Monday, 15 March 2010

Exploring digital worlds

I just read another interesting post over on Cocktail Party Physics, this time talking about MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games) such as World of Warcraft as models for human behaviour in the face of epidemic or economic crises.  Knowing several WoW-heads myself, I find the headspace it occupies interesting, including its carefully engineered addictiveness. 

However, what buzzed me was the mention of educational games.  I recall playing a few when I was younger, including the non-taxing (piloting a dolphin around an underwater reef, solving simple sums before it ran out of air), the entertaining but limited (completing equations to zap alien rubbish, avoid asteroids and navigate space stations), and the wickedly catchy (a kiddie's colour, number, and shape recognition complete with insidous earworms, with my little brother you understand).  I even wrote a tiny  times-table practice tool in True Basic.

Though not really targeted as a game, I can't recommend highly enough the magnificent Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing.  Perhaps you've got to be a special kind of nerd to enjoy racing cars by typing quickly and accurately, but it was better than school typing lessons.  Accuracy at over >70wpm is an indispensable skill - I can actually type faster than write, with the added advantage of legibility!  I just wish my brother had played it too, perhaps I'd be able to talk to him online without wincing.

The increasing use of physics simulations (crayon physics, little big planet and the rest) is fantastically exciting, especially when experiments are increasingly restricted in schools, but as mentioned in the Cocktail Physics article the use of online community-building techniques and mobile technology could lead to a new generation of engaging science games.  As a case in point, Whyville looks very cool - I love the sound of kids actually investigating an infection of "Whypox" themselves. 

One of our journals recently published a piece on the use of Second Life as a visualisation, research and educational tool.  According to the reviewer reports its contribution to science was slightly debatable, but it's certainly an interesting conceit.  Alas, not having played with any such online worlds I can't really conjecture on its effectiveness or how it might be improved. 

Still, I really hope a game developer mashes all these ideas together and runs with them, creating a freely roamable world complete with intriguing tableau, enlightening encounters and a culture of exploration and learning. With an element of user-contributed content and community building, just think of what would be available to someone with an internet connection - a world of information not just presented in bite-sized chunks, but integrated into an engaging framework that rewards curiosity and reinforces enquiring habits.  It's so much more satisfying to find things out for yourself!

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