MFA Dissertation (A+)

I would like to start this article with a tribute to Raph Koster the genius, who managed to bridge the gap between happiness and successful game design based on empirical research. My MFA thesis awarded with A+ accompanies “Shakespeare’s Hunt” the iPad game for The Globe Theatre and its focus was mainly research on games and game design. I have to admit I found the subject fascinating.

Below is the chapter that refers to game design cover the following subjects:

  1. Defining games
  2. Endorphins, pattern recognition and learning
  3. Game mechanics (motivators and demotivators).

The taste left in my mouth from all that experience of learning about games and how deep they go into how we, humans, function is summarised in the epilogue of my thesis below:

Game design studies refer to research on positive psychology and in practical terms on ways to trigger human happiness. As a subject of research, it may not be included in my future work (i.e. augmented reality for cultural heritage), however the knowledge I gained from working on this theme is invaluable. Firstly, I personally found stunning the fact that it is simple, at the level that it can be documented, to make one, anyone, feel happy. It was also of my surprise to realise that regardless of personal taste and things people like or dislike, up to a point we are all the same; we think, act and react in the same way much more often than one would reckon. Researching game design was of great benefit for myself, as I came to understand better the behaviour of people around me and more importantly my own behaviour as well. The knowledge gained from this year’s research, will follow me for all my life and it already does, as now every time I reactively smile I immediately try to see the pattern that made me do that; like I am playing a game of my own.

Shakespeare’s Hunt (Video)

Shakespeare’s Hunt is a pilot of an alternate reality (also known as treasure hunt) iPad game for the exhibition of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. I worked on the project as a partner of Metavore London, developing the software, designing the interface and contributing to its game design aspect. My contribution to this project is also my thesis for the second year of my MFA studies.

In the beginning of the last academic year I had as a personal goal, for my final project to work closely with a cultural institution and develop a piece of work that would serve a purpose set by the professionals who work there. Given that last year my prototype applications were designed to fulfil needs that I had only come across through my research, I got the feedback that some assumptions of mine don’t stand for the majority of the cultural heritage institutions. In particular, during a conference earlier in the year I had the chance to discuss with Nancy Proctor, head of mobile strategy for the Smithsonian Institution,  and commenting on my work, she made the point that some of the material ARS:CI is aiming to take advantage of, can be provided only by a small minority of museums that can afford it e.g. under-drawings of paintings, or 3D reconstructions of damaged sculptures.

For Shakespeare’s Hunt we had the chance to work closely with people from Shakespeare’s Globe, hence it was a great pleasure for me to have their insight and be influenced during the design phase of the project by the objectives that the Globe itself follows when it comes to matters such as the use of new technologies in exhibition spaces and education.

For my studies I have been writing a document about this project, which I am planning to circulate to a few conferences on the topic and hopefully get it published. I am still working on it, however the synopsis as of today is the following:

Museums’ missions are stated as providing education through the exhibition and interpretation of their collections [1] and for the vast majority of cultural heritage institutions the interpretative material is static, constituted by long pieces of textual or audio information. According to Georgina Goodlander, Interpretive Programs Manager for the Smithsonian Art Museum “The twenty-first-century audience has an increasingly short attention span, extremely high expectations when it comes to finding and engaging with information, the ability to communicate with friends and strangers quickly and on multiple platforms, and a very open approach to learning”. [2] This paper argues that as audiences evolve, so should exhibition spaces and Shakespeare’s Hunt is an attempt to exploit the benefits emerging technologies have to offer and provide an experience designed according to the audience of our era as described by Goodlander above.

Presentation @ Digital Futures

I had the chance to be invited at the Digital Futures Conference hosted by Ravensbourne College to talk on Serious Games and learning. The conference featured a number of great professionals like Euan Semple and Dr. Paul Coulton from the University of Lancaster. The headline was Howard Rheingold who talked about a couple of hours via tele-conference.

I discovered games and learning in my research about a year ago when I came across SAAM’s Ghosts of a Chance project and was fascinated by the idea of using the power of games to achieve something as tough and important at the same time as learning. During my MFA studies I’ve been exploring in depth Serious and in particular Educational Games and their impact on learning, focusing always on case studies coming from the cultural heritage sector.

My ‘aha!’ moment came when I read about the so-called ‘Game Mechanics’ on which I focused my presentation at Digital Futures. Game mechanics are a set of rules intended to produce an enjoyable game experience, but has also been applied in other areas such as business.

One of the main themes of the conference was collaboration, so another point I would like to highlight from the presentation is the slide at which I talked about my personal experience of game enhanced-learning. Quoting the text that accompanied the slide that showed the Microsoft Silverlight forum:

As a developer myself I find the online forums very important and whenever I face a serious issue myself I post a question online and in one or two hours people from allover the world respond to solve my (!) problem. And I did wonder many times; why do all these people bother? why do they spend their time to share their knowledge? Well for a little while, I used to be one of those. When I used to develop with Microsoft Silverlight at some point I felt I had to give back to the community that helped me, by helping others. But being honest waht really got me going, where the game mechanics of the website and for two months I tried very hard to get 700 points and get promoted from a “Member” to a “Participant”. As you can see, I never managed to do so, but by the time I got bored I had already helped in the solution of  a few hundreds of questions.

I also got a nice tweet about it!

