Friday 17 April 2009

Chocolate covered broccoli

Game Based Learning 2009, The Brewery, London, 19-20 March 2009

Teachers, among others, spend a lot of time trying to make learning more engaging and fun. It is easy to be cynical about this aim given its track record, but video games could add something. This conference showed where game-based learning is, and where it’s going.

The conference began with presentations by teachers who had brought games to school, hoping children would be inspired by them to write and draw. Speakers reported this worked in practice; though did little to distinguish video games from regular toys, or school trips.

They had several games, but they weren’t really educational. ‘Cooking Mama’ is a cute and colourful set of minigames about cooking; good for making children associate cooking with fun, but teaching nothing about actual cooking. ‘Guitar Hero’ takes some sense of rhythm, though the appeal is in pretending. ‘Wii Sports’ is just an efficient way of having fun. Some choices were cleverer. ‘Endless Ocean’ is an explorative and beautiful game about scuba diving. ‘Brain Training’ seems perfect, where faster sums get higher scores, though studies suggest it doesn’t necessarily increase intelligence.

Jonathan Blow, one of the greatest minds in the gaming industry today once stated that ’games inherently teach’. These teachers did little with this fact. Students would have to have spent time and effort learning the mechanics and rules of the games; but these were the least educational parts of them. Other games would do better: in ‘World of Goo’, the mechanics are the rules of structural engineering. ‘MaBoShi’  shows how intricate teamwork can be. ‘Crayon Physics’… well, it’s there in the title. Actually mainstream games have a similar problem. Gameplay is seldom seen as the effective part – only the things that are tacked on to it are focused on.

Talks throughout the conference delivered a number of perspectives. Alice Taylor of spoke about funding an interesting initiative to make school curriculum-based games (she also had a better understanding of them than anyone else present). Tom Watson MP, reputedly the most digitally native MP in parliament, gave a competent exploration of the importance of games. He said little new about game-based learning or funding though, and had a rather suspicious emphasis on economic benefits of the industry. If I didn’t know better, I’d think he were suggesting it is worth teaching children about games so that they can get related jobs.

Nolan Bushnell, founder of Atari, gave a pretty bold and very charismatic speech. ’Video games are powerful’, he told us, and went on to make an interesting point: before film and television were popularised, ’school was the most interesting thing in town’, the only window to the outside world. In its current form, the educational system requires more attention than it is given. This was pretty interesting, but then Bushnell proposed his alternative educational system, ’Snap’. He had some good ideas: a more selective approach to who teaches whom, and more computers. Then came the insane stuff. Cubicles. Monitored conversations through headsets. Food rewards. It was bizarre, but it was interesting to how free-thinking this industry-founder was.

Derek Robertson was better. He was the spearhead of Scottish Game Based Learning, and had previously been accused of being a closet salesman - it was nice to see how incorrect this was. He had a similar mentality to the teachers from earlier though, emphasising the wrong things. Games can inspire children! Games can give them a nice time! Games can make them work together! Look how amazing this new game, ’Brain Training’ is! It’s TEACHING them!

Robertson was clearly very driven and clever and I suppose his speech would be an encouraging introduction to video games, but he embarrassed himself with his ideas about gaming culture. For example, he claimed games are deeply entrenched in technology, and over time this shall fall away to be supplanted by storytelling. This conclusion might make sense after a couple of months and video games, and I once thought it true. But Robertson is not aware that games have been trying like hell to tell stories for decades, and the proportion of the effect and effort hasn’t changed much.

He held up ‘Professor Layton and the Curious Village’ as the epitome of game storytelling, along with a couple of other DS games. They weren’t bad games, but he’s so far off it’s not true. ’Professor Layton’ tells its story in the traditional non-interactive way. Most good developers are no longer satisfied with this, and are experimenting with more integral tools, some not leaving much of a traditional ‘story’. To give children games hoping they will pick up literary skills is not a good idea.

The following speech, by renowned gaming executive Ian Livingstone, was one of the main attractions for me. He holds both a BAFTA and a chivalric honour (OBE) for his contributions to the industry, when only a handful of people have either one of those. He was Executive Chairman of the Board at Eidos at the time they released the risky and genre-breaking Thief and Deus Ex, in addition to the derivative but skilful Hitman, Carmageddon and Tomb Raider. In theory all this could make him the best video game executive that has ever lived, which makes me annoyed to say that his speech was abominable. It started out fine: video games not being recognised in the mainstream media, not being taken seriously, being sniffed at as an art form. But then he moved onto what matured games, made them interesting to adults. He believes it was Tomb Raider.

