Blog Archive

Monday, November 26, 2012

Teaching Game Design at the Masters of Digital Games at the University of Malta.

This fall I have been teaching a study unit on Game Design at our Masters in Digital Game at the University of Malta. This is the first year we teach the course, and we are starting with a small group of students. We can be flexible and find individual solutions in case our structure isn't optimal this first time around. Except me teaching at the masters' there is Rilla Khaled who teaches game design with me, there is Gordon Calleja and Costatino Oliva who teaches game analysis, and there is Georgios Yannakakis who, together with two teachers from ICT, teaches computing science for game development. We also have a fourth strand in the masters, which is commercialization and project management. This is taught by industry professionals, this year by the CTO of TRC.

I have been teaching game design and related subject since 2004, but somehow it always feels like it is the first time. During the summer of 2012 I planned this introductory course in game design, but as soon as got hold of the students' contact details I sent out a survey to them to get an idea about previous experience in both the playing of games and of developing them.

This is the short description of the course:
"The course address the role of the game designer, the structure of games, how to work with formal elements as well as dramatic, and ways to approach system dynamics. Students work in groups and conceptualize and prototype smaller games."

Play-testing Mafia Boss


I had several concerns while I was planning the course. How to balance theory and practice? Were to begin - which topics need we start with, and which can wait? How do we make sure the group dynamics work out? And what about creating a safe environment for experimentation despite that their work is graded?
I'll go through my main concerns, listing them, and describe how I aimed to solve them. Then, I'll tell you how it went!

- What to teach them - where do I start, and in what order should I place the content?
I decided to use a course book as a basic skeleton for the course. I had, unconsciously, already decided to use Tracy Fullerton's book Game Design Workshop, but just in case I would like to change my mind I browsed through the rest of my design library. I stuck with Fullerton's book because it is the one that put most weight on prototyping and play-testing, and does so in a very concrete way. This agrees with how I like to work in design. As recommended reading I added chapters from other books for certain topics, such as Bates' chapters on what project documents are useful in game productions.
Also on the list of recommended reading is Brathwaite's “Challenges for Game Designers”.
It has an excellent and condensed introduction chapter defining important terms and approaches. The remainder of the book contains design challenges/exercises for different types of games and game contexts.
Another one is Koster's "A Theory of Fun". This book has had a large impact on the vocabulary used in the area of game design. Koster just gave a speech at GFC Online (October 2012) taking the perspective of "ten years after" - that is, ten years after the publication of the book. The slides for the talk are here:
Yet another great book on game design is Schell's The Art of Game Design: A book of lenses. If I had not used Fullerton's Game Design Workshop as the main course book I would have used this one.

Joseph, Stelios, Alan, Vincent, Michael

-  How to achieve a balance between theory and practice? Students need the practice to appreciate the theory, and they need the theory when working practically. (This is something Jesse Schell have been blogging about too)
I had seven seminars and seven workshops to work with. Part of the first one would go to overview and introduction, and the end would be the final seminar. I considered what they absolutely HAVE to know about the design, and what they MUST learn to do and think about when designing. I plucked those topics, and then added workshops where they would apply the knowledge in the topics. This meant that I was not using the order in Fullerton's book, but I could still use the full chapters for different seminars.
Given the large amount of time that it would take for the students to complete the assignments they needed to do in order to practice game design I aimed to only add the absolutely necessary texts as reading assignments. Besides the selected chapters in Fullerton's book I only added two texts as mandatory reading: one about Hunicke and LeBlanc's MDA model and the other about Dorman's Machination framework.
In the first seminar the students got to choose from the course literature about which texts to champion. This text, they would in one of the seminars present to their co-students and prepare a discussion about.
There is  a list of the topics we had at the seminars, and a list of workshops and assignments in the end of this post.

Stelios presenting a section of the course literature

- How do I make sure that they early get practical experience of designing different types of games? (There is a risk of individuals getting so immersed in one idea or problem that they do not want to focus on anything else.)
It turned out that this particular group of students all were graduated computing scientists and many of them had partaken in game development projects. I decided that even though they would be able to create digital prototypes from start, I would encourage them to stay with pen and paper. This way they would be able to quickly try several different designs, and they wouldn't get distracted by coding problems. During the first three weeks they prototyped three different games. Then, they got to choose one of them to develop further. This game was play-tested and iterated for three more weeks.  I hoped that this would help them to have their focus on the core design as well as on the experience their certain design might result in for the player.

