Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Two Interesting Games With a Message

I found a couple of interesting games after reading Kotaku's recent article The Complicated Truth Behind Games That Want to Change the World.  One has more gameplay time than the other, but both can be experienced in a short period of time, making them worth a quick look.


The first game is called Sweatshop.  It is essentially a tower defence-style game where you place workers instead of towers to create items of knock-off clothing instead of kill enemies.  You start with a child worker that costs less than others.  As you move up through the levels, you get different types of pricier but quicker workers to place, such as a shirt maker or a hat maker.  You need to place them around the conveyor belt strategically so that they are able to finish creating and packaging each item before it reaches the end.

The thing that intrigued me about this game was whether it used procedural rhetoric to make its point.  From the Kotaku article:
The game aims to educate players on workplace conditions around the world. "I think its strength comes from putting you in the role of the manager, someone who is still a guilty party but has some capacity for empathy," she [Mattie Brice, social justice activist and game critic] explained. "The game forces you to be efficient and min/max to keep profits high, and usually has you doing some unethical things to your workers. Instead of having an artificial story put on top of a detached mechanic or so, the game twists how you already interact with tower defense and uses that to create a connection to what's going on."
So it seems there is an argument for this.  To maximize profits and thus win the game, you have to be unethical and act as they really do in sweatshops.  I think designers of games for change need to pay more attention to procedural rhetoric if we want to see more good games of this type.


Unmanned, on the other hand, is more of a story-based game experience.  The game is presented with a split screen.  In the screenshot above, which comes from the opening sequence, the main character is shown on the left asleep, and what seems to be his dream appears on the right.  Much of the time, one side of the screen is dedicated to dialog and dialog choices.  Though you can earn medals by choosing the right dialog, this example is much less game-like than Sweatshop.

Kotaku doesn't say much about this one; just that it's "nothing short of remarkable."  The story follows a man who is apparently a soldier.  He seems to be working to stop terrorist activity.  You follow him through a typical day, where at one point he's on the cell phone talking to his wife (?) about their son, and after work he's playing war games with that son.  You get a disjointed feel for his character, and you help build it through your dialog choices.  There is much left unsaid so that you fill in the blanks, and I think that is what makes this experience so potentially powerful.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Research Snapshot for Fall 2012

Now that I'm back in school full time, it's a good time to have a look at where I am research-wise.  Here are some of the projects I'm working on and what progress I've made.  (My last snapshot was from Fall 2011, before I went on maternity leave, and has more detail about some of these projects.)

Cognitive Advantages of Augmented Reality

My work in this area was finally published with a learning spin at E-Learn.  You can check out the final abstract and paper on my website or read about it on this blog to see some possible future directions others can take.

Gram's House

Since last fall, this project has moved forward a bit.  One of our team members ran a pilot project that just wrapped up.  The study compared a slightly updated version of Gram's House that tracks player stats, and a new game created by my colleague's students.  It will be very interesting to see the data that was collected during the study.

In the meantime, we are also finding some new researchers who want to try for an NSF (or other) grant to further develop the project.  We've got a few ideas on how to make our project stand out among the many trying to do things like this with games, and I'm excited to see where we go!

Although not everything is public right now, you can track the project on my website.

Teaching and Learning Computer Science With Story

This project centred on the study we did in this past year's mini-course.  The study went well and we learned some interesting things (like the fact that story had little or not benefit over context).  However, the paper we submitted to SIGCSE was not accepted.

We are in the process of deciding what to do next, but I am leaning toward taking what we learned, doing a follow up study, and submitting to next year's conference.  I am not sure if I'd like to stick to the middle school age group or try something in an undergrad class.

Nonlinear Story in Games

This is the thread of research that will be my thesis.  In fact, my supervisor liked the ideas I had put together while on leave, so I have a good, solid direction now! In a nutshell, I want to use procedural rhetoric as a way to break apart story episodes in a reasonable way, and learning theory to dynamically arrange those pieces as well as entire episodes.

Before delving too deeply into my specific ideas, however, I'm going to finish some work I started last fall.  We're looking at nonlinear stories (that is, stories whose events are presented out of chronological order) and comparing them to nonlinear stories in games.  We are trying to see why games shy away from more sophisticated uses of nonlinear stories, which may lead to new ideas on how to do it.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Passing the CU-WISE Torch

I'm one of the original founders of our Carleton University Women in Science and Engineering group.  I stayed on the exec for a few years, stepping down only when I was pregnant, since I knew I wasn't going to be there the whole year.  I was the last remaining original exec.  The transition into new leadership was tricky at first, but I couldn't be more proud of what the new generation of CU-WISE is doing!

