Learning to say Arduino
Last month I promised you I would make a game with an Arduino and Pulse Sensor. This was a promise made with the happy arrogance of a man who has never even tried to broadcast his pulse over the internet. I speak to you now from the other side of that experiential gulf. Here’s what happened.
It was maybe five years ago now that I heard about ‘Journey to the Wild Divine’, the $400+ meditation tool which comes bundled with a heart rate and skin conductivity sensor. I thought this was utterly remarkable stuff, and the idea of plugging myself into a computer and making a feather float using only the unmistakable power of my own calm was narcotic to me.
Imagine my delight then when, while browsing Boing Boing’s 2012 christmas gift list for ways to appease my family for another year, I came across this lovely little open source Pulse Sensor. A week or so later I was looking at some exciting boxes:
Of course I didn’t have any sort of idea how to use it, we’ll get to that. For those that don’t know, an Arduino is an open source microcontroller. If you remember playing with circuit boards and solder in school then this may feel familiar - the Arduino provides a current and allows the user to control the provision and manipulation of that current with code which can be loaded onto the board itself, or run on a computer while taking regular readings from the board.
How does it work?
The Pulse Sensor I am using is called a photoplethysmograph. This is a device which illuminates an organ (the skin in this case) and measures changes in light absorption. In this instance, that change is caused by the pulse wave which travels along arteries and capillary tissue when your heart beats. The analog signal which we read from the board is a fluctuation of voltage caused by the pulse wave itself. It looks a bit like this:
The physical setup was pleasingly simple. The Sensor itself needed treating with a little hot glue to keep the circuitry protected from grease and moisture and connects to the Arduino through it’s analog input pin. Once it’s all set up it looks like this:
Getting the data
It quickly became apparent that running the pulse detection code on the board itself was crucial. The next stage of development was concerned with finding a reliable method to bring the resulting data in over the serial port, and into the browser - where our ultimate goal of course is to build a game. I decided to use Impact as the engine for this project because it’s a great tool for rapid prototyping. Nonetheless, choosing to work in the browser now had other consequences - your web browser can’t usually interface with your computers hardware like this, for security reasons.
Building a game
Now we have the data in the right place, we can start building a game around it. One of the advantages of Impact is that it’s shockingly fast to move from nothing at all to a populated 2d context. Within about 20 minutes I had moved from an integer for bpm to a simple side scrolling race game. You play against an AI opponent and try to beat him to the finish line by raising your heart rate.
The AI you’re racing against is a bit of a trick - every five seconds it looks at your BPM and adjusts the ‘virtual bpm’ of your opponent to be a small percentage above or below yours for the next interval. At the moment your opponent has a 33% chance of ending up faster than you at any given point so you could say it’s an easy game. We ran a number of trials, it’s pretty fun!
Clearly this is a long way from being a polished experience, but it opens the doors to a number of exciting possibilities. In the playlab offices we’ve been throwing ideas around for anything from a canabalt clone (with a special jump pad peripheral!) to a meditation trainer. I’d love to hear from you! We have another pulse sensor coming soon and with a little hackery we’ll have two running with nice long cables on the same machine.
Here’s my question if you’re still reading: There’s something very intimate about your pulse, it’s almost romantic. Especially if there are two people involved! How would you design a game which used this data to make people feel closer to each other? What kind of experience brings people closer together? I’d love to hear your thoughts, ping me on firstname.lastname@example.org. Oh and let’s get all the sex jokes out early because I know you’re thinking of some.
Socializing in progress
Incredibly, we’ve already rolled over into the second month of the year. At Playlab London we’ve been trying to turn 2013 into a year of Really Interesting Things, and part of that commitment involves getting stuck in to a whole bunch of experiments! - Simon’s going to talk us through the work he’s been putting in to a prototype called Socialite.
Socialite is being made in response to the V&A’s Britain 1700-1900 galleries. Spectacularly, the V&A is looking for a games design resident for the second half of 2013, and the application process called for proposals. I let my enthusiasm get away with me and built and prototyped an idea from scratch. Socialite intends to turn the way in which people interact with each other into something joyfully competitive and performative, while guiding them through the context and history of the V&A’s collection. The game is intended to be played on four networked mobile devices, but the prototype is delivered on one screen to allow for a faster turnaround in between iterations.
When designing Socialite I wanted to create a lively game which would thrive on performative dispute - the idea put forward by Douglas Wilson of the brilliantly eclectic Copenhagen Game Collective. In his essay “Designing for the pleasures of disputation” which revolves around the notion that competition can be something which is playful and effectively pro-social in a group.
I wanted to turn a conversation into something like the fantastic Spaceteam, recently released on iOS by Henry Smith. It needed to be frantic, silly and fun, and in being that perhaps it could also make something joyful out of an activity that can be stressful for many.
The game picks up on the fascinating content of the V&A gallery, full of items exploring fashion, style and culture in the 18th century and explores the context of those artifacts. What would it be like to be at a party during that time? What items possessions might you gossip about?
A round of play consisted of 3 minutes in which players are presented with the goal of emerging from a conversation having completed the most goals. Goals are commands like ‘Outrage Mr Garrick!’ or ‘Befriend Lady Pomp!’.
Over the course of two weeks spending what time I could spare developing this game I managed to squeeze in four playtests mostly thanks to my patient and understanding friends. The game really evolved, and I had the opportunity to apply a lot of learning in a short period of time.
