Warren Spector distinguishes “mature” from “adolescent”

Kotaku’s Kirk Hamilton elicits some thoughts from Warren Spector, designer of Deus Ex and Epic Disney, on what distinguishes games for adults from games for children:

But the reality is, what makes a game mature is not, “I got a gun, I curse, that woman is naked…” that’s adolescent, it’s not “mature.” It’s the opposite of mature. I find it so ironic that we get that so completely backwards. We give mature ratings to the most immature games. In Disney Epic Mickey, it was about how important family and friends are to you. And [Epic Mickey 2] is about, “Do you believe that there is evil so profound in the world that it’s beyond redemption?” In this game, you have to decide who to trust. That’s maturity!

Warren Spector Explains How Epic Mickey Is Like Deus Ex (Kotaku)

Jenova Chen part 2: character vs. moral education

Yesterday I posted a transcript of Jenova Chen’s interview on Joystiq in which he discussed how his attempt to create a cooperative game failed and his subsequent conclusions about designing for moral behavior. This sparked some good discussion that I’ll try to recap here.

Here’s one exchange that transpired on Facebook:

Kristen Maxwell: At SXSW 2 years ago i asked Warren Spector about Ultima V’s ethical/political underpinnings and why we don’t see that kind of allegorical use of the medium… he copped out and said that games shouldn’t teach an agenda. Neil Stephenson did a similar dodge at GDC Austin this year when i asked him about the lack of subversive lessons in games (his book Diamond Age is about the transformative power of a subversively-themed game/learning device a poor girl accidentally receives). He said that it wasn’t in games’ interest to promote such an ideology.
Matthew Weise: There is no such thing as a game that has no ideological underpinnings. Politics are everywhere, especially in places where we pretend there are not.
Maxwell: Their dismissal said to me “we’d rather everyone remain ignorant of what thee games are teaching than take responsibility for it”

By contrast, Bart Simon of Concordia’s TAG writes, “Is that really the response to the situated morality of action that we want to take as game designers… to ‘make players see and feel what’s right’? Do we really want to come off being so paternalistic? Not just in interviews but in the actual design?”

While Simon proceeds to argue for a “label on the box” (“this game is designed to make players see and feel what’s right …according to the designer”), Maxwell and Weise point out that authorial values are embedded into games whether we like it or not (and whether we know it or not). Game developers create worlds in which, by design of the rules, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ is at least suggested or incentivized if not enforced. This doesn’t take volition or free choice out of the hands of the player – at a minimum, players can always (rage) quit – but it certainly argues against the idea that developers can claim moral neutrality when they create their games. Unconsciousness, perhaps, or ignorance – but not neutrality.

But what of the project of moral education itself? Simon jumps to a critique of how Chen realized the moral vision of Journey:

The fact remains that while Journey is a fairly ‘on the rails’ experience in which one sometimes gets the feeling of being railroaded (I did ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ and shed a tear all at the right moments I assure you) the opposite condition of some mythical realm of free choice and even handed moral deliberation most certainly does not exist.

Elsewhere, Sam Gilbert agreed that “it’s not really a moral game if you don’t have a choice in the matter. The multiplayer interaction is really sweet and pleasant, and you feel good about yourself and about others when you’re able to help each other, but it’s pleasant because it’s extremely limited. There are no moral dilemmas or sacrifices involved–you’re just sort of forced to be nice to each other.”

And thus emerges the ongoing tension between character education (instilling desirable habits) and moral education (deepening moral reasoning). Having not played Journey, for want of a PS3, I can’t personally evaluate whether it succeeds as a character education tool. If you walk away “feel[ing] good about yourself and about others,” then perhaps it does. But the lack of moral choice in the game would detract from its value in moral learning, except perhaps as a foil for discussion (as in this blog post!).

To flip this conversation around… character education seems to be the more intuitive way to think about video game (im)morality, at least among laypeople. Many of the critiques of violence in games concern themselves with how players repeatedly perform bad acts, rather than whether they’re making immoral or unethical decisions within a biased system. I wrote about this with Prof. Scott Seider several years ago.

Jenova Chen on morality in games

The Joystiq Show #028 pulls off a coup of an interview of Jenova Chen, who offers some pretty profound thoughts in response to Alexander Sliwinski’s “So what did you learn from creating Journey?” question. The answer, basically, is that he discovered some possible truths about the interrelationship between morality and the systems within which we operate:

So my biggest lesson learned is that human behavior may appear to be a bad moral behavior, but it’s not really their fault; they’re just following their instinct. It is the designer who creates the system who has the responsibility to moderate the right behavior you want. By providing feedback for the things you want to see and by providing zero feedback on the things you don’t want to see, you can actually quite control the moral value in the game…. It’s really the system that’s defining the people’s behavior, rather than that person himself is better or worse.

Full transcript follows…
Continue reading

Games, Badges and Learning

David Theo Goldberg’s recent post, Badges for Learning: Threading the Needle Between Skepticism and Evangelism, is a worthwhile overview of the current thinking on what role “badges” might play in promoting better learning. He summarizes the debate within the learning sciences over badges as the age-old conflict between Kantianism and utilitarianism and tries to strike a middle ground:

Badges in short are a means to enable and extend learning. They need not be behavioral lures so much as symbols of achievement, expressions of recognized capacity otherwise overlooked. As with any means they can be mistaken for ends in themselves, but there is nothing intrinsic to badging that will inevitably make them so. And dismissing them out of court because they just might motivate learning for questionable reasons, as Cathy Davidson rightly suggests, is to do so at the peril of a good deal of learning they do well to prompt, promote, even proliferate.

