Friday, April 12, 2013

Shall We Play A Game? part II - Why Game Mechanics Matters

wow. Response to the last post has been impressive. thanks for the comments and feedback on part I (Gaming goals and Profit Motive). Let's keep it going...

Where in the World... are All These Gamers
Carmen Sandiago constantly reinvents itself for new ages
Jane McGonigal tells us there are 3 Billion hours of games played per week worldwide (183 million hours in the US). In her TED talk, she rightly calls this number of hours a parallel curriculum of learning. #Edtech vendors use this number to convince schools that "...students will WANT to do it!".

But before we spend more money on educational technology, lets press pause on on the purchase order and deconstruct that impressive number a little bit. Not all games are created equal.

Avoiding Dysentery: Thoughts on Game Mechanics
Recent Shirt sold on pays homage to THE OREGON TRAIL
Game mechanics are the sets of rules, human actions, and game responses that make up the game (I am simplifying, you can get really in-depth here). The more complicated the mechanics, the more complicated the game. Conversely, CASUAL GAMEs are those with simple mechanics, lots of repetitive action, and low  time-investment.

Information from the Casual Games Association indicates that in 2010, 26 million people spent $6 billion dollars on games played on phones, tablets, Facebook and computers. According to NewZoo, this accounts for 39% of all that game time in the US (2011 Report).

Understanding Mechanics

Brick/Breakout Games
One of the earliest Atari video games, Breakout, provides a good example identifying game
mechanics. The basic design of the game is a series of "bricks" at the top of the screen that can be removed by a ball that crashes into it. The player moves a bar at the bottom of the screen to left or the right to bounce the ball into the walls or top of the screen. If they player misses the ball, it travels off the bottoms of the screen. Simple, right?

Game Mechanics:
  • Hand-eye coordination. User must able to sync hand/finger movements with visual cues
  • Elementary Physics (reflection). User should predict where a ball will travel after hitting an object
  • Mechanical operation: Move Joystick Left. Move Joystick Right.
Peggle from PopCap is a new version
of a Brick Style ARCADE Game
While game elements get more complicated (different shapes, obstacles, speed of the ball, etc.), the basic mechanics do not change. This style of game and mechanics is part of the ARCADE GAME GENRE. A person could (and from personal experience, actually has) spend hundreds of hours attempting to master Brick-style arcade games in all of their forms. 

But the questions for educators, and this is important, is what skills or knowledge can be gained from this combination of Game skills (shift left, shift right); Required thought (if the ball bounces here, where will it end up?), and goals (clear the screen). Because, while thousands of hours were spent playing PEGGLE in the last two years, it has limited educational value (yes, Devil's Advocate, there are some limited applications in physics/science as well as as basic computer familiarity).

Trivial Compute: A very popular education game when the genre was first being developed was WHERE IN THE WORLD/USA/TIME IS CARMEN SANDIEGO?. This game was popular enough to spawn a game show, a theme song, a cartoon, and a love-interest meme with WHERE'S WALDO?

In the original version of this game, players were investigators in pursuit of a band of criminals. Investigators would find clues that would allow them to find move from location to location until a criminal (including the ever-elusive Carmen) could be captured.

Original Game Mechanics:
  • Mechanical Operation: multiple choice selection
  • Knowledge/Memory/Note Taking: Clues and locations would repeat over the course of game play.
  • Research: Indexing, Keywords, Topic selection, etc. (one of the cooler elements of the original game was the inclusion of an old school Almanac used to find the answers to the clues left in the game).
Obviously, this game was conceived, marketed, sold, and played with an educational intent. It was one of the earliest examples of educational gaming. There was an inherent advantage in a player learning the answers to the geographical trivia questions that were asked through the form of (relatively simple) clues.

Another appeal was the lack of dexterity controls. While some people enjoy the need for fast or repetitive or complex button/joystick combinations (say it with me, geeks: UP UP DOWN DOWN LEFT RIGHT LEFT RIGHT B A Start), it is not for everyone.

It just keeps going...
Temple Run - It Just Keep Going: TEMPLE RUN is an example of a Never-Ending CHASE game (aracade genre) It was one of the most popular casual games of the last few years. It is a game that is high in timing, coordination, and reflexes. There are about three patterns to learn (the most complicated being: When the game gets too fast, "trip" over a branch to slow it down).

Game Mechanics:

  • Rapid Hand-Eye Coordination
  • Endurance
  • Mechnical Operation: Tilt left, Tilt right, Swipe Up, Swipe Down, Tap*

*the Tap feature is used to activate bonuses which can be "bought" with either game-earned points or real money

A Battle Screenshot from WoW: Cool graphics and lots of
Data to process and use
WOW - Another World of Gaming Complexity: The game referenced most often in the academic literature on Gamification is WORLD OF WARCRAFT. This game took elements of a number of genres including ADVENTURE (solving puzzles and increasing levels of complexity/challenge with experience), ACTION/ARCADE (control button patterns), FIRST PERSON SHOOTER (Targeting, selection, tactics), MUDs/Multi-User Domains (collaboration, teamwork, communication) and created a new type of immersive experience, The Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG).

Within this highly graphical system, players start with simple tasks and constantly "level up" by completing more and more complex quests that involve a variety of cognitive, collaborative, and strategic skills. Critical thinking is employed at every stage from quest selection to completing minor tasks to complete larger goals to planning multi-player attacks against enemies (both computer generated and other player).

This game genre is cited for both its complex multi-skill development and its tendency to lead to hours of (admittedly obsessive) game play.  Feedback is given to players in the form of computer-generated "Experience Points", new places and people to explore, and comments (of varying levels of appropriateness and geniality) from other players. The MMORPG genre is the ultimate prize in terms of development of complex and higher order thinking skills, investment of will and effort, and its ability to utilize real applications of communication and collaboration.

On Reflection: Regarding 10,000 hours, It's Not Very Effective

When evaluating educational gaming software, we need to avoid falling for the millions-of-hours hype that implies all games are created equal. One way to do this is to think about what our goals are for the classroom and how the experience of a game (or a lesson or a unit) will help us achieve those goals.

Many gamify--the-classroom fans like to quote Gladwell's idea from Outliers: The Story of Success about 10,000 hours. His claim is that if one practices a particular skill for 10,000 hours, one can become proficient. But for every World of Warcraft, there is a Tiny Castle. For every Carmen Sandiego there is a Temple Run. While many kids (and adults) have spent a good percentage of their 10,000 requisite hours becoming proficient at the the end of the day they have mastered finger-swiping.

And that isn't even on the test.

Up Next:
Player demographics vs. Game genre; hidden agendas; creative vs. linear

Most popular games of all time
Wikiepedia - Game Genres
Nielson 2009 Report on Casual Gaming