Tag Archives: Games

A new definition for games

Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes
Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes

Note: There’s now an interactive version of this paper that was used during a poster session at Meaningful Play 2014! It’s better since it has more references in it, talks a bit about procedural rhetoric and it’s issues, etc. 

Gameplay and Learning

There’s a perennial problem in games for learning: the mechanics of a game are often disassociated from the desired learning. I think part of this stems from educational game designers placing too much emphasis on specific subject matter content exacerbated by a misunderstanding of the object of their creation.

Too many educational games aren’t really that engaging as games. They focus on content and sometimes use only the superficial reward layer of games to motivate players to engage in the activity. (This is often called “gamification.”) These types of “games” keep getting made and will continue to be made so long as our educational policy/system continues to emphasize discrete disciplinary content assessed with brute force testing methods. In our effort to meet decontextualized standards, we’ve lost student engagement and somehow think that by making our stupidly meaningless activities give out badges and points that everything will be fine.

Sometimes engaging gameplay does exist, but the learning content is just inserted as interstitial segments between layers or levels of the actual game. An example could be a game that features pop-up screens with trivia between levels of, say, a first-person exploration game.[1] Again this is because the designers are placing too much value onto these subject matter chunks of facts. They may understand what makes a game engaging but not how to incorporate these fact chunks into the activity. (Good examples of games that focus on the educational content in their game design include the work from CGS and Ululab.)

It should be obvious that I don’t think we should be dividing our education into disciplinary silos. Additionally, if you know me, you know that I’m much more interested in the processes of learning that players engage in during gaming than the actual content of their learning. I think these processes are the true power of gaming and that they can transfer to many other non-game situations.

To understand where I’m coming from, it helps to understand my definition of games. Recently, however, I’ve rethought and changed my definition, so I’ll explain that transformation here, too.

Continue reading A new definition for games

Draft 4 Games Simulations and VWs for Learning syllabus

Week 1, May 1-7: Why Games for Learning

Learning content vs. systems, projected identity, learning by/through design, theory of fun


Optional Readings:


  • Set up Guild Wars 2 account and join guild.
  • Create a Steam account.
  • Select and play a tabletop game with family or friends. Pay attention to social dynamics, game mechanics and balance, etc.


  • Browse The Hotness on Board Game Geek. Read reviews.
  • Introduce yourself, gaming history, and which tabletop game you played in the class forums.
  • Half the class writes reviews or synopses of readings and/or games. The other half responds.

Activities Related to Major Assignments:

  • Tabletop game design: Think of a tabletop game idea that addresses an area of interest for you and write a one-paragraph pitch.

Continue reading Draft 4 Games Simulations and VWs for Learning syllabus

Draft 3 of Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds for Learning syllabus

Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds for Learning

Week 1: Why Games for Learning

Learning content vs. systems, projected identity, learning by/through design, theory of fun


Optional Readings:


  • Set up Guild Wars 2 account and guild.
  • Create a Steam account.
  • Browse the Hot List on Board Game Geek. Read reviews.
  • Introduce yourself and gaming history in the forums.
  • Half the class writes reviews or synopses of readings and/or games. The other half responds.
  • Think of a tabletop game idea that addresses an area of interest for you and write a one-paragraph pitch.

Continue reading Draft 3 of Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds for Learning syllabus

Draft 2 of Games Simulations and Virtual Worlds for Learning course

Prob could use more on simulations and VWs…

Also, haven’t added everything, yet… After that’s done, I’ll have to cut a bunch of stuff since it seems like a lot to cover in 12 weeks. Much thanks to Alex Thayer… I grabbed a bunch of refs from his course that I was a guest lecturer in about 2 weeks ago. 🙂 Which reminds me; I still need to scour the web for other people’s syllabi and see if I can incorporate even more stuff that I may have missed.

Continue reading Draft 2 of Games Simulations and Virtual Worlds for Learning course

Draft outline for Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds online course

I’m teaching a course on games and learning during Pepperdine’s summer session. It’s an online course for masters students getting an ed tech degree who may or may not be completely new to the topic, so I’m throwing in as much as I can. 🙂

I’m pretty excited about it! Midway, the students and I will meet face to face at GLS and playtest their in-progress game designs.

Anyway, here’s the preliminary outline that I just threw together. It’s a lot to cover in 12 weeks.

