News

Cows, Curious Things, Sparkly Mammoth

10.5 Cows

If you need a silly thing to do, try out our new game, 10.5 Cows. It’s casual game about cow suckage, created with friends from Explorasaurus Studios!

What is this thing? Well, IndieCade organized a game jam in honor of Earth Day. It was to be a five-day, intensive, world-wide, game development festival, in which several dozen small teams each made a small game addressing some issue related to climate change. Feeling a little overwhelmed with big, slow projects, and looking for a short side-gig, I reached out to my friends at Explorasaurus Studios, asked if they wanted to collaborate, and that was that!

Why cows? We all agreed that cows kinda suck. They’re cute, sure. They also contribute to climate change, and drive deforestation. Hence, our tagline, “Cows suck. Why not suck back?” Yes, I will personally take credit for that one.

Odd and Interesting Prototypes

The Climate Jam inspired 49 entries. You can find them all here. I spent yesterday afternoon exploring the entries. They’re ... interesting. Every one of the games has severe flaws (including ours). And. And. Every one of these games is care-full. Calling out some of the games that made an impression:

  • Night Flyer: A remarkably simple and affecting game about bats.
  • Fire Season: A fire-fighting simulation. As a former assistant to the Fire Ecologist at SAMO, I struggle to talk about fire. Most articles, simulations, and so on, are vastly oversimplified to the point of being deceptive via omission. Complexity is critically important. This game, while small and simple and limited in scope, isn’t misleading. It is instead, appropriately challenging.
  • Panda Smash: Perhaps inspired by true events.
  • E-Missions: The only game to even attempt to address climate change in an authentically complicated manner. Wow.
  • Fire Tree: I don’t know what this is. But ... it makes me feel something.

Students were Challenged

To make games for change. The 2020 Games for Change Student Challenge happened too. All submissions were due by the end of April, judging happened last week, and I volunteered a bit of time to help out as a judge.

Most of the games followed the same general pattern, but there were several standouts. One lightweight life sim required you to make balanced choices about life and health while living as a smoker. (Hint: Smoking caused problems.)

Mindful Mammoth is now Sparklier

Over the past few months, Subplex has been working behind the scenes to upgrade the Mindful Mammoth website. Originally, it was a thing that I designed by myself. For good and bad, you could tell. It was authentic, but also rough, and probably not as enticing as it could be to potential partners and clients.

As of today, it is enormously improved. Check it out here.

Layouts, fonts, navigation – all are cleaner and stronger and more attractive. There are a few minor bugs to work out, mostly in the form of dangling links that need reconnecting, but those things are straightforward to fix.

The website always looked like it was built by someone with heart, because it was. Now, it looks like it was built by someone with heart and skillz, because it was! Thank you, CC.

Thank you

In this wonky world, I am grateful for friends and family, colleagues and patrons – we’re all in this together. As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’m sending you a signed page of Cows code.

Yes, three pages of code in three months is a little repetitive. It’s also authentic. Most of our current work is in a digital space. I’ll try to find something a little more offbeat for next month.

Later,

    Tim

April, and a lake

The copocalypse changes many things. In this past month, I have had to rethink all my classes, and snce learning format. Fortunately, my friends and family remain safe. In part, this is because the political leadership folks in California have done a solid job of responding to the situation, making decisions based on science and reality.

A Lake sprite, with collider. It doesn't look like much. Not yet. But it's a step forward, one piece among many pieces of what will become a nifty game.

With all the changes in teaching curricula, there has been little time for creative work. DROMP has taken some baby steps, with more significant updates coming this summer.

Looking ahead, I’ll be working with several friends to build a game for the IndieCade Climate Jam. We have dubbed ourselves Wigeon Wit. I don’t know what will come of this, but I’m excited to find out.

And that’s about it. A short bit of news for a very complicated month.

In this wonky world, I am grateful for your support. As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’m sending you a signed page of Lake code. Lakes are one of several pieces of the Don’t Rain On My Parade landscape.

Once again, thank you.

    Tim

February, March, and a snippet of CloudBrains

DROMP advances! Slowly. Above: A piece of code from some CloudBrains. Explanation follows ...

These monthly updates are again sliding later in the month. I think this is just the way it will be during the school year. Teaching is a busy and complicated job – and even more so now with the shift to remote learning that is being caused by coronavirus.

So. What’s happened?

The Mindful Mammoth website is undergoing a moderate upgrade. At this point, it’s all in the background. We’ve explored several options (Wordpress, Squarespace, etc.) and concluded that the current Wordpress multi-site strategy is the best one for the foreseeable future. The next step is a whole bunch of design work, polish the rough edges off the site, and then to increase the flexibility of the layout, so that it works well with both large screens and small ones.

The Diamond Challenge happened. This is a high school entrepreneurship competition roughly along the lines of Shark Tank. This year, I reprised my role as a judge (a.k.a shark). I was pleasantly surprised that roughly half the pitches were in the Social Innovation category. I was stunned that some of these people had actually begun to implement their ideas, and to do real good in the world. Wow.

The 2020 Rose Valley Game Jam also happened. This year, it was hosted by ArtCenter. As faculty in the game design program, it was my duty (and my pleasure) to support the jammers as a friendly mentor. Turns out, all of the teams were industrious and capable and independently creative – so they didn’t need much mentoring. Most of what I did was appreciate their fine work, but I was able to help resolve a few challenges, here and there.

Remember Exploring Matter in Space? The NSTA, wanting to be of service in this time of school closings, reached out to ask if I would be willing to share the book for free for the duration of the plague. I agreed, as did most of their authors. This means you can find Matter in Space - and most of the other NSTA eBooks - free on the NSTA website here.

Last, but not least! DROMP progresses. With my bits of free time, I am reworking the guts of this tactical cloud brawler to make the foundations more flexible and more stable. The first version was a little too much spaghetti and chewing gum. Most of the revisions are in place, and I’m now adding a new set of features. In the next iteration, players will be able to demolish and rebuild sections of landscape. One of the major learning goals is to help players understand the interaction between landscape and weather. Therefore, giving landscape-manipulation abilities to players will help them to learn these concepts. This will also make the game a little deeper and a little more engaging.

Yes, all is complicated and challenging. Also worthwhile. I am grateful for your support – and that of all my friends, family, and patrons. As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’m sending you a signed page of CloudBrains code. You’ll see that it’s still a work in progress, but also a job worth doing!

Thank you,

    Tim

GLLCon and Shenandoah

January has concluded. Boy was it fast. In this moment of quiet, it is then proper to share and reflect a bit.

The big happening in January was Game Level Learn Con 2, a small meeting of quality folks interested in games and education. The inestimable Tracy Wazenegger shared her gamified global studies curriculum, which was both impressive and inspiring. Michael Cosimini shared his lessons learned from developing a card game aimed at medical students. And I ran a short workshop/lesson on critical game studies – which seemed to go over pretty well. Enough that I’ve started toying with the idea of writing a short book on the subject. Having put close to a dozen hours into preparing for that one hour talk, I found that I had quite a lot to say. More than I realized.

The photo on the top shows me in action. You might not think that professional conferences are intense and exciting, but they are. See the motion blur? Things happened. It was intense. And very worthwhile.

Next. I have resolved to be more proactive about seeking opportunities and connections. I continue to be excited about DROMP (the cloud game), and it’s going to happen! But the indie-developer lifestyle is very challenging. One’s chances of success increase when one has strong connections and supports. Therefore, my rough goal is that, each week, I will ping an opportunity. It could be a design contract, a networking lunch, a grant application, a residency, or perhaps something else. But something.

Last week, I submitted a formal application to the artist-in-residency program at Shenandoah National Park. The residency offers a free two-week stay in a furnished cabin. It then requires the artist to run two public programs while at the part, and to donate an original piece of artwork to the park within six months of the residency. Which is a pretty big ask. Design a park-based game, for free? Yikes! And they don’t appear to cover travel expenses, which would be significant. But it also sounds like a lot of fun.

In the next few weeks, I’ll be continuing to develop DROMP. It shall be slow but sure. I will also do quite a bit of volunteering – first as a dolphin in the social entrepreneurship branch of the Diamond Challenge, then as an industry mentor at the Rose Valley Game Jam. So other tasks will evolve only slowly, but evolve they will!

As usual, life has been full but worthwhile. Thank you, for helping me to make this happen. Thank you, for helping to build a better world through play.

As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’ll be sending you a pair of second-draft critical studies lens cards. You may wonder how these cards are different from last month’s. In short – everything is just a bit better. These have slightly better art, slightly better words, and slightly better branding. I printed a passle, and gave them to the folks at my GLLCon talk as a combination handy-cognitive-tool and party-favor.

Once again, thank you.

    Tim

New news for the new year

A collage of logos related to the news in this post.

Yes, it’s been a while. Six months, to be a little more specific. When last we talked, it was July, the high-point of summer. It was a rare piece of time in which I was able to take time to rest, and to explore some possible new projects.

With August came a resumption of responsibility – designing and teaching classes for One Spark Academy and for ArtCenter. Two schools with very different audiences and very different philosophies, but both with welcome and worthwhile challenges. There were also some health things that needed attending to. All of which is to explain the long silence on this web space.

But do not mistake quiet for inaction! Things were afoot. Even with the responsibilities of fall, Mammoth-type happenings continued. I shall summarize – at length:

Fire Tag evolved into Prairie Tag

A ranger from Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site  (a.k.a. KNRI) contacted me to ask about our work on Fire and Flora and about Fire Tag. They were interested in the possibility of adapting these games to work with other ecosystems. I recommended using Fire Tag as a foundation, and volunteered a small bit of time to help evolve the game into Prairie Tag.

Both Fire Tag and Prairie Tag are field-type games. Both ask players to take on the role of ecosystem agents (fire, rain, plant, etc.). And both games focus on the way that fire can reshape ecosystems. They differ in some modest details, reflecting the different details of these different ecosystems.

Across July and August, Knife River successfully shared Prarie Tag with a number of groups, and you can see a few seconds of one game on this episode of Outside Science (Inside Parks), a web series created by the NPS.

My hope has always been that the quality and playfulness of our ideas would enable them to grow and spread of their own accord, so that I could help bring about positive change in places well beyond my direct reach. Prairie Tag is a clear example of this very happening. I am gratified.

LEG 3 is published

This third volume of the Learning, Education, and Games series is subtitled 100 Games to Use in the Classroom & Beyond. It is exactly what it sounds like.

Way back in 2018, I wrote a proposal for a chapter on Fire Tag. The proposal was accepted, and the published book contains that chapter.

That chapter on Fire Tag is probably the most time consuming 1000 words I have ever written, from a words-per-minute perspective. Each chapter was peer-reviewed by multiple people, then personally reviewed by the book editor, which means every word of every chapter was discussed and agonized over multiple times.

It’s a solid chapter. IMHO.

The book is now officially published. You can download a pdf edition for free from the publisher’s website (here) or purchase a print-on-demand paper copy from Lulu (here).

The MM storefront on TpT is updated

At long last, Teachers-pay-Teachers has added NGSS metadata to their website. So, I took a few minutes to update the TpT listings for Fire Tag (here), Hands-On Botany(here), and Systems and Ecosystems (here). All three listings are now tagged with appropriate NGSS info, and should be more findable by curious teachers.

PCGameIT has published a positive review of Sprout

PCGameIT is a Steam curator. Last month, they reached out to me via email, and asked about reviewing Sprout. I shared a bit of info with them, they played the game, and enjoyed it. You can see their positive review here.

I continue to have enormous respect and appreciation for Jeff Nusz, for Sprout’s amazing art and excellent game design. At the same time, I’m gratified that our technical work on the re-build has allowed Sprout to gain new followers, and to continue advancing the cause of a more beautiful and plant-ful world.

DROMP is the thing. Probably.

While I’m excited about Numerologist (e.g. here), I’m super-excited about DROMP. That cloud game has been on my mind for actual years. I had switched focus to Numerologist, with the specific goal of building something smaller, such that we could get it done and published faster. Time has shown that, while Numerologist probably is a speedier development proposition, the difference in speed isn’t nearly as much as I thought it would be. One of my quiet goals has always been to build rich games, things that invite and reward exploration. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it turns out that it will take significant time to give Numerologist the richness and depth it deserves.

So, I have returned to DROMP. Over the holidays, I re-built some of the core code to be more readable and more expandable. The next goal is a ways away: a playable demo that exhibits all the core features and mechanics in an unbalanced vertical slice. At current speeds, this would most likely happen around the end of summer 2020.

GLLCon 2 is Nigh

Back in 2018, the first Game Level Learn Con (GLLCon) was a modest gathering of quality folks in the games-and-education field. As such, it was a big success (refresher here).

GLLCon 2 will take place this coming Sunday, again in Los Angeles. Once again, I’ll be presenting. This time, I’ll be talking about critical game studies – the art and science of meaning, messaging, and impact in games. To help folks be successful in this venture, and inspired by Jesse Schell’s Deck of Lenses, I have drafted two new cards for the deck: The Lens of Pavlov’s Puppies, and the Lens of the Cognitive Corral.

Thank you

Teaching and learning and making are all challenging tasks. Sometimes, they take focus beyond what is socially acceptable, and quiet happens – as it did here, for the past several months. In that quiet hides the tough, tiring, and un-glamorous work of actually making things happen.

Fortunately, that work is satisfying. Fortunately, that work does not happen in isolation. Fortunately, that work takes place in the company of friends, family, colleagues, strangers, partners, and patrons. Those roles, of course, are not mutually exclusive. And in fact, many people who wear more than one of those hats.

As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’ll be sending you a physical copy of a draft critical studies lens card.

Thank you,

    Tim

July News: The Soup is a Numerologist

The plan was build an anthology of small digital games and toys, a sort of tasty and flavorful brain soup, starting with Numerologist. Having done some digging and thinking and building, I’m finding that Numerologist isn’t such a small thing after all. As a pitch, it sounds easy. As a real-world thing, there are loads of critically important details, all of which will take time and care if we are to have something that we will be proud of. Having learned this lesson, we have two options.
  1. Continue with development on Numerologist, and aim to create a standalone toy.
  2. Go back to the drawing board and ‘storm up some much smaller ideas, small enough that they are actually suitable for an anthology.
We’re going with Option B. One of my personal aims has always been to go for quality over quantity. An anthology makes more entrepreneurial sense, as something that would more quickly showcase our skills, and more quickly bring a financial return on our temporal investment. Despite the fact that Mollindustria has been admirably successful with the anthology model, I just don’t feel good about it. It’s not my deal. So. Numerologist it is. Having decided to go forward with a non-trivial project, why not then return to Don’t Rain On My Parade? Well, that one is an even bigger project. Numerologist is a stretch, but still within the realm of possibility at this time. It is a solid, project-management middle ground. At this mid-point of summer, I’ve invested roughly 120 hours into Numerologist. For comparison, Sprout took 250 hours of my time – for programming and publishing, not counting the time Jeff put into game design and graphic art. Matter in Space also took roughly 250 hours of my time (for game design, storyboarding, and writing; not counting the time from the software developers). At maybe 20% complete, Numerologist will be the biggest digital project yet for Mindful Mammoth. Yesterday, I took some time to re-learn some video capture and editing tools, and record a short snippet of gameplay. Then I started having second thoughts. I think I’m not quite ready to make it public. I did, however, share the current super-early build as a behind-the-scenes for $2+ Patrons. So, I’m going to leave things here. Numerologist is happening, but behind-the-scenes for now. If you’re particularly curious, ping me, and I’ll share a little more, on the DL. As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’ll be sending you a printed page from the Numerologist design doc, cleverly folded into an origami animal. Slightly-secret ideas, in animal form, seems appropriate for a mathematical creature creator, right? Thank you all for your help, support, and partnership on this rocky and quixotic quest to build a better world through play. It’s a road with no end, and a fair number of hardships, but absolutely worthwhile, and much better with company. Thank you, Tim

June News: Brain Soup?

