You may have noticed that it’s been five months since the last official post here. That is not that things haven’t been happening, but that work and life and world have been intense. So I want to catch up a bit, and share some changes. Because I expect that work and life and world will continue to be intense for some time to come. And because some interesting happenings have happened.
This summer I had hoped to make big progress on my long-back-burnered concept for a game of tactical cloud combat (tentatively titled DROMP). That didn’t happen much. Teaching happened. I taught courses in Python (at ArtCenter) and Minecraft (at OSA). This was actually a big deal, as it required retooling my curriculum ideas to fit with the new normal of remote, Zoom-based education. Life also happened – covid and politics and a startling variety of minor physical injuries. Among all this, I kept thinking about game development, but found that there were some tough tradeoffs. There just wasn’t time to do it all.
I decided that teaching was important. In this past year, there are growing numbers of metaphorical fires. There are more and more problems that need and deserve immediate attention and immediate action. Problems related to kindness, equity, and truth. Creating thoughtful games will help in the long run – but game design is slow, and people need help now. Being a good teacher feels like the most impactful way I can help address the growing number of immediate needs. I can’t do everything, but I can do that.
I also decided that I was important. I’ve been flirting with burnout, and descending into full burnout status would only leave us all worse off. So I chose to focus on those two things – teaching and self - and put down the game projects for a bit.
You should expect this to continue, roughly through June. Come June, I expect my teaching load to lighten. If nothing else, I’ll have done everything remotely once, so those plans will be roughed out. Also, come June, I hope (fingers crossed) covid vaccines will be widely available.
What does this mean for Mindful Mammoth and Patreon? Mindful Mammoth has always had an element of in-class practical teaching. This element will move front-and-center. Game development will happen on rare occasions, but will mostly sit on hold until the metaphorical flood recedes. Until such time as it is possible to shift attention away from the critical moment and more towards the future.
Posts here will be scarce. The whole Patreon rewards deal will more-or-less pause. If you choose to put your patronage on pause, I understand. If you choose to continue, I thank you. Be assured that your support will continue to help bring about the same goals – promoting the understanding and appreciation of science, nature, and life through play. Just through different means. Through the local vectors of individual classrooms and individual students.
All that said, there have yet been oodles of doings and happenings. None of these are momentous on their own. But all contribute to the change we want to create – a more fair, equitable, truthful, and playful world.
Chat with HomeTeam GameDev: Back in May, Chris DeLeon of HomeTeam GameDev, invited me to join their weekly meeting as both a pair of ears and as guest speaker. Listing to their progress reports, I was impressed by the creativity and effectiveness of the HTGD teams. After the formal things were squared away, we had a half hour to talk about games and education and the things I do at Mindful Mammoth. If you’re curious, you can listen to the recorded chat here.
Games for Change Student Challenge: Yes, Games for Change is a thing. An organization. They’re solid people. Through my role as adjunct professor at ArtCenter, I was invited to be a volunteer judge for the 2020 Games for Change Student Challenge. All the games were created by middle school and high school students. Some were very simple, some were surprising and complex. If curious, you can play the finalists here.
Learners and Labyrinths: My good friend Jon Cassie of Game, Level, Learn is co-writing a set of books to aid teachers in the practice of gamification. Inspired by Dungeons and Dragons, but aimed at classrooms, the Learners and Labyrinths books discuss everything from pedagogy to level design to character creation. Want to be a half-elf algebrist? Me too. At least sometimes. Anyways, Jon asked me to be an early reader. I was flattered, and agreed. It was fun. Edifying. Interesting. You go Jon Cassie!
Unity Certification: I will confess that I hate standardized tests. There is a small piece of this world in which they are appropriate. Unfortunately, they have become pernicious and pervasive. And pestilential? And generally poorly written. It happens that Unity is expanding their menu of certification exams, in the hopes of ... I don’t know, helping capable people to get the respect they deserve? Maybe. Anyways, thinking that these tests could be helpful for some of my students, I worked through the official curriculum for the Unity Certified Associate: Game Designer certification, and took the test. I passed. The experience ... met my expectations. I now have a better understanding of Unity certifications. And knowing is half the battle, right?
