Games Learning Society conference 2014: a debrief. Although, in short, it was pretty cool.

by David Ng


So, I’ve just returned from the Games Learning Society 2014 conference, held in Madison Wisconsin, and I’m all abuzz with new and grand ideas! Essentially, I went in as someone new to the #gaming #learning #academia field (or a “noob” as the vernacular goes). And although their website only provides a peripheral description of what the conference is about (with only the briefest of blurbs on the GLS’ about page), this particular conference was highly recommended by Barry Joseph, a friend and colleague with whom I’ve been working with on the AMNH Pterosaur Phylo deck. As well, Barry is a highly respected member of the games and learning community, which is to say that if I accidentally refer to him as a “Yoda” in the field, I mean it only in the most positive of ways.

Anyway, a few months back, I literally asked Barry to pass on a recommendation to the following query:

“If I only go to one gaming conference to get my feet wet in this type of community, what would that most excellent conference be?”

And so here we are. Fatigued mentally and physically from last week’s intense learning and networking, but also most definitely inspired to contribute more to the community. This is actually part of the challenge: so many interesting discussions and ideas surfaced with this interdisciplinary crowd, that I’m a bit befuddled on how to proceed and what to focus on next. My work plate is already very full, nutritious and rich, so navigating new opportunities is a little intimidating to say the least. Which is why, I’m going to write this post to organize my thoughts, but doing so, I hope readers will also get a taste of the wonderful community as well as the general vibe (academic or not) of this conference, so as to consider why they might like to attend in future years. Anyway, with this in mind and in no particular order…


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one Firstly, I have to give kudos to Edge Quintanilla, Margaret Chmiel and Barry who graciously allowed me to play in their sandbox (as in metaphorically an accepted panel presentation/discussion – “Advancing STEM Learning with Games in Civic and Cultural Institutions: A Play, Critique, and Discussion Session“).

The workshop was both engaging for me (and I think the attendants), but I’m hopeful that maybe in the future the four of us can work on something together. I say this because I kind of think the four of us would make a good “SuperFriends” team, since Barry is from New York’s American Museum of Natural History (let’s say he’s “Superman”), Margaret is from the Smithsonian (let’s say she’s “Wonder Woman”), and Edge is from Chicago’s Field Museum (let’s say he gets to be “Batman”). What you’ll notice is that they inadvertently represent a trifecta of three of the most iconic (natural history) museums in North America. Maybe, I can act as that connecting, comedic, valued, but occasionally mocked (I’m o.k. with this) 4th wheel – or in other words, maybe I get to be one of the Wonder Twins. O.k. that came out wrong, but you get the point.

one I should point out that my official gateway to the gaming scene is via the Phylo Trading Card Game project. This (in case you didn’t know) is an open source biodiversity game project that is essentially attempting to crowdsource a flexible trading card platform that allows for games to be designed around real organisms (indeed, the brilliant but surreal crowdsourcing efforts to date were inspired by knowledge that children know way more about Pokemon than they do about real creatures). It was cool to see such positive reaction to the project, both in commentary, but maybe more importantly in the many people who “got it” right away and started discussing possible “other” uses of the platform.

This ranged from folks like Ariel Marcy who has developed a card game about evolutionary clade sorting (see this successful Kickstarter); to Owen Gottlieb who is thinking about card games that reflect on historical, as well a religious culture, content (I love that). As well, I had a chance to chat with Tom Toynton, and found out that he also has a biodiversity related trading card game that sounds awesomely in tune with some of the mandates of the Phylo project.

