ED 5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Connecting the dots of videogame pedagogy

If we were to break down the pedagogical concerns of James Gee, Jonas Linderoth, and Rowan Tulloch about videogame pedagogy into single phrases these would be: what games teach (Gee), what gamers learn (Linderoth), and what games are (Tulloch). At first it would seem that each theorist’s concern is separate from the others. But an investigation into Tulloch’s argument for gamification as an alternative pedagogy, using connecting concepts and emoji (figures 1.1 to 1.5) will demonstrate that Tulloch is connected to Gee and Linderoth, even if the latter two theorists never specifically reference gamification.

Two central claims about videogame pedagogy are shared by Gee and Tulloch. The first is how games ensure the player engages in what Tulloch terms “correct play practices.” For Tulloch point systems like high scores and health bars provide important feedback to the player about how well they are performing. The higher the number of points they accumulate, like in Pac-Man or Space Invaders, or the less health they lose, found in first-person shooters such as DOOM or Half-Life, the better they are performing. Being able to progress through a game’s discrete but connected areas (levels) is also an indicator of good play practices. An example would be getting higher up the parallel construction beams of the original Donkey Kong, clearing as many of the game’s 22 available levels as possible. The more levels you clear, the better you’re playing.

Gee invokes these same concepts using the game Thief: Deadly Shadows as his example. While playing Thief, the player must learn to use the mechanics of light and dark to their advantage so as to avoid patrols and successfully steal the treasure. Failure to learn the principles of good stealth in Thief will lead to deadly confrontations with the game’s guards. Learning to navigate the virtual environment as Thief’s main protagonist Garrett is essential if players want to achieve a “win state” and progress to the next level.

follow-the-rules

Figure 1.1: Gee and Tulloch are connected by the concept of how games teach the players how to play or follow the rules. The top row illustrates Tulloch’s concept of correct play practices. The middle row illustrates Gee’s example of Thief’s light/dark mechanics as a teaching tool. The bottom emoji illustrate the connection between Gee and Tulloch.

A further connection between Gee and Tulloch is their conception of games as an alternative pedagogy with good principles for learning. For Gee, this is because games offer newer contexts for players to learn. These include principles include embodied movement through action and goal-oriented complex systems, the ability to reconfigure and resituate meanings, multiple pathways to completing a learning goal, and so forth. Ultimately, there is an identification between the learner (in this case, game player) and their subject (the game), which when applied to another context creates an important level of identification. An educational game like Oregon Trail, which places you in the role of an American settler would be an example of this kind of identification.

Tulloch offers a similar thesis arguing that games offer an alternative to unsuccessful pedagogies that do not build in engagement or a real sense of achievement. Gamification is more than just game-based mechanics overlaid previously ungamified subjects. It represents a better way of engaging with complex subject matter and train the “profitable consumers, obedient and efficient workers, healthy citizens, or knowledgeable students” that are currently needed. One can cite the mid-2000s craze for “brain-training” games like Nintendo’s popular Brain Age series for the DS as an example. Brain Age offers its players short, fun minigames that are specifically designed to increase math and logic skills as well as improve their spatial reasoning, pattern recognition, and hand-eye coordination.

games-are-pedagogical-tools

Figure 1.2: The top row illustrates Gee’s concept of the player being engaged with the subject matter they are learning through games. The middle row illustrates how Tulloch thinks games keep people engaged.

Between Tulloch and Linderoth there might seem to be even less of a connection since Linderoth is skeptical about how much gamers actually learn. Tulloch and Linderoth are connected by two significant concepts: difficulty and player performance. Although their conclusions about what these concepts mean when applied to learning diverge, they both still explore these ideas to their fullest.

Tulloch sees difficulty as an intrinsic part of game design. He argues: “The gamification of difficulty is about recognizing difficulty as part of play’s pedagogic process and understanding the intellectual history behind it.” Balancing difficulty is important to the training aspect of gamification, as the one gamifying a training exercise wants the game hit that sweet spot between being challenging and fun; the game is difficult enough to give the player a sense of satisfaction at overcoming an intense challenge but not so difficult that they give up in frustration. Sites like Code Academy use gamification (specifically distributing badges and achievements) to encourage people to learn coding languages like HTML and Ruby on Rails.

