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The 1st Annual International Academic Conference on the Future of Game Design and Technology, more concisely known as Future Play, began appropriately with a keynote addressing many important issues on the minds of those in and surrounding the video game industry. The event packed Michigan State University's Union Ballroom with a diverse audience of game industry professionals, academic researchers, activists, and a healthy population of eager students, all gathered as a product of the conference's theme of bringing academia and industry together.
Henry Jenkins (MIT) and Craig Anderson (Iowa State University) at play.
The aforementioned opening Keynote given by John Buchanan, Research Liaison for Electronic Arts, set a tone for the three-day event by discussing where the industry is presently, and what both academics and working game developers can do to innovate in their respective fields. Focusing on the play experience and its connectedness (or lack thereof) with story, John went as far as to say that “there is no such thing as an interactive story.” While surely the statement ruffled a few academic feathers, his point was clearly that experiences are what create story, and therefore the interactive (experiential) nature of games makes it difficult to truly integrate a story, by its true definition, into gameplay itself.
John ended his talk with a message specifically for researchers: focus on the cutting edge and avoid the traps of doing research with current generation technologies. The message seemed to largely ring true with conference attendees.
Future Play contained many high quality keynote presentations by a number of respected industry and academic speakers. Many of the keynotes were recorded and are now available online at the conference website.
At the end of the first day, the well-traveled Ernest Adams spoke on what he felt were the emerging issues in game design. Being mostly a compilation of many of his previous speaking topics, Ernest's talk primarily aided attendees in pinpointing the issues that are in need of better solutions, making great food for thought for those contemplating their next research or industry project.
Day two began with a podium-less discussion between Henry Jenkins and James Paul Gee entitled “Why Video Games Are Good For You.” The always insightful duo shed light on the widely untapped notion that games are excellent learning tools. In the process, Henry was able to establish a basis for his (and countless other's) strong stance against anti-game legislation. The talk would also act as a preamble to the hotly anticipated panel discussion on game content and censorship which Henry would serve on later in the day.
The final day of the conference treated those in attendance to two final keynotes given by Greg Costikyan (“Imagining New Game Styles”) and Michael Mateas (“A.I. Is The Future of Gaming”). Greg laid out his thoughts on why he feels the game industry is, to a large extent, creatively stagnant, and how future developers can go about innovating within the same space. With the recent announcement of his Manifesto Games endeavor, the audience was quick to probe Greg regarding his thoughts on the future of independent games, and his role in improving their visibility. Greg's response was that he plans to build a viable path to market for games that might not otherwise “get the attention they deserve,” focusing additionally on helping developers effectively advertise their products.
Michael's talk acted as a fitting rebuttal to John Buchanan's original assertion regarding interactive narrative, using his project Façade as an example of the progress being made in the interactive fiction domain using emerging techniques in artificial intelligence. Spoken over the closing lunch session, Michael's expertise in the area of A.I. was unanimously well-received.
During the first two days of the conference, Future Play was host to two workshops run by distinguished game industry veterans.
The “Game Tuning Workshop,” directed by Marc Leblanc of Mind Control Software, acted as a three-hour crash course in game prototyping and concept analysis. Marc stressed the importance of finding a theme or setting (described as the “aesthetic” in his MDA framework) and then developing “mechanics” to support it. Those in attendance followed his advice to develop a paper prototype that was then play-tested and analyzed. The take away for attendees was learning a new approach to design, along with proper understanding of the importance of early play testing in determining the “dynamics” of the play experience.
The award for longest session title went to the “YWMTMAGAW Workshop” (“You Want Me to Make a Game about What?”). A mix of fun game design challenges coupled with a reality check about the state of game publishing was hosted by Brenda Brathwaite and Jeb Havens of Cyberlore Studios. Attendees grouped to take on design challenges based around existing IPs and their associated constraints. A final round of challenges, dubbed the “Iron Designer Challenge,” pitted groups against highly sought after IPs such as “The Home Depot” and “ Canada: The Game.” Those who persevered through the obvious lack of initial “fun factor” in the dictated IP were pleasantly surprised to discover the realm of viable possibilities for these less than glamorous properties.
Panels and Paper Sessions
Complementing the keynotes and workshops were a wide selection of panels and paper sessions, with topics ranging from game design curricula, to quality of life issues, to casual games. The individual paper sessions allowed academic researchers to demonstrate their findings to a relevant audience of peers and industry professionals.
While there were many great panels, one in particular was relevant to the local crowd due to recent legislation passed in Michigan related to the regulation of violent video game content. “Game Content, Ratings, Censorship, and the First Amendment” gave proponents from both sides of the censorship debate equal time to state their views and research on the need for government intervention vs. parental responsibility. There was obvious passion for and against each viewpoint from those in the audience, but the conversation remained productive and was ultimately an eye opener for all.
As with many conferences these days, Future Play sponsored an accompanying game exhibition and poster presentation. The lively exhibition, which was combined with a wine and cheese reception, showcased three categories of projects: Future Games, Future Game Impacts and Applications (i.e. Serious Games), and Future Game Talent (Students).
Nearly all the games demonstrated brought something unique to the table. A panel of industry judges was asked to pick winners for each of the three categories, along with an additional People's Choice Award voted on by attendees. Congratulations to the winning teams of Jugglin, Mudcraft, MOVE, and Cognitive Games!
Looking at the event from a student's perspective, having access to industry professionals on campus was an exciting opportunity. It was great to see the game development community at MSU earning some much deserved recognition as well.
Future Play was a wonderful experience, and the conference organizers should be proud of what they were able to put together. The event accomplished its goal of bringing two historically isolated groups together to learn what each can offer the other side in an effort to improve the future of games.