GOOD

The World’s First Badass Educational Game

Amplify’s revolutionary approach to designing games for the classroom? Hiring game designers, duh.

For many students, playing games in schools was a blessing and a curse. They were a blessing because videogames such as Math Blaster, the mid-80s title I grew up on, was a welcome reprieve from schooling. These games were also a boon for teachers, who were able to add a fun, interactive tool to their lesson plans. It was a valiant effort on the part of educators, but there was one problem: The games sucked.

Compare a standard educational game title to, say, the lush, seductive graphics of the newly-released Destiny or even the open-ended and infinite simplicity of Minecraft, edugames have a hard time competing. “You can’t fool the kids,” says Joel Klein, CEO of Amplify, the education startup housed with the media giant News Corp. “They want world-class game designers.”

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This month, the Experimental Gameplay Project, a monthly challenge for game designers, released the results of their latest effort. They wanted to see who could create the best games that only ran for 10 seconds. That’s it: the videogame equivalent of a mayfly. The approaches that different game designers have taken are quite fascinating. I Can Hold My Breath Forever has players controlling a little cave diver as he hunts for a mysterious person who’s gone ahead of him—but for only 10 seconds at a time. Cold as Death is a black-and-white text adventure that has you trying to avoid freezing to death. But my favorite by far was Run, Jesus, Run, a charmingly pixelated game that delivers a racing Jesus speeding through the Gospels.

As much as gamers love a long, complicated, and well-thought-out game, there’s something wonderful about brevity. I say this not as a time-strapped videogame player; rather I appreciate the creativity that arises from constraints. With videogames becoming ever more complex, mimicking the complexity of real life, what has disappeared in a sense of abstraction and a sense of restraint: Because anything can virtually be accomplished, games often move in the same direction with a focus on polish, but without a real sense of character or oddball creativity.

Anton Chekhov, a master of the short story, wrote hundreds during his life and was a master of the form. The limitations of the short story was a boon, as the novelist Richard Powers observed:

One can say with some assurance that in settling upon the short story as his chosen narrative form, Chekhov elected in essence not to represent all of life, not to make a splash, but to fashion discrete parts of life and focus our attentions and sharpest sensibilities there as a form of indispensable moral instruction. […] Chekhov made his stories precisely commensurate with life and with a view of it we can accept in an almost homely way.

The game designers for the 10 Second Contest are thinking along the same lines. By drawing back their intentions, their games pull a different type of narrative into sharp focus.

Which one is your favorite?

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Videogames' Slow Move Toward Accessibility

For people with disabilities, many videogames have long been off-limits. Times are changing, though. "The continuing existence of unfair and...

For people with disabilities, many videogames have long been off-limits. Times are changing, though."The continuing existence of unfair and unnecessary discrimination and prejudice denies people with disabilities the opportunity to compete on an equal basis and to pursue those opportunities for which our free society is justifiably famous." -American with Disabilities Act, 1990When Stevie Wonder took the stage at last year's Spike Video Game Awards, the evening took an interesting turn. In a plea to the industry, Wonder challenged videogame developers to create more games for the disabled. Praising rhythm games for their wider appeal, he asked the crowd to follow that example and create games that can be played by everyone.He had a strong case. Back in 1990, President Bush signed the American with Disabilities Act to protect those with disabilities from workplace discrimination. Since then, public spaces have become increasingly accessible, and many other forms of entertainment and media have found ways to include those with handicaps. Television shows have closed captioning and movie theaters are accessible by wheelchair. Even professional sports have their spinoffs.But videogames rarely offer such accessibility. Controllers come in a single size, many games are sound-dependent (such as first-person shooters), and even more are useless unless you can see. In December, a petition was started by those with red-green color blindness to change Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, which uses the problematic colors to distinguish teammates from enemies during multi-player play. Ben Gilbert, a writer for game website Joystiq who has said color blindness, notes that "I can think of about 20 other games that need a solution for this before MW2. How about every puzzle game ever made that depends on color matching-I'm looking at you especially, Super Puzzle Fighter, you heart breaker." (A community manager for Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward has noted to issue and promised to bring it up with the team.)There are some signs of change afoot, mostly from the community of people with disabilities who love videogames. Mark Barlet founded AbleGamers after watching a friend with multiple sclerosis become frustrated with modern videogames. Barlet himself is disabled with a spinal cord injury. The site has since spun-off into a foundation and an industry outreach arm to show game developers how they can make their games more open for everyone.These are small steps, but it's steps like these that create movement.

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The Rise of High-quality Nonprofit Videogaming

A new nonprofit shows that well-designed games can also do the world some good. "Good works are links that form a chain of love." -Mother...

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A new nonprofit shows that well-designed games can also do the world some good."Good works are links that form a chain of love." -Mother TheresaAt a conference of the country's top advertising agencies in 1941, legendary salesman James Webb Young took the stage in Hot Springs, Arizona, to ask a very important question: The ink was still drying on the Atlantic Charter, which would serve as the Allied blueprint for World War II, and Madison Avenue wanted to know how it could help.Producing such legendary taglines as "Loose Lips Sink Ships" and characters like Rosie the Riveter, the Council rallied Americans to support their troops. When the war had ended, they were renamed the Advertising Council and ever since the nonprofit solicits the work of advertising agencies on behalf of nonprofit clients like the United Negro College Fund.Martin de Ronde says he's never heard of Ad Council, but his new nonprofit, OneBigGame, is cut from the same cloth. Founded in 2006 by de Ronde after he left Guerrilla Games, the publisher works with developers to create products and then donates the proceeds to Save the Children and Starlight Children's Foundation. Developed by Zoë Mode, who popularized Sony's SingStar series, OneBigGame's first project, Chime, was released as a download for the Xbox 360.But playing Chime, you wouldn't know the game was done as a philanthropic endeavor. Somewhere between the bright colors of Geometry Wars and the puzzle block placement of Tetris, Chime has players place blocks and attempt to create large quadrants to fill up the gameboard. The bigger the quadrants, the more you fill and the more points you get. The game is also melodic, with the backing tracks of artists like Philip Glass and Moby, who donated material pro-bono. High quality is OneBigGame's M.O.; they don't want products that feel cobbled together."It's an entrepreneurial charity," de Ronde says. "Rather than going out to the companies and asking for money, we're asking for a certain amount of time and creativity. That's far more interesting rather than making a donation." In addition to Chime, OneBigGame will be publishing new games from Charles Cecil, creator of the Broken Sword series, and Masaya Matsuura, father of the classic PlayStation franchise PaRappa the Rapper.OneBigGame is an interesting approach at doing good through videogames. The "serious games" movement put political messages at the forefont, as with MTV's Darfur is Dying. But one of the prevailing critiques of serious games has been that they're not very well-designed. Justin Peters wrote a scathing review of serious games in Slate in 2007: "In taking the fun out of video games, companies like [serious gamemaker] Persuasive make them less alluring to people who love games and more alluring to people who don't," he wrote. (I disagree with Peters's distinction that games must be "fun," but he seems to be using it as a proxy for "well-designed.")Of course, social conscience and high-quality gameplay are not mutually exclusive, but it's exciting to see OneBigGame approach one part of the problem. By inspiring designers to think of themselves and as (indirect) agents of social change, they're influencing people who buy games like Chime.

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A Videogame to Fight Cubicle Malaise

Paolo Pedercini's experimental game, "Every Day The Same Dream," challenges players to escape the dreariness of the working world. When the...

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