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Overview

Flower is an award-winning console game from indie developers at thatgamecompany and provides a wonderful alternative to the standard FPS fare usually available for the PS3 and PS4.  This is a very easy game to learn to play.  There are very few instructions at the beginning, and the game does a good job of introducing new challenges with just in time hints on how to proceed next.  Players do not need to remember complicated combinations of buttons, and even people with limited dexterity will be able to enjoy Flower to its fullest.

Screenshot of Flower opening screen

The game allows the player to control the wind through a number of short episodes as you move through beautiful landscapes, encouraging flowers to open.  As you move through the beautiful landscapes, you collect petals from the flowers you have nudged open, all accompanied by soothing music and the tinkling of gentle bells as each flower is contacted.  Players can control the speed of the wind.  You can rush through grasses and turn valleys into speedways.  Or you can meander gently through meadows filled with flowers.  It’s up to you to decide what level of challenge or relaxation you need while playing the game.

There is an aspect of puzzle to the game in finding all of the flowers and the most optimal path through the landscape.  But the rewards are clear, and early episodes are very forgiving of players who simply want to fly all over the beautiful regions to enjoy them.  This is a type of gameplay that is particularly inviting during long winters, and I find myself playing this game repeatedly just for the beautiful artwork.

For all the game is generally nice, easy, and relaxing, it does progress from easy to more difficult game play.  And there is an unexpected narrative underlying this simple little game.  Early episodes are simply relaxing, beautiful, and fun as the player floats or rushes across the world.  Later episodes become more difficult.  Flower petals can become damaged when they contact certain objects, and maneuvering the wind around these obstacles while minimizing damage becomes challenging.

Later episodes in the game also take the storyline in a direction I had not anticipated.  The game changes from a light and easy run through flowering meadows to a persuasive game (see Ian Bogost’s work) about the value of using wind power to save dying cities.  While I had not been anticipating the shift, it was sufficiently subtle to keep me engaged and enjoying using the wind to break down barriers, start up wind farms, and restore the flow of electricity.

In a only a few hours, I had finished the game and was left wishing for more of this magical experience, which is perhaps my only real criticism of this delightful game.  After waiting hours for it to download from the PS3 shop — admittedly during the Christmas rush — I had hoped to spend more time enjoying the fabulous art and music.

Back in 1998, a group of us started real life roleplaying as Jedi students.  It was a great idea until some people took it too seriously …. or treated the idea as a total joke.  But ever since then, I’ve been interested in social media and gamification for self-improvement, as you can see from my past posts on Fitocracy, Nerd Fitness, Zombies, Run!, Mindbloom, and SuperBetter.

A couple of days ago, some friends at Nerd Fitness mentioned that they were using a roleplaying game to track their habit changes: HabitRPG.  I’d read about this kickstarter project about a year ago, but I was focused on the beta of (now indefinitely postponed) Rising Heroes and didn’t give the simplified D&D project much thought.

A year later, I am glad that the project was funded – and that friends have brought this back to my attention.

I’ve barely started (my character is a mere level 4), and so many of the features are still to come … such as classes, pets, mounts, and fancy weapons, but what I have seen so far looks fun and definitely motivating.  Rather than a long “to do” list of things I should do to improve my health each day, I see a list of challenges and quests … each associated with points and gold.  It’s classic D&D (or World of Warcraft for younger audiences) roleplaying applied to daily life.

Check back in a few weeks to see how the experiment is going!

Imagine being a single parent who has just lost a job and house and who has spent nearly the entirety of the savings account while trying to find a job.  You’re trying to get through a month without going broke, making tradeoffs and choices that are often heart-breaking.  You frequently have to ask for assistance from friends and family as you try to avoid being one of millions who have to turn to community programs such as those offered by the Urban Ministries of Durham, one of partners behind this unusual game.  If you are lucky and make good (but difficult) choices, you can succeed.  But one virtual roll of the dice can put you out of the game and (virtually) homeless.

What It Is

Spent is one of the few financial literacy games that focuses not on the traditional goal of increasing knowledge and habits to ensure one’s own personal financial health (Johnson, 2012) but on critical financial literacy, placing the player in someone else’s role in order to increase awareness of how easily one major event can tip us out of the middle class.  And how hard it is to scramble back.

