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When a console game becomes CSCL: Play, participatory learning
and 8-bit home computing in India
Derek Lomas, Matthew Kam, Carnegie Mellon University, 5000 Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15213 USA
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Dixie Ching, Chris Hoadley, New York University, 239 Greene St. Suite 300, New York, NY 10003 USA
Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org
Kishan Patel, Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, Gandhinagar Gujarat
Abstract: This paper describes empirical evidence of how a typing skills game designed for
single player use on a low-cost computing platform available in the developing world was
utilized not as an individual learning tool, but as a collaborative learning tool. Building on
these experiences we describe some of the design implications of this type of deeply
collaborative use of technology for learning in developing countries.
When is a console game CSCL? CSCL applications have traditionally focused on technologies that directly
support person-to-person interaction, typically mediated by the computer. But CSCL can also broker virtual
connections between people outside the system (Hoadley & Pea, 2002) or around the system in a physically
shared context (Roschelle & Pea, 2002). As gaming becomes a more important educational technology strategy,
we face a similar set of design challenges: games can be designed for individual use, for directly mediated group
use, and, importantly, for indirectly mediated group use.
This paper describes how this issue plays out in the widespread but understudied context of 8-bit home
computing in developing countries. For several decades, 8-bit "educational computers" have been sold in dozens
of developing countries; recently, however, the cost of these TV-connected computers (TVCs) has fallen below
US$10. At this price point, these 8-bit computers become affordable to the global “"emerging middle class.”
Our research team has conducted an investigation of 40 low-income households in two cities in India to
understand the design context in which 8-bit games might lead to learning. We then deployed 20 8-bit
computers in a subset of these households in order to understand how families learned and used the TVC.
Because these computers use TVs for a screen and are typically used in small homes of low-income families
with multiple children, there is strong situational support for collaborative computer learning activities. In this
paper, we describe the appropriation of one game that, although designed for solitary use, in actuality
engendered significant collaborative and participatory gameplay. We describe how designing for such contexts
should take into account the collaborative and group nature of the interaction likely to occur, even for seemingly
About the Platform
TV-connected computers (TVCs) are a popular computing and gaming device found widely in India and other
developing world markets, including Pakistan, China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Nicaragua, Bolivia and
Mexico. The processing unit is contained within a fully functioning keyboard; a TV set typically serves as the
monitor (see Figure 1). The TVC is sold in locally-run shops in urban centers in India for $8-25, making it an
affordable option among the “emerging middle class,” which, in India alone, comprises over 300 million people
with household incomes between $80-$150 per month (as a comparison, feature phones in India cost around
$20-80). The TVC is based on hardware components similar to the 8-bit Nintendo Family Computer, or
Famicom, due to the expirations of patents. The Famicom, which was marketed in the US A as the Nintendo
Entertainment System or NES, was a popular 1980s-era video game console associated with classic games such
as Super Mario Brothers and Duck Hunt. Like the NES system, the TVC uses the 8-bit 6502 microprocessor
technology, putting it in the same technological lineage as the Apple II, Commodore 64, BBC Micro, Atari 800
and other early home computers.
The TVC is typically sold with two game controllers, a light gun, and two game cartridges. One of the
cartridges contains educationally-oriented games and activities; the other cartridge contains popular,
entertainment-oriented games. The games on the “educational cartridge,” which includes a few typing games
and an alphabet learning activity, are typically of poor pedagogical quality, especially when compared to the 8-
bit educational games developed in the 1980s, such as Number Munchers, Where in the World is Carmen San
Diego, Robot Odyssey and Oregon Trail. In 2009, a volunteer game development community (Playpower.org)
was founded to address this content issue, with the rationale that a significant educational impact could be made
in these low-income households if pedagogically-sound, culturally- relevant games could be provided for the
TVC. With funding from various sourcesIn 2009, Playpower.org organized a series of game design workshops
in order to design and produce educational games for the TVC. The development of one such game, Hanuman
Typing Warrior, is described in the following section.
Figure 1. The TVC platform. Figure 1a. Typical packaging; Figure 1b. Children playing an included typing
game, Ahmedabad, India; Figure 1c. Screenshot from the Playpower typing game.
