For the love of...


This one isn’t about a game.

This one is about old books, old movies, and new technology. It's about a simple but nimble yarn, adapted and presented in different formats, its essence preserved in each.

It’s about old inspiring new, and new amplifying old. It’s about different storytelling traditions coexisting on a spectrum of expressive possibilities, each standing on its own, while supporting and enhancing the other.

This is about The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, one of the best short films I’ve seen, one of the best interactive books I’ve read, and one of the most elegant iPad apps I’ve encountered. Before going on, I encourage you to watch the trailer below, which effectively conveys the spirit of the story.

Homage hunters will find many easy targets in Morris Lessmore. Morris himself is a dead-ringer for Buster Keaton, and the animators do a wonderful job of capturing Keaton’s gait, stone-face, and expressive eyes - they even manage to reproduce his trademark corkscrew pratfall. The hurricane sequence in Keaton’s classic Steamboat Bill, Jr. inspires the opening minutes of Morris Lessmore

The film’s playful mix of color with black and white cinematography (and spinning house) are a nod to The Wizard of Oz, and its overall visual style draws from a wealth of Technicolor musicals from Hollywood’s heyday. 

But the most distinctive aspect of Morris Lessmore’s art style is its use of old-school miniatures and 2D animation, blended with Pixar-style computer animation. (Director William Joyce is a former Pixar animator.) As a result, the film manages to look both old and new at the same time, and the familiar Pixar sheen is mottled with dust.

Book_standing Morris Lessmore, the iPad app, is a brilliant translation of the film into an interactive storybook for kids and adults. Unlike many other e-books I’ve seen, these elements don’t feel like bolted-on afterthoughts.

Page after page, the reader is presented with ways to interact with the world of the story, much as Morris does, through exploration and discovery. Nearly all of these are optional, and the reader can choose to have the entire story read aloud with no interactions at all, if she wishes.

But the best way to experience The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore is to simply play and see what happens. My 3-year-old daughter and I have read the book together a dozen times or more, and each reading unfolds like a new adventure to her.

She’s engaged in a kind of reading that encourages her to think about why the books talk, and why it’s important to help them find their way home. This is far more compelling than the “touch the monkey to make him jump” routine that passes for interactivity in most of the e-books I’ve seen.

Ultimately, Morris Lessmore is about loving books and passing that love onto others. That’s the ‘message’ of the film/storybook, and it’s a wonderful message to share. But Morris Lessmore is also about loving silent movies and Buster Keaton and pork pie hats; it’s about loving animation and exquisite art design; it’s about loving Star Trek come-true technology that lets us play and read and explore together on a device that still feels like a small miracle to me.

When I read The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore with my daughter on my lap, each of these loves are in play, each brings me joy, and I’m grateful for all of one more. The one on my lap.

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore, the short film, is available on iTunes. The iPad storybook is available in the App Store.

Putting a newsgame to the test


In the opening chapter of their book, Newsgames: Journalism at Play, co-authors Ian Bogost, Simon Ferrari, and Bobby Schweizer describe the game Cutthroat Capitalism and its origins as a 2009 Wired magazine piece. Cutthroat Capitalism, the print article, presented an economic analysis of Somali pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden, with colorful pages full of infographics, charts, and diagrams (many drawn in 8-bit pixel art style) illustrating the economic dimension of ransom piracy in the region.

Cutthroat Capitalism, the game, puts the player at the helm of a pirate vessel, "staked with $50,000 from local tribal leaders and other investors. Your job is to guide your pirate crew through raids in and around the Gulf of Aden, attack and capture a ship, and successfully negotiate a ransom." The game, say Newsgames' authors, "effectively simulates capture and negotiation, synthesizing the principles of the [Wired article] into an experience rather than a description."

Bogost, Ferrari, and Schweizer cite Cutthroat Capitalism as a primary example of Newsgame's thesis: a well designed game can enable players to better understand complex events by experiencing them in abstraction. Playing Cutthroat Capitalism interactively exposes players to a complex system at work inside the news story.

Newsgamescover More importantly for the future of journalism, it integrates "a new and different media artifact" into a broader journalistic workflow that enriches the experience for the reader. The print and digital versions of the story complement and enrich each other.

Newsgames posits that good journalism must "embrace new modes of thinking about news" that include such interactive resources. Newsgames won't save the world or resuscitate traditional journalism, but the authors believe "they do represent a real and viable opportunity to help citizens form beliefs and make decisions."

As a teacher, I'm intrigued by Newsgames' argument, but how achievable are the potential outcomes its authors claim? Can a newsgame truly augment traditional journalism in meaningful ways? I decided to put one to the test and see for myself.

