All items from Bob De Schutter's Feed

In a couple of days, it’s time for GDC 2011. One of the lectures that I’m personally interested in is the one on why Jane McGonigal doesn’t not want her “stinking badges“ anymore. I remember her ranting about how great frequent flier miles were as a good example of the lessons MMO games can teach us to make more serious activities fun. The buzz-word “Gamification” was coined to describe – according to Wikipedia – the use of game play mechanics for non-game applications, particularly consumer-oriented web and mobile sites, in order to encourage people to adopt the applications. While I’m a big fan of making boring and repetitive tasks fun, this blog has become a statement of how much I’m disgusted by game design based on behaviorist principles (see here and here). Needless to say, if gamification refers to adding achievements, rewards and badges to serious applications, then I’ll be one of the designers on the front lines fight against it.

Of course, I’m hardly alone there and gamification has had a ton of criticism from game designers and academics alike. So now there will be a lecture on the GDC by McGonigal on how gamification got it wrong and gameful design is the way to go. In her abstract, we read the following:

“If you hate the term gamification, you’re not alone: Plenty of game developers think gamification sounds cynical and opportunistic — a way to motivate gamers to do something they’ ordinarily avoid. Worse, many early adopters of gamification are creating mere shells of a game: game feedback systems stripped of any satisfying activity, meaning, story, or heart. But there is another way. What we need now is a more holistic and whole-hearted approach to using game design to transform reality. This presentation is an introduction to gameful design: how to infuse real life and real work with the true spirit, or emotional and social qualities, of gameplay. You’ll learn a four-part gameful strategy that focuses on how to create the lasting positive impacts that games are famously good at generating: more positive emotions, stronger social relationships, a bigger sense of purpose, and meaningful mastery. As game designers, we can do better than gamification. We owe reality more than some stinkin’ achievement badges, or points, or leaderboards.”

Personally, I’d say that this direction is essential in order to achieve the potential of digital game elements to improve boring day to day tasks. After all, Salen & Zimmerman already pointed out how good game design is based on creating meaningful experience in their influential book Rules of Play. Nevertheless, reading this abstract it seems to me that the essence of the design exercise is still left out. According to McGonigal, gameful design should focus on 1) more positive emotions, 2) stronger social relationships, 3) a bigger sense of purpose and 4) meaningful mastery. Is that even something new, even outside the scope of gaming? And is that something that we can learn from digital games, hence warranting the term ‘gameful design’?

I’d say “no” to both questions. I haven’t seen her lecture yet so I might jump to conclusions here, but to me it seems that all she’s going to talk about is “intrinsic motivation” without actually referring to the concept. Gamification has been called nothing more than buzz-word, and if my suspicions are correct then here’s a great argument to make that claim. Psychologists have written a lot on how people are motivated intrinsically, but I will restrict myself here to Ryan & Deci’s Self-Determination Theory. In this theory, the conclusion is that three elements are essential for intrinisic motivation: 1) competence (i.e. to being effective in dealing with the environment a person finds themselves in), 2) autonomy (i.e. the universal urge to be causal agents of our own life and act in harmony with our integrated self), and to a lesser extent 3) relatedness (i.e. the universal want to interact, be connected to and experience caring for others).

Now let’s look at that abstract again. First, gameful design aims for more positive emotions. McGonigal will explain to us what that exactly means to her, but the effects of intrinsic motivation are often cited to be positive for the individual. And let’s be frank here: this seems to be more of a goal than a design guideline. Second, gameful design aims for stronger social relationships. In SDT, psychologists refer to relatedness which seems to be practically the same. Third, gameful design calls for a bigger sense of purpose. In SDT, that’s autonomy on the one hand, and competence and even relatedness on the other. Fourth, gameful design leads to meaningful mastery. In SDT, that’s called competence. So while I’m very interested in her presentation, I’d say that designers would be better off designing for psychological needs that lead to intrinsic motivation and that are empirically valid, than trying to design to meet the next buzz-word McGonigal helps to launch. The essence of this exercise seems to be designing for intrinsic motivation, and from my point of view gameful design seems to miss this point.

And that’s the point of this post. I didn’t really have a link to share with you this time, but if you’d like to read more about this topic, then here are a few links that are definitely worth your time. The first one comes from a company that designs serious games using intrinsic motivation (without actually mentioning the term either, but the principles are similar as well). The second is a book on why extrinsic motivated behavior (i.e. the stinking badges) is not a good concept to design activities around.

When The Escapist’s Extra Credits reviewed sexuality in games, one of the main conclusions of their discussion was that games should start to explore sexuality without exploiting it. After all, sexuality is a core aspect of the human experience, and therefore an essential element for games’ content to improve upon in order to grow as a an artistic medium. I wish I could say that Red Dead ReDodo is one of the games that does this right, but unfortunately… nothing could be further from the truth. Well, at least I got you interested in reading about this game by referring to a meaningful discourse. So now that you’re here, I think you should really play this demo of a game. Why, you ask? Well, because some friends of colleagues of mine made it during the Global Game Jam and now it’s on Kongregate competing in the $10,000 Unity contest.

Like the other games in the Global Game Jam, the game’s theme is ‘extinction’. What is the first thing that comes to mind when someone brings up the topic of extinction? That’s right, copulating dodos being shish kebabed. Needless to say, this isn’t a game for dodo sympathizers. (In case you are wondering, a dodo – or should I say: the Raphus Cucullatus - is an extinct bird that is famous for how silly it looked.) The game plays like some sort of deranged anti-lemmings, in which you sacrifice your lemmings – or in this case: dodos – in order to progress through dangerous lands. Running out of dodos isn’t a problem as long as you keep 2 of them alive because then they can always… well… do the four-legged foxtrot.

It’s a short but punishing game filled with glitches and bugs, but don’t let that stop you from playing Red Dead ReDodo (and giving it a fair rating, of course.)

http://www.kongregate.com/games/Squibel/red-dead-redodo?acomplete=red+dead+redodo

(To play, you might need to install the Unity player. I highly recommend it as it will allow you access to many pretty cool 3D games for free on Kongregate. The installation is very fast and painless.)

In a previous post I discussed how some digital games are glorified Skinner boxes, aiming to condition players to keep playing for extrinsic rewards instead of fun. This morning I read an interview with Jonathan Blow that I wanted to share here. You probably know him from the indie hit Braid. If you don’t, then give that game a try. It’s a tad pretentious from time to time, but it’s great fun to play thanks to clever mechanics, a lot of variety and an intriguing storyline that will have you read plot analyses afterwards. He’s a very outspoken indie designer and he’s currently promoting his new game, The Witness.

All that’s in the first part of the interview but the second part was about social games and why they are not social at all. I’ve established in my previous post how games like Farmville – yes, here I go again –  are not about having fun (Skinner boxes!). Blow – and I think I remember Jesse Schell making a similar point at DICE or the GDC – argues that they aren’t social either. They are about exploiting friends lists to get more players to play. As a result players will not meet new people through them. They will also seldom play together with their friends, since the games are asynchronous in their designs. They are also about guilt-tripping people into playing because they do not want their friends to think less of them because their virtual farm, hospital, city, cesspit, etc. isn’t as pretty as it should be. Well, I added that last bit but it’s in support of the claim Blow makes. He actually compares certain social game designers to the cigarette industry, and I personally couldn’t agree more with that. To a lot of social game designers, it’s no longer about improving someone’s life, it’s all about how much money you can make of them.

http://www.pcgamer.com/2011/02/15/jonathan-blow-interview-social-game-designers-goal-is-to-degrade-the-players-quality-of-life

Last month I was coincidentally asked the same question quite a few times: how do you make money developing video games? That’s a perfectly simple question, but I have to admit that I did not have a clear answer to that question since there are many ways games are monetized. I decided to post a list of all the business models for games that I’m aware of, but in the end I found a nice list written by industry veteran David Perry. I’ve written a quick summary below, since the original article is spread out on a lot of pages.

Retail
Retail will probably become pre-paid cards when the industry goes online to combat piracy and slower delivery times. Enhanced editions are common practice.)

Digital Distribution
Steam, PSN, XBLA, etc.

In-Game Advertising
Advertising in various elements of the game

Around-Game Advertising
The advertising you’ll see surrounding various free online games that aren’t in the game itself.

Finder’s Fee from First Dollar
Pay a website owner a commission if their website brings you a paying customer.  You can balance the fee to a reasonable percentage of your income.

Advergaming
Develop games that are basically advertisements for other products.

Trail- and shareware
Let your customers play a part of the game for free and let them pay for the full experience.

Episodic Entertainment
Customers are able to buy the full gaming experience through relatively cheap episodes. Expansion packs are another kind of episodic games.

Skill-Based Progressive Jackpots
Similar to a poker tournament, players buy a ticket to enter a tournament. The winners gets the jackpot, but the organizer (read: you) gets the biggest part of the pie.

Velvet Rope
Playing the game is free or cheap, but paying allows access to many features (which are often necessary to enjoy the game to the fullest or to be competitive).

Subscription
Recurring payments, usually through credit cards or automatic payments. Sometimes stopping payments will even delete the player’s progress (which players do not enjoy).

Micro-transactions
The game is free but for small payments, players can buy new content, such as vanity items, better functionalities, faster levelling, and so on.

Sponsored games and Donationware
Players or philanthropists pay for the game’s costs. Serious games are made this way, but also some open source projects work this way.

Pay per Play/Time
Similar to the arcade machines and pinballs, players pay for what they need or as long as they can make the experience last on a preset number of in-game lives.

Player to Player Trading
Use auctions to let players trade their in-game properties, and use a cut of the money on those auctions to pay for your product. Keeping everything in-game (and avoid players trading on a black market) is an important part of this strategy.

Foreign Distribution Deals
Pre-sell the foreign distribution rights and use the money to finance development.

Sell Access to your Players
Monetize your user database by selling personal information of players to third parties. The value of your database is equal to how exclusive, revealing and fresh your data is. Making such deals beforehand (so you can implement relevant questions in your user profile submission system) helps as well.

Freeware
Making your game free will potentially get you lots of users and offers from third parties to acquire your game.

Loss Leader
Sell your game far too cheap and recover your losses elsewhere. Use the passion of your user to your advantage and sell them other products through your game. The PS3 hardware was sold for a low price in order to boost software sales and make a profit that way.

Peripheral Excitement
Make a profit selling peripherals that the game needs to function, such as an exercise bike for a cycling game.

Player to Player Wagering
Allow players to place wagers before competitive skill-based games and keep a share of the money for yourself. A neat way to do this is by having players buy virtual items before competition, and then allow the winner of the battle to keep the items.

User Generated Content
Allow players to create and sell their own content while you get a cut of the profit.

Pay for Storage Space
Let players pay you by buying storage for their in-game assets on your servers.

Pay for Private Game Servers
In order to play with their friends on private servers, players need to rent them. This model specifically caters to hardcore players of competitive games.

Rental
An outdated system but still worth noting, renting games that can’t be played through on one rental period is a business model that has seen some use.

Licensing Access
Let a bigger corporation or a chain use your game to their benefits. For example, McDonalds used Line Rider in one of their advertisements.

Selling Branded Physical Items
Sell items from your game. For example, sell T-Shirts using CafePress to pay for your game.

Pre-Sell the Game to the Players
Let your players pay for your development by offering them lifelong access to the finished product in return for a smaller sum. For example, Minecraft was sold for $10 while it was in alpha, while letting people know that the eventual price would be $20 after it was finished.

Buy Something Else, Get the Game for Free
Trialpay lets the player buy something they want and they get the game for free alongside the other product.

Before-Game Advertising
Before playing the game, players are forced to watch an advertisment.  If they pay for the game, the advertisments are removed.

Virtual Item Sponsorship
If your game has a lot of virtual items, then why not put branded, real-life items in your virtual world.

Download Insurance
In order to keep the game available for download online, players pay an extra fee.

Pay Players to Meet a Challenge
Put a difficult challenge in your game and pay the first player that defeats it a certain sum of money. Blend it with other models to pay for the reward money.

Sell Something Consumable
Make the game free-to-play but force players to buy for consumable virtual items, such as virtual bullets, gas, etc.

Feed Me or I Die
This tamagoshi model forces players to pay to keep their virtual characters alive.

A lot of these business models have drastic implications for the design of a game. For example, what part of the game will you make freely available through trialware? Too much and players might not be interested anymore, too little and players might not be curious enough to buy the full game.

There’s also quite a bit of overlap between the different models Perry described, which brings us to another point. Many games use a combination of these models. World of Warcraft uses subscriptions, microtransactions, episodic entertainment, trialware, etc.

Of course, there are quite a few psychological tricks involved in some of the business models. Zynga is probably the master of these things, as you can read in a previous post I wrote. A few of these models might not even be morally justified.

For the full article (and some great examples and pictures) check out the link below, but keep in mind that the article was written in 2008 and that the industry moves fast.

David Perry@Businessweek.com

Whether doing scientific or pragmatic research, the difficult part is bringing meaning to your data. It’s not easy to extract something meaningful, something innovative, or the essence from a vast body of data. I’ve seen quite a few times how data gets collected and is only used to conjure up some vague notions and general ideas, simply because people do not manage to get past the wall of data. One of the issues there might be the digital tools the world todays offers to aid the process of turning research data into information. To give an example, for the qualitative research in my PhD I used nVivo, and – to be honest – I didn’t really manage to get anywhere after coding my transcripts until I started to use Post-Its and print-outs to make the codes more tangible in the space around me. I tried to do the same in nVivo but even on two 1080p monitors I did not get to the point where it became easy to move through data and make connections. Personally, I don’t even see how a Minority Report interface (like the one they seem to be building a the MIT) would be better at this than a pack of Post-Its. So when I read John Kolko’s article (link below) on turning research into innovation, the point of inertia after data collection just sounded all too familiar. It describes 1) how laptops can make it impossible to see and feel connections between data, and 2) how important it is to draw models when finding connections instead of just talking about them. Well, I guess that’s enough good advice to get a post at this newsfeed.

