Sunday, January 31, 2010

IBM Extreme Blue Case Study Competition

Why is it that out of 20 awesome students in last summer's edition of IBM's Extreme Blue program in Ottawa, not one was female?

That was the question the current program lead here wanted to know the answer to, and she came to CU-WISE to ask it. We had a nice lunch meeting where we discussed why some of us had applied once and never applied again, how girls can be turned off by things that sound too technical, and how we are known to underestimate our abilities and thus avoid seemingly out of reach opportunities like this.

Luckily, IBM wants to change things. They've helped us find a few female mentors for a career event we're planning for March, and we organized a business case study competition with them to promote Extreme Blue to our members. In fact, this latter event just happened yesterday, and was held at Ottawa U in collaboration with their WISE group (note that males were also invited to participate, but priority was given to the women). Judging from the awesome pitches our girls made, the competition seemed to hit the mark!

Teams had four to five minutes to pitch an idea to a panel of judges that would create products for 'smarter' universities. Just by coincidence, two out of the three finalists pitched a smart parking system. They explained how they would use sensors to detect what parking spots were available, and how they would provide several types of services, from the web to mobile to signs on campus, to help students, faculty and staff, and visitors get parked as quickly as possible. Both teams who chose parking as their topic had enough differences to make it interesting.

The third team devised a system that would record classroom lectures and allow students to choose the pace, camera, and so on. I can't remember the details of this one as much, so if you were part of that group, tell us more in the comments!

It was amazing what good practice delivering the pitches was for the students who participated. Some seemed really nervous, but that will only make it easier next time. Public speaking is a skill often ignored in science and engineering programs, but it's a skill well worth having!

I'm looking forward to seeing what else we can accomplish with IBM, and hope all my talented software developing lady friends apply to Extreme Blue this year, or in the near future!

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Language, Learning and Literacy in a Digital Age

Kids fail at school because they are learning in a language that's foreign to them.

That's the first thing I wrote down at a talk given at Carleton last week by James Paul Gee, a linguist and one of the English-speaking world's leading experts on education (or so the poster advertising the event says). The better half of the talk was all about the state of education, mostly in the United States. Gee talked about the strategies used in the past to try and help everyone do well, from the poor to the rich, and how there ended up being only two schools of thought on how education should work that ultimately aligned with politics. All this to lead to the notion that there's a curriculum outside of school that kids and their parents are willing to pay for, yet when the government spends millions of dollars for the curriculum in school, kids lose interest.

That outside curriculum is games.

The thing is that academic language is not the kind of language kids connect with. It's supposed to be a voice of reason, with no affect or emotion. But are students likely to connect with this kind of language, the stuff found in text books? If it sounds foreign to them, is it any wonder so many tune out, or struggle to understand even when they do try?

But games... games include lots of language training in a setting kids care about!

Think of World of Warcraft. When the audience (which, by the way, included very few computer scientists) was asked who played, only a few hands were put up. What a shame, Gee says! WoW does an incredible job of influencing learning, and academics are the last to play. A wonderful example came from a kid who was annoyed at being 'nerfed' in the game, and so did an in-depth study of all the game variables before and after the incident to prove just how bad it was. The kid was using technical specialist language to do science! Yet this same person is probably falling asleep in and maybe even failing science class.

Portal is another good example of the power of games. It's a physics based game, where you must make judgments of momentum, geometry, and so on. It's a great example of embodied and situated learning, but it doesn't have you using any actual physics terminology, so it can't be useful for schools, right? Wrong! Even if the game itself doesn't have you talking about physics, the community surrounding it does. For instance, Wikipedia articles talk about the physics and even link to technical pages about the concepts. (Gee points out, by the way, that such communities are rarely created at school.)

The idea of community is even stronger surrounding The Sims. Many overlooked the power of social media when they concentrated on the technology instead. But there are many interesting things that come out of communities. The Nickel and Dimed challenge, for example, has players trying to recreate a life of poverty in the game just to see if it can even be done. Specialist language is used to describe the conditions of the challenge, and the challenge itself is essentially a social science experiment.

Finally, have you ever seen the language written on card games like Yu Gi Oh? I haven't, but the audience seemed to agree that it's pretty darned complex. Seven year olds play this game! Why can seven year olds read PhD level language playing Yu Gi Oh but can't read at a third grade level at school? "What is hard in school isn't outside of it."

I got a lot out of Gee's talk. I've been thinking about most games being educational in some general way (being about problem solving and such), but never took the language perspective. As the post-talk discussion suggested, having a mentor for game players seems to be a key component in ensuring that game playing does remain an educational pursuit rather than a mindless diversion, but I certainly don't see this as a negative. I would love to see games used more effectively inside the classroom where mentors are available.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bringing Computer Science to Let's Talk Science

One of my major goals when I joined Let's Talk Science was to bring more computer science activities to the program. They already had a lot of awesome stuff for natural sciences from biology to chemistry, and I had been adding physics activities as well. But because most volunteers weren't computer scientists (and by most, I think I may be the only one, or was last year at least), there aren't really any computer science kits.

