Russ: This is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusniessMakers.com. It's guest time on the show and our topic today is Serious Gaming because with me now I have Tony Elam a Serious Gaming guy; a guy with lots of ind-industry background as well as academia. In fact, today you're working at Rice University?
Tony: That's correct Russ.
Russ: All right, well Tony, welcome to The BusinessMakers Show.
Tony: Well thank you, I'm glad to be here, thanks Russ, appreciate it.
Russ: Well let's start with you telling us about Serious Gaming.
Tony: Sure. Well, Serious Gaming I guess really started in the early two thousands - at least the concept of Serious Games and the Founder is looked at as probably Ben Sawyer. He was the guy who started having some summits in Washington, D.C., and of course this came out of the military. The military's been doing gaming for quite a while although people didn't necessarily call it that. But,the force on force models and simulations that the military has had has, you know, has been going on for quite a while. And so there was interest in this technology and it - it grew over the years. In the early two thousands you could see a slow but steady interest in growth and it expanded out of the military and that's when I became involved, it was probably around 2003.
Russ: Okay. Now, you know, when you talk about gaming in general, I mean we actually had the father of gaming on the show, Nolan Bushnell, the Founder of Pong, had him on a couple of years ago, but man it goes from there to these, you know historical battle games to Halo to all sorts of things now. So, does Serious Gaming cover the whole spectrum?
Tony: Well, in general, you know, you can say that a Serious Game is something that's been created by the use of games or gaming technology for serious purposes, you know, for non-entertainment value. So, you know, it's really expanded to include interest in healthcare and business applications, decision support systems. You could even use it as thinking about the potential for knowledge capture, things like and definitely for education, you know anything that we can do to help engage our students and keep them involved is something that's going to be productive for everybody.
Russ: Okay. Now I know from doing actual research just on you, Tony, that this thing that Ben Sawyer started, you've sort or taken that initiative and have formed a quite a large, organized consortium, uh, right here in Houston, Texas, correct?
Tony: That's right. We started out as a little group at Rice University in 2003. We just called ourselves Gaming at Rice and it was a small group of faculty and I went to one of these summits in Washington, D.C., turns out I met a professor at Baylor College of Medicine; Dr. Tom Baranowski. And Tom - we then expanded our little group to include Tom and others at Baylor and then we found some people at UT Health Science Center and M.D. Anderson; of course there was groups of interest at Texas A&M and UH.
So initially our little Gaming at Rice group became a research consortium of interested parties and then in the last four or five years it's really exploded because we wound up getting a lot of interest from small companies here in Houston as well as larger companies because now even the petrochemical and oil companies look at this as a potential for helping them in their training activities. So, the consortium is now - I've got hundred and fifty people here in the Houston area, yeah.
Russ: Wow. Now I've got to ask this question I'm sure my audience wants to know, so in the beginning did you guys just get together and play Halo all night?
Tony: Nah, well no. I am a gamer myself but this was for more serious purposes. We were looking at it as a tool for education, or enhanced training and for, you know, the business applications. And in particular initially since we were focused a lot with the Med Center and people from Baylor and UT Health Science, their focus was in games for health and that's actually been one - outside of the military - that's probably the industry that has experimented with the most as far as Serious Games.
Russ: I find it interesting that you've been doing this for a while and you're not a teenager anymore and that there are - appears to be a lot more interest from people that are way above teenagers these days.
Tony: That is definitely a huge trend in the industry. The average gamer today is thirty-seven years old.
Tony: Actually forty-two percent of all gamers are women, which is something that most people don't realize. So the age has continued to go up and what's interesting too - and that's probably the reason why we're seeing more interest in this in industry - is that since the gamers are now getting older and becoming, you know, more influential in their companies, they understand the potential of the gaming - the use of the gaming technologies; they're very comfortable with it and so it's something that you see that's more accepted now I think in industry because of that.
Russ: Well real interesting. I know there was periods of time over the last decade, maybe even a little longer, where there were some of us that worried about gaming with our children. I mean, we could see their fascination with it, we could see their engagement with the computer and their dexterity in understanding how to maneuver; I've got to think that that has a very interesting impact on the brain over time and your ability to comprehend and the synapses firing on there - that has to be a reason also that this is looked at as a potential, very valuable tool.
Tony: Well it is interesting to me. I think that the controllers are very complex today. If you look at the Xbox 360 or the PS3, for instance, you have a controller with sixteen active switches and buttons that you could be playing with, so, you know, our young people are very good at that but the older crowd of course, you know, would rather have, easier controller. So there's a lot of new innovations going on to where they have stereoscopic cameras, you know, the things like the Xbox Kinect where you are the controller, all of our little mobile devices have accelerometers where you can sit there and turn and twist your actual device and it'll react to it.
