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The Unexplored Potential for Education With Games

October 31, 2007 1 comment

[What follows is a paper I wrote for English class, turned in last week. It was an interesting enough topic to me that I drafted the entire seven pages in one sitting, and have only made minor modifications since then. The source list has been omitted for legibility.]

Ever since the first game of Tennis for Two was played on an oscilloscope, video games have been a target for much attention. Usually this attention unduly emphasizes the negative aspects – real or imagined – of video games, and attempts to vilify them. However, there is one context in which gaming has received astonishingly little study: education. In her article “The Design of Games-Based Learning Environments,” Bergoña Gros advocates a position that video games are an underused teaching tool with great promise. In her own words, she believes that teachers “need to change [their] teaching methods to enhance the skills that future citizens will need in a digital society.” (p. 23) Her thesis is one that I wholeheartedly agree with. Being a gamer from before I was literate, I believe I can lend some credence to the claims Gros makes. Starting around age 3 with basic side-scrolling games like Commander Keen, going all the way up to modern hits like Half-Life 2, with a host of games between, I’ve been around the gaming block a few times. These qualifications in hand, I will support and extend a number of points Gros makes, while quibbling with a few points I must object to, or at least modify.

The first of these points is Gros’s statement that video games can — and should — be equated with books in terms of the inherent teaching potential. I am continually astonished at how difficult a point this seems to be to grasp for some. Just as there are books that advocate violence, so are there video games that do likewise. This is not a flaw with the medium, but instead with the material.

Gros goes on to mention how video games have the potential to be even better teaching aids than the age-old textbook, because of the way that the unique properties of video games “promote challenges, co-operation, engagement, and the development of problem-solving strategies.” (p. 23) As Gros has astutely noted, video games have the advantage of being interactive, a trait books and movies can only dream of. Thanks to this, video games can be vastly more intuitive, as well as fun. Reading the description of games that promote challenges and co-operation reminds me of grade-school days spent huddled around a computer with classmates to play the various educational games it contained. Being built for — and played by — nine year olds, the games were predictably simple. However, they contained just the right amount of strategy, in the form of trade-offs such as taking a shortcut that posed tougher challenges than the easier, longer route. They were also limited in the number of players that could play at one time, so that any time a superfluous person wanted to join in, an impromptu confederation was formed with another classmate. It was the sort of collective problem-solving that higher-grade teachers couldn’t extract by force with group projects or team-based activities.

To break from the nostalgia, I must momentarily reverse direction and take issue with a statement that Gros made among the earlier statements in characterizing some video games as misogynistic. Based on my personal experience, I have to disagree with this assessment, because I’ve found that when video games show gender bias, it is usually in favor of females. There are a number of games that have female characters that are regarded by some as being more powerful than their male counterparts: Street Fighter II and Soul Calibur both come to mind. But even these are rather rare examples. Because it would hurt the game to allow gender bias to make male characters more powerful in some way than female ones, it is the prevailing trend to make the genders equivalent.

Later, Gros especially singles out the Real-Time Strategy (RTS) game Age of Empires II (AoEII) for its excellent educational value: not only is it firmly grounded in history, but it conveys that history in passing to the player. Having played AoEII myself, I would have to agree that it is an excellent example of a game that tricks the player into learning. By starting the player off in the Copper Age and only allowing him certain limited technologies, it gives an accurate idea of the nature of such a technology level. But in the course of the game, the player also advances through the Bronze Age and into the Iron Age, each time gaining more and more technological might. The game even goes so far as to give each playable faction, such as the Mongols or the Turks, a unique property that reflects that faction’s historical impact. But to shift from the macro to the micro, even the details are realistic and historic. For example, instead of harvesting fantasy crystals as some other RTS games do, AoEII requires the player to maintain farms and flocks, and to harvest grain and meat from them in the proper amounts to preserve sustainability. If a player kills all of his sheep for the immediate payoff of meat, he will find himself sorely lacking before long. And finally, the nature of the RTS game makes it an excellent thinking puzzle. Because RTS games such as AoEII consist of a “build your base, build your army, conquer your enemy” formula, they require the right strategic balance between militarism and development for success, as well as prudent tactical thinking to achieve victory on the battlefield. The analytical skills taught by such an exercise are unparalleled in any other form of education aside from mock battles in war games.

