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.

Tools for activist game design

This is my final report from the Games, Learning, and Society conference. I've detoured a bit from my regular style of posting with these pieces, but I hope you've found them interesting. I'm grateful to Simon Carless for inviting me to cover the event for Gamasutra, and to the GLS folks for organizing such a wonderful gathering of people who care deeply about games.

Maryflanagan On the final day of GLS, Dr. Mary Flanagan led a workshop entitled “Values at Play: Tools for Activist Game Design.” Flanagan directs the Tiltfactor game research lab at Hunter College and is the creator of The Adventures of Josie True, the first internet adventure game for girls. She also co-founded Rapunsel, a research project to teach girls programming.

Flanagan is devoted to developing games and software that create “rewarding, compelling, and socially-responsible interactions, with a focus on inventive game design for social change.” She believes designers must intervene in the earliest stages of game design to consider how games can embody socially responsible values. “The idea is to embed human values or human principles into design processes.”

Flanagan noted that “it's not just about narrative and representation.” She and her colleagues are trying to embed positive principles into gameplay and identify design solutions that “convey these principles, yet also satisfy competitive urges and are fun to play.” Flanagan and her team believe that every design decision “can potentially have social, moral, and political implications, and that each design feature can potentially convey social, moral, and political content.”

Can games teach equity? Can games convey values such as creative expression, negotiation, and diversity? Flanagan believes they can and should, but the traditional iterative design model may not work for this. She advocates instead a model that prioritizes values goals at the beginning of the design process and affirms the efficacy of those goals at each step along the way. “You would be amazed at how quickly these things can disappear if you don't keep a close eye on them."

Flanagan introduced workshop participants to “Grow-A-Game” cards, developed by Tiltfactor for the Values at Play project. These cards function as a game design tool intended to facilitate analysis of the values present in video games. They can also be used to brainstorm modifications to existing games or for designing entirely new games.

Participants were divided into small groups, and each received four categories of cards:

  • Actions  - “Game mechanics or actions that a player performs within the game. Mechanics are geared towards socially conscious actions including trading, creating, and subverting.”
  • Challenges - “Social issues and conflicts. These include: sexism, pollution, and addiction.”
  • Games - “From classic board games to modern first-person shooters. These cards trigger dialogue about values by inspiring players to analyze and modify popular existing games. Sample games include Scrabble, Pac-Man, and Halo."
  • Goals - “Goals cards have ideals that might set the context for a more just and sustainable society. Goals include: generosity, peace, and autonomy.”

Each group drew one Goals card (e.g. justice) and one Action card (e.g. healing) and were then asked to collaboratively design a game (in this example) about justice whose primary mechanic is healing. Groups brainstormed and discussed their ideas, then presented them in a debriefing session.

In a separate exercise, they also combined a Games card with a Challenges card and reconceptualized an existing game to focus on a social issue. One group redesigned Monopoly to incorporate the goal of Empathy by having players switch places, property, and money when they roll certain die combinations, ensuring that no player take undue advantage of another. The winning condition is keeping all players in the game for as long as possible.

The workshop concluded with a demo of Hush, “a statement game built from two cards,” according to Flanagan. Through haunting sounds and images the game depicts ethnic cleansing in Rwanda as the player struggles to keep her crying baby from alerting the militia outside her door. Hush, says Flanagan, illustrates how a powerful and evocative game experience can emerge from a design focus that combines innovative gameplay with social values.

GLS - What we can learn from fantasy baseball

Baseball_firstbase_2 How is fantasy baseball really played? What can it teach us about how and why we play complex games and what we derive from that experience?

Erica and Rich Halverson's talk at the GLS Conference provided a snapshot of their research into the ways “learning, play, and engagement in fantasy sports require a combination of fan cultural practices and skills characteristic of gamers in order to be successful.” Erica Halverson is an assistant professor of learning sciences and Rich Halverson is an associate professor in educational leadership and policy analysis, both at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The Halversons believe expert fantasy sports players “construct organizing metaphors for their gameplay and that these metaphors guide both in-game decisions and experts’ mental models used for reflecting on play.” Understanding how expert gamers think and behave could yield great benefits to educators and game designers alike. Such an understanding “could help guide the design of learning spaces that use the competitive fandom model as a principle for design.”

Fantasy baseball emerges, according to the Halversons, via the convergence of three activities: Primary activity (Major League Baseball); Fan activity (watching games, collecting cards, etc.); and Fantasy activity (organizing or participating in a fantasy baseball league). The fantasy activity “repurposes the primary activity content” with fan activity to create a game-based environment with its own unique set of player created rules.

The Halversons are trying to “reverse engineer” fantasy baseball to better understand how data-rich games work. They are trying to determine “what is added to fan knowledge to produce fantasy gaming expertise.” To find the answers they are analyzing the discourse of in-game play (both spouses are fantasy baseball players) and conducting semi-structured interviews with expert players. Much of this has occurred within “an incredibly complex transmedia environment” of phone, voice and video chat, multiple internet resources, email, charts, graphs, databases, etc.

