Community management

What makes for a good community? Layout? Competitions? Moderation? Social sharing features?

Having done this line of work for over ten years (a career I find myself in entirely by accident), I’d say there is only one relevant answer: People. Or more specifically, interesting people – ‘Characters’, if you will. It’s easy enough to say, but I think it holds true: – the strength of a community is only as strong as the personalities that populate it.

Twitter is a prime example of a social community where interesting characters dominate, and are rewarded by followers. You could argue that one of the key hooks of Twitter over Facebook (at least several years ago) was the idea of being able to ‘follow’ and to a lesser extent ‘interact’ with public personalities.  Whether they have anything relevant to say, is another matter; but from my experience, interesting people are attractive and draw followers wherever they go.

For example, several years ago, when I was administrating the Alan Wake forums, I remember a particularly charismatic individual who arrived complete with her own set of followers.  I got the impression that she moved around the internet like a celestial body, collecting them as she travelled from forum to forum.  At the time I joked that these people orbited around her like moons, caught in the sheer gravitational force of her personality.  Where she went, they followed, and when she departed, so did they.  Thinking about it though, I believe the solar system analogy is a good one, as it stresses the fact that when someone leaves, moves position, or when someone else enters the community, it affects the people around them.

Most importantly, interesting characters encourage other people to participate in your community and become active members themselves.  Obtuse, obnoxious characters are the opposite — they repel and drive people away (and this includes staff/management — there’s nothing more toxic to a social community than an obnoxious person with supreme power).  So, when managing a community, my approach has always been to identify the dominant characters that inhabit it, to understand why they chose to spend their time there, and to facilitate their needs wherever reasonable.

With this in mind, you have to be sensitive to when they’re unhappy and considering leaving, because their influence will affect the entire system.   Some people are very vocal when they’re unhappy — anger and frustration are very clear symptoms that their expectations are not being met in some way.  Anger, in particular, can be seen as direct emotional response to not getting what you want; and therefore it’s good to get into the practise of finding out exactly what people want.  You can learn a great deal by starting with yourself — whenever I get pissed off and caught in the heat of an argument (and working for Last.fm, this happens more frequently than I’d prefer) I confront myself with the following:  You are angry because you’re not getting what you want.  So, what do you want? 

However, not everyone speaks up — prolonged absence is a good warning sign that they’re moving on, but you may be powerless to prevent this.  Certainly, in a large, multi-tiered community, it can be difficult to track the comings and goings of individual users, and you may not realise they’ve gone until, many weeks after, someone asks “Hey, whatever happened to…?”

There has been lot written on the topic of motivation, and the idea that people leave their job because they are either attracted to something new, or they have become dissatisfied (repelled) by the existing one interests me.  However, the exact workings of this depend very much on circumstance and personality, which are difficult to understand and predict.  In a general sense, I think you have to just accept that people come and go for a variety of reasons, and you have no real direct control over whether any individual stays or goes.

In my experience, most people don’t leave online communities in a grand departure, they just fade away.  In this respect, I would say that the best you can hope for is to keep the spirit of the community alive, by creating a warm, inviting, vibrant community, with enough strong characters to attract newcomers and keep things lively.  So, nurture your prima donnas — allow them to express themselves, celebrate community tropes and in-jokes, and give them what they need to be creative and do what they do best. Don’t go out of your way to stifle their fun when they’re having a good time. Learn to make exceptions for the greater good — because it’s their community as well.

I want to close this by stressing that when I talk about communities, I’m not just referring to online interactions, but any circumstance where people regularly meet as a collective group – work, school, clubs, and so on.  Companies are made up of people, and by definition each one has its own community — a culture formed from norms, values, roles, and ‘characters’.  I have used the word ‘characters’ to describe influential members of a community or organisation; some might describe these people as ‘leaders’, although I don’t think they necessarily are in the traditional sense.  Certainly these people can be charismatic and inspirational; but ‘characters’ I feel, captures the more intangible, quirky, and endearing aspects of their personality.  It’s also worth repeating that some dominant personalities in a group can be obnoxious and utterly repulsive; so perhaps a more academic definition would describe influential people in terms of ‘attractors‘ and ‘repulsors‘ — or some nonsense.

Regardless of how you describe them, it has been stated many times in managerial literature that the strength of any organisation is defined by the people that work there.  I would extend this by arguing that the strength of an organisation hinges on the strength of its community.  If people are what defines an organisation, then community is the glue that bonds that organisation together.   When these people leave, the company loses more than just their knowledge and work output (physical body) — it loses its community spirit (gravitational effect).  Their absence will affect all those that remain.

___

Personal note:

Working for a tech company for several years, I’ve had the privilege to work with people who are as eccentric as they are intelligent — brilliant minds with quirky humour and fascinating interests (one used to run a nightclass on lockpicking, for example).    Like any community, brilliant minds need a social space to flourish — one that not only accepts their culture but encourages it.   Some of my fondest memories at Last.fm include being shot at by a motion triggered Nerf gun; model helicopters flying past my desk; and toy sonic screwdrivers re-engineered to function as working presentation remotes.  These are kind things that make a company fun to work for, in spite of everything else they might throw at you.

Ultimately though, it always comes back to the people you work with – the people you spend time with.  Sadly, quite a lot of my friends have left over the last 6 months, and my fear is that as each person moves on, we lose a bit of our community spirit.  At the same time, I think those that remain have been brought closer together, which can only be a good thing.

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Music

I don’t believe in ‘good’ or ‘bad’ music, as such;  assuming an artist or performer is competent at what they do.  I’m not a musician, so I don’t feel qualified to judge.  There is simply music I like, and music I don’t like.  And it’s not a fixed constant – what I like today, I might not like tomorrow.

When it comes to artistry, I think there’s a place in the world for both art and entertainment.  I see popular music as as a doorway to discovering even more music — a foothold, if you like, to higher ground.  I don’t begrudge the entertainers of the world, because the best ones are damn good at what they do — they encourage us to dance, sing, and feel grateful for being alive.  However, I’m wary of those who try to pass superficial entertainment off as something deeper than it actually is.  Nevertheless, I think the best artists somehow manage to find a happy middle ground between art and entertainment (or accessibility), without compromising their integrity.

When it comes to personal tastes, I prefer to characterise music taste in terms of breadth and depth.  There’s music you know well, and music you’ve yet to discover.  Patterns you understand, patterns that are currently beyond your comprehension.

We  are really lucky to live in an age where technology can let people discover and explore music.   Let’s not throw that away.

Social Disconnect.

So last week I discovered that for the last month or more, Facebook, in its infinite wisdom, had set all my posts to only be published on my parents wall.  Brilliant. :D  Anyway, with the election nonsense going on, I’ve decided to unplug from facebook, g+, and twitter for a while until the dust settles.  I’m going to spend the time working on my blog here, and various projects I’ve left to stagnate.  I can still be contacted by email, if you remember that old technology, and I’ll still reply to direct messages (though I’m not expecting any, tbh).  When discussing this, one of my friends at work pointed out that the fact I wasn’t willing to delete my account outright implies that I’m addicted.  They’re probably right.

“10 of your friends like this stupid meme you posted? That’s great! Everyone loves sarcasm! Post some more of that and you’ll be become super-popular!”

The addictive nature of social networking sites is interesting to study though.  The way people mindlessly post and share content, looking for likes, retweets, +1s reminds me of how slot machines work with their pre-determined variable ratio reinforcement schedules.   I’ve written about the topic of reinforcement before because it’s as fascinating as it is scary.  Outside of gambling, RPG games like Final Fantasy, Diablo, and MMOs use VR reinforcement schedules to hook people into spending large amounts of their free time (tens or hundreds of hours) performing mindless, repetitive tasks – rewarding them with level ups, and item drops.  In gaming, we call this ‘grinding’.  It’s intentionally tedious, and many games nowadays encourage “micro-transactions” (i.e. spending real money) to skip all of that stuff.  Social games have this down to mathematical precision — if you want some insight into exactly how horrifying they are, I’d encourage you to read Tim Rogers’ review of The Sims Social and companion piece who killed video games? (a ghost story)

Social networks reinforce mundane, repetitive user actions such as refreshing the page, liking an item, or re-sharing it, by rewarding them with attention.  Anyone who has spent a lengthy amount of time online will eventually come to the conclusion that attention is gold dust on the Internet.  It doesn’t really matter if it’s sincere or not.  The internet is, we believe, a level playing field, and everyone is fighting for their share of attention online; you, me, your family, mine, your favourite band, your least favourite politician, fucking marmite, television celebrities, pundits, hacks, religious figures, anonymous hackers… I mean, hell, if Charlie Sheen can successfully reboot his career by having a mental breakdown on twitter, there’s hope for us all.  Right?

