Guest Blog by professor Marcus du Sautoy: Playing, Games and Learning Science

Playing is an important part of being scientist. To discover new things, to crack unsolvable problems, to revolutionize our perspective on the universe requires a mindset that is playful and prepared to experiment and explore new stories.

That is why I think games have a powerful role to play in stimulating the next Einstein, Mendeleev or Newton. Einstein discovered his new theories about time and space by playing around with stories of people travelling on light beams. Mendeleev discovered the patterns in the Periodic Table by playing around with the atoms like a pack of playing cards, laying them out like a game of patience.

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So I am very happy to be joining the Lightneer advisory board to help them realise their dream to use games to transform the future of learning. I’ve been interested in games as a tool in education for some years. In my work helping to develop the internet maths school mangahigh.com I’ve seen the power of games to effect stealth learning. After all, who doesn’t love playing games? The challenge is to make a game where the mechanics involved in succeeding at the game require mastering the educational content you want the game to deliver. It has been an exciting challenge to find ways to make solving quadratic equations or Pythagoras’s Theorem into a good game.

A good educational game is one where the mathematical or scientific content is integrated into the heart of the game yet the game is still addictive and fun to play. The best educational games are those where you learn as you play, where you don’t need to know anything before you play but as you play your experiments help you to understand the scientific ideas that are at the heart of the game. As a game developer that is the fun challenge.

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This is why I am very excited by the wonderful new games that Lightneer are developing that will allow kids to understand how fundamental particles are put together to create the atoms in the periodic table. It’s a kind of Quantum Pokémon meets Angry Birds where particle collisions are done via the classic angry birds sling shot. I’ve always loved collecting things whether it be football cards or Pokémon and much of my research as a mathematician is about collecting and classifying new sorts of symmetry. So the idea of collecting quarks, building new atoms, trying to fill out the Periodic Table I think will appeal to many.

As a mathematician I always say that each number has its own character and personality and I think that is also true of things like atoms. So the unique visual style and characters that are being created by the team at Lightneer for each atom will give students that sense of story that is an important part of science. But can particle physics really be made into a game that kids will get?

One of my favourite Terry Pratchett moments occurs in his book The Thief of Time. Susan is a teacher talking to her Head teacher: “What precisely was it that you wanted madam?” she said. “It’s just that I have left the class doing algebra and they get restless when they’ve finished”. “Algebra?” said Madam Frout. “But that’s far too difficult for seven-year-olds!” “Yes but I didn’t tell them that, and so far they haven’t found out” said Susan.

Games have the potential to engage seven year olds in algebra, quantum physics, genetics, relativity, subjects the grown-ups think are too difficult but which a good game can teach by stealth. The trick is: just don’t tell the kids that the grown-ups think it’s difficult.

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My hope is that through fun games we can create a generation that goes to their first science lesson already knowing that quarks are the building blocks of the universe, that colliding particles create new atoms and to be familiar with the cast of characters our universe has given us. Games aren’t just fun. I think they are the future of good learning.

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Marcus du Sautoy
Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the University of Oxford.
http://www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk
@MarcusduSautoy

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Game Executive

I had the joy of participating a few weeks ago in AaltoEE’s Game Executive training. The one week super intensive bootcamp lasted from 8.30am to 9pm each day. The daytime lectures were given by renowned business professors. The evening sessions consisted of visits to many of Helsinki’s gaming companies, such as Next Games and Playraven, as well as companies supporting gaming, such as Fondia and Barona.

Overall I was super impressed by the quality of the programme. I would not hesitate to recommend this to anyone looking to enter into the gaming business. Even for an experienced gaming professional looking to start their own firm or moving into an executive role, the course would no doubt come in handy.

Through the bootcamp I was thinking time and again that I should have taken the training a year ago already. Many of the things the professors and game professionals shared were what I have had had to learn through the last year mostly by trial and error – and also by abundant asking around in the amazing Helsinki gaming scene. Having had a training like this when we first embarked on starting Lightneer would have been golden.

Lightneer is the fourth company where I’ve been a founder or co-founder, so in that sense entrepreneurship is not new to me. But all the intricacies of games business ranging from customer acquisition to PR, from lifetime value calculations to coregame-metagame loops were such where I felt I got to deepen my understanding further. Also the sessions on business strategy, business models and accounting were a great way to refresh how to focus business decisions.

I’m a big fan of lifelong learning, and while the course coincided with what has turned out to be some of the most exciting and busy times in the history of Lightneer, I am super happy to have participated in the training. Not the least because of making new friends and getting to spend time with some amazing present and upcoming game executives.