In contrast, Gros points out that “most edutainment has failed because the games were too simplistic in comparison with competing video games,” (p. 25) referring to a genre of gaming named for a portmanteau of “education” and “entertainment.” The term edutainment is especially used on games that have learning as their chief focus. This is usually done with the intent to make the game as educational as possible; however, a game offers no education if the player doesn’t play it because it is boring or otherwise unsatisfying. Gros ably summarizes this by saying that “in [edutainment], content is the most important thing, while the experience is the most important aspect of a game.” (p. 30) To return to doting on Age of Empires II, it is certainly worth noting that it was a game first and an educator second. Above all else, I played it because it was fun. It didn’t attempt to force me to learn history in order to do well, but instead slipped the history in while my back was turned, as it were. Even the old grade-school games that used to fascinate me entertained with cartoon robots jockeying for position in a race across a futuristic space station, where solving problems was a means to an end — winning the race with style — instead of an end to itself.

Gros then moves to hitting two points of interest to me in a single sweep of the pen: “Because computer game playing might be a precursor to computer literacy, and the belief that computer literacy will be increasingly important for success in society, the gender imbalance in computer game playing has been a topic of recent discussion.” (p. 27) The first of these points is the suggestion that video games and computer literacy are somehow linked does not sit well with me. In a general and academic sense, computer literacy is commonly used to refer to the ability to use “applications such as word processing, spreadsheets, database management programs, electronic mail, and packages and applications specific to [a] field of study.” (Information, 2007). It is my position that, beyond basic familiarization with input/output devices — I’m thinking specifically of the keyboard, mouse, and monitor — there is little “computer literacy” learned from playing computer games, even in an educational setting. However, I don’t believe Gros is entirely off-base, either. I would suggest, based on my personal experience, that a correlation between computer literacy and computer games is caused by some third, unknown factor. If I were to hazard a guess, I would feel secure in venturing that it is simply the prevalence of technology around the student. If a student has access to a computer to play games on, he likely has access to a computer for other uses as well.

Gros also notes, in the above quoted passage, “a gender imbalance in computer game playing.” (p. 27) Gros elaborates to say that, in general, girls approach games with a different mindset than that of boys, and that attempts to cater to this have been largely unsuccessful, with the notable exception of a life simulator by the name of The Sims.Much like Age of Empires II, there is a great deal to be learned from examination of The Sims. The Sims takes, as its premise, day to day life. Players create characters and assign them a balance of personality traits, then construct houses for them, populating the houses with furniture and appliances. Then the actual simulation begins, usually with one or more of the characters finding a job to bring income (in order to pay the bills, naturally), and doing many of the other tasks typical of everyday life. (My description hardly does the game justice; it really is an interesting experience.) Gros states that her research has shown that girls, on average, spend more time than boys designing aesthetic elements of the play experience, such as character appearances and house decoration. In contrast, boys generally are more eager to get the game up and running, to begin the active playing portion. I can safely say that I categorically agree with Gros’s findings in this case, because I have run into exactly the same disparity in the microcosm of my sister and myself sharing a game of The Sims. Where I would often design rudimentary housing for my characters with the intent to improve it later, my sister would always begin with a nice place for her characters to reside, even if it meant cutting some corners, such as having only one bathroom. I would also often find myself infuriated by how long she would pause the game for — a neat addition that makes the game a bit easier than real life. Another interesting contrast is the fact that I would generally have one or two families I was actively playing at any given time, where my sister would have two or three times as many. Perhaps it wasn’t the playing that interested her as much as the creation, a supposition which Gros’s research would seem to support.

On the whole, I find my experiences bear out Gros’s findings, especially where I have had personal experience with the games that Gros uses as case studies. Aside from minutiae, I broadly agree with the paper. It is hard to nail down any specific topic that bears further study, as Gros’s entire article advocates greater examination of video gaming’s applications to education. But the case studies of The Sims and Age of Empires II both certainly merit further scrutiny, to determine precisely what elements make them so effective to each gender, and whether those elements can — or should — be integrated into a single education formula of games. I can just see it now: girls learning by conquering the next-door neighbors with brownies as the boys conquer the next-door city-state with the phalanx formation.

