Friday, October 10, 2008

Meaningful Play, Day Two: Doubting Thomases

Day Two of the Meaningful Play conference began with Leigh Ann Cappello of the Hasbro company who brought packages of play-doh from which the attendees were encouraged to create colorful creations as she spoke. (For example, game designer and critic of persuasive games Ian Bogost created a tiny Sarah Palin.)

Although my children have closets of toys (if not rooms), I tend to be suspicious of childhood-oriented channels of consumerism and what has been called the "Parenting, Inc." approach that begins shopping from the cradle. Like Bogost, I also think that the conflation of "toy" and "game" that Cappello's enterprise represents also merits interrogation in the context of a game studies event. Furthermore, I'm irritated when "gender" becomes the first category for toy design. After all, play is often about subversion of established roles. In other words, play may be more about cross-dressing than playing dressing-up. Toy companies often harden social roles rather than soften them. Finally, when I asked Cappello's response to her corporation's lawsuit that charged the makers of the Facebook game Scrabulous with infringement, she said that she was unable to comment on camera.

One of the day's big events was the "Playing with Public Policy" panel, featuring Alex Quinn of Games for Change, Nick Fortugno of Rebel Monkey and the Come Out and Play festival, Ian Bogost of Persuasive Games, Tracy Fullerton of the Game Innovation Lab, and
Scott Traylor of 360kid.

Fortugno argued about the value of games in relation to public policy, whether he was designing a guerilla game or a teaching game such as Ayiti: the Cost of Life, which was tested first in New York schools with funding from Microsoft and served as a vehicle to teach about Haitian poverty and the reasons that Western-style education is not sustainable in an economy in which every family member needs to work as soon in life as possible.

Bogost followed up by asserting that games could do more than just inform because computing power allows them to synthesize the "raw materials of civic life," so that players can interrogate "the tools available to us" and answer "How do we establish the rules by which we live?" For example, as a "facile system to turn into a game," Bogost looked at how claims from candidates for public office and platform statements could be refashioned as a series of procedures to let voters achieve more understanding of those statements if policies are enacted in a "safe way in a simulated world" that player-constituents could then occupy and evaluate. In Take Back Illinois, Bogost looked at a subgroup of Illinois candidates in the 2004 election to focus on "little games" based on four types of policy position: economic development, medical malpractice, education, and participation. (He explains this in more detail in this First Monday article.) In Points of Entry, Bogost attempted to take a four-hundred page bill as the text to be adapted to a set of game rules and reduce it to a simple calculus that was ultimately intended to encourage players to write their congressmen. Of course, as he admitted, the policy one plays is not necessarily the policy one votes for.

Tracy Fullerton touched on the fact that she herself was currently working on a game about questions of Constitutional history for 11th and 12th graders, which would allow them to argue various sides of Constitutional crises. She described herself as interested in "issues of government and playable systems" and asserted that "representative democracy is the most important game we’ll ever play." As Fullerton pointed out, games weren't necessarily just about reason and logic. For her, the other side of policy is the “heart side,” and she noted that Hush and Darfur is Dying were designed to get users to empathize with a side of question that they might not otherwise see. Unlike "playing out system and thinking about which side is best for me" in games of political consequences for voters looking for candidates who will represent the voter's personal self-interests, such games of pathos were intended to motivate concern for the lot of others.

Traylor discussed the development of Budget Hero game for American Public Media. When considering their audience of NPR listeners, Traylor's team first wanted to know if it was "fair to create a game that no one could win." Given their funder's willingness to promote a game that illustrates the pains of political decision-makers, the team moved forward. As to what could be learned from the exercise, according to Traylor, all completed game states are saved, along with information about political beliefs, annual incomes, etc. Thus, for example, one could see how "Republicans in Arizona earning over 100,000 dollars a year" would approach the budget as an interest group. (Note also that the French goverment created a game about budget-balancing as well.)

At this point in the discussion, Bogost observed that "politicking and public policy are two very different things and have not much to do with each other." He noted that the feedback loop involving policy games is not always intended for policy makers. In the case of Budget Hero, as Traylor noted, the emphasis was on polling their listenership to get a sense of possible stories to be covered rather than to effect actual change. As a counterexample, Bogost pointed out that a crisis game such as World without Oil, which he argued might have been more terrifyingly prescient as "World without Money," was a real-world role-playing game in which you imagine that you are simultaneously in a different world even as you are living in a real world and thus the experience is seen through "two lenses." He described how players of the WWO game turned to walking to work, carpooling, or creating community gardens to avoid trucked-in produce as the simulation unfolded.

