Wednesday, December 6, 2017

It's Computer Science Education Week

It's Computer Science Education Week (#CSEdWeek) and there's still time to participate in an Hour of Code!  Check out all the Hour of Code activities available for all ages.  You can learn to code using Scratch within the Google Doodle or see what resources NASA has about programming robots. Millions of students worldwide are taking this opportunity to learn to code.

Here's an interview I did for the Microsoft NY blog a few years ago to celebrate Computer Science Education Week:

Sande Chen, Instructor — Playcrafting NYC

What was your introduction to the gaming community?
As a child, I programmed my own text-based adventures and I definitely played games.  But, I didn’t really think about video games as a career until much later. After I finished film school, I decided that I wanted to work in video games because interactivity was a new frontier in writing. I started working as a freelance writer in the video game industry. I transitioned that experience into jobs as a producer then as a game designer.

What do you teach in your Playcrafting courses?
The courses I’ve done for Playcrafting are Educational Game Design, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Game Worlds, and Game Writing.

How did you learn game dev / design?
I took classes at MIT like Non-Linear and Interactive Writing. The last project in that class is to build your own game or interactive experience. I took other workshops on game design, MMOs, and mobile storytelling at MIT during the Independent Activities Period, which is a whole month where as a student, you can explore anything you want.

Outside of higher ed, what are some opportunities to learn dev or design?
My local public library is currently running a video game design class to make platformers. In the past, the library has had courses on Unity, Scratch, and even on how to build a desktop computer. Scratch, which targets younger learners, has instructional videos online. There are even games that teach programming and game development. Some are available on the Web.

Tell us about computer science applications in gaming.
Computer programming is an important aspect of video game development. It’s also important on the art and animation side. Artists need to learn how to use 2D and 3D tools to make assets for the game. Producers, designers, and writers may not be doing the active coding but they still have to understand how to use the programs.

Outside of game dev, how do coding skills apply in your everyday life?
I think understanding the process of coding and debugging is definitely helpful in daily life in terms of problem-solving. Just looking at a problem logically can help in determining the best way to tackle a problem.

Who can learn computer science?
I think anyone has the capacity to learn computer science. Especially when you consider how computers and computer power has infiltrated our lives, it’s an important skill to have. I think that’s why more states, including New York, will be requiring computer science education.

Who can take a Playcrafting course?
Anyone can take a Playcrafting course! There are so many disciplines covered at Playcrafting that I think it would interest artists, makers, programmers, writers, designers, and even business people.  If you want to be involved in games or if you just want to increase your knowledge about certain topics, then Playcrafting classes are a great way to do that.

Friday, December 1, 2017

The Joys of Fan Fiction

In this article, game writer Sande Chen looks at the fascinating depth of fan fiction and wonders what this means for the fan/creator relationship.

At a StoryForward NYC event, "The Business of Collaborative Storytelling" speaker Steele Filipek noted the interplay between fans and creators.  With the popularity of crowdfunding sites, storytellers just like game makers need to consider this closer relationship with customers, also known as the fandom. There are tricky legal issues when fans decide to go further, writing their own fictional works, or for developers, making mods.  Some famous authors, like George R.R. Martin, are strongly against this practice.  Others are OK with letting fans play with their characters as long as it's not for profit and comes from a hobbyist spirit.  As story creators, we want our customers to engage and became enthusiastic fans, but how do we balance the needs of the audience with our own control over the material?  Academics, unperturbed, study fan fiction for its way of twisting norms, its exploration of gender and sexuality, and because like glimpsing parallel worlds, fan fiction provides insight into all the pathways not taken.

The relationship between fans and author can be contentious, as evidenced by what happened with the aftermath of the Southern Vampire Mysteries series by Charlaine Harris. Harris' supernatural characters had been traveling on different story trajectories since the books had been picked up for adaptation into HBO's TV drama, "True Blood"  Harris herself was influenced or inspired to change aspects of her writing based on the show.  For instance, the vampire Bill in the book series ends up as King of Louisiana as a nod to his TV counterpart and was not killed off as intended.  Harris even sanctioned other writers to extrapolate her characters' stories in the book, Dead But Not Forgotten: Stories From the World of Sookie Stackhouse.  However, there was large-scale anger within the fandom over the ending of the series, which had become more paranormal romance than mystery, over a number of issues.  This led to a multitude of interesting "fix-it" fictions.

Harris contended that these fans were upset over not getting what they wanted: a Happily Ever After (HEA) for Eric and Sookie.  While to some fans, the Eric/Sookie OTP (One True Pairing) had been telegraphed, as one Reddit fan indicated with the following chart, and her marriage to Sam seemed forced, as was discussed in The Love Triangle, the reasoning for this anger was multifaceted. Subsequent post-series fanfictions paired Sookie not only with Eric, but with Sam, Bill, Alcide, Quinn, Felipe, Victor, Eric's human descendant, a wendigo, some random werewolf, and with no one, as Sookie can be an empowered woman, proud to be single and unattached.  In many stories, Sookie grows into her fae bad ass self, embracing her supernatural power, and orchestrates Eric's rescue and/or her revenge.  One fansite owner felt betrayed to find out book Sookie would end up spurning her supernatural ties, despite her fae heritage, her demon godfather, her werepanther brother, shifter husband and other supe exes, to exult in small-town normalcy (or hypocrisy, as Sookie herself had suffered greatly from their ostracism).  The fansite owner had seen an allegory in the making about tolerance and minority rights, and now was very bitter.

Another source of anger, which is more understandable in the current climate and #MeToo revelations, is Sookie's dismissal of her brutal rape by Bill. In the book, she never acknowledges the rape and even continues to have a soft spot for Bill.  Fanfiction authors corrected that oversight and wanted badly to rescue Eric, who had already endured 300 years of sexual servitude and sacrificed his wealth, station, and friends to protect Sookie, from another 200 years as a not-so-willing sex slave.  Sometimes, Sookie is punished for being so uncaring such as in one story, where her telepathic son commits suicide due to his mother's close-mindedness, her eldest daugher dies from domestic violence, and her youngest runs off to become a vampire and Eric's eventual lover.  In another, Eric finds a more suitable and caring half-fae lover while Sookie boils with jealousy.  Even within Eric/Sookie OTP, they may not get a HEA but a lot of times, they do.  Or they find an uneasy continuance, such as in the story where Eric has an online relationship with Sookie using a pseudonym. There are simply so many different fictional avenues.

Other fans exacted a more demanding cost to the magic that brought Sam back from the dead other than Eric's heartbreak.  Sam came back changed, with scary results.  The wish cleaved Sookie into 2 people with 2 separate lives since the magic was not used properly.  A sacrifice of a life for a life was required.  Sookie suffers an additional "curse" of eternal life.

In a transmedia mindset, all of these stories with different outcomes and pathways are interesting, but what do they do to the brand?  From a business standpoint, we do want this continual interaction with fans, but eventually, we will need to clarify a stance.  Do you have any stories or advice on how to manage this relationship?  Do tell.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Identity Switch

In this article, game designer Sande Chen delves into the connection between a person's identity, emotions, and behavior change.

As I've written before, convincing someone to change one's beliefs or actions can be a very hard task.  Even when a person is confronted with the cold hard facts, that person may reject logic, especially when it impacts the person's identity and sense of self.  That's why studies show that persuasion may come easier with "moral reframing," in which causes are reframed or "spun" to appeal to that person's values.  When the person isn't feeling so threatened, then the person might consider the cause.

As Chip Heath & Dan Heath write in Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, there is an emotional component to motivating people's behavior.  Change happens not with the steps, ANALYZE-THINK-CHANGE, but more easily with SEE-FEEL-CHANGE.  That's why I have delving so much into emotional connection and empathy in my explorations of Designing Games For Impact.  For some behavior changes, the logic and argument for change is apparent, but there's an emotional block.  In these cases, more information on how to change or more data won't have any effect.  Inwardly, the person knows there's a very good reason to change, but still can't change the behavior.  Very often, the person is reluctant because the person's identity is wrapped up in the behavior.  Just how strong is the impact of identity?

The authors point to the well-known study, at least in our circles, of the efficacy of HopeLab's game Re-Mission. The intent of Re-Mission was to increase post-chemotherapy treatment compliance among teens.  After each level of shooting tumor cells in the game, players would receive educational "briefings" about cancer and recovery.  By playing through all 20 levels, the developers hoped teens would understand fully why they shouldn't falter in their treatment plans.

