Thursday, November 26, 2009

Trinity, help!

Just because this is a movie-piece that puts so much together - play, popular culture, cyberculture and animation:

Thanks to Pål Hellesnes for the original pointer to it, BoingBoing for putting it where one of my friends could find it, and of course the folks behind legomatrix, Trevor Boyd and Steve Ihlett for spending 440 hours on making the 44 second long scene.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A bit of my past, to the highest bidder

When I was four years old, we moved from a cold, moist and unhealthy basement on a farm, to this house. The change was immense. Of course, for the first 20 years we couldn't afford to live in all of it, it had been designed for two families, and we rented half of it to students and tourists, depending on seasons. And so I had moved out before it was all "ours." Still, it's been the family house for almost 44 years, my father drew and built it for us, and the light of that house is part of my earlier memories. Nothing like falling asleep on the living-room floor, in the patch of sunlight from the large windows, when you're 6 years old and cold from a long morning of exploring what was at that time still open land between our house and the ocean. I was like a cat, soaking up the warmth, or perhaps a plant, embracing the light.

Now we are selling it. None of us have plans of moving back to Ålesund, even if we grieve as we let it go. I'll never live in a house like that again, the view, the light, the space... my parents had very few luxuries in their life, but they had Vindheim, and loved it with fierce passion.

Oh well. I can afford the luxury of nostalgia now, as we are selling, but I am not so well off that I can afford to indulge it. Good bye, Vindheim, and may some other little girl find out how warm and wonderful that spot on the floor really is. Mom and dad - don't make her go somewhere else with her toys, even if it is inconvenient. It's really the warmest, nicest place in the whole house.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

All you need is to have no life

Jonas Linderoth at the University of Gothenburg published an article in "Digital Læring" or Nordic Journal of Digital Literacy on the value of games for learning. The title "It is not hard, it just requires having no life - Computer games and the illusion of learning" positions the article as a stumbling block right in the middle of the over-enthusiastic rush towards games as a solution for modern education.

I had heard about and disagreed with this article several times before publishing, but reading it I am almost inclined to agree with it. Linderoth points out that there are two ways to gain skills in games. One is by learning to jump better, learning to think more tactically than the opponent or in some other way use the resources at hand better. The other way to gain skills in games is by doing repetitive tasks until you are rewarded with a level, an object or some other affordance that makes your avatar stronger. In short: he makes a clear distinction between what you learn as a player, and what affordances your avatar gains.

So far I am with him, and I think it's a very important consideration. The general belief that games make learning easier is severely flawed. The most important flaw is however in my opinion the belief that games makes it easier to teach what is on some curriculum. I don't know about the rest of the world, but here in Norway we have certain things pupils are supposed to learn each year, and their progress as well as the success of the teachers and the educational system is measured by how well they are able to learn these particular things. Outside of those skills, what the pupil or student learns doesn't count. So if you learn how to dance salsa really well, that does nothing for your grades in mathematics.

Games tend to teach you how to salsa, when what you should have learned is to do maths. If you don't want the game to teach salsa, you have to remove all options for dancing, and only leave options for mathematics. Linderoth describes his argument of the relationship between affordances and skills:
What I aim to illustrate is that a game system can be designed in such a way that you can progress in the game to a certain degree without adapting yourself to the system. A system that means that a gamer can succeed without the effort of mastering gaming skills. Phrased in a more theoretical way this is an issue about how new affordances are introduced in the gaming activity (p 10).

So, to sum up the argument - somewhat brutally, I admit: in order to learn something from a game, or develop as a gamer, the game should have static affordances. No new skills with new levels, no new tools, no gold or achievements, only you and your skill. Most common games which are typical agôn games are like this. They take you to the arena, read you the rules and give you your game-piece. Then it's just you, the board and your fellow gamers, and nothing changes within that frame.

Games where you can gain affordances simply by working diligently at simple tasks are, according to Linderoth, not games from which you can learn anything.

In the light of Scott Rettberg's article on "Corporate Ideology in World of Warcraft," in Digital Culture, Play and Identity, this is an interesting claim. Rettbergs argument is that exactly the grinding aspect of World of Warcraft is what makes it an ideal training ground for capitalist work ethics (p. 32). So, on the one hand you don't learn anything from grinding, on the other hand it's perfect training for many of the positions you can expect to hold as an employee today.

Now, Rettberg's argument gives strong ideological reasons to adapt Linderoth's position on games with non-static affordances, but I am still not totally convinced. The reason is that both in World of Warcraft (Rettberg) and World of Conflict (Linderoth), personal skill is the most important feature for satisfying gaming.

Most players who play a game with levels more than once, learn how to use levelling as just another fixed affordance, and so learn to become better at it, do it quicker and with better results. You can use levelling processes to learn more about the story of the game, hence use it to gain narrative satisfaction, or you can aim at aquiring particularly useful objects which you will then not have to return for later.

The problem with Linderoth's argument, where increased skill and new tools and resources pull in different directions, is that this conflict is just skin deep. For the players who play through a game that demands leveling more than once, the apparently increasing affordances they gain access to become fixed. There are just that many quests, just that many abilities, just that many levels, and that is what you have to play with. Yes, it takes longer to reach that point, and players who think a game ends just because they have reached a certain level, may feel that it's all about grinding. But players have other experiences from games of progression. The game researcher Kristine Jørgensen at the University of Bergen recently wrote a glowing description of her experiences with the new game Dragon Age: Origins, and all who have followed her descriptions of the play process on Facebook know that she is planning to go back to old saves in order to explore the game much further.

