Virtual Finance Teaches Real Financial Skills in Second Life

Virtual Finance Teaches Real Financial Skills in Second Life 150 150 GAMESFWD

Ohio University has launched Virtual Finance, a game set on Credit Union Island in the virtual world of Second Life. Created with teenagers in mind, the game guides players through real-life financial decisions like taking out a college loan, making car payments and buying a home.

With many high school students having little to no financial education, the island plans to become a new vehicle for awareness to help teens better understand important financial decisions. The game which is currently accessible to any users of the teen grid in Second Life, bids on attracting students with its appealing, Web-based environment. It also hopes to prove the effectiveness of immersive technology in education.

Ohio University was one of the first to develop functioning campuses in Second Life, offering classes in subjects ranging from English to engineering. Roger Shelor, a professor of Finance at the University’s School of Business, participated in the development of Credit Union Island and regards it as a great new learning tool.

“I’ve had a couple opportunities to share parts of the game with my undergraduate business students and our professional MBA students, and all of them have given me a lot of positive feedback,” Shelor said.

Credit Union Island is powered by the Virtual Immersive Technologies and Arts for Learning Laboratory (VITAL Lab). The multidisciplinary research and development facility located at Ohio University is sponsored by Members United Corporate Federal Credit Union and the Filene Research Institute, a think tank for the credit union industry.

The VITAL Lab is also behind other inworld projects, including a partnership with the Smithsonian Institute to build the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum in Second Life, scheduled to open publicly March 2009.

“We’ve been working on the forefront of immersive technologies in learning applications for a few years,” said Dr. Chang Liu, VITAL Lab director and associate professor of computer science in the Russ College of Engineering and Technology.

“This project gave us an opportunity to collaborate internally with the university’s education and finance departments and externally with the credit union industry to make a real-world impact in this important area,” added Liu.

Unveiled in February 2009, Virtual Finance is said to take about 30 minutes to complete, though expansions are already in the works. A second phase of development will include additional features like roads and highways for players to drive on, credit cards and a shopping mall to purchase furniture for their homes.

“We are very excited about releasing the first generation of Virtual Finance. This has been a collaborative effort to enhance financial education for youth, while making it more engaging, and more importantly, more effective than traditional education methods,” said Scott Moriarty, of the Filene Research Institute.

Mathew Kumar on Why Virtual Worlds Miss the Mark

Mathew Kumar on Why Virtual Worlds Miss the Mark 150 150 GAMESFWD

Speaking at an International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Ottawa event on February 26, 2009, Gamasutra contributing editor and one of Canada’s most renowned games journalists Mathew Kumar discussed the place of virtual world games in the video game industry.

Not shy to express his dislike for the concept as it has been executed so far, Kumar pointed out some of these games’ essential flaws to an intimate crowd at Ottawa’s bitHeads Studio. The event was organized as part of the Interactive Ontario gTalk game industry speaker series.

Kumar was quick to highlight that virtual worlds, which are usually based on social interaction functions, rarely succeed in their goal of being effective vehicles for social interaction. While their developers and marketers portray them as a great way to meet new people, most players don’t take advantage of these features.

Kumar could not deny the odd cases of individuals having met their wives or husbands playing World of Warcraft, but said that this was unusual and that he long ago stopped considering these individuals as part of the “mainstream”.

The Gamasutra writer compared these games with networking websites such as Facebook, where the key to social interaction is having an initial and real-life connection with those you call your friends. In virtual world games, players usually jump in with very few real-life acquaintances to connect with, which seriously limits the social component of these games. Most individuals don’t want to “get to know” people beyond the context of the game – which barely differentiates a virtual world from another video game with online multiplayer capabilities.

In Kumar’s opinion, most virtual worlds are bad. The way they come to exist plays a large role in their inadequacies, though Kumar does not expect much for the genre in any case. He explains that virtual world game developers often have little to no experience in “traditional” game development and are often backed by venture capitalists who know even less about what gamers want and like.

During the Q&A; session following the talk, Kumar explored a few of these games drawing attention to some of their main flaws. Speaking about Second Life, he said that much of the reason why this game touched the imagination of mainstream media was that it was the first big hit of its genre. However, he mentions that the Second Life user base is growing stagnant and even dwindling now, proving its weak long-term potential.

Sony’s PlayStation Home is another example of a poorly executed virtual world. In this case, creators were all too eager to include an endless amount of features, but never took the time to fully implement them. The result is a boring community space offering little to do other than staring at other’s avatars or waiting in line for one of the three chess boards. Kumar explains that this is the reason why many people have created their own fun, chasing around women avatars and attempting to “rape” them, for example.

Policing these environments, or the absence of such policing, is another issue with many virtual worlds that allow user-created content. Playing a game like Second Life may not be for everyone due to the sheer randomness (and overall deviant tone) of its user-generated content. Other games like EVE Online are simply too complex to be accessible to average players, though they present a detailed virtual world and a remarkable economic structure.

