Episode 73 - Learning to Play

President Scott L Wyatt and Steve Meredith are joined by Dustin Hansen, Sr. Creative Director at Electronic Arts, to discuss game design and game theory and how video games relate to learning opportunities and educational growth.

Full Transcript

Steve Meredith: Hi again everyone, and welcome to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. I’m your host, Steve Meredith, and I’m joined in-studio again, as I always am, by President Wyatt. Scott, how are you? 

Scott Wyatt: Terrific, thanks Steve. 

Meredith: It’s another beautiful fall day, late fall at this point, but no snow on the ground yet in Cedar City. 

Wyatt: It’s a beautiful day. 

Meredith: Yep. So, you and I have been talking about innovative practices in higher education and we are going to get out on the fringe a little bit. Although I suspect in lots of parts of education this is not a very fringy topic, but it may be for us. And the fringe I’m talking about is you and I just recently attended an event where our Lieutenant Governor, Spencer Cox, said, “As we prepare these students, as we educate them, we need to bear in mind that we are educating them for an entirely new workplace. A workplace that will include artificial intelligence and it will be hardly recognizable to those of us who are perhaps even doing the educating.” And that really struck me, that particular part of his talk that…

Wyatt: Yeah, he added a conversation he had with someone. 

Meredith: He did. 

Wyatt: Who said, “When I left college,” this is a person who is retirement age or retired, I can’t remember, but this individual said to the Lieutenant Governor, “When I left college, I had training sufficient for the next 30 years. But now when people graduate, they don’t have training sufficient for the next…” And I don’t remember what he said…

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: But like, 30 days. [Both laugh]

Meredith: Right. A very small amount of time, yeah. And so, anyway, that stuck in my mind and, as things do with me, it swirled around until I thought, “Hey, we ought to start talking about this in higher ed and the ramifications of game design and learning and artificial intelligence and all of the other things that seem to be driving a lot of the innovation that’s going on in the world economy.” And so, we have a special guest joining us by phone today, and why don’t you take a minute to introduce him?

Wyatt: So, we’re delighted to have Dusty Hansen join us today from, I think, your home in Ephraim, right? 

Dustin Hansen: That’s correct. 

Wyatt: Welcome, Dusty. Dusty is a game designer, author and illustrator and you’ve spent your career on these three topics, these three areas. They’re all related, but all not related. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Hansen: [Laughs]

Wyatt: And your main claim to fame—we’ll get to all of the secondary claims to fame—but your main claim to fame is that you graduated from Southern Utah University. [All laugh]

Meredith: That’s right. 

Wyatt: At least we would like to think that. 

Hansen: That’s true, I’m a Thunderbird, a T-bird. 

Wyatt: But you’ve spent your life in some very interesting jobs and particularly in the world of game design, some interesting experiences. And as we get started here, let’s begin with you giving us a little bit of an introduction. So, why don’t you tell us just a little, brief run-down of your life career?

Hansen: Sure. I’ve always been an artist, that’s where it started with me. Art was kind of my version of play, to the detriment to a lot of my educational career, to be honest. I was the guy who doodled a lot and I went to school and when I finished SUU in ’93, I jumped into the video game world kind of not really knowing what it was going to be. It was a pretty early time when things were pretty rudimentary and I’ve worked with everybody from Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft, but the majority of my time is with Electronic Arts. Where I’ve got to kind of grow up in the industry, I had really good timing because when I started, things were pretty basic and now it’s unbelievable complex and for somebody who loves to continue to learn and goof around which are two things I love, video games have been a perfect career for me. And then I went from video games to working in the toy industry for Hasbro for a quite a while which is another place that I’m sure we’ll talk a lot about that where we talk about game theory and game design maybe a little bit and how play is such an important part of that was really what drew me to Hasbro and had my mind completely opened about the potential of play and child development. It was really, really fascinating to me. And that kind of led me to writing books. So, yeah, I do a little bit of everything. 

Wyatt: You have a child that brought your attention to video games as well. 

Hansen: Yeah, absolutely. I started off in the art side of video games and I got more and more interested in watching how play was becoming such an important part of my son’s development that it kind of…it started me on this path of kind of digging more into what the difference between game design is and game theory. Kind of like a deeper level understanding of why we play and what play does for us. And I saw that first in my son, it really, really piqued my career to some very interesting different questions and different areas. 

Wyatt: What is the difference between game design and…

Hansen: And game theory?

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Hansen: Umm…I think game theory is a little bit more extracted version of game design. So, game theory is kind of the question of why the games work and how the games work, or why games work and why we like to play and what are addictions and how do those things work? And kind of what are we doing from a development standpoint that makes games compelling to us? Ad game design is a little bit more structured. It’s more of actually what happens in the game to be super pedantic with it, it’s, “I push ‘A’ and it does ‘B’.” So, game theory is a little bit more on the “why” and game design is a little bit more on the “how.”  

Wyatt: How have you seen…when you were working with EA and then with Hasbro and some of these other places, you’ve seen how this world has had an impact on learning, including your son and some of the projects that you worked with in EA. Could you talk to us a little bit about what’s going on in learning?

Hansen: Yeah, I definitely can. I know exactly when I first started to notice it and it’s when I was working at EA. I was working on a project everyone has heard of called Madden, and, a massive team. 100 plus people working…you’ve heard of the video game Horror Hours, yeah, we were doing those hours. Like 100 plus hours a week. It was one of those, “Can you get in as early as you can and stay late long enough until you feel safe driving home.” Those were the hours. [All laugh]

Meredith: Yep. 

