Can Games Teach?

This is part of a series of research/industry snapshots, capturing the work of those affiliated with the Bristol Digital Game Lab. For the second post in the series, we are delighted to showcase the work of Dr Lewis Alcott

If you remove Jurassic Park from popular media, how many members of the general public would be able to recognize a T-Rex? And how many palaeontologists were inspired to pursue their careers because of Jurassic Park? Films, TV, literature and many other forms of media have motivated members of the general public to engage with and learn about the natural world, so why can’t games? My research and outreach efforts attempts to explore the representation of the natural world in games, from the realism of geological formations such as volcanoes to the representation of climate change impacts of ecosystems.

This work originally grew from having more time than I had expected to enjoy and play games through the Covid-19 pandemic, finding myself playing God of War and googling some of the Norse mythology represented within the game and questioned how my own interest in games led to my career in Earth Sciences.

My recent work has focused on commercially available off the shelf (COTS) games and using them as a tool for learning and engagement. There are several instances where representation of scientific concepts are not ideal to say the least, so screening of games that demonstrate the potential to teach a wide variety of learning is required. However, COTS have been shown to have better engagement than traditional educational games, as these games have essentially by design been made to entertain.

There are several ways in which people can learn from games. There is the interaction with game mechanics that can teach specific skills, such as map reading. With games becoming more and more open world adventures, the requirement of what can be considered orienteering skills becomes a necessity that is directly transferrable to the real world. Games can offer a significant vocabulary, much greater than what would be considered based on the average age range of games such as those from the Pokémon franchise, allowing students and children to associate animations to relatively complex terminology. Over the past few decades, gaming and especially video games have become social hubs, with interactions between players, developing negotiating skills and describing ideas in game. A fourth means of teaching is through tangential learning, i.e. learning through self-engagement by exposure to a topic, has been noted as an effective means to incentivize educational material, much like how I learnt about Norse mythology through God of War.

My ongoing work focuses on the representation of my own and other researchers’ work in games as a way to promote public engagement of research. Alongside this, I explore how narratives have evolved over the last few decades with the growing engagement and perception of the general public with climate change.

Renewable energies represented within the Pokémon franchise. Left: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond (2021). Right: Pokémon Scarlet (2022).

Dr Lewis Alcott is a Lecturer in Geochemistry in the School of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol. Outside of games, he is interested in researching the evolution of a habitable planet and anthropogenic environmental change.

End of Year Wrap Up

The Bristol Digital Game Lab showcased a vibrant array of events throughout autumn 2023, providing a platform for scholars, students, and enthusiasts to delve into the multifaceted world of digital gaming.  

The Lab initiated the academic year with a thought-provoking online roundtable on October 24, where experts and major UK game lab leads gathered to discuss the implications of the Video Games Research Framework (launched by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in May) on individual research, and how game labs, centres, and networks could support its aims. The event featured two esteemed keynote speakers: Prof. Peter Etchells, who was involved in drafting the Framework, and Dr Tom Brock, the Chair of British DiGRA. 

Later in October, we judged the University of Bristol Computer Science Society 2023 GameJam, offering prizes for Best Narrative and Most Technically Accomplished. A very impressive range of entries, with over 70 students creating a total of 17 games! It was a pleasure to judge alongside the MyWorld Skills and Training team.

The Computer Science Society Game Jam 2023

Following this, on October 31, the Lab collaborated with Digital Scholarship @Oxford and organised a hybrid panel and roundtable titled “Music and Sound in Games.” Expert speakers from both industry and academia dissected the impact of music on gaming narratives, characters, and emotional engagement. The digital roundtable facilitated by Dr Richard Cole further delved into critical conversations surrounding this fascinating aspect of game design. 

The Music and Sound in Games hybrid roundtable.

November brought a Research Seminar in collaboration with the Department of Classics and Ancient History. Dr Dunstan Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Latin Literature at the University of Kent, presented on “History is not the Past”: Videogame Design and The Ancient Mediterranean. The seminar explored how video games portray ancient history, emphasising the diverse ways in which different genres and playstyles influence the conceptualisation of ancient worlds within digital games.

 

Dr Dunstan Lowe presenting his research seminar.

Towards the end of November, the Lab hosted an exciting inaugural event, the ‘Concept’ Game Jam, co-organised with the Centre for Creative Technologies and sponsored by MyWorld. The Game Jam challenged the 40 participants to explore how gaming mechanisms could shed light on the biases embedded in algorithms, especially in the realm of machine learning and AI. It stimulated creative thinking about the intersection of gaming and algorithmic bias and some teams came up with innovative working prototypes. We will be publishing the games developed, along with a film of the event, in the new year.

