Archive for the 'Serious Games' Category

ARGs, Serious Games and the Magic Circle

In “Alternate Reality Games: What Makes or Breaks Them?“, a blog post reviewing the rise of alternate reality games (ARGs) (see ARGs Uncovered for an into), Muhammad Saleem suggests several characteristics that a successful ARG should embrace:

– Storytelling or narrative
– Discovery/deciphering and documentation elements
– Cross-medium interactivity
– Blurring the lines between reality and fiction

To what extent do you agree with this view? If you are familiar with an ARG, write down how the game conforms to Saleem’s list. If you aren’t particularly familiar with an ARG, see if you can identify features of the ARG Perplex City that correspond to the categories listed above. To what extent do you think these “essential characterstics” apply to any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

The post also describes some ‘features’ that the ARG should avoid if it is to be successful:

– Lack of interactivity, too linear
– Lack of a reward
– No instant gratification
– Too difficult
– Same old game, different name
– Too scripted, too commercial

To what extent are these ‘negative features’ likely to detract from the success of any digital game, ARG or otherwise?

One popular refrain of the actors/characters in an ARG is that “this is not a game”. This reflects the fact that the game is being played out like a piece of invisibe theatre in the real world. At the same time, the actors act out the game narrative in a way that encourages audience participation, providing interaction with the game as far as the audience member is concerned, even if the actual direction of the game is largely scripted and tightly plotted ‘on-the-inside’.

How do you think the ‘this is not a game’ view relates to the idea of the Magic Circle, described by Salen and Zimmerman as “the boundary that defines the game in time and space” (see Getting Philosophical About Games)?

In the section “Community Formation and the Magic Circle” from the Game Studies article The Playful and the Serious: An approximation to Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, Hector Rodriguez comments thus:

Game designers aiming to highlight trust and suspicion sometimes take the radical step of rendering the boundaries of the magic circle deliberately ambiguous. Phone calls or text messages received in the middle of the night may be real calls for help from a friend or part of the game’s conspiracy. Well-known examples include the Electronic Arts game Majestic and the plot of David Fincher’s 1997 film The Game. This uncertainty can generate experiences that resemble philosophical scepticism about reality. The designer becomes the equivalent of a Cartesian evil genius capable of controlling, and potentially deceiving, our sense of the distinction between reality and make-believe. From the designer’s standpoint, the players become toys to be played with; the game designer is the only player who for sure knows where the boundaries of the magic circle are.

A footnote in the same article elaborates further:

[6] The fuzziness of the magic circle is not restricted to children’s play. Recent scholarship on “expanded” or “pervasive” games has highlighted three techniques that subvert the magic circle (Montola, 2005). First of all, the location of the game can be ambiguous, uncertain or unlimited, so that participants may not be sure about the place where the game is played. Secondly, the temporal boundaries of play need not always be sharply demarcated from the rest of daily life. A game may, for instance, lack a clear-cut beginning or end; or its duration may extend until it coincides with a player’s entire life, even span several generations, so that its temporal boundaries become effectively irrelevant. Thirdly, games can blur the boundary between players and non-players by bringing “outsiders” into its sphere.

Serious Games and the Magic Circle

Just as ARGs make use of the ‘real world’ to roll out the game, we have also seen how real world situations can be ‘folded back’ into digital space, opening up the possibility of playing ‘real world’ games in virtual worlds (for example, The World of Serious Games).
To what extent do serious games require the player to adopt the view that whilst they are playing a game (and so insulating themselves from the real world by entering the magic circle) they are also not playing a game, in the sense that their performance in the game world could actually be replayed ‘for real’ in the real world, maybe as part of their job?

The World of Serious Games

In Looking Realistic… I gave one or two examples of the sort of visual effect that is offered by contemporary major release game titles.

As the worlds simulated by the game engines become ever more realistic, visually as well as behaviourally (for example, in a ‘world physics’ sense – where game objects appear to behave as they would in the real, physical world), it is no surprise that training agencies have started to look at ways in which simulated worlds can be used as the basis for training exercises.

Serious games are a particular class of games that are developed for a “serious purpose” (that is, not just to make money by providing entertainment!). Many serious games are based around computer based simulations of real world activity and are increasingly turning to 3d environments as the basis for those simulations.

Why might military, as well as emergency, scenarios be ideal candidates for interactive game-like training scenarios?

One ‘popular’ area for serious 3D games is training simulators for emergency first response personnel. For example, the Virtual Incident Management Training project at the University of Maryland have developed a project to “present typical incident situations and allow the participants to play out their normal roles in what is essentially a highly structured and recorded video game. In this way traffic management personnel and incident responders can experience a wide array of realistic scenarios, analyze the impacts of their decisions, and be trained about appropriate responses and communication as well as the consequences of inappropriate responses and communication breakdowns.” (Video footage is available on the project website.)

The 3D simulated world contrasts with approaches like the ADMS – Advanced Disaster Management Simulator – which offer a “hybrid” simulation environment where characters play out roles ‘in the real world’ against a video projected backdrop.

As well as ‘action’ based serious games, 3D serious games have also been used to provide a setting for engaging people in ‘policy’ matters. SeriousPolicy: Serious Games For Citizen Engagement describes one particular game – Serious Policy – that “sets the player on a mission to win Treasury funding for a new policy”.

