Book Review: The State of Play (Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture)

“… video games are a complex and rapidly evolving form, where different qualities intertwine and influence each other in subtle, often surprising ways. A progress, critical approach to games and their place in culture does not preclude the appreciation of them as the rich and wonderful pieces of entertainment they are. But if our understanding of them is to move beyond the simple escapism, games must be held up to the same standards and allowed the same scrutiny as any other form of creative expression. “ — Daniel Goldberg and Linus Larsson, editors, from introduction to The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture

This rather uneven collection of essays — The State of Play: Creators and Critics on Video Game Culture — is nonetheless an important look at how video game culture reflects both the good and the bad of this still-emerging form of popular culture entertainment. Tackling topics like Gamergate head on and exploring issue of gender and race, the writers here go deep with insights. And many of them are game developers themselves, as the subtitle suggests, and so, reading their insights from the other side of the console, so to speak, is an intriguing element of The State of Play.

One of the more intriguing essays here is from Hussein Ibrahim, whose piece entitled “What It’s Like to Always Play the Bad Guy: On the Portrayal of Arabs in Online Shooters” does what it says — it gives Ibrahim a platform to explore the culture of video game design that always seems to pit denizens of the Middle East as the enemy terrorist with guns and bombs.

“The problem is, the ‘authenticity’ (of games like Medal of Honor) is only on one side. As an American, you get to relate to the hero defending his country from terrorists threatening your freedom. As an Arab, you get to relate to the guy who wants to blow up your city, and that’s all,” Ibrahim writes. “Often, it seem more time is spent making sure the guns in the game are authentic than on accurately representing the culture I belong to.”

Interestingly, Ibrahim plays those very games, and finds himself feeling “Indifferent (about the portrayal), which is unsettling.” He then notes an event in which someone noticed a map in Modern Warfare had a saying from Allah hanging in a virtual bathroom. An uproar ensued among Middle East gamers (Ibrahim says there are “several million” players of the franchise in the Middle East) and the map was later revised, the Allah engraving removed. He wonders why this event (the engraving) caused more uproar than how Arabs are used as villains.

“… I guess we have all grown a little numb,” he notes.

Another interesting essay — “A Game I Had to Make” by developer Zoe Quinn — explores a game designer’s quest to make a game for themselves, to understand a confusing world. In this case, the game in question — Depression Quest — is designed to help a player deal with depression. Writing in second person, Quinn tracks the development of the game and the release into the world. She never expected the kind of splash her game received.

“You have inadvertently become a beacon for the cause of depression,” Quinn writes. “A massive conversation has begun around the game, sometimes positive, sometimes negative … you’re happy that a lot of people feel like they can talk about this enormous, invisible thing (depression) they have always been unsure of in the public eye.”

In “The Squalid Grace of Flappy Bird,” Ian Bogost explores how such a simple app game became so popular (before the developer, overwhelmed by the success, pulled the game from the Apple App store). Bogust’s exploration of game design, and the ways in which Flappy Bird both ignored and followed the “rules” is intriguing, particularly when he dips into how games reflect culture, and vice versa.

“In game design circles,” Bogost writes, “we sometimes wax poetic about the elegance and simplicity of a design, the way complex emergent behaviors arise from simple rules and structures … The best games are not for us (or for anyone), but instead strive to be what they are as much possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.”

The State of Play is a needed book, in that it steps back from video games and examines the ways in which culture and gaming are meshed together, warts and all. NOTE: there are some themes and language in here that might not be appropriate for classrooms, so you might want to read it first before bringing it in for students to read or use.

Peace (beyond the game),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Planetary Leap


flickr photo shared by Hubble Heritage under a Creative Commons ( BY-SA ) license

My youngest son’s elementary school hosts an annual Science Fair. It’s a voluntary thing, with showcases during the day for students and at night for parents. My son, who has done entries in the past but only half-heartedly, wasn’t all that interested this year, even though it is his last year at his elementary school.

“What about designing and showcasing a video game that other kids can play during the fair?”  I asked. “With a science element?”