For Linderoth, games superficially appear to give players the ability to learn and that although challenging, there is a satisfaction in mastery that provides a feeling of “empowerment.” However, they are not teaching as much as we assume. He writes:

“Games are…described as being something utterly complex that by its very nature is challenging. The complexity is said to gradually increase as a player progresses through a game. Thus the fact that a player can play through a game is taken as a sign of learning.”

This assumption of difficulty, Linderoth claims, is due to game environments generally being unfamiliar to the average teacher or parent. However, games tend to guide their players through difficult passages and offer many tools for shortcutting these complex systems. Level-5’s Professor Layton series give its players difficult puzzles to solve. However, each Professor Layton game also has a built-in hint system that can help a player solve these puzzle without necessarily going through the complex learning process of grasping its internal logic.

games-are-hard-games-are-easy

Figure 1.3: This emoji illustration is about Tulloch and Linderoth. The top row illustrates how games balance difficulty for learning. The middle row demonstrates how Linderoth think games simply guide the player to the right answer. The final emjoi illustration is about the connection and divergence of Tulloch and Linderoth.

Player performance is the key to understanding what gamers learn for both Linderoth and Tulloch.

For Tulloch, gamification is part of a deep heritage of game design that facilitates performance. Game designers understand that they have to provide tools to players so that they can navigate games and also remain consistently engaged. Facilitating player performance using the learning found in game design will produce the “profitable consumers, obedient and efficient workers, healthy citizens, and knowledgeable students for which gamification strives.” While schools have linear, conformist curves of learning, the alternative pedagogy of games offers a dynamic method of learning and good performance. An example of this kind of learning could be Portal, which teaches the player the game’s basic puzzle mechanics, but then lets the player solve each puzzle room on their own.

Linderoth sees this differently. He argues player performance is enhanced in games through the provision of special hint systems or specific game mechanics that make game environments much easier to navigate for the player. This is what undermines games as complex systems. An example is Assassin’s Creed, which allows players to enter into an “eagle vision” mode that easily highlights targets in the game or temporary power-ups like Mario Kart’s Blue Shell, which make these games less complex and easier to complete. What you can accomplish in a game is not solely due to learning, but actually due to what the game gives you to complete it.

games-give-games-take

Figure 1.4: The top row shows how Tulloch believes that games have a deep pedagogic heritage that supports performance. The middle row is Linderoth’s concept of how games provide shortcuts, raining on the parade of other gaming pedagogists.

These three theorists do not work in isolation but have views about games and learning that connect in distinct ways, especially when it comes to the pedagogy behind games. Tulloch’s conception of games as being part of an alternative pedagogical tradition is shared by Gee and significantly critiqued by Linderoth. Tulloch’s central claims about what games are (alternative pedagogy) can be linked to Gee and Linderoth even if Linderoth’s concept of what gamers learn diverges from the other two theorists.

connecting-tulloch-to-gee-and-linderoth

Figure 1.5: This figure illustrates the connections between Tulloch, Gee and Linderoth, with Gee agreeing with Tulloch’s concept of gaming pedagogy and Linderoth disagreeing with Tulloch but still connected to him (and Gee).

All illustrations made using anna anthropy‘s Emotica Online.

 

Advertisements
Featured

Framing In Videogames

20161002190406_1

On the surface, it would seem appropriate to compare videogames to movies. Certainly, big budget videogames have often put on the appearance of being like blockbuster films. From the badly compressed and poorly acted Full Motion Video (FMV) cutscenes in Sega CD games like Sewer Shark and Night Trap to the recycled Hollywood action of the Call of Duty series, AAA games invoke the techniques and tropes of mainstream cinema. Of course, the main problem with many of these games is that they fail to effectively adapt the techniques of film to the game environment. They never explore what each medium has to offer the other.

Virginia, a narrative videogame about two FBI agents investigating the mysterious disappearance of a boy in the  early 1990s, is one of the few videogames I have played that successfully navigates the impasse between games and cinema. Furthermore, it adapts an underlying principle of film that all cinema-inflected and narratively driven videogames should adopt.

So often when discussing what makes a “good” videogame buzzwords like interactivity, immersion, and emergence are used. These principles are often presented as the holy trinity of good game design. All videogames should be easy to learn and hard to master, so we’re told, and these three principles are the way to get there. A good videogame should privilege the ability of the player to interact and move about in the gameworld, it should have the player become totally immersed in the gameplay, and furthermore the player should be able to find emergent strategies while playing to hit the sweet spot between challenge and fun. It may be surprising then that Virginia is a great videogame that does not respect any of these principles.

