Confession Corner: I play a Facebook game

Remember back when all our mothers came on Facebook and started playing Farmville? Well around that same time, Zynga released a game called Cafe World. It was a game about having a restaurant, making various dishes, and keeping your customers happy. I played it for awhile, because I was fascinated by the trend of social games at the time, and despite cooking like once a month in real life, I loooove cooking in games.

That was over five years ago. Fast forward to today when the landscape has changed. Facebook games still exist, but they aren’t really a thing anymore. Now it’s all about mobile. And mobile isn’t about farms and clicking (ok, well, a lot of it is actually) – it’s about puzzles and math and beauty and “real” games.

Monument Valley

Except if you take a look at my tablet, it has Monument Valley and Star Wars: Uprising and Fallout Shelter, sure. But it also has a group of little icons labeled “Cooking.”

Recently, I really wanted to play a simple cooking game again. There’s something so satisfying about setting a dish to cook, coming back a couple hours later, and making a whole restaurant of people happy with my amazing Jalapeno-Bacon Poppers. And what’s more, it feels productive (even though it’s not), and it consumes my attention for just long enough to stop any other stressy thoughts from entering my brain. Just get the ingredients, choose what dishes to make, let the pot boil, as the cheesy music plays.


It feels a little like the gift of a Lotus-Eater in that I can waste so much time and feel so peaceful doing it.

The game I’ve mostly played (though I’ve downloaded FIVE (5!!!) variations on the cooking sim) is Restaurant Story 2 by Storm8, a company that makes a host of simple Match-3 games, casino games, and various other little simulation games for mobile. I don’t think very many people play these kinds of cooking sims anymore – if you look on the AppStore, most cooking games are all variations of Diner Dash now. Apparently, peacefully cooking over time wasn’t frantic enough for most mobile users or maybe the crap is coming to its end.

“We feel like we are participating in a great social idea, but we are truly isolated and lonely, and in the end, we are wasting our time.  Our brains don’t naturally realize that what we’re doing is worthless, because these things are by their very design trying to trick us into thinking we are being productive and social.  I say kill the crap actively, because evolution can make mistakes.”

What keeps me coming back to these games though is the quest system. The reason I stopped playing Cafe World years ago was because they created quests (fun!) but made them impossible to achieve without spending money (not fun). I’m an achiever, and I want to have the satisfaction of achieving something on my own, so naturally this did not appeal to me. Now today, in Restaurant Story 2, there are occasional events that require you to cook or master certain recipes, acquire ingredients, and accomplish certain objectives by a strict end date. THIS GETS ME. It’s possible to achieve these goals, but only with some diligence. If you only log in once a day, you will end far from the goal. So there’s that push to succeed at a challenging (in terms of time management at least) but obtainable goal, and then the end reward, which is usually a new recipe to cook. Who doesn’t love new recipes??


I sometimes wonder if these things appeal to me so much because the path to reach them is so clear. In my real life, work is about strategy and decision-making in a changing landscape. Will my choices impact people’s lives? Yes. Will they help them? I hope so, but I don’t know. In my personal life, I’m constantly juggling health, family, desire, and sleep. I never quite feel like I’ve figured it out, but I’m always trying to get somewhere, get better, get smarter, get a break. To have a goal that I can achieve with just a little persistence feels so achingly good that I truly do feel some guilt for feeling it.

So yes, there’s my guilty gaming pleasure these days. I mostly share it to give a fuller impression of the kind of person who plays a game like this – not just your non-gamer (grand)mothers – but also to raise a little flag for those mindless social games that can still play a meaningful role in someone’s life to feel better about myself.

Handholding your Learning, or what FFXIV has to do with my (real-life) job

I’ve played games since I was a toddler, and I’ve been teaching either myself or others since not long after that. Games and teaching/learning are both intricately woven into who I am, so rather than try to separate them, I’ve decided to embrace this delightful marriage. I’m starting today by talking about Final Fantasy XIV in the context of education, technology, and the human process of learning.