HopeLab at the Games For Change Festival 2013
Re-Mission did have its remarkable success and what was surprising that kids that played only 2 levels changed their behavior as much as kids who finished all 20 levels.  Perhaps those educational "briefings" weren't that important after all?  To puzzle out this mystery of behavior change, we should be looking at the identity switch that occurred in these teens.  Kids who have gone through chemotherapy don't want to be that "sick kid" who has to keep on taking medication.  Even though it was counterproductive, they didn't follow the treatment plan because they just wanted to be normal.  In Re-Mission, though, they got to play a superhero who was actively eradicating cancer.  The game empowered the teens and made them feel in control.

The next time you design a social impact game, think about the behavior change and how you want the player to feel.  Is it connected to the player's identity?  Is there an identity switch required for the person to activate that behavior change?  Sometimes, we don't need more factoids or logical arguments.  What we feel may be the biggest motivator of all.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Podcast: IGDA GDSIG Mentor AMA Game Writing

Greetings!  Our 3rd IGDA Game Design SIG (GDSIG) Mentor AMA (Ask Me Anything) in conjunction with the National STEM Video Game Challenge focused on game writing and featured questions from mentors and students around the United States, such as:
  • What is your biggest challenge in developing a video game, both in storyline and in general? 
  • What are some key differences between a good and a bad narrative?
  • Where do you see virtual reality and augmented reality going, and how do you think this technology will change games and storytelling?
  • What are some ways a designer can tell a story in a game that gives the player opportunities to make real choices that genuinely affect the outcome of the game?
  • What would you say is the #1 pitfall in the design of serious games?
A full transcript of the questions, transcribed by volunteer Jam Blute, is available on the IGDA Game Design SIG Facebook group Files section, as well as sample game design documents. The GDSIG group is a closed Facebook group, but free and open to everyone, provided you follow the guidelines.  The IGDA is an international, non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the careers and improve the lives of game developers.

The National STEM Video Game Challenge is a multi-year competition whose goal is to motivate interest in STEM learning among America’s youth by tapping into students’ natural passion for playing and making video games.

With Felix Wilhelmy as moderator, the guest panelists for the 3rd GDSIG Mentor AMA were Sheri Graner Ray, Bobby Stein, and Sande Chen.

Sheri Graner Ray is an award-winning game designer and CEO of ZombieCat Studios and worked for such companies as Schell Games, Origin, Sony Entertainment, and the Cartoon Network.

Bobby Stein is the Associate Narrative Director and Narrative Design Lead at ArenaNet, the maker of Guild Wars.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer best known for her work on titles such as The Witcher and Wizard 101.

We are continually striving to improve the Mentor AMAs.  Let us know if you have any feedback or if you'd like to participate as a volunteer or mentor!  Follow GDSIG on Twitter @IGDAGDSIG or on YouTube.  We will be moving to video soon.

Listen to the full AMA panel below or on Soundcloud.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Making Sense of Children's Educational Apps

In this article, game designer Sande Chen relates advice to parents and developers alike on how parents find age-appropriate and educational apps for children.

The latest research report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center, "Discovering Kids' Apps: Do Family Strategies Vary By Income," centers on the decision process parents make in downloading educational apps.  With so many free apps with dubious educational value, how is a parent to decide which apps are worthwhile? On the flip side, what information can educational app developers provide to aid in discoverability?

As indicated in What's Wrong with Pre-K Game Apps, the majority of children's apps do not have any kind of educational benchmark. Highly rated apps on sites like Common Sense Media, Parents' Choice, and Children's Technology Review may not correspond with app store rankings, consumer reviews, or featured app lists.  Parents desire to know an app's age range or developmental stage focus, information that is often lacking in app store descriptions.  Because of this, many parents, in particular those in middle and higher income levels, engage in "app trialing," in which they download the app first and play it before the child ever sees it.  Lower income parents in the study tended to choose the educational apps to download whereas higher income parents were more likely to involve the child in the decision making process.

Whether due to virtual good concerns, freedom from ads, or a perceived higher educational value, higher income parents were more likely to purchase paid apps. Though there is no evidence that quality corresponds with price, many highly regarded apps do cost more.  Lower income parents downloaded fewer apps overall and tended to prefer free apps.  They also were more likely to depend on app store information rather than seeking out information on other sites.  Among all income levels, parents relied heavily on "word of mouth" reviews from other parents, relatives, teachers, and friends.

Higher income parents expressed frustration with app store descriptions, feeling that they needed more guidance from educational experts.  They wanted assurance of efficacy, which could have come from more prominent notice of research or recommendation.

