Blog

Nordic Game Conference 2013

My third time (I think?!) at Nordic Game Conference was also the best experience so far.

The two days flew by in what feels like an instant, but there’s so much to bring back home.

The atmosphere at Nordic Game is always fairly relaxed and informal, despite the packed program. People are incredibly friendly and forthcoming, and you can’t help but feel at home.

I had so many inspiring conversations with lovely people. Among those, I talked for nearly two hours with Jean-Baptiste Huynh, maker of the cool math-game DragonBox (thx to Mr. Vigild for the introduction). Jean-Baptiste immediately started designing a game for me, which led to the realization, that we want the same – a complete & radical rethinking of education.

That makes for a good afternoon.

The talks

Besides talking to people, there’s of course the actual talks.

Lots of talks.

I can’t possibly decide which was the best, but a few stand out.

I guess the most keynote’ish keynote was the one given by famous game designer Tim Schafer, who is an embodyment of good community relations. People love him, probably because he’s smart, quirky, funny & generally seems to be a really nice guy.

At Nordic Game, he talked about “inspiration driven development”…and a lot of other stuff in a very inspirational talk.

It got even better & more wacky, when he started answering questions and moved away from the more structured part of his talk.

The panel on Walking Dead, “The Talking Dead: Voicing a Dynamic Narrative”, was excellent. If for no other reason, then simply because it was so damn charming, fun and with such a wonderfully engaging energy & chemistry.

Oh, and Dave Fennoy (the voice of Lee):

Susan O’Connor did a very bold & inspiring talk entirely without slides, titled “Play It Again, Sam: How To Connect With Your Audience”.

Richard Lemarchand talked about his transition from AAA-designer at Naughty Dog to teaching at USC Interactive Media Division.

Then there’s Ste Curran. His talk was more of an artistic performance than merely a talk.

And he somehow managed to talk passionately about this (and with a good point as well):

Patterns

At conferences, I always try to find patterns.

One such pattern has to do with control.

Rapid technological development has frequently been said to allow game developers to acquire increased control of their work, and this was touched upon by several speakers.

The growing importance of new funding opportunities (Kickstarter & crowdfunding most notably) is also known to play a part in the shift.

As a contrast to this, several speakers also encouraged embracing a lack of control.

On a more philosopical level, many speakers were talking about games, play & life.

Lemarchand also credited Amy Hennig for learning the importance of vulnerability

This resonated with O’Connor:

This reminds me of Ian Bogost‘s review of Jane McGonigal‘s “Reality is Broken” titled “Reality is alright“.

See, I don’t think reality is broken. It’s messed up and horrifying, sure, but we don’t get to fix it, ever. It’s flawed and messy and delightful and repellent and stunning. Reality is alright. And I don’t think games are happiness engines, either. They are complex, rusty machines built to show us that the world is so much bigger and weirder than we expected. I play games to remind me of this.

I’m pretty sure games can’t save the world, but they may very well help us understand it just a little bit better.

I would certainly love to see more games try.

Space for improvement?

As stated multiple times, I love being at NGC. I love the atmosphere, and I find many nuggets of inspiration.

Even so, there’s always things to improve.

First off, the BlackBerry commercial running before every talk in the largest theatre was way too intrusive, and often felt like it “invaded” the actual talk.

Also, people are hungry at conferences.

Some people wished for more technical talks, and I can see why (though I probably wouldn’t attend those myself).

I also tend to agree with people, who wanted more surprising talks; a thing we discussed afterwards on Twitter:

Particularly Christian’s criticism made me instantly think of a piece written by Michael Abbott (@brainygamer) last year:

“But as we’ve waited for games to “grow up” and claim their cultural place in the sun, the medium has broadened and deepened beyond our ability to discern it. In other words, as we’ve struggled to affix labels like “art game” and “experiential game” to a broad stylistic spectrum, game makers – mostly, but not exclusively, in the indie space – continue to push ahead, challenging us to keep up and find new ways to critically engage.”

This discussion now continues different places, and it seems people from Nordic Game are actively pursuing it, which I can only applaud.

