SXSW 2013: On Serious Game Realism

Posted by steven on Monday April 29th 2013 at 16:49

Founded more than 20 years ago as an international meeting for the music industry, in the past decade the South-By-Southwest (SXSW) conference has evolved into a global meeting for the entertainment industries, and today it also includes comprehensive tracks on Film and Interactive Media and Art (of which videogames are a considerable part). Compared to the Game Developers Conference (GDC) the SXSW gaming track is still in its infancy, but compared to all other meetings of the game industry I have ever visited, it is no less than impressive. All big gaming companies are there to present new titles, innovations and technologies, and at any point there are at least 3 simultaneous presentations that feature practical experiences of designers and artists. In no way an easy job to select which sessions to attend (and which not)!

While we witnessed several fascinating accounts of developers disclosing their secrets, regarding how to hit the Chinese market as an indie developer, to create interactive drama, or use NASA technology to build entertainment robots (!), it was in particular the serious gaming presentations that were interesting to us as researchers. We remember among others sessions on the zombie-themed exergame Zombies, Run!, on designing a meta-meta(!)-game to teach game design, or on Globaloria, the e-learning platform that enables kids (from 9th grade on) to design their own games – often with impressive results!

Logically, our own session (featuring fltr Bob De Schutter, myself, Rick Van Eck and Amy Adcock) was also a part of the serious gaming program. As we were the only all-academic panel at the entire gaming track, in the weeks before the conference our nerves had become quite uptight. We weren’t going to be able to do what we usually do: talk about theory, methdology, some more theory and provide in-depth analyses of data (usually followed by some more theory)! This time we’d have to be short, witty, to-the-point and above all, relevant to the practitioner. Our first testing ground, an online guest lecture we did at the end of February in Rick Van Eck’s class on game-based learning, demonstrated we had a lot of work to do (read: theory to cut away) before we would be able to do a condensed business session! During the guest lecture we had talked for more than 2 hours – for the SXSW presentation this would have to be cut back to 45 minutes! No easy assignment, especially because our topic, game realism, was a very philosophic one, about which an enormous amount of theory exists.

In the end I managed to bring back my part to less than 10 minutes: briefly discuss the model of perceived game realism that I have developed together with Wannes Ribbens, and illustrate by making references to America’s Army (and a number of other serious games). Thanks to roaring nerves (also due to the fact that our session was packed to full capacity!) I managed to say it all in 7 minutes (discussion afterwards not counted), buying time for Rick and Amy to explain the educational implications of what I’d been saying. As a result, the discussion at the end, where we debated the degrees of realism of a number of Belgian serious games (among which two games developed as part of the GameHub project), could be done in a more relaxed fashion, and was arguably the highlight of the presentation.

Reading the review Minicore Studios wrote of our session, I am glad that our approach had apparently paid off, and that we did not come across as dull academics! Also thanks to Bob’s great design job on our slides of course!

Bob has a blog online, where he has edited the slides to the podcast of our session, so that everyone can re-live the experience!

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