Thursday, September 21, 2017

How playing games can advance science

In this response, Claire Baert describes her fascination with citizen science games and poses some questions about the practice.

This morning, like most days, I woke up early, had a latte, turned on my computer and opened Gamasutra. Like most days, I'm looking for articles discussing how games can help advance scientific research. But this morning, for the first time, I found the article I was waiting for. A blog post by Sande Chen, featured by Gamasutra, and [re]titled: Why designers should embrace 'citizen science' . This was the trigger for me to start this blog, to write about citizen science games and share my passion with the Gamasutra community. In this first post, I will introduce many of the citizen science games everyone can play to advance science, and briefly introduce the different topics I will cover in the next posts.

My story with citizen science games began in 2013, in a small game studio in the UK. I was researching free to play, casual browser games, and was doing a quick play through the tutorials. Between Farmerama and Grepolis, I had listed a game I had never heard of: Foldit. First surprise, it's a client game. Second surprise, I'm taught how to mutate a protein to form more hydrogen bonds, not that casual. Third surprise, I'm doing real science. (Fourth surprise, first thing I did when coming back home was downloading Foldit on my laptop.)

I quickly became fascinated with the concept of citizen science games and started searching more of them. Not any kind of serious games, but specifically games that allow us, players, to contribute to authentic scientific research, without any scientific background. Games in which we provide valuable scientific data, accelerate research by analysing data, or solve complex scientific problems. Games that help diagnosis and cure diseases or that can answer important scientific questions.

After learning how to fold proteins in Foldit, I learnt how to fold RNA molecules in EteRNA and DNA molecules in Phylo. By playing these puzzle games, we are helping eradicate diseases. On my phone, I shoot at parasites in MalariaSpot to diagnose malaria in blood smear, I'm growing a microbe colony for Colony B. I'm mapping the brain in Eyewire and Mozak, advancing the field of neuroscience. I also dared join the quantum computing field, moving quantum atoms in Quantum Moves, optimising quantum algorithms in the prototype of meQuanics and solving quantum error corrections in Decodoku. All these steps are important to build quantum computers. Recently I've been showing off my navigation skills (ahem) in Sea Hero Quest, (and in VR!), to provide data to scientists researching dementia. With almost 3 million players, Sea Hero Quest is the largest dementia study in history.

Screenshot from Sea Hero Quest -VR
I loved the concept of citizen science games so much that about 2 years ago, I launched a website dedicated to them. It's called… well… Citizen Science Games. For the content, I contacted many scientists and journalists, which led to the opportunity to join one of the team. I am now bringing my experience from the game industry to Stall Catchers, in which we annotate blood vessels to help answering questions about Alzheimer's disease.

Scientists have started harnessing our love for games to conduct scientific research, sometimes on their own, sometimes with game designers and developers. As Sande Chen reported in her post, they have been using different design approaches: integration, gamification and separation. Most of the games mentioned above are examples of integration. The gameplay was designed around a scientific problem. Stall Catchers uses game elements: we get points, accuracy feedback, climb leader boards and participate in punctual competitions. To illustrate the separation approach, I will use the example of EVE Online. EVE Online is the first (and only) mainstream games that integrated real citizen science activities, Project Discovery, to the game. We are looking for exoplanets by analysing luminosity measurements of stars. By reaching more than one million contributions in one day, Project Discovery became one of the most successful online citizen science project. This is also one of the rare citizen science game having a few articles on Gamasutra, which recently covered the launch of the second round of Project Discovery and an awesome GDC talk by CCP and MMOS.

Project Discovery
There is an increasing number of citizen science games. They generate tangible results and publications and can lead to important discoveries. Scientists write about design, mechanics, difficulties, pitfalls, discoveries, results, recommendations. They try to understand what motivates people to engage with these games. There is also some controversies. Do games attract or retain participants in citizen science project? Shall citizen science be gamified? Are games compatible with serious and rigorous traditional scientific research?  All these questions find some answers in papers and will be discussed in future posts.

How could more studios embrace the concept? What scientific problems could be brought to existing games? What game genre would be best fitted for citizen science projects? What would be the best ways to integrate them? By starting this blog, I'm hoping to raise awareness about citizen science games. I'm also hoping to establish contact and start discussions with designers and developers interested in the genre.

