Friday, December 28, 2007

Year End Lists

Officially I am on vacation today, as I have been all week. But I am also back to my computer which has led me to lurking among news sites and other interesting bits and pieces. As it is nearing the close of the year this means lists of top 25's in the game industry, in education and in games of course.

My sister, Mary DeMarle, pointed me to the Next Generation—Top 25 People of 2007 list. This list is intriguing due to the diversity of individual impacts on the industry. This year Saturo Iwata claimed number 1 spot for his leadership at Nintendo. I believe what was written about him last year when he placed second says it all "But what has made Iwata special in 2006 has been his ability to inspire and lead not only great people, but also the rest of us."

I thoroughly love that Peter Raad made it to the list because of his work creating the Guildhall at SMU. Congrats Peter! We first met 6 years ago at GDC while in the conceptual development stage of our respective programs. It is wonderful to see solid higher ed programs progress and begin to cast their influence. 

Also during this time I have been fortunate to see Montreal grow as a game capital and begin to impact industry. It is quite a gift (and a lot of hard work) to have our new campus, Champlain College du Montreal, there where the students have access to vibrant people with emergent ideas. People like Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the IGDA. Jason spoke with the students early in the Fall term and now I see he will be receiving the 2008 Game Developer's Choice Award. Congrats Jason! Among the studios in Montreal the new Eidos campus is getting a bunch of press. General Manager Stephane D'Astous seems like a leader to watch in Montreal. He appears to have that special leadership ability that leads and inspires.

But back to my vacation, Christmas is a holiday for me that is all about family and play. The top list of play from my family this year would be the following:
  1. Guitar Hero for the teen and pre-teen set (of course).
  2. Apples to Apples—a card-based community discussion game for all (they can't seem to keep this game in stores).
  3. Bunco—a traditional holiday favorite across the female generations.
  4. Playing the piano—the sound of live music.
  5. My little pony played between the little nieces and my adult brothers.
  6. The dragon game my niece Becca received.
  7. Tinker Toys for five year old Christopher.
  8. Stealing of adult shoes from under the Christmas Eve table by the five and under set, Macey and Savannah.
  9. Dominos for Jim—multiple colors and set variations.
  10. Make believe and the sound of reindeer bells.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Creativity or Creation

Phenomenal day today. It was a day in which brilliant minds convened and shared concepts with the aim of transforming education. At Champlain, Robin Lane, Joe Manley and myself, under the encouragement of CCM dean Jeff Rutenbeck, are embarking on creating a new degree program that hopes to offer a new, life impacting, form of education for young people engaged in new media, discovering themselves, wishing to impact cultures and wanting to innovate utilizing and creating emergent forms.

Around the table both live and through teleconference, fortified by web communication, were participants from innovative design studios, game studios, technology companies and independent new technology/media arenas alongside outstanding faculty—teachers of the best sort. A very diverse crowd in one respect but a crowd united in that they recognize the changes that technology has brought forth and the need to address education to reach a new, sometimes more adept generation.

One thing I have learned in my life is that experts are not experts unless they understand and can ask what they do not know. The act of honestly asking questions and seeking answers. This group was such a group. My mind is still buzzing with the ideas and insights offered!

This meeting followed a wonderful lunch with a man I consider a true mentor. In many ways this lunch targeted much of the goals and what needed to be discovered at the subsequent meeting. He shared with me the concept of critical friends.  He asks hard questions—questions I am grateful that they have been asked. As a designer I have always found the "criticisms" of clients most valuable. Likewise I have also found their projects, usually in subject matters that I have not studied, a form of study in itself. For instance, I have done many an animation for IBM Research. It was through these that I came to understand many elemental and not so elemental principals of physics as well as future technologies. All a way to grow intellectually. What I applaud about the idea of critical friends is that criticism is not meant to destroy but to strengthen.

That brings me around again to the convening of genius this afternoon. A key thought brought forth by one of our group, Chris Hancock, was of creation versus creativity. Indeed it is one thing to bring forth concepts but it is an entirely different matter to make those concepts work. Perhaps critical friends is one of those factors that can enable creation. Either way if this degree program succeeds it will be in part because this upcoming generation unknowingly has behind them a group of very smart critical friends.

