Wednesday, March 27, 2013

PAX East Panel Postmortem: Game Designers are Defining the Next 50 Years of Education

Off the top of your head, could you tell me what the atomic weight of lead is?  Come on now, no peeking at the periodic table.  How about telling me who invented the cotton gin?  OK, let's try something else - what would you use to deal with a dark-type Pok√©mon to be super effective?  How about what kind of chocobos you need to get a Golden one?  I'm guessing there's a better chance of you guys knowing the answer to one of the latter two than the first.  Why do you think that's the case?  Maybe it's because some people have more fun playing games than memorizing information from Chemistry class.  Or maybe there's more to it than that.

If you ask Steve Swink, which PAX East goers filling the Merman Theater did on Friday morning, he has a more simple explanation for many of the world's ills.  He ran a panel called "Game Designers are Designing the Next 50 Years of Education."  While talking about healthcare and other complex problems we are currently facing, he mused that "healthcare is fucked, and education prepares no one for anything."  In his opinion, the current educational system treats students more like hard drives by using memorization over teaching problem solving and thinking.  And I can't wholly disagree - I remember a lot of memorization in middle and high school and regurgitation for exams.  Personally, working through puzzles in the Legend of Zelda or figuring out what enemies were weak to what in Final Fantasy for me was more thought-provoking than school was a lot of the time.  I mean we had those old MECC games like Number Munchers, Oregon Trail and Rainbow Trout but still, those were supplemental to our curriculum, not actually a part of the core.  It's true - games help people understand complex systems.  Try to explain a game like a Civilization title or any Final Fantasy universe, and you'll see that while it seems tough and complex to others, you seem to have a pretty solid grasp on it.  I honestly feel I'm smarter and that my brain tweaked itself for problem solving because of the games I played at a young age.

According to Mr. Swink, there's some support on making games part of core curriculum from some groups, like the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.  Part of what they do is making educational games so when students "exit school they feel empowered" to understand complex systems.  To show this concept he showed us an educational game he developed called The Doctor's Cure (Plague: Modern Prometheus) which you can see at Atlantis Remixed.  It's a 3D game run on the Unity platform where students take on the role of an investigative reporter learning about a visiting doctor's methods of finding an antidote for a plague that has struck town.  Playing the game helps the students (through their journalist role) put together persuasive arguments.  To do this they find and collect quotes as evidence and put it through an analyzer, which you can see on the right, building causal chains to make a solid persuasive case.

Pretty slick, right?

The game is designed to be part of core curriculum that the teacher can run in the classroom, where he or she plays the role of Scoop, the town newspaper's editor, with their own back end and control panel to set rules and take a look at their students work.  And there's evidence that the program is working.  Sunnyside school district in Arizona, a district where 70% of students are on the subsidized lunch program and 50% of the students speak English as a second language, raised $16MM (that's million) so that they could build infrastructure and give every student a laptop to take part.  As a result, even ESL students that didn't like to write before were producing good persuasive essays using Doctor's Cure.  Which is an amazing thing.

Mr. Swink has the right idea - to give kids a virtual world with the ability to change things and see the consequences by providing them a safe place to fail - and more importantly - understand.  When the students make their persuasive arguments, they vote whether or not to keep the doctor in town or to kick him out - each decision having  its own ethical quandaries.  I'd call that a better way to help kids understand complex systems and spin up some critical thinking, wouldn't you?  Because as he accurately stated, "kids aren't hard drives, and we have no idea what the world is going to be like in 50 years.  Even 5."

And for the record,  the answers to those questions at the top of the page are: 207.2, Eli Whitney, fighter type, and mating a black and a wonderful with a Zeio nut and some luck.

To find more information, you can visit Atlantis Remixed and the Center for Games and Impact.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Pre-PAX Panic! If a Phone Falls in a Cab, does it Make a Sound?

I headed to PAX East a day early so I could get settled in, get my media badge and know exactly where the hell I was going for opening day.  A 6 hour train ride and my luxurious chariot that was the Amtrak was finally in Boston.  The South Station was just a minute or so from my hotel, so within minutes I was checked in (The Intercontinental Boston is fantastic by the way) without issue.  Finally settled, it was time to venture out for procuring those badges with the Grey Area Podcast’s very own lovely and talented Jenesee Grey.  We got to the convention center without a hitch, picked up my badge, got a little sneak preview of the con floor, and went on our merry way.  Next was the cab to pick up her badges from the dude holding them for her.  Again, no problems there.  Everything was going to plan and we were on schedule for some sushi at 8.

