Cosplay: the stories that weren’t

From Kotaku today comes a cosplay of Elizabeth from Bioshock that shows exactly why cosplay is a great medium.

Instead of directly copying a favourite character, Angela Bermudez sunk some serious time and energy into showing what Elizabeth could have looked and acted like had she been the dramatic, physical hero of Bioshock instead of the (dramatic but somewhat passive) hero/subject that she is. This is the sort of character I’d love to play as in games.

Gender-based virtual reality?

danah boyd, a favourite tech thinker/creator, has raised some interesting concerns about the potential for people to experience virtual reality (though the Occulus Rift in this case) differently based on the person’s gender.

Although there was variability across the board, biological men were significantly more likely to prioritize motion parallax.Biological women relied more heavily on shape-from-shading. In other words, men are more likely to use the cues that 3D virtual reality systems relied on.

The article goes into the specifics of the problem (which hasn’t been sufficiently researched yet to be a certainty), but I found this interesting to compare to my experience with the Occulus Rift at PAX Aus last year. While I only used it for a few minutes, I found three things were obviously different from viewing real life in a way that left me nauseous and disoriented:

  1. I could see the pixels. Definitely a hint that it’s VR, though not a big problem for adapting.
  2. The picture didn’t move as fast or quite as far as my head did. Often the picture would take a moment to catch up with the movement of my head (a familiar experience from uni pub crawls, and just as nauseating), and sometimes it would never move as far as I’d moved (e.g. when I turned my head 90 degrees, the picture would only turn 70 degrees).
  3. My eyes didn’t feel like they were focusing in the right place. While every object had the right perspective, my eyes were straining to understand how they were meant to see the things ‘in the distance’ that they could only focus on by looking at a surface a few centimetres away. I’m not sure if this contributed to the nausea, but it was definitely a bit tough on my eye muscles.

From boyd’s article, it sounds like these shape-from-shading cues could be a serious long term issue for virtual reality. Speaking as a likely (and excited!) future customer, I’ll be adding them to an already-long list of things they need to fix before I can justify forking out my savings. I hope the Facebook purchase of Occulus Rift will give them the backing and manpower to get these issues sorted soon!

Games that teach

The education industry is currently getting very excited about the potential for games as a teaching tool. Watching this unfold (especially at the PAX game conference last year), I’ve seen a lot of attempts to combine two distinct categories: educational games that bore people to tears and fun games that only teach by accident.

For a big step in the way we think about a third category: games that teach people how to play the game.

While there are a few fantastic games that do this, two come immediately to mind for me: Portal and Braid.

While Portal is excellent at teaching players about physics (conservation of momentum for the win!), it also carefully teaches each new player how to move, jump, place portals and correct for orientation and useful angles. Most importantly, it does so with humour and story, keeping experienced gamers engaged while it makes sure that new players have a chance to make sense of the system before they’re thrown into the action.

The opening of Portal 2 is a perfect example of this. While new players are learning to jump, Wheatley (the round robot) is entertaining the experienced players, ensuring that both audiences are engaged as the game continues.

In contrast, Braid teaches you to jump, and to move, and expects you to work everything out from there, including the mechanisms for the different types of time travel that you use through the game. While this sounds infuriating (and, I’ll admit, is something that occasionally drives me into the welcoming arms of walk-throughs), it’s an excellent fit for the game style, which is driven by the satisfaction of problem solving. Once you’ve conquered the early levels, you know there’s a solution to the level that you’ll be able to work out with the tools they’ve taught you to use.

When building educational games, we need to harness this approach to teaching in games, using the learning elements as keys to success within a fun game, rather than expecting players to automatically enjoy the lessons as an end in themselves. Doing so will give the player the guarantee they need that there is a solution in sight, and will support useful tools like ability to adjust difficulty based on a student’s previous achievements. More importantly, it will help to make learning easier for students of all ages.

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P.S. Mulling this over with a friend today, I’m convinced that one of the biggest barriers here is getting the games part of educational games taken seriously so that they’re a) actually fun! and b) are designed to be excellent games as well as educational tools. I’ll be musing on this in the next few weeks.