Monday, 1 November 2010

GameCity 5 and Jonathan Blow's commentary on Braid

So like I said I was in Nottingham last week for a couple of things, as well as the ITAG conference there was the GameCity 5. I went along last year too, so had a better idea what to expect this time. The festival had the usual marquee in Market Square though one half of the arena was devoted to EA and the Nottingham Primary Care Trust who partnered up to "bring you the Best Health club in the WORLD" (according to the GameCity website anyway). That was a bit weird to be honest - games promoting fitness... still not sure I've got my head around all that though that doesn't mean I think it's a bad thing, just different. The other side was much closer to home though, as it was full of couches and TVs so people could comfortably try out different games:

Like the new Lego Universe - a massively multiplayer experience that has just been launched. It looked cute and funny, though I got the impression it's being aimed at younger players.

And Confetti Carnival, developed by Spiky Snail which was a lot of fun. The designers were kind enough to answer my questions about the platform and release date - apparently while they would like it to be multi-platform, that really depends on what deal they get, and it should be ready for release by the second half of 2011. 

The main highlight of the festival for me though was hearing Jonathan Blow do a sort of directors commentary on Braid:

It was seriously interesting, not just because it made me want to give Braid another go but because of what he said about game design. He first demoed the original prototype which he threw together in about 8 days to show his friends. The final game took about three years and looks a lot better, but it was quite interesting to see a lot of the main concepts (including the time reversal mechanic) in what was essentially a retro Marioesque platformer with crude graphics. Jonathan pretty much played through most of the game, explaining each world, though it was clear he wasn't going to say very much about the story. I think in some ways what the story means came across as something he didn't know how to verbalise, rather than something he was just refusing to talk about.  And like most things, you can't control how people respond to what you've created.

But anyway, what really struck me about his talk was what he said about designing the puzzles and wanting to make them intrinsically motivating (a phrase he actually used, though he did admit only coming across it after the game was finished). The idea was to try and create an intriguing universe of simple rules that players could figure out one step and a time. He would often try and achieve this by giving the player the clues they needed within the single screen they were occupying. He even talked about trying to encourage "incubation" (though that's not what he called it - it's another psychological mechanism, which occurs when you get stuck on a problem and only seem to be able to solve it by leaving it alone for a while and doing something else). So he would try and get players to store a symbolic representation of the salient puzzle pieces, by keeping the levels as simple as possible. He also talked about wanting the game to be non-linear, I think in the sense that you were meant to come back to different puzzles, but after a play-test he ended up changing it so people could play it all the way through if they wanted (though he didn't seem sure that was the best decision). During the Q&A session, he also mentioned Skinner in the sense that variable rewards are always a better design mechanic than a consistent one. This linked to the pattern-breaking concept he'd mentioned too - while he made a lot about introducing the rules to the player of each world in a scaffolded way, he also pointed out that it was good to break those rules as it gives the game greater depth. As the game progresses, there are even more pattern breaking incidents, signaling to the player that the end is drawing near.

All of what I've just said is about the puzzle solving elements of the game. Braid also has a narrative which is ostensibly about a boy called Tim who wants to find the Princess, but it seems to really be about being about relationships and making mistakes and whether you can ever take those back. Again, this is is a reference there to the early Mario platformers, except with Braid you actually start to consider why the hero is looking for the Princess in the first place. There is a lot of text in the game, but Jonathan made a choice to make it irrelevant to the game-play since you can go through the whole thing without paying attention to any of it. I'd argue that doing so means you would lose out on a richer game-play experience but I think the decision was based on an awareness that not all game-players like sitting through lots of text. I think the reason I enjoyed his talk so much was that he made me appreciate all the time, energy and love that was put into this game. I'm not a designer, and I've never really tried to make my own game, but hearing him made me think that this is what people who want to design educational games should listen too. There is a very particular kind of learning going on here - mostly in the form of cognitive problem solving - and I'm not sure how well that maps on to different curricula objectives but there is no way you could deny that players aren't learning as they progress through the game. Even Jonathan admitted that he found out new ways to solve certain puzzles, after he had finished it! Maybe the key is to think about how to create a universe  who's rules you want the student to learn, rather than to consider how to lots of educational content into a game? The thing is, I also think you could get a lot of out studying how something like Braid was put together, not so much in terms of the coding underneath but mainly in terms of the ideas behind it and how they are reflected in the game-play mechanisms and design rhetoric. I think I'm starting to see a place for the study of games alongside the study of films or books - something that involves a lot more than chocolate covered broccoli and a bit more imagination than trying to simulate real world activity as closely as you possibly can. Something which Michael Abbott, is trying to do at Wabash College with Portal. Which reminds me, Portal actually has a developer's commentary you can access after you finish the game - it might be quite useful to see more of this sort of thing.

