Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Few Good Game Podcasts

Now that I finally have a vehicle that can play files on a USB key, I've been able to listen to podcasts to make the most of my commuting time.  I've been focusing on game content for the most part.  Some shows have been better than others; here are a few of my favourites.

Playing Super Mario Bros (Gameboy Color Game) on iPod photo
Playing Super Mario Bros (Gameboy Color Game) on iPod photo / FHKE

The first podcast I tried was Another Castle.  Although there hasn't been a new episode for about a year now (leading me to believe there never will be), there are quite a few in the archive to keep busy for a while.  The episodes I listened to were interviews done in what sounded like a coffee shop, and I quite liked them.  The audio quality was good despite the background noises of cups clinking and doors squeaking.  My favourite interviews were with Greg Costikyan (much more curmudgeonly than I expected), Eric Zimmerman (a true 'artiste' — in a good way), and Jesper Juul (a seemingly humble and kind soul).

Next up I tried The Game Engine Podcast.  This one has just over 50 episodes, but seems to have tapered off recently.  The hosts cover a wide range of topics, including both design and development.  I found a few episodes on topics I was particularly interested in (like The Hero's Journey, gamification, and the relationship between games and education).  I thought they were at least reasonable introductions to these topics, but in most cases not as useful to someone who has been doing a lot of related reading.  Unlike Another Castle, the hosts and guests are not the very top experts of the industry (but they are still enjoyable).

Most recently, I've been listening to The Brainy Gamer podcasts.  These are posted alongside regular blog posts, and seem to be released somewhat sporadically.  (It also seems that the show is now in flux, with its creator wondering whether he adds anything that other game podcasts don't already have.)  I love the host in this one, and have really enjoyed the interviews I've heard so far (namely, Tom Bissell and Brenda Brathwaite with John Sharp).

I've still got to check out Extra Credits' podcasts,  and might try A Jumps B Shoots soon.  Any others I must know about?

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Early Lessons for Carleton Quest

We've been asking new students to try out our new Carleton Quest app in the last few weeks.  Although I don't have a huge amount of feedback yet, there are a few clear lessons we learned already.

I made some posters with Carleton branding to house the QR codes needed for the game.  I figured these would be easier to spot by players, and more importantly, be less likely to be removed by university officials.  Yesterday, when I tested the game out with a friend that hadn't seen it yet, we discovered that some of the posters were missing — even the very first one! So even this design wasn't enough.  We're going to try adding the logos of the departments I'm collaborating with and a note asking the poster to be left up until a certain date.

It has also become obvious that the game is too long.  Yesterday, we made it to the library without doing the 4 item scavenger hunt there, and it took us about 1.5 hours.  There are still three locations to visit after the library.  It's reasonable to assume that new students will take even longer than we did, even though we were slowed down by the fact that several posters were missing.  I'd like to get the game down to about an hour or an hour and a half total, which would be similar to taking a campus tour.  To do that, I'll have to add in more branching, allowing players to choose where to go.  We'll have to decide which locations are crucial enough that all players should see them, and leave the rest up to choice.

Finally, while finding the posters in the various locations is at least a small challenge, I'd like to eventually add more game-like elements.  One idea that came up was having a compass virtual item that the player could obtain via another QR code.  That item could then be used to get hints on how to get to the next location in the game.  Can you think of any other relatively simple ideas for game-like additions?

Friday, January 18, 2013

Interactive Storytelling: Slides from CUSEC 2013

Here are my slides from yesterday's talk at CUSEC 2013.  There are normally embedded videos in the slides; this version links to the videos online instead.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

If Only All Conferences Could Be As Accommodating As CUSEC

I'm speaking at the Canadian University Software Engineering Conference (CUSEC) tomorrow in Montreal.   I need to spend some time giving the conference organizers a huge public kudos not only for the fact that women make up a third of their speaker list, but also for all their efforts in accommodating me and my situation (you know, the mom thing).

One of the best things about the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing is that they get what it's like to be a mom.  They offer free daycare to participants to make sure you can attend when it's less than simple to leave your kid(s) at home.  (For instance, it's not always impossible to leave a nursing infant behind, but it's a whole lot easier to bring her!)

It doesn't always make sense to offer daycare, and since CUSEC is a student-oriented event, I wouldn't expect there to be a need at this particular conference.  But the CUSEC organizers did want to find a way for me to be able to attend the entire conference, and they went above and beyond in finding a way to make that happen.

Although it turned out he couldn't come, they worked hard to make it possible for my husband to attend.  If he came, baby Molly could come, because we could share Molly-watching duties.  (We haven't quite worked out the whole me-leaving-for-a-night thing yet, though we will have to soon!)

In the end, I'm going to attend just for the day.  I would have loved to participate in the rest of the conference, but not to worry - Molly will be older next year, so I should be able to get away much more easily and often.

