Finding of the week #243

Observing Limits of Cognitive Abilities

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 computer games can be used to test the limits of our own cognitive abilities.

Frequent and deliberate practice helps us to internalize knowledge and, as a result of this, the knowledge’s performance becomes more fluent and even automated. This especially is the case when we acquire and practice a particular skill such as typing, dancing or driving a car.

At first, a skill’s performance is very slow as the underlying steps and rules are followed closely. Over time, the underlying rules get internalized and, subsequently, subconsciously executed thus achieving an automatization of the knowledge. Finally, after frequent and deliberate practice as well as general performance, the skill can be mastered which results in a total automatization and quick skill performance.

However, the automatization and subconscious performance can also result in a certain degree of inflexibility which can be observed when only a small parameter of the knowledge’s rules get changed. In this case, especially when the person is not aware of the changed rules, the skill is performed in its internalized form thus resulting in unexpected outcomes and a high degree of irritation.

WRC 7

Recently, I observed this particular phenomenon myself as I tried a new racing computer game: WRC 7. Normally, I play racing games with manual transmission enabled as it provides me with a higher degree of flexibility. However, in the case of WRC 7, the gear change option was set to automatic transmission which also maps the car’s reverse gear to the brake and engages reverse when the brake is still pressed after the car has stopped. In addition to this, I am using a steering wheel and pedal setup that mirrors the functionality of a real car’s controls. Ultimately, this small but significant parameter change of the internalized rules caused a high degree of irritation on my side as the virtual car was doing the opposite of what I expected.

In the end, this experience demonstrated how computer games not only can be used to train knowledge but also to test our own cognitive abilities as well as their limits. Computer games allow for the realistic as well as immersive simulation of real world knowledge while simultaneously providing a safe testing environment where those experiments can be conducted.

Finding of the week #242

Entertainment or Chore?

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 repetitive gameplay is perceived differently depending on the player’s type and overall personal goals.

Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion about different ways and attitudes how a computer game can be approached. In particular, we were discussing how certain repetitive tasks in World of Warcraft (WoW) can be tackled and if the resulting gameplay is still entertainment or just a chore like washing dishes or vacuum-cleaning the house.

WoW features seasonal events that take place every year and provide players with special activities and quests. For instance, every year around Halloween, the special „Hallow’s End“ event takes place and allows players to virtually celebrate this spooky event by defeating a Headless Horseman, wearing costumes, or gathering lots of candy. In addition, players have the chance to obtain unique collectables, i.e., virtual pets and toys, during an event by completing the special activities that reward players with an event-specific currency tradable for these special items.

However, this is not a simple or quick task as the prices for these items are designed to be relatively high thus requiring players to work towards their goals for several days by repeating the same activity over and over again. As a result of this, the gameplay stops being compelling and simply becomes a chore. Interestingly, as long as players add some value to these virtual collectables, this gameplay concept fulfills the requirements for flow by providing players with a clear goal and constant feedback which results in a high motivation to continue completing the event-specific activities.

On the other hand, although players have a clear goal in mind, the gameplay still stops being real fun and often is done while watching TV or browsing the internet. This indicates that the computer game itself lost its immersive effects and can no longer attract a player’s full attention as the tasks can also be completed subconsciously. This raises the question, if the resulting gameplay is still entertainment or just a normal chore.

This question can not generally be answered as it depends on the player type and the player’s goals. For instance, while a player who seeks tough challenges or new experiences will probably feel bored after a short amount of time and cease to complete the activities, a different player seeking a relaxing activity potentially keeps on completing the quests and even derives some joy from it.

In the end, while a good computer game should normally gain the full attention of the player and completely immerse them in the gameplay, certain games like WoW can make an exception due to the overall structure of being a vast narrative that spans over several years and has to provide content for all kinds of player types.

Finding of the week #241

Overall Gameplay Balance

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 need for a good overall balance of a computer game to ensure that the targeted audience stays motivated for the entire playthrough.

