Thursday, June 13, 2013

GLS 2013 Conference Report, Day 2

This morning's keynote was from Mary Flanagan about her work at TiltFactor. I have been a vocal fan of her lab's work since meeting some of them at Meaningful Play. The keynote did not disappoint—except the part where she used non-horizontally-aligned 3D bar charts to display some data. Ack. In any case, bias was a theme of the presentation, and she referenced the Why So Few? report, which was not previously familiar to me. Flanagan shared an interesting study that showed how Apples to Apples and Awkward Moment, even though they share the same game mechanisms, produce significantly different psychological impact on players. In another study, her lab showed that females' performance in Blokus reduced dramatically depending only on whether it was introduced as a game, a strategy game, or a spatial game. Included in her presentation was a strong recommendation to read Timothy Wilson's Redirect, so I've put it on my summer reading list.

As the previous morning's keynote had done, Flanagan also addressed the issue of sustainable models. This makes me reflect on the choices I give to my own student teams. For example, last Spring's game development studio consciously and explicitly chose to design a game for a very specialized context: educational outreach programs at the Indiana State Museum. This is a very narrow niche! I wonder if perhaps I should be sharing more of the advice I'm hearing from recognized leaders in serious games, and if as a result we should be targeting wider markets. Of course, then university IP rules and commercialism raise their collective head, and that's just not a beast I've felt up to taming.

I attended the morning session on assessment, and the first paper was presented by Jodi Asbell-Clark, director of the Educational Gaming Environments group at TERC. She described work evaluating Impulse, a physics education game. Notably, the game is designed for implicit learning, something I am interested in. She described the game as "situating game mechanics in scientific behaviors." They heavily instrumented the game to produce rich player activity data and combined this with both interviews and video recordings of players. This is yet more encouragement for me to push my teams to include meaningful logging data with all of our educational projects. An interesting anecdote from the presentation was that kids who liked science tended to also like science-like puzzle games and to also see their relevance to their lives, whereas kids who reported as not liking science did neither. I need to make time to read the full paper, as the presentation was full of great ideas that I would like to explore in my own work.

The next presentation was a study connected to Projenitor X. The big takeaway for me here was a reference to Kevin Dunbar's work on the critical and inspirational role of failure in scientific discovery. It's certainly something for me to look into after the conference.

Dan Hickey's presentation was my primary reason for attending the assessment session, since yesterday he promised to talk about why we should only be assessing reflections, not the other artifacts students are making. He presented a new assessment model based upon Engle and Conant's 2002 Cognition and Instruction article on productive disciplinary engagement, which I have not yet read but look forward to doing. He also strongly recommended Torrance's 2007 Assessment in Education piece—similarly not yet read but bookmarked.

During his talk, Hickey admitted to being a convert from individual differences psychometrics to sociocultural psychology. After the three talks, the discussant framed all three from an explicitly cognitivist perspective, Andrea diSessa's in particular. I'm still learning bits of both traditions, but from what I know, I suspected that this framing was not true to Hickey's core theories; so, I posed the question of why Hickey chose the sociocultural route. I have to admit, I had a hard time following the answer, but I think that's because it was based in a lot of the references that he had previously shared. I think this is a rich area for me to study, to help me to better understand assessment as well as sociocultural theories. Then, I'll ask Hickey again, and perhaps be better prepared to understand the answer!

Later in the day, Jim Bower shared some stories from his career, the most relevant of which to me was his articulation of the partnership model rather than the client model for educational software. This is something that we occasionally struggle with in the immersive learning model at Ball State, and the message sent by the university does not always match either the reality or the intention. Bower made a point that it is challenging to work with subject-matter experts who assume kids should love their content as much as they do, and when asked to elaborate on this, he described how educating partners as well as the end users was part of his goal.

I have a note in my notebook, "I should make a tower defense game." I have never made one. It would probably be a fun project. Maybe next GGJ or Ludum Dare.

A presenter referenced the term "intrinsic integration," which I have not heard before. It seems to reference designing games in which the player activity aligns with what you want them to learn. I talk about this a lot in my papers and teaching, but I never thought it needed a name. I suppose I should do a bit of legwork and figure out what communities are using this term so I can be sure to use it to help frame my theories of effective game design.

I went on a tour of Filament Games in the afternoon, mostly because I wanted to see how they used space and managed their talent. I verified that we had permission to take photos, which I assume means I can share them here. Not the best documentary evidence, I admit, but enough for me to share a few comments below.

Filament organizes into worker-units called "pods" that consist of two programmers and one UX designer. These pods then are connected with a producer, game designer, audio designer, etc., to tackle development tasks. The space in their studio leveraged this structure, with pods tightly collocated and separated from each other by dividers. Illustrators sat together and game designers sat together, but the space was clearly open enough that face-to-face communication was easy to achieve. Indeed, as we visited and ate lunch, I saw such informal meetings occur.

The tour was led by Maurice Cheeks, who mentioned that they follow agile practices, and so I was surprised when I did not see conventional artifacts such as Kanban boards or Scrum boards. I was able to talk with Gregg Sanderson, a project director, about how they track time and effort. They make significant use of Jira supplemented with Google Docs. He was kind enough to show some live data from Jira about stories, sprints, and estimates, which was great to see. Two particular pieces that stood out to me was that it looked like they had people assigned to fine-grained stories, not tasks, and that each of the disciplinary specialists (programmers, designers, etc.) provided their own estimates to complete their parts. After seeing it, I think I will likely stick with my familiar sticky-note approach in the short term, but depending on what kind of team I can recruit for next Spring, it's good to know what options are out there. (Did I mention I have a cool new project next academic year? More on that another time.)

Later in the afternoon, I heard someone make the claim that a game in which a player can click on animated animals for hints counts as helping the player to learn social-emotional skills. I find this hard to swallow, but I did not feel like challenging them, since I was getting myself psyched up for the next session.

My coffee, about 4oz left for the presentation.
I was the last speaker in my session. The first described an analysis of some of the iCivics games (coincidentally developed by Filament) and the second provided a theoretical model for how game design and civic engagement are intrinsically connected. My talk was a bit different, not dealing with civics or civics education, but rather with what real people actually learn by playing Morgan's Raid.

The Friendly Audience at GLS 2013
I'm happy to share the paper with anyone who's interested, but the short version is that this was Lyle Franklin's undergraduate honors thesis collaboratively transformed into a conference paper, with some additional input from my colleague Ronald Morris. He conducted a semistructured interview and thinkaloud gameplay with fifth graders in order to answer the broad question, "What does a student learn when playing Morgan's Raid?" We discovered three themes in the data. First, the students did learn about some of the important facts of the raid: who Morgan was, what he did, that it was part of the Civil War. Second, students demonstrated increased empathy after playing the game, both for the people of Indiana in 1863 as well as for Morgan and his raiders. Third, the student's youth-culture interpretations of parts of the game—particularly the words "chaos" and "reputation"—led them toward historically counterfactual conclusions. Fascinating stuff!

This was the end of the business day, so I enjoyed a beer and a nice dinner on the Terrace before returning to see how my family's day was in lovely Madison, Wisconsin. But that's the topic for another post.

[Day 1][Day 3]

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