Sunday, October 21, 2012

MeaningfulPlay 2012, Day 3

(Day 1 | Day 2)

Saturday was the third and final day of the conference. The opening keynote was from John Ferrara, author of the recently-published Playful Design and creator of Fitter Critters, which took second place in the Apps for Healthy Kids challenge. He began with a discussion of the hype cycle and described how he believes serious games are nearing the peak of inflated expectation—a belief with which I tend to agree.

After a strong introduction in his talk, I was disappointed with Fitter Critters. I question the interface design, which was built upon showing detailed nutritional information to 8-12 year-olds. One of the features of which he was most proud was that players can scroll through the dozens of food choices and combine them to make new recipes, which if are healthy can be sold for more than the cost of the ingredients. I have to wonder, can you make chocolate-covered broccoli?

Ferrara claimed that realistic data is a critical element for serious game design, but I remain unconvinced. A question from the audience hit the nail on the head (although it was asked somewhat awkwardly and I don't think Ferrara caught this interpretation). Why should we believe that putting detailed nutritional information into a serious game will make children learn to make healthy decisions when we know that putting detailed military information into first-person shooters does not teach kids to shoot each other?

This train of thought—and conversations with my colleagues—helped me to articulate one of the problems I was having with the conference: there was much more talk about design justification than about design. Put another way, there was a lot of hype around ideas, but not much discussion of what players are actually doing. I could point to some specific examples, but I'm going to wait on that until I have time to write proper critical analyses. (I'm still sitting on some design frustrations from the game showcase at FDG!)

I missed the start of the next session, in part because the intersession break was reduced to 15 minutes. As I was considering which session to jump into, I was fortunate to run into Casey O'Donnell, who had asked a question after my talk that stuck in my head. The more I thought about it, the more I was convinced that I did not fully understand his question. We ended up talking for some time about game design, research, and higher education. I am looking forward to reading his work in which he conducted ethnographic studies of a commercial game studio, since this will provide an excellent counterpart to my and Brian McNely's study of the VBC environment.

I expressed to O'Donnell how I was still trying to understand who these "game studies" people were and what they valued. He described the ecosystem as involving game studies, industry, and makers as three parts of a Venn diagram, and that MeaningfulPlay was positioned roughly in between. I wondered at the lack of references to some of my favorite designer/writers—Koster, Cook, Burgun, Schell—and he helped me to understand something about "game studies" that I would never have thought of: many people in game studies intentionally separate themselves from makers, as a form of removing bias. In my mind, as a maker, I had been mistakenly characterizing their approach as unaligned with design, but in fact, it might be that it's more orthogonal. I'm going to have to read more of the non-maker game studies literature to try to build empathy for them, since as I mention below, we seem to value vastly different things.

But first, a few words about Lucas Blair of Little Bird Games. His talk Friday about achievements was very interesting: he designed a study around measuring the effectiveness of achievements, in various combinations, on player performance and retention in a serious game about PTSD. He presented his original hypotheses, many of which turned out to be false, and then described how he dove further into the research to try to understand why. I love it when scholars admit that it's not a rosy ride each time: in fact, if you don't report mistakes, I suspect you're either not honest or not doing challenging enough work!

In any case, I had a fascinating discussion with Blair and his colleague, Danielle Chelles. He provided more context about his BadgeForge project, a fascinating part of the Badges for Lifelong Learning initiative that is devoted to user-created badges. Blair's background in instructional design was clearly an asset in this endeavor, and I found myself in deep agreement with his fundamental premise: that the best way to promote lifetime learning was to allow learners to craft their own badges. The margins are too small to include all the details of our conversation, but it gave me a lot to think about—both as a professor and as a parent—and I look forward to following up with the good folks at Little Bird.

The closing keynote was given by Michael John of EA, who has had a long career in the games industry and, notably for this conference, has recently transitioned into a leadership position in GLASS, an attempt to throw AAA-commercial-scale resources at the problems of serious games. His presentation was engaging, as he told his story of growing up with coin-op arcades, being a 3D level designer in the dawn of commodity 3D graphics, and then moving into a leadership position at EA.

After the keynote, there was a short closing ceremony, including the awarding of prizes from the games showcase on Thursday. Once again, I don't want to point fingers—at least not yet—but some of the judges' choices for winners and runners-up really astounded me. Some of them had such bad interfaces as to be nearly unplayable, and not because of the complexity of the game, but simply because of a failure of human-centric design. Others struck me as pretentious concept pieces more appropriate for Ludum Dare or Global Game Jam. (I should know; I made The Escape.) Yet others struck me as clearly leading to goals completely contrary to the designer's intention, although with a lot of glam and glitz, earned thumbs-up from the judges. On the positive side, at least TiltFactor was recognized for their good work. 

To be clear, I'll be the first person to point out the flaws in my students' designs as well. That's my job, after all. I wonder what the job is of the judges, or what it is they value: concept? execution? packaging? To me, the only important thing for serious games is this: is it fit for the purpose? That is, does it work, does the play experience lead to the desired outcome? To this end, one has to consider what the player does, since this is what drives the learning. That certainly syncs up with everything I know about the science of teaching and learning, anyway. To this end, one who judges a game without playing is not judging the game at all but a marketing pitch.

I had a good time at MeaningfulPlay, although it did not match my expectations. Most disappointingly, and beyond disciplinary differences, some of the research presented simply did not match the criteria for scholarship presented in Glassick et al.—one of my favorite books on higher education. It was good for me to learn about the values of the community, especially with respect to the self-identified "game studies" scholars. The best part of the conference was that I met some really amazing people from all over the country, kindred spirits in industry and academia whose work I will certainly watch. I had a good laugh with a fellow associate professor about the post-tenure self-discovery process, and it's good to find role models in this space of academic makers. But reflections on which path I want to make for the next phase of my career is a topic for another day.

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