October 17, 2006

UCI Game Workshop

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:28 pm

Michael and Noah are at a A Multi-Discipinary Approach to Computer Games at UC Irvine. We’re trading off coverage (and remember that we’re just reporting it as we hear it — don’t quote the speakers without hearing it from them). Today’s speakers come from backgrounds ranging from CSCW (Bonnie Nardi, “Liminoid Play in World of Warcraft”) to computer graphics (Bill Tomlinson, “A Technique for Improving Cross-device Graphics and Animation for Multi-Device Games”) to AI (Michael’s “Towards Game Generation”) to game design (Tracy Fullerton’s “Process of Discovery: The Night Journey Project as Game/Art Research”).

Spreading the disciplinary umbrella further, the first speaker is Walt Scacchi discussing “Computer Gaming as a Social Movement.” Walt points out that many social movements (environmental, anti-war, and Palestinian liberation are the examples) have games associated with them. We can also see “computerization movements” as social movements. He’s focused on multiplayer games played over a network. Do game players/developers view themselves as part of a reform or revolutionary movement (e.g., from instrumental to hedonistic community)? Not quite… but we see gaming-led transformations (business, education) and gaming values and alliances (“fun” work, fetishized computing, modding) and organizational centers (LAN parties, gaming conventions, clans).

Each presenter has a respondent. Walt’s is Silvia Lindtner. She looks back on previous discussions of “computerization movements” (personal computing, office automation, etc). She sees his step of calling gaming not just a computerization movement, but also a social movement, as an important step beyond seeing gaming as nerdy and toward a new framework for examining games (e.g., beyond “fun”). But she has a few questions. What does he mean by saying games are about “disembodied conflict”? What about non-conflict games like Second Life? What about the mingling and connection between gaming and my body and everyday life? Walt means to talk about how gaming allows elastic identity in ways that work-oriented network environments have not. At the simplest level, we get killed and respawn, we have multiple characters, etc. America’s Army isn’t like real combat, especially in terms of the stakes — that’s a difference in embodiment.

Next up is “America’s Army and Simulated Warfare” by Carol Burke. She started this as research into military culture, rather than into games. Her research has turned to military simulation games of computer and non-computer varieties.

Carol Burke – “America’s Army and Simulated Warfare”

Stats: 160 million hours of gameplay by 7 million players. 1.3 million have clicked through to the recruiting site. America’s Army carefully avoids graphic violence – no blood, no rotting corpses. Another conspicuous absence – no women. The army’s explanation for no women is that it would require the creation of military police qualification modules, the specialty open to women in which they are most likely to discharge a weapon, and that no such modules have yet been created. America’s Army is now being used for internal Army training, specifically for the Javelin personal missile system, and the Talan anti-IED robot. The army contracted with the figurine company, Radio Active Clown, to produce action figures based on the game. The army is using income from the action figures to fund future game-related recruitment efforts. She mentions the hostage hoax in which a photo of a US soldier being held hostage turned out to be a hoax created using an action figure. In general, the talk explores the way that game and toy culture intersect with war culture. One of the more disturbing images she presented is this Abu Ghraib Halloween costume.

The discussant, Peter Krapp, comments that the current military interest in action gaming follows a long history of strategic wargaming, and wonders how we can open the black-boxed military game experiences to rhetorical investigation.

[Michael will fill in about his presentation later.]

Next is “Liminoid Play in World of Warcraft” by Bonnie Nardi. She’s been doing immersive fieldwork since 2005, creating characters and joining guilds, gathering chatlogs and doing interviews, etc. She views WoW as more a “world” than a “game” — making money, learning trades, and many other things beyond quests. One of the things that makes WoW addictive for her is that she feels that she’s always moving her character(s) forward (unlike real life). Using all the different chat channels, having friends lists, guilds, raids, pickup groups, and other forms of sociality. Is there any significance to all this beyond entertainment? Turner on “liminoid” activities as releasing creativity — and perhaps the germ of future social developments. In WoW: knowledge management (skills, equipment, strategy, geography, etc) and great in-game information display and linkage (much better than, say, office applications) as well as massive player-created information sources outside the game (much better than in many organizations); peeking into the black box (Blizzard provides API, players create many mods that tend to be added as players level, and are required by guilds for those who raid — players share knowledge, rescript mods themselves); learing (players teach each other, rather than Blizzard’s resources being primary) her quantitative analysis reveals players answer questions fast (about 32 seconds). What’s novel is not the technologies, but the way that knowledge management, extension, and learning work together in the WoW community — suggesting this type of liminoid play as a source of new models. Also examining smaller social groups: from large guilds to small pickup groups. While in the physical world we almost never ask strangers to do something with/for us, it’s completely normal in WoW to ask strangers questions or form pickup groups (contrast with work situations where we aren’t supposed to interrupt each other, etc). Socialization across class lines seems common, at least judging by the reported jobs of members of her guild. “The glue is the game” — people love the game, and it motivates diverse groups to communicate and collaborate.

