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

November 24, 2007

Definition: Avatar

Originally, the word "avatar" referred to the physical incarnation of a god.

In the game world, the word is used in a nearly opposite sense, indicating the digital representation in a virtual world or game of a physical person. In both uses, an avatar is the manifestation in one world of a being that exists also in another world - and often in different forms - spiritual, digital, or physical - depending upon the capacity of the world to hold such a being.

The term is most often used in reference to a representation of a player in a virtual world or an online, multi-player game (an MMORPG, MMOG, or MMO). These avatars are often customizable (to minor or great degree), and the player usually must provide a name for the avatar upon creation, causing some investment of the player into the characteristics and fate of their avatar.

This investment of a player into his or her avatar's characteristics is seen by some theorists to be greater than what players invest in generic characters, usually found in single player games and has sparked a number of research studies into online identity. See, for instance, the third chapter of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, in which Gee describes the three identities involved in online gaming and their positive ramifications for educational practice.


Gee, J. P. (2003). What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Posted by bjohnson at 12:37 PM

Definition: Emoticons

Emoticon: A symbol used in text-based online communication to indicate the mood of the author or the intended tone of the communication. They are composed of symbols from the standard English keyboard, often depicting a human face, turned on its side, exhibiting facial cues about mood.

Also known as a smiley.

Emoticons date back to the early 1980's, before graphical browsers became available, and are still used to contextualize informal written information in email, via the web, and in telephone based text-messaging (SMS).

A brief history of smileys is offered here:

A partial list of commonly used emoticons is also available at that same site ( - a larger dictionary is also available there for those who really need to express themselves.

Emoticons are useful in any informal, text-based communication. The emotional bandwidth, so to speak, of such media is very narrow. Without such emotional context clues, written messages can easily be misinterpreted.

Posted by bjohnson at 12:09 PM

November 23, 2007

Definition: Bot

The word is short for "robot", which hints at its use as an errand runner or assistant for a human being.

Also called spiders and crawlers, especially as relates to bots that work on the internet.

A bot is a computer program that generally emulates a human being performing some routine function with data, such as sorting information, collecting information for shopping, forwarding email, copying data from one computer to another, etc.

Bots usually run nearly constantly, performing their functions automatically, with little oversight by a human being. They also function behind the scenes, invisible to most average users. This combination of boundless and invisible automated activity is what concerns their critics. Little is often known about what a company's bots actually do in aggregating or transferring data - even to IT staff within that company.

On the other hand, bots make handling the vast onslaught of routine information feasible, keeping down costs in many industries and allowing the tailoring or categorization of information on many web sites.

Posted by bjohnson at 5:35 PM

November 2, 2007

Definition of a Wiki

A wiki, to an casual reader, is just about the same as any web page. It is a mix of text and images, but heavy on the text. And they often are not well formatted.

Their use lies in the fact that a visitor can edit the content of the web page. At least, most of the time that is true - some wikis do restrict who can do the editing. This is why they can be really very useful for collaborative writing. And, a wiki keeps track of who does the editing and the various versions, so that, if something does go wrong, it can be rolled back to an older, more correct version.

On a standard, HTML web page, the casual visitor cannot modify the page - it is like reading a book electronically. There is no response back to the author, and it can be very difficult to have multiple people work together on a standard web site.

The most famous wiki is Wikipedia, the web encyclopedia. If something is wrong, you could correct it - right there and immediately. You can add to its links and references. You could create pages about related information, cultures, and history. It is a great way to spread and share knowledge. And also to check to make sure people are spreading correct information. That's a lot harder to do with a text book or a printed encyclopedia or even a web page.

It changes the power dynamic, which potentially gives marginalized people a stronger voice with which to educate people in other cultures. You have a lot more opportunity to touch people and educate them, if you feel pulled in that direction.

For educators, part of a book on educational uses of a wiki has been published online. Since wikis are essentially tools for collaborative writing, that has been one of their most popular uses - in writing classes. Check out Brian Lamb's Educause Review article: Wide Open Spaces: Wikis, Ready or Not for more details.

Posted by bjohnson at 10:17 PM

October 31, 2007

Definition of Virtual Worlds

What is a virtual world? In truth, there is no single, authoritative definition. Wikipedia presents a useable start, however: “a computer-based simulated environment intended for its users to inhabit and interact via avatars. This habitation usually is represented in the form of two or three-dimensional graphical representations of humanoids (or other graphical or text-based avatars). Some, but not all, virtual worlds allow for multiple users? ("Virtual World," n.d.).

Not all virtual worlds have graphical interfaces. LambdaMOO, one of the most famous text-based online worlds still exists with many loyal residents (Rex, 2007). Die-hard residents of MOOs, MUSHs, and MUDs, enjoy them for a variety of reasons. In many cases, they are less taxing on computer hardware and bandwidth since they only require text transmission. They also, as aficionados insist, allow for greater literary expression and use of imagination by the reader participant.