Hansen: You know, kind of like artist hours. 

Meredith: That’s right. 

Hansen: Yeah. And I was watching this happen and I was seeing our productivity just drop. We weren’t doing anything great and do bug reports, you know, you play through the game and we’d get 2,000 things found by the testing group overnight that were wrong in the game and it just feels overwhelming and I saw this point where we were just absolutely…we were losing the battle. There’s no other way to put it. I didn’t think the game was going to be possible to ship, and I was kind of within a creative management role which is always a fascinating place to be because a lot of the things you do should of course be backed up by fundamentals and through study, but a lot of it ends up being kind of gut reaction, and my gut reaction is, “In watching my son in going through his development things is that it was impossible for us to continue to be creative unless we found time to play.” And let me tell you, when you go in and you’re working on a multi, multi-million dollar project that’s responsible for half a billion dollars in revenue and you go to your boss and say, “We’re taking Saturday and Sunday off. Period. No questions asked. I don’t care if we don’t ship the project. We need time to play and if that means families or the group gets together, it doesn’t matter to me. We have to break. We have to cut these [inaudible] out.” And they supported it. It was risky and argumentative of course, but then supported it. And over the next…and it was almost immediate. Part of that, of course, is going to tell people, “Hey guys, no more Saturdays, no more Sundays” and everyone’s excited, of course that’s a great thing. But the bigger part of it was when we saw the long term effects of people going home and digging into their passions and taking that creativity that was generated through that and bringing it into the product was fascinating. And it became something that became an absolute tenant of how we approached creative development. Because even if you’re, if you’re an engineer, if you’re hitting the actual numbers of human physical body dynamics when a player gets tackled by another player and how does that impact their inverse kinematics, all of this stuff that I don’t have any idea…like, I don’t understand that from soup, but when we had somebody come back and say, “You won’t believe what we did. We went bridge jumping this weekend and what I realized is that the human body does this” and he just rambles on about these crazy things about how the human body moves from actually going and doing it is so much better than theory. So, it finds its way into that learning and project process. And that’s where it started for me was kind of that eye opening moment of doing that. And that actually kind of…it moved me into a different role at EA. Not because of, “Oh my gosh, Dustin is so great and smart at this,” it was more, “This is my passion, it’s something I have to find out more about” and I was lucky enough to work for a place that was supportive of that endeavor and they put me into a role where I got to play. Which is…who gets that job, right? 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Hansen: Where I was encouraged to find out if this meant something. And for me, that meant a lot of reading and a lot of talking to people who are way smarter than I’ll ever be kind of about what do we know about child development and how do we know…Bruner in like the 70s came up with a statement similar to the primary function of play for children when they are very young in that long…and why do we have this long period of immaturity of humans, much longer than any other mammal, and the thought is that, or his what his hypothesis was is that it’s to support development of flexibility of thought which is…humans have that and other animals don’t. So, that whole pattern, believe it or not, made its way into my theory of game design and how I can say, “How long do we let people play versus how long do we challenge them.” So, that’s kind of…I know I kind of rambled there a little bit but…

Wyatt: No, this is really interesting. 

Hansen: That is kind of…

Wyatt: Well, and some of the products that you’ve got are educational products. 

Hansen: Yeah, for sure. EA didn’t tamper too much into that, but I have in my life more recently and certainly when I moved over to Hasbro it became kind of way more focused on that development, educational development which I found very interesting and definitely working on younger people than you’re used to working with. [Laughs] But I think some of those things continue. One thing that I’ve really noticed when I look at kind of the way we do education now, and I was doing some adjunct stuff here at Snow College and I got to work with college aged kids and it was so different to me than what I had expected because it was so formalized. It wasn’t a good fit, if I’m being really honest, because my approach to education kind of follows my approach to game theory which is you have to let people experiment. You have to let somebody fail, and I was in a teaching, an art teaching position, one of the hardest things for any artist and I’m sure Steve will fit with this too because it crosses over to music very well, is artists are told to find their voice. What’s the unique thing that you can do to find your voice? And it just absolutely stifles people. It stops them in their tracks. So, my theory to that is the only way to find your voice is to fail at trying to be somebody else. 

Meredith: Right. 

Hansen: So, if you’re a singer and you need to go sing like John Mayer for a couple of years to figure out that that’s not you, during that failure experimentation play process, you’ll develop that voice of who really you are. 

Meredith: That’s right. Write like Beethoven. 

Hansen: And not all of our systems…exactly. Yeah, write like Beethoven to find out that maybe you can’t…

Meredith: You are totally not Beethoven. [Laughs]

Hansen: And maybe you need to do something different. [All laugh] Exactly. And that really kind of followed into that principle to me and I’ve seen it happening kind of more and more where that kind of play is encouraged but I do think almost on a society norm, we stifle that play stuff. Quite often, we look at somebody who continues to be playful in their career and in their daily life, somebody who is experimental in their play style…how they dress, what they do, if they want to be an artist or a dancer or a YouTuber for crying out loud, why would you want to do that? Or to be a podcaster. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Hansen: How dare you do something so playful. And quite often, the adults in the room want to tell those people to grow up, but what they’re really saying is, “Why haven’t you stopped playing yet?” And I really do find that to be a real common thread and like I said, when I see people playing video games, a lot of the time it makes me kind of ask those same types of questions. “Why have they returned? Are they here trying to find more engagement in their daily life? And if they are, what kind of play style can we inhibit in them that will give them more engagement in their daily life?” That’s really a big, massive question that I’d love to answer. Somehow. Some day. [Laughs]

Wyatt: Well, in a lot of ways, we’re using games in our educational world. I can think of three quick examples: One, we have a pretty nice flight program here…

Meredith: Yes, we do. 

