EDT791: The Siren Song

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Wed, 04/16/2008 - 08:48

In the first meeting of EDT791 this semester, we were told that one of our assignments would be to play a game for at least fifty hours and write about it while we did so. In that moment, I heard a sweet, subconscious whisper, "... World... of... Warcraft." It was uttered in that same way I hear "...coffee," each morning, or "...popcorn," whenever I walk through the doors of a movie theater. I hadn't logged into WoW in nearly nine months, and it was pulling at me. Strongly. Within mere seconds, I was coating a dagger with poison, hiding myself in the shadows and preparing to dizzy a gibbering ghoul in the Western Plaguelands. I was hoisting my tiny gnome body aboard a gryphon, grasping its feathers tightly as I soared towards Wintersping. I was... hearing a strange voice. "For those of you who are gamers, it needs to be a game you've never played." I had nearly fallen off the wagon. The intervention had saved me.

Over the next few weeks, I tried to forget my moment of near-weakness. After giving Persona 3 a valiant effort, I moved on to Lost Odyssey. I busied myself with other distractions - playing Jeanne D'arc or Disgaea on my PSP whenever I needed a quick fix, or Titan Quest when I needed something more intense. Each experience was satisfying in its own right, and each helped block my ears to WoW's siren song. Yet, despite my best efforts, it kept making its way back to the forefront.

In our second meeting, a classmate announced that he had chosen WoW as his game for the course. He told us he hadn't played any sort of game for years, let alone an MMO. A few weeks in, he talked at length about his low-level, newbie journey through Azeroth and demoed the game for us on a projector. Revisiting the game through his virgin eyes brought a flood of nostalgia. I quickly became the annoying kid in class who talks more than the teacher.

"What professions did you choose?"
"The leper gnomes are to the west."
"Do you see those mechanical bird-looking things? I have one of those."

I can only guess that my lust for his experience was palpable. Realizing how foolish I must have been acting, I glanced over at our professor and saw that same hungry, longing look in her eyes. When our classmate was finished, she logged into her account without hesitation and showed us, with great pride, her level sixty-nine night elf druid.

I knew she had played WoW - she had mentioned it before in class - but in my mind, she had surely spent time in Azeroth as a means of researching and documenting the experience of learning in an MMO. But, she had suddenly transformed from an academic who certainly didn't appreciate the game for what it truly was to a fellow warrior in the war against the Burning Legion. We suddenly shared that bond of mutual experience I imagine formerly deployed soldiers feel. We had both witnessed the devastation of the plague that had overrun Lordaeron. We had both taken down the Scarlet Crusade. We could surely talk at length about the anarchy of Stranglethorn Vale or Gadgetzan.

Talking about WoW during class wasn't the only thing calling me back - pleading with me to rejoin Alliance ranks. Gabe and Tycho at Penny Arcade had been, for several months, writing what can only be described as literary prose about their reignited love for the game. The son of the owners of the Gold Bar, where I spend the majority of my mornings becoming caffeine-infused while I work, was gushing about his first run in Karazhan and his new-found love for working the economy through auction house. Cory "Demiurge" Banks on Gamers With Jobs reminded me why the hand of WoW irreplaceably scratches a social itch, and the GWJ guild on the Blackhand server was ready and waiting to accept me with open arms. Unable to fight it any longer, I gave in. Within a few days, I had re-subscribed, paid the fee to for a character transfer to join the ranks of the GWJ Alliance, and was sneaking around the Eastern Plaguelands as Doogiemac, a level fifty-five gnome rogue.

Going back to WoW has delivered in more ways than I could have expected. The last time I left the game, roughly nine months ago, I was at level fifty and questing through a desolate world. The Dark Portal had been opened to Outland, but was only available for players of the highest level... a long ten levels away. In that nine months, Blizzard has drastically decreased the time needed to get from level one to sixty by ramping up the experience gained from enemies and quests in the lower level zones. I have now quickly worked my way up to level fifty-six, and fifty-seven is just over the horizon. More importantly, I have joined the ranks of the GWJ Alliance, and my brother has come along with me. WoW's inherently fun and addictive gameplay and it's masterful design and storytelling are reason enough to be continually drawn back in, but the social ties and relationships that are so core to the experience make it a foregone conclusion - I will never stop playing this game.

Boston tracks in Rock Band

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Mon, 03/31/2008 - 10:32

I plan on doing a full post at some point about Rock Band, but I thought I'd just drop a quick line about the Boston track pack that was just released last week. I picked it up the day it came out and I'm thoroughly impressed. Granted, my love for the music, particularly Rock & Roll Band and Smokin', is most likely due to my unusual and unhealthy love of albums with sweet UFOs on the cover and rockers with awesome facial hair. The note tracking for guitar on hard difficulty is an absolute blast, and I'm excited to jump into the drum tracks, as they sound like they'll be fun as well.

