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Meaningful Play 2014 Recap

The International Academic Conference on Meaningful Play 2014 took place at Michigan State University in Lansing, Michigan, USA, from Oct. 20~22, 2014. Additionally on the evening of Oct. 19th, there was a pre-conference talk from Lisa Nakamura on Racism, Sexism, and Video Games: Social Justice Campaigns and the Struggle for Gamer Identity, though sadly, my flight had arrived late on the night of the 19th so I missed that pre-conference talk.

In truth, the Meaningful Play conference series occupies a very special place in my accursed academic heart because MP2012 represents my first conference publication (Establishing Literary Merit in Metal Gear Solid: A Close Critical Reading). It was a wonderful opportunity for me to prove to my laboratory that my field of Game Studies actually exists, and that people are thriving here. It was a hopeful, wonderful experience. As MP2014 was another robust gathering of game studies academics and game developers of all professional levels, this year's conference was no less of a source of academic motivation.

At MP2014 this year I was able to meet tons of new research friends and renew discussions and connections with familiar faces of yesteryear. What follows below will be a semi-pictorial account of the conference itself.

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(Above): Duty free toy store, right after you clear customs at Narita, which also happens to be strategically placed beside the currency exchange.

Firstly, don't tempt me, Frodo.

Secondly, this is brilliant. I think that one of Japan's most powerful cultural exports is its subculture triumvirate: the endless moe waltz between manga, anime, and games.

Unique. Infectious. Collectible.



TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN: Curiosity got the best of me and I watched it and felt as though I had tangibly got stupider. Then I watched Maleficent and to be frank, that was freaking awesome. Thankfully I was able to reclaim my lost Intelligence Points when I watched Cosmos with N. D. Tyson. There is no way to watch Dr. Tyson and not become more intelligent.


Chicago O'Hare Int'l Airport: To fetch a small deep dish pizza is becoming a bit of a tradition any time I am at O'Hare. For those who don't know, such treasures are not at all easy to come by in Japan.


My total travel was as follows: Itami (Osaka) to Narita (Tokyo), then from Narita to Chicago, then lastly to Lansing. Upon arrival in Lansing, Mr. Thomas May III, who is one of the legendary panelists from the PAX East 2014 panel on The Mythology in and of Games came to pick me up at the airport and conduct me to my hotel. What followed was the most epic grilled-cheese-bacon sandwich dinner I've had in years (another covetable item in the land of the rising sun).

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Thomas literally bellowed laughter when I saw the grilled cheese on the menu and started completely freaking out. There must be something about comfort food and being an ex-patriot that illicits such reactions. I can assure all of you, however, that the reaction was genuine and one of pure elation.


At registration on the first day, the gentleman behind the desk asked me, "did you do a presentation last time on Metal Gear?"

Yes, I'm the Metal Gear guy (Establishing Literary Merit in Metal Gear Solid: A Close Critical Reading), and I was honestly flattered to be remembered as such. It was then that I knew that this conference had truly begun in earnest.

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(Below) I should mention that it is fairly common in the field of Game Studies that there is usually a game space, or "decompression/break room" at conferences which is just for playing games, and rightfully so, considering the subject material. Much to my surprise and delight, on the second day of the conference I was walking to my next session early (20 mins to spare) on the second day, I pass by the conference decompression board game room, and lo and behold, a game of Dungeons & Dragons is getting started by an intrepid group of gentlemen from the local high school. The spirit of imaginative adventure compelled me, and I joined the party forthwith.

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Sadly, as we only had about 20 minutes at a time, we only got as far as setting up some very rudimentary characters. I can only imagine what kind of hilarity was to ensue if we were given more time to start a proper adventure.

On the evening of the first night, there was a student game exhibition that had an almost festival-type atmosphere. Even when I was back in my good old English Literature Department as an undergraduate at the University of Hawaii, one of the things that I always found most impressively creative was whatever work students were making. Of course back then, it was fiction. Here at Meaningful Play, it is with student-made games that the creativity is vibrant and though-provoking. There were a wide range of games available to try, and all of them were outstanding. I had the hardest time trying to vote for the best ones for each of the nomination categories.


There were actually to different meditation games at this year's student exhibtion, which was for me a veyr pleasant surprise. I think that graduate students in particular really need some kind of relaxation facilitators, in whatever form. The game featured above is called "Wizards Meditation" by MindToon Lab and can be bought on for both iOS and Android via their website. After trying this out, I pretty much bought it as soon as I got back to my hotel that night. It's a simple 12-minute guided meditation in which you try to connect with the qualities of your particular wizard or sage. When I tried this out the first time, my wizard was Richard Harris' portrayal of Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius in the movie Gladiator (2000). By the end of my 12-minute session, I felt that I really was in the presence of the wizened old ruler and that he was going to tell me something, but the meditation concluded before I found out what it was.


Josh Farkas from Cubicle Ninjas was on hand to explain the game and oversee proper usage of the Occulus Rift Headset, and to also be a generally awesome guy to talk with about all sorts of game-related issues. Unlike the Wizards Meditation, Guided Meditation utilized a full-sensory experience to put the user in a place where they could potentially escape their stressful, everyday existence. Wizards Meditation, by contrast, really leverages on triggering the imagination of the user to put that person in a relaxing place. In my opinion, both of these approaches are completely valid directions to take towards immersion and creating an interactive experience, especially for the purpose of relaxation and meditation. If I had the funds and if the game were ready, I would have bought Cubicle Ninjas' Guided Meditation as well. Very impressive efforts all around. Seeing and experiencing things like this gives me a lot of hope for the future of the medium of games.

And then at some point in the evening, MSU's very own Photo Ninja, Ms. Lissy Torres (one of the official photographers for the event) managed to snap this probably unintentional candid of me in the background doing my "trying-to-look-intelligent-but-am-actually-overwhelmed-and-bewildered-in-the-good-way" look.

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The one game that really lit a fire under my butt that night was a game version of the Ambrose Bierce short story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by James and Joe Cox of Seemingly Pointless. I had actually taken notice of Seemingly Pointless at the last Meaningful Play conference where they were presenting the intriguing implicit morality game called "Don't Kill the Cow."

I find that it's difficult to talk about the Owl Creek Bridge game without 1) spoiling the ending and 2) not properly explaining how the game actually works to convey the fundamental narrative without any of the text of the "parent text" upon which it is based. In my humble opinion, this was an excellent example of how, with a little bit of thoughtful help from game designers, a tale can leap the borders between static print media and into the fruitfully chaotic realm of the interactive game.

I spoke at length with James about his design intent with this game and about a great many other things, and it came up at some point that he would love for this game to be taught someday in a game design course, to which I emphatically responded, "I'll *expletive*-ing teach this!" And damn it, when I get my PhD and a faculty position in the future, I definitely will. Please check out all of Seemingly Pointless' offerings at the aforementioned embedded links. It should also be mentioned that they won the "Most Meaningful Game Award" at the conclusion of MP2014, and rightfully so in my opinion.

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I have thoroughly analyzed the photo above and concluded that it is a sandwich of epic--the game "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" situated between two awesome game designers whom I had the pleasure of meeting and speaking at length with. On the left is James Earl Cox III of Seemingly Pointless, and creator of Owl Creek the game, and on the right is Tuuli Saarinen who is equal parts game designer and game researcher. All good people, all around, and I think that's why I truly love going to game studies conferences--we all believe that games mean something more than just entertainment software at the surface level, and it really shows in the depth of conversation we can all maintain on the topic. Considering what has been happening in the greater media/industry as of late, meeting people like James and Tuuli has been both intellectually refreshing and uplifting. With my new friends, I'm ready to march on once more.


My paper presentation was on the second day of the conference, and I'm thankful to Ms. Liz Owens Boltz for snapping this shot of the actual talk. This is the first time I've had some major technical difficulties at a conference presentation, and in the end a good samaritan lent me his laptop PC to do my presentation. Of course, come to find out that it was the venerable keynote speaker, Mr. Jesse Schell of Schell Games who let me use his PC. I was embarassed to say the least, but super grateful, and what a way to meet a keynote! The room was packed, no empty seats from what I could see, and after the session concluded I was able to meet many more great game studies researchers such as Cody Mejeur. As it turns out, people doing narrative in game studies are either 1) actually lonely in terms of research cohorts, or 2) just coincidentally geographically disparate. Or both? In any event, I forsee many fruitful research collaborations in the future as a result of this conference appearance. And that just plain rocks.

It is also very worth mentioning that this trip to Michigan for MP2014 was made possible via a crowdfunding campaign I conducted on IndieGoGo entitled "Video Game Studies" which ran for 5 weeks in August and September. Thanks to everyone's generous contributions, we were successfully able to exceed our modest $2000 goal and finished at $2581.

One of the big perks of that campaign was to be officially recognized during the conference presenation as one of the major players in a shadow organization that funds game studies. The major contributors slide:


Here's the video summary I made of my conference talk after I got back to Japan:

Per the rules of the conference, as my paper is currently under peer-review, I don't believe I can make it publicly available just yet, but if you are interested in looking at it, contact me directly and we can talk about more in-depth about the paper itself. The presentation slides can be viewed here:

At the time of this writing, the idea presented in this paper is still very much in its embryonic stage, and there is still a ton of future work to do with this concept, but I am hopeful that we will be able to further develop this concept of Player-side Emergence into the principle part of what will become my Doctoral Dissertation.


At the very end of the conference, I was finally able to get a picture with Mr. Toh Weimin of Singapore, who, like Cody and myself, is also studying narrative in games. And, as it turns out, he is also dealing with some issues of emergence in online gaming. I am starting to get the feeling that emergence in games, in all its myriad forms (narrative, game play, etc) is coming up as a hot topic or even buzz word in game studies at large. Other sciences have had long precedents of trying to understand the phenomenon of emergence as it pertains to their own respective fields (Computer Science, Biology, Philosophy, etc.), and I believe that it will be equally challenging with games. As my Assoc. Prof. has noted on several occassions, once you introduce the human into the model, the model breaks. That's pretty much true. And actually, that's why I like studying games. For as much of a headache it is to "prove" anything, I love being surprised by what emerges. That, in and of itself, is sufficiently intriguing to academics, I think. Well, to me it most certainly is, anyway.


After the conference ended on the third day, Thomas took me to a burger joint called Five Guys, which is apparently something we were supposed to have done as a side quest when we were doing PAX East 2014 in Boston back in April, but due to Five Guys in Boston being sufficiently damn far away from our hotels, Five Guys would have to wait until this trip to Michigan. And all I have to say is that, well, this is what a burger is supposed to be like. That's right.

There's a phrase in Hawaii we use when food is absurdly delicious, and it goes something like "broke da mouth." Well, I quote Kirk Hammet of Metallica: "My mouth was thoroughly broken."

Thanks Thomas. In return for all of his hospitality during my stay in Michigan, I bestowed real ramen on him:


Oh, and speaking of gifts, I was able to secure a US copy of The Evil Within for my game developer/PhD student Plain Box Interactive brother-in-arms Mr. Xin Yang:

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My very last order of business in Michigan was actually a dress rehearsal for the podcast I am in the process of putting together. Founded by Rachel Bazelais, Thomas May III, Jonathan Padua, and myself, the GAMES, SERIOUSLY Podcast will tentatively be a 60-minute podcast which we will release once a month, hopefully starting in mid-to-late November of 2014.

We'll be focusing on one theme or topical question per episode, and it will be structured as a safe place for intelligent and meaningful discussion on the medium of games from a variety of perspectives, with the fundamental intent of showing how games are or can be a significantly helpful medium for humanity. At the end of each episode we will invite comments and discussion via social media which we can use for discussion in future episodes or on our forthcoming website. We have also lined up a solid tentative list of special guests to join the party from time to time.

If games are something that you feel is important and meaningful, please join our quest, because it is dangerous to go alone. More updates as we get closer to our official aire date, so stay tuned!

Of course, as this was our first official dress rehearsal, it wasn't free of the occasional tech-hiccup:

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And so, that was the recap of the Interational Academic Conference on Meaningful Play 2014 at Michigan State University. As this conference is only every two years, I'll have to wait until MP2016 rolls around before I can get intellectually excited about everything I encountered this time around again. Meaningful Play is one of the best conference series I have had the honor to attend, twice at this point, and I can't wait for next time. Here's a short video compiled by the conference staff that pretty much captures the atmosphere of the whole event:

So until next time, everyone please stay safe and stay awesome.


About the Author

PhD Candidate in Japan, researching Narrative in Games. Responds favorably to Thrash Metal, Karaoke, and Dungeons & Dragons.

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