The first playtest looked a bit like this:
Our testers were really overwhelmed with the interface which was trying to convey an awful lot of information in a game strictly limited by time pressures.
I found that there was a dissonance between the social and competitive aesthetics of the game-play. On one hand there was thought time being demanded by the notion of ‘winning’ a conversation, and having to figure out the best way to do so within a fairly complex system. On the other hand, the genuine social pressure of engaging in conversation with three other people requires a great deal of attention.
It became apparent almost immediately that the major challenge would be designing a game which could effectively balance the cognitive load generated by these two tasks.
I experimented with a number of different options in order to make this work. The game changed from a rapid time pressured twitch response game into a turn and rounds based experience aiming to give people plenty of time to think.
‘Responses’ were added to give the conversation a chance to flow. The data model governing the players reactions to each other was simplified and the interface was completely reworked to give everyone less to focus on.
The second and third playtests explored all of these different options. Here’s a video from playtest number three:
Things started to flow a little better. We found that the turns and rounds were too slow, but it became apparent that there was such a thing as an optimum number of players engaged in a task at once. Two people trying to talk out of four at any given moment seemed to be the sweet spot, and the code was re-factored to make changing that number a trivial thing to do.
During playtest 3 we started to talk about social proof scoring, procedural narrative and the feature which became ‘secret missions’. By the time playtest 4 rolled around I had cleaned up the interface even further, and it looked like this:
Other new features included the chance to knock someone out of the conversation for up to 10 seconds by ‘outraging’ them and ‘secret missions’ which meant every player always had an immediate task to follow up on, like lowering their status or outraging another player. Here’s a video:
Things flowed well by this point, and my testers seemed to really be enjoying themselves. The game could diverge from this point in a whole glut of different and equally valid directions and that is an exciting point to inhabit with a design.
In February we will be playing with an Arduino and Heart Rate Monitor to make games which make your pulse into a mechanic. I’m seriously looking forward to it.
Hey guys! Here’s some news - We’ve published a podcast! It’s called Taping Turns and of course it’s about games. Taping Turns is a playful conversation about some of the things which make the modern game a fascinating, nuanced and important medium. Also, there are silly voices.
We aren’t promising a specific update schedule but take check out our iTunes page and subscribe if you’re enjoying it. We’re three episodes in now and the latest chunk of audio is themed around an exploration of Morality and it’s place in games. You can hear us terrify ourselves with Reddit’s take on moral behavior, John pokes around in the history of moral decision making in games and Simon strokes his big bushy beard while pondering the responsibilities game designers take on when making new things. Enjoy!
October of 2012, Simon traveled out to San Francisco for the Books In Browsers conference, a gathering which expresses the publishing industry’s most technologically focussed ambitions. He says: “I was really nervous about it… It was a real pleasure and of course we hope that TWW is something traditional publishers will embrace.”
The conference was held at the Internet Archive building, a repurposed church which has become the center of a mission to catalogue all of human culture, and ultimately make it freely available for all. The goal is “Universal Access To All Knowledge” - which really deserves capitalisation.
You can watch Simon sweat below:
Over on The Written World blog we’re talking about our first forays into alpha testing the game! Go take a look:
We had a hectic weekend preceding getting it all ship-shape, a marathon of bug fixing and polish. We implemented a UI redesign for these tests and it was great to see it in use. While we may have been terrified that everything was about to break, we needn’t have feared. The whole process went smoothly - and we learned a whole bunch of places where we can improve.
Kick-Started - It's Live!
More Playful Words: Rhianna Pratchett interview
The rather lovely Rhianna Pratchett was kind enough to sit down with our very own Simon Fox for a chat about what happens when you fill up your games with delightful words. Part 2 of that interview can now be found over on The Written World blog, part 1 can be found here. Take a look!
It's all semantics
Over at the Written World Blog Toby’s been taking a look at the kind of fun you can have with the sort of delicious data that fiction produces. Take a look at this post for the low down on semantic text analysis and the passion index…
Getting this kind of high quality data back as our users play is spectacularly interesting. Pulling together a series of quantitative data points like speed of writing and types of language used into a measure of the ‘passion’ of a writer lets us build game play objectives which support pulling a writer towards the point at which they are most engaged by their task.
In search of the perfect UI
At The Written World we’re hard at work cleaning up the alpha version of our game, which we will soon be testing with students in schools.
Of course users means user interfaces, and the code-heavy testing interface we have been using to pull together functionality just isn’t going to cut it for our testers. Over on The Written World blog we’re giving you a glimpse of the state of the current test-ready UI. Check it out.
Filming us Writing our Worlds
This weekend we shot our promo video. In one day. With faultless direction and starring Al, our very own star of stage and screen and surrounded by a sunny Abney Park Cemetery the entire day was a tale in consummate professionalism.
Check out the rest of the pictures over at The Written World dev blog!
Playing at writing: Rhianna Pratchett has a chat.
The utterly delightful Rhianna Pratchett has been kind enough to sit down with our very own Simon Fox for a chin-wag, You can find the first part of this interview at the Written World’s dev blog.
The Written World happens to be our super-exciting new game project. It’s a game that challenges people to tell stories.
The Written World takes the rules and features of a game and combines these with the act of telling stories.
It is a 2-player game of narrator versus protagonist. The narrator creates the parameters of the story, the protagonist creates a character that she believes can make it through to the end.