How do you transform good research into great innovations @ fastcodesign

I usually see people like you passed-out on tavern floors.I’ll just throw it out there. The Secret of Monkey Island is one of my favorite adventure games of all times. I have learned a lot from that games, in the sense that no pirate will beat me in an insult battle to this day. “What is that you say? I fight like a dairy farmer? Well, that is quite appropriate of you to say, since you, good sir or madam, fight like a cow.” See? Razor-sharp Monkey Island wits right there. (And if all else fails, I know I can always rely on the good old “Look behind you, there’s a three-headed monkey!”)

But enough of references to the game that requires readers to have played the game. (Shame on you if you didn’t.) The point of this post is not to impress you with my knowledge of Monkey Island insults. You can just google them if you’re looking for them. The point of this post is to highlight an article I read last night about the narrative of Monkey Island. Silly as it might be some times, Monkey Island is a nice example of Jungian archetypes and Vogler’s Hero’s Journey, and the article applies these theories to the game. (I don’t feel like explaining both concepts, here are two links for a quick overview about them: Jung, Vogler).

The article also discusses how Monkey Island uses the technique of narrative architecture (see here). Personally, I thought that this went a bit far. While I do agree that spaces can conjure up narratives, the symbolism used in the article felt a bit far-fetched to me from time to time. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever heard that water was a symbol for emotion. I personally associated it with life, grace, fluidity, transformation, etc. but emotion seems a long reach. In the end, it look to me that you can just write anything you like about the symbolism of a certain element of the game and get away with it. Then again, symbolism just isn’t my cup of tea so what do I know, right?

So that’s all I had to say about this article. There are a lot of interesting topics in there if you’re not familiar with game narratives very much, and while the article repeats itself quite a bit, I felt that it was still an interesting read. Especially after (or before) finishing the game (or the recently released graphical update, in my case).

Game Narrative Review: Monkey Island @ GameCareerGuide

For some reason my bar visits often seem to transform into a discussion about good and evil. I guess there’s just so much to talk about before things take a turn towards current affairs and someone at the bar claims that a certain company or person is pure evil. Now, keeping in mind that I’m referring to late night barroom conversations, these conversations are hardly ever grounded in philosophical theories. It’s not like I’m having a drink with Kant or Nietsche, so let’s just say that everybody has their own definitions for what good or evil is. (In fact, some people seem to think that an inanimate object like a jacket I happen to own can be evil, but that’s something I’ll discuss another time. Preferably over a drink at the bar I mentioned earlier. And yes, you’re buying.)

So in the light of these barroom conversations, I thoroughly enjoyed reading the following articles about morality in Dungeons & Dragons, Palladium and the movie Inglourious Basterds. Summarizing the articles here would be a bit of a waste (considering the articles are so fun to read), so click the links below and don’t come back before you can tell my why Rorschach (a character from the Watchmen graphic novel that likes to break fingers in order to obtain information from thugs) will never be able to become a paladin in the world of Dungeons & Dragons.

(And now that we’re on the subject, there is a great book coming out soon on morality in video games later this year. It’s currently being edited by Karolien Poels and Steven Malliet. Keep an eye out for it because it will be brilliant and I am not just saying that because I’m a good friend of the editors. It will quite honestly rock your proverbial socks off.)

The Dark Knight cheateth Going through some papers for my PhD, I stumbled upon a paper in the DiGRA library by Jonas Linderoth. In it, he argues how we often tend to give games too much credit regarding their learning potential. A lot of people have argued how games have a huge potential as an educational environment (with James Paul Gee’s book probably being to most cited reference to make this claim). We all know how expert gamers “learned” very complex interactions through playing. These interactions might not always be very useful in real life, but then there are some of us have learned English as a second language through playing games. I personally learned it by watching subtitled He-Man episodes on the television as a kid, but games, online chatrooms and discussion boards will probably have played a part in my knowledge of the English language as well. I’ve also learned a great deal about managing complex systems through playing games, and I was motivated to do a lot of “research” on certain topics that were introduced to me in games. In fact, I’m currently writing a PhD on digital games (albeit not about learning from them).  So I guess that I have learned things from games, and I bet you will have done the same if you’ve played as much as I have during the course of your life.

Linderoth’s paper questions this assumption using an ecological perspective. In ecology, human learning is a process of being able to make ever finer distinctions. What does that mean? Well, Linderoth explains this using the example of the off-side trap. An experienced soccer player is capable to make the distinction between a defense that is forming the trap and a defense that isn’t. (If you do not know soccer very well, it’s something similar to a half-court trap in Basketball.) So learning to become a good soccer player is a process in which you learn to perceive and respond, and this happens by making distinctions. Now, according to Linderoth, this kind of learning is often present in games but it also dumbed down a lot. You might remember games (e.g. Arkham Asylum, Assassin’s Creed, Splinter Cell, LEGO Indiana Jones, Left 4 Dead, etc.)  in which a visual indicator highlights where a certain object has to go, or where are certain enemy has to be. A lot of games use this feature to make the gameplay easier for the player. And as a result, Linderoth concludes that games require less learning than other, real-life activities. Nobody is going to highlight an off-side trap in real life for a soccer player, for example.

Personally, I do not completely agree with the paper in the sense that this does not imply to me that gamers learn more or less than someone doing a different activity. In fact, I remember how certain games (Arham Asylum?) offer the player to disable the highlighting of objects and enemies. Pointing out affordances isn’t very different from training wheels on a bicycle in that case. Riding with training wheels has certain limitations, but it does allow kids who aren’t old enough for a real bike to start peddling and learn another part of biking. Of course, some players will never drop their digital training wheels and some games are only training wheels. But isn’t that simply because people are playing them for entertainment purposes? Nobody is trying to learn how to actually survive a zombie apocalypse in Left 4 Dead. I guess we welcome in-game help, because the game is already hard enough to defeat.

And that’s an argument Linderoth makes in his conclusion as well. Games provide the players a lot of shortcuts and help in perceiving what to do, simply because it is good game design. As a result, this paper is a fine example of how good game design does not automatically respond with good learning. Sometimes games need to challenge players a bit further and not allow them to rely on in-game help so often. So instead of stating how gamers do not learn more (which is the title of the paper), I state how gamers often are lazy learners. Unless at some point, they throw away their training wheels.

Why Gamers Don’t Learn More (@ DiGRA)

"So that's a Boomer, huh? You know, it's sad to see an eating disorder get out of control like that."A big part of making games fun is related to how well a game teaches. A lot of academics and designers have argued how learning is a primary motivator for playing. We play in order to learn about our environments, we play because we want to get control over reality or cope with reality. The classic example here come from the animal kingdom: a lion cub playing with a butterfly. The little lion has nothing to gain in such a play activity, except for fun and improving his hunting skills.

So, considering how games and learning have always been closely related, how can game designers use this relationship to their advantage? One way to do so is to consider a potential player’s learning experience while designing or evaluating games. A practical way to do so would be through use of Rasmussen’s the SRK framework (skills, rules, knowledge). SRK describes the information processing that goes on in our minds from being confronted with a novel situation to mastering it. This morning, Gamasutra published an interesting article by Paul Goodman and Adams Greenwood-Ericksen that applies the framework to Left 4 Dead and its special infected.

Why Left 4 Dead works (Gamasutra)

Marc Pincus doing a user test on his dog ZyngaThe most relevant topic of 2010 with regards to video game design has to be the debate about the behaviorist principles behind many digital games, of which Farmville is probably the poster boy. The year is almost over so I’m running late here but I wanted to include a post about it on my new blog, especially considering that I have already awarded it my 2010 topic of the year award in the previous sentence. In my opinion the topic deserves this dubious award since 2010 is the year in which the industry has really started to overdo the application of behaviorist principles in its games. Okay, I’m writing this blog for myself but others might be lurking here so maybe I should explain what I meant with that. I’ll give you two examples that led me to writing this post.

First, I quit Warstorm.

Warstorm is a game I started playing when it was still Warstorm.com. Warstorm’s an asynchronous trading card game which I enjoyed because it had a very enjoyable balance between chance and strategy. The game was designed by a company that was bought by Zynga – which you might recognize as the developer of many Facebook games such as Farmville – a few months after Warstorm hit Facebook. And Zynga did its magic on the game. Where the game used to feature competitions in the form of ladders, leagues and tournaments, it now became about battling random opponents while collecting in-game cash. Where the game used to be about trading to acquire good or rare cards, the game now gave you the cards just for showing up every day. These things led to a much more boring and tedious version of the game, but Zynga took things even further. Zynga added a new feature to the game: players got the opportunity to boost their decks in return for some in-game cash. To actually use the boost, they need to come back two hours later. The game that Warstorm once was has turned into some kind of Farmville fantasy trading card game.

Like a Skinner Box, Warstorm now employs variable reinforcement. Skinner’s psychology teaches us that rewarding rats (or people in this case) randomly is a successful method to condition them to perform a certain behavior (or in this case, returning to Facebook Warstorm and playing meaningless battles). Warstorm applies this by handing out cool cards at random after you finish a battle. Like a Skinner Box, Warstorm also employs operant conditioning now, in the sense that returning to the game seven days in a row will get you rare cards. And there are plenty examples of psychological manipulations like these in Warstorm now, just as there are in Farmville and any other Zynga game. Personally, I want games to be meaningful and I want to be motivated intrinsically to play them, and that’s why I decided to quit Warstorm, just like I’ve quit Farmville after week.

But that’s enough about Warstorm, let’s move on to the second reason why I’m writing this post: I was very excited about Age of Empires Online.

… Until I actually saw a developer’s commentary. Wasn’t Age of Empires II just brilliant when it came out? It’s so fun to play that my students (who are about 20 years old) are still playing the game on their LAN network in class, while the game is about 11 years old. They actually still have tournaments at the university where I work. How awesome will Age of Empires Online be then? It will be free to play and it will be focused on online play. All of this changed when I saw the developer’s commentary on GameTrailers. Everything that is shown in that one preview is basically just Farmville. They cover it up with the term “MMO elements” because no hardcore audience will ever want to play Farmville meets Age of Empires, but I can’t get ignore the feeling that Age of Empires fans are in for a surprise when they start playing Age of Farmvilles Online. There are vanity items, a persistent world and so on. Of course, the game isn’t out yet so hopefully Age of Empires Online will not be the Skinner Box I am anticipating. Prove me wrong, EA, and turn it into a brilliant game.

So to conclude this post, digital games seem to be transforming into something that has very little to do with fun or immersion. Instead, many games have “compulsion” as their main goal with regards to the player experience. No wonder video game addiction is on the rise, both in the public opinion as in academic literature. Games are being designed to keep players hooked for as a long as possible. It’s basically the same principle slot machines use.

Anyway, I’m going to leave you with two interesting links about this discussion.

A while ago I came across a funny article that I wanted to share here. As you might know, there is both scientific evidence that suggests that violent video games promote real life violence, as well as scientific evidence that claims otherwise. When comparing the evidence, I would say that one could genuinely disagree about whether or not short-term effects exist or not. There is plenty of evidence, but the evidence comes from self-reported surveys and short-term experiments. Considering long-term effects, however, there simply is not enough evidence to make any solid claims about digital violence leading to real-life violence.  But that is my opinion on the matter and I might be a bit biased since I love digital games, even the some that are quite violent and sometimes even disturbing, such as PhantasmagoriaManhuntGod of War or Mortal Kombat – do not click the links if you have a weak stomach. Of course, I do not approve of children playing games like these, but that does not mean that content like this should be illegal in my opinion.

Anyway, I digress. The post I wanted to publish here is about an article that draws from the body of research that supports the claim that some of my favorite games will turn people into violent psychopaths. As I already pointed out, such research has been the subject of methodological and other kinds of criticism, and there is also contradicting research. In response, some prominent authors that make a living on publishing evidence on the violent effects of games are in the process of publishing a study that will shut up the nay-sayers once and for all. I am not going to summarize the entire news article here, so please read it below, but their study indicates how researchers who – according to the article – do not believe video violence is harmful are lesser researchers than the ones who do believe video violence is harmful. The evidence is in the numbers: non-believers have not published hardly as many articles on the effect of media violence as the authors of the study in the article and their colleagues, and the ones who did publish articles on the topic have done so in low-tier journals that score low on impact factor scales.

Now, that’s going to be a great article to bring up in class, if you ask me. The study looks like a clear conflict of interest to start with, but secondly, I would think that it is obvious that there are a lot more studies published that found an effect than studies that did not find one. Journals (and our society in general) prefer articles that find effects over articles that do not, and why would researchers who do not believe in a certain effect keep doing studies on something they do not believe in? Furthermore, when looking at studies that did find an effect, it is clear that the body of research consists out of the same studies or meta-analyses, again and again.

I guess it is time for a new media, maybe with violent three-dimensional, virtual reality entertainment, to emerge, since the debate on violent video games has reached a new low. I always felt that impact factors are only useful to ambitious academics who have an unhealthy need to value their performance through grades, A’s or even gold stars (which is probably the result of the behaviorist school system our society loves so much). I guess I was wrong: impact factors are apparently also a useful substitute for waving your you-know-what around to assert dominance in the group.

http://preternaturalpost.wordpress.com/2011/04/22/weighing-the-evidence-on-video-game-violence/

Building connections between different games and/or different media is a tricky topic. It sounds like a great idea, but a lot more often than not it leads to mediocre (or worse)  entertainment products. Avatar the movie receives a score of 80 on Metacritic, the game barely gets to 60. The point of transmedial projects is to improve player experiences by allowing players different high-quality gateways into the fictional world behind the IP. A game that did this very well in my opinion was Pokémon. The animated series, toys, movies, etc. of Pokémon all added to the experience. Pokémon was originally a game with very limited graphics due to it being developed for the original Gameboy. The animated series added a lot to the personality of the characters and brought the fictional world to life in a way the 8-bit game simply couldn’t. So with the example op Pokémon in mind, I’d definitely argue that it is possible to have a worthwhile crossover between different media.

