June 21, 2005

DiGRA05 in Pictures

by Andrew Stern · , 5:33 pm

What follows is a visually-guided tour of one particular path through last weekend’s Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) conference in Vancouver, BC. There we so many parallel tracks of talks (8+ at times) that I’ll only be offering a sliver of what went on, but the other GTxA’ers in attendance, Mary and Michael, as well as several other bloggers out there, will surely fill in more detail and show you more images.

Before we begin, I should say there was a game studies person sorely missed at the conference (note I’m avoiding the L-word), who tells us he was off cavorting in Paris at the time and couldn’t attend. However his spirit was in Vancouver with us nonetheless, and in fact as you browse this series of pictures, I invite you to play a little game I’d like to call, “Where’s Gonzalo?”

The setting was quite nice — here is the view of north Vancouver from the lobby of the conference rooms.

The opening evening keynote was from T.L. Taylor of IT University of Copenhagen, also a Terra Nova contributor, speaking about “moogs” (one way to pronounce MMOG’s, I learned). No picture, sorry.

The next morning Janet Murray gave a keynote with two parts: part one was “The Last Word on Ludology v Narratology” (pdf) in which she hoped to put the debate to bed, or at least reframe it into two distinct components, the ideology “game essentialism” and the methodology “computer game formalism”. There’s some fun images referring to the debate last January between Espen Aarseth and Henry Jenkins in Janet’s slides. The main part of her talk, “The Future of Electronic Games: Lessons from the first 250,000 years” (12MB powerpoint), part of a new book she’s writing called Inventing the Medium, suggests game playing as the missing link between pre-humans and humans-with-language.

Jesper Juul presented a short paper summarizing his thesis, “Half-Real”. Jesper I think successfully chooses to think about fiction instead of narrative in relation to games, and I enjoyed his formulation about the activity that players undertake when they go back and forth between being within the fiction of the game and the reality of playing the game itself.

Just after Jesper, Timothy Burke, another Terra Novan, gave an interesting talk on what emergence really means, and its value to gaming. I was pleased when he invoked Facade as an example of an approach to combine the power of emergence and drama-managed directedness. (I wish Facade offered even more emergence than it actually does, but anyway…)

Ian Bogost (who I learned goes by the nickname, pronounced in a robot monotone, “IANBOGO”) presented a short paper Frame and Metaphor in Political Games, in which he references cognitive linguist George Lakoff’s argument “that political frames in the US reflect metaphors of family management — conservatives frame political issues as ‘strict fathers’ while liberals frame them as ‘nurturant parents'”. Among other things Ian described how he realized how brilliant the Republican National Committee game Tax Invaders really was.

One of my favorite sessions was what I’d call the Design and/vs. Theory panel, organized by Aki Järvinen. Aki, Espen Aarseth, Eric Zimmerman and Staffan Björk each presented varying perspectives on doing theory alone, theory plus design/development, theory to support design, etc. (This panel was a nice segue to a following session where Michael and I presented “Build It to Understand It”, arguing that building games needs be a necessary part of game studies). There was some good tension in the room during the panel — good because I think it helps all involved when they are pushed a bit on, or by, each other, it challenges you to make the research better. Eric (interviewed here in Gamasutra, btw) made a good point that those doing theoretical work should not tack on extra slides at the end of their presentations justifying their works’ value to game designers; it’s unnecessary, and a distraction. Espen said that we need to realize that we’re only 5 years into this new wave of game studies, and that it could take 50 years for it to mature, and that it’s premature to judge the value of the theroetical work this early in the game. Some said, but we’re creating curricula to teach this stuff now… Mary suggested it’s problematic to study games outside the context of who is playing them, how they’re played, etc; Eric suggested those pursuing formalist approaches need to be aware of the limitations of formalism. When asked why are formalists appearing to seek a totalizing formal theory of games, Espen replied, there will be multiple totalizing formal theories of games.

