Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Spring Research Update

It's been a while since I last did a research update. With spring (sort of) arriving, there's no better time to reflect on a winter's worth of hard work.

First / Dean Gugler 

Coherent Emergent Stories

Most of my effort in the last 8 months has been dedicated to teaching, but despite this, I managed to make progress on my PhD and thesis project.  In the fall, I spent time putting together my thesis proposal, trying to make the content as close to final-thesis quality as I could.  Then I proposed in December.

Since then, I have been dabbling with a next-iteration prototype to test my story ideas.  Instead of trying to craft an entire game, I am focusing on what I call a "story explorer."  I am designing the prototype to be as data-driven as possible so I can quickly and easily test many different stories and approaches to arranging those stories with my story engine.

Gram's House

The Gram's House project is a labour of love, and I am so excited to see how far it has come since I came up with the idea years ago.

Lately we've been hard at work on the NSF AISL Pathways grant we were awarded to study the effect of story on teaching computer science concepts with games to middle school girls.  We have been working on prototypes for three analog games to be used in informal settings.  The game cover the concepts of data representation (specifically images), data organization (searching and sorting), and algorithms (writing and reading precise instructions).

It has been a lot of fun coming up with the game designs, but also very challenging.  I really want to make sure we have something more than a lightly gamified activity.  I want the games to have inherently interesting and motivating goals that happen to require understanding of our CS concepts to achieve.  I want the games to present interesting and meaningful choices to players, and have at least some degree of replayability.  I'm not sure that our current games have all these features, and I am convinced that we can come up with even better designs.  Hopefully our resident story and game design expert Lorraine Hopping will stay patient with my constant pushing, because she has been an amazing asset to this project and has a lot more experience than I do!

Something else exciting is that two of my first year students may be joining the procedural content generation grant team at Northeastern University in Boston this summer.  I am beyond thrilled to be able to enable this kind of opportunity, and I can't wait to see what they are able to accomplish.

In addition to the summary of Gram's House on my own webpage, we have started an official project site hosted by Northeastern.  We are still working on adding content, but that should be a good place to find information about the project in the future.

Monday, February 23, 2015

One Instructor's Flipped Classroom Philosophy

Earlier this month, our Education Development Centre hosted a teaching round table on the flipped classroom.  At the session, engineering instructor Shermeen Nizami shared her philosophy for flipping her own fourth year undergraduate class.

Nizami began by sharing Rogers' diffusion of innovation theory.  She found this after her first flipped course was over, but felt it correlated well with that happened in class.  As shown in the below diagram, there are innovators, early adopters, the early majority, the late majority, and the laggards.  The distribution of these groups is shown in blue, while market share of an innovation is shown in yellow.  A question Nizami asked herself was who is in the chasm? Why do some students feel like the flipped classroom teacher is not doing her job? ("I want you to lecture to me!") For any classroom innovation to be successful, we need buy-in from students.

Why flip in the first place? In any given class, 30% of learners are apparently blocked; they can't be reached.  60% might be described as passive learners, and only 10% as active learners.  Could flipping help bring more students into the active segment? Is it worth it? It is if you believe that more students fail a lecture-based class than an active class, and that the rates of retention claimed in the learning pyramid are even close to accurate.

How do you flip? Nizimi says teachers need to look through the eyes of a student, and help students see themselves as their own teachers.  The mindset of both the student and the teacher need to be flipped. The teacher needs to be careful to keep students at the points of maximal learning: at the edge of their comfort zone, but not quite into the panic zone.

Design thinking gave Nizimi an useful model with which to approach her classroom:
  • Empathize: validate the level of difficulty students face in class
  • Define: gain students' confidence that you are on their side and not trying to trick them
  • Ideate: involve students and come up with creative solutions
  • Prototype: create opportunities for students to try out the proposed solutions
  • Test: solicit student feedback; be brave
The round table ended before we got a chance to get into the meat of what Nizimi's students were actually asked to do before and during class, but I did appreciate the constant reminder that we should involve students in the learning process as much as possible.  Whether I get the opportunity to formally flip or not, I hope to keep that thought in mind in all my teaching practice.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Review / Ruby Wizardry: An Introduction to Programming for Kids

I think story is a powerful way to teach computer science.  I also think that too many programming books are boring.  Boring is fine for the experienced programmer looking to learn a new language, but maybe not so great for a beginner  someone we have a chance to hook onto programming!