And finally, I'm a big fan of this quote so I have to share it. It was written by Dara Mohammadi who was a scientific adviser on Sea Hero Quest:
"As a planet we spend 3 billion hours a week playing online games. If even a fraction of that time can be harnessed for science, laboratories around the world would have access to some rather impressive cognitive machinery."
 [This article originally appeared on Claire Baert's blog on Gamasutra.]

Claire Baert has 10 years experience in the video game industry and now focuses on citizen science games. She launched in 2016.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Upcoming Sept Class: Designing Games For Impact

Next week, on September 20, I will be holding another workshop through PlayCrafting NYC called Designing Games For Impact. While I have explored issues of concern to social impact games in past classes, my primary research focus has been broader and more centered on deepening emotional impact and meaningfulness in games.  I relate findings from related disciplines like advertising, cinematography, and social psychology.  Thus, I believe these classes are of interest not only to serious game developers but to entertainment game developers.

As I mentioned, I was interviewed for the book, Empower Yourself Through Your Memories: Use the Lessons From Your Past to Create a Happy Present and Future by Frank Healy.  Healy, a counselor and life coach, has helped people deal with traumatic memories.

These emotional memories from one's life can also be tapped for stronger narrative.  If you can learn to access the emotion from a past event, then you convey the same emotion in a fictional story.  The focus of the next class will be on using personal autobiographical elements to create an emotional connection.

As always, Playcrafting NYC, which offers classes and events related to game development, offers Early Bird tickets, but if they sell out (and they have in the past), you'll have to pay full price.  

The details!
Designing Games For Impact
Date: Wednesday, September 20
Time: 6:30-8:30 PM

About Me 

Sande Chen is the co-author of Serious Games: Games That Educate, Train, and Inform. As a serious games consultant, she helps companies harness the power of video games for non-entertainment purposes. Her career as a writer, producer, and game designer has spanned over 15 years in the game industry. Her game credits include 1999 Independent Games Festival winner Terminus, MMO Hall of Fame inductee Wizard101, and the 2007 PC RPG of the Year, The Witcher, for which she was nominated for a Writers Guild of America Award in Videogame Writing. She has spoken at conferences around the globe, including the Game Developers Conference, Game Education Summit, SXSW Interactive, Serious Play Conference, and the Serious Games Summit D.C.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Citizen Science and Knowledge Games

In this article, game designer Sande Chen discusses the concept of citizen science, and how it can be embraced by game designers.

On Monday, August 21, 2017, residents of the contiguous United States witnessed a total solar eclipse for the first time since 1979.  Because of the rarity of the occurrence, which will not occur again in the U.S. until 2024,  hundreds bought special eclipse glasses to watch, but some members of the public, as citizen scientists, aided in scientific research by sending temperature data to NASA or by recording animal behavior in a citizen science app like iNaturalist. Amateur photographers contributed to a time-lapse photo spread of the eclipse. Through the combined efforts of researchers and the public, a large amount of data was able to be collected about the total solar eclipse.

Total solar eclipse August 2017
Citizen science, which engages the public to participate in scientific research, is not a new practice.  Communities of citizen scientists have been active in mapping the stars, counting butterflies, watching birds, and monitoring coral reefs.  Could such communities be galvanized as game players, who through the process of playing games further scientific knowledge?  Associate Professor Karen Schrier, Founding Director of the Games & Emerging Media program at Marist College, asks this very question and more in her book, Knowledge Games.

FoldIt, the protein folding puzzle game, is the most well-known example of this type of game. As documented in the article, "FoldIt Gamers Solve Riddle of HIV Enzyme Within 3 Weeks," the results from FoldIt players has led to scientific breakthroughs, research papers, and in improvements to AI algorithms. Yep, it turns out humans are better than computers at solving certain types of puzzles, especially those requiring intuition and a basis in cultural understanding.