Expert players, say the Halversons, rely on what Aristotle called practical wisdom: “patterns of problem-setting and problem-solving; an eye for the appropriate move in navigating complex systems.” High-level gamers rely on reasoning, data reduction techniques (“chunking large bodies of information into meaningful patterns”), and an ability to adapt knowledge to novel situations.

Stories and analogies are constructed around play and are often mapped onto other experiences, such as stock market analysis. The Halversons' research suggests that expert players routinely use their fantasy baseball acumen to succeed in other situations requiring skillful analysis of ever-changing data and information.

High-level players must develop and utilize adaptive expertise, according to the Halversons. “The primary activity is dynamic, so rules are really heuristics. Things change quickly, and players must respond nimbly by developing strategies for multiple scenarios.” Expert fantasy players are ready for almost any situation and quickly turn unexpected events to their advantage. “It is also a social learning and adaptive situation. You must know the other players, know the league, etc.” Referring to one especially successful fantasy player, Rich Halverson described him as “the smartest man I know.”

Of particular note to educators is the Halversons' finding that fan knowledge and primary activity expertise go both ways. An expert fantasy baseball player's knowledge of the primary activity (MLB) “enables hypothesis testing that makes you an expert fantasy player.” But perhaps more importantly, expertise in the fantasy game creates heightened expertise in the primary activity as well. This could result in broad applications for teachers who wish to apply the competitive fandom model to teaching a wide range of other subjects. It could also impact game designers who want to better understand how and why players engage on a deep level with games.

GLS - Beyond Games and the Future of Learning

Gee James Gee kicked off the 4th Games, Learning, and Society Conference with a talk entitled “Beyond Games & the Future of Learning.” Gee is Professor of Literacy at Arizona State University and the author of What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy (2003) and Why Video Games Are Good For Your Soul (2005).

Gee sees the current U.S. educational system as inadequate to the task of addressing the problems of an increasingly complex world. He stated that “21st century learning must be about understanding complex systems,” and he believes many video games do a better job at this than the antiquated sender-receiver teaching model that dominates American classrooms.

“We're at the point where we must make choices. What do we want to be about?” Gee sees two separate educational systems operating today: one a traditional approach to learning; the other what Gee calls “passion communities.” In Gee's view, the latter produce real knowledge. Video games, virtual worlds and online social networks provide environments in which theses passion communities can form and thrive.

Passion communities encourage and enable people of all ages to do extraordinary things. Gee believes the 'amateur knowledge' that arises from this immersive involvement often surpasses 'expert knowledge,' and cited fantasy baseball as an example. The boundaries between the 'fantasy' game and the 'real' game have been blurred because fantasy players' expertise in statistical analysis has had a measurable impact on how MLB teams evaluate players.

Passion communities exist, according to Gee, to “give people status and control, not always money.” He recounted the story of a young girl who began making clothes for her Sims characters. When she wanted more textures than the game provided, she taught herself to use Photoshop to create her own. Eventually, she moved to Second Life and began selling her own original designs. When asked if she planned to pursue her interest in fashion, she said no. “I want to work with computers because they give you power.”

“This is an alternative learning system that teaches more effectively than most schools,” Gee observed. “We need to learn how to organize a learning, passion system community. Game designers know how to do this.”

Gee noted that games often require complex problem solving and cited Portal as an excellent example – noting ironically that the game can be seen as a parody of traditional schooling. He cited a description of the game from Valve's website: “The game is designed to change the way players approach, manipulate, and surmise the possibilities in a given environment." What, Gee wondered, if a school could do that? “Education isn't about telling people stuff, it's about giving them tools that enable them to see the world in a new and useful way.”

Gee believes games elicit empathy for a complex system. “That's what games at their best can do. The passive spectator gains insight by getting involved.” As players engage with games by creating mods, for example, they are creating tools that “theorize their play as they play.” World of Warcraft mods created by expert players “eventually eat the experience,” providing a kind of emergent play that is superior to the experience built by the designers.

Gee sees broad implications for students in this regard. “Give students smart tools and let them use them and modify them to suit their purposes.” Such self-motivated learning moves students away from merely consuming knowledge and encourages them to produce knowledge and apply it in meaningful ways. Furthermore, Gee observed, when communities form around these activities, they are linked by a common endeavor, rather than by race, class, gender, or disability.

Gee clearly situates video games within an overall theory of learning and literacy with genuine power to transform students and equip them to address complex problems. If passion communities could be formed to solve real-world problems like hunger and environmental degradation, Gee believes we would be much better equipped to face these issues head-on. The challenge, according to Gee, isn't just about teaching our kids; it's about ensuring they have a viable world to live in.