Tag Archives: games

Portals and Intutitions

22 Jun

If you haven’t yet heard, Valve announced Teach With Portals, a new initiative to help students learn about physics by playing Portal 2.

Let me just take a moment to point out that they’re getting some basic but highly non-obvious stuff right. They’ve considered the issue of distribution and maintenance, for example; installing software on school machines is a non-trivial problem. They’re also distributing lesson plans. As with Dread, asking teachers to write their own lesson plans means you’re talking to a much smaller population of potential adopters. Having lessons available on the site also means the kit doesn’t have to add lots of hours to a busy teacher’s day.

There’s been some discussion about the limits of Portal, and yes, I won’t argue that it’s not a perfect representation of physics. One of the things that games seem to do well, though, is help people develop intuitions about physics. Even if a representation isn’t entirely accurate, it can help people develop better heuristics and models for thinking about the problem space as a whole. For example, Squire, Barnett, Grant & Higginbotham asked kids to play with an electromagnetism-simulating game. Kids who played didn’t have a good grasp on the terms and notations of electromagnetism, but they did get a sense of the forces and dynamics involved.

Of course, the lesson plans on the site suggest kids won’t exactly be playing Portal – they’ll be participating in structured, inquiry-based lab activities using Portal. It still sounds like more fun than my high-school physics class, but playing and using a game for not-playing aren’t quite the same thing. I wonder whether players are more or less likely to form usable intuitions when they know their play has a serious purpose.

Still, as someone who believes games prepare you for future learning, I love that the project supports both open-ended play, and also supports connecting that play to formal physics concepts. They’re getting at both the preparation and the future learning.

In related news, I just watched the new Miegakure video. Miegakure is a four-dimensional puzzle-platformer. You, the player, can only ever see three dimensions of the game at any given moment – but by controlling which three, and using the fourth dimension cleverly, you can solve the complex spatial puzzles of play. It sounds like a four-dimensional version of Crush, which I thought was a great and underrated game, and is explicitly inspired by Flatland. Even though the player can’t experience the fourth dimension directly, the player can intuit how it works from using it as a tool to solve problems.

I’ve heard mathematicians talk about having intuitions about the way higher dimensions behave. I’ve always wondered how they managed it, when I can barely understand the concept without making my head hurt. Miegakure makes me think that the problem is that I’ve had things backwards. If I could find a way to grasp the intuitions – for example, by playing a game – then the concept would be much less difficult for my conscious brain to grasp.

A four-dimensional game, though, might provide very different intuitions from a three-dimensional game. Maybe we average folks don’t have enough basic knowledge of what four-dimensional space feels like to build useful mental representations. On the other hand, maybe the intuitive effects would be much stronger than with three-dimensional physics games; after all, we have tons of everyday experiences with three dimensions, so the game provides much less additional benefit.

I can’t wait for Miegakure to come out so I can play it. I also can’t wait to find out to what extent it’ll change the way I think about space – and what that means for how we develop intuitions from games.

Making Horror, Selling Dread

12 Apr

The brilliant and inimitable Vincent Baker went to a horror convention and tried to sell horror role-playing games – and it didn’t work.

It seems like it should have been the ideal situation. Dread does a remarkably good job of producing a horror-movie aesthetic. Vincent is smart, personable, and experienced at selling games. The place was full of horror fans.

Aha, I said to myself. If Vincent can’t sell Dread to horror fans, something is going on here.

In fact, I think there are four things going on here, and all four are working against Dread becoming accessible to the mainstream.

Continue reading

Smashing Toward Story

18 Jan

I’m moderately familiar with Harry Potter; it’s hard not to be, these days! I’ve read the books twice, and I finally watched all of the movies just this year. Yes, I know who Blaise Zabini is, but I certainly wouldn’t consider myself an expert.

I am, however, completely freaking obsessed with the Traveller’s Tales LEGO Harry Potter games. My husband bought me the second one for my birthday and it’s the only thing I’ve played in the last week.

“Can you call this research,” he asked me, “or do you just like smashing things?”

“Research!” I answered indignantly. “Narrative research!” Since Hermione was smashing her way through the Room of Requirement at the time, I’m not sure he believed me – but I actually meant it.

Don’t get me wrong – smashing things is awesome. You play as minifig Harry and his minifig friends, in a world in which most items are destructible and produce studs (the game’s currency) when you shoot them with your wand. The smash interaction is very nearly perfect*, from the zap of your wand to the satisfying sound to the effect on the environment. The studs burst out from the destroyed object and roll across the screen. If you don’t pick them up fast enough they fade away, in which case you might not get enough studs on the level to earn the True Wizard designation. It’s a lovely tension between goal-oriented action and the pure pleasure of destruction.

