Saturday, April 14, 2018

On Interdisciplinarity

Author's note: I was asked to write an executive summary about interdisciplinarity for an internal report regarding our strategic planning process. I share it here for your consideration and comment.

Interdisciplinarity is the response to the observation that problems don’t obey traditional disciplinary boundaries. We organize our higher education structures around disciplinary boundaries for a variety of practical and justifiable reasons, but such structures make it easy for us—and more importantly, our students—to fall prey to the fallacy that we understand the whole because we understand the parts. The real problems of the 21st century, such as ethical use of digital data, education reform, global climate change, and post-work economics can only be addressed by exploring the intersections of traditional academic domains.

In 1968, Melvin Conway observed that organizations are constrained to create systems that reflect their own internal communication patterns. This is clearly manifest in the conventional curricular structures of higher education in general and Ball State University in particular. These conventions long predate our contemporary understanding of how people learn. We know that individuals learn by connecting new knowledge into an active network of prior knowledge. We know that context matters—context that includes the place, time, community, and content. We know that learning happens when students bring all their senses and skills to bear on problems that they are motivated to solve, in teams, in connection with a network of experts, with rapid and honest feedback. Most importantly, we know that the world our students already inhabit is constantly connected, containing ubiquitous and chaotic information. An interdisciplinary approach to higher education is therefore not merely an option: it is an ethical necessity for any who think deeply about our role as educators.

A corollary of Conway’s observation is that we can change how we create educational systems by altering how we communicate with each other, and this can point us toward an enlightened future for higher education. By enshrining interdisciplinarity in our university, we align ourselves and our students toward addressing significant contemporary problems. We have taken important and pioneering steps through programs such as the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry and the Immersive Learning program. However, these are pushed to the periphery of the student experience rather than the center. We can instead embrace the challenge of facing interdisciplinary problems--as scholars, in our teaching, research, and service—and the strategic plan can shine light onto our path.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Burning down hours, burning up coffee

My game development studio decided, at the end of Sprint 2, to start tracking how many cups of coffee they consume from our communal Keurig each day. Truly, this is an exceptional team in terms of coffee consumption, and they recognized this might be an interesting bit of data to track. They finished Sprint 3 last Friday, and so today I tallied up the results on the coffee tracker, and I added a new vertical to the burndown chart:

The careful observer will note that I had a bit of trouble placing the dots, since we're measuring cups of coffee consumed on a different scale than hours burned down. Hours remaining are counted at the beginning of each MWF meeting, so the first data point is the total original estimate and steady leads to zero. For coffee, we're counting cups consumed each day, including the first and last days.

To facilitate smoother tracking for Sprint 4, I added a new right vertical to my template:
Time will tell if the right vertical axis values are correct.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Students' preference for discussion over prototyping, despite instruction to the contrary

Monday afternoon was a perplexing one, forcing me to look back at my goals and direction for a variety of reasons. What kicked it off was my one o'clock meeting with my HCI class. After Spring Break, we started in on our final project, and given their surprising reaction to our pre-break mini-project, I decided we would use the final project to gain a better understanding of the double diamond approach rather than try to introduce a different model. Briefly, before break, we did a quick run through the double diamond; in evaluating their results, it was clear that the vast majority of students did not invest the time to understand the context, let alone to identify a real problem. Indeed, what seemed to happen is that they chose to do something they could do rather than trying to solve a real problem. That shook me pretty hard—hard enough that I realized I couldn't let that be their broken understanding of the process.

We spent a week on the discovery phase, and I pushed them out into the field to talk to real human beings. Based on this, they had to make a few empathy maps and personas. They then interpreted these into journey maps, almost all of which were identical—not because of academic dishonesty but because of collective myopia. From this, they identified the problems they would work on, and that brings us to Monday: the first day of the "develop" phase, in which we would review and practice making low-fidelity prototypes.

I started by asking the class to list the tools of low-fidelity prototyping. They quickly came up with paper, markers/pens/crayons, and PowerPoint, along with other lightweight drawing tools not specifically designed for prototyping but certainly amenable to it. Their next answer was people, which surprised me but I think is appropriate. I added whiteboards, and I pointed out that one of the students had previously deployed a system specifically for UI prototyping (uxpressia by name, but that's just one example among many).

