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10. Rolling Your Own: On Modding Commercial Games for Educational Goals
Members of online communities dedicated to the modification of commercial games debate and develop scenarios with fine attention to authenticity and realism, practices that we seek to cultivate in the students taking our history courses. While self-organized modding communities succeed at creating and playing history, the same activities, approached by educators, have not shown the same degree of success. In this chapter I explore why enthusiasts experience a high degree of success in their modifications, while formal classrooms do not—in this case, set in the context of an online, undergraduate, distance-education classroom.
The communities that make modifications to existing commercial games have created strong and vibrant subcultures in modern video gaming. Strictly speaking, “modding” refers to a change in the rules by which a game operates, but in a less rigorous definition can involve scenario building and the staging of pieces on the game board. Many game publishers, recognizing the importance of modding, now provide modification tools with the release of a game as part of their marketing strategy. They have also reaped the benefits: publishers have recruited talented individuals from these communities and given them jobs as game developers, hoping to make use of the creative ingenuity that the modders have shown. Jon Shafer, the lead designer of Civilization V, is one notable example of a former fan, now paid developer, of a popular game franchise.
Some academic studies of Civilization have critically addressed its narrative of technological progress and American exceptionalism, while others have concentrated on its anachronisms, its theoretical presentation of Page 215history, and its potential for implementation in classroom settings. I wish to focus attention on a different aspect of the Civilization franchise: on fan sites as loci for learning, which can inform the use of modifications in an online classroom.
In my pedagogical approach with my first-year undergraduate online classroom, I hoped to draw from a growing movement in which Civilization modifications are implemented to expand the possibilities for experience with history. Using the modification, I sought to enhance the engagement of my online distance learners with the material, and cultivate an improvement of their critical historical thinking skills. With the help of participants on Civfanatics, I created a scenario with one change in the rules of the original Civilization (making it a mod) to address a problem I was having in my fully online, first-year Introduction to Roman History class concerning causality and contingency in Roman politics. The carefully crafted scenario reflected the events of 69 c.e., the Year of the Four Emperors; I devised an assignment to accompany it, and delivered it to my students. Unfortunately, their response was less than ideal. Its lack of success is due partly to the “creepy treehouse” phenomenon, an urban legend in which treehouses are built with no other purpose but to lure children by appealing to their adolescent culture. In online learning, the “creepy treehouse” metaphor can be defined as the use of some aspect of social media, or of a “nontraditional” approach, that does not emerge naturally from the class dynamic but is imposed from the top and feels artificial to the participants. For instance, an instructor who “friends” students on a social network and requires every student to post three times a week to the class blog is transgressing into “their” space. This transgression imposes an unnatural behavior on the students, despite their familiarity and affinity for social networking and blogs.
In this chapter I explore why my experiment with modding and scenario building in an online classroom was unsuccessful and how it became a form of “creepy treehouse.” That experience compelled me to focus my attention on the fan sites themselves and the participants who helped me build my scenario. Like the game publishers who seek out expertise in fan communities, educators must utilize the natural environment of online fan communities as spaces in which historically motivated modifications can have a desirable level of involvement. When we create modifications of a commercial game, or “roll our own,” it is the aspect of creating it in public that might have the greatest educational impact. The nature of the fan sites promotes the kind of learning we labor to facilitate in our online classrooms; it is spontaneous and builds from the bottom up. It is also, notably, teaching without teachers.
The Year of the Four Emperors
The death of Nero in 68 c.e. launched the Roman Empire into a period of turmoil and civil war, as four emperors were declared in various parts of the empire in quick succession. The brief but brutal civil war lasted from April 68 to December 69. The students in my Introduction to Roman History class, an online distance-education course with approximately eighteen students, study Rome’s evolution from monarchy to republic to high empire, and so roughly one thousand years of history, compressed into twelve weeks of readings and discussion board conversations. When we got to the early empire (the period covering the Julio-Claudian and Flavian Dynasties, of which the Year of the Four Emperors represents the pivot point), the students struggled to engage with the period and to understand the complexity of the political changes. Vespasian, whose bid for power was backed by his troops, was the last of the four contenders to be declared emperor. In their attempt to understand the period, my students began to explain Vespasian’s success in pacifying the empire and consolidating his hold on Rome in terms of his later role as emperor: “Of course Vespasian would win the civil war because Vespasian was the emperor.” Unfortunately, the students were reversing the order of cause and effect in order to make sense of a confusing historical situation. As I discussed the period with them, I realized that part of the problem, aside from confusion of cause and effect, was a poor understanding of the realities of Mediterranean geography and the difficulties of communication in a preindustrial world, which requires factoring in the time it took for news to travel and how that time lag influenced the political dynamic.
