Sony's virtual world, Home, won't be released until 2008, according to reports coming out of the Tokyo Game Show .
For educators, this is more of an FYI than a warning to redo your lesson plans. Unlike Second Life, to which any new virtual world is compared, Home has little if any capacity for user created content. At the far end of the consumerist model, players can buy virtual items and interact with a variety of them. Sony dangles video games and music as enticements into their world. But the ability to create your own simulations, models, or other educational materials appears to be non-existent, putting Home on a different level than user-created virtual worlds such as Second Life or Active Worlds (the PC only offering). While you could still use it as a simplified, self-contained world in which to test basic principles from economics, sociology, communications, and so on, the ability to place recognizable educational content limits the range of possibilities.
On the other hand, the building restriction does have certain advantages for the educational market. Limited end-user creation will severely limit a lot of activities that draw criticism to Linden Lab's Second Life such as cyber sex animations, avatar assault, automated creation scripts that overload sections of the grid, virtual gambling (or is it real gambling?), and so on.
Another advantage to Home is that it plays on a console rather than a general purpose computer. Second Life continues to be plagued by not only a lack of robustness but also incompatibility with a wide range of standard video cards and the Vista operating system. Choice in platform configuration can play havoc with stability of any program, but Second Life has experienced more than its share. Putting a virtual world on a console eliminates most of this potential area of conflict. And it also puts the virtual world in affordability range for more families. Families in lower SES brackets are more likely to buy a popular console on which their favored games will play than a general purpose computer sufficiently powerful to run a high end virtual world such as Second Life or Activeworlds.
On the whole, Sony may be making the right moves to bring people Home.
Travian (http://www.travian.us/) is a browser-based multiplayer real time strategy game with simple, straight-forward game play. Basic memberships are free.
Each player is the chieftain of an evolving community, developing resources and buildings and gaining territory. The number of choices is limited, which makes it easy for new players to be acclimated quickly. There are three types of civilizations, four resources. The types of buildings and fighting units are significantly higher, but players have time to get used to those details during the first few days as the core village develops. Many aspects of game play should appeal roughly equally to male and female players, which can be a tough balance to juggle.
Activity reports may involve violence (opponents raiding villages to carry off resources and kill military personnel), although there is room for diplomacy and negotiation with other players. Violence is never seen, however. The player is far removed from the action, getting letters and reports about results without actually seeing conflicts. Depending upon the player’s inclinations (and actions of other players), the focus of the game can be upon creating a flourishing civilization or military strategy or both. There seem to be few, if any puzzles or mysteries in the game, so the tilt of the game play is more to the male-attractive side of the spectrum, but with opportunities for both genders to enjoy the game.
Travian requires socially oriented play since no one can avoid the actions of other players in this game. The top players on each server are in wide-flungalliances. The quality of the interaction between characters is entirely up to the players. Think Civilization but with people behind the other players rather than a good artificial intelligence program.
The setting is marginally fantasy-based, being an idealized medieval setting. This is not a Tolkein-ese world, nor is it a neighborhood you can imagine living in. The neutral color scheme for the cartoon-quality graphics is easy on the eyes and should appeal to a wide range of players.
Some aspects of the game will probably appeal more to boys than girls, however. The lack of a female character (the only identifiable individuals are all various types of male fighters) with whom the player can identify, trial and error early game play, and the real time strategy genre itself may turn some girls off the game. The core point of the game is to control and develop territory – which will not appeal to all kids.
Educationally, it is potentially useful for teaching ratios and change over time. Planning community development can fit into many lessons on math and information technology, social studies, or history. Players need to consider the effects of upgrading a wheat field vs. another resource, for instance, in order to keep their people fed and secure. It is also good practice for negotiations, team building, and may shed light on points of history (such as why cities where build where they were).
For schools, the two biggest challenges will be getting around the network firewall to access the site and explaining to parents that this game is an educational experience.
However, he pace of the game may also be a problem for some players and schools. Building up resources takes many hours of time in real life. The good news is that a player does not need to be logged into the game – this process takes place automatically in the persistent world. It has the potential to teach patience and planning, and get around the frantic pace of many console games. The bad news is that, since the game is active 24/7, players may feel a constant need to check up on the situation in their village.
Travian is a fun way to engage some basic planning skills over a relatively long period of time in which short bursts of activity are focused on the game. It could be used to reinforce concepts like ratios, cost-benefit analysis, team work, strategic planning, It is a game in which choices make a great deal of difference, and a player can definitely go backwards in the standings unless he or she learns to play well, which should give players an incentive to understand classroom concepts in order to achieve their goals.
Keep in mind that this, like any game, will not teach concepts and skills. It may pose the problem statement that will get kids interested in learning some concepts. Or it can be used to reinforce and get them to practice skills to which they've been introduced. It should be integrated into a larger lesson plan. And always plan for the worst - which in this case would be that a game server would be unavailable during your lesson or class time.
If you try it and like it, let me know. Better yet, spread the word to colleagues!