This past week, I had the opportunity to attend the Serious Play Conference in Redmond, Washington. I’m going to write about my experiences there, the highlights of the talks I attended, and what I took away from the event. For a brief summary of the conference goals and speakers, please refer to my last couple of posts.
Washington is a beautiful state. This is true even when it’s raining but especially when the sun is out as it was this past week. The air was clean, the days were warm, and the nights were cool and crisp.
Redmond is a handsome little suburb of Seattle, home to Microsoft headquarters and its 50,000 employees. The evergreen-lined lawns are green and trim, buses are frequent and the pedestrian and bike paths are plentiful.
Traveling from the East to West Coast for conferences is the long end of the stick when it comes to the potential jet-lag problem. East Coast Standard is 3 hours ahead of the West Coast so, in the mornings, it’s easy to wake up with plenty of time to enjoy breakfast. I didn’t even use an alarm clock. My host for the event happened to have multiple cats, my biological nemesis(I’m allergic), but I slept out on the balcony which was a very pleasant solution.
Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Despite a late arrival the night before, I awoke with the sun and was well ironed and fed for the opening words of Claude Comair, President of DigiPen.
The conference purposefully directed the initial focus with a plenary panel session assessing the serious games market size and potential growth. This early emphasis provided context for the assertion of several speakers that serious game development should begin by identifying need and case use. Clark Aldrich introduced the members of panel.
First was Tyson Greer, CEO of Ambient Insight, an elearning market research firm. She gave a brief presentation of her company’s chief research points. The most striking piece of data for myself was a graph showing the very young and older demographics dominating with a trough in between. She gave another interesting bit of info on mobile versus non-mobile in two sectors. The market for mobile commercially-sold edugames is growing while the market for non-mobile commercially-sold games is flat. However, the market for custom developed edugames is growing, both for mobile and non-mobile platforms. The slides and white papers from which the data was drawn are available on the company website.
Alan Gershenfeld being interviewed
Alan Gershenfeld, President of E-Line Media and former Chairman of Games for Change, was next to speak. He cited the abundance of research touting the benefits and potential of serious games but lamented the scarcity of products that were both financially sustainable and making impact. He put a word in for the E-Line Media and Institute of Play project, Gamestar Mechanic, which guides middle school age kids through the creation of digital games.
The third panelist was Kevin Oakes, the CEO of i4CP, a network of corporations purposed to maximize company human capital.
The audience that morning was mostly developers and researchers with a smattering of publishers and educators and a couple students. There was exactly one person who identified as an investor. He was warned to take care lest he be accosted at the coffee break.
Throughout the question and answer session, talk kind of stayed on the official topic. Healthcare education was identified as a major sector, both in brain training and patient education games for aging baby boomers and games for premed and nursing students. Gershenfeld asserted that he had seen many interesting hardware solutions but knew of none that could scale (Sam Adkins would later predict a meteoric rise of the soon to be released LeapPad). Greer fielded the question of which market would grow by suggesting that one should “look to the kids.” She said that smaller kids currently consuming the wealth of edugames for elementary school subject material would expect the same kind of instructional material as they entered middle and high school.
Straying a bit, the talk shifted to discuss the need for more synthesized approach of the varied groups(educators, researchers, publishers, designers, …) interested in serious games and involved in their conception, development, and distribution.
Following was a coffee and networking break. I abstained on the caffeine but got a tall glass of apple and cranberry juice. I met a graphic designer, turntablist, videographer, and visualist (all listed on his impeccably laid out business card) named Ian Hayes as well as Zach Barth, designer and producer within his own start-up, Zachtronics Industries. Zachtronics entered SpaceChem into the competition, a puzzle game loosely based on chemistry. When making the game, they had not considered it to be an educational title but it had gained some attention as such so they figured they’d go ahead and enter it into the competition. The game is akin to SimCity in its position on the ambiguous border of education and entertainment titles.
Next up on my agenda was another panel, “From Slate to Chalk to Tablets and Apps.” This was a meeting of the educators. Michael Golden was there from Educurious, a non-profit focused on reducing high school dropout rates by increasing engagement through technology integration. Scott Osterweil represented the Education Arcade and the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program(check out some cool games at Gambit). There was also Kathy Hurley and Kimberly O’Malley of Pearson.