I wanted my students to understand that due to the contingency of history, Vespasian’s eventual triumph was not foreordained, and that physical and political geography played a role in his success. In order to address the issue, I created a scenario using Civilization IV. The game contains software for setting up scenarios—what it calls the “world builder”—but I quickly became frustrated with this editing software. Though it is designed to allow the player to place all of the different pieces on the map, and to set up the starting positions for the game, many of its features are disabled by default, and cannot be unlocked until the player adds a line of code to the Civilization initialization file. The code information is not provided by the publisher in any of the game documentation, which prompted me to seek out a solution on Civilization fan sites. My search led me to the online modding community, and my post detailing the unlock code and its function is consistently the most visited post on my research blog.
As I became more excited about the possibilities of scenario building, I came to rely on fan sites for help, primarily Civfanatics. Civilization IV was Page 217built using XML to describe nearly every object in the game. By adjusting the information in the XML, the creator of a mod can change the names of leaders, cultures, and the like, or even create additional elements. Using similar code changes, the game calendar can be adjusted so that each turn represents a single day, week, or month. Ancillary information can be added to set the stage for the scenario when it opens, or prevent certain kinds of technology from ever being “discovered,” allowing a world without gunpowder, for instance. I was only able to find this information, and change it, with the help of participants in the online community.
Eventually, with the help of a user with the screen name “Carloquillo,” I created a working scenario of the Roman Empire of 69 c.e. In my mod, the player’s ultimate goal was to outmaneuver the other claimants to the throne, whether through political or military machinations. The Roman “Senate” would periodically examine the balance of power in Italy, and declare the most influential competitor “emperor”—thus simulating the ineffectualness of the Senate during this period. The scenario was not perfect—if put under the control of artificial intelligence, Vespasian would always convert to Judaism. I devised an assessment exercise for my online students, in which they would play through the scenario rather than write a final essay. At set intervals during gameplay, they would take a screenshot of the world map, and record a narrative of what was going on in their counterfactual history, taking on the role of historians. To conclude, they would identify and address the similarities and differences between the versions of “history” presented in the game with the available facts about the past. My hope was that in playing the scenario the students would begin to appreciate the difficulty of Vespasian’s initial position, his inability to act, and the magnitude of his accomplishment in managing and controlling such an enormous, heterogeneous territory, and by identifying anachronisms and oddities, better understand the important concepts of the period.
To this point, the students had been receptive of the modification, but my experiment broke down when I introduced the option of using the game as an alternative to the traditional history essay. A number of my online students had copies of Civilization IV, so I had offered the scenario to these students as an alternative, confirmed that some of them were playing it, and waited to see what would happen. While feedback on the scenario was positive—“this was a fun scenario, sir”—none took up the offer to play the game for credit; all chose to write standard essays. I should note that it was Page 218not mandatory for any of the students to play this scenario, nor did I try to teach students new to the game how to play it, or how to install the scenario. There were no technological impediments or learning curves related to gameplay to overcome.