The problem is, of course, that I can’t turn off my researcher brain when I’m playing, even when I’m playing for fun – and that means I notice things. This time, I noticed that my husband kept asking me what was happening in the cut-scenes.  I was surprised at how often he was confused. I’d thought the cut-scenes were incredibly witty, and not hard to follow at all! Then I remembered: he’d read the books just once, back in 2007 when the final volume came out.

Watching the cut-scenes with more scholarly eyes, I realized just how interesting the Traveller’s Tales approach to story is. The minifigs don’t speak, so the designers were restricted to a language of gesture and physical comedy. It means that all the reasons why things happen have to be painted in very broad strokes. For example, the designers had to express the idea of “horcruxes” – and identify which quest objects were horcruxes – without using a single word. Instead of laboriously trying to explain, they created a visual element that makes sense to someone literate in Rowling’s world. A simple picture with six items on it, shown by Dumbledore to Harry in a private conversation, says “horcruxes” to the educated viewer – and leaves the novice completely lost.

Similarly, each cut-scene has to leave the story in a place where exploration, problem-solving, and blowing things up makes sense. This means they’re often compressing large portions of the story into a short cut-scene, and expanding or inventing sections that are more playable. For example, the dramatic confrontation between the Trio and Umbridge is elided, while their subsequent trip into the Forbidden Forest is filled with obstacles and puzzles. The balance in the book is, need I say, the opposite. Once again, the cut-scene briefly references the book’s events (Hermione waggles a picture of Dumbledore in front of Umbridge, temptingly) but can’t actually attempt to tell that story on its own.

At the same time, the games go beyond re-telling the story of the books, and develop their own visual and narrative language. Of course, there’s an instrumental aspect to this: if something is metallic and shiny, it can only be blown up by the Reducto spell. However, sometimes it’s just for narrative pleasure. Carrots and pumpkins are always funny. Ditto enormous versions of common household objects, like the shears you build to cut down a hedge blocking your path. The minifig faces and bodies are shockingly expressive, even outside the cut-scenes. It isn’t just a retelling of Harry Potter – it’s a retelling with its own particular style, one that’s been developed across the entire Traveller’s Tale LEGO line.

To “read” the Harry Potter games, therefore, you have to be fluent both with the source material and with the LEGO video game line. For my husband, who regularly watches me play, the LEGO elements were effectively comic, while the narrative elements often left him wondering what had just happened. I expect that my friend Abby, who knows the Potterverse quite well but has never played a LEGO game, would have the reverse experience.

I’m sometimes deeply bothered by the practice of shallow symbolic referencing, but the LEGO games do it with wit, craft, and charm. Unlike, say, Wil Wheaton referencing one meme after another, these games don’t just make references to reinforce group identity – they use Harry Potter in order to do an actual retelling of the story, with its own strengths and weaknesses and point of view. I’d go so far as to call these games a very successful parody series, and I recommend them highly to anyone who likes Harry Potter, smashing things, or both.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to smash my way to the bottom of a frozen lake and retrieve the sword of Godric Gryffindor!

* There are occasional auto-target problems when you’re trying to shoot an object that’s too close to you, but the game provides a manual targeting option for these situations.

Writing About Writing About Games

16 Dec

People occasionally ask me why I don’t blog about games more often. After all, I do research on games; I consult on game-related projects; I teach game design classes; I play a lot of games. I certainly don’t hesitate to write about psychology, creativity, literature, feminism, technology, education, or any of the dozen other things I study.

The answer I usually give is that if I’m writing about games, it’s going to happen in an academic context. Why blog about it when I really ought to be writing for publication? The thing is, that answer doesn’t really hold up. They’re two different kinds of writing, and I certainly have no problem writing about other research-related topics on my blog. It’s just an easier thing to tell people than that I’m afraid.

That’s right. I’m afraid to write about games. I’m afraid to write about games because I am a woman. Because I know that if I get attention for what I write, it will inevitably turn poisonous eventually. Because I feel that I have to be twice as smart, twice as insightful, twice as right as a guy writing about games – and even if I manage it, I’ll probably still get called a cunt.

I think my resolution for 2012, thanks to the brilliant and courageous Margaret Robertson, is to blog about games. Specifically, I’m going to write about what I’m playing, in much the same way I log my reading, at least once a month.

We’ll see how it goes. Wish me luck.

Teaching Game Design, Part VI

22 Mar

What is hard for the students to learn? What makes it hard? Is there a ’threshold’ effect in your course, so that once they learned something specific, everything else gets much easier?

On the first day of my introductory game design course, I tell my students that it’s the hardest course they will take in graduate school*. That’s partly because of workload, and partly because the course concepts can be challenging, but it’s also because I reject the Hidden Contract. I refuse to pseudoteach, but it means that I expect better from my students than pseudolearning. My courses are student-driven, creative and highly participatory, and it sometimes takes time for my students to bring a different set of learning skills to bear.