The level of interaction is very limited. Each scene in the game has very few items you can touch and use, and these are often made quite obvious to you. The gameworld is beautiful and engaging but generally not immersive in the way videogames are supposed to be. Cinematic editing techniques like match cuts and dissolves transport you from scene to scene, preventing you from lingering too long at any point while playing. Finally, the game can be finished in about 90 minutes to two hours and is easy to play. There are no emergent strategies or mastery involved. It provides you with a very focused and specific experience, and then it’s over.

So why do I think Virginia is a great game? I argue it’s because Virginia adapts a particular principle from film that makes it successful in keeping the player engaged with its story and gameworld. That principle is framing, which can be defined as the particular composition of the visual elements in a scene. Virginia does this masterfully, as every scene is well composed and visually coherent, even though you essentially act as the game’s camera. The player experiences the entire game from the first-person point of view as FBI special agent Anne Tarver. The game never breaks this point of view, having you experience everything from basic interactions (like shaking someone’s hand or picking up an object) to your brief encounters with text (such as quickly reading a file on a computer screen) entirely from Anne’s eyes.

20161002185723_1

You play the entire game from the viewpoint of FBI Special Agent Anne Tarver.

Throughout the game, you feel like you’re moving Anne and a movie camera at the same time, but it’s never confusing or incoherent. This is because Virginia’s directors, Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny, ensure that their use of framing is gamelike and dynamic. The game directors bring together strong visual composition with playful movement by:

  • giving the player a very specific point of view (FBI Special Agent Anne Tarver) and using that for strong characterization and narrative depth;
  • avoiding extraneous, unnecessary information or activity (hence the very specific forms of interaction)
  • ensuring the experience is contained within a specific point of time and is not padded out for the sake of increased playtime (the game can be completed in about two hours and you are often moved from scene to scene without too much time passing); and
  • providing the player with a clear path to navigate the story and gameworld.

Another reason for the game’s unusually strong scenic composition is that there is not a single line of spoken dialogue. The entire story is told through animation, music, your interaction with the gameworld, and the repeated use of specific images and symbols. Certain motifs such as sitting in the passenger seat of a car with your FBI partner Maria Halperin, holding a dead cardinal, being confronted by a bison, seeing a mysterious red door, or looking down at a broken key, recur often, giving vital clues to unlocking the story.

20161002191311_1

The appearance of a bison is a recurring visual motif throughout Virginia

These recurring visual motifs are necessary as the game’s narrative has quite a bit of depth. The story of Virginia is one professional betrayal, conspiracy, cult activity, departmental corruption, and even gender and racial discrimination. It also relates many of these events in non-chronological order, while blending together fantasy and reality (mostly in the form of dream sequences). That Virginia can handle these themes and story-telling techniques deftly and subtly without dialogue is a testament to how well it uses framing to anchor the whole experience. While the makers of Virginia have mentioned ‘90s cult TV shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, and The Outer Limits as inspirations, they’re able to create their own visual language that is not just a pastiche of these influences.

To reiterate, the principle of framing, especially in the videogame context, requires strong visualization, coherent action, a specific time frame, and finally clear navigation through the gameworld. This ensures you can combine filmic techniques with gamelike elements to tell an interesting, compelling story. The lack of good framing is why I think games like Konami’s Metal Gear Solid series— which certainly has cinematic ambitions —fail to combine games and films effectively. Although Metal Gear Solid game director Hideo Kojima’s fourth-wall breaking and detached irony are amusing, it must be admitted that his games are overly expository, narratively confusing, and quite visually jumbled, even if they offer fun stealth action.

I also want my concept of framing to stand in contrast to Ian Bogost’s concept of proceduralism. In the “Art” chapter of How To Do Things With Videogames he uses this term to describe one way of understanding the games of designers Jason Rohrer and Jonathan Blow. He writes:

“…proceduralist games are process intensive-they rely primarily on computational rules to produce their artistic meaning. In these games, expression arises primarily from the player’s interaction with the game’s mechanics and dynamics, and less so (in some cases almost not at all) in their visual, aural, and textual aspects.” (Bogost 2011, p.13)

Bogost argues that proceduralist games reveal the form of a game in order to have “meaning emanate from the model.” (Bogost 2011, p.13) My account of framing is different in that the visual, aural, and textual aspects are made central to communicating the game’s meaning. I’m not against Bogost’s concept as it may apply to games like Passage and Braid, but rather I am trying to provide another way of thinking about how a game can convey itself meaningfully to the player.

