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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.


Presenting style

There's a kind of meta game to going to conferences, and that's looking at presentation styles and slide design. Looking back over my notes from multi.player, I have left myself all sorts of comments about the speed of the presentation, the slide design, the slide contents etc. 

More recently I went to dConstruct, which is not an academic conference. It aims to be an inspirational one, with a theme to talk around rather than a specific technology to discuss and learn about. The speakers are professionals who also do a lot of presenting at conferences. I found it fascinating to see the differences in approach.

By and large, the slides were much better at dConstruct (granted at a design-oriented conference you'd hope for good slide design). There was less reliance on them, and less data displayed. In Don Norman's case, he didn't use slides at all and I don't think the presentation suffered for that. In Matthew Sheret's talk, the slides and more particularly how he moved between them (he'd hacked a toy sonic screwdriver) were a key part of the talk, but didn't distract from what he was saying. 

On the other hand, the academics had a much more rigid structure to their talks that in at least a few cases made them much clearer than those at dConstruct: 


  1. Background of topic
  2. Research questions coming from that background
  3. Methodology used to explore research questions
  4. Results and discussion.


Just like a paper, or a poster, or... well, most academic presentation I guess! 

So what have I learnt? From my time with American Express as well as what I've seen at conferences, I try to put as little as possible on my slides. They should not make sense without me there to talk around them. Putting tables of data on the slides doesn't work because a) it's almost impossible to make them legible and b) they distract people from what I'm saying. Use slides to show people things you can't say, so a picture (SINGLE picture, easy to see), not necessarily quotes. Have a structure so you know what your overall story is, although perhaps make it slightly less obvious in the talk than standing there and reading through it. 

Stylistically, dark backgrounds with light text is more robust if your room is too light. Talk at a reasonable pace, not everyone speaks English as a native and there's no need to pound people. Stay on topic - random 'surprise' slides are only really funny once. Test any tech on a machine other than the one you created the presentation on, just to make sure.

I think you have two goals as a conference presenter. You are trying to be interesting and informative (and I mean you, not your slides). If I can crack that, I'll be doing well!


Gamer identity

One of the things that lept out at me from all of the presentations at multi.player 2011 was talk of the gamer. There didn't really seem to be a single definition of what a gamer is - some people seemed to define it as anyone who played any digital games (often further sub-dividing that category based on either time spent or what types of games they play) whilst others just asked people whether they self-identified as a gamer. 

I find that second approach fascinating. The gamer stereotype as portrayed in popular culture is of an adolescent, over-weight, socially inept boy who plays in a darkened room. Gamers may like to believe that that stereotype is changing, but the reaction I got from some of my friends when I mentioned I was playing World of Warcraft says otherwise.

I've been looking at social identity theory. The basis of the theory is that we have subtly different identities based on the groups that we perceive ourselves to be a member of, and whichever is most salient at the time determines the way we act. So if I in a lab meeting, I will react to situations as I believe a lab member ought to, whereas if I'm at a cricket match my behaviour will be slightly different. Chances are it will be an unconscious switch. The key thing is "as I believe the group member ought to". I am picturing the 'perfect' group member, and modelling my behaviour on the way they react. 

There have been various experiments in papers I've read to establish the effects of this in computer-mediated communication (e.g. Spears et al, 1990; Reicher et al, 1995) and a fair few in face-to-face stuff too (e.g. Brewer, 1991; Ellemers et al, 1999). They do seem to set the salience of the group identity or the individual's identity by seemingly innocuous statements in the experimental instructions. I would therefore suggest that by asking people whether or not they are gamers, you could easily be pushing them into using a gamer identity to for the rest of the study. 

For example, Rachel Kowert is studying whether or not gamers really are socially inept. She got people to fill out the entire social skills indicator, and compared the results for gamers vs non-gamers. She found that there were differences, but only in specific areas - including reading body language. She did mention one of the potential causes was that the gamers were conforming to stereotype. I'm not sure when she asked them if they were gamers, it would be interesting to see if that question was at the end of the survey, would you get different answers? Maybe if you asked them how many hours a week they spend playing digital games? It would be interesting to marry the response to 'are you a gamer' to even how many hours they play, let alone going back to the social skills indicator responses. 

