I've put up on Google Code a small new project that I'm working on called the PHP Gamercard API. It's basically a set of classes for working with Xbox Live Gamercard data. It takes advantage of a web service provided by Duncan Mackenzie for retrieving structured data about individual Gamertags. You can expect to see something in Drupal that takes advantage of this, once I've got some time to write a module that utilizes it.
Last night we migrated our Linode for Gamers With Jobs to a new Xen VPS and we've noticed a significant performance boost. We did, however, start encountering a random issue with segmentation faults in Apache. If you haven't seen this happen before, it tends to begin innocently with one Apache process dying, and therefore giving errors (usually WSOD), but quickly balloons into dozens of dead processes. It essentially hoses Apache.
Apparently the issue is due to eAccelerator, so I reinstalled it and cleared its caches in the hope that it might limit its occurrence. Just in case, though, 2bits has a great fix for it, using the logwatcher script by Firebright, Inc. I was able to quickly get it going, and the only difference is that I used the Debian init.d script provided by Derek Laventure to run it.
For a project at work, we needed to be able to manage, and therefore search, large-scale taxonomies (10,000+ terms). Users needed to be able to search for term names, descriptions and synonyms, so I figured a module using the Drupal search API seemed to be the best bet for a solution. I dove in deep and came back up with Taxonomy Search 2.x.
I've just released version 2.0 of the module, and you can check it out at the Taxonomy Search project page. I'd love some feedback, as this is my first module that utilizes the search API, and there may be some rough edges. Please take a look at let me know what you think!
When I signed up for EDT791, Video Games, Literacy, and Learning, I was cautiously optimistic. I had heard James Gee speak about literacy in gaming at ASU before he became a professor, and he really caught my attention with his discussion of the language skills being used and gained in everything from World of Warcraft to Yu-Gi-Oh!, so I knew both he and this semester's professor, Betty Hayes, were serious about learning concepts present in games. In spite of this, I was still skeptical about the course's relevance to me.
To say that I have a passion for gaming would be correct, but it understates the fanaticism with which I follow the entire industry. Gaming, and video gaming in particular, is core to my identity. I start every day with the delicious combo of of Nutty Nuggets and the latest gaming news from the likes of 1Up and Giant Bomb, and I end each day with a cup of yogurt and commentary from places like Penny Arcade and Level Up. My day is peppered with visits to Gamers With Jobs to read and participate in the latest discussions and articles. I wasn't sure if that passion would be matched by educational researchers; and my biggest concern was that I strongly felt that a course like this could only be delivered successfully by someone who took gaming seriously as both a hobby and an industry in addition to studying it academically.
During the first session of the course, Dr. Hayes talked about having recently played Oblivion, World of Warcraft and other titles with such enthusiasm that this concern was quickly alleviated and I was able to focus on the basic hypothesis of the course: Vital to the success of popular games is that they effectively teach and motivate players within the game space. From understanding and communicating within semiotic domains, to sympathizing with identities through role-play, to navigating the complex social networks that surround particular games and gaming in general, successful games establish an environment in which effective learning becomes not only enjoyable, but essential.
But, so what? What does it mean and how does it matter? I believe that it means that educators, and at a larger level, society, are now challenged to adapt to an environment where students, parents, and citizens not only expect, but will soon demand compelling educational experiences. Learning materials, regardless of the media in which they are presented, need to acknowledge complex systems and the situated meanings in their presentation. Cultural models need to be recognized and analyzed. The rote memorization of facts, and the reliance on standardized testing need to be abandoned, as both concepts are crutches upon which we support incredibly outdated theories of learning and assessment. In fact, our basic ideas about what assessment is and how it should be used need to change fundamentally. It's time for some navel gazing.
For traditional educators and, particularly, the entire bureaucratic system built to "support" them, this much-needed introspective analysis and resulting evolution can be incredibly frightening and daunting. It essentially means that years of (very outdated) materials may need to be abandoned and, therefore, millions of dollars "thrown away" as a result. But, I believe strongly that past costs should not be a factor in any important decision, especially those regarding education. I'm not entirely optimistic that these sorts of sweeping changes will happen any time soon - and they probably shouldn't. But it's certainly time to get a bunch of smart people on the task of spending a lot of time figuring out how it all should work.
