Monday, 21 September 2009

School of gaming starts in New York

This Guardian article on a school founded on the principles of game-based learning claims this is also "proof that games are educational". I think it's going to take more than just the school opening to support this claim though.

They are starting with just the sixth grade right now but you can check out the school website to find out more.

I'm intrigued but not sure I'm a fan of the school being called "Quest to learn" - too many images of warriors, Elves and magic coming to mind...

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

HCI 2009

Ok, so the second conference post.

The 23rd BCS (British Computing Society) HCI (Human Computer Interaction) conference was held in Cambridge last week. Anthony Dunne from the Royal College of Art began the opening keynote by asking whether we wanted to "Do you want to replace the existing normal?". Usability news has a nice summary of the talk but the gist of it seemed to be about thinking about design in terms of what could be, and how we can fit into the world, rather than in terms of what is, and how we change the world to fit us. He also presented a lot of his own and students work including ideas such as teddy bear shaped blood bags, the sentinel (below) which requires you to stare into it for a very long time in order to access your data and the cloudworks student project, which explored the idea of using nanotechnology to make clouds "rain" ice cream. It was a fascinating keynote but I can see how some people came away with the idea that this was more about producing art (and getting people to think) than about producing "good" design. I think it's definitely a good thing to encourage people to think outside the box, but I'm not sure you can ignore the fact that mostly what people want (and what makes money) is products that they can easily use, that do what they are supposed to do and that look good.

This was followed by Steve Benford talking about how to design for interaction for people's trajectories through different user experiences. He used a couple of examples from Blast Theory project like Desert Rain and Uncle Roy All Around You to discuss how these "extended hybrid structures" (involving different technological interfaces and narratives within the real and virtual world) can be unified by the realisation that they are taking the user on an extended and coherent journey which will involve transitions, negotiations and interleaving the trajectories of different participants. One of the questions afterwards noted how the approach could be applied to game design where you often have a number of potential trajectories in terms of narrative and timing, but where you also might have to consider how to interleave these when there is more than one player involved.

Other highlights include William Hudson talking about Baron-Cohen's empathising-systematising scale (though I don't think he reported anything that new in his findings since essentially it seemed that those who were in more tech related jobs were found to score more highly on the systematic scale) and Simon Robinson's presentation on the use of haptic feedback while walking (which users appreciated more than visual feedback since they could walk without having to stop and look) and Jenn Sheridan's talk on taking a DIY approach to building interactive surfaces. There was also an Open House Festival showcasing all sorts of gadgets and technology that have been developed recently including the OU's work from the e-Sense project where a blindfolded player is strapped into a vibrating "corset" which lets them know which direction the ball is coming from (see below) showcased by Jon Bird and Paul Marshall from the Computing dept.

In terms of games related stuff, the only things that came up (apart from my own talk) were during the encounter sessions. In these sessions the presenters had five minutes to introduce their subject and then we went off into different 20 minute discussion groups with two of presenters. The first session I attended included Rui Pedro Goncalves Pereira's presenting his TüISt multi-instrument interface and Gijsbert dos Santos presenting some work on using augmented reality as a conceptual design tool. The discussion group I joined after the presentations consisted of Eduardo H. Calvillo Gámez - who presented a model of the gaming experience from his PhD thesis (that I need to look at further, though he has focused on single rather than mutliplayer experiences) - and Russell Beale who talked about using a grounded theory approach to analyse video game reviews (as did Eduardo) in order to categorise what makes a good game. I think the main thing to come out of this for me was the idea of using game reviews as a source of data - while there's been some talk with my supervisors about interviewing game designers, this is something I hadn't considered before.

Though not completely game related the second encounter sessions included some work carried out by Anne Adams, also from IET - who presented some work on attention and affective issues in Second Life and Runescape - and Shazia Afzal - who introduced the notion of intentional affect when dealing with considering machine that interpret the users affective state. The discussion we had was really interesting and got me thinking not only about how you define attention (and immersion!) and affect, but also about how you can try and measure them. We also got on to talking about whether you actually really want a machine to know how you are feeling all the time, when you may not even be sure yourself! Which I guess is part of the reason for thinking about intentional affect...

Then there was my own presentation: "Exploring the link between player involvement and learning within digital games" - my first proper conference paper! (where I'm first author anyway). You can find the paper itself here, and the slides here. There was a bit of a delayed start, so I think I might have rushed the beginning a little but I soon got into it. I got a bit of a tricky question about what I meant by learning which I think threw me a bit as I've gotten to the point where I don't even question that games involve learning but I guess it depends on how you define it as a concept and what you're expectations are around it. The question did make me realise I'm going to have to be very explicit about how I do define it, especially when I am presenting outside game related circles. And that I may have to consider my titles more carefully in future, as I think a lot of people thought I was going to talk about educational games. While I think I did alright at addressing her concerns, I'm going to have to get better at justifying my interest in informal learning. Having a further discussion after the talk also made me realise that I may have to talk about learning on different levels i.e. with learning how to press the buttons at the bottom, which brings me back to the point I made in the last post about finding out a way to analyse the complexity of learning (and play) that occurs within games.

