upon that feedback soon enough. And if you don’t, as you said, you don’t do it at the end of the whole process, it’s going to be harder to act upon both of the actual work and even emotionally, you’re more tied to how that looks like at this point than you were when you, when you were getting started, for sure. You know, after this conversation that we’ve been having, is there somebody that comes to your mind that you’d say, Oh, I’d like to listen to this person on a, on an interview like this and professor game.

Bill 23:28 So, you know, I, as a gamer, uh, the funny thing is that I probably play less, you know, video games right now in my life than I ever had before, which is a sad thing. You know, it’s, it’s, it’s not by design, but it’s a consequence of how busy I am. But, you know, as a gamer I definitely have particular preferences that I lean towards for the type of games I like. And for me that’s always been strong narrative games that have a really strong story that drives the strong character. And personally as a game designer, somebody who looks for, you know, games as a potential learning tool in education. I think strong narrative games and games with a really clear, strong context tend to lend themselves well to the sort of gameplay that we can use to support learning. You know, not to say that it can’t be done, but games that rely on twitch reflexes and, uh, you know, fast responses don’t really give you time to think and don’t give you time to debrief or reflect on what you’re doing and what the problems are.

Bill 24:28 So I think, you know, games that present strong stories and present problems in a narrative way are a good model for gameplay approaches we can use with educational games. So personally, um, you know, I would have an interest in some of my favorite game developers or directors for some of the, you know, entertainment games I’ve encountered where I thought, wow, you know, they’ve done stories so well. They’re so, um, you know, probably my favorite game ever. Uh, though it’s hard to name one, but if I had to pick one would probably be The Last of Us. And, um, their development of character in that and plotting out that story was so strong. I’d love to hear how they went about creating that narrative. You know, Naughty Dog, uh, The Last of Us, they did Uncharted 4 where they did a great job and I think his name’s Bruce Straley was the director for those, if I remember correctly.

Bill 25:14 So I’d love to see how they set out making that sort of narrative. Uh, Naughty Dog, a favorite of mine. Another production group is Quantic dream. They did Heavy Rain too as a really, really dark new our game that I loved. But I’ve, I’ve been unable to replay since I had kids in my own because the subject matter is so dark. But, uh, both those studios did just such a profound job of moving narrative and games forward. Uh, I’d love to hear the development crews from them talk about how they went about making that happen since I think that has direct relevance to, um, gameplay approaches and educational games.

Rob 25:49 Absolutely. The whole drive behind the story is something that gets humans in general. I would argue engage. Then that’s where the power of story-based discourse and story-based and for example in business education a typical thing to use as cases. And why, why are cases being so why have they been so relevant amongst many things because they’re a story and you know, the students can easily relate to these stories. Like the best cases are things that you would say, it’s easy for a student to relate to and to go deep into that story and feel he’s part of that situation and you know, sort of go into the solutions. That’s another fantastic case or a situation in which the story is fundamental. And I have to say the last of us is one of my favorite games as well. It’s, it’s definitely top of the list. So you mentioned a couple of game directors that that would be fantastic. And would you recommend any, any book for us to read for the engagers to read to either inspire us, help us directly create these educational games?

Bill 26:53 So I no longer use this as a textbook, but I did use it for a number of years and it was what I went to when I was first going to design my educational gaming. Okay, how am I going to do this? How am I going to be approaching this? And it’s by Salen and Zimmerman, they published a book called Rules of Play. Um, and I’m going to say it’s around 2011 or so. So it’s a little bit older. But what I really like about that is the focus is just on game design. So it’s not educational game design. But what I like is they really strip out kind of by chapter different approaches to, I don’t want to say it’s not practical, but it’s almost more theoretical in some ways. And that they’ll take a systems, look at games and how games can be systems and they’ll take another look at a different look at how games can be structured.

Bill 27:35 What I really took from them is again, this concept of rules of play as they say at the core of what we’re looking for in games. And I would say, you know, even more so in educational games is meaningful play as a player. You want to have a meaningful experience and you want to have, you feel like your impact in the game and the outcomes of that game. And they really break that down to um, the components of meaningful play is that you present an interesting choice or problem to the player. They are able to perceive the different solutions that they might take or choices that they’re going to make in that. And then we’re able to have meaningful outcomes communicated to them of this is the outcome of your choice and why it’s meaningful to the ongoing game and it’s play. And that’s kind of a simple concept.