Conditions for victory and defeat are depending on a game’s gameplay and overall challenge. While computer games that are designed to be unforgiving and challenging can have very strict victory conditions, other games that challenge players to take risks often need more relaxed rules or the possibility to make up for a bad performance.

The former kind of computer games often gives players plenty of time to analyze the current situation and think about their next steps to overcome a particular challenge. In such a case, constantly facing a potential defeat contributes to the game’s overall atmosphere and increases the importance of carefully planning each individual step. As a result, players feel very rewarded when they beat a challenge without experiencing strong penalties. For instance, XCOM 2 challenges players with difficult missions but avoids restricting them with time constraints thus allowing for an in-depth analysis of the current situation.

The latter kind of computer games normally creates a fast-paced gameplay that challenges the overall reaction time and game-specific sets of skills. While playing these games, players often have to decide whether they like to play it safe or give it everything thus accepting the risk to lose a game. However, playing at the own skill level only is a valid option when the game provides enough chances to make up for a potential bad performance. For example, a racing game normally implements championships that span over multiple races thus providing the chance to make up for a very bad race.

However, when the conditions for victory and defeat are not matching the gameplay, players can easily lose interest or motivation to play the game. The reason for this is that users are then either bored or frustrated as well-thought decisions are not needed or taking risks is too dangerous.

For instance, DiRT 4 challenges players with rally and circuit racing but rarely offers championships that have enough events to make it worth to take the risk and push as hard has possible. As a result, the game’s career mode fails to motivate players to be aggressive as they rarely can make up for a bad performance.

In sum, balancing also has to take into account how the overall gameplay is structured and what interests the targeted audience has.

Finding of the week #240

VR Status Quo: Huge Gap Between Awareness and Experience

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 huge gap between people who have heard about VR and people who already have experienced it,

The terms „virtual reality“ (VR) and „augmented reality“ (AR) start to become more and more well known these days. In particular, VR applications as well as technologies are experiencing a new boom thus causing a widespread awareness for the possibility of enjoying a total visual immersion in a virtual environment. However, although many people are aware of these technologies, only a few of them have actually experienced VR and know about the feeling of suddenly standing inside of a completely different world.

For instance, this semester, we started a new course for students who study to become a teacher that focusses on AR as well as VR technologies. In this course, students can develop an interdisciplinary competence between pedagogy and computer science that not only teaches them how to implement these technologies in schools, but also enables them to analyze and design AR/VR applications. At the start of the course’s first session, we asked the students about their experience with these technologies. As expected, all of them have heard about VR before, but only a small percentage reported to have actually used it.

An explanation for this phenomenon is the lack of good applications that address a broad audience. Currently, VR is mainly used by computer game players who are, despite the strong growth of the games industry, still in a minority. In addition, only a small percentage of all computer game players owns a VR device due to the high price and the small selection of good games. Of course, there are also serious and informative applications for VR but none of them really provides mainstream content. As a result, there is no good incentive for people to invest into a still expensive technology.

Therefore, we tried to fix this problem during the first session of our course by providing all students with a first-hand AR/VR experience. This approach was more than successful as all of them were totally amazed and immediately saw the great potential of these technologies for their future as a teacher.

Finding of the week #239

Window to a different world

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 potential reasons why virtual environments not necessarily work as permanent windows to a different world.

Normally, while playing a good computer game, I am totally immersed in the gameplay. The immersion is, in the case of a virtual environment that I really enjoy, often combined with a feeling of awe as it allows me to explore beautiful places. For instance, as I played The Long Dark, I was constantly in awe due to the beautiful virtual winterly landscape which reminded me of great days I spent outdoors during the winter time.

Animals of the forest

A typical The Long Dark scene.

Therefore, I expected a similar experience when I stay for a longer time at a certain position to just enjoy the fantastic scenery and use the computer screen as a window to a different and exciting world. Surprisingly, the immersive experience most of the time came to a quick end after I leaned back to just enjoy the beautiful view I have selected.