Studying the visual coherence that a game brings to each scene, and how it handles player visuals and movement is an important and overlooked aspect of games criticism. While games critics tend to gravitate toward whether a game is sufficiently interactive or challenging, the actual composition of each scene of game, whether it is experienced from the point of the view of the player or through a cutscene, is ignored. Framing is a valuable tool for thinking about strong visual storytelling in games, and can help critics discern those games that successfully adapt techniques from a medium like film to tell interesting stories.

20161002190311_1

One of the many times you’re in the passenger seat with your partner Maria Halperin

References

Bogost, I. (2011). How to do things with videogames. University of Minnesota Press.

Variable State Ltd. (2016). Virginia.

ED 5863 – Digital Games and Learning: Ian Bogost’s videogame microecology

how-to-do-things-with-videogames

“…casual games are games that players use and toss aside, one-play stands, serendipitous encounters never to be seen again.” Ian Bogost, How To Do Things With Videogames, p.96.

Media ecology looks at the wide range of available media — books, television, advertising, computers, etc. – to determine how each medium functions, and how they interact with one another. This approach is deeply influenced by Marshall McLuhan, who viewed media as the extensions of specific senses (the book extends the eye, the wheel extends the foot, and so on) and also argued that new media create new environments. According to McLuhan, and those influenced by him, the media ecological approach is essential to understanding these new environments.

In How Do Things with Videogames, Ian Bogost references McLuhan’s approach, but argues that media microecology should be used instead to study videogames. Each medium has a variety of things that it does, ranging from the profound to the purely quotidian. To fully understand each medium and to avoid sweeping generalizations, we need to move from the “macro” level to the “micro” level (he uses the entomologist’s study of insects as an example), to look at the full range of uses a medium has, documenting, describing, and discussing its uses so that we can concentrate on its specific functions. This is the media microecological framework he proposes for analyzing videogames: understanding everything videogames do rather than settling on particular value judgements on the rightness or wrongness of playing videogames.

There are a number of different things videogames can be used for. Videogames can be sites of intense competition, with a focus on achieving high scores and longer play times, which is true of arcade games like Galaga (1981), Tempest (1981), and Space Harrier (1985). Games are also capable of providing expressive and emotionally engaging experiences, like in Dear Esther (2012), Journey (2012), and Gone Home (2013), which focus on exploration and story-telling instead of awarding points or tracking level progress.

One use for videogames that Bogost identifies is “Throwaways.” According to Bogost we often link the idea of “throwaway” games to “casual” games but he challenges this in the following three ways:

  • Although “casual” games like Bejeweled or Tetris, do not feature the more complicated controls of “hardcore” games, they can still be played for the purposes of mastery and personal achievement and often have long-term play investment.
  • The various meanings of “casual” such as indifferent, spontaneous and fleeting all contain an important element of how actual “casual” or “throwaway” games should be conceived. A game made specifically for the “Klik of the Month” club on glorioustrainwrecks.com could be an example of a “throwaway” game as these take minutes to play and are often played once and then completely forgotten.
  • Throwaways games should be short, significant play experiences (no more than a few minutes) that someone can quickly experience and move on from without long term investment. Bogost uses “newsgames” like the Zidane Head-Butt (tied to Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting of Italian soccer player Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final) and his own game, The Arcade Wire: Airport Security, about arbitrary airport security rules (in response to the TSA’s banning of liquids in carry-on bags) as examples.

I agree with Bogost that we need to change our understanding of what casual games actually are, from “easy to learn, and hard to master” to games that focus on shorter experiences. Although such games may be fleeting and often played only once, I think they have the potential to resonate with people.

A couple of “throwaway” games that I enjoyed recently were Pleasuredromes of Kubla Khan by Stephen Murphy aka “thecatamites” a bizarre and hilarious parody of History Television style ancient civilization “travelogues” that can be played in only a few minutes. The other one is Ohmygod Are You Alright? by anna anthropy, a game that is short, personal response to a car crash she experienced last year. These games focus on a particular experience rather than long-term play investment and mastery.

I’ll leave this question for you: if you designed a short, “throwaway” game what experience would you want it to give to the people who play it?

Do you remember the ’90s? Gaming certainly does!

