Playing it Forward: Video Games and Gamers Evolving (Op-Ed)

Elena Bertozzi is an associate professor of game design and development at Quinnipiac University. She contributed this article to Live Science's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.

The profitability and growth of the game industry keep it on the cutting edge of technological innovation, while some new hardware and software developments are broadening uses of game technologies in fascinating, and sometimes troubling, ways. Digital play is transforming our experience of the world and teaching us how to successfully navigate rapid change.

Wrapping the virtual around the real

The Oculus Rift headset and other competing products create a new level of immersion for players by almost completely blocking sensory input from outside the game world. With eyes shrouded by 3D goggles, speakers blasting into both ears and hands gripped around a controller, the system so fully embeds players in the game world that they are, for all intents and purposes, not present in their actual surroundings. This creates an opportunity for developers to create games (and other training environments) that are more compelling and immersive than ever before.

In fact, this immersion can actually be too much, as a horde of attacking zombies may be fun to combat when they are safely contained on a TV screen some distance away, but potentially overwhelming when they appear inches from your eyeballs. Another consideration is the safety of the player's physical person. Society is already familiar with the danger of people so intent on peering at their cellphone screens that they fail to notice oncoming vehicles. It will be interesting to see the challenges that develop for people wearing headsets that allow them to spend long periods in alternate-sensory environments. [Oculus Rift: 5 Virtual Reality Uses Beyond Gaming ]

Meshing the physical and the virtual

Rather than increase the distance between virtual and physical environments, other products enable players to mesh digital and analog gaming environments. The "Skylanders" game (first released in 2011) allows players to collect plastic figurines with embedded chips that can be placed on a pedestal, which transforms the figurine into a playable character in an online, shared, digital play environment. A new release in 2014 works the magic in the other direction. Once an opponent (boss) has been defeated in the online game, the boss' voice is collected and plays through a speaker embedded in the pedestal in the player's home, thus giving the player the feeling that they have actually captured the enemy and contained it within a structure in their own play area.

The Sony Vita (a handheld game console) offers some game content with similar fluidity; in addition to serving as a game player, it has a functioning camera and microphone. It also offers a touch-screen surface on the bottom of the device in addition to the normal one on the top. The game "Tearaway" makes ingenious use of this device by representing the player's fingers on the underside of the Vita as objects inside the game world. The player's fingertips pop up into the world and can push around objects inside of that space. Additionally, players can take photographs of patterns with the Vita and apply them to objects in the game, thereby personalizing the game world with elements from the user's own physical reality.

Gamification continues to grow, focusing on reintroducing adults to the challenges and learning opportunities of play. The recent proliferation of casual games on social media, cellphones and tablets has introduced the culture at large to the idea that video games are not just for young, tech-savvy males. Stay-at-home mothers playing "Farmville" on Facebook, commuters glued to "Candy Crush" on the subway, and toddlers burning up their parents' cellphone batteries playing "Temple Run" all demonstrate how digital games have entered the mainstream.

One of the differences between the casual game and traditional video game market is that players expect casual games to be free to play. As a result, developers had to come up with different ways of making a profit from games that require a significant amount of time and effort to develop and distribute, but could not rely on a purchase-based revenue stream. Those developers discovered a solution by putting up a publicly viewable leaderboard — where players could see each other's scores and acquire badges and tokens for particular kinds of achievements — and the opportunity to make micro-purchases (i.e., 75¢ to have a custom pony rather than the standard pony). These additions transformed both the gameplay experience and the revenue model. Players were much more motivated and engaged with the game when they could see their results compared to others and had the opportunity to pay to improve their in-game experience and be publicly rewarded for higher achievements.

Gaming beyond games

The extraordinary success of this model has led to its implementation in a wide variety of other environments. Businesses now routinely create mini-games connected to gamification platforms to establish and exploit brand loyalty. Companies are integrating these mini-games into management training systems as a way of motivating employees to improve their job skills and keep up-to-date on changes in their fields. Uses such as these, however, risk going against the first premise of what constitutes play: an activity freely chosen that is intrinsically motivating (fun) and separate from ordinary life (and especially work). If participating in such a program is essentially a requirement for success in an institution, it cannot be considered play. It is simply another kind of work unsuccessfully costumed as play.

Gamification that respects the rules of play requires careful consideration of the implementation of challenges and a reward system that revolves around an essentially fun core mechanic. Some of the most interesting developments are occurring in the field of "serious games" or games that, while fun, also present players with challenges that teach and reinforce skills that will be useful to them outside of the game. The Games for Health Europe conference held in Amsterdam in October 2013 showcased several games of that type.

At the conference, a designer from Ubisoft explained that the inspiration for the "O Zen" game arose as he struggled with the stress of his job. He was encouraged by his boss to try to solve the problem with a game. "O Zen" requires a few pieces of equipment that the player wears to measure heartbeat and breathing rates. To progress through the game, players must slow down their heartbeats and breathing rates while passing through animated environments that seek to create a meditative state and that appeal to introspection. The gamification platform keeps track of daily practice and progress over time, and allows players to compare themselves with others. To succeed, players must learn a skill set that will be useful outside the game, but the core mechanic of the game is, in and of itself, quite motivating and fun.

My own lab, the Engender Games Group's current game/gamification initiative seeks to solve a public health problem by educating a target population and encouraging those individuals to change their behavior in a specific way. The game aims to encourage a group of people who are currently not protecting their sexual health, and are therefore at high risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases, to change their behavior. Other forms of public health announcements and services have had no effect on this particular population. We hope that by creating a compelling game that embeds the skill set we would like this population to learn, they might play their way to a better understanding of these health risks and how to mitigate them.

Play is one of the means through which intelligent animals model, test and practice strategies for encountering novel challenges. The growth of independent game developers combined with the rapid development of new interfaces means that we will continue to see rapid expansion and innovation in the game industry.

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