Counterplay 2014: Make People Play

I’ve been in touch with Mathias Poulsen, applied games evangelist working in Denmark, for several years: we have a shared interest in authentic contexts within games for learning. And so it was without any hesitation that I accepted an invitation from him to speak at a new conference he was organising based around the central idea of playfulness.

Counterplay - a festival of play and games - brought together three aspects: playful learning, playful culture and playful business. More importantly, the sense of play extended to the whole event, with the fascinating cultural spaces in beautiful Aarhus used to great effect.

The 360° rainbow roof of Aarhus's ARoS art museum

The 360° rainbow roof of Aarhus’s ARoS art museum

Starting in Aarhus’s forward-thinking main library (games consoles and playful areas mix with the shelves of books), Mathias opened the conference by describing his aims in creating it, and then we were straight into an excellent opening keynote from Thomas Vigild (Head of Vallekilde Game Academy, Copenhagen) which looked back at classic definitions of play and linked them to modern examples in games and experiences, with a good sense of humour. The theme which I found most interesting was pausing within play: allowing us to reflect on our actions, think about what might be next, and strategise.

Splitting into the three tracks then, I caught a talk by Santeri Koivisto (Teacher Gaming LCC, creators of Minecraft Edu) who explained how they help teachers across the world to utilise Minecraft and now Kerbal in helping students to create landscapes, structures and stories for themselves. I switched to the culture track then, to hear Steen Nielsen - the Gaming Librarian from the Aarhus Library – talk about their plans for a new library building currently being built on the waterside. The interior has been designed around the ideas of children and adults playing, with media and traditional play spaces built in to the structure. Steen also described the kind of activities they run within the current library: from board game evenings to mini alternate reality games.

After lunch Kirsten Campbell Hughes from London’s EduGamesHub described the trials and benefits of creating and running the LEGup meetings. Mathias then hosted the first of three ‘open space’ discussions – two of which I participated in. The first asked how we could promote a culture of playfulness, and produced some great examples of small playful aspects from around the group (such as slow ninja fights for groups, or juggling to focus the mind). The second, the following day, split into various groups – and mine held a deep and engaging discussion about how we could introduce play and games into more schools and universities (create playful examples within teacher training or staff development days; and provide teachers with a few simple but powerful games to engage students in difficult skills like group work, reflection, problem solving etc.).

Godspanen cultural area

Godsbanen cultural area

At the end of the main talks we headed over to Godsbanen – where a Spilbar had been set up (game bar) in one of the warehouses. The area is a reclaimed space for artists, designers etc., and the warehouse housed a number of collaborative multiplayer games on consoles, kinects, and card games. I had great fun playing the unreleased Joust with the Kinect. More card games were played throughout the delicious meal, and we ended up finishing the night in (of all places) a Sherlock Holmes theme pub, complete with slightly creepy waxwork models and a displaced, thematically, karaoke bar.

There were play spaces within the main conference, and on the second day I spent some time watching and playing with beat blocks, music tiles and the utterly fun/frantic modular floor tiles from Playware. The sessions started with Phil Stuart showing examples of well-designed digital games; Harald Warmelink describing his PhD study linking online gaming/gamers to playful aspects of the  work environment; and Jean-Baptiste Huynh (the man behind Dragon Box) describing his national Norway Algebra Challenge – the success of which, and interesting model, came from a co-ordinated staged launch across the country with students battling against each other (modelled on the MOOC concept – learning small chunks at the same time). I then shared my thoughts about using simple contextual games to create authentic learning experiences – including some interactive Lego modelling – before Henrike Lode (designer of the excellent Machineers learning game, which I first saw a few years ago when Henrike was just graduating) gave an impassioned speech about killing off ‘edutainment’ and bad gamification, and gave us four examples of games where both the game and the learning had been designed properly together, to maximum effect for each.

I must make a quick mention here of the fabulous group of people at the conference, which provided for some fascinating discussion and shared learning across the two days and evenings. Special mention has to go to Zuraida Buter, playful curator of many things including the Global Game Jams, and Mathias, Henrike, Santeri, Thomas and Tobias mentioned elsewhere here: who made my trip much more valuable with their insights and long discussions over coffees and Danish beer.

