Serious Games Summit: Day 1

The first day of the Serious Games Summit was quite interesting,
instructive, and (for me, at least) exciting. A few general notes
first, and then into the meat of the day:

  • There seems to be a general excitement over this field. This is the
    second year for the conference; it’s evidently much bigger this year
    than last, and many folks feel that it’s growing at a rapid pace.
    (One presenter said that she thought Serious Games are at the same
    place as an industry that nanotechnology was in the early 90’s.)
  • The Entertainment Games industry is made up overwhelmingly of young
    white males. Judging by the attendees at this conference, this is not
    the case for Serious Games — it’s a much more diverse crowd than I’d
    expect to see at GDC or other game trade shows.
  • There are a lot more Macintoshes than there were at the Vignette
    conference I recently attended.
  • Interestingly, the technology in some of these instructional games
    is actually more ambitious than that in games designed for
    entertainment. This seems to be driven by the need for people to be
    able to interact with the games in more interesting ways than
    diddling around with a joystick


Ironically, this was one of the less interesting sessions to me. Two
speakers discussed wargaming in conceptual terms, and then moved on
to discussing project life cycles for instructional games. I’ve got
more detailed notes, but I won’t subject you to them now.

Ender’s Game for Science and Engineering

Merrilea Mayo discussed how the United States’ performance in the
Science and Engineering fields has steadily worsened over the last
few decades, and discussed some of the instructional reasons games
are a good way to help address that deficiency. She pointed out that
one moderately successful game has the potential to reach more people
than all of the Science & Engineering college programs in the
country, and went on to explain research that shows dramatic
increases in instructional efficiency when using interactive software
for teaching. A few numbers, for those of you who like them:
Cooperative learning raises test scores by about 50% over solo or
competitive learning. Kurt Squires’ research shows that interactive
lectures increased comprehension of electromagnetic theory by 15%,
while allowing students to play with a program called “Supercharged”
instead of sitting in a lecture at all improved their scores by 28%
— an increase especially marked in girls. It seems there’s some
excellent research to point to this being a very valuable
instructional technique.

Inside Our Hidden Agenda: Using Contests to Generate New Ideas for
Games in Education

Lauren Davis (who, incidentally, is an Austinite), discussed the
Hidden Agenda contest, which awards a $25,000 prize to college
students who come up with the best instructional game geared toward
middle school students. It has run for two years now, and has yielded
several worthwhile instructional games. In the first year,
contestants entered a Texas Hold ‘Em game, which teaches probability,
Operation Infinicio, a 3rd person game that requires the player to
use an understanding of physical forces (like friction, thrust, etc.)
to get through a dungeon, ChemPop, a Tetris-style game that has the
player match up elements with appropriate valences as they fall into
a silo, and Mechem, which allows the player to build a combat robot
out of various materials to learn about their characteristics. In the
second year, contestants submitted Algebra Arcade, which teaches
simplifying of equations and which middle school teachers nearly
assaulted Lauren to get a copy of, Gut Wars and Biosaga, both of
which allowed the player to experience the immune system from inside
the body, and Refuse of Space, an Asteroids-style game which uses
exacting realistic physics (and a funny pirate voiceover) to teach
Newtonian physics.

Inside the Institute for Creative Technologies

The ICT has been responsible for a variety of projects, most notably
Full Spectrum Warrior, a game originally developed for army training
which later became a commercial product. They showed off some of
their research: graphics created by doing a laser scan of the
Parthenon and the sculptures therefrom that reside in the British
Museum and reinstalling them digitally, and a virtual human, in this
case a doctor whom one had to try to convince to move his clinic by
standing in front of a screen on which he was projected and carrying
on a conversation with him. The presenters then went on to discuss
the development process, comparing and contrasting the needs of
serious games developers with those of entertainment game projects. A
few things he brought out that are necessary beyond what
entertainment games provide were assessment, to allow one to track
the effectiveness of the game and individual’s learning progress, and
adaptability, to ensure that users actually learn the subject matter,
rather than just figuring out a way to “game the game.”

Measuring Effectiveness in Game-Based Educational Systems

Jan Cannon-Bowers discussed the various types of competencies that
one attempts to foster with games: knowledge, skills (including
phychomotor, cognitive, decision-making, leadership, etc.), and
attitudes. She then identified the characteristics of a good
objective, and discussed various ways of measuring effectiveness,
pointing out that some of the easiest, like gathering people’s “How
did you like it? How much did you learn?” reactions, often were
wildly inaccurate measures of effectiveness. Measuring Training
Behavior or Learning is a better indicator, but is correspondingly
more difficulty to do. Embedded measurement, where the game gathers
data on the user’s performance while the game is in progress, is one
valuable tool in the designer’s arsenal. She concluded by reiterating
that assessment is critical for a variety of reasons, and should not
be neglected.

Using Games to Advance Language Training and Education

This was one of my favorite sessions of the day, as the panelists
demonstrated some fantastic language instruction technologies. The
first was a Blackfoot-language based quest game for the Gameboy. We
didn’t get to see it in action, but I was intrigued to find out that
there are free, open source tools for developing Gameboy
applications. Louis Johnson of the University of Southern California
then demonstrated Tactical Iraqi, a third-person training game used
to train military who are going to be deployed in Iraq with basic
communication skills. He walked through a simulated interaction with
an Iraqui native in which he walked up, removed his sunglasses (as
eye contact is considered important), put his hand over his heart (a
sign of respect when meeting someone new), and spoke an Iraqi
greeting into a headset microphone. The simulation included speech
recognition software, which allowed the virtual native to carry on a
conversation with the presenter, who eventually gained enough trust
to elicit the location of the village leader. Then Sabrina Haskell
from Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated two Japanese language
instruction prototypes they had developed to teach middle school kids
fundamental Japanese skills. The first was Pettochan, a virtual pet
that one interacted with and taught the language using point-and-
click commands. The second was was a brilliantly done RPG called
Kotodama that also used speech recognition, allowing characters to
interact with objects by speaking their names, and to take action by
speaking the appropriate verbs. Both projects used an anime style to
help engage their target audiences.

America’s Army Reception

America’s Army is the blanket name for a whole series of training and
simulation products the army has developed, including a wildly
popular first person shooter. This evening they were showing off lots
of interesting stuff, including large-screen sniping simulations,
remote bomb detonation robot simulations, and a truly wild 3-screen
HUMV simulation with both a driver and a gunner station. The place
was both packed and noisy, however, so I didn’t end up lot out of it
beyond the nifty demos (and a Heineken).

More to come tomorrow…