Jul 112011

[This post is cross-posted from over at the Culture Digitally site.]

This one has been brewing for a while. Perhaps, as Stephen Totilo notes, ever since Raph Koster voiced his concerns back in 2006. I believe that there is a storm coming between “game people” and educators, precisely at a moment when money is flooding into these realms. So, perhaps, that is reason enough for a storm. But the foundations for a battle have been laid. My concerns, as a participant and researcher, are really fourfold:

  • Technological Determinism
  • Obsession with Literalism
  • Obsession with “Content” Delivery
  • Epistemic Disinterest in Game Design/Development

I wasn’t able to attend G4C or GLS this year, unfortunately due to classes/research/budgets/life/etc, so some of what I have to say addresses second-hand accounts of those events. At the same time, however, I think there is growing awareness and concern about the intersection of games/game design/education that I have been thinking deeply about for the last two and a half years that echos the concerns of others.

Now for Some Serious Education

Now for Some Serious Education

The first concern I have is kind of banal. That much of the conversation is rooted in a kind of technological determinism. “Games will make crappy educational practices better.” I think all of us working in this area know that the issue is much broader than this. That there is the entire context of education that needs to be examined in addition to making educational materials more interesting/engaging/fill-in-the-blank.

The second critique is more subtle, and I was particularly sad to miss Eric Zimmerman’s GLS keynote entitled, “GAMES ARE NOT GOOD FOR YOU.” One element in particular that I struggle with and clearly Eric does as well, is that many people currently interested in games are obsessed with a kind of topical literalism. If the area of interest is diabetes, then the game should be about diabetes. If its about energy management, it needs to be about energy management. My experience has shown that this leads immediately to players, “looks like education, smells like education, not interested.” The line that I’ve used time and again in my work is, “lets make a game about X, without making a game about X.”

Unfortunately, actually doing that well is a difficult and collaborative process. Thus, the next response becomes turning to commercial games and leveraging them into curriculum. Portal, WoW, Civilization, then become our answer. Except that I’d argue that is the equivalent to giving up.

I’m not saying that Portal, WoW, Civ, etc aren’t educational. Or that they can’t compel people to learn in really important ways. Clearly, they can. I am saying that they’re only going to address a very small aspect of what its important for people to learn in school.

More specifically I wonder about the epistemic divide that exists between these communities. A game designer would never dream of putting a quiz into a game, but examine any number of “edutainment” titles or educational games made (often with government support) and often times you’ll be asked to complete a quiz prior to then playing some game like Tetris or Asteroids with an educational venir slapped on top. Which isn’t to say that quizzes can’t be a legitimate game mechanic, I think they can be, but they ought not be your go-to one.

The other option is to really not even make a game, but make something that looks enough like a game that you can get players to pay attention long enough to get your point across. This is really about content delivery. Consume content we have identified as good for you until you realize what we’re doing. This is third criticism, which is why so many educational “games” actually look like workbooks or interactive encyclopedias, sometimes with interactive elements, but little of what game players would recognize as a game or actually call a game. Yet, content delivery is much of what school has turned into.

However, policing the word “game” is problematic, especially when you consider the fraught ground between “casual” and “hardcore” distinction. Yet, the ability to judge something as “not a game” speaks to the issue of epistemic authority, which largely remains in the educational camp currently. Game developers tools and perhaps visual appeal are being leveraged, but does that make it a game?

A good game designer can assess the player at any moment. Do you know how this is game is working? No? Dead, or restart, or try again. It happens all the time in game play. Failure is used to help a player come to understand what they do and their relationship with the game. A game designer can construct a situation where they know the player knows/understands something, otherwise they would not be there. This is a fundamentally different kind of “knowing” than most educators recognize and as such it is discounted. That would explain the, “newcomers exploring a thing they don’t yet grasp.”

The funding for games and education, however, remains rooted in an epistemic community that understands knowing only through traditional testing and is quite disinterested in actually coming to understand what game design means or what the epistemic context of that community actually looks like. It is for reasons like this that I have serious concerns about the future of games that are educational. There remains a tendency to fall back or defer to educators, who clearly haven’t realized that their perspective on knowing isn’t actually working all that well.

Which is where we come back to my recent work, where I’ve taken up the role of the game designer, in a context where educational software (and some games) are being developed. It has become ever more important for me to fight for a kind of game design epistemology that can speak authoritatively. It has also become important to police boundaries in ways that, as a researcher I find not totally unproblematic. “No, that is not a game.” “No, we can’t have a quiz.” “Why does it have to be in the body?”