I got a few complimenting tweets for my presentation but once Rheingold was on, I was rather forgotten! The networking was good as well, and for me in any case it was a great experience as I always wanted to present at a conference. Bling! +5 Achievement Points!

My MFA thesis is on Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and combines all of my interests: Augmented Reality, museums and game mechanics. More to come from that one!

Supernatural 3D Chess

Update: Supernatural 3D Chess is now added to Softpedia’s database of games and it can be found here!

A fully functional human versus human 3D chess game was my project for the Virtual Reality class of my BSc course in Computer Science. Supernatural 3D chess is implemented with Microsoft XNA 3.0 and is available on SourceForge where it’s being downloaded about 100 times per month for almost a year now. A while ago a member of the SourceForge community and XNA developer contributed in Supernatural 3D Chess improving some existing features. Since Virtual Reality class was in the last year of my studies I didn’t have the chance to take it forward by adding Artificial Intelligence or networking so that users would be able to play over the internet. That’s also the main reason of uploading it to SourceForge, though whenever I come back to XNA development it’s the first project I will try improving.

During the game, the user clicks on a pawn and automatically all the available moves on the chessboard are highlighted. The user clicks on a square to make a move, and if this move is not allowed by the rules of chess the appropriate message appears on the upper left corner of the screen. In case the user wants to set the pawns in a specific way on the chessboard or wants to do castling or an passant, there is the feature of God mode which can be easily turned on/off. When a soldier reaches the other end of the chessboard and the God mode is off the user is asked to select to which force the soldier will be upgraded.

In terms of development, though I had previously studied about 3D graphics (for the homonym class in the third year of my undergraduate studies) and transormation matrices, it took me a while until I felt confident with it. As for the rules of chess highlighting the available moves considering the positions of all the pawns on the board etc. was the most interesting part for me.

The source code is available to download on SourceForge, please click the image above to reach the project’s page. In case you are a developer and would like to contribute, would be excellent. Enjoy 3D graphics with .NET Framework!

Gaming in Museums

It’s interesting to see how ideas evolve over time appropriating and improving existing projects. Regarding gaming in museums for educational purposes one of the first concepts was Scavenger Hunt in 2004:

(Scavenger Hunt, 2004) This production thesis is to create an interactive Scavenger Hunt game for children aged 9 to 13 as a history-learning tool in a museum setting at Chicago Historical Society. The main focus of this project is to develop a usable interface and interactivity for Pocket PC PDA using Macromedia Flash MX 2004 Professional.

The production is based on “stealth learning” and other pedagogy theories that say children can learn effectively while they play games and achieve simple goals.

The software will engage the target audience to answer correctly 10 scavenger hunt questions by finding the matching history artifacts in the museum. It will also help the target audience develop an interest in learning about history.

A more advanced approach came a year later from the cooperation of MIT and University of Wisconsin with Mystery at the Museum. The innovation of this project included location-aware information and the collaboration between visitors.

(Mystery at the museum, 2005) Through an iterative design process involving museum educators, learning scientists and technologists, and drawing upon our previous experiences in handheld game design and a growing body of knowledge on learning through gaming, we designed an interactive mystery game called Mystery at the Museum (the High Tech Whodunnit), which was designed for synchronous play of groups of parents and children over a two to three hour period. The primary design goals were to engage visitors more deeply in the museum, engage visitors more broadly across museum exhibits, and encourage collaboration between visitors. The feedback from the participants suggested that the combination of depth and breadth was engaging and effective in encouraging them to think about the museum’s exhibits. The roles that were an integral part of the game turned out to be extremely effective in engaging pairs of participants with one another. Feedback from parents was quite positive in terms of how they felt it engaged them and their children. These results suggest that further explorations of technology-based museum experiences of this type are wholly appropriate.

RFID as well as GPS technology in such concepts was introduced in 2007 at The design of Prisoner Escape from the Tower, an alternate reality game for the Tower of London. [More: Article 1, Article 2]

(The design of prisoner escape from the tower, 2007) In this design case study we describe the process by which we designed, tested, developed and ran a field trial of an interactive location aware historical game called “Prisoner Escape from the Tower”. The game uses mobile devices with GPS and Active RF transmitters and receivers to trigger events and interactions around the tower and with the Beefeaters. The game is based on authentic historical events and players help prisoners to escape by completing tasks which allow them to re-enact their actual escapes. The paper describes how the game was developed between two geographically dispersed teams and the steps involved in creating a location specific interactive game.

Claimed the first Alternate Reality Game ever to be hosted by a museum was Ghosts of a Chance in 2008.

(Ghosts of a chance, 2008) In the fall of 2008, The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) hosted an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) titled “Ghosts of a Chance.” This was the first ARG in the world to be hosted by a museum. The game offered both new and existing museum audiences a novel way of engaging with the collection in its Luce Foundation Center for American Art, a visible storage facility that displays more than 3,300 artworks in floor-to-ceiling glass cases.

Ostensibly, “Ghosts of a Chance” (ghostsofachance.com) invited gamers to create objects and mail them to the museum for an ‘exhibition’ curated by two game characters posing as employees. But the ‘game within the game’ was also a challenge to uncover clues to the narrative that binds those objects, and to investigate the way objects embody histories. The game culminated on October 25 with a series of six scavenger-hunt-like “quests” designed for players of all ages. Over 6,000 players participated online and 244 people came for the onsite event.

If there is a project worth-mentioning missing please contact me. So, what’s next?