St. Rose Students at Play: A Few Thoughts on the Value of Casual Game Play Inside and Outside the Classroom


David Seelow©, PhD

Three years ago, I wrote a blog on “Why (Adult) Students Play Games,” to help dispel the myth that gamers are teenage boys. I surveyed a fully online course I taught on cyberculture. The students were all adult students ranging in age from 25 to mid-fifties, with many active in military service. They turned out to be avid gamers. Not surprising. After all, contrary to some continued popular misconceptions and media inaccuracy, the average gamer today is like the average gamer back in 2015 around 34 or 35.1 I am now teaching a similar course on cyberculture, but this version of the course is non-game-based and takes place in a traditional classroom with traditional aged students between 19-22. I decided to informally survey these younger students to discover if they played games and if they did what game did, they play most often and why (see figure 1 below)? This information provides a small window into the world of largely non-gamer students and the games they play. Such snap shots can help educators think about some of the mechanics that might engage students born and immersed in digital, touch screen culture.

Student Year of Study Major Favorite Game Where I Play the Game Reason for Continued Play
Bianca A. Junior Communications Spot It Dorm Room Fun, Fast Paced, Stimulates my brain
Patricia B. Psychology Sophomore Kings Corner With Family Brings my family together, requires strategy and focus
Caitlyn D. Biology Junior Tiny Zoo Everywhere on iphone Entertaining and Alternative to Social Media
Conor H. Business Management Senior PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds Personal Room Enjoy survival games, easy to play
 

Nicholas L.

 

Criminal Justice

 

Junior

 

Dark Souls III

 

Every other day on Play Station 4

A fun and challenging RPG; allows extensive customization of your character; increasing difficulty as you progress through levels.
Alexandra M. Forensic Psychology Junior The Sims All the time on iphone and tablet Allows for designing and creativity; mimics life
Justin V. Political Science Junior Super Mario Odyssey In room on weekends The thrill of adventure
Jessica Z. Medical Technology Senior Uno Dining Room during vacations or college breaks Great family activity; allows for recommending family as children mature and move away

Figure 1

Eight of the fourteen students agreed to use their names and provide feedback. Interestingly, of these eight only one can be considered a gamer, Nick, a junior Criminal Justice major. Consequently, that Nick identified Dead Souls III as his current favorite video game comes as no surprise. The Dead Souls video games are highly immersive big budget action role playing games that require skill, strategy and hours of game play (see, https://www.ign.com/articles/2016/04/04/dark-souls-3-review). What Nick’s response tells me is that players value of customization, which translates as personalization in learning situations. Additionally, players of immersive games like continual, progressively more difficult challenges.

Three of the seven non-gamers favorited card games. I think this speaks to the continued value of board or table top games even in a digital world. Uno, of course, is one of the world’s best-known games. It is inexpensive, portable and easy to play for ages 6 and up. In a world of mobile game play, keep in mind, card games are portable, and can be played almost anywhere, by two or more people. The basic game play deals players seven color coded cards. The players objective is to match colors, symbols, and numbers of their cards with cards in the discard pile. The first play to discard all his or her cards and yell Uno wins the round but must remember to call Uno when he or she has one card remaining. A player wins the game by accumulating 500 points. Points are earned by counting the card values of each losing player in any given round. What really makes Uno fun in addition to the fast pace are the action card like skip, reverse, and draw 4.  These cards introduce the surprise and an immediate change in a player’s fortune that helps keep all players engaged.

Uno now has a special UNO – Susan G. Komen® Special Edition that donates proceeds to fight breast cancer. That is another noble reason for playing games. Kings’ Corner is another easy to play card game that uses regular playing cards.  Using a stand 52 card deck each player is deal 7 cards. Four cards are place around the center deck forming a square. Each player draws a card in turn and attempts to place the card under one of the four existing columns by maintaining a consecutive numbers/values. If the tip card of a column is 10 the next card in that column must be a 9. If the top card is a 4 you must place a 3 underneath and so on. Drawing a King change the entire game play. The king is placed in a corner, hence the game’s name, and you build out from that corner with a queen and so on. However, you can move cards from existing columns under the king which then opens a clear space to begin fresh column. As with Uno the first player to discard all cards wins. It is very faced pace. What interest me about this game is the mechanic mimics solitaire, which Juul argues is the prototype for casual video games (pp. 68-78).

A typical layout for King’s Corner.

