Serious Games People Play

December 19, 2012

It’s game on at Northeastern’s new Playable Innovative Technologies (PLAIT, “Play It”) Lab. Combining expertise in art, design, computer and social sciences, engineering, and business from every college in the university, PLAIT represents a building movement in video-game design—one that will change the way we learn, train, and educate.

And it’s a field that has the attention of Washington. Last year, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched the “Digital Promise Initiative,” a national center created by Congress to advance technologies that transform teaching and learning. In addition, the White House tapped Constance Steinkuehler Squire, noted game-design expert, to become senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

Approximately 55 percent of the population plays video games, Squire says, and partnerships between academia and industry are crucial in developing games that will change the face of education.

To that end, Northeastern’s Magy Seif El-Nasr, an associate professor with dual appointments in the College of Arts, Media, and Design and the College of Computer and Information Science, was invited to the White House in July to consult at the Academic Consortium on Games for Impact. She was one of only 20 academic experts nationwide invited to do so.

Experts from industry, the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, and the MacArthur and other foundations discussed strategies for building interdisciplinary collaboration in the serious-game industry.

“We need more people who design entertainment games professionally to get into this market,” says Seif El-Nasr, “and we need to partner academics with funding agencies so that we can push the frontier of academic research in serious games.”

With the establishment of the PLAIT Lab, eight combined game-design and interactive-media undergraduate degree programs, and a masters and doctorate in development, the university promises to play a leading role in bridging those arenas and advancing the field.

The idea that games can teach is not a new concept. Chess and the Chinese board game Go, for instance, have been used to practice conflict strategy and tactics for thousands of years.

Today’s digital descendants have already shown promise in crisis management, improving healthcare outcomes, and military training. They’ve also been used to harness the power of crowdsourcing to solve intricate scientific problems. Northeastern’s faculty experts believe games can do even more to address national challenges in health, education, and security.

Take Seif El-Nasr’s research and game-design efforts, which will soon bear fruit. She has partnered with Vancouver-based IgnitePlay to fight obesity using real-time behavior tracking. She is collaborating with Bardia Aghabeigi, a PhD student in the College of Computer and Information Science, and with Mariya Shiyko, assistant professor of counseling and applied educational psychology, and Carmen Sceppa, associate professor of health science, both from Bouvé College of Health Sciences.

“It’s a platform to understand nutrition and adopt healthier behavior through exercise by using games as a motivation tactic for behavior change,” Seif El-Nasr says.

Anyone can play this online social-media game, but it’s targeted to women 30 to 50 years old. Users will track food and exercise and compare their progress against friends’. Users will also be able to set goals, or “quests,” for themselves, such as walking 10 minutes every day for the next 10 days, and get rewards for achieving such quests.

In addition to helping attack the national obesity problem, Seif El-Nasr is eager to evaluate the user data that will be generated to assess how and if the research tactics have the intended impact.

She also directs the Games User Experience and Research Lab at Northeastern, which consists of multidisciplinary research teams of graduate and undergraduate students developing new interaction techniques, or game mechanics, for healthcare and education games. In addition, they research and analyze data from game-user interactions to help create games with greater impact.

“For example, if we can understand users’ behaviors and feelings with a game like the IgnitePlay one, then we can increase the value of the game on health outcomes,” she says. “‘Remission’ is one such example, which has helped young people understand their cancer and increase their adherence to treatment meds in some cases.”

Casper Harteveld, who joined Northeastern this fall from the Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands) as assistant professor of art and design in the College of Arts, Media, and Design, integrates theories from organization science, psychology, and gaming into his research. He has collaborated with Dutch governing bodies responsible for levee maintenance on a game called Levee Patroller. He describes the crisis-management game as an example of “sense gaming”—games that let users prepare for disasters or situations that don’t occur often.

In his game, players deal with disastrous levee failures in The Netherlands, which occur only once every 100 years or so. Players have to make sense of the failures by first finding them and then reporting their observations, assessing and diagnosing the situation, and taking action if necessary.

“This type of serious game confronts players with certain phenomena and offers the tools to help them make sense of these phenomena,” he says. “With ‘Levee Patroller,’ it’s about failures; with another game, it might be training doctors to deal with rare diseases or unusual medical complications.”

It’s not enough, though, to create a cool-looking game. Users must want to play while they’re learning a new skill or changing a behavior, and that’s what’s driving game-user research, analytics, and advances in the serious-games model. It’s also why programmers, engineers, and artists are only part of the design picture, and why it must also include experts in various subject domains. It takes an interdisciplinary village to create an effective video game.

Toward that goal, Harteveld uses a three-pillar model that he calls triadic game design. A game needs subject-matter experts to provide valid criteria (reality); storytellers or teachers to provide strategies and purpose (meaning); and programmers and artists to create an immersive, fun, engaging world (play).

Gillian Smith, assistant professor in the College of Arts, Media, and Design with a joint appointment in the College of Computer and Information Science, joined Northeastern from the University of California, Santa Cruz because of that very collaborative culture. “In game design, you need artists to be able to communicate with engineers, and engineers to be able to communicate with designers,” she says. “In the case of games for impact, we need to communicate with experts in health and education. Northeastern has that diversity of expertise.”

Seif El-Nasr, an international authority on digital-game research, embodies the multiple-discipline ethos. She earned graduate and undergraduate degrees in computer science, worked as a graphic designer, and took psychology courses to understand emotions. For other ways of expressing behavior, she took years of acting to be able to incorporate theater techniques in building better systems. She is currently working with Matthew Gray, assistant professor in the theater department, and with Derek Isaacowitz, associate psychology professor in the College of Science, to develop methodologies to evaluate emotion modulation and attention for use in game design.

In January, Northeastern will add even more firepower to its game-design movement. Two renowned international research experts will join the team as associate professors in the College of Arts, Media, and Design: Alessandro Canossa, who will focus on game design, psychology of play, and game-user research, and Anders Drachen, with expertise in game analytics and game-user research.

The PLAIT Lab gives Northeastern impressive momentum in this emerging field. “In the next several years, as a result of our interdisciplinary collaboration, we’ll be seeing innovative games addressing a variety of domains come out of the lab, as well as an improved understanding of how people learn through games and the technologies that make it easier to create games and interpret data coming from them,” says Smith.

Northeastern has built-in advantages that give the university an edge, says Harteveld: the culture of collaborative, interdisciplinary research, the graduate-campus system that’s expanding industry connections, and experiential learning, which gets students deeply involved in game design.

Above all is the need for innovative, relevant, and rigorous research, which is a principal mission of the PLAIT Lab.

“Serious-game design, once it matures a little more, could have a pervasive effect, transforming educational research and bringing new insights into how we learn. And because of our momentum, Northeastern can become a world player,” says Harteveld.