That got his attention, and we chatted about getting him back into Gamestar Mechanic to design a game that he could put on display, for kids to play. I reminded him that it would have to connect with science, and he brainstormed the idea of the Solar System.

His game is called Planetary Leap, and involves the “story frame” of an explorer going to check out Pluto but who has crash-landed on Neptune, and now needs to find portals to come back home to Earth. He’s sprinkling researched information about some of the planets within the story itself.

So far, so good. I am acting as technical director only, and a bit of an editor on the writing. He’s in a bit of a crunch because Friday is the Science Fair, and we sort of waited until the last minute to get on board (due to hemming and hawing). Just like a game designer with deadlines looming, right?

Meanwhile, he is interesting in building his video game even further after the Science Fair for the National STEM Video Game Challenge, which runs through August. That sort of motivating factor is interesting to see and witness, and I am enjoying watching him as a fifth grade video game designer coming into his own.

Peace (in the game),
Kevin

PS — this is my site for video game design in the classroom. Steal and use whatever might be helpful.

Play the Kid out of the Video Game Vortex

InternetKid26

I wanted to add an element in which you can join The Internet Kid on his adventures against the Video Vortex. So, come play the game The Kid is stuck inside of.

Peace (in getting out),
Kevin

At Middleweb: Nurturing Writing Skills with Video Game Design

My latest blog post for Middleweb is a reflection on the various kinds of writing activities we do in our video game design unit. I know this kind of sharing is important for teachers wondering about the potential for video game design but still juggling how to meet their curriculum goals.

Read Infusing Writing Standards into Video Game Design at Middleweb

These ideas were part of a presentation done this past week at a technology conference, and I am revamping the presentation a bit for the Web, so I will share that out another day.

Peace (in the learning),
Kevin

Workshop: Video Game Design, Science and Writing

Game Design Workshop TIE

Today, my science teaching colleague, Lisa Rice, and I will head to a local technology in education conference to present our collaborative science-based video game design project. I’ve written a lot about what we do over the years in various spaces, and I have presented about it before, but this is her first time presenting, and so I am excited to give her an opportunity to share her knowledge as a teacher and collaborator. (Our principal, technology director and our school superintendent will be at the conference, too, and we hear they will be in our session.)

The keynote speaker will be my National Writing Project colleague, Antero Garcia, and the overall theme of the conference is all about Connected Learning. Antero will no doubt be talking about youth action projects, as he has done a lot of work and writing and research in that area of Connected Learning and Participatory Culture.

We only have an hour in our game workshop session, but I still hope I have time to pull out Uno cards and dice, and get the participants hacking a collaborative game, if only to experience the act of game design. I also see it as another venue to showcase work of students and to validate how video game design can find a place in the ELA classroom (particularly with a science connection).

Peace (in the share),
Kevin

Video Game Design: Plenty O’ Reflecting

Video Game Journal Collage 2016

We’re at the tail end of our science-based video game design project that lasted through much of December, and I have been spending time this weekend reading through the online Game Designer’s Journals that students kept as the project unfolded. I wish I had budgeted even more time for reflective writing because the entries in the journals give such a good glimpse into what they were doing and learning and thinking about.

I’ve been going in to each student’s game designer journals and leaving comments and ideas about what I saw in their games (I have played nearly 65 video games since holiday break) and what I see in their reflective writing.

Peace (beyond the game),
Kevin

 

Deconstructing Video Game Advertisements (and Making Their Own)

Game Advertising1

I have the good fortune of having a very talented paraprofessional in my classroom for one period each day. She is compassionate and firm and helpful. She also had a career in design and advertising before coming into education, so when I was thinking of a lesson plan around Video Game Advertising and the use of persuasive media and writing, I asked if she would lead part of the lesson.

She said yes, and yesterday, our students were engaged in deconstructing advertisements in order to create their own advertisements for their science-based video game projects (with central themes of Buoyancy and Gravity).

She brought her own experiences in designing brochures for the company she used to work for, explaining techniques for blocking out advertisements in draft form, how to consider audience for a product, using “loaded words” to sway the customer, the importance of catch-phrases/slogans, how fonts can be most effectively used, and ways to avoid “floating texts.”

