June 28, 2006

Games for Change 2006 – Report

by Mary Flanagan · , 7:38 pm

The Games for Change Conference in NYC, June 27 and 28th, is not only covered here by the NY GTxA offices, but in popular news venues such as cnn as well. That’s great for the budding movement! Last night there was a fab party at Rockstar games. Wednesday June 28th featured again a great line up of speakers discussing games for social engagement and social change.

Katie Salen’s presentation “Field Building With University Students” was as insightful and fun as usual — Salen showed student work from Parson’s Design and Technology program and the 24 hour game jam at which I was a “midnight visiting critic” along with my co conspirator friend Betsy Seder. She mentioned that students today are “natural activists” and that one does not have focus on the activist nature of games for students to create them. While I wish this were true, from what I have observed in game design instruction in many universities, I do not entirely share Salen’s point of view. Perhaps the student body of critical designers who attend Salen’s program, or the motivated students who attend game jams, or the live critique of the visiting scholars at said game jams, encourages a type of social responsibility that other institutions do not foster. . . perhaps it is the creative nature of a design focused (rather than say technology focused) curriculum, or perhaps the class differences between institutions which ultimately (and subtley) gives students “permission” (or not) to change things…

That said, I’m a hopeful skeptic — even though, contrary to Salen’s notion, out of the 20+ new MA, MS, and Bachelors programs in computer games founded in US Universities, the body of students ‘naturally’ generating activist games is relatively slim. In fact, the demise of repeatedly reproducing “what is out there” (especially shooter games) has motivated my collaborator Helen Nissenbaum and myself to embark on the creation a “Values at Play” games creation toolkit, an open source and contributions-based archive which explores particular human values such as equality, democracy, autonomy and authorship, creativity, social justice, privacy, and gender equity,

but I digress. Back to the G4C conference!

The former Governor of Nebraska, former Senator, and 9/11 Committee member Bob Kerry, presented on Wednesday. Now, Kerry is the President of the New School –and he expressed a great interest in computer games and education. Ian Bogost asked questions of Kerry about election games, ie, what is making the difference — students’/designers’ experience designing games in this area, or the players’ experience? For informal games, Kerry notes, the knowledge required for game development is higher than playing, but casual or informal games are now more accessible and lower in price, and therefore are an important medium for creating environments where empathy can be created.

In fact the theme of empathy came up again and again (and made me think of Katherine Isbister‘s work first and foremost). Bogost, in his talk on the panel “Mixing Gravity with Entertainment,” provoked the audience by trying to stretch empathy into arenas that make us uncomfortable, such as:
–we should walk in the shoes of the SS or other regimes
–we should see from the position of those in power
–we should see from the POV of the victim, ie, Holocaust victims, to navigate the slippery slope that abuse of power can bring.

Unfortunately time was short for discussion and there was no dinner afterwards, so this point was put out there, hanging…

Gender was not a big topic at the conference. Male to female ratio among gamers was breifly touched upon, with various first person accounts from teachers and activists on how girls use computer games in the classroom less time than their male counterparts—of course, disagreements arose… How are games such as “Pax Warrior” really addressing female players? How do women and girls work within game systems differently? To be honest, few of the activist developers were addressing gender, with the exception of long time gender and technology research superhero Cornelia Brunner.

There was a panel on “Museums and Games.” Harry Borrelli, from the American Museum of Natural History, discussed interactive museum exhibit design.
Some practical pointers:
–design 2-8 minute interactive sessions
–tend to rely on demos and lots of audio
–“People just don’t read text.” No more than 3-4 sentences should be a part of any screen or exhibit, unless catalog text.
–Take advantage of what has been seen before in the course of the museum exhibit already; play off of prior objects and somewhat familiar items.
–How to use the interactive? Raise questions? Are games merely ‘interactives’ or beyond?
Should games act as a counter to the exhibit? Or act in support of a particular concept or object?

A speaker for a game against Cybercrime (Drew Ann Wake from Livewires Design) discussed how their group tried to work with MySpace to distribute their game to help kids learn about cybercrime/stalking etc, and MySpace did not wish to partner – according to Wake, MySpace officials thought the game too realistic, and due to the intense and realistic game, the participants in online systems might begin to question their participation.

The panel I led was entitled “Trailblazers: Artists and Individuals Creating New Games for Change”. Artists Christina Ray (Glowlab, NYC) Brooke Singer, Lillian Ball, and Skawennati Fragnito presented games that engaged with both screen worlds and real worlds. I think the artistic perspective on games for change is an essential one, as those of you who know my writing projects and new book project can attest. I only showed a few slides as I was the panel organizer and moderator, but I did sneak preview my new work [giantJoystick] which GTxA readers will see with their own eyes in a few short weeks!!

It was great to see a Hunter College presence at G4C with MFA student Heidi Boisvert in attendance, and one of my former students Lisa Daly, who is finishing her MFA from Parsons. Thanks to Suzanne Seggerman and Ben Stokes (who has been a guest speaker at Hunter College) for their masterful organization of the growing, important conference.