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NZGDC12: getting serious

Metia Interactive’s Maru Nihoniho and NHNZ/Runaway Play’s Tim Nixon presented sessions about serious gaming at the conference, one focused on e-therapy game SPARX, the other on the joys of the natural environment.

Set firmly at the serious end of serious gaming, SPARX has won a United Nations’ World Summit Award in the e-Health and Environment category. The awards are, in the UN’s words, to “promote best practice in e-Content production and creativity in innovative Internet applications”.

Last month the game was featured on the cover of the highly-respected British Medical Journal, which stated

Adolescents suffering from depression can benefit just as much from specialised computer therapy as they do from one-to-one therapy with a clinician, a study published on bmj.com finds.

Nihoniho worked with a team headed by Assoc Prof Sally Merry from The University of Auckland, creating the game with funding from the Ministry of Health.

SPARX is an animated 3D game where users learn real-life skills by solving challenges to rid a fantasy world from gloom and negativity. Culturally-relevant elements have been incorporated into the game world to ensure the programme has wide cultural acceptability.

The seven-level game is based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, a form of psychotherapy that emphasis the important role of thinking positively. It was designed to be played over a period of seven weeks, and the lessons learned tested in the real world in between, which mirrors conventional treatment for depression.

Data is captured during the game which can be made available to clinicians if necessary and, depending on how a player is responding within the game, the game can stop and offer the player the suggestion they see a counsellor.

The BMJ reported the trials of the game in some detail. Without going too deep, SPARX was assessed as being as effective as usual care in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety by at least a third. More significantly, a higher number of people in the SPARX test group recovered completely (44%) compared with 26% in conventional care.

The game was developed as a NZ-specific tool, incorporating a range of culturally-specific elements, although since its release the University of Auckland has received enquiries from the UK and Australia about localising it for other countries.

At the less serious end of serious gaming, Tim Nixon enthused and inspired during his Better Living Through Games presentation.

Runaway Play is now two and a half years old, set up by NHNZ to support its programming and to offer the opportunity ona different platform to engage with and, hopefully, become inspired about the natural environment.

Nixon suggested the serious games arena was a continuum, from “hard simulation” (dry, curriculum-based) through “tools” (eg Zombies Run, “get your exercise wrapped in a narrative of a zombie holocaust”) and “setting” (eg Civilization and Assassin’s Creed, both set in realworld historical environments and feeding players a certain amount of factual information about those settings) to “parable” (using completely fictional environments to relate a realworld concept, eg Mass Effect).

He positioned Runaway’s work in the “setting” segment of the continuum, with the company created in the belief that connecting with the real world gives a game substance. Since NHNZ’s work is more-or-less 100% based on the natural environment, that gave Runaway solid ground on which to build. “Know what your niche market is and stick to it.”

Nixon offered up two of Runaway’s games, Flutter and Howling Mouse, as examples of the approach.

Flutter was originally launched as a Facebook game, although it was taken down at the end of last year and now is being developed and expanded for Android and iOS iterations.

About butterflies, Nixon was clear it was “not trying to make an educational game for the school curriculum” but “all the creatures are as they are in the real world. We want to entertain and people to enjoy [the game] and learn along the way.”

During its life on Facebook, Runaway ran promotions to incentivise engagement, including a deal with a realworld butterfly house, a visit to which would unlock a particular species in the game, and a much larger project with the World Wildlife Fund.

Through the WWF, Runaway hooked up with an African organisation trying to harvest brazil nuts in a sustainable manner but with poor quality storage facilities which were causing nuts to spoil.

The Flutter campaign committed NHNZ to funding new storage huts for the organisation if players collectively hit an ingame purchase target. They did, which was a positive outcome for Runaway and the brazil nut gatherers, but also for the game’s community who were “rewarded” for playing the game online with a positive realworld outcome.

The second game was Howling Mouse, about a freaky little critter, which again met the standard of accurately representing the environment and its inhabitants. Developed with National Geographic, it’s straight to iOS and available here.

Nixon concluded with the observation that Runaway wants people to care about and feel a sense of responsibility for the natural world from its games, and that sense of purpose – to drive a particular set of feelings or responses in players – was at the core of all successful games.

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