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Gabe Newell at Games 4 Change

While Bill and Brandon are on vacation, sunning themselves and taking off in hot air balloons and such, I’ve been off gallivanting at the Games 4 Change festival. Picture E3. Then take away the noise, violence, 90% of the budget, and replace hoards of booth-babe photographing game journos with an array of feel-good types – educators, non-profit, government and NGO people and social/educational game developers, a former US vice president and an assortment of other big names, and voila! You have G4C.

The whole idea is that video games (and non digital games) can be harnessed for educational and social justice/social good causes. Games are (or can be) platforms by which charity organizations may raise awareness or funding for projects – like relief for Haiti or Japan after their respective recent natural disasters, for two particularly dramatic examples.

Today, I was lucky enough to attend Gabe Newell’s (yes, that Gabe Newell, Valve co-founder extraordinaire) keynote address to the Games for Learning Institute, where he basically gave a very entertaining – and interesting – whirlwind tour of all the ways games can be used for educational purposes.

He touched on everything from games as a supplement to curriculum (like Portal 2 and learning physics), to their inherent ability to teach concepts (i.e. the way all good games effectively teach you about the systems and mechanics of said game when you learn to play it), to machinima and other creative outlets that games can foster. He even touched on topics like virtual economies and the ways in which Valve, as a developer, learns directly about players through playtesting and iteration.

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Ok, so he didn’t have time to delve terribly deeply into any one area, but as an exploration of what’s possible with gaming and virtual worlds, it was fantastic. Newell is simply a compelling, smart guy – and he took questions throughout from the audience on the fly.

In fact, two things that stood out the most to me were prompted by audience questions. The first came from a gentleman who relayed a story – his son was a huge WOW player, and his college application essay spoke about his experiences with the game, and his desire to “save the world” – oh, the idealism of youth, but read on – it gets more depressing.

Now a junior in college, this kid now says he’s far too afraid of screwing things up to go into any “world saving” field. Newell, a college dropout, claimed not to be sure what it is about our system that crushed this kid’s hopes, but I think I have the answer, and Jane McGonigal (now-famous ARG designer and author of Reality Is Broken) won’t like it. The twitter version of my thoughts? Games offer the ideal (the world can be saved through a “correct” path). Real life is infinitely complicated, and people need to feel empowered and engaged through real-life connection. Games can foster that, but they absolutely cannot replace it.

The second – and perhaps most impactful – stand-out moment came when someone asked about the state of current educational games. Not one to pull punches, Newell basically stated that they really aren’t very good – and game developers in this space need to try harder to make actually engaging gameplay, instead of using the “educational” qualification as a crutch to make boring games.

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I damn near stood up and clapped for that. However, to really, really change this – developers and designers with AAA talent are going to have to get involved on some level, in the educational space. So how do we (as a culture) incentivize that?

As always, a great talk will prompt more questions than it answers, and this was no different. I came out of the room completely jazzed – and ready to tackle some of those questions on my own.

Danielle Riendeau

What I do for work: spend my days as the ACLU design/code/video ninja, write about games, make (tiny) games, teach digital media at Northeastern University. What I do for fun: all of the above, plus lots of running, fitness fun, filmmaking, outdoor exploration, world travel, sci-fi everything.

6 thoughts to “Gabe Newell at Games 4 Change”

  1. “Games offer the ideal (the world can be saved through a “correct” path). Real life is infinitely complicated, and people need to feel empowered and engaged through real-life connection. Games can foster that, but they absolutely cannot replace it.”

    Agreed. 100%. This is actually one of the reasons why, after a tough day of making budgeting decisions (I’ve done some government work…) I have come home and played Civilization. It’s much, much easier to tell virtual people to shut up and do what I tell them to. And if I get into trouble? I can always fire up the console and cheat my way into lots more cash. Real life is a great deal more difficult than that.

    Granted, I’ve got some solid achievements, real human lives which have been made better off by my actions- I can point to. Steam achievements- fun as they may be- aren’t the same thing.

  2. Great write-up, Danielle. I can feel the energy from here 🙂

    Games offer multiple safety nets these days – reloads, checkpoints, cheats – yet encourage, reward and even demand perfection at every stage. It’s the polar opposite to reality. I can totally empathise with that kid; I’ve found myself unable to continue with a project sometimes with a fear of getting it all wrong, or even not being able to achieve as “perfectly” as I feel I should. (Darn perfectionist personality! 😉 )

    I fear that hoping AAA developers would work on educational software is like asking Hollywood to make documentaries. Especially so with budgets so high and the incentive to innovate so low. I’d actually look towards the indie crowd for this kind of thing: it has become more and more feasible for a small team to produce a reasonable product, and with something as niche as “education” currently is, a focused passionate effort would probably produce a better quality product. (The AAA people are better at refining an already successful idea, once it has proven economically feasible to milk it.)

    To some extent it depends what you want to teach too. Some subjects are well-suited to a fun computer simulation – Sim City’s a great example. Even then, could you imagine pitching a “city planning simulation game” to Activision (in some parallel universe where Sim City had not been invented)? Civilization is another good one – I loved the American-history aspect in Civ’s spin-off, Colonization, and I’m not even American! 😀 A more general curriculum however is a whole different kettle of fish….

  3. Big talk, but I’m not seeing the corresponding walk. Is Valve doing _anything_ to promote better educational and social utility in gaming? Are they investing _any_ resources or effort in bettering the state of educational or socially conscious games? Are Valve shifting focus from its core IPs to develop games for nonprofit or humanitarian causes?

    Or are they just pulling the “X is being used in classrooms!” crap where X is some game or other non-traditional source of potential instructional value, in this case where X is Portal 2? It happens every so often in games, it’s like a way that people thinly validate the signficance of gaming in a higher setting. It’s like the “Settlers of Catan is being used to teach teamwork!” thing you hear from time to time. There’s a big difference in nerd professor bringing a game into a class and squeezing educational value out of it and a game designed with an educational agenda.

    I’m not busting his balls over it, it’s great that he said some important and inspirationial stuff…but this smacks of “you guys go do the hard work, we’ll just keep making video games”. Which sucks, because what needs to happen to change the situation is for someone like him and Valve to start making games that move beyond base entertainment.

  4. I can’t agree more about the importance of the unreality of games. I think the whole gamification thing is trying to make the connection you’re talking about, but the current methods lack any real-world analog.

    The comment about the current state of educational game design is also excellent. From my experience, the issue is that a lot of people entering into game design with an eye on making educational games are coming from the pedagogical side of things. These folks have great intentions but some of them view games as just another type of textbook. I have been in serious game design classes and had instructors tell me that a game doesn’t necessarily have to be “fun.” invariably every one of those people is coming at games looking to use a game to accomplish their very specific goal (basic math, language acquisition, etc) and miss the point that you can take almost any good game and add some learning content to it. It’s great to hear that Mr. Newell is actually talking about it!

  5. Thanks for the heads-up, Danielle! Now I have to take a look around Games 4 Learning’s website…

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