Wednesday, 21 September 2011

DiGRA 2011: Hilversum (Part 2)

The next day started just as well as the first with a keynote from Suzanne de Castell and Jen Jenson titled "Playing with fire: Libertarian ludolgies" (see below). They have done a lot of work over the years investigating technology and gender issues in terms of access, equity and design, with their latest research indicating that many of the "facts" we take for granted about gender e.g. girls dislike competitive play, are actually artefacts of novice play. In fact they were able to alter play styles by setting up conditions for girls to become experts and replicate these across different sites. Suzanne and Jen went on to highlight issues such as neoliberal tolerance for misogyny and violence (e.g. where expert female player try to hide their gender instead of having to deal with a barrage of abuse from other players - see Fat, Ugly or Slutty for examples and an attempt to deal with this sort of thing), the need for researchers to go beyond describing how things are and think about how to change them for the better and considering games within a wider media landscape. They suggested that we need better theories of ludic epistemology that recognise the intrinsic value of games and play; to develop innovative methods and interventions by also considering the role of the researcher plays in the process of investigation; to engage in more accountable design so we're not just producing better goods and reflecting society but using games to persuade and foster identity building; and finally they stressed the importance of critical intellectual discussion within the area. I think they said a lot of things that needed to be said, and I particularly liked the point made about shoddy research which claims to make predictions but really just describes the status quo, hence the need for critical debate and more rigorous research. Also, their perspective is hugely important in an area which often sees games and technology as "boys' toys" and I'm pretty sure their plea for researchers to think about change was at least one of the fires they wanted to set. 

After that I went along to an interesting match on identity in massively multiplier games which reflected some of the issues mentioned in the earlier keynote. Arne Schröder talked about how game spaces tended to be predominantly white, straight and male, and while there was some experimentation with gender and sexuality it was more a kind of "identity tourism" than a genuine attempt at role-playing. He also gave examples of female and gay players who had left guilds due to sexist and homophobic remarks. Nick Taylor echoed some of this when he talked about "sex-swapping" as opposed to real attempts to "gender-swap" within games. He also made some interesting points about how identity shouldn't be seen as a singular construct with a one-to-one mapping between player and avatar, especially given the fact that players often have more than one avatar they use. Further, it seems that adopting different genders and/or sexualities tended not to be seen as transgressive play but as part of expert behaviour where the player was seeking to explore as much of the game as possible.

I also went to a match on values between Rilla Khaled and Jonathan Belman. Rilla talked about work carried out with Pippin Barr, where they examined the cultural values expressed in the Sims 3 and Fallout 3. They wanted to see whether these games embodied individualistic or collectivist value systems and found that while they expressed a mix of both, they tended to be more individualistic. I thought this might have something to do with the culture the designers came from, and would be quite interested to see how it would differ if looking at games directed and non-western audiences. Jonathan is doing his PhD on empathy in games and he spoke specifically about the project which developed a card system to guide the design process. Students were asked to pick different Grow-a-game cards (link also leads to free online version) consisting of a game verb (e.g. singing), a value (e.g. liberty), and a social issue (e.g. homelessness) and given the task of creating a game within these constraints. I hadn't realised it but one of the games to come from this project was Hush, where you play a Tutsi mother who must try and calm her baby during a Hutu raid. Apart from introducing an approach to value conscious design, the match also indicated how games are not value neutral, regardless of whether designers realise it or not.

During the day there was a also keynote from Antanas Mockus Šivickas, who is served as mayor of Bogota, Columbia. Now this seems pretty random, and it is because he's carried out all sorts of wacky and wonderful stunts whilst elected in order to promote change and improve the lives of day to day people. For instance, he hired hundreds of mimes in order to reduce traffic violations, dressed up as "Supercivico" to serve as a role model for civic behaviour and using a symbolic vaccine to reduce intra-familial violence. His talk highlighted the importance of considering legal, moral and social concerns when it comes to improving citizenship and harmonising the law (see below) and indicated how playful activities really can make a difference. All very inspiring!