With endings ended, it is time for some new beginnings. Sprout is fully sprouted, Exploring Matter is explorable, my first term of teaching at at ArtCenter is successfully taught, and graduating OSA students have graduated. For the first time in two years, there is time and space for something new. The possibilities are endless! But the available time is finite. I have a backlog of game ideas that deserve doing. All of them are bigger than we can reasonably do in a summer, including DROMP, the cloud game I’ve been aiming at for years. So, I marked out two days for brainstorming, and came up with several new ideas that deserve doing – all of which turned out to bigger than we can reasonably do in a summer. Fortunately, I have friends. One of them reminded me that, when her students come up with a concept that is out of scope, something bigger than can be done with the resources at hand, she counsels them to pick a piece of that idea, and just build the piece. That’s great advice. In fact, when my students have that same problem, I give them that same good advice. Oddly (or not), I was unable to give myself that advice when I needed it. I am, once again, grateful for my friends. The plan is this: to begin building an anthology of small digital science toys and games. We would publish the anthology as a single ‘game’ on Steam, via Early Access, and slowly add new items as time and funding permit. Note that most of these will be toys, rather than games. They will be pieces excerpted from larger game concepts, fun mechanics that are open-ended, and hopefully invite 20-60 minutes of exploration. Plus achievements, to help motivate and reward said exploration, for those who like achievements. Ultimately, fate permitting, the anthology grow to include 5 – 10 playful science bits, and exit Early Access into official publication. It will then be a sort of Brain Soup, a curious melting pot of digital dumpling-toys and tasty-treatlike-minigames. So maybe we’ll call it Brain Soup. Or not. Suggestions welcomed. The first toy will be an algebraic creature constructor, with the working title of Numerologist. This constructor is the core tool of what might someday be a game of mathematical zookeeping, or veterinarification, or something like that (photo shows paper prototype). For now, it shall be a standalone toy. Once again, thank you all for your support. There is a world of joy in innovation, in building wonderfully odd things that have never been built before. There is utility as well, in the way that unexpected surprises can inspire curiosity and learning. There is often very little support, which makes this challenging. Your help makes a huge difference, so I hope you’re looking forward to sharing a bowl of brain soup with us (whatever that soup ultimately gets named). As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’ll be sending you a pair of hand-drawn math creatures, from last week’s brainstorming / prototyping session. They’re rather cute and curious. Thank you, - Tim      

Sprout Resprouted – And other springy news

You may recall, in the last major news update, I received an unexpected invitation to join the faculty of ArtCenter College of Design, to teach in their just-launched Game Design program. There wasn’t really time in my schedule to create and teach a new class, but it was a great opportunity, so I agreed to do it anyways. This made me a more-than-full-time teacher for most of the past fourteen weeks, working 6-7 days per week to create, manage, and teach various classes. Yikes. As of last week, my first term at ArtCenter is now happily concluded. The class had some lumps, as all first-time endeavors do. Yet, it ended well. Overall, I think this faculty position is a good fit, and a win-win for both ArtCenter and for myself. I look forward to continuing. Come fall, when the program returns from summer break, I’ll know better what’s coming, and be able to organize a better balance of teaching, making, and living. And! That’s not all. In the scant bits of in-between time, we’ve managed to wrap up some long-running projects. Most notably, Sprout is finally all done and finished and published and done and done! Last year, we successfully published to Itch and Steam. After some months of experiment, and adaptation, and pauses while I digressed into other projects, we finally finished the iOS and Android editions of the game. As of last week, Sprout is available to the world (free) on iOS (Apple Store) and Android (via Play Store). With Sprout published and working on all four target platforms, we have finally achieved a full and happy conclusion to this project. Go us! In a smaller but still worthwhile win, Exploring Matter In Space has been updated, and is now available in the sort-of-intended design. You may remember that it was officially published last October, in heartbreakingly flawed form. Discussion and anger ensued, updates were made, and the book is now in acceptable shape. Which is nice. Also. The Rose Valley Game Jam happened (photos). It turns out that the Pasadena school district has a games/programming track for their high school students. I hadn’t been aware of this, but it turns out to be a pretty cool program. As part of that, a partnership of various groups (city of Pasadena, ArtCenter, Caltech, and others), planned and hosted a weekend game jam for these high school students. Representing both ArtCenter and myself, I volunteered as an “industry mentor”, and spent the weekend helping students to turn their ideas into a working, digital reality. The students were capable and creative, and I was overall really impressed with them. While necessarily rough, every game also had at least a spark of brilliance. It’s worth saying again – I was impressed. Last and least, but still notable – I finished the final revision of the Fire Tag chapter for the third volume of Learning, Education, and Games book series: 100 Games to Use in the Classroom & Beyond. The whole anthology of 100 chapters is now off to the publishers for final editing and whatnot. The book should then be out later this year. What’s next? With three major projects wrapped up and done (Sprout, Exploring Matter, and LEG3), there is time for something new! I have a long list of things I wish I could do, of projects that could be awesome – if only someone could do them right. This summer, I’ll take one, build it out, and see what we can make of it. My first choice of projects would be DROMP – the game of tactical cloud combat. I think there’s loads of potential here. The problem is that bringing it to fruition, to the point that it could bring fun to players and earn revenue for us, is likely a 6-12 month project – whereas summer is just three months long. This means that, from an economic and production perspective, DROMP isn’t the best choice. It may be that a different, smaller project would be a better option at this time. So I plan to spend the next few weeks exploring possibilities – dreaming dreams, writing design docs, creating some rough paper prototypes, and consulting with friends. Based on this work, we’ll then pick the next project, give it a summer of serious attention, and see where it goes. As always, this work is both joyful and difficult, with challenges that are technical, financial, and emotional. Because of this, success is only possible with the kind support of many fine folks folks. Thank you. As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’ll be sending you a set of silly feature stickers. Think Mr. Potato Head, but flatter. They’re a simple, silly pleasure for the young-at-heart. Happy spring! - Tim

On The Pod: Talaterra

Mindful Mammoth and Talaterra LogosTwo weeks ago, Tania Marien interviewed me for Talaterra – her podcast about freelance educators working in natural resource fields and environmental education. That episode is now live, and you can find it on her website, on iTunes, on Google Play Music, and several other places around the ‘net. I met Tania at last year’s statewide meeting of the Association of Environmental and Outdoor Educators (AEOE), where she was running a session on what it was like to be a freelance environmental educator. As one of said freelance educator folks, she has taken it upon herself to examine the freelance educator condition in order to 1) promote the value of freelance educators 2) help build a network of freelance educators and 3) help build support for the work that we do so that we may continue to make a positive impact upon the world. Which is all idealistic, wonderful, and practical as well. As one aspect of that work, she has begun producing a regular podcast – Talaterra, on which I am the latest guest. A real honor :) If you’re interested in a short summary of goings on at Mindful Mammoth, and some musings on what it is to be a freelance/indie creator, you should dial into the podcast and give it a listen. You can find the episode here. - Tim

January News: Sad, Tantalizing, and Interesting

Across these past two months, multiple metaphorical yarn balls have wound, unwound, knotted, knitted, and a whole bunch of other verbs as well.

The Very Sad News

You may recall that the NSTA published our book project, Exploring Matter, with several egregious errors. After multiple conversations, the NSTA and I finally managed to agree on a set of changes to fix the problems. My NSTA contacts agreed to put those changes into the update queue, and told me that the update would likely be out by the end of calendar 2018. December 31st came around, I decided to check on the book, and I found that there was indeed an update! Hopeful and scared, I downloaded the update, and flipped to the problematic chapter. There, I found an incomplete implementation of our agreed upon changes. Of the items on our update list, some were done, and some were inexplicably left undone. It felt like a kick in the gut. I have rarely been so disappointed. With this partial update, the concluding chapter of the book is better than it was, but still deeply flawed. I am currently working on writing an evidence-based breakup letter to the NSTA. I had thought that this book might be the start of a fruitful, multi-book partnership. I suppose that may still happen someday, in the way that all things are possible. Right now, just I’m too sad and angry. I’ll share the letter on the $2+ Patreon channel in a few days, when it’s finished. It’s worth sharing carefully.

The Tantalizing News

Sprout is really, really, almost, almost, almost ready for a mobile release. A year after we released it on Mac and PC, it’s doing just great on Steam. As of this exact moment (5:28 PM PT), exactly 39,579 people have played Sprout on Steam. Of those 39,579 people, precisely 782 have written reviews, 95% of which are positive! In that same time, since our Steam release, I’ve been squeaking out small advances on Sprout. This means updating the build to maximize performance on mobile devices, and learning how to deal with the two main mobile sales platforms: Google Play and Apple’s App Store. I believe Sprout is all ready to go, and I’m just waiting for a final thumbs-up from Jeff. He’s already found one bug, so there may be others still hiding, but I’m pretty sure I’ve now got them all. If not yet, then very, very soon. So, stay tuned for final news about Sprout on mobile! Any day now.

The Interesting Career News

As of today, I am officially an instructor at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. It’s kind of a big deal. In two weeks, I will begin teaching game production in their newly born Game Design program. So far, I feel quite good about this. All the people that I have met have been competent, kind, and excited to do the difficult work of making beautiful things. Which is amazing! The next fourteen weeks will be nuts. I will be a full time teacher: science and math at OSA, and game production at ArtCenter. I will post occasional updates here, but there will be no noticeable motion on any Mindful Mammoth projects. And yet! One of the major obstacles in all of our science/game projects has been money. Several worthy projects have simply ground to a halt because we could not take time away from paid projects. With the funds from this new job, I will have the freedom to use this summer to take some risks, and (fingers crossed) make big strides in at least one of these long-postponed projects. The punchline is that the next fourteen weeks will be rather quiet here, but the three months of summer should bring at least one amazing advance. In short, I’m excited about this new job both for the job itself, but also for the creative opportunities that it will enable.

Thank you

Twenty eighteen was a complicated year with small triumphs, medium triumphs, and significant sadnesses. With Sprout and Exploring Matter soon to come to an official close, I look forward to taking some of my favorite ideas out of the storage closet, and bringing them into the world with quality and class. Thank you all for your company and your help. None of this would have been possible without you. As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’ll be sending you a cheesy bumper sticker from ArtCenter. It’s out of keeping with the usual style of swag, but highly relevant. This new job is a big deal that could lead to significant positive impacts to our science gaming projects. Fingers crossed! Thank you all. Keep in touch! - Tim

November News: GLL Con, and Exploring Matter notes

Let’s see. Since last we talked, Game Level Learn Con ’18 happened. GLL is a small but growing community of folks interested in the intersection of games and education. Folks like us! This first-ever GLL Con brought together 25 quality people to share, play, and converse around our shared interest in learning and games. At the Con, I ran two workshops. The first, Designing Effective Learning Games, was a friendly workshop where I presented some examples and best practices, then helped attendees to begin thinking about how to go about creating the games that they wanted to create. In second workshop, Systems and Ecosystems, I introduced teachers to the Puzzle of Life -based curriculum (here) that I developed. This curriculum helps students to learn about nature and to practice systems thinking. The above picture shows me (background) working with teachers and game designers at the Systems and Ecosystems  workshop. You can find the slide decks for both talks here. In other news, I am continuing to talk with the NSTA folks about patching our e-book, Exploring Matter In Space. They have agreed that something ought to be done, but we are still working out the details. We have a conversation planned for later today where we aim to finalize our plans for a patch, so that those plans can then be put into action. I continue to be grateful to have the company of friends and patrons in this quest to help build a better world through play. As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’ll be sending you a random sampling of cards from one of the very first versions of Fire and Flora. Why? Last month, my former supervisor at SAMO (and good friend) was cleaning out her office, found some artifacts from early prototypes of the game, and mailed them to me. I thought it was a cool blast from the past, and so I wanted to share. Thank you all. Keep in touch! - Tim

Inspiring Games from IndieCade ‘18

Once again, IndieCade has come and gone. Once again, it was amazing and exhausting – though in a very different way from previous years. As a start, I want to call out some of my favorite games. All of these games are seriously indie. They are made by people with amazing skill and heart, and worth your time and your support. You know how you’re always wondering what you can do to make a difference in this ever-crazier world? You can give these games and creators as much support as you can: money on Itch, likes on Facebook, wishlists or buys on Steam, and kind words anywhere you can.
  • Exposure: A really elegant, challenging, and original action/puzzle game. At first glance, it looks a bit like an artsy knockoff of Ikaruga. Don’t be fooled! The Exposure team started with a similar color-change mechanic, but then took the game in a wonderfully different direction. Can’t wait till it’s out on Steam.
  • Our Good Leader: An open-world, point-and-click, adventure-mystery that is most definitely not set in North Korea. Still in early stages, it seems to have interesting characters, compelling story, and usefully troubling themes.
  • Blindfold: My maybe favorite game of IndieCade. It’s a light, tactical, party game that uses everyday pencil and paper in a truly brilliantly manner. It is a good game on its own merits, and an especially good game for me. I’d thought I was a highly creative person, but playing this game made me realize that I’ve been stuck in a sort of creative tunnel vision, and reminded me that games can be so much more than we realize. Thanks, Blindfold.
  • Unicornelia: My other maybe favorite game of IndieCade. It’s oddly not that much fun to play, but brilliant for the premise and the props and the way they fit together seamlessly. I played it twice, walked away, recruited a friend, then went back and had him take photos while I played it a third time.
  • Shrug Island: The beautiful brainchild of a single person (though built by a team). The gameplay is a little confusing, but the art, animation, sound, and themes are genius.
Try ‘em out! - Tim

October News: Book, Book, and IndieCade

What books, you ask? Well, there’s the third volume of the Learning, Education, and Games series (a.k.a. LEG3). This one will be titled, 100 Games for the Classroom, and one of those games will be Fire Tag. Each game gets a 1000 word chapter that outlines the game: rules, goals, and how to use it in a classroom setting. I’ve put more time into these thousand words than into any thousand other words I’ve ever written. In September, I submitted the third (and likely final) major revision of those words. The editor is now in the process of reading all the hundred thousand words, in preparation for publishing sometime next year. Next, there is Exploring Matter In Space. It’s a thing! Published last Friday! And buggy. Dog. There is a whole, long, fraught story behind the development of this book - gigantic dreams cut small by budgetary realities. You know ... good deeds ... they just don’t pay like they used to. Even the NSTA, big as they are, with all the money that they have, is stretched thing by the ludicrously large task of advancing science education in the muddle of modern-day America. Hence, the smallish production budget for this book. This is the most expensive e-book they’ve ever made, and yet it contains barely a tenth of the interactive bits that we had hoped for. If it’s successful, maybe we can do another, bigger one. We shall see. Fingers crossed. Editorializing aside, the end result is an interactive e-book that has a lot to love, and one major bug. As we speak, I’m working with the publisher to try and find the simplest reasonable solution. If we can get that fixed, then I’ll upgrade my status from concerned to content, and toot the book around more loudly. IndieCade! Next weekend, IndieCade will happen. It is possibly my favorite event of the year, Halloween included. It just feels like my people. It’s a rare treat to spend time with even a few of these folks, and a once-a-year-wonder to be able to hang around with the whole kaboodle. This year, IndieCade invited me to be their first-ever, field-trips coordinator (volunteer job). They’ve had limited field trips in each of the last two years, and wanted to take it up a notch this year. Much as I hate being an administrator, bringing kids to IndieCade is a wonderful good, so I agreed. We now have 300+ students from across SoCal coming to IndieCade to play games, make games, meet developers, and grow their understanding of what games can be and do. It’s been a highly stressful job, at least for me. But I’ve done what I can, and I think we’ve got good odds of being successful. Fingers crossed here too. Thank you all for working with me to make this happen. All these projects – book, book, and IndieCade – are wonderful social goods with rather poor pay. To make these things possible takes a lot of time, effort, skill, and significant help from friends. Thank you. As an extra special thanks to those of you who supported us at the $10/month level and above, I’ll be sending you two things: a signed copy of the LEG chapter, and an individual login for NSTA Press that will give you access to both Exploring Matter and the accompanying Exploring Matter Teacher’s Guide. Again, thank you all for your support. Hope to see you at IndieCade. It’s just about the best thing ever. - Tim

August News: Events of The Long Quiet

Yes, it’s been two months. I mustache you to forgive me for the delay. Was it necessary? Was there really no time to blog? Not even a little bit? Pretty much. During the last seven weeks, I worked as the videogame design instructor for Six Points Sci-Tech West. Rarely have I worked so hard or had so much fun in such a short time. When I accepted the job, I expected that I would have time to work on my own projects in the evenings. On occasion, I did indeed have time to do that, but for the most part I did not. What with creating and reworking lesson plans, hanging out with kids, supporting various events, and being backup for counselors, it was intense. Rewarding, but intense. During these seven weeks, I was a design and programming coach. I offered kids three development tools - Twine, Scratch, and GameMaker – then helped guide them through the process of game development. We did some pie-in-the-sky brainstorming, built several paper prototypes, jumped into digital development, did a little semi-formal playtesting, and then we showcased their projects at the end-of-camp Sci Fest. For their games, the two core requirements were: fun AND good. That is, the games should be fun and AND somehow help to make the world a better place. For sure, fun is a worthwhile goal and a real goodness on its own, but why stop there when there is so much more that you could do? Whew. All that said, I did have time for little bits of Mindful Mammothy stuff. I continued my volunteer work as an IndieCade judge, reviewing several more games. In slightly bigger news, IndieCade invited me to be the (volunteer) field trip coordinator for the upcoming 2018 games festival. What does that mean? Well, for the past two years, IndieCade has invited kids from local schools (particularly those with game design programs) to attend. This year, they want to be a little more formal and organized, and it’ll be my job to help make that happen. In totally different news, I bought a new laptop. One of these. I’d call it an upper-middle-class working laptop. Which is kind of a big deal. I try hard to use things for as long as they’re usable. This saves money and helps me to be the humble citizen of the Earth that I want to be. Thing is, my current/former laptop was getting a little funky – the headphone jack was fiddly, the web camera was broken, and about once a week it would either power down for no reason or fail to boot. So I figured it was time to get a new one. This brings me to the most important issue: thanks. Being an idealistic indie remains a tough job – volunteering for IndieCade (and others), releasing free games (Sprout), and making sure kids have the kind of high-quality hands-on experiences that teacher salaries don’t really cover. Yet, with your help, I can juuuust squeak by and keep making good things happen. Thank you. As a special thanks for those of you who supported us at the $10 / month level and above, I’ll be sending you a mustache. Why? Well, my current/former laptop has a mustache. For the sake of continuity, I feel that it’s important for my new laptop to have a mustache as well. And because we’re all in this together, I’d like to give you that option as well. Maybe we can make the mustache a symbol of the games for good movement. Or not. But it’s a worthy goal and worth the effort. Tim

June News: Bits, pieces, books, and games

The last year has been busy. Too busy. So busy that I was starting to grump at students and friends, and losing my ability to find the fun in the things I love. So I decided to back off a bit, making May a relatively easy month. Not easy in the absolute sense, but you know, relatively easy. I finished out my piece of the school year at my wonderfully oddball teaching job; put in a proposal to run several workshops at a conference this fall; made several more rounds of updates to the teacher’s guide of the Exploring Matter e-book; revised my chapter for the forthcoming third volume of Learning Education and Games (a.k.a LEG3); and did some work for IndieCade as a friendly, volunteer juror. Some of the tasks were hard, but most of them were also pretty short. In the between times, I did a bunch of quieter things. I read This is Not a Werewolf Story, which I strongly recommend. I played a smattering of weird and interesting single player digital games, including Gorogoa (a wonderfully weird and beautiful puzzle game), Duelyst (my favorite digital CCG), and Cultist Simulator (grindy, creepy, and addictive). I also met up with some friends for our monthly game of Near and Far (loads of easygoing storyful fun). Last but not least, yesterday, I took a hike up a river with some friends. And by ‘up a river’, I mean we walked out to the middle of the river, made a right, and walked up it. Because we could. Which was great! Most of June and July will be filled with teaching, as I develop and teach the videogame design thread for Six Points Sci-Tech West, a summer camp for nerdy kids. I imagine they are like I was at their age. In the between times, I may do a little Mammothish work. Perhaps finally port Sprout to iOS and Android. But I’m still feeling burned out, so I may push that back to August. August will likely be big-time passion project month (Sprout and DROMP and maybe others). We shall see. Thank you all for your continued support. This wasn’t a swagful month, but it was a meaningful one, so I’ll do something slightly different. As a special thanks for those of you who supported us at the $10 / month level and above, I’ll be sending you a personal, hand-written thank-you letter. Thank you, Tim

May MM News: Electric Books and Outdoor Ed

The big happening was of course the annual statewide meeting of the Association for Environmental and Outdoors Education (AEOE). It’s a two-day weekend conference that opened with a group hug. Which was awesome. I then spent the rest of the day as a learner, sitting in on a lecture, exploring a series of population-oriented classroom activities, and taking part in a blindfolded drum stalk. Come Sunday, I switched roles, and became a teacher. I opened by running a game of Fire Tag. We had a great time as everyone played out their role - chasing, fleeing, burning, and pouring. We used real water, which left us with a bunch of happily soggy players. Several said that they were excited to use the game with their own students. (photo here) Later in the day, I ran a Puzzle-based program for a group of classroom educators. I use the Puzzle of Life to tell the Yellowstone Story, then walked them through the (free) Systems and Ecosystems lesson plans, and gave them the opportunity to craft their own set of pieces based on their own interests. This was a smaller group, which is not surprising given that the AEOE leans towards outdoors and informal education. But again, several folks were really excited about the ideas in this program, and looking forward to adapting these ideas for the students and ecosystems in their home space. Overall, the conference was a wonderful experience. Good times with good people, united in a desire to help build a stronger world with beauty, kindness, and an appreciation of nature. In subtler news, progress continues on my e-book, Exploring Matter. I think we’ve settled the text and design for the book itself. Much production work remains to be done (revisions to illustrations, and programming of interactions). We also need to do at least one more round of revisions to the teacher’s guide, to keep it in sync with the book. But we’re close! And the late-draft illustrations are really exciting. This is hard, complicated, joyful, expensive work - and it wouldn’t be possible without your help. Thank you. As a special thanks for those of you who supported us at the $10 / month level and above, we’re sending you a set of three prints of late-draft illustrations from Exploring Matter. The printer cut the margins a little short (urg), but you’ll still get the picture. Har har :) - Tim

Fire Tag with the AEOE

Last weFireTagWithAEOEekend, as planned, I joined the annual state-wide meeting of the California Association of Environmental and Outdoor Educators (AEOE). I played some games, learned some neat stuff, and shared a bit as well. Among other things, I taught and played Fire Tag with around twenty fine folks, some of whom were kind enough to stick around afterwards for a group photo. Good times were had by all, and several said they were excited to take the game home and try it out with their students! - Tim

News: Geneva, Judging, Diamonds, Zebra, Matter, and more!