In the past, I had an interesting challenge:  to design a game to generate data about obesity rates and general health indicators over a period of a year.  The project at first had more of a gamification focus and then morphed into the ARG Lumeria.  It provided insights on designing and writing for wearable technology, which would serve as the main way of data collection.  But Schrier argues that these games are more than just about gathering data, but about increasing knowledge, which is why she uses the term, knowledge games, instead of other terms like "crowdsourced games" or "citizen science games."  Data needs to be contextualized, analyzed, and interpreted.  Games like Happy Moths and Galaxy Zoo, which involve classification and categorization of images, do seem to be more about data sets, but as mentioned above, FoldIt and experiments like bullying sim SchoolLife have demonstrated that the intuition shown in human thought processes may be used to improve algorithms or model behavior.

At present, there appears to be three design approaches for knowledge games.
  • Gamification  -  In games like Happy Moths, players receive scores based on tasks.  The common highlights of gamification are present: leaderboards, high scores, badges, game elements rather than gameplay.
  • Separation - In some games, like Reverse the Odds, the gameplay is separate from the knowledge-producing task. Instead, players in Reverse the Odds classify cancerous cells in order to earn potions to continue or better gameplay. 
  • Integration - In games like FoldIt, the gameplay is essential to the knowledge-producing task. FoldIt players use the same tools as scientists would, but that is not necessarily the case. In Play to Cure: Genes in Space, players pilot a spaceship and by doing so in an optimal way, DNA microarrays from breast cancer research are analyzed. However, Schrier states that not all of these games are integrated fully or well, which may make the game feel like a construct, or wrapper, for the knowledge-producing task.
Besides the design of knowledge games, Schrier tackles many issues in her book concerning knowledge games, including the ethics of possibly profiting from such volunteerism (would they be player laborers?), or even the ethics of creating such games since they may not even be created for social good. Do knowledge games need to promote social change?  There is also concern over who exactly is contributing and playing and if this "wisdom of the crowds" is acceptable.  "What if," Schrier muses, "players work through the possible scenarios to tribal peace in The SUDAN Game, and the resulting finding is that two of the tribes need to be decimated?" These are interesting questions for interesting times.  We may need to continue our exploration into knowledge games by creating more knowledge games.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

A Double Standard for Female Characters?

In this article, game writer Sande Chen implores others to think about how female characters are portrayed and developed.

Women in fields like high tech can feel like they're pushing against a double standard. They have to prove that they're beyond qualified for the job while at the same time, receiving a lower pay. They may feel like they're treated differently or belittled, their ideas claimed by male colleagues who fail to even let them finish speaking. I sometimes feel that female characters must feel the same way.  Think about how you treat your female characters.  Are they given the same opportunities as male characters?

For a long time, in film, the prevailing thought was that movies with female protagonists would never be major successes so why bother?  (Though recently, Wonder Woman smashed box office records.)  This same mantra seems to be repeated in the video game industry.  According to the 2013 Electronic Entertainment Design and Research Report, only 3% of top console games from 2005 to 2013 had female protagonists and publishers had very low expectations, as reflected in the low marketing budgets of those games. One game developer with a female-fronted game commented on how hard it was to get publishers to change their views: "We had some [companies] that said, 'Well, we don't want to publish it because that's not going to succeed. You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that."

This had led to the male character being the default playable character, especially in mobile games, with female playable characters falling into the optional "pay extra" category or simply non-existent.  Despite it all, female players still clamor to be heard. They want female playable characters.  Repeat, this is just about the mere inclusion of a female playable character!  Even when female playable characters are included, they may be hypersexualized just like non-playing female characters whose only value seems to be their physical attributes.

If your game doesn't have a female protagonist, maybe you have a female character in a supporting role?  Let's hope she's not a badass there just to support the male hero as a plot device, much like the character Trinity in The Matrix. Give her a fully realized story of her own that could function as a subplot.

Does your female character have strong opinions? Careful now. Here's where criticism may come. Maybe she's too brash. Or too unlikable. Comes off as "too male."  These are charges that probably wouldn't ever be leveled against male characters.  Male characters tend to get away with all sorts of off-putting personality tics.

