Category Archives: Education

Becoming Storytellers and Game Makers in the RPG Maker VX Community

A while back, I wrote a post about a very neat piece of software called RPG Maker. I never really got to building a game with it, but I have become fascinated with the community that has come together around the software.  This post begins a series of entries about a research project I have started to explore how this community is scaffolding game players into game makers. In this post I will briefly outline some of the interesting. The image below shows an screen shot from Prelude to Identity, a well received game in the community.

Image from popular RPG Maker Game Prelude of Identity

Daily Composition on the RPG Maker VX boards

Everyday several hundred members of the RPG Maker VX Community read through a new set of project development posts on the community’s forums. In each of these posts amateur game designers, primarily between the ages of 18 and 24, share 500-1000 word game proposals for community critique. These posts include elements of traditional composition, like the proposed games setting, characters, and storyline. They also include elements unique to games as new media, like the proposed game’s mechanics, artwork, and audio. Over the next few days, each of these proposed projects receives extensive feedback from the community. After substantial revision, refinement, development, and continued engagement with the community, some of the community members’ complete their games and share them with the group.

For an example of some of the thoughtful kinds of design and composition that goes into creating game maps see Mr. Moo‘s video of a follow up game Crescendo of Identity.

Short Outline of Project Methods

I have received permission from my schools human subjects review board to explore the community through a diverse set of methods. I have started conducting a survey to get a sense of community members activity, behaviors, and participation. In a few weeks I will start and a set of interviews with community members to get a deeper sense of how members understand their participation and explore some of the various roles they are taking on. My goal is to then use the survey and interviews to help add texture and context to a detailed analysis of community interactions as preserved on the message boards.

I have already started to get back survey results. I am excited to share some of the preliminary information here in the next few weeks.

Evolution in Spore: A Case Study in Player Agency

Spore is not a good game for learning about evolution. As many have eloquently articulated the games mechanics clearly place the player in the role of intelligent designer. With that said, I think this case provides an interesting moment to explore the relationship between the role the game puts players in and what players do with that role.

While I would agree that the game does not teach people about evolution, I haven’t seen anything about how players are actually understanding and interpreting the game. This is indicative of a trend across game criticism and scholarship. Instead of exploring how games are understood by their players, they are most frequently analyzed with the assumption that any perceived in adequacies in the mechanics of a game will transfer uninterrupted into the minds of the games players.

To underscore the problems that arise in this kind of thinking I present an extreme case. Below is Youtube user, KyoraMishiso’s interpretation and presentation of the game. Kyora is a young aspiring cartoonist who reports her favorite artist as Enriquo Rermi. Two years ago she posted this video, titled. “Spore Evolution” Below is her video.

In this example Kyora has used the game as a platform for telling a story. She is using the game, not the other way around. She took the mechanics of the game and filled in the gaps in the games treatment of evolution with her own knowledge. She then created this video, which has now been watched more than 60,000 times, to articulate her interpretation of the game. While I see no reason to accept her understanding of the game as anything more than a personal one, quite frankly, an understanding of how one individual engages with the game is more than most analysis of the game which I have seen.

I offer this example to illustrate one way in which a player has engaged with the game. With that said, this sort of example should provide a wake-up call to individuals that think understanding games does not require understanding how players understand, interact with, and make use of their game play experiences. While analysis of the game as artifact can provide valuable information about it’s creator’s intentions those intentions are just one layer of a games meaning. Each player brings their own experience into dialog with the artifact to make their own meaning, and I think this example helps illuminate the need to understand the meaning players make as they co-construct their experiences in games.

I think cases like this point out how frequently those interested in studying games start out by asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking, what does a game mean; we should be asking what does a game mean in a given context? We should be looking at how are players using the game and what kind of agency they are expressing through interaction with the game. What argument is the games creator making and how are it’s players understanding, misunderstanding, agreeing with, rejecting, or otherwise complicating that meaning?