In a business setting, too, 3D virtual worlds are being used to provide an environment for management training. For example, IBM’s INNOV8 game is “an interactive, 3-D business simulator designed to teach the fundamentals of business process management and bridge the gap in understanding between business leaders and IT teams in an organization.”

If you want to try out INNOV8, you will need to register on the IBM INNOV8 website and have access to a Windows based PC…

Another serious game developed by IBM is PowerUp, “a free, online, multiplayer game that allows students to experience the excitement and the diversity of modern engineering! Playing the game, students work together in teams to investigate the rich, 3D game environment and learn about the environmental disasters that threaten the game world and its inhabitants.”

Serious Casual Games

As well as realistic, 3D serious games that take place in lifelike simulated worlds, serious games are also developed for casual game players.

One of the most famous serious games, and one that ‘went viral’ is the web-based Darfur is Dying.

Play the game on the Darfur is Dying website, and also read about the background to the game in this BBC news story: Darfur activism meets video gaming.

To what extent might “Darfur is Dying” be called a “serious casual game”? What do the developers of the game hope to achieve through releasing the game? How does the game support this aim?

Through its partnership with the BBC, the Open University has been developing interactive, casual serious games for some time on the website. You can find a list of some of the games here: OU Online Games and Interactives.

One natural question regarding serious games might be what distinguishes them from ‘learniong games’. For example, what sort of differences do you think there are if you compare “Darfur is Dying” with a physics based educational game such as Launchball?

For me, one of the defining characteristics of a ‘serious game’ compared to an ‘educational game’ is that the serious game requires the player to make reasoned choices and decisions that correspond to ‘real (non-arbitrary) decisions that need to be made in the real world. Thinking back to the question So What is a Game?, two things stand out for me that make a game ‘serious’:

1) Huizinga defined play as “a voluntary activity or occupation, executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy, and the consciousness that it is “different” from “ordinary” life.” In a serious game, the intention is very much to simulate situations that might occur in the real world, and try out or rehearse different actions in the safety of the game that might inform decision making in a similar situation the real world.

2) Games were seen as providing “a context within which arbitrary obstacles to performing an otherwise easily achievable task create the possibility of play rather than irritation.” In the serious game, the obstacles faced by the player correspond to obstacles that the player may encounter in the real world, and so in a sense are not ‘arbitrary’.

But that is just my opinion…! Some people might class all educational/learning games as serious games, for example.

Find Out More

There are a great many serious games being released almost on a weekly basis, from casual games to fully featured commercial training environments. Subscribing to blogs such as the FUTURE-MAKING SERIOUS GAMES is one excellent way of keeping tabs on current news from the world of serious gaming. The Serious Games Network on Ning and Coventry University’s Serious Games Institue are two other excellent serious game resource sites.

To what extent do you think that serious games really are ‘serious’? For example, if you played any of the games mentioned in this post, what, if anything, do you think you learned from doing so?

[The videos contained in this post can also be seen on the “World of Serious Games” show on the Digital Worlds video channel.]

Looking Realistic…

So far in Digital Worlds, I have tried to avoid spending too much time – if any – looking at particular games; the intention of Digital Worlds is not, after all, to be a game reviews site. Instead, I have tried to explore something of the historical context to interactive media, as well as considering some of the design and development issues that relate to computer games.

Over the next few posts, I intend to explore the boundaries of computer games, looking at environments that are in some way “game-like”, and whose aesthetics, as well as technical architecture, owe much to contemporary computer gaming.

If you have one of the recent generation consoles (XBox 360, PS3 or Wii) you’ll know what the current ‘state of the art’ is in terms of look and feel of the latest ‘hardcore’ computer games (that is, major release game console titles rather than online casual games).

For the rest of us, I picked out a few videos that seem to show what’s currently possible… if you find some other good examples, please…

To set the scene, and show just how far games have come on since the ‘last generation’ consoles (like the PS2, which is now found in millions of homes across the world), the following is a trailer for the game Grand Theft Auto III:

I suspect that for many people, this is the sort of thing they typically imagine console based computer games to be nowadays (unless they have encountered the rather more family friendly Nintendo Wii games).

The cartoon graphics are ‘comic like’ and the movement not particularly smooth.

However, for the demographic for whom “better graphics” is one of the the key features of a “better game”, the games for the current generation consoles are still chasing ‘photorealism’. This point was briefly touched on in Bringing the Digital World Alive, with respect to the convergence between games and cinema of certain game/film franchises.

This is particularly true of many driving games, where the game essentially provides a car simulator that can be driven in a range of racing environments – Grand Prix circuits, rally tracks, urban streets, and so on.

In the cartoon world, games are becoming as “hyper-realistic” as many CGI animated films, as this advert for Mario & Sonic At The Olympic Games demonstrates:

So that’s what the games consoles are offering today… and you can find similar looking games for your PC, too…

If you would rather have a more detailed browse through some game artwork, then the GameDaily Video Game Screenshots gallery is well worth a visit.

In the next post on this theme, we’ll have a look at how some organisations are taking game-like worlds seriously and have begun using them as the basis of training environments…

[The videos contained in this post can also be seen on the “Looking Realistic…” show on the Digital Worlds video channel.]