Serious Play Conference 2014 at USC – roundup

The Serious Play conference, held last week (July 22-24) at the University of Southern California’s School for Cinematic Arts, is a small conference, focused on educational and otherwise ‘serious’ games. I presented as part of the pre-conference workshop at the Getty about games in museums, and attended some really great sessions where I learned about recent games, trends, and projects in this sector. Below is a (not so) short summary of some of my own personal takeaways.

Approaches to Making games


  •  The #MuseumGames Creed – in the workshop about games in museums at the Getty, James Collins Skyped in from the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. He talked about creating a culture of games and gaming in the institution, and told us that he spends a lot of time mitigating stereotypical impressions of what games are and what games can achieve in an educational institution. At the Smithsonian, he sees increasing curiosity as a goal of games. Much of what he said resonated with my experiences making games at the Getty. From these experiences, he drafted a brilliant #museumgames creed.
  •  Social behavior experiments as games – Bill Meyer from the Exploratorium in San Francisco talked about how his team has been re-creating the social experiments from behavioral sciences as games in order to get visitors to a level of metacognition about their own social behaviors. The exploratorium created a game based on the Tragedy of the Commons, a social behavior experiment published in 1968 by Garrett Hardin.This made me think about other types of scientific experiments that could be inspirations for cool new games. (They have also created games based on the game theory of the Prisoner’s DilemmaCheck out the bizarre British TV gameshow [Golden Balls!!!] that re-creates the social experiment.)
  • Importance of formal evaluation and research on games – One of the best speakers that I saw at the conference was Pamela Kato. She was on the team that created Re-Mission back in (2006), a game to help young cancer patients with successful cancer treatment. Kato has developed several serious games since then, many in the health sciences, and is now a professor of  Serious games at Coventry University in the U.K. Kato gave us great advice about creating serious games, but what struck me most was her work in evaluation. She performed a randomized trial to determine whether the Re-Mission game actually helps patients stick to their cancer treatment regiment, and published the results in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. She has been an advocate for such trials on games, especially since one of the main challenges to developing serious games is uncertainty about effectiveness on changing behavior.
  • Games as Collaboration – for the past year or so, I have noticed that making and playing games can help people collaborate more effectively. I have seen it happen in my own work, and of course, I know about games used for team-building. I was really impressed by Ben Stokes’s use of network analysis to map out the relationships and evaluate the impact of USC’s ARG Reality Ends Here, which is about professional networking and team-building. And I was totally surprised to find connections to some of my other (decidedly un-game-like) work in digital humanities in  the open source Virtual World Framework. This is an open-source 3-D collaborative virtual world engine that has many applications beyond gaming for all sorts of collaboration.
  • 1406234060151The Psycho-Biology of Games – Nicole Lazaro of XEO Design has looked to the chemical and psychological changes that fun has on our systems in order to develop an approach to building games that optimizes the beneficial aspects of playing games. She calls it “The Four Keys to Fun” and it’s even diagrammed on her business cards. See some of her many presentations on this topic for more.

Resources about serious games

  •  Data about trends in educational gaming –  Ambient Insight is an evaluation firm that has been tracking e-learning technologies for some time. Tyson Greer gave us an amazing whirlwind tour of the next 5 years in game-based learning as forecasted by her research. The Ambient Insight website has tons of useful reports about games and learning. This is an invaluable resource that serious game developers should utilize! As Tyson said many times, “Do your research!” Some tidbits form her talk:
    • Museums started making the first location-based learning games (who knew!?)
    • AI anticipates a 12.5% growth in the next 5 years in educational mobile games
    • Marketing your game is *very important*!! There is so much out there, it’s becoming increasingly hard to stand out.
    • There is a “content trench” [lack of  products] for students in grades 6-12. Most of the edu gaming market is currently focused on the wee ones, and adults.
    • Interest in learning computer coding and programming skills is on the rise
  • App rankings, analytics and market data: see  App Annie  and Distimo
  • Qualcom’s Vuforia platform – ‘enables apps to see’
  • Resources for teaching with games –
    • Learning Games Network – a non-profit that supports the development, dissemination, and research about game-based learning. They have a new initiative called Playful Learning that helps school teachers incorporate game-based learning into the classroom.
    • Edmodo – hub for curricula and lessons, and has games, too.
    • BrainPop – animated curricular content
    • EdWeb – teacher community

Games and game projects to check out (looks like I have a lot of playing to do!)

    • Papers, Please – game about immigration (thanks James Collins)
    • Toothsavers – AdCouncil game – Interesting to hear Anastasia Goldstein talk about how the AdCouncil’s goals are always about changing behavior. Another example for me of where marketing & advertising are linked with education
    • Games made by Toca Boca, for the wee set
    • Games by Toboggan Studio for kids
    • Sparx – a game to help teens with depression (sadly only available in New Zealand)
    • Sight Words Space by Clever Goats
    • Games on Funbrain Jr.
    • Gummii Math
    • Argubot Academy by GlassLab – in which one learns to construct arguments!!!
    • Hakitzu, Robot Learners by Kuato – learn coding
    • CodeSpark (coming soon!)
    • CargoBot
    • If… – adventure game to help children with emotional intelligence and decision making
    • Osmos – made for medical students
    • Past/Present by Muzzy Lane
    • Econauts
    • Quandary
    • Aviation Empire – made by KLM (yes, the airline!)
    • Games by Amplify, an education curriculum company that is making more and more game-based learning products
    • Fact Fuse and Chrono Scouts, two physical card games about World War I for middle school students out of USC’s game innovation lab

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