Game Up Your Unconference

Last weekend I was delighted to head down to the University of Maryland for THATCamp Games, an instance of the popular humanities and technology unconference devoted specifically to games in education. It’s been a while since I attended an unconference — my last one was LibCampNYC in 2009 — and THATCamp Games reminded me how much I enjoy the unconference format. Capping registration at about 100 people and eschewing formal presentations means lots of opportunities for discussion and conversation among the participants, and lots of opportunities for learning. At this particular THATCamp the attendees were highly diverse, from faculty and staff in higher and secondary education to educational technologists to game industry folks to students. While there weren’t a huge number of librarians there, I wasn’t the only one, and of course the topics we all discussed are relevant to academic libraries as well as other educational organizations.

I’m an avid gamer and have long been interested in games-based learning, though it’s only in the past couple of years that I’ve begun to incorporate games and game mechanics into my own teaching. I’d like to use more games in my research and information literacy instruction, especially to leverage the research behaviors that are a built-in to so many digital (and non-digital) games, and I appreciated that the unconference began with a day of workshops called BootCamps which offered hands-on experience with thinking through and creating instructional games. I know of at least one library that’s used the application Inform to create a text-based interactive fiction game (Bioactive at the University of Florida), so I went to a BootCamp on Inform and had the chance to play around with the software, which doesn’t require much programming knowledge.

Two of the BootCamps discussed using ARGs — alternate reality games — in educational settings. I’ve always found the idea of using an ARG for education intriguing: ARGs are immersive experiences that incorporate many beneficial attributes of games, like asking students to take on a new identity, and scaffolding knowledge and skills. But many ARGs are long, detailed, and involved, and I’ve struggled with the practicalities of integrating something so time-intensive into my instruction, which tends to be mostly one-shots. During the two BootCamps we worked on specific activities that I found really helpful in thinking about strategies for my own teaching, one an example of a narrative puzzle, and the other an exercise in which we broke into small groups to brainstorm a subject-specific ARG. The facilitators emphasized that when designing an ARG the game objective and the learning objective must overlap completely, which seems like sound advice for designing any educational game.

I’m also interested in exploring ways that librarians can use games in collaboration with other faculty to strengthen students’ research competencies. During the unconference proper there were several sessions on adding game-like features to classrooms and courses. In a session on “Badges Done Right” we discussed using badges and other game structures like experience points for grading or other forms of recognition within a course. There was also a session about building gaming into the learning management system, with examples of both a commercially-produced and a home-grown LMS. There’s no question that the trend in “gamification” is complex, and we spent much time discussing the benefits of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. However, for faculty using game mechanics like badge or XPs I can think of lots of possibilities for librarians to collaborate. (“Wikipedia fact-checker” badge, anyone?)

Like any good conference there were lots of interesting-sounding choices at every timeslot (and a phenomenal number of tweets), so I’m grateful that a shared, public Google Docs folder was created early on. There are notes from nearly every session, and if you’re interested in games and education I encourage you to take a peek.

About Maura Smale

Coordinator of Information Literacy and Library Instruction, New York City College of Technology, City University of New York

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