A Meaningful Play After Action Report

Seriously Not Serious Yet Mainstream

My relationship with games and game studies is often one of curiosity. I find the concept of ‘play’ useful yet I find that ‘play’ is more useful to study something else than it is to study games themselves. Despite this, I do try to keep an eye on games and game studies. There is always so much stuff to watch, so many authors to keep track of, and so many academic moves to remember.

Meaningful Play is a conference that occurs every 2 years in East Lansing Michigan. At this conference will typically be a cross-section of a number of different types of game scholars resulting in a pretty interesting spectrum of researchers from different spaces, academic settings, and industry. In conjunction with those researchers are students working on games themselves as well as other, independent game creators.

All in all, it is a great conference. It is small enough to be intimate yet prestigious enough to offer an opportunity to meet high quality researchers and industry professionals.

I wanted to write up a brief collection of thoughts based on the 3 separate sessions I attended. Within each of these, I thought i’d offer a few other ideas from the keynotes, lunches, and other meetings.

Master Thieves provides a vehicle through which students can experience a kind of play typically unavailable in most modern games.

Session 1 — Teaching Game Development to Different Types of Students

I recently began to teach social scientists and various kinds of non-technical students how programming works. This is no easy task and it has provided an unusually fruitful series of lectures, demonstrations, and writings that will probably influence my understanding of technical concepts for quite some time.

At Meaningful Play, there was a session about teaching something equally problematic to those interested in it — game design. Now, the act of thinking ludically or playfully is difficult. After all, to think in terms of play is to think outside of the basic human activity. To do so AND apply it is even more difficult.

I liked the notes from that session. They are located here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1UDcp2pZervfPQpLGv_x9X7SaONoat0mTh83ztC3HqNo/edit?usp=sharing

In the session, I began to witness a sort of unopened box in the form of this idea that we learn how play and game design works by learning computer programming. Or, in another way, we learn how computer programming works through actively designing a game.

There seemed to be a lot of frustration around this concept and a lot of interest in scaffolding. I wondered about the sort of forcing together of two very different ideas. We force students to learn programming and design simultaneously.

The problem with this — at least in my view — is that in both respects, much of the act of programming OR of design is truncated and moved to the background. Without concentrating on one or the other, both are forced into disparate spaces without much light or effort afforded them.

In addition, we provide a learning experience that is open and ultimately the opposite of what we want students to do. In this unplayful space, students will inevitably end up with are strangely shallow games that adhere so loosely to the idea of games and game design that it probably wasn’t worth it.

I left the session a little bewildered but resolute that I was going down the right road. In order to learn to design, we must first learn how games themselves function. In order to do that, we need to learn in an extremely limited space. In order to engage a limited space, we need to remove almost all aspects of design or decision from the act of programming.

In the past few months, i’ve written about PICO-8 and my experiments there. I happened upon a particularly interesting phenomenon. If I simply allowed my students to see the code I expected them to write and if I asked them to comment each line of code and what it was doing, that I could ask them to rewrite, using that code, a number of Frankenstein cartridges. In essence, by providing them no goals and no resources through which they could design something on their own, I could retroactively allow them to take these little programming blocks and rewrite them in a way that would allow them to make sense of what was happening.

I want to call this something like, “exploration of pencils in computer languages.”

Once the pencil is understood, then we can start experimenting more with them. We can start using new techniques and ideas about pencils. We can do more design. This needs to be developed further.

Session 2 — Serious Play on Twitch: Experiments in Academic Streaming

The second session I attended had to do with streaming academia. A while back when I was in the midst of the hellscape that was my dissertation, I noticed someone was streaming their daily writing routine. In response, I started to do this as well. It felt good trying to share the loneliness of the academic mode. Additionally, the community of folks surrounding the writing portions of Twitch.tv afforded me a small ability to connect some of my work to that of others.

In this session, the Wisconsin cadre from https://www.twitch.tv/serious_play or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Anthropology program discussed the various aspects of their work surrounding their trying to make their work more public.

I took out of this session that through the often closed, piecemeal aspects of university ICT infrastructure can be difficult to deal with. And it is true that many of the ports, digital rights, and other aspects of academic life do not really ever get highlighted.

Perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this was the Serious Play channel reaching affiliate status (thus allowing ad revenue) and the resulting ethical dilemma of where that money should go. The intersection of monetary gain in the academy versus the current generation of funding through new-economy means certainly highlights that much of the structure of payment for academia has not caught up to new ways of making money.

This made me consider, or perhaps re-consider Nick Mizer’s work on Kickstarter, Academics with Patreons, and other ways that academics have sought funding for their projects. Indeed, can an IRB rectify the needs of privacy and study if I as a kickstarter or patreon account will be broadcasting my research, broadcasting my writing?

This session was an excellent catalyst for further thought and I hope to see it in New Media and Society soon.

This 2-player game called RESISTOR_ allows 2-players to try and connect wires and paths to one another. It is a unique game because i’m playing with the front of the cards I have but also the backs of the cards of the other player. It uses memory in ways I haven’t seen before.

Session 3 — Cooperative Play

The last session was my own. At the last minute, I decided to throw something together about the sociality of MMORPGs. I absolutely adore the work of Nikki Crenshaw and so should you:

Each of these papers get at a very specific idea — World of Warcraft doesn’t afford for sociality much these days.

My plan of attack for this was to look at Final Fantasy 11 and see if it had followed the same trajectory. After all, if we can see this loss of sociality elsewhere in video games, could this be something that contributed to the rise of toxicity and a general loss of the social contract in the digital spaces?

My slides are here: https://www.dropbox.com/s/u364ra0qujw3vl8/ffxi%20archaeology.pdf?dl=0

The other presentations in this particular meeting were also strong but also fell in to the way that MMO research used to be. All in all, I don’t know how well we really captured “cooperative play” or if we really unpacked it at all.

Final Thoughts

Overall, I had a lot of fun with the conference. It helped me think about things I haven’t thought about in a while using new knowledge that i’ve gained over time. I tweeted that:

Two things here have stuck with me. I see so many games in the serious play spaces that are trying to replicate some tiny aspect of a AAA game. There are so many ways that we can use computers to do things but we ultimately settle on these uber popular things because…I guess it’s easier to think about?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “well played” and how it relates to everything i’ve talked about here. I think that if we can actually separate design and computer science aspects of design that the concept of well-played itself can be explored.

But what constitutes well-played? Is it simply playing non-popular games? I think as a steward of games, faculty owe it to their students to provide them with ample ideas of what the pencils and brushes we teach students to use can do. The idea of well-played is little different than that of the well-read writer. We can’t learn to make games without experiencing life and without experiencing life, we could rely on experiencing life through other games. Is it enough to just curate a list of games students should play?

Something to consider.