Category Archives: conferences/reports

Work-at-Play-at-Work

The first meeting of the Work-at-Play-at-Work Society met at Counterplay 2017.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘invitation to play’ recently: what invites people to engage in playful activity; is it different for each person? And then what allows them to continue playing?

The description was as follows:

“We might be playful individuals, but we work in often distinctly unplayful organisations. To consider this problem, join me for a board meeting. We’ll sit around a table. We’ll have an agenda. We’ll have slides. None of us will have read the papers in advance. There may or may not be coffee. Let’s see how far down the agenda we get, before someone says “what if we did it like this…”

There was a formal agenda, as attached here. Once all members were in the room (excluding Valerie from Admin, who forgot to come), we began with Apologies. Members were asked to apologise for something distinctly un-playful they do regularly at work.

This slightly playful twist on proceedings produced some surprisingly revealing apologies: with people admitting to ignoring what goes on in most meetings; avoiding speaking so as not to prolong the meeting, etc.

Introductions were next, and we went around the table so that all members knew who was represented.

Everyone was given a name card (eg. Luna, Erik…) and the person opposite was asked to give them a job title and department. To the left of me I had Algernon the Management Financial Analyst from the Department of Financial Management Analysis; to the right of me I had Xavier, a shadowy figure from ‘up above’, who cast an acusative eye over the whole meeting.

Members were reminded of their action points from last meeting, and asked to report on them later in the meeting.

I had created a set of secret Action Cards, one for each person. Over the rest of the meeting, it was really interesting to see how they each approached their actions: one member winked at another via twitter, for example. Others used the following activity to mask their missions.

We then found that Valerie had mixed up the Minutes from the Last Meeting, and they were distributed across the papers in front of each member. It took some time to get them back into some sort of order.

I had taken the first 50 pages of Frankenstein from Project Gutenberg, and mixed them up across the 24 paper packs. There were some clues (the start page, end page and some chapter breaks) but everyone was soon up trying to match their pages with others, lay them out on the side, etc.
By the end of these last two activities, everyone knew everyone else in the room, which made the following exercises much easier.

The main section of the meeting was a design exercise. Members were formed into small groups, and asked to design meeting activities together. Members engaged actively with this exercise.

I’d used different colour paperclips on each set of papers, strategically placed around the table, so that some groups were near to each other, but others had to work across the length of the table. Their task was to design a playful activity using only materials in the meeting room. Things got very playful, very quickly.

Link from Dog Grooming fortunately took good minutes in the absence of Valerie, which you can see here.

I was particularly impressed with the idea of massages as a reward; and the use of the underside of the table for secret meetings.

Massages

Members then shared their activity ideas, and the meeting attempted each one to test its effectiveness.

Video link

Pink Paperclip Group activity – click for video

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The meeting ended with arranging the date of the next meeting (after failing to find a free slot in all 24 diaries within the next year we used the time-honoured and always successful method of arranging a Doodle poll).

The meeting closed.

A simple experiment, which started with a few simple playful twists on the traditional meeting, took on a life of its own when the participants accepted and ran with the invitation to play. I was hugely impressed with the work everyone put in to create such inventive activities, and to complete their own secret actions; probably more work – certainly collectively – than any business/committee meeting in history.
This was, of course, an inherently playful audience, but I was struck with how easy it was to set up and subvert a mundane daily activity. What if, in a meeting, apologies were indeed a chance to say sorry for unproductive work; or if attendees took on ‘secret’ roles or actions to engage them during the meeting; or if playful constraints were used to create small group activities with a meaningful aim? The experiment continues…

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Counterplay 17

Following my research and teaching trips, culminating at the harbour of the increasingly beautiful and cosmopolitan Aarhus, I arrived in plenty of time for the beginning of Counterplay 17. Not that I needed to worry, as the wonderful Mathias Poulsen (who almost single-handedly forms this playful bubble into existence each year) opened proceedings by telling us that playful people tend to be late.

