Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Teacher and a Showman

Can Teachers make successful games? Are talented teachers also natural born game designers? Read on to find out how a small team of dedicated developers is challenging conventions and turning the multi-billion dollar serious games industry on its head.

Game development is a huge business with audience counts in millions, huge budgets and large specialized teams. From the Fifa world cup to Angry Birds to Plants and Zombies Game designers are free to work with topics that excite and intrigue their audiences.

Teachers on the other hand usually work with 15 to 30 students on a subject, alone, through a year and have to prepare their own material within the narrow confines of the syllabus prescribed. There is usually no budget to speak of and a lot of performance pressure.

Even though both Game designers and Teachers alike have to go through years of training in their respective fields and require loads of passion, talent and dedication the two professions seem to have little else in common.

Playware Studios a small Singapore based company asserts otherwise.

Playware Studios is a serious game developer who has released over 50 games for primary, secondary, tertiary and adult education over the last 8 years. Themselves completely sold on the need for change in education they have been part of innovative projects such as the Future Schools@ Singapore and the Classroom of the Future.

According to Playware ‘Teachers making games’ is not just a good idea it’s the only way forward.

Playware’s Creative Director Siddharth Jain says: “While Game designers focus on ‘fun’ and Teachers have to focus on ‘learning’ the common denominator is engagement. Both ‘fun’ and ‘learning’ can happen only when a person is engaged and anything that is engaging can be ‘fun’ especially if it is ‘learning’.”

He explains how we have ‘fun’ playing games; “Games essentially take us up along a learning curve in a safe environment, in this cycle we see a new skill, test ourselves against that skill, practice and get better enough to feel a sense of mastery over that skill, once we demonstrate mastery over a skill a new skill is presented to us. Our brain rewards us with the release of a ‘feel good’ endorphin called dopamine every time we gain mastery over a new skill. Thus ‘learning’ is an integral part of the ‘fun’ in games.”

He recounts the ‘eureka moment’ for him 3 years ago “I was beginning to explain game design to a group of teachers at a workshop at the Centre for Learning Innovation in Sydney, Australia. I started with explaining how game designers must make and maintain a meaningful connection with an audience that could be doing something else with their time. When I looked at my audience and suddenly realized that’s exactly what teachers need to do too.”

When he shared this insight with his team back in Singapore there was a lot of excitement and debate about the practicality of teachers designing games. One big question was that game designers work with teams of artists, musicians and programmers to make their designs into playable games. Such collaborations mean money and time, two commodities teachers are notoriously short on.

These discussions lead to another startling conviction. The team at Playware came to the conclusion that the serious games industry, as they knew it, was inherently flawed. Serious collaborations between the education and entertainment professionals meant big budgets and long and iterative schedules where the development would need to go back and forth. Such ballooning of cost often results in games becoming an irrational teaching tool despite their proven efficiency as a learning aid.

This gave birth to the idea of 3DHive, a rapid prototyping tool that let teachers create their own games and virtual worlds without the need for sourcing art, music or programming. Playware created large thematic libraries of digital assets that teachers could use in their games and virtual worlds free of any copyright restrictions.

They even invented and patented a new system that let teacher’s host these games online on a cloud as needed without the need of an agency to provide setup and install services.

Siddharth gets very excited when he talks about 3DHive; “My economics teacher back in university would freak” he grins “We spent millions of dollars creating this thing and then we gave the tool and the libraries away to teachers for free, we don’t charge copyrights or license fees for anything and conduct free workshops and online tutorials to teach teachers how to basically do our job. We even provide an online hosting service for teachers that they can avail at simple hourly rates.”

Conversations about developing and hosting online games and virtual worlds for learning that used to start with budgets ranging between a few hundred thousand to a couple of million dollars now mean a few tens of dollars.

Siddharth says “You can’t change the world if you like it the way it is, With a month still to go before the official release of our platform we already have over 400 teachers using our system to make games, while some may see this as 400 ideas that could have been projects for our industry, we see it as four hundred games-for-learning that would likely never be made without our tool.”

Playware is announcing the official global launch of their 3D Hive Platform in the BETT 2012 show in London. Teachers can download the free game creation tools and libraries once they register on the portal.

To find out more about 3DHive go to Playware’s website

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