And there's some very interesting work going on today in cognitive actual thought sensing and detection so gameplay can actually be done through just having devices on your head. There was a little, small device called the Mind Flex that came out - it was eighty dollars by Mattel - and this was actually two or three years ago where you could control the power of a fan and elevate a ball. So with your mind through the little sensors and clips on your ears you could set there and move a ball through an obstacle course and that was just eighty bucks and that's actually something that was produced two or three years ago.
Russ: We recently interviewed the Founder of Chaotic Moon Studios, Whurley - William Hurley - who was driving a powered skate board with a device on his brain sensing him saying go fast; it was very very fascinating.
Tony: Well let me tell you just something about a researcher at Baylor College of Medicine - who is now associated with some other universities - but his name is Dr. Reed Montique and he had a cluster of FMRI machines and he had people in the devices playing a game in real time while he was doing scans of their brains. And he had them play a game called the trust game and by the ninth turn he could predict exactly what their move was going to be by previous patterns of their movement and their brain activity and he could tell when they regretted a move. So it's some really interesting things going on today.
Russ: Okay, my goodness. So let's get down to sort of closer to real world application of Serious Gaming technology. Do you have a couple of samples that you can share with I know you've mentioned healthcare and military; in healthcare are there actual applications today where gaming technology is used?
Tony: Well one of the companies here in Houston Archimage for instance Richard Buday is the President, they teamed up with Baylor College of Medicine and produced multiple games, one of which is called Escape from Diab. Now this was funded by the National Institutes of Health, and it's for Diabetes management. It's really focused on changing the behavior of a child to help them become better managers and of their nutrition. So it's a game that's very well produced, very attractive in the play but yet it helps them understand the importance of fruits and vegetables and eating right and doing the right things. So that's one application that's...
Russ: So would a young child consider that a fun game?
Tony: In this particular case, yeah, this game was well produced. This was comparable as far as a video game experience. It has multiple little games and puzzles that you would play during the activity. So it's done well, yeah.
Russ: So it was designed where the child really feels like they're playing a game and knows they're not just being taught and brow-beat into - okay, cool.
Tony: And this is, you know, this is another important thing. There - this is something that we're having to struggle with the whole Serious Games activity because you want to be able to develop a game that has the right learning objectives so that, you know, people are educated in the process, but if it's not fun and if it's not engaging, then you're not going to be successful either, so you have to be able to cover it both, right.
Russ: Well that's a fascinating when... Well, you've mentioned military a couple of times, is there sort of an example of something? I mean, they're not flying these drones now with gaming technology are they, or?
Tony: Well, you know, actually it's an interesting application if there's a conference called I/ITSEC, which is their military training and simulation yearly conference which is something that I go to occasionally. And one of the last times I was there they actually had a simulator and a control device for an autonomous flight vehicle, and as you're sitting there watching them, you do not know which is the real vehicle and which is not the real vehicle because the training and simulation device and the operational device are the same so it's really interesting.
But you can see this technology going into industry and one of the examples that I give a lot is oil Sim. Oil Sim is created by a small company called Simprentis it was, they exist in the Pharaoh Islands somewhere between England and Iceland. Well they created a very interesting simulation of an oil company and this is used for a variety of purposes. Once it's used by some oil companies to help new employees understand where they fit in the oil and gas business and it's also used as an educational tool. So Oil Sim allows and individual to experience the real complexity of that business; everything from discovering oil, working with contractors to develop and do test wells and decide how you're going to be managing all that process.
Russ: Is that being used now in the industry?
Tony: It's absolutely. It's being used by multiple oil companies and they run these national tournaments over in Europe. They will have as many as a thousand high school equivalent students or college students playing the game at the same time and competing. So it's very interesting.
Russ: Very interesting. Talking with Tony Elam about Serious Gaming and we'll be back with more with him after this. This is The BusinessMakers Show heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com.
Russ: This is TheBusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com and continuing on with Tony Elam about Serious Gaming. Now Tony in the beginning I mentioned that you have experience in industry and academia. In fact, today it's kind of mostly academia you're the Director of Research for Electrical and Computer Engineering at Rice University as well as the acting Executive Director of the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership, right?
Russ: Okay, very interesting. Now I also know though that, you know, in your background you have this sort of interesting connection, to gaming - not just computer gaming and you're kind of connected to a lot of things about early stage development; share that with our audience.
Tony: Sure, I'd be happy to Russ. I've always had a fascination with games. It's never been my real job, but it's something that I've always enjoyed so I became fascinated with board games at an early age and I...
Russ: Board games?
Tony: Board games, you know...
Russ: Like Parcheesi and Monopoly.
Tony: Right, that's right, right. And it turns out that most Americans don't realize the wealth of games that are available and are played worldwide, so over the years I've wound up, you know, focusing and enjoying that as a hobby, but I do it also to look at the gaming mechanisms, the design mechanics. And it turns out there's a huge group in Europe for instance, there's a gaming activity at S in Germany every year where a hundred and fifty thousand people come and play board games.
Russ: You're kidding, board games?
