Digital Media Lessons from the Game Developers Conference

Last week I attended the Game Developers Conference and kept my eyes open for topics related to media literacy. Thoughts on media consumption and creation show up in the multitude of lectures, panels, bootcamps and roundtables dedicated to the study and creation of games. Here are some things I gleaned:

Serious Games Summit
Redistricting GameSeveral interesting things came up at the Serious Games Summit, which is the session track for examining games used for purposes other than entertainment (not that entertainment isn’t a worthy goal itself). Here are the highlights:

  • Soren Johnson contrasted game theme with mechanic in a talk titled “Theme is not meaning.” This is an important breakdown when it comes to games literacy as game mechanics tend to deliver the real meaning in a game. Johnson’s thesis was that a game’s window dressing was just that unless the mechanic matched. The Redistricting Game was offered of a solid example of matching theme with mechanic as the player is tasked with literally drawing new voting district lines to win needed votes. The discussion goes much deeper and Chris Dahlen writes more about the talk here.
  • Borut Pfeifer has been working on a game about crowds in the Iranian Election. Named The Unconcerned, the game pulls the player through the streets of the Iranian election by putting her in the shoes of parents looking for their daughter. Pfeifer’s talk covered prototyping and the many iterations along the way to figuring out what played well. The biggest takeaway here concerns creation. Traditionally, creating media involved getting one’s ducks in a neat row before creation began. However, games and other digital media find success in testing and getting feedback on many rough drafts along the way. I’m going to hunt down some links for the best practices for iterative design for the Mediactive Tools section.
  • While the talk strayed more into digital entrepreneurship, Jelena Godjevac presented a case study of Blossom, a game that places the player in the role of a small business owner. Blossom came out of Micro Enterprise Acceleration Institute (MEA-I) as a game-based way of furthering local micro-business. They’re looking for new ideas for games that teach entrepreneurship and are teaming up with HP in a design contest. I’d love to see submissions related to digital media entrepreneurs, like starting a local news site or training citizen journalists.

Game Writers’ Roundtable
Several worthwhile tips came out of a roundtable of both professional and amateur game writers. Here are the ones that apply well to digital media creation.

  • Show don’t tell – In an interactive environment, show a story before using words. Figure out what you can say with other forms of media. This applies to even something like blogs. Can you set your stage with a good photo or video? Does a link or a podcast say it better than you can?
  • If you can’t tweet it, you shouldn’t write it – This came up in the context of dialogue and text in midst of play. The same could be applied to captions, explanations of mashups and even one’s YouTube video descriptions. There are excellent uses for long form, but if your creation is multimedia, don’t burden it with text. Err on the side of brevity.

Social games were a hot topic at the GDC this year, both for the massive jump in people playing these games and for their lucrative nature. I sat in on a session with Mark Skaggs of Farmville where he explained the game’s development process. Farmville itself has been a bit of a phenomenon and a rather controversial one.

Most interesting for Mediactive’s purposes are the rapid creation and development of Farmville. According to Skaggs, the initial team was composed of less than ten people and was developed in five weeks. From the point of release, the game acquired about 1,000,000 new users per week, an above-expectations rate. This critical mass gave the team lots of data, which informed the design going forward. Skaggs explained “fun” as something hard to measure, while behavior could be tracked by clicks. When strawberries received a large number of clicks, the team created “Super Berries” and the resulting popularity nearly crashed the server. This is just one example, but every game action and click was evaluated for new direction in content.

I see a couple lessons here that apply to digital media:

  1. Release quickly and design based on data and user feedback.
  2. Data-driven design requires greater discussion when it comes to news. Lots of clicks can tell you if a story is popular, but a click can’t tell you if the reader was informed. As well, a click may tell a creator if people enjoy content, but not the impact of that content. For example, a reader may spend more clicks in a day on what celebrities are wearing, but one click given to a long form political story may have the greatest impact on a future vote.

Beyond what I’ve covered here. I ran into some interesting tools for media creation, which I’ll be testing and posting to the Tools page. Games and interactive environments are ripe for experimentation when it comes to new media and I’m excited to see what emerges over time.