GDC 2018: Games can help humanity, be profitable, and get support from gamers


Games alone won’t make the world better. They won’t even make gamers better. We publish some articles that certainly seem pretty pro-games, but we’re very upfront about the catches. One big one is on us, the players, and how we game. However, game designers can do a lot to help us.

“But that’s hard, expensive, and/or boring!” some of you may be thinking. And yeah, sometimes that’s true. But for both indies and AAA companies, not only are there organizations able to help, but there’s the potential for government aid in unlikely places. Games for good isn’t just a pipe dream, either. Some of the most (deservedly) vilified gaming communities have not only helped with their time but their wallets as well. Even before going to GDC this year we knew this, but a few panels I watched really helped it click.

The concept of player power for good

I’ve mentioned how despite the fact that we have evidence that play helps with brain development, we don’t know how it actually helps. It’s complicated in animals too. As a teacher and games journalist, I realize writing that feels like a very real threat to my hobby and job, but there’s hope. Much as our knowing the sun helps plants grow, I believe we’ll figure out how and when play and learning go hand-in-hand.

Today is not that day, though. All we know for sure is that people can learn from playing, but play can also be used to enforce societal goals, especially through simple exposure. Think about how you played pretend as a kid: Maybe you saw a movie or a TV show and you wanted to recreate what you saw. Maybe you’d wear a cape or pretend to bake or tame a teddy bear.

It’s not just children who are learning from play. Think about language. We can sometimes guess what a person is saying since language is formulaic. Now add TV quotes, catchphrases, and memes to those idioms and set phrases you know. Even if you don’t want to believe research about how TV can change your accent, think about how you might talk to people in a game you play. All the game-specific jargon we use here, for our hobby, meant we adults had to learn some vocabulary just by playing.

Now imagine those games we played actually used, say, medical terms, Chinese, or calculus in their gameplay. Just through exposure, you’d have a chance to learn those. This is what we call “serious games.” They’re games that have a purpose that goes beyond entertainment.

Within that field is something called “citizen science games.” These are games like Eyewire, a neuron mapping game with a story and visuals laid on top to outsource the mapping of the human brain to normal people because, no, we can’t yet trust the robots to do all the work.

Sound vaguely familiar? Maybe your recall EVE Online’s Project Discovery, a citizen science minigame within EVE to help scientists look for exoplanets. Yes, that game where people can be truly awful to each other has a community that embraced gamified science research.

But why stop there? Especially if you’re looking to do good, the medical field is wide open. The FDA can clear games (not approve since it only does that with drugs), which means games that verifiably help in the medical sense could get funded by big pharma companies. It means if you’re worried about making big, expensive games and gear, worry not! Future customers could potentially get covered by insurance or other reimbursement plans.

Someone’s probably thinking by now, “Not everyone is going to have a development team with the time, effort, patience, or audience size to make citizen science projects worth it.” However, a developer could just team up with some charities. Jeffrey Burrell and Tash Elliott from Riot Games gave a talk at this year’s GDC about how the company used research to find out what humanitarian projects mattered to their players and used it (watch it here).

It doesn’t need to cost direct cash either. Riot teamed up with local communities to inform players about how they could make a difference, and did so itself by actually having team members participate, like teaching kids about computer/code literacy. And hey, if you are big enough to afford it, you can do something more unique. Riot gave players an interactive voting event on how the company would monetize a charity drive, with said charities based on values the players themselves had expressed interest in.

I know these are some lofty ideas. But here’s the thing: These are all projects happening right now. They’re not the future; they’re modern niches. Few of us are developers (but “hey” to those of you who are!), but as fans, we can inform the companies and devs we like about these topics to help push them in the right direction.

Practical application: Now and in the future

Let’s look at what we’ve got available now in terms of citizen science projects. Kathleen Yin (Macquarie University), Attila Szantner (MMOS Sarl), Amy Sterling (Eyewire), Antoine Coutrot (University College London), all with current experience in the field, held a panel at GDC this year (which you can watch here). According to Sterling, the modern problem with research is that “we’re drowning in data.” We have so much but can sort through and understand so little, when the need for citizen science projects is now. All the panelists agreed that if a developer wants help, there are plenty of research institutes and schools that would be willing to help.

As Dr. Coutrot noted, a lot of graduate papers (and papers from research institutes) sadly recruit participants from not just their school but from the local community. That’s biased because these populations are almost always WEIRD: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. They don’t really represent the majority of humanity.

