Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Holographic Classroom

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses what's available for teachers to give students immersive educational experiences.

In Ernest Cline's bestselling novel, Ready Player One, the main character Wade Watts describes his online lessons on the virtual planet Ludus.  Unlike the online courses of today, which mostly consist of videos, forums, and multiple choice tests, Wade's classroom is far from dull.  His World History class takes his avatar to Egypt where the teacher can flip through different time zones, showing ancient Egypt and then when King Tut's tomb is discovered.  He can walk through the chambers of the heart and the aorta or visit the moons of Neptune.

Though this seems like something out of the holodeck, we can already virtually enter space, go inside the body, swim underwater, and travel to distant lands.  Google Expeditions is available for teachers in VR and AR.  More than one million students in 11 countries have gone on these virtual field trips.


If VR and AR sounds too technically challenging, remember there's still MineCraft.  While the simulation won't be as immersive as VR or AR, students can still have the thrill of visiting different worlds.  Take a look at what the Tate Gallery did to showcase famous art movements like Surrealism.


Sure, none of these options have 100% sensory output or the classroom controls teachers would love that automatically warn disruptive students, but we can still bring excitement and immersiveness of virtual worlds to classrooms today.

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.


Monday, May 21, 2018

Nurturing Talent and Finding Truth

In this article, game writer Sande Chen finds parallels in teaching game design within Brenda Ueland's book, If You Want to Write.

I recently read a book, while directed towards writers, is recommended for all creative fields. If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit, by Brenda Ueland, was written in 1938 and as such, has a quaintness in the way she capitalizes ideas (though I dislike the many footnotes on each page) and refers to William Blake and Leo Tolstoy like they are contemporaries.  She was actually in the same circle of Greenwich Village writers that included Nobel laureate Eugene O'Neill.  However, I found the book to be more about teaching writing than a manual on how to write.

Yes, there are some tips about finding your own Truthfulness as a writer, so as not to sound bogus or forced, but the author seems to feel like this moment of Truth is something you'd know when you hear it.

I remarked recently that in teaching game design, it would be preferable if teachers were able to guide students towards revelations rather than spell them out, and that seems to be the route Ueland suggests. Her thesis is that everyone is creative, but the creativity inherent in everyone can be broken by harsh criticism, preconceived notions of what is the right or wrong way to be creative, and brutal rejection.  She writes a lot about one student, who had absolutely no background in writing and didn't even have conversations about literature, who would soon deliver writing on par with or surpassing, in Ueland's opinion, public figures like John Steinbeck and Eleanor Roosevelt.

For example, regarding her student's first endeavor, Ueland noted that her vacation diary was more of a travelogue and didn't include personal feelings or impressions. Instead of saying "You must be more careful to put in more personal details" because that would undoubtably lead to boring sentences like "I really enjoyed the view," Ueland enthusiastically gushed, "Tell more. Tell everything you can possibly think of. You speak here of this truck driver whose tight clothes fitted him like the skin of a bulldog...  How extraordinary!... What makes you think he felt that way about his wife?"

At first, I thought Ueland was simply a person who didn't criticize, but it became apparent in the next few chapters that she was very capable of tearing apart the work of already published writers or popular writers. She felt that those who had studied too much (and apparently under bad teachers) were the ones most likely to write in an affected way.  Her purpose in this criticism, she wrote, was not to point out the defects of other writers, but to emphasize her point that even those without training can end up writing better than published writers.  It would be quite normal for a teacher to show off published writers and tell students to emulate that kind of work, but that would be worthless in Ueland's view.  To her, one writer's Truthfulness is not the same as another's Truthfulness.

Another chapter is about the storyteller's connection to the listener.  Just like game designers will think about player experience, Ueland advised writers to have an imaginary listener and imagine how the listener reacts and stays rapt. Some writers write for themselves, but Ueland would find it boring to read a "long, long book, four-fifths full of your own psychological writhings, your own entrails all pinned out on the surgical table" where the writer was in essence talking to him or herself.  She relayed how Chekhov chastised his brother: "You are not writing for the reader. You wrote because that chatter pleased you."

Ueland's book has been reprinted through the decades because many regard it as one of the finest books about writing ever written.  I found it interesting and contemplative.  What inspiring books have you found helpful and worthy of attention?

