Saturday, June 15, 2013

GLS 2013 Conference Report, Day 3

[Day 1][Day 2]

Constance Steinkuehler gave a fantastic keynote presentation this morning. She gave a reflection primarily on her year at the Office of Science and Technology Policy in Washington DC. She focused her comments in four domains: federal agencies, philanthropic agencies, the games industry, and academic consortia. The talk was recorded for Webcast, although the link doesn't work as of this writing.

One of her major points was that we need more businesses coming out of serious games, particularly to deal with the pernicious problems of maintenance, marketing, and community. This echoes what Schoettler said Wednesday and Flanagan described doing on Thursday: seeing commercialism as a means to an end. I find this compelling as I consider my own corpus of work and current interests. However, I also fear the negotiations with university IP people. I chatted with a colleague who works in a start-up, and he described how university lawyers killed a private-public partnership over a $15,000 grant. That's peanuts for any serious project, and from his story, they wasted much more than the overhead cost of the grant in their conversations around it. The school he was working with was larger—and more successful with external funding—than my own. However, Steinkuehler also made a strong argument during Q&A that to get anything done requires people and resources, but that people are the hardest part: if you want to see something done, you have to be the one to invest the effort to make it happen. By that token, I suppose I should bite the bullet and not shy away from the more ambitious projects. I think she used the term "Own that ulcer for two years," which got a laugh, but I feel I need to seriously consider the value of my own time and happiness as well, and that of my family.

She made a strong call as well for the GLS community to be playing, critiquing, and spreading the word about each others' games. This is a nice idea, but I wonder if the community tries to keep on its kids gloves a bit too much. The last two games I've played in this vein were overproduced garbage. That is, the gameplay did not match the learning objectives at all, and the narrative could very convincingly be argued to teach the opposite of their goals.

Steinkuehler described her frustration in trying to collaborate with AAA publishers on learning games, coming to the conclusion that they just couldn't justify the lesser revenue to their shareholders, and that the megapublishers are necessarily risk averse. By contrast, she made the valuable and justifiable claim that we—the community that designs and develops learning games—are indie developers, and we need to embrace that. In particular, she encouraged everyone to go to GDC and walk through the Indie Arcade. Easy sell for me: that trip's going into my next grant proposal.

The four parting points of the keynote were: collaborate; we need more businesses; stop using the "chocolate-covered broccoli" metaphor (because of what one has to believe in order for this metaphor to be meaningful); and that happiness is a global priority (and so not to back away from "fun").

After the keynote, I ended up in a session that was a bit outside my interest area, but I was curious as to what happened in it. The most entertaining talk was one by Edd Schneider and Tony Betrus who reported on a series of experiments on task completion in GTA. The part I found most interesting was how they took a series of easy, medium, and hard tasks and compared the results between having the tasks ordered by a teacher (starting with easy, then into medium, then into hard) versus allowing the player to choose which ones to do in what order. They found that the teacher's choice resulted in the players completing more tasks, but the player's choice resulted in the them completing more hard tasks. Schneider and Betrus argued that this was a win for both cognitivists and constructivists, highlighting that they produced better results—while acknowledging that constructivists probably care less about learners completing small irrelevant tasks.

After this, I wandered over to the Education Arcade, my first trip there of the conference. I walked through to get a feel for what was there, and I overheard a great question from Roger Travis, who was giving feedback to a designer (I think): "What's the verb of the learning objective?" This is the kind of question I've heard posed regarding course syllabi particularly when I was serving on the College Curriculum Committee and as departmental Undergraduate Program Coordinator. I think it's a useful technique for sharpening the discussion of learning outcomes. Yet, I had never thought to apply it to serious games, which surprised me. I had just presented yesterday on the learning objectives for Morgan's Raid, as articulated by the original design class, and they were pretty raw; they wouldn't pass muster on the College Curriculum Committee, that's for sure. I'll need to keep this in mind when I work with this coming Fall's game design course to see if we can make some hay out of this.

Walking through the Education Arcade, I saw a poster about Monsterismus, a game to teach programming. Well, that's up my alley. Turns out it's by Matthew Berland, who was a discussant in several sessions I attended the previous two days, and whose comments at the time made him seem like a kindred spirit. Berland, Don Davis, and I, along with a chap whose name I did not jot down, ended up talking at length about games to teach programming, and I used the opportunity to bounce some of my latest thoughts off of them, including breaking the C-style programming mold (such as by using stream-based or prototype-based languages) and incorporating programming as player action in board games. I tried writing a lengthy blog post on these ideas at the end of last semester, but I had a very hard time inventing a vocabulary with which I was happy; fortunately, these guys seemed to grok where I was coming from, and I look forward to continued conversations with them as well as seeing where their work takes them. (Incidentally, Berland and Davis are also involved in IPRO, a game for iOS that is played by programming soccer robots, for those of you in the Mac space. I guess you can find it on your AppStore, or something.)

After lunch was a fireside chat with Jim Gee, but it was a bit anticlimactic since he mostly talked about The Anti-Education Era, which I just read. He is clearly something of a superhero to many in this community, and he had some good stories. Gee pointed out that schooling should not be geared toward jobs since 3/5 of the jobs are in the service sector and require only rudimentary training; instead, education has to be about something bigger than merely certification for employment. In a similar vein, he mentioned that education is a complex system, and that it is known that control studies cannot work in complex systems because you cannot fix the input variables. Yet, policymakers don't seem to understand this. I would have had some questions for Gee, in particular from my criticism of aspects of the book, but they were only accepting questions via Twitter, which is not a thing I do. I don't mind not having asked my question, but it was strange to me that they limited questions to this one technology.

Several awards were scheduled to be given next, and I was contemplating skipping this part. I tend not to like award ceremonies, but GLS did it right. They brought up a slide with a bunch of names on it and asked all those people to come to the front. Then, they ran through all the categories, handed out the awards, cheered, and were done in five minutes. Attention everybody: if you need to give awards at a conference, do it this way.

In summary, I found this to be an excellent conference. The mix of attendees was refreshing, including professionals (including non-profits such as museums), academics, and teachers. I was able to get lot of new references to read about, which is always good. I definitely hope to return again in the near future, and given that it's in driving distance, perhaps I can convince some of my students to come along as well.

It was good to see some friends at this conference too, people I have met at other conferences and online. When I started working in serious games about three years ago, I felt very disconnected from any community of practice. Now, I feel like there are people whom I can contact for help and inspiration, and indeed, several of the people I've met through these conferences have been generous in sharing their stories and advice.

For those of you who read this far, I will share my collection of Conference Tips from my trip to GLS. Note that most of these are based on mistakes committed (often unwittingly) by graduate students in attendance, but not all.
  • If you come to the microphone to give any kind of formal talk, and you have not been introduced, introduce yourself.
  • Don't say you're interested in making a game to "target women." They're half the population. That's not a target.
  • If your volunteers have shirts, don't put, "Have questions? I can help!" on the back of the T-shirt. This means the person who can help is already walking away from you. Put this on the front.
  • Never put light text on dark slides: it fails with a modicum of ambient light. There's certainly no excuse for this if you're from the host institution and know the rooms that will be used.
  • Don't put thing on the slides that people cannot read, and then tell them it's not important to be able to read it. Design your slides differently.
  • When giving a presentation, don't use a friend as a remote control. Get an actual remote control, or manipulate the slides yourself. It's less distracting than your trying to tell the other person when to move forward or backward.
  • Don't use 3D bar charts for any purpose. They're just bad visualizations. Exceptions can be made for irony.
  • Don't use pie charts either, 2D or 3D. They're ineffective and misleading. Exceptions can be made for pie charts describing their own similarity to Pac-Man.
  • Be aware of the British and American hand signs that involve sticking fingers up at people, and to be safe, don't use any of them. That is, if you need to count, do it with your palm to the audience.
Ice cream on the terrance? Yes, please.
See you next time, Madison.


  1. Paul, I'm thankful for your reflections. I'm preparing a presentation for ITiCSE next month and you've pointed me to several good studies in your last few posts that I'm eager to incorporate.

    1. Glad you found it useful! I think I'll be writing a meta-report soon on my year of writing conference reports.