Facebook and Twitter give you a platform to project your trivial insignificant nonsense to the world, and this is reinforced by positive attention.  On a forum, if you post half the junk you do on facebook, you’d get branded as a troll or an ‘attention whore’ and ostracised by the community.  But not on Facebook right?  They’re your friends!  You’ll notice that Facebook has never implemented a ‘dislike’ button — negative reinforcement would drive people off the site, which would probably upset advertisers.

Due to the transitory nature of the wall and twitter feed, it’s quantity, not quality, that is emphasised.  Furthermore, you’ll start to notice that Facebook is now filtering content from your friends and pages you’re following, presumably based on popularity (likes/trends), so that you only see a percentage of what you’ve subscribed to.  Page owners – bands, magazines, and what not – are now desperately pleading with users to adjust their settings because they now have to pay Facebook to guarantee that their updates will appear on your wall.  What this means is that your Facebook wall is becoming an increasingly competitive space — already over-saturated with companies and corporations trying to advertise their special brand of bullshit on your wall.

So every day people and organisations just post random garbage to social networks, in a scatter-shot fashion, trying to out-shout each other.  I was actually employed to do this for 6 months, and frankly, I strongly suspect that over half of them don’t even know why they’re doing it, except for a pressing need to have “an active Facebook presence”.

Why?

“Because everyone is on Facebook”

That’s one of the things about social networks that’s really innovative — everyone is there.  You don’t need to leave the site or bookmark stuff any more, because they bring the best content from the web directly to you.  News, current affairs, interests, hobbies, music, games.  I mean, does anyone use email for contacting their friends any more?  Or, like me, do you almost exclusively use social networks to contact your friends and family?  It’s more convenient isn’t it? You may have noticed a couple of years ago they stopped emailing you every time you get a message or notification — it’s redundant when most people “check their facebook” multiple times a day.  It also encourages people to keep visiting the site.

Yesteryear sites like Yahoo, MSN, AOL, as well as your favourite ISP, tried and failed to pull this off.  All of them had (and still have) redundant content on their home pages — the latest news, fashion, and gossip, as well as their own webmail to boot.  But they all lacked the magic ingredient of social networks — instead of creating a universal, personalised hub for your friends and interests, they all created their own branded ‘portals’, each with distinctively bland, irrelevant, re-hashed ‘original’ content.

Convenience is the key ingredient to making convergence work, and social networks are massively convenient because they pull your friends and interests into an easily digestible, personalised news feed.  Social networking is better than static communication like emails, because they’re dynamic, engaging, and there’s an social vibrance or flow to them.  Breaking news stories spread quickly and gossip trends to the top — almost every time you refresh the page, or scroll down far enough, you’ll likely encounter something that piques your interest.  But that’s also why I find them problematic.  They’re designed to draw you into an unconscious routine of checking your notifications, posting or reposting content, and then refreshing page periodically to see if people have responded to your update.  Like a slot machine.

When I first joined Facebook, I saw it as an online community or forum “with just my friends”.  Now it feels like a crowded, uncomfortable, stale white and blue conference room with a bunch people I vaguely know from my past, intermingled with corporate PR reps and indie musicians wandering around like lost children trying to find their way.  Everyone wears a name tag containing a brief description of who they are, what they do, their sexual orientation, status, interests, beliefs, and their birthday, lest you forget.  On their backs they are required to wear a thing called their “Timeline”, which highlights the key events in their life, or lack thereof.  Mostly it chronicles your failed relationships.  The room is so crowded that you can only really speak to the people in your immediate vicinity,  but megaphones are available for a small fee so you can reach your friends at the back of the room.  In one corner is the games room, but it’s starting to look like one those dodgy stalls at the fairground, or one of those gambling arcades at a motorway services stop — you know the kind, with lots of bright colours and music to attract kids, but designed callously to rob you blind.  Except it’s not your kids getting hooked on this, it’s your mum.

