GDC Europe '16

A Story of Talks

Back in August I attended Game Developers Conference Europe in Cologne, Germany. I had a wonderful time, and met some great people, both academics, industry professionals, and those who were both (#CareerGoals). One of the key draws of an event like GDC EU though is the range of talks in a diverse areas of disciplines from experts the world over. As part of that, I would like to offer my perspective and thoughts on five of the most interesting talks I attended at the conference. These are in no particular order, and each has given me new ideas and perspectives on my work and research.

1) Changing Tides: 2015's Accessibility Advancements - Ian Hamilton

Making video games and apps accessible for peoples of any physical or mental disability is and should be a goal for any developer, particularly as some changes needed as often minor adjustments well within the grasp of the average developer. Plus, with the Communications and Video Accessibility Act signed into law by Obama in 2010, it's also a legal requirement for developers working/trading in the United States.

Ian split his talk excellently by looking at the good, the bad, and the future of gaming accessibility, bringing up recent examples that even I hadn't heard of. For an example of the good, look at the newer Ease of Access controls (very similar to the tools one would expect on a Windows PC) introduced on the PS4, Xbox One, iOS, and Android, the Xbox avatar wheelchair options, and the colour blindness options in games like Hue and Borderlands.

For examples of the not-so-good, look at the non-existent accessibility options in games like The Witness (where colour blindness or deafness means some puzzles are just incompletable), fundamentally broken colour blindness options in games like DOOM and Overwatch (it appears that the modes simulate colour-blindness, rather than counter it!), and Pokémon Go's design and anti-cheating approach, which means it's mostly inaccessible for those with mobility issues.

Finally, looking forward we should all be weary of how to make new platforms accessible (see Oculus Rift accessibility), building with accessibility in mind, and not being afraid to include patches with accessibility additions like The Witcher 3 and Evolve have done. There are plenty of resources online pertaining to accessibility goals, and already plenty of developers are pledging to not exclude gamers with disabilities.

2) 'Project Discovery': How Citizen Science got into 'Eve Online' - Attila Szantner, Bergur Finnbogason

Citizen Science is a concept I am strongly in favour for and would greatly love to involve in my own future projects one day, but for the time being we have large game developers like CCP Games leading the way with their integration of data analysis for The Human Protein Atlas in the EVE Online 'Project Discovery', built in collaboration with Massively Multiplayer Online Science and Reykjavik University

In this mini-game style module, players are tasked with identifying colour-coded features within high resolution images of human cells, which should assist in the recognition of proteins within the cells. Rewarded for their accuracy and efficiency, these citizen scientists can earn a variety of in-game rewards, be them cosmetic or mechanical. The CCP designer spoke about how they worked to balance the advantages players would earn from this experiment with the existing, rather weighty, in-game economy, and made sure that the tasks fitted the universe in terms of longevity, difficulty, and theme.

The results thus far have been absolutely astounding. Within the first 24 hours there were 463k classifications completed and 14.5k full images totally tagged, and 8m in six weeks. It was initially estimated that the first batch of data they made available for classification would take around 3 months to label, but in actuality it took closer to just two weeks. 4 months later, the total classification count had just surpassed 13 million, and doesn't show signs of stopping any time soon.

Whilst this isn't the first game with Citizen Science as a core element, as previous project like, Galaxy Zoo and EyeWire will contest to, this is the first large-scale, commercially successful, established game to attempt something of this nature, and with any luck it won't be the last. There is a collaboration between Massively Multiplayer Online Science and Gearbox on the way, but why stop there? As Attila Szantner suggests, safari animal image tagging within Zoo Tycoon, cancer tissue visual classification within Fallout 4, biodata analysis within Civilization V, or "alien" tissue sampling within No Man's Sky are quite distinct, simple possibilities that would do nothing but add to the depth of the games in question whilst also benefiting the scientific community at large.

3) Psychology of Virtual Reality: Presence, Agency, Social - Thomas Bedenk

As Virtual Reality applications become more mainstream and accepted by the general public, perhaps it's best we start truly evaluating the impact virtual avatars and spaces can have on a user's sense of agency, of self, and of space and communication. After all, it was barely a decade or two past that violent video games were being held as damaging to a generation's mental health, and the lack of conclusive evidence and dialogues at the time are still hurting video game developers to this very day. With that in mind then, Thomas Bedenk seeks to educate those interested in VR development about some of the psychological considerations and research we've found thus far. As the title of the talk suggests, this research can be broken into Presence, Agency, and Social.

Presence relates to the way in which oneself perceives their own virtual avatar and the space surrounding them. Currently one of the main issues in which VR should be improving in the future is the lack of haptic feedback, which at the moment can be found to be somewhat jarring by new users of VR, as it goes against our natural instincts. It also can be difficult to visualise oneself as real when the other in-game agents are clearly virtually rendered themselves, but with the rise of volumetric video recording it is becoming possible to interaction with 'virtually real' humans in VR space.

