Monthly Archives: October 2013

Video Games and Learning: Immersion?

Life’s been hectic. Just saying. I should start all my blog posts this way. It’s inevitably true.


Video games and learning! I’m learning about video games and learning! I’m learning about video games and learning about video games and learning about video games and learning– this could take a while. It’s like a toddler not knowing how many A’s are in the word ‘banana.’


So, since I’m always short on time and I’m always passionate about video games, today’s going to be giving you a distillation of the magic of video games as a learning tool. Mostly these first couple of weeks have been about video games as they ARE. We haven’t gotten too much into the construction of lessons based on video games and such, but my cup of tea is exactly this: examining why games are such good teaching tools ALREADY, without any coercion from teachers to guide it into a lesson plan.

It’s about immersion. Duh. It’s in the title.

What do I mean? Well, the meaning is two-fold: the first half is the immersive experience of the game itself. Games present us with two kinds of problems: well-defined problems and ill-defined problems. The well-defined problems are essentially “what am I fighting/solving/traversing at this moment?” questions. Is there a ninja in your path? Well-defined problem that handy decapitation will solve! Is there a large platform that is just out of your reach? Use your handy whip/jump-boots/pogo-stick/magic-tiki-mask-of-levitation to get across. Is there a bunch of blocks in your path? PUSH THEM, YOU ZELDA-PLAYING NOOB!! You get it. The goal is clearly within sight even if it’s not within reach. A lot of games do this very well and do it throughout the course of the game: Super Metroid is my favorite example, as it shows you rooms that you cannot traverse or even access with your current equipment.

Next come the less-well-defined problems that the well-defined ones are nested inside: the questing, the chains of events. I think of this as the extremely long item chain in Ocarina of Time that begins with a cuckoo and ends with a giant sword. You maybe never reached the end. In the beginning, you maybe experimented and got through a couple steps of the cycle, but the end was never in sight. You could see the progression, but problem you were solving (and its solution) weren’t clear. In more free-style games like the Sims, Skyrim or Terraria (NEW EXPANSION PACK GUYS HELLO STOP THE PRESSES), the goals are particularly ill-defined: is success monetary? How about property? Popularity? Combat prowess? There are individual steps you can take to achieve each of these goals, but the game doesn’t present you with a problem that “needs solving.”

The immersive experience in a controlled environment gives the gamedevs equal ability to teach you how to solve problems the game presents, and the ability to teach you to think for yourself in solving these problems. Thinking in a straight path solves many puzzles and problems. Decapitation, block-pushing and rope-swinging will get you to your next destination. But these complex problems and conflicts give a much broader spectrum of solutions a place in the realm of possibility and promote lateral thinking. Fighting a battle in Final Fantasy has a clear goal. The preparation for that battle is a lateral thinking masterpiece. Gear, magic, healing items, positions, even strategies for individual characters are all important “thinking” battles.

Let’s talk a bit about MMOs (also heavily covered in this coursera course). They force you to work with others to succeed. It’s like a Final Fantasy team that you only control one character of, and all of a sudden have more variables like your individual talents, spell rotations, specializations and movement patterns/placement. Even things like being sociable, friendly and patient help, which are valuable social skills that aren’t exactly given a clear “reward” in the school system (but ARE in MMOs. You get invited back more if you’re nice. It’s true).

The MMO part of the course I’m less than thrilled about because I don’t support MMO culture as a complete gaming experience.

Wow, I didn’t realize how high my soapbox was. It’s practically an… IVORY… tower. Get it? Like Ivory soap? Sorry.

(I’m not sorry.)

To support my extremely haughty pedestal of an opinion, I’m going to make up a quote: “The human mind needs to be alone and with others in equal parts. To be alone too often is to not know the thoughts of others, to be with others too often is to not know the thoughts of one’s self.” BAM. Confucian stuff right there. Anyway. Gaming alone can help remove the social pressure MMOs put on you, and can give gamedevs an opportunity to present you with a storylike experience that a lot of people are enriched by.

But I digress. Games work in their experience as immersive tools for learning in how they nest their problems and can create a complex web of problem-solving experiences that leave the player better off at the end of a game than he or she was at the beginning, not only in the story they’ve been told but the way they’ve been taught to think and solve the problems they’ve been given.

Food for thought.



How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb-omb

Mario/Dr. Strangelove crossover? Dr. Strangeario? I could see potentially disastrous gameplay choices.

I’m sorry if you don’t get it. Google’s your friend.

I’ve been swamped this week. The Festival of New American Music is coming up faster than I’d like, and I’m having a piece premiered there (that I haven’t quite polished off all the rough edges on), and I’ve spent my entire weekend working on it. And today. And this evening, probably.

This means three things: one is that either I’ll be dead by Friday or I’ll be finished with the darned music, leaving me room and time to blog. The second thing is that (obviously) I haven’t been keeping up on the Video Games and Learning course as well as I should be, and I’ve fallen a bit behind on everything. The third thing that follows is that (obviously) today’s blog post won’t incorporate any of the delightful stuff that I haven’t learned.


