Issue No. 02 - April-June (2007 vol. 6)
DOI Bookmark: http://doi.ieeecomputersociety.org/10.1109/MPRV.2007.29
Game consoles are encroaching on PC territory, says Mark Claypool, associate professor in the computer science department at Wooster Polytechnic Institute. "Now they have hard drives, main memory, a programmable processor, a big graphics card, and networking." While game consoles aren't upgraded as often as PCs are—the last upgrades were four and five years ago—the most recent upgrades share the common denominator of "more": more power, better graphics, and more connections with other players. Last year's releases from the big three in gaming consoles—Microsoft's Xbox 360, Nintendo's Wii, and Sony's PlayStation 3—represent an evolution in both technology and purpose, expanding game play and its applications.
Great New Graphics
The new releases from Microsoft and Sony, says Claypool, have concentrated largely on high-end graphics performance. These consoles have major graphics cards in them, and the graphics rendering has reached the point where it's almost photorealistic. "The hardware technology that creates the rendering of the virtual world at the end point, where the client is sitting—whether that's a console or a high-end PC—that's gotten really good," says Glenville Armitage, associate professor of telecommunications engineering and director of the Centre for Advanced Internet Architectures at Swinburne University of Technology. The Nintendo Wii also stepped up its graphics, but not nearly as much as the other two consoles.
"The Wii has concentrated more on a slightly different—and hopefully larger—target audience," Claypool says. Nintendo has innovated where the other two have not, with a novel interface for input to the games. The Wii gyroscope controller can detect the player's motions. The controller mimics many typical gaming actions, such as shooting a weapon, but can also mimic sports actions, such as swinging a golf club or rolling a bowling ball. This different kind of input can appeal to a broader set of game players, Claypool says, especially those that wouldn't otherwise pick up a traditional game console controller.
The powerful processors that companies are loading into consoles anticipate new challenges in computer technology. Pradeep Dubey, senior principal engineer and manager of innovative platform architecture at Intel, says that game consoles have moved toward a dual processor architecture. Most have a CPU for general processing tasks and a graphics processing unit for graphics rendering. Both Xbox and PlayStation 3 have a CPU and GPU. Xbox has three 3.2-GHz, high-frequency PowerPC processor cores, and PlayStation 3 has the new Cell processor designed from scratch in a joint effort between IBM, Sony, and Toshiba. They both have traditional GPUs.
Next, Pradeep says, "you could argue that you need other specialized processors like a physics processor to do the physical realism. Then you can argue for the next thing, which is artificial intelligence, to do the behavioral realism, and you'll need an APU or AI processor." It's possible to create a console architecture with such a system of chips, he says, because these processors are already in the marketplace. But the challenge then becomes how the developer can wear four or five different programming hats to program the CPU, GPU, PPU, and APU. Pradeep posits that the alternative is to make the software developer's life easier and offer him one chip tool and one programming model. Coming up with the architecture to do all these tasks and making the developer's tasks easier, Pradeep says, "is definitely our goal for doing the research that we do here at Intel."
Putting in hard drives and more powerful processors has brought consoles nearer to PC standards, and closer to PC problems as well. "You have the same issue," Claypool says. "As computers have gotten more powerful, putting more silicon into a smaller area, you have to keep them cool. That holds for the consoles as well."
Perhaps most remarkable, however, is that the three vendors have provided networking capabilities for their consoles, effectively erasing the line between game playing on computers versus game playing on consoles. With this online component, players can download software, demos, and patches as well as connect to other players for many games. Armitage sees the new connectivity as the point where the next set of challenges for consoles may occur. The underlying Internet connectivity between the different players and the actual servers that are hosting the game, along with fabulous graphics, helps create a sense of immersion in a virtual reality. "That interconnectivity is still kind of shaky," Armitage says. "It can break that illusion of immersion."
The feeling that players are colocated in the same virtual environment can be disrupted if the flow of packets going back and forth between Web servers and clients slows down. When slowdowns occur, the split-second timing that players in first-person shooter games depend on to be competitive suffers. That usually happens when other users on the network surf the net, send email, or download files. "Game traffic doesn't take up much bandwidth, but it is very sensitive to timing," says Armitage. "When the game client sends a packet out to the Internet towards the server, it's a small packet that doesn't take up much bandwidth, but it does need to get to the server in a very timely fashion. The packets going in and out of the house associated with Web surfing or email or BitTorrenting can often be very large packets that may consume a lot of bandwidth. But users actually don't really care whether their email or downloads are delayed by a couple of milliseconds from time to time. The game player does care."
