Thursday, November 19, 2015

Educational Games: The Big Picture Part I

As I mentioned before, I've been reviewing research papers, interviewing educational game developers, and conducting a survey about educational game developers.  My goal was to see if the state of educational game development had changed in the last decade.  How were educational game developers faring?  Were the problems reported in our book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, still plaguing developers or had they been eradicated?

I could not be more pleased to announce that the first of four articles, "Is the School Market Still Just a Mirage?" has been published on Games and Learning.  When I first started on this endeavor, I was trying to think of which journalism outlets would be the best venue for this type of research.  I knew that I didn't want to have this work hidden in an academic journal.  I want you to read the articles, discuss them, tweet about them, and hopefully, together, we can make an impact.  If anything, I want people to know that there has been research on the effectiveness of games in education.  I heard repeatedly from people that there isn't proof of games aiding in learning outcomes, which simply told me that we need to see that research gets publicized.

In particular, check out the audio interview, which covers material not included in the article.

I was fortunate to have frank conversations with educational game developers, many of whom have been in the industry for over a decade.  I also talked to new entrants, who are just starting up their businesses.  I talked to digital and analog designers.  I read tons of research papers.  I fact-checked and looked up school budgets.  Then, I hoped I could coalesce all this information into something coherent.   There were times, just like when the book was written, I wished there was some reference material I could read but there just wasn't, because so much of the content was based on original sources.

I have written about business models before in Secrets of the Game BusinessIn the game industry, I get to use both my degrees from MIT: Comparative Media Studies/Writing and Economics.  I'm really happy that I got the chance to take this deep dive into the world of educational game development. 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

How Technology Is Changing Storytelling

Last weekend at the launch of Immersive Edge, a hypergrid story, I had a presentation in-world about how technology is changing storytelling.  I can tell you that doing a presentation in-world can be as complicated as a movie shoot!  There needs to be someone in charge of sound and someone in charge of camera.  There are worries about lag.  The event was livestreamed as well, since a limited amount of avatars can be in the amphitheater at the same time.  And of course, there's no Microsoft Powerpoint in-world.

Afterwards, I had a tour of Immersive Edge, which is a puzzle game-story that spans over several chapters, i.e. worlds.  If you've ever wanted to know how it feels to traverse the metaverse, hopping from one world to the next, this is what it's like.  Because Immersive Edge is a product of many minds, each world has a distinctive flavor.   At the same time, you follow the protagonists through their manifestations in each chapter, learning more and more about their story.   You aid them on their journey.  If you're interested in going through this immersive experience, let me know.  It's definitely worth checking out.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Let's Learn About Learning

In this article, game designer Sande Chen argues that creating a taxonomy of educational games would aid greatly in assigning value and determining usage for these products.

Last week, I was reading about a new system with technology to be implemented in the elementary school when an odd phrase caught my attention.  The article said that the kids would "use iPads to watch a video of the teacher explaining and demonstrating something."  It struck me that this was of more benefit to teachers and higher-ups than for learners.  In a learner-centric approach, if I were a learner who needed assistance, I think I would want to have interaction so I could ask the teacher questions rather than just watch a video of a teacher.  This also reminded me of the early days when computers were first introduced, they were mostly used for typing.  Or of digitized textbooks, which simply moved the textbook from paper to screen.  I truly hope the students get to do more than just watch videos on iPads.

I looked at the article closer.  Maybe the journalist had misinterpreted something.  Perhaps this was more about "flipped classrooms," whereby students view lectures at home and all the discussion and problem sets are done in class.  As I read, I realized the problem.  The headline was "Using Technology for Active Learning" and I associate active learning with learning by doing, but this system was not about active learning.  Rather, the system was named "learner-active" which seemed to be another way of suggesting DIY learning, or learning at one's own pace. This understood, the cynic in me still thought about how a teacher might refer a struggling student to a video rather than spend time going over difficult material.  Furthermore, if I wanted my primary school student to be engaged in the tools of distance learning, I could do that at home.

