A role to play in games?
Fans see good fits: effectiveness and appeal
After the chaotic wrapup of Steve York's three-year production, what came forth in March was an educational computer game, sequel to the doc A Force More Powerful.
Games also are a major objective in at least a handful of grant proposals chasing funding from CPB's American History and Civics Initiative.
In Los Angeles this month, KCET featured four online games on its home page — throwing a valentine to independent game developers.
Electronic games aren't a common part of life in public broadcasting, but enthusiasts see them as a good fit with the field. And pubcasting could provide a model to bring out their potential, says a leader in the "serious games" movement. He proposes a Corporation for Public Gaming that would promote educational games just as CPB has fostered educational TV and radio.
Computer games have two especially strong attractions, according to pubcasters. First, as they say: the audience is there. Teens and young adults, who seldom watch PBS, are drawn powerfully to games. Second, games can be uniquely good at teaching.
Henry Kelly, president of the Federation of American Scientists, put his finger on those capabilities in a June 14 briefing for Congress held by Larry Grossman and Newton Minow's Digital Promise Project, which advocates aid for educational media.
Kelly said none of the earlier electronic technologies has the potential teaching power of computer gaming:
- It knows users and keeps track of what they understand and what they don't get yet.
- It insists on continuous feedback and involvement. "You can't just sit there with your mind turned off," Kelly said.
- It is available anytime, anywhere, throughout the wired and wireless world.
Game technology beats ordinary classroom teaching in effectiveness, and Kelly believes a combination of teachers and computers can also beat one-on-one tutoring.
People who don't play electronic games don't know how that learning occurs, says Nick DeMartino, senior v.p., media and technology at the American Film Institute. Players don't read the manual before playing, he says; they learn the rules by playing. They learn to win by observing.
That's how many young people have learned to learn. "Each of these successive waves of media, going all the way back to the book and the nickelodeon, . . . become part of your DNA. They train your brain," he says.
For baby boomers, nothing will ever replace the media habits of TV and movies. For newer generations, the Internet, instant messaging and cellphones are more important, DeMartino says. "I don't think kids today have the same relationship to TV and movies — or ever will again."
After a wait, CPB opens the door
When CPB asked for proposals in its $20 million American History and Civics Initiative last year, a number of the 88 applicants came up with games. The same will likely be true for a similar initiative for math and science that CPB plans.
Station execs say games are in the proposals from Georgia Public Broadcasting, Oregon Public Broadcasting and others. KCET partnered on a game proposal with Activision and New York's WNET with Immersive Education Ltd.
In WNET's game, players would dive into dramatic historic moments, says Ron Thorpe, v.p. Such as: "You're an escaped slave child in 1857 and you're trying to get north. How are you going to do that?"
The History and Civics RFP was well designed to elicit new-media ideas and write checks to producers in appropriate stages — R&D, prototype and production — says Marion Rice, e.p. at Oregon Public Broadcasting.
The RFP noted that CPB grantmakers "anticipate that successful . . . applicants will incorporate new interactive technologies in the models and methods proposed."
The initiative opens a great opportunity for pubcasters, she says, but it's taken a long time. In fall 2001, Louis Barbash, then a program officer at CPB, gave Rice funding for a San Francisco meeting to brainstorm about games. It was an exciting exercise, with pubTV producers discussing three would-be games with educators and experts such as Will Wright, father of the Sims games. Wright spoke up for a game about high school anthropology and social structure. The group also outlined games about moral dilemmas, such as what to do if a Columbine incident might be brewing at school, and about effective relationships, with players getting points for performance in assigned roles, according to Rice's report to CPB.
Five years later, CPB may be ready to fund substantial games for learning. Several grant proposals came out of that meeting, Barbash says, but they were for complex, expensive games. CPB was interested in simple games for interactive TV, which was then a hot idea for digital broadcasting. He recalls that large-scale games were too far ahead of thinking at stations, PBS and CPB.
Small, medium, extra large
David Galiel is still trying. Galiel, who heads Public Interest Entertainment Corp. in Marblehead, Mass., says the wave of the future is massively multiplayer online games or MMOGs. They're Goliaths in the wide range of games being made:
- MMOGs have thousands or even millions of players interacting on the Internet. They can inspire addiction — and 12-step recovery programs. Budgets run into the tens of millions of dollars, though Galiel thinks educational MMOGs could be made for a tenth as much.
- Medium-size packaged games, which typically run from a disc or cartridge, have prices in the hundreds of thousands or low millions. Three games made by the Federation of American Scientists cost $500,000 to $1 million apiece. A Force More Powerful cost $3 million.
- "Casual" games that people can play in their web browsers are short, inexpensive and typically built with Flash technology. With dozens of games, WNET's CyberChase site on PBS.org finds 65 percent of its visitors coming back for more, says web producer David Hirmes.
Galiel says the big MMOGs have something special going for them — people to play with. "The first time you encounter a live person in a game," Galiel says, "the interaction is so much more interesting and more unpredictable and rich that nobody wants to go back."
Today's hot MMOG, World of Warcraft, collects $15 a month from more than 6.5 million role-players worldwide. But the online interaction doesn't have to be all about "killing and looting the corpses to get on top of the heap." The technology can create an enormous cooperative community just as easily — if perhaps not as profitably.
"What I see missing is the kinds of games that engage emotional systems other than our adrenalin," Galiel says. He brainstormed at Rice's 2001 meeting and partnered with her on a History and Civics proposal to CPB.
Just as PBS producers use state-of-the-art video technology, Galiel wants to see their game counterparts using the best 3-D imagery. To keep technology costs down, he wants to create open-source game-making tools.
