Edinburgh has long been one of my favourite cities, and so we were delighted when Fiona Littleton and Hamish Macleod from the University of Edinburgh offered to host the Autumn meeting of our ALT Games and Learning special interest group (ALTGLSIG). In addition to the fine venue, we also had the largest turn-out of members for a live event: 12 in person on 15-16th November, with another 4 joining us for an online session on Friday morning.
Through their MSc in E-learning, and its Digital Games Based Learning strand, Fiona and Hamish have long experience of using virtual worlds for teaching and learning, and so our first afternoon began by creating characters and exploring the first few levels of World of Warcraft in small parties. I’d played WoW once before for a week or two before it became utterly massive, so it was interesting to see how scaffolding/tutorials and group work were in the present version. We each had an experienced player next to us (drawn from some of our own members, like Fiona, Hamish and Michelle Hoyle who researches WoW, and Clara O’Shea – a research student at the University who is looking at social kinds within the game). Following the various missions in-game (mostly involving killing X beasties) Clara and Michelle presented their research topics, and this opened to a fascinating discussion around scaffolding, tutorials, roles, stereotypes, the types of learning opportunity present in WoW, and – most interesting of all – the transference of in-game skills to real world contexts.
Playing Setters of Catan
For the evening Fiona had booked tables at the fabulous Southern Bar (complete with wide range of local and bottled ales, and later revealed to be an early drinking haunt for a just-legal Nic Whitton) and friends who each brought a copy of Settlers of Catan. We had soon supped and were gathered in three groups intent on gathering resources and trading cunningly in this compelling group game. Although great to play in a group, I’ve found this game a little irritating over time, mainly down to its largely random element and limit to creativity as the game goes on (you can often find yourself waiting 3-4 turns for something to go your way) – and we continued this discussion the following morning, praising the collaborative elements in the game, but discussing this lack of agency at times. In learning as well as game design, a sense that you have agency – or the ability to create/influence your own outcomes – has been linked to engagement.
Friday morning continued with the shaping of the SIG’s white paper on games and learning, and planning dissemination strategies. We then took part in an excellent interactive overview of the use of badges to signify achievements, from Juliette Culver of the Open University. Juliette demonstrated the (surprisingly easy) process of creating and getting badges approved with Mozilla Open Badges, and then led into a discussion around the usefulness of this system, and the reputation aspects of such badges. There is the crucial question of authority behind any of the current schemes to create a ‘skills and experience backpack’ which employees might offer to employers in addition to formal qualifications: with badges so easy to create, and so many already created for anything from frivolous activities through to the completion of a 6-week course, how are employers to judge the reliability and relative value of such awards? One route might be through approval by authority-giving institutions (such as universities), but this would detract from the idea of badges as independent, flexible awards which transcend the need for costly academic or commercial approval.
A presentation from a business angle was next, with Anja-Karina Pahl (The Prizm Game Co., Bath) describing her ideas for an ambitious massive-scale alternate reality game to teach scouts and guides about innovation and enterprise skills. Although out of scope for the SIG (relating to child, not adult, learners) it was interesting to discuss the use of gamification and full game techniques for learning in a business setting. After lunch, we finished with an outreach event, inviting other members of the University of Edinburgh who were interested in the use or study of games to join us. Nic and myself cooked up a quick game to encourage sharing of ideas and knowledge (involving classic computer game characters, points, sabotage and – of course – prizes), and we heard a range of interesting research and development topics from the wider group. A fascinating end to what had been a surprising, thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable 24 hours.