December started with the Antiquity Games Night, a novel monthly online meetup organised by Dr Richard Cole and Alexander Vandewalle (University of Antwerp/Ghent University). Scholars, students, and designers will gather to play antiquity games, fostering an engaging space that blends academic discussions with gaming experiences.

 

AGN Logo

Closing the year on a festive note, the Lab brought back its “Festive Gaming” event on December 14. This event invited participants to join in for an evening of social gaming, featuring the latest releases and playtests of upcoming games. The lineup included a fantastic lineup of local developers, including Catastrophic Overload, Meaning Machine, and Auroch Digital, as well as a former University of Bristol student group who developed the Escape from Pompeii board game as part of their Classics and Ancient History degree in 2023. Festive Gaming provided a platform for networking, exploration, and celebration within the gaming community. 

Festive Gaming 2023

In summary, the Bristol Digital Game Lab’s 2023 events were a testament to the diversity and richness of the digital gaming landscape. From scholarly discussions on research frameworks and ancient history to hands-on game jams and festive gaming, the Lab succeeded in creating a dynamic space that catered to a broad spectrum of interests within the gaming community. The Lab has expanded to a network with more than 150 members, gaining increasing recognition internationally.

Looking ahead to 2024, we will be hosting an ECR/Postgraduate work-in-progress event in January, followed by a series of industry talks with a headline from Ndemic Creations, a roundtable on accessibility, as well as a conference on New Directions in Classics, Gaming, and Extended Reality. We look forward to seeing you there!

Thanks to Dr Xiaochun Zhang for this wrap up to what has been an exciting year.

Bristol Digital Game Lab Events Autumn 2023

We are delighted to share details of several upcoming events hosted by the Bristol Digital Game Lab, as well as those where we are an organizing partner. We hope to see many of you there!

October 2023

We’ll be kicking off the new academic year with two events:

How to Make the Most of the Video Games Research Framework

On 30 May 2023, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport launched the Video Games Research Framework as a best-practice supporting tool for research into video games. In response to the Framework, the Bristol Digital Game Lab is hosting an online roundtable on Tuesday 24 October, 13:00-14:30 to discuss the Framework, in particular how game labs, centres and networks can support and build on its aims and ambitions. As part of this event, we are delighted to welcome two keynote speakers:
  • Prof. Peter Etchells (Bath Spa University), who was involved in the drafting of the Framework. Peter will give a keynote overview, providing both a background to the Framework, as well as future aspirations for the sort of research it might encourage.
  • Dr Tom Brock (Manchester Metropolitan University) will join the discussion as Chair of British DiGRA to share his perspective on the Framework.

Music and Sound in Games

Co-organised with Digital Scholarship @Oxford, this hybrid panel and roundtable on Tuesday 31 October, 12:00-16:00 focuses on the role of music in video games – what is unique about the composition of music for games? How does game music change as the technology behind video games evolves? How can music help a game to build its emotion, narrative, characterisation, and world? Find out from our panel of expert speakers from industry and academia, followed by a digital roundtable discussion, organised by the Bristol Digital Game Lab, with leading academics from the intersection of music with game and media studies, for an insight into the ongoing critical conversations around this fascinating topic. To sign up, visit DiSc’s event page.

November 2023

Research Seminar

Together with the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Bristol, we are delighted to be hosting a research seminar on Tuesday 14 November by Dr Dunstan Lowe, Senior Lecturer in Latin Literature at the University of Kent, on “History is not the Past”: Videogame Design and The Ancient Mediterranean. The seminar will run from 15:30-16:50, Humanities Research Space (3/5 Woodland Road), and will be followed by a drinks reception. All welcome, no booking necessary. A summary of the talk can be found below.

A screen shot from Secret of Evermore

‘History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler’ (Henry Glassie, 1982). When video games portray ancient history, they draw the map in very different ways according to the conventions of different genres and playstyles: Action, strategy, scrolling shooters, racing, and versus fighting games all have distinct conventions, which are a matter of design as well as taste. These conventions have shaped ancient worlds for digital games: not only what they look like on the surface, but also how they are fundamentally conceived. Image: screenshot from Secret of Evermore.

‘Concept’ Game Jam

Come along to our inaugural ‘concept’ game jam, co-organised with the Centre for Creative Technologies at the University of Bristol and sponsored by MyWorld!

