Sunday, February 24, 2008

GDC 2008: Past And Future Wrapped Together

Thoughts in flight, crossing a continent, returning home—this time after attending and speaking at the Game Developer’s Conference 2008. Finally I have time to organize my thoughts. Connection points and potential are the threads twisting through my head. I originally attended GDC in 2001 with the intention of learning how best to construct a degree program for this nascent industry. It set in motion the creation of Champlain’s game degree program.

This year it seemed as if a milestone had been met. The largest group yet of Champlain faculty, staff and students attended. Members of our soon-to-be first graduating class came resume ready. The college hosted its first booth. And as part of the Education SIG, I was asked to speak and be part of a panel on the topics of industry/academic relations and on academic collaborations. Also for first time my sister Mary DeMarle spoke as part of a divergent panel on "The Future of Game Writing". It was a DeMarle family first (thanks Mom and Dad)

GDC has grown to be a homecoming for me. It’s a return to a Shangri-La created by the connection of people with ideas on art and code, story and behavior. From my vantage point, past and future wrapped around itself at the conference.

Reliving their early discoveries that gave birth to the game industry, Ralph Baer (creator of the first video tennis game and the first home video game system, the Brown Box, marketed as the Magnavox Odyssey), and Al Alcorn (creator of the video arcade game Pong and the Atari 2600) spoke on Wednesday. Their slides showcased the early hands-on nature of engineering and technology. Still evident was their joy in discovery. They swapped stories of wiring 12-volt batteries, bulbs and cathoray tubes and installing all within wooden casing. They were asked if they had any idea that their creations would spawn the industry that exists today. “Not at all.” Yet in that early work, one can see the birth of today’s current genres: sports, shooters, and educational content.

The following day, Ray Kurzweil focused a well-polished magnifying glass on the future and the part games will play. Kurzweil repeatedly addressed the game industry audience as those who are actively engaged in the algorithmic acceleration of technology. Twice he commented on the unfortunate name of “games” for the discipline.

In rapid fire style he outlined his theories on the nature of paradigms shifting: the early days of punch cards and vacuum tubes, Moore’s Law coming to an end in 2012 (ending the 5th paradigm), entering the 6th paradigm with 3D chips, the advent of self-organizing nanotechnology, forecasting a billion-fold increase in computer technology by 2013, and of computation mirroring the human brain. Our challenge, he stated,“Will we have the software?”. He went on that with virtual reality possible we enter the “Uncanny Valley” of believable intelligence. We have graphic fidelity but we also will have intelligence behind the characters. “Alan Turing said the key to humanity is language. Computers are not at human level yet but in 2020 we will be there. Can humanity understand this data? A complex system may not be complex enough to understand itself.”

As if to challenge the audience further, Kurzweil stated, “Play is how we principally learn and create”and later “in games, ultimately, we will do most of learning through these massively multiplayer worlds”. He predicted an exponential growth in education, foreseeing that “all sorts of educational material will be delivered through the game world”. This being necessary as technology destroys jobs at bottom of skill ladder and jobs are created at the top of the knowledge industries. Farm and factory jobs being replaced by web design, game industry, etc..

Kurzweil is optimistic about the future believing that “technology is inherently democratizing”. He predicts a golden day coming with human intelligence married to computing and biotechnology promising longer, healthier lives. Kurzweil stated that the purpose of human existence is to go beyond the limitations of our biology to expand our intelligence.

The conference was buzzing with the possibilities. Many conference attendees left inspired, sensing their work may break new ground for virtual existences. I leave with questions about the purpose of our existence and about our nature. Entertainment technology is indeed taking advantage of the acceleration of computing capabilities. Play is indeed the way we learn. Market forces, however, drive what is being created. The youthful creators of games love being on the edge much like Baer and Alcorn did 40 years ago. Like them, they do not seem to see the impact of their work. Games are powerful shapers of learning. Where are the minds for the future being created? Later, I'd like to share more from the conference on this topic.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Once Again, On Wing

This time we are flying home to Vermont—a tired but successful bunch. It will be lovely to be back again. This has been an intense process—uprooting, forming bonds, learning from strangers, grasping concepts, filtering to find the solution, implementing, adjusting, and then the presentation—within the hectic, unnatural environment of the conference floor.
Game time was at 4:00PM. The team completed and presented a playable version of the “Meet Different: Go Green” game—a graphically beautiful quiz style game. Minor edits are still required. It’s an expandable design wherein questions are randomly selected from a database created in XML. Future development can include adding deeper questions and answers by the larger community. The player chooses answers to questions corresponding to planning a conference. The choices represent a balance between economics and the environment. The player is rewarded with a visual representation of how their choices effect the environment.

