Monday, August 19, 2013

Gone Home: A Model for SLA Games?

A few months ago I became interested in Gone Home, a first-person story exploration video game, on the Game Profiles page at Unity. The idea of a game that does not involve shooting and killing intrigued me. There's not even any non-player characters (NPCs) to interact with. Rather, the game only involves careful investigation of (a rather small) game world and the unfolding of narrative embedded within this space:

I think, in a way, games like Gone Home can serve as a model for 3D digital game-based language learning (3D-DGBLL) environments, which perhaps can also be seen as an archaeological investigation of a simulated real-world space. What could possibly be more exciting, challenging, and intriguing than discovering a different culture and language for the first time? What better platform than a well-designed first-person story exploration video game? Anyway, the game has received excellent reviews in The New York Times and GameSpot. I'm looking forward to downloading my own game soon, as soon as the start-of-the-semester crush has passed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

3 AM Game Ideas

What do you do at 3 AM when you have a bad case of insomnia and can't sleep? Well, what I usually do is think about things that need getting done, how to move projects forward, and ideas for articles. Sometimes I will think about aikido. This morning, however, it was the video game. Here's some ideas for the next game prototype that I have been throwing around in my head:

Most video games have a persuasive and engaging backstory that pushes the game narrative in a certain direction and gives the players a sense of what needs to be done in the game world. The idea that I think would perhaps be most feasible for a language-learning game is something that students see themselves potentially doing in the near future, such as spending a summer abroad to improve their German at a language institute and working a part-time job. The job could be at a grocery store managed by a Turkish person living in Germany, which would allow for running investigations of Turkish-German relations and minorities living in Germany. The idea of the language institute could be worked into the game in the form of the homework that students would need to do for their real-world class. This idea could be leveraged to mask the disruption of flow that a player would experience when bouncing back and forth between the game world and the real world. As the player moves forward in the game, the story could be developed to reveal a deeper mystery that needs examining, or a personal drama (such as unrequited love) that needs to be resolved.

Game Insertion
Upon starting a video game, players generally have to undergo a brief training experience so that they become familiar with the game controls, moving in a simulated 3D space, and orientation in the game world. Players could be inserted into the information/tourist office of the town where they are supposedly staying. In the office they would speak to the person working there, find out basic information about the town, pick up informational brochures, and find out where they will be working. The person working in the information office could be a persistent game resource that a player could use when stuck with a problem that cannot be solved. The use of the information office in this manner also synchronizes nicely with the real-world function of the information office.

First Level
Ideally, the game levels would correspond with chapters in the accompanying book. I think it would be best to design book around the activity systems of the game and not simply try to overlay the game on an existing textbook. As in the current version of Deutsch Na Klar, the first chapter and introduction deal with personal identity, characteristics, and addresses. The learning objectives of the game could possibly be built around these topics:

  1. After becoming familiar with the city at the information office, the player reports to his boss at work. He informs the player that s/he must register at the city immigration office, where the player fills out a form requiring personal identity, characteristic, and address to be given. The use of the immigration office in this manner also synchronizes nicely with the real-world function of the immigration office and the residency permit. Upon returning to work, the boss informs the player that s/he needs to do homework for the language institute.
  2. Upon rejoining the game, the player reports to work. The boss has a few deliveries, which the player has make using information provided. The player will have to navigate 3D space using provided visual cues (e.g., street signs) and a cultural interface (e.g., ringing the doorbell of an apartment house and listening to the instruction given over the speaker) to successfully deliver the groceries. After making the deliveries, the boss will remind the player to do the homework for the language institute.
  3. Upon rejoining the game again, the boss will have a few more deliveries. This time, the player will find a wallet or identity card, which will provide information for the player to return the lost item to its owner. The player may have to perform some mini-quest (similar to throwing the bottles away in the game prototype I have currently developed) to demonstrate integrity. Interaction with the owner will then reveal something of the underlying drama or deeper mystery that will move the player forward into the next game level.

