Archive

Think:games

I’ve been regularly posting for Think:games over the last year, and by now can look back at a considerable amount of in-depth articles as well as blog posts. Games and education remains a rare combination of subjects, and I am still strongly convinced it is rewarding to research it more.

However, I now find myself in a position where I have to, for the moment, put a break on this project. Even though I have a degree in philosophy education, I have not been able to find work in education in the past almost two years. Applying for a different kind of work has paid off, however, and I will now start working in a new position with my other main interest, music, as a copyright officer. This job will have me relocate to another country, and altogether this will leave no place for me to actively continue the Think:games project.

This means that Think:games will be on an indefinite hiatus, until I or someone else is in a position to pick it up again. Please read here an invitation to contact me if you would like to correspond over the subject of games in education, if you want to start a new project or maybe even continue my work. The subject continues to interest me, and I think games will at some point in the future will be deeply integrated in education: not if, but when.

Continuing the Reading the game series, this article will break a new subject for this blog: history! Surprisingly, my obsession with philosophy does know bounds, plus my aspiration is to have a blog about education in general, not philosophy education alone. That being said, in the future I also would like to cover some completely different fields such as chemistry or physics. But first, let’s look at one of the most historically accurate games about the middle ages to date: Crusader Kings II (2012).

Paradox Interactive
Crusader Kings II is a Paradox game. Paradox is a game publisher so associated with a specific brand of games that just mentioning “Paradox games” gives you a good indication of the game’s content: a focus on historical accuracy (or just realism, in the case of games in modern day settings), very specific optimization options and making your decisions meaningful – every action has a consequence. Crusader Kings is this publisher’s series about the middle ages, covering the years between 769 until 1453 AD. It lets you pick a ruler of any area in or around Europe and set your own goals – initially, procreating before you die and keeping your lands in the hands of your dynasty will be hard enough. Crusader Kings II is different from most (grand) strategy games in that you don’t play a country but a dynasty, a much more realistic portrayal of political power structures in medieval Europe. As the game itself will tell you: the starting situation is historical, and thus completely unbalanced. And while you may opt for a course of peace, you will notice that most rulers (or raiders) in the world will be out for your gold, titles and lands.

Historical accuracy and realism
The realism in Crusader Kings II consists first of all of this historical outset, where all of Europe is divided in historical counties, and secondly of the factors which the AI’s simulation takes into account. Letting the game run its course (with or without your intervention) will create many more or less possible variations of actual history, based on a number of factors: a ruler’s skill and ambition, succession laws, religion, the natural borders of your land, and not to forget: pure chance. These mechanics are quite sophisticated, and have given the game a reputation of having a very steep learning curve during the first hours. YouTuber Arumba has a tutorial series about Crusader Kings II that runs for a solid six hours.

Crusader Kings II for learning
As a consequence of this focus on realism, understanding the game mechanics of Crusader Kings II can give you an understanding of these concepts in historical reality. I will explain how this works for three of the game’s core elements.

Counties, duchies, kingdoms
Crusader Kings II’s map is diveded primarily into counties rather than kingdoms or countries. Of course, the county borders and de jure duchies were not as constant in reality as they are in the game, but Crusader Kings II is still several steps ahead of many other games. As stated before, its approach is unique in letting you play a dynasty, rather than a country. This means you can go from count to king or even emperor, or vice versa, and this highlights a dynamic present in Europe’s history that is oversimplified by many other games: that countries, let alone nation states, (with which many “Europeans” wouldn’t have identified themselves at the time) were not the main “units” in the struggle for political power, but dynasties, alliances, or even individual rulers, depending on the particular situation. In other words: a much more complex picture than you will see in a game series like Civilization. No offence there: the Civilization can be a lot more fun than Crusader Kings, but the latter wins the battle for realism by a long stretch.

Schermafbeelding 2017-02-25 om 19.14.04.png

The de jure kingdoms in 1066 (susceptible to change over time)

Claims and succession
Although of medieval Europe’s military history, it’s mostly the crusades that have drawn attention, and in Crusader Kings II, religion will be the point of conflict of many wars as well (especially when the pope funds you for them). Following closely on that list of hot issues however, was probably the succession of claims. Crusader Kings II does this (harsh) reality justice by distinguishing the complexity of succession types that different regions subscribed to: (elective) gavelkind, feudal elective, primogeniture, ultimogeniture, tanistry, et cetera, the choice of which of course depends on the specific historical context (government type, religion, et cetera).