- How do I cater for good group dynamics in the student groups? (Or at least be prepared to sort out things if it becomes terrible.)
I planned for having two occasions for group division. In the first seminar I divided them into two groups using coin flips, thus making a random group division. Then, after having made their first three game designs they would be able to change groups for the second half of the course. This would make sure that if two persons who for some reason cannot work out their differences would be able to change groups. In the one of the game design exercises a beginning task was to fill in a Meyers-Briggs Personality test - I added it in as part of the exercise so that they might use personality properties of some kind of system as part of the design of a game that contains characters. I hoped for a secondary effect where they would be aware of each other's strengths as individuals when working in groups. In my experience shortcomings of others are easier to accept and overcome when one have concrete knowledge (or some kind of belief or interpretation) of others strengths.

- On Malta, student's work is graded. How would I make sure to create an environment where student feel that they can be creative, where they take risks, and where they are not mentally frozen by performance anxiety?
I divided the assignments I gave into those that would be graded and not graded. All the design exercises except the final deliveries were to stay without grade. At the same time, the final deliveries would report on and be a result on what they had been producing during the course. But then, they would have been able to pick one of three designs they liked best, and had been able to iterate that design several times.

Alan play-testing with Joseph as tester

How it went

I have the impression that the course went well. The students had a 100% attendance. They delivered 100% of their assignments, and not a single one of them was late. For me this is the very first time that has happened. The group of students was very small, and they all had responsibilities in the seminars, so that could have been a reason. But still: Highscore! They also volunteered for extra work, and went the extra mile of doing the extra exercises.  When the students had handed in their final assignments (an individual short-paper, a production report, a game design document and a game prototype) I was quite impressed by their work. They had managed to create games, describe how they did it, showing that they had understanding for the process. I had played the games with a colleague the day before the seminar, so I could get them some feedback on that too. Next year I'll schedule more time for playing the students' games though, in order to get time to explore all features. For their individual short papers I had asked them to define an important design problem and give suggestions for how to explore the same.  Here, they all had picked very interesting and relevant topics, which we spent most of the last seminar discussing these.

Ending discussion
I had created an online survey for the students to fill in, but some topics I wanted to ask them about face to face. In the last seminar we spent half an hour discussing the course. What had worked and what had not worked?

 It seems that the balance between theory and practice had worked well - the students had recognised that they were, in the workshop, practising the same skills and topics they had been discussing in the seminar the same day.

The workload seems to have been fairly well adjusted. I was worried that I had given them too much (see list of assignment and bear in mind that they had 3 other courses running in parallel). But they had appreciated the incremental nature of the workload, that they got week-sized chunks of work, and then one week to assemble the work into their final deliveries. They also said that they liked to have this 4 hour marathon (2 hours seminar, 2 hours workshop) rather than dividing their day. I had been worried about that too.

They were generally happy with the clarity of instruction, but would have wanted to learn more about table top RPGs before getting the task of designing one. Next year that could be a part of assignments.
They had really appreciated the guest lecturer from TRC, Jade Pecorella, who talked about how game design is communicated and documented in the projects where she works as a designer.

Jade Pecorella

They had also liked the way they were each championing parts of the course materials, so that (no offence they hastened to say) not only the professor talks all the time, and that it is easier to learn when one has to explain to someone else.
It was difficult to squeeze out something negative of them, but that's what the anonymous survey is for. I told them to think about it as a play-test. If I don't know what's wrong, I can't fix it.  
The next course I will teach will be focussed on AI based game design and prototyping/sketching tools and methods. I really look forward to it. I need to make sure that even if this group are all computing scientists I need to design a course that is meaningful and useful for non-computing scientists too. By the way, there is a quite common understanding that computing scientists or 'coder types' would be less creative than others. This is wrong. Not that we would be MORE creative. Just that we are just as creative as the rest of the population. At least, this is my belief after having witnessed the process of game creation in this group that consists only of computing scientists. (Also - take a poet. Teach her how to program. Will she be less creative when she has more knowledge?)

Our students rock. It's an honour to get to be their teacher.

Vincent, Alan and MichaelStelios and Joseph


List of topics

The list below is presented in the order they appear in the course.
Brainstorming and Conceptualization methods                  
The role of the game designer                       
The structure of games         
Prototyping methods             
Formal Elements                     
MDA - a formal Approach to Game Design and Research (paper)             
Working with Dramatic Elements                 
Play testing    
System Dynamics
Functionality, Completeness and Balance
Simulating Mechanics to Study Emergence (paper on Machinations)     
Revisiting Brainstorming and Conceptualization (creativity in the long run discussion)
Game Design Document (Communicating Game Design)


List of mandatory Assignments

Presenting chapters from the course book and papers to the seminar (in seminar and assignment) (graded)
Brainstorming Exercises (in workshop)      (not-graded)
Writing my first treatment (assignment)    (not-graded)
Making my first paper prototype (in workshop & assignment) (not graded)                   
Modifying a Battleship Prototype (in workshop) (not graded)                 
Making a Table top role-playing game prototype (in workshop and assignment) (not graded)
The first play-testing and writing a play test-script (assignment) (not graded)              
Play-testing using the other group as testers (in workshop) (not graded)                       
Writing the game design document (in workshop and as assignment)   (graded)
Writing your production report (assignment) (graded)   
Finalizing your prototype for delivery (assignment) (graded)                  
Writing your short-paper (assignment) (graded)               
The text seminar - presenting and questioning a colleague's text. (At the end of the course) (not-graded)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

ICIDS Photo Diary Tuesday

 Tuesday morning: Michael, David and Federico initialize the conference.