Anyway, just a brief sketch of something I have been working through in my mind at the moment. Basically, I'm trying to figure out a way to combine language instruction with a simulated 3D sociocultural environment that is based on the real world in a manner that would be fun for the player and also challenging. Back to bed now...and hopefully some sleep.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Essential Experience

The experiment I ran on the last game prototype demonstrated that some type of substantial learning did take place through the experiences that students had while playing the game. Developing the game, however, also revealed some problems in the workflow. As I am currently a one-person show, getting a firm grasp on the modeling and game development tools proved a bit of a challenge. Especially since I am self-taught on all of them (Unity, Blender, GIMP, Audacity and MonoDevelop). I am currently working through the Unity Tutorials and the Unity Stealth Project in order to get more familiar with Unity. Other tutorials in Unity and Blender will follow.

I also felt that I could read more about the process of designing a game, which brought me to The Art of Game Design and the 100 Lenses through which the process can be viewed. Since this is a research blog and a way for me to sketch rough ideas and document progress, I thought maybe it would be useful to revision the DigiBahn Project through these lenses. Should make for an interesting way to see the project in a new light.

1: The Lens of Essential Experience

The experience I would like players of the next game prototype to have would replicate the type of confusion that one has when abroad for the first time in a foreign county and is forced to rely on an academic knowledge of the language and culture to solve real-world problems. Although stressful, this type of experience is critical as it requires the student to reflect on what he has learned and to experiment with it in order to apply it towards a solution of the current problem. Knowledge is therefore not just abstract and mental, but rather emerges from interaction with the environment, people in the environment, and site-specific language usage. It is more grounded in the real-world. I hope that allowing students to overcome these challenges in a game setting will equip them with the confidence and tools to handle them in a real-world setting. In sum, that they develop a mindset that allows them to play with complex systems and look for solutions to problems that arise from these systems.

Questions I should look at include:

1. What is most confusing for students when they are abroad for the first time?
2. What sociocultural differences could be confusing?
3. How could the physical experience be confusing?
4. How can level-specific language be layered onto the game experiences?
5. How can this confusion be scaffolded so as not to overwhelm the player?
6. How can this confusion be scaffolded so as not to disrupt game flow?
7. How can game tasks be developed based on these above points?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Fun with Error Messages

I have a few projects on the plate this summer: (1) getting my tenure portfolio together, which needs to be submitted on 15 September; (2) creating more grammar videos for the Elon German Studies YouTube channel, which now how 304 subscribers and has been viewed over 15,000 times in about 5 months; (3) work with my Lumen Scholar and get her ready for site visits in Germany this fall; and (4) get back into 3D game development.

I just finished the tenure portfolio this last week, or at least I got all the materials assembled and the narrative written. I will write the letter of consideration and print out the latest CV as the submission date draws nearer. And since I met with my Lumen Scholar twice a week on campus, when I will also start producing and uploading videos to YouTube, that leaves me only with my 3D game development and finding a time to do it. I decided I could work on it a few hours every evening before going to bed.

The last game prototype I developed was a good step in the right direction, and even generated some scholarship for me. There was so much else that I felt I could have done with the game, and a major limitation in game development was not being familiar with the Unity development environment. This time around, I thought, I will spend more time getting to know the environment by first completing some of the online tutorials, such as the Stealth game tutorial.

I got a boatload of error messages last night, which community support on the Unity site states is apparently caused by problems with a dynamic-linked library (.dll) file and its interactions with my virus protection:

I updated my mono.dll file and, so far, the problem is fixed. The bug should also be fixed in the new Unity 4.2 release, which is coming up soon. I've been away so long that I have forgotten the joy of having error messages.

Finally, to get inspiration for the new game, I've decided to look at a few others. The game "Gone Home" looks particularly interesting to me in that its gameplay and topics could align very well with the gameplay that will most likely emerge in the new DigiBahn game. In any case, it will be interesting to see what the folks down at The Fullbright Company did with their game.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Summer Plans: Getting Back to Basics

Spring break is upon us, which means that the semester will be coming to an end rather quickly. It also means that I will need to think of something to do during the summer. I will be working with an undergraduate student on her SURE project, but I also need to think of something for my own projects as well. I'm thinking that perhaps its a good idea to revisit programming and modeling basics and build from there.

The first game I developed, as I needed to get research done and publications out the door, was built rather quick and dirty; I felt that there were a lot of things regarding modeling, programming, and game design that I wanted to explore in greater depth but just didn't have the time. I'm thinking that this summer I will need to spend more time with the tools and languages that I used for the project, in order to understand them better and to get up-to-speed on the many changes that have been introduced since creating the first game in 2011.

It has been a while since I programmed, so it is certainly time to get back into that. I picked up a book last night on C# 3.0, and was immediately drawn back into the topic. There is something very organized and methodical about programming that appeals to me, which is odd, I suppose, coming from a person who has been thoroughly immersed in the unstructured nature of humanities research since being an undergraduate in the 1990s. The new Unity tutorials are exciting, and I am looking forward to taking these apart.

On the theoretical side, I need to think about more ways that 3D digital game-based language learning (3D-DGBLL) can be integrated in the second language acquisition classroom. It seems to me, and others seem to agree, that task-based language learning most closely resembles the type of learning that occurs in 3D-DGBLL environments. Our university library has the book by Rod Ellis on the topic, so I will eventually need to get around to this reading this with an eye towards my game project.

Finally: This all needs to come back to research and publications, I suppose. I'm sure that I can get more article publications out of the research, but I'm wondering if a better strategy would be to bring the articles together as a book. Perhaps something in a series such as Routledge Advances in Second Language Studies. Any ideas?

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Going Medieval, Minding the Store

Part of the joy of working at a smaller liberal arts college is the constant variation of tasks that one must do to move a program forward. The variety ensures that one does not bore quickly. On the other hand, part of the frustration of working at a smaller liberal arts college is the constant variation of tasks that one must do to move a program forward. It seems that the ever-changing tasks may also prevent one from focusing in on a promising and interesting research topic.

I suppose the later is a good explanation for why I have not actively been posting to my research blog. I have been working with a bright undergraduate on a SURE project, which I am happy to report has been approved, and we now have our sights set on a Lumen Prize, the deadline for which is this coming Wednesday. In a way, the distraction has been pleasant as it brings me back to my original research roots as a medievalist; frustrating in that I have put my 3D-DGBL development on hold. Here is a brief explanation of what we will be doing on our SURE project:
The research project applies theory derived from art history, gender studies, and medieval German studies towards the construction of an interpretive framework for analyzing bridal imagery and metaphor in Mechthild of Magdeburg's mystical treatise, Das fließende Licht der Gottheit (“The Flowing Light of the Godhead”), the first autobiographical text written by a woman in a medieval German dialect. To situate this unique text within the broader social and cultural contexts of the German High Middle Ages, we will rely on theories of gender performativity as defined by Judith Butler to guide her reading of an influential medieval German lawbook, Der Sachsenspiegel (“The Mirror of the Saxons”). Looking specifically at passages in extant manuscripts of this text dealing with matrimony, inheritance, and property rights as they relate to brides and married women, we will read the stylized gestures and positioning of the illuminated figures that accompany these passages as cultural signs indicating how the gender identity of medieval German women was constructed through public performance. Finally, by comparing the results of this analysis to passages in Das fließende Licht der Gottheit, we hope to uncover the manner in which Mechthild of Magdeburg used the figure of the bride to question, subvert, co-opt, and selectively reinforce the prescriptive gender discourses of her day. By reading Das fließende Licht der Gottheit in light of a lawbook from roughly the same time and geographical region, we seek to arrive at a deeper understanding of the mystical treatise through analysis of the material culture that was part of its original social and cultural context.
Should be a lot of fun and provide a nice change of scenery. I'm also hoping to be able to continue with some 3D model development in Blender during the time and maybe some programming in C#, just so that I don't get rusty. The truth be said, I originally wanted to create a 3D-DGBL learning environment for teaching the German Middle Ages and was in contact with the Helfta convent to get architectural plans for developing the environment. It just seemed, at the time, that software for second language acquisition would be a better place to start.
Anyway, it's been a busy few months and I'm sorry to report that I haven't had the chance to make any progress in my research. I hope you will understand. Hopefully I will have the time to get back to doing some hard programming and 3D modeling this summer. Questions? Drop me a line; I'd love to hear from you.