Thursday, August 26, 2010

Games, research and the real world

Previously I mentioned that I'm a MSD (Master of Science in Design) student. My research centers around games and "user experience" (if you don't speak product design jargon, that's the sum of all the things you experience while buying and using a product or service). Basically, I'm looking for ways to improve products and services by adding in elements of game play. Someone who doesn't play many games, or know many gamers, may look on this with a large dose of skepticism. So why am I pursuing such a crazy idea?

The first reason is simple: I'm a life-long game player. I grew up playing Mille Borne, Scrabble and Dungeons and Dragons. My first career was as an illustrator, art director and layout monkey in the game-publishing industry. Like a lot of enthusiasts, I'm a product of my passions. The way I think, work, see the world and solve problems have all been formed by playing and publishing games.

The second reason is more complicated. I really do believe games can make just about anything better. Sometimes it can add extra interest to an important but mind-numbing task. Take physical therapy as an example. After a stroke, patients can spend 3-4 hours in therapy every day. That's nearly as much as an elite athlete spends in training. Innovative therapists are already adding games into their rehabilitation programs, to provide their patients with feedback and to help them stay focused.

And games are a great way to communicate detailed and complicated information. When we look at the stat line for an Ork Shoota Boy or a Feral Warpwolf, we see more than a short string of numbers. We see how that model will perform in a game. we can imagine its strengths and its weaknesses. We can even predict how it will work with other models in our collections. What if products presented themselves in the same way? I could look at a plant in the nursery, see that its "Drought Resistance" stat was 9 out of 10 and know that it was a good fit for my parched, desert garden (a level 9 hostile environment).

Games can also spark creativity, stimulate learning, build communities, and empower collaboration. With a little help, they can be powerful tools for improvement and change. Jane McGonigal, a game designer with a eye for solving real world problems, puts it this way: "Reality is broken, and we need to make it work more like a game." Earlier this year, she gave this inspiring presentation at TED. Although it focuses on video games, rather than boardgames or table-top wargames, I see a lot of parallels with our own hobbies. When I finish my studies, I want to have the same passion and optimism that she has here.

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