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July 2008

Go outside and play

Summercamp This one's a bit different, but the story is so charming I couldn't resist sharing it.

Mike Rousseau is a university student studying Communications in Edmonton, Alberta. A life-long gamer and aspiring games writer, he works in the summer as a camp coordinator for kids 8-12 years old. Mike has written about these experiences on his blog, Fierce Punch, including an essay describing his conversations with kids about the video games they play.

This summer Mike decided to mine his experiences with video games to design a new team-building game for the campers that would emphasize cooperation, exploration, and problem-solving. He began with the premise that:

...all forms of game design follow the same fundamentals, regardless of whether you're designing a video game, board game, or wide game. To make a game fun, certain considerations need to be made, and while I'm no expert in game design, I know what I find fun.

The game he came up with is called "Codebreaker," and he outlines the pre-game explanation conveyed to the kids:

1) Gather the youth and explain to them that some nefarious plot has been hatched while they were busy. Some trickster has hidden bombs all over the camp, and you need their help to find them. The man left behind coded messages to help find the bombs, but you accidentally mixed up the keys! They need to find the right key, crack the code, find the bomb, and disarm it within the time limit you decide upon.

2) Make a point of explaining that these aren't real bombs, or to retain the conceit, explain that the bombs look curiously like glowsticks.

Mike has written a thorough and refreshingly self-critical design document describing the game, how it was received by the campers, and what he learned in the process. As an example of yet another way video games can stimulate the imagination - and make summer camp way more fun than when I was a kid - it's a delightful read. You can find the entire essay here.

Hmm. Now I'm thinking Hunt the Wumpus was really just a computerized Snipe Hunt. Which explains why that critter was so damned hard to find. ;-)

...And you can play games on it!

Iphone_2 As of this writing, the iTunes Store lists 272 games available for the iPhone. These span a broad spectrum of categories, including arcade, puzzle, casino, racing, strategy, and music games. And, as you might expect from the first slew of games on a new platform, most of them are bad. Really bad, in fact, if my hyper-unscientific sampling of a couple dozen games is any kind of measure. (For the record, I own an iPod Touch, which is an iPhone sans phone, GPS, and camera.)

But that's okay. I doubt if even Apple expected developers new to the system to crank out a bunch of classics right out of the box. It will take awhile for the good stuff to emerge, as it always does for new hardware.

Everyone seems to think the iPhone has great potential as a game platform. Lots of power, beautiful screen, multi-touch interface, plenty of eager developers, and a distribution channel millions of people already have installed on their computers.

But based on my admittedly limited time playing games on it, I have a few concerns about the iPhone as a gaming device. I wouldn't say any of these are show-stoppers, but certain aspects of this little handheld miracle may not always lend themselves well to gaming:

  • My aching neck - I was initially excited by the prospect of Super Monkey Ball on the iPhone, but I didn't properly calculate the awkward position required to play, hunched over my screen. Controlling Aiai by tilting the iPhone takes some getting used to (I find the system too sensitive for my liking), but you eventually get the hang of it. Less easy to accept is the stiff neck you'll develop bent over that little screen. Since the unit must be held flat to play the game, you don't really have a choice. Your mileage may vary, but I couldn't play the game for more than 20 minutes...just enough time to watch that cheeky simian fall into the abyss over and over and over.

  • My smudgy screen - Some games like Enigmo, a 3-D puzzler, require you to manipulate objects by sliding your finger across the screen. This, it turns out, is easier said than done. A smudgy screen (I live with an 8-month-old, so everything we own is smudgy) can make things a bit hazy or prevent the system from reading your movements. A perfectly clean screen, on the other hand, can sometimes cause your finger to stutter across the surface. With games that require a bit of precision, like Enigmo, this can be an annoyance, especially when you're working against a timer.

