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Square Enix unveils "Project Game Brain"

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This year's Game Developers Conference began with a keynote speech by Square Enix chief strategist Ichiro Otobe, entitled "Serious Games Squared." Focusing on the development of serious games, or interactive media designed for instructional and training purposes, Otobe stated that in the near future players could expect such titles to be published under the auspices of SG Lab, a joint venture between Square Enix and the manga publishing company Gakken. Programmer Tadashi Tsushima then demonstrated a prototype of Square's "Project GB," a serious game which will instruct Nintendo DS players in developing basic videogame programming skills.

The Serious Games Summit portion of the 2007 Game Developers Conference started off with Ichiro Otobe's keynote, "Serious Games Squared." The talk described Square Enix's response to the Serious Games Initiative, a proposal started by the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C. that has gone some ways toward grabbing the attention of the videogame industry at large since the initiative first garnered public interest at last year's game convention. Serious games are designed to impart knowledge or teach players a particular skill. Going beyond the current trend of retail distribution, they are intended to be implemented in such sectors as public education, medicine, the military, and public policy. Such popular examples of videogame-as-tool include Super Monkey Ball being used to prep surgeons and thwarting age-related neurological issues with neuroscientist Ryuta Kawashima's Brain Training titles. Extrapolate out into the 2010s, 2020s and beyond for an idea of where such novel game designs are headed.

In Japan, educational games like Brain Training are out-selling Final Fantasy.
This surprising development suggests that designing serious games for a mainstream
audience could prove to be a rewarding investment for companies like Square Enix

Square Enix's announcement that the company will be venturing into the realm of serious games has raised some eyebrows, due to the game developer's reputation for creating popular entertainment titles. Otobe explained that while serious games can cater to the concerns of nonprofit organizations, they can also widen the popular market for videogames, generating untapped sources of revenue. Of the top twenty selling games in Japan last year, five were instructional titles. Sales of the Brain Age games for Nintendo DS even rivaled those of the big-budget RPG title Final Fantasy XII. Otobe pointed out that in Japan the popularity of serious games is really taking off, due to the greater public acceptance of gaming as a legitimate addition to books, magazines, and television as part of the mainstream media. In Japan, a title like Cooking Navigation, an interactive culinary instructional guide for the Nintendo DS, can manage to become a bestseller. Otobe remarked, "This is very strange for you guys."

Chief Strategist Ichiro Otobe with Software Architect Tadashi Tsushima

In evidence of the company's commitment to the experimental genre, Square Enix has embarked upon two approaches to the development side of serious games. The first is a joint venture with Gakken Publishing called SG Lab. In Japan, Otobe explained, Gakken printed a series of manga called Himitsu, or "Secrets," documenting such subjects as "The Secrets of Space" and "The Secrets of the Ninja." The fact-based popular comic book proved immensely popular, selling over 20 million copies. Mentioning how much he has learned of Japanese history from reading popular comic books, Otobe suggested, "We can do that in games, too." Gakken's distribution networks, delivering comic books to schools and public libraries, could be utilized in bringing SG Lab's interactive media to such educational institutions. The challenge for game designers will be in providing educational products that indisputably impart players with valuable information and skills, thereby making the games appropriate either for the classroom or for supplementary educational purposes.

From a seat among the audience, software architect Tadashi Tsushima
demoes a prototype of "Project GB"

Even in Japan, where educational gaming software is topping the charts, a specter of controversy surrounding the perceived dangers of videogame usage persists simultaneously. Otobe mentioned university professor Akio Mori's theory that gaming has deleterious effects on young brains, leading to damaged "game brains." "Many parents still believe that game brain is a huge issue in Japan," said Otobe. By contrast, Square Enix hopes to create educational games that demonstrate the capacity for computer software as an advantageous instructional medium.

Since the best approach to teaching is to teach what you are good at, Otobe explained, Square Enix's first instrcutional videogame title will tutor players in basic computer programming. The company has decided to enter the serious games market with a Nintendo DS title, codenamed "Project GB," because of the smaller costs and shorter development cycles required for handheld games. "Game development involves so many useful skills," said Otobe. "Here we want to promote that the game brain is really good. That is the counter-message to this university professor. So 'Project GB' comes from 'Game Brain.'" The DS game currently has a team of ten designers and will take half a year to develop.

To demonstrate some simple game mechanics behind the project, Vagrant Story programmer Tadashi Tsushima was on hand at the lecture with a white Nintendo DS, a view of which was projected onto the overhead screen for the audience. Demoing the software before the assembled game developers, Tsushima explained that "Project GB" includes three modes. In training mode, players can develop a computer program running a simple videogame. Players are enabled in making modifications to their designs, such as tailoring the color of sprites to their preference by using the stylus and touch screen to adjust levels of red, green, and blue. Changes made to the information on the touch screen menus will alter what is displayes on the game screen. "You can advance through trial and error," noted Tsushima. Players of varying experience in software design will thereby be able to construct a simple game, step by step.

Players can customize a game built upon the model of Space Invaders
and receive feedback from their animated programming instructor

In programming their custom games, Project GB players will pass through a series of stages, Tsushima explained. At each step they are offered positive feedback by their on-screen female instructor. In network mode, players can connect to other Nintendo DS users through the handheld's Wi-Fi connection and share their custom games. "One of the joys of developing games is delivering it to the customer," said Otobe, "and you can do that with this game." The last mode is called "research," where players can search the network for other players' custom games. "Research is the magical word to justify playing games at the office," Tsushima explained. "So we named it 'research.'"

With Project GB and similar endeavors, Square Enix hopes to train a new generation of game designers in the skills of computer programming, while offering an enjoyable product to casual gamers. "You shouldn't be using the game as a sugarcoat," Otobe explained. "You shouldn't think that learning is bitter." Rather, mainstream serious games like Square Enix's Project GB will attempt to distill the essence of learning a new skill through involved gameplay and personalized customization. If the Game Developers Conference is any sign of the trends affecting the industry today, we can expect the next generation of serious game designers will be the end-users, "the masses," the game players themselves.

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It's very interesting to see the new focus which couples games with other forms of media. It seems that the trend, especially in a more game-friendly nation like Japan, is to use games as a palatable output for otherwise unfriendly information. This has been done here in the US for movie tie-ins, which emphasizes my point when something like "Catwoman" makes it onto the PS2, though that particular example does little to enhance that particular pile of turd. Serious games succeeding in overseas markets may give them credibility here, which may in turn increase their mainstream acceptance and ultimately give them status as an artistic form. The future looks good.
In a few years, expect to see some opposing political parties arguing over the appropriateness of introducing instructional videogame software into the classroom. That seems to be what the supporters of the Serious Games Initiative are aiming for.
Definitely. It is the politicians that are really galvanizing a gaming opprobrium in this country. How far games will be allowed to go in the classroom will depend on how demagogic our wise and rational political leaders become. I don't know about you, but I'm seeing increasing anti-gaming rhetoric from up top.
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