At the beginning of the seminar, I posted a link to this blog for the DA Upper School faculty and student body, inviting them to follow the experience and post comments for our consideration.  Amy Knowles, DA math teacher, gave voice to the skepticism that many (especially adults) feel about the world of gaming:

I look forward to being convinced that game companies are not just out to make as much money as possible. True, they get people who are passionate about these games to work for them, and these artists create games they love, but ultimately, the industry is about the economics of addiction, no? Will any of the speakers address the marketing/financial aspects of the industry?

When we were at NCSU, I asked Michael Young (computer science professor and director of the Digital Games Research Center) how he would respond.  There was only time for a brief conversation at the time, but today he sent the following reflection on the topic:

I think in the past, games were designed often with a thin veil of play wrapped over a Prof Michael Young of NCSUstimulus/reward system that could be characterized (or mis-characterized) by some as addictive.  The design of games 30 years ago was often narrow in scope and focused on a small market of consumers that would be satisfied with that type of immediate stimulus/reward style of play.  It was simple to create those games, and so the demand, coupled with the low cost of production for these games, increased the number of games of that type in the market.

I think it would be a mistake to look at those kinds of games and their significance to the games “population” from 20+ years ago and suggest that  that kind of game is the only kind of game that could ever exist.  To say that games as a class are based only on stimulus/reward systems is to characterize games in a monolithic way that misses much of their character.  Further, to characterize stimulus and reward systems as inherently limited, bad, addictive, etc, is also unreasonable.  As we know from the classroom, stimulus and reward systems can be an excellent way to foster human learning, as one counter-example.

Games today are produced in a broader context, with a broader market, and with more expressive technologies.  As games have matured, their expressive capabilities as a medium have also expanded.  Yes, many games make use of stimulus/reward systems at their core.  Those that do so, though, often link them to behaviors and rewards that are inherently positive socially.  The rewards system is often just one part of the story for how a game engages and functions, and the reward system is melted into a mesh of values like play, fun, social interaction, puzzle solving, story, physical activity and other key features that share prominence and responsibility for a player’s eagerness to return to play the game moment to moment.

Two types of game come to mind as indicators of how far from the 70’s and 80’s we have come in terms of expanding the -meaning- of games.  One type of games are those that are often labeled games of rhetoric.  These games are designed to hold meaning in relation to some real world concepts or beliefs and attempt through the play structures in the games to prompt reflection on the meaning of their real world correlates.  A good example is the game Airport Security, in which players have to navigate TSA checkpoints dealing with apparently arbitrary and illogical sets of rules about what can and cannot be carried through a checkpoint.  A more pointed example is a game (whose name I’ve forgotten right now) in which you play the role of a US soldier responsible for dropping bombs on an Iraqi village where villagers are being transformed into terrorists.  Play requires you to make choices about attacks that invariably incur collateral damage, killing innocents.  The mourners of the innocents eventually turn to the process of becoming terrorists themselves because of the player’s actions.  The intent in the design is to illuminate the  cycle of violence between oppressor and oppressed and the ambiguity of war.  Whether or not you agree with the rhetorical stance of the game’s designer, the game very clearly is serving as a rhetorical work.

Another class of game that has very interesting meaning is one I have a hard time naming.  Its exemplified by games made by a game company called  For instance, in one game called That Cloud Game, you play a child who flies from cloud to cloud, collecting clouds in the sky into patterns.  Another game, called Journey, from the same company.  Here’s what the Journey creators say about the game:

Journey gameJourney is an interactive parable, an anonymous online adventure to experience a person’s life passage and their intersections with other’s.

You wake alone and surrounded by miles of burning, sprawling desert, and soon discover the looming mountaintop which is your goal.

Faced with rolling sand dunes, age-old ruins, caves and howling winds, your passage will not be an easy one. The goal is to get to the mountaintop, but the experience is discovering who you are, what this place is, and what is your purpose.

Travel and explore this ancient, mysterious world alone, or with a stranger you meet along the way. Soar above ruins and glide across sands as you discover the secrets of a forgotten civilization.

Featuring stunning visuals, haunting music, and unique online gameplay, Journey delivers an experience like no other.

While this game may sound like a fringe, uninteresting game, Journey, released just a month or so ago, was the fastest selling game of all time on the Sony Playstation Store.  It has a metacritic score of 92 out of 100, based on 66 critical reviews.

