Wednesday, 21 September 2011

DiGRA 2011: Hilversum (Part 1)

I recently got back from the 5th DiGRA conference - it was held at the Utrecht School of Arts in Hilversum, and has seriously given me a lot to think about! So much so that I think I'm going to have to split the post into two parts.

The conference opened on the Wednesday night at club De Vorstin setting up a playful atmosphere with Chick n' Run races (where you have to rock back and forth on adult-sized play garden chickens against an opponent), B.U.T.T.O.N. (encouraging Brutally Unfair Tactics are Totally OK Now as you physically do all you can to win or stop your opponents from winning - one of many there from the Copehagen Game Collective), and a Do It Yourself DJ installation (with which you can mix audio samples using old school cassette tapes) to name just a few of the attractions on offer. Plus Kid Koala performed the opening "keynote" - gotta love a conference that's opened by a guy in a koala suit!

The next day, Eric Zimmerman's keynote gave the audience plenty of food for thought when he used quotes from Art in Theory and replacing the word art with games to show how there really are quite a few parallels between the two. Further, no one seems to feel the need to justify art or discusses how to make it "educational"! He stressed that games are an important cultural and aesthetic form in their own right and had a go at educators who see games as instruments for transmitting content efficiently (or not, as the case may be). He argued that though developing gaming literacies such as problem solving, systems thinking and community building we should be able to understand and fix the systemic problems that affect the world we live, in what he termed the "ludic century". This wasn't suggesting that we should gamify everything but that we should recognise the value games have in their own right, with game researchers leading the way!

All the presentation sessions took places in cabins outside (see below), where speakers were matched together on topics in order to promote discussion. This worked well when the topics were similar enough but sometimes it felt like a bit of a stretch, and though powerpoint was technically banned, it didn't stop most people from presenting slides in some form or another. Most of the presentations were short though, which did allow for more interaction, especially with plenty of time planned between matches.

 It was clear the presenters of the first session I went to afterwards were still thinking about the opening keynote. Marcelo de Vasconcellos started the match (each presenter was matched on topics for the conference sessions) with a discussion of how games might be used for promoting public health communication in Brazil, while Mary Flanagan and Jonathan Belman introduced their Save the People! Pox boardgame which was developed as part of the Science literacy curriculum in order to teach how immunisation and viruses work. The session also led to an interesting discussion on transfer and how you might test for it. I think there was a concern that this was the sort of thing Eric Zimmerman was attacking but I think that the problem lies with this idea of using games to deliver course content. If we do use art as a parallel, while you might not make art to be educational in the formal sense, there is often a desire to use it as a way to change thinking and broaden perspectives. Education should be more than about whether you can transmit information efficiently, but it doesn't mean you games can't be designed in order to foster understanding and the development of different skills. Going back to the talks though, it was interesting to hear that players of the iPad version of Pox tended to play the game a lot faster - it would seem that a physical board (or mat) and hand held game pieces encourage people to take their time, which seems like something worth investigating.

Speaking of board games, they aren't something I've ever really thought to much about before to be honest. But one of the keynotes was by Reiner Knizia a board game designer who is responsible for selling over 15 million games - I really had no idea how big the industry was! He spoke about the design of games in terms of how games relate to real life, considering intuitive input/outputs, creating an appealing game system, using highly visible hooks and engaging game communities. There was a panel afterwards (below) which also included Andrew Sheerin and James Wallis which discussed board games trends, academic perspectives, and subversion in games. Turns out James was at the Hide & Seek session I went to introducing the special edition of his "not-quite" role-play game The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, but it was great to meet him at the conference and talk about games of all sorts. I also met Andrew after the panel, whose company Terror Bull games developed "War on Terror: The Boardgame". It's not a game I had heard of before but hearing about it, and the fact that it comes with a balaclava, made me think it's something I'm curious to try out. It was interesting to talk to him later on about the potential educational uses of such games, especially in terms of how they might act as catalysts for discussion. 

Other highlights of the first day include Valentina Rao who discussed how we might be able to interpret games as a form of experiential discourse, and considering the design of serious games with specific communicative purposes. During this match on critical thinking Daniel Joseph spoke about ludotopian and ludocapitalist rhetoric surrounding games, in terms of how people see games in terms of "the sublime" e.g. recreating the Starship Enterprise in Minecraft and Jane McGonigal talking about how games can save the world, and in terms gamification and making money from it e.g. Gabe Zickermann. Dan suggested that the truth is probably somewhere in between and we won't really know it until games have become prosaic, commonplace and cheap i.e. until we don't notice them so much! 

I also went to a match on engagement, where I met Gordon Calleja, who was talking about incorporation and the framework on player involvement I have been using within my research, and Henrik Schoenau-Fog who is looking at the continuation desires of players with respect to creating a player engagement framework. The fact that incorporation is not an experience that all games lead too was discussed, since it combines a feeling of intense involvement with a sense of inhabiting a virtual world. So you'd have to control an avatar, most likely in 3D space in order to achieve it. However, I do think Calleja's model and the frames within it can still be applied to most games, and that learning occurs when player's internalise each of the relevant frames. I did like the fact that Henrik distinguished between motivation (the carrot) and engagement (the hook) when he talked about continuation desires, as I don't think it's something that a lot of research considers. I was also intrigued by his introduction of First Person Victim (see below) in terms of thinking about how you can engage people to go through certain experiences which may not be that pleasant, in order to help them consider the plight of others and take part in discussion. 

Earlier in the day, I went along to a live book review on Garry Crawford's book Video Gamers where Frans Mäyrä interviewed him about it on stage (below). Coming from a cultural sociological background, Garry was interested in how games fit into wider cultures and gamers lives. It's a book about players rather than games that aims to provide a fresh perspective to the area through including ideas about Bourdieu's notion of habitus, Goffman's frame analysis and through questioning concepts such as the magic circle. It was an interesting session and I think I'm going to have to get hold of the book to find out more. Specifically, I'd like to find out whether he makes any distinction between different types of gamers and players (or are just all people who play games gamers) and while I appreciate he was focusing on people rather than games, I'd like to know if there was a consideration of how different games might relate to different gaming cultures and practices. 

Ok, I think that's enough for now - more later! 

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