Real Women Wear Armor

A dear friend of mine (who is geekily awesome despite her hair tossing, unassuming wallflower persona ;)) Cat sent me this comic and website this morning. The comic is hilarious (well it is to me though it might also be my precaffiene inability to think straight doing the laughing). The site, Women Fighters in Reasonable Armor: ladies that actually dress for dealing damage is beyond awesome. It makes me want to get my art on and start doing female characters dressed to suit. Sadly I have 4 boys and a half-orc to draw and paint before I can get anywhere near such a project so instead I will spend my spare time perusing this awesome tumbler site.

The artist behind this is Grace Vibbert (aka Milesent)

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Gamification and Education

There has been quite a bit of talk in the last year about gamification (a word I hate — it sounds cheesy, manipulative, and underhanded.)  Last weekend at PAX East I got a chance to enjoy James Portnow’s panel on Gaming and Education (Educating Through Play:  The Future of American Education).  As a former elementary and special education teacher turned unschooling facilitator (not only for my own children but for 500 + families via a Facebook group not to mention a well read unschooling website I own) I find the whole topic fascinating.  This is especially true since I spend several hours a week explaining to nervous parents that games aren’t evil and in fact are a wonderful natural way for children to learn.

Games give the child a natural reason to learn and develop the basics like reading, writing, and arithmetic.  But games also provide a natural way to develop higher level skills like problem solving and trigger deeper interests and thought processes.  At least once  a week I explain how my own children have learned all the subjects that schools insist must be force fed naturally through playing games of all sorts, including the dreaded video games.  It is a subject close to my heart to say the least and I am anxiously awaiting the panel to be uploaded so I can share it.

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Es working through all the information on the dinosaur display at the local science museum.

Back to gamification.  Two of the panelists were using games and gaming as a means to facilitate natural learning through interest, which is awesome.  The other was gamifying college.  Now her explanation was fine and interesting and its great that it worked for them.  However, this is the bit that bugs me: school is already gamified.    In fact school even uses the same vocabulary as gaming (or visa versa since schools were around before video games):  achievements, levels, metrics, tests, pass, goals.  Grades and grade levels are in fact school gamified– grades are an arbitrary set of goals established by the designers (in this case usually the writers of the curriculum  though occasionally they are set by the teachers or administrators depending on the school system).  Grades naturally motivate a certain subset of students who are drawn to that particular sort of game.  On the other hand, grades do not motivate those of us who prefer setting our own goals or who see through it all as a game created by people who are trying to “trick us” into learning things they think we need.

One of my beefs with school was that I felt manipulated by the arbitrary rules, star charts, and grading.  It was all a game and it didn’t matter because I prefer, even in playing video games, to set my OWN goals based on my current interests.  I like to look at the possible goals to choose from and work towards a specific goal completely and totally until I reach it and then move on to another goal.  (This drives my kids crazy.  For instance just yesterday I finished a goal I had set in Harvest Moon: Animal Parade. It was an arbitrary goal but it was the one I chose to work towards at this time in the game– I could have instead been working towards getting any of the many other possible goals, but this was the one I chose at this time.. )

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Shamus and Issac watching a cut scene in a video game together.

Unlike video games, where I can choose whether I want to play towards the goal of moving to the next level or finding out how badly I can fail, school insists that all members be working toward the same goal– basically playing the same game in the same way at the same speed.  It doesn’t make sense.  Sure there are certain types of jobs out there where you need people who work the way the school system does but honestly most jobs nowadays require you to be intrinsically motivated rather than motivated by arbitrary things like star charts or grades.  The thing about life is that, just like choosing the  games you play based on what you are good at and what you hate, you can choose which direction your career takes you.  Frankly, unlike school where the “game” is already in place and you have to join whether you choose or not, life is full of goals you can choose for yourself, and we need to be prepared to make decisions and know ourselves well enough to choose wisely.  By gamifying school  we are just adding to the problem of kids getting all the way through and not knowing themselves and who they are well enough to make decisions for their future.

Instead of gamifying school even more, and adding even more arbitrary goals let’s focus on helping each child move in the direction they particularly need to go, based on their interests and natural skills.

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Rach and Es trying to work through a specific song together perfectly (as "twins" in Dance Dance Revolution).