Projecting the puerile image it did, Tomb Raider made things significantly less mature, and adventure games and RPGs had tackled mature themes more than a decade before. After boasting about meeting Angelina Jolie on the set of the movie, Richardson presented a series of clips from games over the years, a nostalgic ’history’. I have seen a lot of videos of this kind, and this one was the bleakest, focusing on technological advancement in racing games and shoot-‘em-ups, no RPGs, no puzzle games. He then showed a trailer for his new release. A ground-breaking and cerebral new form of game based learning? No. A game about cartoon ninjas. At this conference about a new kind of video game, to a room filled with adults looking for an impression of the industry, he dared to show off a trailer for his company’s latest pile of derivative faux-wacky dross.

He finished saying… ‘if they study mathematics, maybe your child could program the next Tomb Raider or the next Massively Multiplayer Game’. He didn’t take questions.

Graeme Duncan, CEO of Caspian Learning, presented us with more detestable bullshit, less anticipated but even more slimy. He was there to give a presentation on Web 3.0, if you can believe that. Duncan was genuinely one of those faux-productive buzzword-spewing dot-com-bubble era prats with a personality almost as stuck up as his hair. Apparently the internet as we know it is done with. In its place we shall have a second-life-esque avatar and collection of things we like all in one place. 2D games shall be utterly outmoded, as shall most 3D ones, as 3D technology will have reached a point where five year olds and independent game designers alike shall be able to create the most complex games in a few mouseclicks.

This man did not understand game design, much less independent game design. 3D does not automatically make things better, and is a nightmare to design in for small teams, technology or no. I don’t think he cared much though. His presentation was a sales pitch, a hook designed to garner a vague interest and investment in his direction. Implemented, his idea would be as shallow a novelty as an educational video, fast to become irritated at and easily dismissed.

I was getting annoyed at the conference, but then there came Dr Jocob Habgood. This guy was awesome. He had done a doctoral thesis on game based learning, and went straight to the heart of the problem – that no-one was using actual gameplay mechanics to teach, when gameplay mechanics ought to be the only thing used. He had investigated the childrens’ reactions to two different kinds of game: one a normal action/adventure with a maths quiz every so often required to progress; the other a similar game that had maths problems woven into the combat. He demonstrated statistics to the effect that the latter was more enjoyable and effective in teaching, but he didn’t need to. Once we understood the concept, everyone knew what would be better.

He also demonstrated the game he was working on: a 2D game where players defend a tower from hordes of invading monsters, with aesthetics that make you think of a pop-up book version of the Bayeux tapestry. Monsters have numbers on their chests, and the weapons at players’ disposal are not slings and arrows, but subtractions and divisions. Monsters are weakened by using your numbers to reduce their numbers. You can blockheadedly subtract from them, but this is slow, and the game has no decimals, so it’s impossible to constantly use division.

To use a given number… you must know your times tables. Dividing by a high number like 7, you must look at the monster’s number and instantly know the closest multiple of 7. You must know what to do to get that number, using subtraction, and sometimes, addition. This is so clever and extremely satisfying, and you can learn any times table you like. This simple complexity and scaling is dreamt about by most game designers, and apparently the game can involve more advanced mathematics too. It’s hard to imagine a way to make something this clever for subjects other than maths, but if anyone can find a way it’s this guy. The game is being released on Wiiware - look out for it.

In the main room was a demo of the new ’Horrible Histories’ game. Let me be the first to say that it isn’t very good, and espouses what Habgood called the ’chocolate covered Broccoli’ approach to making educational games. It takes a bunch of tried-and-tested game mechanics and hides information amongst them. You play a gladiator. In between fights you go into Rome and do a few happy-families-like minigames. Talk to the townspeople and they’ll tell you about what it’s like to be in ancient Rome; you will be periodically required to answer multiple-choice questions on what they tell you later.

Terry Deary, the children’s author behind ‘Horrible Histories’, gave a speech as well and it seems he is a bit of a one-trick-pony because during he made only the most minimal reference to this game of his. It was more of a rant about the ’horrible’ foundations of school as it stands today. Did you know that Ted Heath irreversibly rose the school leaving age because he didn’t want a bunch of new graduates increasing unemployment figures? It’s true (apparently). Deary certainly did supply a lot of information to show School has bad foundations, but it wasn’t a practical argument against school as it is and the fat-Ted-Heath impression rather flew over my head. For all his game’s trivia quizzes, I think you could learn more about classical civilisations by playing God of War, which at least has a sense of attitude and atmosphere about them. I wouldn’t recommend it to children though. Oh no.

The bottom line is that this conference had at a few steps in the right direction, amongst a lot of crabwise strutting. Most speakers lacked an awareness of actual gaming culture. Nevertheless, I want to see a unity of Game Based Learning and real gaming. Games have actually been teaching their players for decades – most designer just don’t care about it. Mostly they’ve taught reaction time, strategic warfare, and trajectory. But they can teach more. We would do well to recognise this.


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