Saturday, September 25, 2021

A custom timer for P&T secretaries

I am my department's Promotion and Tenure (P&T) committee chair, which means I also have to serve as departmental representative on the College of Sciences and Humanities P&T Committee. My college is divided into three domains: natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities. For historical and somewhat arbitrary reasons, my department is in the natural sciences domain, so I am also on the Natural Sciences Domain Subcommittee of the College of Sciences and Humanities P&T Committee (or NSDSCSHPTC for short). 

The first order of business at the first meeting of the NSDSCSHPTC was to elect a chair. I have not been on the college P&T committee since the institution of a college-level fourth-year review procedure, so I suggested that whomever is chair should be someone who has done this before. My friend Tony mentioned that he had been on the committee last year and was quickly and unanimously elected chair. The next order of business was to elect a secretary. One of the other committee members observed that the secretary's main responsibility is keeping track of time during deliberations and that modern timekeeping devices are powered by software. I was thereby nominated to the position and then quickly and unanimously elected. 

I made a quick joke about how, being a Computer Scientist, I did not trust software. Then I heard about the timekeeping process, which involves strictly timing a three-minute opening statement, a twenty-minute deliberation period, and, by majority vote, theoretically endless ten-minute extensions to the deliberation. My next thought was that software can make this better.

So it came to pass that, on a Saturday afternoon that involved my being up in my office in the Robert Bell building for a few hours, I put together a Promotion and Tenure Timer. It's written in Flutter, is licensed under GPL v3.0, has its sources hosted on GitHub, and you can use it online at

Friday, September 17, 2021

MDA and the Game of School

We had an excellent discussion in my game design class yesterday about emotions in games. I have a stable set of readings and assignments that I have used several years for this meeting, and it's become one that I really look forward to. One little mix-up between my notes and the course plan, though, was that I thought I required them to prepare posters to present their work, but in fact, I had only asked them to post on a discussion board. We ended up having one volunteer share his work, and that was enough for us to have a great discussion. 

Because they didn't have posters on the wall, I didn't know who had completed the assignment and who had not. I was surprised, then, when I student came up to me after class to share with me what they did instead of the assignment. (This was a public hallway discussion, so I don't mind sharing it in general here, though I will dodge some particulars.) This student shared that they were feeling frustrated with school in general and so they decided to do an MDA analysis of "school." 

The student's conclusion from the analysis was that school is a game of managing diminishing resources. They saw that resources like sleep, socializing, and course grades are always running out, and you have to determine which one to prioritize. An example was that you might have a "B" in a course, but you might let that diminish in favor of putting effort into a course where there is greater perceived need. In analyzing the dynamics, the student observed that the extant systems induce an expectation of particular grades or achievement, which in turn induce a feeling of disappointment when these goals are not met.

We had just briefly discussed in class how theorists like Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois attempted to use play as a framework for describing anthropology or sociology, and I agreed with her assessment: that school seems to have all the properties of being a game. The student seemed a bit pessimistic about it, although by their own admission, they were operating on no sleep. I congratulated her on the appropriate use of the MDA framework to analyze her situation, but I also encouraged her to take a step back and ask why the system is the way that it is. I shared my favorite reference here: John Taylor Gatto's famous essay, "Against School." In it, Gatto describes the six goals of compulsory education as presented in Alexander Inglis's 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education. I expressed to the student something I've said often before: if we understand the goals for which school was designed, we can come to understand some of the deleterious secondary systems that have emerged. However, by the same token, we can also think like designers and consider how to either re-design core systems or hack existing ones. I am a radical, meaning literally that I want to return to the roots, but wholesale redesign tends to tilt too hard against the windmills.

It was a heavy hallway conversation, and I am honored to have been trusted with the story. At the same time, the student did this MDA analysis instead of doing the assigned work. The result was that, while the student arguably had an better sense of MDA and school, they were also not as well prepared to discuss the topic of the day.

Incidentally, I don't think the student's analysis is correct. While it might be true to model school as a game, I think that modeling it strictly as a game of diminishing resources is incorrect. While it's true that time is more measurable than understanding, I think in the common and good cases, the former trades for the latter. The resources that goes into "school" can produce good outcomes, although, by design, they also produce bad. For example, "school" necessitates my making a decision about how to grade a student's participation when they do something personally fulfilling instead of what I asked to be done.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Kvell, Parenting, and Pokemon

In preparation for today's game design class, my students read Level 8 of Ian Schreiber's Game Design Concepts. This reading includes four kinds of "fun" that are often discussed in game design: fiero, schadenfreude, naches, and kvell. After a quick reminder about each of them, I had the students get into small groups and identify examples of each of these from common games. Each table shared their findings, and we had a good albeit brief discussion about them. 

