René Magritte - The Son of Man 

gamescom 2016 in Cologne. © Koelnmesse GmbH, Photo: Oliver Wachenfeld

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“Everything we see hides another thing, we always want to see what is hidden by what we see. There is an interest in that which is hidden and which the visible does not show us. This interest can take the form of a quite intense feeling, a sort of conflict, one might say, between the visible that is hidden and the visible that is present.”

(René Magritte on The Son of Man)

We have always played with reality. We have exaggerated it, interpreted it, twisted it, distorted it. Surrealism was originally a literary movement, founded in Paris in the 1930s by Dadaists, but quickly identified as being more easily expressed visually rather than in words.

We have always admired and been afraid of those who play with reality. These people have down the ages been at the artistic, creative edges of our society, interpreting things in crazy perspectives that up till now, never really had any relevant impact on the real life of the society of their time. Taking the form primarily of art or music, these sometimes dramatic interpretations of reality have in the past caused us to discuss in primarily high-brow terms the relevance of, for example, molten watches draped across fantastical, dream-like shapes set in an arid landscape, painted by Salvador Dalí, the famous surrealist. Their languidly fluid form is said to have been inspired by Dalí observing camembert cheese going runny under a hot sun. And everyone knew how crazy Dalí was, so no-one was surprised about his strange and anachronistic visions – it was safe to speculate what drove him to put them on canvas for all to see.

But what about the sanity of those who are creating visions for us today that affect the way we interact with our own world? And what about our own sanity once we adopt those intensively interactive visions? We can no longer stand aside and allow these creations to pass us by, then return to what we were doing: shopping, filling the car with petrol, studying for exams, going on holiday, reading a book, buying furniture, taking our medication, having an operation, having sex – there will be no single area of our lives which will not be affected in some way or another by these alternative realities.

Are we all going to be starting to live our lives in the midst of those “Realities” – in an era where “alternative facts” are claimed by the highest possible office in a country that has always been the leader of the Western world as being just as valuable and credible as what we could actually see with our own eyes (viz. those white patches of space at Trump's inauguration ceremony). Orwell’s 1984 springs readily to mind. A thing is not necessarily true simply because someone claims it to be. Or is it?

It is a point worth noting that, if the human brain, whose plasticity is a scientific fact, is capable of being altered by the ways in which we use it, what will Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality do to the shape, volume, capacity and topography of our brains by the end of the 21st century? It has already been observed in a study carried out at the Mayo Clinic that texting changes the rhythm of our brain waves (although not the reason why). The key to charting these changes – calculating, managing and perhaps influencing them – is for us to consider embarking upon the serious construction of alternate realities as we rise from the trough of disappointment into the slope of Enlightenment, as Gartner calls the curved journey along which technological discovery inevitably travels – not in random forays, but in a purposeful, responsible direction. And to ensure that it is accompanied by the utmost vigilance. For we are changing the ways we interact with the world around us, we are on the brink of redefining what it means to be human on this planet. This cannot be seen as being anything less than a monumental shift in our development as human beings.

And the games industry is one of the significant drivers of this shift. The games industry has been training and developing people who understand the nature of combining a multiplicity of experiences in order to achieve certain behavioural and emotional outcomes. The games industry has at the least a responsibility to ensure that they strive for the best. The effort required will be monumental - measured both in time and money. Creating excellence never came cheap and it will not be so now. But we cannot rest easy in the assumption that others will lead the way because they have more resources to fund the creation of excellence. In Germany the advantage is that there is a tradition of tremendous focus and precision that is driven by language and the way Germans think. This should be drawn upon here and now, to use whatever leverage can be found within the ranks of the games industry at all levels and in all areas to ensure that it gains traction, that it is accepted and funded by government authorities and entrepreneurs alike. It is time for the German games industry to take up a position in the vanguard of technological development and narrative brilliance in the world, and work towards earning full recognition both at home and abroad. 

