Mar 202011

My mother believes in ghosts. This is not a bad thing. She believes that the spirits of relatives gone are still with us, watch over us, take care of us. She believes in the power of prayer and holy water.

I do not believe in these things, and in a way, I am diminished.

House of Spirits” by Isabell Allende, “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and other Latin American writers have stories infused with spirits, of super humanly beautiful beings, of impossible scents and the imposition over the ordinary with the supernatural. This “Magical Realism” isn’t magic to one whose daily life is infused with belief.

Is it possible to infuse a place with magic? To make one believe? Magical Realism as a genre is serious. It is not fantasy. It is fantastic. These are not light words.

Is it possible to imbue someone with a feeling of agency? of power over their surroundings? To make the ordinary extraordinary?

Conceptually, it would be lovely to give one a lens that allows them to see the world differently, to see the eddies of power and stuff of manipulation – to make magic.

 Posted by at 12:30 pm
Mar 172011

As this develops, I continue to learn.

I had believed that to beat the game, one graduated from the college. It seemed the correct ending to our hero’s journey. And if that was the case, then putting in the time and credit hours allowed you to win thegame.

Total rethink.

Liz pointed out that in that scenario our students can beat the game without even playing it. (I love when we have discussion that make me change my view of the world). She articulated several points, that I am sure she may better explain in another post.

This is the picture in my head.

There is the real world (as real as one believes) and the game overlay with its attendant metaphor. It is the purpose of the game to highlight certain actions, events and behaviors.

Liz has pointed me to various publications, among them “Drive” by Daniel Pink. A key idea is that when one is motivated by reward/pay that is essentially work. Intrinsic motivation, that “drive” — because the action is fulfilling unto itself — is a different thing. Recognition for these behaviors are a perk, not the goal. It feeds play. It is not pay.

Students work toward graduation. It is, in a sense, their job…even though ostensibly they are paying for it. Graduation is the logical and correct reward for this work and should be celebrated. It is separate from the game.

A return to monsters…what is the developmental boss in this  student journey? Liz, my walking font of reference material has pointed me to “Leaving college: Rethinking the Causes and Cures of Student Attrition” by Vincent Tinto.

I know the first year monster, and I am well aware of senioritis. I spoke with Jennifer Hinton, who is our Assistant Director of Student Experience. This is a new position dedicated to not only academic advising, but looking at all aspects of student life to ensure their success. Jen said we throw a lot of resources at students when they begin, and have much for them as they transition out. As yet, the in-between portion is not as well supported.

Back in the sad 80′s, I dropped out of college and went to work full time. It was the right thing for me at the time. If the objective of the game-if it were a game- was to graduate from the program I began, I failed. If I look at the journey not as completion to graduation, but instead maturation and getting a sense of myself and where I belong in the world, gaining independence and confidence in my abilities – I was right on time.

So the answer to the title of this post, is that I have none as yet. We are still defining the scope of the game. Feel free to chime in.

 Posted by at 8:44 am
Mar 142011

To beat the game – one graduates. So the levels really are directly related to how many credits have been completed. Do we indicate quality of the journey? or is it sufficient to see that Indiana Jones dotted line from Istanbul (Not Constantinople)?

I’m playing WoW again.

Wonder if I can get the department to pay for the account?

It’s informative.

As Thomas had rightly pointed out, it’s the surprise that causes delight. So I am fishing, and I get “100 fish!” It’s a small thing, and I was fishing anyway, but there is that marker of progression. I wasn’t fishing for that one hundred, I just got it. This came at a good time as I was fishing and thinking (because that is what one does when one fishes) about work versus play, and why I was fishing instead of killing things?

It’s an ancillary skill that nominally feeds into the larger game, but is not crucial to it. But hey! I got an achievement! Delight.

Some achievements that we can skim from their journey:

  • “Getting Better All the Time” – if the current GPA is greater than the previous quarter/semester
  • “On the Board” – an “A” was earned
  • “Well Above Water” – GPA exceeds 3.25
  • “Come Back Kid” – some formulaic way to note a considerable positive difference, say someone who was on probation but has turned that around two quarters in a row.
  • “Well Rounded” – Students often do well in their area of study, not-so-much in their liberal arts. If the gpa and the I-forget-the-name-of-the-number-for-major are basically the same, then that would indicate similar effort
 Posted by at 7:24 am
Mar 052011

The thing about that monster in “Alien” and pretty much all horror movies — at least the good ones — is that we only get fleeting glimpses of them. They hide in the dark. They are shrouded in mystery.