Referencing an array in a variable object property

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Thu, 03/27/2008 - 10:43

Update:
Thanks to an anonymous commenter for letting me know that this is an issue of operator precedence.

This is more a personal note than anything, but I've been banging my head against a wall trying to figure out how to reference an array within a variably-named object property in PHP. Having not found anything very useful when search Google, I figure my post may end up being someone's helpful search result. Maybe I just don't know the right terminology for what I'm trying to do...?

Anyways, I've got a module that needs to modify the string in a CCK text field before it's shown to users on the node edit form. It's a "glue" module that helps us handle course enrollment, and the field in question handles course instructor(s) via a comma-delimited list of usernames. The module takes the user's submitted data, parses it into an array and stores each username in a table joined with course ID for other uses (such as passing to our Sakai installation). The CCK field is referenced in several places, so I use an admin settings form to allow us to say, "This CCK field is the field that users fill out to define instructors." This allows us to avoid hard-coding the CCK field name all over our glue module, but it also led to the headache I encountered today.

When a user goes back to the form to edit the course, I want to present the username list cleanly (alphabetical, no accidental whitespace, etc). Here's the code I tried to use:


function ideal_courses_nodeapi(&$node, $op, $a3 = NULL, $a4 = NULL) {
// ... (irrelevant stuff here)

case 'prepare':
$field_instructors = variable_get('ideal_courses_field_instructors', NULL);
// The line that fails is below:
$node->$field_instructors[0]['value'] = ideal_courses_instructors_as_string($node);
break;

// ... (more irrelevant stuff here)
}

The error I kept getting was, "PHP Fatal error: Cannot use string offset as an array." The strange thing is that doing a print_r($node->$field_instructors); works fine. The fix was simple, but difficult to find: wrap the variable property name in curly braces: $node->{$field_instructors}[0]['value']. The full result is below:


function ideal_courses_nodeapi(&$node, $op, $a3 = NULL, $a4 = NULL) {
// ... (irrelevant stuff here)

case 'prepare':
$field_instructors = variable_get('ideal_courses_field_instructors', NULL);
// Fixed line is below:
$node->{$field_instructors}[0]['value'] = ideal_courses_instructors_as_string($node);
break;

// ... (more irrelevant stuff here)
}

EDT791: Literacy and Learning in Lost Odyssey

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Wed, 03/05/2008 - 19:04

Lost Odyssey is a traditional Japanese role-playing game (JRPG), similar in play mechanics and style to dozens of games that have preceded it, but its presentation and quality of execution are among the finest in the genre. As such, it makes a great case study for games of its style in the context of literacy and learning. While it features plenty of content that could be investigated in the context of a typical view of literacy (lots of text to read, complex dialog and storytelling, etc.), I believe that the most interesting insights lay in the player’s literacy of the game world, mechanics and ecosystem of experiences surrounding that literacy.

Kaim Argonar is Lost Odyssey’s immortal, amnesiac protagonist. The story begins in a typical JRPG fashion, with Kaim somehow having forgotten his past - a convenient crutch many games, not just JRPGs, use as a way to orient the player to the main character. Lost Odyssey is different from other games of this type, though, in that the main character cannot die and has, up to this point, lived nearly one thousand years. So, he should clearly have some memories. As I quickly found out, he does, and they all have situated meanings. As I have progressed through the game, Kaim frequently encounters something that causes him to remember a moment from his past as a dream. These memories are then presented through on-screen text and images. Gee states, in chapter four of What Video Games Have to Teach Us..., that “meanings in video games are always specific to specific situations.” While I believe many of these dream sequences are very well written and stand alone as interesting works, they also contain completely situational meanings. Kaim’s memory of a troublesome and, to some, annoying girl in a small village had a deeper meaning than it may have had, seeing as I had just briefly earlier learned that Kaim had lost a daughter some time ago. There are dozens of these memories presented throughout the game, each with its own contextual meaning.

The interface for the game is quite similar to that of other games of the JRPG genre, particularly during fights. Battles occur in a turn-based style and actions are selected via a menu in the bottom-left corner of the screen at the beginning of each round. I have played many JRPGs in the past, so I was easily able to understand the menu system and how to control battles. For example, a convention of JRPG battle system menus is to have additional menu items available by pressing left or right on the control stick from the “main” list of menu. Nothing in Lost Odyssey prompted me to do this, but I knew, intuitively, that it may be an option, so I tried pressing right and then left, on my own, to see if something would happen. Pressing left did, in fact, bring up a menu that allowed me to change my equipped accessories at the beginning of each round of the fight. Gee describes this as the intuitive or tacit knowledge principle, meaning that repeated experience with a type or genre of game is not only valued but frequently expected.

