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.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Mini-Course 2014: Survey Results

After a one-year hiatus, I ran my all-girls mini-course on computer science and games again this past May.  Along with a picture of my lovely class, I wanted to share this year's pre- and post- survey results.  Note that while I compare some numbers to past courses, I did not post data from 2012 and there was not course in 2013, so neither year is mentioned.

Pre-Course Survey Results

Before we begin with our first class, I ask the girls to fill in a survey to try to capture their attitudes toward computer science.  Naturally, I hope to see a general improvement in these attitudes by the end of the course.  Here are some of the more interesting results.

"I am confident that I understand what the field of computer science is."

  • Strongly agree: 1
  • Agree:5
  • Netural/don't know: 11
  • Disagree: 2
There was less confidence about what the field is than in some previous years (e.g. 2010, where 50%  agreed to this statement in the pre-course survey).

"I would consider computer science as a good career for women in general."

  • Strongly agree: 5
  • Agree: 14
 Despite the lower confidence, there was not a single neutral response for the first time.

"I would consider computer science as a good career for me."

  • Strongly agree: 5
  • Agree: 5
  • Neutral/don't know: 9
This is the highest number of any type of 'agree,' let alone 'strongly agree.'  Could it possibly mean that the widespread efforts to get young people (especially girls) into computer science are actually starting to work? I hope so!

Post-Course Survey Results

I ask many of the same questions after the course, as well as some new ones.  Here are the most interesting responses.

"Are you glad the course was just for girls?"

  • Yes: 8
  • No: 1
  • I'm happy as long as I'm not the only girl: 10
We did our surveys before we got together with the other (mostly male) class to share our games and eat pizza.  It would be interesting to see if their responses would change after that event.

"I enjoyed learning about what computer science is really all about."

  •  Strongly agree: 12
  • Agree: 6
  • Neutral/don't know: 1
This is a great result, even considering how many came to the course open to the idea that computer science might be interesting.

"I would consider computer science a good career for me."

  •  Strongly agree: 8
  • Agree: 6
  • Neutral/don't know: 5
This is the best year-to-year result for this question that I've seen.  Even though 2011 was a good improvement over 2010, this is better still.  It is also wonderful to see so many responses move up (neutral to agree, etc).

"I am more likely to try computer science in high school or university after taking this course, or this course has confirmed my desire to do so."

  • Strongly agree: 8
  • Agree: 10
  • Neutral/don't know: 1
Fantastic.  I only hope that their next experience with CS is a good one.  (I hate that I have to worry about that!)


This year's course was not changed drastically from previous years.  We spent some more time in the lab, and had more guests talk to them.  I also skipped the section on women in the industry.  Although one person said she wished I had covered that topic in her survey comments, I have to wonder if skipping it contributed to this year's success.  (I previously wrote a bit about messaging in these sorts of workshops and courses.)  Either way, I am thrilled, and can't help but think that maybe these sorts of programs are finally going to make a difference soon at the post-secondary level.

As usual, you can read more about the course here, or take a look at the materials as presented to the girls.