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.

LGLABQ at UNM in Spring 2019

Based on a conversation with our resident Vertebrate Paleoecologist about his lab, and in connection with an ongoing effort to set up and keep open a non-disciplinary maker space at UNM (the OILS Learning Lab), I’d like to try something new with the lab hours I put together for the Local Games Lab ABQ this spring. More generally, I’m looking for better ways to build momentum around place, learning, and play, here in ABQ.

LGLABQ Spring 2019 Poster

I’ll be in the OILS lab each Wednesday from 11-12:30, and I’ve set up a schedule of events that cover some of the most vital topics and projects related to games and local place about which I have some understanding and which might prove especially useful as practical introductions to the work, relevant to our likely audiences, from undergraduates looking to do something a bit more real than take classes, to grad students whose research programs may include some design based research, either in the two programs I moonlight in (Educational Linguistics and OILS), or elsewhere on campus, the staff and faculty already working on place and learning, or games, or anything near those areas, who are mostly and usually alone in this work here at UNM.

While some of our weekly events have us playing a game that was made here, or made for another locale, and seeing their projects as a whole, other weeks are specifically set up as training in tools like ARIS or Twine that make making games, specifically place-based ones, easy enough for anyone. A third kind of activity I have planned involves collaboration on the seed of a new idea using siftr, and open workshop time for people to bring in their work and get some hands on time or feedback with some support nearby.

If you’re in the neighborhood, and have an interest, I heartily welcome you to get in touch or simply stop by. Likewise, if you’re making games or learning about them, the whole idea of this lab is to find ways to support these interests in our community. I’d love to know about your projects and goals, and to make more connections around play, place, and learning locally. Maybe we’ll abandon the prepared schedule for something with a larger sense of shared meaning.

ARIS, Twine, and Siftr

Twine is maybe the easiest game design platform out there. When I have my students make games with it, there is no tutorial. It is a very nice way to start telling stories that involve player interaction and may go in more than one direction.

ARIS I’ve written about lots before, but in case you’re coming here from somewhere else, it is an open-source AR game design platform, shepherded primarily by Daivd Gagnon et al. at Field Day Lab in Madison, WI, and that I’ve been involved with for about a decade now since I first started working with Julie Sykes on Mentira. It does a lot of things, but as a first approximation you could do worse than thinking about Pokemon Go or Ingress with their phone-based, GPS gameplay combined with the branching dialogue possible with Twine. ARIS is great for location-based games, where the phone mediates player’s interaction within place more than it sucks players in to the screen. It takes a bit longer to learn than Twine but is very accessible to non-programmers, novices, etc. of all ages. Someday I’ll write about how similar it is to Twine in other ways too.

Siftr is a spin-off of an ARIS feature called the Notebook. It is a collaborative map creator that I’ve written about before, and hope to put to use this semester as the first step in making a silly, largish scale game on campus. It is even easier to use that Twine and should be the goto tool for anyone wanting to explore/document place as a group.


Open Lab

Los Duendes: Folklore in Place

Zimm: Library as a game board

ARIS: Homegrown Augmented Reality

Making games easy: Twine

Siftr: Mapping campus for play

Mapping UNM 2: findings + brainstorm

Gaming campus

Mentira: Spanish Language Mystery

Surviving Alaska: bringing together indigenous and digital contexts in school

‘Analy Nyuwiich: forging partnerships through game design




Hopes for Spring to Come

Anyway, this is my siren call and stake in the ground for the spring. It’s easy to let time slip by because there are other obligations, and without a pressing deadline to compete, too hard to set aside time for the work we really wish we could be doing together.

I know of at least two groups at our university who are working on games right now, and I hope to share them with you soon too. One is a ARIS-based campus tour for new international students. Another is a chemical docking game, in the same genre I guess as Foldit, the well-known protein folding game. This one has an ambitious full freedom control scheme as part of its innovation.

Finally, 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. Again, I was goaded into this by our paleontologist, but the idea, while a bit scary, may kill a few birds with the same stone. More about that in a minute.

Please do come join us at the OILS Learning Lab this semester, or if you’re far away, let me know what you’d like to hear about.














