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On GameTech 2011

I was absolutely pleased, humbled, honored, psyched… to be asked to team up with Alicia and Kris on the Social Gaming panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon. I love panel discussions that turn into brain dumps, and we share a very close rapport. I hope that experience resonated with the audience (physically and virtually in attendance). As a result of that panel, the Social Gaming Study Group on LinkedIn has taken off and we have some very excellent discussions brewing across military, government, industry and academia.

GameTech 2011 Introduction to Social Gaming Panel with Dr. Alicia Sanchez, Kris Rockwell and Aaron Silvers

Who was at GameTech, and what were their goals?

There were a few hundred attendees at GameTech, largely a mix of mid-tier leaders in government and military training as well as contractors and vendors. In my observation, the goals were to get a line-of-sight on what are the emerging best determined practices in working with virtual worlds and a lot of networking. The vast majority of attendees were American with a number of Canadian, Australian and other nations represented by the attendance.

How was GameTech structured?

GameTech was structured with two keynotes occurring daily and a number of concurrent sessions. Some sessions were very large, holding over a hundred people. Other sessions ran with 10-20 people. While there was a concurrent conference that shared the space (an Army Training conference), there were no specific “tracks” per se.

What were the big ideas you took from GameTech?

First, virtual worlds are making a comeback, based on the amount of attention given to them at this conference. Many in the commercial and enterprise space seem to have stalled out on virtual worlds, but for a conference named “GameTech” an awful lot of attention was payed to Virtual Worlds and how to make them effective. I heard little mention of “ramification” and a lot of demonstration of virtual worlds. Clearly, VWs are a space that military is particularly interested in pursuing further.

Second, mobile as a platform for gaming and virtual worlds seems to be less hyped in this sector than in the commercial/enterprise space. The reason, as it was described by David Allen Smith (Lockheed Martin), “mobile is the present.” To be kind, that’s a very bold assessment of the current technical landscape. I can easily believe “mobile” has to be a given and the default means of delivery going forward — maybe that is why it’s not received a lot of attention in this particular conference.

Third, the technology behind games is clearly valuable to military stakeholders, even if games in and of themselves are not. I came away from GameTech with a sense that games are a useful tool in the box for higher order outcomes, eliciting novel heuristics from players to approach complex problems (possibly even cognitive bias, as was discussed a bit in several side conversations I had last week). “Games” felt like it was still a dirty word in this environment — as if the idea of it being fun was antithesis to training or even learning occurring. More on this in a moment.

What surprised you from GameTech?

I was quite surprised by the amount of attention virtual worlds are getting. I very much believe that Augmented Reality (AR) is the next “eLearning” because I see a clear bridge between the way people interact with content today and how people will interact with digital content in a physical space via AR, and I definitely would attest that Virtual Worlds are critically important to facilitators of such learning experiences as both a browser and as a facilitation tool. That said, at GameTech there was little on AR and a very heavy focus on Virtual Worlds in their own right. Coupled with the de-emphasis on mobile technology, it left me wondering about why so much was focused on Virtual Worlds… was it because it’s already in existence, or because it’s ultimately more important — and if so, how?

I was even more surprised by how little gaming there was at GameTech. Dr. Alicia Sanchez (@gamesczar) created a fantastically simple game called #git4 which encouraged attendees to find other people with the same numbers on their buttons as themselves, post a picture and tweet the picture or upload it to the Facebook Wall for GameTech in the hopes of winning a prize — and that was a really sweet and simple ice-breaking game. I loaded up the iPad 2 with games in the hopes of squaring off against people — but no one was playing. No GameBoys or PSPs to be seen. That said, Kris Rockwell had me downloading new games to the iPhone (Tiny Wings and Sky Burger) and when Sword and Sworcery came out for iPad and the mysterious tweets hit, I immediately downloaded… still, Alicia and Kris are usual suspects. With over 300 attendees (maybe 500?) it felt very odd to be at a gaming technology conference without a broad feeling of “play.”

One more surprise from GameTech — notable lack of gaming industry people there. I met a veritable who’s who of the virtual world industry (including a delightful and unexpected encounter with VastPark’s Bruce Joy), but with as much gaming people as I’ve seen in recent years at Defense Acquisition University’s Innovations in eLearning conference (Brenda Braithwaite, Wil Wright, John Romero, Syd Meier just to name a few) the one industry voice that emerged was that of Mark Long of Zombie Studios. I really liked how Mark introduced the notion of transmedia in his lunchtime keynote and he definitely resonated with me on the notion of designing memorable (read: meaningful) learning experiences. I expected the military presence and the strong ties to training and performance outcomes… I guess I also expected more on games.