More and more it seems to be a clash of world views, except for the fact that game designers could ultimately care less. There are some that are committed to making games (that just happen to be educational), but games are the thing being sought and their production ought to be treated more respectfully than some simple technology to be thrown at broader social problems.

Good serious game design is really hard because it is a bridging of these worlds that requires a commitment to both on the part of both sides.

Jun 152010

For the most part anymore, when I submit to conferences I assume that, more than likely, the paper will be accepted. The primary exception of course is GDC (the Game Developers Conference), which I submit one or two ideas to every year. I’ve managed acceptance twice, which I tally as success, but year over year that average goes down (I’d still make a good baseball player with those numbers). My assumption isn’t based on bravado or ego, simply that by the time I take the the time to submit something to a conference, I’ve attended the conference or one very similar to it, and have in many cases reviewed for those conferences. In short, I have a good sense of what the conference is about, who the audience is, and what I should say and how I should say it.

GLS (Games, Learning, and Society) was a surprise to me this year, as “The Curious Case of Osy Osmosis: The Uncomfortable Balance Between Game Design and Education,” was not accepted. These things happen, but I was quite curious what went wrong in the process. I have been extremely excited about talking about Osy, which has since begun the commercialization process and extensive visual overhauls (revised visuals can be seen in this blog’s background). It was a chance to talk about the kind of collaboration and structure that has lead to the kind of success we’ve had in creating games (that happen to be educational) and the success of these in the classroom.

What was frustrating for me, and I believe a serious issue for conferences like GLS,  was that despite none of the comments from reviewers coming back negative, reviewers rated the submission low enough (via the radio buttons) that it was knocked out of the running. In once case a reviewer wondered about the innovativeness of the project. To which I wonder, how does one anonymously demonstrate innovation? It has built into it the idea of uniqueness. If I post a link to a video, I compromise anonymity. If I provide information on what we are doing and how we are doing it, I compromise anonymity. If I talk about the company and what it is doing, I compromise anonymity.

So what results is a non-opportunity to talk about pricesely what Mark talks about in his blog:

What’s new is this huge cultural shift and ppl in academia and k12 who not only take games seriously (and not just serious games) but also are starting to welcome participation from games and fan culture. Participatory culture (Jenkins) allows new kinds of stakeholders. Reform isn’t just griefing (cf Dibbell) anymore.

We have a group with successful funding, teacher support, commercialization support (for sustainability) to bring these areas together. But, I didn’t get to talk about it. Because it, “isn’t innovative enough”. Or I didn’t know how to talk about that innovation anonymously. What it teaches me, is that anonymity in this case hurt both the review process and the broader academic community. Or I hurt the community by abiding by rules that likely I didn’t need to. Perhaps I should have provided Vimeo links regardless of their linkage to me. Perhaps the UGA branded video with students and researchers working together would have demonstrated more clearly what we’ve done. But, it wouldn’t have been anonymous, but it would have demonstrated the importance and innovation of the project.

The abstract of the non-talk is below:

This presentation draws on two years of ethnographic fieldwork gathered during the design and development of Osy Osmosis, a game developed developed cooperatively between game developers, scientists, educators, and funded by a $1.3 Million dollar National Institute of Health (NIH) grant. “Osy” was the first game developed as part of a project, which had already developed several immersive 3D simulations. The presentation discusses the role that game mechanics came to play as interdisciplinary boundary objects (Leigh Star and Griesemer 1989) facilitating discussions between content experts and game designers. The presentation also posits a new possible space for game development that brings together designers and scientists to create games that are simultaneously fun/engaging and educational. Often times these provide new opportunities to experiment with designs and technologies that might otherwise be set aside for more tried and true methods. Osy Osmosis began with the questions: “Is there a game in osmosis?” “Can we make a core mechanic out of that?” Osy occupies this strange new space and the presentation discusses its design and development as well as the “faultlines” (Traweek 2000) encountered during the development process. The case of Osy is particularly compelling, given the success the project has had in engaging students and bridging disciplinary divides. Game developers have the opportunity to make a difference in the classroom by designing games that are fun to play, but have educational content hidden away at their core. At the same time, difficulties are encountered at the interface between teachers and standards based learning, which creates particular difficulties for designers and developers hoping to address these new educational possibilities.