Report from GLS 6.0
In Madison this past week, the Unversity of Wisconsin-Madison hosted the 6th annual Games+Learning+Society Conference, organized by the interdisciplinary Games+Learning+Society (GLS) group housed in the School of Education at UW-Madison. Bringing together academics in education, media studies and other disciplines, as well as practicing K-12 teachers, school adminstrators, and game designers, GLS is a yearly opportunity for these groups to gather at the beautiful (and beer-filled) Memorial Union, and work through the latest research in digital media, gaming, and learning. In addition to the main conference, special side events included the Academic ADL Co-Lab’s AcademicFest, a Mobile Learning Summit, and Saturday’s Educator Symposium.
Beginning on Wednesday afternoon with a keynote by Kurt Squire of UW-Madison, a tone was set for the conference — it is no longer sufficient to think of games as mere learning tools or simple entertainment, but to begin to think of games as “possibility spaces,” ripe with potential for driving learning practices beyond the simple conveyance of limited educational content. As was picked up by many of the participants at the conference, Squire exhorted a Montessori approach to thinking of gaming, focusing on how it can open up curiosity in the learner. With such a variety of attendees to the conference, we saw fostering conversations between these many disciplines and professions as a central theme to GLS 6.0.
After a fantastic Wednesday night poster session, Thursday morning began with a joint keynote by Drew Davidson of the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon and Richard Lemarchand, game designer at Naughty Dog and co-designer of last year’s award-winning Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Part of Davidson’s Well-Played series of talks and books, this keynote contained both a careful read of the game, with Davidson highlighting the ways that Uncharted 2 constructed meaning and experiences for the player, paired with Lemarchand’s thoughts on the designers’ goals for each scene/section of the game. This kind of cross-disciplinary, cross-institutional conversation is a hallmark of the GLS conferences, and it was wonderful to see Davidson’s series of these talks now foregrounded as a keynote.
The conference also offered sessions ranging from a social game design workshop led by Eric Zimmerman in which participants prototyped games that could be implemented on Facebook, to empirical studies, such as Rebecca Black‘s report on the constraints to literacy learning presented within virtual worlds for tweens. Sessions on science learning, environmental literacy, governance, computational literacies, and identity were all well-attended, and illustrated the range of topics that games and interactive learning media are being applied to. GLS featured a variety of innovative formats — including “chat n’ frag” interactive sessions, smaller “fireside chat” conversations, and “worked example” sessions. The field is maturing and in what appears to be useful directions, bringing diverse sets of scholarship to the table.
Design was, in particular, a strong theme this year, explored in terms of using games to create valuable contexts for learning, engaging students in design (a topic addressed by Ben Aslinger, among others), the design of commercial video games, and creating game experiences for specific learning goals. This emphasis branched out into research on mobile gaming (UW-Madison’s ARIS platform for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad was given great focus), fan cultures and productions (addressed by us, as well as Derek Johnson), multimodal forms of literacy, and youth education and development.
The greatest thrill at GLS this year, however, came from Thursday night’s keynote by USC’s Henry Jenkins. As he was presenting at the Fiske Matters conference subsequent to GLS, Jenkins clearly took the opportunity to touch on the applicability of many of Fiske’s themes to games and learning. Thinking of the forthcoming tasks for the games and learning communities not so much as delivering embedded learning content but instead understanding how fandom and the “active audiences” of game cultures are empowered toward social action, Jenkins argued that the playful environments of participatory media are not trivial, isolating forces, but are fostering political engagement and activism around the world.
Overall, we found it to be a wonderful experience, and one in which we were happy to see a broadening of scope and increased diversity in forms of participation. Conference chair Constance Steinkuehler reported that GLS 6.0 was significantly up in attendance over last year’s conference. We hope to see this growing community further come to understand how Squire’s concept of games as “possibility spaces” might be fruitful in developing educational reform, and also in foregrounding learning and literacy as critical approaches for media studies.