Meaningful Play 2010, Day 3

The premier academic game conference wraps up.

Circumstances conspired to prevent me from attending the first part of the conference on Saturday.  I was disappointed to miss the morning keynote, The Intellectual Life of Online Play, presented by Constance Steinkuehler of Games + Learning + Society, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which could have been fascinating.  I noticed previously that keynote speakers were being videotaped, so I will keep my eye out for this one.  Since I had already missed part of the next session, too, I chose to take a deep breath rather than rush back for a paper session on Ethical Reflection in Games.

Fortunately, I did make it to the conference in time for Zombies vs. Knaves: Playing Games in Cultural Institutions, a panel presentation that demonstrated the (proper) use of games in a variety of museums, plus a college library.  I was impressed with all of the games: Whyville at the (virtual) Getty Museum, Minnesota 150 Challenge at the Minnesota History Center, Human vs. Zombies (ARG) played at the University of Florida Library, Mysteries of Ancient Art at the Getty Villa, Spy in the City from the International Spy Museum (DC), and Pheon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The latter game is actually an extensible framework to which other educational or commercial entities could add their own challenges over the next year.  It is great to see such positive usage of games as a platform for exploring and learning.

A short break for (provided) lunch was next, during which I had a little time to quietly reflect on the conference, and also peek at the score of the Michigan State vs. Northwestern football game.  (MSU won a great game, but the score was looking pretty bleak for them at that early stage.)

The last keynote of the day/conference was Looking Outside In: LEGO and the Evolution of Play, given (primarily) by Helle Winding of LEGO Universe.  Last time, on the second day of Meaningful Play 2008, we played with Play-Doh during a keynote; this time everybody got LEGO, with which we built all manner of ducks (some more abstract than others).  On the day after the European launch of LEGO Universe, and just three days prior to the worldwide launch, the talk centered around the history and philosophy of the LEGO Group, and how it led to this latest online game/world.  It looked like a really cool project but, frankly, there was not much enlightenment to be gleaned, either from the live presentation or the several produced videos that were screened.

I was surprised to learn, during the talk, that LEGO was in serious financial trouble a few years ago, and I was even more surprised to hear that the product is considered “for boys” by the company itself.  For the record, I took my six LEGO blocks to my wife (who is definitely not a boy) and she enjoyed building a duck more than I did.  That may not not hold true for LEGO Universe, which was designed for a specific market, but I do not see anything inherently masculine (nor feminine) about the plastic blocks.  [Suggestive, perhaps, but not gender-specific.]

Anyway, this was followed immediately by the Conference Closing and the announcement of the Game Award winners, based on judging among the 24 selected submissions to the Game Exhibition (on Thursday).  These winners were:

It appears that the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab had a good year, with three games earning multiple awards and mentions.  I also noticed that a couple of the other games could use a little help in the marketing realm.  Here are two quick hints…  First, if you want to have links back to your game (from, say, a blog like this one), establish a canonical web page where the latest and greatest information about the game is published; second, in order for people to actually be able to find said page, try to be consistent with your game title (including punctuation like, you know, hyphens).  A downloadable or online playable game or demo is always appreciated, too.

The conference left me, in a phrase, “emotionally uplifted, physically drained.”  I am really inspired by the thought and effort that goes into all of the different areas of game development, and it is always great to meet so many wonderful people working in the field, either professionally or academically.  At the same time, I am exhausted, having tried to attend the conference while continuing to maintain a degree of business and personal normalcy (all on the weekend with the inaugural F1 Korean Grand Prix running sessions in the middle of our night).

After I get some sleep, I have a number of ideas to try out, and I expect to benefit from a burst of energy achieved via networking with colleagues.  In any event, I now feel safer with my little guard duck (of LEGO) watching over me.

Meaningful Play 2010, Day 2

The conference begins its second/final full day.