Tony: Because the board games out of Europe are much, much richer than what we normally see here. Although a lot of them are slowly being able to be acquired here through online specialty stores. But I've always had this fascination with games and I have actually one of the larger game collections in the United States, thousands upon thousands of games.
Russ: You own thousands upon thousands of board games?
Russ: How do you store them?
Tony: Oh I have multiple climate controlled storage units and multiple rooms in my home.
Russ: Very interesting. Okay now, I know too through some research that your expertise gets called into actions sometimes even involving toys, right?
Tony: It turns out that the National Toy Museum, has a process by which they induct toys into the National Toy Hall of Fame and I'm fortunate enough to be one of the members of the selection committee and that's something that I really do enjoy. We look at a variety of nominees every year and go through and pick one or two to be put into the Toy Hall of Fame and it's a lot of fun.
Russ: I'd say so. Okay, all right, I'm having difficulty going back into computerized Serious Gaming let's go there and specifically in education, I mean, it's so obvious now that the web and the digital world are playing a key role now in education. There's the Khan Academy started by Sal Khan; what a story that is, and what incredible content that is. And then there's also the Connections Group out at Rice. Now, from what I know about both of them, they don't seem to be connected right now to Serious Gaming; is that accurate in...
Tony: That true but I think everyone's exploring this space because what you would want to be able to have connected to the educational process, be it snippets of videos or with connections where you're actually being able to create courses and compose sets of educational materials, you want to be able to include an intelligent tutor. You want to be able to get some feedback as the students are participating in whatever that educational mechanism is, and that intelligent tutor will involve machine learning technology, A.I., and it's just the next step to start to gameify that process to where you can increase that engagement. So I think a lot of people are looking at the gaming technologies and mechanisms and design mechanics to incorporate into those educational tools and products.
Russ: Well, I know that probably in Serious Gaming the whole virtual world and the Second Life world have to be taken into consideration. Do you spend much time there?
Tony: Well actually I don't today, but when it first - when Second Life first started, I was one of the early adopters and played around with that technology for quite a while and with many people I was very captivated by it. Now - and it turns out there's been three hundred university projects that have actually been conducted in Second Life, so it's a great toolbox it's a prototyping environment, and there's been a lot of things learned in it. But now there's a variety of these little virtual worlds that are now being created. Different technologies, some related to business but a lot in education. One that I like to tell people about and suggest people experiment with is a virtual world called Whyville.
Tony: W-H-Y-V-I-L-L-E and Whyville was started by Dr. Jim Bowers initially when he was at Cal Tech; Dr. Bowers is now at UT San Antonio. But this is a world focused on education, focused on younger kids. Average age is about twelve years old, we have over six million users and sixty-two percent of them are girls. And in this virtual world you play educational games and you earn money. You earn these little things called clams, so there's motivation there, and those clams allow you to customize your little avatar and to get things for your avatar, so there's incentives for the kids to play these games, and there's always been fascinating activities that Dr. Bowers will create in the world.
So I'll make one of these stories short but he created a little whypox - a virus and he infected one of the kids and it manifested itself by having the kid sneeze as they were texting each other in their virtual world they would go achoo and then they would get these little blemishes on their avatar. There's nothing worse to a twelve year old girl to have blemishes. And so he was able to study how this would spread through the virtual world and that was very interesting data, but one of the things that occurred is after seven days you would just get okay. But one of the young boys realized this cause he had been infected very early on and so what he wound up doing was he created a Whypox vaccine and he sold it for five clams or some amount and of course, you know, he wound up making all this money, so they had their first snake oil salesman in Whyville and it was a twelve year old boy.
Russ: That's great, this is so fascinating. Now Whyville has nothing to do with Second Life? It's just complete - yeah...
Tony: No, it's completely different, it's a different technology, absolutely.
Russ: What about business education? Is any utilization of Serious Gaming there?
Tony: You know, you'll see simulations and models and Serious Games starting to be used in multiple business schools, and there's actual products starting to hit the market. One of them that I always talk about is a product called Go Venture. Go Venture has fifteen different products that they produce. Everything from a simulation for young kids to where they can have a lemonade stand in a virtual world up to very serious business simulations where you can tailor your particular area for Houston and the demographics of Houston and to look at, you know, what would it take for me to start this particular business in this area of the city; so it's pretty sophisticated stuff.
Russ: Wow, totally fascinating. Okay, so before I let you go Tony, let's say somebody's watching right now too and is also very fascinated by the topic and wants to somehow or another get connected to others, who are interested in studying it, is there a place they can go, a website?
Tony: Well we have a website called The Houston Serious Games Research Consortium; it's actually just by the initials HSGRC.org and you'll see what we're doing and feel free to contact us.
Russ: Okay, well I really appreciate you coming in and opening up our eyes to this very serious world of Serious Gaming.
Tony: Thank you Russ, appreciate it.
Russ: You bet. That's Tony Elam and this is The BusinessMakers Show, heard on the radio and seen online at TheBusinessMakers.com.