Theme: Exposing Algorithmic Bias
Where: Humanities Exhibition Gallery Space (7 Woodland Road)
When: Wednesday 29 November, 16:00-20:00

From education and health to financial services and facial recognition, algorithms have become key components in scaling decision making. The danger, of course, is they can embed and augment existing biases, or even generate new types of bias within complex systems. This danger is only amplified by the application of machine learning and AI. The aim of this condensed game jam is to think about how the mechanisms of gaming and play can expose these processes. For more about the inspiration behind the theme for this game jam, see Prof. Ed King’s Game-Jam-Intro.

If you would like to attend the jam, please complete our sign up form. The event is open to both University staff, students, and the wider public.

Pizza and drinks will be provided, thanks to the generous sponsorship of MyWorld.

If you have any questions about this event, please contact the organizer, Dr Richard Cole (richard.cole@bristol.ac.uk).

 

December 2023

Antiquity Games Night

The Lab is delighted to be supporting Antiquity Games Night – a new monthly online meetup where scholars, students & designers play antiquity games together, organised by Dr Richard Cole (University of Bristol) and Alexander Vandewalle (University of Antwerp/Ghent University). Think: ‘reading group, but with games’. All you need to do is sign up to the Discord via https://discord.gg/h2XPtJfGut. The first event is on Monday 4 December, 18:00 UTC. The AGN team will be setting up co-op sessions of the free-to-play game Smite (2014). No experience required – only finishing the tutorial. We look forward to seeing you there!

Festive Gaming

Back by popular demand, our Festive Gaming event will return on Thursday 14 December, 17:00-20:00 (Humanities Research Space, 3-5 Woodland Road). Join us for a drink while we try out some of the most recent social games, as well as playtest others that have not yet been released. We’ll have games and presentations from the following fantastic lineup:

We’re also delighted to welcome back the student team who developed the board game Escape From Pompeii as part of their Classics and Ancient History degree in 2023. Sam and the team will be on hand to demo the latest version of Escape from Pompeii.

If you would like to attend, please sign up via Eventbrite.

Further events will follow in 2024

VR, Games, & Storytelling Panel – ‘Platform Cultures’

The Lab’s VR, Games & Storytelling project is interested in the intersection between games, immersive theatre and VR storytelling, and the principles and frameworks for developing narrative material for immersive experiences. The project team brings together academic expertise in gaming (Richard Cole) and immersive theatre (Harry Wilson) with creative practitioners working in XR (Ruth Mariner and Eirini Lampiri). The project emerged following discussions at the Metaverse workshop, hosted by the Centre for Creative Technologies at the PM Studio, and was generously funded by the Centre’s seed corn initiative.

On Tuesday 25 July, the project team were delighted to collaborate with Jacqueline Ristola on her ‘Platform Cultures’ event and offer the keynote address. The keynote brought together two specialists, both XR Storytellers from different backgrounds:

  • Jo Mangan, a director coming to XR through a background in immersive theatre
  • Rob Morgan, who comes to XR from a background in video games.

Jo and Rob were asked to consider the following prompts:

  • How do the rules of environmental storytelling change when we move from a gaming or immersive theatre environment to a headset?
  • How do you use interactivity to increase immersion within a story? And, how might approaches to interactivity be different between a VR game, and VR theatre piece?

Our intention was to compare and contrast the different approaches to XR storytelling, and how each form influenced the approach to interweaving story and interactivity. Our ‘North Star’ was to work towards a set of ‘rules’ or principles for telling stories using XR. And although we didn’t reach a full framework, there was agreement around specific themes and issues.

Both speakers touched on the importance of narrative integration in different contexts. Rob spoke about how failure to integrate an audience member’s self-conscious feelings when participating in an immersive experience can be a barrier to immersion. Although a common perspective within the immersive sector is that self-consciousness itself is a barrier to immersion, Rob argued that the player is always aware, and that by emphasising the notion that self-consciousness is permitted, and weaving this into the narrative fabric, audiences can accept the ‘gap’ between how they feel and the role of the character within an immersive experience.

Jo spoke about the need for narrative integration to signpost the audience around the space, and how it is important to let the environment guide the audience in a way that is integrated into the narrative, rather than asking the player to move directly. Referring to  immersive theatre, she touched on the example of bad spatial design, where audiences do not know how to inhabit the space, but are moved from one spot to another by stewards. In the virtual space, audiences should be given enough information from the environmental storytelling to know how to interact with the space.

Both speakers also touched on the subject of how to create meaningful choice, as well as feedback systems that immerse the audience by enabling them to feel they can impact the environment. This operates on multiple levels of the experience, from the ‘core’ of the piece and the narrative dramatic structure, to individual audience choices on how to view and experience the work at any given moment.

It was agreed that by making choices within a narrative framework, audience members need to feel that the consequence of their decision has an impact on the narrative. For example, if audience members are presented with a decision that feels serious, they will expect for there to be consequences which impact significantly on the direction of the narrative. If the consequence of their decision is minimised, or doesn’t impact the plot fully, they can feel let down.

