Prior to his lecture at Florida State University, “Gaming the Educational System: A Talk With A Game Developer,” I had the opportunity to speak to Ron Weaver, the developer in question. Weaver works as a professor for University of Central Florida’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy. With experience in the video game industry, he is looking to break the stigma on the educational benefits video games can have. We discussed certain games that have made great use of the medium’s potential as well as some of the projects he’s worked on.
Could you start by just telling me a bit about yourself?
Sure! I grew up as a dance studio kid in Tampa, Florida, so I have a song and dance history with theater. That shapes my outlook and is certainly a part of my interest in games. I find gaming to be a fascinating form of entertainment and there’s a little showman inside of me that likes to dabble in that.
What are some projects you’ve worked on and which was your favorite?
I programmed for a number of Electronic Arts (EA) titles like Madden and Tiger Woods, and that was a lot of fun because I got a key glimpse into how those big budget games work and what kind of players play them. One of the biggest games I worked on was Toontown Online, which was the first massively multiplayer online (MMO) game for kids. That was Disney, which was a lot of fun. It was my first gig as a game programmer and it was really thrilling to work on an MMO for an underserved market. Kids weren’t able to play these more difficult games like Everquest and Ultima Online, it wasn’t really for them, so it was fun to bring the fun of these games to kids. Another project I worked on that will surprise most people was the Hannah Montana Movie game on the Wii. There was a lot of choreography for that and it blended my love of making games with theater and dance. I’ve also worked on a lot of escape rooms in Orlando, which are a lot of fun.
That’s interesting that you mentioned choreography and escape rooms. How do you think your experience with video game development influences your work in non-video game related fields?
It’s a continuum, I feel. Video games and any kind of interactive experiences that you see in, say, theme parks, or even on the internet, have a lot of the same principles apply. That’s something I love to study. There’s a lot of similarities between how games are designed and how other interactive experiences are designed. When I was in graduate school, we made the first interactive character that could talk to you. It was mostly just a fun project, but eventually, I worked on a project with Disney where we were trying to do a similar project with Mickey Mouse. To watch kids interact with Mickey was just a life-changing moment. It was such a magical experience for me.
If these mediums are all on a continuum what do you think video games especially excel at?
Film is easily one of my favorite mediums; I love seeing movies, but you cannot immerse me fully in a film. You can only take me to a point where I can see what it looks like to be in that world, but for a game, it goes a step beyond that. I can actually be the hero. It’s not just seeing the world through their eyes. I can be heroic, and that’s something not a lot of other media can do. Games that harness the ability to project yourself excel the most. As long as that’s a part of games, that’s going to separate them from other media.
It’s this notion that games need to be 100% educational, 100% of the time and it turned these games into sort of a brussel sprouts experience.
Can you talk a little bit about the lecture you’ll be giving at FSU?
The theme is trying to approach the discussion of educational games from a different angle. I think people have seen enough of traditional educational games and don’t need me to tell them that they were bad. When you’re playing Assassin’s Creed, you can learn a little bit about the history of the rooftops you’re running across, but a lot of that information is in supplemental parts, it’s not forced on the player. If you refitted the games and forced players to read everything about the environments, it wouldn’t work. I think some of the mistakes that early educational games made was where they would often devolve into “I’m going to give you something fun to do for five minutes and then I’m going to make you read a chapter of a book.” That back and forth, interstitial approach doesn’t take advantage of what games do best which is keeping you immersed. Rather than take you out of the fun aspects, it needs to be a part of them.
My viewpoint is that educational games don’t have to compete with games made strictly for entertainment. It feels like a lot of people have a design methodology that if you want to make a game more educational it has to be less entertaining and vice versa. I think part of the reason that this has occurred is that a lot of parents or educators uncompromising view of what educational content should be. It’s this notion that games need to be 100% educational, 100% of the time and it turned these games into sort of a brussel sprouts experience. Why aren’t we serving broccoli and cheese? Why can’t we blend quality entertainment with education? It doesn’t make sense to me; it’s a false dichotomy. I don’t think those two things should have to compete with each other and that’s the premise I’m challenging for the talk. I also plan to highlight some of the success stories out there of educational games that are just as successful as other games.
What’s one example of a recent game that struck a nice balance between education and entertainment?
Kerbal Space Program. The game is a space flight simulator created by a studio in Mexico City named Squad. It became popular partly because the rockets are extremely fun to tinker with.The developers weren’t even intending for it to be an educational game, but they nailed the literal rocket science of launching ships and running a space program. It was done in such a fun and entertaining way that NASA caught wind of it and started working with them. It’s an incredible success story because it wasn’t even really trying but all of the math and science works out and it turned out fun and educational.
I think that’s one way to approach it. Don’t set out with the goal of making an educational game or the most entertaining game you can, but make it about content that is in itself valuable like chemistry, biology, physics, and arrive at a game that does both. You can go in the opposite direction too, and I think the new Spider-Man game is a great example of that. In the game, you have to do little mini-games that involve spectrographs and examining wavelengths and there’s a surprising amount of actual science. I’ve actually learned from that game! I think it’s exciting when these big budget console games incorporate science into the theming and the missions of the game because it doesn’t sacrifice any of the fun, you’re just learning something along the way.
The video game industry is constantly evolving and virtual reality is one of the newest evolutions. Do you think VR will have exciting uses for educational games?
Oh yeah, and we’re already starting to see some of that. VR excels in presenting an environment where the learning can take place, like a lab. A lot of good VR games are doing that, it’s just that a lot of people don’t know about them because they don’t have huge budgets. The audiences are mostly people into educational games, but I’m excited to see how good these games are becoming and how they’re slowly penetrating into the larger gaming landscape.
To close, can you tell me what your favorite game of all time is?
Easily the Civilization games. I love the series because of its tradeoffs. You can never do it all in that game, just like life. While growing your civilization you face hard choices between improving your cities, expanding your territory, defending your people, etc. The strategic richness is unrivaled, all while immersing yourself within interesting moments from history which you have the power to rewrite. There are a lot of versions of the game and I won’t say that I love one more than the other, but Civilization II is the one I played in college and adored. It coincidentally has some real learning involved, too!
Ron Weaver will be at the Student Life Cinema at FSU on March 8th from 6 to 7:30pm in the main theater. Weaver wants to inspire people to think differently about gaming and to introduce them to a new era of games. The talk will stress that being educational doesn’t necessarily have to be a death sentence for the player’s fun and will also include a Q&A.