Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Game Based Learning 2010

On Monday and Tuesday I was Game-based learning 2010 at the Brewery in London. It was a really good couple of days - think I still need time to recover from it! Apart from the talks and meeting new people it was also good to catch up with fellow PhD student Wee-Hoe Tan from Warwick and to bump into Jeremiah Alexander from Ideonic again.

For a broad overview of the conference experience, Terry Freedman provides quite a good account of what the event was like. It's impossible to reccount everything here so I'm just going to talk about some of the highlights for me. The conference started with a couple of politicians who I don't remember having anything massively interesting to say (though I now know there is an All party video games group!) but I think I was reassured that whichever party wins the next election they'll be supportive of the video game industry. You see the recession did come up a bit but it looks like video games will save the day! Well maybe not single-handedly, but in addition to the politicians, Richard Wilson from TIGA highlighted how important industry is economically, educationally and culturally - and how the recent tax breaks will create more jobs and bring more money into the economy.

Back to day one and the games though. I really enjoyed Alice Taylor's talk about what she is commissioning for Channel 4 to support young people's informal learning. These ranged from the recent Smokescreen (which aimed to helped people learn about privacy online) to the soon to be released Ada (which aims to inspire girls interest in science) but what I really noticed was how a lot of the entertainment she was discussing was multi-platform and seemed a ARG inspired. I'm also really impressed by the work being carried out by Derek Robertson in colleagues up in Scotland. Their work within the Consolarium has meant that games are essentially becoming a normal part of classroom activity, and it's a shame the rest of the UK seems a long way off from that. I like the emphasis they place on the teacher but also on sharing what teachers are doing - it's not about games replacing classrooms but understanding that they are another useful learning tool that can be used. It was nice to see this backed up with examples from headteacher Gillian Penny in a later talk.

Moving on to the subject of piracy, one of my favourite talks was Matt Mason who I knew absolutely nothing about till he got up on stage. He provided a very interesting case for pirates - in the sense that they can often push the boundaries of what is possible (as opposed to those who just nick stuff) and actually came up with ways of dealing with the issue that made more sense than "punish them!" - which is something I think rushing in the new Digital Economy bill focuses on a bit too much. Anyway, I'm gonna have to get his book.

ARGs came up, in a more academic context, with Alex Mosely and Simon Brookes talking about how they used them on their HE courses. I liked the mention of communities of practice here as it's something I'm going to be looking at though I think I will need to go back and have a look at Schaffer's concept of epistemic frames again. Communities of practice also came up again at the later MirandaMod meet (which was an interesting if slightly confusing experience as I wasn't sure what a MirandaMod was!) which will hopefully be up soon. It's just good to know that people are realising that games aren't played in a vacuum and it's good to see that other things are now being taken into account.

On day two I got to start of the research strand with my presentation "Press Start: Motivation, Engagement and Informal Learning through Video Games" (see pic below). It think it went pretty well, though I probably did run through quite a lot of information in the 15 minute slot. Derek Robertson was kind enough to mention me and my blog link on his twitter feed as did a couple of others (and that's where I got the pic from - btw, is being tweeted a measure of success?!). I'm glad I got a couple of other theories out there - Calleja's Digital Game Experience Model especially - but hope I also got people thinking about why it's important we understand the bigger picture when it comes to studying games. The thing I like about the DGEM is that it gives me a way of discussing different game play experiences (on both a micro and macro scale). And if there is an existing framework out there I don't need to produce one of my own, but I think it can help in what I am trying to do - which is explore the relationship between motivation, engagement and informal learning through games. Anyways, all in all it was a good opportunity to meet other people and ultimately reflect on my work.

I enjoyed the rest of the research strand too, especially Karl Royle and David Squire's talk on their DoomEd mod and sharing what they learnt from the experience, and also Paul Hollins talk (prepared with Nicola Whitton) about 10 things educators could learn from the games industry (though a few more Do's thrown in with the Dont's might have been good too). I thought he raised an interesting point how educators should think more about entertainment rather than simulation because I couldn't help but notice that some of software on show (and discussed) are really simulations rather than games. I think are some important differences here in terms of learning (or maybe even just with respect to how people approach them). I mean simulations - and a lot of serious games - try to be as real as possible, so it's easier to apply what is learnt in the real world but games shouldn't be real because realism can be boring, and though we learn in games, we also know what behaviour is appropriate in the real world and what isn't. Hmm, maybe one day I'll be able to verbalise this better and have some evidence to back up what I'm trying to say.

In the final part of the conference I got to see Tom Chatfield (who wrote Fun Inc.) talk about the role of failure in learning and games - "What is learning? Failing better" and Margaret Robertson discuss what educators can learn from casual games. Sean Brennan from Bethesda games seemed to make the audience squirm a little (and get the Twitter feed buzzing) by essentially reading out his powerpoint slides and telling most of us what we already knew about games and learning. Maybe it was his struggle to come up with a reason that the commercial games industry should get involved in games (he ummed for a bit and then suggested PR maybe?) or maybe it was that he thought education should be doing more to make sure he got the skilled games designers he needed but I'm not sure his talk went down well.... Though conference organiser Graham Brown-Martin did assure us afterwards that beneath the "ballsy arrogance" Sean was a good guy really! And I suppose he did donate some games for the prize draw at the end too... including Bethesda's Fallout3 - which I didn't get :-(

The conference closed with Jesse Schell speaking to us via a live video link and I think gave everyone something to think about by arguing that education should be like the rest of our future - beautiful, customisable, shareable and real. I think my favourite part of this talk was at the end when someone asked how we might be able to benchmark collaborative work and he just said "Screw all that" as school should be preparing people for the real world and not trying to figure out ways to standardise and measure everyone. Definitely need to check out his DICE talk too.

