All posts by The Edge News

Communicating with Serious Games

Serious games have been defined as a game whose primary function is something other than entertainment. Educational, training simulations, rehabilitation, art and propaganda are variations of this concept. Serious games are not just educational tools, they can provoke thought and action in their players through player choices, context and gameplay.

Designers create these games because they have a message or an experience they wish to share with an audience. Serious games is a broad genre that covers games that designed to teach users particular skills and impart information, experiences that offer different perspectives and challenge our preconceptions of issues, events and ourselves.

Why achieve this with a game? As Bryan Moses demonstrated with Alternator, games are valuable educational tools that can help change behaviour and thinking. A serious game is not just about the education of the player, it also involves the education of the designer. One of my university group projects was to create a game that provoked discussion about climate change.

One of the earliest problems we had was lack of information about the topic, from its causes, solutions and the arguments surrounding climate change. We also had to balance fun, game play, information overload and avoid preaching to players. These factors can influence player engagement and response; an overload of information can bore the player while skimming over the issue detracts from the game’s message.

A game becomes an effective medium at delivering a message if it has been designed to keep players engaged and treats its players, concepts and itself with respect. Creating and playing games that have these qualities helps create better and more diverse choices for players and designers. Developing more of these games can raise awareness of issues like the effects of climate change, mental illness, historical and political issues and events.

The following games were created to communicate ideas by challenging players’ biases of ideas and through respectful treatment of topic. These are examples of designers who sought to raise awareness by focusing on the concerns of minority groups.

Molleindustria‘s Phone Story is a mobile game aimed at educating people about the brutal realities that make up the mobile market by making them aware of their role as part of the troubled supply chain. Using a phone to deliver this game helps consolidate the game’s purpose, critique its platform, provides commentary on the mobile industry and changes the perception of its users.

Escape from Woomera (EFW) asks its players to engage and question the issues surrounding detention centres by placing them in the shoes of a asylum seeker detained at the Woomera facility. EFW is aimed at empowering players to confront the issue and encourages them to form their own opinions.

Games like these also prompt minority groups and aid organisations to consider different outlets for representation and communication. Their issues and serious content can become accessible to a broader audience through games.

Not all games can highlight all the information and viewpoints that concern serious issues. Balancing accuracy, information biases and tone is a difficult task for any designer. However, by playing and making these games, we can encourage different experiences to be told and created to avoid misrepresentation and misinformation.

The interactive qualities of a game make it an excellent medium for allowing designers to create engaging, meaningful and interesting experiences for players and providing the player with choices that can change how they think or causes them to reflect on decisions made. It is an empowering to design experiences which inspire players to learn, enjoy themselves and produce positive change.

Can a serious game save the planet? [Part 2]

I launched my game Alternator on the 29 of September. After two years in development it’s a very satisfying to know people can get their hands on the game.

Alternator is a futuristic online racing game made for the ABC. Its purpose is to inspire players to take an interest in clean and renewable technologies. But can a game really save the planet?… No. The game can’t… but the people who play the game can.

There is a growing belief that games have an important role to play in behavior change. The games for change festival this year secured Al Gore as keynote speaker, and the Game Developers Conference in 2012 has a strand dedicated to games for change.

Young players who love car racing games aren’t necessarily interested in researching clean energy solutions, but Alternator opens that world for them in a really fun and engaging way. The player builds their car with clean technology. By winning races, they gain a legion of supporters who invest money in that technology allowing the player to make their car even cleaner and more powerful. The game is filled with amazing facts, but also has links out to the real world of clean technology.

So far the response from young players has been incredibly positive. One girl even gave the game 1 million out of 10. (perhaps we should have made a mathematics game).

Being my first game it was a huge learning experience, however the learning curve is still arcing up. It turns out making a game is the easy part. Spreading the word is where things get really tough. I’ve realised very quickly that it’s not enough to have a really fun game, you need to let people know it exists.

Marketing. How do you successfully market a game?… especially as an independent. I don’t know yet. I’m still working it out.