I created a second column, which—since I had sort of backed myself into a taxonomic corner—we called the "Anti-Tools" of low-fidelity prototyping. What sorts of things should we avoid? One student quickly mentioned code, which I agreed is exactly right: avoid code until it's the best tool. Another mentioned templates, which at first I didn't understand, but as he explained it, he was really talking about locking yourself in to particular approaches too early: a template is a reusable abstraction, but we don't know a priori that the given abstraction is appropriate. They paused here, and it was my chance to introduce two critical ideas; indeed, the primary reason for the exercise was for me to share these two points. I added brainstorming, which required me first to define the term—I am regularly frustrated by how students want to use this as a trendy synonym for "thinking." I briefly explained to them that brainstorming in a group will tend to push early convergence rather than divergence: that the best approach was to just start making. The second one I put up was related: analysis paralysis and discussion. A kissing cousin of brainstorming, I explained that I have seen practically every team I have mentored fall into this trap, thinking that sitting and talking about a problem will help us solve it. It won't. Primed by these observations, I returned to the positive column and suggested that timeboxing is one of the greatest tools of creative prototyping.

With that, they voted on a 15-minute timebox, I set the timer, and they got to work.

Or something that looked like work to them, anyway.

There was one group whose only discussion was about distributing index cards—I had told them a low-fi prototyping exercise was coming up, and so a few people brought supplies—and then they set to work, cutting, drawing, crumpling. Another group did a brief powwow before going in what appeared to be a similar direction, although that might be up for interpretation. The rest of the class, roughly 70%, engaged in discussion. One group took to the whiteboard to draw something like a flowchart, the rest sat in their clusters and discussed while they drew.

I observed all of this happening, of course, and as the timer kept ticking, I kept thinking, "Any moment now they will break and start actually prototyping, right?" At about ten minutes in, it was clear that this was not going to happen, so I wrote two questions on the front center board: What makes it a prototype? and What makes it a good prototype?

When the timer went off, I invited them to look at these questions. Honestly, I wasn't very hopeful in getting good answers, based on what I saw, but we went to the board anyway. In answer to the first, a student (from that first group) said, "It's testable." That's exactly right: a prototype has to be testable, otherwise it is something else. I pointed out a secondary part of the definition is that the prototype points to a possible future. I couldn't think of the word for this, but a student suggested, "portent." In retrospect, the word is "portentous," but still, that's a 10-cent word. We moved to the second question, and right away a student (from a different group) said, "It gives you good feedback." That's the right idea here too, in my opinion, although I tell you what I told them, that I prefer to frame it as, "It answers a design question."

This is interesting, isn't it? They seem to understand the theory. I asked them, then, how many of them had prototypes from the 15-minute timeboxed exercise? The students in that first group, they all raised their hands, and rightfully so. The only other hand that went up was from one student in a group of three. I asked them to dive into this: they had all worked together, on one artifact, in discussion, during the timebox, and only one of them characterized it as a prototype. I invited them to describe their disagreement, and one of them attempted to justify that what they made was a prototype because it had arrows and indications explaining to someone how it would work. It was clear to me, and I think to the rest of the class, that this was not a prototype at all, but some kind of sketch or schematic.

My next question to them was, "What did you notice that was different about how the groups worked?" They all seemed to recognize that the people who came up with prototypes used their fifteen minutes to create their prototypes, while everyone else engaged in discussion. I explained to them again how this phenomenon was something I had seen many times before, particularly on immersive learning teams, where I advise working on prototypes and instead, students talk to each other—at length, with no real output.

I ended class, then, with a challenge: first, that they actually follow the instructions I give; second, that perhaps they consider breaking their teams in half, with half doing timeboxed prototyping and half focusing on brainstorming and discussion, and compare the results at the end. Honestly, I would rather they do the first, but I'd be satisfied if they did the second.

As this post was bouncing around my head this morning, I realized that I have seen a similar phenomenon before, regularly, in my teaching. It is the phenomenon of CS222, where I tell the students that they need to start with CRC cards, then make a list of tasks, then use test-driven development to approach those tasks. From many years of teaching the course, I my best estimate of what actually happens is that teams get together, talk a bit, and then start programming. This comes, in part, from student essays admitting to it. This inevitably leads to failure of the two-week project or the first iteration, and I provide vociferous feedback about what is wrong and how to improve. The "how to improve" is, essentially, to follow the steps. Yet, students don't. Even to the third iteration, I regularly have 20-40% of teams who are still not following the steps that I have laid out and that they know they will be evaluated on. Whether or not they ever read the requirements is moot here, since they all look at the feedback I provided and claim to be seeking to improve; yet, if we judge intention by results, the real intention seems to be maintain the status quo rather than learn something new.

