Category Archives: Serious Games

Ribbon Hero 2: a serious attempt at serious gaming

Ribbon Hero 2

I’m pleased to share the news that Microsoft’s Ribbon Hero 2 is now freely available to all users of MS Office 2007 and 2010. If you have any interest whatsoever in the educational power of games or business-related uses of games, you absolutely must check this out.

Danc and I had the pleasure of assisting in the development of RH2, which improves on its predecessor in a variety of ways, including: the addition of a narrative, a more polished feedback system, substantially more interesting and creative challenges, and a tighter, more streamlined activity loop in general. Each of these changes are notable in and of themselves; together, they represent a remarkably evolved and polished gameplay experience. (See Danc’s just-published thoughts on the design.)

Most serious gaming projects fail because the organizations behind them lack the will to iterate on, test and polish their prototypes as needed. Microsoft, on the other hand, has been working on the Ribbon Hero franchise (can we call it a franchise now?) for approximately two years. The development team behind Ribbon Hero has approached the daunting challenge of “making it fun to learn Office” with humility and persistence. Its members have attended GDC, studied game design, consulted with expert designers, and playtested/polished the heck out of this game. Most importantly, they have developed skills which represent a significant competitive advantage to Microsoft. Two years may sound like a long time, but once you’ve figured out how to make learning fun, there are an unlimited number of ways in which you can dramatically improve the fortunes of your business.

So here’s to Ribbon Hero 2! May it be the first of many such educational experiences to emerge from Microsoft.

Why Does Gamification Tend to Devolve?

Lots of people have been jumping onto the anti-gamification bandwagon lately. I’ve been surprised by the thoughtfulness and intelligence of the critiques that I’ve read… particularly those that are short, sweet and to the point. And since so much has been eloquently said about the problems with gamification, I won’t bother to repeat the arguments here. Instead I want to address something that everyone else has ignored up till now: why some of gamification’s proponents have allowed it to devolve into the mindless application of points, achievements and leaderboards.

Is it because the proponents of gamification are generally not game designers and don’t understand how hard it is to make a good game? In some cases, probably so. But there’s a deeper and more pervasive problem that is driving the “dumbing down” of gamification. The problem is: gamification is a very tough sell.

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Encouraging Fuel Efficiency

Via Jeremy Liew: Popular Science has published an article that describes how the 2010 Honda Insight (a hybrid vehicle) uses some principles of video games to encourage more fuel efficient driving behavior. The car’s multi-information display includes a progress meter — a (leafless) virtual plant. The plant’s empty branches grow leaves over time, as a result of efficient driving behavior recorded by the car’s onboard computer. The multi-information display helps teach the driver how to drive more efficiently (and thus, gain leaves) by signaling the impact of excessive stopping and starting, inefficient acceleration, etc.

This isn’t a short-term game, either. Over the car’s entire lifetime, a thrifty driver can earn a second tier of leaves, then a flower on each branch. The screen will eventually display a trophy if a driver performs well enough for a long enough period of time.

What I like about this idea is not just that it makes fuel-efficient driving more interesting. If Honda is smart, they could turn this into an incentive to purchase more Honda vehicles in the future. After all, when the time comes to purchase another car, you wouldn’t want to lose the virtual trophy that you had worked so hard to earn, would you? Well, why should you have to lose it? Just purchase another vehicle from Honda, and all the trophies you earned in your previous vehicle can be transferred over to the new one! Of course, this would work much better if you could earn trophies for other activities in addition to efficient driving, and it would work much better still if the accumulation of trophies led to concrete real-world benefits, like an “exclusive” t-shirt with the Honda logo on it, an entry into an exciting prize sweepstakes, a 5% discount on your next vehicle…

Wii Fit – 1st Day’s Take

Given my work at MIT on Cyclescore (a platform that fused original games with stationary cycling), you can imagine my excitement over Wii Fit. The Wii + Brain Age-style game design seems like a match made in heaven. Having now played Wii Fit, I think I can say with confidence that it absolutely will be a match made in heaven someday soon. Probably v2, but not quite v1. I’m sure I’ll have more to say after using Wii Fit for a month, but here are my first impressions:

The good

A virtual exercise group: in some exercises, there are several Mii avatars around you, participating in the routine. If you’ve created Miis for your friends and family, it will be those Miis exercising around you. I don’t know how long the effect will last, but in my first experience with Wii Fit, I really enjoyed seeing that!

