Category Archives: Blog

A Library Orientation Game?

With the summer speeding along its merry way I’ve been thinking a lot lately about student orientation. At City Tech we have what I assume is a common scenario for student orientation at commuter colleges with large student populations: students have one day for orientation during which they need to learn about the entire college and their proposed program of study. The library is but one stop on a whirlwind campus tour so we only have a few minutes with each group of students (and our campus is fairly compact). We’ve created a great handout for students that goes into their orientation packets, but there’s a limit to what we can fit on one 8.5″ x 11″ sheet of paper, and probably also a limit to the amount of attention that students will give to all of those papers in their orientation folder (even those printed on bright yellow paper). And at a commuter college there’s no guarantee that all students will be able to attend orientation.

Given all of these limitations, the library orientation for students seems like the perfect opportunity to create a game or use game mechanics. Orientations cover the nuts and bolts of library use: hours, layout, services, resources. These are things we know students are likely to need at some point during their college careers, but unlike with course-related research instruction, it can often be difficult to reach students with orientation-kinds of information at their point of need. Here’s an example from last semester: one day as I stepped out of my office I encountered three students sitting on the floor studying. Of course I let them know that they could use one of our group study rooms, which they were happy to do. Those rooms seem so obvious to me — they’re adjacent to the stairs that students walked up to get to the space where they sat on the floor — but clearly the students hadn’t noticed them.

Some kinds of games, like scavenger hunts or those that require players to solve a mystery, seem to lend themselves well to an orientation context, and there are lots of examples of librarians who have created orientation games along those lines. Other libraries have gone further and come up with more extensive games. At Ohio State librarians created a game called Head Hunt in which students are asked to virtually visit 11 library locations on campus to search for clues to find out who stole the head of the university’s mascot. Librarians at Cal State U at Fresno crafted a game called HML-IQ that took place over six weeks designed to both orient students to the library and included basic information literacy instruction as well.

Many of these library orientation games culminate by awarding students small prizes for completing the game, and some include a drawing or raffle for a larger prize like a gift certificate or small digital device. Other than the opportunity to learn about what the library offers that can be useful to students, there’s no real incentive for them to play an orientation game. So prizes sound good to me as they could provide an additional enticement for students to play.

There are lots of parameters to consider when creating any kind of game. How long should gameplay be? I’m thinking no more than an hour, because if the game runs longer students might lose interest or feel that they don’t have enough time to play. Should students be able to check in and out of the game over a period of days or weeks, or should the game be played straight through from start to finish? If there’s a prize we’ll need to set some time limits on the game, and I’d guess that students would be more likely to play at the beginning of the semester (or even before the start of term) than later. How can we balance game moves that require students to physically be in the library with those that can be accomplished online? (Which I assume we want, because we have services and resources available in-person and online and want students to know about both.) And, perhaps most importantly: how can we create a game that can be reused from semester to semester with only minor modifications (and associated time commitments) required by librarians?

I’ve got lots on my plate this summer so I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to do anything more than start thinking through the answers to these questions. But I’ll report back when I’ve got something more concrete, and would be interested to read suggestions or feedback in the comments.

Image credit: Topeka & Shawnee County Public Library

Blog for Academics Starting Game Development

YORK COLLEGE, NY – As the newest member of the CUNY Games Network, I would like to reach out to faculty who might be embarking on their first game by inviting you to follow a personal blog that chronicles the day-to-day challenges in developing games for education. I borrowed the title of the blog from Jessie Schell, who notes that the term “Serious Games,” while sober enough to attract the attention of academics and funding agencies, is actually an oxymoron. Games must be fun and engaging to be successful, even if their ultimate purpose is serious in nature. The idea behind Transformative Games is that game mechanics can be used to inform, teach, and shape behavior. As those who follow the CUNY Games Network are aware, games are excellent learning management systems that are capable of both teaching and assessment. The realtime nature of games allows them to occasion “teachable moments” for “just-in-time learning.” Well designed games adjust task difficulty according to user performance, which facilitates sustained attention, engagement, and learning while minimizing boredom and frustration. Standard psychophysical staircase procedures can be utilized in games to optimize engagement and put the user into a state of “flow,” where time seems to pass very quickly. Transformative Games strive to incorporate everything we know about psychology, neuroscience, education, and game design into the learning experience. As a cognitive neuroscientist, I will be describing the process of game development from a quantitative perspective and doing my best to relate standard procedures in game design to the vast body of knowledge that exists in psychology and neuroscience.

During this summer, I will be working with several high school students, college undergraduates, and programmers to develop a number of games for college freshmen. We only have six weeks to develop the games, collect data, and present the results at a local conference. Consequently, I’m sure I’ll have a lot of valuable lessons to pass along in the next month. I will also document my efforts to unify college professors interested in games at my primary institution, York College. And I am working with others at the CUNY Games Network to develop a CUNY-wide institution for games. Our first task is to develop a conference in April 2013. Finally, I’m also developing simulations in Second Life with the York College Center for Interdisciplinary Health Practice to provide students with tools to practice skills that would otherwise be too expensive or risky to perform in the clinical setting.

Expect major updates every week and sporadic posts along the way. I’ll develop major categories in the future in the event that you only want to follow one of the aforementioned pursuits.

