Saturday, April 22, 2017

Serious Games vs. Gamification

In this article, game designer Sande Chen illuminates the differences between serious games, edutainment, and gamification. 

Recently, I read an e-learning industry expert's opinion on "games disguised as a teaching method" and why the tried-and-true colorful comical characters of edutainment might work better for Pre-K. Studies on distraction and attention do point out that young children have difficulty focusing, but I wonder, does edutainment distract children more than it educates? And while there are no doubt popular sites serving up chocolate-covered broccoli, I think it's important to note that there is a distinction between game-based learning and edutainment-type games or even gamification.  Not all educational games are drill and practice, i.e. "games disguised as a teaching method." 

An example of a leaderboard
In 2013, at the Serious Play Conference, I explained the differences in the presentation, "What's in a Name? Serious Games vs. Gamification." Serious games, and all its variations on a name, such as social impact games, games for good, persuasive games, learning games, etc, is not a term interchangeable with gamification. There is confusion and understandably so, because both appear to be methodologies that incorporate gameplay mechanics to increase user motivation, to solidify learning objectives, and to encourage overall engagement.

However, while serious game makers use game technology, processes, and design to solve problems or explain issues in traditionally non-entertainment markets, gamification experts are interested in the motivating power of game elements, like leaderboards, badges, and a points system, usually as a way to promote engagement with a product or service.  These game elements would be tacked on without regard to an overall game. There may be no game at all. For instance, on a gamified site, a user might receive 30 points or a badge for posting a note on the site's forums as a way of onboarding. On a learning site, a child may have to do 10 math problems for a badge or prize.

Edutainment is merely dressing up what would be a problem set, usually with an animated cartoon character. Math Blaster even has math problems inside the game, which the student would have to solve in order to save the galaxy. It doesn't explain the math problems or explain why there are math problems in space or how math problems save the galaxy. In short, the gameplay itself is not about math, but window dressing to make a math problem more palatable.  This is very different from a resource management game like Dragonbox BIG Numbers, which tries to explain the process of subtraction through gameplay.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Our 2nd GDSIG Mentor AMA next week!

IGDA Game Design Special Interest Group News!


We will be holding our 2nd GDSIG Mentor AMA (Ask Me Anything) on Saturday, April 15, from 6 PM to 8 PM Eastern time zone. Game Designer Daniel Harrison, who worked on Naughty Dog's Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, will be on hand to answer questions about system design, breaking into the industry, maybe even AI! Daniel Harrison has bachelor degrees in computer science and psychology and a masters in game design.

This time around, the GDSIG Mentor AMA will be held on Discord, since we thought it would be better for the guest to be speaking rather than typing (like last time on Slack).

If you want to participate in the GDSIG Mentor AMA events, you'll need to join the IGDA Game Design SIG Facebook group for the event notifications. It's free and open to everyone, provided you follow the guidelines.  The IGDA is an international, non-profit organization whose mission is to advance the careers and improve the lives of game developers. GDSIG has weekly game design exercises and houses game design documents from various games. Keep up to date with current competitions, submissions, and news.

We are continually striving to improve the Mentor AMA event.  Let us know if you have any feedback or if you'd like to participate as a mentor!


Friday, March 31, 2017

VR: the Ultimate Empathy Machine?

In this article, game designer Sande Chen recognizes the issues with using virtual reality to promote empathy and social impact.

Virtual reality has been hailed the "ultimate empathy machine." Teachers and researchers certainly believe that the immersive VR experiences will make players empathize with the plight of others, such as that of refugees, the disabled, or other disadvantaged groups. However, as Yale Professor of Psychology Paul Bloom cautions in "It's Ridiculous to Use Virtual Reality to Empathize with Refugees," the type of empathy VR generates in players may be misleading.  For one, he points out, while VR may be good at simulating environments, it doesn't replicate the psychological forces of powerlessness, despair, and oppression.  A player can step out at any time and doesn't have to face a reality where the country has been torn apart by war and none of the player's relatives have made it out alive.

In fact, the player can have a level of comfort in knowing that the unpleasant situation is short-lived. Journalists who volunteered to be waterboarded reported that the experience was unpleasant, but their experience was not accompanied by imprisonment and torturers who won't stop when asked. Other times, short-term experiences give a flawed impression to players. As Dr. Arielle Michal Silverman related in "The Perils of Playing Blind: Problems with Blindness Simulation and A Better Way to Teach About Blindness," players wrongly projected their own negative feelings of suddenly becoming blind to the daily experience of living with blindness.

Of course, there have been simulations without VR or even digital applications. There have been games about blindness, such as Blindside, and games to simulate what it's like to have schizophrenia or depression. It's natural to be excited about the next big thing and the level of immersion that VR gives could lead to amazing educational experiences. VR can certainly help in depicting different countries and scenarios, but will it translate into social impact? Research is ongoing.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Panel Tonight and Next Monday Game Writing


So many things happening this week!  As part of PlayCrafting NYC's celebration of Women's History Month, I will be on the Women in Games panel tonight at Microsoft NY.  Free admission and pizza.  Come see and play demos from local female developers.  We will be talking about inclusivity for women in the game industry.

Next week, of course, I will be part of the free information session and mini-expo next Thursday, March 30 on PlayCrafting's longer courses, including the new 4-week Game Writing Primer.

But let's not forget about Game Writing Portfolio Workout happening Monday, March 27! If you want to see what the life of a free-lance game writer is like, come to this workshop for a deep dive into typical game writing tasks.  These sessions were considered the most valuable of this series.  You'll be writing continually, so be sure to bring a laptop or notepad.

