Meaningful Play 2012

For the past 4 days I have been attending the Meaningful Play 2012 conference. MP is an interesting mix of game design and game analysis, with a heavy focus on serious games, games for learning, games for impact, or whatever you want to call them. The 2012 proceedings are available online, but surprisingly not linked off the main page. I was there presenting our paper Beyond kWh: Myths and fixes for energy competition game design, which explains the counter-intuitive energy use from the 2011 UH Kukui Cup, and our investigation into the methodology of energy competitions in general. I also demoed the Kukui Cup at the MP game demo session, and there were a lot of good games there.

The following are some quick thoughts on the conference from my perspective, with special emphasis on things relevant to our work on the Kukui Cup and serious games for sustainability.

Donald Brinkman from from Microsoft Research gave the opening keynote. He’s one of the leaders of the Just Press Play project, which is a game experience for game design students at RIT intended to reduce student attrition and increase interaction between students. There are many parallels between Just Press Play and the Kukui Cup: players can earn achievements for certain actions, there are real world events that players can get credit for attending. They originally handed out 25 digit attendance codes on cards, but players were (understandably) not pleased about typing in long codes to get their achievements. Their latest iteration of the system gives a QR code to each player, and admins scan the codes using a smartphone app in order to award achievements. This is a nice solution to the problem, though I wonder how many students will forget or lose their QR code. I have a feeling that would be a problem at UHM, where many students seem to wander the area around the residence halls with just their ID card and keycard. I’m also curious to see how the heavy emphasis on badges, with no points or leaderboard will play out. Once you have many badges, I worry it will make badges somewhat meaningless (see Achievement Unlocked 2).

One aspect of the Kukui Cup that we have sometimes bemoaned is the fact that it is optional, and so only a portion of the 1000+ residents in Hale Aloha participate. However, something that came up many times during the conference is the idea that being optional is good. In fact, some presenters believe that mandatory play is not really play at all.

There was a presentation by Steven Dodds, Carrie Heeter, and Andy Simon about civic gaming in San Jose that really piqued my interest. The team presenting have run “budget games” where small groups sit at a table and have to make decisions about what city projects to fund, which to cut, and how to raise revenue. The results of the games have then been largely incorporated into the mayor’s budget request! The most fun workshop I attended was titled “Pervasive and Environmental Game Design” by Jeff Watson from USC. The topic was really about games for action: instead of simulating the world or telling players how to change it, make the game actually be about taking action. The audience was broken up into small teams, and given the objective of creating a working game prototype that addressed some issue regarding the MP conference itself. Our team designed a game intended to increase the networking at the conference, which we called Network Bingo, where each player has to collect business cards from other attendees, and try to fill up a bingo card with organizational roles across the top (student, professor, designer, etc) and application area going down (health, sustainability, etc). We didn’t quite get to the point where we had a playable prototype (only one team did), but the experience was awesome and opened me up to new possibilities in this space. I’d really like to create a analog game that lets the players explore Hawaii’s energy and sustainability issues using these techniques.

One thing that struck me after seeing all the awesome games and research going on at the conference is how much we could improve the learning potential of the Kukui Cup by making it more “procedural rhetoric” (Ian Bogost’s term). While we do have some activities like the Energy Scavenger Hunt where we teach players things implicitly as part of the game play, still too much content relies on watching a video and answering a question, which is only a game by from a very charitable viewpoint. This orientation was necessary to meet our requirements, since sustainability is a enormous topic and given our available resources making a game for each subtopic would have been completely infeasible. But as the Kukui Cup matures, we need to start making more and more of the experience gamelike and less like traditional teaching.

Meaningful Play was a blast (even if it rained a lot!) and I look forward to the next one in 2014!

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