Monday, 9 March 2009

User-generated content

So, what is user generated content then? I've been thinking about this sort of thing for a while now I think I first mentioned it when I was writing about Spore. In relation to games, it means you not only get to play them but you get to have some input into the game, by designing your own levels, for instance. This is beyond being able to customise your avatar in an RPG, as it influences the gameplay itself. The concept is quite similar to modding, which has been around for ages, with whole communities built around it e.g. for Counter-Strike (which is itself a mod of Half -Life). But though modding tools are sometimes made available for certain games, the process was usually quite technical. There has been a more recent move though, towards encouraging this sort of user-generated content by making it easier to do, with games like Little Big Planet (LBP) allowing players to design, build and share their own levels. The video below is an example of a player created LBP level, based on Takeshi's Castle:

The reason I'm interested in all this, is because I think it says a lot about different player motivations. There seems to be a certain type of player who is not content with the experience of playing but wants to create as well. Things is, I'm just not sure I'm one of them. And as much as stuff like Sporn and my mate creating a phallic shaped rocket ship in Little Big Planet can amuse me, it's just not what I want to be spending my time doing. Don't get me wrong, I know people can come up with some pretty impressive creations (as the video above illustrates) and I actually really enjoy games like SimCity where you get to build your own city. I'm just not that fussed about being able to design the landscape I'm going to build the city on. In Spore, I felt like I had to push myself through the creature design stages in order to get to the good bit (and I was so relieved when I realised I could just use the games own designs and other peoples for stuff like planes and buildings in the later stages). In Little Big Planet, I watched my sister sit through boring tutorials to get to grips with the level editor controls so she could start producing her own - as an artist I think this really appealed to her, though I have a suspicion she was more interested in creating a novel visual experience, rather than in thinking about it in terms of 'good' game design. It's all really fascinating from a research perspective - I can ask what drives these players to create, something Bartle's 4 types of gamer categories do not account for (I guess it would need some sort of creator/designer category), or I could ask what sort of other skills they develop while they are creating whatever they are creating. But on a personal level, I think just want to play already!

This also relates to how games can be used within education. Teachers can get their students to play games (be they designed to be explicitly educational or not) and try an integrate this into some part of the curriculum or they could get them to build their own games. This isn't that new an approach, Llyod Rieber and colleagues carried out Project KidDesigner back in the late 90s, and you can probably trace it's constructivist roots back to Seymour Papert and LOGO in the 70s. The basic idea is that kids will learn more effectively and acquire a wider range of skills if they are actively constructing something. And with the development of free software tools such as GameMaker, that make designing your own game a relatively simple matter, its become a lot more common than it used to be. If anyone is interested in this sort of thing, Jake Habgood carried out some relatively recent research that looked at the kinds of games children made in after school clubs, while his website contains a whole host of information about the resources out there that teachers and children can use.

I'm doubt a specific approach is better than another, as usual it will depend on the context and how well integrated the approach and context are (if anyone from H809 is reading this post, what I just said definitely relates to the Laurillard (1994) paper from Week 3!). I do find it interesting though that in terms of learning theories you can label this approach as constructivist, while you could talk about massively multi-player online games tends under some sort of communities of practice heading. Plus, it's made me think about what I want from my gaming experiences - and it seems that I don't want to actively engage in an online community, I just want to get on with some actual game play when the mood strikes. But is something I want because it requires less effort? What does that mean for the learning that results from the experience? Is it somehow shallower or less likely to transfer? Maybe I'm just impatient, but I have to admit I don't want to design parts of a game myself as it feels like a lot of work (and even though I am studying games, I still see playing them as a break from 'proper' work). And also, if I've just spent x amount of money on a game, I definitely want to be rewarded by an experience that has been designed for me to play. But that's just me, and I'm beginning to realise that there is a whole range of reasons why people play, and create, games. If we're ever going to be able to truly tap into the educational potential, of using games, I think we're going to have to recognise that and understand these motivations a whole lot better than we do now.

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