Learner-active vs active learning.  Too confusing.  I can see why the journalist got mixed-up with these similar-sounding terms.   This highlights an issue I've found when reviewing literature about technology and education.  We can't even agree on the proper terminology to talk about games in education.  No one likes the term edutainment and yet, journalists still continue to use the word, even referring to Portal 2 as edutainment when Valve opened its Teach With Portals site.  There's edtech, learning games, game-based learning, games for good, games for change, persuasive games, serious games, edugames, gamification, and simulations.  There are subtle distinctions but it still adds to the confusing pot of what is educational games. 

In the Cooney Center report, "Games for a Digital Age: K-12 market map and investment analysis," there is a distinction between short-form and long-form learning games.  It's arbitrary, but it indicates to teachers that short-form games are short enough to be used in classrooms whereas long-form games require a lot more sessions.  The authors break educational games down further into the following categories:
  1. Drill and Practice
  2. Puzzle
  3. Interactive Learning Tools
  4. Role Playing
  5. Strategy
  6. Sandbox
  7. Action/Adventure
  8. Simulations
Photo taken by Davi Silva.
While these categories may seem like they're from the game industry, with the exception of Drill and Practice and Interactive Learning Tools, there isn't a clear alignment.  In educational circles especially, there seems to be a great deal of confusion between the act of role-playing and the genre of role-playing games. Almost every game has an element of role-playing whereby players assume a character's role, but the category of role-playing games refers specifically to games derived from tabletop role-playing games, such as Dungeons & Dragons.

Drill and Practice "games" refer to programs such as Study Island that would be considered interactive worksheets.  Interactive Learning Tools are interactive elements, not necessarily games, that can be easily inserted into a lesson.  A timeline is an example of an "interactive."

I think this is a good start towards a taxonomy of educational games and software.  It's very hard for parents and administrators to gauge the value of the game.  There's so many games and apps out there for young learners and they're all labeled educational.  Parents need more information.  A taxonomy would help in indicating how an educational product is supposed to help in learning.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG. 

Friday, October 16, 2015

Player vs. Designer: Tracking User Experience

In this article, game designer Sande Chen gives advice on how to interpret player feedback and how it impacts user experience.

Have you heard the advice, "Take the note under the note"?  As a young screenwriter, I found this advice baffling, especially when in my first Hollywood meeting, the director said one thing and then the producer completely contradicted the director, asking for a rewrite that I thought was impossible if I followed the director's wishes.  Yet, they were smiling in agreement, seemingly both on the same page.  What the heck was going on?  Life would be much simpler if there were a feedback interpreter at every meeting.      

The problem with feedback is that not everyone can clearly enunciate what is wrong.  Moreover, people may be just bad at giving feedback.  They can only tell you what they felt when they went through the material while you fight back the urge to point out that if only they had read this section, they would understand everything.  The thing is, if they missed that section, that's feedback in itself.  What's important is not the actual words in the feedback, but what you can interpret about the user experience.

Last week at the 2015 New York Comic Con Livestream panel, Writing for Video Games, which was broadcast on Twitch, I eluded to this topic when asked about how to deal with player feedback.  I described a situation whereby designers reacted to player feedback in a MMO and then ended up making the situation worse. 
Matthew Weise, Caitlin Burns, Sande Chen, Steele Filipek at NYCC
In this example, the player response to this MMO world was loud and critical.  The whole thing was too boring.  Too many talk-to quests and not much killing.  I could see that the writer(s) were trying to develop a story, but not many players found the story interesting, especially when they wanted to kill something.  You could blame the players, but the fact is, in a kill-centric MMO, players want to kill.  It's not a MMO about diplomacy.

The designers took that note and in the next release, changed tactics.  Now, there were very few talk-to quests and lots of Kill-10, Kill-Collect, and boss fights.  It was Kill, Kill, Kill.  But the players were more upset than ever because bottlenecks were appearing everywhere.  Players complained that they had to kill hundreds of these mobs and how it was so boring to kill the same thing over and over.  What happened?