Enter Ruby Wizardry, a book from No Starch that teaches basic Ruby concepts through a fun adventure story.  This is the programming book I've been waiting for!

Ruby Wizardry opens with a scene featuring the King and two kids from his kingdom, Scarlet and Ruben.  The King has lost his string, and needs the kids to help him find it.  Computing devices are all over town, allowing those skilled in Ruby to affect their surroundings.  From the public transit that runs on while loops to menus at the local eatery, it seems that Ruby is everywhere.  After finding the King's string, Scarlet and Ruben travel around town with the King, slowly uncovering some kind of devious plot that will be up to them to stop.

There are many things to love about this book.  The story is charming, and puts female characters at the forefront as competent programmers.  For example, the King himself is a bit of a luddite that tries his best to learn some Ruby along the way.  Meanwhile, his wife, the Queen, is "quite the hacker."  The conceptual content is embedded nicely into the story, and concepts are explained in an informal, conversational style.  I mean this literally  the characters are often teaching each other about Ruby, also allowing common misconceptions or admissions of not understanding to come up.  Everything you learn in a chapter is reinforced multiple times, and each chapter includes a mini-project and detailed summary.

There are some issues from a pedagogical standpoint.  Perhaps this is because the author of this book, Eric Weinstein, seems to have been educated as an author first and a programmer second.  There are certainly times when even I get lost in the Ruby syntax (I'm new to Ruby).  I don't think it's necessary to show four different ways to accomplish the same thing, especially when one of those ways is a lot easier to understand than the others.  The goal of a book like this is not to teach all of Ruby, but to introduce readers to the basic concepts of programming and set them up for success should they wish to continue learning.  It seems that this is forgotten at times.

Nonetheless, I am thrilled with this book.  I sincerely hope that more programming books will soon appear that use story or other contexts to deeply embed concepts into.  I think it's a great way to introduce anyone to programming, whether young or just young at heart.

(If you act fast, you can get a copy of Ruby Wizardy in this awesome No Starch Humble Brainiac Book Bundle!)

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Comic About Grace Hopper

Ramya from Udemy shared a neat little comic with me about Grace Hopper, and said I could share it here.  You can look at the comic on their website, too, where you can also order a Grace Hopper sticker if you live in the US.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How Gameplay Affects Stories in Games

I am very interested in the role of storytelling in videogames.  Although I do like games without stories as well, the story is often the part of a game that engages me the most.  For my thesis proposal, I spent some time thinking about how stories integrate into games, and realized that some of the existing ways to analyze them didn't quite suit my needs.  Below is an excerpt from my proposal discussing a spectrum I came up with instead.

We are interested in the application of interactive storytelling in videogames. In particular, we want to create a more satisfying story experience in open-world adventure and role-playing games. A game that features an open world allows its players to move freely in a large space with few or no artificial barriers, choosing what to do and when. The flexibility of an open world and the fact that adventure and role-playing games tend to have strong story components [1] make these genres an interesting place to explore interactive storytelling techniques.

Combining IS and games introduces a new challenge: a balance must be achieved between creating a satisfying story and maintaining a reasonable level of player control in both the story and gameplay. This is no easy task, as Costikyan points out: “Divergence from a story's path is likely to make for a less satisfying story; restricting a player's freedom of action is likely to make for a less satisfying game” [2]. It also brings an important difference between interactive storytelling and storytelling in games to the forefront. In traditional interactive storytelling, the IS system is primarily responsible for arranging the story being told, making adjustments according to user interactions. When telling interactive stories with games, however, it is the gameplay that drives the story forward and determines how it should unfold. Gameplay is what we call the interaction between players and a game system's rules [3]. Gameplay includes physically moving through an open world's space, fighting enemies, conversing with non-player characters, and collecting items.

Figure 1: Our spectrum of how storytelling integrates with gameplay

Some gameplay actions might allow players to interact with the game's story elements, and others can indirectly affect the direction of the story. Viewed as a spectrum (Figure 1), the least interactive types of game stories come as a result of gameplay not having any effect on the story at all. The most interactive stories are directly affected by gameplay. In the middle, stories are affected by gameplay, but only indirectly. Many authors who wish to create compelling story experiences in games aim to create experiences as far right on the spectrum as possible, but several challenges make this more difficult than it may seem.

 Figure 2: Lebowitz and Klug's storytelling in games spectrum

Lebowitz and Klug [1] also proposed a spectrum to analyze videogame stories (Figure 2). As presented, non-interactive stories are at the far left. The level of control that players have over the story increases to the right of the spectrum. Implicitly, the spectrum also captures how much control an author has over a story, with the largest level of control to the far left. Furthest right, the author has no control at all; games that Lebowitz and Klug call fully player-driven are highly emergent with no set plot.

We are more interested in how directly gameplay affects a story rather than the magnitude of control the player has, partly because gameplay and story often feel like separate activities. Furthermore, most open-world games we are interested in fit into the open-ended story category of Lebowitz and Klug’s spectrum, which they characterize as games that allow players to progress how they wish and that often (but not always) feature open worlds. Some open-world games allow players to explore and complete various tasks without any relation to the story. Others have similar tasks to complete, but doing so will cause the story to change in some way. We want to be able to distinguish games within the open-ended category, and we are able to do so with our spectrum.

In the following, we discuss the types of strategies used to implement game stories across our spectrum and discuss problems that arise for each. We begin at the far left of our spectrum, where gameplay has no effect on story. This does not necessarily mean that the game is not an example of interactive storytelling, as the player may be able to interact with the story in ways that do not change it. The player might choose which parts of the story to consume and when, explore the world the story is set in, or interact with the characters within. Games in the Zelda series, such as The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword, feature fixed stories but allow the player to converse with non-player characters and take on missions that have no story consequences. Not allowing gameplay to affect a story results in stronger authorial control over how the story unfolds. However, it also introduces a risk of creating gameplay that does not align well with the narrative being told, especially in games that offer much freedom in terms of how to approach gameplay. A story told about a hero that in gameplay can rob innocent citizens at will leads to ludonarrative dissonance, a term originally coined by Clint Hocking. Red Dead Redemption openly tracks the player's heroism, but it does not matter how heroic the player is deemed to be: non-player characters treat the player character the same way, and the same tasks are required of him. The worst case of a story not affected by gameplay is a “constipated story,” where strictly alternating presentations of gameplay and story fail to interact with each other at all [4].

Stories that are indirectly affected by gameplay lie in the middle of our spectrum. With such games, players do not directly make choices that alter the course of a story. Instead, players interact with the game system, resulting in changes to the game state. How the story is presented or arranged depends on the current game state. For example, a portion of a story might only be available if the player character has enough experience points. Many areas of Fallout 3 were technically available all the time, but the player could only survive long enough to explore them after gaining enough experience points through gameplay elsewhere. Alternatively, the outcome of a plot point might depend on how evil the player acted in previous encounters. In Fable II, the player has opportunities to be good or evil through various tasks. Which approach is chosen unlocks some new tasks, and changes the player character's appearance on screen. Some games with branching stories, including those with multiple endings, are also found near the middle of the spectrum. In BioShock, for example, gameplay actions indirectly cause the story to change. The game ends differently depending on what the player decides to do with certain characters that can either be spared or harvested for player benefit.

The structuralist approach of defining an implicit graph at run-time could be applied here; gameplay statistics can be used in scene preconditions, for example. Although players can only affect the story indirectly, most players will be satisfied. In two surveys of game players, Mallon and Webb [5] discovered that players actually prefer episodic and directed story experiences over unrestricted freedom, and Lebowitz and Klug [1] found that while the majority of players place great importance on a game’s story, they do not require full control over it.

Games with quests commonly feature gameplay that indirectly affects story [1, 6]. A quest system in a game is used to organize what quests are available and when. It will also take care of offering quests to the player, possibly through conversations with non-player characters or markers in the world the player interacts with to trigger a quest. Many games with open-ended stories feature quest systems. Each quest contains a fragmentary story and provides short-term gameplay goals [7, 8]. Story consistency is enhanced by making the quests self-contained and largely independent [8]. As a result, completing a quest reveals a portion of the game's story that the player would not otherwise see, but rarely affects any other part of the story. The only indirect effect of choosing a quest through gameplay is the addition of the non-essential bit of story contained within. The stories revealed in quests would likely be more interesting if they connected better with what happens in the core plot; instead, they often feel like busy work, or little more than a way to improve your character's statistics.

If quests were less task-based and more goal-oriented, they might lie closer to the right of our spectrum where gameplay directly affects story. Quests in videogames tend to focus on tasks such as fetching items or engaging in combat instead of higher-level goals that can be achieved in various ways [7, 9, 10]. Instead of asking players to complete tasks, quests could be used to introduce meaningful conflict between characters that the player must resolve through gameplay, allowing for more direct interaction with the story. Games in the Mass Effect series use quests to introduce conflict between characters. Sullivan's GrailGM framework [10], designed to work with game mechanics based on social moves, also allows for conflict-oriented quests. GrailGM makes quests available based on the current social dynamics between player and non-player characters in the story. Players have the choice to complete the quest as put forth by the quest giver, or to create conflict by going against the quest giver's wishes. If more quests were explicitly connected to the game's main storyline, the gameplay act of choosing a quest could give a stronger sense of affecting the story.

There are games that more clearly lie to the right of our spectrum. Some games make their core mechanic a direct interaction with the story, as in Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead series. In The Walking Dead, players are primarily asked to decide how the main character should respond to various situations. Heavy Rain offers similar gameplay with one interesting difference. When players fail to complete an action move, the game does not ask them to try again. Instead, the following scene or scenes continue, but the exact content is affected by whether the player has failed or succeeded. Sometimes gameplay as simple as which quests the player chooses to embark on can directly impact the story. For example, Fallout: New Vegas tracks statistics about who the player is most loyal to. Which quests the player completes can affect loyalty and, by extension, how certain parts of the story will play out.

A challenge of games whose gameplay directly affects the story is to find ways to allow players to make meaningful dramatic decisions. The Walking Dead is a game that almost entirely consists of what appears to be dramatically significant choices. However, most choices the player makes impact only the next line of dialog, nothing more. While perceived agency can be important [11], it is easy to have the effect wear off when few or none of your choices are dramatically relevant. 


[1] J. Lebowitz and C. Klug. Interactive Storytelling for Video Games. Focal Press (2011).

[2] G. Costikyan. Second Person: Role-Playing and Story in Games and Playable Media, chapter Games, Storytelling, and Breaking the String, pages 5 13. MIT Press (2007).

[3] K. Salen and E. Zimmerman. Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. The MIT Press (2003).

[4] C. Crawford. Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling. New Riders, 2nd edition (2012).

[5] B. Mallon and B.Webb. Stand up and take your place: identifying narrative elements in narrative adventure and role-play games. Computers in Entertainment (CIE) 3, 1 20 (2005).

[6] J. Howard. Quests: Design, Theory, and History in Games and Narratives. A K Peters, Ltd. (2008).

[7] E. Aarseth. From hunt the wumpus to everquest: Introduction to quest theory. In F. Kishino, Y. Kitamura, H. Kato, and N. Nagata, editors, Entertainment Computing - ICEC 2005, volume 3711 of Lecture Notes in Computer Science, pages 496 -506. Springer Berlin Heidelberg (2005).

[8] M. Trenton, D. Szafron, J. Friesen, and C. Onuczko. Quest patterns for story-based computer games. In Proceedings of the Sixth Arti cial Intelligence and Interactive Digital Entertainment Conference (AIIDE) (2010).

[9] C. Lindley. Developing Interactive Narrative Content: sagas/sagasnet reader, chapter Story and Narrative Structures in Computer Games. High Text Verlag (2005).

[10] A. Sullivan. The Grail Framework: Making Stories Playable on Three Levels in CRPGs. Ph.D. thesis, University of California Santa Cruz (2012).

[11] M. W. Fendt, B. Harrison, S. G. Ware, R. E. Cardona-Rivera, and D. L. Roberts. Achieving the illusion of agency. In D. Oyarzun, F. Peinado, R. Young, A. Elizalde, and G. Méndez, editors, Interactive Storytelling, volume 7648 of Lecture Notes in Computer Science, pages 114 -125. Springer Berlin Heidelberg. (2012).