I tasked a group of eight students with the following assignment:

Consult four media sources (one newspaper, one website or blog, one print magazine, and one television network) and learn as much as you can about Somali pirate activity in the Gulf of Aden region since 2007. Try your best to understand the who/what/where/when/why of this ongoing story as reported by the sources you choose. This isn't a research or term paper assignment. Your goal should be to acquaint yourself with the story in order to discuss it thoughtfully and make informed judgements about it with your classmates.

The students relied on a range of news outlets (New York Times, CNN, Al Jazeera, Fox News, Mother Jones, Reuters, The National Review, Wikipedia, the Huffington Post - among others). From the outset, they tried to understand the story from multiple perspectives. They collected published news stories, interviews with government officials and Somali pirates, op-ed pieces, infographic time-lines, and other relevant materials.

When we met to discuss what they had learned, it became clear that they were eager to talk about the issue and prepared to think about it carefully. We enjoyed a fruitful conversation, with some students expressing a degree compassion for the pirates, while others advocated a military crackdown. In particular, the discussion opened their eyes to Somalia's plight as a war-ravaged failed state - among the poorest and most violent in the world - and a story that, sadly, none of these students had heard about.

Near the end of our meeting, I showed them Cutthroat Capitalism' s website and asked them to go home, play it for an hour or so, and post their reactions to our online class forum. I gave them no further instructions or explanations, aside from noting that my request was relevant to our conversation. In the forum, I prompted them with this question:

Having played Cutthroat Capitalism, would you say the experience altered or enriched your thinking about the issue of Somali piracy? If so, how? If not, try to explain how the game might have been more effective. I have no stake in whether you like or dislike the game, so please feel free to be frank in your responses.

Here is a selection of comments posted to the forum:

It never occurred to me that when you win a negotiation you have to split the money with Elders and land-based security in Somalia. Plus you've got to pay off your backers, so when you win a $2 million ransom you're only left with a quarter of that to split with your crew. ... I'd say the game makes that part of the issue more clear because it makes you stop and think about how these guys weigh their options.

There's so many ships sailing through the area that you can only target a small fraction of them, and its hard to intercept them sometimes. The news stories don't really tell that part of it. You have to figure out which types of ships to hit, and some can outrun you, and some don't really have much money or cargo, so you waste your time on them... The game makes it more obvious that these pirates are small boats in a big ocean full of other boats, and chances are slim that you'll get targeted, so why not take your chances.

The game is too easy, which made me feel it's not realistic, but the stats we saw say most of the pirates are successful, so maybe not. You can win every time if you demand a low amount of money and treat the captives well. That one story we read about the pirate whose been doing it for years and never getting caught, he wins with this same strategy. He's basically a nice guy who treats everybody well and gets lots of small hijacks that add up to huge money. The newspaper story made it seem like they were glorifying the guy, but the game shows how his strategy works, so I think it's probably realistic after all. He's basically just a good businessman.

For the people who are vicitmized by pirates, it's not a game... Cutthroat Capitalism does an excellent job of explaining how pirates negotiate and the factors that go into that. In this part, the answer to "does it enrich my thinking?" is yes. But it also disturbs me because I don't think the issue of Somali piracy should be presented as a game. It reduces it to something less than what it is.

These and other responses suggest to me that Bogost, Ferrari, and Schwiezer are up to something important with Newsgames. My students clearly responded in ways that indicate deeper reflection on the issue of Somali piracy, provoked by their interactive experience with the game. My one-on-one conversations with several of them confirm this impression.

Cutthroat Capitalism only scratches the surface of how games can augment or enhance traditional journalism, according to Bogost, Ferrari, and Schwiezer. This modest post fails to convey the full breadth of their vision for newsgames. But I hope that by putting one to the test it's possible to discern that there is proof in the newsgame pudding.

Ian Bogost may be the most important game critic and researcher in the world, and Newsgames is his most useful contribution yet. If we're curious about the power of games to make a positive difference in the world, Bogost and his co-authors have proposed a dynamic and viable new way to do it.

Saving the world


We who care and write about games face a conundrum. We want to make the case for games to a mainstream culture with narrow, often misguided perceptions about what cames can be and do. But if we ring our bell too often, persistently demanding that games be taken seriously, our pleas smack of desperation.

If games should be mentioned in the same breath with other art forms - if they possess aesthetic qualities and communicate meaning - why don't we just shut up and let the games do the talking? Is it possible that our collective effort to culturally elevate games is ultimately self-defeating? 

Reality is Broken
In her new book Reality is Broken, Jane McGonigal walks squarely into the middle of this conundrum, but manages to avoid being ensnared by it. McGonigal isn't interested in delineating the artistic merits of Shadow of the Colossus or the ideological dimensions of Far Cry II. In fact, she mentions only a handful of popular games (Rock Band, Halo 3, World of Warcraft), and does so mostly in passing. 

It turns out that McGonigal isn't much interested in making the case for games at all. She has set her sights on more than cultural respectability for games. McGonigal believes games can make us better people. But that's not all. 