I'll admit though, when I first tried Braid, I didn't quite get the time mechanic and while I had been meaning to get back to it, it wasn't until after hearing Jonathan speak and seeing the game in action that I decided to give it another go. And if I'm really honest, though I did complete it, I did resort to using YouTube walkthroughs. As with playing Portal, sometimes it was more about confirming I had the right solution - and needing to know whether I should keep trying what I was doing until I got it right - than having absolutely no idea what to do. I had also real trouble with the shadow mechanic so needed to see it action. I know I get impatient sometimes, but I really do think it's better that I get a little help than get put off the game entirely and stop playing. So I still  got to enjoy exploring and learning about the Braid universe, while figuring out (most of) the puzzles on my own. I'm not saying the game was perfect but it did a lot more right for me than it did wrong, though I know there are other opinions out there. Also, I have to admit that hearing Jonathan talk made me go back to it and appreciate the game differently - if I hadn't, I wonder whether I would have bothered?

ITAG conference

I was in Nottingham last week for a couple of things, including the Interactive Technologies and Games: Education, Health and Games conference. Unfortunately I ended up missing the first day due to a minor mishap, but was glad to make the second half of the conference. It took place in Nottingham Trent's new conference centre - which was a really cool venue, apart from trying to figure out the lifts, and the random (false) fire alarm that went off towards the end of lunch.

The day started with a keynote speech from Gerard Jones. He's a comic book author and write who wrote "Killing Monsters: Why Children need Fantasy, Super heroes, and Make-Believe Violence" which I read a while ago and would recommend to anyone worried about letting their kids play with toy guns and/or video games. His talk had very little to do with the book, in fact he wanted to talk about inclusion and how games are not isolating but are actually quite social. He then went on to talk about games can help people feel a sense of achievement through providing different ways of being good at something. He also pointed out that there is more of an emphasis now on games being designed for all, though the market itself seems to be a rapidly shifting one. I think his main message was that games are an arena with the potential for us all to move into from different angles, but by his own admission the talk was more a reflection on the sorts of things he'd been thinking about, as opposed to something more conclusive. I think at one point he also said something about how games can help people be good at something (like socialising) that they wouldn't be that good at in the real world - which really didn't sound that positive or inclusive since it sort of implies that games are for people with poor social skills...

The next talk was from Andrea Lewis, as Masters student at Nottingham Trent, who carried out a thematic analysis on the motivation behind female casual game-play. I would have liked a little more on methods but 20 minutes isn't exactly a generous slot when you've got a lot of material to get through! Two main things came out of this for me; one, it brought up the casual/hardcore thing again and made it clear it really isn't can't be just about the type of game or how long you play for and two, I wonder whether men and women's motivations for playing games is that different? I know there is a gender divide when it comes to the types of games men and women seem to prefer playing, but it's something I've not really made a point of addressing in my own research. I think that's because my main study involves the use of multiple case studies, I'm really not trying to make any gender based generalisations on a set of cases that should be able to stand on their own.

Other highlights of the day include Wee-Hoe Tan talking about how game designers and subject experts really should collaborate more (and mentioning that commercial game designers tend to look down on educational game designers for reducing the "essence" of games!); James Lewis talking about the Novint Falcon and how it can be used alongside games to promote stroke rehabilitation (though he also raised a valid point about whether you'd even want to replace a social situation within a stroke club that encourages movement e.g. chess, with a single player activity such as using the Novint Falcon); and Maria Saridaki talking about motivation in the context of people with intellectual difficulties in terms of how important it is to consider the educational environment itself and the motivation of the teachers themselves.

There was some accessibility issues raised, the most surprising of which to me concerned Facebook. Sarah Lewthwaite, a PhD student from the LSRI spoke about examining the social role Facebook plays in the life university students who identify as disabled. So while she discussed one student who suffered from depression and her use of a puppy application to connect with her friends from home, she also noted that for those with visual difficulties Facebook isn't exactly accessible, especially when it comes to it's third party applications. I guess what I hadn't considered before is that not being able to view these things as a new student can put you at a disadvantage from other students who can - to put it in Bourdieu's terms (which she did) it can lead to having less social capital, and generally feeling a bit left out. Another thing that surprised me, again because I've never really thought about it, came out of Sarah Pople's talk on how schools and universities can work together to develop games for students with disabilities. I remembered some of the games she mentioned from being at the conference last year and was pleased to see that again some of the students had come along to demo the games during the talk. But what I hadn't realised was that, due to the nature of their disabilities, only 16 out of 140 students were actually able to play these games. Apparently only 10% of students at the school can read and write while others need special controllers and switches to operate computers. It seems even more essential in this case that developers work with schools in order to find out how they can really make games accessible to all.

