03.07.12

Is there anything games can't do? Talk about death and tame the stars might be two.

Can games really do anything? That's been the messaging over the last year or so since the release of Jane Mcgonigal's Reality is Broken. But is that really so?

At a talk at today's Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, game designer Margaret Robertson outlined some of difficulties they faced around building a game for Carol Morley’s feature film Dreams of a Life. The film was the true story of a 38-year woman who death went unnoticed for more than three years. The challenge, however, was conveying that and proved quite difficult as the Robinson's team at Hide & Seek faced everything from shifting player emotions (some people want to be left alone) to the realities of dealing with a real but deceased human being as opposed to a composite or fiction. The final result was something that was not quite a game, but something on boundaries. You can see the final work here and Robertson plugged a real-world variant on title Would Anyone Miss You? that launches during SXSW.

This reality led Robertson to the more troubling revelation that perhaps games couldn't do certain types of things (or perhaps they weren't doing them well). A further example came from Hide & Seek's project for the Green Lantern film. One of the elements of campaign was an online star indentification "game" that had players find real green rings (formed after a star is born and explodes) and classify them. The activity gave physicists data based on the billions of satellite images in existence that have yet to catagorized.

But the problem, she said, was once they thought about turning the classification process into a game (such as the much-touted FoldIt project that led to a breakthrough on HIV ), the actual results would be garbage. Players would compete for points rather than actually identify young stars. The former is great for engagement, but the latter is terrible for science.

Robertson's honesty is welcome. Games can do a lot of things, but maybe there are some places they're just not meant to go.

-Jamin Warren