A few weekends ago, I had the opportunity to attend the ThatCamp Games conference in College Park, Md. I was excited to attend for many reasons, not the least of which was the opportunity to present some of my ideas on the areas where writing overlaps with games (some of which can be found in my post on video games and assignment design.) I came away from the experience with a renewed interest in games and a bunch of ideas on new applications for bringing them into education.
For those unfamiliar with the ThatCamp format, the conference consists of a series of hour-long workshops on something within the realm of digital humanities. The rest of the conference follows an unconference format, where panels are proposed via blog posts leading up to the conference and then conference attendees vote on which panels they’d like to see run. A quick schedule is then drawn up and everyone heads off to individual panels, which turn into seminar classes with a few folks who are knowledgeable in the area setting the direction for a discussion that then proceeds from there.
Because of the open format, I had very little idea of what to expect. My interest in games is only one of many areas where I read research, but I’d hardly call myself a specialist. In other words, I knew I had a lot to learn.
The fortunate thing about having a bunch of tech savvy people around at a conference is that they find ways to simplify the process of sharing information. For that reason, I’m avoiding recounting the entire experience and just hitting the highlights. Anyone who wishes to learn more though can find other write ups, archived tweets, and notes from each session on the ThatCamp Games website. (The mention of the website also gives me the opportunity to celebrate the tremendous amount of good work done for the conference by its two organizers extraordinaire, Anastasia Salter and Amanda Visconti.)
The entire first day of the conference consisted of 75-minute long bootcamps, each of which was run by an expert in one particular field. I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to run one of these, and even more fortunate to be able to present my bootcamp in the first slot of the conference, which left the rest of the conference for me to relax and take everything in. The next day I found myself wandering around to a number of sessions on games in the humanities classrooms. By the end of the conference, I was overwhelmed and grateful that someone else had been taking notes that I could eventually go back and consult.
The word iteration came up time and time again, and of all the lessons I took away from the conference, it had the most meaning for me in my job and my position. Because I see my role as getting students to deliberately practice the skill of writing, the idea that game designers were so interested in iteration struck a chord with me. (As a side note, I should also say that the fact that so many game designers were there and willing to talk to teachers like me was also one of the pleasant surprises of the conference.) In one of the Bootcamps discussing the Arcane Gallery of Gadgetry, an ARG tied into the US patent office, the organizers spoke about designing a series of puzzles that grade school children would solve to learn how to eventually solve puzzles tied into the game. Another bootcamp run by Nathan Maton had us redesigning Tic Tac Toe to turn it into a three player game. Within that session, I found out the joys of playtesting a game you designed on your own, making small tweaks to the rules to provide a balance that allows all players equal chances of succeeding. Those experiences made me think about that I need to rethink how I go at getting students to repeat stages of the writing process.
I also had no idea how many game studies organizations there were in the United States where students can go and study the culture of games or learn to design games themselves. Talking with some of the people involved with these programs, I found it fascinating how these programs provide most of the basics that any liberal arts college experience would in terms of general education in the context of games. I can imagine that the programs provide many more opportunities for critical thinking as students have a direct context to apply their knowledge to.
One pleasant surprise was the absence of any real lengthy discussion on the potential evils of gamification and exploitationware. My take on the issue is that games are incredibly powerful because they are forged and hardened with great design and years of playtesting. Through that process they have developed a deep understanding of genuine motivation, an understanding education frequently lacks. Given the potential ways for designing games that misuse gamers’ attention for less than productive means, I can understand the suspicions of those folks who want to preserve parts of the game playing experience that makes it what it is. I especially can see how making games a part of a classroom and compelling students to participate removes the voluntary nature of most games (and the agency that comes from that type of participation.) Still, I find nothing wrong with sitting back, looking at a game’s design, and breaking down the elements in ways that allow me to use it in other context. Given the amount I heard during the weekend about the great difficulties involved with designing and running a great game, I imagine that such c0optation is much harder than it looks.
Overall, I came away from the conference feeling overwhelmed by how much more I could learn about games and their application to education. The conference could have easily gone on for another few days without repeating topics. There are a lot of smart people out there and their contributions can be found on the ThatCamp Games website. The idea that they’re all working and interested in making education a more engaging and enjoyable place for students is a pretty amazing thought.
As for the future in Writing and Games, the three biggest areas that I think need continued exploration are designing assignments with meaningful staging, finding ways to get students motivated to practice their own writing, and finding ways to help students find the benefits of the kind of immediate feedback that games provide. Those are all difficult challenges. Many students have a writing process that is rigid and inflexible, and consequently, they write from the first line to the last and do little real revising. When they do break an assignment into parts, those parts are usually artificially drawn and don’t reflect a real thinking process. For example, when students submit their thesis before the paper is written, it ignores the fact that students will learn a lot more writing about their topic and would thus be better able to write a thesis at the very end. Feedback will always remain difficult because of the evidence out there that students don’t always read feedback and when they do, they often don’t apply it to their next project. All of these are topics that I want to consider in future posts.