The first table struggled to come up with an example of kvell. I reminded them that where naches is about pride in any kind of mentee, kvell is more particularly about your children. The students at the next table eagerly flung up their hands to share their example: Pokemon. Another group chimed in and said that was their example, too. To the students' credit, one of them very quickly framed this not as an assertion but as a question: can my relationship with my Pokemon be similar enough to a parent-child relationship, since I raise them and can feel joy in bragging (kvelling) about their achievement?

I reminded myself that these are 19-22 year-olds, and my best guess is that none of them have children. Indeed, when I said as much, no one contradicted me, which lets me know that none of them have children. I suspect that if they did have children, they would have told me, because that is in fact the nature of kvell. I mentioned to them that I see games differently now, as a father, than I did when I was their age, but that I couldn't bottle that idea in any way that they could drink it. 

I suggested to them that, rather than try to analytically answer the question, "Is training a Pokemon enough like raising a child to simulate kvell?" that they recognize this as a research question. A social-scientific approach could be used to determine who might believe this. That is, are their characteristics that correlate with responses to that question? My hypothesis would be that parents and non-parents would answer it differently, but I would not take it as a fait accompli. I suggested that this could be a good honors thesis or even a masters thesis, noting that I'd be happy to advise such a project.

I don't know that any of them will take me up on this, but at least the question is out there. Also, I hope that this models for them a scholarly approach, one that is not only framed in an understanding of the research but one that keeps an eye open for assumptions and unknowns.

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Metagame over CardTAMEN

For many years, I've used the CARD-tamen games during the second week of my game design class. CARD-tamen is an educational party game in which players engage in short debates about the impact of classical Rome or the natural sciences. I would have students elect into one of two groups to play. After playing, we would do an MDA analysis of the game, following the one used in the previous class session when did a similar exercise with Buffalo. The games are similar enough, yet different enough, that students tended to sort out in the second MDA analysis what they had mixed up in the first—usually confusion between the dynamics and the aesthetics

In 2019, the previous time I taught the course in-person, I had a student push back on my selection of CARD-tamen. The CARD-tamen games, I always explain to my classes, are designed for integration into university coursework on classical culture and biology, respectively. My game design students usually know relatively little about this, and it seems they often have fun bluffing there way through arguments about, say, whether the Coliseum or the Optimates are more influential to modern life. The student who pushed back asked a simple question: isn't there another game, similar to these, that would serve the same purpose, but which features things we may actually know about? Ah, if only all students would engage in such meta-educational discourse!

It didn't take long for me to find an alternative game since I already knew one by reputation: The Metagame.  The Metagame is designed in part for use at large gatherings of people who do not know each other, so in many ways it's perfect for an interdisciplinary classroom. The topics it contains are, by design, much more accessible than CARD-tamen. I bought my copy in late Fall 2019... and then we had the pandemic. 

This semester was the first time I was able to roll the game out in class, and it worked like a charm. There was a lot of laughter and listening, and I could tell that everyone in the room was engaged. One thing the students struggled with was that they could move around and form ad hoc groups at any time. Of course, the classroom is designed to inhibit this, so they were working against the furniture and the architecture. They also didn't help themselves by all remaining seated, which meant they could only go where they could comfortably roll. Next time, assuming all the students are ambulatory, I'll have them stand up first,  or maybe even go outside, and then start playing.

The Metagame is a keeper, which means CARD-tamen may get abandoned on my shelf of classroom tools. Perhaps I will look around campus and see if any professors in classics or biology want to try it out.

Friday, September 3, 2021

R vs. M

In my game design class yesterday, someone gave a short presentation on Cards Against Humanity, and they called it a "mature" game. During the discussion, I decided to press this a bit: is that game really "mature"? The students unanimously agreed that it is actually immature. This is what I expected, so I pressed a bit more: how is it that this word got to mean two opposite things, and who benefits from that? A student immediately jumped to GTA as a canonical example of an "M" rated game.

Now my wheels started turning. GTA is hardly "mature," but it's also definitely not for kids. However, a movie that is not intended for youth is restricted

The ESRB and the MPAA provide rating systems for their respective media. Neither rating systems is mandated by law: rather, they represent industry self-regulation. In movies, gratuitous violence and sex gets you a rating of "Restricted," but the same in a video game gets you "Mature." One implies that consuming the media is restricted to adults, the other that the adults are made for this media.

The cynic in me suspects that this asymmetry is not accidental. I bet that you can sell a lot more games to teenagers if you convince them that it is the kind of thing adults consume.