Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Keynotes and Inspirations at Foundations of Digital Games 2015

I had a great time at this year's Foundations of Digital Games, but it was the talks and the hallway track with narrative folks that really left me inspired.  In this post I'll summarize the first three keynotes and some inspiration I got from one of them; you can check out my raw talk notes and the proceedings for more details.  The sketch notes I'm including are all by Chris Martens, a fellow narrative PhD candidate (though she'll be done soon!).

Tom Forsyth's Keynote

The first keynote of the conference was given by Tom Forsyth, who worked at Valve and then Oculus VR.  Tom highlighted some of the challenges we face when designing all-new experiences for virtual reality.  For example, motion sickness comes from there being an imbalance between what your eyes see and what your ears feel, so having players move up stairs causes issues (elevators are apparently much better).  It's also important to avoid most cinematography techniques, and to use an eye blink transition whenever possible.

[raw talk notes]

Sketch note by Chris Martens, via Twitter

Robin Hunicke's Keynote

The next day we heard from Robin Hunicke, who produced Journey and is seriously inspirational.  She began by talking about Wattam and its designer Keita's inspiration for the game.  The zaniness levels of that game are right up my alley, making me want to get a PS4 even more...

Most of Robin's talk was about her inspiration for Luna, which as she puts it, was kind of a beast.  She talked in depth about the inspiration noted on the game's website: "origami, shadow boxes, abstract sculpture and minimalist illustration."  Near the beginning of the design process, she apparently spent six months alone in her apartment, folding paper.  It turned out that folding paper digitally wasn't very fun, but that didn't mean some of the lessons learned from origami couldn't apply to a game's design.  Luna looks wonderfully whimsical, and I am hoping I was mistaken about it being a VR game (or at least, not VR-exclusive) because I would really like to try it.

[raw talk notes]

Sketch note by Chris Martens, via Twitter

R. Michael Young's Keynote

The first academic keynote of the conference, R. Michael Young is in charge of the Liquid Narrative Group at NCSU.  He described some of the main areas his group looks at in the world of narrative after reminding us that "narrative is big. Really big."

The systems his group builds are evaluated based on whether they produce narratives that can be understood by humans in particular ways.  They break narrative down into story (everything that happens inside the story world), discourse (the choices the author makes in how to tell the stories; what goes into the telling), and interactivity (what happens when a player goes into the role of a character? How do we design the story and discourse?).

The group's most used tool seems to be artificial-intelligence-based planners.  Planning looks at how to automatically sequence actions in the face of a novel set of environmental goals.  In narrative, this might mean anything from having characters scheme to achieve their own goals, to authors planning to mislead then reveal.  Stories are broken down into the smallest possible units (such as individual actions), then built back up.  Many problems arise from the use of standard planners, which often tell uninteresting stories.  One of the ways to improve the outcomes is the group's current work in progress that attempts to express character traits through the action sequences created.

[raw talk notes]

Sketch note by Chris Martens, via Twitter


Michael's distinction between story and discourse got me thinking about my own thesis project (read a somewhat out-of-date description here).  I realized that a large part of what I'm doing feels more like discourse than story.

It felt even more clear to me when I thought about Mieke Bal's definitions of story and fabula from Narratology: Introduction to the Theory of Narrative.  A fabula is "a series of logically and chronologically related events that are caused or experienced by actors" while a story is "a fabula that is presented in a certain manner."  Most of the techniques I am working on actually don't affect the fabula so much as the way the fabula is experienced.

One of the areas I struggled with in my thesis proposal was justifying why I didn't want to use planners.  There are some definite reasons that were easy to articulate, such as difficult authoring.  However, I also had this unarticulated understanding that planners weren't quite right for the design approach I took, but wasn't sure exactly why.

By thinking about story and fabula, I was able to realize that I'm not trying to arrange actions into a story so much as allow navigation through a set of coarser story pieces featuring fixed actions.  I want players to be able to explore a mostly fixed fabula in different ways, leading to different interpretations of it.  In the process, the resulting story should still have a sense of (but not necessarily actual) coherence.

As a result of this insight and another cool idea that came up during the conference, my thesis project's focus is tightening up very nicely.  I'll share more about that sometime in the future.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

My Experience at Foundations of Digital Games 2015

During the last full week of June, I took a wonderful trip to Pacific Grove, California for Foundations of Digital Games 2015.  (You might recall that last year's conference was on a cruise ship.)  I didn't end up presenting anything this year, and I'm so glad I went despite this.  I found the whole experience rather invigorating.