Michael and I tag-team-presented a long paper (nominated for best paper at the conference :), which I think is one our better ones, “Build It to Understand It: Ludology Meets Narratology in Game Design Space“. I briefly described the paper in my pre-DiGRA post; but I didn’t mention that the paper, as far as we know, is the first to apply the concept of “wicked problems” to game design, as Jesper notes in his amusing comment on our talk. Additionally, one of the main points of our talk is that we believe an important thread of the ludology vs. narratology debate never got resolved — that of agency in narrative — or at least the current equilibrium by game studies scholars reached is not, in our estimation, correct, which concerns us.

The talk was held in this excellent large round coliseum / U.N. like room, the Wosk Center for Dialog (see wide-angle picture below). We wanted Janet and Espen to battle it out in the center ring while talked, coliseum-gladiator style, but that didn’t happen.

I caught a few minutes of an panel on how different groups from around the world are approaching game studies.

Later in that room was a great extended panel on interdisciplinary perspectives on game studies, moderated by Eric; panelists included Bart Simon with a sociology perspective, Robin Hunicke with a compsci/AI perspective, Richard Smith with a communications perspective, Rikke Margnussen with an education perspective, etc. Among other things they played a game where they gave pitches for research to a granting committee assembled from the audience, in charge of awarding an imaginary 1M euros. The panelists making their pleas were informed by their experience playing World of Warcraft before arriving at the conference (for some, it was the first video game they had ever played). A bit more on it here from Robin.

Several folks from industry, some local to Vancouver, were invited to a panel to engage with the mostly-academics at the conference, moderated by Jason della Rocca. Being an industry person I didn’t gain much, but I think others in the room learned something about the perspective of the industry. I assume we’ll get a summary on Reality Panic at some point.

There was a small-ish collection of alternative games running in a room off the lobby. Ian, Jane McGonigal (one of the developers) and I had fun playing Organum, as described here by Robin. Also at the show was JFK Reloaded, which I found to be an excellent, excellent game. I also played Orgasm Simulator by Molleindustria, which was fun.

The final plenary session where the future of game studies was debated, and several litres of ice wine and a Finnish log-throwing game were awarded. A major theme this year: interdisciplinariness. (wait is that a word?)

Okay, now on to the documentation of the hallway, eatery and drinkery socializing.

Robin Hunicke, Uli Spierling, Mirjam Eladhari, Charlotte Sennersten
The real reason to go to these conferences is to talk with such intelligent, beautiful game scholars.

Wait, scratch that. Jesper and Eric debating after Jesper’s talk. Later they were to be seen pounding each other with rubber balls.

Andrew (me), Michael Mateas and Greg Costikyan. Earlier Greg had presented a strangely-non-confrontational paper, “Game Styles, Innovation, and New Audiences: An Historical View“. (Ah, wait — that’s more like it. Too bad he missed our talk.)

Borut Pfeifer and Isaac Barry of Radical Vancouver, with Robin Hunicke

Ian, Michael, Jesper and their gadgets

Ian, Janet Murray and Greg

Eric with someone I’ll call Trinity, dueling in the hallway with the free rubber-ball-on-string everyone got in their conference bag.

Tracy Fullerton of USC, enjoying the company at the final evening of bar hopping.

Uli and Andrew

Ian and Lizbeth Klastrup

Greg, Michael, Janet, Ian

Glamour shot: Katherine Isbister and Mary Flanagan.

The world through Mary’s eyes. Wow.

Eric and Mary

One night I led a group to a pretty good Chinese seafood restaurant nearby.

Cheers to finishing our presentations and being able to relax.

Geska Andersson of the Swedish Trans-Reality Game Lab made us order the Spareribs and Strawberries. It wasn’t bad actually. Next to her is William Huber of UCSD.

William, Geska, Mirjam, Andrew

Here’s a pieced-together panorama of an insane sushi dinner we had the final night — 18 people crammed into a little square room meant for 10. It was all-you can eat. Note Mary Flanagan fed up with Eric’s antics.

(scroll right ——->)
We played a game where you have an alien on your face and you chuck it across the table to splat on other people.

Espen, Ian, Michael and Andrew preparing to put away pounds of sashimi. And we did it.

There’s a 360-degree panning celphone video of the table that I’ll link to when it goes online. And there’s at least one good comprimising shot of Eric reverting to 3-year old behavior in his hotel room to add to this collection, so come back in a day or two.

(Update: Found — as part of Mirjam’s extensive collection at Flickr.)