The goal? To navigate the narrator’s tale and complete the story.
Check out the article, and learn a little more about the game at www.thewrittenworld.co.
Just like the great pioneers of the scientific age, and in with a spirit of dedication and enquiry which is at the very least equally noble, we at playlab London have elected to share with you some of the most delicious morsels of new information we have carefully excised from the very heart of the internet.
- At the User Interface Software and Technology symposium in Santa Barbara last month Microsoft demoed a “mega-Kinect-hack” called OmniTouch, allowing the projection of a multi touch screen interface onto any surface. Which is pretty cool: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/onepercent/2011/10/microsoft-demos-new-touch-inte.html
It is quite impressive and goes somewhere in the direction of a topical seamless interaction between the physical and the digital realms. However, it does suffers a little from the required “shoulder worn system” perching on your shoulder - which unfortunately made me think of a parrot.
- Close to home and in your hand, Walkers demonstrate that marketing can lead to some odd choices in technology -it’s reported that the snacks brand has decided to upgrade their tasty morsels with weather-predictive capabilities. Assuming the technology is this good and easy to deploy surely it’s worth trying to do something just a little less niche soon? http://recombu.com/news/walkers-announce-new-scannable-crisp-packets-with-live-weather-reports_M15519.html
- Do you remember the first time you used a computer? Do you remember the first time you used a Mac? Even now, I don’t think any Apple product has topped the excitement I felt as a kid when i discovered Kid Pix on my aunt’s work computer. No masterworks were made that day but apart from Frogger this was one of the first times I remember using a computer actually being fun. Despite being a solid PC user I still remember switching off and coming away that day thinking that this was a potent device which deserved further investigation. In the wake of Steve Job’s disappearance writers from the erudite and technical Ars Technica share their first experiences of Apple computing, both technical and moving: http://arstechnica.com/apple/news/2011/10/the-first-time-i-used-an-apple-computer-was.ars
- During research for the above this little slice of history was unearthed - The Macintosh Portable http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macintosh_Portable. Seemingly not a frank success - a stunning display (little better than a double sized GameBoy), weight over 16 pounds (7.4 Kg) and inability to boot without a charged battery are but a few idiosyncracies - but it’s a fascinating glimpse at early attempts to envision a portable computing future, especially by a company that now does it so well. See the demo here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gGwVTq_xcZk
- While possibly not entirely practical, this Tron-style electrical ‘Lightcycle’ brings closer the hope that other inventions from popular science fiction will finally become reality. We are still waiting for our jetpacks. http://mashable.com/2011/09/22/tron-lightcycle-electric/
- If you remember long afternoons spent eagerly watching the TV with your fingers frantically pressing one of these to jump over mushrooms then you may have wondered if this existed. It does now - and it’s a also a coffee table. http://www.bitrebels.com/design/a-giant-functional-nintendo-nes-controller-coffee-table/
- And finally, in what must have been a startling Monday morning and continuing the trend of bringing the fictional into the everyday, Japanese commuters woke to find the Tokyo train network was equipped with lightsabres. Meanwhile, also London saw a surge in storm troopers during publicity for the launch of the Star Wars complete Blu-ray release. http://www.reghardware.com/2011/09/23/tokyo_trains_get_lightsabre_handrails/
This set of LabNotes submitted by Annora Eyt-Dessus - technologist of anthropological flavour - and avid watcher of tech and people (& possible synergies between the two). More available at @a8dessus.
If there is one truth self-evident, it is that people adore the perambulatory dead. Given the absence of a genuine honest-to-goodness zombie apocalypse, meet Zombies Run! which is certainly the next best thing. Naomi Alderman, who is in charge of literally all the words in this project, has sat down to have a chat with us about what happens when sentences and games meet for tea.
Playlab: How did you get involved with Zombies Run! ? Can you give us a quick run-down of the concept?
Naomi Alderman: So I had worked with Adrian in the past - on games like Perplex City and Penguin’s We Tell Stories. We come up with good ideas together - it’s great to work with a game designer who understands the importance of good writing and how much a game can be improved by involving the writer early, rather than right at the end! We’d been saying for a while that we’d like to come up with a game to work on together.
Meanwhile, I joined a ‘learning to run’ course organised by Up and Running. In the first session, they asked us why we wanted to run. One of the other participants said “to outrun the zombie horde” which made us all laugh, and stuck with me. Adrian’s a very keen runner himself. When we met up to talk game ideas he said “how about a running app”, I said “something where you’re outrunning the zombie horde!” and it all came from there.
And that’s the basic idea of the game - you run away from zombies, while you’re running you collect supplies to build up your base, the more you run the better your base becomes.
PL: You’ve worked on ARG’s and other game like experiences - how do you tell a coherent story in a medium where the audience has so much agency?
NA: The trick is to control where the player has agency. There will be some events that’ll be out of their control, some which will only partly be under their control, just like in life the window of total agency in your own life is actually pretty small!
I think of game storytelling as being a kind of mapping of a web of possibilities. Those possibilities will never be infinite - very possibly the story will always end unhappily, the question is how, and how much.
PL: What defines a game experience for you? How does it differ from other media?
NA: To me the exciting thing is immersion. You’d get different answers from other games writers, I expect! But for me, the thing you can do with a game that you can’t do with other media is to put your audience * right inside * the story. It’s not just happening in front of them, it’s happening to them.