I am left with a burning question about how to push my role as a mentor. Should I be interrupting their 15-minute timebox to point out what I see, in the hopes of pushing them more quickly in the right direction, or do I need to let them make this little mistake so that they can learn from it? I am afraid of them treating me like an exam proctor: if only the proctor weren't here, we could just collude on the exam and get out of here. I have been thinking about how this applies in CS222 as well, and I have been thinking about having more formal check-in points; for example, if teams had to turn in their CRC cards two days into an iteration, it would show them that I mean business. However, it would also mean that they would do it because I was collecting it and not because they should in order to learn what is being discussed.

My next meeting with the HCI class is coming right up. I think I may begin class by asking them to share the processes they used to construct their prototypes, and perhaps I will push them a bit further into a root cause analysis, to consider why they didn't follow the instructions they were given.

Monday, March 19, 2018

You gotta put down the duckie

It has been an interesting semester in my undergraduate game design & development studio. I am sure I have already forgotten more than one story that I intended to blog about, but that's just how it goes sometimes. My teaching load is actually reduced by one this semester as I work with a small team on a re-release of Collaboration Station. An unexpected result has been that all of my research time (and more) has gone into that project, and so I haven't written as much as I would otherwise like about some of the amazing things happening this semester. However, something happened in my game development studio last week that I thought was particularly notable, and so I want to quickly frame the story and share what happened. [Edit: "Quickly", you know, for my writing. I've been working on this post for some time now...]

This semester's studio follows last semester's collaborative exploration with Minnetrista, and my team is working on a game that is fundamentally about finding fairies on Minnetrista's campus. We're building on a prototype that was created by a student in the Fall: she designed a single-player mobile game in which a player finds characters on the grounds. Her game was based on the theme of imagination and creativity, inviting the player to either accept or reject fantastic elements. I worked with Minnetrista staff and my student team to adapt this into a very different kind of game: we are designing an experience for groups rather than individuals. In particular, we envision groups of explorers led by a facilitator; we are making an app that the facilitator would use to help create a great experience for those they brought to Minnetrista. These visitor roles come from a combination of existing museum theory and the particular psychographic work of our partners at Minnetrista.

We captured some of these ideas in the Spring team's vision statement, which we have hanging on a very large poster in our studio:
We are making a geolocative, narrative-rich mobile app that helps facilitators engage with explorers at Minnetrista—an app that features the varied grounds of Minnetrista's campus and the early 20th-century fairies beloved of Elizabeth Ball. The app will bring people together to be creative and engage the group in imagination and reflection.
The wall-mounted vision statement
I want to take a moment to point out how very strange this design space is. One person has the app, but that person is using it to direct the experience of other people. It has taken my student team weeks to wrap their heads around this, and indeed, I think some still have not. Essentially, the story I want to tell is about how one student finally did.

For essentially the whole semester so far, we have been working on the experience of meeting a single fairy. I explained several times that we can sacrifice scope, but we cannot sacrifice quality: if we cannot make one good fairy-finding experience, then we cannot make three, or five, or ten. The team built a minimum viable product—a proof-of-concept to explore the technology stack, essentially—and we have completed two sprints. Unfortunately, each sprint, the team dropped the ball with respect to end-user playtesting; fortunately, I think they have finally learned their lesson! The point of this is that we had a fundamental design but no authentic testing of it.

This design involved having a group of people sing for the fairy at a particularly fantastic location, and the fairy would emerge in response to the singing to befriend the players. The team has considered using the microphone to respond to singing, using a timer, or relying on self-reported completion in order to know when the group was finished singing. Paper prototyping of this idea worked fairly well, although that's a story for another day (one of the many stories I want to capture if I can push other things off my plate long enough).

On Wednesday of last week, I was sitting with a student who has been actively involved in much of the lightweight prototyping process. He was wrestling with the scenario and whether or not it met our goal that it would "engage the player in meeting" a fairy. This led him to an epiphany. He realized that perhaps the app was more like tabletop roleplaying games than like conventional videogames: the facilitator was the dungeon master, and their group was the party. This gave him a new lens to consider the problems of experience design—a new, useful metaphor for framing the process. It seemed to me he had hit a point where he could now productively move forward. The fact that this took half a semester for the student who has done the most prototyping and design work on the whole team is further feedback about the strangeness of the design space, and it's also based on this that I think many members of the team may still harbor unproductive understandings of what the vision statement actually means.

That brings us to Friday of last week, when I sat with two students as they worked on design—one of them being the student mentioned above, who had been sketching screens based on the "dungeon master" metaphor. For a variety of reasons, we were looking at the fundamental group activity, replacing singing with something more like dancing. We talked about skipping as a whimsical and fun activity, and as we tried to describe the scene, the question came up, "What is the facilitator doing?" One of the students explained that if they were at the park with their mother, and they were skipping but their mother was not, they would stop. How, then, do we get the facilitator to participate in the activity as well, so that the whole group is enaged together?