Mystery_House_-_Apple_II_-_2

An image from Roberta Williams’ Mystery House for the Apple II

2015 has been a peak year for ‘90s revivalism. In addition to newly announced seasons for Twin Peaks, the X-Files, and — for some reason — Full House, we’ve also been given a Rolling Stone retrospective on Space Jam’s promotional website (now celebrated as a masterpiece of early Internet design), a restoration project for old Geocities nethubs, and even an oral history of Theodore Rex. However, this pales in comparison to the ‘90s moment gaming is having right now.

There has been a deluge of throwback content since 2012 — begun largely by a series of crowdfunding successes on Kickstarter that saw projects launched to bring back creators or game genres that flourished in the ‘90s. Although Tim Schaefer’s Double Fine Adventure (a.ka. Broken Age) —arguably the catalyst for gaming’s Kickstarter success — wasn’t specifically for a ‘90s callback project, Schaefer is most fondly remembered for his time at LucasArts,working on or helming such classic adventure games as The Secret of Monkey Island, The Day of the Tentacle, Full Throttle, and Grim Fandango (which got a remastered edition earlier this year).

This led Brian Fargo to launch a successful Kickstarter campaigns for Wasteland 2 and a sequel to Planescape: Torment, and then Obsidian Entertainment mounted a successful campaign for ‘90s cRPG revival game, Pillars of Eternity. Other creators like Ron Gilbert (also from LucasArts), Julian Gollop (original X-Com creator), Chris Roberts (Wing Commander), Robyn and Rand Miller (Myst, Riven), and more controversially Richard Garriott (Ultima) and Peter Molyneux (Populous, Fable), all had successful campaigns to either bring them back into the fold of game creation or bring back beloved game styles.

Monkey Island joke

Kind of what Kickstarter is like these days. From Lucasarts’ “The Secret of Monkey Island.”

Game genres that had a significant flourishing in the ‘90s like cRPGs, adventure games, and 3D platformers (just see A Hat in Time and Yuka-Laylee — both, of course, with soundtracks by Grant Kirkhope) have made a significant comeback with a glut of titles in the last three years. Even FMV games have made a comeback. Yes, FMV video games — once ridiculed for their expense, poorly compressed video, hammy acting, and comically large number of CD-Roms needed to play — have been the inspiration behind Sam Barlow’s critically acclaimed video archive mystery Her Story, and the more tongue-in-cheek, Contradiction — Spot The Liar!: The All-Video Murder Mystery Adventure.

Then we begin get into the rereleases and remasters, most notably Homeworld, and the aforementioned Grim Fandango, and soon we’ll be seeing The Day of the Tentacle again. Heck, even Final Fantasy VII is getting an HD remake. There was also this absurd commercial for a callback ‘90s first-person shooter.

This list is by no means exhaustive, but demonstrates that game creators and consumers are fixated on the ‘90s. I even lamented the loss of Carmen Sandiego in a time with so much classic game revivalism. Manos: Hands of Fate—one of the worst movies of all time—has recently become the subject of tongue-in-cheek platforming game that’s a deliberate call to the awful tie-in movie games made for the NES and SNES. So, why the sudden onrush of nostalgia?

The first — and most obvious point — is that people who came of age during “the last great decade” (not my wording), are now old enough to be cultural producers themselves, or at least consumers, who want to experience again what they grew up with. Essentially, people have the creative power or the cash or both, to revive genres long thought dead. There is a huge nostalgic push, and this has led to results both good and bad. If you’re a fan of computer role-playing games like Baldur’s Gate, this revivalism has been good for you: Pillars of Eternity and Divinity: Original Sin are great games in their own right. If you’re a fan of classic adventure games—then not so much.

A second reason is history. Game companies and gamers alike are apathetic toward preserving game history. As a result, previously explored tropes, genres, and ideas are redone and repackaged—sometimes without awareness of whether or not it has been done before. A good example is Sword Coast Legends, another tactical role-playing game, set in Dungeons and Dragons’ Forgotten Realms campaign setting. It advertises a “DM Mode” that will let one player be the Dungeon Master and curate the role-playing experience for their friends online, and is being touted as something that’s never been done before. The only problem is that it was done before—and quite successfully—by BioWare’s 2002 D & D role-playing game, Neverwinter Nights. This might not be so surprising since Sword Coast Legends is being made by ex-Bioware developers, but I have yet to come across a single article talking about how Legends riffs on NWN’s original, innovative feature set.

sword-coast-legends-screenshot-6-100591833-orig

Sword Coast Legends Dungeon Master feature looks great but Neverwinter Nights did it first.

