Tuesday, December 9, 2014

An Update on Our CS2 Experiment with C++ and Java

Back in September, I reported on an experimental course design I was trying out for our CS2 class.  The main idea was to start with C++ and slowly transition to Java so that we could use the explicit nature of C++ to better understand what Java is doing behind the scenes.  I wondered, will it work? Or will it be a disaster?

Danger, unexploded bomb

Before reading on, you may want to go read about the course design.  In particular, have a look at the progression of topics at the end (my lecture slides are attached as well, if you're interested).

After introducing problem solving strategies that I wanted students to use throughout the course, I started with C++ basics.  I began talking about how simple data appeared in memory.  The next topic, solving problems with arrays, allowed me to build on both the problem solving strategies and the memory model.  Once we introduced classes, I brought Java into the mix.  Then we covered dynamic memory in C++ and compared that with Java's memory model.  We talked about linked lists and a branching story app in Java to get used to programs with more complex reference structures.  At this point, we were able to leave C++ behind and move on to more advanced OOP with Java.  Later I showed them how to use the Processing library in Java to make a program where you could "see" polymorphism at play with various related objects on the screen.  I also showed how to set up a simple model-view-controller design with Processing.  Finally, we covered recursion with a focus on recursive data structures.

In the middle of the term, I conducted an informal, anonymous survey to find out how well the new design was working (or, more accurately, whether doing C++ and Java together was a bad idea).  Although the reviews were mixed, there were definitely more positive responses than I would have guessed.  It was also very interesting to learn that more students found Java more difficult than C++.

When I met with two fellow instructors and one of my TAs to decide whether we would continue this course design next term, we discussed one very promising phenomenon: students were finally asking conceptual questions instead of just syntax.  My TA had worked with this course three times in a row with three different instructors, each with a different approach.  He noted that this was the first time he had heard so many interesting, in-depth questions.  Students were talking about things like the stack and the heap for the first time, for example, even though these topics were technically covered in previous offerings.  Getting students to go beyond syntax has been one of the faculty's major goals for a while now, and it seems that we may have finally figured out how to make that happen.

Ever since the midterm survey, students have been telling me in person and over email how much they appreciate this course design.  Some tell me that they understand Java so much better than they had previously (either from taking this class before, or learning Java elsewhere).  Others tell me they have found the class interesting and useful.  One or two complained about the difficulty, but they seemed to appreciate what we were going for when we discussed it.

Of course, there are a number of students who are struggling.  But it seems these are the students who would be struggling regardless of whether we included C++.  We know this because many of these students are the ones who miss all or most lectures, who don't go to (or work during) tutorials, who don't complete assignments, and who don't come to ask for help.  These students are the ones who would be unlikely to pass even if the course was all Java.

Indeed, ensuring that only those who truly understand the material move on is another goal of the redesign.  We don't want students who have no hope of passing our systems programming class to be able to move on from this course.  An added bonus of including Java has been better assessment tools.  I've been able to ask much more pointed questions about how Java works thanks to the ability to compare to C++.  So those who pass should truly understand what we want them to.

Regardless of those who are struggling, the verdict has been clear: C++ and Java together are definitely not a disaster.  Now we shall see how the next iteration of the design fares next semester when we have quadruple the students taking the course, and even more importantly, when these students move on to second year.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Technology and How It Is Evolving Storytelling in Our Entertainment Experiences / GHC14

What luck! An invited technical speaker at GHC wants to talk about storytelling and games! As Bonnie Ross' abstract states, "stories spill into every aspect and facet of our lives; narrative leaps between nations, and stories span devices, media and demographics. The entertainment industry stands at the crossroads of where those stories intersect, how those stories are told and who tells them."  Here is my summary of Bonnie's talk.

Recent stats: 48% of gamers are women.  But where are we on the creation side? Software is omnipresent, and it's harder to see what you can do when you finish a degree in technology.  Bonnie originally came to gaming because of technology, and wasn't planning on staying more than a year.  But she found a passion.  She hopes some of us will too.

Bonnie showed us a video prologue of the Halo story.  She asks, what tools and technology have enabled us to tell more immersive stories? Games have different genres, and different styles requiring different graphics.  Similarly, games have different needs in terms of storytelling.  Audiences are asked to have some kind of suspension of disbelief when consuming entertainment.

Technology had advanced to support this suspension disbelief in many areas, but one that has helped immensely with Halo is facial motion capture.  Golum was one of the first characters to use this, but now it's in many movies and games.  The technique leads to more believable performances, helps bridge the uncanny valley, and leads to more efficient development.  We get a stronger emotional attachment to the higher fidelity characters.

One funny thing about casting interviews for character actors: they don't tell the interviewees what they are doing, and just ask them to move their faces around in a wide range of emotions.  What they are really looking for is botox, because they need every wrinkle to move for facial motion capture to work.

Bonnie showed us several examples of various stages of animations, and I must say I am flabbergasted.

Fans are also now becoming part of the Halo story.  They've always wanted to be, but it used to be a more physical form (cosplay, for example).  Lost engaged fans through things like ARGs and really invited them into their story.  Is this a good thing? Bonnie says yes.  The more the users feel ownership in your story, the more they will stick with you.  Is there a way to bring the Halo story and the fans' story together into something bigger? Perhaps through ARGs, transmedia initiatives and the like...

Bonnie hopes we all walk away thinking about what new things we can do with technology.  That we see the balance of art and science in games.  That everyone coming out of university realized we all need some kind of technical background.  Now that's a story I can buy into!

Games to Get Girls Interested in Programming, and Animation for Music and Dance Games / GHC14

I started my last morning of GHC with two presentations in the GFX track, which covers games and graphics.  I enjoyed both talks, though the first is particularly relevant to our Gram's House project.

Image from the virtual world Shahnaz Kamberi worked on in her research.

Gamher: Creating a Game to Increase Girls' Interest in Programming
Shahnaz Kamberi

Shahnaz targeted girls aged 13-17 with a game to increase their interest in programming at a time when many lose that interest.  It's nothing new that we want girls to study STEM, but despite all the time, money and effort, we have not succeeded.  But maybe game-based learning, which has been proven effective in the past, can work here.

There are two deliverables with Shahnaz's research, which is part of her doctoral thesis project: game design elements list (aesthetics, mechanics, story, and technology) and an educational game that teaches Java programming.

The framework Shahnaz followed is known as the ADDIE model: analyze, develop, design, develop, implement, evaluate.

During analysis, she realized that she did not want to take a constructivist approach, which covers programs like Scratch and Alice.  Rather, she wanted to make an instructivist game, an area that is more lacking.  She then decided that she preferred a gender-specific game rather than a gender-neutral game, but wanted to break the stereotype of what gender-specific games look like.

To help with development, Shahnaz prototyped a 2D game in GameMaker and an exploratory 3D world using OpenSim.

