Finding of the week #295

When do I feel present?

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about my personal requirements to experience presence inside of a virtual environment.

Recently, I helped two colleagues preparing their experiment by volunteering as a participant. The central goal of their study is to measure the subjective experience of presence. Presence is the subjective illusion of being inside a virtual environment despite physically being located in a completely different environment. The illusion is increased when a user is visually immersed in the virtual environment, e.g., by wearing a head-mounted display.

This experiment made me think about my personal experiences with presence. Which gameplay and design elements are needed to feel present inside a virtual environment? Personally, I feel the highest degree of presence when either the virtual world is manipulable and reacts to my actions as well as when the virtual environment is designed in a natural way, features a believable scenery and is freely explorable.

A manipulable world requires virtual objects or agents I can interact with and that show a reaction based on my actions. The effectiveness of these interactions for inducing presence is not depended on their complexity or believability. It is more about the mere possibility to actively change things inside of the virtual world with my actions. For instance, the option to grab and throw a virtual object already is enough to let me experience presence. However, simply indicating my existence with 3D assets of the game controllers or even a realistic avatar rarely induces presence. Thus, to feel presence, it is important to me that my actions matter, e.g., by changing the position of an object, and not that I am visually represented inside of the virtual world.

A freely explorable and believable scenery requires a lot of modelling and level editing. Like in the real world, I enjoy seeing new places and exploring them by changing my perspective. For a virtual environment, this requires a detailed virtual world and the possibility to freely navigate through the environment. Environments that mainly consist of nothing more than a nearly empty virtual world featuring only a few assets make it very hard for me to experience presence. Here, I immediately notice that it is nothing else than a simulation thus breaking the illusion of actually being inside of the virtual world. Thus, to feel presence, it is important that the virtual world hides the fact that it is a simulation by presenting many details making it lively and believable.

In the end, as complex virtual environments are diffcult to design, each virtual world should contain at least one interaction possibility. This interaction should enable a user to perform an action inside of the virtual environment that causes a change of it. As a result, they potentially experience presence when immersing themselves inside such a virtual environment.

Finding of the week #294

Typing Commands

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how the computer games represent effective educational tools as they embed the application of the game-knowledge in complex scenarios.

While Linux and a few Mac users might be used to type command line inputs into a console, most other computer users probably find this method quite confusing and not very intuitive. By now, most users are familiar with using windows, icons, and buttons when it comes to executing and controlling applications. These graphical user interfaces are more intuitive and less prone to false inputs. Thus, they are more comfortable to control and do not require a user to remember specific inputs to execute a certain function.

This results in the fact that only a few users can operate a terminal thus leading to the impression that this tool is for experts, programmers, and hackers only. While this might be true to some degree, having a basic knowledge about using command lines can be beneficial and helpful. Learning most relevant commands, such as „cd“, „mv“ and „rm“, however, is challenging as users have to internalize them.

Using Terminal commands in Hacknet

Like with any other learning content, learning these commands requires a high motivation for a repetitive practice. This can be achieved by embedding the learning content in computer games and turning it into a central input game mechanic which is embedded in a complex scenario, i.e., the narrative of the game.

While this is not the intention of Hacknet, the hacking simulation game represents a perfect learning environment for terminal commands. During the gameplay, a player is challenged to hack computers, to search for specific files, and even to download or to modify these files. For this purpose, Hacknet simulates a hacking terminal that requires a player to type and to execute commands of which most of them are commands used in regular terminals.

As a result of this, players subconsciously learn the basics of using a terminal in a highly motivated way during the gameplay. Also, as there is only a small visual difference between the game terminal and a regular terminal, users can directly transfer their learning outcome from the game context to a different context.

In conclusion, computer games represent powerful educational tools as they can easily embed a learning content in complex scenarios. This leads to a high degree of motivation and allows for an repetitive practice during different challenges already requiring a training transfer within the context of the game.

Finding of the week #293

The rewarding moment when everything starts to move

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the rewarding moment that occurs when a complex design project inside of a computer game is tested and used for the very first time.

Some games, such as Kerbal Space Program (KSP) and Factorio, allow a player to carefully design ideas and subsequently to test them for effectiveness and efficiency. In KSP, a player assembles complex spacecraft that are potentially intended to reach distant celestial bodies and to land on them. After having finished the design phase, the player can launch the spacecraft in the simulation phase and complete the desired mission.

Designing effective production lines in Factorio

Factorio challenges a player with the design of large factories that refine basic resources into higher goods to finally assemble final products. As recipes for some higher tier goods are complex and require multiple steps of refining materials, achieving a high effectiveness and efficiency is the key to successfully play the game. This especially is important as the player also is challenged to design the paths on which the goods are transported. By not correctly designing these paths, bottlenecks can occur and slow down an entire production line.

