Friday, October 19, 2012

MeaningfulPlay 2012, Day 2

Hot on the heels of finishing my Day 1 notes, here's day 2.

The morning keynote by Phaedra Boinodiris was excellent. She talked about the history, design, and development of the IBM's Innov8 series of games, and then went into more recent work with the military. These case studies provided her a platform to express her vision of serious games and meaningful play.

As I understand it, her vision is that in the near future, we will see more multiplayer networked serious games that are built upon real live data. She pointed out that the scientific models underlying the games are carefully designed but not intended to be perfect: rather, part of the game is recognizing when it is unrealistic, peeling back the interface layer, understanding the problems with the model, and thereby identifying new scientific questions. This is a powerful model, and I note that it relies upon computational thinking on the part of the player/analyst. That is, to get the most of the game, one needs to understand how these systems are assembled and made to work together. This seems like a great opportunity for clever interface design, to empower the maximal number of players to interact most effectively with the game system.

Phaedra presented a five-step approach to serious game design that I found interesting. (Sorry no photographs—lighting was terrible.) She referred to these as a "Five step approach to saving a LOT of time and money. Here's her list and my notes.

  1. ROI. She mentioned more than once that, to sell the idea of serious games to any potential partner, one needs to focus on return-on-investment.
  2. Learning/Pain Points. That is, identify the problem to be solved through serious games. The ordering of these first two is opposite of how I usually frame the discussion: I like to talk about the problem I'm solving, and then (sometimes) about how it might save some money. Maybe I'll try turning this around next time I pitch a project to an industrial connection.
  3. Puzzles/Experience to Teach and Motivate. If I understood her correctly, this is how she described the core design process: matching the game design to the problem to be solved. Like one of yesterday's presentations, she referred to avoiding "chocolate-covered broccoli," but I find myself feeling bad for broccoli. I guess I tend to root for the underdogs.
  4. Genre. 
  5. Platform. 'nuff said on these two.
After a break was the session in which I was speaking. 
The Green Room, about two minutes before the start of my presentation
The paper I presented is coauthored with Brian McNely, and it is titled, "A case study of a five-step design thinking process in educational museum game design." This is the second paper in a series based on my VBC seminar, the first having been published and presented at SIGDOC. This paper traced one thread of design from initial inspirations through to the finished Museum Assistant game. I was happy with the presentation and I think it was well received. I won't say anything else about it here, since the point of the post is to talk about the rest of my experience, but feel free to email if you'd like to know more about the work.

One of the talks after mine was given by Konstantin Mitgutsch, whom I had seen present at FDG. At MeaningfulPlay, he presented an analysis of several interviews he conducted with serious games designers about serious games. I found this work very interesting, and three specific points stand out in my memory. First, more than one of his interviewees identified Dungeons & Dragons as an inspirational serious game from their own youths. Second, there was significant variance in how these designers defined "serious game," despite their acclaim in this arena. Third, a vast majority of those he interviewed claimed to have no interest in formal assessment. I asked Konstantin later if he thought that this disregard for assessment was related to a conflation of "assessment" with "attempts at quantitative measurement," and he thought that was certainly part of it, as the designers generally expressed desires that their games "work" on the player.

I caught lunch with a group including some of the other speakers from my session. Three other gentlemen and I had an interesting conversation, much of it rooted in the challenges of games and politics, especially with respect to uncomfortable historical topics. We started a conversation about the problems of semantics in words like "fun," but I feel like that dropped off because people didn't want to touch it, which I think is a lost opportunity: I would like to see more rigorous treatment of syntax and semantics from the game studies perspective. Discrediting the word "fun" because it's used in widely different ways is not useful without a plan for representing the concepts associated with it, and I refer specifically here to Koster's use of "fun" to mean that particular kind of enjoyment that comes from learning—clearly distinct and distinguishable from silliness or glee. 

In the afternoon, I went to a session on mechanics, where the highlight for me was a paper on hybrid games that respect the human nature of play. Gifford Cheung described how digital implementations of games generally don't allow for much of what happens in a human play experience, such as modifying rules, allowing do-overs, etc. His particular project involved augmenting a smart phone with NFC and then using chip-enhanced playing cards. It looked a bit clunky, but I love the idea and was glad to hear about their philosophical approach. He used automatic bowling scoring systems as an example of a good design, in that you can go in and change a frame right away if something is inaccurate— you don't have to accept the error or wait until the end of the game. This was interesting to me, as I find these devices an abomination when the solution to this problem already exists: paper and math. Call me old fashioned, but to me, a big part of bowling is drawing on the scoreboard and filling in X's and slashes.

In the same session was an interesting paper about energy consumption challenges. I had not heard of this before, but they are games where buildings on college campuses compete to reduce their energy usage. The authors identified several problems with naive approaches to scoring such competitions. Not much else to say here except that it was interesting and well-presented, and you can find out more at the KukuiCup site.

Next afternoon session, the best bit was Lucas Blair's paper investigating the impact of achievements, and specifically how they integrate with gameplay, on what players get out of the play experience. I respect a scholar who is happy to tell the audience that his hypotheses were wrong, because this can be as interesting as if they are right.

I was hoping to talk to Lucas about his taxonomy of games, as I was surprised to hear him start by referring to achievements as metagame despite their clear integration with the game design process and particularly their utility as a feedback mechanism when, on a bit of a whim, I struck up a conversation with Scott Nicholson of Syracuse University. We ended up having a wide-ranging conversation, including a detailed discussion of what he's doing at Syracuse to get people involved in game design an development without creating a new academic program, and involving the wider community. I'll definitely be following up with him.

We talked with Scott for so long that this took us to dinner time, so my colleagues and I went to get some dinner. After a bit of searching, I was able to find the place where I met some MSU colleagues a year or two ago for beer rhetoric—Beggar's Banquet, where I had an excellent burger and a smooth Left Hand Milk Stout.

I would be remiss if I did not say that I started the day with coffee and Wi-Fi at COSI, a delicious soup and sandwich for lunch at COSI, and after dinner, tea and Wi-Fi at COSI. The staff have been very friendly, and the music is perfectly unoffensive and unobtrusive to both conversation and blogging. Thanks, COSI!

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