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A pilgrim's tale: The joy of conferences and video games that teach

Posted by Michael Warshaw  May 17, 2013 09:42 AM

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By Scot Osterweil, creative director, MIT Education Arcade

In the opening to David Lodge’s wonderful comic novel Small World, he likens a group of academics on a swing through a series of conferences to Chaucer’s Canterbury Pilgrims, revealing themselves as they swap stories. I thought of that novel as I spent the past month attending five conferences; one here at MIT, and four on the other side of the continent.

It’s not hard to find the humor in conference-going, with its share of self-promoting speakers, not to mention the ever-present networking. I flew off to the majority of these meetings filled with more dread than anticipation. But at each of them, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the things I learned, either through presentations or conversations. Each such positive moment was a reminder of the importance of human interaction in our construction of knowledge.

In our daily lives we are bombarded with too much information. At its best, the conference represents an opportunity to experience the affect and enthusiasm of the presenter, enabling new ideas to cut through the fog of the familiar.

A small example from Sandbox Summit, the conference we hold here at the MIT Education Arcade: One session involved a conversation with Harvard professor of cognition Howard Gardner, who, among other things, briefly summarized the work of philosopher John Dewey. Dewey’s notions of experiential learning -- that we primarily learn by doing -- are the basis for modern progressive education. They are also fundamental to our approach to game design.

We believe that through digital games, players learn to explore complex systems; and through interaction, they construct their own understanding of the processes at work. When we embed challenging academic ideas in a game, it is with the goal of helping players experience the pleasure of learning and mastery.

With Dewey’s ideas as the bedrock of our own practice as learning game designers, we may forget how little those ideas have penetrated beyond our circle of colleagues. But at Sandbox Summit, I had a chance encounter with the head of a trade group that represents toy makers. He had never heard of Dewey, or the notion that we learn best by doing, and was fascinated and affected by Gardner’s talk.

That trade group leader was gaining new insight into the audience his industry serves, reminding me again that game designers need to be in an ongoing dialogue with a broader public. It was the kind of teachable moment that is peculiar to conferences designed to open up conversation between industry and academia. I’d argue that only in a setting like that would we have made the human connection that made that learning possible.

Scot Osterweil is the creative director at MIT’s Education Arcade. He has designed games for computers, handheld devices, and multi-player on-line environments, including the acclaimed Zoombinis series of math and logic games, Vanished, the MIT/Smithsonian Curated Game (middle grades environmental science), Lure of the Labyrinth (middle grades math) and The Radix Endeavor (high school biology and math).

The State of Play blog, organized by MassDiGI, features posts by digital and video game industry insiders writing about creativity, innovation, research, and development in the Massachusetts digital entertainment and apps sectors. MassDiGI, based at Becker College, is a statewide center for academic cooperation, entrepreneurship, and economic development across the local games ecosystem. Follow along @Mass_DiGI.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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MassDiGI 8-24 287w872.jpgThe State of Play, organized by MassDiGI, features stories by digital and video game developers and business insiders. Follow along @mass_digi.

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