Thanks to CS Unplugged, it has been easy to find high-quality activities. What has been less easy is convincing teachers that they can do computer science activities in classes other than computer science. After all, all fields need to manage and analyze data, and that's where CS shines!

Luckily, a teacher at the high school I am partnered with agreed to give it a try. She taught a communications class, so it seemed like an appropriate fit. In the end I went to two of her classes with some CU-WISE colleagues. After showing a video to get a feel for what computer science is, we did the binary numbers and cryptographic protocols. It was amazing to see the students grasp these otherwise difficult concepts with the hands on activities. The teacher loved it and was enthusiastic to spread the word!

In addition to finally making a breakthrough and bringing CS to classrooms, I have adapted the sorting activity from CS Unplugged for a science newsletter given to underprivileged aboriginal children, resulting in How Computers Put Things in Order. While I couldn't get feedback about this from the children when it was published last year, the Let's Talk Science coordinators seemed to like it.

I think there is still work to be done, but I feel I am well on my way to achieving my goal! And if you happen to know a teacher in the Ottawa area (high school or elementary) you think would enjoy some hands on computer science activities, send them to me!

Friday, January 15, 2010

Games and the Three Levels of Design

Continuing to read Donald Norman's Emotional Design, I am finding the three levels of design most of the book is based on to be very useful, especially when thinking about game design (as I have been doing lately).

These are the three levels:
  1. Visceral. Like animal instinct.
  2. Behavioural. What usability engineering is all about.
  3. Reflective. Message, culture, and meaning.
Good visceral product design is a great attention grabber. Sometimes it is even enough on its own to cause a purchase. It's what says that we react to bright colours and rounded edges in a positive way, but that we feel negatively toward a car door that doesn't make a good, satisfying clunk when it closes. For games, I think of aesthetic experiences like Auditorium and Flower.

Greg Costikyan wrote about colour in his famous I Have No Words and I Must Design essay:
Color counts for a lot: as a simulation of World War II, Lawrence Harris's Axis & Allies is a pathetic effort. Ah, but the color! Millions of little plastic airplanes and battleships and tanks! Thundering dice! The world at war! The game works almost solely because of its color. [...]

Pageantry and detail and sense of place can greatly add to a game's emotional appeal.

This has almost nothing to do with the game qua game; the original Nova edition of Axis & Allies was virtually identical to the Milton Bradley edition. Except that it had a godawful garish paper map, some of the ugliest counters I've ever seen, and a truly amateurish box. I looked at it once, put it away, and never looked at it again.

Yet the Milton Bradley edition, with all the little plastic pieces, still gets pulled out now and again... Same game. Far better color.
This sounds a lot like design on the visceral level, and it does matter.

But it's usually not enough. That's where the behavioural level comes in. This type of design "is all about use. Appearance doesn't matter. Performance does." There's a lot wrong with high-tech devices on this level, what with their non-descriptive buttons and flashing lights. Or, worse, the fact that computer interfaces are so disconnected from us. You have to wiggle some little pod-thing so that a cursor moves around on a screen above? What?

That's where tangible objects can help:
Physical objects have weight, texture, and surface. The design term for this is "tangibility." Far too many high-technology creations have moved from real physical controls and products to ones that reside on computer screens, to be operated by touching the screen or manipulating a mouse. All the pleasure of manipulating a physical object is gone and, with it, a sense of control. Physical feel matters. We are, after all, biological creatures, with physical bodies, arms, and legs.
I see games making progress in this area. The Nintendo Wii was the first to change things, creating games that required the use of the whole body. I think Microsoft's Project Natal, when it comes out this Christmas (allegedly), will take it to a whole new level. Its computer vision capabilities are nothing short of amazing, making your entire body the controller. Check out the videos on the project page to see what I mean. I also think that augmented reality will play a big role in this realm.

Finally, reflective design is the one that gets us thinking about the product we are using, the movie we're watching, or the game we are playing. We might choose a watch that is less functional than its cousin, but more intellectual (needing explanation of how it works, say), or more loaded with status.

Video games can be 'just played.' A few moments of fun, nothing more. But they can also be all those things we listed reflective as: meaningful, cultural, and with a message. Think about Grand Theft Auto. Is it really just about stealing cars and shooting people? Or is there some kind of comment on the dark side of human nature that we are finally able to act on in an inconsequential game world? I'm sure there are many more ways to look at video games through this lens.

I don't think a video games needs to be attractive on every one of these design levels to work, but thinking about each does seem to provide some useful idea generation.

