3 projects: What, why, how, so what?
In this blog post I have chosen to look at Hart Sturgeon-Reed's MDES thesis, Microcosm, Afrooz Samaei's MDES thesis, Learning Abstract Symbolic Mathematics through Digital Games, and the University of Chicago at Illinois's (Leilah Lyons, Brenda Lopez Silva, Tom Moher, Priscilla Jimenez Pazmino, and Brian Slattery) paper and project, Feel the Burn: Exploring Design Parameters for Effortful Interaction for Education Games. I believe that the collection of these projects will help me contextualize my own work, as they explore topics everywhere from educational games, to games modeled after scientific systems, to creating connections between species.
Hart Sturgeon-Reed: Microcosm
For Hart Sturgeon-Reed's thesis project, Sturgeon-Reed created a responsive, evolving, infinite game that is based off of biological models, specifically neural networks. In the game, users participate in a flow of resources in various directions. This game is about keeping participants continuously playing, not about winning or losing.
Sturgeon-Reed states that Microcosm is about "exploring boundaries" and "creating worlds". (3) He designed this game for experimental representations of biological networks, not as a research tool or to be completely scientifically accurate.
Sturgeon-Reed decided to make a game that represented these systems in order to visualize these complex systems and their relationships. Sturgeon states that, while microbes are everywhere and a fundamental building block of what makes life possible, we have a difficult time relating to them. Therefore, as these systems branch out in various ways and continue to evolve, a visualization of these relationships is more suitable through interactivity and games, versus the linearity of writing. Likewise, Sturgeon-Reed states that infinite play is always a part of the structure that humans and nonhumans are within, whereas finite play is used by humanity as a means to make the world easier to comprehend and place within a box with boundaries. Through infinite play, players may play with these boundaries. It does not allow one to play alone; to use Haraway's language, it is about learning how to "become with" other organisms, and learn that the combination of our relationships creates an evolution and change, that which we cannot do individually.
Sturgeon-Reed built a game engine to create a framework that could be used beyond the scope of this project in later works. He also used the pixl.js rendering library, physic.js physics engine, Kinect, mobile devices, Muse headband, gamepads, and Lightgarden to help create this game.
Within microcosm, there are three different agents: the central piece defined as the "nest", other agents that are cell-like in structure, and flowers which produce resources to be handed out. The object of the game is to use the agents to take resources to the nest, while simultaneously helping fellow agents by distributing the resources to them. These agents can also signal to fellow agents when they need resources; this is an attempt to represent a neurotransmitter behavior (8).
Through the combination of gameplay and visual aesthetics, Sturgeon-Reed hopes to make the communication and cooperation behaviors in these systems more relatable to users. Through infinite play, players build relationships and help evolve the everlasting system.
According to Sturgeon-Reed, Microcosm creates a representation of the web between models of human minds, technology, and biological systems through play. Microcosm allows the user to explore the relationship between biology and computation, signifying the entanglements and interdependencies we rely upon in our lives. Sturgeon-Reed also emphasizes the importance of the sum of the relationships, not the individual, as the necessary ingredient that allows the system to continue and evolve. This visualization could help shift the metaphor of "growth" and "competition" used by economies and politics towards the biologic metaphor of "equilibrium" and symbiosis (91).
Through play, users can explore a complicated concept and system through observation, experimentation, and testing. Sturgeon-Reed states that games encourage thinking about thinking, and furthermore, infinite games revolve around relationships and fluidity.
According to Sturgeon-Reed:
"the more games we can get out into the general public that get people thinking about the ecologies they are a part of the easier it will be to start discussions about how humans can change our relationships with the complex overlapping which we inhabit" (97).
Afrooz Samaei: Learning Abstract Symbolic Mathematics through Digital Games
Afrooz Samaei's thesis explores the use of digital games as a pedagogical tool. She is interested in teaching concepts that are abstract or difficult to understand in traditional classroom settings. Her focus is on mathematics, as mathematics is a highly abstract subject with complex problems that are difficult to comprehend when not based in real-life situations.
Her research question is:
"How could digital games be used to help secondary school students practice applying abstract symbolic mathematical concepts described in their textbooks to solve problems?"
According to Samaei, teaching complex, abstract concepts is a common difficulty in education. Using games to teach these concepts provides an aspect of entertainment that can place these problems into real-life scenarios, therefore creating an application of knowledge in a more enjoyable way than perhaps classroom settings provide. Therefore, games allow students to put mathematics into practice, allowing Samaei to answer the question always posed by her students, "when are we even going to use this?"
Through design-oriented research, iterative design, and playtesting, Samaei created three prototype video games as pedagogical tools to motivate students to learn mathematics. She used Unity Engine, C#, Unity Assets, and 3DS Max. In her first prototype, Samaei worked on visualizing mathematical concepts in a game environment. In her second prototype, she focused on high school mathematics, particularly quadratic functions, and teaching students how to apply these concepts to real-life situations, in this case moving a truck through a tunnel. This was tested at the CFC lab by colleagues and industry professionals. The third prototype was an amalgamation of the findings of the two prior prototypes, and involved multiple iterations as well as user testing with students.
According to Samaei's research, there has been a decrease in mathematical scores from many nations, such as the United States. As mathematics is an important foundational subject for scientific, technological, engineering fields and more, it is increasingly important for students to understand mathematics in order to apply these concepts in their fields, as their work and success can help to maintain technological innovation and economic growth.
University of Chicago at Illinois: Feel the Burn: Exploring Design Parameters for Effortful Interaction for Education Games
In this study, the University of Chicago at Illinois Computer Science Department and Learning Sciences Research Institute explored the use of "effortful interaction" (a form of human-computer interaction where different sorts of physical interactions are used to communication information that rely solely on feedback from their own bodies) in order to communicate quantitative information to children. Through this research, they studied the effects of effortful interaction on children as they related to the duration, intensity, and model, and compared these results to similar research produced on adults.
These researchers used this study to explore the design challenges behind effectively communicating information in ways other than charts and graphs. Going beyond visuals, they explore the body as a tool to evaluate data and information, as it could potentially be more helpful in analyzing information. In this example, they wanted to illustrate information to audiences (particularly children) in informal science institutions, such as zoos and museums. They wanted information deriving from exhibits to be interactive and easily understood, yet could simultaneously be experienced and engaged with relatively quickly.
In order to study the impacts of "effortful interaction", these researchers produced a video game in a zoo that would communicate the effects of climate change on a polar bear. They created an embodied interactive game that had controllers such as polar bear slippers, polar bear gloves and hat. In the game, the user embodies a polar bear searching for seals. In order to cross ice, users can step with their polar bear slippers on pressure plates. In order to swim, users must use their gloves (which use accelerometers) and rotate them, as if they are swimming. The game goes through three different years: 1970, 2010, 2050. As the sea ice disappears, users must exert more energy through swimming to survive as a polar bear. This was communicated through weights added to the gloves. As polar bears exert 2.6 times the amount of calories when they swim rather than walk, the intention of this game was to communicate this information to the user in a similar ratio of energy through duration and intensity in this embodied and effortful interaction. The researchers would ask participants to rate the difficulty of walking versus the difficulty of swimming on a scale from 0 to 10.
Research indicates that children, and to a greater extent, large audiences of all ages, have difficulty comprehending abstract and complex topics, such as mathematics and numerical data comparisons. Exploring the use of kinesthetics, proprioception, embodiment, and effortful interaction as a pedagogical tool can exponentially help us to communicate information, as the information becomes more accessible to various types of learners of all ages. These new modes to communicate abstract information can become exceedingly important, particularly when the information is vital for broad audiences to understand, such as climate change effects.