It’s a wrap

This year I had the chance to contribute a bit myself (beside the gazillion tweets, that comes pouring out of me at conferences), as Thomas Vigild had invited me to be part of the closing session with him & Simon Parkin.

It was great fun & people generally seemed to appreciate the effort:

If we’re allowed back next year, there’s lots of interesting possibilities to iterate on the concept. Perhaps even make it a little less improvisational?

Me – Ph.D?

It’s funny, how even fundamental things change so rapidly.

A few weeks ago, I was very happy with my life as an edu-entrepreneur (and I certainly still am!).

Then, out of the blue, I’m encouraged to apply for a Ph.D.

I’m very much in doubt, but simultaneously very intrigued by the idea.

I think about it, considering my options.

“How do I build the best possible foundation for my continued work and contributions to the field of education?”

I love adventures!
Did I remember to say, that I love adventures?

There’s no one answer, of course, but I’m aware, that the Ph.D.-appraoch would certainly grant me valuable opportunities.

I decide to give it a shot.

Hey, “immer ein abenteuer”, right?

The perpetual adventure that is life.

Now, the project is split between The Animation Workshop (part of Via University College) and Aalborg Universty (in Copenhagen). First, there’s an internal deadline in VIA, where they have to select their candidates, followed by the “real” deadline with the The Danish Council for Independent Research. It’s all just a few short weeks down the line.

I write an early brainstorm, and, in continuation of my many attempts to promote “transparent communication”, I throw it out there for people to comment upon.

I receive much valuable feedback, and in a few hectic days, I write a very, very rough draft.

The other day, I learned that the internal selection in VIA didn’t turn out in my favor.

No reason to lie; being turned down is never fun.

It just isn’t.

The decision seems to have been more influenced by internal politics than the content of the applications, and even though that’s a bit frustrating, it’s the way it is. I somehow understand.

A few weeks ago, I didn’t even want a Ph.D. Now I don’t want to give up the idea.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned by being self-employed for the last five years, it is to be stubborn. Too stubborn, some might say. It’s just…I don’t care much for giving up.

There’s always another way. Sometimes you’ll just need to look a little harder, dig a little deeper.

That’s ok.

I like digging.

So now I’m investigating these other ways.

I’m not interested in doing a PhD at any cost. Not at all. Many things need to be “right” for it to make sense, and the project itself needs to be defined (primarily) by me. If not, then I’ll spend my time on something else. I’m not looking for a job, I’m just (always) looking for ways to learn, and become better at what I and want to continue doing: challenge and improve education.

I might be a bit naive here, but I’m putting some effort into that; remaining naive, and a tad idealistic.

I don’t care about jobs or careers.

I care about A) having fun & B) improving the world (however slightly).

Post scriptum

“But what is it that I want to research”, you might ask.

That’s a fair question, considering you’ve read this far.

If you want details, you’re welcome to read the application.

In short, I want to find out, what game developers can teach us about working with game development, creativity, innovation & entrepreneurship in education. Can we build a model for game development together with actual game developers – and can this approach contribute to the (as I see it, necessary) transformation of education?:

the project also operates with a broader scope, studying to what extent this transformed role of teachers and students can inspire both groups to perceive themselves as creative entrepreneurs capable of designing and developing innovative solutions.

 

The distance between vision & practice

I’m a pretty big fan of ol’ Bruce. First off, he’s a bloody fantastic showman. Few (if any?) are able to consistently keep up that incredible level of performance throughout an incomprehensible number of shows. I’m not exactly working in music, but I would sure as hell love to aspire for the same level of performance in my own work.

In addition, he’s somehow succeeded in maintaining integrity and credibility over all these years. I wouldn’t know if his indignation is entirely real (as I obviously don’t know the man), but I absolutely believe so. He’s simply that convincing.

I love the connection between young Bruce & old(er) Bruce made in the pretty great documentary “The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town“. It shows a young man looking forward, and an older man looking back. They amazingly seem to want the same thing:

More than rich, more than famous, more than happy – I wanted to be great

So much to learn from this guy. In the movie, he also states that:

My work has always been about judging the distance between the American reality and the American dream… I’m always measuring that distance: how close are we, how far are we

And here we are, arriving at the core of this post: judging the distance between the way the world is, and the way it could/should be.