[On a somewhat related topic, there is an interesting short documentary on the integration of technology with college education over on the YouTubes. There’s also another, yet again tangentially-related but well-made and interesting, documentary about the state of college in general.]

Categories: College

A long time coming

October 29, 2007 1 comment

Alright, it’s Monday, 29 October, and that means it’s time for the new Guitar Hero. There’s actually been a list of all 74 tracks, with videos of each being played, on the internet for a few days, and watching it, I can already tell this one will be awesome. Now, given that I own the game’s three* predecessors, and I’m going to be playing it with the guitar that originally came with the first GH, it’d be hard to disappoint me. I’m what you would call a fanboy.

That aside, the game does look good. I have a few quibbles, such as the fact that they took out some of the less-stupid playable characters, but they put in Tom Morello (Rage Against the Machine) and Slash (Gun ‘n’ Roses/Velvet Revolver) as replacements, which I find acceptable.

The one major whine I already have, though, is the fact they decided to include a Beastie Boys song in the game, and it was neither “Fight For Your Right (To Party)” or “No Sleep Til Brooklyn”, two of their most guitar-heavy tracks I’m familiar with. Heck, even though they have a guitarist, they got the guitarist from heavy metal band Slayer to play guitar on “No Sleep Til Brooklyn.” Instead, (and this was announced some months ago) they went with “Sabotage.” It’s not a bad song, and I had tacitly assumed that they used it because it would make for more interesting playing than either of the two I mentioned above.

Well, watching the video of “Sabotage” being played, I can tell I was wrong. The guitar part is still relatively simple. But I think I’ve finally figured out why they didn’t use either of the songs I mentioned. Both songs are very different from the other hip-hop tracks on the same album, and that’s because they’re both stylistic parodies. “No Sleep Til Brooklyn” was a parody of heavy metal, and well,  I’ll let Wikipedia (the home of the C+ term paper) take over:

Ironically, [“Fight for Your Right”] was intended as a parody of party and attitude songs, such as “Smokin’ In the Boys Room” and “I Wanna Rock.” But the irony was lost on most listeners. Mike D commented that, “The only thing that upsets me is that we might have reinforced certain values of some people in our audience when our own values were actually totally different. There were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right’ who were oblivious to the fact it was a total goof on them.” . . .

Despite probably being the group’s most famous song, the Beastie Boys have expressed distaste for it. In The Sounds of Science liner notes, MCA jokingly says the song “sucks,” though they didn’t feel the album would be complete without it. The group hasn’t performed the song live since 1987.

I can just imagine the conversation between the GH3 folks and the Beastie Boys: “Hey guys, you know that song that really rocks, and is really famous, but you guys hate?” “Yeah…” “Can we use it in our game and thereby have it further increase your association with the song?” “…”

On another tack, the producers finally got around to putting a track from Dragonforce, a band whose music is, well… Have a look for yourself. I won’t be playing that particular song on the hardest difficulty for a while, I can tell you that much.

*Yeah, three. There was Guitar Hero, Guitar Hero 2, and then Guitar Hero: Rocks the 80s. This new one is Guitar Hero 3.

Categories: Gaming, Guitar Hero?

I’m gonna do this one of these days

October 26, 2007 5 comments

I’ve figured out what I want out of college. It’s something like this.

The above link is to a regrettably low-quality documenting a game of Zombies Versus Humans, a Nerf wargame played on a number of college campuses. Essentially, every player is a human, to start with, except for one zombie. If the zombie touches you, you’re out of the game for an hour, when you come back in as another zombie. If a zombie doesn’t tag a human (“eat them”) for 48 hours, he is out of the game (“starves”). Humans can shoot zombies with a Nerf gun to take them out of the game for 15 minutes. Humans win by surviving until all zombies starve, zombies win by killing all the humans.

