Thursday, July 5, 2012

Video Games in the Classroom: Eve Online

One thing that will always be tied to how energy is used in the world is economics. Money, and where it goes, is often the single most important variable determining whether an idea sinks or floats. But economics as a concept is sometimes very difficult to understand as an outside observer. Unless a student has experience with an allowance or personal money, there is very little he or she can experience in their own life that would help with the complexities of economics. That is where video games come in.

Eve Online is a computer game where a player is given a ship and allowed to do as they please. They can spend time mining ore, chasing pirates, exploring the galaxy, or destroying each other's ships. While this may not sound much different from any other space game, what makes it interesting is the player controlled free market economy within the virtual universe. Everything, from the most basic mineral ore to the most elaborate space freighter, can be bought and sold. (If you were to watch some people play the game, you would assume they were simply using the stock market, given all the graphs on the screen.)  And when I say free market, I mean that players are not only able to lie, steal, and cheat their way to the top, they are encouraged to do so, since there is no regulatory body to punish them.

The truly free market of Eve Online allows players to experience many key economic concepts first hand. Buy low, sell high. Demand in often localized and where you sell is very important. Large corporations (which are player formed) can corner markets and dictate how the price of a commodity moves. If a deal is too good to be true, it probably is (there are stories of Madoff scale Ponzi schemes and mind-boggling tales of corporate espionage).  If students were to read about all these concepts, they would have more trouble retaining the information as opposed to if they were personally invested in how well their space mining operation was doing.

These concepts are important in our education of energy topics, mainly because many of the technologies today are not penetrating the market due to high costs. The reason many US solar companies are going bankrupt has a lot to do with China undercutting prices and flooding the market with their own cells. Students who understand the economics of green energy as well as the technologies behind them will be much better prepared for the future when they become the ones who are making the decisions.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Value of Accuracy

Video Games are, by design, a series of simplified obstacles. The player chooses to overlook generalizations and simplified mechanics in order to have fun playing the game. The degree to which a game chooses to simplify itself runs a wide range, from the airplane simulators which require custom screens and flight controls, to Mario Kart, where go-karts can be driven with a single stick and button. For an educational game, finding the right balance between simplicity and accuracy can be a challenge.

The degree of accuracy a player accepts for any given game has a lot to do with how that game is presented. The best example I can give is by looking at racing games. Racing games have a varying degree of accuracy depending on which one you decide to look at. At one end of the spectrum, you have the Kart racing games popularized by Nintendo, where characters race around fantastical tracks while lobbing cartoonish weapons at one another. Mario Kart, Diddy Kong Racing, and a slew of others fall into this category, where all it takes to do well is an understanding of right and left. At the other end, you have games such as the Gran Turismo, which features realistic physics and cars which require a great deal more skill to drive. In Gran Turismo 5, the player needs to understand the effects of under braking, how to find a good line through a turn, and how driving changes under adverse weather. The rest of the spectrum is filled with games which find niches at some balance between the two ends. Blur has powerups and weapon pickups, but requires more precision driving. Need for Speed uses advanced physics and cars, but driving them is significantly easier than in true sim racing games.

But even with this vast array of games playing loose with the idea of accuracy, you can still find a successful game at any point in the spectrum. As long as the game is consistent and up front about the degree of accuracy it holds onto from the real world, someone will play it if it is an interesting game.

Sometimes educational games get too caught up in the battle for accurate representations of the problem at hand and forget that it really doesn't matter how true to form the content is, as long as the game is engaging to the player. The games that Neural Energy Games will develop are meant to educate, which means they will attempt to be as accurate as possible, but that doesn't mean the game can't also be engaging to the audience.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Video Games in the Classroom – Assassin’s Creed

This is the third part of my series on how video games can be successfully used in the classroom to promote student interest in various subjects, as well as helping them understand concepts which may be difficult to understand conceptually.

History is often labeled by kids as one of the “boring” subjects, laying somewhere on the Lame scale between “Poetry” and “Memorizing all the State Capitols.” And generally, I would agree. The way History is taught makes it a dry subject, an endless stream of names and dates which is scientifically proven to not stick to brain cells. But what if we could somehow engage the students by introducing what they enjoy hearing about? Sex, murder, intrigue, corruption; these are interesting things for students. The Assassin’s Creed series is one video game full of such things, and can be used to help increase participation.

