torsdag 29. august 2013

Do we need game research?

Indirectly related, as I'm getting more and more excited about Dreamfall Chapters!

Game research. These words often make the gamer shudder. It is my impression that many gamers, or even game designers, are doubting the point and benefit of game research.
Do we really need game research? Should it just be left alone as a natural art where game designers do their own thing? It might seem like game designers and researchers live on different planes. Research and reality(reminds you of biology vs humanities?). Personally I'd like to see a blend between the two. There is no point to research if it can never be applied to reality. Vice versa, game design or the way we think of games can always be improved by good and relevant research.

What good does game research do? I wouldn't want game research to simply be the systematic explanation of what we already know. As it stands, there is a lot of knowledge on game design. I would like to take it one step further. Games are more than Starcraft or the latest Grand Theft Auto. Games offer us the opportunity to tap into interesting parts of our psyche normally not seen. Buzz words such as gamification and serious games have been around for a while now, but do these have anything to offer? There are many good and bad examples, but let me show you some of my favorites! 
I have enjoyed using the workout tracker Fitocracy which incorporates various game mechanics. You get xp after tracking your workout, there is a level bar, quests and achievements to win. If you respond well to level mechanics, this will work great for you! I would call this good gamification. A great example of serious games is how the Norwegian military uses simulation games  to practice teamwork and communication skills in serious situations that are hard to replicate in real life. These types of games would not be around if there was no knowledge of the player and the psychology of gaming.

Understanding the gamer is crucial to game research. How does the gamer react to various game mechanics? Does game mechanics overide other important elements in the game? Games for learning often attempt to put some sort of curriculum on top of a well established game mechanics to promote learning. But lets face it, would you truly learn molecular strucures by playing a bubble shooter with molecule "bubbles" and somewhat correct matches you had to create? Chances are, you'd simply play the mechanics after a while, not caring about the bubble graphics. This argument is often used to refute arguments about game violence turning the gamer violent, they are just playing the mechanic of reducing health bars and moving onto the next! What is more interesting are those who watch. The experience of sitting next to someone playing a game could be very different than being the one with the controller. How about kids watching game violence played out by their parents. Is it possible that they could link the action to their parent and take damage from it? We don't fully know, yet.

These are just a sample of interesting questions and dilemmas surround the world of games.By use of reliable game metrics and controlled experiments, I think there are many interesting things we can find within the gaming world. Perhaps it can even help us understand more about ourselves?
Personally, I think game research should be fuelled by both the desire to make better games and wanting to harvest the fruits of powerful game mechanics in useful ways. This might sound idealistic, but isn't that what all research is? Curious, ambitious and with the desire to improve.

Detail of a beautiful University glass painting, "Science and religion". 
"Education" by Louis Tiffany.

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