Having been in the school system and seeing the many different sets of goals I can say, yes, the goals are arbitrary and all depend on who is making them.  There is no one skill set that all children will need since each person is an individual.  We all have different things we are good at.  As we grow up we will all go in directions that naturally utilize our known skill sets.  You wouldn’t expect a fish to be excellent at climbing a tree.  You would never expect a fish to even attempt it.  So why expect a child who is naturally excellent at sports and other physical activities to spend their entire day sitting in a classroom and missing recess because they didn’t sit still long enough to finish a math page?  Meanwhile, if you asked that child to figure out those same numbers in regards to their favorite sports team they could answer in seconds.

By allowing children to pursue their actual interests and play games; whether pretend, board, card, video games, whatever– kids naturally gravitate towards games they are good at and therefore find fun, we allow them to grow and learn the way they learn and grow best.  This allows them to gradually  move into the areas and subjects they find more challenging without fear.

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Issac and friend playing Super Mario Galaxy together.

For example: My kids love that I play video games and that when I am playing I research the ways to solve the problems, set goals for myself, and often get them involved in the research.  For games like Harvest Moon we print up charts and organize information in order to better play the game and not waste time (I am a walkthru player– I play mostly for the story and to set my own goals within a story). Yesterday my oldest was helping me figure out  how best to work through the next part of the game which requires a lot of farming.  She spent 20 minutes figuring out which would be the best crop, how much area I would need to plant, how much money it would cost to buy the seeds plus the fertilizer, and how much money I would make in a month by shipping out whatever was produced each day (some crops are every 2 days, some every 3, some every 4) in order to reach the next goal and then wrote it all down for me so I would know when I was ready to move to the next season.  I didn’t ask her to do it, I just asked which seeds would be best to use (info the walkthru already had available.)

She is 14 and if I had asked her to do that same amount of math on a worksheet there would have been much misery.  She hasn’t done a worksheet since she was 8 and other than occasional discussion about how to figure something out based on real life experience– like baking, shopping, coupons, etc. she has no experience with math as recognized by kids in public school.  However, she was able to figure out each aspect correctly, quickly, and in her head and put all the information into simple coherent notation so I would know when I needed the information.  She solved it because she wanted to and was interested.  She knew it wasn’t even information I was interested in yet but that I might want it eventually and she decided that she wanted to figure it out.

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Es playing a video game at the local science center-- note that she is the only female there, and yes, she won the game.

We have many similar stories since that is how my kids have learned– by doing what they love and gradually learning to do the things they find hard because they want to do what they love. (For those who are sure this is a special case; all three have learned math, science, history, spelling, reading, writing, geography, etc and all into the deeper higher level high school and college subjects, all out of natural curiosity, through video games, board games,  tv/movies, and even occasionally books.  In fact, my husband and I have also delved deeper thanks to media and our kids’ interests.)

So, instead of gamifying school even more– which it is with its grades and levels, achievements and star charts, and divisions based on age and ability, it is better to allow each child to play and grow in the areas they already excel, doing the things they are good at, and in doing so allowing them to approach the things that are outside their comfort zone naturally.  And no, I don’t have an answer for public schools except maybe to look at the model for Sudbury schools or at least to allow for differences and focus on the skills the kids have instead of on those they don’t — there is a reason we unschool and that I encourage those who can to do so.

Two Dimensional Characters in Three Dimensional Games

FoFP, PAX East 2011

Left to right: Graham Stark (front), Susan Arendt, Tracey John, Kathleen DeVere, Trina Schwimmer, and AJ Glasser

On Saturday, we managed to get into the “Females on Female Characters” panel, which was packed and for good reason. Before you read my take on it you may want to hop over to The Escapist and read the notes Greg Tito took during the panel— he didn’t catch everything but he gives a pretty good feel of what happened and how it went– next year we are taking something with which to record. We found it interesting and not surprising that half the crowd was female while only a small portion of the population of PAX East was female. There was quite a bit of good back and forth about sexy being okay as long as the characters weren’t there for that reason alone and whether certain characters were good female characters and it suited the game but what the discussion really boiled down to was that female gamers want to have the option of playing well rounded, interesting, witty  female characters in games and good character design is key for both male and female characters.  The real question is what IS good character design and what needs to change to make that happen?  Making characters solid people that make sense not just a reason for something to happen.     I have plenty to say about the other issues that came up (just like everybody else and a lot of it has already been said)  but for the moment I want to focus on the character design issue. I think the biggest problem with the “good character design” question is that games aren’t written by writers. Yes, they hire writers– especially big game companies, but they hire writers who write games.  They aren’t out there hiring “real” writers, they are hiring people who love games and have set out to write for games.  First off it is true, these people tend to be male, because gaming is still male dominated.  As an aside, I think a lot of that is that gamers have shot themselves in the foot by poopooing the games girls often prefer, but that is a whole other topic and not what I want to address right now.  For now I want to focus on the problem of two dimensional characters in three dimensional gaming and my theory as to why the problem is so prevalent.

