Good Game Design, Transmedia Storytelling and the Challenge of Engaging the ‘Net’ Generation
by Graham Clark http://thinkspace.csu.edu.au/cloudingaround
When it comes to the holding power of video games, you can’t go past games such as World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto and Civilization. All three have been around for more than 10 years and have clearly struck a chord with the video gaming public as evidenced by their loyal following. But what is it about these commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) games and others like them that has allowed them to attract and engage large numbers of users over a long period of time? What are some of the learning principles that have been incorporated into the design of these and other successful COTS video games? How can we tap into the principles of so called ‘good game design’ to develop educational games that provide learners with compelling, immersive and virtual experiences that stimulate cognitive growth and improve learning?
This literary composition will use Gee’s (2004) list of learning principles as a framework with which to focus on a couple of key events in the history of game-based learning. In particular, this essay will examine the rise of the seminal video game World of Warcraft. In doing so, this composition will attempt to answer two questions: Why is it that some video games have quickly found an audience whilst others have struggled to get off the ground? To what extent do these and other successful video games represent exemplars of good game design?
Finally, this essay will conclude by looking at the future of game-based learning as evidenced by the release of Ingress which will be examined through Gee’s (2004) learning principles framework as well as the advent of transmedia storytelling in the form of the Endgame trilogy (Endgame: The Calling, Endgame: Ancient Societies and Endgame: Proving Ground). Gee provides a useful checklist of learning principles organised into three sections with which to score the potential for learning in a video game (see table below).
I. Empowered Learners
II. Problem Solving
|1. Co-design2. Customize3. Identity4. Manipulation||5. Well-Order Problems6. Pleasantly Frustrating7. Cycles of Expertise8. Information “On Demand” and “Just in Time”9. Fish Tanks10. Sandboxes11. Skills as Strategies||12. System Thinking13. Meaning as Action Image|
To what extent is World of Warcraft an example of good game design?
So does World of Warcraft measure up as a good game when assessed against Gee’s (2004) checklist of learning principles? Released in 2004 by developer Blizzard Entertainment, World of Warcraft was well received by critics and players alike and quickly found its place in the world of video games. The following year World of Warcraft was awarded Best Mac OS X Entertainment Product at the Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) in San Francisco and Best PC Game, Best Multiplayer Game, Best RPG, and Most Addictive Game at the Spike TV Video Game Awards in Los Angeles.
By 2007 World of Warcraft had won a range of awards and amassed 9.2 million subscribers. In 2009, the Guinness Book of World Records awarded World of Warcraft a world record for the most popular MMORPG by subscribers by which point it had garnered 11.5 million subscribers. By 2012, World of Warcraft had become the highest grossing video game of all time having grossed over 10 billion US dollars in sales. In January 2014 Blizzard announced that more than 100 million World of Warcraft accounts had been created over the game’s lifetime.
In recent years, some researchers have begun to question the future of World of Warcraft based on the fact that the number of subscribers appears to have hit a peak in 2010 and has been trending down ever since:
- 2010 – 12.1 million subscribers
- 2011 – 10.2 million subscribers
- 2012 – 9.1 million subscribers
- 2013 – 8.2 million subscribers
- 2014 – 7.8 million subscribers
There’s no doubt World of Warcraft has been a phenomenal success but how do we account for that success? When the game is examined alongside Gee’s (2004) checklist of learning principles it is immediately clear that World of Warcraft is particularly strong in category I. Empowered Learners. Players in World of Warcraft have a lot of control over almost every aspect of the game including their own learning. Not only can they customize their character’s appearance but they can also customize their game play. In particular, each time a player goes into World of Warcraft they are asked to choose their realm style with a number of different realms being available to choose from including:
- PvE (Player vs. Environment)
- PvP (Player vs. Player)
- RP (Roleplaying in a PvE realm), and
- RP-PvP (Roleplaying in a PvP realm)
Social identity is an important aspect of any massively multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG) and World of Warcraft is no exception. A new player in World of Warcraft gets to design their own character (or avatar) from the ground up. Before entering the game they must create their first character. In doing so, they must choose their first character’s realm, race and class. After that the new player can make adjustments to their character’s appearance before choosing a name for their character and entering the game.
