Introduction to Research on Games and Simulations

Note-taking for Research on Games and Simulations with Jan Plass

In this post I’m summarizing some writing about the foundations of research on games for learning. It’s a dry topic, so to enliven it I’ve included a bunch of screencaps from Mega Man 2. They have nothing to do with anything, but they look cool.

Mega Man 2 giant fish

Plass, J.L., Homer, B.D., & Kinzer, C. (2015). Foundations of Game-based Learning. Special Issue on Game-based Learning, Educational Psychologist, 50(4), 258–283.

What is a game exactly? One definition: “a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules, that results in a quantifiable outcome” (Salen & Zimmerman 2004, 80). Gamification is the grafting of points and stars onto existing tasks, like completing your boring homework. By contrast, game-based learning is more like Logical Journey of the Zoombinis – organically placing learning activities into a conflict structure to make them interesting and engaging.

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Panel on games in education

I contributed a chapter to a soon-to-be-released book, Learning, Education and Games (Volume One): Curricular and Design Considerations. I wrote about the potential value of video games  in music education. The book will be out in October 2014. Here’s the table of contents.

Learning, Education and Games (Volume One): Curricular and Design Considerations

We’re having a launch party on October 9th at the NYU Game Center, with a panel on games, featuring the contributors to the series. In addition to myself, the panelists will include Elena Bertozzi and Gabriela Richard. The book’s editor, Karen Schrier, will be moderating.

Update: here’s a drawing of Elena, Gabriela, Karen and myself by Jay Boucher.

Games in Education panel by Jay Boucher

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Computer improvisation

Can the computer be an improvisation partner? Can it generate musical ideas of its own in real time that aren’t the product of random number generators or nonsensical Markov chains?

In Joel Chadabe‘s “Settings For Spirituals,” he uses pitch-tracking to perform various effects on a recording of a singer: pitch shifting, chorus, reverb. The result is effectively an avant-garde remix. It isn’t exactly my speed, but I like the spirit of the piece – remixing existing recordings is a central pillar of current interactive electronic music. I’m less taken with Chadabe’s 1978 “Solo” for Synclavier controlled by theremin. The idea of dynamically controlling a computer’s compositions is an intriguing one, and I like the science-fictional visual effect of using two giant theremin antennae to control note durations, and to fade instrumental sounds in and out. Chadabe set the Solo system up to intentionally produce unpredictable results, giving the feeling of an improvisational partner. He describes “Solo” as being “like a conversation with a clever friend.” Who wouldn’t want such an experience?

Joel Chadabe performs "Solo"

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My thesis proposal

For those of you curious about what I’m up to in grad school, this is the big thing. Pardon the stilted language, but, you know, academia. See the slideshow!

Update: I now have a functioning prototype of my app. If you’d like to try it, get in touch.

Title

The Drum Loop: a Self-Guided Tutorial System for Programming Dance Rhythms

Introduction

Dance music production software has never been more accessible. However, even “beginner-oriented” programs like Apple’s Garageband presume significant musical knowledge. Would-be dance producers who have access to formal music education are ill served by Eurocentric teaching methods and curricula. By and large, those wishing to learn drum programming are largely left to their own devices. This is unfortunate, because learning how to create beats does not only benefit electronic dance musicians. The ability to actively create and alter rhythms and to match their visual notation with the resulting sounds in real time sharpens the rhythmic abilities of any musician.

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Carl Sagan explains why Pong is good for you

From from Sagan’s highly-recommended 1977 book The Dragons Of Eden:

There is a popular game, sometimes called Pong, which simulates on a television screen a perfectly elastic ball bouncing between two surfaces. Each player is given a dial that permits him to intercept the ball with a movable “racket”. Points are scored if the motion of the ball is not intercepted by the racket. The game is very interesting. There is a clear learning experience involved which depends exclusively on Newton’s second law for linear motion. As a result of Pong, the player can gain a deep intuitive understanding of the simplest Newtonian physics – a better understanding even than that provided by billiards, where the collisions are far from perfectly elastic and where the spinning of the pool balls interposes more complicated physics.

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How has the representation of the human body changed in modern and contemporary art over the last 100 years?

Big question! First, a little philosophical throat-clearing: I don’t believe that modern/contemporary art is as radical a break with the past as it likes to think. I had an art professor in college argue that, really, all abstract art is representational, and all representational art is abstract. Any abstract art has to refer to particular sensory impressions that the artist has had, because there’s nothing else we have to draw on for material. No matter how crazy the art is, we can’t help but look for signs of the physical world in it. Meanwhile, even the most photorealist painting is still abstract. You’d never be fooled by a painting into thinking you were looking out a window. Ultimately, it’s just static blobs of color on a flat surface; you have to do quite a bit of interpretive work to be “convinced” by the illusion.

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My first foray into iOS music

I’ve toyed around with several iPhone and iPad music apps. Many are intriguing and fun, but few have inspired me into making “real” music. In preparation for the next Disquiet Junto project, I downloaded Nodebeat and tried some improvisation. I like the result:

[iframe_loader width=”100%” height=”166″ scrolling=”no” frameborder=”no” src=”http://w.soundcloud.com/player/?url=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F46825761&show_artwork=true”]

The app combines randomness and control in an intriguing way. I also like the fine microtonal control it gives you. You can also use it as a MIDI controller for other software, though I haven’t given that a try yet. If you want to try it for yourself and you don’t have an iOS or Android device, you can snag the desktop version, for free no less.

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Improvisation in music games

Joshua Pablo Rosenstock. Free Play Meets Gameplay: iGotBand, a Video Game for Improvisers. Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 20, pp. 11–15, 2010.

Guitar Hero, Rock Band and games like them have done a wonderful service to non-musicians. The games give a good sense of what playing an instrument in a band is like. The interface is simplified, but the overall experience is qualitatively remarkably similar. The games also change their players’ listening habits. A non-musician friend told me that until he played through Beatles Rock Band as Paul McCartney, he had never paid attention to a song’s bassline. Now he hears all those familiar Beatles songs in a new and richer way, and generally has learned to listen like a musician.

There is one crucial difference between the games and real music-making, however, and that is the absence of improvisation. The player moves through the song like a train on a track, and the games penalize any variation from the prescribed notes. Not all real-life music is improvisational either, but there is usually some element of personal expressiveness. Not so in Guitar Hero. Mimicry is the only way to play.

The South Park kids get their Guitar Hero on

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