Category: Serious Games

RobotBASIC: A STEM-focused Progamming Language

I’ve been talking with John Blankenship on LinkedIn about RobotBASIC, which allows students to control robots as well as create simulations and video games. Below is a write-up about the language and site, as well as links for more information.

RobotBASIC was developed by two retired college professors to motivate students to learn science, engineering, math, etc. It is the language we wish we had when we were teaching.

RobotBASIC is FREE for schools, teachers, AND students, and it is one of the most powerful educational programming languages available – it has nearly 900 commands and functions and it can control REAL robots in addition to the integrated robot simulator so it can easily be used by HS or college students.

This is NOT a demo or crippled version. RobotBASIC is TRULY free. There are no purchasing costs, no site licenses, no upgrade fees – EVER! We wrote RobotBASIC because we care about education and we give it away because we believe students NEED more exposure to engineering and programming BEFORE they go to college. And, they need exposure that is exciting and motivational so they will WANT to learn – they need RobotBASIC.

In addition to standard BASIC syntax, RobotBASIC also includes legacy-style commands that make it possible to teach some fundamental programming principles to even 5th graders (I have done this personally). You cannot believe how excited young students get when they do something where they feel THEY are in control (program the simulated robot). If simple programming concepts like this are introduced early, students will view programming as a natural tool by the time they get to HS.

RobotBASIC is also a great stepping-stone to college level courses because it also allows a variety of C-style syntax which makes it easier for students to transition to more cryptic languages like C and Java.

RobotBASIC is not built around other systems – rather it is its own COMPLETE system. One of the major advantages of RobotBASIC is its integrates robot simulator that allows ALL students to have their own PERSONAL robot to program, even at home to do homework. The 2D simulation, seems simple at first, but it has far more sensors that even the most expensive educational robots.

When a school is ready to move past simulation, RobotBASIC offers a fully-assembled REAL robot that has nearly all of the sensors as the simulation (perimeter sensors, compass, beacon detector, line sensors, and battery monitoring). This means that AFTER a student gets their program working with the simulation they can IMMEDIATELY control the real robot with the same program, making the real robot perform the same tasks. This system means that schools only have to buy one robot because students get to develop and debug their programs on the simulator. Remember, a real robot is NOT required. Many schools will be happy teaching robotics using ONLY the simulation, which is totally FREE.

We have eight introductory project-based lessons available as PDF downloads available on our EDUCATIONAL MATERIAL page at Many science and math teachers have never had a programming class, so the lessons are designed to allow students to progress with minimal supervision. RobotBASIC has an extensive built-in HELP system and there are many low-cost books available for those that need a more personal approach.

If you visit, near the top of the home page you will see some links to YouTube videos that show you how easy RobotBASIC is to use. There is also a link to an interview with me recently published by Circuit Cellar Magazine. Below all that, is a summary of the language’s major features.

If I can be of any help or provide you with more information, please let me know.

John Blankenship
Vero Beach, FL

A book is also in the works to provide classroom topics and assignments for science and math courses based on the programming language. This is an exciting gamification effort desperately needed in STEM fields. Outstanding effort by all.



Top 10 Nobel Prize Games, 2014

Back in 2009, I wrote about’s educational gaming simulation center. These are “games and simulations, based on Nobel Prize-awarded achievements.”

Their Top 10 most visited educational games have changed some over the years, so here is an updated list:

1. The Blood Typing Game
2. The DNA – the Double Helix Game
3. The Immune System Game
4. The Control of the Cell Cycle Game
5. The Pavlov’s Dog Game
6. The Electrocardiogram Game
7. The Transistor
8. The Diabetic Dog Game
9. The Split Brain Experiments Game
10. The Lord of the Flies Game


CFP: GALA 2014

The Games and Learning Alliance conference (GALA 2014) will be held July 2-4 in Bucharest Romania.

The Games and Learning Alliance conference (GALA 2014) is an international conference dedicated to the science and application of serious games.

The conference aims at bringing together researchers, developers, practitioners and stakeholders. The goal is to share the state of the art of research and market, analysing the most significant trends and discussing visions on the future of serious games.

The conference also includes an exhibition, where developers can showcase their latest products.