Moreover, a player in World of Warcraft may create up to eleven characters per realm, with a maximum of fifty characters per account. Blizzard allow up to fifty characters per account for the simple reason that they know many players will probably want to experiment with different styles of gameplay. In fact, often this is exactly what happens. A player may end up creating lots of different characters with just one or two of them being their ‘main’ character or characters, that is to say, the one or ones they play with most of the time.
A player can view the realm they are currently playing in from just about any angle. They can zoom in and look closely at almost anything including their own character. By default, a player sees their current realm from the viewpoint of their character, that is to say, a player will normally see the back of their character’s head whilst playing World of Warcraft. However, a player can zoom in or zoom out at any time. They can also change the angle of view and look up to the sky or down to the ground. They can even turn around and look back at their own character. In effect, they can view anything from any angle.
A large part of the attraction to World of Warcraft is its gameplay which is very flexible. For example, a single player may choose to accept a quest from a quest giver or they may seek to join a group, a raid or a guild. The former often involves very little social interaction with any other player in the game whereas all of the other options would obviously require a high level social interaction between the player and other players.
Gee (2004) states that good games are pleasantly frustrating in that the player has reached the limit of their current knowledge. However, they are completely and utterly immersed in the game play and are experiencing what McGonigal (2011) terms ‘blissful productivity’. Although they are somewhat frustrated by their lack of progress, they’re having so much fun doing what they’re doing that they’re not about to give up anytime soon.
In essence, players in World of Warcraft are creating more than one character so that they can experiment with identity. In fact, being able to manipulate one’s identity in an MMORPG is one of the reasons why gamers keep coming back. Because they have invested so much time and effort in creating their character they form an attachment to their personalised character, and feel more invested in their character’s development. World of Warcraft is well-represented on social media with the fan-created World of Warcraft wiki consisting of over 100,000 pages. There’s also an official World of Warcraft YouTube channel which was setup in 2006 and which has had over 173,000,000 views. As well as that, there is a Facebook page, a Twitter account and a Google+ page. Click here to view Blizzard’s first official World of Warcraft infographic which includes some fun and surprising never-before-seen facts about the game. Moreover, a World of Warcraft movie is scheduled for release in June, 2016.
To what extent is Ingress an example of good game design? To what extent does Ingress represent the present (and possibly the future) of game-based learning?
In 2010, the NMC Horizon Report predicted that simple augmented reality (AR) would be the next big thing in education within the next two or three years. Unfortunately, AR has failed to make much of an impact in the classroom. However, we are closer than we have ever been with a small number of augmented reality games starting to make inroads into education. Augmented reality games are typified by their use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device.
In just the last few years, there have been several significant developments which are on the cutting edge of augmented reality, alternate reality and transmedia storytelling. Apart from Google Glass and the Oculus Rift, there have been several other innovations including Ingress, a game developed by Niantic Labs which is a start-up within Google. Strictly speaking, Ingress is an augmented reality massively-multiplayer online role-playing game (or ARMMORPG) since it combines an AR game with an MMORPG. Ingress is a location-based game in which gameplay involves travelling around and using the GPS on your mobile phone and/or your iPad to locate and then interact with portals either individually or in a team.
There are a wide range of Ingress-related resources available on the Internet. These include official resources released by Google and Niantic Labs as well as a plethora of user-generated content. Official Ingress resources include a Help Centre, a YouTube channel, a Facebook page, a Google+ community, a Twitter account and a range of audio and eBooks available from Google Play and Amazon. User-generated content includes a selection of YouTube videos, a wiki, a forum and a guide. No-one other than Niantic Labs and Google knows for sure how many people are playing Ingress. However, in 2014, Google revealed that Ingress had been downloaded by more than 7 million people in the past year.
Unlike World of Warcraft, a player in Ingress doesn’t have a character (or avatar) that they can customise. Games like World of Warcraft and Civilization allow the player to heavily customise their gameplay whereas Ingress will only allow a player to choose their character’s name and the faction that they belong to. There are two factions in Ingress with the Enlightened faction being represented by the colour green whilst the Resistance faction is represented by the colour blue. Both factions have the same abilities.
