April 25, 2007

Emerging Terrain in Games and Simulation

by Mary Flanagan · , 8:06 am

Recently, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) hosted the “Emerging Terrain in Games and Simulation” symposium, 13-14 April 2007, to inaugerate Rensselaer’s new Games and Simulation Arts and Sciences (GSAS) Major, a new B.S. degree with enrollment beginning in Fall 2007. The program is among a growing number of such programs in the country and is designed to educate students for the game industry. After a tour, which included Katherine Isbister’s cool game lab, attendees played games at an open house style game night on Friday the 13th. Katie Salen began the symposium Saturday (pic by Jason Della Rocca)


with a discussion of “Permission Slips for Everyday Play.” Salen asked, Who has permission to play, and when? What does a particular game demand of the player? What kinds of performances does it want? fail fail fail, get better, better, better?

Salen referred to the complexity of computer game research , and especially noted roots in the publication, “War gaming as a technique of analysis,” a 13 page white paper published by RAND in 1954. In this landmark document, the central driving question interrogated the role of people now that computer could take on so many formerly human tasks. The document reviews, in particular, war games, and examined at length paper based war game simulations to explore the human role in simulation play. Salen noted that the document offers a convincing argument that computers (and the system designers) can only do so much: “By observing a person learn to play such a game we can often learn a great deal about an actual operation that is far too complicated to be analyzed by theoretical means” (RAND via Salen). Therefore, an emphasis on playtesting, iteration, and player analysis offered so early in the investigation of computer games can be useful to review in contemporary game design developments.

Using sports as an example (and a highly underutilized area for game design investigation), Salen argued that in the complex systems of games, designers may find it useful to shift their focus on the question, “What does player bring to game? What does social context and mechanic offer, and what does larger context and emergence bring? How do you design the “membrane,” that is, the slip between game and real life, into the game to facilitate the most player participation?

Salen conjured Henry Jenkins’ categories: interactivity (a condition of technology) and participation (a condition of culture). Games are interactive systems, but moreover, they are participatory systems; in thinking about systems of participation, Salen discussed the idea of Huizinga’s magic circle in relationship to the physical, psychological, and spiritually separated space as creating participatory culture. Often, game designers design what happens in the circle, but Salen argues for designing outside the circle. How does the designer design a “permission slip” for players to enter that circle? This, she argues, is a cultural question, the place we designers need to do more the work: what are the conditions we can create to allow people permission to play? Karaoke, for example, is awesome in providing permission to play. What is it that allows people to do it? What does the player bring to that experience?

In Salen’s Karoke Ice Cream Truck project, a collaboration with Nancy Nowacek and Marina Zurkow which premiered at the 2006 for the ISEA festival “Interactive City” in San Jose, one of the key aspects of the work was that the truck fostered different kinds participation; players could participate in different ways, at different levels. For example, some participants could sing, others could do back up or support a friend, and still others felt they were participating. In this way, Salen argued that Karaoke is one of the most democratic design experiences ever invented, and that effective designs work by creating systems to make the participant–at all levels of participation– into a stakeholder, so that everyone might feel as though they were participating in the same experience. Salen’s second example here is the game Musical Chairs. All players start as hard core players. but as players become “out,” they become a spectator. But even as a spectator, these former players are participants…

Salen argues that one must design the “To, From, Between, And During” the game experience, considering ways to design for distributed intelligence, distributed roles; one should also design for the role of the spectator– what can the spectator do, how can they watch for something (clues, bonuses) or participate in some meaningful way? A well designed game should be fun from a spectator POV as well.

In the “ether” surrounding a game, the player produced content is very important. Building levels means building the game means building the content. yet there are certain games where designers wouldn’t give that over; with the audience, however, there is an expectation that audiences can become producers. Along these lines, how valuable it is to apply the thinking about games to non-games contexts?

In our panel, “Heading in Different Directions,” at the Emerging Terrain in Games and Simulation Symposium, participants focused on questions such as, what is innovation, and how can innovation in gaming emerge from smaller or independent producers? Panelists Tim Sweeney, Lead Game Designer for PeaceMakers, Ananda Gupta, from Breakaway Games (the makers of A Force More Powerful), Katie Salen as moderator, and
myself, representing Tiltfactor at Hunter College, participated. Key common questions for the panelists included, How do “serious” game developers expand the market? What are the small changes that lead to huge shifts in innovation?

I discussed Tiltfactor research. Our work includes THE ADVENTURES OF JOSIE TRUE (a game to teach middle school girls science & math); the RAPUNSEL / PEEPS games project, (a game to teach middle school girls computer programming); and VALUES AT PLAY, a new research initiative to incorporate human values into a game development methodology. We were particularly involved with implementing Schank and Cleary’s (1995) teaching architectures, which combines learning models. To attract minority girls to math & science by enabling them to experience authentic problems in an engaging environment. Specifically, Peeps employs elements of simulation-based learning-by-doing & case-based learning. Our theoretical approach in the design process followed Spivak’s (1987) notion to build upon existing research methodologies to render visible ‘unheard voices; Haraway’s (1991) concept of partial or ‘situated’ knowledges questions “objective” questions surrounding science research; philosophers Irigaray + Grosz, who are interested in power relations, space, & self; and the work of Paolo Friere & Agusto Boal and their research with the oppressed

Panelists noted that paradigm shifts are great for designers but not for their audiences, and that for the majority of game audiences, small changes might work best to diversify gameplay. This is very true for innovation in educational games as well. During the talk I discussed the RAPUNSEL study on the PEEPS dance game, in which ninty 6th graders in an urban school voluntarily participated. We used pre and post surveys to measure whether flaying the game affected the following variables: general self-efficacy, self-esteem, computer self-efficacy, programming knowledge, adn confidence level about programming knowledge. We also conductued interviews and used program tracking and blogs to discover change. We found that playing the PEEPS increased female students’ sense of self-efficacy. For all students, self-esteem and programming-related self-efficacy increased after playing the game for both boys and girls. Research findings presented here indicate that computer games such as Peeps, which was designed with an eye to literacy & learning, may be able to influence motivation, self-efficacy, and self-esteem for populations of students that have traditionally been “turned away” from computer science-related fields. These results were just presented as papers at the AERA 2007 conference. Additional research on Values at Play will be presented at the CHI2007 conference in San Jose, in April. I hope to meet some of you readers there! More pics by Jason Della Rocca at Reality Panic, http://www.realitypanic.com/archives/298 .

2 Responses to “Emerging Terrain in Games and Simulation”


  1. media literacy project     | | | | | | » Permission Slips for Everyday Play Says:

    [...] Everyday Play Filed under: Game Design — brian @ 6:03 pm Mary Flanagan blogs Katie Salen’s presentation at the Rensselaer Polytechn [...]

  2. Tunxis New Media » Blog Archive » Epic Vision: Mythology and Game Design - GameCareerGuide.com Says:

    [...] lopment to a well-realized narrative can transform a successful title into a work of art. Mary Flanagan’s post on a talk at the recent Emerging [...]

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