PL: What do you find exciting about peoples behaviours in games bleeding over to their behaviours in real life? When people start embedding game play into their day to day routines, what do they stand to gain?
NA: You know, I’m a bit of a sceptic about the whole ‘reality is broken’ philosophy. I tend more towards mindfulness, zen-ness, being in the moment and connecting to the real reasons you want to do things. Often a game layer can end up disconnecting you from the true reasons for your actions and just tapping into the rather shallow Pavlovian “I want to ding the next level” response.
I don’t think Zombies, Run! will make you run if you have no other motivation or reason for running. But what I hope is that it’ll add fun, excitement and variety to your exercise. That’s what a good game can do: not turn you into a badge-dinging automaton, but make something you already want to do a bit more fun.
PL: Zombies Run! has chosen the kickstarter route to achieving some launch funding, what are the challenges of finding money for these kinds of unusual experiences? Who should be stepping up to pay the bills?
NA: Hah. Kickstarter is a great funding tool because it lets you connect with your target audience immediately - first to see if they exist at all! What’s been really gratifying about the Zombies, Run! experience so far is that clearly a lot of people want the game, are excited about it, can see how it’d benefit them and be enjoyable for them. While there’s definitely a role for public money in funding more subtle, artistic experiences, I think our experience so far with Kickstarter proves that there’s a strong audience willing to stump up their cash for an ‘unusual experience ’ like this!
PL: What’s your favourite thing about working with games?
NA: Oh the feeling of being at the cutting edge of a new medium. It’s wonderful. Games pose so many writing challenges that haven’t begun to be solved yet. In 100 years time there’ll be standard ways of doing different bits of game storytelling, but right now we’re feeling it all out. How do you portray character development in a player-character? How do you make a satisfying plot with several endings? How do you tell a story through game design? I’m seeing new answers and ideas about this all the time - it’s very exciting.
Little Shop Of Morals
You might be aware of Sweatshop, an indecently clever tower defence alike which charges the player with the task of becoming aware that their long-trained instinct to succeed at all costs could have real consequences outside of a computer. LittleLoud are the BAFTA award winning creative agency behind it, and Darren Garret who performs the role of local creativity overseer has kindly answered some questions about games and the potential for interleaving ludic and moral objectives.
Playlab: How did Littleloud get into making games designed to provoke thought around a serious message?
Darren Garret: Narrative and story has always been at the heart of what we do. A solid grasp on the story we want to tell is starting point before before design and mechanics. We firmly believe that games are in an amazing position to really be something much more than they are at the moment in terms of story and theme. There’s an opportunity to add depth to the shiny surfaces.
We jumped into it with our game Bow Street Runner, the first game released by Channel 4 Education. On the surface it’s a game about playing a ‘policeman’ in Georgian London, solving crimes and learning what life was like in that era. However there’s far more depth to it than that. Each episode delves into themes that are just as current today as they were then: gangs, drinking, prostitution. Then there are the dubious methods employed to obtain evidence - I suppose you could say it’s a Georgian Sweeney.
In the gameplay mechanics there’s a straightforward game of presenting evidence and getting a conviction. In one of the episodes the ‘win’ scenario involves sending a girl to the gallows. However, does she really deserve it? Do you ‘lose’ to do what you see as right? It’s those kind of moral questions and situations that really interest me and get the player involved in the story.
PL: What are the challenges of delivering a strong moral message in a medium where the audience is an actor? How do you deal with player agency and morally dubious actions?
DG: What we’ve tried to do, especially in Sweatshop, is to hide a lot of the message in the mechanics. The narrative arc and characters help, but really it’s about creating a framework for players to create their own stories, and as you say, become an actor in the story. A lot is to do with the learning curve of the game.
Mechanically there is a system of medals and stats for each level, but the player’s behavior is measured by karma system. Actions taken in the game push a gauge towards one end or another. You can play the game with the sole aim of getting all the best scores, but ultimately your Karma would be dubious to say the least. The trick for a conscientious player would be to play the game with good scores and retain your morals.
The main difficulty is to balance your message and the fun element. Too heavy on the message and the game becomes too preachy. Too much fun and not enough depth then it’s not doing its job. It’s tricky but ultimately I think we’ve got it right.
PL: Why choose games as a medium for delivering strong messages? What is it about the experience of a game which makes it an effective delivery mechanism?
DG: Numerous reasons. I think there are untapped levels of of storytelling that can be explored using games as a medium. There’s a level of emotional engagement that good game design and story can bring out of the player. On a superficial level this can be about making them feel good for shooting a load of people in the face, but on a deeper level it can make them question their role and actions in the game. You can challenge them rather than just deliver positive or negative feedback.
Ultimately, though, the player is in the driving seat. By putting them in this role and carefully structuring their journey there is an amazing opportunity to create understanding of the subject matter as they think about their actions and live with the results.
PL: Do games have the capacity to be an agent for social change? As game developers, how do you perceive your role in delivering that capacity?
DG: I certainly believe that, if done right, games can contribute as much as any other medium - sometimes more. The advantage is that the player can take an active part in exploring the issues and related problems, and therefore hopefully develop a deeper understanding. At the very least this experience can provoke discussion, which, in the case of Sweatshop, has happened in a lot of message boards and forum comments.