This morning dawned cold, as we experienced our first hard frost of the season. One disadvantage of being local to a game conference is having extra responsibilities, such as figuring out where you put the ice scraper in order to clear your windshield. Of course, the corresponding advantage is having appropriate winter clothing available without having to remember to pack it.

The morning keynote was Games that Move Us: Designing More Powerful Emotional and Social Play Experiences, presented by Katherine Isbister of the NYU Game Center (and more).  This talk was quite interesting and informative, looking at the connection between physical actions and emotional states in the realm of games, where requiring certain activities or postures can have a real and measurable impact on the players.

Professor Isbister introduced the concept of the “physical feedback hypothesis”, wherein a human being has an innate emotional response to an imposed physical position.  She first described it with the anecdotal story of a mother telling her child to stand up straight and adopt a confident posture, which in turn actually conveys an internal feeling of confidence.  Then she described (and showed pictures) of a study that proved the facial feedback hypothesis by means of a special game controller that players had to hold in their mouths.  Depending on the position of the controller, the participants mouths were “tricked” into either a simulated smile or frown, and those whose faces were made to smile were statistically more likely to report positive feelings, and to like the controller, than those who frowned.

This idea was then expanded into the concept of “emotional contagion“, where one person is (innately) influenced by the emotions of others.  I know that we experience this here all the time, when one family member is in a bad mood and it seems to rub off on the rest of the family, even without direct negative interactions.  (The next time this happens, I will to try to counter it with unbridled happiness, even if I have to fake it [a la the previous paragraph].)  In the specific area of games, the mood of players simultaneously playing a game spread to each other and to non-players in the room.  Adding the earlier concept to the equation, enticing the players to make happy/silly dance movements (for example) improve the mood and connection between players.  This was demonstrated with video of players using We Cheer as well as a custom Wii game created specifically for a study (and involving the controllers inside silly hats).

Katherine Isbister mentioned, as an aside, that studies show a hunched posture, as our ancestors might have adopted as a defensive position, evokes a physical reaction (i.e., release of hormones) that actually increases stress and blood pressure, and she noted that this is not unlike the position we take when sitting at a desk working with a keyboard.  Also, just because she mentioned it, here is a video of a cat using an iPad.  Finally, the talk ended with a call to action for deeper discourse on this idea of the actual physiological effects that games can have on players and how to harness that to make more powerful (and positive) game experiences.

During the first set of breakout sessions for the day, I attended a roundtable, Video Game Violence: Is There a Role for it in Meaningful Play.  This session dealt with both the title topic and the secondary issue of the upcoming Supreme Court case, which is particularly interesting to me, having testified before the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee back in 2005 in opposition to a similar law restricting sales of video games.  The discussion was very active and open, and the consensus seemed to be that video games have some effect on players, certainly, but that aspect still needs significant study yet, and in any case, legal restrictions on games are a bad idea.  It is truly disappointing that politicians cannot be as thoughtful and deliberative as the people here.

I made the observation that I just wanted the law declared unconstitutional (again, once and for all) so we can then focus on the more subtle and important areas of academic research and understanding, without the threat of the blunt instrument of legislative policy interfering, for which I was later personally thanked by the primary moderator, Maria Chesley Fisk, Deputy Director of Health Games Research.  The conversation among most of the roundtable participants continued well after the session was officially over, and I did not end up leaving the room until more than 40 minutes into the lunch break.  This was a very valuable discussion.

Of course, a shortened lunch break (plus payroll) meant that I was late getting back to the conference for the next talk, Navigating the Wilderness of Educational Entertainment: Design Challenges in Man vs. Wild: The Game, presented by Nathanial McClure, Patrick Shaw, and Brian Winn.  This session was fascinating because the development was a collaboration between Scientifically Proven Entertainment (with McClure and Shaw), F84 Games (in LA), and game development students at Michigan State University (under Brian Winn).  The project also involved publisher Crave Entertainment and Discovery Channel.  I was disappointed to have missed the beginning, since the logistics of this arrangement were apparently discussed before I was there, though hearing about the design challenges for the game (to be released in early 2011) was also interesting.

