Saturday, April 28, 2012

Photos and Stories from the Project Showcase

Last Monday was the Project Showcase for my seminar at the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry. It was held in Cardinal Hall at the L. A. Pittenger Student Center at Ball State University. We had three partitioned areas for the showcase. Guests arrived on the Terrace, where we had ample refreshments including cheese, crackers, crudités, meatballs, iced tea, and root beer floats. The sunlight streaming in through the windows was wonderful, although it also made the photos not come out so well.

In the next room, we had ten stations set up for people to play the beta of Museum Assistant: Design an Exhibit. Eight laptops were arranged on tables along the wall, and on either end, workstations were attached to the very large televisions on the side walls.

The plan was that this room would also hold six displays of physical artifacts that were created during the course of the semester. These artifacts include sketches, prototypes, posters, and other miscellany. However, as we set up this space, we realized that there would not be enough room for the demo stations and the displays, and so we moved them into the presentation area.

This presentation area had about 150 chairs facing a stage, and flanking the stage were two projection screens. The artifact displays ran along the sides of the two seating areas.

Stage left
Stage right
Here are close-ups of the six display boards.

Logos, hand-drawn room art, and screenshots of finished art
Room and character sketches
Concept art, screenshots, and excerpts from our design document
Mostly physical prototypes of our game, along with some storyboards.
At the top is the poster that was presented at the Computer Science Spring Banquet and the Butler University Undergraduate Research Conference. Below, concept art, storyboards, and bagged prototypes.
At the top is the poster created for the Ball State University Student Symposium. Below is the final physical prototype for Build a Museum, the primary contender to Mystery at the Museum. The latter was chosen and evolved into Museum Assistant: Design an Exhibit.

Posted along the right side of the room was a replica Scrum board along with a brief description of how it would be used. Our actual Scrum board was much larger.

I did not get any shots of the whole room, but here's one taken from the edge of the seats during set up. Immediately to my left is another projection screen.

Five of the twelve team members spoke during the presentation. We rehearsed several times at the VBC, and they rehearsed once in this space as well. I walked in during this rehearsal and caused a bit of a ruckus, partially to help them realize that distractions are unpredictable and partly just to mess with them. During the actual presentation, as soon as Josh started, every baby in the room started crying. He was well prepared!

There were about a hundred people in attendance, and the presentation was very well received. There were just a few questions at the end, and then we encouraged attendees to enjoy the food, drinks, displays, and the game.

One of the best parts of the evening was being able to meet the friends and family of my students. We have become an intimate group: spending fifteen weeks in close quarters with twelve other people inevitably results in many shared stories about family and friends. It was great to be able to shake some hands and especially to thank parents for their part in grooming this great team.

In case you missed the announcement or any of the links above, the game went live yesterday, and you can check it out at Enjoy!

Friday, April 27, 2012

Museum Assistant: Design an Exhibit, or, We Shipped!

Today was the end of Sprint 7 for Root Beer Float Studio, and right on schedule, we shipped.

Check out Museum Assistant: Design an Exhibit!

(Requires the free Unity3D Web Player for Windows or Mac OS.)

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Not just Frisbee, but Root Beer Floats, too

I ran into the Provost of my university today at the Building Better Communities project showcase. I would see him regularly at the Strategic Planning Committee meetings, but I stopped going to those meetings early in the Spring semester when the interfered with my fellowship at the Virginia Ball Center. (Also, it appeared to me that the committee had already done all it could do, and I'm sure they wrapped up fine without me.) I told him a little bit about my experience at the VBC, and he asked me what I've learned as a fellow. This is not the first time I've been asked this question by a colleague at the university. I should probably have a canned, elevator-pitch-style response. Since I don't, I was honest.

I told him that the lesson is all wrapped up in the name of the studio: Root Beer Float Studio. Midway through the semester, other students on campus were struggling with midterms, and we were having root beer floats. Superficially that may make it sound like a vacation, but the truth is that we earned those root beer floats—a fact that was recognized by Lauren, a team member who is astute and generous. My team has worked hard this semester, struggling with academic, professional, and emotional challenges in an endeavor that Jerry Holkins describes as "making sausage out of yourself." Our root beer floats have been outwards signs of hope in the tumult of creative frustration. When we take fifteen minutes after lunch to play Frisbee, it's not because we're slacking off but because our bodies need time to decompress from the intense studio work. Without Frisbee time, I'm positive there would have been more sickness, more arguments, and less productivity.
An original Root Beer Float Studio root beer float
In a normal, three credit-hour course, we try to form teams and challenge students, but there is literally not enough time for a team to gel like this. There is often too much pressure to get something done, and this makes us forget that without trust and morale, the project is crippled.