I asked my students why they chose the essay over the game response assignment; each answer was evasive. I initially attributed this to the conservatism of students: they understood how essays function and how they are marked, but the unknown territory of playing a game and responding to it made them hesitant. My course was an “affinity space” for learning about Roman culture, a space where students had self-selected to come together in a group meant to explore Rome. That is, they had a displayed affinity for studying Roman culture, not one for playing a video game in order to learn from it. It is worth noting that my course description had not explicitly stated that game-based evaluations would be a component. If it had, perhaps I might have attracted students interested in playing a mod or game culture in general, or open to alternative assessment structures. More importantly, on reflection, I have realized that the fundamental conflict was that I sprung it on my students without any kind of preparation. Had I adequately prepared them, I might have overcome that conservatism. I might have carved out a new affinity space for this alternative assessment exercise. As it was, students were hesitant to fully commit to the game component because it was a kind of “creepy treehouse.” I selected the period to model, and chose a technology with which many students are familiar, but tried to impose a specific method of interaction that was unnatural. Another factor may be one of intimidation: I invited my students to play the scenario with myself as an opponent; none of the students accepted the offer. The strangeness of the assignment, when combined with the unnatural imposition of technology, created a barrier that the students did not try to, or could not, overcome.
All was not lost, however. My experiment may have failed with my students, but it exceeded beyond my expectations with the Civfanatics community. The thread I started on Civfanatics, asking for help, attracted the attention of fourteen other players (almost the same number of community members as students in my class). They helped me to build the scenario, asked questions about the period, and suggested ways of implementing the model that I hoped to achieve. The scenario that I uploaded was tested by them, and has since been downloaded nearly one thousand times. On the Civfanatics site, my role as a university instructor did not put me in any privileged position vis-à-vis the other participants; I was just one of many people who enjoyed the game. Though learning did occur as a result of my experiment in scenario building, it was in the context of an online community rather than in my classroom.
Assessing the Educational Value of Online Discussion Forums
The major learning management systems used by colleges and universities rely on “bulletin boards” and “discussion forums.” Students make posts and leave messages to comment on some topic. Posts are organized into threads that follow the conversation. Similarly, the Civfanatics community relies on posts and threads. Significantly, online courses rely on the instructor to keep the discussion flowing, to push it into the interesting areas, and to assess the students’ learning in the forums. While Civfanatics has “moderators” who monitor the discussions, their role is solely to make sure that topics are in the right place—to ensure that you do not post your wish list of features for Civilization IV in the area marked for scenario swapping, for instance. There is no authority within any discussion on Civfanatics. The order and authority present within a given thread is largely self-organized.
The literature of formal online learning can be informed through an exploration of these sites, and specifically through an assessment of the kinds of learning taking place in these self-organized forums. In the thread that I started, other contributors were extremely helpful in the creation of the modification of Civilization. There remains the question of the ability to learn history through such an interaction, however. What of history?
In the classes that I teach, when I assess a discussion forum, I am looking for posts that demonstrate an understanding of the material, that engage with others’ thoughts and comments, and that push the conversation forward. In truth, my rubric is not overly elaborate. A more rigorous rubric and approach is proposed by Sedef Uzuner in an article on discussion forums for online learning.
Uzuner makes a distinction between “educationally valuable talk” (EVT) and “educationally less valuable talk” (ELVT). He situates this distinction in the traditions of Lev Vygotsky’s 1934 insights concerning language, and how “knowledge building is created between/among people in their collaborative meaning-making through dialogue.” Uzuner’s approach therefore is firmly rooted in a constructivist approach to education. Uzuner suggests that EVT, in the context of discussion threads, is
a particular interactional pattern in online discussion threads characterized as dialogic exchanges whereby participants collaboratively display constructive, and at times, critical engagement with the ideas or key concepts that make up the topic of an online discussion, and build knowledge through reasoning, articulation, creativity, and reflection.
Uzuner illustrates EVT in a table, which I have reproduced below (table 10.1).Page 220
|Exploratory||EPL||Recognition of some confusion/curiosity or perplexity as a result of a problem/issue arising out of an experience/course readings; posing a problem and enticing others to take a step deeper into it||“I wonder . . .”
“I am not sure if what the author suggests . . .”
“In the article X, the author said . . . This brought up a few questions in my mind.”
|Invitational||INVT||Inviting others to think together, to ponder, to engage by asking questions, requiring information, opinion, or approval||“Jane says . . . What do you think?”
“Do you think . . . ?”
“The authors suggest . . . , no?”
|Argumentational||ARG||Expressing reasoning (with analogies, causal, inductive, and/or deductive reasoning, etc.) to trigger discussion||“If teachers . . . , then . . .”