Through the past several months in EDT791, I've seen a room full of skeptics, including myself, come to really understand the sorts of valuable lessons to be gleaned from games. As educators, we now see places to using gaming where we didn't before. As gamers, we now see bits of learning sprinkled throughout out games. It's all become so much more than "educational gaming" - a phrase marred by connotations that evoke memories of amateur, low-budget video combined with multiple choice quizzes and presented by poorly animated characters. I'm excited to see where this emerging field goes - and I want desperately to be a part of it all. So, while class is now officially "over," you can be sure you'll continue hearing from me about learning and games.
In my mind, gaming has historically been social in nature. Chess, soccer, Chinese checkers, poker, basketball, hide-and-seek, horseshoes and Dungeons and Dragons all exist as activities that enable and facilitate social interaction. As games, they nearly cease to exist without the presence of others.
In their infancy, video games were similarly social. Computers and developers weren't far enough along in the establishment of artificial intelligence, to do much more than allow a few players to duke it out. Single player experiences were incredibly limited, so video games were inherently social out of necessity. Sure, there were plenty of single-player experiences to be had, but even those were successful because they became social. Due to their limited ability to present complex character interactions to the player, games like Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Galaga became more about skill, showmanship and competition. Arcades became incredibly popular as locations for gamers to gather, lining up quarters for who had "next" in Street Fighter II and setting up high-score tournaments for 1942. Electronic gaming was "classic" gaming in that it was still an inherently social activity.
Video games evolved in many ways over the following few decades, and as processors got more powerful and developers became more experienced, AI was used to alter how we fundamentally experienced electronic entertainment. While this evolution brought us Baldur's Gate, Grand Theft Auto III, Final Fantasy XII and countless other unforgettable single-player experiences, it also slowly, but very successfully, removed social interaction from a large segment of mainstream gaming culture. Social games did continue to exist and flourish (see Counter-Strike, Everquest, etc.), but we quickly had a significant number of completely non-social experiences. Nothing about my hundreds of hours (literally) spent leveling up my characters in Baldur's Gate was communicated to my friends unless I went out of my way to tell them. Unless I brought them over to my house, my friends had to take my word for it that I'd defeated a particular rare or epic monster in Final Fantasy XII. Instead of facilitating or demanding interaction with other gamers, many titles from the past decade could be played and fully enjoyed in complete isolation. I'm not sure that was the direction anyone really wanted it to go.
Things seem to be changing, though, as the market transitions hardware generations...
First, broadband has truly become ubiquitous enough that console manufacturers can assume everyone will have internet access. As a result, services like XBOX Live Arcade and Steam Community have recreated the physical arcade experience in a virtual space. With both services, players can quickly and easily chat with friends, setup and invite each other to games, check out the "leader boards" of games they play and more. Both services have even brought single player games into the social experience with achievements - points or "badges of honor" for individual games.
Second, party games have truly come into the mainstream. Wii Sports and Rock Band are the runaway successes in this realm. Both games are enjoyable as a solo player, but become unique, indescribable experiences as more players are added to the mix. The sense of accomplishment when four players, in cooperation, beat an incredibly difficult song in Rock Band, and the sheer joy and child-like fun of four player tennis in Wii Sports has yet to be matched.
Finally, World of Warcraft, while debatably "next-gen" and certainly not the first of its kind, has brought massively-social gaming into the mainstream. It did so in such a nearly-perfect way that, as a result, gamers now have high expectations and demands for future games of its kind.
As the "next-gen" gaming platforms rapidly become the "current-gen," I can't help but recognize that gaming culture is rapidly returning, in many ways, to its roots. I couldn't be happier.
A few months ago, I started trying to talk my dad into buying an XBOX 360. I worked on him for months, occasionally feeding him little tidbits of motivation by telling him about such treats as Gears of War or Forza Motorsport 2. These were games I was certain he would revel in, but the experiences were too familiar to him and, therefore, failed to inspire the desired action. Months of subtle attempts at manipulation went by, and then my wife and I had my family over for dinner. I got out Guitar Hero III, which my brother and I had been playing with for a few weeks, and started to play. Dad was almost immediately hooked. Mom was in love with it. A few days later, I got a call on my cell phone while I was at work, "I'm at GameStop. What games should I get with my 360?"