There were quite a few other interesting talks but I think that about covers my main highlights. ITAG isn't a very big conference but it is very friendly and it's always good to hear the different ways in which games and technology can make people's lives better. Thanks to David Brown and colleagues for putting it all together.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Jane McGonigal's sermon on Productivity

On Sunday I went to a talk organised by the School of Life. They called it a sermon, it also took place in a what I think what used to be a church hall, and there were hymns. One of the hymns was Video killed the Radio Star, but we did actually have to stand up and sing along. It was all a bit random really in quite an enjoyable way and the reason I went was so I could hear Jane McGonigal talk about Productivity and games. 

She started off by talking about how a lot of our ideas about what it means to be a productive member of society are based on a combination of protestant work ethic (God wants us to be busy) and the rise of capitalism. Which seems to ultilmately lead to a lot of guilt when we end up doing things that don't seem to produce anything. So in this light, playing games for hours on end is really just a colossal waste of time, right?

Well, maybe not. After getting to write down a to-do list and then make it into a paper plane to throw into the audience, she went on to talk about the research she's done and how four things seemed to keep coming up in relation to question what do games produce; whole hearted engagement, hope for success, opportunities to develop social bonds and a sense we can be part of something bigger than ourselves. But if that's not enough for you, her findings actual map on quite well to research being carried out that focuses on positive psychology - the sort of psychology that focuses on how we can be happy rather than on all the things that can go wrong. According to research that will be published next spring (in Dr.Seligman's new book Flourish) we need the following:

1) Positive emotion (Pe)
2) Relationships (R)
3) Meaning (M)
4) Achievement  (A)

And just to make it easier for us to remember, Jane got some audiences members to spell out that acronym for us (thanks to GrahamBM for the Twitpic):

We all then engaged in a round of massively-multiplayer thumb wrestling to illustrate how playing games can achieve all four of those things. For those of you who have never had the pleasure of playing massively-multiplayer thumb wrestling, you're missing out ;-) Basically, though her argument is that by games can actually help solve wider social problems by increasing PeRMA. Through productive engagement in activities we find meaningful and that make us feel good, we can cement our social ties and feel part of something bigger. For those interested in these ideas more and about games how you could designe games that explictly address social issues keep an eye out for her book "Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World" which is out early next year.

There was a short Q&A session after the sermon, where one person asked how games were different to drugs. I thought this was a pretty good question as you do hear about how games are "addictive" and I guess, like drug taking, the activity is often be seen as completely unproductive. Jane responded by pointing out that drugs tend to be quick fixes, that take a toll on our bodies and end up leaving people feeling lower than before. In contrast, research has shown that the positive emotions received from playing games tend to spill over into other parts of our lives. Also, apparently there is some sort of gamer tipping point, where after 21 hours of play a week, most players realise that they aren't getting any more from the activity. (Note to self: I really should find what research she is referring to). Somebody also asked something about using games in education and Jane was keen to point out that she wasn't trying to gamify every activity but that even so, understanding how and why games appeal could influence certain underlying educational principles - which effectively sums up my own research. All in all it was a really enjoyable morning, and what better way to end than by drinking tea and eating space invader biscuits :-) (thanks to Katy Lindemann for the putting up the Flickr photo)

how much do I agree with all this? Well, quite a lot really but maybe not entirely. I really do think Jane McGonigal is doing an awesome job getting inspiring games out there and in talking positively about games. I think that games can definitely increase PeRMA and like that there is actual research backing this up. I'm not sure how much that will convince people who don't play games though, and I don't think it will convince them to play games. Especially, for those who start talking about how they heard about players in China or Korea who died because they didn't leave their computer for days, and about how it would still be much better for children to go outside and play. I'm not denying that for some people at least, games can become a problem, but like any activity you enjoy doing, surely there's nothing wrong with them being part of a balanced well-rounded life? I also think that for a lot of people who take games seriously, probably for a lot of people who call themselves gamers and see games as a social activity to share with friends, gaming is a major source of PeRMA and that's why they like it. I think what people don't realise is that even when you're playing something on your own, this can still feed into your social relationships if you have friends who are interested in what you're doing.

