Monday, March 31, 2014

Article Published in ReCALL

It's been a long haul, but finally -- after several years of design, development, assessment, and evaluation -- the experiment results have been published in the ReCALL Journal:

If you are interested and want to read more, you can download a PDF of the paper. Basically, as described in the abstract, the article reports on a mixed-methods study evaluating the use of a three-dimensional digital game-based language learning (3D-DGBLL) environment to teach German two-way prepositions and specialized vocabulary within a simulated real-world context of German recycling and waste management systems. The study assumed that goal-directed player activity in this environment would configure digital narratives, which in turn would help study participants in the experimental group to co-configure story maps for ordering and making sense of the problem spaces encountered in the environment. The study further assumed that these participants would subsequently rely on the story maps to help them structure written L2 narratives describing an imagined personal experience closely resembling the gameplay of the 3D-DGBLL environment. The study found that immersion in the 3D-DGBLL environment influenced the manner in which the second language was invoked in these written narratives: Participants in the experimental group produced narratives containing more textual indicators describing the activity associated with the recycling and waste management systems and the spaces in which these systems are located. Increased usage of these indicators suggest that participants in the experimental group did indeed rely on story maps generated during 3D gameplay to structure their narratives, although stylistic and grammatical features of the narratives suggest, however, that changes could be made to the curricular implementation of the 3D-DGBLL environment. The study also puts forward ideas for instructional best practices based on research findings and suggests future areas of development and investigation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

New Workflow with Alt-D

I have been making progress on the medieval city wall that will surround the fictional town of Bad Oberdinkelheim, which will help to keep player-learners in a controlled space while simultaneously granting them an unfettered sense of agency. While creating the wall I have stumbled across another type of workflow. Whereas before I created the entire model in Blender before applying texture and bump maps, this time around I complete one portion of the model and apply the texture map before moving on the the next portion of the model:

What this is allowed me to do, is to develop one small section of the larger model (the roof and railing in the screen shot above, for example), and then create a linked duplicate (Alt-D in Blender) that can be used to complete the remainder of the model. This means that I only have to apply the texture and bump maps to one object and, as the duplicates are linked, have them automatically applied to all derivative objects. In the screen shot above, for example, the roof and railing object is copied several times to complete the rampart of the medieval wall:

The texture maps (the majority of which I got from Arroway Textures and maxTextures) are seamless, although some visible tiling still occurs (e.g., the stones in the rampart floor). I'll have to see what I can do to sort of break that up a bit and make it appear more natural. Next step: Applying the bump maps and making some renders and video animations.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Bad Oberdinkelheim Gets a Wall

The last game I created was done under time pressure: It took me roughly 1.5 years to learn 3D modeling and texturing in Blender, game programming in Unity, and get the instructional materials created in time to teach the the topic of German waste management and recycling systems within the context of two-way prepositions. Oh, and also get the assessment instruments created and IRB approval finalized. Sometimes I felt like I had a "launch window" of a few days and I was trying to get the whole project finished in time to get the rocket to the pad.

Anyway, the game was completed and the experiment ran - and the results will be appearing sometime this year in ReCALL Journal. The compromise was, that the game was never truly finished: The buildings were oddly located in the middle of a flat plane that stretched to what was apparently infinity. In actuality, if the players had the patience they could have walked to the edge of this virtual world and walked off the edge into oblivion. What was sorely needed was a virtual object that confined player movement to a specific space, but at the same time gave them the sense of unconfined possibility. Something that logically kept players in their place without being too blatant about it. In sum, a virtual wall for a virtual town. And as the fictional town of Bad Oberdenkelheim is an old German town with a rich medieval past, a medieval wall is in order (loosely based on the city walls of Nürnberg):

What's nice about designing 3D models for a game is, that you only really need to finish one side of the model. As the wall is meant to keep player activity limited to a game space, they will (hopefully) never see the other side of the wall. Productivity is so much quicker, and applying UV textures is simpler.

It has taken me about one week to get back into the swing of Blender. The interface has changed a bit since I last played with it. But once I started figuring out where the buttons are and started remembering the keyboard shortcuts, it all started to come back to me. And it seems to me that finding instruction is easier than it used to be. I used to have to scour books on how to get things done in Blender; instruction now seems to be so much easier to find on YouTube. Such as this video on how to bend models, which I relied on in developing the arches for the wall:

So, I'm finally back in the Blender saddle and hope to get more work done on the project in the near future. And, if all goes well, another article (or book?) out the door in the near future.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Away For Much Too Long

It's been several months since posting my last entry and it's time to get back down to business. Reason for my absence has been partly professional, and partly pure digital distraction. Let's start with the last point first. After having played Battlefield 2142 for, oh, a *really* long time, I decided to step up to something a bit newer and finally purchased Battlefield 3. Only for research purposes, I kept telling myself. So, after playing for 71 hours and 39 minutes (not that I'm counting):

and having advanced to the rank of Master Gunnery Sergeant, I thought that may I should rededicate myself (and, more importantly, my time) towards building an immersive 3D digital game-based language learning environment for introductory German courses. Getting bigger on the trigger in a virtual world is great, but I think that learning the coding and 3D modeling skills necessary for creating such an environment is also really cool and can be immensely satisfying. Plus they have real-world application. So, for now, perhaps gaming only on the weekends. Purely for research purposes, of course.

