Monday, October 25, 2010

Guest Post on The Cooney Center Blog

A few weeks ago, the fabulous folks over at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center invited me to write a post for their (really quite) fantastic blog exploring a topic related to gender and gaming. Having just watched the footage from last summer's 3G Summit (The Future of Girls, Gaming & Gender), I was inspired to write about the ongoing debate around girls and games (e.g. why don't more girls/women design games and/or play non-casual games, etc.), where it stands today, and how it overlaps with similar concerns about girls and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). I also wanted to touch upon potential for UGC games to open up design practices to a greater diversity of players - and this seemed like a good place to start working out those relationships. The result, Getting (More) Girls into (More) Games, went live earlier today, and I'm quite pleased with the feedback so far (albeit, all through personal correspondence...that comments section is looking mighty lonely!). Here's an excerpt:
While the issue of "girls and gaming" has resurfaced several times over the years, there has been a noticeable shift in approach. During the past decade, girls and women have continued to play digital games in greater and greater numbers. They have done this in various ways, from embracing mainstream games, to contributing to the massive success of gender-inclusive games like Mario Kart and Dance Dance Revolution, to sustaining a small but enduring "pink games" market. Much of the discussion has now shifted onto the importance of paying better attention to the games girls do play, and finding out more about how and why. The conversation has also broadened to include boys and men, through a more inclusive consideration of the issues that all players face when it comes to games and gender. 
In other respects the gender gap first observed in the 1990s remains as wide as ever. 
To read the rest, please check out the original post on the Cooney Center Blog. Big thanks to Marj, Michael and the rest of the team for inviting me to contribute to what's turning out to be an amazing online resource for media producers, educators, students and users. I've been following their informative updates and thoughtful debates with great interest (e.g. the Waiting for Superman discussion from a couple of weeks ago, and ongoing posts on the Creativity Crisis), and am thrilled by the opportunity to add my voice to the mix. 

Friday, October 22, 2010

"Arts & Crafts" Materiality in (and out of) Digital Games

©2010 Nintendo, Inc., Kirby Epic Yarn promo materials

This week Nintendo released it's newest installment of the Kirby series, Kirby's Epic YarnWhat piqued my interest about the game is its use of arts & crafts as an aesthetic motif - everything looks like it's made of string, buttons, yarn and zippers. The aesthetic is supplemented by some clever looking game mechanics, which add to the sense of materiality and texture introduced by the game's environments and imagery. For instance, backgrounds contain loose threads that can be pulled, and things made of yarn (including Kirby himself) can change shape. I should add in a d
isclaimer at this point that this description is based on a cursory review of the demo videos (such as the one I've posted below) and early reviews - I haven't actually played it yet:

Of course, this immediately reminded me of LittleBigPlanet, which obviously also applies an "arts & crafts" aesthetic, albeit in a significantly (i.e. stylistically) distinct way. But as I thought about it a little more, I started to list all the other games I've come across that "play" with materiality, textiles and crafts, and realized that there is a small but notable genre emerging here. Nintendo itself has applied a similar "material" or "arts & crafts" aesthetic to a number of games in the past - most notably in the Paper Mario games, but also in the cardboard cut-out environments of Yoshi's Story:

Games like Crayon Physics, And Yet It Moves and Okami might also be included on this list, though more on the arts aspect than crafts. From Majesco, we now have Crafting Mama for the NDS. And there must be just about a million "girl games" or "pink games" that incorporate crafting to some degree - though I suspect this is predominantly in the form of mini-games, rather than on an aesthetic dimension.  Searching for more examples, I came across this website for KNiiTTiiNG!!, a game that uses the Wii to simulate and teach knitting. Apparently, the game is still in Beta, but it got some media coverage last year (e.g. Kotaku), and is currently being featured as part of an art exhibit at the San Jose Museum of Quilts and Textiles. Again - not quite what I have in mind when I'm thinking of materiality and an "arts & crafts aesthetic" - but worth mentioning nonetheless.

All of which leads me back to the other side of this burgeoning relationship between arts & crafts, materiality and videogames, which manifests as physical objects, crafts, embroidery, etc., that reify (reproduce, remediate?) elements and characters from videogames. Aldo Tolino calls these "ludic artifacts": player-created objects that are inspired by video games, but created outside of the games themselves. Oftentimes, these objects aim to transport game themes or characters into the physical world, thereby extending the game experience into other areas of cultural experience & fan practice. 

