Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Techie's Vacation

My husband and I are taking a 3+ week vacation to the east coast of Canada this August, and because we're both computer geeks, there's no doubt we'll be lugging a bunch of techie stuff with us.  How much is too much?

iPhone 4 capture

First there's the cell phones.  We'll bring both, even though mine's the only smart phone.  His can act as an emergency backup or it can be used to call each other if needed.  Sadly, while we are in Newfoundland, neither will work because they have an incompatible network there.

But not to worry - we will bring at least one of our laptops, and can use the call-a-phone feature in GMail if we need to.  Should we bring both laptops? I'm thinking we should because I'll be using mine to process and upload photos (I'll want a mouse for that!) as well as check up on school / professional happenings.  I'm sure he'll appreciate the ability to check his own email and browse Reddit after a long day of sightseeing while I do that.

Then there's the camera gear.  We have a Nikon D90 that we just love, and four lenses to go with it.  Add to that the charger, extra battery, remote, memory cards, battery grip, flashes, and tripod and this stuff might just need its own suitcase! Plus, I just got a new underwater point-and-shoot camera for activities that aren't so DSLR friendly (particularly backpack hiking/camping).

But we can't stop there.  No no, I also have on my list my Nintendo DS for lazy day anywhere gaming opportunities, and an FM transmitter for the iPhone (stupid car stereo that doesn't have even an auxiliary jack...argh!).  Oh yes, and a car GPS since my data plan is useless in Newfoundland and possibly other more remote areas and an orienteering GPS for the backpacking excursion.

You know how some people use their vacation as a way to get away from technology? Yeah, I guess that's not us. Just don't tip off any would-be thieves about the whereabouts of our car, if you don't mind.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Women and Going Beyond the Game

While it seems to me that many more women are playing traditionally "male" video games these days, there is also a group of women who go beyond the game in ways that, according to James Paul Gee and Elisabeth Hayes, are important to 21st century learning.  An in depth look at this phenomenon and what we can learn from it is described in Women and Gaming: The Sims and 21st Century Learning.

Although not Gee's strongest work in my opinion (I'm not familiar with Hayes), this book does provoke some interesting thought on the state of education today.  I must admit, I rather enjoy reading about what's wrong with how education is done today and potential ways to improve it.  Here are some of the problems with "too many schools" as quoted directly from the summary chapter:

Too many of our schools:
  • focus on information and facts in an age when these are all cheaply available on the Internet
  • focus on standardized skills in an age where people with only standardized will be competing against lower-cost competition in China and India
  • focus on what students know in an age where skills, information, and technologies quickly go out of date
  • focus on preparing students for jobs in an age where most jobs are service jobs and do not pay well or bring people much status
  • focus on individual achievement in an age where almost all real problems, and most high-tech workplaces, demand skills in team work and collaboration
  • underutilize technology and are, indeed, frightened by it as authorities ban Internet sites, mobile devices, and games in an age where almost all deep learning recruits technology
  • treat students as consumers, and often passive ones at that, in an age when young people produce, design, modify, and make choices in their popular culture
The women discussed in the book are said to go beyond the game.  They start out as players, but then find a passion that leads them to become producers and mentors.

For example, one case study described a shut-in grandmother whose only portal to the outside world was the Internet.  When her granddaughter wanted a purple potty in the Sims game they played together, she had to learn how to make one — there weren't any ready-made purple potties available.  From there she became a renowned Sims designer and valuable community member as she helped others hone their skills.

While what these women do may sound simple to technologists, it really does demonstrate the kind of learning that we wish students would do in the classroom.  If only students could find a passion that would drive their desire to gain all the tools needed to solve the problems that mattered to them.

