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Recaps from FDG 2010

About 2 weeks ago, at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, CA for Foundations of Digital Games Conference, professionals gathered to present academic efforts in “all areas of research and education involving games, game technologies, gameplay and game design. The goal of the conference is the advancement of the study of digital games, including new game technologies, capabilities, designs, applications, educational uses, and modes of play.”

In case you missed it (and other than what you’d find in the conference proceedings), we shared every meal, played several games of poker, and sang show tunes as Jesper Juul played the piano (for not one but) two nights in a row. I have to admit that I’m lucky enough to both love what I do and all those in my professional family.

All that aside, here is a sample of notable presentations at this year’s FDG…

Keynote: Game Design = Learning Design = Game, James Gee

James Gee gives the opening keynote to start off the Foundations of Digital Games Conference. He asserts that kids are built to be limited for their own good, and those are the principles of which the game designer must be aware. How do you walk the balance between giving the player an overwhelming amount of content and dumbing down the experience too much? What is the optimal concentrated sample at a given point in time? “Games are a guided experience on concentrated samples” and are designed with “preparation for future learning” in mind, tying learning to some affective/emotional charge.  He concludes, “it took a casual video game to teach kids in America that they have rights.”

Industry Talk: Microsoft Games Studios, Designing for Kinect, Shannon Loftis

Shannon Loftis, from Microsoft, gives a live demo of key features from Xbox’s Kinect.

  • Natural User Interface: full body skeletal tracking, multi-array voice recognition and chat, human identification, digitization of people and objects
  • Kinect Pillars: avateering (monkey-see-monkey-do), approachable, social, as fun to watch as to play, players play how they want to play
  • Kinect detects with IR and heat-maps

She emphasizes the idea of “letting the consumer lead your design.” For instance, there are different ways people may prefer to steer a car in a racing game. Shannon demos a racing game, a pet training game, and a sports game.

Paper: “Outrun,” De-Simulating of 8-bit driving, Garnet Hertz

Hertz combines arcade console with golf cart to augment reality through computer vision. Notably, driving in real life is much slower than in any racing game, so the reproduction in 8-bit appears faster than the actual run. It will be out and running in October 2010.

Tutorial: Applied Game Design: The MDA of Bartok, Robin Hunicke and Ben Smith

Sets of poker cards, index cards, sticky notes, and a pen are laid across the room for the interactive tutorial on game design. The group splits up into fours and play games of uno. After a couple games, Robin asks us to rotate through three specified rules: (1) cumulative 2’s – where 2’s can compound the drawing with each subsequent 2, (2) show last card – where the last card must be revealed, and (3) out of turns – where there are no turns and everyone just goes.

Hunicke asks how each rule, a mechanic, creates a different dynamic in the given aesthetic. She instructs that we come up with an aspect of game (such as strategy, revenge, or suspense) and create a rule that makes it so. My rule was cumulative 2 with reverse on the change of suite (for revenge!), another was swap hands on 7, another no turns on Queen, and finally, play with all cards shown. It’s interesting how adding a rule changes how a game feels, and how Robin and Ben were able to recreate that experience at their tutorial.

Paper: Toward Effective Game-Based Social Skills Tutoring for Children, James M. Thomas and Melissa E. DeRosier

Computer science in conjunction with psychology do studies to show that game behavior of children share similarities to real life behavior. Experiments tested for in social literacy and behavior. The investigation aims to identify causes and solutions for children with unhealthy psychological tendencies.

Panel: Developers with Opinions, Jon Blow, Chris Hecker, Rod Humble

Developer panel opens acknowledging that the sky’s the  limit; however, no one seems to be reaching for the sky. Blow quotes three questions:

  1. What are the toughest problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

If you don’t work on an important problem, you won’t do important work. Paraphrased analogy: Even if you believe life is all about luck and you want to get struck by lightning, you should stand where you are likely to be struck, not hide in safety. “The gaming industry has a lot of McDonalds but not a lot of fine dining.”

Paper: In search of lost time: On game goals and failure costs, Jesper Juul

Jesper Juul talks about failure. Players don’t like games where they fail all the time, and also do not like games when they fail, never. Failure design is not just about difficulty. Consider time, communication, repetition.

Time: are games too long or too short? Do people play for the goal or play for the process? Do we lose time with failure? Juul distinguishes between transient and permanent goals (Bejeweled versus Bioshock). Communication: How should failure be communicated? Let the player know how “uniquely stupid” they are? Repetition: what is cost of repetition from transient to permanent experiences?

Panel: Good, Bad, or just plain Ugly? Morality and Heavy Rain, Colleen Macklin, Karen Schier, Jose P. Zagal

“The real message of the game is about how far you’re willing to go to save someone you love.” -David Cage

The panel agrees that Heavy Rain is a unique experience. Macklin finds the ethics and genre in creating culture to be overlooked by Heavy Rain’s portrayal of characters and their obvious stereotypes. Schrier has issue with inaction in the game, sometimes it’s a mistake and sometimes it’s a valid choice– “failure of the game as a game.” Zagal finds the sex scene to be just an out-of-place thrill with little narrative significance. In regards to significance, Zagal notes that the game draws significance to the more mundane experiences in life.

Macklin concludes that Heavy Rain’s media identity crisis misleads the player into commitment, and that games should, instead, “enable play instead of feeling played as a player.”

Panel: Before It’s Too Late: The Preservation of Digital Games, John Romero, Matthew Kirschenbaum, Henry Lowood

Lowood asks, how do we archive virtual worlds and digital games? For example, building archives of what the developers do in cultural repositories and encouraging collections/libraries of games in libraries and museums. Finally, Lowood suggests that collaboration among player communities, archivists, and researchers as an integral function in digital game preservation.

Kirchenbaum fills us in on the nuances of the library congress and software. For instance, materials selected for the selection must be able to run on the library’s computers (PC not Mac). Within preservation of digital worlds, He identifies many preservable facets.

Romero started a project, the “Romero Archives,” interviewing developers and designers, providing the information freely available online. It presents a complete picture of the programming process in games. Romero aims to completely document the full works of designers and their thought processes via interviews. He’s interviewed developers such as Chris Crawford and Sid Meier. As advice to developers, Romero suggests that every idea, concept, and version be well maintained. “Throwing stuff away is a bad thing.”

I left out the talks given by my EIS lab mates, including my own on “RoleModel.” You can find the complete list of proceedings online, and also: here and here and here.

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