Lost Odyssey features a somewhat dynamic leveling system in that, as I progress through the game, enemies stay at a challenging level, regardless of how much time I have put into making my characters stronger. The game’s boss battles are particularly emblematic of this, in that they are always quite difficult and typically present not only a strategic challenge, but one that is almost like a puzzle in nature. I have found myself using what Gee calls “probing” during many of these situations. Several of the most challenging battles have forced me to fight and fail (probe), devise other potential strategies (hypothesize), test these strategies in the next round (re-probe), and analyze the results (rethink) - often doing this several times until I reach the right “formula” for success. In spite of this, the game has never felt unfair. I believe this is because the game is balanced such that I know I can win, as long as I figure out how.

One of the most fascinating ideas in chapter four of What Video Games Have to Teach Us... is that of affinity groups and appreciative systems. Gee describes an appreciative system as, “the set of goals, desires, feelings, and values in respect to the domain being engaged with,” that we use to determine the significance or acceptability of the result of an action. There are nearly an infinite amount of potential affinity groups that I may use to establish my appreciative system while playing a game, however, the key group I associate myself with for this game is the community of gamers on the Gamers With Jobs website. In a forum thread about the game dating back to before the game’s release date, dozens of gamers have discussed various its aspects. The thread has ranged from thoughts about screenshots and previews to complex discussions about the narrative and pacing. Ultimately, this thread, which I have participated in, led me to not only purchase the game, but also look at situations in the game differently. There are a few posts similar to the one below (I won’t even get into the language used here, as that’s not the type of “literacy” I’m discussing, but it clearly could be a topic of its own):

“Has anyone wiped out on a normal fight yet? Is the retry/checkpoint system equally kind when that happens?”

-- zeroKFE

“I've only wiped at certain story events, not necessarily bosses. They all had a checkpoint that started before the encounter. I haven't wiped against regular creatures. Then again, it's been so linear so far, I haven't had any reason to find myself outside of my depth.”

-- Certis

After reading this, I knew that many other players had experienced the boss battles to be challenging, so it’s “acceptable” for me to have found them to be tough. I also know, from this same discussion thread, that it’s important to have a variety of accessories and rings to equip on my characters, so that’s something to which I have to paid close attention.

Lost Odyssey makes use of many of the principles presented in the Situated Meaning and Learning chapter of What Video Games Have to Teach Us..., but I have found the most fascinating part of it is that I don’t even notice. Many times I have had to force myself to think about the game in the context of Gee’s work. This is a stark contrast to my experience with Persona 3, where I found myself constantly thinking about the game’s relationship to the course work - mainly, I now realize, because the game itself was so uninteresting and presented those aspects in such an obvious and intrusive manner. Lost Odyssey’s presentation (to a gamer with my background, mind you) of play mechanics and content is so refined that it typically melts away into the experience... which is precisely what we should be expecting of the finest educational materials.

EDT791: Death, Betrayal and Redemption

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Sat, 03/01/2008 - 15:53

"I'm much better. Yes, I'm going to make it and you will, too. Just do what you think is right."
- Paul Denton, Deus Ex

Spoiler warning: This article contains spoilers of key moments in Deus Ex, Baldur's Gate II, Jeanne d'Arc and BioShock.

In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Gee discusses situated meaning and learning in the context of Deus Ex, and he touches on some important aspects of narrative that I think are relevant to the discussion of identity. Earlier in the text, Gee describes Identity Principal, which he cites as being a key to effective learning. When learners identify with the role that the skills they are learning will apply to (i.e. identifying oneself as a scientist when dissecting a toad), the "learner has real choices... and ample opportunity to meditate on the relationship between new identities and old ones."

Deus ExOne of the most memorable events of Deus Ex, was the point when I, as JC Denton, was faced with the decision to save my brother Paul from death or escape with my life to continue my mission. In that moment, Paul, playing the brave and valiant brother-figure, pushed me to go on without him so that he could slow down the enemy, assisting my escape. Up to this point in the narrative, Ion Storm (the game's developer) have presented Paul in such a way that I genuinely cared about his fate and was distraught at having to make that decision. In that moment, I identified myself as JC, Paul's blood relative, and cared about his well-being. I saved the game right before the encounter that followed, and tried several times to save Paul from his valiant death.