This actually plays into another hobby of mine, which is playing with — and souping up — Nerf guns. Essentially, I’m already set for this game because I have a, err, few Nerf guns laying about, as well as plenty of ammunition and the capacity to manufacture more quickly and cheaply. (Now that I write this out, it occurs to me that I might not need to play in a ZVH game on campus to have fun: I could make a killing selling ammo.)

The interest in playing a wargame is, in essence, the next step up from playing a video game, but infinitely more immersive. This is highlighted by the fact that ZVH often features “missions” for each team, but especially the humans. This came about because humans figured out a good strategy for winning the game (as well as surviving a real zombie attack) was to stock up on supplies and barricade themselves indoors.

Take a mission that is detailed in the above-linked documentary. The humans were assigned to retrieve a specific non-combatant “in a red shirt” from the middle of a quad on campus. When the zombies got wind of this, they sent in one of their own to the area, in a red shirt to sit and wait. Despite the fact that the decoy zombie redshirt was wearing a bandanna around his forehead (the sign of a zombie in this game), the humans retrieved him and believed him to be their objective. Obviously, the plan went very poorly when they realized their mistake.

That sort of chicanery appeals to me on an indescribably deep level and seems like incomparable fun. All the strategy and tactics of a firefight, without the dying part.

It occurs to me that this wargame itch might be scratched by the proper style of paintball play. The problem there is a problem with the medium: paintball guns are expensive to purchase, operate, and maintain. Not to mention the fact that they hurt much more than a Nerf gun and would be infeasible for this sort of wargame in the midst of non-combatants for the possibility of hitting a bystander.

A similar sentiment applies to attempting to recreate the ZVH game with airsoft guns. Because they tend to look very similar to actual firearms, it would be almost impossible to conduct the wargame without molestation by the authorities.

It seems a perfect college student game, given that it only requires about a ten-dollar buy-in of equipment, and some free time. When properly conducted, it can engender enormous school spirit, as detailed in the documentary. It brought together disparate social groups, united under the banner of survival.

Categories: College

Music in video games

October 22, 2007 2 comments

A few days before the release of Valve Software‘s gaming epic The Orange Box, it was announced that it would contain a song from Jonathan Coulton, the guy who made (most famously) Code Monkey. As it turns out, the song ran during the credits to Portal, one of the games in The Orange Box. It’s an absurdly catchy tune sung from the point of view of a murderous female-esque computer (think “The Softer Side of Skynet”) after the conclusion of the game’s single-player story line.

MTV Games (The folks publishing Rock Band) talked to Coulton on their Multiplayer Blog, and, among other things, talk about the fact that there are a select few video game anthems to reach the level of this song, titled “Still Alive,” and they discuss why that is.

Seems to me that there are two things required: a very catchy or recognizable tune, and a very successful game. The Multiplayer Blog post mentions the theme from Halo. Despite being in one of the best selling games of all time, this song is still a bit obscure because it just isn’t catchy enough.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is “Hell March 2“, the theme song for the game Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2. It’s an amazingly catchy and distinct song with a strong beat that any player of RA2 would recognize in a heartbeat. But, sadly, RA2 never enjoyed the wide-spread success of Halo, for reasons that mystify me. It is one of the rare games that uses full-motion video to tell the single-player story, where its much more mainstream contemporary Starcraft used scrolling text as mission briefings. For example, take this introduction to the game that plays as soon as you boot it up for the first time, without prompting, immediately sucking you in:

On a side note, “Hell March” and all the other music for RA2 was also created by the musical genius Frank Klepacki, who did all the other music for Westwood Studios before they were run into the ground by EA. It’s uniformly excellent stuff.

But back to the point: Halo had fame, but not catchiness. RA2 had catchiness but not fame. Given that Valve has fame unparalleled by any other developer (except perhaps id Games at the height of the Doom craze), all they needed was catchiness. Coulton produced that, in spades, and now he’s got a chunk of fame to call his own.

“Still Alive” is something of a “perfect storm” in the video game music industry because it has actually had attention purposely drawn to it, instead of it being relegated to being background music. But for anyone who thinks that it is the only good video game song to come out in the last decade, I have a few gigabytes of music that say otherwise.

