Prezi on Exploring Fictional Worlds

I give my second of two lectures tomorrow to our Game Culture class, this one on exploring fictional game worlds. Like most PowerPoint slides or online presentations, you probably miss something without the narration and this one features several game trailers to make a point about genre.

At any rate, here’s the Prezi! (and no peeking you ENG 380ers!)

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Prezi on Character Creation in Digital RPGs

Just got the proofs today of my article “From Meaning to Experience: Teaching Fiction Writing With Digital RPGs,” which will be appearing as the final chapter in Dungeons, Dragons, and Digital Denizens: The Digital Role Playing Game. Amazon says it will be out in February 2012. So that’s exciting.

Also tomorrow in English 380: Game Culture, I’m giving a lecture on videogame characters and character creation in digital RPGs. The Prezi that accompanies my talk appears below.

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A Short Prezi on my Dissertation

While Stuart is away in Australia I’ve been tasked with keeping the ship afloat for our course on Game Culture. This includes a short talk I’ll be giving on my dissertation, putting my project in the context of interactive fiction, electronic literature, and hypertext fiction specifically. Here’s the Prezi, entitled “Revisiting Hypertext w/Calypsis: A criminally oversimplified intro to hypertext en route to discussing my dissertation.”

I’ll also be doing full lectures later this month on character creation in videogames and exploring fictional game spaces. Both talks are geared towards RPGs but many of the concepts can be applied to other types of games as well. I’ll post those Prezis when they’re done.

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Wisconsin Routs Nebraska: An MMA Comparison

UW Routs Nebraska
Right, so both my parents went to Nebraska and my wife and I graduated from Wisconsin and currently live in Madison. My dad, who is a Cornhusker nutjob, was beside himself when news broke that Nebraska would be joining the Big Ten as it would no doubt raise the level of interfamily school rivalries as both my brothers and their wives attended Purdue. And lo! even better was the news that Nebraska would open their inaugural Big Ten campaign one mile east of my house. What better time to plan a visit?

Even though my love of the Badgers falls far behind my irrational passion for the Green Bay Packers (grew up in Green Bay) and the US Men’s National Team (grew up in the United States), UW football is not far behind. We were fed on a steady diet of Nebraska football superiority growing up, but I also knew that many experts had picked UW to win the Big Ten this year. I quietly suspected the Badgers would win but I didn’t think they’d cover the ten-point spread.

We watched the first half in my basement, both of us on our best behavior, making emotionless comments like, “Someone blew that coverage,” and “I’m surprised both teams are passing so much.” The first quarter was a back-and-forth affair but through the second, the Badgers slowly found their groove. In some ways, it reminded me of an MMA bout where both guys are frighteningly ripped and both look up for the occasion. The two football teams traded blows in round one, but UW landed a couple big shots in the form of interceptions that led to touchdowns. Like an MMA fighter who gets rocked hard a couple times, Nebraska started to panic and the beat-down was on. After half-time, they looked more like the hunted than the hunter. Once the announcers started talking NASCAR and baseball in the third quarter, you knew the route well and truly on.

I’m not writing off Nebraska yet, but the big question remains: will they bounce back from this crushing defeat or will the pressure of being the new guy on the block get to them? On the other side, will Wisconsin be able to keep up the mojo and run the table against weaker opposition, or will complacency set in? Should be interesting to see the season unfold.

Oh, my folks had to head back to their hotel at halftime. Probably best for all parties involved.

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Grey’s First Videogame

So this morning I downloaded the trial copy of Braid, a game discussed in Tom Bissel’s excellent book, Extra Lives. It’s also a game we’ll be playing and discussing soon in our Game Culture class so I wanted to take a sneak peek.

And as soon as the television goes on, Grey is immediately interested. He loves his Thomas the Tank Engine movies on Netflix, although we try to limit his television watching. The game, as I expected, is gorgeous, infused with a Monet-like beauty and accompanied by a lovely, haunting soundtrack. Well you can’t just download a game without playing a little, and for awhile Grey watched, enthralled.

Then he wanted a turn.

Without much hesitation I handed him the controller and talked about the (limited) controls: how to move, how to jump, how to open doors, how to rewind time. He was thrilled to control Tim, the game’s character, and loved it anytime either of us (I was helping out a lot) beat the challenge and won a puzzle piece, which is the entire point of the level. He got bored after a little bit and went back to his train set.

I’m sure lots of parents think this was not a good move, but I’m looking at it differently. We talked about letters (“push the A button”) and colors (“the blue button makes time go back”) and directions (“keep going to the right… now back to the left”). He also worked on a little coordination. In contrast, a book doesn’t give a child any feedback–it doesn’t do anything if the kid correctly says that the shoes in the picture are red–and that’s why parents read with their kids, right? To give encouragement and feedback, to correct any mistakes and to clarify any questions. The difference here is that I was still giving him direction, clarifications, and advice, and the game also gave feedback. Pushing the green ‘A’ button makes Tim jump, and the look of delight on Grey’s face suggests that making Tim jump up a couple platforms felt like quite an accomplishment.

