Let's Get Serious

by Dave Allen | | Category: | Permalink

Quick history lesson: Back in the dim and distant 90's an awkwardly phrased term was coined by someone, probably an idiot, to describe computer games that merged entertainment and education. Perhaps unsurprisingly the tenuously titled 'edutainment' genre never really caught on. As the 'genre' spurned only a wealth of patronising kids' games; it sank into obscurity. Yet as the technology and perception of gaming has catapulted forward into the mainstream over the past decade, the principle of computer game technology being used for education and non-gaming purposes has evolved into what has come to be known as Serious Games."'Edutainment' games were really just interactive versions of the way people normally learn, they tended to be like electronic books that you could navigate through and interact with to a certain extent," says David Worley, Director of the Serious Games Institute, a £7million project run by Coventry University."But with serious games and the technologies involved there's a whole new degree of engagement; not least in the ability to develop multi-player online games and virtual worlds which really help with peer-to-peer learning. That's something that edutainment didn't do in the past."So how does animation fit in? Well the ability for many serious games to offer interactive professional training stems from arduously researched interactive animation with an almost pedantic focus on realism. On a visit to Leamington Spa's Blitz Games Studios, their serious games division, known as TruSim, gave AFWM an insight of their experience animating latest offering, Interactive Triage Trainer.

"Oversold animations in Serious Games seem to function really, really badly," says Art Manager at TruSim, Jolyon Webb. "I think its very, very difficult doing a naturalistic, underplayed animation because it's very infrequently used. Almost all animation in games slightly larger than life and trying to do something that works at quite a low level is fairly tough to do."

Interactive Triage Trainer is being developed in collaboration with the Advanced Life Support Group for use in training paramedics for triage (the process of prioritising patients by condition based on severity of injury – thanks Wikipedia). Set in the aftermath of a bomb blast, the training tool shows people displaying varying degrees of injury strewn across a London street, as a first-person perspective encourages the player mark patients for urgency of treatment.

"The potential for Serious Games absolutely massive," says the Serious Games Institute's David Worley. "It's not just about learning; rather a spectrum of activities which really bring people together to share knowledge and experiences, and build communities."

The West Midlands in particular, has an integral role to play in this exciting new wave of interactive animation, says Worley, "The Serious Games Institute is a £7million project designed to make the West Midlands a leader in the Serious Games and Virtual Game sectors. It really has only been made possible because of the fact that companies like Blitz Games Studios and Codemasters are global players in the region. So we already have industry strength that we're trying to build on to make the West Midlands the world leaders in this sector."

With the real-life dangers involved in misrepresenting an injury, Blitz Games Studios' TruSim Division had to carefully consult with healthcare professionals to ensure lay preconceptions about injuries were not incorporated into the finished game. "There were issues of not just making sure that the movement is correct, but ensuring the postures of people who are in a really bad way, look typical," says Jolyon. "For example, someone who has a spinal injury will move their arms and shoulders, but not their legs. Interestingly they may also breathe in a special way, for instance from their stomach, rather than their chest.

"They're really subtle differences but really specific differences," he continues, "and they're completely out of the range of what you're normally asked to animate. Referencing them is horribly difficult. You have to animate it and then take it to the experts."

Whilst working on the Interactive Triage Trainer in Maya, animator Richard Vaucher tells me of the differences between animating serious and traditional games, "I think the major difference between a serious games character and traditional cartoony character is that with the latter you may have to squash and stretch features depending on how stylised a game you're going for.

"Whereas if you're animating a realistic human in a serious game, you don't have any distortion, as it needs to behave like a real person. I wouldn't say it's more difficult it's just a different approach."

But what does the future hold for this relatively new approach? After all, although TruSim concentrate on training tools, games technology has been fed into a wealth of non-games; everything from 3D displays to online virtual reality software such as Second Life.

TruSim Art Manager, Jolyon Webb: "I would hope in the future that not only does the serious games animator produce animation (i.e. the meat and potatoes of the movement), but they also have the ability to direct the look and feel on top of it, where you have procedural systems that overlay the underlying animation. The point would always be that you're moving towards getting the richest possible movement."

"All the testing that's been done proves that it makes people learn much quicker, much faster, and more importantly; much cheaper," says Dan Calvert, Senior Animator at Blitz and AFWM Steering Group member. "It allows people to pick these things up and it's something they'll actively get involved with. I can only see it expanding hugely. As to the direction it goes, it's far too early to tell how it will develop."

Perhaps the most interesting potential for serious games comes in its symbiotic relationship with the traditional games industry, as the two mediums build and benefit from one another. "It's still very dependent on games technology," says Calvert, "Here at Blitz, it's pushing our technology forward by helping to fund research and development.

"It's going to have a feedback affect into games with the technologies developed through serious games on the whole – including things like Virtual Reality and 3D displays. These elements will feedback into games eventually."

With ever-improving games hardware, greater and faster wireless internet coverage and the potential for ever-more realistic animation, it's difficult to agree on how this relatively new medium will evolve. But one thing is for sure, "As Serious Games moves out on its own," says Calvert, "it will find an awful lot of people will have money to invest in it."

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