Last week I went to CHI in Paris - it's been a while since I've been to a major academic conference and I seem to have gotten out of the habit of blogging so I thought I would use this as an excuse to get back into it :-) Plus there was a lot of game sessions that have got me thinking.
It all started last Sunday with the MediCHI workshop. This was a good opportunity to talk to about the work I'm doing on CHI+MED, with respect to medical device safety, and to meet others in the field. The main conference started on Monday with a keynote from Paola Antonelli from MOMA. She gave us an overview of lots of intriguing design projects that MOMA has exhibited and while no specific HCI challenges were made explicit during the talk, I was reminded about how technology, including games, can make people think. Particularly interesting examples include PIG 05049 (Christien Meindertsma) and the Menstruation Machine (Hiromi Ozaki/Sputniko!). She also mentioned their recent games collection - extra points for the inclusion of Passage :-)
In terms of the game-related talks, Erik Harpstead discussed an educational game they had developed (a single player physics game called RumbleBlocks - see below) and how they used metrics to assess learning as part of the ENGAGE project. A toolkit was presented for logging game events and that allows for a replay of game-play so player behaviour can be analysed further. This toolkit seems like it could be really useful but my main question was whether collecting this type of logging data can actually account for situations where players progress but without gaining any real understanding of the principles behind what they are doing. This concern was partially addressed during the talk when the replay analysis indicated that the gameplay mechanics actually contravened one of the learning goals (where students were not lowering the centre of their structures, even though they were building one with wider bases and that were more symmetrical). The misalignment between content and gameplay was seen to potentially explain why there was not a difference between pre and post-test regarding centre of mass and also suggested that the game needs to be redesigned to remedy this issue.
Derek Lomas' talk on optimising learning and motivation in educational games through using crowdsourcing techniques also got my attention. What was particularly interesting about this study was the huge amount of data collected (one study has 10,000 participants the other 70,000 - all who played the online math game Battleship Numberline) and the questioning of the inverted-U hypothesis regarding challenge and engagement. Basically, flow theory suggests that if something is too easy, boredom will occur and if it is too hard, you'll get frustration - so a moderate amount of challenge would be the most engaging. However, the findings from Derek's work actually suggest that people find spent the most time playing when the challenge level was lowest thus indicating that easier challenges are more engaging . Further, the studies indicated there is a trade-off between engagement and learning i.e. you can't have both... I'm going to have to read the paper for more details but there are several points here that I'd like to consider further. First, I'm questioning whether the length of time spent playing is a good measure of engagement (especially when children might be playing these games during school time - who is controlling the length of play if that is the case?). The terms engagement, motivation and enjoyment were all used interchangeably but I'm not sure they can all be reduced to amount of time spent playing. Surely I can enjoy something I play for less time more than something I might play for longer (e.g. if my motivation was to kill time)? Secondly, I want to look at how well integrated the game mechanics of Battleship Numberline are with the learning content - mainly because I don't like the idea that there needs to be a trade-off between engagement and learning! Further, given Jake Habgood's work on the importance of integrating game mechanics, flow and learning content I don't think there has to be. Finally, the authors also suggested that novelty might be more important than challenge in relation to engagement. This was particularly intriguing as I don't think it's something that has been explored in the literature on games and learning and I'm guessing there might be quite a lot to it.
Within the same session, Stephen Foster talked about designing diverse and sustainable educational games that support competition and meta-cognition. Inspired by the way Chess and Starcarft II players relfect and review their game-play, Stephen presented a game called CompetitiveSourcery based on the pre-existing CodeSpells platoform. The game requires players to compete by designing "spells" in java and using them against each other. Three users were observed over two months as they prepared as a team for a tournament - this included playing the game but also discussing strategies, bebugging each other's code and updating a team wiki. In general, this was a good example of tapping into both micro and macro involvement for the purposes of learning but I was surprised not to see any mention of Gee's discussion player affinity groups that exist around games (though Gee is mentioned in the paper). Plus, the idea that teachers should consider meta-level activities isn't entirely new (see Paul Pivec's BECTA report for the importance of the meta-game) while encourgaing discussion through having a tournament has been done before (e.g. research on Racing Academy). Also, while Stephen makes claims about the sustainability of this approach, there is always going to be an issue concerning whether all players will actually engage in the meta-level activities to the same extent. I'm not sure how you address that though...
There were several other game related sessions including Max Birk talking about the relationship between controller type and personality and Jeff Huang talking about patterns of game-play and skill in Halo. For both these talks I wanted a bit more detail on the methods so I'm going to have to add them to the pile of post-CHI papers to follow-up. In relation to the former, I was a little confused about the relationship between my "real" self, my "ideal" self and my "game" self as I'm not sure any of these can be static constructs but there may be some interesting differences to explore here (do standard controllers really make gamers more neurotic?). In relation to the latter, an awful lot of logging data was collected but I was a little disappointed that "patterns of gameplay" was more about how long people play for and how often than it was about gameplay strategies (but that's only because I'm more interested in player strategies!). Other highlights included Nicholas Graham discussing a tabletop game where one person plays the game and the other orchestrates the experience in real time i.e. builds levels and obstacles. This reminded me a little of Sleep is Death but Tabula Rasa seemed a bit more light-hearted in it's approach to foster open-ended creativity. Tamara Peyton (see below) then spoke about the alternate reality game I Love Bees and showed how leadership emerged from team-play. Interestingly, the players spontaneously used military terms and take on different roles within the team which she classified as General, Lieutenant and Private. I particularly liked that she emphasised that disjuncture can be as important as flow - essentially we should also be thinking about what it means to fail and how failing isn't necessarily a negative experience.
I also attended the SIG on Games and Entertainment and was pleased to see that there really is quite an active games community at CHI. Katherine Isbister and Regina Bernhaupt led the session but handed over the reigns of the SIG to Magy Seif-El-Nasr and Heather Desurvive. The topics that came up ranged from needing to foster links between industry and academia, introducing further games courses at next year's conference, and discussing other venues for games research. It was clear that while some people were interested in the user experience side and methods for assessing game-play others where interested in using games as research tools e.g. for the purposes of collecting data. Regarding the latter, there was a suggestion that there might be a workshop or course next year with a focus on how you might evaluate this kind of large-scale data but I think that will depend on whether someone volunteers to run it! I enjoyed the session overall and found a good way to see the range of game-related interests across the CHI community.
Ok, I think that's enough for today. There is still plenty more to write but I'm going to have to leave it for another post! For now I'm going to leave you with a pic of Charlene Jennett hugging a bear to make one jump on screen :-)