My other professional distraction has been a blended learning environment for business German. Specifically, doing an article write-up on how the environment was developed. The article has been fun to write as it required me to do a review of some basic ADDIE instructional design models, including The Systematic Design of Instruction by Dick and Carey, which was the first model I learned. In particular, it was fun to review the required steps involved in performing the goal and to analyze subordinate skills.

For the article, I am focusing on the steps involved in preparing a German-style résumé. The steps for performing the goal include: (Step 1) access the Europass website; (Step 2) launch the Europass software; (Step 3) compose a German-style résumé; (Step 4) save the résumé; and (Step 5) exit the Europass website:

It was deemed unnecessary to design instruction for Steps 1-2 and 4-5 as they deal primarily with the simple navigation of a web-based software interface, which could be easily and quickly demonstrated for students during class. Closer analysis of Step 3, however, revealed the need to identify further substeps necessary to perform the task of composing a German-style résumé. These substeps were identified to be: (Step 3.1) set Europass language to German; (Step 3.2) choose a section of the résumé to complete; (Step 3.4) enter personal information into section; and (Step 3.7) move on to next section of the résumé. It is also important to note that, while composing the résumé, a student will undoubtedly encounter difficulties in language reception or production requiring a decision to be made with regard to alternate goal-directed activities. These decisions were identified to be: (Step 3.3) does the student understand the written German instructions for a section of the résumé?; (Step 3.5) does the student know genre-appropriate vocabulary known to complete a section entry?; and (Step 3.6) can the student produce the correct syntax to complete a section entry in a genre-appropriate manner? Of course, the alternate decision paths revealed further substeps for solving the problems described here. For Step 3.3 only one step was identified: (Step 3.3.1) toggle Europass language to English and/or consult a specialized dictionary. More steps, however, were identified for Step 3.5: (Step 3.5.1) consult a specialized dictionary and/or web-based translation memory (TM) software (e.g., to find translation for English business term; and (Step 3.5.2) enter genre-appropriate German vocabulary. Finally, for Step 3.6, two additional steps were identified: (Step 3.6.1) check formulation against genre-appropriate syntax and/or consult with the instructor; and (Step 3.6.2) make necessary modifications to the section entry. Students performing the module goal would iterate between Step 3.3 and 3.7 until the résumé section is complete.

The analysis of subordinate skills took me a bit longer. hree subordinate skills, consisting of psychomotor skills (PS), intellectual skills (IS), and and verbal information (VI) were identified as being essential for the completion of this step. Students will need to know how to: (PS 1) use a specialized dictionary; (PS 2) utilize the Europass web-based software interface; and (IS 1) evaluate search results for feasibility. These subordinate skills could be further broken down into constituent parts. The ability to utilize the Europass software, for example, is dependent on (PS 2.1) basic Web navigation skills, whereas the ability to evaluate the feasibility of search results depends, among other things, on a knowledge of German (IS 1.1) grammar and (IS 1.2) word classes. Finally, the feasibility of the search results would constantly be evaluated against (VI 1) a knowledge base of already known genre-appropriate German vocabulary:

Anyway, I'm making good progress on the article and hope to have it wrapped up in the coming weeks. Hopefully, once that is done, I will be relatively free of distractions and be able to get back into game design. I'm thinking that, to start off and get back in the swing of things, I will design some 3D models in Blender.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Gone Home: A Model for SLA Games?

A few months ago I became interested in Gone Home, a first-person story exploration video game, on the Game Profiles page at Unity. The idea of a game that does not involve shooting and killing intrigued me. There's not even any non-player characters (NPCs) to interact with. Rather, the game only involves careful investigation of (a rather small) game world and the unfolding of narrative embedded within this space:

I think, in a way, games like Gone Home can serve as a model for 3D digital game-based language learning (3D-DGBLL) environments, which perhaps can also be seen as an archaeological investigation of a simulated real-world space. What could possibly be more exciting, challenging, and intriguing than discovering a different culture and language for the first time? What better platform than a well-designed first-person story exploration video game? Anyway, the game has received excellent reviews in The New York Times and GameSpot. I'm looking forward to downloading my own game soon, as soon as the start-of-the-semester crush has passed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

3 AM Game Ideas

What do you do at 3 AM when you have a bad case of insomnia and can't sleep? Well, what I usually do is think about things that need getting done, how to move projects forward, and ideas for articles. Sometimes I will think about aikido. This morning, however, it was the video game. Here's some ideas for the next game prototype that I have been throwing around in my head:

Most video games have a persuasive and engaging backstory that pushes the game narrative in a certain direction and gives the players a sense of what needs to be done in the game world. The idea that I think would perhaps be most feasible for a language-learning game is something that students see themselves potentially doing in the near future, such as spending a summer abroad to improve their German at a language institute and working a part-time job. The job could be at a grocery store managed by a Turkish person living in Germany, which would allow for running investigations of Turkish-German relations and minorities living in Germany. The idea of the language institute could be worked into the game in the form of the homework that students would need to do for their real-world class. This idea could be leveraged to mask the disruption of flow that a player would experience when bouncing back and forth between the game world and the real world. As the player moves forward in the game, the story could be developed to reveal a deeper mystery that needs examining, or a personal drama (such as unrequited love) that needs to be resolved.