Unfortunately that’s when the universe decided that everything was going TOO according to plan.  In the next cab (the one slated for said target sushi) my jacket felt a bit light when the cab started.  A little too light.  About as light as it would be without, oh I don’t know, a Droid RAZR MAXX in the pocket.  Yep.  It was gone.

You’ve all seen those posters and shirts with the famous British epithet “Keep Calm and Carry On?”  This was roughly the exact opposite of that.  It was more like a t-shirt I saw once and almost bought from Threadless.  The crown upside down in distress, and instead of the famous line was the appropriate “Now Panic and Freak Out.”  That’s where I was at.  See these days a cell phone isn’t just something to make calls on.  A decent smartphone can be your life in a pocket.  That was my email, my social media, private accounts I alone access, my pictures and videos, and a host of other information that no one but me should be seeing.  Granted, they’d need to figure out the pattern code an one of a number of ridiculous passwords on rotation but still.  There’s a feeling of helplessness that strikes you when something like that happens.  Oh and the best part – I couldn’t remember my cab number.

Yes.  I know.  an absolute rookie mistake I’ll never forgive myself for.

Thankfully, during my frantic near-episode searching the snow banks on the side on the sidewalks in case it fell, Jenesee called the cab company and spammed my phone number.  With no response we figured that the best play would be to just call Verizon Wireless to track it, and that’s when someone answered.  As it turned out phone was recovered by a group of fellow PAX East goers who got the cab next, and after some searching were able to find them at the bar they were chilling at.  And what was it called?

The Green Dragon.  That’s right, fellow geeks in the city to get their PAX on picked it up, and were holding it for me at a bar with the same name as those frequented by Shire-folk in the realm of Middle Earth.  They couldn’t unlock my pattern or couldn’t make any calls from it but they still held on to it in case I got a call through.  And they didn’t have to.  And I think that speaks to the type of community PAX has created for gamers and their con-goers.  I want to believe that fans that descended upon Boston could imagine if it happened to them, and follow the “don’t be a dick” attitude that we see in Penny Arcade’s strips and columns and a lot of what they do.

And the absolute best part of the whole thing – I had to argue with the dude that found it to at least buy him a beer for his help.  Many thanks to you sir, to PAX, and to nerd culture for averting a potential disaster and horrible time at the convention.

Now then, to the fine folks we met at the Green Dragon, you have my info, make sure you get at me!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Deus Ex: Human Revolution Announced For PAX East

This morning Square-Enix announced that Deus Ex: Human Revolution will be a go for the Wii U this coming weekend at PAX East.  This new release is a director’s cut version of the game, and will be an exclusive title for the Wii U.   From Square-Enix PR:

The Director’s Cut offers a full slate of Wii U™ GamePad features including touch-screen hacking, interactive map editing, augmented sniping, grenade throwbacks and many other neural hub enhancements. Along with in-depth Miiverse™ integration, the Director’s Cut also provides access to developer commentaries and in-game guides.

Tongs’s Rescue mission and the entire Missing Link chapter have also been integrated seamlessly into the narrative flow of the Director’s Cut. Other core DEUS EX: HUMAN REVOLUTION augmentations include overhauled boss fights, refined game balance and combat, improved AI, and striking visual improvements which make this edition the best looking and most immersive Deus Ex experience available.

Utilizing the Wii U’s touch screen for hacking and neural hub seem like interesting alterations to gameplay. I’ll be hanging out with Square-Enix for a while at PAX, so be sure I’ll have more for you once I see it up close and personal, as well as other new stuff from their camp.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

EA's Bad Week - the SimCity Saga Thus Far

By now you kids know how I feel about always-on DRM.  It makes me angry.  It makes the fire burn in me belly.  And worst of all, it’s a trend that shows no sign of slowing down in the near future.  I vented and raged about Diablo III when Blizzard released it last year, seeing white hot flashes of rage at the fact that I couldn’t play my single player game offline.  Seemed like a reasonable to me of course, since the game’s predecessor allowed me to do so,  but hey, maybe that’s just me.