I think that many many games still reflect a core design that is relatively shallow when you move outside the action/shooting stimulus/reward cycle.  But the same can be said about film.  Just as one wouldn’t say that film was inherently shallow because of John Carter of Mars, I would suggest that people that looked at games in the 80s and 90s and saw things they felt were shallow, simplistic and exploitive look now at the real range of games being made.  Some of them are starting to demonstrate the true capacity for games as an expressive medium to carry meaning.

Student Reflections, Day 2

More comments written on the bus ride back to school:

I can’t believe we got to try out the new Tom Clancy game that hasn’t even come out yet. It was so cool to not only get hands on with it, but also to see everything that went into making it. –Alex Flores-Burgess


We went to NC State’s Computer Science building and to Red Storm entertainment today and both experiences were amazing in their own regards. The CSC program at NC State was more serious and was centered around the technical aspects of video game production; seeing Red Storm was pure fun. They explained different job positions in making video games and we even got to play the unreleased Ghost Recon: Future Soldier. Seeing how complicated all these aspects of game production makes me even more interested in graphical and technical design. – Tommy Monson


Exhilarating. Fascinating. Breath-taking.  These are all words which come to mind when I make a vain attempt to sum up this awe inspiring journey.  As fellow hajj member Kimari Jones stated, “And to think I once thought females were more important than video games.”  Lifelong friends including my pal ‘Clance’ and my bud Ubi showed me the true meaning of life and why we as humans were placed on this Earth.  No longer will I live my life as a mere tumbleweed; from this day forward I pledge to be an active member of the gaming society and am willing to pledge to the Priesthood if it means getting to know games better.  Eat Your Vegetables. – Peter Fox


These past two days have been absolutely intruiging for me. From Duke’s Immersive Virtual Enviorment to playing Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, this trip has been fun all the way through. What’s better is the people I travelled with, from varying grades to knowledge about gaming it truly showed how gaming can bring together differences. Originally not interested until a friend told me about the Seminar, I had no idea what to expect. I thought it might be fun, but I was wrong, it was excellent. I looked forward to every day. It has been a great trip. D-money – Kimari Jones


These past two days have really been an eye opening experience as a non-gamer. I never knew that North Carolina was such an attractive place for the video game industry. I especially enjoyed today because I could see the actual mechanics of the artwork and graphic design. The sheer ingenuity that it takes to create countless frames of the nuances and details of characters and objects are astounding. It really is an interesting take on what I never really considered ‘art’.  From the eccentric teachers to the laidback programmers all encompassed a culture that will soon be playing an powerful role in our future. Thanks for an amazing seminar. – Rodnei


Coming into this seminar I had no previous experience with gaming or programming. I only had my curiousity to learn more, and learn more I did. The first day at Virtual Heroes I learned that video games can often serve a larger purpose than just for entertainment. We discovered a game to promote aids awareness in Africa and a game to teach nurses how to properly inject people with medicines. At the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment, I had an exciting time learning just how immersive technology can be and the different uses of virutal reality for things such as architechural design and art history studies. The highlight of the seminar for me was when were were able to discover more of the artistic genius behind these games. The type of work programers, artists, and animators put into making these games realistic is incredible. At Red Storm we were able to see the process of making and animating characters. It was interesting–something I never realized was so difficult. The amount of detail that goes into these games is incredible.  After this seminar I have a much better sense the work that is put into video games. – Nora Ghanem


Today’s Gaming News

It turns out there’s a use for Angry Birds after all! See this article about a Sydney science teacher.

On April 3-4, people around the world are playing Catalysts for Change: A Game To Discover Paths out of Poverty.

“Complex systems like the global economy have leverage points where a little insight, action, or power can be amplified to make an outsized difference. These are catalysts for change. A catalyst might be new evidence, like real-time detection of an emerging epidemic. Or it might be a new capacity, such as a low-fee ambulance service. New rules, too, can catalyze change, like new rules for tracking earnings across national borders to provide comprehensive worker’s insurance. The most powerful catalyst for change? A new story.” 


Student Responses to the Day

Since we were guests at Duke and Virtual Heroes today, we didn’t have wifi access.  On the bus riding back to school, students passed around my laptop and recorded these thoughts for me to paste into the blog:

Addy Bollerslev:

It was really interesting to see game development from the inside out. The two things that really stood out were the time it takes to create every small detail of the games and the way developers had to look ahead when making games.