I suppose what I'm not sure about, is whether everyone who plays games gets the same benefits? So the aunt you get to play Wii Sports at Christmas, I can see how she would enjoy having a go, how it's a shared family experience and how the activity makes sense in that context even but will she really feel like she's achieving anything? Maybe that has more to say about how we much we value our experiences but when Jane said something along the lines that she has never met a pessimistic gamer, who didn't think they could succeed, I'm not sure I'd agree they don't exist. I mean maybe they would call themselves a gamer, but I've seen plenty of people put off from even trying something because they don't think they are good enough. And, I have given up on games myself when it's just gotten too hard... I definitely haven't finished all the games I have - what does that say about my ability to achieve things? Jane mentioned signature strenghts, but what if I'm noticing weaknesses instead?!

Maybe I'm taking it a bit too far, I do finish some games at least, I suppose the ones I get the most pleasure out of, so perhaps that's enough. But I am still curious about different types of players and how often people actually finish their games. The two main things I want to take with me from the sermon though, are to rethink my ideas about productivity and the fact that there is research out there about the positive effects of game-playing. Plus, I don't have to feel guilty about not writing my thesis yet, as there are plenty of activties I need to do first, including (though obviously not limited to) playing games, cos they increase my PeRMA quotient and make me flourish ;-)

Update: I forgot to add a link to the Gameful site - after thanking her for the talk and telling her a bit about my research, Jane suggested that I check it out once it launches. It seems to be a resource for anyone interested in making and using games that have a positive impact on people's live. You can find out a bit more about it on her blog here.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Eurogamer Expo 2010

I spent yesterday afternoon at the Eurogamer Expo at Earl's Court in London. Here's a photo of me trying out Fallout: New Vegas.

As I just picked up from where someone else left off, I had no idea what I was doing so ended up shooting randomly at some people I think I was probably supposed to help. I didn't play for long as the people weren't very happy with me shooting at them and I died pretty soon after, so I'm not sure what to say about it. It felt a lot like the previous Fallout I guess, though the colours were less grey and more orange this time. Hmm, I'm thinking whatever happens after this PhD, I'm probably not going to get paid for writing game reviews... I know these events are supposed to give you a chance to try new releases, but I'm not sure how comfortable I feel playing in public. It seems a little too close to performing, even though I'm pretty sure no one is actually judging how well I'm doing. Plus, I think when it comes to new games, I prefer to try them out in my own time and space so I have a chance to get a feel for them - without the possibility of a queue forming. Though I was impressed with these guys trying out Dance Central on Kinnect.

So I saw Kinnect and the Playstation Move but didn't see any games for them that made me think I must try them. A lot of them seem to be party games - Wii Sports type spin-offs - which is fine, but I'm not sure that's going to convince me to shell out for either of them (especially when I already have a Wii). I'm sure there was an Xbox game that only literally involved you jumping, again, and again... Apparently, Heavy Rain has been modified so you can play it with the Move now, but I didn't have much luck finding it. I would have gone back after attending the last developer session to check again but the ensuing tube strike meant I wanted to leave a little earlier than I had originally planned.

If I'm really honest, a lot of the games at the exhibition came across as looking quite similar. Most of them involved running around with a weapon attacking monsters/aliens/humans in a post-apocalyptic/alien/war setting. Little Big Planet 2 was there, and looks as cute as the first, though apparently the level editors are easier to use. I also saw Rock Band 3 , which now has a keyboard accessory (even more plastic toys for my living room!). Nintendo was there too, but once I realised they weren't showing off a 3DS I moved on. Speaking of 3D, I did notice a lot of the games were being played with 3D glasses, and I think there were some 3D TVs. I probably would have been more impressed though, if the glasses NVidia gave out to watch their 3D demo had actually worked... I guess I'm just not convinced the technology is there yet, even if I could afford it! There was also an indie arcade, which perhaps I should have spent a bit more time at if I was looking for something different, but generally, I really can't say much really stood out. Maybe that says more about my reluctance to try lots of things though, than about what was on offer.

What I really did enjoy though was the developer sessions. First, I got to see Mike Simpson from Creative Assembly talk about Shogun 2 . I never played the original Total War game but what I saw and heard made me want to try out the second one. I think what I liked about it was how he talked about them using history - and not like it was a problem - in terms of it being the inspiration for the game and wanted to keep as close to it as possible. Someone asked whether the team had trouble deciding between whether to make it historical or fun, but his answer suggested that was actually quite a rare occurrence, with a lot of the fun stemming from the history itself. He also talked a lot about game strategy, perhaps with out meaning too, but it was pretty interesting to hear him talk during the demo about things like the best way to defeat archers (use a cavalry unit to sneak up behind them). I guess he (and experienced players) would take that sort of knowledge for granted but the rest of us have to pick it up as we play. It looks very pretty too, with a lot of work going into the details, like the Japanese trees. Apparently, it's been 10 years in the making (if you count the time if took to produce the original) - a lot of patience has gone into this game, and it shows. 

