Paper Overload! Keeping the Paper Readings Tide at Bay

Classes in grad school, or just research in general usually involve reading a TON of readings, conference articles, journal articles, and other papers. And there will come the time where you will ask yourself “What paper said that Virtual Reality’s ideal for architectural applications? Did I read it for my research, or in class? I need that claim!”

The inspiration to this post arose directly from writing for my qualifier exam, where I wrote a conference style paper. There were so many sources, so many papers, and I needed a good procedure to handle it all.

Here are some tips and procedures I use to manage the overload of papers, citations, and notes accompanying papers:

  • Learn and actively use a citation management program.Here’s some recommendations:
    • Mendeley: A great general citation management program. You can do notes in the paper too, but they are not searchable.
    • BibTeX: A standard code-like document where document citations. I love this because I use LaTeX. Additionally, BibTeX is a standard that will die much later than other company-dependent software, so BibTeX citations will most likely still be readable 20 years later.
    • RefWorks: I tried it when my university had a license for it, and I used it for really easy conversion of citations to BibTeX.
    • EndNote: Tried it, but at the time, I didn’t use one of their main features: their Word plugin.
  • Keep all the papers you read in your classes/lab. What if the course website goes down and you need that paper 2 years later? At least keep a list of references for all the papers that were discussed.
  • If you’re asked to do a review/summary/critique for a specific paper, connect the paper to your review. I connect it through Mendeley’s note feature.
  • Find a way to take notes on PDFs such that it’s re-findable.You need the following features:
    • Highlighting
    • Annotation
    • Be able to search and re-find your own annotations.
  • I can give a few recommendations, depending on your platform of choice:
  • Windows:
    • Nitro PDF: for all my in-pdf annotations, highlighting, and notes. Such notes and in-pdf annotations are also compatible with Mendeley’s & Adobe’s search feature.
    • Mendeley’s note feature: For paper reviews, or notes that apply to the entire pdf only.
  • Mac: Milk
  • Keep your notes organized. Some people have a blog just for their class or research notes, others have notebooks for research ideas, classes, etc.

My personal workflow for now when I find a paper is:

  1. Import the citation to Mendeley.
  2. Download the paper pdf, and make sure it’s connected to Mendeley.
  3. Open Nitro PDF and load the paper pdf. Annotate the pdf.
  4. Search and re-find for later use in Nitro’s search feature and/or Mendeley’s search feature.
  5. Export the citation to BibTeX if I need it for a paper.

If you have any other suggestions, please let me know! Thanks!

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Mini-Games: Educational Snacks?

In Okami, my character, Ameratsu, the dog goddess, came across an elder gentleman that needed a dog to dig at a specific place. Then, I immediately got swept in a mini-game involving protecting the gentleman from harm, and digging wherever the gentleman wanted me to.

Okami is filled with mini-games such as these. One mini-game involves using gestures to catch fish. Another is a whack-a-mole style game, with the difference that a specific mole needed to be bonked. Eventually, these games seem more like a distraction. These games use different gaming mechanics, and I only have to do well in the mini-game once to advance in the game. Generally, after I beat it, I have no reason to revisit it, so there’s no built-in replay value.

While the mini-games in Okami were uninspiring in terms of game play, how can mini-games in general be used for educational contexts? My previous discussions about educational snacks imply that short-term bursts of learning has the potential to be beneficial. Thus, mini-games can also act as educational  snacks due to their duration.

However, if mini-games are presented such as how they were presented in games like Okami, mini-games may be rendered useless in educational contexts.The mini-game might have too many educational goals, that it may just be considered a separate game itself. Effort might be wasted putting educational goals in a mini-game when the player may only play it once at most.

Below are a few concerns and design considerations when considering mini-games in an educational context:

Frequency of Play: In Okami, most mini-games needed to be cleared or beaten once. In other games, mini-games aren’t eve required.  How can someone fully learn and understand a concept if the learner has only encountered it once? Repetition in learning a concept is a key concern to using mini-games. One way to resolve this issue is to embed the mini-game into normal play, such that players may not even think it’s a mini-game. A math-based example of this is a character going shopping and the player must type in how much money to give to the shopkeeper rather than have that automatically deducted.

