Sunday, 4 December 2011

Being more open about my research

As I mentioned in the last post, my recent part-time work where I've been looking at digital scholarship at the OU, has got me thinking about what it might mean to be a scholar in the digital age and how openness can be a part of that. I have touched upon aspects of my research in this blog, but mostly I tend to use it as a way to reflect about my own gaming experiences and as a way to keep track of my thoughts about different events I go to. As I was writing up the post about ECGBL 2011, I realised that I really did want to say more about what I had been doing and this might be quite a useful thing to do, especially as I'm currently writing up my PhD thesis.

So, in terms of what I have done my research, consists of three phases. Phase one included a conceptual overview of different frameworks of engagement and motivation and a set of interviews with a range of different games players (from casual to hardcore). This led to the development of a set of learning categories, which I presented at EARLI this year (extended abstract) where basically I found that people learn through games in three different ways: through play, through others and through external resources; and on three different levels: on a game level, skill level and personal level. The personal level refers to instances such as picking up general knowledge but also in terms of people mentioning things like developing perseverance and viewing game characters as role models - possibly an area that has received the least amount of attention in game studies though this is likely due to the difficulty of assessing it! I also developed a set of themes that relate to a concept Mia Consalvo calls gaming capital (in turn based upon Bourdieu's notions of capital), which players gain not just by being good at games but in terms of being knowledgeable about them. These themes were: competence, knowledge, community and identity. We published a journal article earlier this year, based on work I presented and GBL 2010, which introduces some of these concepts and outlines my position on engagement and motivation in terms of thinking about them as forms of involvement.

Phase two consisted of a set of case studies I carried out where I examined people playing games on a micro and macro level (i.e. analysing instances of play and wider involvement with players and resources). This consisted of eight case studies, again with a mix of players, some who identified as gamers and some who did not. At DiGRA, I presented the methods I adopted (which you can access here) while at ECGBL I focused on analysing game-play through analysing breakdowns and breakthroughs in terms of what they can tell us about learning and involvement in games (which you can find on ORO here). Whilst at ECGBL, I was asked about the use of AAA games within the case studies - I didn't choose to focus on these but the focus on consoles in the lab setup (see picture below) meant I was much less likely to look at more independent games like Braid or low budget games like Farmville. However, some of the observation sessions did involve more casual games like Big Brain Academy and some less familiar titles like Flower (which was produced by an indie developer) and Endless Ocean 2. Plus, I did try and tap into the different types of games people play by asking them to keep a diary of their experiences outside of the lab, though admittedly there is less detailed information about these in terms of considering breakdowns and breakthroughs. I was also asked about the types of players that took part but pointed out I was more interested in tapping into a range of experience by getting older/younger, male/female, casual players/gamers to take part in order to maximise the differences between cases, than in considering whether someone was an "explorer" or not. I probably should have been more explicit about how I was trying to contribute to a general theory of how involvement and learning relate to each other rather than trying to make statistical generalisations about how involvement and learning might differ with respect to player type/motivation and genre. That said, as I'm writing up, I will need to point out that in terms of the observation sessions at least, any claims I will make will relate to games where players control some sort of avatar and navigate through virtual environments (with Big Brain Academy as the only exception).

Another question I got asked at ECGBL was about how I actually identified breakdowns and breakthroughs with respect to action, understanding and involvement. In terms of action, this is pretty simple as strategies were either effective or not, while understanding was also relatively easy as this was something pretty clear from the post-play interviews (though occasionally breakthroughs would be more gradual). I also pointed out that I collected an awful lot of data so I was primarily focused on major issues, rather than a fine grained analysis of everything. However, involvement was definitely harder to identify, especially in terms of breakthroughs as it wasn't always clear exactly when these occurred and sometimes it may have been a much more gradual process. It seemed a lot easier to identify when flow breaks down for instance, than when it is actually happening. During the analysis, I ended up identifying involvement in affective terms i.e. with respect to evidence of negative emotion (where boredom or frustration would indicate a breakdown) and positive emotion (where enjoyment or satisfaction would indicate a breakthrough). On reflection though, I'm not sure the concept of breakthroughs could be applied as easily to involvement. This is something I discuss further in the thesis, while I also consider the relationship between the different types of breakdowns and breakthroughs. Note: I also collected a range of physiological data during the observation sessions - initially in the hopes it would help us identify different types of breaks but it turned out to be less useful than we hoped as it too difficult to interpret under these circumstances (i.e. because we didn't use a controlled experimental set up).