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.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Ethics and Game Design: Are They Like Oil And Water? Part II

In Part I, Saferize founder Gustavo Guida reflects on the recent GDC 2018 game design ethics roundtable and concludes that game designers are locked in a Prisoner's Dilemma with potentially devastating consequences. In Part II, he delves into the specific issues of loot boxes, gambling, and gaming addiction.


Loot boxes and gambling

Take for example loot boxes. For those who don’t know what loot boxes are, they are treasure chests with random items. Players do not know what’s in loot boxes, and the chances of finding valuable items inside them are very low. Players can buy more loot boxes with real money, and are incentivized to do so, with the promise of huge payoffs, just like in casinos. The difference is that, with technology, game designers can actually personalize the payoffs depending on the individual player’s appetite for risk and reward, maximize their attractiveness. As Robert de Niro’s character in the movie, Casino, says: “In the casino, the cardinal rule is to keep them playing and to keep them coming back. The longer they play, the more they lose, and in the end, we get it all.”

Some countries, such as Belgium, are already classifying loot boxes as gambling. In the UK, regulators admitted that “the line between video gaming and gambling is becoming increasingly blurred,” but have not made any moves to classify loot boxes as gambling. Here in the US, some regulators are increasing the scrutiny over loot boxes, but the practice is still permitted. It doesn’t help that ESRB, the self-regulatory organization founded by gaming companies, considers loot boxes to be no different than any other paid content, refusing to classify it as gambling. 

For me, ESRB is just another Skeptic, and is being willingly blind to the negative effects this feature could have on children.

To add to the pile of evidence that game mechanics are inspired by gambling, Consider that video game companies use the term “whale” to define a user who spends lots of money on virtual items. The same term is used for casino players who bet (and lose) great sums. And, like in casinos, game companies focus their marketing efforts to extract the most from those whales.

And like gambling, video games can be extremely addictive. But many Skeptics tend to use misleading language to convolute the argument and blur the line between what is compelling and what is addicting. For example, Aaron Marshall, a video game designer from LA summarizes how Skeptics think: “Video games are akin to most legal products and pastimes today. They can be responsibly consumed, or they can be abused. We do not condemn books because an avid reader is spending an irresponsible amount of time reading fiction novels. Why should video games be singled out when a player is playing too much?”

His point is valid, but I would argue that his conclusion is false. If someone reads so much that her life is affected, that person should seek “rehab,” just like any other addiction. In fact, there are rehabilitation facilities for digital addiction. But the reality is that children don’t spend that much time reading — less than 30 minutes a day. However, they do spend many hours per day on screens. According to Common Sense Media, even kids as young as 0 to 8 years spend over 2 hours a day on screens. According to another study from Common Sense media, for tweens (8–12 years old), this time triples to almost 6 hours a day on average. Teenagers (13–18 years old) spend an astonishing 9 hours per day interacting with screens.

However, it turns out that there is a scientifically measurable difference between a desire to play a video game, and an addiction to video games. With a focus on internet games, the North American Psychiatric Association (APA) has defined this addiction as Internet Gaming Disorder. It is disturbingly similar to gambling addiction (which is the only recognized addiction besides substance addiction). It basically states that a person is addicted to gaming if it interferes with other aspects of their lives and the pursuit of their goals.

Game Addiction and Cigarette Addiction

No discussion of addiction would be complete without mentioning tobacco, and some Pragmatists are not even embarrassed to make the connection between gaming and tobacco. Take for instance how this game publisher shamelessly recommends the use of celebrity endorsements: “For generations, celebrity power has been used to sell everything from soda and cigarettes”.

But there were also Concerned participants who made the same connection between gaming and smoking, specifically pointing to how some gaming companies employ similar practices used by the tobacco industry in the past. And gaming isn’t the only industry that is faced with these issues, nor is it the only industry where people are concerned with the effect that these tactics are having on children. For example, at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this year, Salesforce founder and CEO Marc Benioff was interviewed and voiced his concerns. Later on, he made the following statement via Twitter:

But again, we see the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Do game designers betray each other in a never ending cycle, continuing to make video games more and more addictive in an effort to stay ahead of the curve? Or will we eventually see an era where the industry cooperates to create better, safer games? The biggest question is whether or not game designers would be willing to potentially lose some profit in order to self-regulate.