Wyatt: And to save money and time…

Meredith: And gas. 

Wyatt: And gas and safety, students will spend a lot of time in the simulator practicing how to fly, and that’s basically a game, isn’t it? 

Hansen: Awesome. Yeah, absolutely. 

Wyatt: It’s just a game that’s saving time, saving money, safer, getting a lot of practice. 

Hansen: Yeah, saving lives. Yeah. 

Wyatt: And I understand that there are schools now that are using gaming for teaching anatomy. 

Hansen: Hmm. 

Wyatt: So, instead of dissecting an actual…doing an autopsy on an actual body, they are doing it virtually. 

Hansen: In VR, yeah. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: And I was talking to my son a while ago and I had an interesting chat with him about this and he said that when he was in college that he took a geology test and he said that he didn’t actually really have to study much for it because he used to play The Magic School Bus game, video game…

Hansen: No kidding?

Wyatt: And he did the…whatever it was called, but it’s the one about geology. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: I remember the books. 

Meredith: Yep. 

Wyatt: But he played that game and he said he remembered all of the things that were in the game, so he went in to take the test. 

Hansen: No kidding. 

Meredith: And the reason he remembered them is because it’s…

Wyatt: It was interactive. 

Meredith: It was interactive and it was set to music and there are all of those things to engage all those parts of your mind and eyes and ears. Yeah, that’s a great way to learn. 

Hansen: Yeah. No, I totally agree. I think the safe environment thing is one of the most interesting parts of that whole thing. I know a lot of people talk about when they see people playing really aggressive, competitive games, you know, like the type of games you’d see in an Esports Arena. You know, Overwatch or Call of Duty, stuff like that, people who are on the outside of that might underestimate the important real, honest, true life skills you can build with that game play. That’s what we…conflict resolution is a really tough thing for young teens, especially boys, right? Kind of learning how to deal with that between the ages of, I don’t know, 12 and 17. I know that was brutal for me. 

Wyatt: Conflict resolution?

Hansen: Yeah, conflict resolution. 

Wyatt: How about between 12 and 70? [All laugh]

Hansen: Yeah. Oh, no, you’re totally right. Yeah, you’re totally right. Yeah, that’s true. I mean, yeah. Of course. 

Wyatt: One of the biggest difficulties that managers have is having crucial conversations with employees. They’re timid, they don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings or create an uncomfortable feeling in the office, and so they tend to avoid it until it’s gotten so bad…

Hansen: Too late. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Hansen: Yeah, absolutely. And games not only simulate that often, they simulate it at an extremely high pace, both verbally, you know, you’ve heard people who are salty online who play…say terrible things to each other online, they’ve never met each other…dealing with that is one thing and it’s a really interesting thing to see how people react to that type of verbal play back and forth. But also, if you’re playing team-based games like a game like Overwatch where everybody has to fit their own role and if you don’t and you’re not pulling your own weight, it becomes very easy to tell. I mean, there’s statistics that are really fascinating and the analytics that we can pull at the end of the game, even as gamers, and say, “Well, I did pull my weight. I have actual data that shows I pulled my weight” kind of takes a different approach if you’ve played with the same team over and over again where you can say, “Well, I pulled my weight but if I…maybe I’m pulling too hard, maybe I need to do something else to make the team more successful.” 

Meredith: Or let somebody else do more. 

Hansen: Yeah. 

Meredith: You know, “Maybe I’m making it so that…”

Hansen: “I’m doing too much.” 

Meredith: Yeah, “I’m doing too much for somebody else.” 

Hansen: Yeah. When I’ve watched kids…I mean, I’ve done some really fun, interesting play tests with a game called Fortnite which everybody’s heard of, it’s massive, and watched kids play through Fortnite which is a real kind of independent…it’s almost a Solitaire game at some point because you’re competing against other players. And I’ve watched kids play that, we’ve let them play it for hours and then talked to them about the rules after they’ve played it—and I’m talking fairly young kids, 10 to 12 year olds—let them play and just explore and have fun and enjoy the game and they always absolutely love the game. And then we pull them out and say, “Here are some rules. Here are some fundamental things you can do to make the game more successful” and to watch—and all of those are usually about cooperation and being aware of other people and your environment and trying to figure those out—and to watch and see their reaction, their eyes just light up about, “Oh my gosh, I have such a deeper understanding of these things.” That is such a fast and easy lesson to teach someone because of that experience of playing the…playing with it first. It’s really, really interesting and I think we’re going to see more and more and more of that stuff creeping into software. Actually, Steve and I were talking one time about when I was in school, you know, the three of us were in school, you weren’t supposed to use a calculator to do math. It was like, “Don’t do that, it’s cheating!” You know, the teachers would make sure that you couldn’t do that and now, to think of doing that, to take a math class where they don’t let you use calculators, that’s just crazy! Of course, you’d use a calculator! Why wouldn’t you use a calculator? 

Meredith: And in fact, we should teach you to learn how to do the calculator. 

Hansen: Yeah. 

Meredith: That’s what we should teach you. 

