Reviewing the seminar “Games, Play and Education”

This is a short review on the seminar “Games, Play and Education” I held as a combined event for both online students in ePedagogy Design and offline students of educational science from Hamburg University during summer term 2008 in Hamburg.
From the official seminar description:

“Educational games are advertised as a cure for most ills of our stratified information society with its ‘demand’ for life-long and self-reliant learners. A player is usually intrinsically motivated and angst-free to experience and practice new knowledge in a problem-oriented and highly contextualised manner, in a controlled artificial environment – and even has fun doing it. If the factual, practical, or reflective game-knowledge could be transfered to the player’s everyday life, we’d have an ideal educational setting (or a bloody massacre) at hand. The stunning visuals of contemporary computergames lead to a common fallacy in the understanding of play: We don’t play games because they resemble reality. We play them because they don’t. Games are powerful as learning environments on different levels, but they are also full of paradoxons.”

The goal was to give a theoretical and practical insight into games and play both in general, and more specific as means for learning within and about rule systems. Games and toys as interactive and changeable microcosms of rules, of perpetuation, variation and transgression, may deliver interesting insights into basically similar systems which are harder to access, change, or understand – like education or media.

The seminar started with about 50 students (mostly teachers-to-be) crammed into an ICT-seminar room laid out for about 20 people; and it was meant to work with an additional five online students from Finland and Spain. As communication platform I planned to use Skype-Video and/or Adobe Connect, as presentation and collaboration plattform there was a smartboard and ten Macintosh-computers in the room, with access to the faculty’s online communciation system ‘EduCommSy’ with a dedicated project room for announcements, links, reading materials, tasks, discussions, attached Wiki etc.

The second session showed that I was too optimistic in trying to attend to the needs and questions of a mixed presence and online audience that big and diverse, while at the same time handle, maintain and troubleshoot the technic, and also verbally and medially deliver coherent content and suggestions. The Skype-connections and Adobe Connect tended to break down or froze, the webcam had to be directed to the speaker in the seminar. During the third session, my Apple MacBook Pro with iSight Webcam I was using as communication-interface suffered a fatal hardware crash, taking texts and drafts with it. Bad Karma.
From that point, I decided to split the seminar into an asynchronous online and offline seminar; not in the spirit of the game, but at least technically reliable, and, though requiring a higher workload, better to manage for me.

The interests and preconceptions shown by the students in games in general were – to speak mildly – very diverse, from students who hadn’t played at all (not even board- or cardgames) to professional working with commercial games. The approach of integrating all these different takes later on showed to be a mistake, it heightened the burden for me to dig for relevant questions, tasks and source texts, and irritated many students, who were longing for a clear, strong lead and a coherent linear path through the seminar.
Interestingly many students in the beginning complained about the high amount of theoretical texts I uploaded to the Community System (though they liked the ease of access to the texts), while the remaining students later on, in the feedback session, expressed the wish for more theoretical texts and sessions.
This was probably due to the functional split of the seminar, which combined a theoretical foundation in the first eight session with a practical project group approach in the remaining six sessions. After the first theoretical half of the seminar, the number of students was down to about 18, but kept stable and highly motivated till the end of the seminar.
This is – and will be – a problem for me: How to downsize a seminar to a workable groupsize without explicit exclusions? How to integrate the students’ diverse interests in a topic without losing coherence and thus foster disorientation?

On the other hand I was surprised how inventive and motivated some groups tackled their projects, and how much dedication flowed into games and programs. Although some groups restrained themselves to the ’safer’ approach of analysing existing games or genres, there were also some highly ambitious goals I hope will stand out as ‘work in progress’ in the end, due to the sheer amount of technical, creative and theoretical expertise it will probably cost to finalise them ‘for real’.

There is a Wiki as virtual collaborative workspace/showroom attached to the seminar’s online EduCommSy-project room, where you can browse notes on the seminar and the groups’ projects. The projects will (hopefully) be finalised in September: