A game that actually taught me something

The example that’s coming most immediately to mind is the Assassin’s Creed games, namely those set in Renaissance Italy. Prior to playing these games, I knew a bit about the history that informed their stories, but the series’ rich, detailed environments–which, in addition to a fair amount of historical fiction-esque dialogue, includes a great number of “flavor text” entires about historical figures, pieces of architecture, etc.–actually succeeded in lodging a number bits of information in my mind for the long term. Even more interesting and surprising to me, though, is the fact that the games actually made me want to learn even more about the period and place. Again, I think the games’ highly compelling–rich, detailed, immersive, realistic-enough–environments are to be credited with creating this desire.

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Andresen, “Playing By Ear: Creating Blind-Accessible Games”

In this fairly fascinating gamasutra.com article, Andresen makes the case for, and lays out his team’s process of, creating blind accessible-games. He also argues for paying attention to sound in game design (at least more than the average designer does), in general:

So what if you’re not creating games for visually impaired players? Even if you are creating another first-person shooter with a target demographic of able-bodied 18-to-34-year-old males, you should still consider using audio for more than just gunshots, grunts, and death screams. No matter what type of game you are creating, paying careful attention to the audio user interface and 3D audio environment will enhance the player’s experience.

One, particularly interesting point Andresen raises relates to what might seem like a minor issue—what voice to use to narrate a game’s menus. The main character in his team’s game, “Momo the monkey, has a distinct, silly accent. Using Momo’s voice for the initial game-setup menus was a great way to introduce the player to Momo and to set the right mood for the rest of the game.” Reading “discoveries” like these makes me wonder how much of game design is determined by the instincts of its creators. Though maybe as the field/industry has developed over the years, maybe instinct gets replaced more and more by something like research and testing?

I also appreciated the consideration’s Andresen’s team gave to truly detailed audio design:

We follow a couple of general design principles to ensure our game is fully accessible to blind players. First, we make sure that if two items look different, they must sound different. That isn’t usually a problem; most objects in the real world make unique sounds, if they make any sound at all. We just avoid populating our game with items that make no sound. We also make sure that item or game state changes are accompanied by audio cues. For example, items make a “grabbed” sound when they are picked up. Pick up a chicken and you hear it squawk. While it’s in your hand, it will make a disgruntled clucking noise, instead of its normal, “I’m a happy chicken” noise.

It would be interesting to see how this line of thought and work has progressed in the decade since this article was written.

Reading this piece made me (re-)consider the sound design of some of the games I play. Of these, I think Skyrim is the only one I won’t—or really can’t—play with the sound off. You miss too much if you’re not listening. You’re also in greater. The depth of sound in that game really does help you orient yourself—and it adds to the story and the overall experience in significant ways.

Gee, “Learning about Learning from a Video Game: Rise of Nations”

In this chapter, Gee aims to “further develop the argument that computer and video games have a great deal to teach us about how to facilitate learning, even in domains outside games” (p. 45). “[If] only to sell well,” Gee continues, “good games have to  incorporate good learning principles in virtue of which they get themselves well learned. Game designers build on each other’s successes and, in a sort of Darwinian process, good games come to reflect better and better learning principles” (p. 45). Gee uses the real-time strategy (RTS) game Rise of Nations (RoN) as his illustrative example, noting that “[i]n a good game like RoN there is never a real distinction between learning and playing” (p. 61).

Gee’s analysis of “sandbox tutorials,” where the player “is protected from quick defeat and is free to explore, try things, take risks, and make new discoveries,” even though, for example, the player may look to be in great danger (p. 56), had me wondering what narrative-scripting challenges this might create for trying to advance a game’s story.

On the whole I found Gee’s analysis extremely smart and compelling, though the self-hating gamer in me couldn’t help but wonder if he is reaching a bit at times. I’ll be interested to see if he—or anyone else—has developed this argument further as games have grown more advanced (and in some instances, more subtle or hidden in their complexity) over the past half-dozen years. I will say, though, that his statement, “For humans, real learning is always associated with pleasure, is ultimately a form of play—a principle almost always dismissed by schools (p. 61) is a somewhat different (and very compelling and inspiring) take on the fun vs. educational question I’ve had to consider throughout my classes so far.