There is a huge disconnect between  writers, artists, and game designers.  Yes, there is a small group of people who love gaming and go into the field because they love gaming.  Meanwhile, in general it looks more like this:

Note: I specified programmers but gamers works just as well– in fact I would say that the programmers should be an even smaller percentage of each than gamers– significantly smaller– so my ven diagram sucks but I spent way too long making it to begin with and refuse to go back and change it. Even writers who game is a very small percentage, which as Shamus pointed out in a recent conversation, is not surprising given the poor writing and story telling in games. I find this especially  interesting as I have many writer friends– partly because I am married to a writer, partly because I read obsessively and find it to my benefit to be friends with the people who write the type of books I love to read,  and partly because of my experience as an artist and book cover designer.  The point is I know a slew of writers who write well and very few of those game let alone program.  Meanwhile all of these writers are trying to get published, either traditionally or independently. Because these writers are not gamers it doesn’t occur to them to send their writing out to game publishers or try to get hired by a game developer.  In fact, when I mentioned this to a writer friend she said, “I know I wouldn’t have a clue where to start in seeking storying opportunities in gaming.”  However why aren’t game developers approaching these writers?  Here is a huge pool of amazing writers who are working hard to polish their art and attempting to become the best writers they can be and they are completely overlooked by a field that NEEDS good writers. It surprises me that game designers have not even attempted to tap this fount of good writing.  When someone recommends a book to me quite often the comment is, “This book was so good it should be made into a movie.”  No one ever says, “This book was so good it should be made into a game,” which saddens me because I often think that.  Tons of the books I have read would make interesting games, with well developed characters and plenty to do and explore.  For example Patricia C. Wrede‘s “Enchanted Forest” series would make fun games with a great female lead as would Patrick Carman‘s two recent series (granted the most recent would be a male lead but both have fascinating worlds to explore with well developed, interesting characters.)  The best games I have played lately (i.e. Professor Layton and the Unwound Future) felt like they started with a good story and worked the game mechanics around that whereas most games seem to work backwards– starting with a game idea then finding writers to write the story around it.  Movies and other story based media don’t work that way so why do games? Aside from that particular “getting things backwards” issue, there is the whole pool of writers issue.  Instead of pulling writers from the crowd of writers trying to shove  their way into the publishing industry, game designers (and publishers) tend to draw from the much smaller pool of  gamers clamoring to get into the gaming industry. It goes something like this:

  • Young man spends his spare time gaming and and immerses himself in game culture(not down on this, this describes some of my favorite people. :))
  • Gamer decides that the best way to find work he loves is to get into the gaming industry.
  • Gamer looks at pile of fan fiction (or fan art) based on favorite games and decides THIS is his key into the gaming industry.

*This is obviously oversimplified and stereotypical and  leaves out all those who get in because a friend is designing a game and needs a writer/artist but I am trying to make  a point.

The problem is that like the majority of writers trying to get published, they are so-so writers.  A publisher friend suggested that 99% of the writers attempting to get published are mediocre so what percentage of the much smaller group of writers focused on the gaming field are average at best?  They are missing the editing, understanding of character and world development, and just plain old experience and polish that those who have been working in the writing field have developed.  In fact, I would guess that compared to the writers going the traditional write, send out, get rejected cycle, writers in the gamer circuit tend to have much less experience or understanding of writing as an art and trade than their published (or actively attempting to get published) counterparts. Compared to the other writers in their particular pool they are excellent, but compared to the ocean of writers out there they are guppies. This means that they tend to suffer from the same mistakes that so many of their unpublished writer counterparts suffer from.  They just plain don’t know how to tell a good story.  They don’t have the experience and have not learned how to develop story arch and well rounded characters and it doesn’t occur to them to try and learn. Writing good stories and characterizations, and doing it well, is just not a priority for them.  They already know that their story is going to be published because it is an integral part of the game, so why work at being a better writer? And what does all this have to do with the Females on Female Characters Panel at PAX East?   The reason we don’t have a lot more well developed female characters is we don’t have good writers who can write female characters (and for that matter artists who know the difference between male and female aside from hips and breasts).  Games don’t start with good stories, they start with a game idea and then the story is built around that idea.  So we end up with stereotypical characters in a regurgitated plot line instead of interesting, three dimensional characters in a new and interesting story.  And because so many of the gamer writers are male and have less experience with females outside of the games they play the female characters they create tend to be caricatures even in a game where the males are not.

Another Website?!?!?!

On the way home from PAX East yesterday, Mr. Awesome-pants and I were discussing why I wanted to start a blog specifically about gaming.  I have had an awful lot of blogs over the years (currently have 5 aside from this).  The biggest question was what I would write about, and why.  I have a lot I want to talk about but mostly it comes down to these four reasons:

  1. I want to have a place to rave or rant about games I love or hate.  My current sites are not good places for that– it would completely confuse or even alienate a lot of my current readers who are definitely not gamers.  At best they would smile and nod and then wait for me to get on with blogging about my normal stuff.
  2. I want to add my female voice to what is still a mostly male dominated area so that when my girly geeklings grow up it will be easier for them to have a voice.  This is especially important to me after meeting Susan Arendt (Shamus’ awesome editor at the Escapist) and realizing just how few over 25 female gamers are out there (and me in my mid-30’s).  Most of the girl gamers out there are chicks in the child sense of the word and I want to pave the way for them even if it just means adding my voice to the few.
  3. I want to legitimize myself as a girl gamer.  Way too often the term “gamer” is associated only with those who prefer certain genre of games– say first person shooters or keeping up with the latest from Bethesda, Rockstar, or WoW or whatever an individual feels makes them a hardcore gamer.  I love puzzle games (current obsession: Professor Layton and the Unwound Future) and have wasted entire days on Animal Crossing and Harvest Moon (my daughter picked up an old Gamecube version of Harvest Moon yesterday and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.)  I am done apologizing for considering myself a gamer because I spent an entire weekend trying to beat World of Goo (which I did btw) and am currently obsessed with Walk It Out (willingly walking 3 miles just to fill in an area– yeah, that IS gaming.)
  4. Finally I want to have a place to go on about my specific passion when it comes to non-movie/tv entertainment media which includes but is not limited to games and books–the art and story, but especially the art.

As you may have guessed, the final reason is why the blog is called game-story-art.   I am not great at creative titles and wanted to get the point across quickly.  I am passionate about books and games (video, card, board, pen and paper– you name it) and I am doubly passionate about the need for excellent art and story to make these work.  Sure you can have a game that is driven solely by the mechanics of said game– chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe and on the other end of the spectrum poker, war, and plain old dice but those are not nearly as compelling as D&D, Magic: The Gathering, and The Longest Journey.  A game can have wonderful game mechanics but if the illustration style sucks you lost me.  On the other hand you can have a potentially amazing game, like Starship Titanic , and despite the shockingly horrific, crashing every 5 minutes bugs, deliberately finish the game because the art and story compel you (if someone wants to go ahead and make a patch for that game I would love you forever).  In general I would rather play an adorable game than one than one with the best game mechanics in the world.  I realize my husband Shamus Young disagrees with me slightly– to him game mechanics and intuitive play are quickly followed by story in importance, but he is a programmer and writer and I am an artist who loves to read.  The artist in me looks at a game cover and expects the story and game mechanics to fit the art. I like my games to be playable and have stopped playing games that were boring or just outright stupid (Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles comes to mind) but most important is a visually compelling game with an interesting story to tell.  I will happily play a game using the strategy guide at every step in order to play a good story with great art (like Tales of Symphonia which I never could have gotten through without the strategy guide at my side.)

So here it is.  My own personal “write about games and books” space.  I have no idea how often it will be updated and make you no promises– a lot of that depends on how often I get close to a game or read a book. 🙂

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Now to go convince Shamus that he NEEDS to finish his book so he can DM for us. My assasin is desperate for some action.