PhD in CS. Release Date: July!

It has been a tough 4.5 years, but the end is finally near! Last Tuesday I had my private defence, or “preliminary defence” (or viva for the Brits, I hear). In Belgium, this part is pretty much the scariest moment of your doctoral career: it’s the proper, final, oral exam. Sometimes it is an enjoyable chat where they (4 professors) treat you as peers for the first time, sometimes it’s a soul-crushing, head-ache inducing, exhausting emotional rollercoaster. Mine jumped around between these two extremes, with some of this:

Still, the experience was a good one. They do a good effort in making you doubt your work, and I walked away feeling more confident and proud of what we have accomplished these long years.

The public defence, where I get to bore the audience with 45 minutes of presentation, is planned on 6 July 2017. If you are in any way interested in Learning Dashboards, Learning Analytics, or just like free drinks and snacks, I suggest you come watch! If interested, do shoot me a message for the details (it’ll be in Leuven, Belgium)! Official invites will be sent in a few weeks…

Meanwhile, enjoy the slides of the private defence:

Deux Wallons et un Flamand play Overwatch

To those of you who don’t like to read, a summary:
Three Belgians (two Walloons and one Flemish, and sometimes a Mexican) will stream Overwatch every Wednesday, from 9pm CET until 11pm CET. So head over to Twitch and subscribe!
(yes this is an activity that’s helping me finish my PhD dissertation!)

Belgium is an interesting country. Super tiny, only 11 million people, yet home of chocolate and beer, fries, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Tintin, the Smurfs, the saxophone, the contraceptive pill (the Catholic church loves us for that one), we invented both asphalt AND roller skates, and so much more. We do all right for an insignificant speck on this planet.

But what makes Belgians really different, is their attitude towards political correctness. We tend not to do that. Except for politicians and hipsters, maybe. But in general, we “respectfully” make fun of everything. Nothing is sacred.

And that’s fine. We don’t mind being the target of laughter and ridicule either (we’ve been through enough misery that we can see the funny side of everything) . Hell, we do it to ourselves on a daily basis!

You see, Belgium is split into several parts, but the most important ones (sorry Brussels, no one likes you) are Flanders and Wallonia. Flanders (the North, where I live) speaks Dutch, known by the South for extreme racism and intolerance. But at least we cycle and feel better about ourselves because of it. Wallonia, the South, speaks French, known by the Flemish as leeches who contribute nothing to society. What they lack in civilisation, they make up for in hospitality and cleaner air (yet they don’t cycle!). Before I get lynched by either side, these are stereotypical jokes we throw at each other. Jokes, people!

Yet, media and politicians seem to take these seriously, fuel the hate (which.. isn’t really a thing), and want to split this country in two.

But in reality, calling a Walloon lazy, or a Flemish a racist, is just a thing we do. “No offence”. Both sides know that. If they can’t take the joke, it usually means they’re Bruxellois (or lazy, or racist..).

So what does this have to do with anything? Overwatch, believe it or not. Together with a couple of Walloon friends (and the occasional Mexican), we’ll do a weekly stream to prove everyone wrong. That we DO get along. As long as we get to shoot other people in the face. Isn’t it beautiful how violence brings us together?

We’ll show them those stereotypes are as true as the lies about French driving skills, Dutch cheapness, British food, American obesity…

*cough*

We’ll show the true love that lives between the North and the South! No ham will come between us (ok that’s a terrible inside joke).

The stream will be in English, of course, and once we hit critical mass and make money, we’ll hire someone to subtitle the Walloons ;) ..

Jokes aside (I have to save them up for the stream), we’re planning on a weekly stream, every Wednesday, from 9pm CET until 11pm CET. So head over to Twitch and subscribe! You might not be disappointed!

 

“What’s in a game..”   Thoughts on indie game trends

I recently went to my second Screenshake, an indie game festival in Antwerp, Belgium, together with my fellow PhD candidate colleague Francisco. It’s a nice initiative that, among other things, tries to give the Belgian game scene a bit of  exposure and attempts to bring a diverse crowd together: a good balance in gender (both talks and audience), and the most diverse crowd on pretty much any level you can imagine. It’s.. impressive.

Francisco playing a Mexican character.. very Inception-like.

Francisco playing a Mexican character.. very Inception-like.

