In the weeks leading up to the fifth European Conference for Games Based Learning, participants from around the globe were checking the news sites for updates on the situation in Athens. The organisers (Sue and Elaine from ACI) did a wonderful job keeping everyone up to date as the days approached, and set up a travel discussion for those wishing to share lifts from the airport on strike days.
I slowly watched many of the authors in my own mini-track on Games on a Budget pull out due to cancelled flights (including Nic Whitton, the co-chair, although more due to safety/mobility issues given the imminent arrival of Little Whitton #2); but as I met up for conference drinks at the hotel reception on Wednesday eve, it was good to see that around 80 attendees had managed to avoid any strikes and help contribute to the local economy. Before that I’d spent the day with German experiential education expert Jule Hildmann and her partner, avoiding the police barricades and explosions from the central square; touring around the (closed) ancient sites before climbing a hill to hit a layer of tear gas and splutter back down again.
The first day of the conference had been compressed to cover missing sessions, but I was pleased to chair a near-full mini-track. The focus was on low-cost or traditional-influenced games, and the track opened with a paper by Nic Whitton on the possibilities and affordances such games present to education, and the call for more studies into this timely area (given shrinking budgets across education and heightened by the local economic crisis). I presented my work on Of Course! - the course design board game and its ability to set up a detailed context using simple games-based tricks. A beautiful, cute board game for nursery-age children in Finland with learning difficulties, Konkkaronkka, was presented by Päivi Marjanen who described how the game encouraged peer learning amongst playtesting sessions. The key to this very successful game was the close work between tutors/carers and the game designers at the start; and the extensive playtesting with the target audience; a digital version was created, but in testing it was found that the children talked to the computer and not to each other, so this development was stopped.
In the wider conference, other low cost/simple games were in evidence too: a fascinating activity presented by Ivar Männamaa (University of Tartu, Estonia) which distilled the complex and difficult issue of cultural integration into a metaphor of horses and watering holes. Using home-made, brightly coloured hexagons (fountains) and half-hexagons (horses) students have to position their horses to occupy a portion of the fountains; another team’s horses can then choose to share or overtake some or all of the fountains. A simple but clever scoring system and rules mimic aspects of cultural integration, and initial tests have proved very effective in generating discussion around the issue which spirals out from the activity. A good example of the generation of complex contexts and ideas with simple game elements.
Other papers of interest included Io Iacovides (PhD student with the Open University) who presented her initial study of breakdowns and contradictions during gameplay: a breakdown being a short term problem or issue, with contradictions being wider problems which go against the context of the game or the needs of the player. Using special study rooms which could track player reactions, Io looked at eight game players and non-game-players in detail. In her paper and the ensuing discussion, the usefulness of these concepts in looking at engagement were considered: breakdowns (if accompanied with breakthroughs) might in fact be more engaging over time, whereas contradictions might cause a dramatic loss in engagement. Eleni Timplalexi (Athens University) described a live action roleplay for high school chemistry students, where groups ‘time travelled’ between two rooms: one a Renaissance alchemy lab where the source and properties of materials could be investigated; and the other a modern chemistry lab where the knowledge of materials could be put into practice to make useful compounds and products. Nikolaos Avouris gave an accomplished keynote on Friday morning overviewing the use of games within Museum education: highlighting the overuse of ‘games overlaid on a weak subject link’, but focussing on the growing use of pervasive games and games with a social connection such as Pheon and Ghost of a Chance at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
As usual for this conference, the long discussion time in and between papers, and the willingness to talk (and eat, and drink) long into the night, meant that I returned with many more ideas, links and new contacts than I could cope with. Athens itself provided contrasting memories: from the sublime remains on the Acropolis and surprising us whenever we turned a corner from tourist tat to stunning remains; to the hair-raising run through narrow streets to avoid protestors and police bombarding each other with water, gas and masonry. But the abiding memory will be of a set of wonderful international friends who took it all on board in a playful way, and ensured we all learned from the experience.