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 #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 #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.

Finding of the week #233

Visuospatial Knowledge Demonstration

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, by accurately and visuospatially demonstrating knowledge, can help players to develop an in-depth understanding of the encoded knowledge.

Computer games not only encode real world knowledge, such as equations used in engineering, to accurately simulate specific activities, but also use very realistic graphics engines to visually display the simulations. Depending on the perspective from which the game can be played, players can develop an in-depth visuospatial understanding of the demonstrated knowledge.

For instance, a racing game is mostly played from a cockpit or dashboard view thus giving players the impression of actually sitting inside of the virtual race cars. However, like in the real world, this perspective does not provide any information about the way how the suspension works or an accurate mapping of the wheels‘ positions. Hence, unless they already are expert players, users can only guess why their race car lost grip and subsequently spun out. Fortunately, many racing games provide a replay function that allows for an in-depth analysis of an race event by controlling the time as well as perspective. As a result, by analyzing an incident from various perspectives players can develop a visuospatial understanding of the underlying principles that ultimately helps them to improve their performance.

By changing the perspective, players are able to analyze specific effects in detail and, more importantly, to develop an understanding of the dependencies of individual effects. Furthermore, by visually demonstrating a specific knowledge, players can compile a mental model of the underlying principles as well as their effects which helps them to mentally simulate the outcomes of a specific action. That way, by achieving an overall demonstration, the visuospatial demonstration ultimately allows player to develop an in-depth unterstanding of the encoded knowledge and, as a result of this, a potentially improved performance when applying the presented knowledge in the real world.

Finding of the week #232

Inspirational and Educational Gameplay

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 joy of being able to plan and improve my gameplay using real world knowledge.

A couple months ago, I decided to take a break from playing Kerbal Space Program (KSP) after having created a let’s play episode on a weekly basis for more than three years. Although I still enjoyed playing the game, I began to notice that I loose interest in the game as it started to become repetitive and did not provided enough challenges nor regions I have not explored, yet. Generally, becoming too repetitive, proving no new challenges or being fully explored are the most common reasons why players start to loose interest in a game. In the end, these reasons indicate that highly motivating gaming flow is drastically reduced and players start to feel bored by the gameplay.

However, although I do not feel the urge to return to playing KSP, yet, I notice how much I miss a game of this complexity that even challenges me outside of the actual gameplay. KSP allows players to construct virtual spacecraft out of a huge variety of different parts of which each has physical properties affecting the spacecraft’s performance. Hence, in order to design an ideal spacecraft, a lot of trial and error or careful planning is needed.

As KSP encodes orbital mechanics and hence realistically simulates space flight, players are able to apply the equations used in orbital mechanics to determine and improve the performance of their spacecraft based on the properties of the used parts before even launching them on a test flight. That way, KSP keeps players also induces gaming flow outside of the game when they set up complicated spreadsheets allowing them to efficiently design and plan their next space mission.

Unfortunately, aside from some flight simulations, not many computer games are accomplishing such a challenging and scientific gameplay. Personally, I would really enjoy it when other games also implement design and planning processes that are based on real world equations which I could use to improve my gameplay. However, as changing between KSP and excel broke the immersion of the gameplay, it is necessary to allow for such a scientific approach directly inside of the game by providing intuitive but also unlimited planning game mechanics.

In the end, those games not only provide a challenging gameplay, they also educate players in a knowledge they potentially are not familiar with, inspire them to research additional information and potentially even motivate them to consider a career in science or engineering.

Finding of the week #231

Persistent Story Elements

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 persistent story elements that mark important and special events a player experienced during a game’s gameplay and hence remind the player of this moment.

Sentimental aspect often play an important role when we value arbitrary things. A piece of equipment, such as a backpack, despite being pretty beat up, can be of a very high value because it reminds us of specific adventures and experiences we made. Every scratch can tell a different story and be a mark of a special event. Naturally, since we automatically engrave important and unique moments in our memory, we would also remember a specific experience without a trinket. However, as this item was a part of the story, we have also developed a certain connection to it and use it as a token that always reminds us of a great moment.

The same principle applies to virtual items and characters we use and control in a computer game. It can be a sword in a role-playing game that helped a player to overcome a difficult challenge or a virtual character in a turn-based strategy game that survived a very dangerous situation. In the end, we connect great memories with these virtual elements which subsequently become of great value for us and even receive an important meaning.

A RimWorld colony.

A RimWorld colony.

Unfortunately, most game mechanics do not receive scratches, scars or other marks that are persistent. Of course, cars can start to accumulate some virtual scratches during a race, but as soon as the race is over and the game is left, all scratches are lost. As a result, these virtual elements, despite being part of a potential epic story, seem to be neutral as they do not continue to show signs of usage.

