Category: MMOGs


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.

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!

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.

You haven't lived until you've died in MUD. --...

Image via Wikipedia

I’ve been collecting dissertations (and theses) about virtual worlds and massively multiplayer online games.  This is my list thus far …. if anyone knows of others, please share.  This would especially be helpful for all of us who are breaking new ground at institutions that don’t currently have professors well-versed with this type of location for research.

Bruckman, A. S. (1997). MOOSE Crossing: Construction, Community, and Learning in a Networked Virtual World for Kids. Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

King, E. M. (2011). GUYS AND GAMES: PRACTICING 21ST CENTURY WORKPLACE SKILLS IN THE GREAT INDOORS. University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Long, B. T. (2008). Online Communities on the MUVE: Using Second Life to build an Online Peer-support Community for Pre-service Teachers. University of Dublin.

Smith-Robbins, S. (2011). Incommensurate Wor(l)ds: Epistemic Rhetoric and Faceted Classification of Communication Mechanics in Virtual Worlds. Ball State University, Muncie, IN.

Steinkuehler, C. A. (2005). Cognition and learning in massively multiplayer online games:  A critical approach. Unpublished Dissertation, University of WIsconsin, Madison, WI.