A Different Type of Gaming | submitted by Michael Gay

I hadn't thought much about gaming (formerly known as video games in IT Luddite circles) until a couple of years ago when I saw the "Last Lecture." I have to admit that I watched the video for its personal message (and a powerful one at that), but the side of my brain where economic development lingers realized that this prof was onto something (using games to teach) and he was visionary in his thoughts and approach.

Fast forward to two weeks ago. I had the fortune to attend a few sessions at the GLS (Games+Leanging+Society) 5.0 conference at the Memorial Union. All these people with such varying backgrounds came together to talk about computer games and how people could, will and do use them. When one GLS gamer mentioned that she had gotten her platform from a German group (that saw her Web-based posting looking for freeware), the conference became reminiscent of the genesis of the personal computer industry when technology was being developed rapidly, and many of the brilliant mathematicians, academics, and entrepreneurs were sharing their thoughts and inventions freely without concern for financial gain.

It was all done for the sake of creating something new and for the good of the cause…you just wanted to be involved (if I remember correctly, the gentleman that invented the spreadsheet way back when never saw a need to patent it). Conference rooms filled with eager smiling smart people designing games that teach, help, and involve people was an exciting place to be. Why not connect gaming with education and business development?

The focus of the GLS conference was more oriented toward the educational side of the gaming industry, not the entertainment market that we all see at the video store.

Granted, one mobile platform GLS game presented created a situation for players from across the country: It pitted Pokeman characters (entertainment) against live weather conditions from the Weather Channel (education). Players must understand the changing weather conditions in order to pick the best Pokeman characters (who thrive better in different environments) for the game to defeat their enemy.

Locally, Filament Games has a game on line that teaches you physics through the designing of your own roller coaster. If the player does not understand the differences between momentum, kinetic energy, height, weight of load, and the like, your roller coaster will either get stuck midway or crash through the end of the unloading platform. There are no breaks to stop the coaster, only physics, math and good design.

I won't disclose how many attempts it took me to create a "difficult level" design that succeeded, but I do want to get more educational games like this in front of fifth graders who could do it the first try.

One major take away from all of this is the potential for educational (and entertainment) gaming in our city, region, and state. Throw in possibilities of mobile platforms (iPhones, Blackberries, and smart phones) incorporated with GPS (global positioning satellites) and GIS (Geographic Information Systems) technologies and we could be talking a paradigm shift of unprecedented levels.

If games can help our children learn faster and better (or simply just be interested in learning), let's create and invest in educators and educational systems that embrace this an incorporate it into their curriculum. If at-risk youth can be reached through learning that is deemed fun, maybe we can stem the tide of changing educational demographics and reposition our future workforce. The same thoughts and more apply to the use of gaming in academia.

Case in point, computer games can teach people the environmental or social history of their community in live interactive environments.

The other take-away is the potential for building a more robust business and economic development program in our region through organized efforts that build on the IT industry cluster that already exists. We have a crown jewel located in Middleton called Raven Software that competes globally in the entertainment gaming industry. We have Sonic Foundry, and both Sony Media and Sony Creative in Madison. Start-ups like Parallel Kingdom and Filament Games mentioned earlier continue to build the base of this cluster.

And then we have the bold new University Research Park's Metro Innovation Center (an IT, mechanical engineering and math related business incubator) on East Washington Avenue, and Network 222 with more bandwidth than God, and a downtown plan that is looking at creating new economy employment center opportunities in close proximity to the UW and Edgewood Campus.

We also have people from all over the world living, teaching and studying in Madison that could translate educational games into just about any language. So let's empower the education professors behind GLS (Kurt Squire and Richard Halverson) and those in the departments of computer science and mathematics to work with local economic developers, planners, utilities, real estate professionals, and the gaming entrepreneurs to build the industry and connect academia, with primary education, and the business community.

Maybe we could use Sim City to map it out.