July 2009 Archives

Why am I here (on this blog) and what do I have to say? 

I like to trace patterns.  I like to make worlds.  I like to poke at systems to see how they work.  And  I like to share all that with people, because I think a lot better when others are asking me to be clearer or telling me where I'm wrong or just off course.   

When I was in high school and living in small-town New York State ("Sparsely Populated - Drive Carefully"), the systems I studied were the seed-dispersion techniques of woody underbrush, drainage patterns leading into creeks, or the social networks of my classmates (one system I never 'got' very well).  Everything I learned from them fed into the worlds I created for storytelling and then for games of Dungeons and Dragons.   Maps got elegant ecosystems, towns had flavorful characters, and monsters fit their environments.  The game gave me a context in which to ground what I tried to learn.

The information went both ways, too-- I'd set up something in the game like a town and realize that I really didn't understand how an agrarian economy would affect travel patterns and population density, so I'd read up on medieval villages and look at maps of Krakow, Poland, across 500 years.  I didn't do this consciously, but the game's rich allusions to folktales and mythology led me out into the real thing.  I think that the first case was an epiphany reading Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, when I came across a character from the books in a D&D sourcebook and realized that Alexander (and D&D) hadn't just made it all up themselves.

So in the last few years, when scholars and writers like Katie Salen, Jim Gee, David Schaffer, and Steven Johnson say that kids learn well from games, that games teach systems thinking, and that games can provide a context for rich problems and situated learning, it's made a lot of sense to me.  I grew up on what they're describing. 

The words in a chemistry textbook are tied to a game, the game of chemistry.... If you played the game of chemistry, you come to understand why people use the words as tools to do things, to engage in actions, to label images. -Jim Gee, Edutopia interview

Study after study has shown that kids and adults alike assimilate information better when they are studying topics which they are interested in rather than things which they are forced to learn ...the advantage that traditional video games have is that the user inherently cares about what they are doing. This enthusiasm is (comparatively) easy to channel or transfer to other activities, which brings us to the topic of tangential learning. -James Portnow, Edge Blog

What I'm still missing, though, is the community *talking* about all this.  I bring it up sometimes at game nights, but it's not very helpful in keeping my friends from cleaning my clock in Citadels.  I go to the very excellent Games, Learning, Society Conference every year, but it's three too-brief days in a year 122 times that long. 

Also, honestly, I think that games, or at least ludic sensibilities and systems, are a lot more pervasive than many people think.  I like to look at how, beyond representing some small piece of the world in a game, people actually approach the world as a set of games all the time, every day.  I think  that we can come to understand a few more things about ourselves and our world by watching how we play, how we read, and how we make games and stories. 

And that's a pretty good reason for a blog. 
Kotaku picked up a video interview of Will Wright made for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  I try not to worship Will Wright, but I think he gets just about everything right in this interview. 

http://kotaku.com/5315098/will-wright-talks-educational-gaming-funny-money

  • "We've gotten disconnected from the idea of play.... I don't think it's games so much as play.... we still think of play as a sort of useless, time-wasting activity.  When, in fact, play is a fundamental educational technology."
  • On Serious Games: "I think there's an environment they're emerging in, a certain garden, ecosystem ... in which they have to look serious first." "They could be a lot more fun than they are ... lot of them are maybe too specifically targeted." 
  • He offers Rod Serling's Twilight Zone and Dr. Seuss as examples of serious messages couched within a rich context or a playful presentation.
  • Perhaps motivation is a better goal than education, for games.  They'll educate anyway, but it's too serious a goal for most designers, who would do better aiming to motivate instead.
The Kotaku comments also have some good links to other material, including some TED talks.  It's a wonderful antidote to the representatives of the GIF Theory that you find on any Kotaku thread about one of the big three consoles.

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