Today's image is a composite of these friends and ideas generated from the meeting.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Wired Play

Today, a visit to the Boston Museum of Science, a place I have visited before—what do I finally see? An Aztec calendar with a pendulum. The main floor exhibit masterfully positioning my questions about a long ago culture that is no more. 

I've just returned from that 14 hour day to Boston and back. Hope Martin and I had two meetings mid-day. One with Kangmei, the other with Emily, both have exciting concepts about creating games for different outcomes. One on building collaboration in a corporation—integrating "next gen" workers; the other on electronic games as applied to discovery for children. 

At 5:00, we headed off to hear the MacArthur Foundation presentation "Totally Wired: How Technology is Changing Kids and Learning". Three distinctly different academics presented in a forum: Katie Salen, Henry Jenkins III and Howard Gardner. Key thoughts:
  • Jenkins expressed the need for new media literacy to allow a larger proportion of the population to be part of  participatory media.
  • Salen focused on the system of learning surrounding games.
  • Gardner wonderfully admitted to being "paleolithic" compared to "digital natives" and  stressed key ethics' questions in regards to youth and new media: sense of identity, privacy issues, ownership & authorship, trust and credibility (to which I add genuineness), and the definition of community.
All offered poignant thoughts on a generation brought up alongside computers. I especially appreciated Howard Gardner's reflection on the concept of present society being immigrant cultures on a new frontier. This resonated after a lunch time conversation this week with Champlain education professor Ken Reissig. He explained the dilemma of Burlington's Somalian immigrants and their difficulty adjusting to the rapid adoption of American language and culture by their teens.

However distinctly missing from tonight's forum were the voices of the "totally wired" generation. I'd prefer to hear them offer their perspective from the stage as well. It is interesting that we can not hear until it is translated by experts.

After listening to these luminaries, my last photo in Boston was of the shooting stars hung in Harvard Square. Thoughts on the 3.5 hour drive home were about how far voices from the Vermont mountains travel. Vermont is incredible because it offers a distinct voice. That may be why I love Champlain College. We do do things differently. We are educating forward. It was with these thoughts that, while driving the mountain high roads, I was surprised by 7 amazing shooting stars—the real kind.

Tonight I have no conclusions to offer except visual thoughts about play from my last 4 days:
  • Playful mannequin in Bristol, VT.
  • Playful cat.
  • Playful art at MOS.
  • Game designers at play.
  • Tinker Toy computer that plays tic tac toe at MOS.
  • Photographic play with holiday lights in Cambridge.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Processes and Steps

Today has been that type of busy day that it is difficult to assess if anything has been accomplished. The students are very busy with end of term projects and besides brain storming on various projects, production has been halted until they finish finals. What is interesting is that many of the students I work with are under pressure not from their exams but from their class projects.

All the same the Center is buzzing with activity. As a group Monday evening, the Info Literacy team re-evaluated where the game concepts have been going and are now seeking to redirect. Janet Cottrell and Sarah Cohen from the library gave the students criticism about what points the projects were going astray on. I admire the students as that did not dissuade them from continuing. An important thing to remember is that this project is volunteer and about 20 students—from freshmen to juniors are volunteering—even during this very busy time. Instead they asked very targeted and to the point questions. 

It was discovered how much the process of Info Literacy is like the process a gamer goes through when playing a game. Depending on the researcher, the process, by any other name is very similar. Using Carol Collier Kuhlthau the sequence looks like this: 
initiation>selection>exploration>formulation of focus>collection>presentation>assessment.
Of course then it all cycles around. Just like the gamer's steps! The more difficult piece of concept development will be finding the metaphor that brings that message home—not teaching the process itself since that is so intuitively familiar to the gamer (ahhh - perhaps that is why these students are so bright!). This morning I was caught up in the idea I suggested to the students of starting at the end and letting the player then discover the process backwards—a type of deconstructive discovery. But this is up to them.

The funny piece of that was this afternoon I was late for a meeting with John Cohn and the student team working on the IBM/Engineering Week project. I walked in and John walked us (for my benefit) backwards to what had already been discussed. He created great sound effects as he back-stepped through the PowerPoint that is the current conceptual outline for that project. 


That project seems to have finally discovered its true path which is wonderful as our timeline is compressed. However it is the group searching—the creativity, the questions and the unique student understandings of the dynamic power of emergent medias—that give this developing EMC process its unique potential for innovation.