As creators, designers and developers, I think what floats our boat is creating work that has some level of depth and story to it and really looking at different ways games can tell stories. If we can also inspire people to think about something they wouldn’t ordinarily think about, then great.
PL: Channel 4, who are known for having an excellent budget for interactive content, funded Sweatshop. How was it working with them? what are the challenges of finding money for these kinds of games? Who should be stepping up to pay the bills?
DG: Working with Channel 4 is extremely collaborative. They have an environment that allows creative companies to just get on and produce the best work they can. Also working within the Channel 4 remit means that we can tackle subjects and go into more depth than more commercial games wouldn’t be able to.
In terms of funding I believe that more people are opening up to the ideas around what games can do and the audiences they can connect with. Partly it’s about educating people that games are one of the hardest thing to make, and that to really craft something that works well it has to be developed in the right way. Sometimes that takes time, but the end product and results are so much better.
PL: What’s your favourite thing about working with games?
DG: Personally I’m really interested in exploring storytelling with games, moral decisions and getting players involved in the drama. Others in the company really like to get stuck into the game design elements, and it’s this mix of the two where interesting things happen.
After all, games as we know them are a young medium. I’m interested in how they evolve, as film and comics have before them, into more diverse genres and make use of more sophisticated techniques. What can they be beyond simple entertainment and clever mechanics? That to me, is where the excitement and potential lies.
Just like the great pioneers of the scientific age, and in with a spirit of dedication and enquiry which is at the very least equally noble, we at playlab London have elected to share with you some of the most delicious morsels of new information we have carefully excised from the very heart of the internet this week.
- Have you ever felt like you could probably-almost-definitely be a sort of linguistic savant if only you had the foolhardy courage to go and live somewhere where they don’t speak your words? Now you can try it inside a computer, thanks to languagelab - http://www.languagelab.com/
- A topic close to our hearts, here’s an interesting use of modern mapping and communication technology to give some value to the positive actions of everyday heroes in some of the worlds most violent cities - http://boingboing.net/2011/09/15/cronicas-de-heroes-positive-actions-by-everyday-citizens-in-mexico.html
- The glorious and gloriously charming Extra Credits is now on Penny Arcade TV, and here’s their compelling overview of the opportunities presented to teachers by blending games and classes - http://www.penny-arcade.com/patv/episode/gamifying-education
- Here’s a question we spend a lot of our time investigating, but viewed from a very different angle - How do games affect behaviour? Rock Paper Shotgun’s John Walker has a crack at instigating the discussion - bit.ly/naz6v8
- Play a medic? How about playing a cameraman? Warco aims to have us make moral choices in a fascinating way: bit.ly/n4Dtxl
- Here’s a big fat list of games related documentaries -http://www.pixelprospector.com/the-big-list-of-video-game-documentaries/
- “Virtual property is a solution looking for a problem.” Perhaps we should keep it that way. An investigation of the virtual hats for real cash question currently furrowing weighty brows across the industry -http://literatigamereviews.blogspot.com/2011/09/mmo-judiciary-why-even-create-one.html
- And finally, how the terrifying progeny of our future will be able to literally read our minds. - http://gizmodo.com/5843117/scientists-reconstruct-video-clips-from-brain-activity
Gaming the classroom
Our thanks to the inimitable Adam Webb, who agreed to adapt this academic exploration of his forays into game-blended learning for our hungry minds.
As a former Level 70 Dwarven Warrior known for his propensity for late night raiding and all day grinding I have experienced the pull of a world full of feedback. When feedback loops were shortened, outcomes were known and measurable and progress was clearly outlined and consistently made I behaved exactly as B.F. Skinner could have predicted, bashing my electronic levers in hope of a shiny reward.
So, when I first encountered motivational problems in my teaching career I applied these ideas to my situation and created highly visible student progress charts, with progress clearly defined and routes to success clearly highlighted. Within the context of a BTEC qualification, these trackers have proved effective across the 5 classes that I know to have employed them. This is demonstrated by increased submission rates and an improvement in prioritising and time management skills within the students, alongside the increased engagement with their own progress. The motivational effects that these simple systems yield is easily under-estimated.
Research has demonstrated some qualitative gains using self-regulation and monitoring strategies in small groups of students with distinct special educational needs and in wider, more representative samples. Applying an operant perspective to the theories of self regulated learning you could argue that all self-regulating learning behaviours are ultimately administered by their performance criteria - their external reward or punishment contingencies. My own performance as a teacher will ultimately be judged by how well my students do, in nationally measured criteria, compare to national averages and their own expected progress.
“If learning is a game, it is one in which the way to make progress is too rarely, and too poorly communicated to it’s players…”
Teachers are known to have said “I’m just playing the game/system” or “It’s the fault of the system” when arguing a case but if this is a game, and education could be argued to meet some of my personal descriptors for a game, it is one in which the way to make progress is too rarely, and too poorly communicated to it’s players.
Salen and Zimmerman define a game as ‘a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome’. Working with this, I based my own design for a classroom game on the following defining factors;
- The game must be based within a system
- The game must involve player interaction with this system
- The game must maintain a boundary between ‘real’ and ‘artificial’ life
- Conflict and competition are central to game design. Games should be challenging.
- The game must be bound by rules
- The game must have quantifiable outcomes that are known to the players
By placing learners in a small, virtual world prone to their influence I hoped to improve confidence, resilience to failure (in both thinking and learning) and agency regarding their work. Within an educational game I felt that students should be ready to fail and learn from experience, which led me to ask how games could address some of the fundamental issues I was facing when trying to teach students new concepts and terminology.
