Rejoining DiGRA

Today I rejoined DiGRA, the Digital Games Research Association. This feels appropriate.


What does DiGRA do? It’s easiest just to look at the website, but basically it’s a standard organisation for – as it says on the tin – people who research games. There’s the usual executive board, mailing lists (most communications thankfully done online), and a major conference somewhere in the world, which used to be every two years but is now annual. An OA journal, plus a few special interest groups, covering player experience, game accessibility and role-playing studies, are also supported as is a bubbling community of younger researchers and students.

It’s an interesting organisation; though not a huge one, it’s been slowly growing over the years as the quantity of games research, and researchers, increases across not just academia but other sectors. There’s a slight Nordic/European tilt to DiGRA, but they have members, and conferences, in other places. In the UK there’s plenty (and last years conference was held in Dundee), and there’s more than a few in the US. DiGRA also has chapters in a gradually increasing list of countries, such as China, Israel, Italy and Japan.

I was a member for a while in the early days, and presented at the first DiGRA conference, in Utrecht in 2003. It was a small, but friendly and positive, conference. My paper and presentation were … not very good … and it’s very unlikely that an equivalent quality of paper would be accepted now. That is a good thing: the niche of games in learning has moved on a lot, my own personal research and writing have also hopefully improved, many more game researchers makes for (hopefully positive) competition and quality threshold increases, and the standard of content at DiGRA events is a lot higher.

I haven’t been back since, and dropped out of DiGRA after a while. Several major life changes, relocating and moving to various places and countries (an island with no proper broadband for five years didn’t help), and non-gaming work opportunities meant I drifted to only doing game-based research occasionally. Despite this, I’m still regularly startled to see – and have mixed feelings about – some of my publications of that time continuing to be heavily cited. But, despite being otherwise busy over the last nearly fifteen years or so, I’ve kept in touch with some DiGRA members and other game researchers (social media helps with this tremendously), as well as popping up to attend and speak at various events, predominantly in the Nordic countries and the USA.

Now, I have a sort-of plan for the medium term which is very much focused on games in learning research and work activities. Whether it works is dependent on a little luck, and a lot of hard work. Therefore, it seems sensible to plug into various relevant networks, and I’m pleased that DiGRA is not only still around but flourishing. So I joined earlier today, and I’m hoping to attend, possibly even present, at some future DiGRA annual conference – and therefore maybe set a record for the longest gap between presenting at two such events. It’s good to be back.

The lead picture? Today is Sveriges Nationaldag, so I thought I’d choose a picture I’ve taken there. This has nothing to do with games, but what the heck – going around the Stockholm archipelago on ferries was one of the most enjoyable days of travel I’ve ever had. Happy National Day of Sweden!

Four academic game vacancies in Europe

It’s another sign of the growth and health in academic game studies that every day seems to bring a new advert for a position in a university. Here’s four, from universities in Europe, spotted in the last few days. In no particular order:

First up, via a tweet from Petri Lankoski, a post for a senior lecturer in games at Södertörn University in Sweden. Swedish not essential, but it helps.

Second, in Bergen, Norway, via a tweet from Kristine Jørgensen, a postdoctoral fellowship in the Games and Transgressive Aesthetics project.

Next, via a tweet from Frans Mäyrä, a tenure track professorship position in gamification shared between Tampere University of Technology and the University of Turku in Finland.

Finally, via a Facebook post from Richard Bartle, a vacancy at Brunel University London for the position of Lecturer in Game Design.

RAGE: Realising an Applied Gaming Eco-system

The RAGE project is a European Union consortium project involving various partners from the academic and gaming sectors. It’s an interesting one to watch; their aims are to create a collection of assets and resources of actual use to game developers, including those developing in or for the education sector, helping to speed up the process of game development.

The project was partially born out of CETIS, the Centre for Educational Technology, Interoperability and Standards, with Paul Hollins being particularly active.

The RAGE project also tweets, and has some downloads and a blog. The project plans to hold events such as workshops and training courses across Europe. One to keep an eye on, especially if you’re into educational game development.

Making Sense of Games

Congratulations to Espen Aarseth, the Principal Researcher in the Center for Computer Games Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, on securing a significant grant from the European Research Council.

Making Sense of Games will begin in November 2016 and will create four PhD positions and four postdoc positions during the five-year project period. This will add to the already considerable expertise and research output produced by the Center, as well as giving more credibility to the academic cross-discipline study of games.

The Center has been around for a while now (it’s often a surprise to people, especially academics from other disciplines, to discover that this discipline has been an active field of research for decades, not years). The BBC published an article on it in 2004, and I did a short and enjoyable course there back in 2003 which was co-ordinated by Espen. It was pretty good, I picked up some ECTS’s, and I’m still in touch with several of the others on that course. It had the added bonus of being in Copenhagen in December, and it’s always great to visit a Scandinavian city in the run up to Christmas.

