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Could Scratch be the Key to Maintaining Canada’s Video Game Lead over the UK?

In 2010, Canada overtook the UK as the world’s third-largest video game developer, thanks in large part to an ecosystem of government grants and tax breaks. This support has angered some critics who see it as wasteful government spending, but smart people know which way the wind blows: since we don’t manufacture things any more, it’s in wealthy countries’ best interest to stimulate industries with well-educated and highly-paid knowledge workers who pay a lot of taxes and generally raise the property value of the entire nation.

Nerds: good for the economy.

The UK’s recently-announced 2012 budget makes new allowances for animation and video game tax breaks – a move clearly made to help the United Kingdom regain its foothold and, possibly, the coveted third place spot. But the Brits have another ace in the hole that i think puts them in a better position to leave Canada in the dust in a few decades: Scratch.

Scratch is a programming language from the Lifelong Kindergarten group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s designed for kids, but it’s primarily a learning tool, and has seen use in first-year Computer Science programs. Scratch allows you to snap together LEGO-like blocks of code (computer instructions) to control graphics, sounds, and interactivity. (Indeed, the man who led the development team behind Scratch, Mitchel Resnick, also built the original programmable bricks that eventually became the foundation of the LEGO Mindstorms robotics sets.)

You can upload your creations to the Scratch website, along with the millions of projects that are already there. Best of all, you can download anyone else’s Scratch project and take it apart, remixing any of the project’s code, sounds or assets into your own file. Scratch is free, and it runs on Mac, PC and Linux computers.

Enter Skynet

i’ve said, time and again, that i believe kids should be taught how to program computers from a very young age. It’s looking more and more like the children of developed nations will exclusively use computers as their primary windows into the worlds of work and pleasure, and i’d rather see a generation of people who can make computers work for them, rather than a terrifying dystopia where the machines themselves gain more and more control (see Apple) until we’re just banally pushing a single button like George Jetson, unable to harness the amazing power and possibility these machines provide. The more kids learn to tinker with machines and write computer code, the less likely we are to flip the script on this master/slave relationship between humans and machines.

(If that all sounds a bit dire, talk to any mechanic who used to tinker with cars prior to 2000. You can’t tinker with cars any longer, because their systems are controlled by computerized instead of mechanical processes. If we don’t keep up, we get left in the dust.)

It starts with putting all of our information on the cloud …

The Livingston-and-Hope of a Nation

Finding that in two short years, the UK had slipped from #3 to #6 in world video game development rankings, the UK’s Minister for Culture commissioned a report from Ian Livingston (President of Edios) and Alex Hope (Co-Founder of Double Negative, an effects shop) last year to figure out what was going on and how to fix it. The resulting findings determined that the problem was seated squarely in (mis)education:

Twelve percent is a lousy number. And i defy Ontario to run a similar report on its schools and get a better score. As anemic as the UK’s placement rate is, anecdotally, i guarantee you it’s far worse here in Ontario. i can’t vouch for the rest of the country, but what we have here in this province is a system akin to jacking a wounded football player up on painkillers so he can finish the game. Eventually, the torn hamstring of a weak education system will bring us down, and Canada will feel its cushy #3 position slipping just as the UK recently has.

And then the UK will do a touchdown dance or something. i dunno … my metaphor doesn’t cross the pond all that gracefully.

Half of Livingston and Hope’s twenty recommendations pertain to elementary-level schools, the first among them being

Bring computer science into the National Curriculum as an essential discipline.

We have no such concept here. i’ve spoken with a number of companies who are developing material for the Prometheus Smartboards that are present in many of the Toronto District School Board’s classrooms, who have told me that they’ve met with resistance from parents and educators if they mistakenly called any of their projects “games”. There’s a sensitivity to the word “game” here that suggests games are an anathema to learning – that somehow games are preventing kids from getting a good education. You need to trojan-horse your way into many schools by using terms like “interactive storytelling” and “interactive digital media” to fly under the anti-game sentiment radar.

It’s a um … interactive physics simulation with a protagonist from the skilled trades that explores the Quiller-Couch conflict of man vs. nature.

Conversely, here’s what the Livingston-Hope Report says:

Recommendation 3: Use video games and visual effects to draw in greater numbers of young people to computer science and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).

Among the learning languages and toolsets the report recommends for schools is MIT’s Scratch. Get ‘em while they’re young – don’t wait until they’ve graduated high school. Ontario’s colleges do a great job of using video games to draw in great numbers of young people, but to what end? Our strategy is more akin to Honest John luring Pinocchio to Pleasure Island so the boy can smash windows and smoke cigars and make 3D models in Maya with impunity. But we wind up with the same result: a big pile of jackasses who are only fit to work in the salt mines.

We thought we were going to call the shots on the next Splinter Cell game for UbiSoft! Hee-HAW!

Artificial Intelligence

Will the UK regain its #3 video game industry position two decades from now by investing in education? It’s possible. But i think the UK’s efforts should serve as a cue to Canada to investigate its own education system to ensure that the video game economy we’ve nurtured through funding and tax credits isn’t just serum flowing through an IV meant to keep the patient alive, while we fail to feed the patient or change his bedpan … or show any care or concern over whether the patient will one day leave the hospital and walk on his own.

Canada needs its own Livingston-Hope report, with a commitment to act on its findings. The Ministry of Education in Ontario in particular should take a hard look at schools’ programs and success rates, and start denying accreditation to diploma mills in both private and public colleges. The Minstry should audit the use of technology in elementary schools, rather than the existence of it. (You can put a Smartboard in a classroom, but you can’t make it drink.)

We’re paid actors! Handheld devices like Smartphones are banned in most elementary schools, and the Ontario teachers’ union wants to ban wifi too!

Baby Steps

The good news is that we’re taking some steps in the right direction. The joint OCAD/U of T program, which pairs the University of Toronto’s game programmers with the Ontario College of Art’s artists, is having its second annual student showcase soon. The game developers from UOIT (the University of Ontario Institute of Technology) a few towns over are once again joining forces to present their games as well, along with students from Seneca College, Humber College, and the HervĂ© Velasquez School for the Digitally Inclined. Eventually, i would like to see ALL of the schools in the region combine their graduate shows into one big event, which could double as a job fair and a one-stop shop for Ontario (and even national and international) companies seeking to hire new talent. This show means we’re almost there!

In April, the TIFF Nexus group is holding a New Media Literacies conference to try to get kids and educators who give damn about this stuff to meet up and learn from each other. There are lots of great components to this day, including panels and talks from developers, funders and researches. The highlight of the day (for me, because i’m teaching it :) will be a hands-on Scratch workshop geared at introducing the tool to teachers so they can bring it back to their classrooms or kids’ groups and start mucking around with it right away. (TDSB teachers: did i mention that Scratch is on the Board’s approved list of software, and that getting it installed in YOUR lab/classroom/library is just a phonecall away?? Run, don’t walk!)

The UK might be feeling the sting of losing a leading position in the video games industry, but with the recent incentives announcement and the education recommendations in the Livingston-Hope Report, they’re on the right track to building a sound infrastructure. i worry that Canada, generally (and Ontario specifically) is building a house of cards that’s only one election away from pulling funding and seeing it all topple over.

The incentives and funding the country and its provinces have offered are an important component to accelerating Canada’s lead in the industry, but education is a crucial pillar that is being largely overlooked here. i firmly believe that the first step to investing in the future is sitting down at a computer with an eight-year-old, and showing that kid how to make a cartoon cat walk across a computer using a snap-together code loop in Scratch.


The Six Most Infamous Puzzles In Adventure Game History

1. Getting the Babel Fish into Your Ear

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, 1984

Probably the most well-known puzzle of any on the list, the babel fish puzzle is renowned for walking the fine line between fun frustration (or “funstration”), and pure seething evil. Displaced Earthling Arthur Dent has been zapped aboard a hostile alien ship. In order to understand alien languages, he has to put a babel fish in his ear. In the book on which the game is based, Arthur’s friend Ford just hands him the fish. But in the game, a few more steps are required.

Babel Fish

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy text adventure, co-authored by Douglas Adams, puts the fish in a vending machine and gives the player a limited number of turns to acquire it before the game becomes unwinnable. From the Everything2 entry on the puzzle:

After the player presses the button, the fish is vended, but with such force that it flies across the room and into a hole. The sequence of events for the novice player goes as follows:

Above the hole is a hook, from which the player eventually decides to hang his dressing gown; this causes the vended Babel Fish to hit the gown and drop to the floor…

… where it falls down a drain (‘press button and catch fish’ is not a valid input). The player may then decide to block the drain with his handy towel, which causes the fish to hit the gown, drop to the floor, and land on the towel…

… where it is cleaned away by a cleaning robot that dashes into the room, and dashes out again via a small panel. At this point the player realises that the game is toying with him or her. Undefeated, he or she may choose to block the panel with Ford Prefect’s satchel*, at which point the Babel Fish flies into the gown, drops to the floor, the robot picks it up, runs into the satchel, and throws the fish in the air…

… where it is cleaned away by another cleaning robot, one tasked with maintaining the upper half of the room. It is this additional puzzle that caused players the most anguish, as the solution is not at all obvious – it involves placing some junk mail on Ford Prefect’s satchel, which, when sent flying through the air, occupies the second cleaning robot enough for the Babel Fish to arc gracefully into the player’s ear.

The game’s publisher, Infocom, actually sold T-Shirts for people who managed to solve the puzzle:

Babel Fish T-shirt

It’s a small sadness that, thanks to the Internet, a phenomenon like this couldn’t really happen again.

2. Guessing the Gnome’s Gname

King’s Quest, 1984

1984 was apparently a good year for infuriating adventure game puzzles. In the original King’s Quest outing, Sir Graham meets a gnome who challenges him to guess his name. The obvious answer is “Rumplestiltskin”, since most of the game’s characters and story elements are cribbed straight from Grimms’ Fairy Tales. But no – that’s not the answer. Written on a piece of paper in the witch’s house (the witch from Hansel and Gretel, whose person, house, and note have nothing whatsoever to do with the gnome), are the words “sometimes it’s wise to think backwards.”

Babel Fish

That’s what you get for NOT MAKING ANY SENSE.

Connecting the gnote to the gnome requires more than a small a leap of faith, to say nothing of logic. But no matter: many intrepid adventurers made that leap, strode boldly up to the gnome, and guessed “nikstlitselpmuR”, which is “Rumplestiltskin” spelled backwards. But “no”, the parser responds – “that’s not the correct answer”.

A million things go through your mind at this point. Does the game have it wrong? Did the creators of King’s Quest forget that oft-unpronounced “t” in “Rumplestiltskin”? Or did you get the verb wrong? You try “ANSWER NIKSTLITSELPMUR” and “SAY NIKSTLITSELPMUR” and “TRY NIKSTLITSELPMUR”. Or maybe you were wrong the whole time? Maybe the note has nothing to do with it? And if that’s the case, then what’s the answer??

King's Quest I Gnome

This had better be good, old man.

“What is the gnome’s name?” was, by far, the most-asked question of the Sierra Customer Service Hotline. That’s because the solution to the puzzle is unfair and infuriating. Here it is. You’re supposed to write the alphabet forwards and backwards:


For each letter in RUMPLESTILTSKIN, you need to find the corresponding letter in the backwards alphabet. So R maps onto I, U maps onto F, and so on. The gnome’s name – obviously – is IFNKOVHGROGHPRM.

Guessing the gnome’s name is a great example of how unfair, unpleasant and unforgiving puzzle design could be in the early days of adventure games. It’s very telling that in future releases of King’s Quest, NIKSTLITSELPMUR was accepted as a valid answer. Back in the day, the biggest difference between the approach of Sierra designers like King’s Quest’s Roberta Williams and designers at the rival Lucasfilm/LucasArts shop is that the Lucas designers seemed to want the player to actually succeed!

3. Microwaving the Hamster

Maniac Mansion, 1987

Maniac Mansion hamster

In the original Maniac Mansion, you could steal Weird Ed Edison’s pet hamster and, as either Razor or Syd, put the little critter in the microwave and make it pop. If you hand the resulting goop back to Ed, realization of what it is slowly dawns on him, and your character spends the rest of the game as a tombstone in the backyard.

Maniac Mansion death

What did i just say about LucasArts designers wanting you to succeed … ?

When the game was ported to the NES, LucasArts endured a rigorous censorship process that is fascinatingly chronicled by Douglas Crockford in The Expurgation of Maniac Mansion for the Nintendo Entertainment System. While the word “pissed” and the Michaelangelo statue had to go, the hamster-in-the-microwave schtick stayed … that is, until the wrong person at Nintendo caught wind of it. The puzzle was excised from the European version, and all future pressings of the cart.

4. Drinking with Boos

Return to Zork, 1993

Before Internet memes made arrow-in-the-knee jokes ubiquitous, another memorable line from a video game lodged itself in the minds of gamers like a Rick Astley tune. This puzzle involves getting Boos to repeatedly pour you a drink, dumping it in the plant, and waiting until he’s soused enough to steal his keys. Each time Boos pours, he asks “Want some rye? COURSE ya do!” It’s Boos’s exuberant Silliwood performance and the puzzle’s repetition that makes the moment stand out.

Here’s the rest of Boos’s toast, which i thought was a Zorkism, but have now discovered that it’s an old Rabbie Burns drinking song:

Here’s tae us
Wha’s like us
Damn few,
And they’re a’ deid
Mair’s the pity!

5. Reading the Creation Account

The Neverhood, 1996

Mair’s the pity that for its amazing visuals, The Neverhood wasn’t a better adventure game. One of its most maddening puzzles wasn’t really a puzzle at all. Early in the game, Klaymen discovers The Chronicles of Neverhood, a Biblical-ish account of the creation of the game’s clay universe. Comprising eight books, the Chronicles sprawl out across 38 separate screens in the game. Most dutiful adventure game players brought up on Infocom’s “feelies” were convinced that the Chronicles must contain important information about how to solve certain puzzles in the games, and read each and every section of the wall.

Neverhood Chronicles

Well, gosh – THIS is gonna be fun.

The horrible truth is that the Chronicles exist only to flesh out the game’s backstory, and have nothing whatsoever to do with any in-game puzzles. The player is merely supposed to walk to the far end of the 38 screens to pick up an object, and then hoof it back to the beginning of the hallway.

6. Creating Fake ID

Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, 1999

Much has been written about the death of graphic adventure games, but one of the most influential articles on the subject is Who Killed Adventure Games? by Old Man Murray, who details an idiotic puzzle in the third Gabriel Knight adventure that has the player assembling a fake ID of a man with a moustache in order to impersonate a man who doesn’t have a moustache.

Gabriel Knight 3

Hmm … i’m clearly gonna need some double-sided tape, and a cat.

Concludes Murray:

Who killed Adventure Games? I think it should be pretty clear at this point that Adventure Games committed suicide.

USE mouse ON comments section

What are the most interesting, shocking, funstrating or memorable puzzles from your adventures?