Sunday, October 14, 2018

Notes from Meaningful Play 2018

One of many effective learning techniques that my students don't use is transcribing their notes. I was reminded of this when I took many pages of notes at the 2018 Meaningful Play conference. I decided it might be fun to share my list of odds and ends here. Perhaps there will be something here that the interested reader might learn from, or at the very least, it gives me a chance to create a digital archive that I can return to.

Tracy Fullerton mentioned a book called Wanderlust: A History of Walking. That could be interesting.

She also mentioned a Situational Game Design, whose abstract claims that it is about analyzing games as player experiences rather than systems. This could also be good, and it makes me wonder how it compares to Chris Bateman's writings about games as being constituted of player practices and with the systems approaches that I tend to like from folks like Koster, Cook, and Burgun.

Fullerton was making a case that games should be about interesting situations, and that this should include meditative play. She gave an example of a meditation-reward system in Walden: having Thoreau pause and look over a scenic setting rewarded the player with a little narration. To me, this raises the question: who is meditating, the player or the character? She gave several examples of games that included this kind of mechanism, but there weren't any compelling counterexamples given. It left me with a sense that maybe I didn't understand her, or maybe she assumed the listeners were already on the same wavelength. A particular call was made to move "beyond mechanics, beyond systems" and toward "a series of meaningful situations" in game design. The problem I have with this is that having Thoreau narrate his meditative experiences is system design. I didn't have these thoughts fully assembled in time for the Q&A, and I did not have a chance to talk with her later in the conference. I appreciate her sharing her work-in-progress ideas about where to take game design. That is, after all, a lot of what I do here.

Well Played has a CFP about intergenerational gameplay, and the idea is for the intergenerational players also coauthor an article about the experience. I'm thinking of trying this with my sons, probably the oldest one.

Ann Arbor is known as a fairy town, with little hidden fairy doors throughout the city. People geocache with these doors too. I need to tell my colleagues at Minnetrista about this, in case they don't know about it already.

The city of Brussels has a tour based on comic art. I need to send this to Easel Monster.

Is reading Finnegan's Wake worth it? Paul Darvasi says so, and he's one of the coolest scholars I know. He also said you can't "read" it, but rather you "study" it, time and time again. It sounds fascinating, maybe it's like the English literature version of Godel Escher Bach.

I heard someone refer to "gamification" as "punish by reward", referring to how it uses extrinsic motivations to diminish actual learning results. I need to keep that in mind for this workshop I've been asked to run at BSU about game-based learning.

Eric Zimmerman seemed to me to be separating games, systems, and play in his keynote. Part of what gave this away was a slide with those three words on it, and that he talked about them as separate. I had a hard time with this, since I see them as not just interconnected, but essentially the same—at least when done well. I asked Darvasi about this and he pointed me to Zimmerman's Ludic Century manifesto, which covers the same ground and, fortunately, is shorter than Finnegan's Wake. As with my earlier notes, I don't have all my ducks quite in a row here yet, but let me share the gist of it. This is informed, without a doubt, by Cockburn's Heart of Agile philosophy. There are systems in nature that are studied by natural scientists. Other systems arise from human behavior, and the intentional ones are studied by the sciences of the artificial. A good designer must recognize that the system they design fits into a bigger system, and that people have experiences before and after, and sort of parallel to, their systems. These systems are like software: we design them as specifications, but they have dynamic behaviors. We design them statically, we hope for the dynamic behavior we want. To design intentionally for humans requires accounting for human nature, which is playful; put another way, if you design for humans and you don't account for their playfulness, you are not doing good design. I think this is the right idea but I need to work on the articulation. I am very grateful to Andrew Peterson for listening to me as I tried to sort out my thoughts about this, and who constructively disagreed with me, and Mars Ashton, who said essentially, "Yes, it's all just design."

One of the best presentations I saw was by Sandra Danilovic. She organized a game jam for people with a variety of disabilities and welcomed them to make games about their disabilities if they desired, and she conducted a qualitative study around the event. One of her findings she called logopoiesis, which was essentially about the healing power of computational thinking (as I understand it from the presentation). I asked her if this particular factor was tied into the fact that these people were making games versus, say, film or poetry. Turns out she herself had background in a variety of arts, and she said two particular cases in her study dealt with the challenges of problem solving through programming and with the meditative act of arranging pixel art. These things she found in her analysis to be separable from the other characteristics. I thought this was fascinating: there is a lot of rhetoric about the power of computational thinking (more rhetoric than empiricism, but maybe that's unavoidable), and I have said for years that computing is really a new liberal art. This was the first time, though, that I have come across the therapeutic value of it, as related to its poesis (the making of a thing that did not exist before—a definition I had to check because it's not in my usual lexicon).

I learned about the game Night in the Woods, which sounded quite interesting. The more I heard about it, though, it also started sounding more and more nihilistic. I'm not sure if it should go on my to-play list or not. The speaker also recommended Wandersong, which I also didn't know much about. I seem to be behind the times on trendy indie games. Heck, I just finished Bard's Tale IV, a sequel to a game from thirty years ago, so "behind the times" may actually be generous.