  1. intro to game studies: definitions, magic circle, narratology v ludology, disciplines, art
  2. why games for learning: content v systems, computational thinking, ecology, projected ID, Theory of Fun
  3. game genres and mechanics, tabletop and digital: Board Game Geek, RPS, killscreen, Analog, Well Played
  4. survey of games, simulations, and VWs for learning: COTS v designed, GLS, MIT, Harvard, Indiana, ASU, UCLA, Irvine, UCSC, CGS
  5. game design processes: Aldrich, Schell, Kultima, Rogers
  6. user studies: engagement, flow, play testing
  7. play test during GLS
  8. mods, theorycrafting, memes: Elitist Jerks, Skyrim
  9. assessment: the big black box?
  10. studying gaming and gaming culture: ethnography, Coming of Age in Second Life, Leet Noobs
  11. gamification, badges, connected learning
  12. outstanding issues

I’ll be posting updates to the syllabus as I fill in details, assignments, readings, games to play, etc. to this blog, hopefully making the course design process as transparent as possible. It’s like a process painting but in course design form. Thoughts? Did I leave anything out?


A statement on games and expert gaming, the tl;dr version

  • games are systems of constraints and particular goals
  • play is exploration of these systems
  • expert play is pushing at the boundaries of these systems
  • gaming is engaging in play within a larger sociocultural context of gaming culture
    • i.e., building social and cultural capital while engaging in legitimate gaming practice and participating in affinity groups
  • expert gaming is doing this well
    • i.e., it’s much more than just interacting with a game

Gee, Stevens, et al. basically said the same things at GLS conferences. Gaming takes place in *context.* Research and design should account (if not focus) on that context. It can matter more than the actual game in the story of learning and activity.

Extending the statement on games, I’ve more recently added that the true responsibility of educators in the games for learning space is to help players cultivate a gaming attitude to everyday life. Since being an expert player is pushing at the boundaries of a system, and since the world is basically made up of interrelated systems, why couldn’t game play be extended to life play? This is sort of what McGonigal is pushing at, but I think the difference I’m thinking of is in scope. She’s interested in huge global problems. I want people to be critical in all aspects of their lives, but I prob focus more on the local.

A statement on games and expert gaming

I wrote this with Theresa Horstman a while ago when we were launching AGILE (Advancing Games in Innovative Learning Environments) at UW. Sadly, we didn’t really do anything with AGILE, but I thought this statement should be salvaged.

First, some definitions:

  • Games are systems of rules/constraints that present players with goals that can best be accomplished by exploring and pushing at the limits of these rules/constraints.
    • IE. Games can be understood through systems thinking with a focus on the interrelatedness of objects rather than a focus on the objects themselves.
    • The exploration is interactional, associational, and emergent; it is not static nor inert.
    • Game experience is open to player interpretation and influenced by out-of-game context.
    • It’s self directed (and self-discovered) and problem based.
    • Exploring the associations in the system is our definition of “play.”
  • Encouraging players to push at these rules necessarily also encourages subversion and destabilization.
    • This decenters power, challenging top-down approaches to leveraging games (i.e., many gamification models).
    • Pushing at the bounds of a system is our definition of “expert play.”
  • There is little distinction between the make-believe of games and the projected identity or role taking people do in their everyday lives in settings where they imagine a future possibility. (cf. Gee, McGonigal, Sutton-Smith)
    • This realization allows us to merge pretend problems and pretend identities with authentic problems and identities and move onto the question of “so how does that affect how we design learning experiences/environments?”
  • Yes, everything is a game. More precisely, every domain/discourse can be thought of as a game world.
    • This includes both what Jim Gee calls the little g game and the big G Game (akin to Gee’s little d discourse and big D Discourse).
      • Little g: A particular domain/game has its set of rules or grammar about how objects in that domain interact with each other. Think of this as content.
      • Big G: Domains/Games also exist within a community of (literacy) practices that govern how to be within that domain. Think of this as setting, context, or ecology.
  • Participating in this broader view of games discourse is our definition of “gaming” or “gaming practice.”
    • Therefore, “expert gaming” is not just mastery of game content but also the ability to participate authentically and the possession of well-above average social and cultural capital in the broader discourse.
  • The practice within this broader discourse can be thought of as a mangle.
    • As with any culture or community of practice, what determines capital production changes over time and is in constant tension.
    • Different parties in the actor-network are constantly renegotiating what it means to “game” and the division of labor within the landscape of gaming.