That being difficult enough, claims to titles and lands are not simple either. Crusader Kings II is by my knowledge the only game to make the distinction between de jure and de facto claims, a distinction between the actual controlling (de facto) ruler or the “rightful” (de jure) ruler. Not that the latter is set in stone though, de jure claims on kingdoms and empires can shift over time, a process that some effective diplomacy can speed up. Claims can also be fabricated, an often used strategy since many government types cannot declare war and conquer land without a “casus belli” – a “reasoned” claim to a territory. Pagan rulers have much less restrictions in this regard, but their claims are much harder to inherit within the same dynasty. Paradox has made some historical concepts and dynamics into game compelling mechanics, and while staying relatively true to the history books, this can make the game as much fun as for example Game of Thrones, or other works of fiction that revolve around intrigue in a medieval setting. The sometimes arbitrary nature of claims may be the smallest lesson to take from this part of the game.

Schermafbeelding 2017-02-25 om 19.14.59.png

The dynasty tree

Bureaucracy, efficiency
A third mechanic of Crusader Kings II is that of bureaucracy, by which I mean the organization of your realm in terms of government type, taxation, specific laws, et cetera. Most strategy games let you “mine” resources and directly “build” troops out of them, and while that mechanic is generally fun and effective, it has little to do with historical reality. In Crusader Kings II‘s feudal Europe, in which most new players will start, every ruler has vassals, landed nobles who have troops and incomes, of which they provide a percentage to their liege. Historically, efficiency of tax collection and the raising of troops was a huge deal, and crucial to sustaining political power in a region. Crusader Kings II has a combination of factors determine how many of their troops and income vassals are willing to provide to you, including personality modifiers, your demesne size, your laws, et cetera. If your realm gets bigger, you may consider creating new titles to create more layers of bureaucracy, saving you the trouble of dealing directly with lower vassals but decreasing your control over them. Once again, this is a real historical struggle that Paradox has made into an important (but also fun) game mechanic.

Ridiculousness
So far, it seems like the developers have made a pure historical simulation, but that’s not strictly true either. Crusader Kings II can be a lot of fun, because of its focus on intrigue and scheming, some crazy random events that you can encounter, and just generally giving you the freedom to do some things that would in no conceivable version of reality have been done by the real historical counterparts of your in-game characters. Just watch this trailer that piles up some of the hilarious game elements.

After all, Paradox is a publisher that values realism, but also a compelling game, and Crusader Kings II is exactly that. Like other Paradox titles, it’s notorious for dragging you in for hundreds of hours of play, and this has everything to do with the enormous range of possible scenarios, and your ability to influence them. I have written before on how many games don’t give you direct knowledge or even skills, but are still good for learning because they are simulations that let you experiment. Crusader Kings II is a prime example. Part of understanding how and why things occurred the way they did is understanding what would have happened if… and it’s games like these that are the ultimate toolbox for that kind of question.

Concluding
So don’t give this game to students and expect them to know who ruled what and when within a few hours of play. But let them be engaged by the complexity of Crusader Kings II‘s mechanics, and they might understand much better the workings of dynasties, political power plays, succession and the role of religion in medieval politics. A characteristic of learning through games that I haven’t touched on yet is the fact that prolonged interaction with these kinds of concepts will be very beneficial to remembering and understanding them. And if you’re looking for prolonged interaction, go for Paradox games like this one.

What do you think of Crusader Kings II‘s educational potential? Is there something I missed? Please let me know in the comments!

It’s a small anniversary for Think:games, blog post #10! As always, more content is on the way, but I thought I’d use this blog post to quickly discuss how the Think:games project is doing, and sketch some plans and goals for the future.

As for my readers and followers, I can’t complain. My most read posts were the in-depth articles on The Stanley Parable and Deus Ex: Human Revolution, then there were the other articles (on MOBA’s and  Fallout 4), and interestingly enough, my regular blog posts were read least of all. I decided on my blog schedule of around two posts a month because of the expectation that this would engage readers, but it turns out having less, more in-depth articles works better! Seeing these statistics, I will focus less on the blog and more on the in-depth articles in 2017.

Thanks to my collaboration with IndieWatch, I am getting more exposure both on my blog and on Twitter, and I am very happy with that. The key for me in 2017, however, will be not in particular to have a large following, but to connect with key actors in this relatively new field of games for education. Games4ed, as you’ll find it on Twitter, is very promising and I can’t wait to collaborate with anyone who wants to develop this (awesome but still too small) scene! Whether this involves developing educational materials, assisting developers, or teaching it myself, I’ll be fully dedicated to work towards more games in education!

Kicking off this blog’s collaboration with the excellent site IndieWatch, in this blog post I look at games in education from a different angle than I usually do: the developer’s!