Armitage and his team recently completed a prototype for a system that lets an ISP remotely manage the home router. ANGEL (Automated Network Games Enhancement Layer, http://caia.swin.edu.au/sitcrc/staticpages/index.php?page=angel) uses statistical modeling to identify when the flow of traffic in and out of a particular home belongs to a game. "We can predict that within about a second of the game traffic starting up," Armitage says. "With that information, the computer system can send a specially coded message back down the line to the home router that says 'here's a particular flow of traffic going through you right now that's a game.'" The home router then gives that traffic preferential treatment.
"While the hardware improvements have been amazing," says Claypool, "innovation in terms of the kind of game play is a lot less clear. You have the same kinds of input, the same kinds of shooters, the same kinds of action games." He says that there has been a bit of innovation with artificial intelligence in game design, but not much. "That's why people play other people," he says. "Other people are much more sophisticated than any kind of AI that's been programmed so far."
However, Claypool notes that intriguing changes have emerged in the online communities playing games. Interesting socializations occur in the massively multiplayer groups. "People get together and they do other things you didn't expect," says Claypool, "like form clans, tell stories, chat, and buy items such as weapons in the game and sell them outside in the real world for money." The game Second Life is a virtual world where people do things in the game for designated money in that world, such as buying real estate with Linden dollars. Linden dollars are purchased with real money; there's an exchange rate. Claypool considers this emergent behavior—people using games in different ways—as a different kind of game play, where people make their own rules.
Learning from Games
There's a growing interest in using game play mechanics to educate players and help them learn something, such as math, history, economics, disaster or development planning, and skills or job training. The Serious Games Initiative ( www.seriousgames.org), a group in Washington, D.C., addresses the educational and enterprise uses of games. The Initiative holds a summit each year that showcases research and development in serious games.
Mark Oehlert, learning strategy architect at Booz Allen Hamilton, says "one of the reasons that game-based learning is powerful as a learning methodology is that the goal of a game is to fail incrementally and learn incrementally." Game players go back to their game repeatedly, trying to improve their score. "It really builds this powerful learning pattern over the content that you are working through," Oehlert says. "When you finally achieve success, you've got this really strong mental pattern that overlays the content." He notes that Kurt Squire, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, did his dissertation research on teaching history to students using the game Civilization III. "The game builds in powerful ideas about diplomacy, the development of technology, and the impact of tax policy on your civilian population," Oehlert says. These sophisticated concepts are built into the game play. When players lose the game because they failed to appreciate the diplomatic aspects of it, the next time they pay attention to them. "It's kind of this covert learning that's really powerful for these kids," Oehlert says. "It gets past some of the barricades that kids have built up that learning isn't going to be fun."
Oehlert says the corporate environment can benefit from using games as well. A business situation can be cast as a game because, he says, a game is really just a decision-making scenario. By changing elements in the game, such as adjusting time limits, the resources available to players, or the end state they have to reach, a game can address corporate problems such as training, marketing, and planning. Games provide infinite what-ifs, the ability to compress time, and the opportunity to engage in high-consequence activities without fear of failure. These aspects of games can help corporations address important business problems.
Game culture, such as competitiveness, can be harnessed by encouraging employees to post high scores on training tests. Oehlert says companies can use games to create a virtual headquarters for orienting new employees. "These games have editors that allow you to change scenery, characters' appearance," he says. "You can recreate your corporate headquarters, create an avatar that looks like a generic corporate employee, and then present a tour of the headquarters and show different plants." Using a game to make movies, called machinema, is much less expensive than making a traditional corporate film, and it's much easier to edit and update.
Corporate advertising and marketing departments are using virtual worlds to create virtual brands, placing corporate offices and services there. IBM is using Second Life to help with orientation training for its global work force. When new employees in North America, Latin America, and Asia join the company, IBM can create a virtual place for them to connect inside of Second Life. "Instead of flying them all to New York, everybody can come into that world and interact with each other," Oehlert says. "That might not be as good as face to face, but it is more efficient than flying everybody to one place, and certainly more effective than just swapping emails."
Game simulation capacities can be very useful, as well. "Games allow you to engage in high-consequence, low-volume activities," Oehlert says. Games can help corporations create scenarios beyond the traditional business simulation of a spreadsheet to test large-scale budgeting decisions. Oehlert worked with the US Air Force using a virtual world to lay out future air bases, modeling traffic flows and logistic requirements before actually building the bases. "PricewaterhouseCoopers created a first-person perspective game to teach its employees about financial derivatives," he says. "UPS has considered using Xboxes to create safe-driving games for their drivers."