Excelsior College Reviews CUNY Games Festival 3.0

Excelsior College >> CUNY Games Festival 3.0: New Voices and Practical Strategies in Game- based Learning for Higher Education

By David Seelow, PhD.

A couple of weeks ago I had the good fortune of attending the third annual CUNY Games Festival, which, in turn, had the misfortune of needing to cancel the second day’s activities because of the monstrous storm Jonas that buried New York City in nearly two feet of snow. The Games Festival is an outgrowth of the CUNY Games Network, a group of CUNY (City University of New York) faculty (Joe Bisz, Francesco Crocco, Carlos Hernadez, Julie A.S. Cassidy, Robert Duncan, Bruce Homer, Deborah Sturm, Kathleen Offenholley and Maura Smale) from different branches and disciplines of the university system with a common mission of promoting game-based learning. It is an admirable model for how faculty can voluntarily gather, organize and act in a way that makes a system-wide impact on both faculty and students.

For those who do not know, CUNY is a mammoth urban university with just under 270, 000 students enrolled in degree programs, 24 campuses, and around 6, 700 full time faculty. In other words, this city system is larger than most state-wide systems. Its mission is to provide quality low cost education to New York City residents and provide an upward path for disadvantaged populations. CUNY is among the most diverse institutions of higher learning in the country. The conference took place at the Graduate Center, which can be found on 5th Avenue and 35th Street between the legendary landmarks of the Empire State Building to the south and the New York Public Library to the north.
What impressed me most about the conference was the open forum given to new voices. All too often once something becomes popular in academia the platform to speak shrinks to the self-selected anointed and new voices, diverse voices, are often shut out. At the Games Festival, there was space for many people interested in game-based learning, and they could be heard in an informal, collegial atmosphere dedicated to improving classroom practice. The focus on both the classroom and higher education made this a vital event. Moreover, the opportunity to bring together many disciplines outside professional game designers with an interest in using games of all kinds- digital and non-digital- in the classroom, both physical and online, was a welcome sight for me.
I will touch on just a few of the sessions I attended to point out a few practical ideas for other instructors. Let me start with my own strand “Literacy and Story,” (I will speak about my presentation in the next blog). Beatriz Albuquerque, a PhD candidate from Teacher’s College, Columbia University (northwest of the CUNY Graduate Center) and a native of Portugal, spoke about an art education class. She had her class of students – those wanting to teach art in a public school- play Super Mario World. Although this assignment does not seem to make complete sense in an art class, yes video games are art, but Mario might not be the most artistic of games; nonetheless, the idea was to have pre-service teachers, many who never played a video, play one and simply discover what a video game does. Experiencing something new prompted, Ms. Albuquerque reports, some of the best group discussion she had encountered all semester. In particular, normally quiet nonparticipating students became very active contributors to the discussion. A major advantage of video games in any learning context is the likelihood marginal students will become more central to the class experience.
The final short presentation in my block also had a curious unexpected benefit for me. Professor Joshua Fishburn, from the College of New Jersey, talked about “Writing Game Rules and Instructions, as a Communication Exercise.” He uses the activity in a game design class, but I immediately saw its relevance to a writing class or class in interpersonal communication. Professor Fishburn asked his students to create a simple non digital two player game that would take 15 minutes to play. Students could only use one piece of paper, one writing instrument, and the game could only give the player one option. The finished games were then played in class with the designer watching, but unable to give the players any feedback. The assignment focused on the printed instructions each designer made for the game. Communication could only take place through the game pieces and piece of paper. Professor Fishburn reported the most common remark from designers was “Not like that!” On the other hand, the most common comment for players was to “clarify” the instructions. In other words, the exercise elicited a tension between the designer or writer of instructions and the player or reader of instructions. Although a design assignment, this translated precisely to the writing situation, especially technical writing, but really all writing. Audience awareness is paramount. If the audience does not understand your writing, you are defeated before starting.
