Perla and Whatley's Keynote Address: What's So Serious about Game Design? The Art or the Science?

Serious Games Summit DC 2005Perla and Whatley’s Keynote Address: What’s So Serious about Game Design? The Art or the Science? (Jerz’s Literacy Weblog)

Quick Take:

I thought both speakers did a fair job contextualizing serious games, but as a humanist I am used to attending conferences in which speakers are meticulous about plugging their individual observations in to a larger theoretical framework. I did take practical notes during Whatley’s careful walkthrough of the design process, but I could have learned most of this content directly from the slideshow. I felt that both speakers were concentrating so much on delivering a take-home message that attendees could use to inform and persuade other stakeholders, that as a result, just when the speakers had laid out all the pieces, instead of synthesizing and building on the situation the laid out, they backed up and said “And here’s what this really means,” and delivered a much simpler version of the message. I’m not sure what that accomplished, rhetorically, other than to train audiences not to pay attention during the setup. But I recognize the difficulty of speaking to a diverse audience — I often struggle with how to meet the expectations of English majors while not alienating or terrifying the non-majors in the same class.

New to me – the “OODA loop.” An acronym for Observation, Orientation, Decision, and Action. In war, when one side has a more efficient OODA loop, the effects can be powerful. But in a game production context, the developer and the client need to have matching OODA loops.

What follow are loosely-edited notes, taken during the presentation.


Perla’s book The Art of Wargaming was published by the Naval Institute Press, introduced a scientific approach to designing a game system for military purposes. He observed that war is a fitting topic for “serious games” there is no subject more serious than war. A justification for seeking realism in wargames.

On teaching naval officers to use games to teach military strategy: “How can you teach people to create credible games, if they don’t have that spark of genius that all working designers have?”

Perla introduced what he called a bad definition of wargaming: “Any type of modeling, including exercises, campaign analysis, computer simulation without players (CSWP)”

Perla offered his own definition, that differentiates between field exercises and computer modeling that are sometimes grouped under the umbrella of “wargaming,” but which are fundamentally different from gaming. To Perla, wargaming is “A warfare model or simulation that does not involve the operations of actual forces, in which the flow of events affects and is affected by decisions made during the course of those events by players representing the opposing sides.”

The dimensions of wargames: Time, Space, Forces (not just military, but also civilians and physics), Effects, Information, and Command

The military command structure exists in part in order to counter the effects of entropy. Success involves controlling that entropy better than your enemy.

Tips for “gaming your subject matter” (for those who aren’t doing wargaming)

Identify the “true philosophers of your subject matter” and make the postulates of your subject tangible in your game universe. Then – he offered whimsicaly — “Just do it — enter the artist.”


Douglas Whatley, CEO BreakAway, Ltd, offered a quotation from Donald E. Thompson of the National Science Foundation: “Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the education of young people is that we apprentice youngsters into 19th century science rather than letting them play scientist.”

Whatley presented serious games not just a replacement for e-learning, books, or rote teaching, but “fundamentally change the way we train, the way we educate… and hopefully to improve their interactions with the real world.” Much as “the game publishers are the bad guys in the stories we tell,” those game companies know how to protect the creative arc of the process.

Whatley’s definition of serious games: “A product that is not specifically entertainment, but which uses entertainment or the techniques and processes of the entertainment business, to achieve a purpose.”

Offered a chart illustrating the stages in the development and delivery of a game, with time on the horizontal and manpower/resources on the vertical.





Production (top of bell curve; the only time that simply throwing more people at the project can accelerate it — when “nine women can have a baby in one month”)

Alpha, Beta, Testing, Delivery, Support (difference between “code complete” at alpha, and “content complete” at beta)

Of the government: “They don’t actually like paying for the testing phase.”

Whatley offered a useful set of terms that expand the concept of a “serious game”:

Simulation: “a speculative exercise with rules, goals and containing a disequilibria outcome. Typically it has a mathematical construct that allows one to test an adaptive skill set within a planned context.”

Play: “outcomes are often unknown and unexpected. We attempt to let kids make things explode.”

Toys: “fun objects that allow one to explore the woodness of wood.”

Whatley returned to the list of dimensions of wargaming, and offered some expansion.

Time – granularity (turn-based… how to force people to deal with a problem)

Space – granularity

Entities – the objects in the game

Effects – what can happen in the game (don’t model the physics of the element, but look at the effects as a separate element – thus, use die roll tables instead of simulating physics)