As a computer scientist, the event tends to get a bit too artsy for my taste. Choosing talks was difficult due to the limited information (only a short, sometimes very cryptic biography), and I couldn’t get to the Industry Talks on Saturday, which, I’m sure/I hope, were not artsy at all. So I chose the talks of  Annamaria Andrea and Pietro Righi Riva on Sunday morning, based on the fact that they’re academics as well, expecting very clear and fact-based presentations. Sadly however, they were both in a casual mode, presenting a lot of ideas and thoughts but lacking structure and a general clear message to take away (I have a feeling this blog post is heading in a similar direction). Okay, maybe that’s a bit too harsh, both were interesting talks. But it made me wonder where they want games to head. (Disclaimer: I might have completely misinterpreted these talks or their points being made, because everyone seemed to nod in agreement while we both looked confused. That’s what the comment section or @svencharleer is for).

I saw two trends, opposite extremes as you will: one towards too much freedom, and one towards too many restrictions in video game design.

Noby Noby Boy – PS3 2009

Freedom: Annamaria talked about authorship in games (I’m recently doing something in datavis around that topic. Totally unrelated! Not sure why I mentioned this. Hey it’s my blog): as a game designer, attempt to give a good amount of freedom to the player, try not to impose too much, and let them fill in the interpretations themselves. Made me think of Minecraft, or GTA when you rip out the story line. These sandbox environment promote creativity, personal input etc.  My question is, how do you categorise these games: where do you draw the line, when does it actually stop being a game. E.g. I can give a kid a stick, and they can pretend it to be anything, play for hours, but that didn’t make me a game designer. Sure, an extreme example, but a minimal guidance, a specific personal input from the designer seems necessary? How much deviation in interpretation do you want to give? How do you create those boundaries, for it not to remain a game? Nobi Nobi Boy comes to mind, by  Keita Takahashi. Sure, it looks like a game. But is it?  I’m biased of course, I like games with stories. I love Shadow of the Colossus, The Last Guardian, Day of the Tentacle.. all linear stories that “hold my hand” so I don’t get lost. I’m not a fan of open worlds, except maybe World of Warcraft (but I’d hate it without the multiplayer aspect, which is a totally different story). Open worlds can retain my attention for about five minutes. Then I’m out.

Restriction: But that brings me to Pietro’s talk and his manifesto, and his attempt to broaden the reach of video games. A bit of a weirdly structured talk: he goes through all the steps of his manifesto but then spends half the talk about the issue of time flow. See, according to Pietro it’s important to create, say, a two hour experience. The player becomes more of a spectator, and has no real direct input on the outcome. You’d only play through it once, and using examples such as Zelda’s Majora’s Mask, he explains that it’s been done before, but not without the concept of looping, forcing the player to partake in some kind of Groundhog Day experience. He doesn’t want looping, but he doesn’t want you to miss out on anything either.

First concern? Why haven’t we seen real-time in games a lot lately? Because it doesn’t really work well. It puts a huge amount of stress on the player, and therefore it isn’t a good candidate to lure in non-gamers.  Secondly, how do you technically achieve this? One single run-through, but the player must be aware of all plot moments. I can think of two things: those 70s split screen cuts, and the FMV games Ground Zero: Texas and Night Trap (I bet the SJWs would have a field day with this one, if it were to be released today), where time moves on, and you have to constantly switch cameras to make sure you’ve seen it all (oh and shoot aliens). These mechanics might have been abandoned for reasons though.

Night Trap - Sega CD 1992

Night Trap – Sega CD 1992

A huge concern I have with this manifesto, is that it feels like Pietro is trying to copy, what is, a movie. A two hour experience you sit through. Interactivity is limited to changing focus, but if you want the player to not miss the important events, those interactions are by definition going to be meaningless. I don’t think it qualifies as a game, if you don’t actually play..  (that’s not completely true of course, and we can redefine this term as the industry continues to mature). Also, don’t try to appeal to such a large target group. If you want to reel in new crowds, design for them specifically. Do some participatory design, talk to your target audience. Whatever appeals to the masses isn’t necessarily good anyway.

