Category: For Parents

SW:TOR [1085]

SW:TOR [1085] (Photo credit: brianjmatis)

If you have a Star Wars fan in your household, you have probably heard of this online multiplayer role-playing game from BioWareand LucasArts, which extends the rich narrative and choice structure of the Knights of the Old Republic single-player games into the online, multiplayer realm.

This game is interesting to educational researchers because of the way it blends narrative story telling and player choice with social and group gaming activity.  This is one multiplayer game in which group activity, which awards social points, has a direct effect on the quality of gear that a player can purchase.  Teams are easy to pull together in this game, and there is a refreshing variety of group encounters that include everything from simulated team sports (Huttball is a riot) to more traditional group combat and player-vs-player battles.  As with many group role playing games, the teamwork and strategy required to achieve many game goals are a good way to teach people of all ages to contribute their character’s abilities and their own ability to collaborate in order to succeed.

As with the other games in the Knights of the Old Republic series, a player’s choice of actions in the game affects a character’s moral alignment, either toward the Light Side or toward the Dark, which also affects the type of equipment that can be purchased, aspects of the narrative, and how non-playing characters react to the character.  This can be an interesting challenge and opportunity to discuss moral choices in difficult circumstances.    Characters on the Republic side and choose evil actions, and those on the Imperial side can choose good ones.  It is an interesting activity to work at making a Light Sith or a Dark Jedi to see the ramifications of choices and actions.

However, in many ways, this is a very traditional role playing game, and as the folks at Common Sense Media point out, much of the activity in the game focuses around the classic combat between good and evil.  In this case, however, the narrative puts the combat into context more directly than any other MMORPG that I have played, and I have occasionally been able to use the decision system to avoid some combat situations.

If you work with teens, you will probably have been hearing about this game, which released over the winter break.  New buzz may be surfacing now because a major new patch will open up a new system, called the Legacy system, which will allow players to craft not only characters but families of characters that can share abilities and experience. Be prepared for some interesting family trees that will mimic the drama and pathos of the movies!


This month, I made the difficult choice of discontinuing my subscription for World of Warcraft (WoW).  Actually, in many ways, it was not so hard to do.

A treant from World of Warcraft

Image via Wikipedia

My initial reasons for playing the game had evaporated, and all the reasons for continuing the game  just left me feeling blah.  While I may eventually dip back into the world of Azeroth for research or educational purposes, I am not sure that even the new expansion, Mists of Pandaria, will tempt me for some time.

World of Warcraft had captured my interest years ago predominately because it gave my whole family something that we could do together and that would continue to challenge both adults and children for many hours of game play.  Unlike many board games, World of Warcraft allowed our little band to work together as a unit.  Different characters played different roles in exploration and combat, supporting one another as tanks, damage dealers, and healers.  We could also split up the different gathering and crafting duties, meeting one another’s needs for armor, weapons, food, potions, glyphs, etc.  We even created our own little guild and shared responsibility for running the guild and deciding what our game play objectives would be each weekend.  It was an ideal way to teach by example and experience key understandings such as sharing and collaboration, responsibility, and dealing with the occasional failure in a responsible manner.

I really enjoyed and emphasized in occasional talks the important opportunity to play a game with family members that fostered cooperation among members instead of the the usual family board game that emphasizes competition between family members.  It also allowed children to see parents model dealing with disappointments and setbacks (as often happens the first time you go up against one of the really hard “boss” monsters) as well as how we learn and problem-solve in order to improve performance the next time we try to defeat a particular beastie.

The game is also remarkably rich in experiences that can provide the foundation for informal as well as formal learning.  The deep backstory of the game entices many teens to read novels about the “history” of Azeroth and is being used as a basis for English language arts lessons by some innovative middle schools in their WoW in the schools program.  Since many actions in the game also rely heavily on basic mathematics and probability, it can also be used to reach disengaged students and provide context for understanding math concepts and developing skills in computation, modeling, and problem-solving.  As a potential platform for education, it remains an inviting forum for research and education.

