Sea of Thieves for Education?


Sea of Thieves is the years surprise success multiplayer. I’d pull up short of calling it a MMO, it is more an action adventure than MMO, with maps (I think limited to 99 players).

It’s fair to call this a multiplayer sandbox adventure and very worthy of being used with 11-16-year-olds in school – who perhaps don’t like stacking block in Minecraft. In many ways, this game fills a much-needed gap in gamer-teacher brain-space as we move away from digital lego and start to think about games as texts.

The game is very new, but with over 300,000 players in closed beta, the game certainly attracted a big crowd. There are some good easons it’s okay for kids is that it’s Teen/PG, with no more violence than Minecraft and less of an emotional rollercoaster than Fortnite. The other reason is when you die and lose nothing – perhaps what you have on your last voyage, but nothing so terrible that you’ll spend your days managing screaming rage all day over ‘items’. The other useful thing to tame the emotional investment is the relatively low effort needed to gather resources – bananas for heath, wood to fix your ship and cannonballs to do what cannonballs do. Aside from a short wait to respawn, there’s not ‘death tax’ in terms of resource or coin loss.

In the game, the open map is fantastic to look at and listen too. The game does take time to play, as the world is (at firsts) a big place to navigate. Saling with a small crew means working together, and for the most part, it’s easy to get a handle of what ‘jobs’ need doing in different situations. The gameplay is simple enough that you don’t need to mic-up with randoms – and of course, you can get one to three friends to crew with you, which to me makes a great ‘breakout-classroom group.

Going on voyages for gold, magic and materials is fun. Handing in loot is all very old school MMO like. No gun upgrades or better ships – just cosmetic upgrades keeps game play fair. No one has the ‘uber’ gun that destroys everything in its path. So its pretty easy to drop in and out of without investing hundreds of hours. All the loot money can be spent on cosmetic changes. This reward tree won’t appeal to those players who lust after to ‘big guns’ to increase damage or the mega-banana health pack – but Rare say that is the point.

That said, there is little sense of sense of ownership and progress in the game. Yes, you can level up and brag about yourself, but it doesn’t mean much as death has little consequence. The game can feel a bit empty at times, but that’s okay, as you sail around and visit islands looking for treasure. As a PC/Xbox crossover, the game does have glitches, despite the first 9gig patch. There is plenty of talk online about possible environmental upgrades: forts, fog, whirlpools, ten man ships … but it’s far too new to predict. The game has taken off, and the developer (and servers) are playing catch-up.

The core is there: so for kids (and schools) this is a great adventure game which allows time for socialising. There’s no ‘home city’ and no ‘faction’ arrangements, so ‘be more pirate’ is perhaps a fitting slogan. Ownership of items hasn’t been turned into a transferable auction house – which is often fraught with issues and I think this has deterred the ‘ganking class’ of player for whom this low-loss adventure style doesn’t tap into their ‘killer’ behaviour. At times there are foul-mouthed muppets, so its not a game you want kids to play with a mic – unsupervised.

I’d say the game is well suited as a ‘text’ for school. There are so many stories to tell about your adventure, despite the seemingly limited content in the game so far – but it does a solid job at recording reputation and achievements. Like Minecraft, I suspect only a few will wade into the water here for a while – as educators seem to want both a critical mass and an “Education Editon” before adopting much of anything. But if you are a teacher who’s willing to do more than follow the crowd – then SoT is definitely a sandbox for you. If you’re a parent with Fornite and PubG fatigue or want to make that connection with gameplay yourself – this might just be the game that makes that happen.

May your chests be filled with treasure and your barrels full of bananas.

A world to rule all worlds

Unless you are Dickensian, you can’t fail to have noticed the massive appeal of Lego. Yes the small plastic bricks that require an engineering degree to put together unless you are under 12.

To most adults Lego is a toy of their childhood, and a painful thing to stand on in the dark, when checking the little ones are fast asleep. But Lego has become a massive digital franchise too. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman … the convergence between popular culture and the small plastic brick is now on platforms that even the smallest hands can operate. The games are also amazingly well constructed (as you’d expect).

I once did some advertising work for Lego in the 1990s. I have never met a company that had so many exacting standards! This year, I managed to get a key to the beta of Lego Universe – a massive multiplayer online world (and game).

Here is my prediction: Lego Universe will be the virtual world that crosses between user generated content and game, and rips open a whole new meaning to the idea of creation and play. Firstly, even 3 year olds know how to make it, secondly three year olds have been playing the existing games for year (oh, okay maybe 6 year olds). Thirdly, kids who love Moshi Monsters, will love Lego Universe even more – because you can play, and then go an make for real, what you made virtually. Not only that – but Lego has brand appeal and says ‘safe’ to adults who grew up with it. This is a killer edge in the MMO universe, as adding new players, means convincing those struck down by FUD, that this is a fun, educational and safe place to play.

