Members of the CUNY Games Network were delighted to participate in the recent Bronx EdTech Showcase. This daylong conference on May 9 sponsored by three CUNY colleges — Bronx Community College, Hostos Community College, and Lehman College — featured presentations and discussions on innovations in educational technology from across the university. Check out Joe Bisz and Maura Smale, with Hostos Community College faculty member Rees Shad, in a panel discussion on game-based learning at the Showcase. Watch the livestream on the Showcase website or on YouTube. Many thanks to the organizers for inviting us!
A couple of weeks ago my partner, kid, kid’s pal, and I piled into the car and drove to Queens to see the Indie Essentials exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image. It’s a fantastic exhibit of playable games: 25 videogames + 1 tabletop game in a huge gallery space.
While my kid and his pal gravitated towards (and stayed stuck to) the fun frantic team-based game Killer Queen Arcade, I wandered through the exhibit in what was (predictably) a vain attempt to play everything I’d never played before. Some games I stuck with for only a few minutes: I was frustrated by the many inputs for QWOP (is everyone? seems likely), and while I enjoyed the aesthetic of SlashDash the gameplay involves too many buttons pushed too quickly for my middle-aged reaction time. It was amazing to see Minecraft projected onto an enormous screen — I spent some time just watching kids of various ages playing in the pixelated snow. And there were a couple of other multiplayer games that I had to pass up, either because they were too crowded or because I couldn’t drag my kid away from Killer Queen Arcade to play with me.
Reflecting on the visit later, I realized that the games I spent the most time with all had a strong narrative component. I started with a couple of quick plays through Passage, which was both fun as projected onto the wall, and frustrating because I pretty much never ever want to play a game as a white male. For an interesting take on teaching with Passage I recommend reading Zach Whalen of the University of Mary Washington’s post Using “Passage” to Think about Cultural Privilege.
I spent a fair amount of time playing Gone Home, The Path, Porpentine’s Twine Compilation, and Kentucky Route Zero. What I found attractive in each of these are the elements of exploration, discovery, and research — not too surprising for an academic librarian, for sure. These elements combine to create a narrative as you play through the game. Though in the context of the exhibit it was also interesting that you’re forced to play in a very non-linear way: dropped into the game at the point at which the last visitor stopped playing, figuring things out as you go.
Because my visit came so soon after the CUNY Games Festival I spent much of my time at the exhibit thinking about how the games (or the mechanics they feature) could be used for teaching. Some of the games could be used as texts — students could be asked to play through and discuss or reflect on the game’s content and play. Others are good models for games students could make, in Twine, for example. And I wonder whether even the games that are just games, without any obvious educational content or application, might be useful. Could Spaceteam be a fun and low-risk way to encourage a sense of teamwork in student groups in a course?
More than anything it was awesome to have the opportunity to see and play lots of different games. The exhibit closes on March 2, and if you’re in the NYC region and haven’t taken it in yet, it’s definitely worth the trip.
Image by IndieCade.
Tl;dr–if you’re at all interested in game design and can attend only one conference a year, make Practice that conference.
The Practice conference began as all conferences should. With Breakdancing.
Because, as we learned from Susanna Liu’s presentation, Breakdancing is competitive; it has procedures and rules; within the confines of those rules, B-boys and -girls constantly innovate, push boundaries, surprise and delight the audience with their creativity and skill. In short, it shares a great deal in common with sports. With games.
The conference is now three years old, and every year it has included some “outsider” element, some practitioner on the fringes of game design. The first year of the conference, it was a representative from the National Football League discussing American football rules; last year, an expert on military wargames discussed their design. They approach the problem of game design not for its own sake, but in the service of a highly specific goal–professional sports, military training, the underground dance scene. They’re never hung up on philosophical logorrheic game-designer doubletalk. These folks have their own agenda to which, through a loose and practical series of experiments, they arrive at the mechanics they need. They’re not brought in as novelties. These folks are the real deal, and the attendees know it.
