Friday, March 29, 2013

'Go Code Girl' Processing Workshop Registration is Open!

I'm pumped that registration is open for a workshop I'll be leading April 20 at the University of Ottawa.  It's called Go Code Girl and it's going to be a programming workshop for high school girls.  I'll be basing the day off of my earlier Processing workshop for Girl Develop It with a few new tricks up my sleeve.

If you are or know of an Ottawa area high school girl, be sure to visit the registration and info site today! My guess is that spots will fill up fast.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cool Ed Tech at the Montreal Science Centre

I love science and tech museums, so while visiting Montreal this past weekend, I made sure to stop by the Montreal Science Centre.  They have some really cool stuff there, but I was most intrigued by two of their exhibits that centred completely around a single piece of ed tech.

The first such exhibit was Mission Gaia.  It contains more than 20 gaming tables with screens both on the horizontal surface and on a vertical screen perpendicular to the table.  A camera is positioned above to detect where you place rubber circular tokens and thus what decisions or moves you are making. As explained at the link above, the game is divided into three sections: "A recap of terrible ecological and human disasters," "sustainable development in a large North American city," and then an attempt at "sustainable development to the whole planet."

My friends and I played until the beginning of the third segment.  We all felt that the technology was very well done, the content was great, and that the game had potential.  Unfortunately, it was almost always unclear what your goals were in terms of the game mechanics.  We concluded that you pretty much could just "choose everything" and it didn't really matter.  The game design definitely needs some work, but an improved version could definitely go far in bringing awareness to players.

Later in the day we stopped by the idTV exhibit.  The room was set up like a mission control with tiered seating and giant screens at the front.  A group of up to four people gathers in front of a computer and puts on some chunky headphones.  With the help of a video guide, the group chooses a controversial scientific topic to research and prepare a short news video on.  The group watches news clips, arranges them into the video, and even records their own intro and outro.

This setup was far more effective to us than Mission Gaia (thanks to the latter's weak game design).  We didn't have a huge amount of time, so we just watched a few of the clips and then somewhat randomly put them together into our little video.  Even then, we could see there were differing points of view and even opportunities to decide which videos to trust (for example, not the political scientist talking about biology).  We can really see how students that spent the full half hour with their topic would learn a lot about it and form their own informed opinions.

Overall, I really applaud the Centre for managing to make everything interactive yet still compelling.  I wish all museums, whether about science or something else, could do the same.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Story Graph Example Inspired by The Paper Bag Princess

Without giving too much away, I wanted to share an early example of the types of story graphs I'm working on for my thesis.  This was my first example, and it's inspired by Robert Munsch's Paper Bag Princess.

Without even telling you what all the colours and notations mean, you can probably gather that there are some nodes that must be seen in a particular order, and others that can be seen any time.

Eventually my examples will have much more of the latter type.  The end goal is to be able to decide which nodes should be available in the first place according to the player's current state in the game, and then to dynamically modify the scenes in small, simple ways to ensure they make sense and connect back to previously seen nodes.

Hopefully, this will result in more open and coherent emergent stories in games.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Framing Devices With an Interactive Twist

You may recall that I recommended inklewriter as one tool for testing story ideas.  I recently found an interesting piece of interactive fiction made with it and I found it rather interesting.  It's called First Draft of a Revolution, and its format is quite different from anything I've seen before (though, to be perfectly honest, I'm not well versed in the realm of non-game interactive fiction pieces!).

The story is presented as a series of letters written between the main characters.  This isn't anything new; framing devices have been used for ages.  But here's the twist: through a series of clicks you get into the letter writers' heads, seeing their thought process as they write and rewrite their letter until you decide it's ready to send.

For example, in the image above, Juliette has made a list of the things she wants to say in her letter.  You click on each item and see a note pop up that ponders what to do next.  The notes seem to offer choices at first, but really there is only one option you can pick to continue.

I thought this was rather effective.  It would pretty boring reading about each character changing their mind and rewriting.  I don't need the explanation of what they're doing when it's the same thing over and over.