  • My palsy-addled hands - I don't actually suffer from palsy, but I might if I played enough accelerometer-obsessed iPhone games. Developers are obviously smitten by the unit's built-in motion sensing capabilities, but as we saw with many early Wii titles, shakin' and wavin' don't get you far when they're detached from a decent gameplay experience. Cube Runner and Labyrinth are two notable exceptions; both make good use of the accelerometer as a primary controller.

I claim no expertise as an iPhone gamer, and my impressions are based on a relatively small number of titles I've played. I'm sure I've missed plenty of interesting games. If somebody knows how to squeeze a 13 or 14 onto the face of a clock, be sure to let me know.

Maybe I've got adventure games on the brain, but it seems to me the iPhone would be an ideal platform for such games, re-conceived for modern players. I'm also imagining an iPhone version of Civilization with a Google Maps-style interface; and the built-in GPS opens up other interesting possibilities, including the triumphant return of the mainstream ARG I've been pining for. ;-)

By the way, if you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, here are three games I recommend. All are well worth a look:

Dizzy Bee

Aurora Feint


Ode to PixelJunk Eden


Ode to PixelJunk Eden

Here I sit with broken heart
Demo ended, no restart.
Oh PixelJunk, set in Eden
I'm all adrift, so hear me pleadin'
Just three more days till you arrive
I hope, with courage, that I'll survive.
But if I don't, you played a part
Demo ended, no restart.

Composed by Nathaniel P. Longfellow, Esq.
Hoosier poet and esteemed used tire salesman.

Puzzles are for geezers

Cursemonkeyisland1 A revealing slap in the face awaits the - shall we say "veteran" - gamer who hands an old adventure game to a young gamer with a hearty recommendation and an assurance of blissful gaming in store. The likely outcome of such an encounter - and I'm speaking from personal experience - is a thundering "WTF?" an hour later and a jewel case tossed in your lap from a kid with a wincing grimace on his face.

"Is this supposed to be fun?" "Sure," I say, "Smart writing; lots of funny jokes; plenty of clever puzzles." "You call them clever," he responds, "I call them ridiculous. Those puzzles are stupid. How are you supposed to know what to do? Talk to this guy, grab this fork, use it here to open that, talk to another guy, read a  poster, mail a letter, turn around 3 times and spit...and now I can unlock that door!! Are you kidding me? How is this fun?!"

Maybe he's right. Despite my fondness for the adventure games of yore, it appears the days of puzzles in narrative games have come and gone. Puzzles, especially the serial unlocking variety found in the old LucasArts games, seem to have become a relic of a bygone era. Where they once provided a necessary ludic element to a clever and often complex narrative - designed to add challenge and force the player to earn his progress through the story - few modern players have the patience for such challenges anymore.

Sure, games like Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, the Tomb Raider series and Prince of Persia series still rely on environmental puzzles to impede the player's advancement (Portal raised the bar admirably in this regard), but such puzzles pale in comparison to the head-exploding difficulty of many puzzles found in games like Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series. And I'm not even going to mention Myst, (well, I guess I just did) which nearly induced me to put a gun to my head.

Combat has replaced puzzles as the progress-impeding mechanic du jour for modern gamers, and fast-paced action, quick reflexes, and gamepad dexterity are the premium skills. To be sure, games like SOCOM and Call of Duty also require strategic thinking, and online multiplayer often requires fine tactical thinking and cooperation. But puzzles - the kind you study for awhile, scratch your head about, and maybe even mull over in your sleep - have largely disappeared from narrative games. 

And maybe this is a good thing. Seen from a strictly realistic perspective, it's a lot easier to justify Solid Snake's motivation to sneak through a gauntlet of armed guards than Manny Calavera's motivation to get the balloon man to make him a Robert Frost balloon, which he will later need to combine with the loaf of bread, which he must take to the roof to scare away the pigeons. Which gives him the eggs he needs to ... okay, it's complicated.

But, at least to this game geezer, it's also a lot of fun. Fun, that is, if you're willing to let the game tell you in its subtle ways what needs to be done.

