From Serious Games to Serious Gaming

Last week, I presented a keynote address at the Serious Games Summit held in Washington DC. The event drew together participants from all of the groups which constitute the serious games movement -- educators, activists, entrepreneurs, government officials, military, emergency workers, scientists, therapists, nonprofits, foundations, and doctors. As such the serious games movement is a powerful illustration of what Yochai Benkler has taught us about networked culture -- the ways that it creates new and unexpected points of contact between commercial, amateur, nonprofit, educational, and governmental forces which are shaping the contemporary communications landscape. As I told the group there, it is unlikely that there was very many other circumstances which might result in a military leader, a corporate HR person, and a political activist sitting down to break bread together, yet at the Serious Games Summit, these groups were all trying to see what they could learn from each other. If these folks do their jobs well, there will not be such a gathering in a few years time because each of the subfields they represent will have expanded until they can support their own convening. And indeed, we are already seeing more specialized meetings for those involved in games for health, games for education, and so forth.

If you want to see my presentation itself, check out this webcast of the talk.. Much of what I had to say in the first part of the talk was already stated in an earlier post on my blog, Getting Serious About Serious Games. A primary goal of this talk was to suggest how the ideas from Convergence Culture might inform the work of those of us who are trying to produce games for learning. You might see this talk, in part, as a response to some criticisms that Ian Bogost raised about my book -- that it was too invested in commercial culture and didn't have enough to say about noncommercial uses of media. I see these remarks as pointing to ways that the serious games movement might benefit from a greater understanding of concepts like collective intelligence, participatory culture, and transmedia storytelling.

Today, I want to pick up on an important theme which ran through the talk -- my goal was to shift the discussion from talking about serious games (as in a product) towards talking about serious gaming (as a process). .

Learning as a Process, Not a Product

Several years ago, I was approached by a Christian organization which wanted to construct an arcade where all of the games would promote prosocial values. They had believed the stories that suggested that violent games "programmed" young people to become school shootists and they wanted to design games which "programmed" young people to become saints instead of sinners. Often, when I talk to reporters, they act as if we could just plant kids in front of a black box and have them "learn" as if learning required nothing more than absorbing content. And teachers worry that they will be replaced by a computer terminal which will be more fun, more efficient, and more cost effective than the human labor involved in current pedagogical practices.

These comments suggest a core misunderstanding about the role games may play in the educational process. We see games not so much as programmes with content that must be delivered but rather as spaces for exploration, experimentation, and problem solving. We do not simply want to tap games as a substitute for the textbook; we want to harness the metagaming, the active discussion and speculation which takes place around game play, as a catalyst for a broader range of other learning activities.

Games as Interdisciplinary Spaces

Speaking at the Education Arcade conference which we hosted at E3 several years ago, Will Wright offered his vision of the relationship of games to education. It's a long quote but worth reading slowly and carefully:

"Our whole idea of schooling is based around this industrial model: here's the stuff that you're going to study; we'll fill you up with that knowledge. Before education was quite so structured, people wandered a little more freely across the landscape of learning. We keep trying to think about how we can use games to make people learn something. How do we use them to communicate content? Whereas, the most effective uses I've seen of games are actually more on the motivational side. It really strikes me how much kids can get motivated by playing a game and then all of a sudden they discover that the subject they always thought was going to be boring is actually totally interesting....I can imagine some kind of technology where game makers could very cheaply mark up the game with little tabs, you know, that kids could click and they would bring them to external resources, maybe on the web. It could be even like Slashdot with all kinds of people adding annotations. If you're interested in longboats, click here and you get the top links for longboats. The game remains an entertainment experience, but it's really motivating you. It's not like, you like chemistry; here's a game for chemistry. Basically here's the entertaining experience that covers a lot of ground;; it's very interdisciplinary. Typically teachers look at the interdisciplinary pockets in these games and say, 'you know, let's do a game about chemistry,' or about this or that. That's a very hard game design problem....The best games will probably be very interdisciplinary and cross all these boundaries. The chemistry teacher will like a little segment of it or the history teacher will like a little segment, and the kid going through there will be motivated by the different aspects. It's very hard to package a really compelling experience into one disciplinary boundary."