The historical aspect of the shift toward nostalgic revival becomes more apparent when consider how often the genres that people love are misremembered. As mentioned before, adventure games have not fared well, mostly repeating the clumsy navigation and frustrating puzzle design that was prevalent in ‘90s adventure games. Contemporary adventure game designers miss the point, Richard Corbett argues in a piece for Rock, Paper, Shotgun, of what made adventure games great in the first place. He writes:

“The vast majority of adventures that we get aren’t even trying for that level of innovation or novelty value, and sure as hell don’t have the relative budgets to pull it off. Instead, they’re content to be the next Touche, the next Bud Tucker, the next Innocent Until Caught – following along in the wake of Lucasarts and Sierra and a couple of other big names like pilotfish. If we follow them, we’ll get to where we need to be. Right? Never mind that nobody gave a shit about those games back in the 90s. Hold the line! Keep the faith! It’ll all work out eventually, right?”

edutainment

Probably not the adventure game you were looking for. From Lucasarts’ “Sam and Max Hit The Road.”

This is the dangerous trap one can fall into with gamer nostalgia — the simple replication of what a genre offered rather than capturing its essence and moving them forward. This is unsurprising in a world when even a game designer like Roberta Williams are forgotten until—as CRPG Book project editor Felipe Pepe pointed out on his blog — it was announced there would be a reboot of the King’s Quest series. Then there were retrospectives written on the series and Williams’ importance, and she was even given an industry award (!) as something old is remade into a vital consumer product.

Amazingly, it gets even worse. Not only is the games industry apathetic to its own history; it’s actively hostile. The Electronic Software Association is trying to prevent the Electronic Frontier Foundation from preserving online multiplayer games long since abandoned by their developers, and in fact, the ESA considers all forms of game preservation “hacking” and therefore illegal — nevermind that it’s largely game pirates and hackers who have been actively preserving and curating games history.

At the heart of ‘90s revivalism then is the fight over whether games should be considered art, or merely just another consumer product. As art, games have a history and a vitality that needs to be preserved, cherished, and expanded upon—a series of interesting pathways meant to inspire rather than to be merely imitated. But considered solely as a consumer good, it must be forgotten, ignored, or actively blocked, otherwise it can’t be resold to the next generation, or even worse, someone will be inspired and create a new game and become successful outside the mainstream games industry. So remember that as you awe over someone creating a ‘90s style gaming rig or chuckle at the latest ‘90s commercial parody that there’s a fight for both the past — and future — of gaming.

90s gaming rig

Late ’90s gaming rig created by Redditor SuperBabyHix. (Source)

Where in the world did Carmen Sandiego go?

carmen_sandiego

If you grew up in the ’90s and watched a lot of PBS, chances are that you came across Lynne Thigpen as The Chief letting you know that Carmen Sandiego had nabbed another precious monument and that it was up to an assorted group of whiz kids to stop her, armed only with a buzzer and a sufficient grasp of world geography. Chances are that in the middle of the previous sentence you began to hum the theme song or can hear Thigpen’s voice telling you “Carmen Sandiego has struck again!” And chances are that you may or may not have played the series of fantastic educational games — first for DOS and then Windows — that starred the master thief. In the ’90s, Carmen Sandiego was everywhere and almost every kid with access to a school computer lab, a home computer, or just watching TV, knew that she and her V.I.L.E. agents were out there stealing great cultural artifacts and that only you, the prospective gumshoe, or the TV show’s agents, could possibly defeat her.

I came to know Carmen Sandiego watching PBS on weekday afternoons. My parents would have to peel me away from the TV for dinner because I needed to know which one of the newly christened ACME agents would be the hero, answering enough skill-testing questions about geography to halt Carmen Sandiego’s latest diabolical scheme. My next encounter with Carmen Sandiego came when I was at bargain bin at a local Loblaws and picked up a World Almanac that had been separated from the 1996 reboot of Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? I wish I still had it because I would spend hours reading it, uncovering all the facts I could such as when the Eiffel Tower was first built and the actual size of the great pyramids of Giza. I would spend hours at the computer lab of my elementary school trying to beat the game and stop her agents with names like Sarah Nade, Sarah Bellum, and M.T. Pockets. My Carmen Sandiego fandom reached its peak when I was given a copy of the 1997 version of Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? (also known as Carmen Sandiego’s Great Chase Through Time), I played this game religiously on my parents’ ’98 Compaq Presario, spending significant amounts of time with Hatsheput, Benjamin Franklin, Lewis & Clerk, Thomas Edison, and even Yuri Gagarin. I also preferred the theme song for the less successful Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? game show on PBS than the more famous a cappella theme used for Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? even though it’s terrible.

