Jul 112011

[This post is cross-posted from over at the Culture Digitally site.]

This one has been brewing for a while. Perhaps, as Stephen Totilo notes, ever since Raph Koster voiced his concerns back in 2006. I believe that there is a storm coming between “game people” and educators, precisely at a moment when money is flooding into these realms. So, perhaps, that is reason enough for a storm. But the foundations for a battle have been laid. My concerns, as a participant and researcher, are really fourfold:

  • Technological Determinism
  • Obsession with Literalism
  • Obsession with “Content” Delivery
  • Epistemic Disinterest in Game Design/Development

I wasn’t able to attend G4C or GLS this year, unfortunately due to classes/research/budgets/life/etc, so some of what I have to say addresses second-hand accounts of those events. At the same time, however, I think there is growing awareness and concern about the intersection of games/game design/education that I have been thinking deeply about for the last two and a half years that echos the concerns of others.

Now for Some Serious Education

Now for Some Serious Education

The first concern I have is kind of banal. That much of the conversation is rooted in a kind of technological determinism. “Games will make crappy educational practices better.” I think all of us working in this area know that the issue is much broader than this. That there is the entire context of education that needs to be examined in addition to making educational materials more interesting/engaging/fill-in-the-blank.

The second critique is more subtle, and I was particularly sad to miss Eric Zimmerman’s GLS keynote entitled, “GAMES ARE NOT GOOD FOR YOU.” One element in particular that I struggle with and clearly Eric does as well, is that many people currently interested in games are obsessed with a kind of topical literalism. If the area of interest is diabetes, then the game should be about diabetes. If its about energy management, it needs to be about energy management. My experience has shown that this leads immediately to players, “looks like education, smells like education, not interested.” The line that I’ve used time and again in my work is, “lets make a game about X, without making a game about X.”

Unfortunately, actually doing that well is a difficult and collaborative process. Thus, the next response becomes turning to commercial games and leveraging them into curriculum. Portal, WoW, Civilization, then become our answer. Except that I’d argue that is the equivalent to giving up.

I’m not saying that Portal, WoW, Civ, etc aren’t educational. Or that they can’t compel people to learn in really important ways. Clearly, they can. I am saying that they’re only going to address a very small aspect of what its important for people to learn in school.

More specifically I wonder about the epistemic divide that exists between these communities. A game designer would never dream of putting a quiz into a game, but examine any number of “edutainment” titles or educational games made (often with government support) and often times you’ll be asked to complete a quiz prior to then playing some game like Tetris or Asteroids with an educational venir slapped on top. Which isn’t to say that quizzes can’t be a legitimate game mechanic, I think they can be, but they ought not be your go-to one.

The other option is to really not even make a game, but make something that looks enough like a game that you can get players to pay attention long enough to get your point across. This is really about content delivery. Consume content we have identified as good for you until you realize what we’re doing. This is third criticism, which is why so many educational “games” actually look like workbooks or interactive encyclopedias, sometimes with interactive elements, but little of what game players would recognize as a game or actually call a game. Yet, content delivery is much of what school has turned into.

However, policing the word “game” is problematic, especially when you consider the fraught ground between “casual” and “hardcore” distinction. Yet, the ability to judge something as “not a game” speaks to the issue of epistemic authority, which largely remains in the educational camp currently. Game developers tools and perhaps visual appeal are being leveraged, but does that make it a game?

A good game designer can assess the player at any moment. Do you know how this is game is working? No? Dead, or restart, or try again. It happens all the time in game play. Failure is used to help a player come to understand what they do and their relationship with the game. A game designer can construct a situation where they know the player knows/understands something, otherwise they would not be there. This is a fundamentally different kind of “knowing” than most educators recognize and as such it is discounted. That would explain the, “newcomers exploring a thing they don’t yet grasp.”

The funding for games and education, however, remains rooted in an epistemic community that understands knowing only through traditional testing and is quite disinterested in actually coming to understand what game design means or what the epistemic context of that community actually looks like. It is for reasons like this that I have serious concerns about the future of games that are educational. There remains a tendency to fall back or defer to educators, who clearly haven’t realized that their perspective on knowing isn’t actually working all that well.