I am proud of Root Beer Float Studio, and our game is looking great. We showed a demo at our project showcase Monday night, and we're scheduled to make a public release at the end of this week. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to invest myself into this project with this team.

As the Provost and I parted ways, he quipped, "Next semester, back to work!" I suspect he was joking, but I cannot help but have a hint of doubt that I was misunderstood. The work I have done this semester has resulted in demonstrable transformations, the evidence of which is part of a larger study of immersive learning. I'm sure that Root Beer Floats, cupcakes, Frisbee, and team lunches will feature as prominently in the data as Scrum, ludology, design patterns, and studio-based learning.

An original Root Beer Float Studio root beer float cupcake.
Maybe even better than a root beer float.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Resources for Games, Fun, and Learning

In February, I spoke at the Ball State University Department of Physics and Astronomy Colloquium Series as their once-a-semester "outside speaker." I used the opportunity to put together a presentation entitled Games, Fun, and Learning, and I provided an introduction to these three topics, their intersection, and why  this line of scholarship is important. The presentation was a big hit, so much so that we had to move to a larger lecture hall before starting. My friends at the Emerging Media Initiative had heard about the presentation but many of them could not make it, and so they arranged for me to give a repeat performance, which I did last Friday. The slides from Friday's talk are available, although they are probably more useful as a refresher to those who attended than to those who are new to the domain.

Much of the talk involved highlights from some of my favorite resources, and during Q&A, I was asked if I had these all together in one place. For your browsing pleasure, here's a list of the works I referenced in the presentation and in the Q&A portion.
Enjoy! Thanks again to the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Emerging Media Initiative for hosting these talks.

EDIT: The EMI talk has been put online. See this blog post for details.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

First week at the VBC, eleven weeks later

Going into the VBC, I hoped to write blog posts about once a week about the experience. The truth is that we work like crazy while we're there, and by the end of the day or the weekend, I find that a good mental rest is in order. Point in case, I was just looking over a few draft posts on my blog—articles I started but never published. Here's one I started in January, in its entirety:
The best explanation I have come up with for my fellowship with the Virginia B. Ball Center for Creative Inquiry is that it's like a sabbatical except that I get to bring students with me. Just over a week ago, I wrote about my anticipation for the start of the semester; now I'd like to share how things actually went.
So much for that.

The inquisitive reader may wonder, "What is it that you do for nine hours a day if it was only yesterday that you were programming?" Here's a glimpse, in no particular order.

We do stand-up meetings every morning at 8:15. Each person reports on what they did since the previous meeting, what they have planned for the day, and what impediments prevent progress. I listen especially for the impediments, though often the ones I hear are not exactly what the students say. I then do whatever is necessary to remove the impediment. This may involve calling meetings, consultations, finding appropriate readings and tutorials, checking the budget, shopping for supplies, and other administrative or managerial tasks.

The team is divided into two bins which we call "The CS Group" and "The Arts & Humanities Group." Each group meets fortnightly to discuss readings, the CS group favoring common readings and the Humanities group individual ones. I sit in on both groups and follow the common reading with the CS students.

I read several blogs and feeds related to the project, and I share the highlights with the team. Some of the sources I've found most helpful are Raph Koster's blog, Daniel Cook's Google+ stream, and Dinofarm Games blog.

I coordinate Thursday Team Lunches. Each Thursday, we all eat lunch together in the dining room and have a topic for conversation, frequently featuring an outside speaker. This is the kind of task that someone who loves event planning could do quickly and easily, but I probably spend too much time agonizing over catering decisions and hoping everyone is happy.

Our Scrum board has four columns: Not Yet Started, In Progress, Requires Validation, and Done. I am frequently used for task validation. For source code, this involves a formal code review. Validation of other tasks is contextual but essentially the same: it is an opportunity for me to look at what the students have done and offer feedback and suggestions.

