Monday, December 30, 2013

Pursuing a Dream

Today I am a fool. Today I am happy. Today I am stressed and depressed. Today, for the first time in ages, I have hope for my own future.

Today I decided, after months of frustration, countless tears, too many fits of rage, and the worst apathetic bouts of self-loathing and depression I've ever had that I will withdraw from my PhD program at Stanford University.

This is a stupid decision, because I have no job lined up, and no particular prospects for a job. I'm leaving another year and a half of guaranteed funding on the table, and the security that comes with a Stanford degree. Granted, I already have a Master's from Stanford, but a PhD opens more doors, I'm told. The problem for me is that getting a PhD also closes doors. Heck, working on getting a PhD has closed too many doors for me already.

What I'm going to do is this: I'm going to stream video games on Twitch. I have no regular viewers, and there are hundreds (if not thousands) of others who are trying to do exactly this. It's a rough-and-tumble, competitive world (but no more so than the academy), and there is no guarantee of success. And, frankly, success is not a six-figure income and a cushy 35-hour work week. Success as a streamer means hard work for, if I'm lucky, a living wage.

That said, there are other things I can do, too. I have designed, in principal, three games that I simply haven't had time to make. As with streaming, there is no guarantee that any of those three games will sell, and it will be a lot of work to build each of them (one is a board game, which is feasible; the other two are computer games, which means I need to learn to code). I am also a writer - or I used to be - and I believe my streaming could easily turn into a book if I do it right. Would such a book sell? Maybe, maybe not. Finally, I used to be something of a musician. I stopped practicing regularly when I became a PhD student, but somewhere in my brain is enough musical skill to gig at least semi-regularly. Can I make a living, or a part of one, playing music? Maybe, maybe not.

So why give up the prospect of a cushy professorship for an uncertain career as an entertainer and artist? Because being a PhD student has made me miserable, and because I would rather be true to myself and take a chance at pursuing my actual passions than pursue a path which I know ends in unhappiness and cynicism. I am at heart a joyful person, but I have not felt joyful in years. Today, for the first time in I don't know how long, I feel some semblance of that joy.

But I'm also afraid. Realistically, the next few months (or years) will be trying, and expensive. I'm giving up a fairly stable existence for a highly uncertain one, and that's terrifying. And on top of that, because I'm going to pursue my dreams, if I fail the failure will hurt all the more. But I'd rather fail in pursuing my dreams than succeed in denying them. I know what the latter feels like, and it sucks. The cold logic of practicality, the harsh reality of 70 hour work week after 70 hour work week, all doing work for which I have no passion, with no end in sight. Why choose that? I'd rather work 100 hours a week on something I care about than even 30 on something I don't.

And, you know what, I will succeed. It will hurt, letting down all of my friends and family who wanted me to get a PhD. It will be hard streaming with 2 or 3 - or 0 - people watching. It will upset me when I write a blog post or post a YouTube video that gets no views. I will despair when no one buys my first board game, when my first computer game languishes unsold and unsellable. But in time I will succeed, because I will work hard, I will have a passion for what I do, and I will do a good job. I will bring something new and different to the world of casting, and I will do it with joy.

Writing all this is a little surreal. I guess I've let "PhD student" become a part of my identity. Cutting it away is strange, scary. Even if it's a part of my identity that has caused me no end of stress, frustration, and sadness, it's hard to let go. Perhaps that's why I've waited so long to take this step: I've been afraid to lose a part of who I am. Now, as I start to shed the burden of being a PhD student, I can see that I'm gaining so much more. And I also see that I have learned valuable things at Stanford. I'm a more systematic and rigorous thinker. I'm a more careful writer. I'm more skeptical, more aware of the nature of evidence, more scientific. All of those things will serve me as I take on a new identity, an identity that, deep down, is the truest I've ever tried on.

I am not a researcher. I am a gamer, a writer, a musician, and a designer. It's time for me to live my life. Oh friends, not these tones. Let us sing yet more joyfully.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A New Blog

Since I'm trying to take a more specialized path in my writing, I've decided to start a more specialized blog. Nicht Diese Tone was always meant to be an all-purpose writing space, a mostly personal combination of thoughts, poems, ideas, analyses, and so on. It was a space for exploration.