Which is where we come back to my recent work, where I’ve taken up the role of the game designer, in a context where educational software (and some games) are being developed. It has become ever more important for me to fight for a kind of game design epistemology that can speak authoritatively. It has also become important to police boundaries in ways that, as a researcher I find not totally unproblematic. “No, that is not a game.” “No, we can’t have a quiz.” “Why does it have to be in the body?”

More and more it seems to be a clash of world views, except for the fact that game designers could ultimately care less. There are some that are committed to making games (that just happen to be educational), but games are the thing being sought and their production ought to be treated more respectfully than some simple technology to be thrown at broader social problems.

Good serious game design is really hard because it is a bridging of these worlds that requires a commitment to both on the part of both sides.

Apr 082011

I’ve found myself relaying to students recently, a story of my experience at GDC this last year. I wound up at the Scandinavian Indie Games Party watching and playing the 2008 Vertical Slice of the Xbox 360 Game Limbo. It was actually one of my primary reasons for going to this gathering. I was interested in learning more about the tools and production practices that resulted in Limbo. What I got instead was a really valuable and heartening experience of someone else’s work-in-progress. [I also had the chance to reset the game several times as it sort of hangs after you beat the game. Leave it to the anthropologist to observe Arnt reset it once and then step in to fill the role so others can continue to play.]

Its hard to convey to someone how much one can treasure those creative/intellectual endeavors that one undertakes. Books, essays, games, movies, music, etc can each fall into these categories. When we set them in front of others, we place those stories on display in a very vulnerable way. Its made even worse by the fact that we often only see the faults in these artefacts. As a player moves through a level, all we can see is the hiccups and jumps and jerks and flaws in the system. I find it almost humiliating and yet it is a necessary part of the creative process. We learn and improve based on those resulting critiques and conversations.

[As an aside, perhaps this is my deepest critique of the double-blind peer-review process. Wouldn’t it be more constructive to read a fellow person’s work with them sitting there (or nearby) after which you can have a conversation about the work. Much more meaningful and connected that what most peer-review looks like now.]

What I had an opportunity to do was to see a game, which despite some linger critiques, I quite enjoyed playing. Limbo’s aesthetic and production quality are stunning. I’ve been deeply curious about its development, their production, tools, and numerous aspects surrounding the game. What I was able to do, was to see the flaws in something that were otherwise invisible. The 2008 vertical slice of Limbo made possible the game released in 2010.

Now recently, I came upon a video of Jonathan Blow talking about the Xbox 360 Game Braid. The discussion and dissection of his design process is excellent, but it’s the first few minutes of the talk that got me. It’s his first playable version of his game, created in “7-8” days and how it encapsulated the design of what became Braid. He showed Braid to several of his close friends and we’re not sure what happened after that point, except for this line:

“The Only Difference Between that and the Shipped Game is Three Years of Development” – Jonathan Blow

But this is precisely it right? It speaks directly to the “90-10” rule. The idea that the “last 10%” is really 90%. While the numbers might not be quite that skewed, the idea is. It’s also what makes Chris Hecker’s plea all the more heartfelt I think.

One really needs a commitment and time to bring a game to where it should be or ought to be to “explore fully” a particular mechanic. But you also need to finish it. So I ♥ the vertical slice, precisely because it’s not “the game,” it’s a moment in time where a developer has really found the game and now has some arduous task ahead of them trying to really coax that game out of the hitchy-glitchy thing that was the vertical slice. But one really does develop a commitment to that.

I ♥ vertical slices.

But also know when to break up with your vertical slice. 😉

Apr 072011

[Note: For those of you getting this link because of your “(baby)alexis” notifications, I couldn’t help not including you. :)] Osy (“Osy Osmosis”), a game cooperatively developed by myself and members of a research team at the University of Georgia hit the App Store late last night. Osy’s development has spanned just about two years now, though actual development time was about three months to vertical slice, which was the deployed widely for preliminary testing throughout schools in Georgia. It is this version of the game featured in the documentary piece found on the Osy website. Little happened with the game after that point until April of 2010, when the UGA OVPR provided a VentureLab seed grant for our freshly created company IS3D, LLC. A portion of this money was used to port Osy to iOS and move the game into full production. It paid for bringing in wonderful folks like Ben Throop in to tell us what we’re doing right and wrong.