You know when The Chief (Lynne Thigpen) appeared things were getting serious

You know when The Chief (Lynne Thigpen) appeared things were getting serious

And then silence. Carmen seemed to disappear forever both from the TV and the computer screen. Did she pull off a final successful caper that let her be set for life? No. It’s only recently I learned the reason for the decline of children’s educational games.

In this excellent overview of the success and significance of children’s “edutainment” games of the 90s, the author reveals that it was Softkey, a CD-ROM distribution company, merging with The Learning Company and then Brøderbund (the makers of Carmen Sandiego) that spelled the beginning of the end for quality children’s educational games, including Carmen Sandiego. A surprising twist to all of this is that it was Kevin O’Leary, the founder of Softkey, and awful former host of both CBC’s Dragon’s Den and the Lang & O’Leary Exchange, that was responsible for this decline. Talking to Ken Goldstein, Broderbund’s former vice president of education and entertainment,  the Gamasutra article reveals why the merger with Softkey/The Learning Company was so disastrous:

“The new pricing model, driven by both Softkey and every other developer in the business selling CD-ROMs at such low prices, destroyed the economic viability of the edutainment production cycle. Goldstein was obviously frustrated with the merger, but 17 years later, he says it’s water under the bridge. To him, the Broderbund model was built on the philosophy of “people–products–profit,” where talented people created good product that drove profit, but once the merger kicked in, that philosophy seemed to flow in reverse, and Broderbund, now part of The Learning Company, was sold to Mattel.”

Carmen Sandiego was a victim of neoliberalism! As this Globe & Mail article reveals, Softkey’s rebranding as The Learning Company, and eventual sale to Mattel, went so badly that O’Leary was forced out. The various divisions of The Learning Company were then broken up and sold, thus ending an era of great children’s games. Kevin O’Leary — a man almost singularly responsible for the disappearance of Carmen Sandiego and Reading Rabbit, and for Chris Hedges never being interviewed by the CBC again.

Carmen Sandiego

It’s difficult to express fully just how significant Carmen Sandiego was as a video game antagonist, and how the digital play spaces offered to children through her games were. Carmen Sandiego wasn’t good because you could pick up some trivia about the Declaration of Independence or the population of Iowa, it was good because it offered you, the player, a wondrous and imaginative place filled with improbable technology, world and time travel, and one of gaming’s best villains. Carmen was clever, mysterious, and always one step ahead of you. These games were a great balance of adventure game mechanics and playful, exquisitely textured narratives. You wanted to live inside these worlds and get to know its eccentric characters that inhabited them a little more. The world almanacs and exquisitely detailed manuals that came bundled with each game added another level of detail, giving you a whole other level of experience and knowledge outside of the game. I always felt bad catching Carmen Sandiego because I wanted her to accomplish her goals, to actually alter the course of world history; that’s just how powerful she was. How could she not get away it?

Unfortunately experiencing Carmen Sandiego’s past glories are difficult. Although you have the original Where In The World? and Where In Time?  available on the Internet Archive’s virtual DOS player, the later CD-ROM reboots made for Windows (my personal favourites) have never been restored for modern computers even though websites like GOG.com and studios like Night Dive have shown restoring classic PC games is both an in-demand and profitable enterprise. It’s sad that children aren’t getting to experience Carmen Sandiego (or someone like her) in 2015. If there’s one thing from the ’90s that I want to come back, it’s Carmen Sandiego and the devious plots that only a child’s imagination could foil.

Now here’s the terrible (but wonderful) Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego? game show theme.

The immersive world: a declaration of faith

There is a central conflict that defines us — it is the conflict between our selves and our ideas; between the physical and conceptual; the tangible and the ephemeral; the virtual and the real. T.S. Eliot once wrote that human beings cannot take much reality. Our ability to conceive and understand the abstract, the intellectual, the unperceivable is both a source of joy and suffering for us. We can imagine ourselves on any plane and in any place at any time; but that we cannot appear there instantaneously or make these simple imaginings materialize at a whim provides the foundation for a certain kind of melancholy: that we can imagine new and better worlds but cannot simply put ourselves there.