That’s why I wanted to share some blog posts on convergence media by Clint Hocking here. Hocking is the designer behind one of my favorite games ever, the Splinter Cell versus mode of Pandora Tomorrow and Chaos Theory. Starting with a note on how transmedial projects originally were developed as a way for corporate vampires to make bigger profits on the same IP, Hocking presents some ideas of his on how and where convergence media can be a worthwhile endeavour.

  • Part 1 – Introduction on why transmedia gaming failed in the past.
  • Part 2 – Designing fashion items on mobile device, which can then be used in other technology.
  • Part 3 – Farmville-like casual level design games on mobile devices, for later use in X-comesque hardcore games.
  • Part 4 – Social games used to create more interestin narratives and drame in hardcore games.
  • Part 5 – Custom player-generated characters and their specific history are integrated in the narrative of your game by adding them through social network sites.
  • Part 6 – Large AAA games as content platforms that can be accessed through multiple platforms.
  • Part 7 – Some design guidelines concerning agency that are essential to do transmedial project the right way.
  • Part 8 – A look towards the future and contemporary transmedial projects.

Being a game designer and social scientist, I am not trained in pedagogy but nevertheless I tend to design educational games more often than not, and I come across the perceived or potential benefits of playing digital games a lot when interviewing players. That’s why I visited the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association a couple of weeks ago. One of the things I brought back home from the conference was that some researchers in the field are very sceptical about using games from learning. This is of course a good thing, since scientists are supposed to be critical, but on the other hand I also felt that their scepticism was grounded in a rigid stance towards scientific research. I felt that such a stance was a bit problematic. In my opinion, the effects of digital games are best studied by mixed methods, which include both quantitative and qualitative methods, not just statistics but also observations and other qualitative data. In fact, the latter type of research seems to be the most suitable method to study games as learning tools, since digital games seem to be at their best when they are applied to teach so-called 21th century skills which are not easy to measure exactly (such as responsibility, flexibility, self-direction, social skills, productivity, problem-solving skills, etc.).

Arriving back home from the conference, I came across this wonderful talk by John Hunter. In his presentation, he shows us how he teaches children 21th century skills by means of a game he designed himself over the years. While the presentation is not a scientific study by any means, it does paint a picture of how learning through games can be very effective. The children in Hunter’s classroom are highly immersed in a game of international politics, in which they practice valuable 21th century skills and learn to manage a complex system. The highlight of the presentation has to be David, a young boy who quotes Sun Tzu’s Art of War – a book which I myself ironically learned about from playing Civilization as a kid. It is amazing to see how engaged David is when applying Sun Tzu’s teachings to his own situation in the game he and his classmates are playing. Of course, John Hunter does a marvelous job presenting some selected bits of video footage, and sometimes the presentation is a bit much (see “a colony of angels”), but this might be the best motivational video I have ever seen for educational game designers – and individual teachers as well – to design and use new educational games. Enjoy.

(The first part might drag on a bit too long if you do not have much time available to view it. The good stuff starts around 7 minutes.)

A couple of weeks ago I’ve become the owner of an iPad. Even though I still dislike buying Apple products after having many issues with their hardware in the past, I settled for one since the Android tablets that I’ve tried so far did not meet my requirements and were much more expensive. In the near future there will probably be Android tablet that are superior to iPads, but long, boring and unproductive train rides every week basically forced me to get a tablet now. So now I own an iPad, and – to be honest – it’s not a bad device at all. I actually enjoy it very much, even though it does not have USB, does not support Flash, does not have a file system, and so on. Regardless of these issues, for the low price it cost me in the United States it was actually a good deal, as long as it will not start malfunctioning as quickly as any other of the many Apple products I have owned in the past.

The device is working pretty well for me. With some practice I managed being able to do almost anything I wanted to do on a long train ride . (In case you’re wondering, that includes answering e-mail, reading PDFs, annotating PDFs, reading comic books, playing video games, and so on.) And even though I bought the cheap Wifi-only model, my Android phone and Mobile Vikings allow me to establish a Wifi connection and be online with the iPad over quick HSPA for only 10 bucks a month. Only one thing was missing and that was accessing my Zotero files.

If you are not familiar with Zotero, then here’s a quick introduction from their site: Zotero [zoh-TAIR-oh] is a free, easy-to-use tool to help you collect, organize, cite, and share your research sources. If you are doing research, I highly recommend it. It is a free reference manager, that – in my opinion – is better than Endnote, Reference Manager, BibTex, Mendeley, Sente, and so on. I have thousands of references in there, most of them containing bibliographic information as well as the full PDF of the article, book, and so on. The only issue with it is that it currently does not have an iPad app of its own. Correspondingly, I am not able to access my PDF library on the road with the iPad. While there are suggested solutions for that issue using Mendeley’s iPad app and so on, I did not find a good solution for fixing the problem online. As a result, I decided to fix the issue myself (and write a tutorial about it at the same time).

So let’s start by outlining what I wanted to accomplish here. The point of this exercise is not to have all my bibliographical information on my iPad. I do not write research articles on the train, so I was not looking for a reference manager to support an iPad office application. The point of this exercise is simply to access my PDF files – the Zotero file attachments, if you will – that are in my Zotero library. I wanted to be able to open my Zotero library (which resides in “teh cloud”) on my iPad and download my PDF files from it whenever I need to.

So how let’s see how you can achieve this? (Before continuing this tutorial, please note that I have written this tutorial for the Firefox version of Zotero on Windows. Other Zotero versions will probably work in a similar way, but you have to figure out the details yourself. Also, all consequences of attempting this tutorial are up to you. I will not be held responsible for anyone messing up his or her Zotero database while trying out the instructions below. Finally, some of the solutions explained below could require you to purchase an app or even an online service, depending on your own wishes. I am only pointing out my preferences, but there are plenty of free alternatives and I am not to be held accountable if you buy something you end up regret buying afterwards. You have been warned. Everything I describe below, is at your own risk.)

1. Get a good PDF reader for your iPad
Almost all of my articles are PDF files so being able to read PDFs on my iPad was an essential feature for me. Another important feature would be being able to annotate PDF files, so I could comment on student theses or research articles. I have not tried all PDF apps that are available on iPad. After reading some reviews, I downloaded GoodReader from the appstore and it certainly does the trick for me. One of the best features of GoodReader is that it has its own connectivity tools, allowing me to access my different online storage solutions through the app itself. So step 1 would be for you to download GoodReader or a different PDF reader for the iPad.

(And again, I am not to be held responsible if you do not like GoodReader after purchasing it, or if you do not manage to finish this tutorial for any reason leaving you with application you do not want or need.)

2. Get an online storage solution
I have no idea on how to access Zotero files through the Zotero file storage. I have never bought file storage at Zotero since I have been using Jungle Disk‘s WebDav service to sync my Zotero files. Either way, Zotero saves its files in an unaccessible way online, so accessing my Zotero files directly on the WebDav server wasn’t a solution. Thankfully, Zotero does leave the file structure more or less accessible on my computer’s hard drive, so I decided I would sync the files from my hard disk to my online storage solution (i.e. Jungle Disk). So step 2 would be for you to get an online storage solution.

Now, if you do not own Jungle Disk yourself or you use the Zotero file storage, it might be a better idea to get a file storage account elsewhere. Popular solutions are SugarSync (5GB storage for free) and Dropbox (2GB storage for free). Neither one of them offers WebDav access at the moment, so you would still need to use Zotero file storage to sync your files with Zotero, but they have other benefits over JungleDisk (e.g. being highly compatible with many other third party applications, such as GoodReader). Have a look and decide on JungleDisk, SugarSync, Dropbox or an other free online storage solution that 1) offers a desktop sync application, and 2) provides WebDav or is compatible with GoodReader (or the iPad PDF reader of your choice). Download the corresponding desktop sync application and install it.

(Please note that the links provided above contain referrals. If this tutorial is useful, please use them when making an account so that I am rewarded for writing all this with some free SugarSync or Dropbox storage space. Also – yes, here we go again – I cannot be held responsible if you buy storage from these online services and do not manage to finish the remaining steps of this tutorial. If you do not feel confident at your ability to do so, use the free options provided by SugarSync or Dropbox, instead of the paying service offered by JungleDisk.)

3. Install Zotfile to rename your attachments in Zotero
Okay, so now you have a PDF reader on your iPad and an online storage solution for your Zotero files.  At this point you could open the sync application that comes with your storage solution and have it sync your online storage with your offline Zotero storage folder. However, if you open said folder then you might run into a few issues. (You can find the offline Zotero folder by clicking on the gears/actions button in Zotero, “preferences”, “advanced”, “show data directory”. In my case the folder is in C:\Documents and Settings\myname\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles\profilename.default\zotero\storage.)

First of all, the PDFs are in separate folders with random names, making it a tough to navigate them. Second, if you have been sloppy – I know I have – then often the PDF filenames do not always contain enough information to identify the content of the PDF. Thankfully, the Zotero community offers an brilliant little add-on called zotfile that can fix all this very easily. This add-on will let you quickly rename all PDF files in Zotero in any format you like. Before using it, you will need to open about:config in your Firefox address bar where you can search for extensions.zotfile to see all its options. By adjusting these, I managed to rename all the files in my Zotero library to author_year_article-title.pdf, making it very easy to navigate through them. For more help on this add-on, please visit its support site, where all the different options are explained.

4. Install a Python script to extract the PDF files
So at this point you should have a Zotero storage folder, still containing random folders, that do contain neatly labeled PDF files. If only we could get rid of this folders, then it would be easy to navigate our PDF files, right? To do this, I wrote a Python script. You can download it here. Do not run it at this point. After downloading, you should save it in your startup folder. With this term I am referring to the folder that will be launched when you boot your computer. In Windows XP, it is easily accessible at Start > Programs > Start-up. Figure out where it is stored for your own operation system and copy the script there.

Unfortunately, the script will not run at startup without Python being installed on your system.  So go to Python’s download section, download it and install it (unless you already have Python installed, of course). I used version 2.7.1. for this, but the other versions will probably work as well.

Next, you need to adjust a couple of parameters in the string. Open the zoterocopy.py script you downloaded. In it you will see “C:/Path/To/Your/Zotero/Storage” and “C:/Path/To/Your/Sync/Folder”. Replace both paths with the proper paths (and keep the paths between brackets). The path to the Zotero storage folder should already be obvious to you at this point. The path to the sync folder can be any folder you like. The script will copy all PDF files (that now have proper, easily navigated filenames) to the folder you assign as the sync folder here. To test the script you can run it now and you should then see all your PDF files being copied, one by one. Depending on your database size, this could take a bit of time. Also, please note that the script will not work if you use \’s instead of /’s, so make sure that you use the right type of slashes.

5. Connect to the storage solution using your PDF reader
Next, go into sync application of your online storage solution and enable automatic syncing of the sync folder you just wrote down in that Python script. Hopefully, you get the idea behind this exercise. Whenever you start you computer, the Python script will copy any new PDF files to the sync folder, which will then be uploaded to your online file storage using its sync application. As a result, your online storage solution will contain all your PDF files, neatly labeled and easily to navigate. Only one thing is still missing.

6. Connect to the storage solution using your iPad PDF reader
Now open your PDF reader on the iPad and  log into your online storage. If you are using GoodReader like me, then this is fairly straightforward when you are using Dropbox or SugarSync, since both applications are working together with GoodReader. Just tap on “Connect To Servers”, “Add” and enter your login information. If you are using JungleDisk then this is a bit trickier, but not too hard either. Just enter the following information (and obviously replace the information between brackets with the correct information for your account and settings).

  • Readable Tile: JungleDisk
  • URL-address: https://legacy.myjungledisk.com/[JungleDisk Account Name]/[path to Zotero storage folder on your Jungle Disk Account]
  • User: [your Jungle Disk user name (probably e-mail address]
  • Password: [your Jungle Disk password]
  • Domain: [leave empty]

And that’s all there is to it. Hopefully, someone finds a use for this tutorial. I know it is pretty convenient for me. If only GoodReader had a search function, but then again… Zotero will probably have a native iPad app anyway some day. Regardless, below you can see a picture of what my solution for this problem looks like on the iPad. :-)

 

Dead-eye AssassionSo I finally managed to find the time to play and finish Red Dead Redemption. I am bit embarrassed to admit that, since the game was released more than a year ago. At least I put all that time to good use since I managed to finish writing my doctoral dissertation during the year, but that is a different story. What I do want to write about in this post is the ending of Red Dead Redemption. It definitely took me by surprise, to say the least. However, before you continue reading this post, I must warn that there are some serious spoilers in this article. If you plan on playing the game, then please do not read this post. The game’s ending is too special – note how I did not write good or bad here – to have me ruin it for you.

I will start by summarizing the game in case you are not planning on play or finishing the game. In Red Dead Redemption you play John Marston, a former outlaw who has settled down on a ranch with his wife and son. Government agents have however taken his family captive and ordered John to bring three former gang members of his to justice, in return for his family’s safety and return.  During the game you play with John and after a lengthy campaign you finish your objective for the government and are able to return to your farm where your wife and son await you. The game however does not end there. It simply continues with missions on the farm, where John will herd cattle, break in horses, scare crows, teach his son valuable life lessons, etc. As I already point out, this came as a bit of a surprise. Personally, I figured that the game would simply provide us with a reunion between John and his family after taking care of the leader of his old gang. Sure, knowing the previous titles from Rockstar Games, I was somewhat expecting them to throw in a twist. The reunion would probably not proceed very smoothly, but I was expecting the game to end after one or two more missions.

Instead, the game ventures back into its beginnings, where a healing John Marston had to help out on the farm of a stranger who saved his life in the opening of the game. The main difference being that John know runs his own farm, and lives alongside his wife, his son and an aging alcoholic they call uncle. After all the violence, shootouts, horse chases, and the like, John’s main priorities now are being a good husband and father. As you can imagine, a lot of gamers did not like this at all. (Just Google it if you want proof.)  The entire game you’re working on becoming a legendary gunslinger, but all of a sudden you’re John the farmer. I can understand how that is not how some people envisioned John’s future, but the game takes things even further. John the ex-gunslinger gone farmer dies.

After quite a lot of farm-based missions, the final mission appears and there is no way out of it. John will face the consequences for his life of crime in the gang he eventually brought down himself, and his farm is visited by the long arm of the law. John barely manages to help his family flee the farm and goes out shooting. When his wife and son hear the gunshots, they return to the farm to find John dead. The game fades to black with an image of John’s grave, fading back in to reveal John’s son to have become the spitting image of his father.

Again, a lot of gamers were upset about this. John’s son might have looked a lot like his old man, but in the end you are left to roam the open world of the game with a rather dull replacement of the character that you grew so fond of during the game. Personally, even the voice of John’s son felt wrong to me. While John sounds somewhat like Bill Paxton, Michael Madson or Jeff Bridges, his son simply has an irritating, immature voice that constantly reminds how John was a much more fun character to play as.

But anyway… That’s how the ending of Red Dead Redemption went, hopefully I did not ruin anything for you. Now that we have all refreshed our memories, let’s take a look at why this ending was interesting enough for me to write a post about it. First of all, I was very impressed with Rockstar forcing the player to slow down and see John for who he really is. Playing John is more about guiding him and helping him to stay alive, then it is about actually roleplaying him. This is also apparent in how the game does not allow you to guide John into having sex with hookers (or other women) during the game, even though Rockstar has offered this possibility to the player of many of its other open world games. But not in Red Dead Redemption: John is faithful to his wife and while a player may enact the action parts of the story during gameplay and even decide over the life or death of certain characters, he is not allowed to alter this core aspect of John’s personality. In the end, John does not live on as a gunslinger but he returns to his wife and son, and the player simply has to follow suit. In return, we get to see who John really is, or at least… who John really aims to be.

Central to these missions are the relationship between John and his son on the one hand, and between John and his wife on the other. With regards to his role as a father, John hopes that his son will grow up to be a better man than he was, and certainly not a gunslinger. John tries to reach out to the boy, but it quickly becomes apparent how difficult it is for the latter to trust his father again and accept him into his life again. The same problem presents itself in John’s interaction with his wife. She has also difficulties to trust her husband again and both her and John have trouble adjusting to each other again. To me, these missions were the best part of the game. I enjoyed the game very much, but the farm missions were where it all came together. While these missions all featured gameplay that I had already experienced throughout the game, playing these gameplay sections again as a John the father who tried to teach his son, or as a John the husband who tried to connect with his wife, turned the same mechanics into a completely different, and ever so meaningful experience.

And in the end, this part of the game made the eventual demise of John and the fact that his son grew up to become a gunslinger, against all the efforts of his old man, kick like a mule. Just look at some of the comments that are posted at a video of the ending on YouTube:

No matter how badass you think you are, no matter how tough, or old you think you are, you wanted to cry at the end of this game – LANoire888

I HATE THE ENDING JOHN SHOULD HAVE LIVED AND WENT WITH HIS FAMILY FOR A HAPPY EVER AFTER – AMPDeviLDoG

my stomach was shocked wen john died  :[ – lublu0

So in conclusion, I felt that this ending was definitely as step in the right direction if we want games to grow as a medium. I would not have minded if Rockstar Games would have taken things even further. For example, gameplay elements that would have increased the contrast between his free-roaming single life and the shackles that come with any relationship would only have improved the experience for me. My main grip with the ending is that a lot of these relationships are explored through cutscenes. How about John having to return home on time for dinner? Having to go to bed at set points in time? But then again, if people are already upset about having the become a farmer, I don’t want to see how the game is evaluated if it turns even more into The Sims during the final missions.

Anyway, that’s all I wanted to share right now. I realize that I have just scratched the surface with this post, so why don’t you go out and get yourself a copy of the game. Red Dead Redemption has become one of the games I would highly recommend to people who do not regularly play digital games. In fact, I think it is a shame that I can only discuss games like these with other gamers. But that’s a discussion for a different post.

It does not matter how clever you are, in the end games often can be too complex or emergent for designers to be able to predict how gameplay will evolve without actually playing the game. Furthermore, even if we could, we would still have a hard time to predict how a player will experience our work before we can let them play it. Needless to say, I’m a big fan of paper prototyping while I in the progress of creating a new (game) design.

Specifically for game design, two things often come up when discussing paper prototypes. First, the potential of a good paper prototype is huge. It is often emphasized how paper prototyping can save a lot of time because it can lead to a much better understanding of the game you are working on, without having to write a single line of code.  Such understanding can lead to having to go through less iterations, getting better (and earlier) results from user testing, and eventually it will lead to the same or a better game for a lower cost. Unfortunately, the second topic that comes up in every discussion about paper prototyping videogames, is that it is not that easy to do well. Teaching game design for some years now, I can honestly say that it can take quite some time for people to put the theory to practice and start designing paper prototypes that exactly benefit a game development process.

Over the years, I have somewhat developed my own methodology for designing paper prototypes for video games. I might do a post on that when I feel an urge to do so, but in this post I wanted to show you the work of Stone Librande. I met him after a lecture of his at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and his advice got me started in developing my own approach towards designing paper prototypes for digital games. At his site, you can find a lot of good examples and advice.

http://www.stonetronix.com/gdc-2009/PaperSimulations-2009.ppt
http://www.stonetronix.com/gdc-2009/PaperPrototypes-2009.ppt

(Look at all those out of print Heroscape zombies on slide 12. Oh, how the board game geek in me would love to get its greedy little hands on those.)

During the summer I have been playing a lot of new board games that I received as a present for my PhD graduation from my colleagues (thanks again, everyone). They gave me a big gift certificate that allowed me to buy The Arkham Horror, Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Last Night on Earth and Descent: Journeys in the Dark. The Arkham Horror in particular felt like a game that was inspired by pen and paper roleplaying games. I have never tried one, but playing Arkham made me really curious to take a look at the mechanics of pen and paper RPGs. After all, one of my favorite games of all times was based on one (Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines), and it happened to go on sale a couple of weekends ago. So to make a long story short(er), I started to read a few of the White Wolf rulebooks in order to learn more about pen and paper RPGs, and maybe come up with some novel ideas to make a digital games out of. Echobazaar seems to have done a lovely job at getting the pen and paper RPG-feeling into a browser-based game.

So anyways… as I was looking for more information about storytelling games, I came across the GOLD web series and the spin-off Night of the Zombie King. While neither of them are digital games, they are a nice example of transmedia (although I am not sure if the game the characters in the show play actually exist ). The series also brought me to an article from the director of the show, in which he explains the reasoning that went into developing the show. It’s fairly interesting stuff, so hopefully you’ll enjoy it.

http://www.rollanddesign.com/bringing-goblins-gold-to-life/

Sometimes it is amazing how self-critical I can get. In the past, it has gotten to the point where it was almost paralyzing. Thankfully, I’ve become very much aware of the fact that I tend to be overly critical to myself and I have found a few of ways to overcome this. As I wouldn’t be able to design, write or research anything (i.e. the things that bring food to my table), I am very happy that I managed to find ways to lower my self-criticism. Still, I find it difficult to get an objective view of my own work for some reason, and I have just learned that it might as well be the Kruger-Dunning effect.

As is often the case, Wikipedia provides us with a nice summary: “The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled people make poor decisions and reach erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to recognize their mistakes. The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their own abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”. So in simple terms:  People who do not know a lot about a subject think they know more than they actually know. It also makes people who do know a lot about a subject think that they know less.

As you can imagine, I really like this theory – even though I haven’t read the academic article yet – as it provides a good explanation for why I rate my own designs or research much lower than other (unbiased) people. It also gives me a great explanation at why some people can be obviously incompetent and acting as if they are the n°1 expert on a topic at the same time. I definitely know some people like that and I am sure you know some of them to. Just look for managers who climbed their way to the highest ranks of the company without ever studying the matter or having a knack for it. They are very stubborn in their beliefs, uninformed about whatever they are managing, completely unaware of how they are doing a terrible job, and a little paranoid and defensive in how they do their business. And they make great lab rats for a Dunning-Kruger experiment.

So let’s get to some articles about the effect. Below you will find the academic article, an article from a designer – not me – who applied the principle to himself, and finally… there is an amusing forum post about a “hacker” who could be suffering from the effect.

Okay, so this might be a bit off-topic for this blog, but I guess we will all just have to live with that: The NBA headlined an overview of its team logos this morning. That means that things are looking really grim for the upcoming season, as there is absolutely nothing to report about the negotiations between the players and the association. We are probably heading to a lockout thanks to some billionaires and millionaires arguing about money, but at least something good has come out of this, as the NBA team logos have gathered in one convenient place. To me, that is like an always available online Disneyland as I’ve been completely in love with sports team logos ever since I was a kid. Having been a basketball player most of my life, you can imagine that the NBA has the highest nostalgia factor for me. So how a great excuse to write something about a few of these logos, how about a couple of awards?

The “All-Time Classic” Award: Chicago Bulls (1966 – Present)

First of all, here’s the greatest NBA team logo of all times. It hasn’t changed from 1966 to today. An absolute classic.

The “Best Resemblance To A Videogame Character” Award: Atlanta Hawks (1972 – 1995)

This one almost got the worst logo award as I really need to concentrate to see the hawk in the logo. It has always looked like a disfigured Pac-Man to me. But then again, I could not make it the most worst logo the one Dominique Wilkens wore in his prime (on quite possibly one of the most awesome basketball uniforms of all time.)

The “Retro-Style” Award: Milwaukee Bucks (1968 – 1993)

This Bucks logo reminds me of Shag or Rian Hughes. The illustrator is hilarious. Like the post on the NBA said: “I miss the days when animals on logos were friendly. This Buck just wants to play ball and have a good time, what’s wrong with that?”

The “Psychedelic Rock” Award: Seattle Supersonics (1971 – 1975)

Add some color and this logo would work great on a seventies rock poster. ”Please welcome your 13th Floor Elev… I mean Seattle Supersonics”.

The “Family First” Award: Washington Bullets (1969 – 1997)

If you are going to name yourself the Bullets, then a logo of two hands reaching for a basketball is the best you can come up with? Of course, the franchise’s history about the name and logo is well-documented. They were the Baltimore Bullets who moved to Washington when the ownership became uncomfortable with the name, in particular during the Washington crime and homicide wave of the early 1990s. But still, I would change back to the Bullets in a heartbeat, as I do not care for the name of logo of the Washington Wizards at all.

Anyhow, I hope you enjoyed this post that I just wrote on the train. God bless mobile internet. And here’s the link where you can watch many more NBA team logos. I highly recommend taking a look at it: http://www.nba.com/magic/cohen_feature_081611.html

TNS/Newzoo has done some useful market studies throughout different countries. Unfortunately, these studies can be quite expensive, depending on what you need. The information I needed for my PhD however, was completely free. So thank you very much, good people at TNS/Newzoo, for publishing those 2009 fact sheets containing the statistics for the audience of digital games between 50 and 65.

Unfortunately, the good people at Newzoo seem to have dropped the age demographics in their factsheets for 2010 and 2011. While TNS is still publishing them, they might disappear completely at some point. Therefore I decided that it might be a good idea to link to them here for everyone to enjoy them.

If you decide to use this information, keep in mind that the factsheets did not publish much information about what definition is used for a “gamer”. Looking at the website, it seems that games are defined very broadly, including everything that could possibly qualify. If you happen to know more about this, then please let me know. Comparing the statistics shows quite a difference between the USA and Europe, which makes me wonder how these figures would compare to Asia and Australia.

This study by Latitude Research on digital games having become a mainstream activity for a large audience fell into my lap today, and it was definitely an interesting read. First of all, the study’s findings are presented very clearly and in quite the aesthetically pleasing way. What completely took me off guard however, was that the free version of the report even included some self-critical notes about the used methods and sample. While such remarks are essential to academic research, it is absolutely refreshing that a market study does it.

Put briefly, the study provides a description of what Latitude Research refers to as “new gamers” (aged 15 – 54). Basing itself on quantitative and qualitative data acquired from such new gamers, the study concludes that the future of gaming will characterized by 1) going beyond the screen into the offline life of players, by 2) turning life itself into play as well, and by 3) being focused on tackling large societal issues.

Personally, I would agree with the findings of the study, as this is definitely the direction gaming seems to be going.  Unfortunately, I was a little bit disappointed by the findings as well, because it seemed to me that the study basically referred to the ideas behind pervasive gaming, gamification and serious gaming (which obviously are not that new). Considering the methods that were used, this is not much of surprise. The study used data that was acquired from “290 smartphone owners that considered themselves to be at least casual gamers, and 75% of them felt that they were technologically ahead of the curve”. While it could be argued that it is a good idea to interview early adopters and people who have an affinity with and an expertise in technology in order to study the future of a medium, the provided interview fragments and the conclusion of the study made me doubt this.

The participants were interviewed because they were experts but as a result the consensus in their story ended up being the next logical step for gaming that has been discussed for many years now. While it might not have been the point of this study, I would have liked it even better if the results had something a bit more innovative in them. Therefore I can’t help but wonder what the findings would be if a less technology-savvy audience (who probably make up a large part of the new audience of games as well) would have answered the questions. Maybe different methods would have led to more surprising insights here (or maybe some unanticipated interaction styles, as the ones that are mentioned are already in development).