Professor Schreiber summarized this dilemma well, saying: “If the goal of game designers is to maximize the revenue a game brings, creating addictive experiences might be required.” He added, saying, “Trying to ethically monetize a game might impact the company’s profits.”

Solving the Dilemma

But what if there were a way for Concerned game designers to create non-addictive experiences, without abandoning the goal of maximizing monetary profit? Well, there is.

Saferize offers a way for designers to eliminate this trade-off between profit and ethics. By implementing our SDK, apps have an area specific to parents, so they can set up controls such as screen time. To have access to those controls, parents pay Saferize a monthly subscription that is shared with the app publisher. While parents get the tools to effectively curb digital addiction for their children, game designers are incentivized to implement our software, since they receive extra revenue from Saferize. It’s truly a win for everyone involved.

We hope that Concerned game designers and publishers embrace our vision, so kids have a balanced life, enjoying games without succumbing to addiction.

Gustavo Guida has been involved with product and marketing since 2000. Third-time entrepreneur, he found and sold two successful businesses before co-founding Saferize. Father of triplet girls.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Ethics and Game Design: Are They Like Oil And Water? Part I

In Part I of this article, Saferize founder Gustavo Guida reflects on the recent GDC 2018 game design ethics roundtable and concludes that game designers are locked in a Prisoner's Dilemma with potentially devastating consequences.
 
Can the gaming industry grow and prosper without compromising ethics? 
I had the opportunity to attend a very interesting roundtable at GDC 2018 presented by IGDA. The event was called "Professional Ethics for Game Designers" and was hosted by Sande Chen, Writers Guild Award and Grammy-nominated Writer and Game Designer (you should check out her interesting review of the event, by the way). The roundtable beckoned designers to voice an opinion “as to whether or not game designers need a professional code of ethics much like the Hippocratic oath for doctors.”

Here is the event description:
With gaming disorder a mental health concern, do game designers have an obligation to refrain what would be considered ‘exploitative design,’ that is, game design that takes advantage of player addictions and/or mental defects?
I expected to leave that event with some sort of consensus. What I really wanted was to see a core of game designers starting a movement that could culminate with a positive change in the industry. After all, we’ve seen similar movements on adjacent industries such as Social Media, where industry luminaries and even former Facebook executives complained about the addictive nature of social media (even implicating themselves). We’ve also seen organizations such as the Center for Humane Technology which was created to demonstrate how this technology could be used for good.

However, it seems that the gaming industry hasn’t reached that stage of enlightenment yet. Sadly, the roundtable ended with no consensus. What we saw instead was gamers split into three groups, which I have categorized:
  1. The Concerned: Game designers very concerned with the well-being of players, and with addiction and its consequences.
  2. The Skeptics: Those that were refusing to see the danger that games could cause. They attempted to blur the lines between an engaging experience with an addictive one.
  3. The Pragmatists: Those who took a more profit-driven focus. This group believes that exploiting addictions and vulnerabilities is the nature of the industry, and that those who refuse to do so will be less competitive.
Prisoner’s Dilemma

What I realized after leaving the event is that the industry is facing what is called a Prisoner’s Dilemma, which is a psychological experiment that tests self-interest. Basically, if two criminals betray each other, they each receive two years in prison. If one betrays the other, the betrayer walks free while the betrayed gets the maximum sentence of three years. If they cooperate, they each receive only one year on lesser charges. The criminals must make this decision without any knowledge of what the other will do.

Game designers seem to be faced with a similar dilemma, and few are willing to cooperate. They want to betray each other (and their consumers by proxy) by making their games more addictive than their competitors’ games. The harsh consequence they would receive by the betrayal of their competitor would be loss of revenue or even their company’s economic viabilities. Alternatively, game designers could cooperate and do what’s in the best interest of everyone involved.

Choosing to betray one another and continuing to design games to be more and more addictive can lead to very frightening consequences (such as the kid who had a seizure in China after playing the mobile game, Honour of Kings, for 40 straight hours). If something like that becomes the norm, it is likely that there will eventually be social pressure for the government to step in. The outcome could be harsh limits imposed by laws, which could mean compliance costs that will only benefit large corporations that can absorb those costs.