The panelists relayed their extensive experiences incorporating past technologies into the classroom and then the forays of their respective organizations into educational games. Scott lamented that research on exactly what made games effective teaching tools lagged behind development. Figuring out how in-game mechanics transferred learning objectives was identified as the “holy grail” of educational games research. Then everyone weighed in on the potential of video games for education.
Demostration of StrategicPlay. Jacqueline Smith talking and everybody else playing with LEGO seeking the meaning of the blocks. Good times.
Before lunch, there was a service demonstration presented by Jacqueline Smith, “Strategicplay with LEGO Serious Play.” The company provides what they term “unconsulting” that seeks to tap into the creative and collaborative problem solving potential of the client’s in-house employees. Participants construct LEGO structures and then give them meaning and a story related to the business and issues facing the company. The LEGO become metaphors and abstractions for problems and ideas with which the company is wrestling. Jacqueline asserted that the service employs the subconscious and kinesthetic, auditory, and visual faculties as well as flow to break down assumptions and barriers to problem solving in the workplace. I am a lifelong fan of LEGO (I made the acme of my career, a giant castle/lighthouse, at age 17) so I was thrilled by the whole thing.
Lunch was well earned and appreciated. I was quite impressed with the dining services of DigiPen. They offered soups and make-your-own salads and sandwiches. The sandwich bar even allowed for multiple meats and cheeses, including fresh mozzarella! I ate with a researcher from Madrid and the young Zach Barth of Zachtronics Industries. We exchanged background stories and Youtube videos of our projects.
After lunch, Claude Comair held court over the conference. He is a decorated veteran of the gaming industry with many significant technological contributions and, for the first half hour, Comair regaled us with many tales of his exploits and conquests. I must admit that as one who vividly remembers the transcendent experience of playing Mario 64 for the first time, I was star struck to learn that Comair had approached Nintendo with the 3D engine that powered that revolutionary game.
The title subject was “B-Hive: A Human Behavioral Definition Simulation Environment.” B-Hive is a program developed by DigiPen in partnership with Boeing that enables users to more easily create simulations modeling individual human behavior. Most simulations modeling behavior deal in the aggregate and look at the discrete or continuous parameters of entire populations. B-Hive takes individual traits and characteristics and predicts the actions of that person. The program is used by a variety of organizations including government and military. (They may think they have me figured out but I bet they didn’t know I’d have huevos rancheros for breakfast this morning…)
He finished up with a few earth shakers for the K-12 education crowd, the epicenter of which was uncomfortably close to the home of my hopes and dreams. He declared that it was impossible to make a good game about math and those that thought they could would soon be going out of business. Furthermore, “as soon as a kid is old enough to say ‘hah,’” they will refuse to play our best attempts. I guess we will just have to see about that, Comair. I am too fresh in this game to believe that quite yet. He said, echoing the words of many, that we should instead be encouraging kids to make games. The process would develop all exalted 21st century skills and more. I cannot wholly disagree with that.
The next talk I attended was given by Christopher Hardy of the Defense Acquisition University(DAU). It was a production and integration oriented talk entitled “How to Create and Effective Sim/Game Strategy.” The DAU teaches the workings and procedures of the business side of the army, that involving the “acquisition” of all untold number of materials that are used. Many courses are online and the dominants forms of assessment are standardized. For their body of instructors, the DAU recruits senior contractors and “puts them through faculty training courses.” Hardy’s mission statement was to “provide an integrated, interactive learning environment that helps acquisition workforce members, teams and organizations improve outcomes.” To date, the DAU has developed and integrated 35 mostly Flash-based games into the curriculum. The per game costs have ranged from 25K to 500K.
He offered two imperatives for effective games/sims. One, the first step in making a learning game is to identify a topic and determine how the proposed game would be integrated into the existing curriculum. He termed this the “use case.” Two, never build a game where all you learn is the game. These were two solid points. The second is easier said than done of course but it was nonetheless said with the wisdom of experience. He also advised to “look for low hanging fruit” when trying to get a gamification program started. A few small but quick successes are essential to securing funding in the crucial early to mid-stage of a program’s infancy.
