Tag Archives: design

Playful Learning Events

About five years ago Nicola Whitton and I sat down to rethink the academic conference, based on thinking of opposite approaches to many of the standard but no longer useful elements that we all accept grudgingly. Three examples:

  • Why are almost all keynotes and panels composed of older white males?
  • Why do we accept people standing in-front of slides, reading out what’s written on the screen as we all sit and listen?
  • Why are sponsors more prominent than conference themes, ethos or the community?

We started applying our rethink to elements of existing conferences, and then decided to develop our own. Five years on, and we’re preparing for the fourth Playful Learning conference, at its new home in Leicester: still based firmly on that ethos of focussing on modern academic needs and ethics.

9781138496446We’ve not been alone in that journey: indeed, none of this could have happened without a community of playful people who shared our ethos. From our first event manager who cut through a sea of corporate-ness to deliver what we needed, to our keynotes who embraced the playfulness, and our game makers and helpers who helped us to deliver engaging experiences, this has been a communal development.

We’re therefore delighted that we’ve been able to encourage and support members of this community to put down their practical experience, advice and reflections into a new manual of Playful Learning: Events and Activities to Engage Adults – just published by Routledge. In many cases, this is the first published work from these authors, and we’re immensely proud of what they’ve produced.

In the book you’ll find our ethos, based in play theory, but – more crucially – how that has been applied, experimented with, and delivered at a number of high and low profile events across education and business contexts. We’ve also included no less than 36 practical case studies, to provide examples for any context.

Buy, beg, borrow or steal a copy and start to think about how you could change your own events, teaching, workshops or other activities to be both engaging and more focussed on the needs of the participants.



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.

Engaging Visitors Through Play

Titanic Belfast

Titanic Belfast

The Museums Computer Group (MCG) is an excellent voluntary group serving museums in the UK (and wider) with support for those involved in creating digital experiences for visitors, and digital and information systems behind the scenes. As well as their annual conference (UK Museums on the Web) and lively discussion forum, they also organise a range of innovative meetings, symposiums and gatherings around topical issues.

I was delighted to be invited to speak at one such event, Engaging Visitors Through Play, hosted by Alan Hook and Oonagh Murphy at the University of Ulster in central Belfast. Based around the theme of play and games within museum contexts, the event pulled together ‘experts’ from around the UK alongside museums and creative companies from Northern Ireland, to create what looked like a fabulous line-up. As well as speaking about low cost game developments for learning, I was to join in a panel involving Sharna Jackson (Tate Kids) and Danny Birchall (Wellcome Collection), both of whom I’ve been wanting to meet and hear from for some time: so I was looking forward to the day hugely as it arrived.

The room was packed comfortably with a museum and creative audience, and Mia Ridge (Chair of MCG) outlined the work of the Group for those not familiar, and described some of the areas museums are currently interested in (or struggling with). Nico Fell from AV Browne, a creative agency in Belfast, hosted the first group of speakers. Lyndsey Jackson kicked off by telling us fascinating stories about her playful local immersive theatre company, Kabosh (my favourite being Belfast Bred, a culinary tour – with tasting – through 1912 Belfast); Oonagh and Alan then presented their own work on hack days and rapid development, and the MyNI photo challenge game in conjunction with the NI Tourist Board which gathered over 1800 players. A discussion around the markers of ‘success’ for games/play-based projects ensued: in this case the NI Tourist Board happy with the estimated £50,000 worth of royalty-free photographs they obtained; whereas museums might be happier with increased visitor numbers or widening visitor groups.

Wellcome Collection's High Tea

Wellcome Collection’s High Tea

The visiting speakers panel was next, chaired playfully by Matt Johnson from the Digital Circle in Belfast. Sharna Jackson gave us an entertaining insight into her game commissioning role for Tate’s younger visitors. Although bigger than most small museum budgets, her budget in relation to the Tate’s presence – and the implied requirement for cutting-edge art games – is tight, and she discussed the relative merits of small, low-cost games with much larger experiences created by top games developers and artists. She also made the important point that although Tate Kids aims to educate children, the games must be games in themselves and not the familiar ‘chocolate covered broccoli’ of many edu-games.  Danny Birchall made reference to the chocolate-covered vegetable too, and presented Wellcome’s beautiful collection of games – all commissioned from different designers for different purposes, and most interestingly: aimed firmly at an adult audience, not children (music to my ears). Budget is clearly not an issue here, and so each of the games could be designed with their aim and gameplay as core requirements, rather than limited by budget or resource. Danny’s most interesting example was the High Tea game based around Opium trading – he described how the game introduction, location, tools and methods were as historically accurate as possible, yet within that frame, players were free to do what ever they liked (which may or may not change the course of history). This process of setting up a strong context, but then letting players play freely, uninhibited by historic decisions, provides the essence of why games are good – a feeling felt around the room. I was up next, and used a little disruptive trick to demonstrate the concept of Alternate Reality Games to the audience – which seemed to go down well judging by the stream of tweets; following up with key ARG features which can transfer to a learning context, and my simple development process for low-cost contextual games. For the latter I took the group through the development of a simple card game especially for this symposium – which we were to play later in the afternoon.