Kind of player you’re appealing to: For players that seek high scores, getting all the secret items, or just a high-achiever player, such players may play the mini-games over and over again just to get the highest score. But any other kind of player probably won’t have the patience nor motivation to play a mini-game without the proper incentive, whether it’s an item that helps them solve a problem, or unlocking a feature.

Educational Goal/s: Given the brevity of the mini-game itself, one can’t fully educate an abstract theory of something with just one mini-game alone. If a concept is too complicated, break it down into smaller, different kinds of mini-games. Unless you can guarantee that your player will want to play the game over and over again, it may not be worth the effort to load many concepts into different levels of a mini-game alone.


Now, the added challenge is not only to make a great educational game, but a great game with worthwhile, motivating, and useful mini-games.

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What kinds of knowing can we know through games?

This post will look at the educational potential of Okami, and some lessons to be learned from a game mostly based on entertainment. Given the game’s roots appeared to be from Japanese folklore, and what we could learn from it, I started thinking about one of Salen’s question in her 2007 work about:

How does gaming act as a point of entry or departure for other forms of knowledge, literacies, and social organization?

Video games tend to generally be a visual experience; thus, visual learners are going to love this medium. Tactile, or more physical-based learners have a better chance to learn with 3D video games like the Wii and the Kinect, better than mechanical, button-based games of the past. What’s going to help me learn to dance, pushing a sequenced set of buttons on  a controller, like playing Dance Dance Revolution with a playstation controller, or performing the dance in the Kinect’s Dance Central? Okami was closer to 3D games compared to other push=-button based RPG’s in that Okami had a pen-like behavior for the joystick.

Repetition of facts, ideas, can also help with different kinds of learners. Games with their reward mechanisms, can reinforce and repeat facts, and ideas. Games can also serve for players to be educated on the language of a discipline or social organization. I could feasibly learn  more Japanese kanji if it were incorporated more into the dialogue.

Can games teach the nature of social organizations and interactions? Can kids know about U.S. Government and how it actively works, through a game? Okami in particular wasn’t strong with social organizations, but games like the Sims, where virtual characters run elections, come to mind. I’m a little more skeptical about this claim, however. Social organizations involve dynamic, complex interactions that are in the moment. Video games, with their set rules and structures, can’t really capture the richness and dynamic nature that social organizations, especially informal ones, have.

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Gesture Education Fail

Games that use different interaction styles require different ways to learn. A gamer needs to know what would happen if the joystick was moved completely to one side – would a cursor move to a direction at a constant rate, or move really fast? So one of the challenges with providing unfamiliar interaction styles is making sure the user understands how to use them.

While I had no trouble using most of Okami’s brush techniques, I had the most trouble with one particular gesture. This is the ‘vine’ gesture, which involves connecting my character to a flower.

The method of teaching me this was one of imitation. First, a red outline would highlight how to do it, and then I would imitate it.The red outline looked like a straight line, with a curvy loop at the two ends connecting my character and the flower.

I tried it, and after failing quite a bit, I learned that I could draw a straight line that starts with the flower and runs through my character, and goes back up to draw another line through the character. I was somewhat getting it in the practice sessions, though I ran into problems when I had to do it for critical dodging maneuvers for the boss.

Then, I had to connect a hook to a flower. I did the same gesture four times with mild success before going into a boss battle where the gesture was key to beating it. During th boss battle, I had even much worse luck with the gesture. After much problems with connecting the hook to a flower in the middle of a boss fight, I found that a straight line between the hook and flower was all that was needed to connect those objects together, differeing from th character-flower gesture I interpreted.

In other words, I found the same gesture that had the same result didn’t work when it was supposed to. While I probably missed something at the moment, the lesson is still there for game designers wanting to explore novel interaction styles: make sure your users understand them through much repetition.

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Game Is Mind Control

This post is titled after the title of a Penny Arcade Expo 2011 panel, and I loved their title enough to use it here. Here’s one question that I haven’t answered, but I probably have been dancing around the question on and off, from Salen’s 2007 work:

What forms of participatory practices do games and gaming engender for youth; which forms of learning are present, missing, or reinforced through gaming?

My discussion reflect on my experiences in Okami and others I have played in the past. In a previous post, Okami can both encourage and discourage a sense of exploration, and a game designer who wants to develop with a basis in history of cultural mythology can learn from Okami.

