Posts in games and learning

Tomb Raider: Underworld and broadening gaming horizons

As I wrote about last month, I recently completed the game Tomb Raider: Underworld. I played this on a whim. I had never played a Tomb Raider game before and I was also looking for a game to play using a controller, rather than keyboard and mouse. I was really satisfied on my choice. While TR: Underworld isn't a classic or a great game, it was a very good gaming experience. Looking back, I can point to three things that the game did very well.

First, I really enjoyed the gameplay mechanic. I haven't played a lot of platformer games, the genre that the Tomb Raider games belongs to, but I found that maneuvering the acrobatic Lara Croft around the game world was a pleasant and enjoyable challenge. I also liked that violence was really pushed into the background of this game. Sure, Lara shot a large number of enemy guards, animal predators, and ghosts; but unlike an FPS or RTS game, killing enemies was not really the point. The point was solving three-dimensional puzzles using Lara's repertoire of leaps, climbs, and acrobatic talents. Successfully navigating the game's levels required a kind of spacial awareness and exploiting the environment. I'm not a terrifically skilled gamer, so I also appreciated that the difficulty level felt right. The puzzles still required me to think, but I didn't get frustrated very often.

Second, the narrative was interesting and had a strong sense of being part of a persistent story. I have played and given up on the preceding game in the Lara Croft cycle, Tomb Raider: Legend, but even though I didn't play through the entire story, I always felt like my actions were part of a rich context. The Norse, Mayan, and Hindi mythological elements added interest without overwhelming the plot arc. The game broke no new ground in interactive narrative design, but it didn't feel forced or overly contrived. While Lara's plot arc was certainly on rails, that is to say I didn't feel as though my choices effected the way the story unfolded, I was still satisfied with the way the story played its way out. It is no Bioshock or Half Life, but on the other hand, I have enjoyed TV series and movies that weren't any more innovative than Tomb Raider: Underworld.

Third, the game was visually beautiful. I'm happy that Deus Ex 3 plans on using the same engine. I don't know how it compares with leading engines such as CryEngine2 or the latest iteration of Unreal, but the 3d world was smooth and very pretty. More than that, the colors were lush and rich. After playing in the desolate wasteland of Fallout 3 and many other 3D games that are painted in palates of brown or grey, the lush tropical scenes with vibrant palm trees, orchids, and tropical birds was really immersive.

Most of the time when I'm playing games these days I'm looking for innovations in the player-training arena. I didn't see anything in this game that I felt like I could add to my teaching repertoire. The game world wasn't open, and players weren't really given a decisions to make on how to solve puzzles. Most of the time there appeared to be one right answer for each challenge and the player just had to apply the tools they were given in the proper manner. So, now that I'm done with the game, I doubt I'll be going back to it to analyze it further. It was pretty, it was fun, and it was consistent in the challenge that it offered.

State of Academic Library Gaming: Response to Paul Waelchi’s Letter

State of Academic Library Gaming

Paul Waelchli of Research Quest recent sent around an email to some academic librarians who have shown an interest in gaming. I encourage you all to read the original letter and chime in with your views. As I wind down my week and prepare to head up to Seattle, I'd like to offer my $.02 USD on the subject and publicly thank Paul for getting the conversation started. So here is my stab at responding to Paul's excellent questions. (I apologize for the hasty scrawling, but, if I give in to the editing impulse, I'll never get it posted before ACRL.) Mary Broussard also has a response to this conversation posted, and I have a sense that more contributors will be coming forward soon.

1) What is the current state of games and learning in academic libraries?

Games and learning exist on the margins of academic libraries. I'm not sure this is a bad thing, but my experience, which includes publishing and presenting about games and learning in academic libraries as a major aspect of my tenure and promotion process has taught me a few valuable lessons. First, academic librarians are willing to listen to ideas and research about the current and forthcoming generations of students. Tying gaming to the learning preferences and culture of students is an excellent way to justify studying learning in games. I haven't noticed that most librarians are interested in gamers per se, that is to say, generally we don't see a role for games being collected or played in the library. I have noticed a high amount of interest in games being taught librarians as a path to understanding the learning preferences of today's students. Games are one tool that can be used for specific purposes. For now, I think this is an appropriate reaction. As games or interactive media take on a larger role in information transfer and communication, as I forsee they inevitably will do, that role will necessarily evolve.

2) What are some of the factors to that current state?

Besides those mentioned above, I think the content of games has a lot to do with the rate that they are assimilated into academic libraries. Despite the potential of the medium, games are largely designed and marketed to children and young adults. To horrifically oversimplify, a major mission of information literacy instruction is to help young scholars move beyond uncritical reliance on popular media and become critical consumers of scholarly publications in their discipline. On the surface, focusing on games is a move in the wrong direction. A way around this is to focus on pedagogy and critical thinking. If we can show our sceptical colleagues that game designers have developed innovative ways of building skills and reflective practices then we have built a bridge between meeting our students where they are today and where they need to be in order to successfully complete their undergraduate education.

3) Based on your experience and research, what are the next steps?

The next step is to build a scholarship of game studies that focuses on information literacy instruction. Perhaps a collaborative project might include building an annotated bibliography out of the scholarship we have done so far. We've all read a lot, processed a lot, and produced some good work. We can make it easier for our academic colleagues to follow our conversation if we provide a roadmap or at least a trail of bread crumbs that led us to where we are today. I also think it would be useful for us to do some talking about niches. Games have become a mature media. Perhaps it is no longer useful to lump in game analysis with designing useful games for the classroom or teaching to a gaming generation. Many game scholars are dividing into camps of ludologists and narratologists, those who focus on the game-play mechanics and those who focus on the narrative action of games. The time may be ripe for librarians to become equally specific in our work.

4) What are the factors supporting or preventing those "next steps?"

I think there is a lot of work to be done. Outside of Media Studies or Digital Technology and Culture programs, there may not be a lot of widespread acceptance for games and interactive media being a serious and significant area of study. On the other hand, I don't think there is much to be gained by arguing that point. Perhaps the best way to convince skeptical colleagues that a focus on games and learning is in the best interest of the library is to do work with games and learning that enhances student learning and furthers the mission of our libraries.

On the bright side, there do appear to be rich opportunities to perform scholarship in this area. In my personal experience, after writing and presenting on games and learning in academic libraries, I've begun to receive invitations to present my research in new venues. There is clearly a market for library scholarship on games, gaming, and gamers on the local and national level and in peer-reviewed library journals. If we truly want to build a body of scholarship surrounding games and learning in academic libraries, it is my belief that the publishing market will support us.

5) What do the financial and economic situations at many institutions mean for instructional gaming in libraries?

Now is not a good time for unproven projects that cost a lot of money. For example, given the choice between purchasing a Wii, a monitor, and a gaming lab and cutting one less journal subscription; I couldn't responsibly not save the journal. The financial situation is bad and I can't imagine asking for funds with a clear concience any time soon.

6) What other issues/questions should we be considering?

I'll save this conversation for ACRL and the next round of discussions. My angle on games in libraries is fairly limited, and I'm sure that others are focusing on many areas that I'm blind to or unaware of.

Thanks Paul, for getting the conversation started. I look forward to seeing and or meeting more of you all in Seattle this week, if you are fortunate enough to travel. Seattle is fairly local, so I'm car-pooling up and staying w/ friends. I'm sure its harder for folk who have further to travel.

Horizons Broadening Project

What do we think about when we play games?

My answer to this question varies. Often, I only want to be immersed in an escapist world and not thinking about anything outside of my character or the game. At other times, I enjoy analysing the game experience in the light of my day job, a librarian and instructor. When I'm writing or speaking about analysing games to audiences of librarians, I often refer to Adler and Van Doren's How to Read a Book. This tome was inflicted on me as an undergraduate, but lately I've come to acknowledge a grudging respect for its lessons. Chief among them is the idea of multiple readings of a text in order to explore different aspects of it. Approaching games with this in mind has really helped me separate playing games from analysing games. After all, I really don't want to see a powerful graphics engine or think "the anti-aliasing and god-rays really enhance the depth-of-field in outdoor levels." I want to feel "sweet holy bastard child of Jebus, that's beautiful!" Once I've had that experience, I can go back and analyse what the artists and designers did to achieve the sensation, but I prefer to experience first and then try to understand (affectus quarens intellectum?)

