Serious Games Summit: Keynote

Ok. I’ve attended the morning sessions, and fueled up on the box lunch, so it is time to compose some reflections for Educational Technology and Life.

The keynote session was designed

to explore new ways of applying fundamental concepts about wargame design to extract science from the art of wargame design. Those dynamics affect all of the six key dimensions that a wargame must use to represent reality: time, space, forces, effects, information, and command.

Dr. Peter Perla and Douglas Whatley were the presenters. I was much more impressed with Whatley… perhaps because his work has more relevance to my work in education, but also perhaps because he was a more dynamic speaker and didn’t use a twenty year old picture in his bio, which Perla clearly did. ;)

I have written here before about my feelings on face to face trainings and presentations, and I found Dr. Perla’s opening comments ironic. He opened with, “you guys are gamers, and gamers crave interaction, not lectures” and very quickly fell back on “to make sure I don’t skip anything important I will inflict upon you what you see on the screen… some powerpoint.” Not much later I noted: wow. this is boring and I’m already zoning out.

While that was not a great way to start the conference, Perla is undoubtedly an expert in his field, and did have something to offer. He related his experiences trying to describe the “art” of wargaming in terms of “scientific” principles that might be modeled. The general lesson for the participants (listeners) was this: it is worth out time to identify the principles of a field before creating a game for it. Perla suggested the following (paraphrased):

  • Identify basic principles.
  • Identify the philosophers.
  • Identify the basic concepts the game will represent.
  • Consider how to make the concepts tangible in the game universe.

This final point is becoming a common phrase in this field, and rightly so, I think. Clark Aldrich finished with a similar thought when I interviewed him for the OCDE a few weeks ago… he was talking about teachers using existing simulations in the classroom, and here Perla was speaking to developers. I hope people heed this call… because my overwhelming impression of this conference after three sessions is this: there are far more questions than answers. Each presenter I have seen has opened with something like “I don’t know of any examples of this, but….”

Perla ended with a humorous reference to Alton Brown’s Good Eats: knowing the science and history of food aids in its preparation and enjoyment. So is it with the subjects of games. Later, Whatley would suggest that developers become the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) when designing a serious game.

(Hey, there is a poster session for Dimenxian: Learn Math or Die Trying happening right next to me in the hall.)

Whatley offered a few gems right off the bat. Quoting Donald Thompson, he lead in with this quote:

“Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the education of young people is that we apprentice youngsters into 19th century science, rather than letting them play scientist.”

He then offered his definition of serious games:

A product that is not specifically entertainment, but which uses entertainment or the techniques and processes of the entertainment business, to achieve a purpose.

The next bit was particularly targeted to attendees like me… non-developers. Whatley said “when people work with game developers they want to understand our process… so I’ve laid out a timeline here that is a rough overview of the development process.” He suggested that game publishers have adapted to this process well, but the serious games market has not, and that prescriptive government contracts harm creative design process. Here are my notes on the process he presented (in a much more effective graphical form… and I see my tabs were not respected by blogger so I’ll have to clean this up later):

1st Phase of Game Design: Concept Phase (1 mo.)
Craft a vision statement for product.
Have a separate statement for the project itself.
NOTE: Here is where our NSF project needs to begin.
2nd Phase: The Design Phase (1-3 mo?)
Design document
Technical design document
Risk mitigation document
What are the risks?
Understanding of pedagogy?
Hardware availability?
You don’t need to solve the risk now, but you need a plan.
3rd Phase: Prototype Phase (3 mo)
Satisfy risk issues
Prove the concept
It’d be nice to finish this phase with a working prototype
4th Phase: Pre-production (6 mo)
Get one of each thing in the game to finished game quality
“a slice of game play”
(Sorry, he didn’t flip this slide until too late and then skipped over it.)
5th Phase: Produciton Phase (6 mo.)
Crank out the work
6th Phase: Testing Phase (3 mo.)
Test, test, test
Code complete (you may want to lock down early)
Content complete
7th Phase: Support

He also related several concept issues and design issues. I may have seen these things mentioned before, but this was effectively my introduction to the design document, the technical design document, and the risk mitigation plan. This is also where he called for a transfer of knowledge between the SME and the developers… and I presume, from his presentation, the opposite as well. Ultimately he wanted developers to make a project their own and to become passionate about their work. It is clear that he is passionate about his, and the work seems to be excellent.

He returned to Perla’s six elements of a wargame (from the description above) and replaced Forces with Entities as a more general formula for serious games.

It is also worth noting that he pointed out (and questions were asked about this) that many games are designed more around “effects” than around “physics” in other words “skill charts” and “hit points” etc. instead of ballistics and anatomy.

Finally, he asked the rhetorical question… “are we tilting at windmills? Or can we really change the world!” And, yes, he ended that question with an exclamation point.

I was left with a few questions, still… what is an OODA loop? (I understood the concept, but didn’t sort out the acronym.) And what did he mean by “design needs to be fungible“?

In the meantime I found myself at a table with Heather Chaplin, the author of Smartbomb and with someone from Breakaway Games among others. It may be interesting to note that there is a much more balanced gender ration here than at E3, and perhaps even more so than at Education Arcade or the Games, Learning, and Society Conference.

Naturally, the fact that I’ve been blogging this means I am not engaged in conversation at lunch, which is a negative in my book, but once again, as an educator I am something of an outsider at these conferences of developers… even one about serious games, including educational games. At least I find this valuable going into the afternoon sessions…

And I hope some of you find this helpful, too. (I’ve also been FURLing as much as I can during the session, so check out my archive and feed.)

Gotta go…