I have nearly 200 ‘friends’ now and yet I can’t remember the last time I actually had a conversation with any of them outside of my circle of face-to-face friends.  We don’t need to, because they can just read my status updates and I can read theirs.  We communicate through automated validation.  Real friendship, which I’ve learnt to value through losing it, has been replaced with something superficial and alienating.  In a way, the more I think about it, the more I realise that I’ve actually lost touch with some of my closest friends.  Facebook has connected me to everyone, and by doing so, I feel connected with no one.

I’m not going to talk about privacy, that’s been done to death, you know the risks when you use sites like this, and the internet at large.  My primary concern is productivity.  Every time I’m writing an asinine comment on facebook or a witty “That thing” observation on twitter, I can’t shake the feeling I could be doing something more worthwhile with my time.  Yet, at the same time, I just can’t bring myself to delete my account.

And so, I guess we’re stuck with each other.

Don’t judge others, lest you be judged yourself.

Why I don’t believe in organised religion can largely be summed up in this video:

Hell, and the idea of obedience in fear of eternal punishment, are such barbarically human concepts, that they couldn’t possibly come from an all knowing, all loving God (and unsurprisingly they stem from social oppression – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0054914).

Compassion, not vengeance, is something I’d expect from a prospective deity; and that’s about understanding, acceptance, and ultimately unconditional forgiveness. That means you have the capacity, wisdom, and strength of character to forgive everyone on the planet (past and present), regardless of who they are or what they’ve done, for just being human (capable of making mistakes, waging war, being weak, cowardly, selfish, petty, cruel, violent, fearful, ignorant, bigoted, psychopathic, and generally flawed). It means you understand and accept that everyone is simply just trying to struggle through life, learning what they can, seeking fulfilment, meaning, acceptance, and love where they find it, and generally trying their damnedest to make the best of the short time they have.  Some people may find it difficult to forgive everyone, as it is entirely inclusive, but hey, they’re only human.  God, on the other hand, should be setting a higher example, because for me, the purpose of God, on a moral level, is to exemplify virtues like wisdom, learning, charity, and compassion – not judge people for being disobedient subjects.

Hypothetical question: what are the moral implications of forgiving the Christian God for the eternal torture of human souls? The same God that demands absolute obedience through ignorance and threat of violence? (not because he knows best, or they had it coming; but because you understand that he’s a flawed, human construct also struggling to survive against increasing irrelevance). Or put another way: if you can absolutely and unconditionally forgive God for being a cruel and vengeful deity (as well as all the pain, suffering, war and murder that has been caused in his name) and yet — he won’t forgive you for your ‘sins’ — morally where does that put you? (besides hell, of course)

Arguably, all this shouldn’t be considered as more than a philosophical thought exercise, however wars are still fought and justified in the name of God.  Therefore, our leaders should be held to the same standard – for if God doesn’t stand up to moral reasoning, then where does that put those who act in his name and enforce his word?  The word ‘Evil’, when used earnestly, comes from a fundamental lack of understanding human behaviour and motivation, and I think you should be very wary when an elected authority judges another person or group as “Evil”.  Behaviour could be generically described as ‘evil’ as a blanket term for lack of moral responsibility; but people absolutely can’t, because that’s an exercise in denial and dehumanisation.  Dehumanisation, perhaps, is the one true sin of mankind — to disregard another person’s worth, and treat them as less equal, less deserving, less than human — for whatever reason.  Moreover, as soon as they dehumanise them, they are drawing a line in the sand between “them” and “us”… and that, sadly, is how wars are started – as some six millennia of violence will attest to.

The Show Must Go On

Just get up off your knees and say “Fuck you, I’m on my way” The show must go on…

Well, another 6 months have passed, so I guess it’s time once again to kick-start my blog. :)

I’ve tidied up the layout a bit, and removed most of those ugly “under construction” pages, as frankly, most of them won’t get written.  I’ve also flattened the categories to four broad subjects – CG, Games, Music, and ‘Uncategorised’; plus added three special categories: Articles, Reviews,  and Tutorials.  I might add more as I continue, but the rest can probably be handled by tags.  We’ll see how it goes.