Unfortunately, many of the problems its critics have pointed out are wearing on me and are tipping the scales in favor of some other games.

WoW is incredibly repetitive.   “Grinding” (performing the same simple task over and over in order to get resources) has always been annoying, but as I have less free time, spending the few hours I can allot to gaming each week on these tasks is not worth it.  For a while, it was interesting to see if the drop rates (the probability of getting a particular item) were accurate over hundreds of repetitions, but this has lost its charm, particularly as the server I’m on has matured and prices have dropped.  Many young people seem more tolerant of this practice than adults, but I have also known teens to sit at their computer and hit the same set of buttons repeatedly while they are engaging in other tasks, such as reading.  Somehow, this mechanic needs to be adjusted, which should also help Blizzard solve the problem of the gold farmers.

Most of the end game content is equally repetitive.  The raids and instances, which are challenging group combat events, offer nothing new after a few attempts.  Working with a group to succeed in them is a useful lesson in group cooperation and preparation, but after a few runs they are either boring or extremely frustrating (you can fail after hours of work just because someone’s computer connection lagged at the wrong time).  This is likely to be true of any game in the genre, however.

WoW’s portrayal of gender differences really is quite annoying.  I generally was able to ignore this until I started playing the new Star Wars MMOG and was given the opportunity to customize body types.  Combined with clothing in Star Wars that is not clingy and revealing (Jedi Knights can wear loose robes), the ability to lessen the stereotypical portrayal of females as wasp-waisted, big-breasted Barbie doll clones was highly refreshing and enticing.  While I have had many good conversations about the the need for critical reflection of racial and gender stereotypes in the media in response to the portrayal of women in WoW, I welcome the opportunity to vote with my money and pick a game that offers some alternatives.  Of course, I remain interested in how WoW designers plan to draw female pandas in the game …

WoW’s allusions to different ethnic or racial groups really is hard to accept let alone defend.  Portraying the Native Americans of the plains as bipedal cattle still has me shaking my head after all these years.  While this does start a good conversation about racial stereotypes in the media, it is really difficult to sell the good points of multiplayer online games for teaching and learning when, unfortunately, most people only know about this one game and judge the rest in light of it.

Finally, for reasons that have nothing to do with World of Warcraft, many long-time player friends are moving on, including my family.  Kids have grown up and moved on to other things, and my dear ol’ hubby has decided that he’s lost too many hours to online gaming.  While a few friends (such as the Terror Nova guild) are still rocking and rolling on the new newest expansion, I’ve become interested in a host of other games such as Star Wars: The Old Republic, Skyrim, and Minecraft.  I’m particularly looking for games that offer something different but still rich and engaging.  Minecraft, for instance, is growing at a pace to challenge WoW – which is amazing for a game that does not rely upon combat as its sole game mechanic.

I made the plunge into the world of Minecraft last weekend when I wasn’t invited to a beta testing weekend (for an unnamed MMORPG, but if you know me, you know which one).  Minecraft has been getting a LOT of buzz of late.  Even while it was still in beta, it had millions of users, and teachers were using it in K-12 classes to teach computer science, writing, collaboration (in multiplayer mode), English, and progression of crafting.  It just released into verion 1.0 on the same day I decided to buy a copy, and I have to say that I’m pleased with its functionality and stability so far … although all I’ve played at this point is the singleplayer, survival mode.

What It Is

Minecraft is a sandbox game – which means that it has no rules or set roles.  The player decides what to do and what success means.  At first, this can be a little frustrating because, like life, making choices and giving up other possibilities is a bit of a challenge.  Until you know what you CAN do, it is hard to decide what to try.  So, I took a look around the Internet and the Minecraft wiki to see what other players have been doing.  I was blown away by images of fancy castles, a replica of the Globe Theater, and old-fashioned masted ships.  Ok, so the world really is wide open in this game.  I had a high bar to meet.  And that’s just in creative mode.

You can also play the game in survival mode or hard mode.  So far, I’ve just tried survival mode, which gives a little spice to creativity.  Monsters come out of dark places (like the night and caves) and don’t necessarily go away during the day.  This means that the player must take measures to survive while building and pay attention while exploring.  My character died quite a lot at first, but then I started to develop strategies (with the help of tutorials), buildings, and weapons.  Now, while I need to be cautious, I haven’t lost a great deal of resources or time for a few (real time) days.

Hard mode looks like it plays more like the traditional MMOG with a lot of potential for monsters and fighting.

So, the player can pick the type of game experience desired and set his or her own goals.  In survival mode, the character does level up gradually, with the defeat of monsters and resource animals.  As the player/character progresses, there is a technology tree.  While the educator (and former classics minor) cringes at the use of gold and diamond armor), I am greatly enjoying the challenge of playing a stone-age farmer who is trying to find enough ore to craft iron weapons and armor while also keeping myself fed and housed.

It Ain’t Easy

The best thing is that Minecraft is a challenging game.  Resources are scarce and spread out.  And they are unpredictable.  Unlike World of Warcraft, mobs do not stay in the same place.  Resources spring up in various locations.  Monsters appear randomly – sometimes almost out of nowhere.  There is serious risk/reward assessment to be done, and planning ahead, being prepared, and playing smart are rewarded.

This game could be used to help players work on mapping.  With days only 10 minutes long in real time, you want to be efficient in navigating lest your character be caught away from shelter at night.  A lot of calculation practice could also be supported so that students would calculate how much of a resource they needed to achieve a crafting goal or how far they can move from shelter before they need to turn back.

And history …. oh how I love history learning opportunities.  With resources so scarce, students could really understand why cities are built near certain juxtapositions of resources such as mountains for ore, water for irrigation, pasturage for animals, etc.  And why stone-age buildings were built as they were.  And why the Romans, with their roads and aqueducts were able to roam the continent and into Britain.

Roman roads … as my character roams up and down hills, I’m really appreciating the Roman road …. and I’m planning to build more than a few now that my little farms (finally irrigated) are starting to generate a surplus of food that allows me to travel more and spend less time on finding food!   The world is vast enough that it is easy to get lost, and so students would also begin to understand why either mapping or signposting were necessary before the GPS was invented.  Of course, once the map and compass are developed in Minecraft, this is less of an issue.  Nevertheless, students each have to get to that point of technology creation first.  Which means that they need to do old-school navigation before they can tech up.

I’m going to experiment next on stone towers and try a Roman villa to see which keep out the monsters at night better while letting me feel a little less claustrophobic (stone buildings have their limits!).  I’ve been keeping my character’s living quarters in my mines up to this point with torches for light.  This works just fine, but the view is a little dull over time.

I find myself intrigued by questions of what types of building, crafting, food gathering, defense, and exploration strategies will work, especially pulling ideas from historical periods.  The cost/benefit equation feels very “right” to me – and I look forward to seeing how historical solutions to survival problems will  play out.

It Ain’t Perfect

It’s a game.  The technology progression is short and skips the bronze age (and steel — although you do get chain mail).  Torches burn forever, and water doesn’t evaporate or sink into the ground once you irrigate your fields.  Still, for an inexpensive indie game, the basic ideas are there for use by a clever teacher.

The graphics are very basic and old-school.  It gets a little annoying at times, but it also loads quickly and movement is smooth through the world.  It’s kinda like playing Legos, but that also makes calculation of volume for building pretty straightforward.

I’m planning to play this for the next month, until the new Star Wars MMOG from Bioware comes out.  Then, I might alternate between them after that.  Having a world in which to build anything without worrying about prim count (a la Second Life) but having some imposed challenges and limits is highly interesting, even for an adult.  I’d love to try this with a middle-school after school program!

