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Let's look back - Reviews of past gaming events

By Ellysebeth Leigh  EL

ISAGA 1998
Yuli Porkhovnik and team
St Petersburg State University of Engineering and Economics [Engecon]
St Petersburg


Russia had always seemed so far from Australia and therefore remote from any opportunity to visit. So the very idea of being able to attend ISAGA 1998 in St Petersburg had a tinge of magic about it for me. It was simple, but not easy, to get a visa for travel, and this time Laraine Spindler my co-organiser for ISAGA 1999 was attending and travel plans were complicated by plans to attend a conference on experiential learning in Tampere, Finland before travelling to Russia.

The program

This was the first time a translation service was to be used at an ISAGA conference, and there was some trepidation about how it would work. However Yuli and his team – especially Mila Novak – were more than able to provide an impressive and exciting conference that also gave those of us visiting Russia for the first time a memorable opportunity to see their beautiful city and its varied and amazing environment, at close quarters.
The program was a mix of papers presented in Russian and English, with a busy team of translators providing a well-articulated and effective service for all, except on one unforgettable occasion. This one moment provided me with an insight into a Russia I had read about but was not expecting to see – a place of fierce arguments and strongly held opinions. It happened when a Russian keynote speaker concluded his talk and invited questions from the floor. The resulting exchange with a fellow Russian academic raced faster and faster, with more and more technical terms being flung at each other. The Russian to English translator struggled valiantly to keep up, but eventually had to apologise with the words “I am sorry but I they are going too fast for me. I cannot keep up!” and the audience enjoyed another few minutes of fast and furious debate without being able to understand a word. Personally it was a seminal moment for me, as I stopped trying to ‘understand’ the argument and focused instead on the experience of being in Russia with the Russians ‘at home’ in their own country.
Dmitri Kavtaradze from Moscow and his enthusiastic students were a treasure and provided the conference with a youthfulness and vigour that made everything they did appealing. Their session and demonstrations were creative and appealing and gave a whole new perspective on using games for learning. Maria Bernstein was a silent presence through posters of her work – all in Russian – and reminded us all that simulations for social and community change are not a ‘new’ idea. As an academic at Engecon in the 1920’s she and her team developed simulations to help guide Stalin’s 5-year plans. While the objectives may no longer be appreciated, the work is evidence of the longevity of simulation for learning and change that we can all benefit from.
As usual the program is available for those wishing to revisit the papers.

Social activities

St Petersburg is a large city, which celebrated its tri-centenary in 2003. At the time of ISAGA it was preparing itself for the celebrations. The marks of the 900 day siege between 1941-1944 are still to be seen, as is the transformation of St Petersburg into a well-provisioned and trade friendly city, following the remarkable changes to the world emerging from the opening of the Berlin Wall on November 9th1989.
In such a place the social activities could not fail to be fascinating. The opening dinner at the Hotel Moscow provided tables laden with cold meats, salads, champagne and caviar and wall frescos of the development of Moscow including a panel more than 20 feet long depicting the ‘Golden Domes’ of the Kremlin. We took a ‘taxi’ back to our less exalted Octobraskaya Hotel, by the simple expedient of flagging down a passing motorist and agreeing to pay him 20 roubles to take us there! Although this first time seemed risky and reckless, I have done this many times since, and the experiences colour my thoughts about the Russian people. I have never been cheated, tricked or felt uncomfortable travelling through St Petersburg and Moscow in the cars of obliging private citizens.
The following evening we had a canal ride through the “Venice of the North” culminated in watching the bridges open in the dusk as part of the seasonal opening of 22 bridges to allow shipping to pass from the Baltic sea to the Volga-Baltic waterway system. Another evening bus ride took us, by a circuitous route past beautiful 300-year-old buildings lit for evening viewing, to the vast square facing the Hermitage, also lit for effect. A morning bus ride took us to the Management Training Centre in the city of Pushkin to the south of St Petersburg, for one whole day of the conference. Quite apart from the opportunity to visit a second educational venue this also gave us an opportunity to walk to, in and through Tsarskoye Selo, the ‘royal village’ with the palace of Catherine the Great in pride of place. This day of the conference blended ‘social’ and ‘educational’ in a mix typical of the effort made by the organising committee to provide ISAGA participants with an immersive and engaging experience.


Once again ISAGA provided that most precious of gifts – the opportunity to be fully immersed in the experience of ‘being in’ the host country. My journal notes that there were some less positive responses to aspects of the week, and some anxiety that Australia would not have any ‘derailments’ like the translation episode. I noted in my journal that my answer to these anxieties was that “The strength of ISAGA is that each country is left unfettered do the conference in its own style. So the question now is – what is Australian?’

Learning about ISAGA conferences

The Engecon team helped me appreciate the value of ensuring that participants received advice about all the places to shop, had good maps of the immediate surrounds, had time to explore those surroundings, had plenty of good meals and time to themselves as well as time to share with new and old friends, accommodation that was close to the venue, and social events that introduced and explored the host country.

An Aside<
A moment in time

On the dock after the evening on the river we were waiting for the buses near a busy roundabout. The following episode is presented exactly as I recorded it that night –

“I stand apart from the conversation and watch the traffic wiz across the vast intersection of the embankment and a major road leading to one of the main bridges. In the midst of the chaos two cars end up nose to nose almost in the middle of the inter-section. One is quite a small dark sedan. The other is a large 4WD – range rover type. As I watch they appear to behave like two bulls shaping up for a fight – neither will give ground. The lights change – traffic wizzes past them – they have a stand off. The big car’s driver is clearly feeling superior as he stares down at the sedan, until – a hand emerges from the driver’s side window and a flashing blue light materialises on the roof of the sedan! The big vehicle accedes right of way - fast! Both vehicles go their own way. And I am left wondering about the changes that enable such an exchange to end in this way, in the new Russia.

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