Despite this lack of persistency, we still continue to develop a certain attachment to those particular elements of a computer game but these attachments are not as close as they could be when a specific moment leaves some marks behind. However, when a game is designed to store those story elements, then we automatically start to grow a very deep attachment to things that played an importan role during our gameplay.

One of the best examples for a game that utilizes persistency very well is the colony simulation RimWorld. Colonists not only have to survive very dangerous situations, but they also change over time as they get older or, in the case of a severe injury, can receive persistent scars that all the time remind us why this character is so important to us.

In the end, it would be very exciting when developers continue to add persistency to the game that helps to tell a story. Of course, it adds another element that has to be balanced, but it also greatly affects a game’s effect on us.

Finding of the week #229

Balancing: A Crucial Phase

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 requirements for a well balanced computer game. The game has to be adjusted according to the targeted playerbase’s needs, all game elements need to be relevant and a challenge’s difficulty should be aligned with the players training process caused by the gameplay.

The balancing of a computer game is a difficult but also very critical phase as it heavily affects a player’s enjoyment. In addition, achieving a good balancing is crucial to satisfy the needs of the targeted playerbase. Lastly, a good balancing ensures that players experience gaming flow and hence are immersed in the gameplay.

Generally, balancing has to achieve two main goals. On the one hand, balancing adjusts the balance between a game’s game mechanics and elements thus ensuring that no element is overpowered. For instance, the balancing of a strategy game needs to achieve that all units have a certain strength and a certain weakness for the purpose of achieving a ‚rock, paper, scissors‘ principle. At the same time, a unit’s efficiency and effectivity has to be balanced and adjusted so that the performance of a unit matches its price and availability. That way, balancing also has to achieve that all game elements feel relevant. Otherwise, players might realize that a few parts of a game are not that well designed which can lead to a lower enjoyment or even a high degree of frustration.

On the other hand, balancing also is required to adjust the game’s general difficulty. A good game always provides players with challenges they can barely overcome. As a result of this, players can experience gaming flow which is a state of mind during which a player is completely immersed in the gameplay and derives fun from it. However, when a game is too difficult or too easy, players might feel overwhelmed or bored, are not experiencing gaming flow and ultimately start to loose interest in the game.

As a result of this, it is critical to analyze the needs and characteristics of the targeted playerbase for the purpose of adjusting the game’s difficulty according to their needs. For instance, a hardcore playerbase needs tough challenges that require a perfect gameplay. At the same time, a hardcore playerbase is very resistent to failures and enjoys to retry a challenge over and over again until the challenge is exhausted. A casual gamer playerbase, on the other hand, enjoys to play games for a short amount of time only and is very interested in fast and good results. Hence, this playerbase demands a constant stream of new challenges that slowly increase in their difficulty and do not require a high amount of time to be solved.

Lastly, a good balancing ensures that a game and/or a challenge always is beatable. This requirement aligns with the balancing requirements for a flow inducing gameplay. It is crucial that a challenge only demands this amount of knowledge that probably has been trained by the player at the point of the gameplay when the challenge is encountered. Otherwise, a challenge might feel overwhelming, unfair or just based on pure luck which can destroy a player’s enjoyment.

Finding of the week #228

Usability: A Critical Requirement

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 a good usability as it helps to keep players immersed and affects the general entertainment of a computer game.

A good usability is an important goal in software development and game design as it allows users to operate a system with a high efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction. Furthermore, the usability of a feature increases in importance the more frequently this feature is used. While a bad usability of a rare used feature can be annoying, a bad usability of a periodically required element can drastically reduce a user’s satisfaction with a product. In addition, it can result in a user’s impression that the development team has not put a lot of effort into the development of their product thus reducing the team’s reputation.

In the case of a computer game, usability also is critical for the purpose of keeping users immersed in the gameplay. When a feature is too difficult and complicated to use, it can break the immersion as it completely distracts players from the actual gameplay. Moreover, a bad system or interface design might cause some playability issues thus resulting in a high degree of frustration of the players.

The tolerance for usability issues, however, depends on the development team and the status of the game. While usability issues of an early access indy game are often accepted as the game is still in development and hence the usability will potentially be improved over time, it can cause a strong hit to a team’s reputation in the case of a professional game studio that released a fullprice title.

As usability is a well known and common concept, it all the time surprises me that many development teams seem to forget to do some playtesting in order to discover and solve those issues. Recently, I discussed the issues of Transport Fever which puts the player into the role of a transport company’s manager. In this management game, the player often can merely guess how the underlying principles work as they are not communicated properly. Recently, I got quite annoyed by the bad structure of DiRT 4’s menus.

During the gameplay of DiRT 4, players not only compete in virtual rally events, but also manage their team and upgrade their cars. Unfortunately, the team management section is not well designed and results in an overcomplicated gameplay. For instance, players can unlock new facilities that provide a particular bonus, such as a larger garage or the ability to improve a car’s performance. Unfortunately, instead of allowing a player to directly install upgrades on a car from the garage menu that displays all purchased cars, players first have to start a new rally event. Once they are in the event’s service area, they can choose an option that allows them to upgrade the car used in this event. As a result of this, players need to start an event for each of their cars when they want to upgrade them simultaneously which causes a high degree of annoyance.

In sum, it is not only important to have well thought-out game mechanics, but also to connect them with a good user interface and to communicate all relevant information properly.

Finding of the week #227

Management 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 management games that mostly require decision-making and hence, instead of demanding correct sensomotoric inputs, demand and train a player’s cognitive abilities.

Management computer games rarely provide a player with direct control game mechanics that allow for a manipulation of the gameplay in a direct way. Instead, players can only influence the progression of the game with high-level decision making that subsequently alters variables affecting the simulated activity’s outcome.

That way, management games represent the counterpart to direct control computer games that require correct sensomotoric inputs from the players to be played successfully. While players still interact with the game using regular sensomotoric input devices, such as keyboard and mouse, the game’s challenge mainly is created on a cognitive level demanding a player’s problem-solving and decision-making abilities.

Motorsport Manager – Strategy and Setup

For instance, the computer game Motorsport Manager puts players into the role of a racing team’s teamchef who is in charge of hiring drivers as well as staff, developing and improving parts for the team’s race cars, finding sponsors, developing infrastructure and setting up the cars before a race. Furthermore, during a race event, the player can make additional high-level decisions by planning a pitstop and instructing the drivers to push or drive more carefully thus reducing tyre wear and fuel consumption. However, the player can not control the cars in a direct way and achieve great results due to good driving skills as it is possible in racing simulations, such as Assetto Corsa and DiRT 4. Hence, the sum and results of all the decisions made determines the race cars‘ performance during a race and the amount of money the player’s team makes or loses per race.

In the end, despite the differences between the two game type extremes, both genres induce game-flow thus motivating players to continue playing the game and, due to the periodical demand to apply the game’s knowledge, i.e., the sensomotoric driving skills and the cognitive race and technical knowledge, achieve a training effect.

Finding of the week #225

Immersion: Responding to a player’s actions

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 DiRT 4 achieves a higher immersion by embedding the main part of the gameplay in an engaging context and making the game more responsive to a player’s actions.

DiRT 4, the successor of DiRT Rally, got released about a month ago and successfully increased the immersiveness and believability of the rally simulation by tweaking a few game mechanics and adding new gameplay elements to the game. Achieving a believable world not only requires a realistic simulation and presentation of the gameplay, but also demands a responsiveness to a player’s action. Furthermore, to avoid breaking the immersion, it is also important to implement good transitions between the main gameplay and the screens presenting a player’s results.

The latter requirement still is not completely fullfilled but successfully got improved in DiRT 4. In DiRT Rally, after switching to simulation mode, players get immediately placed behind the rally car’s wheel which already stands ready at the start of a stage. This only is different at the start of a new event which begins with a short scene presenting how the player’s car is brought to the start. From this point on, players get no further information until they start the stage. In addition, as soon as they cross the finish line, the simulation immediately ends and a screen displaying the results is shown. That way, the game completely ignores the phases before and after the race which slightly reduces the overall immersion.

This was changed in DiRT 4 which begins with a quick introduction from the co-driver who informs the players about potential damaged cars on the stage and also tries to motivate them to push hard in order to win the rally event. While this still lacks some interaction with the game, it already provides the players with a better feeling of actually getting ready for a race. Moreover, in DiRT 4, a stage does not immediately end when the player crosses the finish line. Instead, the player is required to continue driving until the marshal who informs the player about the stage time is reached. Ultimately, those two additional gameplay elements frame the actual racing thus providing a more immersive presentation of the simulation.

DiRT 4 – Stopping at the marshal

These two new elements also implement a responsiveness to the player’s action. Before the start of a stage, the co-driver also gives a brief summary of the car’s condition and hence addresses problems that might have occured due to a player’s reckless driving. Similarily, the co-driver also comments on the player’s time at the end of the stage and, depending on the result, is cheering or trying to motivate the player to push harder on the next stage. Lastly, when the player gets closer to the marshal at the end of a stage, the marshal gives a hand signal when the player should come to a stop thus reacting to the player’s actions.

In the end, by embedding the simulation in an engaging context and increasing the game’s responsiveness to a player’s actions, DiRT 4 achieves an immersive effect that goes beyond the immersion due to game-flow caused by the challenge of driving the virtual race cars as fast as possible.