David, Federico and
Michael Young introducing the conference

I was first out giving an invited talk, and I could start before schedule given that everyone was in place - that was great, I didn't have to feel pressed for time and talk quickly in order to get to say everything I want to say.
Me giving invited talk:
The Grails of Interactive Story Telling at ICIDS'12

I started my talk by telling about a letter I got this summer from a Masters' student in Canada. He had read the thesis on Story Construction I wrote in 2001/2002 and wondered about my thoughts on how the field have advanced during the past decade. Since I got that letter I've been thinking a lot about this, and realized that there have been huge strides made. Even though it often feels like trampling in the mud, and that the area just creates tool after tool that no author wants to touch, and that we just keep doggedly chasing after grails that we don't even know if they exist... We have found pretty cool goblets on the way, and that constant chase is what can keep us going. I named a few of the grails many of us keep looking for, then, I gave a recount on my journey, and what I found on the way. I told about the play-testing about the Pataphysic institute, of how players
- simultaneously use mental models of how a mind works and that of MMORPG role taking in battle,
- how they co-create boss monsters with the system, and how intense it can become when they play, and an autonomous entity in the game bleeds in meaning from the real world, but how that is re-interpreted in dialog when players cooperate to neutralise the negative feelings that these boss monsters represent,
- how players attribute intentionality to the autonomous entities despite that they even authored them themselves. Still, they read in and interpret their behaviour as if was something that would have its own will.
Then I went on to note that we have indeed achieved to come closer to some of the grails we thought about ten years ago. For example, we know now thanks to the Sims series, that it indeed is possible to have a sandbox world as a basis for performing actions that in turn can be a sequence of event that, when retold, actually becomes an engaging narrative. The blog stories of Alice and Kev is an example of that. Another dream, an authoring environment that can take the rules implied in language and use them in a functional way is manifest in Inform 7 and its constant development. And "the book that writes itself", generative planned stories, we are coming along in that area too. Of that, Richard Evans' and Emily Shorts Versu is a prime example. Richard talked about this the day after. It felt really nifty that we had worked together on our talks the day before, because then I could just talk about this, our past grails and where we seem to be now, grail-wise, because then, on the last day of the conference, Noah gave a talk on the future of digital interactive narrative. Along the conference I noted that one of the grails that shine most brightly is that of the automated game master. That is, something more than the state of the art/general idea of an automated story manager. An automated game master would also use the game mechanics afforded in a game world together with judgements about how to use plot-points, story-beats, levels of dramatic tension and what-not. Of course, the idea of automating, or having support for the human game master of a table top or live action game is not new, it was just, as topics go, quite a shiny one.

ICIDS was a single track conference, which I was thankful for. I get so frustrated of this condition that you have gone somewhere to be, and to see, and to participate, but then anyway ending up feeling that one misses crucially interesting talks all the time, because one has to choose. (GDC solves this by having the GDC Vault where the talks are recorded, that's the only reason I don't go nuts there).
Below are some pictures of how the day in this blissfully single track continued. The conference program is available here:
Suspending Virtual
Disbelief: A Perspective on Narrative Coherence Veli-Matti
Four Quantitative
Metrics Describing Narrative Conflict Stephen G. Ware, R. Michael Young, Brent
Harrison, and David L. Roberts
The Expressive Space of
IDS-as-Art  Noam
Lunch is served
Digital Interactive
Narrative Tools for Facilitating Communication with Children during Counseling:
A Case for Audiology Sarune Baceviciute, Katharina Rene Rtzou Albk, Aleksandar
Arsovski, and Luis Emilio Bruni
audience day
Coffee Tables &
Cryo Chambers: A Comparison of User Experience and Diegetic Time between
Traditional and Virtual Environment-Based Roleplaying Game Scenarios Bjoern F.
Temte and Henrik Schoenau-Fog

Genres, Structures and
Strategies in Interactive Digital Narratives Analyzing a Body of Works Created
in ASAPS Hartmut Koenitz and Kun-Ju Chen

In the evening, we had a delightful time. I took a picture of myself and Hartmut, and tried to take it the same way as last time I saw him, which was seven years ago when we were both at Georgia Tech. We were about fifteen-twenty people, and we did dinner the way that seem to be the local custom: to go from different bars and have a pinto at each one. Many interesting conversations, I was for example very intrigued to hear about Uli Spierling's work of using the STRIP planning language as the base for a prototype that let authors experiment with interactive Storytelling.
Hartmut and me 2012
Hartmut and me 2005