Now, we can argue that exploring old saves does not lead to learning, as it's just about repetition of something already done. But for a game which reveales a story that's even experienced as a moral story, a fable even, replaying old saves is a way to delve deeper into the conflicts, the parables and the lessons of fiction, and hence absolutely a way to learn... even if there are levels and new skills and objects to be gained on the way.

However, Linderoth does actually say something along these lines:
The relationship between the player’s skill and progression in using tools and resources is not something fixed, but rather fluid. In one and the same game there can be moments that require more or less skill. It is not as simple as saying that just because a game introduces new tools and resources the player never has to develop her or his skill (p. 12).

But I find that he loses sight of this in his final words:
Games and education have completely different conditions. While games are designed to make players happy, educational practices are legitimate as long as they offer students the opportunity to learn something. To design educational tasks where you can succeed by just waiting and doing some extremely simple, non-challenging activities is hardly appropriate. That would be like giving someone on a diet a set of scales that showed weight loss without the person actually loosing any weight. Maybe the things that make a player motivated while playing games neither can nor should be brought into schools (p. 17).

First, learning is very much about repetition. You learn how to do a certain task, and then you drill that task until you can repeat it easily and quickly. This is how you learn how to do maths, how to play instruments, how to read and write. Each repetition is simple and non-challenging.

Next, you gain new affordances all the time, as you learn. When you have repeated one piece of music until you know how to play it, you get a new set of notes. Perhaps you get to play together with people with different instruments. You get to play in some new spot. Boring repetition leads to increased skill, new affordances and new achievements. You do actually gain levels, and you are not stuck on the same limited board with the same game-pieces for the rest of your life. Rather, if you keep repeating the same things without gaining new affordances, in real life you're stuck on a corner of the game board, without looking up to see that you're just playing a tiny part of the game.

Still, I think that Linderoth's article is very important for developing pedagogic games. I just agree with him on a different premise. I agree because what educators need isn't a virtual representation of how the world really is, but a way to see how pupils perform at a certain set of tasks given limited affordances. For this the games Linderoth promotes would be just perfect.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

In memory

Suddenly they are cool again, all the things my parents did way back when. And today the lovely Serena shared a link with me, for something which reminds me particularly strongly of my mother. We have inherited hundreds of bottles of the stuff. This summer I just might test if any of it has survived.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Meta-blog post, since it's been a while

I am no longer blogging as actively as I did, and I am glad of it. As Alex Halavais predicted, in five years we'd be embarassed by having been really active bloggers. Well, it's not that bad, but I see that both my own writing and the structure from the technology has changed since 2001.

I blog more about events now, travels, conferences, meetings, and less commentary and opinions, also, a lot less from my private life. Oh, it's all still there, but it has changed, become toned down. Partly this is caused by a couple of rather upsetting events, where the weblog became focus for actions that spilled over into other media, and led to an overwhelming feeling of professional and personal isolation here, at this small college. I still don't think it was possible to avoid what happened, but I might have been able to do some more damage control. Or not. Who knows.

Also, my personal life is a lot more boring now. What do I do? I work, travel to conferences and occasionally on a vacation, and spend the evenings working, doingchores or playing WoW. Yes, I still do that. I tried to swap to Age of Conan, but the lag killed my interest. I just ordered Dragon Age, perhaps playing single-player games for a while will help. Also, I am healthier, the result of watching what I eat, working out and not obsessively writing a book or thesis, and plain health is boring. I don't even have anything to whine about. From January I'll also be free of the administration of the PR, communication and media education (new name since this autumn), which will hopefully lead to more time for reflection and creativity around the topic of social media. The dean wants me to plan a couple of courses as a start. I'd like that, to be able to teach what I research.

And I think facebook has changed my blogging, too. A lot of the general commenting and tracking has moved from here to there. Oh, and then there's the weblog, where I put the more researched blogposts on games. It's in Norwegian, so I don't double post it. Now, considering, that's too bad. I should at least link those posts.

Anyway, that's what's going on here. I am not going to promise the posting will pick up. I am actually quite happy with my online/offline balance at the moment.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Security, risk, crisis

I am in Trondheim at a conference about safety and risk, where I have been invited to be on a panel organised by the Research Council of Norway, who organise their own conference in conjunction with "Sikkerhetsdagene" - the security days. The topic for the panel is media, crisis and panic.

I have to admit this feels a bit out of my field, but when I arrived just in time for last night's dinner, I was greeted enthusiastically by a friend I barely had time to get to know before he left Volda, and since lost touch with, Professor Peter Burgess at PRIO, the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo.

"What are you doing here?" I asked, subtle as ever. "Oh," he responded, "this Norwegian question, how to answer that?" It turns out that these are his people, as the research group he is leading in PRIO is concerned with security. And so it clicked into place, the talks I had noticed him doing earlier, about Security in Europe. Meeting him saved the evening for me, and reminded me why I missed him when he left Volda for other fields. Some people understand what you're talking about, you know. Which, after all, is why we go to conferences: To meet the people who understand what we're saying, and listen to the ones talking our own tribal language.

The panel I am on is quite interesting, in relation to both my teaching and my research. The session is lead by one of Norway's most interesting law and informatics scholars, who is also a science fiction author (yes, this is one of my long-time heroes) Jon Bing (he has wikipedia entries in both book- and new-Norwegian). Leading the panel debate is Eva Bratholm, a former journalist now leading the information department of Norad, Norwegian Agency of Development Cooperation. Then there's Tone Bergan from The Directorate for Civil Protection and Emergency Planning, two full professors, Tore Bjørgo and Rune Ottosen, and ... me.

*smartassed overconfident finishing remark deleted*