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.