Saturday, 31 October 2009

GameCity Squared 2009

I spent the last few days in Nottingham for the GameCity festival. I started off by attending the Interactive Technologies and Games conference and then spent the next couple of days checking out the exhibits in town and going to a couple of talks - all in all, it was a good couple of days, and a nice excuse to re-visit where I spent my undergrad years :-)

So, the focus of the conference was on the use of technologies and games for education, health and disability. There was a lot stuff on how the Wiimote and nunchuck can be used to help those with physical and learning difficulties, such as Steven Battersby's talk about a series of projects exploring the different ways in which the controllers can be adapted and utilised e.g. as a WiiGlove. Other highlights include hearing about David Brown discuss European wide research on developing serious games for those with learning disabilities, where participants were also brought in to talk about their experiences with different games (participatory research - always good!) and Mark Griffiths discussing all the different ways in which games can be used as therapy. It was good to see Maria Saridaki again (who I met at ECGBL last year) and hear her discuss her work on the e-ISOTIS project - which highlighted the importance of considering both students and teachers as end users when it comes to design. I also caught up with Ulises Xolocotzin Elgio who I met at EARLI this year and thanks to Maria for getting us into the opening ceremony for GameCity festival (see the pic of us below sipping on free champagne!).

But perhaps the thing that struck me the most about the conference was the focus on using technology to support the elderly. This came in the form of developing ways in which to make the Internet easier to use (Ernestina Etchemendy talking about the Butler system), using games as a way to motivate stroke patients to carry out their exercises (James Burke) and using games as a way to keep older people's brains active (Karel Van Isacker discussing the start of the OASIS project for older people). Given the fact our population is getting older as a whole, it's no surprise that there is an interest how we can assist the elderly and make their lives richer but I guess it's not something I've thought too much about before. Plus it also got me thinking about what things are going to be like when I get to that age!

As for the festival itself, I think the highlight for me were the talks I went to. Sure it was good to see cool things going on in town - the Indiecade (including the Path - though I did end up telling some kids who were getting bored with it that they really didn't need to listen to the game instructions and should be wondering off the path into the woods, lol), the EA exhibit (though all the games seemed to be out already), and Lego Rockband does look like a laugh. Oh, and it was fun to watch loads of people playing the same game at once (see pic below).

But I also went to Lord Puttnam's opening speech - as well as having been a seriously impressive film producer, he is also Chancellor for the Open University - comparing the games and film industries. He was essentially pointing out the power that games could have and essentially pleading for games designers to start producing more mature games. The comparison between the two industries served to make the point that it takes time to understand the potential of a new medium - in the early days of cinema apparently, people would have been shocked by the idea that 90minute-2hour films would become the industry standard, for instance. Puttnam is also interested in climate change and reckons the solution to a lot of our problems is to develop a smarter, better informed society that is aware of the consequences of our actions - which is were games come in. It was quite an inspiring speech, but I think he was placing a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of games designers by essentially asking them to change the world...

David Surnam continued with the idea that games need to grow up a bit when he started the GameCityU day with a talk about what game design means. He went into a lot of different issues - the fact that there has been an explosion of game design courses, that games content should be improved, and that there is a lot of confusion about the roles and responsibilities of games designers and developers. I think he was keen to stress the creative (as well as technical side) of game design but more importantly, wanted to urge students and current designers to take ownership of the design process and their own idenity.

But perhaps the highlight for me was the GameCity U panel with Babsie Lippe (currently an artistic developer for the soon to be released indie MMO Papermint), Rex Crowle (illustrator for Media Molecule who worked on Little Big Planet) and Robin Hunicke (who has worked for EA on MySims and BoomBlox and now works for thatgamecompany) interviewed by David Surnam - see blurry pic below of the panel.

This was just a really cool opportunity to hear from some really creative people who've worked on some fantastic projects. They talked about their different gaming experiences - both as players and designers - gave advice to students in the room, and basically came across as people you'd seriously enjoy having a drink with. And two of them had PhD's, which made we wonder about where I'll end up in the next ten years! Though again, the emphasis was on creative side, so it would be quite surprising if I ever end up as a designer but what I did like how they encouraged students to immerse themselves in all sorts of things from books and music to being outside and trying something different because otherwise they will just end up making games that are self-referential and other little in terms of new experiences to the player.

There were a few other things I would have liked to have seen - like Night Blooms: Flower in the Exchange Arcade and hear Masaya Matsura's closing keynote (the designer responsible for PaRappa the Rapper and VibRibbon) but I'm not sure I could have justified spending much more time away from work (or gotten hold of tickets...). The whole thing was definitely worth going to and I'm glad I was left feeling that while the games industry seems to be at a crossroads, there seems to be a real desire from games developers to make games that matter. And I for one am looking forward to seeing where it's all going to go next.