A major problem was the prevalence of poor literacy skills among students. This exacerbates the lack of engagement and motivation within the classroom as it severely hampers students ability to process and store new content effectively. My own focus on cognitive theories led me to consider cognitive load and information processing theories.
Further reading on cognitive load theory in game design:
‘Take a load off: cognitive considerations for game design’ - Chris Lawrence.
‘Instructional Game Design Using Cognitive Load Theory’ - Huang and Johnson .
I felt that the literacy issues experienced by many of my students created cognitive demands greater than the working memory could effectively process. This was leading to issues in the ‘data bank’ storage system of the long term memory as the interactions between low lying elements (and even conceptualisations of those low lying elements) were often ill conceived and poorly developed. Higher order interactions (i.e. Involving more elements or high interactivity elements) were often unreliable and poorly defined.
To counter this I created a small game environment which was centred on pricing and production decisions and the subsequent impact upon sales, costs and profits. The game relied upon small group interactions, team work and everybody being involved. For motivational purposes, a chocolate cake was also involved.
The initial run of this lesson engaged learners and led to far greater average success rates within the group when attempting subsequent assessment tasks based around the concepts covered within the game.
- 94% of my KS4 learners completed 3 out of 3 tasks successfully at the first attempt (an increase from a yearly average of around 60%)
- 100% of my KS5 learners were able to complete their tasks successfully (compared to a yearly average of around 65%).
Girlie C. Delacruz’s presentation at the 8th annual games for change festival demonstrates the benefits of a shortened feedback loop and the close ties between tasks and games, lesson objectives and game outcomes.
The game lesson was utilised twice more with a greater emphasis on immediate player/learner feedback with further success. Disengaged learners were enthusiastic and more involved learners tried to partake in corporate espionage activities to maintain their lead, further enhancing the game environment and opening up this area for class discussion.
Research in schools is obviously flawed, with so many variables to account for. The influence of peer pressure and social norms is strong and time-frames or sample sizes are often small. However, even at a basic level there is evidence that games engage in a way that few other mediums are capable of. A full and rich game, designed around specified learning outcomes/objectives, has the potential to provide a learning experience beyond the remit of ‘standard’ teaching as learners are freed to engage with enquiry and risk taking in a safe, virtual environment where outcomes are known and form the basis for accumulating knowledge, ideas and skills.
Just like the great pioneers of the scientific age, and in with a spirit of dedication and enquiry which is at the very least equally noble, we at playlab London have elected to share with you some of the most delicious morsels of new information we have carefully excised from the very heart of the internet this week.
The Gameful summer challenge series is just wrapping up! Check out all the awesome entries and investigate some seriously interesting competition concepts: http://gameful.org/blog/2011/07/10/the-gameful-summer-challenge-series/
Watch this great talk from BarCamp Brighton about the power of games to create new realities with their audiences. bit.ly/pqVkM8
The way time works is too boring, lets make it way more confusing with this fantastically head stretching paradox creating mechanic from Arthur Lee: bit.ly/mRXFKx
Everyone has been talking about the brilliant Zombies Run!! which totally deserves the attention for being a desperately slick execution of the ARG mechanic, as well as building a compelling game around a genuinely beneficial activity: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/sixtostart/zombies-run-a-running-game-and-audio-adventure-for
People find coding as glamorous as rock music, right? Code Heroes gives programming the Harmonix treatment: http://singularityhub.com/2011/08/29/a-video-game-that-teaches-you-to-make-video-games-code-hero-rocks-maker-faire-next-the-world/
Here’s a very pretty infographic that wants to teach you all about the history of our inter-tubes: http://evolutionofweb.appspot.com/
And finally, in pursuit of interesting game-based learning, we dug the heck out of this chemistry teaching CCG - https://www.thegamecrafter.com/games/organic-soup
Constructing An Interview
Well this is exciting: Tom Gullen, one half of the partnership which recently founded scirra.com to step up the distribution of html5 game-maker platform Construct 2, has been kind enough to sit down with us here at playlab London and share some thoughts on game making, game maker making, and the kind of value that has.
Playlab: How did you get into making Construct?
Tom: We both started out using other game maker programs but found them to be lacking, so Ashley decided to start his own open source project Construct Classic which has nearly 500,000 downloads to date! It was a great success. After that Ash decided he wanted to make a living doing this as he was enjoying it so much and asked me to co-found Scirra with him. Construct 2 is the next piece of software, closed source and commercial - but with a free edition available. We hope will be more popular and definitively better than Construct Classic.
PL: What’s the goal here?
Tom: We want to open the doors of creativity for people who might be a little intimidated by code. The great thing about Construct 2 is anyone should be able to make games in it, no coding or programming is necessary. We think everyone’s got a great game idea inside them!
Ultimately we want to have a great product which users really enjoy.
PL: What kind of media are games, can they be art?
Tom: Well I think people are still debating what art is, but yes I do think games are art! Games are creative expressions, like other forms of art. What a lot of people who don’t play games often fail to realise is often games can be incredibly expressive and emotive. Like with ‘regular’ art you get good games and bad games. I think what can be done with games is far too broad to pigeon hole into a general category. There are just so many possibilities with games.