In the winter of 2009, a game design workshop was held in Hyderabad, India, with a dozen undergraduate
students from top ranking universities in India in attendance. Participants analyzed historical learning games and
learned basic principles of instructional game design; a modified version of the IDEO Human Centered Design
(HCD) Toolkit was used to identify appropriate opportunity areas for game design. One topic that particularly
resonated with the participants was the acquisition of typing skills, both because of the poor quality of existing
typing games currently available on the device and the economic value of typing skills (typing can be the
difference between a wage of $1 a day versus $1 an hour). A storyboard for Hanuman, Typing Warrior was
developed, based upon a popular tale in the Indian epic Ramayana, in which the monkey-like god Hanuman
must travel to a far away mountain in the Himalayas to fetch a life-saving herb for his friend Lord Laxman.
After the workshop, game development on Hanuman continued through a 6six-month intensive iterative process
by an international team of volunteer game designers and 8-bit assembly language programmers.
Description of Hanuman Typing Warrior
The game dynamic based on this narrative calls for the player to assume the role of Hanuman and defeat various
monsters during his quest. The entire game consists of five levels and three backdrops: rock piles and knights
are fought in the mountain grasslands, scorpions are fought in the jungle, goons in an icy mountain landscape,
and finally in the last sequence, Hanuman lifts the top of a mountain to fly home with the miracle herb.
Successfully completing each level requires the ability to type with increasing accuracy and speed.
Figure 1c. is a screenshot from the penultimate level in Hanuman Typing Warrior (for a video of the
game, see http://vimeo.com/16327114). As described in Lomas and Kam (in review):
The player makes Hanuman (1) walk forward by typing the letters of the word in (3); the
correctly typed letters are underlined (3) to indicate the next letter to be typed. The first part of
the text (3) is consequence free, in that the player is not penalized for slow or inaccurate
typing. Once the player begins typing the next set of text (4), each correctly typed letter
causes Hanuman to strike the monster (2). However, if the player does not type a letter (4) fast
enough, the monster strikes back at Hanuman. When Hanuman is hit, he is flung back across
the screen and must retype (3) and (4) until the player learns to type the phrase well enough to
successfully defeat the monster.
This paper reports on the results of contextual interviews and field observations of families either using the off-
the-shelf Famicom software or the playpower.orgPlaypower game prototypes. Local students from Bangalore
and Ahmedabad were recruited and given approximately 20 hours of field research training from a professional
educational technology researcher. In the first phase of the research, the students recruited and interviewed 40
lower-middle class families ($80-$300/month/household) living in Bangalore and Ahmedabad, with the goal of
gaining a broad understanding of existing patterns of technology use within low-income families. In the second
phase of the research, 8-bit TV-computers (purchased for US$10 each in local markets) TVCs were given to
half of the families in phase one. For each of these 20 families, the researchers conducted a follow-up interview
to understand the adoption of the device into the family’s home and schedule. In a second follow-up interview,
the researchers closely observed how the children played their favorite video games on the TVC. In the final
phase of the research, we conducted 90-180 minutes of game observations with 14 families who participated in
phase two. A significant portion of the game observations was spent observing how the families played the
original playpower.orgPlaypower games, such as Hanuman Typing Warrior.
The purpose of the research was descriptive, specifically to identify key contextual constraints and
affordances in the use of Playpower games on the TVC platform. Tapes of family interactions with the hardware
were transcribed and analyzed. Although these prototype games were designed with individual play in mind, the
data clearly showed how the games were, in fact, the focus of in-person group collaboration in the home. Below,
we describe some of the evidence showing how the games afforded collaboration, and some of the design
implications of the collaborative use of the software in this context.
Results and Discussion
In general, what we observed was a rich, wide- ranging group activity arise around the playing of these
supposedly “individual” video games, sometimes enhancing learning and sometimes impeding it. First, we
describe one case in detail, then link this case to the literature and describe a range of other structures of
participation observed across all the families. We use the existence of these interactions to consider the
motivations for participation and the possible effects of this activity on the learning process.
