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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 question (1)


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!