Hansen: Exactly, that’s what you have to learn. Yeah. [Laughs] But what we’ve really learned is that, man, computers are really better at math than humans. They’re unbelievably good at math so why shouldn’t we take advantage of those things? Well, the really interesting thing that’s happening now is that we’re doing so many complex and interesting things with machine learning and A.I. that are having computers that can do fascinating, creative, artistic things and when we look at what we’ve done with mathematics…the reason we have computers is because we invented computers, which is the really bizarre thing to think of, right? Because we found something that could do math better than use and faster, especially like statistics and analysis where they can do millions and millions of computations per second, we could never do that as humans. Well, if we can start to do that with social issues, with a computer that can go through millions of social experiments and give us some results that are interesting, that can tell us those back to us in a semiotic way where we can understand through gestures and our art and through different literature, what is that going to do to elevate our potential for learning? It’s really incredible and interesting stuff. Eventually we will have something that’s going to replace the calculator in the classroom if we don’t already. If we want to embrace it already, I think that’s a great idea. We should be using the internet in the classroom. We should be able to…my wife is an elementary school teacher, she share a photo to me and one of her students going home and sitting at the computer and sitting at the computer and saying, “Alexa, how do you spell ‘had?’” And Alexa says, “You spell ‘had’ h-a-d.” And her mom was like, “I don’t know what to do about this!” And my wife’s response was, “Well, let her do it. That’s so wonderful that I child would be like…”

Meredith: Right, you have a tutor. 

Hansen: “I know how to solve a problem.” Yeah, it’s great. And I think we’re going to see more and more of that. I hope we are. 

Wyatt: That’s the kind of question I would ask. “How do you spell ‘had?’” [All laugh]

Hansen: Me too. Without spell checker, I’m worthless, yeah. [Laughter]

Meredith: So, speaking as a guy that still has his Nintendo 64 and plays GoldenEye and has not really…

Hansen: Excellent. 

Meredith: Yeah, hasn’t really made the leap to the later iteration of the games. I am, though, fascinated by the fact that for older adults, games kind of comes back. There are lots and lots of data that says, “You know what? You actually should probably play Solitaire” or “You should play something to keep your mind agile and active. You should play Two Dots or you should play something that makes you think about numbers or about spatial reasoning or…” That the way that we would keep our minds active is by reverting to playing and actually by doing so, we forestall the issues related to Alzheimer’s and other things that can come and rob an older person of their quality of life. And so, it makes me think that…I had a niece that just had a crazy, crazy imagination and I remember her saying something to my father and I as we were sitting there and my dad turned to me and he said, “You know, the shame of this is that they’re going to beat that out of her by second grade. They’re going to beat all the imagination out of her.” And it seems to me that, as you’ve suggested, school…play in school is meant to be done at recess only, and now that we have fewer and fewer of those types of opportunities that there’s less and less play when in fact, as you’ve suggested, the science tells us that in fact, play is important to keep our minds flexible and can help us solve problems. And if you fast forward, you know, my wife has taught dance for many years and taught our general ed dance history course, and she had very much the same experience as your teacher friend where she came home and she said, “The first three rows of students are just really into this and I’m really enjoying it and they’re watching the videos and we’re talking about it. And the last three rows of kids are looking at their phone and I can’t seem to engage them.” And I said, “Well, don’t take away their phones, have them do something with their phone.”

Hansen: Right.


Meredith: “Give them…have them go find on YouTube this thing” And she came back the next day and she said, “Oh, this is one of the best days we had in class because now all of the sudden, it engaged this little plaything that was in their hand and now they were on a scavenger hunt and they were off trying to find this very obscure piece of Russian ballet that I told them to go try to find and now all the sudden we’re on teams and now that third row…that sixth row is enjoying it as much as the third row is.” And it seems to me that, since this is a podcast about higher education, one of the things that we could is begin to bring all of the things that virtual reality and artificial intelligence and video games bring to us, whether it’s the ability to have an Alexa type assistant that just simply was a 24 hour tutor that was artificially intelligent and could answer virtually every question that a student might have when they needed that answer or if it was running a simulation, you and I were talking, running a simulation between Patton and Rommel in North Africa in an American History class and say, “OK, here are the two teams, these are the tanks they had; on your mark, get set, go. And let’s see what happens and then let’s actually see what Patton did and what Rommel did” and now all the sudden, you’re there and if you’re wearing VR stuff, you’re really there. And it just seems like to me that there’s a coming, in the same what that we started off the podcast talking about the coming revolution that this would bring to the workplace, it seems like to me there’s probably a coming revolution, for those that are willing to see it and embrace it, that we could bring all of this technology into the classroom and dramatically improve the impact of our education. Of our efforts at educating our students. Does that seem like a fair statement?

Hansen: To me? Yeah, that sounds amazing. I just think…we know from a long study, years and years and years, that unstructured breaks from cognitive tasks improve our learning and attention. Everybody knows that and we even kind of fit it into our vernacular. “You need to take a break,” “You need to chill.” We say all of these things almost like a restorative thing that we say to each other. But they’re real. I mean, we can feel it on a very deep level and having somebody, instead of saying, “Hey, put your phone away” which I know that’s a tough thing and I know that there aren’t always situations where having a phone in the classroom is a great idea, but the way that your wife approached it sounds so engaging to me. And you can see how people understand that. And part of that is that…I know as gamers, if I’m speaking strictly from a gamer, one of the things we like to do is we like to be better than everybody else at what we do. And believe it or not, finding something, finding the perfect meme, finding the perfect GIF to put on somebody’s Twitter response is a game. And allowing students to participate in a language that is familiar to them, and not just familiar like we tell them what to say, but allowing people to speak in a language that feels comfortable them. That’s really powerful. There’s a book by a guy named Scott McCloud…good first name, right? 

Wyatt: [Laughs] It’s an awesome first name. 

