University of California Irvine: Building a community that’s got game

Because the pause button was engaged during the pandemic, the unfamiliar can be forgiven for mistakenly assuming the Games+Learning+Society Conference (GLS 2022) at UCI June 15-17 is a brand-new event. Actually, for nearly two decades, the world’s game community has been invited to come together annually and discuss the many challenges the multibillion-dollar industry faces.

Constance Steinkuehler and Kurt Squire – who are professors of informatics, co-directors of UCI’s Games+Learning+Society Center and married to one another – started the conference in 2005, when both were teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Having joined the Donald Bren School of Information & Computer Sciences in 2017, the couple relaunched the GLS Center on campus in September, and three months later announced that UCI would be hosting its first GLS Conference this month.

Steinkuehler confides that was not the original plan when they moved to Irvine.

“When we left Madison, we were a bit tired of running an academic community,” she says. “The idea of not having to run as many events or oversee as many partnerships was seductive. So, we got to the UCI campus, we scaled down some to focus on primary research.”

Then came the COVID-19 outbreak.

“The two years of pandemic isolation helped us both realize that we missed our community,” Steinkuehler says. “While SoCal is known as Silicon Beach – with more than 300 tech companies within a 100-mile radius of UCI – there isn’t actually much interstitial tissue between game program and game studios. There are some isolated strong relationships, but what’s missing is a shared community.”

That surprised both scholars, given that Southern California is a media and entertainment mecca. It also inspired them to make another run at bringing the gaming community together with GLS 2022.

“What the GLS Center and community has tried to do is to be a place where gamers, game scholars and game-makers alike can have informed, educated and, hopefully, interesting conversations about the current and future state of the medium,” Squire says. “Today it’s NFTs (non-fungible tokens), disruptive player behavior and the metaverse; tomorrow, who knows? But over the years we’ve found that innovation happens at the intersections. The whole point of GLS is to be a host for just those conversations.”

He continues, “What we’ve done relatively well is created a context where people in the games industry can take a step back and say, ‘All right, what does any of this mean?’ What parts are hype and what parts are real? And what is the longer-term cultural and social import of these developments?”

Besides the issues that have wracked the industry – such as the rise of sexism, racism and political extremism – Steinkuehler sees the conference as being a venue where the gaming community can respond to the challenges facing society as a whole.

“We’re facing a lot of tough issues in the U.S. right now – global climate change, civil rights, the erosion of democracy, war against a sovereign democratic state in Eastern Europe. Games obviously cannot solve all these problems, but they can be really important vehicles for certain key pieces,” she says. “Games also play a crucial role as social platforms, one where all the dynamics of social platforms, information and collective reasoning play out, especially among a younger generation. So, there’s important work we can be doing on these national issues from our interactive media corner of the digital world.”

The conference will include keynote speakers Raph Koster, CEO of Playable Worlds; Erica Halverson, professor and chair of curriculum & instruction at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; and Aaron Trammell, UCI assistant professor of informatics. Innovative sessions, interactive workshops on game design and research, individual academic and symposia presentations as well as spotlights on game-play successes and failures will also be presented. Among the highlights are Wednesday’s Game Showcase Event, Thursday evening’s outdoor marquee dinner and live music, and Friday evening’s sunset beach bonfire featuring “an optional side dish of surf lessons” at Doheny Beach in Dana Point.

Some of those events are decidedly different than what was found at past GLS conferences in Madison. But so is the wide-scale acceptance of gaming as an industry and research topic in Silicon Beach compared to Wisconsin, according to the GLS Center co-directors.

Steinkuehler thinks back to a survey she had commissioned for the Higher Education Video Game Alliance she ran a couple years before leaving Wisconsin that revealed academic gaming programs, in contrast to nongaming disciplines, had significantly higher freshman-to-sophomore retention rates, higher average salaries for post-graduates, and higher percentages of women enrollees and grads who land jobs and self-report they are thriving in their young careers. That data explains why there are now more than 480 academic gaming-industry programs at public and private institutions compared to the handful that existed when the GLS Center first launched, she notes.

Nearly 20 years ago, when the GLS Center was first founded at the University of Wisconsin, “it felt like every discussion had to start with a debrief about the economic and social importance of games, the generational divide that leaves many decision-makers woefully unaware of media consumption trends today, et cetera,” Steinkuehler says. “And even then, I would often still have to explain that I am not advocating for any and all video games for all kids in all contexts all of the time.

“But here in California, the conversation is very different. And that was one of key draws for us to UCI. One of California’s most important exports is culture and entertainment. I don’t have to justify the importance of entertainment media in the same way. California gets it. Orange County gets it. And UCI definitely gets it.”

“What I think we find most exciting,” Squire adds, “is that UCI is a very forward-looking university, one that’s trying to make its reputation rather than just defend one. The chance we have right now to reignite GLS here at UCI and build a regional community across silos is a terrific motivator to get us out of our pandemic bunkers and back into the sun again.”

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