The reason for this phenomenon could have several reasons. The probably most likely explanation would be that, by stopping to actually play the game, the flow-inducing aspects of the gameplay ended and no longer supported the overall overwhelming experience of exploring an amazing landscape. As the excitement returned after I continued to play the game, it can be assumed that the break in flow also caused a break in the overall experience.

However, there are also other aspects that could play a moderating role for the break in the overall experience. By leaning back to just watch the scenery, I changed my personal point of view thus suddenly seeing the surrounding environment which potentially distracted me from the gameplay. If this is the case, the experience might last longer when I would use a Head-Mount Display instead of a regular computer screen as this would prevent me from suddenly being distracted from the outside world.

A third reason could be that, by stopping to actually playing the game, I was no longer completely focussed on the gameplay and, as a result of this, my mind and thoughts potentially started to drift and I no longer effectively enjoyed the virtual environment.

Finally, it could also haven been the case that I reached the point of having seen all aspects of the virtual environment as it is limited by the degree of the simulation. At some point, no new elements can be discovered as the virtual world only contains a limited amount of elements. This, in contrast, is not the case in reality, as every moment is unique and will never return.

In the end, this problem shows the current limitations of simulated virtual worlds as the technical development still has not reached the state of simulating a vivid and completely believable virtual world.

Finding of the week #238

A Substitute For Real Adventures

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 once again about how computer games help me to satisfy my needs and bridge over the times between real world adventures.

During and especially after every longer journey to an interesting region or country, I notice the degree to which computer games help me to bridge over the uneventful times at home. As I normally travel with my laptop to back up photographs, research facts about the place I am visiting and having the chance to stay in contact with others, I always have the chance to play a computer game during the evening while travelling. However, I never feel the need to load one of the installed digital games as all my needs are completely fulfilled.

In order to be happy, I need to be intellectually as well as phyically challenged and have the chance to discover new places or even experience an adventure. While the former two requirements are normally fulfilled by my job as a researcher and some regular fitness training, being able to discover new places and experiencing adventures is not possible. However, even the physical demands are only partly satisfied as, despite the physical training, I can not fight against strong wind or find my way up or down a steep rocky slope during my daily life.

Of course, computer games do not satisfy my desire to physically find my way through rough terrain, but they continuously provide me with new environments to explore and adventures to experience. That way, I can satisfy almost all my needs during times when travelling is not an option.

However, despite their immersive and flow-inducing effects, even the best computer game seems to be boring in the event of a real adventure that not only satisfies all my needs at once, but also provides so many other experiences that can hardly be simulated by a computer game. For instance, under normal conditions, a game can not simulate the changes in the temperature, the feeling of rain on the skin or the challenge of descending a slippery narrow mountain slope. As a result, my interest in playing computer games drastically dwindles down during times when all my needs are fulfilled and increases again when I do not have the chance to satisfy them otherwise. Also, it shows how uninteresting our environment has become as it no longer provides these challenges.

In the end, computer games become a substitute for real world adventures that allow me to experience things I can not do during my daily life.

Finding of the week #237

Another Look at VR

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 most recent experiences with VR technology and the technology’s current state of development.

Since I experienced VR for the very first time using the Samsung Gear VR, I tried out various VR devices and applications. So far, I enjoyed the HTC Vive the most as this VR system allows a user to move around within the boundaries of a tracking area thus providing the illusion of actually exploring the virtual worlds. However, if travelling over a greater distance is required, a different method of locomotion has to be implemented. My personal favorite method is the ability to teleport as this greatly facilitates one’s range without significantly increasing the chances of experiencing simulator sickness.

Unfortunately, although I spent quite some time in VR over the last few months, I have not had the chance to try out many VR computer games. Instead, I mostly used VR for scientific research projects and educational purposes. Nevertheless, even those serious VR applications allowed me to develop an in-depth understanding of the current possibilities as well as limitations.

Personally, despite some limitations concerning the sharpness of the images, the size as well as weight, I am already quite impressed by the quality of the HTC Vive Head Mounted Display (HDM). However, improving the sharpness and quality of the displays and reducing the dimensions of the HMD is only a very small step closer to a photorealistic VR simulation as the main bottleneck is created by the computer rendering the simulations as this has a very high performance demand in contrast to traditional flat screen applications. Luckily, as computer technology rapidly increases in performance, those issues are probably solved, soon.

Using the HTC Vive

My main issue is, however, that all VR devices are not providing me with the degree of freedom I normally have when I play regular computer games. This is due to the fact that the VR systems mainly use controllers that are relatively bulky and only feature a limited amount of buttons. As a result, although the controllers provide a trigger button that can be pulled with the index finger and used to interact with the virtual environment, I feel constrained as I am constantly required to carry around the controllers.

Also, it just does not feel right to interact with an environment by pressing specific buttons on a bulky controller. Of course, when playing a normal computer game, I usually use the keyboard which is even less natural but it supports all of my fingers and, more importantly, I can easily take my hands off the keyboard without loosing control as I can easily put them back into the correct position which is not that easy when the controller is put to the side.

Naturally, there are also some exceptions such as racing games that are played using a racing wheel mirroring a real world steering wheel, but as soon as the input game mechanics go beyond a simple feature activation, I start to feel limited or handicapped again. This especially becomes problematic when it comes to typing in the VR environment as this then has to be done by sequentially selecting the individual characters which is quite demanding in comparison to simply typing on a keyboard.

Moreover, aside from the HTC Vive, no other VR device tracks a user’s position inside of a room. That way, only the HTC Vive partly supports a natural interaction with the environment by walking around. Other devices only allow for a movement inside of the virtual worlds by keeping one of the controller buttons pressed which works well for „flat“ computer games but completely breaks the illusion in a visually immersive VR environment.

In the end, due to the visual immersion and higher presence, i.e., the feeling of being inside of the virtual world, I really enjoy exploring VR environments. Also, due to these positive effects, using VR for the purpose of knowledge training can result in an improved training outcome or at least higher learning quality. However, despite this great potential, a lot of work still is left to be done as the illusion is negatively affected by the limitations of the current technology. Nevertheless, I am still hopeful that the current boom of VR technology will result in a new era of interactive systems.

Finding of the week #236

Game Training Certificates?

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 verified virtual exams that reward players of serious games with generally accepted certificates can improve the gamification of learning.

Computer game players automatically and often subconsciously learn as well as train the knowledge encoded in a game while progressing through the gameplay. Depending on the genre as well as used game mechanics, this knowledge can be procedural or declarative. For instance, Assetto Corsa, a realistic racing simulation, allows for a training of driving skills whereas Age of Empires, a real-time strategy game, not only trains a players decision-making ability, but also informs users about historic facts concerning ancient conflicts and units used.

This educational potential has led to the development of serious games which are specifically designed to directly educate players as well as assist them to practice a particular knowledge. Serious games utilize the engaging effects of regular computer games thus motivating players to apply and hence train the encoded learning content on a more frequent basis. Moreover, using serious games also results in a higher learning quality as learners derive fun from the training process.

Unfortunately, despite the good training effects of computer games, it is still problematic to use computer game experience as a measurement for a person’s actual knowledge level. The reason for this is the lack of an accepted certificate confirming a player’s knowledge level that can be obtained by progressing through a game. Without such a general certificate, only players who also have an in-depth understanding of a particular game’s game mechanics can potentially assess a different player’s knowledge level based on their experience.

Naturally, specialized serious games are already implemented in educational contexts and also used to rate a learner’s performance. However, this mostly requires instructors who have an in-depth understanding of the game’s knowledge and hence are qualified to assess a learner’s training outcome. Therefore, the overall gamification of learning can be improved by implementing virtual exams in serious games which are verified by experts. However, in order to prevent learners from cheating and ensuring that the correct person is completing the exam, some authentification methods are required, too.

That way, serious games would not only educate players in a particular knowledge, but also provide an accepted way to assess the training outcome. Moreover, by using the virtual environment of a serious game, learners potentially are more relaxed and experience a reduced form of exam’s anxiety.

Finding of the week #235

Cassini: A Grand Finale

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 end of the Cassini mission which analyzed Saturn for 13 years.

Almost 20 years ago, on 15.10.1997, the Cassini orbiter was launched from Cape Canaveral to begin its 7 year-long journey to Saturn where it arrived on 01.07.2004. However, the Cassini orbiter was not alone on this long journey as it carried along the Huygens probe which was released on 24.12.2004 and subsequently began its three-week flight to Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, where it landed on 14.01.2005.

In Saturn’s Shadow – NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, Feb 3, 2016.

Since the successful orbit insertion, Cassini completed 294 orbits around Saturn, took 453,084 images and collected 635 GB of data. Depending on the position of Saturn relative to the Earth, a one-way transmission travelling at the speed of light from Cassini took 67 to 85 minutes to reach Earth. Cassini also performed 162 moon flybys of which 127 where aimed at Titan and 23 at Enceladus.

So Far from Home – NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, Sep 11, 2017.

Unfortunately, after 13 years of orbiting Saturn, the Cassini orbiter was running low on fuel thus reaching the end of its lifetime. However, in order to keep Saturn’s moons pristine, Cassini was not just switched off which potentially could have resulted in the orbiter crashing into one of the moons. Instead, Cassini’s orbit was adjusted so that it intersected with Saturn’s atmosphere thus resulting in the spacecraft’s breakeup on 15.09.2017 marking the official end of the mission.

Before this dramatic end of the mission, Cassini performed a spectacular grand finale by flying several times through the gap between Saturn and the planet’s rings thus collecting unprecedented data providing great insights into the rings‘ structure.

Colorful Structure at Fine Scales – NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute, Sep 7, 2017.

At the loss of signal, after the spacecraft has plunged into Saturn’s upper atmosphere, the Cassini orbiter was travelling at a speed of 111,636 kph relative to Saturn. However, although the orbiter’s mission now is over, the scientific analyses of the collected data has just begun. This especially is the case as the probe was transmitting data until the very last moment thus potentially allowing us to learn more about Saturn’s atmosphere.

Thank you, Cassini!

Finding of the week #234

Virtual Selfies

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 implementation of a selfie feature in World of Warcraft allowing players to take selfies of their avatars.

With the emergence and increased popularity of social media services, taking a selfie and sharing it with friends or even the entire world has become a popular activity in our society. In general, a selfie is a self-portrait photograph that is used to document a person’s activities or current appearance.

Taking a selfie in World of Warcraft

Interestingly, the activity of taking selfies also got implemented in World of Warcraft with the release of patch 6.1.0 (2015-02-24). The selfie feature allows players to document special moments of their avatars and to subsequently share the seflies with their friends or the entire community. For this purpose, the player’s camera angle gets changed to a frontal, face-focussed perspective normally used when taking a selfie. In addition, the avatar also stretches out one arm and holds an virtual camera in its hands thus mirroring the real world behavior. Finally, a selfie interface gets activated that allows a player to change between three different filters, to take a selfie or to cancel the activity and return to the normal third person perspective.

Although this feature merely is a gimmick, it potentially enhances the immersive effects of MMORPGs as players can develop a personal attachment to their avatars and even start to use them as a virtual representation of themselves inside of the virtual worlds. Thus, it is the player who directly experiences all the adventures and fights in the world of Azeroth. As a result, providing players with a function allowing them to take a selfie of them, i.e., their avatars, increases their attachment and even creates a connection to their real lifes as the resulting selfie-screenshot can be used and shared the same way as a normal selfie. In the end, by implementing real world activities in a virtual world, a convergence between the virtual and the real world is achieved which potentially accomplishes a higher believability, identification and presence.