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 :-)