Many games on demo did take queues from this manifesto: lots of games on demo were just  interactive experiences. It reminds me of the 90s, when the CD-ROM was released, creating an abundance of interactive multimedia. FMV was a big thing, but not an easy thing to interact with. The result? Lots of interactive movies. I’m sure it pulled in a lot of new types of gamers, but to those of us growing up with Mario and Sonic, it felt like a huge step backwards. I’m not saying there is no place for these experiences, but the classifier “video game” seems a bit far fetched. I won’t say “games” like Dragon’s Lair weren’t pretty though. But did anyone really enjoy playing those? Another example, I think this was L.O.C.K. by Tales of Tales, see below. Pretty? Sure…

today at #screenshake17 with @svencharleer

A post shared by Francisco Gutiérrez (@francisco.ghz) on

I appreciate Firewatch (loved) and Oxenfree (played through it yesterday) though. Those are good games. But I consider them on the border of being real games. Interactive stories, sure. Point and Click adventure? Barely..

OK, so with indie games you can experiment away. No barrier on creative freedom. That’s the beauty of it: no publisher breathing down your neck. And if it’s pieces of art you wish to make, only understandable and appreciated by a minority, sure, it’s your total right to do so. Abstract art has an audience. I’m not part of that audience, as you might have guessed. But again, do not coin the term game. Games can be art, but interactive art isn’t necessarily a game. And that brings me to a final “little” frustration that came up seeing some of the demos (totally due to the fact I’m working in Human-Computer Interaction, or maybe my impatience as I’m older now): “it’s not good practice to make something hard to use as part of your design” (messy controls aren’t art either). It took us (two average intelligent guys) a couple of minutes to understand the input methods for If Found, Please Return, which then sadly enough only seemed to act like a Prezi presentation. OK, too harsh, I’m just trying to make a point, I can’t judge a game properly from a few minutes on a demo floor. But it made us walk away,  which isn’t a good sign. Then some games will throw away a good button layout for a complete random mess no gamer would ever understand, e.g. triggers for jump and shoot in a shoot’m up platformer called Hivejump. As if Contra never happened :/ .. Recently I saw a friend try Broforce. He wasn’t new to games either. Felt like watching a toddler discover a platformer for the first time. (Phil Fish can say what he want about Japanese video games, but at least people don’t feel/look stupid when playing them) What I’m trying to get at is this: involving your audience in the design is important. Learning from successful designs is too. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Experimenting with new things? Sure. But do some solid user evaluations. Real users. Not your techy friends.. Don’t take it from me (hey it’s just part of my research/job), take it from Silicon Valley:

Being my blog, I have the freedom to do whatever I want. So I’m not going to give you a proper conclusion (I already have enough work trying to do so for my PhD dissertation). This post was a personal interpretation of my experience, so, in line with what I’ve learned at Screenshake,  I’ll leave the interpretation of this blog post to the player.. I mean reader. Feel free to contribute (or criticise, that’s .. the academic way!).

 

Another job, another commute. Visualized

I’ve had quite a few different jobs.. well, about five… But that’s quite a lot for your typical Belgian (we fear change!). This resulted in a range of long car commutes, short bicycle commutes, extreme long train commutes… You’d think I’d learn and go for shorter with every job change, but alas… I didn’t.

My latest commute is even the longest yet. But working at Augment, Erik Duval’s and now Katrien Verbert’s research group at KU Leuven, has been worth it. And it probably is the most fun/satisfying/creative/soul shattering/depressing (yes) job I’ve had. Good times!

Anyway, it got me thinking that I should try to visualise the differences between my commutes. No rocket science, but I thought it would be fun to walk you through them.

commute_legend

First, a quick explanation. The colors are explained in the image above, the thickness of a line indicates the difficulty of that part of the trip (traffic jams for car, waiting for connections in case of the train, and cycling just requires effort,.. always). The partial donuts indicate ring roads and how much distance is spent on them. All of these are very rough estimates, enough to tell my story. The bar on the right indicates the best possible time (green) to the worst possible time (red). These are based on what Google Maps estimates during morning rush hours (again, no exact science here). Okay? Let’s go.

