A New Beginning (Blog Migration)

After years of virtuallearningworlds.com being hosted by hostmysite.com, I’m migrating over to our University’s WordPress install. I often neglected the upgrades to WordPress when managing my own install, so I’m hoping by offloading the work I can get back to focusing on writing. I have a lot of updates to get to here with the various pages, then it’s time to reboot the writing efforts.

The first theme I’d like to start exploring is something kicking around in my brain for about a month. To frame it as a research questions:

Why do games get more interesting at scale, while education becomes less interesting?

Maybe ‘interesting’ isn’t the right word for education. This is in response to a lot of the research I’m doing around MOOCs. As a colleague (and many others) allude to, MOOCs are often the combination of all we know about bad pedagogy, wrapped into a course package. If we can use games as a lens, and apply that lens to MOOCs, what might we learn? Throughout the rest of 2014, I hope to write a few posts the examine specific game systems, and explore how those systems might be tweaked and applied to large, online course environments.

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Gaming and Accessibility

A very important topic at our university is accessibility, particularly web accessibility. So much of our information today is online, it’s critical that it be available in a usable format to the widest possible audience. Factor in Penn State offered nearly 2000 online courses in fall 2011/spring 2012, it’s imperative that online courseware also follow accessibility standards so we can best serve the needs of our students.  As someone that both uses and advocates games in the classroom, I felt somewhat isolated because very little is publicized about accessibility and games.

Needless to say, I was thrilled to see someone recently publish a guide to making accessible games. The guide is structured similar to the approach we take to accessibility here at Penn State. Currently, we’re working to implement the basic accessibility standards, things that are easily implemented in standard web development practices. We hope to move to a future where accessibility is taken into consideration very early in a project, therefore additional accessibility features can be included. The game accessibility guide is structured in a similar with, with 3 ‘tiers’ of accessibility for game design, beginning with the things that are easily implemented, going all the way to things that are “Complex adaptations for profound impairments and specific niche mechanics”. If you use games for education, or if you build games and want to make them available for a wider audience, definitely check out the guide.

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Diablo 3 Hero Design: Evolution of Skill Trees

Like most gamers out there, I’m in the midst of slaying hordes of demons in Blizzard’s highly anticipated Diablo 3. I was around for the original Diablo, and also spent a great deal of time in Diablo 2, so you can imagine how much time I’ve already put into Diablo 3.

When I first started reading about D3, an early design decision jumped out at me; no more skill trees. For many, this was blasphemy. Diablo 2 was BRUTAL with skill trees, meaning that once you allocated a point, you could never go back. This was problematic for one of my early characters, a mage I didn’t spec properly that became unplayable at higher levels. But that didn’t mean skill trees were bad per se, just that you need to be a bit less punishing when designing them. Either A) every combination in a skill tree needs to be playable at all difficulty levels or B) give players some way to re-allocate points. This can be something that is easy in the game (with a a few clicks) or a money sink, something developers often insert into games to balance the economy.

Enter World of Warcraft. WoW elected to allow you to re-allocate points for a small amount of gold coins. Problem solved, right? Why not do this in D3? One word: choice. Although each class in WoW has 3 specific talent trees, and within each talent tree many different choices, Blizzard discovered that players in WoW simply went to various website forums, found the ‘template’ build that optimizes performance, and followed that. So you ended up with millions of mages, for example, that all had an identical build. Not a lot of choice in something like this. Leading up to D3, Blizzard wanted to make sure the players had interesting choices to make regarding talents and abilities.

Instead of unlocking points you can allocate in a skill tree like in Diablo 2, you now unlock abilities at each level in D3. Eventually, you end up unlocking somewhere around 25 active abilities (each with 6 customization options) and 15 passive abilities. The catch is that you can only ‘use’ 6 active abilities at any given time, and 3 passive abilities. Specializing your character looks something like this:

diablo 3 skill UI

 

Later in the game, Blizzard designed mechanics in such a way that you’re greatly encouraged to pick a set of abilities and stick with them for long periods of time. I personally find this system appealing, but it’s worth pointing out that other games follow similar mechanics (see Guild Wars for an example).

So did Blizzard achieve their design goal in terms of getting away from ‘template’ builds and provide players with interesting choices around skills and abilities? From a recent game update:

“The most common level 60 build in the game is only used by 0.7% of level 60 characters of that class.”

To me, that looks like success.

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Lego Universe Closing

Unfortunately, Lego Universe announced it’s closure on 1/31/12.  While never having played the game, I am disappointed by this announcement because, from most accounts, the game was generally well received.  The game received praise by how accurate it re-created the feeling of creation and play that real, physical Lego blocks elicit.  I guess that was the problem.