What makes Osy special, for me, is that it is my stab at thinking about making games… that just happen to contain concepts that educators are interested in teaching to students. I often say very deliberately that Osy is not “edutainment.” Put more academically, the procedural rhetoric of Osy is the story of osmosis. Too often, educational games ignore the procedural rhetoric and only thinly layer educational images/concepts on top of game mechanics that have nothing to do with the message they hope to deliver. In far too many cases it is actually worse, “gamelike” visuals are layered on top of quiz/test systems and it is referred to as a “game.” In part, this is because testing/quizzing is the primary procedural rhetoric (or game mechanic) of schools. I recall one day during the design of Osy where I said something to the effect, “If you put a quiz in my game, I’m done with it.” This is an approach, that I think is conscientious of the kinds of critiques that some are leveling at the Game-ification of Education.

I’ve also been somewhat worried about many people researching games and education becoming too focused on only the importation of off-the-shelf standard game industry games into the classroom. Isn’t that the equivalent of giving up the ghost? Why not create high quality games with education sitting in the back of your head? Clearly, game developers draw on scientific concepts for the systems within games (physics, evolution, …) though it comes secondary to the overall game. Why not have it as an equal on the field of idea-battles that occur during the development of a game? That I want a player to understand/feel/know X where X includes some scientific knowledge becomes part of the design process.

Go Osy go!

Mar 152011

Well, I’m going to quote Tom over at Oh No! Video Games! on this, “This one is going to get messy.”

The Game Developers Conference (GDC) was an exceptional one this year. There are numerous bits-and-pieces that I should comment on, though largely haven’t here because it takes a great deal of time to digest my notes and instead I’ve had to catch up on my return to work. However, several events, like the Game Educator’s Rant and the Game Design Challenge have had a life of their own outside the conference.

But first a story.

Having heard Jason Rohrer speak several times now, I knew when he took the stage at the Game Design Challenge this year, I was in for a treat. He proceeded to tell us about his grandfather and the impact he had left on the town in Ohio of which he had been mayor. The story he tells is about someone who has passed on and the traces that they leave on the world and their family and friends. All of this got me to thinking about my grandfathers. Sitting there listening, I heap meaning onto his words. I think about how for many in the room, grandparents may have been immigrants, making their way spreading across the midwest. This was certainly my family’s story and as such meaning heaps on meaning, I become invested in the sermon.

Of course as the story that Jason is telling progressed, it became clear that he was leading up to something that touched on Minecraft, which made it all that much more engaging. I’d cracked the code. I had been brought along the path of Jason’s design. In many respects it was a tribute to the idea of his grandfather, as much as it was his response to the design challenge. I don’t think I was the only one in the audience moved by the story.

In the end, Jason holds out to the crowd, dangling from a small lanyard, a USB thumb drive, which contains several scripts that customize the behavior of the standalone version of Minecraft. From the crowd comes an individual who takes the drive and walks back into the crowd. At the time I was somewhat aghast. It was too soon for that, I was still soaking in the talk. But rapidly the presentations moved on and I simply wondered what would happen in the future and thought quite clearly to myself, “I bet I wont have a chance to leave a trace on Chain World.” However, I wasn’t saddened. I was hopeful and still thought the whole idea quite beautiful. Even when in Q&A someone asked the commodification question, I erred on the side of faith, that everyone in the room had also been moved and that commodifying the idea immediately was too quick, too gamified. Eventually it would happen, but later after the glow had dimmed, at least so I hoped.

It happened immediately, which is when people began to get upset. Of course I don’t fault those involved or think that what they are doing is wrong. Clearly they are all people with the best of intentions. But they could have pushed it further? Why not actual volunteer work? Why not community changing work in the real world? There were so many options that spoke to the story that Jason told. Instead we get to click a button on Ebay to make a difference? Really? This from someone who does on-the-ground humanitarian work?

What really happened is that a modification for good was simply poorly designed. It failed to consider the context. In short, they should have attended Miguel Sicart’s GDC session. Even Jason has spoken out on Twitter encouraging the winning bidder to be unfaithful to the rules that do not fit his original design. Of course I wonder if the addition of Ebay’s legal context forever hack the game.

Of course, in many respects, this only proves the design. Chain World already has followers, people that care intimately about it, forks, interpretations, commodification, … But so many of us were hoping for something different. My friend Darius (who I didn’t get to hang out with!) seems to see along the same lines as I do. What is happening is legitimate, it simply isn’t faithful. Chain World was already beautiful. It didn’t need any help. Of course now I sound like a devout follower don’t I? I still don’t get to make my mark, but for a very different reason.