© Susan Tackenberg, Frankfurt, 2017


gamescom – “The Heart of Gaming” is back in Cologne this August.

gamescom 2017, the world’s largest games show, is back. With over 900 exhibitors from all over the world, and a truly spectacular range of events throughout the week, this massive 360° demonstration of the multifaceted nature of the games industry is proof positive that when they really want to have fun, the industry has to get together – and Cologne in August is the place to do it.

Styled as even more important than E3, gamescom opens its doors to trade visitors on Tuesday 22nd August 2017, with the public access days running from August 23rd – 26th. However, gamescom is a whole lot more than just fun. It’s a top platform for doing business in the games industry, as well as a source of updated information for games developers and industry professionals. Under the motto “More than Games”, the gamescom congress will provide an opportunity for attendees to hear and talk to experts from across the spectrum of industry, education and politics. Opening day on August 22nd will see a debate between representatives of Germany’s major political parties in the so-called “election campaign arena” – a first for gamescom. They will be discussing not only the relevance of the games industry as the incubator and hub of the technologies that have brought new business models to traditional industries but also the challenges faced by all the stakeholders in an increasingly digitized world.

This year, the prestigious new event devcom will take place during gamescom week. Overlapping and interconnected with gamescom, devcom is a 5-day umbrella framework for a series of top class events focused on the games industry business. Among these, devcom will field the devcom developer conference. Aimed at senior games industry professionals, long-established companies, developers and managers, this business-focused conference has attracted some of the top speakers from the global industry. With a business and matchmaking area, conference and keynote rooms, the devcom developer conference provides a great place to do business and exchange professional know-how. Another feature is the devcom developer lounge, providing an area for top-level networking and in-depth meetings, with workshop rooms for devcom master classes, tutorials and summits. devcom will also host the official gamescom keynotes, bringing to the floor the most topical issues of the industry, and the experts who will provide insights into their special expertise. This promises to be a valuable addition to the array of opportunities offered to devcom attendees to keep a finger on the pulse of the games industry and stay ahead of the curve.

Another feature of gamescom 2017 is the Indie Arena Booth. Held for the fifth time this year, it will comprise over 1000 m² of space and showcase exhibitors from around the world. Continuing its commitment to the younger generations of developers and industry participants, gamescom will this year be home to RESPAWN, which will take place under the devcom umbrella. Add SPOBIS Gaming and Media, a conference focusing on the fast-growing esports industry, and the gamescom City Festival, in which Cologne turns itself over to the international gaming fraternity, and it’s clear that gamescom 2017 is set to be a stellar mark on the global games calendar.

© Susan Tackenberg, Frankfurt


GDC Europe is a well-established feature on the international games world calendar: new concepts are fielded, trends are highlighted and the industry’s young hopefuls flock to rub shoulders with the leviathans. But in this fast-paced industry whose existence is focused on the virtual world, do these conference formats still work, and if so, why?

The program at GDC Europe in Cologne this year included some of the standard topics that upcoming game developers need to discover and internalize if they want to be part of the games industry anywhere in the world. Advice on how to create high-performance games for a wide variety of platforms, how to retain your users once you’ve attracted them, managing user-generated content and monetizing games is given by a range of experts - from first-gen pioneers whose wisdom derives from their early mistakes, to savvy next-gen industry heavyweights with trend-spotting instincts and the drive to create brilliant games. What they have in common is the ability to pass on their knowledge – and that’s worth gold to conference and congress organizers.

One thing GDC knows how to get right is the selection of top-quality speakers, and this year in Cologne was no exception. Ranging from experts on the market in China through top-tier speakers from major developers and publishers such as Rovio and Wargaming to thought-leaders from Amazon and Microsoft, the line-up was quietly confident in its ability to deliver. GDC also has a knack of plugging into what’s trending in the video and computer game world, and incorporating it into the program and organization. This is what its worldwide community has come to expect, and GDC continues to deliver.

