Not your grandma’s Duck Hunt

Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

I’ve said it here before: I’m not much of a gamer. My 9-​​year-​​old nephew gets exas­per­ated every time he sets me up in front of the Wii and ulti­mately just takes the con­troller away from me so he can deal with both char­ac­ters at once. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t get excited when I heard about the next Pop Up Open Lab Expe­ri­ence and Recep­tion: Play + Inno­vate. North­eastern stu­dents and fac­ulty mem­bers will be gath­ering in the Dig­ital Media Com­mons at Snell Library on Monday after­noon from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. to present 11 dif­ferent game-​​related research projects. The event will fea­ture inter­ac­tive demos from the inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research teams.

This week, I caught up with a couple of the teams whose research will be on dis­play, just to get a taste of what we have in store for us. Here’s one thing I learned: games are get­ting smarter. When I was a kid, Duck Hunt and the Oregon Trail were fairly pre­dictable. You knew you’d have to ford a river at some point, and even­tu­ally you could learn the pat­tern by which the ducks entered the screen. Well…some of you could. I couldn’t. I would get deeply frus­trated because I was so ter­rible at the whole endeavor.

Rus­sell Pensyl, pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Art and Design, pro­fessor Magy Seif El-​​Nasr, who has joint appoint­ments in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design and the Col­lege of Com­puter Sci­ence, and PhD can­di­date Bardia Aghageigi are devel­oping a system that the child-​​me would have appre­ci­ated quite a bit (and actu­ally, the cur­rent ver­sion of me prob­ably would too).

A camera on the com­puter or the mobile device takes regularly-​​timed pic­tures of the player’s face. The pic­tures are com­pared to a huge data­base of photos of facial expres­sions that are asso­ci­ated with par­tic­ular emo­tions. If you’re smiling and giddy, the com­puter will know it. Then it’ll dive into the back end of the game and take a look at what’s hap­pening there. If you’re win­ning by a land­slide, the game will adapt itself to be a little more dif­fi­cult, making the game more chal­lenging, and thus (hope­fully) more rewarding. If you’re frowning, as I almost always am when I have a con­troller in my hand, it might make itself a little easier, tone down the number of ducks flying across the screen, that sort of thing.

This is a form of adap­tive con­tent gen­er­a­tion. Seif El-​​Nasr is inter­ested in the tech­nique to help pro­mote engage­ment with games for health and learning. “So while you’re playing, things can change to make it more engaging or get it to be more effec­tive at a learning or health com­po­nent,” she explained.

There are other ways a game can change to handle other sorts of chal­lenges. Auto­matic con­tent gen­er­a­tion means a game is never static, each time you start it up, you’re faced with a dif­ferent kind of task or a new puzzle. Instead of responding to a player’s expe­ri­ence, this is com­pletely random. You would never be able to figure out the pat­tern of target entry if Duck Hunt incor­po­rated ACG.

Assis­tant pro­fes­sors Casper Harteveld and Gillian Smith are com­bining ACG with com­mu­nity gaming in an attempt to pro­mote interest and learning in a game called Gram’s House, which aims to pro­mote com­puter sci­ence interest among middle school girls.

Grandma loves her house and doesn’t want to leave for an assisted living facility, so players of Gram’s House try to equip her home with assis­tive tech­nolo­gies that can help her live there for as long as pos­sible. This kind of story is thought to be more engaging for a young girl than, say, one that asks you to shoot all the bad guys. It uses puzzle games to teach com­puter sci­ence con­cepts like map­ping or the binary number system. But it’s cur­rently a totally static game. Players can’t interact with one another and the puz­zles are always the same.

Like many researchers, Smith and Harteveld are curious whether adding a com­mu­nity aspect and ACG will improve the out­comes of the game. They devel­oped GrACE, or Gram’s House Auto­matic Con­tent gEn­er­ator, named for the famous com­puter sci­en­tist Grace Hopper, to find out. North­eastern second-​​year stu­dent Gre­gory Loden devel­oped a puzzle game that asks players to iden­tify the shortest path between impor­tant points in the home. The idea is that a robot will travel along this course as it helps Gram with her daily tasks. But it’s really teaching players about the con­cept of “min­imum span­ning time.”

These are just two of the projects that’ll be strut­ting their stuff on Monday. Another looks at how vir­tual improv can pro­mote social intel­li­gence (this one will be on full dis­play, actors and all!), while others explore how games can help us deal with issues like sus­tain­ability and security.

There will be other adven­tures that I don’t have time to get into here. You’ll just have to come to the Dig­ital Media Com­mons on Monday to see for yourself.