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There’s a game for that

With new technologies and interfaces, the gaming world is pushing the boundaries of what it means to play. Today computer games aim to do much more than offer players the chance to shoot the bad guy. We can now use them to learn how to read, how to make environmentally conscious decisions, and even how to become a better actress, all without sacrificing the fun.

Playing a game inherently requires a certain amount of learning, according to Casper Harteveld, assistant professor of art and design. For example, you need to learn how the game space works and how you can level up your character within it. So while it was perhaps an unconscious development, games have become an ideal educational platform for teaching a broad spectrum of topics.

Walter Huang (right) demonstrates the Affective Media project a group of students. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

At the fourth Pop Up Open Lab Experience and Reception, held in the Digital Media Commons on Monday, researchers from across the university came together to demonstrate how they are both utilizing and optimizing games to address a variety of problems. The event was hosted by the Office of the Provost, the College of Arts, Media and Design and the College of Computer and Information Science.

Many of the games on display focus on health-related challenges or explore back-end methods for making those games more engaging and effective in their educational goals.

A capstone team comprising four physical therapy students and one neuroscience student is exploring how a robotic smart glove for stroke survivors can more effectively help patients regain their motor skills. The team believes that if the user’s hand motions control a virtual environment instead of an image of a hand on the computer screen, she will be more likely to return to the device repeatedly, said team member Jacob Watterson. Making that virtual environment part of a game should only increase this likelihood, he said.

Mark Sivak (left), assistant academic specialist in game design, demonstrates the ATLAS smart glove to third-year student Ryan Stewart. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The issue of repeatability seemed to be on many of the researchers’ minds. For example, Gillian Smith, an assistant professor of game design, is exploring how automatic content generation can expand the game space to make it more dynamic for the user. Professor Magy Seif El-Nasr, director of the game design program, and Russell Pensyl, a professor of interactive media, are working on incorporating emotion recognition into the gaming experience. The goal of the Affective Media project is to allow games to respond to a user’s experience in order to generate content that will be more likely to keep them engaged.

Alessandro Canossa, associate professor of game design, is developing tools for designers to help them make better games for their users. Using the Google Maps API, his G-Player tool maps the virtual space of a game and shows designers the areas players most often populate. If they see that an entire area of the game is never used, they might either expand the area’s accessibility or cut it out completely. This way the designers can help promote greater interest and usability, he said.

Other games on display explored a variety of challenges. Some aim to promote healthy behaviors while others explore the use of interactive storytelling to promote engagement. The diversity of projects showed that gaming has clearly reached its tentacles into a variety of disciplines. What was once a tool merely for fun is now a fun tool for education and learning across a spectrum of topics.