ICIDS Diary, Monday

 I run into Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Richard Evans at the hotel, and it turns out that all three of us still need to work some more on our talks. We have a working session in the lobby, before joining the others for dinner.
  Noah and Richard
I have this idea to try to use less walls of text and more illustrations than I normally do. But I'm afraid that I'll forget what to say unless I have the text available, so I have decided to try using index cards.
  Preparing my talk
For dinner David Oyarzun, the general chair, takes us into San Sebastian, and we have a brief stare at the cathedral. We find a place in a former bull-fighting that can accommodate all of us. I think we are around 15 to 20 persons. On the bar a selection of pintos are served from which we can select. In the Baskian parts of Spain tapas are called pintos, and are a bit more elaborate (or that's what people tell me, I wouldn't know).
  Noah and Michael Young before getting pintos
We don't stay too late, and back at the hotel Noah is kind enough to listen me practicing the talk I am to give the next day and giving me some good advice. I had overdone the picture part, that's for sure. We also came up with a title! "The Grails of Interactive Storytelling". Luckily there is still time for revision.

ICIDS: The Fifth International Conference on Interactive Digital Storytelling

Friday, June 15, 2012

A prototype from WRPG'12


In the afternoon of the WRPG workshop (see previous post) we sat down to do some prototyping. Anne had brought lots of colorful prototype materials, such as glass tokens and modeling clay.

We started with throwing out ideas for questions to explore. Some of the ones I remember were:

  •  Use Mark's general proposal for how to first think about a concept, and see how it can be represented as a game mechanic. Then break out said game mechanic, implement it in isolation, and see if it really do represent the concept in question. 
  • Given the rich body of work in philosophy regarding how we as humans are to act – isn’t it curious that most systems governing agent action selection is based on utility and maximizing the agents own success? What other ways can we use for creating principles for agent-action selections?
  • Experiment with constitutive rule systems rather than restrictive ones. 

We spent perhaps half an hour brainstorming questions until we formulated what question to work with:

How can we model a non-utilitaristic ethics system? 

With non-utlilitaristic* we meant that the agents would be motivated by other things that being motivated by their own success (measured by context and utility).

We decided to have a world where there is stuff. And that agents can own stuff.
We outlined some of the affordances.

It is possible for an agent to want to:
- Have.
- To not have.
- To give
- To take
- To share

 We started to outline some principles, such as:
- Everyone should have everything
- Utilitarianism (action to maximise ‘goodness’, no matter to whom the goodness goes to, as long as it is maximized
– according to common or individual view of what goodness is)
- Everyone should have an equal amount of stuff.

 Then, we started to put more and more principles and wants onto playing cards in order to use them as constitutive rules. Here are a few of them:

  Principles for the agents

Some of them were principles of ethics, such as “give to the rich” or “everyone should have an equal amount.” Other where more gamey, such as “you only want green stuff”. Other cards we had to discard, because they went outside the affordances of the game. Such as “You should be tidy” was not possible for an agent to do. Green stuff was possible to use because we had green items on the table, and agents could acquire them. …And even though we agreed to not equip our agents with needs and desires outside approaches to ownership of stuff, we made sure to grab some cookies for them in the break.

 We divided ourselves so that we had 3 agents, played by Emmett, Anne and Jonas Linderoth. Elina and I formed a player-team, and Jon and Mark formed the other. We decided that each play team could give 3 rule/principle cards to one agent, and two cards to the third agent.

Each play team could instantiate one agent each, and both have impact on the third. The cards were closed teams couldn’t see each others’ cards. Each team could choose from half of the total deck, not knowing what cards were in the other teams half of the deck. Once the agents got their rule cards they could start acting (turn-based).

Anne, Emmet and Jonas started acting, and we threw down a list of possible actions:


We were also curious about how Jon’s Designscape method would work in practice, so we tried the method during the workshop. Jon would occasionally ask us about how we rated the different design aspects of our game.  Three times during the process we gave a rating between 1 and 6 on how much we trusted certain design aspects. Here are the aspects we rated:

1 Players explore the ethical principles of the agents
2 Building your own ethic system Agent
3 Your agent can interact with others agents
4 Evolution from survival to music taste
5 Your agent can pick up values from other Agents
6 Underlying ethical principles as guidelines
7 The agent interaction format
8 Global rules of interaction
9 Agents that are your own, others and shared

With Jon's tool it would be possible to see a 3 dimensional representation on how we subjectively rate them, with a time progression, something like this.  For the second round we had the list of actions, and we also wrote some new cards for rules. We took out some cards that had been difficult for the agents to use. Those were cards that described principles or rules that the agents lacked ways of implement, as they were not afforded by the list of actions or by what things were available on the board. Oh, we also tidied up the table and placed on a board what would be able for the agents to take/give/destroy. For the second round we also ordered the rules for the agents in priority so that they would know how to prioritize among their principles/rules/goals. Here is a picture of Jonas' agent (made by Mark and Jon) in the second round:

Jonas' agent

There were a couple of fun instances. When Emmet suddenly reached out and took a bite from Jonas’ cookie. (he was destroying an item). Jonas being really happy about it, because he then got another unique item, something he had in one of is cards. Another, Emmet suddenly throwing a bag of blue stones over his shoulder again following his agent's "destroy-item" principle. We laughed a lot.


