Note: if you want, you can skip all this personal stuff that I wrote for my friends, and go directly to the summary of The Education Arcade.
May 9, 2004
I’m always amazed at how miniscule I feel when I fly on a plane and get a window seat. My eyes are glued to the porthole unless there is cloud cover, and this flight was no exception. It’s amazing all the detail I can see and I realize how little fidelity even high end flight simulators have. For example, we pass over a suburb at some point and each house has a little swimming pool or something. The way the sun is situated, at a specific angle all the pools of water reflect right into my eyes, shimmering like a disco ball or a sequined dress, but instead of some undulating motion, they march in a specific order and only appear once and are gone forever. A huge lake came into view. I looked away.
We had a lot of headwind and so were late touching down. It’s funny how people can reason certain things and then believe them to be true. We left on time, and yet I overheard a woman calling the person picking her up when we landed that we had left late. That isn’t true. It was the headwind. In her mind, maybe it was easier to blame the airline rather than nature. I don’t know. What I do know is that she stated it with so much conviction that whoever was listening had to take it for truth. How much of what I say is not true but I just think it is?
So the flight arrived at 6:20 or so and Ted is there to greet me as I enter the baggage claim area. I did not have any check-in luggage, however. I pack light and pick clothes that compact easily: besides what I was wearing, one backpack, 5 underwears (boxer briefs), 3 t-shirts, 5 pairs of socks, a pair of shorts and a pair of pants (both which are made of really light fabric), the new Acer Travelmate 8003LMi notebook, my PDA, my camera, all the AC adaptors and whatnot for them, CDs, cat-5 cable, toiletries, and various small things. I dunno; I guess I know how to stuff a backpack really well. In fact, on the way to the airport, Robin and I stopped at Fry’s and picked up a new backpack with a notebook slot and a wireless mouse, but it isn’t a huge backpack or anything. Later I did discover that I had forgotten my sleepwear. Ah well…
Ted and I first stop at Randy’s Donuts. Nice. Then we went to Pink’s, a hot dog place, a very good hot dog place. Then we met up with Lesley and Greg and company at Canter’s which is a Jewish deli/cafe/restaurant/bar. Then we went back to Ted’s place and crashed. So far so good. Food all the way, baby. The next morning we had some toast and nasty but compelling krab shue mai. We then went to check out Ted’s cultish school where he teaches Spanish and culture and such.
After visiting the enormous but empty school, we picked up Ted’s new girlfriend Denine and then had lunch at a Oaxacan restaurant. It was great. Something that I always notice when I visit friends in California is how much driving we do. Each of these places we go to is easily interspersed with 30 minutes of driving. I love how Portland has you drive at most 20 min to get wherever you need to get. I guess it’s an unfair comparison since everything in Portland that we want to get to is in the city proper. I guess a fairer comparison would be if you had to drive from Beaverton to Portland which I suppose you would have to do if you are visiting friends who work at Intel. Come visit Robin and me, however, and you won’t be driven around as much. Well, except we live in Seattle now.
Anyway, the Oaxacan restaurant was amazing! It makes sense. I mean, if you think of American food, there are a whole lot of choices: sandwiches, burgers, hot dogs, pizza, steak and potatoes, pancakes, breads, etc. It only makes sense that other cultures have a HUGE selection of foods and that only a little portion is represented in restaurants in America, in this case in bastard form as burritos and tacos. The Oaxacan “high” Mexican food is very, very good, and if you ever get the chance, eat some. Then eat some more. That’s what we did. We ordered a mole negro dish, a tamale dish, and a something I don’t remember the name of dish, and when we were done we decided to get a goat taco. It was more like a burrito that we Americans are familiar with. Huge corn tortilla filled with very tender meat, rolled up and smothered with mole. They have all kinds of mole.
After lunch we picked up Lesley and went to the new Disney Music Hall designed by Frank Gehry. He did a much better job of this one than the EMP I think… Then we went to Alvarado St where there’s a Mexican street market and then Union Station. I gotta say, Union Station down there is a lot better than what we have in Seattle. There was even a fancy restaurant in it! Seattle’s sucks. Even Portland has a pretty nice one…
After that we did a drive-by of the La Brea tarpits and took some photos of german tourists in a rental Mustang in front of us. Ted dropped me and Lesley off at her place where Greg was watching a pirate show on the History Channel. Lesley made some lovely fish with rice dinner and then we checked out a comedy show. It was pretty funny and sort of reminds me of Reed’s Midnight Theater (sketch comedy) mixed with my friend Chris’ MCing at open mics (improv).
