Update

Muzzy Lane Considers Learning Games on the Cusp of “The Great War” Release

The Great War creates an immersive world simulators that tests players strategy and skill.

The Great War creates an immersive world simulators that tests players strategy and skill.

By the time they got to the Great War, world wars were old hat to Dave McCool and Chris Parsons.

The team from game developer Muzzy Lane are set to launch their latest version of their long-running world simulator game, Making History, this month. This time the firm is tackling period during World War One in an expansive strategy game that includes some 150 possible nations and countless outcomes.

It’s primarily a consumer-facing game from the company that has built games for publishers like McGraw-Hill to be used in school and consumer games for the strategy market.

“We did a lot of standards mapping with Making History in the early days against the national standards and a lot of them are skill-based, so historical empathy, understanding historical situations, understanding the role of geography. So we mapped to a lot of that very consciously because we knew that playing a big game like this you were going to learn geography, you were going to learn economics, you were going learn how policy options work in nations, the role that people can play in decision making of leaders,” McCool said recently. “But Making History has evolved to be primarily informal learning and end-user focused in its delivery, so I think it is ok to be somewhat indirect with a lot of that stuff. We don’t mandate what you are going to learn by playing Making History, although we know you will.”

But Muzzy Lane also knows the formal education market as well and in their decade of work, they have watched things change.

“In talking about the decades-long evolution, games started as a way to engage students who were disengaged and they came in a variety of forms, but as they have gone mainstream,” McCool said. “Nobody questions the use of the word game any more, nobody questions whether games have a role in education any more. All the debate now is what’s the role and how do we take advantage of it. Assessment is a massive part of that discussion because everything is going online.”

But Parsons added that the game design process for school games versus consumer games can be fundamentally different.

“Games that we typically develop with partners start with the learning objectives first so we decide what the game design is going to be after we have listened to our partners and they have told us what the learning objectives are and we say “Ok, well then we need to do a role-playing game or we need to do a term-based game or a puzzle game” that will best achieve those learning objectives,” he said.

Listen to the full conversation here:

The following an edited transcript of the conversation:

gamesandlearning.org: Why make it historical?

Dave McCool: Two major reasons. One we have a passion for history, those of us who started the company were deeply interested in history and international relations which are sort of tightly coupled to each other. And secondly, we formed Muzzy Lane to build learning games company and history is a great place to use games for learning, especially big picture history… There is a lot that people don’t understand what happened, about what happened and that you can illuminate for them. There are a lot of “what-ifs” and counter-factuals. There’s are a lot of things that could have happened but didn’t and they get debated today.

What’s interesting in a historical game is it lets you play those out to some degree and see what other options the players had, get a little bit of a contemporary feel for the choices they had and perhaps have a little more empathy for what they chose to do.

Chris Parsons: The other side of that is it is very easy to … Monday-morning quarterback and say “They should have done this and that.” These leaders also had limitations. A big part of what our game does is it has a stability factor and so if you are in a fairly unstable part of the world and your nation acts in a way that you might want it to do but your national doesn’t want to it can cause riots or even revolution…

gamesandlearning.org: How do you even map something like this out and make it a game?

Dave McCool: The stability factor was something we carried over from Making History II, the World War Two game. The world is divided up into provinces rather than grids or hexes. And each region has properties that are very much tied to the people who live there. They have ethnicity and religion and culture and nationality and so when you move into an area and you take it over, if they are very much like you you are less likely to have as much trouble. You know if you are Germany taking over areas of Austria…

Watching the evolution of learning games

gamesandlearning.org: You said when you started Muzzy Lane it was started Muzzy Lane it was designed as a learning game company. When you launched Making History it was something that you would play in school or as a consumer. But the learning game space seems to have evolved a lot..

Dave McCool: Yeah.

gamesandlearning.org: How has that affected you?

Dave McCool: Yeah, I think it is true that we have a somewhat unique perspective. We started in 2002 the shift to digital in education was really in early days. College was moving that way. K-12 had not moved a lot yet. And we looked at it and we said, “You can see these educational and curriculum materials going digital and they’re going to want to be active. They’re not going to want to be static like a book once they are online, once they are software. Software is active. That was our take from the beginning. So we’ve seen the whole evolution.

We as a company — Making History is one of our brands that has been very successful for us, both in schools and out of schools, but we work a lot with partners like McGraw Hill, Pearson, National Geographic. We have a whole line with McGraw Hill and higher ed called the Practice Series. They are game-based learning products out for marketing, operations management, American government. We’re working on Spanish, psychology and the mission is to bring game-based learning product across the entire curriculum because it just makes so much sense.

gamesandlearning.org: There’s a lot of discussion — or hand-wringing — about the kind of technology you should build for… Is that something you should worry about?

