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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.

Entries in progress (7)


Practicing on the lab

Last Friday I lead the lab group meeting for the first time since I started. I've seen other PhD students do it, and lab group members often 'use' the lab group as a testing ground for ideas and presentations, or if they have something they want to talk through. I am in the process of trying to write the questionnaire to use as my main data-gathering tool, the tool that will hopefully provide me with the vast majority of my data, so I'm a little anxious about it. Perfect for lab group feedback!

I thought pretty carefully about the structure I wanted to use. It would have been quite easy to present the games, the theory I'm looking at, and then asked them to look at the survey and lead into a discussion. I didn't do that because I felt knowing what I was looking for would affect the way they read the questionnaire. Instead I presented a little bit on three games I'm going to be looking at, then I asked them to read the questions. When the discussion around that got to the point where I felt answering the questions needed it, I went back to my slides and introduced more specifically the differences in the games (and introduced the fourth - a variant on the online game we're writing), and how I expect those differences to influence the team cohesion amongst the players.

Picking the point to go back to the theory was a little tricky, but I think it was worth doing it that way. I got some very useful feedback, some around the use of specific words, but also about thinking about who will be potentially filling out the survey. It may be that a reasonably high percentage may not have English as a first language, so some of the subtleties of the statements I've put together may be lost. That's a point that I (in my privileged English-speaking way) hadn't considered! There were a couple of contentious statements, but actually only the ones that I was already not particularly happy with, so that's not so bad. 

The other thing I've taken from the experience is that I'm reasonably confident of my background theory. I feel I can talk about it coherently, and pull the reading I've done into a shape that makes sense of what I'm looking for and at. While the lab group is a reasonably safe environment to practice in, the flip side of that is that these are my closest colleagues. If I look foolish in front of them, I still have to see them regularly for the next two years. Plenty of people have said it's actually the audience they get most nervous about - not just my lab group (who are all perfectly nice, polite, interesting and interested people) but close colleagues in general. So coming away feeling more confident was a definite plus. 

I actually feel like that was quite an important step. Now, back to that questionnaire!


Dreaming of questions

A couple of weeks ago I had a meeting with my supervisor, who asked me where my research was going (probably not unreasonably!). After I'd burbled at her for what felt like an age about all the different stuff I was reading, she sat back, and did the "hmm" noise, that I know means I've not exactly done something wrong but she's about to suggest something. 

She suggested that I had a few different angles going on, and that maybe I needed to focus some more. She then suggested a way of getting that focus: write my dream thesis abstract. Basically, I had to imagine myself at the end of my DPhil, and write down what I did (in general terms), what results I got (assuming it all went well) and what that meant. 

So, I sat down and tried to remember where I'd started from on my reading odyssey. 


(This is how I think best. Pen, paper, arrows, circles. It works for me.)

From there, I came up with a short little abstract. I emailed it off. I waited. I was told to put more detail in. I thought a bit harder. I wrote a longer abstract:

"I looked at group communication in small, newly-formed groups in a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) environment.

I did a study to examine elements of communication style used in the group formation stage, including use of paralanguage (e.g. smileys), in-world vs. external references, self-disclosure by individuals and the development of shared terms. I concentrated on text chat amongst the groups in both 'social' mode and when they were 'on-task' e.g. conducting a raid. I looked at how those communication styles contributed to the formation of group norms around the way that the group played together. I used these results to formulate some design guidelines to facilitate the group communication and ran a smaller study testing these in an online game environment written as part of the project.

My results demonstrate that group communication in the early stages of group formation are affected by the design of the interface and can be positively affected by design decisions taken to increase the salience of the group identity. The design decisions I made were to include a clear group-name next to the individual's own in the screen, in a similar font size. I provided a separate group chat window, which could have the colour changed by any member of the group to indicate that they were now 'on-task'. Some groups used this feature frequently, whilst others only turned it on if a group member felt the level or tone of chat was inappropriate.

A successful group is one that was still active at the end of the study period. The successful groups formed hierarchies ranging from formal to informal, but in all cases the members had developed clear roles in the groups. They had a collection of group terms, and understood how the rewards of team activities (such as raids) were divided amongst the group members. Many of them had standardised the level of paralanguage used, although different groups used different amounts. Many groups also established clearly different patterns between social and on-task communication styles, often with a marked increase of abbreviated terms and the proportion of in-world comments.

My original contribution is to look at online group communication in a visual but not video (MMOG) environment. "


Today I had another meeting with my supervisor. Apparently that one was fine. So from there she wanted to work backwards to a research question. We batted it around for a while, asking what kind of question would actually be interesting. After a bit (not that long actually, it was an hour meeting in total), we came up with a question that actually, I rather like. The wording may change, but at a basic level I am asking: 

Given that there are benefits to working in groups in online games, what kind of interface elements and design help groups to form and work/play together?


It feels good for me, more informatics than sociology, and less nebulous and woolly than some of my other ideas. I can imagine a shape for the next two years coming from that, and while I don't expect my dream thesis abstract to come true it has definitely been a very useful exercise. 

Also: what a relief! Not having a specific question has actually been bothering me quite a bit. I know that's not etched in stone, but now I don't feel quite so much that I'm making up the question as I write the answer. Bring it on!

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