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.
Unflappable Academic start screen

A game a week challenge! Game One: The Unflappable Academic (and his hoverboard)

A little over a week ago, I saw and tweeted Adriel Wallick’s ( @MsMinotaur ) debrief post on IndieGames about how she did a game a week, she in turn inspired by Rami Ismail’s Gamasutra post. I just thought it was really cool and inspiring.

Ana Salter retweeted and mentioned that she’d love to give it a go. I replied “I’m in!” and she quickly invited others. So, right now we’ve got:

The others have already written reflections about their games, so go read about Ana’s Nowhere, Dennis’s Blackjack framework, and Melissa’s Weather Worker!

The game I made is The Unflappable Academic (and his hoverboard).

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depression quest

Depression Quest is the most important game I’ve ever played

[This article originally appeared on Critical Gaming Project as part of the "Critical Exemplars" features series.]

Whenever I’m defining what games are with new students, usually, someone mentions that games must be fun. I love it when this happens because it’s the perfect entryway into getting students to start thinking critically and reflectively about games and gaming. The discussion requires clarification on what “fun” means and whether games really have to be it. I usually argue that if we treat games as an expressive medium like film, we can apply the same standards of criticism on them. Not all films must be fun (think Schindler’s List), so why should all games be fun? In the last year or so, my go-to example to challenge this existing definition of games is Depression Quest (DQ) (before that it was usually Hush).

Depression Quest is an amazing game.

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Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes

A new definition for games

Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes
Fallen Enchantress Legendary Heroes

Gameplay and Learning

There’s a perennial problem in games for learning: the mechanics of a game are often disassociated from the desired learning. I think part of this stems from educational game designers placing too much emphasis on specific subject matter content exacerbated by a misunderstanding of the object of their creation.

Too many educational games aren’t really that engaging as games. They focus on content and sometimes use only the superficial reward layer of games to motivate players to engage in the activity. (This is often called “gamification.”) These types of “games” keep getting made and will continue to be made so long as our educational policy/system continues to emphasize discrete disciplinary content assessed with brute force testing methods. In our effort to meet decontextualized standards, we’ve lost student engagement and somehow think that by making our stupidly meaningless activities give out badges and points that everything will be fine.

Sometimes engaging gameplay does exist, but the learning content is just inserted as interstitial segments between layers or levels of the actual game. An example could be a game that features pop-up screens with trivia between levels of, say, a first-person exploration game.[1] Again this is because the designers are placing too much value onto these subject matter chunks of facts. They may understand what makes a game engaging but not how to incorporate these fact chunks into the activity. (Good examples of games that focus on the educational content in their game design include the work from CGS and Ululab.)

It should be obvious that I don’t think we should be dividing our education into disciplinary silos. Additionally, if you know me, you know that I’m much more interested in the processes of learning that players engage in during gaming than the actual content of their learning. I think these processes are the true power of gaming and that they can transfer to many other non-game situations.

To understand where I’m coming from, it helps to understand my definition of games. Recently, however, I’ve rethought and changed my definition, so I’ll explain that transformation here, too.

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marks-dice

A statement on games and expert gaming (annotated!)

marks-dice

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.

 

gcc

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!