Greg dropped me off at my motel and I went to sleep at 1:30 or so. Got up at 7:30 for 9 am registration at the convention center for the Education Arcade. Now I’m sitting in the convention center near a Starbucks booth trying to get wireless connection (not happening) so that I can see what the hell is going on since everyone I’ve talked to here either doesn’t know what I’m talking about or thinks the Education Arcade doesn’t start until 3! So, I’m here like 6 hours early I guess. Need to find some place to get lunch. Maybe I’ll walk around. It’s interesting seeing people set-up for E3. Security is pretty lax here…
May 15, 2004
It turns out I WAS 6 hours early. By the time I could confirm this, it was around noon, so I decided to walk around downtown LA. Some nice convention guy told me to walk down 7th. I happened upon Macy’s mall which is below the Hyatt on 7th and Flower. The Hyatt Hotel had a wireless hotspot! It was a lucky find since the E3 hotspots were not going to be live until Wednesday. In other words, every day before and after The Education Arcade I made a stop at the hotel. It was on my way anyway–I took the train from my motel to the hotel and then walked to LACC which was only like 4 blocks. The public transportation system worked out quite well since the train station happened to be on the same block as my motel! It cost $1.25 as opposed to like $10 you’d have to pay a cab driver each way.
On the way back to the conference at 2 or so, I stopped by a little underground mall on Figuera that is easy to miss if you’re in a car. There was a toy store and I saw that WizKids has a new line of Mechs that you can put together with a screwdriver and some glue. These things were huge and are articulated, not to be confused with their line of collectible minis. Unfotunately, I grabbed a damaged box which had no screwdriver so I had to wait until I got home to put it together. Because of the damage, however, it was only $15 instead of $25. Good trade-off…
The conference went pretty well. It was very laid back and small. I met a ton of people and also got a feel for the current trends in thinking about games as related to education at the conference.
I got to meet a lot of people in academia including Jim Gee, Kurt Squire, Henry Jenkins, Constance Steinkuhler, Eric, Judy, and Philip from MIT, etc., etc. But they all seemed a little busy and I never quite knew what to say to them since I’ve read some of their stuff but not all and I didn’t know if any of them had read anything I wrote and if so what they thought about it. You see, when I met Constance she told me that someone forwarded her my website and that sort of put me at a disadvantage in that I had no idea if they thought what I’m interested in studying was clear and if it’s interesting to anyone but me. In hindsight, I suppose I was intimidated and that I shouldn’t have been too worried about it since I can’t believe they’d pass around my URL for cruelty’s sake. In fact, I’m pretty sure I know who sent the URL to Constance and the both of us seem to hold some amount of respect for each other… 🙂
I also met a lot of people who aren’t in academia: a few k-12 teachers, some educational software developers (I kept asking them if they had any gamers on their team and it seems that my theory about a lack of gaming experience within the ed software industry is largely true–it might be important to note that the corollary to this theory is that there’s also a lack of educators who are versed in psychological models of learning in the field), some game developers, other students, people completely outside the industry like Andy Court from Dateline NBC, and a bunch of other researchers like Steven Drucker from Microsoft (who scored me a free pass to E3!). For the most part, it was fun talking about our interests with these people. It’s always fun to talk about people’s passions and since they aren’t as famous as some of the folks in academia, I always feel a little more comfortable… feel like they are being more sincere. Of course, none of this is actually based on anything other than my own feelings of vibes and such, and again I’m pretty sure all the academics are all nice folks. They sure seemed nice. Maybe I’m intimidated by proven intelligence…
Education Arcade Summary
A final note about the photos. They appear chronologically, but the accompanying text isn’t, so don’t relate what you see in the photos directly with its surrounding paragraphs. 😛
I saw two camps of thought on the usefulness of games in education. On the one hand, the old school thought holds the belief that modeling educational software after computer and video games can be a way of getting kids interested, almost fooled, into interacting with the software. I saw this idea mostly among the attendees of the conference, and they held these ideas even after some of the sessions were over which is too bad since the other thought, and the one that I think was being stressed by the academics like Jim Gee, is that current commercial games are frought with learning opportunities. We just need to find out what they are and use them to best effect. Obviously, there were some ideas in between like all the projects coming from MIT which can been seen as a new breed of educational games based on constuctivist models rather than behaviorist models.
Session 1: Are Games Educational? Brenda Laurel, Henry Jenkins, Warren Spector, James Au, and Jim Gee
In other words, there seem to be a good deal of industry folks and educators making educational software who still believe that content is the most important quality of an educational game. It might be interesting to note that the majority of people who believed this were older, say in their 40s to 60s. I believe that games of this nature can only be suited for the classroom and only because schools can limit what kids have access to. As soon as you take away that limit, in other words look at kids at home or outside of the classroom, educational software fails miserably. There’s just no possible way for something made primarily for education to compete for the attention of kids against something made for entertainment. In particular I keep thinking of the “attention economy” that Lankshear and Knobel talk about (“Do We Have Your Attention?”). I would say that the games MIT is making are still being targeted towards schools. Revolution looks awesome and it might be fun for outside of the classroom, but it sounded like they were definitely making it for a classroom setting and will be creating external documents, lesson plans, and curriculum to supplement and surround the game itself.
