Archive for the 'Serious' Category

Speaking at Living Game Worlds

Just hit the ground in Atlanta, where I’ll be speaking at Living Game Worlds 4 this week. It’s always great fun to hang out with folks like Raph Koster, T.L. Taylor, Randy Farmer, and Ian Bogost. My talk will focus on the design challenges we faced building games in virtual worlds — the Virtual Team Building Games project, which I lead at IBM Research. Looking forward to some good discussion. If you’re at LGW4, stop by and say hi!

Check out our notes on LGW3 at Inside Living Game Worlds. For more, see the Living Game Worlds site.

Inside Living Game Worlds

What makes a next generation game? At Living Game Worlds III last week, some really bright folks got together to talk about just that question. And the answer came like a chorus: It’s not about wicked-fast number crunching, liquid AI, and poly pushing by the pound, but games the engage the soul and go beyond conventional expectations of what a game should be. Looking back on a day overflowing with interesting people and ideas, a few things stick out:

Katie Salen talked accuracy vs. authenticity, the notion that just because a game accurately models some real-world activity or place does not guarantee that players will perceive it that way. “Reality” is in the player’s head, not in the physical world. Game design, then, is a constant negotiation between design decisions and player expectations. And it’s always different. There’s no one game that every player plays.

Janet Murray made the case that games are our most primal form of cultural expression, even predating speech. They emerged from an urge to document experiences and culture, to reenact them over time and pass them on to future generations. She argued that game play is a central, even instinctual, urge in all cultures and that shows how much further videogames could reach.

Tracy Fullerton pointed out that game mechanics are a significant limiting factor in the industry today. The mechanics are the message; where narrative is the organizing principle of film, mechanics are the organizing principle of games. The problem the industry faces is that new mechanics are hard, time consuming, and costly to develop. It’s easier to stick with what you know works. But developing new mechanics is essential because they are so central to advancing the state of the art — providing game developers access to significantly new and different content.

A particularly inspiring session focused on Games of the Oppressed, featuring three games that aim to help those in need. A Force More Powerful, an RTS-like sim, provides the oppressed masses with strategies to confront and defeat violent leaders using nonviolent means. The now famous (and rightfully so) Darfur is Dying was demonstrated in addition to some lovely avatar creation art for a new title. Lastly, we got a walkthrough of the inner-city afterschool program that designed Ayiti: The Cost of Life, a game that explores poverty and obstacles to education in contemporary Haiti.

Some heated exchanges came during the discussion of indie game festival Slamdance ejecting Super Columbine RPG and the ensuing firestorm of publicity. “Why is it OK to make a film about Columbine but not a game?” being the key question. (Joystiq has more)

The day ended with another central question: Nobody ever told a kid to stop reading a book and go outside, but you hear it all the time with TV and videogames. Why is that? What does that say about the relationship between our culture and gaming? What does it say about the ground game designers have yet to explore? Food for thought and food for the future.

Wii vs. Your Teeth

Seen in a recent demo session at work, these Wiimote plaque removers had me smiling on sight. When the creators controlled a game by brushing their teeth with them, though, I spit out my drink. Welcome to Wii Oral Sports.

The game (shot here) involves keeping your character alive in a perilous fish tank. Only by brushing your teeth with the correct motion and making sure to cover every last tooth can you escape harm. The idea, of course, is that kids don’t do the greatest job of dental care so anything that helps them avoid rabbid tooth is goodness. Some might complain the game has little to do with the real-world task but that just earns extra charm points in my book.

Heck, they even showed playing improves brushing behavior in an experiment. Once the game was taken away, though, bad habits returned. We all know what the solution to that one is, don’t we? Wii for everyone! Nintendo needs to get on the stick.

The demo was titled “Lifestyle Ubiquitous Gaming: Making Daily Lives Fun” and shown as part of PerComm 2007. It was built by a bunch of folks from the Distributed and Ubiquitous Computing Lab in Tokyo.

For more unlikely tooth defense techniques, witness the Cavity Creeps.

It’s Only Fun When You Ain’t Learning

Fun with delinquency in Rockstar's Bully

Out of the UK comes a fantasy role playing game that cost twice what a typical high-end title (like Gears of War) does to develop. So, the selling point is top-notch production values and seriously epic story, right? Not so much. The big deal with this game is that it was designed to teach literacy and math skills to kids. Before you get into that “Games and learning? Blech!” look on your face, stick with me a minute.

At the recent Games for Change Salon at Parsons, I talked to many people who were psyched about serious games, but I also heard from a surprising number of folks who weren’t. The unimpressed said things like: “the more learning you put in a game, the less fun it is.” It’s really not an unreasonable position considering how many examples support the argument (and how few don’t). Raph Koster puts it like this:

Games work best at teaching when the challenges are organic to the experience, rather than out of left field. This is why so many educational games suck — just strapping an incentive structure on rote practice doesn’t work very well, compared to instead building a long-term goal structure, and then presenting challenges on the way. The “fill the hold” example works because the students have a goal that isn’t learning. I think this is the fundamental error many educators make — they think that everyone finds learning for learning’s sake to be engaging.
The path for educational games is to start with something that users care about, and just take care to select a goal that naturally offers up the sorts of challenges that we want to teach.

But isn’t that also the fundamental problem? Creating fun game challenges that naturally convey specific (and significant) educational content ain’t easy. That’s because, while some content is fairly easy to teach through in-game challenges (solving logic puzzles being a particularly popular example), others are much harder. How would we make learning the parts of speech fun, for instance? Surely it’s possible, but finding that perfect game element it fits naturally with might take some work.

