Gamification, Super Mario and STEM: Notes from the Games+Learning+Society conference
Post by Mark Riechers on 7/2/2012 3:20pm
Game designers and education researchers might seem like odd bedfellows, but games and learning go together like Mario and Luigi at the Games+Learning+Society Conference (GLS), a yearly gathering for academics, educators, game designers and anyone else interested in the creative and cognitive potential of video games.
Marking its eighth year and organized by the UW-Madison education research group by the same name, this year’s conference yet again transformed Memorial Union into a Mecca for those seeking to harness games to engage with students of all ages, and at a higher level, to help elevate the discourse around what video games are and what they have the potential to be.
“Gamification,” the idea of adding game-like components to everyday activities, came up repeatedly as a bit of a dirty word at this year’s conference. "Games are not fun because they are games,” says game designer and keynote speaker Sebastian Deterding. “Games are fun when they are well designed." The idea that game-like elements be added to everything from going to the movies to ordering Chinese food undermines much of the point of creating a game in the first place–to spur meaningful play and to encourage the players to master the system in which they are playing, gaining something meaningful in the process.
The potential of a designed, game-like experience was exemplified in Just Press Play, an effort from the Rochester Institute of Technology to get their undergraduate game design students to engage with their campus and one another through a series of game-like elements layered on to their daily student life.
Liz Lawley and Andrew Phelps of RIT’s Department of Interactive Games and Media explained how they rewarded students by giving them “achievement points” for positive undergraduate experiences–speaking with faculty outside of the classroom, organizing study groups, even taking part in campus traditions and discovering new places to eat outside of the safety of campus boundaries. “Players dug into the content and tore through it in two weeks,” says University of Wisconsin-Madison graduate researcher and GLS student Ryan Martinez, who worked on an analysis of the effectiveness of the program.“They couldn't get enough."
Learning what sucks players into games like that is a big part of what GLS is all about. The conference’s “Well Played” sessions give attendees a chance to perform a close reading of how a game affects its players by having presenters play the game live and break down its mechanics and design, moment by moment.
One presenter, David Simkins of the Rochester Institute of Technology, examined how the immersion Skyrim’s opening moments – where the player seamlessly discovers how to create a character, navigate the game world and survive the onslaught of sword-wielding monsters and dragons – carefully gives players the tools they need to play the game without breaking the game’s narrative to do so.
Another Well Played session from Matt Payne of the University of Alabama examined the intertextuality present in the 8-bit inspired brutality of Super Meat Boy, a game steeped in references to dozens of other classic video games like Street Fighter and Super Mario Bros.
These sessions work to elevate the discussion around how games affect their players, and how educators can tap into good game design as a way of reaching out to students. Education researchers Dixie Ching, Carla Fisher, and Meagan Rothschild held several discussions at the conference about how the virtual spaces and mechanics of numerous games could be used in instruction related to science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In their workshop session the trio had participants play a series of games–everything from simple iPad games to New Super Mario Bros. Wii–and invited participants to brainstorm on how specific game mechanics within those games encourage broad concepts like team work, system-based reasoning and visualization of data that could be integrated into lessons related to STEM.
It’s this evolution in understanding of the potential of how games can be used to involve, instruct and engage with players that lies at the heart of what GLS is all about. Colleen Macklin, keynote speaker and associate professor of design and technology for Parsons the New School for Design, called it “a perpetual beta” where the researchers and educators that attend GLS each year develop new and more effective ways to harness the power of games to educational ends by deepening their understanding of games in general. As Macklin puts it, GLS has gone from being about games for learning to being about learning for games.
Games are certainly far from a fringe hobby in 2012: They saturate our lives, living in smartphones, on Facebook, on our TVs and computer screens. But the medium cannot truly evolve until the discourse around games catches up with their proliferation throughout the media landscape. GLS serves as a yearly reminder that those important, thoughtful discussions of games are happening all over the country, but in particular, are happening actively in our own backyard.
To watch some of the talks from this year’s GLS conference, check out their streaming video hub.
Photo used with permission from the Games+Learning+Society Conference. More on Flickr.