We fear the unknown.

But if we make explicit our foe, identify his weaknesses, give you the skills to get at that soft underbelly, and name him “Bob” or “Enid” or “Mary”, well, that is much less scary.

Each year our students hit crucibles. Most survive them; some do not. If we propose that students are on a hero’s journey (and they are), these crucibles are essentially metaphorical bosses. While the students might think we (professors) are the antagonists in their story — the gatekeepers to the next level, we really aren’t. The things that trip them up are much more mysterious and less whackable.

For example, the first crash and burn wave happens not because freshmen are suffering from the work load, but because they are navigating through things like waking up in time to get food, cooking and cleaning after themselves…maybe dealing with budding or ending romantic relationships, and alcohol. This is not a curricular problem, this is a maturation problem with a side of F’s. Crash and burn.

It seems a little thing, but the culmination of minutiae minutes, time management, putting stuff where you can find it, and knowing what is coming altogether are what they need to beat that first boss – henceforth to be known as “Hubert”. (Cut me some slack, I am typing this in the SF airport while waiting for my plane).

So they’ll gain XP (experience), and if we design this well, we make explicit and provide a means for them to recognize that they are gaining skills and that these skills are crucial to meet that coming boss. What’s more, we expose Hubert for what he is – a morass of bad habits kluged together to suck the unwary into a pit of I’m-behind-and-oh-shit-oh-shit-oh-shit.

 Posted by at 1:32 pm
Feb 172011

The trick is to leave it open enough so that there is the possibility of surprise. This is not that difficult, because my students often do things I do not expect nor dream.

I teach three different studio courses: emphasis on creativity, story telling, character and metaphor. I find the trick is to not to let them do anything they want, but rather give them definite constraints – then they fling themselves against the limits because then the students know the limits’ location and also it is their nature to test them.

The constraints are objective: size, scope and necessary inclusions, for example: create a 30 second animation that incorporates a minimally bipedal walk cycle, an additional loop, and has a narrative arc – no death allowed. I include the last bit because it’s too easy to make a fight-the-bad-guy-end-in-epic-blood scenario. You know they test that. “What if he melts? or implodes? or is grievously injured?” “Does the character have to walk necessarily? Could they roll? What about a peg leg?”

That said. They consistently produce work that makes me happy. Not all: but many. Some will do the bare minimum and do a literal interpretation of the constraints put forth. Still, some have the capacity to make me go home at night pleased that I have this job.

Exhibit B: The shirt woot derby. Every week, the folks at woot have a “derby” where people submit Tee-shirt designs based on a specific them with specific constraints. The community votes on their preferred designs. Discussion in the comments ensues. The best (as judged by a combination of woot staff and community) rise, and the worst are rejected.

 Posted by at 11:53 am
Feb 142011

Scenario: The regulars (Anton, Marshall, Amy and Kyle) head down to the Cantina for lunch and there is a sign in the stairwell, “So Long and Thanks for all the FIsh.” along with a graphic. These cryptic signs have been popping up around campus for weeks. Without breaking stride Marshall talks into his phone “JUST PRESS PLAY SO LONG AND THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH.”

“What is it this time?”
Amy and Kyle say simultaneously. Amy adds, “Dunno how you can surf and walk down stairs at the same time.”

Marshall reports, “It’s a scavenger hunt. Things seniors should do before they leave town. We got this.”

We need to signal it’s going on. At any time there will be a variety of puzzles to solve; achievements to attain. Not all of these will be interesting nor attainable. Regardless, the information at the site has to be fresh and relevant.

  • Achievement of the day/week/some other discreet unit – some achievements may be ephemeral, or will last only as long as there is interest in it. Perhaps it is seasonal. For whatever reason, one will have to hit while it’s hot.
  • Achievements that your friends have recently gotten – because we know you’re not competitive.
  • Achievements targeted toward you – because you are a freshman, taking a particular class
  • Achievements that many people have “liked”

Additionally, there will be site specific achievements which should be signaled at their location. We can utilize smart phones or rfid bracelets to broadcast our location, and the location can talk back to us. And then there are those cryptic signs. I still like paper.