Educational games have long been developed and funded by educators, publishers of educational methods (or: books), and found their way to players the same way the books did: directly from the publisher to the school. But the video game landscape has changed dramatically. Over the years, “regular” video games (or: games meant to be fun, not necessarily to be educational) have been taken much more seriously, all of (at least pc) gaming’s distribution mechanism has moved to the internet, and of course the indie game scene has developed, showing that it does not take funding or publishing by a major company to make an impact.

Maybe you’re in the process of developing a video game, and want to know what you can do with educational gaming. Maybe you just want to know what is currently going on in this particular area of the gaming industry. Or maybe you’re still unconvinced that games in education will ever become a thing. Below, I will answer three questions that game developers might have regarding games in education. Have any other questions? Please let me know in the comments!

Are there specific requirements for a game to be educational?

No. Although education is often rigid and focused on very specific knowledge and skills, learning is a broad term, and for any specific piece of knowledge or skill that can be learned, different learning goals and methods will apply. Whether teachers will or will not use a game for teaching depends on whether it helps students reach their educational goals. Gone Home wasn’t designed as such, but turned out to be great to teach students literary techniques. Whereas the first SimCity was designed with theories of urban planning and system dynamics in mind, but the thing most people remember that game for was the destruction of cities by huge monsters, which the game happened to feature.

simcity1989

People may not realize your game’s educational potential if you don’t tell them. Image: SimCity

Although it is true that some features make games more fit for educational use than others, but the bottom line is that you do not need to design it as such for a game to be educational.

Which features make games fit for educational use?

So which features do make it more likely that a teacher will pick up your game and decide to use it in class?

First off, there’s the practical side of things. You’ll help out a lot if your game has plenty of loadable checkpoints, save slots, and the ability to easily skip through cutscenes and “busywork”.

CrusaderKings2.png

Customizability allows teachers to tailor game scenarios to learning goals. Image: Crusader Kings II

In case of simulators or strategy games, the more customization options, the better. This way, teachers can much better control the parts of the game that they want to use in class.

Secondly, the educational potential of your game might be discovered by a teacher who also happens to be a gaming enthousiast, such as in that particular case with Gone Home. But generally this won’t be the case. It’ll help greatly if you explicitly promote the educational potential of your game. This doesn’t mean that you have to sell your game as educational. Take the example of Minecraft, which is hugely popular with gaming audiences, but has a separate educational version, which is promoted to teachers and schools via completely different avenues than the regular version. In other words: students (through teachers) become a new target audience, which you’ll have to reach via different ways than your usual target audience.

And thirdly, think about developing educational material alongside your game. This could be ideas for projects, exercises, tests; material teachers can use with your game right away. Preparing new lesson plans from scratch can take a lot of time for teachers. Save them this time by developing a method with teachers for teachers. And, like Minecraft, make sure teachers can share their own lesson plans in one location.

How big is it? Or: on what scale are games currently being used in education and how will this develop in the future?

It’s important to make a distinction between

educational games, games designed for the purpose of learning

games in education (games4ed), non-educational games used for learning.

The first group is the oldest. Educational games such as these or these have been around for years or even decades, and are to gaming what Sesame Street is to television. This industry will be around for probably ever, but it’s not likely to grow a lot because it focuses on very specific audiences (usually children of a specific age), and the games often don’t have mechanics that actually make them fun to the extent that kids will keep playing them at later ages.

MinecraftEducationEdition.png

Minecraft: Education Edition, the biggest player in the field (for now)

Games in education, the main subject of this blog, is a growing but smaller industry at the moment. Currently, the only big player in this field is Minecraft. Sadly, there is little research on the trends of this branch, but many schools are currently adapting forms of digital learning (iPads, chromebooks, digiboards, coding lessons) that will eventually pave the way for a large scale application of games to learning. When the infrastructure is there, it’s to be seen which games will take the stage alongside Minecraft. However, it’s likely they have the features discussed above, and will be chosen for their ability go engage students more than regular learning methods do. In other words: make sure your game is fun first, and only then look at how you might be able to tailor it to learning purposes.

 

 

If you’re reading this blog, there’s a good chance you want to or are already using games in education. But in a vast majority of schools, playing games as a regular part of class is little more than a fantasy. If you’re lucky, you can experiment with it in your own classes or even get support from the school, but still many schools ignore or even reject the idea that games can have a meaningful contribution to learning. This is why I dedicate this blog post to some of the reasons games may not be picked up by a school, and provide some counter arguments to them.

Read More