I’m not suggesting that videogames replace books or other educational tools we have to teach our kids; I am suggesting however that games can be incorporated into the many media we use to teach our kids about the world. Like other media, the parent has to choose appropriate titles and be an active participant in the proceedings, giving feedback and staying involved. Grey got bored after about 15 minutes and went back to his trains, but I can see us (or at least me) moving towards a position where playing a game becomes like watching a movie–Grey will be allowed so much movie OR game time a day, his choice. We’ll see how the wife feels about that…

But now we’re going to go play at the park.

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Game Design and Education: One Quick Example

Each week the Comparative Media Studies program at MIT publishes a podcast where a guest speaker discusses all kinds issues related to media: film, television, videogames, and all the rest. On the drive home yesterday I finished the most recent one given by librarian and game designer Scott Nicholson talking about modern board game design and I highly recommend it.

Nicholson makes a number of great points about games and game design and covers an impressive amount of territory in his presentation. Near the end he gives a perfect example that should clarify how games can be used effectively in educational scenarios, especially when students are charged with designing a game that reflects certain educational principles. “The game play has to demonstrate what it is you’re trying to teach. What they find is when kids do this, when kids create games, they learn the topic matter better” (around the 73:30 mark). He’s talking about how a game categorization system will help librarians to refer teachers to appropriate games for their needs. Teachers could say to their 7th grade class, “All right, we just [learned] the periodic table. You make a combat game, you make a set collection game, you make an auction game” (around the 88:30 mark).

So think about this example would work in a classroom and how much students would need to engage with the periodic table in order to make a decent game. For a combat game, what elements are most powerful? In a set collection game, what elements are most rare? In an auction game, what elements are most valuable? In order for any of these games to work students would need to answer these questions and balance them with game play–the game needs to be challenging and fun in addition to being educational. Students wouldn’t sit with a book and do boring memorization drills, they’d need to learn about the properties of different elements and, through repeated reference back to the table, they’d have compelling reason to remember their characteristics: not to pass a test, but to make a better game.

A lot of this gaming and game design theory is (rightly) directed at elementary and secondary education. That’s all fine and good, but we gamers come in all ages. I’d like to see more of this kind of innovative pedagogy happening at the college level too.

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Cracked.com and Game Culture

I stumbled on these articles on videogames on cracked.com (the online incarnation of the old Cracked magazine) and was pleasantly surprised to find that they’re both funny yet intelligently written for a popular audience. Although there are more, these were ones particularly relevant for ENG 380: Media and Society – Game Culture.

5 Reasons It’s Still Not Cool to Admit You’re a Gamer
http://www.cracked.com/article_18571_5-reasons-its-still-not-cool-to-admit-youre-gamer.html

The Day the Gaming Industry Died: Impressions from E3 2010
http://www.cracked.com/article_18608_the-day-gaming-industry-died-impressions-from-e3-2010.html

More Proof the Video Game Industry is Out of Ideas (E3 2010)
http://www.cracked.com/article_18609_more-proof-video-game-industry-out-ideas-e3-2010.html#ixzz1VJ1OBxL5

5 Innovative Ways the Gaming Industry is Screwing You
http://www.cracked.com/article_16330_5-innovative-ways-gaming-industry-screwing-you.html#ixzz1VIyqmuW0

5 Creepy Ways Video Games Are Trying to Get You Addicted
http://www.cracked.com/article_18461_5-creepy-ways-video-games-are-trying-to-get-you-addicted.html#ixzz1VIywhuU6

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My New Storyspace E-reader

Yeah, so I’m trying to read Afternoon, A Story, Patchwork Girl, and Victory Garden, all of which are foundational hypertexts, and all of which are on the proprietary Storyspace software by Eastgate Systems. Unfortunately none of them work on either my Vista 64-bit laptop or my Vista 32-bit desktop, even after trying a slew of software emulators. In fact, the first time I ordered Victory Garden through the library I received a 3.5″ floppy and couldn’t find a machine on campus that still accepted them.

That I had to dig up an old computer from my in-laws’ basement in order to read these works is a problem. Eastgate said Storyspace should work on Vista 32-bit (but it didn’t for me) but assured me that a Storyspace app would be out soon. Even so, will these hypertext fictions still be priced out at $25 each?

Will we see a day where digital literature composed on older versions of Flash, for example, will also require readers to find decades-old computers to enjoy them? As paper once said, “the news of my obsolescence has been greatly exaggerated.”

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Preliminary Conclusions on Fallout: New Vegas

Before I give my brief rundown, I should admit that I have an unholy love for Fallout 3. It was the first RPG I’d played in many, many years and fell head over heels for it immediately. I was reading a lot of videogame theory and creative writing theory when I first started playing and, in many ways, Fallout 3 was the springboard for getting interested in using games for educational purposes. I had to wait about nine months between finishing Fallout 3 and really having a go at Fallout New Vegas.

