“Scientists say video games can reshape education”

Having just recently picked up a copy of Big Brain Academy for the DS Lite, this article comes as no surprise: “Not playing around: Scientists say video games can reshape education.”

“The theory is that games teach skills that employers want: analytical thinking, team building, multitasking and problem-solving under duress.”

What is a surprise though, is to hear that there are still people who are skeptical about using games for education. I mean, where would my mad dance floor skillz be without Dance Dance Revolution? Ok, bad example.

Looking back though, I fondly remember going to my elementary school library to play typing tutors and Oregon Trail (which taught us the value of 4×4 vehicles.) But past elementary school, educational games went away. At home, I was slingin’ LOGO and playing Zork, but my in-school computer use evolved into using spreadsheets and, eventually, programming Pascal.

The article does mention one important fact though:

“The gaming industry has already figured out that educational games don’t make money in the consumer marketplace. The new approach would instead market them directly to schools.”

This is key. You definitely don’t want some “education council” designing the games — they’re going to suck. You need professional game designers. And if you can organize enough of our tax dollars into funding such development, then you give the gaming industry a reason to take the educational market more seriously.

Preferans, PyDict, and s60-compat for PyS60

Some of this will be more useful for those Russian-speaking Python hackers out there, but http://amigo12.boom.ru/ (English) has some excellent examples of robust and unique mobile applications written with Python for S60:

Preferans card game on Python for S60:

Python Dictionary for Series60:

amigo12 also has done some work to add emulation of the graphics module to the PDIS wxWindows-based PyS60 emulator, and has been discussing these projects on the discussion boards.

Austin Game Conference

I’ll be at Austin Game Conference tomorrow and Friday (Oct. 27-28 2005), primarily in the Mobile and Wireless Design track. I’ve been to Game Developer Conference a few times, but this will be my first visit to the local conference so I’m not sure what to expect of it. Hopefully there will be at least a few active mobile developers, as I’m most interested in hearing what tools and development processes are being used to produce Java games targeting entry- to mid-level mass market devices. (Of course, if anyone wants to talk about Python for Series 60, I’m happy to do that as well ;-)

[Update: Here’s a short bit about the conference in Business Week: Austin Game Conference Preview.]

Free goes a long way

I read through some of the XBox 360 announcements last week, and the one bit that really caught my attention was that all XBox 360 owners will get free weekend access to XBox Live. That’s a killer feature. Microsoft’s online strategy has dominated Sony’s (even if Sony has sold more hardware) and Sony will have to announce some very serious, well thought-out plans if they want to compete in the online space with the PS3. I’m generally not a Microsoft fan, nor do I own an XBox, but I certainly plan on picking up one of these new units when they’re released.

The Xbox Live online experience is stellar. There are a few reasons for this, but one of the main one’s is that Microsoft “owns the login.” All games must authenticate users through the same system, which leads to a consistent user-experience. Members have one bill, one login, and one system to deal with. It also means that Microsoft can build value-add services like social networking — something they are really pushing with the 360.

In contrast, the Playstation strategy requires game developers to manage their own online offering. Everything from the connection, to account management, to authentication, to billing, to game play must be built by each developer. This empowers a developer to build exactly the experience they want; But unless a shop can guarantee the needed volume of subscriptions to cover these costs, it just isn’t feasible to do. Because of this, smaller titles don’t get online features on the PS2. (Heck, most games don’t get online features on the PS2.)

The 360 is also being positioned as an always-online media center. It let’s owners chat online (voice and video), watch game and movie trailers, listen to music stored on your PC, etc. It’s a digital hub, to use a marketing term, that brings the internet and the media on your PC to your television. Building on that, it doesn’t take much of an imagination stretch to see online music and movie sales coming through the 360 either (although sadly, probably not via iTMS.)

There’s always a negative side though, and in this case I’m guessing that the media center functionality is designed to work only with Windows PC’s, locking out other OS’s and devices. It would make sense coming from Microsoft, but would be a poor choice if they really seek to “own” the home network experience. Furthermore, Microsoft’s history of poor security makes the thought of leaving the 360 powered-on and connected all the time a bit scary (and wasteful.)

