Category: Non-Violent Games


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.

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.

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.

I hate to start out blogs with this …. but this blog is about a concept that is NOT ready for education ….. yet. Before I could require students to use a social networking application for class, I would HAVE to ensure their privacy and allow students to control who sees different types of information. And, I’d also have to include some sort of statement on my syllabus about the fact that harassing another student using the tool would be grounds for disciplinary action. *Sigh* You can teach students content, but you’d think their parents or kindergarten teacher would have taught them to be human beings … but onto the tool ….

The tool, as it says in the title is Foursquare. This social networking app for the iPhone, Droid, and the Blackberry makes use of the ability of smart phones to know where they (and presumably you, the owner) are located (called “location awareness”). By combining your location with information (created by others) about where other things (businesses and other people) are located, you can record where you are over time and broadcast that information to others nearby. In the social world, that lets you find your friends on a night out. It also lets you see where your friends have been, giving you some indication of places that you might find fun and interesting too. That’s assuming that you enjoy the same things that your friends do … or are extremely open to new experiences.

As an educator, I get excited by this because of the “tip” and “to do” feature built into some apps, like Foursquare. This could allow me to map out an experiential tour of a city or a building or ecosystem for my students, using the “to do” feature. For each location, I could have them look for something specific or do something … like take a water sample or a picture of a building. And they could also make notes of their own at each location, uploading the results of a water sample, for instance.

Once done with the tour, I and the class could access the notes each student put up. By combining observations over time, we could show how research teams actually DO analyze samples, show the variations in data and how we use statistics to assess them, map results, etc. This is not a new idea – researchers such as John Martin and Kurt Squire have been working on augmented reality games for science inquiry for several years. The stunningly wonderful thing is that these simple apps made for social networking could be re-purposed for education. And given the number of students who already have these “phones”, we rapidly loose the need for specialized, expensive single-purpose devices … needing only to address how to provide access for students without the means to own a smart phone.

And while I cannot argue that smart phones are inexpensive, they are still often much cheaper than the laptops we have been requiring them to purchase through various laptop initiatives. Plus, the phones are significantly more resilient as well as able to access data much more effectively in the field.

Something to think about … and for some bright developer to create for Foursquare. If you want to see an educational use of this program, check out and follow the History Channel’s excellent list of tips in Foursquare. They even have a tip to see the Minnehaha Falls!