Here's what a former student has said about Game Writing Portfolio Workout:
"This is so far best one of the Playcrafting workshops. The teacher was funny, incredibly knowledgeable and shared the best insider's secrets!"
Come and write!
Date:  Monday, March 27
Time: 6:30 PM - 8:30 PM 

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, has Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price.

About Me

My background is a mixture of theatre, film, journalism, economics, and writing.  I received a S.B. in Writing and Humanistic Studies (now the major of Comparative Media Studies) at MIT and then I specialized in Screenwriting at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.  My first published game as a writer was on the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival.  Afterwards, I worked on the episodic fantasy series Siege of Avalon, MMO Wizard101, and the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher, for which I was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Issues About Impact



In this article, game designer Sande Chen ponders issues about social impact and the difficulties regarding its implementation and assessment.

A study of the poverty simulator, SPENT, which resulted in players with increased negative feelings towards poor people instead of empathetic concern, illustrates the difficulties in pursuing attitudinal change among players. Entrenched within our own social beliefs and bubbles, we may not know how to best reach the other side and begin this empathetic exchange.  How do we create conditions for empathy?  While preaching to the choir reinforces existing beliefs, it doesn't achieve the desired social impact.

I wrote up my reasons why I felt SPENT failed to convince the "unbelievers" and have spent my PlayCrafting NYC classes on Designing Games For Impact exploring the myriad issues around persuasion, emotional connection, and TBA measurement. (Stay tuned for the next Designing Games For Impact class announcement.)  The Games For Change April 2016 report, "Impact With Games: A Fragmented Field," describes the different perspectives even in defining what exactly would be considered a game's "impact".

In my article, "The World According to Edu-Larps: The Analog Learning Games," I wrote about the difficulties of assessing play activities that cross disciplines.  The desire for assessment is well-known and is often a factor in determining the value of a project.  A game designer can certainly employ analytics to track a player's actions, but the full picture won't emerge without qualitative assessment. In addition, if the desired goal is a form of meta-gaming, with its intrinsic motivation, again, this benefit can't be measured with any on-board assessment tools.

However, through the use of qualitative and quantitative assessment, a game designer may be able to assess and make changes while a pilot project is happening before a complete rollout.  Using the iterative process, the designer can refine the game's message.  In this case, the art of survey design will be very important in order to erase biases and gain useful information.


Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

New Course: Game Writing Primer


4 Weeks to Learn the Basics of Narrative Design and Build a Game
When:  Tuesdays and Thurdays, April 18 - May 11, 2017, 6:30 - 9:00 PM
Where:  Microsoft NY, 11 Times Square, New York, NY 10019

I am so pleased to announce that my longer 4-week course through PlayCrafting NYC is finally here!  Game Writing Primer was especially created for students who want to learn the process of story design and be on their way to a portfolio piece. I also wanted students without coding experience to be able to create a story-based game and be on a pathway to publication.

While any game creation method or engine is welcome, PlayCrafting has partnered with One More Story Games to provide StoryStylus at a discounted price ($15 for 2 years of hosting). StoryStylus is the platform used to create Danielle's Inferno, a game recently reviewed on this blog. Students using StoryStylus will have the opportunity for publication through One More Story Games. There are also options for privacy so that the student's game can be only be viewed by select individuals for portfolio purposes.

A special information session and mini-expo will be held on March 30. Sign up for this free session and play games created by students in PlayCrafting courses.

Hundreds of games have been showcased in PlayCrafting NYC's Demo & Play Nights.  Will yours be next?

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer with over 15 years of experience in the game industry.  Her writing credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing.  She is the co-author of the book, Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform, and was a contributor to Secrets of the Game Business, Writing For Video Game Genres, and Professional Techniques for Videogame Writing.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Balancing Data and Design

In this article, game designer Sande Chen reflects on the relationship between metrics and game design.

This week, StoryForward NYC offered a fascinating look at the use of metrics in storytelling with the panel, "The Art of Data-Driven Storytelling: Creating Context in a Content-Driven World." Of course, I was fully aware that it was the other "storytelling," the one with marketing focus.  Still, the discussion was eerily similar to ones held at GDC about the importance of metrics in game design.

Metrics give a glimpse into the mind of the consumer and with A/B testing, designers can learn what functions better with an audience.  Often, after analyzing metrics, designers tweak the design.  Metrics is especially illuminating if it turns out if players are quitting the game after failing to complete the goal.  Was the learning curve too difficult?  Without metrics, the game designer basically has playtesting to fine-tune problem areas. Metrics delivers large quantities of data about actual users. Metrics tells you what players actually do, not what they say. An advantage to metrics-driven design is that the effects of changes to design are measured and the response time can be instantaneous.

I remember one story from GDC whereby a game designer tweaked the numbers to make the game harder, but because the metrics showed that the players were unable to advance with the new changes, it was immediately switched back.

I can see why metrics-driven design has appeal, but one problem may be that there's simply too much data collection and not enough knowledge to know which data is pertinent.  Or metrics may not capture the full picture, just like in that parable with the blind men and elephant. Data is only as good as your analysis.

In regards to storytelling, panelist Matt McGowan regarded data as a guidepost.  He said, "Start with what emotion you want to evoke, the story you want to tell, and then look at the data to see how you are going to do that."

That's the approach many game designers take as well. They already have a plan and metrics is just one tool in the toolbox. They don't need to base their entire design on metrics but metrics can inform their choices. In fact, designers can help analysts determine what to measure in a game that would be a good indicator of progress, or engagement, or learning, or whatever the analysts were after. 

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.