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International eyes drawn to Madison's games research

Nearly 20,000 people got an idea of what Madison could offer to the field of educational games over the last few days.

That's how many new visitors our coverage of last Thursday's public forum with three UW-Madison game researchers brought to WTN's Web site. Our normal recurring readership is about 30,000 to 35,000 unique visitors monthly, of whom more than half are from out-of-state and about 15 percent read the site internationally.

"What we're doing in Wisconsin is world-class, and it has a worldwide effect," said Mike Klein, WTN's founder and editorial director. "But people outside of the state need to be informed of what's going on here. That's easier to accomplish through the Internet than through any other medium."

"A lot of us have been talking about education as a Wisconsin export. If we don't do something about it, someone is going to try to attract [our talent] somewhere else."
Much of the traffic came from a link posted on Slashdot, a popular community site for discussion of technology and related news. MIT's Technology Review linked to the article as well.

Hundreds of comments were posted to Slashdot within hours, and quite a few to WTN's article.

Making Madison the place for games


During his presentation, Professor James Gee said gaming could put Madison on the map again, as biotech already has. Gee is now in Orlando, Florida, where he will speak at the Games Synergy Summit.
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I think Jim [Gee] is right; this will be the new biotech," said Constance Steinkuehler, who also spoke last Thursday. "I think it's already kind of becoming that."

Judy Brown, director of the Academic ADL Co-Lab in Madison, said the area's concentration of research into effective game development, especially in education, could help draw industry here.

"A lot of us have been talking about education as a Wisconsin export," Brown said. "If we don't do something about it, someone is going to try to attract [our talent] somewhere else."

One university project named Croquet, a cross-platform system for developing interactive environments, has already captured attention.

Read more about the introduction of Croquet.

North Carolina company 3DSolve will develop for Croquet. Read more.

A national institute of Japan also plans to work with UW-Madison's Croquet project.

Early adopter: the military


The U.S. Department of Defense is one of the biggest users of video games for training, having jumped on the idea early on. Really, games are nothing new to the military – they're just being updated using new technologies. On Thursday, Professor Kurt Squire discussed America's Army, a game the government spent $8 million to develop and give out for free, that at one point had 2.5 million simultaneous players.

"They wanted to re-brand the army as a high-tech workforce that's all about the latest tools and gadgets… they actually figured that if they can get 300 people to sign up it's a cost savings for them," he said.

Cost savings is another area to watch as games become more advanced. Competing, commercially available "engines" for game development can bring down the cost of producing a new game. Some educational tools could even be constructed using a game's own construction kit, which many developers include for players to use.

True experience?


One line of comments focused on how suited video games are for training, as opposed to conventional methods such as books:
Dan: Does the doctor that performed very well on a video game using a controller all the sudden have shaky hands and can't handle the unexpected when surgery occurs because it didn't happen that way in the game?
J-F: To be honest, I would rather be operated by a surgeon that played it than the one that read it.
Ed Bishop: It seems from some of these posts that people are assuming the logical extreme, but while at the event I at no time heard anyone say we should have our doctors in training play lineage and skip med school.
The Wooden Badger: Having taken multiple anatomy classes in my college degree program, I can't even imagine a game that can come within lightyears of the experience of looking at many different cadavers and seeing how the body's parts sit next to each other and how amazingly different people can be from each other.
Watch for more coverage of how games can interact with – not necessarily replace – other kinds of learning in upcoming WTN interviews.

Professor James Gee mentioned, for example, that playing the computer strategy game Age of Mythology, which involves building settlements, trade routes, and armies of mythological creatures, encouraged his son to seek out and read books on real-world mythology.

So while the game itself may not be historically accurate, it can still play a part in learning. Another example is the Civilization games, which let players build a society, all the way from nomadic settlers without even the knowledge of ceramics to spaceship-building civilizations. Games of Civilization rarely resemble real history. You can play the Americans in 2,000 B.C., and you can and get space flight by 1 A.D. if you're good.

But by allowing experimentation, do these games improve understanding of the ways in which history can work, and the ways in which actions lead to consequences? Those trying to make games into Wisconsin's next biotech would say "yes."

Jason Stitt is a WTN's editor and can be reached at jason@wistechnology.com.

Les Chappell contributed notes from an interview with Constance Steinkuehler.

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