Elayne Wang:

The presentation at Virtual heroes was very informative. I came into this seminar knowing little about how games were actually made. After today I have a great insight into how much effort goes into each game. Art, design, programming, testing, I had a vague idea of all of this beforehand, but now I understand just how much effort and time goes into making a game.


Alina Walling:

I was amazed to see how much detail, time, and work went into making a video game. From the pores on skin to the complexity of a terrain brush that change a desert to an arctic tundra in just one swipe. The technologies are quite impressive. Also, I had no idea that certain video games were created in order to get a message across to communities. I knew that some were being created for education, but I wasn’t quite sure how. I had fun learning about what it means to be a “video game developer,” and it might be something I want to pursue later on.


Nick Sullivan:

It was an honor to be able to step inside the tank at Duke, because of the rarity it has contained.  The technology and time put into such an experiment was incredible and to see it all play out was an experience.  Going to Virtual Heroes was interesting seeing the background to games and the underlying meanings of many titles.


Naomi Lerner:

After today’s experience, I am even more thrilled that I decided to sign up for this seminar. The DIVE tank at Duke really gave a look into the future of technology and where it can bring us humans. But going to Virtual Heros was even more eye opening. Learning all about what people are doing today with gaming and how eductional and informative can be is something that I found inspiring. I am excited for tomorrow’s adventure.


Jared Anderson:

Although I was excited about taking part in the spring seminar, I was a little unsure about what to expect from it. But once we were doing hand’s on game design with Alice right from the beginning I knew it was going to be a lot of fun. The DIVE tank at Duke was just as awesome as I had expected and even more so because of the interactive ability between the human and the 3D world around you. It was so bunce. Finally, Virtual Heroes was a great way to wrap up the day, learning more of the background behind game design.


Kyle Pinheiro:

It was an exciting opportunity to experience the Duke DiVE. Virtual reality is something that I’ve always wanted to experience, and a curiosity I have had. Specifically, when I was wearing the special glasses, I found myself dodging virtual refrigerator doors swinging open. This new way of experiencing a simulation, as opposed to on a 2-dimensional screen, was intriguing, and will certainly provide a new way of thinking of what is possible for virtual simulation.


Opening Session – Creating a World in Alice

Astronauts are bouncing around on screens in DA Hock Center this morning.  Professor Susan Rodger from Duke is showing students how to program in the Alice language (named for Alice in Wonderland).

“This is easier than I thought” — Nick Sullivan

funky mushroom

“I’d done this before, but I never got in this deep” — Rodnei Crutchfield


There’s a lawn chair on the moon. An astronaut whose head flies off. Music playing in the astronaut’s humvee.  A dinosaur looming overhead.

The Value of Gaming

What makes gaming an appropriate topic for school or work?  We’ll no doubt discover many answers to that question in the next two days, but here’s a TED Talk that gives a pretty dramatic answer:  “Reality is broken,” says Jane McGonigal, “and we need to make it work more like a game.”

And here are a couple of interesting news items on the subject.

“Batman” blurring the line between fantasy & reality for the benefit sick children“‘Eventually, it sinks in and you become him,’ Batman told me. ‘It feels like I have a responsibility that’s beyond a normal person.'”  Batman logo

Paintballing with the Hezbollah gets a journalist into new territory

“Yes, I remind myself, this is really happening: Four Western journalists (two of whom alternated in and out of our rounds of four-on-four), plus one former Army Ranger-turned-counterinsurgency expert, are playing paintball with members of the Shiite militant group frequently described by US national security experts as the ‘A-Team of terrorism.'”


Getting Ready

Seminar Schedule

(for information about Seminar Purpose, see “About” page)

Mon, Apr 2 8:15
DA Hock Center
Brief intro
Prof. Susan Rodger: Alice Programming
10:00 minibus Depart for Duke, park at Gardens
10:30 Duke Duke immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE)
12:00 lunch, drive to Raleigh
1:00 visit to Virtual Heroes
2:30 discussion, wrap up, return to DA by 3:15
Tues, Apr 3 8:15
DA conference room
assemble, share responses and questions
8:30 minibus depart for NCSU
9:30 NCSU visit to NCSU Digital Games Research Center
with Mr. Michael Young
12:00 lunch
1:00 visit Red Storm Entertainment
2:00 return to DA, wrap up

View map of destinations