Game Insertion
Upon starting a video game, players generally have to undergo a brief training experience so that they become familiar with the game controls, moving in a simulated 3D space, and orientation in the game world. Players could be inserted into the information/tourist office of the town where they are supposedly staying. In the office they would speak to the person working there, find out basic information about the town, pick up informational brochures, and find out where they will be working. The person working in the information office could be a persistent game resource that a player could use when stuck with a problem that cannot be solved. The use of the information office in this manner also synchronizes nicely with the real-world function of the information office.

First Level
Ideally, the game levels would correspond with chapters in the accompanying book. I think it would be best to design book around the activity systems of the game and not simply try to overlay the game on an existing textbook. As in the current version of Deutsch Na Klar, the first chapter and introduction deal with personal identity, characteristics, and addresses. The learning objectives of the game could possibly be built around these topics:

  1. After becoming familiar with the city at the information office, the player reports to his boss at work. He informs the player that s/he must register at the city immigration office, where the player fills out a form requiring personal identity, characteristic, and address to be given. The use of the immigration office in this manner also synchronizes nicely with the real-world function of the immigration office and the residency permit. Upon returning to work, the boss informs the player that s/he needs to do homework for the language institute.
  2. Upon rejoining the game, the player reports to work. The boss has a few deliveries, which the player has make using information provided. The player will have to navigate 3D space using provided visual cues (e.g., street signs) and a cultural interface (e.g., ringing the doorbell of an apartment house and listening to the instruction given over the speaker) to successfully deliver the groceries. After making the deliveries, the boss will remind the player to do the homework for the language institute.
  3. Upon rejoining the game again, the boss will have a few more deliveries. This time, the player will find a wallet or identity card, which will provide information for the player to return the lost item to its owner. The player may have to perform some mini-quest (similar to throwing the bottles away in the game prototype I have currently developed) to demonstrate integrity. Interaction with the owner will then reveal something of the underlying drama or deeper mystery that will move the player forward into the next game level.

Anyway, just a brief sketch of something I have been working through in my mind at the moment. Basically, I'm trying to figure out a way to combine language instruction with a simulated 3D sociocultural environment that is based on the real world in a manner that would be fun for the player and also challenging. Back to bed now...and hopefully some sleep.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Essential Experience

The experiment I ran on the last game prototype demonstrated that some type of substantial learning did take place through the experiences that students had while playing the game. Developing the game, however, also revealed some problems in the workflow. As I am currently a one-person show, getting a firm grasp on the modeling and game development tools proved a bit of a challenge. Especially since I am self-taught on all of them (Unity, Blender, GIMP, Audacity and MonoDevelop). I am currently working through the Unity Tutorials and the Unity Stealth Project in order to get more familiar with Unity. Other tutorials in Unity and Blender will follow.

I also felt that I could read more about the process of designing a game, which brought me to The Art of Game Design and the 100 Lenses through which the process can be viewed. Since this is a research blog and a way for me to sketch rough ideas and document progress, I thought maybe it would be useful to revision the DigiBahn Project through these lenses. Should make for an interesting way to see the project in a new light.

1: The Lens of Essential Experience

The experience I would like players of the next game prototype to have would replicate the type of confusion that one has when abroad for the first time in a foreign county and is forced to rely on an academic knowledge of the language and culture to solve real-world problems. Although stressful, this type of experience is critical as it requires the student to reflect on what he has learned and to experiment with it in order to apply it towards a solution of the current problem. Knowledge is therefore not just abstract and mental, but rather emerges from interaction with the environment, people in the environment, and site-specific language usage. It is more grounded in the real-world. I hope that allowing students to overcome these challenges in a game setting will equip them with the confidence and tools to handle them in a real-world setting. In sum, that they develop a mindset that allows them to play with complex systems and look for solutions to problems that arise from these systems.

Questions I should look at include:

1. What is most confusing for students when they are abroad for the first time?
2. What sociocultural differences could be confusing?
3. How could the physical experience be confusing?
4. How can level-specific language be layered onto the game experiences?
5. How can this confusion be scaffolded so as not to overwhelm the player?
6. How can this confusion be scaffolded so as not to disrupt game flow?
7. How can game tasks be developed based on these above points?