A quick chat with Scott Price from BrainPOP was also pretty interesting. Here, he mentioned liking the idea of adapting and improving upon an open trading card platform (such as Phylo) so that it may be more widely used by teachers and students. This was quite intriguing especially given BrainPop’s presence in the educational market. The one nuance that would need navigating, however, is to ensure that the Phylo brand and game mechanic remain open, even if used by commercial vendors. To that end, the Phylo project is currently in the process of determining the right legal framework to allow “for profit” entities to utilize Phylo resources (branding, game mechanics, use of cards, etc) in a way that protects the open philosophy of community driven resources, whilst providing an option for others to commercialize and copyright their own “edits.” In general, I’m hopeful this will add another layer of flexibility in the project, so that more resources can be created in both non-commercial and commercial contexts (p.s. if there are any intellectual property lawyer types that want to help with this, then do let me know).

Finally, at the conference I referenced the fact that Phylo’s DIY card making process would be greatly simplified over this summer (to the point where ideally a 7 year old can do it), with the intent that this would make it a lot easier for things like classroom decks to be created by teachers and their students (you can see examples here, here, here, and here). This proved really popular with the many teachers I chatted with. For those interested, the plan is that when this functionality is released (and note that you can do this right now – it’s just a bit complicated), we’ll likely beta test how it goes by only releasing 100 or so “teacher” accounts.


one Still related to the Phylo project, one of most interesting conversations I had, revolved around the possible use of ARIS. This is basically an open source mobile app platform designed to allow educators to tie in GPS and QR code functions into tour or game like immersion experiences.

In Phylo’s case, the discussion was around whether such a platform might be amenable to addressing one of the central criticisms of the Phylo card game – that is, if you want to educate and/or advocate for biodiversity concepts, wouldn’t it be better to simply make people go outside, and not stay indoors playing a card game? Now, there’s all sorts of discussion we can have about the validity of this criticism, but I have always thought that an app that somehow entices Phylo players to go “outside” would be a lovely endeavour.

In this respect, there seems to be a lot of potential, ranging from using the cards as a wildlife checklist, using the cards to navigate a physical tour within a defined space (like a park or a museum), or even (if we ratchet up the creativity) a game wholly developed that draws folks into the card world, whilst moving around an outdoor environment with markers, goals, and/or tasks. I was also of mind about seeing how ARIS could connect with the Encyclopedia of Life. Given the deep and scientifically sound meta data collected by EOL, it seemed like there’s a no-brainer in seeing how these two could somehow mix, especially with their similar open source philosophy. More so, since the Phylo project is currently working with EOL on something very cool.

Anyway, it was great chatting with David Gagnon (with whom I not only share a first name, but also apparently and strangely, identical fashion sense) and Chris Holden on this. It sounds like a follow up proper is best done with a bit of funding, but this is something that has great potential and I’m definitely thinking more about this.


one I also love that this was a conference where being an advocate for role playing games has an air of heroism to it. And being a former Dungeon’s & Dragon player, and more recently sharing this fine way of playing with my children, it was cool to see how some people were using RPGs as a portal to better learning. In particular, I had a chance to pick two remarkable brains, that being Trent Hergenrader and Kip Glazer. In their case, use of RPGs naturally flowed around deeper practices on narrative, storytelling, and creating richer context around such writing. It sounded really quite wonderful, with Trent using this innovative approach around creative writing world generation (see an example here with Hellwaukee), and Kip incorporating similar practices to get her high school students to not only better understand a work of literature like Beowulf, but to completely and wholly own it.

Anyway, I’m totally inspired to see if I can use a RPG based mechanic in my one undergrad course I teach – this would be ASIC200, a course with 2nd year undergrad students from both the Faculty of Arts and the Faculty of Science, all in together to learn about a few chosen global issues (climate change and genomics for instance). In particular, rather than ascribing learning objectives around writing skills, this would be more about somehow getting students to think, act and perceive the world view of the other (the whole art versus science thing I guess). As the token sciencegeek in the course, I’ll be chatting with Allen Sens (the humanities geek) on whether this might be doable, especially since we’ve been thinking about possibly moving towards a “flipped” class scenario, thereby freeing up a good chunk of class time.

one Kip is also something of a force of nature! We got to speaking about teacher professional development opportunities and from this, we discussed the idea of hosting a teacher hackathon. Here, the goal would be to host a day session with a good number of keen teachers (my facilities can easily accommodate such an event with anywhere between 10 and 90 teachers), and provide a structured but relatively open template where they’ll be charged to explore existing materials, and attempt to come up, or “hack” something better.

