Gamers grab a hold of future
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Oct 09, 2013  |  Vote 0    0

Gamers grab a hold of future

Stratford Gazette

Jeff Heuchert

In 2011, a self-organized group of gamers playing an online 3D puzzle game called Foldit discovered the structure of a key protein in the development of AIDS that for a decade had baffled scientific researchers. By manipulating virtual proteins on a computer screen, Foldit players have also made breakthroughs in cancer and Alzheimer’s research.

These are examples of gamification, which simply stated is the process of using game design elements and mechanics in non-game contexts, like the areas of health care, education, financial services, entertainment and retail.

A first-of-its-kind conference in Stratford last week, hosted at the University of Waterloo Stratford campus, further explored this emerging field and helped bridge academic research and business opportunity like never before. Over three days, Oct. 2-4, participants of all ages were exposed to the latest on gamification through academic presentations, hands-on workshops, and demonstrations of successful initiatives.

“I’m astounded by all the positive feedback we’ve had,” Lennart Nacke of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and one of the event’s co-chairs, said Friday as programming wrapped up. “Everyone’s really excited. I’ve been to a lot of conferences, and I’m very happy with how everything went.”

As gamification continues to emerge and is used more widely, Nacke said it’s important young designers are given the tools and knowledge to compete. That means understanding the direction the industry is heading and what they need to do to ensure their products make it to market.

“We want to create designers who are building these toys and playful actions that we can all engage in,” Nacke added.  “And these people (at the conference) need to talk to each other so we can find out how to do it the best way. That was the heart of this conference, and I think that happened these last three days.”

There was no shortage of interest for the local conference, the first to fully explore the gamification concept from all points of view. According to Beth Cotter, manager of the Waterloo Stratford Campus Centre of Excellence in Commercialization and Research, 175 people registered – the maximum intake the university could accommodate – from seven countries, including Australia, Germany, Norway, and the United States.

The demand speaks to just how all-encompassing gamification is becoming, she suggested, pointing to the presentation by Carol Leaman of Axonify, a company that assists organizations to deliver corporate training, as a prime example. The company had developed a platform that incorporates a rewards system and social elements, as well as tools to measure employee growth, for a more dynamic and engaging – and effective – experience.

“(Gamification) is about building engaging information for a multitude of industries,” Cotter said. “And that’s the crux of this conference – to develop ideas and than the industry can implement them.”

The Stratford campus offers both its graduate and undergraduate students programming that explores gamification as well as user experience, or UX,  a concept that involves a person’s attitude and emotions when using a particular product or system.

A recent graduate of the school’s Master of Digital Experience Innovation program, Laura Thurston returned to Stratford from her home in Toronto looking to take advantage of the many networking possibilities. With a passion for digital media, particularly how it applies to social media engagement, she said the three-day conference gave her much to think about in terms of where the industry is heading.

“I’m a big gamer, so the idea of using some of those elements that I enjoy and find addictive more vocationally appeals to me, “ she noted.

The same could be said for Zachary Fitz-Walter, a phD student from Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia who has developed a learner logbook smartphone app for driver training. The product, which was awarded top game design by a panel of experts at the conference, incorporates game elements to encourage learners to undertake a wider range of practices like parallel parking and driving in the rain, while also making it easier to record their mandatory in-car hours. The application has been rolled out to 25 learner drivers, and Fitz-Walter was going to begin analyzing their feedback upon his return from the conference.

Having benefited himself from industry funding for his research, Fitz-Walter said the conference was a big step in the right direction.

“There are quite a few academics here who are just starting their phD or starting research in the area, so I think they are going to find the conference, especially the workshops, super valuable.”

On the Thursday, social game designer Amy Jo Kim, whose credits include Netflix, The Sims, and eBay, delivered a keynote presentation.

She talked about the importance of developers incorporating coopertaive elements into their games and products if they hope to compete with social media and other user-generated content occupying people’s time.

“It’s a shiftinig landscape, a scary time, but it’s also a time of huge opportunity,” she said.

“The fastest growing Facebook demographic is 55-plus. And these people are coming online and they’ve got disposable income and time on their hands,” she noted, adding at the same time 93 per cent of kids play games online.

Stratford campus executive director, Ginny Dybenko, speaking at the conference’s kick off,  suggested the three-day event would be “a terrific opportunity for academic researchers to rub shoulders with industry practitioners, entrepreneurs, students.”

She said she was looking forward to seeing what ideas developed, and welcomed participants to sit down with one of the two commercialization mentors that were made available throughout the conference. The university also has a new online resource called CommerceLab, a social environment for sharing academic research and business opportunities in gamification, interactive displays and user experience that she encouraged people to visit.

Organizers of this year’s conference said they hope to return to Stratford in 2015.

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