Slate surveys serious games

 Posted by (Visited 12262 times)  Game talk
Jun 272007
 

…and is saddened. Among the writer’s targets are Seriosity, whose Byron Reeves I have mentioned previously as doing really cool research into how games can help solve work problems; and Ian Bogost’s Persuasive Games, which has been getting press lately for the newsgames it’s building.

In many ways, the article restates what I said about games that try to teach a long time ago. (Actually, it even quotes from that). In short, that games that make education the goal usually suck — instead, you should make education the by-product, and something fun the goal.

That said, I think that I am more sanguine about the future of this segment than Slate is. Seriosity described their work at the Virtual Goods Summit, and it struck me as a smart application of basic psych principles to real life work — not a game, per se, but just the use of game mechanics.

We set up a virtual currency ourselves so you can transact by email, phone, etc, and want to apply it to serious behavior in the enterprise. Our first tests when you create the opportunity to send an email with virtual currency — in a large Fortune 500 company, and I send 1 unit of virtual currency, you will open that email 12% faster. If I send 20 units of currency, you will open it 52% faster. Virtual money changes real behavior.

Similarly, the writer goes on to praise the sort of education that he gets from Civilization via osmosis, but dismisses the potential for the same to happen in the work of Persuasive Games. The fact that it exists in the one means it can exist in the other. Has it been achieved in serious games? Well, no, by and large there is still a lot of work to do on the fun side of the equation. But we should keep in mind that most non-serious games aren’t crazy fun either. So I have confidence that we can get there, as long as developers do not fall into the trap of didacticism.

All that said, it is nice to see an article in Slate about games, and one that is clearly well-researched.

  32 Responses to “Slate surveys serious games”

  1. that adding an artificial incentive to perform an educational activity isn’t very effective but requiring learning in order to achieve a genuinely interesting goal does. (Koster responds directly to Slate’s article here.) Here are two things I know: People will go way out of their way to acquire skills and learn things that help them achieve a goal that interests them and that they perceive as achievable. When people are motivated to learn something for such goals,

  2. that adding an artificial incentive to perform an educational activity isn’t very effective but requiring learning in order to achieve a genuinely interesting goal does. (Koster responds directly to Slate’s article here.) Here are two things I know: People will go way out of their way to acquire skills and learn things that help them achieve a goal that interests them and that they perceive as achievable. When people are motivated to learn something for such goals,

  3. Raph’s Website » Slate surveys serious games

  4. I was sort of honored to have been mocked in an illustration by a renowned illustrator, and I think the criticisms in the article are mostly well-argued.

    I continue to disagree with the idea that the fundamental ingredient is “fun,” and there’s a whole chapter trying to defend this idea in my last book. That said, I think you, me, and the Slate writer actually agree about the fundamentals of what would make these games good.

    I do think it’s misleading and unfair to compare my newsgames to Civilization. They’re totally different forms of the medium, and expecting all games to function in the same way seems, well, boring. Newsgames are a totally different experience than big strategy games. Same with the Cold Stone game (although I thought the comments about training games were quite well placed). I’m sure there were good and bad things about Food Import Folly, and I’m always happy to read criticism about our work, good or bad. But it’s unfortunate the writer chose to focus on just one of our newsgames, since I think that a lot of them are actually appealing in exactly the way he hopes they would be, and part of the project is the regularity and totality of the genre. Some are even — gasp — fun.

    Finally, and maybe most interestingly, I found myself lingering on this sentence from the article: “In taking the fun out of video games, companies like Persuasive make them less alluring to people who love games and more alluring to people who don’t.”

    I’m pretty sure this is supposed to be a criticism, but I actually take it as a compliment. In many ways, that’s part of what we have in mind to do. I’m less and less interested in satisfying the perverse demands of gamers and much more interested in talking to ordinary people through games. For what it’s worth, those people seem to be having a somewhat different response.

  5. It seems there are two schools of thought, generally speaking, on what games are/should be, and its great to see polar epitomes of the two views together on a single blog page! I don’t believe in astrology, but this is pretty cool.

