Some people might assume that Gen Con would only be of interest to gamers—but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Wednesday was the third Gen Con Trade Day I’ve attended, in which librarians and educators give presentations to other librarians and educators on how they make use of games and gaming in their curricula or programming. (There are also panels focused on retailers, but I didn’t attend any of those.) Here are my reports on Trade Day 2015 and 2016.

I missed out on the first hour due to arriving late, but I was still able to catch five out of the six hours of programming. Here are my reports on the panels I attended.

Best Games for Students

This panel was a roundtable discussion focusing on various games that could be useful in a classroom setting. Teachers and others swapped stories, tips, and suggestions about games that could be useful in teaching, and how they could be used.

One teacher shared the story of a 5th grade teacher doing a unit on advertising, and some kids had trouble coming up with fictitious products to make up ads about. But it turned out there was a game called Snake Oil, which involved coming up with products to sell, that helped those students get past that problem.

Games that the moderators or other attendees shared included Rory’s Story Cubes (which I previously covered for TeleRead), Dixit, Word on the Street, Word Teasers, Love Letter, Ticket to Ride, Qwirkle, In a Pickle, Verbal Volley, and Apples to Apples. I offered up The Storymatic (which I also covered in that piece about Story Cubes) and Storium.

Learning from Gamers: How Design Thinking helps foster game programs

This event was put on by panelists from the Chicago Public Library, using a problem-solving technique called “Design Thinking” that the library has developed in partnership with IDEO and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The library walked through how it used the process to come up with a way of implementing a gaming program that would appeal to adults as well as children. The process involves a three-step cycle of inspiration, ideation, and iteration. As the Wikipedia article on Design Thinking explains:

Inspiration is the initial problem or opportunity that leads you to the finding of the solution; ideation is the core of the development process where the idea is better defined; and implementation is the final step where the solution comes in contact with the outer world. Projects may loop back through inspiration, ideation, and implementation more than once as the team refines its ideas and explores new directions.

The presentation went step by step through how the library applied these stages, in more detail than I really have time to lay out here. Suffice it to say that their experimentation and analysis led them to have a kiosk they could set up at local events and expositions at which they would offer a set number of games for people to check out and play. The number of games varied from just a few at most events, to many at specific events like a movies-in-the-park program in which a large number of people would show up hours early and then need ways to pass the time.

The process seemed interesting, though the presentation seemed more about how to use design thinking than about gaming specifically. Still, librarians with an interest might want to check out the link in the first paragraph of this section; the site offers a toolkit that librarians can study for “5-8 hours a week for the next six weeks,” depending on how much time they have available.

LARP-spedition: LARPING About in the Stacks

One of the sheets of clues from the Ukiah Library LARPspedition

This panel was put on by staff from the Ukiah Mendocino County Public Library from Ukiah, California. This seems to be a pretty small library as libraries go—small enough that it doesn’t even have a web site of its own, but has to make do with a section of the Mendocino County Government web site and a Facebook page.

But this panel was proof that even small libraries can come up with great ideas for interacting with their community. The librarians discussed how an arts-and-crafts day for teenagers to make their own padded LARP (Live-Action Role-Playing) “boffa” swords turned into a “LARPspedition” game day in which area businesses participated in a “treasure hunt,” followed by a LARP combat event at the library itself and an ice cream social.

The librarians went over how they ran the program step by step, including crafting the swords, coming up with clues to direct people to participating businesses, and—not least importantly—getting in touch with their local police department to make sure that people running around the community with padded “LARP swords” would be all right that day.

This panel, and the event it described, are a great example of the way librarians can build relations with the community through means that go beyond just recommending good books. Perhaps more libraries should consider hosting similar game-related events.

Empathy and Play

This panel had more to do with game design than with education or libraries, but it still taught some lessons that are worth remembering. This panel was presented by a pair of game designers from Thorny Games, discussing how to navigate the potentially thorny (pun not intended) problem of basing games on cultures not one’s own.

They used as an example their game Sign, which was based on the birth of the unique Nicaraguan Sign Language in the 1970s. This language, they explained, was created spontaneously when hundreds of deaf Nicaraguan children were brought together in special schools for the purpose of trying to teach them to read lips. Instead of learning to read lips, they effectively negotiated their own language to use to talk to each other. This was such a fascinating idea that the game developers wanted to base a game on it.

But basing a game on people of a different culture can be tricky. Developers have to ask themselves if they’re the right persons to be making such a game, and whether it might be better to work with someone else who is in a better position to represent that other culture. They should also reach out to members of that culture and involve them in the process (as the game developers did for Sign by reaching out to members of the Nicaraguan deaf community).

It’s also important to remember that your game makes statements in not just what it says, but also in how it plays. During the design process for Sign, the designers realized at one stage that they were making a potentially destructive statement in terms of how the game was played—implying that sign languages in general were more primitive and simplistic than spoken languages. They had to make some corrections along the way to make sure they weren’t sending that kind of message.

But these problems and challenges aren’t a reason not to try to make these games. They made the point that games are an excellent way to help develop and promote empathy—to get people to put themselves into the positions of people of different cultures and backgrounds, in ways that simply reading or watching a story never could. I think that’s an important message to consider—all the more so given the events of the last week or so.

If you want to see how the developers put these theories into practice, Sign is currently downloadable as a PDF from the Thorny Games web site.

Mental Roadblocks: How Your Brain Can Keep You from Making Wise Financial Decisions

This panel really didn’t have a lot of relevance to libraries, education, or even game retail. It was a professional investment counselor giving a set of tips to remember for overseeing one’s investments in 401Ks, pension plans, the stock market, etc. It seemed like reasonably sound advice, but it’s not exactly topical enough to go over in detail here.

Perhaps the more important thing to take away from this panel is that Gen Con—and Gen Con Trade Day—is a place where you can find a lot more useful advice than you might expect, on more topics than you might expect. If you’re an educator, librarian, or gaming retail industry professional, make the time to arrive a day early for Gen Con so you can take in Gen Con Trade Day first.

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