One example in which group activity around the game led to learning-supportive collaboration was in a
household in which both parents worked and conducted side enterprises (making ~$80/month) in order to
support their five children ranging in age from one to fifteen . All but the youngest of the children were in
school, and the two oldest daughters had a fair grasp of English. Initially, the father reported little interaction
with his children, but after the introduction of the TVC he began playing videogames with two of his older
children after work. The mother, however, did not feel competent enough to use the device and expressed a fear
of breaking it. Below (see Table 1) is an activity transcript of one minute of game use filmed by the researchers.
The participant codes reflect gender and ageage and gender of the children as they play the Hanuman Typing
Warrior game (e.g., 7G is the seven-year old daughtergirl). As the following transcript illustrates, tThe children
collaborate on the typing task and, as the following transcript illustrates, the children not only follow the
progress of the child who is at the keyboard, they distribute the work across multiple people, compete for the
computer resource, scaffold each other, and generally construe the task of playing the video game socially. In
this transcript, the children are trying to type several phrases as they appear on screen before the timer runs out.
At one point, the girl in front of the computer runs out of time and her brother takes over.
As the transcript shows, the use of this presumably individual technology is actually very much a
collaborative learning setting. Interaction patterns observed among home inhabitants using the TVC reflect what
has been reported in both formal (Parikh & Ghosh, 2006) and informal learning settings (Dangwal, Jha,
Chatterjee, & Mitra, 2005). In constrained resource environments, individuals often crowd around a single
technology device, with a dominant user at the controls (e.g., keyboard, mouse, gamepad). Such dynamics of
“sharing” raises issues of inequities in learning and opportunities to gain valuable experience using the
technology, especially with regards to children who are most in needfrom poor settings (Pal, Patra, Nedevschi,
Plauche & Pawar, 2009). This echoes findings in the early 1990s from the US, in which limited access to
educational computing in schools provided challenges to equitable access among students sharing limited
desktop machines (Hsi, 1997; Hsi & Hoadley, 1997; Linn & Hsi, 2000).
Several lines of research address how to create more equitable learning environments where limited
computing resources do not allow each participant to have his or her own interface. Parikh et al.and Ghosh
(2006), investigating the mediated social use of computing devicesers in rural India, distinguished between
primary users (those for whom technology has been designed) and secondary users (those who have little or no
direct access to technology, except through primary users acting as their intermediaries) and proposed general
design considerations for enhancing the intermediated use of computers by the poor. Other paradigms for
improving equity in shared computer use that have been explored in the literature include turn-taking,
collaborative problem solving, competition, utilizing a split-screen mode to encourage both collaboration and
competition, “agreement bars” in which participants must make their individual agreement with group outcomes
explicit, and a voting mode that bases decisions on the majority response (Inkpen, Booth, Gribble, & Klawe,
1995; Inkpen, Booth, Klawe, & Upitis, 1995; Linn & Hsi, 2000). Pal, et al. (2009) found that increasing
opportunities to interact with the technology was not the sole determining factor in improving learning
outcomes; providing motivations to collaborate was also key. Other paradigms for fostering equitable multi-user
interaction with interfaces include encouraging peer learning by leveraging personal social networks (Dangwal
& Kapur, 2008, 2009) and peer-mediated cooperative learning processes and positive group dynamics (Sahni, et
al., 2008; Hoadley, Honwad & Tamminga, 2005, 2007, 2010). Overall, while many of these studies on learning
in developing countries have focused on cooperative learning in formal and informal settings in school-based
environments, it is equally important to examine cooperative learning in low-income homes in the developing
world, which is another important everyday context for non-formal learning.
Table 1 : . Transcript of one Playpower game session from Household BC.
A 7- year- old girl (7G) is playing Hanuman Typing Warrior. Her
two older sisters (9G and 15G) are looking on and helping her play.
9G had been playing for 5-10 minutes previously, but had reached a
challenging stage where a monster is able to strike the game
character Hanuman. After being hit, she 9G deferred to her younger
sister 7G, who wanted to play. However, their older brother (13B)
also wants to play and eventually gets the chance.