The other session I went to was held by Tim Willits (id Software) about RAGE there latest shooter. For those of you who don't know (and to be honest, I didn't until my friend Ashley told me at the expo), Tim Willits was involved in Doom and Quake, and there were a lot of people in the audience who were very pleased to be able to see him. He spoke a bit about Id tech 5 - the companies latest game engine - which allows for much more graphical detail. There was someone else there who played through sections of the game, but you could see that Tim was keen to point out how the engine allowed them to give different areas of the game, and enemies, a unique feel. He made a point about player choice too - through the addition of engineering items you can create your own weapons, while there are different sub-missions you can take on that allow you to indulge in vehicular combat, for instance, if you want to. It looks great but it was kind of funny to sit through the demo though. I mean, it's not really the sort of game I go for and I couldn't help but think that the story and mechanics were feeling strangely familiar - post-apocalyptic world, mutants, doing side-missions etc - and for all the talk about choice, the choices are mostly about how you decide to kill the bad guys . It's not like I can choose to set up a business and make money or find a cure for the mutants or something. But the majority of the audience was there to see an extremely polished shooter with awesome graphics, and I'm positive that is what they will get when it comes out next year.

I feel like I'm being a bit negative about shooters. What's wrong with wanting to indulge in a bit of carnage? It's not fair really, and probably the reason I don't like them so much is I'm not very good at them (and can't be bothered to get good). And obviously, there's a serious market for these sorts of games but I guess I'm just personally, not that interested. I did notice though that both Mike Simpson and Tim Willets talked about expansion packs, downloadable content and modding communities. Before the games are even out, they are figuring out ways to make them last longer (and presumably ways in which to make more money out of them - but when games like this have taken years to develop, who can blame them?). There must be a way serious games could do the same? Plus, both studios have a history of supporting modding, so it was nice to see that they were keen to continue that. It made me think a little about gaming audiences, and how I don't really know anyone who creates mods. A friend of mine from uni used too, but that's about it. I wonder how many people out there do and what they think about games like Little Big Planet which attempt to make that sort of thing easier for players? Though I imagine, building a mod for Quake is very different to creating a level for LBP...

All in all, I enjoyed the expo. I'll have to see whether I'll go next year or not, but for now, here is a rather blurry photo of someone playing a driving game on Kinnect. I think it sums up well why I don't want to play a driving game on Kinnect.

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Sam & Max and my research

Again, it's been a while. I have the excuse of spending the last few months running my main data collection study, though I have also been playing games throughout. Maybe I've been quite busy, but maybe I also haven't felt like I've had a lot to say. Recently though, I've been thinking more and more about one particular series I've been playing and how I got back into it after being convinced to give it another go as a result of one of my data collection sessions.

Over the past few months, I've been asking participants to keep a set of gaming diaries and to come into the lab we've set up in the department to play games. They had to keep the diary for three weeks and come in on three seperate occassions so I could hook them up to various physiological equipment (to measure changes in muscle tension, galvanic skin response and heart rate) and observe them playing games. The sessions lasted about 2-3hours so all in all it was quite an investement from them. Even when all I could offer was a Amazon voucher just to say thanks, 9 people actually agreed to take part and for that I am very grateful :-)

Anyway, during the first two sessions I would ask people to bring in a game of their choice, preferably something they'd been playing. But for the final session I would pick a game for them. For my first participant - who is also a friend of mine but for the purposes of anonymity, let's call him Matt - I chose Sam and Max: Save the World . It's a point and click type adventure, with lots of puzzle solving where you play Sam and Max who Wikipedia describes as "self-styled vigilante private investigators, the former an anthropomorphic dog and the latter a 'hyperkinetic rabbity thing'" as they set about uncovering a hypnotism conspiracy.

I picked the game up ages ago for the Wii and though I played for a bit, I got stuck at one point early on and just never went back to it. I'm going to be honest here, while I wanted to choose something Matt hadn't played before (and that contrasted in pace to his own choices - survival horror/FPS), I also chose it because I thought he would find it boring. And I wanted to see whether all that physiological data I've been collecting would reflect that. I'm still working on the data so I'm going to have to save the in depth analyses for later on (and hopefully publication...) but he didn't find it boring. He liked it. That didn't mean he wasn't frustrated by some aspects of it, but he seemed to enjoy it. What really surprised me was that him liking it made me want to try it again. So I did, and I finished it this time. And then I bought the next series, Beyond Time and Space on Steam (because it wasn't on the Wii) and finished that. And then I played the latest series The Devil's Playhouse, and had to wait for Telltale to complete the last two episodes so I could finish that too.