I put a lot of effort into making CU-WISE successful and, more importantly, sustainable.  From ensuring we had an up-to-date web presence, to creating a consistent brand, to planning outreach events and events for current students, to getting our mentoring program off the ground... I did a lot.  When I left, they needed more than one person to replace me! Despite my efforts in documenting everything, it was difficult at first for those who remained to get off the ground.

After a bit of struggle last year, CU-WISE is totally rocking it this year.  We finally scored some coveted office space, which the new co-chairs have set up very nicely.  They use it to meet in person weekly, something we never did before (but should have).  One of our past execs has offered to get the mentoring program going again remotely, despite being a post-doc at another institution now.  There are several really interesting new events planned, including outreach events that build off of what I had created in the past.  Things are looking amazing.  The only thing that's needed is a few more executive members to help the current team out!

So why do I tell you all this? Yes, I did want to share my pride, but I also wanted to encourage anyone else who wonders whether all the effort is worth it.  It is! If you're trying to get a women in science and/or engineering program off the ground at your school or workplace, give it all you can reasonably give.  Document everything so others can take over later.  And if you're finding nobody is able to carry the torch at first, don't fret - persevere, and you'll see the fruits of your effort in no time.  You'll be amazed at what comes next.

Friday, October 12, 2012

My Brief Visit to E-Learn

I went to Montreal on Wednesday to present my work on what makes augmented reality good for learning (and in general, really).  The conference was the World Conference on E-Learning in Corporate, Government, Healthcare & Higher Education (or just E-Learn for short).  It was an interesting experience, but in the end, not entirely satisfying for me personally.

I only attended E-Learn for the day since it would have been difficult to bring the baby along this time, and Montreal is only 2.5 hours away on the train.  This meant that I missed all the keynotes and, because I also had to pump milk twice while there, many of the regular sessions.  Some of the sessions I did see were so poorly presented that I don't even know what they were about anymore.

I felt like I did a good job of my talk. (The slides are above, but they are fairly minimal and are missing the transitions.  If you're interested in this work, definitely check out its research page, where you can read the full paper.)  Unfortunately, it seemed that the audience wasn't quite right.  My work is more geared toward those building augmented reality systems, while the people who attended my talk seemed to be those who want to use AR.  So here I was convincing them how great AR could be for them, but had little to offer in easy, ready-for-the-classroom solutions.  I felt kind of down about it by the end.

Luckily, a few people came and talked to me later in the day, and that boosted my spirits.  Some just commented that they enjoyed the talk, and others were itching to collaborate.  For instance, the chair of the session told me he requested it because he thought my topic was interesting.  He mentioned he wanted to do something with QR codes.  Since the little QR code app I've been working on here and there is almost app-store ready, I figured we may as well try it out for his needs.  At the same time, we could try to employ the advice in the paper to help validate it experimentally.  I'm looking forward to getting in touch with him soon.  There was also a lady from Carleton that might be able to make use of my work, and we'll meet up for coffee sometime soon.

The most interesting talk I caught after my own was by one of the founders of an ed-tech company from Toronto called Spongelab.  They do educational games, but that wasn't what the talk was about.  Instead, the focus was a recently released science education content community, which is what you see when you visit the main website.  It's a place for sharing and organizing resources to use in STEM education, and is free and open for everyone to use.  It looks quite promising, though there is currently nothing for computer science and only a bit for engineering (perhaps something we can work to fix?).  If you're an educator in STEM, I recommend checking it out.

Maybe it's because I was there for such a short time, but I didn't get a lot out of attending E-Learn.  I can see why others would like it, but I doubt I'd want to go again unless I had a paper that was really well suited to their program. But that's ok - I am glad to have my AR work out there, and will look forward to the potential collaborations that come out of it!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

NSF Funding Opportunities and Effective Proposal Writing Strategies (GHC12)

Even though I'm a Canadian grad student, the Grace Hopper session on National Science Foundation (NSF) opportunities was very relevant to me.  As my collaborators and I try to put together a team and plan for my Gram's House project, we are looking toward putting in a grant application.  So at this talk, I was looking for inside tips from the panellists representing NSF that might help increase our chances of success.

The presentation gave a good overview of the various programs available from NSF, but rather than reiterate those here, I encourage you to look at the funding portion of NSF's website.  The program I am most interested in was Computing Education for the 21st Century since I thought that would be the best fit for Gram's House.