On the ‘surface’ layer of the experience, where the audience choose how they experience the work, there is still a lot of agency that can be afforded. In Jo’s production for Irish National Opera, audience members could follow different sonic layers by changing the way that they tilted their head, leading them to explore and experiment with the way that they experienced the work, on a sensory level.

Finally, immersive experiences are closely linked to the 3D avatars of the audiences and/or players. Circling back to the initial theme of the audience’s feeling of self-consciousness, Rob spoke about the construction of the audience’s character in AR experiences, describing it as ‘a light, pliable character, like a silhouette’ instead of a fully fleshed out role. He went on: ‘often, being a protagonist in AR  is more like an extra dimension that you augment on to the player’s own identity.’ This gives more freedom to the player, enabling them to enact in ways that are perhaps more dangerous or risky than they would opt for in everyday life.

Our sincere thanks to Jo and Rob, as well as to Jacqueline for the simulating discussions that followed the keynote and carried on throughout the ‘Platform Cultures’ event.

Catch the full recording of the keynote address.

Introducing the Bristol Digital Game Lab at the University of Bristol

Article originally posted on LinkedIn on 6 September 2022.

How can we study and contribute to the development of digital games today?

The Bristol Digital Game Lab is a new research group at the University of Bristol launching in September 2022, coordinated by Dr Xiaochun Zhang and Dr Richard Cole. The Lab, which is based in the Faculty of Arts, will bring together researchers and practitioners from a radically diverse range of perspectives. This includes translation and accessibility, history, comparative literature, law, computer science, AI, game design, and beyond.

The aim of the Lab is to chart new possibilities for collaboration, both across disciplines and between Higher Education and the gaming industry, with digital games as a shared object of interest. By exploring crosscutting themes in a collaborative environment, we hope to contribute to ongoing debates about the nature and impact of games, while also co-creating new ways to develop, play, and test ideas using games. To this end, the Lab will offer researchers and practitioners the opportunity to experience a variety of games on the latest hardware, as well as the chance to get involved in generating their own.

Our areas of interest are as follows:

Networking

The Lab will establish a cross-disciplinary network of researchers and industry professionals working on games as well as extended reality more broadly, from early career scholars to creative directors. The network, like the industry itself, will be regional, national, and international. The Lab will support colleagues through brokerage events and themed meetings.

Partnerships

The Lab will connect researchers to a thriving regional, national, and international industry with the aim to facilitate knowledge exchange and explore collaborative outcomes. The Lab will host industry showcases, invite guest speakers, and foster sustainable partnerships with the creative industries.

Research

The Lab will support research in gaming and extended reality through a series of research-sharing events and discussions focused on crosscutting themes. Such themes will include, but are not limited to, game localisation and accessibility, history and cultural heritage in games, VR and immersive technologies, audience experiences and analytics, the Metaverse and gaming ethics, (serious) games and education, games and society, intellectual property, modding, and game design. Building on the University’s investment in state-of-the-art gaming facilities, the Lab will also encourage play-as-research and interactive brainstorming to identify future outputs and areas of interest.

For a taster of our current research, you can hear from Xiaochun, Richard, and Dr Yin Harn Lee in the Bristol Digital Game Lab Seminar that we delivered for Bristol Data Week in June 2022.

Innovation

The Lab will act as an incubator for innovative projects by opening up the University of Bristol’s gaming facilities and expertise, as well as by connecting interested parties. We will deliver skills development workshops, playtest ideas, and co-create new experiences.

How can you get involved?

  • Please email us if you would like to join the Game Lab and hear about our research/events. We will be offering both remote and in-person activities.
  • Let us know what you are working on and what you would like the Game Lab to do. We particularly welcome enquires from those working in the games industry or at the intersection of gaming and other sectors.

Co-ordinators

Dr Xiaochun Zhang (xiaochun.zhang@bristol.ac.uk) is Senior Lecturer in Translation Studies. Her research interests lie primarily in audiovisual translation with a specific interest in video game localisation and accessibility. Currently, she is working on the AD4Games project which applies audio description in video games to enhance accessibility for players with vision loss.

Dr Richard Cole (richard.cole@bristol.ac.uk) is an interdisciplinary scholar working on digital/virtual representations of antiquity. He is currently part of the multi-disciplinary team on the Virtual Reality Oracle project at the University of Bristol, where he holds the role of Research Associate in Ancient Greek History and Virtual Reality. Richard has published on the role of video games and historical fiction more broadly in shaping public perceptions of history.