Can games really be a force for good?

In my latest article over on Medium, I discuss how games can be used to distract, and to hold people’s attention against all odds. Games even seem capable of distracting us from biological needs like hunger and sleep. So do I really believe games can be a force for good?

In short, I don’t believe that games are inherently good, bad, or anything in between. They’re a force, a tool, a thing that exists which, used by different people in different ways, can be for good or for bad. Or even for evil.

Have no fear though – this isn’t going to be an airy-fairy discussion of philosophy! Despite it “being complicated” there are clear case studies and examples of games being for good, bad, and “evil”. Let’s start from the bad, dip through the valley of the shadow of evil, then come out on the other side. We’ll wrap up by trying to stick all that together.

Games for bad

It is easy to see, games aren’t a force for pure good. They really can distract a person from what’s important, they really can be addictive, and they really can encourage bad schemata and behaviors – not mass murdering, but more subtle things like cultural stereotypes and trust in certain idealistic worldviews.

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Hellblade : Senua’s Sacrifice puts you in a dark place

Thankfully, most game developers have either parents or children, and are aware of this. Increasingly, games will remind players to take a break, and children are pretty good at getting homework done (faster than usual) if games are held till after the hard stuff is complete. The issue of inclusivity is also growing, with more and more games from tiny studios all the way to AAA productions including a wider range of genders, races, quirks and stereotype bucking characters. A long way to go, but a long way forward from the field of white-male-shotgun wielding heroes of 1995.

Games for evil

Very rarely are games intentionally for evil. There are a few nasty examples (names won’t be named as they don’t deserve more publicity) that directly encourage, quite frankly, nasty behavior. But among all games, encouraging “evil” is very rare. But there is a more common evil in the increasing tide of “games” designed around addiction (for the benefit of their makers) with no inherent value. Boiled down, they are nothing more than psychological traps – almost indistinguishable from “games” to the unwitting outsider.

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Our bacteria aren’t evil. ❤

These subversive little wracklings are an easy trap to fall into. A high proportion of the games I play are either totally built on this premise of addiction, or use it as the primary method of holding engagement. While I’m optimistic about games for bad, this face of games for evil appears to constantly grow in “popularity” as more and more people get addicted to the next big thing in fighting exponential growth with linear tools.

Games for good

So with all that bucket load of bad, how can games be good? An indeed, how can games that are also bad and evil be good at the same time? There are obvious examples – the infamous Call of Duty “airport scene” of 2009 that asked “what is acceptable”, the addictive grindfest of Clash of Clans that also happens to bring together parents and children in a heart-touching way, and the mindless drone of tetris letting a war veteran work through crippling flashbacks.

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It’s a 10 year grind to the top. And it’s also a way to bond with your children. Complicated!

I can only summarise this in one way : games are complex pieces of art. They cannot be reduced to good, bad or evil – they are like books or movies, with a whole new level of audience engagement. So whether they are used to distract, remain ignorant of, entertain or educate, try to see games for what they are : much more complex than any single word can describe.

Chocolate coated hazelnut toffee

I’ve been experimenting in candymaking, and this is the first “worth sharing”. It’s a fairly hard candy wrapped around hazelnuts and covered in delicious chocolate.

Ingredients

  1. 100g light/golden syrup
  2. A generous handful of hazelnuts (or other nuts)
  3. Chocolate. How much? How much do you like chocolate! I used a lot. I like chocolate.

Instructions

  1. Chop up hazelnuts (or whatever nuts you fancy). I got bored chopping and used a blender.
  2. Layer the hazelnuts on greaseproof/baking paper in a heatproof dish with cork pads or spare tea towels under it (to protect your surfaces). Spread the hazelnuts fairly evenly. The area of the dish will affect the thickness of the candy (big dish = thing candy)
  3. Put 100g of light/golden syrup and 200g of sugar in a pan (ideally a small radius pan with a thick base, and I don’t use non stick pans because sugar washes off easily if you don’t burn it)
  4. Use a sugar thermometer! Unless you’re already a candy master, getting consistent results is near impossible otherwise. Set it up in the pan (don’t let it touch the bottom, but make sure the bulb is immersed)
  5. Turn the heat on! KEEP IT LOW. I cannot overstate this. Do not rush. Burned sugar is not your friend. On a hob with 6 heat settings, 3 tends to work ok, but if you want to be safe, start with 2.
  6. Wait patiently for the temperature to reach 149C, meanwhile microwave the chocolate in a heatproof dish with a spout (use a low power setting, 10-20 second bursts with stirring in between). You want it to be -just- melted, not totally molten
  7. As soon as the sugar mix reaches 149C, pour it across the nuts. Wait for a little bit for it to get a bit cooler (I waited about 40 seconds) then slowly drizzle the molten chocolate all over it.
  8. Wait. And wait. And wait. This is torture, seriously. Oh, and while you wait, wash the pan.