7G: Looks down, presses D on the keyboard and says “D” as she
looks up at the TV screen. Looks down at the keyboard.
7G: Presses button E. Says “E,” looks up at screen, presumably to
confirm it has been pressed, says “F,” then looks down and presses F.
9G: Says, “E… E,”, perhaps as a way to indicate the next letter to be
typed while 7G is looking at the keyboard.
7G: While looking down, presses E. Then looks up and scratches
head. Says, “E,” and then looks down at keyboard.
13B: Reaches over 7G’s shoulder towards the keyboard, saying “A.”
7G: Presses A and then looks up. Says “A,”, then looks down.
7G: Presses T, looks up and sayutters “T,” then looks down again.
9G: “M.” 13B: “M.”
7G: Presses M. As she looks up, she says “M,” then looks down.
7G: Looking down, presses O and says “O.” Presses N, then looks up.
Says “N” and looks back down.
13B: “S.” 9G: “S.”
7G: Presses S but it doesn’t work. Looks up, says “S” and looks
9G: “T.” Hanuman gets hit in the game.
7G’s older brother 13B moves in to the space by the keyboard, while
7G steps to the side. 13B begins to type, with index fingers of both
13B: Presses D and says, “D.”
7G: “E...” 13B: Says “E,” 13B then searches for this button and
7G: “F...” 7G puts her finger over the F button but does not press it.
13B pushes down on 7G’s finger to press button.
13B: “F.” 13B pushes 7G’s hand away from the keyboard.
7G: “E.” 7G reaches over and presses E.
13B: “E.” 13B looks around then pushes at the air above the
keyboard where 7G’s hand was.
13B: “A.” 9G: “A.”
9G reaches over and presses A. 13B pulls 9G’s hand away from the
keyboard. 9G tries to press T but 13B pulls 9G’s hand away again.
7G: “T, T.” 13B: presses T for himself. “T.”
15G: “Kile, kile!” (“Quickly, quickly!”)
13B: “M.” 7G: “M.” 9G: “M.” 13B: Presses M.
9G: “O.” 7G: “O.”
13B: 13B presses O, but maybe not completely. Says, “O.”
7G: Appears to see that O is not highlighted. Shouts, “O!”
13B looks up to the screen and then moves to press O. However, time
is up and Hanuman gets hit. 9G makes a disdeictic gesture.
9G: “Time oOut.”
The work of Satwicz and Stevens offers a starting point for conceptualizing the cooperative behaviors
around the videogame play that we observed. In their observations of videogame play in the home among three
siblings, Satwicz and Stevens (2007) highlighted how the individual creates a “suitable context for collaborative
learning” (p. 633)a meaningful collaborative learning environment by shifting elements in his or her “socio-
technical learning system” (p. 634) that comprisinges people, games, characters, and actions. Stevens, Satwicz,
and McCarthy (2008) goes on to argue that these emergent, self-organized “flexible learning arrangements”
have educational potential because “‘in-room’ interactionbecause they lead to provides opportunities for
“sociality, joint projects, and empowerment through sharing one’s knowledge and seeing it used for concrete
success by others” (Stevens, 2008; p. 52-3).
In other words, Stevens attributes the learning potential to the “qualities of in-room collaboration—
these being comfortable sociality, having one’s knowledge valued and used by others and having the experience
of being engaged in joint projects” (Stevens, 2008; p. 58).
Similarly, there appears to be a strong motivation to meaningfully participate in the Hanuman Typing
Warrior game by all four children in Household BC. At a descriptive level, there were numerous types of social-
computer interaction that can be identified within this transcript. To begin with, the non-players are clearly
engaged in watching the gameplay and the game player’s actions. Non-players appear to comprehend the goals
and sub-goals presented by the game, such that they respond verbally to the successes and failures in the game.