Is there still a place in narrative games for puzzles ala Monkey Island? Probably not, but I wonder. If we were to redefine what puzzles are and how they're used in narrative games, we might discover a useful role for them. Gathering clues, finding the right solution, solving hard problems, determining the right course of action - all these would seem useful elements in a story-based game, and none of them necessarily imply combat.

Maybe if we consider the function of puzzles in those old adventure games, but re-think their implementation, we might come up with something very interesting. How's that for a puzzle to solve?

A Grim week

Games_as_art_grimfandango The Vintage Game Club is one week old, and we're having a bang-up time playing through Grim Fandango together. It's not too late to join - heck, it's never too late to join - so if you're interested, head on over to our forum and jump into the conversation. We'll be playing the game for the next three weeks. All are welcome.

Periodically, I'll feature excerpts from the forum here to highlight a topic I think you may find interesting. I'm indebted to the club members for pursuing these topics and contributing to the discussion in such useful and constructive ways.

Despite its age, Grim Fandango remains one of the most stylish games ever made. Its artistic inspiration are "calaveras," (the game's hero is named "Manny Calavera") papier-mâché dolls that are traditionally part of the annual Mexican celebration of El Dia de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead. The game's influences can also be found in 1940s Hollywood film noir, art deco, San Francisco, jazz, and mariachi music.

Grim Fandango's unique sense of style has been a focus of much attention in the forum. You may run into a spoiler here and there, but no show killers:

  • The first thing that hit me was how good the soundtrack still is. They nailed it at the time and it just conveys so much swank and swagger, wonderful, especially when combined with the cinematic nature of the opening.  Past that, I'm very impressed at how the visuals really haven't aged...GF  looks significantly better than the other games of it's era that used a similar static 3d render for backgrounds (with the exception of the fourth Monkey Island, which was an evolution of the Grim engine anyway). You hit the nail on the head with the dialogue, brilliant voice acting and well thought out trees. --David Whitney

  • I think it's great that Fandango doesn't throw the story at you in a lengthy introductory scene or some type of tutorial. Much like a good book or movie, you're gradually introduced to Manny's history, his current pridicament, the plot, etc. Something that even good game stories rarely do. --MattB

  • ...I wanted to share my favourite moment. I only ever played a small chunk of it at a friend's place eons ago, but one section became a running gag between me and my partner ever since. When you're trying to scare off some pigeons by making balloon animals, you can make Robert Frost, and Manny chases them saying "Run you pigeons! It's Robert Frost!" Now, whenever we chase after anything, the cats in particular, we use that line. --Raynaa

  • Given that the vocal work is so good (and varied and professionally delivered), I'm especially grateful for the depth of the conversation trees. The game rewards digging through these, and the first encounter with Eva the secretary is a great example. You can obviously zip through these, extracting only the stuff you need to progress. But oh, the good stuff you'll miss! The games I've played with genuine flashes of clever, sardonic wit are sadly few and far between. So far, Grim Fandango is putting on a clinic for how to do that well, with voice actors up to the task of delivering Schafer's signature dialogue. --Michael Abbott

  • On the graphics: I'm really pleased at how it holds up, I love the art deco style.  Looking at Glottis, my first reaction was "wow, that's not very many polygons, is it", but my second reaction was "so what?"  I mean, maybe it would have been better if each of his teeth had been lovingly crafted out of 100 polygons (instead of existing solely as textures on the face), but maybe not: that might have shifted the designers out of bringing out the humor of Glottis's size and behavior and into, well, modeling teeth.  Not to take anything away from tooth modeling, but it may be harder to present a strong unified style when you're going down to that level.  See also Dan's recent blog post on graphics: --David Carlton

  • I thought Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation put it well when he said the following in his Psychonauts review:

    "One of the themes running through [Tim] Schafer's humour is the juxtaposition of a mundane situation and a bizarre or fantastical setting."

