Before I became a game writer, I was a novelist; I got weird looks for it then and I get weird looks for it now, weird looks that usually dissipate when I explain the lofty goal behind my work of fiction or my steampunk adventure game. That’s when the “adults” - you know the type, those sticklers in the mud who have seemingly forgotten what it’s like to have fun just for the sake of it - look visibly relieved, laugh awkwardly and say, “Oh. Well, that’s all right then! You’re doing some useful.” When I hear something like that, I wonder when entertaining became synonymous with useful, or why it’s so important to slap an educational or serious label on something before the grown-ups approve of it.
Because that’s what edutainment is all about, isn’t it? Educational or serious games, by definition, are applications that are developed to serve a purpose beyond entertainment; however, one can’t help but wonder who the producers of such games were hoping to entertain. I have not once seen a kid willingly pick up an educational game instead of an entertaining one; it’s usually some teacher or parent coercing them into doing that. When my younger siblings play a game, lessons and nuggets of wisdom are the last thing they wish to be subjected to. Interestingly enough, they indirectly pick up some habits from games that have no educational purposes whatsoever.
Serious or educational games - let’s call them edugames for brevity's sake - tend to be stigmatized. If a company, organization or individual known for their research work or educational tactics announces that they are producing a game to achieve so and so or promote some lofty goal, said games are almost immediately flagged as being boring and preachy without being given a second glance… and even if the story does seem interesting, it is assumed that the delivery will be pretentious. There’s no denying the basis for such stigma; often times, edugames are so focused on getting their message across, to the extent of foregoing the entertainment aspects and the fun factor. They could have fantastic art, but it would get lost in the absence of a decent storyline, interesting characters, engaging quests and fun gameplay. What producers of edugames sometimes fail to realize is that not everyone who plays a game is inherently good; let’s face it, playing a paladin is quite boring, and kids are not as innocent as we all like to think.
Legendary game designer Sid Meier is quoted as saying that “a game is a series of interesting choices”. But what exactly makes these interesting? Many famous role playing games like Baldur’s Gate, Knights of the Old Republic and more recently Dragon Commander let the player take a stance and decide whether they want to be “good” or “evil” or somewhere in between. These games use alignment as a way to explain how the game world is organized. They deal with choices and consequences. Reactivity whereby the game world responds to the player’s actions, is another way to make the choices interesting (you might go back and pick another option later to see how things play out). Alternatively, you have strategy and resource management games like Age of Empires or Civilization. The players have to make a lot of mini-decisions and evaluate both short-term and long-term strategies to beat the game. These games can be a good source for history facts or illustrate how we have developed and progressed throughout the ages.
History and a moral compass are all well and good, but what else could we embed or imprint into the game design? Specifically “hard skills” that are not normally taught in the traditional education system and which would be useful to the players outside the game. For example IBM has studied online game communities and concluded that it could be a viable area to recruit leadership talent from (http://wow.joystiq.com/2007/07/09/mmo-players-make-great-leaders/). This seems like a happy coincidence and I doubt these were explicit goals with the game design for massively online games like Everquest, WoW, Eve Online etc. With Cedaria: Blackout we are not counting on coincidences and instead taking a more planned approach. We want to give the players the opportunity to acquire some hard skills in one particular area, specifically: conflict mediation and transformation.
Explore the basic principles of conflict mediation and transformation
You’re probably thinking, “Oh there we go. They finally showed their true colours. Conflict transformation and conflict mediation are as boring as you can get.” Well how do video games deal with conflict? Let us take dialogue when interacting with a non-player character (NPC) as an example. Many edugames - and regular games, for that matter - present the dialogue options up-front. The interesting aspect for the player boils down to picking the “right” choice in the case of edugames (picking the wrong choice might prematurely end the game and broadcast the “message”). In traditional role playing games, the player is also presented with a list of options and some of these options have criteria checks e.g. the player avatar needs a high speech skill (persuade or convince) or a strong character (threaten). Then there are good/neutral/evil options.
So how will Cedaria tackle dialogues differently? We like to think of conflict transformation and mediation as puzzles: in any given situation, there may be several options available, but the player needs to invest time to discover these. Some options require talking to other NPCs or finding objects or hints in the game world. As with any conflict in real life, the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. There may be bad options, mediocre options or good options. Some options might resolve a situation peacefully, others are a stopgap while one outcome might get you beaten up or escalate tensions. We have sought to deliver this in an entertaining context with a solid story, quirky and interesting characters and punchy, witty dialogue which players might not feel inclined to skip over and instead take the time to read.
Anyway, thats the plan at least. What are your experiences with serious games and what type of “hard skills” would you like to see future games tackle and embed into their design?
Also, feel free to check out our Kickstarter and help spread the word about Cedaria: Blackout. If you have questions about the game feel free to post here on this blog or over at our Kickstarter: