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If you haven't read this interview with Jonathan Blow (creator of Braid), you really should.

Some choice quotes:
A game like World of Warcraft or Counter-Strike or whatever is way more social. Because you actually meet new people in clans or guilds. You go do activities together and help each other out, right?

[With certain social games] it’s about the game exploiting your friends list that you already made, so it’s not really about meeting people. And it’s not really about doing things with them because you’re never playing at the same time. It’s about using your friends as resources to progress in the game, which is the opposite of actual sociality or friendship.

I've always said the really addictive part of games, for me, was the people. Now I'm just disturbed by that interpretation of the use of people in fb games...

Designers know what they are doing. They know when they show up in the office – “My goal is to degrade the player’s quality of life”. They probably won’t think about that exact phrase. But [will think], “My goal is to get people to think about my game and to put more money into my game and get other friends to play my game to the exclusion of all other games and all other things that they might do with their free time.” That is the job description of those designers. And that’s evil. It’s not about giving people anything. It’s about taking from people.

Now go read the interview: Jonathan Blow interview: Do you believe social games are evil? “Yes. Absolutely.”
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Another post up at Geek Feminism: Women in modern games: WoW Cataclysm has some pretty cool women in it. Let’s hope for a trend!

We've filled a lot of linkspams with discussion of negative reviews of World of Warcraft from the feminist perspective. While I still think "I KILL THINGS WITH MY LADYBITS" may be the best description of fantasy art I've ever read, it does get tiresome hearing again and again how dubious the gaming industry's attitude towards women can be. (Not because that's the wrong impression, but because it's so bloody obvious at times that it hurts to be reminded.) So I was really happy to see Now that’s what I’m talking about: the women of Cataclysm (Alliance edition). It's nice to see Blizzard improving upon their often problematic depictions of women.

Read on for more about one of the WoW ladies and one female character who surprised me.
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It's the time of year where people evaluate their lives and look back over the previous year, and with that in mind, I'm going to bring you a not-about-new-years post about gaming and science to mess up your reflective blog feeds. If it helps, it's a reflective post about gaming and science.

But they were pretty good at figuring out how to defeat the bosses. One day she found out why. A group of them were building Excel spreadsheets into which they'd dump all the information they'd gathered about how each boss behaved: What potions affected it, what attacks it would use, with what damage, and when. Then they'd develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked -- and to predict how to beat it.

Often, the first model wouldn't work very well, so the group would argue about how to strengthen it. Some would offer up new data they'd collected, and suggest tweaks to the model. "They'd be sitting around arguing about what model was the best, which was most predictive," Steinkuehler recalls.

That's when it hit her: The kids were practicing science.

You can read the rest here: "How Videogames Blind Us With Science"

My gut reaction to this article (which is actually several years old, but new to me) is "well, duh." When we neighbourhood kids got interested in a new game, we might have skipped the spreadsheets, but we definitely would resort to exploring in a structured manner if we got stuck. We'd compare notes, share ways to beat challenges, and sometimes try to improve upon the techniques (only sometimes because many games weren't really flexible enough to have multiple solutions).

I guess I'm missing some of that collaborative effort nowadays in that I can always just look up game faqs if I got stuck... but because I like people and because my brother and I grew up with a community of friends to ask for help rather than a community of internet FAQs and wikis, sometimes I ask people instead of the internet because it's more fun. And goodness knows, my sister and I have been comparing Super Scribblenauts solutions all week. ("You solved that with a mosquito? Why didn't I think of that? I made an undead blood-sucking harpy!")

I grew up in a household with two scientist parents, so not only was experimentation a daily fact of life, but the word "hypothesis" came into our lexicons fairly early on. I've grown up looking through life through a very scientific lens as a result (also a very biology-oriented filter, which accounts for my very ecologically-oriented view of computer security, but that's another story). My parents were constantly frustrated with my early science education, and I'll bet they'll find this next paragraph pretty familiar:

One of the reasons kids get bored by science is that too many teachers present it as a fusty collection of facts for memorization. This is precisely wrong. Science isn't about facts. It's about the quest for facts -- the scientific method, the process by which we hash through confusing thickets of ignorance. It's dynamic, argumentative, collaborative, competitive, filled with flashes of crazy excitement and hours of drudgework, and driven by ego: Our desire to be the one who figures it out, at least for now. It's dramatic and nutty and fun.

I actually didn't go into proper experimental science because I'm terrible at drudgework... easily bored, and not very good at the rigour required, and used to be prone to spending more time avoiding a boring task than doing it (at least until I learned perl and other automation tools). (My sister became the scientist, since as she likes to put it "I excel at boring tasks" -- but it's really that she's organized, precise, and takes a lot of joy in implementing a consistent system. I went into security because I like breaking things; she does regulatory work because she likes making things consistent. Sometimes, we have noticeable overlap in our skills and jobs, other times not so much.) I went into non-experimental computer science, though, because I love the collaboration and the competition and the ideas and the learning. But I hadn't really thought about my unsuitability for experimental science as being related to the reason I don't go into massively multiplayer online games hoping to be the first on the server to down some big raid boss.

But I do science with every new game I play, as do my friends. When we picked up Dominion (a card game which includes a variety of types of cards, and you chose some subset of them to use for any given ame), we'd play a few rounds and argue strategies and then try to implement them in different ways to see how they played against each other, or changed the groupings of cards to see how it changed the strategy. I guess maybe some people play these things closer to their chests and won't share with their friends, but we toss in a few new cards and suggest to play off each other because that's part of what makes it fun for us.

So now I'm thinking... what to games do to make sure they stay in that fun exploratory part of science and avoid the drudgework? And the answer of course is that they don't really avoid the drudgework. Earlier games had you wandering around "grinding" to get your character high enough level to take on the big boss... Let me tell you, playing final fantasy III on my DS was at times significantly less fun than "grinding" courses for my PhD has been. But they've done a lot to provide fun while you do that. One relatively modern invention has been letting players level their guild (I first saw this in Dungeons and Dragons online, but I expect the idea's been around longer... it's only recently gone into World of Warcraft) and we were shocked to discover that doing the same darned quest for the 4th time wasn't nearly as bad when there was a chance that we'd get to guild level 2 that night. Achievements, leaderboards, crafting, even ridiculous pets... there's a lot of stuff tangential to the end game that makes getting there more fun.

How do we put that joy back into science education? I'm not talking about gamification in the modern sense; I'm talking about those great teachers we managed to get. My chemistry teacher (and many others) did it through fun demo science: he'd do experiments we weren't ready to do on our own and had us all on the edge of our seats waiting for the final explosion... or sometimes the final terrible pun. Even his "you have to be careful in the science lab" talk at the beginning of the year included opening a book that promptly burst into flame. Each lecture was filled with discovery, even when it was tangential to the point. (The lecture on molar concentrations involved terrible puns involving moles and mole-asses.) And of course there's actually *doing* the hands-on experiments ourselves, which can be incredibly fun when they're well-chosen and interesting.

I guess in hindsight, we put the joy into science by enhancing the opportunities to learn and discover and accomplish... very similarly to the way we put the joy back into gaming.

Perhaps it's not really that surprising that there are a large number of scientist-types who also enjoy gaming, and that gamers will employ some science to tackle the challenges within a game.

And finally, I'll leave you with the last lines of the article, which made me smile:

At one point, Steinkuehler met up with one of the kids who'd built the Excel model to crack the boss. "Do you realize that what you're doing is the essence of science?" she asked.