Feb 112011

Clearly, I am not a very good blogger. The Global Game Jam (GGJ) ended nearly two weeks ago and I’ve been silent on the matter. The buzz is dead, and I’ve only now had enough time to really digest my experience.

The GGJ has become a significantly important educational and creative event for the game industry. It puts professional, independent, and would-be game developers together in a bounded 46 hour event with the goal to create a game. I have participated in every GGJ since its inception. I have organized two. I have stolen the idea at a local level and run local “summer jams.” Everything about the idea appeals to me.

The GA host site this year, SPSU, did an exceptional job, and ended up being one of the most attended locations in the world. As hosting the combined site may fall on my shoulders next year, my first question is, “how do I ensure that people make it up to Athens, when only a handful of our folks made it to Atlanta (Marietta)?”

My only real event-level frustration was the number of games now posted, which have interesting aspects that I’d love to see how they were produced, except that teams did not post the source code or art assets for their games. This is a requirement for the GGJ and it seems to have been dismally enforced this year. Here is one example of that. Though I could probably find a lot of other examples.

Reflections on SuperMegaTurboX64Box:

A group of us from Athens in concert with a handful of students from the Art Institute in Atlanta created a goofy little game, which we came to call SuperMegaTurboX64Box. The theme of this year’s GGJ was “extinction,” which means that you’ll find a significant number of games about animal extinction, human extinction, meteors, the game of life, evolution, and the death of punk/rock. I was pleased that our team attempted to tackle something a bit abstract. SMTX64B, which you can play online, was a game about the extinction of ideas, game consoles, gameplay mechanics, and variety amongst the mainstream game industry. For a project conceived of and created in a very short period of time, I was pleased by the kind of reflexivity it exhibited. Of course, we could be accused of navel gazing, but I’ll take that as a compliment for a weekend project.

I was particularly pleased by the way our team formed and collaborated. We were the most gender-diverse group at the jam and delivered a relatively polished gameplay experience. The overall design was collectively decided upon and had buy-in from everyone working on the project. My only frustration with the game was the additional features that we started adding near the end of the jam, which I think added a level of polish, but also felt a little tacked on.

Reflections on Would-be Developers at the Jam

More than anything, this proved difficult for me. Having been a member of the game development community for more than a decade now, I was surprised by how often I found myself rankled by the behavior of some of my fellow jammers. Perhaps having thrown jams in Athens, I had a distorted view of the situation. Our sites have always felt very inclusive, with voice actors/actresses, musicians, engineers, artists, designers, educators, and even people that just don’t know yet feeling welcome.

Maybe I’ve just become older and crankier, but it made me somewhat worried about the kind of culture bred amongst the majority hoping to become game developers. Volume was often a substitute for know-how or experience and bravado was used by many to ensure that others knew how awesome they were at game development. Of course the opposite was more often the case.

Especially infuriating was observing one young jammer ushering a visiting young boy away from our team of three female artists with the dismissive comment, “They’re just doing some pixel art,” to show him the 3D model he had created. Our artists were distressed and insulted by this jammer’s actions and it bothered me in a way I have trouble articulating. Of course later I came to realize that his 3D model was simply rendered out as a 2D image to be used as the background in the game he was working on.

I also observed a rather large group of young students, all from the same school, who banded together to create an art asset intensive 3D game. The core mechanic of the game, based on magnetism and puzzles was actually very interesting, but what was produced by the team didn’t actually reflect the work of such a large team. I observed many members of the team spending hours raiding on WoW while waiting on assignments from other members of their team. It was clear that their imagination of what a game jam game was was different from what they were able to produce. It also didn’t really speak to the theme of the jam.

Reflections on Production

I’ve heard that some people have criticized the GGJ for “simulating crunch,” which I can see, but it actually doesn’t make much sense. Crunch occurs over an extended period of time and is compulsory, rather than voluntary. A 46-hour period doesn’t even fit the definition. Further, the GGJ is scheduled more than six months in advance. People are capable of planning for the event and are aware of the demands it will make on them over that period. For example, this year, we planned to have my mother-in-law was in town, which provided me the opportunity to immerse myself in the event in a way I had not yet been able to.