    The way I see it, there are two fundamental aspects of the interactive medium: flow and phantasm. Flow is what you experience when your ego, the thoughts and processes of your mind, translate smoothly into agency, how you affect the game system. Phantasm is what you experience when your agency spills back to affect your ego. Flow is supposed to be fun, and also optimizes pattern recogniztion/teaches. Phantasm is not supposed to be fun, or rather, its supposed to be not-fun, a whole other kind of sensation. It differentiates players from each other, from subsequent performances, from their own past beliefs or attitudes, and in a non-lateral, heterarchical way. One person plays a game and is affected differently by it than how I am affected. It brings out the unique in ourselves, and gives a layer of subtext and meaning to a game, and it haunts us, hence the term “phantasm”.

    I’ve seen in semi-scientific blind testing scenarios, and experienced myself, the loop of flow (cool, my ancient rowing ship disappeared when I took it a square off the coast, ect. Testing casual games with people.) and the loop of phantasm (particularly in the shifting attitudes toward psychotic, detached violence you experience over ten minutes when playing Super Columbine Massacre RPG! An actress as Slamdance vetted this for me.) – however I have yet to experience the Flow loop and the phantasm loop really conduct to each other, creating a greater feedback loop where you optimize how you are changed by the game. That, in my opinion, would be the way to start climbing the exponential curve of this medium’s potential, whether you’re making a serious game or perhaps a game with another buzzword adjective.

  6. Not to disagree too much with Ian but I’m with Raph on the fun part.

    As I put it on an educational MMO project I’m currently working on, “If you have to make a mistake in the fun versus educational balance, it’s better to be a bit too fun and a bit less educational than the other way around.” Nobody (but educators) will complain the game is too fun. Ideally it’s so fun you need a chapter in the teachers guide about “What to do if your students are learning, but play too much” as opposed to “What to do if your students don’t want to play the game”

    I also like to refer to games like Jeopardy and Trivial Pursuit. Either one could have its knowledge content repackaged essentially into a standard classroom-type test with questions on paper and a clock or other reminder telling you “time is almost up”. And people enjoy it about as much as they like tests at school.

  7. The irony of all this is that serious games made for actual training purposes are providing more and more real benefits and are actively changing training programs.

    It is worth noting that serious games are akin to documentary, not fiction, and could be said to be closer to games-as-art than trivial games (indented as the opposite of serious). What games offer over manuals and lectures is interactivity that may otherwise not be possible.

    In discussing the field with my supervisor, it is apparent that a major problem faced is that of wanting to lump the buzzword ‘game’ onto any simulation. All too often, the additional world setting and rewards required to make a simulation into a game are avoided, leaving just a bare simulation.

  8. Maybe it’s worth pointing out that very few of my games are intended to be educational. Most are intended to be commentary or critique.

  9. I

  10. 😛

    I “heart” Ian’s games was the original but I used a < and a 3 to do the heart – I guess something didn’t like that.

    I also had posted that really the approach can vary based on what your target is. The game I’m working on is teaching physics concepts to college freshmen and is unabashedly chocolate covered broccoli. It’s out to teach some information that the player will be tested on later, as opposed to a game that’s trying to work with more abstracted targets.

    I suppose one way to say it is “game as motivator” versus “game as media”.

  11. I’ve been trying to get a grip on the idea of serious games lately, and one of the difficulties I’m having is that it seems to be an umbrella for a bunch of genres that are only related by the fact that they have goals beyond entertainment. Do Persuasive’s “Points of Entry” and Serosity’s Attent really have more in common with each other than with Civ or Mavis Beacon?

    Fun as we know it is of varying importance to different games: too much fun might distract from the message in Food Import Folly; fun may be a “nice to have” feature in Attent, but it’s more important that it boost productivity; a chocolate-over-broccoli educational game needs to be as fun as it can manage, both for the sake of motivation and as a mental lubricant; crowdsourcing games like the ESP Game break down completely if they don’t attract players with the promise of a fun experience.

    I’ll admit that my initial reaction is to prioritize fun over learning or rhetoric, but then again, my reaction is generally to prioritize fun over just about everything. It’s sort of a golden hammer for me. *goes looking for more nails*

  12. I was about to begin a rant on the topic of educational games when I realised I blogged it last year.

    Basic summary: I agree with Raph.