I suppose we’ll have to wait until the holiday season to find out how well all of these ideas actually work. There have been a lot of services trying to bring the net to your television, but most of them have sucked. In the past, and likely still true for most consumers, the television did not offer the screen clarity needed to realistically read text. The technology was designed for moving pictures, and works very well for that. If you’ve ever tried designing TV-based software interfaces, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Characters bleed and twitch, and the resolution is terrible. But for video chat, movie trailers, and game previews, the television is perfect — and that’s where the 360 has an edge. Done right, the content will be interesting, and services designed specifically to run on this infrastructure have the potential to be huge.

GT4 first impressions

All the finger crossing worked — my copy of Gran Turismo 4 (GT4) loaded up just fine. It almost hung at one point, and the DVD drive made some nasty noises before one of the replays, but the game kept rolling. I do see the screen jitter problem, but fortunately, it’s only during replays or intro sequences.

I went ahead and imported my GT3 credentials into the game, which bumps your starting cash reserves from 10k to 110k. It sorta felt like cheating, but oh well — it’s built-in functionality and it meant that I could start with the car I wanted. Which was? A brand new Impreza STi Spec C of course! And what a lovely car it is. I used it to win all the Beginner and Professional races I could enter, then went shopping for the next car in my “must have” lineup: a Sileighty. Unfortunately I couldn’t find one new or used, so I settled on a slightly used Silvia S15. The Silvia was used to win the Beginner FR races, which raised enough money to purchase the final piece of my killer trio: a Caterham. My assumption was that with its’ amazing power-to-weight ratio and nimble size, the Caterham would own the convertible class races. But about two minutes after blowing 60k on a Caterham (the Spec C was 30k, the Silvia 10k), my joys of hitting an open track in the beautiful former Lotus were crushed by the games’ evil “sorry, this is a special car” error message. What? A “special car”? What’s that mean? So I tried entering another race… then another… and another.. and.. wait a minute, I can’t actually drive this 60k car?

Frustrated and defeated, I hit the discussion boards, and what I found made the frustration even worse. The theory is that the good folks who decided to add new fancy features to the game decided that it would be really cool if, during the replays, you could actually see a driver in the car working the wheel and gear-box. However, a car like the Caterham shows too much of the driver, and rendering the car, the race, the crowd, the competition, and the driver equals too many polygons. So they decided the let you purchase the car and keep it in your garage — but you can’t race it. Sure, you can take it to an empty parking lot and drive around. But that’s it. You can imagine my frustration. I don’t care if the car has a driver! I wouldn’t even complain if the driver was 3D yellow cube! I want to drive a Caterham on a race track!

Ok, so it’s not *that* bad. The good feature planning folks decided that since you can’t compete an any car that has an open top, they enabled an Arcade play mode where those cars can be driven (stock) against a single competitor outside of career mode. Woo hoo. Might as well have left the car out of the game. Seriously. Seriously! If I can’t race the car I purchased in a racing simulator — leave it out of the game! I guess I can use the photo-taking mode to take pictures of my shinny, zero-mileage Caterham.

Back to the game though, it is a fantastic piece of work. I ran through the “International B” driving test last night, then finished the first ten Driving Challenges, which were pretty nice passing maneuver scenarios. While running another race though, I realized something. I don’t recall GT3 being this easy. I seem to remember that it took a little while to really get in the groove of how GT3 wanted you to drive the cars. But then I had another thought — maybe GT4 seems easy because the physics are better? Or maybe I’m just a better driver now. GT3 came out a long time ago, and at the time, I had never actually driven a real car on a real race track. I had run some Auto-X events, but not real wheel-to-wheel, high-speed track time. Since then, I’ve driven in numerous track and high-speed driving events. I’ve spent time actually tweaking fully adjustable suspension rigs and hitting the track to feel what the change does. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but the game really does reward an understanding of car setup and handling. Which, of course, is what makes it such a wonderful experience!