Archive | March, 2014

Games in Education

10 Mar

At SXSW, I participated in a panel about the ways in which games can be used in education, as part of a traditional teaching environment or (dare I say it?) as a replacement for certain aspects of the education process. I’m obviously no expert in this area (though I do have some strong opinions!) but I’m thinking about it a lot as I determine how we’re going to teach the things we need to teach at the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy. So, I was grateful for the opportunity to get my thoughts in order.

Here’s basically what I said:

I think it goes without saying at this point that games have a place in education.

Most games have some sort of educational component. That’s true whether the game is played on a board, played at a tabletop by a group of friends roleplaying a player-generated storyline, or played online with virtual friends in a virtual environment.

In these contexts, children AND adults can learn about the world around them, about history, about their place in a social context, about relationships. And they can learn lessons about competition and cooperation, about deferred versus immediate gratification.

Speaking from personal experience, I learned more about Japanese history playing in an Asian-themed D&D campaign than I did in all the classes I ever took or books I ever read. I learned more about the nature of storytelling – its value and structures – collaborating in the telling of stories with friends by rolling dice and making stuff up. Through games, I learned how to make and execute plans and the consequences of success and failure, for myself and for others. I learned, as they say, the joy of victory and the agony of defeat.

But these are not the things we usually associate with “learning” in the traditional sense, not usually. These are lessons – vital ones, I think – in the humanities, the arts, the cultural world but not in the areas everyone seems to be in an uproar about these days. Where most people see value in games is in the teaching of STEM subjects – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

In STEM areas, games – or more precisely, game development – can play a critical role.

All games are, at some level, mathematical constructs. Regardless of format, they typically boil down to probabilities and simulations… To design a combat table for a roleplaying game, you have to understand probability… To represent the behavior of an object set in motion by player choice, you have to understand physics… To create a video game, which is, remember, just software, you have to learn to code.

Games are mathematics and engineering and science made real, made practical, removed from the realm of the abstract. And all that STEM stuff is wrapped up in a form students already engage with on their own. They don’t have to be dragged to math, they’re already interacting with it through play. They don’t have to be dragged to coding, they’re already intrigued by its power through play. To return to the arts for a second they don’t even have to be dragged to Aristotle, they’re already interacting with his ideas about narrative through the construction of their own stories as they play.

They’re already passionate about these things, thanks to games. And what better foundation for learning can there be than that?

Put all that together, apply some pedagogical rigor to game play and game creation and you have an educational framework second to none, one that pushes every kid’s buttons and draws them into learning in a form they already appreciate. There’s no need to poke and prod them in pursuit of a passive, nineteenth century education or to assess their progress by applying old-school methods. We can give them a 21st century education they want, which will set them up for future success.

But what of assessment?

I mean, you don’t necessarily want to grade play! You can certainly grade coding and math prowess – we already do that. But the key assessment in a program built around games is in how the software runs. What does it matter if you’re building an accounting package or a thermostat control simulation or a first-person shooter? Does the code work? Is it optimized appropriately? Is the AI behaving intelligently? Does the physics sim respond as one would expect? Assessment may be a non-problem. We just need some new, more appropriate rubrics (my new fave word, now that I’m in the world of education!).

So, clearly, I see massive benefits to the inclusion of games in a modern curriculum, whether based on STEM or STEAM (the “A” being the Arts, of course). But there’s one more element of a games education I’d like to touch on here:

Games as Moral Teaching Tools.

For all the benefits of multiplayer experiences – across a table or across a virtual world – I’ll go to my grave believing games are the greatest tool we have for emotional learning, for the teaching of empathy, for, in other words, Moral Learning.

Why do I believe this?

Because games are the first, and to date only, medium in the history of humankind to allow me to walk in your shoes and for you to walk in mine. We alone among media can let people – adults OR children – experience, first-hand, what it’s like to be an Egyptian child in the time of the pharaohs or a similar child living through recent events there… we can put players in the shoes of a general about to send soldiers into combat… we can allow them to experience the effects of decisions typically made in the highest levels of government.

Games aren’t about observing, absorbing or interpreting… they’re not about reading or seeing… they’re about doing. And that gives them a power unique in our history. We’d be crazy not to take advantage of that in our schools.

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DSGA entrance criteria clarification

10 Mar

I just spent three days at SXSW, staffing a booth at the Gaming Expo.

First, a big shout-out to the fine folks at Austin Community College’s Game Development Institute. Great expo neighbors and some fine students, too.

Second, thanks to everyone who came by the Denius-Sams Gaming Academy booth. it was great talking to potential participants in the program. Sadly, I heard (several times) that people thought they weren’t qualified for the Academy because they didn’t have industry experience AND a degree in game development.