To evaluate, Shahnaz compared performance between a group that used the game vs. a group that had traditional lectures with added interactivity. It turned out that the lecture group did a little better than the game group on the post-quiz.  This may have been because the facilitator was able to control the classroom's progress, whereas students playing the games may not have finished all the material. The game group has a higher positive response to computer science in the post-surveys, but there was not a significant difference.  Interestingly, story appeared in the participants' lists of worst and best things about the game.  There was a lot of positive response in terms of whether the girls would play the game again and whether it positively influenced their views of computer science.

My take: it was really nice to see how Shahnaz set up her experiment, and how she dealt with the fact that the game group did not perform better than the lecture group.  She realized that she works as a professor, and therefore is paid to teach programming.  So if girls were able to learn as much while playing a game, then indeed the game has succeeded! It did as good a job as a professional!

You can learn more about this project on Shahnaz's blog and website.

Animation Programming Techniques for Music and Dance Video Games
Jessica S. Scott

Jessica is the lead engineer at Harmonix, and has a mixed background in CS and art.  She opened with the question of why we even need character animations.  Among the usual answers was the notion of using animation as a user interface.  In games like Dance Central, animations tell the user what to do.  Then, why do you need programmers for animation? You need to get animations from a 3D program into a game, usually with requirements in terms of memory usage, performance, and response to user input.

Jessica started with some of the basics of computer representation of animation on a computer.  For skinning, they use bones that meshes can follow.  Animators can pose a skeleton of a character.  Keyframes are a way of storing animation poses at points at specific points in time, and movement in between can be interpolated.

Memory and performance issues: Animation often takes up a large percentage of a game's memory and CPU budget.  When storing animations, store rotation, position and scale for each keypoint, and use compression and blending techniques.

Game animation special needs: it's more complicated than movie animation! Players get control of characters, and real-time playback is important.  Game worlds have dynamic elements that help determine what animations to play.

More about blending: needed for the dynamic choice of animations.  Two kinds: combine multiple animations at one point in time, or over a period of time.  Blending allows for natural-looking but automatic transitions between different animations.  Blending involves a lot of interpolating, for example between rotation values between bones.

Storing animations: quaternions instead of rotation matrices since you only need 4 floats instead of 9, and blending is easier due to easier interpolation.

Inverse kinematics: modifying a character's joint positions and rotations based on physics constraints.  Mathematical calculations are applied after regular skeleton posing.  Important not to apply to only one set of bones!

Dance Central example: foot slide during blending.  Suppose you want to blend two dance moves and the foot is on the ground with weight on it.  Takes a lot of effort to get the foot to do something interesting in between.  (Showed a funny example with a really long, stretched leg.)

Beatles: Rock Band example: wanted the Beatles to lean in toward the mic during harmonies.  Seems like a good idea to just stretch the neck toward the mic, but turns out not such a good idea when the character is too far away from the mic! (Showed another funny example with one Beatle standing too far away, with a super long neck stretched to the mic.)

My take: how cool to learn a bit more about what's behind animations in my favourite games! (Dance Central and Beatles Rockband happen to both be games I've played a lot.)  The talk also makes me wish I could spend more time on computer graphics, which I have learned but never get to practice.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

The basics of contributing to open source with GitHub / GHC14

My first session after the plenary opener was about how to use GitHub, presented by John Britton.  I was interested in getting some better insight into effective use of Git, a distributed version control system, so I could eventually move some of my own projects to my (thus far unused) GitHub account.

GitHub Office
GitHub Office / Ben Scholzen 

Although I did find the session useful, it unfortunately moved a bit too fast and with demos that were hard to make out on the big screen due to the high resolution of the image.  I tried to keep up while trying things out, but quickly found myself lost.  (Funnily enough, it was when John started demoing Git from the command line that I was really able to get a handle on things.)  I'll share some of trickier bits I was able to figure out during the session along with my own research below.

I admittedly still get confused by Git since I haven't used it for any of my own projects.  The key thing to sort out is the workflow, which is different from version control systems like CVS and SVN:
  • The first step in making changes to an existing project is to clone it.  This fetches a repository that you don't yet have locally.
  • Next, you can checkout a new branch, giving it a name and activating it (or, if the branch already exists, just switch to it).  There is some useful discussion about the difference between clone and checkout here.
  • After making some changes to files or adding new ones, you can use git status to review those changes.
  • If there's a new file that you want to be tracked by Git, you need to add it.
  • When ready, you can commit your current set of changes to the repository, creating a snapshot of sorts.
  • Finally, when you are ready to send your local snapshot to your Git repository, you push.
Another issue that confused me terribly is the idea of a pull request.  GitHub lets you "fork" somebody else's project, which basically means making a branch within your own GitHub account.  You can work on your forked project and make whatever changes you want without affecting the original owner's project or requiring their permission. Then, you can make a pull request.  The name of the action suggests to me that you are requesting to pull changes from somebody else's project, but in fact you are requesting that the owner of a project pull your changes.

If you aren't familiar with branching and merging, this article might be useful.  You might also like Code School's interactive lessons on GitHub to get a feel for the system overall.

One last thing: if you are a student, you must check out this recently announced student pack, which includes access to a free micro account on GitHub (this lets you have private repositories).  Awesome!!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

C++ and Java Together in CS2: Will it Be Great or a Disaster?

I've been trying something a little bit different for our CS2 class this semester.  The course typically covers object-oriented programming in Java along with topics like recursion.  In fact, students becoming proficient in Java is one of the hard requirements of the course.  But students who have recently passed the course did not seem sufficiently prepared for what came next: systems programming with C.  In fact, some students (barely) passing the course seemed not to be able to program sufficiently well on their own at all.

I knew there was an appetite to try something new, and I thought I had the perfect book to try out: Think Like a Programmer.  Only problem was that the book uses C++, and as I said above, we need to use Java.  I ended up chatting with a member of our curriculum committee about it, and we realized that maybe, just maybe, we could do both.  We could teach just a bit of C++ so students would understand the book, and do our major examples and assignments in Java.  So that's what I'm doing.  The question is, will it turn out well, or end in disaster?

In some ways, it seems like trying to cover two languages in a course where many students can't grasp even one is a really bad idea.  But hear me out.  I am not trying to teach them how to be proficient C++ programmers.  My goal is only to show enough C++ so that students can understand Think Like a Programmer, and even more importantly, so that I can more explicitly illustrate some key concepts in Java that are normally hidden away.

For example, C++ makes you choose whether you are passing by reference.  With some simple examples, I can illustrate the difference between pass-by-reference and pass-by-value more clearly. When we get to Java, I can easily explain what gets passed by reference automatically.  Understanding dynamic memory can also be made more explicit in C++, then applied to topics like creating linked lists in Java.  Even the fact that C++ allows me to build up to objects without needing to have a dummy class in the meantime is quite helpful.

We're only in our third full week of class so far, and we're just getting started on Java.  So I don't know yet how well this experiment will work once we have the two languages going side by side.  But I can say that it has been very beneficial to be able to approach the course using the problem-solving perspective of Think Like a Programmer and the slightly lower level view that C++ allows for things like how variables and arrays are stored in memory.  If this continues working well, I think this could be a winner.