For recollection of facts, games like Okami can have a strong reward system for recalling facts. If designed ever so slightly, Okami could be used to draw Japanese symbols for language. This design change can be changing out the symbols I currently draw out in the game, for Kanji’s.

For understanding, a level deeper than simply recalling facts, Okami and other video games, can bring players to understand a different culture. Okami brings in Japanese mythology and feudal culture into the game, and with minor changes, such as providing more information, a game can present different cultures and their cultural values, giving gamers a way to understand a culture.

Departing from sociology, games with an emphasis on educating physics can have a really good physics engine that encourages play. An inspiring yet amusing example of this is a hack in Grand Theft Auto that shows, when you make friction negative, and thus, moving forward speeds the car, momentum takes over.

Below is a linked video to a physics lesson. For those against virtual violence done against virtual avatars, or virtual avatars doing violence against virtual cars, don’t watch the video.

Grand Theft Auto 4 Mod – Carmaggedon 2

One of the biggest limitations of video games for the use of education is the “video” part of it. The virtual world that the game is based off of is not tangible. Moving a joystick to draw a symbol isn’t the same as physically drawing a pen on paper. Moving my thumb to push the joystick doesn’t give the same motor skill as pressing a pen against paper and moving it so the ink makes a symbol. The argument I’m making can be seen as an embodied approach in that the physical actions are different.

I can’t teach someone to knit by just showing them videos alone. For some educational contexts, tangibility is important, and video games with the current technology may not be suitable for tangible-based learning.

So the strength of video games, being in a virtual world, is also one of its weaknesses with respect to learning.

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Wherever the plot Is, I will not go..?

Depending on the kind of game it is, plot’s very important. Plot gives a set of guidelines in how to approach the story. The plot guides gamers on when to be emotionally engaged in the game, such as when an allied character dies, when to learn, such as first learning about the user controls, what to understand about a culture, such as going into a new village where a demon shoots an arrow at houses, hoping to get virgin sacrifices to eat, and other cues. Plot can be a great tool for guiding gaming experiences for educational purposes.

Despite these benefits, I usually run away from plot. Maybe some game/s I have played in the past encouraged this, but I tend to explore everywhere except where I should go, because I have a perception that I may get extra items, goodies, training, and side-quests, if I explore. Also I get more out of the game if I explore. My perception is that I get trained and rewarded to explore.

But what happens when a game is too exploratory? I’m at a point in the PS2 game Okami where my mission is just to run around these various areas and apply a new skill/power I learned. I have 3-4 areas where the main plot may happen.

When a game is so exploratory, sometimes you can’t find the plot. For gamers like me who enjoy exploration this is great, until you have no idea what to do next to progress in anything. I got bored getting praised, feeding animals, and talking to people who won’t give me items or direction in the game.

For example, I was trying to chase a non-playable character, who is a delivery man, causing him to just run around a field. I tried stopping him multiple times and seeing if he would give me an item, praise, or a sub-quest, but he kept on saying the same thing..

Then the explorer in me, restless just like the delivery man says “enough, I’ll just go into the cave already. Maybe there’s plot in there.”

How do you give enough exploration incentive to educational gamers, yet make it guided enough for them to want to continue the plot?  That question is the key to my dilemma.

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Getting WordPress On Your Website

So I was just asked about how I got WordPress running on this site, which is under the the computer science department domain.

For those that aren’t Virginia Tech graduate students, graduate students get space on the servers here, and a portion of it is set for webspace. So, in theory, every computer science graduate student can have their own web page. Other students may be under similar constraints, and in this article, I give a quick guide on how I did it.

Regardless of who you are, you should absolutely have your own professional website, for the very least so that your website can come up when someone does a google search for your name.

Now, onto this very short guide on how I did it:


1. Get access to a mySQL database. VT CS students, you just need to email and as for a mySQL database. They will give you a a database name and password.

2. Follow the 5-minute install guide on WordPress found here: WordPress’s Famous 5-Minute Installation Tutorial

The only difference is that in WordPress’s Step 2, you don’t need to make your own database, since Tech Support should have done that for you.

And that’s it! If you have any questions, go send them to the comments below.

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Do games lend themselves to be educational snacks or dinners?