Agency relates to the concept of ownership and mental bond between one's virtual avatar and their actual physical body. Long known psychological phenomena like the body transfer illusion are easily replicable with virtual avatars, meaning a potential future in which VR is used in physical rehabilitation (which is already being investigated). Body transfer illusion can means things like misattributing VR speech to yourself despite a lack of action on your part, gaining favourable views towards brands and marketing simply because your virtual avatar happens to sport said items, and having completely skewed perceptions of size and scale depending on the size and scale of your virtual avatar.

Finally, social is how one interacts with others in a virtual space. Already we know that social behaviours related to proxemics (physical proximity in communication) and kinesics (physical movement and motions in communication) seem to be undermined and ignored in virtual spaces with artificial and human avatars alike. It's not unusual to see virtual avatars standing obnoxiously close to other avatars making gestures in a highly impolite manner compared to typical society.

Considering companies like Facebook and AltspaceVR are looking to create social spaces in VR, and the application of VR for serious aims like education and training is on the horizon, we should be considering how to control uncouth behaviour and make users feel safe in a virtual environment. What behaviours do we restrict by design in our VR programs? How much agency should the player have over altering the game world? How can we influence and reward good behaviour? How can other human players have a governing role, like a teacher, mentor, or instructor, in a VR space? These questions and more are yet to be conclusively answered, but I'll look forward to seeing how future VR applications answer them.

4) A Geographer's Guide to Building Game Worlds - Kate Edwards (IGDA)

We all tend to have an example of our own favourite fictional worlds, many cite J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, or Terry Prachett's Discworld as perfect examples of this. Games certainly have their fair share too; my favourite fictional world is the universe of the Mass Effect series. However, what is it that makes fictional worlds, well, so good? It's often suggested that the best game worlds are the most realist ones, but Kate Edwards argues that it is instead the most realised worlds that hold our attention.

Fictional worlds require a good realisation of all of the elements that we as an audience can appreciate and enjoy, namely the following: familiarity, complexity, cultural evidence, logical consistency, and topology. Game worlds with these elements should feel like living, populated and 'existing' spaces that hint at further planes outside of the one the player is in. Culture of the world is a crucial part of this, as it not only adds to the immersion but nonverbally communicates social themes with the player.

Culture is not as simple as emulating and appropriating existing sociology without the necessary context though, as a lot of games are prone to. Jade Empire had an enemy which closely resembled Ganesh, Halo initially had naming from Islamic texts would allow the game narrative to be interpreted in a disturbing manner, and there are plenty of games out there which cartoonize 'native' people. For games with real-world geography or history, again considerations to local interpretations must be made. One example is the Age of Empires series, where the game in Japan had to be tweaked to match what they considered to be the 'correct' historical interpretation of a particular battle.  Whilst this seems minor, mistakes like this can offend and affend your potential audience.

The connotations are not entirely negative though: there are given examples of where good world design can lead players to experience and discover cultures otherwise unknown to them, widening their cultural understanding and potentially increasing their tendency for empathy and understanding. This is an area I'd greatly like to see more research in.

5) Girl, Woman, Mother: A Lifetime in Games - Brenda Romero

My final example will be less research focussed, and more about a member of the industry I find fascinating and inspiring. As they say in the film industry about film choices: "Some for them, then one for you.", and so this was my indulgence of the conference.

Brenda found her love of gaming from the tabletop role-playing game Rolemaster in 1980, where she cherished her ability to be who she wanted and be strong, as her female familial role models encouraged. She began her career in the industry with landing a job at Sir-Tech, developers of the Wizardry series, by happening to offer the right person a cigarette in the ladies restroom and having a passion for discussing gaming. Sir-Tech was at the time (despite what its name might suggest) predominantly female, so the concept of women working in gaming has always been something she was "used to. It seemed normal." She has had an overwhelming positive experience in the industry, despite her gender, not having encountered the 'gender tax' other women have in recent years, but that hasn't stopped her advocating for more diversity and inclusion, beit gender or otherwise.

She, like many, believes the issue lies within the lack of diversity in the games themselves. She doesn't want to see less male-oriented titles, stating that the character should fit the story, but that we should be having a broader, more inclusive range of stories. "We all need role models. We need their stories to inspire us."

Another, less-discussed topic, is motherhood in gaming. She's happy to see the rise in maternity-inclusive gaming companies, having established maternity leave and nursery rooms in her own companies, and speaks of how important motherhood is to her and the projects she works on moving forwards. In an awfully heart-warming, tear-jerking section, she described her experience of building a video game with her daughter and how she views gaming. Her daughter was once told by a male classmate that "girls don't play games", to which her retort was "well my mommy makes them!". Smart kid.

It's always inspiring to hear from game designers looking to use gaming outside of the purely entertainment field, in education or humanities, for example, and particularly from those looking to include diversity in a field with clear homogeneity issues.

So that's my list from the conference! If you also attended, I'd love to hear what talks you enjoyed in the comments below.