A new Civilisation and the Chief Game Wizard: highlights from Games for Change Festival

Sid Meier unveils his latest game and plans to develop game for the classroom and Magic Leap boss gives a rare talk about mixed reality

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 July, 2016, 6:01pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 July, 2016, 6:01pm

What do games designers do while they are not thinking of new ways to blow things up on screen? They work on how to make the world a better place, if the Games for Change Festival is anything to go by.

The festival, organised by New York-based Games for Change and co-sponsored by the powerful Entertainment Software Association, brought together more than 100 game designers and executives from around the US to discuss how gaming technology and gameplay could be put to use in diverse fields like education, health and science.

“We believe in the positive power that games can have beyond entertainment,” says Susanna Pollack, the president of Games for Change. “How far beyond is something that we hope to find out at the festival.” The festival took place June 23 and 24 at The New School campus in New York.

The star speaker at the event was Sid Meier, creator of the legendary Civilization strategy game. Civilization allows players to build empires by making military, political, and social decisions. One of the most influential games ever made, it has sold over 33 million copies worldwide since its debut in 1991. Meier, who was interviewed onstage by Pollack, gave some details of the forthcoming Civilization VI at the festival, and also announced that a version of the game was being developed to teach history in classrooms.

All ears were on Meier’s description of Civilization VI, the long-awaited update of the game which is finally due to be shipped on October 16. It was a challenge to come up with the sixth edition, Meier explains: “The problem we had was how do you come up with a game with the number ‘VI’ on it – a game that has already been understood and analysed to death by the community.

“We have a rule which we call the one-third/one-third/one-third rule. One third of Civ VI features the classic format that we know and love. One third features ideas that we tried in previous versions that we feel we can do better – we’re going to improve on some of the aspects of it,” says Meier.

“One third is going to be new things that we haven’t done before. We’re trying to keep our solid core of fans happy by making it a classic Civ game, but we have to introduce some new features while being true to that essence.”

Meier was happy to go into some details of the new game, noting that he and his team aimed to make the strategic gameplay more complex than in previous editions.

“One of the really transforming features of Civ VI is that we have now spread the city out into multiple autonomies. You can have a financial district, a scientific district, a military district, and the way you lay out your city in that way is significant.

“We’ve also changed how combat takes place, so the military part of the game has become more interesting.”

With its emphasis on the power and possibilities of humanity to shape its destiny, and its various historical scenarios, Civilization has always had the potential to educate as well as entertain. Meier chose the Games for Change festival to announce an educational version that could be used to teach history in schools.

“We will be working on a Civ educational product,” he says. “It will be designed for the educational market, for high schools. It’s an application that a lot of teachers have asked for.

“Many teachers have said that they wanted to use Civ in the classroom. But they needed these extra things give them the ability to teach. Some teachers have done this on their own, but we are making it easier with this release.”

The idea is to educate, but the gameplay is still important, and the game will still be fun, said Meier: “It’s about making your own story, as that is what Civ is always about.”

The game is a collaboration between Glass Lab Games, a company which brings educators and gaming companies together, and Civilization’s publisher Take-Two Interactive, and should be in classrooms by 2017.

Gaming technology, and the act of gameplay itself, are seen by members of the education community in the US – along with the US government – as the next step forward for digital learning in schools. The challenge is to make educational games that are as appealing to children as commercial games.

The old idea that educational software offers children the reward of a game for, say, completing a test correctly is now ridiculed in the industry – the aim is to integrate learning into the gameplay itself, and make the games fun.

Whether the results will be as fun as mixed reality, a platform that being touted as the successor to virtual reality before the latter has even properly arrived, remains to be seen.

Mixed reality is the brainchild of Magic Leap, a highly secretive Florida-based tech company who recently raised US$800 million in investment in February (Alibaba, which owns SCMP, led the investment).

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Magic Leap has revealed little about its mixed reality invention, and most of the published information has been the result of speculation, a YouTube video, and a single article in US tech magazine Wired.

So it was a coup for Games for Change to secure Graeme Devine, Magic Leap’s British-born “Chief Game Wizard” to give a presentation about the company. In his 40-minute speech, delivered to a full house, Devine gave a comprehensive analysis of what mixed reality is, and how it differs from virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality.

“Mixed reality is a mixture of the real world and the virtual world so that one understands the other. This creates experiences that could not have happened anywhere else,” Devine said.

“In virtual reality, you put a headset on, and you are taken somewhere else. You can’t see your body. Augmented reality has been around for a long, long time. Augmented reality doesn’t understand the world you are in, it just overlays stuff on top of it. It doesn’t interact with the world. Then we have mixed reality which understands the world.”

Mixed reality, which uses a headset like VR, means that virtual objects appear to exist in the real world of the observer, and they can interact with it; a virtual cat, for instance, could jump up and sit in your lap.

Devine expects that in 10 years, mixed reality will be ubiquitous, noting that in the future, he could be on the stage giving his lecture to the audience without having left his house. He thinks that mixed reality will be used for games, consumer media, communications, and information delivery.

Magic Leap’s vision sits nicely with the future of games and gaming outlined at Games for Change – products that, while still fun and entertaining, will take on greater importance in daily life.

“Play reduces stress, improves cognition, allows us to deal with unusual situations, and improves social aspects,” says MIT research scientist Chris Weaver, who notes that people spend 20 per cent of their lives in play. “It’s a critical part of what we are as humans.”