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CHI Conference: Marleigh's Top Picks

Last week, I went to the CHI conference, which is pronounced "kye" and stands for Human-Computer Interaction. Yeah, I know it doesn't match exactly, but how would you pronounce "HCI" anyway?

The field of HCI is the convergence of psychology, computer science, and design. Use psychology to understand the people. Use computer science to understand the computers. Use design to make it all work together. Lather, rinse, repeat, and voila! You have a well-designed system.

HCI techniques can be used for any system involving people and technology which includes... well, pretty much everything I can think of. It's a really broad field. That being said, I was pleased to see that CHI had some offerings specific to video games.

Gaming Picks

Wii All Play: The Console Game as a Computational Meeting Place Amy Voida and Saul Greenberg
I first met Amy Voida at Georgia Tech when I was a Master's student and she was a teaching assistant. She wasn't into games research then and I'm psyched to see she's joined the cult. Our field could use more smart people like her.

The crux of the paper is a study she did on people who play console games together in the same room. For these people, it turned out the goal was not to save the princess or win the race, but rather to spend meaningful time with friends and family. As she points out, it's not "What makes video games fun?" but rather "Who makes video games fun?" Games that accommodate a diverse set of people with varying experience, preferences, and enthusiasm were key to a good gaming experience.

Designing Digital Games for Rural Children: A Study of Traditional Village Games in India
Matthew Kim, Akhil Mathur, Anuj Kumar, and John Canny

The goal? Create educational video games for children in rural India. The result? Crash and burn. The games were too Western. An adaptation of Frogger, for example, was the most easily accessible in terms of goals--crossing roads safely is a common occurrence in India. The idea of moving sideways to fit though gaps, though, was confusing. Who crosses a street like that in real life?

In order to make video games more accessible to the children, the researchers began studying the games children were already playing. Physical games, board games, whatever. They came up with a named set of structure elements, similar to the games ontology projects that pop up every once in a while in video game circles. By creating educational computer games that use the same elements as the games the children were already playing, they were able to create new games that the children could more easily identify with.

This sort of design philosophy is one of my favorites, to study the users and find their needs and interests, and then let the system flow from that. Pretty common in non-entertainment applications. Cool to see it being applied to game design.

Design Influence on Social Play in Distributed Exertion Games
Florian 'Floyd' Mueller, Martin R. Gibbs, and Frank Vetere

Ping pong for three players sounds weird enough. Ping pong for three players in different rooms seems even weirder. Strangely, it works better than one would think. Floyd Mueller presented an evaluation of his game Table Tennis for Three.

The thing that struck me about his talk--besides how hard it would be to market commercially--was how a lot of the joy of the game came from the people themselves. Much like with Amy Voida's study, people were bonding over this game. It allowed and encouraged chatting, showing off, cheating, and adapting the game in unexpected ways. For example, one trio had two novice ping pong players and one expert. They agreed the novices were allowed to use their hands while the expert could only use the paddle.

In video games, so much is artificial. So often you can't do anything except what the designers thought of ahead of time and the programmers coded in. It was nice to see a game that wasn't afraid to let the players just relax and play. So maybe using your hands isn't what the designers intended. So what? They're still having fun with the technology and each other. This kind of flexibility only added to the enjoyment of the game.

Non-Gaming Picks

Like I said, HCI is a broad field. Believe it or not, there's some awesome stuff going on in the world that doesn't relate to video games.

Designing for Global Impact
Jan Chipchase

Jan Chipchase's talk mostly seemed to be an hour long presentation of highlights from his blog. If that sounds boring, I assure you it isn't. He travels the world, studying the quirkiness of humanity and takes some pretty good pictures to boot.

Resilience Through Technology Adoption: Merging the Old and the New in Iraq
Gloria Mark, Ban Al-Ani, and Bryan Semaan

Picture this: the power's out, it's crazy hot out, and the generator can either power the air conditioner or the computer and router. What kind of person picks the computer? You're probably imagining a technogeek, but a modern Iraqi might pick that too.

Wow, this study was both awesome and gut-wrenching. These researchers conducted phone interviews on how technology is being used by civilians in Iraq to get by during war time. Information like what religious sect controls which streets today can be the difference between life and death. Unsurprising how some Iraqis went from low- or no-tech to high-tech in such a short time.

Mobile Technologies for the World's Children
Alison Druin (moderator), David Cavallo, Christopher Fabian, Ben Bederson, Glenda Revelle, Yvonne Rogers, and Jim Grey

And just so we don't end on a downer, the panel on mobile technology for kids brought together a super cool group of people from organizations like UNICEF, Sesame Workshop, Leapfrog, and OLPC. Special shout out to the International Children's Digital Library, which is a free online source of children's books from all over the world. I already downloaded their iPhone app, which sadly only has a few books, but not bad for the price of free.

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