The final card game, Spot It, also easy to play, quick and fun focus on pattern recognition. The game is a great learning tool in early elementary grades or just a fun way to relax when not in class or at work. In this game players are dealt a round card with pictures on it. The goal is to match your existing card with a card drawn from the deck that has a picture that matches a picture from your card. Just like yelling Uno you must yell Spot It before your opponent as you grab the matching card. Two things appeal to me about this simple game. First, you can mod the game just like you would mod a video game but inventing your own version of the game or playing the game in variant ways. For instance, instead of the objective being to score as many cards as you can, reverse the objective so that the person who discards all cards wins. Second, you can purchase different versions of the game.  One version has words and pictures on the cards so that players must match so that the word key would need to match a picture of key. This skill helps develop literacy in younger kids. Moreover, as with Trivial Pursuit you can buy special editions of Spot It like Major League Baseball where the cards include pictures relating to America’s pastime. This does not add anything to the play but appeals to different audiences and checks low level knowledge about the sport. Although designed for elementary school kids the mechanic translates to any subject. You match plays and playwrights or anything matching option is any disciple. It is fun, fast paced and serves as a good subject matter review or preview of a unit. Finally, as both Jessica and Patricia mention these card games bring family members together. In a world where some many family members are glued to screens, card games require face to face play and conversation!

Tiny Zoo, the only digital game played by Caitlyn, a member of the college’s soccer team, unlike the card games, is solitary.  Caitlyn plays as an alternative to social media. A nurturing game in the tradition of Facebook games like Farmville, playing Tiny Zoo, tells me students can learn and develop empathy through such simple games, and, in a world where boredom seems intolerable, young people can play for fun, and not engage in the gossipy, at times, destructive and obsessive practices of social media.

The best-known games mentioned, The Sims, designed by the great Will Wright, a simulation game, and Super Mario Odyssey, a game that echoes the early arcade games and traces its lineage to the early 1980s, have components that make the game appealing both to avid gamers as well as casual gamers like Alexandra and Justin. Originally, Wright designed The Sims as an open ended, sand box type game with similarity to a virtual doll house. The Sims, in a sense preserves, that doll house play style, with players interacting with the characters they design, dressing them the way, a child might dress and play “make believe” with a doll. What the enormous success of The Sims tells me is exactly what Alex points out: The Sims encourages and thrives on the player’s creativity. This translates into an educational practice whereby students should be given much more room to explore during their journey. Teachers might consider the benefit of less emphasis on prescribed curriculum, or, at least, provide opportunities within a course for a student’s personal expression and his or her original voice to emerge. Traditional exams and research papers do not always allow such voices to emerge on the undergraduate level.

As the latest incarnation of the Mario Brothers franchise, created by another legendary designer Shigeru Miyamoto, Super Mario Odyssey (the Odyssey is Mario’s hat shaped steam punk style ship), designed by Futoshi Shirai and Shinya Hiratake, takes advantage of Nintendo’s innovative new platform Switch. This console allows players both a stationary, arcade like experience, and the flexibility of mobile gaming (perfect for college students moving between dorm rooms and dining halls). In this rich game Mario has a new ally- Cappy- yes a hat or cap, as he travels across various kingdoms including the beautifully realized New Dong City in the Metro Kingdom to save princess Peach from her evil abductor Bowser. As Justin says, and many others would concur, he plays Super Mario Odyssey for the “thrill of adventure,” and few games have provided more entertaining adventure than the Mario franchise (the character Mario first appeared way back in 1981’s classic Donkey Kong). Like with the Sims franchise, this Super Mario Odyssey game allows players first and foremost the freedom to explore.

Finally, Conor’s choice PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds was a tad surprising to me. It is an immersive shooter style game popular with many young males. However, the assumption only avid or hard-core gamers play shooters is doubly false. Conor is not an avid gamer but plays this shooter often, and females play such “violent” games too. In fact, although Jessica selected Uno as her favorite game, she also often plays Call of Duty (six years ago at another college, I was also sternly informed by a female student that Call of Duty appealed to young females and was her favorite game. PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, is a twist on First Person Shooters (FPS), combining shooting with survival type game play. Up to 100 players parachute onto an island, search for guns and weapons with the objective of being the last man or woman, i.e., player standing. It is a kind of video game volley ball with simulated bullets. The actual game traces its roots to a weird Japanese cult type film Battle Royale (2000) directed by Kinji Fukasaku, that in turn, adopts a lesser known 1999 novel by Koushuu Takami. This game designed by modding expert Brendan Greene, initiated a genre or subgenre of game called “Battle Royale.” This style has millions of followers with further potential to evolve into an e-sport. I recall in the spring term that virtually all students in my class were playing Fortnite (Epic Games, 2017) which has a “Battle Royale” version.