What defines Practice for me is its catholic approach to the problems of game design. The conference’s ethos, as I read it, is this: we don’t care where you come from, we just want you to show us how you work. So sure, breakdancers rub shoulders with the likes of game-design gurus like Warren Spector. One presenter will bash dependence on narrative in one talk, but later they’ll be a panel led by interactive narrative archon Emily Short and the writers of The Walking Dead gleefully discussing how narrative their games are. Have a look for yourself at the schedule and see just how varied the presentations were. It’s a definite Practice hallmark.
I didn’t hear a bad talk all weekend, a statement I can’t make about any other conference I’ve ever attended. Ever. Even those less skilled in the art of oration still had much to offer in terms of the content of their presentations, and the appreciative crowd was sure to ask them excellent post-talk questions to help bring out the best in them. Credit goes to NYU Gamecenter Director Frank Lantz, Eric Zimmerman, and the able Practice planning team for the careful curation of the speakers.
That said, some speakers were just outstanding. Rob Daviau, formerly of Hasbro, spoke of how he more or less reinvented the game Risk by allowing players to make permanent changes to the board over a campaign mode that lasts for 15 games. His insights into how to enlist players to help you balance a game while they are playing were by themselves worth the price of admission. Davin Pavlas and Morgan Kennedy (who work on League of Legends and Assassin’s Creed, respectively) provided detailed analyses of how they assess player response to specific aspects of their games. Pavlas struck a particular chord with me when he stated that raw data do not interpret themselves; they have to be responsibly curated and tended to, lest they be manipulated in ways that can be counterproductive. Hear that, CUNY assessment?
But to my mind, LARPers Cecilia Dolk & Martin Ericsson stole the show. You see, Live-Action Roleplaying (LARPing) carries a pretty big stigma, in no small part because of this video, whose infamy continues to color people’s perceptions. But if LARPing were thought of more in the ways Dolk and Ericsson presented it, I have trouble imagining it wouldn’t have a huge following. Their presentation centered on showing what it took to host their weekend-long, Battlestar Galactica–themed LARP, Celestra 2.0. Dolk and Ericsson (and hundreds of other volunteers) took over a real battleship in Gothenburg, Sweden, fitted it with Arduino computers and authentic-looking props, and created a 72-hour live-action roleplay experience that benefited as much from improvisation techniques as it did from more traditional LARPing battle systems. In the mean time, they discussed how different LARPing is across the pond than it is presented to us here in the States, how much more character-driven and drama-inspired it is, and how many genres other than fantasy are represented in it (including good old realism).
You want to know how to LARP? This is how you LARP:
Maybe Practice’s most unique element is its “Open Problems” session. Designers, from NYU students to professionals in the industry, pose a specific design problem they are having with a game they’re working on to the audience and solicit suggestions and ideas for addressing it, all in five minutes per presenter. It’s a frenetic and raucous session where the emphasis is more on quantity of responses than quality. But, at least to my ear, a good deal of quality tends to emerge: because game design always benefits from applying multiple brains to a problem. It’s also a great time just to see all the ambitious game projects the audience members are working on.
Practice is technical; it’s about the details of design, the unglamorous guts. Some of the most-respected, most innovative designers in the world go on stage and catalogue the frustrating design process they had to endure to arrive at the game that got them to the stage in the first place. I imagine many people would be bored by Practice’s gleeful obsession with the minutiae of gamemaking.
Fine. They’re not the target audience. They’re not gamemakers. They can’t be, almost by definition.
What Practice does best of all is represent how games really get made. Maybe there isn’t another discipline in academia that is so willing to embrace situational ethics as is the field of game design, but that’s only because holding on to precious notions of right and wrong will lead to less-realized systems. It if works, keep it; if not, dump it; and if you don’t know, take a look around and get novel solutions from everywhere you can. And if you’re a little too pleased with your game-design pedigree to take lessons from, say, the breakdancing scene, you’re impoverishing your games before you finish them, says Practice.
And I concur.