What I was especially happy, and positively surprised, about was how we almost magically implemented so many of the ideas that we talked about in the beginning of the session, in our initial half-hour of brain storming. We had actions AND action selections being pretty much constitutive given the cards. The agents did express different types of principles, even if it was so limited in terms of affordances. The ownership aspect was well chosen, and it was good that it was done so early in the session, which actually only lasted for three hours. It was also nice with the different decks of cards for the play groups, using some some similar mechanics as Dominion and Fluxx - that is that rules and afforances can change with the composition of the deck or cards in "the hand", or in our case, the principle card our "agents" got as instructions for how to choose to take action. We even implemented someones comment about creating a player "robot", authored by the co-players (that would be the agents).

Shared cognition bonanza. What a great group!

*non-utlilitaristic is, I see in retrospect, a bit unfortunately named, since one naturally associates to utilitarianism, where the it is considered good to strive for the maximum overall goodness rather than maximizing the goodness for self. It was exactly -ism like that we wanted to think about how to implement. We used the term because we were thinking of utility - normally one strives to make agents that maximize their own success given different parameters. Those parameters can change depending on context, giving different action choices different values. What we meant with the naming (that we didn't discuss like this in the workshop) was that we wanted agents that could make choices that could follow other principles of action that maximizing value and/or success for individual agent. ...and yes, one could argue that in that case one would put that as a success criteria for the agent and that would end up the same - but it is beside the point. Point: agents with different ethical systems.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Workshop on Research Prototyping in Games - Morning sessions

 In the end of May Elina Ollila, Anne Sullivan and I held the Workshop on Research Prototyping in Games [], in Raleigh, NC in junction with the FDG conference.

I started out in the morning with the welcome speech, presenting the scope for the workshop, as well as the schedule. We also did a short presentation round gauging what expectations everyone had for the day. In short, the scope of the workshop was to address how actual hands on prototyping work can, as a method, potentially yield knowledge that would not otherwise emerge. The work process can also yield new interesting questions because often, the resolution of one problem can reveal new interesting problems. For this workshop we asked for submissions of prototypes that are built specifically to explore certain problems or areas of investigation. We gathered a program committee consisting of equal amounts of persons working in the industry and universities respectively, all with extensive experience in the area. 

Mark Nelson: Prototyping
Kant-inspired Reflexive Game Mechanics

The first speaker was Mark Nelson, presenting Prototyping Kant-inspired Reflexive Game Mechanics. Mark presented varieties of two prototypes in order to illustrate Kant’s maxim that one should only do actions that one thinks can be made into universal rules. For example, if one steals, then one would see that as something that would be OK for everyone to do, or even should do.

One Prototype Mark showed was a Pac Man style game where it was possible to break down the walls, and where each hole in the wall became permanent. The other prototype was a variety of chess where it was possible to change the rules, for example get a pawn to behave as a knight. 


In both cases Kant’s maxim was exemplified in that an action was propagated as a rule change, elevating the action to a universal rule. Something that was rewarding to see was that other aspects of game mechanics became interesting in a new way too as a side effect of the exploration of Kantian rule. (Such as how power-ups can be considered to be rule-breakers in some contexts.) 

I kept thinking about constitutive rule systems, something that Richard Evans mentioned at a seminar on AI for games in Dagstuhl a few weeks ago. Most rule systems are restrictive rather than constitutive, meaning that the whole rule system is there from the beginning, but that different actants within the system are restricted to certain parts of the rules. Like in a computer role playing game, a character of a certain class can do what the class dictates, depending on the circumstances, being restricted to a part of the rule system. Constitutive rules on the other hand are, as the name suggest, constituted during play. One example is the card game Dominion, and another is the system Evans and Short are building where a character's action potential is defined by what social practices they are currently engaged in. At least that is how I understand the terms. I might be wrong. I digged, after a reference from Richard E., into a paper by John Rawls on the topic: "Two Concepts of Rules" (1955). 

