Playing With History — Day 2

[8:30] Today’s session at the Playing With Technology in History conference was devoted to the paper draft we all wrote prior to the conference. Unlike the typical academic conference, where someone (or several people) read their papers, listen to a discussant, and then answering a few questions from the audience, we threw out that model. Instead, we were all expected to have read all of the papers and each of us was to prepare comments/questions for one paper. The goal is to pull the papers together into a volume of essays that can be submitted to a press no later than early July.

Therefore, our process was to tease out those things that need to be done with the paper before it will be ready for publication. Each “presenter” was allocated seven minutes — no more — to offer comments/questions/suggestions on the paper. Then the audience got ten minutes for additional suggestions/questions. As you might imagine, the authors of each paper walked away from the sessions with concrete ideas for what they need to do in the next two months to get their papers ready to submit.

Not surprisingly, everyone at this meeting spent some time wishing all academic conferences could be so productive. As I’ve written previously, I don’t think all academic conferences should adopt this model, but I do think that (a) we need many more conferences like this one — a day of unconference, a day of productive intellectual work — and (b) the big conferences like the AHA annual meeting need to set aside time in their programs for smaller, more creative collaborative opportunities.

Themes emerging from today’s conversations include:

[9:00] A number of the papers concerned games — augmented reality games, “serious” games, and simple analog games for history. There is a productive tension, it seems to me, between “history play” for its own sake, and measurable learning gains. How to find the sweet spot between these two is something a number of people came back to more than once. Also for the gamers, I raised the point of how someone could begin to build games like these without local infrastructure support? I’m completely ignorant about how one might do this sort of work, but I’m betting that it’s very difficult to do in isolation. Lacking good local support, anyone trying to build history games needs a community of practice to make the work possible.

[9:45] Another issue that arose among the game developers was a new one to me — the “creepy tree house” effect. I’ll bet you probably hadn’t heard that one either. The basic idea is that kids can identify a creepy tree house built by adults to lure them in and so they avoid it. When a professor builds a game for students, will they consider it a creepy tree house — a place they are going to be lured into not for bad things, but to fail. I like this term, because when we think about things we design for our students I’ll bet they often think there’s a creepy tree house or two in that syllabus. But, as one of the participants pointed out, there is a tension between the guided learner (whose professor is peering at the student from the window of his tree house) and the unguided learner who we hope will learn things if we create the right environment and turn them loose. I don’t think we know the answer to this problem yet.