PL: If a modern game requires learning, communication, team-work, effort and time, why are games more effective at inspiring all of this industry than, well, industry?
Tom: That’s a great question. I think games are different from industry for a few reasons. Precisely defining ‘games’ is quite tricky, but I think a reasonable attempt would include some qualification that you choose to play it when you don’t have to. In industry, you usually have no choice about if you want to go to work or not, you wake up and you go. There is also usually a lot of negative reinforcement - “If you don’t come to work we’re going to get angry at you” or even the fact that if you don’t go to work it’s going to directly impact your quality of life pretty quickly. Games don’t tend to have such direct negative reinforcements as that. These pressures quickly turn something that could be quite fun into something that isn’t much fun. Much like learning, it can be fun when you don’t have exams looming or the pressures of goals and targets that carry a lot of social weight.
You can’t put industry down for a few hours like you can a game and resume it at your leisure. Games can be suspended indefinitely. In industry if you suspend your work indefinitely you will probably be out of a job!
PL: How could we use the social technology of games to build a better world?
Tom: Games are becoming a lot more social, especially with the recent influx of better mobile devices and integration with social platforms. I think you are right in that games do sometimes reflect very cooperative environments and it would be nice to be able to somehow scale those to wider society. If we expand the question a little more to include online communities like Reddit, we can already see that these do have impact in the wider world. People give genuine heartfelt advice and empathy, people physically meet, it has an impact. Communities such as Reddit and Stackoverflow are gamified, so they are themselves a type of game. By helping others you are rewarded with status in the form of reputation points, badges and medals. It’s a system we are slowly trying to implement at Scirra. Gamification of these online communities really does help bring people together and solve problems. They are very powerful influences when used correctly but the risk that must be avoided is creating an elitist environment which would be very damaging for an online community.
I wouldn’t want to live in a world where people expect reward for good deeds. So I’m not sure how comfortable or possible it would be to scale these ideas up to wider society. They do seem to work very well online though. Perhaps because it goes some way to ameliorating the anonymity of socialising online.
PL: What do people gain when they learn to make games?
Tom: I like the point Raph Koster made that playing games is learning because of comprehension of new patterns of information. I think some games are better than others for learning, but even in a seemingly simple online game there will often be a meta game going on with the more advanced players that newer players aren’t even aware of! You have to take time and learn to even recognise they exist.
The same applies to making a game and learning to make a game. Ultimately, making any kind of game is application of patterns. The more experience you have in making games the more complex the patterns you can apply, and the more patterns you will spot, discover and learn about in the real world. That comes about as a result of your design, learning and experimentation. In that regard I think learning to make games can have a lot of the same value as playing a game and they are often discovered in similar ways. Learning to make games is a valuable pattern comprehension process.
Be sure to check out the fantastic Construct 2, a rapidly evolving and powerful tool for making games in html5.
The Breaching Wall
After 3 months of design, testing and iteration we’re officially emerging from the code-face, soot-faced and sweaty, but proud to be clutching our newly beta’d run-around-n-talk-to-people em up ‘Keep Me Company Company’.
There’s plenty still to do, but we’ll be sharing with you some of the lessons we have learned on the road to this place in this series of short articles.
“It’s something you can’t really understand unless you’ve been there”, said Dr. David Carraher… Dr Kathryn Krogh…was more blunt: “I was afraid I was going to throw up.” … “My head sank between my knees… I actually felt as if I were going to perish.”
These people are responding to a traumatic situation, but it probably isn’t what you think. All three quotes are taken from reports by participants in a breaching experiment, a test which examines peoples responses to the violation of established social norms. All three of these quotes are taken from people who have been told to ask for a seat in a New York City subway car despite being able to stand.
It seems like an extraordinary response, but anxiety or even anger were the most regularly observed results of a contravention of expected social behaviours. Breaching experiments were first proposed by Harold Garfinkel in response to what in the 1940’s the burgeoning field of social sciences considered the mystery of social order, or in other words; why do we stand in line?
“it is a social rule that ordinary citizens should not pick up garbage from the street, or mend street signs, or otherwise fix problems.” - Earl Babbie
Even actions we might view as positive are not exempt from the anxiety prompted by a breach; in ‘the inexplicable do-gooder’ Earl Babbie found that people respond negatively to others taking on a repair job not considered within their purview. Seemingly positive acts such as this were even viewed as personal intrusions.
We found ourselves brushing up against this breaching wall in the course of our experiences testing KMCC. Many found themselves having trouble with the idea of instigating unusually prosocial behaviour. Some players reported feeling as though it was disingenuous to be uncommonly nice, others felt as though the idea of ‘keeping people company’ for the sake of it was in some way not covalent with their self image, or simply made them uncomfortable.
These responses were far from being in the majority, but a sense of discomfort or anxiety at being asked to behave in an unusually nice way for an unusually nice reason was replicated enough times to be significant.
We’re concluding that the fault lies with our game design, and not fundamentally with the premise of encouraging positive outcomes with gameplay. Extraordinary behaviours require extraordinary contexts and many games achieve prosocial outcomes in more nuanced ways. Running games which tasked players with seeking out others to perform symbolically violent acts often produced powerfully positive behaviours, even between adversaries. Marrying together applied psychological and sociological concepts with game design principles was always going to be a challenge and it seems like, in pursuing theory we have lost sight of the principle of a fluid and fun game design. It’s something we absolutely plan to learn from for upcoming iterations, and in the mean-time it is an utterly fascinating area to be investigating.
