Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Playing games with information

I’ve never been much of a video gamer, though my memory of playing Pong for the first time in the early 70s remains oddly vivid. To my high school-aged self, Dungeons & Dragons with its funny-looking polyhedral dice seemed too complicated and dorky, so I left it to my little brother to play. Other than a few episodes of playing Solitaire, Pac-Man, or Joust, my one-liner attitude about gaming for the last couple of decades has been:
“It’s a waste of time.”

Meanwhile, the video and computer game industry has charged ahead without me: over 65% of U.S. households have video games, 40% of all players are female, 26% are over age 50, and the industry reportedly brought in $10.5 billion in 2009 alone.
statistics source

What has inspired me to rethink this topic is Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World, by Jane McGonigal,Ph.D. The author and game designer explains the psychological reasons behind the popularity of games as well as discussing their potential to be used for the common good. The alternate reality games she specializes in “...challenge players to tackle real-world problems at a planetary-scale: hunger, poverty, climate change, or global peace...” Examples shown on her web site include World Without Oil, SuperBetter (to facilitate recovery from illness or injury), and EVOKE, a social network game designed to help empower people all over the world to invent creative solutions to our most urgent social problems. The book’s title is based on a common experience of many players...that reality is simply not as satisfying as gaming. McGonigal details a variety of techniques to jazz up real life in order to engage people the way that successful games do.

The connection to my own projects lies in finding the overlap between the qualities and objectives she describes and my own process of writing informational books for children and related activities. A
t minimum, a game must have these four components:
  • A goal or series of goals the players work to achieve
  • The rules that restrict how the goal may be reached yet foster creativity and strategic thinking to do so
  • The feedback system which lets players know how close they are to achieving the goal
  • Voluntary participation: the players must choose to undertake the work involved to play
Work? Yes, work. It takes time and effort to learn all the rules and strategy to play a game, find secret clues, climb to higher levels, and so on. It’s the combination of the above factors that grab the players emotionally and why it’s fun to play. Even though it takes time and effort, it doesn’t feel like like a “job.” Among the several types of work detailed in the book, mental and discovery work seem the most relevant to nonfiction. Revving up one’s mental muscles to solve a problem is very satisfying, as is the joy of exploring unfamiliar places, people, and things. It’s invigorating....and yes, fun, to be engrossed in those experiences.

Some common game elements are:
motivate players to keep going. Is there a way to tie a quest to a nonfiction book? Levels are increasingly difficult sections of the game that players reach by solving problems, dodging obstacles, or otherwise improving upon their performance. Could a nonfiction book have levels? Another factor that’s increasingly important in gaming is teamwork, where people collaborate to help each other succeed in the game. How can teamwork be brought to the nonfiction experience? These concepts, a description of a public game-based school, and much more are why reading Reality is Broken has been so inspiring.

One of the reasons I’m pursuing the gaming angle is because of an episode that happened a few years ago. Two brothers were given one of my picture books about space...
it was the weekend, they associated “books” with school, and therefore neither one even wanted to look at it. They’re both good students, but... Ouch! I hate to think that a kid has to steel himself to tolerate reading a book because he anticipates that it will be so unrewarding. Games are rewarding (that’s obvious!) so how to harness that quality is the question.
Can I come up with a game based on one of my books, say The Shocking Truth about Energy? After covering electricity generation and the main sources of energy in use today, the book ends with four pages of energy-saving ideas. How about a game that would not only help reduce the use of fossil fuels but would increase exercise time for students? For the 10,000* Mile Quest, players add up their bicycle, running, and walking mileage either individually or in teams made up of classrooms, grades, or schools, depending on how the game is organized. Players can use a phone app such as EveryTrail to track miles or calculate the length of routes using online tools such as MapQuest. There could be a group web site with a graph or other feedback so everyone can see their progress. Gasoline NOT burned because of the game could also be shown. A group chat area would allow players to exchange ideas about how to get more miles faster. Secret items could be hidden along various routes to allow players to score bonus points. The game could last a week, a month, or an entire school year, with various milestones along the way to celebrate. This needs more refining but that’s the general idea. 
*or whatever number seems appropriate

What about adding gaming strategies to digital books or apps? For the last few months I’ve been researching ebooks and apps with an eye to the multiple ways authors can utilize them and am intrigued with the possibilities of incorporating motion and other types of interactivity. A few examples...presenting information could be made much more fun and gamelike by hiding it at first, so the reader has to search for it. Wouldn’t it be nice to include a demonstration in many cases? I’m working on a math picture book right now in which it would be terrific to have a movable shape for readers to manipulate on certain pages. Or how about having the reader assemble something? To see an amazing example of an educational app that reportedly inspires students to delve deeply into the topic, check out Frog Dissection on Teachers with Apps. It’s not a game per se, but has many of the characteristics.

The typical fantasy world kind of game still doesn’t interest me, and probably never will...but using gaming concepts to showcase real information, engage readers, and even create solutions to genuine problems sounds like a game worth playing.

my web site


Vicki Cobb said...

Loreen, once again you've done our INK community a fantastic service by bringing us up-to-date on a segmant of the marketplace that could use our creativity. Thanks so much for this very informative post!

April Pulley Sayre said...

Loreen, great post! My mind, too, has been sending out tendrils into some of these possibilities for nonfiction. So glad to hear of this book because although I was a D&D geek in high school, I never connected to most modern computer games and I could use some more information on them. The possibilities of Second Life, and some of the more realistic information worlds seem quite natural, almost like living novels, and thus could be nonfiction carriers with some tweaking.

Loreen Leedy said...

Thanks, guys, it's all due to watching satirical news shows. Actually I had been making notes about how to utilize different forms of interactivity for informational books and that book just seemed right up a similar alley. Her vision is huge, very inspiring.

“Nonfiction carriers”!

Loreen Leedy said...

I just realized the satirical news comment didn’t make any sense... here is my blog post with the Colbert Report clip featuring Jane that originally caught my eye:
Can books play games?

Anonymous said...

Excellent and thought-provoking post, Loreen. Thanks for sharing with I.N.K. readers! :)

Lorraine said...

I'm a big fan of the infectiously optimistic Jane McGonigal, after watching her phenomenal Ted Talk +seeing the long version in person at SxSW. The digital movement toward games that tell a story and stories that play like games is really exciting, creatively, and I look forward to seeing where Loreen and other writers go with it. For those storytellers who are new to game design, McGonigal's new site features lots of growing forums with good discussions, information, and potential collaborators.