Monday, June 06, 2011

Educational City-Building Games

My name is Michael Consoli, and I am one of the recipients of an Avi Chai fellowship to attend the Games for Change festival later this month. Here are some of my thoughts on the shape that Jewish educational gaming could take:

Jewish educational games should, in part, provide players with a context for developing an emotional connection to Israel and Jewish life. Through games, one can experience first-hand different eras of time, explore new worlds, and participate in a story as one of the main characters. Players can do all of this without experiencing real-world consequences for failure, so that they may safely experiment and learn from their mistakes. Jewish games should be employed to let young players engage Jewish history and culture directly.

Video games can be used as an outlet for outlet for creative, destructive, or escapist impulses. The power of video games lies in the sense of accomplishment that comes from using game mechanics that help players meet challenges. For example, Role-playing games offer deep narratives that the player experiences firsthand while developing and building a team of characters to help them through various challenges. Players are partially motivated by the need to uncover more of the story and perhaps influence the final outcome.

Other opportunities for escapism exist in the genre of simulation-strategy games, such as the Civilization, Age of Empires, Tropico or SimCity series. In these games, players are put in position of great power over a population of people. It is my opinion that city-building strategy games have immense potential for creating interactive educational experiences. In particular, I am thinking of the city-building series created by developers Impressions Games, Tilted Mill, and BreakAway Games. These games are set in the ancient civilizations of Rome, Egypt, Greece, and China. In each of them, the player acts as a city builder and administrator on behalf of an imperial power. Players are given goals that center around economic stability, reaching target populations, and building monuments/ infrastructure with gathered resources.

These city-building games are rather niche, they do not have a broad audience. The game industry in America tends towards games that offer immediate gratification such as first-person shooters. (I should note these specific titles may be problematic for Jewish audiences, since pagan deities factor into the gameplay). Regardless, city-building simulations are addictive, enjoyable, and creative experiences that may translate well onto a classroom environment. While they do not create the same immersion experiences as role-playing games, they can help to outline broader human social narratives such as the creation of communities or civilizations.

Let me briefly sketch the concept for a Jewish city-building game. I'll call it Solomon, and it will naturally take place during unified kingdom period under King Solomon's reign. The player would be a subordinate administrator who has been tasked with expanding or founding Israelite towns. The player will periodically be instructed to contribute to the construction of the palace and temple, which means gathering wood, gold, parchment, stone, and ceremonial vessels before shipping them to the capital. The game would functionally be a set of tools for making city plans and with interfaces that communicate the current status and needs of your citizens.

Perhaps there can be an opportunity for multi-player games: each participant would be assigned one city on the map of ancient Israel and would have to trade resources with each other to maintain economic stability while sharing the common goal of completing Jerusalem. If one player takes on the role of Solomon, they could perhaps forge alliances with the neighboring land, set the goals of other players, or set ordinances that fulfill or disobey commandments (e.g. the building of high places set as legal or illegal). In short, this king role would function similar to a “Game Master” in tabletop role-playing games, and could conceivably be a job taken up by the teacher or a selected student in an classroom, or the host of an internet server-based session. Note that it would be important to create a scenario editor for such a game that is accessible and flexible. This is to allow for the creation of custom missions that expand on the original game, perhaps into other areas of Israelite history.

While playing this game, players would adopt a personal interest in the maintenance of Israelite sovereignty through the role that they take on. Whether the players delve deeper into the stories behind the game or not is up to them, the game would merely be an introduction to the time period and to this portion of the Tanakh. As they continue in their Jewish educations, children would remember playing portions of the game and what they did to accomplish their objectives.

As a final note: I suggest that the playing of any educational video game in a classroom should be followed up by lessons and class discussions where students relate their experiences, giving them room to show off their accomplishments and creations. The concepts that are imparted to them would be further cemented if they are allowed to articulate the story of their experience.

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