Friday, September 30, 2011

Vulnerability in Teaching

The status quo in university lecturing is comfortable.  You capture what you know on a set of slides (often using many words - kind of a brain dump, really), and tell students that 'this is the way it is' during class.  You normally don't have to open yourself up to potentially embarrassing situations where you realize you don't actually know some of the details you thought you did.  This is especially useful the first time you teach a topic and/or when it's not your area of expertise.

But I'm just not into the status quo.  Alas, I also felt a little embarrassed during my last class.

I filled in yesterday for the prof I'm TA'ing for.  The class is a third year course on 3D computer graphics for the game development students.  I decided to make my own slides and build up a really good understanding of how camera viewing worked by going from the canonical view volume to orthographic projection, and from arbitrary view points to transforming a perspective projection into an orthographic projection.  This is the approach shown in Fundamentals of Computer Graphics by Peter Shirley, and as an added bonus, the author provides the book's diagrams for free on his website.

(If you're curious, you can check out the slides for my lecture in PowerPoint format - be sure to look at the notes section of the file since that's where the explanations are.  I don't like putting lots of words up while I talk.)

The class was going well.  I had a few places I wanted the students to try something out for themselves because it's all too easy to look at the numbers on the slide and just accept them as seeming reasonable.  I know, because I do that all the time, either in talks or when reading.  Even if they couldn't figure out what I was asking them to do, the act of trying would force them to really think about what I just showed them.

At one point, however, I asked them to do something that I hadn't had a chance to do myself.  (I didn't find out what I would be lecturing on until fairly last minute and, unfortunately, made my slides the day of the class.)  I had done exactly what I was trying to help them avoid: I took for granted what the book was saying and didn't realize that I never tried to understand the details.  Not until a specific question came up, that is.

Although I readily admit when I don't know something, I did even more this time: I tried to logically figure it out in front of the class.  Dangerous! Especially dangerous because I'm generally not that good at figuring stuff out in front of others.  Well, as expected, that didn't go so well.  So I said that for some reason my brain appears to be incapable to sorting this out at the moment, but if anyone in the class thought they could see it more clearly, they could try to explain.

A couple of students actually did! I really commend them because as I later confirmed, they were basically right.  They are going to understand this topic so much deeper now than they would have if I had just shown them the answer and moved on rather than tried to understand it with them.

Granted, I probably wasted a bit more time on figuring this particular thing out than I should have, leaving some students bored.  I suppose finding the right balance comes with experience.  This was a small class, making it more reasonable to have spent some time on it, but I don't think it would have made sense to do it in, say, a huge auditorium.

In any case, I promised that I would post a clear explanation on the blog once I had a chance to think about it on my own.  I followed through with a post within a couple of hours of class ending since, just as I expected, the answer was clear and obvious once I could think about it away from staring eyes.  (Hopefully I got it right - if anyone notices any issues let me know!)

All in all, despite the fact that it was easy to feel embarrassed from my fumbling around, I conclude that it was worth it.  Putting yourself out there is uncomfortable, but it generally means that you are going to give students a better learning experience.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Research Snapshot for Fall 2011

For those of you wondering what the heck I've been up to lately research-wise, wonder no longer! Here's a snapshot of what I've been working on lately and plan to work on before Christmas (when, as you may know, I will be going on maternity leave for a while).
Cognitive Advantages of Augmented Reality

This is something I've been working on for well over a year now.  It started in a class I took extra to my degree called Computers and Cognition.  For my term project, I looked at a couple of key cognitive theories and how they related to what I thought was so great about augmented reality.  Since that class, the prof and my own supervisor have been expanding and refining that work into publishable form.

So far, we've run into some trouble getting our paper accepted to a conference.  In our last attempt, we received quite good reviews, but still weren't accepted.  Apparently the paper caused much discussion at the conference committee meeting, but in the end they decided that they needed to hold it to a higher standard since it was both new and more on the theoretical side of things.  They (and the reviewers for our previous attempt) suggested a journal might be a better venue.

