Rebooting Madison's videogames conversation

Two new events aim to learn from the successes and mistakes of earlier efforts to build up Madison's games industry.

Postcard image of UW-Madison campus via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration by David Wolinsky.

Postcard image of UW-Madison campus via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration by David Wolinsky.

The nexus of videogames and academia in Madison suffered a blow in 2016. The Games + Learning Society, a multidisciplinary group and conference based on the UW-Madison campus, announced that last August's twelfth annual summit would mark the organization's dissolution, leaving no heir apparent. Citing what The Capital Times called "the caustic political atmosphere" in Wisconsin, GLS Co-Founders Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler left Madison in January to become professors at the University of California-Irvine.

Despite and perhaps because of these departures and the rippling shake-ups they caused, two new Madison-based videogame conferences have formed in GLS' stead. The first is Play Make Learn, falling literally the same week GLS is traditionally held, on August 14 at Union South. The other is M+DEV, short for Madison Game Development Conference, being held October 27 at the Alliant Energy Center. Their only overlap is taking different approaches to the same goal: improving Madison's videogame industry.  

It's unlikely you have read this far if you don't already care about videogames to some extent or other. But the medium, culture, and industry have suffered from a messaging problem since the first time they were blamed in a moral panic decades ago for bad grades, school shootings, and life-ruining addictions. Videogames as an industry have stepped up to combat these notions, with bullish advocates, essayists, and executives who hyperbolically overstate their benefits—the most recent wave of this being individuals who fanatically defend virtual reality's potential, citing unproven claims that it will make us more empathetic as a species while insulting its critics. However, to discount or deride the medium's potential is just as ignorant, and that's something both of these conferences want to address on a local and statewide level.

It's contradictory but completely accurate to say that videogames are a $100-billion fringe industry. When discussing that fact, people tend to overlook two important things. One, revenue generated doesn't equal cultural influence. Two, that $100-billion value has more to do with games' relatively high price tags (compared to other forms of entertainment) than the amount of people buying them worldwide. Still, videogames are no longer seen as merely a waste of time. Well, they are still seen as that, but also much more.  

In Wisconsin, at least, GLS was instrumental in shifting perceptions of videogames from within the academic world.

"There really were no other groups at the intersection of games and learning when [GLS] started the group," says Erica Halverson, a UW-Madison professor who co-organized GLS and is now helping to organize PML.

Over the course of a dozen years, GLS became a Midwestern hub for the growing and calcifying global ecology of game academics and researchers. But many attendees, including PML co-organizer and UW-Madison Field Day Lab Director David Gagnon, felt that GLS increasingly lost focus—and lost sight of who its audience was.  

"One of the critiques I had for [GLS] was it started to have an insider group and an outsider group," says Gagnon. "When you've got 500 people around, it started to get awkward… and disconnected with whether this was a conversation among a community of people that are taking new ground together, or famous people in the front disregarding all the lay people."

Erica Halverson. Photo courtesy UW-Madison.

Erica Halverson. Photo courtesy UW-Madison.

That such an esoteric project was able to steadily retain a crowd of hundreds and attract "famous people" is a testament to its success and its intellectual foundation. But as Halverson explains, GLS' growth inadvertently made it less focused on Wisconsin. In part by necessity, it became focused on bigger abstract notions that at the time were not foregone conclusions, reaching out in the relative darkness to wherever like-minded individuals might be.

In the end, GLS seemed really interested in celebrating videogames as a social good but not at all interested in addressing the "so what?" about the points or arguments participants would raise. At 2015's GLS conference, one panel praised videogames as great boon to childhood creativity because videogames inspired kids to draw and create fanfic about the worlds in them. But if you pause and think just logically, you know that kids have always been doing that about everything they spend their time on. It's nothing new.

"They had to be everything to everyone," says Halverson.

As such, GLS was courting an international crowd—anyone and everyone who shared a passion, curiosity, and professional belief in videogames. And although it was heavily rooted in academia, Gagnon says GLS became too fixated on the worst tendencies of that world—futzing about and navel-gazing on research for the sake of research—or too busy courting big names in the broader industry with dubious links to scholarship.

"Let's say a principal from a school in Michigan would come," says Gagnon. "After several days, he would be like, 'I don't know what I heard here. This doesn't make any sense to me. What is this and who is this for?'"

Even a casual observer could detect that GLS had begun to lose its way as an academic enterprise in its waning years. At the 2015 GLS conference, I watched a panel about diversity in Pokémon games. It turned out that one presenter studying the games had made no effort to reach out to anyone who has ever actually worked on them. I asked her about it and she just didn't think it was relevant. The same conference featured a group of developers hired by the Gates Foundation to work with neuroscientists and Buddhist monks to make a meditation app. An attendee raised his hand and admonished them for "wasting people's time" because this app "won't help people solve their real problems."

At the same time, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Republican majorities in the state legislature have become increasingly hostile to the UW System. State funding for the system has decreased dramatically since 2001. On top of those funding cuts, lawmakers have hacked away at tenure, advanced an Orwellian "free speech" bill that would chill free speech on campuses, and threatening further funding reductions as retribution for classes and programs they dislike.

With Squire and Steinkuehler out, the PML organizers saw an opportunity both to address GLS' blind spots and focus on new priorities.