Gaming community members have long engaged in these practices, which include everything from knitting Metroid Prime dolls, to dressing up as Pacman characters and running around the city, to baking the Portal cake (based on a recipe included in the game as an Easter Egg). For Tolino, one of the most important features of "ludic artifacts" is that they are quite often shared online - through pictures, videos, and other digital artifacts - with other members of the game community. There are also online communities that have formed around particular forms of "ludic artifact" production. An example of this is Sprite Stitch, a blog and forum dedicated to "videogame inspired crafts" and the people who make them. The forum community includes over 1200 knitters, embroiderers and other craftmakers who exchange pictures, patterns and advice about making videogame characters into tangible objects. One of the things that interests me most about these practices is how frequently they combine traditionally feminine (or do I mean feminized) craftwork with videogame fandom - baking, knitting, sewing, carpentry and metalworking. The transfer from digital to material and back to digital again (as the objects are photographed and filmed to be shared online) is simply fascinating. 

More Examples:

Friday, October 15, 2010

The Creativity Crisis Revisited

©laffy4k, Crayola Lincoln Logs, at Flickr

Way back in June, Newsweek did a cover story on the Creativity Crisis, centered on an article by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman about a steady decline in American children's Creativity Quotient (CQ) scores since the early 1990s. The main focus of the article was the most recent batch of findings from a longitudinal study (50 years and counting) initially led by E. Paul Torrance and now headed by Garnet Millar at the Torrance Center for Creative Studies at the University of Georgia. The "Torrance Kids Study" has tracked hundreds of kids over their lives in order to measure creativity, and to understand how early creative skills and expressions can be predictors of later creative accomplishments, ingenuity and success. The gist of the study - and the topic of the article - is summarized in the following excerpt:

Nobody would argue that Torrance’s tasks, which have become the gold standard in creativity assessment, measure creativity perfectly. What’s shocking is how incredibly well Torrance’s creativity index predicted those kids’ creative accomplishments as adults. Those who came up with more good ideas on Torrance’s tasks grew up to be entrepreneurs, inventors, college presidents, authors, doctors, diplomats, and software developers. Jonathan Plucker of Indiana University recently reanalyzed Torrance’s data. The correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.
Like intelligence tests, Torrance’s test—a 90-minute series of discrete tasks, administered by a psychologist—has been taken by millions worldwide in 50 languages. Yet there is one crucial difference between IQ and CQ scores. With intelligence, there is a phenomenon called the Flynn effect—each generation, scores go up about 10 points. Enriched environments are making kids smarter. With creativity, a reverse trend has just been identified and is being reported for the first time here: American creativity scores are falling.
What is particularly surprising about this finding is how quickly & recently the shift has happened. As Bronson and Merryman describe:
Kyung Hee Kim at the College of William & Mary discovered this in May, after analyzing almost 300,000 Torrance scores of children and adults. Kim found creativity scores had been steadily rising, just like IQ scores, until 1990. Since then, creativity scores have consistently inched downward. “It’s very clear, and the decrease is very significant,” Kim says. It is the scores of younger children in America—from kindergarten through sixth grade—for whom the decline is “most serious.”
The authors highlight the centrality of creativity/human ingenuity to everything from business and corporate leadership, to everyday problem solving to saving the world. In terms of causes, the usual suspects are fingered (*sigh* - videogames, television, et al.), with a few others inferred, including the enormous emphasis/time taken by curriculum standards. I was especially interested in the coincidence between standards-based education reform, which apparently only started gaining momentum in the US in the early 1990s, right about the time that children's creativity scores began to decline.

The authors also address the systematic cuts to the arts in public education - although they also dismiss increased arts funding as an option, claiming that the "age-old belief that the arts have a special claim to creativity is unfounded" by studies comparing creativity in music and engineering (an odd choice considering the highly mathematical dimension of music...not to mention the highly creative problem solving aspects of engineering. I'd rather see studies comparing a range of arts and sciences, and focused specifically on curriculum taught in elementary and secondary schools rather than universities, esp. in cases such as these where the findings are being extrapolated - potentially quite erroneously - to kids). The more palatable point of this argument is that allowing more room for creativity across curriculum and subject matter would be immensely valuable to kids. They even point to a couple of examples where incredibly innovative teachers have been able to reach established curriculum standards and foster enormous amounts of creativity and innovative thinking from their students (e.g. using Treffinger’s Creative Problem-Solving method used at the National Inventors Hall of Fame School).

The article - and the many studies and projects it covers - is a really compelling, and I highly recommend reading it now if you missed it last summer (I'm embarrassed to admit that I only skimmed through the first few paragraphs when I initially looked at the story back in July - most of the juicy stuff starts mid-way, though, so I really missed out). I am a bit troubled by the enormous emphasis that is placed on purposive outcomes - both in the article and in the emerging discourses around the creativity crisis. For instance, there's a bit too much focus on the potential negative impact that diminished creativity could have on the market (in terms of product innovation and corporate leadership), and almost no discussion of how this could undermine the richness and diversity of culture. Add those aforementioned substantial cuts in arts education (or even just opportunities to engage in and enjoy the arts) with these general decreases in creativity among today's youth, and the question that first jumps out at me has little to do with outcomes, and everything to do with cultural experience, the aesthetic dimension, joy and beauty...those unmeasurable, quite possibly non-purposive facets of life that make it all worthwhile. But then again, when it comes to kids, purposiveness and instrumentality (and outcomes - developmental, educational, physical, etc.) always take centre stage, so I guess I can hardly blame creativity's champions for wanting to frame the problem in a language policymakers and the public can easily understand.

Anyhow - all of this is rattling around in my brain at quite an opportune time, seeing as I've become somewhat obsessed with creativity, particularly within children's play and cultural production. I'm seeing lots of links with my UGC Game project - at the very least a narrative this study/discussion could provide a great frame for pitching the project and relaying to others (funding agencies, public, press) why it's important to foster spaces for kids to create their own games and play spaces...and films, comics, stories, etc. There are also clear linkages with all the stuff going on with STEM - if we can start refocusing the discussion a little to incorporate a more comprehensive understanding of what goes into innovation - technological, scientific - to include creativity, there may be more space within the discussion for kids' creative practices, like storytelling, make-believe and play. The idea that STEM should be changed to STEAM - science, technology, arts and math.

Lots to think about, and I still need to sort out my ideas about this, but here are some "nodes" in my thought process right now that might eventually become a trajectory for research:

STEM and Storytelling
Many thanks to my assistant, Erica, who got me to give Alice a second (and now a third, fourth, fifth...) look.  In particular, I'm fascinated by the thinking behind Storytelling Alice, which articulates a wonderfully layered approach gaming and learning to make games, as a process that includes both technical skills and storytelling skills. This brought me back to chapter written by Storytelling Alice's creator, Caitlin Kelleher, which describes using storytelling to get girls into computer programming. What about vice versa????

  • Kelleher, C. Using Storytelling to Introduce Girls to Computer Programming. In Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Computer Games. Yasmin Kafai, Carrie Heeter, Jill Denner, and Jennifer Sun editors. MIT Press, 2008

A multi-modal project being conducted out of the IIT Institute of Design, ThinkeringSpaces is focused on creating "interactive environments that encourage school age children to tinker with things, both physical and virtual, reflect upon what they discover, and elaborate their ideas in ways they can share with others." learning by tinkering and making.

An approach developed by one of the members of the Torrance Centre, Bonnie Cramond, at the University of Georgia, "Cartooning" uses some of Torrance's theories (along with others) about teaching creativity through manipulations with cartoons and comics. You can read more about this particular approach on the Centre's Creativity Resources page. Highly reminiscent of a number of tools now available - many of them free - to kids online, including Storybird and Bitstrips.

Creative Explorations
My students just did a workshop on Gauntlett's "Artlab" approach, one of the recommended readings in my research methods class a couple of weeks ago, and I think it fits in somehow here as well. Hmmm...

Joan Ganz Cooney Center
I was actually first alerted to the Newsweek article by Michael Levine and Ann Thai at the Joan Ganz Cooney Centre, who have been at the cutting edge of the story, exploring the issues behind the crisis and formulating possible responses. Of particular interest is the way they are linking this with their ongoing work on kids, education, creativity and digital tech, which you can read more about over at The Huffington Post and on the Cooney Center Blog (especially here, here, and here).