Computer Science Teacher
Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

April, 2009

  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    FDG 2009 Day Four – Computers That Read Your Mind

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    Today is the last day of the Foundations of Digital Games conference. Some of us are struggling today. Too much food. Too many late nights discussing things with smart interesting people. OK and yes for some people too many late nights having those discussions over drinks. But there are still lots of great talks during the day. As I start this post I am listening to a report on studies of massively multi-player online games. Apparently a lot of the forum discussions for these games are problem solving discussions.

    BTW most of the people I have heard who are doing serious study of online game cultures are women. Somehow these are not the games I expect women to be involved with. Also apparently my pre-conceived notions are wrong. In any case students are spending a lot more time playing games than doing school work. They also spend a lot of other, non-game, time on the Internet. For many kids games are replacing reading. But really they are just doing a different kind of reading from what we are used to.

    The most impressive thing I saw all week was a device from Emotiv Systems. This is a headset that reads the electrical signals from the brain and lets a user control systems directly from those signals. The company is promoting this as a new device for playing games. I’m not so sure about that but it does seem to have some interesting possibilities in a number of areas. The keynote presentation and demo as well as a shorter interview with the president and co-founder of the company should be available online soon. The device itself will be for sale sometime in the fall with a target price of around $300. It will be interesting to see what develops from it.

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  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    FDG 2009 Day Three

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    Greetings from the Disney Wonder at sea somewhere in the Bahamas Bank. One of the key take aways from today was the idea of students wanting to see serious (i.e. professional) quality graphics in their projects. This was a major point that Matthew MacLaurin from the Kodu team talked about during his morning keynote talk. I heard the same thought expressed by some university faculty after Matt’s talk.

    A lot of us learned to program in the DOS days. Being able to create ASCII text graphics was exciting for us because that was the state of the art. We can’t expect today’s students to be happy with that. They are used to very high level graphics. Often when we talk about helping them to create games they get disappointed with what results they get. This leads to boredom and frustration and students leaving the program.

    What is the answer? Well Kodu is one possible answer for young students. XNA is a possible answer for very advanced students. So are other game engines like TorqueX and some other game development tools like GameMaker. And of course tools like Alice and Scratch. I’ve long believed that Windows Forms programming using languages like Visual Basic and C# is also a great tool. These tools allow students to create programs that look like and really are “real” Windows Programs.

    At least there are some options. There is some resistance to using them in some quarters. In some places there is an idea that students get too distracted by the graphics and creating user interface and miss out on the “really important concepts.” A reasonable fear I guess but I see that as a manageable situation. One can present students with pre-built UI modules or highly specific designs for the UI. One can also make it clear that the code behind is what the grade is based on and hold to it.

    These days we need to get kids interested and get them through the first or second computer science course. We don’t need or want “gate keeper” courses that “weed out the weak.” We need to encourage students and build them up to be ready for more. Good graphics can, in my opinion, help quite a bit. What do you think?

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  • Computer Science Teacher - Thoughts and Information from Alfred Thompson

    FDC 2009 Day Two

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    Today the Disney Wonder cruise ship is docked in Nassau, The Bahamas but the Foundations of Digital Games continues. I started the day with a keynote by a senior development manager from EA Sports. He talked about some of the future developments in game development as well as the technologies that they need people for their development.

    He made a number of interesting comments. One of them that for game companies fun is the principal design criteria. Realism is important, accuracy of rendering is important, sticking to the rules is important but if compromises have to be made to make the game fun that is what “wins.”  Some of the technical areas he said students need to learn are databases and networking. Graphics programming and artificial intelligence are still very important but the need for handling databases and networking is growing rapidly. He also talked about code optimizations. Or rather how difficult a problem that was and how their very best people were critical in solving those issues. Modern games are refreshing at a rate of 60 frames a second and it take very efficient code to make everything work in the short period allowed. My experience is that many students assume time and efficiency are not issues. Or at least not things they think are important.

    One other huge take away I got from his talk was that they are looking for students who know how to learn quickly. They use multiple programming languages from low level assembly language up to high level languages like C#. People need to be able to work in the full range and pick up new things quickly.

    After lunch I heard an interesting talk on women and girls in online gaming. I had heard that 70% of casual gamers (people who play casual games) were women. What I didn’t know was that there are a lot more virtual world games for children (especially teens) than I knew about. This virtual worlds, especially those aimed at tweens (10 to 13 year olds) were very much a girl’s environment – also about 70% girls. I really want to learn more about this.

    Tonight I heard a talk on XNA 3.1. It’s now midnight and I’m really about to crash so I will be putting more information together on this soon. For now let me say that the avatar game usage for XBox Live games and the ability to play video inside of games looks interesting and exciting to me. I can see a lot of use for both. And I can see this sort of personalization of games will appeal to a lot of students.

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