If you want to get kids into using game based learning – the savvy school technical director will be buying up accounts. Lego Universe opens October 26th 2010 – and will, I predict – redefine the landscape of social gaming. I’ve played it, my kids have played it – and it’s awesome.

Coke advert, socialises games and virtual worlds

If there is one thing that advertisers understand, it’s a target market. Coca-Cola have a history of promoting their 100 billion dollar brand as a reflection of the ideal utilitarian society. This advertisement seems significant, as it represents people as being immersed in virtual games and worlds, representing themselves though digital identity. More than that, they are placing ‘toons’ among the natural, not imagined environment. If we think back to the 1980s, we generally saw humans being sucked into computer-created worlds such as Tron(SP).

“Advertising involves a commercially viable language of appearances and images in which commodity relations systematically penetrate and organize cultural meaning.” (Jena, 2000)

Brand ads don’t directly sell a tasty beverage, Coke is in fact socially aligning itself with a culture immersed in games and virtual worlds – that can be accessed though mobile technologies.

Rather than suggest visions of the ideal-body and lifestyle that they are famous for, this advert clearly suggests that with technology, we not only imagine our other self, but can easily become it socially. We are not suggesting here that fictional characters have the character traits of famous singers, and that by drinking fizzy water we are some way like them (and in turn the superhero). This ad has a total absence of this … saying that we are, whatever we imagine ourselves to be (but we still drink Coke).

Advertising and popular culture are entwined – and when the world’s largest brand suggests that avatars and toons are fun and socially desirable, to me, it marks a significantly step away from the idea that gamers and virtual world residents -are a marginalised, isolated and socially-disconnected group. That is a cultural shift … maybe games are now a social norm.

Thanks Coke.

Why exploring Virtual Worlds is a goal, not information driven

I often receive emails from higher degree research students asking me about games and virtual worlds. Most of the time they are seeking ‘information’that  can I give them as they research their thesis. Usually I suggest to take an entire week off, download Warcraft, Aion or Final Fantasy – put the local pizza shop on speed dial and stock up on Coke. More information is not a very effective way to better understand virtual worlds.

First things first. Get into a World that has epic goals with massive emotional, social and cognitive domains. Following that experience, Second Life might actually mean something. Secondly – more information wrong, have more goals that are relevant to what you’re looking into.

Set a goal of being Level 40 in a week, set a goal to join a levelling guild and talk to the players or research how to choose a race and class that will best achieve it.

They don’t of course – as their subliminal familiarity with discounted unity tells them their short term goal is to get information.

If you want to know what motivates, what engages and how to even begin thinking about goal-orientated learning (not information-orientated yawning) – the spawn point is to understand that goals drive virtual worlds, not information.

Without understanding this, it is like putting lipstick on a pig to see how much it weighs.

Code of Everand

This is an interesting, and nicely styled browser MMO called Everand. It has been developed by the Department for Transport in the UK, to engage children making the transition from Primary to Secondary school, on the topic of road safety. The aim is that players will improve their road safety behaviour and apply what they have learned in the game, to the real world as a learned response. Maybe it is just me, but the UK and Scotland seem to be kicking some great game based learning initiatives right now. This one is free play with a ‘chat’ style system that is well thought out, with mini-games and friend-system. There is a level system, rep system, spells, powers and abilities … all the ingredients needed for for engaged learning, not content shoveling. Just image how easy it would have been for them to make an eLearning blah … instead this.

Wizard 101 – MMO for learning

I, (Nicholas Dragonstone) am loving this massive multiplayer called Wizard 101 for several reasons.

You’re a young wizard being trained in the ways of magic at the Ravenwood School of Magical Arts under the care of headmaster Ambrose. As you learn to use mystical powers, you are tasked with saving the school from the evil Malistaire Drake.

Sounds like Harry Potter? Well, it is a lot like Harry Potter; but set in a game system that is a lot more like World of Warcraft.

Lets get the FUD out the way. YES there is a chat system in the game, but several mechanisms are in place to ensure that chat is child safe.

I always smile at people when they freak out about online chat in games – I ask them if they mute their TV and never listen to the radio in the car when their kids are around. A trip to school with a moronic morning breakfast host is far more likely to ruin their sense of innocence in my view, but thousands do it without a second thought.

MMOs are a damn sight safer than web-chat, and there’s very very little research to suggest otherwise.

“It’s great to see kids getting so excited and involved in a game that, as a teacher, I can feel good about recommending for play”Amy Gonzalez, English Teacher, Austin Independent School District

The system can be limited entirely to preset phrases. Alternatively, players on your friends list can be granted additional chat priviledges that allow you to speak more freely.To avoid any shenanigans related to naming characters, names are similarly constructed from presets. Parental controls can be activated on an account so that settings can’t be changed and purchases can’t be made without grown-ups. Parental controls are a feature that should be high on any parents list.