The Serious Games Society is building a scientific community at international level for shaping future research in the field. This community represents a significant blend of industrial and academic professionals committed to the study, development and deployment of serious games as really useful and effective tools to support better teaching, learning, training and assessment.

The deadline for the Call for Papers has been extended to May 9. Please click here for more details.


Review of Serious Games for Medical Education & Surgical Training

I had a nice e-mail exchange with Dr. Marlies P. Schijven at the Academic Medical Center Amsterdam regarding a paper entitled, Systematic review of serious games for medical education and surgical skills training, appearing recently in the British Journal of Surgery. Below is part of the press release:

Serious gaming can be used to enhance surgical skills, but games developed or used to train medical professionals need to be validated before they are integrated into teaching methods, according to a paper in the October issue of the surgical journal BJS.

Researchers from The Netherlands reviewed 25 research studies covering 30 serious games published between 1995 and 2012.

“Many medical professionals may still have a rather out-dated view of the average gamer as being someone who is too young to vote, afraid of daylight and busy killing mystical dwarves in their parent’s basement” says co-author Dr Marlies Schijven from the Department of Surgery at the Academic Medical Centre in Amsterdam.

“However, the reality is that the average game player is 37 years-old and there are almost three times as many women using games as boys aged 17 years or younger.

“Although game-based learning is becoming a new form of healthcare education, scientific research on its effectiveness is limited. The aim of this review was to identify the value of serious games for training professionals in medicine and, in particular, surgery.”

Nineteen articles discussing 17 serious games specifically developed for educational purposes were identified by Dr Schijven and co-author Dr Maurits Graafland. Many of these covered team training in acute and critical care and dealing with mass casualty incidents, including nuclear events and hazardous materials. Others covered more specific areas of healthcare, such as training for coronary artery bypasses and knee joint surgery and assessing and resuscitating patients with burns.

Six studies assessed 13 commercially available games associated with, but not specifically developed for, improving skills relevant to the medical profession. They included sports, action, adventure and shooting games and were used to help surgeons improve their laparoscopic psychomotor skills.

The authors have made a number of observations as a result of their review. These include:

  • Serious games form an innovative approach towards the education of medical professionals and surgical specialities are eager to apply them for a range of training purposes.
  • Further research should define valid performance parameters and formally validate programmes before serious games can be seen as fully fledged teaching instruments for medical and surgical professionals.
  • Although a serious game does not necessarily have to be developed for an educational purpose to be an educational tool, such games cannot be seen as fully completed training resources.
  • Serious games allow multiple professionals to train simultaneously on one case and allow one professional to train multiple cases simultaneously. These skills are recognized as critical in reducing medical errors in dynamic high-risk environments, such as the operating room or emergency department.
  • Serious games can provide crisis resource training, with a large variety of cases, in a relatively cheap, readily available environment that provides a viable alternative to expensive simulators. Serious games also provide training environments for disaster situations and mass casualty incidents, including combat care.
  • Games need to be designed to fit into residency teaching programmes if they are to be used as a way of preventing medical errors.
  • Simulation and serious gaming represent ideal teaching methods to optimize the knowledge and skill of residents before they are entrusted with procedures in real patients. Educators and games designers should develop serious games that train professionals in order to maximise patient safety.
  • Although the cost of developing serious games can run into millions, this investment can be justified in terms of delivering better patient care and preventing errors and insurance companies could play a key role.

“Our review clearly shows that serious games can be used to provide surgeons with training in both technical and non-technical skills” says Dr Schijven. “However, games developed or used to train medical professionals need to be validated before they are integrated into surgical teaching programmes.”

The paper can be read free online at:

This is a very interesting paper. It shows the strides serious games have made in recent years, and that the medical profession is taking serious games seriously. Also noteworthy is the qualification that the integration of games into medical and surgical education and training should be subject to prior validation.


Second Annual Serious Play Conference

The Second Annual Serious Play Conference is August 21 – 23 at the DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, WA. Below is a press release from The Bohle Company.

50+ Speakers Address the Future of
Games for Training, Learning

SEATTLE  — June 21, 2012 — More than 50 of the top thinkers in serious games will come together to discuss the future of the use of non-entertainment games and sims, Tuesday – Thursday, August 21 – 23, 2012 at the 2nd Annual Serious Play Conference at DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, Wash.

