Thursday, 22 January 2009

BETT exhibition, SGI workshop and my own research

There were a couple of things I went to last week that I thought were worth mentioning. One of them was BETT, which I went to with my supervisor James Aczel who has already blogged about it here. The picture on the right is me playing with Microsoft's surface, which was definitely pretty cool. So we saw a lot of cool bits of technology, but I think what I'd like to add to James' commentary was that we saw very little in terms of innovative gaming approaches.

There were a fair few simulations on offer, and a lot of interactive software but in very little in terms of actual games. There was a stall for Serious Games Interactive, who were promoting their Global conflict series where students take on the role of reporter in either Palestine or Latin America. I'd already heard about the company at ECGBL, when Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen did his keynote so it was nice to see they had a presence at the exhibition, albeit in a little stall in an upstairs corner. ConnectED had a stand with PSPs on it, but these mostly seemed to be used as portable recording devices more than anything else. We found out later though, that they are also being used as augmented reality viewers and while it will be interesting to see how this might be used in education, it's not exactly using the PSP as a gaming device either. Then we came across the Cyber Coach - Dance mat system. As far as I could figure out, this is essentially allows you to connect multiple dance mats to a single system, gives you access to virtual (i.e. taped) instructors and has thrown in a few extra games to get the kids moving. All for about £6000... I was told that most schools didn't buy dance mats for all the children, but that's ok because the ones who don't have them tend to try and copy the steps anyway, and also some places are making extra money by charging adults to use the system in the evening. Is it me or does this all seem a bit, well, gimmicky? I mean, apart from being able to connect several mats to one system (which the students don't seem to need anyway)... you seem to be paying for a set of really expensive aerobics videos. Perhaps I'm simplifying things a bit - there are several different types of classes you can access (Tai-Chi, Royal Marines training, Salsa to name a few), you can customise these clips, and if you buy more software you can create your own videos/classes etc. Who knows, maybe I would have liked P.E. more at school if we'd had a Cyber Coach. I mean it's got to beat running around a track right? And while I don't think it's particularly innovative, it's not like I have a better idea for how to use games to promote physical fitness. Still, I'm just not convinced this would be the best use of a school's budget.

I also went along to the Serious Games Institute (SGI) in Coventry for their Second Wednesday workshops, this one focusing on Education. Highlights include hearing about the Winning Game project in Scotland from Matt Seeney of Team Play Learning Dynamics, Martyn Ware from the Human League and Heaven 17, talk about Illustrious and their unique 3D Audioscape surround sound system, meeting people like Sara de Freitas, who is the Director of research at the SGI. It was quite an interesting experience and got me thinking. It seemed a lot of the people there were from industry, so had actually produced something (or were in the process of doing so), and wanted to know how to get funding, publicity etc. So there was less of an academic focus, and less on an interes in how this was all being evaluated. The emphasis was on getting these games, or supporting hardware, out there and in use. Which is great and entirely necessary in order to educate people about serious games and how they can be used but I guess that's not what I'm doing, and that's what it got me thinking about.

So what am I doing? Good question, and I'm not sure I have a suitable answer yet. I know that I want to look at commercial games, specifically the latest generation of console games as the initial question was to assess whether they can offer anything different in educational terms. I attempted to explore the link between engagement and learning during specific instances of play (through observation and interview) as part of my Master's and I think want to continue along similar lines. But I am looking at informal learning - i.e. what goes on as the player learns to progress through the game - not at what happens with games in formal educational environments. I have a feeling that the link between engagement and learning in games is taken for granted could do with further explanation. Maybe I'm not convinced a lot of serious games are as engaging as commercial games (even Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen seemed to recognise this at ECGBL) but is that because of how they are designed, or because of the context they are being used in? Perhaps just saying this game will help you learn reduces your desire to play it? Some games are obviously more engaging than others but how can you compare them, especially when it seems to depend on who's playing them and why? How can you even measure something like engagement anyway? After coming across Regan Mandryk's research, we've been considering using some sort of bio-sensors to measure stuff like heart rate and galvanic skin response to answer the last question but it might be quite a complex thing to do. So there is lot to be reading and thinking about, but at least it looks like I've got something to discuss at my next supervisor meeting!


Rebecca said...

Have you seen the work they're doing up in Scotland with games such as Nintendogs and Endless Ocean? I particularly enjoy their work with Guitar Hero. Ollie Bray's blog is very interesting in this context - and you may find it relevant because he has written posts on lots of the things you pick up on in this posting.

Jo Iacovides said...

Hi Rebecca, I only recently heard about the work being carried out in Scotland but will definitely be looking more into it. Cheers for the blog link too, looks like it'll be worth keeping an eye on!