The game-enabled experiences McGonigal wants to explore (specialized ARGs, crowdsourced "very big games") occur in custom-designed games intended to produce socially positive goals. Games - or more aptly for McGonigal, the application of game design principles to real-world problems - can save the world. "They are, quite simply, the best hope we have for solving the most complex problems of our time."

Remember that bell I mentioned? McGonigal traded hers for a Chinese Opera gong.

How can McGonigal possibly prove such grandiose claims? Well, she can't - at least not completely - but she's remarkably effective at targeting thorny problems and designing games to address them. The persuasiveness of her arguments relies on her ability to explore an issue (such as injury recovery or "happiness hacking - translating positive-psychology research findings into game mechanics") and applying game design principles that target and address its causes.

McGonigal has an uncanny ability to break down a problem, identify a structure (goals, restrictions, feedback), and assign core mechanics that enable fun/useful interaction with the problem. Her chapters devoted to "Leveling Up in Life," and "Fun with Strangers" are full of terrific examples of games designed by McGonigal and others to incentivize simple, but important activities like convincing young people to stay in touch with their grandparents.

Missions Impossible
Later in the book, when McGonigal expands her scope to include complex worldwide issues like poverty and climate change, her reach seems to extend beyond her grasp, and it's difficult to see how a "serious game" like World Without Oil could have a truly meaningful impact on geopolitical issues of deep complexity. But here again, McGonigal's focus shifts to a root perspective. Serious games that address serious problems aren't necessarily built to solve those problems.

Instead, they do what James Paul Gee and others have suggested all effective games do: enable us to understand complex systems and develop intelligence and imaginative strategies for harnessing them. McGonigal subscribes to Will Wright's notion that "augmenting our natural capacity for imagination" is vital at this precise moment in history. "It's a matter of survival, pure and simple."

Games provoke our imaginations, big-picture thinking, and problem-solving impulses in ways that we can leverage for the good of the planet. "We have been playing good games for nearly as long as we have been human," says McGonigal. "It is now time to play them on extreme scales."

Reality is Broken is a wildly audacious work, and McGonigal puts herself on the line throughout the book with exalted assertions like: "It seems clear to me that games are the most likely candidate to serve as the next great breakthrough structure for life on earth." That she managed to beat back most of my knee-jerk retorts is a testament to her persuasiveness as a writer and the carefully constructed logic of her ideas. McGonigal is prepared to defend the turf she has staked out, and she makes no apologies for the grandiosity of her project. I'm skeptical about the power of game design to save the world, but McGonigal makes me doubt my doubts.

I am dubious about a few of her claims, however. ARGs like Cruel 2 B Kind - a crowd game designed to increase the social well-being of a place by dispatching teams of players dispensing hospitality and compliments to strangers - certainly looks like fun. But I question the real impact when such actions lack authentic inspiration. An act of kindness to a stranger is diminished when that act is delivered to score points, defeat an opponent, or win a game. I should note that I've never played Cruel 2 B Kind, so I should be careful not to dismiss it out of hand. 

I'm also troubled by McGonigal's assumption that people who regularly play games have "opted out of reality." She quotes Edward Castronova's term: a "mass exodus" to game spaces, and asserts that this exodus is "more than a perception. It's a phenomenon." She goes on to cite statistics that show hundreds of millions of active gamers worldwide, and she suggests these numbers prove we have turned to games because they are "teaching and inspiring and engaging us in ways that reality is not."

I'm one of those gamers, and I must say this characterization rings false to me. I accept McGonigal's notion that "video games are fulfilling genuine human needs," but I'm not convinced we've all turned to them because the real world cannot satisfy those needs. In fact, it's quite the opposite with me.

I wish games were more capable of addressing, exploring, or satisfying me as a human in the world. Too often, the disconnect flings me back to the real world, grateful for its complexity, ambiguity, and uncertainty. I do not play games as an escape from the real world. More often, I play them seeking ways to abstract, virtually explore, or amplify the non-virtual world I find infinitely more interesting.

Read it!
These objections do nothing to diminish my admiration and gratitude for Reality is Broken. McGonigal's mission couldn't possibly be more ambitious, and she succeeds to an astonishingly impressive degree. This is a thoughtful, generous, and forward-looking work that offers a path to a bright future if we're willing to learn the valuable lessons games can teach us. It's a hopeful vision supported by pragmatic ideas rooted in proven design principles. As McGonigal puts it, "Games aren't leading us to the downfall of human civilization. They're leading us to its reinvention." 

Book week

RealityIsBroken  Newsgamescover  FunInc

It's book week at Brainy Gamer! In my next fews posts, I'll look at three new books by Jane McGonigal (Reality is Broken), Ian Bogost (Newsgames, with collaborators Simon Ferrari and Bobby Schweitzer), and Tom Chatfield (Fun, Inc.). All three propose that games have the power to do important, transformative work, but they differ wildly in their goals and rhetorical strategies. 

