Friday 26th September 2007 saw a Serious Games Awakenings (SGA) conference hosted in the North West Regional College (NWRC) in Derry in Northern Ireland. James Burke from the University of Ulster at Coleraine wrote a review of the event for gd.ie
The event was organised by the Northern Ireland Business and Innovation Centre (NORIBIC) and involved speakers from the Serious Games industry, from academia as well as exhibitions from local companies involved with serious games. The event was also host to the launch of “Recall”, a 3D serious game made in Derry to promote peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland’s schools.
Prior to the event’s commencement, local companies and schools had a chance to set up and showcase their work in the centre’s foyer. Exhibitors included ICECUBE, SilverTongue Software, DoodleDawg Entertainment, Nerve Centre, Instinct Technology, Invest Northern Ireland, and University of Ulster. I was contributing as part of the C3 research group at UUC and the conference provided a great opportunity to display information about our work on rehabilitation and educational serious games, as well as our work on game based e-learning systems.
The conference kicked off with a foreword from NORIBIC, and the entire conference was being broadcast live through Second Life, which was shown on screens at either side of the main stage.
Professor Paul Fullwood – Abertay University, Dundee
The first talk of the day was from Professor Paul Fullwood of Abertay University, Dundee. Prof. Fullwood’s talk began by giving a brief overview of the games industry, now an industry bigger than the movie industry, having overtaken DVD as well as movie sales. He also mentioned the statistic that 31% of males play games, whilst only 14% of females play games, which is something he believes needs to be taken into account in the design of educational games.
He discussed the premise of play being a natural technique: just like young animals play to learn and improve skills, so do we as humans, and this is just as viable a learning technique when we are older. He also recalled how his son could learn a very long cheat code off by heart for a game, and suggested how great it would be if we could educate children with such a memorable impact through game content. Games will educate if they are fairly paced, well balanced in terms of difficulty (skill versus balance), well designed, and of course, if people want to play the game.
The importance of packaging educational content in the form of a fun inviting game for also stressed, and he used an example that kids would not desire to play a game entitled “Long Division” (you’re right there!). Based on his experience from his California based serious games company ‘LightSpan’, Professor Fullwood proposed that there are 3 main conditions that will make a serious game successful:
These conditions are based upon the theory that in order for a serious game to be successful, it is important to dilute the educational objective and disperse it over many sections of a game, rather than cramming it all into one section. This means that the game’s playability will not be hampered by the educational messages which need to be portrayed. He also advised that games must be designed with the player demographics in mind, for example a game designed and produced by Americans will not necessarily suit children in Scotland.
Professor Fullwood closed by talking about his current project, Add Knowledge, utilising Fullwood’s years of experience gained from LightSpan. The project, which has backing from the Scottish government, aims to provide every child in Scotland, aged between 5 and 12 yrs old, with a free games console. Games will then be provided which cover all aspects of the education curriculum, with the objective of children playing these games outside of school hours to increase their learning time. Consoles were chosen as the key platform over personal computers as consoles are generally cheaper than high powered PC’s, are easy to setup, have a high availability, and are a lot more stable and universally compatible than PC’s. “Learning is child’s play” is the fitting motto to end Professor Fullwood’s presentation.
Roo Reynolds – Metaverse Evangelist, IBM
Next up was Andrew “Roo” Reynolds of IBM’s Hursleys Park Laboratory, who describes himself as a “metaverse evangelist”, and is part of a team which facilitates the use of virtual worlds. He has a very active online presence, blogging with his work partner on eightbar.co.uk, wandering the world of Second Life, representing his music taste on Last.fm, keeping his bookmarks on del.icio.us, uploading his photos to Flickr, tracking his location on Plazes, and telling what he’s currently doing on Twitter. He also showed a product developed for IBM’ers called ‘IBM Rock’ which aggregates data from Last.fm as well as the user’s location on a Google Earth type interface, showing where users are and what they’re listening to.
Roo believes these social sites allow people to keep in touch, as well as learning more about each other, perhaps leading to discussion about mutual interests you never knew you had, as well as extending our social networks. The content of these sites is user-driven and highly personalised. The technology also allows people to collaborate at times when it might not otherwise be possible.
He also spoke of how virtual worlds allow us to be whoever we want, be it a representation of our true selves, or something completely different. As an example he talked about a friend of his who uses a cloud as his avatar in Second Life! They can also be used for work purposes, as Roo showed screenshots of meetings which IBM held within Second Life, with the employees’ avatars gathered around a table. “Work doesn’t have to be boring”, he says. Other virtual worlds were mentioned, such as the online space game “EVE Online” which Roo plays occasionally, and the upcoming “Playstation Home” virtual world, which will be for use on the Playstation 3 console. Finally, he showed Metaverse, a virtual world being developed internally for IBM employees, based on the Torque engine.
You can read Roo’s personal blog at http://rooreynolds.com/
Professor Lizbeth Goodman –
SMARTlab Digital Media Institute, and Magic Gamelab
Dr Lizbeth Goodman is Professor of Creative Technology Innovation, and founder/director of the SMARTlab Digital Media Institute, and Magic Gamelab, based at the University of East London and at international sister sites globally. She is the director of a team of professional new media artists, technologists, urban planners and engineers conducting collaborative research into the transdisciplinary fields of technology development and art, e-health, e-inclusion, haptics and ‘art-sci’. Her fields of speciality are gender representation in the digital media (performance, film, moving image and games/virtual environments) and the creation of learning games developed for, and also with, people with disabilities and non-standard gamers. She believes that games should not be needlessly challenging, and should be somewhat relaxing.
Professor Goodman’s presentation consisted of a DVD video which showcased the institute’s areas of work:
InterFACES – the human face of assistive technologies. This project tests the effectiveness of available tools for using eye movement as a control mechanism for communications by people with little or no other voluntary muscle movement. The video showed an event called Music Jam, where the user, James Brosnan, who has cerebral palsy, was able to play along with musicians using an eye tracking system involving an on-screen grid, where different positions represented different notes and chords.
MINDtouch – Embodiment Theory & User Interface Design (BBC project): To work with biofeedback sensor technologies on the bodies of Tai Chi practitioners and Mediators’ in tandem with mobile phone technology to find unique and meaningful ways to work with and visualize the mind/body activity in various states of movement, stillness and meditation.
Lost & Found – A game utilising cutting edge and future technology tools to help track missing children and adults, and running a GPS-enabled system with live and online objectives to track sightings.
Other projects listed on the SMARTlab website include:
MAGIC and PLAYroom – The PLAYroom provides SPACE for free play: projects based in the PLAYroom will focus exclusively on gaming and play, whilst emphasising knowledge transfer, partnership with the private and public sectors, commercial development, and virtual and real world community projects.
MAGICBOX – Accessible Tech Personal & Community Fabrication: The MAGICBOX workshop enables fabrication of computer generated design models. Our goal is to develop accessible systems for desktop manufacturing, peer production and digital materialization. We are interested in the application of this technology to disadvantaged population groups.
TRUST – The Butterfly Factory: A storytelling game with human movement interaction triggered by a haptic chair.
HOPE – Gives chronically ill children the opportunity to escape stresses inherent in their conditions by providing distraction through gaming and comfort via peer contact.
To conclude, Lizbeth stated that SMART Labs are actively looking for new communities or universities to start new partnerships. You can check the team’s website at www.smartlab.uk.com for more details.
David Wortley – Director, Serious Games Institute
David Wortley is Director of the Serious Games Institute (SGI) at Coventry University. He is responsible for the development of the Institute as a self-financing initiative to establish a centre of excellence for the serious games application area.
“Virtual worlds are a new frontier. We as developers are its pioneers”, David proudly announces.
David spoke of his experiences with virtual worlds such as Second Life, and talked of the increasing use of augmented reality and geographic information systems driving us increasingly closer to technology where we will be able to zoom into an area of the world, and drill right down inside a building, which will allow us to socialise with other people within that building. He presented an example of this, where the institute were having a meeting which was also simultaneously represented in Second Life, with each person represented as an avatar.
Another example of augmented reality which David spoke of was the virtual doll house – a doll house which could be explored and controlled in a virtual world, but where each action in the virtual world was mirrored on a linked doll house in real life. For example, opening a door in the virtual doll house would cause the represented door to be opened in the real doll house. The concept of this made me realise that perhaps voodoo dolls may be a frightening reality very soon!
Finally, David talked about what he called a “speed dating” system which their institute had trialled, whereby teams of people would ‘island hop’ in a virtual world to meet and converse with other teams of people, socialising and sharing ideas.
Eric Zimmerman – GameLab Keynote Address
Eric Zimmerman is a game designer, artist and academic, and is one of the co-founders of the computer game development company called Gamelab. Unfortunately he was unable to be at the conference in person, but delivered his keynote address via a webcam. There were some issues, webcam communication technology being what it is, such as a very slow frame rate and some intermittent pauses in the audio feed. However, none of these issues hindered the conveyance of the presentation.
Eric began his talk by saying how he was worried about the fact that he didn’t know what our responses would be to his jokes, since he could not hear nor see us. Lucky for him, people laughed at this.
He then continued by suggesting the idea that game design can be used as a model for literacy in the 21st Century. He proposed that there is a new emerging form of media literacy, which he called ‘game literacy’. Zimmerman describes gaming literacy as designing, creating and managing digital information, and being able to understand and utilise complex systems and social networks using digital technology.
Increasingly, this new form of literacy will be crucial in the workplace and in our social lives. Zimmerman believes that the process of game design, which combines logic, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and storytelling among other elements, is one of the best ways of engaging with this new form of media literacy. He outlined how gaming literacy is centered on systems, play and design. He went on to describe how games are systems which are defined by rules and play is rules set into motion.
Following this talk, he gave the audience a sneak preview of his latest project called “Gamestar Mechanic”, a game designed to teach people about game design. It’s emphasis is on game design rather than programming, and requires the designer to successfully put together a rich array of knowledge and skills in order to create a game that people will interact with and play. The purpose of the game is to get young people to think like a game designer. The system reminded me somewhat of YoYo Games’ ‘Gamemaker’, but with a more plug and play approach whereby you can design a part of the game, and jump right into it immediately, as well as a more friendly interface for those who are not programmers.
Zimmermann concluded by stating that games and play present a wonderful challenge to us all and that although games may not be wonderful bearers of information they are a primary form of play and through play we learn. He considers that we have moved from the information age into the entertainment era, and that in fact the 21st Century is the century of play. It is no longer about just having information; it is about designing for ourselves and taking control.
Eric has co-authored two books: Rules of Play, and The Game Design Reader. Both are available from MIT Press.
Personally, as a student involved in Serious Games research at UUC, I found this conference to be of great interest. It was valuable having the opportunity to hear from people within the industry, as well as being able to network with people between talks. The event was very well organised, with each attendee getting a free goody bag containing a copy of the ‘Recall’ game, as well as an Awakenings t-shirt, and a great hot lunch was provided for all attendees, including dessert! At this point I would like to thank NORIBIC and all others involved for a most enjoyable conference, and hope to see more conferences in Ireland for Serious Games in the future.
[sorry to James for stripping out his links etc…ed.]
Author: James Burke
With contributions from Therese McGinnis
University of Ulster, Coleraine
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For pics of the event see http://flickr.com/photos/rooreynolds/sets/72157602740336337/