Professor Ian Schreiber, from Rochester, NY, talks about these potential government limitations, mentioning that gridlocked US politicians looking to score easy political points with their constituents could do so by regulating loot boxes (we will talk more about them later). “It is an easy bipartisan political win that’s almost sure to happen in the near future,” says Schreiber. He pointed out that the gaming industry must work on self-regulation, and take a proactive role to stop psychological exploitation of users before it’s too late. Using the Honour of Kings case again, the Chinese government stepped in by setting a strict 1-hour-a-day limit on gaming for kids 12 years old and younger.

But Pragmatists and Skeptics don’t see it this way, so they don’t see the need to self-regulate. They tend to view it as a simple supply and demand scenario, firmly believing that if they don’t offer this addictive service, someone else will.

It’s really no different than when criminals justify their actions by claiming that they hold no personal responsibility for providing a service that people demand. You hear this over and over in movies, usually when a criminal is caught by the good guy and justifies his actions by claiming he is just one among many, a cog in the machine. “If I don’t sell, some other drug dealer will. People are looking for this anyway.”
 
In real life, many famous gangsters used similar lines. Otto Berman, an accountant for the mafia in the 1930s coined the phrase “Nothing personal, it’s just business.” By ignoring the well-being of players, aren’t game designers ultimately subscribing to this idea as well?

Or maybe, Pragmatist game designers prefer a quote from another mobster from the 1930’s called Lucky Luciano (he ordered Berman’s death, by the way). His phrase was “There’s no such thing as good money or bad money. There’s just money.”

Personally, I think it’s really hard for game designers to argue that they’re not only in it for profit, especially when you consider another topic we discussed at the roundtable: video games and gambling. It turns out that there are a lot of disturbing similarities between the two.

[This article originally appeared on Saferize's Medium blog.]

Gustavo Guida has been involved with product and marketing since 2000. Third-time entrepreneur, he found and sold two successful businesses before co-founding Saferize. Father of triplet girls.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Statistics vs. Stories

In this article, game designer Sande Chen looks at why social impact game designers should consider emotion-based appeals rather than statistics-filled logic.

You've likely seen the appeals before.  They usually come at the end of year.  Help us cure cancer, give to your alumni fund, donate to needy students, etc.  What motivates us to care, and care enough to do something?
Made to Stick

As Chip Heath & Dan Heath state in their book, Made to Stick, charities have long grasped that the emotional appeal of a story does a better job of opening checkbooks than the logical stance of statistics.  That's why you "adopt" a wild horse or help a young girl in Africa named Rukia. The charity allows you to imagine how the money from giving up your morning Starbucks for 2 months would drastically change Rukia's life.  Her family would have access to running water!  Perhaps you'll even receive progress reports on Rukia telling you how much your contribution has meant to her life.  So why do some social impact game designers still rely on cold and impersonal statistical pop-ups scattered about in the game?

In fact, the Heaths relate a research study in which researchers had one group calculate a math problem and another group think about babies before being asked to donate to a cause.  Even without telling the story about Rukia, the "babies" group was primed to give more money.

So why is this so?

If I were to tell you, "In February 2018, there were 63,343 homeless people in New York City," you may or may not believe me.  Statistics can be fudged.  But also, 63,343 is a rather large amount.  Would my $3.50 a day really help?  How could it help?

In addition, people often have a hard time contextualizing numbers.  If I am told that one small bag of movie popcorn has 60 grams of saturated fat, what does that mean to me?  Is that good or bad?  Is movie popcorn alright?  If I'm shown all the artery-clogging foods I can think of and told that one small bag of movie popcorn is equivalent to 2 days of eating artery cloggers, then, yeah, I might think again.

As I wrote in "Great Narrative Stories Are the Answer,"  the way to changing attitudes and actions may lie in emotion and the great narrative stories that support that emotion.  Let's find a way to tap into that emotion.


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, April 12, 2018

GDC2018: Professional Ethics for Game Designers



The previous year has brought its share of gaming controversies, from anger over loot boxes to ties to gun violence to the World Health Organization's recognition of gaming disorder as a mental health condition. The roundtable, "Professional Ethics for Game Designers (Presented by the IGDA Game Design SIG)," at this year's Game Developers Conference, sought to shed light on the thoughts and opinions of professional game designers on their ethical obligations to players.  The discussion was spirited and showed that there was no easy consensus.