As noted in Squire’s work “From content to context: Videogames as designed experience”, one way to look at a game’s meaning is through the game’s actions. Pretty much this time involved using my newfound powers and tidying up the area. My new power was to make flowers bloom, so for the most part, I’ve been planting flowers everywhere. If I plant flowers in dead trees, I receive praise, which is another word for power ups. So this gaming session felt more like I was cleaning up the area, which became a bit tedious at times.

Do games lend itself to be an educational snack or an educational dinner?

While I was cleaning up, I was interrupted by emails to answer. I was easily able to go back and forth, given how relaxed my task in the game was. So if Okami really were transferred into an educational game, should I be able to just go between different tasks, or even, dare I say, multi-task playing with some other activity? In an ideal classroom, teachers don’t want their students to multi-task between paying attention in class and going on facebook ad chatting with their friends.

But games are designed to at least take a break every once in a while. Providing multiple save points in a game gives players a sense of relief and allows the player to stop and resume the game. That sense of relief can attribute to the player doing more in a virtual world, encouraging the player to run around, die accidentally, try beating the boss first, and do other exploratory, experimental tasks that may fail. So in this sense, games can be an educational snack.

At the same time, games can otherwise be designed to be educational dinners. Some in our class noted how easily games can suck a player in, causing hours and hours of time to be dedicated to a game. Stories exist of players literally dying because they couldn’t get off a game. Games can be designed to be addicting. When you were younger, did your mother ever tell you to come to the dinner table for dinner, yet you were preoccupied in playing games/internet/movie that you lost track of time? So if designed skillfully, games can be an educational dinner.

It seems then that it’s easier to make games as an educational snack than a dinner, but with some design enticing gamers to stay, gamers may pull hours of dedicated gameplay that enable for rich, deep educational experiences.

Embedding Knowledge in the Environment

In previous discussions in class, we proposed adding little bits of information throughout the environment, and users interested in that information can be redirected to more information. One example that came up was that a species of animal recently became extinct, and a proposed idea was to make the corresponding model of that animal disappear from a nature-based game. Gamers who are further interested may check out information as to why this animal suddenly vanished from the virtual and real environment.

This action of scattering information was reminiscent in okami, though not very obvious to me at first. Every time my character gained a new ability, or received praise from doing good deeds, Japanese kanji would appear, representing either the praise or the new ability. I’ve toyed around with using games to learn languages, and the kanji popping up, and having no idea what they mean, reminded me of this idea. It would be even more promising if secret levels or power ups can be gained if the player knows the kanji’s meaning.

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Automation, Visuals, and Implications in Okami

I am still in the early portion of the game, Okami. I think I beat the first two bosses, and I only cast doubt, because I’m unsure of  how bad these opponents are and whether they would be considered bosses in the gamer community. I’d rather not look it up so I wouldn’t accidentally stumble on guides or anything like that.

Below are a few themes I fund during this game thus far:

Automation: How Much is Enough?

Gamers shouldn’t really do monotonous, boring things in game. My example is that if your character had to eat every 4 hours, then sleep every 8 hours of game play, that would be somewhat boring, right? So, the solution may be to cut boring tasks out. The game uses automation in that all I need to do is deliver objects to NPC’s, or non-playable characters. After I deliver, they do something with the object. As an example, while my character had to help the sake lady make sake, I as the player didn’t do anything. It was much appreciated!

Thinking about automation also made me think about a trade-off between making boring actions more automatic, and thus, more fun, and yet, lose educational value into it. How can we design games that are accurate, and help students learn, yet fun enough that even boring tasks may be performed? I think other factors will influence how much can you automate, such as animation costs, and time. A designer can’t infinitely cut everything, there’s just not enough time! But this trade-off is important to consider.

The Power of Visuals

No matter what discipline you’re from, everyone can learn from visual design, taken from cognitive psychology. Guiding users to learn about the game is a very difficult task. How does the designer communicate to go to a specific place? Or show power-ups?

In following with the aesthetics, Okami did a masterful use of animations, colors and images to convey these things. Without any previous idea of what a hidden item looked like in this game, I was attracted to an animated glow in a specific spot, tried interacting with it, and received a power-up item! This use of subtle animation, and light, bright colors was really well made to show these hidden power-up items. In showing happy birds, there’s a simple heart symbol above their heads.

In other words, learning games does not necessarily need to be text in a tutorial. Oreven an explicit tutorial in general. A wll crafted game with careful use of visual design can help with this.

