Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

Type:Rider and Flappy Bird

I wouldn’t have thought typography could be the subject of a video game, but Type:Rider does just that. The levels are a tour of Western history from the middle ages onward, each corresponding to a different typeface in the context of its era. The Gothic type’s levels take cues from medieval churches while the 1920’s Futura feels like a modern art museum. The player’s avatar is a colon, two rolling dots bound together by some magnetic-seeming attraction. Gameplay consists of navigating through terrain including each letter of the alphabet rendered in the that typeface. The letters are arranged to create interesting geometrical puzzles that make them memorable. The player also navigates through oversized versions of the printing technologies of the day, meanwhile collecting asterisks that unlock brief passages about the key figures and inventions of the time period.

There are a number of features that make Type:Rider stand out. It is highly polished, with beautiful visual environments and suitable thematic music. (Surprisingly the typesetting of the informative passages is often found wanting; perhaps the English translation wasn’t proofed by the original European developers?) The controls are relatively expressive, in that with a few taps the skilled player can move the colon in one of many possible ways. The game has value: it took a team of experienced designers and developers time and money to create it, and the user must expend time and money to enjoy it. But yet, the game has a deeper message. Yes, it’s about typography, but mere type is the means by which we transfer knowledge; typography is the beatification of knowledge. Typography rewards diligence, attention to detail, graphical density, and knowledge of prior work. Typography is the wings on which intellectualism is borne.

Contrast this with the maddeningly weak and imprecise wings of Flappy Bird. Wired does a good job recounting the saga of the infamous iOS game and its creator, Dong Nguyen. Anyone can pick up the game and play it immediately, but playing well is exceedingly difficult: mastery and skill-building are sacrificed on the alter of ease-of-use. Play happens in all-too-brief bouts, which provide instant gratification with no time commitment. No depth of knowledge, skill, or artistic message is ever accumulated.

Papert distinguishes between children programming computers and computers programming children, and this is certainly the latter. Flappy bird conditions one exact response, with no room for exploration or creativity. No justification is given as to why the world must be the way it so firmly is. More concretely, flappy bird is fake difficulty, riding on an artificially narrow method of control. It perniciously makes the smart phone, and the human, less smart.

Dong Nguyen made (and is likely still making) fifty thousand dollars a day off advertising shown to the game’s users. I highly doubt the users (largely teens) are spending anywhere close to that amount of money on the advertised products. Flappy bird generates money but not wealth; like doomed financial products it is built on value that simply isn’t there. Sooner or later, this bubble must burst.

But despite the attention directed towards Flappy bird, it is hardly unique. Only four of the top fifty grossing apps (as of when I checked) are not games (Pandora, Skype, and two dating apps). The rest are games, targeted at the under-20 crowd, driven by ads and in-app purchases (which include the removal of ads). The app store has become Western kids in a gigantic candy store, and this has pushed adults and their fine intellectual cuisine off to the margins. The market has spoken: mass-produced low-quality ad-ridden software for entitled children is what sells, adults and society be damned.

I will quote (again) from Jaron Lanier, You Are Not A Gadget: “Rooms full of MIT PhD engineers [are] not seeking cancer cures or sources of safe drinking water for the underdeveloped world but schemes to send little digital pictures of teddy bears and dragons between adult members of social networks. At the end of the road of the pursuit of technological sophistication appears to lie a playhouse in which human kind regresses to nursery school.”

Even Type:Rider is not immune. It has the requisite Facebook and Twitter integration, though they are less prominent. It is also available as a Facebook game. What is offers, then, is not a completely pure solitary experience but rather a compromise given the nature of the market.

It is said that technology changes quickly and people change slowly, but the reality is more complex. People have shown a remarkable ability to adapt to new technologies, without fundamentally altering how they think or what goals they have. Meanwhile, the face of technology changes, but many ideas remain timeless and fixed, old wine repackaged into new bottles. Furthermore standards and protocols by which devices communicate with each other, once set, become incredibly difficult to change. We are in danger of not changing with technology, and then creating technology that prevents us from changing.


Beyond Agency: Why Good Ideas Only Take Us So Far

In a previous post, This is You: Agency in Education, I argued that we need to create educational software that, through extremely limited tools, forced its users to think in new and powerful ways. I used the term agency to refer to having an avatar (or agent) in a larger system with which one can identify. I’m sure educators have another word for this concept, which I will happily adopt just as soon as I find out what it is. I presented agency as one deliberately limited tool that can be used to focus thought. I also held up the video game Osmos as an example of how to use agency in compelling ways.