It is with this in mind that I'm really enjoying the Horizons Broadening Project (part i, part ii) that Elysium (the honorable Shawn Sands) is tracking at Gamers with Jobs. The project calls, not only for participants to play games they would otherwise miss, but it also provides the opportuntiy to look closely at why we like certain games and describe our experience with new games. Shawn's description in part ii is an elegant reflection on a game experience that tracks along different lines than a more traditional review or impressions article.

I'm in the midst of a similar project, so I'm finishing The Witcher so I can particpate in the conversation. I did not play Birth of America, for a few reasons. One being that I didn't want to part with the cash and another being that I expect to pick up Empire Total War at some point and don't need to play both. My first horizons broadening project game was Tomb Raider: Underworld. I've never played a Lara Croft game. I've never had much success playing any game with a controller, being a keyboard and mouse man. I've never really spent much time playing platform games either, so this seemed like a nice opportunity to experience something new.

It turns out, I had a really good time playing Tomb Raider: Underworld and over the next few weeks, I hope to explain why. In the meantime, my thanks to Mr. Sands for pushing me in new directions.

Winning the information game (part 2)

Creative connections between sources are at the heart of what makes academic research intellectually stimulating and vital. We've seen in part one of this series that I'm not convinced that games can teach developing researchers how to make this connections. At the end of the day, I want the students I'm teaching to be able to do more than just jump through hoops and, to put it extremely bluntly, the genius of video games as a teaching tool is that they make jumping through hoops engaging and fun. Video games are a great tool for encouraging players to persist at jumping through hoops until they build skills through repetition.

So this is where information literacy librarians can really use games in their teaching. The overall process of research does not really resemble a video game. However, the individual skills and processes used by expert researchers can be trained and reinforced using techniques borrowed from video games.

Some examples:

Source Evaluation: one of the things I want to see beginning researchers include in their work is an evaluation of the sources they use to build their arguments. At a beginning level, "peer reviewed = good, popular publication = bad" is a start, but eventually I want to see them consider context and the use they are putting the source to. So using level design techniques, librarians can structure lessons to focus on simple evaluation early and then require more nuanced justification of source choices in more advanced lessons.

Advanced database searching: a key to developing from a beginning researcher to a capable student is moving beyond simple keyword searching. Game designers teach players to move beyond simple strategies by throwing in boss, or really tough opponent, that requires the player to change tactics to advance. Librarians can borrow this technique and give google-centric researchers challenges that require them to use subject headings, take advantage of organized metadata, or do citation analysis. At very least librarians can use game bosses and shifting tactics as a metaphor for why keyword searching can't find everything.

So while the entire research process may not resemble a video game, game techniques for building skills, encouraging persistence through failure, and providing an engaging context will come in extremely handy for developing skilled researchers.

winning the information game (part one)

This is an unpublished piece I wrote last spring. It clearly is out of date, but I want to finish the thought. What I'm posting here is the original fragment. Next, I'll post my continuation of this thought.

Since I occasionally write a blog about games and libraries, it stands to reason that I'm a supporter of integrating video games into our libraries and our classrooms. I am not. (Though I'd like to be.) Still,  it seems that as I analyze games and think about their application to libraries, the clearest conclusions I can reach tell me games are not applicable to libraries and instruction. More accurately, approaches to using games in library work do not seem to solve the right problems.

I'm not interested in:

  • Bringing games into my classroom. I'm sure this can be done well, but I'm just not on board with taking valuable classroom time and spending it playing video games. I'm sure someone will figure out a useful way of doing this, but that person isn't me.
  • Inventing games to teach with. Games are hard to make and there are a lot of games out there that suck. I'm simply not confident that I could create a teaching game that didn't suck without investing time and effort that could better applied elsewhere. Non-gamers should remember:our students don't love video games per se, they love excellent video games. The key is excellence, not games. We should have enough faith in our students to believe that they can learn from good instruction. Trying to trick them into learning by using "fun" pedagogy won't work unless the "fun" is done well. Believing students are stupid is a mistake. (Even when they act stupid.)

That doesn't mean that games and libraries is a dead field for me. Quite the contrary, I'm enjoying where these thoughts take me. It's just that they are taking me away from the "Games and Libraries" movement.

