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Rubrik: Science Life

A science of games at the ETH Zurich
Games people (should) play

Published: 21.06.2007 06:00
Modified: 20.06.2007 21:42
Renata Cosby

Games are not simply a matter of passing ‘Go’ and collecting 200 dollars. Steffen P. Walz, a game design researcher and Ph.D. candidate at the ETH Zurich’s chair for Computer Aided Architetural Design (CAAD), sees them as a reflection of life itself, especially through the lens of applied sciences. “I am looking into how people interact with each other through technology, or how they interact with technology. And I want to create such interactive situations, with the help of games, as possibility spaces.” he says. “Computer games are fit for studying collective and emergent behavior; they engage players in what-if scenarios, or simply educate their target audience. So games can be both research and teaching tools. Game design as an academic discipline focuses on games themselves – and the ways that games can service other disciplines’ topics.”

An example of such a topic is the Swiss Design Institute for Finance and Banking (SDFB), where Mr. Walz sits on the steering committee. The SDFB is a newly established, joint research initiative shared by ETH Zurich, the Zurich School of Art and Design (HGKZ), the University of Zurich, and the University of St. Gallen. The institute is particularly concerned with the question of how future interactive technologies can be used by Swiss banks to improve the quality of customer relationships and, therefore, enhance their value. “Banking is not only about banks making a profit, though”, Mr. Walz points out. “Banking is also about interaction and trust, both of which are often computed today. This makes the SDFB offer an interesting research theme to game designers.” It is here, Mr Walz says, that ‘pervasive gaming’, for example, has a role to play.

He continues, “Pervasive gaming, or interchangeably and ubiquitous ‘gaming’, creates experiences by integrating pervasive computing into gameplay, making the physical world a ‘game board’. Through pervasive computing, an “Internet of things” lets us interact with networked spaces anywhere, anytime, with the help of sensors, actuators, or mobile technologies.” Mr. Walz’s success in Regensburg, DE, where tourists could use a rental smartphone to learn the history of the city during a sightseeing game, is such an example (1) . “REXplorer is a perfect instance because the game addresses tourism and the way that people experience and learn about the place they are visiting in a novel and interactive way. The game persuades visitors to more deeply explore a place. Serious games, sometimes also known as persuasive games, often tackle issues such as public policy, health, marketing and learning,” explains Mr. Walz.

At the Center for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Zurich, where Mr. Walz co-taught a seminar for two years, games were prototyped to reach aggressive male teenagers.

“Most of these kids already play computer games. Our idea is that the kids learn how to react to situations so that circumstances improve instead of further deteriorating; they learn from the games how not to overly or aggressively react.”

Touristen erkunden mit dem Handyspiel REXplorer die Stadt Regensburg (Bild:

Game design specialists maintain that even science and research can be considered as a series of games. They use the example of students and researchers seeking rewards to confirm or disprove an hypothesis. Along the way, challenges must be overcome. There are opportunities to act and at times an obligation to react. All this is a kind of game, says Mr Walz.

He regrets that game design has not yet found a lasting foothold at ETH Zurich. Many other leading academic institutions worldwide are establishing game research labs to look into the potential of games as tools for research and learning. “A game research lab at the ETH would certainly attract industrial partners and funding, too”, adds Mr. Walz.

”We need new learning strategies that are both interactive and intrinsically motivating and that are equally accurate and fun“. An example envisioned by Mr. Walz would be a sustainability game for the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Mr Walz believes “this game would be based on real data and let players examine possible climate scenarios, which in turn could help inform decision-makers. At the same time, such a game could be used to teach audiences about climate change in an engaging fashion.”

A “lack of awareness of how game design and gaming can transform academic education remains the hurdle to be overcome,” Steffen P. Walz thinks. “Games appeal to many students and researchers, and let us explore possibility spaces playfully. Game design as a discipline should not only happen at art and design schools, but also at more research-oriented institutions. Academia has a responsibility to take advantage of, as well as define, the persuasive power of gaming.” (2)

(1 See also: "The world as a mobile phone game": (
(2 Visitors play-to-navigate Steffen P. Walz’s website which contains other serious game examples (

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