Hoots knows the answer.


You gotta put down the duckie if you wanna play the saxophone.

You gotta put down the smartphone if you wanna facilitate group enjoyment.

Our design space just got even weirder. We are now investigating and designing ways to encourage the facilitator to put their phones away and join their group in fun and creative activities. I pointed out that it was sort of like pulling the trick that Undertale popularized, where the game should react to the fact that it is closed. In fact, we don't just want to react to someone turning off their mobile phone screen: we want to encourage and reward it. We're moving forward on two fronts: incorporating putting away your phone as part of meeting the fairy, and also finding ways to feed-forward the idea that, yes, this app is aware of and responds to its being closed.

Regular readers may remember the end result of last year's game design & development studio was Spirits at Prairie Creek Park [game site, blog post]. That is a game in which groups of people go to different locations at Prairie Creek Park and engage in real-world sensory activities such as touching, listening, or smelling. In that game, we have one person holding the app and directing the others—likely children—in what to do. There is a 30-second countdown during the activity, after which the smartphone-wielder enters the data about what their group found. In our (admittedly-limited) playtesting, we saw that the one with the smartphone would stand and watch the timer go down while their group engaged with the activity. At the time, we didn't talk about what that one person was doing, but you know what? Watching a timer is not really much fun. We didn't recognize this in our design analysis then either, though, that there's an opportunity for the facilitator to improve the overall group activity by pocketing their smartphone and joining in. It is fascinating to me that we never noticed this, but then again, that team also had other problems to deal with, including some significant technical hurdles to overcome.

If you know of other games that explore this design space, please share in the comments. My team and I would be glad to see how others have approached it.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Painting Gloomhaven: Six Characters, No Spoilers

I vaguely remember my brother pointing me toward the first Gloomhaven Kickstarter. I looked at it, thought it looked a bit grim for me, and passed. No need to get the Kickstarter if there's any doubt, since if it's good, I can get a copy at retail, right? Several months later, it was gaining a lot of hype, and I looked around for it. In theory there were some retail copies; in practice, none could be found. The designer ran a second, wildly-successful Kickstarter, which I happily backed. My order was unfortunately one of a small set that was mishandled, so I didn't get my copy until several weeks after everyone else. Now, though, I have a painted set, and we've had it to the table a handful of times. More on the game later; for now, let's talk about painting the six starting characters. There are no spoilers here: these are just the six you have access to from the get-go.


For those who don't know this story, I will quickly share. Gloomhaven's designer is Isaac Childres of Cephalofair Games, which is based in Lafayette, Indiana, about two hours' drive from here. I reached out to Dr. Childres (yes, he has his PhD) and he agreed to give the closing presentation at the 2017 Symposium on Games in Academia which I chaired. He was a gracious guest, his talk centered around what he learned about running Kickstarter campaigns. A few of us had dinner following, and he was great company.

OK, back to the painting. My wife, my eldest son, and I each picked a character—Cragheart, Spellweaver, and Tinkerer, respectively—and so I started by painting these three.

Spellweaver

I believe we can reach the morning light
I started with the spellweaver. As usual, I based my color schemes for this project on the fantastic card art. The blue magic aura at her feet ended rather precipitously, so I added a little bit of heavy gel and sculpted it out a bit. It's subtle, but it does make the edges of the aura more attractive. There were no great tricks here, just applying and practicing techniques I've learned. As I described in my previous painting post, I have been using Vallejo Glaze Medium to do rough wet blending of base coats, followed by a wash, followed by layered highlights. I think I did a fair job here capturing the otherworldy skin pallor and the energetic crystals and magic waves. For all of these characters, I was not going for competition-quality painting—as if I ever do!—I was really just trying to get something that looked good and would get us into playing this game soon.

Cragheart

Cragheart
Next up is the Cragheart, who was the easiest to paint, with his limited color palette. I mixed some yellow into the grey to keep it from being neutral, and while highlighting the cracked, rocky skin was a little tedious, it was straightforward. There is some purple ink in the recesses to give some color to the shadows, but it's faint and doesn't really show up in the photos. I wish I could remember what I did for the gold, but I can tell you for sure it was frustrating. More on that later.

Tinkerer

More Tinker Yet
This little guy was frustrating to paint. He would be my character, and so of course I wanted to do a nice job on him. I don't know how long I spent looking at the sculpt and just trying to puzzle out what on earth was going on. I ended up using my metallic medium to mix up some moderately-shiny underlayer of armor with the leather cloak on top of that. There were several parts that I ended up repainting as the colors evolved; I didn't write them down, though, so I'm afraid all I have is a vague memory. It's hard to tell with the incredibly small detail, but I also used several layers of glazing to make the bright blue areas appear to be glowing.

