Sunday, November 22, 2009

Thinking Critically: A Link to the Past

Back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, my de-facto response to the assertion that video games are a waste of time was that gaming improved the player’s hand-eye coordination. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure how hand-eye coordination was going to help kids aside from making them better at Nintendo games, which in turn would help them build their hand-eye coordination even more. But generally, the hand-eye thing made naysayers shut up, so I was more than happy to just leave things at that.

It wasn’t until the early 2000s that I began searching for response that would not only quiet the scowling adults in my life, but something that would satisfy ME as well. With the advent of 3D graphics, CD quality sound and a more informed and critical society, the whole hand-eye coordination ruse was becoming stale. Thanks to new iterations of my old favorites like Final Fantasy and Castlevania, as well as fresh intellectual properties like Silent Hill and Metal Gear Solid, I was able to put together cohesive, accurate and compelling pro-gaming arguments that could be backed up by evidence found in the “texts.” English teachers had been drilling into my head for years that this is how one puts together a strong, viable argument, and I finally had something beyond “gaming help players utilize their hands better.”

But most of the benefits I’ve noted over the years have applied almost exclusively to titles from the late ‘90s through the current crop of PS3, Xbox 360 and Wii titles. I still had little with which to defend the Nintendo games of my youth other than the tired hand-eye coordination spiel.

Enter Nintendo Power, the one-time undisputed king of gaming magazines. Nintendo Power had rescued me plenty of times in the past with tips and strategies for games like Blaster Master, Metroid and Super Mario Bros. 3, and it was about to give me a final, important tip.

Having succumbed to my latest bout of nostalgia about two weeks ago, I found myself thumbing through the March/April 1989 issue of Nintendo Power, the one with Ninja Gaiden on the cover (the real one, not that Xbox thing). When I was younger, I used to skip the “mailbox” section of the magazine and dive right into the information on the new and future NES games I would soon be conning out of my parents. What kid wouldn’t?

But in my old age, I’ve come to appreciate things like thoughtful discourse and opinions beyond “this game rules” or “this game stinks.” Now one of the first things I do when I pick up an old issue of Nintendo Power is to read the letters. At the very end of the section in this particular issue was a letter from Steve Gibbs, a parent from Benicia, CA.

“I’m a high school English teacher [and] a newspaper columnist,” began the letter (p. 6).

Wait a minute! I’m a certified English teacher and I wrote for newspapers for five years. Mr. Gibbs had earned my attention.

“As an educator, I’m concerned with video saturation,” wrote Gibbs. “I’ve always been mildly approving of video games as long as the cash and time involvement was not too great.

“However, I want my son to develop more than hand-eye coordination.”

Gah! The eight-year-old inside me reeled from the titanic blow. Without hand-eye coordination to hide behind, I was nearly defenseless against my elementary school teachers, my dismissive relatives and the disapproving store clerks who reluctantly sold my parents overpriced Nintendo software! What I had left was the argument about games increasing reading skills, but the only games that didn’t butcher the English language at the time were Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, and only the smart kids played those games anyway.

Emperor Mario was naked.

But lo! Just when things were looking bleak for young Matt, Gibbs pointed out something that has been so inherent in my way of life for so many years that I had failed to even think about it.

“I believe your company offers great potential for being accepted by parents as well as children because several of your game cartridges require so much more than simply quick reflexes,” he said. “I’m referring specifically to The Legend of Zelda and Zelda II – The Adventure of Link. The level of critical thinking and problem-solving required make these games an acceptable challenge for the son of a school teacher, and I whole-heartedly defend [Nintendo] against the critics among my peers.”

Gibbs goes on to suggest that “critical thinking is a hot issue in the educational world” and, therefore, Nintendo should create more “thinking games.”

Eureka! That was it, the argument I should have been using for years! Indeed, many Nintendo games force the player to think logically and critically, and to solve problems in ways beyond using brute force. The Zelda series is a good example, but so are games like Maniac Mansion, The Adventures of Lolo series, Solomon’s Key, Tetris, StarTropics* – the list goes on.

Of course, many "mindless" Nintendo games are about shooting your way though endless waves of alien spaceships or dudes punching out hundreds of ninjas to save the president. But before I get into that, let’s look at Gibbs’ parting statement: “Teachers and parents are stressing children’s deeper involvement in problem solving, strategic planning and inductive and deductive logic. This could be one of Nintendo’s trends for the future.”

