With new tech­nolo­gies and inter­faces, the gaming world is pushing the bound­aries of what it means to play. Today com­puter games aim to do much more than offer players the chance to shoot the bad guy. We can now use them to learn how to read, how to make envi­ron­men­tally con­scious deci­sions, and even how to become a better actress, all without sac­ri­ficing the fun.

Playing a game inher­ently requires a cer­tain amount of learning, according to Casper Harteveld, assis­tant pro­fessor of art and design. For example, you need to learn how the game space works and how you can level up your char­acter within it. So while it was per­haps an uncon­scious devel­op­ment, games have become an ideal edu­ca­tional plat­form for teaching a broad spec­trum of topics.

Walter Huang (right) demon­strates the Affec­tive Media project a group of stu­dents. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

At the fourth Pop Up Open Lab Expe­ri­ence and Recep­tion, held in the Dig­ital Media Com­mons on Monday, researchers from across the uni­ver­sity came together to demon­strate how they are both uti­lizing and opti­mizing games to address a variety of prob­lems. The event was hosted by the Office of the Provost, the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence.

Many of the games on dis­play focus on health-​​related chal­lenges or explore back-​​end methods for making those games more engaging and effec­tive in their edu­ca­tional goals.

A cap­stone team com­prising four phys­ical therapy stu­dents and one neu­ro­science stu­dent is exploring how a robotic smart glove for stroke sur­vivors can more effec­tively help patients regain their motor skills. The team believes that if the user’s hand motions con­trol a vir­tual envi­ron­ment instead of an image of a hand on the com­puter screen, she will be more likely to return to the device repeat­edly, said team member Jacob Wat­terson. Making that vir­tual envi­ron­ment part of a game should only increase this like­li­hood, he said.

Mark Sivak (left), assis­tant aca­d­emic spe­cialist in game design, demon­strates the ATLAS smart glove to third-​​year stu­dent Ryan Stewart. Photo by Mary Knox Merrill.

The issue of repeata­bility seemed to be on many of the researchers’ minds. For example, Gillian Smith, an assis­tant pro­fessor of game design, is exploring how auto­matic con­tent gen­er­a­tion can expand the game space to make it more dynamic for the user. Pro­fessor Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, director of the game design pro­gram, and Rus­sell Pensyl, a pro­fessor of inter­ac­tive media, are working on incor­po­rating emo­tion recog­ni­tion into the gaming expe­ri­ence. The goal of the Affec­tive Media project is to allow games to respond to a user’s expe­ri­ence in order to gen­erate con­tent that will be more likely to keep them engaged.

Alessandro Canossa, asso­ciate pro­fessor of game design, is devel­oping tools for designers to help them make better games for their users. Using the Google Maps API, his G-​​Player tool maps the vir­tual space of a game and shows designers the areas players most often pop­u­late. If they see that an entire area of the game is never used, they might either expand the area’s acces­si­bility or cut it out com­pletely. This way the designers can help pro­mote greater interest and usability, he said.

Other games on dis­play explored a variety of chal­lenges. Some aim to pro­mote healthy behav­iors while others explore the use of inter­ac­tive sto­ry­telling to pro­mote engage­ment. The diver­sity of projects showed that gaming has clearly reached its ten­ta­cles into a variety of dis­ci­plines. What was once a tool merely for fun is now a fun tool for edu­ca­tion and learning across a spec­trum of topics.