From Serious Games to Serious Gaming (Part One): Revolution

This is the first installment of a five part series showcasing the evolution of The Comparative Media Studies Program’s thinking about Serious Games. Each installment will focus on a different games-related project, while a conclusion will describe the commonalities in how we think about games and learning. I am starting this series this week to reflect the fact that we are hosting a Communications Forum event today focused on Games and Civic Engagement.

The idea for Revolution emerged as part of the Games to Teach Project, funded by a Microsoft iCampus grant, and later became the flagship project for the Education Arcade. It was a complicated project spanning five semesters, starting in Fall 2002 and extending through Fall 2004. It was designed by a team of graduate and undergraduate students, working part time while taking classes. Participants included Philip Tan (Producer), Matthew Weise (Game Designer), Brett Camper (Lead Programmer), David Lee (3D modeling), Giovanni Mendoza (Art), Cassie Huang (Character Design), James Tolbert (Animation), Nicholas Hunter (Programmer), and Bertha Tang (Art).

In a spelling bee, a kid is challenged to memorize a lot of words, there’s a fair amount of pressure, and it’s kind of grim. If they get a word wrong, the buzzer goes off, they’re told they got it wrong, and they are out. There’s never a discussion about why they got it wrong, how they could have reasoned about the word to get it right. There’s never really much of a discussion about how that word could be used in speech. In fact, the goal for a spelling bee is to learn all sorts of words that you will never use in common speech.

Compare that with a game of Scrabble where kids sit with the letters in front of them and are moving them around, thinking endlessly about all of the different combinations of words and which ones are real. They try to play one and there’s a discussion about whether that’s a real word or whether that’s a real form of the word. Through that process, kids are engaging deeply not just in spelling but in word usage and they’re having fun while they are doing it.

-Scot Osterweil

Popular accounts of the Serious Games movement have often fallen back on the image of the computer as a "teaching machine" that "programs" its users - for better or for worse. The fantasy is that one can just plant kids in front of a black box and have them "learn" as if learning involved nothing more than absorbing content. Those who fear that games may turn normal youth into psycho killers similarly hope that games might transform them into historians, scientists, engineers, and tycoons. At the same time, teachers express anxiety that their pedagogical labor will be displaced by the game console.

Putting the emphasis on the program to deliver content has often led to highly rigid and pre-structured play experiences, carefully regulated to conform to various state and national curricular blueprints, with little chance for emergent play or creative expression by the players. In other words, most commercial edutainment titles look much more like spelling bees than Scrabble.

For the better part of a decade, researchers associated with the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program (through Games to Teach, The Education Arcade, and The Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab) have been researching the pedagogical potentials of computer and video games. We have adopted a range of different models for what an educational game might look like - from mods of existing entertainment titles to augmented reality games, from role-playing games to collectible cards - and how they might be produced - including several recent collaborations with commercial media producers and professional game designers. Our games straddle academic fields, including History (Revolution) and Current Events (iCue), Math and Literacy Skills (Labyrinth), Science (Palmagotchi), even Waste Management (Backflow). What links these various projects together has been a design philosophy that focuses less on serious games and more on serious gaming. We see games not so much as vehicles for delivering curricular content as we do spaces for exploration, experimentation, and problem solving.

We do not simply want to tap games as a substitute for the textbook; we want to harness the metagaming, the active discussion and speculation that take place around the game, to inform other learning activities. Researchers have documented not only the ways that conversations around recreational game play reshape the player’s perceptions of violence and the social bonds being expressed through play (Wright, 2002), but also the informal learning communities that have grown up around game, such as Civilization 3 (Squire and Giovanetto, Forthcoming), enabling participants to learn world history even as they improve their game performance. Many of our games rely on the mechanics of meta-gaming to get students to articulate what they have learned from the play experience.

This is hardly a new idea: consider the Model United Nations as a well-established pedagogical practice in American social sciences. Essentially, the Model United Nations is a role-play activity where students are assigned to represent delegates from different countries and work through current policy debates. Students don’t show up and start playing: the role-play motivates library and classroom activities leading up to the formal event. They don’t just stop playing: a good teacher builds on the role play by having students report back on what they learned through presentations, classroom discussions, or written assignments. A hallmark of our serious games projects is that we factor the context and process of play into our game design, insisting that much of the learning takes place outside the box as the experience of gaming gets reflected upon by teachers and learners in the context of their everyday lives.