Specifically, Kip and I were thinking a session where teachers will come out with a number of fleshed out (and shared) lesson plans/goals/ideas, that could focus on game based learning and mathematics (Kip’s true love). Add to that, the beauty of a hackathons is that it also embody ideals where it’s o.k. if the lesson plans are not perfect or great even. The point is that they represent a viable prototype, and something that can be built upon, more so with this new network of teachers that you’ve just spent intense time with.

Anyway, Kip has already thought through a way to start this in earnest, and the first step involves putting ideas to paper: and why not under the guise of chapter proposal for a book? I’m currently working on seeing if I can bring her out to Vancouver for a visit, so fingers crossed.

no6 In the fall, I’m about to start a research project around children’s impressions of “science” and their impressions of “creativity,” with a mind to explore how they might intersect (or not). This, you can learn more about here, but what was cool was a chance to meet someone working on a research initiative with similar elements. This individual is June Ahn, who has this intriguing project called “Sci-Dentity” where they:

“…are creating an after-school program for inner-city, middle school youth in Washington DC Public Schools (DCPS) where students will create science inspired stories with different media (e.g. graphic novels, short stories etc.) […] A main focus of our research will be to explore how science fiction and other creative narrative projects can be designed and used to help young people imagine the exciting ways that science impacts us as human beings and shape who we are.”

This is especially cool for me, because the research that I’m involved with revolves around a fieldtrip program (the Science Creative Literacy Symposia) which essentially provides an informal educational experience that combines science experimentation with expository creative writing. Anyway, definitely will have to follow up with June to see where we might work together, and possibly even bridge research outcomes, given the potential overlap existing. This is also another example where twitter is proven to be a valuable tool – the whole discussion began via monitoring the #gls14 twitter feed.


no7 The description of the next potential project is purely tangential, in that it involves Pokemon and that this somehow relates to the fact that the Phylo project happens to reference Pokemon as a call to action. In any respect, this was spawned by a great conversation with Christian de Luna, a Pokemon devotee, which revolved around Pokemon’s mechanics emulating evolutionary concepts, and how that might be taken advantage of to, you know, actually look at evolutionary concepts proper. I have to say that this is very enticing to me especially as someone who is a geneticist and very familiar with evolutionary biology. How cool would it be to design something around this angle? Anyway, I’m totally game on as a collaborator (maybe from the content expertise angle, but also as a director of an educational lab where we can discuss elements of seed funding and certainly roll out betas to children of various ages), although I am most intrigue by what this grant proposal might look like, as well as where it would go!

no8 Finally, I have to mention that part of the reason of going to #gls14 was to immerse myself a little in the academic culture of people who research games for learning. And there’s probably no better way of doing this than hanging out with the amazing young researchers who shared their time with me. In this respect, I had a lovely time hanging out with folks like Olivia Stewart, Kelly Tran, Niels Quinten, Lori Ferguson, Christian de Luna, Andrew Jefferson, Jeff Holmes, Joey Huang, and Lien Tran to name a few. Thanks to all who were so generous with their time – definitely do look me up when you’re next in Vancouver.

Anyway… In the end, this whole conference was definitely time well spent, but now for the difficult part. Basically, I’m sold – I do want to dig a little deeper into games research, but the reality is that I can only pursue a few of these great ideas in earnest. This is both in terms of intellectual engagement (collaborative grant proposal anyone?) but also in terms of thinking about possible seed funding support. Regardless, I’m pretty sure the GLS conference is now going to be one of those conferences I try to attend on a yearly (or at least biannual) basis.

(Images from the #gls14 feed at Flickr)