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Games Turn Serious at the Inaugural Summit

Christopher Harz reports on the Serious Game Summit in Washington, D.C., which was a fascinating mix of the wild entertainment industry and the more focused training developers.

The Serious Games Summit grows up and debuts its own conference.

The Serious Games Summit grows up and debuts its own conference.

The Serious Games Summit, which in the past was tucked away into a corner of the Game Development Conference (GDC) in San Jose, is now on its own. Its recent inaugural event, in Washington, D.C. (not far from the Pentagon), was bursting at the seams every presentation was SRO, and a great many people had to be turned away because of lack of space. Clearly, a lot of people are taking games very seriously.

Hundreds of people crowded into the conference rooms to hear presentations on GBL (Game Based Learning) for military, medicine, homeland security, universities (both for education and research), NASA, businesses and many other applications. The scene was surreal, with a strange admixture of professors in suits and uniformed officers in the foyer next to younger types in T-shirts whooping it up as they fired electronic guns at moving targets in game demonstration setups, and sober vendor booths obviously used to catering only to government clients sharing the air with more casual Hollywood-type suppliers such as Avid, Alienbrain, Softimage and ATI.

It should come as no surprise that games can have serious purposes they are as old as man himself, or even older (the next time you visit a zoo, watch the baby monkeys or wolf cubs tussling and tumbling in their games to learn about their life paths and how to get chow). Games form a relatively inexpensive means to train many military missions compared with live exercises, saving the wear and tear on actual tanks, Hummers, aircraft and other vehicles, while reducing the very high dangers of in-the-field training for soldiers. They can also be used pervasively, during the free time in a soldiers life, as a more productive use of his time than meditating at great length on heat, social conditions and sand fleas. This type of game is to be distinguished from military simulators million-dollar replicas of actual fighting systems that have been around for decades (the first simulator was developed by Link for the Army Air Corps in the 1920s).

The U.S. Army, a major sponsor of the Serious Game Summit, produces Americas Army, one of the most popular online games today. Credit: U.S. Army.

The U.S. Army, a major sponsor of the Serious Game Summit, produces Americas Army, one of the most popular online games today. Credit: U.S. Army.

Simulators can have some of the aspects of games, including good 3D CGI-based virtual environments, realistic weaponry, rules and procedures, objectives, conflict and the ability to improve, but usually pay little attention to motivating the player, and lack many of the most dramatic elements of gameplay, such as a compelling backstory, ongoing online communities of players with cultures, traditions and artifacts, player roles and character development, and the ability to quickly introduce player feedback into the game (a good summary of successful game elements can be found in Game Design Workshop, by Fullerton and Swain).

A major sponsor of the Serious Games Summit was the U.S. Army, which is greatly increasing the scope of its Americas Army game. Originally meant as a PR and recruiting tool, the game is now being expanded to becoming a platform for other Army missions such as experimenting with tactics and testing new equipment. Americas Army is one of the five most popular online games in the world, with more than four million players signing up in the last two years. It provides an interesting case study to see how a serious game gets developed and some of the challenges that come along the way.

Americas Army began at the MOVES Institute, under Mike Zyda, at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

Americas Army began at the MOVES Institute, under Mike Zyda, at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.

A major national study led the way for the creation of Americas Army. In 1997, the National Research Council reported in Modeling and Simulation Linking Entertainment and Defense that commercial videogames, not government-sponsored modeling and simulation, were the main drivers in the development of networked virtual environments, both for hardware and software. It was time, the report indicated, for the Department of Defense and other organizations to examine networked entertainment for ideas and technologies. In response, the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, formed the MOVES Institute, under Mike Zyda, and it was there that Americas Army began.

The first decision in creating the game was to license a game engine, rather than develop one from scratch (which can take five years or more). The engine (and authoring-tool set) chosen was Unreal, by Epic (www.epicgames.com). The Unreal engine is preferred by many for large open spaces, whereas the Quake series of engines from ID are popular for more confined games that take place in a series of rooms or caves. The team budgeted about $300K for the cost of the engine (non-commercial usage can be much cheaper) and about a third of that for annual maintenance.