As I move in a clearer direction in my research, I find the history at this blog too broad for what I want to talk about. So I'm starting a new blog instead. You'll find it at gameology.us. I plan - at this early point - at being fairly active there, with a combination of analysis, aggregation / curation, and more speculative brainstorming. So, basically, not unlike the style of this blog, but with a more focused topic.

I'm not going to take down this blog, and still may post here from time to time. You know, when I feel particularly poetic or have to share something personal or whatever. Hey, someday I may even finish my Beethoven post series. But in the meantime, if you want to follow my convoluted train of thought, transfer to the other side of the cyber-platform.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

4 Books and 4 Games

I recently was charged with putting together a short presentation to introduce myself to the incoming LDT cohort, with the caveat that I shouldn't do the classic academic "here's my research" thing. So I decided instead to highlight four books and four games that have been important to me.

The not-so-subtle hidden message here is that I increasingly believe that games and books belong on the same cultural plane. Game literacy is as much a reality as book literacy. Games are as diverse in purpose, genre, quality, and artistry as books are. Games are, for many people, as important in shaping our selves as books.

But I didn't talk about any of that in my talk. I just shared the titles and a little about why each book or game has been important to me. So that's what I'm going to do here.

Book One - The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Trilogy, by Douglas Adams

Or, "the increasingly inaccurately named Hitchhiker's trilogy," which ended up having five books and vague prospects of a sixth at the time of Adams's unfortunate death. This series of books was what made me a reader. I remember my dad reading them to me when I was little. I also remember picking them up and reading them on my own once I realized that I didn't need someone else to read to me. I still read them once every couple of years. Many of the jokes are old friends, but I'm continually amazed how each time I read the series I find new things to guffaw at that I never fully appreciated before.

For a time, at least, Adams was also a major influence on my writing as well. I'm not as funny as he is, by any stretch, and I fear that becoming more of an academic has in many ways made me a less fluid writer. Even so, deep down a lot of my assumptions about what good writing looks like come from my early experiences as a reader huddled up with Ford and Arthur as they chased Chesterfield sofas across the plains of prehistoric Earth.

Game One - Civilization II, by Microprose

If Hitchhiker's Guide made me a reader, Civilization II made me a gamer. I had played many games prior to discovering Civlization, in truth, but most of those were sports games on an old Sega Genesis. They were fun, but they were also arcade-y and action-y. Not really my style, in the long run. Civilization was my first brush with PC strategy gaming, and like so many young nerds of my generation, my first afternoon with the game quickly turned into my first night, my first gaming all-nighter. I distinctly remember that first session, and my shock at seeing my clock reading 5:00 AM (well passed my bedtime). I remember resolving to play just a few more turns, but ultimately completing an entire game before finally calling it quits at 10 or so in the morning.

The Civilization games aren't just addictive, though. They are deep, complex, strategic. They reward careful planning. They encourage exploration and discovery. It was a revelation to young me that games could be more than just button-mashing. My mind had to work when I played Civilization, and it was glorious. I maintain that strategy games have made me smarter, more strategic in my thinking in the real world, more metacognitive. That started with Civilization II.

Book Two - Phenomenology of the Spirit, by Hegel

Of course I had to pick a program book from St. John's for this list, and with some difficulty I settled on Hegel. Phenomenology of the Spirit is a horrible mess. It reads like a poorly written instruction manual that has been translated from English to German and back several times. But underneath its horrid language it's brilliant, and more importantly, it absolutely permeates the modern Academy. Dialectical materialism - a Marxist offshoot of Hegelian logic - is the basis of almost all modern social and literary criticism, but more to the point the very notion of dialectic and perfectibility underlies the very scientific processes that drive every field of research. Hegelian thought may be strange in many ways, but it is strange in precisely the ways that academic research as a whole is strange. Of all the valuable experiences bestowed upon me by the St. John's program, perhaps none has been so (surprisingly) relevant as those gleaned by reading Hegel.

