posted November 14, 2006

Computer Game for Family Keeps on Giving

Dr. Ryan McFall of the Hope College faculty developed a computer game in a spirit of giving, and now he's selling it that way as well.

McFall, who is an associate professor of computer science at Hope, developed "Photo Match" - a computer memory game which lets players use their own photos--as a gift for his children last Christmas. He had no notion of making it available commercially, and instead was simply applying his professional expertise in a way that his family and friends could enjoy. They liked his creation so much, however, that they had other ideas.

"I wrote it for my kids strictly as their Christmas present, and gave it to people in our small group at church," he said. "My wife and they were the ones who said, 'You've got to sell this.'"

He's made it available for purchase online, but in keeping with his motivation in developing it he's decided to pass along the proceeds to charitable causes focused on kids, including, close to home, the Children's After School Achievement (CASA) program based at Hope. To McFall, it's a matter of social justice--using his abilities to help others, and recognizing a difference in his own life between needs and wants.

"I wrote the game for my kids, and I think it makes sense to sell it in that way, trying to provide opportunities for others," he said. "It just struck me that I don't need any more money. I could use it, but I don't need it."

"Photo Match" is a variation on products available in other forms for a number of years. Through the game, players face a grid with shaded squares that contain hidden images. There are two of every image - maybe eight different images, or maybe 32 depending on difficulty - hidden randomly within the grid. As the player clicks on a square, the image appears, only to become hidden again when he or she clicks on another. The goal is to match up the pairs, remembering where an image was last seen upon finding its counterpart. When two matched images are clicked in succession, they remain revealed. In a multi-player game, a player wins by matching all of the images first.

What makes McFall's version different is that the images aren't predetermined. Instead, the players direct the game to choose photos contained in whatever directory on their own computer that they specify.

"There are a lot of memory games. Most of them use a fixed set of cards," he said. "I haven't found anything similar to this - you just use your own pictures. That's what set it apart to me from anything else."

McFall created the game to provide an entertaining way for the members of his family to look at their personal photos with each other.

"My goal was to find a new way to enjoy your pictures that you could do together and enjoy reminiscing about things," he said. "I thought it would work better than a photo album. For that purpose it's worked perfectly - we enjoy it."

The game even includes sound. Using their computer's microphone, players can record brief narratives about each photo, which are then played back as the image is selected. The statements for any given image can be specific to the player doing the selecting.

There are three levels of difficulty: "easy," which in the default setting is a four-by-four grid with eight pairs of images; "medium," a six-by-six grid with 18 pairs of images; and "hard," an eight-by-eight grid with 32 pairs of images. A help function will offer hints, suggesting a few squares to try.

McFall has tried to keep the game play itself easy. Adults can enjoy it, he noted, but so can pre-school children - such as his own. "Since I designed it for kids I tried to make it that you don't have to read, as much as possible," he said.

So far, the game has been downloaded by users coast-to-coast and even overseas. A buyer in Germany was particularly interested in the ease-of-play: she is a researcher who works with orangutans and purchased the game to test the primates' ability to recall. She requested an even simpler "easy" level to better suit the orangutans' skill level, and in meeting that need McFall added the ability for every player to customize the number of pairs of photos displayed.

He is also continually refining the product in other ways. Recently he expanded it to include a "Simon Says"-like option, through which the computer highlights face-up images in order, with the players required to reproduce the order from memory. He's also working out a way to have the game create puzzles using the images, but isn't yet satisfied with the mechanics.

He hasn't explored the possibility himself, but McFall wonders if the program could have potential as a teaching tool. In language study, for example, the narrative could reinforce vocabulary lessons and teach pronunciation.

"Photo Match" is available online as a download for $5.95. To give people a chance to test drive it, a 15-day trial version is available for free. More information may be found at www.photomatchgame.com