In this series of posts, we look back on some key milestones in our program’s exploration of serious gaming. In each case, we will explore how our understanding of instructional activities rather than curricular content shaped our design choices. Each project represents a different model for how a pedagogical game might work in relation to current educational practices; each also reflects a shared vision that sees play as a key component of learning.

Revolution: A Historical Simulation of Colonial America

By Brett Camper and Matt Weise

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Revolution was a total conversion mod of the popular PC game Neverwinter Nights modeled on Colonial Williamsburg. In this classroom-based multiplayer experience, each student would take on the role of a different resident on a single day in the spring of 1775. Students would adopt a variety of classes, races, genders, and political perspectives as they relived the debates surrounding the American Revolution.

The starting idea was broad: to create an online historical simulation for classroom use. We knew we wanted the game to be online, allowing students to learn together socially. And we knew we wanted to base the game on Colonial Williamsburg, which has a long tradition of historical learning through role-play. We felt such a game would be great opportunity to apply our values of learning as exploration and expression rather than rote memorization.

From the outset, Revolution was meant to be an educational game designed by people who were gamers first and educators second: if your game isn’t fun, its educational goals don’t matter. We wanted to leverage design principles that we knew worked, or at least could work, from successful commercial games. If we could create a game that looked and sounded on par with store-bought games, and that used familiar interface and game-play concepts, we could create an experience that escaped the negative image of “edutainment” while leveraging new media literacies for pedagogical ends.

Initially, one of our biggest challenges was to design for the time constraints of the typical classroom period. Public school teachers typically have an hour or less to get the students settled down, introduce the game, teach the students how to play, have the students play the game, get the students to stop playing, and have a coherent discussion afterward. So how might we design a complete and compelling game play experience under these constraints? We were intrigued by commercial games that use fixed time limits to shape player experience, compressing complex processes into finite units of game time. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, for example, is about helping people as they go about their daily lives in a single town over the course of a fixed time period. The time limit focuses the player on the social space of the game, since Link only has a short time to affect events that will happen with or without him. Inspired, we focused Revolution‘s time frame into a single day. This day in our virtual Williamsburg would equal 40 minutes of class time, and would represent a key turning point in the Revolution. We wanted players to log into the game and find themselves in a living, functioning simulation of colonial America. The simulation would function with or without player intervention. Players could explore the era’s social and political norms by trying to shape events, or they could simply sit back and observe.

Students would learn about history just by mastering the rules of the game, because the rules were abstracted from historical research. We wanted to get away from the drill-and-test model of public education and to challenge the master narrative of history. Instead, we wanted to focus on the choices historical agents made and the conditions under which they made them.

Realities of Development

Our aspirations for Revolution were quite high. Not all of them could have been achieved even with a full-time development staff with years of experience. As with any game project, we had to cut many features and completely redesign others. As we realized we could only implement a fraction of our original design, we tried to preserve our core design goal – to create a genuinely emergent historical simulation.

Our first decision was to forego coding Revolution from scratch and make it as a mod of an existing game. Using an existing engine enabled rapid prototyping and design. Using an existing engine also improved production quality – graphics and sound would already be at a level students would associate with professional games. Since many game companies offer modification tools to consumers for sharing new content, we wanted to explore the advantages of modding for developing serious games.

After much consideration, we settled on the Neverwinter Nights toolset. Neverwinter Nights is an RPG series for the PC that was specifically designed by its makers, Bioware Corp., to support modding projects. There was already a very robust culture of player-made NWN mods, which we could tap for inspiration and experience. We wanted to create a socially dynamic world where students would interact with both player-controlled and non-player-controlled characters, and NWN was built for character conversation, a feature we felt was crucial to the social world we wanted to model.

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Technology Wrangling

Game scholar Ian Bogost identifies what he calls “procedural rhetoric” – the notion that a game system’s design imparts an ideology. We wanted students to learn how a colonial society worked by interacting with a system, a system designed to embody the ideas we intended. Yet we didn’t want the conventions of the NWN toolset (shaped by the commercial role-playing game genre) to transform our historical content in undesired ways. It was not always easy to leverage NWN‘s existing design limitations in ways that helped, not hurt, our pedagogical goals.