Finally, I was asked about how my work related to education - but since my focus is on learning that occurs when we are involved in games we play outside of formal educational contexts, I can't actually say an awful lot about that. However, I do think that building a better understanding what happens when we play the games that we do can help us design more involving educational games that are able to support effective learning e.g. by suggesting that it is important to avoid situations where progress can occur without being accompanied by understanding breakthroughs. So I think my work will have implications for education but the a more significant contribution will be to the area of informal learning.

One thing I didn't discuss at ECGBL that came out of the analysis of the diaries I asked players to keep (over a three week period), was that there wasn't really a lot of interaction with the wider gaming community. Sure, participants reported talking to other people about games and using various online resources to keep up to date with news and developments; while occasionally, they consulted guides or walkthroughs, but there really wasn't a whole lot going on in terms of people contributing to these sorts of things. Further, it seemed that the participants who identified as gamers were the ones who reported using resources more frequently than the non-gamers. As this was a small set of case studies, this led to us thinking about investigating this sort of thing on a wider scale through the use of a survey; in the final phase of my PhD.

It seemed important to consider this sort of macro level involvement in more detail, and how it might relate to identity and learning, as it links in to a lot of the stuff James Paul Gee discusses when he talks about games and learning; in particular with respect to semiotic domains and affinity groups/spaces. I'm not going to go into the results in detail (as that's a whole chapter's worth of discussion!) but it does seem that players who identify as hardcore are not only likely to interact with wider range of resources but that they also more likely to say they have learnt from their gaming experiences. This is significant, because while Gee talks about the importance of identity in learning, he discusses this is terms of a player reflecting on their personal identity in relationship to their avatar rather than in terms of how they identify as a gamer. We just got a short view points paper accepted by Learning, Media and Technology on the preliminary analysis of the questionnaire, so I'm quite looking forward to writing up the main analysis after I submit.

I'm not sure how coherant that all is and I still need to link everything so I can sum up how involvement and learning come together on a micro and macro level, but it's been interesting trying to sum up what I've been doing over the last few years! Now just need to get on with finishing off the thesis...

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

ECGBL 2011 - Athens

After rearranging flights to avoid the air traffic control strike, I made it to Athens last week for the 5th European Conference of Game Based Learning. Not everyone was so lucky but I was pretty impressed with the conference organisers for managing to make sure the conference went ahead and that we all were looked after so well whilst we were there. It was a bit surreal having to avoid the crowds of protesters on the way to the conference venue and trying to make sure we didn't get caught up in any of the running battles with riot police on the way back... We did avoid the worst of it (which, on the first conference day involved ducking into a restaurant for a little while until the trouble outside died down!) with only piles of burnt rubbish around the city to remind of us of what was going on (see below).

Oh, and t-shirts like this :-)

In terms of the conference itself, I am very glad I managed to make it as it was a great opportunity to meet up with people I had met before, like Alex Moseley from Leicester and Jantina Huizenga from Amsterdam and to talk to new people about games and research like Magnus Johansson and Kimmo Oksanen. In terms of the talks, one of the highlights came from Carlo Fabricatore from the University of Worcester, UK and Ximena Lopez from Initium Studios, Italy introducing the area of sustainability games - something I also know my OU friend Stefan Kreitmayer who I went to the conference with was very interested in (since he is working on creating collaborative games that deal with climate change issues). The presenters provided a good rationale for how games are able to support problem solving and systems thinking, and a review of some of the existing games you can find online. The review revealed that there is definitely room for improvement as there aren't a lot of games out there that consider sustainability in terms of environmental, economic and social issues, or that actually allow for emergent complexity. Further, a lot of these games seem to be directed at children so there it would be interesting to see more of them aimed at adults. While it wasn't the focus of the presentation, it also made me wonder how you might be able to evaluate this sort of systems thinking within a formal educational context.