Hansen: Yes, it is…called Creating Comics and it’s about creating comic books. But really what it is about, it’s about language and play. Fascinating book. I would…anybody in the world that has time to read that book should read it because we look at kind of the history of language from hieroglyphics, which were pictorial graphs of emotional things that were happening for ancient people, right? And then we’ve completely gotten away from that to a point where we look at this, really rudimentary, when you think about it, slow input device of reading and typing, right? It’s the slowest thing in the world. To type to somebody, “I get you, I feel it, it’s difficult” is a really tough thing to type and it comes off cold when it’s written on the page, when you can send somebody just the perfect emoji and communicate that at a very deep level. Especially if you’ve had previous experience with them. So, when we’re asking people to really pause and understand language and we can’t truly speak their language—and I’m speaking as a game designer, not as an educator but I think there are some similarities there—when we’re asking them to speak in a language that we have defined, as a game designer, there’s a high, high correlation with failure there. But when you allow them to speak in their own experiences, that failure and that learning goes up dramatically. You guys are familiar with Minecraft unless you live…unless you really haven’t turned on anything since your Nintendo 64, Steve, you’ve heard of Minecraft. 

Meredith: I have heard of Minecraft. [All laugh]

Hansen: Minecraft is absolutely brilliant in a lot of ways and part of the reason that it’s brilliant is that the developer who made it, one single guy, I think he was actually single at the time too. He’s not now because he did sell Minecraft for three billion dollars to Microsoft…

Meredith: There is a joke to be made right there…

Wyatt: There is. 

Meredith: And I’m not going to make it. [All laugh]

Hansen: Yeah, I know, there is. But this guy, his name is Notch because he has a gamer name because he doesn’t want people to talk in his non-gamer name because he understands that’s how that works, took all language out of the game except for two words, the words “mine” and “craft.” And those two words tell you everything you need to know about the game. You mine things and you craft things, right? The most simple version of rudimentary language possible. But what he did was he gave people tools to communicate at a completely different level. He gave them servers so that they could jump on and they could build massive structures together, he gave them a really simple game play that was intimidating and terrifying but imminently, beatable. He just kind of put these tools out in the way and then said, “You guys are building this game, not me. I’ve given you the tools, and you go ahead and express what you can do with Minecraft.” And it’s become the most played video game ever in the history of all games, period. Across every device, everything, it’s the most played game in the history of video game development and it’s really crawling its way into education, especially elementary education when we talk about scale and blocks and mathematics, it fits perfectly. But what it really does great is it teaches us to do really complex things like system shifting and role shifting. When you’re playing on a game with somebody and you meet their avatar and you don’t really ever see who they are, you treat them differently than you would if you met them in a classroom. And we get to see these really interesting things. So, when we look at a society right now which has younger kids who are looking at baby boomers, like me, and saying, “Why can’t you guys figure these things out?” I think it’s because we work in a different language system. I think we’re a little pedantic and I think that there’s a lot of potential and I think that a lot of it’s happened because of games…you know, I talk about, “What if there was a social system that we could use that would allow us to experience social construct at a very accelerated level like calculators did for mathematics?” Games do that. They’ve been doing it for 25 years and people are able to play these games and go through these really, really complex, hard, but yet at the same time, soft decisions that have to be made at a really cognitive and almost emotional and empathetic layer at lightning speed. People are making those decisions instantly. There’s’ good and bad to that too, but it’s interesting and I think a lot of it has to do with, they’re speaking sometimes a separate language than we’re speaking. Gamers speak a different language. And I can say that now because I’m 50, I don’t…I play games with my sons who are young enough to kind of be in that…they do great playing on an Esports team, they’re that age. So, I still play with them and I stay in tune but it’s not my game anymore. I’ve seen how much it’s changed. It’s really fascinating to me. 

Wyatt: You say Esports teams, this is slightly off topic but not completely. 

Hansen: Yeah. 

Wyatt: But Southern Utah University is a part of the Big Sky Athletic Conference Division 1 and the Big Sky Conference is sponsoring an Esports tournament this year. 

Meredith: And we have a team. 

Wyatt: And we have a team. 

Hansen: Awesome!

Wyatt: And we’re not ahead of the game, of course, 

Hansen: I need a jersey. [Laughs]

Meredith: We will. We will get you one. 

Wyatt: And we’re not ahead of the game here, there’s a lot of conferences that have been doing this for a long time, but what we’re learning is, is somewhat surprising, actually. For some people anyway, not for you, but for some people it’s a surprise to learn that the students who come to universities to play on an Esports team are very prepared for university studies. They are smart, they usually major in STEM degrees, they tend to be more male than female and they…

Meredith: Which is actually a big deal for us. 

Wyatt: Which is kind of a big deal, yeah. 

Meredith: Because male enrollment has been dropping.

Wyatt: All across the country, and…

Hansen: I just read an article about that yesterday.

Meredith: 60/40 is kind of the best you can hope for at this point. 

Hansen: Wow. 

Wyatt: Yeah, and these students retain at higher rates and graduate at higher rates. So, it’s not like they’re missing class to play games all day. They’re very serious students. Some schools, one in particular told me that they have started a game, the president of the school said they’ve started a gaming team for the very purpose of attracting high quality students that they know will stick with it and graduate in difficult majors. That they are having a hard time attracting other students to come and study. It’s fascinating. 

Meredith: That is. 

Hansen: Yeah, that is really interesting. I’m always glad to hear that because stereotypes are funny because they’re true sometimes. [All laugh]

Meredith: That’s how they became the stereotype. 

Hansen: Exactly, right? But the stereotypical gamer is very different than a competitive…right now, the trend has been engaged gamer which is an interesting term and there’s a big difference between the stereotypical guy that…and I will say “guy” because that’s part of the stereotype, right? 