Accurate historical dress, for example, was challenging. In Colonial Williamsburg, men would remove their hats when entering a house. However, in the NWN toolset, hat models are not separate from head models. We could not effectively remove a hat without removing the character’s entire head. So we were stuck with characters that either wore hats or were perpetually hatless. We decided to have hats on at all times. This was not 100% historically accurate, but it was less inaccurate than the alternative.

We also had a great deal of difficulty managing violence in NWN. Leaving violence out of a revolutionary setting would not convey the proper historical content. On the other hand, we’d have a disaster if we let students fight whomever they wanted at any time. Our solution was to allow students to be violent, but to have consequences. If one character punches another, they will be briefly arrested and released. While the law in 1775 was not nearly this forgiving or swift, this solution at least kept the students in the simulation and engaged with the historical setting.

Given that there was so much of NWN we could not change, we wanted to at least ensure that the conversation system would enhance the fidelity of our historical simulation. Luckily, it turned out to work better than we ever imagined.

Modeling the Social Dynamics of 1775

Revolution‘s conversation system evolved from a critique of how knowledge transfer typically occurs within the RPG genre. In many RPGs, information passes between characters as if by magic with no focus on the mechanisms of human communications. One of our development team members described a situation in The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind in which he killed a man, who claimed with his dying breath that his son would avenge him. When the player walked immediately to the son’s house, he was promptly attacked. We understood what the designers of Morrowind were getting at: actions have social consequences. But these consequences simply flipped on and off like a light switch. We wanted students to focus on how information flowed through a colonial society and what factors blocked information from passing between different social circles.

NWN‘s conversation system was well equipped to produce this desired effect. We started by making computer-controlled characters remember what they were told. Then, when they were within a specific range of another character, they would go over to them and share the knowledge they had previously received. A player could pass one piece of information to a non-player character and then watch the news spread virally across town. Once we realized that we could make such a “gossip” system work, we saw all sorts of new pedagogical possibilities. While we originally envisioned a game focused around trades and jobs, much like a visit to Colonial Williamsburg, we began to re-center Revolution around the social and informational mechanisms of the era. In effect, we made Revolution a game about the oral culture of late 18th-century America. Students would need to understand how this oral culture was shaped by the social, political, racial, and gender strata of the time in order to play Revolution effectively.

A player’s reputation, for example, could be adversely impacted by gossip surrounding her beliefs or actions, increasing the stakes of political choices. Revolutionaries could pass word to their supporters without information falling into the hands of the Redcoats or their Loyalist supporters. Because information would not pass certain social barriers easily, players had to figure out how to inform everybody about a local rally. If the player’s avatar had an upper-class status, the information would spread more easily among the upper class. Gender and race would have similar effects. In this way, different players could work together or against each other in trying to manipulate the flow of information.

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Other affordances of NWN allowed us to build in opportunities for students to reflect back on their experiences. Russell Francis, a researcher from Oxford University, asked Revolution players to write diaries or construct machinima movies recounting the events from the perspective of their fictional characters. This process allowed them to share their very different experiences in the game with classmates and gave researchers insights into what they learned and how they learned through their role-play. Francis found that players often combined things they learned in the game with insights from their own lives or things they had read in other accounts of the period. For example, one student, who played the part of a house slave, described feelings of isolation or tension with field slaves as a result of her privileged access to the master. This sense of alienation emerged as much from what she brought to the game as from anything we had programmed into the simulation. Such accounts helped us to better appreciate the ways that the mechanics of role-play enabled students to consolidate what they had learned about the period and communicate it with others.

Matthew Weise is equal parts gamer and cinephile, having attended film school before segueing into game studies and then game development. Matt is a producer for GAMBIT and a full-time gamer, which means he not only plays games on a variety of systems but he also completes (most of) them. Matthew did his undergrad at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, where he studied film production before going rogue to design his own degree. He graduated in 2001 with a degree in Digital Arts, which included videogames (this was before Game Studies was a field). He continued his research at MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, where he worked on Revolution with The Education Arcade. After leaving MIT in 2004 Matt worked in mobile game development for a few years, occassionally doing some consultancy work, before returning to work at GAMBIT.

Brett Camper is an independent game developer and writer. He received a master’s

degree from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies program, where he was a designer and

technical lead on The Education Arcade’s Colonial Williamsburg: Revolution

project. He subsequently acted as The Education Arcade’s research manager, and

has also worked in digital media as a program manager at RealNetworks. He is

currently a senior product manager at eMusic, the leading digital subscription

service for independent music.