The serious cr** of serious games

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I am all about games being used as an educational tool. I am all about games being used to increase awareness or instigate action. I am NOT about games that are designed for the sake of proving that games can be used for this purpose.

I see how it’s useful to prove that video games can have a positive effect, but I don’t see how it’s useful to spend a ton of money on developing a game that only tests hypotheses that could be tested using existing games. I especially look down on the games that have spent government grants developing games that have little potential of being adapted in a classroom environment. I disapprove of giving federal funds to people who want to test empirical questions that dismiss flaws that would surface once you take a look beyond a specific empirical result.

The fundamental problem of a lot of the serious games is that they point out a significant outcome in the experiments, but have no significance outside of an experiment situation. For instance, one study looks at how doing an activity during gameplay  (such as walking on a treadmill) was more helpful for obese people than lean people in terms of burning calories. You may think, ‘Wow!’ but then I would ask: How do you motivate an obese person to do the treadmill in a naturalistic setting? It’s like forcing a kid to clean his room. Once the room is clean, you could say ‘see? Cleaning the room made the room clean!’ Well yes, but that still doesn’t solve the problem of motivating the kid to clean the room in the first place. I’m sure there are situations in which someone could force people to play the games (schools or the military, perhaps?), but then we would expect to see that forced game-play has different effects compared to voluntary game-play.

I feel the biggest flaw in the design of serious games is that the people working on them are more interested in the positive effects of the game, rather than a design that would be fun to play. To a large extent, I believe that it comes down to education style and impacts of learning. For instance, I remember more about ancient Greeks in trying to put together a short video in 5th grade about the similarities and differences of Sparta and Athens. Taking a curtain to make a greek costume made me research how people dressed and taught me about climate, lifestyle, etc. that went beyond what was in the textbook.

I feel all of that could be implemented in a game. For instance, if we wanted to teach students about ancient Greece, a Civilization-type game would be excellent. The key would be, however, to add more details to the gameplay. For instance, when constructing a building, players could be given the choice to make the columns of the building ionian, doric or corinthian. Being able to choose one of the designs and looking at the results would be an interesting way of learning about ancient Greek architecture. I think serious games designers should look at popular existing games and think of how we could tweak those to have an educational/prosocial outcome.

Why should farm games mirror reality?

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Another example of a waste of bandwidth and memory is this blog post saying that farming in Farmville is different from reality; thus we need to do farming in real life instead of on a game.

I don’t know where to begin, wondering if this is worth refuting at all, because a response would indicate that this is worthy of response. But then, the world is made up of people with diverse ideas, so let me continue. Sigh.

First of all, games don’t mirror reality. Some do, but a lot don’t. You can’t say that games should mirror reality– it’s like saying that movies should reflect reality or novels should reflect reality. It becomes a problem when an entertainment media claims to be replicating reality, but otherwise, entertainment media should not be required to be “real.” Even so-called reality shows aren’t about reality, but seeing how hypothetical situations (that would otherwise not happen in reality) play out in reality.

I realize that this person is concerned that people playing Farmville will have a skewed idea of what farming is really like, but I don’t think people will think it’s the same. For instance, I’ve already pointed out that Farmville does not reflect butchering, but I still know about it. I don’t think Farmville players think that crops can actually be harvested in a matter of hours or that it is possible to maintain animals without feeding them. The list can go on and on… for instance, Farmville doesn’t have pests (maybe that’s something they could add in the future) nor does it ever rain. You can’t help other farmers harvest their crops, and you can give presents to your friends for free. Plants die, but trees don’t. Yup, not very realistic.

Also, even though elements in Farmville are not equivalent to those of real life, I think that people still learn something about farms. For instance, I thought pineapples grew on trees and when I saw them growing on the ground in Farmville, I was confused and did some research on pineapples. Also, you can’t slaughter animals, but the game makes you very aware of the fact that there are alternative “benefits” that you can harvest from animals, like truffles and pigs. Also, using the machines makes farming easy in the game; I think it has made me more appreciate of food that is grown by hand. And playing Farmville puts a face behind the food. You know that with everything you eat, there’s someone who was responsible for producing it. I’m not saying that’s not something I didn’t know before- but Farmville made me more cognizant of it.

But lets say that you’re not the type that takes away latent morals from games. That still is not a reason to say that the games should mirror reality. Yes, it’s important to make people aware of farming, but games shouldn’t be responsible for not taking on that responsibility.

The author also a distorted sense of causality. Just because Farmville taps into the hearts of people who have a desire for a more simple, pastoral life doesn’t mean that Farmville is making people yearn for farm life. And even if that were true, what is the harm in that? Anyone who starts farming after being inspired by Farmville will find on day one that reality is different.

It’s true that entertainment media of any kind influences how people think or feel– there are decades of studies on this. But before blaming games for not being realistic, we should think of more fundamental problems: if people are so gullible as to believe everything in games is true, it reflects a lack of ability to separate fiction from non-fiction to begin with. This inability to distinguish reality is a mental disorder, more influenced by environmental functions, a long laundry list that includes demographics, household environment, personality traits, genes, and so on and so forth.

