Wednesday, September 29, 2010

GeoGame Green Revolution

To continue from ... the TELR grant allowed us to develop a more sophisticated prototype game primarily for classroom use. After the initial trials we decided to use two open source platforms; Project Darkstar by Sun Microsystems and World Wind by NASA. A computer science graduate student worked on the project part time during winter and spring quarter and full time over summer quarter when most of the work was completed.

Now, this might not look like much but we think it is a significant step towards creating a development platform for massive multi-player online geographic games (oh dear, that will be MMOGG). The thing that we are most proud of here is that we have separated the interface from the assets and rules so that it becomes more modular and easier to change the parameters of the game. So, an external onotlogy file (in OWL) contains all the information about what a game contains, how many players it can take, which geographic data to load, and which rules to use. Essentially that ontology defines what exist in the game. Another separate Jess (that's the Java Expert System Shell) CLP file has all the rules for the game. So we can modify e.g how yield is calculated without having to modify the program code. Finally, the game is situated based on a KML file (that' your typical Google Earth geodata format) that contains the farmland areas where the game is going to be played. This makes it possible to move the game from being played in Punjab, India to Marion, Ohio if you want. Obviously we did not have the time to code a game configuration interface or manual, so these kind of tweaks are a bit undocumented and hidden, but they work!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The power of games

In this hilarious and provocative TED presentation JMcG  says it all. We need more people to spend more time playing meaningful games. We already have a generation of world-savers at our disposal and they possess...

The Four Superpowers of Gamers, i.e.:
An urgent optimism - believing that an epic win is always possible
A tight social fabric - actively building networks of trust
A blissful productivity - happy to be working hard
A sense of epic meaning - ready to take on planetary scale missions

So enjoy her talk and join the ranks of serious gamers to save the world.

Jane's book "Reality is broken..." is most likely a good read and eventually made some press in my native Sweden.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Gaming and Computational Social Science

Thanks to Bryan Mark who alerted me to the coming game I got into a string of really interesting thoughts and works on the use of games for social awareness and change. This game is a climate change scenario game with some cool looking virtual globe graphics and other wise standard-looking map game components. The virtue of it seems to be the scientific basis on which they claim to have built their simulation engines in order to model the consequences of players' actions on the environment. It then strikes me as strange when one of their bloggers, Ian, comes down hard on academic efforts at at building a global modeling and simulation platform. Critical reviews are necessary to move projects forward but a total slashing of this project seems a bit of an overreaction.

Anyway, this took me through a few papers in Science into the realm of Computational Social Science and Mining Our Reality. Absolutely fascinating stuff and well worth reading for anyone doing social science research in this day and age. The core ideas are that our increasingly wired society carry around gadgets that an many ways can capture information about what do, e.g. "...locating you to within a few meters, an accelerometer that detects when you are walking versus stationary, a microphone that detects both conversations and background noises, a camera that records where each picture was taken, and an interface that observes every incoming and outgoing e-mail and text message. The potential benefits of mining such data are various; examples include reducing traffic congestion and pollution, limiting the spread of disease, and better using public resources such as parks, buses, and ambulance services." (Mitchell, 2009) Obviously with huge implications for things like privacy.

Wow, this will be a great topic for the GEOG880 seminar in Cartography I teach this quarter!

Friday, September 3, 2010

From idea to first prototype

Once we had the idea of using a virtual globe as a game board we had to figure out how to do it. Since we were geographers with limited computer and coding skills we had to seek outside help. Being at a place like Ohio State is a huge advantage in that situation because there is always an expert in whatever you can come up with. In this case we talked with the directors of CETI, Drs. rajiv Ramnath and Jay Ramanathan. It turned out that they offered project oriented capstone classes in things like Enterprise Architecture (CSE 757) Software Engineering (CSE 758) and Service Oriented Computing (CSE 762) and students team were always on the lookout for challenging projects. As a sponsor of two such capstone projects we got to experience some prototype functionality for the envisioned games.

The first prototype was built in the spring of 2008 using Openlayers and managed to handle real-time interaction on a map between simultaneously logged-in users. The next prototype was built in the fall of 2008 and experimented with the newly released Google Earth javaScript plug-in for web-browsers. It could handle multiple players around a RISK-style, command-and-conquer type of game where players could interact through chat and see other player's moves in real time. Another feature was the ability to freely add additional geographic data to the map display. One of the things I find most interesting with the GeoGame idea is the ability to have these game-like scenarios develop over time as a result of player's interactions, identified needs for additional information, or modifications to the rules of engagement, all decided by the participants/players. IF we can find a clever way of saving these preferences we can allow users to build on previous experiences and developments of a game, from a simple adoption of a board game, to a complex, dynamic, and organic system.

These prototypes gave us enough insight into the technical challenges and possibilities of our idea in order to formulate a robust proposal for an internal development grant (TELR Expertise grant ~$10k). This grant helped fund a Master's student to do some serious coding and development. It also provide technical, and design support for the adoption of the game in an educational setting. mor on that next time.

How we came up with the GeoGame idea

The whole idea came about in 2007 when one of our undergraduate students came to me and wanted to do an independent study with me and design a new game map for the Days of Wonder board game Ticket to Ride. There are several unofficial versions of the game using different parts of the world as a backdrop for the game (see e.g. this unofficial version for Scandinavia) and this student wanted to do one for Canada. Now, during his work we discussed if there were ways that you could embed some more realistic aspects that would have people who play the game actually learn something about Canada, transportation systems, or whatever... We also started to talk about online versions of the game and what we could if we could somehow tap into online mapping services... Yes, what would happen?

We saw all kinds of fun games that obviously could be done where we could use real information from the map as a substitute for some of the really artificial numbers and look-up tables you can find in the regular boardgames. For example, in the game RISK you get your troops reinforcements based on a table that tells you that you get a new army for each territory you control + an army for each city in those territories. In addition you can get some bonus armies if you control an entire region. But these are just numbers. If we instead related those numbers directly to information about GDP or actual population counts, then players would probably learn something about the real world while playing the game and having fun. Another example is Monopoly where a lot of us can recall the rent for Broadway but have no idea what the actual rent is on Broadway, NY. Haboro, by the way, had a really cool GeoGame up to promote their new game Monopoly City Streets. (Background image source: AP Images)

There's was also recently an interesting note on GPB News about what Monoply can teach players and what it misleads people to think. In that article Russ Roberts, a professors of economics at George Mason University, argues that the real kick comes when you allow players to negotiate and bend the rules as they go along playing the game. And this is where we see GeoGames can become a really interesting tool. It could provide a way to simulate market dynamics, peoples social interaction, around a spatial problem. More on that another time.