We have hired a social media expert to help us with the Facebook/Twitter/MySpace push. This has been reasonably successful so far. In the first week we had over 1000 fans of the game, and four weeks later that has risen to 3,750. Hopefully that number will continue to grow, though we are waiting to find out player numbers from the ABC so it’s impossible to say how many “fans” are actually playing the game. If you’re an indie without the time, expertise or inclination do the social media yourself I would highly recommend hiring an expert. There are plenty to choose from. We used Hayley Benson from BensonMears.

What we haven’t been able to do yet is get is get reviews or articles in either online or more traditional publications. If anyone has some ideas or experience in this area I’d love to hear your thoughts about how to break through and stand out from the other games being reviewed and written about.

As marketing for the game continues we are looking at how we can grow the concept of Alternator. We have designed an amazing world and characters, which the game only barely scratches the surface of. “Transmedia” is the latest buzz word for having one idea across several formats. So as well as taking the game into apps for phones or downloads for consoles, we’re looking at creating educational supplements for schools, and even an animated series. All of these elements will help feed back to the game and build the audience for Alternator.

Einstein apparently said “The world we have created is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking” So you never know….maybe Alternator will inspire the thoughts of the next Einstein who will find the ultimate solution to our energy needs!


iStreet Skills xChange Launch

It’s time to stop reading about the iStreet Media Lab and come on down and play with it! The launch of the iStreet Skills xChange project is just around the corner. Join mervin and the crew as they celebrate with the Inala community at the launch of this inspiring project.


Bring your mates and head on down to the Inala Civic Centre. Try your hand at being a DJ for a day, have a chat to the crew as they round up some interviews for a short clip, and see what the iStreet Lab can really do.

When: 3pm, 26 October

Where: Inala Civic Centre

Inala Avenue, Inala QLD 4077


Word from the iStreet

Out in Inala recently I spoke with two young guys, Hayden and Dre, while they were using the iStreet Media Lab to mix music tracks. We spoke about their journey, moving to Australia, and how the iStreet Lab is making a difference in their lives.

What is your connection to the Inala community?

Hayden: I moved here with my family three years ago, we were the first of my family to move here from New Zealand.

Dre: I’ve been here for three years too, from New Zealand.


When did you first meet mervin and the iStreet Lab?

Hayden: At a performance rehearsal at the Inala Civic Centre.

Dre: Hayden introduced me to mervin.


What did you think when you saw all the equipment in the Lab?

Hayden: Wow, I’m gonna learn everything I can outta this thing.

Dre: Mad, that’s my baby. How could everything fit in?


Which things in the Lab did you like using?

 Hayden: The mic, DJ stuff.

Dre: DJ, stuff, everything.


What do you like to do when you’re using the Lab?

Hayden: Sing, all I do is sing.

Dre: Mixing music, making beats, remixing.


How do you think you would like to use the stuff in the iStreet Lab in the future?

Hayden: Teaching kids. I grew up with nothing; I was bored and did bad things. I want to give kids a chance to have a different life.

Dre: Music. It’s always been a part of my life.


Would you like to show the iStreet Lab to more of your friends?

Hayden: I would like to teach everyone, its fun, exciting, and share the opportunity with others.

Dre: Take it to schools, show people who don’t see this stuff.


What have you learnt in your time with mervin and the iStreet Lab?

Hayden: How to make music, produce music, and be confident in myself.

I never thought a chance like this would come; it’s really opened my eyes to new stuff.

Dre: A lot, music mixing and producing. It has helped me learn more about music, which I have always been doing.


What do you see yourself doing in the future?

Hayden: I see myself keeping on practicing the things I’m doing now, being a singer, and teaching others about singing and music.

Dre: Keep dancing, be a pro dancer. Now that I’m learning the music production stuff I can combine that with my dancing.

Meet Terii from the iStreet Crew

With the iStreet Media Lab now embedded in Inala with mervin, we’ve pulled together some of the great stories of who is using the gear and rad things they are getting up to. Terii, from Inala, has been busy fine-tuning his photography skills after being introduced to mervin and the Media Lab by his cousin. He was initially surprised at the capabilities and features of the bin, but after finding a camera in there, he has returned to an interest in them he once had as a child. Having forgotten some things about using cameras, he quickly picked up new skills using the Lab’s Canon DSLR camera. mervin has shown him a few tricks and is helping him work up the confidence to get out there and start taking photos.