Others don't see the need for top production values in every game. It's important for first-person games designed to be immersive, says Scot Osterweil, a consultant to Maryland Public Television's $15 million Star Schools project. But 2-D animation also can be enormously engaging, he says.
Developers of serious games can base decisions about production values on their content and audience as well as budget, says Kay Howell, an expert in high-performance computing who is v.p. of information technology at the Federation of American Scientists. FAS recently tried its hand at creating three serious games.
Howell doesn't buy the notion that young players always insist on hyper-realistic imagery — pointing to their choices in animated movies. "Kids love Pixar, but they also love anime equally," she says. For teaching, she adds, the Defense Department has found that stunning graphics are less important than giving the correct visual cues to players.
FAS nevertheless chose to make its Discover Babylon game as photorealistic as possible so students would get a good eyeful of ancient Mesopotamia. But for a fast, real-time training game for highly motivated fire commanders, Multi Casualty Incident Responder, planners chose to stint on imagery and put the money into the game's artificial intelligence instead, Howell told Current.
Production decisions also were affected by the capabilities and costs of commercial software available for game creation. Licensing the specialized tools greatly simplified FAS's work on Discover Babylon, Howell says, but these tools couldn't handle the constantly shifting cellular shapes in a biology game, Immune Attack. Sales restrictions that may require FAS to pay higher fees to distribute the game widely are another downside of licensed tools.
Educational games don't often emerge from commercial game companies, which work like Hollywood studios and share their imperatives, says Galiel. They invest in look-alikes, assemble teams of game-makers and make distribution deals. There are star producers, but few have had the clout to gamble on nonviolent games. (An exception is Sims creator Wright.)
Greg Costikyan, a game designer since age 16 who keynoted last weekend's Sandbox Videogame Symposium in Boston, says first-rate packaged games can be made for $250,000 to $400,000 and will break even by selling just 20,000 copies. Rather than innovating, however, game companies go for huge box office. Game retailers are also a bottleneck: A retailer may display 40 titles, while 1,500 are published in a year, he says.
One answer is promoting independent game developers — the games equivalent of independent film producers — which KCET is doing on its website. Now playing is Flow, a mesmerizing update of Pac-Man created in Flash by young Shanghai-born Jenova Chen.
The little game festival was put together by an advocate for indies, Juan Devis, a regular web freelancer for KCET whose own indie project is an urban game version of Huckleberry Finn set on the Los Angeles River.
He despairs of educators still trying to cram textbooks into games. With foundation interest in educational games peaking, he says, it's time for public broadcasters to take games seriously.
Corporation for Public what?
The serious games movement now is well established with at least two regular conferences a year. Serious Games Summit DC comes Oct. 30-31 in Crystal City, Arlington, Va., at the same time and place as one of pubTV's round robin meetings.
David Rejeski, a founder of the conference, is the guy who proposed a Corporation for Public Gaming last year on the Serious Games Source website. Wonkish solutions are his trade; he heads a nanotech project at the Smithsonian Institution's Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Rejeski isn't an addicted gamer, but he recognized games' effectiveness years ago when he got to play with an early climate-change simulation, clunky by today's standards, that was developed by the Dutch government. "I was able to learn differently and faster than I ever learned before," he says.
Games could come closer to fulfilling their teaching potential, he wrote, if Congress invested $15 million a year in a gaming counterpart to CPB, including funds to evaluate the effectiveness of games produced. Alternatively, Rejeski wrote, Congress could expand its allotment to CPB, which would fund games.
His article sparked enthusiasm among bloggers though no response from public broadcasters. Fearing that federal funding is a long shot, Rejeski now thinks somebody should start a nonprofit and begin fundraising, remarking, "It could be supported by viewers like you, right?"
Illogic into logic
The three-hour series A Force More Powerful, aired by PBS in 2000, showed the workings of nonviolent political action so clearly that it became a training resource for activists here and abroad. It was translated into Farsi, Russian and other languages.
On that score, hopes are even higher for the game with the same name, which went on sale in March for $19.95.
Steve York, who oversaw both documentary and game for York-Zimmerman Productions in Washington, expects the game will be used in college courses, think tanks and churches, and by nonviolent activists for all sorts of causes. Peter Ackerman and his International Center on Nonviolent Conflict financed the $3 million cost. York expects they'll give a third of the games away.
Though the game has some fleeting 3-D graphics, it mainly offers a mental challenge — marshaling facts and choosing strategies for political ends. A player learns by playing that a movement dies early if it attracts the rulers' attention before it has raised funds, attracted capable leaders, built a broad base of support and trained followers in discipline and nonviolence.
In successful movements, "there's less magic than one might imagine," York says. "It involves being methodical — making sure all the bases are covered." But success also requires authentic inspiration. Outsiders can't tell people how to formulate the message that will resonate in a distant culture.
Like a good public TV documentary, the game incorporates insights from scholars, including Gene Sharp, a leading authority and former Harvard professor, and Robert L. Helvey, a retired Army colonel. Ivan Marovic, a longtime gamer and a Serbian resistance leader, gave reality checks.
Part of York's job was to help the game designers absorb in detail what the scholars and Marovic know about how dictators behave and how movements can topple them, he says. The designers fashion an algorithm with a dozen variables, including a wild card representing dictators' irrationality. Then the team tweaks it to keep results plausible.
The hardest part of game-making was letting go of authorship, York says. "For a filmmaker who is accustomed to controlling what happens, when, for how long, . . . all the details of pacing and music, this is not entirely pleasant." A game-maker merely provides ideas, characters, relationships and other spare parts for the player's story.
Web page posted Aug. 1, 2006
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