    Richard

  13. […] of this article?POST A MESSAGE | READ MESSAGES(the following is a synthesis of comments I made on Raph Koster’s website and on one of my own, which the Slate editors suggested I post here) I was sort of honored to have […]

  14. I have a two year degree in CNC programming (Machining metal parts). One of our early projects was a simple little exercise programming the machine to cut a simple design into a small block of steel. Then we went to the machine and, one by one, each of us ran our program on our own block to see how it worked. Now, you might think that the guys standing around watching might get a bit bored and start talking about other things or drifting off from watching each and every one being cut. But that didn’t happen. Everyone watched each student’s project, curious to see what happened, where mistakes might be made, etc.

    For my part, I did mine with a flair. I spiralled my cutter down into the bar of steel, and circled around the design, rather than the more direct route. (The instructor laughed when he saw this, but mentioned that I wasted a little bit of motion there, hehe)

    But I thought at the time that this would be a nice little game if simulated on a computer. But then, I’ve never been much on awarded rewards so much as the satisfaction of making something dance to my tune, muhahahaha. But the point is that it probably would be possible to get an equal amount of education to entertainment.

    I could picture something like Google Earth being used to teach history and geography in a sort of seek and destroy game, as the “player” flies to parts of the world in search of the magic answer, then uses lasers to shoot the correct answer (from multiple choices) out of the sky after zooming in to the terrain feature involved. Immagine this in multiplayer state, a race to get to the Golden Fleece award points.

    So, I think it’s possible to get to the point of lots of fun and entertainment as well as educational stuff. But I’m sure there are fields of study that are far more difficult to make into a game. It might be better to start with “grade school” stuff first, and grow the ideas into the more specifific and detailed kinds of training that industry requires, I don’t know. Of course, I know where the money is. Maybe some government grants?

    From the gamer perspective, I would love to see, and have been calling for, and have posted here before, more educational stuff designed into MMORPGs. Not that it should be a play style, just add the stuff as filler to make the games more interesting. Open up minds. Inform, as in the trireme example.

    Actullay, games have been doing this for a long time. In Dungeons and Dragons we learned (or already knew more likely, but still) that a Rust Monster would rust your steel sword, but not your silver weapon because silver doesn’t rust. In UO we might have learned that steel comes from smelting ore. (I’m sure there are better examples) In DAoC we might have learned something about Nordic runes.

    My main point is to expound on these simple things. In DAoC I used to study the runes in the game to try to see if there wasn’t meaning to them. If they weren’t a clue to something. Imagine if there was. The study of these runes would become part of game play, and players would actually learn something.

    Sorry for the long post. ~%

  15. Richard, excellent article in your blog link. (But it reminds me that I’m terribly long winded to say what others have said before.) Loved the final point! 🙂

  16. Amaranthar>Richard, excellent article in your blog link.

    Thanks. I don’t suppose it will stop millions of dollars from being spent on games that have no chance of teaching anyone anything (except, perhaps, teaching educationalists that this isn’t the way to do it).

    >Loved the final point! 🙂

    There are plenty of other examples of this kind of thing in WoW, for example the giant statue in Booty Bay harbour is on Janeiro Point. Personally, I found those real-world references rather irritating, though.

    Richard

  17. If you really want to do good, you should agree with both Raph and Ian, and then come up with your own synthesis and throw away the rest of their argument. 😛

  18. Personally, I found those real-world references rather irritating, though.

    I don’t know the Janeiro Point reference. But as far as WoW and other, newer games go, they went backwards. This is commonly stated, as you know. From worldly and open like UO, to static and restricted to linear like WoW. In the article at Slate.com, Justin Peters asks the question “When does a game stop being a game and turn into an assignment?” Uh, what else is WoW’s game play if not that? We now know the answer, I suspect.

  19. Oh, man, don’t know how I didn’t remember that. Thanks.

  20. Didn’t someone once say that “God invented wargames to teach Americans geography”? Something of the kind. 😉

    Seriously, though. What you need is some task that catches a student’s imagination, same as any other game. With some students (guys mostly) winning a battle or war would qualify; being an FDA inspector really doesn’t. Then, find some type of (useful) knowledge for them to assimilate that helps them reach that goal.

    Not all types of knowledge are going to lend themselves to this construction, though. But you still have to give some credit to people who experiment to figure out what types do.

  21. >Maybe it’s worth pointing out that very few of my games are intended to be educational. Most are intended to be commentary or critique.

