Ben’s CHI 2011 Roundup

Following on from Conor’s post, here’s some quick comments about my experience at CHI.

This is a looong post so bear with me!

CHI is a big conference and there is a *lot* to see. One of the benefits of having several people attend is that we collectively get a lot more out of the conference than an individual would. We rarely ran into each other at the conference, each saw very different things, and this is partly why we are writing separate posts about our experiences.

I focussed more on the games aspect of CHI, attending several panels and SIG discussions on the theme. Also, since I’m currently in the process of finishing my PhD, I was in a much more reflective mood at CHI and as such my experience was less about specific research findings and more about themes and movements.

I was one of the organisers of the Social Game Studies workshop, which was held on the Sunday. We had a productive and interesting workshop, with some very interesting talks and papers that will be online shortly at the site.

We’ll post a longer report in time, but for me the main interesting discussion point was about the nature of social games with respect to real social relationships. We kept coming back to things like identity presentation and social responsibility. How, even though that “it is just a game”, the fact that real social relationships were involved meant that real-world social issues leak back and forth from within the “magic circle” of play.

There were many other interesting discussions on games throughout the conference. In particular Gifford Cheung presented two thoughtful pieces:

Starcraft from the stands: understanding the game spectator
– an intriguing look at the value of the spectator experience to games. Especially interesting was the behaviour of Starcraft fans watching videos on Youtube with masking tape on their monitors. This hides both the final result of the match and the video scrub bar that gives away the time remaining. Like a modern version of this episode of the Likely Lads.

Customization for games: lessons from variants of texas hold’em – an interesting poster about how the rules of poker evolve. I talk about the effect of social context on game rules in my PhD, so we had a good chat about it.

In the panel about World of Warcraft, Nick Yee made a couple of interesting points based on his research. Firstly, that player behaviour when role-playing correlates with their personality. In other words, it appears that even when pretending to be a radically different character, your personality still largely determines your actions. Seasoned pen-and-paper roleplayers will instantly recognise this, but it is interesting to see evidence for it. Secondly he pointed out that players conform to gender stereotypes when “gender-bending” (i.e. a male playing a female character). For example, it is a stereotype that females should heal more than fight, so female characters tend to conform to this stereotype, whether played by females or males.

There was also a couple of games going on during CHI. Conor mentioned our battle over the FourSquare mayorship. Also running was our social game of mischief, Feckr, and Backchatter. I made a concerted effort to do well at Backchatter, and managed to pull a victory in the last round. Backchatter is an interesting game about predicting Twitter trends during a conference and adds an interesting sense of urgency around paying attention to the programme. Importantly it doesn’t distract you from the content of the talks, if anything engaging you more. It’s an ok game, but more importantly it opens the door to more in-conference gaming in the future, which is a very exciting thought.

One of the most inspirational talks at CHI for me was given on the first day by Bill Buxton, head of Microsoft Research. He was basically talking about the importance of history to HCI, told through the lens of industrial design. A room at CHI was given over to his collection of interface devices, called “The Buxton Collection”. I urge you to visit his site and browse the devices online.

Buxton Collection

Above is a picture from the collection showing the evolution of iPod designs. The most interesting are the first and last. The first is a transistor radio from 1958 and the last is the IBM Simon phone from 1993. Buxton’s central point is that the clever design of iPods and iPhones seems like magic if you don’t know your history. However, the designers at Apple know their history very well, and incorporated old design features in their new products as a combination of remixing and homage.

Bill generalised this in terms of the early 1980’s music scene, where there was an ideological split between people who used synthesisers to create new sounds, and people who used samplers to repurpose and reuse existing sounds. We all know who won that battle.

This really resonated with me and the thoughts I’d been having about Conor’s paper on educational games at CHI. It points out that the games industry has spent 20 years synthesising a way to teach with games, which would have been better sampled from psychology. Just as Apple remixed old design concepts from the 1950’s, so must game designers be aware of their history and context, and remix ideas from traditional sciences.

Watch this incredible video about the attention to history and context in Kill Bill, and ask yourself – where is the Quentin Tarantino of game design?

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