Mining for Gold
Issue: Volume: 28 Issue: 5 (May 2005)

Mining for Gold

Most game players know that few games push the state of the art on more than one major front. But careful observers realize that a surprising number offer at least one golden idea that may be worth including in the next generation of titles.

One such observer is Marc Prensky, author of Digital Game-Based Learning and a speaker at the Serious Games Summit, held during the recent Game Developer’s Conference. His presentation, 500 Serious Games Later, reported on the progress made in adapting interactive gaming technology for non-entertainment applications.

Prensky identified the most innovative and effective gameplay practices he found while reviewing hundreds of serious games for education, military training, business coaching, public policy instruction, and so on. Here’s a summary of the top 10 “nuggets” that he mined from games developed by serious-games pioneers.

10. Put players on edge: In Angel Five from Visual Purple, you are an FBI agent in charge of a city threatened by a terrorist attack. As you handle myriad challenges, the game collects facts about you, such as how much information you like to have before making a decision, how quickly you read, and so forth. But instead of adapting itself to suit your style, as many games do, this one does just the opposite, so you do not get what you like to have. The technique is proving to be an effective motivator.

9. Shock players: The game Insider, created by PricewaterhouseCoopers to train business auditors, sends you to the future to join the financial team of an intergalactic mining company. Early on, you must decide where the firm should put its money. But the bank you choose goes bankrupt, and you’re immediately fired. Like the motivation technique in Angel Five, this approach challenges you to go back and try again.

8. Reverse roles: Now being used to train soldiers in Iraq, Darwars Ambush from BBN Technologies places you in a convoy on missions in hostile environments and challenges you to avoid ambushes. One clever aspect of the game is that you also play the part of the enemy setting up the ambushes. Reversing roles helps you better understand and counteract your opponent’s strategies.

7. Expose the logic: In another military title, Full Spectrum Warrior from THQ, you take charge of two infantry squads in an urban war zone. What’s unique about the game is that when your troops make unexpected moves, you can query them, and they will explain their actions. Making the game AI available helps you better understand the effects of your decisions and commands.

6. Make games adaptable: Strategy Co-Pilot from Imparta helps you learn management skills as you negotiate stress-inducing business situations. The novel concept here is that you are given a coach that adapts to your skill level. You can manually set the level of coaching to any level you wish, simply by moving a slider. But the system will keep track of your play and, if you do poorly, send in the coach to start offering advice.

5. Allow customization: Objection from TransMedia, a game that helps lawyers decide when to make objections during trials, has been so well received that attorneys can earn continuing legal education credits in many states for playing it. During simulated trials, you must decide which questions directed at witnesses are not allowable. If you’re right, the judge sustains your objection. If you’re wrong, the judge gets annoyed, and an explanation of the correct answer appears. The added value of the game is that it is based on actual legal cases, rules, and statues for all 50 states, as well as for federal and military courts, so it can be customized according to your location and situation.

4. Balance agendas: The nonprofit group HopeLab has developed a game called Re-Mission for young adults with cancer to help educate them about their disease and about ways of fighting it. The unique problem they solved was to balance the agendas of the various parties involved in the process to create a richer, more realistic game. Taking into account conflicting points of view can add a new dimension of complexity and realism to a game.

3. Seek objectivity: The game Eyewitness-Nanjing Massacre, created by students at Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute, simulates one of the most tragic moments in Chinese history: the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanjing, China, which resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000 civilians. Aimed at memorializing the reality of the tragedy, the first person shooter-style game immerses you in the middle of the violence, and arms you with a camera instead of a gun, so you can serve as an objective witness. Challenging people in similar ways to be as objective as possible may prove useful in other gaming simulations.

2. Make the weapon the goal: In yet another variation of the shooter genre, Typing of the Dead from Sega forces you to rely on your typing skills to kill hideous zombies-borrowed from the popular House of the Dead games-before they kill you. Like typical tutorial games, Typing of the Dead includes drill modes and multi-player options, but here your keyboard input is not a means to an end, but the end goal itself. There may be any number of input devices, beyond the keyboard, that could similarly be adapted to drive other kinds of entertaining simulations.

1. Incorporate biofeedback: One type of input device that could be more widely adopted by games may be the human body itself. Perhaps the most innovative example of this can be found in The Journey to Wild Divine from the Wild Divine Project. Marketed as an “inner-active” computer adventure, the game combines meditation techniques with biofeedback technology to help enhance “mind-body wellness.” Fingertip sensors monitor your heart rate and skin response as you take a guided trip to the land inside of your mind. Other biofeedback games are being developed that use brain waves to control simulations.

Not every new game can extend the state of the art, even slightly. But given that the industry has continued to expand at an accelerating rate, titles that offer novel concepts for creators of both serious games as well entertainment-oriented games, may be the rule rather than the exception. And borrowing the best of these techniques, and improving on them, may be the most effective and efficient way for game developers to stay a step ahead of the competition.

Phil LoPiccolo