The basic engagement of the audience in a game played by another person is the basis of further participation
and collaboration, such as the reading of letters aloud. However, like many video games, this game created a
competitive desire within the audience to dominate the control of the gameplay. This competition for dominance
over the device was informally resolved by turn-taking, which typically followed a mistake by the dominant
player. For instance, in the minute prior to the transcript, 9G was the dominant player. However, after she failed
to type quickly enough to avoid being hit by the monster in the game, she ceded game control to 7G. Then, the
transcript shows how 13B quickly moved in to take control after 7G was hit. Non-dominant players can still
participate in the game, however, as demonstrated by 9G and 7G when they continued to type letters even after
13B was in the dominance position. In contrast to a game pad, the keyboard is a large enough input device that
multiple persons can visually search the space for the correct key at a time. However, the dominant player did
not usually view this audience participation as helpful or consensual, as 13B made several physical gestures that
sought to protect his control over the keyboard. On the other hand, 13B was able to physically scaffold his
sister, 7G, by pressing her finger as it hovered over the correct key, confirming her tentative action.
The most surprising form of audience participation in Hanuman Typing Warrior was the audible
reading aloud of the letters by the players and the non-players. This spontaneous activity was observed in nearly
all of the houses we visited. In the transcript, 7G tends to say the letter just after she types it, in conjunction with
looking up from the keyboard to the screen, where the letter will be highlighted. It appears as though the player
says the letter to verbally confirm that the letter was successfully typed. However, the audience members tended
to pronounce the letters before they are typed, as though to tell the player which letter needs to be typed next. In
several instances within the transcript, the non-players are able to alert the player to their typing errors by
repeating letters that were not successfully typed. This behavior may be important in a context in which the
children’s first language does not use the Roman alphabet; the typing skills targeted by the game are supported
by fluency with the English words and the Roman script used to write them. Even the children who were unable
to practice the motor skills of typing could vicariously practice letter recognition and articulation.
Group participation in game play was observed in other households and with other games. Across all of
the homes we observed, there were several other kinds of participatory behaviors that may influence learning
and performance on the TVC. These behaviors suggested three broad types of group learning topologies:
audience members learning from a dominant player, dominant players learning from the audience, and audience
members learning from the audience. Audience members who watch gameplay are often able to learn how the
game is played, intuiting from the game play what the goals of the game play are and how challenges can be
overcome. In one household, we let a 9-year-old girl play a video game called Bubble Bobble 2, which she had
not encountered before. As the game mechanic is unusual, we observed her trying to play the game but did not
offer instructions. She learned several aspects of the core mechanic, but was only able to finish the first level
through trial and error. However, her older sister seemed to be more successful in interpreting the game’s goals
and explained to her younger sister what to do. This indicates that the audience was able to learn from watching
the player (or, at least, their activities in the game) and that the player was able to learn from the audience. Of
course, her explanation could also be seen as a case of the audience learning from the audience, as other family
members now understood the core dynamic of the game.
In another household, an older sister had played Super Mario Brothers and Solitaire during a computer
course she had taken. She was then able to demonstrate how to play the games for her younger brothers
(illustrating audience members learning from the player) and was able to coach them as they played (illustrating
players learning from the audience). In a very different example of audience participation and learning, we
heard a father describe how he gave his son a paragraph of English from a scrap of newspaper and asked him to
type it into the text editor as a form of typing practice. Typing the names of family members into the text editor
was a popular group activity in many houses. We observed a mother come to the assistance of her daughter who
had mistyped a name and could not figure out how to delete the mistake. In this case, the mother showed her
daughter how to navigate the cursor back; the daughter then retyped the letters successfully.