And finally, the conference ended with Bill Buxton's keynote. This was seriously good, he really did keep everyone engaged and got us to think as well. Essentially, he was arguing for the importance of being aware of our own historical socio-cultural context of technology. For instance, did you know that the first smart phone to have a single button and touch screen to be introduced was the IBM Simon? In 1994. 13 years before the iPhone. And how many people working in HCI are actually aware of this?!? The point he was making wasn't about somebody else inventing it first but that innovations can usually be traced back at least 20 years - "The future is already here - it is just unevenly distributed" (Gibson) - so the next big thing is probably already around. Obviously, the Simon didn't do well, so it's not just about the technology but about how you present the whole package. But maybe by seeing the world through different eyes, knowing enough history to build upon it and adding your own twist who knows what'll happen next?

It was a good ending to a good few days and now I have a whole long list of things I need to read up on...

Monday, 7 September 2009

JURE and EARLI 2009

I was going to write a single blog post titled "Conference season" since that is what the last two weeks have felt like, but I think it might get a stupidly long so I've decided to do two separate ones. I know I've been slack with the posting, especially about the games I've been playing, but now that I'm actually going to be in one place for more than a few days at a time I should be getting back into more regular posts.

So, first off, was EARLI (European Association for Research on Learning and Instruction) in Amsterdam where I presented a roundtable discussion at the JURE (Junior researchers of EARLI) preconference. I'm glad the other presenter at the session was doing games related research (Jantina Huizenga who is working on the Game Atelier project) and though it may not have been the main area of everyone who attended, it was useful to get some different perspectives on my work. I also somehow managed to win an award for "Best roundtable" (thanks to the Groningen votes!) so that was pretty cool :) The main things the discussion got me thinking about was in terms of how to keep interactions as natural as possible during observation sessions and also about whether there is any way I can somehow analyse the complexity of the games being played in order to distinguish between them? I think I have this theory that games like Mario Kart or Wii Fit are somehow simpler than something like Fable II or Spore but I don't really have any real way of distinguishing between them... as yet.

Now EARLI is a massive conference and there were loads of talks to do with areas of education I really don't know much about (e.g. reading and writing). There was some games related stuff, and a lot of talk about motivation, but pretty much all of it was to do with formal education. Though there was a poster by Bjorn Sjoblom on co-located gaming about studying the discourses of players playing a MMOG within an Internet cafe. I liked the fact he was focusing on the co-located aspects of play and that he was using an observational approach.

There wasn't a whole lot of talk about informal learning either and when there was, it seemed to be more about trying to bridge the informal learning experiences at museum or science centres with what goes on at schools. At JURE though, I did come across a poster presented by Marjolein van Herten about informal learning within book discussion groups and had a bit of chat with the author about how difficult it actually is to identify informal learning... I also went to a JURE talk on the computer-based educational games by Claudia Schrader who compared a high-immersive game and a low-immersive application (control) to find that the control group did a lot better on subsequent cognitive tests. Without seeing the game and application used, it's difficult to make any judgements here, but I have a suspicion that learning gains from games take longer to show up (or at least require more than a single session) and may also be retained for longer (which would need a delayed post-test). It's also possible that we are back to considering whether there is a divide between being motivated to play the game, and being motivated to learn the content.

Which brings me on to Shaaron Ainsworth's talk on intrinsic integration within serious games. She presented some work carried out by one of previous PhD students Jake Habgood about how to integrate learning material within the game being designed. The approach adopted was an experimental one where manipulations of the same game (Zombie Division see below) indicated that it is not the notion of intrinsic fantasy that is important but how you integrate the learning within the game's core mechanics. I take this to mean that there shouldn't really be a divide between learning how to play and learning what you want players to learn.

Though I know Shaaron from when I was an undergraduate at Nottingham and it's work I've come across before, it was good to be reminded of it and it made me think about what it I want to get out of my own research. I've chosen not to focus on educational games, but on commercial ones, because I don't think we have a good enough understanding of why people play them, and how this links to the amount of effort they are willing to put in to learn (and master) the game. The discussant at the session also raised some interesting point about how it's time to think about specifying what kinds of gameplay work with what kinds of learning, which seems pretty close to what I want to do. What I really want is to come up with a way to compare and contrast different games in terms of motivation, engagement and informal learning. This will hopefully have implications for how to use and design games within education, or even just mean we are able to assess the informal learning potential of different games.

Even attending talks that weren't directly related to my research area got me thinking about different things. For one, expectancy-value models of motivation kept coming up at different presentations, so I need to look more into that. Errors were also mentioned as a potential source of learning which I think could be relevant to learning during game-play. There was also some discussion of deep and surface approaches to learning, which made we whether you could classify learning within games in the same way - maybe players engaged in shallow learning with Mario Kart and deep learning with Spore? How could I assess this?

One presentation I did find particularly useful (especially because we got to talk about it afterwards) was by Ulises Xolocotzin-Eligio, a PhD student at the LSRI in Nottingham, who is examining the role of perceived emotions within computer supported collaborative learning. He has also used games (e.g. Astroversity) to explore these concepts during co-located play and has kindly forwarded me some of his work to look at in more detail. Looking over my notes for the session, I have written down "think I need to observe people more than once..." as the talk made me realise I probably do want to do more than a one-shot observation session in order to see how the processes of learning and engagement change over time.

Hmm, can see how things are starting to get more complicated in terms of what I want to do, while I haven't even begun to reflect on the HCI conference... But right now I think I need to go away and write up some sort of reading list based on the conference, before I forget it all!