This time, I will present another video game as an example of taking agency too far: Spore. The highly-anticipated and much delayed 2008 title lets players evolve from a single cell into a space-faring civilization. The cell stage is the epitome of agency: the player’s cell is all they can control as they battle for survival in the primordial soup. Later, on land, the lines are blurred as players recruit other creatures to their posse and eventually control a planet-scale civilization with fleets and cities. So far, it’s set up to start with agency and gradually wean the player off of it into abstract, non-localized thinking.

But then the space stage starts. Instead of setting dials on dozens of colonies, establishing trade routes without worrying about the individual freighters, or sending fleets of identical ships into battle, the player controls a single spaceship flying around the galaxy. It’s impossible to wage a war or build colonies when existing colonies, and those of the player’s alien allies, need to be babysat and they’re half a galaxy away. The player should be Emperor Palpatine but instead they’re Captain Kirk.

What makes Spore so tragically flawed is not only does it fail to give players the controls they need, but it spends the bulk of the game teaching the player the cognitive skills to use the absent controls. Spore‘s galaxy of half a million planets is created using advanced procedural generation algorithms, but the game doesn’t offer its players so much as an if-statement. In this way, Spore is the opposite of most bad education: it provides a guided learning curve but no expectation or way to apply what was learned. Much of the learn-to-code movement provides plenty of tools, even innovative tools, but instructing their use is an afterthought. Neither of these symmetrical mistakes makes for a good user experience.

What Spore does right, up until liftoff, is to start with agency and move away from it. Agency is actually not a powerful idea at all; it’s too weak to support the space stage. Agency is a natural idea, one that is easy to adopt based on our physical bodies and evolutionary wiring. It’s a way to get comfortable with advanced concepts but it’s also really crippling when you want to apply those concepts. We need to find ways to provide learners of all ages with tools that are easy to learn and powerful — and rarely will the same tool be both.

This Is You: Agency in Education

This is the opening of the ambient puzzle game Osmos, by Hemisphere Games. “This is you,” is all it says, as if you’ve always been a glowing blue orb. Most games start by introducing the player to their avatar, but it’s usually a human character with a backstory. Puzzle games are an exception: they rarely give the player an avatar whatsoever. Normally you play an unacknowledged manipulator of abstract blocks according to fixed rules and patterns. Osmos is an exception to the exception.

Osmos also has masterful use of player training and learning curve. It begins in the simplest possible setting with the simplest possible task: “Move to the blue circle and come to a stop.” You accelerate by ejecting mass, which propels the rest of you in the opposite direction. The game tells you these things in the same order I relayed them to you: first objective, then the means. Osmos could have said, “Hey, look how you can move by ejecting mass! Now use this ability to move to this outlined circle.” But it didn’t. The progression is guided, focused, and objective-based, especially at first. The levels build on each other, reinforcing knowledge from previous levels as the player gains experience.

Impasse 1 In a rare moment of explanation, Osmos introduces players to the idea of using ejected mass to move the red motes out of the way so they can get to the blue ones.

Impasse 2 Immediately afterwards, players are asked to apply that principle in a puzzle that looks harder than it is.

Osmos presents players with the Odyssey, an sequence of levels that introduce gameplay concepts in a logical order. The Odyssey runs from the tutorial described above up through medium difficulty levels. After that, players gain access to a Sandbox mode where they can explore different game types at different difficulties. That is, a level of Osmos is distinguished not only by quantitative difficulty by qualitatively, by the kinds of game mechanics and obstacles found. More fundamentally, Osmos is played in discrete levels that can be won, lost, restarted, and randomized, rather than an endless arcade of increasing difficulty like Bejeweled. Players can skip to and play any level they have unlocked at will; a session of Osmos can last three minutes or three hours.

Players are incentivized to complete the Odyssey and get as far as they can in the sandbox, but there’s no climactic end of the game. No explanation is given why some levels seem to take place in a petri dish while others in orbit around a star; it’s wonderfully abstract in that regard. It’s impossible to “win” and there’s no victory cutscene. It’s neither so boring and open-ended you don’t want to play nor so scripted you only want to play once. There are achievements (badges) awarded but they seem extraneous to me.

And now to the point of all this: what can we learn from Osmos when designing software for education?

By the structure of its gameplay and incentives, Osmos lends itself to the sporadic and time-limited technology access found in many schools. Instead of leaving students behind who didn’t win the game, or trying to pry a child who’s “gotten far” away from the computer or tablet, it’s easier to take a break from Osmos. Meanwhile the nature of gameplay means that it’s very much a solitary experience, a personal journey of discovery. For all the hype given to social gaming over the last few years, it’s not conducive to deep thinking.

