Monday, 10 November 2014

CHI Play 2014: Toronto

Last month I went to the first CHI Play conference in Toronto - and it was fun :-) The full papers from the conference are openly available for a short time only so make sure to check them out here.

On the Sunday I took part in the somewhat provocatively titled "Participatory Design for Serious Game Design: Truth and Lies" workshop organised by Rilla Khaled, Mina Vasalou, Vero Vanden Abeele, and Maarten Van Mechelen. Participatory design (PD) is something I've recently become more interested in and our submission "Designing Persuasive Games through Competition" was about how PD influenced the organisation of the competition I ran at UCL earlier this year and some of the tensions that arose during the whole process. The workshop was a great experience as I got to meet a load of interesting people and to hear about different types of PD game research. And I learnt that defining PD, while a good learning experience, isn't particularly easy!

On the following day, I presented our paper on Player Strategies: Achieving Breakthroughs and Progressing in Single-player and Cooperative Games (Iacovides, Cox, Avakian & Knoll, 2014 - thanks to Anna Cox for the photo below!). The paper resulted from two UCLIC MSc projects I supervised and the conference also gave me a chance to catch up with Tom Knoll, one of my co-authors who is now at Amberlight. The paper builds upon my PhD work by looking at the types of strategies players use in an attempt to overcome breakdowns and breakthroughs. In single-player games, we found players use trial & error, experiment, stop & think, repetition and take the hint, while in coop games this extended to also include knowledge exchange, guidance and surrendering control/taking over. My favourite design suggestion from this work came from co-author Ara Avakian who suggested incorporating a "Quantum leap mode" in coop games but you'll have to read the paper to find out more about that :-)

In related work, Conor Linehan spoke about "Learning Curves: Analysing Pace and Challenge in Four Successful Puzzle Games", where learning curves refer to the structure and pace at which challenges are introduced to the player. We discussed how there might scope to combine our work as it would interesting to see how these learning curves actually map on to what players actually experience - particular in relation to more and less "successful" types of game. Essentially, it would be worth finding out out whether you see similar patterns of breakdown and breakthrough around the introduction of different mechanics and whether different types of learning curve lead to different types of strategy.

Some of the other highlights of the conference related to considering the design process e.g. Kathrin Gelring and Bob de Schutter presenting a framework for Gerontoludic design; Mina Vasalou reflecting on cultural appropriation when designing a Day of the Dead game for children; and Chad Richards considering the importance of context in developing gamification systems. Other highlights related to understanding game play practices e.g. Nicole Crenshaw highlighting the complexity of naming practices in online games; and Marcus Carter focusing on the use multiple screens to play different games at the same time. Meanwhile Zachary Toupes' categorisations of different cooperative communication mechanics (environment modifying, automated communication, immersive, expressive, emergent and attention focusing) got me thinking about how these forms of communication might relate to different kinds of player strategies.

There were also multiple presentations on games being used for different purposes such Michael Cristel discussing the development of a game for teaching children about the Cognitive Triangle concept of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and Zachary Fitz-Walter discussing the gamifying university orientation (with mixed results). At a more meta-level, I also enjoyed Marcus' second presentation on paradigms in HCI game research and I'm definitely planning on looking at the paper in more depth. In addition, there was also quite a large industry presence at the conference, where I particularly liked the idea of "guerilla techniques" for user testing mobile games (e.g. at a hot dog stand) by the team from Scopely.

The keynotes were both delivered by people in industry, though I have to admit being a little disappointed by Mike Ambinder from Valve. His talk was titled "Making the best of imperfect data" and though he talked a lot about methodologies (e.g. user testing, data analytics) he mainly seemed to be lamenting the vast amounts of data he has access too and the constraints of not being able to do "proper" research in a commercial environment. Perhaps it's the result of having a background in experimental psychology (which I have too!) but it sounded like what he mainly wanted was the ability to measure everything, tools to automate data analysis and to magically remove all forms of bias. Which is fine, I guess, but I'm not really sure about the specifics of what he was wanted to find out and a lot of "why" questions he did seem to be asking a (e.g. rationales for player choice) really felt more suited to - dare I say it? - qualitative research...