    Right. And that’s why they deserve the title “serious” and even “games” and might be “fun” but they are really more like ideological indoctrination packets.

    When I look at the oil game or the game on the Times about immigrants, I feel the analysis, the take on the issue, the outcome of what the player is supposed to find as “right” or “good” are all “precooked” and heavily tilted to a left-wing prescriptive view of the world.

    That just makes it inherently less fun, when I feel someone is trying to put a world view over on me.

  22. Prokofy Neva, that is the definition of editorial, actually, something that expresses an opinion. There is nothing at all about these games that suggests the player should like or accept those opinions. There is also nothing about these games that suggests that I have to make them about yours.

  23. […] criticisms leveled by Peters. He outlined his stance in a nice discussion over at Raph Koster’s blog, then left a general summary on the comments section of the Slate […]

  24. […] 06-27-2007, 6:35 PM # Reply (the following is a synthesis of comments I made on Raph Koster’s website and on one of my own, which the Slate editors suggested I post here) I was sort of honored to have […]

  25. Ian:
    Your games can still be fun as well as holding an opinion.

    I said this on Slate and will repeat it here: These games are boring – how is that going to help anyone?

    Learning needs to be fun and interesting. A dry, academic paper written on global warming doesn’t nearly have the same effect as An Inconvenient Truth, for example.

    And despite the fallacies and misrepresentations in that film, it achieved it’s goal of getting people and politicians talking about Climate Change.

    I appreciate the fact that you’re making serious games, and the analogy between docos and regular movies may be apt, but not all docos are boring.

    When people talk about your games, they just talk about how boring they are. Not the same thing.

    I’ll go further and say with your games you’re just preaching to the converted. Who’s going to play a game that deals with the FDA apart from those who 1) know what the FDA is and 2) knows what it does anyway?

    Who’s going to play the games apart from those with the same position as you if the game has no other draw apart from the dry topics? It’s like reading New Internationalist Magazine – you know what they’re going to say and how they’re going to say it before reading the content.

    Prokofy Neva:
    Most games put a “world view” over you, whether you realise it or not. Take a look at any First Person Shooter game to get the US military ‘might is right’ world view for example.

    I’d go far to say even a game as seemingly innocuous as Civilization posts a western christian ideal of what constitutes a ‘good society’.

    I could go on but this is a topic for greater discussion.

  26. […] Don't Compare These Games to “Civilization”   […]

  27. I work for a university assisting faculty who want to incorporate technology into their teaching. I frequently get asked by late adopters if I think technology is going to somehow replace face-to-face teaching. By the way the question is asked, it’s almost as if they’re expecting me to say yes and somehow assail the need for human beings leading a classroom.

    Of course, I don’t feel that way at all. I feel that technology is merely another tool for teaching, and the most important tipping point in learning is the quality of the instructor.

    When people analyze games and whether they’re “fun” or “boring”, those are somewhat subjective assessments. I don’t think the success of serious games solely depends on “fun”. I think the success of games in education, like most technology tools, will depend on the quality of the instructor at least as much as the “fun factor” of the game.

    I’ve always found that a good professor will enable me to learn about a subject that I previously found uninteresting or too dense. If a game is used properly within the context of the class, it doesn’t have to be as exciting as Half-Life. I think this focus on “boring” versus “fun” obscures the fact that a good instructor will always seek ways to engage their students. I don’t have too many professors asking me for the most boring way to present 19th century art history to their students.

  28. […] Slate had an article yesterday on educational video games that I think serves as a pretty good high-level survey of the ongoing discussion right now, especially since it pointed to Koster’s key point from some time ago that adding an artificial incentive to perform an educational activity isn’t very effective but requiring learning in order to achieve a genuinely interesting goal does. (Koster responds directly to Slate’s article here.) […]

  29. […] is a maxim I hear frequently in the serious games circles, most recently repeated by Tim Holt in a discussion of the Slate article on Raph Koster’s website. Says […]

  30. […] is a maxim I hear frequently in the serious games circles, most recently repeated by Tim Holt in a discussion of the Slate article on Raph Koster’s website. Says […]

  31. […] Raph’s Website » Slate surveys serious games Koster reacts to the Slate article on serious games and thinks the future is less bleak than they describe. (tags: gamedesign RaphKoster seriousgames gaming games play) […]

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