Preventing Paul's demise was important to me on several levels. My identity as his brother wanted to save him because of our bond as family. My identity as a gamer wanted him to live so that I could feel the satisfaction of having done so. At the time, I had a friend who was also playing through the game, so my identity as a social gamer wanted to succeed in the challenge presented to me so that I could have the associated bragging rights, of a sort. Gee's experience was a bit different that mine, in that he was fairly new to gaming at the time and didn't feel like he "had the requisite game-playing skills to save him." I, on the other hand, had been playing games for as long as I could remember, and the situation I was presented with wasn't simply a matter of narrative and emotion, but one of pride. In spite of all this motivation, I couldn't succeed. I must have spent several hours attempting to save him, but I eventually had to give up. The part of me that identified myself as JC genuinely felt that, in spite of my best efforts, I couldn't save my brother from death. This experience was incredibly powerful and has stuck with me since I first played the game, eight years ago.

"I could dance on the head of a pin, as well."
- Yoshimo, Baldur's Gate II

YoshimoSeveral games have mustered weak attempts at conveying the raw emotions of anger, frustration and disappointment that come with an act of betrayal. Most recent in my memory is Roger's (unwilling) betrayal of his comrades in Jeanne d'Arc - an event in which I felt... something, but only because he was one of my strongest characters and he leaves the party as a result. I happen to remember this moment simply because I've recently played the game. Other attempts were so unfortunate and forgettable that I can't think of them now... except for Yoshimo's betrayal in Baldur's Gate II. While Bioware's Baldur's Gate series, as a whole, is arguably the pinnacle of a PC role-playing game "golden age," this singular moment stands out as one of the most defining gaming events I've had the fortune to experience.

Upon entering Spellhold, it is revealed that Yoshimo is working for the uber-villain Irenicus. It's further explained that he is doing so against his will, under a geas. Yet, I was forced to fight him to death. He asks that, when he dies, I take his heart to a temple so that his soul may be cleansed and rest in peace. Until this point, Yoshimo had helped me escape imprisonment, bantered with me and my friends on our journeys, and become a friend and trusted ally. I'm certain I was naive at the time, and wasn't able to see hints of his eventual treachery, but it only made that pivotal moment carry more weight. Within the span of a relatively brief few moments, I had experienced a rush of emotions: betrayal and anger at Yoshimo's treachery, pity and compassion at his frustrated explanation of his uncontrollable actions, and sorrow over his death... at my hands.

BioShockMy experience with Irrational's BioShock featured an equally memorable moment of betrayal. From the opening moments the game, the character Atlas played the role of both guide and friend as I made my way through the ruined city of Rapture. Eventually, it was revealed that Atlas is actually mobster Frank Fontaine, and had been using me as a simple tool to kill Andrew Ryan. I had been brain-washed to obey orders using the trigger phrase, "Would you kindly..." and had been manipulated throughout my journey. The key difference between Fontaine's act of betrayal and Yoshimo's, though, is that there is no redemption for Fontaine. In fact, his treachery puts me in the position of Yoshimo: an unwilling traitor. While both characters were aware that their actions were treacherous, Yoshimo had acted against his will.

What's so important about each of these experiences is that they are mine. I experienced these powerful emotions, not as a third-party observer, but as the focus and target of the actions of others. In It's All About Me, Julian Murdoch says, "It's... because games are about me that I care so much about them." As a casual, external observer of Paul Denton's death or Yoshimo's betrayal, my interest would have been that of the historically-minded archeologist. Instead, I experienced the death of my brother. I had to deal with the treachery of a close friend. I was manipulated and used by the only person I thought I could trust.

These moments are critical to the understanding of why games can be such effective teaching tools. If I can so easily take on the identity of Deus Ex's JC Denton, or BioShock's Jack, I see no reason I couldn't assume the identity of civil engineer, barista, congressman, surgeon or artist with little additional effort and, in doing so, more effectively experience and learn each profession's associated skills.

Initial releases of Signup Scheduler and Status modules

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Fri, 02/29/2008 - 16:57

I've just put the finishing touches on the 1.0 releases of the Signup Scheduler and Signup Status modules, which I've written about before. While they're both in just their initial release, I feel pretty good about their stability and utility. We've been using both modules in production on the IDEAL site, where users can register for professional development courses. I've also been getting lots of great feedback and bug reports from community members in the issue queues. Special thanks to Mark Dowsett for testing and issue reporting and Derek Wright for working with me on some helpful changes to the Signup module.

The project pages have plenty of details, but most notably the Signup Status module contains lots of goodies that weren't mentioned in my original post, such as plenty of Views integration, signup certificates, signup status change emailing, and more. Check it out if you're interested!

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EDT791: Follow-up on Persona 3

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Sun, 02/24/2008 - 21:55

Ten hours in to Persona 3, I felt like I had picked a truly special game to study for this class. Atlus had melded a dating / relationship simulator, a genre I thought I'd venture in to, and a role-playing game into what felt like a fresh, new experience. Up to that point, the game's story and premise was, well... weird, but I like challenging narrative in my entertainment. So, a tale of quirky J-pop teenagers mixing night-time demon hunting with day-time high school romance wasn't so much a problem as a challenge. The mechanics of actually playing the game were quite strong. The battle system was rock solid, quick and deep, and the relationship simulator's integration with character's abilities was a fun and interesting take on genre conventions. At the ten hour mark, I felt I had played enough to get into all the fine details of the gameplay: managing relationships, equipping my characters, traveling to Tartarus at night to battle demons, and gathering and raising Personas to help me in battle. I could see only one potential, but major, flaw in the game: level design.

