Monday, 27 October 2008

European Conference of Game Based Learning

I was in Barcelona last week for ECGBL. This was my first proper conference and though I wasn't presenting it was pretty cool to be able to get a feel for what other people are doing in the area. In general, I enjoyed the whole thing as I got to hear from different perspectives and meet some interesting people along the way. But it was almost as people were a little too nice - there was little picking apart of ideas or applications, and I didn't hear any particularly difficult questions at the talks I went to. I'm not an advocate of being difficult just for the sake of it, but in line with Ben Sawyer's keynote where he talked about the need for constructive criticism and how the discipline needs to move on from arguments about fun and learning, it was like people were a bit too eager to pat each other on the back. I think I was expecting a little more debate but perhaps I wouldn't feel the same if I had been one of the ones presenting.

That doesn't mean there wasn't loads of interesting stuff that's given me plenty to think about. I was really pleased I got to hear Simon Egenfeldt-Nielsen speak - he gave a really good overview of the research area and gave an example of one the serious games he's worked on as part of the Serious Games Interactive (Global Conflict: Latin America). One of the points he brought up was the fact that increasing the learning focus in serious games seems to decrease the motivational aspects. The other thing he made me think about was how the term "serious game" seems to be used as a synonym for "simulation". For instance, he said something along the lines of games being the "future for training" since they provide "immersive, realistic and meaningful environments". It's just that there seems to be a difference between playing a game where you are essentially training as a journalist and one where you are taking on the role of a criminal in Liberty City. I'm just not sure how to verbalise that difference or how important a distinction it is to make with respect to education. But I have a feeling the more realistic something is, the closer it is to a real life job, the less engaging it's going to be when presented as a game.

Other highlights include a review of theoretical models of player enjoyment by Liz Boyle (including arousal theory and Apter's theory of reversal which I need to look into) which made me think about the difference between sustaining motivation in the long and short term; Nathalie Charlier and Maria Saridaki talking about how teachers can be taught to use a digital-game based learning apporach; Andy Smith's presentation of how we might be able to develop the notion of a "respectful mind" through something like cultural exchange programs in foreign MMPORGs with host families; Gearoid O Suilleabhain talking about how we should consider that there are different types of transfer and we can improve on the ways of testing for it; Nicola Whitton discussing the ARGOSI project to develop an alternative form of induction through ARGs; and Jen Jensen making a distinction between imitation and simulation as a result of the different gaming experiences that new game controllers (e.g. guitar shaped peripherals) seem to provide.

But perhaps the talk that I remember the most in terms of making me think about things differently was by Natasha Boskic, a Serbian now working at the University of British Columbia in Canada. She was working with a team on examining World Without Oil (WWO; an ARG that ran for 32 days in 2007 which encouraged players to consider how they would deal with a future oil crises) to uncover noteworthy themes and issues from the artefacts produced by the players. However, once she began, people's comments and accounts from the game began to remind her of what she went through whilst living in war-torn Serbia in the early 1990s. In the conference paper, she describes dealing with the game as "unbearably traumatic" since "to me, WWO was neither a game or an alternate reality. It was my reality" (pg. 46; Boskic et al., 2008). The tag line "Play it before you live it" didn't exactly help matters and nor did the comments from players about how much "fun" they had playing it. Her experience raised some interesting questions about whether you can teach empathy and understanding about real world crises through play and whether it's even ethical to try and create games out of other peoples' disasters in the first place? Not that the presenter didn't recognise that there weren't good things about WWO (see Rusnak et. al., 2008; from the same conference) but the point was that designers and educators who want to use a game-based learning approach need to be mindful when doing so and sensitive to their potential audience.

So yes, plenty of things to think about while trying to figure out what I want to focus on in terms of my own research.