Note that virtual worlds may include or incorporate games and game-like elements (such as keeping score), but this feature is not essential. In fact, some theorists explicitly separate virtual worlds from games, preferring to reserve the terms virtual world or virtual environment for spaces where that do not incorporate scoring or similar extrinsic motivators. The line between a game, a simulation, and a virtual world/environment can be quite blurry.

Virtual worlds also do not necessarily need to exist on the web nor do they need to involve multiple users, although these are increasingly assumed in current use of the term. Any computer-based simulated environment can be considered a virtual world,

Virtual worlds usually are modeled, albeit loosely, on the physical world. They incorporate spatial relationships and a sense of place or location. They usually involve physical restrictions (such as gravity, solidity of objects, apparent velocity, use of the visual spectrum, and so on) although they implement very simplified versions of physical laws and often feature specific instances of breaking these laws (such as the ability of avatars to fly unassisted in Second Life).

A very good introduction to virtual worlds and related environments has been created by Virtual Environments Info Group, which includes a comparison chart of many of the current, commonly used worlds ("Virtual Environments, Virtual Worlds, Social MMOGs, MUVEs, DVEs, MMOs," 2007). There are two drawbacks to this site: it does not mention a few worlds (inevitable given the rapid expansion of the field) and that it does not cover the world-like uses made of many popular multi-player games.

Worlds not covered by the Virtual Environments Group include:
• Entropia (

As time permits, I will fill in the gaps and review new virtual worlds. Some of them are annoyingly only available for Windows XP, which hampers the process.
Multiplayer online games (MMOs) can often be used as virtual worlds apart from their game features. For instance, before Sony Online Entertainment revamped Star Wars Galaxies, many residents ignored the game’s score and progression system, focusing instead on their community and online personalities (Kohler, 2005). This further blurs the divisions between games that take place in a created reality (i.e. virtual world) and the open-ended worlds that may or may not include games.


Kohler, C. (2005, December 13). Star Wars Fans Flee Net Galaxy. Wired.
Rex, F. (2007). LambdaMOO (with LambdaMoo Map) An Introduction. Retrieved October 31, 2007, from
Virtual Environments, Virtual Worlds, Social MMOGs, MUVEs, DVEs, MMOs. (2007). Retrieved October 30, 2007, from
Virtual World. (n.d.). Wikipedia Retrieved October 30, 2007, from

Posted by bjohnson at 12:04 PM

October 22, 2004

A Use for Blogs

Imagine it is Sunday night. Tomorrow morning, you will go into your classroom and announce a group writing assignment. You want your students, in small groups of 3 or 4, to put together a series of essays on a given topic. Each essay can be done individually or jointly, but they should all be related to a common sub-theme that you will allow the groups to choose.

Since your school is trying to bring technology into the classroom, you want to involve computer technology SOMEHOW, but you don't want to spend a lot of time teaching technology since there already are not enough hours in the day for writing let alone teaching 20 or 30 kids (or more!) how to publish electronically. Heck, YOU don't even know how to do anything more than a boring web page.

If you leave the choice of publication medium to the students, you know you will be barraged with questions about how they are supposed to do this. They all have different schedules and cannot all get together at any one time to meet let alone work together. They don't all own computers or the same software, and you know you really don't want to read their scrawled copies of hand-written notes. They don't know how to publish things to the web, and if they do, they don't want to share their personal pages with other students.

So, what do you do? You blog.

No, "blog" is not a synonym for "cry in a corner". It is a way to publish content to the web quickly and easily.

A blog is usually defined as a collection of writings (called "posts" or "entries") on a theme arranged in chronological order on the web. The term "blog" is short for "weblog" or "web log" - which gives you some idea of the origin. "Blogs" were once ongoing web logs arranged by date as would any other type of log file. Now, as we enter the 21st century, they can be used for announcements, travelogs, personal journals, and informal personal publications.

Blogs are often hosted by blogging companies, although your technical staff can install blogging software such as MoveableType fairly easily and at low cost. They are easy for a host (such as yourself) to configure and make look reasonably good without knowing anything about web publishing whatsoever.

The best thing is that blogs can be set up so that a single author controls it or allows collaboration of a group, much like publishing a magazine. But unlike a printed magazine, blogs allow readers to make comments about the entries they read. It is like having an immediately available editorial page!

Blogs can be set up with various levels of restrictions, especially if you install it on your own system, so this can be tailored to the classroom's needs. While the tradition of blogging is for wide-open spaces and nearly anything goes, you may not want just anyone coming in to comment on little Johnny's work. On the other hand, it can be an incentive for learners to write well if they know they can share their achievements with family and friends. It might even help them clean up their spelling and grammar when the audience includes more than their teacher or professor.

But this is not to say that blogging is the answer to all of your collaborative or publishing needs. You should also look into related technologies such as threaded discussion and other collaborative software. Always start by looking at your needs and those of your students before selecting a tool!

Posted by bjohnson at 12:14 PM