Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bettering Ourselves: Gaming Academics

I’m a casual Star Trek: The Next Generation fan, so I’m aware of Jean Luc Picard’s frequent admonition that humans of his era strive to better themselves, which always strikes a chord in the idealistic recesses of my brain.

In the interest of improving myself, I’ve endeavored to acquaint myself with some of the academic-level scholarship about analog gaming. My interest emerges from two objectives I’ve informally pursued most of my professional life: designing roleplaying and board games, and introducing people to games as a popular, social form of entertainment (sometimes through educational and library venues).

I suppose this pursuit began back in 2008, when I first took note of Professor Scott Nicholson, associate professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and a very public advocate of games in libraries. Frequent Hobby Games Recce readers will recall him from several posts, including “Library Gaming Resources.” During the summer of 2008 Professor Nicholson offered a Gaming in Libraries course, 22 online video discussions plus several bonus videos from other librarians working with games. (The course videos remain available free online.) His insights on both analog and digital gaming in the library’s social setting, player interactions, and general organizational and promotional strategies inspired me to look at games more critically, beyond the sole perspectives of designer or player, and in the context of entertaining social interaction.
I’ve continued following Dr. Nicholson’s public work examining and promoting games, including his blog, Play Matters, about work and activities during a year-long sabbatical as a visiting faculty member at the department of Comparative Media Studies at MIT.
Since then I’ve been collecting a number of resources on gaming scholarship and reading them as time permits; I’ve also obtained a few hard-copy books on the subject to add to a small library of volumes about gaming.
What can I learn from all this, and how can I apply it as a game designer and advocate? I believe that exposing oneself to a variety of ideas and experiences helps broaden our minds and thus our approaches to different challenges. Even if I’m not interested in a particular type of game or philosophy of looking at them, such diverse perspectives might enhance or inspire my own work. Perhaps I’ll find a solution to a design problem in a current project, or explore a new strategy in developing an upcoming game. Maybe this material offers new approaches to presenting games to a broader audience at conventions, libraries, schools, and other venues. It might challenge me to re-think my stance on core issues that remain integral to my game design and advocacy objectives.
We have a lot to learn from each other, especially since humans are still instinctively “tribal,” staying loyal to the various groups to which they belong, whether religious, ethnic, socio-economic, or professional. We’re ego-centric creatures, and the groups to which we belong tend to remain insular and defensive of both authority and mindset.
So when it comes to games -- whether designing them or introducing them into a particular non-gaming venue -- every professional sub-set seems to approach gaming from their particular insular perspective without necessarily looking to other disciplines for ideas or alternate approaches. Game designers, librarians, and educators all know the advantages and pitfalls of their individual professions, but don’t always appreciate what others have done and why, or whether a particular approach might work in their own field. By examining other perspectives and remaining open-minded to different approaches, we might gain new insight into the problems we face in our particular professions. Gaming enthusiasts can also gain insight from looking at games from academic perspectives…it’s not simply a professional pursuit, but an endeavor for anyone interested in gaming and expanding their appreciation for it.
Like learning through play, we should always learn through living; every day should bring a new lesson or some previously unnoticed (or suddenly rediscovered) bit of knowledge to improve our lives. In the hopes of inspiring others to broaden their gaming horizons, I’ve listed a few resources I’ve investigated during my pursuit of more a more academic perspective on gaming:
Scott Nicholson’s Work: As mentioned earlier Professor Scott Nicholson maintains an extremely visible presence on the internet and is generous in sharing his scholarly insights and projects, primarily about gaming in libraries but also including gaming and social engagement. He’s a wealth of knowledge about games, including how games, people, and spaces (like libraries) interact. He remains on the cutting edge of gaming scholarships with his year-long sabbatical at the department of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, with his insights shared through his weekly blog posts about his activities, experiences, and newly developed materials. Don’t let his friendly façade fool you…he might focus on games and play, but he has some serious academic work going on. He and his work remain extremely approachable to non-academics and game enthusiasts. Professor Nicholson’s vast scope of online materials for self-edification include more than 70 videos about board games at Board Games With Scott; Play Matters, a weekly blog showcasing his scholarly work with games during his sabbatical at MIT’s department of Comparative Media Studies; the Library Game Lab of Syracuse, Scott’s academic exploration of gaming and libraries, including his publications on the subject and several online talks; and his 22-video online course on Gaming in Libraries, with its related publication Everyone Plays at the Library: Creating Great Gaming Experiences for All Ages. I heartily recommend his work for any librarians or gamers seeking to volunteer at a library gaming program; his material’s also a solid critical look at how we play games.