Terii sat down with me and shared some insight into his life, the Media Lab, and how he has been engaging with it.


What did you think when you saw all the equipment in the bin?

I was shocked; I was speechless for like ten minutes. How did you make a DJ out of a bin?

Which equipment from the bin do you like using?

The camera, I’ve mastered every angle of the camera really quickly. I carried a cam around when I was five and forgot about it, but when I saw this one I came back to it, I thought I lost the way to use them but it all came back.

What else have you been using in the wheelie bin?

I’ve been putting all the photos on to the laptop and my cousin taught me a bit of the DJ things.

How do you think you would like to use the stuff in the bin in the future?

I want to make a calendar featuring the bin all around Inala and maybe come to The Edge, but change the signs to say iStreet.

So do you mean you think that the iStreet wheelie bin is a sort of mobile version of a place like The Edge?


Would you like to show the wheelie bin to more of your friends?

I’ve told everyone in Inala already, I told my brothers they didn’t believe me. I took a photo and showed him, and still didn’t believe, so I brought him here and that changed his mind. I should have made a bet (laughs).

If you could use the gear in the lab to do anything you wanted, what would that be?

Take it to a club or show little kids what we are doing. I would take it to schools and have classes and teach them what to do. When they get older they might be a photographer or something, I want to show them how to use the camera and other things.

What have you learnt during your time working with mervin and the gear?

I’ve picked up more camera skills and also how to use the deejay spinners. I learnt how to pack the bin up and get it all right.

Is this a new experience for you?

This is my first time to do stuff like this. When I carry that camera around I feel changed, and I want people to know what I can do.

What do you see yourself doing in the near or far future?

Hopefully taking people’s photos, like famous people in music.

Videogames: Levelling the playing field

Illustration by Josh Rufford

Do you own a computer? Do you also own a gaming console? Do you own more than one gaming console?

For most gamers these days the answer is yes, yes and yes. With technology getting cheaper and cheaper video games becoming more and more accessible, people are able to play the exact same game on their work computer, console and even on their mobile phone.

Multi-platform release games are the norm now with developers looking to have as wide a market as possible. Every salesman knows the first rule of selling is to make your product as easy to buy as possible and it works, sales from videogames are much higher from services such as Steam (PC/MAC), Xbox, PlayStation and iTunes App stores then any physical store.

You can buy a game while walking around during lunch, work, school or at home watching TV, but all this accessibility and great technology is starting to give rise to a new frustration in gamers.

How come when I purchase a game for the Playstation 3 I can’t play that exact same game on my computer without having to fork out another $100? Or why do I have to buy a digital copy of a game when I’ve already bought a physical copy for the same system?

Ten years ago the reason for this was obvious, every computer and console game were worlds apart from each other in hardware and often no two consoles would even have the same game. When deciding on a console you were signing up for all the exclusive titles that particular system would release. If you had told me in a few years Mario and Sonic would be hanging out with each other at the Olympics I would have called you a dirty damn liar, but in reality this is the world we live in now.

With these developments in mind, the future of gaming looks hopeful. Very soon every system will be able to play the same games as each other and they will all have some sort of digital platform for selling their games.

This could mean some very significant developments for the gamer.

Firstly, if you buy a game on one system you would be able to play a digital copy of it on all other major consoles (remember the first rule of selling? Make your product as easy to buy as possible). For instance, if I own Console A and have a long list of games for it, I’m less likely to purchase Console B or even newer models of Console A, because in the current system buying a new console makes you feel redundant if you can’t play games on it you’ve technically already paid for.

Secondly, every digital purchase could be connected to a universal account that could be accessed by every console or computer under that name. This would cause sales to rise astronomically. The reason for this is that developers lose millions of dollars a year because of pre-owned games. They can only make money off selling a physical copy of a videogame once, so if somebody sells that game back to a store or online then the developer will never see another dollar from that sale.

If games were all digital copies then there would be no way to sell or trade them, meaning every copy would see a profit to the developer and the consumer who bought it would get to have this digital copy virtually forever.

