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Changing the world one game at a time

Scott Nicholson studies how games make a difference

Story by Kimberly Elworthy

Photography by John Ternan

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It seems obvious to say that students would rather play games than spend their nights doing homework, but for Laurier Professor Scott Nicholson, those things are two in the same.

Nicholson, a lifelong gamer, studies gameful design — the application of game playing elements to other areas of activity — and how these concepts can be used in learning environments to make a difference. He is now leading Laurier’s newly created Game Design and Development program, hosted at the university’s Brantford campus, where students will learn how to craft games that create player experiences and develop a fundamental understanding of how to motivate people to be engaged.

In his research, Nicholson explores theories of education, motivation and game design to define the concept of “meaningful gamification” where games are used to help find meaning in a non-game setting instead of simply incentivizing behaviour.

A common assumption about game design is that it’s simply about playing video games or creating recreational games. However, gaming can be used in just about any environment, such as in healthcare to motivate patients to live healthier lifestyles, or in schools to help students engage with difficult or complex material. A former programmer, librarian and statistician, Nicholson’s first large-scale research project studied how games can be effectively used in libraries, which led to his book, Everyone Plays at the Library. He has since studied the use of games in environments such as museums, schools and corporate training.

“From being a lifetime gamer, I knew that games were motivating to many because of things other than points,” says Nicholson. “They are about stories, character development, empowerment and engagement with other people.”

Nicholson’s current research focuses on escape rooms, which are live-action games in which groups of people are locked in a room and have to solve clues and complete tasks in order to “escape” within the allotted time limit. His research covers the design of the rooms themselves, how guides can help achieve learning goals in escape-room concepts and how escape rooms can be used not only for corporate team building but also corporate training.

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Laurier's game lab is stocked with games of all types. See more photos in our Facebook gallery

“My goal is to not only make games to change the world,” Nicholson says, “but to help Laurier students identify their own strengths and passions, and combine them with the art and craft of game design to join me in changing the world.”

Academic gaming programs have typically taken one of three approaches. There’s the computer science and engineering programs that teach students the steps to make a digital game. There’s the Game Studies approach within the humanities, which focuses on studying the concepts around gaming and society. And then there’s the artistic approach, where students learn animation and study the artistry of games. Laurier’s program offers a little bit of everything, but primarily seeks to discover what motivates people to interact and engage in all types of games, not just digital ones.This is one of the least common approaches to game design education and there is currently nothing like it in Ontario.

“What we’re offering is really a motivation degree,” says Nicholson. “We don’t put the technology or art first, we’re looking at the experience you’re making for the player. We don’t like to say one game over another is better; we look at how we want to affect the player with the game.”

Laurier will partner with Conestoga College to provide students with the technical skills required to understand the programming and design of games. Because of the program’s wide reach, fourth-year students will be required to partner with a local organization in Brantford and solve a problem facing the group with a game they design. The Game Design and Development degree is also unique in that students will graduate with a project-management certificate so that they can lead game-design projects in the real world.

“The industry really needs people who understand how to make a game from start to finish,” says Kate Carter, associate vice president: teaching and learning at Laurier. “Students will learn how to manage that process, put together a team and meet deadlines. This program gives you skills you can take anywhere.”