I'll be soliciting anonymous feedback after a couple of weeks of using both languages, and hope to report back after I get some data from students.  Eventually I'll also share more details about the course design itself.

In the meantime, I wold love to hear your opinion - does this approach have potential, or do you see it as a disaster waiting to happen?

Monday, September 22, 2014

How Beyond the Code Attendees Found Their Spark with Anita's Quilt

Recently, Shopify put on a super cool conference called Beyond the Code.  Hosted at the Ottawa Convention Centre, the event's main goal was to highlight the role of women in technology.  All types of folks were there,  from devs to designers and the audience was more than half female!

I was lucky enough to run a lunchtime workshop called Find Your Spark with Anita's Quilt.  Some of my fellow Quilters developed this workshop, so I had a good base to start from.  The general layout we used was to sort people into tables as they came in (we used chocolates!), then have them introduce themselves to their table mates, pick and read a story from the Find Your Spark! page, and  talk about the stories using the discussion questions we provided them (now also on the Find Your Spark! page).  After the discussion, we had a few tables share their biggest takeaways (there wasn't enough time to go through all tables let alone all questions).

It was an enjoyable way to spend lunch and meet some new people, but the thing I was most excited for was to hear what the participants actually got out of reading the stories.  I have been working hard to curate a lot of the great content on Anita's Quilt, so of course I wanted to know whether it has been meaningful and even useful to readers.

I was really impressed with the insights that came out of the discussion.  A few key issues were brought up:
  • One group noticed the prevalence of the imposter syndrome, that feeling you get that makes you think you don't deserve to be where you are and that everybody's going to find out any day now.
  • Another group pointed out that a lot of the stories are about how somebody corrected course when their life got back on track.  Realizing this allows the reader to see how others did in case they ever face the same situation.
  • The fear of failure was a big theme.  That lead to discussion on the importance of a support network of friends, family, and mentors/sponsors that can help you lose the fear of failing.
  • The last group brought up the issue of the kind of language women tend to use, and how it often portrays less confidence, or attributes success to factors outside of their own good work.
It's almost as though we went through a checklist of common issues facing women in tech!

If all this sounds intriguing to you, or you could just use a really good story to get inspired, be sure to check out the Anita's Quilt Story Campaigns archive,  or follow the Find Your Spark! model to choose a story and think about the discussion questions.  Let me know what you get out of the stories you read!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Cool New Science Show for Kids on TVO

I recently checked out the pilot episode for a new science show that premiered on TVO called Annedroids.  Although I found one of the characters overly annoying, I was definitely a fan of the android creator Anne.  The show nicely integrated topics like the scientific method and discussion of electricity, even if their specific use of lightning to power up an android seemed a bit far fetched.  The animated androids were quite well done.  Overall, I'd say this is worth checking out, especially if you have kids you want to introduce to science!

Here's some info from the press kit:
“Annedroids” features photo-real CGI android characters in a gritty live action world. It's a series that celebrates science, technology, engineering and math and does it all through the lens of an 11-year old girl. There's nothing Anne likes more than getting her hands dirty to make things, breaking things apart to see how they work, and mixing things together to see that happens. Anne takes the stereotype of a typical tween girl and busts it right open.

Anne likes to push the boundaries of what’s scientifically possible. This is a girl who’s built three androids on her own: PAL, who is fascinated by everything and loves asking questions; EYES, whose ability to see things from all angles can get him into trouble; and HAND, who’s strong and dependable but a little bit clumsy. Anne’s experiments always lead to unforeseen complications, hijinks and misadventures. And that’s where Anne’s assistants Nick and Shania come in – Nick and Shania have an uncanny way of figuring out the real life solutions to Anne’s scientific problems. Needless to say, when Anne, Nick, Shania and the androids work together, the results are far from predictable.

“ANNEDROIDS” premieres August 25th at 5:30 p.m. ET on TVO, and July 25th on Amazon Prime Instant Video (US and UK). The series will also air in 2014 on The Knowledge Network in BC, and in French on Société Radio-Canada SRC. Internationally, “ANNEDROIDS” will air on KiKA in Germany, NRK Norway, SVT in Sweden, Horizonte Conteudos and Globostat in Brazil, and Discovery Asia. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Be a GHC Community Volunteer and Change Your Life

You should sign up to be a volunteer community note-taker or blogger by our new deadline of September 8.  It could change your life! Seriously!

I started attending the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing in 2008, and have only missed a single year since (I was too pregnant to fly).  I started off as a volunteer blogger, like you might be considering doing now.  My good work opened the door to becoming lead blogger and eventually co-chair of the Communities Committee.  It opened up a lot of opportunities, including joining the Advisory Board for the Anita Borg Institute, who puts on the conference.

Now, your path will likely be different than mine, but I hope you are convinced that good things can happen.  Here are some other benefits to becoming a volunteer:
  • Provided you contribute three session blog posts or notes on the wiki, you will get a ribbon to wear on your badge.  Ribbons are coveted at the conference, and the more you have the better!
  • You were probably going to blog, tweet, and pin anyway, so why not get recognized for your efforts?
  • Blogging or note-taking is a great way to give back to the community if you've been funded to attend the conference.
  • You will make some wonderful new contacts.  Some will be very useful professionally, and some will become great friends.  It's quite fun having someone to visit no matter where you travel in North America!
  • You can feel good about bringing the conference to those who can't make the sessions they want to, and those who can't make it to the conference at all.
Ready to sign up? Here's the official info:
Every year, GHC has a vibrant and active community of bloggers and note-takers. With an amazing schedule this year, we do our best to cover as many sessions as possible. How about taking notes or blogging about a session? Join other GHC community volunteers to capture presentations, workshops, poster sessions and more.

Friday, August 29, 2014

This Year's Design for 'Computers for Arts and Social Science Students'

I've been working on our non-majors computing course for a while now.  Last year was the first time I got to try it with a large group (440 students!), and also the first time I tried using Python.  I have since refined it to the following design.  I will report how it went at the end of the semester, but I have a great set of TAs and am optimistic about using turtle in assignments to make programming a bit less daunting.

 We're not using the robot turtle, but wouldn't it be fun? Image from Wikipedia

This course design lives on my portfolio site, and will be updated there as time goes on.


This course is currently undergoing a transformation.  It has traditionally taught basic office software usage in a step-by-step workshop style.  The new version focuses on computational thinking skills by teaching basic programming concepts in Python and then applying them to understanding more advanced functions of the same software previously covered in detail.  Instead of learning a laundry list of programming concepts, however, the concepts are embedded in four relatable general contexts (see topic list below).

A new calendar course name and description, which I developed, is up for approval Fall 2014.