Here is a quote from an article I am reading tonight that has my head turning about creating relevant education (Nov. 2006 Scientific American by Stuart A. Kauffman from the University of Calgary):
The Evolution of Future Wealth
"...a deeper understanding of how species adapt and evolve may bring profound—even revolutionary—insights into business adaptability and the enginesof economic growth...
... Evolution can innovate in ways that cannot be prestated and is nonalgorithmic by drafting and recombining existing entities for new purposes—shifting them from their existing function to some adjacent novel function—rather then inventing features from scratch."

And with that tonight's photo is from the technological marvel that was Chichen Itza—also still ruminating in my head. Where did that all that creativity and artistic, written and technological discovery go and why?

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Following Stars

by William Stafford, from The Way It Is; New & Selected Poems, Graywolf Press, 1998
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
Above is a bit from a thought provoking poem that I was introduced to 2 weeks ago at an Investor's Circle Conference in Boston. It was following a grueling three weeks of travel that included an IEEE Computer Society meeting in Cancun and a Masie Center Learning 2007 conference in Orlando. Head to head I was able to participate in incredible technologies and then view and ponder great poverty. All has been rambling about my brain since. How does one bring the powers of technology to bear on our societal disparities? How can emergent technologies be effectively applied to connect cultures and impact change? Likewise should one? Do we follow the Startrek imperative or the Dr. Who imperative? What is the "star"?

What I do know is that we need to share our wisdoms...that sharing means being open to learning from one another. New technologies offer tools to do so. Yesterday John Cohn, a truly magical IBM engineer, was working with the students of the EMC and I wished I had brought my camera. The engagement was as thick as peanut butter and jelly. John had created an intricate mind map of a project they were beginning work on and also had programmed the Wii-remote to work with the PCs. Ideas buzzed about, new concepts building upon each other in a tumble of discovery.

It was similar to other moments captured in these photos of Champlain students this last month—illustrating them actively engaged with the very young and curious, with the development process, and with concepts shared by the inquisitive experienced. Much like yesterday's meeting, joy in learning is palatable. In each, media technology forms the connection point through which unpredictable discoveries are made—breaking down patterns that may exist in the world. It is a pointer to answers. Answers that include building technologies that celebrate learning, deepen our connectivity to each other and enable us to realize the potential of our shared humanity. Students, our digital natives, the millenials, are good guides in this pursuit. I find them a generation that seeks deep connections, desires to impact the world and is fluent at envisioning potential usages of emergent technologies. I am learning from them.

So why follow these stars? The poem concludes:
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Snow Day

** * **
It’s a snow day here in Vermont. The first major event of the winter, school’s been canceled. It’s an official day of play. From my kitchen table vantage point, I can see children and dogs, parents and grandparents convening over sleds, snow banks and snowmen.
It’s a perfect day to reflect on the nature of play and community, about games and business. A larger global event in the world of play also happened today. Activision (Guitar Hero, Call of Duty) and Vivendi (World of Warcraft) announced a merger worth $18.9 billion. Like our New England blizzard swiftly turns brown fields to snowy white, Activision Blizzard instantly topples Electronic Arts as king of gaming’s snowy hill to become the world’s largest game publisher.
*** ** ** *
What interests me about the joining of the two companies is that despite seemingly different product lines, there is a striking similarity. How many of you have entered Circuit Cities or Best Buys to see line-ups of teens playing Guitar Hero together? Likewise Guitar Hero playoffs are popular. At these events the creative style with which one plays the game is as important as successfully completing the levels. It is a game based on having a live community to perform for. World of Warcraft is also a community-based game based on creative expression and performance. Exploration, making a livelihood, meeting challenges successfully together and the ability to gain leadership status has brought nine million players worldwide into this virtual fantasy world.
** * *
Performance, creativity, and community seem to be a winning combination for these two properties. This trio of elements appears to be major constituents of play. What is it about this combination that draws us to the experience? When accomplished in community, mimicking musicians, fighting opposing factors and building snowmen, are fun and motivate us to do better. Motivation to do better crosses boundaries into the worlds of learning and of work. Only recently new controllers, faster hardware and higher bandwidth are enabling these types of experiences in the virtual realms. What new forms will open up and what will be the pitfalls and possibilities? Will we still call snow days to enable random acts of community and creativity, will virtual hot chocolate taste as good?