Along with Guitar Hero III (which he and my mom still play regularly and bring up frequently in conversation), he also picked up Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. Last week we had a conversation about it that I found quite relevant to Gee's concept of the ability of games to make a player sympathetic to unfamiliar circumstances and points of view.
Our conversation started when I asked how he was enjoying it. I had seen him on my friends list playing it a few nights prior. He told me he had beaten it, was playing through a second time on a harder difficulty, and was having a great time. What he really wanted to talk about, though, was the experience of being placed into the situations the game presented.
The fictional story of the game involves a "near-future war between the United States, United Kingdom, and Russian Loyalists against Russian Ultranationalists and Middle Eastern rebels." He felt the game took a relatively neutral stance on the way the conflict is handled, and simply offers the experience to the player's own interpretation. As a result, he said that he felt the game had made him understand several important things about similar real-world situations.
As a soldier on the ground, he was able to understand that situations like the one presented in the game are incredibly complex. He learned how hard it can be to make decisions in the chaos of a ground battle. Telling the difference between enemy and ally was difficult. He found a new sympathy for the experience of a soldier entrenched in conflict. He described the combat as visceral, difficult and exhausting.
None of these concepts were new to him, as they wouldn't be for most people. We hear frequently of the horrors, chaos and complexities of war. Most of us don't, however, experience them first hand. Even when we watch them in a visceral format like film or television, we're still not an active participant in the experience, so our view is tainted by the third person perspective into which we're naturally forced. Games remove that barrier and allow us to be direct participant. No longer casual observers, we become the soldier fighting for his life.
My dad is by no means a pacifist, but I don't believe he frequently supports military action. That's why I found it so interesting when he said the game made him feel that there are times when an organized use of force is the only way to resolve a situation. He didn't say that with the excitement you might expect from someone who had just beat a game, though. His active participation in a realistic conflict informed his opinion. To him, it was a cold dose of reality.
I haven't yet played Call of Duty 4, so while I wait for my dad to finish up his time with it and hand it off to me, I've picked up Call of Duty 2. I'm only a couple hours into the game, but I wanted to relate one experience I've had already.
I'm currently playing as a member of the Soviet infantry, attempting to fight off the German assault on Stalingrad. While my comrades and I were pushing our way through city streets, I heard the distinct "tink-tink-tink" of a potato masher landing near me. I knew I needed to get away, but the rubble I was hiding behind was under a hail of enemy fire. I crouched down and tried to fall back as quickly as possible, but I was too slow, and wasn't far enough from the grenade when it went off. The force of the explosion knocked me to the ground and, ears ringing loudly, I found myself disoriented and crawling. I noticed a comrade crouched behind a nearby crumbling concrete wall, and the relatively few seconds it took to reach him felt like an eternity.
With a singular experience, I was both entertained and horrified. I use the term "entertained," though, because I have no better term for the experience. I'm not sure I can really say I've had the kind of smile-on-my-face, laughing-out-loud fun with COD2 that one typically associates with playing a game. I supposed "compelled" is really the best word for the emotion, but it, and all it's variations, are so drastically overused in gaming media that the it has truly lost its significance. It does, however, accurately describe the feeling.
So what is it that compels me to keep playing it? I believe there are things we do not because they entertain, but because they satisfy. It's easy to confuse the two emotions, yet we find ourselves compelled to do many different activities. Even though it isn't fun when I spend hours writing and debugging Drupal modules, I frequently find it difficult to stop. The act of creation and problem solving is satisfying in itself. Playing certain games has a similar effect. Retaking a train station in Stalingrad, while difficult, intense and not really very fun, is incredibly satisfying.
Note: Images taken from the corresponding Wikipedia articles.
Wow, I've really fallen behind in posting my entries for class. I've been working on several different pieces, though, and I'm just having a hard time finishing them up. So, you can expect a steady stream of posts over the next few days about Rock Band, Gamestar Mechanic and a semi-related piece on podcasting.
For what it's worth, I mostly blame my procrastination on a re-discovered love for World of Warcraft...
Attached below are the slides I used for both the March and April ASU Drupal Users' Group presentations I did. The first was on Content Access and Workflows and discussed the setting up effective content creation workflows with corresponding access controls. The second covered an intro Content Creation Kit (CCK) and Views. See the lists below for modules / sites referenced in the presentations.
Content Access and Workflows presentation
Simple Workflow + Actions
Other stuff referenced