With a yearly development budget of around $2.5 million and operational costs of about $1.5 million, the team was funded at around $4 million per year, or around $8 million to produce the first release. In the first year the team grew from zero staff to around 26, and got space, workstations and computer graphics toolsets. According to Zyda, the most difficult part of creating Americas Army was building a cohesive game team. The military SOP for building simulators had been to basically hire a couple of dozen programmers and set them loose if one of those programmers had taken an art course in college, that would have been an unexpected bonus. A team for a game, on the other hand, required arrows not readily available in the military quiver. The Americas Army team of 26 at the end consisted of four game programmers (capable of doing scripts and C++), with the remaining 22 being level designers and artists. Zyda found that the formal education of these designers and artists was of little help in hiring them much more important were the demo reels and the recommendations of people that had already been hired. So standard Human Resources hiring practices had to be thrown out of the window.

Zyda had to find common ground for his production team who all had varying skills. The game CounterStrike was brought in as a design model to which they added Army values and training.

Zyda had to find common ground for his production team who all had varying skills. The game CounterStrike was brought in as a design model to which they added Army values and training.

The leader of the group was the exec producer (also called the creative director). Although young (shy of 30), he was the father figure of the group. Under him were the lead programmer, the lead artist and the lead designer (for both the story and the game presentation). The EPs job was to assure the team could master an efficient production pipeline that would get a game online within 24 months. Whiners were culled and replaced, and eventually the team started humming. Unfortunately, a major cultural clash was in the offing, between the game creation team and the military officers in charge of the project who also formulated the training objectives. The differences in lifestyle were not subtle. According to Zyda, one group showed up at 0700 (7:00 am) in uniform. The other ambled in at around 11 in T-shirts and flip-flops. However, the first group left at 5:00 pm (precisely), while the second worked like madmen to midnight and beyond. This cultural clash was ameliorated with adept leadership, patience, insight, understanding and by keeping the program manager away from the dev team.

Other problems also haunted the team. A proper mix of skills had to be found the team had a character animator, for instance, but no character modeler, and no audio developer. Three game-industry veterans were hired that brought not only staffing experience, but knowledge of actually creating and shipping a product. The absence of a thorough design document also led to confusion between the team and the customer. As a solution, the game CounterStrike was used as a model that everyone could agree on, but with heavy emphasis on Army values and training. The final major hurdle the team faced was that the game was a runaway success. The 140 servers that were stood up on July 4, 2002, were quickly swamped by the half-million download requests on the first weekend. Servers were added, along with bug fixes and many new features. One of the new features was the option for a soldier in the game (whose status in the Army was verified) to put an Army star next to his name; this strengthened the camaraderie between the civilian and military gamers.

ACLS Interactive developed a training game for paramedics to practice Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support skills. © 2004 Legacy Interactive. All rights reserved. Legacy Interactive is a trademark of Legacy Interactive Inc.

ACLS Interactive developed a training game for paramedics to practice Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support skills. © 2004 Legacy Interactive. All rights reserved. Legacy Interactive is a trademark of Legacy Interactive Inc.

Along with the success of Americas Army c ame the decision to expand its scope and philosophy beyond the initial aim of just generating favorable PR for the military. Americas Army is a communications tool, says Colonel Casey Wardynski (who has a doctorate from Rand, and is a professor at West Point). Players can download it for free from the Internet (at www.americasarmy.com), and use it to try on the role of soldier, virtually, and see if its something they want to do in real life. There are limits on how wild the game can get. The game teaches Army values, says Wardynski. Real soldiers review all pre-releases, and if they dont like it, we dont release it. A new release, the Future Soldiers System, can actually be used to teach basics such as rules of engagement and first aid to prospective soldiers. Kids at recruiting stations will use this, and well be able to see how theyll do in the Army, and theyll show up at training camps more prepared and more confident, notes Wardynski.

Colonel Casey Wardynski notes that the games teach army values and is an invaluable recruiting tool.

Colonel Casey Wardynski notes that the games teach army values and is an invaluable recruiting tool.

New military applications are now being developed for Americas Army that will not be released to the public. These include training courses for the Stryker armored Infantry Carrier Vehicle and for the Talon Robot, which is a small remote controlled vehicle used for destroying IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) in Afghanistan and Iraq. A new team has also been formed (and is hiring additional staff) to develop applications of Americas Army for other branches of the federal government.