This was followed by a blast of an opening by Anthea Moys, who herself arrived late on the stage – climbing and apologising to everyone she trampled over; and then proceeded to ask us to do the same, to find our actual seats. When we found them, we had to draw our neighbour’s faces without looking down at our paper. A great start that set the tone for the whole conference, this was just one of Anthea’s examples of her incredible playful art projects in Johannesburg.

Climbing and drawing

Anthea had us climbing, apologising and drawing

She mastered twelve different sports and then played, single-handedly, against twelve first teams. Her aim was to accept and stare failure in the face; and redefine success as the act of learning and playing, rather than failing to win. An approach that resonated with many, and created ripples of discussion about failure over the rest of the day. Gwen Gordon followed Anthea; a former Muppets puppeteer, who now uses play to improve lifestyles.

My session was next. I’m currently interested in the ‘invitation to play’; or what causes people to accept a playful activity, or reject it. I therefore had an idea about introducing elements of play into a non-playful scenario played out in every institution across the world: the board/committee meeting. We started with Apologies (apologising for something non-playful we do within our jobs), Introductions (giving each other fictitious names and roles) and the minutes of the last meeting – the 50 pages of which happened to be distributed across each attendees’ pack in random order. After that, things got very strange; as attendees tried to complete secret missions whilst creating their own playful approaches within the meeting room. It was really difficult to remain seated and straight-faced, as I decided the Chair should do.

Active session

After lunch, and meeting up with old and new friends from across Europe, I attended Luca Morini‘s session on playfully hacking serious systems. Luca had us exploring the fabulous venue of Dokk1 (the huge and open public library that Counterplay occupies, in amongst the daily life of thousands of local students and families) in order to find places that were closed to us, for some reason. He used this as a way to introduce his idea that formal systems are game-like: they follow rules and states – and therefore can be gamed themselves.

An energetic keynote next from Portia Tung, who shared her approach to introducing play into corporate boardrooms. And then it was time to launch the first Counterplay book, The Power of Play, including articles, games and activities from many attendees of last year’s conference (myself included). It’s a beautiful, thoughtful and creative book – which I’m still leafing through and finding new interesting things to do and think about.

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In the evenings we all headed to the excellent new Aarhus Street Food area, with stalls selling food from around the world, and good local craft beer to match. It was here that much of the creative thinking and networking went on each evening.

Day two dawned, and two of the people I’d been talking to at length in the evening were speaking: Kirsten Anderson, who had us all blowing bubbles; and Dom Breadmore from Coventry University, who gave a great talk about the invitation to play, and the importance of designing playable experiences, rather than playful ones (more agency in the former, when they invite interaction). I spent the rest of the morning exploring all the activities around Dokk1 outside the formal programme, including catching up with Rikke and Claus from Coding Pirates, who were working with children on creating Viking-themed games.

CPtweet1After lunch we became future explorers, heading out into the city in small teams to help Eva (a fictional character we created based on the hashtag #finding4eva) create a map of future elements within the city. This was part of an ongoing project by Dan Barnard, and gave us a new way to explore the city’s hidden areas, as well as thinking about environmental issues and future planning. Also, our team won (yay!).

It was then time for the final keynotes. Lena Mech followed the theme from the earlier workshop by using examples of playful work in cities to suggest that the invitation to play is more complex than we might think: we shouldn’t, she suggests, be arrogant in thinking that everyone can play, and should instead use ludic markers to tempt them in: whether human activity, or physical attributes in the landscape. Finally, returning four years on after his first (excellent) keynote at the first Counterplay, Miguel Sicart was back to pace the stage again. Like a prowling tiger, Miguel added what – in my opinion – could have been the last chapter of his book: a call to arms. He used examples of playful/creative groups that have worked against dictatorships or regimes to show us that small personal or group actions can start to work against dominant negative forces. A fabulous finish to the formal programme.

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As last year, there was a further day of creative play following the main conference – so about half of us returned on the Saturday to consolidate our thinking around this year’s emergent themes. My group was thinking about setting seeds and growing playful approaches outside of the conference; and we came up with the idea to connect different people together with a tangible artefact – a package that would be sent between us with something to apply to our own context, and then add something else before sending it on (see Marian’s explanatory post).