He clearly has a potion in his hand, and there were other baubles on the character that I thought could be potions as well. I cannot remember now where I last did fluid-filled vials, but I was able to dig up some of the tutorials I followed back then, particularly this one from Fantasy Games. I didn't go to that level of detail, but the result is decent for the one in his hand. I did the same thing for the one on top of his backpack, seen in the second picture above, but in retrospect that probably wasn't the best way to go about it: I probably should have tinted that one toward the leather color of the backpack rather than pale purple, since from almost every angle, you would be looking at the back of his head or his backpack. In the end, you cannot paint plastic to be clear, so there's no perfect answer.

Those were the initial party of three, although when I first painted them, they looked like this:

Original outdoors basing

I had decided before starting that I wanted scenic bases, particularly after my last several painting projects that had none. I wanted the Gloomhaven figures to look good on the table without undue process, so I even picked up some Vallejo Earth Texture after having seen Sorastro get quick and easy results with it. As I was working on it, though, I had flashbacks to working on my original Imperial Assault set years ago, when I tried scenic basing and then realized it wouldn't fit all the environments, and ended up stripping it all off. With our starting Gloomhaven party, the bases turned out quite well. However, the game doesn't take place on free wilderness areas: it's primarily dungeon-crawling on hexes. I decided to change tactics, so despite the potential danger to the painted miniatures and their bases, I scraped away all the earth texture and flock.

Naked bases. Take that, SEO.
You can see here the Spellweaver base pre-modification as well.
I remembered watching Brant "Ghool" Benoit's video about his Massive Darkness basing technique, and I decided to try something similar. In a rare moment of clarity and foresight, I decided to work on a test piece rather than one of the existing guys. I was terrified I would muck it up and have to repaint a part or, worse, the whole thing. I grabbed a spare base and set to it.

Close-up of a Tiny Base
Test piece next to Cragheart, for scale
The flagstones are all painted on with cheap craft paints, and the mounds are construction sand with an ink wash and drybrush. I think the flagstones look pretty good, but the mounds I was not sure about. Perhaps I used too much glue, because the edges pulled in, making it look like sculpted mounds rather than piles of scrap. I decided to move forward with the rebasing, but without Ghool-style debris—just classic flagstone dungeon base.

All your rebase are belong ... Hey, I think I made that joke a few posts ago.
Here is the semi-final attempt. I took this photo to share online, and at first I was really happy with it. The more I looked at the figures, though, I worried that there was too much contrast on the bases as compared to the figures themselves. I went back in and lightened the spaces between the stones. You can see the lightened Spellweaver next to the original Tinkerer below.
Original on left; lightened on right
Convinced this was the right move, I fixed up all three:
Less contrast on the base, more attention to the miniature.
Now in this case, I did actually take some notes about how I did the bases, since I knew I'd want to match future characters as well as I could. Unfortunately, I cannot remember if I took the notes of what I did on the original approach or the lightened approach. What I'm sharing here is my interpreted notes, in how I did the next set of three:

I used Americana paints that I had on hand from other basing and craft projects. The basecoat is a mix of lamp black and slate grey; I started 50/50, but that was a bit too dark, so it needs a hair more grey. I added just a hint of burnt umber as well. Then I painted the lines, originally using a roughly 2:3 mix of lamp black and burnt umber, which gave me the overly-dark version; it was softened with some slate grey. The first stone highlight was done in a 1:3 mix of lamp black and slate grey, and the second was done in straight slate grey. I mixed a 50/50 very thin wash of brown and sepia inks, splotching some down on the stones and feathering it around with a damp brush. (For the record, on the test piece, I used that same wash, less diluted. Then I drybrushed first with a 3:1 mix of desert sand and burnt umber and then with straight desert sand.)

We played the introductory scenario and had fun, but it had all the rockiness of a new game. There were a few things we got wrong, some only coming to light after re-reading rules afterwards. This kind of thing drives my wife crazy, and after trying the scenario again (but with most of the rules right), she decided to back out. This left a Tinkerer and Spellweaver, which my son and I didn't think sounded like a viable team. We busted out the rest of the starting characters and decided to continue our adventure with a Mindthief and a Scoundrel. However, I painted the Brute first, so here he is:

Brute

Brute
The gold elements were among the last I painted on the Brute, and I sent my brother a message along the lines of, "I am not happy painting gold." I was tempted to go try some other brand or type of paint to see if I could find something to alleviate my pain, but I ended up taking a different tack. Regular readers may recall that I've been mixing metallics and non-metallics for a while to reduce the shine and control the tone of the metals. I did something different here, taking plain old Vallejo Model Color Gold—one of the first paints I bought when I got back into painting—and I added a bit of the metallic medium as a thinner, with maybe a touch of matte medium. This made it a bit less gloopy, so I applied it to the Brute. It was mostly OK for a start, except for the shield: the paint left a roughness behind what had been a smooth plastic surface. It was aggravating, but I really didn't want to strip the whole miniature, and there's a sense in which the roughness added unintentional weathering to the shield, so I decided to try moving forward.