The “Meet Different: A Social Sim” game was not completely playable at launch. The team took on a complex structure to meet a marvelous concept. Lauren was programming AI (artificial intelligence) into the objects and characters that make up the sim. I am looking forward to the completion of that game. The player is presented with an open floor, drag and drop objects fill the menu below. Each object corresponds to a conference design element: food, technology kiosks, signage, furniture, etc. Once the room is arranged the player clicks on “Open” and a simulation begins. People enter the room each representing three different personality types: the early adopter, the traditionalist and the facilitator/connector. The game’s goal is to birth ideas between these diverse groups. Lauren has been programming behaviors into the elements and characters on attractions and how the character types would respond when brought together by the elements. The player will see which environments spawn ideas between the groups. Future improvements could include adding granularity to the elements and game characters.

But enough of description, we need testers! You can play the games at MPI’s website here:

Before we left, John and Elliott challenged the students to investigate the language of learning in games. One rewarding result of this event was hearing our student team elaborate on the power of games to teach. Wes Knee touches on it in this YouTube interview created by attendee Kristi Sanders.

In the final presentation, we opened up a forum between the student creators, our faculty and staff, Mary, Katie, Brooke, and conference attendees. The conversation topics ranged from games for learning, to networked technology, to how to create fun in games, to MPI member goals, to working with young people and the impact they will bring to the work world. In this conversation Ben, Chris, Emily, Lauren, Vanessa and Wes put words to their experience this week. They clearly demonstrated their growing understanding of the potential of games and emergent technologies for learning and creating change in the world. They also clearly demonstrated that change in the forms of new ways of thinking and working, borne of technology and networks, is landing soon regardless of our readiness to prepare for it.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Count Down in Houston

Minus one hour and seven minutes to launch. Coincidentally in game development "launch" is the same term as applied in Houston, home of NASA's Mission Control. It looks like Mission Control here—the students' eyes glued to their screens, clicking and typing furiously. A larger monitor allows us to see their progress. Our new colleagues, the attendees who have assisted the process, keep checking in.

It is another remarkable experiment. Surprisingly technology, skill and the complexity of team created products is not what has made it the test it is. Those we have covered. Challenging elements have been:

1. the time factor - 2 games in 3 days.
2. coming to the topic with little knowledge ahead of time
3. creating for an audience that does not usually play games
4. open creation and the constant interruptions in the process

Because of what the team has brought to the project—deep knowledge of game design, technology and artistic skills, solid communication abilities—these challenges above are making the game products strong. 

The learner state the students are in due  to their lack of content knowledge has enabled them to cut through to the core of the content. The time element has made it essential to pare down the info to be delivered to the most impactful and meaningful elements. Working with the attendees and being in the choatic environment of the conference floor has given them a quick and deep understanding of the context and content. It has also given them the opportunity to know personally their audience.

And that audience has been generous. Last night the students were surprised by six pizzas delivered to their hotel where they worked until past midnight. This morning at 7:00 they were rewarded by a large Texas gift basket full of food and then a basket of fruit arrived. Mary Boone has generously accepted our invitation to co-moderate their presentation. Elliott Masie stopped in to give support. Brooke Bode, our Queen Bee, checks in and makes sure we have the support we need.

As I wrote to Mike Dupee, the concepts have welcoming, intuitive, approachable interfaces. The games balance complex forces and illustrate solutions borne of player's choices...and then allows them to replay and rearrange the solution to explore various results. The "green" game speaks more about answers. The "meet different" game is about process. We can't wait to share—but first we need lift-off.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Creating in Houston

Ben, Chris, Emily, Lauren, Vanessa and Wes have been through a whirlwind, kept their heads and straight forwardly went upon their mission since we have arrived. 

This is despite meeting the MPI Board of Trustees, being photographed and videotaped and then projected to the assembly of 2000+.