Autotune for science, or when youtube got smart

When I first stumbled across  Carl Sagan – ‘A Glorious Dawn’ ft Stephen Hawking (Cosmos Remixed) I thought I would find a quick laugh, instead I found something profoundly moving. This autotuned mash-up of documentary footage ends up leaving viewers feeling much of the awe which so much of formal science education fails to communicate. The video and song capitalize on the sing-song voice, poetic statements, and dramatic style Carl Sagan, and many other astronomers are known for, and use them to develop engaging and moving video and music.

I was delighted to see that the feelings this piece evoked in my wife and I was not just our own funky science geek tastes. Since September 17th the video has been viewed 1,550,136, and those viewers have left their thoughts and feelings about the work in the comments. While youtube comments are notoriously  the lowest form of communication, these comments reflect and reiterate my own feelings about the piece. The National Science Foundation is always looking for ways to get the public excited about science. I say they should give that money to melodysheep. Think about it, how many of the 1.5 million people that viewed this video would have viewed the two documentaries which the video drew from?


For his follow up piece, which underscores that this is not just a singularity, see Symphony of Science – ‘We Are All Connected’ (ft. Sagan, Feynman, deGrasse Tyson & Bill Nye)

A Walk Down Edutainment Lane: Or, What Target Taught Me About Serious Games

Apparently war game sims sell, even oldish ones. Last weekend I took a quick walk through the games section of our local Target to see what new Wii and DS games looked fun. After picking up a copy of Cooking Mama, I took a gander at some of the games on the next row of shelves. The next aisle over offered an extensive selection of games, each priced to move at $9.99.

It is kinda like the minor league for commercial video games. There are major league veterans, like Civilization III, riding out their final years. Other games, like the rack of historical battle games pictured above, just never had what it took to make it to the majors.

A Walk Down Edutainment Lane

Alongside these games, I also found a slate of old edutainment favorites, Math blaster, Oregon Trail, Carmen Sandiego, all the games I use to play on 3.5 floppies. What are these games doing here? The original Math Blaster was released in 1987, Carmen Sandiego in 1985, and Oregon Trail in 1971. While these editions are clearly updated, for example Math Blaster is now in 3D, from what I can gather they are really just better looking ports of the original games. Are these the educational equivalent of Mario and Donkey Kong? Are the core ideas behind these games so strong that we just haven’t topped them, or do publishers just go with what’s safe? Furthermore, what is the market for these games? I would assume the audience for these titles is still the same, targeting parents who want to buy educational games for their kids, it’s just that now they’re marketing to parents that grew up with these same games.

Simulation As A Way of Knowing: First Reflections on Will Wright's Keynote at the 5th Annual Innovations in e-Learning Conference.

It’s not everyday that one gets to swoon as a big time fan boy. Will Wright spoke at the Innovations and e-Learning Symposium and I had the chance to stake out a spot right in the center of the room and soak up a bit of Wright’s visionary gamer visions. Beyond making some of the biggest games of all time (SimCity, The Sims, and Spore to name a few), Wright is also one of the most thoughtful game thinkers around. Below are a few of the pieces in his approach to his sort of games that I think are the most interesting/ innovative/ and crucial.


1. Simulation itself is a powerful, and constant way in which everyone understands the world. We are always creating models of what will happen, how people will react, based on our schema’s and our experiences which ultimately inform our actions.

2. The games he builds create possibility spaces. You make your own stories, you have the ability to restart and take a different branch. On a very basic level this like the branching narrative you get in those old chose your own adventure novels. The bigger sandbox worlds we see in things like Civilization, The Sims, and GTA offer much more sophisticated multidimensional trees, but the concept is the same.

3. For Will when gamers play games they are actually reverse engineering the game as they play it. While a parent watching their child play Wolfenstein might be taken back by the violence Wright suggests that Kids see the higher level of abstraction the power-ups, a door to the next level. In their minds its more like playing chess.  They are abstracting the grammar of these game worlds. Inside the mind of the player they are honing in on the elements, the design decisions, the mechanics that make the game work and testing their theories, making choices and taking the feedback the game provides to refine and improve those theories. In his opinion the “Best games are the games you keep playing after you walk away from your computer. The games you keep playing through in your own imagination.”