To me it seems that what Mark is doing is to take a fixed restrictive rule system, chess, and add constitutional rules to it. In play tests it turned out, not surprisingly, that if rules could be freely changed the game quickly became unplayable (too large combinations space), while that with a few restrictions it was more playable... writing this I remember someone in the audience talking about some interesting chess-hybrid, but the name escapes me. Anyhow, I appreciated Mark's talk a lot; to me it showed that prototyping using computational processes can actually illustrate philosophical stances, which is awesome. Other interesting work in the area is Julian Togelius work on the same maxim by Kant. I also have a fuzzy memory of Richard Evans using his B&W code in an experiment to simulate something...philosophical (argh - beating memory with a stick, but it doesn't help).

Emmet Tomai presenting
at WRPG'12

Our second speaker was Emmet Tomai, who presented An MMORPG Prototype for Investigating Adaptive Quest Narratives and Player Behavior. Emmet showed the prototype which is built in Unity 3D, using the SmartFox Server 2X and MySQL. Emmet and his colleagues are investigating how it can be possible to improve "trade-off between the ability for authors to tell motivating narratives and the ability for players to change the world", which in my humble opinion is one of the most important issues of gaming to address. And in order to do so they need to build something own from scratch. My applauds! In this phase they are experimenting with different types of quest generation. (Very close to what Anne is doing.)  I'll be following their future work as closely as I can.  

Testing the Designscape
– Prototyping a Game Prototyping Tool - Jon Manker

After the break we had two speeches about methods for prototyping. Jon Manker presented his game prototyping the tool DesignScape, which we actually tried out in the afternoon prototyping session, and Elina gave an overview of different prototyping- and assessment methods.

Elina Ollila presenting
at WRPG'12

We went to lunch together, talking about what to prototype in the afternoon. I'll write about that in the next post. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dagstuhl seminar on Artificial and Computatio​nal Intelligen​ce and Games

I spent last week at Schloss Dagstuhl together with some 40 other AI researchers, talking about AI and games. It was awesome. This is the doodle i made the last day, I think that can serve as an evaluation:

The seminar was started by a series of short talks on different topics that could be interesting to discuss at the seminar. Here is the agenda for talks:

Agenda talks monday

Then, we divided ourselves into groups. Michael Young, Ruth Aylett, Richard Evans, Paolo Burelli and myself formed a group to talk about computational narrative. We worked on this until Wednesday morning when the full group got together. Each group presented their work to the others.
Computational Narrative group presentation

Then it was time to form new groups. Michael Mateas, Richard Evans, Ruth Aylett, Mike Preuss, Ana Paiva, Elisabeth Andre and myself got together to talk about Social Simulations in games. We scored a room with a white board.

We had plenary sessions too. One was about grants, another about industry cooperation. We all assumed that it was in a sorry state, but then we realized that 20 out of 34 were cooperating with industry in projects, so it didn't seem so bad after all. The third plenary resulted in a flurry of activity to create and .org. We want to communicate research results by showing them in games that people can download. We also thought about having competitions (agents etc).

In the evenings, we played board games. There was also a quiz-night. There was a challenge on formulating the questions. We were seven groups, and each group formulated six questions. The challenge in formulating the questions was to aim for that 50% of the other groups would be able to answer the question.

The group-work will be written up, so that each groups discussion is summarised in a paper. The proceedings will probably be available in a few months. (Our deadline for the papers is 30 days from now.)

It was a truly inspiring week. I found myself making connections and associations in my thoughts that will most likely guide my future work. It is as if getting together like this suddenly makes one function better, as if the smartness of the group somehow enhances the individual. The organisation team, Simon Lucas, Michael Mateas, Mike Preuss, Pieter Spronck and Julian Togelius, did an amazing job, aided by the smooth machinery of Shloss Dagsthul. Thank you :)

More info:
The seminar info-page:
Alex Champanard of AI Game Dev wrote a post on Monte Carlo tree searches one of the evenings in the game room, here it is:

The pictures I took at the Seminar:
Pictures from Dana Nau:

The hive mind

Friday, April 27, 2012

Malta Digital Games Forum 2012

Minister of Finance, Malta by mimmi
Minister of Finance, Malta, a photo by mimmi on Flickr.
The government of Malta launched a strategy for digital games today. It felt amazing to be present when first the prime minister of Malta, and then the minister of Finance, declared that they will put substantial effort into helping a budding games industry to grow. This really is the place to be.

