Research and development

Dutch gaming companies are natural allies of researchers and knowledge centers in several fields of interest. Research is a given for applied games, but entertainment games aren’t lacking academic attention either.

Games as a medium have been the subject of research ever since the birth of commercial video games in the 1970s. Academics have published entire libraries’ worth of materials about all possible aspects of games and gaming. Whether it’s about the working of games, their cultural value or technological aspects, gaming is well-represented in academic research.

It should therefore come as no surprise that game companies themselves often have close ties to knowledge institutes, education and individual researchers. The previously mentioned Gamesmonitor 2012 already showed that this is clearly the case: interviews with 77 game companies showed that more than half of them collaborate with research institutes or education programs in the Netherlands, and that a minority has ties to institutes in the US or Europe. These results concern both studios building entertainment games and those involved in developing applied games. Game companies assume different roles in the collaboration, from knowledge receiver or partner for knowledge development to developer of research tools. That collaboration is often focused on education, but research also makes up a large chunk of it. In 2012, collaborations revolved around developing tools to better build games, as well as to develop business models and develop and scientifically validate game concepts.

The latter is mostly represented within the world of medical applied games. Health games have greater responsibility when it comes to proving that a game works the way the developer says it works. A rehabilitation game focused on the recovery of certain muscle groups should not cause excessive strain or train the wrong body parts. Similarly, a game that helps ADHD patients plan their day (see the example following this chapter) should have a proven effect outside the game – if you attain high scores but fail to plan better in daily life, the game is considered a failure.

This is just one of the many areas of research for applied games; think of how faithfully patients attend counseling sessions, skill development in training games, et cetera. For example, the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam collaborated with Amsterdam-based IJsfontein Interactive Media to develop what they dubbed the “abcdeSIM”. ER doctors need to make split-second decisions about which patients to treat first. To do so, they use the ABCDE method: check the patient’s Airway, whether they’re Breathing, and work their way down the alphabet. They use a playful app to train that skill to make quick decisions, but said app has such a proven effect that the hospital has accredited it as an official training method.

This shows how game design can significantly profit from research: it validates the effect and helps convince clients, investors and users. With advantages like that, you think that research is a standard component for medical games, but you’d be mistaken. There is a gap between the wish to have games researched and actually having research done, and that forms a bit of a problem. Building games is a process in which new insights are immediately added to a product; developers work from version to version, and learn from testing between rounds.

That process is at odds with science’s preferred way of studying a research object: as a fixed value, to be observed over a longer period of time. Because of financing hurdles, that “longer period of time” is usually four years – in other words, an eternity in the world of software development. The beta version of any game would be obsolete by the time it would be finished; waiting four years for the study results before being able to build version 2.0 – and waiting another four years for validation research – would be undoable.

While there is a solution to that problem, it requires researchers to start thinking in one-year projects. It’s possible, but that in turn means something in the organizational structure of research institutes needs to change. Another option is to help researchers tag along with game studios during the development process while using more evidence-based research methods. It may not be as prestigious in the world of science, but it would be of great help to game validation. Regardless, the games industry really wants to come to a solution. While we know that many applied games work, we don’t always know why and how they work; something for which scientific help would be greatly appreciated.

Fortunately, science is there to lend a hand. For example, NWO, the Dutch government organization responsible for financing research, is investing in a study on persuasive game design for online treatments in addiction care. How can you develop games in such a way that they stimulate people to change their behavior – preferably for good? Although Ranj Serious Games is involved in that study (as are the Delft University of Technology and the University of Amsterdam), it’s not specifically tied to a single game. This study is not to be confused with research on game addiction such as is being done at the University of Amsterdam; those are effect studies originating from within the division of social sciences.

Similar research is being done at the University of Twente, where in-game characters are taught intelligent “human” behavior, allowing police officers to improve their social skills within a game environment. LOITER, developed especially for that purpose, features “virtual suspects” who react more strongly than in-game characters usually would. Incidentally, the University of Twente isn’t the only university studying the artificial intelligence of non-playable characters; the University of Tilburg is currently focusing on the same subject.

This type of research revolves around games-related computer technology, an area in which the Netherlands is starting to build quite the reputation. Researchers at Utrecht University study digital simulations of crowds: how do you make a group of avatars look realistic while moving? Other researchers focus on the space the crowds move through: automated game design is all about intelligent software generating levels by itself, thereby decreasing the costs for game development.

Meanwhile, TU Delft researchers focused purely on computer graphics and visualizations, combining research on human perception with software development. The premise is that by understanding how we see, games could be using less images per second. That means less computing would be necessary, which leaves game developers with more space to use for other features. Delft has built several of these software packages, which have proven popular with game engine owners: their technology is featured in the Unreal engine as well as Unity.

If you look at it in broad strokes, it would seem that the collaboration between Dutch industry and science is going well. That’s true for the most part, but there are still things to be improved. Research funding is often granted to the validation of applied games and applicable technological research. While that’s not a bad thing in itself, there is an obvious lack of attention when it comes to researching the economic and cultural role videogames play in our society. Who are these gamers, exactly? Why do we play games? And, equally important – especially for a Dutch industry that still has to work on this – how is money being made from games now and in the future?

Another important consideration is the fact that game companies are sometimes asked to contribute to the financing for certain research constructions. This can be a particular problem for smaller studios, who may have to choose between investing in research or in new computers. Some studios are so popular among researchers that they find themselves to be the subject of excessive demand, and have to turn down new projects.

Regardless of issues like these, knowledge institutes provide an important addition to the efforts of game studios. Structurally seeking out scientists and education facilities is a good way for everyone to maintain a fresh perspective. What has proven to work in this young industry, and why? In today’s society, games are not always seen as the interesting medium they are: if you ask the public, they’re still regarded as mere entertainment for teenage boys. However, this view could be changed through scientific validation of the effect of games, technological and scientific insights regarding hardware and software, and economically verifiable revenue models. Games are a young and innovative medium, and there’s lots of growth potential. In order to reach that potential and combat the lack of understanding in today’s society, collaboration with science is key.