Military and government training were by no means the only serious games applications at the conference. Medical training and therapy showed surprisingly strong interest; in fact, this area now has its own special conference (.gamesforhealth.orgA well known proponent of gaming, Dr. James Rosser of Beth Israel Medical Clinic, made headlines when his studies showed that surgeons practicing on videogames with hand-eye coordination performed laparoscopic surgery much faster and with fewer errors than non-players. One of the medical game developers, Legacy Interactive, is better known for its games based on popular TV shows such as Law and Order and ER. When asked to adapt its games to real life training, the company formed a Serious Games division, and is now releasing its ACLS Interactive, a training game for paramedics to practice Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support skills. Another such company, Wild Divine, makes a game with biofeedback for stress reduction and inducing meditative states.

Business games are also popular. A Scottish company at the conference named TPLD (www.tpld.ltd.uk) makes games for teaching team building and collaboration, both for business managers and for middle school students. First responders are also benefiting from advances in the game industry, via companies such as Dynamic Animation Systems (www.d-a-s.com/NFA.html, www.d-a-s.com/USFS.html), which creates command and control training simulations for firefighters.

One of the most interesting companies at the show was Visual Purple (www.visualpurple.com) of California, which created Angel Five, for crisis management training, Lethal Sky, for emergency room casualty treatment training, RestOps, for countering a chemical attack on an Airbase, and Wave Guide, a training game for special operations teams. Visual Purples games not only contain rich backstories, but the company is especially adept at guiding non-gamers through the game so that they get a valuable and satisfying experience without getting lost in the simulation. Many game developers that have experience only with entertainment games fail to appreciate that a Serious Game application may have trainees that are not 18 years old and that may never have played another videogame. Such customers need to be guided through a game, with effective motivation and feedback mechanisms, rather than the throw them in the pool and see whether they can swim approach that many entertainment developers seem to favor it is all to easy for a newbie gamer to enter such a game environment, get lost or confused, and quit the game in frustration. Companies such as Visual Purple set the example for what is possible games with rich content and challenge that are playable by communities of professionals.

harz07_RestOps2.jpg

Visual Purple created Angel Five for crisis management training. RestOps (left), shows how to counter a chemical attack on an airbase, and Wave Guide is a training game for special operations teams. © 1996-2004 by Visual Purple Llc. All rights reserved.

In summary, Serious Games is a very new area, one that can bring together very different communities. On the one hand are the gaming creatives, who are great at basic gaming elements how to put story, motivation, competition, character development and other elements into the game. They are typically not very good at using games to train people to do certain tasks. On the other side are the training experts, who know what training they need, but dont understand gaming elements left to their own devices, they would come up with a simulation that took the trainee through a series of tasks, and then tested him/her afterwards to see whether the training took if possible, with exact numerical scores that could be tabulated. Missing in such a game would be any element of fun or motivation. Unfortunately, nobody wants to play that kind of game. By using some of the elements of games but forgetting the most important ones such training-oriented designers are guilty of killing the goose that lays the golden eggs, so to speak.

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Somewhere in the middle are university researchers such as Professor Jim Gee, professor at the University of Wisconsin and the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, who are looking at the reasons why games (when designed well) can be so effective at educating. Marc Prensky, the author of Digital Game-Based Learning, is another pioneer in this area, and a supporter of many of the clubs and associations that are pushing and supporting Serious Games (www.marcprensky.com). They are among the research pioneers shedding light on how gaming can best be applied to a whole range of learning situations, including many (such as medicine) where lives may be at stake.

Serious game developers are a fascinating mix, with the vitality and wild creativity of the entertainment side, but with the focused view of training developers that often have very serious clients. It is increasingly difficult to enter the mainstream entertainment market due to the risk aversion of publishers who are unwilling to invest many millions into an unknown quantity, and would rather stay with the tried and true route of yet another sequel or game based on a movie. In contrast, the Serious Games market is a brand new outlet for creative types to develop games that will not only be fun and playable but that may make a real difference in the world.

Christopher Harz is an executive consultant for new media. He has produced video games for films such as Spawn, The Fifth Element, Titanic and Lost in Space. As Perceptronics svp of program development, Harz helped build the first massively multiplayer online game worlds, including the $240 million 3-D SIMNET. He worked on C3I, combat robots and war gaming at the RAND Corp., the military think tank.

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