So I left with the feeling that the future is going to be a very exciting place to be. And it would be very cool to be a part of making it that way.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Heavy Rain (PS3)

It's been longer than I thought since I last wrote but since then I bought myself a PS3 and have been playing lots of games :-) One of which is Heavy Rain.

I really enjoyed this game. Actually, enjoyed might be the wrong word, as I'm not sure I've played anything that's made me feel the way Heavy Rain has, especially in terms of experiencing guilt. I should probably post the obligatory SPOILER ALERT here as I will be discussing what happened when I played the game, though I won't reveal the identity of the Origami Killer. I don't want to spend half this post telling you about the game itself though, as this is less of a review and more a way to document my own response to it. For those who know little about the game though and don't plan on playing it go here for a synopsis.

So first off, it's probably worth knowing that I didn't play the game on my own. My friend Paul came round and we took turns playing (on three seperate session). I'm not sure how I would of felt playing it on my own, but we both came away from it feeling like Heavy Rain could be the start of something very exciting, with Paul suggesting it might even be the start of a new genre. From the start, when we were given instructions on how to make an origami figure from the paper that came with box, we knew it was going to be an immersive experience. Yes it did feel a lot like a movie, in fact it felt like one of those books from when we were kids that asked you to make a decision and then turn to the appropriate page once you had - just a lot more effective! And ok, there is definitely room for improvement - the controls could get annoying, there were some plot holes, a pretty gratuitous sex scene (and a little unconvincing given how beat up Ethan was, and how little time him and Madison had spent together) while I think we were mostly deliberately lead astray about the identity of the origami killer - but overall, I would thoroughly recommend playing it.

The reason I do is because of how I felt when I played it. I felt helpless when Jason (Ethan's oldest) died as there was little I could do. I felt pleased with myself as Agent Jayden when I managed to calm a suspect down and get him to lower his weapon only to feel incredibly guilty when the suspect spun round during his arrest and I shot him, only realising too late he was holding a crucifix and not another weapon... I liked playing the hard-drinking private investigator who also seemed soft-hearted because though you fought people, you also had to change a baby's diaper and rock it to sleep after rescuing it's mother from a suicide attempt. I felt relief when I was Madison and I went to visit a creepy doctor to get some more clues and then left before he came back in the room (after having found the clue I needed and refusing to drink the drink he gave me - I'm not sure what would have happened if I did but I know it wouldn't have been good!).

But the guilt came back when I was playing the investigator again and I ended up in a car at the bottom of the river with Lauren, a prostitute whoose son had been murdered by the Origami Killer and was helping me with my investigation. A lot of the tension in the game involves having to react to quick time events, and this was a particularly tense situation as I had no idea how much time I had. Though I managed to cut my own ropes and free myself, in my panic to escape the car I ended up kicking my way out without rescuing Lauren... I felt terrible, and the only thing I could think to say to Paul afterwards was that we really need to save Shaun now! As if somehow it would makes Lauren's death worthwhile...

I think the fact that we played the game together made it even more interesting though. Depending on what we were doing and how connected we felt to the character we were playing at the time, we would refer to the character by name, as "I" or even "we". The Origami Killer sends Ethan a series of tasks to complete (each more dangerous than the last) and in one of them you are supposed to go to someone's house and kill them. After going to the house, there is a struggle and you end up pointing a gun at the guy in his daughter's room. Paul just turned round to me and said, I don't want to do it. So I said ok, even though we had failed the previous task (and so were now going to miss out on two clues), because that's not who we wanted Ethan to be. After almost every scene we would discuss what had just happened, reflecting and wanting to make sure we had done the right thing. Interestingly there were also a couple of moments where we didn't actually want the responsibility of having the controller - knowing that our decisions and ability to react could influence the outcome, meant there an awful lot of pressure on who was playing not to mess up. And that was the feeling I had during the final task Ethan had to carry out, which asked him to drink a poison that would give him enough time to rescue his son, but would then kill him. I actually paused the game at this point so we could discuss what we should do (and I think it was the only time that we stopped mid-gameplay to do so). After a lengthy discussion we decided that we weren't going to do it, because it would really suck if after everything that happened, Shuan survives to lose his Dad as well.

You can replay bits of the game but we wanted to play it all the way through first. After we finished, we did go back and try different things out to see what would happen - turns out the poison dilemma wasn't as serious as we thought, and that Madison being able to get to Ethan before the end is what you'd really want to not mess up. I'd like to see some of the different endings but I'm not sure I really want to replay the whole game from start to finish again. While it's an interesting "what if" exercise, I think it could become a little tedious, and won't ever compare to playing it first time around.

There is probably loads more I could say about how this game affected me but this has already turned into an essay. I think I just want to say that though Heavy Rain didn't do everything perfectly I was fascinated by the ethical discussions we had about it, and thoroughly engrossed while both playing and watching it. Maybe the game gave us the illusion that we had more control than we did (despite a large number of possible endings there is still a limited number) but maybe that illusion is more important than actually having a completely open ended experience. Maybe it is more like a movie than a game, but so what? It still felt more engrossing than watching a film about the Origami Killer would. And maybe I would have felt less positive about the game if we hadn't saved Shaun and got one of the "better" endings but I still think I would have enjoyed the process.

I think this is the first time I've been able to experience the way games can provide us with such powerful emotional experiences and it's something I'd like to see a lot more of, both in commercial games as well as educational. This is something that games can do in a way other media can't and I for one would really like to see how these sorts of games develop.