One of the most interesting takeaways from this book was, for me, the idea that not everyone will have a high prestige job in the knowledge market.  That's just not the way the world works - we need service workers just as much as need engineers.  But despite the fact that many jobs available may not be considered prestigious, members of society can gain prestige in other ways (even as a world renowned designer in the Sims creation communities).  I love that technology can give meaning to the life of anyone who wants to take advantage of it.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to think about different models of education and gain insight into how people use games beyond a form of entertainment.  The stories of the women they studied are also interesting in themselves.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Story in Board Games: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Imagine finding yourself in the front foyer of what is probably a haunted mansion with a few of your closest friends. There's no way out, since the front door is locked (naturally).  You begin to explore the house, discovering one new room at a time.  You might run into some unexpected circumstances, halting your exploration temporarily, or find some items that might be useful to you later.

Suddenly, something strange begins to happen.  Whatever was haunting the house makes itself known, and even worse, you find that one of your friends has betrayed you and is on its side! (Or, perhaps it is you who does the betraying!) Now it's an us-against-them game of survival where only one side can win.

This is the narrative behind the board game Betrayal at House on the Hill.  I played it earlier this week with a group of three others based on hearing that it did a decent job of setting up a non-linear narrative.  I wanted to observe how well the game mechanics and events contributed to a unique story, and to see whether I thought the game represented anything close to true interactive storytelling.

The game was amusing enough. I liked the fact that the layout of the house would always be different based on how the room tiles were 'discovered.'  The haunt phase of the game started at a random point, and there were about 50 haunt scenarios that you could end up playing.  Which haunt was chosen depended on certain state in the game, such as the last Omen card that was played.  Two books - one for the traitor, one for the heroes - gave background narrative to the haunt as well as the rules of how it would work.

Despite these nice narrative additions, the game mechanics still felt fairly disconnected from the story.  Cards in the game had their own little story bits that were completely independent from the overall story (for example, the Event cards contained isolated 'horror genre tropes' as one fellow player described it).  Maybe we were unlucky, but the connection between the current state of the game and the haunt we played was extremely minimal and almost immediately forgotten.  Game play could not affect the haunt's story in any way more complex than having a win scenario and a lose scenario (and even those weren't all that deep or interesting).

Basically, the whole story thing ended up being underwhelming.

This really makes me wonder: are there any board games that allow players to make non-obvious choices that meaningfully affect the game's narrative, giving an interactive storytelling experience? The only example I can think of is the Dungeons and Dragons genre of role playing games, where the dungeon master acts as a storytelling engine, crafting unique narratives within the rules of the current game.

It makes me wonder whether the only way to achieve interactive storytelling with a board game is to have a storytelling engine, either human or computer.  Although computer-based engines aren't nearly as good as human storytellers, I think it could be interesting to craft a game that used a mobile device to mediate a truly interactive story experience.  Otherwise, without a human mediator, I'm not sure how easy it would be to take the idea of story in board games a step further.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Featured in 'Women In Tech You Need To Follow On Twitter '

On Friday evening, I was surprised to open my email after only a few hours and find that I had over 100 unread messages.  For someone who almost always has inbox zero this was quite the anomaly! When I looked at my Twitter mentions, I figured out why.

What a pleasant surprise! I was featured in The Huffington Post's Women In Tech You Need To Follow On Twitter article.

I am listed as number twelve, but as I looked through the set of tweeters featured, I was surprised to see that I recognized very few.  I couldn't help but wonder how many were actual women in tech rather than women near tech.  Indeed, my fear was confirmed when the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology Twitter account pointed out that " list seems short on practicing technologists (tho rocks!)."

The good news is that not only do we have an awesome list of technical women on Twitter (tech-women2follow), but I also noticed that you can submit new suggestions of women to include on the original article's list! You just click "Add a Slide" and then sign in using Facebook, Twitter, or one of several other options.  (I didn't try it myself, so I'm not sure what's involved after that.) If you know some awesome women in tech who deserve to be on the list, please do go and suggest them. Or perhaps you can even add yourself!

In the meantime, I have to go think of some interesting things to tweet about.  I feel like I have a larger audience to please now and don't want to disappoint. ;)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

How Important is Interactive Storytelling in Educational Games?

Story in games.  Something we seem to be trying for, but continue to struggle with.  Perhaps it's even worse for educational games: we are told that narrative engages learners and helps to situate content, but it's not clear whether we need a full fledged story instead of just a little bit of fiction to accomplish our goals.  Worse, get it wrong, and your audience could see through it and dismiss the whole idea since they know you have an educational agenda.


