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12:33pm on Sunday, 22nd January, 2006:



I'm interested in games of all kind, but primarily for their own sake. If someone wants me to design a game for, oh, girls who don't like mathematics, well, OK, I can do that; it's an interesting design problem, but it is the design I'm interested in, not the subject matter. Some people are interested in the subject matter, but not the game design. They and I should talk.

At Essex University, there are 19 departments. Some of the people in some of those departments I would like to speak to, and they'd like to speak to me. We don't know who each other are, though. Occasionally, we find out about each other by accident. Last year, for example, I spoke to a lecturer in accountancy (of all things) who was developing a game to teach investigative skills — it actually had the makings of a pretty good game. We had a chat, and I was able to save her quite a lot of work by pointing out what would work, what wouldn't, and introducing some new ways of doing things she hadn't thought of. She in turn was able to tell me what was and wasn't important knowledge for her students, so I wasn't suggesting mechanisms that were irrelevant. We got on quite well, and by the end of it I was chomping at the bit to implement the game (although I knew I wasn't going to be able to, as she had a grant to get a PhD student to do it — rats!).

I met her purely by accident. I signed up to some "learning partnership" scheme and saw she'd got the grant, so got in touch. Otherwise, I wouldn't have known about her nor she me.

How does someone in one department at Essex University get to find other people in other departments who might work in the same area? Within a department, it's fairly easy (at least when you only have 40 or so academic members of staff, as we do). Academically close departments such as Computer Science are also not so difficult, because there's usually someone there whom you know for some other reason, then you can ask them if there's "anyone who does games?". Academically remote departments, though, as less easy to deal with.

I keep hearing, for example, that there may be people in the Psychology Department who are interested in games. I don't know who these people are, though. The official mechanism for finding out is for me to ask our Head of Department to speak to their Head of Department to suggest some names, but this never seems to happen. Either one of the HoDs forgets, or the HoD doesn't know someone harbours a closet interest in (in my case) games, or potential contacts are made but the information never gets back to me. I could email every person in the Psychology Department, I guess, but that wouldn't exactly endear me to them. Besides, I want to email every academic in the university, not just one particular department.

What I want is a channel explicitly for people who are looking to group with other people to research some topic. In other words, an academic equivalent of the LFG channel in virtual worlds. I want to be able to post to a channel without fear that I'm going to annoy anyone with unwanted solicitations, and where I may see other people who are looking to hook up with people who have an interest that overlaps mine. Anyone looking for group can send to the channel; anyone not looking for group doesn't even sign up to receive messages on it. A regular email list would work just fine. As it is, the university has a small ads channel for people wanting to sell puppies and old bicycles and stuff, so why not a LFG channel?

Indeed, why stop at one University? At the moment, if I want to get in touch with someone at a different university, I have either to read their papers and email them or bump into them at a conference, or they have to get in touch with me. If we don't know who each other are, and we don't overlap in traditional academic spheres (how many accountants read the latest papers about game design, and how many game designers read the latest papers on accountancy? — oh, I'll tell you the answer, it's zero in both cases), then we'll never get in touch. If there were a UK-wide academic network for people LFG, then it's conceivable that I could find some group of geographers in the University of Central Nowhere struggling to design a game that I could really help them with, in turn benefiting from their knowledge of how to organise spaces to help my own research. Without such a channel, how am I going to track them down? I might possibly be able to discover they exist, but that wouoldn't tell me whether they were interested in collaboration.

Why stop at universities? People are always looking for other people with related interests. At the moment, they have to find the forums and watch discussions unfold, and if they're really lucky they won't get flamed to oblivion for asking a naive question. Wouldn't it be handy if they could just send a LFG?

Yes, it would, but sadly it would be abused. Any public-access match-making service would swiftly become an advertising channel for unrelated subjects. I maybe LFG for people interested in both York City Footbal Club and Scalextric cars, but I'm going to get the adverts for v1@gra all the same. Nevertheless, in a closed environment — whether a university, a company, a club, whatever — it could be a useful service.

This is where I find out that pretty well every other university does it anyway and Essex is one of the few still stuck in the Dark Ages...

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).