After a very civilised (and tasty) tea and scones, there were four fascinating ‘lightning talks’ from local creatives: of these, the highlight for the audience was the two brothers of Design Zoo taking us through all the potential new technologies museums could make use of (a slingshot which catapults tweets to a talking wall being the best), some of their clever immersive games (using a giant public screen to show passers-by surrounded by giant bees) and all-too-brief details of their ARG Black Helix. My personal highlight though was Lance Wilson‘s warts-and-all development process for his own mini ARG around Belfast: battling rain-washed chalk clues, and vandalised phone boxes, he nevertheless managed to stage a successful ARG almost single-handed, proving its worth as a low-cost alternative to high-end digital.

How to curate a successful exhibition

How to curate a successful exhibition

It was then time to play the specially-developed card game for this symposium: Curate-a-fact. I’ll describe the design process and the game itself in a separate post soon – but essentially each member of the symposium was given an artefact. They then had to find 3-4 other artefacts to form a coherent collection (avoiding certain colour clashes), and pitch that collection to the rest of the room in a rapid-fire round at the end. The game lasted for 10 minutes, and saw the room bustling with trades, wild ideas, and slowly forming groups – everyone fully immersed in the game. After some excellent pitches, a team who curated ‘historic iPhone apps’ won by a narrow margin, and were awarded some very generous prizes from Rory’s Story Cubes who had kindly donated them (and who I had a fascinating chat with later in the pub). A great finish to the day, and it left everyone chattering away happily as they made their way to the pub.

Our work still wasn’t over then – this being the latest in a series of #drinkingaboutmuseums gatherings – but who can call it work when discussing game development in museums with some of the best creative minds around. A meal followed, and then some prearranged museum visits the following day (to the excellent recently revamped Ulster Museum and the very cleverly designed and hugely impressive Titanic Belfast experience).

Great city, great people, great event, great thinking.

No Risk Strategy

Over the Christmas break I’ve been catching up with some of the games news from the latter end of 2011 – and Risk Legacy caught my eye, as it did when I first heard about the idea. Finally release just before Christmas in the US, this new version of Risk changes the nature of boardgames in a rather exciting way. Up until now, every time you open a boardgame the scene is set to zero: the board and pieces begin at the start just as they did in the previous game (unless you have small children who ‘modify’ the contents in their own unique way). But the designers of Risk Legacy played on the idea that – in reality – battles, feuds and alliances will be remembered by regular players each time a new game is played, and might therefore influence gameplay in a continuum, rather than a constant restart (there’s an interesting interview with the game’s designers in The Escapist).

Do not open envelopeThe new version of Risk therefore comes with stickers, special rules, secret pockets and other tricks which make permanent changes to the game. If you make  a choice between two cards, for example, the other card is destroyed. Literally (from the rulebook: “If a card is DESTROYED, it is removed from the game permanently. Rip it up. Throw it in the trash.”). Other changes affect the board or the rules permanently – and they come into play when certain conditions are met, such as ‘open the first time a faction is eliminated from the game’. Plus, deliciously intriguingly, one envelope secured to the box base labelled ‘Do not open. Ever’.

Winners in the game get to create special conditions in the following game (such as founding a new major city) whilst losers also carry certain conditions into their next game too. All of this means that the game becomes a campaign, rather than a  one-off scenario, where player actions affect not only the current game, but will have repercussions for future games too.

This innovative approach is not for everyone, of course – many players (particularly beginners) like boardgames precisely because they can write off a poor loss by starting a new game afresh, each game providing a fixed structure for developing a beginner’s gameplay: an essential time-honoured learning curve.  And some who like the aesthetics of board games will be appalled at the idea of destroying or defacing cards or boards – designer Lewis Pulsipher has attacked this aspect of Risk Legacy. It is also pretty obvious that you need regular players to get the most out of Risk Legacy – a game-loving family, or games group. But all this aside, the idea and possibilities are fascinating both for future boardgames, and for education.

The traditional method of learning a boardgame, outlined above, carries a number of similarities with the way we tend to teach courses in higher education: we tend to explain complex subject concepts in the same way each year to new students, and (particularly in practical subjects) rely on the students to practice those concepts with real-world examples or conditions: multiple case-studies or assignments giving students a new chance in each case to develop and consolidate their understanding. The problems with this approach tend to be at the start, when students with a range of background experience are taught key concepts in the same way and at the same level; differential understanding then leads through to poorer or greater application of the knowledge in later exercises or assignments.

Experiential education tries to solve this problem by designing the teaching and learning around students’ existing knowledge, so that each student is learning on their own trajectory: it is, however, difficult and time-consuming to achieve – particularly with large numbers of students. The approach used in Risk Legacy might, though, be of interest here: the idea that students carry knowledge and decisions between each learning module, case study or assignment – and the modules or assignments themselves actually change based on those ‘carried forward’ conditions. Educational methods such as ipsative assessment (see Hughes, Okumoto & Crawford 2010) already utilise this approach, but are not widespread and suffer from the same problems of scalability for large student numbers. Maybe more scalable approaches could be used which allow students to carry conditions and effects through a number of case studies or exercises though, leaving assessments largely unchanged but altering the conditions and learning paths each student takes to their goal. In effect, turning discrete learning scenarios into a longer-term learning campaign.