Games and Play certainly have a lot in common, but also differ in a big way.  Play is often times without an objective, a goal, a win state or competition.  We can play legos.  We can play Transformers.  We can play house.  All of these represent engaging activities for kids, but none of these represent a game.  Providing an academic definition to a game can be tricky business as Jesse Schell illustrates over the span of 12+ pages in his book, The Art of Game Design.  Jesse finally settles on:

A game is a problem solving activity, approached with a playful attitude.

While this is a bit less rigorous for true academics, it covers the basics.  Play is certainly involved, but play alone is not necessarily a problem-solving activity.  Games are.  Typically many of the ‘problems’ encountered present themselves as competition, where you are faced against a challenge presented by the artificial intelligence or another player.  Many of the problems are also presented as goal-based objectives.  You need to get from point A to point B to achieve completion, and many challenges emerge along the way.

Lego Universe likely suffered from too much play and not enough game.  At least that’s the way some have described it, and I would agree.

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Orcs and Scaffolding

It’s really no secret that games are great at scaffolding.  Video games, at the most basic level, are nothing more than very complex pieces of software.  You, the gamer, need to learn how to operate (in this case, play) the software.  If the designers don’t do a good job teaching you how to play, chances are their studio won’t be around very long.  Marc Prensky once said that game designers are probably better instructional designers than actual instructional designers in the workforce.  I don’t necessarily agree, but game designers MUST be good instructional designers to get players into a game.

I’ve presented about the great scaffolding that goes on in World of Warcraft in the past, but today I wanted to show a great example of scaffolding in Orcs Must Die, the first offering from new studio Robot Entertainment.  The game is a mix between 3rd person shooter and tower defense…with a little RPG thrown in for good measure.  It follows a similar model as the incredibly-popular Plants vs. Zombies.  Each time you complete a level, you are granted an additional tower to place, or ability for your character.  For instance, an early acquisition is the “Boom Barrel”.

In this image, the designers illustrate the Boom Barrel’s use.  Not only do the designers provide these pictorials of how your new tower or ability can be used (and they get fairly intricate later in the game), but the very next level is designed specifically around your new toy.  This forces you not to just understand how it works, but also to apply that knowledge immediately.

A very sound instructional approach, whether your slaying massive amount of Orcs in a game or teaching students Biology!

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When does a Virtual World Become a Game?

It’s been a while since posting about Playstation’s Home Network. I only had a few short visits to Sony’s Virtual World over the years, and it’s less than impressive.  Sony appears to feel the same way, and is now releasing a totally revamped Home later this year.

 

From Sony, the new hub will “integrates games, quests, community events and user-generated content, while providing players with additional navigation, shopping, socialization and entertainment options.” Sounds like it will be a much better experience, but is this change going to push Home itself more towards a game?

The line between a virtual world and a game is thin.  Some would argue it’s more of a continuum, with ‘virtual world’ on one end and ‘game’ on the other.  I would not hesitate putting Home, in its current form, on the ‘virtual world’ side of the continuum, probably out near the end.  But with this new update, particularly with the addition of quests, Home is starting to inch closer towards a game.  During my few visits to Home, I felt like I was trapped in some sort of renaissance world of advertising.  Ads were everywhere, I could watch video ads for upcoming games, play “Drake’s Fortune” mini-games, buy branded clothing, etc.  All while surrounded by beautiful avatars, rendered in stunning HD (assuming you have a TV capable of pushing the PS3′s maximum def).

It felt really…weird.

Will the new overhaul bring (and more importantly, keep) PlayStation 3 owners to the Home network?

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Rhythm Gaming with Pulse

I recently downloaded Pulse, a rhythm game from the same group that made Auditorium (free web game, very interesting).  This iPad game basically revolves around several songs, where you tap various beats that rotate around a circle.  The catch is that a pulse originages from the center of the circle, and you need to tap specific beats when it coincides with the pulse.  Easier to explain via a video:

 
I really like the game, but the difficulty curve immediately turned me off. I like to think music games are a bit different than your traditional video games from a design standpoint. Music games, for me, are all about interacting with the music, not necessarily about competition and challenge. Sure, I like a bit of challenge, but the great part about a game like Rock Band is I can adjust the challenge level. With Pulse, I’m stuck with what the designers prescribe.

One of my favorite rhythm games is Audiosurf. From a design perspective, they did two things that I wish Pulse would implement:

  1. The game elements are fairly basic, picking up certain blocks with your vehicle while avoiding others.  This mechanic allows me to enjoy interacting with the music without having to really pay much attention to the score or mechanics.
  2. It’s MY music I’m interacting with in Audiosurf, which makes it even more enjoyable.  I’m still waiting on Rock Band, Pulse or any other rhythm game coming down the line to implement a feature set that allows me to use my own music to populate the game.

