Monday, May 23, 2011

User Generated Content and the Path to an Interactive Education

My father purchased our family’s second real computer, a 166 MHz Gateway PC, in April of 1996 for the tidy sum of $5000. For the price of a nice used car, I was introduced to music and typing programs, e-mail and the internet at large. Around that same time is when I stumbled across one of my favorite games, Duke Nukem 3D, which allowed users to create and trade their own content.

Over the last two decades or so, user generated content – or “mods” for short – have become an indelible part of gaming, especially for the computer gamer crowd. As the name implies, user generated content is any sort of meaningful alteration for an existing game that is generated by the players, including new levels, graphics, or items. At its most base level, what user made content means to gamers is expanding the life of a preexisting game to virtually infinite extents. Ponder for a moment that ID Software’s seminal shooter DOOM was released in 1993 and new content is still being crafted for the title 17 years later, or that 14 years after the release of Duke Nukem 3D, one can download a program to make the game run in a high resolution mode on post DOS platforms.

Old Duke vs. high def Duke.

But user made content is about more than just exploring new worlds and situations for basically as long as the player wants; it’s also a way to empower young minds and reverse engineer the learning process. Take, for example, your average math problem. Throughout high school, I was asked to “solve for” a given variable in an equation. It was then up to me to find a solution (which, incidentally, took hours upon hours to pull off, was entirely useless, and made me hate school, but that’s fodder for another post).

But what if it were the student giving the teacher a math problem? What if it were up to the learner to construct an equation using a newly-learned formula, taking into consideration what would need to be done to create the problem and how one would need to think in order to effectively answer it?

Many educators believe that best way to learn something is to teach it. From personal experience with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Albert Camus’ The Stranger and several other not-so-near-and-dear works I taught during my tenure as an English teacher, I can attest to this axiom’s truth.

It's big for such a little planet.
 Now consider what goes into making a good level for a game like Little Big Planet 2, the sequel to the PlayStation 3 side-scrolling mega hit of 2008. To make an effective level (and “effective” here means entertaining), one must first be familiar with layouts and conventions of basic levels, then think like their target player when designing a concept. Having graduated from fan to creator with Duke Nukem 3D, I can tell you that the designer should be sick of his or her level by the time it’s done, having checked every facet of its functionality – and fun factor – countless times.

It’s not unlike how I felt after designing about 100 lessons for my English classes during my student teaching: I felt like I knew everything there was to know about the subject at hand. Just like the game designer becomes intimately familiar with the capabilities of his or her game engine and what makes a “fun” level, I now understand The Diary of Anne Frank, The Great Gatsby and Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption from the inside out – more so than if I had simply read these works. As the one teaching the class, the one creating the content, I had to live and breathe the source material.

A simple way for students to “reverse engineer” what their educator wishes them to learn is to have them construct a lesson. Teachers have been utilizing this idea for decades by having students give short presentations on a particular subject; they expect that the student will become an “expert” in about the time it takes to thaw a frozen pizza. This is an excellent start, but it’s not enough: With only one or two class periods to work with, students don’t have time to commit to memory everything they discover.

Besides, that approach is getting tired. (I know because I tried it.) Today’s tech savvy students demand something more.

The logical evolution of the concept: Our digital native students create their own content for a relevant learning program, such as a video game. I understand that few good educational games exist – and even fewer are worth playing – but I look forward to some future superstar teacher creating just such an application.

Next stop: End of the level.
Though it’s been years since I fired up Ken Silverman’s Build, Duke Nukem 3D’s level editor, I can still remember how to use it and exactly what it can do. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same of math class; I find myself embarrassedly whipping out a calculator to do simple long division. Perhaps if by the guidance of my teachers I had generated a few math games for that old 166 MHz PC, number crunching would be as natural to me as collecting a medikit or making a mad dash to the exit of a Duke3D level - and just as fondly remembered.


  1. Perhaps. Although that pointless struggle was exactly what me and my friends needed to get enthused about maths. The thrill of the chase, the chance for direct peer comparison. Lots of fun.

    I feel like a mod might be a really good project for my yr. 7s and 8s (12-14 year olds).

    Any suggestions about which game/level design utility would be best? And importantly: Freely and legally available?

    The topic I'm writing lesson plans for is: "Everybody's Internet: Digital Content Creation - Web 2.0"

    Any ideas?

  2. Evan, there's something that I've been avoiding since I subscribed to your blog: You are clearly smarter than I am. I can fake it, but you step into the classroom every day while I work at a place that sells Justin Bieber CDs. I’m afraid that I can’t offer you much.

    That being said: As a console gamer primarily, my grasp of PC games, let alone free ones that a class could use, is rather limited. One thing I can think of that could help is Minecraft, though only the old version is free. Another is Streets of Rage Remake, which is free and modable, but Sega slapped it with the banhammer and it’s probably too violent and simple for school.

    As a certified English teacher, I see much value in interactive fiction, such as Zork. As a science (right?) teacher - though you’ve got the heart of an English teacher, let me tell you - this might not be the best for your classes. BUT! Read this, if you have time:

    Interactive fiction might be just the thing to jumpstart some good discussion. It worked for me!

  3. When I read mention of Beyond the Titanic, I immediately thought of Douglas Adams' Starship Titanic, but nope. Not quite.

    I'm not good at video games. My theory is that therein lies the reason I have to play them all the time. And I'm also not good at lateral thinking. Not in the slightest. Combine the two and you find here the worst possible candidate for playing interactive fiction games. I have tried. I have several friends who are working in the video game industry, and a few have linked me to some interesting games, but none of which I could ever finish. I hate using walkthroughs, so many games get permanently put on hold.

    Also- don't kid yourself. I'm a young'un with much to learn. I'm 22. I make (badly-drawn) pictures of chickens. I play too many games. I watch too much anime. Your posts are VASTLY more interesting than mine- and better written.

    My students tell me a lot about Justin Bieber (soooo many of my students are DEFINITELY going to marry him). I'm sure there's something exciting out the other side of your current job.

    As a maths/IT teacher, I've found that the best tools come from other teachers. In terms of game creation, it could certainly be a fun project to get students to think through what would make a playable piece of interactive fiction. I do wish I had more involvement in English, Humanities, etc. and with the new face of the Bendigo Education Plan, I see that being a real possibility in a team teaching environment. At this stage I have little to do with which areas of the VELS we're covering this term, but I look forward to further building my tool set and laying some fun projects down next year.