Title

Hopefully, that was an interestingly obscure title. For sure, lots of interesting stuff has been going on.

Geneva

The Geneva School (in Florida) reached out to ask if I would be willing to donate something for their annual fundraiser. They seem like good folks, so I sent them a copy of The Puzzle of Life. The auction took place just about a month ago, on March 10th. The day after, I went to check out their online auction site, and found that The Puzzle of Life was *not* listed in the after-sale. Which means someone must have found it intriguing enough to purchase during the auction proper. :)

Judging

Judging for this year’s Serious Play Awards continues. Having reviewed my share of the analog entries, I’ve now begun working through the digital entries. They’re all over the map - wonderful, terrible, hopeful ... everything. I’d say more, but that would disturb the anonymity of the process. Shhhh...

Diamonds

I was invited to be a judge for the regional qualifiers of the Diamond Challenge for High School Entrepreneurs. This is a national program with over $100K in prizes orchestrated by the University of Delaware. In essence, it is Shark Tank for high school students. So, I was a shark in the Social Benefit category. It was interesting. There was lots of creative kindness. All the ideas were full of heart. Many were short on facts. In the end, the judging came down to who had the best handle on the situation, and most knew what they were talking about.

Exploring Matter

In more core-type Mindful Mammoth news, I’ve taken several further steps on my quest to complete my first interactive e-book - Exploring Matter In Space. My editor finished reviewing the first draft (15K words) of the Teacher’s Guide for the book, and sent me a set of comments. This past week, I’ve addressed those comments by adding several additional atom-related classroom activities (4K new words), and removing words related to two now-deleted interactive features (sad realities of tight budgets in the field of educational publishing). While this continues to be a rocky process, it does yet continue, and I think the final published product will be a worthwhile book that is head-above-the-rest.

Zebra

In sad news, we have shelved Project Zebra. For now. This all started back in December with several meetings with a local entrepreneur. He was interested in using games to raise funds for transformative development technologies. These technologies are things that would, in developing areas, bring long-term and sustainable benefits all out of proportion to their initial cost. We talked over goals, I generated several broad-and-fuzzy concepts, and we then filtered them down to one core concept. I created a playable analog prototype for that concept, with the eventual goal of turning it into a working mobile/digital game. Sadly, this was a fraught process with a whole bunch of miscommunication on issues both small and severe, and we have decided to part ways. The core idea is solid (IMHO), and with some modest luck, I may someday be able to make it real. A short montage of the development process for Project Zebra ->

[gallery columns="1" size="medium" ids="1295,1294,1293"]

And more!

The next month will be full of a whole bunch of things:
  • The annual meeting of the AEOE, where I will run teach-the-teacher workshops on both Fire Tag and The Puzzle of Life
  • Taking steps towards porting Sprout to Android and iOS.
  • Various last-minute edits and improvements to the Exploring Matter e-book, and the accompanying Teacher’s Guide.
 

Thank you

In all this work, your financial and emotional support has been critically important. Invaluable even. Thank you. As a special thanks for those of you who supported us at the $10 / month level and above, we’re sending you a set of connected people from the playable analog prototype of Project Zebra. This is a game all about connections, and in the analog prototype, we used pushpins to represent people living on a foamboard world. When players created connections between people, we simply tied a ribbon onto each of the connected people. The color of the ribbon represents the type of connection: red for investment/health, yellow for commerce/trade, and white for war. For your safety, and for the comfort of the U.S. Postal Service, we’ve removed the sharp steel bit from the pushpins :) Thank you, Tim

AEOE ’18

A small but nifty piece of news: The California Association of Environmental and Outdoor Educators (AEOE) has accepted both of my proposals for the upcoming annual/statewide conference in late April. This means I’ll be running teach-the-teacher type workshops for both Fire Tag and The Puzzle of Life at the meeting. In the Fire Tag workshop, I’ll run a game, host a discussion on the game, and help teacher-players to figure out how they might use Fire Tag in their own programs. Similarly, in the Puzzle workshop, I’ll introduce The Puzzle of Life, give attendees an outline of the Puzzle-based Systems and Ecosystems lesson plans, then help them figure out how they might customize the lessons for their particular audience/interests. Note that all the Fire Tag materials, and the vast majority of the Systems and Ecosystems materials, are available on a pay-what-you can basis (free from the Mindful Mammoth websites, or paid on Teachers Pay Teachers) These workshop opportunities are a small big deal. All of the things that I have made, I have made to be used. Yet, for the most part, these things are used only within the very limited reach of my own arms. This conference is a good opportunity to share these ideas with a wider audience, and more specifically, with an audience made up of people that are actually rather likely to want to use these ideas in their own work. So. No new chickens have hatched. But eggs abound. - Tim

Lots o’ News

Yes, it’s been a while. A while in which lots of things were going on. In fact, there were so very many things going on that it was hard to find time to write about them. Now, life hasn’t slowed any, but the writing bug has been neglected too long, so it’s time to give it some attention. Noteworthy happenings:

Sprout

As of today, over 34K people have ‘licensed’ Sprout on Steam. This means that they have made their way to Steam Store page for Sprout, and clicked the (inaccurately named) “play game” button to officially add the game to their Steam library. Of those 34K people, 25K have actually installed and run the game, and 16K have finished. Also, somewhere in all that fuss, 410 people took the time to write a review, of which 95% are positive! Which is all just plain awesome!

Serious Play Awards

New year, new awards season. Once again, I am volunteering as a judge for the Serious Play Awards. Last month, I received a share of the tabletop games, gathered up a few friends, played the games, and wrote several (lengthy) reviews. This month, the digital games will start coming in, and I’ll take time out to offer constructive feedback on those as well.

Exploring Matter, In Space!

The bulk of the book design is settled. The illustrator is illustrating, and the developers are developing, which meant it was time for me to write the next piece - the Teacher’s Guide. While anyone can read and enjoy this book, the target audience is practicing classroom teachers. These fine folks are notoriously overworked. To help them get the most out of the book with the least amount of additional effort, I wrote a 15K word Teacher’s Guide. The guide gives background and history on some of the key ideas and experiments in the book, and offers suggestions for hands-on projects and exercises to help students understand the nature of matter.

AEOE

The Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education (AEOE) is the umbrella professional organization for environmental and outdoor educators in California. Basically, they’re what the name says, and they’re good people. Some years ago, I went to their annual weekend conference. I taught a short workshop on leaves, attended a random sampling of lectures and workshops, and just generally hung out with a bunch of creative, interesting, and like-minded people. It was great. The 2018 conference is going to be in Malibu, which is not so far from home. So when the call for presenters came out, I took time to write up several workshop ideas, and put those in the pot.

Zebra

Two weeks ago, I signed a short-term contract to do initial development on a small digital game. Codename: Zebra. Very broadly, the game is promote understanding and action around agriculture, poverty, and development in Africa. This initial phase consists of research, prototyping, game design, and the creation of a vertical-slice-y tech demo in Unity. If this first phase goes well, we may then follow up with a longer contract in which Mindful Mammoth will take the game through to publication. I plan to be a little secretive on this topic, at least for a few months, until we have settled on a concrete direction.

THANKS!

As a special thanks to those who have supported us at the $10/month (and above) level during Feb and March, we’re sending each of you a pair of prints: near-final illustrations from the Exploring Matter e-book. Tweaks need yet be made, but these illustrations give a good preview of what the final book will look like. Thank you, Tim

December Updates: Sprout, Fire Tag, Exploring Matter

I missed a month. There was no official November news roundup! Apologies. That’s not because there was no news. Rather, that’s because life was even busier than usual. I finished the second draft of Exploring Matter, in Space. This was a major revision, backing away from overly-ambitious interactivity (budget constraints), and re-envisioning the book as something more like an enhanced picture book. I’m now awaiting feedback from other folks on this project. I expect we’ll need one more revision, this time for details of continuity and wording. Then, it ought to be finished! Mindful Mammoth now has an Itch.io storefront (here), where you can buy a print-and-play copy of Fire Tag for the cost of pay-what-you-want. It’s a nice thing in general, as well as being a useful step on the way towards publishing Sprout. SunflowerSeeds_tweakSpeaking of - Sprout is almost ready, and we’re on track for a simultaneous release to Itch and Steam in just seventeen days, on 12/20! The game portion of the project is finished (test builds available here), and I’m now working on the publishing side of things. This means setting up accounts, and integrating Steamworks for achievements and leaderboards. Keep your fingers crossed. Seventeen days! As always, this work has lots of social value, but tends to be materially underfunded (or unfunded). Which is where your help becomes critically important. Big thanks to all of our patrons. As a special thanks to those who have supported us at the $10/month (and above) level during the last two months, we’re sending each of you small packet of sunflower seeds. With these, you can grow your own sunny sunflowers, and have botanical beauty both inside your digital tools (via Sprout) and outside (via these sprouts). Thank you. - Tim

Sprout is ready! Playtesters needed!

VidThumbnailThis is RC1, which means it is fully playable with no obvious bugs. Now we need to find and catch the remaining rough patches and subtle bugs. Download the game, give it a whirl, then let me know what you find, and what you think. Builds for Mac OSX and Windows are in the cloud here. Sprout is a brilliantly creative, bite-sized, point-and-click puzzle adventure from Jeff Nusz. While he built the game for fun, the ecology of the game is grounded in fact, and the combination of fun and ecology makes this a remarkably effective learning tool - one that I’ve frequently used in classes and lesson plans. The original version of the game was built in Flash, which was once a cool technology, but is now on the way out. Officially scheduled for retirement in 2020. Wanting to keep the game alive, I volunteered to rebuild it in Unity. Which brings us to today! RC1 of Sprout Resprouted is ready for play and playtesting. Please, give it a try. Then, let me know what you find and what you think. - Tim

We’re on Itch

MM_Plus_Itch-01 This is a good thing. Itch.io is the most open and free of gaming storefronts. Any and all are welcome. This means that Itch hosts designers from the youngest of snowflakes to the most crotchety of veterans, and has games that run the gamut from art to advocacy to tabletop to VR. IndieCade have partnered with Itch to create an IndieCade storefront on Itch.io here - which is a major vote of confidence for Itch. Additionally, IndieCade has offered a space on this storefront to all selections and nominees from 2016 onwards. Given that Fire Tag is an Official Selection of IndieCade '16, and now also on itch.io, the IndieCade storefront will soon expand include us as well. If you’re on Itch, you can follow Mindful Mammoth from our profile page here. You can also download and review Fire Tag from the game page here. As always, social-type support is a huge help. By following Mindful Mammoth and Fire Tag on itch.io, you can help us to build a better world through play. - Tim

The IndieCade Report

IndieCade happened! As usual, it was exhausting, wonderful, and varied. My talk went over well, as did the rest of the Game Design Microtalks session. I’d say we had a clean sweep of cool and interesting speakers (myself included :). All delightfully different. The session room was packed, the chairs were all full, and folks were standing along the walls. After it was over, I had a number of really thoughtful folks come and talk with me afterwards. Which is really the best part of IndieCade - the opportunity to talk shop with smart, diverse, and creative people. [gallery columns="2" ids="1269,1268,1266,1265"] On Saturday morning, The Puzzle of Life attracted a number of curious people who took time to sit and construct some possible worlds. My modding sample - a man eating tiger that poops, and whose poop was gathered by a cheerful dung beetle - was sadly underappreciated. I had the opportunity to play a bunch of random games. Some were surprisingly bland, which is really unusual for IndieCade. However, others were rather amazing! Notable mentions:
  • Mendel - A gently beautiful scientific sandbox about plants, exploration, and genetics. Even if I wasn’t a botanist, I’d still love this game.
  • Crescent Loom - Which was not on exhibit at IndieCade. Rather, the creator caught up with me after my talk, and we got to chatting about our shared interest in science, games, and biology. It’s a KSP-like where you construct squiggly critters that run on hand-crafted neural networks. Like with actual neurons that you draw. It has a steep learning curve, but it’s really really interesting. Early Access on io now. Highly recommended!
  • Visitor in Blackwood Grove: From the folks at Tiltfactor and Resonym, ViBG was designed to help players learn to use inductive reasoning. Super interesting premise. I had a fairly long conversation with the designer. They are very much into games for good, but using a fairly different design strategy, one that I would do well to incorporate into my own work.
  • Quench: Currently in late beta. It’s a story-driven, nature/physics puzzler. While it wasn’t intended as a learning game, the beautiful design, interesting puzzles, and thoughtfully simulated world all fit together into a fun and interesting combo. A combo with lots of possibilities for teaching, learning, and inspiration.
- Tim

October Updates: Book, Sloth, and INDIECADE!

Slothapottomous Rex. In a tree. Unable to sleep for all the human hullaballoo. Dreaming of a post-apocalyptic peace, when all the humans are dead.There have been several major things going on this month. And in all that goings on, there is both good news and bad news. Regarding the interactive book project. The official production estimate came it. Turns out that the projected cost of this book is over ten times the production budget. So. Even more than expected. Sux. In consultation with the editor, I’ve cut out 90% of the proposed interactions: all the dialog trees, the culminating mini-game, and various odds and ends. That was incredibly painful, but the good news is that we now have a workable plan. The book will be finished and published, and it will be smaller than I’d hoped, but it will *be*. The school year is now in full swing, so I’m working hard on teaching classes and designing classes at One Spark Academy. One of our new offerings this year is Popsicle Engineering - and I’m very proud of it. From the official class description:

What would you do with a thousand holey popsicle sticks, a thousand bolts, a thousand nuts (the threaded steel kind), and a team of friends? Build something awesome, of course! Following in the spirit of the venerable Scrapheap Challenge and the inestimable Junkyard Wars, we will split students into teams, and challenge these teams to engineer solutions to terrifying tasks.