So what is the future of virtual world games according to Mathew Kumar? Perhaps none at all. Mathew Kumar urges game developers to stick to real games as the virtual world genre’s failures and inherent flaws are bound to doom it.

Teaching that Works the Imagination

Teaching that Works the Imagination 150 150 GAMESFWD

When almost all of the teens in today’s schools report playing video games and half of them noting they played “yesterday”, it is no surprise that more educators are looking at the medium to strengthen their curriculums.

This alternate means of conveying information is very promising and allows students who used to lag behind their peers to catch up and excel in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. Putting students in front of educational games creates a hands-on experience, which for many helps develop critical-thinking skills and enhances their understanding.

“Many academically low-performing students do as well as their high-performing peers [in these games],” said Chris Dede, a professor of learning technologies at Harvard Graduate School of Education, quoted in Scientific American. “By stepping out of their real-world identity of poor performer academically, [this] shifts their frame of self reference to successful scientist in the virtual context.” More…

According to the Software and Information Industry Association, instructional games make up only a tiny portion of the $2 billion-a-year educational-software industry. As the effectiveness of these games becomes more widely recognized, this proportion is set to increase.

“There is a revolution in the understanding of the educational community that video games have a lot of what we need,” said Jan Plass, co-director of the Games for Learning Institute which is based at New York University and financed by Microsoft to research how video games can assist learning.

“You can get more data in a video game than in any other education area,” said Jim Brazell, president of – speaking at the Florida Education Technology Conference in January 2009.

“Unlike lectures, games can be adapted to the pace of the user,” says Merrilea Mayo, director of future of learning initiatives at the Kauffman Foundation. “Games also simultaneously present information in multiple visual and auditory modes, which capitalizes on different learning styles.”

“Although traditional education institutions pride themselves on educating citizens they do so at a relatively small scale compared with the media now available,” says Mayo, who recently published a study on instructional games in Science Magazine.

She also points out that studies have shown that video games can lead to a 7 to 40 percent improvement in learning over a lecture program. River City for example, a game which looks a bit like Second Life and portrays how three diseases simultaneously affect health in a fictitious city, significantly improved the scores of poorly performing students that played the game, earning them Bs instead of Ds.

And new games keep on sprouting. In December 2008, Software Kids, LLC, released a game titled Time Engineers  which teaches engineering, science, and math in a fun and appealing way. Designed to help middle and high school students explore and apply some of the fundamental principles of engineering, the game takes students to three different time periods presenting them with typical engineering problems to be solved in order to build pyramids, irrigate farm land, command a WWII submarine, raise and lower medieval drawbridges, for example.

“We’re driven by two clear facts: that careers in the sciences are somehow perceived as not as prestigious, lucrative, or cool as other careers, and that the gaming software industry has been unwilling to develop quality educational products to address these issues,” said  Ray Shingler, co-founder of Software Kids, LLC.

Tabula Digita is already preparing to release a sequel to its flagship title DimensionM. The new game, DimensionM Multiplayer 2.0 expands on the original with an extended curriculum promoting over 200 math skills for students in grades 3-12.

“In the past, when students were taught math, they were taught from a different textbook with little continuity from one grade to the next,” said Ntiedo Etuk, chief executive officer of Tabula Digita, in a news release. “With this expansion of DimensionM students will play and learn from the same educational platform with grade-specific content from elementary through high school.”

“The instructions, the activities, even the shortcuts can be applied from early multiplication skills to Algebra II content. We believe this will provide a profound connection from year to year, leading to greater comprehension and quicker mastery of important math skills,” said Etuk.

DreamBox Learning is yet another example, having recently unveiled a video game website teaching math to children in kindergarten through second grade. Children pick a scene, like an arcade or an adventure park, and a character, like a dinosaur or a pirate, and play an online game with a hidden math lesson.

“The hallmark of the product is it’s real math, but children think it’s a game,” said Lou Gray, DreamBox Learning’s chief executive officer. “We founded the company with the idea that every student deserves an individually tailored education.”

DreamBox explains that unlike some of its competitors, their game customizes lessons by constantly analyzing how many questions a child answers correctly and how they performed in the past, how long they take to answer a question and how many hints they needed. “There are over a million paths a child could take through the DreamBox curriculum”, Gray says.

Emphasising this point, Timothy J. Magner, the director of educational technology for the Education Department of the U.S. Government, explains that games have the potential to become powerful assessment tools. Since computers can capture data about every player move and that teachers can see “at the mouse-click level” how students make decisions and when they struggle, education games can help monitor progress and pinpoint specific areas of difficulty with each student.

Overcoming Game Accessibility Barriers with One Switch

Overcoming Game Accessibility Barriers with One Switch 150 150 GAMESFWD

Barriers to accessibility are numerous for disabled individuals. This is true in many aspects of life, including video gaming, though this medium is sometimes the only escape from the hardship of reality. and its founder Barrie Ellis are focused on providing solutions for disabled gamers, as well as advocating the need for better understanding of the limits video game companies sometimes unknowingly place upon this segment of the market. Inaccessible controllers and game software are a large problem and unfortunately their makers are rarely part of the solution.