Tartarus is essentially the inverse of an enormous dungeon. It contains what seem to be dozens, maybe hundreds, of floors that change each time you enter. The designers attempt to explain this away in the context of the story, but it essentially means that each floor you enter is randomly generated. As I worked my way through the first several floors of gray-walled corridors, occasionally fighting monsters or picking up treasure, I figured that once I reached the foretold 20th-floor boss, I would be on to more interesting environs. After spending several days in game-time (many hours of my real-life time) entering the dungeon, battling until my characters were too weak to continue, then coming back the next night, I finally gained enough strength to beat the boss and moved on up to... slightly creepier, randomly generated, gray corridors.

Luckily, up until this point, the game had held my attention with the excellently designed battle system. Running through Tartarus wasn't exactly interesting, but fighting the monsters and leveling up my characters was fun enough to keep me going. However, after that 20th floor boss, each night that I entered Tartarus felt more and more like work. I kept at it, though, setting my eyes on the next prize: the 40th floor. But, you guessed it - nothing changed after that, either. In fact, the artwork used to render the corridors was exactly the same. It hadn't changed at all by the 50th floor, either - which was at about twenty-eight hours of my play time.

The complete lack of progression and reward for your journey through Tartarus is echoed in the rest of the game's design. I worked my way through entire relationship chains, but nothing interesting ever happened. My friend who had a crush on a teacher didn't end up running away with her. She had a boyfriend and, for some strange reason, didn't dig on teenage boys. Shocking. Essentially, the entire game revolves around visiting the exact same locations (school, the dorms or town shops, and Tartarus), while doing the exact same things (relationship building and battling in grey corridors).

I really wanted to like Persona 3. Atlus did so much right with it, and took a pretty big risk by essentially throwing a dating sim into a hardcore RPG. It's just missing so much in way of content and level design. Worse yet, in a painful twist and what feels like a way to make up for the lack of content, the designers have made progression through the game excruciatingly time consuming. Maybe the levels in Tartarus do get interesting at some point. Who knows? After twenty-eight hours of repeating essentially the exact same dungeon over and over, I'm not willing to give it the time to find out.

EDT791: My "Dear John" Letter

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Wed, 02/20/2008 - 09:53

Dear Persona 3,

I want to like you. I did like you... and maybe I still do. I just don't think you want me to like you any more.

Throughout our first ten hours together, you guided me through experiences I never dreamed I would enjoy. You showed me how to have a relationship, and even how to make my relationships with others stronger. We would sit in my living room and talk until the early morning about everything from love to death to psychology. I felt like I barely had to do a thing and you would shower your affection upon me through gifts and attention. It was a special time I'll not soon forget.

But, somehow, things have changed. It happened slowly and without notice, but now, twenty-five hours into it, I suddenly realize that somehow we've fallen into an inescapable rut. Our relationship feels like work; like a routine. You take me to the same places again and again, and we haven't done anything new in weeks. I feel like the only time I ever have any fun with you is when we're in school. Even then we're just doing the same things we've always done.

All you ever want to do at night is take me to that boring tower with its monotonous gray corridors, and there's nothing to do there but walk around and ride the elevator. Does that sound like something I want to do? Worse yet is that you don't ever reciprocate for the effort I put into our relationship. I work for hours to do something nice for you, only to have you shun me and ask me to work twice as long. Then, when I've finally made you happy, my only reward is an hour of fun followed by a relapse into our routine again.

Maybe one day we'll run into each other again, and we can hang out for a while as friends. I might even enjoy going back to the tower occasionally, for old time's sake. But I just can't commit to this relationship any more. I will never look at another game in the same way again, and I thank you for that. There are a lot of other gamers out there who will love you for what you are - but I'm just not one of them.

EDT791: Interview with Shawn Andrich

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Tue, 02/12/2008 - 20:58

Note: For those of you coming to this article outside of the context of the Video Games, Literacy and Learning course (EDT791), I reference topics discussed by James Paul Gee in his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy. If you have even the slightest interest in the topic of gaming in the context of education, I highly recommend the book, even as a casual read.