As a result of this, players need to carefully design their production lines. On the one hand, they need to consider the amount of resources needed to avoid having a shortage of a particular material. On the other hand, they need to find ways to efficiently transport the required amount of resources in time to avoid slowing down the production. Thus, a major part of the gameplay consist of laying out new patterns of machines and trying to connect them with conveyor belts which transport the resoures.

This mentally demanding phase of the game ends when the player finally connects a new production line to the power and supplies it with the needed basic resources. This event represents a very rewarding moment in the gameplay as the player can observe how the materials pass through the system and confirm that the design is effective (or needs some additional improvement …). Personally, I find these moments very rewarding as they conclude partly difficult puzzle phases with visual summaries of the found solutions.

In the end, by allowing players to design own projects and subsequently observe their results, a high motivation to continue searching for a solution is achieved. The gameplay requiring the development of designs can, as demonstrated with KSP, also contain learning content. This knowledge then is subconsciously practiced as players need to apply it to successfully find a working solution.

Finding of the week #292

Between Let’s Plays and true appreciation of the game

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the internal struggle between being creative by creating let’s play vdeos and simply enjoying the pure gameplay of a computer game.

Creating Let’s Play videos (LPs) is a special form of playing computer games. Instead of only focussing on the game, players capture their gameplay and simultaneously provide a commentary. This results in a video-based coverage of the gameplay that is enhanced by an additional narrative.

Being a LP creator myself, I really enjoy this additional layer of my gameplay. Aside from enjoying the gameplay itself, I can share my experiences and approaches with others. In addition, by sharing LPs with others, I get the opportunity to discuss decisions and to receive suggestions how I can improve my gameplay or challenges I can address in a future video.

As creating LPs also allows for showcasing advanced and creative builds in open world building games, sharing those videos can result in a video-based exhibition. In this way, the computer game becomes an empty canvas and the gameplay turns into art. By editing the videos, LP creators can refine their videos and continue the creative process.

This additional element of playing computer games can become an integral part of the gameplay experience. Personally, I noticed that I miss it when I play games off camera. As a result, I mostly wait with playing a new game until I have the capacity to record it as I do not want to miss out on some entertaining moments of my gameplay. However, in the case of some special story-based games, I deliberately decide against recording it to fully enjoy the gameplay without feeling the desire to move on to keep the video entertaining. In those special cases, I just like to rest in the moment of the gameplay and fully enjoy it.

In the end, creating LPs is a very creative form of playing computer games that contributes to the overall experience but also prohibits to rest in a very special moment. Thus, it results in a constant struggle between being creative and simply enjoying a game.

Finding of the week #291

A true form of art

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how story-based games are a true form of art that require creative as well as artistic skills during the design process and evoke feelings as well as internal conflicts in a player during the gameplay.

Story-based games are mostly designed to present complex and advanced narratives to players. The gameplay of these games challenges players with decision-making tasks to continue with the story. The decisions often have an impact on the continuation of the story and can lead to completely different experiences or endings.

In this way, these games rarely implement advanced interactions like action-based or simulation-based games. Instead, they rely on easy navigation game mechanics to allow for an exploration of the virtual environment and an interaction with it. Hence, the challenges of developing these games are a result of the need for a narrative providing multiple story archs depending on a player’s choices.

As a result of this, game designers are challenged to create and to evoke the right atmosphere. This not only requires the utilization of atmospheric visual effects or music, but also to develop complex characters and problems. Thus, the game design process of these games is comparable to film making. In addition, game designers need to present the narrative in form of texts, spoken monologs or dialogs, acting of the characters, or a combination of these forms.

This approach not only requires the creation of assets that audiovisually present the story, but also the utilization of techniques commonly found in film making and theater. Game designers implement different perspectives, cuts, visual effects, and background music to establish the desired atmosphere and to immerse a player in the story. Hence, creating and designing story-based games demonstrates that game design is a true form of art.

In the same way, playing and enjoying these type of games evokes internal moral conflicts in players due to their dense atmospheres, complex problems, and the requirement to make difficult decisions. Thus, computer games are not only entertainment, but also a true form of art.

Finding of the week #290

The events were caused by me …

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the effects of playing advanced story-based computer games. As players are in control of major events of a narrative, they can start to feel responsible for the effects of their decisions.

When making difficult decisions, we often ask ourselves if going for the alternative route would have been better and reduced the negative effects. Naturally, we cannot estimate what the real effects would have been, but it seems to be a common habbit to question our own decisions. While we know these thoughts from our daily lifes, having these kind of thoughts being evoked by a computer game is a very exciting experience.