Though the idea for one-switch accessibility was not his, Barrie Ellis took it upon himself to actively promote it. He explains that he first came across this concept when working for a small number of severely disabled adults in an early 1990’s day centre.

“Here I found an accessible computer suite which included touch screens, gated joysticks and large (wooden) switches with interfaces to connect to 1981 BBC Micro computers. The software was mostly educational with a number of switch games dating from 1990,” said Ellis, in an email interview with Game Forward.

“I saw the benefits of this stuff pretty swiftly. It gave power to people who had almost none at that time. It gave people a chance to take an active part instead of being passive and just watching or having people do things hand over hand. I started to write my own software and devices which took me down a route that eventually ended up with me wanting to share some of the knowledge:”

One-switch interfaces include any device that allows individuals to control a computer or game console using separate plug-in switches. “Disabled people can then play many games using a variety of body movements, or even eye-blinks, where a traditional controller might be too difficult. Switch Interfaces are also known to some as adaptive, accessible or enabling technology,” explains the site.

The One Switch website includes a number of resources for those seeking accessibility in video gaming, but also in other aspects of their lives. The site’s Accessible Gaming Shop provides information and links to accessible gaming products’ dealers and makers. These products include switches, one-handed controllers, large controllers, adapters, head-mouth-and-eye controllers, mounting solutions, tailor-made controllers, games and other software utilities.

Launched officially in June 2003, the site is a continual work-in-progress. An educational resource for those who want to adapt their controllers to their personal needs, it also presents a series of helpful do-it-yourself tips and guides. One Switch also details the difficulties many disabled gamers face. According to Ellis, the greatest obstacle to accessible gaming remains ignorance.

“Many disabled gamers aren’t aware of some of the solutions that do exist. Many game designers aren’t aware of some of the small changes that could make a huge difference. It’s not all the designers fault though. There isn’t a comprehensive gathering of accessible design solutions in one-place. It tends to be quite scattered. Some groups are working on this, especially the International Game Developers Association’s Game Accessibility Special Interest Group (GASIG) but there’s a long way to go,” comments Ellis.

One Switch’s close association with the GASIG and other groups interested in the promotion of video game accessibility has already yielded some positive results.

“[There is a] growing amount of interest, support and exciting projects in the indie scene. There’s been a growth of great accessible gaming websites such as and Game Forward,” said Barrie Ellis. “There’s been some fantastic research and initiatives, such as UA-Games Game Over, the world’s most inaccessible game (aimed at showing designers some of the problems inaccessible games pose). I’ve seen support grow in the mainstream press with a growing number of sympathetic articles. I’ve seen many more PC indie games with deliberate accessibility features being created.”

Today’s gaming options have their share of hits and miss when it comes to creating user-friendly controls and interfaces. Ellis believes the PlayStation 2 continues to be number one for gamer accessibility.

“Although it posed some of the biggest barriers with it’s highly complicated JoyPad [sic], the fact that such a huge range of controllers came out for it, including one-handed, large button, dance-mats, arcade sticks and so on gave many more physically disabled gamers a chance of playing.”

“It’s also had the best support of all consoles with accessible game controllers such as the Dream-Gamer, C-SID, Quadcontroller and PS2-SAP. Compatibility with the PSone brings even more excellent accessible games. All of this is enough to take the prize,” finds Ellis.

The Nintendo Wii remains the runner up. “You can’t knock the fact that this fine little machine has brought a huge range of previously non-interested video gamers to the fold. Largely due to the simple (fairly) intuitive controls for many of its games. The big problem with this machine is that there’s no support for navigating the menus with anything but the Wii-remote. If you’re a switch gamer – you may find the machine poses some very annoying and unnecessary barriers.”

The least accessible console remains the Xbox 360 due to its limited selection of controllers and the fact that many third party controllers cannot be directly used without a converter which can cost over a hundred dollars.

Ellis is officially the only one working on One Switch, though his success comes with the help and support of his partner Caron and their daughter Katie. His work with other groups and organizations has also been invaluable in promoting gamer accessibility.

“My C-SID switch interface controller was born from collaborating with Ultimarc. [Almost] 95% of the one-switch games in my one-switch library have come through tying up with the ever marvellous Retro Remakes community. Through Retro Remakes I met the programmer William Pilgrim who is working with me on one-switch music, stories and games. I do love the way that one thing leads to another.”

The rewards of accessible gaming are often as simple as a thank you note. Ellis notably shares one of these recent rewarding messages on the One Switch Blog:

“I am Colin McDonnell… You made me a C-SID for Christmas. You have made my Christmas, thank you very much, it is brilliant. Now I can play on the PlayStation and GameCube / Wii with my brothers and sisters. My favourite games are racing games, fighting games and I even go on Zelda with a little help from my sister. To use the control I only really use my head. I have three switches on my head rest and sometimes I have a fourth one on my tray depending on what game I’m playing.”

Colin is just one example of gamers helped by One Switch through its resources and advocacy.