This isn’t just one gamer’s pipe dream, recently the Playstation 3 version of Portal 2 contained a free digital copy of the game for use on PC and Mac computers. Not only tha,t but the online co-op was compatible with all systems meaning that someone on a Playstation could play with somebody playing on a PC.

This sort of company cooperation is going to be a hard sell to organisations who believe the future security of their brand is through remaining totally self reliant, but they will soon find that once others begin to do it they wont have any other option as consumers will always opt for this consumer friendly system.

The Ironforge Library

Near the forge, which is the heart of the dwarf strong hold of Ironforge, is the library, gathering together dwarven histories so that the past is not forgotten.  It is a discussion space too, where ideas which have not been written into books can be shared and tested. The library is circular, with floor to ceiling books, some of them are scattered on tables for reading and research.  There is a librarian who will help with quests for further knowledge.  In the middle of the circular library, stairs draw one down towards the centre of the action as Gamr and L√∏b√∏, two visiting worgens start to speak about how they use board games in their school.  The worgens are toons being run by Christopher Harris and Brian Meyer, two school librarians from upstate New York who are talking about how their schools use board game as part of the education of the students, explaining how board game which match the curriculum are really important learning tools for students.  Brian and Christoper are the latest speakers in a series of talks which take place in World of Warcraft, in the Ironforge Library in the Saurfang realm.  These talks bring together library, IT and university staff to discuss how games can be used in our work environments.  These talks take place about every six weeks, and people need to have a subscription to World of Warcraft to participate.  This costs less than to going to a film.

The speakers are library workers, games researchers, and educators from Australia, Canada and the USA.  They allow access speakers it would otherwise be difficult to hear. The talks take place through in game instant messaging as this is the lowest technology entry point making it easy for new participants (and new players) to fully participate quickly.  It also means that full transcripts of talks are available for people who were not able to be present.  The talks are very interactive.  The lack of true body language somehow seems to make it easier for people to ask lots of questions.  There are a lot of actions and emotions which can be conveyed by the in game toons, but it is not the same as seeing someone in a face to face seminar.  The interactivity is impressive as people readily ask questions.  Speakers are briefed about the high levels of discussion, just so that they are aware of how it is likely to proceed.  All the speakers are highly experienced with games, not all have prior experience with World of Warcraft.  This has not been a barrier.  Not everyone invited to present in this environment is willing to participate (and there would be a lot of reasons for this), and some have mentioned concerns with this environment.  Other speakers have been very keen to present in World of Warcraft.

The transcripts of all the talks are available on a games and libraries wiki, usually on the same day as the talk.  Coming events are also posted.  Planning will shortly take place for the 2012 series of talks, so suggestions for speakers to include in this series would be welcome.  The talks have been running for just over a year, with participants from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the USA.

People are quoting from the talks, and referring to the ideas raised in them, just as they would if they had participated in a face to face seminar.  It has been very interesting seeing the flow on effect from a series of talks about games and libraries which takes place in a library in  game.

The next talk takes place 18 November.  Crystle Martin will be talking about cognition and learning in MMOs and the constellation of information that surround them, focusing on topics of literacy including information literacy. She is the lead project assistant for the PopCosmo research group led by Constance Steinkuehler and a member of Games+Learning+Society.  Come along and see what the sessions are like.  Information about how to participate is available from the Games and libraries wiki, and you can contact me for further information or if you have any questions about this.

The price of free-to-play gaming

Illustration by Josh Rufford

Illustration by Josh Rufford

As far back as 1971 people have been playing video games. Since then there has been an interesting shift in the way we interact with the games of today. No, I’m not talking about motion control, touchscreens or 3D gaming, I’m talking about Free-to-Play gaming.

Back in the 70’s and early 80’s, the only way to access and play a video game was via arcade machines. With an arcade machine you were required to pay money for each life you would use up in a game. This commercial system dictated the sorts of games that were being developed. Developers made games which often never had an ending and would become increasingly difficult very quickly, prompting the consumer to either purchase more lives or simply move along so somebody else could feed money into it.

When home gaming consoles became the norm you no longer paid the developer for each life. You would buy a game outright and, as the commercial system changed from the arcade model, so did the inherent mechanics of video games. Games began to have a clear start, middle and end giving a sense of closure to the game once it had been beaten. Often a game would be more about the experience than the challenge. This has been the general model since the birth of the home console and still is, for the most part, the way games are made.