The gamer in me demanded an overarching narrative structure for the class, in vague LARP-style. Thus was born Slothapottomous Rex, the ancient and fuzzy god of laziness. Tired of being kept awake by centuries of human hullabaloo - wars and wonders and rock music and airplanes and reality television and more - SPR (as he is known to his friends) has begun the construction of a Doomsday Device. With this Device, SPR plans to wipe the planet clean of life, leaving him finally free to get some uninterrupted sleep (attached photo). Brave engineers from the kingdom of Zalazoo - can you stop him in time? So far, my students have been really into it. Last but not least, IndieCade will be here in less than a week. I love IndieCade very much because it always feels like my people. It’s a scant three days in which to share knowledge, experience, games, and fun with friends, colleagues, and the world! On Friday, I’ll share some of my experience with educational game design in the afternoon Game Design Microtalks session. On Saturday, I’ll bring out The Puzzle of Life for the Game Tasting event. And the rest of the time - I’ll enjoy talks, games, colleagues, and friends. All good stuff! All these tasks are full of joy and hard work. Very hard work. Work that is only possible with your support and company. Thank you. As a special thanks to Patrons who have supported us at the $10/month (and above) level during October, we’re sending each of you a one-of-a-kind letter, straight from the claws of Slothapottomous Rex. Enjoy! And again, thank you. - Tim  

September Updates: Systems and Ecosystems, Sprout, and IndieCade

What’s been going on? As usual, a huge variety of challenging and interesting stuffs. The school year has launched, and I’ve begun teaching several STEAM classes at One Spark Academy. Among those classes is an updated version of Systems and Ecosystems, this time with a unit on ecological footprints. By tracing flows of matter and energy backwards through the pieces in The Puzzle of Life, players can get a rough estimate of the ecological footprint of various plants, animals, and humans. From this, players can learn why tree-huggers tend to be vegetarian, why there will always be many more rabbits than bobcats, and more! In other news, I’ve made big progress with Sprout. The end of production is in sight. After that comes publishing - first to Steam and Itch, and (fortune willing) to Android devices via the Google Play store. This will be our first published digital product, expanding breadth of our portfolio, and the scope of our consulting opportunities. Last but not least, IndieCade comes! On Friday afternoon, I will be one of the speakers at the Game Design Microtalks. Then on Saturday, I will share The Puzzle of Life at IndieCade’s Game Tasting event. Really! IndieCade is just about the best thing ever. If you make a point to come, I promise you won’t regret it! - Tim

Talking Serious Games @ IndieCade ‘17

IndieCade17CommunityTalks-01IndieCade is just about my favorite thing ever. This year, I’ll be one of the speakers. As one of a series of short design-related talks, I’ll share some of my experience with creating, designing, and using serious games. Details TBA. - Tim

August Updates: Words, words, and more words

WordsVsTimeOnce again, the major project has been our intereactive e-book, Exploring Matter ... In SPACE! On this front, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that I finished a full first draft. The design document - which details narrative, dialog, and workings of interactive elements - weighs in at just over 23K words. Being a numbers person, I tracked both hours and words, and discovered that I’ve produced a remarkably consistent 270 draft-words per hour (see image). While this draft is rather lumpy - hanging narrative threads, some excessive wordiness, etc - I’m really proud of all the concepts. The bad news is that rough estimates put the production cost of this design at 5x the current production budget. Yes. Five times. 500%. We’re not in the ballpark. We’re somewhere out in the Arctic Circle. Best case is that we’ll have to cut over half the interactive content. This means losing all the playful/narrative interactions, and perhaps losing some of the science-focused interactions as well. This bad news really knocked me on my keister. For all that the draft is flawed, I am truly proud of the concepts. It has bad puns, cow jokes, interactive thought experiments, and a culminating life-and-death mini-game where you have to use your knowledge of science to save your home. Having had a couple weeks to reorient my expectations, I’m back upright, though still sad. I’ve made a rough prioritization of the various book features. When the official page-by-page cost estimates come in, I’m ready to do what needs to be done, cut what needs cutting, and make this the best it can be - within real world constraints. The book will be much less than I’d hoped, but it will be solid, and better than average. We will not allow the ideal best to compromise the good that can come from a solid job. This month, I've been particularly grateful for the support of friends, family and patrons. Hugs and positive words make a big difference when this sort of news hits. - Tim

July Updates: Matter in Space, New Mexico, and more!

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]Epilogue_Door_tweak                    Thinking about easter eggs eggs in Exploring Matter.[/caption] The major project in June was Exploring Matter in Space! (tentative title). This has turned out to be a much bigger project than I expected. In large part, this is because I have big dreams. It’s both a superpower and a character flaw. In this book, there is so much that could and should be said that it’s hard to winnow the wheat from the other wheat (yes, it’s all wheat here). Though some difficulty also comes from the fact that this is an honestly difficult project. It’s a book - so there ought to be a lot of telling. It’s also an interactive and illustrated book, so there ought to be a lot of showing and doing as well. Finding a good balance of these strategies has been tough, especially given the relatively small size of the book (40-70 pages) and short timeframe (2 months). I’ll post a half-draft on the semi-secret ($2+) part of this blog in a couple days, and solicit feedback. ‘In between bookwork, I’ve made some modest progress on Sprout. Not as much as expected, but some. I’ll post a new build sometime later this month, but with more realistic lenses, it’ll probably be several months before the game is finished. It’s a fun job, but it’s also the lowest-priority job. And in the really-nice-surprise department, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science ordered three copies of the Puzzle of Life (prototype edition) to share with attendees at their summer science teacher training camp. Which is super-exciting! They don’t have specific plans for the puzzles. Rather, part of their goal is to simply introduce teachers to new ideas and new materials, and the Puzzles will be a part of this idea smorgasbord. Last but not least, we published the full set of Math ALIVE! tutorials to the web here. These are working drafts. Flawed, but also kinda cool (if I do say so myself). Lastly, as a special thanks to those who have supported us at the $10+/month level during June, we’re sending each of you two pages from the epilogue of Exploring Matter. These pages outline a small easter egg. Each of the first four chapters in the book end with a conversational challenge. If a reader completes this challenge with a perfect score, they are rewarded with a clue - a piece of an apartment number. At the end of the book, if they correctly enter the entire secret apartment number, they get a special (silly) ending. Otherwise, they just get the regular ‘ole ending. Thank you again for your company and support in this quest. Keep your ears open - more good things to come. - Tim

Living Solar System – Instructions Online!

Friends, Patrons, and the Naturally Curious, This weekend, I finished the last (for now) tutorial for the Math Alive! class that I developed and taught for One Spark Academy. There may still be more of these tutorials someday. I dream of developing this into a big and colorful book. And I think it would be fun to do some stretch-and-squash with special relativity. But for now, this is it. [embed]https://youtu.be/2hi9Ngmzq5c[/embed] All the tutorials are now free on the web, right here. FREE! Check ‘em out, then give ‘em a whirl! Note that this is not the whole class, this is just the Scratch-specific portion. In addition to the Scratchwork, we also did a fair number of practice calculations on worksheets, as well as some astronomical running-around in which students took on the role of various objects moving under the influence of gravity. In the final tutorial, students add some UI features to the simulation - panning, zooming, and speed controls. It’s all done by keyboard, but these features let you focus on whatever you want to focus on. Which is nice. Here, you can see my model solar system with a terrestrial planet, a rocket-cat, a saturn-like planet, and a comet. If you keep an eye on the two scale variables at the top left, you can see how I tweak the zoom and the speed to accommodate the comet. After the comet makes its first pass by the sun, it swings out on a big slow orbit - so I zoom out the view to keep the comet in sight, then speed up the simulation so that I can watch it orbit in reasonable time. - Tim

June Updates: Happy Kids, Wyrd Con, and more

Again, a slightly belated update - though mostly for good reasons. May was a very busy month, where my two teaching jobs coincided with curriculum design work and created a real storm of work, work, work, and occasional sleep. With grades all in, I now have time to talk about happenings. First off, I received a wonderful batch of thank-you letters from the two classrooms that I worked with back in April. In both classrooms, I helped teachers help kids through the Systems and Ecosystems program, where kids learn about *ahem* systems and ecosystems through art, storytelling, and play. Last week, I received a set of thank you letters from these students. One student said, "I liked when we got to do the puzzle with the sun because it was hard." Which is amazing! On Wyrd Con: It was a bunch of really thoughtful and friendly people doing all sorts of fun and interesting stuff. Really, a great community. But also rather flaky. Eight people pre-registered for Fire and Flora, but only two people showed (one pre-register, and one walk-in). The guy who had pre-registered had run an event the evening before, and had only 50% of pre-registrations show ... so that he had to play multiple roles in his LARP. Overall, I had fun, and I'd love to go again as a player, but I don't know that I'd want to run an event again. On Math Alive!: The end result was very positive. I didn't quite finish writing up all the tutorials (8.5/10), but I got close. All of the students learned a mishmash of programming and math, and found time to add at least a few of their own ideas to their projects. One student specifically noted the 'to be continued' at the end of the last page that I had given her, and asked if I could send her the rest over the summer. You bet! So, I'll plan to finish those last pieces this week, and post the whole bunch to the web. On the future: This month, I'll be advancing two big projects: Exploring Matter, and Sprout. Exploring Matter (tentative title) is an interactive e-book that I'm writing with the NSTA. I'll post a few bits publicly, but most will be semi-secret, only available on the behind-the-scenes Patreon feed. The plan is to have a first draft by the end of this month, and a completed book within three months. Stay tuned. Sprout you have heard about before. With the summer pause in teaching duties, I now have time to get more into gamemaking. The animations have taken far, far longer than I expected. But even with my new and more realistic timetable, I expect to have a release candidate by the end of the month. So, lots of stuff still going on, but I'll be able to take my work schedule down to 40 hours per week. This will be a welcome relief, allowing me to reconnect with some friends, and get in some good summer hiking. Lastly, as a special thanks to those who have supported us at the $10/month level during May (and above), we’re sending each of you a first-edition, printed paper version of the outline for Exploring Matter - a teaser of things to come. Till next time, Tim  

Systems, Ecosystems, Math ALIVE!, and WyrdCon

So what’s been going on? Lots of stuff. During the week of April 17, I partnered with two teachers in North Hollywood to bring the Systems and Ecosystems outreach program to their students. This is the sixth (?) time that I’ve run the full program, and it all worked out remarkably well. Students enjoyed working together to find solutions to The Puzzle of Life. I was particularly impressed with them for their unusually effective teamwork. Students then practiced their ecological modelmaking skills by creating kelp forest Puzzle pieces, and using them to tell the true story of Urchins, Otters, and Hidden Forests. Building on this puzzlecrafting experience, they then went on to each create a new version of The Puzzle of Life based on their own personal priorities. In this last activity, they were stunningly creative. Starting from a central piece, they worked outwards to build chains of supply and consequence, asking hard and important questions in the process.
  • One student noted that plants ate sunshine, that sunshine came from the sun, that hot gasses made the sun shine, but then got stuck on the question of the origin of those gasses. He asked me, where do these gasses come from? That’s a deep cosmological question to which I have no good answer. Which is awesome!
  • Another student focused on social networks, and created a ‘human’ piece that produced happiness. The happiness then went into a fuzzy sort of open space. Confused, I asked for clarification. This student told me that when one person creates happiness, their happiness flows into the environment around them, and creates a sense of happiness in that place. The good vibe in that place then helps others to be happy. Which is all true, beautiful, and amazing!
In design news, I continued developing and teaching the Math ALIVE! class at One Spark Academy, and finished the writing of fifth, sixth, and seventh tutorials. You may recall that this is a Scratch-based class where students slowly build a working model of a solar system using the math of additive change. If you haven’t yet, you should take a look at this short video, which shows the state of the simulation at the end of the sixth tutorial. In gamemaking news, I’ve made some small progress on the port of Sprout. If you’re supporting us at the $2 tier or above, you should have received a message with a link to an alpha build. The animations are super-rough, but you can see a glimmering of the brilliant design through the fog of the roughness (design credit goes to Jeff Nusz). Also in April, to help stay up-to-date with developments in the games-for-good field, and to help support folks who deserve support, I again volunteered as a judge for the Serious Play Awards. This requires spending an hour-or-so exploring each of 8-10 games, then writing an official review with some constructive criticism. Looking towards the future, I will be spending most of May as an on-the-ground teacher. So there will be little motion on big projects for the next thirty days - with one notable exception: Wyrd Con! Wyrd Con is a story-oriented gaming con in Costa Mesa California. For the first time ever, Mindful Mammoth will be a part of the con, and run several science/story/game events. Specifically, we’ll be sharing Fire Tag, Fire and Flora, and The Puzzle of Life. If you’re in the area, you should come join us! None of this would be possible without your help. That North Hollywood school, for example, is full of quality people but very short on funds. When they asked us to visit, I offered the usual deal - and said that we’d be happy to work with them on a pay-what-you-can basis. They said they could pay in lunch, and I happily accepted. Wonderful as that lunch was (pizza, if you’re curious) it doesn’t come anywhere near covering the cost of delivering this program. Which means that, really truly honestly, we couldn’t have done this without your help. Thank you. As a special thanks to those who have supported us at the $10/month level (and above), we’re sending each of you a first-edition, printed paper version of the sixth Scratch tutorial from Math ALIVE! (cue horror/zombie music). Till next time, Tim

A Cometary Cat

Yes! This video is exactly what it looks like. It is a cat in a cometary orbit around a star. It is also a major milestone in the Solar System simulation project in the Math ALIVE! (cue zombie music) class that I’ve been designing and teaching for One Spark Academy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1&v=XAaEAzK1u-U In the first five tutorials students learn about the connections among force, momentum, speed, and position - and write Scratch scripts to describe these connections in a concrete mathematical manner.  In the sixth tutorial, we introduce gravity in the form of a sun that pulls on a cat. In case you were wondering, this cat is the semi-official mascot of Scratch, and the default appearance for the first Scratch object in every project. The sun in the center of this sim exerts a gravitational pull on the cat. The gravitational pull is a force that affects the momentum that determines the speed that changes the cat’s position in a fairly authentic manner. I’m excited. The next step is to generalize this code. Rather than one cat that is affected by one sun, you’ll have many objects each of which is affected (gravitationally) by every other object on the screen. I’m excited for this too. - Tim

The NASW, Math ALIVE!, and Sprout

The NASW, Math ALIVE!, and SproutAs expected, March was a rather full month, with three mindfully notable happenings. First, the NASW formally accepted my individual membership application (individual memberships are the only type of membership that they offer). This is a wonderfully welcome validation from my peers. It opens the door to useful collaboration with other NASW members, and earns me a right to an entry in the NASW’s Find A Writer database (here). And that database entry could help us to land more contracts. Next, I’ve begun teaching a really nifty new math class at One Spark Academy, a class very much inspired by Seymour Papert’s Mindstorms. Papert is that rare person who is a true visionary, provably ahead of his time. Back in the 70’s and 80’s, he was frustrated with the way that educators were using new technology (computers) to do the same-old-same-old. He felt that with new tools, we could teach in fundamentally new ways. More specifically, he felt that we could use computers as supportive tools that would enable students to learn math, geometry, and procedurality in a more intuitive way at a younger age. In my new class, Math ALIVE! (cue horror/zombie music), we combine simple mathematical operations (addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division) in complicated ways to create a working model of the solar system based on classical Newtonian mechanics. To do this, we use paper-and-pencil mathematics, mathematical roleplay, and MIT’s Scratch. With the right framing, Scratch is a transformative tool in just the way that Papert described, enabling students to learn advanced mathematics (systems of equations) in a more intuitive way at a younger age. Using Scratch, my students are creating math-powered animations that bring math alive! FYI, you can find the first three Scratch tutorials here. If this class goes well (and so far, it seems to be going well) I’d like to eventually write up the class (lectures, games, tutorials) as a maker-oriented book in the style of Sew Electric (and similar books). But that’s a big dream. First things first - make this class a success. Last but not least, I’ve taken on a new volunteer project. Some of you already heard about this in the last behind-the-scenes Patron update. In short, I’m porting Sprout from Flash to Unity. Sprout is one of my favorite botanical games, and is an important part of our recently published Hands-On Botany lesson plans. Sprout is written in Flash, and Flash is disappearing from the world, which means that Sprout is also disappearing from the world. In fact, it is already hard to play Sprout in Chrome, though you can still play it just fine in IE (weird). This seemed a terrible shame, so I reached out to Sprout’s creator (Jeff Nusz) and offered my help. He agreed, and we’re currently working on a port, with an optimistic release date of late April, and a more realistic release date of June. Till next time, Tim

Published: Hands-On Botany

MakeAPlant_Workbook_Example_Page_2Hands-On Botany v1.00 is live and published up on the Internets: free on our website here, or for the low-low-price of $7 on Teachers Pay Teachers (here). Whew! Hands-On Botany is a short class I designed for One Spark Academy, and have since taught several times. In fact, I’m going to teach it again in just a couple weeks. The focus is on the connection between form and function. Across several days of lecture and lab, students learn about three major plant structures - leaves, flowers, and fruits - and the way that the design of these structures affects their function. Everything leads up to a capstone project where students randomly generate an environment (with dice - D&D style) and then design a plant for that environment.  Very STEAM-y. MakeAPlant_Workbook_Example_Page_4The end result is 12K words of lecture notes and activity instructions, and another 20 pages of worksheets, project booklets, and worked examples. Having taught this class several times, I thought that writing it up would be rather straightforward. Not so. I designed the class specifically around the known abilities of the audience (OSA students) and the teacher (myself). The result was a pretty cool class, but one that was very idiosyncratic, and which would be hard for others to replicate. I spent quite a while trying to figure out how to make this material more accessible to other audiences and other teachers, and eventually concluded that I couldn’t change much without sacrificing the sense of playful exploration that was key to the class. I did make a few changes, but for the most part, I addressed the idiosyncrasies with words - attempting to explain the goals and intentions behind various activities so that others would have the conceptual tools necessary to make this work. Hence the 12K words - twice as many as are in the Systems and Ecosystems lesson plan. ThMakeAPlant_Workbook_Example_Page_5e final product is solid. It’s missing some of the quirkiest quirks, but still contains a fair bit of serious fun. Whew! Here’s hoping that these ideas get out into the world where they can inform and inspire! - Tim

Fire and Flora v14

v14Components-01Fire and Flora is back on the table, now as v14. After some years on the shelf - years where there was a neverending background backbrain burble of ideas about this game - we decided to try out some pretty major revisions (details in the changelog). Last weekend, we recruited some friends for a playtest, and it turned out surprisingly well. I’d say that the revisions have mostly performed as expected. You now have a much richer and more interesting set of tactical options, though these options come at the cost of a modest increase in complexity and a few new flaws. Fire and Flora will remain a backseat project, but I still believe strongly in its potential for fun and for good, so we’ll continue to bring it to festivals and classrooms, and we’ll let our backbrains continue to burble. In time, I think we’ll end up with something that is much better than what we last brought to Kickstarter, good enough to launch a second funding campaign, and this time be able to bring it to backers and to stores.

A small big deal

SystemsAndEcosystemsAnnouncement-01 After multiple rounds of testing, revision, and detailed proofreading - we've finally published the new Systems and Ecosystems lesson plans. The whole shebang consists of 70+ pages of stories, workbooks, and examples covering oodles of strong, fun, and thought-provoking ideas. This is a big deal for us. First, it was a heck of a lot of work. More importantly, it's a really good example of the way that play can be a powerful force for good. For all that games and media are so much in the news, and technology has become a sort of an empty buzzword, there are very few examples of play done well. This is one of those. And we're very proud of it. We've uploaded the files to the educators section of the Puzzle of Life website (here), where they are available for free. We've also uploaded the files to Teachers Pay Teachers (here), where they are available for the gentle price of $10. Note that on the TpT product page, we've included a link to the free files on the PoL website. This effectively makes it a pay-what-you can product, giving educators the ability to assess their own finances, and either pay for it on TpT or download it for free from our website. Check it out, and if you're a teacher, give it a whirl!