I am interested in:

  • Understanding how games engage & teach so as to better understand how to engage and teach a generation of gamers in information literacy, higher education, and general critical thinking and communication skills.

Of course, I've gone over all this before. What brings it back to my mind is some comments that a colleague made about my presentation and the conversations it sparked. Games, like libraries, are systems. Games and libraries must teach players how to navigate their systems in order to be successful. This connection between games and libraries breaks down at a particular point. Games are human-created systems with a fixed set of rules. Research and information gathering are organic processes that very a great deal. The comments in info-fetishist really highlight this well: games are founded on solid rules and research is not. "It is hard to design a game to teach people how to research effectively because everyones research process is different, everyones goals are different, and people’s goals shift and change even as they engage in their own research process." Games are artificial. They are constructed systems with fixed rules and pre-determined values. (The ability of MMORPGs and moddable games to transcend this with user-generated content is an area worth significant attention.)

Games require rules. I'm referring to games writ large here, not just video games. Games ARE their rules. What sets games apart from other kinds of activities is that gaming activities are bounded and defined by clear rules. The difference between artificial rule-bound systems and organic human activities is important and troubling. I have difficulty explaining this concisely, so I'll refer y'all to some folks who explain it beautifully. Umberto Eco, Jose Luis Borges, and Jean Paul Sartre.

At the climax of The Name of the Rose, the solution to the abbey's labyrinth (game) was a book that opened up the possibilities of an organic world with infinite possibilities. Labyrinth's are artificial systems with fixed rules, reality is open. Borges' short stories (including The Library of Babel, The Garden of Forking Paths, The Minataur in his Labyrinth, and Death and the Compass, The Aleph, etc.) often deal with puzzles, labyrinths, or mysteries and reflect on the difference between finite and the infinite worlds. Sartre's Nausea (La Nausée) concludes with the protagonist choosing between the fixed, finite world of memory, mathematics, and other imaginary things and the wrenchingly contingent world of freedom. These authors and stories, or at least this reader's memory of them, all deal with the disconnect that occurs between the world of games, i.e., a magical space where rules are fixed and absolute and the mundane world of infinite possibilities, shifting foundations, and contingent rules.

This is why, I think, as the conversation quoted above alludes to, librarians can't teach research like a game.  At LOEX of the West Anne-Marie and Kate gave a rich and nuanced presentation on peer-review, library instruction, and the nature of academic communication. They referred back to Kuhn and pointed out that the peer-review process works like a game (according to fixed rules) but science can work ahead of the game. Real advances in our understanding re-write the rules and may seem like cheating to devotees of the rules currently in fashion. Galileo, Copernicus, and Einstein are popular examples of this sort of happening. People who play by the rules can get peeved when someone solves a problem by re-writing the rules. It breaks the game.

Now, I'm not suggesting that successful research at the undergraduate level should require folks to stand our collective understanding on its head. I am suggesting that if we want to encourage our students to learn how to research and write in a way that transcends the report model of parroting back facts collected from approved sources, if we want them to gather the best current information and integrate it into a point of view that evolves their understanding of a particular question, then games may not be an appropriate tool. If we can accept that learning changes us and that new understanding of a particular subject changes its meaning for us we can see that we are constantly reframing and rewriting the rules for what we research. This makes it difficult to present research as a game because games rely on fixed rules.

At least I'm not able to envision a game that can deal with the Hermaneutic Cycle. (That is not to say that one cannot be invented by someone who knows more about both games and hermaneutics than I do.)At best I can imagine a game that gives more points for peer-reviewed sources than unsourced Internet material. That is a start, but I wouldn't call that information literacy. Ultimately, I want my students to write their own games, so to speak, rather than play by the rules I set for them. I want to free them to solve problems, I don't want to write innovation out of the game.

Games are artificial rules bound by rules. When the rules are broken, the game-world ceases to be coherent. I suppose the reason I'm afraid to frame information literacy as a game is that I'm sure that whatever set of rules I codified for research, one of my students would find an exception to or a way around. I want to encourage that kind of creative thinking, and the metaphor of the game doesn't allow for that kind of fluidity.

So this is why I don't want to use games to teach information literacy: because I can't imagine designing a game that would do it very well. Coming up next counterpoint: why this post is wrong and games do have a place in teaching information literacy.