Learning Objectives

By the end of the course, students will:
  1. Develop an appreciation of computer science.
    1. Understand what computer science is.
    2. See how computer science can help solve problems in arts and social sciences
    3. Learn how computer science can help you by automating boring, repetitive, or error-prone tasks.    
  2. Develop computational thinking skills.
    1. Learn how information is stored on a computer.
    2. Learn basic programming concepts (variables, if statements, loops, and functions) and write simple programs using these concepts.
    3. Learn how to formulate searching and sorting problems in a way a computer can solve them, and understand the efficiency of the solutions.
  3. Develop an advanced understanding of useful software packages by applying computational thinking skills.
    1. Apply an understanding of variables to effective use of word processing software.
    2. Apply an understanding of variables, if statements, and functions to effective use of spreadsheet software.
    3. Apply an understanding of variables and references to database software.

Many topics have a context in which the concepts are placed.  For example, for conditionals and repetition, we discuss how the logic would look for a robot that can find its own way out of a maze.  We start with just the ideas, such as how to break the right-hand rule down into its constituent parts, then see how to implement if statements and while loops in snippets of Python later on.
  1. Introduction
    1. Course intro
    2. What is computer science?
    3. What is computational thinking?
  2. Binary Numbers and Data Representation: How Photography Went Digital
    1. Image representation
    2. Binary numbers
    3. Bits and bytes in memory
    4. Using the Python interactive shell
  3. Conditionals and Repetition: Helping a Robot Find Its Way
    1. Boolean expressions
    2. If, else, elif
    3. while loops
  4. Data Structures: Making Stories Interactive
    1. Data types and variables
    2. Lists
    3. Dictionaries
    4. References and simple graphs
  5. Searching and Sorting Algorithms: Managing a Bookstore More Efficiently
    1. Searching: linear, binary, hash
    2. Sorting: insertion, selection, quick
  6. Applying Computational Thinking to Word, Excel, and Access
  7. Miscellaneous applications of computational thinking / Python
    1. E.g. PyschoPy, RenPy, etc
Assignment Topics
  1. Computer science, computational thinking, binary numbers
  2. Image and text representation, first Python turtle program
  3. Python turtle programs with if statements, loops, and variables
  4. Searching and sorting (conceptual), Python turtle program with a user-defined function
  5. Word, Excel, Access

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gram's House Project Team Receives Two NSF Pathways Grants!

Gram's House is a research project I started several years ago with a prototype originally designed for Microsoft's Imagine Cup competition.  Since then, a core research team has formed around the project: me (Carleton University), Elisabeth Gee (Arizona State University), Carolee Stewart-Gardiner (Kean University), Gillian Smith (Northeastern University) and Casper Harteveld (Northeastern University).

We just got awarded two NSF Pathways grants for the Advancing Informal STEM Learning program!

The Role of Story in Games to Teach Computer Science Concepts to Middle School Girls

This project is being co-lead by Elisabeth Gee and Carolee Stewart-Gardiner.  Since I'm not a research faculty member, I am participating as a contractor.  We are going to dive deeper into determining the effect of story in educational games that teach computer science to middle school girls.  This will extend previous work I did with a study during my mini-course a couple of years back.
As part of its overall strategy to enhance learning in informal environments, the Advancing Informal STEM Learning (AISL) program funds innovative resources for use in a variety of settings. Nationally, the US has a shortage of computer scientists; a big part of this problem is that girls are discouraged from learning computer science at a very young age. This project tries to address this problem by creating a videogame specifically oriented towards getting middle school girls interested in learning computer science concepts outside traditional programming classes. Based on evidence that stories provide a compelling way to present complicated technical subjects and that girls in particular respond to technology careers as a way to help others, the project is building a videogame called "Gram's House" in which social workers intend to move a fictional grandmother to a retirement home unless the player can outfit her home with sufficient technology for her to remain independent. Solving puzzles in the game requires learning core computer science concepts. Research studies will be conducted to determine whether the videogame is effective at getting girls interested in computer science, at teaching computer science concepts, and whether using stories makes videogames more effective for learning.
This project based on an earlier successful prototype uses an iterative research-based design process including paper prototyping, playtesting, and focus groups (N=20) to create age appropriate activities, based on the CS Unplugged series, that support learning concepts from the Data, Internet, Algorithms, and Abstraction sections of the high-school level CS Principles curriculum. A quantitative, quasi-experimental design will be used to determine the overall effectiveness of teaching CS concepts under three types of game conditions: (a) games alone, (b) games with fictional settings, and (c) games with stories. A novel assessment instrument will be developed to assess content learning and qualitative observation using a standard observation protocol will be used to gauge interest and engagement. 70-80 middle school girls will be recruited for afterschool participation in the study in two states. As part of the dissemination efforts, a facilitator's guide, rule book, and materials such as maps and storyboards will be created and shared with the game. In addition, a workshop for computer science and other teachers who are interested in using games to teach CS concepts will be conducted.
(Project link on NSF website.)

GrACE: A Procedurally Generated Puzzle Game to Stimulate Mindful and Collaborative Informal Learning to Transform Computer Science Education

The PCG project, as I like to call it (where PCG stands for procedurally generated content), is being lead by Gillian Smith and Casper Harteveld.  They want to learn more about how best to generate puzzles that teach high level computer science concepts, and whether players will learn more about the concepts when discussing how puzzles are generated in an attempt to help one another solve them.
Northeastern University will design, test, and study GrACE, a procedurally generated puzzle game for teaching computer science to middle school students, in partnership with the Northeastern Center for STEM Education and the South End Technology Center. The Principal Investigators will study the effect of computer generated games on students' development of algorithmic and computational thinking skills and their change of perception about computer science through the game's gender-inclusive, minds-on, and collaborative learning environment. The teaching method has potential to significantly advance the state of the art in both game-based learning design and yield insights for gender-inclusive teaching and learning that could have broad impact on advancing the field of computer science education.

Development and evaluation of GrACE will consist of two, year-long research phases, each with its own research question. The first, design and development, phase will focus on how to design a gender-inclusive, educational puzzle game that fosters algorithmic thinking and positive attitude change towards computer science. The content generator will be created using Answer Set Programming, a powerful approach that involves the declarative specification of the design space of the puzzles. The second phase will be an evaluation that studies, by means of a mixed-methods experimental design, the effectiveness of incorporating procedural content generation into an educational game, and specifically whether such a game strategy stimulates and improves minds-on, collaborative learning. Additionally, the project will explore two core issues in developing multiplayer, collaborative educational games targeted at middle school students: what typical face-to-face interactions foster collaborative learning, and what gender differences exist in how students play and learn from the game. The project will reach approximately 100 students in the Boston area, with long-term goals of reaching students worldwide, once the game has been tested with a local audience. Results of the project will yield a new educational puzzle game that can teach algorithmic thinking and effect attitude change regarding computer science. Through the process of creating a gender-inclusive game to teach computer science, it will provide guidelines for future educational game projects. Beyond these individual project deliverables, it will improve our understanding of the potential for procedural content generation to transform education, through its development of a new technique for generating game content based on supplying educational objectives.
(Project link on NSF website.)