So what happened? Why did I write the game off only so soon? What made me go back to it? How many other games do I have that I never really gave a fair shot? Looking back, I remember wanting to like Save the World but getting a little annoyed by all the dialogue and getting impatient with some of the puzzles. Even though I did think it was funny, I guess I didn't think it was funny enough to keep playing. So when I got stuck, maybe it didn't feel like there was enough incentive to go back. It was a good couple of years ago now when I got the game so I can't say for sure, but I also imagine that I got distracted by other games that I had at the time. So I forgot about it, until I started my study and had to come up with games for other people to play. That's already going to put it back on my radar, but then Matt seemed to enjoy it and we talked about it afterwards, and it made me want to give it another go. I think the fact that we are also friends who talk about games has something to do with it too. Though I don't think he's played the game since, him playing it in the session made me feel more like a shared experience, and when I refer to the series he knows what I'm talking about. Could that alone have increased my involvement with the game? I think it might have. And I'm glad it did.

I'm not saying it's a perfect series. Like most point and click adventures, the puzzles are less about creative problem solving and more about trying to figure out how the designer wants you to solve it. The dialogue is funny, but there is a lot of it and the story doesn't always really make a whole lot of sense... It was ok playing it with the Wii controls but the later games weren only out on Steam so I had to switch. I think the second game, Beyond Time and Space was the weakest of the three I played - it felt rushed, shorter than the others, with puzzles that made even less sense than normal. But the more I played, the better I got at it (and yes I did sometimes resort to walkthroughs or increased the in-game hint level, but I noticed as time went on this happened less too). Maybe I learnt how to think like the designers, but the puzzles didn't feel as frustrating. So even if the narrative was a little out there, I kept progressing, and I still wanted to know what was going to happen next. But I needed a reason to get past the initital hurdle I came across and that seemed to come from sharing the experience with someone else. Without them even being in the same room! And now it's got me wondering what other games I would have enjoyed? Also, I'm wondering what I would have given up on if I hadn't had others to share the experience with?!

All of this ties in with my reseach because I'm not just interested in what happens when we play but why we choose to play anything in the first place. Like I said, the analysis is at a pretty early stage but if I can uncover at least part of that, and explain how it all might relate to learning, then I might just have something decent to put in my thesis ;-) Plus, it's something I need to consider when I am doing my analysis - if my participants had an impact on my game-playing, then how did I impact theirs?

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Tax breaks and the games industry

The governement has decided not to go through with the pledge to provide tax relief to the games industry.

This worries me. In my last post on the Game-based learning conference I mentioned Richard Wilson from TIGA talking about how important it was for the industry to receive tax breaks to encourage business to grow and expand. The parties seemed to be behind it initially - so what's changed? I can see how removing tax incentives might save money in the short term but surely it makes more sense to encourage local talent and industry to grow to create more jobs and make more money in the long term?

Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Game Based Learning 2010

On Monday and Tuesday I was Game-based learning 2010 at the Brewery in London. It was a really good couple of days - think I still need time to recover from it! Apart from the talks and meeting new people it was also good to catch up with fellow PhD student Wee-Hoe Tan from Warwick and to bump into Jeremiah Alexander from Ideonic again.

For a broad overview of the conference experience, Terry Freedman provides quite a good account of what the event was like. It's impossible to reccount everything here so I'm just going to talk about some of the highlights for me. The conference started with a couple of politicians who I don't remember having anything massively interesting to say (though I now know there is an All party video games group!) but I think I was reassured that whichever party wins the next election they'll be supportive of the video game industry. You see the recession did come up a bit but it looks like video games will save the day! Well maybe not single-handedly, but in addition to the politicians, Richard Wilson from TIGA highlighted how important industry is economically, educationally and culturally - and how the recent tax breaks will create more jobs and bring more money into the economy.

Back to day one and the games though. I really enjoyed Alice Taylor's talk about what she is commissioning for Channel 4 to support young people's informal learning. These ranged from the recent Smokescreen (which aimed to helped people learn about privacy online) to the soon to be released Ada (which aims to inspire girls interest in science) but what I really noticed was how a lot of the entertainment she was discussing was multi-platform and seemed a ARG inspired. I'm also really impressed by the work being carried out by Derek Robertson in colleagues up in Scotland. Their work within the Consolarium has meant that games are essentially becoming a normal part of classroom activity, and it's a shame the rest of the UK seems a long way off from that. I like the emphasis they place on the teacher but also on sharing what teachers are doing - it's not about games replacing classrooms but understanding that they are another useful learning tool that can be used. It was nice to see this backed up with examples from headteacher Gillian Penny in a later talk.