After this I attended a roundtable on gamification, which was helpful in part as it provided an overview of the CHI gamification workshop. Despite the fact that many of the applications seemed directed at promoting "good" behaviours e.g. reducing environmental impact, gamification worries me because it reminds of badly designed edutainment - as it seems to involve slapping on a game-layer in order to get you to do something. Surely we've been trying to get away from this sort of extrinsic motivation? Also, as was raised during the session, some of these things might change behaviour in the short term but what about long term impact? The panel were pretty good and pointed out that there are HCI researchers who are interested in intrinsic motivation and a more phenomenological perspective. Plus, Dan Dixon suggested that we should move away from the term gamification (and its negative connotations) and use gameful design as an alternative (see pic below). It's clear this is a growing area of interest so it's something worth keeping an eye on, as I have a feeling we're going to have to sift through a lot of bad examples before finding out how to successfully use "game design elements in non-gaming contexts" in a way that doesn't feel like manipulation. Also, when it comes to things we have real trouble with, maybe we need all the help we can get, whatever form it's in. 

My match was on learning was next, with Pilar Lacasa who was speaking about the use of machinima based on Spore that students produced in biology classrooms. It seems the curriculum is more flexible in Spain so teachers could focus on supporting the development of digital literacies rather than having to assess whether playing Spore and creating machinima led to a greater understanding of biology. It was interesting to see some how different students approached the project, especially when they blended game-play footage with that of the real world. My talk seemed to go ok, though I had an awful lot to explain in about 10 minutes. The paper I submitted was more concerned with introducing the method I developed for my main case study approach, rather than on presenting findings, so most of the questions were about the set-up. Though I did like the fact that when I mentioned Sharples work on breakdowns and breakthroughs a lot of people seemed to write it down! So what games did I use? (I allowed participants to choose during the first session, but then asked them to play something they usually didn't in the second). I seemed to adopt quite an experimental setup, didn't that conflict with trying to tap into the wider context of game-play? (While I did use a lab - because I couldn't sit around people's houses! - I did not carry out a controlled experiment and tried to make sure it was as comfortable as possible). Were there any differences between what I observed in the lab and what was recorded in the diaries? (The diary reports on game-play were much less detailed, and the lab sessions probably did "prompt" game-play). I also got asked about my research questions (which revolve around the role of breakdowns and breakthroughs and identifying learning beyond learning how to play) and about how I identified involvement and did I try to measure it? Short answer, no I didn't try and measure involvement. Though we did try and use physiological data in order to do identify it, this turned out to be much harder than we originally thought and not something that could be done during observation, as originally hoped. So most of the breaks were identified from the post-play interview transcript and now we're trying to figure out how to triangulate that with the physiological data.

After this there was a bit of rant from game scholars about various things - Mary Flanagan spoke about how few women there are in the games industry (see below); Frans Mäyrä complained about the media constantly asking about the detrimental effects of games (suggesting games are actually not dangerous enough!); Maggie Greene had a go at established academics for not using the power they have to improve the situation for grad students (e.g. by getting involved as public intellectuals to promote the area), especially in a climate of reduced employment funding; Espen Aarseth stressed the importance of rigorous reviews and constructive criticism; which was echoed by Suzanne de Castell who also ranted about the fact that we tend to think of gender as a binary construct and we should be careful to avoid "hostile research" which makes assumptions based on bad theory and backs them up with bad methods e.g. all RPG players are depressed and anti-social. Mary Flanagan then followed this up with a keynote on critical play and designing games from a social justice perspective (see below). She was PI of the Values@Play project so there was mention of using games to promote specific values and with respect the holy grail of educational research - transfer. I really liked that she mentioned that a lot of game design produces extrinsic motivation and referenced a study where children were found to spend less time drawing when they were given rewards for the activity. She also suggested systems thinking reveals that big shifts come from small incremental ones, and concluded with a quote from Jane Goodall: "The greatest danger to our future is apathy".

I think that just about covers it! I did also catch the last half of the session on Minecraft where some children were being interviewed on stage whilst they showed us round the game they had set up along with one of their parents (who I think also taught at the University). It was really interesting to hear them talk about the game and what they had built - an impressive replica of Helm's Deep. At one point they were asked whether they thought they could "win" the game, to which one of them responded that perhaps you could if you mined everything! Given all the talk about values of the conference I couldn't help but wonder what that meant about in terms of what they were taking from the game... There was also some talk about how they would often look at YouTube videos for inspiration about what to create in the game, but I think only one of the older ones posted videos himself. They definitely seemed to get a lot of of the experience and their own Minecraft community too.  

So all in all it was quite an inspiring couple of days and I'm very glad I went. Thanks to the organisers for putting on a great conference and to everyone else who took part; including the students of the Utrecht School of Arts who had their exhibits on display during the event. Below is a photo of me and Jantina playing a student developed game called Fingle - if you have an iPad I recommend you check it out!

Oh and for further impressions of the conference, check out those videos:

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