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!

XODOX: disrupt my doc!

Posted by veerle on Thursday March 8th 2012 at 10:43

Come to the XODOX ‘DOCJAM’ Creative LAB at Docville 2012! 1 may 2012, Leuven, Belgium

Come to the world’s first ‘DOC JAM’ Creative LAB where documentary ideas are developed, disrupted and expanded. See what happens when factual ideas become multiplatform, interactive, playful and networked.

Are you a documentary producer, director, game developer, game designer or interactive with a dox interest, who want to explore the creative and commercial potential for developing new types of interactive factual content?

Do you want to gain an understanding of the different skills required to produce transmedia projects?

Do you want to learn how telling stories across multiple platforms, integrating social networking, games and interactivity can grow audiences in today’s crowded media environment?

This is not a conference! This is a jam! Be prepared to disrupt your doc!

For more information see

Vice City Virtue: Moral Issues in Digital Game Play

Posted by steven on Tuesday November 15th 2011 at 12:30

Karolien Poels and I have a book out, titled ‘Vice City Virtue: Moral Issues in Digital Game Play’. The book can be ordered at Acco and Amazon.

In the book we collect essays and research papers by scholars with backgrounds in philosophy, theology, psychology, cultural studies and communication science. We address questions like ‘under which circumstances is it morally wrong to engage in virtual violence?’ or ‘can games like Fallout 3 or Heavy Rain have a positive effect on our ethical reasoning?’. These and many others! We did not want to restrict ourselves to the ‘games-and-violence’ debate because we are convinced that games are about a lot more than violence and pornography. We think the different chapters together make a good case for considering games as a mature and versatile medium (or art form).

Check it out!

DIGRA 2011 meeting: Think, Design, Play

Posted by steven on Tuesday November 15th 2011 at 12:10

DiGRA meetings are a guarantee for meeting up with different types of people and exchanging ideas with researchers from completely different backgrounds. This year’s meeting, under the motto ‘Think, Design, Play‘, was no exception to this. We saw presentations on in-game advertising (among others a study by Laura Herrewijn) next to lectures on the use of UML-style modelling techniques to automatise the balancing of resources in games (Joris Dormans on his fascinating ‘Machinations Framework‘) or on game involvement (Gordon Calleja digging deeper into the notion of incorporation) – spiced with a lot of entertaining keynotes on game design (Mary Flanegan, Eric Zimmerman, Reiner Knizia). Due to the large amount of parallel sessions I even had to miss Katia Aerts’ presentation on the GameHub project (sorry for that!).

I had two presentations myself – both scheduled on Friday – the second day of the conference. During the morning I presented a paper I co-wrote with Thomas Laureyssens, discussing the main results of last year’s ‘Play’ module. We focused on the design challenges one faces while developing games to be used on the workfloor – including the fact that one is targeting a very a-typical gaming public, that one has to consider emplyer-employee relationships (and more specific, the fact that a worker feels uncomfortable being caught playing at work), and that games have to be integrated in a specific public context. I introduced the design philosophy of Streetwize VZW, which is very well suited to address these challenges, given the importance it attributes to aspects such as a low learning treshold. Finally I described the four games that were developed in the context of the module, and pointed out which were the main design desicions made by our students. I include our presentation as an attachment to this post. The session was about ‘designing games for work’, and I was co-hosting the session with Finnish researcher Perttu Heino. His work targeted a similar research goal, as he is in the process of developing games that may enhance the abilities of engineers in a large professional country. During debate, which was structured as a meta-game in order to increase audience participation, it appeared that we could both learn a lot from one another’s results – even though we had been working in completely different contexts. A lot of parrallel sessions were going on at the same time, but nevertheless the room was pretty crowded during our presentation. I had a good session.

Friday afternoon I was chairing a panel session, along with Karolien Poels, on morality in digital game play. The session was structured around our book, ‘Vice City Virtue: Moral Issues in Digital Game Play‘ (Acco Academic, 2011). We had quite an impressive lineup of speakers, with Tilo Hartmann, Garry Young and Monica Whitty discussing the subject from a physchological point of view and presenting a number of highly relevant research results, and with Jose Zagal and myself (I’ll leave in the middle how impressive that is!) addressing the subject from a cultural point of view. We had a heavily loaded session, with discussions regarding matters such as ‘rational vs. experiential processing of virtual violence’ or ‘the ethical dilemma’s contained in such games as Manhunt or Deus Ex’. It was very fun (and interesting!) to see those people in person and hear them reconstruct their arguments!


Attach: Malliet Laureyssens DiGRA 2011




Annual AERA conference – April 8-12 2011

Posted by steven on Monday November 14th 2011 at 17:42

Even though many speakers at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) were big names in the field of game studies (Yasmin Kafai, Constance Steinkuehler, Richard Van Eck, James Paul Gee, Kurt Squire, to name only a few), the conference proved far from familiar territory. Research on the educational potential of digital games appears to take place in somewhat of a vacuum compared to research on the attractions, effects and culture of digital games (i.e. what I would consider as ‘familiar territory’). This manifested itself in a debate that to us was one of the highlights of the conference. In this debate different researchers were exploring the instructional potential of digital games based upon empirical research. Richard Clark claimed that there currently is hardly any evidence supporting the assertion that digital games have positive educational effects. Clark emphasized that not enough is known yet about the interactive nature of digital games, and about the benefits compared to traditional methods of teaching. On the other hand, Val Schute saw a lot of potential in digital games. She pointed at numerous empirical studies, and emphasized that digital games can be useful for different types of learning: learning of ‘traditional’ material in addition to cognitive skills and so-called 21st century skills.

In our opinion, many points of disagreement could have been solved with a more thorough understanding of the nature of digital games, and of research in the more general domain of game studies. There exist numerous definitions of digital games and of interactivity in games, and these definitions might have helped contextualizing the arguments of both sides. In the field of communication studies digital games are being intensively studied regarding the conditions under which a specific social or psychological effect might occur – this as opposed to educational research which too often focuses on finding a general effect that applies to all games or to broad game genres.

During the debate we (=colleague Bob De Schutter and I) decided to slightly change the focus of our own presentation (which was scheduled a day later) based upon these concerns. We decided to put a stronger emphasis on the usefulness of methods and theories from communication studies as aids in overcoming a number of difficulties in Digital Game-Based Learning (DGBL) research. Drawing on previous studies we had done on the application of cultivation research, Elaboration Likelihood research, and research we had done on game realism, we made a plea for an increased interdisciplinary approach in the field of educational gaming. Following our presentation we sat together with Richard Van Eck (University of North Dakota), to write down our first ideas for an upcoming paper (still in progress!) on the similarities between media research and educational research.

During other sessions different subjects were tackled that were extremely relevant to us as game researchers and (in Bob’s case) designers: How to integrate game design and game research more intensively? (Yuxin Ma presenting a very interesting case with the ‘Conquest of the Coastlands‘ game); How to integrate games in a classroom context? (William Watson and Christopher Mong presenting a case study on teachers experiences with the ‘Making History‘ game ); Numerous studies on the attitudes of teachers towards using games, and numerous case studies on the use of specific games in the classroom (of which we remember one convincing case made by Jayne Lammers regarding the Sims as an affinity space for acquiring various skills).

Many speakers demonstrated -once again- that motivation is a crucial and at the same time very complicated subject for those interested in instructional games. There were four entire sessions dedicated to the work of educational philosopher John Dewey, and to the different applications of his insights in DGBL. These sessions proved highly interesting for us as introductions to the field of pedagogy and educational psychology, and allowed us to broaden our scopes as researchers and thinkers.

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