That may sound strange when talking about using games for good, but I don’t think I need to remind you that Asia makes a lot of games. In fact, when Dr. Coutrot said that lots of projects aren’t necessarily backed by game companies but telecommunications – like Deutsche Telekom and did with Dr. Coutrot’s team’s dementia exploring game Sea Hero Quest – it helps correct that bias. The map we were shown still hit the “WEIRD” locations, but also India, parts of the middle east, and central Africa.

PC and console markets are limited, but as I keep saying, mobile really is a global platform. I say that as someone who hates touch keyboards/pads. Less teens these days seem to have the kind of machines we need for PC gaming, and I’m seeing them turn into adults who still buy iPads over a nice desktop/laptop. If researchers need to really see a variety of users – which Dr. Coutrot’s needed to create a “planetary wide benchmark” to check against for possible early signs of dementia – mobile clearly holds the potential lead.

I say this because VR for general gaming is still struggling, but for education and health/medical purposes, it’s hard to ignore, especially as even Oculus Go-es mobile. For example, at the panel on games as medicine (which you can watch here), held by LucasArts Entertainment and industry vet Noah Falstein, the need for portability in health-related games was hard to ignore. While some finagling made some games a bit more portable, Falstein mentioned how one doctor used mobile VR with a very special patient. We’re already seeing how VR/AR can be used over reality, like with The Void, but we don’t have to get that crazy to make it useful in medicine now.

While VR may be useful in helping kids to avoid needle phobias, the child Falstein told us about was a burn victim who’d built a tolerance for hard drugs used to pacify him during his daily bandage changing. His doctor brought in a mobile VR headset and used it to distract the boy. This boy went from “needing this maximum level drugs and still being scared, to being fine with no drugs at all,” with the game being his sole required distractor, the first time.

Granted, I feel like it’s possible to build a kind “VR tolerance,” but as Falstein noted, FDA cleared games’ side effects are limited to “frustration and mild headaches.” Maybe Falstein left out the potential for motion sickness, but I think we can all agree that’s significantly better than the kinds of side effects associated with mental health medications.

Besides, not all games need to inherently be health-related, just have a use in health. As Falstein noted, a distraction is sometimes all that’s needed. While a lot of people failed to make the 30-day threshold for Nintendo’s Wii Fit to become an exercise habit, the game was recommended by some physical therapists. Doing certain exercises that are essentially a repetitive movement several times a day can be boring, but linking it to a game can make it more fun. In fact, my own mother not had it recommended to her by her physical therapists – and she used it. My Wii fit board is actually still in her room (no doubt gathering dust until she gets her next surgery).

Sometimes, though, the games can just be games with the right narrative approach. Falstein mentioned Re-Mission, a game designed to help make sure patients (especially teens) kept up with their cancer treatment, as some would stop taking their medicine because they felt better rather than finishing the full cycle needed to keep the problem from coming back. The game did well enough to even get a sequel.

Burrell and Elliott from Riot in their panel on empowering players for good showed that you don’t have to limit yourself to in-game actions. Riot’s IP alone had a lot of power to help, which Szantner of MMOS would support, as his company’s first foray into citizen science specifically targeted pre-existing games as a prime method of getting the public’s help. For example, to find out what social causes Riot’s players would support, Riot held focus groups that used a “design a hero” task to break the ice and get people talking. Around the office, just trying to straight talk was uncomfortable, but by asking people to design potential future heroes for the game based on a simplified version of the United Nations’ Global Goals, people opened up.

Naturally, different cultures had different priorities, but it helped Riot focus on community outreach. Simple things like mental health promotion, having their employees help teach kids at CoderDojo, and yes, raising money for charity are all options a game developer/publisher could implement with little to no in-game programming.

However, Riot went one step further. In its in-game event that let players vote for which charity to help, Riot secretly ensured that members of the community in good standing held more sway. People who got post-match praise for things like helping others learn the game had their vote counted more times than, say, toxic community members, who still had their voices heard but – as in a social conversation – in a reduced manner based on reputation.

It may sound overly optimistic, but Riot saw 20% increased community participation in the regions that participated in the movement, with people directly donating to the charities. Even in a game known for its toxic community, Riot’s showing that people do want to help. In fact, by engaging their community, giving them all a voice to be heard, Riot is ensuring that players at least can speak their mind, making future dialogues about any topic more feasible. If that isn’t enough of a reason to at least try to insert some humanitarian efforts into your game, I don’t know what is.