Similar to the Sims challenge inspired by the book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By In America, this casual game puts the player in the role of someone who is struggling to make ends meet.  And as Gawker’s series on the well-educated, hard working unemployed population shows, even people who have done all the right things can be caught in a downward spiral leading to the streets.

The Good

There is a lot to like about this game.  First off, it’s hard.  You have to spend carefully and make shrewd choices early in the game to have any hope of stretching your $1000 starting balance to the end of the month, even if you do manage to stay employed and get paid by mid-month.  Even having studied financial literacy (and having worked in the financial industry), I had to stop, think, and weigh relative risks, hoping the random numbers fell my way.

The choices are realistic.  All of the scenarios given during the hour that I played are events that I can imagine happening – and many have happened to friends who, while unemployed, have been put in similar positions.  The tradeoffs between living close to work vs. finding affordable housing are classic – and the lack of public transportation is often a barrier to people trying to get out of the hole.

Information is provided in manageable chunks.  As the month progresses and choices made, short informational “sound bites” follow each decision, further explaining how the cycle of poverty reinforces itself, trapping people into situations despite their best efforts.  The information is kept sufficiently short that it is valuable and educational without becoming overwhelming.

It is short.  Don’t laugh.  I played through two rounds in about an hour and a half, which is just right for a casual game designed to provide a moderately immersive role playing experience on a difficult topic.  This could realistically be used in a classroom setting if you have students try to play the game within a class period, making choices without too much analysis, and then reflecting upon the experience out of class or during the next class session.

Room for Improvement

While the working poor often do suffer from cascading crises, often the result of prior decisions (such as not paying for health insurance or putting off having car repairs completed professionally), the frequency of these occurrences in the game detracted from the otherwise realistic and believable scenarios.  It would have seemed more realistic to have players go through a couple of months in which they might succeed one month by scrimping on health insurance or food but suffer the consequences of such choices by becoming ill and having to pay out of pocket costs at the doctor’s office.

Overall, it is a very engaging game and one that has potential for informing players and sparking a discussion on the real trajectories that lead to homelessness and poverty.

Anyone who follows serious games, games for social improvement, or gamification should recognize inspirational speaker, visionary author, and game developer Jane McGonigal.  She’s like the Tony Stark of the social impact gaming world (but a much better role model than Iron Man!).  She champions the idea that games can not only be used for good, but can change the world for the better.  If you don’t know Jane’s work, pop over to her blog and start getting inspired!!  She’s that good.

One of the things I respect most about McGonigal is that she has put in the effort to not only write and speak about the potential of games for change, but she’s managed to create several successful titles.  Most recently, I checked out her most recent release:  SuperBetter.

What It Is

SuperBetter casts each of us as the hero in our own lives … in fact, a SUPERhero … who must overcome a variety of challenges and complete quests in order to overcome the bad guys in our lives – illnesses and injuries, bad habits, temptations, and even addictions.  Players determine their own goals and motivations, define the steps to get there, and are rewarded with increasing levels of resilience in four major life areas: mental, emotional, social, and physical.  Players are also invited to identify the barriers (framed as bad guys) that they need to deal along the way to a healthy, ideal life.

Along the way, the player-hero also can identify other players who will become allies.  Think Avengers of Health and Vitality.  Each player can encourage others, cheer efforts and successes, and suggest new challenges as quests.  Hopefully no one will Hulk-out on you.

The Good

One of the best things about this game is its open structure.  Each player defines his or her own goals, the steps to take along the way, and the challenges unique to the the individual situation.  You might battle an injury (such as McGonigal’s concussion) or be trying to lose weight.  Any health or lifestyle issue can fit into this game smoothly.

If the player has a desire but no idea what steps might be appropriate, advice is available in the form of Power Packs – which are sets of quests and informative science cards designed by SuperBetter and partner organizations.  Pick one up and get a quick boost toward achieving your goals – they can all be customized to meet a player’s needs.

Additionally, SuperBetter is designed to include social support through Allies – fellow players that you can invite to your team to give encouragement or to challenge you to cowboy up to meet your own goals.  The interface lets each player switch between roles – working on your own hero’s journey or being someone’s ally – so that you can avoid getting overwhelmed if you have a lot of people on your self-improvement team.  It’s a nice feature that you have to pick your team-mates for this game.  Depending upon your health and improvement goals, you might not want everyone knowing what the monkey on your back is … or how often you fall prey to the ice cream monster in the freezer.

