20 October 2005

Serious Games

For several months now, I have been researching serious games for the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train and Inform. I am excited about serious games not only as a potential profit generator for game companies but also as an alternate entry point for aspiring game developers. Serious games utilize the same technology and skills as those used in entertainment games, thus enabling companies to cater to both sectors. Indeed, companies like BreakAway Games do just that. I also believe that serious games will appeal to women developers and players.

“Serious games” is a catch-all phrase for simulations, training programs, and educational software that use game technology and techniques. While these products may have been stuffy in the past, serious games shift the paradigm by applying what’s fun about games into schooling. Serious games enlighten as well as entertain. Serious games have been used in public policy, emergency management, healthcare training, occupational safety, corporate training, law enforcement, and other diverse fields.

Designed for mainstream consumption, serious games are a good exercise in design. Serious games need to be amenable to differing play styles, player experience levels, and equipment. For some users, serious games will be their first exposure to computer gaming. In addition, serious game design must satisfy the needs of the trainers as well as the students. Observer modes, post-action review, and assessment tracking are all considerations in serious game design. For all of these reasons, I believe work in serious game design would be an impressive showpiece of skills.

Granted, serious games have been marred by the stigma of badly designed edutainment products. Merging entertainment and education can be a challenging task “Stealth education,” a phrase coined by Doug Crockford, exemplifies the ideal in serious game design. With stealth education, players learn without even realizing it. Parents often have a daily struggle with children to study harder or to complete homework. Would this happen if homework were a video game?

Serious games impact society in so many ways. Whether it’s job advancement or medical treatment, a serious game can help. Because of the high personal relevance and connection involved in serious games, I believe that women developers who previously would not have considered gaming will nonetheless be drawn to serious games. Already, parents of chronically ill children have devised games to help children self-manage their medical conditions. It is such a powerful feeling to realize that one’s work will have so many implications and can even save lives.

Furthermore, serious games offer a way to make compelling games based on personal beliefs. Political advocacy groups and non-profits are turning to games to inform the public of their various viewpoints. These games contribute to a cause that is greater than oneself. But even if there is no outward group, one’s own personal convictions can be a source of inspiration. Art games, the most personal of games, demonstrate creative self-expression.

In addition, serious games have the potential to introduce women to game consoles. The success of Dance Dance Revolution has led many to purchase their own dance pads for use at home. responDESIGN, whose fitness program Yourself!Fitness was built with 100% game technology, reports that 90% of its consumers are women. While the company does make a version for the PC, I suspect that most users plug in the PlayStation2 or Xbox and exercise in front of the TV. If there were more applications targeted to women consumers, surely more women would be interested in owning game consoles.

While serious games haven't reached classrooms everywhere, more and more companies, schools, and facilities are considering their implementation. Game developers provide the needed skills to make these entertaining yet educational games. By doing so, they show that playing games can result in positive and beneficial effects.

Need more information? Look here:
  • The Serious Games Summit D.C. will be held October 31 - November 1, 2005 in Washington, D.C. Registration required.
  • Open Call for Speaker Proposals for the Serious Games Summit at GDC06. Deadline: November 7, 2005
  • Find these links and more on the Serious Games

09 September 2005

Role Models

I've decided to continue my column on women's issues in the game industry. The GDC05 session, Attracting Women Into Game Development," brought up a wellspring of discussion and as co-moderator, I had a front row seat :) I'd like to use this column to explore the topics on my mind. It's good timing because of late, there seems to be much more activity and interest in women's issues. GDC05 even had a suggested Women's Track that covered such disparate areas as sexuality in games, recruitment, female game players, and quality of life issues.