One interesting statistic on the applications for NSF grants: the percentage of women applying tends to be low, but the acceptance rate of men and women according to how many applied is more or less equal.  Turns out this is because when women are rejected, they often stop there.  But when men are rejected, they get mad, and try again. And again. However many times it takes.  I'll have to keep this in mind as we try to move our project forward.

As for strategies for success, it's important to remember there's no magic formula.  It's useful to keep in mind some of the key questions reviewers will want answered:
  • What do you intend to do?
  • How important is the work? (probably the single most important part)
  • What has already been done? (also extremely important)
  • How are you going to do the work?
  • Does it fit into the solicitation? (note that you can actually indicate a secondary program, so take advantage!)
I asked a bit about some of this after the session, and learned that, in our case, it's going to be really important to get the past work part right.  After all, many many people are trying to do things with games, and reviewers will tend to have their own favourite projects.  We don't want to miss mentioning theirs if at all possible.  Plus, many are still skeptical that girls even like to play games, so we need to make sure you dispel that myth effectively as well.

Some of the advice the presenters gave for developing your bright idea includes:
  • survey the literature - if not relevant to a particular body of work, cite it and say why it’s not relevant
  • contact other investigators working on the same subject - collaboration opportunities?
  • prepare a brief concept paper
  • discuss with colleagues and mentors
Naturally, you need to be prepared to actually carry out the project:
  • determine available resources
  • realistically assess your needs
  • develop preliminary results
    • if you don’t have preliminary results, it’s probably not going to do well
  • present to your colleagues, mentors, and students
  • present to non-experts! If a non-expert can understand, that’s a good start
  • determine possible funding sources
    • NSF responsible for 80% of funding in terms of size - seek out the other 20%
  • understand the ground rules
  • read solicitations carefully
We're working on a pilot project with Gram's House right now, and I strongly believe our results will be crucial to any potential success with our application.

The top 5 strengths of successful proposals:
  • Important, timely topics and responsive to needs
  • Expertise in the area, solid prior work
  • Sufficient detail and clear plans
  • Innovative, novel, with potential for big impact
  • Convincing broader impact
    • don’t just write about it - actually think about it and do it!
Although I have done a lot of work in the area of outreach for grade 8 girls, I don't have a large number of related publications.  I may not have the desired (provable) level of expertise.  I think finding the right partner is going to be key.  We have someone in mind that I'm going to pitch the project to soon, but if you think you're the right person, I'd love to hear from you as well!

Another couple of tips that I did not know about include the ability to speak with the program manager on the phone for advice (they encourage it!) and the ability to ask NSF for access to successfully funded applications.  I think I will do both for our project.

It is going to be an interesting experience applying for NSF funding, but if we can eventually make it happen, it will be so very worth the effort.  I am looking forward to seeing Gram's House realized in a professionally developed game and testing its impact.

Go Lean, Go Agile: Are We There Yet? (GHC12)

The concept of agile development has always fascinated me, particularly because I haven't had the opportunity yet to work on an agile team. (This despite having done five 4-month co-op terms during my undergrad.)  So, the panel presentation on lean and agile development at GHC12 was definitely on my list.

The panellists included Mario Moreira (an Agile and Configuration Management industry expert), Rae Wang (Senior Program Manager at Microsoft currently working in Exchange Online), Jill Wetzler (lead software developer and scrum master at salesforce.com), and Janet Swedal (Senior Director in the Technology organization for Thomson Reuters).  Their experience and insight was amazing.

The big theme for the talk was the challenges of adopting agile in your team.  Sometimes teams really have no choice but to go agile given the frequency of releases to customers and opportunities for feedback.  But it's not easy to implement the change; it requires an all-in buy-in from team members to the executives, for example.

The speakers explained some of the benefits of going agile: agile development encourages incremental / iterative development, adaptive planning, rapid and flexible response to change, etc… The collaboration and communication the methodology encourages is seen by some as the number one benefit.  In fact, research has shown that the communication differences between men and women all but disappear in agile teams.

An interesting issue brought up through audience questioning was that of technical debt. How do you ensure that bugs are fixed and code gets refactored when needed?  The speakers suggest taking a methodological approach: have a refactoring strategy at the beginning of a project, and turn this work into a technical story.  Refactoring and bug fixing can also be part of the 'done' criteria of a particular story.  You can also take an entire sprint to work on bugs, or rotate resources to fix bugs.  You have to make it a priority before you end up with a mountain of debt.