There is also the matter of this being a fun activity. I’d compare it to a camping trip, or a bike rally. People interested in the same thing converge on a single location to have fun with others who are passionate about the same thing. Then we all go home feeling good about what we accomplished (or didn’t). How is that crunch?

In many ways it is an opportunity to also understand, even over 46-hours, the importance of sleep, rest, and breaks while working intensely. It could be that our team was on average older and more experienced, but I think that would be oversimplifying it too. Each night myself and another jammer who I’ve worked with before would pack up about 3AM and head over to the dorms to sleep (the best idea SPSU had). I’d wake up at 8:45AM, shower, and head back over. Prior to leaving each night, I’d talk to everyone and encourage them to sleep, letting them know it was what I was going to do and that I’d return at a sensible time the next morning. This helped establish the thought that we would be working during the day and not starting in the afternoon. All of our jammers slept both nights. All of us were back on the job by 10AM each morning. This meant we were rested and collaborating throughout the day.

This was quite different from what I observed on other teams, where people crashed in the wee-hours of Saturday morning and slept throughout the day. These people would then wake up, ready to work by mid to late afternoon (or even evening). Other members of their team would have filtered in throughout the day. This meant that the real Saturday work didn’t begin for many teams until after 5PM and those members who got up earlier in the day were left struggling to stay awake later to accommodate others.

Our collective project management was quite good. Though the marker boards were “claimed” early on by several teams, we managed well with our “redneck” marker boards, which were pieces of paper in plastic sleeves. They actually worked well, as they forced us to keep things small and focused. Perhaps I just assume the production role automatically, though I try to defer it every time. I enjoyed it this time around, as the game concept was clear from the beginning and we were able to parcel out work effectively.

All-in-all it was my favorite GGJ thus far.

Jun 152010

For the most part anymore, when I submit to conferences I assume that, more than likely, the paper will be accepted. The primary exception of course is GDC (the Game Developers Conference), which I submit one or two ideas to every year. I’ve managed acceptance twice, which I tally as success, but year over year that average goes down (I’d still make a good baseball player with those numbers). My assumption isn’t based on bravado or ego, simply that by the time I take the the time to submit something to a conference, I’ve attended the conference or one very similar to it, and have in many cases reviewed for those conferences. In short, I have a good sense of what the conference is about, who the audience is, and what I should say and how I should say it.

GLS (Games, Learning, and Society) was a surprise to me this year, as “The Curious Case of Osy Osmosis: The Uncomfortable Balance Between Game Design and Education,” was not accepted. These things happen, but I was quite curious what went wrong in the process. I have been extremely excited about talking about Osy, which has since begun the commercialization process and extensive visual overhauls (revised visuals can be seen in this blog’s background). It was a chance to talk about the kind of collaboration and structure that has lead to the kind of success we’ve had in creating games (that happen to be educational) and the success of these in the classroom.

What was frustrating for me, and I believe a serious issue for conferences like GLS,  was that despite none of the comments from reviewers coming back negative, reviewers rated the submission low enough (via the radio buttons) that it was knocked out of the running. In once case a reviewer wondered about the innovativeness of the project. To which I wonder, how does one anonymously demonstrate innovation? It has built into it the idea of uniqueness. If I post a link to a video, I compromise anonymity. If I provide information on what we are doing and how we are doing it, I compromise anonymity. If I talk about the company and what it is doing, I compromise anonymity.

So what results is a non-opportunity to talk about pricesely what Mark talks about in his blog:

What’s new is this huge cultural shift and ppl in academia and k12 who not only take games seriously (and not just serious games) but also are starting to welcome participation from games and fan culture. Participatory culture (Jenkins) allows new kinds of stakeholders. Reform isn’t just griefing (cf Dibbell) anymore.

We have a group with successful funding, teacher support, commercialization support (for sustainability) to bring these areas together. But, I didn’t get to talk about it. Because it, “isn’t innovative enough”. Or I didn’t know how to talk about that innovation anonymously. What it teaches me, is that anonymity in this case hurt both the review process and the broader academic community. Or I hurt the community by abiding by rules that likely I didn’t need to. Perhaps I should have provided Vimeo links regardless of their linkage to me. Perhaps the UGA branded video with students and researchers working together would have demonstrated more clearly what we’ve done. But, it wouldn’t have been anonymous, but it would have demonstrated the importance and innovation of the project.