The interesting shift of Free-to-Play gaming ironically was borne from the polar opposite of the concept – subscription gaming. Games such as World of Warcraft and EVE Online require a monthly fee to be paid AFTER purchasing the game from a store, which means that even though you may have bought a game outright, you must still pay money to the publisher in order to continue playing the game.

This is where it gets interesting. The games began to give rise to a black market which was formed outside of the confines of the developers’ intentions. People started “paying to win” – trading real-world money in exchange for in-game money or items. This allowed them to artificially get ahead in-game instead of earning it as the game intended. This market is basically the premise of the Free-to-Play model.

Now, almost every month a new game is released that is marketed as “Free-to-Play”, the most notable at the moment being Global Agenda, Spiral Knights, and Age of Empires online. These games are actually Free-to-Play, you can download them, jump online to do battle, and play with others. A lot of them are very fun but when it comes down to it, the developers are out to make money.

So, how do they do it?

By taking control of the market they can sell “non-essential items” to players so they can customize their characters if they wish to do so, or even sell rare or impossible to obtain in-game items in order to turn a profit.

This might not sound so bad, but as with the commercial model shift from arcade machine to home console, this new model means drastic changes to the way the games are made.

Free-to-Play games are often made to be very addictive and entertaining – up to a point. You can spend hours on a game and really enjoy yourself, but you will inevitably hit a brick wall where all of a sudden you’re not leveling up as much as you once were, and all the items you find seem pale in comparison to the items offered in the beginning.

They are partial games, a fact which is only revealed once you have already invested a significant amount of your time in the game, and so you are left with two choices: abandon the game, leaving behind all of your hard work, or start paying fees and micro-transactions to try and rekindle your enjoyment.

These series of micro-transactions begin to accumulate and, coupled with the time spent on the game already, will often snowball into spending even more time and money on it. The micro-transactions are similar to the pay-per-life scheme of the arcade machines and, like the arcade machine model, the games don’t have an actual end to them. Potentially, developers have combined the pay-per-life scheme with the convenience of home gaming, sprinkled it with an addictive substance, and removed any possible feeling of closure a player might have playing it.

It’s an almost diabolical system, but it’s still early days in Free-to-Play history, so who knows how it will develop in the future.

Let your gamer side out to play

Illustration by Christoffer Klungerbo

Next to “are games art?” (Yes, indeed) the other burning question that often leads to passionate debate amongst a certain crowd is what makes someone a ”true gamer” these days.  As a gamer since 1972 and collector since the 80’s, I can report that despite amazing leaps in technology and an ever increasing variety of titles available, the answer is still the same as it ever was. It’s not what types of games you play, it’s playing ANY game and enjoying them enough to keep coming back for more that’s key. You don’t need overpaid industry analysts, PR-created buzzwords like “casual” and “core” or social media sites to tell you this, just a bit of experimentation on your own. Whether you’re a fan of Cate West, or Call of Duty, you’re part of a nicely-sized crowd of normal human beings that loves interactive entertainment.

Even if you’re totally clueless as to the development process, you’ll soon find that most video games are layered artistic experiences designed to attract your attention and at least get you to take them for a spin. As with food and drink, experimentation is key to discovering what you’ll like. You won’t appreciate everything you taste, but you’ll often be surprised as something hits the right spots and brings a smile to your face. If you’re on the hunt for a deeper experience, fear not. Some of the best story-driven games can be as stimulating as a good book. Granted, one can argue the academic value of Plato is better brain food than an issue of Superman, or the deep emotional impact of Heavy Rain is superior to the well-hyped addictiveness of Angry Birds. Nevertheless, all stimulate enough grey matter to be rewarding at the end of the day.

Look carefully beyond the cosmetic appeal (or lack of it) and you’ll find similarities that leap at you across different genres. Some gamers on either side of the fence might not think much of titles outside their comfort zones. ”Casual” players who prefer family-oriented content may refuse to be lumped into the same category as those who play more violent games.  Some ”core” gamers hate the fact that a wider range of age groups are encroaching on “their” territory. Both camps, as well as the industry, should understand gaming has ALWAYS been for all. Granted, there is indeed content out there that’s absolutely not for everyone. But there are more than enough genres and sub-genres available that anyone can find his or her own niche without exploring areas they might find unsavoury.