Now I’m winding down with FNV and feel the need to reflect on what, overall, has been a fairly disappointing experience. I acknowledge I had impossibly high expectations going in, but the game itself is flawed in serious ways that Fallout 3 just wasn’t. Here are some preliminary observations:

  • Familiarity breeds contempt.I thought I wanted the exact same game as Fallout 3 but with a new world. Ironically, this is close to what I got so perhaps I don’t have the right to complain, but it just goes to show how quickly a game can from being innovative to feeling tired in a short period of time. Games draw us in to their worlds by teaching us how to play them, and that quality of immersion wasn’t present for me in New Vegas the way it was in the DC environment of F3.
  • Glitches kill games. Unfortunately you can’t talk about this game without talking about the bugs. I started playing about six months after the game’s release and hoped that patches would solve this problem. They addressed most of the major ones, but playing today I still routinely fall through rocks, get stuck in walls, have quests lock up, and experience frequent game freezes. Right now I’m having trouble with my companions losing all of their weapons after I exit a casino, even after I’ve had them wait outside to avoid this (which I also shouldn’t have to do). This not only makes the game a grind, but it also breaks whatever level of immersion the game has achieved to that point.
  • The character still shifts too quickly from struggling to competence to god-like. Both F3 and FNV are at their best when your character is between Level 1 and maybe Level 12 or so. The areas in which you’ve chosen to specialize in still count for a lot at this stage, and you’re just getting to the point where you can navigate difficult situations with some ability. Even though you get fewer perks in FNV compared to F3, I still feel like many situations are no longer challenging. Wiping out an entire casino full of thugs, for example, is a bit of routine business completed in about a minute of gameplay.
  • When the game gets challenging, it often gets stupider. Even though I’m on my way to Level 30, the highest level in the game, I still do find myself fleeing like mad from enemies from time to time, but usually for annoying reasons. When I’m using a flamethrower to torch a guy wearing only a tuxedo for protection, he should be dead pretty quickly; when he’s hitting me with a cane, that shouldn’t even scratch my suit of combat armor. But when I’m doing marginal damage and he’s beating my head in, that breaks any sense of immersion; I’m thinking, “Well, this is stupid.” Ideally enemies would get smarter or more well-equipped as you level up to make the game more complicated, rather than suddenly becoming irrationally strong bullet-sponges.
  • Cazadores suck. Maybe I need to get over this, but I consider it a design flaw and a hugely annoying part of the game. Cazadores are insects with poison stingers who descend upon you quickly and in numbers. While that alone made them challenging (and annoying) opponents, the deal breaker comes with another piece of nonsense: if they poison your companions, they die. If you get poisoned you can take anti-venom, which makes sense; however if any human companion gets poisoned, there’s no way to get them to take the medicine and they die, even from a single hit. Which is stupid. Gamers suspend their disbelief to fill in the fictional holes in games all the time, and it’s not an issue–until it is. The glaring problem here is the ridiculousness of the situation: you have a cure, your partner needs it, but there’s no way to say, “Here, take a shot of this or you will die.”

Fallout 3 wasn’t perfect but I would need to think awhile to come up with a list of flaws; the above points rolled off the top of my head. I appreciate that the game tried develop a more complex story than F3, but this goes back to a key point in videogames: a good game can have a bad story, but a good story can’t save a bad game.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say FNV is a bad game per se; I have enjoyed playing it. But it’s flaws are too many and too serious for it to be another other than a pale shadow of its predecessor. Is this because the game was developed by Obsidian rather than Bethesda Softworks. Dunno. But Fallout 4 is rumored to be another Bethesda Softworks (F3) developed project rather than an Obsidian ( FNV) one, and hopefully that’s a good thing.

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Meiklejohn, Davis & Evans, Meet Everett

I didn’t teach ENG 102: College Writing and Research last year but I’m returning to the assignment sequence I used the year before, where I spend the first few class sessions talking about student and instructor roles in the university. First I have them read “Part I: The Determining Purpose” from The Liberal College by Alexander Meiklejohn. It’s a series of four essays in which Meiklejohn shares his thoughts about what a “liberal education” involves, and students respond with essays about what a college education means to them.

Next they read Davis & Shadle’s “Building a Mystery: Alternative Research Writing and the Academic Art of Seeking,” followed by an assignment that asks them to put Meiklejohn, Davis, Evans, and themselves in a dialogue about the goals of higher education.

This year I’m thinking of inserting into the conversation Daniel Everett’s provocative article “The Broccoli of Higher Ed” from Inside Higher Ed. Per usual, the article sparked heated debate in the comments section.

I’ve read Everett’s piece but haven’t come to any conclusions about it. Sounds like the makings for a good classroom discussion…

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