Anyway, it’s getting late, so I’m off to bed. z_z  

Until next time!

Procrastination and Plans for the (near) future

Updates have been a bit sporadic as of late – I apologise for that.  It seems that Mafia Wars is more addictive than I gave it credit for (games and addiction is a good subject for a future post).  You might have also noticed that I keep changing the blog’s appearance and title as well — I’m struggling to settle on something I like.  Anyway, I’m posting this (more for me as a commitment/reminder) to let you know of my plans for the blog and future updates.

Pending changes:

  • Overhaul of the portfolio section with links and details to all my game mods and projects.
  • (Brief) Post mortems for notable projects
  • Start weekly dev diary for The Real World
  • Upload decent essays from university
  • Finish my article on games and languages, and begin a weekly Morrowind en français progress diary
  • Start posting game concept ideas, game & demo reviews, games production, and related articles.
  • Update my ‘about me’ page, with a reading list, recommended books, music, and so on.
  • Update ‘about me’ page with detailed, interview style FAQ
  • Integrate with LinkedIn, Facebook, and Last.fm
  • Do something with Hells Kitchen
  • Revise categories into a more logical order.

If all goes to plan (HA!) you’re going to see some major updates, quickly and without much regard for order or anything.  I’ve got a lot of my mind, and I’m planning to dump it on you, dear reader.  You have be forewarned.

While I’m writing, I want to talk briefly about procrastination — something even the best of us have to battle with.

One of the main tenets of Agile Development (broadly interpreted) is that Action > trumps everything else (including planning and documentation).  To some extent this is true, certainly when it comes to procrastination — it’s incredibly easy to  come up with excuses for not doing something (including excessive preparation).   The basic idea, whatever the application, is to get the gears moving forward.  In other words, it’s better to act, rather than to react (i.e. pro actively do something, rather than wait until it becomes a problem).   This is certainly the case with student syndrome, where students routinely leave essays until the very last moment, before tackling their work (usually pulling an “all-nighter” –my personal record is two 2000 word essays in a 24 hour block) .

But, I think the key is to strike a balance between planning and action.  “To Do” lists work (and I swear by them) for two reasons:  first it’s quick to jot down even the biggest tasks; and secondly, by writing it down, you’re committing to action — or at least acknowledging that the task has to be done in the not too distant future.  You can also make prioritised lists, to cover the immediate, short, medium, and long term.  In sum: they’re quick, simple, and flexible — if you use them.

If you want to take it further, it’s not hard to see how a development schedule (like a Gantt chart) is really just a glorified To Do list.  Sure it has “powerful resourcing tools”, but essentially, what it comes down to is breaking tasks down into manageable steps, committing to action, and tracking progress.   The scope is much bigger, but it serves exactly the same function.

Another useful exercise I read about are Crisis Logs.  Basically, the idea is that you log down every instance where you left something to the very last minute and got burned for it (i.e. student syndrome).  The benefits are twofold: first, and obviously, the more you do this, the more likely you are to avoid procrastination strategies in the future.  Secondly, you might be able to identify patterns or key areas in your life and work, where you tend to avoid or put things off (procrastinate) rather than tackle head on.  This is enormously valuable information — merely being aware of this is enough to take steps towards change.   In a team project or game development scenario, you might note every instance when the team got pushed into crunch mode.  Were the tasks unrealistic?  Were the deadlines and milestones too ambitious?  It shouldn’t be too hard to see why this is a useful exercise (perhaps more insightful than a high level postmortem).

But it all starts with a “To Do List”, and if you want to manage anything, from an AAA game, to a mod total conversion, to your own life, you need to be familiar with “to do lists”.   That’s why I’d say the producer’s most important tools are as follows:

  1. Notepad
  2. Diary
  3. Working pen

I’ve got an early start tomorrow — should be fun.

