Concepts to Give a Rest: Part I — Procedural Literacy

23’s been nagging at me lately. In the rush to use “games to teach” we keep skipping over the obvious question: Teach what?

So, it was with some interest I picked up on this item:

Kotaku, the Gamer’s Guide

The MacArthur Foundation has decided to contribute $1.1 million behind a new public school in New York for 6-12th graders. The curriculum for the entire school will surround designing video games. The idea is that if children have “gaming literacy”, or in other words, teaching kids about dynamic systems.

All well and good. But can I ask another question–do games really teach “procedural literacy?” I’m not saying that they don’t. Just asking.

As for an entire school based around games, well, that sounds like fun. So does an entire school based around comic books or sports or cooking. In fact, I think this is really the same idea that Disney uses when it comes to building hotels. They call it “themeing”, and I’m down with that.

I’m just not sure that I understand how playing games will make kids any better off that, say, using Google and the Wikipeduia and maybe learning Flash and a little BASIC. All things equal, I’m happy that someone is trying this out. We’ll see how it goes. And I’m equally glad that my kids are not in this particular program.

Heresy, you say? As a videogame researcher and writer, shouldn’t I want my kids to get that extra edge in the digital economy and learn this new literacy? Yeah, well, here’s the problem. My house is full of games and I am sure that whatever lessons games have to teach, my kids soak up on a regular basis. They don’t need to learn non-linear thinking at school. They need to remember to put their coats in the closet when they come home and to pick up their toys.

So what has been nagging? I think that we need to put these notions of computational, procedural or gaming literacy under the microscope and see what’s there. These notions sounded nice when we were trying to find reasons to justify studying games. Now we need to question those very assumptions.

Leisure Industries


Cover of SSX.
Over the weekend I had a chance to chat with a bunch of people who work in the Colorado ski industry. The key points that stuck out to me included:

  • The skiing is a global industry that wants to expand.
  • But expansion is often limited by the high cost for new people getting involved in the activity and,
  • The marketing and program development tends to emphasize the hardcore over the novice which,
  • Is problematic becaue the hardcore is the soul of the sport, but
  • More people don’t ski that do.

Sound familiar?

In this short analysis, the ski biz and the game biz share a common delima. Over and over we let hardcore gamers set the agenda and it takes a lot of Wiis or Bejeweled to convince anyone that many more people would play games if they were just easier and more friendly to the first-timer.

To this list of symmetries between videogames and skiing I would add that both are leisure activities very focused on their environments. Where you play is one of the most important decisions you make–Aspen or Vail, Vice City or Norrath.

Beyond that, these features may simply occur as the result of any leisure-focus. Pastimes and hobbies can be defined by their fans, and fans of different abilities and time commitments create a hardcore in opposition to a fringe or casual participants.

From this I still have a couple of questions:

  • Is this connection worth noting?
  • Can we say anything about skiing or other leisure industries by looking at games. Vice versa, can we say anything about games looking at these industries?

The Future of Cities. Today!


new-york-new-york-420What is a city?

It’s an obvious question with an even more obvious answer. But the answer probably depends on whom you talk to. An urban planner or mayor, a suburban housewife or a cop, an economist or a game designer, everyone will flavor the basic answer of — big place with lots of buildings and people–with a different spin.

Visions of the future offers a bit of narrative and  visual tour of images of the city of tomorrow as it has developed across a grab bag of artists and architects.

Without putting too fine a point on it, these collages of visions of the city provide a context for seeing how easy it is to feel that a virtual place is real. We’ve already reduced our actual urban experiences into an imagination of what a city is, or could be. Visit Exodar in World of Warcraft, and it feels real, in part, because we are used to imagining our cities.

New York New York in Vegas, anyone?

(Link via students in my summer class!)

SimCity Sprawls To New Version


Architecture may have the glitz, but urban planning has the classic game. Now, SimCity get’s a makeover with the holiday 2007 release of SimCity Societies.

1Up has some of the details:

SimCity Societies PC Preview, SimCity Societies Preview

As someone who teaches an introduction to urban planning using games, I’m quite familiar with the opportunities and hazards of teaching with SimCity. The biggest issue, as my students can tell you, is that the basis of planning is found in the public’s interest in private property. No public, to planning. No private property, no planning–at least not what we mean by urban planning.

SimCity, lacking a notion of private property, works more like a Stalinist simulation, whereby the people simply suffer under the rule of an all-powerful dictator. In SimCity there is simply no significant consequence to razing blocks of homes to make way for a new football stadium. Try that in your town and see what happens.

Will Societies fix any of these problems. From what we know how, it doesn’t seem so. And that may be due to the fact that community participation, public hearings and due process just don’t seem like enjoyable play mechanics.

What is most peculiar about the new game, from the descriptions, is an implementation of something  called “environmental determinism.” In practice, this is a whole raft of beliefs around the idea (and I am trivializing here to just make a clear point), that if you use lots of soothing green colors in a building people will be more relaxed.

The new game uses some form of this in the guise of “social energies”. These spirits inhabit your buildings and shape it, say, from a more totalitarian shape into a bright, happy artistic place.

We’ll see how that pays out, but it might turn SimCity further away from anything useful in terms of understanding cities.

One thing I am looking forward to are whimsicle sets of buildings that let you style your urban places more in the tone of The Nightmre Before Christmas than New York City. It might seem silly on the surface. But if you’ve been to Walt Disney World, you will see just how powerful a city built on fantasy can be.

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Really Real Real Estate


We can debate the relative “realness” of virtual space all we want. But our synthetic worlds continue to strive for a tangibility that is not always graphics based:

Eve Online – Video Games – New York Times:

This specter of corruption has emerged most recently not in some post-colonial trouble spot but in the virtual nation of an Internet game called Eve Online (population 200,000) where aspiring star pilots fight over thousands of solar systems in a vast science-fiction universe every day.

So now, in a sociological twist, the company that makes Eve, CCP, based in Iceland (population 300,000), says it will tackle the problem the way a democracy would. In what appears to be a first, the company plans to hold elections so that players can select members of an oversight committee.

The company will then fly those players to Iceland regularly so they can audit CCP’s operations and report back to their player-constituents. And taking cues from transitions to democracy in the developing world, CCP says it will call in election monitors from universities in Europe and the United States.

So, get this straight, a game company is electing a virtual citizen’s oversight board comprised of real people to fly on real planes to Iceland, just to make sure the fabric of the virtual space maintains a sort of social  crediblity necessary for outer space adventuring verisimilitude.

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