(All quotes are from Emotional design unless otherwise stated.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fun Through Fantasy and Narrative

An interesting topic came up in a recent game design class. We were talking about various types of fun after trying to define fun itself (which, by the way, is a lot harder than it seems at first - if you try to do it, make sure your definition includes the fringe things that should be considered fun, and excludes all things that aren't). We looked at eight kinds of fun laid out by Marc LeBlanc:
  • Sensation: aesthetics, sense-pleasure
  • Fantasy: make-believe, fiction
  • Narrative: story, game as an unfolding story
  • Challenge: obstacles, difficulty, etc
  • Fellowship: social framework
  • Discovery: exploration, uncharted territory, learning
  • Expression: creativity, soap box, customization
  • Submission: escapism, mindless pastime
We talked about challenge the most when trying to define fun and before seeing this list. Even with this list, I feel that you can bring challenge into most descriptions of fun somehow, even if abstractly. This agrees at least somewhat with The Theory of Fun, which you may recall I read recently. But I found the discussion surrounding fantasy and narrative to be something I had never thought about before.

Fantasy. I would suggest that the vast majority of digital games have this. There are completely abstract games like Tetris that are obviously fun, but I would say these types of games are the exception. Most games have some kind of fantasy, even if it's just a dressing of an otherwise abstract game (or colour, as Costikyan put it). Have to remove red blocks because they're miserable without knocking over green happy blogs? Fantasy through personification of otherwise inanimate objects. Have to play a spy who is trying to collect intelligence on terrorism? Fantasy through role playing. Playing the Sims? Still fantasy - you are putting yourself in someone else's shoes or seeing what happens when you change your own life, even if slightly.

Narrative. Again, I think a lot of games have narrative, though strictly speaking, probably not as many as have fantasy. After all, you can have aspects of make believe or fiction without actually telling a story, as in the case of the red block remover linked to above. It's a little unclear whether this aspect of fun is including games with implied back-stories as well, or if it's trying to capture the pleasure of having a well thought out story that is told as part of the game.

If a game can have fantasy but no narrative, can you have narrative with no fantasy? The answer for me was almost no, that you couldn't, if we take fantasy as fiction. Of course narrative does not have to be fictional in general, but in a game, when is it not? One suggestion in class was that you can tell a story about playing a game that is not fictional, but this didn't count in my mind. Any story element embedded in any game I could think of was fictional.

... until I was finally able to prove myself wrong. The one counter-example I could think of was Truth or Dare.

Can you think of any other examples of having narrative in a game that is not fictional in some way?

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Sorting Bottles and Boxes with Processing

(Click the link at the bottom to see the game.)

One of my classes this term (a game design grad course) requires the use of Processing:
Processing is an open source programming language and environment for people who want to program images, animation, and interactions. It is used by students, artists, designers, researchers, and hobbyists for learning, prototyping, and production. It is created to teach fundamentals of computer programming within a visual context and to serve as a software sketchbook and professional production tool.
Instead of concentrating on the complete picture of how to develop a game (we have a whole stream for that), we will be thinking about design. We will be talking about things like the theory of fun, ideas for boosting our creativity, and coming up with new and interesting game mechanics. So instead of creating traditional large games, we are going to have a few design challenges, where we have one week to make a game that meets the challenge requirements. These assignments will be done in Processing.

On the first day of class (Tuesday), our prof said he wanted us to download Processing, learn it, and make a game by the next class (Thursday). Seriously. Hm.

It turns out that this was pretty easy to do. I had used Processing for one assignment in the past, but didn't know it well. But because I already know how to program, it was super easy to get started. I did some reading review for an hour, and then jumped into a simple game idea.

The concept is to sort stuff. It's actually inspired the sorting activity from CS Unplugged. You have eight bottles and boxes at the bottom and a scale in the middle. You have to put the items in order from lightest to heaviest, but you don't know what's inside them, so you can't go by size alone. You can put two items on the scale and see which one is heavier. The "game" is in finding the technique you decide to use to sort the bottles with the help of the scale. A more complex version would allow for the player to arrange the bottles on the screen in whatever way they want, but for now you'd have to keep track of things on paper.

I made this game with about seven hours of coding. I had a little bug last night that I left to fix this morning, but the sleep made it very easy to find (it was fixed in about 60 seconds). I think this just goes to show how well processing has met its goal of providing a way to rapidly sketch out ideas. I'm hooked already!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Attractive Things Work Better

I've always liked Don Norman. Well, I should say I've always liked his work, because I've never met him (though he seems nice enough). Learning material from The Design of Everyday Things in a third year computer science class was like a breath of fresh air, satisfying my creative side. I was able to revisit the concepts a bit when I wrote a term paper recently for my computers and cognition class. And now, thanks to my Amazon wish list (and my mom), I get to read Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things and The Design of Future Things.