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Teaching Teamwork Skills: Everest

I received such good feedback the last time I revealed part of my upcoming book, For Fun and Profit: How Games are Transforming the Business World, that I figured I’d try again. This time, I’ve selected a very small piece of a much longer chapter on how games can be used to train employees. I hope you like it.

Games and Training: Everest

One game-based approach to teaching teamwork skills is to focus on very specific problems that are usually hard to identify and correct. For example, one such problem is that teams often prove dumber than their individual members. This is caused by a phenomenon known as “process loss” — the opposite of the “wisdom of crowds.” Process loss happens when teams fail to share information, get trapped by various conflicting goals, lose themselves in unproductive argument, and fall into a pattern of groupthink. A game called Everest, which was designed by Harvard Business School and Forio Business Simulations, forces players to grapple with all of these issues and overcome them as a team.

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Serious Games Squared

IMO, few things are as “newsworthy” as a major publisher declaring their real commitment to the pursuit of the serious game market — at least today, while declared publisher interest in serious games is still rare. And by “real commitment”, I mean more than just publishing another take on Brain Age. I was thrilled to attend Ichiro Otobe’s talk at GDC, a rough but relatively faithful transcript of which is copied below.

Background, for those who don’t know: Square Enix is developer/publisher of game franchises such as Final Fantasy, which has sold 75M units worldwide, and Dragon Quest, which has sold 41M units worldwide.

So why is Square Enix interested in serious games?

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“Depressing” Games

A question I’d like to pose: do you think a game with a serious theme (i.e. the Holocaust, or the African-American civil rights movement) could be commercially successful in the US market?

Such a game would almost certainly go a long way towards silencing skeptics who say “games can’t be art.” More importantly, it would help young people understand the great injustices of the past. Reading a textbook is one thing, playing a prisoner in a concentration camp is quite another.

But would these games reach enough people? Would they be profitable? And how would you make them fun without blurring the social message?

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Using Games to Tap Collective Intelligence (Part 2)

It’s taken a while, but I want to return to my article on using games to tap the wisdom of crowds. First and foremost, I’d like to bring attention to the writings of Raph Koster. Raph informed me that he’s been thinking about this idea as well for quite some time now. However, Raph one-upped me: he found someone who actually tested the theory! From Raph’s blog:

What [Byron Reeves] showed was a mockup of a Star Wars Galaxies medical screen, displaying real medical imagery. Players were challenged to advance as doctors by diagnosing the cancers displayed, in an effort to capture the wisdom of crowds. The result? A typical gamer was found to be able to diagnose accurately at 60% of the rate of a trained pathologist. Pile 30 gamers on top of one another, and the averaged result is equivalent to that of a pathologist — with a total investment of around 60-100 hours per player.

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Exertainment Groundhog’s Day

Every few months, it seems like a new “exertainment center” is unveiled (i.e. a glorified gym featuring a few exertainment devices, most of which have been on the market for a few years and have failed to develop a large customer base.) The latest, Overtime Fitness, got a writeup in ArsTechnica which inspired me to finally write this article.

I won’t mince words — the “exertainment industry” is a troubled beast, despite profound media interest and a notable influx of venture capital. Several exertainment startups (both on the gym and the equipment sides) have gone out of business in the past few years alone. The reasons for this are numerous:

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Using Games to Tap Collective Intelligence

I’ve been mulling over an idea for several months now. It goes something like this:

Nowadays, everyone is talking about the broad potential applications of video games. Combating obesity. Managing chronic disease. General education. Employee training. Military preparedness and recruiting. The list seems endless. But one unique and important aspect of games has yet to be tapped: I believe they can effectively aggregate individual players’ actions into a form of collective intelligence.

Basis of the Idea: Wisdom of Crowds

First, a bit of background. Few things have become conventional wisdom so quickly as the Wisdom of Crowds, an idea that has captivated savvy businesses seeking to improve their internal prediction and decision-making processes. There’s great reason to believe the hype — just ask HP, which has used idea markets to generate more accurate sales predictions, or read about the Iowa Electronic Markets, which have predicted presidential election outcomes more accurately than the polls in 75% of cases.

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