Games+Learning+Society conference Day 3 notes from Lucas Blair

Lucas Blair, game designer and founder of Little Bird Games, spends his third day at the Games+Learning+Society conference and shares his thoughts on the speakers, sessions and even a fun new product.

Day three’s keynote speaker Mary Flanagan brought some much needed energy to a sleepy auditorium Thursday morning. Mary’s speech was filled with a ton of information, including ideas about the challenges in creating learning games. She also shared some strategies to overcome those challenges like using sustainable models and having a diverse team. The subject she spent the most time on during her speech was the pervasiveness of biases and prejudices in our society. After referencing several studies about some of the sources of biases and prejudices, she discussed the consequences of them, citing an interesting paper called Why so Few?. Mary then played a card game with the audience, called Buffalo, that shines a spotlight on some of the subconscious biases that we all have. A great use of a game to call attention to an important subject.

The first session of the day, titled “Assessment”, featured a series of speakers discussing different theories and strategies for assessing learning in games. The first speaker, Jodi Asbell-Clarke, showed research that demonstrated how strategies developed by players in physics games illustrates that they have a greater understanding of the physical laws of Newtonian motion. Hopefully more work is done in the area to include entertainment games like Portal and first person shooters.

The second presentation discussed research by V. Elizabeth Owen, Shannon Harris, Dennis Ramirez, and Richard Halverson that explored in-game failure, tracking how and why players fail in games. The researchers made several interesting points about why failure is not necessarily a bad thing and that early successes in games is not a great predictor of actually finishing the game. The focus on avoiding failure in schools is probably preventing many students from exploring and taking chances that could lead in great discoveries. The third speaker, Dr. Dan Hickey, shared some of his thoughts on assessing learning. Dr. Hickey argued that discourse and kids writing about what they have learned is missing in game learning assessment. My favorite quote of talk was “Grade student reflections rather than artifacts”.

The second session of the day, “Implementation is a %!#@& Too” featured three speakers that represent implementation failures from the perspective of a designer, a teacher, and students. The first speaker Jim Bower, spoke about implementing a game in a Los Angeles library that was meant to replace the card catalog used to organize books. The game worked “too well” and Bower was asked to remove it because kids enjoyed the game so much they were blocking the real catalog with a line. The important takeaway from this lesson according to Bower is always finding out if the institution you are working with really wants to change. Another implementation failure Bower shared was the original implementation of avatars into Whyville. Users immediately gave them negative feedback so they fixed the system and allowed kids to make their own avatar art. Kids in Whyville currently make 8,000 pieces of art per month.

The next presentation, by Christine Bediones and Camille Macalinao, discussed some of their experiences implementing health games for kids. One of the games, a tower defense game for teaching about how small intestines work, was ineffective during the first build. After play testing, they found that kids focused more on the tower defense mechanics than the biological system representations. During interviews some kids assumed that food is bad because the “enzyme towers” were attacking it. This is another good reason to not get hung up on genre when creating a game.  Genres bring baggage.

The third team of speakers, Stephen Slota, Michael Young, and Roger Travis, presented on the reasons that technology rich projects have high failure rates when being implemented into curriculum. They identified the following problems/solutions:

  • Problem: Fatal mutation (schools change tech to fit into their system)
  • Solution: Offer modular programs with a la carte features.
  • Problem: Loss of fidelity
  • Solution: Seek buy-in from school and make pedagogy primary above the tech innovation.
  • Problem: Failure to thrive
  • Solution: Pay attention to the creation of meta games and nurture feedback.

During the second half of the day I checked out a few more of the games in the Arcade.  One of the best demos there was a new piece of hardware called the Oculus Rift.  The system is a virtual realty headset for 3D games.  I had the pleasure of playing Team Fortress 2 with the system before I had to share with the other “kids” and I must say that I am sold.  You can freely look around the game world by simply moving your head.  I think this system will be particularly great for games like Minecraft and Medical Simulators.  I just want to know who is getting one in Pittsburgh and when can I come over to play!

Published June 14, 2013