Category: Game Reviews


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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I’m seriously wondering whom you’re supposed to contact to nominate something for best game EVER because I want to nominate Zombies, Run! for the honor.  It works at multiple levels as a prime example of effective gamification while also crossing over to being an immersive single-player mobile game and a gripping post-modern (and post-apocolypic!) story that unravels over the course of 23 (as of version 1.4) episodes.  It had me alternatively laughing and crying while out running the local trails and has gotten several of my non-running friends up off the couch and into the world of the zombie apocalypse where you have no choice but to run …. or turn into the living dead yourself!!

Players jump into the middle of the story as Runner 5 – a brave combination of scout, scavenger of supplies, and decoy who daily leaves the relative safety of Able Township to help protect its inhabitants by running a variety of missions.  During runs, the story of the disaster unfolds gradually as you are guided by a variety of NPCs (non-playing characters) to find supplies, information, or other people … or to lead the threatening hordes of undead away from the borders.  The story is masterfully done, displaying the talents of published fiction writers and wonderful voice actors.  It literally had me in tears on numerous occasions and checking the bushes for potential zombies nearly every time I went out – that’s how immersive this app is!

On the gamification side of things, it also makes a stellar showing, probably because of the immersive quality of the app.  I used it for my recovery runs with the intent of doing some fast walking with sprinting intervals (due to zombie chases).  This app not only got me out more frequently and for longer runs than intended, it helped me pick up my pace considerably during the last two months.  I so wanted to hear the next episode of the story or find some much needed supplies to help out the township …. and then zombies would be after me …. and I’d end up running before I knew it.  Definitely much more effective than the other running programs I have been using for the past few years.

I particularly appreciate the need/ability to collect items with which to build the base up.  Without that little carrot, this might be more like any other running app in that every day is just another run.  Even points on Fitocracy don’t really motivate me, but building up a base does.  Might be something to do with gender preferences in gaming, but for me that endpoint of each run has been crucial.

At this point, I have finished the story line.  I can keep doing radio mode or supply runs until the second season comes out (which feels a lot like waiting for the next season of Lost did).  Don’t ask me how it ends … you have to get the app yourself and get out there amongst the living dead to find out …. you can thank me later.

Before you get your controllers in a bunch, let me point out that Fitocracy is not what most people think of as a game (although some definitions are broad enough to include it under the “game” umbrella, probably …  unless you’re Eric Zimmerman).

Strictly speaking, this is an example of gamification, a process by which routine tasks are turned into quasi-games by adding game features such as points, levels, online social interaction, and rewards.  Fitocracy is typical of the genre in that it keeps track of points – which are calculated from type, intensity and duration of exercise.  How the calculation is done is something of a mystery worthy of Google  – and it sometimes does not seem to reflect effort accurately – but those points add up, resultingin the “player” being rewarded by increased levels and occasionally a cool badge.  Social networking adds a further layer to the reward system by allowing other Fitocrats to comment on your efforts and success and also give you a thumbs up in the form of “props” – which they do with great frequency.

Image representing Fitocracy as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

While this may not sound to the uninitiated like a recipe for successful workout motivation, I have to say that I am finding Fitocracy be highly effective.   Putting my workouts out there for the world to see is a great way to remain accountable.  Having people cheer me on whenever I make a breakthrough – or even actually remember to work out – is enough incentive to motivate me to workout even on days when I don’t want to.  I know I have pushed a little bit harder to achieve a new level, and the occasional, goofy badge, random quest, or user-generated player-vs.player challenge edges the site and app just a little further into the grey zone between gamified routine and a “real game”.

After having tried many tracking programs-  online, computer-based, DS-based, and smartphone-based, I have finally found something that actually motivates me to not only track my exercise but push myself to workout harder and to try different activities just to get another badge.  For now, this is the reigning champion in the fitness game category for me, although the new fitness MMORPG from NerdFitness, Rising Heroes, may give it a run for its money.

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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!

Osmos, running under Wine

This weekend, as I was coming home from the MacArthur Foundations’s Emerging Scholars Conference on Assessment, I experimented with the demo of a new (to me) indie game, Osmos.  The game has been out for a couple of years, since 2009, and was recommended to me by fellow attendees who have purchased the Indie Humble Bundle, which not only gets players great games but also helps support a variety of charities.

Developed by Hemisphere Games, this lovely game worked for me on many levels.  My first impression is that it is just a beautiful game visually.  The graphics are very high quality and the motion of the little cells (one of which is yours to control) is very smooth.  Add the very lovely soundtrack, and you have a wonderful, meditative game suitable for relaxation while you do a little learning.  I played it on the plane in order to unwind – using an average set of headphones to block out some of the background noise.  I have to tell you, I would have played for the entire trip home if my battery had not run out … I’ll be looking to see if this is going to become available for the iPad!

Once I became comfortable with the controls, I was able to see how an understanding of physics was helpful.  This game reinforces an understanding of thrust mechanics as well as inertia.  Plus, the player must balance resources since the little cells move by expelling part of their matter but must grow larger than competing cells in order to survive.  Hence, players learn to move efficiently, take advantage of Newton’s Laws, and be patient.

The game does allow the player to speed up time if you want to see results quickly, but I decided to be more patient and let cells glide around as part of the unwinding process.  But just be aware that, in a classroom setting, you might want to control the speed of each level to reinforce the learning objectives and fit the game into your classroom schedule.

On the whole, I love this game and recommend it highly.  While it gives a nod to the biological reality that organisms ingest smaller organisms, it is not a violent game, which makes it appealing for school use.

  • Osmos (giraffeandllama.wordpress.com)
  • Osmos (wired.com)