Serious fun in Coventry, part the third

This is one of a serious of posts about the Culture, Heritage & Tourism Technology Workshop at the Serious Games Institute on Tues, 4 March.

After lunch Graeme Duncan from Caspian Learning launched into a very comprehensive drill-down into ‘what do we mean by Serious Games’ and when should we use them? Graeme proposed a 3-way Venn diagram of 3D worlds, simulations, games. Caspian locate themselves in 3D worlds but with informed input from games & simulations. This wasn’t meant to be a formulaic or constraining model, but it did help in understanding the contributions from each circle to any one example of a ‘Serious Game. In particular Graeme noted that games speak to our cultural guardians (the young), not in a dumbing down kind of way but perversely in a upping the ante as they were expecting very high fidelity game experience.
Graeme went on to suggest 5 situations (as identified by the ‘learners’0 that should point to a need/benefit for Serious Games;

  • Dull dry content
  • Context is king (or more accurately a lack of context)
  • People oriented interactions
  • Exploration & familiarisation
  • Decision making & problem solving

As a quick demo and example Graeme described a client (major publisher but not allowed to say who yet) that had asked Caspian to look at Rome in Danger (14-16 years). Everything was based on their core proprietary technology, Thinking Worlds. What Caspian did was to build in a graphic fidelity that matches the zone of tolerance for learners. What was far more important were the very detailed briefs with learning reasons for having particular game-like features. On a last technology note, the game runs in Realtime 3D Shockwave in the browser.

I’ll skip over a couple of presentations that weren’t quite up to par and get on to…

Dr Esther MacCallum-Stewart (Post-doc researcher, SMARTLab). Esther was specifically looking at MMORPS‘s and stealth learning (a term introduced by Prof Henry Jenkins from MIT). In part of the description of games as learning experiences, Esther noted the huge discussions around Civ II sequence of technology advances (did alphabet lead to code of law?). While these are slightly artificial (its only a game) the arguments, research and competing theses of how civilisation really did advance were evidence of learning. Esther also noted that because they were games, there was a very diverse mix of realism & fakery (or fantasy to be more generous). This is clearly an issue for people trying to use off-the-shelf games for teaching and has been the cause of Sid Myer back tracking in recent years on the historical veracity of his games.

Esther also noted that players hate thinking that they are learning. If people are told they’re being taught then its not a game, if its a game then its not learning. However, the online games are now so big that players have to take different roles in order to advance past the most lowly of levels. At this point we moved fairly solidly into WoW. Here there were examples of structured, reflective in guild learning and sharing of knowledge. I asked about authority and reputation in the Q&A and Esther pointed out that there were very strong social & peer forces that managed to an extent, they were also very unstable within Guilds and across worlds. There is a wiki but there didn’t appear to be any emergent structure for learning or teaching or sharing heritage other than a (very traditional) guild based one.

Esther also touched on RuneScape as having gameplay around knowledge rather than slash’n’burn. This led to some notes about grinding (or doing small repetitive tasks for an incremental benefit as part of a larger quest or character improvement). The clear message was that players enjoy learning – even if they don’t admit to it. These games often have unexpected outcomes – learning about machinama and YouTube are technically quite advanced and yet many people are learning these skills in order to present their character in a story.

A huge amount to take in, and I’m still working through some ideas that have been triggered but definitely a highlight of the day.