Much of my educational work has recently centered on online learning, including massive open online courses (MOOCs) in the form of Coursera or edX, where millions of individuals take university courses for free. In these classes, video lectures guide students through content while quizzes and exams test their progress. What does this have to do with games? Well, if you’ve ever heard the term “theme park” applied (negatively) to an MMO, I’m about to explain just what MOOCs and other online education platforms similar to them have in common with MMOs.

Disney Theme Park


Cities: Skylines has politics?!

Cities:Skylines is the latest darling to hit the PC market. Everyone, or just most people, is calling it “the SimCity we deserved.” It’s a classic city-sim with the familiar task of zoning land to balance residential/commercial/industrial demands, while keeping basic services operating in your city before it implodes due to your own negligence, or well, your own negligence, since there are no disasters in this game. It’s fun, has a robust modding community already, and scratches the city-building itch without all that EA bad feeling creeping in.

Where we're going, we don't need straight roads.

Where we’re going, we don’t need straight roads.

So what’s wrong with it?

It’s not that it’s wrong, necessarily, just that it has some political assumptions that are too simplistic. Yes, that’s right, a city-building sim has politics. More

This is my dissertation

It’s raw and it’s ugly and I feel shame when I read it, but dammit, it’s mine, and I made it.

These ideas may not be presented as beautifully, as clearly, as completely as they could be, but I still think these thinks, and I would love feedback on them.

Story in, around, and of games is still my greatest love. 

I present to you:

The Princess Is in Another Castle: Multi-Linear Stories in Oral Epic and Video Games

On Proteus

I opened my eyes to a sea full of sea. Looking around, I spotted a faint outline of trees and made my way toward them. The island was lush, and I thought, full of life. Trombone-plants and horn-weasels dotted the landscape. Leaves fell, sun rose. Proteus is about many things, but for me, it was about life or the absence of it. It’s about making meaning because we must, because we can, because otherwise, we would close our eyes and stop.


In Proteus, life is all around you. Rushing down the hills, you find creatures who flit away, owls who fly off when they catch your glance, and dragonflies whirring and buzzing. The sounds of life are all around you. Creatures blow whistles and owls sing out their whoo in the night. The fireflies are bells and the lights a symphony. I saw gravestones and roses. Did I plant them? Had my family died here?


I found a house seemingly abandoned, but shut tight. Was it mine? I found broken trees that looked like castles, and totems of animals high on the hills. Had I built those?


I found drum-beetles marking the beat of their march through the muck. I found mushrooms who could jump further than I could. I couldn’t jump at all. In fact, I’m not sure how I moved. I moved through the water, but I didn’t swim. I moved over hills, but I didn’t walk. I came up to the house’s door, but I couldn’t knock. Surely there was something to find in this beautiful land. A path I had ignored or a side of the house I hadn’t tried. Perhaps there was some other island out to sea, and I was just on the wrong one.


My search for something ended in the realization that for all the goals I constructed, the names I created, and the stories I told, I was nothing. I made no sounds. Was I even alive? Why did I keep moving? Because there was nothing else for me to do. Why did I follow the stars? Because there was nothing else I prescribed enough meaning to. In an open world, waiting to be explored, I followed the signs. I needed the signs. The trombone-plants made their song and needed no signs. The horn-weasels hopped out their melodies and needed no signs. The stars, the stars, those malicious keepers of time, led me on to my eventual path into nowhere. Or so I could say. But really, I made meaning because I needed it. Because I lacked it. I made meaning because I wasn’t alive.


Post-mortem: Storydeck

Monday, Storydeck: Ella launched, a game project I’ve been involved in for awhile now. It’s a bit early for a post-mortem, but I need to parse and share some of the lessons I’ve learned through this project.

It began about 18 months ago when I met up with my collaborator Ian Millington and began throwing around my ideas. With his help and input, we went through a few different versions of the game and eventually settled on this simple rendition for iOS.

I started out wanting to make a game that experimented with the ideas in my dissertation in which I talk about storytelling in games and offer a model for narrative in games and some other media. Storydeck was a way for me to play through the dissertation, in a way, and understand the workings of story from a different perspective. It was also my first real design project. I played with game design when I was quite young, back in the days of BBS’s and door games (if you remember those), but I never completed anything until now.