There seems to be an aspect of vicarious enjoyment on the part of audience members to watch another
player successfully complete the goals of a game. As the player has to constantly switch between looking up at
the screen to identify the next letter to be typed and looking down at the keyboard to find and press the letter,
their up and down head motion seems to signal the challenge of the task to the audience. Like sports fans that
shout advice to players they are watching on the television, there is a large amount of non-instrumental audience
participation in gameplay though the issuance of obvious instructions to game players. For instance, when an
older sibling shouted “get the star!” to a younger sibling who was playing Super Mario Brothers, it did not seem
to take the form of genuine advice. Rather, it seemed to be a way of enhancing her own vicarious enjoyment of
watching someone else play the game. Occasionally, non-players were observed providing advice that may have
been useful to the player’s strategic approach, however, more often than not it seemed that outbursts from the
audience simply served to express and support the group’s enjoyment and engagement with the game. Why are
bystanders motivated to participate in the game? While our data is not sufficient to draw any conclusions about
this, we need to consider whether there are aspects of the game and game mechanics that draw people in,
whether the physical proximity is the main reason, and/or whether culture plays an important role in the
spontaneous collaboration. Hofstede (2001) categorized cultures as varying in their degree of individuality—
could this be one factor in determining whether a computer game is taken as a solo or group activity? Kam
Mathur, Kumar, and Canny et al. (2009) found that of 296 game patterns previously identified by researchers in
developed countries, there were 37 significant differences in game patterns in rural India. Further research is
needed to explore how culture-specific the motivations for group engagement in computer games are, and how
to best capitalize on culturally specific norms to create positive CSCL outcomes.
An 8-bit computer has a very limited capacity to produce or recognize speech sounds. And yet, the participatory
gameplay observed across multiple households indicates that the design of Hanuman Typing Warrior
consistently triggered children to pronounce English letters and to respond to the letters spoken by other
children. Perhaps it should not be so surprising that the social context of gameplay can apparently extend the
interactive or instructional potential of games; after all, we expect that the value of children’s books largely
emerges from the interactions they trigger between parents and children. Nevertheless, we aim to call attention
to the highly participatory environment that surrounds TV-computer use in small, low-income Indian
households. The design of instructional software for this context may require a different set of assumptions than
for instructional software developed for use in schools, or for educational technologies developed for use in
industrialized countries. For instance, educational games in this context require that an audience can enjoy
observing interactions with the software, because the software directly competes with the family’s television
entertainment. The competitive pressure for attention is not so strong in a school setting, where teachers can
mandate the activities of children and exclude purely entertainment-oriented activities. As demonstrated by our
findings, the games also need to make sense in a context in which peripheral users may be fearful of using the
technology, may have limited proficiency in English (and/or limited literacy in any language), in which gender
and power dynamics may privilege certain participants, and so on. Additionally, design of software for this
environment should take into account that people will likely need to learn the software without formal
instruction. However, because audience members can contribute to a player’s understanding of the software,
designers may wish to ensure that the game’s goals are visible and comprehensible to a non-playing observer,
and to leverage existing interfaces that the players may be familiar with (such as Mario Brothers in our earlier
example). Despite the fact that contexts such as these are under-studied, it appears as though the visible
challenge of various tasks or activities can help to provoke audience members into providing supportive help
and participation. We strongly believe that conceiving of low-cost platforms such as the TVC as an opportunity
to foster CSCL will help provide cost-effective, culturally compatible supports for learning in underserved
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We gratefully acknowledge the collaboration of volunteers from Playpower in the US and India, the funding
support of the MacArthur Foundation via Playpower, Carnegie Mellon University and New York University.
We also gratefully acknowledge the participation of the families in Ahmedabad and Bangalore in the research.
Special thanks to the programmers and field workers in India.
Derek: please modify the Acknowledgments section as you see fit:
Field Research Training by Meera Lakshmanan.
Bangalore Fieldwork Team: Aliya Pabani, Alisha Panjwani, Tanvi Srivastava.
Ahmedabad fieldwork team: Pranav patadiya, Parth Rao, Sonali Dubey
Programming: Revoori Vishvesh, Vivek Fitkariwala, Kishan Patel, Parth Rao, Ankit Patel, Dheeraj Medikonda,
Darsh Shah, Yash Soni, Anshul Pahwa
**CHECK THIS CITATION WITH THE GROUP:
Derek Lomas, Dixie Ching, Kishan Patel, Matthew Kam, and Christopher Hoadley. When a Console Game
Becomes CSCL: Play, Participatory Learning and 8-Bit Home Computing in India. To appear in
Proceedings of ISLS Conference on Computer Support for Collaborative Learning (CSCL ’11), Hong Kong,
July 4-8, 2011.