The final breakout sessions of the day had me attending a panel, Growing the Game Industry in Michigan: Two Years Later, which is (of course) directly relevant to our company.  As the title suggests, this was a followup to a similar panel on the first day of Meaningful Play 2008.  The lineup featured the return of Matt Toschlog (Reactor Zero),  Gjon Camaj (Image Space), and Brian Winn (moderator), who were joined this time by “Than” McClure (from the previous session), Jared Riley (Hero Interactive), and Ken Droz (formerly of the Michigan Film Office).  The discussion was mostly about the 42% tax credit for building games in Michigan, which enticed McClure to move his company to Michigan from Los Angeles; the elephant in the room was the fact that he is currently suing the state to actually receive the promised incentives, after his company was promoted as a “success story”.  All members of the panel (even despite these issues) agreed that Michigan is a great place to live and do business.

The afternoon keynote, Finding the Feeling: Experimental Development @thatgamecompany, presented by Robin Hunicke, was ostensibly about design challenges in Journey, a game currently under development by thatgamecompany, but it was also an inspirational talk that reminded me why we create games and what they have to offer players.  She spoke about the intellectual, emotional, and social needs of players, and she noted how much tone of voice and body language are involved in human-to-human connection, but is usually lost in game environments.  She concluded that, “collaboration is hard”.

I was interested to hear that they create a “thesis” for the game, and that it was, essentially, too personal to share with the audience, although earlier theses, “Together we can move the mountain” and “We all walk the path; each journey is different“, were mentioned.  Alas, I cannot properly convey the moving spirit of this presentation in a blog; suffice it to say that it was very good.

Immediately following the keynote was the MSU Ten Years of Games Happy Hour Gathering, which was a networking event at a local brew pub.  I had a chance to talk with several people, including a lengthy conversation reminiscing about the game industry, and other topics, with Rod Myers, a PhD student at Indiana University.  When Jared Riley gave his “keystone speech”, celebrating his company’s fourth anniversary, I realized how fortunate I am to still be in this industry (as one of the “old guys” at the conference).

Friday was a great day.

Meaningful Play 2010, Day 1

This academic conference begins in earnest.

This morning Meaningful Play 2010 officially got underway.  I decided to take along my iPad, so parts of this posting are being written throughout the day from the conference site.  (Alas, not all things blog are easy to manage with only a touch interface, so the final edit had to be done on a system with a mouse.)  As I grabbed my cool DirectX conference laptop bag [Thanks, again, Microsoft!], I was amused to realize that my name badge from Meaningful Play 2008 was still attached to it.  A collection is born.

The conference began with a short welcome presentation followed by the opening keynote by James Paul Gee entitled, Design, Learning, and Experience.  In the talk, Gee introduced the concept of Plato’s Problem, which he describes as people sometimes being “way smarter” in some areas than one expects them to be, and the converse, Orwell’s Problem, where people can be “way stupider” than they should be.  This latter issue was dramatically illustrated by a review of the recent mortgage crisis that led to the current downturn in the economy, and specifically the fact that anyone with any critical intelligence could have predicted that bundling a bunch of bad assets along with worse assets into a financial instrument results in a very bad risk.  (Another somewhat depressing example of this involved Glenn Beck and resulted in the conclusion that one “cannot fathom that level of stupidity.”)

In regard to (supposed) intelligence testing, he noted that in a type of logic problems involving sorting cards with various figures, such as circles and squares, 75% of people get them wrong, but putting an equivalent challenge before them in which they have a stake in, and therefore care about, the outcome, the correct solution is found 90% of the time.  Additionally, people are shown to be better able to think well when they have clear goals and must take action.

Where this applies to games is that these types of challenges are those that games can present quite well, essentially helping to draw out the innate intelligence in people.  Further, Gee asserts that games are actually the solution to Orwell’s Problem, which is caused by “re-lying” on ideas presented by others, without critical thought.  Games allow (or even force) players to think for themselves, to rediscover that process of learning and thinking, and also thereby to prepare for future learning.  It was an excellent keynote to get things rolling.