I know a few people who have worked on agile teams.  I found this presentation very interesting because I could see why some of the problems they were complaining about might be showing up.  For instance, one team didn't appear to be taking technical debt seriously enough.  I also wondered if all the teams I know about were actually well suited to being agile (another common thread of discussion in the presentation).  It seems that the way they divide work might be contributing to lower quality output for the sake of being agile, and it's not clear whether they work in a particularly iterative way.

But all this is mostly speculation, since I am not entirely familiar with the methodology yet.  When I get a chance, I look forward to reading up more on agile, and potentially trying to use it in my own thesis work as well as any team projects I am involved with in the future.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Lili Cheng: Creativity, Learning, and Social Software (GHC12)

Who knew a past in physical architecture would suit a career in technology research so well! Lili Cheng — general manager of Microsoft Research's FUSE labs — did! And she told us all about it in her talk at Grace Hopper today.

Lili had started her career in irrigation, worked on Canary Wharf in London, and was involved with tree-like designs for buildings in Tokyo.  She learned that your past stays with you and continues to inform you. The combination of natural and machine-made systems are unpredictable, human, and evolve over time; this idea applies to architecture and social media.

Lili gave us a whirlwind tour of the projects her group has done, including Kodu and Montage.

Kodu was inspired by the fact that kids don't make enough on PC's, but they do play a lot of games.  The group wanted to know whether they could make creating a game simple enough for five-year-olds to do it.  The kids who use the graphical, event-driven language don't learn programming per se, but they do learn logic and programming concepts.

I've known about Kodu for some time now, but never had the chance to try it.  Now that I realize it's free on the PC, I'm inspired to have another look.  Perhaps it would be a good alternative to GameMaker for my mini-course.  It seems that it's used a lot in K-12, but for some reason I don't heard about it in a concrete way very often around me.  I'm not sure what that means; either other options are more suitable or I'm just not listening to the right people to hear about it.

Montage was a neat project that I hadn't heard about before.  It works by typing in a search term, and getting back a newspaper-like collection of items about that topic.  The neat thing is that the whole thing is editable; you can change the layout and the content.  The collection includes articles, images, and Tweets found online.  You can save and share your creation with others via the So.Cl (pronounced social) site, which is technically a different project that happens to allow you to create montages in a more social way.

My first thought on Montage was that it reminded me of Paper.li, right down to the silly name and URL.  I wouldn't ever have known what Paper.li was if it weren't for the fact that others had included Tweets I'd made in their daily newspapers.  I still don't know if they curate the content manually or automatically.  I wonder if Montage is intended to be used the same way, and whether it has any similar mechanisms for allowing people whose content is included to discover the site.  If nothing else, it does look like a fun way to search and share interesting content in a Pinterest sort of way.

Hearing Lili talk about all the amazing things she and her team has done was really inspiring.  It got Andrew and I talking about putting together a five year plan that might allow us to do more interesting things in the future.  It also really encouraged me to consider trying for an internship with Microsoft Research once the baby gets older.  Maybe my varied interests will come in handy like Lili's past career did for her!

The Road to GHC12

After a one-year hiatus, I'm back at the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing! We took a road trip down to Baltimore, and despite a feverish baby and some rainy weather, we got to see some fun things.

We started off in Stowe, Vermont.  We went there because it's a popular ski resort for people in our area, given the size of the mountain and relatively short drive.
While there we drove to the top of Mount Mansfield and hiked along the top toward the summit.  We didn't make it the whole way before the rain started.  Granted, it was just a drizzle when we turned around, but with the baby on Andrew's back we didn't want to risk it getting worse. The visibility was pretty bad anyway.

On the way back down, I got a nice photo of the gorgeous fall colours. I'm glad the weather didn't completely obscure this view!

Molly's fever broke when we were done in Stowe.  On our way to Connecticut, we stopped by King Arthur Flour. Our strategy for deciding how much to buy -- we wanted a lot! -- was to ask ourselves how much it would cost to ship it to Canada if we didn't get it.

We stayed in Norwalk, Connecticut because it was halfway between Stowe and Baltimore (we didn't want to drive too long any given day because of the baby).  We stopped by the aquarium, and were happy to see that Molly actually interacted with the fish.

We made it to Baltimore late Tuesday night and are enjoying the conference very much so far.  Looking forward to posting about the awesome sessions we've attended soon!