Espen himself has been a stand-out person in the field for a long time, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Game Studies, an Open Access journal of high quality writing that’s also been around a long while now.

There’s an interview with Espen in Motherboard, and Gamasutra have a piece too.

The importance of play: what universities can learn from preschools

There’s a nice piece in The Conversation, by Professor Nicola Whitton, titled as above. It’s not a long read, though the final third has some interesting links you may wish to explore for a while.

Meta-Game Studies

Meta-Game Studies, the editorial by Espen Aarseth in volume 15 issue 1 of Game Studies, is an entertaining and interesting read on the issues of research and peer review in this field.

(contains almost obligatory reference to Tom Malone‘s 1980 paper)

Virtual World Watch

It’s taken a bit of time but the files for the Virtual World Watch (VWW) service are now all back online. The introductory and index page is elsewhere on this website.

Though now a fading memory, VWW took up a chunk of working life for several years towards the end of the last decade. It kicked off when Andy Powell, ex-colleague from UKOLN and then the Director of Research at the Eduserv Foundation, spotted I was spending some time in Second Life, wandering around the various education sites. He got in touch and asked if I’d like to do a report for them on this subject.

Which I did. The response to the report was somewhat unexpected. Many – and I mean many – academics in UK universities and colleges appeared out of the woodwork and got in touch, some using the report to justify their work to their peers, others using it as leverage to obtain either internal or external funding to continue their research, or to find peers doing similar work in other UK universities and colleges.

Further stand-alone snapshot reports were commissioned by the Eduserv Foundation. Then, the Foundation went full-in and funded a more holistic service – Virtual World Watch – for a few years. As well as the snapshot reports, VWW produced:

  • A bundle of conference presentations, especially in 2009.
  • Podcasts where I interviewed UK academics who were using virtual worlds.
  • Tweets, Facebook postings, and other social media.
  • Several articles in academic journals and other media; for example [1] [2] and [3].
  • And, of course, collecting data. Lots and lots of lovely data.

Thankfully, we quickly moved away from VWW being solely about the contentious virtual world Second Life, though throughout the life of the service SL remained – arguably regrettably – the predominant virtual world in UK academia.

This was a good time for research into this particular technology; as well as the Eduserv Foundation funding VWW and a variety of other virtual world projects, Jisc also supported several projects across various programmes. There was a lot of activity; at one point every UK university had someone using this particular technology for research or formal/informal learning, with some institutions (more the newer ones) using it across courses and departments, sometimes over several academic years. This led to some spreadsheets containing lovely data – for example:

VWW snapshot data spreadsheet

(and I am so glad I archived all of this data)

However, the data collection and dissemination was definitely not problem-free. The range of funding for this techology against other EdTech technologies, a dislike of virtual worlds (or anything that looked like a game) in academia, and the (very unhelpful) over-the-top hype in some parts of the media over Second Life contributed to a Marmite-effect, with more than a few vocal academics being entrenched in either near-evangelical advocacy or near-hatred of the technology. Interesting times, though sometimes weary on social media.

The high-point for this specific iteration of technology interest, funding, use and discussion in UK academia was probably around the spring and summer of 2009. The keynote at the Jisc RSC Northern conference on virtual worlds in April of that year was especially fun to do – and a big event (side point: even back in 2009, 23 of the 25 speakers at that event were tweeting). The slides from the event are probably the best summary to come out of the Virtual World Watch project:

After several years, things were wrapped up with VWW. All of the snapshot reports, plus three other reports I wrote under my own steam, are online and free. Between them they contain a large amount of data, much of it deliberately unedited (and sometimes frank) survey responses. Do use, but please use responsibly, attributing authors and using their text responsibly and in context.

Overall it was an interesting experience, though it feels somewhat unfinished. It’s good to see that quality research has been continuing elsewhere in this field in UK academia (example), though with significant changes in technology, funding, practice and all manner of other attributes, things seem startlingly different now to even just half a decade ago.

Now, deep into 2015, there’s two pieces of contemporary research I’d like to do if or when funding becomes available:

  1. Another snapshot of virtual world use in UK academia, which would also include a comparison of the data to that of the previous snapshots. I’ve kept all of the contact and other data from the VWW service, so that’s one starting point.
  2. A clear-headed analysis of the (still) contentious reasons for and against the use of virtual worlds in education, possibly involving interviews with pro- and anti- academics from back then, and now.

I’ll see what happens (and if you are a potential funder then please do get in touch). It would be interesting, and hopefully useful to the education technology community, to be able to provide an enlightened and unbiased retrospective, especially as virtual reality emerges as a viable EdTech.