Implications in Design

Culturally, there are various aspects of the game that gamers are educated on.

One value in the culture is a culture of humility. One example is that I’m a sun god, yet I must help this lazy man, who has illusions of being a hero, but has not done the proper work for them, to appear strong and masterful of the sword.

Another cultural value is the acceptance of sake, or alcoholic beverages. My character needed to help the sake brewer make her sake so that I can give the lazy man. The lazy man claimed that he could start training after he got some sake. I don’t remember many games before where I help a character who produces alcoholic beverages, and some American parents may be critical about this value.

Another cultural implication is how I interact with nature. As my character runs, a trail of flowers and grass bloom right behind me. I helped make a withering tree bloom with flowers. I interact with living animals and give them food for them to give me a reward in the form of power ups. The enemies curse the land in darkness, where even the strongest, most beautiful meadows in Japan can appear to be wastelands. These actions help gear the gamer towards an environmentally conscious mindset.

Games as a Cultural Probe?

Cameras, technologies, even note cards have been used as probes, or as Bohener et. al. define in their paper “How HCI Interprets the Probes”, as a way to engage an audience for reflection, explore the design space or a problem, or as  a way or researchers and users to have a dialogue, without tying it to a specific, contrived context in a hidden manner. These probes can be useful for uncovering values about a target audience, design differently, and generally engaging a target audience.

Then, this makes me think of using games as a tool for this sort of probes. Could we use a game to engage the audience in a meaningful way to explore how we would design games differently? Can a well crafted game be used as a research tool, without biasing towards one design solution over another? Can I even use a game to probe the audience that made the game?

These questions arose probably because I’m taking Computer Supported Collaborative Work and I read about cultural probes there, but given the implications in the game, it made me think about cultural probes. For now, I will leave these questions unanswered for further reflection.

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How do you teach playing a game? Beginning Lessons in Okami

This reflection is geared towards the introductory part of the game, where the user learns how to use the controls, interacts with the environment for the first time, and learns from the non-playable characters(NPC’s) who act as guides and teachers for the game.

The teaching of how to use a joystick as a brush is especially interesting, because using the sketch metaphor on a joystick is one that isn’t used often, and needs special attention in teaching. In terms of using the sketch mechanics, it was a little bit difficult at first. The first example was to draw a star, and visually, it looked like drawing a dot would be sufficient. But they ere looking for more of a * formation. Generally however, the game was rather forviging in my drawings. The game let me draw a diamond as a circle, though that may be a technological limitation. It’s easier to draw smooth surfaces freehand than a joystick, I have observed, so the game designers may have observed this and became more forgiving.

There’s a flea that hops onto my character and acts as an NPC guide, who teaches me some moves and guides me through the game’s goals. He taught me a move, and given my newfound power, I wanted to explore using it.

Developing the teacher NPC can sometimes be tricky, because the NPC must be helpful enough yet not annoying or intrusive enough to interrupt my interaction into the world. My helpful flea NPC proved to sometimes e helpful and annoying. For example, we came across a village, where its inhabitants seemed to be turned into stone. The kind of player I am is one who explores everything first before wanted to progress in the story, so I’m the kind of gamer that will take the wrong way, attempt to travel to an unintended area, and generally be more exploratory. So my flea friend constantly telling me to stop goofing off while I intrude in people’s houses searching for power-ups and interesting items proved to be intrusive in my exploration of the space.

The theme of medieval Japan is really seen throughout the game, even in the menu user interface. The menu is actually a fan that pops up. It was nice to see a sake brewer in the game. Not only does it add to the cultural immersion, but it wasn’t censored.

Every time I interacted with an item I could pick up, a prompt would appear telling me about the object, giving ideas for interesting educational uses. For example, when I picked up the rice ball, it told me how good it tasted, what it was made of, and a few other facts. I had to go through 2 screen of text right after touching the rice ball, where I had to press the action button twice to go through it all. While this may lag my enjoyment of the game, the two-button delay may encourage learners to pay attention to the text for future use. While I don’t think the riceball information could help me later, it’s still an interesting mechanic.

I also gained an unintended power that I’m hesitant to use. First, I gave birds some bird  seeds, received a reward, and after I approached the birds, who had hearts above their heads, a “bite” option came to mind.

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