I met Shawn Andrich in July of last year (2007), when I made the mistake of asking him if he needed help with the popular gaming website he co-founded, Gamers With Jobs. The site runs on an application-, content-, and community-building platform called Drupal, and I spend pretty much the bulk of every day building websites that use it, so I figured I could use my knowledge to give back in some small way to the site that had given me, week after week, free content in the form of amazing front page articles, intelligent gaming discussion, and a wonderful podcast. Little did I know what I was getting myself into.

Shawn, being the discerning community manager he is, knows pretty quickly when there's a sucker he can take in and abuse for the good of the site. Within a couple of days, I was rolling forward on getting the site upgraded to a new version of Drupal, completely blind to what was coming. Shawn sent me an email one day, introducing Eric Carl, another member of the community and a fantastic web designer. Now, over half a year later, what would have been a small project has turned into a complete overhaul of the site's look-and-feel and the addition of some great functionality, which we should be rolling out sometime early this year. And despite the countless hours of work, I couldn't be happier with how the whole thing ended up going. It's secretly what I wanted to see happen anyway.

Shawn was and continues to be a fast friend. When it came time to decide on a gamer to interview for an assignment in my Video Games, Literacy and Learning master's class, I immediately thought of him and the unique perspective he would offer on the topic. In our interview, I talked to Shawn about his general gaming interests, what sorts of influences he feels gaming has on his life, why he plays what he plays, and dug a bit into his thoughts on learning and games. I'll say before I start that, because I've known Shawn for a bit of time, there are many things I already know about him. He's well-informed on what's happening in the gaming world, has some connections to relatively prominent figures in the industry, and can talk intelligently at length about games, game design, and the industry as a whole.

Shawn is the kind of guy that sort of feels like Michael Keaton in Multiplicity - except he manages to get by without the clones. (I guess that effectively makes the Multiplicity reference irrelevant... but you get the idea.) At only 27, he has a full time job as a Tech Director for a security and video monitoring technology company and runs, moderates and writes for Gamers With Jobs. He does all this while also keeping a healthy and happy marriage and what he considers a well-balanced life.

Due to his fairly time-consuming involvement with running Gamers With Jobs, full-time employment and maintaining a real life, Shawn keeps a pretty tight reign on his gaming schedule and doesn't play an excessive amount. Shawn was self-employed from the time he was 18, which caused him to adopt rules and habits that would allow him to be successful. Even now, as an employee working for someone else, he has trouble playing during normal work hours on a day off. As a result, he never plays before 5 PM, and usually waits until between 7 PM and midnight when he does. He ends up playing several times a week, around five sessions depending on his schedule. While Shawn doesn't feel like gaming ever takes away from his time with his friends or family, he does feel that the inverse of that can be true. As someone who runs a gaming community, online games such as Team Fortress 2 are frequently the place where relationships are built and maintained. At times, he feels that if he doesn't connect with the staff or community in all the ways possible he runs the risk of becoming completely disconnected from the site and, therefore, his friends. It's little surprise then, that he enjoys social gaming just as much as gaming alone.

Gaming time for Shawn is generally spent playing a variety of genres on a variety of systems. He tends to prefer first person shooters, third person action-adventures, platformers, RPGs and sports games, but essentially enjoys "anything good." This is typical among the Gamers With Jobs staff, and fairly common within the community as well, and is most likely the reason he can talk intelligently and at length about the industry. While he has played MMOGs in the past, and can talk at length about the time he has sunk into Everquest, he doesn't play them any more as he feels they require too much time for the little reward they offer, and, "I don't have a particular need to have my social itch scratched, so there's not a lot to draw me in from a purely "gameplay" level. I get that camaraderie and community feel of a shared experience across a spectrum of games, rather than pouring all of my time and attention into one."

In an effort to start drawing some parallels to some of the psychology behind how and why we play games identified by Gee, I tried to dig a bit deeper into why it is that Shawn plays games. "I play games because I enjoy them, primarily. Why we enjoy something is tough to qualify, but I'll try. It's because when playing you're mentally engaged, you often experience it with others, as an industry it's constantly evolving in both design and technical achievement. There's basically a lot of different aspects that make the whole very appealing as a hobby."

His interest in gaming comes from several directions. The act of playing games is fun for him, and more engaging then other forms of entertainment (as he unsurprisingly said to me, "it's not like I'm running a book fan-club"). He finds gaming to be a way to connect socially with friends and a community, and following the industry is interesting to him. Yet, despite an obvious interest in and dedication to gaming, Shawn does not think of gaming as an important part of his identity. He considers it to be something that he happens to do with his time, and thinks of it pimarily as a means to interact with people, whether that be playing or just talking about games. "It's no more a part of my identity than a hammer is a part of a carpenter's."