The abstract of the non-talk is below:

This presentation draws on two years of ethnographic fieldwork gathered during the design and development of Osy Osmosis, a game developed developed cooperatively between game developers, scientists, educators, and funded by a $1.3 Million dollar National Institute of Health (NIH) grant. “Osy” was the first game developed as part of a project, which had already developed several immersive 3D simulations. The presentation discusses the role that game mechanics came to play as interdisciplinary boundary objects (Leigh Star and Griesemer 1989) facilitating discussions between content experts and game designers. The presentation also posits a new possible space for game development that brings together designers and scientists to create games that are simultaneously fun/engaging and educational. Often times these provide new opportunities to experiment with designs and technologies that might otherwise be set aside for more tried and true methods. Osy Osmosis began with the questions: “Is there a game in osmosis?” “Can we make a core mechanic out of that?” Osy occupies this strange new space and the presentation discusses its design and development as well as the “faultlines” (Traweek 2000) encountered during the development process. The case of Osy is particularly compelling, given the success the project has had in engaging students and bridging disciplinary divides. Game developers have the opportunity to make a difference in the classroom by designing games that are fun to play, but have educational content hidden away at their core. At the same time, difficulties are encountered at the interface between teachers and standards based learning, which creates particular difficulties for designers and developers hoping to address these new educational possibilities.

Mar 292010

There has been a sudden surge in folks talking about this whole “Work/Play” thing. I talked about it in my dissertation quite a bit, but mostly felt that it was already kind of overdetermined. Too many people have written about it in a way that I think is neither well rooted in empirical work or well theorized. Thus in my work I dissect “work/play” into distinct “aspects” or “components,” because I doubt there is a unified sense of “work/play.” Of course this hasn’t stopped anyone else from running around yelling the two words in close proximity and hoping that the more difficult empirical and theoretical work gets done for them.

I’ve been trying to find an objective language for the argument that is beginning to emerge from my observations, but it simply hasn’t come to me. So I’ll not sugar coat it. Many people pimping games at work are pimping games that really suck. Points are the lowest common denominator game mechanic. If your “game” can’t push the mechanics further than that, the game may still suck. Now, in the case of “class,” sucking less may be enough to re-engage students. Can players form a guild to raid the test? Can they replay any number of times? What would a class that enacts an innovative game mechanic look like?

But lets think about the workplace for a moment. Ribbon Hero is an interesting attempt to bring game mechanics to that horrific monster that is Microsoft Word. I only wonder if the game rewards “good” formatting (using styles sets) more than the willy-nilly formatting that I so often encountered as a journal editorial assistant. What might a game about Word that wasn’t set in Word look like? What I think the real power of games is the ability to divorce topic from conceptual idea. This is what actually helps us find the core concept and bridge it to new areas. What does this mean? What if I could perform some other task that corresponds to filing my email? Giving me points for filing my email is only a moderate improvement and ultimately when I get tired and realize that I don’t really care about the points, the task returns to what it had previously been, work. What if, instead I could perform an interesting “sorting/filtering” task in a graphically engaging and interesting environment, that actually corresponded to working on my inbox? Now there is some work/play.

But, most game designers are going to have a difficult time convincing anyone that they can make a game about X without making a game about X. Too many clients, funding agencies, etc can only understand a game about X in a game about X. If it is a game about proper fire-fighting technique, it should be a game with fire-fighters. If it is a game about AIDS, it should be about AIDS. But that isn’t the power of games, right? I can make a game about the way AIDS works without making a game about the immune system or anything else. I can make a game about cellular function without making a game about cells. I can make games that isolate the system we’re ultimately hoping people to recognize/critique/learn in some cases more effectively by pulling it outside its native environment.

Ultimately however, funding agencies will fund games about X before they fund anything else and ultimately these games will fail long term. I look at things like this recent grant to Yale and many of the DMLC HASTAC projects that are being funded and can’t help but think they’re helping to dig the grave for innovative serious/educational games that don’t suck. The numerous attempts to fund serious games and educational games may very well implode in on itself as players/students recognize bad game design, and they will. When players/students reject those things that have received so much money, there will likely be a funding backlash against researchers, who may be attempting to actually make games that don’t suck. Of course this isn’t to say that these projects wont all succeed swimmingly. I’ve simply been making games in this space long enough now to recognize the risk.

