Meaningful Play 2008, Day 3

The conference draws to a close.

Thankfully, the final day of the conference was a “half day”, though it only lacked one session relative to the previous two days, and added a catered lunch (instead of a longer break at that time), plus a short period at the end for game awards and conference closing.

The morning keynote was The Play of Persuasion: Why “Serious” Isn’t the Opposite of Fun, by Nick Fortugno of Rebel Monkey. He began his speech by addressing the myth that “serious” means that a game is not fun, compelling, or engaging. Then, he set about dispelling this myth through analysis of three representative games: Shadow Of The Colossus, an artgame which implements a classic tragedy; PeaceMaker, a serious game that presents a message; and McDonalds Video Game, a propaganda game with a statement to make.

The next two periods were devoted to an extended paper session, From the Keyboard to the Game Board (Parts 1 and 2), which ran non-stop for 135 minutes and still was running short on time. However, all seven papers were worthwhile, and the session as a whole was excellent. Better, the audience was knowledgeable and enthusiastic about board games, in addition to digital games. Briefly…

Brian Magerko discussed the work of The Digital Tabletop in analyzing the game mechanics of designer board games, presenting case studies of some popular board games.
Brian Hayden detailed the development process of his board game, Pigs in the Poke, which applies anthropological and archaeological data about tribal cultures in Southeast Asia to game mechanics.
Ben Medler stated that all games are based on conflict, and then compared conflict mechanics in digital games and board games, subdividing the types into mechanic/social and anonymous/tacit categories.
Ethan Watrall presented a study (conducted locally) that surveyed HeroClix players and determined that those who played primarily for enjoyment were likely to involve themselves in the “storyworlds” for the characters, existing in books, comics, movies, and other media, while those who played for the competition were unlikely to do so initially.
Scott Nicholson, of Board Games with Scott, discussed the relationship and history of games and libraries and presented loads of information, some of which can be found at Library Game Lab of Syracuse and Games in Libraries.
Francisco Ortega-Grimaldo talked about his design of a series of games that present the issues of immigration (between the United States and Mexico) in board game form, in order to encourage discussion.
Michael Ryan Skolnik (with whom I had a long conversation during and after the Happy Hour Gathering) presented his ideas on theatrical aesthetics in games and why eschewing immersion, or “presence”, may produce a more meaningful experience.

With no time for questions, we moved quickly toward the ballroom in order to pick up our “old fashioned BBQ lunch” before the final keynote. I got the very last hot dog, despite there being many more buns available, so those behind me had to make due with hamburgers, chicken breasts, and a whole host of supporting food items. Everything I had was tasty, including some excellent brownies.

The closing keynote was The Great White Whale of Meaningful Play, given by Tracy Fullerton of the Electronic Arts Game Innovation Lab at USC. She discussed two games under development where the team is seeking to create a meaningful, almost spiritual, gameplay experience: The Night Journey and Walden, a Game [trailer]. The former is being developed with the help of artist Bill Viola, who contends that half of an art experience is in the viewer (or player, in this case). The speaker did admit that this kind of project is probably only feasible (currently) in an academic and/or experimental setting, and not as a commercial game product.

The last item of “business” was the announcement of the awards in the game competition, which were:

Note that the Best overall game pick has been featured on Gamasutra in the article, Persuasive Games: Videogame Vignette.

So, Meaningful Play 2008 came to an end with no definite plans for next year. However, the organizers will be conducting a survey of attendees to determine when and where to hold the next edition. The one thing that is certain, though, is that this conference was worthwhile.

I have three goals when attending a conference: to learn, to network, and to be inspired. Meaningful Play provided ample opportunities for each.

Meaningful Play 2008, Day 2

The day begins with Play-Doh.

The first keynote of the second day, All Play Is Meaningful, was given by Leigh Anne Cappello, a “Play Futurist” and Vice President at Hasbro (who own both Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley and, hence, have a dominant share of the US board game market). All of the tables had packages of Play-Doh, with which we were instructed to play; however, I opted out when the sound of opening containers made it harder for me to hear her. She said that their slogan is “Inspiring the Human Need to Play” (although I could find no references) and described fun well with a couple of dozen discrete words. Then the talk distilled the essence of play to being “appealing“, “healing“, and “revealing“.

What our keynote speaker (and futurist) did not say, however, is anything about the future. When asked directly, she explained that Hasbro would not allow her to comment. Having run into this litigious company in the past, I was not the least bit surprised by this. I will note that overzealous lawyers were never mentioned or included in any part of “fun”. Nevertheless, the talk was worthwhile, and it pointed me to the quote at the end of this blog entry and also alerted me to the fact that the United Nations (in Article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child), have recognized “the right of the child … to engage in play and recreational activities.”

