Meaningful Play 2018

The Collaboratory at Meaningful Play. Pictured from left: Nathan, Kris, MSU librarian Jonah Magar, Krista-Lee, and Josh. Photo by Laya Liebeseller.
The Collaboratory at Meaningful Play. Pictured from left: Nathan, Kris, MSU Library Gaming Coordinator Jonah Magar, Krista-Lee, and Josh. Photo by Laya Liebeseller.

Meaningful Play is a conference held at Michigan State University where academics and indie game developers gather for a three-day event. Like most conferences aimed at higher education, this one includes panels, roundtables, and workshops. During the evenings, however, the developers take center stage to showcase their games, discuss motivations behind the project, and describe what makes their project “meaningful.” For those of us on the academic side of the table, this is time when we can simply enjoy games and engage their creators face-to-face. Board and computer games were both present in abundance with each table usually occupied by players overseen by a gaggle of spectators eager for a turn.

Members of UWM’s Serious Play group attended this bi-annual conference to present our panel, “Serious Play on Twitch: Experiments in Academic Streaming,” where we described some of the affordances of streaming technology when applied to scholarship. Each of us took on a different facet of producing the Serious Play channel, posing questions that had been raised throughout the past year and a half since we began streaming. Although the panel went well enough, there were some interesting questions and concerns raised by the audience during the Q&A and on social media.

One audience member addressed issues regarding the vulnerability of the streamer and being “out there” and exposed. Although there has been occasional trolling, we responded, the channel has not been too frequently targeted. Being an academically motivated channel that plays less popular games tends to attract fewer hassles. We also suspect that trolling a bunch of people heavily interested in social dynamics would make for poor targets (so please, please feel free to troll us!). There is something to be said for the exposure that live streaming demands of its producers. What to make of this impromptu scholarship? For an industry accustomed to works that are typically only shared after rounds of revision, testing, and editorial scrutiny, how does a streaming channel contribute to the larger discourse (if at all?). One of the qualities of streaming and live broadcasting that elevates scholarship is the way it promotes off-the-cuff discourse. The ability to speak to one’s own thoughts and work is something not taught on campus. Playing a game within a group of academically-minded folks teases out the half-baked thoughts and impulsive responses that must be chiselled into more refined comments later on. Streaming also has the potential to disseminate this raw scholarship to a much wider audience, though this potential is complicated by the platforms that provide these services.

This also raises questions about accessibility which have been culminating among conference planners and attendees for some time. In hindsight, it seems strange that a panel on streaming would not be streaming their presentation. When planning for the conference, it was determined to be too much of a hassle. Travelling with the proper equipment such as microphones, webcams, and suitable laptops can be difficult and cumbersome. Setting up ahead of time is also difficult and relies on assumptions about space, internet quality, and connections that are often unknown. Given that one of the persistent issues we’ve had has been set-up, we figured it best to leave the mics and cams behind and focus on the discussion.

Screen capture of Twitter post: "ANd now were talking about arcane things like the ethics of taking money from twitch as an affiliate, IRBs and if using public funds for something that isnt accessible to everyone is ethical"
Screen capture of Twitter feed.

The issue of access was hinted at by another member of the audience who was critical of several aspects of our panel. With everything from the lack of diversity among us to the topics we were sharing, this person took umbrage and voiced their concerns on Twitter. This provided us with a remarkable opportunity to continue the discussion in ways unanticipated. Perhaps this is one positive aspect of having one’s panel documented – so that an archive of the discussion can be properly preserved without having to rely on social media for such documentation…

One of the charges against our panel – the lack of diversity – is something that we have wrestled with for some time. Despite our efforts to address gendered and queer themes within games, we are woefully homogeneous when it comes to ethnic diversity. This inadequacy has had an impact on the Collaboratory in the past and, as was pointed out, there is still work to be done. Representation within the Collaboratory is also limited to faculty and those who currently have or are pursuing a graduate degree. No undergraduates! While there are logistical issues we’ve found that inhibit representing undergrads, there is nothing that excuses our lack of ethnic diversity. One of the solutions we’ve discussed going forward is to address this in the vetting process for when a new show is pitched. The question should be asked: what will you (the producer) do to attract and accommodate players of backgrounds that are largely underrepresented in academia and/or in game studies? 

The Twitter discussion carried on into the next day. While initially disconcerting to a point, the conversation enabled both sides to clarify themselves and address issues.