So that's where we are now.  We are working on the latest rewrite and will hopefully submit it soon.  You can follow the progress of this work on this page if you are so inclined.

Gram's House

I've written about this project a few times on this blog.  Originally a project we submitted to Microsoft's Imagine Cup, it has evolved nicely into becoming an international collaboration between industry and academia.

At this point, I have a wonderful team of academics from the States who are on board with applying for a National Science Foundation grant in January to help fund the development and evaluation of this project.  Filament Games is interested in professionally developing the game.  There are several other academics and CS education community members who are interested in helping evaluate the game with their classes or outreach initiatives.

NSF grants are competitive, so I realize that we may not be successful in our first attempt.  Nevertheless, I'm excited that, no matter how long it takes, Gram's House may become the full-fledged game I am dreaming of, allowing it to make a widespread impact in many girls' lives.

You can follow this project here (it has not yet been updated with the latest grant goings-on, but will be once things are more solidified).

Narrative and Educational Games

Finally, a newer thread of research has been related to narrative and interactive storytelling.  In an effort to solidify a specific direction for my PhD thesis, I have chosen this thread as my main topic and started outlining a research plan.

Right now, I'm working on putting together a taxonomy of techniques in nonlinear fiction.  There is a balance between categorizing approaches by their creative intentions and the technology behind them.  In October I am leading a round table discussion on this work with the goal of looking at why games have used certain techniques but not others (is it because it's too difficult creatively or technically, or because we just need someone to try?).

During the rest of this term, I'll be delving into this taxonomy deeper and working on a paper for a game studies/design journal.

As for my thesis, I will be narrowing in on what the role of narrative is in educational games.  Does story simply engage a game's learners, or is there something more going on there? What are the best ways to incorporate story effectively into an educational game? Can we create a tool that supports writers and designers in properly crafting stories for these sorts of games? Though I'm keeping it general for now, I'd like to ultimately focus on reality-based educational games (including augmented reality) and make use of the cognitive advantages research mentioned above.

The taxonomy work can be followed here, and future pages on my portfolio will be created as my journey continues.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Jane McGonigal: Reality is Broken

Jane McGonigal thinks reality is broken.  Why else would so many of us escape it to play hours and hours of video games? But among all the media hype about the bad things games supposedly to do us, have you ever considered that games might actually make us better? (I bet readers here are on board with that idea!)

I finally got the chance to read Jane's wonderfully written book Reality is Broken: Why games make us better and how they can change the world.  The whole way through I felt excited and inspired.  If you've seen Jane's TED Talk, you'll have seen a summary of the main ideas behind this book.  However, the twenty minutes she has just doesn't do her ideas justice (it's easy to misunderstand the main point and pass it off as a bit kooky).  The book is (obviously) able to explain everything in much more detail, and provides many supporting research results and in-depth examples.

The first part of the book sets up how games make us happy.  Jane's take on the four defining traits of a game — goals, rules, feedback systems, and voluntary participation — show up throughout the rest of the book, as do the four intrinsic rewards available to us in games: satisfying work, the experience or hope of being successful, social connection, and meaning in the sense of becoming part of something bigger than ourselves.

Part two suggests that alternate reality games are a good way to use what we love about gaming to make our real lives better.  All the themes from the first part are applied again and again here, seemingly to great effect if you look at the success of the games outlined in these chapters.  Although it's not quite the same thing, my interest in augmented reality made this section particularly meaningful to me.  The work I've been doing lately on the cognitive benefits of AR has some overlap with the ideas here.

Finally, in part three, things get epic.  Jane talks about the kinds of things that gamers are well prepared for, like collaborating with huge numbers of people and voluntarily tackling seemingly impossible tasks. She points out that gamers can and do use these abilities to make a difference in the real world, often through reality-based gaming contexts.  In a sense, this part is about gamification, but not in the badge-adding way that Ian Bogost often laments about.  It's about truly making life more gameful to improve our own lives and the lives of everyone around us.