So I guess that I ended up with mixed feelings. On the one hand I absolutely loved the presentation of the study and how the report gave me a chance to actually interpret the findings better, but on the other hand the results felt more like the opinion of a small group of 240 interaction designers than the actual opinion of a “new gamer”. Nevertheless, I do think that this report is worth a look as it brings together quite a few interesting ideas on where gaming could go next and it does that in a extremely stylish and fun way.

http://www.latd.com/2011/08/23/the-future-of-gaming-a-portrait-of-the-new-gamers/

(And for the record: I’ve played a brainwave-controlled tech demo at GDC and it would definitely be awesome to interact with games that way. Add me to the 44%.)

 

 

 

 

 

A colleague of mine was creating a poster in Adobe Illustrator when I noticed how she copy-pasted her beveled objects from Adobe Photoshop. Apparently, Illustrator does not offer an easy bevel and emboss option, while Photoshop does. Searching the web for a decent tutorial did not result into an appropriate solution either. Subsequently, it seemed like a fun challenge to try and come up with a way to quickly do a bevel effect in Illustrator that looks just as good as the one from Photoshop (even though I’ll probably never use it myself as I’m not a big fan of any quick effect). So here’s what I came up with. (In case something doesn’t work, I used Illustrator CS4).

1. Create a shape and fill it with a nice, subtle gradient.
It doesn’t have to be a gradient, of course. The example uses a rounded rectangle. :-)

2. Object > Path > Offset path to create an inner path
I’ve used an offset of -5 in the example. After this, you should have two shapes. The bigger one will be used to create the bevel.

3. Select the smaller shape and apply a Gaussian blur to it (Effects > Blur > Gaussian Blur).
I used a blur of 5 similar to the offset I used earlier. This will make sure that the inner shape will not have rough edges inside the bevel.

4. Select the bigger shape and adjust the gradient to create a cheap bevel effect.
Make sure that the angle is set to -45 degrees and that the left color is a lighter version of the color in the upper left corner of the inner shape. The right color has to be a darker version of the lower right corner of the inner shape. By doing so, you will get a bevel effect that might be suitable for a lot of projects already. Then again, you can still improve it.

5. Use the mesh tool on the outsides of the larger shape to create a better bevel (Optional)
This is where it becomes a bit tricky. In the example I made some anchors in the middle of the edges, as well as on the rounded corners. Each anchor point can get its own color now, so by adjusting those you can practically create any kind of bevel you’d want.

And there you have it: a tutorial on how you can quickly create a bevel in Illustrator without having to resort to Photoshop. I did not spend much time tweaking the examples, but here’s a comparison of the same shape beveled in both Illustrator and Photoshop. (The left on is done in Photoshop, the right one is done in Illustrator.) It’s not a perfect copy, but if you’d want to then you could definitely make an exact copy using the mesh tool.

One of the things I was definitely looking forward to at this year’s DiGRA conference in Hilversum, was Joris Dormans’ workshop. I met Joris at the Meaningful Play conference in Michigan in 2008, and I felt that his work had a lot of potential back then. In essence, he was trying to use a notation that was similar to UML in order to visualize emergence in games. By doing so, it should become easier for a designer to grasp the dynamics of gameplay.

Of course, that was 3 years ago and the project had changed quite a bit since then. The project moved away from UML into its own visual language, and the latest version of the framework is already quite powerful and useable as game design tool. It allows designers to visualize feedback loops, player actions, resource pools, etc. in an easily understandable way, which can then be tested using a Flash-based cross-platform application (which I personally would love to see on the iPad as well). Using this tool, it becomes fairly simple to acquire a deep understanding of the dynamics of the gameplay that you are designing, before having to code anything. Similarly, it is also a decent tool for game academics to describe gameplay dynamics.

For a quick example of the framework, I would suggest taking a look at this exploration of the game of basketball, although Joris has plenty of other examples online at his Machinations wiki, such as a model for Starcraft. While looking at it, you should keep in mind that there is no perfect model for a game, similar to how there is no perfect prototype. For example, a model that would take player attributes into account would be a different way to describe the game of basketball. Also, the page contains examples of positive feedback basketball (i.e. for every point of difference, the winning team receives another player) and negative feedback basketball (i.e. for every point of difference, the losing team receives another player), which are examples from Mark LeBlanc’s rant at the GDC of 1999. I particularly liked the negative feedback basketball game, as I didn’t really expect the outcome.

http://www.jorisdormans.nl/machinations/wiki

If you have been reading this blog, then you will probably have read about how I feel that there is a gap between how gamification is actually done in practice, and where gamification’s real potential lies. Gamification – as in “using game design elements to motivate people in non-game contexts” – actually has a lot of potential in my opinion, but unfortunately it is often approached in the wrong way. In this post I want to briefly explain this, and discuss how gamification could and should be done in a better way.

Any gamer knows that well-designed games can be extremely motivating. We have all played longer than we should have at some point, and we have all felt the urge to play a good game again and again. In order to get a better understanding of why and how games are motivating, two types of motivation are often distinguished: games are said to be intrinsically and extrinsically motivating and within these concepts lies answer to the issues I have with gamification.

In order to explain these concepts, I am drawing from the work of Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan who are the founders of some very influential motivation theories that have recently been gaining popularity within game studies: “Intrinsically motivated behaviors are those whose motivation is based in the inherent satisfactions of the behaviors per se, rather than in contingencies and reinforcements that are operationally separable from those activities. Intrinsic motivation represents a prototype of self-determined activity, in that, when intrinsically motivated, people engage in activities freely, being sustained by the experience of interest and enjoyment. … Intrinsic motivation is noninstrumentally focused, instead originating autotelically from satisfactions inherent in action, whereas extrinsic motivation is focused toward and dependent on contingent outcomes  that are separable from the action per se. (from Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2004). Handbook of self-determination research. University Rochester Press.)”

Using this description, intrinsically and extrinsically motivated behavior can be distinguished by asking ourselves whether or not the behavior is caused by an inherent satisfaction or a separable outcome of the behavior in itself. Applied to games, we could say that gaming is intrinsically motivated when players are motivated by the inherent satisfactions such as a sense of competence, exhilaration, relaxation, etc. while playing the game. However, players can also be extrinsically motivated when they are playing for separable outcomes of the game, such as (high) scores, achievements, prices and so on.

Distinguishing these two types of motivation in games can nevertheless be a bit tricky. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation often come in pair. A professional gamer – yes, they do exist – can very well be interested in the game, get a lot of inherent satisfaction from the game and enjoy playing it very much. However, at the same time he or she is also being paid to play the game. This is maybe an extreme example, because most people are not being paid to play games but it does indicate that the player should be taken into account when assessing motivation as intrinsic or extrinsic. Does our professional gamer (or any professional sports athlete for that matter) play for the money or for the love of the game? Either way, the mind of the player plays a significant role in distinguishing the two motivational concepts, which often makes it difficult to draw a clear line on whether the player’s actual motivation is intrinsic or extrinsic. In my own research, I introduced the concept of primary motivation and asked my participants which motivates them the most and whether or not the removal of the elements they mentioned would stop them from playing the game. This was far from a perfect solution, but I do believe that I managed to get a better idea about how games motivate their players this way.

Another element that complicates matters a bit is the game itself. Is a high score, an in-game reward item, an achievement, etc. a part of the game itself or not? The obvious answer seems to be that they are not part of the activity of playing the game. For example, the activity of platform game is the inherent satisfaction and enjoyment of guiding an interesting character through obstacles. Getting an achievement badge to do so is not inherent to the activity itself. A player is then playing the platform game for something else, and no longer for its own sake. That seems logical, but what about Princess Peach in Super Mario Bros. then? At first, it seems logical that she is intrinsic to the activity, but when the activity is defined as I have done above then she all of a sudden becomes a extrinsic reward. Again, it comes down to how the player’s mind perceives the game, and where a line is drawn between the activity itself, its intrinsic rewards and the extrinsic rewards.

Keeping these remarks in mind, it becomes possible to discuss how gamification motivates people. Well-known examples of a gamified processes are Nike Plus, Mint.com, Foursquare, etc. Basically, all these products simply add points, goals, badges, leaderboards, challenges, competition, etc. to an activity that a company would like their users to more often. A couple of days ago I ran into a post about a practical gamification use case, that demonstrates how this works: “The team designed the Leaderboard not only to drive internal adoption … but also to stimulate the desirable employee behavior. Different social interactions earn points – posting a comment, liking someone else’s comment, sharing a document, etc. By collecting points, users can level up to different levels – from Newbies to Masters.”

Comparing this approach to the motivational theory that I have outlined above, these examples seem to be rather clear examples of extrinsic rewards and extrinsically motivating people. As I already said, a company wants people to do a certain activity more and offers them external rewards if they do so. Unfortunately, this kind of motivation is hardly worth the name “game-ification”. It might be easy to do so, but such rewards are extrinsic to the activity of playing a game. In fact, games did not invent this kind of motivation. It is merely the principle behind operant conditioning: people are given a stimulus in return for modifying their behavior. This is exactly the same principle you use when you train your dog to do something.

I am not going to argue that behaviorist principles do not work because they do, but I do want to argue that this is a missed opportunity. Gamifying an activity implies to me that an activity is made intrinsically more motivating. I have been a gamer all my life and many of my friends are too, and my impression of high scores, reward items, achievements, etc. is that they can add to the game in rare occasions, but that they are not the reason why we are motivated to play games. Intrinsic motivation is what motivates us, and while we are not adverse to well-designed achievements and high scores, they are not what motivates us to play. Let us look at Farmville for example. The game is all about points, achievements and other rewards, but I do not think that a single person in my friends list on Facebook still plays it. I gave it a try myself and quit after a couple of days because there is absolutely nothing there that leads to intrinsic motivation for me. While the statistics may tell us that the game is still played by more than 30 million people, everybody I know has given it a try and stopped playing. The only reason why I managed to keep myself motivated to play it for a while, was because I found intrinsic motivation in being able to draw video game characters using crops.

So I guess I am a bit biased here. I actually have a great fondness for well-designed games and I am aware of how difficult it is to design a good game. I also understand that businesses want to make money, and that it is a lot easier and cheaper to simply add points, achievements and leaderboards to an action, than to actually redesign the activity in a way to so that it becomes intrinsically motivating and meaningful to people. In my opinion, this is the most important challenge for gamification right now, but it is also a very difficult one because underneath this challenge lies a societal issue.

As Alfie Kohn points out in his book “Punished by Rewards”, our basic strategy for raising children, teaching students, and managing workers can be summed up in six words: Do this and you’ll get that. Extrinsic rewards is how we are used to getting things done in our society. As a result, this process has been researched extensively, and the conclusion is not positive. The consensus is that extrinsic rewards are ineffective in the long run, and that they become counterproductive as they decrease intrinsic motivation for the activity. Research has also established that offering extrinsic rewards for a task leads to lower quality work if the task contains some degree of problem-solving or creativity. If my company was dependent on people performing a certain activity well for many years to come, I would therefore be very careful in using extrinsic rewards to get them to do so.

So to conclude this post, I would advise everyone who wants to gamify a process to look for what makes a game fun and how these aspects resonate with intrinsic motivation. Deci & Ryan related intrinsically motivational experiences to feelings of competence, autonomy and relatedness, but also to enjoyment and interests. As a result, intrinsic motivation can be found in how games allow players to make their own decisions, be part of a community, partake in interesting fantasy worlds, learn to master the game through a state of flow and scaffolded challenges, experience surprises, feel creative when solving problems, and so on. When truly fun elements such as these are activated, any activity can become an intrinsically motivating game. Just ask the elderly gamers whom I talked to during my research and who told me how booking a flight, filling in a spreadsheet or browsing the internet was a highly motivating experience to them. In the words of Mary Poppins: “In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun and snap! The job’s a game.”

Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer was something I did not anticipate. I wasn’t sure that it would be any good, let alone that it would be good enough to be taken into consideration as one of my favorite games of the year. Its a shame that the game does not feature usage statistics, because I must have played this a lot. Its been the perfect 5 minutes break to me, and definitely worth a look of you haven’t heard of it.

So what kind of game is Ascension? Apparently, it is a deck-building card game and the first in its kind that I have played. From what I have learned, Dominion is supposed to have laid the template for the genre and there are a few games like it (e.g. Thunderstone). In essence, all you do during the game is either 1) buying cards and adding them to your deck (which will get reshuffled quite a bit during the game), or 2) defeating monsters. Buyable cards and defeatable monsters are laid out on the table, somewhat similar to Texas Hold’Em after the “river”. Both buying cards and defeating monsters leads to victory points, and the player who has the most victory points at the end of the game wins.

The game’s dynamics are quite complex, even though there are some clear routes to victory. Buying cards with high victory point values is a good strategy, although these cards are often either expensive or limited in use. Another way to win the game is to speed up your deck, either by buying cards that increase the amount of cards in your hand during a turn, or by buying cards that allow you to remove cards from your deck. Both ways allow a player to combine a lot of good cards, which will increase your victory points rapidly as well. Like in any collectible card game, buying good card combinations works in Ascension as well. Finally, defeating a lot of monsters quickly is a risky strategy that will end the game fast, preferably before your opponents manage to get a decent deck together.

So those are four strategies (i.e. point collecting, deck speeding, combo building and monster rushing) that I use when I play the game, and there are probably more strategies out there. I hope this gives an impression of how the game plays out, without having to go too much into detail. So on to the actual topic of this post: why is this such a great game?

First of all, there are a lot of well-balanced ways to success that are disruptable by your opponents. Going for a monster rush will remove any chances to win through point collection, and so on. In my opinion, these strategies are balanced pretty well, in particular since the buying and defeating takes place where everyone can see it. If you notice that your opponent is going for a monster rush, you can buy cards that will allow you to remove cards of your choice from the five cards in the middle of the table. That way, it becomes possible to remove the cards your opponent needs, which can be detrimental to his or her plans. In essence, Ascension delivers a great “schadenfreude” experience.