I have a lot of mental digestion to do on this talk, but I have one first thought. If we need to think seriously about the role of the reader when studying a text that need is at least ten times greater when studying the relationship between the gamer and the game. The possibilities afforded by the game are just so much larger. I have some more thoughts on this but I will pick them up later.

Distributed Research Tool Instruction: Think Interlibrary Loan for Training

The ever growing heap of neat digital research tools is simultaneously fascinating and problematic. Some of this stuff really has the potential to be transformational, to provide new avenues for scholarship, and teaching,  but the sheer quantity of tools makes it a bit difficult for scholars and teachers to know where to start from, and what to do when they have started. I am excited to see some of these research tools, like Zotero, becoming part of library instruction on various campuses, but the ever increasing quantity of tools suggests that the possibilities for the few instruction folks at any institution to inform their users about these tools is outpacing the ability for instruction folks to fold them into their offerings. While there are many other avenues for learning about these tools, documentation, screencasts, etc. there is a lot to be said about the sort of hands on instruction and thoughtfulness you get from instruction folks.

With just a little creative thinking I think we could work this out. By pooling instructional resources together much the same way that libraries pool their collections, we could develop a rich collective distributed instruction network that could function alongside existing instruction networks.  If folks are interested please leave comments. It’s also entirely possible that this sort of thing already exists, if so please take a moment to point me to it. Here are what I see as the potential advantages.

alarm-clizockMore Flexible Scheduling:

By pooling resources folks at libraries and other parts of schools involved in instruction can offer users a much more flexible schedule of instruction. If 15 campuses each offer 5 sessions on Zotero in this sort of pool students and faculty at each of their institutions now have access to 75 different sessions on Zotero instead of 5.

evil-geniusShare Exotic and Esoteric Research Tools:

Every instructional tech person I’ve met has a specialty. If there was this sort of distributed instruction network a Librarian in Kansas with an amazing way to use for immunology research who might not be able to fill a class on his campus could probably fill out the session with folks from a larger pool of students and researchers.

wireframe-draft-whateverConnect Existing Instruction Networks:

Even at individual campuses instruction on tools tends to crop up in all sorts of unexpected places. For example, at GMU the Center for Teaching Excellence, Writing Center, Campus Libraries, Instructional Technology Services alongside individual departments all offer different sorts of training. Beyond these differences GMU is spread across three different campuses, meaning that face to face classes in each of these cases are distributed across each campus.

So what would this Distributed Digital Tool Instruction Thingy Look Like?

I don’t have a clear vision here. I think there are several different directions something like this could develop. Here are three options as I see it.

Piggy Back on An Existing Service: There are now a multitude of free enough platforms for screensharing, live chat, sharing slides, and video conferencing. A system for this could simply piggy back on a service like WiZiQ, or DimDim. This senario would have zero upfront investment, and folks could just start this network inside one of these tools.

Stitch together a much more flexible network: Another approach would be to be to stitch together small tool agnostic set up. Everyone uses the system they are comfortable with and then just aggregates info on what sorts of instruction going on and then everyone posts what they are teaching on a collaborative calender.

Build Something More Coherent: Work up a more coherent custom platform for pulling all of this together. There are a lot of neat, more complicated, possibilities. For example a system could keep track of karma points for users from an institution and classes offered by folks from that institution.

Design Rationale: Playing History

This week in Clio Wired: Creating History With New Media each of my classmatees has been diligently working on composing a design rationale for each of our projects. Below is my rationalization. You can also view it as this PDF.

Related to this I thought folks might be interested in the slides for the presentation I gave on Playing History at the American Association of History and Computing’s conference over the weekend.

Re-mixing The Tech Tree: Build Your Own History Of Science

A few weeks back Rob Macdougall posted a great essay about using the game Civilization’s approach to the history of science and technology as a point of entry into conversations about models for representing the history of science and technology more broadly. Rob’s students picked apart the way the game allows players to develop science and tech. Student’s then proposed their own ideas for how to model the history of science in a video game.