Categories: Gaming

A local review

October 11, 2007 3 comments

A brief update: I wrote about local politics a few weeks ago, and commended one fellow, Nels Roseland, for his no-nonsense stance on the issue. Well, the people of Cary, or at least the 2.5% of the town that showed up to vote, decided they disagreed. Roseland lost to Don Frantz by about 12 points.

Now, admittedly, I was only looking at this election through a single issue: the use of eminent domain. Well, as it turns out, this Frantz fellow is no big fan of it either:

Growth is healthy for Cary, but we need quality growth – not growth at all costs. Cary must do a better job at balancing the rights of folks to develop their property while respecting and protecting the rights of those who will be impacted by that development. Growth must be a benefit to the community, not a burden.

Also of interest on the above linked page is Frantz’s stance on the Wake County Public School System. He believes it to be overly large and unmanageably so, which may be true, and recommends that a “Western Wake County Public School System” be formed. An interesting idea, but it would take quite a bit of work. However — as he describes it — it would preclude people from doing exactly what I did, and many of my high school classmates, which is to attend a technology magnet high school outside of the “Western Wake” area.

I also notice that he slipped a jeer against “forced year round conversions” into his statement on public school. After going through 13 years of year round school, I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I also have yet to hear a compelling argument in favor of traditional calendars over year round, with their three month summers.

Categories: Real Life

A little disjointed because I’m writing during class

October 10, 2007 Leave a comment

Obviously, I haven’t been posting much for the last week and a half. I’m not going to apologize, because the circumstances that brought it about are very much to my liking. Essentially, it is a confluence of some great games and a great job that has been taking up my out-of-class time.

I’m not going to go into much more detail on the latter charge, mostly as a matter of covering my ass. The various warnings from all sides to blog anonymously do go a good way toward encouraging this, of course. Especially observant readers will notice I’ve been rather recalcitrant with my real name, more out of paranoia that genuine concern for my future. I figure it can’t hurt.

To truly keep my job/career out of danger, I’m mostly trying to just avoid the overall topic in this space. It’s not hard to do, since I try to keep this content contemplative and reflective, and my job, for all of its positives, probably wouldn’t make for very interesting reading.

On a bit of a poorly-segued non-sequitur, something that I have found to be interesting reading are John Carmack‘s comments on Slashdot. By way of background on John Carmack, this man is essentially my hero. He single-handedly changed the video games industry by devising the technology to create pivotal games such as Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake. He’s still at it, having just shipped Quake 4 a year or so ago, and in the meantime spends much of his fantastic fortune souping up Ferraris and trying to put rockets into space.

One comment of his that especially piqued my interest is on that essentially says that the best way to get a job in the games industry may not be to go to a game design school and get a Bachelor’s in games. The game school might help you get the contacts to get immediately into the games industry, but a Computer Science or Electrical Engineering degree will serve you much better over your entire career.

This is something of a vindication for me, because that is essentially the argument I used to dissuade myself from attempting to pursue one of the games degrees available. I’m currently pursuing my BS in Computer Science, if only because it will be a degree that my current employer will want once I graduate. See, that’s the funny thing about my current job: it’s not game programming, or anything of the like, but I love it. I wouldn’t mind working for this company until I retire.

And on a bit of a less serious note, Carmack also gets some street cred by directly responding to a news article reported on Slashdot criticizing the fact that his company’s newest game, Rage, may not have a version for Linux. Turns out some of the anti-Linux paranoia is occasionally fabricated.

Update: Ars Technica also has some encouraging news for Computer Science majors.

Categories: Metablog

The blog equivalent of a clip show

October 3, 2007 Leave a comment

So while I try to dig myself out of working two jobs and having some pretty silly assignments (see earlier posts and references to the five minute video), I find myself coming up empty on blog material. So instead, here are two of my favorite posts, plucked from the archive.

The Big Picture, in which I explore the drift towards reality being rendered in an aspect ratio of 16:9; and Guitar Hero?, in which I explore my drift towards the practice of music making.

Categories: Metablog