Second, I love how the game manages to keep the tension going to the last minute. Players will get victory points for their actions, but they still have to count the victory points on each card of their decks when the game is over. During the game it is easy to see who is winning through the first type of victory points, but it requires a Rainman-like memory to keep track of the second type of victory points. A player can have an impression of who has a lot of hidden victory points, but it will never be a certainty. As a result, Ascension keeps the drama alive to the last second.

Third, the combinations in Ascension can be absolutely epic to play out. The game is designed in a way that winning through great combinations often comes down to the last turn. I have lost quite a few games where I only needed one more turn to finish the job. So when you all of a sudden manage to have your cards come together right before the end, it is an exhilaration sight to behold. One time I managed to go through my entire deck on the last hand and turn a defeat into a dominating victory.

Fourth, I like the artwork and lore of the game. Note how I specically referred to myself there, as this might not be something for everyone. In fact, at first I felt that it was quite a bizarre look ‘n feel, even though I immediately liked the unique visual style of the card art. After a while I read up on what the fantasy world of the game is all about (on the official site), and I must say that I really enjoy it. The game has a unique feel but its fantasy really comes to life after a few games (and reading some additional information).

Finally, Ascension does a great job at balancing skills versus chance. I am a huge advocate of having some chance in a game. Jesse Schell once defined fun as “pleasure with surprises” and I do agree with him that suprises and fun go hand in hand. That does not mean that I do not enjoy a game that is all about skill (e.g. chess). It just means that I’m a bigger fan of games with some chance in them. Without some luck, the underdog would never defeat the much better player. Ascension does this very well. As a beginner, the game might even look like it’s completely random as chance plays a huge part in it. Nevertheless, after some time it becomes apparant that the game requires a lot of tactical and strategic skill, if not a lot of skill in managing chance as well (which is something I always enjoy a lot).

So that’s my brief introduction to Ascension. If you are a game designer or a fan of card games, I definitely recommend playing it. It is easy to learn and setup, especially if you own an iPad.

I promise… this is the last post I’m writing about gamification, skinner boxes, and the likes. If you have read this blog, then you probably know why I am not a huge fan of it because its current application lacks intrinsic motivation. This morning I found an article on the topic by Ian Bogost that I somehow seemed to have missed.

Bogost provides a rhetorical analysis of the term “serious game”, “gamification” and its derivatives, while at the same time providing a glimpse at the gap between the potential of games for learning, politics, journalism and business, and the needs and wants of educators, politicians, journalists and marketeers. In the end, he proposes to stop using the existing terms (that are not very popular among gamers and industry people) and instead use the term “exploitationware”.

Personally, I thoroughly enjoyed the article and Bogost’s suggestion, even though I do not see it replacing the term “gamification”. Considering Bogost’s rhetorical analysis of the origin of the term, it should be obvious that a more positive-sounding term would be needed as a valid substitute.

I also feel that the article is a bit too negative. While I have condemned gamification’s current implementations, I still – probably a bit naïvely – hope that a counter-movement will come that will get it right, by drastically re-designing boring tasks into meaningful experiences. If such (not easy to design) applications of gamification become widely spread, most adversaries of gamification in its current form (including myself) will probably drop their concerns, eliminating the need for a substitute (and somewhat derogatory) term such as “exploitationware”.

http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6366/persuasive_games_exploitationware.php

(For further reading, Steven Poole also had a great piece on Gamification in Edge #234 (December 2011), which I couldn’t find online yet.)

The technology of Microsoft surface has been around for some time and I’m assuming that this is somewhat old news. In case you have not heard about it yet, Microsoft been developing a multi-touch table which should be released in 2012 to the general public. When I first learned about this three years ago, I was a bit sceptical about the usefulness of such a device. As smart phones and tablets are becoming common goods, I did not really see the added benefits of a big multi-touch table in my living room. My feelings about it were summed up pretty well by a parody video by SarcasticGamer.com, with the memorable quote “one day your computer will be a big ass table”.

But that was before I got into board gaming again. These days, I probably enjoy playing board games just a bit more than a lot of video games. The cause for this is that board games lead to great social fun, in a way that many online games can’t even compare with. There just is something about collocated play that just trumps computer-mediated play time and time again. But that does not mean that board games are perfect.

Thankfully, I am a very dedicated and driven person with regards to the effort I devote towards entertainment, because else I would never get the manuals of quite a few of these board games I like to play. Sure, these manuals are often very clearly and thoughtfully written, but still it can be quite an achievement to learn a tabletop game’s rules, and then we are not even discussing the effort it takes to run a storytelling system. (For example, I’m currently struggling to learn White Wolf’s New World of Darkness, which I have been wanting to learn since playing the incredible Vampire – The Masquerade: Bloodlines for the first time, and I can tell you that it is a lot of text to get your “fangs” into.) Furthermore, learning the rules can be a lot of work, but then there’s also the time required to set everything up, download and print FAQs and errata, come up with a decent storage solution, etc.

Keeping all that in mind, I am looking forward to seeing Microsoft’s table to be used for what it is actually useful: playing tabletop games. A lovely implementation of the technology and Dungeons & Dragons is currently being developed at Carnegie Mellon, called SurfaceScapes. Applications like these are probably what will give the Microsoft “big ass table” some added value in comparison with a smart phone or tablet PC. And if the price is right, I am definitely installing a Surface in my living room to play board games.

http://www.etc.cmu.edu/projects/surfacescapes/index.html

MtGTI recently stumbled upon one of the latest entries to the Wizards of the Coast’s transmedial world that is the Magic: The Gathering franchise. I have a history with MtG, although it is a very small one. I have played the game for a year when I was about 13 years old. My impression of it was that it was a highly enjoyable and strategically deep game, that costed a ton of money (that I was not able to invest into it). Also, it is important to realize here that I played the game somewhat isolated since it was a very niche hobby in the part of Belgium where I lived, and there were no tournaments, trading events or shop selling single cards anywhere near. As a result, the only way I could ever get an elusive Black Lotus, for example, would be by finding it in a booster pack. So needless to say that MtG died out for me as I decided that there were more enjoyable games to spend money on (in my situation back then).

As time went on I played the 1997 Microprose game and the more recent Duel of the Planeswalkers for Playstation 3 a bit, but did not find them as fun as playing with actual people. I also wanted to give MtG: Online a try, but decided not to do so since I thought that it would cost a lot of money to build a reasonable deck. And then I saw MtG: Tactics on Steam and decided to have a quick peak, simply to see how well they managed to blend a turn-based tactics game (e.g. Heroscape, Final Fantasy Tactics, etc.) with the original card game.

To answer that question briefly (because that is probably not why you are reading this considering the title of this post), they did a decent job. The card game part is brilliant, the tactics part is a bit thin and could be improved (e.g. by adding a more intuitive line of sight, diminishing the power of the random critical hits, etc.), but I would rate it an 8 out of 10 game, which matches its score on Metacritic if you’d deduct extra points for the terrible interface, outdated graphics and some annoying bugs. If you like mild tactics games and MtG then it is definitely work checking out. I would just give it a try to see the amazing MtG artwork come alive on the screen.

So what about the business skills, Bob? I am glad you asked. When I started playing the game, I liked it quite a bit, but I was still worried about the money it would cost me to keep playing. After all, free to play micro-payment games are seldomly, well… free to play. Reading the comments on Metacritic confirms this. For example, Aquila noted how:

“The free to play part is shockingly short. Dishonest marketing where people will trap for spending huge amounts of money. And a HUGE pay to win factor is present. So don’t trap for it people! But the game itself is fun if it was normally priced it will be a between 6 and 8. (Aquila, Metacritic)”

Normally, that would turn me away from the game, but I enjoyed the game enough to see if I could find a loop. After all, in Warstorm, another TCG I once played, I had managed to become a free player with a few competitive decks and that game sure was very tight in terms of its economic system. MtG: Tactics is a lot more flexible towards the amount of money a player needs to spend to enjoy the game. Here is what I found:

  • In-game gold can be acquired by completing daily missions, up to 14 gold per day.
  • Boosters can only be bought by paying $3.
  • Boosters can also be acquired by defeating at least one opponent in a tournament that costs 20 in-game gold.
  • Singles can be bought and sold in an auction house.
  • Players are allowed to trade cards and in-game gold.

So that means that if you use tournaments as your main income of cards, that you can play a tournament every two days. The cards you win there can then be sold at the auction house for more in-game gold, potentially creating a positive feedback loop. Unfortunately, you have to defeat an opponent to convert 20 gold into a booster, so that will difficult without already having many good cards.

However, the MtGT community realized that this would make the game a lot less accessible for people who want to play it casually, and has made it very common for the winner of round one to refund the loser’s 20 in-game gold. After all, selling off the cards you do not need from your free booster easily nets more than 20 in-game gold.

Figuring all this out seems like an interesting exercise for economy students in secondary school. I’ll admit that this is not exactly the same as writing up a business model, but I do see some potential here. Another – albeit more obvious – application of the game is in its trading aspects. I have recently attended a session on negotation techniques at an empty moment at a conference, and it is remarkable how those techniques have paid off in MtG: Tactics.

So this could be an interesting topic for a master’s thesis or design research project. Based on my experiences with MtG: Tactics, I would therefore say that there is a lot of potential in developing a “homework” trading card game for secondary school, in particular if the game itself could be a learning experience as well (such as Elementeo). Economy teachers could use it to study the economic system that grows from within the game, art teachers could let students design their own cards, math teachers could use the game to teach probabilities, language teachers could let students write stories within the game world, and so on.

This is seemingly the most trivial topic I have ever blogged about, but Kotaku’s article on how sports games label their difficulty levels actually resonated for me. I am a fan of many sports titles, and the NBA 2K series in particular. However, I have not gotten to the point where I am capable of playing on the highest setting. I tend to play the game at the “Superstar” level instead, which is the second highest difficulty level. I pick that difficulty level because it results in winning chances that seem realistic to me. That means that if I am playing with a team that is better than its opponent, I will more often than not win the game. This is however no longer the case when I still need to figure out my team’s skills a bit and/or the plays they are running. When I play exhibitions, I should lower the setting to “All-Star”, the third highest but also the third lowest setting. At that point, my basketball ego jumps in and prohibits me from playing at that level. It does not matter that I have the impression that the AI is already cheating a bit at the Superstar level. I simply will not go lower than Superstar, regardless of the fact that this will turn into an experience that will be less fun than when I’d just be a bit more humble.

So it’s fair to say that Kotaku hit a snare there, and I was very surprised to see that almost every other big sports game franchise uses a similar labelling method as NBA 2K12. Only Top Spin has somewhat of a subjective rating, but from my perspective calling “All-Star” “Normal” instead will only make things worse. Therefore I am an advocate of using the power of objective numbers 1 to 5, as the author suggests.

http://kotaku.com/5888302/the-rookie-mistake-most-video-games-make

If you know me you know how much I love basketball. I used to play it way too much, which is still evidenced by the state of my bad knees, ankles and back. So as playing on the court these days quickly leads to annoying injuries to me, I’ve taken resort to playing golf and NBA 2K12, the latter clearly being the more fun and addictive game. Okay, that might be pushing it a bit, but the NBA 2K series nevertheless are a lot of fun to me. Since NBA 2K11 I have to say that they have started to mimic real-life basketball quite a bit. I have started to run plays, consider matchups, switch things up on defense, and so on. Of course, the game still has a long way to go, but playing it at the Superstar difficulty level does give me somewhat of a feeling – however slight – that the outcome of a match of me versus the CPU is realistic. I won’t debate here what video game realism means to me; for that you should check out the academic work of Wannes Ribbens & Steven Malliet – but let’s just say that the game gives me the impression that tactics that work in real life also work in the game and vice versa. Of course, I am not using any cheap exploits which would make the game a lot less fun to me. (Even though the zone defense in the link is feasible in real life, it would also be easily exploited in real-life which is something the CPU cannot do for various reasons.)

So that’s my relationship with the NBA 2K series. I play it because I love basketball and I want to substitute for playing real life basketball, I guess. And on top of that, it’s a pretty appealing fantasy to take the role of an NBA player, coach or GM. So what about the improvements I was discussing in the title of the post? Well, since NBA 2K11 I started modding the game in a way that has improved my playing experience considerably. Mind you, these are hardly difficult mods to make if you’re the developer. All it takes is a little bit of extra development time, which probably can be reduced if project management takes it into account early in the project.

1. Put my face on my player
Just look at the forums: people who can change a player’s face in the game are actually doing requests for other people. That’s how popular this is. Sure, it is fun to design yourself a basketball freak (e.g. 7’2″ point guard) or the next superstar and play with them, but nothing beats putting yourself into the game. I’ve modded myself in games a lot of times, but this was the first time I put myself into a HD basketball game. And wow, the immersion that got me was incredible (even though it wore of at some point, probably due to the gameplay for my player not being what I wanted it to be). This shouldn’t be too difficult to arrange on a console or PC. Even without a HD three-dimensional camera, just let us import our picture and use it as a texture. Next give us the option to alter the mesh of the head using the Create-A-Player tools in the game, or even use meshes from any NBA player of our choice. This shouldn’t be a mod in 2012.

2. Let players control and veto CPU trades in the Association Mode
I’ve been playing association-type gameplay ever since my first 5 on 5 NBA simulation game (and I go way back to Double Dribble on the NES). This is what a typical association has been: 1) get a team that is bad but has potential for a turn around, 2) trade and simulate a few seasons, 3) become NBA champion, 4) stop playing and start anew. In NBA 2K12 however, I am playing my sixth season and I’ve become NBA champion twice. I’ve also played a lot of regular season games and the full playoffs, occasionally barely making it to the next round. One of the reasons for such extended longevity is REDitor. This tool allows me to change the database of my save game easily. So now I control what happens in the off-season. Duncan goes from the Spurs to the Bobcats in his twilight? Not happening. Griffin sticks with a weak Clippers team (without Paul) after his rookie deal is up? Not anymore as I signed him to a contender. And so on. Adjustments like these make sure that the future NBA is believable to me. If the CPU makes decisions that are surprising but plausible, I don’t do a thing. But on the other hand I can also create drama myself, and more importantly: I can ensure that the competition remains tough. If I win a three peat, I can create a believable team of frustrated free agent superstars to compete against the next year.