During the next period, I attended a panel entitled, Suitable for all ages: Game design for the 60+ demographic. (I am not going to name all of the 13 presenters.) The session had several rapid-fire talks about studies and provided loads of detailed numbers, including:

  • 46% of people over 50 play games daily, and 62% play at least 5 times per week;
  • seniors preferred the PC, and 90% would not change platform;
  • more than 60% of seniors prefer card games (including solitaire);
  • in general, seniors enjoy games puzzle elements of games and are loyal to their current software;
  • seniors seem to prefer mouse over keyboard, ideally using only one button.

A member of the audience pointed out that the entire panel consisted of European researchers and questioned whether or not the findings could be extended to American senior citizens. Of course, in the current global marketplace, the study participants are a good portion of our audience.

The next session I attended was Making an Impact: Serious Issues in Non-Serious Games, given by Monica Evans (University of Texas at Dallas). This talk was basically an overview of some serious games and then a discussion of how serious topics were handled in three commercial games: Ratchet and Clank, Sim City Societies, and Beyond Good and Evil. One highlight of the talk was a pointer to an experimental game, Execution, which one can only play once (without cheating) and takes very little time. Give it a shot!

After that, I participated in the only roundtable of the conference, When Will Games Grow Up?: Handling Adult Topics In Video Games, moderated by author Damon Brown. I found the topic fascinating, especially given that I was one of the oldest people in the room, and the prevailing attitude among the mostly young and single was different than mine (even though I am closer to the median player demographic). Nobody, obviously, was offended by the idea of sex in games, but some felt that it did not provide desired escapism, failing to realize that not everybody may have such opportunities in the real world. This was a good session.

The closing keynote for the second day was Serious Gaming: Assumptions and Realities, given by Ute Ritterfeld (VU University Amsterdam). The talk discussed a three-part study, the first part being about the kind of serious games that are being made, the second about what qualities make a game succeed with game reviewers, and the third an experiment with applying the assumptions to actual serious games. This talk contained lots of interesting information.

In the first part of the study, 612 serious games (every one the researchers could find in May 2007) were examined, and it was found that more than half were academic, with social change being the second largest group. The largest target age group was middle and high school students, followed by elementary level, then (combined) college/adult/senior, and finally pre-school. Again, unfortunately, more than half of all the serious games of the time were just for practicing skills.

The second part of the study looked at game reviews and categorized the positives and negatives leading toward an overall score. These game characteristics were grouped into five categories (highlighted below) and when analyzed, it was found that there were three basic thresholds. An acceptable game (threshold 1) succeeded in the areas of technical capacity and game design. A good game (threshold 2) passed threshold 1 and, additionally, succeeded with aesthetics, visual and acoustic. For a game to be great (threshold 3), it had to pass both previous thresholds and also succeed in the final two areas of social experience and storyline (“narrativity and character development” is too long). Few games reached the final threshold.

The final part of the study took a playable serious game (for learning biology/human physiology) and did controlled studies of different levels of interactivity, including the full gameplay experience, watching a video replay of the game, limited interactivity, hypertext/graphical information, and straight text. The gist of the results were that the more interactivity involved, the better the learning and retention. The one deviation from this pattern was that the learning between full gameplay and replay only (sans control) were comparable, but followup showed that the latter group, without being able to directly interact with the game, did not retain the information as well. Conclusion: Interactive education can work.

Shortly after the second keynote, a Happy Hour Gathering was held at a local brew pub (Harper’s) where pizza and beer were supplied. I had some great conversations with several local (Michigan and its neighboring Canadian province, Ontario) attendees. I talked more than I either ate or drank, but my mind was full of ideas and my spirit was overflowing when I left (though my throat was a little sore).

Finally, I attended a local book reading and signing with Damon Brown (the roundtable moderator), who is promoting his new book, Pong & Porn: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider, and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture. The reading was followed by a discussion that dovetailed nicely with the earlier roundtable, and I also learned from chatting with him in both venues that he attended high school in Lansing and (although he is younger) we share some common area references. I was too tired to read beyond “Foreplay” (the forward), but I plan to post a review later.

This was a busy day from start to finish (as the length of this post attests), so I will just leave you with the promised quote:

You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.
— Plato

Meaningful Play 2008, Day 1

International Academic Conference on Meaningful Play

This was the first day of Meaningful Play 2008, and armed with my name tag and program schedule, I went to the Student Union at Michigan State University. I left behind the “goodie bag” itself which was, in fact, a cool laptop bag, the rest of the contents, including a 1G USB drive/pen, and the conference shirt (in black). I guess that “regular attendee” conveys some tangible benefits.