And yes: agency, in the sense of being a specific agent. In Osmos, the player is someoneor at least something: this is you. As I’ve said, most puzzle games don’t give the player anything to latch on to. Neither does formal arithmetic, nor algebra. Symbol manipulation provides no agency. It forces mathematics into the unnatural third person perspective (unnatural from a human’s point of view). When I played with blocks as a child I would often imagine an ant climbing and exploring my structures. Pen and paper mathematics allows the mathematician to move blocks around but not to be an ant inside his or her own creation.

Seymour Papert developed LOGO to provide children with agency. LOGO is a cross between a game and a programming language. Players manipulate the “Turtle” by telling it to turn left or right or move forward, where forward is relative to how it is turned. When children first encounter difficulties, they are told to “play turtle”. By moving their own bodies through space, they are able to debug and refine their program. And by thinking how they move their own bodies through space, they are given a tangible grip on both computation and thinking.

Scratch was developed at the MIT Media Lab, which was co-founded by Papert. Scratch, though very much a descendent of LOGO, adds more commands to increase the user’s power and control. Many of the commands were discussed by Papert in his book Mindstorms or seem to be reasonable extensions of it. Others (thought balloons, sounds, arithmetic, color effects) are superfluous. Still others, like if-else statements, while loops, and Boolean operations, are taken from the nuts and bolts of programming. This comes at the cost of downplaying the two high-level skills which Papert thought were so vital to learning any subject: subprocedures and debugging. With LOGO, children learned to compartmentalize knowledge into reusable pieces, and to make incremental improvements to see the results they wanted.

One of LOGO’s defining characteristics was its limited set of commands, which are relative to the current position and heading of the Turtle. Osmos players can eject mass in any direction, but nothing more. In both cases, artificial scarcity of control forces users to think in a particular way. On the other hand, Scratch freely mixes LOGO-style “move forward” with Cartesian commands, both relative (“move up by”) and absolute (“move to”). It’s impossible to have agency with something that can be teleported across the map. Rather than force the user out of lazy and weak ways of thinking, Scratch offers multiple paths and users take the one of least resistance. Often this will be a hodgepodge of many different styles and systems of commands, reflecting incomplete and imprecise thinking.

The large number of commands create a cluttered and unintuitive interface. 78% of Scratch’s default interface is control while only 22% of it is the canvas. The results, the thing the user cares about, are squished in a corner. Osmos has minimal controls that disappear when not in use, leaving the entire screen as the portal into the game world. Moreover, Osmos has just enough visual detail to be eye candy and not clutter. Games, in general, have excellent usability because bad usability is by definition not fun.

Scratch’s default user interface, with overlaid percentages. A similar image for Osmos would be 100% purple.

The differences in the command set and user interfaces belie the different purposes of the software. Scratch is meant to provide a canvas for a play or a animation, and so gives the user plenty of options for control. Osmos and LOGO are both puzzles in the sense that the controls are extremely few, yet powerful. A tool is designed to give a competent user maximum power to create; a puzzle is designed to teach new ways of thinking under constraints. By this metric, Scratch has more in common with CAD software used by engineers to design mechanical parts than it has with Osmos and LOGO.

But there is another feature that groups the three differently. Both LOGO and Scratch are sandboxes; they enforce no requirements or value judgements on the player’s actions. Papert envisioned a teacher guiding the student and keeping her on task. Osmos takes a different route. As a game, it has clear objectives to complete and obstacles to avoid. There are good moves and bad moves. There are levels, with definite beginnings and ends. The Odyssey is just a long tutorial: it presents each feature and some advanced ideas before handing the player full control. Scratch and LOGO do just that as soon as they’re opened. In particular, Scratch provides no guidance on its cockpit’s worth of controls.

There is a misconception, common among edtech types but not among traditional teachers, that the answer to all problems is better distribution. People are ignorant because they don’t have access to knowledge. People can’t code because they don’t have access to the software and documentation. But this is simply not true. Give people tools and they won’t know what to do with them or how to use them. Instead, we need to give students of all ages training, knowledge, and understanding. We need to force students to think about wrong ideas and make them right, and to see why they are right. We need to to show students the metacognitive tools to solve problems. An educational game isn’t about what to think, but how to think.

Now read the follow-up post: Beyond Agency: Why Good Ideas Only Take Us So Far.

The Atlantic Live: Technologies in Education Forum

The Atlantic hosted a series of panels today in Washington. Panelists were drawn from government, higher education and nonprofit organizations. The topic was twofold: STEM education, and STEM in education. The first is how to improve our education learn science and math, the second is to use science and math to improve how our children learn.

