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I'm currently working on a DPhil in HCT at the University of Sussex. This section of the website is for an on-going 'learning diary', for me to write my thoughts and notes on various courses and my thesis.


Guilty secret

There's something that I feel I should really get off my chest. You see, although I am researching games, I don't really play many. 

It's not that I don't enjoy them when I do - I liked Glitch a lot (in fact, I still look for the icon for hug over the little trees on campus, and miss my avatar in it's little rain hat). I played Waking Mars solidly, right up until I'd finished it. My partner and I play Boggle all the time (we're evenly matched, the loser tends to be the person who's more tired). And I played Drop7 so much I had to take it off my iPad or I wouldn't have got anything done. 

And that's kind of the thing. I feel like playing video games is a waste of time. I am cross with myself when I spend ages playing them, and rarely clear my schedule enough to give them the time they deserve. Glitch, for example, would have benefitted from me hanging around more. I would have met people, increased the enjoyment by participating in the social side of the game. But I just didn't find the time. I wanted to use that time to spend with my partner, not sitting next to her whilst actually being in a totally different place. 

Which is fair enough. But I spend (currently) around 3 hours a week running, and probably the same again geeking out over the stats I generate off that. Yet that doesn't feel like a waste of time. I spent long hours of my life playing cricket - a game which frequently involved (for me) long periods of sitting on the side watching (I wasn't a great bat). That didn't feel like a waste of time either. (Mostly.) I've recently taken up golf. I cannot wait to get back to the driving range to pointlessly pummel another 100 balls out into the distance (with a fairly relaxed attitude to direction, it must be said). 

It's not even the repetition of computer games that gets me. Yes, I find the grind in games like World of Warcraft to be extremely tedious (sorry), but see previous comment about hitting golf balls. Or running. Or cycling - I can cycle the same route day in, day out, and enjoy it most of the time. I don't really crave "success" - my cricket was never of the highest quality, and my golf certainly won't be either. I'm never going to set the world alight with my running. 

So I am slightly at a loss. I can't explain:

  • why I like running, or cycling, or any of the (many other) sports I've played.
  • what is so different about physical sports to computer games for me. 
  • why sports don't feel like a waste of time, when computer games do.

And that's before we even touch on the time I really waste watching TV (although I tend to knit through that, so don't consider it truly wasted).

I think the difference between sports, games and videogames is an interesting area to explore, although I feel that with some of the developments I've seen at conferences it looks like the differences will be becoming increasingly blurred. It does feel like a lot of the difference may be cultural - sports are "good for you" (although the injury count might suggest otherwise). Also, sports are hard. I've not found a computer game that taxes me in the same way. I feel like I could hit a lot of golf balls and still not get it right, but I feel like if I practice enough I'll improve, and when one goes right the satisfaction is immense. I don't get that feeling with computer games (although it might explain my brief but deep fascination with Flight of the Hamsters). It's almost as though the return is too cheap. I don't like my fun that easy. 

Maybe this is an area for future research - what's the crossover? But for now, I just have to live with going to conferences and feeling like I'm missing out because I don't play.

Now, excuse me while I check my running stats again!



I'm not sure if this is normal, but one of my biggest fears about running studies with real live people is that when I come to process the data, they'll all have decided to just spoil the questionnaire rather than answer. This fear makes me leave the pile of questionnaires untouched for far longer than necessary while I fret. Processing them only normally takes about an hour, and immediately makes me feel better, but I procrastinate about it for ages.

I just processed the questionnaires from the online game. I have 15 questionnaires, almost completely filled out. I haven't run the stats yet, but I'm not really concerned. They look like an interesting set of data compared to either of the other games I've run, and as long as I can tell a story about the outcome I am not wedded to a particular idea. I mean, that's what research is all about, isn't it?

The 'almost completely' is interesting. A couple declined to tell me their age, and one chap didn't answer two questions. So now I have to make a decision on what to do with that. But that's ok. I have data. I have a comparable amount of data to the other two conditions. I can work with that.

What a relief!


Back above the parapet

After our lab group play session the work went kind of crazy for a bit there. I am slowly surfacing, coming out from the bunker, and preparing to stick my head back above the parapet and share what's been going on. 

Quite apart from the small(!!) matter of attending CHI and getting an application and subsequent paper in for DiGRA (more soon on both, promise), we had a substantial milestone for the game and project last Sunday (19th May). Last year we offered an extra-curricular activity in the middle of the STEPS summer school programme, where particpants could come and play the Green Revolution game. This year we offered the same activity, except this year we were using our game - African Farmer. 

Of course, this meant that all of the interface problems found by the lab group had to be reduced or (preferably) eliminated. Any back-end bugs had to be squashed with extreme prejudice. As much of the functionality that could be implemented had to be, and had to work and be straightforward. The very worst bugs we could tolerate needed to have a work-around. 

We had a major interface redesign after the first lab session, with money put aside to allow us to employ asilia to give us a consistent and much lovelier look and feel. That went brilliantly, but of course meant a reasonable chunk of time to put the new assets into the game. My model/view/controller separation was good, but nothing is going to protect you from a total asset change! On top of that, the bug-fixing and testing cycle was intense, particularly for the last two weeks before Sunday. As we cleared the most obvious bugs more insidious underlying issues became apparent, and slowly, slowly we got through those too. It wasn't a case of late nights and massive hours, just constantly working at a fairly intense level for the 9.30-5.30.

(I also got a cold after CHI. I had it for 2 weeks - a definite sign that I was pushing my system a little harder than comfortable!)

My poor partner had to put up with me being almost entirely unable to form coherent, completed sentences on Friday night. But we were pretty confident that the system would be robust enough at that point for Sunday. 

And you know what? It actually was. We had 15 participants in the end, working in 7 family groups. They came from all over the place, Africa, India, South America, and even the UK. After intros and so on we played for around 3, 3.5 hours, and got through 3 game years. It got a lot faster once we'd got through the first season, but even that first season the difficulties were mostly around decision-making and not our interface. 

At the end of the last cycle our project sponsor John lead the reflective discussion, and we honestly could not have paid for better results. They mentioned almost all of the learning points you could want, decisions around schooling, better understanding of why that didn't happen much, a feel for intensification and the importance of saving seed over providing the best possible diet all came up. What didn't come up was the interface. It disappeared, in exactly the way it ought to have. 

In short, it was more successful than I have ever dared to dream it could be. 

We possibly made it a little tough - more people died than we meant. There are things we could improve, things we might need to include for a fully featured game. The poor game manager at the moment needs to constantly manipulate the database directly, rather than work with the game interface. There's still one irritating occasional bug that needs a browser refresh to clear it. But over all, it worked, it was fairly solid, and it produced the kind of learning and reflection that the table-top games have always caused. 

The only thing I can compare my feelings at the end of the day to is finishing a marathon: exhausted, proud, pleased and a little bit startled to have got there. In reality I'm probably running a 50k (or 50 mile? Hopefully not) ultra, but at least the 26.2 has broken the back of it! 

(This would also be a great time to thank the lab group, who actually came back and played the game again for us and highlighted issues we would never have found without them. Thanks everyone!)


They played it!

The lab group. They played our game! For real!

Well, kind of. Actually, we only got through two seasons (well, and the intro). In about an hour and a bit. Clearly there are some issues there, as I seriously expected it would take a maximum of about 15 minutes per season. But we had 8 people logged on simultaneously, and it did not fall down in a big heap. 

I'm not claiming there weren't errors. Mostly they were fixed by either trying to do the thing again (I really need to check my hibernate stuff, there were unclosed transactions all over the shop and I really thought I'd caught all of them) or restarting the flash player. That's clearly not acceptable, but for the first time we've ever run it as a group I'll take that. 

There was a lot of feedback around the (lack of) feedback - which I was aware of, but not quite aware how pervasive it was. I know this game intimately, it's so hard for me to work out what a new player won't know. There was also a lot of clicking on things that aren't buttons, and mis-reading things that are (exit and home didn't actually mean what people thought they meant). I still don't have drop-downs working 100% well.

So much useful stuff to see and take on board, so much coding to do! But that is a really big step. I think we've been at this for 2.5 years now, from the very first paper sketches of the screens, to our PowerPoint prototype with the Flintstones as our family members, to a static flash prototype and now finally to people logging in and playing. Quite a long journey, and a lot of code. 

What I'm most pleased about was the buzz in the group. They wanted to get past the issues, they wanted to keep playing. I have had this nagging doubt in the back of my mind that even if we made this work we would actually be creating a game that noone wants to play. So if nothing else, I am hugely reassured that this is not the case. 

I guess the next big step will be throwing that in front of people we don't know, who don't know how much effort has gone in or have to talk to us next day. I think it would be nice to iterate and show the group again, and see if we can get that playing time down. I still think that 15 mintues per season is do-able. Just need to improve that interface! 


Thesis tech 2 - BibTeX

I'm already pretty comfortable with the workflow I outlined in Thesis tech, so the next step was looking at how to reference. LaTeX and BibTeX obviously play well together, but I've been using Mendeley to store all of my references. At this stage I don't really want to swap and use BibTeX, plus the import features on Mendeley are really handy. 

Fortunately for me, Mendeley will actually export to BibTex, creating a different .bib file for each collection in my stash! This handy post on the Mendeley blog told me all I needed to know, sort of. Sadly when I looked the pictures were down, so I couldn't follow step by step. The only small problem is that you can't seem to control which collections are exported. But that's tiny. So I've created a Mendeley collection called "bib" (because that was the name of the file in the template, it's as good as any!). Anything I want to cite will get added to that collection, and the exported bib file gets updated. 

What I'm doing is exporting them to a separate folder, then copying my bib.bib file (heh, silly name) into one happy thesis folder. I figure there is slightly less chance of accidentally overwriting them then. 

The next challenge was how to actually reference them in my LaTeX document. This seems to be slightly more convoluted. Fortunately, this post from CUED (blast from my past!) gave me nice simple instructions. Being on a mac makes running BibTeX as easy as opening up a terminal and typing "bibtex {filename}". 

It has added to the number of lines in my included files that I need to comment in and out if I want to compile a chapter separately. I'm up to 6 lines now:


My text goes here


That's still not too painful.

I still have tables and figures to sort out, so I'll update as I sort those (however I do that!). For now though, this approach is still working for me.