While Gee's writing tends to indicate that over time players develop an understanding of systems at play and how games are designed at a macro-level, there's an implication that the great part about this is that the players don't usually realize that it's happening. In the couple of days since our interview, I've thought about this idea of games teaching intangible concepts, such as the incredibly broad and difficult to describe notions of cause-and-effect or economies. I tried to see what Shawn thought about this by asking if he paid attention to these sorts of things while he played. While he feels like he has a "broad, conceptual level" understanding the systems that are working behind the scenes of a game, he tries not to think about them much until he looks back critically on a game as a whole, saying, "Trying to see past the curtain while you play makes for a tedious experience." I found this quite interesting, and I have an inkling that most gamers would respond in a similar fashion. While he doesn't like to pry too hard into a game's design as he plays it, he does appreciate it when developers include features like Half Life 2's commentary mode that allows the player to get a sense for how the game was created. However, features like world editors aren't as valuable to him, as he doesn't have a huge interest in modding games ("My enjoyment is in the playing, not the creating"). While we didn't have time to get into it in the interview, I know from listening to countless Gamers With Jobs podcasts that in spite of his desire to not peek behind the curtain of game design while playing, Shawn can discuss critically and at length the various merits or flaws of a given game's design and clearly enjoys discussing topics of game design with developers.

When it comes to game difficulty, if a game gets too hard or frustrating, Shawn will generally stop playing for a while. If it happens often enough in a game, though, he'll usually stop playing the game altogether. When he encounters extreme difficulty like this, he considers it to be more of a flaw in the game's design than a challenge presented by the designers. Before giving up on it, though, he will generally use the Gamers With Jobs community or a website like GameFAQs as a resource, "so long as it's something preventing forward progress rather than an overall difficulty like poor camera controls, cheap A.I. tactics, etc." While difficulty can be frustrating, Shawn does enjoy mastering a game when possible. However, he doesn't go out of his way to do so, citing time as the main factor that keeps him from attempting to master a game. For example, in Team Fortress 2, he tends to pick the class that his team needs in a given moment, over picking the class that he wants to get better at playing.

I asked Shawn if he felt like his years of past experiences with games influenced his ability to enjoy particular games now. He cited times when he's watched inexperienced players attempt to grapple with a 3D space using a controller and their inability to connect the use of the controller with movement on screen as a primary indicator that "experiencing the organic ramp-up in design through the years absolutely informs your ability to understand a game quickly and enjoy something that would otherwise be unapproachable." He does feel, however, that platforms like the Nintendo Wii and DS are, to a certain degree, making 3D worlds and games in general more accessible to new players and cites Mario Galaxy as an example of a game that does a good job of simplifying the experience. When learning to play a new game, he appreciates a well-designed and presented tutorial, and feels that the best games integrate the teaching directly into the game play. He mentions how Zelda games do this subtly by introducing new features while the player is accomplishing tasks within the game proper.

Shawn and I spend the bulk of our time communicating with each other over IM, whether it's discussing work that needs to be done on the site, the games we're playing, car buying or conducting an interview for my master's class. Clearly the session for conducting this interview was a long one. (Praise be to the inventor of the chat log!) The interview covered a smorgasbord of topics, and I thank Shawn for his patience while I fumbled through it like some amateur gaming blogger. Err, wait a sec... I was intrigued and surprised by many of his answers, and while I've tried to give my thoughts on some of them here, there's simply too much to cover in a reasonable number of words. Needless to say, I'll probably be coming back to this interview over and over throughout the semester for reference, and Shawn will have to put up with random late-night instant messages about semiotic domains and projective identity. I'm sure he'd appreciate, instead, news that I just fixed a nasty bug on the website but, well... let's just consider this payback.

EDT791: Relationships, butt kicking and learning to play

Posted by Jeff Beeman on Tue, 01/29/2008 - 10:17

Note: I've put together a playlist of a set of videos that a user named SplitInfinity put together on YouTube. I reference a few of the videos in this post, but I've included all of the videos in the playlist for those of you who'd like to watch the full thing.

Here's what I learned from the intro to Persona 3 (see the first two videos in the playlist above): a blue-haired, headphone wearing teenager is on his way somewhere; a teenage girl is about to commit suicide; wherever the guy was going is a messed up place with bloody (literally) streets, creepy contract-bearing, blue-eyed kids, and teenagers that carry guns when they're not in school.

Blue-haired teenager? Check. Close-ups on shaky-eyed crying? Check. Creepy looking kid with discolored eyes? Check. Teenage girl wearing a short skirt? Check. Yep, I'm definitely playing a Japanese role-playing game.

