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Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Campfire and the Veld

What follows is an excerpt from The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games, my 2009 500+ page reference for the production of interactive content.
Consider, as you are reading this, that schools are based on not just media, but "campfire" style media, which structurally prevents them from being able to teach any "learning to do" skill such as leadership, project management, even stewardship.

The Campfire and the Veld

One can imagine the time in our pre-Paleolithic history (in a time before consistent writing) when formal learning consisted of two balanced parts:

During the day, people with skills would show others how to do something. “Grab the spear here,” the teacher might say, taking the hands of the apprentice and putting them in the right spots. “Go over there in that veld where you won’t hurt anybody and throw your spear at trees until you can hit the smallest tree every time.”

While at night, people around the campfire might tell of great adventures, including myths and legends. People would share ideas, and help their community expand their thinking. The audience would learn to know something. The best story storytellers would gain bigger audiences and develop their own craft of narrative and suspense.

Then came the technology of writing. And suddenly the balance shifted. Written work scaled well, where the work of one village could impact villages all around it. Communities were able to build on the “open source” written work of the past. The discipline of drama evolved geometrically.

Meanwhile, practicing in the veld didn’t change much. It was still a one-to-one activity.

Since the introduction of the technology of writing, many subsequent discoveries have further augmented the “learning to know”skills. Paintings, theaters, printing presses and books, photographs, schools, universities, sound recordings, movies, scanners, and Google all turned our culture into masters of linear content, enabling both great artists and our own building an exquisite vocabulary around plot devices, antagonists, suspense, and the hero’s journey, just to name a few. We can watch a Spielberg movie, a piece of campfire-style intellectual property that is the recipient of cumulatively trillions of dollars of investment and R&D, and evaluate it at a level of cultural sophistication that would awe citizens from a even a hundred years ago.

And yet, in the learning-to-do area, most of us are little better than our hunter-gatherer ancestors. For teaching the simplest skills, we mirror our ancestors (“put your hands here”), and for the more complicated skills, we don’t have a clue. Ask a top business school professor to develop leadership (or any of the big skills) in a student and she will go into campfire mode with PowerPoint slides of grids and graphs, case studies, and so-called inspirational stories.

The advent of flight simulators and computer games, however, has finally introduced technology and examples of media around learning to do that can scale. Today, there is a robust, if nascent, set of “veld” tools that is receiving a significant intellectual investment. Today’s “authors,” often in the form of game and simulation designers, are creating virtual velds where participants can repeatedly practice skills, instead of just hearing about them.

And, correspondingly, an entirely new language is being developed. Gamers now effortlessly talk about simulation content, such as mapping actions to interfaces, and the attributes of units on maps, as well as Sim elements such as end-of-level bosses and what constitutes good or bad level design.

During the next twenty years, the “veld” technologies (the learning-to-do skills built through games and simulations) will successfully challenge the campfire institutions of universities, movies, and books not only for the discretionary time of the community (which we have already seen), but for help in improving their people’s quality of life.

We see glimpses of the latter already available through both serious games, such as Carmen SanDiego, The Oregon Trail, Age of Empires, America’s Army, and Brain Age, and educational simulations, such as flight simulators, Full Spectrum Warrior, and Virtual Leader. Will Wright, the creator of SimCity, The Sims, and Spore, is the first Shakespeare or Beethoven of this medium.

In other words, people will engage Sims not to play a super-hero, but to actually become more like one. And the balance between learning to do and learning to know may finally be restored.

Excerpt from "The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games: How the Most Valuable Content Will Be Created in the Age Beyond Gutenberg to Google" By Clark Aldrich (©2009 Jossey-Bass)

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