Extra Lives
Brainy Gamer Podcast - Episode 29

Curious onlookers


Richard Lemarchand, lead designer for both Uncharted games, asked a simple question today: "How many of you have played Uncharted 2?" 

When I heard him ask the same question at GDC a few months ago, nearly every hand in the room shot up. When he posed it again this morning at the Games, Learning, and Society Conference, the response fell somewhere between a handful and a smattering. Such is the difference between GDC and GLS - two conferences devoted, in very different ways, to games.

I've attended all sorts of tribal gatherings for gamers (GLS, Gen Con, GDC, Games for Change, among others), but this get-together is distinctive on several fronts. 

For one thing, it's impossible not to notice all the women. It's a sad, but unavoidable fact that gatherings of gamers tend to be gatherings of men. I have no data to prove it, but I'd say roughly 40% of the attendees and presenters at GLS are women; a marked difference from GDC.

The other thing you notice is the range of ages among attendees. GLS is the one games-related event where I don't feel like the old man in the room. And, let me tell you, that's a refreshing feeling. This conference attracts an eclectic mix of people: academic researchers, game developers (both indie and big studio), government and industry leaders, and, of course, teachers, most of whom work on the front lines of American public education.

"Curious onlookers" hardly characterizes a group that includes people like Lemarchand, Henry Jenkins, Constance Steinkuehler, and Eric Zimmerman (Jim Gee is sadly absent this year). But I think it fairly describes a large number of GLS attendees. Most of the people I've met here don't think of themselves as 'gamers.' In fact, one presenter I spoke to (Hillary Kolos), contends the term 'gamer' suggests an identity that some players, particularly teenage girls, feel uncomfortable with as a descriptor.

There's a lot to be said for a conference that brings together such a diverse assortment of smart people, but it can make for some challenging situations. A few minutes into a talk on guild leadership in World of Warcraft, a person in the audience raised his hand and asked, "Excuse me, can you explain what you mean by 'tank'?" (I should also point out that the presenter has, unquestionably, the coolest name of any games researcher in the world: Moses Wolfenstein.)

Rich Lemarchand and his co-presenter Drew Davidson dealt with their task in a way that I initially found disappointing. They essentially presented a demo of Uncharted 2, with Davidson explaining its narrative and gameplay elements and Lemarchand elucidating Naughty Dog's design goals and process. 

But when I heard people gasp at the game's opening sequence (Drake suspended in air, hanging from the train car), I realized this audience needed to see what playing this game looks and feels like. Lemarchand and Davidson's strategy of playing the game live in front of their audience (always a technological risk) paid off handsomely under these circumstances. And, for what it's worth, kudos to Lemarchand and Naughty Dog for devoting time to such a gathering. Compared to events like PAX, E3, and GDC, GLS is a small room.

The insular community I regularly hang with here and in the Twitter/blogosphere know all about Uncharted 2. Even those of us who've never played the game probably know plenty about the game's train sequence, for example, or its cinematics. With dozens of awards and a cavalcade of essays from folks like yours truly, it's easy to forget that the game sold roughly 3.5 million copies worldwide. A big deal to us; not so big in the vast cultural landscape.

Being here reminds me that we're still basically introducing ourselves to the world. Even among the young teachers I've met here - people who have grown up with games - a surprisingly small percentage of them characterize themselves as 'gamers.' (I wish I had a dollar for every time I've heard someone preface a remark here with "I'm just a casual gamer...") The very idea that one might own multiple consoles or, more importantly, have the time to play all those games, staggers many of the folks I've met at GLS.

And yet, here we are. I can't help but feel a surge of pride in my profession. We're here because we want to be more effective, more informed, better equipped teachers. Underneath the flurry of academeze, data, and game studies jargon, one simple imperative overrides all other considerations here. How can we best explore, understand, and harness the unique power of games - and the possibilities we've yet to identify - in our teaching and learning?

I'll return in my next post with some thoughts on what I've learned. If you'd like to peruse the full GLS conference program, you can find it here.