Two iPhone game ideas

Woke up with two iPhone game ideas. Very, very simple:

  1. Ultimate Gamification. Player earns points while the app is on. Random awards once in a while with bigger rewards happening to greater fanfare, bigger badges, etc. Nice confetti showers or fireworks or emblems or whatever. The description will hint that some rewards are tied to activity, using the accelerometer, gps, gyroscope, or compass. This is untrue, but hopefully players will link coincidences to ritual. (Or maybe it’s actually true… 🙂 )
  2. Phone Killer. Player continually accrues points while their phone’s screen is off. The points continually increase exponentially, encouraging people to keep their phone screens off for as long as possible. Long idle times = bigger payoffs. Additionally, a large lump sum payoff is given when turning the screen off after the phone is active, though, if someone chain-turned on and off the phone, they’d get points at about the same rate as if they just left the phone idle while the screen was off. The idea is subversive in that it rewards players for not using their phone. Oh, while the phone is charging, player receives no points. If the battery is lower than 25% player receives double points.

Now that I think about it, I’m not sure these games are even possible on the iPhone. How is it with background apps or apps running while the phone isn’t actually active?

MMOG Farmer: A Facebook game concept

For a game design class I’m taking this summer, we got into groups and are designing a Facebook game. We decided early on to use an idea I had (inspired by Cow Clicker) about spoofing the farming in MMOGs since many FB games are pretty much repetitive farming, too. Each of us were then to write a short one-page concept which we’d aggregate together into one idea. This was my pitch to the group.

(Turns out no one else from my group wrote anything. Frikkin undergrads. While a few of them have been helpful in brainstorming, I’m appalled at the lack of work coming from the rest of my team. They don’t seem to realize I’m defending my dissertation in less than a week! How is it that someone who’s not even taking the class for a grade is doing most of the group work?)

MMOG Farmer

High concept: Playing a busy-work game in Facebook generates credits that can be transferred into external non-Facebook games where grinding / farming is needed to level-up or craft items. Instead of wasting precious time grinding / farming at home in the MMOG you care about, you can grind at work or school and stay productive during the down-time away from the MMOG. MMOG Farmer is meant to be tongue-in-cheek and self-aware of the genres it mimics, yet, at the same time, be a viable, enjoyable experience. Essential theme: This game captures the feeling of time-dependent repetitive grinding / farming found in MMOGs *and* Facebook games. The actual visual theme doesn’t matter so much, and we will allow players to skin the game from two choices: generic fantasy to space epic (e.g., WoW to Eve Online).

Player representation: Players create a character or avatar to control, choosing from several archetypes from a wide range of genres. These could come from more genres than just fantasy and space, and part of the appeal is juxtaposing someone from one genre with either the fantasy or space backdrop.
Player action: Comes in two forms:

  1. On the automated level, a player assigns a task to his or her character, ranging from things like collecting herbs, mining ore, and farming instances. He or she then waits for the action to complete, taking real-world time on the order of an hour or so, before being able to assign a new task. Meanwhile, the player can watch the game visuals depicting the character walking around and doing the harvesting or dungeon delving (see below).
  2. On the manual level, every player action is based around simple clicks to move from space to space and to harvest materials or kill / skin monsters. There is no combat, really, just a visual representation of combat. The actual player action is just clicking. Choosing to farm an instance changes the scenery and makes it more interesting but it is still easy and generic.

Look: The visual look is modeled after games like The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. In other words, it’s a top-down 2D grid-based game. Movement is turn-based modeled after rogue-like games, especially Desktop Dungeons (http://www.qcfdesign.com/?cat=20).

Gameplay: The automated and manual versions are the same, really. The character is in some fantasy-based or space-themed setting, moving from space to space on the 2D grid, revealing more of the map. Some spaces have harvest nodes or monsters in them that can be farmed. As the character farms, he or she gains XP and levels up, opening up new areas that can be farmed for better rewards. There are no stats for the characters, just an experience level that limits the areas that can be farmed. Between farming runs, the game automatically sells the harvested items for gold or credits.