Plenary sessions include:

“Getting the Best Virtual vQuotient in Non-Entertainment Games”

· Ran Hinrichs,  2b3d, keynote speaker

“The Future of Sims and Games in Large Organizations”

· David Metcalf, UCF

· Phaedra Boiondiris, IBM

· James Oker, Microsoft

· Parvati Dev, CliniSpace

“Sizing the Potential Market for Serious Games”

· Tyson Greer  / Sam S. Adkins,  Ambient Insight: Mobile Games, Education

· Burnes Saint Patrick Hollyman, the Digital Entertainment Alliance: Virtual Worlds

· Michael Cai, Interpret, Corporate

“Measuring Game Effectiveness”

· Eva Baker, CRESST at UCLA

· David Gibson, simSchool

· Ken Spero, Immersive Learning University

· Jenn McNamara, BreakAway

An Early Bird Discount is still in effect as well as special faculty and student pricing.

Members of the Serious Games Association ($35 annual fee) receive $50 off conference cost.

For more information, visit the conference site:

Research on Benefits of Children Playing Videogames

Some interesting new studies and projects have come out recently showing beneficial links to videogame playing for children. Linda A. Jackson, professor of psychology over at Michigan State University, led a study finding that videogame play was a strong predictor of creativity in children. Here is the abstract:

This research examined relationships between children’s information technology (IT) use and their creativity. Four types of information technology were considered: computer use, Internet use, videogame playing and cell phone use. A multidimensional measure of creativity was developed based on Torrance’s (1987, 1995) test of creative thinking. Participants were 491 12-year olds; 53% were female, 34% were African American and 66% were Caucasian American. Results indicated that videogame playing predicted of all measures of creativity. Regardless of gender or race, greater videogame playing was associated with greater creativity. Type of videogame (e.g., violent, interpersonal) was unrelated to videogame effects on creativity. Gender but not race differences were obtained in the amount and type of videogame playing, but not in creativity. Implications of the findings for future research to test the causal relationship between videogame playing and creativity and to identify mediator and moderator variables are discussed.

The paper can be downloaded here. The MSU press release is here. The paper is in press, and will be published in an upcoming issue of Computers in Human Behavior.


Meanwhile, A. Scott Cunningham, an assistant professor of economics over at Baylor, along with Benjamin Engelstätter at the Zentrum für Europäische Wirtschaftsforschung (Center for European Economic Research) and Michael R. Ward at University of Texas Arlington, released a working paper on the Social Science Research Network entitled “Understanding the Effects of Violent Video Games on Violent Crime.”

Researchers have long been able to measure physiological arousal in participants engaging in violent media. This physiological measurement is seen regardless of the media. Violent TV shows, movies, music, and videogames will elicit the measured arousal as study after study has shown. But, more tenuous are assertions this arousal leads to violence elsewhere once participants are away from the media. This study seeks to empirically link violent videogame sales with decreases in reports of violence. Here is the abstract:

Psychological studies invariably find a positive relationship between violent video game play and aggression. However, these studies cannot account for either aggressive effects of alternative activities video game playing substitutes for or the possible selection of relatively violent people into playing violent video games. That is, they lack external validity. We investigate the relationship between the prevalence of violent video games and violent crimes. Our results are consistent with two opposing effects. First, they support the behavioral effects as in the psychological studies. Second, they suggest a larger voluntary incapacitation effect in which playing either violent or non-violent games decrease crimes. Overall, violent video games lead to decreases in violent crime.

The paper can be accessed here. Some good articles discussing it in the media are here and here.


Finally, work on videogames to assist children in coping with medical problems continues in earnest. A recent example involves the University of Utah’s Engineering Arts and Entertainment (EAE) program, which brings in students from the school’s Dept. of Film and Media Arts and School of Computing to design interactive entertainment. Together with physical therapists and councilors, EAE students created a series of videogames designed to help children stricken with cancer. The unnamed minigames written for the PlayStation3 are currently being beta tested by patients in the pediatric ward at the Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, with possible retail release in the near future. Articles on the games can be found here and here.