Now, you might interpret this feedback as players complaining about everything.  They complained about story quests and then they complained about kill quests.  It might seem that way, but let's examine that first note more closely.  Instead of taking the feedback at face value and replacing all the story quests with kill quests, the designers might have realized that this was an issue of pacing.  Story quests aren't evil.  Neither are kill quests.  They're just part of the user experience.

In this day and age, we're lucky that we can get player feedback so quickly.  This relationship doesn't have to be adversarial.  There's no right or wrong in how somebody feels.  However, we do have to develop a filter to interpret the feedback.  Zeroing in on the user experience is one way of putting player feedback in focus.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Upcoming Events: NY Comic Con and Immersive Edge

I'm finally making some virtual appearances, though you can catch me in person at New York Comic Con tomorrow, October 8! I will be there with colleagues Caitlin Burns, Steele Filipek, and Matthew Weise on a panel about Writing for Video Games.  It'll be broadcast live on NYCC Livestream.  Just go to Twitch and check out NYCC's Live Stage.

New York Comic Con
Writing for Video Games
Thursday, October 8, 2015, 11:30 AM

Secondly, I had a great time at the first installment of Game Writing Portfolio Workout on September 28.  We didn't have time to practice quest writing and interactive dialog, but definitely can during the second class on October 20.

Tickets are available here through PlayCrafting NYC and of course, there's still the early bird price if you sign up early.  The first workshop was sold out, so make plans to come soon!  No virtual appearances for this one because PlayCrafting believes hands-on attention and interaction is what makes its classes so valuable.


Finally, on November 8, I will have the unique pleasure of attending the launch of Immersive Edge, a collaborative Hypergrid story written, built, and produced by 25 persons.  My avatar will be there in the virtual world to do a short presentation about how technology affects storytelling.  Check out the trailer below to learn more about Immersive Edge.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Game Console Photo Spread

In this video, game designer Sande Chen showcases the various game consoles that have been sold throughout the years. 

I found this video from a Pecha Kucha night at IGDA NYC years ago.  If you're into retro gaming, enjoy!


Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Objects and Storytelling

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the relationship of objects to storytelling.

Over the past few weeks, I've been participating in Sherlock Holmes & the Internet of Things. It's a worldwide experiment, a massive collaboration between creatives in different industries, to create an interactive storytelling experience for visitors to Lincoln Center. I think it merges technology, participatory theater, game design, and narrative.  It's been chaotic and strenuous, yet exciting.  At the end of it, I'm sure what comes out will be the work of many different minds and not a single author.

As a group, we've learned about enchanted objects, like umbrellas that notify owners of predicted rain forecasts.  As an owner of one such enchanted object, a Nabaztag that I dubbed magicbunny, I have marveled at its ability to connect me to other users as well as provide me with traffic, weather reports, indie music, and endless quips.  I have seen how others have programmed their Nabaztags for light shows, mechanical dance, and music.  Every time my Nabaztag spoke to me, I thought of how wonderful it would have been to be a writer for this device.  Such possibilities.

But it is not just connected objects that can speak to us.  All objects can have a story.  You may have heard of this as referred to as environmental storytelling and in games, it's not just about words scrawled in blood on a wall.  You see this in the rich detail a novelist uses to describe what a protagonist sees, hears, senses, touches, and smells.  When you realize that objects have stories, you begin to look closely and make deductions like Sherlock Holmes!  Perhaps that worn-out handle or chip means that this coffee cup holds sentimental value.  What does the rings of coffee on the counter tell you about the person's state of mind this morning?  As a writer, you can reverse-engineer these outward signs that evolve out of a character's inner turmoil.  I find it utterly fascinating that nature trackers could tell if an animal had eaten, urinated or had been frightened, all by looking at the animal's track.  Every object we touch leaves a trace of us.

Slow down.  Observe.  Look at an object and see if it tells you a story.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.