Thursday, 31 January 2008

Why people play games

I found this a little while ago:

It struck me as interesting because it suggests that what is we find 'fun' about games is the learning process we engage in when we play them and the opportunities they give us to see the results of our efforts. The article implies that people actually enjoy learning; something that seems similar to what Papert is referring to in his introduction to Mindstorms when he talks about falling in love with gears. So, instead of thinking about games in terms of how we can 'make learning fun' by 'harnessing their motivational power' (c.f. Futurelab review), maybe we should be thinking about them as successful learning environments which can be compared to areas of education that aren't.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Co-located play (or Playing games in the same room with friends)

I've been thinking a bit lately by how social games have become. I mean, they've always had a social side, but they've become a lot more socially 'acceptable' over the last few years. And I don't just mean the rise of the MMORPG, like World of Warcraft, but the more traditional inviting people round to play. I know with respect to the Wii, the novelty factor is responsible in part for this curiosity, but can it last? Can the Wii introduce people to gaming and keep them interested?

I was playing a couple of games at my sister Katerina's over the weekend. She's never been seriously into games but enjoys playing them with people. One of the games we looked at was Super Mario Galaxy. I wanted to try out the co-star mode where you have one player playing Mario, and the other acting as some sort of helper, and we took turns in different roles. The second player uses the Wiimote to do things like collect and shoot star bits, freeze enemies, make Mario jump higher etc but you don't actually play a second character (like in Sonic 3 on the Mega Drive for instance, where you can play Tails ). I didn't mind being the 'co-star' as it was pretty interesting trying to anticipate what player 1 was going to do next and figuring out how you could help out. Plus, I'm sure there were a couple of points where my actions e.g. freezing an enemy mushroom, dictated what player 1 actually did do next. In contrast, my sister got a little bored after a while. We only played the first couple of levels, so it's possible it would have got more interesting as the levels got more complex. Meanwhile the endless storyboarding at the start of the game (which you unfortunately can't skip) probably didn't help either. Nevertheless, I can see how you could get bored just pointing the Wii remote at the screen for hours, while someone else actually gets to play the game.

We also played EA Playground, a game that revolves around a number of different playground games e.g. dodge ball, track car racing, tether ball etc. There were three of us playing but we only had two Wii remotes, so we ended up taking turns. It would have been interesting to see how the games would have dealt with more than two players, as I'm not sure they all could. There was a bit of a learning curve as each game had it's own set of instructions that we had to read through, but since there was some crossover between games it wasn't too bad. What was annoying was the tiny writing the instructions were displayed in. One of the things we noticed while playing was how in some games e.g. tether ball, you could quite easily strain your arm. Ok, so part of this is due to getting a bit excited waving the Wii remote around (which also tends to something getting knocked over) but it must have something to do with the feedback from the game. This came up in a meeting with my supervisors a little while ago when we were talking about Wii Sports (the gameplay in Playground is pretty similar to this). We talked about how the feedback from the remote is not the same as you get in real life when performing the same actions. The fact that you don't 'feel' the ball when you hit it seems to make you more likely to try and hit it harder. Since there isn't actually anything there, you just end up straining yourself. If the Wii is trying to tap into 'natural' movement, this could end up confusing the learning process when you realise it's not quite the same as in real life.

We did enjoy playing Playground though and I reckon this was because it is set up as a number of different competitions. You can play in the same team for some of the games, but the goal is still to win. Super Mario Galaxy requires a lot more investment in terms of time, and is not so easy to dip in and out of. So for what we wanted - to spend an hour or two playing games - we were much better off with something like Playground where we could try out different games that were relatively short and had clear cut goals for each of them. I think it might be quite difficult to find a dedicated co-star to play Mario with over long periods of time. In contrast, the single player mode in Mario is probably a lot more interesting. Though kids can play both games, EA Playground comes acorss as a bit more simplistic and with less to explore than in Super Mario Galaxy.

I guess it partly comes down to what you want to play games for and to everyones' personal preferences. It seems to be the case that when it comes to playing a game with a group of people, you don't want something with a high learning curve that requires a lot of investment. What seems more popular are games where you can compete against each other, or a computer controlled team, and that you can play in short bursts (or longer if you so choose). So far, the Wii seems to be catering for both the dedicated single player and the more casual group of multi-players.