Bill 28:19 But a couple of things with that book is one that they present that concept of meaningful play and how we can try to achieve it as well as a real breakdown of different ways of looking at engagement and aspects of game that I really like. But they also have kind of case interviews with game designers in between almost every chapter where they talk about very similar to kind of what you’re doing here of, you know, as a game designer you were presented with this problem. How did you go about solving it? So you get very interesting things just like, you know, uh, I grew up reading the Lord of the Rings, so they had an interview with uh, the designer of the Lord of the Rings board game. And he just talks about how you’re trying to translate a plot, which is multiple people trying to take this ring from one place to another and how can we translate that into a meaningful game experience where it’s collaborative play but it’s engaging.

Bill 29:08 And I just found those cases very interesting where they’re breaking down these kinds of design problems and how those game designers responded to it as well as just kind of breaking down in a digestible way, what is it that games are doing and how can we try to get there and how can we make them engaging and meaningful. So that’s still a book that I like to go back to. And then just for giggles, uh, you know, Ready Player One is one of my favorite novels of all time as a gamer of turning the world into a game in itself and turning the, the Easter eggs and the hunts and all of that sort of stuff into a quest. So just for fun. That’s the fiction book that I’d like to go back to the gamer.

Rob 29:44 I recently resolved the movie as well, which has definitely, you know, movies always lose some of them, so the magic from books, but it’s always, it was for me at least a fun reminder of the whole situation.

Bill 29:57 Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Rob 29:59 What would you say is your favorite game in this case? I know you mentioned some of these, but if you had to narrow it down maybe to one game, again it could be your favorite game of all time, your current favorite game. I know you’re not playing, which is exactly a situation that I may, you’re not playing as much as you’d want to or did in the past, but you know, once you hear that question, what comes to your mind first?

Bill 30:21 I would probably say for video games, like I mentioned, uh, The Last of Us as one that really sticks with me. I just thought the development of those characters and their journey and I’ve seen, you know, there’ve been great stories. I kept be rainy was a really great story. I really loved it. I actually really liked how, uh, Telltale Games did The Walking Dead as I’m a walking dead fan. And, um, I thought they were one of the first games out there that really could have an emotional impact on you. But I just thought in terms of character development in a game, and I remember reading articles about debates between people about, well, can games really be literature or not? And I just thought that the The Last of Us did such a tremendous job of creating those characters and charting their journey from point A to B. I just really thought that was masterful in terms of, you know, well, I’m not playing as many video games as I once did. Um, it’s kind of the golden age of board games with Kickstarter out there and all the different games that are being developed. So certainly there’s a lot of games I’m putting up on my table, um, even if I’m not getting into video games as much anymore, but, uh, those are the kind of the ones that I am really looking to.

Rob 31:22 Absolutely. Those are great games as well. And related to all of these conversations that we’ve been having, what would you say is your superpower that, that sweet spot, that thing that you do, you feel you do great when creating these educational games?

Bill 31:35 So my background, um, you know, long before when I first started college, my undergraduate major was English Literature and Creative Writing. So at that point, you know, I was planning on being a novelist, maybe a poet, something like that. And I was really immersed in all those things. And you know, I was interning with, uh, my university’s literary magazine and I was seeing, when I was going to apply to graduate schools to further this, I was seeing my friends who are graduate students in creative writing, graduating and getting jobs as, uh, you know, clerks and bookstores and things like that. And I thought, gee, you know, I don’t know if I want to take on more debt to, to go that route. And, uh, just kind of, you know, the internet was just kind of blowing up there. So I ended up going into, uh, planning to be a webmaster and that sort of thing.

Bill 32:23 But I still feel like I fall back on that creative idea of, you know, how can we make this engaging and how can we, can we make it bigger? Can we take a problem and take, you know, a realistic problem, but presented in a really interesting fashion. And this is still something that I try to talk to my students about is can you make it bigger? You know, it doesn’t, we don’t have to be simulations, you know, not everything has to be Sim City. So, you know, the examples I give them is, uh, it’s been years now, but there was a, uh, economics course that was taught entirely as a game from a college, maybe in Virginia or something. I can’t remember. I mean, it’s been probably over 10 years since I’d read about it in the news. But he designed the economics, the economics course as a game.