3. Provide proper profiles for procedurally generated drafts
Another issue with the association are the created players. After a while, the league looks like a bunch of nobodies without any personality. I remember basketball games where this was a lot worse than in NBA 2K12, but I am still not satisfied with NBA 2K12. What I did to solve this issue, is use real-life project drafts and fictional drafts that were manually crafted by other fans. For example, in Nictional Draft #1, there is a potential hotshot SG and a strong center, somewhat reminiscent of the 2007 draft. The draft is detailed and full of story per player up to the second round. What would it take to manually create 1000 profiles like that so that the association can have a lot more depth in recruiting new players for let’s say 10 seasons? Two FTE?

4. Provide proper faces for procedurally generated drafts
While a proper profile per player is a good step, another issue are the created player faces. They tend to look to similar unless you put a lot of work into it. To fix this, people like myself are re-texturing meshes of existing players. In 15 mins, you can create a face that doesn’t look all too familiar anymore and that can be used for a created player. But for 2K this shouldn’t even be necessary. Looking at today’s 3D scan technology, it might be possible to just scan a bunch of unknowns and use their faces in the game.

5. Bring the past to live in Association Mode
There are mods that convert faces the previous installments of NBA 2K to the last version, and I am betting that 2K doesn’t have a lot of issues in doing this themselves. Why should an association start in the year the game came out then? I’m not sure since when 2K has been using this game engine, but I’m guessing that going back three years shouldn’t be a problem. (It even seems to me that the engine hasn’t changed all that much since NBA 2K6.) Personally, I don’t think a basketball game should need more complex 3D models and/or textures, so why not keep using existing 3D model assets from now on? Of course, the real money would be in being able to start an association in the eighties or nineties, but that obviously brings a lot of financial implications with it.

6. Put my face on my coach
Similar to My Player mode, I edited the coach of my association and it’s pretty cool to see myself hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy, or shout at Paul George from the sideline. (For the record, I made Steve Nash the assistant coach for my Suns after he retired, which is also a pretty neat touch.)

7. Log the Association
My Player mode does a decent job of keeping track of your achievements as a player. The same should be implemented in My Association. I want to option as a player to save important games into an in-game history book. I used to have a blog for a fantasy league at some point, but blogging just takes too much work. All that’s needed is that you can look back on your team’s history after a lot of simulated years.

8. Fix what’s wrong with the gameplay
Finally, the game is hardly perfect and there are things that need change. Thankfully, 2K seems pretty good at fixing their gameplay every year, so I’m not going to go into this all that much. I’m really looking forward to 2K13 and hopefully, the game will not be overtaken by EA when the Live series returns, much like ISS/PES was surpassed by FIFA (through copying everything what made PES better).

And that’s a wrap. Most of my improvements relate to the association and my own playing experience, but that’s what matters to me. I hope you enjoyed reading it.

This looks like a great case for educators to look into. Apparently, someone who names himself Lycerius has been playing Civilization 2 for ten years and has now ended up in 3991 AD. Put briefly, the world has become an post-apocalyptic wasteland. The polar ice caps have melted, there is fall-out from nuclear warfare everywhere, all big cities have perished, and so on. All that is left of the world are 3 big factions (i.e., Celtania, New Vikingland and America) and a small island populated by the Sioux Nation. There has been non-stop war for 1700 years.
Like I said, this looks like an great example for people who are advocating the use of games as educational tools. Lycerius has managed to get his own Reddit page, and it is filled with advice from fellow Civilization 2 players on how to get out of the ongoing stalemate. How’s that for motivation, right? Civilization 2 was a great game but it’s a game from 1996, and still it is interesting enough for so many people to care about Lycerius’ save game. It is also amazing how in-depth the responses are. As an example, here’s an excerpt of one of the replies:

“Let’s start by discarding such methods of government that would be foolish to take. Lycerius, in his great wisdom has left the game as a communist state, this decision might seem weird to a lot of people, but here’s why. You would all probably say that the best government is republic and/or democracy right? Wrong. Within civ 2 republic and democracy are based on an already matured civilization changing from an inferior political system to them, in effect they require the necessary infrastructure such as temples, marketplaces and especially a great irrigation system to work, they are the perfect governments for kingdoms to flourish into a scientific age. Nearing the fourth millenium all technology has been obtained and more importantly no such irrigation exists meaning that the huge cities required to mantain the expensive lifestyle of the republics or democracies do not exist.”

And there are plenty more great examples like that on the Reddit page. While the extent to which Civilization 2′s lessons are a great simulation of real life is up for discussion, Civilization’s effectiveness as a tool to develop critical reflection and/or problem solving skills seems a lot debatable. This is nothing new to game researchers – e.g., Kurt Squire has done some wonderful research on this topic – but I nevertheless felt that this was an inspiring example to spread. It certainly reminds me of why I do design research on serious games or try to use commercial titles in class rooms.

Ever since its release on iOS about a month ago, I’ve been playing Summoner Wars on my iPad. I have to say, this game is absolutely wonderful and the implementation for iOS is great. Of course, there are some adjustments I would like the developer to consider (e.g. undo pre-dice, battle history, etc.), and apparently the iPhone version has a few issues due to the small screen size, but regardless of such nit-picking I definitely recommend this game to anyone. It is casual, easy to learn and quick to play, but at the same time it is definitely deep and very rewarding to master. If that is not enough of advertising then consider this: the physical version would cost you at least $129.50 (even more if you want to make decks that require multiples of each pack) while the iOS version has an “Everything Bundle” for $7.99. Anyway, let’s get to the point of this post. After playing Summoner Wars for about a month, I wanted to write a couple of paragraphs on two topics, the first being the mechanics of the game and the second being its achievements system.

Game Mechanics

(Skip the following paragraph if you know what game mechanics are. Oh, still here? I guess you would like some help with defining that word then? Okay, here is an overview of academic definitions by Miguel Sicart as well as a nice suggestion of his own, here is an example of what I would consider a game mechanic (provided kindly by Squidi), and here is something for people who prefer visuals over text. (Also, here is what Gamification drones think game mechanics are.) To put it in layman’s terms, I would say that I am talking about a bunch of nicely designed rules that lead to meaningful gameplay experiences. There is a lot wrong with that sentence, but I am sure we have a mutual idea of which elements of Summoner Wars I will be writing about below.) 

Summoner Wars has plenty of mechanics underlying its gameplay experience. There are card draws and dice rolls, action points spendings, spatial tactics and movement, and so on. (If you know Heroscape, the game designer of Summoner Wars is Colby Dauch – the owner of Heroscapers.com - and that certainly shows in Summoner Wars’ design). Summoner Wars is pretty much a tactical war game played with cards that are laid out on a map, with dice rolls determine the damage dealt in attacks. That in itself does not sound too spectacular, but here are a few mechanics that Summoner Wars does really well.

  1. Assymmetric (and very thematic) gameplay - This might not even be an actual mechanic but anyway, Summoner Wars is a great example of assymmetric gameplay. None of the factions play in the same way, they all are extremely thematic, and playing a new faction takes a lot of experimenting to figure out how you can maximize them. (Right now, I am in love with the Cloaks, a faction that is build completely around deception, clever movement, and timing.) At the same time, Summoner Wars still appears to be pretty balanced to me. (Also, the fans are keeping track of battles and – while I hardly think that this is an adequate way to measure the balance of these factions – are happy to report that all the factions tend to win/lose around 50% of the games they are in.)
  2. Risk management – I absolutely love games that are about negotiating chances. While I do not calculate my chances while playing, I love to play games that have a little margin of luck in there, just so I can try to push that back out and play competitively. Like Heroscape did beforehand, Summoner Wars does this wonderfully. I know that there are people who want absolutely no luck in a game, but I would advise those to just play Chess or Go. Personally, I think that games that are not completely determined are tactically speaking much more interesting. Every move you make could still fail for no reason whatsoever.
  3. Hand management – Summoner Wars is probably one of the best hand management games I have ever played. Sid Meier apparently once said that a good game is a series of interesting choices, and I Colby Dauch seems to agree: Every turn Summoner Wars gives you an great deal of meaningful decisions regarding the cards in your hand. Which cards are you going to summon? In what order am I going to summon them? Do I wait for another one for maximum effect? Wouldn’t it be better if I would just use them to build magic and summon something bigger next turn? What if the other guy will summon this or that the next turn? What is the chance that I get another one if these? And so on.

So there you have it, three reasons/mechanics that make Summoner Wars the best game I have played all year. I guess it is not a game for fans of abstract board games or the thematic yet hardcore European board games (e.g., Puerto Rico, which involves hardly any luck is based more on selecting roles, manipulating turn orders, auctioning, gathering resources, and so on.) But still, Summoner Wars does what it does and it does it well. Now let’s have a quick look at the second bit I wanted to blog about, Summoner Wars’ achievement system.

Achievements (on iOS)

Extra Credits once did a wonderful episode on achievements, and argued that there are three types of achievements: 1) the Unavoidable (i.e., the ones you get for doing what you would have done anyway), 2) the Optional (i.e., the ones that are basically side missions that are not part of the core gaming experience, and that are often used to extend the gaming experience) and 3) the Inspiring (e.g., the ones that inspire the player to play in an alternate and engaging way that is not the main focus of the game). Personally, I do not care at all that much about the first two and would prefer it if games would only offer inspiring achievements, but I guess you need unavoidable achievements to make the player aware that there are achievements that came with the game and that it could be fun to look for them and complete them.

So how does Summoner Wars fit in there? Sadly, the game tends to range between unavoidable and optional achievements, the worst ones being “Roll a 5 or a 6 three times in a row” for the Tundra Orcs’ “Wild Man” achievement. Funny enough, I got it on my first attempt with the Orcish faction, but for someone wanting to collect achievements an unavoidable achievement based on pure luck (1/27 chance) must be awful. That said, the game even features a second luck-based achievement (“When It Counts”), which you get if you “won a game where you never rolled a miss on an attack against your opponent’s summoner”. (Granted, the latter can be made easier using some skill but using some of the very few attacks in the game that do not require dice rolls for all but one life of your opponent’s summoner and then moving in for the final blow with 2/3 odds.)

On the other hand, the game did offer some neat ones as well, that are used as tools for teaching (even though they are possibly too close to the core gameplay experience to be referred to as inspiring). For example, “The Swarm” asks you to rush your opponent’s walls, basically suffocating her by removing summoning spots of the board. This is a technique advanced players call Wall Crowding on the forums. So while most achievements in Summoner Wars are not as well designed as they could be, there are some that are not that badly implemented, and this makes Summoner Wars’ achievements a nice example to discuss.

Get Real @ SxSWAt South by Southwest 2013, Rick Van Eck, Steven Malliet, Amy Adcock and I presented a session on realism in serious games. It was a fun experience, we got a positive review out of it, and I’m thrilled that the good people of SxSW released the audio of the session online. After listening to it online, I decided that I would go through the slides one more time alongside the audio while recording everything with the Camstudio. Unfortunately, our video stuttered a bit while recording, but I am sure that interested viewers will look past that.

So enjoy the video, and if you’re wondering what went on in the beginning, there was a technical difficulty which resulted in some loud audio playing on-stage.

The video comes in six parts. Give it a couple of seconds to get started. You can download the handouts here and a 480p version of the video here. For more information about the artwork, please visit my portfolio.


media

media

media

media

media

media

This is hardly news to people keeping track of what happens in the gaming industry, but I still wanted to make a quick post about Cart Life in case anyone reading my blog has missed it. In short, it’s a game about poor people. Cart Life’s game designer will tell you it is actually a retail simulator (which is not a lie), but the game is a lot more interesting than calculating netto and gross incomes. Cart Life allows you to take on the role of an Ukrainian immigrant and his cat, a single mom trying to hang on to the custody of her daughter, or Vinny the bagel guy. It is not a game about going from rags to riches à la Grand Theft Auto, nor is it a consumerism simulation à la the Sims. It is a game about urban survival, about hardship, about loneliness, about poverty, about humanity, and so on. That said, here come the superlatives: It is one of the best examples of social realism I have ever seen in video games, the artwork is absolutely brilliant, it has really clever game mechanics (e.g. typing sentences that mimic the boring thoughts that go through your head while doing brainless tasks), and it is definitely one heck of a learning experience.

So come on, just should play it. It’s free so what are you waiting for. If not for me, then do it for Mr. Glembovski!

Need more convincing? Here’s a great article on the game.

Seriously FDG, hire a frikkin' graphical designer! What is this I don't even...I just stumbled on a paper that was presented by Jose Zagal, Staffan Björk and Chris Lewis at FDG 2013: Dark patterns in the design of games. The paper challenges the (rather naive) notion that the agenda of game designers coincides with that of their eventual players. While game design certainly should consider the player at all times, game design does not necessarily need to follow the wishes of the player at all times. For example, as soon as game design becomes part of an industry that is geared towards generating revenue, the player’s agenda is tossed aside in favor of a corporate agenda.

There are plenty of examples here, from the application of psychological tricks in games to the design of the new Xbox One. Of course, it does not always have to be about money. For example, while I am sure that many gamers want the games they play to be a real challenge, Call of Duty: Black Ops is well-known for faking in-game challenges. In the case of CODBLOPS, game designers are not necessarily following the player’s agenda in terms of providing a fun challenge, in favor of providing them with drama and narrative.

