Sunday, September 8, 2013

Game Patterns: Why Every "Intro to Programming" Class Should Begin with a Children's Card Game

With my classes starting and me nerding it up with friends last week, I didn't have a lot of time for the blog. But I did think of a few ideas which I now have a chance to write down.

We have already discussed game mechanics, dynamics, and aesthetics but we have not discussed how to use this knowledge to aid gameful design. Today we will start off by talking about dynamics. Paradoxically, I thought of this idea when I was watching a video on aesthetics. Below, Extra Credit talks about how we have been getting it all wrong when discussing game genres. It really gets interesting around the 2 minute mark.

The video is perfectly right; it is rather silly to use the mechanics and dynamics of a medium to define its genres but it can be useful. By describing a movie as a "wide angle shot" movie, I know that it will feature many panoramas and vistas. Therefore if someone were to tell me that an educational video on nature was a "wide angle shot" movie then I could guess that it might show some amazing panoramas of natural wonders.

This should be the same for video games. We know that video games can be educational but what types of video games are best for teaching a particular type of subject? And is it possible to determine the types of dynamics that are needed to effectively teach and train specific subjects? Before we can answer that question we first need to discuss a fundamental concept that I call game patterns.

A game pattern is a set of game dynamics that define a game. You can have two very different games that share a pattern. This is different from a genre since, as mentioned by Extra Credit, it makes more sense for genres to be focused on how the medium makes us feel rather than the dynamics that we play. However, understanding a game's dynamics can be used to understand what it can teach us. For instance, you can have two games, one with a challenge aesthetic and another with a discovery aesthetic; but both could have the same game pattern where the player must navigate a character in a 2D environment. In one game the player may have to defeat a number of challenging enemies and in the other game the player may just need to navigate through the world to discover new and crazy things. Both have vastly different aesthetics but have very similar dynamics.

But if Fez and Rogue Legacy share a game pattern then does that mean they are teaching players the same thing? Since both games involve navigation through the environment, they both test the player's navigational skills, as well as reflexes needed to correctly jump onto a platform. As long the games share the same 2D platformer game pattern then the player will learn these things. Of course since the games are different this may mean that the player may learn things in one game that they do not learn in the other.

Moving on to more cognitive skills, as I mentioned in the last post, there is evidence that playing Starcraft increases cognitive flexibility in players. Cognitive flexibility is defined as "the ability to coordinate attentional processes between two or more concurrent or alternating operations". With this definition, ANYONE who has played Starcraft could tell that it increases cognitive flexibility but the real question is whether other games that follow the same game pattern as Starcraft will provide the same results. How similar do the games need to be? You could say that Europa Universalis is also a real-time strategy game where the player must switch between different forms of information; but the player has the ability to pause the game in EU and not in Starcraft. Is this difference fundamental for  the game's effectiveness in teaching cognitive flexibility?

By analysing the dynamics and mechanics of a game can we begin to isolate the ways in which it can teach us skills that are useful outside of a game? For instance, I had a conversation with a friend about a bastion of nerdom: Magic: The Gathering (MtG). For those of you who do not know about Magic the Gathering, this video should give you an idea.

So it is very similar to Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh and other collectible card games. MtG can teach you about basic math since it involves keeping track of your life points, the life points of your creatures, effects on your creatures, and so on. But as Finn says in the video above, the game really teaches logic. A player can use a set of cards that has several "combos" that, when played together, have a devastating effect on their opponent. These combos can only be identified by studying how the cards affect other cards in the game. It is possible that the game creators did not even expect for the cards to be played together.

Most of these combos are a set of "if -then-else" statements that ensure that the player does well in the game. Now the beauty of using specific dynamics to teach a concept is that the designer is free to use whatever aesthetic they want for the game. If your audience likes to day dream then you can use a fantasy card game where the player pretends to be a powerful wizard. If your audience is competitive then you can create a dueling-card game where the player is trying to destroy their opponent (like Jake), or if your audience is inquisitive then you can design a game where the player tries to gain and learn about new and exciting creatures (like Pokemon). If the basic game pattern is the same then the player still needs to use logic to do well in the game. So the aesthetic is the "hook" (why people enjoy the game and their motivation for playing) and the pattern delivers the lesson. In the case of MtG, and other duel type games, it is the lure of domination that makes you learn the how to use logic to win the game.

For my research, I would love to setup a similar study as the Starcraft study to determine whether a collectible card game that has several combos is best for teaching a context that involves logic like computer programming. A card game where the player must use several complicated combos to win may provide a better chance for learning logic than a game where combos are not so important.

Just like the Starcraft study I could find 70 people who have never played collectible card games or know how to program and subjects would play in a week long Magic tournament, Pokemon tournament, or go outside or whatever non-gamers do. I could then teach programming to all of the subjects and ask them to code a simple program. It would be interesting to see whether those who competed in the Magic tournament learned significantly faster, or wrote better code, than those who did not. Of course I would have to get this past ethics review since there could be possible side effects.

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