Once it’s cool you might want to put it in the fridge to set the chocolate. Once it’s full set, you can do what you want with it! I strongly suggest eating it. As a side note, it’s actually better the following day – when the brittle candy has had a little time to soften and not shatter your teeth.

If you have any questions ask in the comments!

How to make enjoyable educational games?

For my masters thesis, I tackled the problem of educational games. Why are educational games a problem? Because the mass image of them is simply “quiz+rewards” – what has been referred to as “chocolate coated broccoli”. This analogy is particularly touching to me, because even though I like broccoli normally, the idea of coating it with chocolate repulses me. Similarly, the idea of smothering learning with patronizing encouragement and “rewards” makes the joy of learning less palatable.

In my thesis, I try to put into words some principles for producing games for learning, games that are enjoyable yet impart knowledge that is valued in the real world. Roughly, this ends up with me suggesting that games should be built by simulating a subject area, tightly coupled with structures to support both game driven and free playing experiences. In detail, I provide a list of stuff you can do to up your educational game, with a wide range of examples from mainstream games that you’ve no doubt heard of, and likely have played – summarized in the graphic below.

A summary of my pragmatic thesis findings
Simulations, a system for goals and hints, coaching and enjoyable difficulty all contribute to enjoyable, educational games

Whether you’re curious or horrified, I encourage you to read the full thesis! I hope that it sparks topics for discussion, and leads to more awesome games with a serious experience at heart.

Quiet YouTube when steam “donks”?

I’ve been noticing steam messages seem to seriously reduce the audio of my music player and youtube videos and what not. It was a bit frustrating, so I searched for it and found a typical tech thread here. This didn’t help at all, so I carried on hunting and found the answer burief in steam’s forums, it’s a Windows setting which makes other things quiet when you’re “in a voice call” (which.. well, steam messages don’t really fall into that category). Anyway, file a bug report with steam if this irritates you, and find a workaround/fix here:

http://makingwindowseasy.com/2011/04/30/change-windows-volume-during-phone-calls/

It fixes the issue, and I’m pretty happy to mute my music when I skype or whatnot…

How can we evaluate the quality of learning experiences?

Among other things, Bloom’s taxonomy allows us to categorize learning experiences. Bloom’s work was revised somewhat by Anderson a bit later, and it’s that revised edition I’ll describe here.

A taxonomy is a way of arranging things, and the revised Bloom’s taxonomy has two dimensions for categorization, the knowledge dimension and the cognitive dimension. Here they are in tables with examples.

Knowledge Dimension

Level Example
Factual knowledge Crude oil can be made into gasoline
Conceptual knowledge Crude oil is a mixture of many different hydrocarbons including gasoline.
Procedural knowledge Mixtures of chemicals in general can be separated through distillation, including gasoline from crude oil.
Metacognitive knowledge Determining if a chemical mixture can be separated with distillation is possible through internet searches or experimentation with different temperatures.

Cognitive Dimension

Level Example
Remember Crude oil can be made into gasoline
Understand Draw diagram showing how gasoline is extracted from gasoline
Apply Set up alcohol distillation in test tubes
Analyze Given a set of 20 liquids, determine which are mixtures separable by distillation
Evaluate Compare your methods to those of your classmates
Create Try to make brandy by distilling wine (not quite kid friendly.. :D)

 

International government spending on education

I was playing around with statistics from UNESCO to see if there were any trends in education spending over the past few years. Here’s a box plot showing the average international % of GDP spent on education in the last 14 or so years. The 2013 data seemed a bit sparse, so it might be wise to ignore it. Seems like there is a trend of decreasing spending in the past 4 years, but not a huge change over the past 10 years. Enjoy!

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% of GDP spent on education