Last year saw a sustained boom in games that challenge the traditional mindset that games’ sole objective is to entertain. As we look forward to the new year, we thought it would be good to pay homage to the games which we felt led this charge and stood out, to us, as the most important games of 2013.
Social Commentary – Papers Please
The possibility of putting the player in the shoes of another character, to let them see and empathetically interact with the the world from a different perspective is one of the most powerful advantages of games over passive media. For many games, the purpose of this avatar character is empowerment, allowing the player to become a heroic space soldier or a stealthy ninja. In Papers Please, the player is granted the power of bureaucracy, charged with deciding whether a seemingly endless stream of hopeful applicants are permitted to enter the fictional, oppressive state of Arstotzka.
Unlike traditional power trips, Papers Please goes to great lengths to portray the other side of the coin to power: responsibility. In judging who can and cannot enter the country, players are burdened with the culpability of their decisions. Pleading eyes gaze at them through the window as they comb through the documentation offered up, hoping not to find anything out of order but knowing that if they miss something, their paltry wages will be docked and their family will suffer from cold and disease. Giving the player this responsibility instils a sense of investment in the proceedings and every new applicant poses both a practical and moral challenge to understand and act upon.
While Papers Please is a fantastic example of social commentary in games, it was far from the only outstanding launch in this category in 2013. Cart Life depicted the struggle to make ends meet on the lower rungs of the economy while Bioshock Infinite‘s floating civilization of Columbia illustrated how physical isolation can inhibit social progression.
Science Research – Foldit
Science has always thrived on discussion, communication and cooperation. Communities that pool their resources and work together lead the world with advanced scientific discoveries while societies that maintain insular cultures, lacking in disruptive opinion, languish behind with antiquated superstitions.
To crowdsource, you need a crowd and, until recently, the general public’s understanding of online cooperation has lagged behind what industry professionals have known is possible. While medical science has always sought to harness the power of emerging technologies, last year saw a crucial shift in the public’s perception of this approach, which was fundamental to FoldIt’s 2013 success. And what a success it has been! In just a few weeks, the gamers had provided researchers with enough information to solve the structure of an enzyme needed for the AIDS virus reproduction, allowing drugs to specifically target it. At the beginning of 2012, Scientific American announced that the Foldit community had used crowdsourcing to complete the first redesign of a protein, increasing its pre-Foldit activity by over 18 times.
Sitting alongside Foldit are projects like MIT’s Eyewire – which tasks its 100,000-strong player base with highlighting connections between retinal neurons – and more recently Fraxinus which uses Facebook’s social capabilities to combat the dying back of the ash tree. In the years ahead, it stands to reason that this trend will continue as more people grow up in a connected world where many hands are proven to make light work.
Adapting existing brands – SimCity Edu – Pollution Challenge
The concept of adapting existing games into the educational space is a relatively new development, however it’s a model that has a lot going for it. The developers are building off an established and proven concept, taking certain risks out of the production schedule. That these are based on commercial releases also brings unusually high production values to the educational arena.
There are also some significant challenges that are unique to this approach, the foremost being the split focus of the product. Unlike games created with an educational purpose in mind, these products are created first and foremost as commercial games. This can mean that, when the time comes to add the educational slant, they run the risk of shoehorning in elements that don’t cohesively sit within the game world.
Thankfully SimCityEdu is a great example of how to do it right. SimCityEdu: Pollution Challenge!, is the first release by GlassLab (a joint venture between Institute of Play, EA and The Gates foundation) set up to explore formative assessment in games. Pollution Challenge is the SimCity we all know and love, but scenario based and focussed on balancing the needs of humans with the environmental impact. It also puts a particular emphasis on the pupil/teacher relationship with individual students’ progress surfaced to the teacher via a dashboard so they can see in real time which students are responding well to the learning and which are struggling.
Developers GlassLab have also provided lesson plans and fostered an online community of teachers who can share tips and instructional ideas. This idea of an educational ecosystem within a game provides one of the biggest assets for curriculum games and will no doubt take more of a centre stage in future games of this type.