Today I'll mainly set the table, taking a brief look at Reality is Broken. In my next post, I'll offer a closer look, and, taking my cue from McGonigal, I'll offer a few design ideas of my own. 

Game designer and theorist Jane McGonigal has been making the rounds recently - delivering a TED talk, appearing on NPR and The Colbert Report, and touring the country to promote her new book Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World. It's a fascinating read. While I'm not convinced by all her arguments, and I believe single-player games deserve more attention than she gives them, McGonigal's central premise breaks important ground, and her ideas deserve careful consideration by all of us who care about games and their impact on society.

McGonigal believes games offer a structural model for incentivizing and rewarding positive thoughts and actions. Games, McGonigal says, are "happiness engines," and we can develop more fulfilling, productive, and close-knit groups (families, communities, businesses, etc.) by making them more "gameful."

It's easy to be skeptical about McGonigal's claims. Browse your local bookstore, and you'll find dozens of agents for change - social entrepreneurs, positive thinkers, vegans, ecologists, evangelists, philosophers - all claiming the power to change the world. Game design can be seen as just another paradigm for encouraging people to re-examine their assumptions and adopt new mental tools. In this light, McGonigal is a new-age Norman Vincent Peale, peddling the power of positive thinking to Millennials...GAMIFIED!

But such a view of McGonigal's work ignores the levelheaded approach and clear-sighted vision conveyed by Reality is Broken. This book is not an instructional manual for building a games-centric utopia or a pop-sociology study of "game culture." McGonigal does not issue a clarion call for "games as art," nor does she plead a case for games as culturally respectable or worthy of study. 

Instead, she begins with the premise that games possess the power to fulfill "genuine human needs," and she devotes fourteen chapters to examining why and how we might leverage that game-player interaction to benefit ourselves and others. Many of McGonigal's claims - such as her contention that games encourage behavior that is "urgently optimistic in the face of failure" - help us see the potential of game design principles outside the game space. 

McGonigal also explains why "synchronized engagement" and "collective commitment" create intangible but powerfully satisfying rewards for players. She's especially adept at explaining why "Games don't just happen. Gamers work to make them happen." This prosocial behavior, even in competitive games, has powerful implications. If working for the mutual benefit of all players makes a better game, what else can we do with that system?

McGonigal believes people need more "epic wins": opportunities to do extraordinary things. She describes a phenomenon that rings true with me - one that's grown more prevalent in my classroom over the last decade. "There's an undeniable tendency toward irony, cynicism, and detachment in popular culture today," she notes. Games motivate players to care deeply about their actions and drive them to achieve big, momentous outcomes. It's worth asking why this disconnect exists. Why do players engage so deeply and willingly in a fictional world, but perceive positive, selfless behavior in the real one so dubiously?

Serious talk about games is trending. Thoughtful consideration of the medium now extends beyond geek culture into mainstream popular media and academia. Thought-leaders like McGonigal and Ian Bogost (whose latest book Newsgames proposes "a new way of doing good journalism") are tapping into the zeitgeist as commentators while also working to define and advance it as creators.

Newsgames deserves more time than I can devote to it now. I'll return later this week with a more thorough examination. Fun, Inc. will come last. There's a reason for that. I'll explain. Hope you'll stick around.



As we all know, video games rot our brains and make us weak and lazy. It's summer, Bunky (for us northern hemisphere dwellers anyway)! Get off that sofa and exercise. Or read a book. Better yet, read a book about the fabulous active toys you played before you became a doughy gamer - before sofas, consoles, and gamepads lured you into their quaggy vacuous vortex.

And I've got the book for you. The Wham-O Super-Book. I discovered it last week at, of all places, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. After hours of blissfully exploring Picasso, Pollock, and Penck we hit the bookstore for a quick peek. I was tired and hungry and ready to leave...until this mad wonderful opus stopped me in my tracks.

When I was growing up, Wham-O made the best toys in the business: The Superball, Hula-Hoop, Slip n Slide, Frisbee, Hacky-Sack, Silly String, and my personal favorite: Super Elastic Bubble Plastic. This book showcases all of Wham-O's great toys, including the positively weird stuff, like the Chain Gang Drinking Coasters and the Patio Style Bomb Fallout Shelter Cover. I'm not making that last one up.

Released last year to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the company, the Wham-O Super-Book is chock-full of colorful photographs chronicling each toy (including packaging), and it features dozens of vintage print ads and other marketing materials all bearing Wham-O's signature style. As a visual archive of a truly original American toy company (started by a couple of childhood friends out of a garage in 1948), it's an invaluable resource and a retro feast.

So do yourself a favor. Get off that sofa, buy this book, return to your sofa, read it and enjoy! :-)