Monday, April 25, 2011

Conversations with Mick Mancuso, a design instructor, video game enthusiast, avid reader, and skeptic.

As Level Design Instructor at Southern Methodist University, video game enthusiast, avid reader, and skeptic, Mick applies his vast experience to teaching college students at one of the premier graduate video game education programs in the US – The Guildhall at SMU. Mick has been in the game industry since the late 80s and is passionate about theory and design of games, education, and the use of technology in today’s society.
This interview with Mick is the thirteenth in our series about learning, games, social media, crowd-sourcing, and work performance.
MS> How have you been? It’s been a long time since we’ve spoke.
MM> Things have been going very well. I’ve since moved on from KAOS Studios and I’m at SMU now. I’m teaching Level Design and I’m having a blast.
MS> That’s great to hear! Tell me more about why you’re having so much fun.
MM> It's all about whom I’m teaching. When I first got the gig, I was a little apprehensive. Both in terms of - do I really want to leave the industry and go in to teaching? Will I be good at it? Will I enjoy it? I was dealing with all of those issues, but when I got down here I found that the faculty is great, the head of the department is great, but mostly – it’s the students! This is a master degree program. The students are people who have decided that they know what they want to do; they know that the industry is a lot of work, and this is just what they want to do. They have so much enthusiasm! It is so fun to work with them.
MS> That’s really cool. It sounds like there a lot of energy and passion there.
MM> Oh yeah, it’s amazing.
MS> You’re obviously a gamer. What do you play?
MM> Right now, even as we speak – I’m playing Civilization V. I was in the middle of a game when you called! I’ve been playing the Civilization series ever since Civ I and I just love what they’ve done with Civ 5. I’ve just recently finished Shogun: Total War. I really like the entire Shogun series. I really like RPGs as well, like Dragon Age: Origins. Also - Mass Effect, Bio Shock, and Fall Out 3. And I’m waiting for Half-life 2, Episode 3, to please come out soon. Those guys are worse than my favorite novelist at getting that thing done. RTSs are also one of my favorite genres.
In terms of gaming, I’ve always been into games since I was a kid. My parents were into card games. Whenever we went to visit the grandparents, we always played poker or other card games. Board games – me and my brothers always played board games as we were growing up. So, I’ve been a gamer for years and years and years.
MS> It’s funny; I think that most people have certain childhood memories associates with games. Some of my first memories of games involve playing Connect4 at my grandmother’s house with my cousins.
MM> I love Connect4. There were some great games from that time.
MS> What was your first favorite video game?
MM> It was Antietam by SSI. It was a Civil War game, this was in 1987 or 1988. It was actually the game that inspired me to want to get in to video games. I actually went to work for SSI a couple of years later. At the time, I said to myself “I want to do that.” So, I went down to the studio and said “Hey, hire me.” They asked me what I knew about computer games and I told them “nothing – but hire me anyway!” And – they didn’t. I took some programming classes at the local community college, this was in California. About a year later, I knocked on their door again and they hired me. I’ve been in it ever since.
MS> Wow, that’s a great story!
MS> Tell me about how you learn. What’s your learning style?

