Monday, December 21, 2009

Real-Life US Army Simulation

Just found an extremely facinating video on the CNN website detailing how American soldiers prepare for deployment in Iraq. Apprently, the US Army has developed a National Training Center at Ft. Irwin in the Mojave Desert which realistically simulates all of the stresses a soldier will face on deployment in Iraq. There is even a mock Al-Qaeda organization, complete with a terrorist leader, which stages attacks against the soldiers and organizes political assasinations:

A great way for soldiers to synthesize knowledge and activate transferable mental schemata. Obviously creating such an opportunity for high school and university foreign language students would be out of the question, but a digital game-based learning approach could replicate some aspects of the experience in a scalable and more economical fashion. Much like the
Tactical Iraqi game developed for the US Army, but without the guns. Seems like the military understands the usefuleness of simulations and gaming as learning platfroms; I just wonder when foreign language instructors in higher education will get it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Fußgängerzone Sign Turnaround

Finally got the turnaround for the pedestrian zone sign finished and posted on YouTube:

For the pole and brackets holding the sign I applied a galvanized metal texture to the meshes and created a bump map on the same texture to give them a more authentic feel. The signs themselves just have specularity and reflectivity maps applied, breaking up the reflection of the surface a bit and mimicing the weathering that such signs would encounter without altering the surface of the signs as a bump map would.

Researching information for the graffiti on the back of the middle sign, I came across the concept of Stasi 2.0 (English here), a current civil rights hot topic in Germany regarding the use of current and emerging technology for preemptive security measures. I like the stencil on the back of the sign, however there appears to have been some stretching when I unwrapped the meshes that is distorting the graffiti somewhat. Perhaps also add a few stickers as well? In any case, here is an improved render of the sign:

Looks a lot better. Now I'll need to think of some other objects that can be found in the pedestrian zone and model them next.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pedestrian Zone (Fußgängerzone) Sign

Just finished putting the bump and specularity maps on the sign for the pedestrian zone and did a quick render:

Looks pretty good, nein? I was thinking of doing a quick turnaround render before I went home, but will probably do this tomorrow once I come back to the office. Anyway, I'd still like to add a few things that you would normally find on the back of these signs, such as graffiti and stickers. I'm still not sure what the exact layout of the pedestrian zone will be like. I am trying to keep in mind that the game narratives will be uncovered and supported by the layout of the virtual space, so I'm aiming for a combination of sociocultural authenticity and ludic functionality. Inother words, its gotta be fun and intuitive to play, while also being true to life.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Streetlamp Created

Finally got a streetlamp object made for the level where the player will be inserted into the game. Here is a quick turnaround of the mesh, complete with a bump map applied to the glass panels of the lantern itself (and some additional tweaking done to the raytracing for mirror reflection and transparent refraction rendering):

I felt less than inspired on the music track for the video; perhaps next time will be better. In any case, the insertion level will hopefully replicate the pedestrian zone found in an older German village and will help the player become accustomed to the game interface (e.g., navigation in a virtual 3D space and game controls) as well as establish some of the backstory. I'll be developing more game objects in the near future, including some signs for player navigation.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Student Newspaper Article and Final Findings

I was interviewed a few weeks ago by a student reporter from The Pendulum, the student newspaper here at Elon University. The interview dropped off my radar until just a few days ago when I noticed that an article on my efforts to develop a 3D-DGBL to teach beginning German had finally been published. The article sounds like I already have the project fully developed (which would be nice), but in actuality I'm still very much in the development phase.

I just finished the Fall 2009 semester with a final in German 321, the course I am using as a testbed to develop dialogue for the game. Although I do not have any pictures to post of the final, an important dynamic of gameplay emerged that will need to be addressed in the final game: the tension between playing the game simply to collect points and as a way to assemble cultural knowledge. Some players decided to play the game as quickly as possible (to beat the clock) and to complete the level objectives as expeditiously as possible. Although this is certainly a legitimate way to play the game, this unfortunately resulted in a superficial examination of the cultural spaces in which the game dialogue was couched. In sum, players would play fast but not go deep.