Even the simplest game played on the way to school or work is cleverly training your eyes, brain and reflexes as you tap and swipe away while trying not to miss your stop. All games have the added benefit of being a form of language translated from design document, to code, to final product before being translated one more time by users playing the way they like. There’s a subtle learning process in every game that’s easy to miss, but can be quite rewarding once uncovered. Finally, a good game can help unlock one’s own creative energies, particularly if a player finds something that activates the urge to make art, music or writing based on their play sessions. Whether you follow the crowd or become a seeker of random experiences, there’s going to be a game out there just for you. In my next column, I’ll gently toss a few suggestions your way. While you’re waiting, absolutely do a bit of exploration on your own as you let your gamer side out to play. Of course, sharing your discoveries with others is highly recommended…

Interactive Card Game Table

Crafter, designer, gamer and all round geek, Isaac Englart, is the man behind the Picard Table. Isaac will be based at The Edge over the coming weeks, developing and testing this neat piece of hardware. Isaac will be keeping you posted on how his development journey to date is going. 

How would you feel playing a card game where you can actually see the explosions when your spaceships attack your opponent? Where your creature cards literally summon a creature who strolls over to your opponent and throws down a gauntlet?  Imagine if the table you are playing on recorded and displayed your current scores and kept track of the rules so it can make you aware of your wrong moves as soon as you make them.

My goal is to make this a reality with Picard Table.  The Picard Table is an interactive card table that uses a camera to track the cards you play and augments them and your game using the display embedded in its surface.

This post is the first in a series about the development of Picard Table’s second prototype leading up to its display at The Edge in November this year.  This post is an introduction to the project and a brief discussion about what its future will entail.

Prototype I

I am currently in my final year of a Bachelor of Information Technology at the University of Queensland.  Picard Table started as a group project for the final year Studio class “Physical Computing” during first semester this year.  It resulted in an exhibition here at The Edge where all of the projects from the class were displayed.

Picard Table

This semester I have taken another Studio class where we are able to choose our own individual project to develop.  I decided to continue work on Picard Table as I felt it did not reach its potential last semester.  While development is being continued on my own this time, the original team is still in the background and keen on continuing the project together once my assessment for the semester is over.

At the exhibition last semester my team and I managed to put together a polished prototype of Picard Table, however it lacked a lot of functionality that we initially hoped for; primarily the game play.

In the few weeks leading up to the exhibition we struggled to get the card tracking functioning reliably enough to be able to play the game we designed – Humans Vs Aliens.  Nevertheless we did manage to get the basic card tracking working as seen in this video from the exhibition:

Picard Exhibition Demo from Picard Table on Vimeo.

Prototype II

I am thrilled that Picard Table has been invited back by The Edge for display here at the end of the year.  Having been given a second chance to work on Picard Table this semester, I will be able to make several improvements to the system as well as focusing more on the card game itself.

First up, I will be re-designing the card game itself.  Since the initial idea, we always wanted to make sure that any game we developed for the system worked primarily as a physical card game before we augmented it with Picard Table.  This was true for the first version of the game, Humans Vs Aliens, but I felt the game was lacking and failed to engage the players other than the fancy effects of the table.  The basic premise of the game will still stand, that you play either aliens or humans and are fighting to destroy your opponent’s planet, but the mechanics will be reworked to make it more exciting for the players.

Secondly, the table needs to be able to see and control the game play.  I want the cards to interact with one another, and the table, smoothly and reliably.  This will require an overhaul of the whole basic system design and image tracking engine used.  Our initial prototype utilised Flash to create the basic system and game, and used a Flash based AR (augmented reality) tracking engine called FLARToolkit to track the cards.  We discovered in the first prototype that FLARToolkit was not fast or reliable enough for Picard Table.  For the new version Flash will still be used to create the game, but I will be looking at alternate ways to track the cards.

So as Picard Table progresses towards The Edge installation in November, I will be keeping you updated on my progress.  I hope it will provide you with some insight into Picard Table’s development.