Chessy adventure

No, not cheesy.  Chessy.  But that’s what I read the first time.

A company that shall remain nameless contacted AoPS a while back about reviewing their educational book that uses chess to teach logic.  I thought, “Sign me up!  This is right up my alley.”  At this point, there were multiple weak warning signs: they were offering to pay reviewers (is this normal in the educational book/game industry?); their webpage touts their animation being shown at various film festivals (remember, what they are selling is a book and a chess set, not an animated show or whatever).

Anyway, I receive a PDF copy of the book and eventually found some time to read it through the other day.  It’s dreck.

It’s not a book of puzzles to develop mental skills.  Rather, it’s a children’s book interspersed with math problems.  What very few chess puzzles there are are not really puzzles.  They don’t really get students to think any deeper about game and do not teach logic as advertised.

The math problems are okay, of a quality typical of worksheet word problems, but nothing inspired.  If condensed, the problems would fill several pages of worksheets.  Mind you, this is in a book approaching 200 pages.  The issues with the problems are 1) their topics bounce all over the place, and 2) their difficulty ranges from 1st through 8th grade.  The only way I can think of such worksheets being useful is as a review of various concepts.  It cannot be used to, say, have a student bone up on a particular concept.

Oh, actually the worst thing about the problems is that for many problems, little math is taught.  Students do the problems and check their answer in the back of the book.  If the student gets it wrong, there’s no explanation.  If the student doesn’t know what to do, the book tells them to ask their teacher.  So the book admit that it is insufficient to teach the material.  This is being marketed as an educational product.

There are many other problems with the book.  Names and terms from physics are dropped into narrative for no reason.  I imagine someone was trying to broaden the educational reach by saying, “We do physics!”  Except such tidbits are inserted without context and students are, I guess, expected to memorize them for their own sake.  Not, say, as part of a exploration of how a handful of simple laws governs how the entire universe operates from the galaxies to atoms.  No, what you get is: “A proton is made of three quarks.”

That isn’t the only way it tries to sell itself.  The bio of the white king literally says, “an American hero… born on the 4th of July.”  The first page of the book proper name drops about a dozen New York city landmarks and place names.  I was surprised there weren’t little American flags waving in the illustrations.

There are grammar mistakes on every page, mostly from someone who doesn’t know comma rules.  The writing is like something someone in a college creative writing class would be told to redo.  The writer has heard that adjectives make the prose less flat and so has them on every noun, adjectives like “cute” and “darling.”  Except for the villains, who get their own set of words.

The characters are flat.  The first 30 pages or so, which was meant introduce the characters while teaching the rules of chess, made no attempt to introduce either the characters or the rules of the game in an organic narrative.  There is no character development or discovery.  And it doesn’t teach the rules of chess all that well either.

By now you’re thinking, “James, it’s a frickin’ children’s book for crying out loud.  It’s not meant to be the last word in educational literature.”  And this is a fair point.  My rebuttal is that it does a poor job in pretty much everything it sets out to do.

Anyway, I read half the book but did not finish the rest because it looked to be more of the same.  I packaged my page-by-page notes with a summary of my criticism and expected to receive a curt, “We’re not paying you for this.”  What I got back was a, “You’re a hateful man, and if you think of asking money for this, I’m going to vomit.”  I knew all along it was about the money.  That’s a paraphrasing, but “hate” and “vomit” are quotes.

I find it interesting that most people’s reaction to criticism of their work is to interpret it as a personal attack and to respond in kind.  I think creative people, such writers and artists, learn to separate a rejection of their skill from a rejection of themselves.  Even scientists and engineers who find their work criticized don’t take it as a personal insult.  It still hurts because something you worked hard on (suffered for, as the stereotype goes) was found lacking, so there is an emotional reaction.  But people have these baby projects that they nurture for months and years, and they bring it out to the world.  And Sturgeon’s Law kicks in and tells them they are part of the 90% that is crap.

I’ve worked in science and dabbled in game design as both a designer and playtester (mostly the latter).  The people who produce good work use constructive criticism to their advantage.  It gives them an outside perspective when they’ve become to close to be objective.  It’s the ones that think they’re infallible and ignore criticism in the classic confirmation bias pattern that have that criticism come back to haunt them.  Good science is peer reviewed for a reason.  The example in gaming that stands out in my head is Guards! Guards!, which I bet was entirely developed in-house, and they did not look for or were not willing to listen to feedback.  The concerns raised early on BGG were reflected in the comments by the community after release.

Of course, this company wasn’t looking for feedback.  They were looking for praise.  Specifically, a ~500 word essay they could snip quotes out of for marketing.  Anything that told them to return to the drawing board and rearrange their production schedule is clearly not in the books.  So I can understand why they would rather ignore what I gave them.  That doesn’t change the fact that their product is still dreck.

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