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.














Showing Off Seesign

Seesign's Main Screen

seesign in use

There’s a new project here at Local Games Lab ABQ: Seesign. It is Celestina Martinez’ tool to visually identify signs (as in sign language, not road signs). She used Nomen to make Seesign, a new platform from Field Day Lab, my ARIS co-conspirators.

Martinez’ goal with Seesign is to replace the very user-unfriendly dictionaries sign language students need to use to look up unfamiliar signs with something obvious and easy-to-use. The usual approach to looking up signs is to search by the English word you think might correspond to what you saw. The affordances of dictionaries are just not very useful for organizing visual as opposed to textual information. It is not hard to see that this is terribly inefficient for learners who need to look up signs they don’t recognize.All you have to do is mark the features you do notice: hand shapes, movement type, etc.

Seesign's Main Screen

Seesign’s Main Screen

You do this by tapping the relevant choices on Seesign’s main screen (above). The possible matches to your choices are numbered and linked at the top right of the screen, and are narrowed in scope with each additional feature you mark. At any point, you can tap on this number to see those potential matches (below; in the actual app these are animated GIFs).

Likely Matches

Likely Matches to a Choice on Main Screen

Nomen makes it quite simple for novices without much technical background to produce tools for this and similar identification tasks. More on that later, but for now, note that Ms. Martinez does not have a technical background and put this app together, with only minor assistance from me, part-time over this last year. She began work on Seesign last fall as part of an assignment in my course, Things That Make Us Smart, and has continued this semester as an independent study. She also submitted it to the 2016 UNM App Contest, but did not win any of the big prizes (robbed IMO).

Why Seesign Is Cool

Ms. Martinez describes it a bit better than I do, but basically, her app was born of the frustration of learning sign language using common tools. The usual approach to looking up signs is to search by the English word you think might correspond to what you saw. It is not hard to see that this is terribly inefficient. It works fine if you are trying to say something you know in English, but not at all for identifying signs you see. The affordances of dictionaries are just not very useful for organizing visual as opposed to textual information. Reverse-look-up visual dictionaries do exist, but they are not common and they are expensive and very limited in terms of

  • The words they provide – very few
  • How signs are represented – static images, very basic
  • The mechanics of looking up – tons of pages to rifle through.

Seesign improves on all of these greatly with its obvious, streamlined interface for marking features and looking at the matching results. Not only is the user able to mark as little or as much of what they recognize—maybe you notice the type of movement, but not what hand shapes were used—but Nomen is also flexible in how it organizes and displays matches: showing both “likely” matches, signs that match all marked features, and “possible” matches, signs that match at least one marked feature. And since it is a web-app, unlike my long-time favorite ARIS, Seesign is accessible on almost every internet connected device with a screen: phones, tablets, laptops, desktops.

So far, Martinez has developed two iterations of her basic prototype (one each semester). She currently only has 10 words catalogued, but has worked extensively at

  1. Developing a useful categorization scheme that classifies words in a way that brings out the visually distinct features of signs and fitting them into a small number of readily apparent choices, and
  2. Producing a visual format for illustration and feedback on the users’  marked choices: animated GIFs.

I’ve been really impressed with Ms. Martinez’ work this last year, both in her general ability to start with an idea and really dig into developing it into something tangible (not just the app but the “soft” work too: finding a model to work with, entering the UNM app contest, etc.), but also the acuity with which she has developed (through thoughtful iteration) the experience of her app, especially through those two areas above. She also displayed attention to detail. Nomen is strictly-speaking authorable without writing code, but it is still essentially a working prototype of the basic functionality Field Day hopes to turn into something far more polished in the next year. In particular the formatting guidelines are strict and unforgiving. Ms. Martinez’ build compiled on her very first upload, a feat I doubt I will ever manage.

This work is worth looking at for several reasons, some of which go far beyond her specific innovations:

  • It is a good idea: the advantage and use of this tool to aid sign language learners is clear.
  • It begins to describe a model for extending learning outside the classroom based on interests developed within.
  • It is an example of how accessible tools can open new areas of development by subject matter enthusiasts instead of technologists.
  • It is an example of how a local games lab can encourage and support development in small but meaningful ways.
  • It is an opportunity to discuss how events like app contests might focus innovation and enhance collaboration, and having seen this contest play out, what might be learned from what apps are being tried, why, and how.
  • It is the first documented use of Nomen (there’s another one I’ve been working on I hope to post about soon), a new accessible and open tool that could see myriad uses by others across many fields of inquiry and contexts of interaction.

In follow-up posts, I’d like to discuss these more general ideas. If you beat me to it or have other resources to point to, then by all means…

Second Annual Game Symposium

2016-04-01 09.27.26

Last Friday (4/1/2016) was the second annual Game Symposium hosted by the Local Games Lab ABQ student group at the University of New Mexico. It was tons of fun and somewhat amazing. It’s essentially a mini GLS conference put on by local students. There were students, faculty, and local devs speaking and in the audience.

It is hard to get people’s time and attention at UNM and in Albuquerque. This is true for student clubs, political parties, and everything else. The fact that this club is going strong after two years, has hosted many events, and has once again put on this symposium is a testament to the hard work and leadership of Gianna, Zack, Diane, and Joey. Logistically, the event was great too. Simple and competent.

2016-04-01 12.19.39

As an audience member, what strikes me the most is that many of the issues concerning games and their uses that have come up for me as an academic are important to people coming from other perspectives, and that we seem to be able to understand each others’ struggles. Also, the sense of optimism that there are a lot of nascent opportunities with games, opportunities that the big players are mostly blind to but that will be explored through the expanding democratization of game making. It was clear that everyone in the room was speaking and listening from a core positive experience: games had enriched their lives and given them meaning, connecting them to the worlds they live in and people they meet. There was a sense of shared purpose, that continued dedication to this craft would take the benefits from early chance encounters and find ways to expand and further realize and share them.

Below are a few additional notes from the event. If you’re thinking about making games, or trying to dig further into just what we can benefit from considering the learning that happens in playing and making games, the concrete experiences below might be a nice counterpoint to more academic treatments, and offer some clues about how these big ideas are woven into and emerge from people’s lived experiences with games. I haven’t gotten the official schedule yet, so forgive the missing names. I wrote down those I could catch. Continue reading