As I’m sure we’ve all learned in a number of times in any history class, relationship or other real-life happening, history seems doomed to repeat itself.  This time it wasn’t Blizzard at the heart of the controversy though – instead it was EA, one of the OG’s of always-on DRM, and the release of SimCity, next in that line of addictive little sim games.  Fans were looking forward to it, and would be erecting tiny digital skyscrapers as we speak if it wasn’t for an absolutely catastrophic launch.

You see kids, the city is a sim.  But the horror was real.

For the last few days since launch, a number of users haven’t been able to connect to theSimCity servers.  Of course no connection to the servers means – you guessed it – no SimCity to play.  The few players that are in fact able to connect being dropped mid game with a suddenly severed connection.  The result?  Extremely unhappy gamers.  Check out the official SimCity Facebook page to see the kind or ire they drew from their customers.  You can take another digital trip over to Reddit where the subreddit /r/SimCity has a ton of discussions between unhappy peoples.

That’s the main story, but it serves as a springboard for a couple of other spinoffs in the SimCity saga.  Tuesday on the EA forums (I’d link but it’s since been edited), global community manager Marcel Hatam issued an apology to customers, saying: “If you regrettably feel that we let you down, you can of course request a refund for your order at [Origin's "contact us" page], though we’re currently still in the process of resolving this issue.”

Then I saw this floating around Twitter.  It appears to be a post of a support chat posted to the EA forums by a user going by the handle CalebPeters.  In that chat, we see the customer support representative telling the user that EA does allow users to request refunds, but doesn’t necessarily process them by their return policy, also adding that account bans are in store for users that dispute said policy.  Of course that chat image went Ebola-style viral across the web immediately after.  Marcel Hatan’s forum post has since disappeared, being replaced with the line “Please review our refund policy here:” (check poster EA_ComRaven).  This of course links to their return policy, which states that there will be no refunds.  Through their Origin account (@OriginInsider), EA then clarified that users would not in fact be banned for requesting a refund.  PHEW.  Three days of whirlwind nuttiness, all because of always-on DRM.  But wait, what’s that I hear?


Enter Amazon into the heart of the melee.  Eager to spare their customers from what can only be referred to as a kerfuffle, Amazon has stopped selling SimCity on their storefront.  In addition to marking each purchase option as “unavailable” when selected, they give Amazon customers a warning: “Many customers are having issues connecting to the “SimCity” servers. EA is actively working to resolve these issues, but at this time we do not know when the issue will be fixed. Please visit for more information.”  Click that screenshot I took to see it full-size or hit up Amazon to see it for yourself.

So EA is trying to address the problem.  Naturally, they hate bad press and the prospect of losing future sales as much as the next company.  Today they announced that they are removing “non-critical” aspects of the game to help lower the stress on their servers, letting more people connect without getting the boot.

Now this is the second launch that I’ve seen destroyed by a publisher’s absolute insistence on always-on DRM (of course i say “destroyed” due to user backlash, not money).  It is also the second launch where the publisher claimed that the always on component provided benefits and was not implemented for DRM reasons.  “Oh it’s technical” they say – well I ain’t buying it.  Diablo III‘s DRM-laden launch was paired with sales. SimCity will still sell a bunch of copies once they get all this sorted out.  That’s two kids.  One more always-on DRM launch and I’m ready to call it a horrifying industry trend.

On an actual technical note, this was the second launch where AAA publishing houses didn’t properly test a stressed server load.  You’re requiring every single player to be online.  Don’t you think your servers and network should be beefed up to match it?

Friday, March 1, 2013

"Six Strikes," Piracy, and Your Internet

During summer 2012, we all heard tell of internet service providers agreeing to a new Copyright Alert System (CAS), intending to curb online piracy.  All we really knew of it back then is that it involved your ISP sending you messages when you were suspected of downloading copyrighted works illegally, ultimately cutting you off when you crossed the line too many times.  Of course the RIAA and MPAA were on board, and brought with them major ISP’s Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner.  Critics, including myself, took issue with this being a potential violation of users’ privacy, as well as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) containing language that requires ISP’s to be able to terminate user accounts for repeat offenders.  Outside of that, we didn’t have any other real information on how the final impact to users was going to look.

