Thursday, 19 December 2013

Failing in Games at Aarhus University

 Last month I was invited to present at the Aarhus University's Interacting Minds mini-conference on "Failing and Confusion in Games and Gaming" along with Jesper Juul, Dennis Ramirez and Charlotte Janasson. Thanks to Andreas Lieberoth for the invite and organising a seriously interesting day :-)

Mine was the final talk of the day, where I presented some of my PhD research on Investigating Game-play: Are Breakdowns in Action and Understanding Detrimental to Involvement? (see pic below). You can find my slides here. I'm waiting to hear back about a journal paper we put together on the findings but in the meantime you can check out my DiGRA paper on why I did not find physiological data to be useful for identifying breakdowns and breakthroughs in game-play. My main argument was that action and understanding breakdowns will contribute to involvement when the player feels responsible for overcoming them but that they will decrease involvement if they take too long to overcome or have major consequences e.g. a loss of progress. There was some interesting discussion in the Q&A afterwards around defining involvement, whether "positive engagement" is a helpful term, the importance of triangulation and how we can avoid players getting into "negative cycles" where breakdowns don't lead to breakthroughs. While I think my work can help explain when certain breakdowns are likely to disrupt involvement, I think there is still plenty of scope to consider how and why some players are able to avoid these negative cycles and others don't.

(Thanks to Andreas Lieberoth for the twitpic)

In terms of the other presentations, I was glad to hear more about some of Andreas' initial work on Quantum Moves (a citizen science game) where they investigated player motivations e.g. in terms of fear of failing i.e. trying to avoid looking bad or achieving mastery challenges. While they chose a different focus, there is definitely some overlap with some work I presented at CHI this year in relation to the Citizen Cyberlab project, looking at why people chose to play citizen science games. I'm definitely looking forward to Andreas visiting next term so we can get into some more discussion about our research.

Jesper then kicked off the main talks by discussing failure in games (he's also written a book about the topic called the Art of Failure). Amusingly, he got different people in the audience to try out Super Hexagon and China Miner - I think I lasted about 10 seconds in the latter! Juul argued that while failure can be a source of learning, it's still an unpleasant experience and pointed out that there is a bit of a paradox going on here - normally we want to succeed but when we play games we seem to be seeking out experiences where we will fail (at least part of the time). I wonder though about how you define failure? I don't think all breakdowns are necessarily failures, often they are part of the challenge, or quickly overcome, whereas the word failure seems to indicate something more serious. What was really interesting was how when he pointed out how games can promise to repair some sort of inadequacy in us, but it is an inadequacy the game actually created in the first place! I think I'm going to have to read his book to get more to grips with the various paradoxes and philosophical arguments outlined in the talk but Jesper also suggested failure in games differs from real life as games offer a certain amount of plausible deniability e.g. "It's just a game", "It wasn't fair", or even "I wasn't trying that hard in the first place". I have thought about "its not fair" comments before - I see them as an indication that involvement has been disrupted, since the player sees the game rather than their own actions as being at fault - but either way I think they indicate a serious breakdown has occurred as player are essentially distancing themselves from the game.

Dennis' talk on his PhD research followed similar lines but he focused a little more of what failure means for learning and educational games. He pointed out that only 20% of players actually reached the end of Hitman Absolution (and apparently only 10% of players will see the end of any game) and argued that it's important to consider the metric being used to assess success within a game. Dennis also discussed various approaches to using games and assessing them - from chocolate covered broccoli e.g. Math Blaster to thinking about model based assessment e.g. Schaffer's epistemic frames. I particularly liked how he pointed out that we can't always infer competence from completion and when he discussed more recent approaches to evaluation that relate to "big data" (though also stressed the importance of talking to players too). For instance, he talked about some work going on at Wisconsin-Madison that was looking at heat maps in terms of how different players move through the game. The fact that progress doesn't always guarantee learning is something I've considered in my PhD research i.e. you can achieve action breakthroughs without understanding (though chances are these will be less satisfying) but it was good to hear more about what that means in terms of assessing learning from an educational point of view.

Charlotte provided a different perspective with her talk on Learning from errors in education. While not focusing on digital games, she provided an interesting account of failure in real-life settings, in this case a vocational school. She made the argument that while not exactly a game, school isn't quite real-life either and vocational schools offer a sort of real-life work game - where failure is considered part of the learning process. Charlotte used an example of the students learning how to clean, cook and prepare flounder (apparently very tricky!). She noted that the instructors treat the school as a practice space where errors are ok, but not if they are made as a result of knowledge you should have acquired already. Further, it seems that developing expertise is about becoming more skilled at paying attention and knowing what to pay attention too. Her talk got me thinking about my work on CHI+MED and errors within a healthcare environment, where I've been interested in how nurses are trained to use infusion devices. But, if errors are an unavoidable part of work practice and learning from them can help you become an expert, then how on earth do you go about supporting this process in an environment where the consequences of errors could literally be life or death?! I guess using a pump isn't normally that complicated but I do wonder about what sort of knowledge nurses have and how they develop expertise in this context.

Overall it was a really good day and it got me thinking a lot about games, failure and errors in the workplace. It was a great opportunity to talk to attendees at the event, catch up with Andreas and Yishay Mor, and enjoy lots of discussion afterwards when we went out for a lovely meal in Aarhus :-)