This is the way I work (or, to maintain the above logic, the way I should work).

Education is difficult. Which is why I like it.

Changing education is difficult to the degree, that many highly competent people don’t bother.

It’s simply too hard.

What interests me the most, working in this field, is judging the distance between what education is, and what education should be.

Where are we?

Where do we want to go?

How do we get there?

It’s always a matter of oscillating between practice and vision. Between what happens and can happen in educcational practice, and what we, on a visionary level, would like to achieve.

Vision

I’m not interested in engaging only with grand visions, nor am I interested in exlusively working with practice.

The space between the two, however, is where I want to be.

Rebellion underway?

I’ve been tweeting a bit about my current and future plans lately. Things are (as always) a bit exploratory and not completely decided.

Kinda how I like it.

It’s just that I’ve been feeling a bit stuck, and somewhat low on energy, and that, I don’t like. Not one bit.

Luckily, such situations always makes me come up with fresh new ideas and approaches, and I’m already well underway in exploring several exciting possibilities.

Whenever I find myself in a situation like this, I try to boil it all down to the bare essentials.

What do I like to do? How do I want to work in the future?

I’m identifying some basic guiding principles right now, and I’ll be writing about some of these in the coming weeks. For now, I’ll just say, that this (also) inspired me:

I like to see myself as a rebel (at least to a degree).

I’m not too good with accepting status quo if I see better solutions, and I like challenging established schools of thought. I don’t care about arguments build on tradition – “we do this, because we’ve been doing this for years…”.

If that’s an argument for anything, it’s an argument for contemplating change.

I think we need more people in education (and in general) to be or become rebels.

Don’t accept bad solutions founded in tradition. Don’t neglect what’s important (e.g. creativity, passion, innovation) because rigid structures seem to prohibit such pursuit by focusing narrowly on things that are less important (e.g. testing & control).

We need change, and we need a large group of people willing to instigate such change.

In short, we need rebels.

 

Reading Mass Effect

So I just finished playing Mass Effect (5 years to late, some would say), and as my #140game review above goes to show, I really appreciated the experience – much to my own surprise. While the game has its flaws, it offers such a compelling universe with enormous scope, rich cast of interesting characters, exciting storylines and meticolously detailed backstory, that I was entirely engrossed (almost) from start to finish.

As with any game I play, ME had me thinking about the connection between games, game design and learning. Obviously, ME is not a learning game in any traditional sense, but this doesn’t prevent me from eagerly learning a great deal while playing.

Allow me to take a little detour.

A few days ago, I attended an “innovation camp”, where groups of students from Denmark, Sweden and Germany were tasked with developing game concepts along with business & marketing plans etc. I gave a talk, in which I tried to provide inspiration and broaden the scope, so these students would have a slightly better foundation for creating innovative concepts, also outside the realm of “entertainment games” (you can see my presentation here). Alongside a bunch of general considerations and various examples on how learning is core to playing games, I also talked a little about my own experiences playing Mass Effect. I talked about how I was driving around strange planets looking for valuable minerals and how I was talking to even the most peripheral characters. When seen from the outside, most of what you do in a game like Mass Effect seems trivial, boring, silly, a waste of time. While absorbed in the game, however, it’s a completely different story and learning even the weirdest things make perfect sense.

In continuation of these ponderings, I received this very interesting reply to the above tweet:

What Justin Eames is touching upon here, obviously, is the question if games like Mass Effect and other games with large amounts of text foster better reading skills?

My immediate reply:

Of course, there’s a huge difference between correlation and causation. I don’t know for sure whether or not there’s any link whatsoever between the abundance of text in RPGs and players of those games being good readers (I don’t even know if they are). If indeed there’s a link, it might be for all sorts of reasons, e.g., as suggested, that games with much text cater to strong readers. In continuation, games are no magic cure to easily ensuring highly developed reading skills.

Despite those usual disclaimers, I find that my concrete experience playing Mass Effect do tell me several things about learning, not least in relation to reading. What a game like ME does, is that it creates a context, in which the actions you perform in the game makes sense to you as a player (I’ve written several times about the importance of context). Mass Effect encourages players to read as a part of progressing through the game, and, at least to an extent, reading is a natural component of playing. I mean, you don’t have to read through the very elaborate codex, but I felt it made a valuable contribution to my play experience. Spending 20+ hours playing (and that’s just the first game of three), I would like to know a little more about the backstory.