Wizard by design: learning games
The puzzles bothered me almost as much as the missing ‘s’.
When I was a kid in primary school, we used to have this thing called Golden Time. It was something that teachers put in as a bribe to stop us from, I don’t know, setting the classroom on fire. If we’d been good little children, we got half an hour’s Golden Time on a Friday afternoon. In hindsight, it wasn’t a particularly tantalising bribe, but we were entirely taken in by it. The threat of Golden Time being taken away hung over our heads like the sword of Damocles. More often than not, we were good little children, and come Friday afternoon, we’d pack up all our work, and scatter around the classroom doing anything we wanted. There would always be a rush for the line of ancient computers. “We can play games!” Small fights would break out.
What we found on the computers always disappointed us. Without fail. Some well meaning teacher had loaded them with awful Acorn games about the joys of geometric shapes or things like that. You know the sort; they usually had titles like “Maths Wizard” or “History Agents”. Looking back on it, I can understand why these games were chosen: they were educational-with-a-capital-E and as such were of value to our tiny, moldable minds. Back then, sitting at these beige computers, typing answers to simple maths problems, I developed a deep hatred of educational games that stayed with me right up to this day.
Honestly, I struggled with this damn bridge for ages.
Let me give you an example. One of the games that we’d rush to play and immediately regret was called The Crystal Rainforest. To my eight year old brain, the very title seemed exciting. Rain forests could be trekked through. Incan temples could be explored - secrets discovered and traps disarmed. All this, however, was immediately ruined by the introduction of the puzzles themselves which were designed to teach the basics of logo and were so thinly worked into the story that they might have been tacked on by another company. Sure, evil Pachacutec had a pretty sweet temple, complete with rolling boulder and hidden wall, but when I could only explore it by painstakingly programming a faulty robot or rebuilding a bridge with any sense of suspension of disbelief or emotional investment in the game was lost.
Fate of the World. I would be an awful world leader. Awful.
It’s funny, though. Right up until I started writing this article, I believed that this situation prevailed. The only educational games that I could see where those still played in schools. It was only when people started pointing new ones out to me that I realised how far they’ve come as a genre: they’re now so refined, so seamless in their integration of didacticism and gameplay that if one didn’t realise they were ‘educational’ they’d happily play them purely for entertainment.
When playing Fate of the World by Red Redemption, for instance, one frantically orders economic changes, allocates resources and energy to needy countries, and generally tries to avoid causing a complete world meltdown. It’s not easy. And as you’re swearing and pulling your hair out, waiting nervously for the end-of-turn results, it’s very easy to forget that you’re playing an ‘educational’ game. Rock, Paper, Shotgun, a PC Gaming blog that focuses almost entirely on games for entertainment called it “the future of education… Not because it’s fun or moreish, but because when you genuinely want to succeed at something and not only have to fix your own mistakes, but want to, I feel like you retain immeasurably more information”.
Fact: Sharks make education 80% more interesting, and 100% more dangerous.
Fate of the World isn’t alone. Venture Arctic by Pocketwatch Games tasks players with controlling Arctic ecosystems in an attempt to maintain the continued existence of various species. SpaceChemby Zachtronics Industries is a game that teaches various logical processes and is frankly so complicated that despite hearing from reputable sources that it’s very good, I’ve been repeatedly stymied by it. The games industry is rapidly filling up with games that are well designed, have great concepts at the centre of them, and happen to contain educational elements.
Developers of educational games have long placed the didacticism at the forefront of their products, whereas they should instead be focusing on excellent game design. By creating experiences that are richly plotted or extravagantly designed, and most importantly are great fun to play, they can introduce players to the educational elements almost subconsciously. The best learning experiences should be ones in which the player barely realises they’re learning, and is instead focused on a desire to follow the plot and experience the game. Imagine my eight year old glee if, instead of finding “Maths Wizard” on the ancient computers during Golden Time, I had instead discovered a plot driven, immersive, exciting experience. It would only be watching my friends try and play the game for the first time that I would realise just how much I’d learned.
Jack Wilde plays a lot of games and watches a lot of films. Occasionally he writes about them. He is passionate about compelling narratives in games, and sometimes tries to write them too. You can follow him on twitter @notquitereal.
playlab LONDON is a community of designers, artists, gamers and coders enthusiastic about deploying the technology of play to positive social effect.
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Use the arrow keys to look around.
Keep Me Company Company is built on the +sum framework and like +sum, KMCC was conceived as an engine for visualising, raising and sustaining an area's Jen ratio, a measure of the social well being of an environment designed by positive psychologist Dacher Keltner. Unlike +sum, KMCC provides a simple narrative frame to ease the player into the game, and a solid set of game play goals.
KMCC casts players as executives in company which profits from the social feats performed by it's employees. Those playing collect points ('bucks') which accumulate in a central pool to bolster the companies share in a fictional market, against competitors such as UnSociable inc. The game ends when the company has gathered 100% dominance of the market place.go back
The Keep Me Company Company is a radical non profit adventure in giving more value to doing positive things.
At playlab we are big fans of the idea that a game framework is a potent tool for affecting our behaviour. We created +sum as a technical framework which supports that goal.
+sum allows for the delivery of missions to players, and the ability for players to receive points, give points, share messages and collaborate on completing those missions.