The Games, Learning, and Society Conference: The Conversations

One of the best parts of a face-to-face conference, if not the best part, is the opportunity to strike up conversations with the presenters and attendees, who often have as much or more to offer each other than the presenters. This post is about some of the conversations I was able to enjoy while in Madison, Wisconsin at the Games, Learning, and Society Conference this week. Unfortunately, at the Education Arcade Conference last month, though the content was of a similar quality,the opportunities for interaction were severely limited. Thankfully, and it is a credit to the organizers, the GLS conference was very different (the sessions were intereactive – and all meals were had as a community) , so I got to speak to many people who helped further shape my thoughts about games in education.

Speaking of the organizers, I set out to the with explicit goal of being able to meet and chat with Constance Steinkuehler a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who has been studying “the forms of learning, thinking, and socially interacting that MMOGs recruit from those who play.” Her dissertation (currently in progress) “is an online cognitive ethnography of MMOGs that characterizes the emergent culture of MMOGaming and how participation is constituted through language and practice both within the game (e.g., virtual social interaction & joint activity) and beyond (e.g., the creation of fan fiction & websites).” Her work is well respected and the university is hiring her on faculty in the fall. When I met James Paul Gee at the University of California at Irvine after a talk he delivered a few months ago, I got the chance to tell him what I am studying (the potential of MMORPGs to serve as constructivist learning environments) and he suggested I might want to talk with Constance.

I got to briefly introduce myself to her after she spoke at the Education Arcade conference, but she was still working on her dissertation at the time and was not very accessible. It was silly of me to think she might be more accessible when she was running a conference, and indeed the only conversation I had with her was a very brief one at the bar during the community dinner Thursday night. I was able to reintroduce myself to her (at least I looked familiar to her), and after I explained what I am studying, she said “we’re going to take over the world.” She swore (three times) she be right back, but I soon moved on to watching people from all over the country (and world!) try to play horseshoes. So I’ve finally broken down and emailed her to try soliciting some more academic discourse… at her convenience. :) Ultimately, though this wasn’t a good conversation, it makes a good story (that could only have happened face to face), and it serves as a lesson learned, as well.

Of course, I was also able to have some great conversations with several other presenters, exhibitors, and attendees, such as Christian Sebastian Loh, assistant professor of Instructional Design and Technology at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. He and I shared reflections about the conference several times over the two days.

One of the most exciting people I got to speak with was David McDevitt, a practicing high school social studies teacher who was involved in a pilot of Muzzy Lane’s new educational game Making History. He presented during the first session I attended, the “Managed Gaming in the College and High School Classroom: Best Practices” symposium. His was some of the only work being done “in the trenches” of a public k-12 school, and I really appreciated his perspective:

One thing that I have come to realize
over the past few days is that there are many more people interested in
this than I would have ever thought. My plan while Beta testing the
game was just to make my classroom better and more exciting for high
school sophomores. I had no motives other than that. However, since
the testing I have come to find out that I seem to be ahead of the game
a little on this venture. I would have never known! (From a response he sent to my e-mail follow up after the conference.)

And, in the continuing tradition of surprising connections my research is creating for me, he had some great advice for me when I mentioned I would be completing my final residency in Bloomington, Indiana this summer:

Most importantly–I spent some of the most fun years of my life in
Bloomington. Make sure to visit Nick’s. It is a good hang out. Also,
the Irish Lion is a great place to get a drink. Neither is a huge
“college” hang out. Both a bit more quiet and adult in the behavior of

In the next session, Cory Ondrejka and James Cook of Linden Lab presented their thoughts on how “user creation changes everything” and at the very end snuck in a few gems… there is a Second Life “campus program” for teachers and their students to have access to the game, but of course this is only available to those over 18… BUT, they just non-challantly mentioned off hand that there is now a Teen Grid parallel version of Second Life for 13 to 17 year olds! When I spoke to them afterwards they referred me to Robin Harper who heads both projects.

The next morning I was lucky enough to be sitting with Cory and James at the “Leveraging virtual Omniscience: Mixed Methodologies for Studying Social Life in Persistent Online Worlds” session. In this workshop, Robert Moore, Nicholas Ducheneaut, & Eric Nickell shared their methods for researching social phenomenon inside the MMORPG Star Wars Galaxies (SWG). They then gave each table at the workshop a DVD with 30 minutes of video and system logs, the raw data from their research. They guided us through asking probing questions about the social space and using our computers to make sense of the data in an attempt to answer the questions. It was an ideal example of how to make a face to face session worth flying to Wisconsin for!