I've been thinking lately about interactive storytelling.  The way that I understand it, interactive storytelling involves a story world instead of a fixed plot.  In this world are non-obvious choices that players can make to affect the overall story in a meaningful way.  There are many different story lines or plots that could emerge from a single story world.  While many games have story pieces with interactive game elements thrown in between them, I'm not convinced I can think of a game whose overall story could be truly and meaningfully affected by game play.  (See, for example, my discussion on L.A. Noire.)

Could educational games benefit from true interactive storytelling? Perhaps not all subjects need large, elaborate story worlds that focus on theme, character, and so on, but maybe the ability to affect the story would help learners make sense of a few interconnected topics.

Chris Crawford says in his book on interactive storytelling that "stories are complete patterns that communicate a special kind of knowledge to our pattern-recognizing mental modules" and that "storytelling’s value arises in an attempt to convey a complex mesh containing many linkages."  I figure giving users control over what nodes in the mesh they want to see next or letting them discover the linkages through meaningful choice must be a powerful way to learn new concepts.

It's more obvious how some subjects, like history, might benefit from the use of interactive storytelling, but it's not so clear for something like computer science.  From my extensive experience using CS Unplugged activities, I can say the use of fiction in the activities helps kids and young adults grasp what are otherwise abstract concepts much more quickly than without it.  How might a more complex game or storytelling experience enhance this understanding?

One example I have been thinking about is the activity for finite state automata.  I never tell students exactly what we're going to be learning about while describing how the activity is going to work; I just promise I'll make it clear later.  Once I start talking about pirates, nobody seems to mind.  After all the students make their way from Pirate Island to Treasure Island, recording their routes along the way, we build up a complete map on the chalk board and compare how long each of them took for their routes.

Because the pirates are only allowed to ask to use shipping lane A or B at each island (at which point the island tells them where they will end up next), the routes are actually a series of A's and B's.  With these written out, I tell the students we just made our own language, and each valid route to Treasure Island is a word in that language.  The "Pirate Code," if you will.  Then we can start talking more and more abstractly and even work through some other puzzles involving state machines that reveal interesting characteristics of the languages they represent.

I know the students understand the concept at a basic level because they are able to solve the puzzles without too much help.  But what if we wanted them to understand on a deeper level? Maybe we're working with second year university students who need to go quite a bit further with the concept, for instance.

Would designing a more elaborate pirate world that had characters with goals and motivations help? Perhaps the player would somehow have the ability to choose what map to apply to a particular situation and see the consequences of that choice reflected in the story.  It might make them think about why that happened in the context of the properties of the map they chose, and then figure out how to choose a map that would result in an outcome more to their liking the next time.  (Naturally, these maps could grow to be more complex than simply representing shipping lanes.)  Even if the story (and the player's ability to control it) only serves to focus the player's attention on important pedagogical details, it seems like it could be hugely beneficial.

Yet the question still remains: can this win come from a simpler fictional layer or a non-interactive story? I don't know the answer, but I'm starting to think that running a few experiments to find out could be very worthwhile.  (Assuming, of course, that we can figure out this whole interactive storytelling thing in games in a more reasonable way!)

Monday, July 11, 2011

So I Found this Great Learning Games Company...

Persistence pays off.  Through a long chain of events — from entering Imagine Cup to getting in touch with its head guy, to connecting with the Games for Learning Institute and attending the Games for Change festival, and finally discovering Filament Games — I am closer than ever to seeing my vision for my Gram's House project realized.

Gram's House is a game designed to change the image of computing among middle school girls and to instill confidence by teaching real computer science concepts through the game's puzzles.  The game will have a story that provides an emotional hook that shows that you can do social good with computer science.

Our Imagine Cup submission can only be called a minimal demo of the game, but one that doesn't capture even a fraction of what I envision for the final product.  I have wanted to find someone to collaborate with to see the game developed without any luck until now.  While at the Games for Change Festival, I saw a talk by the CEO of Filament Games and immediately wondered if they'd be interested in such a project.  I sent an email with hope but no expectations, but was delighted to hear back from one of the higher-ups almost right away!