In contrast, Jason VandenBerghe, Creative Director at Ubisoft, did a really good job of showing how he had engaged in research in this area and managed to use it in a positive way. Based on work such as the Big 5 personality traits and Self Determination Theory (SDT - recently applied to video games) he presented the "Engines of Play" - this is basically a tool for considering player motivations over time and for communicating with his team. His talk clearly outlined a problem space, involved some great game examples, suggested areas for further improvement (e.g. what about players drives such as "collecting"?) and managed to be entertaining as well :-)

Oh, and I almost forgot the student game design competition! This was a really quite an impressive showcase - there were games about privacy, sexual health, and even poetry while there were plenty of multiplayer opportunities e.g. a quest game involving IRC chat (and a lot of arguing!). The winner of the competition was a very cool looking game called OHR that took place in a Machinarium inspired world and required the use of physical electronic components. Below is a photo of Anna Cox enjoying a game where you have to shout into a mobile phone mic to avoid on-screen obstacles :-) Also, in the poster session, as part of Citizen Cyberlab, Anna presented some work on RedWire, a re-mixing tool for game design.

All in all, CHI Play was a good experience - and I'm sure I've missed loads out! I'm really looking forward to next year, where it looks like I'm going to be helping organise next year's conference in London :-)

Monday, 3 November 2014

Serious experience in games

This post has been in my draft folder for ages - I actually forgot it was there for a while but I finally came back and finished it off.
So, I've been thinking more and more lately about game-play that is engaging but not exactly your traditional idea of "fun". Tim Marsh calls this sort of thing "serious experience" and points out it can be quite a good way of raising awareness and getting people to think about various topics. In terms of the recent competition that I organised for CHI+MED, I was hoping that some of the entries would go in this direction, and it was something I think the winner - Nurse's Dilemma - managed to achieve. I'm probably going to say a bit more about the competition and the judging process at some point but for now I want to focus more on the commercial games I've been playing and how they've been able to provide compelling game-play that deals with serious topics in different ways.

Possibly the first example I came across, quite a while ago now, was Hush (below). Hush was created back in 2007 by USC game design students Jamie Antonisse and Devon Johnson. Set 1994 Rwanda, during a Hutu raid on a Tutsi community but instead of being a soldier, the player takes on the role of "Liliane", a mother trying to hush her child to sleep. If the lullaby falters, the baby begins to cry, and the Hutu soldiers will discover their hiding place. This is a short but tense rhythm game that is effective in conveying a sense of dread - playing it not only affected me on an emotional level but made me want to find out more about the context it was set in. Hush has been described by Jonathan Belman and Mary Flannagan as providing "a viscerally engaging experience of the value of empathy" and critiqued as a vignette by Ian Bogost.

More recently, I played Papers, Please, after downloading in on Steam. This is a rather different sort of game, set in a fictional eastern European country where you play a border control officer. Game-play consists of checking an increasing number of documents and making sure there are no inconsistencies between the information they provide and what people say. It's a difficult game but after you get the hang of the initial mechanics, it's strangely compulsive. At the end of each day you get a summary screen where you realise your wages don't exactly go very far (see below). So before you know it, you start to appreciate the "I was only following orders’ defence” as you struggle to provide for your family. There is humour here but the intriguing narrative and game mechanics create an experience that got me thinking about another controversial subject matter - immigration, on the side of both the immigrants and border guards!

The last game I'm going to mention is Gone Home. There has been some debate over whether this is an actual game or not, but it felt like a game experience to me and one I was definitely engrossed by. You play Kaitlin Greenbriar who returns home one stormy night in the summer of 1995, after a year abroad to find there is no one home. Apart from a cryptic note from her sister Samantha, it's not clear what's happened so all you can do is explore the big old spooky mansion your family moved in while you were away to find out what's been going on. Note: spoiler alert below!

The strength of Gone Home is in it's narrative and I'm a sucker for a mystery that needs solving... Plus, I knew enough about the game to know zombies weren't going to jump out at you or anything. That said, the Fullbright team did a great job of creating a sense that something was about to happen...  I have never come across a game that even attempted to deal with a direct LGBT storyline, let alone one that managed to do it in such a sensitive way. Perhaps I'm biased, but the narrative resonated with me in a personal way that's just not happened when I've been playing a  game before. Playing it made me very glad that there are people out there who are experimenting with games as a medium and tapping into a broad range of human experience.

Monday, 6 January 2014

UCL Student Game Design Competition

Calling all student game designers!!! Do you believe that games can be more than just a bit of fun? Is designing games your thing? Do you think games can contribute to the understanding of science? If this sounds like you, we’d love to see you at the Persuasive Games Competition

The CHI+MED project (which involves researchers from Queen Mary University, City University, Swansea University and UCL) is inviting teams of students to design a game that will be made freely available on Prizes will be awarded at the final showcase, including £1000 for first place, £500 for runner up and £500 for the people’s choice. Get started by registering here for our kick-off event, which will be taking place at UCL on Feb 1st 2014. The event is only open to students (at any level of higher education, from any institution, and in any area) so student ID will be required. At least one member of each team must have attended the kick-off to take part in the competition. Please check out the details on the website (including the sources of inspiration) and make sure to share the link with others.