MM> It depends what I am trying to learn. For example, when I had to learn programming – I tried to learn it on my own first by just getting the books. I realized quickly to just get going, I needed more structure in taking me through the basics. My first class was a Pascal class, then a C class, and then an 8086 assembly language class. They were all introductory classes just to get me over the hump to help me learn the jargon and the basics. Today, if I’m going to learn a new engine, I try to go and find video tutorials. And what I really prefer more than video tutorials are detailed text walkthroughs, but they don’t do those much anymore. But video tutorials and reference materials work almost as well. With video tutorials, I feel that they are sometimes leading me in a direction that I don’t want to go yet. For example, in learning a 3D engine they almost always first teach you how to build an interior. Be it a dungeon, walls, rooms and doors. But the way that I always approach anything that I’m building is to first put it in a geographical location. My mindset, probably from playing RPGs, always goes to the terrain first. I want to learn the terrain editor first and THEN teach me about building the rooms and such. There’s no right or wrong either way, this is just my preference.
MS> This is very interesting to me. With what we do at PAKRA, as far scripting our games and simulations, before I can even start to write a scenario of “what’s happening in a simulation”, I’ve got to think about “who” these characters are. So when you talk about knowing the terrain before you know a room, it’s similar to how I really think through who the character is and knowing this person before thinking about what they are going to do or where they are going to do it. It’s interesting to hear that your mind works in a similar way.
MS> You brought up something that I wanted to ask you about when you mentioned that you see things going more towards video tutorials and away from some of the written instructional guides. Do you see this as being a result of how the under-40 generations learn?
MM> Video tutorials are very good because they can actually show you “click on this button right here, this is were it is.” My issue with video tutorials is that in essence, they go very slowly compared to how I want to learn. I see the button, but they are talking for another 25 or so seconds before we can go on to the next topic. Sometimes I get frustrated at the pace. I don’t think that it’s about being under 40 years old, I think that it’s just a matter of how easy it is to make videos now. The tools are out there and videos are easy to make. I would like to see a much more integrated system -- video, web, all working in the actual editor all integrated together. The technology is there but there are a lot of indexing and UI issues. It’s not an easy problem to solve.
MS> I think that with technology in general the expectation now is, at least it is for me, I expect things very quickly. With some tutorials, you’ve got all of this technology but it still feels like you are being fed more information that you need or want. It’s not as quick and efficient as you think that it could be.
MS> You are with people in their early to mid-20’s every day because you’re teaching. What evolution do you seen in learning styles and teaching? What’s changed over the years?
MM> It’s been a long time since I’ve been in school as a learner, it was the late 80’s. At that time, it was very traditional. Everyone sits down a desk, the teacher lectures, and if it’s a good teacher – you can ask questions. What I can speak to is the approach that Guildhall takes in term of teaching. We have level designers, programmers, artists and are just starting up a production track. They each go through their specialty but the focus of the program at The Guildhall is that they actually build games as teams – in addition to a solid foundation on their individual skills. It’s much more broad and it’s teaching by doing. We give you an introduction to concepts and the engine – and then say “Now put it to work!” We have metrics for quality and specify some content, but we are much more interested in the group dynamics and communication within the team and whether they can realize their vision. We guide them along the way but leave it up to the group as to whether they are going to listen to us. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they really surprise us with what they can get done. And we still have traditional lecture classes as well.
MS> Talk to me about trends that you see in casual gaming, Serious Games, and simulation technology. Where do you see things going?
MM> I see things just expanding like crazy. I think that the entire casual gaming revolution – and really it’s an on-demand gaming revolution due to the internet and how powerful the browsers have gotten over the last few years – have completely reshaped the distribution system for games. We still have our AAA products, and those will always be there, but there will be fewer of them - the cost has just risen to high. The competition will get more fierce. I think that AAA games will become more equivalent to Hollywood blockbuster movies, for all three platforms – PlayStation3, XBOX360, and PC. The new guys on the block are all of the casual games, and that’s really a misnomer and that will shake out. I think that there will be multiple genres that will be opening up and defined over the next few years. The audience that I see being tapped into are people who want to play games but they aren’t hardcore gamers. They don’t have the two to three hours to spend like those of us who are obsessed with gaming. They want to get in to a game within seconds, be playing within seconds, play for five to ten minutes and drop it and come back later With casual games, the internet really taps in to this. How we build games now needs to be cognizant of this.
MS> You’re right. I think that’s where the Facbeook games, the Zynga games, have been so popular. Studies show that it’s women playing these games and I think that it’s partially because they can go in, be in on seconds, use their phone or a computer, and be in for five minutes between other things that are going on. Like you said, there are these distinct niches. I’m like you. I personally will find three hours to play a game I love, because that’s just how I am. But that’s not the entire market. I don’t think that there was a demand in the market – but there was a void. Now that the void has been filled, the demand is now there.
MM> I think that is exactly right. For a long, long time the gaming industry was basically selling to itself. You wrote games for other gamers. It didn’t even begin to go mainstream until the late 1990s/early 2000s. Now it’s a multi-billion industry. But the biggest piece of the pie wasn’t being addressed – the casual gamers. I saw something recently that said the difference between casual gamers and hardcore gamers is that the hardcore gamers self-identify. If you claim to be a hardcore gamer, you’re a hardcore gamer - and that's a very small segment of the population.
With casual games, just because it’s quick in and quick out, that doesn’t mean that the game has to be simple. You can make your game as complicated as you want it to be, as long as you remember that the cost of entry has to be very short. It means that you have to spend a lot more time introducing your mechanics and do it more slowly, more organically. They may be playing the game only in five to ten minute chunks, but three weeks down the line they can be playing something as complicated as any triple AAA product.
MS> Absolutely! These five minute chunks are played two or three times a day and the game builds each time. It’s just a different build and different experience but in the long run it is absolutely as immersive and complex.
MS> Let’s talk about social media. What do you use? What don’t you use? And why?