    In the case of Grim Fandango,  it's clearly a travel agency and a film noire style Mexican underworld. The clash between the mundane and the fantastic plays heavily on the game's sense of style, but I think there's something more at play here that I can't quite put my finger on. --Matthew Gallant

  • As many have stated, the game's art and sound design are absolutely amazing. Everything seems to roll the two main influences of Mexican folklore and film noir together beautifully. Though the game is incredibly colorful and festive, especially at the Day of the Dead itself, something about the palette they use never takes away from this underlying seediness that makes for a great detective story. And though the music is all heavily influenced by Mariachi bands and the like, it's still feels a little worn down, a little less than optimistic, matching the characters. --SkeptikalKlown

  • ...For the moment, though, I just want to talk about the imagery. This chapter is loaded with just unforgettable sights. The bridge leading the racetrack, the surreal and eerie statue of Justice looming over the police station (and the lighting that's thrown on it), Membrillo in the morgue, and the harsh white light on the flowers... Year 2 just makes me want to crawl through the screen and into that world, because it is so packed with style. --Flitcraft

The control scheme for the game was, shall we say, less universally admired; and the in-game logic of some puzzles has received some interesting analysis too. You can check it all out on the forum. Thanks, again, to all the club members for participating.

Civilization on the run

Civrevgandhi I consider Civilization IV one of the greatest video games ever made. Three years after its release, it's easy to forget the formidable challenge it faced and overcame. Lead designer Soren Johnson and his team took one of the best and most admired strategy games of all time and made it better, brighter, deeper, and more accessible. As a slew of designers at Blizzard, Bethesda, and Firaxis will tell you, making a game that pleases the vocal hardcore fans AND welcomes curious newcomers is a very hard thing to do.

Hi, I’m Sid. Welcome to Civilization IV." These words, accompanied by the voice and cartoon image of Sid Meier, greet the player upon first loading the game - and so begins a 100-turn tutorial conducted by the renowned father of the Civ games himself. Well-paced, incredibly informative, and delivered with a light touch, this is surely one of the best tutorials ever designed for a video game; and given the deep and complex nature of Civ IV, it's an essential addition to the game. Sid doesn't tell you everything you need to know, but by the end of the tutorial even a newcomer to the series should be well-prepared to navigate the game and discover the vast layers and options contained in Civ IV.

Now along comes Civilization Revolution, and our hero Sid is back at the helm to design "the game I've always wanted to make."[1] Targeted for the first time at consoles, Civ Rev simplifies the core Civ gameplay and streamlines the interface to accomplish the unthinkable: Civ controlled with a gamepad. The experiment largely works - as far as I can tell a few hours in - and I'm enjoying the game from the comfort of my easy chair in ways I never thought I would. Sure, it's not Civ IV, but I'm impressed by how few compromises have been made. Civ Rev is not simply a dumbed-down version of Civilization, although it is clearly aimed at console gamers who may not fully grasp turn-based strategy games.

But the Civ Rev that really got me excited was the DS version, which Firaxis claims delivers the full Civ experience on a handheld. Are you toying with me, Sid? Civilization in my pocket with pausable and resumable "just one more turn" gameplay anywhere and anytime? Eureka! I bought the first copy I could find and prepared for a one-week trip to California. Civ on the airplane; Civ in the car; Civ when the conversation with in-laws lags...Civ anywhere!

Now it's one week later, and I feel a bit disappointed, but not for the reasons you might expect. Yes, the screen size is a serious issue. Playing a game that requires vast land management on such a small interface does diminish the experience, but a veteran player can overcome it. Yes, the graphics leave much to be desired. The DS is capable of a much better show than Civ Rev gives us, but the veteran Civ player doesn't play Civ for the graphics. The overall look of the game is fairly poor, to be honest, but it's not a show stopper.

What disappoints me about Civ Rev for the DS is that it lacks what Civ IV did so well: a comprehensive tutorial to explain the basic concepts of the game and provide a certain degree of hand-holding to the newbie. Of all the Civ Rev versions released (PS3, Xbox 360, and DS), I would think the DS is the one most in need of a robust tutorial. The control scheme and interface alone are unique challenges that must be explained and grasped, even by the the Civ veteran.

