Aspects of Play in Academia - Women of CHI PLAY 2023

Monday, March 4, 2024

The following is an excerpt from a longer piece about GI member experiences at CHI PLAY 2023. The full version will be featured in GI’s 2023 Annual Report (upcoming).

CHI PLAY is a specialized conference for Human Computer Interaction (HCI) researchers interested in games and play. This includes user research, game design and development, gamification, biofeedback, hardware use, industry studies, and more. Organizers call this interdisciplinary intersection “player-computer interaction”.

From October 10th to October 13th, 2023, CHI PLAY took place at the Stratford School of Business and Interaction Design. This year the conference was co-chaired by two GI faculty members, Dr. Jennifer Whitson (Sociology and Legal Studies, Stratford), and Dr. Jim Wallace (School of Public Health Sciences). GI faculty and students helped with the conference logistics, from supplying games to play at socials, to giving recommendations for what to do and see in Stratford; all while chairing panels, presenting their research, and networking with others in their field.

From humanities students studying how game mechanics enhance narrative storytelling, to engineers employing ethnographic research methods to examine technology designed for small spaces, CHI PLAY offers a venue to present and publish interdisciplinary work and receive feedback from globally recognized researchers.

In this retrospective, we sit down with GI faculty Drs. Cayley MacArthur, Jen Whitson and Leah Zhang-Kennedy who recount their experiences at CHI PLAY, including what makes it so unique, what they took away from the 2023 conference, and what advice they would give to those looking to attend in the future.

Encouraging Engagement

Dr. Cayley MacArthur has been attending CHI PLAY since she was a student at the University of Waterloo; this was her first CHI PLAY since becoming an Assistant Professor at the University of Waterloo Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business.

MacArthur’s first CHI PLAY was in Australia, in 2018, which she felt was “pretty hard to top.” As a student, she appreciated the chance to interact with faculty members and make connections with people outside of her academic discipline and Waterloo network; something MacArthur now encourages her own students to do.

Engagement stickers from CHI PLAY

Player engagement and interaction is a large topic among CHI researchers and game developers alike—how can people be better engaged? To encourage conference attendees to interact with projects on display, the conference’s Engagement Chairs (including GI Member Alê Luz Lam!) designed a token system. For each interaction, people would receive a token and could exchange it for fun little stickers.

“Can I show you the sparkle stickers?” MacArthur shows off a handful of stickers she received after engaging with some of the interactive demos of works and games in progress at CHI PLAY. This is just one of the innovations CHI PLAY implemented this year to encourage more interactive participation and engagement with games and research over the course of the conference.

Care and Community

As a graduate student, Dr. Whitson experienced CHI PLAY in its infancy when it was known as “Future PLAY.” While “Future PLAY” was intended for academics in computer science and adjacent disciplines, Whitson was doing work in game studies, a growing field of humanities scholars and social scientists studying games and technology. Whitson noticed that the topics game scholars in game studies, and HCI engaged with such as games and affect, representation in games, and matters of privacy, were quite similar. Now, more than a decade later as an Associate Professor in Sociology and Legal Studies and the Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business, Whitson was returning to CHI PLAY as co-chair.

Over the years, CHI PLAY has curated a strong sense of community, culture, and tradition. For example, attendees give standing ovations after every presentation and there is always at least one night of karaoke after the conference is done for the day. To Whitson, it’s these small moments that make the community a wonderful thing to be a part of, and as co-chair, it was important to her to help maintain the sense of community that CHI PLAY is known for.

One thing that sets CHI PLAY apart for Whitson is that acceptance to the conference is also acceptance to the published conference proceedings, which isn’t standard at many other conferences. CHI PLAY provides graduate students emerging in the field with valuable training on the submission, reviewing and publishing process.

For 2023, CHI PLAY received and reviewed almost 300 total submissions which resulted in 52 full papers (226 were reviewed), 31 short “work-in-progress” papers, 10 “perspectives on play” papers, 4 interactive demos, and 8 student games. These were then published online by the Association for Computer Machinery in the CHI PLAY Companion ‘23: Companion Proceedings of the Annual Symposium on Computer-Human Interaction in Play.

Tanya Short

Whitson enjoyed the blend of academic and industry panels and presentations especially the keynote presentation by Kitfox Games’ Creative Director Tanya Short, “Work Healthy, Play Healthy” which explored her advocacy work in the games industry, including her commitment to anti-crunch studio culture.

Whitson sees presentations like these as a valuable opportunity for academia and industry to learn from each other.

Whitson also added, “If researchers find the conference proceedings to be daunting, there are opportunities to submit to the works in the ‘work in progress’ track.” In this track, students can present a poster, receive feedback on their work, submit games to the design competition, and attend CHI PLAY as an audience member. Whitson says: “If you are someone who makes games, absolutely submit games.”

First-Time Experiences

Dr. Leah Zhang-Kennedy’s (Stratford School of Interaction Design and Business) research focuses on the privacy and safety aspects of people’s interactions with digital technologies. When searching for a community of scholars doing this work, she found relevant papers within past CHI PLAY searching for a community of scholars doing this work, she found relevant papers within past CHI PLAY proceedings, “with such a wide variety of content,” she said, “there is something there for everyone even though your research might not focus on games, gaming, or gamification. Everyone speaks a common language through HCI.”

With the conference happening locally, Zhang-Kennedy decided to not only attend but also volunteer to be a mentor for students attending CHI PLAY. She finds it important to encourage students to develop their own research and design skills. As a student mentor Zhang-Kennedy met with three graduate students and assisted in judging the game design competition as the only academic judge.

Another key piece of advice she passes on to students is that while attending presentations is important, don’t skip out on the conference dinners and socials, “there are opportunities to interact with people who are different from you. Get out of your own lab and talk to people; you might learn something new.”

The Future of CHI PLAY

This year’s CHI PLAY worked to build bridges between academics and industry experts; curate a supportive and engaging environment for students and newcomers and establish the growing body of interdisciplinary research within games and interactive technologies.

After this year’s conference, Whitson has some final thoughts for her successors and for those in the humanities disciplines who might want to consider submitting to CHI PLAY in the future “for academic games work, regardless of discipline, CHI PLAY is right now the hub in terms of the largest collection of games-related research.”

Congrats to all GI members involved in organizing CHI PLAY 2023! In alphabetical order by first name:

  • Alessandra Luz Lam (Engagement Chair)
  • Ali Rizvi (Local Arrangements Chair)
  • Dr. Daniel Harley (Student Design Competition Chair)
  • Derrick Wang (Interactivity and Play Chair)
  • Greg McIntyre (Virtualization Chair)
  • Dr. Jen Whitson (General co-Chair)
  • Dr. Jim Wallace (General co-Chair)
  • Ken Jen Lee (Student Volunteer Chair)
  • Dr. Pejman Mirza-Babaei (Connections Chair)
  • Veen Wong (Accessibility Chair)