‘Appuyer sur la touché START’

It’s something of a journalistic cliché (or faux pas) to use inappropriate/broken/wrong French words and phrases while writing an article on languages, so from this point on, I’m going to try my best to refrain from that. :)

Recently, I’ve been really getting into French cinema and music; and as some of my friends are from France (their English is excellent) it occurred to me that perhaps I should seriously try to learn the language.  In fact, when I was at university, one of my lecturers, Jim TerKeurst, suggested we do just that (learn either French or Japanese), and I’m now kicking myself for not taking up the offer.

So, for the last year or so,  I’ve been trying to learn French on my own.  Now, I wasn’t especially good at French in school (I’ve no idea how I scraped through Standard Grade because I honestly don’t remember much of it); but I figured that I’m old enough and ugly enough to get my head around this time — nasal vowels n’ all.

The problem is that I can’t afford lessons right now, so what have I been using instead?

  • French Dictionary – a relic from high school (barely used, of course).  The one I have (published by Collins) has a fantastic grammar section, which is arguably more useful than the dictionary part.  Essential.
  • Music – I’m trying to translate the lyrics to improve my vocabulary and written comprehension.  Because it’s audio,  I’m starting to pick up on the pronunciation of words.  Pop music works surprisingly well, I guess because the choruses are so damn catchy.
  • Films/TV – same as music: to improve listening and comprehension.  It’s easy to fall back on subtitles, but every now and then I pick up on what they’re actually saying, which sometimes varies considerably from what the subtitles translate.
  • Literature — Well okay, I’m not talking about Victor Hugo here, but Hergé.  I grew up with Tintin, and the idea of re-reading the books in their original language is very appealing.
  • French Steps / BBC languages pageThis is a terrific resource from the BBC (barely justifying my tv license), with plenty of online material to go through, and several structured courses at various levels.
  • BBC Bitesize and Open University programmes – during exam season, the BBC shows various language programmes for school and university.  Handy.
  • French Pod Class — This is what I started with, and they’re fantastic – Sebastian has made almost one hundred episodes (usually between 20-40 minutes), and each one comes with a detailed review sheet and exercises.  Episodes are typically divided into 2-3 easily digestible chunks, covering phrases, vocabulary, and grammar, often linked by a common theme (travelling, shopping, pets, etc).  Best of all, he breaks these sections up with brief introductions to  French culture, including popular films, music, and literature.
  • LangoLAB.com — (updated) I’ve only just found this site, but it looks really useful.  You should check Jennifer’s comment below for a detailed explanation; but briefly, the site presents you with Youtube videos (such as cartoons and adverts) in the language you’re studying, and provides an on-the-fly translation via subtitles.  The best part is that you can pause the video and look up specific words and phrases with an in-built dictionary.  It’s also got various other tools to help you (again see the comments below), but I’ve not had time to try them out yet.  It’s a great idea — I really hope  it takes off.
  • Le hall de la chanson – Not really a languages site, but this is a terrific online museum dedicated to French musicians, singers, and songwriters.  The site is massive, and has tons of content to explore.
  • Radio FR Solo – An excellent little application that lets you listen to several hundred French radio stations.  I don’t know how effective learning by osmosis really is, but it can’t hurt, right?
  • Video games – Ah ha.  You can probably guess where this article is going, but I’ll expand on this in a minute.  To begin with Ubisoft have released an excellent series of language games for the DS, including My French Coach (they also have Spanish, Japanese, and several other titles).

Now I fully admit that none of these are an ideal substitute to actual lessons. In fact, as I understand it, by far the most effective way to learn a new language is to actually move to the country in question and force yourself to learn it.  Nothing speeds up the learning process as effectively as when your day-to-day survival depends on it.  However, as appealing as it might sound to hitch-hike across the channel and busk in the Latin Quarter of Paris, I can’t see it working out for me.  So for now, I’ve had to make do with what I’ve got.

After one year of on and off studying, I’d say my comprehension of written and spoken French is improving steadily, but I’ve probably not had enough time/discipline to practise spoken and written French yet (this is where a course would help).  As an example, I’m perfectly happy to order something from Amazon.fr now, but ironically, very uncomfortable when it comes to writing seller feedback.