Meredith: Yep. 

Hansen: You know, that lives in his basement, orders pizza on his mom’s debit card, that kind of thing. Plays games for…is awake for only 12 hours of the day because he sleeps for 12 but those 12 that he’s awake, he’s playing games. 

Meredith: Right. 

Hansen: You know, 12 hours a day, seven days a week. 

Meredith: An online version of the comic book store guy from The Simpsons. That guy. 

Hansen: [Laughs] Exactly, right? Those are funny and they’re attractive because they are outliers to what the majority of gamers are. And the majority of gamers are the engaged gamer who will play a game until they’ve kind of got what they want out of it is usually what it is, and usually they’ll find one that they attach to at a very deep level and they’ll look for that opportunity for expertise within that which, you put that into any career or into any fundamental study, if you could find someone that has that pattern, that’s going to be a successful pattern. And I know as far as in the workplace, right now I’m doing some work for the government—yeah, THE government, the United States Government—and they specifically hire gamers for this role that I am doing right now. And I can’t publicly talk too much about it, but the reason that they do this is because of that. They’re looking for people that can…we hear this “one inch wide and a mile deep” kind of person. 

Wyatt: Yep. 

Hansen: You know, they have their specialty and they can go very deep and gamers fit into that category, but the other interesting thing about what they find with gamers is that they also fit very well into the “one inch deep, one mile wide” category. It’s a really interesting cross section and a lot of that comes from—and this is pure opinion, this is not stuff I’ve ready or studied or anything, just stuff that I’ve personally watched, so anecdotal at best—a lot of that comes from people being able to do high, high, high levels of multitasking, right? If you watch somebody play a very aggressive shooter game or these RTS games, real-time strategy games where they’re making hundreds of mental calculations in literally seconds, they get to a point where it’s like, “Wow, that’s almost computational. They have a hard time writing AI that can keep up with people.” That’s a really bizarre skillset because you’re having to manage a lot of things on the surface but at the same time, keep the high end goal that’s very, very deep and very complex. And it’s a real good, real life skill that can be moved over into a lot of other areas in your life. So, I’m a fan. 

Meredith: That sounds like you, President. What he just described sounds like you. 

Wyatt: Oh, I don’t think so. 

Meredith: A million tasks all at once while keeping a very complicated and high end goal always in sight. 

Wyatt: I wish. 

Hansen: You might be a gamer. [All laugh]

Wyatt: If only we could wish. 

Hansen: Do we need to sign you up a PlayStation account and get you going? 

Meredith: There we go. 

Wyatt: Yeah, we need to talk. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Well, it’s interesting because there’s a lot of analogies to this and what you’re describing, the difference between flying an airplane and flying a helicopter in our aviation program. It’s kind of like the difference between playing a piano and playing the organ, that when you’re flying an airplane, you use your two hands. When you’re flying a helicopter, you’re using your two hands and your two feet and doing them all at the same time. So, you’re having to keep your focus on certain things very deeply but then on kind of the routine level, you’ve got to be managing four limbs all at once to control the craft. Anyway, it’s interesting. 

Hansen: Mhmm. 

Wyatt: And in some respects, we’re all having to do this in our jobs. We’ve got a goal that we’re shooting for but we’ve got a million distractions. 

Meredith: Yes. 

Hansen: Yeah. 

Wyatt: That all need attention, too. Well, this has been really fun and interesting. 

Hansen: Yeah, for me too. Definitely. 

Wyatt: I can’t wait to see what happens. It’s…if you go back, I just love thinking about like my mother as an example, we all have these same stories that she lived in a little house, they had no indoor plumbing. 

Meredith: Right.

Wyatt: They had an outhouse; toilet paper was the Sears Roebuck catalog. 

Meredith: You bet. 

Wyatt: They had a party line. 

Meredith: Yep. 

Wyatt: When the phone rang, the number of rings indicated which house should pick the phone up. 

Meredith: That’s right. I remember all of everything that you’re describing at my grandmother’s house. 

Wyatt: Yeah. They had a horse that pulled a plow, they did have a tractor but it was a pretty simple tractor. And then you just roll forward decade after decade after decade from the early 1930s and 40s until now and each decade, the changes were far more as the decade before as we go through this exponential advancement in technology. Until today, if you’re going to go fix your fence, you’re not even going to get on the horse and go look at it, you’re just going to send a drone out to find which poles are down. 

Hansen: Mhmm. [Laughs]

Wyatt: You’re going to sit in your house, essentially playing a game. 

Meredith: Yep. 

Hansen: Yeah. 

Wyatt: With the…flying your drone around saying, “Ah, the fence is OK there and it’s OK there and it’s OK there and here’s a problem, so I’ll go fix that one little problem. 

Meredith: Yep. 

Hansen: The big question to me from that is how do you become productive in the time that you have saved from those type of activities? That’s a global question to me in general, where if we have found ways where we can save time, what other endeavors can we conquer that are big, massive social endeavors that this next generation’s going to be able to solve that we haven’t. It’s not that we didn’t want to conquer them—and I’m throwing myself into the same category because I’m not that young anymore—it’s that we didn’t have the time. Time is a great commodity. It’s the ultimate, right? They have more time. 

Wyatt: Well, Dustin, let’s go back to the start of our conversation about play. So, do you…Steve or Dusty, do you remember the book series, the Great Books?

Meredith: Oh, yeah. 

Wyatt: There was like 60 of them in the series. 

Meredith: In those little, blue paperback things, the Great Books? I still have some of them. 