Closing slide from Miguel Sicart: make people play

Closing slide from Miguel Sicart: make people play

The conference was wrapped up in perfect style: firstly with an experiential look at how Tobias Staaby uses zombie games (The Walking Dead and Last of Us) to teach complex psychological and ethical concepts to his classes (stopping for group discussion/voting at key decision points in the narrative). Miguel Sicart then provocatively claimed that games should die: but went on to make the clever observation that play and playfulness are what we need to aim for. A game may help people to become playful (although equally, so could objects or other people), but ultimately the game will be forgotten, whereas a sense of play can pervade and live on, through other experiences. It was a rousing call to arms – and finished the conference on a perfect slide:

make people play

Congratulations to Mathias for a truly excellent and immersive first conference: a playful format, playful topics, playful participants from diverse sectors, and a game which is set to play for many more rounds yet.

Hint Hunt

I’m just returning from a day in London with my games and learning colleagues – Katie Piatt, Simon Brookes and Nic Whitton. Katie had found out about an intriguing centre called Hint Hunt near Euston, which has two themed ‘puzzle’ rooms for 3-5 people to tackle. For those who can remember the Crystal Maze or Treasure Hunt, being locked in an area and having to solve puzzles to escape may re-awaken some memory cells and give you an idea of the challenge.

I don’t want to reveal any secrets about the room we entered (John Munroe’s room) but I’d like to share a few thoughts about the day.

We were given a brief intro from the very friendly organisers, and told about the aim: to escape the room within one hour. Then we were inside, the door locked, and a very plain looking study room in front of us. Plain, that is, until we started looking deeper: pictures, books, desks all started to reveal some intriguing information…

The successful team

The successful team

For the next hour we were completely immersed. Whilst Simon grappled with a wooden box, Katie was flicking through books with strange symbols, Nic writing down code words and numbers we were finding, as I scrabbled under furniture for hidden objects. Just when we felt we’d hit a brick wall or a red herring, a bell would sound, and a quick message appear from our omnipresent hosts – leading us gently to another corner of the room.

There were many surprises in the hour, which I can’t reveal here, and some truly outstanding puzzles which required all of our combined efforts. At times we overworked the problems – looking for deeper meaning in the effective, but slightly underused, narrative (and this was our only complaint, reflecting afterwards: the narrative could have been more embedded in the puzzles – whereas actually we didn’t need to engage with it too much to solve the room).

We managed to escape with 3 minutes and 2 seconds to spare – a little more than the record time of 7 minutes, but not too bad: and certainly felt extremely proud at our achievement.

Reflecting afterwards, we wondered about the use of such a situated puzzle in learning and teaching. The benefits for team/group work are obvious – we had to work extremely well as a team to solve the range of puzzles scattered across the room – but we also wondered about the strength of narrative for discipline areas (research methods, or chemistry/physics/history) for student and staff group training. In particular, we discussed the possibility of using a standard classroom or lecture theatre as a stage for a puzzle scenario (using standard objects in those rooms).

All in all, a fantastic experience. We’ll be back to try the second, slightly harder Zen room; but also thinking about ways to use such an approach in our own teaching. Wait a minute… just press on that drawer there…

UK Museums on the Web 2013

The Museums Computer Group has a long history for a digital group. Set up in 1984, it has brought together and supported anyone with an interest in using digital media or approaches within the museums sector. In more recent times, it has run the excellent UK Museums on the Web conference – less famous internationally than the major US conference of a similar name, but just as inspiring and full of energy.

Curate-a-fact artefact card showing roman lamp

A curate-a-fact artefact card

This year’s, expertly chaired by Mia Ridge, was at the Tate gallery – and in addition to the excellent presentations and conversations (more of that later) I was particularly interested this time in the game we’d planned to get the participants talking and working together from the moment they arrived.

I’d slightly adapted the Curate-a-fact card game I developed for the MCG Play event earlier this year, to work with the expected 150 attendees. Everyone got an artefact card at registration, with the simple game instructions on the back. Over coffee, and the first refreshment break, everyone could be seen comparing cards and working out how they might fit together to form a collection: there was a real buzz in the room, which was great to see. Even better, the players took to Twitter to find/trade teams – a nice co-created twist to the initial design.

A team working hard in the coffee break

Ably assisted by Oonagh Murphy, we supplied the small teams who formed with large sheets to stick their artefacts to, and then write brief names and descriptions of their newly-curated collections. These were gathered up and laid out in the main hall, and everyone given a sticker to vote with.