Here's where I hit struck gold. Ha!

Sorry.

Rather than do anything extraordinary here, I just went back to the old classic of mixing my Model Color Silver in with my Gold, except I was more intentional about using some metallic and matte mediums to control the consistency. This really worked fine for a highlight, and it's basically my old way of highlighting gold, before I was trying anything fancy. Wat really made it work was controlled application of an ink wash, a mix of brown and purple ink (which I don't have, so it was actually brown and blue and red ink). Many thin layers of this added depth to the shadows in a way that I am quite pleased with. You can see it most directly in the bottom side of the shield. I really think this adds more flavor to the gold than the highlights did.

The rest of the Brute is pretty standard fare, really. An overall wash followed by some spot washes helped bring out the texture of the muscles and the fur. The cloak highlights are primarily from the wet-blended base coat followed by a wash, but I did also paint on some of the brightest ones by hand.

Mindthief

Mindthief
This is the Mindthief, who my son was interested in playing. The card art is awash in glowing runes and magical symbols, which gave me pause as I was planning out my colors. I decided to go with a straight-up light blue for the outfit, accenting the shadows with some purples. I will also point out that I suspect vermlings suffer from identity problems because of their cat ears and rat tails.

In the card art, the runes on the knife are glowing blue and purple, and I wanted to capture something like that. I know the general approach for this is to lay down a mid tone slightly wider than the runes, then trace inside of that a brighter tone. My first attempt was flubbed and painted entirely over, but once I switched to my finest brush—the one I use only for pupils, and only then sometimes—I was able to get something that I was happy with.

The other story behind the Mindthief is about the base. Like some of my Myth figures, the Mindthief was cast on a narrow plastic "surfboard" and then affixed to the base; unlike the Myth figures, he has a small rat at his feet, which meant that I could not cut the mindthief off of the bizarre plastic mini-stand without almost certainly mangling the little rat's tail.  When I prepped and primed the miniatures, I was thinking about the outdoors theme, and I decided to cover the plastic strip by making it appear the Mindthief is standing on a hill: a bit of Milliput on the base, and presto. (Sorry, no historic pics of this.) With the switch to an indoor theme, I knew I couldn't take that mound and make it a believable pile of rubble. I also was not sure I wanted one of them on rubble while the rest of the characters were on "neat" bases. I knew I could make it look like it was standing on a loose flagstone, but I was worried that would also look goofy: why is this one character standing on the one loose piece of stone? I showed it to my wife and asked about it, and she suggested I could make it look less out of place by adding more stones. Brilliant! I ended up extending the bit under the Mindthief to more triangular, less oblong, and worked out a few different Milliput "stones" to try in place. Painting it all up, I think it is fit for purpose: the Mindthief just ended up standing in an area that had a few extra stones laying around, and being of diminutive stature, it leapt onto one of the larger ones, you know, to stab somebody or reach the plates or something.

Scoundrel

Don't trust humans
The last figure to paint was the one that I chose for our revised, smaller adventuring party: the Scoundrel. I'll point out here that the card art for Gloomhaven is quite good, but many of the portraits have questionable lighting. The Scoundrel takes the cake: she is backlit by some kind of green glow, or something. There was a lot of room for interpretation on the color palette, that's for sure. I ended up going with different brown tones: the innermost one is green toned down with red, while the medium brown is VMC Flat Earth, and the lightest one is a mix of Medium Fleshtone and brown. The shoulders, chestpiece, and sword hilts are done in gold, similar to how I painted the Brute's gold, but starting with Game Color Glorious Gold mixed with a little Flat Brown; this gives it more of an orange or copper cast. The hair was done with Flat Brown, and I think the slight red of the hair gives a good subtle contrast against the green and yellow tones of the brown.