I try to be available to the team during the day for informal evaluations. Sometimes this is motivated by overhearing conversations from my office, which has no door connecting it to our largest work room. Informal evaluation is done more effectively, however, when I wander through the work areas to see what the team is doing. Quite often, students will pull me in to the discussion to explain something to me or seek my assistance. As with formal validations, I try to use these moments to share what I know as well as help steer the team towards fruitful collaboration.

Occasionally, I directly intervene in game design and interface design issues. Both of these are extremely difficult crafts in which the students are engaged, and it's good for them to have the opportunity to iterate on designs. Because of my own experiences in these areas (read: because I have failed at them and learned from these failures already) I will sometimes see trouble on the horizon and force the students to put on the brakes and re-evaluate.

As Scrum Master, I run the Sprint Planning, Sprint Review, and Sprint Retrospective meetings that happen every other week. I also serve as Product Owner, organizing and prioritizing the Product Backlog—the list of user stories that guide the team towards successful project completion.

Several of my VBC students are searching for jobs and internships, as are some of my best students who I could not bring with me. I've written letters of recommendation and provided references for many of them, and I'm glad to say that the effort has been mostly fruitful. I hope those who are still looking for employment and internships get some good news soon!

Since we've been building digital prototypes, I help with quality assurance. I run the game and try to break it or look for usability flaws. There is a defect board in the main work room on which we record such issues, and the team is pretty quick to fix them.

I make the coffee almost every morning. Earlier in the semester, I noticed a disturbing trend wherein people would arrive very close to 8:15—the time of our daily stand-up meeting—but still try to make coffee before coming to the meeting. They would end up coming into the stand-up late, though happily carrying a fresh cup. I realized that I could circumvent this problem by showing up a bit earlier myself and starting the coffee, even though I bring my own from home. This is a nice example of proactive removal of unarticulated impediments.

My non-VBC responsibilities still exist too, of course. I have had a paper accepted at FDG 2012, and I had to spend some time revising it for publication. I consult with my advisees over email or by appointment. The Mira Award nomination that Ronald Morris and I recently earned was the result of writing thousands of words on the Morgan's Raid project as well as a formal presentation. I talk to my department chair a bit over email about important issues such as curriculum and assessment. I also served on a search committee for the first time this year, and I'm excited to have a new colleague joining the department in the Fall. Early in the semester, I continued to serve on the Strategic Planning Committee.

So there you have it: a quick sketch of what has occupied almost all my waking hours since January. It has been an incredible experience. Since the very beginning, I have had a deep sense that, professionally, it is where I belong. I try not to think about the fact that I'll be going back to the regular grind of higher education in a few weeks, but that's the topic of another post.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Frisbee Analogy

I have spent a lot of time looking over the source code for the VBC project, both informally and through formal code reviews, but yesterday was the first time I personally contributed code. One of the non-CS students was working on revising the game's introduction, putting in some placeholder stills in preparation for a meeting with our community partner. She was looking for a way to easily advance through the images as in a slideshow, and so I offered to whip up a script to do this, which I did. I reported the activity during this morning's stand-up meeting, and I used the opportunity to remind the team that I was available for this kind of help. I ended up spending about six hours today in the trenches, working on my own code as well as helping others to write or refactor theirs. It was much more hands-on than the kinds of reviews the students tend to request. I really enjoy working side-by-side with the students, and it makes me feel immediately and undeniably useful. The teaching moments percolate up from the problem domain as well as the problems introduced by novice developers.

We have had an informal tradition of after-lunch Frisbee at the VBC, a tradition that is greatly enjoyed by all participants. We postponed today's to end-of-day Frisbee, which gave us the opportunity to finish all of our milestones for the day, which we did. As we were playing, one of the students pointed out that without bad throws, there cannot be great catches. By extension, if everyone threw perfectly, there could be no stellar catchers. Another student—one with whom I worked on several pieces during the day—pointed out that this was like their relationship to me. Their programming is far from perfect, but they know that I'm a seasoned catcher who can keep the bad throws from ruining the game. It may be one of those analogies that one has to take at face value, but I'm impressed by the capacity for analogical thinking and honored to have been part of it. After all, my programming skill is clearly greater than my Frisbee skill.