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Nearly a year ago, I flagged a Life Hacker post on arranging environments for success, intending to get back to what looked like an interesting self-help guide to making my office more useful.  Little did I realize at the time that Susan G. Friedman (of Behavior Works) is an expert on shaping the behavior of parrots!  It took me a few moments to wrap my bird brain around the idea that behavior shaping can (and maybe should) apply to designing environments for human beings.

People have asked me in the past how students should minimize the distractions of digital multi-tasking while they study.  I usually suggest things like Kino to mask unused screen real estate or tools like Scrivener that allow a writer to focus ONLY on the text while darkening the rest of the display.

But no one – not teachers and not parents – really can rely only on the physical environment to shape the desired behavior of learners or children.  Certainly, we can help remove external distractions, but ultimately, the students themselves must be partners in this effort for it to succeed.  If they are not on board with the effort, they will still manage to day-dream at a minimum.  Unmotivated, children (and adult learners!) can still circumvent software and decide to go “just check email really quick” or check out the newest popular video on YouTube.  They must be willing to shape their behavior and report accurately upon what they did while “studying” in order to continue to evaluate the success or failure of the redesigned environment.

So, before addressing the physical space – or perhaps simultaneous with the design process – you need to address the internal learning environment as well.  Maybe it is time to discuss a reward system for demonstrated results (and not just measuring successful studying by supposed time spend on task).  Or it might be a good idea to try out the Pomodoro Technique for yourself.  Afterall, human beings are very capable of gaming the system – any system.  Even one that they create for themselves.

I am admittedly not a big fan of RTS games, but I thought I’d give Grepolis a look.  It is a browser-based, real-time-strategy game that does not require either downloading software or a huge amount of bandwidth.  The thing that attracted me to the game was theme.  I’ve been getting tired of both fantasy (i.e. World of Warcraft) and science fiction (Star Wars) based virtual worlds, so ancient history seemed like a good alternative.  One of my interests in college had been, believe it or not, ancient Greek, and so I was curious how a free-to-play entertainment game would envision the world of Homer.

As history goes, it is on par with the videogame Age of Mythology and definitely behind the Civilization series.  Students might pick up a few words here and there, but this war game will not teach them anything about how Greeks lived, thought, or fought.  Like other online RTS games, it does reinforce a few key understandings:  resources are scarce and need to be developed and controlled, there is a hierarchy to technology development (although Civ does this better), distance = time when trading or fighting, and you need to cultivate strong alliances to survive for long.  In this regard, it is similar to many of the browser-based war games, like the previously reviewed Travian.

Unlike some of the games I’ve tried in this online genre, however, the decisions seem to be more complex, and a player can end up at dead-ends in which a city can not advance but only can hope to support other cities in their progress.  Since you can have as many cities as you can manage to conquer, this is more of a learning moment than a fun-killer, and advanced players attempt to provide manuals on the wiki to help you avoid that.

Parents should know that, like most RTS games, there is no blood and gore.  The player is in “god-mode” and directs moves like a chess player.  Battles are very tame reports given about losses and gains at the end of a conflict.  The real problem for many young people will come in frustration at the length of time required to achieve anything of substance in the game.  And also the fact that the game does not go away when you do.  I came back to my city after a few days off on a trip to find my civilization under full scale attack by a hostile neighbor.

Ambitious teachers could use the game to make young people calculate the optimal number of attackers to put in a ship (a limited number but since each type of soldier has different strengths, this is important to the success of an engagement).  But, given the amount of time required between moves, this may not be a useful class activity.  More of an engagement strategy for a particularly resistant or disaffected student.

Me, I’ve set myself a goal to simply survive.  I’ve been playing for 6 months so far, trying to use diplomacy and strong walls to avoid being finally defeated.  We’ll see how long that can last as the population of my area expands.