Games 4 Change Salon at UW

Last summer there was a Games for Change (G4C) summit in D.C. Fit in my schedule but, alas, no money. Anyway, Ruth Fruland who is spearheading the Games and Simulation Works (GaSWorks) at UW was able to go and was asked to start/lead a Seattle chapter of G4C. While there she met someone named Morgan and together they organized a Games for Change Salon at UW on November 16. Many thanks to them for organizing it all.

The Salon followed a panel discussion format with 5 presenters and Ruth and Morgan facilitating. Morgan quickly talked about 3 layers to looking at games: there’s the game content, the game rules surrounding it, and some sort of meta-analysis surrounding that. Unfortunately, I can’t find my notes right now…

The first presenters were the guys at Impact Games (Eric Brown and Asi Burak) who flew all the way here from Pennsylvania for our Salon! They presented a game they made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict called Peacemaker. Their demo was the highlight of the panel. If only all of the following presentations were so well planned… Basically, you play the role of one of the faction’s leaders and have to make decisions each day in response to events which occur (or maybe you can make them regardless of which events occur…). Each action you make has some sort of outcome and also affects your standing with a bunch of other third-party factions. The goal is to gain reputation with both your faction and the opposing faction without also pissing off the other third parties. Each event is illustrated with video segments or news from real news sources. It is very easy to be engaged since the events present authentic sticky situations. They’ve also developed the game from the get-go with academics and content advisors. The way they’ve developed it reminds me of how exhibits are made at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, the science museum I used to work for. All in all, Peacemaker looks to be a great game which successfully engages players with a real social goal. Eric and Asi hope the game is commercially viable, following a for-profit indie game developer model. I wonder if the game can do what they hope in terms of learning objectives without a teacher to guide players or if they mean for classrooms to buy the game… It’d be nice if they could get end-consumers to buy it and not depend on the classroom model. From what I’ve seen, the game has a good chance of being able to be digested at home.

The second presenter was a prof from Evergreen State College named Laversa Sullivan and two of her teen black girl students who use the MIT developed Scratch to teach kids about electronics and programming. Scratch is very similar to Lego Mindstorms. You can attach different types of sensors to a control box which in turn is connected to a PC through the serial port. An application on the PC lets you do some drag and drop programming. The bits of the program look like puzzle pieces and fit together in specific ways so that one can’t accidentally get their syntax wrong or have overlapping for-while loops, for example. There is a window on the right of the computer screen which renders things based off of the input from the sensors and the program you’ve plugged in. From what I could tell, Laversa’s teen students would go to 4th grade classrooms and teach kids using Scratch somehow. It wasn’t clear how. Nor was it clear how this related to what I thought Games for Change was about… but that is true for pretty much all of the presentations except Peacemaker. It was still cool to see Scratch in action, though, and great to know that some underrepresented teen girls have access to electronics and programming stuff.

Next, we had John Wilkerson, a UW poly sci prof, talk about LegSim, a website he’s created which allows the students of his U.S. Congress class to role-play different representatives. He uses this simulation to replace his old way of teaching through lecture. Now his students learn about how Congress works by being in Congress and having to make laws, be on committees, deal with lobbyists, etc. It is not a stand-alone game, but a mediated exercise over a Quarter. It sounded totally awesome, and I really wish I could take his class now… 🙂 I’ll have to check out the website…

The fourth presentation featured a game called Busted by a retired UW prof of social work, Hy Resnick. He created this boardgame, it sounded like, over 30 years ago and a decade or two ago had it converted to a computer game. Now, he’s having it updated with 3D graphics from Beth Anderson and the folks at Arkitek Studios. Originally, the game was used in group therapy sessions with delinquint boys. It was effective at getting them to open up through participating in a role-playing boardgame. I wonder how effective this would be without a moderator if at all. An interesting side note is that Hy spent the whole time reading from a print-out describing the game rather than just showing us the game which was projected live behind him. It was a good way of killing the residual energy in the room generated from Peacemaker. Then when Beth came to show off the prototype artwork of the new version, she spent a lot of time telling us about the artwork rather than just showing it to us. When she finally showed it to us, the art for the different events and locations and characters in the game looked fantastic, but the playing board seemed out of place. I wonder if they even need to use the Monopoly-style playing board at all anymore since it seems to be a physical boardgame crutch. Or maybe they should make the board a 2D illustrated board which matches the other artwork more…

Lastly, Howard Rose at Imprint Interative showed us the full-on VR technology with goggles and everything which was being used to treat people with arachnaphobia and post traumatic stress disorder. I heard about this before from Scientific American with Alan Alda. 🙂 Anyway, using VR for exposure therapy is pretty cool, but I gotta wonder if one needs the full-on VR stuff which costs thousands of dollars when you can buy Half-Life for $15 nowadays and download the arachnaphobia mod for it… Personally, I always wanted to reach the most people possible which is why I’m focusing on COTS games and mods.

To sum up, there were some great ideas at the Games for Change Salon we had here in Seattle a week or so ago, but the actual presentations for some of them could use some work. And I have to wonder how any of them fit into the Games for Change model since only Peacemaker seems to actually be similar to an actual commercial computer game… Or maybe my understanding of G4C is off?