Academics Make Games Better - Foundations of Digital Games 2015

Foundations of Digital Games is a summit of innovators and influencers in gaming-related academia as well as the games industry itself.

In what was originally “the premier educational conference for faculty who use game development to teach computer science concepts and principles” (–Alfred Thompson), it began in 2006 as Microsoft Academic Days on Game Development in Computer Science Education (GDCSE) and was hosted on a cruise ship.  In 2009, it changed hands and has since been run by the Society for the Advancement of the Study of Digital Games (SASDG), a nonprofit run by such academics.  Despite losing the boat, the conference has continued to grow and been key in advancing the study of games in all aspects.

There is more to be said about this event than can be summed up in a single documentary, let alone words, but I’ll try to summarize what was going on, from my perspective.

Figure 1-Allan Fowler (rocking a shirt from our CalPoly Pre-GDC Gamejam) receiving Finnish treats from Annakaisa Kultima (organizer of the Quantum Game Jam)

Academics LOVE Games

Granted these are specifically those who do, but those in particular REALLY love games.  Seeing games as entertainment is obvious, as that’s their bread and butter.  Those who can see the utility of games – how they engage the player, what benefits they can hold for the player, what the player’s efforts can be harnessed to do – are the ones who augment the state of the industry for the better.  Since their ideas come to life in games (where the value is reflected by the market), affecting users literally does change the world; these people are on to something.

Topics range widely in the field of Games Studies, but here are suggested paper submission areas:

  • Game studies, social science (games, players, and their role in society and culture)
  • Game studies, humanities (aesthetic, philosophical, and ontological aspects of games and play)
  • Game design (methods, techniques, studies)
  • Serious games (building and evaluating games for a purpose, learning in games)
  • Game education (preparing students to design and develop games)
  • Artificial intelligence (agents, motion/camera planning, navigation, adaptivity, procedural content generation, dialog, authoring tools, general game playing)
  • Game technology (engines, frameworks, graphics, networking, animation)
  • Interaction and player experience (game interfaces, player metrics, modeling player experience)

In my mind, these cluster into 4 categories (fuzzy, with much overlap):

  • Making games more entertaining – more engaging for the players is better for game makers
  • Making games more powerful – from optimizing the numbers to connecting on emotional levels
  • Making games more useful – application in novel areas, untapped benefits for all involved
  • Making games – study of game concepts, use in education, gamejams

Using this framework, the general concepts discussed trended towards these:

  • Making Games More Entertaining
    • Nature and evocation of engagement
    • Biofeedback analysis for cognitive models of players
    • Visual and conceptual attention as finite resources
    • Multiplayer Dynamics, enabling the best experience together – with others and/or AI
  • Making Games More Powerful
    • Narrative creation via mechanics
    • Persuasive/emotive games, forming connections on higher levels
    • Analysis of constructs for procedural generation – including narrative and emotive
  • Making Games More Useful
    • Crowdsourcing as fun, learning, big-data parsing, and advancing research
    • Monetization, user retention and advertising focus
    • Personalization, learning about a player through choices and patterns
  • Making Games
    • STEM Education via game development, extending reach and quality of CS education
    • Gameful Education, BKMs and new schema
    • Extend opportunities into the game dev. community across all barriers
    • Identify components for procedural generation
    • Gamejams, elaborating and optimizing value in varied application
    • Jam models for academia, conferences, entrepreneurship, even as performance art

Figure 2- Compatriot jam enthusiasts, pictures left to right: Allan Fowler (workshop organizer), Foaad Khosmood (previous President of Global Game Jam), Gorm Lai (co-founder and current President of Global Game Jam), Me

Academics LOVE Gamejams

In my personal experience, they almost categorically see value in the jam paradigm. To the uninitiated (firstly, welcome!) a gamejam is an event, often a solid block of time, where people make games from scratch.  This provides an intense(ly awesome) self-driven learning-by-doing environment, where the participants collaborate with others in a distilled caricature of professional game development.  Many companies, schools, and groups run gamejams (and hackathons that need not be about games, codefests that are purely software, etc.) to learn and create things rapidly, innovate, optimize and solve difficult problems.  Some software companies save time and money on batches of interviews by running a hackathon and simply observing how potential hires do in real life.  Academia has readily-seen benefits, where gaining a significant amount of knowledge and skill in a short period of time can augment classes, saving time on homework, teaching, planning, explanation, etc.

Disclaimer: gamejams should not be used as a replacement for education as much as a straight, smooth, dirt road is not generally better than a paved one. Smooth and paved yields best results.

I have first-hand evidence of the academic appreciation for hackathons, as I was a part of analog game jam (e.g. board/card games, Intel sponsored some refreshments) and the first Workshop on Gamejams, Hackathons, and Game Creation Events, a sub-conference workshop – essentially 1 full-day track of sessions.  There were also similar workshops on Procedural Content Generation, Design Patterns in Games, and {Craft, Game} Play – using craft skills (as in sewing, embroidery, etc.) to make games, including at their own game jam!  

Figure 3 - some of the analog game jam teams hard at work

Academics LOVE Papers

Every presentation was a paper, most topics were research that was actively ongoing, with their most recent results. Quite a few were about games that had been made in pursuit of research.  There were also posters that didn’t require papers… but most of them were also about papers and/or projects.

The full program is available on the website, but here are a few titles that I was able to see presented, in my earlier categorization:

  • Keynotes
    • Tom Forsyth (Software Engineer/Architect Oculus VR)
    • Robin Hunicke (UC Santa Cruz, Funomena CEO, Executive Producer of Journey, co-organizer of Experimental Gameplay session at GDC)
    • R. Michael Young (NC State University, NC State Digital Games Research Initiative, Liquid Narrative research group)
    • Casey O'Donnell(Michigan State University, author and game developer)


  • Making Games More Entertaining
  • Engagement
    • Engaging Casual Games That Frustrate You: An Exploration on Understanding Engaging Frustrating
    • Evaluating Electroencephalography Engagement Indices During Video Game Play
    • Game-based Experiments on Human Visual Attention
    • Comparing Player Attention on Procedurally Generated vs. Hand Crafted Sokoban Levels with an Auditory Stroop Test
    • Designing for the Dichotomy of Immersion in Location Based Games
  • Multiplayer Dynamics
    • I am being watched by the Tribunal - trust and control in Multiplayer Online Battle Arena games
    • Design Approach for Collaborative Cognitive Games
    • Considering Game Companions: Implications for research and design


  • Making Games More Powerful
  • Narrative creation
    • Game mechanics telling stories? An experiment
    • Practicalities and Ideologies, (Re)-Considering the Interactive Digital Narrative Authoring Paradigm
  • Persuasive/emotive games
    • The Scored Rule Engine: Next-Generation Social Physics
    • A Foundation for the Persuasive Gameplay Experience
    • Iconoscope: Designing a Game for Fostering Creativity
    • Investigating behavior change indicators and cognitive measures in persuasive health games


  • Making Games More Useful
  • Crowdsourcing
    • Nanocrafter: Design and Evaluation of a DNA Nanotechnology Game
    • Cropland Capture – A Game for Improving Global Cropland Maps
    • The Meme Quiz: A Facial Expression Game Combining Human Agency and Machine Involvement
  • Monetization
    • Gate Me If You Can: The Impact of Gating Mechanics on Retention and Revenues in Jelly Splash
    • Persuasive Content: Understanding In-Game Advertising Retention in Players and Onlookers
  • Personalization
    • Developing Computational Models of Players' Identities and Values from Videogame Avatars
    • In Your Face(t) Impact of Personality and Context on Gameplay Behavior
    • Top Versus Bottom: Game Evaluation from an Expert or Player Perspective


  • Making Games
  • STEM Education via Games (making games)
    • Supporting Computational Algorithmic Thinking (SCAT): Understanding the Development of Computational Algorithmic Thinking Capabilities in African-American Middle-School Girls Through Game Design
    • Building Casual Games and APIs for Teaching Introductory Programming Concepts
    • Seamless Integration of Coding and Gameplay: Writing Code Without Knowing it
  • Gameful Education
    • Return of the Gradequest - Evaluating the Third Iteration of a Gameful Course
    • Bug-fixing Game-like Syllabi: Evaluating Common Issues and Iterating New Pedagogical Mechanics
    • Trends in Organizing Philosophies of Game Jams and Game Hackathons
    • Hackademics: A Case for Game Jams At Academic Conferences
    • The Game Jam Movement: Disruption, Performance and Artwork
    • Game Jams: How can they influence Software Development Curricula?
    • From Jam to Start-up - A framework to support entrepreneurship at game jams and production oriented workshops
    • Group Forming Processes - Experiences and Best Practice from Different Game Jams
    • Case Studies and Practices in Local Game Jam Software Development Organization: A Software Engineering Perspective
    • An Autopsy of the Global Game Jam 2012 Theme Committee Discussion: Deciding on Ouroboros
    • Project Brainstorming: Where do craft, games, and play intersect?
    • The Fine Line Between Rehash and Sequel: Design Patterns of the Super Mario Series
    • A Three-Dimensional Model for Educational Game Analysis & Design

Figure 4- Academics also enjoy talking; in this case over s'mores


I LOVE Game Academics

Having been into games (particularly game design) since I could handle a controller, I’ve always enjoyed chatting with game developers.  My favorite people in the industry have analytical, academic mindsets and love to talk about games.  It makes sense that the people at this conference are exactly those – among whom inspired conversations abound.  Even aside from the official gatherings (ESA provided drinks and s’mores around a fire, Facebook sponsored a poster session mixer, and the meals at Asilomar were better than any other campground I’ve been to), there were numerous ad-hoc hangouts where the concepts presented in papers and talks really came to life.  Not just elucidation of concepts; connections and plans made in casual conversation lead to many opportunities. Thanks again to everyone who makes this event possible, from organization to conversation. Definitely looking forward to the future these people are helping to create.

Figure 5-Even the bus ride to the airport was fun (Malcolm Ryan, Brian McDonald, Me, Esther MacCallum-Stewart, Ryan Locke)

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