Thursday, June 30, 2011

That Time in Grad School You Feel a Little Lost

Until you know exactly what your thesis project is going to be, it's easy to feel a little lost.  Even if you know the kinds of things you want to do, but not exactly what the contribution will be, it's easy to wonder where you'll end up.  That's basically where I am right now: between courses / comprehensive exams and having a solid research direction.  It's a little scary, but I think it's ok.  I'm ok with it.

Metro Woman

Granted, I don't want to stay here very long.  I want to be able to propose as soon as I can.  Originally the goal was going to be in the spring, but since I'm now expecting at Christmas, that's obviously going to change.  On the other hand, knowing that I only have the fall semester to get as much done as I can before a substantial break does encourage me to focus more.  (I'm sure now that I'm done with the throwing up stage my brain's capacity for awesome will increase tenfold or more!)

I think there are two important things to remember during this stage of a PhD: First, don't get down on yourself.  I'm willing to bet that almost everyone feels lost for at least a few minutes (ha!) at this stage.  Second, don't let yourself linger too long.  What "too long" means depends partially on how lucky you've been - if you know you are working hard enough, you may still need more time to hit on that killer idea.  That's ok - failure along the way is ok and probably expected.  The trick is to avoid being discouraged and giving up, even if subconsciously.

If you are past this stage, what helped you get through? Do you have any strategies that can help us "lost souls" find our focus and improve our chances of finding our contribution?

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

L.A. Noire: A Great Story Despite Its Linearity

My mind has been occupied by narrative lately.  I've been surveying literature about non-linear / interactive narrative and storytelling with the goal of eventually coming up with new strategies for piecing together story fragments in an interactive story.  In particular, I'm interested in how this could help in the context of educational games where designers have a specific learning objective in mind.

Warning: This post contains spoilers for the game L.A. Noire!

LA Noire Screenshot 4
LA Noire Screenshot 4 by The GameWay

Since my husband and I have been working through L.A. Noire lately (which I love!), I've been thinking about how linear the story has been (especially for an interactive video game).

The story is the best feature of the game in my opinion.  I can't really remember any game I've played that has had a story that is so effective.  I suppose Final Fantasy VII would have come the closest given how surprised and upset I was that they killed Aeris by the end of the first disc.  (Disclaimer: I haven't actually played a huge number of games.  I bet there are lots of counter examples to my claims, and I'd love to hear about them in the comments.)

In L.A. Noire, I'm really drawn to the character development and the gradual insights you get into the victims of crimes and the detectives themselves.  I find some of the characters vile at first, such as your homicide partner Rusty Galloway, a womanizer and apparently lazy sod.  But then they grow on me — through little tidbits of conversation, you start to see why they are the way they are.  Most video game characters I've encountered haven't been that complex.

The game definitely feels like a game, yet when you really stop to think about it, the plot is really quite linear.  There isn't a lot you can do to change the outcome of the story.  When we were given the opportunity to decide who to charge with murder in a couple of cases, it wasn't even clear to me whether we were supposed to know whether we were right or wrong.  That made me suspect there was no right answer, which was later confirmed by finally catching the real killer for all the murder cases we worked on.  Other than that, the only real story-related choice is how you interrogate suspects, but it appears that only new information will come to light if you get it right, while the main plot remains the same.

The Way of the Game describes L.A. Noire this way:
Police procedurals aren’t about gunfights, car chases and explosions. They are slow, methodical vehicles for telling a story about a crime, who committed it and the people who figured it out. In L.A. Noire, you’ll get to learn more about Phelps, his history and what he does when he’s not busy being the one good cop in a city full of sinners. You’ll learn more about his partners and their views of good, evil, and the gray area in between. L.A. Noire’s story is slow to develop, but every new episode gets you deeper and deeper.
With such a great, yet linear, story, the question remains: does it matter? If the game is engaging and enjoyable, probably not, but it does make you wonder when we'll be able to have truly great non-linear stories in games.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Seeing Gaming in a New Light: Games for Change Festival 2011

I just got back from New York City for my first visit to the Games for Change Festival. In its eighth year, this year’s festival was held on June 20-22 at New York University.  I wasn’t able to attend the entire conference, but thanks to live streaming I caught most of the Tuesday talks I would have missed otherwise.  (You can watch the archives of the live stream, too!)