MM> I use Facebook a lot. But I only use it to keep in contact with friends and family. It’s a way for me to see what my kids are up to, what they are thinking about. When my son was in Iraq, they did not have Internet, but two years later they did have access when he was in Afghanastan. It made a huge difference in terms of how much I worried about him because we could post 2 or 3 messages back and forth on Facebook. He would post a status update and I would think “Oh, great. He’s okay!” My daughter lives in Australia and I follow her Facebook page as well, and it’s not that I’m keeping tabs on her, but it’s like “Oh, she’s posted. She’s doing fine!” I don’t have to worry about her.
MS> What else do you use besides Facebook? Are you a tweeter?
MM> I signed up on Twitter, but I don’t even remember how to sign on. My thing is that if I have something to say, 140 characters isn’t enough. Twitter feels like we are legitimizing the sound byte and that doesn’t do anything for me.
MS> Tell me about what else you enjoy. What else are you passionate about?
MM> I love to read. Generally it’s science fiction, mystery, or fantasy. But I also love to read about history and I love skeptical literature. I’m a huge skeptic, so I read a lot in that area. I’m reading The Landscape of Morality. It’s very interesting. It talks about the elements of human morality that some people say that science can’t address, and how that’s wrong. There is no reason why science can’t address this and the author lays out his case pretty well.
MS> Can we talk about educational gaming and how these are designed and how content is introduced?

MM> When you’re creating games for learning or training, or even casual games, it’s not so much about the content that you need to get across to a known player base – but how do the people being trained live their everyday jobs? If this is training for an everyday job, you have to put it in that context. You learn where they live, where they work, and how they work. What's the jargon of their workplace? What assumptions do they bring to the experience? You have to find out what you don't know about the job - what is there overall context. Then 90% of making the content relevant is already done b/c you’ve placed it in a package that they already understand. I’m finding the idea of context is going up and down and throughout everything that I’m teaching now. For example, if we are talking about documentation, I will ask “Why do we put our documents in a certain formats?” It’s so that you can lead the reader through the context so that as you get deeper and deeper in to the details, the reader follows you the entire way. You cannot give the context in one big chunk. Give them a brief back of the book review of what the design is all about. If the game has a story, give the broad outlines and then – you can start to develop the characters and what they are about. Then you can expand more on the story and what the gameplay mechanics are going to be. Now lets understand player motivation. Now I can break up the levels. The reader is going with me. As long as your context stays relevant to the depth of information that you are trying to give, you are leading the reader along. You’ve got to know the context that you are building the game for – not the people paying for the game, but for the people playing the game, to really make it valuable for them.
MS> Absolutely! This is something that PAKRA has to address in every simulation that we build in training. Our products are typically used for business process training – but that means something different for every client. The context of the training is different for someone who works at home versus someone who works in a call center, the typical education level of the agent changes the context, and the nature of the job also changes the context. What the job is and how it is done can be unique experiences for each client. If we don’t understand this, incorporate this, and introduce this correctly, the simulation isn’t effective for learning. It’s got to me done right.
MM> So many people who get in to Serious Games are gamers who are more interested in “the game” and not the purpose of the game. You need to have both.
MS> I agree. The game is the delivery mechanism but the back-story to it is just as important. It’s both. You cannot have one with the other.
MS> Thank you so much for talking with me today, Mick. I’ve enjoyed our conversation immensely.
MM> I did too. Thank you.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Finally! A neurologist illustrates how video gaming can train the brain and enable learning

We have been claiming that repeated game play helps to learn.
Finally! the fMRI studies provide evidence.
Judy Willis, a neurologist, provides an engaging and lucid evidence-based explanation of our conjecture on Edutopia's blog.