Moving on to the subject of piracy, one of my favourite talks was Matt Mason who I knew absolutely nothing about till he got up on stage. He provided a very interesting case for pirates - in the sense that they can often push the boundaries of what is possible (as opposed to those who just nick stuff) and actually came up with ways of dealing with the issue that made more sense than "punish them!" - which is something I think rushing in the new Digital Economy bill focuses on a bit too much. Anyway, I'm gonna have to get his book.

ARGs came up, in a more academic context, with Alex Mosely and Simon Brookes talking about how they used them on their HE courses. I liked the mention of communities of practice here as it's something I'm going to be looking at though I think I will need to go back and have a look at Schaffer's concept of epistemic frames again. Communities of practice also came up again at the later MirandaMod meet (which was an interesting if slightly confusing experience as I wasn't sure what a MirandaMod was!) which will hopefully be up soon. It's just good to know that people are realising that games aren't played in a vacuum and it's good to see that other things are now being taken into account.

On day two I got to start of the research strand with my presentation "Press Start: Motivation, Engagement and Informal Learning through Video Games" (see pic below). It think it went pretty well, though I probably did run through quite a lot of information in the 15 minute slot. Derek Robertson was kind enough to mention me and my blog link on his twitter feed as did a couple of others (and that's where I got the pic from - btw, is being tweeted a measure of success?!). I'm glad I got a couple of other theories out there - Calleja's Digital Game Experience Model especially - but hope I also got people thinking about why it's important we understand the bigger picture when it comes to studying games. The thing I like about the DGEM is that it gives me a way of discussing different game play experiences (on both a micro and macro scale). And if there is an existing framework out there I don't need to produce one of my own, but I think it can help in what I am trying to do - which is explore the relationship between motivation, engagement and informal learning through games. Anyways, all in all it was a good opportunity to meet other people and ultimately reflect on my work.

I enjoyed the rest of the research strand too, especially Karl Royle and David Squire's talk on their DoomEd mod and sharing what they learnt from the experience, and also Paul Hollins talk (prepared with Nicola Whitton) about 10 things educators could learn from the games industry (though a few more Do's thrown in with the Dont's might have been good too). I thought he raised an interesting point how educators should think more about entertainment rather than simulation because I couldn't help but notice that some of software on show (and discussed) are really simulations rather than games. I think are some important differences here in terms of learning (or maybe even just with respect to how people approach them). I mean simulations - and a lot of serious games - try to be as real as possible, so it's easier to apply what is learnt in the real world but games shouldn't be real because realism can be boring, and though we learn in games, we also know what behaviour is appropriate in the real world and what isn't. Hmm, maybe one day I'll be able to verbalise this better and have some evidence to back up what I'm trying to say.

In the final part of the conference I got to see Tom Chatfield (who wrote Fun Inc.) talk about the role of failure in learning and games - "What is learning? Failing better" and Margaret Robertson discuss what educators can learn from casual games. Sean Brennan from Bethesda games seemed to make the audience squirm a little (and get the Twitter feed buzzing) by essentially reading out his powerpoint slides and telling most of us what we already knew about games and learning. Maybe it was his struggle to come up with a reason that the commercial games industry should get involved in games (he ummed for a bit and then suggested PR maybe?) or maybe it was that he thought education should be doing more to make sure he got the skilled games designers he needed but I'm not sure his talk went down well.... Though conference organiser Graham Brown-Martin did assure us afterwards that beneath the "ballsy arrogance" Sean was a good guy really! And I suppose he did donate some games for the prize draw at the end too... including Bethesda's Fallout3 - which I didn't get :-(

The conference closed with Jesse Schell speaking to us via a live video link and I think gave everyone something to think about by arguing that education should be like the rest of our future - beautiful, customisable, shareable and real. I think my favourite part of this talk was at the end when someone asked how we might be able to benchmark collaborative work and he just said "Screw all that" as school should be preparing people for the real world and not trying to figure out ways to standardise and measure everyone. Definitely need to check out his DICE talk too.

So I left with the feeling that the future is going to be a very exciting place to be. And it would be very cool to be a part of making it that way.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Heavy Rain (PS3)

It's been longer than I thought since I last wrote but since then I bought myself a PS3 and have been playing lots of games :-) One of which is Heavy Rain.

I really enjoyed this game. Actually, enjoyed might be the wrong word, as I'm not sure I've played anything that's made me feel the way Heavy Rain has, especially in terms of experiencing guilt. I should probably post the obligatory SPOILER ALERT here as I will be discussing what happened when I played the game, though I won't reveal the identity of the Origami Killer. I don't want to spend half this post telling you about the game itself though, as this is less of a review and more a way to document my own response to it. For those who know little about the game though and don't plan on playing it go here for a synopsis.

