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Developer Interview: Martin Campion

September 1st, 2007 by Troy Goodfellow · 14 Comments · Education, History, Interview

A few months ago I wrote about a strategy game from the distant past, Medieval Lords: Soldier Kings of Europe. The game’s developer, Martin Campion, stumbled upon the entry and commented. He graciously agreed to answer a few questions on his experiences developing simulation games. Though Campion has been away from the computer game business for some time, his experiences in the early efforts to translate education to the gaming sphere add insight that is often lacking from this blog.

How would you describe the evolution of classroom simulations since you began using them?

I’m not sure there has been any evolution, partly because I have been out of action since 1994. There has definitely been a technological change, with first the personal computer revolution and then the rapid evolution of personal computer technology.. So now it is possible to have educational games of surpassing elegance and usefulness – games in which each participant has his own networked computer for example. But are there any such games available? Or any demand for such games? It is plain that, since 1967, when I started using a board game called Diplomacy in my course War in Western Civilization, the technology of commercial games has gone from less than zero to some absurdly large number. But do classroom games take advantage of this technology? I do not have much real information, but I would guess that most teachers still either make up their own games or adapt board or computer games that are primarily entertainment games, just as I did in 1967.

There seems to be less pedagogic resistance to using games and simulations in the classroom, in theory, but in practice they still seem rare. Why is that?

Generally speaking, people will teach as they have been taught, for example through lectures, writing assignments, attempted discussions, etc. Besides, games are noisy and disorderly, and some teachers and administrators hate that. Furthermore, games do not teach particular facts very well – in fact will teach facts that never happened, like that Lee won the Battle of Gettysburg on the second day. Moreover, the things that games do teach cannot be tested on very easily, and primary and secondary education these days seems to be dedicated more and more to teaching things that can be the subjects of standardized tests.

My daughter made a good living for some 10 years selling a device called Brainchild to schools. Brainchild is a dedicated handheld computer with cartridge-based software. The software runs in learning mode which allows the student to test himself with multiple-choice questions, and also instructs him about why a previous answer was wrong. It also runs in testing mode where the student is timed and an evaluation is calculated at the end. Schools have had money to invest in these devices, and I have gotten the impression that schools are investing in computer hardware, but I also have the impression that investment in software is overwhelmingly investment in the same kind of software that Brainchild runs—software that can be tied directly to state standards. My daughter informs me that there is money for things like games, but very little compared to other kinds of software.

I have lurked for many years on a list-served discussion which discuses the military use of war games, including both military-contracted games and those which have been developed commercially and adapted to military training. A recurrent question in this discussion is, “Why does the military not use games more?” or, alternately, “Why does the military not have more money to spend on games?” The answer often boils down to a question of personality.. Colonel x was assigned to command n, and while he was there, games in training thrived. Then he left, his successor had no interest in the subject, and games disappeared. So it would seem for civilian education. A particular person introduces games into the curriculum. When he goes, so do they. The main difference would be that military people rotate at a much greater speed than people in education.

What separates a good simulation-game from a bad one?

I can only speak about historical simulation-games. A good game will put a player in a position where he is surrounded by conditions that are analogous to historical conditions, and is able to make decisions that are analogous to the decisions that historical characters had to make. Or it may put a player in a more godlike position, making kinds of decisions that no specific historical person ever did. In a typical historical war game, for example, the player is not just in the position of the general, but also the colonels, the captains, the sergeants, and even the privates. Of course a game may be a great game without being a good simulation-game.

A lot of strategy gamers are convinced that they are learning important things by playing Europa Universalis III or Civilization. As an educator, what do you look for when you consider a game “educational”?

I have not played Europa Universalis. I played the earliest version of Civilization several times, but never really learned to play it. However, I have read about the two games and I am certainly willing to pronounce them “educational” without much further investigation. But I doubt that they are very useful classroom games, except maybe for a upper division- or graduate-level course. They are too complex. I thought that Medieval Lords was about as complex as a classroom game could get, and it is simple compared to the games you’ve mentioned. I used to look at computer games as possible classroom games, and rejected most of them because they were not multi-player. Now games are usually multi-player, but often complex enough to demand hours of preparation time. These games also advertise their ability to be edited, and it may be that some of the complexity can be edited out of them, but I don’t know. A teacher could perhaps spend a lot of time editing a game to be presented to a class, but he can’t afford the class time to teach an excessively complex game instead of playing it. Back in the 60’s and 70’s I would sometimes use board war games that were really too complex for the classroom, but I was able to use them because I was able to make modifications on the fly and had the knowledge of the game to force students past any road blocks. Later, when I ran my own computer games, I was often able to make modifications on the fly and again use force. A great classroom game today would allow fast, easy control on the part of the teacher over the game rules and the game data.

In your teaching days, you ran a simulation based on Slavery. Are there risks in running a simulation where the historical facts are important, but the facts are, in fact, criminal and, for many, personal? (Genocide, slavery, Jim Crow, etc.)

My game, Masters and Slaves, was about master-slave relationships in the pre-Civil War South. In my introduction to that game, I wrote

A colleague who has used the game occasionally in his classes, has said that the only thing wrong with it is that it makes slavery fun. Which is true. The game does not result in any real breaking of hearts or bodies or even pocketbooks, and therefore does not generate the grimness that was slavery. A class playing the game is liable to loosen up a lot and indulge in a lot of pseudo-gallows humor. But at the same time the game reflects vividly the day-to-day realities of slavery as a human institution and is an excellent vehicle for sensitizing students to those realities.

And yet, I have always been a little uncertain about this game. Have I really treated the subject as truthfully as I wanted to? I have not hesitated to use it myself, but I have not promoted it for use by others as enthusiastically as I might have. I am in the process of rethinking the game and maybe that rethinking will be followed by more promotion.

How did your relationship with SSI begin?

It took me about 10 years to design my first computer game (1974-1984). I used a mainframe computer accessed through an IBM-Selectric terminal, then a TRS-80, and finally an Apple IIe, a machine granted to me by the Apple Education Foundation. The game evolved from a computer-moderated board game to a regular computer game. When I thought it was ready for publication, I briefly debated whether I would contact Avalon Hill first or SSI first. AH had been publishing some very poor games, so I decided to give SSI the first chance to refuse me. I wrote SSI a letter roughly describing the game, called Rails West!, and they wrote back that they might be interested since they had nothing like it in their plans. Then I sent it to them. They replied with a contract and a bushel basket full of necessary changes. Also they said that the game would have to be adapted to either the Atari 800 or the Commodore 64 as well as the Apple II. I carefully compared the two and chose the C64. They responded that they really thought that I should make the 2nd computer the Atari. Later on, after I had fulfilled that obligation, they said that I really should do it for the C64 too. So it came out for all three. After doing the 3 versions of RW! I started on another game, a grand strategy game on World War II. When that did not gel, I started on Medieval Lords, a subject suggested to me by Chuck Kroegel, then with SSI. They accepted that too, and it was finally published for the PC and the C64.

Medieval Lords stands out, for me, as one of the best games of its type in its time. Was it a commercial success?

Yes and no. RW! (1984) was more of a success because it sold about 7,000 copies, while ML (1991) only sold about 7,000 copies. In both cases, I was impressed but SSI wasn’t. RW’s 7,000 copies were not quite up to snuff, but at least it got a number of awards and SSI got a plaque to put on their wall. ML impressed them even less, because not only was 7,000 a smaller number in 1991 than it had been in 1984, but also ML did not get the same critical acclaim.

On the other hand, when I talked to colleagues who had published scholarly books and told them my games had sold 7,000 copies each, they said “Wow!” because their books, like 99.9% of scholarly books, had sold maybe 1-2,000 copies.

How did it work as a classroom sim?

I used it often, but I never heard of anyone else using it. It became a major part of my World Civilization 101 (pre-history to 1500) course. I divided the class into 5-6 countries, and played the game for 10 class sessions, starting in 1028 or 1360 and playing 20-30 years. Debriefing was by means of written reports in addition to continuous discussion of the ongoing game. I ran the game at the rate of one classroom session per week, from the beginning of the semester. That meant that the students were gaming the Middle Ages long before they arrived at that subject in the book or the lectures, near the end of the semester. The game seemed to make the subject of feudal monarchies much more accessible to the students when they studied it in the normal way. Then the students gave the game high scores in their end-of-semester evaluations.

Have you done much software development since then?

While I was still in Pittsburg, Kansas, I worked with a colleague on several games. He developed them and I programmed them. Then I did several different versions of Masters and Slaves.

I have done some business programs for a few businesses here in Louisville, and some web sites for two businesses run by my daughter and my son-in-law (both of whom decided eventually to give their sites to someone else). I have also developed some sites for myself (mccprogramming.com). I am constantly tinkering with a Rails West!-type game, and a little game called Tic Tac Toe++ for 3 or 4 persons which I have developed mainly for the purpose of testing online/multiplayer techniques. I have developed 2 graphics programs, one for drawing game boards for a racing game called Speed Circuit and the other for drawing hexagon sheets.

What’s your take on the Serious Game phenomenon?

In 1970, Clark Abt published a book called Serious Games: The Art and Science of Games that Simulate Life. I never read the book but the title demonstrates that the current idea is not new. I have not studied the current phenomenon either, but I have read a bit about it, and looked at the one historical game that is often mentioned in the articles, Making History, a game about World War II from Muzzy Lane, which seems promising to me. My only reservation is that Serious Games now seem to mean elaborately produced computer games with animated graphics, sounds, music, a development team of thousands (sorry, I got carried away), A game on the subject of World War II like Making History might carry such an effort partly because it will attract a military audience and a hobby audience as well as an educational one. But how many subjects are there with such an appeal? Also I am not sure there is any room these days for the one-man game development shop (like mine).


14 Comments so far ↓

  • MalcolmM

    I never played Medieval Lords, but Rails West was a favourite of mine. I played the Atari version. It was one of the few games that made good use of a printer.

    I remember playing game with a friend, we would print out our turn information and study it while the other player was taking their turn. Primative graphics and interface, but loads of fun. I just checked and found I have my orginal copy of the game, sure brings back fond memories.

  • Scott R. Krol

    “Also I am not sure there is any room these days for the one-man game development shop (like mine).”

    Someone needs to tell him about the wonderful world of indie gaming!

  • Michael A.

    Thanks Troy & Martin. Both enlightening and fun – especially reading about an old favorite. ML is one of the games I have looked at every now and then, while trying to puzzle out political systems for Imperium.

    Fortunately, Martin is wrong about there no longer being room for one-man development shops. They may not be as prominent as back when Medieval Lords was created, but they still exist.

    Frank Hunter (Guns of August), is the obvious one to point out. But just the ones I know about on the Turn-based front: Philippe Malacher – sole developer on Birth of America (granted, with a good support organization); Hubert Carter – Strategic Command 1 & 2, Vic Davis (Cryptic Comet Games) – Armageddon Empires, Victor R. – Peoples Tactics and Advanced Tactics (to be published by Matrix Games), and Scott Lantz – Land of Legends. I believe Commander: Europe at War may also have been developed by a single programmer/artist pair.

    Granted – I do try to keep track (Turn-Based game developers of the world unite! ;-) ), but still I think that is a pretty encompasing list.

    I can’t imagine it has ever been easy to succeed as a “single man” development team, but I think the advent of internet distribution has actually made it easier rather than harder. One can go entirely independent (e.g., Cryptic Comet), or utilize the internet publishing networks – and because the initial overhead to publish is relative small, it is fairly easy to publish even totally niche products.

    Heck – an updated Medieval Lords might even sell more copies today than it did in 1991.

  • Troy

    I think you’re right about a new Medieval Lords doing well. I look at Armageddon Empires and the strong word of mouth it is building (in spite of woeful documentation) and can easily foresee how it would be a cult hit. Hell, look at Dwarf Fortress – it even got a feature profile in a major PC gaming magazine, something you can’t say about many ASCII titles.

    The indie/online delivery/order system is, I think, where much strategy gaming is at the moment and here is where a bedroom developer can do fairly well. They’ll never compete with the Company of Heroes crowd, but they don’t have to.

  • Bruce

    I’ m just curious if, in the long history of “educational games,” anyone has actually done any research to see if these games teach anything, and if so, if it’s the intended thing.

  • Alan

    All games teach something. The question is whether or not players are learning what you think the games are teaching. On the subject of Serious Games, my opinion is that the field is split into two schools of thought, one dominated by the old-school edutainment folks keen on integrating new game technologies (often with mixed results), and the new-school “motivate first, teach second” people, who believe that games only work for education if you can keep the player engaged. I’m in the second camp, although it’s the more difficult sell in a social climate that treats games as nothing more than entertainment.