By the end of the book, I found myself wondering if Jane and James Paul Gee have had a chance to collaborate yet.  The latter talks about how we can apply what is good in games to learning and education.  I would love to see what these two could come up with together (perhaps along with Ian Bogost, whom Jane mentions is a good friend in the book).

In the meantime, I need to go check up on the Gameful website Jane set up and see how all the others in my areas of interest (education! augmented reality!) are doing.  If you are into games for good, you should go sign up, too!

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Hardest Thing I've Ever Done

On our vacation to Canada's maritime provinces, my husband and I embarked on a four day journey which has since become known as The Hardest Thing We've Ever Done™.  We hiked the Long Range Traverse in Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland, complete with all our gear on our backs.  There were no marked trails and the terrain was difficult.  Many people thought we were crazy to do it, and that's before they realized I was pregnant!

But let's face it. If I was able to get through this, then getting my PhD shouldn't be so bad.  I even learned a few tricks along the way to help me get past feeling my lowest.

The first day of the hike is by far the most gruelling.  In the picture above, we are at the top of a gorge.  In the far distance you can see water - that's the Western Brook Pond and where we started our journey.  Getting up here takes a lot of persistence and strength, particularly near the end.  The last upward bit takes you up the side of a waterfall where you basically have to climb rocks almost straight up.  One wrong move and I'm pretty sure you'd be seriously injured as you fell backwards.

I was very tired in this last stretch, but I was able to find it in me to keep going.  Perhaps it's because I knew I had to - it's not like I was going to walk back to the beginning (assuming I even could)! So I kept going.  Slowly, granted, but never giving up.  I even had a Radiohead song playing in my head over and over: "Try the best you can... the best you can is good enough..."

When we finally made it to the top, I wanted to collapse and cry.  We sat down for a minute but then had to go find a decent water source.  After deciding we were going to keep going to find a good campsite (we knew we wouldn't make it to the one we had intended to stay at), I looked back and saw the view everyone comes here for:

Despite utter exhaustion, I knew it would be worth snapping a quick photo before dragging myself away.  I'm really glad I did.

I figure that just like getting out of the gorge, if I have to go a little slower to make it to the end of grad school, I've learned that not only is it ok, it's totally going to be worth it.

The rest of the trip was tough, but I never had a low point again.  I knew if I could make it this far, I could do the rest as well.  I may have also been a bit more mentally prepared for the difficulty of the journey than Andrew was - I think he found it more difficult than he expected.  (Which isn't to say he did awesome - he could have finished even sooner if it wasn't for me slowing us down.  But there were times he was getting pretty worried and I was able to keep our spirits up.)

Accepting the fact that the challenge will be great seems to be a really good way to set yourself up for success.

When we finally got back in the three nights we had hoped to do the hike in (though we were prepared for four just in case), we showered and then collapsed.  The next morning, Andrew's parents, also visiting the area, presented us with these awesome t-shirts commemorating our accomplishment.

Whether it's a shirt, a degree, or just a really good story to tell, doing something difficult in your life makes it feel like you've really lived.

If you'd like to see the rest of our photos along with commentary, you can do so on this public Facebook album.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Teaching at Girl Develop It Ottawa's Kickoff Event

Girl Develop It: "Want to learn how to code? Have a great idea? Don't be shy. Develop it."  It's exactly what the Ottawa community needs: a way to engage professional women in learning technical skills, particularly programming.  Ultimately, this might also help bring together the community of women in technology with the women near technology, and maybe blur the line between the two.

