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.

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