Four weeks ago I received a lovely email from Krystian Majewski from the Cologne Games Lab (based in the Cologne University of Applies Sciences) asking if I could present a paper on ‘serious games’ at their third cross-media conference on computer games design and research: Clash of Realities.
A quick look at the (half-English, half-German, and extremely beautifully designed) programme piqued my interest, and as I had been thinking a lot about educational games and their embedding within courses after mine and Simon’s paper at GBL10, it was an ideal chance to present some of my forming ideas.
A quick look at the transport options fitted in nicely with my environmental aim to use trains in Europe where possible; and this proved to be a better move than expected when the ash cloud covered the skies a week later…
…the same cloud knocked a couple of US-participants out of the programme, but those speakers present covered the vacant slots admirably. One of these – and the first keynote I caught fresh in from a smooth and comfortable train ride – was Maic Masuch, who presented a fascinating paper on realism and immersion in games: a particularly salient point being that a good narrative can remove the need for high powered, realistic graphics in striving for an immersive experience.
Cologne is home to a burgeoning game development industry – both the big commercials (EA were benevolent and discrete co-sponsors of the conference along with the universtity; and their smart building stands alongside an oddly designed Microsoft edifice adjacent to the Rhine) and small independents: over a drinks reception on the first evening (fuelled by endless small glasses of the local Kölsh brew), I chatted to Max – an iPhone app programmer who had worked on the UK Premiership football team apps – and Tale of Tales, the innovative art-game developers from Belgium; as well as games researchers from the University.
The second, main, day was split into three streams – the most interesting being the game design theme, which merged art, film, education and design in a thoroughly inspiring clash of genres and cultures. Krystian opened the day with the case for independent games and how they fit into the commercial world – demonstrating his incredible looking independent game (Trauma); then Tale of Tales described the long design and realisation process of one of their unique games (The Path), suggesting that their games would not be as creative or true to their vision if they had given production over to a large team of programmers – and that the best way forward for them to merge creativity with quality/speed of production would be for programmers to develop easy tools for the designers to use themselves.
The section on ‘serious games’ (or games in education as I much prefer to call it) saw Max join Fabricio de la Marques to describe a wonderfully conceived iPhone application which will use augmented reality to help 12-13 year olds to build up a picture of how Roman Cologne looked, working from the small sections of wall and gateways which are spread across the city. Their close work with teachers and with the local museum provided an excellent model for cross-sector development of an educative game. I followed with my argument that games in education need to been as ‘campaigns’ and not ‘side quests’ – that serious games which are produced as bolt-on/isolated skills courses disconnected from the subject context (or fail to create a cohesive context within the game) will result in short-term skill retention and low engagement, compared to the high levels of contextual engagement resulting in embedding games firmly within the subject context.
Sessions on the use of film within games followed (in German, although I managed to follow much of them), and then an entertaining and enlightening talk on a brief history of design and how it has affected games from Björn Bartholdy – given sharp relevance as the lectures were taking place in the Cologne Design School, and the fabulous conference graphics had all been produced by its students. Bernd Diemer, designer at major game developer Crytech then took us on a personal and entertaining journey through his love of maps – which re-ignited the debate on ‘realism’ and graphics quality within games: and how effective games can have the simplest of graphics approaches – and indeed encourage imagination flow more so than over-realistic commercial games.
The extended discussion in between each paper in the stream, and during the generous coffee breaks and evening event hosted in EA Games’s riverside sports bar, made for a thoroughly inspiring day – much in-depth deconstruction of the papers and high-level discussion around the main themes. The mix of educators, theorists, designers and artists from across Europe provided a hot bed for such discussions, and on this basis alone and the ideas I and others have come away with, the conference was a raging success.
Reflecting now as I travel back on the high-speed Thalys train (equipped with free wifi) – the only downsides to the conference, I think, were the lack of time/events to see something of Cologne (although I did manage brief visits to the Shokoladenmuseum and the Döm) and the slightly confused German/English language mix (although the organisers are actively looking at this, and I wouldn’t like to see it convert to English across the board as it was great to see large numbers of local students attending the German lectures). Oh, and Wifi would have been good – I missed out on the (resultingly quite small) backchannel until after the conference – but this is not unique to Cologne, of course.
In summary, a very successful blend of different disciplines and approaches, but all with a solid focus on theory, research and (most notably) evidence-based practice in games design, development and delivery – I’ve certainly left with my head buzzing with ideas (and my contacts list boosted) flowing from the heady mix of different viewpoints. Above all, thanks to Krystian, Fabricio, Max, Björn and everyone else for their wonderful hospitality and company throughout, too.