Next was the first set of breakout sessions, taking place in five different rooms.  I was considering the Puzzle Design for Educators and Game Developers workshop, but instead I decided to remain in the ballroom for the next talk, the balance tipped by a reference in the prior keynote to Filament Games.  The talk, Learning Learning Games: How to Effectively Teach New Game Mechanics, was presented by the company CEO, Dan White (rather than Dan Norton, co-founder and Lead Designer, as expected), and was a practical survey of methods for providing game tutorials.

The focus of the talk was particularly towards tutorials in educational games, where the player may not even be a willing participant.  Dan White framed the problem as game tutorials being the last designed, but first experienced, part of a game, and then he listed nine different techniques that can be used, demonstrating most of them via contrasting some of their early game prototypes with the finished (or revised) versions.  The end of the talk moved to the topic of play testing, which (unfortunately) got short shrift due to time constraints, but was the main topic of the question and answer period.  The speaker made the great point that they have to remind or explain to play testers that it is the game that is being tested, not the players, so they cannot fail.  My (final) question to him was whether they filtered their testers based on target audience, and the short answer was basically that they did not for alpha (internal) testing, but that they did for beta (external) testing, and were usually contractually obligated to do so as well.

Although there was no time for a followup question, which would have been to ask how they weight the feedback from testers outside their target audience, the question did trigger a wonderful conversation on the topic with Laurie Hartjes, who will be presenting her paper, Life and Death in the Age of Malaria: A risk-reduction game for study abroad students, tomorrow.  Among other things, she told me that for this topic (which boils down to teaching players how to stay alive), she learned that it was necessary to greatly simplify the game, after opening with some attention grabbing headlines, for the bulk of her audience; however, she found that the 5% of players who self-identified as “gamers” really enjoyed the more complex (resource management) version of the game.

After this chat, I took a long lunch to deal with some important business issues, so I missed the LEGO (which was limited to 15 participants anyway) and Hermit Crab Game Design workshops, which were the last for the duration of this conference.  The closing keynote on Saturday is about LEGO, though.

I returned to the MSU Union, where the conference is being held, just in time for the afternoon keynote, What Will Great Serious Games Look Like?, presented by Ben Sawyer, with whom I had some online association a few years before he became the “lead goose” of the serious games movement (as he was introduced).  When I read the name of the session aloud my business partner (and wife) answered, simply, “Like other games.”  She was absolutely right, in my opinion, and I expected a similar discussion, but the talk was a little askew from supporting or refuting that idea.

Ben’s first important slide read, “All Games are Serious.”  I agree with this sentiment (games that, literally, deal with ‘life or death’ information notwithstanding), and it defuses some of the debate about the term “serious games” that has apparently erupted recently in some online/academic communities.  After this, the talk turned toward the technical support frameworks that need to be in place for this type of (non-commercial) game, a topic that did not interest me much, quite frankly (not being an evangelist for this movement).  There were some decent takeaway points, though, including the need for accessibility, including for color-blind players, and that “connectedness” between [serious/educational] games and the real world is necessary to further the message or learning.  In other words, the games should supplement existing methods, especially those involving human interaction, rather than replace them.

There was a dinner break prior to the conference reception, game exhibition, and poster session, held at the East Lansing Technology Innovation Center, a local technology business “incubator”.  Honestly, I only popped in very briefly to scan the posters and then glimpse the numerous games on display.  I did get a longer look at Undercover UXO, a landmine education game developed for the OLPC (One Laptop per Child) system by the MSU MIND Lab.  I was very intrigued with the CombiForm idea (and hardware), though my time was running out (and the controller handle was too small for my big hands to fit through, so holding it was quite uncomfortable), so I did not see the full demonstration despite the enthusiasm of the designers/presenters.