Not only was Gibbs an English teacher and a newspaper man, but apparently he was a clairvoyant as well, because he predicted one of the most important trends in gaming history. Almost as if following his suggestion, Nintendo added more and more puzzle-solving and critial thinking aspects to their games as time went on. Other companies caught on too, and now you’d be hard-pressed to find a current generation title that doesn’t involve strategic elements in some form. Those “mindless” games I referred to earlier are almost a thing of the past.

In his book What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Learning and Literacy (2003), educational theorist James Gee calls this aspect of gaming “one very important type of active learning” (p. 127). Gee outlines the steps of this kind of learning using the 2001 game Return to Castle Wolfenstein as a base, but his diagnosis can be applied to all video games that require critical thinking strategy, both past and present.

Gee’s observations, paraphrased:
1. The learner realizes the routine strategy will not work and stops using it.
2. The learner transfers skills and strategies from previous experiences by seeing the similarities between those experiences and the current problem.
3. Unlike school, where problems are obviously set up to transfer earlier solutions to later problems, the learner must adapt and transform earlier experiences to new problems “through creativity and innovation” (p. 127).
4. The learner also uses what he or she discovers, sometimes by accident, as soon as possible. This transforms the player’s strategy once again, producing a fluid, ever-changing problem solving approach.

On-the-spot problem solving influenced by old and new experiences: That sounds a lot like what one has to do to master driving, to succeed in his or her career, and to effectively communicate with other human beings. So, according to Gee’s active learning model, while I was searching for new warp zones in Super Mario Bros., finding more efficient ways to climb the girders in Donkey Kong, and discovering my enemies’ weaknesses and immunities to different weapons in Mega Man, I was also refining my critical thinking skills and opening my mind to new ways to solve problems.

Forget hand-eye coordination; critical thinking is where it’s at!

Though he’ll probably never know it, I’m very thankful to Mr. Gibbs for grabbing his pen or typewriter more than 20 years ago and writing into the then-fledgling Nintendo Power magazine with something he thought was important. It WAS important, Mr. Gibbs, because you and James Gee just helped me fill in an intellectual gap that’s been cheesing me off for the past two decades. And now that I’ve shared it with the people reading this, armed with my newfound knowledge, I’m going to look up my fourth grade reading teacher in the phone book (it should be easy because, for some reason, my hands always go where my eyes are looking) and tell her why she was wrong when she said that video games will rot your brain.

*Note: The first StarTropics title contains one of the most diabolical puzzles in gaming history. The game was packaged with a letter to the player from one of the game’s characters, Dr. Jones. Near the end of the game, the player receives a message from Dr. Jones that reads, “Evil aliens from a distant planet... Tell Mike to dip my letter in water...” Most players thought this was referring to an in-game object and spent hours searching for it, but to no avail. However, as you might have guessed, if the player dunked the letter he or she received with the game underwater, the information needed to proceed – written in invisable ink – was revealed.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Interactive Fiction: The Missing Link

From Ooze: Creepy Nites
While absentmindedly browsing through the content of the "abandonware" website House of Games one night before going to bed, I discovered a game called Ooze: Creepy Nites. Expecting some moderately entertaining, slime-saturated action game from the late ‘80s, I said “what the heck” and clicked the link to a description and download. There was probably slime there somewhere, judging by the screenshots, but something in the review made me forget all about cheap horror thrills: The game, they said, is an “interactive fiction” title.

For some reason, before seeing the phrase “interactive fiction” on that web page, it had never occurred to me that the genre is brimming with education possibilities – especially in the English language arts field. It was exciting moment for me, even more so than if Ooze had been the forgettable Super Mario meets The Blob experience I had anticipated.

For those of us who are late to the party, interactive fiction is a genre of video games that presents information and gameplay textually. The idea is to immerse the player in the story in the same way a novel would. Older games of the genre have no graphics, only text. Newer titles like Ooze: Creepy Nites utilize some graphics, but the words are still the most important part of the game. The player interacts with the game by typing commands such as “go west,” “take credit card” or “use hamster in microwave,” depending on what’s in his or her inventory and what's available in the surroundings. Interactive fiction games require the player to carefully read pages and pages of text, to keep track of many small details, and to creatively solve problems.

The swanky contents of The Lurking Horror game box
Games like Zork, Beyond the Titanic, The Lurking Horror and almost every other title ever made by the company Infocom belong in the interactive fiction category. I’ve always called games like these as “text-based adventures,” but that’s probably because I’m a console player at heart and these kinds of games are mainly PC/MAC affairs. I guess that before reading that Ooze: Creepy Nites review, I was sort of out of the interactive fiction loop.