There is a lot of excitement about games and education but so much of that fervor misses a crucial point at the heart of Rob’s assignment. Games, like other media (books, articles, films, etc.) express arguments in their content. But it’s not just the content of the games that make arguments. In most cases the most compelling arguments in games are actually embedded inside game mechanics. As Rob’s students uncovered, the structure of the tech tree itself makes assumptions about how progress, science, and technology work.

Rob’s assignment is in fact so fun that there are all sorts of gamers that do exactly this sort of thing for fun. Civilization has a sizeable Moder community, which spends a tremendous amount of time building, tearing apart, and remaking the way science and technology work in the game. For an indication of the tenaicty of this community take a look at this book length post on editing tech trees in Civ 4. More impressive than the posts length are the 150 comments from modders thanking and critiquing the work. For another view on the community check out this Civ Asia scenario. Many of these moders are going well beyond tweaking the game, for example in this thread some are working on put different civilizations on completely indpendent  trunks.

The tech tree is such a facinating entity that it provokes all sorts of gamers to get into heated arguments about how the history of science and technology works. In the face of this sort of evidence it is hard to support notions that limitations in the way Civ models history give gamers a poor conception of the way history works. On the contrary the enthusism of these moders seems to suggest that the mechanics of Civ provoke gamers to think more deeply about the nature of science and technology.

Marie Curie on Ada Lovelace Day

Today is Ada Lovelace Day,  an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. From their website, ‘Women’s contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognized. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines.” I think the day is a great idea, and it offers another opportunity . Not only is it crucial to highlight the accomplishments of these tech heroines, it’s also important to make sure that memory of these women is not distorted through gendered lenses.

I wrote my undergraduate thesis on Marie Curie, one of the worlds most famous scientists. Her life story is by all accounts an amazing story of a woman’s success in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. While Curie may seem like a strange choice for a day celebrating unsung heroines, the way in which stories of her youth are generally distorted underscores a need to check up on stories to make sure they do not distort the accomplishments of women through gendered lenses. Consider the difference between different stories about Curie in children’s books.

Curie Cries

While Marie Curie is one of the most well known scientists when we tell her story to children it is generally through a deeply gendered lens. Practically every children’s book about Curie focuses on following story. In this story Manya Skłodowska (Curie’s childhood name) was the youngest and smartest student in her class. The occupying Russian forces forbid teaching children in Polish and teaching Polish history. Instead, schools were required to have children memorize Russian history and learn the Russian language. The school that Manya attended disobeyed these rules. When Russian school inspectors came to check on the school a look-out in the hallway would warn the class and the class would hide their Polish books. Once the inspector came in, the teacher would call on Manya to answer his questions. In the story, Manya succeeds by answering all of the Russian inspector’s questions in Russian to his liking. After he leaves, apparently exhausted, she cries and is comforted by her teacher.

In this story it becomes apparent that while Manya is very smart and strong she still has a kind of frailty. In this situation readers see that Manya’s knowledge gives her a kind of importance. She is called on in class because of her impressive memory, and saves the class from the inspector. While there is a clash with the authority of the inspector the story places Manya in a much more traditional relationship with the authority of her teacher, who comforts her once the inspector leaves. While the stories of Einstein were marked by an exaggeration that stressed his clashes with authority, the story of the Russian inspector is usually treated in a way that is much more consistent with the authoritative texts.

Curie The Rebel

A very different picture of Curie emerges in the other stories from Curie’s youth. These selections come from the second chapter of Eleanor Doorly’s 1939 book, The Radium Women: Madame Curie book, appropriately entitled “Rebels.”

In the Russian-run high school Manya and her friend Kazia “took delight in inventing witticisms against their Russian professors, their German master, and especially against Miss Mayer who detested Manya only a little less than Manya detested her.” Their teacher Miss Mayer stated, “It’s no more use speaking to that Sklodovska girl than throwing green peas at a wall!” On one occasion Doorly tells us of a time in which Manya was openly disrespectful, and witty. “I won’t have you look at me like that!’ Miss Mayer would shout. ‘You have no right to look down on me!’ ‘I can’t help it,’ said Manya truthfully, for she was a head taller that Miss Mayer. No doubt she was glad that words sometimes have two meanings” (1939, pp. 21-22).

