NWC round table with Clark Aldrich

A very interesting hour and half with the author of The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games and more recently Unschooling Rules

This was the first in what is hoped to be a series of wargaming related speakers. Mr. Aldrich is a very personable speaker who comes from a training simulation/education oriented background. He opened with an interesting discussion that related to 3 tiers of products – single player small scope products on the bottom – multiplayer, relatively constrained products in the middle and more open ended massively multi-player products at the top. He called them simulations, I made my morale checks to not bring up games vs sim, for a while…

There was a lot of interesting discussion about the roles of simulations in training – focusing on reinforcement of simple process or concepts and ramping up. He thinks in video game terms – speaking in terms of levels, trophies and the importance of interface being part of the experience not just the window into it. There was some discussion of the cost/benefit of modifying time scales (time compression mostly works, and players can handle discontinuity if its sold well (I would say if it fits the narrative – bu he was very much a “gamers game designer” and did not think in story-telling metaphors).

It was interesting when the discussion segued to ‘gaming’ – after someone asked a question about the extent to which someone could “gamify” an entire curriculum. Mr. Aldrich remarked he was seeing just that and discussed gaming in terms of incentive and reward – right out of Reality is Broken. It was then I failed my morale checked and remarked that it was interesting how we (analysts) look at game vs simulation as a “down in the trenches” sort of issue and he was using ‘game’ as a meta-construct for incentivizing and rewarding players across a ‘campaign’ of simulation experiences. When I asked for his perspective on “Sim vs game” he offered M$ Flight simulator as the iconic simulation and SimCity as the iconic game. I thought it ironic that the “iconic game” had “sim” in its title.

Aside from bringing home some rather pointed differences in worldview, the discussion showed the “old farts” could learn a lot from the video game crowd. The importance of interface was brought up repeatedly. Almost from the point of “If my interface is broken, what do I do about it” (fix it … don’t blame the players or take out bad design on them with “training”) to a discussion of how adaptable the interface should be (for the teacher – some, for the student, – probably not so much unless they will be investing a lot of time in front of it. Mr. Aldrich’s response to “how do i know if the students learned?” brought up an interesting point relating the time it takes to come up with an answer being a key metric. Mr. Aldrich advocated tests that one could reason out without having covered the material, but only with considerable time. Mastery of material (and my own experience in the naval training community reinforces this) indicates that you quickly recall material you have mastered. So getting 2 questions out of 20 wrong in a 15 minute test should gran a “better grade” than someone who took an hour to get them all right.

That only works in training – where there is a right answer – not so much in an educational setting, but we did not get into that distinction (and so is me elaborating as an aside…). When talking about the educational setting and the problems with getting people “up to speed” in limited time the idea of distributed “play-aheads” (hat-tip to Pete Pelligrino) rather than “read aheads”. That brought up the idea that in an academic setting books are assigned for homework (an idea reinforced at the end of talk when a book was given to Mr. Aldrich “because we are an academic institution”) however it is somehow inappropriate to assign games for “homeplay”. The bias against “games” just will not go quietly…

I’m forgetting some nuggets, but the talk ended on what I thought was a really important note (not the least of which is that it gave me a chance to shill for my game group 😉 When asked what books to read about game design, Mr. Aldrich hemmed and hawed a bit and then gave a really great answer – related to the previous point – don’t read books – play games! Particularly games outside your “comfort zone”. You should at least have a game console and once a month buy the bestselling title and give it a go! Same for the best-seller on your smart phone. That of course is when Pete started his stopwatch for how long it would take me to sound off on the game group (was it 3 or 4 secs Pete?).

All in all it was a very interesting and fast moving 90 minutes – I can heartily endorse Mr. Aldrich as someone who speaks from great conviction (one of his favorite words!) and a varied experience base from the typical mil-gamer. Hopefully we will see him around wargaming events like Connections and CASL’s roundtable in the future! He may be too busy actually building sims and games from the sound of it!

About Paul Vebber

"If you read about something, you have learned about it. If you can teach something, you have mastered it. Designing a useful game about something however, requires developing a deep understanding of how it relates to other things."
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7 Responses to NWC round table with Clark Aldrich

  1. elliebartels says:

    Paul, do you have a particular piece of Pelligrino’s of the play-ahead concept in mind? I was batting around something similar the other day, so seeing work others have done implimenting it would be great!