Plaques, conversations, and quests oh my!

ARIS is great, but not always straight forward. I forget this since we have grown together over the course of a decade.

In particular, ARIS authors are faced with a bit of difficulty deciding which kinds of “game objects” to use when creating games and other experiences (plaques, conversations, items). A recent post to the forums the questions I’m sure thousands of other authors have faced.

Although the manual and other places do go over technical differences between plaques and conversations, this isn’t helpful enough. So here I’d like to share a bit of practical advice about choosing game objects. 

First, there is no one right answer. ARIS is very flexible, an open ended system for creating augmented reality experiences. Do what seems good to you. Chances are you’ll figure out something I haven’t. 

But, especially for newcomers, it’s nice to have a good place to start.

Start with Plaques

I use plaques until I really need something else. They are the simplest, easiest to create and use objects in ARIS. The way they show up for players in the client is similar to what you see in the editor. And yet plaques are still powerful. Already with plaques you get a deeper interactive system than with other ar tools like Aurasma. 

So what can a plaque do?

At minimum, a plaque presents the player with a title, a bit of media, and some words set below on the screen. 

Intro Plaque from our recent game, Zimm

So 99% of my plaques look like this one above, with an image on top and some text below (there is a bit of HTML to make the big, red font and paragraph spacing). When the player is ready to move on, they tap “continue”. It’s very simple for them and me. 

And within this format, an author can do a lot of storytelling. Plaques can represent turns in a conversation, quests being given, informational plaques, and so much more. The best advice I have for authors is to not let our vocabulary words limit their imaginations when it comes to representational metaphors. 

A plaque’s media need not be an image. A great and also simple use for plaques is to present video (or audio, but it’s clunkier). Putting videos in plaques may help you ditch text all together (note too that video playback in plaques is full screen by default, making them more immersive than videos inserted as character media which are constrained to vertical orientation within the existing conversation window).

What the above plaque looks like in the ARIS editor – don’t worry about code until you’re looking to fancy things up

A third thing plaques can do, and where the simplicity of plaques lets authors quickly make use of advanced interaction in ARIS, is “edit events” (blue button in the screen shot above). To a first approximation, “edit events” allows authors to give and take items to and from the player upon viewing the plaque. Interactions with hit points, keys, money, etc. are quite simple to put together. 

There are far more advanced things you can do with events too, like change the whole game world for all its players (not just each one who encounters the plaque). There are also other places you can use events. But giving and taking items from players is already a lot to play with. And running events from plaques makes their execution simple too. 

Finally, the text field in plaques can accommodate HTML and JavaScript. You can use HTML to customize the presentation of text, bold, italics and so on.

Javascript can be used to do just about anything. In the example above, we use it to make the device vibrate upon opening the plaque. ARIS even has its own JavaScript library and documented examples to do things like present leaderboards or insert the player’s name into text.

Starting with plain text then going to HTML and Javascript, all within the same part of ARIS, a lowly plaque, is an awesome way to start simply and ramp up into complexity. And these skills will transfer to other places too! Most text fields in ARIS have the same power of parsing code, and these languages have a few other uses too. 

Again, my first advice to ARIS authors is to use plaques until you really need something else. They can do so much!

Plaques, triggers, and locks

Another thing authors gain by sticking to plaques early on is learning the other functions of ARIS, especially triggers and locks, in a simpler context.

Triggers – How the real world and game world meet

Plaques (and pretty much everything else) are accessed through triggers. The starting point is to assume that every plaque needs a trigger. The most common kind of trigger is a location. As an author, you would create a location in the real world for your plaque, a place where the player could find it, by creating a location trigger and pointing it at the plaque in question. Until you have a trigger (or some other connection), your plaque exists in the game world but cannot be reached by a player.

Plaque and location trigger – basic mechanic of ARIS

There are many other kinds of triggers too, from QR codes, Bluetooth beacons, timers, and even AR triggers that work by the camera matching a given image to one the author sets. My previous post on the design of Zimm shows a few of these in action and the manual lists them all.