Game Two - Football Manager, by Sports Interactive

I was never a soccer fan growing up, but after seeing numerous glowing reviews of the FM series on various sports sim forums - especially those of Out of the Part Baseball - I decided to give it a shot. The result: over time, this game has supplanted all other sports simulations in my gaming library. I don't really want to know how much time I've put into my longest running save file, which I started playing back in 2010 and still dip into today.

I especially include this game, though, not because I love it, but because of what it demonstrates about the value of simulations for learning. I literally knew nothing about soccer tactics before I started playing FM. My brother played the sport growing up, sure, but I gained little by osmosis from him. And I've never watched much soccer beyond the World Cup and the occasional European Champions League match or MLS final. And yet I've become totally conversant in the tactics of the game by virtue of my experience with FM. I can watch the sport on TV and recognize the influence of formations, play styles, and approaches to the game that otherwise would be totally invisible to me, and all because of a simulation game. I'm an advocate of games as teachers of metacognition, but I think that some games can also teach content. In this case the content may not "matter" in the way that, say, history or math content does, but it is nevertheless, to me, a proof case.

Book Three - Understanding by Design, by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe

My advisors would be the first to tell you that I've struggled to pin down my educational identity. What, really, do I specialize in? Well, if I had to pick a sub-area of education that I feel most expert in it would be curriculum design. That's not so much my research area - which is part of my problem as a researcher - as a part of educational practice I'm comfortable with, but it is nevertheless a vital skill in a variety of settings (including in constructing research studies; often curriculum needs to be written before a study can be conducted). Understanding by Design is the book that summarizes where I stand on curriculum. It was enlightening to encounter and read as a Master's student in 2009, and it remains central to my thinking about curriculum today.

Game Three - Journey, by That Game Company

I'm a PC strategy gamer at heart, but that doesn't mean that I haven't played other types of games. An important thread of modern research and debate in gaming has to do with the ability of games to weave narratives. A lot of the hullabaloo over whether games count as art comes down to this question: can they tell a story? I don't think that's a fair question to ask because it leaves out too many types of games. Some games aren't trying to tell a story, and some games are engines for a variety of stories without having a specific agenda. Nevertheless, games that are trying to tell a story can, and they can do it well. Journey, I'd say, is perhaps the best example of a game that is also a work of art and a narrative (even though there is no text in the entire game).

I debated with myself as to whether I should have put the Mass Effect series in this slot, or Shadow of the Colossus. The former is obviously a testament to RPG story-telling on a grand scale, while the latter is perhaps closer to Journey in its haunting beauty and vast landscapes. But both of those games, at their heart, are not made or broken by their story telling. Mass Effect is an RPG with a story, but it's also an action game, a fighting game, a shooter. That doesn't make it bad, but it does mean that there are really two distinct things going on: action game and story. The two rarely intersect.

Shadow of the Colossus is, similarly, a puzzle game at heart. Its puzzles are unbelievably beautiful, and it's not exactly conventional in its approach... but each challenge does have a specific answer that you need to puzzle out. It has a well-constructed story intervening, and a beautiful game world to go with it, and yes, the story and the game mechanics are better integrated than they are in Mass Effect, but you really are trying to solve puzzles.

Journey, on the other hand, really is a story. Inasmuch as it has puzzles - and it does - they are trivial and minimalist. The point of the experience is to have an experience. A literary experience, I'd say. The brilliant multiplayer integration - the most graceful I've ever seen - only adds to that experience. In short, it's a work of art that matches any novel I've read or movie I've seen, and I can't do justice to it in this little space.

Book Four - Invisible Cities, by Italo Calvino

This is my favorite book. I've read it I don't know how many times, I've taught it as part of my creative writing class, and I often pick it up to read a random passage. It's a book about just about everything: love, storytelling, imagination, history, leadership, perception, architectural design. You name it. It's the best book about epistemology that I've ever read.

Above all, at this point in my life, it speaks to me about the challenge of doing social sciences research. People are complex things, learning is a complex process, and making sense of the world doesn't just happen. I often wonder what Calvino's writing process was like for this book; whether he sat at a desk imagining or if he wandered the streets of Venice and composed his passages from actual witnessed scenes. Probably a combination. Regardless, his efforts (or at least his character Marco Polo's) strike me as much like the researcher's: trying to tell the story of a place when there are dozens of stories, trying to communicate with an audience that does not speak your language, trying to master an empire of knowledge when such an empire is inherently unmasterable.

