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  •    Suddenly Serious about Games  
    Thursday, October 13 2005 @ 08:28 PM UTC
    Contributed by: David

    I’ve never been a big advocate of serious games for the simple reason I think once games become serious they turn into mere systems in the same way that porn becomes a medical illustration once it ceases stimulating you. So, it might seem a little odd that this semester I am teaching an undergraduate course in the University of Colorado’s College of Architecture and Planning based around videogames. “Planning in the Gaming World, “ is a class designed to encourage an appreciation for the art and science of urban and regional planning though videogames. Yes, whether I like it or not, I am now officially a part of the serious games movement.

    We are only half way through the semester, but I think that the basic idea is working. Students confront serious issues of planning the human environment through the virtual worlds of SimCity and Second Life. A typical assignment has them read a bit of planning literature, try to do something in the game world (like describe an interesting place in Second Life or lay out a functioning city in SimCity) then come to class and try to put it all together.

    My approach is admittedly Socratic and the students seems to vacillate between finding the whole effort intriguing and compelling or completely pedantic and impractical. To which I say, bully for the modern American undergrad that only wants a vo-tech degree from the university. My course should leave them filled with doubt and confusion for years.

    I hope to generate some sort of report or academic essay out of the experience. Because whatever else I might have to say about the idea of serious games, this class is going as well as anything I’ve ever taught along the lines of confronting students with big, hard, meaningful questions and getting them to grapple, or at least gripe, about the process. As one student said, “I’m not sure what we are learning, but it sure feels like something big.”

    Best of all, I’m happy to report that the thing that seems to be working the best is the videogames. And that’s because whatever academic wrapper I happen to package around the games, the students grasp the fundamental truth—these games are fun, even if their teacher is not!

    (Check out the current version of the syllabus in the File Downloads section for more information).


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    Suddenly Serious about Games
    Authored by: CapCom on Friday, October 14 2005 @ 02:16 PM UTC
    Yeah, David, always such a bore :P

    Actually, the interesting thing about Sim City (not mentioned above so I figured I would) is that Will Wright did use Sim City for urban planning experiments. Some of the conclusions he came to from his simulation included such insights as: a city that is perfectly symmetrical is boring for its citizens and thus needs imperfections and asymmetry to make it more interesting (have/have-not?), and that the urban system just works so much better with its foundation on public transportation.

    Of course, the real problem with simulations is that you can get the computer to do whatever you want it to do, which always should put into question the results that come out (as the astronomy professor I had once said, along with such other interesting quotes (or paraphrases, as the case may be) as 'if you put enough points together, you can make a circle out of it' which I don't mean really to discredit anything one way or the other). There's always that danger of trying to shoehorn the data to match the hypothesis instead of just letting the data speak for itself (something a lot of people, including me, tend to do from time to time).

    The other half of using simulations then should be to test the results in the real world, or if testing them becomes impossible (we can't exactly build Dullville or rip out the private transportation systems of Denver and put in public transportation, though one famous architect did in fact try to get such a plan through for Philadelphia), then at least find real-world examples. It's kind of like the billions of dollars in research the transportation bureau spent on finding the causes of traffic jams, only to come to the conclusion that 'there are too many cars' (leading to options A. make there be less cars - fat chance - and B. build more roads). Actually, I wonder how simply changing the times when people have to go to work in the morning might hold up, say staggering the rush hour... That way, you're not looking it JUST as a problem of 'too many cars' but rather a problem of too many cars trying to funnel through a particular road, all at the same time (you're the urban planner, so you must know of research along those lines :P).

    (Of course, this sort of thing may already be what's going on in the class, but seeing how I can't access the syllabus... :P).

    "Until next time..."
    Captain Commando
    [ Reply to This ]
    Suddenly Serious about Games
    Authored by: marksman on Friday, October 21 2005 @ 05:26 AM UTC
    I think it's fantastic that serious thought about videogames seems to be gaining popularity. I only found this site today, but for a long time I've been thinking critically about the merits and theory of videogames from an artistic perspective.

    Modern games to me are an exciting new medium of artistic expression, combining elements of aesthetic design (like that of a painting), narrative or story and the themes that come with it (such as that of literature) and a fantastic new dimension in user-interactivity which dictates or guides the overall experience, like a complex choose-your-own-way novel. Having said that, most developers these days concern themselves very little with overall artistic concept due to the commercial nature of the industry. However if critical the thinking I've seen on this site becomes more commonplace, I believe that perhaps gaming can spread itself into more diverse genres, such as music and art have over time.

    [ Reply to This ]
    Suddenly Serious about Games
    Authored by: eben on Tuesday, November 01 2005 @ 05:54 AM UTC

    I would hope that your course provides a proper ciritique of the shortcomings of using such abstract models to make policy decisions about human systems of organization.
    The SimCity series is steeped in free-market, supply-and-demand models that to my mind have made most cities I know deteriorate and mutate into suburban wasteland. Perhaps a reality check is in order. Despite all our econometric musing, the most important questions facing our economies today cannot be modeled or simulated; When will we run out of oil? When (if ever) will China democratize? What effect will the next hurricane have on the rate of infaltion? The problem with these models is not that they fall short of what they seek to simulate, but that in using them, we forget that they do.

    How much does a levee upgrade cost in SimCity?

    -dead daedalus
    [ Reply to This ]
  • Suddenly Serious about Games - Authored by: David on Monday, November 07 2005 @ 03:57 PM UTC
  • Suddenly Serious about Games - Authored by: eben on Tuesday, November 15 2005 @ 08:55 PM UTC
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