"One of the commitments that we are making with this new initiative is we, at least at the outset, are very interested in how our work influences the Wisconsin Idea," says Halverson. "We are committed to the role of digital media technologies in the learning lives of people across the state. So, yes, Madison. Yes, Milwaukee. And the many, many rural areas of the state that receive relatively little attention around questions of digital media technologies and learning."  

You could be forgiven if you were skeptical. Neither PML nor GLS before it have sought out ways to create an empathy plug-in for game players. Instead, both have drawn inspiration from the tenacity of the videogames world, and have centered on curiosity about what videogames can do for growing minds, economies, and societies. As Gagnon explains, GLS started as an informal conversation around people asking, "Hey, there's something about games: What is it?"

This, admittedly, is an opaque place for any enterprise to begin, and points to one of the biggest miscommunications from the "inside" of videogame culture to the mainstream—whatever that even is today. People already onboard with videogames have likely been following them for decades, since childhood or their teenage years. Like any subject that catches on with a group of people, videogames are overflowing with jargon, esoteric knowledge, and shorthand. What people on the "inside" don't realize is that people on the "outside" still see videogames as simply doing a poor job of aping Hollywood blockbusters, presenting flimsy premises with shitty writing as an excuse for killing everything on screen.

David Gagnon. Photo courtesy of UW-Madison.

David Gagnon. Photo courtesy of UW-Madison.

Parallel to GLS' evolution, there has been a similar rise among smaller enthusiast press outlets beginning to assert that videogames are more than consumer goods, but also cultural artifacts. There was a similar awakening in academic circles, as intellectuals began to grasp that videogames have pedagogical potential, both in their creation and also in their consumption.

Gagnon explains: "When we watch what happens when kids interact with [videogames], they often do things that are totally unexpected and well beyond any expertise that we thought they had...we see actual scientific practice being illustrated with people learning how to play World Of Warcraft. Or, obviously, all of the really incredible machines people are building in Minecraft. We look at all these playful spaces and we're like, 'Everything we want about learning is happening informally within well-designed videogames.'"

When GLS began, the intention was to determine whether substantive questions could be raised about videogames at all. PML intends to carry the torch even further, starting from a place much further along than would have been imaginable back in 2005. 

"How do you do a district-level rollout of educational games? How do you do a state-level rollout?" asks Gagnon, offering a few examples of areas PML hopes to explore. "Or, another one, now, is within the games that are being proven to be very effective: What can we learn about the design process as well as what people are learning? What choices do they make?"

Both Halverson and Gagnon acknowledge that academics frequently fall into the trap of exploring too many abstract concepts while losing sight of how their work contributes to society as a whole. Of course, things aren't that binary. There are unintended benefits that can be found through tangents into uncharted territory. That's why the "make" in Play Make Learn is important, as it's an effort to make the conference a bigger tent to also include the local maker culture and community, which have found expression in organizations like Sector67 and the Madison Public Library's Bubbler program. No single story can satisfactorily or even succinctly sum up any subculture, but a 2011 New York Times story referring to makers as "kitchen-table industrialists" gets the point and spirit across: PML is exploring both digital games and newly created hardware to see both what they can learn and what can be learned about learning.  

"We know that optimal learning environments are ones where someone is doing a real thing within a real professional identity, working alongside of other professionals, the feedback is coming from the actual work they're doing," says Gagnon. "Where videogames for learning get really interesting is that we can really take on virtual authentic identities and practices and communities." 

Although maker education initiatives are nothing new in 2017, this effort to expand through broader inclusion is reflective of how Madison has been changing in recent years—especially in the ones since GLS began. Google opened a Madison office in 2008. In the last three to five years, there has been a rise of co-working spaces, which have come to usurp Whole Foods as the new symbol of an up-and-coming  town. Projects like the long-in-the-works Starting Block aim to harness the potential some see in Madison's nascent startup community. 

But long before any of this, Wisconsin was an important part of both gaming culture and also the videogame industry for decades. In addition to the state being the birthplace of Dungeons & Dragons, Madison in particular is home to game studios like Raven Software and Human Head Studios, which have been part of successful and well-selling game titles worldwide (most of note would be assisting development for Call Of Duty entries dating back to 2010 for Raven Software; BioShock Infinite for Human Head) while attracting little fanfare, and the educational videogames company Filament Games. M+DEV intends to capitalize on that and be a Midwestern beacon for the games world. 

"M+DEV allows the entertainment side of the local industry to also have a conference while additionally including speakers and local thought leaders from the educationally focused industry," Tim Gerritsen, co-director of the Wisconsin Games Alliance, says via email. "While Play Make Learn is a true successor to GLS, M+DEV is catered to the entirety of games development in Wisconsin and the Midwest."

Just as GLS' trajectory opened up PML to ask new questions at its outset, M+DEV will benefit from some of the work and community-building games academics have done in Madison. But of course Gerritsen has slightly different goals, namely, as he says, "to put the Madison region and the entire growing Wisconsin game development industry on a bigger stage so we can recruit more talent, retain the talent we have, and work together to make Wisconsin an important game development center."

David Wolinsky reported this story in a joint effort between Tone Madison and his website chronicling the history of cultural disconnects in videogames, Don't Die.