In all of these other school stories the young Manya is openly disrespectful of her teachers. While the story of her encounter with the Russian inspector is interesting it should be just one of several stories about Manya’s school experience. Importantly, it is the only story that puts her in a position of weakness against the authority of both the teacher and the inspector. Other stories show the potential of portraying a Manya who is similar to the exaggerated Einstein, openly disrespectful of a rather hostile teacher.

Curie’s Curls

To highlight the extent to which current portrayals in children’s books have departed from Doorly’s 1939 children’s biography of Curie and Eva Curie’s depiction of her mother, consider the following two discussions of Manya’s curls. According to Keith Brandit’s 1983 picture book about Marie Curie,

Manya was the picture of the perfect pupil. She stood straight, her face calm and serious. Her hair was neatly braided and tied with a dark ribbon. She wore the school uniform: a navy-blue wool dress with steel buttons and a starched white collar. On her feet were dark stockings and polished, black, high laced shoes (1983, p. 35).

Here, not only is she the perfectly upright pupil, she is also the picture of the perfect student. Compare this with Doorly’s 1939 Manya.

Look at your ridiculous, frizzy, disorderly head, Manya Sklodovska! How often have you been told to confine your curls? Come here and let me brush them down and make you look like a decent school girl.” “Like a German Gretchen!” thought Manya, but she said nothing. So with the brush that brushed everybody’s hair, she set on Manya’s head with good hard blows. But however hard she brushed, the curls were rebels, still those light, capricious, exquisite curls that framed Manya’s round rebellious face (p. 25).

Putting these two texts in parallel it is hard to see them as discussions of the same individual. In the 1939 piece from Doorly, we see a witty and rebellious student far more exciting than Brandit’s 1984 “picture of the perfect pupil.” Both the story of the inspector and the other stories originate in Eva Curie’s biography of her mother. However the only story included in practically all books after 1939 depicts Manya’s power as something subject to the authority of the teacher. The Curie books ignore parts of her story to emphasize just the opposite point. All of the incidents between Curie and her teachers at the Russian school are ignored and young readers are left with only the incident with the Russian inspector. While Curie does exercise a kind of power in the incident with the inspector, it is subdued.

Recognition Is A Good First Start, But It’s Not The End

Women in science and technology are often enough uncredited, and it is important that we make sure their accomplishments are recognized. But even when they are, like in the case of Marie Curie, it is not enough. Not only is it crucial that women are recognized its also crucial that recognition is scrutinized to be sure that it is not simply recycling the gendered stereotypes.


Brandt, Keith. Marie Curie, Brave Scientist. Mahwah, N.J: Troll Associates, 1983. 

Doorly, Eleanor. The Radium Woman, a Life of Marie Curie; and Woodcuts. New York: Roy Publishers, 1939. 

This post draws on information from a larger study, published in the journal Cultural Studies of Science Education.

Recap from first Triannual Zotero Trainers Workshop

Last week I had the pleasure of running the first in Zotero’s triannual (that’s three times a year) workshops for Zotero trainers (looking for a better name for “trainer”). I had a great time, and I think everyone left with a nice balance of practical next-steps for making Zotero work at their own institutions and rabid enthusiasm for the exciting collaborative features just around the corner. I also left with a slate of new ideas for resources I can develop to help them better make the case for Zotero at their institutions. If your interested in joining in on those ongoing conversations join our google group. I am currently hammering out the details for the second workshop, which will most likely take place Emory in Atlanta this July. Stay tuned for more details. Below are some pictures from the workshop.

We started with a somewhat exhaustive run-through of Zotero’s current feature set.

We then spent some time poking around under Zotero’s hood. Getting a feel for where and how Zotero stores data and attached files, how Zotero’s site translators work, and (pictured above) making minor edits to some of the CSL files Zotero uses to create bibliographies.

On day two we spent a bit of time analyzing a few different libraries approaches to developing their own Zotero documentation for their users and hashed out some best practices for connecting efforts to support Zotero at individual institutions with the existing Zotero support networks.