2010 Game Developers Conference (GDC): It’s All About Me, It’s All About We

by Ann My Thai
June 2, 2010

May 2010:

This year’s San Francisco Game Developers Conference, the largest annual game developers conference in the world, was marked by a notable focus on player-centered and social game play experiences. These trends began gaining momentum in years’ past, but with the breakthrough success of games such as Farmville on social networks like Facebook, the emphasis on player-centered design and social game play rang loud and clear in 2010. Game makers are tapping into the wealth of content and behaviors users share on social networks to craft personalized, customized play experiences that push the boundaries of how games have been traditionally defined in the past. Accordingly, developers are leveraging users’ networks to expand the reach of their games, and, consequently, have a renewed focus on offering more social and collaborative forms of game play.

The power of social networks to gather data on users’ interests and behaviors is enabling developers to design increasingly player-centered game experiences. The first-ever Social & Online Games Summit featured a keynote by Facebook’s Platform Manager Gareth Davis, who presented a vision for highly personalized game experiences that loop together real and online worlds. Davis pointed to the social media campaign for ABC’s “FlashForward” as a glimpse of the future. The campaign created a customized trailer modeled after the television show trailer using information from a user’s identity and real-world interests. The Nintendo DS XL game Photo Dojo provided a stronger glimpse of what the future holds for personalized game experiences. Players create their own characters by taking photos of themselves in various fight poses, with a range of facial expressions, and recording statements (such as “I will finish you”) that appear in the game. In the future, these features and more could be transferred into game environments to increase customization, relevance, and player engagement. However, as exciting as these new frontiers are, they are also raising important questions about privacy and the blurring of real and online environments.

Tools to help improve prototype development and play testing also supported the philosophy of player-centered design. The Serious Games Summit featured a few panels that placed prototyping and play testing front and center in the design process. Greg Costikiyan put it bluntly, calling his presentation “Prototype More, Suck Less.” Costikiyan urged developers to prototype because iterative refinement is essential to delivering power game experiences to players. Jan Plass of NYU’s Games for Learning Institute described the value of working with middle school students to test the institute’s games, often incorporating their feedback to improve play experiences for other kids.  In addition to prototyping and play testing, the Institute has also developed tools to track and observe player behavior during game play to better understand what happens when kids play learning games. Their shop has experimented with eye-tracking technology, heat-sensitive mousepads, and a “posterior sensor” that tracks players seat positions (such as leaning forward or leaning back) while playing games. User-centered, iterative design methodologies have long been used by research-driven television media producers, such as Sesame Workshop and PBS KIDS, and, as these methods are adopted and refined by the game industry, game makers may be more likely to create more innovative, engaging play patterns for different audiences, including children and families.

Naturally a focus of the social media games space, social, and collaborative play were also underscored across the board at this year’s conference. Sony unveiled its new PlayStation Move and PlayStation Eye motion controllers, which together track player movements and claim more accuracy than the Nintendo Wii. Right off the bat, the PS Move will support multi-player modes, which will open many possibilities for social and collaborative play. In his Social & Online Games Summit presentation, “Kids & Parents Playing Together Online: the Next Frontier of Casual Gaming,” Schell Games Founder and Carnegie Mellon Professor Jesse Schell raised concerns about the dearth of online games that allow families to play together and offered tips to create games that support family bonding and other socio-emotional experiences. Schell suggested designers create more social gaming experiences by considering nostalgia, ways to connect family members over long distances, opportunities for parents to teach, opportunities to reverse roles, and experiences designed for families as well as individuals.

What might these trends mean for children’s learning? Although many of them will initially influence design for adult audiences in the consumer market, children’s digital media developers and educators have much to consider regarding what and how to leverage these emerging techniques and technology for learning. Personalized learning is part of the promise of digital media in education.  However, privacy issues for children are amplified due to tighter filtering policies in schools and government regulations to protect children online. These will be big barriers to delivering customized, relevant content to learners of all stripes. If developers are able to overcome these constraints, a powerful door to recognizing and fostering children’s passions and interests could open.

Children might also stand to benefit from the industry’s new focus on social experiences and collaboration. As the Cooney Center has begun to explore with its Intergenerational Play and Literacy Learning research, game play with children and adult mentors could hold potential learning benefits, similar to those that occur when parents watch educational television with children. As game developers devote more thought to play patterns that foster richer social and collaborative experiences, more innovative offerings for children and families to bond and learn together may be on the horizon.