Good friend and one of the four original CU-WISE founders Serena Ngai got an Ottawa chapter of Girl Develop It started this past summer, and I couldn't help but offer my time and support to make it happen.  When we met to talk about what we should do for the first class or event, I suggested a free afternoon workshop that would not require too much of a time commitment from participants, yet still give a taste of what programming was like; hopefully participants would be itching for more and look forward to signing up for the more extensive classes to be offered later.

And so our kickoff event was born: Intro to Scratch Programming was held this past Saturday and if you go by the enthusiasm of the participants both during and after the workshop, it was a great success!

I was able to re-purpose the content I had developed for my Introduction to Computers for Arts and Social Sciences course that I teach at Carleton in the summer.  I started with a description of what exactly computer science is, emphasizing how it connects with whatever interests you might already have and why it's useful to learn even now long after school is done for some.  Then I went through some basic programming concepts in Scratch: boolean values, if and if/else statements, loops, variables, and Scratch's special broadcast functionality.  Finally, I showed how to make a game by filling a bit of code to an unfinished project and left some time for the audience to play and explore on their own.

Something I really appreciated being able to do in this setting was allow the group to test their understanding and explore Scratch a bit after every main concept I presented.  I usually asked them to do something specific but also encouraged them to go beyond that and experiment with other code to see what would happen.   This was not possible in my summer course, since not all students had a computer in front of them during lectures.  It made a huge difference in terms of audience engagement and their ability to learn: this is absolutely something I recommend that all instructors do for future Girl Develop It classes.

Like I said, I think the workshop was a success, and overall I'm very happy with how it went.  As always, there is something to improve for next time, and so here is my list of what I would have liked to do differently:
  • I must admit I put my slides together at the last minute since I knew I could reuse material from my summer course.  But this made me forget to make a backup PDF copy of the PowerPoint slides like I normally would.  When the projector didn't work on my Windows install, I had to reboot into the Mac side of my laptop and present the slides with messed up formatting.
  • I usually like to do a round of introductions among the audience to break the ice and get a feel for where everyone's coming from, but forgot to do this after we finally got our projector woes sorted out.
  • I am glad that I talked about what computer science is, but I usually get to spend more time on this, giving more practical examples.  I was worried about time so kept it pretty general.  Hopefully the main idea of how widespread CS is and how many areas it connects to came across.
  • The game I showed at the end was called Oscartime and was from a first year course taught at Harvard.  As soon as I started to go through it, I realized that it was a bit much for a three hour workshop.  I was still able to use it to point out the practical use of some of the programming concepts learned earlier, but there were a couple of things that were a bit advanced.  Though in a multi-day course I would show this game at some point, I should have shown a simpler example first.
Download the Workshop Slides

You can download my slides in one of two formats:

Friday, September 9, 2011

Game Papers at SIGGRAPH 2011 (Part 2 of 2)

A previous post talked about two game paper presentations I saw at SIGGRAPH 2011.  Here is part two with a summary of the second two talks.

Evaluating gesture-based games with older adults on a large screen display
[ACM Digital Library]

The theme for this talk was the usability, acceptability, and applicability of gesture-based games among healthy older adults.  The presenter said that some of the issues with previous work in the area of cognitive training, rehab and exergaming include small study samples, issues with control groups, and the fact that evaluations were done with existing games and systems.  The authors' work presumably addresses one or more of these.

The presentation reported on results of experiments done with games the authors created specifically for this purpose using a large projection screen, infrared source and camera, and blob detection.  Physical props are sometimes included as well.  Three games were created: virtual soccer, mosquito invasion, and human Tetris.  The subjects used to test these games were aged 55-75 and in good health.

The general results after testing the game with a series of questionnaires and practice / gameplay sessions are as follows:
  • users were tech-savvy and physically active
  • there was a particularly positive correlation between physical engagement and social interaction for all games
  • virtual soccer: strenuous and physically challenging
  • mosquito invasion: intuitive and practical
  • ranked highest: wanting to be mentally and physically challenging
  • ranked lowest: having a partner to play with or having hands-free interaction
  • everyone was highly competitive, but there was a varying degree of physicality
  • occlusion and usability issues were a concern
The main conclusions were that there is a need for more complex gameplay and a general need for both physical and cognitive engagement among this demographic.