I wanted to hand my DS to my brother-in-law or father-in-law - both of whom would enjoy a game like Civ Rev - and say "Complete the tutorial and tell me what you think." But putting the game through its paces, it quickly became clear to me that Civ Rev for the DS assumes too much and provides too little context for a new player to understand how the game works. The tutorial tells you what's what, but it doesn't explain why. It doesn't offer much in the way of strategy or a big picture presentation of what Civ games are all about. Since the DS version omits the in-game Civilipedia included in the other versions, this valuable help system is unavailable as well. And the manual...well, they just don't make manuals like they used to.

It's all too bad, because the DS market is huge, but impatient. By and large, DS games that don't clearly explain themselves within the first few minutes will be DS games that sit on the shelf unplayed. This is true of games on all systems, of course, but the PC market where Civ has its roots has proven itself much more tolerant of games with steep learning curves. I don't think the average DS gamer has that much patience with a new game, and it's a shame Civ Rev for the DS doesn't take that enough into consideration. Ironically, it need only look to its big brother Civ IV for an impressive example of how to do it right.

The elusiveness of meaning

Ico_6 My favorite course in grad school combined the Directing students with the Playwriting students to produce short, original 10-minute plays each week. To inspire us, our teacher would often show us a single evocative image - usually a photograph or a painting - and say "Write a play about this." The micro-theater that emerged from these exercises - and the wide range of responses to the same image - were nearly always interesting...and occasionally extraordinary.

I was reminded of this exercise when I heard about a rare appearance by Fumito Ueda (lead designer of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus) at the recent Nordic Game conference. Prior to his presentation, Ueda also spoke to writers from Edge Magazine. His remarks shed light on the vagaries of the creative process and his own intentions as an artist. Regarding the origins of his two most famous games:

Both Ico and SOTC originated as single images in Ueda’s mind. For Ico it was a boy leading a girl by the hand; for SOTC it was a tiny figure challenging a giant. The game and narrative are separate extrapolations from this kernel.[1]

Ueda's process begins with an image and grows from that place, informing the way the game plays, how it feels, and what it means. Clearly, Ueda's response to the image of a boy leading a helpless girl by the hand found its way into Ico's themes of selfless devotion and love. The artist communicates his intentions by channeling them through a powerful image. The meaning of the image is conveyed through a beautiful weave of gameplay and narrative.

We always knew Ico was artistic. Now we know why.

But hold the phone:

"I always want my games to be something that would inspire. But you picked up on devotion and love? I did not have a specific message for it.”

Ueda also claims to be surprised by the reception of his characters. The emotional connection that players made with the few allies that populate the bleak, lonely worlds of Ico and something he did not expect, particularly not outside of Japan.

“I am aware of the artistic sense of the product I’m producing, but that is not the goal throughout,” says Ueda. “That’s just part of the game’s contents..."[2]

Huh? How can this be? Is Ueda simply being coy about his work? Is he playing "disingenuous artist" with an interviewer, or could there be more to it than that? And what about my neat and tidy analysis of Ueda's process? "I did not have a specific message" really messes me up.

I would suggest that Ueda's apparent unwillingness to assign his work a single "meaning" - or even admit to an intention beyond making a good game - is indicative of an artist who understands the distance between conception and reception. It may also explain why he so rarely talks about his work.

Every word he utters as "creator" will only serve to limit the game to his fixed conception of it. If this were the final word, then my grad school pals and I would all have written the same 10-minute play about the Georgia O'Keeffe lily, the Dorothea Lange photograph, and The Pietà. Artists don't own their work, nor do they control its meaning.

My friend Chris over at the Artful Gamer explored this phenomenon recently in an essay called "The Medium is Not a Message." He argues persuasively for understanding games in a holistic way. I quote him liberally because I can't summarize his words without diminishing them:

The artist has no hidden message for us. Even when an artist deeply desires to communicate, moralize, educate, challenge, or amuse the audience - their artistic creation will always frustrate, deny, and exceed their intentions. Trying to interpret or understand an artistic work by guessing at the artist’s intentions is a blind, endless, alley.

