Penny Arcade Expo PAX11, Aug 26-28, 2011

So, like last year, I was in a panel this year at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX)!

It was me, Chris Paul (Seattle U), Roger Altizer (U of Utah), Nathan Dutton (Ohio U), Todd Harper (MIT GAMBIT), and Shawna Kelly (USC/Intel).

While last year we presented a general overview and introduction to games studies/games research in academia to people who may be interested in games as a career but don’t want to go into the games industry, this year we each had five minutes to share where we’re at and what we do and then share the work of someone else in the field that we like.

I talked a bit about the Center for Game Science and the web games that the lab is making that are mostly focused on science and math learning using massive amounts of data to discover: optimal learning pathways, whether achievements help, how to deliver various topics to players, etc.

Then I mentioned briefly my dissertation research (how becoming an expert WoW player was about using the right tools rather than being “expert” in the game mechanics) and that I have a new book coming out titled Leet Noobs that covers the life and death of the raid group. Nathan said he’d buy multiple copies of the book if I get that lolcat in the presentation as the front cover… That’s something to think about…

Finally, I gave a brief summary of the huge, huge potential battle in education coming up around games and learning (which honestly, I hope sort of fizzles) between those (often non gamers) who want to just use games to deliver science and math content and assessments and those (often gamers) who see games as embodied experiences where the learning is emergent and procedural.

The panel went quite well, I thought, though I think we didn’t get a chance to get too deeply into certain topics in the QA and I think at least one person left dissatisfied because of that. We were unfortunately lined up against the keynote, and we were on the first day, Friday, so I think our attendance wasn’t as high as last year’s (where we had a completely filled room).

There were some other fantastic panels at PAX this year (this link will die as soon as they update it for the next convention…), but two of them deserve mention here: one called “BA, MA, PhD in Game Studies, WTFBBQ!” and the other on games and education. They deserve mention because both of them were sort of from left field.

The first featured Avery Alix, a masters graduate from UW’s comm department who now works at PopCap, Morgan Romine, a current PhD student at UC Irvine in anthropology (studying under Tom Boellstorff) who will do an ethnography of a game design studio, and Elisa Melendez, a new PhD student in Florida International University in sociology looking at gender performance in music games. What’s bizarre from looking at the program is in how the two women chose to display their cultural capital. Who the hell gives them the authority to present an overview of game studies? Ubisoft, apparently. They both chose to list the Frag Dolls as their affiliation rather than their universities, and PAX goers basically had to google them to find out which academic institutions they represented. They didn’t seem to understand that their cultural cache within the games industry doesn’t make them authorities on academia. Later, however, it became clear that the *actual* topic of their presentation was an intro to academic games research for industry people (with gamers treated, problematically, as industry people).

I find their research interesting for sure, but Elisa took the lion’s share of the presentation introduction and was very unfocused, very rambly, very arms akimbo, making huge claims about games research, and kept saying, “I’m a sociologist, so…” or “As a sociologist, I…” Apparently, the only difference between sociology and anthropology is that soc does stats. And Avery didn’t seem to know the difference between archeology and anthropology, wondering if Morgan had a whip, etc. In both cases, Nathan’s laughter was quick in coming and to the point.

Once Morgan and Avery started talking in earnest, though, I found them articulate, cogent, and less OMG-this-is-quite-clearly-my-first-presentation-and-I-have-no-clue-that-I-don’t-know-how-it’s-done sort of feel to it. I don’t know if this was true for Elisa, but it sure felt that way. The first half of their time (mostly Elisa) was basically spent pandering to the audience. Yet Avery’s story about how he got into game studies and then his move to PopCap was definitely engaging. And actually the stories from all of them about their trajectories was the gem in their presentation. All of them had interesting stories to tell. And they were all unique. But that’s part of the problem.

I went into the panel wondering how they could possibly give any insights into academic research in games when I’ve never seen them in any academic conference, etc. It’s clear they are all smart people and know quite a bit, but I think their experiences are very much unlike most people’s experiences who enter the games research arena. They seemed to downplay that different people have different experiences and that not everyone can get a job at PopCap or the Frag Dolls or just write a paper as an undergrad-turned-masters student and suddenly find themselves cited, etc. They didn’t do a very good job of mapping out the landscape of academic research in games and how someone who’s interested in academia might get started.

The second panel on games and education included James Portnow, a game designer who seems to get invited by industry conferences to talk about education a lot as he was at the Serious Play conference that was also happening in Seattle earlier in the week, and Lee Sheldon, who has a new book out: The Mulitplayer Classroom. It sounded good, but unfortunately I couldn’t attend. Just wanted to give a shout-out to it…

One thought on “Penny Arcade Expo PAX11, Aug 26-28, 2011”

  1. Mark, thanks for this update. I waited too long and couldn’t get tickets to PAX, but it won’t happen again. Thanks for the update. Your dissertation was a great read. If Leet Noobs is more of the same, count me in!

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