I left early for another obligation (in which I scored a goal), and now I just look forward to tomorrow.

Meaningful Play 2010, Day 0

This academic games conference prepares to start.

Today is the night before Meaningful Play 2010 gets underway.  This is an academic conference about, as the tag line says, “designing and studying games that matter.”   It takes place here in East Lansing, Michigan, on the campus of Michigan State University, over the next three days.  The sessions at this conference are less about implementation details (so no SRO technical sessions with Michael Abrash or John Carmack) and more about broader issues, such as how to make games more effective as learning tools, and what makes gameplay meaningful.

The last (and first) edition of this conference was held two years ago, and you can read my detailed information on that conference in my post Meaningful Play 2008, and in the next three entries for Day 1, Day 2, and Day 3.  Of course, I will be attending, and reporting from, the conference again this year.  In fact, I have already attended the first associated event (and picked up my badge).

This “pre-conference talk” was Hanging Out, Messing Around and Geeking Out: Connected Learning and Play in a Digital Age, presented by Mimi Ito of the Humanities Research Institute, University of California, Irvine.  In her presentation, she noted and illustrated these three main conflicts between traditional methods of education and learning via new media: originality versus sharing, stock versus flow of information, and top-down versus peer-to-peer.  She discussed and defined “connected learning”, involving three main elements: being interest-driven, involving peer interaction, and tying formal and informal methods together.  As much as I sometimes feel disconnected from the current social technologies, this definition clearly put my own educational experience at the forefront of the connected learning movement.

One piece of the presentation that clearly brought home the issues being discussed was a video, A Vision of Students Today, by Michael Wesch from Kansas State University.  It is particularly noteworthy that this video was created more than 3 years ago; think about how much things have changed even since it was produced.

After the talk (which was actually open to the general public), I skipped the reception for a personal errand, but I did return to (a different location in) East Lansing in time to pick up my badge at registration.  Of course, there was also a bit of swag, too, including a very nice zippered bag with pockets, the obligatory conference t-shirt, and other goodies.  Now I ask you:  How many professional/academic conferences provide a chocolate bar in the swag bag?  Great idea.

I will admit to being pleased to know the conference organizers and have them note that they were glad to have me attend again.  Now I just need to review the schedule book, highlight the interesting sessions and workshops (possibly all of them), and decide which portable electronic device to carry with me, or whether to go “old school” and take notes with a pen and paper.

… and I need to get some sleep.

Most Popular Action Solitaire

Two more product updates were released.

Over the past few weeks, Goodsol Development has published updates to two more of our titles, Most Popular Solitaire and Action Solitaire.

MPS 2.03 for Windows and Mac OS XActSol 1.40 for Windows

Frankly, we have been so busy lately with programming and development of projects on four different platforms that I have fallen a bit behind the release schedule with these blog updates, but this particular posting brings me current (at least until next week, when yet another product update will ship for both desktop platforms).

Most Popular Solitaire 2.03, a Solitaire title for Windows and Mac OS X with 30 different varieties of games (plus 13 bonus game variants in the full version), was released on September 14.  This update was a maintenance release to fix every reported bug in the project.  Just about a month later, as I write this, Most Popular Solitaire still holds the #2 position on Apple DownloadsCard & Puzzles category, and still ranks #5 in the overall Games category.

Action Solitaire 1.40, an arcade Solitaire product for Windows (only), was released last week.  This is a significant update, adding 5 more games, bringing the total to 70 games, while also reducing the price to only $19.95.  The new version is free to existing customers.  The new games are Classic Scorpion, Sea Towers Kings, Baker’s Game, Klondike Free, and Black Hole (and only in the latter game has anyone bettered my high scores yet).  Honestly, I am hoping that many more people buy this addictive software so we can justify porting the game to our other platforms.

We still have three more releases for desktop platforms (Mac OS X and Windows) scheduled for the coming weeks, plus the first of our iPad titles is due before the end of the year.