Interacting with music is an incredible feeling, especially for those of us that aren’t musicians but huge music fans.  Rock Band got the formula right, as did Audiosurf.  Pulse has a really cool mechanic, but I need to be able to tune it down a bit for my enjoyment.  Once I get a Kinect, I’m hoping to try out Child of Eden, another game that has a heavy rhythm element that many people report make the player feel like a conductor.

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Gamification of Khan Academy

The group I work with, the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, recently started taking a look at Khan Academy, a large collection of educational videos covering a massive amount of content.  Some faculty have helped us with this effort, and opinions seem mixed.  That’s a story for another entry.  What I did not know about Khan Academy is that it’s starting to be gamified.  Check out the very end of the TED Talk below.

 

Khan and his organization have added merit badges and energy points to the flow of instructional videos and assessments.  As he puts it, “We’ve added game mechanics to the system.”  The results?  Khan claims that specific merit badges, as well as activities that award a high amount of energy points, are dictating how people flow through the educational videos.  Impressive.

But I want to know more.  As an educator, I use gamification myself, and like all instructional methods aimed at motivating, it works with a subset of my students.  As a researcher, I want to know what types of students are highly motivated by gamification strategies similar to achievements and leader boards.  One assumption is that it’s the young male demographic, but I’m not convinced because no one has any data on the subject.  With the amount of tracking Khan Academy has in place, I wonder what types of hints we could glean about gamification and it’s place in education?

KHAN! (sorry, I had to drop a Star Trek reference…)  This is a research project waiting to happen (and fundable) that I would be eager to participate :)

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IST 446 Prototypes

Some of my students sent me descriptoins and screenshots of their games from the Spring 2011 section of IST 446 that I taught.  Overall, I was very pleased with the course and received a lot of great feedback.  When I teach again in Spring 2012, I will likely change about 20-25% of the course to focus more time on small, iterative game demos in place of individual student presentations.  Getting 50 individual presentations squeezed into a semester takes a lot of time and coordination; that’s time I could be using to generate more prototypes in, say, Flash.

Take a look at the student games and feel free to leave comments (PSU authentication required) or comments here.

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Games that Change Behaviors

One of the primary reasons educators get excited about video games is the ability of games to change player behaviors.  From an educator’s perspective, changing behaviors is one of the most difficult challenges we face when, say, we teach a course for 16 weeks at a university.

I recently started playing an iPad game (also available on the iPhone, but does not play nearly as well) called Gun Brothers.  It’s a fairly straight forward shooter, where you take on wave after wave of exceedingly stronger foes.

From smokinapps.com

Gun Brothers represents a great deal of interesting design elements that include:

  • Friend integration.  I can’t play online/co-op with friends, but what I can do is bring a friend’s character into my game instead of the generic NPC that helps you out.  This really encourages you and your friend to continue playing, because the more powerful both characters become, the easier it is to progress in the game.
  • RPG-like leveling system, but very lightweight.  You gain XP, which opens up more armor and weapons as you level-up.  Weapons have a damage stat, as well as an RPM stat that dictates how fast the weapon will fire.  Armor typically contains three stats; Offense, Defense and Speed.
  • Micro-transaction model. The game has simple currency in gold coins, but some of the items can only be purchased with ‘war bucs’.  With most micro-transaction models, I can simply enter my credit card and get x number of war bucs for a fixed dollar amount.

Now the micro-transaction model has a little bit of a twist.  If you opt not to simply enter a credit card and pay for your in-game war bucs, you can click on various advertisements for other apps, download the apps, and run them once to receive war bucs in gun brothers.  Occasionally between levels, you might receive a message “Download and install Farmville to receive 12 war bucs”.

So if you’re like me, you’re not a fan of web-based advertisements.  I can’t recall the last time I clicked on one (at least on purpose) on a website.  Yet last weekend, I sat around for 30 minutes, downloading and running all sorts of iPad apps to get my hands on some war bucs for better armor and weapons, totally changing my typical behavior when it comes to advertisements. I did actually find some good apps as well, like a real estate app and a recipe/cooking app.  Most of the other apps I simply deleted after running once for my war bucs.

What can we borrow from this model in terms of education?  Gun Brothers can be enjoyed without any war bucs, but a player’s progress would likely be much slower.  Is there a way we could ‘incentivize’ certain things in education in a similar manner, changing our students’ behaviors to engage in additional content in some way?

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