However, Fortugno reminded the audience of his affinities as a self-admitted formalist by asking if World Without Oil really was a game. How would the player be limited? Besides, Fortugno cited a number of real-world game-like activities in situations where people get points for hotels and points for flying.

There was considerable discussion about propaganda games, particularly since the panelists agreed that simulations do not accurately represent reality and are therefore inherently biased. As an example, they concurred that with the complexities of the current budget crisis, it would be difficult to make a game about voting for the bailout, since they had no real idea of what results would be generated by the initiative, because the physics of the economic universe are extremely complex. As they said, the challenge of building emergence without bias is highlighted by the fiscal situation. In this context, Tax Invaders was a frequently mentioned example of a propaganda game.

Bogost and several others discussed the relationship of games to journalism and claimed that a lack of bias is not an inherent property of responsible reporting, although reporters were expected to acknowledge a role for citizens and to be wary of interested parties providing funding. Journalism, he claimed, was about something other than objectivity; rather it was about being positioned within a system. Bogost also complained that too often such organizations are commissioning, endorsing, and generating "pulpy soft news."

Fullerton also pointed out how difficult it can to be to systematize political phenomena and how the very activity may challenge "what we mean by a system," particularly when assigning numbers to the values associated with a local politician or activist. Furthermore, in the era of "big data," it can be difficult to say how much information can be dealt with for a team of designers much less for an individual player.

Bogost discussed how games model possible worlds in the particular case of a game that he tried to make with Michael Mateas about the hot-button issue of abortion. As Bogost pointed out, in these kinds of highly polarized cases there are philosophically "consistent opinions at either end" of the political spectrum. He claimed that it was less about the issue than about the "issue space" or the "metasystem that is generating the issue not the system itself," which could be characterized as a kind of inaccessible "black box."

When organizer Carry Heeter said that it was important to know where games come from and suggested that there could be an "I approve this message" tagline to political games to clearly indicate the source of sponsorship in the interest of having a "policy about policy games," objections were made to this plan.

As Fullerton pointed out, such sponsorships would be difficult if games really model multiple outcomes, since a sponsor couldn't endorse everything that a game says and every outcome generated. At this Traylor pointed out that it was often more important to find out how a client defined a game and whether they would ally themselves with constructivists or behaviorists than to identify their stated political loyalties.

Fortugno noted that role-playing exercises such as the National Security Decision Making Game in which emergency response is tested there can often be unanticipated outcomes. For example, in the case of a flu pandemic, large cities may try to get around the will of the federal government. At this point ARGs were introduced again as a possible way to avoid propaganda, since hive minds or collective intelligence reflect many points of view.

Bogost was skeptical, however, given the limits and problems of games that rely on so-called collective intelligence, particularly since there may be very small number of people participating, and the games may be designed as publicity stunts, since advertisers are the largest funders of this genre. Second, he noted, such ARGs still require a "certain suspension of our world and enter the other world." In other words, even if players of World Without Oil would nurture a community garden, there may be zombie-style attacks by self-interested and non-collective parties to get their proverbial tomatoes.

The designers also discussed the participation gap. As Fortuno admitted, there are generally “four groups” who are drawn to alternate reality games: “hipsters,” “gallery types,” “game designers,” and “hyper activities people” looking for diversions advertised on the Internet. Furthermore, Bogost lamented that Cruel 2B Kind is most frequently staged on college campuses, where there is little opportunity for the kind of civic discomfort that he and McGonigal had intended to be part of the game experience.

The day's closing keynote was delivered by Ute Ritterfeld of Germany's Free University, who agreed that "meaningful play" may be a better term than "serious games. Ritterfeld has been questioning some of the fundamental assumptions of the field, and her forthcoming book, Serious Games: Mechanisms and Effects, interrogates some of the preconceptions of the movement and its optimistic spirit of technological mastery. Although many consider such games to represent a new pathway in education, a means for effective behavior change, and a way to reach out to otherwise hard to teach learners, Ritterfeld also examines the central premise that such games are "fun."

In her talk, Ritterfeld argued for more studies that fit the parameters of objective, empirical research with large sample sizes, particularly research that goes beyond merely studying a given game’s effectiveness to conducting research that looks at developing serious games in the context of other options. To introduce a typology of game genres, she cited the work of Rabindra Ratan who classified a large sample of serious games, which found that most serious games were academic in nature, targeted at a K-12 audience, and devoted to practicing skills as a somewhat dubious primary learning principle. Thus, although the rhetoric surrounding such games emphasized new knowledge or problem-solving strategies, Ritterfeld argued that this kind of pedagogy is rarely carried out in such games.