One rich avenue to explore with this battle royal game play remains ignored. In fact, I have not come across any writer about video games either knowing about, of if they do know, acknowledging that Battle Royale finds its apex way back in 1952, as the first chapter of Ralph Ellison’s masterpiece Invisible Man. In that novel’s inaugural Battle Royale, the narrator and other young black boys box blinded folded in a ballroom for the entertainment of smoking, drinking, laughing white male elites. Surviving provides only a token award (a scholarship to an all-black college, i.e. segregation assured and reaffirmed) in a racist society.

The last man standing mechanic can translate to a degree into pitch contests structured like an NCAA March Madness bracket, but not for grading purposes; only, perhaps, for bonus points or special prizes that can be tied to the course, or maybe, as a content review. A more interesting prospect would be a unit on survival texts where a class could explore the survival model through different media: William Golding’s young adult novel The Lord of the Flies (1954), the Survivor (launched back in 2000), “reality tv” phenomenon and select Battle Royale games. In this vein, comparing a shooter game where players complete for points and custom awards to Ellison’s representation of such a game as a humiliation ritual of young black males for white consumers in Invisible Man could prove a powerful lesson in the persistence of racism across time as well as the politics of accommodation, which Ellison explores, in a nuanced investigation of Booker T. Washington’s thinking.

After Thoughts on the Value of Casual Classroom Play

In his exceptional history and analysis of casual games, the Danish game scholar Jesper Juul, finds that the success of casual games reside in a few features such as ease of play, flexibility, and time commitment.2 Key to these games enormous success and varied audience is how they fit into the different schedules of players of different ages, at different life stages, in varied life situations.  Here you can see why even students who don’t generally play games play casual games. They can play between classes, on a study break, on a train ride home for the holidays, and often play with friends, family or alone. Even though The Sims and Super Mario Odyssey can demand long hours of play over long periods of time, these games offer what Juul sees as the prime ingredient of successful casual games, “… these games allow us to have a meaningful play experience within a short time frame, but do not prevent us from spending more time on a game” (8).

The main purpose of this blog has been to provide a snap shot into what games some traditional college students play so that instructors can think about and experiment with new ways to engage students, I think there are a few concrete lessons to draw from this quick survey:

  • Find ways to encourage student creativity, help unlock or tap into the non-analytic side of their brains, this will boost motivation and have a possible ripple effect across other more traditional academic assignments. In other words, creativity should not be the sole province of various arts departments,
  • Allow students to explore and discover during a course and don’t adhere to rigid schedules or inflexible syllabi,
  • Provide space for team and group learning,
  • Allow for personalization or customization for some assignments since interest driven learning has more enduring benefits than top down curricula,
  • Board and table top games still have value and appeal,
  • Design lessons in short bursts (especially true for online lessons),
  • Use the wild card mechanic of surprise to keep classes lively, and
  • Provide a variety of different interactions and assignments.

Hopefully, this brief survey will give faculty some ideas for enlivening the classroom as well as help non-gamers understand why totally virtually all students play games.

Notes

  1. “Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry 2018,” The Entertainment Software Association blog, http://www.theesa.com/article/essential-facts-computer-video-game-industry-2018/, retrieved 12/09/2018.

2.. Jesper Juul, A Casual Revolution: Reinventing Video Games and their Players (MIT Press, 2010).

Games Mentioned

Dark Souls III

BANDAI NAMCO Entertainment Inc. / ©2011-2016 FromSoftware, Inc.

Immersive video game for multiple platforms

Kings Corner

https://considerable.com/kings-in-the-corner/

Card game with traditional playing cards, 2-6 players, ages 6 and up

“How to Play King’s in the Corner”- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARj2mv6xoTs

PlayerUnknown’s Battleground

https://store.steampowered.com/app/578080/PLAYERUNKNOWNS_BATTLEGROUNDS/

Developer/Publisher: PUBG Corporation

Immersive “Battle Royale” game, Mature audience

The Sims

https://www.ea.com/games/the-sims

Maxis/ Sims Studios- Published by Electronic Arts, available on virtually all platforms, with various versions from the original in 2000 to the most recent The Sims 4: Get Famous.

Super Mario Odyssey

https://supermario.nintendo.com/

Nintendo Switch, 2017

Classic platform game

Spot It

Pattern Recognition Game- matching cards

https://teachingtalking.com/spot-it-card-game/

“How to Play Spot It,”- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ARj2mv6xoTs

Tiny Zoo

http://games.swipeforwardgames.com/websitetermsofuse.htm

iphone, ipad app

“Tiny Zoo game play,” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-rRR9vPq398

Swipe Forward LLC

All ages

Uno

http://www.mattelgames.com/en-us/cards/uno

Card game for 2-10 players, age 6 and up, 2-10 players

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