Serious Games Summit: Prensky on Mobile Serious Gaming

Sweet! I got this posted before work! I hope it’s not too sloppy…

For the second breakout session of the summit I attended Marc Prensky’s round table on mobile serious gaming… primarily because it was Prensky, but also because it is something I am interested in and know little about. I was already familiar with Prensky’s recent What Can You Learn From A Cell Phone? – Almost Anything.

I was shocked by two of Prensky’s opening comments right off the bat. He did not prepare a presentation, and it was a round table session after all, but he mentioned he had just found out he was doing the presentation the day before. I figured that was odd since it was in the program and all, but then, I learned this week that he really exercises his sense of humor freely. :) I was also happy to realize that he concludes thoughts with phrases like “that would really be a lot of fun” and “that’d be neat” and “which would be a very cool thing to do”… when following comments like “imagine kids got to play real games while parents are ligging them around on history trips” for example.

The other surprise was that he said he didn’t know of many mobile serious games. Again, it was a roundtable and he was quickly mining the expertise of those in the room, which if you’ve been reading this blog you’ll know I think is a perfect use of face to face time.

It was however no surprise to hear Prensky roll out his favorite quote, from a game developer’s round table years before: “When you add an instructional desigher to the team, the first thing they do is suck the fun out!” (He used this again in a very entertaining way during the final “debate” of the summit!)

The rest of this post may or may not be useful, as this was a fast moving round table and I was only typing notes. I’ve chosen to err on the side of sharing too much, just in case it might be useful to someone who was not there… though I did cut some random notes that had too little context to pass on.

I wish I had taken better notes, but someone mentioned Ian Bogost (of Persuasive Games), something about an airport security game that is meant to be played while waiting in line at the airport! (Or perhaps Ian mentioned this?)

Karen Schrier of MIT spoke quite a bit about the role of mobile gaming in her thesis. She worked on a location based (or augmented reality) game using PDAs (pocket PCs) with GPS. Students are asked to think critically and answer the question “who fired the first shot” at Lexington, Mass by collecting evidence from around the battlefield (and by collaborating – not competing – with others to share this information… they all get slightly different information, so they need to count on each other). They interact with virtual historic figures and items before making their own hypothesis about what may have happened. It seems it was a mod of an existing .net based augmented reality game being developed at MIT. Someone said something about “River City” and it was all very reminiscent of Chris Dede’s work at Harvard University with MUVEES. (Incidentally, did anyone else notice that the screen shots all changed there recently… from something very like Second Life to something a good bit less sophisticated looking?)

Prensky mentioned that most mobile games are developed on PDAs, Pocket PCs in particular… perhaps because of availability… or difficulty of developing on phones. Someone asked how the students get the machines… it turns out a historical society at the site signs them out to families. (But I have question marks after this in my notes, so perhaps it was just hypothetical… still the thought is worth recording and sharing.)

Another participant mentioned, which was described as something of an art project which can be used for a whole lot more… something about challenge and texting. It seems it may be an example of using a web based back end for augmented reality.

A man I think identified himself as Alan Jackson (I think) introduced the Gizmondo, a handheld device with a camera, SMS, GPS, etc. They called it the mondo for short.

Once the amazing possibilities of this device were tossed around a bit, someone else brought up a game platfrom Georgia tech was working on, which would use simple mobile phones in conjunction with real world objects (such as stickers) and Skype to turn the entire campus into a learning environment. The point here was that they wanted anyone with cell phones to be able to use their system, instead of requiring special devices. They are not making anything for the phone, but rather something to use the phone with. This takes the most advantage of the high phone to student ration Prenksy has observed. In fact, it was suggested that even if you only use sound, you can use “phone tree” technology to create a game.

Louis Johnson from USC suggested that sound is nice, but that the games we want will demand more, and that we need to be able to use all the various functions of a phone at once. Imagine taking a call while playing through a level… while in line.

He also talked about his explorations into an interactive speech enabled game for learning language and culture. He felt that people want a mobile device that they can take with them. It sounds like USC is exploring the PSP as a platform for text to speech and speech to text. Prensky mentioned that there are already some Chinese and Japanese mini games for learning languages.

There were many other ideas and terms tossed around, including DS training for adults, mobile language studio (which lead to Johnson’s remarks), flash mob (which I mostly didn’t understand), a partnership with NASA, and a game related to the author Herman Hess in some way.

Prensky asked what I think are a few more important questions, too.

“Look at the affordances of this platform,” he said, “and consider… what would benefit from a game designed on these platforms?” Later he added these thoughts: “These are always on, always connected, and always with you! Can you put business executive training on a phone? If there is competition? Now kids have cell phones that are made for them. Kids and parents can talk for free… is there something we can make for them that would contribute to their lives and communication?” (If so, and its a game, it sounds like a serious – and noble – game in indeed… perhaps even a Game for Change.)

“How can we use use this for storytelling?” he also asked. “How can we story tell on these machines? Interactive stories?” As someone who has studied and placed a great deal of importance on stories, I was particularly interested in this idea.

Someone else brought up that as AI improves and virtual things become more real, perhaps bonding benefits might be realized (for old people who might benefit from pets for instance). To editorialize for a minute… I’m very much looking forward to bonding with AI, and finding what common ground there may be, but I’ve finally realized that even if we have other intelligences to talk to, they won’t have the same sort of biological impulses we do, which is so important in creating who we are, and we may always find more in common with our flesh and blood counterparts. Ok, enough science fiction… back to mobile gaming.

It is important to note that an representative from an education company asked, “How do we get one for every kid?” At this point I was about to finally contribute something to the conversation (rather than just taking furious notes), when Prensky spoke up again and gave a great response, which he concluded with the suggestion that these days he’s happy to say “ok, kid. Find a computer” if a student doesn’t have one. I feel the same way, by assigning collaborative group work (never mind differentiated instruction), teachers can take advantage of the technologies students are bringing into the classroom in stead of restricting them through some misguided sense to deliver something equal. I feel public education, including individual teachers, often deliberately delivers instruction to the lowest common denominator, which can’t possibly be good for our society (to say nothing of teacher expectations). I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir when I say we need to put these devices to work rather than trying to regulate, control, or ban them from schools.

Prensky actually went on with this point, talking about the wonderful number of things these devices can do and expressing his frustration that all we’re used to hearing about is phones and cheating. I was shocked! People in the room argued with him here! They seemed genuinely concerned about phones and cheating. Clearly I need to find a way to deal with this. I think Prensky asked “How can we improve [our teaching] using what we have? Open cell tests?”

BTW, three people in the room… of around 40 I’d say… didn’t have cell phones! (At least, not on them.) I had two, my ancient Nokia, and my blackberry from work.

More to come…