Cool, new, puzzly lessons – Almost here!

firstpage_wbling-01This month's major task was to create a revised and expanded version of Systems and Ecosystems, a play-based program about interdependence and interconnectedness in ecosystems and everday life. I'm happy to announce that this revised program is almost here! Just this hour, I've finished the major part of the writing. The end result is a lesson plan of 6000+ words, and a quality set of companion workbooks and worksheets. This evening, I'll share the updated doc with a small circle of friends and Patrons for a last round of feedback and spellchecking. Later next week, I'll do a final round of minor fixes, and then publish the final documents to the educators section of the Puzzle of Life website and to our storefront on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Now on Teachers Pay Teachers – us!

nowontpt-01Yes, it's true. Right here. Why? Impact, respect, and revenue. Given that lots of people use Teachers Pay Teachers, having our games and lessons on the site means that they'll get more eyes and more use. That use part is important, as our central goal is always effective positive impact. With a little luck, eyes and use will translate into respect, respect will translate into revenue, and we'll take another step forward towards financial sustainability (sustainability also being an important ingredient for effective positive impact). What's up? Right now, just Fire Tag, which is up for free. Teachers Pay Teachers requires every seller to post at least one free item, and that's fine by us, as we'd always planned to leave Fire Tag in the public domain. In the next few weeks, we'll be finishing a major revision of the Systems and Ecosystems lesson plans. When that's done, we'll post it to TpT as well, but as a pay-what-you-want product, in keeping with our commitment to equity.

Published: Fire Tag v1.03

firetag_promo_plusplusBased on feedback from IndieCade players and from friendly teacher-collaborators, we've made some modest improvements to Fire Tag, and published v1.03 (here). For the detail oriented, the changelog:
  • Deleted rule #8. Rain/water no longer has any effect on Fire. During play, rainstorms often want to pour water on fire to somehow slow it down, and that does make intuitive sense, but allowing this interaction muddied the ideas within the simulation, making it harder for players to discover the core messages about fire and landscapes. So, Rule #8 is out.
  • Hats now have uniform shape. When each role had a hat of a different shape, it sure looked fun. However, the relatively complex shapes were slow to cut. When cutting by hand, it took a lot of twisting and turning, and when cutting by laser, you had to reset the machine for each different hat type. This was all a big pain in the rear for whoever had the job of doing prep for the game. To make the game more accessible, we've simplified the hat shapes, and use the same shape for each hat. Game prep should now be much faster.
  • Hats now have more distinctive colors and designs. The new, simpler shapes made us feel a little sad. So, to make sure that each role had a distinctly different looking hat, we took some time to update the hat-art, and give them more distinctive colors and textures.
  • Revised all the words. In the rules/lessons document, we rewrote the text to be more clear and concise. We then added a bunch of small notes to help future GM's avoid some potential pitfalls in both gameplay and in post-game discussions.

@ Playcrafting Los Angeles

Mindful Mammoth will be showing games at the Playcrafting Los Angeles Inaugural Expo.This Saturday, we'll be sharing The Puzzle of Life and Fire and Flora at the Playcrafting Los Angeles Inaugural Expo. We've never done one of these things before, so I'm not sure what to expect. Apparently, it's aiming to be a fun gaming free-for-all based around the work of local indie developers. Visitors buy a ticket (as to a carnival) then have a good time playing games - with free pizza for everyone! It seems to be a sizable thing in New York, San Francisco, and Boston - but this will be its first time in Los Angeles. If you're around this weekend, you should come by! You can find tickets on EventBrite here. Tickets are cheap, but you can use discount code PlayLA to get 50% off.

Photos from IndieCade 2016

So, IndieCade happened! We ran Fire Tag for several hours on both Friday and Saturday, and had over 100 people come to play and learn! We took some photos. The best are below: [gallery ids="1139,1138,1136,1135,1137,1134"]    

Hatmaking

[gallery columns="1" link="file" ids="1122,1121,1120"]
To add snaz and class to our IndieCade exhibition of Fire Tag, we decided to up the quality of our hats. With the help of some friends, and the good folks at The Build Shop, we now have 100+ top-quality Fire Tag hats - enough that all of our Saturday players should be able to go home with a hat!

Fire Tag Expanded!

goingtoindiecade_plusplusLast week, IndieCade festival organizers invited us to run additional games of Fire Tag on the Friday morning of IndieCade to help inform and inspire a visiting group of about a hundred 8th-10th graders. Of course, we said yes! After working out a few small issues of time and materials, we're now confirmed for Friday morning. This will be a great opportunity to promote the understanding and appreciation of science, nature, and life through play!

Fire Tag is coming to IndieCade ’16!

goingtoindiecade-01For the second time in two years - which is twice in a row - one of our games has been chosen as an official selection for IndieCade! This means that Fire Tag, our live-action game/simulation of California fire ecology, will be featured at this year's IndieCade! Fire Tag is one of nine games that will be featured in the Big Games part of the festival. Our timeslot is on Saturday October 15, 11AM - 1:30 PM. A game of Fire Tag generally takes 20-30 minutes, so we'll aim to run five games across that timeslot, every half-hour on the 0's and 30's. This is again a big honor, and a great opportunity.  We’ll get serious face time with both publishers and with the public, helping us to improve our visibility. More importantly, IndieCade will be a great opportunity to advance our mission – to promote the understanding and appreciation of science, nature, and life – by sharing Fire Tag with the world!  

A Sunday @ SAMO: Photos and Lessons

A week ago Sunday, I brought The Puzzle of Life to the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (a.k.a. SAMO). The end result was fun, smiles, and several useful lessons learned. On my end, there were three useful take-home messages: 1) That The Puzzle of Life is a great outreach tool. I knew this, but confirmation is always nice. 2) Permanent Crayola markers aren’t actually that permanent. This is an unwelcome surprise when you’re trying to help kids create fun and lasting take-home science-art. 3) Marketing is (almost) everything. This is a very, very harsh truth. It hurts every time I’m reminded of it, but that hurt is a useful discomfort. A little more detail: SmilingColoringbookArtistThe morning program took place at the Satwiwa Native American Cultural Center in the western end of SAMO (map). We had three participants: two kids and one adult. After a quick intro, I offered them each a choice of three challenges: coloring in our Yellowstone Coloringbook (here), searching out solutions to The Puzzle, or crafting brand-new Puzzle pieces to tell the story of Otters, Urchins, and Hidden Forests (here). One young person chose the coloring book, worked on it for a while with some success, then headed out for a walk with her father. Kudos to them both for their adventurous spirit! HappyStorycrafterThe other young person chose the storycrafting. He very thoughtfully followed the instructions in our guide, created the necessary storytelling-pieces, then told the story twice: once to me, and once to the rangers. Which was awesome! Watching him work, I noticed that the ink from his markers was beading up on the surface of the blank Puzzle pieces. We set them aside, but even after 20 min of drying time, the marker colors would wipe right off the pieces. There was no way that his artwork would survive a trip home in a pocket or a bag. I felt terrible, and apologized to him for this. He replied, “No problem, I can always remake them at home.” With those words, he proved himself to be far more even-keeled than I. Wow. BrittanyPuzzling02His mother chose to work with The Puzzle. She rather quickly and easily found the first solution, so I offered her the silver-level pieces, and challenged her to find a more difficult solution. This was indeed a challenging challenge, but with a little help, she was successful in that too. Later in the afternoon, I moved east to the King Gillette Ranch Visitor center, smack-dab in the center of SAMO. On the way over, I stopped at the craft store to find some better markers. Experiments showed that Sharpie markers had wonderfully bright colors, and had ink that stuck quickly and tightly to the surface of our blank Puzzle pieces. The Sharpie markers were also three times the price of the Crayola ones. While the price was unfortunate, the Sharpies were obviously necessary, so I traded in my Crayolas for Sharpies. TimNRazsa01Arriving at KGR, I found that the outside temperature was well over 100 °F, so the rangers and I decided to hold the afternoon program inside the Visitor Center. We setup in their media room - tables, chairs, markers, and Puzzles. To our small, sad surprise, when 2:30 rolled around, the VC was empty. So we sat down to talk. About a month ago, SAMO switched to a new calendar system. They ditched their printed quarterly magazine, and moved to an all-online format. This new system has two calendars. The first was easy-to find, but unattractive, and missing most of the events from the past month (including the two Puzzle events). The second calendar was beautiful and complete, but hidden, and only roughly in chronological order. As the rangers and I talked, some visitors walked in, asked about getting a paper copy of the now-extinct Outdoors, and walked out sad. Clearly, this new calendar system contributed to our disappointingly small attendance. Clearly, continuing resource shortages at the NPS are causing harm to everyone. The people at the NPS are generally highly-skilled, but skill only takes you so far. At some point, when the workload gets too far beyond the reasonable, important things fall through the cracks - things like this calendar system migration. And everyone suffers. Of course, part of it was my fault too. Ranger Razsa and I reviewed some of the many events that she’d hosted over the past six months. What made them successful? What drew in visitors? We concluded that my small Puzzle even blurb was only adequate. With a different picture and a different title, we might have been able to catch more people. The punchline was then that marketing matters. The Puzzle of Life is a great outreach tool, as are the Santa Monica Mountains themselves. However, to get people to engage with these ideas and these places, you first have to get people in the door. That first step is marketing, and it’s a problem for everyone in education and outreach - myself, the NPS ... everyone.

Storycrafting 101

StorycrafterGuide01_Kelp_2016.08.08_v1.00-01Now available on the maker’s portion of our website - The Puzzle of Life Storycrafter’s Guide #1: Urchins, Otters, and Hidden Forests! Two of the most effective (and fun) outreach tools are storytelling and construction. This storycrafter’s guide combines the two. With step-by-step illustrations, this guide shows how to craft four new types of Puzzle pieces, and shows how to use those pieces to tell the terrifying true story of Urchins, Otters, and Hidden Forests! Pdf here. Over time, we plan to slowly expand this series, publishing guides for true stories of science, nature, and life! Our current plans include stories about New Zealand Mudsnails, the history and development of cities, the possible zombie apocalypse, and more!

@ SAMO on August 14!

[caption id="attachment_1089" align="alignright" width="300"]Excerpted from the SAMOFund event calendar. Excerpted from the SAMOFund event calendar.[/caption] Two weeks from today, on Sunday August 14, we are partnering with the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area to host two outreach programs based on The Puzzle of Life. All are welcome, so gather your friends and family, then come and join us! Our official event blurb:

Want to learn about nature, have some fun, and exercise your artistic skills? Then come and join us for some serious fun. We’ll start by getting hands-on with The Puzzle of Life, a beautiful tool for learning about the structure and function of ecosystems. Can you solve The Puzzle of Life? Next, we’ll show you how to use the Puzzle to tell true stories about real-world ecosystems. Lastly, and most importantly, we’ll give you the opportunity to create your own version of the Puzzle, one that you can take home and use to tell your own stories of science, nature, and life!

In the morning, from 10:00AM - 11:30 AM, we’ll be sharing this program in Satwiwa Native American Indian Culture Center at Rancho Sierra Vista (map), in the western end of the park. Later that afternoon, we’ll share that same program at the King Gillette Visitor Center (map), 2:30PM to 4:00 PM, for folks in the other end of the park. Hope to see you there!

Wyrd Con Science

[caption id="attachment_1083" align="alignright" width="300"]Stolen from the Wyrd Con website, this photo shows a stormtrooper pointing a finger at the viewer, just like good 'ole Uncle Sam. Clearly, Wyrd Con wants YOU at the Con. We want YOU at Wyrd Con. (stolen from the wonderful Wyrd Con website)[/caption] Wyrd Con is a place for stories, geekery, cosplay, creation, and the unexpected. This year, for the first time, it will also have science - courtesy of us! Most of the Wyrd Con games and workshops are sci-fi or fantasy themed LARPs, so with our science-themed games and stories, we're definitely the odd-folks out. Our events may be full-up, or we may have empty rooms all to ourselves. I have no idea. For sure, it will be a very fun weekend. With a little luck, it will also be a weekend spiced with ecological fun and insight. Cross your fingers, tell your friends, wish us luck, and come if you can! Wyrd Con runs Thursday thru Sunday, September 29 through October 2 in the Costa Mesa Hilton. At 1PM on Friday, we'll run a scientific storytelling workshop based on The Puzzle of Life. Later on that day, at 8PM, we'll play Fire and Flora, and tell some true stories of California Chaparral. Finally, at 1PM on Sunday, we'll host a live-action game of Fire Tag.

Puzzling in Sequoia

Last week I took a camping trip to Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks, where (among other things) I ran a Puzzle-based interpretive program at the Grant Grove Visitor Center. We had about a dozen people total, half of whom stayed around for 40 minutes (twice the scheduled program length) to better work on their Puzzle projects!  Below are some pictures from that program. [gallery size="medium" columns="2" ids="1072,1073,1074,1075,1076"]  

Sad ; Hopeful; Intrigued

Some happenings from the past four weeks: This year, for the first time in a long time, Mindful Mammoth did not participate in the Santa Monica Mountains Science Fest. A sad deal. The 2013 SAMO Science Fest was a sort of coming-out for us, so the Science Fest always felt like a special event. It's also been a consistently rewarding event, where we have been able to provide information and inspiration to hundreds kids, and also to do some useful networking with adults from other outreach organizations. This year, the Science Fest was scheduled for May. However, this May, I was teaching two wholly new classes - classes which I had designed over the previous two months, but which still needed quite a bit of on-the-spot tweaking: Rocket Science - a middle school class on Newtonian physics and model rocket construction; and Critical Game Studies - a class on media, messaging, and game design at the Los Angeles Film School. In combination, those two things were more than a full-time job, and there just wasn't time left to organize and staff a Science Fest dealeo. Sad. Very sad. Hopefully we'll return there next year. Once those two classes were sorted out, I took the time to write up Fire Tag, an ecological experiment/game that I created for the 2012 Science Fest, back when I worked for the NPS. I've already shared that process, but what I haven't shared is that  I then submitted the game to IndieCade 2016. One of the great things about IndieCade is that they welcome games of all sorts - digital games, board games, card games, and playground games. Being a playground game, Fire Tag is totally within the scope of the festival. With a little luck, we'll get a nod again, and have the opportunity to share Fire Tag with this year's festival attendees. Keep your fingers crossed! While all those things were going on, I was also plugging away at my quota of entries for the 2016 Serious Play Awards (a part of the 2016 Serious Play Conference). The entries were a very divided bunch. Some were playful but shallow, just games with a pinch of educational value. Others were deep but unfun, powerfully interesting simulations but with little imagination or whimsy. Very few entries were in that sweet spot of being both deep and fun. It was a little disappointing, but also intriguing. Everything we know about game design, education, and learning says that learning happens most and best when people are 1) emotionally engaged, and when they are 2) as directly as possible practicing the things to be learned. Most of the SPC games did one or the other, providing either engaging play or opportunities to apply skills, but not both. For sure, it's terribly hard to do both those things well at the same time, but we (the serious games community) know that this is the thing to do. What can we do to make that happen more often? To get more educators and designers to aim for the big prize instead of settling for the same-ole strategy, the strategy that has made 'educational game' into a phrase that evokes rolling eyes and disappointed sighs. Well, we can have more things like the Serious Play Conference, like IndieCade, and like GLS. We can have people like me out in the world, beating the drum, sharing games/information/inspiration. Perhaps there are other things we can do too. It's worth thinking on.  

Fire Tag

TitleGraphic__whitebgI developed Fire Tag back when I worked for the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Being a product of the National Park Service, Fire Tag is firmly in the public domain. With this project, my goal was to create a fast, fun, and interesting activity for the 2012 Santa Monica Mountains Science Festival. The good news is that 100+ kids enjoyed Fire Tag at the 2012 Science Festival. They didn’t learn quite as much as we’d hoped, but we’d always prioritized inspiration over information, so that was okay. On reflection, we found that the biggest obstacle to learning had nothing to do with the game design or the lesson design. Rather, it was our naïve logistics - we didn’t have enough people to organize waiting lines and play sessions. The resulting confusion made it hard to hold reflective discussions. However, the take home message from the day was that Fire Tag had lots of potential as a playful learning activity. Unfortunately, after I left the NPS, Fire Tag got lost among the very many good ideas competing for very limited funds. This was a terrible shame, so I’ve updated the rules and materials, and published them online here. As I expand the educational scope of Mindful Mammoth, I hope to begin using Fire Tag in some of our outreach programs with local groups. I also hope that other folks may find this game, and try it out with their kids or their friends. Maybe you will do this. I hope so! - Tim

Solar System Dance

Solar System Dance Cards. Prototype v01.The Solar System is a vast and complex place, where every object has it's own story, or even multiple stories. Sometimes, it's hard to figure out how to even begin to learn about something so vast and complex. My suggestion: start with just one thing. Then learn one more thing. Then another. Eventually, you'll find that you know quite a lot. Each Solar System Dance card has a picture of an object, a fact about that object, and a suggested way to express that fact through dance. You shuffle the cards, hand them out to a bunch of people, then have them all orbit the 'sun' while dancing their object.Solar System Dance card - Saturn. Last week, I roughed out 14 cards, enough for the 14 person Rocket Science class that I'm teaching. We tried it out, and it worked pretty well! As always our focus remains on The Puzzle of Life, but it's fun to think about other ideas, and useful to think about where we might go next, once the Puzzle is out. This is one possible 'next.'  

Photos from LAEEF ’16

Last Saturday, we brought a bunch of activities to LAEEF 2016 (the Los Angeles Environmental Education Fair). The central activities revolved around The Puzzle of Life, and we encouraged visitors to make of it what they would - to find solutions, make their own pieces, or work on a coloring book. Some highlights:

A Family Connected by love!

[caption id="attachment_1044" align="alignright" width="150"]A family connected by love. A family connected by love.[/caption] When we talk about connections, most people immediately think of physical stuffs: food, water, air, and the like. So, I was wonderfully surprised when this woman sat down with her daughters, and began creating a Puzzle based on her family. She created a central 'family' piece, additional pieces for the various people in her family, and a final piece that represented the love that connected her family together. Which was great!