The roundtable started off with a warning from a professor who studies these matters.  He cautioned the group that if the industry doesn't self-regulate, governments will inevitably step in with their own regulations that might not make sense.  He cited some examples from Asia, such as a law limiting gameplay hours to school-age children, and said that there were even systems in place whereby in-game rewards were reduced based on the number of hours played.   There have even been rumblings in Europe about possible regulations.

While regulations may be looming, others felt like designers should not have any ethical obligations to players, even if players dropped dead after playing too much.  With a comparison to the tobacco industry, one decried the nanny state and felt like players needed to be responsible for their own well-being.  Another felt that game-playing was viewed too negatively and surely, no one would object if someone practiced continuously as an athlete.  He relayed the story of a co-worker who had taken a week's vacation to get higher on the leaderboard and how people immediately thought his co-worker might have a gaming disorder.

Still others felt that without addictive design elements, players would not come back to the game.  After all, there's pressure on designers to design an addictive, fun game that makes players come back and play the game.  Even if designers objected to exploitative practices, their bosses or marketing would want them to keep on using those methods.  And of course, a designer who wants to still have a job there will want the company to be successful.  But there were designers at the roundtable who had quit because they just couldn't stand what was happening to the players.  They recommended that designers think carefully about what line they would cross before being asked to cross that line.

After hearing jokes about some possible warning labels, like "WARNING:  TOO MUCH FUN," the professor interjected, saying that tobacco wasn't the right comparison, but gambling was.  He pointed out that the game industry even takes the same terminology, such as "whales," from the gambling industry.  While the WHO's definition of gaming disorder can be subject to interpretation, it's most similar to gambling disorder.  It doesn't specify a number of hours, just describes the way that compulsive gaming can cause distress or significant life problems.  We commonly say a game is addictive to mean it's fun, but addiction has a clinical definition that is much more bothersome.

Another game designer said that he doesn't mind if his games have a specific target audience, like women over 50, but he would have a problem if the target was "senile women," or any vulnerable demographic.  He would rather players come back to play the game because of its fun qualities rather than because they're addicted and they have a compulsion.

Another designer wondered if these addictive game systems were even necessary and offered other design alternatives to making a game sticky.

All in all, it was an interesting roundtable that could have gone on to discuss various other ethical issues.  Do you have any opinions on the subject?  I have heard from game design professors who include ethics in their lessons.  Do you believe that game designers should have an ethical code?





Wednesday, March 14, 2018

IGDA GDSIG's 2018 Play Harder Challenge


Just in time for 2018 GDC, game designer Daniel Harrison and I have compiled a list for the first ever IGDA GDSIG's Play Harder Challenge, patterned after Book Riot's Read Harder Challenge. The gist of this is a list of tasks intended to expand your game playing boundaries, introduce you to new genres or designers, and encourage you to think more about the art game design.

You can try to find one game to fulfill a bunch of challenges or play one game per challenge.  The choice is up to you! 

This isn't a test.  There's no score.  But if you do happen to finish all the challenges, do let us know, and maybe we'll get around to making a badge for you :)

IGDA GDSIG's 2018 PLAY HARDER CHALLENGE

  1. Play a text-based game
  2. Play a game made by students
  3. Play a game created during a game jam
  4. Play an arcade game
  5. Play a social impact game
  6. Play a single player AAA game
  7. Play an old school platformer
  8. Play a game that's in a museum or art gallery
  9. Play a nonviolent shooter
  10. Play a game made by less than 10 people
  11. Play a tabletop game published in the last 5 years
  12. Play a game after remapping controller to your non-dominant hand 
  13. Play a twitch game that doesn't involve shooting
  14. Play a mobile game with on screen joysticks
  15. Play a location-based game
  16. Play a VR phone game
  17. Play a game with asymmetric multiplayer
  18. Play a game using an emulator
  19. Play a mobile game that uses the camera
  20. Play a game that requires user-created content
  21. Play a cooperative game
  22. Play a hardcore handheld game