Well this week the CAS went into effect, and ISP’s will now be sending warnings to customers whenever they see something that can be considered copyright infringement.  If you haven’t gotten a letter in the mail from your particular ISP you should be shortly, and hopefully that letter clearly tells you all what’s going on.  In case it doesn’t (which let’s be serious, it won’t), ol’ Tushar is here to let you know what’s up.

The way it works is pretty simple – content owners trawl P2P traffic to see if there’s any of their own copyrighted stuff out there.  If they find some, they track your IP number and report it to your ISP.  Your ISP matches up your IP address with your account information, and SHAZAM – you get, as they call it, an “educational” message saying that there’s illegal content being downloaded from your account.  Your ISP, contrary to fears from last year, will not be monitoring your internet use.  From everything I’ve read, what they’re expressly looking for is peer-to-peer BitTorrent traffic.  The monitoring doesn’t get into email attachments or private online storage like Dropbox and its ilk.  If you don’t use BitTorrent, then I really don’t think you have anything to worry about.  And according to LifeHacker, right now Usenet is probably safe too.

But come on, we’ve all done it at one point or another.

These warnings can be called “strikes,” and in all cases six strikes will trigger the use of a handful of punitive methods at your ISP’s disposal to deter you from repeating this kind of behavior.  Verizon will cap your speed at 256k as punishment (can you imagine coming down from FiOS to THAT?).  Comcast will present persistent alerts in their browser windows, and users will have to speak with Comcast security to be educated in how to download legally before their internet service is unlocked.  Time Warner will have a similar unlock system.  And finally AT&T will force the user to an educational website before unlocking their internet again.   In most cases, after four warnings the user has to agree to a “I’ll never do it again guys, I promise” landing page they’re forced to before they browse the web.  CAS warnings can be challenged to the American Arbitration Association for a number of different reasons, and the going rate for said challenge seems to be $35.  No word on whether or not the user will be reimbursed for winning the challenge.  Also in most cases, 6 months of pirate-free activity and you start back at zero.  Ars Technica was nice enough to post pictures of the Comcast editions of these notices, which you can see here.  It’ll give you a much better idea of what I’m trying to illustrate.  You can check some links to your specific ISP’s CAS policies on PCMag.

You’ll notice I use the word “educational” in this post.  That’s not my word – it comes from the Center for Copyright Information (CCI), the brainchild behind the new CAS system.  In their own words:

“As with any innovative system, the process of building the CAS has taken time. We appreciate the collaborative engagement from the many organizations, companies and professionals involved in CCI who helped advise us along the way. CCI and its partners have worked hard to meet our goal of implementing a system that educates consumers about copyright and P2P networks, encourages the use of legal alternatives, and safeguards customer privacy.”

… Education?  Do the RIAA and MPAA (big surprise they back the CCI) really think that people using BitTorrent don’t know the score?  Back when I used to do such things I did it for two reasons – (1) because it was relatively easy and (2) it was free.  And yes, I fully knew that a lot of it was (3) illegal.  No one’s under any kind of illusion that what they’re doing isn't skirting the law.  If the CCI really thinks that education is the problem, then they’re not seeing things clearly, or simply refusing to.

Now thankfully, this isn’t as bad as everyone thought it would be.  Like I mentioned above ISP’s won’t be sniffing packets or monitoring traffic on everything you’re doing (at least that’s what’s reported).  And I get the idea of people getting paid for their work.  I really do.  But this is just a band-aid to the issue.  Copyright law itself has to be re-examined to see what works and what doesn’t now that digital delivery of content has proliferated at such a grand scale.  We’ve seen people pay for content with services like Netflix and Hulu+, even though we all wish they had more content.  Services like HBO Go on the other hand sometimes leave a lot to be desired.  Warner Brothers’ digital copies of blu-rays?  Forget it, it’s a horrible service that’s not transferable between my own damn machines.  The bottom line is that people are willing to pay for content, as long as it’s fair to the user, structured properly, easy,  and most importantly worth their hard-earned money.

Otherwise, Matthew Inman at the Oatmeal makes a whole lot of sense.