I recently spoke to Tammy Yap, the programmer profiled in the July AP article "Programmers: Video Games Need Female Touch." She elaborated on her thoughts concerning women in the industry. Noting the need to reach the younger generation, she stressed the importance of good role models for girls and young women interested in technology. She cited a MSNBC report that stated that college women have shied away from computer science and despite the fact that more than half of the college population is female, their enrollment numbers in computer science are as low as they were in the 1970's. That's alarming, considering programming and other game development skills figure greatly in what the 2004 IC2 Institute research paper, "Gaming: A Technology Forecast," termed 21st Century science.

How can we interest girls and young women in computer science? We need role models that are visible and approachable. Indeed, during the GDC05 roundtable discussion, one woman remarked that she felt more comfortable applying to her current company after she learned that the President of the company was a woman. She felt assured that her concerns would be taken seriously. That's why I am so thrilled about the formation of Women In Games International (WIGI), a new organization for women in the game industry. I think such an organization is an important step in the maturation of our industry.

Groups like Women in Technology (WIT) and the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) already exist, so this isn't a foreign concept. They are, however, too broad or too limited to encompass all that amounts to the game industry. Programmers are necessary, but so are animators, producers, designers, and various multi-talented folk who can do more than one job function. The game industry has its own specific issues. Certainly, the IGDA has been supportive of the Women in Game Development SIG and its active mailing list. Still, when I visit local chapters around the country, I wish there were more women in attendance. More outreach would be helpful. A professional women's organization could benefit both the industry and its membership.

A professional women's organization, if it had local or college chapters, could rally interest in game development careers and try to break down the misinformation. In the public's perception, games are viewed as the pastime of young men or children. Plus, the games that are publicized have violence and controversy. A young woman interested in making games faces a hurdle. Society has an image of women as caregivers and this cultural image doesn't include a PS2. Moreover, a professional women's organization would give a public focus to women's issues in the industry.

Ultimately, a young woman would know that this is a community where she could learn more about the experiences of women working in the industry. Through local chapters, she would meet like-minded others and learn more about game companies in the area. Perhaps she would find a mentor. While there are well-known female game developers that serve as role models, what is great about an official organization is that all of its members can be mentors and role models. It is this personal connection to the community that will make the difference. With that, she has the self-confidence and support to forge ahead. Perhaps now she will get that job referral or advice on putting together a portfolio.

On the flip side, for companies, this organization might be the ideal place to find qualified female applicants, thus increasing diversity in the workplace. We are all interested in industry growth. The game industry is banking on female buyers to sustain its growth. Will increased diversity lead to more products with universal appeal? That's the theory. Girls find products that appeal to them and in turn, more of them become interested in game development. Our industry becomes more mainstream and even bigger.

Furthermore, I believe that a professional women's organization in the industry would give us the opportunity to get real stats on the table. Are women only 10% of the game development community? Or is this number based on anecdotal evidence? By polling its members, the organization could find out what its membership cares about and suggest ways to improve industry practices. These numbers would give weight to these recommendations, especially if we find out that there's a lot more women in the industry than we thought!

For a lobbying effort, a collective voice is always louder than a single one. In 1994, women professors at MIT banded together to compare awards, titles, grants, laboratory and office space given to men and women. The MIT administration was forced to concede that discrepancies existed. Subsequently, the women received higher salaries or other perks.

I look forward to seeing WIGI's progress. Already, over 450 people have registered to its inaugural Women in Games International event, Advancing Your Career in Game Development: The Women's Perspective." Sessions include "Breaking In: How to Acquire The Skills and Get That First Job" and "The Executive Perspective."

Need more information? Look here:

  • Women In Games International (WIGI) holds its inaugural Women in Games International event, "Advancing Your Career in Game Development: The Women's Perspective" on September 10, 2005 in Redmond, WA. Registration required.
  • The Women's Game Conference (WGC) will happen on October 26 - 27, 2005 in Austin, Texas. Microsoft is holding a scholarship contest targeted towards female students in computer science who are interested in attending the WGC. Deadline: September 30, 2005
  • Find these links and more on the newly redesigned IGDA - Women in Game Development SIG page!