Using a hierarchy of perceived game quality from a base level of technical capacity (I) and game design (II) to an intermediate set of criteria involving the aesthetics of both visual and acoustic presentation (III) to a higher benchmark for excellence involving social experience (IV) and narrativity and character development (V), Ritterfeld argued that many games were failing the most rudimentary requirements that gamers themselves had established through their own reviewing practices. Thus, there were many “games that are useless” products, such as the regrettably designed Amazing Food Detective from Kaiser Permanente, which insults the intelligence of the young, and “games that are effective but not fun,” such as the dreary Phonomena Interactive Game to train phonological awareness. She did have kind words to say, however, about Re-Mission, the game for young cancer patients, although she still wondered if the effects were sustainable and if the potential audience would deliberately engage in play, since players often are not motivated to engage with these games despite the "intrinsic benefit of health games."

She tried to examine the ideologies at work it the serious games movement and its detractors as well, from facilitation and distraction models to paradigms about reinforcement and motivation. All of these attitudes, she argued, kept entertainment and education in their binary positions rather than facilitated the benefits of an earlier childlike state in which learning and play are indistinguishable. This is a point that Mimi Ito also makes in this article, and which appeared in Ian Bogost's keynote as well.

For Ritterfeld, the fundamental questions have to do with aesthetics, challenge, feed-back, interactivity, narrative, meaning, and personal relevance. Successful games, she asserted, capitalize on feedback cycles of "emotions and coping and regulating."

She also argued that the context of the game, which is often tied to rigid social hierarchies and rules about behavior associated with classrooms or museums, matters. For example, in the case of the Metalloman game, Ritterfeld's team demonstrated that playing back game footage elicited the same results as actually interacting with the game, according to this paper. Of course, this was probably not a result that the game's creators were happy with.

In general, day two underscored the fact that this was not a conference in which the literacy argument about the value of games was the primary one, which from my perspective is a good thing. If you see games as a form of literacy, it becomes difficult to make certain important political, legal, aesthetic, and social distinctions and decisions. Sure, playing games represents a literacy; playing music represents a literacy as well. I'd agree with those statements as an educator, but as a citizen I'm not sure what it means for the public sphere.

That's why I prefer treating games as a form of expression, since our culture has a lot of ways to acknowledge the importance of freedom of expression in deliberations that can be relatively nuanced and include seemingly unsavory practices like flag burning, lap dancing, and marching down the street with the KKK. Those aren't really literacies, but they are forms of cultural expression that have been recognized by the courts as forms of public rhetoric allowable in a democratic society. This is also the argument that Salman Rusdie made in the post-9/11 hysteria when arguing that Americans should be ready to defend dancing and short skirts. From my perspective, speaking with my own professional biases in mind, I'd say that the literacy argument is both too broad and too narrow to give people useful ways to talk about games in their own political and social lives.

Given the regulatory attitude of many lawmakers about common digital practices, it is not surprising that the literacy argument has become coupled with a certain form of digital utopianism in public statements made in the name of funding independent game development. I had an interesting conversation with Suzanne Seggerman of Games for Change about this issue. When I argued that there were too many games conferences in which substantive criticism of the media at issue was lacking -- and therefore why this one was worthwhile -- she responded that advocates for gaming had to take uncritically positive positions sometimes reflexively in order to have any influence in a polarized pro-con political and educational environment.

My own panel was made up of three rhetoricians, who were members of the Conference of College Composition and Communication professional association as well, which was somewhat disconcerting to the audience, I would suspect, given that it was somehow advertised as a panel about MMORPGs. (Talk about false advertising, especially since the games we were discussing may be multiplayer, but they didn't rise to the level of "massive" in scale.) I gave a talk about the Arden "failure" of a prominent McArthur-funded digital learning project. (Slides are here, and a draft of the paper is here.) I was followed by two literacy-oriented talks by Matthew Kaplan of the University of Minnesota, who gave a talk about "Green Reading, Green Gaming: The Future of Ecocriticism, Storytelling, and Environmental Ethics in Virtual Worlds," and Alex Games on "Gamestar Mechanic: Reflections on the Design (Research) of a Game about Game Design." Games has been working closely with the influential game literacy theorist James Paul Gee, whose work is respected widely regardless of theoretical orientation, for good reason in my opinion, on Gamestar Mechanic, a role-playing game for K-12 students about being a game designer that I had seen previewed at the Serious Games Summit in 2006. Unlike other similar projects, Gee and his team have decided to focus on teaching design rather than teaching computer code. Although Games' talk made it sound like researchers were disappointed with the writing outcomes of their first sample group of students, they had developed specific instructions about writing conventions and genres for the group considerably since then and now offer templates and models for the "game labels" that should improve results.

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