Dave McCool: You absolutely have to worry about that. In our view, we are making curriculum software for schools so the platform, the software structure, the compatibility and usability issues are every bit as big as the game design. You know our early stuff, we were just hitting the end of package software when the first Making History was coming out and by the time we came out it was very obvious that education was very much a web-driven market. You need to be web delivered. You need to integrate to web-based learning management systems and assessment.

So kind of the middle years we basically re-tooled our core platforms and software to be able to deliver on the web and now you’ve got mobile as well. I think it’s important if you are in this space, we have an ability to create content — game-level content, so javascript, XML — but the technology underneath that allows us to deliver on all platforms, so PC, Mac, web, iOS, Android, otherwise you are not really usable because it is very much of a bring-your-own-device world.


Indirect v. formal learning

gamesandlearning.org: Let’s come back to Making History, but if you want to talk about other games I am sure people would be interested in hearing this… There is sort of the obvious learning. So in the Great War you are going to learn about World War One, but there are lot of other skills that people can take away from these types of games, how much of this do you consciously plan into the game and how much of it just happens?

Dave McCool: We did a lot of standards mapping with Making History in the early days against the national standards and a lot of them are skill-based, so historical empathy, understanding historical situations, understanding the role of geography. So we mapped to a lot of that very consciously because we knew that playing a big game like this you were going to learn geography, you were going to learn economics, you were going learn how policy options work in nations, the role that people can play in decision making of leaders.

But Making History has evolved to be primarily informal learning and end-user focused in its delivery, so I think it is ok to be somewhat indirect with a lot of that stuff. We don’t mandate what you are going to learn by playing Making History, although we know you will.

I contrast that to the intro to American government — Practice Government with McGraw-Hill. Part of the design process was building from learning objectives. So, really, mapping out what are the accepted learning objectives for this course that instructors and institutions are trying to get to, building from that the nature of the game play that can address them and then explicitly tying them together so that when you play Practice Government there is, similar to achievements on a game, there are levels you are achieving as you move through that game and it is visible to instructor. The more you are in the structured side of things the more purposeful you need to be about mapping to the learning outcomes you are looking for.

Chris Parsons: You know Dave hit on a key point which was when we developed Making History that is our game, especially now. When we did the first game we were very much focused on introducing it into school first and commercial afterwards. Now we see the informal learning space is really gives you a better opportunity to create this world simulation and let people experience it as they see fit. So, games that we typically develop with partners start with the learning objectives first so we decide what the game design is going to be after we have listened to our partners and they have told us what the learning objectives are and we say “Ok, well then we need to do a role-playing game or we need to do a term-based game or a puzzle game” that will best achieve those learning objectives.

But with Making History we’ve been to this rodeo before so each time we have tried to make it a better, more total experience for players to have fun with and the learning emerges from actually taking on this role of being this leader of a nation or an empire and making these decisions. You’re seeing it from the inside out. Your not looking at it passively. You are the one deciding whether you are going to go to war…

gamesandlearning.org: Is this part of the evolution of games from a curriculum tool that teaches standards A and B and its more a mixed sort of world?

Dave McCool: I think the taxonomy of these is still evolving. There was a report from the Cooney Center recently on long-form games versus short-form games and I think there is a role for lots of different kinds of game experiences.

I think what we tend to see when you’re building things to go into the curriculum in schools is efficiency becomes a much more important criteria for them. So, less open-ended exploration and a little more focus on the job we are trying to accomplish today and I think there is a role for that. But there’s also a role for these more open, call them less efficient games. Like Chris said, it’s about a larger experience, letting you go and find the part that appeals to you and learning along the way.

You see, especially with the advent of tablets and phones, significantly more investment going into informal learning games, games that are targeted at consumers at players at parents for the younger kids because they can do so much more there. You can experiment. You can try things. It’s just a really healthy part of the market which is probably informing what goes back into the formal into schools.

gamesandlearning.org: We recently talked with one developer who said he found he could count on 20 minutes of game play time in an hour lesson which makes it hard to do games that are more expansive.

Dave McCool: A good example for us was we just did a games with National Geographic around the Underground Railroad which is used in middle schools and so the goal was to get the gameplay down to that slice that could be completed in one class time with all the overhead that’s involved there.

Choosing an open beta on Steam

gamesandlearning.org: That sounds like a challenge. Back to the Making History, why did you all release a version of the game that was released within Steam?