RPG Accomplishments are the New Boyscout Badges

My 6 year old proudly showed me a new accomplishment on Wizard 101: “Junior Archeologist.” It reminded me of when World of Warcraft added “The Explorer” accomplishment for characters who had “explored” the game’s content. Several players created new characters called Dora so they could earn the sobriquet “Dora the Explorer” on their realms.

Another thought: it reminded me of Cub Scout and Boy Scout days, diligently working toward merit badges. Nowadays, it seems videogame accomplishments are the new merit badges.

It some ways, that’s probably a good thing.

Using Video Games to Solve Complex Problems

The blogosphere and the Twitterverse were buzzing today with news about the latest crowdsourcing coup, where a video game was used to unravel the molecular structure of viral enzymes that cause AIDS in monkeys.

Such tedious work often requires human cognitive abilities, and combined efforts seem to flourish within a gaming environment. The online game used is called Foldit, and Firas Khatib and Frank DiMaio over at University of Washington’s Dept. of Biochemistry along with several others published a paper in Nature detailing the effort, entitled Crystal structure of a monomeric retroviral protease solved by protein folding game players. Here is their abstract:

Following the failure of a wide range of attempts to solve the crystal structure of M-PMV retroviral protease by molecular replacement, we challenged players of the protein folding game Foldit to produce accurate models of the protein. Remarkably, Foldit players were able to generate models of sufficient quality for successful molecular replacement and subsequent structure determination. The refined structure provides new insights for the design of antiretroviral drugs.

The game looks quite interesting, and by playing you might help make a significant contribution to science.


Kriegsspiel: Powerful Lessons from War Games

Matthew Kirschenbaum, Associate Professor of English and Associate Director, Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) over at University of Maryland, has a most excellent article on wargames at Play the Past.

“To a wargamer,” writes Greg Costikyan in the just published collection Tabletop: Analog Game Design, “wargames are not abstract, time-wasting pastimes, like other games, but representative of the real. . . . You can learn something from wargames; indeed, in some ways you can learn more from wargames than from reading history”

I agree. Gee has been telling us for most of the last decade that we can learn from games.

Kirschenbaum went to the recent Connections wargaming conference. He says wargaming has a rich history:

Indeed, the Connections conference advertised itself as being held on the 200th anniversary of the “invention” of wargaming. What can this mean, with games like Chess and Go dating back to antiquity? In the early 1800s, the Prussian staff officer Georg von Reisswitz formally introduced his Kriegsspiel, a game played by laying metal bars across maps to mark troop dispositions (derived from a set his father had made up) to his fellow officers. “This is not a game! This is training for war!” one general is said to have exclaimed. (The authoritative account of the origins and development of Kriegsspiel is to be found in Peter Perla’s excellent The Art of Wargaming.)

One of the key elements of beneficial learning players obtain by engaging in these games is not so much historical knowledge, but rather decision making skills. When faced with limited resources, for instance, in times of high crisis such as war, what are the best decisions a leader can make? Better yet, what are the best skills a leader can acquire so that he or she can make the best critical decisions when previously unforeseen circumstances arise? It is within this context that wargames provide a beneficial sandbox.

Most of the action seems to involve sitting around a table and talking (sometimes colloquially referred to as BOGSAT, “Bunch of Guys [and Girls] Sitting Around a Table” by those in the know). Such games, which are staged not only by the Pentagon but also by corporate consulting firms like Booz Allen Hamilton, can be about response to a global pandemic or an interruption in the supply chain for a manufacturing process as well as military operations and contingencies. Wargaming, increasingly, is a term as likely to be encountered in a business leadership seminar as inside a Beltway think tank.

The article hardly qualifies as a blog post. It is more along the lines of something one would read in The Atlantic. It’s a very interesting perspective and well worth the read.



Study: Predicting Player Behavior and How Zynga Profits from Data Analysis

An interesting front page story in The Wall Street Journal today by journalist Nick Wingfield discusses how casual gaming giant Zynga cashes in on their millions of players. After developing Fishville, following in the footsteps of highly successful titles like Farmville, managers noted players spending in-game currency on one type of fish more so than others. The “translucent angler fish” was being purchased more than 6 times the rate of other virtual fish. So the company quickly developed a whole line of translucent sea creatures, charging as much as $4 (this time, in real world money) for more exotic varieties.

