Monday, 10 November 2014

CHI Play 2014: Toronto

Last month I went to the first CHI Play conference in Toronto - and it was fun :-) The full papers from the conference are openly available for a short time only so make sure to check them out here.

On the Sunday I took part in the somewhat provocatively titled "Participatory Design for Serious Game Design: Truth and Lies" workshop organised by Rilla Khaled, Mina Vasalou, Vero Vanden Abeele, and Maarten Van Mechelen. Participatory design (PD) is something I've recently become more interested in and our submission "Designing Persuasive Games through Competition" was about how PD influenced the organisation of the competition I ran at UCL earlier this year and some of the tensions that arose during the whole process. The workshop was a great experience as I got to meet a load of interesting people and to hear about different types of PD game research. And I learnt that defining PD, while a good learning experience, isn't particularly easy!

On the following day, I presented our paper on Player Strategies: Achieving Breakthroughs and Progressing in Single-player and Cooperative Games (Iacovides, Cox, Avakian & Knoll, 2014 - thanks to Anna Cox for the photo below!). The paper resulted from two UCLIC MSc projects I supervised and the conference also gave me a chance to catch up with Tom Knoll, one of my co-authors who is now at Amberlight. The paper builds upon my PhD work by looking at the types of strategies players use in an attempt to overcome breakdowns and breakthroughs. In single-player games, we found players use trial & error, experiment, stop & think, repetition and take the hint, while in coop games this extended to also include knowledge exchange, guidance and surrendering control/taking over. My favourite design suggestion from this work came from co-author Ara Avakian who suggested incorporating a "Quantum leap mode" in coop games but you'll have to read the paper to find out more about that :-)

In related work, Conor Linehan spoke about "Learning Curves: Analysing Pace and Challenge in Four Successful Puzzle Games", where learning curves refer to the structure and pace at which challenges are introduced to the player. We discussed how there might scope to combine our work as it would interesting to see how these learning curves actually map on to what players actually experience - particular in relation to more and less "successful" types of game. Essentially, it would be worth finding out out whether you see similar patterns of breakdown and breakthrough around the introduction of different mechanics and whether different types of learning curve lead to different types of strategy.

Some of the other highlights of the conference related to considering the design process e.g. Kathrin Gelring and Bob de Schutter presenting a framework for Gerontoludic design; Mina Vasalou reflecting on cultural appropriation when designing a Day of the Dead game for children; and Chad Richards considering the importance of context in developing gamification systems. Other highlights related to understanding game play practices e.g. Nicole Crenshaw highlighting the complexity of naming practices in online games; and Marcus Carter focusing on the use multiple screens to play different games at the same time. Meanwhile Zachary Toupes' categorisations of different cooperative communication mechanics (environment modifying, automated communication, immersive, expressive, emergent and attention focusing) got me thinking about how these forms of communication might relate to different kinds of player strategies.

There were also multiple presentations on games being used for different purposes such Michael Cristel discussing the development of a game for teaching children about the Cognitive Triangle concept of feelings, thoughts, and behaviors and Zachary Fitz-Walter discussing the gamifying university orientation (with mixed results). At a more meta-level, I also enjoyed Marcus' second presentation on paradigms in HCI game research and I'm definitely planning on looking at the paper in more depth. In addition, there was also quite a large industry presence at the conference, where I particularly liked the idea of "guerilla techniques" for user testing mobile games (e.g. at a hot dog stand) by the team from Scopely.

The keynotes were both delivered by people in industry, though I have to admit being a little disappointed by Mike Ambinder from Valve. His talk was titled "Making the best of imperfect data" and though he talked a lot about methodologies (e.g. user testing, data analytics) he mainly seemed to be lamenting the vast amounts of data he has access too and the constraints of not being able to do "proper" research in a commercial environment. Perhaps it's the result of having a background in experimental psychology (which I have too!) but it sounded like what he mainly wanted was the ability to measure everything, tools to automate data analysis and to magically remove all forms of bias. Which is fine, I guess, but I'm not really sure about the specifics of what he was wanted to find out and a lot of "why" questions he did seem to be asking a (e.g. rationales for player choice) really felt more suited to - dare I say it? - qualitative research...

In contrast, Jason VandenBerghe, Creative Director at Ubisoft, did a really good job of showing how he had engaged in research in this area and managed to use it in a positive way. Based on work such as the Big 5 personality traits and Self Determination Theory (SDT - recently applied to video games) he presented the "Engines of Play" - this is basically a tool for considering player motivations over time and for communicating with his team. His talk clearly outlined a problem space, involved some great game examples, suggested areas for further improvement (e.g. what about players drives such as "collecting"?) and managed to be entertaining as well :-)

Oh, and I almost forgot the student game design competition! This was a really quite an impressive showcase - there were games about privacy, sexual health, and even poetry while there were plenty of multiplayer opportunities e.g. a quest game involving IRC chat (and a lot of arguing!). The winner of the competition was a very cool looking game called OHR that took place in a Machinarium inspired world and required the use of physical electronic components. Below is a photo of Anna Cox enjoying a game where you have to shout into a mobile phone mic to avoid on-screen obstacles :-) Also, in the poster session, as part of Citizen Cyberlab, Anna presented some work on RedWire, a re-mixing tool for game design.

All in all, CHI Play was a good experience - and I'm sure I've missed loads out! I'm really looking forward to next year, where it looks like I'm going to be helping organise next year's conference in London :-)

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