What are three things you learned from GameTech?

Alicia dropped some fantastic information with Dr. Clint Bowers in her break down of the top ten research findings from 2010. I’ll post the actual links to the research when the proceedings and the slides are finally posted from last week. In the meantime, take this on faith that these are some interesting nuggets about games and learning that are backed by credible research:

  • Violence doesn’t motivate gameplay.
  • Playing pro-social games enhances pro-social behavior.
  • Training using games can reduce a gender gap in spatial ability.
  • Videogame experiences are associated with cognitive flexibility tasks, like task-switching.
  • Action games elicit enhanced visual attention (ability to select important visual cues and suppress less important visual cues).
  • Popular “brain training” games only improve performance on the practiced tasks: up until you play *a lot* you only get better at the thing the game trains you to do; however, after 100+ trials, you do start to build re-applicability of the given skill.
  • Certain Nintendo Wii titles predict the ability to perform laprascopic surgery.
  • Difficulty levels in games should increase up and down, not down down and up. Also, a medium rate of change is best for player immersion. In fact, the best immersion is an abrupt change in gameplay. Let the player think they’ve mastered the game for a bit, then change it on them, as part of the immersion is the sense of “mastery” that comes as a payoff (think of McGonigal’s definition of “fiero.”)
  • If people believe they are playing a real person, they will have more thoughtful responses to the experiences.
  • Sounds (feedback-related) and music led to reports of better gameplay experiences.

Related to virtual worlds, I had a fantastic series of discussions with Bruce Joy (@brucejoy) about how *instances* of Virtual Worlds could be tied to communities of practice and groups. Bruce and I talked about a maturity model that takes communities (and arguably networks) and finds people eventually wanting to “group” up into smaller clusters where mutual interests are identified, eventually forming “teams” where they focus on a shared set of goals. When it’s time to act collectively in tackling something complex — beyond what can be resolved through text alone, that’s when you launch into an instance of a virtual world together — in-context, knowing exactly what it is you’re supposed to do there. Bruce is a really smart dude, and I really loved going down into the weeds with him, as much as time allowed. His description of when to use a virtual world in this manner feels really right-on to me, and his framing of a maturation of groups into teams resonates with observations I’ve made in recent months. Our conversations are going to stick with me a long time.

One more learning from the GameTech experience — I find myself drawn more explicitly to leveraging social networking modalities in game-like activities. I’m beginning to recognize that I have a unique perspective to bear on this and I will be looking for opportunities to partner with Kris and Alicia (and Peter Smith and Karen Burpee) more in finding ways to use games with pro-social interactions for learning and performance changes.

What are you going to do now because of GameTech?

I’m a lot more motivated to design and develop pro-social games than I’ve ever been before. Having had the opportunity I’ve wanted for a long time to dabble a bit in a number of virtual world instances, I think there’s a lot that can be gained from the literature around Experience Design I’ve gotten into recently and I think it’s a good step forward into creating learning experiences (the kind I want to promote with my work in ADL) that would also allow me to collaborate very well with others inside and outside of ADL who have a bit more experience in the game design and development aspects.

I’m also a lot more motivated to start getting specific in terms of my editorial stance on things I see and hear that I like and things I hear and see that I want to challenge. I can’t expect anyone to stand up for the ideas I think are important if I’m not willing to speak up for them, first.

What left you unsatisfied from GameTech?

I touched on the lack of gaming at GameTech, and I don’t think I can overstate this. Why talk about gaming technology if “play” is implicitly discouraged at the event? I spoke with a few people about the idea of having an unconference next year, should the conference continue, where there’s no schedule, no agenda, no keynotes — just participants willing to share what they can share and the participants on day 1, hour 1, figure out the schedule for the rest of the day, who’s speaking to what and where. Let the participants co-create the event and thus have a larger stake in the (ahem) game. This touches on something else with which I was unsatisfied.

The conference agenda looked packed with “stuff” but without dedicated tracks, it was difficult to follow the main themes emerging from the conference. There were mobile sessions, there were gaming sessions, there were how-to sessions (I especially liked the session Brandon Pate and Jennie Bottone did on designing and developing Flash games for Android vs web). If I were to program a conference (and I might just get my chance — who knows?), I might consider it more from a model of who my target attendees are, figure out three or four profiles for them and program the conference for those profiles. It’s easy for me to throw that out there, as I didn’t have to program this conference and it really went off without any hitch (heck, there were over 300 virtual attendees in Second Life!). I’m nitpicking, but I’d take what worked and design a next conference more towards explicit context.

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