Male characters also don't tend to be threatened by sexual assault.  Yes, sexual assault is a concern for women and pertinent to some stories, but don't use it for shock value or as a plot device for the male hero to seek revenge.  Sexual assault shouldn't be the "go-to standard" for a female character's traumatic childhood. Don't use rape or attempted rape as a way to make a story "edgy." I'm sure there are other ways to insert danger into a female character's life story.

Female characters are deserving of better treatment. They too can have deep, intriguing back stories. We don't have to turn them into seductresses or subject them to sexual abuse.  We can attribute more value to them than their physical appearances.  Let's make sure we aren't applying a double standard and create stories that celebrate female characters.

In an idealized society, I wonder what female characters will be like, and if you would like to join me, I will be holding another writing workshop in New York City, Writing for Sci-Fi, Fantasy, & Horror Game Worlds, next Wednesday, August 23rd, at Microsoft NY.

the details!
Date:  Wednesday, August 23rd, 2017
Time: 6:30 to 9:30 PM
Place: Microsoft NY, Times Square
Tickets sold by PlayCrafting NYC

A writer and game designer, Sande Chen has over 10 years experience in the industry. She studied science fiction and science writing at MIT. Her first published game was the epic space combat RPG, Terminus, which won 2 awards at the 1999 Independent Games Festival. She was later nominated for a 2007 Writers Guild of America award in Videogame Writing for the dark fantasy RPG, The Witcher.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Great Narrative Stories are the Answer

In this article, game writer Sande Chen explains how a narrative story's themes can have an everlasting impact on its readers or viewers.

For several months now, I've been exploring issues regarding social impact and meaningfulness in my PlayCrafting NYC classes, Designing Games For Impact (coming up soon on September 20).  I spoke about the difficulties of measuring impact recently at the Serious Play Conference.  Does impact mean increasing awareness or changing beliefs or changing behaviors or all the above?

As I've mentioned before, convincing someone to change one's beliefs is a very hard task. Because of confirmation bias, even new evidence to the contrary will cause a person to cling more fiercely to those beliefs.  As Christopher Graves, founder of the Ogilvy Center for Behavioral Science, noted in his keynote at the 2017 Games For Change Festival, arguing the facts simply makes it worse. People who believe differently will just reject those newly discovered facts.

So what's the answer?  How can we convince people who don't seem willing to look logically at the facts?

Graves points to the theory of narrative transportation whereby people become so enthralled with an immersive, narrative story that their attitudes change to reflect that of the story's, even when the story is known to be fictional.  In fact, neurophysiologists have discovered mirror neurons in the brains of the storyteller and the people listening to the story.  Mirror neurons may even be the basis for empathy.

Christopher Graves speaks at the 2017 Games For Change Festival
Storytellers, did you realize that your story's themes could be this powerful?

But not all stories trigger mirror neurons.  The listener needs to feel so enraptured by vivid and concrete imagery that the listener feels like this is a living world filled with believable characters and situations.  In essence, great narrative stories may be the way to change people's hearts and minds.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Brief History of Game Jams

The following is reprinted from The Game Jam Guide, available from ETC Press. Download your copy now for free.

At any given weekend, there is a game jam happening somewhere in the world. Professionals and students alike converge on these game jam sites to further their skills, to foster community, and to experiment with game design. These game jams may focus on a social cause or a specific technology. The developers may want to explore a theme and use a word or some starting point to spark creativity. No matter the direction, the goal of the participants is to create a playable game within the constraints in a relatively short period of time.

The earliest known game jam, dubbed the 0th Indie Game Jam, was founded by Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett in March 2002. Intent on encouraging innovation and experimentation within the game industry, they invited a select crowd of well-known designers and programmers to develop games for a specialized engine. Indie Game Jam, which continued in subsequent years, tended to focus on technology-driven constraints. Participants worked on their own, on multiple projects, or in a team.

The following month, in April 2002, Ludum Dare (from the Latin "To give a game"), the first virtual game jam, was launched. The idea for it had grown organically from the Internet forum of the same name. Ludum Dare, which now has solo and team tracks, challenges participants to create a game based on a theme rather than conforming to a technological constraint. Themes are suggested and voted on by the Ludum Dare community. Its community also determines which games are the winners, according to various judging standards. Though source code is required to be uploaded, participants retain all rights to their games. In more recent years, participants have broadcast livestreams on Twitch or created a time-lapse video of their game development progress during the event.