The Mass Effect Codex

You don’t play to read, but you read to play, and to further enrichen the experience of playing.

This is interesting at two levels:

Using actual games in education to support learning in relation to the game (as with reading in Mass Effect), and/or using games as inspiration for designing the context around learning in education. Learning in education should to a much larger extent be embedded in a context, in which the actions of the learners are experienced as relevant and meaningful.

Any concrete experiences with this? Harnessing the context of a game to support improving reading? Or any other skills and/or competences? Or designing education along the lines of games?

Are schools tutorials for life?

Most people playing video games probably know about tutorials, for both good and bad. Basically, tutorials exist to teach players how to play a game.

Some tutorials are removed from the actual game, and sometimes you don’t even get to play a tutorial, but merely read about how to play. In other cases, the tutorial is tightly integrated with the actual game, and you may not even notice, that you’re playing a tutorial.

In their essence, tutorials are always about learning, and thus I’d argue that designing good tutorials have important things to tell us about designing good educations.

Many game developers are talented at designing tutorials that work really well, and one such developer, PopCap, did a presentation on the topic at the recent Game Developers Conference, covered by Gamasutra. Reading about how PopCap eminently designed the tutorial for the absolutely hilarious, wacky Plants vs Zombies, I couldn’t help but wonder:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/#!/mathiaspoulsen/status/180661490536292352″]

A tutorial prepares you to participate in and master the game, whereas school prepares you to particpate in and master life (at least in my ideal perception of school). So we might say that a tutorial is to a game, what school is to life, right?

Let’s look at PopCap’s ten principles for designing great tutorials in games:

  1. Blend the tutorial into the game
  2. Better to have the player “do” than “read”
  3. Spread out the teaching of game mechanics
  4. Just get the player to do it once
  5. Use fewer words
  6. Use unobtrusive messaging if possible
  7. Use adaptive messaging
  8. Don’t create noise
  9. Use visuals to teach
  10. Leverage what people already know

Some are more specific to games than others, but just looking at the first two reminds me of a few of the most prominent flaws of most of todays educations.

The first one might be the one which resonated the most with me. I often talk about how education should not be isolated from society, but rather be an active part of the world, influencing the society we live in (for instance here & here). When a tutorial is disintegrated from the game, it is most often boring, the lessons learned are difficult to apply, and it all seems a bit abstract. The same goes for school being disintegrated from society. Lessons become abstract, difficult to apply and – too often – boring. Useless is a strong word, but we might in too many cases be moving in that direction, sadly.

The second principle lies in direct continuation, stating that we shouldn’t merely read about how to play a game, but rather just be allowed to actually play the game. As regards school, we shouldn’t just read about how this or that aspect of the world works (or be exposed to traditional one-way teaching), but we should rather explore and interact with that world – do something in the world.

I like thinking about schools as a tutorial to life, and I think there’s some quite valuable lessons to learn here.

Oh, and if you haven’t yet played this insane & terrific game, you’re in for a treat (and it’s available on iOS, Android, PC, MAC, Windows Phone and a whole bunch of other platforms or right here in your browser)

Serious games are just…games

I keep delving into the different issues clinging to the field of serious games.

I keep pondering whether or not serious games are the right approach to game based learning.

First and foremost, though, I keep wondering why serious games are not better games.

Serious games should be no less “gamey” than any good game out there.

Let’s up the ante, raising the bar even further.

Serious games should be able to go toe-to-toe with any good game out there.