Bill 33:04 And it would have been very easy for someone to say, okay, I’m going to create, you know, your basic economics game and you’re going to learn the market and do this, or trade stocks or whatever. But what he did was have the game be your spaceship. You’re fleeing, people were attacking your spaceship crashes on an alien planet, and you have to get parts to repair it. So you have to learn the local economy and learn to barter and sell to get the things you need to escape the planet. You know, so basically we can learn the economic principles in a much more engaging sort of context and problem. So I try to bring that and say, how can we make it bigger? How can we make it engaging? How can we up the stakes from ordinary to something exciting while still keeping the learning objectives, you know, accurate and realistic.

Bill 33:50 So, you know, I was consulting on a recent grant proposal where they were trying to teach stuff that was way over my head. Uh, these are people who work with nanotechnology and gene editing and this sort of stuff and trying to come up with new pharmaceuticals, you know, at a molecular level, all stuff that was way over my head. But when they were coming to me, they’re pitching this problem that we’re trying to use this as outreach to teach about these sorts of approaches to high schoolers. And you know, the game idea was kind of, you’re very straightforward, you’re a scientist and you’re trying to, you know, create these sorts of things. So it was very much leaning towards just kind of the typical simulation where I’m going to simulate this sort of thing. And, and you know, so it was asking them, well, why do you want this as a game?

Bill 34:33 Why are you reaching out to the high schoolers? And that’s well, we need more people in this video. We need people excited about this. We need them to recognize the impact that scientists and people doing this work can have throughout the world and around our lives. And so I said, so what you’re talking about is basically scientists can be heroes, right? So let’s make them heroes. Let’s give them a profound problem. You know, whether it’s a pandemic that’s turning into a zombie apocalypse or whatever we’re going to do, but let’s, let’s present a profound problem where the scientists can be these superheroes by doing this sort of thing and up the problem from something that’s kind of stayed in two dimensional and boring to a really big problem that’s going to get them engaged and excited about this sort of thing.

Rob 35:13 Absolutely. Absolutely. That makes a lot of sense. And once again, I always like to make sure that you, you, you guests who are sharing all of this knowledge, all of these understanding are well at least thanked for it because I think there’s investment of your time here with the engagers today is fantastic. But of course, I don’t want to, I don’t want to end this interview before you tell us where we can find out more about Bill Watson and what you’re doing. If there’s anywhere where we can interact with you on the internet as well, that will be great. And of course, if you have any final piece of advice that’s going to be very welcome.

Bill 35:45 I guess the only piece of final, a piece of advice I might leave with as again, remembering why you’re doing games and what you’re trying to use them for, whether it’s games or gamification. That’s an important thing to consider of uh, how you’re going to be approaching and what you can be using it for. And uh, you know, if you do decide to use them, then you’re willing to take advantage of them and go whole heart into what they can do. And what their benefits can be. You know, don’t, don’t be shy about embracing them. If you’re going to go with games, you know, go for that engagement. Don’t tiptoe into it. You know, if you’re going to go into gamification, don’t slap on a high scoreboard and say, you know, that’s it. That’s where we’re going to stop. Think about how you can engage both in the game and out and really take them to heart.

Bill 36:27 And then, I guess what I would leave with for interacting is, uh, you know, if you, if you Google, uh, Purdue and Williams, I think I’m on there as William Watson. So Purdue and William Watson, you can find my, my website. But my probably the best way to get ahold of me is still email. And that’s B as in boy R as in Robert Watson BR Watson at, uh, is a great way to get ahold of me. And I, uh, you know, do, try to get back to my, uh, email and, and, uh, connect with people who are learning to connect with me. So thanks for reaching out to me.

Rob 36:54 That’s great. It’s actually the way in which we got connected as well. So that’s definitely recommended. So again, thank you very much Bill for this time today with us. However, at least for now and for today, it is time to say that it’s game over.

End of transcription

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