Two big pieces of personal news: Ethan has accepted a full-time position as a professor of entrepreneurship with the Wharton School of Business, and I have left Microsoft to start a consulting firm called “Fuzbi” (the Fuzbi tag line: “where business meets game design.”) If you might be interested in connecting with either Ethan and/or I in our new capacities, please feel free to contact us directly. In addition, I will be at E3 promoting Fuzbi and indulging in this year’s bonanza of games; if you will be attending E3 as well and would like to meet up, just drop me a line.
CNET recently published this interesting article about news games — simple online games that are designed to promote or simply riff off of a current news topic (like the spread of swine flu.) The article cites several examples, including Swinefighter, a game in which players are tasked with killing off viruses within 20 seconds. Swinefighter incorporates a running total of all the viruses killed by everyone who has played the game, so at the time CNET published it’s article, we know that 14.5 million virtual viruses have been wiped out by players.
This begs the question: why isn’t the government using games like these to educate the public? It doesn’t cost much to develop a simple online flash game, and the cost certainly pales in comparison to the harms caused by a public that is both panicked by and undereducated about pandemic-related issues. Or in the words of the article: “It’s a shame the innovation (of providing CDC advice about swine flu in Swinefighters) was left to two entrepreneurs.”
In a new game, Celebrity Calamity, individuals learn how to handle their finances. What makes it especially interesting is that it is aimed at an unusual group of individuals who we don’t usually think of as game players – lower income women, especially single mothers. It turns out that games can make a big difference, as summarized here: players “showed a 15-30% increase in confidence in their financial skills, and a 55-70% improvement in knowledge of concepts like credit limits, credit vs. debit, APR, and finance charges.” The game is made by Enspire Learning and the D2D Fund, and, in the interest of disclosure, I have been an advisor to the project.
Popular Science has published a delightful article that describes how 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 fun. No, what I really like about this is that, 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, it would work better if you could earn trophies for more activities in addition to efficient driving (and it would work better still if the accumulation of trophies led to concrete real-world benefits, like a 5% discount on your next vehicle, a t-shirt with the Honda logo on it, etc…)
A report from the European parliament has concluded that video games are not only safe for children to play, but actually helpful because games teach children “essential life skills.” Add this to the pile of research that has built up over the last several years in rebuttal of (generally unsubstantiated) criticism that games trigger aggression and have no redeeming qualities.
Key quote from the article: There is no firm proof that playing them has an automatic negative impact on children’s behaviour, for example by causing aggression, said the report from the committee on the internal market and consumer protection. Instead, “video games can stimulate learning of facts and skills such as strategic thinking, creativity, cooperation and innovative thinking, which are important skills in the information society.”
Following on to the recent Pew finding that 53% of all American adults play games, it looks like one of Obama’s key information planners is a dedicated World of Warcraft player, causing gamers to analyze his playing style for policy hints. On a similar note, the essay “If Gamers Ran the World” is a thought-provoking article on what games have to teach, even if we don’t always agree with some of its more far-out conclusions.
According to the LA Times, over half of the teams in the NBA are using NBA Live 2008, the popular basketball game, to simulate potential trades and evaluate personnel. The general manager of the Houston Rockets said, “I don’t play EA Sports as a game. I use it as a tool. Say if you’re thinking about acquiring Ron Artest. On the game, you can see how adding Artest can change the dynamic of your team. You can program it to run offensive sets with Artest and any combination of your players.” As the complexity of games increases, they become less toy and more tool. We expect to see much more of this, in areas beyond sports, in the near future.
There is ever more evidence that video games are great pain management tools. The latest: Snowy Game, a “basic 3D environment where the players move along a snowy path and fire snowballs at nonmoving targets. They wear a virtual reality headset that ensures the patients aren’t viewing their therapy, and the challenge focuses their mind on aiming instead of the physical discomfort. The cool imagery takes their mind away from the burning pain, and the “shooting” keeps their minds occupied. This sort of pain management benefits not only the patients, but the staff dealing with burn victims. (Emphasis on the last sentence is mine. BTW, for a fascinating insight into burn-related pain and the way it causes psychological pain to both victim and hospital staff, I refer to Dr. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational, who wrote a remarkable paper about his own experience as a burn victim.)
Changing the Game is now available as an audio book. You can listen to it at Audible (They provide downloadable audio books, I have been an addict for their services for the past eight years), or get it from iTunes. We didn’t know that this was coming, but I am pleased to say that the reading is very good, even if we couldn’t get the guy who read the Harry Potter novel to narrate.
My second guest post on the New York Times Freakonomics blog is up; in this one, I explore how two video games, Rock Band and Guitar Hero are fundamentally changing the way that music industry executives think about promoting and selling music. While this story is interesting in and of itself, I chose it because it’s a powerful example of the way that games can be used to reinvent moribund markets. Almost anything can be turned into a game, with enough creativity and effort.