Hansen: Oh, yeah, I know what they are. Yeah. 

Wyatt: Ours were hardback. 

Meredith: Oh, were they? Yeah. 

Wyatt: Hardback volume, started with…I think the first one was Homer and went all the way through. 

Hansen: Yeah. 

Meredith: Yep. 

Wyatt: The first volume was called The Conversation. 

Meredith: Oh, yeah. 

Hansen: Yeah. 

Wyatt: And in that book, it talked about…one of the things that I’m remembering and I didn’t anticipate us heading this direction or else I might have gone back and looked at it to make sure that I remember what I’m saying, but what I recall reading was that one of the great benefits of the Industrial Revolution was the creation of leisure. 

Meredith: Right. 

Hansen: Ah, that’s awesome. 

Wyatt: And so that now, instead of spending our time from sun up and sun down and beyond building a shoe through all of these really difficult little processes, we now can build a hundred shoes in less time with a machine and that means we can go home and go to bed earlier and now we have some leisure time. 

Meredith: Have dinner with the family. 

Hansen: Yeah. 

Wyatt: Mhmm. And we can spend that leisure time reading the great books, to reading Aristotle and everybody else. And so, hopefully that’s part of the answer to your question is that the way we become productive with our spare time, part of the answer is…

Meredith: That’s how they sold pianos. 

Wyatt: That we learn. 

Meredith: In the early part of the 20th century is that, “Yeah, you have this leisure time and yeah, you could fill it by joining a bowling league or by joining the Elks Club or whatever, but if you really want to have a cultured home, you’re going to have a piano and every kid is going to take piano lessons.” And there probably is a 50 year period in the history of the United States where every kid, whether they liked it or not, whether they enjoyed it in any way, took piano lessons from some local person in their neighborhood. And it just was a rite of passage for being a kid that you had lessons, and that’s largely because we didn’t have to be…the kids didn’t have to be milking cows. They didn’t have to be constantly engaged in farm work or whatever a previous generation probably would have had to do. 

Wyatt: If we go back to our flight story that we’re actually using video games to teach flight, one of the outcomes of that is that the flight instructors have more…the same amount of teaching can occur with less time for the flight instructor because you don’t have to sit there and make sure that somebody doesn’t crash because they’re using the simulator and if the student crashes then nobody dies. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Hopefully, eventually we’ll start seeing even larger scales. A lot of efficiencies in teaching, learning, grading, all of these sorts of things through AI and some of these other ideas. If you can do all of these computations, Dustin, you’re talking about, including in the social side, I don’t know a faculty member that wouldn’t be giddy with the idea that all of her testing or his testing could be done through AI. 

Hansen: Oh, for sure. 

Wyatt: Because that’s one of the parts that’s just not as enjoyable. 

Hansen: Right, you want to be a teacher, not a tester, right?

Wyatt: Right. And it’s so routine and…

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: Can be really monotonous. 

Meredith: Right, it’s all rote. 

Wyatt: Yeah. So, hopefully one of the outcomes of all of this is going to be increased productivity in education all the way from elementary school on up. 

Meredith: And leisure time for the teacher to improve the learning experience rather than worrying about the rote part of what they do. 

Wyatt: And when we say “leisure,” what we’re really talking about is not just…

Meredith: Sitting around with your feet up. 

Wyatt: Yeah. 

Hansen: No, no, no, of course. 

Wyatt: It might be. But one of the important parts of my job is just reading. I had to do a lot of reading, and so if there’s some way that I can find a way to do more reading then it’s better…much better at my job. More creative and everything else. 

Meredith: I’m going to ask Dustin off the air to send me his recommendation for a video game that the Cabinet could play on our laptops at our next cabinet meeting. 

Hansen: Oh, for sure. 

Meredith: [Laughs] I think we need to try that. I think that would be a blast, actually. 

Hansen: Yeah, I would love to talk to you about that. Yeah, I would love to talk to you about that. I think we could find something perfect. 

Wyatt: Well, the progress of all this in the last decade, two decades, three decades…I had a Magnavox. 

Hansen: I did, too. [Laughs] I still have one because I’m an addicted collector. 

Wyatt: Yeah, I remember playing Magnavox. Anyway, the progress that’s happened in the last 30 or 40 years, I can only imagine what’s going to happen in the next 30 or 40. 

Meredith: Yeah. 

Wyatt: You probably have a better idea of that than any of us, but our worlds will be different, won’t they?

Hansen: Yeah. I’ll tell you, I have predictions but my predictions would pale if compared to talking with probably a 12 year old who has really put some time into thinking about it. Because a lot of the predictions that I have, mine are pretty reactionary. And I’m always interested in that difference between being reactionary and being proactive when it comes to creative thought and where that comes from. I willfully acknowledge that if I was a composer, I’d listen to a lot of Beethoven, right? 

Meredith: Right. 

Hansen: I know we stand on the shoulders of others, but sometimes there are people out there. I was telling…Steve and talked earlier today, we were talking about I saw this documentary about a kid, 16-year-old kid who had taught his computer to…it’s called machine learning. It’s this different level of AI that these young people are…well, not just young people, engineers are really interested in right now and this one particular young man taught his computer to develop a passion for Kanye West. Now, that’s a bizarre concept, right? He didn’t say, “I want you to go and read all of Kanye West’s lyrics. What I want you to do is develop a passion for it and to do something with it.” That’s what he’s programming the computer to do. That’s bizarre to think that we can do that. So, the result of that is, is that he’s created a computer, a machine, is a much better name than computer in this case, a machine that has sought out all the lyrics from all of Kanye West and is now writing Kanye West style lyrics and speaking in Kanye West vernacular and has studied melody patterns and rhythm patterns and is creating Kanye West. That kind of stuff is stuff that I would not even consider. I’m much more concerned with…I’m being reactive. Somebody will say, “Here’s the problem we have, define the difference between conflict and action in a video game.” OK, that’s something I can solve. The person who’s the one that is saying, “I’m going to teach this computer to love Kanye West,” that’s the person that’s going to change the world. Those are the things that are interesting. 

