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Salen: Gaming Becoming 'More Collective, Not Individual'

Salen: Gaming Becoming 'More Collective, Not Individual' Exclusive

August 14, 2008 | By Stephen Jacobs, Chris Remo

August 14, 2008 | By Stephen Jacobs, Chris Remo
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive

Game designer and researcher Katie Salen sees games, society, and culture colliding, as the world becomes increasingly networked -- but as this happens, is the medium we know as "video games" losing its definition?

During a keynote address for the SIGGRAPH Sandbox Symposium, Salen recalled how searching for game-related terms such as "digital," "immersion," "strategy," and "game" in the iTunes music store returned music by a diverse selection of artists including Joy Division, Disturbed, Sean Paul, and Lil' Romeo.

"It's interesting to see how these terms are operationalized in culture," she says.

Existential Crisis

When a friend of hers began using Ubisoft Montreal's My Weight Loss Coach on Nintendo DS, Salen says it caused an "existential crisis" -- "My DS is my recreation and my mental break," she says, "and now it'll be watching my weight and how many steps I take. This is not a game as we would normally think about it. It doesn't fit our current concept of what a game is."

She cites Raph Koster's keynote at the same event, particularly Koster's reminder that traditional gamer fantasies don't necessarily resonate with the general public. "I'm very interested in games that mirror practices of everyday life," she offers.

For an example that blurs the traditional "gamer" definition of the medium even further, she refers to a Spanish-language video documenting something called "Hybrid Playground," which equips common playground fixtures like swing sets with accelerometers and syncs them up with wrist-based displays, allowing children to play games that incorporate their physical activity.

Collective Interactivity

Salen sees today's children as having a different perspective on the world, thanks to the the prevalence of networks and computing in their lives. "For young people today, the idea of being connected via a network is the first thing they think about," she says.

"It is the space in which their gaming occurs. They play games all the time across networks of friendships and peer groups and we need to understand play's relationship to networks."

Most children don't self-identify as gamers, Salen argues, because to them, the concepts of networks, play, and everyday life are already so intertwined. "Gaming is more collective, not individual," she says. "Kids are learning how to play from each other and mentor from each other."

ConQwest, a game developed by area/code, plays to that conflation. Designed in 2003, the game has its participants looking for "treasure" in an urban environment, communicating to one another via headsets and using camera phones to scan in barcode-like Semacode tags scattered around the city.

A 'Humanistic Activity'

"Players love to narrative-ize their experiences of play," Salen says. "Exposing the underlying data of games could be extremely empowering for them."

To that end, she has been exposing middle school students to game production with Gamestar Mechanic, envisioning "a generation of kids" with access to design tools.

"It doesn't mean they'll all be in the industry," she says, but games can give children insights that other forms of media cannot -- a kid who begins to make a game can have another player experience it interactively, and give feedback.

"They're engaged in a humanistic activity where they are considering the presence of another person," says Salen. "Games help kids think about the other person, not the other side of a game."

There's a bit of hyperbole to the idea, she admits, but also truth -- the formal rules and sense of agency intrinsic to games allow children to express ideas in ways that other forms of education do not.

Harkening back to the idea of the "game megamix," Salen concludes with a quote from a Common track: "We all get lifted in the game."

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