Serious Games: A Key Player in the Years to Come

Written by Christian Belcher, a Research and Social Media Intern with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Serious games and citizen science – at a glance both appear somewhat unconventional in nature.  As relatively new fields attempting to establish themselves alongside more conventional counterparts, formulating an appropriate vocabulary can be a challenge.  While they are each busy trying to establish common terminology, they also face remarkably similar challenges from within.

Last week the Commons Lab sat down with Eric Church, a prolific game designer and Program Associate at the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative. As relative novices when it comes to serious games, having only dabbled with the Fiscal Ship, we asked him what factors determine the success of a serious game.  His reply was cut and dry: clearly set goals and immediate feedback to participants.  The two elements he highlighted are also evident in citizen science projects, especially as a means of inspiring and maintaining participation.

Fiscal Ship
The Fiscal Ship, a product of the Wilson Center’s Serious Games Initiative, lets players craft the Federal Budget.

Every serious game worth playing has an objective, a clearly stated mission with which participants can understand.  For example Eyewire, a serious game developed by MIT, encourages players to help scientists map the neurons of the occipital lobe, the portion of the brain responsible for vision.  This charter is clearly advertised on their website, and directly referenced in the name of the game.  By engaging the public with their message, through the medium of an interactive game, they’ve successfully mapped more than 700 neurons.  Citizen science projects within the medical and health field have proliferated as well.  A UK-based app is doing its part to fight Parkinson’s disease globally; participants in the 100 for Parkinson’s program simply upload information on ten aspects of their health over a hundred day period, all in the aims of gathering data to learn more about the affliction.

Some projects require creative participants. Projects that follow an ideation model, like the U.S. Army’s SciTech Futures exercise, are examples of open-ended crowdsourcing. Last week, participants from around the world were asked to speculate what the future will hold by answering the question, “What technological emergence or sociopolitical trend will shape the year 2040?” For the Army, a successful crowdsourcing project in this model is one replete with diverse answers or original content. Using SciTech Futures as an example, the goal of a similar venture, e.g. answering an open-ended question on future sociological trends, should be made clear to participants. The specific methods used to reach that goal depend on the nature of the assignment at hand, in this case canvasing as many scenarios as possible.

floatingfarm1
Ocean-based hydroponics, one of most popular concepts on the SciTech Futures Marketplace (photo credit: Forward Thinking Architecture)

Mr. Church’s second criterion for success is a reward system.  This is perhaps where citizen science and crowdsourcing-based serious games diverge most from one another.  While both revolve around the largesse of volunteers – citizens willing to spend time, and occasionally money, on assignments extracurricular of work and family life – each rewards participants differently.  Citizen scientists conducting research for Zooniverse might find themselves at the forefront of an incredible discovery, a thrill for amateur and professional scientists alike.  People participating in one of the National Park Service’s many BioBlitz events can rejoice in contributing valuable information to biodiversity databases, all while spending a day at the park.  Serious games, on the other hand, seem to yield more verifiable results, that is to say, the accuracy of a player’s answers can be readily determined.  Wrong answers can be addressed, while correct answers may be rewarded, either in the form of in-game progression, symbolized by achievement notifications and virtual medals, or a tangible remuneration, like cash or concept art, the prizes taken home by winners of the Department of State’s Fishackathon and the Army’s SciTech Futures events respectively.  At the end of the day however, both citizen science and serious games seek to educate and empower individual participants, whose contributions benefit their local communities and the world as a whole.

An integral part of any project though, citizen science and serious games alike, is the feedback provided to the participants.  For citizen scientists, this feedback can be a reward in and of itself; engaging in an open-dialogue with career experts in a shared field of interest is a marvelous opportunity.  Naturally, the amount of feedback depends on the nature of each task; those requiring methodological consistency would demand greater moderation, yielding a data set that’s easier to aggregate, while ideation exercises benefit from a high degree of independence, and subsequently provide more creative returns.

Moving forward, it’s safe to say that citizen science and serious games will face a few similar challenges on the road ahead, in the form of standardization, or maintaining legitimacy, but promising strides are being taken to address these obstacles.  Currently there is a team, of which the Commons Lab is a part, working to establish core standards for sharing data, and establishing metadata standards among citizen science projects.  Furthermore, in 2013 SRI and Concordia University conducted a study that highlighted the potential of serious games in the classroom: STEM students whose curriculum’s included simulations experienced a 25% improvement in achievement.  It’s steps like these that foment the open innovation movement, establishing citizen science and serious games as key players in the years to come.

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