— Richard Wirth (@WirthWrite) October 16, 2014
Safe for school version:
This past week I was at the North American Simulations and Games Association (NASAGA) conference for the first time.
The stories are true; it’s unlike any other conference. There’s a purity and sincerity to it that’s pretty refreshing. Other academic conferences can get pretty cynical and snarky. I like snarky, probably more than the next guy, but there’s no place for that at NASAGA. Everyone is just so enthusiastic and optimistic and really fucking cares about other people, it’s crazy awesome and really hard not to feed off that energy.
All the sessions I went to were semi-structured, hands-on play and debrief of mostly tabletop simulation games that address serious issues and are meant to be used in varying contexts (schools, NGOs, indigenous, healthcare, etc.). Some of the people attending have been doing this work since the late 60s! They lived the new games movement. Wow…
When I first heard of the conference, in my naivete, I assumed “simulations” were all about the 3D virtual world stuff for the military, since that’s how I’ve come to associate the word in the last 10 years. But NASAGA’s “simulations” are about learning games that simulate complex systems for players to grok and critique. The best games are pretty damn great, remind me of great euro games… and I’m sorry this conference has been under my radar for so long.
Anyway, the last day had a 3-hour gamejam for local museums and historical societies. Specifically, Eli Pousson from Baltimore Heritage and Abram Fox from the Laurel Historical Society were there as our gamejam clients. I made this card game with the help of new friend and comrade-in-arms Bret Staudt Willet. I’m using this to fulfill my #gameaweek challenge. :p
Yes, that’s right.
I started a one-year appointment as the Director for the brand-new Gameful Design Lab at Pepperdine this week, funded by a Waves of Innovation grant!
I’m in Los Angeles, where the locals inconsistently pronounce street names correctly in Spanish and horribly in Americanese.
I couldn’t find moon cake for Monday’s Moon Festival but apologized profusely to the full (super)moon.
The Gameful Design Lab’s main mission is to help people gain personal agency through gaming practice and game design. Games are systems to explore, experiences to empathize with. Exploring and creating systems is one way people can start to see the everyday systems they inhabit. This recognition is the first step towards rebellion, not settling for status quo, and gaining social mobility.
We’ll be working with faculty to make their courses more engaging through gaming, designing minigames for empathy and moral/ethical reasoning, and holding a ton of events and workshops/gamejams for Pepperdine as well as the larger LA area with an emphasis to target underserved populations.
Here’s a video of the pitch my main collaborator Victoria Stay and I did back in January to get the funding (skip to minute 35):
During this year’s Digital Games Research Association meeting at Salt Lake City in early August, Dennis Ramirez and I got together to collaborate on a Twitter game for the conference!
It’s a play on Six Degrees of Separation/Kevin Bacon and my personal intent is to add noise to the conference hive mind twitter cabal. I think Dennis was more interested in making a good game. :)
Read the rules here:
Sploder is nominally a web-based game-making tool, but, actually, it’s more a collection of tools that make different yet somehow all sort of same-ish platform games. I think either different developers made different tools and then one person bundled them together or one developer kept starting and stopping projects and decided to release all of them instead of making one really good tool. They all sort of are meh with inconsistent creation metaphors, inconsistent levels of in-tool help, etc. It’s all sot of haphazard, and it’s hard to recommend Sploder over something like Construct 2 or GameMaker Studio. I basically wrote this in a review for Graphite (not yet published), too.
Back in June/July, before sHMUP bLUFF, I worked on Button Quest, a game using Flowlab with Sandra Danilovic. Part of the challenge was to learn the web-based game maker well enough to review for Graphite.
It’s a web-based game-making tool meant for kids and classrooms. Everything is driven through the web interface and there’s no programming involved. There’s also tons of pre-built sprites with animations and pre-defined behaviors (friendly NPCs, enemy AI, etc.).
The first thing I noticed about Sploder is that when you create a game, you have the option of creating a specific kind of game: a platformer, a puzzler, a top-down shooter, etc., and each of these choices gets you to a particular interface specifically for making that type of game.
And this made me want to try to push Sploder as much as possible, to create games within particular genres that break the genre. For example, what if we (Sandra and I) made a shooter game where the enemy aren’t trying to kill you and instead actually heal you or something?
In trying this out, I discovered that all you do in Sploder is drag and drop art onto a stage. Each object has behavior associated with it that cannot be tweaked. You can’t, for example, change how often and for how much damage a particular enemy ship shoots. You can’t change its speed or anything…
So, I played around with it a bit and came up with the game sHMUP bLUFF, where you are meant NOT to do anything other than watch. But Sploder still has built-in controls, so you could take control of your ship whenever you want. So the game is an exercise in trust… trusting that your wingman is there for you and will protect you. And maybe it’ll succeed and maybe it won’t. And if you take control of your ship, do you break that trust?
And I sort of saw this as a metaphor for living with a loved one who suffers from depression. The player ship is the person who suffers from depression and sometimes just can’t bring themselves to do anything… The wingman is a friend or family member who is trying to protect. (But perhaps this is the wrong metaphor… like often there’s just nothing anyone can do, really… there’s no “fixing” or solving the problems of depression… there’s only coping, so I don’t know how good a metaphor this game is, really, but there you have it… what it can sometimes feel like.)
In other news, Ana and Dennis are still making games regularly!
And in other other news, we got a session accepted at NASAGA on our Game A Week Challenge!
I hear that the International Conference for the Learning Sciences (ICLS) this year actually has a social media planning group and they’re interested in how I did collaborative notes for past conferences. Yay!
If only there was interest when I was actually doing it in years past, but maybe the time has finally come for critical mass?
One of the main issues with taking effective collaborative notes is getting critical mass of people doing it so that all the sessions are covered. For that there really needs to be exposure, but my tactics usually were to just tweet the urls of the google docs (or etherpad back in the day), and it’s pretty surprising how few academics are on twitter, even for the kinds of conferences I go to…
Another equally (if not more) important issue is when the conference doesn’t have good wifi, which is also surprisingly very often… For as long as I’ve had an Android phone, I’ve been able to get around this by tethering my phone and creating an ad-hoc wifi network for anyone to join. Sometimes, though, even cell reception is bad, like in the basement of a hotel… This issue with access is even worse (for me) when the conference is outside the US, since I’m not likely to tether my phone with international data rates.
Besides taking collaborative notes, I would often also set up a backchannel (besides twitter, too), either through IRC or, like with GLS 2013, a private google doc with specific people I want to be more informal with (snarky, commenting on other things in our lives, planning dinners, etc.)… There’s definitely a research study waiting to happen about how conference goers manage their communication. :)
If anyone is interested, here’s some of the collaborative notes from various conferences I’ve been to in the past few years:
Digital Media and Learning
American Educational Research Association
Computer Supported Collaborative Learning
Games Learning Society
Check out unfinished failure: On the Difficulty of Being an ANT: The Interactive Version!
Last week and this week, I’ve been sort of stuck in a moment of nonproductivity with regard to the #gameaweek challenge that I’m doing with Ana, Dennis, Melissa, and Greg. Ana is super inspiring and still going strong and even wrote about her experiences in the ProfHacker column for The Chronicle of Higher Ed!
My moment of stuckage can be primarily blamed on two things. First, I’m making a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game with Inklewriter based on Latour’s dialog found in his book Reassembling the Social. It’s an interlude between chapters in the book and features a professor having a conversation with a student, and it’s called “On the Difficulty of Being an ANT.”