Monday, August 18, 2014

How Small Changes in a Game's Story Can Make a Huge Difference

I recently wrote to the author of a book I love, Think Like a Programmer.  I had wanted to ask some questions related to using the book for one of our first year classes. But it turned out that V. Anton Spraul also happens to be interested in stories in games, the topic of my thesis.

Leave me alone, I'm reading.
Leave me alone, I'm reading. / Hey Christine 

We had some interesting discussion on the topic after he read our Foundations of Digital Games paper on coherent emergent stories. I thought that some of his suggestions of how this sort of system could work were so spot on, I wanted to share them here.  So, with Anton's permission, here is what he said:
So I'm intrigued by your idea, especially by how it could be employed without the player knowing -- using a "tension" value to control the type or volume of music in a scene, for example. What if a game gradually lowered tension over time outside of character interaction or combat, so that a scene would actually play differently just because the player took a long walk before a key confrontation? Cool stuff. Or a game with Bioware-style dialogue interaction where certain choices were not always present, and not because certain information had previously been discovered or not, but because of the emotional state of the player avatar at that moment, as influenced by prior events? Perhaps ultimately, a game could be made which always arrives at the same scene, but the outcome of the scene is largely controlled by prior actions in a way the player wouldn't predict--so maybe the player can only shoot the final boss if he or she is angry enough to do it. (I was let down by the endings of the otherwise brilliant Deus Ex and Deus Ex: Human Revolution because they didn't depend on anything that happened five minutes before the end of the game.)
I like the tension example especially.  We had pictured using different lighting, or camera angles, depending on the path the player took previously.  For example, maybe the ending of the game is the same either way, such as the princess returning to the kingdom after "taking care of" the threat of the nearby dragon.  Simply knowing that the player befriended the dragon and learned its behaviour was a result of it protecting its child would already cause a different interpretation of the culminating scene than if the player had slayed the dragon.  But adjustments in lighting, for example, might emphasize this.  The idea that additional small changes based on tension could reflect the urgency with which the player acted seems all the more interesting!

This kind of approach is meant to allow players to have an effect on a story's outcome without the need to create much (or anything) in the way of additional assets.  I think the potential is enormous.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Google's Report on Women in Computer Science, and What it Means for Me

A couple of months ago, Google came out with a report called Women Who Choose  Computer Science — What Really Matters.  It details a study Google conducted "to identify and understand the factors that influence young women’s decisions to pursue degrees in Computer Science." The results are important to me as someone who does a lot of outreach.

Creating A+ Schools
Creating A+ Schools / Gates Foundation

According to the study, the four most influential factors when deciding to pursue computer science as a female are:
  1. Social encouragement
  2. Self perception
  3. Academic exposure
  4. Career perception
Social encouragement comes from both family and peers.  This is one reason that I see changing someone's attitude toward computer science to be a win, even if they will never consider pursuing it themselves.  At least if someone considering CS tells that now-positive-thinking person, she is more likely to say "Oh, cool!" instead of making fun.  Also interesting is how effective it is to get encouragement in extra-curricular settings, which is great for the type of outreach I tend to do.

It's not surprising that perception of one's abilities in math influence their decision to pursue CS.  What's cool to see is a confirmation that the "ultimate source" of passion comes from a love of problem solving and tinkering.  This is one aspect of CS, along with the social good you can do, that we are hoping to convey in our Gram's House project.

The report had this to say about exposure:
Early exposure to Computer Science is important because familiarity with a subject can generate interest and curiosity while establishing a sense of competency. Moreover, even a basic understanding of Computer Science provides insight into viable career paths within the field and how those careers can be leveraged to achieve personal goals.
I constantly wonder when the best time to expose girls to CS is, especially since the study showed that age of first exposure is not an influencing factor.  Middle school seems like a good place to start, since those girls are old enough to understand some interesting problems and create things with code.  If we hook them, they can choose the right courses in high school while their interest is still fresh.  But what happens when high school rolls around? Boys, cliques, popularity, competing interests... There are so many opportunities to lose them again.  I believe middle school is a good place to start, but that we need to follow up again during the high school years to reinforce the good we did earlier on.

I also believe we could be easily integrating computer science into the school subjects everyone is already taking.  The study showed that "regardless of how they were exposed, young women who had opportunities to engage in Computer Science coursework were more likely to consider a Computer Science degree than those without those opportunities." I once put together a list of how CS Unplugged activities could be used in other school subjects.  Daniel Kimball discusses similar ideas of how CS can be integrated.  Beaver Country Day School in Boston recently integrated coding into every class.  It's not impossible, and it doesn't require a stand-alone computer science class!

Exposure can come from other avenues as well.  In terms of career perceptions, the report suggests that "visibility of female role models in Computer Science and telling stories about the positive social impact careers in computing can have, can enable young women to visualize themselves in the field." This is one of the reasons for Anita's Quilt, a collection of inspirational stories from women in tech that I help with.  The stories and role models are out there, and it's now a question of how we get them to the right people.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reflections on 'Learn to Program With Python'

This past June, I designed and taught an introductory programming course through Girl Develop It! Ottawa called Learn to Program With Python.  It was a two-part course hosted at Shopify and geared toward complete beginners.  I wanted to give a solid foundation in four core programming concepts —  variables, conditionals, iteration, and functions —  using the visual context of Python's turtle module, then reinforce these concepts by building up a simple text adventure game.

You can check out the outline and delve into the detailed contents of the course here.

Overall, I'm pleased with how the two three hour sessions went.  Not only did I think that the material was about right for the length of time, it served as a test run for my arts and social science class.  I am hoping to use Turtle this fall to get my students to learn the same core programming concepts.

One negative aspect was that we had a mix of experience in attendance.  Generally those who weren't beginners would have not benefited from the course as much; I truly wanted to start from the very beginning.  Deciding how to pace the course is difficult when some students already know how to program, and just want to learn Python in particular.  It is impossible to please everyone.  That said, if I prepare myself and the TAs better for this in the future, we should be able to come up with extra challenges and things to try for those with more experience.

The general feedback was positive, and the sense of community both nights was amazing.  Alexandra sums it up well!  I think our next courses will start to delve into the core Girl Develop It tracks, which will please those with more experience.  First we need to figure out what to do about setting ourselves up properly as a foreign Girl Develop It! chapter in Canada.  I hope it doesn't take too long because it's clear there is a need for more opportunities to learn to code!

I would like to leave you with a picture one of the more experienced students Carolyn drew during the course.  She was actually a star student of mine this past year at Carleton, and came this course for a fun way to learn some Python.

The coolest part is that she showed her daughter this picture as the turtle drew it, and the daughter thought it was like magic.  Hopefully Carolyn can turn that excitement and wonder into a desire to learn some programming! :)

Thanks a million to the wonderful TAs who came out to help with this course, and to Kristyn for taking the wonderful photos you see above and in the Meetup event.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

GLS10 / Let’s Prototype: Women at the Intersection of Learning, Games, & Design

The tenth annual Games, Learning and Society Conference, held this past June in Madison, WI, featured a panel on women in gaming.  Moderated by games-journalist-turned-grad-student Amanda Ochsner, the panel featured some heavy hitters: Elisabeth Gee, Deborah Fields, Yasmin Kafai, Colleen Macklin, and Mary-Margaret Walker.

