UCSC 'serious games'
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UCSC Debuts ‘Serious Games’ Master’s Degree

Video games get a redesign for health, education and social impact

UCSC Professor Sri Kurniawan has been working on “serious games” for more than 10 years. PHOTO: JIM MACKENZIE/UCSC.

As a butterfly floats around the screen of a virtual reality headset, the woman wearing the device moves her arms to control a protective crystal ball, keeping the butterfly’s wings dry from the coming rain. If it sounds like a futuristic game, that’s because it is. But the player’s real-world movements also double as physical therapy.

This is just one scenario playing out on the UCSC campus that highlights the intersection of gaming and more serious endeavors, like rehabilitation for stroke survivors or people with other physical impairments. While the repetitiveness of regular physical therapy can come to feel like a chore, using a game to engage people in that therapy can spark a new excitement in them, says Sri Kurniawan, a computational media professor at UCSC.

This type of game falls under a broader category known as “serious games,” or games designed with a primary purpose other than entertainment. While the games may still be entertaining, that playfulness engages the player in ultimately achieving some other goal.

Those who learned to type on a keyboard with “Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing,” studied geography while investigating fictional crimes in “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” or navigated logic-based puzzles with blue, grape-shaped characters in “Zoombinis” are already familiar with some of the early serious games that emerged in the education space in the ’80s and ’90s.

Serious games are also designed to guide users through workplace training, educate them on social and political issues, and help them improve their health and well-being.

Students will be learning how to develop the next generations of such projects in the new UCSC master’s program on serious games launching this fall. The program joins one graduate-level and two undergraduate-level game-design programs already offered by UCSC, which are ranked among the top in the country by the Princeton Review. The new serious games graduate program is the first of its kind in the U.S.

The existing graduate program focuses more on developing games for entertainment. The new offering is in response to growing interest in serious games among faculty and students in recent years.

Among academics, there’s significant interest in the potential to apply games “outside of the realm of mere entertainment” and use them to tackle societal challenges such as education and health, says Jim Whitehead, professor and chair of computational media at UCSC.

“We are in this really fortunate position where a lot of schools that are starting to get into games are just initially trying to cover the bases, but we have the ability and luxury now to dive in and get really specialized and to have a degree program as focused as serious games,” he says.

It’s an opportunity for students to be in a more relatable environment, too. A student who wanted to design serious games could feel like the odd person out among peers focused on entertainment games, Whitehead says, since they’re not always as engaged in mainstream gamer culture or familiar with the design references to entertainment games.

There’s already been such a positive response to the new program that UCSC is reopening its admission window.

The program will be based at UCSC’s Silicon Valley Campus in Santa Clara, and span five academic quarters. Classes will cover game design, game technology, integrating subject-matter knowledge, measuring the efficacy of games, effective teamwork, and career planning. Students will also complete a capstone project.

The five-quarter structure means students will finish around late March of their second year. That’s a good time for them to start looking for jobs in the games industry, Whitehead says, since it’s often when game companies ramp up hiring for new projects.

They’ll enter what’s projected to be a rapidly growing industry, too. The worldwide market for game-based learning products and services is expected to reach $17 billion by 2023, according to research company Metaari.

While the official track dedicated to serious games is new, UCSC faculty are familiar with the field. Kurniawan’s career includes more than 10 years working in serious games. She joined UCSC in 2007 with a focus on assistive technology, or software targeted toward helping people with disabilities. But soon after arriving on campus, she says she was contacted by medical professionals across the state about developing more playful ways to help people with disabilities perform daily tasks. Ideas ranged from games for rehabilitation of stroke survivors to games that would offer social-emotional learning for people with autism.

“Gradually we moved into serious games at a time that the phrase was not commonly known,” Kurniawan says.

Increasing Impact

One of the most important parts of developing serious games, like the “Project Butterfly” virtual reality game for stroke survivors, is drawing on the knowledge of people who understand the game’s real-world goal and what it takes to achieve it. In “Project Butterfly’s” case, that means talking to the patients, caregivers and medical professionals who all interact with the game.

“Game designers and software application designers sometimes don’t really understand the importance, or even the type of outcomes that are desired,” Kurniawan says.

The games are also usually meant to complement more conventional ways of performing a task, Kurniawan adds, so it’s important for designers to understand how the game ties into other activities. Some of the new master’s program courses will be aimed at training students to understand how to appropriately and accurately get user input.

Students will not necessarily need a technical background to join the program, Kurniawan says. Faculty envision that students from different domains who want to understand more about games will enroll along with game designers who already understand the basics of games, but want to focus that knowledge on social good. The program’s speakers will include people from various backgrounds.

Another aspect of serious games that’s more specialized than the rest of the gaming industry is evaluating outcomes, says Michael John, a teaching professor of computational media at UCSC. He was in the commercial games industry for more than 20 years before joining UCSC about four years ago.

Measuring the effects of serious games is very difficult, John says. Usually, it involves looking at people who’ve played the game and people who haven’t and seeing how they differ. The “holy grail” of measuring outcomes in serious games, though, is that the game itself can report on a player’s progress, John says.

With that challenging task in front of them, students will come out of the master’s program with an empirical mindset for developing games, or creating user experiences more broadly, then measuring their effectiveness.

One of the most exciting things about teaching in existing gaming programs at UCSC is seeing the novelty of deas student are already bringing to serious games, John says. They often want to create games about political situations that are important to them, for example, or other personally relatable topics like women’s rights or understanding wildfire risks.

They believe games can change the world, John says. Now it’s officially game on—for the greater good.

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