A visit to ITU in Copenhagen

Copenhagen by mimmi
Copenhagen, a photo by mimmi on Flickr.
I was at ITU in Copenhagen on Tuesday this week to give a talk and to hang out with the great people that ITU consists of. The visit was organised by Sebastian Möring who is looking at metaphores in computer games. It is interesting to consider games and simulations as metaphors - they are so much more far reaching in terms of being complete systems than we normally think of when talking about metaphors. I associate to literature that paraphrases societal structures - in societies where critique cannot be given an author may describe the mechanics of a society but state that it is another, fictional society that is actually described. In such fiction it is obvious to the reader what is described - it seems like we as humans want to ascribe the nature of something as derived from systemic functions and properties.
I enjoyed giving the talk, and appreciated all the good questions I got. And the post-talk dinner :) Here is a description of the talk:

I had a good flight. The connection from Malta to Copenhagen was in Rome. I love hearing italian and see how stylish people are there. The airport is overshadowed by a huge Emporio Armani building. ...It was only the fact that my flight connection was quite short that saved my wallet from a pair of Ferragamo flats, I didn’t have time to try them on. On my flight to copenhagen I was busy finishing the preparation of my talk (managed to add a few pictures of otters into the slides), and used one of my best tricks for not being nervous: thinking of the temporality of our existence. It puts things in appropriate perspective.
On my way back I listened to an audiobook about Kant. Julian Togelius’ and Mark Nelson’s recent work (both independently exploring Kant’s categorical imperative through computation) has inspired me to go back to the philosophy classics.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

We don't have to be alone together

I listened to Sherry Turkle’s TED talk ( on the bus on my way to work this morning. I have immensely enjoyed Turkle’s books Life on the Screen and The Second Self She, so I was very curious about her talk. She spoke about how we use our cellphones, how we during the past fifteen years have become increasingly alone together. (“Alone Together” is also the title of a good paper by Steinkuehler that is about how we play togeter, alongside, but alone in MMOs).

Turkle said that we are content with less from each other, as technology gives us more. That we avoid intimacy. That when we are the most vulnerable it can be easier to turn to technology. There were social robots at a hospital. Turkle told the audience about a woman who was talking to a robot baby seal when mourning her lost child, and how complex this situation is, and not necessarily for good. She meant that we are so easely smitten by what technology can do, when it is new and shiny.
Fifteen years ago Turkle saw avatars and virtual worlds as ways to learn more about ourselves in order to live better lives in the real world.But now the cell phones has created another way to live, we don’t learn about ourselves. Since we do not have real conversations we feel that we are not listened to. So then it feels good to have feeds on facebook and twitter that people listen to.
Turkle  ends with that she doesn’t mean that we should stop using our phones, rather reflect over how we use them. To still have real conversations. That those around us needs us, especially adolescents - the need to learn how to relate to other people in real-time, to have conversations. Online in texts we always have the option to edit, to delete. While in a real conversation we also learn about each other in the glitches and in the mistakes.

I am thinking about presence.
The worlds Turkle wrote about fifteen years ago where virtual worlds of their own, their own universes, and when immersed in those, one is there, sometimes so immersed that one is one with the avatar, that there, in the now of playing many players experience being the avatar, in that world (Something that Bartle writes about in an insightful way in Designing Virtual Worlds).
That is a very different thing from the ever-present tapping into our social networks that many of us do in parallel, the tweeting and the Facebooking.

If we divide our attention to halfly be in other conversations on texts when we sit at a meeting or take part in another group activity it as if we don’t give our full attention to anything.
I believe, as so many others, that it is important to try to be as present in the now as possible - that goes for both social and solitude situations. So I agree with Turkle on that point that we need to reflect on how we use our cellphones, and still be there for each other, in real-time, in situations where we cannot edit ourselves, that are unmediated, conversations that we cannot leave just because they become uncomfortable or painful. If we avoid difficulties we do not grow. But I don’t see virtual worlds as something juxtaposed to this - being fully immersed in a virtual world is not comparable to the half-life of the moments where we are halfly present in a real life situation that may bore us, or that we do not have time to be in, mentally.

As for robots and social agents I  agree with Turkle that we need to be careful to not beleive that they can do the difficult job of us as humans being fully there for each other, to listen to each other. But I don’t want to abandon the fact that we can learn more about ourselves and about how to interact with others by experimenting in virtual worlds. They can offer safe environments for learning, where mistakes are not as severely punished, and where the shunned and the bullied can find rest, shelter, and understanding. Turke’s concept of virtual words as moratoriums are something that is still important. She wrote about people who after traumatic experiences spent lots of time in textbased virtual worlds, these becoming environments where they could rest, and after a few months come back to spend more time in the real world, when they were less vulnerable.
It is a tricky issue. I am thinking of the woman that Turkle described in her talk, who was talking about her grief with a robot baby seal.
In the text based worlds the conversations held were held by other human beings, who interacted in real time with each other by the affordances given by the particular game worlds. That was not short tweets creating conversations fragmented by asynchronicity in time and by the fact that the recipient of any comment depends on who happens to see it.
I want us to use the power of computation to become more ourselves. To focus more. To see each other more clearly. To communicate with greater clarity and understanding. Help us overcome our superstitions about each other - that the other should be in a certain way because of the properties we are given by reality (the gender, the culture, the looks of the body, all that we are born with.) I don’t want to abandon the idea that we may, if we put our mental efforts and creativity in o it, find means to facilitate the true meeting of minds.
That is why I have dedicated so much time to experiment with ways to use what we know about humans (psychology etc), and art (our potential) and technology (engineering, to actually program it) to the concept of the Avatar. That is, putting more intelligence into the vehicles for our identities, into us, so that we may see each other, and ourselves, more clearly.
What if the woman in the hospital grieving the loss of her child would not talk to a baby-seal-robot, but to a fellow human being operating with their full potential, with all they have to give in terms of clarity, compassion, understanding, and accommodation.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