The Khan Academy was brought up a few times in passing, and I have blogged about it and TED-Ed on this blog before. In short, online videos are an innovative (or at least new – don’t confuse the two) distribution method, but the pedagogy remains rooted in the lecture and standardized testing. Khan in particular is old wine in a new bottle. For further criticism, I direct you to Frank Noschese. High school physics teachers like him were conspicuously absent from the panel, along with actual programmers, mathematicians, and engineers.

Most of the discussion focussed on video games, both as a means of conveying information and a tool to teach programming. While there is some semblance of content in educational games, the real learning occurs only for the game maker, not the game player. Some panelists even advocated non-educational games. Joel Levin of TeacherGaming LLC talked about a version of Minecraft marketed towards the education market. He discussed how issues of digital citizenship and law emerged from the game’s cooperative construction mechanic. Most panelists agreed that the games did not foster these positive experiences without the involvement of a trained teacher, and would otherwise devolve into a “Lord of the Flies scenario”.

What I see is the separation of the many good elements we want to teach our children, falling roughly in to two camps. Videos like Khan’s presents advanced content, and videos prompt individual contemplation and mechanistic skills. Games like Levin’s promote problem solving, critical thinking, social interaction, and motivation. Each side lacks the qualities of the other. Physics in games is incorrect; physics in videos is boring. Games inspire; videos empower.

Is there anything that can bridge this gap? Indeed there is, and I did not see it mentioned at the conference. FIRST is a robotics program for children that is as motivating as it is educational. There are multiple leagues for different ages and budgets, but the one I’m familiar presents high school students with a non-trivial (real-world) game, almost a sport, with a field and game pieces. Six weeks later, they are expected to ship a robot that plays that game. In between, they must analyze the game, critically assessing possible strategies. Unlike student project video games, there is enough work for a dozens of kids, facilitating teamwork and organization. But there’s plenty of practical knowledge to be learned and used: everything from mechanical engineering and computer programming to machine shop skills and accounting. Of particular interest is that although the panelists extolled the internet’s ability to distribute and equalize information, and as a platform for games and simulations, FIRST takes place in the real, physical world. FIRST is not a simulation of an engineering project, it is an engineering project, complete with deadlines, budgets, height and weight limits, industrial materials, a difficult challenge.

I’ve written related posts, one on adaptive learning technologies, games, and FIRST, and another on what I really learned from a video game.

Algorithms, Games, Robots

A blog post in three parts.

It’s not a secret that education is they key to success in life and just maybe changing the world. But unlike almost everything else, teaching methods haven’t changed in the last century. We still educate using the factory model, or as Ken Robinson puts it, “in batches”. Students sit at the same desks using largely the same tools to learn the same material in the same way. The old system of two-dozen kids and one adult never worked particularly well. The classroom isn’t good at accommodating personalization, even though every child learns differently. Not just at quantitatively different rates but in qualitatively different styles. The only way to bring to classroom into the 21st century is to use – gasp! – technology.

I am a little concerned with handing over our youth’s education to a machine. Isn’t the transfer of knowledge from generation to generation one of the core ideas that make us human? We could invest in hundreds of thousands of tutor-teachers to personalize lessons for each child. It would certainly create jobs, but at a cost of millions of dollars and years of training. So that’s out. But whatever technology we use needs to be intelligent and capable. The best way to do that is with an algorithm.

“Cook for five minutes or until golden brown” is a example of a simple algorithm. Actually, it’s two algorithms: “cook for five minutes” and “cook until golden brown”. The two stopping conditions are crucially different. The former is an inflexible process, while the latter requires a change in behavior based on observation. In a word, it’s adaptive, which is the difference between watching the timer and watching the toast. So for education, we want  an algorithm to focus on the brains, not the bits. Continue reading

What I *really* learned from JumpStart Typing

Way back in elementary school, they wanted to teach my class to type. For some reason, they sat us down facing a wall of bulky gray boxes and entrusted a computer program with the job. JumpStart Typing, which I believe is no longer on the market, consisted of a few press-the-correct-letter games (a dime a dozen online today) and around ten WPM goals. These goals were based on a diagnostic test taken at the start of the game. As the player reached each goal, they “recharged a power card” that partially unlocked a door to the trophy room. There were also Olympics-style medals. It was a classic example of goals and badges.

The problem with typing, or for that matter education, as a video game is that it inherits from the medium a singular overriding goal: to beat the game. And that’s exactly what 4th grade me did. He figured out that by deliberately failing the diagnostic test, the WPM goals would be extremely low. That made the game over screen – shiny medal, cool music, plot resolution – easily accesible. He gamed the system, or found the system behind the game, but he never did learn to type. Continue reading