Another talk I enjoyed, came from Matthew Jewell, a game designer from Rosetta Stone which produces language learning tools. He presented a game called Prospero which includes speech recognition software so players can practice their grammar (see below). This was pretty interesting because the game is part of a portal of flash games that are directed at different levels of language learning and it made me think a lot about intrinsic/extrinsic motivation and integrating game mechanics with learning. Prospero is a neat little game that gives players points for pronouncing the correct sentences and utilising a treasure hunting mechanic to allow players to choose a task, which also provides further reward to the player. I think you can also compete with other players if you want. On the surface, this seems to go against a lot of what is discussed in the literature (the importance of intrinsic motivators etc) but in reality I can see how it's a really effective way to get players to practice what is a essentially a dull task (learning correct grammar) in order to become proficient at it. Further, the only way to progress in the game is to pronounce phrases accurately and I can see how variable reward (in the form of finding treasure) can provide help provide the sort of "stickiness" that Matthew was aiming to achieve. And at this level of learning at least, it does seem like it will help make the player more likely to practice. I'm not entirely sure how Rosetta Stone evaluate their products (or if they want to share that info!) while I'd be curious to see some of the other games in the portal and how they work, especially since the Rosetta blog suggests: "once you gain a little more confidence, you can progress to one of our conversational games, like Identi or Chatonium." I guess I'm curious about whether the gaming mechanisms evolve along with the learning complexity. In general, I really enjoyed talking with Matthew about games as he pointed out things like how casual games can be ignored by game-based learning research in favour of more complex solutions and he made me think about how maybe the lines between the extrinsic and intrinsic motivation are more blurred than we sometimes like to think!

My own session on breakdowns and breakthroughs experienced during game-play went ok too, and seemed to generate some interest. I'm actually going to do a seperate blog post on this as I'd like to introduce my research a bit more as I'm realising that it's not something I've been too explicit about on this blog. I've recently taken up some part time work on a project about digital scholarship which has made me think more about openess and what that might mean so I think it will be interesting to be actually put some of my work out there, especially in relation to what I have presented at recent conferences. In general though, the questions I got were interesting and gave me plenty to think about in terms of writing up my thesis.

There were a couple of other interesting talks, such as Lorenzo Romeo's talk on reflective flow, which got me thinking about whether games really do support experiential learning or whether we tend to use the term to describe active learning i.e. learning by doing - can learning in the context of game-play really be seen as a "direct encounter with the phenomenon being studied"? (this relates a little to conversations I've had with Rob Farrow about how embodiment relates to games); and Colin Lemmon giving a really interesting insight into all the problems designers face when trying to develop and get funding for serious game applications. The keynotes also provided food for thought with Nikolaos Avouris providing an useful introduction into the use of games in museum contexts (and how their is really a lot of improvement here in terms of the educational value they actually provide and tapping into more social  and mobile experiences - e.g. contrast Play with the Frieze, where you have to match pairs of pictures of the frieze at the new Acropolis Museum; with Ghost of a Chance at the Smithsonian American Art Museum). Sara de Freitas also gave a talk on the Gamification of Life which provided an interesting overview into the work the Serious Games Insitute is doing and the challenges of doing work in this area. Unfortunately, the conference was a bit pressed for time at this point so it was a bit of whirlwind tour but I would have liked to have heard more about the evaluations carried out. Also, I'm a little confused about her use of the term gamification as it seemed to be used as way of referring to anything involving games (as opposed to the DiGRA gamification session definition of using game-elements in non-game contexts i.e. not whole games) so it would have been interesting to find out why she applied the term to the work that she discussed.

All in all, it was an interesting couple of days and I really benefitted from the chance to talk to other researchers about games and games research. I think I did see a bit more of the questioning I felt wasn't there at ECGBL 2008, though it was a shame there were quite a few people that couldn't make it so - depsite the fantastic efforts of the organisers, it wasn't quite the experience it could have been. I also think that the conference would benefit from tightening up the review process a little (perhaps by adding an additional reviewer?) as there were a couple of things that surprised me a little in the presentations e.g. the use of the somewhat outdated and unpopular term "edutainment" (though as in any international conference, translation might be an issue here). I'm also very glad I got to see Athens after the protests as the lively and historically amazing city that it is so will leave with a photo of the Acropolis from my hotel room :-)

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:

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! 