First thing first: The Assassin’s Creed games are rated Mature by the ESRB, which means if it were used in the classroom, it would need to be heavily monitored or cut for content. Obviously much of the game is about killing scores of people (sometimes for no good reason), but the core of its good comes from the effort the developers used in crafting a story which heavily referenced real life history.

Assassin’s Creed 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood take place in classic Italy during the Renaissance, a time of great art and great conspiracies. The basic premise of these games is that a secret society of Assassins is pitted against the Templar secret society, which is attempting to control the world. The Player takes on the role of Ezio, a man who watches his family murdered and vows revenge on those responsible. But we’re not here for what the developers wrote into history, we’re here to see where they borrowed from.
If you take any time to look at the story, you can see that they’ve managed to weave their fantasy story into real life events, and sometimes it is difficult to tell the two apart. The Borgia family, Leonardo Da Vinci , and even Machiavelli make appearances, along with lengthy descriptions of many of the places, people, and events that the player may happen to run across. Not only can the player read about Colosseum in Rome, but they can take a climb on the structure in a virtual Roman reconstruction. Little touches, such as the plague masks the doctors wear around town, add depth and information that will hopefully spur the kids to do their own investigation into the time period. Ezio, in his free time, can also become an art collector, buying up many of the famous works of the time for personal display.

Of course, a knowledgeable teacher would need to always be in charge, tasked with removing the fiction and retaining the truth wherever possible. Though hilarious, I don’t think future professors would like it if their students came into class thinking Rodrigo Borgia was killed over a golden apple forged by alien ancestors.

As always, my point is fairly clear: Engaging students in interesting discussions and situations is the best way to get them to become interested in learning, and if nothing else, it will keep them occupied for another 5 minutes. Hopefully, one day, when enough quality games have been made, and an opportunity appears, we can fully integrate video games into the classroom.

Monday, June 25, 2012

The Resource Wars [Common Threads]

Video games tend to borrow from those that came before, and build upon things that have become old hat from previous generations. Settings, the worlds and universes of each game, are usually as varied as the characters that inhabit them. However, common threads can often be seen among them. In this post, I'll talk about how video games tackle the issue of limited resources, and see if there's anything we can glean from the way they handle it.

One common setting for a variety of video games is a post-apocalyptic landscape brought on by war, often over limited resources. In the Fallout universe, the reason relations between China and the United States soured was due to depletion of petroleum reserves. The result? 2 hours of nuclear exchange that ended civilization as we know it. In the Gears of War universe, the various factions of Sera fight over control of Imulsion, a highly valuable energy source that is basically monopolized by a single nation. The war over this resource, as well as the resource itself, is responsible for how things end up where they do when the character takes control.

Some games settings don't rely on all out war over resources, but their settings are nevertheless depended on the never ending quest for minerals. In Borderlands, for example, the planet of Pandora is initially colonized by a mega corporation in order to mine it of all valuable minerals. However, once they strip the planet dry and find it no longer profitable to run their operations, they abandon the planet, leaving it a barren wasteland covered with nothing but landfills and derelict mining equipment. Plus, as an added insult, the convict labor force used for mining is simply released, which is why the player has to deal with the roaming gangs of bandits across his adventures. In the game Dead Space, the player is also sent to a planet mining operation, but in this universe, mining a planet means actually cracking it into pieces and processing the bits that fall out. It just happens that one of the bits is a face eating zombie plague religion, but I digress.

So how can we use these examples and the common thread among them for energy education? We can talk about the limited nature of many resources, and how if we continue using things like fossil fuels that there will be a point where it will no longer become economical to do so. We can talk about some of the more fantastical worst case scenarios, including resource wars and having to travel to distant planets for minerals. But the best way we can use this is to simply generate interest and dialogue among the students. When kids are engaged in a discussion, they're more likely to internalize what they've learned and come up with interesting solutions to some of the world's most pressing problems.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Social Sustainability

I've already posted on the gamification of many green movements, namely the use of electric cars and for recycling. But I believe there is another aspect that is beginning to show up in the green world that had its start from the internet and video games: Social Connectivity. We, as humans, care what other people think of us. We compete, cooperate, and judge each other, for better or worse. This sense of competition, however, can be harnessed to create an environment where everyone ends up becoming a bit more energy conscious.

