Serious Games International, Singapore

As the popularity of casual and mobile gaming continues to grow so too does interest in research around how games could be used to improve our daily lives. Serious games are games that have been designed with a primary purpose other than entertainment. Business, education and health related organizations are beginning to recognise that the framework and experience of games can be harnessed to address specific problems in the real world.

Acknowledging the growing importance and interest in serious games within the region, the Media Development Authority of Singapore (MDA) initiated a strategy in late 2009 to promote the industry in Singapore. In order to capitalise on the experience of an organisation already well established in the area, MDA contacted the Serious Games Institute UK (SGIUK) based within Coventry University. Established in 2007, SGIUK’s portfolio includes research projects on serious games, mobile applications, 3D animation and virtual worlds.  This research has lead to the development of products that are widely used in the areas of clinical training, obesity awareness, disaster and emergency planning, and sexual health awareness in the UK.

Last year MDA and SGIUK announced a joint call-for-proposals in serious games, inviting established UK companies to setup or collaborate with Singapore-based games and learning companies who would then receive mentorship from SGI in the areas of game design, research and development. This catalyst for collaboration was also designed to extend serious gaming from predominantly education into new sectors such as healthcare and corporate learning. As a result of the linkage provided by SGIUK, two UK companies, Roll7 and Pixelearning, have already started projects in Singapore, and Pixelearning is even in the process of establishing a Singapore development centre.

Seeing the great support that Singapore has to offer to the serious games industry, and the tremendous opportunities within the Asian region, SGIUK also decided to establish a direct presence in Singapore, via a locally incorporated private company.  Officially opened in October 2011, Serious Games International (SGI) is a private company with an office at Block 71, Ayer Rajah Crescent. Singapore is the first location outside of the UK to host an SGI Overseas Development Centre. Chris Quek, Director of SGI Singapore, notes that serious games are very different from their casual entertainment cousins in the video game world. “Serious games are games that serve a purpose other than pure entertainment. Typical areas of application include health care, education, marketing, corporate training, and tourism,” he said. “We are open to collaborations with local universities in research activities and innovation. We are also keen to commercialize some of the serious game technologies and products created in the UK.”

Teddy’s Chocco Shop (courtesy of SGI Singapore and FrontSquare).

Since its inception, SGI Singapore has already work on some industry projects. Front Square from Dublin, Ireland is a company working in the area of game-based learning. It partnered with SGI Singapore to develop Teddy’s Chocco Shop, a training program designed to teach employees the basics of lean manufacturing. I played a couple of rounds and found the gameplay quite familiar, reminding me of other casual games with a customer order component like Gogo Sushi. As Quek, a former educator himself, points out: “That’s exactly the idea. The game should be easy and engaging, but with learning elements introduced at the right moments,” he said.

A core strength of serious games is the opportunity to present and structure content in an innovative way compared to traditional training models. Front Square CEO and Co-Founder Geoff Beggs said, “Typically my clients have at least 500 employees and are in the manufacturing industry. Using games can be a much more engaging and sustainable way of training staff over traditional methods. The employees are able to learn by doing and feel free to make mistakes in a safe environment.” There are many opportunities for serious games in the corporate training industry, but as Beggs notes the greatest challenge is to “Find the balance between scalability and customisation”. However, early stage alpha testing has produced encouraging results and Teddy’s Chocco Shop is about to begin beta trials with a large client in Canada.

But it’s not just an understanding of processes and procedures that serious games can impart. With a technical background and experience in the IT, mobile and startup industries, Quek believes that serious games can also facilitate the development of soft skills within organisations. “Virtual worlds can play a very interesting role in new ways of teaching and learning. [They can] teach things like EQ and skills in communication, management, critical problem solving and collaboration. These kinds of soft skills are extremely hard to teach in a consistent manner in real life, with virtual worlds, new dimensions and possibilities are opened up”.  In fact, Quek’s team has already started building a prototype of a multi-user game in a 3D virtual world, designed to teach such soft skills.

Is your next CEO a Blood Elf? Games can provide new models for leadership and teamwork (image courtesy of World of Warcraft Cataclysm).