Thursday, 1 September 2011

EARLI 2011: Exeter

Hmm, can't believe it's been two years since the last EARLI! This time it was held at the University of Exeter, so a little easier to get to, but I only went for a couple of days as I have another two conferences lined up over the next couple of months and I really do have lots of PhD work to be getting on with if I'm going to finish it anytime soon... The conference is still running at the  moment but I wanted to get my thoughts down while they are still fresh. 

EARLI seemed bigger than ever this year with over 20 parallel sessions during each slot. But with so much of an emphasis on formal education and assessment there wasn't actually too much that I had to decide between. Obviously EARLI is an education conference so that's bound to be the focus and I suppose another reason why I didn't spend too long there was because I knew there wasn't a lot I would find especially relevant. I think there might have been even fewer presentations relating to games than last time but I am glad I got a chance to present at the main conference and that I had the opportunity to meet up with other people there. Plus I'm sure it's a good thing to be exposed to work in different areas and be reminded of what else is going on in the field of education.

So I found myself going along to presentations about multimedia learning, motivational, social and affective processes, and comprehension of texts and graphics. Highlights include Steffi Heidig presenting the Interact model (during her second presentation in the session, since her colleagues were stuck in the US because of hurricane Irene), which tries to consider both cognitive and emotional effects in relation to learning environments; contributing to a roundtable discussion about maths in relation to critical thinking skills and then CSCL environments (which I don't really know much about but quite enjoyed talking about anyway!); Daniela Raccanello discussing achievement emotions with respect to different subjects (also presenting the rather depressing finding that as class level increases, students experience less positive emotions and more negative ones); Lucia Lumbelli presenting work on self-explaining and the Simpsons; and Jan van der Meij discussing different learning diagram designs in relation to eye-tracking data.

The main session of interest to me though was one which included four game-related sessions. The first presentation was by John Quick, a PhD student from Arizona State University who is looking at how game design features relate to personality traits. He presented six design characteristics (fantasy, exploration, realism, challenge, companionship, and competition) and a number of player characteristics that relate to them in the form of player types e.g. imaginative realist explorer. I'm still not 100% sure how the "meeting new people" item ended up in the competition (rather than the companionship) category but I did like the idea of mapping design aspects to different personalities. I do reckon mood also has influence on the choices player's make (and external factors such as time available and social context) but it's hard not to agree that players still have underlying, longer-term preferences that affect the games they tend to play. I look forward to reading more about how the categories were developed and how they might be applied in terms of design.

Next there was P.G.Schrader talking about expert and novice behaviour in World of Warcraft, with a focus on examining spatial and social behaviour within immersive environment (they were more interested in the fact WoW is a virtual world than a game). I quite like the way this was set up and the use of observation protocols to track behaviours, though I should probably look into what the behavioural assessment matrix (BAM) actually is. However, given the small sample size and the increasing the p value (0.1 rather than the usual 0.05) I couldn't help but think they were over claiming a little. I know it's exploratory work, and they cited precedent for doing so, but I'd like to see further results especially in relation to the claim that novices require more than an hour before engaging in social interactions within immersive environments. Though the difference was quite large in this case, I think it reflects that (1) it's unlikely players have to engage with other people straight away in order progress with play (2) players probably don't want to join others and engage in collaborative activity before they have acquired a certain level of competence in the first place. Again, it'll be good to get hold of the longer paper as it'll be interesting to go through what they did in a bit more detail.

Then we had Vigdis Vangsnes talking about games as multi-modal performances and adopting a hermeneutic phenomenological model to consider quality in serious games. I quite like the idea of thinking of game-play as a performance but I have to confess that I wasn't quite sure how the framework was going to be applied in practice. It all seemed quite theoretical at this stage, as admittedly it's a work in progress, but a couple of examples might have been helpful to illustrate how this approach offers a unique insight into assessing game quality. The session then concluded with Sylke Vandercruysse presenting a review of different studies on game-based learning. Including papers about "(quasi-) experimental research that made use of a computer-based-game in an educational setting", they only found about 20 or so that fit their criteria. One of their aims was to investigate the claim that the increased motivation produced by games increases  learning and it didn't look like they found strong evidence to support it. Again, it would be useful to get hold of the longer reference (I think there is an article in press) to see exactly all the criteria were but it did seem clear that the area would benefit from better designed studies and consistent definitions of learning, engagement and motivation.
The other game-related session I went to was roundtable discussion with Jantina Huizenga (who I met at JURE/EARLI last time). Jantina carried out a similar review (though this time finding 46 studies) - where we had a really interesting discussion about the different claims being made about games in education in terms of motivation (with learning content), engagement (with the game) and learning (in terms of factual knowledge, cognitive skills, and meta-cognitive skills). I think we concluded that the area would benefit from better designed studies that actually describe the games and interventions in more detail and make sure to back up their claims with empirical evidence. Oh and studies should actually define key words such as game, engagement and motivation. I know the field of game-based learning is relatively new but I'm really hoping the area will see an improvement in terms of quality soon as it's makes it harder for the field to be taken seriously.

My session wasn't till the next day, and while I would have preferred to have been included in the previous day's session with all the other games presentations, it did seem to go relatively well. (Note: if going to present on games at EARLI don't pick Multimedia and Hypermedia as a research strand, try Learning and Technology instead). I was presenting the learning categories I developed from my first email interview study - so not only qualitative research but focusing on informal learning, hopefully the audience appreciated a bit of break! I guess this is old news in terms of my PhD but the submission date was back in October so I didn't have much else to present at that point. It all seemed to go down ok with people quite interested in the quotes I was presenting to back up the creation of different categories. I did get a question about how you might test for learning beyond the game, which I kind of expected, though to be fair I don't think I was being asked why I hadn't included these tests in my own research. I also got quite an interesting question about when people look up information they encounter during play in terms of how do they know when references are factual or not. I'm not sure that's something I've thought about before but I guess you would have to at least some prior knowledge to be able to distinguish between the made up stuff and real world references. I'd like to think most people would be able to tell the difference, though perhaps there's a study in there where you could see whether the majority actually can.

Finally, I also have to say I really enjoyed Shaaron Ainsworth's keynote on "Understanding and transforming multi-representational learning" (which I think you will be able to watch later from here). Ok, so I'm slightly biased as I know Shaaron and because I actually got cited in the keynote (!) for a paper she presented at EARLI 2005 based on my undergraduate project but it was clear the rest of the audience felt the same way. Some of the content was familiar (due to studying at Nottingham but also with respect to Shaaron's work with Jake Habgood on the game Zombie Division) and some wasn't - in particular I was quite interested in the more recent focus on learning through drawing i.e. getting students to create representations. The gist of it was along the lines that learning is increasingly involve the use of multiple representations and we really should be thinking beyond general design principles about what actually works in practice and under what circumstances. And yes, that applies to games too!

All in all, I did appreciate going to EARLI. I'll admit I'm more excited about DiGRA in a couple of weeks since it's more games focused, but I did have the chance to present my work to a different audience, get more up to date about what's going on in educational research and I definitely enjoyed catching up with researchers I'd met before and meeting some new ones. Oh, and special thanks to my supervisor James Aczel and his family for putting me up in Exeter :-)

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Mass Effect 2 (PS3)

I want to talk about Mass Effect 2 because it's the first seriously long game in ages that I've been thoroughly engrossed in and wanted to play non-stop. Heavy Rain was probably the last title that had that effect on me, but it really didn't take too long to get through, and according to my save game files I've spent over 40 hours playing Mass Effect during the last three weeks... There's another post I'm thinking of writing about my gaming habits and how game-play fits into my life but first I want to reflect on why this game sucked me in as much as it did.

