December 28, 2007

Review: PeaceMaker

OK, educators in history, social studies, Middle-East culture, and political science, here is a game for you! You'll need to do some work to fit it into your curriculum, but this game has all the marks of a useful educational game that remains challengingly engaging while fitting in both content and episodic/experiential learning.

The game is PeaceMaker by Impact Games. It is a single-player, stand alone turn-based-strategy game available for both the PC and the Macintosh computer platforms. With 3-D graphics and stereo soundtrack, this serious game competes effectively with current commercial entertainment games in look and feel, which adds its appeal among current and new gamers.

Like most turn-based video games, PeaceMaker differs from the stereotypical video game in that it does not sport a lot of blood, shooting, or explosions. The only violence seen comes on the news footage used to illustrate the results of poorly-timed moves. These increase the level of tension and violence in the game, which also generally decreases the player's score and lessens the likelihood of winning. In short, violence is not overtly or covertly rewarded.

There is a lot to like about this award-winning game. The player takes on the role of leader of either the Israeli or Palestinian leader, but the goal of the game is really to find an solution acceptable to not only the player but the opposite faction as well. This is a win/win or lose all game. Neither side can decimate the other if the player wishes to win. While one side or the other can be unhappy about the status, the dissatisfaction of either side cannot dip beyond a certain level before the game is declared lost.

The game itself educates the player about the history and the various competing factions in the Middle East without being didactic, embodying procedural rhetoric effectively. The game's introduction is brief but ends with an interactive time line of the major events that lead up to the status, in 2007, of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. More in-depth information can be requested by the player as he or she weighs options, and the game's feedback system provides additional information about the current situation and probable outcomes as the game progresses. One of the most interesting aspects of this game is the number of factions (local and international) whose opinions must be heeded (to varying degrees) and whose needs must be met in order to achieve peace in the region. The complex interplay between these groups illustrates beautifully how processes can be used to make a point. In this case, the point is that balancing these competing needs over the long term is an extremely difficult task. While it is easy to write that, it is difficult to play it, and I repeatedly lost while trying to find a way to manage the opinions of local and international organizations. That is the difference between rote and episodic learning - and I will never read the paper in the same way again.

Content-wise, players quickly learn where the major cities and regions are located, who are the major factions involved, where holy sites are located, and what barriers hinder a peaceful co-existence. They also must learn - and remember! - historical facts in order to progress in the game. There are too many choices and configurations to allow random guessing, so students will be motivated to learn and quickly recall information.

There is also no one right path through the game, and some random elements will prevent any two gaming sessions from working out the same way. Hence, your students can't use each other's solutions, although they might be able to share strategies to see how well they generalize to different game sessions. From this, educators can make use of game debriefing time to see if students can form theories about conflict and conflict resolution - or turn it around and see if specific theories about what should be done in the Middle East would work under the game assumptions and rules.

Further, the game can be played from either the Israeli or Palestinian perspective, and the game designers encourage everyone to try the game both ways since each leader has different challenges to meet. Even if you do not have time to let everyone play both sides, the competing faction in the conflict is not demonized. In this game world, your opponent is someone with whom you need to cooperate and with whom you share some goals. This is a refreshing look at conflict that is worth bringing into the classroom for its own sake.

You can try it out for yourself for free, although you can only make a limited number of moves before you need to buy a license. At under $20, it is not particularly expensive, and a good deal cheaper than most commercial titles these days. With a promise of lesson plans under development, this game is worth considering as an addition to your spring semester.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:09 AM

December 20, 2007

Computer Mediated Communication vs. Face to Face Oratory

Computer mediated communication (CMC) appeals to a certain group of people and turns off others. Introverts and reflective thinkers love it. Extroverts and "on ones feet" thinkers do not generally like it. People who become energized on the give and take of conversation often feel that something is lacking. They point to the classical examples of great speakers, as an example of what discussion should be – face to face, without the deadening, distancing effects of the Internet.

Yet, oratory, except for the very privileged audience that is present physically, was and is often mediated. Even in classic Rome, an orator's words had to be repeated by other people (either synchronously or asynchronously) for him to have much impact beyond the immediate audience. The more famous and effective orators made better use of stylistic devices to make their words memorable (like a catchy tune sticks with you), worthy of recording (in an era when writing was very precious), or worthy of action. They also (giving a nod to Vygotsky here) made good use of their understanding of their own culture - using certain words or images important to their culture - to further their impact.

Winston Churchill and others made great use of the radio to spread their message. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and John F. Kennedy) actually made great use of the television as well as the local audience to get beyond their immediate locale in order to have a national impact. If they had been limited to speaking only to those people who were present - and could hear them without a microphone! Surely, they would have still been great, but how far could their message have spread without word of mouth, papers, radio, and television? As well as the very situational frame for each person's message - based in the needs of the culture and in its meaningful words and images.

What will the best use of digital media be in communication in general and education in particular? It is hard to say. Now, we have been recreating what we know in a new venue - which we always have done badly. Shortly, we will start to see what it can do well. I am reading Ian Bogost's book Persuasive Games, which is actually all about the new procedural persuasion possible in virtual worlds and digital games. We are just getting started with figuring out where we should use the new technologies for greatest value.