There is a growing demand for employees with well-developed soft skills or “21st century skills” and gaming environments offer a host of advantages to develop and nurture these attributes including digital interfaces that enhance communication through voice and text chat, multi-media platforms, real time feedback, progress tracking and leveraging social networks. In fact, a few years ago researchers published their findings on leadership in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft in the Harvard Business Review. They concluded, “Leadership in online games offers a sneak preview of tomorrow’s business world. In broad terms, that environment can be expected to feature the fluid workforces, the self-organized and collaborative work activities, and the decentralized, nonhierarchical leadership that typify games. In more specific terms, we found several distinctive characteristics of leadership in online games that suggest some of the qualities tomorrow’s business leaders will need in order to achieve success.” Some of these characteristics included risk taking and the ability to work quickly and efficiently.

As organisations struggle to engage their employees and customers in a world full of distractions in constant competition for our attention, serious games provide a real opportunity for users to engage and interact with content and organisations, in an interactive and meaningful way.

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Game Designers Are Human Too: Tom Cadwell, Design Director at Riot Games

On January 19, local game publisher Garena hosted a talk by Tom Cadwell, at the Games Solution Centre in Singapore. Cadwell is Design Director at Riot Games, a publisher and developer of premium online games for a global audience. While its headquarters is based in Santa Monica the company also has offices in St. Louis, Dublin and Seoul. Riot’s most well-known game is League of Legends a free to play, online action RPG from the creators of DoTA (Defense of the Ancients).

With a degree in Computer Science from MIT and MBA from Kellogg, Cadwell was previously a Designer at Blizzard working on World of Warcraft and Warcraft III The Frozen Throne. He has also been winner of Blizzard Brood War Beta invitational and #1 several times on the StarCraft and Brood War ladders.

During his talk “Game Designers are Human Too” Cadwell imparted some game development wisdom based on his experience as an industry professional and leading competitive gamer. Although professional game design has been around for over three decades Cadwell noted that game development could and still does produce bad results. “There are lots of examples of really well executed games,” he said, “But despite that, you still see tons of really bad outcomes and decision-making even on good projects. The question is how can a designer who is really good at designing, still consistently make a lot of errors?”

Process can impede good decision-making. 

Sometimes the way in which the game development process is structured actually impedes the ability of a team or individual to make good quality decisions. To circumvent this problem Cadwell stressed the importance of establishing a formal review step or process of submission. Goals should be clearly defined from the outset allowing developers to measure their progress against expectations. Studios should also encourage a culture of honest feedback. Citing an example where his team ran into difficulties while creating a new character, Cadwell said, “saying that something is ‘bad’ is much more difficult than saying its ‘not bad’.” However if staff are empowered to assert (in a constructive manner) that an element is not working or meeting expectations, it can save a lot of time, money and heart ache down the track. Consistent rounds of presentations can also reduce the risk of development going too far off track.

Designers can be influenced by emotional and social motivations. 

“I believe that good game development comes from iteration. Inherent to that is the idea that you have to get feedback from others,” Cadwell said. But feedback is hard to obtain when team members choose to work in isolation for too long or during critical stages of development. A common scenario is the ‘grand unveil’ where individuals will pour over their work for hours (alone) leading up to presentation of the concept with a grand flourish only to be met by the sound of crickets chirping. Although unhelpful, the behaviour is understandable. “Designers are worried that their great idea will be misunderstood or unfairly judged. A lot of designers, especially junior designers, view themselves as successful if they get a lot of their ideas into the game, when their goal should be: is the game good?”

To alleviate this difficulty and perhaps protect sensitive egos, Cadwell suggested introducing the notion of a ‘crappy first draft’ which reduces pressure for initial idea generation, provides creative freedom and encourages a mistake-forgiving environment that doesn’t seek to blame, judge or embarrass others. Aligned with this approach is making feedback or the peer review process a fun, positive and helpful experience.

Designers, in any creative profession, understand that creating ideas is a bit like having a baby. We conceive them, give birth and then want to protect them as much as possible from judging eyes. Cadwell describes a similar situation called ‘too awesome to cut” which is when an individual or team have emotional attachment to an idea that has a lot of promise but also serious flaws. “When you invest emotion, you start to lose objectivity,” he said. In these situations, try to involve people who aren’t personally involved on that project to provide honest feedback or consider formalising a process to identity costs and risks associated with alternative design decisions.

