Monday, May 30, 2005

Descent to the Underworld

ScreenshotStudents at nine universities from four nations used Internet2 to collaborate on Descent to the Underworld, an educational videogame that teaches players about "myth and mythical narrative."

A Gamers' Manifesto

This gamers' manifesto is mainly aimed at console games, but there are a few tidbits in there that speak to game design for educational games, too, such as the "Save anytime, anywhere" thing. It's always good to take a step back and question the things we take as axiomatic in games, and see if we can break them - it will either make our axioms stronger, or help us divest ourselves of limitation. Either way, it's a win.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Virtual Magic Kingdom is in public beta

DocksWell, Disney's multiplayer virtual theme park, Disney's Virtual Magic Kingdom, is now in public beta, and it was made in Macromedia Director (not Flash), which means this sort of application is within reach of smaller development shops, with a little effort. In fact, it was made by the fine folks over at Sulake, makers of the popular Habbo Hotel virtual community.

The game itself appears to be a glorified chat room at first, but there are lots of things that extend it beyond that. Customizable avatars, a game world currency, personalizable rooms, and pickups throughout the theme park are just the start - there's also a framework for delivering multiplayer games, like the excellent pirate ship combat game (particularly interesting since we're working on a similar themed game ourselves).

Friday, May 20, 2005


spyboticsOver on the Lego site, there's a tactical combat game called Spybotics: The Nightfall Incident that is surprisingly deep from both a gameplay and a story perspective, and also very polished.

The gameplay hinges on using programs to hack into network nodes, using each program's strengths to gain different advantages on the battlefield. The storyline, even early on, brings in a mystery of sorts, where you don't know who to trust, despite the simple yes/no dialogue interface. For a promotional online game aimed at kids, the game creators really pulled out all the stops. I'm not sure I'd call it educational, but it certainly does challenge the player to think critically and plan ahead. Pretty impressive.

These are the caliber of games that small production houses can create to good effect, I think. I haven't seen a postmortem on this game, but I suspect it was a small team working for a month or two. There's nothing there that isn't accessible to a reasonably skilled Director or Flash programmer, so educational games like this could probably be produced without too much pain.

Japanese Puzzle Games

I love puzzle games and just saw this over at There is a craze for these su doku puzzles over in the UK that has jumpstarted newspaper purchasing. I need a good puzzle.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Industry closes door on original ideas

The Guardian Unlimited Gamesblog has an editorial on how the game industry is shying away from developing new IP in the waning seasons of the current generation of consoles. In particular, it says that "there are no new games going into development for PS2 and Xbox, it’s all sequels and branded tie-ins from now on." The author takes the position that this is a bad thing, asserting that:
Relying solely on sequels is the videogame equivalent of incest – eventually, the gene pool goes stagnant.

I agree with that sentiment as far as practicalities go, but I don't think sequels have to be "design incest." Really, all the beancounters want is the brand-driving force of a recognizable title. Once the customer is suckered intoconvinced to purchase the game, the game designer has the freedom (or is it obligation?) to diverge from the original game to define compelling new gameplay for the sequel.

Still, what this probably means is that the typical game buyer is reluctant to drop cash on unknown IP, which might be an important lesson for educational game developers. Series like "Math Blaster" seem to really trade off of the name recognition, so I think there's evidence for this phenomenon in the educational ciricles, too. For us, I don't think this necessarily means that we ditch what we're doing and license a movie character instead, but I do think it means that we should have as one of our goals to generate some IP that can sustain a long series of educational titles, because that will serve us better in the long run.

High Tech High Albuquerque

We are seeing many magnet programs and charter schools redefining public education. How does this group feel about such an intensive technology program such as this, rather than a broader based approach to learning? Our lab will allow us to study the technology kids are using in a concentrated short amount of time. Are these schools something we should be looking at for studies and or structure as we began to shape our lab and efforts?

High Tech High Albuquerque
High Tech High Albuquerque is a small public charter high school that seeks a diverse student population and provides a rigorous academic curriculum that rivals the best programs in the country. High Tech High Albuquerque is a college preparatory program emphasizing:

Project-based learning
• Multidisciplinary study
• Emphasis on math, science, and technology
• Socratic practice
• Team approach
• Concurrent enrollment
• Internships for all students
• Close linkages to higher education and industry

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

New version of GBA

Game Boy MicroNintendo has announced yet another repackaging of the Game Boy Advance handheld console, this one called the Game Boy Micro. It's got a stylish silver case, and it's tiny - 4 inches by 2 inches, weighing about the same as "80 paper clips."

The GBA is one of the few major consoles out there that has reasonably accessible hobbyist development tools, and is a possible avenue for educational game development.

New Legend of Zelda game screenies

Screenshot detailGameSpot has posted some The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess screenshots. I was particularly impressed by the art direction - the detail in these screenshots is impressive, but the staging and the mood effects are pretty compelling, too. (If you look closely, you'll see different environmental effects, such as the "floating crap in the air" a'la Legend in the more serene places, pinned yellow glows in forest glades, and dirt tromped up by horses and war pigs in the mounted battle scene.)