Social networking has shown that large groups of people care about how others see them. How else can you explain Gamerscore? Gamerscore is a number attached to a person's Xbox Live profile, and is an indication of how many achievements that player has accumulated. This number has no bearing on gameplay, no monetary value, and is not officially ranked, but people care a lot about comparing this number to everyone they meet. This competition over a number of no real significance shows just how powerful social interactions can be in influencing how people act.

As previously posted, Nissan took this and created a leaderboard which ranked drivers on their driving efficiency. The Green Button Initiative is program by the Department of Energy that makes utility information more accessible to customers. One of the proposed ways of creating energy awareness is by pitting neighbors against each other on their energy usage.

Neural Energy Games wants to create a strong community in which competition and cooperation will be able to thrive and drive energy consciousness. We want to include some kind of achievement system, as well as a wide range of statistics from each of our games. By tying everything to a single player profile, we also want to make it so that this competition on one area of the site results in competition in others. This is of course a long term goal, but it's important for us to think about these issues to set a foundation that will support these ambitious plans.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Video Games in the Classroom – Minecraft

This is the second part of my series on how video games can be successfully used in the classroom to promote student interest in various subjects, as well as helping them understand concepts which may be difficult to understand conceptually.

I want to take a moment and highlight steps teachers and educators have already taken to incorporate video games into their curriculum, with spectacular results. In this case, we take a look at a teacher who has successfully integrated Minecraft into his second grade computer class, along with administrative and parental support.

For those unfamiliar, Minecraft is an independent game created by one man in which a player is free to build a world as he sees fit. Everything is made up of small, cubic blocks which can be mined, harvested, destroyed, and stacked to create wondrous structures. It’s hard to explain, so I will let this fan made trailer suffice:

 Joel Levin, a computer teacher at Manhattan's Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School, decided that this environment would be perfect for students to learn basic social skills. In an interview with Ars Technica, he stated:

"From day one, the kids are all playing together in a single world. They must share resources, take turns, work together, and, frankly, be nice to each other. This is usually the first time these kids have had to think about these concepts in a game, but it goes hand in hand with the big picture stuff they are learning in their homerooms. It's amazing to see how many real world issues get played out in the microcosm of the game. Kids have territorial disputes over where they are building. Kids have said mean things to each other within the game or have been destructive with each other's creations."

Joel has refined his curriculum, creating various tutorial worlds in which to show the students a variety of concepts one at a time so as to not overwhelm them. The program itself has been so popular that he has gone afterschool with his classes.

I have nothing but respect for a man who took a chance on video games and drew out of it an amazing set of learning tools. Engaging children at this early age about real world social problems from the simple to the complex, such as limited resources, is crucial in developing a generation of socially conscious citizens. For those of you who’d like to know more about the program can go to his blog page and see what he has done.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Make it Accessible, Don't Dumb it Down

One thing we had to consider when developing the games for this company was our target audience. Since this is an educational tool, we wanted it to be used by school aged children, but the difference in ability and maturity is vastly different from K up to 12. How do we strike a balance between making something that is generally accessible by the greatest number of people without alienating some other section by "dumbing down" the content?

I'm speaking from personal experience, but I believe kids know a lot. They know what they know, but they also "know" what they don't know. They also don't like being told that they don't actually know what they don't know, which makes getting some kinds of information across difficult. Kids also generally have a low tolerance for things made for age specific levels. If a 5 year old is given a toy made for 5 year olds, he'll say you're giving him baby toys. He want's what all the 6 year olds are playing with. Turns out all the 6 year olds don't want to play with their 6 year old toys and want the 9 year old toys. This scales up linearly almost into college, where most people finally realize that no one actually knows anything and we should have just spent more time playing. All of this means that creating targeted video games can become difficult when trying to reach children.

Neural Energy Games will try and create games with a broad spectrum of appeal. While aimed initially at the Middle School market (grades 5-8), we want to make sure that the games are still accessible to younger players, but still don't alienate older players. By talking to kids in a respectful manner, we hope that we can engage in accessible dialogue without being patronizing. Because we all know the fastest way to lose the interest of a kid is by talking down to him.