The learning which games foster, in Wright's model, is "undisciplined" in the best sense of the world -- the child is encouraged to pursue their interests where-ever they lead without regard to the way schools divide up content or time. And different kids might pursue different interests side by side within the same game learning from each other. We can read Wright as arguing for multipurpose game environments which are not restricted by the configurations of knowledge we find in school syllabi or textbooks. Second Life looks something like the world Wright is describing -- a space where many different groups are conducting educational experiments of all kinds and where those educational experiences take place alongside a variety of other kinds of experiments in social, political, or economic interactions. We can also see something of the multidisciplinary approach to games and education through the work of Whyville, an online game world set up to get young girls interested in science but which introduced an in game economic system to reward points for participation in the various science activities. The Whyville team has discovered that the economic transactions -- and the production of stuff for trade -- does not simply motivate the other learning activities; they become important sites of learning in their own right, helping girls conceptualize themselves as entrepreneurs as well as scientists.

Wright's notion that we might simply annotate a traditional game, providing a series of links to other sources of information which might enhance the game play experience, represents another way of thinking about gaming as a process which is not contained within the game itself. I recall Kurt Squire describing the work he has done with the use of Civilization in high school world history classes; he suggested that he would sometimes catch students coming into class early and "cheating" by scanning through their textbooks for information which might help them perform better in the game. In that sense, the best games encourage us to look for information beyond their borders as we try to solve the problems they contain.

Serious Games and Participatory Culture

Educators might also benefit from tapping the participatory impulses within games culture -- especially by harnessing gamers interest in modding and machinema. I have already discussed in this blog the ways that projects such as MyPopStudio or our Cantina Improv exercises have encouraged young people to learn how culture works by taking media texts apart and remixing the pieces. The Education Arcade at MIT is one of a number of academic research groups which has found modding to be an effective approach to quickly generating educational games. For example, we took the fantasy role play game, Neverwinter Nights, and transformed it step by step into Colonial Williamsburg on the eve of the American Revolution for a game which could be used to teach American History.


This approach allows us to get a game produced quickly and cheaply by building on the existing framework and programming Bioware had provided. We were even able to reprogram the game in significant ways, such as creating a system for interaction with the nonplayer characters that acknowledged the role of class, gender, race, and political divides in colonial society. Yet, there were other constraints on what we could get the game engine to do which meant that the commercial game left some imprint on the finished title. And we faced more difficulty than we might have imagined getting this game into schools because schools had to buy the existing commercial game before they could play our mods and there was resistance given the "dark arts" themes running through Neverwinter Nights. Ironically, at the present time, most of the games most open for modification almost all have contents which will be objectionable in school settings.

Russell Francis, an Oxford University researcher who was working with us on Revolution, pushed this notion of modding one step further -- having students translate their game play experiences into short machinema films which functioned as a kind of in character diary to recount their impressions of what has taken place. We have found this practice extremely valuable in helping students to pull together information from multiple sources to express what they have experienced and learned through their game play. It has also proven very helpful for the design team as we try to understand what features of the game encourage or get in the way of individualized learning.

A group of my students, Dan Roy and Ravi Purushotma, have been experimenting with modding some basic platform games -- The Sims 2 and Grim Fandango -- in order to turn them into resources for language learning. The games which are produced for the global market already contain multiple languages inside them: all it takes is the flip of a switch to localized them for different markets. Dan and Ravi have explored the benefits of reprograming these games to allow players to play with them in a foreign language or even mixing and matching English and Spanish language features to provide scaffolding as they are mastering the second language.

Some educators have begun to see the game design process itself as a catalyst for learning as can be seen in recent projects by OnRampArts in Los Angeles, Urban Games Academy in Baltimore and Atlanta, or GlobalKidz in New York City. In each of these cases, the educational payoff comes not from playing the game but rather from working through the process of identifying how to transform a body of knowledge into a game play experience for someone else. Katie Salens, Eric Zimmerman, and James Paul Gee are currently collaborating on a new project, Game Designer, being produced for the MacArthur foundation to give young people basic literacy in game design. Here, again, it is the process of game design and not the product of a finished game that facilitates engagement and learning.

Reality -- Augmented, Alternate, and Otherwise

The serious games movement might also learn from the concept of transmedia entertainment -- thinking about how to shape a flow of information that extends beyond a single platform. One clear example of this kind of serious gaming would be the kinds of alternative reality games that Jane McGonigal has discussed. Right now, alternate reality gaming is primary used as a promotional platform -- see The Beast (A.I.), I Love Bees (Halo 2), The Lost Experience, or The Art of the Heist for examples. Yet, there is a compelling case for the kinds of research and collaborative problem solving which has been sparked by the effort to solve these complex multimedia puzzles. The games encourage a movement from digital space back to the real world and value the ability of social networks to pool knowledge and trade information as they work together to beat the game. The kinds of augmented reality games being developed by Eric Klopfer at MIT might represent another way of integrating information from the game back into real world spaces. David William Schaffer has used the term, epistemic games, to refer to a style of educational gaming where players are asked to deploy the tools and knowledge which might be used by professionals as they confront real world problems. So, he develops games where kids learn geography by working as urban planners or composition by playing at being journalists. These games encourage kids to trace information across multiple sources and media platforms, mixing things they have learned through digital and mobile media with things they have learned through direct observation of the real world.


Mapping Labrynth

I closed the talk with a preview of Labrynth, a Education Arcade project which will develop a multiplatform game designed to help middle school children develop some basic math and literacy competencies. Scot Osterweill is the head designer on the project, working with a team of CMS graduate students that includes Kristina Drzaic (whose storyboards for the game are featured here), Dan Roy, and Evan Wendell. CMS alum Ravi Purushotma has been hired as a technical advisor.

At the start of the game, the player spends some time designing and customizing their pet and then, the pet runs away, disappearing into a drainage pipe. Pursuing the pet, the player finds herself in an underground world full of threat and mystery. Along the way, they begin to suspect that the ambiguous meat products on sell may come from harvesting pets, creating a strong goal of rescuing not only one's own beloved pet but also freeing all of the other captured creature.


Each of the game's puzzles encourages new modes of thought and problem solving which can eventually be named and explained in the classroom but which seem simply part of the process of working through the game level. Here's how Drzaic described some of the thinking which has gone into the design of puzzles for the game:

When we first pitched our vision of what would constitute a good educational game to

middle school math teachers we were met with some skepticism as to how this model of

video game learning would help them meet the stringent information goals of NCLB [No Child Left Behind]. There was a dominant idea that the best kind of educational game is the kind that has overtly demonstrable math value along the tones of Math Blaster. While many educational games do subscribe to the Math Blaster flash-card based model, that was not the type of learning we were going for. We want to make the kind of thinking that sticks with you, not rote memorization.

As you might expect from a puzzle game, we have a mathematical basis for each puzzle

that requires mathematical-based reasoning to solve and, in keeping with NCLB, we had to

cover certain math topics. As such groups of our puzzles target different areas of the

math curriculum but, in keeping with the idea of an experience that sticks with you we

provide a wide range of modes to think about similar types of mathematical problems. For

instance, four of our puzzles deal with proportion in entirely different ways:

Puzzle 1: proportion as numerical value - feeding monsters proportionally related

ambiguous meat products

Puzzle 2: proportion as movement over time - different proportioned movement of boinging


Puzzle 3: proportion as visual measurement - outfitting singing monsters who are dancing

at different distances

Puzzle 4: proportion as a rate - using gears to help a canning assembly line function


I love that our game allows you to approach a topic through a variety of ways and does

not involve memorization in the least!

Literacy is encouraged through the game in two ways: first, the back-story for the world unfolds through a series of comic books which appear at the completion of each level and function more or less like cut scenes. Second, the players are encouraged to participate in an online forum where they trade advice and insights with other players on your team; this forum contributes directly into the game's reputation system.

The games are designed to be persistent so that the player can log in from multiple locations -- from the computer in the school library, through a handheld device, or through their home computers, integrating game play and problem solving across the day.

The game involves a partnership between Maryland Public Television, the MIT-based Education Arcade, the federal Star Schools program, and Fablevision, a commercial game developer which will take our student's designs and turn them into a finished game which will be distributed to the public. One of the most vexing challenges facing academic game developers has been the last mile problem -- how to move from prototypes to products which get into the hands of teachers, parents, and students. With this project, we think we have a plan which will translate our conceptual prototypes into a reality.

The game taps many aspects of contemporary gaming culture -- the customization of characters, the use of forums to share advice about mastering games, the process of experimentation and puzzle solving -- as central features of its pedagogical process. For Scot and his team, this is not about designing a serious game so much as it is about creating something which will encourage serious gaming.