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).