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.

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 #230

The Waiting 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 hard time between submitting a paper and receiving feedback about the acceptance.

Finally, after more than a year of reading, writing, improving and disscussing, I managed to submit a central and comprehensive paper of my research to a reputable journal last Thursday. Although this is a huge step forward towards finishing my Ph.D, it currently does not feel as if I have accomplished anything. Naturally, I am happy that the last stressful weeks of polishing the paper’s contents are over thus allowing me to fully focus on other important tasks again. But, despite having finished this important step, I am still in some kind of limbo as I now face the long period of uncertainty.

The reason for this uncertainty is the way how scientific writing and publishing works. For the purpose of ensuring a high and good scientific quality, articles are not automatically published after being submitted. Instead, they are read and checked by at least two independent reviewers who ultimately provide the journal’s editor with a recommendation if the paper should be accepted or rejected. In other words, despite having put a lot of effort into writing my paper, I only know that I have accomplished something when my paper gets accepted.

Although I fully agree with this approach of ensuring a high scientific quality and normally do not think too much about it after submitting a paper, it really annoys me this time as I do have such a deep personal connection with this paper and its contents. It basically describes the essence of my work and when this work is not regarded as a significant scientific contribution then it will probably feel like a huge setback. In addition, as mentioned above, after this long period of writing this paper, I just want to finish this chapter and continue on with further projects supporting my Ph.D thesis.

Lastly, due to this long waiting time between the moment of submitting the paper and receiving a reply from the journal, getting a positive answer might not feel as amazing as it would in the case of an immediate feedback. The good feeling of finally having finished the paper might already have vanished at the time when I get an answer thus reducing the rewarding feeling of having accomplished something, again.

In the end, I can only wait and hope that what I have done is deemed worthy by the reviewers. (So please, keep your fingers crossed!)

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.