This conflict was best revealed by William Blake in his poem The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

He writes:

 All Bibles or sacred codes have been the causes of the following Errors.

  1. That Man has two real existing principles Viz: a Body & a Soul.
    2. That Energy, call’d Evil, is alone from the Body, & that Reason, call’d Good, is alone from the Soul.
    3. That God will torment Man in Eternity for following his Energies.

But the following Contraries to these are True

  1. Man has no Body distinct from his Soul for that call’d Body is a portion of Soul discern’d by the five Senses, the chief inlets of Soul in this age
  2.  Energy is the only life and is from the Body and Reason is the bound or outward circumference of Energy.
  3.  Energy is Eternal Delight

William Blake still remains one of the best archaeologists of the human imagination. He understood that “Imagination Is Not A State; It Is Human Existence Itself.” The above passage covers the inner conflict between the individual and the idea, and how the imaginative itself is often denigrated and placed below all other things, either by us or by those who refuse to value it. Blake believed that art and all associated works of the imagination could alter our perceptions enough that we could experience the world as it truly is. “If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite.”

To that end, I believe that the stories we tell affect who we are. I also believe that the worlds woven by others through their words, ideas, or pictures have a considerable affect on how we tell our own stories. I firmly believe that one of the most powerful vehicles for telling our stories and for experiencing the stories of others is to do so through play. Play offers us one of the most accessible and safest ways to mediate the conflict between our selves and our ideas. Play especially through games, provide a fun way to order and give meaning to the internal self. Games and other forms of play are not only systems of rules, but platforms for powerful stories. One of the powerful forms of media providing us with this combination of play and story-telling is digital games.

Ray Bradbury wrote, in defense of fantastic literature, that we should not call it escape literature, but instead return literature. We go somewhere else for however long it takes to experience the story, inhabiting a sovereign universe and then return: perhaps happier, maybe made more insightful, and hopefully better than before. This may seem a bit idealistic, but I believe this to be the case. Play provides us with a very important world, an immersive world. I believe some of the most inventive, interactive, and immersive worlds can be found in digital games.

I cannot tell you the precise moment I became aware of the importance of the combination of digitality and play, and how I felt it was necessary (even if it was just in blog form) to explicate the connection between the two. This connection is something I’ve thought about for many years, but have only recently been able to articulate. It may have come about while I was reading Harold Goldberg’s amusingly titled All Your Base Are Belong To Us, which chronicles the rise of video games as both a business and a story-telling medium through the stories of specific designers at specific moments of video game history.

It was while reading about the struggles of specific designers like Roberta Williams or Ken Levine to bring about the worlds they wanted to play in, or how one of the first interactive games with graphical display, Tennis For Two, was created on a whim by William Higinbotham— a scientist who was also part of the team that created the atomic bomb — that I realized something important: the digital game is an accidental medium, something that by all rights should not even exist. This isn’t to denigrate games, but to say that it is quite incredible that they are even here in the first place, and that they’ve been used as much for personal expression as entertainment. It also made me realize how much game designers sacrifice to create something that is too often dismissed as merely being a children’s toy.

This also made me realize how precarious a position digital games are in from the standpoint of both history and criticism. Games have gone through considerable changes since the invention of Tennis For Two in 1958 and the idea of writing about or even preserving the history of digital games is something relatively new. I began to think of the nightmare that future historians of the digital game may have to reckon with due to the fact that that gamers do not have the longest memories or the greatest dedication to games history. There is an important conversation about games that is currently happening and I want to be part of it in some way.

I believe in the immersive worlds created through digital games, and as you shall see through the writings in this blog, immersion cannot and should not simply be restricted to those places that offer the best 3D graphics or even the ability to interface with digital worlds via VR headsets like the Oculus Rift — immersive worlds take on many forms and many means of expression. As William Blake writes above “Energy is eternal delight” and I want to reveal what I think is the delightful and challenging energy offered in the still evolving medium of video games.

Edgar Allan Poe once wrote “I have never had a thought that I could not set down in words.” This has not always been the case for myself, but I hope to do better through the words set down here, beginning with this one piece of writing, something that is finally truthful about myself and what I believe in: this simple declaration of faith.

Tennis for Two, the first game with a graphical display, was developed by William Higinbotham in 1958.