I recently read Serious Games “Ought to be Focusing as Much on the Gaming Aspects as on the Message”, in which Nordine Ghachi points very much in the same direction:

[blockquote]I don’t think that serious games are under threat, quite the opposite. Their time will have really come when serious game creators start according at least the same level of importance to the video gaming potential as to the “serious” message that the game is trying to get across. Let’s imagine a serious game that is so well designed, such a fun game and so addictive that it creates the sort of buzz that Uncharted 3 (Playstation) for instance is doing at the moment[/blockquote]

To get there, it’s important that we shift our focus, and design games where learning is much more as described in The Play’s The Thing:

[blockquote]Many popular games teach important skills and convey valuable knowledge, not in a heavy-handed “pay attention, you’re about to learn something” way, but through the intrinsic challenge-based, problem-solving, storytelling, and, oh yes, fun nature of the games themselves[/blockquote]

Uncharted might be an intimidating example, as developer Naughty Dog is consistently hailed for incredible production value, great voice-acting, effective storytelling and so on. It’s terribly linear, yes, but most players still find it terribly enjoyable (this player included).

That’s exactly why it’s a great example, reminding developers to aim high.

“But there’s not enough money in making serious games, severely limiting what you can do”.

At least two answers to that.

First off, you don’t need to mirror the scope and production values of Uncharted; just the  ambition to actually create a blast of a game, which people really, intensely want to play. Such experiences are not determined by your budget, but by your creativity and skills as a game designer. Indies are great examples of this, never reaching the budgets nor mainstream appeal of Uncharted or Modern Warfare, but providing one fantastic, innovative, surprising hit after another.

Secondly, you could consider changing your perception of your end users.

Usually, developers of serious games have a relatively limited target audience – be it education, corporate training, political campaigns or what have you. Sometimes the game is a direct response to a client, sometimes developers create their own serious game IP. Either way, the market is quite small.

If your game is actually good enough, you should be able to break free of this self-imposed limitation. If your game is as good as any game, you should not consider some educational niche your only possible outlet.

Why not make games for everyone to enjoy?

Make good games, that people actually want to play.

If the game also fulfils specific learning purposes, that’s a nice bonus, but that shouldn’t come first, really.

My 2012

2011 is rapidly drawing to a close, and even though I’m knee-deep in unfinished business, I’ll quickly throw a few pointers for the year ahead of us.

I’m usually most keen to be looking forwards, but a quick glance at current projects might be relevant:

[list style=’1′] [li color=’#0000ee’]As some of you may know, I’ve been working with GameIT College in Grenaa, Denmark, for some time and happily continue this splendid tradition.  It’s a bunch of passionate, inspiring people working with games in so many different ways, that I’m at a loss describing it in brief. In short, it’s an upper secondary education, where we do our best to include games as frequently and as qualified as possible. [/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]Springing from this longstanding collaboration, I’ve been enrolled in the project titled “Scandinavian Game Developers“, where we aim to explore and develop better possibilities for entrepreneurs in the game industry. Oh, and of course I couldn’t help but start tweeting – as @scangame.[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]Since September, I’ve been working with Trine Juul Røttig and several other good people to “translate” the very inspiring twitter-phenomenon “edchat” into a Danish equivalent. Trine dubbed it #skolechat, and I quickly followed suit, made skolechat.dk and since then we’ve been having weekly chats on issues related to education in Denmark[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]I’ll continue to be working with the terrific people in the Danish Game Council to explore how we can keep improving the way we write and talk about video games.[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]I’ve been working with the main public library here in Aarhus, experimenting with the role of games in the library, and I hope we’ll be able to keep collaborating in 2012 and beyond. [/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]We’ve been doing the initial groundwork for establishing a less fragmented, more transparent environment and network for people working with and interested in games in Aarhus and the middle region of Jutland. Without knowing the exact solution, we’ll keep working on this[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]I keep writing. I’ll never stop writing. Here on the blog, on other blogs, articles for relevant contexts, chapters and so on. I love writing. [/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]Without knowing the frequency, I’ll also be giving a number of talks on games, digital media, learning, entrepreneurship and stuff like that, and I always welcome invitations to talk about things I’m interested in (and know a little about)[/li][/list]

Somewhere in between those exciting activities (and playing as many games as possible), I seem to have a little extra time (don’t ask where I found it). I could just choose to spend that time relaxing, of course, but that’s not really my style. Instead, I’d like to venture into new territory of some kind. I need to keep evolving, keep challenging myself, keep seeing the world from new perspectives.

Here’s an idea.

Why don’t you help me spend that time the best possible way?

