Friday, November 27, 2015

For the Love of a Dog

In this article, game designer Sande Chen explores the emotional relationship between players and the stray dogs in The Witcher.

Last year, I heard the incredible story of Arthur, a stray dog who followed an adventure racing team on a grueling 430 mile trek through the Amazon jungle just because one of the team members, Mikael Lindnord, gave him a meatball.  Organizers warned that the team that the endurance race, which included slogging through knee-high mud, was too dangerous for the dog.  Despite best efforts to send him away, Arthur steadfastly followed and the team resorted to pulling the dog out of the mud to help him along.  At the last leg of the journey, the team left Arthur on shore while they set off kayaking, but he jumped into the water.  Heartbroken, Lindnord pulled the dog onto the kayak.  They crossed the finishing line with Arthur. 

The video pretty much sums it up:

This emotional story resonated with people around the world.  Even though the dog may have caused the team delays and additional headaches, Arthur was welcomed as a fifth member of the team.  It reminded me of a situation in The Witcher when a dog can start following the player-character, Geralt.  There is no benefit to keeping the dog safe and yet, players went out of their way to save the dog.  Some even decided to mod the game so that the "nosy dog" won't get killed off in the swamp.

This narrative designed situation created emotional ties and memories.  One player wrote:
"One of the saddest incidents I have ever had in the game was when the "Nosy Dog" got in the way while Geralt was whacking drowners. It went hostile, but didn't attack; Geralt had to kill it, and it wouldn't even defend itself. Only time I ever reloaded this game over a "friendly fire" incident."
Another dog-related quest that caused heartache was in collecting dog tallow.  The stray dogs whine piteously and die horribly.  Some players went out of their way to kill wolves instead of stray dogs, raid pantries for dog tallow, or locate dead dogs to avoid killing stray dogs.  While players may not have a problem with slaying evil human beings, some players viewed the dogs as defenseless innocents who did not deserve to be killed for dog tallow.

It's known that when we put our players in the position of caretakers, be it with a dog or a helpless child, this is a way to tug at the heartstrings.  What's interesting about The Witcher as opposed to other games is that there's no statement either way about allowing the dog to die or not.  If the player feels guilt, sympathy, or love for the dog, the player can act upon that and the player's actions are purely up to the player.  Likewise, with the dogcatcher quest, it's up to the player to decide between killing or not killing stray dogs.  It's great that there were alternate ways provided to complete the quest.

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 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 five 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.