Session 2: From Simulation to Interaction. Kurt Squire, Andrew Court, Scott Fisher, Ben Sawyer, and Amy Bruckman
Another trend at the conference was that games can be used to address social issues and might be a way of redefining the school system in America. Brenda Laurel gave a relatively zealous rant (to an “Amen, sister!”) on the problem with educational games and how they (don’t) fit into the classroom setting. She made some good points and I almost agree with her. I do think, however, that games whether overtly educational, like The Oregon Trail, or not, like Civilization, can be used very successfully in the classroom so long as the teacher plays the role of guide and provides a framework for the games (see Kurt Squire’s dissertation on Civ). This moves teachers away from being the source of knowledge to people who direct the flow of attention and who get kids to think critically about what they are engaging with. (Again, see Lankshear and Knobel.) That’s the problem at the root, isn’t it?–that people are not being taught how to think critically.
Session 3: Case Study, Zoo Tycoon. Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten all their names… and it isn’t listed on the Education Arcade website…
It was suggested at the conference that a major reformation of the American school system is in order. As far as I can tell, educators in academia have been saying this since the end of WW2. Actually, if you want to go farther back, need I mention Dewey? So why is it that nothing has changed? A lot of people at the conference seemed to think that people of the video game generation were bringing with them a new way of thinking (see new capitalism) and that this would eventually replace the old-schoolers’ methodology and the schools would naturally reform. Some people felt that it was high time to embrace the new line of thought and it manifests itself by embracing games of all sorts in the classroom. I would argue, however (see above), that, now more than ever, teachers are needed to guide students as they participate in these new classrooms. (Participation is the key to everything, for it is through participation that people become literate in whatever it is they are participating in. It is through participation that they become citizens.) With that said, I do tend to agree that the greatest opportunity for learning through games is outside of the classroom.
Session 4: Building Partnerships: New Collaborations Among Universities, Industry, and Public Institutions. Alex Chisolm, Bonnie Bracey, Todd Logan, Tom Piper, Celia Pearce, and Johnny Wilson
This, of course, is the main reason why I am researching what I am. I see Social Dilemmas as ways to model the apathetic structures in our society, and I hope that getting people to play games based on Social Dilemmas is a way to get them to think more critically about the situations they are presented with in their real-world lives. To succeed, however, any game has to be engaging.
Keynote. Tom Kalinske, CEO LeapFrog Enterprises
Ben Sawyer presented the notion that engagement and fun in a computer game cannot be defined in any standard way, that it would be different for each game. He argued that it was pointless to try to define the terms and instead that game developers intuitively know what works and what doesn’t in game design. He was basically suggesting (and I agree with this part) that all educational software development should have at least one actual game designer who is a total gamer. I do not agree, however, that engagement can’t be identified. There are certain things which we can say for certain that are necessary conditions to making a good game, an engaging game. Now, whether those elements are sufficient is another matter and for that I can guess that there *is* a bit of magic or chemistry that just happens sometimes and doesn’t happen other times. No good game, however, lacks a basic set of principles in making the game engaging.
Session 5: Making Tools for Making Games. Eric Klopfer, Mark Mine, Steven Drucker, Tom McCormack, Philip Tan
One of the more interesting presentations was by Andrew Court from Dateline NBC. He described how immediately engaging it was to fly over a war-torn country and not know if the demolished shell of a building down below is a chemical weapons plant or a factory for medicine meant for the needy. As soon as information becomes relevent, it becomes engaging and you want to learn about the story behind what happened. He then suggested that games can have the same effect in that they can put the player in a position to experience first-hand what it is like to be in a prison, etc. I would like to take that thought one step further and suggest that games not only can put people in these situations, simulating events in real-life, but they can also simulate the kinds of moral and ethical questions that arise out of these situations. Andy seemed to be advocating making games where players have to uncover the clues for themselves on whether a convicted person is guilty of a crime. The evidence would be used to free the innocent person. This is assumed. What would happen, however, if the player were then to decide what to do with the evidence. Would everyone do the morally right thing? I think that if the consequences are modeled realistically, allowing players to make the immoral decision lets them try out that strategy and learn why they shouldn’t follow it in real-life.