The biggest conceptual challenge for my students is the notion of freedom in play. This includes a number of sub-concepts, like understanding the wide variety of possible player experiences within a single game system. Every year I have students who struggle with the idea that players might not play their game just like they did, or who fall into the trap of “designing from should.” (As in: you SHOULD play this game, and you SHOULD play it this way.)  I can tell the students who are struggling with this concept because they create “creepy treehouse” games, in the wonderful terminology of Melanie McBride.

I think this challenge is hardest for students who focus on educational games, particularly the ones who are the most invested in making games for the classroom. I try to break student fixation on “creepy treehouse” play in a number of ways, from explicit discussion to in-class modeling to mandatory play-testing to making them watch my favorite video. However, one of the most helpful exercises I do with these students is to have them identify elements of classroom culture and discuss how game design challenges or supports each of those elements. Then I ask them to consider how the game they’ve designed relates to each of these elements. Usually I get an “Aha!” by the third or fourth example of privileging classroom behavior over playfulness in their game.

Once students surmount this challenge, I see an enormous improvement in the quality of the games they produce. Their games become far more playful and far more risky, far more novel and far more sensitive to the nuances of the environment in which play takes place. Their papers also become more sophisticated, as they write about how their games connect to the theoretical material in the course in a clearer and more original way.

What’s interesting is that this struggle is that it appears regularly in student assignments, but rarely in class discussions. Students can engage with the readings and hold their own in class discussion, but still retain some very flawed notions about how play works. Once they have to make their own games, though, their misconceptions and difficulties come right to the front!

So that’s the conceptual piece – but as I noted above, some students also struggle with the style of the course, particularly the level of initiative and engagement I expect. It takes time for students to get used to the idea that they should be in charge of their own learning, and particularly to the notion that they have to take risks in order to do interesting work. I encourage an attitude of “fail gloriously” in my classroom, but many students struggle with the notion that any kind of  failure is ever acceptable. That’s Hidden Contract thinking, of course, but many of my students have spent most of their educational lives playing by those very rules!

I try to show my students that I put my money where my mouth is, when it comes to taking risks. I explain that doing risky things will help them learn, and that they can fail in productive and interesting ways by noticing, analyzing and iterating on failure. A third of their grade for each project is also given for “process” – which, essentially, measures all the things that they tried but that didn’t show up in the final project. I give process points for removing game elements that aren’t working, critically analyzing player feedback and responding to it, iterating and play-testing multiple times, trying outlandish things with a good rationale, and otherwise showing that you can take risks and learn from them. Once students realize that a risky, unsuccessful game can do just as well as a safe, successful one – but with the potential for outsize rewards if they pull it off! – they start trying more novel game mechanics, more playful behaviors, more interesting audiences and all kinds of other innovations.

These problems are, unsurprisingly, specific to my student population. I teach at one of the top graduate schools in the country, which means that my students are by definition extremely successful at traditional academic models. As you can see from the challenges they experience, this shows up both in their game designs and in their experience with the course itself. What amazes me about my students, year after year, is how quickly they get good at thinking playfully and making games – and how willing they are to make me a partner in their journey to doing so.

* This dissuades almost no one, but it does set important expectations for the level of effort and engagement required.

Achievements, Distilled

15 Feb

Oh hell yes. Greg Barker has written an absolutely terrific article summarizing his insights on achievement design. He’s got some great insights into player behavior (“players do what’s efficient, not what’s fun”) and game design (see his thoughts on BioShock in lesson 11).  The best part of the article, though, is that it helps new achievement designers avoid some of the obvious achievement design mistakes. A new achievement designer might come up with some of these rules based on previous game design experience, instinct, or just good luck, but there’s no way she’d avoid all these pitfalls her first time through. A lot of Barker’s lessons are quite clearly derived from experience!!

This is particularly useful right now, as I’m seeing a lot of interest in achievements from the game research world. (I blame Jane McGonigal.) That risks quite a bit of DFS* – researchers putting together sets of achievements that represent what they think should happen, whether that’s improving health or gamifying education or engaging in pro-social behavior. I’d love to see academics use this list, along with appropriate psychological theories**, to critique and refine their projects. I certainly plan to!

For the record, I came across this via the Think Play project out of RIT. I’m guessing they’ll do achievements right.

* Designing From Should. See my previous post for more.

** Hmm. I kind of want to go through Barker’s list and annotate it with the theories and references that show why his principles are good ones. He may be speaking from experience, but in many cases the research backs up what he’s got to say – and the places where the research doesn’t say anything could suggest some neat studies. I’m putting this on the post-dissertation project list.

And In Other News

28 Jan

Are they really doing serious games for the intelligence community? Why don’t they just make them all play Spy Party?

(This is a joke. A joke! Learning about cognitive biases through play is actually right up my intellectual alley.)

(Also, I love Spy Party. I am a rather nasty Sniper and a not-particularly competent Spy.)