Friday, October 30, 2015

Symposium on Games in Academia Redux

I wrote about planning the Symposium on Games in Academia about two weeks ago. The Symposium took place last week, and I would definitely call it a success. Approximately 50 attendees came to the symposium to hear fourteen speakers talk about the intersection of games and higher education.
The crowd before the afternoon coffee break
I had the opportunity to give the opening remarks, so I talked about some of the inherent problems of games in education: that we know that games can teach, but we don't really know what they teach, or how they teach, or in some cases, what they even are. It's a perfect storm for future research! I shared one of my favorite stories from my own work, how students playtesting a Morgan's Raid paper prototype concluded that George Ellsworth was a wizard: it wasn't the designer's intent that affected what they learned but the individual constructive and social play experience.

We had a variety of door prizes donated by Wizard's Keep, Game Stop at the Muncie Mall, and Aw Yeah Comics, as well as other local philanthropists. One of my favorite talks of the day was given by Joel Bozell, an acquaintance of mine who is immortalized as Brian van Hoose in Knights of the Dinner Table. He spoke about the Muncie and Ball State connections of the long-running comic.

Joel Bozell talks about Knights of the Dinner Table
Another personal highlight was Carisa Lovell's presentation about her experience as an English major on the Collaboration Station team. Most of our discussions have revolved around shared interests and experiences, but in this presentation, she eloquently tied the studio experience to her major.

Carisa Lovell demonstrates Collaboration Station
I took a leadership role in planning the event, and I am grateful for the assistance of Eva Grouling Snider, Jennifer Grouling, and Scott Reinke, who were instrumental in making it a success. My department also generously supported the event both with refreshments and the help of administrative staff. I should mention that Eva designed this clever little fellow, who I think needs to become a mascot for the Serious Games Knowledge Group.

Once we get the attendee list transcribed, I will be sending out a post-symposium survey to gather some assessment data. Some people expressed interest in running another event in Spring; while I am sure there are more people who would be willing to speak, I also worry about gathering too much low-hanging fruit too quickly. Others have mentioned a desire to have a bigger, more formal event next year, perhaps with outside speakers. That, of course, requires a budget, which we don't have. I am hoping that the post-symposium survey will get us a better picture of what our audience thinks, and we can use this to do some planning and perhaps some politicking.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Symposium on Games in Academia

I founded the Serious Games Knowledge Group at Ball State University about two years ago, I think it was October 2013. The premise of the group was to gather faculty from across campus who are interested in games as learning tools, defined quite broadly. From a small core, we grew to about a dozen faculty and staff. The university's concept of a knowledge group, as I understand it, is to bring faculty together to produce scholarship and, potentially, grant proposals. Our group has met roughly once a month over lunch, where we share our stories about games we are studying, games we are developing, conferences we have attended, and articles we are reading. There is great diversity in our group, but this diversity has meant that we have not collaborated with any shared purpose: while the sharing of our individual work is enriching and enlightening, it has not yielded any scholarly artifact that we can point to as our own. In some ways, we have operated more like special interest group than a knowledge group.

This came up in our first lunch, and we agreed to do something about it. This Friday, the Serious Games Knowledge Group is sponsoring a Symposium on Games in Academia, 2:00–5:00PM in BL104.

We put out a call for presentations at the end of September, and I was pleased to receive fifteen high-quality proposals—enough that we had to reserve a bigger space! The presentations represent an even wider variety of interests than the Knowledge Group itself, and presenters include tenure-track faculty, contract faculty, faculty who teach at the Indiana Academy, university staff, and undergraduate students. The event will truly be a celebration of our diversity of interests, a chance to share our stories in a more formal and thoughtful environment. Refreshments are being sponsored by my department, and there is a wide selection of door prizes that have been donated by area companies and individuals.

The event is free and open to the public, so if you're in Muncie this Friday, please feel free to come join us. Eva designed this flier to advertise the event, and you are welcome to post it and share it. I'll make some time to post a follow-up on my blog after the event.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Children of the Sun Redux: Visiting Angel Mounds

Back in Spring 2013, I mentored the team that developed Children of the Sun, an original educational iPad game about Middle Mississippian Native Americans. I wrote about the experience, and Steffan Byrne and I conducted a qualitative evaluation that is documented in our GLS 9.0 paper. The game was not widely disseminated, being developed specifically for the Indiana State Museum's summer program, so unfortunately there's no way for you to play it today.

Much of the game takes place in a village view, which shows some three hundred villagers within it. The depiction is taken from archaeological drawings of Angel Mounds.

The goal of the game is to build the largest central ceremonial mound while also surviving both natural and man-made challenges. The central brown rectangular area is where this mound is built. I don't have the winning screen on hand—and without an iPad or a current Unity3D license, I cannot generate one—but you can imagine that it looks like a large version of the smaller green mounds shown in the image.

When we made the game, the team made great use of the resources they had available. We talked with representatives from the Indiana State Museum, local experts in history and archaeology, informative Web sites, and several books from the Ball State library.

This past weekend, I visited the actual Angel Mounds for the first time. It's hard to get a sense of scale from this picture, but I can assert that after 500 years of erosion, that central mound is still big. In fact, the whole site was much bigger than I imagined.
This begs the question: why? Why is it that someone who spent a semester making a game about this very site would be surprised at the scale of it?

If you scroll up and take a look at the village map, and you compare it with the scale of actual site, the villagers are not to scale. We had a lot of discussion—some heated discussion, as I recall—about how to represent the villagers. We agreed that these villagers ought to be more iconic than realistic, but they needed to be distinguishable as people. As we worked on the game, though, the villagers were really the primary objects of interest. Even though our intention was for them to be iconic, they became the points of reference for everything else. Although we spent a lot of time on the village map's design, I don't remember anyone questioning the scale. I believe that, as a result, my memory of virtual Angel Mounds was that it was much smaller, so that the people would be the right size.

I'm sure this didn't come up in our formative evaluation, because at that point, we didn't realize it was a problem. I wonder, though, if players would draw the same conclusion, and be similarly surprised at the vastness of the actual Angel Mounds site?

Incidentally, I recommend visiting Angel Mounds. The interpretive museum area is excellent, and the site is well maintained and inspirational. My family has been talking quite a bit about what we saw here, using it as a touchpoint to explain world cultures and history.