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.

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