Originally, I painted her eyes dimly under her domino mask, despite the fact that the card art gives her glowing green eyes, like her sword and throwing knives. "Why would she have glowing eyes?", I thought to myself. When I showed my wife, however, she pointed out that the glowing eyes on the card art have a more important purpose: since she is backlit and, hence, standing in her own shadow, the glowing eyes serve as a focal point for what is otherwise a low-contrast, slightly drab drawing. From this artistic rather than fantastic perspective, it made me realize that I should copy the aesthetic of the card art and not just the colors.
Turn around
Bright eyes
Every now and then I make an art. Note that in the photo, the glazed-on glow effect around the eyes looks a little splotchy, but that's not visible to my eyes even in the best light on the miniature itself. In fact, it surprised me when I zoomed on the photo just now!

Seeking Fame and Fortune
I want to record a note here about airbrushing. Once again, I was very happy with zenithal priming from the airbrush. For the varnish, I decided to order larger, 60mL bottles of the Vallejo acrylic varnishes that I use. However, I was surprised to find that the consistency of the "Matt" acrylic varnish from the large container is very different from that of the 17mL bottle I picked up locally. In fact, when I put it straight into the airbrush, it didn't go anywhere. For the first three figures, then, I varnished them in the old, thinner, easily-airbrushable matte varnish from the smaller bottle. When I got the second set of three complete, I decided to just brush on some gloss varnish for protection's sake, and then I returned to the airbrush to lay down a coat or two of matte. I had read some more about pressure control, so I dropped the compressor to about 15psi, and I was able to force some varnish—barely—out of the airbrush. What was interesting to me is that it came out "dry" and immediately reduced the shine of the gloss layer underneath. However, after about two figures, no more would come out, so it was disassembly and cleaning time. Now, I cut the varnish with about 25% airbrush thinner, mixing it in a small cup and pouring it into the airbrush. This came through the brush with no trouble at all, although it came out "wet", more like when I brush on the matte varnish. As expected, once it dried, and with a few extra touches as necessary, it took the shine off with no trouble. I think next time I will try doing the gloss and matte through the airbrush, but I'll have to remember to thin them both, and hence this note to myself.

Back to Gloomhaven. My son and I have played several times, although that's only going through two more scenarios. The new party has two wins and three losses, which is a bit frustrating. The first loss was because we misplayed some critical cards, as we kind of expected to happen. Without giving any spoilers, the second scenario we did had our two characters in a position where we had to dish out an incomprehensible amount of damage across a large number of figures, with none of us having any area-of-effect powers. It was disheartening, since we felt like we played it well, but still had no chance of hitting the required kill count. We dropped the scenario level to zero, which I felt a bit guilty about, but then we were able to manage the scenario. Turns out, the only difference in reward between level 1 and level 2 was two experience points per player. Two! That's like one good XP-generating card. For the creatures we were fighting, though, it turns out we only had to dish out approximately 25 points of damage each instead of 40, which is obviously a huge difference for a tankless party. He just leveled up, so we may go back to the recommended difficulty next time, but it was definitely good to know we could scale the difficulty back if something looked out of our league, while only suffering minor setbacks. I am curious whether the difference between scenario level 1 and 2 is the same scale as the difference between 0 and 1, but I haven't looked into that yet.

That little bit of complaint or criticism aside, we are absolutely loving the game. The atmosphere is amazing, the unlockables are rewarding, and the tactics are engaging. It's possible that the game runs better for two players than for three; it is certainly faster, which means we can fail faster and try again without running out of time and having to put this giant game away. The flexible nature of the campaign and scenarios are such that my wife could always join in again if she wanted to, which is also fantastic: more multiplayer games could consider baking this right into the campaign. In a sense, Gloomhaven can get away with it since it's more about the world changing than the party changing. I look forward to many happy returns to the dark and gritty world of Gloomhaven.

Next up should be a series of more serious, work-related posts. I don't even have my next project primed yet, so don't expect more painting notes for some time. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

SIGCSE 2018 Talk: Design and evaluation of an undergraduate course on software development practices

For many years I have been saying to myself, "I should write a paper about CS222." Well, I did, and I just finished giving the oral presentation at SIGCSE 2018. Check it out, standing room only!


(The empty seat in the front row is my own.)

I was the third speaker in a post-lunch session, and I enjoyed the other two talks. Nicole Herbert from Tanzania was especially interesting, as she was describing a capstone structure very much like where I think we could take ours at Ball State with a bit of curricular and potentially administrative revision.

My paper can be found on the ACM Digital Library. I think the talk was well received, and a few attendees asked for a copy of my slides. I prepared all the slides using Google Slides—which I've never done before—andthat makes it very easy to generate a public link. You can find all the slides here.

Thanks to all the attendees, especially to those who came up to ask questions and share stories afterward. I'm truly heartened to hear how much this message resonates with you. If you are new to the blog and want to read more about the Advanced Programming course, search for the "cs222" label. My most recent post on the topic is in my "What we learned" series, in which I share the outcome of the somewhat unconventional final exam format that I use.

You can find the most recent course site, with assignments and evaluation schemes, at https://www.cs.bsu.edu/homepages/pvg/courses/cs222Fa17. I actually have a break from teaching the course this semester—the first such break in many years!

My CS222 YouTube channel is publicly available. It is a collection of tips and tutorials. Some videos are extensions of in-class activities, particularly the earlier ones; I've tried to transition to more encapsulated presentations for improved modularity.

This is a quick after-presentation post. I will try to share some more about the talk later, but I wanted to get this up for any visitors who come looking for the slides and links. I am happy to share my course materials, instructional videos, and reflections. If you do end up using them in your courses and designs, I'd love to know about it. Consider the material something like CC BY-NC-SA.

If you came for the miniature painting, search for the "painting" label instead :) Cheers!

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Empathy, Listening, and Hearing

I have more stories I want to share here than I have made time to share them, but here's one that I find my idle mind keep returning to. I want to capture it here to make sure I don't forget it.

We are reading Design of Everyday Things in my HCI class (CS345/545), and several meetings ago, the students read Norman's presentation of the UK Design Council's double diamond model for design. After some thinking and Googling, I developed a series of in-class exercises to help students understand the model. Particularly helpful was Heffernan's overview of activities associated with various stages of design. I decided that an exercise on empathy mapping might be just the right way to start.

Of course, to build empathy, you need a focus and a context. I decided to use, as a running example, students' experience dealing with the triage grading system that I use. This is a brilliant grading system that I learned from William Rapaport at University at Buffalo when I worked as a TA with him. It is coherent, philosophically-sound, and unfamiliar to almost everybody. I get the occasional question about it and the student whinging in course evaluations, but by and large, student experience with it is unrecorded: it happens in the shadows or in passing conversations. It's also something that all of my current HCI students are experiencing, and practically all of them have either experienced it before in one of my other classes or know someone who has.

I introduced the context in class and asked students to work in small groups to develop a map, writing them on the classroom whiteboards. We used the conventional map labels as shown in Heffernan's overview: what do students think & feel, hear, see, and say & do in their experience with triage grading.

It's helpful to have just a passing understanding of triage grading before we move on. Whereas conventional grading is based on percentage correct, triage grading is based on discretely measured quanta. For example, if you assume that 90% is an A, then as a test designer, you would design the exercise so that A-level work is attained by completing 90% of the prompts correctly. Notice that this is the tail wagging the dog: the fact that you are using conventional grading determines your test structure. With triage grading, any given item is scored out of three points: essentially correct (3 points), essentially incorrect (1 point), or somewhere in between (2 points). The letter grade is determined by weighted linear interpolation across scores, assuming that "A" means correct, "D" means incorrect, and "C" means middling.

Almost every group wrote down that they see percentages when they first encounter triage grading. That is, they see "1/3 points" as 33%, which they interpret as "Low Failing Grade" even though in triage grading it is a low passing grade. (You might consider 33% in triage grading as having a qualitative interpretation like 65% in conventional grading, right on the border of poor and failing.) There was broad consensus about this in the class.

I pointed out that the maps appeared to come from initial experiences with triage grading, but one of my bright students—who has taken my classes before—noted that his was more of a mid-semester view. He had recorded in his map that he became able to see the feedback as qualitative, as coarse-grained values that drove him to change his behaviors. I do not remember exactly the words he wrote on his empathy map, and indeed I didn't understand what he meant by the words he chose, but our conversation came back to the concept "seeing quanta" rather than "seeing percentages."

That was pretty interesting in itself, but here's where it kicks up a notch. A student in the back chimed in, saying essentially, "But it's still a percent." The first student acknowledged that mathematically it was, but that's not what he saw, and the one in the back insisted more strongly, essentially, "But it's some number of points out of a total, and so it's a percent, and so you're still seeing it as a percent."

Wow! What a teachable moment for empathy! I pointed out, treading carefully, that this was an example of the second student showing no empathy for the first student. The second student saw the world in his way, insisted that it was the right way, and that everyone else must also see it that way. I introduced the idea that whether or not there is an objective reality, perception drives a person's lived reality, and perception is subjective. Two people can look at the same thing and "see" two completely different things. The expression on the second student's face told me that he understood what I was saying, but he was still working on the implication; of course, maybe I observed this wrong.

We are continuing to work with this example, and I am finding it a rich context for discussion. I hope to share a few more stories here on the blog, but for now, it's time to head off to class. Thanks for reading!