I wish more conferences could consider family situations for speakers and attendees.  It would make attending easier for many women for sure, and probably many men as well.  Might be a small step toward seeing more diversity at traditionally male-dominated tech conferences!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

On Allowing Boys Into a Girls' Camp

Today I had the pleasure of speaking on a panel about engaging girls in STEM at Actua's annual conference.  I offered my perspective on computer science outreach in particular, drawing on 5+ years of experience.  One question that came up was whether we should allow a boy enrol when he is interested in joining a girls-only camp.

The school pet at a girls school / theirhistory

I thought this was a good and very interesting question.  On the one hand, what would be the harm? Maybe it would be beneficial to all involved.  Plus, there may be issues of gender inequality if disallowed; a reverse discrimination in some sense.

But on the other hand, I remember the panic I felt when some boys had ignored the description and signed up for my girls-only mini-course.  It was the first year I ran it, and I suppose it wasn't clear enough at the time that it was only for girls.  Some boys who really really wanted to make sure they could get into a games course signed up for both mine and the open one.

I felt like allowing the boys to join us might not have bothered some of my girls, and perhaps would have worked out fine in the end (despite research saying that girls tend to learn better in a girls-only environment).  But I couldn't shake the feeling that I was betraying their trust.  As confirmed later through pre- and post-course surveys, some of them signed up specifically because it was just for girls.  What would it have meant if they showed up on the first day and saw that suddenly boys were present as well?

Besides that, some of the discussion we got into in the course would have been quite difficult to have in a mixed class.  This isn't to say that boys aren't capable of discussing the issue of women in tech (though I do question whether middle school boys would be mature enough).  But I have no doubt that the things the girls said in these discussions would have changed if the class was mixed.  To me, this would be a huge opportunity missed, indirectly lessening the impact of the rest of the course.

In the end I'm not sure I have a clear-cut answer to this question.  I am leaning toward either sticking to an all-girls class if that's what you set out to do, or have a mixed class where you reserve half the spots for girls if you want to avoid the issue altogether.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Procedural Rhetoric and Theme in The Walking Dead

I've been thinking about procedural rhetoric and its relationship to a particular theme in a story. For example, a major theme in The Walking Dead is humanity: how do you maintain your humanity in such trying times, and how far are you willing to allow it to slip in order to survive?

How do the game’s mechanics support this theme? Most of the mechanics are superficial in their relationship to the story (i.e., classic point-and-click adventure style of interaction). But then there are the story choices. Many are dialog choices which don’t end up having much real impact in terms of story results, but some are black and white choices like whom to save.

These latter types of choices seem to fit more with the idea of procedural rhetoric. You are faced with a decision you have to make quickly and on the spot. Neither choice is good, and sometimes the outcome is essentially predetermined anyway in the sense that the zombies will kill no matter what. This reflects how it might feel in real life as well, when the adrenaline is pumping and you have only moments to react. Sometimes your actions feel futile, and often somebody has to die.

But I think these are really the only mechanics you could argue represent procedural rhetoric relevant to the humanity theme.

I want to figure out if there's a way to represent the theme more deeply in the game’s rules/mechanics.


For example, one episode involves a farming family who we eventually learn are cannibals. They had decided to survive by eating flesh of people who were injured and going to die anyway, though they eventually rationalize eating even hardly injured people. How could the game reverse the roles so the player ends up doing something like that and actually feeling like it was the right choice despite the moral dilemma?


I want it to be more than just the story, even if the story can branch for these kinds of choices; I want the rules of the game to represent the theme better. I am not convinced the current setup of Walking Dead would be the best for this, given the style of mechanics, so what might?

Friday, January 4, 2013

Carleton Quest Now Available in the App Store

I celebrated New Year's by getting my first iPhone app into the App Store! It's a story-based QR code activity (currently but probably not permanently called Carleton Quest) intended to help new students at Carleton University learn their way around campus.

Students will be asked to visit various locations relevant to both their own faculties (such as their Dean's Office) and to all students (for instance, the services available at the library).  At each location, they have to scan a QR code in order to continue.  While there are free QR code scanners available, I wanted to create a self-contained app that allowed me to put certain constraints on what can be scanned when.  I wrote an engine that can dynamically read a game file and run whatever story you want.  The Carleton app includes a linear story as well as a few branching choices and two mini-scavenger hunts that allow you to choose what items you want to find.

The first version is complete, but not terribly fancy looking as of yet.  We're going to test it with new students who are starting at Carleton this week, and use their feedback to tweak the story and improve the app.  We're also planning on hiring a graphic designer to help jazz up the interface.  But the plain look is totally fine for now, since walking around campus and learning the layout is the important part, not what's on the screen.

(The 'we' in this case is the Student Experience Office and Communication Officer Mike Reynolds.  Everyone has been awesome to work with, and I'm looking forward to continuing with this mutually beneficial project!)

All in all, I'm quite pleased with how painless getting into the App Store ended up being, despite the horror stories and holiday shutdown.