In telling you about all the amazing things I learned the past few days, I’m compelled to start at the end.  The closing keynote by Jesse Schell was one of the highlights of the festival.  I’ve always admired Jesse for his top-notch game design, writing, and speaking skills.  His book The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses was the first book that really got me started with game design (I actually only got into this area at the beginning of my PhD studies less than two years ago).  I was pumped to see him speak in New York, and I was not disappointed.

Games for Change 2011: Jesse Schell from Games for Change on Vimeo.

Jesse treated us to a brand new, never before seen talk called “Make Games, Not War.”  You can watch that talk in this live stream archive video by scrolling ahead to the 57-minute mark.

He explored the ever controversial topic of violence in video games, keeping a scorecard that listed aspects of games that seemed to get players to become more war-like (including desensitization and games’ ability to train people to kill) and more peaceful (such as games acting as a form of catharsis and helping us see other points of view).  For a while, the war-side seemed to be winning, but eventually the list evened out.

Without a clear winner between war and peace, Jesse forewarned us of the war for every person’s attention that various stakeholders are waging in the 21st century.  There are those who want to persuade us to think like them or buy their products, fulfillers who want fulfil the wishes and fantasies of people (many game designers fall here), artists who aim to make a statement or bring to life something that wasn’t there before, and humanitarians who want to know how we can make things that will make us better people mentally and spiritually.

The audience of Games for Change wasn’t really like most game designers.  No, we were mostly humanitarians, Jesse pointed out.  What we try to do isn’t so different from what Mr Rogers tried to accomplish with his television series.  We are the humanitarians, and we must find a way to take control of the persuaders who want so much to control everyone else.

Or perhaps we can look to the Olympics, where for a few short weeks, the troubles of the world are put aside and we can all act like children, seeing who can jump the highest, run the fastest, or throw a ball the farthest.

Jesse asks, “If we were better game designers, couldn’t it be the Olympics all the time?”

I almost wish Jesse’s talk was at the beginning of the festival to set the tone for the rest of the events.  In an indirect way, this happened anyway - the end goal of all the presenters was to make the world a better place.

One of my favourite speakers on Tuesday was James Shelton from the US Department of Education.  I really got the impression that he “got it” - education in its current form just isn’t going to continue working (if we can even say it ever worked in the last few decades).

He pointed out that the US isn’t falling behind in the world because it's getting worse; rather, other countries are pulling ahead because they are getting better.  They have taken what the US has done and figured out how to do it better.

School is going to be reinvented because it has to be.  But we’ve reached the limits in terms of funding.  We have to do more with the same - or fewer - resources.  That’s where the gaming industry comes in.  Games know how to get people to have fun, engage, and change their perspectives, beliefs and behaviours.  Fundamentally, that’s teaching.  Or at least, that’s what teaching should be.  We need to find ways to harness this in formal education.

The many researchers who presented at Wednesday’s Games For Learning Institute track have been working diligently on this problem.  How can games be used for learning? What patterns emerge in terms of effective game mechanics that support this goal? How can we measure the success in terms of player engagement?

Games have been a controversial topic the last few years.  I hope that as research on games for change pushes forward and we start to see more commercially successful titles, our opinion of them will change and we can focus more on how to make use of them rather than whether we should.  I think this year’s festival has brought us closer to this goal, and I hope that your mind will be changed ever so slightly so you can be part of the movement.