These are the sort of production values that game titles are starting to lean towards. The gap between what an entertainment title can achieve and what an educational title can achieve is widening into a yawning chasm, which is going to make it that much more difficult to teach in the context of games, because we can no longer even approximate the sorts of immersive experiences players get when they play the AAA titles.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Why good ideas beat good graphics

There's an article over on BBC News about why good ideas beat good graphics in game design, with thoughts on the matter from Nintendo president Satoru Iwata, world-class game designer Peter Molyneux, and others.

Not just a video game

There is a big push for the "Infusion" of integrating thinking skills into the regular curriculum. Why is it that most teachers fail to see the value video games bring to students? I see it as creative thinking in which one is building on fluency, flexibility, originality and elaboration. Creative thinking skills are very much related to critical thinking skills, which these students should acquire.

Below is an excerpt from an article posted to my DE listserve. The link is also included.

Indeed, video games are not games in the sense of those pastimes-like Monopoly or gin rummy or chess-which most of us grew up with. They don't have a set of unambiguous rules that have to be learned and then followed during the course of play. This is why many of us find modern video games baffling: we're not used to being in a situation where we have to figure out what to do. We think we only have to learn how to press the buttons faster. But these games withhold critical information from the player. Players have to explore and sort through hypotheses in order to make sense of the game's environment, which is why a modern video game can take forty hours to complete. Far from being engines of instant gratification, as they are often described, video games are actually, Johnson writes, "all about delayed gratification-sometimes so long delayed that you wonder if the gratification is ever going to show."


BlitzMax is a new cross-platform (Win, Mac, Linux) rapid game development product. It's cheap at $80, has a faster engine (ostensibly) than Director's sprite engine, and has native access to OpenGL programming for 3D work.

Three More Interesting Games

This is a bit of fun. Student Survivor is a marketing tool to help raise the profile of UNIAID, a charitable
organisation dedicated to supporting students aiming to reach and cope with the
challenges of higher education.

According to wikipedia, "The Stroop effect in
psychology is a demonstration of interference.
When colour words such as blue, green, red, etc.
are printed in various colours and someone is
asked to say the colour the words are printed
in rather than reading the words." Blimey.
But according to your Ginger Fuhrer, "It's a
good idea for a game with a lovely little sing-song."

It's not often you'll get peed on by a flying
alien in diapers, but this short little game's
got that and lots more frankly bonkers Japanese
animation. When the whistle blows it's up to you
to drag things around to get to the next bit.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Nickel and Dimed to Death

It looks like the next console generations from Sony and Microsoft are including as a key feature the ability to kill you two ways: by having the monster bash you until you run out of hit points, or to kill you - the player - by nickel and dime-ing you to death. That's right - microtransactions built right into your game console! Hey, for just ninety-nine cents, you can upgrade your sword. Oh, for another ninety-nine, you can beef up your armor. Oh, that boss monster still to tough for you? Perhaps you'd be interested in a couple of healing potions - only fifty cents a pop.

An article over at Grimwell Online points out the perils of this plan:
When the game becomes nothing more than a tool to drive more money to the shareholders, it's quickly able to shed all vestiges of a game.
He correctly points out that there is great temptation now for the executive producers to demand games that are little more than vehicles to prompt people to buy in-game content - and indeed, to hold back the best content for the highest-paying customers.

And what does this mean for educational games? Well, first, it means that the commercial gulf between the emerging "Hollywood" game development culture and educational games is widening further. Not only can educational game titles not compete on the graphics and depth of media against the AAA titles, but now, they'll have to compete against games that make money not only on the initial purchase (which already tends to be steeper than educational games), but continue making money after the sale.

Probably not much educational titles can do to encourage micropayment competition against entertainment titles, although I could see a devious model which allows the hapless student to pay fifty cents to skip over the boring educational parts of games to get to the fun parts. Heh.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005


Even a man who is pure of heart and says his prayers by night may become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms and the moon is full and bright.
Apparently, there is a class of social games which places a predator amidst a group of victims. Greg Aleknevicus has an interesting article on Werewolf, a particular variety of the game.

I've seen other reviews of games set up like this, and one of the assertions is that because this is a social game, it would not lend itself to computerization. However, I'm not convinced about that. I could see a game of Werewolf that is played distributed across cell phones or other mobile devices, or played through email. You wouldn't get the intense person-to-person interaction, but perhaps you could modify the game somehow to accommodate the more pensive atmosphere that would occur through email. And considering the fact that a good game of Werewolf requires gathering 14-18 people together - something a lot of us would have trouble doing - a distributed sever-based version would help connect willing players who might not otherwise be able to play.

Might be an interesting experiment to try.

Casual Games Conference

A new conference called the Casual Games Conference has cropped up to support the burgeoning casual games industry. This is a ripe segment that our media program could handsomely target, since we're not targeting the big game media market.

The conference is July 19-20, 2005 in Seattle, Washington, and the price is $195 early, $295 the week before, and $395 at the door.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Righteous Game Development

Ian Bogost of Water Cooler Games blogged earlier this week about Armchair Games, a set of extremely simple games used as an advertising tool for a big screen television. (Example... use your left and right keys to make a guy run to the bathroom... ready, go... 8 seconds... new record!... email us your information and we'll put you in the running to win the prize).

