Special Issue of Cognitive Technology on Games for Good Online!

June 11th, 2010

The special double issue of Cognitive Technology, guest edited with my colleague Erik Vick of the Rochester Institute of Technology, is now available online!  Check it out: http://www.dm.ucf.edu/~rmcdaniel/publications/cogtech_14_2-15_1.pdf.  The issue features contributing essays from Jonathan Belman (New York University), Mary Flanagan (Dartmouth College), Shlomo Berkovsky and colleagues from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Australia, Marjee Chmiel (National Geographic Society and George Mason University), Matthew Sharritt (Situated Research), Scot Osterweil (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), and Lan Le (University of California, Santa Barbara). The issue covers topics such as empathy in games, scientific literacy, exercise and virtual fitness, the design of cognitive affordances, and learning and change. Also included are introductory and concluding essays from myself and Erik that examine games for good through the lens of cognitive technology and consider the future of research in this domain.

Day in the Digital Humanities

March 18th, 2010

I’m participating in the Day of the Digital Humanities again this year.  If you want to read about what a single day in my exciting life is like, check out my Day in the Life of DH page.  We’re tasked with blogging about our entire work day (no matter how trivial or boring the task may be!) in order to provide an international portrait of typical activities of digital humanities researchers.

I Coulda Been a Contendah

March 6th, 2010

You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender.

How Robert Jordan Saved My Kindle

March 6th, 2010

Amazon’s Kindle is a great idea in principle.  A compact device, capable of holding thousands of electronic books, with an electronic ink display that is easy on the eyes and makes it possible to read in full sunlight (even at the beach, sipping on a Mai-Tai).  After close to a year of owning one, here are my thoughts on the device.

First, the Kindle is great for reading fiction.  It’s super handy to be able to bring only this device along with you and have access to a vast library of books.  In particular, the late Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time collection has recently been converted to Kindle format.   The series is being released one at a time on a monthly format, with the books after Jordan’s death being authored by Brandon Sanderson.  Especially for a huge series like this, with each book being a massive issue in and of itself, the Kindle is a lifesaver and makes reading the series seem like one long, epic, uninterrupted fantasy.  Well, at least if you don’t finish the previous books before the next one is released according to the schedule!   I just finished The Great Hunt for the second or third time, and it still reads wonderfully.  What I enjoy most about the Wheel of Time series is the epic scale — politics, battles, character development, and fantastic geographies and creatures all come together to tell an incredible story.  The quality of the series does begin to taper off after the fourth or fifth books, from what I hear, though I haven’t yet read that far myself.  As of yet, the series has not been completely finished by Sanderson.

What the Kindle is not great for is reading academic texts.  The process of moving an article in PDF format, for example, is quite cumbersome and involves emailing the file to a special email address and then waiting for it to be converted.  Then, tables and figures are distorted and squashed, and the text is difficult to read in its non-Kindle-native format.  Also, the speed of Kindle functions (bookmarking, annotating, etc.) is extremely slow and makes the process of cross-referencing data or looking up notes and sources pretty painful.  Until the speed of these operations can be improved, I’m using mine strictly for fiction.

Technology as Distraction

March 1st, 2010

For the last few semesters, I have been participating in the bi-annual book clubs for the Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning at UCF.  We’ve read several good books, including Save the World on Your Own Time, by Stanley Fish, and Why Don’t Students Like School, by Daniel Willingham.  This semester, our book selection is Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, by Maggie Jackson.

Jackson’s argument in this book is simple: we’ve been seduced by technology, coddled into a state of needing instant gratification by social networking and ubiquitous media, but we’ve also lost something of ourselves along the way.  The argument is not entirely new; Sven Birkerts wrote a similar cautionary tale in 1994’s The Gutenberg Elegies as hypertext technologies were just arriving to the mainstream, but Jackson’s book, released in 2009, considers more recent technologies including social networking sites, modern video games, and cutting edge robotics.

I started off being pretty defensive about digital media and taking issues with the rhetorical strategies used by Jackson.  Here are my first two responses for the book club, typed up earlier this semester:

Thoughts on the Introduction and Chapter One:

While I found myself constantly nodding in agreement while reading along with the introduction and first chapter of Maggie Jackson’s Distracted, I’m hoping there is more to support her argument later in the book than just a heaping of anecdotal evidence and (admittedly interesting) stories from the past.  She is a good writer, and I find her prose to be both interesting and engaging, but her ideas seem to drift away from her topic at times as though she is randomly selecting books from her bookshelf and sifting through to find examples of technologies gone awry.  Her central argument is that network connectivity and multitasking technologies have taken away from our ability to pay attention.  This is the ability to think deeply, carefully, and critically, and as a result to form deep and meaningful cultural relationships.  The idea is something Sven Birkerts wrote about almost 20 years ago in The Gutenberg Elegies as he bemoaned the arrival of the hypertext revolution.  Jackson’s positioning of contemporary electronic culture as a society poised on the brink of a new Dark Age is both interesting and frightening, but seems a bit hyperbolic to this reader.