Someone recommended I check out Mark Rosewater's Ten Things Every Game Needs. They said it was a good summary of ideas, well articulated though not groundbreaking. I did not write down who made this recommendation and cannot remember now. I just scrolled through, and it looks reasonable.

I had a great conversation with Andrew Peterson during a "dinner break" when neither of us felt like going and getting dinner. He shared with me several interesting ideas he uses in his game design class. First, he has completely "flipped" the class. They do readings and preparation on their own, and class sessions are almost entirely devoted to teams working on their prototypes. The teams are randomly assigned themes from a brainstormed list. His students have a week 12 ship date, at which point they have to have their materials sent off to Game Crafter. The physical prototype that arrives is what he then grades. This front-loads the work into the earlier part of the semester and allows for more slack time for the students in the last three weeks, when their other classes tend to build to fever pitch. Peterson also mentioned that as an instructional designer and game designer, what he likes to do is ask faculty what they don't like to teach from a course: identify the variables, determine which can be turned into a game. This also might be useful for me as I start prepping for my own campus presentation on games in learning.

I met Chris Totten, who said the most perfect and quotable thing over breakfast: Games should be good. He is clearly a like-minded individual.

Kate Edwards supposedly has an excellent talk about imposter syndrome. I think this must be it. I was at a table with some very talented people, all of whom had stories about how they themselves had been touched by imposter syndrome and how they knew some of their heroes also did. This is interesting by itself, but one also mentioned how he teaches his game design students about imposter syndrome and the Dunning-Kruger effect. He has them do a short jam of sorts to show off their skills to their cohort, after which it is easy for people to feel outclassed. He introduces these topics then, and he reminded our table that students generally are unaware of these phenomena. It made me think, I should do something like this in many of my classes as well.

Henry Petroski has a book about the pencil. That sounds amazing.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities sounds like a great book about urban planning. Some colleagues were very excited about this work, enough to make me think it could be worth looking into.

A friend told me about a talk that Jesse Schell gave at GDC about grant funding in which he set a $50 bill ablaze. I was able to reach out to him for the link, and I look forward to watching it later.

A speaker happened to mention that he uses one-page design documents successfully in an upper-division game design and development class for Computer Science majors. This surprised me, since the times I've tried it, I've found the assignment confounded by my students' lack of visual communications and document design skills. It sounds like they are doing the designs on whiteboards, but they're also iterating on them during the semester. I sent out an email asking for more information last night, and this morning—as I continue this lengthy post—I have already received a response. They have their students start with whiteboard designs and make them progressively more refined during the semester. I also see that I think we were using different terms for the same thing. They are drawing upon David Osorio's style, where a "one-page" is more of a pitch document, whereas I use the term drawing upon Stone Librande's, where it replaces a design document. What they're doing in Osorio's style, which incorporates images and two-dimensional design, I have my students do using Tim Ryan's concept document format, which privileges text.

One of the best talks I saw, both in terms of content and form, was by Jessica Hammer. Her work was inspired by research findings that students don't get better at giving feedback during the semester if the skill is not taught. Hammer presented her EOTA model for helping students give feedback to their peers after playtesting. "EOTA" is an acronym that walks through the kinds of feedback that should be given in sequence, the expansion being: Experience (I thought..., I felt...), Observations (I saw...), Theories (Therefore...), and Advice (You might...). She described a learning experience where the designer had to remain silent during the whole feedback process, although she amended that to include that the designer could say "Thank you." I look forward to reading her whole paper once the proceedings are up, because I think this is the kind of thing I can bring into many of my classes to help students learn how to give and receive feedback.

Another wonderful pedagogic structure she described was to have students write down their favorite snacks on a survey at the start of the semester. Then, when a team does really well, she can bring in those students' favorite treats in honor of their accomplishments. This is very clever, since it doesn't put anyone on the spot: the students who did well know it was them, and everyone gets to enjoy the treats. I need to keep this in mind as I'm planning next semester's courses, although maybe this will have to wait until Fall 2019 just due to the teaching I expect to be assigned for Spring.

A keynote speaker mentioned the concept design fixation, which is when one gets caught thinking of an object only for its conventional purpose. I jot this down here just because it's a useful term that I'm not sure I would have thought of, had I been looking for it.

I met Derek Hansen who is teaching cybersecurity and using games, so I just sent him some info about Social Startup Game, which Kaleb Stumbaugh and I created as a research and design project a few years ago. I had to look up where we presented our findings besides the S2ERC Showcase, and it turns out that was Meaningful Play 2016. Unfortunately, when you look for the proceedings of this conference, they are nowhere. I have emailed the conference organizers a few times over the past two years to ask about it, in part because I am so happy with the evaluation that Kaleb and I conducted. Still, however, no paper in the proceedings. A copy of the paper is available on the project site, however, so interested readers can check that out. (I forgot it was there, so in fact I just rebuilt the paper from LaTeX sources to send to Hansen. Oh well.)