This formula has been very successful for the company. Although only about five percent of Zynga’s player base spends serious money in their games, so many millions of people play that the company rakes in millions. They rake in even more by figuring out what the players want through data analysis.

Zynga is transforming the game industry. Traditional videogame companies create games they think players will like, then sell them. Zynga offers free games through Facebook Inc.’s social network, then studies data on how its audience plays them. It uses its findings to fiddle with the games to get people to play longer, tell more Facebook friends about them and buy more “virtual goods.” At the heart of the whole process is Zynga’s ability to analyze reams of data on how players are reacting to its games.

“We’re an analytics company masquerading as a games company,” said Ken Rudin, a Zynga vice president in charge of its data-analysis team, in one of a series of interviews with Zynga executives prior to the company’s July filing for an initial public offering.

This formula for financial success has other companies following Zynga’s lead. Rather than spending millions developing a title with a short shelf life, companies are turning to free games with extras that cost money. The primitive graphics Zynga uses are generally derided by serious gamers, but Zynga aims for the mass market, much the way American beer brewers produce bland beverages that appeal to the most palates.

All of Zynga’s games go through what amounts to a giant ongoing lab experiment involving players. Zynga conducts hundreds of “A-B tests” within its games, in which two sets of players see virtual goods on sale with, say, subtle color differences to see which color sells better…

Sizhao Yang, a former Zynga executive who helped create its virtual farming hit “FarmVille,” says his development team figured out by analyzing virtual-goods-sales data that “people buy animals a lot more than tractors and other inanimate objects.” The findings led the “FarmVille” team to more prominently feature animals in its online store, he says.

Interestingly, Wingfield reports there is considerable tension in the company between the data jockeys and the game designers. The game designers have a certain idea of how a game should look and function. The analysts drive the direction of game development based on the data, leading to tension. Some designers have quit the company in protest. Still, data remains the keystone in Zynga’s game plan for the foreseeable future.

The Zynga story on data analysis comes on the heels of the recent International Conference on the Foundations of Digital Games in Bordeaux this summer ( There, Brent Harrison and David L. Roberts over at North Carolina State delivered an interesting paper, Using sequential observations to model and predict player behavior. Here’s their abstract:

In this paper, we present a data-driven technique for designing models of user behavior. Previously, player models were designed using user surveys, small-scale observation experiments, or knowledge engineering. These methods generally produced semantically meaningful models that were limited in their applicability. To address this, we have developed a purely data-driven methodology for generating player models based on past observations of other players. Our underlying assumption is that we can accurately predict what a player will do in a given situation if we examine enough data from former players that were in similar situations. We have chosen to test our method on achievement data from the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Experiments show that our method greatly outperforms a baseline algorithm in both precision and recall, proving that this method can create accurate player models based solely on observation data.

While not fixating on the profit motives that Zynga has in mind, Harrison and Roberts offer clues to game designers in guiding player behavior in-game. Educational games could become more engaging:

The ability to accurately predict a player’s behavior in a game has a number of applications. While these applications are beyond the scope of this paper, we discuss two of them briefly here to better situate and motivate our approach. With a model of player behavior, we can create an experience that is unique to a user’s tendencies or preferences. For example, if we predict that the user will choose to fight a certain non-player character (NPC) rather than talk to it, that NPC can be made more willing to fight. Another application involves guiding players to parts of games that they may enjoy. Modern games often take place in large, sandbox worlds where the player is given total freedom. It’s quite possible that players may never see content that they would like because the sandbox is just so big. Predictions about a player’s behavior can be used to guide her to the parts of the game that she would enjoy.

Eschewing surveys, the authors recommend a purely data-driven approach (as does Zynga):

We feel that a purely data-driven approach has significant promise for creating accurate predictive models of player behavior in games without the difficulties associated with earlier modeling techniques. Very little research has been done in this area to date.

Read the entire paper for further discussion of the algorithm they developed. Very interesting.


Harrison, B & Roberts, D. L. (2011). Using sequential observations to model and predict player behavior. In Proceedings of the 2011 Foundations of Digital Games Conference. (FDG 2011), Bordeaux, France.

Wingfield, N. (2011, September 9). Virtual products, real profits. The Wall Street Journal, p.A1.