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After taking in some sessions on technologies designed to improve health and education, we took a moment to speak David Brown, professor of interactive systems for social inclusion at NTU, and Penny Standen, professor of health, psychology and learning disabilities at the University of Nottingham, about their research into ‘serious games’.

What’s the difference between serious games and commercial games?

David Brown: Commercial games can be serious games, but it just means that, unlike commercial games with an entertainment purpose, serious games usually have some kind of learning or rehabilitation focus rather than purely entertainment.

At today’s conference, you presented several games designed to rehabilitate people with disabilities and health problems. Can you describe how one of those games would be used?

DB: One of the games that we develop is a 3D introduction to work. [It] uses the [Source] engine that’s used to produce [Half-Life 2]. Except we produce a new level of the game – it is modded. And instead of running around killing everybody, we strip all the weapons out, and we just use the characters the environments, the settings, the buildings, to simulate what it might be like for a person with a disability on their first day. Because they might have more extreme fear or trepidation about their first day. And there might be some really particular information about what a person with a disability must know on their first day – we use the game, and that engine, to simulate their first day at work.

Why did you decide to pursue this research?

DB: Really it was about 20 years ago. I started working with Penny [Standen] and the Sheppard school 20 years ago, because people with a learning disability don’t particularly work [well] with abstract ways of learning, such as learning English to describe something or mathematics. They work very well with being shown or interacting with three dimensional, interactive environments – where you can learn by doing, learn experientially rather than learning something like English then reading a book about it, because it is an abstract [way] to learn about a real world system. So, we simulate the real world system.
Penny Standen: You can also do it over and over again. You can practice things as many times as you like without really getting your teachers fed up. And it’s a safe environment in which to practice in.

The possibility to repeat tasks is a key advantage for serious games, then…

DB: Yeah. [Users] can interact, they can get consistent feedback. It is your interaction at drives the learning process, so you’re fully engaged in the system. We started with the development of virtual environments way back in the day. But what we find more recently is, we can do the same kind of simulations, but the games’ engines give us all of the environments and the characters already developed up to a really high [level] of fidelity. That’s what our young gamers have come to expect. So, if we were developing those characters ourselves we [would] have to invest huge amounts of time and energy to produce that kind of level of system. Whereas, games’ engines do half that work for us. We just then have to embed the narrative in there, rather than developing the environment and characters as well.

What sort of limitations are there for serious games?

DB: The limitations would be whether we’ve actually embedded the learning objectives in them. Sometimes with serious games, we put lots of learning objectives in and that detracts from the game playing element. But with pure games, there isn’t the learning embedded in it either. It’s about finding that middle ground between the two, so you’re maximising the engagement from a computer game, but also getting the advantages of having learning objectives. That’s a really fine line to balance between. Sometimes you achieve it and sometimes you don’t.

Where do think your research will take you in the future?

DB: Well, there are lots of things we want to do, like a lot of the stuff we’ve been showing tonight, such as stroke rehabilitation. What I want it to be now. We’ve had lots of ideas for the last 20 years, but, perhaps over the last five or six years, we’ve been proving that serious games and virtual environments do have a real clinical effect – as Penny’s proved – on people’s choice reaction time or their independent decision making or in some of the other studies on memory. So, these games and environments do have a real educational or clinical effect and we need to go on proving that. Once we [establish] that, they’ll be embedded into real educational and rehabilitation [institutions].
PS: [Building] something that’s more acceptable to a wide range of age groups as well. I think people have been saying that some of the [users] are too old and they may not want to do it. But I think they’ve got to be acceptable to everybody, so that people use them as a natural form of learning or treatment.

To find out more about serious games research in Nottingham see ntu.ac.uk/sat.