MSU Game Conference Focuses on "Meaningful Play"

Oct 18, 2012

Game designers and researchers from around the world are meeting at Michigan State University this week to talk about the concept of “meaningful play.”  MSU  is recognized as a leader in computer game development.  So-called “serious games” help players build problem solving skills, spur civic engagement and maintain their health. It’s a niche market with the potential for broad commercialization.

Forty years ago, the world was mesmerized by a tiny white square ricocheting calmly off two non-descript white bars.  In 1972, the monotonous blip of “Pong” helped launch a revolution in home entertainment.

Today, of course, video games are complex, intricate audiovisual feasts.  Many offer a barrage of non-stop action, like “War Commander” from San Francisco-based KIXEYE.

But games aren’t just designed as engaging distractions.  This week, game researchers and builders are meeting at Michigan State University to explore the social value of games.

Wei Peng is a principal investigator at the GEL lab – that’s Games for Entertainment and Learning.  It’s part of MSU’s department of  Telecommunications, Information Studies and Media.  Her work taps into the force that causes people to become so immersed in gaming.

“From our perspective, in the academic field, we would like to take advantage of this powerful medium and then see how we can leverage it for other positive purposes,” says Peng.

Serious games explore diverse topics.  Peng helped design several “exergames” designed to get players up and moving around; a not-so-subtle blend of fun and fitness.  She believes such activities can build positive behavioral habits. 

Peng cites a recent Stanford University study involving the game “Re-Mission.”  Players navigate a microscopic robot through the body to blast away leukemia cells while dodging friendly red blood cells.  Peng says the players in the study group generally became more enthusiastic about their own health.

“They increased their self-advocacy, but they also feel they are more compliant with their treatment,” Peng says.  “They are less likely to skip their medicine.  So, that’s another really powerful behavior change from playing those games.”

Carrie Heeter is one of Peng’s colleagues at MSU.  She’s been developing media products for more than 40 years.  Heeter says games are the most intriguing medium she’s followed…but ironically, she admits she doesn’t like today’s video games.

“But I like the idea that they are a carefully designed experience,” Heeter says.

"I can construct this very, very specific set of things that happen that you interact sometimes with other people, with the game as I've designed it; to have an experience that can change what you think, what you believe, what you know, how you feel." -- Carrie Heeter

A few years ago, scientists cracked the human genome.  Heeter was fascinated.  She began attending conferences and talking to geneticists about the issues.  At every turn, she asked the experts, “what’s the one thing that’s the hardest for people to understand?”

“The response that I was getting was that they don’t really understand the probability.  They don’t understand that genes are not destiny, and that even knowing your genes doesn’t mean you know how you’re going to die.  I said ah!  So I will make a game to address that.”

So, in partnership with Stanford University, Heeter designed “DNA Roulette.”  Players bet on whether a randomly generated person – let’s call him Leon, a white male of Northern European descent – will have a particular trait or disease.  Little by little, the game offers more information about Leon and how he either matches or differs from the average population.  There’s obviously some science involved here…but in the end, the spinning roulette wheel is governed by the whims of chance.

Organizers say this week’s conference at MSU is unique, in that other gatherings tend to focus exclusively on just academics or the gaming industry.  Wei Peng says this one brings both together. 

The Meaningful Play conference at Michigan State University continues through Saturday.