Game Four - Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Victoria series, by Paradox Interactive

These "grand strategy" historical simulation games are among my favorites as a game player, but also signify an important future direction in my research. Increasingly I have come to realize that I can't just leave games to the side. I've often thought that I care too much about games to research them, but I have begun to think that maybe I care too much about games to not research them. True, research in games is expanding rapidly, and there are lots of people excited about, at the very least, the commercial opportunities that games for learning represents. But I think there's also a more idealist opportunity here: there are games which I suspect are good at teaching thinking, and might be good at teaching content too.

Researchers have investigated historical simulation games for teaching history before, but I don't know that they've looked at any of these games. They're too complex, probably, for a traditional classroom. The barriers to entry are too high. They take too long to learn to play.

But difficulty is a poor excuse for ignoring what could be tremendous educational resources. Historical simulations of this scale are fascinating not just because they contain tremendous amounts of historical content, but also because they are consciously designed artifacts that are themselves opportunities for conversation. What is abstracted and in what way? What does the geographical setting or the game mechanics say about the view of history the game designers hold? Do the historical time period divisions between these games make sense? Why or why not?

In short, there's not just history here, there's historiography. As a curriculum designer, that's exciting to me, and as a researcher there's an opportunity to see not just if games generically can support learning generically, but if the very best that games have to offer in historical simulation can teach not just history, but historical thinking.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Video Games and Curriculum

There are three ways that I'm interested in thinking about the intersection of video games and curriculum. I'll discuss each briefly here, starting from the most-researched to the least-researched.

1) Video Games as Curriculum Support

Most of the early research on video games and learning has been about "educational games" or the less baggage-laden rebranding "games for learning." The idea is, in short, that students enjoy playing games, and so we can trick them into learning by putting curriculum into a game. If, like me, you grew up with Math Blaster, Where in the World is Carmen San Diego, or Mario Teaches Typing you know what these games are like: enjoyable to a point, but ultimately limited in their appeal to the particular curricular situations in which they are employed.* Rarely are educational games - even the best of them - actually all that great as games. They are often closer to gamified curriculum than game for learning.

* OK, I get that Carmen San Diego in particular has some appeal beyond the classroom, but it really is one of the most exceptional educational games ever created.

It is fair to say that games for learning have come a long way in the past 20 years, however, and today there are many exceptionally enjoyable games that are explicitly designed to encourage learning. For example, the work of Motion Math (founded by fellow LDT students) shows the potential to engage students in a learning experience that still has good game design.

A related idea involves commercial games instead of games for learning. A recent Stanford graduate named Dylan Arena wrote his dissertation on commercial video games as preparation for future learning. The idea is that, by engaging students in a good game experience, you give them motivation and a reference point for understanding curricular material. His results are fascinating, demonstrating that we can, in fact, use games like Civilization and even the much-maligned Call of Duty to motivate students as they learn history.

In all, this is a vitally important area of research and innovation, and only good things can be said about the improvement of games for learning. The issue, to my mind, is that for many researchers the intersection of games and curriculum stops here. The question is an important one: How can we use games to teach what we already teach? But it's far from the only question we should be asking about learning and games.

2) Game Design as a Subject

As the game industry grows, there are more and more people who wish to become game designers, or to study game design and development. Game design programs are cropping up everywhere, but these are rarely founded upon principles of good curriculum development. In part this is because game design is a moving target. How can we design backwards when we don't really know what the end point should be?

Needless to say, there's a research opportunity here: how can we best teach game design? There are texts out there, but I don't think any are grounded in data about the outcomes of potential designers who go through game design programs.

I don't want to get bogged down, however, in thinking that game design should be exclusively a post-secondary and specialized study. I would rephrase the research question in this way, then: how can we best teach game design in such a way that any student at any level can better understand games and their role in society? Game design is a practical discipline and a career, in some sense, but it is also a theoretical subject with implications for just about everybody (because who doesn't play or watch games of some kind?). In this sense, game design is less about job training and more about learning to think.