I would heartily recommend AaltoEE’s Game Executive course to anyone looking to make an entry in the gaming business or looking to advance as an executive in the field.

You can read more about the training programme here.

Press Release: Former Rovio “Mighty Eagle” Peter Vesterbacka Named “Brand Breaker” for Learning Game Studio Lightneer Inc. Following €2.8 Million Financing Round

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New advisory board assembled as education gaming innovator moves forward
on its debut title, Big Bang Legends, launching in 2017

HELSINKI – Sept. 14, 2016 – Lightneer Inc., the learning game development studio, has appointed Peter Vesterbacka, the former Mighty Eagle and brand ambassador for Rovio Entertainment Ltd.’s Angry Birds franchise, as its new “brand breaker” and company evangelist. Once featured as one of TIME’s most influential people, Vesterbacka is a founding member of Lightneer, having served as a board member and investor until now.

“Peter’s big time involvement with Lightneer is yet another demonstration of our firm belief that ‘ed tech’ deserves world-class video game talent,” said Lauri Järvilehto, CEO and co-founder of Lightneer. “Our ambition is to fuel a global revolution in how children learn, and a vision of that magnitude needs minds that understand that a great play experience is also a tremendous learning experience.”

Vesterbacka’s new role at Lightneer arrives alongside the news the studio has completed a €2.8 million ($3.16 million) financing round. This new investment is led by venture capital funds GSV Acceleration, joining with €1.8 million ($2.03 million), and IPR.VC, providing €1 million ($1.13 million). This brings the total investment into Lightneer to €3.5 million ($3.94 million).

“I’ve been vocal for a long time about my passion for using games as tools for learning,” said Vesterbacka. “But such an undertaking demands nothing less than a dedicated commitment of energy, resources and creativity on all of our parts. I could not be more thrilled to help the team at Lightneer change the paradigm of our relationships with games.”

Lightneer also announced the formation of a new advisory board, drawing expertise from a far-reaching array of disciplines to further its founding mission to make games with engaging educational value. The company has enlisted Tom Kalinske, former CEO of Mattel, Inc., SEGA of America, Inc., and LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc., and current executive chairman of Global Education Learning, dedicated to child education in Asia, as well as Ian Livingstone, co-founder of Games Workshop, co-creator of the Fighting Fantasy series of roleplay gamebooks, and former executive chairman of Eidos Interactive. In addition, the advisory board includes Marcus du Sautoy, the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford, and Visiting Professor of Practice Pasi Sahlberg from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education.

Announced earlier this year, Lightneer’s first title, Big Bang Legends, is a role-playing puzzler that brings the periodic table of elements to life as clever collectible characters to help players of all ages learn about physics and chemistry. Developed in collaboration with experts from CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, the game breaks down complex subjects like atomic particles and nuclear fusion in fun, digestible ways. It will arrive globally on iOS and Android devices in 2017.

About Lightneer Inc.

Lightneer Inc. was founded in 2015 in Helsinki, a hotbed of innovative education and gaming, to produce interactive entertainment with meaningful learning value with the same level of quality as the world’s biggest hits. The team is comprised of veterans from industry leaders like Rovio Entertainment, Digital Chocolate, Gameloft and more. The studio’s name alludes to one who combines the audacity and vision of a philosopher with the practicality and grit of an engineer.

For more information, visit, and follow the studio on Facebook, Twitter and WordPress.

Media Contact
Amanda Young
Sandbox Strategies for Lightneer
Amanda@sandboxstrat.com

Is Gaming Mindless Waste of Time?

There was a period in my life when I used to think gaming was mindless waste of time. Maybe good for stress relief, but not much more than that. I used to play a lot of games when I was younger, but there was a ten year patch when I didn’t play almost anything. When I started researching learning games around 2011, I started playing other games too. I used to joke that I was doing research playing Angry Birds Space, Cut the Rope, Braid or Psychonauts way past midnight, but the fact is, through those experiences I rediscovered myself as a gamer.

Last weekend, we finished Ratchet & Clank on PlayStation 4 with my kids. It was easily one of the best console games I’ve ever played. Kind of like watching a Pixar movie and playing Super Mario at the same time. Best of both worlds.

Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a lot of criticism about screentime. It’s growing an increasingly big topic, especially in the contexts of kids and education. I think it’s important to take this criticism seriously. People play on average two hours of mobile games a day. It’s a lot of screen-staring.