The respondent is Tom Boellstorff, who is currently working on Second Life. Three points. First, it might be interesting to start with questions of method. He was interested to see her leaving typos in chat transcripts, while he has decided to fix them (so as to not pretend that the researcher isn’t massaging the data). He’s glad to see her using participant observation, instead of just questionnaires (not designing research protocols that “purify” the data before analysis). He’s also interested in her idea that WoW is a world more than a game — he thinks that that game studies are starting to damage our ability to talk about virtual worlds, because only what is most apparent from the game perspective is visible. Just as Bartle points out that the Rose Bowl is a space, not a game, though it was designed for the purpose of game playing. Finally, he wonders, what is the “virtual” in all of this? It’s important to think about what is brought into the world…

Tracy Fullerton – “Process of Discovery: The Night Journey Project as Game/Art Research”

Starts out by mentioning that her work is starting from completely opposite starting points from the game generation work I presented. The Night Journey is a collaboration with Bill Viola. Premise: Use game technologies to explore the universal story of an individual’s journey towards enlightenment. Coming from a background of being involved with games such as Cloud, Darfur is Dying, and Flow, all projects that explore “impertinent questions” that explore the edge of what is appropriate to explore in games and play.

“Human science is not capable of understanding it, nor experience of describing it. Only one who has passed through it will know what is means, though there will be no words for it” – St. John of the Cross. The focus on experience in enlightenment provides a hook for game design – safe spaces for player experience. Design inspirations: Lives and writing of historical figures (narrative thread), visual style (Bill’s prior work), procedural representation (what is the “mechanic” of enlightenment?). Using a play-centric design process that emphasizes rapid, early and continuous paper prototyping of games. Bill does not play games of any kind, nor work in a rapid-prototyping manner, so the play-centric design approach was very new to him.

How to build a mechanic of enlightenment? Standard goal/risk/reward systems are inappropriate. Decided to focus on: altering player’s perception, leaving room for creative interpretation, use a partial loss of control to represent “entrainment.” An early inspiration came from exploring the imagery of a decaying shack in one of Bill’s early pieces, playing with the tension between the video image of the shack and 3D models of it, playing with the transformation between video and 3D. Design themes: slow the player down, looking deeply has intrinsic rewards, creating a memory space, recombinant narrative, illuminated texts, “generative” geography.

Next up is “A Technique for Improving Cross-device Graphics and Animation for Multi-Device Games” by Bill Tomlinson et al. Context: we have a variety of computational devices (laptops, mobile phones, desktops, PDAs, game consoles, etc). Bill’s interested in building games that operate across networks of heterogeneous collocated devices (like the forty or so we probably have in the room right now). The Virtual Raft project video shows twenty or so audience members using tablet PC “rafts” to bring animated characters from one desktop “island” to another (or letting them jump between rafts). These platforms had pretty much the same graphical capability, but what about when you’re using things like PDAs – where the representation will have to be different? One possible solution: do the visual transformation before or after the physical transfer takes place, so that it feels more like the “same” character after the move (doing visual transform on the more capable device). Video of the character downsampling and jumping with a “wheee!” sound (from big LCD to small handheld) is pretty engaging — I’d like to play with it. Another challenge is writing code simultaneously for a heterogeneity of platforms — using several development environments and languages to create one experience. If anyone knows a good development solution Bill would like to hear it. Upcoming project: coherent lighting design across multiple platforms (shadow direction, etc). This is hard in part because people can move handheld devices arbitrarily. Using accelerometers and IRDA, rather than a digital compass.

We already see some multi-device games, like mixed reality games (Uncle Roy, etc) and health games (like building on Nike/iPod platform). They’re particularly interested in educational games, thinking the multidevice paradigm may help with transfer.

Bill’s respondent is Hadar Ziv, and his initial questions are on the technical end. But first Eric Baumer wants to connect this to the idea of tangible media and the blurring of the boundary between virtual and real. This is subtly different from the well known tangible media work, in that its really a distributed virtual world across physical elements, rather than the tangible elements only being an interface. Back to Hadar, he wonders what’s next. For example, other kinds of layering. Bill agrees — interesting to think about how this is different from, and similar to, augmented reality. Is the physical world or the social world that determines? Real people or AIs? Hadar also wonders about things like the transfer of the lighting model being time consuming or otherwise expensive. Can the same thing be achieved by other means? For example, in a networked environment could we all start on the “same page” about some basic aspects of the world, and skip some of the point to point transfer? Bill says that one good thing about this model is that not all devices actually need to know which way they’re facing. Also, this allows you to bring in devices to the space in an ad-hoc manner.

Pat Seed – “Learning History by Designing Games: A New Approach to Teaching History”

In 1999 offered a course on World History Through Games. Quickly hugely over subscribed, particularly by science and engineering students who typically avoid history classes. Used a mixture of board games and computer games (Civ 2, Age of Empires, …). At the end of the class, students build their own, original, historical game. Second time she taught it, asked for a bibliography of historical sources that they will use for their game by week 3. Students are eager and willing to do additional research, find more sources, do more reading, when it’s in the service of their historical game. Found that, compared to dragging students through critical theory texts about meta-narrative, when history was taught in game form, students could identify historical narratives and critique them by the second or third week of class. To introduce the idea of historical contingency, uses Chrononauts, a “what-if” time travel card game.

