Pioneering campus games group might live on after all

UW-Madison’s Games + Learning Society announces a new incarnation

Illustration by David Wolinsky.

Illustration by David Wolinsky.

Although video games are a massively mainstream form of entertainment, they are still playing catch-up in terms of scrutiny and understanding. The Games + Learning Society, a research group and conference that launched at UW-Madison in 2005, represented something of an early challenge to that status quo from within the academic world.

GLS provided a platform and an all-too-important opportunity for people to get together in the IRL to let ideas about how we engage with games and how they enrich our lives a place to be heard, percolate, and ideally inspire. At the time, nearly all other games conferences were focused on selling more games, enabling developers to network to also try to sell more games, or to discuss internet rumors.

GLS ostensibly called it quits as a conference in August 2016 and as a research group in January of this year, but might be living on after all. A Facebook post early Friday on the Games + Learning Society’s account announced there is now officially a semi-successor to the organization. Slated for August 14, the Play Make Learn conference will be making its debut at Union South. As the official PML site looks largely to be a placeholder with presumably more information coming at a later date, the post says the new entity’s goal is “to create an innovative conference to promote play and learning research, industry, and practice.” Organizers did not respond to multiple requests for comment; this story will be updated if we hear back from them.

The team behind PML comprises personnel from other games companies and education groups in the Madison area: Filament Games, Field Day, GEAR, Learning in Making, and Personalization in Practice. Many of these names have a long history with GLS, though unsurprisingly absent are GLS founders Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler, whose departure from UW (citing “the caustic political atmosphere”) for University of California-Irvine was the beginning of the end for GLS.

Last year, a few of us at Tone Madison had a podcast conversation about GLS calling it a day, offering a sober assessment of how the group had both fallen short of its goals and how many challenges the obscure corner of academia it exists in faces. That was, of course, before the Trump Administration rolled out plans to slash the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities — two organizations that have poured millions of dollars into Wisconsin.

It’s much too early to editorialize or prognosticate on what PML is and whether it will try to correct for GLS’ shortcomings, but it is objectively impressive that without missing a beat Madison will not go a year without a conference exploring the role, ripples, and possibilities that the Venn diagram of games and education can yield.

But with this new event, there’s room for some improvement and self-assessment.

In GLS’ latter years, from 2015 and on at least, the conference became a three-day celebration of marginalia, almost a self-parody of academia’s tendency to miss the point. Papers would be presented to rapt audiences, who would listen to obvious observations and shallow insights like the fact that people who love video games also make fan art in tribute to them. Many presenters would scoff from the podium at the notion of interviewing primary sources on their topics — a disheartening position given GLS’ intent of connecting video games with more people in more ways and allowing society to benefit. For all its value, GLS had come to embody some of the worst aspects of academia.

Furthermore, some attendees noted in GLS’ final years that although games were central the conference, people were rarely playing them during it — unusual for any games conference. However, conferences have a funny way of giving attendees the mistaken impression that the conversations one overhears there or has is somehow indicative of the sector or community on the whole. In 2015, Adam Mayes, a 20-year veteran of the industry and current head of Uppsala University’s game design department, gave a thrilling GLS micro-talk on the hollow way diversity is interpreted and discussed in tech and games. (A thread he picks up in greater depth, along with tons of other topics, in an interview he did with me for Don’t Die.)

Based on name alone, PML seems poised to broaden the horizons and goals, with the more inclusive “make” hopefully signaling a greater commitment to the spirit of creativity and tinkering frequently associated with makerspaces. Here’s hoping PML will take its educational roots to heart and overcome GLS’ shortcomings while pushing the game developers and tech industry of Madison in a positive direction.