There are a couple of excerpts from Emotional Design that have already caught my attention, and I wanted to share them with you.

The first interesting point is about why attractive things work better. It seems research has revealed that "attractive things make people feel good, which in turn makes them think more creatively." This is because people who feel good are able to think about a larger variety of solutions and don't suffer from tunnel vision. They are thus able to more successfully solve problems they encounter with a product.
In today's world of computer-controlled products, doing the same operation over again is very unlikely to yield better results. The correct response is to look for alternative solutions. The tendency to repeat the same operation over again is especially likely for those who are anxious or tense.
This makes good sense to me. I immediately think of myself working on a school project. Most of the time I am calm, and I just try various things until I get something - anything - to work. But when I have a deadline and my code won't work and my eyes are tired and sore and I want to scream... that's a whole other story. Definite tunnel vision there, and trying the same thing over. And over. And over.

This except from a few pages later explains the phenomenon further.
Positive affect arouses curiosity, engages creativity, and makes the brain into an effective learning organism. With positive affect, you are more likely to see the forest than the trees, to prefer the big picture and not to concentrate upon details. On the other hand, when you are sad or anxious, feeling negative affect, you are more likely to see the trees before the forest, the details before the big picture.

Video games are one of the illustrative examples discussed later.
The device that used to be specialized for the playing of video games takes on different appearances, depending upon its intended function. ... In the living room, it fits with the furniture and books and becomes a reference manual, perhaps an encyclopedia, tutor, and player of reflective games (such as go, chess, cards, word games). And for the student, it is a source of simulations, experiments, and extensive exploration of interesting, well-motivated topics, but topics carefully chosen so that, in the process of enjoying the adventure, you automatically learn the fundamentals of your field. Designs appropriate to the audience, the location, and the purpose. Everything I have described here is doable. It simply hasn't been done yet.
I wonder if I'm the only person to read the above and think just how perfect augmented reality would be for all of this!

Anyway, I'm looking forward to continuing in this book as well as Future Things. In the meantime, I leave you with a video of Don Norman speaking at TED a few years back. It was tweeted, coincidentally, at the same I started the book. Hope it gets you as excited about the topic as it did me!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Being Digital

How appropriate of me to read a book on technology from 15 years ago after the decade that I think was the most exciting comes to a close. The funny thing is that Being Digital by Nicholas Negroponte (founder of the MIT Media Lab and One Laptop Per Child) was both a look back and a look forward, given that some predictions have come true and some are not yet reality.

The main themes that I took away from this read were interconnectivity, openness, and personalization. Negroponte spent a lot of time talking about the future of television in particular. This focus felt strange to me at first - especially the long portion near the beginning of the book about the future of digital broadcasting - but I later realized how well the examples fit with the main point. Negroponte believed that technology should be interconnected so that, for instance, your television could find programming that would interest you based on what it knows from your purchase history, work schedule, and so on. Information would be defined openly so that all devices could share it amongst themselves. And devices would work for you and you alone, giving you exactly what you wanted.

While the diatribes into the fight for making HDTV digital instead of analog (wow, really??) were interesting (at least for a while), my favourite parts of the book were those that speculated on how we would interact with technology in the future. Some predictions are basically true now, some don't seem far off, and others seem like pipe dreams.

For instance, we now have Rogers on Demand to serve us programming when we want it, rather than only on their schedule. We carry around pocket computers that do more and more for us, and occasionally even allow us to place phone calls ("there's an app for that"). News aggregation on the 'net kind of gives us our own personal newspaper, though the providers don't yet make use of very detailed or interesting information about us. Technologies like augmented reality, when more mature, will certainly allow personalized views on just about anything. Open standards aren't the norm yet, but they are becoming more prevalent than they were before.

From Negroponte's Wikipedia article:
Negroponte expanded many of the ideas from his Wired columns into a bestselling book Being Digital (1995), which made famous his forecasts on how the interactive world, the entertainment world and the information world would eventually merge. Being Digital was a bestseller and was translated into some twenty languages. Negroponte is a digital optimist who believed that computers would make life better for everyone[1] However, critics[who?] have faulted his techno-utopian ideas for failing to consider the historical, political and cultural realities with which new technologies should be viewed. Negroponte's belief that wired technologies such as telephones will ultimately become unwired by using airwaves instead of wires or fiber optics, and that unwired technologies such as televisions will become wired, is commonly referred to as the Negroponte switch.
Take what you will from this criticism, but do consider that TV over air has indeed given way to cable and fibre, while landlines are disappearing in favour of cell phones. Besides, I for one am looking forward to the day that technology becomes smarter and can give me what I really want. Maybe then I'd finally bother subscribing to TV.