Whereas other MMORPGs and MMOGs create virtual communities, Ingress is a little different in that players are encouraged to interact with each other both in the virtual world as well as the physical world. Game play is such that each player is encouraged to reach out to other players who live in their local area. There are currently 8 access levels in Ingress and a player can level up by completing actions which will earn them action points (or AP). These actions include:
- Creating a link from one portal to another (313 AP)
- Creating a control field (1,250 AP)
- Upgrading a resonator (65 AP), and
- Hacking an enemy portal (100 AP)
A single player at a lower level will have no difficulty creating lower level portals. However, if a single player at a higher level wants to create a higher level portal then they are going to have to physically get together with other higher level players in order to do so. In other words, a higher level player can achieve so much more if they are prepared to collaborate with other higher level players in their local area. In fact, this is exactly what a lot of players do. They organise meetups where they travel around as a group and concentrate their efforts so that they can earn more AP than they would if they were to do so individually.
When viewed through the prism of Gee’s (2004) learning principles to what extent does Ingress represent an example of good game design? Like World of Warcraft, Ingress is strong in all three categories. However, it could be argued that it is particularly strong in the Problem Solving category. The challenges in Ingress are, for the most part, pleasantly frustrating.
Ingress has quickly become popular and is now played by millions of people across the world on a daily basis. One of the biggest reasons why Ingress has become so popular is because it is inherently social. Where once playing video games was, by its very nature, anti-social since it meant sitting at home by yourself in front of a computer, nowadays playing many video games is prosocial in the sense that you are actively encouraged to socialise (both online and offline) with others.
Ingress is particularly prosocial in the sense that it emphasises cooperation, collaboration and mobility. You can’t play Ingress by sitting around at home. The first thing you need to do is to download the Ingress app and install it onto your mobile phone (Android or iOS) and/or your iPad. After that, you need to choose your faction, your agent name and get yourself outside. Once outside you just need to start earning AP by playing the game. In particular, you need to move around in the physical world either individually or in a group with other agents and interact with the portals and control fields in your local area. This includes hacking them as well as creating them. There are a range of medals you can earn whilst playing Ingress including the Trekker medal which is achieved based on the total distance the agent has walked while playing the game.
To what extent is the Endgame trilogy an example of good game design? Does the Endgame trilogy represent the future of game-based learning?
The Endgame trilogy consists of Endgame: Ancient Societies, Endgame: The Calling and Endgame: Proving Ground plus a series of novellas and is an example of transmedia storytelling where a range of media are in the process of being used in an integrated way across books, a film, social media and a mobile game.
I. Endgame: The Calling
II. Endgame: Ancient Societies
III. Endgame: Proving Ground
|– a book||– a book (TBC)||– a book (TBC)|
|– an ebook||– a movie (Jun 2016)||– an AR game (TBC)|
Transmedia storytelling is a new and emerging field and its use in education is still quite experimental. However, it is already showing great promise as a technique with which to improve students’ cognitive, social and emotional engagement (Rodríguez-Illera & Molas-Castells, 2014). At this stage, it’s too early to predict whether or not this project will go on to be a success. Thus far, on the Amazon website at least, the Endgame: The Calling book has been reviewed by over 120 customers with the average rating being 3.4 out of 5. Moreover, there are a range of resources including an Endgame Twitter account, an Ancient Societies Twitter account, an Ancient Societies YouTube account and an Ancient Societies website.
In conclusion, Niantic and Google have clearly learnt a lot from Ingress and it is to be hoped that the ongoing rollout of the Endgame project including the Endgame: Proving Ground augmented reality game will continue to take advantage of new and emerging innovations in the fields of transmedia storytelling and augmented reality. If this is the case, then its entirely possible that the Endgame: Proving Ground augmented reality game as well as the rest of the Endgame project as a whole will be held up as an exemplar of good game design. In particular, assuming the Endgame AR game continues to actively encourage cooperation, collaboration and mobility then there’s every probability that it will successfully overcome the challenge of engaging the ‘Net’ generation.
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