    • Paul Vebber says:

      Sorry Ellie, I gave Pete the hat-tip for the term (I’m pretty sure he was the first I’d heard use it) but I don’t think the concept is fleshed out beyond the notion of giving people coming to play a game an opportunity to get used to the interface and game play procedures before the “real thing”. In my mind it would be part of a more distributed method of interaction that gets to distributed gaming through a common portal – the “play-ahead” being the familiarization with situation. We have a whole generation comming inot he military already intimately familiar with an interface architecture, but we refuse to leverage that in educational settings. NUWC is woking with NPS on some virtual orld stuff, but they are coming at it from a “virtual presence” (2nd life) point of view, not a game play point of view. The next gen is doing away with the controller and keyboard and going to gestures and voice recognition. You are not seeing a major ne game console on the market becasue the Big Players realize that is what they need to do next. Wii and Kinect are the equivalent to “4.5 gen” consoles, but PS4 and Xbox(X) will be controller free and use voice commands. Being prepared to take advantage of that in the military education domain would be a really good idea, but we are still too concerned about making simulations that simulate the humans (at best) rather than an architecture for player interaction in an architecture

      But fixing that would require “real investment” in gaming (not simulation) which just based on the vibe at the session yesterday, a lot of people are not comfortable with. “You don’t play at work” continues to be a stigma that holds us back mightily. McCardy-Little got it, its ironic it seems to have such a hard time permeating the Hall named for him…

  2. Brant says:

    “When I asked for his perspective on “Sim vs game” he offered M$ Flight simulator as the iconic simulation and SimCity as the iconic game. I thought it ironic that the “iconic game” had “sim” in its title.”

    Not only that, but the designer of his “iconic game” (Will Wright) has admitted that SimCity is a “toy” and not a “game”…

  3. Hi Brant,

    It was so great to see you. What I tried to say was, SimCity launched the serious game movement, just as flight simulators (including pre-computing, wood models) launched the educational simulation movement. I agree that Will Wright framed SimCity as toy, not a game (for a lack of formal goals, mostly).

    a) Regardless of if it is a game or not (by whatever definition you choose for game), it nonetheless launched the serious game movement by proving that experiences could be designed to be both fun and educational. (One might also ask, Did Oedipus have an Oedipus Complex?)

    b) SimCity further contains many, many elements that have later been used heavily in defining ‘gamification’ (again, bad word, but at least it is specific). Whatever SimCity is, so is Farmville.

    c) In a sufficiently rich, engaging environment, including SimCity or a swimming pool, people in it typically create their own games (including short term goals) that may be simple or complex.

    Again, thank you all for the great dialogue.

    Note: I interviewed Will Wright for my second book, Learning by Doing, along with two other game designers. The full interview is here: http://unschoolingrules.blogspot.com/2011/06/archive-clark-aldrich-interview-of-will.html

    Will Wright was, by the way, generous with his time and spontaneously brilliant, for which I remain grateful and impressed to this day!

  4. Heidi Taylor says:

    Paulie, I stumbles onto this psot from the Daily Prep blog (Muffy Aldrich). Too funny. Such a small world. See you soon. Need anythign from the UK?

    • Paul Vebber says:

      I’m bummed I never got a chance to get out there to London while you guys were there…Great to hear from you! Have fun in Sinagapore and there is always a light on here for you!

  5. Bill Haggart says:

    Speaking from an educational simulation perspective, that mastery you speak of is basically memorizing, and regurgitating back the correct answer, just as you say. After playing Risk, my sons could name all the seven continents and the important geographical areas from memory. However, the real strength of games and simulations is in teaching skills and dynamic relationships which then can be applied to a variety of situations, old and new–in real life.

    Even with Mr. Aldrich’s experience and expertise, the confusing and fledging nature of simulations and simulation games is well demonstrated by his examples of simulations vs games. I have had similar discussions concerning simulation and games. One person offered Monopoly as the premier example of a game… However, like SimCity, the designer designed it as something else, specifically to mimic the real dynamics of the Free Enterprise system. It just happened to be fun, even though it broke a number of design principles that both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley had developed from their experience publishing games, so both turned down Monopoly several times before Parker Bros. picked it up and it became the first family game to gross over $1 million.

    It is easily forgotten that wargames, simulations and the like are just tools, and folks can use them for purposes never imagined by the designer. von Reisswitz of Kriegsspiel fame was surprised his training exercise was considered ‘entertaining’ by the officers who played his wargame. He certainly would be taken back by the wargame hobby that has grown up around it and those who still play it for fun..

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