There are a few lessons I’ve learned, so in an attempt to be organized for once, I’ll go through them one topic at a time. I’m writing this up mid-morning quickly to kind of clear my head, so this is hardly an exhaustive list.

1. Making a game to understand my own work

This seems odd to most of my dissertation committee and likely many others around me. The typical response is “what do you mean, you ’made’ it?” I think though it’s been one of the most helpful projects I’ve engaged in. I’m able to look at my model in practice, but not only from my perspective as a scholar, but also from the perspective of a designer, a writer, and a servant to my users. This is also very problematic though. How do I justify to my committee the time I spent on it? How do I write it up? How do I use it to communicate something when I can’t make them play it the way I can make them read the dissertation? (Or at least pretend that they have read it).

2. Users

I often tell my students that writing is a tool for communication and all the lessons we have about argumentation, clarity, and concision have the goal of communication in mind. I’ve learned through this project that games are a means for communication as well. This is I suppose a no-brainer, but I found myself making the mistake of thinking of the game as a construct I was creating. An object of study and little more. As soon as it reached the hands of others though, this is no longer the case. It’s now something that potentially communicates something. Whether that is simply an emotion or a story or some moral axiom depends on the game I suppose, but there’s certainly something there that I missed when I was designing this. And it’s the fact that games are a medium between myself and my users, among other things. What am I trying to say? And how can I use a game to say it? Am I succeeding? It’s not a matter of vocabulary or style – it’s a matter of those things in terms of game language. Mechanics. Art. Pacing. Difficulty. Objectives. Rewards. Etc.

3. It’s a game.

This may be the most obvious of all, but I’m reminded continually post-release that what I made is a game. It’s not a chapter in my dissertation or a piece of art on the wall. It’s a game. Yes, it tells a story and storytelling is much of the action, but underneath all that it’s a game and it needs to be judged as a game. Too often I focus so much on story, ever reminding others to be mindful that story is just part of a game and often inconsequential to the game, but apparently I need to remind myself that more often as well. I can tell stories in any number of media – why am I using a game to do so? What’s special about this? How can my story better highlight the game and vice versa? I tend to think of story as something existing beyond the text it is told in, but in the process of the telling, the medium used comes into being as well. A symbiotic relationship forms that can either be a healthy and beautiful mutualism or else an imbalanced and abusive parasitism. I need to be more mindful of the game as partner in that relationship.

4. Design

As my first finished design project, I learned so much about the iterative process and various questions I need to ask myself throughout creation. Ian always asked me, “Well, is this fun?” and I knew that was important and I did think of it, but I was so caught up in my own scholarly questions that I didn’t pay enough attention to what made it fun. It was fun to make. I was having fun and I let that take over my ability to judge whether the post-design engagement with the game would be fun. (For the record, I do have fun playing it! But, I needed to think more about this earlier in the process.)

But even more important I think, like I said in #2, I’ve realized that I’m somewhat a novice in this kind of communication. I may be a decent writer when I put some effort into it, but that is mostly possible from years of practice. I’m quite a newcomer to the art of design – this is exciting because it means I have so much to discover and improve on, but it’s also frightening in a way. At this point in my life, there are few things I love that I haven’t already put a lot of time into learning and improving on. Pushing myself down a new path like this is daunting, but also – thrilling. It humbles me and that is a bittersweet lesson I continually take pleasure in learning.

Raiding Literacies

The big news of one small corner of the internet today was a series of charts that MMO-Champion put out showing the number of characters who had completed the current raiding tier in World of Warcraft. Now, the numbers were based off of only a sample of avatars so one cannot use them to speak for the whole playerbase. In the manner of forum users, however, that is exactly what was done.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there really is only ~5% of the playerbase in World of Warcraft that has completed the current tier. Why is that? There are a lot of theories, but the one Blizzard is acting on is that the tier is too difficult. Raiding is too hard.

Some players argue that raiding isn’t hard – players are just bad. More sensible players respond that actually, players just don’t know what to do because they were never taught. They don’t know how to understand a fight, they don’t know how to recognize mechanics, and they have no way of knowing how to learn that. They can’t solve problems that they can’t see.