Dave McCool: One thing somebody said to me was when you’ve got the kind of game that’s kind of a one play through, non-replayable game, players generally don’t want to help you make it. Players want to wait until its all done. It’s like watching a movie, right, and they want to play it… they want to experience that story in its polished form.

Historical strategy games are the opposite end of that spectrum. They’ve always traditionally had a high degree of community involvement because they are simulations at some level and so getting that simulation right is important. As Chris said, we are a world simulator and we simulate 150 nations all interacting at the same time.

Chris Parsons: It’s never going to happen the same way twice.

Dave McCool: So there’s always tons of community involvement in those kinds of games and I think that something like Early Access which sort of falls on the pre-order beta of a couple years ago is a perfect way — It’s sort of a contract between us and our players that says “Look, we’ll give you early access to the game at a discounted price and you’ll give us a lot of feedback before we officially release the game to make sure we release a really good game.”…

Chris Parsons: And the community expects it, too.

Strategy gamer community has a long history of creating a lot of player-created content, mods and assisting people in getting the game up and running. You’ll often have several iterations of the same game that come out a few years apart that are built from the same engine and the later games incorporate a lot of what the players have given feedback to the developers about…

gamesandlearning.org: You have been creating more consumer-focused games like Making History and more curriculum-focused games with partners like McGraw-Hill. Which are more fun?

Dave McCool: I think they’ve got to be fun. That’s the common thing across all of these games. Well, they need to be engaging and maybe there’s a subtle difference between fun and engaging. I think games have a couple of really key advantages for education and for learning. One is they’re engaging and the engaged learner learn better.

But the other thing is games are really good at presenting challenging problems that can be measured. So when you think about taking a multiple choice test that can measure you in a certain way, but you know I am sure, as you know, games can measure your skills, they can measure your critical thinking, they can measure your problem solving, your communication and collaboration skills, like really well and especially multiplayer games, like Making History is, can measure them automatically and can adapt challenges to what your doing well and what you are struggling with. That’s really, really powerful and I think from a developer point of view, really, really fun challenge to go after…

What is the “Holy Grail” of learning games?

gamesandlearning.org: How big a deal is assessment whether in formal education or game development?

Dave McCool: That’s pretty central. On the formal side of the business, the partnerships where we are putting stuff into curriculum, it’s crucial. It’s everything.

In talking about the decades-long evolution, games started as a way to engage students who were disengaged and they came in a variety of forms, but as they have gone mainstream… nobody questions the use of the word game any more, nobody questions whether games have a role in education any more. All the debate now is what’s the role and how do we take advantage of it. Assessment is a massive part of that discussion because everything is going online. Like it or not, auto-assessment is the Holy Grail because it relieves teachers of the burden of assessing things directly… It’s so much more efficient.

Games give us the ability to bring these sorts of higher level thinking, complex activities into that realm and I think that’s absolutely crucial to their adoption.

Chris Parsons: Every single action a player takes in a game is potentially recordable and exportable. So you can see pretty much everything someone’s done. The players can see. The teacher can see. The players can see what the other players have done…

gamesandlearning.org: You must feel better positioned than a lot of game developers to deal with this because you’ve been at this a decade plus —

Dave McCool: Yeah, I think what we’ve learned is the back-end stuff that’s really important. The integration. The data collection. The adaptive stuff. That’s really, really crucial to go to scale. Not to do just a one-off… If you really want to get to scale in the actual formal learning environment you need the infrastructure…

Chris Parsons: A good example of that is our Practice Marketing game. If you’re doing the multi-player version of that you’re basically trying to become a backpack tycoon — you’re the marketing manager at a backpack company. In the course of doing that, you implement all the lessons you have learned. But you could play that game and lose the game you play in school and yet walk away with a much better understanding of marketing than the player that got a better score. Assessment isn’t just the raw number. You won and I lost. It’s how much should you walk away knowledge-wise?  How much did you learn that you wanted to learn that’s going to help you in real life?

gamesandlearning.org: That sounds complicated… It’s sometimes a lot easier when you’re a professor to just be like “Yeah, you got an 82.”

Laughter

But don’t tell anybody I said that. Thanks so much for taking the time.

Dave McCool: No problem, Lee.

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Banville_Lecture

Lee Banville Lee Banville is editor of Gamesandlearning.org and editorial director of the Games and Learning Publishing Council. He is also an Associate Professor of Journalism at The University of Montana. For 13 years he ran the online and digital operations of the PBS NewsHour, overseeing coverage of domestic and international stories.