The discussion was mainly focused on how to get girls interested in both game design and computer science (but not necessarily both).  Following is a summary of some of my notes from the panel.

Image modified from original via Wikimedia 

How can educators create better mentoring opportunities for young women?

The first answer was a great one: be visible, and be outspoken.  Show why this is such an exciting time to be in games.

The experience of some panellists is that no matter how they set up workshops featuring game programming, it's always the boys who sign up.  We need to talk to teachers and actively talk to girls, personally inviting them to come.  Perhaps girls-only groups are needed (that's what I've been doing in my own outreach!).

One panellist pointed out that she was able to attract girls by featuring stories, music, and animations rather than games and programming directly.  The students don't even realize they are programming at first.  In another panellist's workshop, attendees would work on e-textiles; in this case, marketing must be done very carefully as both boys and girls hold onto stereotypes they aren't even aware of ("no sewing, circuitry or programming required").

Another challenge is that many still hold onto stereotypes about what it means to be a gamer; supposedly, only uncool gamers take game design classes.  At ASU, they are trying to infuse game design into journalism.  Foregrounding the subject matter that games are about seems to be a successful way to attract more women.

How can we approach teaching game design in ways that support a diversity of ideas and process?

In a sense, the discussion surrounding this question presented a solution to the previous one.

One of the most interesting ideas was that all art is technical - there are always technologies to learn that you use to be creative.  Hence, making games, and all the technology behind that (including programming) could be considered an arts subject.  The technical element is simply something you need to learn in order to effectively express yourself.

How might we engage young girls in game design, programming, and technology at earlier ages?

Something to remember: "We can't do it all, and we can't do it all in programs." Nonetheless, it is not difficult to find really good tools to help design programs to engage girls.  We can engage kids in actively designing and making things, and in making connections to things they care about.

One greater issue is the poor quality of many games designed for girls.  According to panellists, there is nothing in these games to get girls interested in computing and other technical pursuits.  The games have a low level of complexity.

We are often trying to get girls interested in game design and computing at the same time.  Perhaps, panellists pointed out, we should sometimes keep these types of outreach separate.  Learning about technology, for example, doesn't always have to be done through game design.  There are many other great opportunities like e-textiles.  At the same time, we don't always have to be trying to get girls interested in programming and computer science when we teach them game design.

Remember that each kid is already designer ("I designed my first games during recess").  That's a start.  Now let's talk about how games are actually made.  In the 1980's, you typed game code from a magazine to be able to play.  Everyone understood how programming worked because we had to.  Can we make programming not such a special thing?


For more, see my conference notes on this session.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

GLS10 Keynote Scot Osterweil: It's Not About the Game

When I attended the 2014 Games, Learning and Society Conference (GLS10) in beautiful Madison, Wisconsin, I did not expect to engage much with the topic of stories in games.  True, it's a hot topic these days, but I didn't think it would show up much at this venue.  Thursday's keynote speaker Scot Osterweil proved me wrong.

Osterweil, Creative Director of the Education Arcade at MIT, titled his talk "It's Not About the Game."  Though I am not confident I know for sure what he meant by this, I have two guesses: it might be related to Eric Zimmerman's Games Are Not Good For You talk, which Osterweil discussed at length; or, it could be a call to focus on the importance of narrative within games.

In part, Zimmerman's talk was trying to say that we need to just let games be games.  We should not be instrumentalizing them for other purposes (like, say, education?).  This made Osterweil realize what we are really doing as educational game designers.  We are trying to change people with technology.  In a sense, it's not unlike the reprogramming scene in A Clockwork Orange, he points out.  Is this what games are supposed to be all about?

Games are supposed to be about play, and play is all about agency.  It's what we do when we don't have to do something else.  We don't do it for some specific purpose —  not even education.  Play is about freedom: freedom to explore, freedom to fail, freedom of identity, and freedom of effort.  How many educational games actually include all of these freedoms? No game can make you play harder than you want to.

You can't just add "fun" to a math game.  If you don't find something fun to begin with, you shouldn't make a game about it.  Games are much more about building conceptual frameworks and preparing for future learning - not instructing something.

So what about narrative?

Osterweil says he grew up wanting to be a storyteller.  He noticed that the Greeks had a word, agon, that was relevant in multiple areas important in Greek culture.  Agon means competition, which has context in games (i.e., competing in the Olympics) and stories (conflict in theatre).

When we go into a game, we enter as a contestant: "we willingly submit to arbitrary rules and structures in pursuit of mastery, only if we can continue to be playful".  In other art forms, like film and theatre, we are spectators (though possibly not passive ones).  We construct knowledge differently with these two roles, and with stories in games, we can make them overlap.

In addition to being contestants and spectators, we can also be creators.  Perhaps where all three overlap is where the most powerful educational opportunities lie.

Osterweil emphasized that we as game designers need to start thinking more about the affordances of story and gameplay.  We need to start thinking more about the ways narrative is engaging our players.  Beyond this, when making games, we have to care about it ourselves; we can’t just think about what the kids want or else we'll end up giving them a creepy tree-house.  Both the creator and consumer of narrative need to be leaning forward in interest.

To read more about the keynote, you can look at my raw conference notes, the collaborative conference notes, Sam Potasz's blog post summary, and Donelle Batty's Storify of the second conference day.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Mini-Course 2014: Survey Results

After a one-year hiatus, I ran my all-girls mini-course on computer science and games again this past May.  Along with a picture of my lovely class, I wanted to share this year's pre- and post- survey results.  Note that while I compare some numbers to past courses, I did not post data from 2012 and there was not course in 2013, so neither year is mentioned.

Pre-Course Survey Results

Before we begin with our first class, I ask the girls to fill in a survey to try to capture their attitudes toward computer science.  Naturally, I hope to see a general improvement in these attitudes by the end of the course.  Here are some of the more interesting results.

"I am confident that I understand what the field of computer science is."

  • Strongly agree: 1
  • Agree:5
  • Netural/don't know: 11
  • Disagree: 2
There was less confidence about what the field is than in some previous years (e.g. 2010, where 50%  agreed to this statement in the pre-course survey).

"I would consider computer science as a good career for women in general."

  • Strongly agree: 5
  • Agree: 14
 Despite the lower confidence, there was not a single neutral response for the first time.

"I would consider computer science as a good career for me."

  • Strongly agree: 5
  • Agree: 5
  • Neutral/don't know: 9
This is the highest number of any type of 'agree,' let alone 'strongly agree.'  Could it possibly mean that the widespread efforts to get young people (especially girls) into computer science are actually starting to work? I hope so!

Post-Course Survey Results

I ask many of the same questions after the course, as well as some new ones.  Here are the most interesting responses.

"Are you glad the course was just for girls?"