However, what I’ve come to like about learning a new language is that it’s inherently rewarding.  I’m not talking about the ego factor here — we all know someone who likes to show off because they know a few phrases (I would hate to turn into Del Boy from Only Fools and Horsessi danke schon, bonjour anyone?).  What I mean is that not only does it unlock doors to new cultures and people, but it’s incredibly challenging — and very satisfying when you finally make some progress.

As a game designer, I find this intriguing.  In game terms, translating the lyrics of a song, or a piece of literature, for example, can feel like code breaking or solving a riddle/puzzle: – at the start you have only the corner pieces to grab on to (i.e. basic vocabulary & grammar), but little by little you begin to piece together the meaning (by looking words up), until you get the complete picture.  As your ability improves and you build upon what you’ve already learnt, the process becomes faster and you can then go back and discover subtle nuances in the text, which may lead to a greater understanding (like discovering hidden secrets in a game).  Mastery occurs when the process becomes automatic, and you don’t have to stop and ‘think’ about what’s being said anymore.

In essence, what I’m getting at is that learning a new language can be played and enjoyed like a game.  The structure is in many ways similar — you start as a beginner, learn the basic rules of the game, which you then practise and are eventually tested on.  As you progress, you refine those skills and develop complementary ones, until you achieve mastery of the game.  (Or you hit a bump in the road, get frustrated, and eventually give up).  They’re similar because this is the basic pattern of skill-based learning — it could just as easily be applied to a subject like maths or physics.

For me though, this is a further illustration of what Raph Koster discusses in his book A Theory of Fun for Game Design – that learning is synonymous with fun.  I don’t want to get bogged down with the discussion about what’s fun for me (learning a new language) isn’t the same as what’s fun for you (carving people up with chainsaw in Gears of War); Raph Koster covers that pretty extensively, if I remember correctly, so it’s probably best that you just read his book if you haven’t already.  What I think is important here, is that the challenges or obstacles aren’t obscure puzzles, logical exercises, or tests of dexterity/reflexes; but are actually teaching you something practical and usefulthat can be used outside of the game.

The psychology behind learning is something that fascinates me, as our capacity to learn, adapt, and pass that information on to a new generation is one of the main things that separates us from other creatures that inhabit the world.  So as a result, I’m very much interested to explore how video games can be used as a practical teaching aid – for real world/life skills, and not just rocket jumping or wave-dashing.  As I understand it, active learning (i.e. practising tasks, doing exercises, understanding the material, etc, not just reading about them and memorising by rote) is by far the most effective method of learning, and this is why video games have so much potential.  Their mere structure has conditioned gamers to intuitively accept a routine of instruction, practise, demonstration, and progression.  So the real problem then, is how you present it in the context of the game.

Since I’m learning French, I’m going to continue to use languages as the basis for this article and the examples I’m going to look at.  But with a bit of thought and imagination it should be possible to apply these ideas to other areas of interest, such as learning music (provided it’s not done in an arbitrary manner), or perhaps even as an introduction to something like Shakespeare.  Bear with me, I know it sounds grotesque  on paper, but I genuinely could see something like Macbeth or Hamlet working as video games (if the material was handled with a LOT of care and sensitivity).  Or put another way,  when I was 15, I might have engaged the material more had I already been familiar with it from a more accessible and ‘friendly’ source.  It doesn’t have to be dumbed down — certainly games like Final Fantasy X, Deus Ex, Silent Hill2, Grim Fandango and Max Payne aren’t,  so why not use games as a platform for heavyweight drama?  It might even give the industry more credibility (as unlikely as that sounds).  Again, the key here is how you present the material in the context of the game.

Okay, I’m digressing.  If that still sounds too much like sacrilege to you, then feel free to stick with languages.

The next part* will look at how video games currently incorporate foreign languages into them — both real and fictional.  I’m also going to briefly look at one or two ‘edutainment’ titles, like UbiSoft’s My Coach and Sony TalkMan.  For the final part, I hope to take some of the ideas I’ve discussed, and see how they work in practise.  A bit of empirical research, if you will.

*I wrote the whole article months ago, I’m just splitting this up to make it more readable, easier to proof read/polish, and to shamelessly boost my blog’s stats.

© 2009 Jonathan Hallier.  All rights reserved.