A good example of this was the session given on the last day by Karoliina Korppoo, lead designer at Colossal Order Ltd, the Finnish company responsible for developing Cities:Skylines. Korppoo spoke about the design philosophy behind the city-builder game that has been hailed as being even better than the iconic game in the genre, SimCity, first published way back in 1989. In short, she says, you need to teach your players gently how best to play the game, rather than punish them for not being able to play it. A player’s failure to create the kind of city they wish to is punishment enough. As to the reason for choosing PC over mobile for the game, Korppoo pointed out that not only is the kind of city-development play in Skylines not supported adequately by mobile platforms, but also, the studio made a conscious decision to stick to their development strengths. The main takeaway from the session was clearly, make your decisions based on common sense, and don’t always feel you have to run with the pack.

On the industry’s increasingly problematic subject of funding, Jason Della Rocca, affable industry eminence gris and a ubiquitous presence at games events around the world, had some words of advice for indies on the lookout for finance. With hundreds of creative ideas chasing every investment dollar, his tips on how to attract investment and what type of investors they should be looking for were eagerly absorbed by the audience. The chance to get up close to these industry wise men and have them answer specific questions charges the atmosphere in these sessions with energy: there’s something compelling about standing vis á vis someone whose games you’ve admired and played, or whose books and articles have underpinned your knowledge to date, and know that right now, they’re talking to you.

At the trending front and held for the first time this year was an event partnered by GDC, gamescom and the Koelnmesse: Women in Tech Day. The workshop was attended by some of the leading women in the business worldwide. Tanya Woods of the Entertainment Software Association of Canada and Kate Edwards, head of the International Game Developers Association led the day, and their insights from North America were an inspiration for the primarily European-based audience. On the home front, German State Secretary at the Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, Dorothee Bär – herself a keen gamer – made some interesting observations regarding all-female versus mixed working teams. An early failure in team member selection based on gender was greeted with laughs, and during the workshop sessions after the talks, it was generally agreed that teams composed of members with a good mix of diverse skill sets, regardless of their gender, were much more likely to be successful. However, the need for more women to be attracted to STEM studies and careers was also highlighted – a trend worth following up in the future.

Another great GDC feature is its website. A clear, uncluttered layout gives a good overview of the various tracks and formats, as well as the speakers, and the Session Scheduler is a useful tool for visitors to plan their personal schedule in advance. This is something that many other conferences and shows often just can’t seem to get right, but it makes a big difference to those who really want to get their money’s worth from the event from the moment they pass through the turnstile.

So, clearly, there is space in the real word for the exchange of knowledge and discussion fueled by the physical presence of speakers and conference attendees. And as long as each new generation of game developers needs a reliable, top quality source of information about how to make better games and how to make games better, GDC will continue to be the go-to venue. And Cologne is already looking forward to hosting the next GDC Europe in August 2016. See you there.

© Susan Tackenberg, August 2015 

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A study published in 2012 by the pedagogic psychology department of the University of Würzburg has demonstrated that playing computer games actually makes children smarter. Quantitatively measurable improvements in IQ were shown for the group of children who were given a strategic game to play for a period of six weeks that encouraged logical thinking. The IQ of the children who did not play the game, however, remained the same. Moreover, an independent study by the Berlin Charité university hospital came to the same conclusion, using a slightly broader set of parameters. In a Europe-wide test of over 150 young people drawn from a variety of social and educational backgrounds, it was proven that children who played computer games for more than nine hours a week had better attentive memory faculties and improved strategic thinking abilities than children who played fewer games for fewer hours. The corresponding brain structures in game-playing children were noticeably larger, the “reward” system was better developed, and they had a larger brain capacity overall than the average.

Whether these results might have been achieved by kids playing FPS games (First Person Shooters) is open to speculation. FPS games are, of course, widely held to be at the root of school and university shooting incidents where gun-toting youngsters run amok, shooting at everyone in sight – thereby, critics claim, replicating the actions they are trained to take in ‘evil’ computer games. But let us not forget that these vociferous critics appear to ignore the example set by the film industry: although a vast range of films is produced, from art films to pornography, the industry itself is rarely held to account for the behavior of serial rapists or other criminals who watch an undiluted diet of porno movies, gangster flicks or the like. Increased interactivity on the games side is held to be one key factor, however there is no conclusive proof that the link is causal.

Consider what has happened to society as a whole in more or less a single generation. Only a few short decades ago, we youngsters would sit quietly somewhere, laboriously finish our homework with a leaky biro, then cycle to the park to hang out in little groups with the other local kids. We’d crack open pine nuts with our teeth, spinning stories of adventure and conquest, imaginary or otherwise, and fantasize about star radio personalities – and be hopelessly disappointed when we finally clapped eyes on them. Today, kids rush home from school, umbilically attached to decibel input of some kind by those trademark white headphones, and throw themselves down in front of their computers. They pick up and complete their homework assignments online and then resume playing an MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game) at the appointed time with people from halfway across the world who they have never met in the flesh – and quite likely wouldn’t want to. These kids pick up their smartphones, with more features than you’d think anyone could possibly need, and happily ‘tweet’ and ‘poke’ famous movie stars, knowing that in all likelihood they will probably be ‘tweeted’ and ‘poked’ back. They are connected. They multitask. They iReport for CNN. They think in multilevel, non-linear mind maps. There is no going back.

So let us take a closer look at the games industry and how it is responding to the fact that games are changing the shape of our brains. In fact, an entire division has sprung up in the games industry that seeks to tap into this effect. These games are devoted to the improvement of creative, strategic and other thinking abilities, as well as attitudinal change, protocol and familiarization training, and improving the fine-grid motor skills of players. Designed especially to incorporate both game-play elements and information or educational content, these games have been somewhat loosely and rather carelessly grouped together under various generic labels, none of which is a particularly happy description of the genre: serious games, issue-driven games, virtual simulated interactive environments, edutainment and so on. For now, at least, the games industry seems to have settled on Serious Games, which is frequently more confusing than it is enlightening, and has attracted no little criticism even among developers in the industry sector itself.

There’s no doubt that harnessing the power of computer or video games in the interests of education, training, long-term disease management or any of the numerous worthy applications is an excellent concept, and has already proven to be extremely effective in countless cases. However, industry veteran, Chris Deering, believes that there is a risk that the very label “Serious Games” may well prove to be a barrier to this sector of the games industry achieving its full market potential. “Why not call it “Entertainment Plus?” he quips, “or Games Beyond Entertainment?” And indeed, which player wants to play a game whose very label makes it sound boring and well intentioned? If gamers don’t voluntarily buy and play so-called Serious Games, but are only ever given them to play by a possible future employer, therapist or university lecturer as part of a program or curriculum, development in this field will end up primarily as ‘work for hire’, funded by self-interested organizations or bodies, and the creative spark that lies at the core of any successful game will largely be extinguished.

But as in all things “serious”, a game that seeks to convey information of some kind must in fact be shown to do what it says on the box. Whether the game is designed to treat soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, help diabetic children make wise nutritional choices, or support dementia patients and their carers in the management of their disease, it must demonstrably and certifiably deliver on outcome expectations, as well as meet the player’s ‘need’ to enjoy the gaming experience. But how can quality standards be guaranteed across such a wide range of areas of expertise and knowledge – from medical to defense, from education to human resource training and so on? One way is to establish a universally-recognized and authoritative academic institution. The Serious Games Institute in the UK, for instance, is allied to Coventry University and has built up a reputation over the years as an expert reference point. It is a game development incubator, project funding and support body, and a link between experts with applied academic skills and game developing companies who want to integrate this information into an exciting interactive game environment. It is definitely a model that could be followed in other countries around Europe, where advances in the sector are being made daily. However, political will must first be demonstrated in order for the finance to follow, and the industry in general – especially in Germany, one of the major players in the Serious Games sector – is still widely held to be highly controversial. It will take time for natural prejudice to be overcome, and for the long-lasting, beneficial impact of issue-driven games to be demonstrated – not to mention the economic boost that the development of this sector of the games industry will give to state coffers. According to the French research company, IDATE, the market for serious games has held steady through recent economic turbulence, and is expected to achieve a total market value of €15bn by 2015.

Despite these mouthwatering figures, it seems we may well have to wait for the new generation of smarter children who have grown up playing computer games to realize the full potential of Games Beyond Entertainment and their value to society. Meanwhile: anyone for Virtual Tennis 4?

© Susan Tackenberg