Getting Serious About Games…

Hi, guys. You were probably expecting the third installment of my comic book foreign policy series. Sorry. I’ve fallen behind this weekend and it’s going to take me a few more days to pull that together. I decided it was better to do it right than to do it quick.

Part of what has me distracted is that Convergence Culture is finally out. And trust me, a new book provides its own distractions. If you are one of the people who’ve bought the book already, thanks. I look forward to hearing your reactions. If you have questions you’d like to explore, send them to me at henry3@mit.edu and I wil try to cluster them and address them through the blog.

Today, I am sharing with you some thoughts about Serious Games that I wrote Morph, the Media Center Blog late last week. I figure few of you would have seen it there.

I wanted to take this opportunity to respond to Clive Thompson’s recent article from the New York Time’s art section focused on the serious game movement.

Why Now?

Why are serious games happening now? When I spoke with Clive for the story, I identified a range of factors that were all contributing to the emergence of serious games:

1. The generation that grew up playing computer games in the 1980s are now entering adult responsibilities. They are the ones who are taking on roles as parents, teachers, workers for nonprofits and foundations, and so forth. They have a real appreciation of what has captivated them about this medium; they want to find a way to connect with it through their jobs; and they want to use its power to deliver their messages.

2. There has been a growing body of research suggesting that games may indeed represent a powerful instructional medium; there is also clear signs that the ability to interpret and manipulate simulations is going to be a central skill across a range of academic disciplines.

3. There has been a growth of games studies programs at colleges and universities that are seeking ways to give their students real-world experience conceptualizing, designing, making, and testing games. Historically, university based research explores the roads not taken, taking risks on projects that would not thrive within a commercial environment. So, they are turning their attention towards the development of games that serve pro-social purposes or that document aspects of the real world.

4. A small number of games publishers dominate the entertainment market. Small start up companies realize that they can’t compete directly with the Electronic Arts of the world and they have to direct their energies elsewhere. At the moment, their best routes forward come from casual games, mobile games, or serious games.

5. As I suggested in my blog recently, there has also been a political debate about whether games constitute a meaningful form of expression and are therefore protected under the First Amendment. Many of us who work in Serious Games have been looking for ways to expand the rhetorical capacity of the medium in response to moral reformers and judges who have dismissed the concept that games might be a vehicle for exploring ideas.

The serious games movement lies at the intersection of these five factors and often takes shape through collaborations amongst the various groups identified above — educators, policy makers, nonprofits, foundations, educational reformers, university based training programs, and political activists. Working separately and together, they have begun to develop games that demonstrate some of the far-reaching potential of this medium and working together they have begun to bring those games — in some cases, simply playable prototypes — to the attention of the larger public. The serious games movement reflects the idea that a medium can serve many functions and that restricting games to purely an entertainment medium seriously undersells its potential.


An Oxymoron?

The term, serious games, may strike some as an oxymoron. Others worry that in turning real world issues into games, one somehow trivializes the subject matter. Both are somewhat misleading. We accept that films, which are most often an entertainment form, may also serve raise awareness of serious social issues. Games are no different — though we have to shed our somewhat narrow assumptions about what the medium can do. Part of the problem is that we associate games with fun and in a culture still shaped by its puritan past, fun is seen as the opposite of work or of education.

Instead, serious games advocates prefer to use the concept of engagement. After all, much of the time when we are playing a challenging game, we aren’t exactly having fun. It can sometimes be a lot of hard or boring work to push ourselves to the next level. (The same, after all, would be true for other recreational activities, such as playing on a sports team). What makes people continue past the pain or boredom is the fact that they are engaged in a compelling and well defined task. I can be engaged by my work as a professional. I was engaged by my work as a student. Most of us wish our work was more engaging. Games simply transform the process of mastering knowledge or interpreting data into a more engaging activity in part by establishing clearly defined goals and roles.

Roles and Goals

As one of the founders of the MIT Education Arcade, a group that over the past five plus years has been focused on prototyping games for learning, we discovered early on that when we wanted to transform a textbook subject into a game, the first question we had to ask experts in that area was what the information allowed you do. This is a question that rarely gets asked in most traditional education. It’s considered bad manners to ask an instructor about the use value of what they are teaching you within most academic disciplines. Yet, games take knowledge which is inert on the page and encourage us to act upon it, to do something with it.

As David Schaffer, a researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has suggested, it is by acting on that knowledge that we learn certain epistemologies — certain ways of thinking that are specific to the applied versions of the disciplines we learn in school. We learn to think like a historian, a city planner, or a conflict negotiator. We learn to tackle problems of political redistricting or resource management. By taking on those roles, working with complex simulation and visualization tools, solving problems, confronting challenges, and testing one’s ideas through action, one refines one’s mental models of the world. This is part of what excites us about the idea of games as a pedagogical medium.

Games may teach us by inviting us to step outside the world and manipulate it like a god — as is the case with the large number of simulation games, the genre most widely represented within the serious games movement. But games may also invite us inside the characters — as the old expression goes, we get to walk a mile in their moccasins — as happens with various role-playing games. One of our primary projects at the Education Arcade was a modestly multiplayer game world, Revolution, where participants assumed the roles of townspeople in Colonial Williamsburg in 1775. They went about their work and family life but they also struggled with some the events and dates that paved the way for rebellion against the crown. Testing this game with players, we asked them to write journals describing their experiences from their character’s point of view. What we found was that the students produced a synthesis of information gained through previous history lessons, their own introspections about what it would be to occupy a particular role in society, and their observations of what happened during the game. In some cases, they made powerful discoveries about themselves and the world. One girl, for example, was playing a Loyalist character and went to a political rally where redcoats opened fire on the crowd; her character was killed and this, more than anything else, brought home the nature of political violence — the sense that there are no bystanders at a riot or a massacre and that once the shooting starts, it may no longer matter what side you were on.

Evaluating Our Work

Clive Thompson introduced a note of skepticism from me and other serious games advocates in the story so it is worth taking a moment to clarify what I was saying. I am fully convinced of the educational value of games. I think many kids already have powerful learning experiences working with existing commercial games. I think we can harness that power to produce even more effective resources for teaching and learning if we bring together expertise on pedagogy with the artistic craft of good game design. These games need to be measured in part by the same criteria we would use to measure any documentary or art film — do they make people think? do they make expressive use of the media? do they deal with the world with all of its complexity and nuance? Or are they simple minded, pedantic, and propagandistic? These are aesthetic judgments. But the reality is that the people who are pouring money into serious games want results. The educational system demands assessment data. Governments and foundations demand proof that they have made valuable investments and not throw away their money. And if we are not able to produce some concrete results that can be traced back to games-based learning, then some of that funding is going to dry up. At the same time, the small games companies need to show proof to school systems if they are going to adopt their products or to parents if they are going to bring them into their homes. And if they can’t convince people to try their products, those companies will not be around tomorrow. My comments were not intended as skepticism about the concept of serious games per se. They were intended to describe the reality that we are all working in as we try to make the case that games can be made to serve serious purposes.

Some people have questioned whether games can adequately represent the complexity of human experience. That’s a legitimate question. Let’s keep in mind that games are representations. They necessarily distort somethings even as they make other things much clearer to the learner. The same is true of all other systems of representations, including those that we take for granted as part of the educational process — such as maps, charts, diagrams, dioramas, and the like. The difference is that schools put some time into teaching children to read maps — less than would be ideal but they at least give lip service to doing so. We should not be using games in schools if we are not prepared to teach children to understand how games represent the reality and how to evaluate the credibility of a game’s simulation. Some of the most interesting work right now isn’t going to develop serious games; it is going into teaching children how to design and develop their own games or into developing tool kits that will put robust simulation tools into the hands of everyday people. This is where the work on serious games starts to intersect our larger conversation about participatory culture.

As more and more people learn how to make games, games will emerge as yet another form of grassroots media. People will use them to explore a broad range of perspectives on a broad range of issues. And we will see political debates staged not simply within games but between different games that have different biases and positions