GDC 2012

This year at GDC i tried a new approach. Previous years I have been so greedy to not miss anything that I have been severely sleep deprived. Being up late talking, but still bouncing up early in the mornings in order to catch the morning talks. My memories became fragmented at best.
So this year I only went for three days instead of five, and I made sure to sleep a bit later if it had been a late evening the day before.
It worked so much better! On the other hand, by this year I have gotten used to that the GDC Vault exists, that I can look at the record talks later, back home. So it isn’t as devastating to miss one of the talks. Also, this year there were no keynotes in the morning, that helped too. 

Registration area
This means that I went to fewer talks, but I think I still managed to capture some of the highlights. One of my favorites was the Experimental Game Play Sessions that featured ten really interesting games, and another was Richard Rouse’s talk on character and empathy in cinematic game design. He gave two especially interesting examples of how narrative and game play is intertwined. One was that of Sam Fisher in Splinter Cell, when he is betrayed his emotional reaction is conveyed to the player by the ability to shoot with astounding accuracy. There was a familiar feel to this, so when I ran into Richard Dansky later I asked; and yes, indeed he had written that scene. Another interesting example Rouse brought up was that of a game where the player could shift perspective between characters, and where the objects in the world was represented very differently. In one character, the environment appeared grey and hostile, with threatening creatures in it. When switching perspective into a ‘little sister’ the colors of the world were warm and cosy, and the threatening entities were hardly noticeable. To the player, this would explain how the little sisters could appear so unconcerned in the scary environment. That is, the characterization of the little sisters gets an extra dimension since players can take their perspective. 

Experimental game play sessions - all presenters
Of the games presented in the experimental game play session I especially appreciated Storyteller and GlitchHiker. Storyteller appears so elegant to me: the player can accomplish a story by simply moving story-elements between three cartoon-looking squares, one for earch act. I associate to Polti’s 32 dramatic situations - there were pre-defined dramatic states that the player can puzzle out by dragging around the entities. Lovely!
The story of GlitchHiker was one of tragedy, loss, and memoriam. The game itself had 200 lives, and player’s loosing would take one of these away. Players could also win lives for the game. The lesser lives left, the more glitches in the game. It lived for 6 hours, and during that time players created strong emotional bonds to the game. All that is left is one video-shot of the game. The story was told in a compelling way - I can’t do it justice here. I really recommend checking out this session in the Vault.


A strange tendency in this years’ rants was to complain about reasoning about games. It is strange to me because no one has ever forced anyone who doesn’t want to, to reason, or listen to reasoning. To make that into a talk (“I don’t want to listen”) seems very meta to me, and somewhat unnecessary. It has more validity when a child in school complains, since schooling is mandatory. GDC is not. 

Dinner with Mike, Ian and Stephane

What made this GDC memorable to me was the demos I saw over lunches and dinners. I have this wonderful feeling that now, finally, there are games and systems designed for me. Systems that not just are impressive and interesting, but completely and utterly what I have been longing for. One is Storybricks - Stephane showed it in action over dinner, and I can’t *wait* to get my hands on it to construct stories. Another is Emily Short’s and Richard Evans’ text game based on Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It is as if a book comes alive. Genius.

I took pictures! Click here for a brief photo-diary.

Monday, March 05, 2012

At the supermarket in Siggiewi, Malta

at JJ's in Siggiewi Malta, learning the basics about Maltese living. This is the fruit-and vegetable section. There are also vans at some places that one can buy fresh vegetables from. An attendat was ready to weigh and mark the fruits I selected, and then he put them all in the same bag. Impressive from a sustainability perspective - use much less plastic that way!
Also, there are no plastic bags to carry home the groceries in! One is supposed to bring one's own bag. I had forgotten mine (I do carry one around normally, got it at New Leaf in Santa Cruz when shopping groceries with Josh and Ariel) so we were given a box to carry in.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Workshop on Research Prototyping in Games (WRPG 2012)

At this year's FDG Conference we are organizing a workshop on research prototyping in games. Have you used game prototyping as a way to find answers? If so, send a few pages (4 - 6) to us by the 12th of March explaining what the question was, what type of prototype you build (or are building or plan to build), and what results you got! Read more here: