Thursday, August 25, 2011
The final day of the conference began with a plenary panel addressing the question of “How to Assess the Value of Serious Games.” Each member of the panel represented a separate industry interested in serious games.
Zoran Popovic is an Associate Professor in Computer Science at University of Washington and a lead designer of the protein folding game, Foldit. The game takes advantage of human’s natural spatial intuitions and the motivation of games and competition to crowd-source one of the hardest problems in modern biology, determining the physical structure of proteins. Alex Games is currently Education Design Director at Microsoft and worked on Gamestar Mechanic with the Academic ADL Co-Lab. James Portnow is CEO of Rainmaker Games and the writer of Extra Credits, the game design column at the Escapist. There was also a mysterious man named Bob Olson who was not on the program but I can guess in education.
The discussion was full of passionate and well-considered ideas but not leading to many unified points. It reflected the optimism surrounding serious games but confusion about what they should actually be.
The situation is especially complicated for many learning games and this is where discussion centered. Education administrators, strapped to the runaway rocket of standardized testing and No Child Left Behind, want games that will engage the kids in the standard curriculum. The people making these games don’t want to do remakes of Math Blasters and dream of games providing more discovery and question oriented learning. The problem is, nobody is entirely sure how to measure those things in the kinds of terms that the education administrators (the biggest buyers) need before signing the checks.
Some conference attendees were resolved to pursue big picture visions despite the problems of selling their games to a system that was not quite ready. The panel sided with the dreamers. The spotlight probably makes for easier idealism.
Alex said that “games don’t teach, just like books don’t teach, you teach yourself something.” Zoran thinks that games should try to advance curiosity and understanding of content in equal measure. Additionally, games should focus on teaching the general scientific process rather than something specific. Alex continued saying that the measure of learning in games should be the number of questions generated in the player rather than the number of answers. Bob spoke of the need for reform in the education system.
I’m trying to make a game this semester and I’m trying to plan my team so I posed a question to Zoron and James. “What is your 5-person dream team for developing a serious game?”
Zoron: First, off he wants a domain expert. For the second and third persons, he said educators and kids(read – end users). This is obviously groups of people and not individuals which was kind of cheating but I get his point. Involving kids and teachers in the development of games is why I think Quest to Learn is going to be putting out some great stuff. His fourth was “people who think about development in a scientific way” and he didn’t give a fifth. He was less interested in a more traditional development group and described a “crowd-sourcing platform for iterative design.”
James: His point guard was a designer with deep knowledge of the subject matter who was “receptive to criticism” and “aggressively iterative.” Second was a programmer. Third was an artist who understood the target the demographic. His fourth was a producer with a strong business sense. The last spot he left open for an artist or programmer depending on the needs of the project.
Right after the talk, I walked a few rows up to speak with a guy who had been playing around on his laptop with what looked like a game about the weather. It turns out that it was the website of the National Severe Storms Laboratory. The have an immense amount of extremely accurate, real-time visualizations of the movement of storm systems. It was not a game but I think it could be.
Next, Jon Aleckson and Clark Aldrich shared their extensive experience with “Rigorous Methodologies and Skill Sets for the Sim/Game Development Process,” specifically for a custom development service. Jon Aleckson is with Web Courseworks, a full-service elearning company which developed two competition entries, Play True Challenge and Distraction Dodger. Clark Aldrich is the author of several books on simulations and serious games and founder of the boutique education company, Clark Aldrich Designs. They had an entertaining exchange going throughout the talk. I got the impression they have worked together a good amount over the years, both together and in competition.
Clark and Jon presented an outline for development process and a number of useful rule-of-thumb developed in their experience. For one, both Jon and Clark were adamant that the designer should not be the project manager because of the conflicts of interest. Another was not to try do too much with the first level and should be just a couple minutes long. It should allow for interaction as early as possible(not after 10 minutes of text or video tutorial). Once coding has begun, each segment and genre should be prototyped and one full level (3rd or 4th) should be completed entirely for use as a demo.
Before that morning’s plenary panel, I had the chance to speak with a gentleman possessing a distinctive head of frosty white hair. He was LeRoy Heinrichs, a doctor of both medicine and philosophy and the executive medical officer of Innovation in Learning. I enjoyed our conversation so much that I decided to attend the his talk at 11:30.
His company produced CliniSpace, a training simulation for medical professionals. The player diagnoses and treats patients in a 3D environment simulating a standard hospital room. There are a variety of patients and conditions including patients hemorrhaging blood from heavy wounds and with community-acquired pneumonia. The game allows for online multiplayer and LeRoy was proud to say that several virtual surgeries had been jointly performed by 3 people on 3 different continents. CliniSpace was developed in Unity3D by Indusgeeks.
CliniSpace is the successor in a long line of methods to simulate the environment of a practicing medical professional. In the past, they have hired actors to play the role of patients and respond according to their conditions. They have also built dummies outfitted with built-in hardware and software to simulate real patients.
One small but notable design feature: The players have access to the variety of diagnostic equipment that exist in hospitals, including heart rate monitors and X-Ray. When using these equipment, the information is displayed only on the screen of the user. So in multiplayer mode, one person can be using the equipment but that information is not displayed on every player’s screen. This was designed to encourage communication between the players.
My last lunch hour of the conference was my favorite. I sat with two awesome doctoral students. The first was studying neuroscience at the University of Chicago-Illinois. We regrettably did not exchange contact info and his name is lost to me. The second was Joel Bremson who is studying transportation technology and policy at UC Davis. His thesis project is a game in which four players take the role of car manufacturers and decide what cars to produce based on the economic climate of alternative transportation. He has offered a demo of the game. I just need a couple more players so let me know if you want to play.
And I had a delicious sandwich on focaccia bread.
At 1:30pm, Ellen Beeman from Amazing Society presented “Hiring, Monitoring, and Retaining Serious Game Development Talent.” Her main point throughout the talk was that an employee’s decisions to stay with or leave a company were rarely based on monetary incentives but more determined by job satisfaction. This is why counteroffers rarely work. If someone is entertaining an offer at another company, more money is probably not going to keep them around, especially not happy and productive. She gave several ways to promote work-place contentment.
She talked about firing the “Poptart Guy.” He is the guy that everyone in the company knows is not pulling his weight. His continued paycheck makes good work feel less appreciated and his screw-ups are costly. Ellen asserted that firing him must be done and soon, despite issues of replacement. Another cause of unrest is layoffs. If they must be done, “cut once and cut deep.” Do your best to set the laid-off employees up with other firms that are hiring. Be honest with the survivors. Tell them why it happened and that it will not be done again. She also warned of assuming that employees would be able to acquire new skills without help and touted mentoring as vital the development of new employees and the growth of old.
At 2:30pm, I joined Jon Aleckson again for “MindMeld – Collaboration with SME’s and the Value of Rigorous Processes.”
Designing educational experiences with subject matter experts(SME’s) can be difficult. Before approaching them about the project, you should have do an overview of their research and have a solid understanding of the basic elements of the field. Upon meeting them, you will want to demonstrate your interest in their work (kiss up a bit) and talk about the possibilities of the project, both at a high level (vision and power of games) and a low level (capabilities of available systems and platforms).
SME’s are often very busy and in high demand within their organizations. Their input can be a bottleneck in development. If possible, project management should be someone above the SME in the organizational hierarchy. Weekly standing meetings and google documents are useful.
The last plenary session was an open discussion, moderated by Clark Aldrich entitled “What We Have Learned.” Well, these past three posts have been what I learned so I won’t go through it all again.————–
The conference was a great experience for me. I am entering my masters program for Instructional Technology and Media at Teachers College and conceptualizing my own entries in the genre of serious games. The talks and interactions gave me quotable and actionable information as well as many inklings that constitute a feel of what I’m getting into.
Shot out to everybody I talked and/or listened to. Hope to see you around!