GLS 11 Day One

Last week I had the pleasure of attending my first Games+Learning+Society conference (GLS 11), here in Madison, WI. I thought I would write up some brief notes on the talks/panels/presentations I attended. What follows is somewhat sketchy, is keyed to my current interests and focuses, and represents only snapshots of what people had to say; but hopefully some gold may reside within.


Keynote #1 – Nichole Pinkard

Nichole Pinkard opened things with a presentation of her ongoing work using games as the basis of outreach programs to students in the Chicago area. This established something of the tone of the conference, which, from what I saw and heard, was generally geared as much towards games and games-based pedagogy as avenues to social change as it was about making simple gains in teaching and learning through games.

Among her talking points that resonated with me were: “systems that let the real world in”—the importance of designing games that reflect students’ worlds; the importance of role models, which I thought was interesting because it would make for something of a reverse of the previous point (altering students’ worlds by changing their surroundings); giving students opportunities to develop skills by working on their passions; the concept of a student’s “identity journey” (demonstrated by following a student’s reflections and watching the transition from “gamehead” to engineer); the idea of design and coding as “computational making.” A recurring theme in the conference would be the importance of coding skills in the economy of the future, and the role of games in inspiring and facilitating the learning of such skills.

Things to follow up: “flappy code” as a gateway to coding skills; Boyce et al. (2014), Deep Gamification: Combining Game-based and Play-based Methods.

Prepare to Suffer: Let’s Play as Well Played

Moses Wolfenstein and Paul Berberich presented some reflections on their ongoing series of Let’s Play videos of Dark Souls, followed by live-tapings of two episodes. I confess, I have not watched a lot of Let’s Play videos, but I was caught by two elements of their presentation: first, the idea of Let’s Play videos as a mode of analysis; second, the social aspect of their videos, which are as much about the sharing and differentiation of their experiences as they are about the game itself. Paul has completed Dark Souls already, and mainly plays bystander to Moses’ own journey through the game. The layering of their experiences reveals how open a game system Dark Souls really is.

This presentation also introduced me to the concept of ‘Well Played,’ which I have now learned is an established trope in video games criticism and at GLS, based on a series of books and journals published through Carnegie Mellon University Press (all, I believe, available for free here).

Assessment & Stupidity

James Paul Gee delivered the first of two “rants” (his word) on the subject of how we need to drastically redesign learning and assessment in America; he picked up on many of the themes from Blanchard’s keynote, but applied them more broadly and with a more strident tone.

The focus of this rant was the unfairness—and thus uselessness—of current modes of assessment. He contextualized the rant from his position of a linguist approaching games, and began by emphasizing how experience in the world is what gives meaning to language, and then how language helps you organize the world. He illustrated his point by comparing a game to its manual; as he says, a player will gain greater meaning from playing the game and then consulting the manual than they will by reading the manual before playing the game—it is the game that gives the language of the manual meaning, even as the manual helps organize the world of the game.

His larger point (to paraphrase) was that equal opportunity to learning requires equal access to experience, and thus to situational meanings (rather than current wisdom, which is equal access to textbooks). In his words, “what we do in schools—especially with poor people—is we give them the manuals and no games…[this is] how we engender stupidity in America…until we have equity in experience, we should not be assessing anybody.” As a neat aside, he pointed out how the recourse to textbooks is a capitalist response to the problem, based purely on commodifiable resources.

At the same time, Gee warned that he wasn’t just advocating for substituting games for books; in his words, “textbooks are awful,” and games used incorrectly can just become textbooks, with all of the incumbent awfulness. He advocated for a more individuated and imaginative approach to assessment, where we assess a student’s “resource kit” going into a situation and their “resource kit” coming out; the “situation” can be almost any activity, and he used the example of a girl who writes Twilight fan fiction.

Things to follow up: Naomi Klein (2008), The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism (still never read it); Kentaro Toyama (2015), Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.

‘Reluctant Learners’ Panel

Betty Di Salvo gave an interesting presentation entitled “Pink Boxes and Chocolate-dipped Broccoli: Bad Game Design Providing Justifications for Reluctant Learners.” I was familiar with the concept of pink-boxing before, but this was the first time I’d heard “chocolate-dipped broccoli,” which, again, seems to be part of the lexicon of GLS, referring to games that simply attempt to dress up traditional pedagogy with the trappings of games (e.g. “pointsification”). As someone just beginning to experiment with games-based learning, I have been concerned about offering only chocolate-dipped broccoli, rather than the “deep gamification” that seems the currency of the conference. I have, however, seen advantages even to the basic pointsification of learning (it really does make grading more transparent, I think), so I was interested to hear someone talk at greater length on the topic.

The most interesting points Di Salvo had to make were about how even bad educational game tactics could help students overcome personal obstacles to learning, for example as a way to side-step “self-handicapping” in situations where the “entity theory of intelligence” (the idea that we’re all born with a fixed level of smarts) makes them not want to participate in class activities where face is at risk.

One point that somewhat blew my mind was the idea that students who inhabit worlds where there are external pressures not to learn can use gamification as a way to hide their intrinsic motivation. Those few of you who have read this blog before may recall that one of my primary interests in gamification was as a means to leverage extrinsic motivation to inculcate intrinsic, but it had never occurred to me that the situation might be flipped, and certain individuals might want to mask a pre-existing intrinsic motivation.

Things to follow up: DiSalvo et al. (2014) “Saving Face While Geeking Out: Video Game Testing as a Justification for Learning Computer Science.” Journal of Learning Sciences; Foster et al. (2013) “From competition to metacognition: designing diverse, sustainable educational games.” Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems; Bogost, I. (2011) “Gamification is Bullshit” and his satirical game Cow Clicker.


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