These early examples from 2002 were informal affairs. Nordic Game Jam, which would later grow to be one of the largest single-site game jams in the world, began in 2006 as a collaboration between the Denmark chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), IT University of Copenhagen, and local game companies. The organizers there emphasized the spirit of collaboration and sometimes would not release the theme until teams were formed. Once given the theme and restrictions, teams had just 48 hours to complete a working prototype. Participants of all skill levels were encouraged to come, stressing the educational aspect of the game jam.

Inspired by Indie Game Jam, Ludum Dare, and Nordic Game Jam, Global Game Jam (GGJ) holds the Guinness World Record for the largest game jam in the world. Founded by Susan Gold, Ian Schreiber, and Gorm Lai in 2008, GGJ is a multi-site game jam with many of the same characteristics of its predecessors. Participants may work alone, though teams are more common, to create a game based on a theme and optional diversifiers. In 2017, over 36,000 participants in 702 sites in 95 countries attended, making over 7000 games in one weekend. The games, all available for play on the GGJ site, range from tabletop games to virtual reality, Kinect games, handhelds and tablets, console games, and traditional PC games.

It's clear why educators often recommend that aspiring game developers attend game jams. Not only do the events foster creativity, collaboration, and community, but they also instill the fast prototyping and iterative design culture found in many game companies. Participants learn the lessons of "failing early" in order to perfect a game. They must work with teammates within a time constraint and are exposed to a diverse set of skills and personalities. They come face to face with production realities, which force them to decide which game features remain or must go. There may not be any monetary gain from game jams, but the entire experience of completing a game and learning from others may be priceless.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Viability of Spec Game Scripts

In this article, game writer Sande Chen weighs the primacy of gameplay inspiration over story, and story inspiration over gameplay, to opine on whether or not the game industry would ever accept spec game scripts.

While the game industry may share some terminology with Hollywood, its business practices for story development are not that similar.  Therefore, when I've been asked on occasion if game companies routinely accept spec scripts or game ideas, I usually remark that if that happened, it would be very rare.  In a recent article, "Could there be a speculative script industry for narrative games?" writer Hannah Woods explored the possibility that this might change for interactive story games.

In general, I have found that most game companies start with tech or gameplay or a theme, but I've also seen games that very obviously were created story first, gameplay later.  In those cases, the game may seem like a collection of ideally related mini-games made to support the story.  For example, in Missing, a game about the tragedy of human trafficking, the gameplay goes in very short order from choosing branching narrative to an action mini-game and onward to resource management.  Cynically, I thought that even though the game appeared to have a way to escape the traffickers, I knew in deference to the story that the player-character would not be allowed to go free because otherwise, the full story of what happens to girls forced into prostitution would not be revealed.

Even when the basic gameplay is of primary concern, this does not necessarily mean that the story has been ignored.  Game designers often think about verbs associated with activities, so it may very well mean that the story elements have been the inspiration behind gameplay actions.  When the gameplay can become more interesting and complex in progression while also dovetailing with an exciting story, then the chances of ludonarrative dissonance are lower.  Our challenge is to have gameplay and story development working in concert.  My best experiences as a game writer have been when I've been treated as part of the team, leading to gameplay inspirations from the story, and vice versa.

Many game writers have complained that the gameplay first, story later methodology presents issues and as I pointed out above, going story first, gameplay later faces similar challenges.  Moreover, video games can be very different in their gameplay.  For this reason, how one approaches writing one game versus writing another game may be radically different. Therefore, for most games, especially the AAA games that most aspiring game writers would like to write, a spec game script would not make sense. But what about narrative-driven games?

Even within the umbrella of narrative games, there are different engines and different gameplay.  A text-based Twine game won't have the running and shooting actions that Mass Effect has. The only way I see spec game scripts working is if there's specificity for a particular engine and particular type of game.  That's how it is right now with companies like Choice of Games but if a writer wrote an entire spec game in ChoiceScript, I doubt another company would want it as is.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.