All in all, I’m still a very happy guy (and you should be too, unless you’re a very happy girl… or pan-gender person). Terraria got a huge huge huge update that made me feel like I got a whole new game for free, and the 2nd game was recently announced as well. Skyrim would be engrossing if I had enough time for it, and I’ve spent a couple of minutes each day exploring the endgame content of Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale. (By the way, I’m sure you know Skyrim is great, but Terraria and Recettear you may not have heard of. They are worth every penny and about two thousand pennies more. I promise that you won’t forget the quick wit, addictive gameplay and deep story of Recettear, and I promise that you WILL forget to do things like sleep, eat, use the restroom, and have social contact if you dig into Terraria.)

That pun was intended.


Video Games and Learning: an Ongoing Process

Hey folks! Sorry for not updating Monday, it’s been a heck of a week! My post today isn’t going to be anything special (which I’m sure you’re secretly cheering about, I know sometimes I can get a little on the deep and wordy side of things), but it’s just something new and exciting happening in the life of a video game blogger.

If you’ve never heard of Coursera, it’s a pretty cool place to be nowadays. It’s basically a website where professors offer free online courses and certifications in a VERY wide range of subjects. The link is included in the handy-dandy logo below. Sign up if you’ve got any free time at all! I have no free time and I’m still doing stuff.

Education for everyone??? WHAT A NOVEL IDEA.

Education for everyone??? WHAT A NOVEL IDEA.


I get the feeling that it’s very common and popular for EDUCATORS especially to utilize this fantastic and interesting tool… because Common Core is being implemented in schools everywhere (at least in California where I am), and there were about 10 courses offered about different facets of that program last time everything came out. Not that you’re interested, but I stay current on more than video games.


Point being, one of the more interesting courses that was offered (and I decided to take [hence this blog post {but you probably got that already}]) is “Video Games and Learning.” Essentially, it’s an educational approach to the way people play video games, and it takes a deeper look in whether or not video games can be used in the classroom to create a better learning environment or give kids novel ways to learn through playing. As a musician, it’s obvious to me that learning by playing has value, but this course will probably give me a much better understanding of how to do it in a classroom.

I get it. It’s more about education than video games. Trust me, I figured that one out as soon as the lecturer said “Massively Multiplayer Online Games.” Guess who the target audience is! Not gamers.

But this is absolutely something that’s relevant to game designers, because like I’ve said multiple times in my posts: modern games SUCK at teaching their players. Everything useful to them is either taught to them in a klunky tutorial with lots of “go-here” and “pick this up,” and all of the interesting fluff and lore is relegated to that awful “Journal” or “Log” tab in your menu that you just leave blinking because you’ve got 90 “New” entries to read. (Skyrim and Mass Effect excluded, as they put their lore in their game fairly well, but… Mass Effect, I’m not letting your Journal tab off easy. That crap was crazy.)

It’s also relevant to us as gamers, as we can better pick up things from our games, as well as better learning to solve problems and look at games in a more problem-oriented way. People ask how one can be “good at video games.” Apart from learning WASD controls at some point, most of what being good at video games entails is being able to anticipate and get a good idea of what the problems are like in the game you’re playing, and what skills you need to have to be successful against them. Sounds pretty simple when you break it down, but that’s video games in a nutshell.


Anyway, I’m learning lots of groundbreaking stuff already, and that’s the whole point of the post: periodically I’m going to be dedicating a blog post to whatever’s currently up in the class, and I’ll distill it to my more gamer-y audience (aka skipping the part where he explains about a WoW character as an air-quote “avatar.” Cringe-worthy).

First post on it’s coming Monday. Lots of great stuff for any aspiring gamedevs out there!


Why it’s time for a video game music Renaissance

Hum a melody from a video game that came out in the past 10 years.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Chances are, you can’t, unless you cheat and use melodies from a Mario remake or the Halo anniversary edition. But why is that?

Well, let’s give a brief history of video game music (again [again {again}]). You had bleeps and blips with pacman, then someone came along and invented MIDI (woohoo!). Gameboy and Nintendo had 3 wavetable oscillators (pronounced “instruments”) and a noise machine for percussion. Then you get 16-bit stuff, samples, FM synths and some pretty rad stuff with Super Nintendo, Sega, etc. etc. Playstation comes around and supports digital audio! Woohoo again! Then from PS2/Xbox/Gamecube onward, you get mostly high-quality crystal-clear audio with amazing processing, either recorded by a live orchestra or painstakingly crafted from magnificent music libraries (like the main theme of Game of Thrones. You thought it was live, didn’t you? Nope, libraries). With the most modern consoles, adaptive music has come into play that defies the very idea of a soundtrack and offers a smooth blend of music from one place to another.

Whew, that was a crash course if I’ve ever seen one. Point being, the blinders have been removed, the constraints are nonexistent, and the audio processing capabilities of the newest consoles/PCs are so powerful that it’s the compositional equivalent of a kid in a candy store. It really is that good. And therein lies the problem.

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