Of course, all of this could just as easily be said about grades – don’t some children pursue “A”s as an end in themselves, while others simply enjoy learning, while others (too many) actively disdain good grades? To ignore the fact that badges have some intrinsic attraction for players-cum-learners is to miss one of their main strengths. Of course, that attractiveness can wear off over time, especially if players begin to sense that the badges are being used for not-fun purposes (say, grading).

In our experience with badges – and gamification in general – at iCivics we’ve found a substantial increase in player engagement with our learning games. Just look at the simplest metric, average time on site, and how it leaped after we added badges, points, and other gamification elements:

Effect of gamification on average time on site

Last month (February 2012), average time-on-site was 7:20 as compared with 5:40 in February 2011. That’s a 29% increase in time spent interacting with our games and other resources! It excites me to contemplate what might players be learning in the extra 1:40 that gamification helped create.

In videogames, badges (or “achievements”) can serve extrinsic functions such as summarizing complex stats down to something developers can analyze and use to tweak their games.* But to leap that far ahead in learning games seems premature to me — there is so much more we should be exploring in terms of how badges can motivate learners to experiment or try new things. Badges have been key tools for game designers who want to increase replayability, or who simply want players to experience more of the game they so painstakingly created.** And if our goal is to foster learning, isn’t there something great about rewarding exploration and experimentation when so much of the rest of our society instead punishes failure?

* See the latter half of this analysis of the psychology of badges on IGN by Rick Lane.
** See, specifically, the “Skate this Way” and “Uncharted Territory” purposes of achievements in this thorough Gamasutra piece on achievement design by Mary Jane Irwin.)

Al Gore getting into climate change games?

After keynoting this year’s Games for Change conference, Al Gore has been rather quiet about whether his Climate Reality Project was going to start adding games to its arsenal of change agents. Well, it seems the effort was in stealth mode, and they’re getting ready to go public.

Read my former colleague Nicole Haber’s blog entry wondering what the “gold coin” is to motivate a change in our national dialogue about climate change: If the earth is our princess, what is your gold coin?

What games can teach us about justice

One decade ago, Edward Castronova woke economists up to the fact that virtual worlds like Everquest contain legitimate economies, and suddenly everyone was talking about them as living economic laboratories. I’m interested in how such worlds can cast light on our political economies, and particularly the question of what’s fair and what’s just.

This NPR Planet Money podcast (“From Harvard Economist to Casino CEO“) about how Caesars Entertainment Corporation’s CEO, a former Harvard Business School professor, Gary Loveman, uses empirical data to shape the gaming experience. Yes, this is “gaming” as in gambling, but the relationship to Farmville and World of Warcraft is more than semantic. Just like WOW and other online games, modern casinos have access to a deep amount of data about user behavior through their rewards cards. But unlike Blizzard, Caesars cannot tweak its formula to guarantee particular results — for example, making sure that newbies win enough to keep them coming back. They can know who all the flailing newbies are, though, and dispatch employees to make things right for them (e.g. comp them some extra coins, dinner, or a limo). As Loveman observes, the goal is to comfort the newbies who fall into the low “long tail” of gambling returns.

Caesars’ approach to resource allocation has interesting implications for what a just distribution of resources might entail in a larger game – the game of our real economy. After all, Caesars isn’t providing a safety net for losers because they care — they do so because it’s good for business. Companies like Blizzard and Zynga are similarly tweaking their rules constantly to ensure maximum profitable participation rates. How might what they are learning inform the way we think about the rules of our political economy? Can game worlds – whether Caesars Palace or Azeroth – provide a Rawlsian space to experiment with different notions of “justice”?

Transmedia PBS project on Arab Culture and Islamic history launches

THE 99PBS has launched a new film, Wham-Bam-Islam (a bit unfortunately named, IMHO) to teach viewers about the values of moderate Islam. The film supports an existing comic book series, “THE 99,” and — more interesting to me — in turn is supported by a game, Hunt for the Noor Stone.

Hunt for the Noor Stone seems to be a fairly straightforward adventure-style game, typical of most transmedia projects, which is well-executed but not really replayable. Then again, the film itself is also a one-shot deal, so the game needn’t have a long tail of replayability.

The game was developed by Playwala, which roughly means “play business” in Hindi.

What’s so special about badges?

I’m here at the launch of the 4th Digital Media and Learning Competition, “Badges for Lifelong Learning,” and listening to the ways in which badges might be superior to traditional grades. The major leap seems to be capturing informal learning in a quasi-formal way that, until now, was only relayed explicitly via resumes or accidentally via Google searches. But it seems that there’s also a spectrum of assessment techniques that flows from totally rigid to totally open, along which badges are more flexible (nimble?) than grades but more formal than pure text:

(Quantitative, simple, rubric-based)
Free assessment
(Qualitative, rich, unstructured)