I was interested in the first Mass Effect when it came out but I didn't have an Xbox 360, and my laptop wouldn't have been able to cope with it. I'd also heard a lot about it from my friend Paul, who went on to enthuse about the second installment. So when I heard it was coming out on PS3, I was already excited. An action-RPG set in the future where I get to command a space ship and my choices affect the way the narrative progresses? I was definitely intrigued. I've not seriously played an RPG since Baldur's Gate years ago (and no, I don't think the tongue-in-cheek Deathspank really counts...), but I guess that was the last time I got this involved in a game story. Incidentally, Baldur's Gate was also created by Bioware. Mass Effect is the kind of game where narrative really does count, but I think it's the relationships you have with the rest of your team that make the narrative matter. I was utterly engrossed in Heavy Rain but it didn't take long to play through (plus there is some debate on whether it actually is a game or not). And while Deathspank was engaging in an amusing sort of way, I didn't really care about what was going on, not enough to try and finish it or even to spend that much time playing it on my own. But in Mass Effect 2, I had to make all sorts of choices along the way in terms of how I interact with people and what I do next which I knew would affect how the development of the plot.

So I finished it last weekend, and even now I'm still wondering whether I made the right decisions. Obligatory SPOILER ALERT as I'm going to go on discuss some of the plot and how it panned out. I think one of the moments that surprised me was how I ended up interacting with a character called Grunt (see below). Grunt is a member of the Krogan species who was genetically engineered in a vat by a scientist who was trying to create the "perfect" Krogran.

Soon after awaking/recruiting him, it's clear he's having some sort of difficulty dealing with his rage (hardly surprising since, despite being fully grown, he's only been out of the vat for a short while - experiencing the Krogan version of teenage angst perhaps?) so off we go to his homeworld to figure out if there is anything wrong with him and he ends up having to go on some sort of rite of passage. Now the Krogans are a pretty aggressive race (I guess sort of like Klingons but more animal like) and even though I've played most of the game so far by choosing the paragon (i.e. good guy) options, I start to play it differently now. Because Grunt is Krogan, and I want the others to respect him (and his choice to be part of my team) - in fact I want to encourage Grunt to be the best Krogan he could possibly be. It's odd, but he sort of felt like my adopted child and I wanted him to connect with his culture... I know the plot is a little bit ridiculous (but it did start with me being resurrected from being dead), and I know that is an odd feeling to have about a character I regularly took into battle but I'm really not sure how else to explain why I started acting all tough and aggressive all of a sudden. The only other thing I can say in my defence is that behaving how I did just sort of made sense, it just seemed like the best way to communicate with the Krogans. When in Rome...

So that's one team member. There are several others, and after a while you start to realise you like some of them more than others. I would find myself going to visit people, after missions just to hear what they had to say, some more than others. For instance, I enjoyed both serious and hilarious conversations with Mordin (the Salarian scientist who sings Gilbert and Sullivan). You can even have pursue a romantic relationships with one of them, though this part of the game impressed me less. Partly because while you are allowed to have inter-species relationships with alien team members, you can't pursue same sex relationships (except perhaps with the Asari who, though they look female, do not have a gender). If you choose to play a female Shepard, you can still flirt with human Yeoman Kelly Chambers (but there is definitely no man-on-man action), even have dinner with her (after which she will feed your fish and so stop them from dying when you are off ship, lol) but it's not considered pursuing a relationship - so it's all sort of implicit (until perhaps the end of the game, where it just gets weird). What I mean by it's not "considered a relationship" is that don't get the paramour achievement for pursuing this, but you will if you get together with one of your team mates. The problem I have with this side of the game, isn't that you can engage in this sort of things or even that it's reduced to an achievement (pretty much all of the game is tbh). It's that after a certain period of time, it's the only way for you to interact with your team mates. If you are female, the women just keep saying they are busy, and if you don't pursue the romantic options the men start to do the same. I guess the only way to continue to talk to someone is to become physically intimate with them.