So first off, it's probably worth knowing that I didn't play the game on my own. My friend Paul came round and we took turns playing (on three seperate session). I'm not sure how I would of felt playing it on my own, but we both came away from it feeling like Heavy Rain could be the start of something very exciting, with Paul suggesting it might even be the start of a new genre. From the start, when we were given instructions on how to make an origami figure from the paper that came with box, we knew it was going to be an immersive experience. Yes it did feel a lot like a movie, in fact it felt like one of those books from when we were kids that asked you to make a decision and then turn to the appropriate page once you had - just a lot more effective! And ok, there is definitely room for improvement - the controls could get annoying, there were some plot holes, a pretty gratuitous sex scene (and a little unconvincing given how beat up Ethan was, and how little time him and Madison had spent together) while I think we were mostly deliberately lead astray about the identity of the origami killer - but overall, I would thoroughly recommend playing it.

The reason I do is because of how I felt when I played it. I felt helpless when Jason (Ethan's oldest) died as there was little I could do. I felt pleased with myself as Agent Jayden when I managed to calm a suspect down and get him to lower his weapon only to feel incredibly guilty when the suspect spun round during his arrest and I shot him, only realising too late he was holding a crucifix and not another weapon... I liked playing the hard-drinking private investigator who also seemed soft-hearted because though you fought people, you also had to change a baby's diaper and rock it to sleep after rescuing it's mother from a suicide attempt. I felt relief when I was Madison and I went to visit a creepy doctor to get some more clues and then left before he came back in the room (after having found the clue I needed and refusing to drink the drink he gave me - I'm not sure what would have happened if I did but I know it wouldn't have been good!).

But the guilt came back when I was playing the investigator again and I ended up in a car at the bottom of the river with Lauren, a prostitute whoose son had been murdered by the Origami Killer and was helping me with my investigation. A lot of the tension in the game involves having to react to quick time events, and this was a particularly tense situation as I had no idea how much time I had. Though I managed to cut my own ropes and free myself, in my panic to escape the car I ended up kicking my way out without rescuing Lauren... I felt terrible, and the only thing I could think to say to Paul afterwards was that we really need to save Shaun now! As if somehow it would makes Lauren's death worthwhile...

I think the fact that we played the game together made it even more interesting though. Depending on what we were doing and how connected we felt to the character we were playing at the time, we would refer to the character by name, as "I" or even "we". The Origami Killer sends Ethan a series of tasks to complete (each more dangerous than the last) and in one of them you are supposed to go to someone's house and kill them. After going to the house, there is a struggle and you end up pointing a gun at the guy in his daughter's room. Paul just turned round to me and said, I don't want to do it. So I said ok, even though we had failed the previous task (and so were now going to miss out on two clues), because that's not who we wanted Ethan to be. After almost every scene we would discuss what had just happened, reflecting and wanting to make sure we had done the right thing. Interestingly there were also a couple of moments where we didn't actually want the responsibility of having the controller - knowing that our decisions and ability to react could influence the outcome, meant there an awful lot of pressure on who was playing not to mess up. And that was the feeling I had during the final task Ethan had to carry out, which asked him to drink a poison that would give him enough time to rescue his son, but would then kill him. I actually paused the game at this point so we could discuss what we should do (and I think it was the only time that we stopped mid-gameplay to do so). After a lengthy discussion we decided that we weren't going to do it, because it would really suck if after everything that happened, Shuan survives to lose his Dad as well.

You can replay bits of the game but we wanted to play it all the way through first. After we finished, we did go back and try different things out to see what would happen - turns out the poison dilemma wasn't as serious as we thought, and that Madison being able to get to Ethan before the end is what you'd really want to not mess up. I'd like to see some of the different endings but I'm not sure I really want to replay the whole game from start to finish again. While it's an interesting "what if" exercise, I think it could become a little tedious, and won't ever compare to playing it first time around.

There is probably loads more I could say about how this game affected me but this has already turned into an essay. I think I just want to say that though Heavy Rain didn't do everything perfectly I was fascinated by the ethical discussions we had about it, and thoroughly engrossed while both playing and watching it. Maybe the game gave us the illusion that we had more control than we did (despite a large number of possible endings there is still a limited number) but maybe that illusion is more important than actually having a completely open ended experience. Maybe it is more like a movie than a game, but so what? It still felt more engrossing than watching a film about the Origami Killer would. And maybe I would have felt less positive about the game if we hadn't saved Shaun and got one of the "better" endings but I still think I would have enjoyed the process.

I think this is the first time I've been able to experience the way games can provide us with such powerful emotional experiences and it's something I'd like to see a lot more of, both in commercial games as well as educational. This is something that games can do in a way other media can't and I for one would really like to see how these sorts of games develop.