“Teaching is like . . .”
“X is important because . . .”
|Critical||CRT||Challenging or counter-challenging statements/ideas proposed by others OR playing devil’s advocate||“I agree that . . . However, . . .”|
|Heuristic||HE||Expressing discovery (similar to “Aha!” moments or expressions like “I found it!”); directing others’ attention to a newly discovered idea||“I did not know that there is a name for XXX. I think XXX is . . . Has anyone experienced that too?”|
|Reflective||REF||Examination of past events, practices (why/how they happened), or understandings in relation to formal content||“I’ve noticed that I had a tendency to . . . After reading X’s article, I’ve learned not to . . .”|
|Interpretive||INTP||Interpretation of formal content through opinions that are supported by relevant examples, facts, or evidence||“In my opinion X is . . . Y is a good example of why . . .”|
|Analytical||ANL||Interpretation of content through the analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of others’ understanding||“The original question was . . . Joe said . . . Mary said . . . As for me . . .”|
|Informative||INF||Providing information from literature and relating it to course content/topic of discussion||“I read an article about X once and the author said . . . You can find more information about this in . . .”|
|Explanatory||EXPL||Chain of connected messages intended to explain/make clear OR statements serving to elaborate on the ideas suggested in previous posts||“I want to build on your comment that . . .”|
|Implicative||IMP||Assertions that call for action OR statements whereby participants formulate a proposal/decision about how to achieve a certain end based on the insights they gained from the course readings/discussions||“Teachers should/should not . . .”
“X must not be forced . . .”
In contrast, ELVT is talk “that lacks substance in regards to critical and meaningful engagement with the formal content or ideas that are discussed in the posts of others in an online discussion.” Uzuner then provides examples of different kinds of EVT and ELVT, with eleven kinds of EVT and five kinds of ELVT. Uzuner’s second table is reproduced below (table 10.2).
What does Uzuner’s schema reveal when we use it to assess the learning taking place in the discussion forums on Civfanatics? I decided to assess the posts in the most-viewed scenario in the Civfanatics.com Civilization IV—Scenarios forum, which was created by then-fan, now Civ-employee, John Shafer, on a World War I scenario. Shafer’s scenario was first posted on May 6, 2006; at the time of the writing of this chapter, it had been viewed more than 94,000 times; the most recent post was on January 19, 2009. There are 311 posts in this thread. I read each post, and tallied the kinds of educationally valuable or less valuable talk that was occurring, as in tables 10.3 and 10.4.
A simple tally would suggest that the less educationally valuable talk carries the day, with 315 posts to the 137 of educationally valuable talk. But this
|Short posts that ONLY contain a statement of personal feelings (likes and dislikes)
Short posts that ONLY contain appraisal (praising and thanking someone)
Questions or comments that add social presence to the discussion but do not contribute new information
|“I never liked math either”
“Thank you for offering your insights into . . .”
“I have been to your country once and I visited X, Y, Z when I was there”
|Short posts that ONLY contain brief statements of agreement without elaboration
Short posts that ONLY contain brief statements of disagreement without elaboration
|“Yes, I agree with you . . .”
“I do not think so”
|Experiential||EXP||Posts that only contain personal experiences, narratives, descriptions that are not followed by reflection||“I did the same thing when I was teaching X.”
“I did A, B, C. It was fun”
|Reproductional||REP||Repeating/reproducing the ideas mentioned/proposed in the previous posts without elaboration||“You are right, X is . . .” (followed by a sentence)|
|Miscellaneous||MIS||Opinions that seem to be off topic OR statements regarding technical problems/course logistics||“I am unable to open Jay’s file . . .”|
|Kinds of Valuable Talk||# of Instances|
|Kinds of Less Valuable Talk||# of Instances|
misses some important dynamics. The “miscellaneous” category captures two distinct kinds of posts—“how do I install this scenario / it didn’t work” queries, and more complex play-throughs of the scenario that report what exactly took place. These latter posts are actually quite valuable; because the scenario is a kind of simulation, each play-through records a different trajectory through all of the possible outcomes of the scenario. It is a kind of sweeping of the scenario-as-simulation’s “behavior space,” that is, the whole range of possible outcomes given these starting conditions (all of the possible behaviors for every combination of the simulation’s variables), and so provides important fodder for other kinds of educationally valuable talk. (Given the beneficial nature of these discussions, we could shuffle “miscellaneous” into educationally valuable talk, and dramatically tilt the balance of educationally less valuable to educationally valuable.)
