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Trends in gaming (more livestream blogging from Games for Change, #g4c2011)

More (hasty)  livestream blogging from the Games for Change 2011 conference: This afternoon’s topic has been trends in gaming.

Youth designing games

Jessy Jo Gomez,  an incoming student from Parsons The New School For Design, shared her insights in this panel.

  • Learning can emerge from games not specifically designed to be educational
  • Younger gamers may shy away from games with an educational label (in contrast to adults who may shy away from games designed for entertainment)
  • Creative programs, such as those including game design, can reach youths who otherwise feel marginalized and disengaged from their communities
  • Reach Final Fantasy game fanboys and you might be able to save the world! (Tap into existing passions.)
  • If you are in a tough situation, you grow up thinking you can’t make change in the world, but if you feel you can make change for yourself you tend to expand your view

Game-making tools

Alan Gershenfeld, Founder and President of E-Line Media, stated he did not come from the education sector, and was influenced by learning about the high attrition rates of kids from high school and the dramatic social and economic impact of this. The perceived lack of relevancy of school is an important factor: competing social issues will necessarily win if perceived relevancy is low.

He discussed two approaches to games for learning.

  • Pathway products: What are kids’ natural interests? How can you connect this interest to a core curriculum and build a learning pathway?
  • Core curriculum based: Start from the core curriculum (which the child may not naturally be interested in) and improve engagement through inquiry-based learning (more difficult)

To design good game tools, you need to think systemically.  Can you map game system thinking to other systems?  Game tools require 21st century skills but kids are happy to engage in hard fun.

Gershenfeld urged the audience to think about game development software for kids as a gateway to further natural interests and to connect kids to other products that are more inquiry-based.  These software products should be high touch, high tech, free to play, and ideally web-based. Consider how  you can connect kids to mentors  (peers or teachers). Gershenfeld cited “Global Kids” as a “phenomenal program.” “Building an expert network is key” and game designers/developers should be involved.

On assessment
Game systems can capture aggregate data on where players are struggling. Reviews are also informative. Both qualitative and quantitative feedback is weighed. However, to add a different level, bring kids into the mix and allow them to review games. When a child publishes a game, the child can see game analytics (e.g., a heat map of where players may have “died”) and this provides engagement and opportunities for learning.

Some kids want to go from design and systems thinking into programming; others become fascinated by art and others by marketing. The take-home is that games provide an entry into multiple career paths. Children can naturally progress  from learning 21st century skills to practical vocations. Considering  how these paths map to learning ecologies is critical. Tools and game design should be grounded in the context of  how kids live their lives.

Tools mentioned included:

“When kids are motivated they can do almost anything.”

Direct Impact

Jamison Selby, Senior Producer at TimePlay Entertainment discussed opportunities for in-game economies to facilitate donations to real world causes. Jason Behr, Designer at 343 Industries, continued this discussion by proposing  game incentive systems. Can games like Halo have a positive impact? How can you create impactful games that have “retention” for less money and less time? (Sound familiar learning developers?)  Behr urges teaming with big development companies that may not have social impact as an initial primary focus.

What if you modified mechanics of existing popular games to achieve social impact? For example, in Halo, you shoot aliens and collect points to buy virtual goods. Modifying the game challenges might be used to introduce social goals and data sharing could be used to understand and tune the impact. What if in-game rewards could be tied to real-world volunteer efforts? For example, after verifying volunteer hours, the game platform might provide rewards  tied to the existing game narrative (and economic model).

Behr proposed that virtual incentives and streamlined choices would make community activism easier. “Start small, dream big” so that mainstream games become more than about escape. Use achievements to effect change.

ARG games

Ken Eklund, the creator of World Without Oil and Ruby’s Bequest, spoke about ARG games and noted that his task was not to demystify ARG games  (it’s too early in their evolution) but to explore them as ways to reach serious goals. ARG games have the “potential of a massive campfire”  where listeners participate in the story and the game is centered on  collaboration, action, and change. “When games resonate they change us.” He noted that ARG stories don’t have to be highly realistic. “Fictional stories are the ones that enter the realm of myth.

Eklund commented that although ARGs sounds complex from the designers’ point of view but from the players’ view they’re  quite simple, focused on “What if?”

Player requirements:

  • If I connect with the story, the story should connect with me.
  • I should be able to impact the story; I know stuff too.