My thoughts on this talk were that the games did seem a little too simple to be of much interest for long, as many research-based games tend to be.  I understand wanting to control certain factors to answer specific questions, but I do wonder how much more beneficial it is to create these sorts of games instead of studying existing commercial games.  I am happy to see that there is a focus on older adults though, and hope that they continue to improve games for this audience so they are more refined by the time I get to that age myself.

The Impact of Negative Game Reviews and User Comments on Player Experience
[ACM Digital Library][Direct PDF]

This presentation was, by far, my favourite of the conference.  Granted, I actually didn't see as many talks as I could have, but honestly, most of what I saw was status quo at best (I'm pretty picky about presentation standards and am always trying to push people to take their abilities a step further).

The thing that this presenter did so well was remember the difference between oral and written communication, telling a story about his work that differed from the structure of a traditional paper.  The slides had almost no text, and the graphs were highlighted in just the right way to emphasize the point being made at the time.  Kudos to Ian Livingston!

Of course, in addition to being a good talk, it helps that the content was interesting.  The main research question was whether someone's opinion of a game would be (sub-consciously) affected by a negative review they had read about the game.  For instance, Duke Nukem Forever hasn't exactly scored very well among critics - would my enjoyment of the game be decreased if I knew that going in?

As it turns out, it probably would be!

The study conducted to prove this involved only the text (no scores) from several reviews of existing games that few people would have heard of.  The texts that players read first were either positive or negative as determined by an emotional analysis tool, or unrelated to the game.  Players then played the game and were asked to rate it with a score of 0-100.  They were also asked to rate their mood on a scale of 1-5 to see if that affected the results at all.

The findings:
  • the tone of the review text does affect player experience
  • when negative review text related to the game, the perception of that game did change, whereas control text (unrelated to the game) had no effect, nor did the positive text
  • no significant difference between reviews and user comments, so no real difference in terms of the authority of the author
  • the differences in game enjoyment cannot be explained by differences in mood (the mood ratings had no effect)
While this research isn't really related to anything I'm working on, the results were interesting and the presentation made me happy.  This will be the one I remember the longest.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Game Papers at SIGGRAPH 2011 (Part 1 of 2)

Following up on my general impressions of SIGGRAPH I wanted to write about a few of the games paper presentations I enjoyed seeing at the conference.  I paid most attention to the first four talks that were focused on analyzing player behaviour and experience.  This post contains summaries and thoughts on the first two of these papers, and a subsequent post will cover the second two.

Evaluating enjoyment within alternate reality games
[ACM Digital Library] [Direct PDF]

This work is all about formally figuring out what makes an alternate reality game enjoyable.  As explained in the paper:
In our work, we are interested in one specific sub-genre of pervasive gaming known as Alternate Reality Games (ARGs). Layering a fictional world over the real world, ARGs provide an interactive narrative experience played out in the physical world of the player. Although a sub-genre of pervasive games, the emphasis on the narrative experience brings with it even more unique and novel considerations not normally associated with game development.
In particular, narrative is given as a key element to ARGs, unlike in pervasive games in general.  In fact, ARGs are essentially positioned as reality-based interactive story-telling engines, though not in those words: "the game should allow for non linearity in the story structure and contain key user-decision points at which the player will make choices that affect their journey through the story."

