Educational games are receiving increasing interest from researchers and educators, yet are seemingly being ignored by the commercial video game industry. Most, if not all, educational games receive far less recognition than their big budget counterparts. In contrast, Kurt Squire (2003), an MIT researcher, suggests that we should be less interested in educational games and more interested in harnessing the power of commercial off the shelf games. Squire (2003) asserts further research in video games reveal “patterns in how humans interact with technology that become increasingly important to instructional technologists as they become designers of digital environments” (p. 3). Essentially, Squire contends that educators could learn how to use popular features from video games in order to integrate games into their own work. While using COTS in the classroom has benefits, we contend that tools such as RPG Maker allow for a type of inferential learning to take place through game design practices. That is, learners and educators can harness the power of popular video game software to inhibit types of learning contingent upon specific learning objects and outcomes.
The educational game industry has largely focused on early childhood type games (Fisch, 2005; Virvou, Katsionis, & Manos, 2005; Shute, Ventura, Bauer & Zapata-Rivera, 2009); however it is beginning to reach out to other demographics. For instance, Sean Duncan (2010) notes the ways in which Minecraft is being used for educational purposes. According to Duncan, Minecraft is a space where players can become engaged in creative acts that lead to further learning. The open world nature and in depth creation tools of Minecraft allow it to be a space to develop other games (games within the game), virtual spaces, and experiential experiments (Duncan, 2010, p. 14). Furthermore, Duncan (2010) writes that Minecraft should be considered as an instructional platform, citing instances such as “Massively Minecraft” which is a community of teachers exploring ways to use the game in their class room (p. 15). What is important to note here is the largest demographic of Minecraft players. Fifteen to twenty one year olds make up the largest demographic at 43%, followed by twenty two to thirty year olds at 21% (Minecraft Seeds, n.d.). Interestingly, the creators of Minecraft have realized the educational potential and have released a version of the game specifically for educators and researchers dubbed Minecraft: Education Edition which was officially released on November 1, 2016.
While Minecraft provides one example of how games are being used in an educational setting, Henry Jenkins and Kurt Squire write extensively about using commercial off the shelf (COTS) games as a source for learning. In their study, it was found that many issues with educational games is that they consist of “low quality, poor editing, and low production costs,” thus making them tedious or uninteresting to play. Jenkins and Squire state to counter this, educators should find ways to introduce COTS games into their lessons. The provided example is the use of the Civilization series, a series of games based in moving through the different ages of human history, to provide abstract lessons for understanding that are largely based on the goals players set for themselves (p. 10). The two go on to argue that open ended games like Civilization allow for players to become interested in learning areas that they may not have been:
Squire’s subjects largely hated social studies and resisted standardized school curricula they saw as propaganda. Several minority students were totally uninterested in playing the game until they realized that it was possible to win playing as an African or Native American civilization. These kids took great joy in studying hypothetical history, exploring the conditions under which colonial conquests might have played out differently (Squire & Jenkins, 2003, p. 11)
Thus, in this instance, the students are able to engage with concepts of economics, foreign policy, world history, and the effect of global decisions that ripple throughout the world. On the contrary, a typical social studies lesson may be less appealing to these students. Contextualized play allows for emergent types of learning that may not be possible otherwise.
Another way to use games in an educational setting is the use of game design as a space for learning. For instance, Jerome Bump has employed Second Life in his first year writing classroom. Bump required his students to recreate Oxford’s campus in the game so it could be used as a digital classroom. This activity was viewed by the students as a form of writing. Bump writes “they practiced a radical version of ‘architextual’ writing to explore Friere’s ways to write and rewrite the world in dialog with each other” (p. 119). Furthermore, Bump required his students to use the design features in Second Life to complete their final projects which consisted of rhetorically charged interactive environments. This activity required Bump’s students to learn how to incorporate technology such as PowerPoint and hyperlinks to a virtual world. Although the semester long project did not meet Bump’s expectations, he writes that there was some positive outcomes:
One obvious advantage was that by adding the three dimensions of virtual worlds to multimodal pedagogy we could enhance not only engagement by both sides of the brain, but also active learning, the kind of learning that enables college students to retain what they learned longer than the average of two weeks after the course is over. (120)
Ultimately, Bump’s use of Second Life requires students to learn to compose within a game world. Instead of employing a commercial game’s premade experience, he worked to take control of the game space with his students and, inadvertently, was teaching game design. Nonetheless, the use of in game tools to create, design, and learn also allows for the use of teaching rhetoric, interactive, empathy, storytelling, and more.
It is important to note the intentions of commercial games is, usually, strictly to bring in a monetary return. The purpose of games such as Civilization, Second Life, and Minecraft is not only to elicit a pleasurable gameplay experience, but also to generate revenue for the companies which own the properties. Due to the capitalistic nature of commercial off the shelf games, there are varying limitations regarding how these games can be used in the classroom. That is, the predetermined nature of these games only allow the instructor to go so far until they reach the limits of how the game can be utilized. In contrast, game design tools such as RPG Maker allow for a wide range of uses in the classroom.
In the following paper we contend that developing video games in the classroom is another avenue that researchers should consider. Indeed, we are not the first to suggest this. Many K-12 programs have game development programs, mostly after school; however, we contend that game development and design, particularly through the program RPG Maker can be deployed in a wide variety of learning situations. The upcoming sections of this paper will detail how game creation operates as a collaborative educational space, a history and justification of RPG Maker as a learning tool, and finally a research proposal for the use of RPG Maker in a first year writing class.
Game Creation as Collaborative Education
Knowing how to design games is not a prerequisite for teaching game design. Jesse Schell, a game designer, writes that the best way to become a game designer is to “Design Games. Start Now! Don’t wait! Don’t even finish this conversation! Just start designing! Go! Now!” (ch. 1). Schell’s stance on game design echoes conversations surrounding composition handbooks like Lundsford’s Everyone is an Author, and Sheppard, Arola, and Ball’s Writer/Designer: A Guide to Making Multimodal Project. The key to learning how to create such projects is jumping in and learning as you go.
Danielle LaVaque-Manty considers that, as teachers, we are all doomed to be technologically archaic. Technology is simply advancing faster than any one person could keep up with (114). In this paradigm, teachers must shift the impetus of technological expertise away from themselves and into what James Paul Gee might call an ‘affinity space.’ To fully explain what an affinity space is could require more writing than we are willing to partake, but for the purposes of the argument we are making, affinity spaces are created when “leadership is porous”, individual and distributed knowledge is encouraged, and “common endeavor… is primary” Gee 225-228). In other words to require game design of your students does not mean that you must be a game designer, rather you must in pursuit of designing games alongside your students.
While game creation can certainly be accomplished as a solitary endeavor, we are advocating for a collaborative approach to game design. Much like collaborative writing, collaborative game design allows students to focus on their strengths in support of the final project. Schell writes that game creation requires aptitudes from a multitude of disciplines: “animation, anthropology, architecture, business, cinematography, communication, creative writing, economics, engineering, history, management, mathematics, music, psychology, sound design, technical writing, and visual arts” (ch. 1). Requiring collaboration means that students who might find themselves drawn to any discipline has something to offer the team. Using an example of students creating a history game, some students will invariably be drawn to research, while some will gravitate towards design. In this scenario the researcher will gather information and discuss their findings with the designer and the designer will decide how to implement that information into the game world. While one could argue that the designer should get more experience researching and vice versa, we would argue that collaboration like this allows students to engage in material in a way that is extenuated by their aptitudes instead of limited by it. In the case of a history class, the students that endeavor to become history majors have the option to pursue the project in that fashion, while those who do not can apply knowledge from the class in a way that is more meaningful to them.
The Affordances of RPG Maker
In order to better understand the rhetorical affordances of RPG Maker, it is worthwhile to understand the genre of RPG games, which RPG Maker is most suited to make. RPG’s have their roots in pen and paper counterparts like Dungeons & Dragons (D&D), or Pathfinder. While these tabletop games are often lampooned in media as nerd games with an overemphasis on rules, math, and 20 sided dice, at their core, tabletop RPG’s are storytelling games. The rule systems are way to maintain consistency in the story. Everything detail of the world in a game of D&D is comprised of a mixture of the players’ creativity, and the rules that govern how different people, places, and things interact in the game. RPG’s like those in the Final Fantasy series and those made in RPG Maker, have taken these rule systems and turned them into software. Since all of the rule systems are controlled by the software, game designers can focus more of their energy in creating an engaging story. RPG games tend to rely heavily on text and narrative to hook their players.
The creation of almost all physical interactions and text in RPG Maker are created by adding “events” to game tiles. Each event contains a list of actions, triggers (that make the event start), and graphic visualizations (sprites). Compared to many more complex game design softwares, the management of interactive events in RPG Maker is very robust and yet incredibly simple to implement.
It’s appropriate that RPG Maker places both physical actions and the addition of text under the same umbrella of “event.” It’s an important distinction that echoes the theories of Brian Massumi and Giles Deleuze. Too often we think of text as static, and unchanging artifacts, black and white lines on a fixed page. Video games come at a time when we are making an epistemological shift from attempting to define what things are to what they do. One could argue, that text, perhaps more importantly, the ideas contained in text, have never been static, and unchanging; the shift from ink to pixels has certainly made this epistemological shift more apparent. RPG Maker, and game design in general, is particularly good at reinforcing a transition from the acquisition and proliferation of static knowledge, ink on a page, to a space in which writing and reading can be a fluid ludic experience. All text, when read or written, has a certain agency for/against the writer and the reader. Games, especially those made in RPG Maker, emphasize the agency of text.
It is this emphasis on agency that make game spaces particularly effective for students. As students build the worlds in which their characters move and interact, they are encouraged to be cognizant of the agency that objects and characters have in relation to one another. This isn’t to say that more traditional forms text creation can’t emphasize the agency of thoughts and ideas, but game spaces are fundamentally better prepared to make these relationships apparent than text and encourage designers to think critically about how their decisions will manifest when a player picks up a controller.
Though many modern RPG games demand a certain amount of technical skill with a controller, the style of RPG made with RPG Maker has a particularly low barrier to entry. The basic controls for a game involve the arrow keys to move the character around the map and navigate menus, and the enter key to contextually interact with objects in the game or select items in the menu. Social interaction is given a priori in RPG Maker games. Designers are encouraged to tell a story.
History of RPG Maker
The use of video games in the classroom has taken several different forms – from the gamification of the classroom (Huang & Soman, 2013) to using video game development tools to teach young learners how to program source code (Duncan, 2010). Contingently, game design software such as Gamesalad, Twine, and Game Maker have been used to explore the new realm of rhetorical possibility afforded by interactive mediums. One tool, however, is underrepresented in the field of games and learning. RPG Maker, short for Role Playing Game Maker, is a widely available game making tool which allows its user to create 2D style video games akin to early RPGs from the late 80s and early 90s. While the tool is widely used by hobbyist game designers, the use of RPG Maker in the classroom could be just as, if not more, valuable as the aforementioned tools in the collegiate classroom. RPG Maker has a slightly lower learning curve, thus providing a pathway for contingent learning in terms of game design along side of the game content in which they are producing.
ASCIII, at the time a subsidiary of Microsoft in Japan, developed the first version of RPG Maker in 1992 on the heels of the growing popularity of video games in the home. The company’s main focus was not on video game entertainment, but on magazine publishing. During the time RPG Maker was released, software development was less than thirty percent of ASCII’s budget. During this time, ASCII was releasing what could be considered beta versions of RPG Tsukūru Dante 98 as early as 1988; however, Microsoft dissolved ASCII in the late 80s and the company reorganized itself into Enterbrain. The first official release of RPG Maker came in 1992 when it was promoted as RPG Tsukūru Dante 98 in Japan. The software allowed users to create their own roleplaying game with a tile-based map editor and two scripting programs for in-game events and battles. This system allowed players to create their own games or iterate on similar styled RPGs of the time, such as the Final Fantasy (1987) series, original playable on the Nintendo Entertainment System. The popularity of Final Fantasy can be linked to the popularity of RPG Tsukūru Dante 98. To this day, Final Fantasy remakes, iterations, and fan-made sequels are still being made with the latest versions of RPG Maker.
The first version of RPG Tsukūru Dante 98 was released on the PC 9800 series, a line of computers released by NEC in the early 1980s, yet the first Windows based version of RPG Maker released in 1997 and was aptly named RPG Maker 95, as it ran on the Windows 95 operating system. Notably RPG Maker 95 allowed players to create groups that consisted of eight characters, up from four in previous versions, as well as coming equipped with soundtrack music. This version of RPG Maker was an unauthorized English translation not published by Enterbrain. Game hobbyists interested in the software would tinker with the the game’s files and provide their own English translations and release their versions on private websites and forums. In fact, RPG Maker 95 and several of the proceeding versions were all unauthorized versions that hobbyist game developers translated into English. The first official English RPG Maker was released in 2005 as RPG Maker XP.
While RPG Maker XP demarcated the first world wide version of the game, it was with the release of RPG Maker VX (2007) where the first major update was implemented. Until then each subsequent version of RPG Maker made incremental changes—such as adding music or increasing the screen resolution of the game space—VX, however, overhauled the software interface, increased the frame rate from forty to sixty, and included a more user-friendly map and event editor. Each of these updates acted to make the game more accessible to those with little to no programming skills.
As of 2015, the RPG Maker franchise is, arguably, the most popular user-friendly game design software available, boasting over two million sales across all of the versions. Similar game design software, such as Game Salad or Twine, offer free versions thus tracking their popularity becomes difficult. Furthermore, RPG Maker has situated itself as a game design tool that is easily accessible to the average computer game player. Unlike its competitors, RPG Maker is available on Steam, the world’s largest computer game digital distribution platform, and has a lineage that game players are familiar with. Furthermore, RPG Maker has a history of use in educational settings for learning programming (Owens, 2010) and mathematics (Palmer, 2016). The avenue of exploration we will begin to explore continues this operation of using RPG Maker in the classroom, but as a tool for teaching first year composition. As will be discussed in the following section, the entry level to using the tool and general application of writing in video games makes RPG Maker an optimal tool for this task.
How It’s Been Used
RPG Maker’s core functions allow the software to be used for, generally, one function – to make japanese style role playing games. Yet researchers, educators, and hobbyist game designers have used the tool to create RPGs that cover a wide variety of projects. Furthermore, large fan communities have emerged on several web forums such as Reddit, RPG Maker Central, RPG Maker Web, and RPGMaker.net. These web forums act as hubs for finding tutorials, sharing games, game assets, or simply to communicate with other RPG Maker enthusiasts. Thus, there is a consistent flow of new games and materials for games being shared amongst close knit RPG Maker communities.
Interestingly, RPG Maker has engendered a job market for elite hobbyists. Several RPG Maker web forums host a specific forum designated for users to “set up shop” and sell their services to other users. Found within these forums are users who specialize in vast and narrow areas of RPG Maker production ranging from: various art styles (pixel, 2D, anime), music creation, script writing, code and programming, and game logos. In some cases, users offer their services for free but otherwise it is for a nominal fee (between two and fifty dollars depending on the extent of the work). It would seem that most of these sellers provide their services as additional income rather than as their main funding source, but given the anonymity of the web forums it is difficult to discern.
Another popular use of RPG Maker is friendly competitions, particularly week-long game jams that have small prizes awarded to the winners. The purpose of a game jam is to work on a game on your own for a week and to make it as complete as possible. Afterwards a panel of judges plays and grades the games in order to determine a winner. Game jams offer a unique form of engagement within the RPG Maker community. The monthly game jams coupled with forums specific to releasing content create a form of investment into the RPG Maker community which is crucial to sustaining a vibrant online community. According to Butler, Sproull, Kiesler, and Kraut (2007), if members of a group are not creating relevant content, any other community building activity become irrelevant (pp. 7). Aside from games, many of the web forums dedicated to RPG Maker house subforums for other types of content as well. You can often find a forum for general chit chat not related to RPG Maker, music, movies, professionally developed video games, RPG Maker tutorials, and so forth. The administrators of RPG Maker-centric forums have created online communities that are sustained through active participation across a wide variety of forums but are centrally organized around the RPG Maker software.
While RPG Maker is largely used by hobbyists, there has been instances of commercial games being designed and released using the software. One of the first to popularize RPG Maker for commercial use was Amaranth Games, now known as Aveyond Studies. In 2006 the design team used RPG Maker XP to create their popular Aveyond series. Since then, Aveyond Studies has gone on to create over ten games using the tool, one of which having won an RPG of the Year award in 2007, and has cultivated an enthusiastic fan base (Aihoshi, 2006). While the majority of RPG Maker games are computer games, a select few have gone on to be released on other gaming consoles. Eternal Eden (2008), for example, has gone on to be released on the Nintendo 3DS handheld gaming system, Furthermore, the survival-horror game Corpse Party (1996) has been released on the Playstation Vita, the iOS operating system, and the Nintendo 3DS. Additionally, Corpse Party was one of the early games created on RPG Maker when it was software for the NEC PC-9801, and has seen various remakes and enhances as new iterations of RPG Maker have been released.
Since its initial release RPG Maker franchise has gone on to sell over two million units as of November 2015, with an additional 500,000 plus units being sold on the digital distribution platform Steam (Steamspy, 2016). RPG Maker has also been featured on the charity video game sales site Humble Bundle, where users can choose how much they pay and where the funds end up being distributed to. For example, a user can pay ten dollars for a game, then upon check out, the user can distribute those dollars between a charity, the game developers, and the Humble Bundle platform, or the buyer could choose to give 100% of the proceeds to one of the three options. The relative ease of use has made RPG Maker one of the most widely used and accessible game design software on the market, thus providing an entry-point into using the software as a learning tool in the classroom.
How To Use RPG Maker
INSERT RPG MAKER VIDEO TUTORIAL
How We Intend To Use RPG Maker – RESEARCH PROPOSAL
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