In their paper, Zagal et al. develop a definition for such dark game design patterns (i.e., a dark game design pattern is a pattern used intentionally by a game creator to cause negative experiences for players which are against their best interests and likely to happen without their consent) and they present examples of such patterns. It’s freely available here: http://www.fdg2013.org/program/papers/paper06_zagal_etal.pdf

You probably know how these things go. The “next game of the year” is about to come out and the Internets are going bonkers over it. The hype machine has started its engines and we are all going to buy whatever it feeds us. This time it might be different, though. The next potential greatest game of all time looks like, well… like it is actually going to be great. The Last of Us will definitely have great visuals and from what we can tell from the clips we have seen, its voice acting will be top notch as well. Its gameplay seems fun too.

So why am I so cynical about its release? Well, I am the kind of guy who hates to play games that force-feed you action scene upon action scene just for it to remain a game and not turn into a movie. Uncharted, the previous golden child of Naughty Dog (the developer of the Last of Us) seemed like a great game to me, but I played the demo and it certainly failed me in that aspect. It has lovely story-telling and a triple A experience, but then the cut-scenes and Tomb Raider puzzle climber sections were finished, and it became a mindless third person shooter. That might not be a fair review of the series since I only played the demo and there might be more to the game then that, but based on that experience I did not buy any of the Uncharted games.

So while I decided to quickly jot down these thoughts here – and recommend my friends, colleagues and students to definitely play this game based on the hype surrounding it alone – I cannot shake a feeling of potential future disappointment. I have been stabbed in the back by so many hyped games in the past. Please let this not be one of them.

For further reading, I found this lovely review that shares some of the concerns I have (and it seems to be written by someone who actually played the game already):
http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2013/06/the-last-of-us-review/

In any case, at least you now know what I am doing if I disappear from the face of the planet somewhere around June 14.

As educational, serious and/or applied games are becoming more and more prevalent, it does not become easier for educators and other stake holders to find a game that they can actually use for their projects. Thankfully, there have also been more and more projects that try to inventorize the games that are available to us. For this post, I decided to write up a little list of online databases that will help you find the serious game you have been looking for all your life. So grab yourself a pack of peanuts and let’s get cracking.

Name Main Field of Interest Notes
Commonsensemedia.org Education Here because they also review educational games.
Healthcaregames.wisc.edu Health -
Healthgamesresearch.org Health Focus on health but also features other games (e.g. language games)
Gamingthepast.net History -
Games 4 learning institute Math -
Sciencegamecenter.org Science Here you can review games as well.
EdWeb’s Google Spreadsheet Various This is a great database, but I just wish they turned it into a proper website.
Gamesandimpact.com Various Contains guides for teachers, students and parents on how to use games for learning.
Gamesforchange.com Various -
Playforce.org Various Love the community-driven approach.
Gameclassification.com Various Use the search filters to get to the non-entertainment stuff.
Seriousgamesdirectory.com Various -

Of course, I would not be my opinionated self if I did not have some words of constructively meant advice for the people who build these databases. So here goes:

  1. Include entertainment games as well. Many of them are great educational tools.
  2. Get the community involved. You will have more content and your database will be up to date.
  3. Put some effort into presentation. A searchable spreadsheat and/or Microsoft Paint logos are not acceptable if you take your field serious.

Thanks to Anuar Andres Lequerica, Jantina Huizenga and Damien Djaouti for their help in assembling this list.

After discussing Cart Life in a previous post, I now feel obliged to share a few words on the game that lost to Cart Life at this year’s Independent Game Festival, i.e. Faster Than Light. Over the past week, I have played both and I have to say that I have played FTL a lot more than to Cart Life. While the latter is by far the most interesting game of the two for game scholars to analyze, FTL is by far the most fun game of the two.

It is basically a game in which you manage your space ship. No social realism here. There is plenty of room for intertextuality, though. Name your starship the Normandy and call the crew member who is steering the ship Joker, and you will feel like commander Shepard in no time. (For the people who have never heard of Mass Effect, just replace the names with names from your favorite science fiction franchise.)

The game is also a nice example of an emergent narrative. FTL’s space is randomly generated, and every game I have played up until now – I am currently in the low twenties I think – has been a different story. Of course, certain subplots reoccur from time to time, but I am still enjoying myself and I like the stories that have unfolded before me. For example, during my last play through I almost beat the game but I failed because I did not have enough skilled crew members to deal with the second iteration of the end boss. I had enough crew members at one point, but I lost too many of them while trying to rescue people along the way. So my last story was about a commander who is not apathetic enough to save the day, as well as of giant space spiders who are not to be messed with. (Why do I always have to play hero? Damn you, evil damsel in distress games for programming me like that!)

Another cool thing about FTL is how the game raises its difficulty level. Leveling up and buying better gear is certainly part of FTL’s core mechanics, but the game also requires the player to micromanage more and faster. In the beginning, you can just let your ship auto-fire away. In the middle of the game, you’ll need to make sure that you hit your opponent in the right spots. At the end, I will still use auto-fire for my slowest weapon, but everything else will be controlled manually. At this point, I am very grateful that the game has a space bar that allows me to go through pauze and order cycles. Maybe one day I will be able to micro everything without the pauze button, but it is not easy to open a select group of doors to remove oxygen from burning rooms, while at the same time directing your defense squad towards a teleported enemy squad on board your ship, while at the same time sending your engineers to repair the oxygen generator, while at the same time making sure that all your weapons fire in sync, while at the same time cloaking your ship whenever your enemy launches missiles, while at the same text-chatting with your friends over Steam, etc.

So in the end, FTL is a neat little game. It is very thematic and has an interesting emergent narrative every time you play, while also providing an nice blend of leveling up and more complex micromanaging throughout his curve of difficulty. Permadeath is also a lot more enjoyable here than in for example the latest X-COM, because a complete play-through is only a few hours.

And that’s a wrap. Now, if anyone would be able to explain to me how one can travel faster than light without going back in time?

Thankfully, there are no refrigerators in MarioWorld.Anita Sarkeesian’s webseries “Feminist Frequency” offers an interesting exploration of gender representation in video games (and in a wider range of pop culture). The production quality is absolutely first rate, and hope many more gaming video blogs will reach this quality. In the link below, she explores the use of the damsel in distress trope in video games, as well as its many variations. (I personally had never heard of the “damsel in the refrigerator” before. If they ever invent a cocktail named like that, I am ordering one.) Thanks to the abundance of in-game examples, the video packs quite a punch and gets its message across very clearly.

That being said, I’m not a fan whatsoever. Don’t get me wrong here. Anita’s analysis is great and I am willing to agree that there are plenty of video games that are in bad taste, but the video goes south for me at the very end when real-life violence on women is thrown into the mix. There is not hardly enough empirical evidence to tie real-life violence on women to men playing “unsophisticated, crude male power fantasy” games, let alone damsel in distress games. So why does the video have to hint towards that?

Also, I do not like the undertone of the video. For example, “in this way these failed-hero stories are really about the perceived loss of masculinity, and then the quest to regain that masculinity, primarily by exerting dominance and control, through the performance of violence on others.” What is wrong with masculinity as an in-game theme, and is it so far-fetched that men might find the damsel in distress plot device enjoyable because it is in their biological nature to be protective of a woman they care for?

Finally, I would have loved to hear Anita explore the actual reasons behind the use of the damsel in distress in so many games. Is it really because all game designers are misogynistic bastards? Maybe other factors are more likely to be the culprits here? For example, is it really a good idea for a game developer to spend a lot of time and money on writing a sophisticated narrative for an audience that is mainly interested in actual gameplay? It would have been great to have a little interview with some game developers in there, or even with male gamers who describe how they perceive the damsel in distress narrative. After all, this is a project that went over $150,000 on Kickstarter.

In conclusion, I very much enjoyed Anita’s analysis and the quality of the video, but only as a starting point for further discussion. I am also not the only one who feels that way. So let the battle of the sexes begin! Oh, and now that I think of it: my male video game protagonists have died way more often than any damsel in distress. I am sure that they would like to feel appreciated once in a while. ;-)

http://www.feministfrequency.com/2013/05/damsel-in-distress-part-2-tropes-vs-women/

Who would have thought that stabbing men in balaclavas as a 14-year old girl would be so fun?As I wrote in a previous post, I had some fun anticipating the arrival of The Last Of Us. I was worried that the game would be too much of a mix between great cut-scenes and bland gameplay, similar to my experiences with the Uncharted series (that was designed by the same game developer). Nevertheless, I got hyped up and I went out and bought the game on its release day. So today we are quite some time later and I finished the game yesterday at 3am. Here are some of my thoughts on it.

Positive

  • There are a lot of technical and creative merits to The Last of Us. The game has maybe the best cut-scenes I have ever seen in a video game. I felt that the acting and character development was great and there was absolutely no uncanny valley whatsoever. This is also the best game world I have ever wandered around in. There is just so much detail and personality to it, to the point where the environment is an actor in itself.
  • The game is a great example of closed ethical game design (see Miguel Sicart’s book on the Ethics of Computer Games). The game does not give you much control over ethical choices (hence the closed design) but the game is also part substracting ethical design (i.e., no commentary on the ethics behind your character’s actions) and part mirroring ethical design (i.e., you are being forced to perform actions that you deem to be unethical). Apparently, the game’s ethical dilemma’s should be perceived different by parents versus non-parents.
  • It might even be a game that does not step on any sensitive feminist toes in its portrayal of women. The character Tess is a strong, autonomous and strong-willed female character (that even dominates the male protagonist often), and there are moments where young Alexis Bledel look-a-likenot Ellen Page – Allie takes out an army of male bad guys by herself. (That section was actually my favorite part of the game play.)
  • The opening scene and the sections with Tess (which serves as tutorials) are exquisite.

Less positive

  • The game play experience is better than what I remember from the Uncharted series, but – while not bad at all – it is not exceptional. Here we go.
    • The crafting system is too limited to stay interesting, and there are way too many supplies available (on normal difficulty) to create a sense of scarcity
    • The stealth sections suffer from your AI companions being detected by the bad guys (or them blatantly shouting “JOEL, LEFT!” when you’re sneaking up on one), which ruins your own planning.
    • There are too few infected enemy types to keep the gameplay interesting.
    • Throwable bottles and bricks predict whenever a big fight is coming up in an area you just got to.
    • The water-based puzzles are – while beautiful – extremely tedious.
    • Sometimes, obvious solutions to a puzzle are not available to the player, who then has to search for the one solution the game designers wanted.
    • The game feels very restrictive and linear for a world that looks very open.
    • Why can’t Joel climb on a raft that lies on water? It is not that hard, you know.

Okay. I never thought I would ever write a review here, but that is what The Last Of Us has made me do, and that says enough about how good of a game it is. Reading my negative remarks, I cannot help but feel as if I am nitpicking. Maybe I am, maybe I am not. The truth is that this is a gem of a game, and while I would not give it an “Edge 10” and I would definitely not call it the “Citizen Kane” of video games, I would definitely recommend it to anyone.

Apparently, there's a basketball down there.Research into the use of digital games for the benefits of older adults seems to be on the rise in academic literature. At least, it has been remarkable how much more articles on the matter Google Scholar is pushing to me the last couple of months. Unfortunately, the bulk of research out there still seems to focus on the potential beneficial side effects of playing digital games, while neglecting the human aspect. Speaking from my experience with the matter, I very much feel that geroludic research will always be shooting blanks if little attention is paid to the value of the entertainment experiences of older adults, in particularly in relation to their human needs and psychosocial context. I very much see a need for a geroludology that draws lessons from other fields, such as human-computer interaction (which moved from focusing on the formulation of cognition-oriented guidelines to emphasizing context and culture in its research) or educational psychology (which also moved from cogntivist paradigms to humanist approaches to learning).

My previous research has very much been focused on this missing link in the research on how digital games can help older adults retain certain cognitive skills, increase their social networks, improve their general wellbeing, etc. For example, I studied how non-playing older adults can be motivated to play digital games (see here), how actively playing older adults attribute meaning to their digital games (see here), and I would very much like to move my line of research forward by combining proven game design principles with lifelong learning and wellbeing goals for older adults, similar to some projects I did in the past (such as Blast From The Past). While I am still in an early phase at figuring out where I will find the technical support and funding to achieve projects like that at my current occupation with Miami University, a first step in the direction would be to test out the awesome Batcave AIMS has to its disposal (aka the Smale Visualization Center) and see how the technology in there can be used for older adults. That is why I flew over my 70+ years old father-in-law and dragged him into 207 Laws Hall to have him try out everything in there, and in particular the Oculus Rift.

Now, what good could come from that?

The Oculus Rift is a cutting edge gaming output peripheral that is supposed to come out later this year. It has been designed for young wolves looking to tear up the Internet in a wide variety of highly immersive yet also highly complicated-to-navigate first person shooters. My father-in-law does not play digital games, nor does have any experience in navigating a first-person three-dimensional environment. His latest technological purchases are actually a pacemaker and a very expensive (and actually poorly designed) hearing aid. The man might get a stroke or suffer from motion sickness while trying to figure out the Oculus Rift.

Thankfully, none of that happened. While the controls took a lot of getting used to, the Oculus proved to be a hit. “Unbelievable”, “impossible” and “unfathomable” were some of the words that were used to describe the experience. “It is as if you are really there.” And you bet that he was actually there. In fact, he spend about an hour being intrinsically motivated to chase a virtual basketball inside and outside a house in Tuscany, while my wife and I could not be more entertained by the contagious playfulness of what unfolded before our eyes. For me, a mundane demonstration of the VR headset turned into the latest unforgettable moment of my career in using game technology with older adults. While the Oculus Rift is the latest possibly disruptive technology that promises many applications for our (aging) society, I would argue that its biggest potential lies in the sheer playfulness and empowerment that seems to be inherent to the virtual environment its players are immersed in.

It has been a while since I have written a blog post and have decided to just take the blog offline. It has been fun and I appreciated the nice amount of readers that it got me, but my life is too busy for me to keep doing this on a regular basis. I am therefore going to change this site into a full portfolio site, and from time to time there might even be an opinion paper here.

In the meantime, you can still access my portfolio and publication list to the left of this page. Have fun!