The authors propose and test five key principles that they believe are important to player experience in ARGs:
  1. The game needs a strong basic story, a principle generalized from traditional narrative research.
  2. Game content should be split into modular pieces based on the fact that the story is spread out over the real world.  Players should be able to reassemble the pieces in whatever order they wish.
  3. The story pieces should be meaningful in the sense that they are consistent and all play a role in the formation of the game.
  4. Players must be able to interact with the system, and should feel that their interactions affect the game in a meaningful way.
  5. Because the skill required by the game is set by the content alone, it is important to ensure that the content is accessible to a wide audience.
To test a set of eleven metrics that come from these principles, the authors designed two games with similar plots but different narrative structures: one was designed specifically to score well on the metric while the other was designed to score low.  Seven participants consistently ranked the "good" game better than the other one in a statistically significant way.

I hope to use some of the ideas in this paper to give me a starting point in thinking about metrics for narrative in educational games (either in general or for reality-based games).  This may become one facet of my thesis, which I'm thinking will investigate the role of narrative in educational games (i.e. is it useful just for engagement, or for actually facilitating learning, and how does it do this).

Visualizing and understanding players' behavior in video games: discovering patterns and supporting aggregation and comparison
[ACM Digital Library] [Direct PDF]

The motivation for this paper comes from wanting to evaluate how people behave in virtual environments using both quantitative and qualitative methods.  The tool presented makes use of telemetry to track the actions a player takes in a game (such as how often they jumped, how long they spent with a particular non-player character, and so on) for analysis later.

Some of the challenges in designing such a tool include the fact that there is a lot of data to choose from - often terabytes.  You need to have a deep understanding of the game you want to track and analyze.  You need a clear understanding of the questions that should be asked.  Information visualization is a field of its own, and there is the trade-off between flexibility and usability.  The focus of this project was to create a visualization tool that "allows analysts to make sense of telemetry data through visualization and comparison between different player types. By interacting with our system, analysts are able to visualize player actions by cluster or aggregated over multiple clusters."

Some of the interesting features include being able to:
  • cluster data, which is important since gameplay usually does not follow a normal distribution
  • filter data by specifying time windows
  • filter out or superimpose colour-coded event categories
  • provide detail information on demand
  • visualize player progression over time
  • build a story on the data and understand cause and effect

The presentation itself was a nice change of pace in that the speaker demonstrated her tool without using many slides.  I'm pretty picky when it comes to what makes a "good" presentation, so this was nice to see.

In terms of my own research thoughts: it seems like ideas from this paper and the previous might combine in an interesting way.   For example, could using this kind of visualization tool with a narrative-based game help find more useful metrics? How would it help in the educational context I'm interested in?

Monday, September 5, 2011

Techniques for Telling Nonlinear Stories

At the beginning of October, I'll be participating in a digital narrative workshop for the GRAND NCE called 'Experiencing Stories with/in Digital Games.' The following abstract describes a round table talk I'll be giving as part of the student gathering:
Non-linear fiction ranges from the use of static plots with events presented in a non-chronological way to interactive story worlds where users make choices that affect the outcome of the story. A wide range of media can be used to implement works of non-linear fiction, including novels, film, storytelling engines, and games. In all of these cases, there are multiple techniques available for designing and telling a non-linear story.

We have compiled a taxonomy for these techniques with broad categories for strategies for explaining non-linearity, structuring stories as graphs, relying on emergent behaviour, creating character driven plots, and designing data-driven interactive worlds. Each of these categories breaks down further with classic examples from all types of media and with approaches reported on in academic literature. For instance, a strategy to explain a story’s non-linearity is to attribute it to time travel (The Legend of Zelda: Orcarina of Time) or to a hallucinating or brain-damaged character (Memento). Many examples use a simple branching structure to change the story based on player choices (Choose Your Own Adventure) while others rely on game data to adjust how other characters in the story react to you (Fallout 3).

In this talk, we will present our taxonomy and frame it in the context of story in games. We will discuss what techniques have been used in existing games, and which have not yet been employed. We will consider why games have not used certain techniques, and use this to suggest how they might do so in the future.
I'm currently hammering out a potential thesis research plan for myself, and this work will contribute toward that.  I'm really enjoying this whole narrative thread I've embarked on this past summer.