1. The Culture of Games
Between signs for Cajun food and the university’s “Ragin’ Cajun” mascot sits a 50-foot-tall, luminescent, rainbow-colored egg attached to a modern building.
The $27 million, 70,000 square foot facility called LITE (Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise) signals the birth of something altogether new in the Lafayette landscape. This is one of the world’s most sophisticated public virtual exploration facilities, and though it seems like an anomaly, it’s perfectly fitting for it to be in this region, nestled within a culture that has gainfully employed creativity and technology in the past to revamp their local economy and culture.
To entice tourists with automobiles to the region, Cajuns once focused on art, poetry, music, cuisine and a rich culture of storytelling to transform the local economy.
Technology, however, has changed since then.
Our journey to LITE began in an Internet browser-based virtual environment called Metaplace. Simple to access, filled with small, innocuous avatars in an environment more evocative of Donkey Kong than Grand Theft Auto, Metaplace seemed ideal at first glance for educational purposes.
It was Metaplace that we first met Joe Castille, the executive producer of a technology education group called 3D Squared, amid a square of landscaped green space. 3D Squared is a non-profit dedicated to “workforce development for the game and digital media industry” lead by Spencer Zuzolo an academic and game developer from Austin, Texas, who teaches game design.
We met in Metaplace with Castille and Zuzolo in an environment created collaboratively with students that included a geodesic dome, office furniture and a park. The place was abuzz with tiny, busy avatars, many of whom were interns and students participating in 3D Squared and involved with its parallel venture, GameCamp.
“I’m immensely concerned about the transformation in the economy and how to prepare tomorrow’s workforce to adapt to it,” Zuzolo told us when we first met in Metaplace. “How do you engage the students and connect them to parents, teachers and students? Part of it is language.”
That language, he believes, lies partly in the culture of games.
The idea of games in education is often narrowly interpreted through the prism of a specific game such as World of Warcraft, which, because it builds strong guilds and demonstrates the power of play in groups, is an easy target for such assertions. Massively multiplayer online games are one type of game, and the skills built within them can have great impact, but this project interprets “games” far more broadly to encompass systems deliberately engineered for maximum participation.
In Louisiana, 3D Squared’s young participants aimed to create games that could translate into real social and economic value.
“We have the largest outmigration of any state in the nation,” Castille explained of Louisiana. “100,000 skilled labor jobs are unfilled. We’re using Metaplace as the first rung of the skill ladder for teaching virtual world development.”
Castille and Zuzolo believe that the reform of education and the future of work are intertwined, and being perceived as such will allow for the creation of an interactive collaborative atmosphere with immediate feedback and development. In this environment, the role of the individual is important, with each person contributing valuably to the process. The group’s mission remains the sole focus. The purpose is served, and everybody wins.
3D Squared’s project was funded by a $750,000 grant from the Louisiana Department of Development.
What did the grant cover?
- Thought-leadership: The Digital Technologies and Creative Processes Initiative included a statewide assessment of Louisiana’s needs and resources, development of curriculum criteria and standards, pilot programs, stakeholder education, and creation of a digital media laboratory.
- Action: The project would culminate in a Digital Workforce Initiative during which students from different schools would work in teams to develop virtual world prototypes of games and simulations addressing core social problems during a week-long event at LITE.
- Intangible benefits: Students gaining rapid mastery over complex subject matter after conducting their own research and collaborating on critical thought, design and project development. Students gaining public speaking ability and confidence in a professional, competitive and team-oriented environment in which the individual is a valued contributor.
Zuzolo and Castille extended an invitation for us to visit Lafayette, Louisiana, and participate in the Digital Workforce Initiative. The event would also serve as an opportunity for 3D Squared to explain their work to community and political leaders. When we first arrived, event participants were divided into groups to choose from among a roster of themes ranging from police brutality and obesity to environmental crises and unemployment.
Each team would collaborate on the design of a virtual game with real world benefit, bolstered by research into the topic and sharing knowledge and ideas. When the students needed a break, they could share their terror about public speaking with their group leaders or play Rock Band in a recreation room at the end of the hall.
The public speaking would be necessary at the end of the week when game designers would be flown in to critique their work in front of a live audience of parents, educators, facilitators, journalists, policymakers and peers. The live event at the end of the week still seemed a long way off. The participants had barely chosen their topics and hadn’t yet decided who among them would fill the roles of producer, director, designer, researcher and writer.
By the end of the first day, their games started to shape up. Each team was focused on a different social issue including obesity, unemployment, environmental issues in the Gulf Coast and police brutality. Several times we heard people say that if not for Mississippi, Louisiana would rate dead last in almost any category related to health, education and the local economy.
In the hallways of LITE, team members practiced public speaking as they worked on their Metaplace environments. They ate together, laughed at their mistakes, congratulated each other for amazing feats of creativity and worked their problems out in tandem. The participants, accustomed to studying alone, taking tests alone and failing or passing in isolation, had never experienced anything like it. Excitement and nerves crackled in the air at LITE as future workers began to shift from a paradigm of solitary competition to one of collaborative creativity.