Lina Eklund did a study talking to students about the way they played games with their families. She mentioned that she found the gamers she spoke to "very reflexive". They kept describing how their gaming helped them, and called it a hobby - a much more positive word for most non-gamers. Ellemers et al (1999) found that if the group was self-selected (as these gamers seem to have done) members will display strong group loyalty even if the group does not have a positive image to outsiders. I think this suggests that gamers are aware of the negative images associated with their passtime, and try to justify it with their comments. Theory suggests that non-gamers (being still in the majority) would not feel such a strong group membership if at all.

Another common finding was that it was difficult to track down enough female participants in studies. I had a thought that because the social identity of gamer is generally male, perhaps most women don't identify with that? I did ask a couple of women if they would consider themselves gamers - one I know plays casual games for around 5-7 hours a week, and one I know plays games like WoW, Rift, etc. Both said no. The casual player felt she didn't play the right kind of games, and interestingly the other said she didn't feel she played seriously enough to use the name for herself. Neither said "but gamers are boys"! It's a long way from being a representative sample, but raises some interesting points about what people believe a gamer really is.

I'm finding the social identity theory fascinating (if slightly hard-going in places), and I've enjoyed speculating on this stuff. I'm a little concerned I have a hammer and suddenly everything's a nail! I need to keep reading... 

[Brewer, M. B. (1991). The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475-482. doi:10.1177/0146167291175001

Ellemers, N., Kortekaas, P., & Ouwerkerk, J. W. (1999). Self-categorisation, commitment to the group and group self-esteem as related but distinct aspects of social identity. European Journal of Social Psychology, 29(2-3), 371-389. doi:10.1002/(SICI)1099-0992(199903/05)29:2/3<371::AID-EJSP932>3.0.CO;2-U

Reicher, S. D., Spears, R., & Postmes, T. (1995). A Social Identity Model of Deindividuation Phenomena. European Review of Social Psychology, 6(776502344), 161-198. doi:10.1080/14792779443000049

Spears, R., Lea, M. & Lee, S., 1990. De-individuation and group polarization in computer-mediated communication. British Journal of Social Psychology, 29(2), p.121-134.]


multi.player 2011

Last week I went off to Stuttgartfor three days to attend the multi.player 2011 conference at the University of Hohenheim. I've been to a few professional conferences, but this was my first academic one. It's been about 18 years since I was last in Germany too, so my German is more than a little rusty (the conference language was English, it was just the getting around that was worrying me!). 


I had a brilliant time. It was a multi-disciplinary affair, with psychologists and sociologists much more prevelent than computer scientists (although honestly, I'm not quite sure where I sit. We're definitely the softer end of computer science, although the amount of time I spend coding puts me firmly in the technical camp. Perhaps a topic for a later post!). I heard a really wide range of talks on diverse topics including gaming addiction, the effects of rule changes on socialising, co-located playing, and (eventually) board games. I met some really interesting people from a range of places. I came across techniques from different disciplines that I hadn't come across before. 

As a result of 2.5 days of non-stop games research input, I feel like I've developed some clearer feel for where my research sits, a little bit more of what I'm actually interested in finding out, and perhaps some ideas for how to even get there. I didn't feel like a fish out of water, the reading I've done meant that I could hold my own in conversations and maybe even had some interesting ideas to add. I also got a real buzz out of it. I do love new ideas. Gets me all revved up to get back on with my work! 

I am slowly writing up my notes from most of the presentations I attended on our brain dump blog, but I do anticipate that there will be a couple of more generic posts pulling in bits and bobs over the next week here as I digest. 

More photos of Hohenheim and Plieningen can be found here - but it's just houses and greenery, no people. Seems I was too busy chatting to get my camera out when there were people around!


Inbox zero and tech-task lists: getting things done

Inbox zero has seemed totally unobtainable to me for a long time. I am the kind of person who can easily collect over 1000 emails in a work inbox, although I do try and keep my private one down to a dull roar down at around 300. I've tried filing things, but then they just get missed. So I signed up for this course more in hope than expectation if I'm honest, thinking I could do with the help but not really expecting it to stick.

The course (led by the supremely over-achieving Martin Eve - I swear he has more hours in the day than normal people) introduced the idea of using an email-based todo list (producteev.com) to clear out your inbox. His reasoning is quite simple and straightforward, but was a connection that I have never made: any mail I leave in my inbox is actually a todo item. That's why I miss things when I move them to a different folder. The emails hang around forever, because I never get around to putting any kind of date on the todo item or defining what it is I have to actually do - they just sit there, making me feel vaguely guilty and think things like 'Oh, I must get around to...'.

I can honestly say this has been a totally revolutionary idea to me. I'm now aiming to spend half an hour first thing going through my mail (I don't get a lot of new mail now, fortunately, so this includes going through some of the backlog) and clearing things quickly as I need, or if they need longer than a minute or two sending them to my todo list and filing the email somewhere practical. Emails that don't have anything for me to do but I want to keep for sentimental reasons (e.g. from family) I file, so I know where to find them. (Actually, even with the family ones I've been adding a reminder to reply. Is that bad?)

It's working a treat! I'm down from 350 to 16 emails in my personal account, and 500+ down to 209 in my uni account. This is a triumph! I've even got round to doing things like reading papers that people have sent me (or at least filing them in the right place so I can find them later), deleting reminders that are well past their deadlines, and filing project-related stuff appropriately! I'm not sure how long this will last - I haven't quite got into the habit of adding in non-email related tasks yet, and my estimates of time scales are currently pretty rubbish - but it's a great start.

Strange how a small shift in conceptual viewpoint can make such a big difference! 


Annual review

I had my first annual review last week. I feel the need to reflect on it! Review the review, as it were. 

I'm not sure if these things work the same way everywhere or even in every subject, but in Informatics at Sussex the annual review includes a student report along with a series of questionnaires for you, your supervisor and your thesis committee. The thesis committee consists of three academics, which can cause some problems for organising a date when all three are free. The questionnaires don't take too long (although I guess they could if you had enough to complain about!), but that student report was a bit of a pain. Along with the 'what have you done this year' bit, I also had to do a detailed plan of what I was intending to do next year, and a slightly less detailed plan for the year after that. And then there was the small matter of the 10,000 word research proposal and literature review. 


I know that eventually there will be a lot more than 10,000 words in my thesis. I do, really. But somehow even though I honestly did start thinking about this 10,000 words quite a long time ago they didn't really start coming together until after the whole dream abstract thing. Of course, by then I'd written 3000 words or so, most of which ended up scrapped. And there was quite a lot of panicked reading to try and fill in some gaps. But I managed to get quite a lot written and sent off to my committee even if the actual research proposal was a little like bullet points and I hadn't quite got my research aims done and possibly my 2-year plan was a bit hazy. 

Of course, what I'd forgotten was that most people haven't spent the first 6 months of their PhD coding up the framework for a game. And because that wasn't directly relevant to my research, I'd barely mentioned that in my paperwork. Fortunately two out of three of my committee members did know that. 

The meeting went ok, although apparently the third member was a bit confused about why I hadn't got my paperwork finished properly. The reading I'd done was enough, I could answer a lot of the questions put to me (although new areas were mentioned). They thought my question/research area was interesting and had a lot of potential. But there were one or two things I've learned that I wanted to note down: 

  1. I got really quite stressed in the end about this. I need to not do that. I think part of the problem was not really knowing if what I was producing was right (as in what I was supposed to be producing, not as in factually correct) or enough, so next time I need to get a little more of my supervisor's time (further out) and make sure I have something she can read well in advance. I checked my style with her, next time I need to check the content too. 
  2. When there's two things listed on the requirements (research proposal AND literature review) I must not get totally fixated on one (the literature review). Yeah, yeah, easy to say. 
  3. I need to put together a document template INCLUDING PAGENUMBERS! And use it for all of my documents. I thought I had, but I forgot the page numbers. 
  4. When asked what I've done over the last year (which is actually only 9 months anyway), I mustn't ignore 6 months of work. I should have worked it into that report and make damned sure it was clear I hadn't just been twiddling my thumbs.

I think it's been really useful for focussing my mind on the PhD/research side of the project. I really do feel like I have a better grasp on what I'm attempting. Hopefully from here on I can do a better job of balancing the programming and the research thanks to that. 

And they let me stay for the second year! Woohoo! 

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