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Question: What new games or gaming technologies are you most excited about?

Katie Salen: I’m mostly excited, I think these days about kinds of technologies coming out called mixed reality technologies, sometimes they’re called hybrid technologies.  Mobile phones are part of this. We have a motion-capture lab at the school that allows kids to work with wireless controllers, like on the Wii.  So games that bleed between sort of physical activity, physical real world spaces and digital spaces, I’m really interested in this notion of getting the game off the screen and thinking about game play as a kind of lamination over top of real world kinds of physical spaces.  And I think technology is getting to a place where that blendedness is something that’s really possible today.  It used to be a very science fiction-y idea a couple of years ago.  People talked about alternative reality all the time, and you were wearing these giant headsets, VR headsets, and it just felt impossible that that could be fun. 

But technology has evolved to a point where you can now really think about game play being blended with physical kind of real world spaces.  And that to me is really exciting.  There’s also been a lot of work around artificial intelligence and sort of digital characters recognizing conversations with people and so again it gets into that blended notion about how do we allow digital characters to feel slightly more real than they do in this sort of purely fictional space and to me that’s a really interesting area to look at.  I tend to be more interested in this notion as playing games as part of the real world and that’s why the physical space ideas are really of interest to me.  And mobile phones are increasingly of interest as game platforms. 

The iPhone has changed everything I think in terms of thinking about digital games and game play and where games fit, who plays them, what those games might be like.  And that’s really exciting I think.

What interests you most about games?

The thing that interests me really about games is the social fabric component of it.  The fact that I am in this game with other people and my interactions with them can become increasingly interesting over time depending on whether they are a friend or foe in this space.  And so I’m very interested in games that catalyze many, many people to be playing together.  But maybe doing that... and alternate reality games sort of fit into this genre where I’m doing things in the real world, but also may begin to have effects in a kind of digital virtual world. 

So, I’m very interested in how, beyond the social, how data can flow between actions and the real world and actions in a game. There’s this whole new genre of games that have just popped up called exer-games that connect exercise to gaming.  And there are these ideas where you’re tracking how many steps people take and if powering up your Pokemon, there’s a little device called the Pokewalker that you can attach to your shoe, or carry with you and it’s like constantly powering up your video game characters.  And I’m really interested in that... the data flow between something, an activity I might be doing in the real world and some implication in a virtual environment, and also potentially vice versa. 

And so that’s more about notions of consequence and impact and how that might change social relations between who's in that game and what they’re doing together.

How do you explain the value of games to other people?

Well, generally I put someone in a game.  I play with them.  I think one of the reasons that there’s been a lot of criticism around games is there’s a lot of over the shoulder journalism going on when it comes to games.  So, it’s people that are standing over the shoulder of a player watching something that happening on the screen.  And when you just look at a game, you get a very different sense of what it’s really about than if you’re playing it. 

And so the first thing I always do is I take people out of that over-the-shoulder position and I actually put the controller in their hands.  So we might play together, play something together.  At the school, we have visitors all the time that come in that say, "Well, can you explain the school to me, can you explain the school to me?"  And I always take them to this motion capture lab that we have that we’ve designed games with teachers for the kids.  And I actually give them a controller and we play a game together. 

And once they’ve had that experience, they understand the model of the school and they understand what we’re trying to get at in terms of how the structure of the game can really lead to engaging and deep learning for kids.  So, that’s one thing.  You can’t just read about it.  Games are experiential things and it’s really important to play.

Recorded May 7, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman

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