Many years ago, when directing a student teaching program, one of my supervising teachers had her students, all student teachers for Elementary Education, write directions for how to make a peanut butter sandwich. Sounds easy, right? Well if you had no prior knowledge of sandwich making the directions would not help much. Precise instructions are critical in a board game and really in any kind of technical writing. I dare say most written instructions I read end up in the trash because they are so poorly written, and these are written by professional writers!
A final point here would be the constraints put on students making a basic game. This principle works equally well in the writing classroom. Force students to write under very precise constraints – like the 14-line book reviews I used to do for Choice magazine—and you will be surprised by the results. It is an excellent exercise in audience awareness and the importance of clarity in writing. Those 14-line reviews, by the way, carried lots of “power.” Libraries often used the reviews as guides in making decisions about whether or not to purchase the book for their collection.
Next I attended a lively panel discussion in the Proshansky Auditorium. The best suggestion I pulled from this hour long discussion was a terrific idea for CUNY English professor Carlos Hernandez on his adaptation of the classic albeit very simple board game Battleship (Milton Bradley, 1931). Dr. Hernandez calls his classroom version of the game “Battleship Grammar.” Here are the instructions:
“1) split the students into pairs and have two secretly draw two “battleships” on an 8×8 grid I provide, which have letters along the x-axis and numbers along the y-axis (a la the game Battleship). Then I show students sentences on PowerPoint slides. If they identify all the missing punctuation in that sentence, they may shoot at their partners (again, a la Battleship).”
Being a sometime writing instructor, in the afternoon, I attended “Story and History.” I learned about a new and promising tool for writing interactive fiction called Undum. As the tool outputs in HTML 5 and CSS 3 it will be readable and playable on mobile devices. We will devote any number of future posts to interactive fiction. Interactive fiction is not exactly a game by most definitions, but many such fictions are; nonetheless, they are classified as games because of their interactive nature. Having taught literature for over two decades I can honestly say no interactive text and no hypertext story has ever approached the quality of traditional fiction. At the same time, as a tool that allows students to create their own work and involve the reader as co-creator, I believe interactive fiction and nonfiction has tremendous teaching and learning potential even if we don’t get a Ulysses or Moby Dick. The point is not to produce classic literature, but to empower students’ creativity, and for teachers to help students use the dynamic features of interactive fiction in a variety of disciplines, especially History/Social Studies and English, but potentially many other subject areas as well.
I also learned about an exceptional time travel card game called Chrononauts. A perfect game for the History classroom, students learn how reinterpreting or changing a key or lynch-pin historical event/decision has wide ranging, long term consequences. This game is a kind of historical choose your own adventure where the student can play out alternative historical scenarios that teach the students how a single event ripples throughout history, but also that history is a construction and not the stable, set reality often described in history textbooks.
Finally, graduate student Geoffrey Suthers talked about his NYU thesis game Sumer. I have always made The Epic of Gilgamesh required reading when teaching Introduction to Literature. For students, Sumerian culture is a relatively unknown, but crucial – indeed the foundation culture of western civilization. Consequently, students should be introduced to this culture. Mr. Suthers described the very real tension between fun and accuracy in educational games. We all know how successful and how much fun the Civilization and Assassin Creed series are, but we also know they are poor history. If such games can act as a springboard to a student’s independent investigation of history that’s great, but presenting them in a formal History classroom seems problematic. The larger question concerns “How do we design History games” that are historically accurate and fun? That’s a delicate balance very hard to achieve and worthy of extended discussion.
I concluded my day listening to Professor Doug C. Maynard from State University of New York (SUNY) New Paltz, talk about how he used Ingress, an augmented reality, massively multiplayer online location-based game. Those who are unfamiliar with augmented reality games might want to visit the website and play for a time. Ingress does not particularly appeal to me, but the potential of augmented reality location based games is considerable. Think about weaving a suspenseful story around the exploration of historic neighborhoods (Harlem and Greenwich Village in NYC come immediately to mind), landmarks, museums, public spaces in general. Augmented reality strikes me as especially useful for Environmental Science, Sociology, Urban Anthropology and History.
Overall, the CUNY Games Festival was a refreshing and practical event dedicated to game-based learning and its many faces.

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