Newspapers won’t die, but some should

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The OJR posted an article that is by far the stupidest argument I’ve ever seen on why journalism is bound to fail. The gist of the argument is that people never paid for news, thus people will not pay for news. I believe only the former is correct, agreeing with Rupert Murdoch that people will be inclined to pay for quality information. I also believe that news and journalism are ENTIRELY different things and journalists should have some kind of bar or authorization process like attorneys and doctors, but that is another story. The reasoning that precedent predicts the future is a weak one because paradigms shift. For instance, a few years ago, the western world was skeptical about virtual goods. “Why would anyone want to pay to get something that’s not even real?” I remember one guy asking at the Virtual Worlds Conference a couple years ago. But lo and behold, it’s happening now. But to get back to my point…

So you ask, why aren’t people paying now for news? My answer is: duh, because they don’t have to. If it’s free on the Internet, you would have to be pretty darn stupid to pay for it. (Other reasons other than stupidity could be that you are full of yourself, have eye disorders and are unable to look at a monitor, or have some kind of paper fetish…). There is far too much information and much of it is the same. Newspapers initially died (and this was before the Internet came along and fanned the flames) when you couldn’t tell a NYT article from a Washington Post article. Think of the basic supply, demand, and cost graphs used in marketing. Excess of supply always results in low costs. Newspapers failed not because the industry solely relied on advertising revenues, but because they were ignorant of the exponential rising curve of supply.

We should be asking ourselves: do we really need to pay people to cover things a zillion other people are writing about? Maybe we should let the wires cover the hard news and focus on features. Maybe newspapers and broadcasting companies should merge. Fact of the matter is, there are too many reporters and god knows who is reliable. Amid all this cr** content, maybe it’s okay to let some newspapers die. Maybe it’s okay to let all newspapers die. It’s like when the walkman or phonograph died. That didn’t stop us from listening to music. If anything, we’re listening to more music than ever. Newspaper consumption does not equal news consumption.

Secondly, (and I’ve also talked about this before) is that it’s all about the convenience of financial transactions. Which is why people spend money on iPhone apps, or buy the NYT on the Kindle. People are willing to pay for content as long as it’s super-easy. So this changes the questions we should be asking. How do we make online payment easier? Adding everything to your mobile phone bill could be one example, like they do in Korea.

Thirdly, make it attractive. Visually. People are willing to pay for pretty stuff. Why would I subscribe to Wired when I can read all of its articles online? Because it’s aesthetically pleasing (and I don’t have a computer in my bathroom– at least, not yet). News is a product and I can’t believe how some ‘vendors’ (I dare not even categorize them as newspapers) think they can get away with selling an ugly product.

So, what happens with local news? Well, I’ve proposed before that hyperlocal news can work if it really engages its local readers. Really crappy “local” magazines are still running because people buy them for $5 on a quarterly or biannual basis for a copy, even if they have no special content. Why wouldn’t they pay $10 or $20 a year for a good quality local newspaper (sans the paper)? My hyperlocal news model involves two editors, a bunch of freelancers, and “community reporters.” Note that I say hyper local news– not newspaper! As much as I love paper– the grains, the weight, the colors– trees are a valuable resource and we should be cherishing them more for semi-permanent, beautiful things like scrapbooks and cards instead of throwing them out everyday and letting our dogs pee on them (one of the greater reasons my parents continued to subscribe to a physical paper was because the paper could be “recycled” for our house puppy).

To make a long rant short, my points are: 1) newspapers may die, but news will not. 2) People will be willing to pay if there is quality content with limited availability.3) Make it visually attractive (The pretty girl will always get more dates than the ugly one) and finally, the newspaper industry and the news industry are NOT the same, as journalism and news reporting is NOT the same.

No longer Tweeting about (just) me

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When Twitter first started, the question was “What are you doing? (reply in 140 characters or less)”

Many took the question literally. So there were a lot of people writing short posts that were like short snippets of their diary. “Going to the movies” or “Meeting with bff” are examples of common Tweets that are literal answers to the question.

But like all tools, people began to see that Twitter could be more than a chronicle of one’s daily events. It was more than an outlet of raves and rants. Twitter users started to find innovative ways of communicating, even creating their own “utilities” such as hashtags and retweets. For many, Twitter became an important source of information, like a newsfeed where one could subscribe to a number of news providers. This prompted many legacy news organizations as well as bloggers, corporate PR and anyone who wanted their information out there to join Twitter.

Twitter also proved to be handy in crowdsourcing information, a live citizen news feed for the Mumbai terrorist attacks (although it also played a part in actually helping the terrorists) and also a place to publicly share emotions and opinions, like for the death of Michael Jackson.

Now, Twitter’s question reads: “What’s happening?” It is not specific to the user’s experience, and although one could certainly keep talking about personal things, this seems to signal a shift in micro-blogging culture– a shift from “me” to “us.” How will this affect status updates? Will we see a trend in less self-related Tweets? How much does the official question affect what people write? What new ways will we see users repurpose Twitter for yet another communicative purpose? The question posed in Facebook’s status update is “What’s on your mind?” reflecting Twitter’s initial question about the individual. If the microblogging trend is going towards collective information, then perhaps Facebook will soon change its question too.

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