Conflict simulation, peacebuilding, and development

simulations miscellany, 8 February 2012

Some recent items that may be of interest to PAXsims readers:

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Kotaku Australia (16 January 2012) has an interesting piece on “The Fun and Games of the FBI.” The article focuses almost exclusively on avatar-type tactical and RPG serious digital games to teach procedure, however, and says very little about the myriad other possible uses of serious games (not all of them digital) to teach analyst skills, investigative techniques, etc. I would suspect that law enforcement training can involve quite a bit of old-fashioned role-playing and BOGSAT-type scenario exercises, so in many ways the article also implicitly points to the problem of treating new/technological approaches to simulation and game-based training as something wholly different from earlier (non-technological approaches). To me it seems rather like treating new-fangled pens and old-fashioned pencils as if they were wholly different items with wholly different approaches and purposes.

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One of the points made in the FBI piece is that “serious learning” should not be “seriously boring.” This issue is examined in greater detail by John Ferrara in an article on “Why Games Should Be Designed to Be Games First” at UX Magazine (7 February 2012). Discussing the rise of serious games, he notes:

All of a sudden, products labeled as being “games” have started to appear everywhere. Unfortunately, many of these products have shown an insufficient regard for the quality of the player experience. They’re too often designed first and foremost to serve their designers’ objectives, and not to be enjoyed for their gameplay. They contain none of the joy, fascination, and complexity that make games the beautiful interactions they are. In the worst cases, they demonstrate an impoverished, cynical, and exploitative view of games and of the innate human drive to play.

He’s right, of course—one of our biggest criticisms of many so-called serious games here at PAXsims is that while they address interesting and important issues, they are sometimes really, really dull to play. If enjoyment is supposed to be a key hook to engage the player with a particular social or educational message, this is a real problem.

Ferrara also suggests that at present we’re moving into the “trough of disillusionment” in serious game design (following Gartner’s famous technological hype cycle), and that soon we’ll be progressing on to the “slope of enlightenment”.)

Key to this, he suggests, will be the realization that “designers who are creating games must be centrally concerned with the quality of the player experience.” Given the point I’ve made above, its hard to disagree with this. However, I would also add that this needs to occur with very close attention to the serious purpose of the game itself, otherwise one can end up with a popular product that badly teaches its lessons, or teaches the wrong ones entirely. Rizk, for example, was a beautiful, charming game on climate change that was fun to play—but it was a real challenge to derive lessons on climate change from the game itself, and I doubt that 90% of ordinary players did so. The World Bank’s Evoke social platform was regarded as trendy and widely praised in the serious game community, but did as much to confuse as illuminate key development issues. In short, if a game claims to be serious, it needs to seriously address the issue of communicating its subject matter.

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Finally, Michael Peck—who has apparently been cloned by alien beings as part of a nefarious scheme to populate the world with serious game commentators—is now also writing a column for Kotaku, in addition to his gaming columns for the Training & Simulation Journal and Foreign Policy Magazine. His first contribution, entitled “Fun is Good, Useful is Better,” explores the simulation and gaming requirements of military training.


2 responses to “simulations miscellany, 8 February 2012

  1. Michael Peck 08/02/2012 at 3:31 pm

    Beats getting a real job.


  2. Skip Cole 13/02/2012 at 6:34 pm

    > In short, if a game claims to be serious, it needs to seriously address the issue of communicating its subject matter.

    Great point. Unfortunately I don’t think there are a lot of people who know how to make the serious issues interesting enough, which is highly unfortunate.

    I had the good fortune of taking an English class from the fellow (Sam Pickering) upon whom the central character of ‘The Dead Poet’s Society’ is based. The main lesson I learned in his course can be summed up in two words and some punctuation. It was, “Be Interesting!”

    Being interesting is not just about bombs exploding. Its about understanding your audience well enough to draw them in. Its about a slow build up to a train wreck that they cannot look away from.

    I think the problem with many ‘serious games’ is that they go right for the jugular vein. Sophomorically they think they need to draw the player in with incredibly intense stuff immediately. But most real world problems – the type that drive real people to insanity, despair or suicide – start small and grow in the eyes of the perceiver. And the truly serious know this.

    Details can matter, and can be very powerful if the audience has been prepped sufficiently. But this prepping is an art. We are still at the beginning stages of this, so I have no doubt that things will get much better.

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