At the end of the final I theorized with the students ways to overcome this problem. We came up with the following:
  1. Award "culture points" to players who dig deep into the culture (e.g., pursuing hints dropped by NPCs about contemporary German culture or events). Through some type of algorithmic function, these culture points would improve the overall points that a player earns during the game (total points multiplied by a logarithm of culture points to increase the overall score?).
  2. Structure the level challenges so that all but one can be completed (thus preventing the player from advancing to the next level). Game resources are earned based upon player interactivity with cultural topics in the level, thus allowing the player to complete the level
Both suggestions are very good and perhaps both (or a version thereof) can be incorporated in the game as a way to encourage player interaction with sociocultural topics. This will certainly be a topic to revisit in the future. Now on to 3D model development with Blender...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Visual Learning and Game Maps

Now that I have my article on digital game-based learning out the door and the semester is gradually coming to an end, I have had much more time to spend on Blender and creating 3D models. Although directly related to the research I am conducting on 3D-DGBL environments and their eventual application for second language acquisition, I have been pleasantly surprised (but sometimes also frustrated) by the demands that this project has been placing on the right hemispehere of my brain. In a way, however, the project is moving me towards a holistic fusion of research, art, and creativity that I have found lacking in my academic career up to this point. Here is the result of this fusion thus far:

Feeling that the video was by itself rather boring, I also spent a few hours this last weekend mixing sound loops and samples from FlashKit and The Freesound Project. Granted, I probably will not have a career in techno any time soon, but it certainly was fun trying to line up the images with the music.

Working with images, sound, and the unstructured nature of 3D game environments has led me to ponder how best to teach with new and emerging media. A lot of what we do in the classroom today is print-based and very linear: Students and instructors move from Point A to Point B, whereupon a test is administered. New media requires us to step back and look at the whole environment as a potential platform for learning, one that is not contrained by previously employed instructional paradigms. For instance, the anti-capitalism graffiti I grabbed off the Web and applied to the side of the fountain (did you see it in the video?)

also tells a story in itself, and these small, individual, visual components need to be harmonized with the overarching story of the 3D-DGBL environment. The challenge, I suppose, is recognizing (and somehow working with) the fact that some instruction will be delivered through a visual channel via images and other instruction through a purely audio channel via spoken language. The final instructional package, so to speak, will be a uniquely individual syntehsis of these different channels. So, how will I fit this image into the game I am planning and its story arc? I'm not sure. Perhaps as an underlying tension between leftist and right-wing elements similar to what was experienced in the Weimar Republic during the 1920s and 1930s.

I've also been thinking a lot about the spatial flow of the game, and how all the well-received professionally developed 3D games use the virtual space and NPC action as a way to direct the player. These thoughts have been fueled in part my my own work in developing a 3D game, in part by the book on video game spaces by Michael Nitsche I am currently reading. The map I have developed so far (see related post) seems a bit too open-ended and may not give the player/learner enough direction in order to accomplish specific level tasks. I'll certainly revisit this topic at a later date as I start to crank up my Unity3D training. In any case, I've been thinking of narrowing down the pedestrian zone into which the player/learner is first insterted at the beginning of the game - something based on a small German town like Harburg, Bavaria or Neuhaus an der Pegnitz.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Getting My Blender Chops Back

It has been a few weeks (months?) since focusing intently on Blender, and I have been having some difficulty getting back into it. I thought I would start out small and finish work on the center point of any pedestrian zone - the fountain - but this has proven to be somewhat of an arduous task. Particularly difficult was the lip of the fountain's basin. Apparently I had inserted too many edges into the lip in order to give it a rounded feel, which caused no little amount of texture stretching when I worked with the UV map. Ah, the frustration! I even tried moving away from image textures toward procedural textures and inserted unwrapping seams nearly everywhere I could, just to avoid the stretching, to no avail.

As the picture above shows, I finally removed some extra edges in the lip and was able to finally get a grip on the excess texture stretching. For fun, I also added a bump map to the image, tweaked the specularity a bit, and also changed the lamp color to produce the warm type of glow that you get on a summer evening.

The final image shows the basin lip of the fountain, complete with grouting between the stones. Oh...and anti-capitalsim graffiti, which I often see on my trips to Germany, especially in university towns. I was planning to put some anarchy graffiti on the fountain, but this particular image just seemed to speak to me, so I grabbed it off the Web, modified it a bit in GIMP, and inserted it into the color map. In the coming days I will be working on the bump map for the fountain and perhaps tweaking the mesh a bit to round the fountain lip off.