Bernie DeKoven & Deep Fun: One of Professor Nicholson’s inspirations is Bernie DeKoven, a game designer, author, lecturer, and “fun theorist,” whose book The Well-Played Game is going on my Amazon Wishlist. He has inspired other game design scholars (notably Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman, authors of the game-design textbook Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals…see below) and consulted on the design of toys and games, including Lego’s recent entries into the board game field. DeepFun.com is a blog that takes a light-hearted yet thoughtful look at the importance of play and fun for everyone (not just kids or gamer layabouts like myself). Deep Fun offers a source of playful inspiration and stimulating resources, including current insights on play, excerpts from his lectures, books, and CD, quotations about fun and play, and Playing for Laughs, a page of group games particularly suited to library programs and workplace workshops. His joyous philosophy emerges in both his blog entries and his approach to the games listed at Deep Fun. DeKoven encourages people to think about games not in an academic frame of mind but from a playful perspective.
Books About Games: I have a small yet growing library of books about games, few of which would rate at the academic level, but all of which I find essential to a general knowledge of games, their evolution, and design. Among those I’ve found most useful are R.C. Bell’s Board and Table Games from Many Civilizations, H.G. Wells’ Little Wars, Medieval Games by Salaamallah the Corpulent, a.k.a. Jeffrey A. DeLuca, Lawrence Schick’s Heroic Worlds: A History and Guide to Role-Playing Games, and Dr. Stuart Brown’s Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. I’m currently reading Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s game-design textbook Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals; it talks from an often abstract yet important perspective of what games should accomplish, elements to a successful game, and other aspects essential to game creation, all using examples from well-known analog and digital games. Thus far I’m finding it a kind of guide to life, if you will, outlining broad, core concepts and explaining how they work, and leaving it up to readers to apply them in their daily, practical lives. My Amazon.com wishlist has a few more titles I hope to acquire in the future (though one can’t really purchase additional time in which to read them…).
Library Journal: LibraryJournal.com provides a different perspective on games, examining issues like game programs at libraries, electronic access to resources, censorship, the changing role of libraries as a gathering place or “community hub” -- issues that also affect gamers in both their use of the library and the pursuit of their hobby. Aside from offering news from the world of libraries to further illustrate the challenges they face, LibraryJournal.com hosts several library-themed blogs: among the ones I find most engaging are Annoyed Librarian’s frank yet critical discussions of issues facing libraries and game industry veteran and librarian Liz Danforth’s Games, Gamers, & Gaming blog with gaming-specific insights. For those of us dealing with analog games (and in some aspects digital media as well), one theme in its article and blogs remains the role of a physical library (with space, books, staff, programs) in a swiftly evolving electronic age. It encourages us to look at the physical spaces and components for our own gaming lives (libraries, Friendly Local Gaming Stores, conventions, and other venues hosting our gaming activities) and how they might evolve given technological developments and changing political-economic conditions.
American Journal of Play: A quarterly, interdisciplinary journal examining the history, science, and culture of play, the American Journal of Play offers yet another perspective on issues related to gaming in articles from scholars across a wide range of specialties. The first three volumes (12 issues total) remain available free online; review the contents and abstracts online and download PDFs of individual articles that appeal to your particular interests. I have several from the most recent issue on my hard drive waiting for me to find time to read them: “Why Parents Should Stop Overprotecting Kids and Let Them Play: An Interview with Hara Estroff Marano and Lenore Skenazy,” and “Marbles and Machiavelli: The Role of Game Play in Children’s Social Development.” These might seem a bit highbrow for some, but reading current scholarship on games and play might offer a different perspective on issues related to our own gaming and game design. The Journal is one branch of an educational institution called The Strong. According to its website, “The Strong is a highly interactive, collections-based educational institution devoted to the study and exploration of play.” It includes several “play partners” in Rochester, NY, that support this mission: National Museum of Play, the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play, and the American Journal of Play (all of which are worth exploring online).