What happened at that table left me with a much greater understanding of the presenter’s work, and it was something that could only have happened with the particular combination of people sitting there. In an effort to analyze the frequency of the word “please” in SWG, Cory did some amazing work at the command line, James helped and generated some helpful graphs, the woman next to me (who I am pretty sure was Megan S. Conklin) insightfully analyzed the video (and gave me a hand at a crucial time), while I spent most of my time on Google and crunching numbers. We were able to make some preliminary (and very rough) conclusions by the end of the session: 99.99% of the chat happening in the scene we saw was generated by automated adds, these adds had a frequency of please 200 times higher than ordinary “task oriented discourse”, and the remaining chat had a frequency still twice as high as “usual.” From this we were able to theorize about why this might be. I suppose the specifics of these results are not so important in the context of this post, but the experience gave me great insight into what the researchers were up to… to the point where I am obviously proud of my work at that table during those 15 to 20 minutes.

It wasn’t only the sessions that generated great conversations for me, but also the interactive exhibits in the exhibit hall. There I met Fiona Littleton, who hails from Ireland, but studies in Scotland. Later, during a community trip to enjoy some Wisconsin beer at the beautiful University Union Terace, I got to speak with her a bit about her research into the differences in learning style between gamers and non-gamers. Her research was focused on college students, and I hope to be able to correspond with her about it’s generalizability to k-12, or at least high school, students.

An another exciting exhibitor was Perry McDowell, who was demonstrating Delta 3D, a well-supported and fully-funded open source game engine appropriate for a wide variety of modeling & simulation applications (training, education, visualizations, and entertainment). The demo’s are beautiful, but I did not get a chance to see the creation tools, and I wonder how accessible the system will be to k12 teachers and students, if at all. I think this sort of solution will be the only way that teacher-customizable games will make it into the classroom, so it gives me a great deal of hope to see it, even if it still requires too many technical skills at this point.

I spoke with Jeremiah Dibley and Donna Hardie, of pullUin software. These were some of the folks that were interested in my position at the OCDE, and it seems I will be able to demo some of their software as part of my “Video Games in Education” class in August.

Ann McDonald was another one of these people and I hope to be able to use her amazing jellies software, created by Jay Laird, of Metaversal Studios.

Meeting the presenters and exhibitors was great, but some of my greatest connections happened entirely socially. I was lucky enough to meet Brock Dubbels from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, who is also a practicing classroom teacher. He actually offers a class in Video Games as Tools for Educators at the university! I was able to chat with him during the dinner event, and then after at the Union Terrace, on Thursday night. I’m sure it will be good to correspond with him about his ideas leading up to my (now seemingly far too short) three hour class in August.

The same evening I met Coe Leta Stafford, who was actually a presenter (but I didn’t make it to her session), and with whom I had one of my best discussions so far about the new role of face to face instruction. She pushed back on my ideas well, and I’m not sure she totally agreed with me, though I would think she is the kind of person who would in this case. I came away with the sense that I need to be able to articulate these ideas better… and better support them… perhaps with research eventually, though this will almost certainly need to wait until after August 2006. This research might even be something I could work with my brother James (mentioned in the post linked above).

I’m recalling just now that Coe Leta introduced herself by explaining that her mother made up her name. What a boon in today’s Google driven world! (Apparently she was recently married, because you will find references to Coe Leta Finke, and this is her.) Mark Wagner, on the other hand, is a depressingly common name!

Another meeting that would not have happened if I did not fly out to Wisconsin was my brief conversation with Kristin Pilner Blair, who works at Stanford with teachable agents… the idea being that students might learn best by teaching content to computers! I had missed her presentation (and so had she it turned out – on account of not feeling well), but I got to chat with her briefly in the shuttle to the airport in Madison.

Perhaps my most exciting conversation, though one of the most brief, occurred over lunch the first day of the conference. I sat at a table next to Jay Lemke and a grad student of his named Andrew. I spoke with Andrew for most of the meal, but Jim Gee, Betty Hayes, and Marc Prensky were at the table as well. I have been wanting to meet and chat with Marc, but hadn’t attended any of his sessions this time around, and hadn’t had occasion to enter into conversation with him until I overhead the reaction of some teachers to his talk on “When and How Can Game-Based Learning Eliminate the Need for Teachers in Certain Areas?” (which had been just prior to lunch). I was able to chat briefly with him about the role of games in k12 education and to bring up the class that I am planning for August. Happily, he was interested enough to point me in the direction of some of his most recent writings, and to hand me his card. I hadn’t remembered to stock up before I left, so I burned my last one on him. I hope I’ll be able to correspond with him about the class, and perhaps about growing a games in education program at the OCDE.

Well, I will probably not get this kind of time for blogging this week, as I have to complete a draft of my next paper by Sunday to stay on schedule, but perhaps I will post smaller reflections between now and next weekend. I apologize for the length of this one if you’ve stuck in there long enough to learn I got to meet Prensky. ;)

Thanks for reading.


PS. Jason, I didn’t look forward to checking all the links in this post!

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