Friday, October 19, 2012

MeaningfulPlay 2012 Day 1

I am writing from the MeaningfulPlay 2012 conference, a biannual conference held at Michigan State University. I have two travelling companions: Nick, an undergraduate who was on my VBC team, and Michael, graduate student and president of the BSU Society for Game Design and Development.

The opening keynote was by Donald Brinkman of Microsoft Research. It was an interesting presentation, although there was not much new there for me. It was an excellent presentation of ideas that I think are important for anyone in serious games to know, with a focus on his participation in OpenBadges. I have been on the fence regarding badges, originally dismissing them as extrinsic motivators, but since then I've realized that it's a tool that can be used for good or evil.

Donald Brinkman discussing the continuum of gamification from Bogostian to McGonigalian.
The best point Brinkman made was that badges give us data for longitudinal study. If a kid has an awesome learning experience, he should feel intrinsic satisfaction in the process; giving a badge simultaneously allows us to track how this particular person uses (or doesn't use) this learning in the future. Since our current system only tracks numbers, which we know don't actually represent learning, this gives a powerful new vector for information processing at Internet scale.

He also included an excellent distinction between education and training, a presentation of the contrast that I had not previously seen. It comes from James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games.

To be prepared against surprise is to be trained.
To be prepared for surprise is to be educated.
Education discovers an increasing richness in the past, because it sees what is unfinished there.
Training regards the past as finished and the future as to be finished.
Education leads to a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.
Training repeats a completed past in the future. Education continues an unfinished past into the future.
Along these lines, he raised the evocative question of "nomic badges" for the infinite learning game. His own guidelines for infinite games are that (a) participation has to be optional, (b) failure is certain, and (c) progress is angular. I certainly feel like Brinkman is a kindred spirit, but I did not have the opportunity to find him later in the day. I got the impression he was only going to be around for the first day of the conference, but I'll keep my eyes open. I would like to talk to him particularly about the plan for dealing with the overwhelming bureaucracy of public education.

Good quotation: "... High stakes assessment. Get the hell away from it."

Turns out that Brinkman has also been fighting the good fight against tchotchkes and has been pushing Microsoft toward more ecologically-responsible solutions. He gave away a dozen epiphytes to those who asked questions, complete with Microsoft-branded misters. In fact, Nick got one, shown below.

After the keynote, I went to a panel organized by the people who write the PlayThePast blog. It was good to see these people in person, as I am a regular reader and even a contributor. I was most excited to see Ethan Watrall, who I have met before, and Roger Travis, who I had never met. Turns out Ethan was double-booked and couldn't make the panel, and Roger was being beamed in via Skype. Still, I got to chat with Roger a bit after the presentation by talking loudly and awkwardly into a computer screen, but it was still better than nothing. He had some interesting ideas on how to tie classics and humanities into a nascent paper I'm writing on games and software development... stay tuned.

The panel itself had interesting content, but it was too much "panel talks to you" and not enough "panel talks with you." There were only five minutes for questions at the end, at which point it may as well have been an ad hoc paper session. Still, I like the content, especially James' deconstruction of both published and fan-modded versions of historical board games. I need to think more about what this means from a designer's and academic's perspective.

After the panel and a not-quick-but-cheap lunch at a local Thai restaurant, I went to a paper session, which was OK. As with FDG, I was disappointed by the number of bullet points on slides. Maybe even worse, several presenters had complex data tables that they clicked through in under three seconds. It displays a disregard for the attendee, a failure to consider the needs of the observer. I hope that in my presentation, despite by 35 slides in 15 minutes (to be given day 2), people will be inspired to get more details from the paper. I was also disappointed in a particular presentation in which the presenter showed non-statistically-significant results, pointed out they were not significant, mentioned that they should not be presented because of the lack of significance, then referred to them again later, and brought them up in the conclusions, again pointing out that they weren't significant. Sounds like fishing to me.

The papers are given in 15 minute blocks, four of them in an hour session. This is a crazy pace. Questions are held until the end, at which point there's no time left. Malcolm Ryan was on a roll when he ran out of time, but I'm glad he took the extra minute to click through to his conclusions slide:

Well put.
The day's closing keynote was from Ann DeMarle, who talked about her project, BreakAway, a game ostensibly about preventing violence against women by changing the attitudes of youth. The game had an impossible set of constraints, among which were that it could not depict violence, it could not depict women as victims, and it had to be playable by anybody. For the narrative, they picked the universal language of soccer, which is really quite clever. DeMarle had a compelling story to tell, but we did not really get to see the core gameplay, and so I'm left wondering how the mechanics are tied to the learning objectives.

After a dinner break, there was a reception with a game showcase and research poster session. This is the session where my students presented Morgan's Raid and Museum Assistant. We got positive feedback from both, and once again, I felt great pride in my students and their work.

Nick is sporting a Root Beer Float Studio shirt, alternative design.
Michael is an pro at contextualizing the game in the history.
Also, there was an open bar. Note to myself: all conferences should have open bars.
A beer I drank, and a unicorn head I did not wear.
Also also, there was garlic & rosemary olive oil and dipping bread. Note to myself: not mandatory for all conferences, but highly recommended.

I spoke to a lot of interesting people, but the highlight was definitely talking to Geoff Kaufman from TiltFactor lab at Dartmouth. He had several games on his tables, the first of which I saw was Buffalo, a game that looks superficially like Apples to Apples and prompted me to ask if he was familiar with Bill Rapaport's famous sentence. (He was not.)

Geoff mentioned that the game is designed to reduce stereotypes. Now, there are a lot of people here making claims that are way beyond what's reasonable—especially at the showcase. I asked if they had studies that showed that the game worked, and to my pleasant surprise, they sure did. Turns out Geoff is a postdoc and actually runs these studies. We had a great conversation about how his lab operates, and he was eager to answer questions about all the games he brought. Long story short, I was blown away with how absolutely right these guys are doing it. By contrast, many of the other projects I saw clearly had spent more time on design justification than on design; maybe I'll write about them another time, but not now. Anyway kudos to TiltFactor.

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