I’m always up for a challenge, I love surprises, and I’m all for experimentation, so any suggestion is welcome. If you want inspiration, here’s some of the areas I would like to explore further – in random order:

[list style=’1′] [li color=’#0000ee’]Teacher education & supplementary training in relation to games, digital media etc[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]Games & libraries[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]Games & entrepreneurship[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]Promoting sharing & transparency – anywhere[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]Facilitating creative partnerships across organizational/disciplinary boundaries[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]Developing games for learning (that is, no coding done by me)[/li] [li color=’#0000ee’]Designing work/learning more along the lines of good games (yes, call it gamification if you must, just remember, that it’s not about creating extrinsic rewards for stupid tasks. On the contrary, it’s about creating intrinsic motivation for meaningful tasks.[/li][/list]

We’re the stupid ones!

Most people working within education are probably familiar with the widespread notion, that during the recent decades, students have been growing less and less intelligent.

Students today, it is said, are simply dumber than they used to be.

To me, this is nothing but self-deception.

Using the “stupid students argument”, we keep reaffirming ourselves, that what we do is not the problem.

Students are.

We’ve been doing like this for years, so why should it suddenly be wrong? Isn’t it just a matter of trying harder? Of making students today understand, that they must align with our methods, our perspectives, our way of thinking?

No.

Why?

Eactly because we’ve been doing like this for years and the world is not a static place.

However condescendingly obvious and self-evident this may seem, we haven’t really accepted it in education.

Yes, we have acknowledged, that there’s something called the internet and that computers may have a contribution to make.

But we’ve been obsessively trying to apply ICT as tools to reach the same goals in more or less the same ways.

What we need is a radical change.

If students appear to be stupid, it’s because we force them into a structure, which frames them as stupid. A framework, where they’re not recognised as the humans and students they are, but as the humans and students we would like them to be. This image, this persona, is, however, a retrospect. It’s a thing of the past.

We (as individuals, as schools, as entire educational system) should be self-reflective enough to look inwards when we encounter problems. We have the power to redesign education, to make it relevant, and we should be willing to accept, that the responsibility lies with us.

Why don’t we dare to do that? Why are we so eager to blame the students?

Students are not the stupid ones.

We are.


Credits: Nick Dewar

Can students save the world?

Due to my huge interest in “games as learning machines“, I’ve been actively pursuing the idea of “challenge based learning” for some time now. In short, good games build a framework for exactly that – challenge based learning. Players are tasked with numerous challenges, and they must learn what is required to overcome those challenges in order to play the game.

At the same time, education is all too often not about facing challenges and solving problems (as I lamented on recently) and we tend to forget the importance of doing things in a context. Rather, it’s about learning subject matter in relative isolation and with no immediate application.

“Why are we learning this? – Oh, because the central curriculum states its importance”.

Luckily, we’re currently seeing many movements arguing in favor of radical change. Education needs to find a more healthy and dynamic relationship with society, and one where students are allowed a role in shaping and improving the world around them. Why do we instinctively believe, that we have to be socialised through education for 10-15 years before we have any contributions to make? Why don’t we allow students to “make a dent in the universe”, as Steve Jobs famously described our reason for existing. Isn’t it in a way disrespectful to treat our young generations like this, stowing them away in classes where they can cause no harm? Couldn’t we make better use of students as valuable resources in our ongoing pursuit for a better world?

Are we really just afraid, that they can do better than us?

One ambitious and interesting project, initiated by The New Media Consortium in partnership with Apple Education, is appropriately titled “Challenge Based Learning” and intends to explore and promote the idea of linking learning to concrete real-world challenges:

Yes, the video is only showing a very polished image of the actual projects, yet I’m repeatedly impressed and touched by the kid in the end. It really says it all, and better than I possibly could.

A new report is out, where the project studies are described in more detail:

CBL makes learning relevant by giving kids problems big enough so that they have to learn new ideas and tools to solve them, but immediate enough so that they care deeply that solutions are found. Young people want to solve real problems, and that is exactly what challenge based learning is designed to do — give students and teachers a framework that makes learning relevant, and then let them dive in

Can students really save the world, then?

Maybe not, but we should definitely create more meaningful educations, which, in the very least, allow them to try.