While the introduction animation to P3 is jarring and - let's face - strange, it does a great job of giving me a taste of the world I'll be experiencing. It also leaves no question as to the content and theme of the game's story and presentation. It tells me that the game is going to be weird, dark, mature and complex. There's no chance I'm going to get a couple hours into the game and suddenly be put off or surprised by mature content. In stark contrast to the intro animation, the first few minutes of gameplay (the second video above) are incredibly friendly and lighthearted. I'm eased into the world through verbal and textual explanations of what I'll be doing. But, it's all contextual and doesn't feel out of place. These first few minutes of gameplay also tell me that the game is going to be story- and dialog-heavy, and that it will have a unique and strong focus on school and relationships.

Relationships and butt-kicking

As shown in the third video in the playlist, I'm playing as the blue-haired guy (I called him Doogie Mac), a transfer student attending Gekkoukan High School, in modern day Japan. I start school the next day, and am directed to find my way around. I end up learning more about my identity by talking to various students and teachers, and I establish my relationship with these students by selecting responses during conversations that have various contextual meanings but essentially boil down to, "I like you," "I kinda like you," and, "I don't like you." The emotion of the person I'm speaking with it shown in portraits as I talk to them. For example, notice Yukari's reactions and expressions as her mood changes while she talks.

Following a conversation, I'll occasionally be told that I made someone happy, or impressed or charmed them. When I do this enough with people, I form relationships with them. Talking to another student about the crush he has on a teacher strengthened my relationship with him. Helping out a fellow student in class by giving him the answer when the teacher called on him caused other students in the class to comment on how much I pay attention and raised my popularity. At this point, it's was clear that relationships are important in the game.

I proceed through a few more school days, making friends and getting accustomed to the interface of the game and how school "works" as a game mechanic. Then, the "Dark Hour" is introduced (see the sixth video in the playlist). The Dark Hour is an extra, "hidden" hour between midnight and 1 AM when only a select few people are conscious of their surroundings, and it's a time when the world fills with evil creatures called "Shadows." It turns out I'm one of the people that can stay awake through the Dark Hour which means, in short, it's the time when I get to kick butt.

Learning to play

Through all of this introductory material, which has now lasted for quite some time, I've been engaged in discovering the game world, learning about my surroundings, and figuring out just what the heck is going on. While I don't know it yet, I've also been learning about key game mechanics. I've learned how to use the game's interface by walking around in the consequence free zone of school. I've learned how to build relationships with characters, and that those relationships are important. I've learned that the Dark Hour is a time for fighting and that crazy stuff happens while I'm in it, and I've learned how to fight, shop, equip and use items and more.

During this time, I've realized that the designers of Persona 3 have streamlined the traditional role-playing game experience into something that's very easily digestible for new players. While I have experience playing role-playing games such as Final Fantasy, the simplified approach of P3's presentation is much appreciated. There's very little wandering around, and the game takes control over what's happening at just the right times, so you don't feel like you're wasting time getting from place to place or doing things you don't need to do. The game is also chock-full of just-in-time learning, whether it's learning how to use battle skills just as you need them or learning how to save my game right at the time I'm presented with the tools to do so, new material is presented in just enough detail to help me accomplish the task.

Personas

I'm now about 10 hours into the game. A lot of stuff has happened since the videos you see above, but most of what has happened is repeating and ramping up the difficulty on the things you see in those videos. Me and all my friends have started to get pretty good at fighting Shadows during the Dark Hour, and I've built up some strong relationships with quite a few characters. As I played through the first few hours, I learned that my relationships with other characters influenced the skills and abilities of my Personas, which are summoned beings that help me fight the Shadows. I even got a new Persona by having a strong enough relationship with the kid who's in love with his teacher.

Personas are all based on certain character types, such as leadership, love, solitude, humor, etc. For example, I joined student council, which raised my leadership skills and, therefore, my ability to use Personas based on leadership. I tried to join the track team, which I'm guessing would raise something related to athletics, but I didn't have time for it due to my other school and social obligations. I can also "fuse" Personas, which allows me to create new Personas that are a melding of two or three existing ones. The strength of these fused Personas is based on my social relationships, and the ones I can and should use are based on those relationships as well.

The Persona system is pretty complex, but it's introduced in phases, and only then when the information is needed to proceed. In fact, once I was eight hours into the game, I was given the ability to "store" existing Personas for retrieval later - kind of like a bank. Many games don't even last eight hours, let alone try to teach you new things eight hours after you started. Yet it wasn't painful or awkward. It was just what I needed at the time, too - I had run out of room for my existing Personas.

So much more...

There's quite a bit more to mention about regarding the game's mechanics and how they're presented, but I could go on for hundreds of more words about traveling around the city, shopping, participating in various social activities, building relationships with shop keepers, learning how battles are initiated and much more. For the rest of entries in my EDT791 journal, I'll be focusing more on the various educational implications of the game, and I'll explain these sub-systems when necessary. Overall, I'm incredibly impressed by the game's tactful presentation of complex systems and rules, and I'm excited to explore them in more depth over the coming weeks.

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