Meaningful Play 2014, Day 1

This academic conference on games gets underway in earnest.

The first day of Meaningful Play 2014Meaningful Play 2014 started this morning with a keynote, continued with 3 conference sessions (6 choices each) followed by another keynote, and concluded with a special event where lots of games and research were presented in a social environment of happy, controlled chaos.

(There was actually “continental breakfast” available first thing, for those into waking up that early, but my schedule was not conducive to that.)

The proceedings were (briefly) opened by Johannes Bauer (Michigan State University), who chairs the Department of Media and Information at MSU, which department presented the conference.  (Interestingly, I have known Johannes for about 20 years in a completely non-game context.)  He introduced conference organizers, Brian Winn (Michigan State University), who I have known since before he started the first Meaningful Play, and Casey O’Donnell (Michigan State University).  Casey spoke about the monsters theme as a metaphor for games and game studies, saying, “Monsters aren’t bad, only complicated.”  Brian provided the selected hashtag, #MPlay and some (more grounded) conference numbers: 300 attendees from 17 countries and 23 US states.

The opening keynote was “Computer Game Studies: Moving Forward (?)“, presented by Mia Consalvo (Concordia University), who also had been one of the respondents last night.  She structured her entire talk as a “Dear Espen” (a play on Dear Esther) letter replying to a 2001 commentary by Espen Aarseth.  It helped set up the discussion on game studies, the primary focus of the conference, as well as subtly playing on the theme of diversity in games, which cannot help being an undertone of the discussion, given recent events.  The talk was interesting and engaging but, if I am honest, not terribly enlightening, especially given that I have been a part of the game industry through the entirety of the history she covered and that the talk was targeted at researchers; the only time developers were really addressed was when she entreated us to all work together (i.e., for game developers to listen to scholars).  My (retrospective) takeaway is that the area of “game studies” has to struggle for relevance within the larger industry.

For the first set of sessions, I attended a panel, “The Meaning of Casual: Serious Dialogues about Casual Games“, with presentations by Shira Chess (University of Georgia), Adrienne Shaw (Temple University), and Lauren Cruikshank (University of New Brunswick), with a remote from Maria Cipollone (UX researcher at Zynga).  The panel was (ostensibly) about taking casual games seriously, which I found really intriguing, but there was a large overlap in the genres discussed, completely excluding the types of casual games that my company builds.  Specific points made about nurturing games targeted at young girls do not translate to casual games in general, and where puzzle games or solitaire were mentioned, there seemed (to me) to be a bit of the same air of derision that the panelists were supposedly denouncing.  (I was astounded, too, that discussion of nurturing games never once mentioned the word, “tomagotchi”.)  The remote presentation was the most interesting, but the conclusion was one that we already know well, specifically, that “casual gamers” can be anything but casual about playing.

That panel provided a basis for some interesting observations, however.  The first two presenters (at least) have been called out by name in the #GamerGate controversy, which I suspect is the reason that the group seemed to be a little bit insular.  Whenever I saw one of them throughout the day, the others were always there.  (This is in contrast to my own conference behavior, where I often eschew friends in order to make new acquaintances by talking to other people.)  On that (parenthetical) note, one of my new conference friends went to the workshop, “Make the Course You Want to Take: MSU’s Surviving the Coming Zombie Apocalypse” and she (an educator) raved about how good that session was.

Then, there were two more sessions in the afternoon.  [OK, I admit it: I went home for a few hours, as I was not fully prepared to exhibit tomorrow, and I was also yawning due to “jet lag”, my normal schedule being closer to Pacific Time. 🙂 ]

The afternoon keynote was “Meaningful Leverage: Breaking the System of Ignorance“, presented by Erin Hoffman (Game Design Lead at GlassLab), who is probably best known as being “ea_spouse“, from the exposé on labor practices at Electronic Arts.  This keynote was quite enlightening, and well-presented.  Hoffman began by discussing the concept of systems as known to game developers, with references to game balancing, noting how easy it is (or can be) to “break” a system, which in the context of game design is a Bad Thing.  She then turned the topic on its head, looking at the larger world, making the case that ignorance itself is a system that feeds upon itself, and asking how we could work to break that system (improving education and fighting poverty being two obvious approaches), which would be a Good Thing.  This a fascinating concept, provoking thought and discussion, and seemed to be very well-received among attendees.

One point I found interesting, albeit mostly unrelated to the keynote itself, was when Hoffman dismissed casual games as “meaningless”.  I happened to be directly behind the table occupied by the presenters from the earlier panel on casual games, in a line of sight to the speaker, and it seemed that the whole table had a visceral reaction of discomfort at the statement.  The sentiment (or flinching) must have been somewhat broader, because the speaker immediately attempted to clarify her intent.  However, I do not think that she helped her case any by stating that did not mean they were unimportant, because they must provide something that is otherwise missing in the lives of casual game players.  Wisely, she quickly moved on before digging that hole any deeper; so shall I. 🙂

After a dinner break, there was the Special Event: Conference Reception, Game Exhibition, and Poster Session.  The main event was held in the ballroom, with the posters (and open bar) just outside.  Alas, some of the scheduled posters were not there (and few of the authors), but fortunately, Allen Trammell was there to discuss his most interesting one, Vertiginous Play: Debating “Fun” with the Diplomacy Wives Club, in which he looked into archives of the fan community of Diplomacy (a board game) from the 1960s and found parallels to current debates within the video game community.  After a healthy discussion there, I attempted to introduce myself to the aforementioned casual games micro-group to share my thoughts, was rudely rebuffed (an action rife with opportunities for speculation), and then bumped into Brian Winn, for the first time since his conference started, and had a (no doubt) much more fulfilling conversation with him.

Inside the ballroom, there was all manner of activity, with lots of games, both digital and “analog”, being discussed, demonstrated, and played.  There was bustle everywhere, and the event seemed to be really successful.  Some of the digital games that I saw were Fat Chicken, though Josh Mills was struggling with the seemingly inevitable technical issues when I visited, After the Storm, an interesting educational game for reading and writing in the context of journalism, and Guided Meditation, which was my first direct experience with the Oculus Rift headset (and my first VR headset experience in probably 10 years).  On the board and card game side, after meeting Clay Ewing, I made a point of checking out both Humans vs. Mosquitos and Vanity, the former (in particular) being impressive in its ability to convey a message in the context of an elegant card game that would be welcome at one of our regular game nights.

I also came across the game, The Bone Wars, a game about paleontology in a (narrow) historical context that taught me something with just the description.  What made this most interesting for me, though, was that I got involved in a discussion with the project advisor, Paul Gestwicki (Ball State University), in which we were able to discuss technical aspects of game development in depth.  We talked about tools, and game engines, and the difficulties inherent in creating general Solitaire deal solvers, and all manner of other topics of interest to programmers.  The conversation lasted until the event had technically ended and the ballroom was starting to empty.

Returning to my office at the end of a long day, I am looking forward to more to come.  (I also realize that I parked downtown three different times, in three different cars…)

Meaningful Play 2014, Day 0

A special talk prepares attendees for the conference itself.

Meaningful Play 2014Tonight, prior to the official Meaningful Play 2014 opening, there was a pre-conference Quello Center Lecture Series talk entitled, Racism, Sexism, and Video Games: Social Justice Campaigns and the Struggle for Gamer Identity.

The main presentation was given by Lisa Nakamura (University of Michigan), with respondents Rabidra Ratan (Michigan State University) and Mia Consalvo (Concordia University).

I found the talk quite interesting and informative, and incredibly timely, though there was not much that was actionable  The respondents generally agreed with the premise, merely stating a different perspective.  All of the speakers referred to “stereotype threat“, which (oversimplified) is the tendency for individuals to exhibit negative traits ascribed to groups to which they belong when confronted (subconsciously) with the stereotypes.  One example given was that a purple alien in the midst of many green aliens would tend to behave in a manner attributed to purple aliens generally.  Answering a question, Ratan extended the idea to suggest that this manifests not only within an individual online game, but also in the selection of games played, which provoked a response from an audience member that is probably best described as “vehement (eventual) agreement”. 🙂

At a result of this exchange, I found myself considering the programming team that I (originally) led at Spectrum HoloByte.  I was hired as Senior Software Engineer, and Lead Programmer on Star Trek: The Next Generation, “A Final Unity”, which was developed by an internal division called the “PC Group”.  The other big group was the “Sim Group”, which programmed military simulations, namely the Falcon aircraft simulators.  Our PC Group had been responsible for the line of Tetris games for MS-DOS, while the Sim Group had just finished shipping Falcon 3.0, which by internal accounts (verified by documentation) had been one of the worst death march situations in the industry.

My initial team was five programmers, including myself, but what makes it interesting is that the team was 60% female (back in 1993).  I was, of course, one of the two male programmers, and I had been considered for 3 positions, but in the interview process I made it clear that I was not interested in flight simulators and did not wish to be considered for the Sim Group opening (though the producer insisted that we talk anyway).  The other male programmer had been integral in the Sim Group for the previous product but, for his own reasons (n.b., “death march”), had chosen to switch groups.  On the other side of the building, the Sim Group had exactly zero female programmers.

I have always thought that this arrangement was interesting, but in the context of the talk, it provides some anecdotal evidence that not only is there some gender bias in games played but, to the degree allowed by business, this is also true of games being developed.  In other words, three female programmers gravitated to the group creating puzzle, board, and arcade games, while two male programmers moved away from the war games.  For the record, this was one of the best teams, in terms of atmosphere, I have experienced (until “circumstances” intervened, as they eventually must).

A Note about #GamerGate

This talk took place just one day after the story broke about Anita Sarkeesian receiving terrorist death threats and having to cancel her talk at Utah State University, so despite having been scheduled for months, the topic was almost disturbingly topical.  Aside from an offhand joke on Twitter (below), I had not been following or involved in the #GamerGate controversy, so I was interested to learn that several of the players in the “social justice warrior” (not a pejorative) space were to be speaking at Meaningful Play 2014 (again, having been scheduled many months before the storm even began).  This really sets an underlying theme for the rest of the conference.

My personal take on the controversy is that it is disappointing that there are “sides” and each faction is trying to somehow “win”, despite there being no achievable victory conditions.  At an academic conference, and especially within the audience for this talk, there is unlikely to be any sympathy with those who make threats, but it is not merely the ignorant who are stirring the pot.  As somebody who is not innately a member of any disadvantaged minority group (except “genius” 🙂 ), I still appreciate (and actively support) the push for diversity in the game industry, but cannot support rhetoric which serves to divide and/or supports deliberate disruption of the field in which I have made my career.

So…  New Cooperative Game Rules:

  1. Live and let live.
  2. Stop talking; start doing.
  3. If you say “them”, you lose.
  4. You do not win when others lose.
  5. Objectives:
    1. more games
    2. more diversity
    3. more choices
    4. more prosperity

I am happy with a collaborative effort, so please feel to contribute rule suggestions.

Meaningful Play 2014

This is the International Academic Conference on Meaningful Play.

Meaningful Play 2014 This week, Michigan State University hosts Meaningful Play 2014, the fourth edition of this bi-annual academic conference discussing “games that matter“.

Meaningful Play 2014, running October 16-18, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan, includes numerous keynotes, speakers, panels, roundtables, workshops, papers, and special events, all examining and promoting the idea that games can (and should) have a positive impact.

This year, SophSoft, Incorporated is not only attending the conference but, for the first time, we are sponsoring Meaningful Play.  In addition to sponsoring, we will be exhibiting our games (as Digital Gamecraft) in the Pure Michigan Game Exhibition and Celebration, giving away free copies of Demolish! Pairs, and I will be participating in a panel, Growing the Game Industry in Michigan: 2014 Update.

I have attended Meaningful Play two (of three) previous times, in 2008 and 2010 (missing 2012 only due a scheduling conflict), and I found them to be quite refreshing.  Like other conferences I have attended, I leave filled with inspiration, but as an academic conference, this one also challenges me with many new ideas about games, with scientific studies, unique approaches, and non-commercial products not seen at major industry events.

Over the new few days, I intend to document my experiences and takeaways from Meaningful Play 2014, for which I will link below as articles are published:


ISVCon 2012: Success!

This conference reboot was the best in years.

You shoulda been there!

We have returned safely from ISVCon 2012, which was presented last week in Reno, Nevada [USA] with a mixture of physical exhaustion and mental exhilaration, as is often the case with great conferences.  ISVCon was a relaunch of the old Software Industry Conference, and the consensus was that this was the most beneficial event in several years.  The content was geared towards microISVs (Independent Software Vendors), software companies with just a few people (often, only one person), and the networking/socializing was with others who are facing the same challenges (as well as those who provide services to help).

 The main question: Why were you not there?


Before our departure for Reno, I added the Twitter box [edit: formerly] on the right of this blog, and I was “live tweeting” as much as possible throughout the conference, as well as during our journey (and quasi-vacation).  If you follow my personal account at @GreggSeelhoff, you can still see the updates, as well as more going forward.

In the coming days, I will review the highlights of the conference, and I have it on good authority that the Association of Software Professionals (new conference owners) will be making some or all of the session videos publicly available for viewing.

Prior to all that, however, I must give a HUGE shout out to Susan Pichotta of Alta Web Works, who deserves most of the credit for bringing this fantastic 3.0 version of the long-running conference together, and without whom ISVCon would never have happened.  Plans are already in the works for next year, and I really look forward to being there in 2013.

URGENT: ISVCon 2012 is almost here!

Register NOW and save with our discount code.

ISVCon.orgISVCon 2012 takes place July 13-15, which is only a couple weeks (!) away.  ISVCon is the spiritual successor to (or, in entertainment terms, reboot of) SIC, the Software Industry Conference, which I have attended numerous times, and which has always been a great investment.  This conference brings together scores of independent software publishers (or “vendors”, hence ISV) to discuss and learn about the industry  It is a unique opportunity to meet face-to-face with many other people who share similar business challenges; I now call lots of them “friends”.

ISVCon will be taking place in Reno, Nevada (USA) at the Atlantis Casino Resort.

Here is the catch: Time is running out!

Step 1: Register (at a discount)

First, register for ISVCon before the prices go up.  As an incentive, we at Digital Gamecraft can offer you this 10% discount code: “Gamecraft2012“.  Limited time only; prices increase July 1st.

Step 2: Get your hotel room (at a discount)

Next, make your hotel reservations now (using that link) to receive discount pricing and no resort fee.  Offer ends in only a couple of days!

Step 3: Attend ISVCon 2012

Join us in Reno for the conference.  We will be arriving before the Welcome Reception on Thursday evening, during which we will be able to have a drink or two, socialize with friends and colleagues (both long lost and brand new), and switch from travel mode into conference mode.

The conference sessions take place Friday, July 13, through Sunday, July 15, and specifics can be found on this complete conference schedule.  Note that the Friday sessions are Power Sessions, while the Saturday and Sunday sessions provide a couple of options for each timeslot.  There is so much content at ISVCon that we are sending most of the staff (okay, just two of us) to make sure that we can have full coverage of the relevant topics.  Additionally, the networking value and information exchange between (and sometimes during) sessions is possibly even more valuable than the speakers.

That said, let me draw your attention particularly to Paradise Room A on Saturday from 1:45pm to 2:45pm, for my presentation, Quality Assurance for Small Software Publishers, and on Sunday from 9:00am to 10:00am, where I will serve on a panel of game developers for the session, How Games are Different.  The answer to your question is: I will be there and awake at 9am because, with the time difference, that will be noon back home.  (Also, I never work the B room.)

We will there at the conference through the After Hours MeetUp on Sunday evening, before beginning our (more) lengthy journey back to the office.  From experience, this will involve an odd mixture of being physically spent, but mentally energized, full of plans and ideas.  Honestly, attending ISVCon 2012 is probably one of the best ways to spend a few days improving your business; I strongly recommend it for any ISV.

Follow me on Twitter @GreggSeelhoff for live conference updates.  See you there!

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.