Student-led game talks in spring 2019

I have added a new major assignment to my Games for Change class this semester. I’m asking each student to give a public talk as part of a six-week ongoing series. The idea, while a bit scary, may kill a few birds with the same stone. I thought I’d write about it here in case it helps anyone else who’s hoping to reach out through games in their community, and just to put down my thinking on the experiment.

I have been stymied by how to build more general awareness, in a university, about lessons we might learn from games, from seeing them as having broader cultural implications to the inventive projects that involve games to accomplish something else. I’ve tried to get faculty to play games or to come to events where students show off their games, mostly to little success. More intense collaborations around games, like building Mentira, have been great but because they are so intense are few and far between, especially with intense expectations around production of more traditional scholarship making it hard for people to take a hard left to try something new. I have had more luck with siftr because it is both very simple to pick up and meets outsiders closer to home.

Those who don’t know games already have a rather large set of barriers to overcome: time, skill, intent. Most are simply not going to suddenly decide to put a hundred hours into Civilization or see the hidden depth of Fortnite. But most here are familiar with the notion of giving a talk (so much so that one of the birds I hope to bludgeon is the oral communication requirement for our 300 level courses) and the idea of stopping in to a brown bag for a few minutes to lend an ear to an unfamiliar topic. I especially love this idea because it is a way to put students in the drivers seat and position them as the experts from whom others must learn.

Learning to Talk

Over the last few years, I’ve found ways to spitball this a bit. The Local Games Lab ABQ student group put together a symposium here at UNM for three years in a row. The planning and the speakers were fantastic and diverse, though attendance was—as always here—hard to come by. They also held gaming open houses at both a small informal level and with a big yearly event, El Dia de los Juegos, where they brought in a bunch of commercial and locally developed games and set up an arcade/tradeshow.

dia de los juegos 2016 poster

Last year, I asked a student who was pursuing an independent study around games and storytelling if she were willing to plan a small, multi-speaker event around her topics of interest. She did and it was pretty wonderful. She put out calls for proposals in a few relevant places, from our department to Math to English, organized them into a coherent theme, and planned the event.

Choice in Play Flyer

Flyer from Bibiana Seng’s 2018 Event Choice in Play

I’d like to take this positive energy and turn it into something that’s not necessarily bigger, but more regular, something that emerges from the usual course of our work rather than only being possible through rather extreme dedication. So I’ve taken about a third of my Games for Change course apart, and refocused it on game talks. I’m very excited to see what we can do with this as a shared goal.

Yikes, how do we do this?

At the same time, it is always stressful to work out ideas in and for a public. And I don’t have a background in teaching public speaking. So right now, I’ve made a lot of room in the schedule for practice, feedback, and for learning by watching others. Obviously something like TED provides a lot to learn from that wasn’t there a few years ago when it comes to giving talks. I’ve assigned a series of talks by Hans Rosling because of the arc in his visual style from fancy graphics to physical props. But talks like these are so polished and professional that they may be hard to relate to. And I know we always have to struggle to see form instead of content. Extra Credits has hundreds of examples of what a game-related short talk might try to do, but again, clearly professional in terms of production and the background of the creators. I have been hoping that talks closer to home might be a missing link.

Just today, I found out that our university is hosting the American Indian Studies Association Conference this week. It’s perfect. Issues that are of extreme local importance, and which need new voices to find prominence, including treatment through new media by those closely involved. There’s a scholar and game designer talking about her games: Elizabeth La Pensee. And one of our former students who has gone on to Yale and now Stanford is also speaking. Of course, they are both at the same time and during a double-booked slot in my existing schedule, but that’s about typical. I’ve got to end this post now so that I can push aside other things in our schedule so that at least when students are in my charge, we can attend session or two.


Screenshot from Elizabeth LaPensee’s Thunderbird Strike


If you have any advice or resources that might help us in the quixotic task to increase the level of conversations about games in our community, I’m all ears. If you’d like to hear about pushing things aside to make room for something new, please get in touch.

Come and Check it out

We don’t have a schedule of talks yet, or a venue, but we’ll be speaking Thursdays from March 26 to April 26, somewhere on campus. Let me know if you’d like to be notified about details as they emerge.

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