They have gone straight to work creating their games brainstorming, investigating, reaching out to attendees and back to the Champlain campus for assistance. Attendees have been actively seeking out the game lab and providing questions, knowledge and feedback. The more challenging game concept has been the idea of "meet different". Essentially a question of designing for change. Change with a goal of fostering deeper communication. The co-creation model has unique value for this question.

I'm excited about the two games. They have moved beyond conceptual and into production.

From our online project management web tool, here is Lauren's description of that challenge posted to the Champlain College community:
"I think we've finally settled on an idea, after lots of listening and discussing. We're going to make an event-designing sim with some drag-and-drop components, and once the user has designed a space, it will be filled with people of both traditional and open mindsets.
Basically, it becomes a game of setting up a space that has enough information to help the traditionalists understand what's going on, while also adding enough engaging material to prevent the open-minded people from getting bored. As long as these people are excited about being in the room, they can create new ideas/connections if they're standing near each other. The objective is then to generate as many new ideas/connections as possible. Feel free to give some feedback on this, or continue to support us when we need real help. We're reusing the dude from the Asymbolation game, if anyone else is as amused by his return as we are."

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Atlantis from the Air

Seems like we've been here before. Oh yes we were! Weather turned blustery yesterday afternoon as we were attempting to travel to Houston for the Meeting Professional International conference. 

We had to rebook and were at the Burlington airport by 4:15 am. The students will be creating two games in the next three days: one on convening meetings that more effectively reach organizational goals. The other on how event planners can begin crafting "green" events.

Our looming environmental crisis has been a theme this week. The campus took part in Focus the Nation with author Bill McKibben issuing the wake-up call at Champlain. He clearly pinpointed the edge we are precipitously dancing on. He speaks out for both individual and political action but also for seeking new technological solutions to our energy needs.The following day Hope, Bob Bloch, Moneer Greenbaum and I met with Ann Jones-Weinstock from NRG. NRG is a successful Vermont engineering company that develops wind energy products. Her point was that NRG is focused on offering long lasting, realistic solutions. She wondered how NRG could help Champlain bring bright young minds to the question.

Our point exactly.

In preparation for their challenge this week, our student team interviewed Mike Dupee. Mike guides Green Mountain Coffee Roasters corporate responsibility actions. He spoke of “green washing”. Like white washing, it means putting a green spin on products or activities that make the consumer feel good but in actuality do not bring about positive environmental change. An example would be a recent catalog I received. It teased me to better the planet through purchasing organic cotton sheet sets printed in a green leaf motif. However promoting consumerism and mailing catalogs achieves the opposite result. Mike also linked the environmental question to the human equation. How should corporations work with world workers producing oil, coffee, cocoa, etc.? They receive minimal fiscal reimbursement with little consideration of sustainable practices. Why should and how can corporations work to balance that?

Tying ends together Elliott Masie and John Abele visited us yesterday. We drew together: students, faculty and staff in an open forum essentially on games, technology and learning. The conversations took a deep look at how these and the talents of our students can impact our world. Elliott has returned from Africa where he helped distribute malaria nets with Malaria No More. Malaria is spreading due to two major environmentally bound factors. First being the initial remedy against the mosquitoes, DDT, did more harm than good. The second — global warming is increasing the range of the mosquito borne illnesses. While in Africa, Elliott creatively applied technology—videoing, blogging and posting; connecting the recipients of the nets to those who donated them. This mimics the rewarded learning and communication system found in games. Those who take action can witness the impact.

But my mind is seeking answers to save us from destroying our home. How can we learn fast enough and then implement as quickly what needs to be done? Can new ways of communicating and thinking brought about by our networked, participatory culture bring about real solutions? What is the “Wikipedia” model that can leverage the “Wisdom of the Crowds” to find true solutions? Can we then “game-ify” the system to bring lasting change?

Our student team, Wes, Lauren, Ben, Emily, Vanessa and Chris, along with Hope, Ray, Peter and myself are finally airborne. The frozen, icy airfield behind us, we’ve traveled through the tumbly clouds to a sliver moon morning. As I sit here the clouds below look like a snowfield and I can imagine them embracing the continent. 

The sun rises above the horizon. Light breaks across in golds, blues and pinks. My heart catches in awe. We are at the time of Atlantis. The choices lay before us. Shall we continue with this beautiful world, or will we choose to annihilate ourselves? “This pretty planet” can continue an eternity without us. We do not have the same option.