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SGS Keynote: MIT's Henry Jenkins On Serious Games' Breadth of Change

The Serious Games Summit DC 2006 conference keynote, by director of MIT Comparative Media Studies Henry Jenkins, discusses broadening the meaning of 'serious games', and on what Jenkins sees as the potential for the newly-developing 'convergence culture'
The Serious Games Summit DC 2006 conference keynote, by director of MIT Comparative Media Studies Henry Jenkins, discusses broadening the meaning of 'serious games', and on what Jenkins sees as the potential for the newly-developing 'convergence culture'. Along the history of video games, somewhere between Pong and Donkey Kong, “something profound had happened in this medium,” says Henry Jenkins. “It’s not the only medium I work in, but it’s fluid ... it seems to reinvent itself every couple of years.” Henry Jenkins is a DeFlorz professor of humanities and director of MIT Comparative Media Studies. He’s also the author of a book on media called Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide and was the opening keynote speaker today at the 2006 Serious Games Summit. His talk, “Serious Games in the Age of Media Convergence and Collective Intelligence,” he says, begs one to think about the terminology of sector: What is meant by “serious games” and how is that term broadening in the age of multimedia? Over 750 people interested in the world of serious games are attending the summit, and many on this opening day expressed the need to converge to make better sense of the market as a whole, since those already actively pursuing projects often work in somewhat isolated conditions, without being able to learn from the mistakes and successes of others. The attendees represent various sectors under the serious games umbrella, such as the Department of Labor, universities (both students and instructors), the U.S. military, as well as a handful of veteran video game makers who have become consultants in the non-entertainment market. Ben Sawyer, content chair of the Serious Games Summit, notes how media scholars and game proponents, like Jenkins, have been at the forefront of the serious games movement, but also pushing it forward from behind. “I don’t think this room would be here today if it weren’t for Henry,” Sawyer says. Yet consumers, he adds, play an equally integral role as scholars and industry proponents. “The whole idea of how consumers are becoming part of the development chain,” he says, is “broadening our understanding of games. Henry is helping us broaden our understanding of media.” Jenkins himself wonders how serious games would be more widely accepted by the public “if we had only a slightly broader definition.” Serious games have come to be defined by three major content areas: games for healthcare, education, and military training, though new markets are entering the space, particularly over the past 12 months. Jenkins would like to see more games and more content (he names Guitar Hero as one) embraced by serious games makers for how they involve the player and for their ability to “mirror real-life situations.” “Part of it is the problem with the word ‘serious,’ and the question do we take ourselves and our games too seriously,” says Jenkins. “The minute someone comes from outside the commercial medium and starts to muck with the medium, they’re told that what they’re making is not a game. ... I think we want to fight a little about this question of what a game is.” Jenkins sees mass culture as a force that’s shaping games. “On a cultural level, we are deeply on a level of convergence,” he says. “We now live in a world where every story, image, sound, idea, brand, and relationship will play itself out across all possible media platforms. “In a networked society, people are increasingly forming knowledge communities to pool information and work together to solve problems they could not confront individually. We call that collective intelligence,” Jenkins says. The technology that allows this convergence to occur is not what’s integral, he notes, but the movement itself is the influencer: “Convergence is a cultural rather than a technological process,” he says. Jenkins considers the list of topics that are outlined as being central to the Serious Games Summit — government, education, first responders, military, health, corporate, science, and social change — and questions, “What other kind of conference could you possibly imagine where all those kinds of people are together talking to each other? ... To be in the same room and talk to each other is an amazing experience, and we should not take that for granted.” The two-day event, taking place October 30 and 31 in Arlington, Virginia is in its third year and is produced by the CMP Game Group, the same organization that owns this web site. [For more information on the topic, interesed parties can also visit Gamasutra's sister serious games-focused site, Serious Games Source, where further write-ups from the conference will be appearing over the next few days and weeks.]

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