Session 6: Fostering Games Literacy. Henry Jenkins, Jessica Irish, Eric Zimmerman, Gerard Jones, and David Buckingham
Each session seemed to be a mix of theory with practice. I think each one had at least one academic talking about how games can be used and what it is about games that makes them useful (Squire on types of game players and four kinds of research that need to happen with games in education, Gee on the role of identities in game playing, etc.) and a few case studies or examples of specific projects (Tom Piper from the Royal Shakespear Company on a game based on The Tempest, a look at Leapster, a case study on Zoo Tycoon, etc.). One of the most valuable lessons that can’t be stressed enough, in my opinion, is what David Buckingham said about gaming literacy. If you want to get teachers and administrators to buy into games that teach, first you have to teach them how to understand games. This, of course, ties nicely into New Literacy Studies and the idea that “literacy” means being able to both read and write a particular medium or media in a particular domain. One might even go so far as to say a total gamer is not an exert gamer until he or she has had a hand in creating or modding a game. But this type of expertise is not needed to buy into the domain. Teachers and administrators just need to understand that it *is* a legitimate domain which can tie in very powerfully into other areas of discourse and which can be used to help people learn how to think critically about complex systems.
A final note about The Education Arcade… is it just me or are the only people who care about using games for educational purposes middle-class, well-educated, white folk?
< begin personal stuff again…>
On Sunday, after the opening reception for the conference, I walked to my train stop and met Jim Gee and Betty Hayes on the way. It’s scary how much time he spends playing games. Sounds like about how much time I *used* to play before I started school. Some day, I hope to have less school work and more game playing time again… 🙂 Since Jim hasn’t been into gaming for very long he hasn’t played many classic games like Planescape: Torment. What a shame… I’ll see if I can find his mailing address…
I ate at the Circle K that night. I was going to find a good restaurant near the motel and stopped by the Circle K to grab a soda real quick. Alas, I was waylaid by a sight that I had not seen since my brother and I were in Wyoming on our way to DC by bicycle. I happened to see The Bomb, a huge frozen burrito. This time, it had green chiles and was quite an awesome taste sensation. Not as good as that Oaxacan place but it only cost $2.50.
I saw Lesley and Greg again on Monday night after the day’s sessions. I fixed Greg’s sound card issues and showed him a bit of the projects I’m working on using the Neverwinter Nights Aurora Toolset. This is the same toolset being used by MIT for Revolution, but after seeing what they had done, I didn’t feel like demoing what I had done at the conference even though I had my laptop with me. It’s just not as ready to be demoed as Revolution was. I should note, however, that the projects I did were done in a month with one guy rather than MIT’s 5 or 6 guys for a year scope. What a difference funding and legitimacy makes.
On Tuesday, I skipped out of the afternoon sessions to go with another student I met from NYU to check out the Getty Center. The Getty Center was every bit as cool as I had been led to believe while I was helping Charles Rhyne with his architecture of the Getty Center website. The photos I took aren’t nearly as stunning as the ones he took, but I like the general flavor of my photos (I try to get shots of people taking photos and whatnot). The woman I was with was really nice but relatively scatter brained, and she was pretty talkative and drove rather crazily. We had good fun. I had dinner with her and offered to pay since I underestimated the amount of time we would be spending at the Getty Center. She refused but her credit card was denied so I ended up paying anyway, and she proceeded to freak out in a one-track mind sort of way, worrying that her credit card company might have closed the account due to all the expenses on it in CA instead of NY. I think maybe it got maxed out since she was paying like $300 a night for her hotel room (which she complained about but didn’t change to a cheaper, nicer place) and $30 a day for parking and $30 a day for the convertable Mustang rental. (From my calculations, I spent about $700 on my trip. I think she spent about $3500, not counting how much the super-pass to the conference was…) Anyway, we said goodbye after our nice dinner, and I met up with Greg again who was kind enough to drive me back to my motel after we checked out UT2004 which he had just bought the day before.
The next day, Wednesday the 12th, was my E3 day. As I said before, Steven Drucker from Microsoft was generous enough to give me a guest pass. There was a huge difference in the atmosphere to the LA Convention Center on the opening day of E3. It was extremely crowded whereas previously I would only see a handful of people in the halls. I have not seen a game that modeled crowds very well yet. I’d like to see a FPS that took place in a crowded subway or something… Anyway, the convention is full of glitz and thunder and I’m not entirely sure why. I mean, it is only open to those in the industry, so the people at each booth are technically not really selling their wares to the convention goers. There was a bit of press coverage though, and I can only surmise that the show and dance is for their edification. Each company tried to outshine the other with huge video walls and tons of stations set up for gaming. There were also booth babes galore which is both nice eye-candy and a little disappointing at the same time. It’s funny how this conference is more sexist than the adult movie one in that in the porn conference at least the men are equally objectified. I feel like they could keep the same amount of skin so long as it’s more personable, less objectification.
Well, what did I get out of E3? It was an experience, definitely not worth $350 (you’re paying for the privilege of being sold to even if you aren’t technically a consumer). If I go again, I must remember to use a flash or a tripod on my camera. All my shots are blurry which is too bad because, as I said, there was a ton of eye-candy.