 Posted by at 2:44 am
Feb 132011

During a meeting awhile ago, the phrase “user generated quests” was brought up. I think it was just a passing notion; something some just said on a whim.This idea has actually been around a while thanks to Kevin and Weez, but not fleshed out to the extent that it could be. I, on the other hand, haven’t stopped thinking about it. I believe quests, let alone user generated ones, could be a powerful mechanic for the system. The basic idea is this:

A “quest” contains a series of goals that a player must complete within a certain timeframe in order for the quest to be successful. After a quest has been successfully completed, a reward is given. If the quest was unsuccessful, it is deemed “failed” and may be restarted started at the next timeframe interval. In some cases, a failed quest cannot be repeated.

The goals of the quest are made up of badges and/or achievements from the system. Attaining or unlocking all the badges or achievements within the timeframe completes the quest. The reward for the quest is either a badge or an achievement. Having rewards be the same type as goals for a quest leads to the idea of quest trees; where the successful completion of one quest is a goal in another quest, and so on.

The timeframe for quests can be set down to the daily level and up to a yearly, or academic yearly, level. Some common presets will be daily, weekly, monthly/academic quarterly, yearly/academic yearly. The player has 24 hours, or multiples of 24 hours for weekly, monthly, etc., from the accepting of the quest to complete the quest successfully.

The difficulty of the quests will take timeframe, number of badges or achievements to complete, the difficulty of the individual badges or achievements, and if the quest can be repeated into account.

Once a player chooses a quest they have created or created by someone else, they can “accept” the quest. Players may cancel a quest at any point, having the ability to retry the quest at the next timeframe period, if permitted. Players will not be able to create onetime playable quests.

This is all well and good, but… we can go deeper:

Once a player creates a quest, a privacy setting can be set. Private quests can only be accepted by the player that created them. Friends Only quests can only be accepted by friends of the creator. Public quests can be accepted by all players.

What if a quest is too hard for a single player to complete? Why not join your friends in their quests to help them? A quest has to be marked as a co-op able and all players need to complete the quest in order for the quest to actually be complete; no jumping in at the end and getting credit for something. Quests can also be marked as co-op only, where a certain number of players are needed to even start a quest.

These are just some of my initial thoughts on quests. More to come.

 Posted by at 2:17 am
Feb 122011


Scripts begin with the scene. It provides context, locates you in space and time and sometimes, with addition of a few details…mood. This is important. If one doesn’t know where they are, how do they know where to go?

There are many ways to define our place in the world:

  • by our progression in time
  • by geographic location
  • by where we are in a process
  • by our relative position among the people that matter to us
  • by our relations in general

Each of these suggest different continuum, categories and possible interrelations.

Nailing the visual is a juicy problem. To visualize something with two components – say time and location is easy enough to plot. X,Y ain’t but a thang. We throw in a third dimension and that sexy Z, and it still is comprehensible though a bit of a challenge to show in this flat land of the two dimensional screen. We add to this metaphor, mood, more axis of meaning and a narrative arc to boot.

No answers. Just considerations.

 Posted by at 2:55 pm
Jan 292011

When Kevin and I first sat down to talk about this game, we came up with different classes of achievements that would indicate our students had broadened themselves, or developed skills, or went out and did something in, with and/or for the community. It wasn’t a bad first pass, and what we came up with is still pretty good – but the end goal has turned my idea around about who decides the achievements and where meaning comes.

In the end, this achievement system has to be self-sustaining and also portable – that is, it could be picked up and applied to the larger university, or another university.

Let me do a little Ciara one-two-step back.

The achievements need to be something that reflect not necessarily what the designers value, but the what the players/community value.

If the game is to be self-sustaining and fresh it needs to be largely driven by the players.

.: The players suggest and make the achievements. The players award the achievements. The players that gain social capital and trust run the game.

Don’t bother me with the “How?” bit…not yet. That’s another post. But this is the crux.

Not quite a tangent…I love playing minecraft. It is digital legos. I love it because it is what I make it. Designing a simple open ended sandbox is hard, but those are the best games – like a cardboard refrigerator box, a rubber band, a metric pantload of raw material…situate the environment so people are okay with putting a toe in and doing what they can. That is what I am talking about.

 Posted by at 1:00 pm