So what makes the story interactive? You can sometimes send letters without clicking on everything, though ultimately this doesn't actually change the story.  You can also choose what order you reveal the information to yourself.  As the inkle blog says about the piece:
But do the choices affect the story? Yes. Of course they do. Partly because the choices are being remembered by the other data-collecting system in action during the game, which is the one that sits between your ears. And partly because you’re performing the act of choosing.  The indecision of the characters, expressed through your choices and changes, changes everything. It’s a little like the way an actor’s reading of a line in a play changes the way the scene is experienced. Each performance is different even though each telling is the same. A gripping play isn’t about control, but it isn’t passive either – it’s electrifying, because every second is alive with possibility. Drama arises from the space between one second and the next, quite regardless of whether we’re in a screwball comedy where anything can happen, or a tragedy where a bleak fate was prophesied in Scene One.
The story doesn't take too long to get through, and while I would have liked it to go a bit further into the results of the risky move our heroine Juliette made, I also would have found doing much more clicking to reveal the letter to get a little tedious.  Overall, I recommend checking it out.

Friday, March 15, 2013

This Year's Grace Hopper Submissions

Tonight is the deadline for the 2013 edition of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing's Call for Participation.  Although I wasn't sure I was going to submit anything this year, I ended up submitting twice! Here are the abstracts...

Gram’s House: Encouraging Girls to Consider Computer Science Through Games

Gail Carmichael, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Carolee Stewart-Gardiner, Kean University, Union, New Jersey
Gillian Smith, Northeastern University, Boston, Massachusetts

Computer science still faces a significant gender imbalance with women earning less than 20% of degrees.  To address this issue, we designed an educational computer game, Gram’s House, which aims to teach CS concepts and demonstrate how CS can be used for social good.  We will introduce the game concept, demonstrate two early prototypes, report results of a pilot study, and share our future plans, including procedural content generation.

Academic Presentations Don't Have to be Boring, Honest!

Gail Carmichael, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada
Terri Oda, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Public speaking is an important part of the academic environment: conference presentations help you communicate your work to others in your field, classroom presentations help you teach, and presentations are often a necessary part of getting and keeping any grant funding.  Unfortunately, it is a skill that few academics spend enough time honing.  This workshop will give attendees a crash course in ways to manage complex technical presentations without putting the audience to sleep, including a variety of styles, practice techniques, and refutation of some of the very bad advice often given to inexperienced academic presenters.  We want to emphasize that oral communication is not the same as written communication, and that in many ways a talk is a story about your research: figuring out that story and how to tell it is a very important part of scientific communication.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Coherent Emergent Stories

My thesis project is moving forward, which I'm thrilled about. Here's a high-level abstract that summarizes the system I am working on.

Crafting satisfying narratives while preserving player freedom of action is a longstanding challenge for computer games. Many games use a quest structure, allowing players to experience content nonlinearly. However, this risks creating disjointed stories when side quests only minimally integrate with the main story. We propose a flexible, scene-based story system that reacts dynamically to the player’s actions.

In the proposed system, stories are defined within a graph where nodes represent scenes and edges represent causality. Nodes are tagged with information including possible locations for the scene, the plans or goals connected to the scene, and the agents and objects involved in the scene. At any time, the distance from the player’s current game state to nodes in the story graph is measured according to five dimensions of nonlinearity: time, space, causality, agents involved, and the player’s goal. The system will use the distance to determine what nodes should be available at any given time. Scenes will be modified dynamically according to when and where they ultimately take place, ensuring that each node has a narrative connection to its predecessors. This system allows for potentially connected stories driven by player action, leading to a more cohesive emergent story.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Damsels in Distress

After all the terrible controversy and the failed attempts of sabotaging her Kickstarter campaign, Anita Sarkeesian's first episode of her video series on Tropes VS Women in Video Games is finally online.  It's the first instalment of a two part series on the Damsel in Distress trope, and I have to say, it's kind of depressing!

The video starts by defining what a damsel in distress is: a woman in a helpless situation must be saved by a male character.  (Unlike the guys, she is unable to be the architect of her own escape.)  She is often the main motivation for that character's quest, an integral part of his narrative arc.

The idea has been around for a long time, but the introduction of two properties in 1933 really set things in motion for the trope's use in video games: Popeye the Sailor Man, who constantly rescues Olive Oyl in his adventures, and King Kong.  When Nintendo tasked Miyamoto to design a new arcade game for the North American market, he turned to King Kong for inspiration after failing to get rights to Popeye.  Enter Donkey Kong.

One of the main problems with this trope is its objectification of women.  It sets up a subject-object dichotomy in which subjects act, objects are acted upon.  Women are objects that are kidnapped and saved.  As one of my favourite quotes from the video says, "In the game of patriarchy, women are not the opposing team. They are the ball."

Many of the examples are from older games, but part two of the video on this trope will look at more modern examples.  It also promises to highlight games that "flip the script" for female characters.  I'm looking forward to it!