I've been speaking with the company's research director and it turns out they have had their eye on a particular grant that appears to be a great fit for this project.  We are currently looking for other collaborators in the US before pursuing the grant.  We've found a few so far, but if you're a faculty member in computer science or learning science and think this project sounds interesting, let me know!

So far I'm really impressed with Filament Games.  Their philosophy is impressive and I love the research-based approach they seem to take with their games.  You can play their games online, and everything I've played so far has been high quality.  Whether this project works out or not, I hope I have the privilege of working with Filament Games at some point in the future!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Proof You Don't Need to Stick to Just MS Office for Arts and Social Science Students

My arts and social science students expected a relatively easy class that mostly taught them the ins and outs of Microsoft Office software.  They were probably pretty surprised when I told them I was going to teach them some computer science instead.  I definitely pushed them intellectually, but they rose to the challenge, and many walked away with a new found interest in computing they never expected to have.


Now that the collection of my course feedback for these arts and social science students has slowed down (and maybe stopped), I figured I could now share some of the interesting results.  Between the comments made in my informal survey and the grades the students have so far on what was by no means an "easy" exam, one can only conclude that there is absolutely no reason to stick to MS Office for a course like this.  Their grades don't plummet, and I'd be willing to bet that many of the profs who have taught this course before would be surprised to see what kinds of questions the students were able to answer.

One of the biggest wins for me, though, was actually sparking some interest in creating technology. A few of the female students told me how excited they were about using Scratch and were going to be teaching their kids, grandkids, or siblings how to use it.  Many also said they wanted to take more programming classes.  One male student told me he was considering switching altogether to computer science, and I managed to hook him up with a research assistant position with one of our HCI profs.

On the survey, I asked: Are you more likely to consider taking other programming classes (including outside of school, like the Girl Develop It program) or switching to computer science after taking this class?

Here are the results for the 21 people that completed the survey:
  • No, I am not likely to take any other programming or computer science classes: 10
  • Yes, I am now more likely to take other programming or computer science classes: 9
  • I want to. But there is no free elective for the first year: 1
  • Maybe/unsure: 1
That's about half of the respondents admitting they are interested in pursuing the topic further.  But even if not everyone wants to learn more about computer science or programming in particular, it seems many feel more confident in their computer abilities, which I also see as a win.

I asked: By the end of the course, I feel my confidence in using computers has increased.

The responses:
  • Strongly agree: 7
  • Agree: 8
  • Neutral / don't know: 5
  • Disagree: 1
  • Strongly disagree: 0
Much more than half felt they were better at using computers!

I got a lot of insight into some of the topics I chose for the course and other aspects of how the course was run, but I'll save that analysis for another day.  I still consider the course a work in progress, and my next step is to get all profs to teach some of the topics I cover, and if possible, to update the course calendar description.

I'll close this post with some of my favourite comments left in the free-text areas:
  • "It was not exactly what I was expecting but it was a challenge for me because Im terrible with any science, formulas or computers and this course helped me confront that. Im happy I took this class."
  • "I liked that this class gave a 'human' approach to computers and that we covered multiple topics."
  • "HCI was beyond what I thought computer sciences was. It gave such a meaningful and human approach to computer I never thought I would see."
  • "The videos were also a lot of fun to watch and an added bonus to learning in a more interactive way. Guest speakers were also cool."
  • "I liked how we learned a bit of everything ie. programming, word etc."
  • "I like our instructor both she and the last speaker helped me think about computer science as a more attainable area to understand and be a part of.  I enjoyed playing around in scratch."
  • "I loved all the guest speakers! Thank you for having such a great possitive attitude. I never though I would gain any computer skills and I now have a new passion for it.By far this is the best elective I took at Carleton. It was extremely valuable and helpful. Thank you for all the help! I'm looking forward to taking more computer classes or workshops. Not only has this class helped me with computer skills but it has inspired me in many other aspects. Thanks a bunch!"