Clash of Realities 2010

Clash of Realities 2010Four weeks ago I received a lovely email from Krystian Majewski from the Cologne Games Lab (based in the Cologne University of Applies Sciences) asking if I could present a paper on ‘serious games’ at their third cross-media conference on computer games design and research: Clash of Realities.

A quick look at the (half-English, half-German, and extremely beautifully designed) programme piqued my interest, and as I had been thinking a lot about educational games and their embedding within courses after mine and Simon’s paper at GBL10, it was an ideal chance to present some of my forming ideas.

A quick look at the transport options fitted in nicely with my environmental aim to use trains in Europe where possible; and this proved to be a better move than expected when the ash cloud covered the skies a week later…

…the same cloud knocked a couple of US-participants out of the programme, but those speakers present covered the vacant slots admirably. One of these – and the first keynote I caught fresh in from a smooth and comfortable train ride – was Maic Masuch, who presented a fascinating paper on realism and immersion in games: a particularly salient point being that a good narrative can remove the need for high powered, realistic graphics in striving for an immersive experience.

Banks of the Rhine in Cologne

Cologne itself is quite a 'clash' of different styles

Cologne is home to a burgeoning game development industry – both the big commercials (EA were benevolent and discrete co-sponsors of the conference along with the universtity; and their smart building stands alongside an oddly designed Microsoft edifice adjacent to the Rhine) and small independents: over a drinks reception on the first evening (fuelled by endless small glasses of the local Kölsh brew), I chatted to Max – an iPhone app programmer who had worked on the UK Premiership football team apps – and Tale of Tales, the innovative art-game developers from Belgium; as well as games researchers from the University.

The second, main, day was split into three streams – the most interesting being the game design theme, which merged art, film, education and design in a thoroughly inspiring clash of genres and cultures. Krystian opened the day with the case for independent games and how they fit into the commercial world – demonstrating his incredible looking independent game (Trauma); then Tale of Tales described the long design and realisation process of one of their unique games (The Path), suggesting that their games would not be as creative or true to their vision if they had given production over to a large team of programmers – and that the best way forward for them to merge creativity with quality/speed of production would be for programmers to develop easy tools for the designers to use themselves.


Krystian Majewski talks about Independent Games

The section on ‘serious games’ (or games in education as I much prefer to call it) saw Max join Fabricio de la Marques to describe a wonderfully conceived iPhone application which will use augmented reality to help 12-13 year olds to build up a picture of how Roman Cologne looked, working from the small sections of wall and gateways which are spread across the city. Their close work with teachers and with the local museum provided an excellent model for cross-sector development of an educative game. I followed with my argument that games in education need to been as ‘campaigns’ and not ‘side quests’ – that serious games which are produced as bolt-on/isolated skills courses disconnected from the subject context (or fail to create a cohesive context within the game) will result in short-term skill retention and low engagement, compared to the high levels of contextual engagement resulting in embedding games firmly within the subject context.

Sessions on the use of film within games followed (in German, although I managed to follow much of them), and then an entertaining and enlightening talk on a brief history of design and how it has affected games from Björn Bartholdy – given sharp relevance as the lectures were taking place in the Cologne Design School, and the fabulous conference graphics had all been produced by its students. Bernd Diemer, designer at major game developer Crytech then took us on a personal and entertaining journey through his love of maps – which re-ignited the debate on ‘realism’ and graphics quality within games: and how effective games can have the simplest of graphics approaches – and indeed encourage imagination flow more so than over-realistic commercial games.

The extended discussion in between each paper in the stream, and during the generous coffee breaks and evening event hosted in EA Games’s riverside sports bar, made for a thoroughly inspiring day – much in-depth deconstruction of the papers and high-level discussion around the main themes. The mix of educators, theorists, designers and artists from across Europe provided a hot bed for such discussions, and on this basis alone and the ideas I and others have come away with, the conference was a raging success.

Reflecting now as I travel back on the high-speed Thalys train (equipped with free wifi) – the only downsides to the conference, I think, were the lack of time/events to see something of Cologne (although I did manage brief visits to the Shokoladenmuseum and the Döm) and the slightly confused German/English language mix (although the organisers are actively looking at this, and I wouldn’t like to see it convert to English across the board as it was great to see large numbers of local students attending the German lectures). Oh, and Wifi would have been good – I missed out on the (resultingly quite small) backchannel until after the conference – but this is not unique to Cologne, of course.

In summary, a very successful blend of different disciplines and approaches, but all with a solid focus on theory, research and (most notably) evidence-based practice in games design, development and delivery – I’ve certainly left with my head buzzing with ideas (and my contacts list boosted) flowing from the heady mix of different viewpoints. Above all, thanks to Krystian, Fabricio, Max, Björn and everyone else for their wonderful hospitality and company throughout, too.