Thursday, April 03, 2008

One-on-one with David Wortley

Here's an interview with David Wortley, Director, Serious Games Institute, Coventry University and presenter at KOM's 2008 Serious eGames Conference held in Muscat, Oman 31 March - 1 April.

What are the focus areas – both short-term and long-term - of SGI (Serious Games Institute)?

DW: The Serious Games Institute (SGI) has 2 principal and related focus areas - serious games and virtual worlds. Both of these areas involve immersive environments that are engaging and have potential to develop, inform and influence users. In the short term our aim is to raise awareness of the potential of these applications and to develop a reputation for the West Midlands of the UK as a centre of excellence. By doing this, we aspire to attracting inward investment, creating jobs, attracting the best talent and retaining graduates. In the longer term, our aim is to build a model of best practice for a commercially sustainable partnership between industry and education that combines business incubation with advanced demonstration/showcasing facilities and excellent applied research.

Please explain games based simulation and immersive 3D virtual environments?

DW: Simulation is an activity which gives people an opportunity to practice skills without the risks or consequences of associated with doing it for real. Role playing exercises are a good examples of simulations. Flight simulators are one of the best known types of simulation. They provide pilots with a chance to practice flying a plane without killing themselves or other people. Games are activities which involve challenge, competition, rewards and enjoyment. Games also create a low-risk environment that encourages enterprise and innovation. Putting games and simulations together creates an environment where people can not only practice skills in a low-risk way but where they also experience enjoyment, challenge, competition and rewards.

Immersive 3D virtual environments are computer generated virtual worlds which the user can explore and navigate. Increasingly, technology is enabling us to create realistic 3D immersive environments that many users can share simultaneously on standard computer hardware.

Clearly, simulations, games and 3D immersive environments are closely related and each can support the effectiveness of the other e.g. a games based simulation in an immersive 3D virtual environment could be the most effective way to engage and develop people because it combines the best of all worlds but there are many examples of simulations that are not games e.g. commercial flight simulators and games which are not simulations e.g. professional football

Examples which combine both games and simulation include Microsoft Flight simulator and the Football Manager electronic games. Microsoft Flight simulator uses an immersive 3D virtual environment and Football Manager is just 2D.

What could be the negatives, if any, of pursuing serious games?

DW: Like any emerging technology, there is always the danger of inflated expectations and misuse. Serious games have great potential if used appropriately. If people pursue serious games with the expectation that they can replace all other forms of training and learning, they will be disappointed and potentially waste a lot of money. Once people understand how and when to uses serious games, and once the tools and technologies are fully mature, these negatives will disappear.

The most serious long-term negative of pursuing serious games could be that users of serious games are protected from the risks and consequences of the real world and that this protection could lead people to take inappropriate risks once they move from the serious games to the real world. A pilot who crashes his flight simulator many times and walks away unharmed may be less careful when flying a real plane and a soldier killed many times in a "shoot em up" simulation can always restart the game but in real life he might not get a second chance.

In the cultural context of the Gulf countries, especially Oman, how do you see the growth of serious games applications?

DW: Gulf countries like Oman are developing very rapidly as a result of oil. They are moving into the 21st century globalised economy with a new generation of young people being brought up in the Technology Age where games consoles and mobile phones are a very natural and essential part of everyday life. For this coming generation, serious games will be a very natural way to learn and develop. I therefore see a rapid growth in both the use and development of serious games and a potential source of employment in the Oman economy.

How would you relate serious games and environment concerns?

DW: Serious games have the potential to address environmental concerns on different levels. One of the biggest impacts of serious games on the environment could be their use to educate people and influence their behaviour. There are already serious games where players can experience the simulated environmental impact of their decisions and their lifestyles. These games are designed to change behaviour through increased awareness.

However, there are also opportunities to use serious games and immersive environment technologies to produce environmental benefits through their use in such application areas as Smart Buildings and Virtual conferences, both of which should reduce energy consumption and have a positive impact on the environment.

What could be the breakthrough sort of innovation possible through serious games applications?

DW: This is a very difficult question because innovation is by its nature unanticipated and unpredictable. However, if you look at what are emerging possibilities enabled by technological advance, the ability to visualise information in 3 dimensions must be a key area for breakthrough innovation. It is an area that the SGI is deeply involved in through the real time integration of physical and virtual worlds with sensor technologies.

As an example, these technologies enable us to visualise and experience a building before it is constructed and, once constructed, allow us to interact with the building and its occupants in ways never before possible. We can see this as a major area for innovation.

One of the other important breakthrough innovations made possible by electronic games is likely to be the interface with the computer. The mouse and keyboard are likely to be replaced by more natural interfaces including Wii type controllers, brainwave monitors and 3D cameras.

On a global scale, how do you serious games growing?

DW: I foresee substantial growth in the serious games market place both in the commercial and consumer space. In the business to business space, new tools to improve development productivity will reduce costs and growing awareness will stimulate demand, whilst in the consumer space, led by companies like Nintendo, you will see many serious games published of the "Brain trainer" genre.

How can serious games promote regional development?

DW: The West Midlands of the UK has lost many of its traditional manufacturing industries with the migration of car making to the Far East. With the growth potential of this emerging sector, the West Midlands is seeking to promote regional development by building on the success of local electronic games companies such as Blitz Games and Codemasters and investing in building a new brand identity around this.

3D immersive environments (and games) can also be used to promote the region by creating rich virtual worlds that mirror the region and encourage its exploration through gateways like Google Earth and Microsoft Virtual Earth

Any plans to start an SGI learning centre in Oman?

DW: The launch of the Soft Landing Zone in Oman is an importnat first step to the creation of an international network of learning centres to encourage enterprise and innovation through serious games, 3D immersive environments and advanced telecommunications. The Soft Landing Zone will enable us to run joint virtual events and workshops

How can serious games boost creativity?

DW: By their nature, games encourage creativity and experimentation so those involved in the development of serious games must exercise their creativity, imagination and story-telling communication skills. There are also examples of serious games which are specifically designed to encourage enterprise and innovation amongst business people. Pixelearning's business enterprise game is an example of this.

In what way can serious games help people with special needs?

DW: At the Serious Games Institute, we have an excellent example of how someone with special needs has had his life transformed by the virtual world called Second Life. Simon Stevens is a highly intelligent and entrepreneurial young man with cerebral palsy. Second Life enabled him to fulfill hsi potential by creating a level playing field in which his capabilities were not masked by his physical and speech difficulties.

Increasingly, technologies like this and developments in new interfaces will help people with special needs express and exploit their special capabilities.

Is there any monitoring/regulatory agency for the serious games sector?

DW: I guess the serious games sector is still emerging so, as far as I am aware, such an agency is not yet in place. I would not like to predict whether there is a need for such an agancy but I think it is likely that there will be some form of industry standards body to will develop and encourage standard protocols for serious games and virtual worlds that allows inter-operability.

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