After a difficult day of trying to design an entertaining game that teaches the difference between the independent variable and the dependent variable (we're going with monkeys... can't go wrong with monkeys), it is dissappointing to see such a simple game online. This isn't a game, really... I mean, sure, it may meet some of the standards of what a game is (see a great review of Malone and other's research on this at but shouldn't a game player want to be engaged for more than 8 seconds for it to really count? In truth, this is data harvesting with a game façade. "Hmmm... they may just not voluntarily give us their name and email address for us to send them unsolicited emails... maybe we can convince them they have won something." Shouldn't a game do more than this?

Are we any better in education? Part of our frustration today was designing a game that kept our game player engaged in a game long enough to learn something, without her feeling that she was being punished at some point in our game by learning. Really, we want to develop games that are so compelling, the player will continue despite learning something. Do we use games to get the user's attention and then slip them some kind of knowledge? What do we owe our learners when we call something a game? Must it have all components of a game... or are we simply tricking them into giving us their attention by calling something a game?

Monday, May 09, 2005

Mike Doyle Interview

In the latest issue of the Games Journal, there is an interview with Mike Doyle, an artist who does box art and component design for board games. While much of the article is specifically targeted at board games, there are some things that I think have relevance to the world of educational gaming as well. In particular, he talks about shedding the "stigma" that board games suffer under. Since educational games suffer under a similar stigma, it's worth a read.
"The world of games desperately needs to become relevant and desirable within our culture... With all the exciting facets these new games have to offer, publishers should be holding the keys to a lifestyle that people want to be part of."

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Can Videogames Change School Culture?

There are several instances of Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) games being used in after school programs, gym classes, etc to help stem the obesity epidemic among our youth. In talking with other another parent (also a nutrition Extension educator), we wondered if we can use a DDR videogame to change the culture in schools of using food as a fundraiser. In many schools, vending machines provide valuable revenue for PTAs and other groups, making schools reluctant to remove them. Additionally, many schools have school fundraisers centered around food: bake sales, candy sales, etc. We wondered if we couldn't create a pilot project where fundraising centered around activity: bouncy castles and slides at recess, DDR video games in the halls, pedometer sales, etc. If we were to go back 20 years to when I was in school, I can't imagine a school allowing any arcade game into the hallways... are games finally reaching a status level where they will be allowed in educational institutions?

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Great 3D Learning Gizmos

ForgeFX screenshotCheck out these awesome 3D learning gizmos by ForgeFX. Done in Shockwave3D, they are great examples of what the 3D capabilities of Director are. (Note for users of Safari: there's a bug that shifts the shockwave3D content up about 30 pixels, so you'll have to aim low with your mouse to interact with the gizmos.)

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Keita Takahashi on Game Design

Since we're talking about Katamari Damacy, you might want to check out this synopsis of Keita Takahashi's speech at the Game Developer's Conference. (Keita Takahashi is the person who came up with Katamari Damacy.)

In his speech, he expressed skepticism about the necessity of games, concern that video games rob children of their childhood, and hope that if, indeed, the violent videogames have a negative impact on people, then perhaps pleasant, peaceful games like his own masterpiece can have a positive impact. In the end, he got a standing ovation.

Katamari 2

Good article at 1up:

Monday, May 02, 2005

NESTA Literature Review

Keri Facer, head of Learning Research at NESTA Future Lab, does a nice job reviewing some personal thoughts and research on games and learning. The review (found at does a nice job of introducing some of the major names in the field, Malone, Prensky, Csikszentmihalyi (Pronounced chick-sent-me-high-ee), as well as some of the issues for research (classification, motivation, learning). It is a good read if you haven't done much research in games area.

The Ancient Origins of Modern Board Games

NPR has a story on the Ancient Origins of Modern Board Games, or rather an exhibit on the topic currently on display at the Smithsonian, entitled Asian Games: The Art of Contest. Apparently, abstract games like Parcheesi and juvenile games like Chutes and Ladders came from much earlier Asian versions of games that held more than simple entertainment value. (Indeed, they even performed the role of guides to spiritual and bureaucratic success.)

Bichard's Backseat Playground and 2220

John Paul Bichard (better known on the Director lists as "Gerbil" and/or "Psychic Parrot") has been a little scarce in the Director scene lately. Now we know why. He's been working on Backseat Playground, a mobile gaming project which attempts to connect kids riding in the back seats of cars with the environments they travel through using an innovative game design. The hope is that it prompts kids to take an interest in geography and local history.

He's also preparing to build an interactive photojournal of an expedition he plans to take of a sixty day journey around the coastline of Sweden.

Sunday, May 01, 2005


SiSSYFiGHT 2000 is a very simple, and yet oh-so-very-complex, multiplayer game which has incredibly simple rules, but which pulls those rules into a social context for much richer, much deeper, and much more interesting gameplay. This Shockwave-based gem has been around for years, but it apparently still has a strong following.

8Ball Review

There's a review of new features for the next incarnation of Flash (codenamed "8Ball") over at oman3d.