Gameful Praxis crosses the ditch to Melbourne: Part 1

Earlier this month a small handful of us crossed the ditch to Melbourne to check out PAX Australia and the Education in Games Summit. I learned about the Summit via a Facebook post by Bron Stuckey (our friend and recent Gameful Praxis guest speaker). I was keen to attend, as were fellow Wellington Gameful Praxies* Dan Milward and Marianne Malmstrom. So, we made plans to meet up with Bron on her side of the big ditch commonly known as the Tasman Sea, for a long weekend of game-related learning and fun.

If you’re not in the games industry, you may not know that Games are kind of a big deal in Melbourne. In fact, there is an entire 10-day “week” devoted to it: Melbourne International Games Week (MIGW), billed as “Asia Pacific’s largest digital games platform for entertainment, serious games and gamification”. MIGW includes around a dozen different events, ranging from games industry conferences, to gamer-focussed exhibitions, gaming and coding workshops, and VR showcases, attracting over 60,000 people across the week.

The Games in Education Summit was one of the last events of MIGW, falling on the Monday after one of the weekend events, PAX Australia, so we planned our trip so that we could catch both events. In this blog (part 1) I’ll talk about my experience of PAX Australia. My next post (part 2) will focus on the Education in Games Summit.

What’s PAX Australia?

To the disappointment of one of my gamergeek friends, I’d confessed that I didn’t entirely know what PAX Australia was before I went. Now I know it’s a huge, fun, very well-organised expo covering everything you could possibly be interested in related to games and gaming. I mostly attended a lot of very good panel discussions, and also spent a lot of time gawking at some incredibly creative Cosplay outfits, watching people inside hi-tech VR setups, and wandering the huge exhibition hall full of games and game-related activities of every genre where, on impulse, I bought an award-winningly nerdy tabletop game.  If any of this sounds vaguely fun to you, I would definitely recommend checking out PAX next year!

Here’s some highlights from some of panel sessions I went to, and what my main takeaways were in terms of gameful praxis…..

The awards ceremony for the 2016 Australian STEM Videogames Challenge winners

img_3775I’ve been following this student design challenge with interest over the last few years, so it was great to be there to see and hear from some of this year’s winning student groups.  Most of the students explained that they had worked in teams to build their games, divvying up roles including visual design, coding, img_3813sound design, and play-testing/quality control, although a few students created their games as a solo project. Most teams said making their games was pretty hard, and took 2-3 months of work. I later had a chance to play some of the games, and was impressed with how well-executed and playable they were. One of the game concepts that really grabbed my inner science nerd was Superbug:  “Playing as the last trace of a virus inside the human body, fighting to survive against the combative practices of the immune system, players must collect DNA to strengthen themselves and hold out for as long as possible against an increasing array of enemies.” This struck me as a fantastic idea for a game, and exactly the kind of thing that might get more science educators excited about the potential of student game design as a means for diving deep into rich science content.

Panels on diversity, inclusivity, and representation in games and gaming

img_3809I went to a couple of different sessions about the value and importance of diversity in games and gaming, and another one about surviving online harassment. If I could sum up the one big idea that threaded across all these sessions, it is that the games and gaming world is a microcosm where we find all of the same major social and ideological tensions we encounter in our wider social worlds. Panellists talked about the challenges of ensuring that the games industry encourages and fosters diversity of all kinds, for at least two big reasons. First, so that players will have greater opportunities to encounter games that reflect aspects of their own identities and experiences, and second, because diverse games can give players a window into the identities and experiences of other people different to them.

The value of diversity as a strength and a resource came up a lot. Panellists pointed out that the greater the diversity of people making games, the more varied, creative, and diverse games will be, telling many different kinds of stories, and so on. Game characters and stories that emerge out of diverse life experiences and worldviews create fantastic opportunities for cultivating player empathy – seeing the world through different eyes, just as films and books and television can do. I think these are all strong messages for us as educators to tap into in our work around supporting young people in games and gaming.

img_3793Equally important were ideas that img_3792came out of the panel on surviving online harassment. Essentially the question is, how do we learn, and help others to learn, how to be better people in a digitally connected world? What are our responsibilities to each other as online communities, and what can we do to address toxic online behaviour, whether we’re players, spectators, or part of the game industry? My take-home from this session was a little bit like the take-home message from the 2016 US Election: Our social worlds are increasingly becoming sub-worlds and echo-chambers where it is easier to find other like minds that reinforce our worldviews than to hear other points of view that challenge our worldviews. Here’s yet another place where educators need to lean in and engage with young people early and often around their online social experiences – including those that centre around games and gaming – and help support the development of healthy and pro-social norms and empathy that they will hopefully carry with them throughout their lives, online and offline. (Some of our Gameful Praxis teachers already do this with their students in Minecraft and other virtual/game worlds!)

“How the hell did you end up in games?”

As an educational researcher who has inexplicably gravitated into games, I was drawn to this panel session of people who came from all sorts of different careers and backgrounds and landed up in the games industry, from a nightclub bouncer, to a geneticist, to a primary school teacher. Each panellist had an interesting story, and reflected on how aspects of  their previous lives transferred into their game design lives. The take-home message I scribbled down was something one of them said: “there is no such thing as a useless skill in the game design industry”. By this they meant that game design draws on so many different kinds of knowledge, skills, and capabilities, that almost any prior learning or life experience that helps to shape you into a more interesting, creative, organised, social, reflective, hard-working, time-managing, persistent, empathetic human being is going to serve you well in the game design world. Conversely, game design work generates so many opportunities to learn so many different things that are transferable into other aspects of life and work. This is a message that we have been trying to emphasise in our Gameful Praxis work too – there is just so much learning possible through game design. That being the case, how do we as educators help to ensure the learning is relevant, useful, transferable, and meaningful?

The psychology of Magic The Gathering

img_3798Wow. I think this was possibly my favourite session in the whole of PAX, even though I was probably the only person in the room who wasn’t a player of this hugely popular card trading game. The panellists provided a fascinating analysis of what it is that draws players to the game, and specifically, how the game manages to appeal to different players by tapping into a whole lot of different player motivations and providing a whole bunch of different ways of creating your own game experience. My take home from this session was to ponder the genius (and possibly slightly scariness) of a game that essentially says to the player’s brain “I can be the game you want me to be”.  I took copious notes from this session…If you want to know more, come to our next Gameful Praxis meetup in Wellington on November 26th and ask me about it!

*What should we call people who are part of Gameful Praxis? Technically we are probably “gameful practitioners”, but Dan has been calling us “Praxies”, which has a more fun and pixie-like ring to it. What do you think?

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