We had some fabulous, creative entries (selection below) and ended up with two clear winners in the public vote: the Warmongerers, with Don’t Mess With Us (an ‘ultimate’ collection of violence-linked artefacts) and the slightly risqué Pocket Rockets with Or Are You Just Pleased to See Me? (pocket-sized devices through the ages). They shared their prize of a big tin of chocolates around the hall, magnanimously.

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We all agreed that the game was a great success – it was an instant ‘introduction’ tool – getting people talking together right from the start; was simple to grasp, yet led to some detailed and creative ideas generation; and everyone had a great time playing it (in fact we had trouble getting them back into the lecture theatre for the second session). Plus they gave us a new Twitter gameplay twist. Mission accomplished.

The conference itself was equally engaging and well-planned. The theme was ‘Power to the People: working together’ and most of the sessions dealt with harnessing the energy and creative outputs possible from large groups of multi-skilled people. Hannah Freeman talked us through The Guardian Witness scheme, which positively invites and rewards (in both writing credit and hard cash) input to stories from the general public; Tristan Ferne from the BBC’s R&D dept explained how a combination of automated transcription with crowd-sourced editing is producing rich metadata for the massive BBC radio archives. Two other projects dealt particularly with finding the ‘personal’ within the ‘crowd’: Sandra Brauer from English Heritage describing how the Britain from Above project mixes live meetings with online activity ; and Nicole Cama from the Australian National Maritime Museum who shared a fabulous story of linked memories over space and time around material objects (photographs on Flickr Commons).

Other highlights included tales of the remarkable feats achieved by the  public in the Snapshot Serengeti project (by Zooniverse) – pictures posted by hundreds of automated webcams were identified so quickly that the project regularly runs out of data to process! The Imperial War Museum described a novel approach to staff development and embedding digital into museum practice by launching a computer club for staff, in which they played and created with digital media.

But perhaps my favourite example was a smaller-scale crowdsourcing project: Brighton University’s Ten Most Wanted artefact labelling take on the FBI’s similarly named scheme. The idea to crowdsource unknown artefact data is not a new one, but the way that the team put up regular curator posts on the game’s Facebook page (explaining specifically which people, and which data, helped to solve each clue) created a strong yet efficient link with their audience. Conversations on Twitter also liked the idea to limit to ten objects: giving people an achievable target, rather than the usual thousands or tens of thousands of objects.

All in all, there was a buzz of energy throughout the day, a creative and collegiate spirit, and humour (including numerous digs at QR codes). Highly recommended. And while you’re waiting for next year, why not join the MCG – it’s free.

EduGamesHub

A slightly overdue mention of a great resource and group in London who are focussed around educational game development and use. Set up by Kirsten Campbell-Hughes in 2011, with Martha Henson joining her in 2012 after working on some of the fabulous games in the Wellcome Collection (amongst other great things), edugameshub is an informal blog collecting together some great posts from designers, developers and teachers around educational games. They also run  #LEGup gatherings in London for educational game developers and designers, for those in or visiting the area.

I was invited to write a blog post for the hub last month around the use of games in adult (/higher) education, which can be seen here:

..but the rest of the site (and the meetups) are well worth checking out while you’re there.

ECGBL 2013 – Porto

Porto-1

Now in its seventh year, the European Conference on Games Based Learning this time brought researchers and practitioners from across Europe (and beyond) to the picturesque town of Porto.

The conference always stands out for its participants and networking opportunities; but this year a ‘learning game competition’ had been added to the bill, which added some industry people as well as academics, making it one of the best yet for discussion and potential collaborations.

The papers themselves were a mixed bag: several presented a worrying return of the worst ‘serious game’ approach to learning games: designing basic subject quizzes with a graphical or gamified wrapper, with no pre- or post- evaluation of the approach. These hold the field back rather than helping to take it further.  But they contrasted with others which were truly thoughtful and provocative: great for filling the generous 30-minute slots with some detailed questioning and discussion.

Highlights for me were:

  • A ‘nuclear threat’ pervasive game used by Trygve Pløhn to teach action script programming, which sat alongside standard classes to apply the students’ skills to real life situations. What was most interesting was the way Trygve used real-life breaking news from Iran to adjust his story as it unfolded, engaging the students as he went.
  • Stine Ejsing-Duun and Thorkild Hanghøj presented a fascinating lens on pervasive games, looking at an example from a high school where children tried to ‘cheat’ the system to gain points or advantage: they posed the question – is this really cheating, or creativity? And presented theoretical axes to house the different examples of cheating/creative work they had observed.
  • Several papers focussed on using game design workshops for group training (teacher training, student group work etc.), which were all successful – the best ones based on rapid paper prototyping as described by Nathalie Charlier and Nicola Whitton (the MAGICAL project). Hanghoj, in another paper, focussed on carrying on the development after the design workshops, leading to a good discussion about transfer/reflection activities afterwards.
  • Anna Arici and Sasha Barab (of Quest Atlantis fame, from Arizona State University) presented their new Atlantis Remixed project, which uses Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein setting to teach students critical thinking, ethical and other skills through a compellingly designed game interface. What was more interesting still were the student and teacher dashboards they are developing to allow students to collect and describe their skills from various games/activities in one place; and allow teachers to track the development of pupils in real time.
  • I presented the beginnings of an investigation into the use of real contexts within learning games and activities, for which I gathered a wealth of material and comments from the audience members. I’ll present these ideas and additions in a future post.
  • Robyn Hromek, from the University of Sydney, presented her psychology-based range of home made games which she uses to help troubled children in Sydney schools. Based around psychology theory, the games were interesting in that they use very little competition, and instead focus on collaboration and helping other players.
Barrels in the Taylors Port Cellar

The Taylors Port Cellar

The first day ended with a leisurely walk through the picturesque streets and river bank of the city, culminating with a tour of one of the Port-wine manufacturer’s cellars and a meal/tasting session, which was a lovely touch and a little immersion into the local culture.

The second day closed with the results of the game design competition, which Atlantis Remixed deservedly won – with a hand-made and very clever Chemistry board game/activity ChemNerd from Jakob Thomas Holm coming second (especially interesting for its multiple events linking each stage of chemistry investigation – ending with a real live experiment). Third place went to Ian Hook and Roman Hodek of Lipa Learning, who presented their ambitious linked range of iPad games for 2-6 year olds.

All in all, I met some fabulous and fascinating new people, discussed some intriguing and important new and old approaches, and topped it off with a fine glass of port. Not a bad couple of days at all.

Game design winners: Holm, Barab and Hook

Game design winners: Holm, Barab and Hook

 

New Traditional Games for Learning: A Case Book

New Traditional Games for Learning: A Case BookShiny new copies of a rather special book arrived in the post today.

Around a year ago, I started to seek out examples of games used in education that eschewed the usual focus on digital, and instead focussed on more traditional forms: using cards, or dice, or group activity, to engage learners and teach them through playing.

With my co-editor Nic Whitton, we uncovered thirteen fascinating examples of truly creative game design – all built around learning aims, but with a focus on core game design principles. In most cases, the development costs were minor: materials used ranging from blank cards and felt-tip pens, to short-run boxed board games. More importantly, none of the creators are professional game designers – they are teachers, lecturers, trainers who identified a need in their own context.

What this book presents is therefore something we’re very proud to have assembled: thirteen important, fascinating and useful case studies which span a range of educational levels and modes, that provide anyone interested in developing good, engaging (and most of all, fun) learning games with a wealth of ideas and advice. As a coda, the book finishes with a chapter by a professional board game designer who describes the tricks of the real trade.

It’s available later this month direct from Routledge, or from Amazon (with a Kindle version to follow soon).

Earliest Board Games – New Evidence

A fascinating find in southeast Turkey from around 3000BC was revealed this week: a collection of board game pieces of different styles/functions found together (image below and original story from Discovery News).

Small carved game pieces found together at Başur Höyük

Small carved game pieces found together at Başur Höyük

This adds weight to the evidence of game playing using boards and counters in the region during the early bronze age – the earliest example being Senet from predynastic Egypt, with more elaborate boards and counters found in the royal cemetery of Ur in ancient Mesopotamia, also dating from around 3000BC; while the still-played Go (or Wei-qi) appears in Asia in around 2000BC. This is, though, the first evidence of a collection of different game pieces (possibly indicating variation of roles in a game, or a variety of different games) collected together purposefully.