Category: What I’m Playing


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.

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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!

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.

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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