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I have been neglecting this site for this past year because, frankly, I got tired of being on the computer!!!  Since I’ve been teaching, both face to face and online, a good portion of my day is spent in creating materials, reading online discussions, and grading digital assignments.  And by the end of the day, just about the last thing I want to do is do some more sitting – either in front of the computer or one of my game consoles.  Hence …. few hours playing games and even fewer opportunities to review selections for educational purposes.

I have, however, continued to explore serious games, digital gamification, and online fitness communities.  FitBit and LoseIt have joined HabitRPG and Nerd Fitness as part of my self-improvement suite.  I’ll write more about these old and new favorites, but I would first like to introduce a mobile game that has become my new – healthy – addiction:  Ingress.

What It Is

Ingress (Wikipedia entry) is an augmented reality game for smartphones.  It uses your phone’s GPS feature to associate your real life physical location with a place in a science fiction world where exotic matter is leaking into the world through portals.   You play a member of one of two opposition factions among the world’s human population and attempt to control portals and regions of the Earth’s surface on behalf of your faction.

Game play at the basic level is pretty straight-forward.  You drive, bike, or walk around with your smart phone – and use your phone to interact with the game world.  When you find a portal, you use your phone to interact with it, supporting or trying to destroy the portal’s control system (and then gain control over it for your faction).  In essence, it is a world-wide game of capture the flag …. with millions of flags scattered on every continent and in every city.

But like any good game, there are levels of complexity available for the interested participant.  The game has a complex back-story and a current events mystery unfolding in a series of episodic online stories and organized, real life events in select cities.  And if the narrative is not of interest, the strategic creation of links between portals and subsequent control of areas is reminiscent of a game of chess played on a grand scale.  While it is fairly simple to learn to play, playing it well will take some time and experience.

The Good

There is a lot to like about this game.  For one thing, it gets me up and away from the computer.  When I talk to parents and educators about computer games for learning, one of the first objections is that kids spend too much time sitting already.  Trust me …. this game will get them out of their seats and searching for portals to control, particularly if their friends are also playing.  I introduced my husband to the game, and now one of our favorite Saturday outings is to go take a long walk in order to play Ingress together, and we are often walking a few miles in order to get “just another one.”

Portals are also placed – deliberately by the game makers (Google) – to coincide with real life points of interest, such as museums, libraries, historical markers, memorials, and scenic outlooks.  And players are rewarded with badges if they visit a large number of unique places.  This feature has prompted me to visit sections of cities – and points of interest – that I had no idea existed.  It’s been a fun way for me to get out of my routines and go some place new for a walk.  And it encouraged me to go exploring on a recent, out of town trip.  I can see this used by parents …. and maybe teachers ….. to encourage kids to go visit culturally important locations and learn more about their neighborhoods and cities.  Carefully, of course.

With the science fiction back story to the game, and the continually evolving mystery, this game could also be very helpful in encouraging students to read and write.  The narrative is engaging in itself, and students could be asked to propose theories about what is happening based on the clues that are dropped periodically in the game’s news releases.  I’ll admit that I’m usually more interested in walking around and gaining control of territory, but I can see the potential for the language arts in this game.

With two teams working to control sections of the world, there is also, naturally, room for teamwork.  Each faction has its own Google group as well as a way to chat from within the game, and teams in many locations arrange for meet ups to socialize and plan strategy.  Teams need to work together to mount strategies to control territory …. and also to block the opposing team’s strategies to gain control of the same spaces.  It is generally a lot of fun, and so far, I have not had any negative encounters – even when near an opposing team as they were trying to wrest control of a portal from me.

Cautions

That being said, as I mentioned earlier, parents and teachers (and everyone else) should use caution in playing this game.  Just as with geocaching, it can be easy to leave your comfort zone for areas that are not safe.  You need to remain alert and aware of your surroundings, not stepping off of cliffs or balconies in an effort to reach a portal …. don’t laugh.  There is a portal in my city that is barely reachable by carefully stretching over a railing.  I’m not sure how it got there, but it is a lesson in caution.

Given how the game is played, it is easy for kids to get involved and play as peers with and against adults.  As a relatively new player, I’ve probably been schooled by more children that I would like to know.  But do be aware that the game is one of competition, and new players will be at a disadvantage for many levels, having their hard work destroyed by higher level players who see an advantage …. and who don’t know that they may be playing against a kid. So long as players understand that the game really is one of shifting control back and forth …. daily  ….. it is fun.

Drawbacks

While the game does encourage movement, a lot of players – myself included – simply drive from portal to portal.  Most locations are readily accessible from the street or a convenient parking lot, and it is easy to be lazy or in a hurry …. trading a seat in front of the computer for a seat in the car.  For people who are mobility challenged, this is a blessing – you can play with the best of us.  But it also sorta defeats one of the big draws of the game.

The game also puts quite a strain on your smart phone.  I am still running an older model iPhone, and the battery does not last very long while playing this game.  My husband’s new iPhone holds up far longer, and I have simply gotten an auxiliary mobile power source to support longer gaming sessions ….. when I’m not in the car with the iPhone plugged in.

And … of course …. it does require a smart phone … or an iPad.  Originally released only for Android, it’s been out for about a year for the Apple platform.  But the requirement of a fairly robust device will put the game out of reach for some students.

Summary

On the whole, I really like this game.  It is encouraging me to get out and explore new sections of the city and to walk a good deal more than I have been during the cold winter.  I’m looking forward to reading more of the narrative and getting to know some of my team mates ….. and even members of the opposition …. in local Ingress meet ups.  If you are an educator or a parent, this game has potential to be an engaging alternative to the traditional computer or videogame, and it would be a lot of fun to do as a family.

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.

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