  • Troy

    At Origins, James Sterritt gave a presentation on simulations in the Defense Department and he argued that simulation games on their own don’t teach much of anything, that they require a teacher/instructor to intervene and make sense of the “lesson”. Games, after all, have limitations and should be addressed with the same skeptical eye that students should use on traditional texts.

    In my teaching experience, the debrief is the essential part of any game-centered teaching, be it a computer game or a more traditional stock market competition.

    I’m sure longitudinal research is being done, but field research in education is complicated by a lot of factors. How do you isolate the game lessons from the rest of the teaching being done? If you use a laboratory setting, how experienced is the lab instructor in basic pedagogy? Every teacher will tell you that lessons take time to perfect, so how much time has the instructor had with the product?

  • Bruce

    Yeah, I don’t buy the idea that games inherently “teach” anything, except the obvious things like hitting ‘ B’ key selects your barracks. I don’t count that as a life lesson. Plus, you have to be really careful or the lesson you will end up teaching is that the pre-1941 Germans should have had one more combat factor available and they could have combined with airborne assault to get a 1:1 on London. I understand the need to be skeptical of “traditional texts,” but I’m going to be a lot more respectful of Brenan’s The Spanish Labyrinth than I am of some guy’s Spanish Civil War game where he made the Condor Legion so overpowered that with minimal Fascist commitment you can win the war in two game turns.

    There was a great article in The New Republic a few months ago that talked about the decline of academic military history, which it seems you can even read online here


    so why am I paying money to Franklin Foer? So he can pay for more fabricated Scott Thomas Beauchamp articles? Anyway. My question is, who is going to teach me these lessons? Niall Ferguson? I need to trust this guy’s military history knowledge *and* game design skills? No thanks.

    This is also fun:

    Campion: “I have not played Europa Universalis. I played the earliest version of Civilization several times, but never really learned to play it. However, I have read about the two games and I am certainly willing to pronounce them “educational” without much further investigation.”

    Sounds great! here is my proposition: the next time he needs surgery, I propose some experimental technique that I have never done, but which I am certainly willing to pronounce therapeutic without without much further investigation. Want to submit yourself to that, Martin?

    If people want to really take education in games seriously, they need to start thinking rigorously about education and games.

  • Troy

    Texts are superior as teaching tools to games for a lot of reasons. Reading is a basic tool in university education, so all you need to teach the lesson is the text itself. As Campion notes, people often teach based on how they were taught, so there is a built-in familiarity with book and articles.

    It is easier to be critical of texts because they have a “point of view” that is readily distinguished. This is probably why Serious Games are getting a good look in academe because they are being designed with an obvious point of view. Peacemaker has very clear assumptions about the dynamic between Israel’s legitimate desire for security and the PA’s failure to provide elementary services to keep its people content. A Force More Powerful teaches organization as the key to a successful non-violent movement.

  • Pierre

    I am an old friend and colleague of Martin, and I discover this site with great interest. All of you will want the Special History Issue of Simulation & Gaming when it comes out. Among other things, I have a paper on how games help study history, from when I did a lot of research on the subject. I promise to return to this site and announce the publication of the issue.
    I used games massively in my history teaching. The trick is to use the game to establish hypotheses and method, and require research on the real events, which the students pursue with eagerness. I also used a largely increased (e.g., world map) Diplomacy. Masters and Slaves, translated into French, was also used in a Methods Course and a course on US history, along with a game on the 1787 convention by James Schick (also translated into French).
    Masters & Slaves translates well, and we also adapted the game to the conditions of nineteenth century French industrial workers.
    Classroom games work fine, but partly because of the interaction among the human players, who learn from that interaction. I am skeptical of computer games in classes, because of the absence of interaction. Graphics and high definition are indifferent to learning with games. Possibly, some interaction could be generated. The best use of a computer game would be to give a file of an ongoing game of, say, Civilization, to many two or three person teams, then compare the results at the end. The discussion and the research would be a good start on learning

  • Scott R. Krol

    But Bruce, why does it have to be an either/or type of thing? If “Serious Games” are used in teaching are they no worse than films, filmstrips, guest lectures, field trips, or anything else that fits along those lines? In your example yeah, if the OKW is having their staff officers do *nothing* but wargaming and assuming that they’re learning life lessons, that’s a problem. But if they wargame, and then from that experience the instructors are able to explain *why* you can’t add in one more CF and an AA, the students should have a better understanding of the situation.

    It’s like the Air Force Academy using Starcraft. No one in their right mind would think that Starcraft is a game that should be considered for a serious military application, but it’s not being used in that sense. The instructors are using it to showcase real-time decision making, the overall need to understand the changing fluidity of the battlefield, and logistics. It’s just a way to illustrate those concepts. It’s one thing to read a textbook or hear a professor expound on the importance of dealing with an ever changing situation, it’s another thing to experience it on an easy-to-understand level.

    That’s the key to “Serious Games”. They shouldn’t replace traditional methods of teaching, but simply complement them. Heck, even their name
    implies that they shouldn’t be taken too much to task. They’re Serious GAMES, not simulations.

    Along those lines I wonder if Peacemaker and A Force More Powerful are truly “Serious Games” or are they really just propaganda tools, that because they’re meant to be more informative than fun, get lumped into the category of “Serious Games”?

  • James S.

    Some research is being done, though there could stand to be more.

    Majors Jason Jones & Joseph Nolan did an MA thesis for the Naval Post-Graduate School on training cadets for live-fire ranges, using 6 hours with Black Hawk Down as a transition from chalkboard to live; Major George Kneuper did a larger experiment using the preparation for ROTC summer camps as an MA thesis for Old Dominion University (also using Black Hawk Down).

    In both cases, structured training tended to improve performance in the field, largely by providing an opportunity to figure out what the chalkboard diagrams meant before going out and trying to do the tasks while hot, sweaty, tired, etc.

    Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen wrote a Ph.D based on use of Europa Universalis in the classroom, “Beyond Edutainment: Exploring the Educational Potential of Computer Games” (University of Copenhagen, 2005). Likewise Kurt Squire’s “Replaying History” dissertation used Civilization III (Indiana University, 2004).

    In both cases, instructors who were better at using the tool got more out of it, and the tool was best at motivating the students to learn more from traditional sources and at getting them to think through interrelated factors – including challenging the game’s model. Instructors who were less able to use the tool got less from it. No surprise.

    I see the same pattern at work. Instructors who put in the effort to use the tool well get a lot out of it; those who don’t, don’t.

    Part of the point of the (ranting :) ) line that no sim every taught anybody anything is that too many instructors seem to expect the sim to teach for them…. sit students down in front of scenario X and see if they succeed.

    Unfortunately, teaching with sims *may be* (and I believe frequently *is*) more effective than teaching with traditional methods alone — BUT it is *harder* as well. It’s another tool that instructor must figure out and understand and master, to ensure that the lessons can be drawn from what happens in the sim.

    Regarding _A Force More Powerful_, I’ve tried it out, and it looks to me like a solid training tool; getting anywhere with its scenarios requires some pretty serious analysis of the situation, mapping out a plan with branches & sequels, and replanning during execution as necessary if/when prior planning assumptions prove invalid. If the training objective is to teach planning and basic analysis skills for a non-violent resistance movement, it (and the reference docos that come with it) delivers if you’re willing to put in the effort to learn. If AFMP wanted to preach, they’d be better off making the missions easy. :)

  • Michael A.

    As you state, James edu-games are simply a tool. Like any tool, it can be useful if applied correctly, less useful (or counterproductive) if not.

    Re: ML, I think the indie/internet pipeline has made possible the publishing of games that would have been difficult if not impossible in the past. High production values are not necessary for a game to gain a strong following – Dwarf Fortress perhaps being the best example.

    Armageddon Empires is perhaps the best example of a “one-man” development effort I’ve seen for a while, though; an excellent game and very polished to boot. As you say, it needs some work to reduce the learning curve. P.S. The cryptic comet blog should be of interest for you, Troy, if you haven’t already read it.

  • Alan

    So yes, Bruce’s caveat was the reason for my warning that games teach whether you want them to or not. The trick is of course to have them teach useful things instead of just historically-misleading fluff. The same can be said of any media, but the interactive component means that people are more inclined to apply whatever knowledge gained, whether accurate/useful or not.