For instance, there is a great deal of good being done with technology as well that is seemingly glossed over or ignored thus far in the book.  Consider recent uses of social networking technologies for political protests (Iranian protesters), philanthropy (the ease of quickly donating money to support Haiti rescue efforts and have it charged to your cellular phone bill), public policy awareness, digital ethnography (capturing and making available original source materials to a worldwide audience), community-building, and forms of collective intelligence where knowledge is shared and applied based on a community-model rather than an individual.  Granted, these examples are fairly recent, but certainly there are other areas in which Jackson could have polled for counterexamples to her thesis.  Many of these technological forms she attacks are still very young, so I’m not sure I would completely demonize them before their nature has been fully investigated.  I’m thinking in particular of video games, which she attacks in her introduction based on Johnson’s work, but which in recent years have sprung an amazing variety of rhetorical, critical, and activist-based games that make arguments in a procedural way not possible through static media.

What I am taking away from this so far, and what I think is so important and so often overlooked, is the idea that networked communication technology in and of itself changes how we think and how we interact with other humans.  I’m not sure I would go so far as to suggest modern digital media as a shortcut to “culture’s dead end,” (p. 15), but even in the relatively few years I have been teaching I have witnessed numerous examples of my own students having trouble (whether trouble in motivation or ability) with exercises involving more than a modest amount of creativity, intellectual rigor, or original research.  The Wikipedia generation does indeed hold true the idea that information is always only a keystroke away, and I think Jackson’s discussion of the perils of PowerPoint, and her summaries of Tufte’s and others’ criticism of the tool, are both worth paying attention to.  I just wonder if she might have made her point better through her fabulous collection of research rather than through her exaggerated and oftentimes unsupported claims.  As one reviewer on Amazon notes, at times, the book seems like “a product of the culture it describes.”  I’m looking forward to the next few chapters to see if she will introduce some more substantial evidence to support her claims.”

By the end of the next chunk of reading, however, I was already settling in a bit more comfortably with her writing and her argument.  Below is my second response:

Thoughts on Chs. 2-4

After finishing the next few chapters of Distracted, I find that many of my initial thoughts about the book remain the same.  Jackson exaggerates, cherry picks statistics and features, and relies on an appeal to pathos that is at times off-putting and unnecessary.  I now have a respectable collection of “death by technology” stories at my disposal should there ever become a need for them.

Specifically, reading the book as an academic who spends his time working with technology, I am irritated by passages such as this one found on pg. 59:

It’s intriguing that reputation management demands and inspires skills that are strikingly similar to those needed for successful gaming: a sense of mastery, an ability to remain aloof, an instinct for ranking others.

Sure, you might argue that these are potentially useful skills for gaming, but what about curiosity, exploration, dedication, and determination?  Certainly one could argue with equal fervor as to the rightful place of these skills in this list.   Similarly, the pejorative use of “the undo generation” to describe young gamers also ignores the many positive benefits associated with this mentality — for instance, the ability to take risks and apply novel solutions to complex problems.  If the solution fails, the learner has not sacrificed much in the process, and she tries again.

However, despite these irritations, I now realize that many of my qualms with the book are due to my frame of reference when reading the book rather than the content itself.  The book appears to wish to speak to our souls rather than to our intellects.  Jackson deftly intermingles poetry with prose, narrative with science, anecdote with experiment, in order to support her ultimate claim that technologies, lifestyle concessions, and social changes in both the personal and professional realms have led us to the brink of a humanistic catastrophe.

Will she offer suggestions on how to save our souls?  I eagerly await Chapter Five for the answer.

Lasting Impressions

As I move towards the end of this book, I am more and more impressed with what Jackson has managed to do, despite some of my snarky comments above.  While I do not always agree with her tactics or even her arguments, I certainly appreciate her willingness to dive deeply into her exploration of technology and its impact on humanity.  In addition to collecting an outstanding body of research to support her arguments, she actually seeks out personal connections and interviews with the scholars, scientists, and practitioners who are creating these technologies as well as the everyday folks that are impacted by them.

I have a few more chapters to finish in the book, but I’ll be updating this post with final impressions after I’ve finished it.

Ethics and Game Design

February 28th, 2010
Screen shot from Bentham City

Screen shot from Bentham City

In light of the recently released Ethics and Game Design: Teaching Values through Play (IGI Press), I thought I would write a brief entry about our game (Bentham City) and its current status.  In our chapter in Ethics and Game Design (co-authored by myself and Steve Fiore from Philosophy and the Institute for Simulation and Training at UCF), we articulated a series of guidelines for game development targeted for ethical learning games.  We suggested more obvious guidelines, such as defining learning objectives and playtesting and considering assessment mechanisms, but we also suggested crafting opportunities for players to take advantage of what James Paul Gee calls the “projective identity,” or the projection of one’s own beliefs and desires onto a player-avatar.

