Video Games, Virtual Worlds, and Education Publishing – News from AGDC

On-line games and virtual worlds were the theme at this year’s Austin Game Developers Conference (AGDC). This is the third of a few roundup articles about the conference with a focus on topics of interest to education and education publishers.

The parallels between how the web is changing the game industry and the world of education publishing are fascinating. Because of the inherent lag in the education market we can learn a lot from how gaming companies are adapting to the web’s incursion into their business.

Raph Koster – Designing for Everywhere

raph_koster.gifRaph, President of Areae, started by pointing out that 7 of the 8 largest MMOs are web based, not CD-ROM based, and that they have millions of monthly users. His message to the game developers was that by their standards the web based MMOs have horrible interfaces and very low production values. Game developers need to break out of their paradigms and start thinking of games that can be separated from their interface and design and still be compelling. Water dripping from your sword in foggy moonlight is cool, but it isn’t the game. Can you play on a phone? Can you play it on your TV? Could you play it on paper? Can you interface to the game from your GPS? The customers are already going there, better follow!
For publishers this has some interesting parallels. Textbooks in particular have become highly focused on their covers and the free-with-order stuff that wraps around them. Publishers rightly take a great deal of pride the production quality of the products including the instructional design. But, in the age of the web that production quality isn’t nearly as important as it used to be.

One could argue that the most successful textbook product today is Wikipedia which gets 7 billion page views per month for a two color interface. In this view of learning the impact of textbooks is a rounding error.

This was a sobering reminder of how much the web changes the game even for industries that we tend to think of as cutting edge. It will only be more disruptive to industries that are unused to rapid change.

I’m gong to write a deeper and long post on Raph’s design ideas in the next couple of weeks.

Denis Dyack – The Medium is the Message


Dyack, President of Silicon Knights publishers of Too Human, Metal Gear Solid, and Eternal Darkness was an excellent late addition to the agenda.

One of the more interesting ideas (among many) that he shared is that Video Games are the 8th Art Form. This concept grew out of early film theory – Ricciotto Canudo (1879-1923) called cinema the 7th art form when it blended the spatial arts (architecture, sculpture, painting) with the temporal arts (music, poetry, dance). Dyack’s thesis is that with the addition of interactivity video games have created an 8th art form.

Because it is so new we are still finding our way with it, for example learning to write stories for video games is still in its infancy – we really don’t know how to do it well yet.

For education this presents some interesting challenges. A good game requires a narrative thread (even Pac Man had this) but we rarely build education products around a story. Its all about standards and pedagogy and correlations and if we add something to it we tend to focus on adding images and design elements.

What is puzzling about this is that education at its root is passing on access to our collective knowledge, and that knowledge is nothing more than the story of man’s messy tragicomic progress.

One of the most interesting histories I’ve ever read was George Stewart’s “Names on the Land” published in 1945 which tells the story of American History through the prism of how and why we named places.

As one reviewer on Amazon put it:

“I myself half-expected this book to be organized by state, perhaps in alphabetical order. This is not the case. Stewart has organized his data by THEMES in naming, and how these themes have emerged in our history. Therefore, the book (very roughly) follows our history chronologically, as various naming trends have come and gone, in the context of various cultural waves. This pattern tends to approximately follow the “peopling” of the continent (by descendants of Europeans) from east to west.”

There are a few education products that do something similar today. What is exciting is that games are uniquely suited to reintroducing learning through stories while adding the power of interactivity – the 8th Art.

Sulka Haro – Fostering Open-Ended Play: Unleashing the Creative Community

Figure-33.pngSulka Haro, one of the founders of Habbo Hotel was the keynote on the second day. Habbo has been around since 2000. Today they have 7.5 million unique players per month and their largest demographic is 13-16 years with a 51%/49% split between boys and girls. Their user base puts them in the same league as World of Warcraft (see Koster’s point above) but they have done this with an unconventional model.

In Habbo users create a character and get a room they can decorate. Haro described their business as giving users tools and space with the confidence that something will happen. Access is free but users buy “products” like furniture to decorate their rooms through micro-transactions. This might not look like much – but they have built at $50 million business around it.

They believe there are a couple of reasons they appeal to the 13-16 year old demographic – and these are highly relevant for education publishers.

1. Kids at this age are developing their identities and starting to engage much more with the social aspects of life. Today’s 14 year olds were born in 1994, after the web came out. An environment like this feels natural to them. If you are building products for this group a web based component is expected and they are sophisticated consumers of on-line resources so you’d be well served to get it right.

2. The site is really about open play – something that kids this age still remember how to do but lack the social permission to do in real life. Habbo provides an outlet for this. One example he gave is that someone built their room into a McDonalds and kids will go and “play” a minimum wage job for a couple of hours at a time.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of their model is that the content scales with the user base. Haro’s formula was f(players)=f(content) because as the players create content the content scales to the size of the community. He dislikes the phrase “user generated content” (UGC) and prefers “player created activity” which actually describes it in a way a player might (not a publisher).

This talk was relevant for showing a very real alternative business model and a model of a user driven virtual world that is extremely successful with teenagers. To Koster’s point about interface and UI – if you looked at Habbo from a traditional gamer perspective it looks simplistic and even ugly. Yet more kids are “playing” it every month than any video game available (WoW has all ages).

What could publishers do with their vast backlists if they could atomize them and make them available through microtransactions in a virtual world – allowing kids and/or teachers to build their own learning libraries?

Other articles in this series:
Morhaime From Blizzard

Nurturing Influencers for Education Products