September 22, 2008

My Weightloss Coach (Nintendo DS)

This cute, little game provides playful, positive enforcement of healthy lifestyle behaviors that should help most people make improvements gradually. Its major emphasis is on getting you to move more, an essential factor in sustained weight loss and long-term health. Focusing on easy adjustments, such as a gradual increase in daily step count, this product should fit into the life of most American adults. It accommodates a wide variety of pre-existing fitness levels, allowing you to count nearly any movement from housework to karate in your daily minimum of 30 minutes of exercise.

The way it tracks your calorie intake each day is particularly friendly, and a great improvement on most fitness programs I have tried for handheld devices. Tossing aside detailed lists of foods that make recording intake a time-consuming chore, you select foods from categories based on average number of calories for average-sized servings. Nearly any food can be accounted for, even when eating out.

The program is educational in a friendly way and provides customized feedback and suggestions based on your preferences and the results of mini-assessments. You have daily objectives and challenges to meet - some are playful and funny. But every objective met is rewarded in terms of miles traveled to interesting sights.

There are some downsides and places where the game can be improved. The provided pedometer is a little bulky. After I dropped mine for the last time, I picked up a $5 replacement that works just fine; you just enter the numbers by hand. The food lists also do not give you feedback on nutritional value of choices. The program itself reminds you to eat a diverse diet, but you could live on junk food with this game and still make your objectives. Finally, there is no way to correct mistakes, and I frequently have to fudge (no pun intended) what I eat in order to log something close to equivalent in calories.

For the classroom, this sort of game has a major disadvantage: only one user can use any particular cartridge and save data. There is no multi-user capacity with this game, unlike some other education titles (think BrainAge). That's particularly sad since there are mini-quizzes included in the game to test your knowledge about nutrition. It would be fun to compete with other players to improve scores and advance the furthest around the world!

Posted by bjohnson at 11:58 AM

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

September 11, 2007

Travian

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!

Posted by bjohnson at 8:09 AM