I had been meaning to participate in a conference on serious/educational games, but the timing and location of the two big ones, that is the

Adaptability! Adaptability! Adaptability?

This issue came up several times throughout the day. This idea that an educational game can be much more successful when it is able to adjust and customize itself to the player. The number of times Csikszentmihalyi’s flow channel diagram was shown was impressive. The idea of micro vs macro adaptability were also discussed, where you can adjust small variables to affect game play, or completely change the scenarios that the player goes through.

This is something that always gets me thinking. One point which was mentioned by Patrick Felicia in his opening presentation was that a good teacher is one that can make the students independent so the students become agents of their own learning even without a teacher. The question then is, if an educational game is always adapting to players abilities (something that many commercial games already do), is that setting wrong expectations for a student in the long run? “Real Life” throws us all sorts of situations, and even though I believe the challenges that we face in life are ultimately always within our ability to overcome, there are definitely moments where we will feel overwhelmed and other times when we are seemingly doing something mundane for long periods of time. Adaptability is one of the strongest points for using games as an educational tool…to individualize the learning experience for every person. But I’m thinking perhaps we can use it for more than just “make the game just hard enough to put the player in the flow”. We have to think not only what will engage the player most, but also how can we make the player better learners.

Viability of Producing Serious Games

One of the more interesting presentation, was one which also discussed some of the harder questions in this space. In his talk “Serious Games – Theory and Reality”, Jörg Müller-Lietzkow discussed (amongst other things) the challenges and opportunities that serious game developers face. In one case study 60 students from his university built a game prototype called Politworld which is a turn based game about political systems, aimed at highschool students aged 13 – 15. They found that even though there was a great interest from different schools, none were actually willing to pay for it. This highlights the reservations that many schools and organizations have about actually investing money in-games, even though on the surface they agree with their potential for learning.

In a second example, Jörg Müller-Lietzkow talked about a very unique game that the university is developing for publisher Bigpoint using a different business model! It’s a free-to-play MMORPG called Urban Life 2060 in which the player can, alongside thousands of others, experience life in a future city. There is this underlying concept that enforced taxes have been removed in the future, so the player has to choose how much money they want to spend on themselves and how much they want to contribute to the city. The suggestion here was that the free-to-play model together with in game consumer purchases may be a viable business model for “personal purpose serious games”.

Exergames and Health Games

A good chunk of the conference was dedicated to exergames and games that in one way or another relate to health, exercise, and physical rehabilitation. It seems to me that this is one particular area in serious games that is more mature and can potentially pull its own weight commercially, as is the case with wii fit. One prototype that was a definite eye-catcher for me was a set of wirelessly connected “light tiles” that facilitated various games to help with rehabilitation from injury and keeping the elderly active. For example in one game the tiles “recharge” when the player steps on them, but start to fade out when left untouched, forcing the player to move back and force to keep them alive. This actually reminded me quite a bit of Sifteo. I really think there is a great potential in this concept: having multiple identical units which can sense and communicate with one-another…it really opens up a whole lot of possibilities. And it seems to be a great fit for the particular area of rehabilitation.

Where is it All Going?

Looking back, I really wasn’t sure what the conference was going to be like. It seems like it is a step in the right direction. Just to see how many universities are looking into serious gaming as a discipline of its own, including a country like Germany which in the speakers’ own words is one of the less receptive in using games in the classroom, is a great testament to the increasing awareness of the potential of games outside of entertainment. What I still notice though, is the disconnect between academia, interested organizations, and the industry. As good as the theories, formal descriptions and even full fledged demos and small games are, serious games are in dire need of more developers, publishers and investors, taking them more…seriously. I sensed from some of the attendants that they felt the games they want to build cannot work commercially as they only target a niche group. That might be the case in some cases, but I think sometimes we underestimate the actual size of that “niche group”. I had a great conversation with a lady who worked as a counselor for university students in Germany. She was voicing concern about the state of mind of young people coming through university and felt that many, if not most, are kind of lost, not sure about what their capabilities are, what their passions are, and what direction to go in. Now here she was, attending a conference about serious games which is probably not something she has much familiarity with, looking for resources to build a game that might assist those very students. And I can certainly say that her concern is just as valid in many other countries. Niche group? I doubt it!

Much more was said and many more demos were shown, but of course I can’t go through all of them. But if you really are interested in this space, more and more conferences of this kind seem to be popping up their heads.

Pornophonique, a gameboy advance / guitar duo from Darmstadt played later in the evening. Great stuff. My favorite song: Sad Robot