Before continuing, be sure to note that I've posted publicly accessible notes for most keynotes and a selection of paper sessions.  The proceedings are also available.  I'll talk more about the academic content of the conference in another post.

This year's conference was held at Asilomar Conference Grounds, which began life as a YWCA summer camp for girls about 100 years ago.  It is part of Asilomar State Beach, which is, unsurprisingly, gorgeous.

Our keynotes and some of the parallel track sessions were held in the site's chapel.  Not the greatest for lighting (and, to an extent, sound), but a really neat building in terms of its architecture.

All meals were held in the dining hall at a set time signalled by the dinner bell.  In addition to giving meals a fun summer camp feel, it ensured that everyone in the conference ate together.  I loved this setup for its ability to build community and encourage networking.  I had many excellent conversations over food, and even some pivotal moments in terms of my thesis (more on that in a future post).  A downside was that the food was usually just ok at best, and there was always too much of it .

Although most attendees stayed on site, we were spread around many different buildings on site.  I was really surprised to see our lodging when I first walked up to it.  I remember describing it as a "70's nature lodge" and wondering how something so dated, and without any in-room phones or TVs, could cost so much.  I suppose, though, that a lot of the money goes towards the maintenance of the beach, which softens the blow.  It really did grow on me over time; the slight ocean view from the balcony likely didn't hurt.

One of the things I really enjoyed was walking along the boardwalks that wound through the protected sand dunes.  They were often higher than the beach, thus affording some lovely views.  Occasionally, you even met some wildlife along the way.

After the conference was over, I headed to Monterey and spent an afternoon at Monterey Bay Aquarium with a fellow conference attendee.  The aquarium is inside old cannery buildings, so from the outside doesn't look like much.  It was absolutely spectacular inside, though.  I loved every minute there and could have stared at some of the exhibits forever, constantly discovering new details.

After a long walk along the coast to my last hotel room and an early morning flight the next day, my trip was over.  I can't say I've ever had a bad experience travelling to California, and I'm really grateful that I was able to use my professional development money at Carleton to make this trip.  Stay tuned for a future post about the academic side of FDG.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Keynote / Attracting Women to Computing and Why it Matters

I was invited to give the keynote for Women and Technology 2015, held at Carleton on June 19.  I spoke about women and computing.

I began with an exercise: how could we generate six different versions of a multiple choice midterm where the three options were scrambled differently on each of 30 questions? I gave some time to discuss the problem, then asked how many people realized this could be easily solved with code.  Of those with hands up, how many felt confident they knew how to write that code? (There were a few!) I mentioned that learning to code can help you automate the boring stuff you don't want to do manually (see, for example, the new book Automate the Boring Stuff With Python).

This lead me into a discussion of the kinds of computational thinking skills that learning to code can give you, and where those skills could be applied outside of coding.  But if these skills are so empowering, then why do so few people have them? And in particular, why are women so underrepresented?

The short answer, of course, is that it's complicated.  (It's not just a pipeline issue!) I shared a few of the factors involved, from gendered toys (see Riley's rant) to a sick tech culture.  I talked a bit about some of my own small contributions (e.g. my mini-course, Go Code Girl, Gram's House and CU-WISE).

I concluded with some homework: everyone should go forth and learn to code (or, learn some more).  If they could get to the point that they could feel positively about computing, it's a lot more likely they will encourage girls that show an interest in it to give it a go.  I hope you'll do the same. ;)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

A Brave New Data World at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum

I recently told you about my upcoming trip to Germany for the Heidelberg Laureate Forum.  One of the exciting events during the forum is a discussion on a selected "hot topic."  This year's hot topic is big data.  Because events will be recorded and publicly available afterwards, and because I'll be blogging about it myself, I thought I'd share some information about what will be happening.  The following is from the organizers.

Scientists and Society face together the ethical challenges of computational science


Massive spying; privacy breaks; anonymity reversed… the penetration of information technology in all aspects of life has spurred a long series of worrying stories of lost privacy and “big brother” control. But the brave new world of Big Data is also behind some of the most hopeful news in recent years: from the “Twitter-revolutions” to the findings in astronomy and genetics. This year's Hot Topic session will focus on the social and ethical challenges of computational science. How to protect privacy against mass surveillance, organized crime, and companies’ intrusions? How secure is our data? How is intellectual property changing? Should we blindly trust massive data mining? How is computational science best used for the good? How should we regulate this brave new world? During the session, experts in these issues will think together with big minds and talented youth from mathematics and computer science. The objective is drafting an agenda of how scientists can help society in using the opportunities and dealing with the challenges of computational science.