He outlined an approach to ARG game design. Start with a hard-hitting question. Start with someone suffering needlessly. Take ideas to logical and extreme conclusions and then let go. You won’t know how the story ends. Focus on the resonance between fiction and reality.  “The platform is not the game. Get the horse going first then decide how much cart you need.” Take home: ARG games can have both reach and depth. “In your games, always leave room for the infinite.”

Rethinking Mobile

Benjamin Stokes talked about games that take place in the real world and led a discussion with members from Mobile Active. “More than 90% of the world population is covered by mobile networks” Mobile allows more people to access services and programs. For example, Nokia mobile phones are available widely throughout Africa for about twenty dollars and Android phones are becoming increasingly accessible. With that being said,  many still don’t have access to Smartphones and data plans.

Some basic tool examples (not necessarily games)

  • Dr. Math is a game tied to a social network called “Mix It” which allows people to connect to a social media platform by SMS.
  • IVR or interactive voice response (think menus) can be used as a resource to deliver news. People in the community can call in and report news of their community and others can access based on their interests.

Stokes stated: “We need a global perspective when considering game mechanics.” Mobile may be most helpful in situated learning (not an “any place any time” view, but  an “I’m here now, what can I do in my environment?” view).

Stokes discussed genres in activism, encouraging us not to overlook existing “civic genres.” What genres let us do is to have short cuts; we tap into certain mental models; however, currently we don’t have existing genres in the mobile space. What are the civic genres that we can connect to?

Some of the genres he proposed:

  • Mapping:  Involve people in noticing and interacting with their communities and physical spaces
  • Touring: Connect people to organizations (e.g., non-profits, neighborhood organizations) and  people who work there. Tell a story through the space, not necessarily about the space.
  • Performing (he did not speak much about this)

Facebook

Non-profits are beginning to explore Facebook to spread their causes. Mallika Dutt, President and CEO of Breakthrough, discussed using Facebook as a platform as the base for the company’s alternate reality game, America 2049.

As noted by Dutt, gaming allows a conversation about problems to occur in a very different way.  Facebook. as a platform, was attractive because it provides a built-in growing, global community which can be leveraged to bring people together in a game space.

The game is based on four-part structure: view, discuss, make, and act. It’s important that players become active participants versus just passive consumers of the game content. A message system in the platform creates a space for dialog (players share knowledge and solutions).  The challenge is to keep game engagement going past the game, but the hope is that public forums and celebrity involvement (a humanizing effect) will drive continued participation.

Games in International Aid Programs

Colleen Macklin, Associate Professor, Design and Technology at Parsons the New School for Design spoke of PetLab, a game lab for social games and games for learning. In partnership with the Red Cross and Red Crescent, they developed a game for Senegal using pervasive, solar-powered, platform-agnostic technology. The game goal: How to translate scientific forecasts into action. The game is low tech (a card game). Take home: High tech is not necessary to create an engaging game, nor is social media necessary to create a social game.

Emer Beamer, Co-Founder and Research and Development Director, Butterfly Works stated that there’s a revolution occurring in the Middle East and Africa in education and games can be part of a playful, homegrown, revolution. It’s important to focus on existing realities…e.g., long, three-hour commutes might be a great opportunity for  mobile gaming that’s also educational. Beamer commented that adapting Western content is a mistake; you need to consider culturally relevant content, starting from graphics.

Subhi Quraishi, CEO of ZMQ Software Systems, said that “There’s a gamer in everybody.”  Mobile technology is reaching the common man and must be used wisely. “The future of democracy is mobile.”

His company’s approach is to create tools first and then invite partnerships. Recognizing the low literacy levels of game players in some communities, ZMQ has created a pre-natal game solution involving iconic messaging, minimizing the amount of reading and writing involved.

Comments in the discussion:

  • Integrate social networks in game mechanics
  • There is hype to gaming, but change has occurred through gaming
  • Social media is huge but it is only a part of the picture
  • There’s an increasing need for game designers and without more designers, game quality will suffer
  • Games have the potential to unite people with diverse skill sets to attack a challenge
  • Natural networks in a community (and data derived from these networks)  should be part of game design
  • Human capital, financial capital, and social capital are all needed
  • Don’t decouple access and applications: If you build the cool widget, your players need to be able to access it. Democratization of information technology is needed. Be innovative in building capacity but recognize what’s at hand.