Closing: The looks attract players to the game. The repetitive, addictive grinding compel players into playing. The fact that the gold or credits or whatever resource is accumulated can be transferred to a MMOG keeps players playing.

mini-reviews for games I played in Nov and Dec 2009

I figure I’d start off this year with a massive list of games I’ve played recently and then post individual game reviews as I play them. Also, for the new year, I’m going to try to endeavor to think more critically and reflectively about the games I play. But here’s a non-critical list of the games I remember playing in the last two months of 2009:


  • Torchlight – level 35 or so, finished main quest. Fun Diablo clone with great art. Not sure it has legs, but it’s good for when you need a 30 min wind-down diversion.
  • Dragon Age: Origins – twice, on third iteration now. Google for reviews. I can’t really add anything more other than to say that it has very strong introductory chapters for the different origin stories you can choose for your character, drags a little in the middle (massing an army can be tedious), and has a relatively short end-game (what we’d get that army for again?), but all in all, classic Bioware and a triumphant return of deep(ish) party dialog. Looking forward to community mods.
  • Broken Sword 3: The Sleeping Dragon – I bought this game years ago but it never installed on my various computers I’ve owned over the last few years. Buggy install is a bitch. I saw it on Steam 2 weeks ago and figured I’d give it another shot. It worked! and it’s a pretty good game. Odd Tomb Raider-esque ledge climbing given its pedigree (the first two were point-n-click 2D adventure games), but they didn’t really bother me. The art did take a turn backwards though when they moved to blocky 3D. I played Broken Sword 4 a couple of years ago and remember it being much prettier.
  • Nancy Drew: Warnings at Waverly Academy – Yes, I’m a sucker for Nancy Drew games. They’re all generally the same with not much innovation between iterations, but that lets them pound out… what two dozen games? in the last few years. Kinda like trashy romance novels.
  • Nancy Drew: Ransom of the Seven Ships – Sailing and driving around was pretty fun, I have to admit. That was new.
  • Mirror’s Edge – the first-person pakour game that came out a year or so ago. Most games I play are at least a year old so I can afford them… But anyway, yes, this game was fun. Shortish. Captivating music. The cutscenes were done in cool Samurai Jack-esque cutout-esque artwork. It was frustrating a few times, but overall good. Racing game combined with platformer combined with FPS. Neat.


  • Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes – Best DS game of 2009 for me. Though, admittedly, I haven’t played GTA or the new Zelda. Essentially, a puzzle game with RPG elements. Engaged me more than Puzzle Quest did.
  • Broken Sword 1: Shadow of the Templars – haven’t quite finished it yet. Just as good as I remember from playing it years ago when it first came out and then replaying it a couple of years ago on the PC. For some reason, Nico’s apartment as a sort of home base works really well and is missing from the later games in the series. Also, being able to talk about everything to everyone and get (mostly) unique dialog is pretty cool. The DS version adds some nice 2nd-screen portrait close-ups when talking with NPCs but the small main screen makes seeing the various environment elements a little harder, though they tried to make up for it by making things highlight when you touch the screen with your stylus. I bet the Wii version is great, so go buy it if you have a Wii!

Xbox 360

  • Fable II – Got this pretty much right after I (finally) bought an Xbox 360 in November. I think I liked the original Fable more. The morality system was pretty meaningless since it didn’t affect the story at all, just your character’s visuals.
  • Lego Batman – Playing with Robin. We aren’t done, yet. It’s fun. 🙂
  • various incarnations of Rock Band – Fun as always. The main reason we got an Xbox 360, actually. Well, that and the fact that it hooks up nicely to my home network and Windows Media Center.
  • Forza Motorsport 3 – When we get a house and a dedicated home theater room some day (I want to take you to a monster-free city), I’ll be getting a racing chair and a wheel to go with whatever version of Forza exists then… It is sooo beautiful. Damage modeling, too!


  • New Super Mario Bros. – Haven’t actually gotten to play it much, but I like it. The kids we sometimes hang out with like it.
  • Wii Sports Resort – borrowed from Steve. I spent a few hours just flying around. 🙂 Sword fighting is fun.
  • Wii Fit Plus – We had to rearrange our office to make enough room between the couch and TV for the Wii balance board. Now that we’ve set it up, we’ve used it maybe once a week, which is better than sitting on our asses all the time. Pretty fun so far, actually.