Why should the HLF host this session?

The nature of HLF (top level speakers and talented youth in a free-speaking atmosphere) is the ideal setting for an open-minded, well-grounded discussion on the ethical and societal challenges of computational science. Inquiring into its social impact is a moral imperative for researchers, in a time in which it is used for all kinds of purposes. But it is also an important strategic choice: computational science is surrounded by a halo of omnipotence and suspicion, which could hamper its many beneficial effects and interfere with research. The polarization around GMO and nanotechnology is partially due to the delay of the scientific community in engaging in social debates. While the relative balance around stem cells or IVF is partially due to ethical issues being taken into account from the beginning. The HLF could be a fertile ground for making scientists proactive and constructive allies to the public in the debate around the social challenges of computational science.


  • Big Data for the common good. It should be clear from the beginning that the benefits of Big Data and computational science largely outweigh the challenges, and that the latter must be tackled precisely to make the most out of the first. This can be done by providing one or a few very explicit examples of the use of Big Data for the common good.
  • State of the art. Providing an objective and description of the main facts and figures about social and ethical challenges of computational science (the source of sensitive data, the size and degree of transparency, controversial application, etc.)
  • Technical challenges. It is very important to break the halo of omnipotence of Big Data, showing the pitfalls associated careless data mining: quality of data (biases, gaps, heterogeneity), false positives, approximation in models, biases in interpretation, etc.
  • Socio-ethical challenges. The bulkiest part of the event should gravitate around issues like privacy (informational self-determination, identity management, limits to anonymity, massive spying, cybercrime, companies’ intrusions, data-based discrimination, dangers for socio-diversity, commodification etc.), security, intellectual property, and computational manipulation of social behaviour.
  • Constructive approaches. Speakers should be chosen in such a way to prioritize those that put forward technological solutions or regulatory approaches, rather than limiting themselves to criticism (eg. New deal on data, Personal data purse, compensation schemes, Internet bill of rights, etc.)

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Blogging and Meeting CS Greats at the Heidelberg Laureate Forum

The Heidelberg Laureate Forum "offers a select group of young researchers in mathematics and computer science the extraordinary chance to meet the preeminent scientists of their field for one week of cross-generational, scientific dialogue."  Although I would qualify as a young researcher who could have applied to attend, I hadn't actually heard of the forum by this year's deadline.  Instead, I was contacted by one of the lovely media organizers for the event to see if I'd be interested in blogging (oh, and by the way, expenses to and within Germany will be paid).  I'm sure you can imagine my answer!

Here's how the event is described by its organizers:
For the third time, recipients of the ACM A.M. Turing Award, the Fields Medal, the Nevanlinna Prize and the Abel Prize gather in Heidelberg to meet with 200 young researchers from all over the world. For one week, the laureates of mathematics and computer science will exchange with young researchers through lectures and workshops, plus a “hot topic” session discussing the socio-ethical challenges of Big Data.
I'm personally quite excited to hear from some of the pioneers of computing (though I am disappointed they are all men, when there are indeed female Turing Award winners).  When I registered as a journalist for the forum, I requested the chance to interview John Hopcroft because of his passion for computer science education.  It will also be awesome to see the likes of Stephen Cook (laid the foundations of NP-completeness theory), Frederick Brooks (originator of the 8-bit byte and author of The Mythical Man Month), and Ivan Sutherland (pioneered the graphical user interface with Sketchpad).

Other interesting aspects of the forum are the social and outreach components.  The laureates get together with local students on Wednesday morning, while the young researchers visit local institutions (hopefully I can go with the laureates!).  The welcome dinner Monday night is being held at Heidelberg Castle, and we get to visit (and wine and dine at) the Speyer Museum of Technology. Check out the full forum schedule here.

I want to tell you more about the events on big data, but I'll save that for the next blog post.  Stay tuned for more about the forum leading up to and during the week of (August 23-28).  Also be aware that the events will be recorded and archived publicly online, so you can check it out for yourself later on.