Sprout Re-compiled: Technology changes, and games need to change in parallel, if they are to continue being playable. Over the summer, I updated Sprout to use Unity 2019 LTR, which required rejiggering some of the animations. This should make Sprout more reliably compatible with upcoming editions of modern operating systems, and keep Sprout relevant for another few years.
Sprout De-futzed: Early last summer, Google pulled Sprout from the Google Play Store. They said it violated their games for family policy by collecting personally identifiable information from children. My first thought was WTF. Really, Google? However, it turns out that Google was right. When you first create a Unity project, Unity includes a number of libraries by default. It is then supposed to strip unused code from your project when you build an executable. Two of those libraries track users – for ads and for gameplay feedback purposes. I hadn’t used any of those features, but Sprout was still collecting data, and maybe even reporting it somewhere. That code hadn’t been stripped out, but was instead compiled and present and lurking and creepy. I don’t know where the info was going, but it certainly wasn’t going to me. I have not, and never will covertly collect personal information from anyone. And certainly not from children. It’s antithetical to my purpose. So, as part of this summer’s codebase refresh, I explicitly stripped those libraries from the project. This seems to have solved the problem, and Google has now kindly reinstated Sprout as a denizen of the App Store.
DROMP: Having used the extra moments in the first ten weeks of summer to gently relax, I finally felt refreshed and ready to take on some development work in the final few weeks. In that time, I rebuilt the innards of DROMP, with two major changes. The game now supports local multiplayer via gamepads. The game also has a major new mechanic: landscape engineering. In the original version, interactions between land and air were important, but players only had control over things in the air. In the new version, players can reshape the landscape of their town, giving them an additional way to influence the flow of the game. Hopefully, this will add the good kind of complexity, the kind that makes games interesting. The full details aren’t filled out enough for playtesting, but the framework is in place.
Game Design Advising: Arlington High School, in Riverside, has a really remarkable game development pathway. The path chiefs hold regular (annual?) meetings with an advisory board to try and keep the program fun, effective, and relevant. You know, just to have people to bounce ideas off of. The invited me to join this year’s end-of-summer conference call, and I put in my three cents. They’re good people. Amazing people really. The kind of people that give me hope.
Eco @ NASAGA: Eco is a ridiculously ambitious educational game. I won’t try to describe it here. You can check out the trailer for an introduction, or peruse this blog for startlingly thoughtful stories. Given the shift to online learning, this fall seemed like the perfect time to bring Eco to One Spark Academy. So we did that. In planning for this ‘class’, I found very few helpful resources. Some few folks were able to help me get a handle on the depths of the game, but nobody could say much about the specifics of Eco in schools. This seemed like gap that was just asking to be filled. By sharing my experience, I could help others to get started faster, and advance the state of play in education. Together with Eco expert Juni Yeung, we pitched two Eco-based session ideas for this year’s meeting of the North American Simulation and Gaming Association (NASAGA). Both ideas were accepted. As part of this year’s conference, we will run a workshop/case study session, and a get-your-feet-wet gameplay session.
IndieCade: The best event of the year is happening again. Details remain mysterious. The shift to an all-online format is a big deal for an event that proudly welcomed all forms of games (including hyper-physical and place-based games). And folks are still hammering out the details of programs and workshops and technology. I do know that I’ll be hosting a short discussion on Serious Games. And playing games. And talking about games. And being inspired. You should come too. Everyone should come. IndieCade Anywhere and Everywhere. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I’m sure it’ll be worthwhile.
Five months of happenings, all rolled up into one place. And I haven’t even talked about the teaching or the curriculum design very much at all. It’s been intense. And it’s been valuable. And it’s only been possible together.