The other aspect of the relationship system is that certain options are only available if you have received enough paragon or renegade points. You get these points based on how you act within the game, and on how you interact with people. This seems to presume we either want to be "good" or "bad" but  sometimses situations are more complex than that and seem to call different kinds of behaviour, regardless of what you might actually believe. I know the game usually allows you to choose different responses but in order to unlock different options later on, it forces you to generally pick one mode over the other. At one stage, I sided with one character over another in an argument and I just didn't have enough points to resolve the issue. I kept trying to get more paragon points, just so I could try and sort things out, but that felt like a strange thing to be thinking during the game - I realised that I was considering my choices on the basis of whether it would give me enough points to convince Miranda to talk to me again. Perhaps the real problem here is that there were consequences to me not managing to get those points. You see, after the argument, Miranda was no longer loyal to the team, I guess she stopped trusting me. And so after the final mission, Miranda was the only person who didn't make it back alive... I really ended up feeling like I had failed her. Seriously, when did games start getting me to feel guilty about the choices I make within them?!

Even now I'm thinking about the decisions I made. Maybe I shouldn't have decided to kill the heretic Geth (an AI race, but some of members had sided with the bad guys in the first game). To me it seemed like the more ethical option - the other was to reprogram them i.e. brainwash them, but I figured they should be free to make a choice about what they believe, just as I made a choice about defending myself  and the galaxy against their beliefs. The game didn't agree with my logic, so I got renegade points instead of paragon ones, and so I still couldn't resolve the argument. Maybe I should have taken Miranda with me on the final battle, at least that way I could have protected her, instead of her dying with the other team. Or maybe I should have sided with her in the first place, instead of Jack - who honestly started to irritate me after a while.

So that's one of things I was going over after I played it - the other was about the decision I made to pass on the Reaper technology to Cerberus. The Reapers are the big bad in the game - they are a threat to the entire galaxy and it is clear I will have to face them again in the third game (the decisions I have made will also influence the story of Mass Effect 3). Cerberus is the organisation I work for and who resurrected me, led by the Illusive Man (voiced by Martin Sheen) but it is clear they are a bit dodgy and perhaps worryingly pro-human. I decided to pass on the technology because I thought it would give me an advantage next time, but now I'm wondering whether I've really just given Cerberus the tools to make humans the dominant force in the galaxy... Lol, I'm still debating whether to play the final level again so I can save Miranda and destroy the technology!

There were other moments in the game that got me thinking about moral issues - the genophage the Salarians created in order to try and restrict the Krogan birth rate, the decision by a human scientist to use his autistic brother as a subject for an experiment etc - and I think this is the sort of thing that had me hooked. I wanted to get to the next cut scene and find out what was going to happen next, but I also had to seriously think about the issues the game raised and what sort of character I wanted the Shepard I was playing to be. I guess this was the first game in a while where I thought I might be doing some of that projective identity thinking that Gee talks about. 

The actual combat was fine, not as hard as I thought it might be, and helped by the fact that I could essentially pause it whilst I picked my team's next attack/weapon. I actually started the game on the easiest option because I thought my lack of experience with shooters would stop me from progressing - but I changed this back to normal after the first couple of fights. Ultimately, it was the story and the choices I was presented with that I really cared about. And it is these things that will ensure I play the next installment. It wasn't all done perfectly, I actually kind of wish I hadn't chosen to go back to my ship and talk to people after the final mission. I was disappointed nobody had anything to say about Miranda's death (all there that happened was a little cut scene, showing a solitary coffin - her office being empty actually seemed more poignant). I also got annoyed with Grunt because he contradicted himself by telling me I shouldn't have given the tech to Cerberus, despite the fact that he encouraged me to take it at the time. Hmm, in fact they pretty much all seemed to think I had made the wrong decision, is that why I want to re-play it? And then there was Kelly. She was really visibly shaken after having been rescued from the Collector ship so her showing up in my cabin later in a revealing outfit to do a bit of "sexy" dance just seemed bizarre and out of character... Like a reward for horny teenage boys for having finished the game, rather than a genuine part of the story.

Despite a few small niggles, I seriously did enjoy playing Mass Effect 2. It was mostly very well put together, and there is something about knowing your actions will have meaningful consequences that makes makes the experiences all the more powerful. Will I replay it? Probably, but I haven't decided whether I'll redo the last level with my current character or try it again with a new one where I'll act completely different to how I did.  I also have the option of playing it again with the same character but now I'm all levelled up. All I know for sure is that I'm looking forward to Mass Effect 3 :-)