Four Step Game Development

I’ve been binge watching Mark Brown’s Game Maker’s Toolkit series on YouTube. Mark is a game critic that has been creating these video reflections on games, typically on aspects of their mechanics. I’d like to discuss one of Mark’s videos called Super Mario 3D World’s 4 Step Level Design in which he looks at the super successful level design of Super Mario 3D World. Have a look:

The game introduces a dazzling amount information to the player. Looked at as a whole it might seem overwhelming yet, according to mark, it works really well. I’ve been seeing this idea of overwhelming game mechanics a lot lately. Some of us at ALC recently consulted with a school who wished to introduce self directed learning to their students. This is like going from a linear 2D scroller—where everything is spoon fed to you—to a massive open world game. In ALC we have a number of games (or tools) such as Kanban boards, Set-the-Week, and Gameshifting that support self directed learning. When put together all these games seem, to the uninitiated, as overwhelming and complex. Just look at the Kanban, with it’s infinite variations and ability to expand to fit almost any situation.


The teacher at this school was keen to introduce our tools to her students, but it was clear to the ALFs present that this would be too much too fast. I wanted to support her in doing this, but more level heads were able to “limit the work in process” and we ended up suggesting a super simple Kanban and Gameshifting board to start.

I think that we can look toward Super Mario for inspiration when trying to introduce our games.

The 4 Step Game Design

As outlined in Mark’s video Mario is using a “four step” design principle.

  1. Introduction
  2. Development
  3. Twist
  4. Conclusion

This provides a useful template for introducing our tools, let’s focus on the Kanban, as it lends itself to this methodology.

One: The introduction

kanban-post-elements_simple-kanbanWhen Mario introduces a play mechanic it will typically do so in a safe environment with low stakes for failure. The player can then try and fail without risking a life while they feel out the mechanic.

The introduction to the Kanban can happen in two ways. First, it can be simplified into it’s most basic form, which I would describe as a two column board with these headers:

  • What I want to do today
  • What I’ve done today

I use the word want very deliberately here. It’s lower stake than will and makes failure a bit less sharp (changing a players perception of failure is for another level). The instructions are absolutely clear in these titles. Hand this Kanban and some sticky notes to someone and it’s instantly clear what they are going to do with it.

I’ve used a method like this when introducing ALC or our tools to people in the past.


By using a kanban to manage the presentation I am able to model the tool in a useful way. This, again, is a safe way to introduce people to it. They are participating with the tool, but not having to take care of it themselves.

Two: The development


As we move through our Mario level we are challenged by a slow development of that mechanic. More complexity is added as the player moves through the development.

With our Kanban it’s easy to see how to do this. We can just start adding columns. In the example of introducing Kanban to a school we might start with a two column and after a few weeks add a third column then a fourth.

The idea is to develop the tool over time with the player. Add new columns as the player realizes new needs.

Three: The twist

kanban-post-elements_twist-kanbanIn Mario the twist is typically the addition of an unexpected challenge that makes the player have to interact with the mechanic in a different way.

With our Kanban the twist can come in the form adding elements that expand the functionality in unexpected ways. For instance adding rows (“swim lanes”) to group tasks.

The twist, I think, should be drastic and complex. It’s meant to show where such a tool can go. The twist opens up the players imagination to possibilities.

Four: The conclusion

kanban-post-elements_dev-kanban copyNow we are done. In Mario the conclusion consists of one last use of the mechanic to show mastery by the player. Like a pat on the back for learning a new skill.

For our Kanban the conclusion can come from having our student walk away with their own modified Kanban. After seeing the “twist” they might well be inspired with a concrete way to improve their Kanban.

We expand the possibilities then conclude with an appropriate application of the flexibility.

Games as tools, tools as games

I think there is quite a lot to learn by thinking about our tools and practices in the context of games and game mechanics, especially video games. For the past 20+ years video games have been teaching people a wide variety of skills. Video games are coming to be the dominate storytelling medium in our society. Modeling our own pedagogy from the best that games have to offer gives us a powerful ally in expanding the reach of our ideas. I will certainly be looking more at game development and its practices to see how I can leverage it in my own practice.

The post Four Step Game Development appeared first on Drew the ALF's blog.

ALF Cheat Sheet v 0.3

I’ve updated the ALC Network Cheat Sheet and updated it to a more accurate title. The updates better describe some of the communication channels, add the new ALC WORKS! Trello board (formally the projects board) and bring in a whole new column that describes protocol in the network around what channels and infrastructure are used for what kind of activity. I am drawing from a number of sources such as @tomis’s Network Ecosystem Charter and the Virtual Culture Committee process which have not been widely agreed upon in the network. That means this document does NOT represent the consensus of the network, but my interpretation of it and how it might be soon. With that disclaimer out of the way, have a look (after the jump) and please leave your comments! 



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The Food System Illustration

Back in the day when I had a desk and a wacom I started an illustration about the current food system. I intended for it to be a 10 panel piece which was “read” from bottom to top. Starting with the extraction of oil and leading up to the removal of food waste.

See the full piece here: (view from bottom to top)

It might still be considered a work in progress, thought the industrial food system might collapse before I finish it…

It starts with Oil:

I modeled this illustration after the Tar Sands in Alberta Canada. Which is one of the most visceral and disgusting human endeavors, maybe ever.



The oil is then transported. This is an important step when we think about the impact of oil. Simply moving the stuff is dangerous.

Be it by ship:

Exxon Valdez
Exxon Valdez

By pipeline:

List of Pipeline spills in the US
List of Pipeline spills in the US

Or by train:


I drew this in the wake of the Deep Water Horizon oil spill in 2010, which can been see to the right.

Next comes refinement:

This is where we get the gasoline and slurry of petrol chemicals that allow us to perform large scale monocropping. When all these ingredients are put together you get, mostly, corn:

Which uses an incredible amount of water and other precious resources all while making heavy use of poisons:

The unfinished panels then go through the distribution (i.e. burning of more fossil fuel), and sale of food. Which creates an enormous amount of waste from the farm (who can’t sell ugly crops) all the way to our kitchen where much of our food rots, or develops unsightly blemishes and is thrown away.

The final frame then illustrates away, a mystical place where our trash (which consists in large part of organic food waste) is sent. The anaerobic breakdown of this organic matter creates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

The dream presentation of this work has the material costs on one side, the oil, water, space, and other resources spent creating commodity crops. The other side lists the corporations who participate in this act of ecocide.

Some day I hope to get back to this project or hand it off to someone else. If you are interested please contact me at

Agile Learning Centers and Cooperative Platforms

I will be going to a conference this weekend called Platform Cooperativism. Here is the introduction from their website:

The seeds are being planted for a new kind of online economy. For all the wonders the Internet brings us, it is dominated by an economics of monopoly, extraction, and surveillance. Ordinary users retain little control over their personal data, and the digital workplace is creeping into every corner of workers’ lives. Online platforms often exploit and exacerbate existing inequalities in society, even while promising to be the great equalizers. Could the Internet be owned and governed differently?

Aside from my history of techno activism and love for cooperative platforms I see this conference as an opportunity to share Agile Learning Centers (ALC) to an audience that would really “get” it. This post aims to be a brain dump for my ideas around how ALC and cooperative online platforms, as a movement, intersect and overlap. This will probably be a rambling mess, you’ve been warned.

New Terms for a New World

What follows are my interpretations of some of the vocabulary surrounding the Platform Coop event and Agile Learning Centers. By unpacking these terms I hope to highlight how ALC supports these ideas and how these ideas support ALC.

The New Economy

This is what we are preparing kids for in Agile Learning Centers. The new economy is based not on extracting energy and resources from the earth and it’s people. It is an economy that values the sustained healthy existence of the earth as a whole, including (but not limited to) people. This new economy understands the value of all natural systems and social systems on our planet.

The old models of business are already done for and largely only exist through the force of inertia. Top down systems are the way of the past. Command and control, or more simply put, having someone telling you what to do and when to do it are antiquated. ALCs are built around this truth. We have done away with teachers—with it’s implicit hierarchy—and replaced them with facilitators. Children aren’t told what to do but given autonomy and freedom to find their own path, a skill necessary in the New Economy.


A cooperative structure, or coop, in this context refers to a business that is owned and operated cooperatively. These organizations are quite old and were probably the norm by another age before the great experiment of capital and corporations. Simply put, the people doing the work run the business.

In the context of ALCs the people doing the learning (work) run the learning center (business). The cultural tool we use in ALCs are perfectly suited for coops. I feel that the children raised through ALCs are going to be so far out ahead of their “competitors” in state schools, which by and large teach toward the old economy.

Cooperation is a skill like any other. It’s something that must be learned and practiced. In our old paradigm most of us never really get to flex our cooperation muscle and thus when we find ourselves in situations where we must cooperate we are weak and feeble. Consider how cooperation is viewed in most institutions: as cheating.

The Problem with Platforms

I like to equate platforms to fields of play. When one enters into a field of play they are expected to play by a set of rules. These rules and the method for how one plays are typically dictated by the configuration of the field of play. It’s hard to play handball on a football field, there is no wall to bounce the ball off, the ball in play is the wrong shape, and the other players are running around tackling each other.

In most cases someone has set up the field of play before hand. We can draw a parallel here to online platforms. Someone, typically the developers (let’s call them game masters), set up a field of play and then invites players into it. Often the players have no say in how the game is played. The players can not change the rules or how the field is configured.

This isn’t such a problem when we are playing simple games like football and soccer. As we step out of this metaphor it becomes much more limiting. Online platforms can limit the type of interactions through their design. Twitter is a great example with it’s 140 character limit. There is, of course, nothing wrong with that! It’s the game that’s being played and you agree to play it by stepping onto the “Twitter Field”. Things get sticky when the rules change mid play. For example, Twitter has a great way of democratically promoting content through the use of the “re-tweet”. The best content rises to the top and lots of people see it. All fine, but, it costs a lot of money to run all those servers so Twitter has to earn money and they do this by changing the rules of the game in the form of sponsored tweets. These are tweets that get promoted not though democracy but by the influence of money.

The players on Twitter get no say, even though it is them who produce the value. No one would participate in the game of Twitter were it not for the players on the field. Imagine a football game that attracted millions of spectators but the players were not paid (no need, that describes college sports, see John Oliver explain how those players(workers) are being exploited).

Twitter is profiting off the work of it’s “players” yet giving them no way to change the game they are playing.

Enter Platform Coops

So we need to co-own our platforms. If the players owned the field they are playing on then they can change it to suit their play. They can change the game to make it work better for everyone, rather than the owners of the field. That is to say, if the users own the platform they can make it work for them rather than work for the platform.

Imagine this in the game analogy again. Most of us play on these platforms because we love the game. We aren’t playing to win we are playing to play. If we have control we can change the rules to keep the game going.

A small but telling example is that of Google Reader. This RSS reading platform was shut down by Google a few years ago and left all the people using it high and dry. Google didn’t want to support the platform and the people using it couldn’t play there anymore because it belonged to someone other than them.

Cooperation is(n’t) Hard

This weekend’s conference is going to talk about how we can collaboratively own platforms. How we can democratically control them.

Digital Technology

Cooperation is hard.There will surly be talk of other platforms like Loomio or ideologies for managing platforms, like free/open source software. I believe that most people will look to digital technology for the answer. If only we had the open source Facebook or the right voting tool. We need digital technology to make cooperation easy some will say.

This isn’t the answer and it strikes at the very heart of why I’m involved with ALC.

Cultural Technology

Cooperation is easy when you have the skills and tools to do it well. At ALC we are developing cultural technology which makes cooperation easy by teaching the skills needed to do it. Borrowing from ideas old (Quaker meetings) and new (Agile project management) we are adapting tools and practices which don’t need digital technology to operate. Our culture is created, adapted, and changed with not much more than a white board and sticky notes!

This is what we have to offer.

Digital Technology is necessary, it is the difference between trying to do this 20 years ago and doing it today. It is the power multiplier that will free us from the old economy. My point is that we must ground the digital technology in a foundation of good cultural technology.

ALC needs help building the digital technology over our open source tools and practices. We need to do so in a way that doesn’t create another platform that might die with our brand!

I look forward to figuring out how we are going to do this.

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Website Discovery: Moving Web Sites Forward

Last year I spent a week out at a commune in Central Tennessee called The Farm. I was there visiting The Farm School at the request of the director Peter Kindfield who connected with me because he was looking for wagn developers (an open source wiki project that is awesome!) what he didn’t know was that I was in the middle of going to ALF Summer 2014, a training event from Agile Learning Centers. Along with web help he was also looking to move toward a self directed learning style at the Farm School, it was very serendipitous!


In exchange for a place to stay and food I offered to do a discovery process. I have become very fond of discovery, which is a sort of like a first date for freelance web development projects. Discovery has a clear outcome, a document that describes what a client needs and suggestions for how to achieve that. It allows a consultant (me) to better understand the needs of the client by working together to create this valuable outcome. I use it as a way to start projects and get a feel for the working relationship with a client.

For the farm school I wrote a 13 page discovery document which can be viewed here. It outlined the current technological situation of the school, it’s existing websites, and recommendations for moving forward.

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 6.01.53 PM

I was able to leave this document in the hands of the Farm School and they were able to pass it on to contractors who could then act on it.


After handing off the document I left and didn’t think much of it. A year later I went back to The Farm and stayed with Peter. I mentioned it and to my surprise he said that it had worked! Two things happened according to Peter:

We used your discovery document in two ways:
1) To support our shared decision making process. The three people most involved (Satellite Campus program coordinator, Solar Campus program coordinator and Principal) and a website developer/parent of satellite campus students all read document and basically decided to follow your advice and do what Drew said. This got us out of a stuck place we had been in for years about how to use wagn.
2) The website developer/parent of satellite campus students used your discovery document as her initial design specifications.
we’d been stuck for years and you got us unstuck!
Great success! The discovery document gave them a foundation to build from.