  • Yes: 8
  • No: 1
  • I'm happy as long as I'm not the only girl: 10
We did our surveys before we got together with the other (mostly male) class to share our games and eat pizza.  It would be interesting to see if their responses would change after that event.

"I enjoyed learning about what computer science is really all about."

  •  Strongly agree: 12
  • Agree: 6
  • Neutral/don't know: 1
This is a great result, even considering how many came to the course open to the idea that computer science might be interesting.

"I would consider computer science a good career for me."

  •  Strongly agree: 8
  • Agree: 6
  • Neutral/don't know: 5
This is the best year-to-year result for this question that I've seen.  Even though 2011 was a good improvement over 2010, this is better still.  It is also wonderful to see so many responses move up (neutral to agree, etc).

"I am more likely to try computer science in high school or university after taking this course, or this course has confirmed my desire to do so."

  • Strongly agree: 8
  • Agree: 10
  • Neutral/don't know: 1
Fantastic.  I only hope that their next experience with CS is a good one.  (I hate that I have to worry about that!)


This year's course was not changed drastically from previous years.  We spent some more time in the lab, and had more guests talk to them.  I also skipped the section on women in the industry.  Although one person said she wished I had covered that topic in her survey comments, I have to wonder if skipping it contributed to this year's success.  (I previously wrote a bit about messaging in these sorts of workshops and courses.)  Either way, I am thrilled, and can't help but think that maybe these sorts of programs are finally going to make a difference soon at the post-secondary level.

As usual, you can read more about the course here, or take a look at the materials as presented to the girls.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Go Code Girl 2014: Impact Survey Results

This year's Go Code Girl event, which focused on programming with Python and the Raspberry Pi, was a great success.  The impact surveys the girls filled in at the end of the second day really help illustrate this.  The results are summarized in the image below, and again in text below that.

(If you'd like to take a look at the slides etc, you can do so here, keeping in mind that pacing and interaction with students is not evident from slides alone.)

I enjoyed learning about what computer science is really all about.
  • Neutral/don't know: 2
  • Agree: 16
  • Strongly agree: 9
I enjoyed leaning how to program (or learning to do new things with code if I already knew how to program).
  • Neutral/don't know: 1
  • Agree: 14
  • Strongly agree: 12
I enjoyed playing with the Raspberry Pi.
  • Disagree: 1
  • Neutral/don't know: 3
  • Agree: 15
  • Strongly agree: 8
My confidence in my ability to use and understand computers has increased.
  • Strongly disagree: 1
  • Disagree: 1
  • Neutral/don't know: 7
  • Agree: 16
  • Strongly agree: 2
My view of computer science as something to study or as a career has become more positive.
  • Disagree: 1
  • Neutral/don't know: 6
  • Agree: 15
  • Strongly agree: 5
I am more likely to consider taking computer science and/or programming courses in the future because of this workshop.
  • Disagree: 2
  • Neutral/don't know: 5
  • Agree: 14
  • Strongly agree: 6
I thought Python was a good choice for this workshop.
  • Neutral/don't know: 3
  • Agree: 21
  • Strongly agree: 3
I thought the Raspberry Pi was a good choice for this workshop:
  • Disagree: 1
  • Neutral/don't know: 5
  • Agree: 14
  • Strongly agree: 7
I felt the workshop content was clear and well explained.
  • Strongly disagree: 1
  • Neutral/don't know: 3
  • Agree: 14
  • Strongly agree: 9
I felt the workshop had the appropriate level of interactivity.
  • Disagree: 1
  • Neutral/don't know: 2
  • Agree: 15
  • Strongly agree: 9

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Python and Pi Helped Make Go Code Girl 2014 A Great Success

On the last two Saturdays of March, a group of high school girls came to both Carleton University and the University of Ottawa to learn about computer science and try their hand at coding.  This was our second annual Go Code Girl event, and thanks to Python's turtle module and the Raspberry Pi, it was even better than last year's!

Last year, we based our one-day workshop on Processing (postmortem here).  When my colleague from Ottawa U, Nathalie Vallières, suggested we try using the Raspberry Pi for our two-day workshop this year, I was both excited and scared.  Excited because I'd always wanted to try out the Pi, but scared because any time you introduce hardware, things can (and will) go wrong.

Biting the bullet, our School of Computer Science ordered some Pis to go with the set that Ottawa U already had. We decided to teach Python using the turtle module on the first day of the workshop at Ottawa U since Python seems to be the most popular language for the Pi.  We would then focus on the Pis themselves on the second day of the workshop at Carleton. In the end, both days ended up going very well.

On the first day, after introducing what computer science was all about, we started drawing with our new turtle friend.  Students typed in a minimal program in IDLE and ran it to see the magic happen.  From there, we introduced basic programming concepts one by one, leaving time in between to try some challenges or just experiment.  First came repetition, then variables, and finally booleans and if statements.

On day 2, we had the girls set up the Pis in the computer lab we normally run tutorials in (having a projector in there was really nice).  The monitors there had HDMI inputs; perfect for the Pis.  The keyboards and mice were easy to "steal" for the Pis as well.  The only problem we ran into was the power outlets mounted on the desks: sometimes, the Pis didn't seem to like the level of power coming from them.  So some girls just plugged the USB cable powering the device directly into the monitor.  Smart.

We started with a lesson on using the command line.  I was worried this would be dull for them, but starting with a pictorial representation of how they could feel like "movie-style hackers" with the command line probably helped.  They loved doing things manually at the prompt and seeing the results in the GUI file browser! I was shocked but thrilled.

After playing with the command line, I walked them through a few of the steps needed to make a text adventure game.  To be honest, I wish we had more time for that.  But they seemed to enjoy it anyway.  Once again, we encouraged them to play and experiment, so if they wanted to play with Scratch or look around on the Pi instead, that was ok too.

All in all, I'm very happy with the formula we came up with this year.  If you'd like to see the slides and other resources I posted for the girls, check them out on my website.  If you've ever done a workshop similar to this, I'd love to hear about it in the comments.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Reflections on My First Year of Teaching

I did it.  I survived my first year of teaching.  Exams are marked, and grades are submitted.  And while I still have students concerned about their results to meet with, I am finally able to breathe and spend some time reflecting on my experience.

Over the two semesters of my first year of teaching, I taught five courses, mostly for the first time.  I had more than 1000 students and around 30 TAs.  I answered countless emails and forum posts.  I assigned 32 assignments.  I gave three midterms and 7 quizzes.  I made hundreds of slides, sometimes based off of existing content, and sometimes my own.

Needless to say, a large part of this job is management — of both time and people.

It was challenging at times, there is no doubt about that.  I had to relearn a lot of the material I was teaching.  This lead to many evenings spent on preparation, especially during second semester when I had three courses I hadn't taught before.  There were times I didn't get as far as I wanted, and fumbled in class.  There were times I wanted to crawl in a hole and stay there.  But I took comfort in knowing that I would never have to teach three courses for the first time ever again.

My students were generally forgiving.  Actually, my students were amazing.  They participated in class and thanked me for my engaging teaching style.  They sent me really nice comments in email.