And this brings out a central challenge for the serious games community: game design is an art. It’s really hard enough to design a game that’s “merely” fun without having to service particular learning goals as well. Doing both is a daunting task and likely explains why more serious games don’t come from the traditional game industry. Fortunately, that’s changing. Nintendo’s Brain Age has been huge, Square’s chief strategist is keynoting this year’s Serious Games Summit, and I’m sure there’s more just over the horizon.

It’s encouraging to see these heavy hitters interested in making learning a central aspect of new games. As the industry grows, diversification becomes an increasingly important survival strategy. And diversity keeps the games interesting, too. Imagine that. If diversity is essential, could it be that some significant part of the the future of games hinges on making them educational? How’d that be for turning the tables?

War is Hella Fun

Have you ever played an emotionally wrenching wargame? When was the last time a first person shooter made you cry? Ever spent weeks torn up over the pain and suffering endured by your troops in an RTS? Why not?

That question might sound strange, but stick with me a second… You see, over the years I’ve been addicted to all sorts of shooting games, exploding games, running-people-over-with-tanks games. Mostly because the good ones are hella fun, especially with friends. But part of me always felt a little weird about it. In January’s Edge, Lorne Lanning put it this way:

That’s when a medium really has power — the idea of the artist, mythologically, is to show us the way, or the wrong way, even. It’s showing the world something it needs to know, but for some reason isn’t necessarily able to see. You see it in a great movie, book, or play, but it’s not happening in games. What I see instead is we say: ‘Hmm, why don’t we take war, and make it as visually realistic as possible, then sterilize so that it’s just fun’, and there’s something very perverted about that.

And particularly perverted considering that my country is at war as we speak. How is it that so many games fetishize guns and ammo but don’t quite manage to attach the same import to people?

I’m certainly not looking to start up the whole murder simulator debate again (heck, I liked Manhunt). But I am hopeful that more will consider the fact that we are making fabulously fun games from experiences that are anything but. It’s not so much that I fear the folks are being desensitized to violence or that games like Battlefield or Quake 3 or Defcon shouldn’t exist. (I love that stuff!)

My point is more that game developers are missing a fantastic opportunity to help players better understand what troops really go through on deployment. That might not be as much fun but, then, neither is war. And as powerful a medium as gaming is, it seems a shame not to explore all its dimensions.

Update: Edge just put the full text of Lorne’s interview online. Worth a read — the guy makes points.

Emotionally Available

When I think about the games I love most, the thing that jumps out is not graphics or story or control mechanism, but emotion. Because that’s what it all adds up to when it’s done right. And that’s what I think a recent Atlantic article that focuses largely on Façade is getting at, too. It suggests the way forward for games lies in finding ways to connect with players on a more deeply emotional level, the claim being that this is when games will approach art. (I’d argue that a few games have already archived the status of art, but let’s not go there just now.)

It’s a beautiful notion and certainly, in the abstract, the sort of connection that all games should shoot for in their unique ways. The article discusses two approaches to eliciting emotion that show promise: making characters more emotionally intelligent (Façade) and creating an environment where players can experience the “magical delight of creation” (Spore).

But there’s more. What we are really talking about is no longer letting players take the easy way out. There’s no “You Win! Thanks for playing!” but rather lots of hard questions and no easy answers.

Continue reading ‘Emotionally Available’


When I first played Darfur is Dying some months ago, I wasn’t expecting much. I mean how much of the awful situation in Darfur could really be communicated through a hopelessly impoverished flash game? I expected to feel insulted. Heck, I insisted on being insulted. And I was wrong.

As simple as it is, Darfur is Dying engages the imagination — asking the player to see themselves in a different skin and a different place, where things we take for granted (like getting water) become complex and dangerous and not guaranteed. It stuck with me. There’s something about actively playing that role, however abstract, that brings this lesson home the way a thousand news stories just can’t. Or, maybe it’s the combination of those thousand news stories and the opportunity to imagine yourself as part of them. It’s anti-escapism.

What I find fascinating about Darfur is Dying (and many other serious games) is how little it takes to make this happen. There are no full 3D environments, no orchestral score, no 80 hours of gameplay, no multi-million dollar budget, no five years of development. Just thoughtful design. As far as design goes, then, it harkens back to the golden age of videogames in the 1980’s. And that begs the question: how repeatable is this? What does it take to create games on other topics that provoke similar feelings?

Many old school “educational games” motivated rote learning with dessert (finish the math problems and you get to play space invaders), but what really sets serious games (new and old) apart is that they insist on incorporating learning strongly with gameplay rather than tacking it on. They insist on working to make learning engaging, transparent. They are learning-by-doing, but they protect you from the dangers of doing it for real.

There’s a lot of breath in serious games (everything from Falcon 4 to Guitar Hero to Sim City to Pump Expeditions seems to fall in), but my favorites tend to have a socially relevant message. They don’t so much try to teach you how to operate a tank as to change your attitudes about someone, someplace, something.

So, while the serious games moniker typically refers broadly to games that teach real world knowledge or skills, I prefer to think of serious games as games with a serious message as well (like the G4C folks). They make you emotional. They make you rethink. They make you want to find out more. They motivate. And, ultimately, that is one of the most powerful things interactive media can do.

For more, see the Serious Games Initiative

E-mail It