Wednesday, June 18, 2014

GLS10 Keynote Scot Osterweil: It's Not About the Game

When I attended the 2014 Games, Learning and Society Conference (GLS10) in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, I did not expect to engage much with the topic of stories in games.  True, it's a hot topic these days, but I didn't think it would show up much at this venue.  Thursday's keynote speaker Scot Osterweil proved me wrong.

Osterweil, Creative Director of the Education Arcade at MIT, titled his talk "It's Not About the Game."  Though I am not confident I know for sure what he meant by this, I have two guesses: it might be related to Eric Zimmerman's Games Are Not Good For You talk, which Osterweil discussed at length; or, it could be a call to focus on the importance of narrative within games.

In part, Zimmerman's talk was trying to say that we need to just let games be games.  We should not be instrumentalizing them for other purposes (like, say, education?).  This made Osterweil realize what we are really doing as educational game designers.  We are trying to change people with technology.  In a sense, it's not unlike the reprogramming scene in A Clockwork Orange, he points out.  Is this what games are supposed to be all about?

Games are supposed to be about play, and play is all about agency.  It's what we do when we don't have to do something else.  We don't do it for some specific purpose —  not even education.  Play is about freedom: freedom to explore, freedom to fail, freedom of identity, and freedom of effort.  How many educational games actually include all of these freedoms? No game can make you play harder than you want to.

You can't just add "fun" to a math game.  If you don't find something fun to begin with, you shouldn't make a game about it.  Games are much more about building conceptual frameworks and preparing for future learning - not instructing something.

So what about narrative?

Osterweil says he grew up wanting to be a storyteller.  He noticed that the Greeks had a word, agon, that was relevant in multiple areas important in Greek culture.  Agon means competition, which has context in games (i.e., competing in the Olympics) and stories (conflict in theatre).

When we go into a game, we enter as a contestant: "we willingly submit to arbitrary rules and structures in pursuit of mastery, only if we can continue to be playful".  In other art forms, like film and theatre, we are spectators (though possibly not passive ones).  We construct knowledge differently with these two roles, and with stories in games, we can make them overlap.

In addition to being contestants and spectators, we can also be creators.  Perhaps where all three overlap is where the most powerful educational opportunities lie.

Osterweil emphasized that we as game designers need to start thinking more about the affordances of story and gameplay.  We need to start thinking more about the ways narrative is engaging our players.  Beyond this, when making games, we have to care about it ourselves; we can’t just think about what the kids want or else we'll end up giving them a creepy tree-house.  Both the creator and consumer of narrative need to be leaning forward in interest.

To read more about the keynote, you can look at my raw conference notes, the collaborative conference notes, Sam Potasz's blog post summary, and Donelle Batty's Storify of the second conference day.


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