The expressive qualities of a work of art, or video game, come from many different sources. Some of those sources of meaning are bound up with the artistic medium - the fact that a game must proceed in a logical, rule-based, manner. The artistic methods and techniques of the artist also bring a particular personal expression to the work. The cultural and historical context that an artist works in, responds to, lives, contributes to the meanings we find in the work. The emotional and intellectual depth, imaginative capacities, intensity and breadth of feelings, and sensitivity of the reader/viewer/player/audience bring meaning to the art piece.

All of these things, bound up together, give us a “sense” of what an artistic work means. Segregating any of these elements (culture, language, artistic method, the artist, the audience, the piece itself) and trying to pin down the source of meaning onto just one thing is a plain mistake. However, contextualizing and interrelating these elements, one to another, gives us the chance to understand what art is about.

You can read all of Chris's essay here. Edge Magazine's article on Fumito Ueda, "The Curiosities of the Colossus," can be found here.

Image courtesy of Kitanai-Neko at DeviantArt.

Vintage Game Club - away we go!

Grimfandangomelange The Vintage Game Club launches today with a discussion of LucasArts' classic adventure Grim Fandango. It's not too late to jump in and join us as we collectively play through and discuss one of the great video games of all time.

For more information on the VGC, read my previous post about it.

To join us, hop over to our discussion forum, sign up, and you're in. If you'd prefer not to join but simply want to follow the discussion, you're welcome to do that too.

Periodically, I will grab posts made on the forum and feature them here to highlight what we're doing. I think lots of people are interested in older games, but they may not have time to join us for a full play-through. I want to share what we're doing and demonstrate how a community of gamers can work together to discuss, analyze, and enjoy classic games.

All are welcome to join us.

Ready to surrender my gun


I mostly ignored E3 this year. With each passing year I find myself less glued to the games media coverage and flood of announcements. To be honest, I've also begun to find the grinding gears of the industry hype machine less compelling and - well, less digestible.

When I finally sat down yesterday to catch up on what happened at E3, I was struck by the intense focus and sheer amount of coverage devoted to shooters and other games about basically killing anything that moves. I know the typical IGN or Gamespot visitor is likely very interested in news about Gears of War 2 or the mysterious as-yet-unannounced Halo game from Bungie, and who can blame these sites from feeding their readers news they want to read?

Game footage, screenshots, "exclusive" playthroughs, and lengthy (often fawning) interviews with developers like Cliff Bleszinski and Todd Howard reveal lots of tasty tidbits and drum up publicity in ways that serve the interests of both developers and the games media that cover them. Gamers eat this stuff up, and who am I to begrudge them their fix? Truth be told, I watched the Fallout 3 trailer several times myself, and my interest in that game is now successfully piqued. Well played, Bethesda.

I do think the often chummy relationships between game makers and journos is a bit worrying, but I'll save that for another post.

The question that kept popping up for me after plowing through all the announcements and game demos was simply: how many more shooters do we need? So-called hardcore gamers clearly love these games, but how much industry focus and development resources will finally be enough? And at what point have we simply gone over the edge?

I'm as interested as the next guy (gal?) in a brand new next-gen Fallout game or a follow-up to Bioshock, but do we really need so many developers devoting so much time to an apparently endless flow of shooters, most of which will not evolve the medium or the genre in any significant way? Which of these games can truly justify their existence and budgets in the current gaming environment?

Borderlands, RAGE, Far Cry 2, Resistance 2, Resistance: Retribution, God of War 3, Fallout 3, Resident Evil 5, Wolfenstein, Killzone 2, MAG, Gears of War 2, Just Cause 2, Mercenaries 2, Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, Too Human, Alpha Protocol, SOCOM: Confrontation, Saints Row 2, Left 4 Dead, Project Origin, and Whatever Halo Game Bungie is working on.