Wyatt: Can I get that kid to build a machine for me that will develop a passion about me sufficient to write responses to all of my emails? [All laugh]

Hansen: Oh, yes. Honestly, that’s going to happen? 

Wyatt: And to create m PowerPoint presentations and my speeches…

Meredith: A PowerPoint bot. That’s what we need. 

Hansen: Now you’re talking. 

Meredith: That is what we need. 

Wyatt: And my…I only teach a class once every other year, but I do a lot of guest lecturing. Could that person create my guest lecture outlines and…?

Hansen: Exactly. 

Meredith: You know what I would love? 

Hansen: Honestly, those are great questions in reality. Those are great questions. 

Meredith: What would save me an enormous amount of time is something similar to the paperclip that used to come up on Word and say…

Hansen: Yeah, Clippy. 

Meredith: “Hey, it looks like you’re writing a letter.” I would love to have something that came up and said, “You know, you’ve written a document like this 900 times before. Could we point out to you where you could take a paragraph from this and two lines from this and eight lines from this and get this done in 30 seconds, because you’ve done this over and over and over again just using slightly different language for a slightly different purpose. And just having something that would just bring up…I know we have templates and other things, but I need it to access everything I’ve ever written and say, “What could save me time here?” Am I right? Because that’s…I literally type until I can’t feel the ends of my fingers every day.

Wyatt: Yeah. And let’s…I don’t think this is too different of an analogy. You’ve got a President of the United States who doesn’t write a single speech, doesn’t have time.

Meredith: Right. 

Hansen: Right. 

Wyatt: So, the President has a whole team of speech writers. What’s their job? Their job is to try to understand his—hopefully one day her—but understand his manner of speech and his voice. 

Meredith: Right. 

Wyatt: And so, they study that and study that and then they start writing speeches. Why can’t AI do all that for us?

Meredith: I’m sure it could. 

Hansen: I guarantee it, it will.

Wyatt: It will. 

Hansen: And I think that’s the interesting things is that we’re heading down that path. There are obviously some dangers there, too, right? If we…speaking of the President, not any president in particular, one did kind of make the vernacular fake news very big. If we have AI that’s already doing that. It is doing it. How much better is it going to be in two years? 

Meredith: Right. 

Hansen: How about four years? How about ten years? Are you going to be able to decipher the difference between somebody’s speech or something they speak in their speech pattern and something that’s written by AI? There are some inherent dangers in there. There are some things that from a social standpoint, from an educational standpoint that have to be addressed. Because they people who are coming up next are going to have some big roles to play in how we regulate and understand what this technology can do. 

Meredith: Yes, the ethics of all of that is going to be a very interesting challenge. 

Hansen: Yeah. 

Meredith: But I think we should work on that University Pres Bot 2020. 

Hansen: Yeah. [All laugh]

Wyatt: Well, there’s…it’s becoming increasingly difficult and I think that we’ll find a day when it’s impossible, based on how we’re discussing today, that a student could cheat on an essay. 

Meredith: Oh, yeah. 

Hansen: For sure. 

Meredith: No question. 

Wyatt: AI would catch you. Where a faculty member would never be able to catch you. 

Hansen: Oh, yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. 

Meredith: Unfortunately, the AI technology could also help you cheat. 

Hansen: Help them cheat, yeah. 

Meredith: Get them started on it in the first place. That’s very interesting. 

Hansen: Yeah, it’s a double edged sword. It’s a big responsibility you guys have. I’m just going to keep making games. [All laugh]

Wyatt: This has been really fun and I hope we get to talk more about this because this is the figure and this is what we’re working towards is to be ready. Not only to take advantage of the technologies that are already out there that can help us do a better job of what we’re doing in education, but more than that, it’s just everything about our lives. 

Hansen: I totally agree. 

Meredith: Dusty, for our listeners, where would they find out more about you and what you do? We don’t do a lot of commercials on this podcast but you’ve created so much material that people might be interested in knowing more about you. How would they find that? 

Hansen: Probably the best place is just to go…I have a website. Dustwrites, it’s like writes books. Dustwrites.com. That will have some of my current highlights and things that I’m working on. Which means I should probably update that before you put the podcast out, but, you know. 

Meredith: [Laughs] You have two weeks, my friend. [All laugh]

Hansen: Yeah, that’s usually where I send people to say “hi.” My email is there, I love to talk to especially young people who are interested in this. Reaching out to them has been a passion for me and so, my email is always open to people who want to dig a little deeper into what type of careers there are in games and game development. It’s a fascinating, and never changing industry and I would be happy to poison the next group of people into thinking it’s fun. But it really is. It’s a really, really great industry. 

Meredith: You’ve been listening to Solutions for Higher Education, a podcast featuring Scott L Wyatt, the president of Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah. We’ve had as our guest joining us by phone from his home in Ephraim, Utah, Dustin Hansen who is a game designer, author and master of all creative arts, I think is probably the best way to describe Dustin. We thank you, Dustin, for joining us and we thank you, our listeners, for following along with us. We’ll be back again soon. Bye bye.