Meaningful Play 2018: Day 1

The first full day of the conference is a rollicking start.

Meaningful Play 2018 is properly and officially underway with the opening remarks (following Meaningful Play 2018: Day 0) by conference chair Brian Winn, who has organized the biennial event since the first in 2008.  The theme this year is wizards (after ninjas, monsters, and robots) and the slogan is, “Exploring the Magic of Games.

The purpose of the conference is to bring together game developers and academics to discuss the research and practice of designing serious games, which are (to give a simpler definition than yesterday) games with meaning.  This thread of exploring not only the magic but the purposeful impact of games runs through the proceedings.

Thursday morning keynote

The morning keynote was Three Miles An Hour: Designing Games for the Speed of Thought, by Tracy Fullerton, game designer and Director of the Games Program at USC.  The “three miles an hour” from the title refers to average walking speed, which has been suggested as a pace at which thinking can occur more readily, and Tracy explores this concept in “walking simulator” games such as her own Walden, a Game.  She discusses the idea that games can (should?) have “reflective play”, where scenes with no urgent interactivity can be used to give the player a chance to reflect on the experience.

One takeaway was the proposed reshaping of Sid Meier‘s definition of a game as “a series of interesting choices” into “a series of meaningful situations“.  It is an interesting reframing, but I feel that the two are fully compatible; what makes a decision interesting is anticipation of a meaningful situation to which it leads.  It is analogous to traditional games: some games play on the points on the board, while others play on the polygons they form.

The important thing here, I think, is the word, “meaningful“.

Morning session

The morning breakout session provided six options for talks, papers, panels, and workshops, but since I can only be in one place at a time, I choice to attend Physics is (still) Your Friend: The World of Goo @ 10 by Drew Davidson.  In this talk, he revisited the talk he gave at Meaningful Play 2008, looking at how The World of Goo stands up after 10 years on the market (answer: quite well) and even revealed a few spoilers for those of us who never got very far in the game.

Key takeaways were that the game was, in a way, a metaphor for the indie game development process (full analysis would be too deep for this post), that early figures showed that 90% of players of the game were pirating it but they were successful despite that by focusing on the game, and that they produced the game for many platforms and continue to upgrade them to remain playable through the years.

Midday keynote

Full disclosure: Living near to the conference venue has a few drawbacks such as, perhaps, getting pulled away from the event for family matters, so I missed the first 15 minutes of this keynote, Games Are Not Good for You, by Eric Zimmerman.  This means that I missed the audience playing “Five Fingers” and, apparently, a swipe at Luminosity.

Nevertheless, even sans introduction (and title slide picture), this talk was enlightening about the practice of informed game design.  The most fascinating part of the talk, to me, was a discussion of his game, Waiting Rooms, which was a building-sized installation wherein players would walk around collecting and paying pennies and tickets according the rules of various rooms.  They set up systems without a defined goal and observed what was essentially (although I did not hear him call it this) emergent behavior, but driven by human desires and values rather than programmed operators.  (Here is the first article about the game that came up from a Google search.)

Afternoon session

For the afternoon sessions, I chose (from six options again) to attend a talk, An Innovative Approach to Collaborative Game Design, given by Carrie Cole and Sarah Buchan of Age of Learning.  This was the most informative session yet, with practical information and clear illustration of how the learning process was advanced and how curriculum and game design are balanced to achieve those goals.  It was very worthwhile.

In a weird twist, I discovered that Carrie, who I met here in East Lansing when she was at MSU, ended up moving out to the Los Angeles area just a few months after I did, and without realizing the connection at the time, I found out about Age of Learning when we interviewed and ultimately hired one of their developers for my team at Daqri.

Afternoon keynote

The afternoon keynote was Moments (formerly, Nuance) in the Woods: Exploring Meaning in Games by Alec Holowka, one of the developers of Night in the Woods.  The game uses the tag line, “At the end of everything, hold on to anything.”  This line hints at the meaning that the game could and, as we heard, does have.

This talk turned out to be (perhaps unexpectedly) the highlight of the conference so far. After some introduction to the game, which appears to be very engaging, including the incorporation of reflective play opportunities, with a character-driven story.  There was also discussion about some of the development process, the successful KickStarter campaign, and various mistakes made along the way.

The presentation was interesting to that point, but then the speaker took a turn into his own personal struggles while creating the product, concluding that portion with a realization that not everybody has the same access to health care and support services, and how their game could been meaningful to people (especially young people) facing similar struggles.  Then, he read some quick highlights of testimonials from affected players and showed lots of fan art demonstrating the degree to which the game made the desired connection with players.  It was moving and enlightening.

One key moment was the showing of this animated tribute video [2:06] created over the course of a year by a 16-year-old girl, Sarah Y., who ends the video with the message “thank you for inspiring me and many others”.  It was amazing.

 

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