Posted by bjohnson at 4:43 PM

December 10, 2007

Food Force

Food Force is a single-player game about global hunger and the complex multi-stage process of getting food relief to needy areas.

Developed by the United Nation's World Food Programme (WFP) for a relatively modest price of $350,000, Food Force had been downloaded and played by an estimated 4 million players by 2006. An impressive 1 million players had played it within the first 6 weeks of its release. Through this game, the WFP hoped to generate interest among children in the so-called developed countries about global hunger.

This non-violent video game, specifically designed for children aged 8 to 13, has been so highly successful, in part, because it incorporates key features of successful, commercial video games. Six action-packed missions must be completed in a specified amount of time and are scored – with room on the game’s web site for players to post their top scores. The quality of the game itself is a major factor in its popularity. With full-motion video cutaways, 3-D graphics, and a narrative story in which the player is cast as the hero figure, this game looks like many modern commercial games.

Despite the adoption of features common to the action game genre, Food Force still is a game with a message. Through the game, the player is introduced to the various aspects – and difficulties – of food aid operations. The player must pilot air craft, negotiate with rebels, rebuild food production infrastructure, design optimum ration packets, and decide what assistance offered by various countries will actually help in the effort. Through playing the various missions, players come to understand that food aid is a complex, multi-stage process.

Sections of the supporting web site can aid educators who want to integrate the game into their curriculum, with links to related educational sites. The game is a free download from the associated web site and is available for both PC and Macintosh computers.

Posted by bjohnson at 6:33 PM

December 7, 2007

Fifth Graders Developing Video Games in the Classroom

Admittedly, not everyone is ready for this step, but I pass along this article about an elementary school teacher whose class is developing games as a learning activity.

Giancarlos Alvarado writes candidly about the successes and challenges of using games to teach while keeping an eye on meeting state curriculum standards and staying within a budget. But his class is creating some interesting non-combat games. The program they use for development is RPG Maker, which is one of a handful of development tools accessible to non-programmers for game development.

One of the things I find most exciting about this article is that the teacher, while working on his masters degree, is not an outside researcher coming into a classroom to test a theory. This is an in-service teacher who has decided to incorporate games into his classroom. Encouraging, no?

Posted by bjohnson at 8:57 AM

December 6, 2007

Journal of Educational Multimedia and Hypermedia

This looks like a promising journal, covering educational aspects of various media including games and simulations. In fact, the Fall 2007 issue is devoted to educational gaming! The introduction to the issue lays out the various issues relating to educational use of games in a very readable fashion. For interested educators, this issue is well worth the read!

It is a publication of the Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, so the educational focus is paramount, unlike many other journals and sites devoted to aspects of games, simulations, and virtual worlds.

Posted by bjohnson at 1:51 PM

December 5, 2007

Definition: NPC

NPC in the gaming world stands for Non-Playing Character.

In most games, even MMOGs, most of the characters you see on the screen are not being manipulated by other human beings. Rather, they are carefully crafted segments of computer code that provide ambiance in the game environment, interact with a player's avatar, contribute to the narrative of the story, or even assist the player in various parts of the game. In multi-player games, they are usually distinguished from other players in some way, although that distinction may not be obvious to new players at first.

Hostile NPCs are often called "monsters" or "mobs".

Developing sophisticated NPCs is one of the top challenges in game development. NPCs can often have complicated movement patterns and must be designed to interact with a rich game environment as well as - potentially - multiple players. As such, this is an interesting field for artificial intelligence theorists and programmers. But even people lacking in technical computing backgrounds can benefit from studying how NPCs act in order to become better players as well as understand the limits of what computers can do, for now.

Posted by bjohnson at 8:34 PM

December 4, 2007

Definition: MMORPG

MMORPG stands for Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. Wikipedia has an exceptionally well-developed article on the background of MMORPGs, so I'll refrain from trying to duplicate it.

MMORPGs (aka MMOGs or MMOs), are generally social spaces in which a player can interact with other players from around the world. Depending upon the game, this interaction may be more or less necessary to playing.

Some games (like Guild Wars and even Lineage in later stages) are virtually impossible to play alone, requiring coordination with other players (in groups called guilds or pledges) over long periods of time - often months or even years. This sort of long-term coordination takes advantage of solid team development and management and may even help players practice or develop team-based social skills. Some wags have called games like World of Warcraft the new geek-golf - an essential part of social networking in the information age.

Interestingly, World of Warcraft, although often cited as a social game, is one in which a player can advance with little actual interaction with other players. As a casual game, players can solo quests up to the current maximum level (70 as of this writing), only interacting with other players as much as the average shopper interacts with others at the supermarket. While it allows and even structures complex interactive social play, it does not require it.

Some theorists (such as Constance Steinkuehler) are looking at MMOGs as third spaces (see Oldenburg's research), which function as neutral gathering points for networking and informal socializing between acquaintances. Like an old-fashioned pub, these places allow the development of loose ties among people of diverse groups, potentially extending players out of their usual comfort zones and into contact with members of different social groups, holding different political and social views.

For the educator, this provides an opportunity for students to expand their horizons and practice a number of team-building and strategy skills. Text-based chat also has been seen to encourage some students to develop greater proficiency with typing and even language arts skills.

Whether these potentials actually come to fruition depends upon the situation, the teacher, and the student.

Posted by bjohnson at 8:34 AM