The development of the forum follows a distinct trajectory. Shafer introduces it on May 6. A flurry of appreciative posts and “how do I . . . ” technical Page 223queries ensues for about fifty posts, followed by a second phase of play testing and reporting of bugs. Educationally valuable talk increases in this second phase as various individuals pick up on items in the play-throughs. By post 79, the conversation has turned to how to best represent the carnage as well as the social and strategic impact of trench warfare given the procedural rhetorics of the game. This phase continues for about another one hundred posts, and includes discussions of the real-world impact of the Russian Revolution on the war, and how this should best be simulated. There is a strong concern throughout these posts for verisimilitude and authenticity—but what constitutes authenticity is debated. A flame war, the online equivalent of a shouting match, erupts in post 92 on this very question, and is eventually quelled by Shafer, who notes in essence that this is just a game and is meant to be engaging. In post 103, another individual suggests modifications to the scenario, and actually begins another thread elsewhere on Civfanatics to improve and expand on Shafer’s work. In post 171, the author uses the scenario to leap into counterfactual history, and proposes quite a complex counterfactual based on his play-throughs of the scenario. By September 2006 most of the heat has gone out of the thread, and subsequent posts are again of the “how do I make this work” or the play-through variety. This continues until the thread goes dormant in January 2009.
Online Learning Is Social Learning: Who Talks to Whom?
The other aspect that needs to be considered besides the content of the posts, to give fullness to Uzuner’s approach and Vygotsky’s insight, is the social aspect. Who is talking to whom? From the perspective of an online instructor, it is important to be able to identify and foster the “catalysts” in any discussion forum. I mapped out the pattern of social interactions in the forum as a kind of network. If “DoctorG” addressed “JLocke,” then I connected the two individuals. If “Koba the Dread” posted a note recounting a play-through, I mapped that as a response to Shafer’s original post. If Shafer responded to “Koba the Dread” quoting “JLocke,” I connected all three together. The resulting network is more-or-less star shaped, with Shafer in the middle and everyone else radiating off as spokes. There are clumps of highly interconnected individuals, however, representing subconversations and discussions that developed in the forum (see figure 10.1). These clumps are important.
Using the Keyplayer program from Analytech I assessed the most central individuals in this network, that is, the individuals whose removal from the forum would result in a disrupted graph, or would “break” the conversation. Keyplayer reported that the removal of Shafer, “JLocke,” “DomPage 224
Pedro,” “Kitten of Chaos,” and “Koba the Dread” would cause this network to fragment almost completely. These individuals account for a majority of the educationally valuable posts made in the forum. This is quite interesting from the standpoint of an online educator, in that it suggests that we can determine from structure alone the individuals who are making the greatest contribution to the learning going on in a forum.
This was a forum without an official leader, or anyone acting in the role of “teacher.” The contrast with my own Year of the Four Emperors thread is striking. My thread began on May 16, 2006, and went stagnant by September. Fourteen individuals contributed, and noticeably, aside from my own initial post, there is (ironically) a large absence of EVT, unless you count the technical “how-to” posts I made and the play-through reports. As a social network, the graph is entirely centered on me with radial spokes (figure 10.2); no one is talking to each other, there are no clumps on the graph, justPage 225
responses to me and me alone. Why the difference? I think I once again created a “creepy treehouse.” It was all about me. I was also very up front about my identity and the use I wished to put the scenario, which made it more of a curiosity than a scenario that got people excited.
Rolling Your Own: Lessons Learned?