In addition to the outstanding SimCity Edu, products such as Minecraft Edu and Learning with Portals have shown the flexibility of this approach especially when the original games focus on creativity, self-expression and lateral thinking.
Health – The Walk
Games on mobile phones have typically been segregated from those on other hardware. The vast majority make use of the touchscreen and gyrometer and, possibly, importing music tracks if they’re feeling ambitious. Six to Start took a step back and looked at how people use their phones in their day-to-day life. The term ‘phone’ has become a bit of a misnomer, as to many people their device is being used less and less to call others, and rather as a multi-functional companion device. Six to Start realised that games can tap into and enrich other functions of the phone as opposed to being a separate experience.
In The Walk, the player finds themselves embroiled in a gripping thriller following an explosion in Inverness station. The player quickly discovers they’re the only one that has the power to save the world from a sinister threat! An additional twist comes when, instead of using the touchscreen to navigate an avatar around the environment, players have to actually go outside and walk, using the device’s GPS functionality to track how and where they go in order to progress the story. With The Walk, Six to Start have blurred the lines between the gaming and health capabilities of the phone, which is no surprise considering the game was created in partnership with the NHS and Department of Health. By creating a ‘page-turner’ narrative they have created an experience that doesn’t rely on extrinsic rewards such as arbitrary badges, but instead simultaneously rewards walking and is rewarded by walking.
While The Walk has been designed to reach a wide audience with its popular theming and focus on universally achievable goals, Six to Start have also explored products that focus on more serious fitness enthusiasts. Zombies 5k gives the player a structured 8 week course that will see them start slow before building up to long distance runs. As the player exercises, they collect resources for their outpost and protect survivors from marauding zombies, providing a fun and entertaining incentive to encourage users to keep returning and tangibly improving their fitness over time.
Educational Game – Wuzzit Trouble
Wuzzit Trouble seeks to solve one of the biggest barriers to understanding mathematics: that much of it relies on theory without direct application or incremental feedback. These are both areas that video games excel at. By offering tangible and immediate consequences for the steps needed to solve a problem, games can provide a context for the question, an adaptive framework to add complexity over time, and a reward system that encourages sustained play to ensure the teaching is cemented in the mind of the player.
Wuzzit Trouble focuses on the idea of the player learning by doing. Dr.Keith Devlin, president of InnerTube Games, uses the analogy of learning to play a piano. Budding maestros don’t learn by sitting down and poring over notation, they sit at a piano and start playing. Slowly and simply at first, but the core feedback loop is in place; pianist presses a key, piano makes a noise, pianist hears the note and recognises it as ‘good’ or ‘bad’.
Wuzzit Trouble starts simply, rotating cogs in multiples of 5 to free the Wuzzits. As the player progresses they are given additional variables and encouraged to consider the problems in a more abstract manner. InnerTube have also implemented a multi-tiered completion mechanic that means any player can progress through the core game. However, more accomplished players will gain more stars while the most advanced players will be able to collect bonus points as well! This means that anyone can play the game to completion but extra success is recognised and rewarded.
Another notable 2013 game that teaches through play is the deceptively fiendish spacial puzzler, Sokobond which tasks the player with collecting atoms to form compounds. For younger audiences, the BAFTA nominated phonics experience Teach your Monster to Read provides a fun and intuitive on-ramp to reading using fully customisable monsters to give the kids a sense of ownership and empowerment over their adventure.
Advances in technology and publishing methodology have reduced the barrier to entry for creating games, lowering the risks for many projects and broadening the scope of what is expected from games. As shown by the range of creative, polished and meaningful games that were released in 2013, games with purpose are one of the fastest growing and most interesting areas of the industry at the moment. We are currently experiencing the gaming equivalent of the printing press and pioneers in this space are legitimising games as a powerful, nuanced and intelligent medium capable of changing the world for the better.