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GDC: Serious Games Summit: Behind the Game: ‘What's Wrong With Serious Games?'

Framed as an open, frank conversation, key advocates of the serious games initiative met to discuss the problems surrounding the serious games field. Problems discussed included funding, a lack of advocacy, and the ambiguity over what even constitutes a serious game.

March 22, 2006

6 Min Read

Author: by Beth A. Dillon


Framed as an open, frank conversation, key advocates of the serious games initiative met to discuss the problems surrounding the serious games field. Clearly buzzing with responses to prior sessions in the Serious Games Summit at the Game Developers Conference 2006 (GDC:06), Ben Sawyer kicked off the session by emphasizing the importance of self-examination: companies must face facts.

Sawyer, Co-Founder of Digitalmill, is currently working on serious games and games for health in particular. He warned that several people in the game industry view the ideas behind serious games as jokes and failures, or even want to see serious games fail. He equated the accusations of failure with the assumptions of companies that feel it is simple to develop a serious game and reminded the audience that Gizmondo lost $250 million, which is more than the total amount of funds in the serious games field.

Henry Kelly, Ph.D., picked up on the issue of funds. Kelly has been the president of the Federation of American Scientists since 2001. One of his efforts includes negotiating and implementing administration research partnerships in the area of learning technology. He identified skepticism about the possibility for real improvements in serious games as a core issue. As demands for evidence of improvements and success increase, the idea of “success” becomes relative to sales and money. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reviews use of funds, and although there are 207 separate programs that are available to fund innovative projects, funds depend on statistical proof of large scale success in serious games. At this time, the proof is lacking.

Meanwhile, serious games receive weak support from traditional education lobbyists. Unfortunately, lobbyists have a limited amount of time to address issues, and serious games often end up lower on the list. With such a chronic budget crisis, culture wars over the use of games in education prompts the question, “does discovery-based learning work?” As there are both real and perceived weaknesses of the educational research infrastructure, funding is clobbered.

Outside forces are not entirely to blame. Kelly noted the stage of time when serious games developers over-promised results, which led to the edutainment fiasco and dot-bombs. “Get rich quick” investments produced poor material in an industry without a tradition of systematic development. Even today, there remains huge latitude in what game techniques work, and even in what is called a game.

Kelly hesitated to point out what's wrong in serious games without proposing a path forward. First and foremost, he recommended developing agreed-upon metrics of success. Developing successful games for learning must be part of a systematic program to design and test innovations in learning. Kelly called for creating an exciting, clearly articulated research program combining gaming expertise, learning science, and computational science. Developers should be prepared for spiral development, to build it, try it, and try again. Finally, he promoted building on proposals in play because of innovative initiatives, such as DO IT and PACE.

James Paul Gee, Ph.D., agreed that the industry needs a common interpretative of what defines a game in order for development to move forward. Gee is the Tashia Morgridge Professor of Reading at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of several books that address the valuable roles of video games in learning, including What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Situated Language and Learning, and Why Video Games Are Good for Your Soul.

Gee stressed the importance for the serious games field to move to the next stage before it collapses. Shared paradigms are essential to improve development and explaining the concept of serious games for acquiring funds and approval. Gee invited confronting central questions, even if it means disagreeing and fighting over them, in order to reach convergence. Gee asked, “What is the power of games?” In his opinion, games put you inside a world that forces you to see that world from the inside-out perspective while solving problems in that space. He acknowledged that many people would probably disagree with him, but continued that games are a media, and like all media, we respond to them very emotionally. While games do trigger powerful emotions, their key pleasure is cognitive and in solving problems.

By elaborating on the problem of funds and common complaints from developers such as getting access to graphics that can compete with mainstream industry, Gee pointed out that the real focus is in the content and getting game designers together with learning designers for collaboration. Kelly offered up his input about needing reviews of what is and is not necessary in a game, while Sawyer pulled back, “saying [graphics] don't matter and aren't a solution.” To Sawyer, meeting the technology in mainstream industry isn't just a concern on PC, but also on mobile. He focused on deep gameplay features rather than the layer of art.

“If we think that the serious games business is about the game in the box, then the industry will fail… the focus should be the social interactions around the game, games augmented by reality, moving in and out of the real world,” Gee explained. Essentially, whether in a classroom environment, lab, or training session, the real learning is derived from the social interaction in and out of the game by participants in the same space. Only by promoting conversations and project teams with both game designers and learning designers will serious games become widely successful.

However, that is easier said than done. Even though the industry requires a bigger team, it will take the step of getting beyond industry professionals judging academics and academics judging industry professionals for different methods of thinking. Both must have share a common language, or as Gee suggested, perhaps even be the same person.

Finally, Gee referenced the need for killer apps in the serious games field. He used SWAT 4 (Sierra), a game of special weapons and tactics, as a representative of a killer app, but recommended that future games should move away from crime and killing. Sawyer joked that we “can't have a killer app without a bullet point,” but drew attention to projects such as PlayStation's EyeToy and remote health care devices that fall in the serious games field.

In order to move forward, panelists concluded, paradigms must be established, appropriate assessment methods must be developed, evidence must be given to define what warrants claims of success, and developers must navigate the current crisis in education and return to learning traditional content while maintaining innovation and creativity. Whether or not the serious games field will be able to accomplish these immense tasks is uncertain, but it is clear that these needs must be addressed while industry professionals and academics are present together at GDC:06.



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