Category Archives: Serious Game Design

How to design a Serious Game.

Find the fun in immunology

To build appreciation for the science of immunology, we need to find the fun in it.

Many thousands of people spend their lives in windowless laboratories, standing day in and day out, barely speaking to their silent lab mates, often working in a 4°C room, or holding their arms up for hours while they conduct their experiments inside the awkward, but sterile cell culture hood.

Why are they doing this?

They are immunologists. Immunologists address the problems of the immune system that their fellow humans have to live with, like Leukemia, AIDS, allergies and autoimmune disorders. Immunologists use biochemistry, cell biology, molecular biology and genetics to look for ways to help patients and prevent disease.

So, we could simply say that these immunologists are serving their fellow man. But their motivation is not simply to help mankind. Something else drives them to spend those days in a tissue culture hood counting thousands of white blood cells.

Why did these immunologists take the lab path? Why didn’t they become social workers, firemen or even medical doctors? Well, I’ll tell you. Immunology is fun. Immunology involves watching cells identify and destroy other cells. These cells appear to be very similar to every other cell in the universe. These cells have outer membranes, nuclei, DNA and proteins that are almost indistinguishable from every other cell.

The questions are why this particular cell kills bacteria. Why doesn’t this cell kill all types of bacteria? Why does this cell in some people, not kill bacteria? The answers involve making endless comparisons between healthy and sick patients, between pathogenic and non-pathogenic bacteria, between humans and mice and between mice and flies.

So, Immunology is a puzzle. How does the puzzle work? We collect up as many clues as we can, we make a guess, we do an experiment and we try to figure out whether our idea was correct. We compare what we thought would happen to what did happen.

We have tools we can use. And we have rules for addressing these puzzles. We have several paths that others have taken before us that guide our way: We have biochemistry, cell biology, genetics, chemistry and physics. Each of these paths have their own rules and their own tools.

If you could jump in and try out these tools, and attempt a few of the puzzles yourself, then you would understand how immunology works. You would experience the fun! This is what we are doing with Immune Attack 2.0: we are letting you play Immunology… without the hours of standing in a windowless lab.

Serious Game Design: Maximizing Engagement

A friend of mine just referred me to a great blog on education, training and learning technology…  by Richard N. Landers, Ph.D.   Dr. Landers is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, USA.  The blog is called Thoughts of a Neo-Academic.  Richard wrote a series of blogs in September 2010 about a series of research papers published in Journal of General Psychology that are focused on video games.

Today’s post is about how we might create more engaging video games.  This paper is the subject of the post:  Rodrigo, M. (2010). Dynamics of student cognitive-affective transitions during a mathematics game. Simulation & Gaming, 42 (1), 85-99. doi: 10.1177/1046878110361513.

Dr. Rodrigo observed 7th grade boys while they played an math game.  She and her colleagues paired up to take note of the cognitive affect states of the students as they played the math game, Math Blaster.  The team assessed how the students’ states changed while they played the game.  The states the team defined and noted were
1.  Boredom
2.  Confusion
3.  Delight
4.  Engagement
5.  Frustration
6.  Surprise
7.  The Neutral state  (No affect discernible)

She noted that students often transitioned from confused to engaged.  She noted that boredom was the only state that persisted.  My post here is just a quick one, and if you want more details, please read Dr. Lander’s post for a nicer description.  What I would like to point out is that confusion is not a bad thing….  confusion may draw us in.  Confusion, I think, is a necessary step to learning anything.  This research is unique and powerful, I believe.  If you know of more, please let me know.

Rodrigo, M. (2010). Dynamics of student cognitive-affective transitions during a mathematics game. Simulation & Gaming, 42 (1), 85-99.  doi: 10.1177/1046878110361513.         You can download the paper here.

 

Students at Shadow Mountain High School, Phoenix, AZ Recommend Immune Attack

Wonder whether your students will like Immune Attack? Wonder whether it is game enough to hold their attention? Well watch this video.

And oh, if you work for a AAA video game company you can reach me by email!

Thank you to Debbie Kovesdy, her students and the biology teachers who participated in our evaluation. If YOU would like your students to participate in our evaluation, please let me know! We need more students to strengthen our data… We have significant gains in LEARNING and CONFIDENCE. Be a part of a revolution in learning and in gaming!

Register here!!!!

Serious Game Design: Theme is not Meaning

If you want to design a game that teaches something, first define carefully what that thing is.  Second, design your game to require the player to learn that thing in order to win your game.  This concept is very important for Serious Game designers, but it is also very important for every game designer.

As Soren Johnson said in his GDC2010 Serious Games Summit Keynote address, “Theme is not meaning.” If you want to make a game about diplomacy, you must require the player to cooperate with other players, and allow them chances to communicate, and you call the game Diplomacy.  But if you want to teach players to take chances and to use advantages they have over other players to win as individuals, then you create the game Risk.  Both of these games have the same theme:  They are both about war and strategy.  But they teach very different aspects of war and strategy.  These two games, Soren Johnson explains, clearly demonstrate the difference between theme and meaning.

Currently we are hard at work defining what we want players of Immune Attack 2.0 to learn and how we will require them to learn and then use that knowledge to win our game.  We have drawn from several sources and many long discussions with our Scientific Advisory Group for our learning objectives.  However, as we get into the technical, artistic and general restrictions of actual game development, it is easy to slip away from our goal.  The mechanics should teach the learning objectives and we have the mechanism all drawn out on paper, but do we have the processing power to make that mechanism work in our game engine on school computers?  Soon we make a compromise, and then another…  The only way to avoid creating a mechanic that is irrelevant is to continuously reevaluate our mechanism compared to our learning objectives.

For example, if you want players to learn the lyrics to Beatles songs, you give them points only when they sing the words from memory.  But if you want the player to learn to sing in key, you let them see the words but only give points when they are on key.  When your programmer tells you that the lyrics don’t fit on the screen…… what do you do?  Your objective is to teach singing on key… how do you stay on target?   I’ll be able to give more specific details about IA2 development in the future…

Bonus paragraph:  At GDC 2010 several speakers mentioned Spore as an example of a game that was intended to be about something, but the core mechanic was actually about something else.  Evolution is, as you know, a random process that causes some creatures to be born more fit for their environment than others.  Spore was a game where you choose for yourself at each step what you want your creature to look like.  So the joke is that Spore was supposed to be about Evolution, but it ended up being about Intelligent Design!

Making science video games: Spore and the misrepresentation of science.

A friend said to me,
“I am trying to make a video game to create interest in engineering.  Someone told me Spore taught a lot about evolution.  What do you think?”

I did play Spore and I was very disappointed.  I was angry, actually, because the things that are so cool about evolution were not present.  Playing Spore was like expecting an excellent new baseball game and instead it was a soccer game.  The worst part is, that real evolution would make a great game!

The real problem with Spore was that Maxis and EA advertised it as being about evolution, and bragged about it being a real science video game.  However, anyone who knows about evolution knows that isn’t true. The problem is that so many people do not know how evolution actually works, and could easily be confused by the version of “evolution” presented in Spore.

Science journalist John Bohannon assembled a team of scientists to give Spore a report card on all the subjects its claimed to present.  You can see this report card here: http://scienceguild.org/wiki/index.php?title=Spore You can read John’s review of Spore in Science Magazine, here:  http://www.sciencemag.org/content/322/5901/531.3.full

Why am I writing about it?  Because science can be explained by playing games, but only when the core of the science must be used to win the game.  For example, a game about evolution should require the player to overcome that fact that random events may wipe out your offspring at any moment.  That would be exciting and teach real science.  I am writing about this because we (learning technology folks) are still struggling with this concept.  I believe we have learned the theory: we know we want a game that requires the player to use real science to win.  The struggling is coming from the question, how do we make that game?   Working closely with the scientist, or having the scientist be the game writer is the answer.  For examples, see Metablast, Cellcraft and Surge (and Immune Attack, of course).

Benefits of Playing Video Games

Here is a current article that talks about the different benefits of playing video games.

The Office of Naval Research posted an article about its program officer Dr. Ray Perez and his research discussing the benefits of playing video games.

If you’re interested in the subject I found a great paper from 2005 about Learning Games.

The Academic Advanced Distributed Learning Co-Lab members David Williamson Shaffer, Richard Halverson, Kurt R. Squire, and James P. Gee wrote an amazing paper about how video games may be the future of learning. They discuss how video games can teach us so much more than how to use a gun. They discuss how video games can teach a 14 year old politics, a normal person complex modeling, and help kids with cancer take better care of themselves. To find the paper use this link and scroll down to Joint Papers and find the working paper titled “Before every child is left behind: How epistemic games can solve the coming crisis in education.”

Don’t forget the FAS National Summit on Educational Games Report. The summit brought together more than one hundred experts to examine how to harness the power of video games for learning. This report is widely cited and contains a collection of the reasons in favor of using games and simulations in education as well the issues that need to be addressed if industry and education are to be able to collaborate on learning games.

Exercise while gaming!

Paul Ballas, OD, of our own Science Advisory Group, wrote an excellent opinion piece for Wired.

Paul thinks that video games that require us to be more active might help us actually become more active.  People exercise more when they can do something fun for exercise, he writes.  Paul suggests that if we rated video games for how active they made us, that the game companies would have a motivation to make their games meet higher standards.

http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2010/08/exercise-ratings-for-games/

Video games really do capture our attention.  But can they really provide effective exercise?  Dance Dance Revolution (DDR) did…  maybe a starship that you control with the DDR pad could be another fun game… if it isn’t already out there.

The Wii, and now Sony and Microsoft have motion sensing controllers that are making exercise games more popular and potentially more powerful than ever before.

Read the article and let us know what you think!

Interpersonal skills learned in a video game?

I believe that video games have the power to teach us many things.
Math (See Lure of the Labyrinth, and DimensionM)
Biology (MedMyst, CSI: The Experience, Cellcraft and Immune Attack)
Ancient History (Discover Babylon)
And the many games that teach social awareness and facts about current events at Games for Change.

But can a game teach interpersonal skills? Can a game teach problem solving skills? What do you think? Leave a comment and give me an example of a time when something you learned from a video game came into play in real life? Perhaps in World of Warcraft or some other multiplayer game you convinced another player to join you, and you have tried the same tactic in real life? Perhaps in Whyville you have learned something about getting people to agree with you? Must a game be multiplayer in order to foster interpersonal skills? What about Mass Effect? Have anyone learned any negotiation skills that have worked on humans in the real world?

I’m keeping my eye out for my own experiences. I know I have started to be more experimental and to take more chances in the video games I play. But I’m wondering what effect that will have on my real life. Maybe I’ll post more often on my blog. That would be a nice effect.

Cellcraft puts you in the driver seat of a cell

So, how do cells avoid viruses? If you wonder, try playing the game CellCraft.  It is a terrific game for middle school students or anyone.   Check it out, give the Cellcraft team some props on their forum, and then tell me what you like about the game.

cellcraftgame.com

www.kongregate.com Play Cellcraft here!

Immune Attack address more molecular detail, but we are trying to do essentially the same thing: teach people how cells actually operate at the molecular level.  The world of the Cell is frankly a fascinating huge place and it should be explored in as many ways as possible, games, stories, videos, it is a rich place for storytelling with many many points of conflict… between cells and viruses, human cells and bacteria, DNA vs damaging radicals…There are endless stories to tell!

Congratulations to the Cell Craft Team!  And thank you!

Can we grade Video Games?

I attended Games for Change 2010 in NYC in May.  I was really excited to meet Bill O’Brien, Senior Advisor for Program Innovation, National Endowment for the Arts.  How about that?  The NEA is interested in Video Games, so they must be art, right?

I think of video games as art.  I always have.  Video games make me think and feel and someone made it.  Art.  The art is in the fact that video games affect our thinking, affect our way of looking at the world, the affect us in a way a conversation with another human being may affect us.  This is because art is a way for one human to contrive a way for another human being to have an experience, even when the two humans will never meet.

I wrote to Bill O’Bien at the NEA and told him how I thought of art.  And I wanted to share it here, because I believe that considering video games as means of affecting the mind of the player may make it more clear that video games can open worlds the same way books, paintings and conversations can.

I am sure someone else defined art this way before me, I don’t know who.   Tom Bissell just published a terrific new book called Extra Lives. I haven’t finished it yet, so I thought I would tell you how *I* would judge video games and we’ll see how Tom Bissell does it.   OK, here goes.

Video games are essays.  Video games are written by an author who, like the essay’s author, is not present when the game is played.  Therefore, the game and the essay must be self contained.  An essay is designed to make the reader think or feel something, and this is why we call it art.  An essay may make me weep and may make me laugh, it’s that change in my thinking that we recognize as art.

Video games are museum installations.  A video game is made to interact with the player just like an art installation interacts with the audience.  Perhaps the pieces are arranged in a certain order, so that people walking by in the museum are sure to see the pictures in the right order.  Or, the author may allow the audience to walk around as they see fit.  Video games engage in this kind of manipulation of what the audience sees and in which order.   Some games are more free form, and others are more linear, just like installations in a museum.

Video games are stories.  And just like many stories, they often effect our thinking.  After reading a story, we sometimes see the real world around us from the point of view of characters in the story.  As Wayne Booth wrote in The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction the characters, occurrences and narration of novels affect our thinking even after we finish the book.  Additionally, Booth writes that racism can be presented in a book, like Huckleberry Finn, but the book is not condoning racism, because the characters which we respect in the book do not condone racism.  Many games, even some ridiculously violent ones, contain stories that make the audience think about the consequences of their actions.  Often the story frames the violence in a way that makes it clear that horrible circumstances are driving the player to make terrible choices.  Bioshock and God of War both contain stories that explain why the player commits the violence, and leaves space for the player to feel remorse and consider the horrible consequences.  So just like any other piece of fiction, the player identifies with a character in the game, and the way the story is told speaks to the ethics of the fiction.

I think it is clear that video games are art, because they are attempts to convey emotion and thoughts from one human to another using device created by the author and which the audience interacts with independently.  The quality and worth of video games can be judged by the same standards we already use for essays, fiction, and museum installations.

This email is not an elegant or comprehensive description of all the ways video games are art, nor all the criteria that we can use to appraise them.  I just wanted to get across the point that video games create an experience for their players and this entire experience is the work of art.  While video game graphics can be art on their own, even simplistic or otherwise unpleasant or meaningless graphics can be art in the context of their video game because of how they contribute to the experience for the player.