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Playful Cleverness: hackers, games and creativity


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Presentation held at eRuralNet workshop in Pärnu, Estonia, February 3, 2010.

Presentation held at eRuralNet workshop in Pärnu, Estonia, February 3, 2010.

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  • 1. Playful Cleverness: hackers, games and creativity Kaido Kikkas Estonian IT College *** Tallinn University e-RuralNet Pärnu 03.03.10
  • 2. What are we talking about
    • Main idea: using computer games in teaching – not only computer science but overall creativity
    • 3. A glance into the historical hacker culture
    • 4. The Battle for Wesnoth: one possible tool to bring the hacker model to classroom
    • 5. Note: get the slides at
  • 6. A Quote
    • „Hackers are people who enjoy playful cleverness.“ - Richard Matthew Stallman
    • 7. ???
    • 8. Hackers? Aren't they those bad guys who break into computers...?
    • 9. Playful cleverness?
  • 10. Long time ago, in another galaxy...
    • ... OK, this was another universe (but hackers do like sci-fi)
    • 11. A techno-subculture grown out of MIT and Stanford in the 60s (see Hackers by S. Levy) and later forming the backbone of free software and open source movements
    • 12. Playful cleverness: essentially means doing serious work as if it was fun, and taking fun seriously. Some people call it creativity
    • 13. Also see
      • Writings of Eric S. Raymond
      • 14. Hacker Ethic by Pekka Himanen
  • 15. The original MIT hacker code (Levy)
    • Access to computers – and anything which might teach you something about the way the world works – should be unlimited and total. Always yield to the Hands-On Imperative!
    • 16. All information should be free
    • 17. Mistrust authority – promote decentralization
    • 18. Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not bogus criteria such as degrees, age, race, or position
    • 19. You can create art and beauty on a computer
    • 20. Computers can change your life for the better
  • 21. A hacker code of the 90s (ESR)
    • The world is full of fascinating problems waiting to be solved
    • 22. No problem should ever have to be solved twice
    • 23. Boredom and drudgery are evil
    • 24. Freedom is good
    • 25. Attitude is no substitute for competence
    • 26. Recognition:
      • Do you identify with the goals and values of the hacker community?
      • 27. Do you speak code, fluently?
      • 28. Has a well-established member of the hacker community ever called you a hacker?
  • 29. Hacker ethic (Himanen)
    • Linus' Law on human motivation
    • Ct Maslow! Also Wozniak's formula: H = F 3
    • 32. Friday vs Sunday
    • 33. Excessive speed kills
    • 34. Caring
    • 35. „ Do, or do not. There is no try.“ - Yoda
  • 36. Bringing the hacker way to the classroom
    • Is playful cleverness also applicable in the academic setting?
    • 37. One way to do it is game-based teaching
    • 38. The Battle for Wesnoth open-source strategy game has been successfully used at TLU
  • 39. Basics
    • Played on a hex map with several dozens of terrain types (influence movement and defense)
    • 40. Hundreds of units in various (6 in default era) factions, each with distinct strengths and weaknesses, 2-5 levels (mostly 3), movement...
    • 41. Day and night cycle vs the unit alignment
    • 42. Economy based on gold, generated by villages
    • 43. In campaign mode, surviving units from previous scenarios can be recalled
    • 44. Missions may vary greatly (even if destroying enemies is the most common one)
  • 45. OK, but why is it different?
    • Homo ludens :-)
    • 46. Similar to teaching web design – should give three kinds of skills:
      • Technology: coding (programming)
      • 47. Design: artwork, maps, overall aesthetics
      • 48. Content: scenarios and campaigns
    • Compared to web design:
      • Technology is more prominent – includes event-driven programming in addition to markup
      • 49. Content is more affected by the other two (or vv)
  • 50. Two cases up to now
    • Autumn 2007 – TLU IMKE Master students, mostly with no or very basic programming skills; 6 persons (two teams of 3) participated
    • 51. Spring 2008 – TLU third-year computer science students with adequate to expert propgramming skills; more than 20 people (5 teams of 3-5) completed the course
    • 52. Two rather different sets of people - yet the course worked in both cases
    • 53. The point of the courses was not Wesnoth, but the open-source way of development
  • 54. The ideas behind Open Source
    • Roots in the hacker culture of the 60s
    • 55. Richard M. Stallman, the Father of Free Software
    • 56. Linus Torvalds and Linux
    • 57. Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar (Note: he is also an active contributor to Wesnoth)
    • 58. The avalanche grows: LAMP, GNOME/KDE,, Moodle ...
    • 59. Not freeware: the zero price is not the point
    • 60. The point is in collaboration, community, peer review and flexibility (and again: creativity)
  • 61. What can be taught with Wesnoth?
    • Storytelling and expression, overall creativity
    • 62. Graphical design
    • 63. Animation
    • 64. Markup (a possible step before moving to XHTML, XML, AJAX etc)
    • 65. Event-driven programming
    • 66. NB! Easier to 'sell' to non-technical students!
    • 67. The good thing is that these can be mixed and balanced according to the audience, allowing a good range of accommodation
  • 68. Campaign building
    • Write the storyline, design major events and divide them into scenarios
    • 69. Choose/build units for main characters
    • 70. For each scenario
      • Design (objectives, events)
      • 71. Draw the map (considering terrain and starting points)
      • 72. Choose units and recruitment scheme
      • 73. Code the scenario
    • Code the campaign summary
    • 74. Test and balance
  • 75. Storyline
    • Wesnoth has its own fictional history ( ) as well as geography:
    • 76. On the other hand, several interesting attempts have been made to base totally different storylines on the Wesnoth engine
    • 77. Eric S. Raymond has written the Wesnoth campaign design How-To:
  • 78. Wesnoth map editor
  • 79. Wercator map converter
    • By Brennan Sellner
    • 80. Converts Wesnoth maps to fancy graphical maps
    • 81. A plugin for GIMP as well as an online service
    • 82. Available online at http://www.sellner. org/wercator/
  • 83. Units
    • Several hundreds are available, distributed under different eras (historic sets)
    • 84. At first, choosing among ready-made ones is more than enough. The unit list for v1.8 is at
    • 85. To create new units, tutorials are available at
    • 86. In the newer versions of Wesnoth, multi-frame animations, shadows, different view angles etc are used, making unit design quite complex
  • 87. Wesnoth Markup Language
    • Rather similar to XML
    • 88. Tags written in the form of [tag]
    • 89. A typical scenario consists of
      • Various metadata in the beginning
      • 90. Storytelling part explaining the situation
      • 91. Map data (can be included, but is typically linked)
      • 92. Day/night cycle and difficulty specifications
      • 93. Prestart part (definitions of sides, objectives etc)
      • 94. Event-based buildup for the scenario
  • 95. WML...
    • Can be very simple, but allows for really complex operations (changing units and terrain on the fly – e.g. a character can be magically turned into a monster or a cave wall may open under a spell or password; events may also depend on if a character from a previous scenario is alive etc etc)
    • 96. Teaches good structure (opening and closing tags, correct use of parameters) as well as 'the big picture' (campaign level)
  • 97. An example
    • A demo campaign I started to develop some time ago
    • 98. A crazy story involving a lot of famous characters from various tales and also some celebrity-based people (including three Danish robbers Caspar, Jesper & Jonathan, Tchapai & Petka, Matti the mage (and former ski-jumper), Chuck Norris, King Toomas Hendrik, Santa Claus, and a very undead Osama)
    • 99. Will gradually feature more complicated techniques, the 2 existing scenarios are quite simple
  • 100. Final words
    • Hackers and playful cleverness fit well into academic settings
    • 101. Wesnoth is a versatile tool for teaching a number of things
    • 102. People can do marvellous things when not hindered by stupid artificial obstacles
    • 103. Taking the fun seriously can result in a serious result without losing the fun factor :)
    • 104. Additional recommended reading:
  • 105. Thanks! The slides are available under the Creative Commons BY-SA license at