With so much competition in the app store, particularly in Pre-K educational apps, developers know that they need to appeal to parents as well as kids.  They can send off their apps for review to parent-friendly sites and they can provide the necessary information for parents to make informed decisions.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Love Triangle

In this article, game writer Sande Chen discusses the necessity of interesting choices in the realm of romance.

In the book, How Games Move Us: Emotion By Design, by Professor Katherine Isbister, discusses the dating sim Love Plus at length as an example of emotional design with non-playing characters (NPCs). Love Plus traces the journey of a budding romance, but unlike in real life, there's no fear of actual rejection. The player will always end up "loved" because the NPCs, even when snippy, are always in love with the player.  As in romance novels, lovers rejoice after many trials and tribulations.

The player has a choice of 3 different girls, who will react differently according to their personalities. During the initial phase, the Friend Zone, there may even be Jealousy Events as 2 girls discover they both share affection for the same person, the player.

Alas, this brings us to that popular conflict in the realm of romance, the love triangle.

Within the mindset of "a series of interesting choices," we wouldn't want each potential lover to be the same. We want a fulfilling love but not the same one. Each branch of the narrative should lead to love, but because of who we are and our personalities, the journey is not the same. I wrote about this relationship distinction in Interchangeable He And She when discussing a hypothetical change to replace all female pronouns with male ones to include a gay romance option.  If the story doesn't lead to love, then it's a tragedy, but one that should be brought forth by clear decisions driven by character traits.

Otherwise, the ending feels forced. The author hadn't taken the care to find a logical means for breaking up the love triangle without making someone act out of character or become a sudden, unmotivated asshole.  In the world of linear storytelling, I feel cheated out of a good story when the prince who had been such a caring and devoted childhood friend suddenly becomes a backstabbing fiend so that the girl can fall in love with that other guy in the last 10 pages of the novel.

I find the most interesting love stories are when I'm not sure where the story will go.  Both potential lovers are good choices and therefore, it's a very hard choice for the protagonist.  I'd be equally happy with either choice as long as it's understandable.

That's often the problem with OTP (One True Pairing) stories. There may be a love triangle, but there's no comparison to the OTP. The other person is such a bad, bad choice that who in their right mind would prefer that person? We start to wonder what's wrong with the protagonist that he or she can't see the obvious. By recasting the protagonist as player, it's easier to see that we would want each potential love affair to be a serious potential love affair.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Fantasy Worldbuilding Tips for Beginners

In this article, game writer Sande Chen sums up advice from a 2017 NYCC panel about fantasy worldbuilding.

At last week's New York Comic Con, top comics writers dispensed cautionary fantasy worldbuilding tips during the panel, Wizards and Fairies and Spells - Oh My! After recommending beginners read over dungeon master manuals, writers Kel MacDonald, Brian Schirmer, Dani Colman, Si Spurrier, Sebastian Girner, and Skottie Young proceeded to explain some of the pitfalls awaiting new fantasy writers.

Primarily, several panelists expressed the opinion that worldbuilding shouldn't take precedence over story, or any other activity.  Worldbuilding should not become a full-time job.  It's far too easy for beginning fantasy writers to get caught up with the process of worldbuilding and end up with a beautifully realized world without a story.  In fact, the world can enrich the story, and even become an externalization of a character's emotional life.

Next, the panelists discussed magic and magic systems, and urged writers to think about the cost of magic, as I do in my class, Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Horror Game Worlds.  If magic didn't have a price or penalty, then what's to stop people from using magic all the time?  One panelist talked about the Harry Potter universe having 2 magic systems, one without cost and one with cost.

Finally, writers were asked to think carefully about the choice of POV character.  If Gandalf had been the POV character in The Lord of the Rings, then the story would be very different.  The reader would miss out on the feeling of wonder in regards to magic because Gandalf, as a wizard, would know all about the intricacies of the magic system.

Although this was a panel of comics writers, their advice applies to more than just comics writing.  But if you're interested in learning what game writers might have to say about the topic, I along with Dalton Gray, Sharang Biswas, Jennifer Estaris, David Kuelz, and David Tiegen will be speaking on the game writing panel at GameACon Atlantic City on October 28. Hope to see you there.

A writer and game designer, Sande Chen has over 10 years experience in the industry. She studied science fiction and science writing at MIT. Her first published game was the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival. She was later nominated for a 2007 Writers Guild of America award in Videogame Writing for the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher.