"The CUNY Games Festival is a conference focused on teachers--namely college teachers--and delivering practical information to them that they can use in their classrooms."

Gaming the Higher-Ed System
This past January CUNY hosted a one day conference and educational gaming event, CUNY Games Festival. Organized by the CUNY Games Network with the goal of, "...bring(ing) together faculty, researchers, graduate and undergraduate students, game designers, and domain experts from various disciplines," to focus on game design, implementation and gamified pedagogies for the higher ed classroom. (Here are a collection of tweets and thoughts from the event) Event organizers hoped to create a less traditional, product or company-focused "demo" experience and instead, hoped to foster and provide dialogue and experiential opportunities for instructors, game designers, graduate students, librarians, and even college students to "visualize" gamifying the higher education learning experiences. Although the event was hosted by CUNY, non-CUNY affiliated individuals and groups were encouraged to participate and present.

Interdisciplinary Approach to Event Planning
While the focus of the event is games and gamified pedagogies for the higher-ed space, many members of the 100+ member CUNY Games Network and event steering committee, who are responsible for planning and hosting the event, are from a wide range of CUNY departments and campuses. The uniting force that brings this diverse group together is the desire to promote research and scholarship that further explores the use of, "games, simulations, and other forms of interactive teaching." Additionally, the CUNY Games Network group is focused on promoting both digital and non-digital gaming and interactive technologies and the Games Festival is an interesting venue for exploring both. Finally, while gamification and gamified learning experiences have gained traction over the years in the K-12 space, the CUNY Games Festival stands-out as one of the few (if only) conferences devoted to the unique gamification needs of adult learners. Perhaps festivals like this will help the US higher education system to level-up?

Exclusive NLT Interview with the CUNY Games Team in Preparation for the Event

Question: How is CUNY Games Festival unique from other "gamified" learning conferences (Games for Change etc.?)
Answer: The CUNY Games Festival is a conference focused on teachers--namely college teachers--and delivering practical information to them that they can use in their classrooms. Unlike some other games conferences, there will be no industry representatives standing up and talking for 20 minutes about how their company got started, their marketing approaches, etc. Because for those of us who just want to know if we can use the game to teach, that kind of presentation got old pretty fast! Our mission is to educate and empower instructors to make learning engaging and fun, and we’re excited about all the wonderful proposals we’ve gotten that focus on using games with students. Of course, we have learning outcomes and students in mind, but our approach is to help instructors visualize how their classroom could be transformed into a place that fosters constructive learning.

Question: Who do you hope will attend?
Answer: First and foremost we’re aiming to draw in those involved in higher education, including instructors, librarians, academic (and other) support staff, and administrators. Since the conference is focused on game-based learning at the college level, we think that attendees who play many roles in the university could benefit from attending. Graduate students are another population we’re hoping will come to the conference, especially since many grad students are actively teaching undergraduates while completing their graduate degrees. While it’s likely that they’ll be in the minority, we would also be thrilled for undergraduate students to come to the conference, both as attendees and presenters.

We have also made attempts to attract the indie game developer community. There is a dogma that educational games are boring or fail to make companies a profit. However, there is wide open opportunity to make novel games of value, and there is grant money to support these endeavors if a project is considered fundable. The indie game space has already demonstrated its weariness of point-and-shoot sequels. Designers know that great games transform the user, so why not incorporate a learning outcome into this transformation?

Question: How/who will select presenters/speakers?
Answer: Presenters are being selected by the CUNY Games Network Steering Committee through a peer-review process that includes examining the relevance of the presentation to higher education. We were excited to see that our CFP drew responses from CUNY, other New York City educational institutions, and beyond!

Question: What do you hope the Festival will contribute to the "gamified learning" conversation?
Answer: If you are referring to "gamification," there are many of us that are split on the topic. Some are strong supporters of using secondary reinforcers to motivate students, and others emphasize intrinsic motivators. I don’t think anyone feels that all aspects of education need to have a game layer. However, there are systems that are not working that could greatly benefit from gamification, even if only for the sake of providing better feedback.

Most of the conversation around gamified learning has focused on K-12, especially middle school and STEM education. Basically, academics, industry leaders, and grant agencies are teaming up to address problems for these populations, but little is being done to promote game-based learning in higher education. One result of this is that most games do not target higher order skills and critical thinking, the kind of learning valued at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Furthermore, the attention paid to K-12 reinforces the myth that games are okay for adolescent students, but not for adult learners. Our hope is that the CUNY Games Festival will debunk these myths and change the conversation by demonstrating the critical role that "gamified learning"--whether as gamification or games and simulations--can and will continue to play in higher education.

Question: Why the focus on Higher Ed?
Answer: Higher education is underrepresented in game-based learning; in fact, we believe we are the first game-based learning conference devoted to higher ed. One of the missions of the CUNY Games Network is to spread knowledge and acceptance of GBL methods at the college-level. Higher education is also faced with unique challenges. While the K-12 space could benefit greatly from games that encourage repetition and practice, higher ed really demands games that emphasize creative problem solving. There is also the issue of using games as simulations to prepare students for the workforce.

Question: How does the Festival relate to CUNY's overall mission?
Answer: There are many aspects of CUNY’s mission that are supported by the Festival. The conference encourages undergraduate research and participation. We support novel methods of instruction and pedagogic research. Faculty from across the CUNY system are encouraged to collaborate and learn from each other. Many of the games are designed to reach beyond our walls into the community. The development of online games and course modules supports the growing demand for online and hybrid learning. Simulations prepare students for the workforce. You could similarly ask how research and teaching support CUNY’s mission statement.

Question: What teams at CUNY have been most instrumental in planning this event?
Answer: The CUNY Games Network Steering Committee, a group of faculty and staff from four schools at the university, are the primary organizers and planners of the conference. We’ve been fortunate enough to obtain sponsorship from several offices at CUNY, including the CUNY Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, as well as initiatives at the CUNY Graduate Center including the American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, CUNY Digital Humanities Initiative, Center for the Humanities, Interactive Technology and Pedagogy Certificate Program, and the New Media Lab.

Question: If the festival had a theme song, what would it be?
Answer: We’re split on this one! Our first suggestion was "Don’t Stop Believing" by Journey, which is highly relevant because we started planning for this conference several years ago, plus Journey is perhaps the quintessential video game arcade band. Other suggestions included "Games without Frontiers," by Peter Gabriel, "Give ‘Em What They Love" by Janelle Monae, "Something Good Can Work" by Two Door Cinema, and "More Than a Feeling" by Boston.

We did come to the consensus that we all spent lots of time thinking about answers to this question!

Full list of Interview Contributors:
- Joe Bisz, Associate Professor, English, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
- Francesco Crocco, Associate Professor, English, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
- Robert Duncan, Assistant Professor, Behavioral Sciences, York College, CUNY
- Kathleen Offenholley, Associate Professor, Mathematics, Borough of Manhattan Community College, CUNY
- Maura Smale, Associate Professor, Library, NYC College of Technology, CUNY

Image: Courtesy CUNY Games Team