The first keynote, The Game Designer as Change Agent, was given by Richard Hilleman, Chief Creative Officer for Electronic Arts. Honestly, it was not what I expected based on the title, but rather was more about some internal EA processes for identifying and training executive producers (or perhaps for developing lists of confusing and pointless acronyms). Nothing inspired me to yearn for such a position. However, the talk did yield three noteworthy facts:

  1. Larry Probst still holds the EA record for largest hotel repair bill;
  2. Pogo “casual” gamers are predominantly women aged 30-40 and average 20 hours/week of play; and
  3. Flash (“a ubiquitous platform”) has recently surpassed 1 billion installations.

The first actual session I attended was the presentation of three academic papers on Emergent Gameplay. All three were interesting, but the paper by Felan Parker, The Significance of Jeep Tag: On Player-Imposed Rules in Video Games (PDF), was the most interesting presentation. The other two papers were on UML diagrams of game play interaction (a different way to look at games), and using games to generate new game ideas (of which I already have more than I can use).

After lunch, I went to the Talent, Incentives, and Infrastructure: Growing the Game Industry in Michigan panel, with Gjon Camaj (Image Space), Matt Toschlog (Reactor Zero), Tony Wenson (Michigan Film Office), and Brian Winn (moderator). The verdict is, quite simply, that this state is a great place to do business as a game developer: we have the development talent, we have the infrastructure, and now (since April), we have tax credits of up to 42% of expenses for building games here in Michigan.

I stayed in the same room for the next presentation, The Emerging Flash Game Industry and the Opportunities for Meaningful Play, given by Jared Riley of Hero Interactive. This talk was the most practical and directly relevant to our company and future plans. In his PowerPoint presentation he discussed the revenue sources and business models for Flash game developers, which was particularly interesting. The use of an example figure of $50K as a potential maximum income of a hit game, however, did hammer home the point that profitability in this area requires fast turnaround of product.

The second/final keynote of the day, The Unknown Possibilities of Existence, was given by Ian Bogost (Persuasive Games). In the talk, he attempted to define a term for which he admitted dislike, “artgame”, and then explored which games, in his opinion, fall close to this category. I found it interesting, although some of the initial discussion was lost on me, as it built on understanding of certain traditional artwork concepts/genres with which I am unfamiliar.

After the completion of daytime activities (plus enough of a break to return home for a bit), there was a conference reception at the brand new East Lansing Technology Innovation Center (ELTIC). There were poster presentations as well as software exhibitions, which included several interesting titles. Among these were Brain Powered Games, a suite of games designed to “energize your mind”, including Headline Clues, an original word game with puzzles generated dynamically from RSS feeds from news sites, Two Men and a Truck Game, sponsored by the eponymous moving company, which helps children deal with the stress of relocating, and Pebble It, an abstract puzzle game which seeks to harness the innate ability of the human brain to solve graph pebbling problems better than existing computer algorithms.

The conference organizers, Brian Winn, Ethan Watrall, and Carrie Heeter, are to be commended on a very well-organized show. Everything (including registration) has run smoothly and on time, and the content so far has been first rate.

Meaningful Play 2008

Designing and Studying Games that Matter

We now interrupt your program to bring you breaking news…

For the next three days, Michigan State University is hosting the first edition (of many, I hope) of Meaningful Play here in East Lansing. Meaningful Play 2008 is about “exploring meaningful applications of games” and “issues in designing meaningful play”. In other words, it is about why games matter to us and how to achieve significance in our game designs, whether for “serious games” or those developed primarily as entertainment.

This game conference will feature six keynote speakers (one to open and close each day), as well as eight periods in which there will (each) be a speaker session, two presentations of academic papers (on different topics), and a discussion panel, so there is plenty of information to be presented. I expect that the format will be similar to Future Play 2005 (held at the same venue), as some of the organizers are the same. Since attendance is limited to 250 participants, it should be a good opportunity for networking, too.

Looking ahead, I am intrigued by the keynote entitled, All Play is Meaningful (Friday morning). I have not been able to decide on where I want to be for each session period, but I expect that I will be attending the panel (excessively) named, Talent, Incentives, and Infrastructure: Growing the Game Industry in Michigan. That has been an important goal of mine, and I like to think of myself as part of that Michigan “talent”.

Early registration begins today at 6:30pm and, wonderfully, is within easy walking distance of my home. If you attend Meaningful Play, be sure to introduce yourself (if necessary) and say, “Hi!”

Check here for daily updates during the conference.