A Determined Puzzler

The Puzzle of Life is actually kinda difficult. Even with the harder pieces removed (omnivores, oak tree, rainbows), most people take quite a while to find a solution. Of course, we're happy to help, but we're also happy when people are so captivated by the Puzzle that they find their own way to the answer. This young man was one such person. He was obviously engaged and determined, so when I asked if I could take his picture, he said that I could, but not until he'd finished. [gallery link="file" ids="1043,1041"]

A Determined Artist

While some people were attracted by the challenge of the Puzzle, others wanted to express themselves. This young man sat down, and with nary a word, slowly and methodically produced a set of remarkably beautiful pieces. He then left as mysteriously as he arrived. I feel like there's a story in his pieces, and while I don't know what it is, I can imagine lots of great possibilities. [gallery link="file" ids="1045,1047"]

The Long Tail

One of the benefits of the World Wide Web is that it has something for everyone. There are blockbuster media thingums that appeal to big audiences, but there are also niche blogs and channels that serve niche needs, needs that would have gone unserved in the dark times before the Internet. Those many small niches are often known as the long tail. Why do I bring this up? Because at last Saturday's LAEEF, I feel like we caught the long tail. Most of the visitors seemed like they wanted to look around, but didn't really want to engage. On the other hand, there were a smaller number of folks, perhaps forty, who really dug in to our activities, seemed to find them highly rewarding. Those who did engage with the Puzzle did so in a wide variety of ways, confirming yet again that The Puzzle of Life is a wonderfully flexible learning tool. I'm really happy that we were able to help these people to engage their minds and hands in ways that they found rewarding. Given that the Puzzle can serve such a wide range of interests, I would bet that there were many folks at LAEEF who would have enjoyed our activities, if only they'd had more confidence about what they'd be getting into, which is a marketing problem. Marketing and image are things that we've always struggled with, but we're slowly getting better. Last Saturday, we got some useful feedback from visitors, feedback that will help us to improve our presentation, and to have a bigger impact at future festivals. Specifically, we'll add a few more tabletop signs, as well as some printed activity suggestions - one page cartoons suggesting Puzzle challenges and piece ideas. Together, these items should allow the more shy among our visitors to feel comfortable, confident that they can try out our activities without fear of pressure or marketing. We never pressure anyone for anything, but we totally understand that folks might be wary of unfun tactics, as we've been on the receiving end of those things ourselves. Later gators.    

Serious fun at Burbank Schools

Across ten days in February and March, we brought our Puzzle-based Systems and Ecosystems program to about 40 fourth and fifth graders in Burbank. A good time was had by all, and the school kindly allowed us to take some photos to share. [gallery link="file" ids="1036,1034,1033"] [caption id="attachment_1029" align="alignright" width="150"]DirectMap_01a A life map, the first step in creating a Puzzle of Me.[/caption] The main project in the Systems and Ecosystems program is The Puzzle of Me. Here, students use the ideas from The Puzzle of Life to create their own version of the Puzzle. The difference is that, in this version, the Puzzle is centered not on the sun - but on themselves. The first step of this project is to create a life map to show the many ways that you are connected to the world around you. This map serves as a blueprint for a Puzzle, showing both objects (which become tiles) and flows (which become the arrows between the tiles). We encourage students to think several steps out, and hope that they create life maps that show both direct and indirect relationships, and that show both tangibles (e.g. food) and intangibles (e.g. music, love, ideas). IceCreamPoopAfter creating a map, the next step is to create a Puzzle piece that represents yourself. That piece has in-arrows and out-arrows to show how materials and ideas flow between you and your direct connections. From this point, students then proceed onwards in a more open fasion, and create Puzzle pieces based on the most important bits of their lives, the bits that they identified in their Life Map. [caption id="attachment_1030" align="alignright" width="150"]GirlAndPug Pugs on the brain.[/caption] One young girl was a huge fan of pugs. She originally wanted to make a Puzzle of Pug, rather than a Puzzle of herself. We talked for a bit, and we figured out that she could make a Puzzle of herself, but have pugs as high-importance direct connection. When she finished, I asked her if I could take a photo of her pug drawing. She said that I could, but only if I included her as well. I'm not sure if this was intended or not, but you can see that the out-arrow from the pug is pointed kinda towards her head, which is entirely fitting for a girl with pugs on the brain. [caption id="attachment_1037" align="alignright" width="150"]PassingTheBrains Passing knowledge from generation to generation.[/caption] Another young girl drew a wonderfully colorful brain. I asked her what was going on, and she pointed to the other tile on the page, explaining how she would pass on her knowledge to her children. That made me super happy. Overall, the program worked well for both grades. Most of the kids were highly-engaged for the entire program, which means we totally nailed our primary goal, and succeeded in creating a program which is both intellectually and emotionally engaging. The students also learned some great ideas about ecology, and more specifically, about the Yellowstone story and about trophic cascades. Most students still struggled with the abstract concept of second- and third- (and beyond) connections. They know that they are connected to their friends, but often don't think about the way that their friends are connected to *their* friends. They don't think about the fact that friends-of-friends can be relevant, even if you never meet or hear of them. We could see this in their life maps, very few of which contained meaningful indirect connections, but we got some good feedback on how we can improve our presentation so as make this abstract idea more approachable. This is, I believe, as it should be. Just as these kids learn about science from us, so do we learn about learning from them. The fact that we all know that we're learning from each other creates an environment of mutual respect, and that mutual respect then allows us to have a productive learning environment. Next up (probably tomorrow) stories from the 2016 Los Angeles Environmental Education Fair.

Raw Materials for the LAEEF

[caption id="attachment_1027" align="alignright" width="300"]RawMaterials 400+ laser-cut foamboard bits, all geometrically compatible with The Puzzle of Life. You can create a piece based on your favorite plant, animal, person (real or fictional), or yourself - and then see how that piece fits into The Puzzle of Life![/caption] We're getting prepared for the Los Angeles Environmental Education Fair, which will be held this Saturday at the Los Angeles County Arboretum. If you're in the area, you should come! As in past events, one of our activities will be making pieces for The Puzzle of Life. This time, we've got 400+ friendly foamboard shapes, custom-cut for us by the people at Up In Pieces. This means that eventgoers will have lots of blank spaces in which to exercise their intellect and imagination, after which they can take home their creations. Again, if you're in the area, you should come visit! There ought to be lots of great activities, both from us and from others.

This, That, and the LAEEF

It's been a busy month-or-so, and I'm just a passable blogger - hence the long break since the last post. What's been going on?

Systems and Ecosystems at The Sycamore School:

[caption id="attachment_1022" align="alignright" width="225"]PoL_Hands "Assembling the puzzle requires students to think about ecosystems, their inputs and outputs, and how the sun feeds a diverse population which requires balance in order to thrive. Our students were engaged and challenged as they worked to figure it all out." - The Sycamore School[/caption] We brought our sparking new 5-part Puzzle-based activity series to the first and second grade students of The Sycamore School. The kids were thoroughly engaged by the activities, enjoying their time with The Puzzle of Life, the Yellowstone Story Coloringbook, and the opportunity to make a brand new Puzzle centered around their own lives. As we expected, the whole systems-thinking deal was a struggle for such young kids, but it was a fun and useful struggle. Talking with the Sycamore team in our post-activity feedback session, everyone felt that the activities had helped to stretch the minds of these students, and that by exposing them to these ideas at such an early age, we were helping to build a foundation for lifelong learning. You can find a short bit about our visit on the school's blog here. They also wrote a very warm testimonial, and we've put a short excerpt on our website here.

Systems and Ecosystems at Roosevelt Elementary:

Building on our success with the young folks at The Sycamore School, we've been working with other schools around Los Angeles to share our work with them as well. Two weeks ago, we brought a more advanced version of the Systems and Ecosystems activities to some of the 5th graders at Roosevelt Elementary. It went great, and I wish that we had some photos to share, but I don't. That's one of the tough parts of being an innovative educational startup. Putting children first means being extremely cautious about sharing information (especially photographs, and especially especially faces), which makes it hard to convey the imagination and excitement that goes on in our programs.

The Future

Next week, we'll bring that same, advanced Systems and Ecosystems program to some of the 4th graders at Roosevelt Elementary. Then, in two weeks, we'll be sharing a whole bunch of things at the annual Los Angeles Environmental Education Fair (LAEEF). Cool beans!   Systems and Ecosystems at The Sycamore School:

A Conversation with Cardboard Architects

The Cardboard Architects logo: a construction crane holding a yellow sign that reads "Cardboard Architects".I recently joined Chris Renshall and Joe Brogno of Cardboard Architects to talk about games, game design, and education. That podcast is now live, and available for free on the Web, iTunes, and more. We talked about Fire and Flora, The Puzzle of Life, and Chris and Joe's own experiences with board games in the classroom. Good times were had by all. If you're interested in either games or education, you should give it a listen.

Sparking new, officially educational materials

Cover image from our first fully-realized, play-based lesson plan: Systems and Ecosystems Through Play.We've just published v1.00 of a thoughtful, detailed, and playful lesson plan aimed at students in first and second grade. It is now up on the web (here), and freely available for use. The plan details a series of five short activities that will help students to learn about systems and ecosystems through play. While the activities are based around the ideas in The Puzzle of Life, only the first activity actually requires The Puzzle. Thus, if a classroom does not have access to the Puzzle, or does not wish to use the Puzzle, the latter four lessons in this lesson plan (which is most of it) will still serve as a great, free introduction to ecology and systems thinking. The five hour-long activities go like this:

Day 1: Intro to The Puzzle of Life

Five minute intro lecture, explaining how the Puzzle uses arrows to model flows. Free Puzzle play. Free imaginative Puzzle piece construction.

Day 2: Intro to Systems

Mini-lecture on systems thinking. Tell of the story of wolves in Yellowstone, using the Puzzle of Life to illustrate. Color the Yellowstone Storybook.

Day 3: Begin Work on The Puzzle of Me

Introduce the idea of The Puzzle of Me. As a class, practice project tasks by creating a Puzzle around the life of the instructor or a famous person (ex: Katy Perry eats vegetables; vegetables come from farms; farms need water, sunlight, energy. Katy Perry creates music, joy, poop, etc.). Put students into working groups. As individuals, have students start work on the Puzzle of Me Project Workbook. Focus on the first page, where students map out their relationships / connections.

Day 4: Continue work on Puzzle of Me’s

Students continue working on their Puzzle of Me, with the help of instructor(s), and using the Project Workbook as scaffolding. Students should finish mapping their relationships early in the period, and spend most of the time creating Puzzle pieces based on the ideas described in their maps.

Day 5: Finish Puzzle of Me’s. Share student-made Puzzles. Reflect.

Students finish creating pieces for their Puzzle of Me. They probably won’t have time to create all the pieces that they’d imagined, but they should have a good dozen pieces each. Invite volunteers to share their concept maps, and some of their pieces, with the class. Summary lecture/discussion.

A little bit of bling

Envelopes_Sharp_retouchedEvery month, around the 10th, we send out thank-you gifts to our larger Patreon backers. Last month, one person commented that the envelopes weren't real classy, and we ought to get something better. So, with the help of Marcus Bieth III (eponymous owner of Mark III graphic design), we have! It's a small thing, but fun. I'm particularly happy with the alignment of the mammoth on the back. When you seal the envelope, the top and bottom halves merge almost seamlessly. This month's backers will get a rewriteable tile from The Puzzle of Life. We use these in our outreach programs to allow our players to expand the Puzzle based on their own interests. Lions, tigers, unicorns, aliens - anything is possible.

Good Times in Toluca Lake

Hands-on fun with The Puzzle of Life at Toluca Lake Elementary.A couple weeks ago, we brought The Puzzle of Life to two elementary school classrooms at Toluca Lake Elementary. The Puzzle was a big hit with the 5th grade class of Dennis Hagen-Smith. After a brief intro, the kids worked together to solve the puzzle. You can see one group at work in the photo to the right. Once they got the hang of things, we gave them some blank pieces so that they could make their own pieces for the Puzzle. Last week, we received a set of wondrously excited and encouraging thank-you's from both the teacher and the class. Among other things, Dennis said that our visit was, "one of the finest educational presentations I’ve seen in my 25 years of teaching." That's a huge complement, coming as it does from a highly capable and inspiring teacher. We've posted some excerpts from the letters on the new Puzzle of Life testimonial page, here. With funding being a constant challenge, it's easy to get discouraged, but the times spent working with curious and excited kids (and adults) makes it all worthwhile.

IndieCade Roundup

At this year's IndieCade, we had six hours of showtime - three hours on Friday afternoon, and three hours on Saturday morning.  We fit six games into those times, which means that we were able to serve about 20 people with a daily dose of serious fun. Pretty much everyone enjoyed the game (as you can see from the photos below). Most of them were impressed by the fact that we'd created an honestly fun serious/educational game. Which is great!   [gallery link="file" ids="989,988,990,987,994,995"] We spent most of the rest of the time at IndieCade exploring the games on display. Not that there weren't serious things going on with the professional side of the event, but after all the work that went into our IndieCade show, and the rather intense networking at IndieXchange (the pre-festival developer day), we felt like we deserved some fun. A quick shout-out to the most fun and memorable games that we played: (acknowledging that we only had time to play about 10% of the games on show)
  • Joggernauts: A colorful, creative, and fun party/platform game.
  • Cantankerous Cats: A quick-but-intense card game with a rather silly theme.
  • Operator: Dr. Strangelove meets Portal.
  • In Tune: A surprisingly thought-provoking game about intimacy and consent. I'd be curious to play more ... but only if it were in a place not in the public eye.
  • Maze of Heart: A killer Kinect app. I think not yet available for general purchase / play :(
  • Typoman: A game with a great premise. Not sure if the fun would hold up for an entire playthrough, but great fun for a game tasting.
  • Fire and Flora: (Yes, a little self-serving, but I think we've got some right to be proud :)
And then a special thanks to Remy, and the folks of Classroom Aquatic, for featuring Fire and Flora in their in-game quiz. It was super-cool to have people come up and say, "Hey! We saw you in Classroom Aquatic!" What's next for Fire and Flora? As of this moment, the game is about 80% finished. It needs a couple more iterations to fix the last few balance issues. It also needs a visual redesign. Much as we'd like to do that, and as much potential as there is in this game, we haven't yet found a good market for it. And we've really only got the peoplepower to work on one game at a time. This means that we're going to continue focusing on The Puzzle of Life. The Puzzle is aimed more at an elementary-aged audience, which turns out to be a much larger market. The Puzzle also has much more potential for expansions, modding, and community-building. So, stay tuned! We're continuing to playtest the Puzzle in classrooms around Southern California (so far, to great success). And we're still aiming for a Puzzle Kickstarter in Spring or Summer of '16. So, there's lots of good new stuff, coming up just about every day. Lastly, if you're a fan of serious games, please take a look at our Patreon campaign, and share it with your friends. By becoming a Patron, you can join our quest, and help to build a better world through play.  

Fire and Flora coming to Indiecade!

IndieCade 2015 Banner. October 23-25 in Culver City, CA. We've had several cool happenings over the last month. Most importantly, Fire and Flora has been chosen as an Official Selection for IndieCade 2015! This means that Fire and Flora was hand-selected from a pool of over 1200 games to be featured as an official part of the Table Games portion of the festival. We'll have two time slots of 2-3 hours each where we'll be sharing Fire and Flora with any/all comers - teaching the game, playing the game, talking about serious games, and handing out prizes (yes, there will be prizes for our players :). This is a big deal for several reasons. First off, it's a big honor. Secondly, it means we'll get serious face time with both publishers and with the public, helping us to improve our visibility. Most importantly, it gives us an opportunity to advance our mission - to promote the understanding and appreciation of science, nature, and life - by sharing Fire and Flora with the world! The front of Toluca Lake Elementary School (North Hollywood, CA).In other news, we've scheduled two more playdates. In November, we'll be bringing the Puzzle of Life to two classrooms at Toluca Lake Elementary in North Hollywood.   The logo of the newly-opened Sycamore School.Then, later in the month, we'll share the Puzzle with the students of the Sycamore School in Malibu. This is also a big deal, as the Sycamore students will be the first group to playtest out our extended Puzzle-based outreach program. In five hours over five days these students will: play with the Puzzle; learn about ecological systems and systems thinking; research plants, animals, and ecosystems; and then design new Puzzle pieces and new Puzzle sets based on their research.        

A Month of Patreon

The first month of our Patreon campaign has rolled to a close - and so far, we're doing good. We promised several sorts of rewards to our Patrons, depending on the level of support. Folks who contribute at least $10 per month will receive a small tangible something in the mail. This month, our tactile reward consists of a set of temporary tattoos:Patreon_Reward_2015.08   In our kid-oriented programs, these have been a big hit, and while all of our Patrons are adults, I'm confident that they're the sort of adults that like to play, so I think they'll enjoy these as well.   With this first month down, I'm feeling pretty good. In our modern information age, where attention is a scarce resource, having the support of kind and thoughtful people (as opposed to paid likes on Facebook or Twitter) is a big deal. This means that, while I very much value the financial support of our Patrons, I value the moral support even more. Thanks!  

Photos from the Junior Rangers at Carpinteria State Beach

We've got a few more photos from our recent outreach work. These are from Carpinteria State Beach, where we shared The Puzzle of Life with some young folks in the Junior Ranger program: [gallery ids="955,954,953"] You can also find these photos on Facebook Facebook photo album from Carpinteria State Beach.

Now on Patreon!

[caption id="attachment_948" align="alignright" width="300"]Earth and Mindful Mammoth join forces on Patreon. Earth and Mindful Mammoth join forces on Patreon.[/caption] Over the past three years, we've been highly successful with kids, parents, players, schools, fun, learning, and all the friendly sorts of good stuff that we've been working towards. We've been less successful with our business model, and so - this week - we're launching an new kind of crowdfunding campaign using Patreon. Patreon is essentially a subscription-based form of crowdfunding, where patrons offer support to organizations and projects by donating some number of dollars per month. We looked at a number of crowdfunding options, and Patreon seemed like the best fit to our style of work. While we aim for a big product release every year or two, most of our work is an ongoing process with a very unpredictable schedule. Some months we focus on teaching and outreach, while in other months, we focus on development. Patreon is a good fit to this style of work as it allows us to be flexible - to adapt to the needs of teachers, schools, and development timetables. Please support us on Patreon, and then share this link with your friends: https://www.patreon.com/mindfulmammoth. By becoming a patron and supporting us with a monthly contribution, you can join our quest and help to create a better world through play.

Two weeks of Puzzle Play

Over the last two weeks, we (the Chief Fun Officer and I) brought the Puzzle of Life to five very different groups of kids in two very different venues: Overall, it went great, which I find very exciting. In creating the Puzzle, one of my primary goals was to create something flexible, so that different people/groups could engage with it in whatever way was comfortable/fun/appropriate for them. After these past two weeks, I feel confident that we've achieved that goal. Since I am really excited about all of these events, I was really looking forward to sharing some photos, and I thought we'd worked out all the necessary permissions. Unfortunately, that turned out to be more complex than expected. At the moment, we've only got one set of photos, and we can only reference them via weblink (here). Over the next couple weeks, we may get permission to share more of those photos, or we might not. We'll see. Still, the photos that we do have are great, as they really showcase the flexibility of the Puzzle. Looking closely, you can see that each group of middle-school kids took the Puzzle in a different direction: ocean ecology, friendly heckling (note the 'those guys' tile being eaten by the Kraken), and Halo. We're now looking to schedule fall events, so if you know of anyone in SoCal who would be interested doing some playful learning, please let us know directly, or share our public address: inquiries@mindfulmammoth.com.    

Tales of Serious Play

Last week, I flew out to Pittsburgh for the 2015 Serious Play Conference. The airplanes were frustrating - with lots of delays - but the conference was great. There were somewhere around 150-200 people, all with unusual and interesting ideas - myself included. [gallery size="medium" link="none" ids="940,938,937"] I feel honored to have had the chance to be one of the speakers, and to be able to share my work with my colleagues in education and game design. In the past, I'd shared my work at science-type conferences, but this is the first time I've had that opportunity at a game/play conference. A few of the many interesting ideas on show:
  • prototype VR system to help astronauts deal with the monotony of long-haul space travel;
  • Happy Atoms - chemistry toys that use magnets-and-springs to model real chemistry in a tactile manner.
  • A whole bunch of amazing games from the American Museum of Natural History.
  • A sobering but useful outline of the way that public schools make purchasing decisions about educational materials - from Mitch Weisburg.
... and many others. The serious play community is pretty diffuse, spread more-or-less randomly across the country, and so the conference was a rare and great opportunity to talk shop with thoughtful and like-minded people. Next on the list for Mindful Mammoth: Finishing up the materials for our soon-to-be-launched Patreon campaign, and organizing ourselves for our upcoming events: meeting the Young Explorers at the Columbia Memorial Space Center, and playing with the Junior Rangers of Carpenteria State Beach.  

Summer Outreach Programs

PoL_AT_CMSCThis July and August, I'll be making several visits out to the Columbia Memorial Space Center, where I'll be doing some Puzzle-based outreach programs. First up, at the end of July, I'll join the Earth science day at their "Life in the Cosmos" summer day-camp. Then, a couple days later, I'll run the August edition of their Young Explorer's Academy. If you have preschoolers (3-6), and you're interested in giving them some early exposure to fun science-oriented activities, you should give this program a good look. In other news:
  • Construction continues on the Puzzle of Life website.
  • There are several new faces on the Mindful Mammoth team page. Two of those are long-time partners, and long overdue for official recognition. The newest member of the team is Andrea Cao, who is helping us to construct a Patreon pitch.
  • We are, indeed, working on a Patreon pitch, with the goal of raising funds to help support our ongoing work in both outreach and game design. We plan to officially launch the Patreon campaign later this month.
As always, stay tuned for more good news. And if you run into anyone looking for interesting environmental science outreach programs, tell them to give us a holler through email: inquiries AT mindfulmammoth.com. We're happy to help out wherever we can.  

Bling!

Bling is an important ingredient in games, fun, and learning. Knowing this, I called up Marcus Bieth of Mark III Graphic Design, and asked for his help in creating a title design for the Puzzle. I needed something colorful, friendly, and just a little bit mysterious. Together, we came up with this: The new Puzzle of Life title design.   I like it. It's got a good variety of critters, some of whom are a bit shy. That shyness was a key part of the design concept, because I want to get across the idea that there is depth to nature - that if you give things time, and follow up first looks with second looks, you will be rewarded with sights of hidden critters and knowledge of hidden ideas. Using this design as a centerpiece, my next task is to build a website. I've staked a claim to 'puzzleoflifegame.com'. The URL is a bit long, but all the shorter versions were already claimed by cybersquatters. Both 'pol.com' and 'puzzleoflife.com' were up for sale, but the asking price was $1000+. Puzzle Website ToDo's:
  • Sooner:
    • Puzzle Overview
    • Puzzle Development Timeline
    • Links to draft versions of the Player's Guide and the Yellowstone Storybook
    • Draft educational materials for teachers
  • Later:
    • Better educational materials: lesson plans, ecosystem ideas, and storytelling suggestions.
  • Wishlist:
    • Tileopedia, having a thoughtful entry for each tile in the basic set.
    • Quality, moderated forums for sharing of player-developed stuffs: ideas, artwork, new/custom tiles, and Puzzle-based stories (akin to the one I've told in the Yellowstone Storybook).
Stay tuned - the Puzzle website is coming ...    

Puzzle away!

The Puzzle of Life is now on its way to IndieCade. This is the second of my two submissions for this year. Once again, goodbye friend, and good luck! [gallery size="medium" ids="905,906,907"]

Photos from the Science Fest

According to the National Park Service, around 2500 people attended this year's Science Fest, and several hundred visited our tables to try out the Puzzle. You can see a few of those people in the photos here: [gallery ids="895,897,898,899,900,901"] FYI - There was a sign near the event entrance warning visitors that cameras were around, and that they might be photographed. I thought the wording was rather vague, so I was careful to get consent before taking any photographs. Overall, it was a good day - a bit cool and misty, but that was a big improvement over previous years, which were mostly very hot. We had all sorts of people at the event - tall and short, old and young, thoughtful, hyper, and so on. Most seemed to enjoy the Puzzle, though they did so in many different ways. Some people focused on finding solutions, some drew various sorts of natural objects, and some just drew what they wanted to draw - just because. I see that as a big win, as I very much wanted the Puzzle to be a flexible thing, something that players could use to make whatever they wanted to make. I'm grateful to the friends and family who helped to transport chairs, tables, and other stuffs, and who stayed around to help staff the Mindful Mammoth booth. I feel a bit embarrassed that I didn't organize a group photo of the bunch of us. That lack makes it a bit hard to give proper thanks. My only defense is that it was a busy day, and I just couldn't quite keep track of it all. I was particularly happy to see several friends from One Spark Academy. They offered encouraging words, looked happy to be outdoors and exploring, and I was happy to see them being happy. I was also happy to meet several folks from from nearby environmental and outreach groups. We traded email addresses, and over the next few weeks, we'll keep in touch, and see about working together to expand the scope of the Puzzle and to bring it to more SoCal classrooms and events.

Science Festival Tomorrow!

Tomorrow, we’ll be at the 6th annual Santa Monica Mountains Science Festival. It’s a great event. There will be rocks, plants, animals, lectures, activities, food … and us. We’ll be there with several copies of the Puzzle, some makering materials, and a flower-dissection activity. [gallery columns="2" size="medium" ids="892,860"] The weather looks like it'll be great - sunny and cool. I expect that a good time will be had by all, so anyone who can come should definitely do so. Tell your friends!

One away and one to go.

I just got back from mailing out a copy of Fire and Flora to Indiecade. Goodbye friend. And good luck! [gallery columns="2" ids="882,881"] This will be the first public appearance of the game since the Kickstarter back in '13. The game is all-but finished, just needing some final artwork, and the funds for a first printing. With a little luck, we can win some publicity at Indiecade, and then use that publicity to drum up funds for a first printing. I'm still working on putting together a solid draft of the Puzzle of Life: puzzle tiles, guidebooks, and classy packaging. Once I've got that together, sometime later this month, I'll send that off to Indiecade as well. So: One away, and one to go.

Feedback, please.

The Puzzle of Life will come with two companion booklets: the Player's Guide, and the Yellowstone Storybook. I've just finished early drafts of both documents, and both are in need of new eyes and new readers. [gallery columns="2" ids="879,878"] To that end, I've posted the files here: I welcome feedback of any sort: broad or detailed, positive or negative. With the Player's Guide, my goal is to offer a little something for everyone. The Guide begins with a very brief introduction to Puzzle play. to try and get players touching and doing as fast as possible. For those who want a more in-depth experience, the Guide also contains short sections on ecology, on making and modding, and on learning activities. All of these sections are intentionally short, and all of them end by referring the reader to our website. The website won't be up and running till late-summer, but I hope to have a comprehensive website that offers much more thorough and detailed information, as well as a place for players to share pictures and ideas. The Yellowstone Storybook is intended to teach and inspire by example. Among other things, the Puzzle is a storytelling tool, and it's particularly well suited to stories about trophic cascades. The Yellowstone Storybook tells the story of a rather famous trophic cascade in Yellowstone, and it does this by using changing arrangements of Puzzle pieces to show how the Yellowstone ecosystem has changed over time. I hope this story will inspire players to make their own pieces, tell their own stories (both fact and fiction), and to learn more about the natural world. But the punchline of all this remains: Feedback! Please. Both these guides are obviously incomplete, but I've stared at them for long enough that I can no longer see the forest for the trees. The more different people who take a look, and share their thoughts, the better the end result will be. You can reach me via email at: tim.handley AT mindfulmammoth.com.      

Beta 4 is here!

The gameplay is essentially unchanged, but I've done a big upgrade to the artwork, and most of the Puzzle tiles are now quite beautiful: [caption id="attachment_869" align="aligncenter" width="625"]v4_Trio_crop The Puzzle of Life, beta #4.[/caption] From the three tile piles above, you can see that I'm still exploring material options. The cardboard and acrylic versions were both made by Up In Pieces. Both look and feel very nice, with bright colors and sharp, high-resolution images. The only difference is that the acrylic version is more durable. The wooden version was made by Blue Panther. They've got a nice process, and as far as I know, they are the only makers of laser-cut wooden puzzles who can print images on both sides. The standard edition of the Puzzle will necessarily be in cardboard, as that's the only material that yields reasonable prices in medium quantities (500-1000 sets). I've talked with Up In Pieces about making this happen, and we've tentatively agreed to work together on a fall Kickstarter campaign to fund a first printing of the Puzzle. In addition to a standard/cardboard edition, I'd still like to have some sort of deluxe edition that uses a more substantial material, which is why I was interested in both wood and acrylic. The plywood is significantly cheaper than the acrylic, but the acrylic has a nicer finish and allows for sharper images. I'm currently leaning towards acrylic, but I want to get more opinions from playtesters before finalizing that choice. But I digress. The big deal in  beta 4 is the images. With the kind support of several dozen folks, I was able to replace most of the (often scruffy) public domain images in beta 3 with some really high-quality photos. For example, this is the new human tile: v4_Humans_crop In beta 3, both sides of the Human tile used the same generic grass/flower background image.  In beta 4, the two sides of the Human tile have different images, both of which are colorful and classy. One side shows golden aspens on a Colorado mountainside, and the other side shows a busy NYC intersection. Having a different background on each side makes the point that humans are liminal creatures, with the ability to live in both wilderness and cityscape.   Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to photograph these tiles without also getting some glare, and the glare makes the colors look a bit washed out.  My photographic skills just aren't good enough to do justice to the new design, but trust me, they're really quite beautiful. And, this is the new Cranberry tile: v4_Cranberry Again, my poor photographic skills caused some glare, making the colors on the tile seem a little washed out. But in real life, the sky in the tile is a wonderful blue, and the floating cranberry sea is a vibrant red. That's all the news for now. Keep tuned in. The next step is to finish writing the Puzzle guidebook and the Puzzle storybook, both of which will come in the box with the Puzzle. In the next couple weeks, I'll start posting drafts of both those documents.

See us at the Science Festival!

Science Fest Marketing Poster_2015v2Just over a month from today, on Saturday, April 25, we'll be at the 6th annual Santa Monica Mountains Science Festival. It's a great event - rocks, plants, animals, lectures, activities, food ... and us. We'll be there with several copies of the Puzzle, some makering materials, and (probably) a flower-dissection activity. The location tends to be a bit hot, so if you plan to come, you should bring a hat, sunscreen, and water. That said, it really is a great event, so anyone who can come should definitely do so.    

Curriculum Design

In the last few months, I've taken on some new work in teaching and curriculum design. There's a small opportunity cost to this, in that it leaves me less time for game design. However, I think that's more than balanced by benefits that come from the experience of working with new people in new environments. The biggest project is a class called Electric Art, a class that I've been teaching at the One Spark Academy (OSA). Electric Art is a making-and-tinkering type class for middle school students, with project-based activities that combine art and technology. More specifically, the activities are centered around sewn circuits and small Arduino microcontrollers, the kind of stuff that you find at Adafruit and SparkFun. We're now in the second quarter of the class, and for this second quarter, I've taken things up a notch in terms of organization and sophistication. I've created a progress map for the students to follow. It's a thing akin to a skills tree in an RPG. Whenever a student completes a task, we fill in the appropriate box on the map. In this way, students can see what they've done, what lies ahead, and some of the big-picture choices that are available to them. Each task will (eventually) have its own workbook. The workbooks are cousins the lab handouts used in most college science classes. These workbooks are thoughtfully written and thoroughly illustrated so that students can work semi-independently, at their own speed and in their own way. At this moment, I've developed about a third of the task workbooks to a late-draft state. As an example, one task involves connecting a Gemma (a sewable Arduino variant) to a NeoPixel (a nifty sort of smart RGB LED) and learning how to write code for the Gemma so as to control the NeoPixel. The first few pages in that workbook look like this: [gallery columns="4" ids="832,833,835,834"] Right now, these workbooks are a useful teaching aid, but they have enough bugs that they only work well for me (the author). Over the next couple months, I hope to be able to neaten them up enough so that I can put these up on Teachers Pay Teachers. This would extend the work of Mindful Mammoth, and our web presence, in a new and useful direction.    

Upgrades: Bears and Blackberries

Over the last couple months, I've been working to acquire some new images. My aim for v4 is to upgrade all the artwork, and create a final draft for the tile graphics. Yesterday, I finished the redesign of the first two tiles. Pink lines show where the pieces will be cut: [caption id="attachment_805" align="aligncenter" width="625"]The new Bear tile (v4) is much nicer to look at than the previous one (v3). Notice the feet? The bear in the v3 tile was walking through ankle-high grass, and all four feet were hidden in the grass. The bear in the v4 tile was walking across a road, and three of the four feet were visible. With a bit of work in Photoshop, I was able to give him a fourth foot. Can you tell which foot is stitched in?[/caption]   [caption id="attachment_806" align="aligncenter" width="625"]The new Blackberry tile (v4) is much nicer to look at than the previous one (v3). I love the depth of field effect on the blackberry patch. It makes the whole thing look so much more alive.[/caption] In all this, I have relied heavily on the kindness of strangers, and been pleasantly surprised. The problem is that a typical license for commercial usage of a photograph (e.g. Getty Images or iStock) runs something like $200-$1000. Given that I need 50+ images, if I were to go the usual route, I would need $10K+ just to pay for images. As a startup and an idealistic indie, I can't afford that. Fortunately, a number of skillful people have kindly agreed to share their work with me out of a desire to support the mission of Mindful Mammoth. When the Puzzle of Life website goes live, I'll have a page to give them the credit they're due. And when the Puzzle goes to print, I'll include a 'contributors' section in the printed guidebook. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. My current task is to finish the final draft of the Puzzle tiles. As I'm relatively new to both Photoshop and Illustrator, this is a slow job, but I'm feeling pretty good about the results so far.

Puzzle Playtest #3 part 2

[caption id="attachment_795" align="alignright" width="300"]Prep Puzzle playtest, December 2014:  A classroom intent on puzzling. A classroom intent on puzzling.[/caption] The kids' feedback was mostly positive, but otherwise all over the place - which was great. I'd hoped to create a toy that was flexible, such that different people could each approach it in their own way, and the variety of feedback suggests that I've achieved that. So, while my classroom activity design had some flaws, I feel like I'm on the right track. I wrote a letter to the kids in response to their feedback. I think lots of people offer empty thanks, and I wanted to make it clear to them that I valued their time, and that I valued them as people. I also thought it was only fair - having given them a homework assignment of writing for me, it seemed only fair that I do some writing in return. This is my letter:

December 7, 2014

To the eighth grade class at Flintridge Prep, Thank you all for your time and your feedback. After asking for your help, I think it only fair to share with you the ways in which your ideas have had an impact on both me and on this project. I've got lots of thoughts, I'll just share a few of them here.

The top three new tile ideas

Best learning-related idea: One group put themselves into the Puzzle by creating a tile to represent one of the group members. I think that asking young kids to create 'Me' tiles would be very effective in helping them to notice how they are connected to the world, and how the effects of their choices ripple outwards. Like many great ideas, this one was very simple - I wonder why I didn't think of it myself. Most creative theme: One person used the blank tiles to create a life-map, showing how different life choices could lead to different life situations. Some choices led towards "the good life", while other choices led to "the bad life." This person's design inspired a small argument on the relationship between money and happiness - which was great! All good art inspires discussion and controversy. Most surprising theme: One group went with a zombie-unicorn theme. They created tiles with zombies, unicorns, zombie-unicorns, and more. The unicorns generated sunlight, and plants grown in the light of the unicorns grew fruit that could cure zombie-ism. Changes inspired by your ideas and feedback:
  • I will update all of the activity idea sheets (Zombies, Bugs/Birds/Snakes, and Cities) so that all of them include some sort of 'Me' tile.
  • I will add a social/emotional idea to the set of suggested activity ideas. I'm not yet sure exactly what this will look like, but it'll be inspired by the life-map idea.

Engagement

Most of you were somehow engaged with the Puzzle and with each other, and the classroom atmosphere was one of positive conversation and productive motion. I thought this was very encouraging, because I think that engagement is the key to good learning, and to having a good experience in school.

Structure vs. Freedom

About a third of you said that you felt confused for at least part of the day, and would have liked to have more structure or direction. Two people specifically said that, next time, I should begin with a demo. I think some confusion is a good thing. The world is a confusing place, so it is useful to learn to be comfortable with uncertainty. That said, there was more confusion than was useful, and this was especially true of the City activity. Changes inspired by your ideas and feedback:
  • Next time, if there is a camera-projector in the room (as there was at Prep), I'll do a demo where I use puzzle tiles to illustrate the ideas behind my words. I'll also think about how I might be able to do a demo in a situation without this sort of nifty technology.
  • I'll add more details to the City task. I'll include a detailed description of at least three possible new pieces, and then a loose description for three other possible pieces.

Game-type structure

Eight people said that the Puzzle would have been better if it were presented as a game. Only one group chose the game-making option, but they had a good time. This group designed a time-trial type game, where players took turns racing to create a puzzle that supported the most humans. Another person suggested a scrabble-type game, where you start with a single piece, and then take turns adding new pieces onto the pieces already in play. Changes inspired by your ideas and feedback:
  • I'd already planned to include a small booklet in the game box, and in that booklet, I'd planned to include rules for a strategy-type game. You've made me realize that my thinking around games was too narrow-minded. I'll expand that original plan so as to include at least two games in the booklet, and maybe three. I'll also make sure that the games are of different types, so that there is something for everyone.

Tile design

Some of you said that you gained some factual knowledge from the tiles, some ideas about who eats whom, but most of you said you gained little-to-no factual knowledge. Several of you suggested that I include some sort of written info about each tile, perhaps printed on the back side of the tiles. If you flip a tile from front to back, you'll find that the design on the back of the tile is a mirror image of the design on the front. This two-sided mirror-image design is actually a necessity for puzzle-solving. So, unfortunately, I can't print words on the back. I can, however, can create a Tile-o-pedia, where you can look up information about each tile. I might be able to include a Tile-o-pedia as a separate booklet within the game box, and I could certainly create an online Tile-o-pedia. Changes inspired by your ideas and feedback:
  • I'll look into the possibility of including a printed Tile-o-pedia in each puzzle box.
  • I will be sure to include a Tile-o-pedia as part of the puzzle website.
Again, thank you all for your time and ideas. Hopefully, I'll see more of you in the future, perhaps at the Prep Science Fair, and perhaps elsewhere as well. - Tim

Puzzle Playtest #3 part 1

This Monday, I brought the Puzzle of Life to the 8th grade class of Flintridge Prep. Overall, the day turned out quite well, which I found very encouraging. Kids were engaged in puzzling and puzzle-making, and were also thinking about ideas of connectedness. For this day, I chose to focus on the making aspect of the Puzzle. I told the kids to form groups, and then asked them to pick a task: making custom pieces, or devising a Puzzle-based game. For those who wanted to make puzzle-pieces (which was most of them), I offered four thematic options: zombies, cities, bugs/birds/snakes, or something of their own choosing. I told them to spend a few minutes playing with the puzzle, to get a feel for the way that it worked, and then to begin working on their chosen task. [gallery link="file" columns="2" ids="777,779,778,780,781,782"] Note: All photos used with the permission of Flintridge Preparatory School. The Puzzle playtesting took place in what is usually their community service class. At Prep, every eighth-grader is required to develop and execute a Community Impact Project (or CIP). They then present their projects at the annual Science Fair, using the standard poster-on-table science fair format. Having been a judge at several past science fairs, I can attest to the fact that some of these projects are pretty insightful and impressive. In support of the intentions behind this service class, I tried to emphasize the service aspect of the Puzzle, which is essentially my own personal Community Impact Project. As their teacher has been emphasizing the importance of measuring impact, when I asked for their feedback, I tried to tie it back to that idea of impact. For homework, I asked each student to each spend 20 minutes writing about 1) how this experience had impacted them, and 2) if they were to use the Puzzle in a community service setting, how they would do things differently to make a bigger/better impact. This created a nice parallel. With their time and their words, these students were helping me to help others. Thus, the playtesting and the feedback are themselves a CIP. In the spirit of fairness, and again recognizing the importance of measuring impact, I promised that after I had had a chance to think on the day and read over their feedback, I would write them a letter describing the impact that they had had on me. I'll put that letter in the next post ...

Twins! Beta 3 returns from the printer!

And it looks good! This is the first time I've worked with Up In Pieces, but it seems like they do good work. I'm very happy with the result, which you you can see in the image below: v0.93ab2_crop Each piece is a sandwich: acrylic - image - acrylic. Not knowing any better, I'd expected the images to be glued on the outside of the acrylic, as image-acrylic-image. However, now that I've looked at the pieces, I kinda like this design. The glossy acrylic surface makes the pieces a bit hard to photograph, but I think the acrylic will protect the images from hard play, meaning that this kind of sandwich will be more durable than the one I'd originally had in mind. Notice that there are those two versions I was talking about. The top set of tiles have straight edges, while the bottom set have pointed/dimpled edges. You can see the difference a bit better in closeup: v0.93_b_cropv0.93_a_crop As I've had these pieces for less than 24 hours, I've only been able to share them with two folks. Interestingly, both of them strongly preferred the second style, with with pointed/dimpled edges. I want to do some more playtesting before making a final decision, but right now, the points have a strong lead.

PoL beta #3 is off to the printer

I spent several weeks playing with different shapes for the arrows. I showed them around, and got different opinions from various friends and designers. In the end, I decided that the only way to solve this problem with any degree of confidence was with real-world playtesting. I'd also been needing several more sturdy copies of the draft puzzle so that I could handle larger playtest groups. So, I revised the layout on all the pieces, created two different designs for this next go-round, and ordered one copy of each from puzzle maker Up In Pieces. There were two basic goals for this go-round:
  1. Better differentiate in-arrows from out-arrows.
  2. Create a better sense of flow from piece to piece, so that the idea of connecting ins and outs would feel more intuitive to young kids and newcomers.
  z_arrowstory_v3aThe first new design, Beta 3a, uses improved graphical symbology to do this. The image for the in-arrows has an angled cut-out in the tail of the arrow, and that cut-out exactly matches the angled point of the out-tarrows. You can't actually place the point of an out-arrow into the notch of an in-arrow, as the arrows are set back from the edge of the tiles. However, you can imagine that if you were to scoot an out-arrow about 1/4 inch in the direction of the arrow, that it would snap right into the back of an in-arrow.   z_arrowstory_v3bThe second design does something that I'd been trying hard to avoid, and uses both tile graphics and tile shape to indicate flow. Here, the point of the out arrow actually sticks out past the edge of the hexagon, creating a pointed bit on sides where flows go out of the tile. At the same time, the cut in the base of the in-arrows now goes through the image and into the tile itself, so that there are now dinks in sides where flows go in. I've long been resistant to having non-straight tile edges for two reasons. First, I have dreams of producing 'Creativity Kits' with blank tiles where kids can create custom tile types by drawing whatever they like. As tiles become more complex, and there are more different shapes, it becomes harder to manufacture a 'Creativity Kit' that is useful. If every game tile has straight edges, and a Kit has 20 blank tiles, then any tile in the kit can be used for any purpose. If there are four different types of hex tiles (corresponding to the four different patterns of points and dinks in Beta 3b), then a 20 tile Kit would have 5 of each kind of tile, and a modder could more easily run short of a given type of tile. Secondly, non-flat tile edges require greater precision in manufacturing. You have to be more careful about aligning the image with the cuts. Most print-on-demand folks only promise 1/8" accuracy in that alignment, and that level of accuracy is at the low end of what you need for tiles with non-straight edges. On the other hand, having non-straight edges is a powerful indicator of intended tile usage. At any rate, Up In Pieces appear to be good folks. I've sent both designs off to them, and I'll have the finished products in about a week. When that happens, I'll try them out, and we'll see what's what.

Symbology

These last few weeks, I've been focusing on the Puzzle of Life. This means learning Unity, starting on a coding framework to support Puzzle play on tablet devices, searching Flikr and Wikimedia for high quality wildlife photos to use in the Puzzle, and thinking about symbology. The Puzzle is about flows of matter and energy, and using those flows to model the real-world networks of nature and life. The idea is that players will match outflows to inflows, and thereby create healthy and stable ecosystems. I want to be able to get across this idea to players without using words, and that requires good symbology. In playtesting, when folks first sit down to the Puzzle, about half initially try to match like to like, matching ins to ins and outs to outs. As they do this, most wear a puzzled look, so they clearly know that something is wrong, and a 'feels wrong' experience makes a bad first impression. This is a problem of symbology. z_arrowstory-01 What could I do to improve this situation? Well, there's no getting around the need to use some symbols multiple times. If you have two tiles that both export foliage, then both will have the exact same "foliage out"-styled arrow. One thing I can do is to make the out-arrow shape be different from the in-arrow shape, and make it so the shapes look like they ought to fit together. Having this sort of visual lock-and-key symbolism may make it more intuitively obvious that players should match outs to ins, rather than likes to likes. One of the things I've been doing is playing around with arrow shapes, and while the lock-and-key idea sounds good, and the shapes look good in closeup, when printed at actual size on actual tiles, none of my new designs seems particularly much better than the original: z_arrowstory-02 So, I'll keep at this till it feels right, till a solid majority of first-time Puzzlers intuitively get it.  

The year past, and the year ahead …

One year ago, the Kickstarter for Fire and Flora had just come to an unsuccessful close, and I was on my way to CU Boulder, to try out an alternate pathway through the serious games world. I had thought to continue my work on game projects throughout the school year, but that turned out to be unrealistic. Getting to know a new town and a new state, as well as the demands of grad school, more than filled my time. Boulder was a mixed bag. I met some great people, survived a 100 year flood, and learned all sorts of interesting things about learning, but I struggled to stay connected with the people who were most important to me. At the same time, I was also struggling to stay motivated. After two years of nose-to-the-grindstone work, first at the NPS, then at Mindful Mammoth, I was kinda burned out. In hindsight, I should have deferred my entrance into grad school for a year. Fortunately, UCB has a generous program that allows grad students to take a year off, with few questions asked. So, I've done that. This summer, I worked half-time as a web-developer, and spent the other half camping, relaxing, and reconnecting with friends. I've got one more short trip planned - to see the new Exploratorium - and then I'll be getting back to more purposeful work. My half-time web job runs out at the end of August. So I'm looking for another part-time or full-time job to help pay the bills (programmer, data analyst, or game designer). I've also become more serious about learning Unity. At this year's Serious Play Conference (which I highly recommend), almost every speaker made the point that mobile is the coming Thing. I won't be abandoning my focus on physical games, but I will instead be raising my interest in digital to be on par with my interest in the physical. More specifically, I'll be working to develop complementary digital/physical products. This means having digital versions of physical games, and offering free digital tools to help players with modding of both digital and physical games. Continuing on with my plans, I'll be focusing on developing playable versions of the Puzzle of Life. I'm going to be a bit quiet on that for another couple months, but I hope to have a production-version of the base game available via print on demand by the end of the year. So far, I've been pretty poor on timelines. Almost every piece of every project has taken far longer than I expected. I'm getting better, but this will probably continue as part of my learning process. One thing that won't change is my push for quality. I think the biggest hurdle faced by the serious games industry is a proliferation of mediocrity. So few serious games have been done well that I think many folks now believe that serious games can't be done well, that serious games just can't be fun, and that's just not true. So, in the year ahead, I'll begin moving forward again, slow and steady. Stay tuned. Good things will come.   slow but good

The end of the beginning

It's official: the Kickstarter funding campaign for Fire and Flora has come to a close. Although the campaign was financially unsuccessful, it was useful in other ways. During the long process of game design and game development, I've been collecting new skills, gaining experience, and building connections. I'm sad that this campaign was financially unsuccessful, but at the same time, I feel like I have a solid foundation for future work. More on that in a minute. First off, I want to thank everyone who helped support this project and this campaign: friends and family, playtesters of all stripe, my artistic collaborators (MarkMatt, andVISCOM), and the 73 adventurous visionaries who backed the project here on Kickstarter. It's incredibly rewarding to know that there are others who share my vision of games for good, and who are willing to help me turn that vision into a reality. Then, there's bad news and good news. The bad news is that I must now put this project on hold. Perhaps, sometime in the future, I will be able to bring Fire and Flora out to the world. However, for now, I simply don't have the funds to do that. The good news is that Fire and Flora was only the beginning. Over the last year, I've roughed out ideas for a variety of other serious gaming projects, covering subjects from weather to geology. One of these projects, the Puzzle of Life, is a perfect complement to Fire and Flora. One of the key features of Fire and Flora is that it was a highly focused outreach tool. Compared to most mainstream board games, it's relatively complex. On the good side, that complexity means that the game provides an unusually thorough and accurate picture of landscape dynamics. On the other hand, that complexity requires that players be somewhat older (12+), and that they have significant time to both learn and to play. Those age and time requirements limit the range of places where the game is fun and effective. Where Fire and Flora is complex, with lots of in-game text, and a lengthy rulebook, the Puzzle of Life is simple, and entirely visual. It can almost do without instructions, which means it's easy to pick up and play. It's also very flexible. When working with younger kids, or with limited time, you can simply assemble the pieces as with a regular puzzle. However, with older kids, or a longer amount of time, you can use PoL to explore the structure of ecological communities, to tell stories about changing environments, or even extend the scope of the game by creating your own pieces to add to the puzzle. The combination of simplicity and flexibility makes this a game with a much wider potential audience. In turn, that wider audience makes it a better business proposition. I've worked through several playable prototypes, and over the next few months, I'll be finishing the design for the first edition, and developing a new launch strategy, possibly in partnership with a new friend. In short, rather than using Kickstarter to begin with a bang, we'll instead take a slower, evolutionary approach. We'll establish a strong relationship with a quality print-on-demand service, and aim to get a finished product into a single retail outlet. That outlet will provide a small trickle of income and publicity, and we will use that trickle to expand our reach into other outlets, building the trickle into a stream, and then building the stream into something bigger. Whew! Again, thank you all for your support. I'll be posting regular updates to the Mindful Mammoth blog and on Facebook. Please keep an eye peeled, and keep in touch. Good things are on the way!

Hello Kickstarter!

Fire and Flora, the first game from Mindful Mammoth, is now on Kickstarter! After two years of development, and six months of campaign groundwork, the time is now! Support this project, and get a t-shirt, a special-edition foil card, a first-edition game set, and the warm fuzzies that come from backing a project to build a better world. Back Fire and Flora now!

At the 2013 Imaginession

One Spark Academy, a homeschool learning center, invited me to their 2013 Imaginession, for a entitled "Seriously Fun Nature Games." As you can see from this video, good times were had by all: http://www.onesparkacademy.org/portfolio/seriously-fun-nature-games/gallery/7-2/ Big thanks to One Spark for being adventurous, for sharing their good-hearted selves, and also sharing their curiosity.

Coming out at the Science Fest

[caption id="attachment_659" align="alignright" width="300"]ScienceFestival_Team_2_crop Most of the Mindful Mammoth team from the 2013 SAMO Science Fest. One person had to leave early, and got left out of the photo. Sorry Joey.[/caption] Last Saturday, Mindful Mammoth put on an activity booth at the fourth annual Santa Monica Mountains Science Fest. This was the first public appearance for Mindful Mammoth, and it turned out well. We had three tables, each with a different activity: a daisy dissection, a Fire and Flora demo display, and two copies of the Puzzle of Life. Most of the attendees were kids, and most of those were on the younger end, under 12. From past years, I'd expected this, and made sure that two of the three activities were appropriate for all ages (the daisies and the PoL). A few of the kids were older. Some of those older kids, and a few of the parents, paused to look at the FnF display, and signed up to be playtesters. ScienceFestival_Tim_w_Third_Eye_2_cropAs a reward for trying our activities, we had two kinds of temporary tattoos: an extra eye, and a Mindful Mammoth head. First thing that morning, I stuck an eye on my forehead. That is, after all, what they were for. It always bothers me when I offer bribes for learning or participation, as I much prefer games and activities that are their own reward. But kids at the Science Fest are trained to expect rewards, and I must admit that the reward system worked very well. In the early afternoon, a youngish kid, maybe 9 years old, ask me for an eye tattoo. I told him that to get a tattoo, he had to take apart a daisy, and see what was inside. I led him through that exercise, gave him the tattoo, and he ran off. About ten minutes later, he came back with two friends, and told me that both of them also wanted eye tattoos. I said that was fine, but his friends would also have to take apart a daisy to get a tattoo. He immediately led them both through the daisy exercise, the same one that I'd just put him through, and then all three happily left with their eye tattoos. So this kid, who appeared to be there just for the swag, had actually listened enough to be able to teach that information to his friends! That was very satisfying. In the end, it was a good day. Our planning and hard work paid off. We didn't have anything for sale, so as a business venture, it wasn't much to speak of. However, that was fine, as we hadn't intended this as a business-type day. Rather, all three activities worked as intended, and were obviously both fun and interesting. So, from an outreach perspective, the day was a big success. I take this success as a welcome validation of my skills and ideas. Being an inexperienced businessman, my goal has always been to do good work and make quality products in the expectation that this work will be recognized and rewarded, at least enough to pay the rent. So I feel like I'm on track with the first part of that plan. Good works - check.  

Hello World!

After much time, effort, brainstorming, and tearing of hair, I have a company name and a company logo. In other words, a brand. I must say, I love it. While the name was mostly me, the logo was mostly the work of Mark III. We talked over several possibilities, including one that I liked very much. He roughed out each of my ideas, and added several of his own, including the mammoth with the third eye - which was by far the best of the lot. That, however, was only the first part of this saga. Over the past week, I've struggled with WordPress and with my server software, trying to setup a subdomain multisite WordPress install. It's actually rather straightforward, if you know what you're doing. Unfortunately, I was coming from a place of vast ignorance. It's funny how coding and software have become so specialized. Each domain has it's own   specialized knowledge base, of best practices that are so widely accepted as to be unspoken, and thus hard for the newcomer to learn. Fortunately, the folks on the WordPress forums, as well as my server hosts, patiently worked through my increasingly frustrated emails and posts, and helped get me through that struggle. So, here we are. I've got a name, a logo, and a website. While the new website is still a bit short on content, creating that content is fairly straightforward. Hello world!