In amongst the thinking, I also attended a final session by Mikel Haul, who has been researching the origin and development of the Chase the Goose popular game from the Ancient Greeks. His plan is to create a physical version of the board game, including its iconic squares (such as death, or the well), at spaces in Middlesborough, Tokyo, and Aarhus: and so we helped him by mapping out the board over the circular levels of Dokk1.

And that was it, although many played on well into the night – and through the flights home. It was, yet again, an incredible experience: almost all due to the people who attend from across the world with a common ethos – I made many new friends and colleagues who I’ll be carrying on the thinking and conversations with as the year progresses. Huge thanks to everyone who was there and made it such an incredible experience – and in particular to Mathias and his team of helpers, without whom this wonderful event wouldn’t occur.

 

 

 

 

 

Playful Learning 2016 #playlearn16

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I’m deep in the planning phase of launching a new and playful conference this July, with my co-chairing colleagues from Manchester Metropolitan University (Nic Whitton and Mark Langan).

Our simple concept is to see what engaging things happen at the intersection of learning, play and games. We’re planning the conference around this, eschewing standard ‘paper reading’ sessions for more playful workshops or interactions; arranging some playful activities and surprises around the sessions and through the evenings; but most importantly setting up an environment where the surprising might happen.

Come and join us! http://conference.playthinklearn.net/

We’ll be posting more details on Twitter as the event approaches, too: https://twitter.com/playlearnconf 

 

In Focus symposium on Games, Gamification and Games Based Learning

The Centre for Distance Education (CDE) at the University of London have, for many years, run an excellent annual conference on Research and Innovation in Distance Education (RIDE). They also, from time to time, host occasional symposia on current issues in HE. Late in 2014 I was approached by Steve Warburton to design and co-host one such ‘In Focus’ event around games and gamification (linking into the current interest in this area).

Adrian Hon speaking

Adrian Hon (SixToStart), one of our invited speakers

I’ve known Steve for a while, and it was a real pleasure to work with him over the next few months to scope out and book a range of perspectives on games, gamification and learning from HE and industry. We particularly wanted to set up points of contention/discussion, and also include ample opportunity for active playful participation.

The symposium took place on 4th March 2015, in the impressive surroundings of Senate House, and from our point of view certainly fulfilled the above aims: we had the 100-strong audience scrabbling under chairs and on the floor to create epic stories from brickabrack, solve clues and battle for grand prizes; over lunch groups were playing noisy games of CubeQuest; and we heard some challenging perspectives for and against ‘gamification’ along with some inspiring examples of well designed games-based learning experiences.

I’d designed a new variant of my ‘Curate-a-fact‘ game to get teams working together during the day, and it worked a treat – with eleven teams (60 people) submitting games by the end of the day.

Participants playing card game

Participants playing the conference game

A detailed writeup of the event will soon appear on the CDE site, but in the meantime there’s a great Storify narrative which gives a good sense of the day by Katie Piatt, and pictures on Flickr.

 

#SenateSecrets at FOTE 14

Last Friday (3/10/14) I and my games and learning colleague Katie Piatt spent a day running a conference engagement game for FOTE14. Read all about it in Katie’s marvelous storified tale of the day:

https://storify.com/katiepiatt/senatesecrets-unlock-the-secrets-of-senate-house

 

ALT-GLSIG July 2014: Manchester

For this latest gathering of ALT-GLSIG (the Games and Learning Special Interest Group, hosted by the Association for Learning Technology and chaired by myself and Nicola Whitton), we returned to Manchester. This time, a little further down the road at the University of Manchester’s excellent Alan Gilbert Learning Commons building: an extremely well thought-out and provisioned study/learning space for students next to the main library.