I’ve posted my (very) rough live notes that I took during the conference, if you’d like to read them.  Be sure to browse the livestream archives and check out some of these other articles about the conference:
Syndicated on

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

What Were They Thinking? The Importance of Feedback

Asking for honest, anonymous feedback can be scary. Really scary. But over the years, I've learned that the benefits of getting real feedback far outweigh the possibility that you'll get slammed.  Feedback really does matter.


Last year was the first time I had ever been a contract instructor and the first time I taught my Introduction to Computers for Arts and Social Sciences course.  I tried some new things that most other computer science profs at our school don't do.  I needed to know whether these things worked.  The teaching evaluations student have to fill in aren't terribly insightful so I created my own more detailed, course-specific survey instead.

I was pleasantly surprised with the responses.  Lots of students took the time to fill in the survey and provided both positive feedback and constructive criticism.  A couple of disgruntled students slammed me.  That made me sad for a day but in the end I managed to find some useful information from their comments (especially the fact that they didn't realize what the course was really about!).  The feedback I got was extremely useful in planning updates to the course this summer.

I just released a similar survey for this year's course.  Within half an hour of posting it (and not even announcing it) I already had a few responses.  These students are awesome.  So far everything has been very positive, and has shown that I've found a really good set of topics for this course.  I'm actually hoping to take the survey results to our school director and make the argument that the course description should be updated to reflect these more interesting topics and that the course actually covers these topics the rest of the year, not just in the summer.  The consensus among the students is definitely that this should happen, and a surprising number are even saying they are more likely to pursue computer science or programming courses (at Carleton or in the community) as a result of taking my course.

Finally, a huge benefit to soliciting feedback is that I have some great quotes to use in my teaching portfolio.  I've been compiling great tidbits from all my workshops and courses and posting them on my website (haven't posted this year's quite yet).  If nothing else, I recommend everyone finds ways to get these kinds of quotes out of students at every opportunity! You can always keep the negative stuff from public's view, after all. ;)

Friday, June 17, 2011

On Telling the World My Life is About to Change

I recently unleashed the following announcement to Facebook and Twitter:


That's right! I'm expecting!

I have been saving up that geeky little announcement for a while now.  I wanted something I had never seen anyone else use, but that also had a tech twist.  It got good response.

I'm due around Christmas, so barring any complications, I'll be able to work the entire fall semester.  I'm hoping to take only four months of official leave, or possibly eight if I need it and we can afford it.  The downside of being a student is that I don't think I'll be eligible for any employment insurance benefits (even though I pay into it from my TA and contract instructor salaries, I don't have enough working hours in the last year).  I wonder if other countries are able to do more for pregnant students? (I'm in Canada.)

While I'm still planning on focusing on my usual blog topics, I am guessing I won't be able to resist talking a bit about this journey as well.  Just a heads up. ;)

Quick edit: This is actually not me in the photo (though I wouldn't mind it!).  It's just a nice photo I found on Flickr.  I'm actually not even showing yet!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

What I'm Asking My Arts and Social Sciences Students to Know

There are just two more days of class left for my Introduction to Computers for Arts and Social Sciences course.  In each of these classes, there is a quiz for students to write.  I wanted to share the first three quizzes they've already done because it gives a pretty good overview of what I've asked them to know and how well they've done.

Checking exams...

Each quiz is out of 5 and is worth 5% on the final grade.  The idea of having a quiz on each topic was to help the students keep on track and to give them feedback often so they had a sense of how they were doing.