I think, however, that the issue of screentime and gaming is far from simple. People also used to watch TV twice the amount of time they now play on mobile. Meanwhile, in the last two decades, the amount of eight-graders who watch TV more than four hours a day has halved. I would also venture to claim that playing a game is easily a thousand-fold more useful to you or your brain than watching gameshows and reality TV. (Of course, if people play two hours of Angry Birds on top of four hours of Big Brother and Celebrity Apprentice, we do have a problem.)

It’s been argued that gaming predicts academic success. Yet many people think, like I used to, that games are a mindless waste of time. And this is why I thought about this post while finishing Ratchet & Clank.

The final boss in the game, Doctor Nefarious, was painstakingly difficult to beat. It took us several evenings to finally find the right combination of Groovitrons, Warmongers, Pixelizers, rocketpack refuellings and Zurkon Jr. deployments to beat the Doc. What it took to overcome that final obstacle was a combination of resourcefulness and resilience.

I believe the notion of games being an easy pastime is rooted in a misunderstanding of what a great game is. Great games are not easy. In great games, the difficulty varies. At first, it has to be easy to not to churn players away. But then, it must also be maddeningly hard, to really commit you to playing. If you’re not challenged enough, you will soon grow bored with the game. (As a side note, I believe the same dynamics apply to learning too.)

A great game is not mindless waste of time, but rather a set of challenges that engage you again and again. A great game teaches you new ways to think, and it also teaches you resilience: not giving up in the face of adversity.  I bet every parent with gamer kids knows this well.

In discussing screentime, it might do us good to move from discussing the quantity of screentime to the quality of it. Every step we take do to guide people from mindless couch potatoes hypnotized by reality TV to engaged shiny eyed gamers is a step we should, in my opinion, take.

Or you can always also choose to watch a great movie.

The challenge is not the medium, but what we use the medium to convey.

How Digital Will Change Schools?

Digital learning is all the craze in schooling now, especially in the Western countries. It seems at times that going digital promises to fix all the challenges and problems in schools these days. The picture is, of course, not that simple.

The first truth about digital is that digital alone is absolutely nothing.

A book read from an iPad is still a book. And often, using old media in a new platform gives a worse user experience than using the old media itself. A printed book, after all, is still one of the best user interfaces for distributing information.

In digital, I believe the old adage is true: content is king. If the content is not of high quality and well adapted to the platform in use, learning results will more likely suffer than benefit from adopting digital tools. This has, in fact, been what many schools have found out after pouring millions into digital infrastructure.

A tablet or a mobile phone alone does nothing. In the worst case, the digital tool will even contain distractions that will draw attention away from learning. Hence, plummeting learning results.

The second truth about digital, the one fueling all the craze, is that once a digital tool is used well, it can boost our activities in ways previously thought impossible.

Email, with all of its shortcomings, is a massive improvement over penning letters. Digital imaging enables us to do in seconds what used to take graphic artists hours, days or even weeks. Music, video, desktop publishing and countless other fields have benefited massively from adopting digital tools. And so may schools, if they do it right.

There are a few guidelines that I think are critical for successful implementation of digital tools in schools.

First, school districts, schools and individual teachers should direct resources for content curation. It is critical to understand and differentiate high quality material, whether it’s online content, MOOCs or learning games.

Second, this curated material should be made available to teachers as widely as possible. (To be of some help, I compiled a while ago a list of what I think are the best learning games out there.)

Third, teachers should be aware of when to use digital tools and when to stick to the good old pen and paper. Sometimes using the chalkboard is more interactive than using a smartboard. And, as I already said, often a book beats an e-book just because you can leaf through it, fold dog ears and scribble in the margin. Try doing that to your iPad.

Lastly, teachers should also make sure to eliminate as much of the distractions online tools offer. While I’m not a big fan of content blocking, in a big classroom this probably does mean turning on the parental controls on the tools available to kids.

Also, trust is key: telling kids it’s ok to use their phones as long as they use them to study might work if you have a good relationship with your class. But I would be very careful with allowing non-study related online or mobile activities in the classroom. (That being said, there have been teachers successfully leveraging even Angry Birds in teaching, say, maths. So if that’s your thing, go for it.)

Digital tools are not a magic wand that will transform learning straight out of the box. But like so many other technologies, they do offer a lot of ways to make learning more fun and engaging – if they are used right. As with any tool, using digital in the right way in the classroom requires time to understand how it works – and how to get the best mileage for your and your classrooms’ needs.

When digital tools are used in the proper context and with the kinds of emphases that I have described above, I do believe they can have a huge positive impact on schools. But this is only if digital learning is done under the supervision of a capable teacher.

In this way, I think that the digital revolution, when done properly, will make the teacher’s role even more crucial than it used to be to generate truly engaging learning experiences.

Why Lightneer Exists?

The question that eventually led to the founding of Lightneer was: what if we could really leverage games for learning? And not just any games. What if we could bring together some of the best game designers in the world to create real learning experiences?

After having studied these questions for almost five years, we started the company, with a mission nothing short of ambitious. Could we make learning games that are as loved and as widely adopted as the best games out there, like Angry Birds, Clash of Clans or Candy Crush Saga?

Our goal is simple.

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People play on average over two hours of mobile games every day. Could we take a chunk of those two hours and direct it to something that is as much fun – but where you also learn things, ranging from particle physics to biology, from history to new languages?

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We want to be the missing link that creates in an informal setting connections to topics that might otherwise not appeal to people in formal education. People young and old may explore freely things like the periodic table by playing a Lightneer game. Not because they want to learn physics, but because it’s just a really fun game to play.

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Then, when they first encounter these typically complex topics in a formal setting, like a classroom, they will instantly recognize concepts that are already familiar. Instead of feeling intimidated by the complexity, the players of our games will feel excited by it. After all, a physics teacher can explain so much more about what goes on in the life of atoms.

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We see our games as taking some of that space that is now occupied by casual games, social media and other digital pastimes and offering something that is as much fun, but that introduces and helps stealth learn an abundance of ideas and concepts that can then be further deepened in formal learning. This is why we don’t see our games as teaching tools – but rather as ways to have fun in a whole new way.

Because learning doesn’t need to be funified. Learning, when it happens, is one of the most amazing things we can experience as human beings. Learning is fun.

It is this new kind of fun we want to bring to the world, starting with the launch of our first game, the particle physics game BIG BANG LEGENDS in January 2017.

What Will Schools Teach in 2040?

I gave a talk last week at Suomi-Areena, the annual event collecting Finnish decision makers to discuss work, learning and the future among other topics. Our session consisted of seven talks on the future of work and learning that were commented by the members of the Finnish parliament, as well as our former President Tarja Halonen.

We had been tasked to sketch visions of what Finland will look like in 2040. The futurists and researchers such as Risto Linturi and the creator of “pulled oats”, Maija Itkonen, argued that in the future, work will be more entrepreneurial, and that robots will make many present day jobs obsolete.

My thesis was about the future of Finnish schools. I argued that in 2040 it is possible schools will no longer teach siloed subjects or even many skills like languages. At the present pace of technological acceleration, it is likely that information will be instantaneously available through augmented reality hardware, and that many skills will be supported or even replaced by machine learning solutions and artificial intelligence.

Already, Waverly Labs is developing a real time audio language translator in the spirit of Star Trek. Google Translate’s camera translator flips written language like sign posts and menus in augmented reality. (We just played with the Chinese camera translator at the office; it’s like living in a science fiction movie.) In 2040 our everyday lives will be overlaid by a seamless digital augmented reality, not unlike what many are currently experiencing with the popular new game Pokémon Go.

As President Halonen argued in her closing remarks, availability of raw information does not preclude the school’s role in helping students understand, for example, historical events. Information alone does not lead to understanding, if people don’t know the context behind the information. However, in 2040 instead of rote learning about historical events, students will make virtual reality journeys to experience them themselves. Google already offers virtual travel for schools, and this technology will no doubt become part of our everyday experience in the next 25 years.

In a paradoxical way, I think the role of the teacher will in fact be emphasized in the future. As access to information grows faster and more ubiquitous, the more important a role will human connection and human understanding play.

In order to get ready for this world of the future of learning, we must move from siloed subjects to phenomenon based learning, from teaching to coaching and supporting learning, and make sure our students will have access to the relevant new learning technologies, such as augmented reality and virtual reality. In Finland, all of this is already being implemented in the new curriculum rolled out this fall, which makes me all the more proud about our amazing educational system.

We are facing a whole new world of learning and understanding, where, if we take the right steps, these developments will release a massive amount of cognitive capacity to direct towards, for example, literature and art, as was pointed out by MP Merja Mäkisalo-Ropponen. This is where the role of the school and teachers are crucial.

When technology replaces processes that are difficult for humans – as it has done for centuries – new resources are freed up. Thus the most important thing to teach in 2040 is how to evaluate thinking itself.

This is why I believe in 2040 schools will teach children primaly how to wonder.