You might be thinking: "Okay, so you play the games by reading text. Big deal."

But here’s where it gets really exciting for educators: According to Nick Manfort and Paulo Urbano, authors of an extensive article on interactive fiction called “A Quarta Era da Ficção Interactiva” originally printed the Portuguese magazine Nada about three years ago, interactive fiction works can be understood both as literary narratives and as video games. That’s a powerful assertion: Perhaps interactive fiction is the truest and most practical melding of education and video games to date.

I think one of the reasons that some students find the standard English fare boring is because they’ve grown up in an interactive world and the ELA cannon is about as linear as possible. In a era where entertainment comes in the form of minute-long YouTube videos and the user is basically in control of every second of his or her leisure time, the methodical pace of classic works like Dickens’ Great Expectations and Wharton’s The Age of Innocence is putting off our students. Interactive fiction games might be just the thing to reverse situations like this.

I’m not suggesting that we dumb down the classics by using interactive fiction versions to further fracture the attention spans of today’s youth; it’s quite the opposite, actually. By tapping into their need for stimulation by putting them in control of interactive fiction games, our students might be motivated to read the often sizable blocks of text in between player actions. As they get used to reading and comprehending – having been reintroduced to an ancient art though a modern medium – they’ll perhaps be more willing and capable to tackle the English cannon and reading in general.

Taking it one step further by having our students create their own interactive fiction games or websites is another wonderful possibility. Not only would the students have to keep track of plot elements, grammar, word usage and a host of other critical writing techniques, they would also have to learn programming techniques and game design mechanics. By combining the old with the new, teachers might be able to tap into a third set of emerging skills that could help define the next generation of authors.

You know, I still haven’t download Ooze: Creepy Nites, due in small part to the game’s atrocious spelling of the word “nights,” but mostly because my mind has been buzzing with the possibilities of interactive fiction in the classroom. I’m sure the game won’t be that great given the silly graphics and storyline, but it just might be the missing link between gaming and education that I’ve been searching for.

Yeah, I just ended a sentence with a preposition. I’m so exited, I don’t even care.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Les Misérables: The Fighting Game

If you ever wanted to beat up one of the characters from Les Misérables, here’s your chance.

Arm Joe, created by an amateur programmer from Japan, is a one-on-one fighting game in the same vein as Street Fighter II and King of Fighters. Based on the Les Misérables musical, the game features anime style representations of Les Mis characters like Jean Valjean, Enjolras, Marius, Cosette, Éponine, Thénardier and Javert. The physical embodiment of judgment serves as the game’s final boss.

In case you’re wondering, the name Arm Joe is a parody of the play’s Japanese title, Ah Mojou, meaning “Ah, cruelty.”

As someone who has daydreamed about a one-on-one fighting game adaptation of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and a first person, 3D version of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, there’s a certain amount of satisfaction in just knowing that Arm Joe exists. However, the game itself has some control and balance issues: Some characters are hopelessly underpowered and others can easily win matches using a single attack over and over again. The graphics and sound are excellent, though, and overall it’s a pretty decent game. Given the fact that Arm Joe is a free download, it seems a little inappropriate to criticize it too harshly.

Arm Joe brings the characters of Les Misérables to life in a way that’s virtually impossible in any other medium. Introducing students to Arm Joe might just be the key to getting some of them interested in the novel or the musical, or it could be used as a sort of enrichment exercise after finishing Les Misérables in class.

Purists might complain that this game isn’t a faithful adaptation of the Les Misérables novel or musical – and they would be correct. Just consider Robojean, the cyborg version of Valjean who fires rockets at his opponents, and Ponpon, a bunny creature who has nothing to do with the Les Mis mythos who is inexplicably tossed in with the rest of the characters. However, a creative teacher might take the opportunity to discuss the differences and similarities between the works, as well as talking about how ideas, stories and sensibilities change as they move to new kinds of media. After all, there are some key alterations between the stage version of Les Misérables and Victor Hugo’s original novel, so changes in new adaptations of the story are to be expected.

Teachers might also use Arm Joe to help explain the concept of parody to their students, given the humorous aspects of the game in contrast to the seriousness of the musical and novel.

I hope that more game makers, both independent and commercial, will use classic novels as inspiration for future video games. Faithful game adaptations of the classics might be one of the stepping stones in using gaming to educate our students.

Download Arm Joe.