Sure, not all students loved me.  My style didn't suit all of them, or maybe my slip-ups frustrated them.  Understandable.  Some probably didn't want to put in the effort to get the results they wanted.  I wish I could have inspired those ones.  Maybe some I did.

The thing that makes me feel the most energized of all is thinking about how to improve for next year.  I know I need to take a different approach to teaching my arts and social science students Python.  I know I need to switch up some of the examples for my Processing class and come up with more small examples. I need to adjust how I use the animation libraries with Racket and have some ideas for how to improve the course content overall.  There's lots of talk on what to do with our second first-year programming course, and I've had fun thinking about whether we should do it in C/C++ with Think Like a Programmer.  And of course there are a million little things to get better at that I can't possibly list here.

Most of all, this past year has confirmed that teaching is what I was meant to do, and I am so thrilled to be able to come back and do it again for another year.

Monday, April 14, 2014

My FDG 2014 Cruise Ship Conference Experience

You may recall that I was going to a conference on a cruise ship in April.  Well, I'm back from Foundations of Digital Games 2014 and am happy to report that I have found another new favourite conference and community.  The conference went well and I made some wonderful friends. Win win!

It was a strange experience, being on a cruise ship for (mostly) academic purposes.  This was my first time on one, and to be honest, I actually prefer the resort experience more when it comes to vacations.  An overwhelming sense of "fake" was prevalent on the ship, and while resorts aren't necessarily better, on a cruise all you have is the boat.  No beach, no grass, etc.  I also didn't love the dark, cavernous feeling on most decks of the boat or the lengthy process to embark and debark.  Even the mall was kept dark and lit with neon lights most of the time.

But there is a big advantage to hosting a conference on a cruise ship: nobody can leave! This was really great for building community.  It was easy to find other attendees and spend some social time with them.  For example, on one of the early nights, there was a disco party happening in the mall.  At that point I was alone, wandering around, wondering what to do.

When I ran into some friends (old and new), I finally had someone to dance with, even if we were stuck with disco for quite some time.  I would not have danced disco alone, but with them, I had a blast.

I have to admit that the upper deck with the pools was a nice place to prepare for my paper presentations (lab mates, if you are reading this: pretend I prepared weeks in advance and practised at our meetings).  Sitting on a swinging chair looking out on the ocean is a good way to relieve last-minute stress.

And boy, was I stressed.  I wasn't worried about the actual presentation being good, but rather whether the audience of heavy-hitters in the stories-in-games field would think the work itself was any good.  It was a rare moment of feeling the imposter syndrome.  To make matters worse, I had two talks almost in a row! Good to get them over with, but no chance for feedback in between.

Fortunately, everything went very well.  The talk was good, and the questions afterwards were even better.  A lot of the people I was intimidated of in the first place made a point to tell me that my talk was interesting.  Later in the conference I even got to have an extended conversation with one of them, giving me both confidence and ideas.  (Learn more about what I presented if you're interested.)

After my talks and a couple of other interesting paper sessions, I escaped on my own for a bit to decompress.  The sun was starting to set, which was the perfect time to take a stroll around the boat.

The next day, the ship docked in Cozumel, Mexico, where two of my new friends and I went on a tour of Maya ruins (apparently you aren't supposed to include an "n") and visited a gorgeous beach.  I was really glad to have my talk behind me at that point as I could completely relax and enjoy it!

The last day of the cruise included more interesting talks and a lovely reception and dinner to cap it all off.  I left the following morning on a high, and already trying to figure out how to ensure I attended next year's conference.  I left feeling like I had finally found "my people," from my awesome roommate to the researchers with the same interests.  Thanks FDG, and hope to see you again soon!

Friday, March 21, 2014

Planning for Go Code Girl 2014: Python and Pis

Last year's Go Code Girl was a great success.  This year, we wanted to build on that as well as try something a bit different.  Keeping the same overall format, we're hosting two days of coding fun: the first at University of Ottawa and the second at Carleton University.

Instead of teaching the girls Processing again, we'll use the turtle module to draw fun pictures in Python, LOGO-style! Then, on day two, we're going to see what we can do with the Raspberry Pi.

I'm a big believer in teaching programming to beginners in a visual way.  Not only is it more exciting than printing text out onto a console, but it can help understand commands in a more concrete context.  In can even allow for an embodied understanding of concepts, for example by imagining yourself as the turtle moving around the screen, leaving a pen trail behind you.

It's no surprise that I'd favour using something visual to introduce Python.  But as you may know, I tend to favour Processing over Python as a first language.  Why use Python? Partly to get more first-hand experience in teaching it as a first language, and partly because it seems to be the language of choice for the Raspberry Pi.

I know that in the three hours we have on the second day, we won't be able to do that much with the Pis.  I want to try to give the girls enough knowledge and confidence to continue exploring on their own, should they wish to purchase a Pi of their own.  Thus, it's important that they know a bit of Python.

As an added bonus, I can experiment with the turtle approach for teaching programming to my arts and social science students next year.  I imagine it would be a big improvement over how I did it last fall.

I'll report back on how things went and provide a link to the workshop materials when it's all over.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Our Two FDG Papers On Games and Stories Are Now Online

Our two papers accepted to Foundations of Digital Games 2014 have been edited, improved, and uploaded.  I'd love to hear your thoughts on them.

A Framework for Coherent Emergent Stories

This paper is based on my thesis work.  The paper can be downloaded from the project page.
Crafting satisfying narratives while preserving player freedom is a longstanding challenge for computer games. The quest structure used by many games allows players to experience content nonlinearly, but risks creating disjointed stories when side quests only minimally integrate with the main story. We propose a flexible, scene-based emergent story system that reacts to the player’s actions while maintaining a reasonable amount of authorial control over the story. Based on the philosophy of story scenes as kernels or satellites, we define a minimal story graph that initially contains mostly disconnected nodes. Over time, the graph is built dynamically from offered to the player. In this paper, we describe the framework of our system and present an early prototype game as a case study. We end with a vision of how our framework could be used to create more coherent, emergent stories in games.

Chronologically Nonlinear Techniques in Traditional Media and Games

This paper was accepted as a work in progress.  A colleague of ours seem interested enough in working on it even further, which may lead to a journal paper in the future.  The paper can be downloaded from the project page.
Although stories in games have become more sophisticated over time, their use of nonlinear techniques has not yet become as prevalent as in traditional media like novels and films. Writers have largely excluded nonlinear techniques from their toolbox, possibly because of fears of introducing inconsistencies when player actions alter past events. However, as we show through a survey of common nonlinear techniques seen in television, novels, and film, games can and have avoided these inconsistencies while maintaining gameplay agency. Many players prefer a high quality static story incorporated into strong gameplay, making the insight from this discussion immediately useful in designing nonlinear game stories. We also discuss some ways in which nonlinear techniques can offer both gameplay and story agency, hopefully bringing the quality of game stories one step closer to their traditional counterparts.