Teaching in Minecraft

Take a look over at Ars Technica for an account of one computer teacher at Manhattan’s Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School who is making interesting use of the much-loved world-creating game tool, Minecraft. Joel Levin creates custom-built worlds and makes players invulnerable so that they can work together to experiment building structures. Completed tasks have involved building structures using limited resources and entering a pyramid without disturbing its treasures.

Joel Levin blogs about his experiences at The Minecraft Teacher.

Player agency in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

Over on my other blog, Cosy Catastrophes, you’ll find a review of Ubisoft’s 2010 videogame, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. I won’t post the full article here as it’s not directly related to serious games – but there’s a paragraph at the end of the review which refers to a particular scene in which the player’s ability to affect the game is limited, in order to deliver the scene in a specific manner.

Not only is the content of the scene surprising (note:  if you haven’t yet played the game, beware! The review contains spoilers about one quest), but I’m really interested in the approach in terms of its mechanics. The scene joins the Tibetan village section of Uncharted 2, the No Russian level in Modern Warfare 2 and chunks of Heavy Rain as examples of developers testing their ability to deliver mature stories by dictating the limits of player agency. By removing the ability for players to ‘ruin’ a scene by shooting, jumping or punching their way through supposedly emotional moments, perhaps videogames may be able to transcend their (usually) pulp fiction influences.

For the record, Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood contains another example of the same technique towards the end of the main storyline, but this time it results in scenes that are frustrating and nonsensical. So there’s work still to be done.

Designing games for children

There’s a thought-provoking article on Eurogamer today about the principles behind designing games for kids. Jonathan Smith, head of production at Traveller’s Tales and director of LEGO Star Wars, says:

Play is closely related to learning. When we have fun, we’re experimenting, discovering and developing our own abilities. This is especially true for children, who have the most at stake in situations of play and learning – the most to gain. That’s why play is more important to children. That’s why they’re the best at it.

George Andreas of Rare notes that younger players tend to be more preoccupied with short-term goals rather than thinking in the long-term – and that boys are particularly stimulated by games that allow them to conquer or control territory. Given that the pool of ‘games for chidren’ overlaps substantially with the pool for ‘games for education’, it’s odd that I can’t think of any recent examples of educational games involving these kind of (as Andreas puts it) bragging rights.

GameAccessibility site launches

The AbleGamers Foundation, a West Virginia charity dedicated to information and lobbying related to disabled gamers, has launched a new site called GameAccessibility. It’s a portal for developers and researchers to share thoughts about making all games more accessible, with news updates, and is well worth a look or even signing up to get involved.

The Winter House: an interactive short story

As part of their Story campaign, Booktrust have commissioned The Winter House by Naomi Alderman. It’s a spooky interactive short story set at the turn of the last century, and it includes game mechanics in order to progress the story. The text elements fade and bounce, mirroring the actions described, and hyperlinks and point-and-click hotspots move readers to the next scene. Definitely worth a look, and full of jumping-off points for learning opportunities.

Futurelab article on Child Education PLUS

There’s a new article by Futurelab on the Child Education PLUS website, discussing the use of computer games in the classroom. (This is unashamed self-promotion, as I’ve just started my new role at Scholastic as editor of Child Education PLUS.)

Heavy Rain and unpredictable actions

Heavy Rain is the PS3’s much-anticipated new title from director David Cage. It’s a dark serial-killer thriller with adult themes and content – and Cage claims that with this title he’s produced a new genre apart from videogames – ‘Interactive Drama’.

I haven’t yet played the full game, but I have sampled the demo on PSN. I’ve been as hyped as anyone about the potential of this game, and, as is usual, actually playing it feels like rather an anticlimax. There are obvious areas of weakness – the voice acting is standard fare and the script seems unlikely to rise above a generic level; HBO this is not.

But more worrying is the frustration of a central game mechanism: actually controlling the characters. Movement is controlled by facing in a particular direction and pressing the right trigger to walk in that direction. It sounds reasonable in theory but due to changing camera angles it can result in your character swinging around in circles.

But a bigger concern are the context-sensitive controls. During development, critics fretted whether the game would be one long QTE (quick-time-event), requiring you to push buttons with split-second timing in order to progress the story. Cage has avoided some of the pitfalls of QTEs: rather than being required, timed events can be triggered or ignored, and in theory the outcome of the scene will be affected correspondingly. In practice it seems that many scenes play out in very similar fashion either way – but failing to press the buttons doesn’t require a restart, at least (there are no restarts in Heavy Rain – characters can even die unceremoniously, and the dynamic plot continues with the remaining characters).

So the issue isn’t that button presses are QTEs. The single biggest issue is that, when a button prompt appears, you’re often unsure what will be the consequences of pressing that button. As an example, as character Shelby I spent time in the demo questioning a woman about her link to a killer. I was able to take different lines of questioning, and then made my excuses to leave. On exiting, a button prompt appeared showing a curved arrow. The possible significances of completing that button press are many: would Shelby turn around and question the woman again? Would he threaten her? Bribe her? As it turns out, the button press made Shelby reach for his wallet and produce a business card – certainly not something that would have occured to me – in my capacity of Shelby’s puppetmaster – to do.

So, this is a long-winded way of raising the issue about control schemes in interactive fiction that necessarily allows only particular input actions. While Cage has grappled impressively with the difficulties of translating gamepad actions to a simulated reality, it seems likely that in 3, 5, 10 years we’ll look back fondly at these clumsy first steps into interactivity. Perhaps Natal and PS Move, Microsoft’s and Sony’s motion-control technology, will herald a wave of interactive fictions with more literal gesture controls? Even then, developers will need to create a shorthand language to signal to the user what Shelby can take out of his back pocket, before he does it.

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