SuperBetter really is a great health and wellness game, played by approximately 120,000 people in the first few months of its release.  With an easy to use interface, customizable goals, and easy to follow advice, it really shines as one of the best titles available — on the web or on the smartphone.

Like Mindbloom, however, it seemed too easy, although its difficulty level may be appropriate for the target player.  When you’re really struggling with a real life health issue, no one needs to add to that load with game mechanics.  The game gives a playful way to record a player’s challenges and successes …. and give some much needed encouragement and channels for support.

Just got my reminder to drink some water from ...

Just got my reminder to drink some water from Bloom app. And I did… 8 oz, yo! cc: @mindbloom (Photo credit: jennyonthespot)

Since I took a MOOC on Gamification through Coursera, I’ve been on a real gamification kick, focusing primarily on online tools for self-improvement rather than business or marketing uses of the techniques.  My latest exploration has been in a nicely done personal development site called Mindbloom.

What It Is

There are loads of games (I use that term loosely here), apps, and sites springing up with the aim of assisting users to improve aspects of their daily lives in order to improve their health and well-being.  Many of these products and services focus on narrow slices of life – such as encouraging exercise (cf Fitocracy, Zombies, Run!, Nike+, and Map My Run), or a combination of exercise and healthy eating (like Nerd Fitness and Spark People).  Mindbloom goes well beyond the norm by encouraging users to establish a life balance in seven areas:  relationships, lifestyle, career, health, spirituality, creativity, and finances.  And it does it with some nice features and a different slant on the gamification genre.

The Good

There really is a lot to like about Mindbloom.  It takes the points, badges, and leaderboards features of many similar sites and turns them around.  There are points (called seeds) and levels which afford the user with options to either buy new themes or to open up further customization through uploading visual and audio media for use on the site.  But the standard, competitive leaderboard is replaced by a forest of friends – who are chosen by the user – that one is encouraged to support through sharing of resources.  Since users can see (and potentially compare) the health of each others’ trees, competition remains a potential focus for those who choose that lens.  But the display also can be used for cooperation and support if users prefer to interpret the display in that manner.  Likewise, there are badges to be earned and displayed in a user’s profile, but they are prominently displayed.

Additionally, the interface for Mindbloom is a lovely, artistic layout designed to be a relaxing setting for one’s tree, which is the representation of the user’s healthy life balance (or lack thereof).  Sounds of nature and thematic music complete the basic interface.  Most of the icons and action buttons reside in the bottom of the window, and can be pulled out as needed to perform the various tasks, such as setting to-dos, completing tasks, or calling up a customized slide show of inspiring images, quotes, and music.

Finally, Mindbloom takes self-determination to the max with this self-improvement site.  The user picks what life areas to work on, creates the tasks, can upload images, quotes, and music, and picks what themes to display.  The user is given daily suggestions of tasks that they might want to add to the list, but the choice is entirely up to the user.  Whatever you need to work on in your life, you can use this application to remind yourself of how you will do it, and as you complete tasks, you’ll gain sunshine and rain to make your tree …. or that of a friend ….. healthy.

Room for Improvement

On the down side, as a gamer, I found Mindbloom (like SuperBetter) simply too easy.  You can neglect your life and your tree for weeks and still level up, gaining fewer seeds, but still gaining a substantial handful.  There is also no mechanism for differentiating between really easy tasks and those that are real challenge goals for a particular user.  Hence, I tended to create easy tasks and then just mark them right off, which only exasperated the ease of the system.  It’s a small point, but part of playing a game … or even participating in a gamified process …. is mastering challenges.  And there really are none here.  If you are looking for a stress-less lovely to-do list, this fits the bill, but don’t look for a challenge anywhere.

The other thing that makes Mindbloom an interesting trial that I won’t actually use seriously is the challenge of finding friends to include in my forest.  The ability to engage in this self-determined winnowing of whose progress I view is nice on one hand, but it can also derail the social aspect of the game if you don’t have friends with  similar interests.  In my case, friends and family are already happy with their to-do systems, took a brief look at this one and moved on, leaving me with a very sparse forest.

In the end, I think it is a lovely (really beautiful) online program with some gamification elements to encourage self-improvement.  And it is a very good example of how gamification can take advantage of cooperation as well as competition through use of a clever framework of growing lives together.

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