Locks – creating sequence from content

The notion of sequence in ARIS is determined entirely by locks, and this is another area where your initial assumptions may not line up with how ARIS is set up. By default, any trigger (in a scene—until you really get into ARIS, just use a single scene; they are messy) is always available to every player, even if they’ve already seen what’s there. Without locks, the game world is static. This is similar to many tour making apps, like Aurasma.

With locks, you go from tour to game. Real interaction becomes possible. Basically, you put a lock on a trigger by specifying the key that opens the lock, i.e. what the player needs to do or have in order to make the trigger accessible. You can lock triggers you’re done with, open up new triggers as the player progresses, and make triggers conditional upon pretty much any condition ARIS can keep track of. The manual and its tutorials have further details on their use.

Although there are other objects and mechanics for ARIS authors to explore and exploit, in many situations you can use plaques to accomplish the functions of these other, more complicated features. This is a great way to limit the complexity of your learning adn the design you are hoping to realize.

Below, I detail a couple examples of this, why I often use plaques in lieu of quests or conversations, even though I know ARIS quite well.

Plaques instead of quests

The Quests feature in ARIS is quite powerful, and equally complicated. I typically remove that tab from my games. I can accomplish the job (notifying the player of their progress and goals) with plaques and appropriate locks, telling the player at certain times that they should be doing something in particular or relying on them to move forward if the available options give them little choice. Making a few plaques to communicate game state is way easier than figuring out this whole panel:

This takes longer to learn than it looks; quests are complicated-just use plaques!

Plaques instead of conversations 

Authors often have a hard time deciding if/when to use a plaque or conversation. My general rule of thumb is:

Use a conversation if it needs to branch or page. Otherwise use a plaque.

The choices in conversations allow players to take different paths within them, and they also allow you to create a layered experience (page-ing), switching out text and media with each tap by the player. They are the main reasons, I’ll go to the trouble of using a conversation instead of a plaque.

The one other consideration is appearance. Instead of text below an image, conversations fill most of the screen with their image, and layer text over that semitransparently. Conversations need more specific image aspect ratios and the bottom part of the image can’t be important because the player won’t always see it. But they also, in blending visually, look a bit fancier. The text players tap is also customizable in conversations, but not plaques (well, maybe but I haven’t gotten an answer as to how). In a plaque, the player moves forward by tapping “continue” but in conversations you control not only the number of ways to continue but also the text that is used. You can use something like “tell me more…” as a more evocative option, or use other languages aside from localizing everything, even when you don’t need a branching interaction. 

Other ideas?

So that’s a basic rundown of what plaques really can be and why they are a good first choice for beginners and veterans of ARIS alike. If you’ve got other questions about them I’d be happy to hear. Or too, if you have a different set of default design pathways with ARIS.

What other areas can I hope to provide this sort of practical advice in, or otherwise share contexts of AR learning design, not just technical details?

Emotionally compelling AR Views

Despite being an author and promoter of “augmented reality” games for more than a decade now, a dedicated enthusiast if you will, I find that what gets shown off most often as augmented reality in the end seems like a boring gimmick. This is disappointing in some ways (not all—experimenting in a medium has its own value). But even though this is what I see peddled around, I don’t think it has to be that way. What most tech enthusiasts and bystanders understand AR to be could become something more alive. And I have some ideas about how to get there.

Update – I added a section at the end clarifying where inspiring work in AR can be found. There’s lots out there but you need to be looking for it.

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Another Awesomenauts – Making a game with a close friend

Another Awesomenauts Game Title

I haven’t had much chance to make games lately. Lots of leading design jams and student work, but not a project where we make a game and play it. A game we spend some time and energy on, where we try to realize a singular vision. Not in a while. But this last year, in my spare time on weekends and such, I found myself lucky enough to work on a new game. A couple weeks ago, we finished a 1.0 and ran it up the flagpole. It was exhilarating. It felt great to see it come to fruition and put it through its paces. I’d like to tell you a little about this project and where we might start to look for learning and games to come together in ways that can lead far.

My design partner’s name is Alex, he’s 5, and he’s my oldest son. Our game is called Another Awesomenauts.

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