Hardy was practical and to the point. The military has been an early adopter of serious games and the education sector could do well to study their experiences.
The last talk of the first day was “Game Mechanics Used for Learning,” delivered by Douglas Whatley of Breakaway Games. Whatley was with Breakaway for the development of Civ III and a pupil of Cid Meier and Bruschelli.
He opened by establishing examples of a few key terms in the context of the classic, Trivial Pursuit (which I don’t care for and my sister loves, perhaps to spite me). The game mechanic is basic. The player moves, is asked and answers a question, and then, if correct, they get a pie piece. Whatley said that the game theme and content were both contained in the questions.
Whatley defined a spectrum of learning objectives from explicit knowledge to implicit knowledge. He also defined a corresponding spectrum for employment. Routine work is dominated by the need for explicit knowledge while knowledge work uses implicit knowledge. For example, teaching history involves the explicit facts and implicit inter-relations of those facts. Additionally, the spectrum of knowledge corresponds to a spectrum of game development time. Games teaching explicit knowledge are relatively easy to make while games teaching implicit knowledge take longer.
Explicit knowledge is incorporated into game content whereas implicit knowledge is built into game mechanics. As example, he referenced Healing Blade which is a multiplayer infectious disease card battle game. Players take the role of disease or doctor and battle each other using reality-based but fictitious medications and bacteria/viruses. The explicit knowledge, medical facts, is on the cards. The deeper learning objectives, like the concept of antibiotic resistant bacteria, come thru in game mechanics.
He closed up by telling a story from the making of Civ III to illustrate the subtle effects of game design on learning objectives. Earlier in the series, the game randomly generated the world maps but would assign real-world names of landscape features to analogous in-game features. However, this encouraged many players to spatially align their worlds and civilizations with those landmarks as they were in reality. For example, most people would try to establish the African nations on the Sahara Desert. Mimicking reality limited a deeper exploration of the ways that landscape and space have shaped the trajectory and culture of civilizations. The assignment of real-world names ended with Civ II.
After this last talk, I headed to the computer lab to check out the entries into the competition. Not all entries were up and ready to play but I will talk briefly about a few that I did the chance to try out.
There was Emergency Birth by the Engender Games Group which is a still-image Flash-based game teaching the proper procedures for a lay person to manage an emergency birth. All I will say is that it is quite an experience. Check it out.
In Play True Challenge by the World Anti-Doping Agency, the player controls a young track athlete. The “racing” aspect of the game is a platform game in which the player jumps obstacles and gets power-ups. In between races, the player has conversations with the coach, friends, and family and makes decisions about whether to do performance-enhancing drugs.
Zach Barth and another attendee playing Space Chem
Fate of the World by Red Redemption, winner of the Knights News Game award at the recent Games for Change Festival, is a turn-based strategy game about climate change. The player controls the Global Environmental Organization and mitigates climate change, resource scarcity, and global economic crises using initiatives in public health, research, politics, and the environment. These initiatives include everything from supporting research in biotech to curbing rampant population growth by secretly adding sterilization drugs to the local drinking water.
Flame-Sim is a 3D simulation about fighting a house fire. It was developed for fire department training programs as an extension of classroom lessons.
RiggleFish teaches players about scientific inquiry and genetics. The player is charged with developing a source for the fatty acid, Omega X, which is a protectant against a deadly bioweapon. The game developed by UL Lafayette’s Center for Innovative Learning and Assessment Technologies and Texas A&M.
Some of the games were meant to be 5-10 minutes long but a couple were much more in depth. I was there until even the event coordinators were ready to go and I had barely gotten started. After a bit of chatting by the door, I started on the trek home. I got to the corner when I was hailed by a small SUV. The window slid down to reveal Clark Aldrich “riding shotty” and Susan Bohle at the wheel. They graciously gave me a ride back to my host’s home which happened to be on their way.
After getting home and setting up my sanctuary from the cats on the balcony, it did not take me long to fall into a deep jet-lag-induced sleep…