Player reception

As Burrell and Elliott from Riot said, community service research shouldn’t be an afterthought. With all the abusive monetization mechanics we see these days, getting third parties to help monetize research and social action in games should be a sustainable solution for the market. As Dr. Coutrot noted, it might have cost that team $30 billion and 10,000 years to get the data it acquired from Sea Hero Quest if it’d tried it without the game, which counted 3.4 million players globally – to essentially run a dementia-check benchmark program and survey!

Not only that, but there’s clearly a market for games that promote health and wellness. As Falstein noted, Nintendo’s DS and Wii systems sold quite well partially in thanks to games like Brain Age and Wii Fit that advertised themselves as more than just games. Granted, the “brain training” genre turned out to have unsubstantiated benefits that cost Lumosity some cash for pushing too hard, and even those of us who stuck with Wii Fit eventually moved on. The latter, of course, had more to do with user engagement, but just the same, products looking to sell themselves as actual health/medicinal products need to be rigorously researched.

The payoff can be huge, though. Looking again to Falstein: If the US government gave 5% of its $300 billion pharmaceutical budget to medical games, it’d match the whole global mobile market at this point. As Sterling noted, motivating users in Eyewire was as simple as adding leaderboards, badges, point systems, and even fun voting events ala Splatoon(2)’s Splatfests. While I may not have a ton of time to play lately, I stay engaged with a game because of these events, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. Remember, Riot experienced similar results itself. In fact, it’s even offered to share some of its data (within reason) with researchers and encouraged it to reach out to the company.

Again, look to EVE‘s Project Discovery. Matching the search for new planets melded well with CCP’s sci-fi audience. In-game rewards that were predicted to take days or weeks were achieved by some players in hours. The right kind of research pairing could greatly help developers with content delivery, especially if they also follow Riot’s idea of planning for community research at the start. Imagine a prepared game adding more and more “factions” with “minigames” that are essentially science projects churning out data to help solve medical issues or focus on educating people on how to deal with mental issues.

This is summer! Or pop. It's something.

Motivating help

Now, it’s good to be enthusiastic, but let’s try to curb it a bit before anyone gets too excited. Dr. Coutrot and Szantner noted (as we’ve also previously said) that there’s a disconnect between what researchers/educators want/need vs. those of the developers. For example, Dr. Coutrot’s Sea Hero Quest was created in an attempt to track how/when dementia starts. The team did this by not only tracking user data but limiting it to players who filled out a questionnaire.

The problem, however, if that this is done through spatial navigation, one of the first skills dementia patients lose, and tracking it through a game – which requires knowledge of how games work, familiarity with the user interface, and other game-related mental domains – should have been filtered out. The problem was that the researchers, while trying to keep the survey as short as possible, forgot to include this critical question, making the data much harder to use and generalize.

While working with AAA developers seems like a great idea, it’s hard to find a mutual fit. Szantner’s company aims to do just that, but the EVE project is still its most visible success. As Dr. Coutrot noted, telecommunication companies seemed like a good bet. From personal experience, I’ve found government agencies are often quite interested in people who could potentially gamify their public research (if only I could work with something more complex than RPG Maker!).

And that’s the other part of working on games beyond raw entertainment. At these panels, both the people on and off stage were more diverse. The speakers often noted the gender gap was much closer 50/50, and the cultural backgrounds were more varied. On the street (and the bathroom line), the “white male gamer” stereotype seemed confirmed, but these panels showed that the industry is growing, especially as Dr. Coutrot himself wasn’t even a techy, let alone a gamer!

Think back to when the mass media discussed the Corrupted Blood event in WoW. On the one hand, it’s cool, and for some of us, it’s fun. But what if these sorts of things were then tweaked in our virtual worlds? Healers complain about whack-a-mole, but imagine if being a healer were more like being an entertainer in Star Wars Galaxies, where people came to you for a slower kind of “healing.”

Imagine if these diseases that disrupt gameplay weren’t so fast-acting but took hours. Imagine if your character wasn’t acting right and had to go to a hospital to get diagnosed and treated. Then imagine finding you had a rare disease, and that player helps you trace it back to its origin so you could create an antidote. While the doctor is busy identifying the infected, you might be calling in allies to look for clues to help create an antidote. Not only would it better mimic real-world disease control, it could be a lot of fun!

At the least, looking into mobilizing a game’s community towards social action is doable. Getting researchers involved is too, though it’ll take a bit for both sides to understand the other’s limitations. However, once that’s achieved, it’s easier to start focusing on the untapped potential of citizen science games or even creating games as alternative medicine, minus those nasty side effects.

Massively Overpowered was on the ground in San Francisco for GDC 2018, bringing you expert MMO coverage on everything (and everyone!) on display at the latest Game Developers Conference!
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