Report from Sunny Wisconsin: My Time at GLS 2011

I always love going to the Games, Learning and Society (GLS) conference in Madison, Wisconsin. Where else are you guaranteed access to a lakeside terrace, local microbrews, and warm Midwestern hospitality? In addition to these welcome amenities, GLS is also a place where games are taken quite seriously, albeit in a playful way. This year was no exception.


I attended the conference to present some of the early findings from my own research. With my collaborator LeAnne Wagner, I am a Co-Principal Investigator of a National Science Foundation grant entitled “Urban Game Design as a Tool for Creativity, Collaboration, and Learning Among Youth.” We’re looking specifically at how teaching young people the principles of game design can impact how they use mobile devices for creative ends. We just finished our first workshop with a group of young people, aged 9-14, at the Chatham Square Branch of the New York Public Library in the heart of Chinatown. While things didn’t necessarily go according to our prepared curriculum-always of interest to the researcher but a source of frustration to the facilitators!-we did discover a few important patterns about how young people approach the act of designing games for mobile devices. These insights were the basis of my presentation at GLS.
I had three early takeaways from my time with the kids at the library. First, kids’ interest in games doesn’t necessarily translate to an interest in creating games. I found that many of our participants at the library were self-identified gamers: they came to the library to play games every day after school, so they knew quite a bit about the details and mechanics of games and game play. But when they were encouraged to move from player to creator, it took them a while to realize the wealth of their own knowledge. My colleague, Kyle Li, one of the workshop facilitators, got kids to move into this creator frame of mind by getting them to complain about the games that they played regularly. These complaints evolved into reimagining new game features and finally into creating new games altogether. This whole process made me realize that the power to be a creator, even a modder, is not encouraged enough when it comes to kids and games. We should celebrate not merely learning through play, but learning through design. I’ll have more to say on this topic as our research progresses.

I also reported on the way the way that kids had some trouble moving from a 2-dimensional game board, either on a computer screen or a table top, to a three dimensional one. Our project is trying to use New York City as a “game board” but that perceptual transition is proving to be more challenging that I thought. In our next workshop, we’re going to focus more on using the Hunt’s Point neighborhood in the South Bronx as a base to tell mobile stories. At the library, we were restricted to using the library space itself as the game space and used QR codes placed on various walls and bookshelves to put  game elements into play. QR codes are 2-dimensional bar codes that can be read by a smartphone to reveal an attached message or image or link to a webpage. We’ll see whether the perceptual shift from 2-D to 3-D is any more natural when the game space is a city street instead of a city building.

Finally, kids reported that creating and articulating the rules for their games was the hardest part of being a game designer. In game testing, it became obvious that the importance of rules is not only their logical, but their social, function. A game is not a game if it cannot be played by other people. So in future workshops I am going to focus more closely on how rules are shaped and iterated by our young game designers, both as they relate to the elements of their games as well as the playing satisfaction of their peers.

My presentation was matched with two researchers from the University of London’s Centre for the Study of Children, Youth and Media, Rebekah Willett and Andrew Burn. Dr. Willett spoke about how kids make up imaginary games on the playground and Dr. Burn shared his research on how teenagers used a virtual world to create a new platform for sharing Shakespeare’s The Tempest.Very interesting work — check it out!

The GLS conference is full of great sessions like this, all of which take the topic of digital media and learning seriously. This annual convening in Madison creates a playful environment to explore games from a research angle like mine as well as from the vantage point of aesthetics, educational policy, knowledge acquisition, and everywhere in between. Can’t wait to return next year!


Photos by Ingrid Erickson

Bottom right: Kyle Li and members of the GameMaker workshop at the Chatham Square Branch of the New York Public Library, June 2011.


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Gaming Education Reform: Starting Points for a Digital Revolution

An Ode to QR Codes


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