THE EXPERIENCE QUESTION

Allow me to clarify – you do NOT need both experience and a degree to be admitted to the DSGA! You just need one or the other (or you need to convince me to let you into the program even if you meet neither of these criteria).

Notice all the “or’s!”

The primary prerequisite is that you already have some experience working on a team making a game. That might have come in industry or as part of an indie team… that could mean being part of a small mobile game dev team… that could mean working on games as part of a school program.

I just don’t want to have to teach the nuts and bolts of making a game. Come in with some experience in that area and you’re good to go.

Hope that clarifies things. Keep those applications coming.

Free to Play ain’t free

6 Mar

Recently, GamesIndustry.biz ran an article by Kabam’s President, Andrew Sheppard, about the F2P biz model. (You can find it here: http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2014-03-05-f2p-the-most-democratic-form-of-development-kabam?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=us-daily.)

Basically, the story offered some good thoughts and some bad ones.

The good? There are some very smart comments about the desirability of having several workable business models – and the inevitability of multiple models – rather than one winner-take-all model. That was a breath of fresh air, let me tell you! Most F2P guys exhibit a zeal that can, at best, be described as unseemly. Multiple business models? I completely agree.

And I agree completely with the comments about licenses as well. There’s no reason why licensed games can’t rock. And it’s both good business and, often, good fun working with licenses. Developers need to get over not-invented-here syndrome.

But, on the flip side, Sheppard makes some comments about console and triple-A developers being “scared” of F2P, citing the disruption caused by the switch from arcades (25 cents, please… okay, how about another 25 cents?…) to consoles (deposit $60 in our bank accounts, thank you…).

I think the fear factor is non-existent. Sheppard is just wrong about that. And the arcade to console comparison is simply off-base.

I don’t know anyone who “fears” the new business model. I certainly don’t. I just think it’s evil AS IMPLEMENTED by most developers and publishers. And the incremental approach to revenue generation of the arcades is radically different than the approach most F2P folks take today.

Honestly, I think the arcade guys got it right and we could learn some valuable lessons from them. What lessons?

Well, that initial quarter was very easy to spend. You fed the machine a quarter and you got X minutes of play time. If you were having a good time and wanted more content, you fed more quarters into the machine to keep playing for X additional minutes.

That’s a great model – certainly better than overcharging for our product as we always do in the triple-A space. And it’s a model we can and should adopt.

Charge very little for the first hour of play – or give it away if you want. If I’m having fun, I pay a small fee for more of that experience. You like something, you buy more of it. You don’t like something, you walk away. Track what people do as they play and adjust play appropriately as you introduce new content? Fine. Awesome. I’m in.

But start charging me for power-ups and other things I need to succeed (or, worse, hats and cloaks and such with no game effect)? Take planning and skill out of the equation and charge me for things I need to continue making progress (or to dress myself up)? Nope. I’m not down with that at all. And that’s what most of the F2P folks seem to be doing.

It’d be like a television show giving you 25 minutes of entertainment and then charging for the last five minutes. Or giving you all the talking but charging extra for the action. (Okay, bad analogy but I couldn’t think of a better one.)

In other words, most F2P experiences are built on a model that might be described as “bad entertainment for free; good entertainment for cash.”

That’s what I object to. It’s not fear. It’s not that F2P HAS to be evil. It’s just that it IS evil, as usually implemented. That’s what has to change before you’ll make a convert of me. And just to put my money where my mouth is, here are some personal experiences:

I’m a huge fan of the Tell Tale games – and their business model. I like their free content (their “pilot episodes”) so I always buy subsequent episodes. I like the free stuff so I pay them for the not free stuff – just like the old arcades. They don’t charge for new clothes for Clementine or for shotguns that do double damage to zombies! Good on them!

I love Candy Crush Saga (there, I said it), but I’ve paid for exactly one power-up (and won’t ever pay for another) because I couldn’t make forward progress without said power-up. That’s evil. Sorry. No other word for it. On the other hand I’ve happily paid several times for new levels. Again, I like the free content so I’ll pay for more content. It’s my way of thanking and rewarding the developer for providing an inherently fun experience. Make the experience inherently un-fun (unless I pay) and I’m walking away.

There are similar good things going on elsewhere in the F2P or Cheap 2 Play world – Republique… Kentucky Route Zero… – which I’ll happily support.

Free to Play should really BE free to play (and cheap to play is okay, too – developers have to eat). The ages old model of offering value for money (rather than junk for money) is the right model.

Creating inherently enjoyable experiences that don’t NEED to be enhanced by the purchase of power-ups or add-ons is the right answer. I’m convinced of that and not scared at all. Bring on the change, just make sure it’s a change for the better.

(Oh, yeah, I have to confess, I’ve never played a Kabam game so it’s entirely possible they do everything right. Take this post as a condemnation of the predominant F2P approach, not as a comment on any specific company or game.)