TableTop: an Ad Hoc Introduction To Boardgaming Goodness

Wil Wheaton hosts TableTop twice a month on Geek and Sundry
Wil Wheaton hosts TableTop twice a month on Geek and Sundry

At BMCC, our president has recently sponsored a games library, allowing us to buy an excellent variety of board games to test and possibly use in our classrooms, as well as to provide inspiration for our own designs and as an education on mechanics. The first rule of designing good games is to play a ton of games–just like to be a great dancer to need to study other dancers’ steps; to be a great programmer you need to study how other programmers have solved known problems; to be a great scientist you must, as Newton said, stand on the shoulders of giants. The trouble is, many of us as educators just don’t have tons of time to play new games.

Even those of us who make time to play (me!) have trouble keeping up with the number of quality board games being released today. Make no mistake, we are living in at least a Silver Age of board games, spawned (arguably) by Settlers of Catan and the Euro game renaissance it engendered. A few nights ago I played at least four new games I’d never played before–Castle Panic, Saboteur (with the Saboteur 2 expansion–don’t play without it!), Lords of Waterdeep, and a fourth game whose title I won’t mention because it wasn’t very good. But the other three were orders of magnitude better than anything I grew up with when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s (except D&D of course). I learned a lot from all of them, and I had never heard of any of them until recently.

One of them, Castle Panic, I learned about through TableTop, a new, twice-a-month series on the youtube network Geek and Sundry. The show’s hosted by Wil Wheaton. Yes, Wil Wheaton. Strain your nerd-brain and remember: who is Wil Wheaton? Wait, no, you don’t mean the kid-genius Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation? That guy?

That guy. Turns out, for those of you outside of the geekosphere, Wheaton has reinvented himself as nerd-famous writer, blogger, and pop personality. Among his many passions are board games, and so, along with also-nerd-famous Felicia Day, he created TableTop, a series where he gathers together three semi- to non-famous friends, whose game skills range from non-existent to pwnstar, and plays a different board game each episode.

(Left to right) Tara Platt, Yuri Lowenthal, Wil Wheaton and Andre Meadows play Castle Panic.

The show, which takes place in Wheaton’s home–on his very own, jealousy-inducing gaming table–follows a simple format. Wheaton takes a few minutes at the start to provide a non-overwhelming gloss of the game-of-the-week’s rules, and then we get something like 20-25 minutes of watching the game proceed, with rule-clarifications and protips sprinkled throughout. At the end, the loser(s) of the game sit on the couch of despair with a glass of whiskey and lick their wounds, while the winner(s) receives a trophy for winning: for about ten seconds, until Wil takes it back because supposedly the show’s budget’s too small to let them keep it. Same joke every week. Cough.

But that brings up a really important point. That which is scripted, formatted, structured in TableTop tends to be the least entertaining part of the show. Luckily, most of it is unscripted. Most episodes are pretty darn amusing, but that’s because Wheaton and his guests aren’t telling jokes or performing. The show’s funny the way your friends are funny: you laugh because you’re having a good time with them and you’re in the mood to laugh and cut loose a little. So what if Wheaton’s attempts at humor aren’t superwit 100% of the time? What comes across pretty much 100% of the time is that Wheaton is a generous, fun guy whose attempts at humor hit the mark more often than they miss, and who knows a hell of a lot about games. If you want a model of how to host a board game party, you could do a lot worse than TableTop.

The show also provides a kid-glove introduction to games you likely have never heard of. After watching the episode on Castle Panic, I went out and bought it. This is a genre of game–the “tower defense”–I don’t normally dig. But watching Wil and his friends play it, I saw a well-designed game evoke fun and not an insignificant bit of strategy from its players. At one point, Wil tells the table that one of the most satisfying aspects of this game is turning the triangular monster tokens after they have been wounded by the players. See, the way I just described it–“turning the triangular monster tokens after they have been wounded by the players”–sounds pretty dull, but watch the video (here, at 4:48) and hear Wheaton describe that it is one of his favorite mechanics of any board game.

See, that’s important for folks like myself who are trying to take Raph Koster’s advice that games are made out of games, and it’s turtles all the way down: until you reach the interface button. In other words, you can’t just have a great top-level idea for a game and expect it to perform miracles for its players; you’ve got to make sure that every “mini-game” and player interaction itself generates the desired effect. Wheaton’s reaction is an important one because it gives me something to steal when I go to make my own games–a clean and satisfying solution to helping players track their progress. I’ve added this mechanic now to the library in my head, so that when I go to make a game for my students, maybe this will be the one I use to make sure, even at the level of interface, I’m creating an engaging experience.

There are eight videos of TableTop so far, with a few more promised before the end of season one. As each runs about 45 minutes, it may be that not everyone will want to invest the time to watch them all. But to my mind, TableTop provides a time-efficient way to learn about new games, watch mechanics you never thought of in action, and best of all see a group of smart people having fun with and thinking through board games. For anyone interested in creating games to help their students learn, that’s time well-spent.

And no, I’m not just worshipping at the altar of Wil Wheaton in a transparent attempt to try and get on the show. But, I mean, if I were offered a seat at the table–that beautiful beautiful gaming table–I wouldn’t turn it down out of hand. I mean, my people would have to meet with Wil’s people, and maybe we could work something out. We’d have to see. #pleasecallmeWilWheatonIwanttoplay