3) Video Games as Curricular Artifacts

In some sense this is a related idea to the above, but I want to make a distinction between studying game design and studying games. In the above, game design is a vehicle for teaching creativity and critical thinking, but the subject is still the design process. This final idea is about games as art. Games as literature. Games as intrinsically valuable and interesting curricular artifacts. In much the way that we ask students to read books, to analyze them, to discuss them and write about them, I propose that we could and should do the same with games. Not all games, or any game, but certain games.

Why should we do this? Well, why should we study literature? Because games, like literature, can be insightful and profound, can teach us more about what it means to be human, can offend us, can expose us to other ways of thinking about the world, can allow us to imagine living lives very different from our own. And like literature, it is a waste to play (as with books, some) games unthinkingly. But when and where do we teach students to play games well? Not just to be good at games, but to be a good and critical reader/player of games? At present, the closest we get is by reading books in English class. But this is learning by analogy, when we could use games as artifacts in their own right.

The counter-argument here, of course, is that games are not worthy of the status we bestow upon books. But that is a position with which I cannot agree. True, there are a great many games which are far from great literature, but there are also a great many books which are unworthy of deep study. Why condemn games as a genre because some - and some of the most successful commercially - are philosophically, literately, or creatively deficient? There are gems (Journey, Shadow of the Colossus, To The Moon to name three) that are every bit as interesting as any text. And what's more, they afford conversations about more than just narrative: they invite questions about interactivity, about design, about linearity and non-linearity of experience. It is my conviction that a well-designed curriculum that studies games as art would be at least as effective - if not more so - at teaching the kinds of thinking, writing, and speaking skills - as well as the qualities of introspection, skepticism, and critique - we want students to acquire in humanities courses in their K-12 and college experiences.

Perhaps I should voice that conviction as a question: are video games valuable curricular artifacts in their own right? I may believe so, but I suspect few do. Most importantly, I know of anyone who has any data or research that supports either position.

Friday, September 13, 2013

An Observation about Research on Video Games in Education

I'm hoping to get back into writing on this blog in the near future. In particular, I plan to write some short-ish posts to help collect my thoughts about video games, learning, and education. This first post is a kind of brief overview and problem statement. Others - including, I hope, some analysis of actual games - will follow.

Research on video games in education tends to fall into two broad camps. The first is research on "games for learning," a rebranding of "educational games." While games for learning have come a long way in the past few years, they are still by-and-large less interesting, less polished, and less fun than commercial games. They may be successful at teaching what they are trying to teach, but they have limited appeal beyond the specific curricular situation they were designed for. In some sense they are to commercial games what textbooks are to other books.

The second major camp of video game research in education is on the social aspects of gaming. This includes research on phenomena like guilds in MMORPGs, where under-performing students can sometimes show tremendous mathematical, organizational, and leadership ability within the context of the game whilst failing to exhibit those same qualities in the classroom. It also includes studies on gaming communities and the extend to which they are or are not communities of practice. By-and-large this kind of research focuses on multiplayer and social gaming, though there are exceptions.

In my reading of research from both of these camps, I've seen a general shortcoming that plagues many studies: while games are ostensibly part of the subject of the research, rarely is game genre, quality, or design taken into account by the researchers. It's as if we wanted to research books, and then didn't differentiate between Hamlet, The Lord of the Rings, and Rainbow Six. Those are books of wildly different genres, wildly different styles and time periods, and of various qualities (I doubt even Clancy himself would consider his book worthy of inclusion in a high school curriculum, for example).

I think this problem stems from the generational gap around games. While more and more researchers realize that games are a big deal - Constance Steinkuehler is fond of pointing out that the gaming industry outpaces movies and music combined in revenue these days - there are still precious few researchers who are actually gamers. What's more, the cultural stigma around games is that they are entertainment at best, and at worst social disease. To return to the book analogy, it's as if researchers on literature weren't avid readers, and indeed doubted whether books were legitimate forms of artistic and creative expression. A little skepticism is probably good, but skepticism should be born of familiarity, not ignorance.