Dec 102009

I mentioned it in my dissertation. It really shouldn’t come as a surprise. Smarter folks than I say it all the time. That great idea you have? Your obsession with secrecy? Yeah… It’s not that cool really. Your idea might become cool. But that will be pretty close to the time you release it. It is going to undergo so many changes and interesting twists and turns as you go about making it that being all Black-Ops about it right now is just annoying. Game developers, and I include myself here (academics are bad about this too, by the way, so my ire is aimed your way too…), we have got to stop being such doofs about this. Seriously. Your XML parser? Not that freaking cool. That super duper new game mechanic? Yeah, jumping was pretty ground breaking too. My dog jumps. Up high. Seriously, like as high as my head. It’s not a secret, but it was pretty awesome when Super Mario Bros. came out. But it wasn’t cool until it played. Jumping isn’t really a secret. Nor is ducking, but it was likely covered under the NDAs surrounding Gears of War. Kudzu isn’t a secret either. I drive by it all the time here in Georgia.

So to prove the point, I had two really cool (I thought) ideas the other night at the local game developer meeting here in Athens. I talked about two game mechanics, one in search of a game, and another in search of some implementation. So here we go. I don’t care if you “steal” them. By the time you finish it, it wouldn’t really be my idea any more would it?

  1. I randomly hear this song the other day. The way the music layers on top of itself is really interesting. It made me want to design a game around the idea that one could add/remove layers of music as you play. My initial idea would be that levels would be designed in such a way that you were forced (to “beat” a level) to build up to the crescendo. I wasn’t sure what the game would look like, but it captured my brain for a good three days. Take that book proposal.
  2. The second idea, linked to this was a game based around fireworks. Spiral fireworks. The idea would be that you are a spark lighting firework pinwheels. As the pinwheel gets going, layers of music are added. Finish when it goes off. Take too long and parts go out.

The moral of the story? Just chatting with that group of developers resulted in at least four other ideas of games that could plug into the overarching concept of layered music. For me to really think that these ideas are so fundamentally ground breaking is kind of egotistical. I’m sure numerous others have thought of them. In some ways its derivative right? Guitar Hero / Rock Band do this to some degree by cutting out tracks when a player goofs up. Sure I’m building on it, but it surely in conversation with those games and ideas. It is even linked to Peter and the Wolf if you think about it. But right now its an idea. By the time I make anything it will be different.

Defy the cult(ure) of secrecy.

Jul 202009

As if my blog hadn’t managed to establish as a given fact, I’m a nerd. “Geeeeeeeeaaaaeeeek,” is a phrase that describes me and I have no reservations in that. Though I do remain steadfast in my un-dorkiness. But the splitting on hairs aside, I had a revelation while playing Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers on Xbox Live the other day. Magic: the Gathering (M:tG) (note: distinction is made between the XBLA title and the actual card game) is game designer training ground. Alright, let me rephrase that a bit more carefully. M:tG at its best is game designer training ground. At its worst it is what most online massively multiplayer games are, a race towards the nearest game crushing spoiler deck. However, those skills too are crucial for the game designer to stress and test their own designs. So, even at its worst it is a productive space for aspring game designers.

Shall we step back a few steps? Indeed. Continue reading »

May 282009
Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Players Handbook

Dungeons and Dragons 4th Edition Players Handbook


As far as faculty/professors are concerned, I’ve always considered myself pretty cool, but I’m beginning to suspect that my students think of me much in the way that I thought of my more… challenging professors. Apparently my grade distributions are second only to the “law” faculty in the department and my ability and indeed desire to stick to syllabilical requirements has become well known in only one short year. Damn right. All of that said, as someone who teaches game design and classes about the history and political-economy of the videogame industry, I still think I’m pretty hip. I may make you work, but at least the source material is cool, right? I tend to not “do” finals, as they are already overdetermined. As if you (my student) hadn’t managed to already make your bed throughout the semester, why on earth would I offer a single moment in which to redeem yourself? I’m a consistency person.

So, this spring I actually held finals, though they had no impact on grades, officially. To the one student who asked, “Can I leave? I have real final I need to get ready for.” You are on notice. Two classes, two very distinct finals.  Continue reading »