As discussed last week, I currently play Life is Strange in the hope that I can finish it before other things start to keep me again from playing it. Life is Strange is an advanced story-based game that challenges players to decide how the narrative shall continue. The choices a player makes have drastic effects and even determine whether one of the central characters lives or dies. Thus, the continuation directly affects the players as it was their choice how the story continues. They decided to perform a certain action and have to deal with the consequences.

A similar game is Orwell that puts the player into the role of a member of a security agency who gathers information about citizens of a fictive nation. By accessing their private digital data and communications, they find information that subsequently is used against the citizens when being uploaded to the agency’s database by the players. As a result, players are responsible for the fate of the observed people. By uploading certain information, citizens are suddenly regarded as a major thread and taken into custody or even killed during the story.

As a result of this kind of gameplay, players question their choices in a similar way as they would if this would be a real world event. Often, the decisions are quite complex when the player has to pick a side between two parties who all have valid arguments. By making the decision, one party might negatively react to the player. More importantly, the choice might significantly affect the continuation of the story later on in a way a player cannot predict at the time of the decision.

Personally, while progressing through the narative of Life is Strange, I found myself several times sitting at my computer after having ended a playing session and thinking about my choices. Where they really the right choices? I always tried to pick options I probably would also use when I would be in a similar real world situation. This makes it even more complicated as it results in a test of my own principles. Hopefully, my choices will lead to a happy ending of the story and not reveal that I did a huge mistake at some point. In the end, those games teach us how to make decisions and to accept their effects as a part of life and the passage of time.

In conclusion, experiences made in advanced story-based computer games affect our real lifes as it were our conscious decisions that led to certain events. These kind of computer games use the immersive effects of playing computer games with the challenge of making complex decisions in an environment and setting we might also experience during our daily lifes. Suddenly, it is no more just playing a game, it is a test of our personality and the experience of feelings that are real even though being evoked by a simulated environment.

Finding of the week #289

Advanced story-based computer games

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the requirement to play through an advanced story-based computer game without taking a longer break to keep immersed in the narrative.

Depending on the player type, playing advanced story-based computer games are a great and exciting activity. Similar to novels, series and movies, these games often tell an atmospheric story featuring complex characters. In contrast to other media, players actively take part in the story and can even change the series of events as their choices matter.  For instance, Life is Strange allows players to revert time directly after a decision was made to change it and its consequences. However, when the player continues with the story, they also are commited to their decision. As a result, the experience of these stories often is more immersive as it is up to the players how the narrative progresses.

Life is Strange

In contrast to other less story-based games, one has to continue following the story without taking too long breaks to keep with it and avoid forgetting important events. If too much time elapsed between two playing sessions, players might feel disconnected from the story thus experiencing difficulties to immerse themselves again. Once such a point is reached, players often can only start over with a new playthrough to refresh their memories.

Personally, I experienced such a problem several times when trying to play Life is Strange. Currently, I am just a very casual computer game player. Aside from creating between two and three 30-minute long Let’s Play episodes per week, I rarely play other games. However, from time to time, I try to immerse myself in more complex games as they are just fun to play. Thus, I start playing a game on one weekend and then have to take a break for several weeks, again. This also happened to Life is Strange. Every time I started playing it, I had to abandone it for a longer period of time and start over as I lost connection to the story. In the end, I decided to wait with the next attempt to my next vacation.

While this might sound a bit frustrating (it actually is!), it also shows the great potential of computer games to tell stories with a dense atmosphere that can even touch us emotionally. However, to really appreciate these games, one has to take the time as otherwise important facts might get forgotten.

Finding of the week #288

Interdisciplinary Science

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the importance of interdisciplinary research and the resulting need for interdisciplinary scientists who already combine several research areas at once.

Achieving interdisciplinarity is one of the most important research goals these days. By combining efforts to tackle complex problems, all involved disciplines can benefit from each other. Additionally, research questions are analyzed using different approaches which results in a more thorough evaluation and a higher novelty.

For instance, combining computer sciences with media sciences and pedagogy to research game-based training results in a very in-depth analysis of the topic. Also, the individual disciplines learn from each other about the structure of computer games, the positive and negative effects of using certain game mechanics as well as the overall effects of playing computer games.

Results of those interdisciplinary projects are often highly appreciated by the community as they not only yield innovative solutions but also expand the knowledge of all involved research fields. The interdisciplinary work, however, is very challenging. Each discipline has its own approaches and own language. As a result of this, before being able to work together, the involved parties need to find a common language and also be open minded for the concerns and suggestions being discussed by their partners. Only when overcoming these obstacles, scientists belonging to different disciplines can effectively work together.

However, despite seeing the benefits of interdisciplinarity, the importance of interdisciplinary scientists often is overlooked. Each discipline aims at the training of mono-disciplinary experts who then have a hard time to collaboratively work together with other scientists belonging to other research fields. I believe that, similar to corporates that combine different areas of expertise under one roof, research groups also need to invest more in scientists who can create bridges between various disciplines. Instead of being highly trained experts, these scientists have an interdisciplinary education and hence can easily jump between various disciplines.

The importance of such an approach becomes more and more obvious these days as interdisciplinary scientific conferences are very successful. Here, experts appreciate the novel and promising results and even give awards to projects that were created by an interdisciplinary collaboration.

Finding of the week #287

Scientific Let’s Plays

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about Let’s Plays as a potential platform to discuss and to present scientific results. At least, as long as they are related to virtual environments and game research.

Communicating scientific results to an audience that goes beyond the scientific community often is a challenging process. Commonly, scientific results address a very specific and complex aspect of a research field that in itself already is difficult to comprehend. To understand and appreciate outcomes of a study, one has to be an expert with an advanced preexisting knowledge of the discussed topic.

As a result, when communicating these results to a different audience, they have to be embedded in a larger context and to be provided in a way that uses common terms. Also, the presentation and discussion is facilitated when examples are provided that visualize the contexts. These visualizations then help to understand and to connect the underlying principles with the newly gained information.

Luckily, I am in a very good position of being a computer game researcher and a Let’s Play (LP) video creator at the same time. This combination allows me to easily discuss my scientific results with a broader audience and to immediately provide audiovisual examples of the context. By creating LPs, I am already using the environment I research. In this way, my scientific presentations are automatically embedded in an audiovisual simulation I can manipulate and control. For instance, when talking about the different types of game mechanics, I can directly showcase the underlying principles by executing some game mechanics and providing an oral explanation.

Recently, I tried this approach to not only communicate my recent scientific results to a broader audience, but also to create video-based presentations one can access on demand. For this purpose, I played the open-world computer game Minecraft which represents an ideal stage for those advanced discussions. It provides players with a more or less freedom within the boundaries of the gameplay thus acting as an empty canvas.

While presenting the scientific results was not so much of a problem, dealing with actual statistics is a bit more difficult as I cannot simply display them during the gameplay. Also, the gameplay itself causes here and there a bit of a distraction, but it is possible that these distractions result in a higher entertainment level when watching these scientific LPs. Instead of purely receiving information, viewers can enjoy some actual gameplay thus achieving some kind of edutainment.

I strongly believe that this format can be very interesting for a broader audience. It automatically includes audiovisual examples, provides an empty canvas to discuss difficult topics, and achieves a high motivation to continue watching.

Finding of the week #286

Are peer-reviews really a good way?

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the problematic peer-review process. It is intended to ensure a high scientific quality but often also causes the rejection of innovative work as reviewers are coming from a different field or simply do not take the time to really read a paper.

Currently, the common way of publishing scientific results is to write them up in a paper, submit it to a journal or conference, and let peer-reviewers decide whether the approach is correct or not. While this ensures a certain degree of scientific quality, it also creates some unneccessary obstacles.

Depending of the scope of the journal or the conference, authors might have to deal with reviewers coming from different scientific directions. As a result, there is a chance of being mainly reviewed by researchers who have no in-depth experience in the paper’s topic. This leads to the problem that these reviewers then potentially cannot correctly value the contributions of a paper as the presented approach might seem wrong to them. There is also the chance that they accept a paper that has no real novelty as they cannot discover wrong approaches.

Thus, it is possible that good and important research gets critized and rejected because it seems incorrect from a certain perspective. This especially is problematic when a new technology is being used that is not well discussed in literature due to its novelty. Then, scientists have a hard time finding a good theoretical basis that goes beyond the scientific curiosity.

Last year, I experienced such a rejection. The reviewers did not understand why I compared the effects of immersive virtual reality with the effects of desktop 3D in respect to the training outcome of a serious game. This week, I was asked a similar question during a conference. Interestingly, the question was not being asked because there was no understanding for my approach, but because the scientist was criticized for similar reasons. He just wanted to see if I was able to come up with a better explanation.

In the end, this question made me thinking again about the entire peer-review process. Is it really ensuring a good scientific quality when it results in the rejections of interesting projects due to a lack of previous work? How can this be a good approach when it effectively blocks innovation? I hope the scientific community will reconsider this approach one day and come up with a better solution to ensure a high quality without blocking innovative research.