You defeat enemies (NPC) and other players using a magic circle where combatants take turns casting spells at each other by choosing cards from their decks.

Spells are based on a deck of cards selected beforehand – Yu-Gi-Oh! style – from which 7 are drawn each round. Players have less than a minute to play a card or they pass their turn. So if kids are used to playing card games, and not just getting owned in action-based games; the turn taking here is a nice relief. But you cant cast magic all day, you’ll run out of mana (fighting power). It beats the pants of Jumpstart’s online world for engagement. I won’t even compare it to dusty Magic School Bus type CD-Roms.

After casting spells at your enemies, you’ll be mighty tired – and have low mana (Fantasy writer Larry Niven in his novel Not Long Before the End described mana as a natural resource which is used or channeled by wizards to cast magic spells) .Mana is standard measurement of power in most MMOs.

You have several ways to get your mana back. Running around catching wisps while out of combat, which is a little like ‘grinding’, if there are other players around, competition for whisps is fierce. If you have potions you power-up immediately, else it’s a slow regeneration of energy in town. You can  play mini-games for mana. The mini-games are similar to casual titles like Bejeweled, so if you’ve got kids playing on your Facebook account – then this is similar, but a step up in a MMO.

Wizard 101 is a free PC download – I had it running under Bootcamp on OSX, Vista and XP. Mercifully it is not the usual 4 gig download of most MMOs, so you’ll be up and running in 20 mins or so at the outside. Its free to play – but after you hit Level 10, you run out of things to do. This is where they hit you up for money – but to be honest, I think it’s worth it. The game is 10+ Rated; but Mr4 seemed to have no real problem playing with a help reading.

I’d think it will suit 10/11 year olds – though the game will be interesting because of it’s spell-card system, not action – it takes some skill to select a series of spells to cast to beat an opponent.

There is a decent map to explore – and the levelling system is very WoW-esq. My kids loved setting up their character – which seems critical in them deciding to play the game. They hate mini-mmos where you only get to choose some ‘toon-animal’.

The story is presented well, it doesn’t demand reading some novel or bore you with several next buttons to skip though. There are a number of activities that you can also hook into though the community portal – fan art and fan fiction! – so no only can you build a writing task around this – it has a place where they can actually publish it!

This video is a great example of players wanting to make video and share their experience of a game – though a story. It’s well worth watching, as they take you on a tour! – Needless to say my nine year old took to this instantly … I wasn’t too unhappy that he didn’t complete the photocopied maths book worksheet this weekend.

There is a lot you could construct around Wizard 101 without needed to get to the payment level of play in the classroom – and I am sure children would love the interaction, even with chat set on safe-as-boring mode. My kids didn’t want to read or chat – they were too busy working out how to organise and use spells to build their reputation

Where does it fit in game based learning? – I think it would make a great ‘small group’ computer activity, and be a great way of introducing the use of games to the classroom. Keep it simple; spend some time playing yourself, then work towards the fan faction and art. It would give teachers a good introduction; and start them thinking about adapting further games … if you have kids on the Autism spectrum – they are going to love Wizard 101.

Read more at Wired about this game’s details or alternatively, download this english worksheet about the ocean and type ‘games+ignore’ into Google.

Augmented Reality Toys

This post kind of follows the last few and looks at why TOYS will create digital-emigrants from 2D learning, before you can say podcast. The trends in creating online virtual worlds around product and game is stepping up, and will see kids stepping out of using laptops and desktops …

The traveling STAR WARS exhibition had an interactive table, where with a few crude black and white shaped cards, you could build a moisture farm using augmented reality.

These are toys you will be buying. Free software online and a web-cam. Given that all consoles can deal with this and so can most laptops – even phones – you will be using this technology sooner than later.

This short demo from James Cameron’s movie Avatar – shows this at a new level. Although the movie is going to be just that – a passive movie, it is interesting to see how toys and peripheral materials are increasingly focused on mashing physical objects with virtual ones. There are a number of examples of people messing with cameras and applications (check this Transformers home made one) or an academic project to see what people are doing. but this is the first one I’ve seen which has obviously been developed around what will be a big-commercial-movie. This interaction, blending real with virtual is already happening with things like PS2 Eye-Toy. But objects are now beginning to appear in the middle. Not just camera sees person and visa versa, but camera recognises object and persons interaction with it. – That makes it an assessment tool as well as a learning tool.

With digital camera’s already fitted with projectors — 3M mini-projectors on Amazon — and POV cameras — it’s significant that a major movie/game enterprise starts to fund the mashing of these together in commercial ways. Think it’s hard teaching with an iPod – imagine what the science lab will look like in a decades time – when this kind of thing is old-hat and been in the lounge room since they were pre-schoolers.

The point is that much of the driving forces that power the web itself are more interested in escaping the small screen. While we live in a time where hyper-connected-social-twittering is the new cheese … it is likely that the generation now playing GT5 on PS3 will see much of Web2.0 as ‘historical’ much like dial-up.

While adults might discuss the decline of traditional media trending down and to the right – it is facile to think that one is simply replacing the other. Statistically, youth-online is not flocking to 2D spaces – and FB has discovered games are it’s killer app, not comment walls.

Yet, virtual worlds and games – are still regarded as less important than the new-standards – and god knows, they are hard enough to access in public schools.

If you have 10 minutes – watch this amazing video story  ‘world builder‘. Especially if you are not yet seeing what ‘virtual worlds are for’.

Aion Video Podcast Episode 3: East Meets West

Digital Story telling is now a very valuable skill. Not just for film makers who make these kinds of clips, but because those in the clip are critical thinkers. This podcast is about the process of creating motivating games – though incremental improvement or peer offerings and new narratives. Aion has been in the wings for a long time, and over the last year there has been an opportunity not just to pre-order the game, but to be part of the development journey. This podcast (one in a series) is a great example of how story telling is evolving. Podcasting in the classroom? Perhaps the first steps to a career in film or game? “It not just the game or the action, it’s the challenge that keeps players coming back” – that would be a great thing to say about classrooms.

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End of Web

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End of Web – A Game Based, Virtual School Project

Playful learning always seems more interesting that being powerpointed (guilty). And I did make a powerpoint last week.

So to make amends, and to follow up on numerous conversations in the last month, I have been trying to figure out how to offer professional development and at the same time embed some of the 21st century ‘soft’ skills that we know are important, but often really hard to align, assess and justify in out existing curricula – and in that I’m talking K20, not K12. So this is virtual school, a game, social action and professional development – all in one.

The start date would be February 2010 – 6 months. Then run the project.

It’s based on the simple game of ‘what if’. This seems apt as many of the barriers to 21C learning are based on ‘what if’. So the idea is simple; between here and early 2010, a game is developed which not only engages students in a social action, enquiry project but allows them to engage in ‘virtual school’. In essence, playing the game will allow them to demonstrate 21st Century learning outcomes in a safe fail environment, allow teachers to determine tha classroom activities – and align the game with content and standards/outcomes. It will run for 60 days over the internet, but not all activities need to be ‘technology’ based.

The aim is to create a massive multiplayer game – active not just in one space, but fluid over many. It’s a chance to get together and make a robust learning object that not only allows creative publishing of information; but allows teachers to learn from each other and along side students. We might even convince the world, though the action that the alternate reality is actually real. A kind of pixel based War of the Worlds.

What I need, is for people to click here – and help shape the idea, the activities and the assessment; so that we can evaluate it – and all of that is open for discussion. No filters, no standard tests, no yeah buts … this is virtual school. Right now it’s a 3 page wiki – I hope we can develop it into something that can work in K12 and showcase some of the amazing opportunities that we have as educators. No more problems, this is solutions only. Please join in.

The End of WebAn alternate reality game

The scenario:

It’s 2020 and the world has changed. Some say for the better, for others it is the worst of times. The internet, the technology that connects us, will be turned off in 60 days. The world leaders have agreed that the internet is making the world worse, and is now to big and too powerful. It must be stopped. The official orders have been given … the internet is closing down, to be replaced by a single information service called the “Alternet”.

The sides:

Each day, the “Alternet” publishes information and news about the status of the internet closure and will become the one place for information. Those opposed to the groups have called themselves the ‘Cylores’. The don’t agree with Alternet and want to stop the closure. Somewhere in between are ordinary people like you and me. It’s time to think about how the world got to this point, and how it might would change as the days pass by and what will happen when we reach day 60.

What will be your story?

Imagine yourself in those 60 days … what will happen … what would you do, how could you stop it, do you want to? – how will it change your world. What could you say to stop it; what could you do. Do you even want to stop it?

This is a game; you get to choose your character – you need to tell your story in any way which you choose – as in 60 days the internet will be shut down. You can connect to others, read their pages and add your ideas. Each day, you can use social media and human networks to highlight those stories that you think are fantastic! but beware – Alternet is watching – and you might well find yourself being asked to explain yourself. Do you keep a blog? do you make a film – do you organise a protest?

Look for information being published by the Alternet and the Cylores; share it with others … take action … the end of web is near.

So that’s the plot line (right now) and here’s a link to a graphic (which you can make better – or maybe even a film trailer … ideas and input welcome)