Do serious games developers ignore mainstream videogames?

Those interested in serious games have long been preoccupied with defining serious games themselves, and the outcomes are rarely illuminating. On his member blog at Gamasutra, Raymond Ortgiesen criticizes the term ‘serious games’ but also goes on to bemoan serious games developers’ tendencies to ignore the progress made in traditional videogames in terms of immersion and player engagement.

Didn’t Far Cry 2 touch on the poverty and power struggles in  Africa? Didn’t Bioshock try to challenge our notions of freedom (“A man chooses, a slave obeys”)? And how many countless games have been satirical but serious critiques of western society (Fallout, Grand Theft Auto)? Now, those games aren’t perfect. They haven’t all even accomplished what they set out to do, necessarily. But they try and they becoming more potent with each iteration. Why aren’t they called serious games?

Ortgiesen argues that serious games developers should take the current crop of videogames as their starting point, rather than reinventing the wheel – and he also notes that ‘It’s not as if the “serious games” crowd has a large repertoire of successes to claim either’. While I agree with this in principle, the fact that publishers see little demand for big-budget educational games means that serious games developers have far more limited resources. And while Far Cry 2 and Bioshock lay a strong claim to provoke intellectual discussion, I’d say that the concepts presented in these games are more a narrative framework rather than a thesis or a selection of facts and skills for the player to absorb.

Similarly, an analogy to film and literature isn’t ideal – whereas Schindler’s List could be described as a more serious or more educational film than Die Hard, is it really a more comprehensive visual treatment of its subject matter than a BBC documentary about WWII? However, I sympathise with Ortgiesen’s argument that the ‘serious game’ term ‘does nothing except erect a big wall between developers who are trying to accomplish the same goal’, and perhaps the best way for a developer to create a mainstream educational game is to not label it as such.

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Driving and texting – a game to gauge distraction

driving

The New York Times, with help from psychology professors David Strayer and David E. Meyer, has created a game to simulate the effects of texting whilst driving a car. The interface works because it’s so awkward – you’re expected to steer the car into traffic lanes using number keys whilst simultaneously typing text message responses using the mouse. The volume of crash barriers may not be realistic, but the game succeeds neatly in demonstrating that using a mobile phone while driving decreases your ability to react quickly.

Via VG Researcher – Psychology.

Playstation Home boasts 7 million users

playstation-3-homeThe PS3’s Home virtual world service is now 7 months old. Peter Edward, director of the PlayStation Home platform group, reported at Brighton’s Develop conference that there are now 7 million Home users – and that a typical European visitor spends 56 minutes in Home per session. The service also generated $1 million in micro-transactions in its first month, a statistic that will presumably excite potential advertisers and content providers.

However, many internet forum commenters note that the service still has a bare-bones feel – especially the European service where new content is often delayed due to localisation issues – and many areas feel like little more than advertising for full-price retail games. However, nDreams’ complex alternate reality game Xi managed to establish a small enthusiastic community and clearly there are exciting possibilities for a virtual world with an inbuilt userbase. Only time will tell if Sony are able to capitalise on Home’s full potential.

Via Edge online.

Kodu game creator on Xbox Live

Microsoft Research’s Kodu on Xbox 360 allows users to create their own games using a visual programming interface. Through a series of ‘if…then’ commands it’s possible to create complex interactions such as ‘if player presses R trigger then unicycle jumps and changes to random colour’.

While the resultant games are likely to be small in scale, the developers rightly claim that the fun is as much in the creation as in the finished product. Many LittleBigPlanet uers found that the level designer mode derailed ideas with fiddly placement of onscreen elements, whereas Kodu’s emphasis on logical AI behavior may mean that developing interactions and behaviours becomes a satisfying puzzle in itself. Perhaps most importantly, Kodu seems a great way to introduce young people to the basics of computer programming and abstract logical thinking.

Kodu is available now on the Xbox Live Community Games channel for just 400 Microsoft Points (£3.40).