A speaker strongly recommended Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano, which I am sure I've never read. Maybe that would be a good piece of fiction to offset all the non-fiction building up in my reading list.

A keynote was given by Katherine Isbister, whose work on wearable technology was not previously known to me. I am sending her name to some friends studying HCI.

A speaker brought up the idea that karaoke-style games can help people learn to pitch correct. It made me wonder if there are good ones that my kids can use. Some of them clearly love to sing, but I find it hard to teach them to hear where the notes go.

Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure. Gunman Taco Truck. Ian Schreiber has been kind enough to talk to me quite a bit about "fam-jams", or family game-jams, and these two games are great inspirations. I think I already wrote about how my oldest son made two complete games at the last Global Game Jam, whereas mine barely worked. It inspires me to find opportunities to do some more creative collaboration with my kids. Chief among his tips are that when working with your children, you should do what they say—not necessarily what they want, but what they say. Watch this blog for details.

I overheard a friend mention a book called something like "Just Keep Writing," and he said that although the book was about creative writing, it could just as easily be applied to games. I am not sure what the specific book was, but I'm sure he's right. It brings up a thought that came up all during the conference for me: I should make more.

In her keynote address Saturday morning, Diana Hughes from Age of Learning brought up mastery learning. This is the idea that students may not move forward in the curriculum until they have shown that they have mastered antecedent work. It struck me that this is essentially a tech tree or a skill tree in games: you cannot build the next thing until you build its predecessors.

I attended a workshop about The Agile Teacher. It is a game created to help teachers—particularly new teachers—to explore active learning techniques. The game presented each group with a context, ours being a mathematics seminar with 10 or more students. Each group presented their findings to the rest of the room. By design, groups were supposed to have a context in which no one at the table was an expert. The designers explained that they had seen cases where the one person at the table who is from that area would tend to dominate the conversation. That makes sense. However, I also noticed (and shared with the designers) a fascinating phenomenon: without pedagogical content knowledge, every group designed activities that represented stereotypical understandings of the domain. The groups that had drawn Math as their domain reverted to a high-school understanding of math as essentially computation. The groups that drew Science worked on techniques to help students memorize taxonomies. Computation and taxonomies are both parts of math and science, but they are ancillary. It's not exactly a flaw with their game, since it was doing what it was designed to do (namely, foster conversation), but it was an interesting phenomenon nonetheless. It made me think about how I have seen people at my institution pigeonhole other faculty because they think they understand the others' domain. Maybe it's an instance of good old, "You're a Computer Science Professor? Can you help me with my printer?"

The final session I attended was another workshop, this one given by the aforementioned Andrew Peterson about his game, enRolled. The game is designed for new college students, to get them thinking about the impacts of their decisions as students. His motivation was excellent: as an adjunct, he was handed a course where he was supposed to lecture new students about how to succeed, and he realized that lecturing about these topics was of limited value. Peterson then worked with his students to design the first incarnation of a game to convey similar ideas. The difference was that student would engage in meaningful and authentic discussion around how to codify things like drinking and studying as game mechanisms, whereas they were hesitant to do so in a dry lecture. Very clever. He said a few times, "The game sucks," pointing to its dependence on random events and lack of balance. However, he was also clear that it does what it was designed to do: foster important conversations. This is an interesting dovetailing into my previous notes, reflections, and conversations around what design really is. In this case, Peterson has a playful conversation generator that happens to be a game, and so its fitness function is not about balance but about authenticity of emergent conversation. The game can be purchased one-off from The Game Crafter, but he also mentioned that he hopes to run a Kickstarter to print many copies at once and therefore reduce the price.

There was one particular story that Andrew shared with me that I want to capture here, so that I can re-tell it to my game design students. I hope that he doesn't mind my doing so. When he was working with this students on enRolled, the task was to determine the relative negative points of drinking and drugs. Andrew started with the idea that drugs would be worth -10 and alcohol, -2. His students, however, disagreed, justified by the prevalence of alcohol abuse. Very few of them knew someone who dropped out of school because of drugs; they all knew several who had dropped out due to alcohol. What a great example of how game design gave rise to new insights and conversations!

That's the end of my notes. I've shared here almost everything within my pocket notebook, just skipping some of my notes about questions to ask presenters that turned out to be not worth sharing here. Other interesting things happened during the conference as well, but my goal here was not to write a conference report but only to assemble the thoughts that I wrote in my pocket notebook. (Variations on these notebooks have always been in my pocket since reading Pragmatic Thinking and Learning, by the way.) I am tired out from the conference and feeling a little apprehension at the coming week, knowing that I now have to catch up on a backlog of tasks. If you have made it this far through my notes, know that I'm happy to discuss any of these ideas with you in the comments or future communications. Many thanks to the organizers of the conference for such an inspiring event, and thanks to those attendees who shared their knowledge, wisdom, stories, and advice.

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