Believe it or not, this is actually a selective list.

In an industry with a finite set of resources distributed among all sorts of games, do we really need this many shooters? And what sorts of games might we dream up if we didn't focus so much energy on shooters? With games like Little Big Planet and Spore coming down the pike (both of which are big budget games), one might argue there's plenty of room and resources for imaginative alternatives to shooters. And E3 revealed other promising titles like Flower, Fat Princess, and PixelJunk Eden that suggest the industry fixation on shooters isn't quite debilitating.

But compared to most shooters, these PSN games require significanly fewer people and less money to make - which may be one reason they look so fresh. I can't help but wonder if we spent just a little less time building one shooter after another, what other fresh and innovative games might emerge?

Baseball Mogul 2009 - review

Bb2k9pbp My relentless and largely unsuccessful campaign to convert all my readers to baseball sim players continues undeterred. ;-) PopMatters has posted my review of Baseball Mogul 2009. Here's a snippet:

For computer/console baseball fans, these are surely the best of times. With titles like Out of the Park Baseball 9, MLB 08: The Show, PureSim Baseball, and the grossly underrated MLB Power Pros, there’s a baseball game for everybody - sim fan, arcade fan, online league fan, and hardcore stat cruncher. In just the last two years, 14 different baseball games have appeared for computers and various consoles. It’s a wonderful time to be alive.

You can read the full review here.

Tools for activist game design

This is my final report from the Games, Learning, and Society conference. I've detoured a bit from my regular style of posting with these pieces, but I hope you've found them interesting. I'm grateful to Simon Carless for inviting me to cover the event for Gamasutra, and to the GLS folks for organizing such a wonderful gathering of people who care deeply about games.

Maryflanagan On the final day of GLS, Dr. Mary Flanagan led a workshop entitled “Values at Play: Tools for Activist Game Design.” Flanagan directs the Tiltfactor game research lab at Hunter College and is the creator of The Adventures of Josie True, the first internet adventure game for girls. She also co-founded Rapunsel, a research project to teach girls programming.

Flanagan is devoted to developing games and software that create “rewarding, compelling, and socially-responsible interactions, with a focus on inventive game design for social change.” She believes designers must intervene in the earliest stages of game design to consider how games can embody socially responsible values. “The idea is to embed human values or human principles into design processes.”

Flanagan noted that “it's not just about narrative and representation.” She and her colleagues are trying to embed positive principles into gameplay and identify design solutions that “convey these principles, yet also satisfy competitive urges and are fun to play.” Flanagan and her team believe that every design decision “can potentially have social, moral, and political implications, and that each design feature can potentially convey social, moral, and political content.”

Can games teach equity? Can games convey values such as creative expression, negotiation, and diversity? Flanagan believes they can and should, but the traditional iterative design model may not work for this. She advocates instead a model that prioritizes values goals at the beginning of the design process and affirms the efficacy of those goals at each step along the way. “You would be amazed at how quickly these things can disappear if you don't keep a close eye on them."

Flanagan introduced workshop participants to “Grow-A-Game” cards, developed by Tiltfactor for the Values at Play project. These cards function as a game design tool intended to facilitate analysis of the values present in video games. They can also be used to brainstorm modifications to existing games or for designing entirely new games.

Participants were divided into small groups, and each received four categories of cards:

  • Actions  - “Game mechanics or actions that a player performs within the game. Mechanics are geared towards socially conscious actions including trading, creating, and subverting.”
  • Challenges - “Social issues and conflicts. These include: sexism, pollution, and addiction.”
  • Games - “From classic board games to modern first-person shooters. These cards trigger dialogue about values by inspiring players to analyze and modify popular existing games. Sample games include Scrabble, Pac-Man, and Halo."
  • Goals - “Goals cards have ideals that might set the context for a more just and sustainable society. Goals include: generosity, peace, and autonomy.”

