Though it put me into a serious week-long hustle to catch up on all sorts of work (hence the paucity of entries here lately), Edward Castronova’s Ludium conference at Indiana University’s Center for the Study of Synthetic Worlds was easily the most interesting academic meeting I’ve been to in years.
The conference was structured by dividing the participants up into five teams, each of which was composed of visiting academics from a number of disciplines, executives and programmers from the computer games industry, and local Indiana University faculty. The basic structure of the meeting was that each group was tasked in a series of time-constrained “games” to construct interesting, viable, affordable proposals for research projects using synthetic or virtual worlds, culminating in a major proposal from each group.
Nothing was at stake except pride, though put enough people with an interest in games, play and computing together in a setting like this one and you can bet they’ll take anything labelled as a “game” pretty seriously, which in fact by and large the participants did. But the results certainly beat listening to a bunch of people read 25-page papers in a monotone, or for that matter, watching a canned PowerPoint presentation where the presenter reads each bullet point verbatim as it crosses the screen. There was a lot of intellectual gravity to the deliberations, but also a good deal of spontaneous creativity and fun. The collaborative structure also kept the academics from burdening the industry participants with irrelevantly monastic scholasticism while also keeping the programmers and executives from constraining the results to pure marketability and practicality.
It might seem that the structure of the meeting could only work for this kind of topic, but having thought about it for a week, I think any professional meeting or workshop could benefit from having some content that was “short-term collaborative”, that was aimed at spontaneous, speculative discussion. For example, imagine a meeting of the American Historical Association where five small workshop groups of historians (from grad students to senior professors) had to brainstorm a list of the ten most influential works of social history and then submit their list to a voting audience to determine the most authoritative or interesting list. I’m just thinking here off the top of my head, but I can see the possibilities, as long as you could find a way to keep the participants from getting overly defensive about turf issues or prestige.
I’m also increasingly enamored of trying to teach with these kinds of exercises as a major part of what I ask students to do. If I think about the usual kind of final exam, the alleged virtue of having students take a timed exam is supposedly to test their abilities to deploy remembered concrete knowledge in a time-constrained context. I really wonder more and more if an essay question is the best way to do that. One of the amazing things for me at the Ludium meeting was watching the speed and clarity of the way the industry participants tended to think about problems, and how quickly they wrestled difficult issues into some kind of concrete and clearly communicable form. If students at an institution like Swarthmore learn how to do the same, at least in the humanities, it’s often going to be entirely on their own, outside of their courses. But there’s no reason why that should be: we could easily be trying to get students to tap into that set of skills, and evaluating them on their performance. The only problem is that it would take us being able to teach and appreciate such skills, and I’m not sure that all that many scholars in the humanities here or elsewhere are prepared to do so.