Serious Fun

WIDE ANGLE / by Evan Lerner /

Kodu doesn’t have realistic graphics, huge explosions, or even a way to win. But it just might change the way we think about the world.

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“The starting position on video games is skepticism,” said New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in his keynote address to this May’s Games for Change Conference in New York City. In its sixth year, the conference is a gathering of developers, academics, and activists intent on using the medium of games for social and educational messages. Kristof was there to discuss his forthcoming social-networking game—an extension of his work on gender inequality and an endorsement of games as something more than mindless entertainment. “I think the way to change that perception is just the record of success in connecting to audiences,” he said.

But on what level are games connecting? The game industry’s roughly $26 billion a year in software sales is on par with Hollywood’s yearly box-office receipts, but the public conception of games remains closer to checkers than to Citizen Kane.

That perception may begin to change next Tuesday when Microsoft Research is slated to release Kodu for Xbox 360. Using terrain-drawing tools and an intuitive graphical programming language, players can design, play, and share a wide variety of 3D games. 

With no adrenaline-soaked violence, no plot, narrative, or even defined goals, Kodu challenges expectations of what a game entails. But it also embodies a form of communication that reflects some of the fundamental aspects of human cognition and learning. As such, Kodu may epitomize how games are uniquely capable of marrying traditional storytelling with the complexities of the real world. 

The growing “serious games” movement seeks to show off this potential, but selling “serious” in a medium synonymous with “fun” is no easy task. Sitting down with a heavy-handed, good-for-you-game is like getting a plate of broccoli when you ordered the chocolate cake. While advocacy groups might support them as communication or outreach tools, “broccoli” games are not exactly ready to become a part of the mainstream industry’s business plans.   

Aimed at younger demographic than the 18- to 34-year-old hardcore gamer and slated to retail as an $5 download, Kodu won’t compete on the level of a game like Grand Theft Auto IV, which brought in more than $500 million in its first week of sales. But for a game where players learn the basics of computer programming, it’s notable that Kodu is being sold at all. Other games of its ilk generally exist in the educational or hobbyist world. 

Kodu is different. Drawing equally from Lego and Logo, the kid-friendly graphical programming language developed in the late 1960s, the game’s developers hope to sail its educational content under children’s radars by wrapping it in pure imaginative play.

Just as a child is equally likely to turn a pile of Lego bricks into a spaceship or a skyscraper, Kodu’s players can use its programming tools to create a dungeon crawler, a shoot-’em up, or side-scrolling platformer. Novices can learn the basics by playing a number of pre-built games, then take them apart and tweak their rules.

Kodu’s editing screen. The pictured instructions tell a computer-controlled character to move toward apples when it sees them, then turn a random color when it eats them. Image courtesy of Microsoft Research

Players do this by choosing from menus and sub-menus of icons representing all of the behaviors and traits a player might want to assign to a game object. Arranging them in ordered rows allows players to build nested “if/then” statements, such as “if a ball bumps into a flying saucer, and if the ball is blue, then the flying saucer explodes, and then player’s score goes up by 100.” These complex sets of rules can be ascribed to game characters, which can be copied as needed, allowing for simple object-oriented programming.

Those rules can also be edited while a game is being played; swapping “the ball bounces” for “the flying saucer explodes” quickly turns a Space Invaders–type game into something resembling Pong. Knowing which rules need to be changed to create a particular kind of game demonstrates a solid understanding of conditional logic, as well as a certain degree of ingenuity.

Not wearing its educational agenda on its sleeve may make Kodu feel more like cake than broccoli, but it also addresses a deeper criticism of serious games: They don’t take full advantage of their differences from other media. Playing a game about a topic may be more immersive than simply reading about it, but most games still take players through a relatively linear story; the gameplay mechanics don’t allow for more than a handful of predetermined outcomes.

In Kodu the outcomes—the games a player can make—are almost limitless, but are ultimately beside the point: The take-away lessons of the game are encoded in the process, rather than the product.

“If you look at painting, film, or writing, none of them are going to do things that you didn’t tell them to do explicitly. When you’re making a simulation, you’re watching situations unfold and waiting for them to surprise you,” says Matthew MacLaurin, Kodu’s lead designer. “So the core of Kodu is simulation design; the programming is secondary to that.”

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