This is easier said than done, however.  We’ve gone through a few variations of this game so far, struggling to find a balance between interesting game scenarios and useful opportunities for ethical decision making.  We finally decided upon a mechanic in which both self-worth and reputation can be manipulated through actions which occur in the game.  As we finish up the game, we’re going to make it so that one’s reputation may decline, but self-worth improves, leading to situations in which the player’s character is not highly regarded, but the player is still successful because of a high self-worth.  The question we are struggling with now is this: reputation is easy to connect to the gameworld (we just animate the characters’ expressions differently to show annoyance or script different dialog feedback depending on the value of the player’s reputation).  But, self-worth is more difficult.  We are trying to figure out how to connect a self-worth value (primarily an internal mechanism) to the environment.  Perhaps the answer is that it has no affect on the world, other than lowering or raising the player’s overall “score”.

For anyone interested, the game can be accessed from here: http://sulley.dm.ucf.edu/~ethicsgame/bentham/game.html.  We welcome feedback as we are in the process of playtesting and debugging the game.

On Play, Superdogs, and Lazy Saturdays

February 27th, 2010

The most useful resource to me as a game design teacher is my three year old son, Brighton.  For toddlers, all of life is playful, and even now he is stomping around the dining room in his underwear, climbing on chairs, singing impromptu songs, and telling me “look, daddy, I’m a superdog!”  I’m enjoying re-learning some of the things I’ve forgotten over the years about how to play and have fun.

I think it was Bernard Suits who coined the term “lusory attitude” to describe the willingness of game players to take roundabout, complicated paths to goal-achievement.  Brighton is certainly in possession of the lusory attitude; rather than simply stepping down from the chair onto the floor, he chooses instead to flap his arms wildly, recite an impromptu bit of dialog, then dance his way down to the floor.

Today the boys and I spent a lazy Saturday playing around the house.  While mom cashed in on a well-deserved nap, we worked our way through an episode of Scooby Doo, a book about telling time, an impromptu Lego-building contest to see who could build the tallest ship, and a digital art session using Tux Paint on the computer.   Brighton is not yet very good with a mouse, but after a few tries, he was able to click and drag lines and shapes onto the palette and change colors.  He is already a better artist than his father.  Now I just need to start him on writing some code…

This playful, lazy Saturday was great; here’s hoping tomorrow is just as good.

Expertise around Digital Media

February 26th, 2010

My slides from the Digital Media and Learning Conference – Feb 18-20 in La Jolla, CA.   Pirates, ninjas, and zombies!

Expertise Around Digital Media – Final

On Writing Groups and Introducing the Writers of Purple Prose

February 26th, 2010

Inspired by Paul Silvia’s How to Write a Lot (Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Lot-Practical-Productive/dp/1591477433/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1267233871&sr=8-1) I organized a group of like-minded faculty members and we began a writing group in the spring of 2010. Silvia notes that writing groups are wonderful for exchanging ideas and establishing some accountability for one’s own informal writing deadlines.

While I had a good run of productivity during November, with regularly scheduled writing time each night, it tapered off during the holidays and I soon found myself slipping back into old habits (waiting for large chunks of time, then brain dumping in a frantic sort of way to meet deadlines).  We had our second meeting today and it’s turning out to be a lot of fun.  I organize the group roughly as follows (names changed to protect the innocent):

– Bernardo, our spiritual leader and guru, is a full Professor who has been an academic for over 80 years (okay, maybe this is a slight exaggeration).  He is focused on his legacy now, and his dream is to bring together older adults together with young children so that elders can share what they know.  Spending much of his career in K12 education, he is determined to spend his remaining time bringing together these communities in order to improve education and make young people curious about the world once again.

– Le, a new first year Assistant Professor, recently graduated from a prestigious university and is now interested in forging his own path, independent from his advisor.  He is currently finishing up a few remaining projects with connections back to his alma mater, but he is also beginning to map out space in the games and learning territory and hopes to do some good in this domain.  Like Bernardo, he too is passionate about harnessing the power of informal learning to change education for the better.

– Spike, an outgoing and charismatic individual, is a relative noob to academic publishing, but he is enthusiastic about learning and brings great ideas and energy to our weekly discussions.  A long time instructor and entrepreneur, Spike is exploring ideas concerning his own teaching and the articulation of those ideas into scholarly articles.  He is currently attending workshops with UCF’s Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning and wants to use digital media technologies to teach visually and make coursework engaging in large sections.

– Thomas, a fifth year Assistant Professor, is (hopefully) on the verge of tenure and thinking about how he wants to spend the next phase of his academic career.  He considers much of his work from 2005-2010 to be exploratory in nature and he looks forward to moving into a more empirical period of work to test some of the products and projects that he has worked on during this time.  He enjoys writing and interdisciplinary work, but he is probably most passionate about designing interactive widgets for teaching and learning.

This is our team, and we’re forging ahead to build regular writing schedules and keep the group updated on our progress.  Onward, Purple Writers!


February 26th, 2010

I am an Assistant Professor of Digital Media at the University of Central Florida.  All posts here are my own opinion and are not endorsed, sponsored, supported, or reviewed by the university.  You can find out more about me on my academic web page here: http://www.dm.ucf.edu/~rmcdaniel/.

On a personal note, I live in Oviedo, FL with my wife, two sons, and two Golden Retrievers.  I love movies, video games, and reading.  My current hobbies include teaching my three year old how to play baseball and working my way through the Wheel of Time fantasy series by the late Robert Jordan.