He smiled at her. "Dude, I'm not doing science," he replied. "I'm just cheating the game!"
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But I *do* appreciate the folk with whom I game:

P: Wow, this quest is... questionable.
P: Seriously, they're asking me to torture some dude? I'm not undead, man.
P: Or, you know, American.
K: They're the new poop quest. there's a few of them.
P: poop isn't morally abhorrent in quite the same way as torture is.
K: True, I'm just saying they replaced the poop quests from bc with torture quests.
P: I'd rather poop.
P: also, this quest is teaching you that you should rely on information gained by torture: something we know in the real world to be rather false.
P: so it's morally questionable on extra levels!
K: yah, i was thinking that the guys should give false information at least once.
P: I think I should get some xp for just saying no and walking away from the rest of this quest line, personally.
K: but we're not americans. it works for them all the time apparently.
P: it works on 24, so it MUST be true!
K: That's the spirit!

This is a big game, and in the past I've just skipped quest lines I didn't like. But at this level, it seems like I can't easily just skip all the quests I find objectionable because there are too many of them and not enough else for me to do instead. And my buddy K there has confirmed that I'm going to be hitting this again and again. Seriously?

All I wanted was half an hour to relax and hide from the noise of my dishwasher using headphones and a game.

Instead, I got a horrific reminder of what people think is appropriate in games. It's the stuff like this, where it doesn't even seem like they meant to shock me, that hurt the most.
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This is the last of my posts about my assigned sessions at GHC09, but I'll probably write another one or two after I get some more photos uploaded. Stay tuned!

Gail CarmichaelGail Carmichael hit upon the idea of doing a 1 week course on games for girls when her university was soliciting proposals for "enrichment mini courses." These courses are largely attended by grade 8s (~13 year olds), typically the advanced students from the local schools. They're intended to give the students a one-week taste of the university environment. If you are interested in running such a program, Gail suggests that there are often similar programs in other cities, local summer camps, local WISE groups, the Girl Guides/Girl Scouts and many others who could help set something up.

The idea was to do a "head fake" -- get the girls excited about learning games, but manage to teach them computer science topics at the same time. The students seemed to crave the harder stuff, and really were excited about being told things like "they don't learn this until second year university!" once the girls had shown that they understood this difficult concept. Gail suggests that we shouldn't be afraid to give students complex concepts.

She notes that another thing the girls craved is Starbucks coffee... who knew?

When teaching younger students, variety seems to help a lot: Gail incorporates videos, lecture time, small groups, whole class discussions, lab time, and the activities from CS Unplugged.

It's interesting to note that Gail's advice for engaging younger students is very similar to the advice offered during the Best Practices for Introductory Computer Science session, which focused on university-aged students: get the students to work together, use interesting themes to motivate problems, and don't be afraid to give the students hard stuff.

The girls created games using the free tool GameMaker, chosen because it is relatively easy for the girls to make games from the drag-and-drop interface without learning programming. (As someone else who has taught students both with and without this interface, I'll add that for first year students, syntax errors can be a huge stumbling block. Tools like GameMaker allow them to create programs without typos making them frequently feel stupid and inadequate, which is a pretty huge advantage for beginners.) Some other (similar) game-creation tools that might be useful include Alice, Kodu, and Scratch.

So, how successful was it? Gail has run the course twice, and did informal surveys at the beginning and end of the course. Most of the girls thought computer science was a reasonable career for a woman, even before they took the course. This is perhaps not surprising, since they were at least interested enough to sign up for the course. But the real payoff was seeing that the girls really did like computer science more after having had a week to try it out.

Questions during Girls, Computer Science and Games

Gail ended up having the entire hour to herself, since the second speaker, Anne Marie Agnelli, was unable to attend. This gave an opportunity for Gail to showcase one of the games created by her students, as well as have a longer question/discussion section. In fact, the second half of the presentation became much more like a Birds of a Feather session where a variety of women talked about their questions and experiences.

For more notes, including those from the question session, and links to Gail's course materials and slides, see the excellent notes on the girls and games session on the Anita Borg Institute Wiki.
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