There are many kinds of literacies, even many kinds of gaming literacies, but raiding literacy is one somewhat close to my heart. As a long-time raider, I have been in low-skill groups and very high-skill groups. I remember the first raid I did and how difficult it was then. Since I love raiding so much and I see raiding culture somewhat in decline right now (another post another time), I have an interest in teaching people how to raid in the hopes that they will then be able to enjoy it as much as I have.

But first of all, what do they need to know? And then, how do you teach that to them?

Normie, level 10 warlock, said it well in the “1.35% thread“:

Players often come to World of Warcraft new to the genre, perhaps even new to video games. They don’t understand how to parse the UI, let alone busy boss mechanics. The hope is that they “learn their class” through the leveling process and as they complete 5-man dungeons. However, much of the content has been simplified to account for the age of the game and the relative age of its playerbase. Even new players without veteran perks experience easy versions of 5-mans due to their companions who are, for the most part, overly geared and skilled alts.

They experience this, if they don’t get bored, for 85 levels. There is then a level-cap crisis (what do I do now?). If they manage to pass this crisis and continue playing, many of them realize that raiding is the goal. However, they haven’t been prepared to raid at all. They haven’t learned what a rotation is, not even what the term means potentially. They have never encountered a fight so dangerous that a mere misstep can kill them and everyone else. They’ve never seen fire on the ground perhaps even before. They may not conceptually relate a red/blue/purple/sometimes-green area on the floor with danger. They don’t have the conceptual map to understand that “fire will kill me” because they don’t see fire and they don’t realize the red/blue/purple has anything to do with them. (I am focusing on standing-in-fire because it is the most obvious part of raiding literacy when it is lacking and so ubiquitous that Blizzard has implemented more than one achievement referencing it.)

It’s easy for experienced players to say ‘you’re an idiot if you stand in fire’ because in real life, you would be somewhat of an idiot to stand in a patch of fire. That judgment however operates on a successful conceptual map of the avatar as a human body and the red/blue/purple circle spot on the screen as a patch of fire or other dangerous substance, a metaphor that new players do not understand. They do not see the game world in the same way that experienced players have learned to see it. They cannot read the images on the screen the way experienced players can.

They only see meaningless pixels. They may not even notice that a part of the floor is green because they don’t know the floor is an important part. Why isn’t the wall? Or the ceiling? Why does the room matter at all – aren’t we fighting a monster?

Perhaps raiding literacy begins with understanding the visual space of the game and relating it to the avatar as one relates real space to one’s body. We learn to watch where we step as children, and are often reminded of it as adults when we trip and make fools of ourselves. Raiders-to-be need to learn where to step as well, but if they haven’t tripped in 85 levels, they don’t even know that tripping is a thing. They need to be taught. And I don’t mean they should be tripped randomly. Perhaps we could find a better way, a more positive way to teach raiders this one lesson of the very many that need to be learned.

RIFT’s new Chronicles are small instances (1-2 players) for level 50 characters. I noticed that the boss fights in these dungeons are somewhat simplified. For example, the final boss of the first chronicle has a few abilities – he has a cleave, a beam-of-death that follows you, and a meteor-type ability. All of these are marked on the screen in a consistent manner. Before he uses his cleave ability, there is a red patch on the ground in an arc in front of him. Before meteor, there is a glowing red circle that he is targetting. The beam-of-death is also highlighted in red as well as being a beam of fire.

These are helpful, and I wonder how useful they are to new players. Do new players see the red? Do they know to stay out of it? Red is somewhat universally a bad color throughout the game – enemies are highlighted in red, damage done to you is red text, and other instances of danger use the color red. They’ve been trained to see red as danger.

However, are we just training them to see red patches on the ground now? Will they be able to understand the virtual space around their avatar as a space full of potentially dangerous threats to their character’s person? I think they will. They either move out of the red cleave before it happens or they take damage from it and gradually learn that red means move. Once they have learned that red means move, they have progressed from pure visual (red signifies something bad) to kinetic (red signifies something I need to avoid). Once they have reached kinetic, they have conceptually moved from purely a visual map to a spatial map. Visual awareness can now be spatial awareness.

Is this the ideal way to do it? No. Very likely no. It doesn’t happen until 50 for one. But it’s a start.

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