Category: Single-player Games


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.

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.

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)

Today, I got organized in order to meet the goal of building a medieval style stone tower and moving most of my stuff to that location.

The first step was to establish a workable pattern for mining stone while looking for the relatively rare ores … in my case, all ore seems to be rare.  But I was not daunted by the low return rate.  I just decided that it was time to adopt a set technique.

I experimented briefly with shaft mining and building ladders to allow climbing and descent.  Ladders work great for climbing up, but my climbing down technique remains poor.  After a few attempts, I decided that staircase mining would suit me better, so I dove in and started down to bedrock.  It seemed like it would take forever (my cat enjoyed my lap for a while), but I finally hit bottom and started working a branching scheme.  Found some iron ore and a ton of rock (well, digitally speaking).

With this load in tow, I located a high hill roughly equidistant to water, sand (to make glass), caves (for exploring later), rock faces, and flocks of chickens and sheep.  Then, the fun started.  I managed to get a good start on the tower, with an interior staircase, only to find out that it attracted all the monsters in the vicinity.  And they had bows and arrows!!  I was beginning to feel like this experiment was going to teach me all sort of things … one in particular was the potential for an extended siege .

They did force me out of the tower more than once before I was done.  This taught me the importance of having food on hand and my own set of ranged weapons!  In the end, I’m enjoying laughing at the local baddies.  From my tower, I can open up shooting windows and fire from above – retreating to cover as needed.

The garden is still outside my secure perimeter, and that may have to be addressed before long (can anyone say medieval walled city?), and I’m not sure how a spider got in one night.  Oh, and the tower is still pretty squat and ugly, but I’m working on making enough glass windows to break up the solid walls of stone as I expand the walls and staircase (and little “rooms” on the landings) upwards.  Overall, it was a successful experiment that reinforced my appreciation for the game – and my continued sense that this could be really useful in educating middle school children.

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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