Our other presentation, a roundtable with the Games Studies Guild at MSU, explored similar questions in a more informal gathering between the two schools and other attendees. During the roundtable, Serious Play shared some issues we’ve had pertaining to technology, representation, inclusion, and outreach. Because UWM lacks a designated games studies program (or a conference like Meaningful Play), the comparison might seem lopsided. This difference was surprisingly absent from the discussion. Despite this major difference, we found that many of the issues and concerns were shared between both campuses. Faculty representation, exposure to the greater campus, and inclusion proved to be at the foreground of each group. It was a discussion that we hope will be continued!

One of our frequent contacts, Nick Lalone (University of Illinois – UC), posed a question after lunch that went something like:

“Has studying games made games less fun for you?”

For this author, the answer is simple: I have a lot of gripes with games and I spend a lot of waking time thinking about how games exploit players. But a gathering like Meaningful Play is special because it helps sooth that critical beast. More importantly it does so among a community that is growing through the enjoyment of games simply as creative and important works.

Classic Quests: the Mise en Abyme of Ultima IV’s Opening Screen

Author’s note:  This post originally appeared on the blog for the Digital Cultures Collaboratory at UWM.

screenshot of opening splashReleased over three decades ago, Origin Systems’ Ultima IV in an anachronistic computer game to be playing in an age of ultra-real aesthetics and NPCs fueled by rudimentary forms of artificial intelligence. True, it’s graphics are crude even by Cold War era standards. The interface resists logic. Interactions with entities within the game are clumsy and robotic.

These elements obscure a sophistication with regards to development that is significant in the history of computer game design and the medium’s position in the lineage of media writ large. At the time, this emergent art (yes, art) form was struggling to break free from traditions rooted in tabletop role playing games and literature. Ultima itself was born of creator Richard Garriott’s love of Dungeons & Dragons and live action role-playing (LARP). Both activities are among the primary influences of Garriott’s work and are evidenced in too many ways to list here. Generally speaking, there was no shortage of motivations for creating games. What developers and enthusiasts wanted was for games to be taken seriously.

Ultima IV‘s opening scene, discussed at length in Classic Quest’s first U4 episode, exemplifies the approach developers took to legitimizing games as an artistic achievement. Used in literature, film, and painting, the mise en abyme is a technique in which a work is placed within itself. By opening the game with a miniaturized theatrical acting-out of the game, Ultima IV is asserting a position beside the works of Marry Shelley’s Frankenstein, Orson Welles’ Citizen Cane, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Splash screen for The Stanley Parable
Menu screen for The Stanley Parable.

Within games themselves, this knack for self-referencing has become common. The latest installments in the Wolfenstein series, for example, each contain bonus levels where one can play levels reminiscent of the original Wolfenstein 3D. This takes a sardonic tone in Galactic Cafe’s The Stanley Parable (2013). This meta-gamewhich offers a scathing existential commentary on the game player, opens with a menu image depicting an infinite mise en abyme of computer screens. This intentional self-reflection negates immersive effects, says Piotr Kubiński, instead placing the player in a state of “emersion” (2017, p. 54). This design choice, according to Kubiński, demands that the player engage the game in a new way through an “experience [that] is transferred to the level of a critical play with the medium and its rules (p. 55).

"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp
“Fountain” by Marcel Duchamp. Photo taken by Alfred Stieglitz (1917).

This capacity for self-commentary is a signature for modern art, most (in)famously by Duchamp with his guerilla installation “Fountain.” Duchamp’s upturned urinal has been the source of interpretation and critique for a century due in large part to the work’s stance as meta-art. Duchamp did not likely care what the opinion of the viewer was only that the viewer be forced to confront the existence of such a thing. Although Duchamp’s repurposed urinal left an indelible mark on aesthetics, it did little to slow art’s commercial trajectory or slip into graphic design. Still, over a century later, “Fountain” (or its replicas at least) still demands that the viewer reconcile her own attitudes about aesthetics (“How do I know it’s art?”), the value of whatever might be called “art” (“How important is art?”) and the forces that affect our definition of the form (“This is art!”).

Ultima IV doesn’t quite get to this point. By staking a claim in the high arts, however, Garriott was prompting players to recognize that games were more than just the sum of their design elements, algorithms, and feedback loops. The sophisticated device of mise en abyme found in the most revered of the visual arts – now seen in a computer game – demonstrated the capacity for the form to reflect and intelligently consider itself as something of value and merit.

Featured image, The Play Scene in “Hamlet” by Daniel Maclise. Image released under Creative Commons CC-BY-NC-ND (3.0 Unported)

References

Kubiński, P. (2017). Play it again, stanley: Mise en abyme and playing with convention and narrative in the stanley parable. Tekstualia, 1(3)