A small corner of the Learning Commons

A small corner of the Learning Commons

These regular SIG meetings are a chance for members to meet and share practice, play games, share ideas and collaborate on projects and writing; but we also like to include the local context: incorporating themes or groups from the host university. Rosie Jones, Commons Manager and long-term SIG member, was our accommodating host, and had invited colleagues from the university along to present and join in with the meeting, which added value to an already packed programme.

Curate-a-fact in full flowWe kicked off on Thursday lunchtime, with 14 members new and old: to get everyone straight into the spirit we played a quick game of Curate-a-fact (the winning group coming up with the intriguing history of ‘Llama Nut Ball’), and ‘people bingo’ (where we each had a list of traits, and had to find people with matches for each): two great ways to get everyone to find out random facts about each other, and start the proceedings in a playful way.

Our first session proper was a discussion about conference games: using games to help attendees network, and engage with the conference themes. This contributed to planning for the FOTE 2014 conference, which members of the SIG were invited to create a game for within the atmospheric surroundings of Senate House. More of this in a later post.

The first of our guest speakers, David Jackson (Manchester Metropolitan University) introduced us to Storyjacker in both digital and paper versions: a fun group writing activity which helps people to collaborate together on a narrative. We had great fun, and generated some impressive prose; with the paper and digital versions offering different experiences. Our second guest speakers were Jonathan Slater and Glenn Painter (NHS Nottingham) who wheeled in an intriguing set of giant boards. Ten minutes later, we were walking through a journey into the minds of recovering therapy patients, played out through a giant game board. It was a great example of how playful experiences can help to bring people together, and open them up to ideas and discussions they might otherwise find difficult.

Picture of painted boards

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy through a board game

Continuing the discussion and games into the evening, we finished by playing the brash but hilarious/cringeworthy Cards against Humanity over a meal in a local hostelry. The Friday began with Katie Piatt asking us to solve the STEM quiz she had devised for a Sussex childrens’ science fair, which was great fun and resulted in puzzle designs for future events. Rosie and her Learning Commons colleague Jade Kelsall then provided us with a challenge: we had to design games to help students engage with eLearning resources. To add further competition, good designs were awarded cubes of plasticine – which were added to growing tall sculptures (the highest structure at the end was awarded a highly detailed plasticine dinosaur: the perfect prize?). It was an excellent, fast and creative way to generate ideas – resulting in some great approaches.

A conference planning session was next up: there is a dearth of conferences covering adult learning games and play (or, indeed, any learning games) for both researchers and practitioners in Europe, and so we brainstormed the possibility of a focussed conference in 2015. A working party, and plenty of playful ideas for structure, themes and other events emerged. Watch this space.

The event finished with a round up of SIG news, and we headed off around midday, to arrive home in time for tea.

All attendees, both existing SIG members and new / invited guests, said how much they had gained from the event – and as ever we were bowled over by everyone’s enthusiasm, creativity and examples of their own, local work. Our next meeting is in November at the University of Hull, where we expect something completely different, yet just as playful.

If you are interested in the work of the ALT-GLSIG, sign up to our group at: http://gamesandlearningsig.ning.com

 

 

 

International Reflections: HETL 2014

Alaskan mountains reflected in lake

It’s not often one gets a chance to visit far-flung parts of the world for work when you’re in higher education;  so as part of the development funds I received for my National Teaching Fellowship, I decided to earmark a couple of international conferences. The Higher Education Teaching and Learning conference was the first of these: organised by the US-based HETL Portal, this year’s conference was taking place in Anchorage, Alaska.

Bear statue on shopfront, AnchorageTwo things were immediately attractive: the location (I’d never visited Alaska but am a big fan of mountains, snow and lakes – and Northern Exposure*), but more importantly, that very location meant that it was attracting participants from every continent: access being easy for Asia and Australasia as much as North and South America. What better chance to get an overview of current issues in higher education across the world?

And so it proved. The attendees were a fascinating mix of senior learning and teaching staff (pro-VCs and equivalent) with innovative and highly engaged ‘regular’ teachers: so whilst one of the spacious, discursive sessions might present 3-4 fascinating case studies of innovative teaching; the next would feature a prolonged discussion around organisational strategy: a perfect professional development experience, on all levels.

