Apparently I’m turning into a Will Wright junkie. I just ran across an interview Wright did with biologist E.O. Wilson on NPR.

In it Wright mentions SimAnt, a game he made based on his interest in biology and his reading of Wilson. My first thought was, “Yeah, but how well did it sell?” Much to my surprise, it apparently sold 100,000 copies and was named Best Simulation Program by the Software Publisher’s Association. So much for cynicism, and my notions of what is commercial and what isn’t. Just to further rub salt in my own wounds, I remind myself that The Sims is the best selling game of all time. And it isn’t really even a game by conventional definitions. There are no victory conditions, no phat l00t.

But what about The Sims Online? That didn’t seem to work as well, shutting down August 1 of last year, after being rebranded as EA-Land in 2007. I never played it, I don’t know what the problems were, though the Wikipedia article hints at problems with the in-game economy. Or maybe it was that whatever was interesting and fun about The Sims was spoiled by having other people around?

Anyway, we were talking about E.O. Wilson’s interview. He stated that he thinks that games will be very big in education, and talked about having a virtual Jurassic forest that students could walk through with an instructor, walking away from the “I talk, you listen” format of college lectures. Honestly, I’d say the lecture is the one thing in college courses most likely to survive, though I agree that the printed textbook is in big danger.

It got me thinking though. What’s the game that teaches people to do algebra or calculus in that sort of exploratory, toy-like way? Tying this back to MMO’s, can any of this be a shared experience?

On the plus side, I’ve learned a great deal from board games and tabletop roleplaying, which is social. On the minus side, once you bring other people into the equation, you introduce the possibility of shame, which stifles learning.

As I said yesterday, I think that shame has to be addressed not with game mechanics, but socially. In fact, by striving to avoid shaming players, and allowing them to be successful at every step of the way, game designers may unwittingly be feeding the shame culture by creating expectations of success. I think this plays out in education with the whole “self-esteem” curriculum movement. I’ve come to see confronting failure as a critical part of growth.

Of course, game designers are trying to sell games as pleasant recreations, making players fail all the time might not sell too many copies. But I’ve continued to be astonished at how strict MMO gamedevs can get away with being to their customers. Games can have powerful effects through narrative and media. Isn’t it possible to separate failure and shame? We do that in private all the time…

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  1. I love Will Wright. He's a brilliant game designer in a specialized field where he completely dominates. Any simulation game from Will Wright is going to be awesome.That brings up the problem with The Sims Online, in that it wasn't a simulation in the vein of the other games. Further, they really didn't build a true online game. One story I was told was that they couldn't even do random numbers, because random numbers were handled by the client and they had no way to synchronize. Finally, I think they tried to follow too many MMO conventions that didn't make sense. Why let a player only control a single character? Because that's how other games did it? Because then people wouldn't be forced to socialize?So much for cynicism, and my notions of what is commercial and what isn't.Sadly, it's not just the publishers who have a limited idea of what will work, but also players. This is a problem if someone sees a game and then won't even try it because they don't think it would be “successful enough”. Be honest here, if you saw a game like SimAnt in the stores with modern graphics, etc., assuming you had no fond memories of the original: would you really pick it up? I think most people would give it a pass, then go home and post on their blogs about how games have no innovation anymore. (Not picking on you here, Toldain, just pointing out a larger trend.)

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