But no-one said coming up with amazing ideas was easy. Creative fatigue is a well-known risk in an industry often subjected to tight timeframes and strict deadlines. However there a many counter-intuitive practices such as long meetings. Cadwell pointed to research indicating that people are most creative during the first 15 minutes of a meeting followed by a steady decline in attention. To stimulate fresh thinking he suggests that teams take frequent short breaks or work on another project entirely before returning. Mixing or rotating team members can also bring new perspectives.

Another common problem that affects designers is the notion of designing for yourself. “It’s easy to be excited by games you like and things you like.” Similarly, its easy to design games that you’d like to play but you are not always the game’s target audience. Being self-aware enough to recognise when you may be doing this is central to ensuring that you are designing an experience that may not be your cup of tea but in the end will delight and entertain the intended players.

Unnecessary constraints.

Although constraints are often based on specific timing, budget, resource or cultural considerations, trying to adhere to too many constraints can “produce  mediocre results”. Consequently its important to identify which constraints are requirements versus those that are merely preferences. Creating innovative game experiences can be difficult enough without also trying to honour competing objectives.

In summary, Cadwell noted that it was important for designers and other team members to identify their own personal weakness from the aforementioned flaws in order to develop strategies to overcome them. For junior designers specifically, as they develop their careers in the game industry it is important to have a circle of design mentors, people who they can bounce ideas off and give constructive feedback on both good and bad work.

real money + virtual goods = potential to change the world

People have gone gaga for virtual goods lately and who can blame them? They’re fun, cheap, can increase your virtual status, enhance your online relationships and don’t need to be stored away in real space thereby adding to your sense of minmalistic zen. From elephant topiary in Sims Social to a resort spa in City of Wonder, the market for virtual goods is a booming industry to a tune of millions. But is this a case of something for nothing or is this new currency exchange providing an opportunity to make a real difference in the lives of those less fortunate?

mig33: access all areas

Mig33 is a mobile social network aimed at the youth market. With over 40 million users worldwide, the app can be downloaded onto over 200 different types of mobile phone. This feature opens social networks to a wide audience in developing countries where the majority of people don’t own smart phones. Its service connects users via chat, photo sharing, games and the exchange of virtual gifts. In 2010 alone, their virtual market was worth 40 million. Online purchases of mig33 credits can be made by anyone with a credit card or bank account. However, many people in developing countries live off very small salaries and consequently have access to neither. Paypal and other financial transaction payment systems are often unavailable in developing countries which provides mig33 with a very unique opportunity.

A small percentage of people within developing countries do have access to a bank account or credit card. They are able to buy mig credits and then on sell them to people within their communities, with a small margin, and those people can then buy virtual items within the network. Here is an amazing example of real world money turning into virtual currency and then being exchanged for real money again. What’s more, its a legitimate source of income, with some merchants known to make several thousand dollars a month by acting as a conduit for mig credits purchasing. Although gold farming in WoW (World of Warcraft) is very lucrative and offers a solution for time-poor/cash-rich players in developed countries to support players in poorer nations its still an offense that developer Blizzard expressly forbids and can see players banned from the game for life.

Microfinance for maximum good

Championed by the Grameen Foundation, microfinance is the process of lending small amounts of money at very low interest to low-income individuals in developing countries. These loans can assist a farmer to hire an extra animal to harvest their crops, a woman selling dry goods at a tiny road side stall or a group of women working together to sell clothing. The aim is to support individuals or small groups with the capital they need to get started or continue earning an income that supports their families while distributing funds throughout the wider community.

Kiva is a US-based non-profit organisation that connects people in developed countries with organisations and individuals in developing countries who require loans from as low as US25. The power of small amounts of money passing between many, many people is demonstrated in the following amazing infographic courtesy of Kiva’s success: 62,000 lenders and 615,000 entrepreneurs over five years. (Make sure you have the sound turned on as the music is well chosen! Kicks in around 00:43)

I’ll leave you with this thought. Imagine if we could harness the power of micro-transactions utilised in virtual economies and gaming to support individuals and organisation in developing countries. What a powerful tool that would be.