Each group drew one Goals card (e.g. justice) and one Action card (e.g. healing) and were then asked to collaboratively design a game (in this example) about justice whose primary mechanic is healing. Groups brainstormed and discussed their ideas, then presented them in a debriefing session.

In a separate exercise, they also combined a Games card with a Challenges card and reconceptualized an existing game to focus on a social issue. One group redesigned Monopoly to incorporate the goal of Empathy by having players switch places, property, and money when they roll certain die combinations, ensuring that no player take undue advantage of another. The winning condition is keeping all players in the game for as long as possible.

The workshop concluded with a demo of Hush, “a statement game built from two cards,” according to Flanagan. Through haunting sounds and images the game depicts ethnic cleansing in Rwanda as the player struggles to keep her crying baby from alerting the militia outside her door. Hush, says Flanagan, illustrates how a powerful and evocative game experience can emerge from a design focus that combines innovative gameplay with social values.

GLS - What we can learn from fantasy baseball

Baseball_firstbase_2 How is fantasy baseball really played? What can it teach us about how and why we play complex games and what we derive from that experience?

Erica and Rich Halverson's talk at the GLS Conference provided a snapshot of their research into the ways “learning, play, and engagement in fantasy sports require a combination of fan cultural practices and skills characteristic of gamers in order to be successful.” Erica Halverson is an assistant professor of learning sciences and Rich Halverson is an associate professor in educational leadership and policy analysis, both at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Halversons believe expert fantasy sports players “construct organizing metaphors for their gameplay and that these metaphors guide both in-game decisions and experts’ mental models used for reflecting on play.” Understanding how expert gamers think and behave could yield great benefits to educators and game designers alike. Such an understanding “could help guide the design of learning spaces that use the competitive fandom model as a principle for design.”

Fantasy baseball emerges, according to the Halversons, via the convergence of three activities: Primary activity (Major League Baseball); Fan activity (watching games, collecting cards, etc.); and Fantasy activity (organizing or participating in a fantasy baseball league). The fantasy activity “repurposes the primary activity content” with fan activity to create a game-based environment with its own unique set of player created rules.

The Halversons are trying to “reverse engineer” fantasy baseball to better understand how data-rich games work. They are trying to determine “what is added to fan knowledge to produce fantasy gaming expertise.” To find the answers they are analyzing the discourse of in-game play (both spouses are fantasy baseball players) and conducting semi-structured interviews with expert players. Much of this has occurred within “an incredibly complex transmedia environment” of phone, voice and video chat, multiple internet resources, email, charts, graphs, databases, etc.

Expert players, say the Halversons, rely on what Aristotle called practical wisdom: “patterns of problem-setting and problem-solving; an eye for the appropriate move in navigating complex systems.” High-level gamers rely on reasoning, data reduction techniques (“chunking large bodies of information into meaningful patterns”), and an ability to adapt knowledge to novel situations.

Stories and analogies are constructed around play and are often mapped onto other experiences, such as stock market analysis. The Halversons' research suggests that expert players routinely use their fantasy baseball acumen to succeed in other situations requiring skillful analysis of ever-changing data and information.

High-level players must develop and utilize adaptive expertise, according to the Halversons. “The primary activity is dynamic, so rules are really heuristics. Things change quickly, and players must respond nimbly by developing strategies for multiple scenarios.” Expert fantasy players are ready for almost any situation and quickly turn unexpected events to their advantage. “It is also a social learning and adaptive situation. You must know the other players, know the league, etc.” Referring to one especially successful fantasy player, Rich Halverson described him as “the smartest man I know.”

Of particular note to educators is the Halversons' finding that fan knowledge and primary activity expertise go both ways. An expert fantasy baseball player's knowledge of the primary activity (MLB) “enables hypothesis testing that makes you an expert fantasy player.” But perhaps more importantly, expertise in the fantasy game creates heightened expertise in the primary activity as well. This could result in broad applications for teachers who wish to apply the competitive fandom model to teaching a wide range of other subjects. It could also impact game designers who want to better understand how and why players engage on a deep level with games.