The first quiz was on programming concepts in Scratch.  It had the following questions:
  • What programming concepts do you need to run one block(s) of code if an event occurs, and another block(s) of code if it doesn’t? Include an example.
  • Explain the difference between variables and what is stored in variables. Using an analogy might help.
  • Explain how ‘broadcast’ works in your own words. What happens on the stage when you use broadcast?
The students did well on this quiz, achieving an average of 3.8 and a rather high median of 4.5.  Based on this, I figured I could make the next quiz on binary numbers a little harder:
  • How do you get from 11111 to 100000, both in binary? How can this knowledge make it easier to find 11111 in decimal?
  • How many different values (numbers) can be represented by 6 bits?
  • Describe the two ways of representing raster images shown in class.
  • Describe when a vector image is more suitable than a raster image.
The first question was definitely the trickiest, but it was something I had shown in class (though not in the notes).  I used it because it really got the students to think and forced them to go beyond simply memorizing how to convert binary numbers to decimal.  Unfortunately, more than half the class failed the quiz, which meant that they really didn't understand.  Many students didn't even get the second question, which should have been straight forward.

I decided to give them a make-up opportunity because I wanted them to really try to understand these topics rather than accept a poor grade and forget about it.  They got the new slightly harder questions in the next class and had just over 24 hours to submit their answers via email to one of the TA's.  They were allowed to work together on the answers as long as they wrote up their own answer in the end.  These were the make-up questions:
  • Suppose you want to store numbers no larger than 500 in decimal as binary numbers. What is the smallest number of bits required to accomplish this? How many bytes would you need?
  • Decimal has ten digits (0-9) and binary has two (0-1). You can create any number system in a similar way. Given this, convert this octal (8 digits, 0-7) number into decimal: 721
  • Suppose we are representing a greyscale raster image by describing each pixel with one byte. Propose a way to compress this image when there is repetitive data.
  • Explain why we need vector image representation when working with 3D graphics. Be sure to explicitly say why raster images alone would not work.
These questions were based on notes but again required them to stretch their thinking just a little bit.

It turns out that only a third or so of the class bothered to submit the make-up quiz, which is a little disappointing.  I don't have all the stats yet, but those who did submit seemed to improve their grade, now giving more than half the class a passing grade.  So far both the average and the median of all quizzes (a mix of the old grades and the replacement grades) are 3.

Last week we had a quiz on algorithms.  I've been teaching them three searching algorithms using the Battleships CS Unplugged activity (linear, binary, hash table), and three sorting algorithms (selection, insertion, and quick).  These were the questions I asked:
  • Consider a paper phone book. Describe what type of information you would be looking for that would cause you to use each of the three types of searching (linear, binary, hash table).
  • Precisely describe the algorithm for selection sort. Be sure to include all details.
  • What’s the difference between selection and insertion sort?
  • Describe what can happen to cause Quicksort to be slower than normal and why it has that effect.
All of these questions could be answered using the notes directly, and we spent a fair amount of class time discussing the topics.  The average on this quiz is 3.6 and the median is 4.

Our last two quizzes should be easier for these students than the first three.  They will be on HCI and Open Source/Internet.  Once these are factored in I think the quiz averages will be on target.  To me, this proves that you can challenge students and go beyond the traditional "teach MS Office most of the term" without seeing their grades plummet.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Demoing Gram's House at Games for Change Festival 2011

I'm very excited to announce that I'll be demoing Gram's House at this year's Games for Change Festival.  Even though the game did not make it through the first round of the Imagine Cup game design competition, I knew there was something special about the overall design that hasn't quite been done before.  And so, thanks to some awesome contacts, I now have an opportunity to get feedback on the demo we've made so far and maybe, if I'm lucky, find some collaborators who can help develop it further (after all, the best parts of the design never made it into the demo).

There are two things I'm really looking forward to at the festival.  First, I'm demoing as part of the Games For Learning Institute's day.  The main theme of the talks that day will be design patterns for educational games, something that will be very useful for me in my thesis research topic.

Second, the closing keynote is Jesse Schell.  Ever since reading his Art of Game Design book, I've really looked up to him.  Great writer and talented designer (I was sad when I got to the end of the book!).  Even better, he seems to be a proponent of augmented reality, having spoken at the 2010 Augmented Reality Event.  Can't wait to see him in person.

I won't be in NYC for long, but if you happen to be attending the Festival, I'd really love to meet up and talk educational games.  Let me know!