Students design a mixture of board games and computer games. She has an explicit rule: no first-person shooters, no In the last semester, a number of students use RPG Maker and RPG Maker 2 to create their games. At the end of the semester, students all play each other’s games.

Discussant: Mark Warschauer. A brief 100 year history of educational technology. All educational technologies go through 1) “This new technology will revolutionize education”, 2) A few early adopters show amazing early results, 3) Attempts to scale up from early adopters to broad dissemination fail, 4) Dissemination failures are blamed on teachers (too old fashioned, stuck in their ways, etc.). With regard to games and education, we’re barely into stage 2. Why games? Why not other more open-ended simulations? Pat responds by mentioning the Reacting project, which uses live-action roleplaying to teach history. But Pat doesn’t like how they use specific canonical texts rather than encouraging open-ended exploration of sources and topics.

Next is “Teaching Ethics: Can Video and Computer Games Evoke The Empathic Involvement that Fosters the Altruistic Perpective?” by Kristen Monroe and Marissa Holmbeck. Looking at empathic behavior — such as those who tried to save Jews during the holocaust. Could a game be developed that would help foster the empathic feelings that precede empathic behavior? Over the summer they looked at the literature on games and aggression. Their current thinking is to create a game against a war backdrop in which one plays as a rescuer. They will try doing psychological tests for shifts in cooperation and tolerance.

The discussant is Eric Baumer, who thinks its exciting to try tackling these sorts of issues in game form. But he wonders about the specifics. Is it like trying to pass on historical insights? Is contingency (a concept) like empathy/ethics (something more/other than an intellectual concept)? Hadar Ziv wonders if the idea is to foster emotional involvement through action, just like military training in simulation is through action? Marissa says yes, and also seeks to get people involved through the game form.

Kim Burge – “Using Imagination in Authoring Multimedia Game Simulations for the Millennial Generation”

In the mid 1980s, there were hundreds of educational games – Oregon Trail being a canonical game from this period. By the end of the 1980s, games had almost disappeared from the classroom, largely because they weren’t modifiable and thus couldn’t be adjusted to the specific learning goals of the teacher. The Imagination Server project is about creating an infrastructure for creating, modifying and playing games. An example game created in their system is the Hetch Hetchy game, a game about the Hetch Hetchy controversy (a dam in Yosemite valley). Has used the game server in an edutech course in which student teachers built games to be used in their classrooms. The system is really intended, however, for constructivist curricula where students create their own games. Much of the infrastructure on the server end is management infrastructure to help teachers manager student teams, game libraries, etc. The next step is to pilot the system in Orange County classrooms.

The final paper is “Collaboration Environments for Large Engineering Projects: 3D Open Source Options” by Eleanor Wynn. They’ve done four years of surveys to figure out “How virtual is Intel”? Lots of distance collaboration (80% working cross-culturally, 70% working with people they’ve never met in person, with the most challenging thing being work across time zones), and the existing tools were working well for most groups — except the core hardware engineers (who are a rather important population for Intel). So they brought back a 3D user interface project called Miramar and then started looking at Kay et al’s Croquet project. These are game-like architectures, but they’re using them for different purposes: communication and collaboration. Sharing some fun quotes about corporate culture and gaming: “There’s no reason you can’t carry stalking and shooting over” into discussions with co-workers about topics on which you don’t agree.

One of the biggest problems turned out to be people employing different tools and practices. For example, some people together in person while others can only participate virtually. The virtual people “have no gun in that game” — they can’t grab the marker and start writing on the whiteboard where the large group of people is gathered. Big jump in engineers’ satisfaction with collaboration tools over three years once they started their work. Redundancy of communication helps, especially with people employing different dialects of the same language. Multitasking users are spending a huge amount of time in application and window switches. Want to build something suited for multi-teaming and multitasking. Using 3D space and trying to capitalize on game-like peripheral attention. Getting away from idea that we’re totally different people on each team — like Sharepoint — instead support shared resources through linking. Turns out to be a perfect application for the cool, cross-platform Croquet architecture.

The discussant is Walt Scacchi, who wants to push out to the broader territory of persistent collaboration in a virtual world. New concepts, techniques, and tools for collective action/work and confront the uncertainties of distance work. Compares Miramar with a meeting room screenshot from City of Villains (MMO tech gives one sitting pose, no avatar eye contact, looks like a bad meeting) but in battle context — shared work — very rich information display and communication. A different vision of collaboration in early tibetan mandalas. Current tools repurpose physically and virtually embodied interaction, make visible the invisible and the invisible visible, have (in)elastic time, (in)distinguishable work and play, (dis)integrating out-of-world with in-world, and are (not) open source (content, access).

And we’re off to dinner!

One Response to “UCI Game Workshop”

  1. Bill Says:

    4:20pm. My favorite quote from the workshop so far: “Most games are power fantasies.”

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