Games

Finding Room to Learn in Video Games

There is a board game called Pandemic in which players act as agents of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), stemming the onslaught of virulent diseases around the world. Conversely, there is a Flash game series of the same name in which players create and evolve a disease to infect and kill every human on the planet.

There is a board game called Pandemic in which players act as agents of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), stemming the onslaught of virulent diseases around the world. Conversely, there is a flash game series of the same name in which players create and evolve a disease to infect and kill every human on the planet. While not explicitly educational games, both experiences offer various learning opportunities. In fact, most games could be far more factually informative than they are. The genre of education games aside, how much room do we have for learning in games? How much educational information can we squeeze into digital games before players become bored, distracted, or indoctrinated?

Games are -- by definition -- learning experiences. Players procedurally come to understand the game world. Drop some seasoned gamers into any first-person shooter, and after a few moments of random button tapping and stray gunfire, they will be dishing out headshots with the best of them. But how much could the average Call of Duty fanatic tell you about the AK-47? Could they tell you how the AK has become the modern day weapon of choice for guerilla fighters around the world? Could they tell you how arms dealers traffic supplies of AKs from conflict to conflict? With some additional information in the game, maybe some could.

Of course the most effective teaching method avoids giving players a block of informative text about gun manufacturers. Players learn most successfully when actively engaging with a game’s content, navigating a game system laden with information. An accurate flight simulator, for example, might actually teach players the intricacies of air combat maneuvers by requiring them to perform a barrel roll. Similarly, both Pandemics teach players a limited lesson in how diseases spread globally through their mechanics. However, they could be educationally richer if they were to include more information.

Unlike its digital counterpart, Pandemic the board game lists major world cities in which diseases spread. Each card representing these cities contains information concerning those cities' total population numbers and population densities. The game takes on a much more desperate tone when paying attention to the scale of the imaginary human catastrophe. Pandemic could also teach players about the real world dangers of urbanization and slum living. Many of the cities included in Pandemic, from Kinshasa to Delhi, include some of the largest slum populations in the world. Access to health services and decent sanitation are incredibly rare. Living conditions in many of the world’s slums are absolutely atrocious. The cities of Pandemic are chosen intentionally -- the slums of the world are particularly vulnerable to real world epidemics. Not conveying this information to the player is missing an opportunity.

Educational material need not distract players from their tasks. Civilization V continues the series trend of including a “Civilopedia” full of real world information. Players curious about the mechanics of nuclear missiles are treated to some “historical info” about nuclear weapons, including a moral statement about launching a nuclear attack: “It is fairly insane to use them on an enemy that one shares a planet with, unless it is to forestall that enemy from using them on oneself.” Between all the technological and cultural advancements, Civilization V contains a vast amount of educational information for players to enjoy.

There is a legitimate fear that educational content in conventional games can come off as boring, distracting, or didactic. Plenty of kids play games specifically to escape the pedagogy of daily schooling. Bludgeoning a gamer with information might induce nausea. Likewise, interrupting the “zen-like” moment of gaming mastery with a notification about Roman pottery would likely cause more frustration than it’s worth. There is a time and a place for educational content, and the heat of battle is not one of them.

Educational information could be added to game downtime so as not to distract players from engaging gameplay. For example, while Assassin’s Creed 2 is not completely historically accurate (significantly less rooftop feather collection in history itself), it does include a great deal of information about Renaissance Italy, significant political actors of its time, and even Italian art and architecture. Many of the game’s plot points and missions require a thorough exploration of interesting historical landmarks. Climbing the Basilica offers a learning opportunity in addition to a high vantage point for a stealth assassination. Normal progression through Assassin’s Creed 2 presents players with numerous educational opportunities without significantly interrupting gameplay.

Factual information in games should, of course, be tonally consistent. Diagramming the Drake Equation in Dead Space would be inappropriate. On the other hand, describing the terribly frightening results of space exposure would contribute quite nicely to the sense of helplessness and confinement Dead Space seeks to evoke. Likewise, what could be more appropriate than teaching kids how to knit in Kirby’s Epic Yarn?

All of my examples of what are and can be are purely optional experiences for players. Naturally, many players will simply skip unnecessary educational content. Civilization V is not widely lauded for its comprehensive description of pre-modern cultural customs. Yet the few players who read the Civolopedia might just experience a unique gaming experience imbued with historical significance. They might just leave Civilization more knowledgeable about not just the game, but the world. If we are all willing to put in the work, there is plenty of room for learning in conventional games, even when not incorporated into gameplay. Adding factual information can actually improve a play experience. Ignoring the educational potential of entertaining games is willingly missing an opportunity for smarter games and smarter gamers.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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