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What Happens If? Serious Games & Their EvaluationPosted by: admin on Fri, 2011-05-27 11:39
by Andrea Marmolejo, InterMedia Europe
I am very interested in Serious Games (a game designed for a purpose other than entertainment. The "serious" adjective is generally used to refer to products used by industries like defense, education, scientific exploration, health care, emergency management, city planning, engineering, religion, and politics).
Thus, Tech@State’s conference on Serious Games May 27-28 at George Washington University caught my interest. Serious games are a powerful tool to reach audiences of various types and are not viewed as propaganda yet, but the minute they are polluted? Game over. The power of the game is very real right now as we see other media formats exhausted, and it is up to us to keep it this way.
Games are used a lot in Europe and the UK to engage with marginal kids or other hard to reach populations. I’m advising a Serious Games company in development. “What happens if “ games range from teen pregnancy to loan sharking. You pick a character and each time you play, your life turns out differently based on the choices you make. We’re getting these kids to understand the consequences of their actions but it is crucial that we are not dogmatic or patronizing in any way.
Our games have not been designed for home computers, but almost exclusively for mobile phones. We never ask our beta players where they get their mobile phones from, but they all have them and not necessarily the cheapest either. We see this trend in Africa and in other emerging markets as well, where mobile phone usage is hugely widespread and crucial to reaching people with low income.
My involvement in games focuses on figuring out what the relevant issues are that we want to communicate to our audience; making sure that we measure the impact on the audience without surpassing the privacy laws of any given country; and—most importantly— developing the right alliances to foster change by using the data collected strategically.
It may be surprising to some, that my work in international development as a board member of InterMedia UK, the London-based subsdiary of the DC based not-for profit (www.intermedia.org and www.audiencescapes.org ) has been tremendously useful for my understanding of Serious Games.
The key to a successful game is not how cool the character is or the trouble they can get into. It’s making sure the game is addressing the needs of the real population you want to reach. It’s about the research capability and the capability of understanding and managing the information all the way from development of the game to the use of it, and onward.
InterMedia strives to discover how people adopt technology and then we contextualize the data in order to help our clients promote: economic growth, global health, agriculture and public diplomacy etc etc. We work in more than 40 countries each year under difficult circumstances, whether they be environmental or political, and we address populations in areas of conflict or in hard to reach areas.
The analysis is critical but you cannot have useful analysis if the methodology of collecting the data is flawed whether your client is a nonprofit, government agency or a Serious Games private company. To have a successful game, you need to offer both entertainment value as well as content that can enhance the lives of your audience in some way (healthcare campaign, tools for economic development, crime prevention, etc.), in a timely fashion. Accurately identifying what are the crucial, reasonable, pragmatic and easy to implement take-aways for each game, will determine whether you actually effect change in that society.
The game is merely a tool and I think so often we are distracted by special effects or by the mere concept, that we fail to determine the definition of a game’s success. The first question has to be: Who is the audience? What are the themes they want to learn about and what is fun for them? There are a lot of variables. Some populations need to know about vaccinations but you can’t just say go to a doctor! What motivates people? Which words should be used? What gestures are acceptable in their society?
Above all, it is the design of the methodological research (quantitative and qualitative), gathering high quality data, choosing the right samples and going to the appropriate locations to reach the audience, that matters in the end game.
You will know if your game has been accepted if it spreads virally, if it is played repeatedly by the same user, etc. You can then start tracking pattern or behavioral changes related to the issues you are addressing with your game, in a given community. In order to do this successfully, you also want to have an idea of the areas of impact you want to measure, what would be the actual measurements used, how will you collect the data, and define what would constitute success (what variables to change, in what percentage). It is important that you maintain some dynamic approach to measurement particularly at the earlier stages of adoption of a game. It is very likely that you will have more difficulties than you anticipated in getting a particular set of measurements, and it is also equally possible that you will realize that you are making a lot more impact in other related areas that you were not anticipating.
Audiences will also provide you with a huge wealth of information about their choices and preferences, which you will also want to understand and feed back into the next generation of a given game, or into new games developed on the back of newly uncovered needs.
We tend to cover huge ground in a single game (example: gangs, knives, drugs, areas of criminal law and personal defense in a single game on personal safety). This happens because the social issues one would like to tackle are highly complex and interrelated. However, once an individual has started playing these games, they typically want variety and new games, which is a great opportunity to go into more detail on a particular issue. This helps with the assimilation of information for the user.
As in any form of communication, it is important that Serious Games are not just one-way communication as, if they are, it is a matter of time until they fail as a mass communication tool. So, the actual success of a game will depend on the quality of the research pre and post game, (hit the right issues, at the right time, appropriately), the entertainment value of the game (appropriate characters, workable technology) and your ability to be permeable to the information you receive.
Games are a great bridge across cultures, religious groups, social classes, etc. and they can be most effective when built from the point of view of all that we have in common and leverage from that, rather than from an ‘us and them’ perspective. As we put ourselves in other people’s positions we can understand their lives and their choices and it is from there that we can hope to effect change.
Andrea Marmolejo is a board member of InterMedia Europe. She is an investment advisor focused on environmental and impact investments. Her clients include The World Bank, UnLtd Ventures and other clean technology and impact investment funds. She is a mentor to Ashoka Fellows and served in the election panel for Ashoka Fellows in the UK. She is also a board member at the Harvard Kennedy School Alumni Board. She holds an MPA degree from Harvard University and an Economics degree from the University of Buenos Aires.