I learned a lot just from listening to her, honing in on the power of art and words together to create persuasive text/media.

Game Advertisement Deconstruction

I created a slideshow of video game advertisements for the lesson, and after deconstructing the first one, we had students talking through what they saw in the other ones, noticing what seemed most effective.

Game Advertising2

 

Then, they got to work. And work, they did. It was an incredible contrast to what I described in my post yesterday — when we had some chaos in the room during a peer review activity of video games. They were intensely engaged in this advertisement activity. Most will be finishing up today, our last day before holiday break.

I can’t wait to see what they have created ..

Peace (free of charge, always),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Well, That Was Chaotic

(This is for Slice of Life, a weekly writing invitation by Two Writing Teachers to capture moments in our lives. Come write with us.)

Buoyancy Games Collage

Well, that was chaotic.

My goal in class yesterday was pretty straightforward. We are working on nearing the end of our Science-based Video Game Design unit, and peer-review/play-testing is an important element for young game designers to gather an outside perspective. When you build a video game, you know all the ins and outs of it — all the tricks of the game —  and at some point, that is not a good thing. You lose perspective.

What you need is an outside voice. A player to play your game.

So, our activity had students working the room, playing each other’s games in a rather logical sequential order, and writing out “warm” and “cool” feedback on the games. We’ve used this same strategy with writing this year, so it is not new. I even had sentence starters for both feedback points on the interactive board and situated around the room as paper copies.

But clearly, giving feedback on writing (while not easy) is much more focused than giving feedback on student-created video games. I don’t know what I expected but the craziness that ensued was not quite it.

First of all, every game took a different amount of time to complete, so we were never quite in sync with the rotations. Some were still playing while others were done and ready to move on.

Second, the designers of the video games kept their eyes and ears open for players talking about their games, and they would leave the game they were play-testing to talk to the players of their game. That messed up the whole rotation idea. (It also made me think, next time I am going to more of a partner/feedback activity to allow for this to happen in a more controlled fashion.)

Third, I had to keep emphasizing that “cool” feedback did not mean merely writing “this is hard.” Some of the games are indeed hard to beat and play. That’s why we were getting a peer reviewer, to give that perspective. Instead, I said over and over and over (and over and over and over) that good advice would follow that with “and here is my recommendation …” and be specific.

Fourth, the noise noise noise noise. Ok. So my room can get noisy at times, particularly with game design when work and sharing and socializing seem to mingle more than usual, but this was just a bit too noisy even for me. (Good thing my supervisor didn’t wander in). I suspect it is the combination of holidays – vacation – game design – adolescence. I needed ear plugs.

I would not call the peer review/play-testing activity a failure, but I was not sure I quite achieved what I hoped for — the learning objective centered on giving and receiving specific feedback on a project that will provide insights for revision and improvement.

And then .. and then … as they shifted back to our games, I noticed so many of them reading with attention the comments left on their games by peers, and then they were asking follow-up questions, and then some of them (thankfully) began the process of revising levels — adding more lives, fixing the narrative text, revisiting the science concepts, removing obstacles — and suddenly, the chaos was worth it.

Some days are just like that, aren’t they?

Peace (beyond the games),
Kevin

PS — this chart that I put together one year guides my thinking here ..

Writing and Game Design Compared

 

A Growing Collection of Science Video Games

Buoyancy Games Collage

Look at this growing collection of science-based video games my students are creating and publishing in Gamestar Mechanic. It’s pretty cool to see them all in a collage box like this … and more of the games get published every day … now, I need to start playing the games so I can grade the projects … The science theme this year has been “buoyancy” and “gravity.”

I’ll start featuring some of you to play, if you want, as I start looking at them more closely.

One early game I would recommend for her use of story in creating her game is this one — Stolen, by Suzannah — notice how she used message blocks to create a strong narrative.

stolen game (by S) screenshot

I’ve been stressing until my voice hurts the three intersecting elements of our project: Game, Science, Story.

Game Story Science

Peace (in the game),
Kevin