Job #1: Northgate Arinso

commute_1

Ah, Brussels and its traffic jams. Our country is small, but our traffic jams are amongst world’s biggest. And we chose to live north of Brussels, which meant I’d have to head through the longest and busiest part of the Brussels Ring. I was young and stupid,  and spent 4.5 years in horrible traffic jams. Seriously hated it in the end. But it did give me a lot of time to think. Think about what my next job should be! (staring at the trunk of the car in front of you is quite.. zen and inspiring?)
That thick part at the start of the trip? Two lanes merging onto one on a bridge. Could add an hour to your route if you didn’t know the shortcuts. Horrible! (they widened the bridge AFTER I moved job/house of course)

Job #2: Monumental Games

commute_2

I managed to land a job in the games industry, a dream of mine since I was a kid. Added bonus: I went from 2-3 hours a day wasted in the car to my shortest commute ever. Was even short enough  to have lunch at home with Elke! I had to buy a bicycle (I was a.. car person, but on a puny game developer salary.. no dice), but in the end the overtime was worse than my previous commute time. So.. I left!

Job #3: iChoosr

commute_3

There were many reasons why I left the game industry (there are things I miss: many of my colleagues, making games, and a bit of Nottingham. And things I don’t miss: rain), but it was time to move on, and we arrived back in Belgium: Antwerp. Being even closer to work, getting the bicycle out of the basement was sometimes just not worth the time. Elke’s work was right next to ours, so we could meet up for lunch every day. Second best lunches ever!

commute_4

We ended up buying a house, away from the city. So the commute got longer. Still, two bicycle rides and a trip on the train weren’t too bad… But the time it takes for the short distance was quite ridiculous (welcome to Belgium).

Job #4: Northgate Arinso

commute_5

Leaving iChoosr was a bit weird (I was the first at the company to ever leave..), but I thought, hey, commutes, I can handle those! I’ve done horrible commutes for almost five years! .. But I did seem to forget we relocated: we moved to the north of Antwerp, which added another ring road to my trip… It took me 3 months to realise what I did. It took me another year to find an exit.

Job #5: KU Leuven

commute_6

Okay, it’s even further away. But I get to do research! Be creative! Get a PhD in the end (hopefully). Two ring roads again, but this time, the Brussels part is quite short.

commute_7

Universities do not give you cars, but they do give you train subscriptions! So, thanks to the amazing services of the NMBS (Belgian railways), with its weekly/daily delays and cancelled trains, it can take up to three hours to get to work (or you just can’t get anywhere,.. it happens more often than you think). This can get quite frustrating, but the train has become my second office. Not a complete waste of time..

 

Now, if I had more time, it would be great to visualise my love for each job/company/colleagues, and weigh it against salary, commute distance etc. But hey, I don’t want to burn any bridges. And even so, every job I’ve had was amazing in its own way. I made great friends, learned things! Not regretting any of it..

I will end with this: the actual locations of the companies. And here, I’ve improved. I present to you, from left to right: Northgate Arinso, Monumentel Games, iChoosr, Northgate Arinso again,.. and KU Leuven.

maps2

Yep. We’ve gone greener. However, the access to good lunch places is equally bad on both the university campus and the industrial area in which Northgate Arinso was located. The prettiest building I’ve worked in (on the outside anyway) deserves some attention as well: “The Prudential Building” in Nottingham.

nb00161

Hope you enjoyed the trip (pun intended, of course). If you like this type of visualisation, I’d love to see it applied to your own commutes. Or anything trip related really. Do leave comments!

Oh, and lessons learned? Err… Balance is everything! But home working is the best?!

 

 

Time-notes

A big part of Human-Computer Interaction research is observation, staring for hours on at how your participants use and abuse your system, or behave without it. Having detailed information on exactly when and what people do, is quite important. The more detailed the logs, the better.

A usual approach is recording the audio during an evaluation session. Or even better, pointing a bunch of cameras to the participants from as many angles as possible. But sometimes, just sometimes, privacy and ethics (or just unwilling participants) get in the way. The next best thing? Taking notes…

time-notes

Strangely enough I couldn’t find a single, simple app that would just let me write notes with timestamps next to it (I’m guessing my Googling skills aren’t what they used to be, but still, I needed a solution quickly!).

Say hello to Atom, the “hackable” editor from the people at GitHub. I quickly threw some JavasScript together et voila, a solution to my problems: the time-notes package.

I know, this is the complete opposite of rocket science. But sometimes simple (it’s just a few lines of code) is enough. You’d be surprised how useful this was when spending 7 hours taking notes in a highly sensitive (personal data discussions with the occasional emotional moment) evaluation. Hey, it even saves it into the tsv format!

Now if someone could automate the process of analysing my notes, that’d be great.

Atom editor: https://atom.io/
Time-notes package: https://atom.io/packages/time-notes