Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Games, Learning Objectives and 'Telescoping'

If you should find yourself doing a course on game design, it's likely that you'll be asked to read James Paul Gee's book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003). It's a brilliant book, but, perhaps not that easy a way into the subject.

But, for a good introduction to some of the themes involved in applying computer games to learning you could do no worse than to take a look at the Steven Johnson book 'Everything Bad Is Good For You' . It's possible that Johnson does an even better job of explaining Gee's theories than perhaps Gee does himself. However, in addition to nicely summarising Gee, he also draws your attention to an aspect of modern video games which has immediately obvious educational applications - what Johnson calls 'Telescoping'.

This is when a gamer is forced to hold multiple objectives in his or her head in order to achieve a final objective. I immediately thought of 'Terminal' and 'Enabling' learning objectives, which are a staple of the Instructional Design Framework which NCALT e-learning staff work to. What's crucial here is the manner in which these objectives are 'nested' inside one and other, encouraging gamers and learners to cultivate the mental skills required to keep short-term goals in sight whilst never losing sight of 'the bigger picture'.

From 'Everything Bad Is Good For You':

"I call the mental labour of managing all these simoultaneous objectives 'telescoping' because of the way that the objectives nest inside each other like a collapsed telescope. I like the term aswell because part of this skill lies in focusing on immediate problems whilsy maintaining a long-distance view. You can't progress far in a game if you simply deal with the puzzles you stumble across: you have to co-ordinate them with the ultimte objectives on the horizon. Talented gamers have mastered the ability to kep all these varied objectives alive in their head."

Grim Fandango

As part of the game design course I recently took, I asked to do a study of the classic Lucas Arts game 'Grim Fandango' (pictured above) recently which gave me some classic examples.

Designed in 1998 by Lucasarts and widely held as the best 'adventure game' of all time, Fandango was a critical success but commercial flop. It still carries a large, cult following and has be held up as an exemplar of the genre of games.

Set in a universe inspired by Mexican day of the Dead mythology, the game is a tricky adventure game with a plot every bit as intricate as a Philip Marlowe novel. The clever story is complimented by an Art Deco look and feel, bonkers Bandito/Bee-Bop/Jazz score and excellent voice talent. Oh and it's very funny.

The game was the brainchild of Tim Schafer, previously responsible for the celebrated Monkey Island and Full Throttle. From Wikipedia:

'The story unfolds in four episodes, each set a year apart on the Day of the Dead. It is from this festival that much of the game's imagery is drawn — most of the game's characters look like skeletal calaca figures (based on the work of Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada). Various flowers are also used as tools of murder, in the form of a substance known as "Sproutella", which reacts with bone, destroying it by causing flowers to grow in it extremely rapidly. Characters refer to this manner of death as "sprouting". There is also unique fauna scattered throughout the game, such as bone-eating fire beavers and gigantic race cats.

The game combines this mythical underworld with 1930s Art Deco design motifs and a dark plot reminiscent of the film noir genre.[1] The design and early plot are reminiscent of films such as Chinatown and Glengarry Glen Ross.[2] Manny, whose job combines the roles of Grim Reaper and travel agent, turns detective when he discovers that deserving souls are being denied their rightful post-mortem reward of direct travel to Mictlan on the Number Nine train, bypassing the four-year trip that other souls must take. Manny's investigations draw him into a tangled web of corruption, deceit, and murder.'


The first sequence of 'Grim' involves Manny (the hero) attempts to get to the scene of a mass poisoning in the 'Land of the Living', so that he can reap a premium soul.

In order to get to the Land of the Living, you have to complete the following objectives:

To get to the Land of the Living, you need a car and a driver ('Terminal' objective)
To get a car and driver you have to go to the garage.
To get to the garage you have to find the lift down.
To get a driver you have to convince Glotiss to drive for you.
To convince Glotis to drive you have to have a signed form.
To get a signed form you have to go up to the boss's office.
To get into the Boss's office you have to climb the drainpipe and switch his PC's auto-prompt to tell his secretary to 'sign it' herself.
To get her to sign it you have to...

And so on. This dizzyingly complex set of objectives represents only half of the first level of the game - which overall comprises about 20 'Terminal' objectives.

The next step is to find an example from police work of obvious telescoping and see how the nested objectives could be broken down into a logical learning and activity path.

What next?

So, how could we use 'telescoping' in e-learning? Are there any obvious applications that spring to mind?

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