All posts by Mark Chen

Mark Chen is an independent researcher of gaming culture and spare-time game designer. He is the author of Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in World of Warcraft. Currently, he is looking into experimental and artistic games to promote exploration of moral dilemmas and human nature, researching DIY subcultures of Board Game Geek users, and generally investigating esoteric gaming practices. Mark also holds appointments at Pepperdine University, University of Washington, and University of Ontario Institute of Technology, teaching a variety of online and offline courses on game studies, game design, and games for learning. He earned a PhD in Learning Sciences/Educational Technology from the University of Washington and a BA in Studio Art from Reed College.

A statement on games and expert gaming (annotated!)


I wrote the first draft of this with Theresa Horstman a while ago when we were launching AGILE (Advancing Games in Innovative Learning Environments) at UW. Sadly, we didn’t really do anything with AGILE, but I thought this statement should be salvaged.

Annotations are written in “burnt orange”. (<–WP’s name for the color. :) )

Games are systems of rules/constraints that present players with goals that can best be accomplished by exploring and pushing at the limits of these rules/constraints.

I’ve since started thinking that goals need not be inherent to the system/platform for something to be called a game. Instead, people can set their own goals and bring with them a playful attitude, and, in so doing, the activity becomes a game (so long as it still meets the other criteria: rules, constraints, etc.). In other words, yes, a “game” has goals, but the game is more than just the designed artifact; it’s the larger social and cultural context. The whole ecology has goals and is constrained by rules that can best be learned through exploration and resistance. Also, *good* games require careful decision making. Chutes and Ladders or Sorry! suck as games.

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mage from barefootliam at deviant art!

Bonus Dice: Designing Tabletop Games for Better Game Culture

(first appeared on Critical Gaming Project’s new blog series, Better Game Culture)

barefootliam's five ivory dice

image from barefootliam at deviant art!

I’m going to make two statements (interleaved with ideas) that converge later.

What Is Better Game Culture?

One is that, as we argue for better game culture, I think we’re basically arguing for more critical and reflective consumers, creators, and scholars of games and gaming practice. “More” in the sense that we just need proportionally more people who do think critically and reflectively about games and gaming. But also “more” in the sense that who we do have are continually learning and making connections and generally becoming better at what they do.

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Reed Game Jam was great!

For most of August, I led an extended game jam, a slow jam, at Reed College, for students and alums. It was modeled after a maker space where participants could drop in when they could, to accommodate those who had to work day jobs.

It was great! And… enlightening!

One thing I learned is that 3 weeks of unstructured slow jamming is about the same as a 48-hour traditional, little-sleep game jam. The amount of work and the completeness of a project are about the same. One big difference is that you get a lot more playtesting iterations in, though, so what you have can be more balanced, if not necessarily more complete…

I think next year we should provide a little more structure, set definite goals, etc.

This year, we ended up with 7 projects in various states:

  • a tight economic boardgame designed by Joe Wasserman about managing a barbershop. Yes, a barbershop. I would buy this in a heartbeat. It is very, very good.
  • a deck building, sort of area control, combat card game, inspired by Eminent Domain *and* Cosmic Encounter. Wow.
  • a space 4x (minus 1 x) co-op card game. This one is mine, and I’m still working on it. Hoping to launch a Kickstarter sometime soonish.
  • a push-your-luck dice game inspired by Kerbal Space Program, about the early rush to space during the Cold War.
  • a strategy roguelike-like, inspired by Small World, etc.
  • a platformer based on The Faerie Queene
  • a vector and momentum game about mobsters fighting on ice. Awesome concept.

There’s probably going to be two or three Kickstarter projects emerging from last month, eventually, so I’ll be sure to provide status updates when I can.



HP Catalyst Academy grant: Crash Course on Gaming!

I’ve been selected as an HP Catalyst Academy fellow to develop a mini-course with Pepperdine University!

The mini-course is an online 4-week course for educators about STEMx related topics (the x is all the extra stuff around STEM: communication, coordination, collaboration, creativity,… mostly c words apparently).

My course is on gaming culture and practice and how gaming and playful attitudes encourage critical thinking, agency, and STEMx related literacies. The basic idea is that teachers need to play games in order to use them or structure their classrooms around gameplay effectively… well, dur. But this is a chance to play a bunch of games with peers, reflecting on practice, hanging out with online gaming communities, and creating Let’s Play videos targeted specifically for teachers!

Being developed here: Crash Course on Gaming

BoardGameGeeks Unite! – micropresentation at GLS 2013

After CCA and CGSA in lovely Victoria, BC, I went off to Madison, WI for Games Learning Society 9 and Computer Supported Collaborative Learning. Yes, that’s 4 conferences in 3 weeks. I’m tired.

(And I could have easily strung in Games for Change, International Society for Technology in Education, and maybe even International Communication Association and/or Origins. And I could’ve gone to Feminists in Games in Vancouver before CCA/CGSA. That would’ve been 9 conferences in 5 weeks. I feel like such a loser. There’s always next year, I guess. June is a crazy month for conferences…)

Here’s my first pechakucha (20 slides, 20 seconds each on an autotimer) talk for it:

GLS was crazy awesome, as usual. They brought back Hall of Failures, rebranded the pre-conference educators symposium (as Playful Learning Summit), and kept the fun micropresentation and Well-Played sessions. It’s cool seeing the conference organizers play around with session formats to make for a better experience. Reminds me a lot of the similar push at DiGRA two years ago (and I assume again this year). There’s so much of a festival feel to it now that I’d almost suggest ditching regular paper presentations altogether. (I didn’t go to any regular sessions.)

One interesting thing is that a lot of learning scientists were there this year since CSCL was happening also in Madison right after GLS. A common comment I got from CSCL folks was that some of the rigor wasn’t in the research presented. Personally, I focus more on ideas, theory, innovations, so it didn’t bother me much. The main criticism I have of CSCL is that it’s *boring.* I don’t mean the research isn’t exciting; often it’s really great stuff. I mean that the traditional format of paper presentations where people speak in monotone or read their bullets just doesn’t do it for me anymore, so I’d take the excitement, call-to-action, rants-and-raves feel of GLS any day. If I’m interested in criticizing your research methods and findings, I’ll do it by reading your papers where I can closely look at those things. A presentation, imho, should convince me that it’d be worthwhile to read your papers.

hastags: #gls2013, #cscl2013

I started collaborative notes for GLS (with my awesome Pepperdine students who were there with me!) and CSCL:

Yes, all my current Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds for Learning students were there with me! They’re in Cadre 18 of Pepperdine University’s Ed.D. in Learning Technologies program. We play-tested the tabletop games that they’re all making for the course’s main assignment!


Death by Chocolate-Covered Broccoli and Massive Meltdown – talks at CCA, CGSA 2013

Big shout out to Kelly Bergstrom (probably the *coolest* friend I have, @kellybergstrom) and Florence Chee (grats on Loyola, Flo!, @cheeflo) for inviting me to be on a panel with them, Chris Paul (no, not the bball player, @real_chris_paul), and Thorsten Busch (no one pronounces his name right, @digitalethics) for the Canadian Communication Association and the Canadian Game Studies Association (which I’m having a surprisingly difficult time finding a current url for…) about current issues in game studies. (How many links can I embed in a sentence?) It was a supreme honor to be on a panel with such luminaries, and I hope attendees got out of it as much as I got out of it.

These two conferences were back-to-back during Canada’s annual Congress, which is sort of a massive gathering of all Canadian humanities and social science associations to simultaneously hold their annual meetings at the same place. It was crazy awesome. The dorm room at University of Victoria really sucked, though.

hashtags: #cca2013, #cgsa2013

Anyway, below’s my portion of the panel for CCA, a presentation called Death by Chocolate-Covered Broccoli: A Case Where Gamification Killed Gaming Practice, on how rating fight performance, adding guild achievements for raid progression, gearscore, etc. — IE, rewarding particular activities (IE, gamification in its worst form) — led to the destruction of my WoW raid group. I basically gave the same talk at CGSA (but delivered and covering slightly different things since the audience were gamers), titled Massive Meltdown, but I’m not including the slides here, since they’re almost identical…

Normalized practice will always marginalize (AERA 2013)

Last week at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting, I co-facilitated / presented at a workshop on Understanding Inequalities in Digital Media and Learning. The other presenters were Betsy DiSalvo, Justin Reich, Nettrice Gaskins, and Katie Davis.

You can read good summaries by Justin and Nettrice:

And here’s the concept map that we created based on the workshop activities:


Like Justin, I don’t normally use the term “digital divide” when I talk about the landscape of inequalities to DML. Actually, I don’t even normally differentiate DML from non-DML issues. To me, it’s all about different ecologies of practice and how educators need to prepare students to be adaptable and capable of achieving in different settings. I see the broader landscape of practice / policy as filled with a bunch of different competing groups that have contentious values. These groups all vie for dominance (sometimes intentionally, sometimes obliviously). IE. One could probably say I’ve got a Gramscian view…

But part of that is because of what I presented: stuff from my World of Warcraft studies. In Leet Noobs: The Life and Death of an Expert Player Group in WoW, I talked about how the group I studied developed expertise with the game and learned new sociomaterial practices to find success in a new team activity. To become an expert means doing the things that experts do (rather than just knowing the things that experts know), and that means access to expert practice is of utmost importance. But during my studies, WoW practices were changing at a rapid pace. What was considered legitimate changed. It was very dynamic and emergent.

Here’s the handout I prepared in case you want to read this all in bullet form: NormalizedPlay (pdf) and the slides:

The thing is, the group I studied initially started this new activity together because they were all friends and wanted to continue hanging out and having fun. They didn’t actually care much about how far into the activity they got; it was mostly an excuse to hang out. As the game community’s norms about what constituted expert play changed, and as the group I studied learned new ways of improving their play efficiency, new ways to coordinate, new tools to incorporate into their network of gaming, etc., some of the players began to focus more and more on progress and efficiency as the goal of playing. IE, they became expert players (or more precisely, their expertise changed with the game’s definition of expertise), but this was in tension with the glue that held the group together. The group fractured and died in a fiery meltdown. Former friends bickered over performance and used the expert tools to surveil each other’s efficiency.

What’s this mean?? Any profession or learning community will develop new ways of doing things better. Better = more efficient. This narrows legitimate practice. But that’s a good thing, right? We don’t want a medical doctor or engineer who “does things differently.” Yet, at the same time, the group I studied were friends! They liked hanging out with each other. Were they playing the game wrong? Part of the problem is that Blizzard, the makers of the game, seemed to embrace this new push into number crunching and efficient play. They started ranking groups by their progress and later on even introduced an achievement system to reward certain actions. My former group would have never gotten an achievement for “hanging out.”

And so I added a post-it to the workshop’s activity that read, “How do we design interventions that do not delegitimize existing cultures?” Make everyone read Freire, I guess… /shrug

I guess all this is to say that there’s a lot more at stake than the simple construct of the “digital divide.” Progress always leaves someone behind. Forming and reforming new ways of doing things will always marginalize someone. How as educators do we minimize this as much as possible, and when do we sit back and realize that the costs may not outweigh the benefits? How do we recognize when to intervene and in what ways?

Also, completely unrelated, in thinking about today’s realities of DML, I keep thinking about MOOCs and other newfangled initiatives to reach a wider audience. MOOCs are great and all but, as Justin presented during our session, they’re not really helping address inequality. They may be reaching some people who weren’t previously being reached, but the majority of MOOC students are those that already do well, have gone to college, etc. MOOCs help those who have a natural tendency to learn. Shouldn’t we focus instead on helping people develop that spark? Help them become self motivated, self directed… rather than assuming everyone is (by pushing for solutions that only serve them)?


The Tragedy of the Commons: A Card Game Prototype

The Tragedy of the Commons

A Card Game Prototype by Mark Chen

version 0.1: April 23, 2013

4 players, 15 minutes


Use a standard playing deck. Each pip is one cow.

Each player gets one suit.

Take the face cards and jokers out.


Discard 3 random ones.

Start player is the last to visit a farm.

In turn, draw top card and decide whether to place it in the common pasture or to place it in private pasture. Place cards face down.

Up to 20 cows can be placed in private pasture.

Common pasture can only hold 60 cows before it is full.

[Designer note: Either this or maybe instead the common pasture can only hold 20 cows but is reset each round. Either way, the numbers probably need tweaking.]

Once all cows have been allocated, reveal them and see if the common pasture went over 60 cows [Note: or 20 if using the round limit instead of game limit]. If so, it has become full and all the cows on it from the current round have run away.

The next round starts, but the start player rotates.

[Because players go in order, earlier players can bluff about the number of cows they placed in either their private or the common pasture. It’s predicted that earlier players will use the common pasture while last player may lean towards using his or her private pasture.]

Optional rules:

  • Bonus 10 points for any player who places 4 or more cards into private pasture. [This hopefully encourages risk taking with the common pasture. Does one play it safe by throwing his or her high cards into a private pasture, lowering the risk that the common will go bust? Or does the player go for quantity of cards for bonus points?]

  • Bonus 10 points for any player who places 6 or more cards in the common pasture. [Again, this rule is meant to encourage players to take risks with the common pasture.]

  • Include the face cards. They are worth 0 cows. Players play 10 rounds instead of 7.. [This would potentially increase bluffing.]


  • What if each suit had 2 1s, 2 2s, etc. up til 5s. Then lower the private and common limits to 10 and 30 maybe…

  • If this works, start tweaking the deck, perhaps adding suits, etc. and retheme with art.

  • Could scale with fewer or more players: Common pasture holds (15 x number of players) worth of cows.

  • A solo game probably be made where a dummy player is set up and the soloist just draws a random card from the dummy player to place in the common pasture each turn.