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On Friday, June 26, the Anthro Guys plus one (IPA research associate, Elfego Franco) attended the Innovation, Design and Serious Games Exchange at Dogpatch Studios in San Francisco.  Billed as an “unconference“, the event delivered on the promise of user-driven topics and format.  After playing an introductory game, A Strong Wind Blows, we had about twenty user-designed sessions over the next six hours broken up by some superb Indian food.

The mix of people was the best you could hope for.  There were marketing types, user experience and usability folks, process people (I learned that CSM stands for “Certified Scrum Master”; see also blog postings by Jeff McKenna and Doug Shimp), programmers, and a few anthropologists (i.e. me, TheAnthroGeek and Elfego).  The focus was on sharing experiences using games to spark product and organizational innovation.  Some of this was great fun.  For example, in one session, led by Dave Blum (aka Dr. Clue, who was in the SF Chronicle today), I was privy to a very lively conversation about games in and for social media which did eventually get down to my big question:  What games can we play with social media that can help inspire product innovation?  One of the best ideas was to adapt the innovation game, Speed Boat, for use on a social media site.  In another session, led by Professor of Game Design, Carrie Heeter, we got a peek at how game design works and I actually feel like I could create some simple games for use in some of the innovation exercises we use in our product development work.

Other things I encountered left me ambivalent.  For example, most participants were familiar with the book Innovation Games, by organizer Luke Hohmann.  Hohmann’s book has been influential in spreading the use of innovation games and the spirit behind the book was the same as the one behind the unconference:  serious play can spark powerful new ideas.  (This is why the Anthro Guys were turned on to this unconference in the first place — when we’re not in the field practicing ethnography, our workshop methods are all about breaking the mold with movement, laughter and play.)  One of the games Luke describes in the book and on one of the handy game cards that come with it is called “Me and My Shadow.”  From Luke’s website:

Shadow your customer while they use your product or service. Literally, sit next to them and watch what they do. Periodically ask them “Why are you doing that?” and “What are you thinking?” Take along a camera or camcorder and record key activities. Ask for copies of important artifacts created or used by your customer while they are doing the work.

I first heard about Me and My Shadow in one of the sessions last Friday, and I immediately recognized it as as stripped down version of ethnography, the basic and distinctive research philosophy of my field, cultural anthropology.  Since I believe that ethnography, with its open-ended, inductive approach to human behavior, is a very powerful tool for learning about human life and for turning up innovative ideas for improving our lives, I feel thankful to Luke for bringing its essence (“go out and be with people”) to a large number of people who may not have otherwise encountered it.  My only ambivalence was in seeing one of the core competencies of my discipline and the focal point of my professional practice reduced to a “game” that neatly fits on a small index card.

I fear this sounds snooty and academic — as in, “how dare you simplify my discipline like that!” — but it’s not intended that way.  The more people absorb the ethos of ethnography (if you want to learn about people, go out and be with them) the better.  Luke obviously gets that, hence, Me and My Shadow.   He also notes the deeper roots of the game in the ethnographic tradition.  It’s just that…it’s a little unnerving to see your life’s work distilled down to one 3×5 card.

All in all, we made some good connections and learned some things.  Thanks to Luke Hohmann, Nancy Frishberg and Kaliya Hamlin (aka Identity Woman) for the work of organizing Friday’s unconference.  We’ll carry some of the lessons we learned back to Fresno and incorporate them into our practice at the Institute of Public Anthropology.

PS. Search twitter #IDSGE for more buzz about this.

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