Highlights were many, and aided by the edict that there could be no powerpoint (or digital) materials: it was voice and handouts only. This shifted many sessions into very thoughtful narratives or interactive events; with a handful spoiling this by discovering a rogue projector and reverting to reading off their slides. Those who thought about this ‘limitation’, though, delivered. Colin Potts (Georgia Tech., USA) started the conference with a bang by calling HE a ‘blip’ on the lifelong learning landscape: noting that this is the first generation who can’t say “I don’t know” (Google being constantly to hand), and that students are forced by HE to study a narrow subject path, when they are naturally more widely interested. John Doherty and Walter Nolan (Northern Arizona, USA) then guided us in a lively and discursive workshop around engaging colleagues in creative curriculum  design: a conversation from which led to a more relaxed discussion of institution-level curriculum planning with Frank Coton (Vice-Principle Learning & Teaching at Glasgow) over a beer and looking out at the Alaskan mountains from the venue’s 15th-floor “chart room”.

Anchorage street with mountains in distance

A view of snowy mountains in every direction

The following day saw a number of examples of the use of video to engage and support students – in ‘flipped classroom’ approaches and as co-created artefacts for peer support. I presented as part of a session focussed on games-based learning, which drew a large group and resulted in an excellent discussion after the four different, but all interesting, papers (aided, perhaps, by my imported Cadbury’s prizes). iPad use featured heavily in other sessions: my research colleague Claire Hamshire (Manchester Metropolitan) describing her use of iPads for medical teaching; Carrie Moore and Vicki Stieha (Boise State, USA) assigning group roles to students using iPads in a research exercise – and finding that students, when given a clear role, self-policed the group much more effectively; and Kriya Dunlap (Alaska Fairbanks) gave out iPads to his students with initial guidance, but then left them to work out the most effective use for their studies – they ended up co-publishing a paper together on the processes. This latter example is a similar approach to that we’re using with our Medicine first years, to similar positive effect.

A session on institutional change for learning technologies featured some fabulous methods and approaches, such as providing video booths for students to drop in and voice their needs and frustrations (e.g.. “I want my timetable on my smartphone”): which the senior management were so affected by that they implemented a major overhaul of all institutional systems – and staff development plans – to focus on student needs (Brian Webster, Edinburgh Napier). Frederic Fovet (McGill, Canada) described his institution’s application of Universal Design for Learning (UDF) which designs curricula from an inclusive base (so that the whole curriculum is naturally accessible to all). Another fascinating paper came from Jeffrey Schnepp (Bowling Green State, USA) and Christian Rogers (Indiana/Purdue, USA) who used a Professor Layton style method of trading hints for points in end of year exams: students could opt to trade a percentage of the available mark for a hint about the question, on a question by question basis. Their trial is ongoing, but initial results showed a small increase in the average grade, with around 70% of students opting for at least one hint.

There were too many other interesting sessions, discussions and informal chats to mention: in many ways it was a never-ending wave of engaging topics. Conversations went on long into the night, too, courtesy of the midnight sun (the sky looked as if it was noon, around 11pm) and some very good Anchorage restaurants: and even after the conference finished we were still discussing the topics over coffee (finishing with a fascinating chat to David Giles – Flinders, Australia – about focussing on playfulness and the ability to fail, in learning design).

To get the best flights, I was left with a day and half after the conference to explore some of the fantastic scenery around Alaska, and joined Claire and others on a jaw-droppingly-beautiful train journey down to the port at Seward, where we boarded a boat to view whales and other sea life. The following day, we hiked up one of Anchorages smaller mountains, Flattop Mountain, which was still quite a serious climb, rewarded with snow to trample at the top.

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Altogether, HETL 2014 and Alaska made for an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience: a fabulous conference, fascinating people, and stunning place. I feel both privileged and humbled to have been part of it.

*Northern Exposure, it turns out, was actually filmed in New York state; and contrary to the strap line, I saw no moose on any corner.