Saturday, 10 February 2007

Bonus level - Reflections on Google Earth design task

It was a compelling task last week. Not only did I [1] get to grips with Google Earth (GE), a piece of software with enormous potential, but got an insight into [2] the process involved in conceiving of and designing games, [3] working in groups online, and by playing others' and reflecting on my own team's, [4] what makes an enjoyable game with good learning potential. I'll look briefly at each point in turn.

[1] Google Earth has the potential for putting a physical location to the until-now invisible nature of web networking. The software helps the user to spatially locate anywhere in the world, mostly to a reasonable degree of image quality. The potential for different layers is huge: a student studying the pyramids of Egypt is able to zoom into them for themselves, with an array of wikipedia info and picture-quality photos at hand; those interested in a city or important site are able to do tours with accompanying videos; a historical study of troop movements in WW2 can map where the fronts lay; the possibilities for teaching are enormous. In much the same way that wikipedia has rendered the printed encyclopedia obsolete, so to will GE resign the printed atlas to the shelves of charity shops.

[2] In retrospect it's easier to categorise the kind of game that we came up with as a team. Essentially it was a lexical puzzle, which could only be completed once. For people who like crosswords, this game would appeal but the final aim of working out how many airmiles were involved in a single shopping basket may have been tedious for some. The idea of having a piece of a puzzle in SL was a great one, as it tied the player into finding a solution for the questions by giving them a final incentive in doing so. Ultimately, it was a puzzle rather than a game - and having created a puzzle, with reasonable success I'm bound to add - I'm now inspired to design a game that a player *would* want to play again.

[3] It was an interesting challenge for decision-making and action: how best could a group of people literally spread across the (google) earth communicate to design and create a game. We started with the discussion board in WebCT, but I found that ideas were lost in threads where other concerns and chat were also going on. The setting up a group wiki (Writeboard is an excellent option) was useful in the consolidation of ideas and themes. After initial reluctance to using/editing/deleting others' inputs, the wiki helped a great deal in structuring the ideas and themes. MSN worked well to reach a group decision on the theme and actions (in spite of having teething problems for some with the software not doing what it should do - Microsoft grrr...) and also noticed that it helped to have a kind of facilitator who kept the focus of the meeting. Everyone was assigned tasks which were swiftly completed, and aside from the odd fine-tuning, that was task done. All without a single telephone call!

[4] Linking to my thoughts in section 2, I'm beginning to think that a really well-designed game is one that players can play again and again and not tire of. Easier said than done of course! Most computer games it seems will involve a series of 'levels' in which the challenge gets progressively harder, faster and/or more complex. Though they usually ultimately have an end point. Take Mario 64 or Doom for instance - the player can *complete* the game. This can act as incentive to pursue the end goal, but can be a disincentive once the game has been completed. However, most games will include variables, such as beginner/expert levels, that will keep the player interested. This linear design is different to a game such as chess or monopoly, where there are winners and losers, and there are sufficient variables to ensure that no two games are the same. Perhaps because so many videogames (VGs) are designed for one player, that this linearity is necessary. Instead of pitting themselves against the wits of another player, the single player is challenged by the VDU, or the complexity of the task.

Team 1 produced 2 very good games, but each somewhat lacking what the other had. The Environment Game was very slick and well produced, but somehow lacked gameplay, that elusive quality that makes us *want* to play. Team 1's 'bonus' game was immediately engaging, but lacked the educational content of the first. If these could be combined in some way, then the game is on to a winner.

As a final point about the task, I believe this format, where teams develop games and give them to other members of the group, is an extremely powerful teaching method. The game designers must get to grips with the subject matter, but in an exploratory and experimental rather than prescribed way; the group members must then collaborate, encouraging communication and thinking skills; there is then scope for imagination, creativity and *playfulness* in design; the games are then shared, with the students teaching others through the playing of their games [these can then be published for others too]. This method surely reaches the pinnacle of pedagogy, since the teacher is able to step back and let the students teach themselves and they enjoy themselves too


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