Monday, November 23, 2009

Reimagining Learning Puts LittleBigPlanet in the (MacArthur) Spotlight

Earlier today, the MacArthur Foundation and the HASTAC Initiative announced the upcoming launch of the 2010 Digital Media and Learning Competition, on the theme "Reimagining Learning." The $2 million open competition officially starts on December 14, and seeks proposals that outline "creative ideas to transform learning using digital media." In particular, the competition description emphasizes project that link STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) curricula and other experiences to digital games. As per the competition description, this means "any game, especially but not limited to LittleBigPlanet™ on PlayStation®3." Proposals are furthermore sought in two different but deeply interrelated categories, one of which revolves almost entirely around LittleBigPlanet. The DMLC invites proposals from designers, inventors, entrepreneurs, researchers, and others engaged in building digital media experiences (what the organization is calling "the learning labs of the 21st Century") that aim specifically to "help young people interact, share, build, tinker, and explore in new and innovative ways." In addition to the obvious sponsorship of Sony and LittleBigPlanet, the competition is further supported by a grant to the University of California at Irvine. There are also some important political links to US President Obama's call for new efforts to reimagine and improve education in STEM subjects, and the competition was coordinated in partnership with National Lab Day.

A key focus of the competition, and of the MacArthur Foundation generally, is to identify and promote new ways of fostering participatory learning experiences for kids and teens. The organization defines participatory learning as "a form of learning connected to individual interests and passions, inherently social in nature, and occurring during hands-on, creative activities." As such, the competition will function as part of MacArthur’s ongoing "digital media and learning" initiative, which explores existing and potential ways in which digital technologies can be used to change how young people play, learn, socialize and engage in traditional and emerging forms of citizenship. For an example of some of the previous work done under this rubric, you might want to check out the "Kids' Informal Learning with Digital Media: An Ethnographic Investigation of Innovative Knowledge Cultures" project that wrapped up last year (a joint project carried out at the University of Southern California and University of California, Berkeley, that drew on the expertise of a number of key children's scholars, including Mimi Ito and Barrie Thorne, among equally notable others).

Anyway, here are the competition category descriptions as posted on the DMLC official competition website:
21st Century Learning Lab Designers
The 21st Century Learning Lab Designers category is aligned with National Lab Day. Winners will receive awards for learning environments and digital media-based experiences that allow young people to grapple with social challenges through activities based on the social nature, contexts, and ideas of science, technology, engineering and math. Digital media of any type (social networks, games, virtual worlds, mobile devices or others) may be used. Proposals are also encouraged for curricula or other experiences that link or connect to any game, especially but not limited to LittleBigPlanet™ on PlayStation®3 (PS3™).

Game Changers
Winners in the Game Changers category will receive awards for creative new games or for additions to Sony's LittleBigPlanet™. These games and game expansions should offer young people highly engaging game play experiences that incorporate principles of science, technology, engineering and math. One aim of the Game Changers category is to create new game play experiences using the existing popular video game, LittleBigPlanet™, winner of numerous "game of the year" awards in 2008. Sony Computer Entertainment of America (SCEA), in cooperation with ESA and ITIC, will team with MacArthur to support this component of the Competition. Sony Computer Entertainment of America will donate a significant number of PlayStation®3 (PS3™) consoles and copies of LittleBigPlanet™ to community-based organizations and libraries in low-income communities. They will also make the winning levels available to the game playing community at no cost. [****SMG: As described in the press release, Sony will also donate 1000 PlayStation 3 consoles and copies of LittleBigPlanet to libraries and community-based organizations in low-income communities across the US.]

Proposals submitted to either category will then be posted for public comment at three different stages of the selection process. According to the competition website, multiple awards will be given in each category (including People's Choice Awards for proposals that receive the most votes from the public at large), the winners of which will be announced this coming Spring 2010.

Seeing as I was planning on making LittleBigPlanet a key case study in my planned future investigation of UGC games and player-creator communities, this is a pretty exciting announcement. The profile raising, well-funded, wide-reaching nature of the competition will mean some pretty interesting things in terms of the evolution of the LBP community, the types of people involved, as well as some likely opportunities for investigations into the demographics of the competition entrants, and the thematic and formal features of the levels they submit (thinking specifically about the Game Changer category here, but of course the broader competition holds even more potential for new and exciting forms of content). On the one hand, of course, I can't ignore the underlying sponsorship and corporate branding dimensions of the competition. This is definitely a great PR move on Sony's part, coinciding as it does with the launch of the newest installment of what is fast becoming an LBP franchise. The question remains, how will the presence of "TM" (trademarks) limit & appropriate the creativity of the submissions?

That said, there are very few programs quite like LBP, both in terms of accessibility (by which I mean usability, affordability and access to the hardware requirements/platform) and in terms of playability. The game and its ever-growing community are fantastic examples of user-centred design. The game and level-builder are also highly accessible to children and novice users, and seem to be used by users of both genders (using anecdotal evidence and observations - some real examination of the demographics involved in these games would be immensely useful at this point), which only enhances the appeal and potential that the game carries for opening up these types of competitions to new voices, youth voices, etc.

My primary research questions will necessarily include a focus on the proprietary implications that arise whenever creativity is invited and facilitated under a system of corporate governance (which are almost always driven by profit and copyright concerns). However, in the case of the DMLC competition, it seems that the goal is to create and promote the submissions under some form of Creative Commons, as indicated by the stipulation that the game levels be offered to the player community free of charge. Admittedly, this might be wishful thinking on my part, but it's definitely one of the possibilities I'll be examining as I follow the developments and outcome of the competition over the next few months. I wish now that I had stuck with my original proposal for the upcoming DMLC conference, which was to talk about my research plans for LBP, Spore, Metaplace and Kodu (and now Playcrafter). *sigh* Oh well, there's always next time!

**Update: Though this wasn't mentioned in either of the press releases I read last week, it seems that the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre (the research arm of The Sesame Workshop) is also involved in this initiative. Here's an excerpt from their press release:
"ESA and ITI are also working with leading education stakeholders on the competition, including The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop, Games for Change, and E-Line Ventures. ESA, ITI and their partners will challenge America’s best and brightest, including children, to enter the competition with ideas that can be designed into web-executable, browser-based, STEM-related computer and video games in three age-based categories: 4 to 8 year olds, 8 to 12 year olds and 12 to 16 year olds. In addition to funding, ESA, ITI and their member companies will provide judges, mentorship, and technical expertise to the winning teams to maximize their utility, outreach and effectiveness."

Great to see the Cooney Center is involved with this - they do excellent work and have all the required expertise when it comes to merging high quality educational content with fun, as well as a great mandate when it comes to involving & addressing the needs of marginalized groups.

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