The most important lesson learned is that we, the instructors, should not be building and directing mods for history education; it should be the students. We should show them how the game works. Direct their attention to the procedural rhetorics of the game rules. Make them think about what “to simulate” actually means. Give them, or have them decide on, a historical scenario to model, and ask them to implement it in the game mechanics. Have them debate how to do this: What rules need to be changed? How Page 226do the rules impose a particular kind of expression of history? Build, and play-test, the resulting scenarios. What elements of the playing of the game behave as the students expected, and what elements surprise (like Vespasian’s conversion to Judaism in my own scenario)?
If, however, we undertake to “roll our own” scenarios, or otherwise use commercial video games like Civilization in our teaching, we need to approach the task more from the point of view of a fan, and less from the perspective of a teacher. Do not do as I did. Otherwise, we create artifacts that do not support the kind of response that we wish. Learning is obviously going on in the fan forums, and using tools like Uzuner’s typology is one way of assessing the kinds of learning taking place. The pattern of social interaction in fan forums, and their application to educational contexts, is equally intriguing. My conclusions here are, of course, preliminary; one would need to study a much greater number of the threads to see a fuller picture, and this is an area where text mining might be usefully employed.
Rather than fretting about how we can better reproduce real-world classroom interactions online, I am suggesting that we consider how we can reproduce the vitality of online fan forum discussions in our real-world and online settings, and more usefully employ game-based learning in fan forums in regular and online classrooms. And as we move forward with the integration of different kinds of analytical tools to support our assessment of class tools, we should give consideration to the way that the structure of these patterns of interaction correlate (or not!) with educational impact.
1. See, for instance, the discussion in William Uricchio, “Simulation, History, and Computer Games,” in Handbook of Computer Game Studies, ed. Joost Raessens and Jeffrey Goldstein (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2005), 327–38.
2. See, for instance, Ethan Watrall, “Project Diary: Red Land/Black Land,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.playthepast.org/?p=403.
4. Open the ini file with MS Notepad. Find the line “CheatCode=0.” Change this to “CheatCode=chipotle.” Save the file but take care not to change the file extension. For more help on the world builder, see http://www.civfanatics.net/downloads/civ4/guides/WorldBuilderManual.zip.
5. See “Civilization IV World Builder Manual and Other Needful Things,” Electric Archaeology, accessed July 31, 2012, http://electricarchaeology.ca/2008/01/08/civilization-iv-world-builder-manual-other-needful-things/.
6. Which points to an underlying procedural rhetoric of the game, and how the game envisions the role of religion in society. This mechanic has largely been expunged from the fifth iteration of the game.Page 227
7. James Gee, “Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces: From Age of Mythology to Today’s Schools,” in Beyond Communities of Practice: Language, Power and Social Context, ed. D. Barton and K. Tusting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 214–32.
12. “Scenario World War I,” accessed July 31, 2012, http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=170090.
13. Shawn Graham, “Behaviour Space: Simulating Roman Social Life and Civil Violence,” Digital Studies / Le Champ Numérique 1,no. 2, (2009), accessed January 25, 2011, http://www.digitalstudies.org/ojs/index.php/digital_studies/article/view/172/214; idem, “Vespasian, Civ IV, and Intro to Roman Culture” (2007), accessed February 24, 2011, [formerly http://planetcivilization.gamespy.com/View.php?view=Articles.Detail&id=33]; idem, “Re-Playing History: The Year of the Four Emperors and Civilization IV,” accessed February 24, 2011, http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/hca/resources/detail/re_playing_history.
15. In post 99 on the “Scenario World War I” thread, accessed July 31, 2012, http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=170090&page=5, Shafer remarks that his goal is just so that people have fun playing the scenario. See also http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=111105 and http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=111488 from the same thread for a discussion by the modding community on the “Historiography of Civilization.”
16. If one is using an LMS (learning management system) such as WebCT or Moodle, there is a plug-in that will provide these sorts of metrics automatically on discussion board posts. See “SNA Diagrams,” Social Networks in Action, accessed July 31, 2012, http://research.uow.edu.au/learningnetworks/seeing/snapp/index.html.
17. Steven Borgatti, accessed July 31, 2012, http://www.analytictech.com.
18. The Year of the Four Emperors, accessed July 31, 2012, http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=171164.
19. See Kee and Graham in this volume, chapter 13.