A couple of notes about the philosophy of human-computer interaction

Recently I came across a four video series where Dag Svanaes discusses how the philosophy of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty could advice better understanding of interaction design. The first of the videos below, with a couple of quotes that I found especially basic and useful.

“To actually experience interactivity, you have to engage in some kind of interaction. And it is only through this interaction that the interactivity of the object appears to you. That you perceive it. Objects have various affordances, interaction is created by you in the interaction with the gadget.”

From video 2: “What it is (for example a pen), is just matter in space. It becomes something through use and social negotiation.”

I find this as a very important notion, especially when I’ve been reading more and more studies that have taken existing game engines to be used “seriously” in professional training, such as in mining. Often video games have certain affordances, such as exploration and interaction in general (naturally there are differences between Tetris and Halo). Such affordances are always restricted by the underlying programming and choices by the developers (invisible walls, I can’t go and eat a burger in Halo and in Borderlands I cannot die hitting the ground even jumping from the tallest building). Still, it seems to me, something is always stripped away even more when games are “assimilated” into education. In worst cases, they become something else than games. Through actual use, they become mere powerpoints.

Amazing research findings about video games (with a twist): They actually CAN teach you history!

Master Chief Story

OK, so here’s a short battle report amongst the fights for Reach in Halo Reach (who would’ve guessed!), which I and my wife casually started playing again after quite some time.

An urge came to write about narratives and the general understanding of a (game) universe. I have played through all the Halos (except the Wars) several times. I love the world, the general concept and the story. Still reading this official Xbox magazine Master Chief special issue that came home with me from EB Games, I finally have to admit it: I never had any clue when most of the things happen in the Halo world, and what the hell for am I running around all sorts of galaxies blowing up aliens and activating all sorts of massive relays and bombs and whatnots by “pressing X”.

After skimming through the magazine, which in my eyes does a pretty decent job in presenting the Halo universe and putting everything on a timeline, I got an “aha!” moment. Now I understand many things about the subtleties of the narrative, and get the general picture what actually takes place throughout the Halo timeline. Yeah I know, it’s an important revelation, but so what?

At least for me, this never kind of dawned on me during the game play. I’m always so deeply occupied with doing the missions, staying alive, getting those supercool head shots and trying not to flip the darn M12 Light Reconnaissance Vehicle aka Warthog all the time – my wife hates when this happens as she’s the person operating the cannon. Notable is that she does not always enjoy my driving neither in the virtual or the real world.

After reading some of the stuff in the magazine, I also realized how things took place in relation to other events (for example events in Halo: Combat Evolved in relation to Reach). Still, during playing or while ‘in the game’, these things were quite far from my radar. So, at the same time one could question the importance of story, but without story, the whole Halo universe most likely would not feel as Immersive (I try to get away from that word, but let it slip this time) and captivating. It would not be coherent nor interesting.

So from this very deep autoethnographical account we can derive some definite conclusions: video games are excellent medium for learning! Yay! Stop all ed journals from posting anything about this matter anymore. 🙂 It would be interesting to experiment on a wider scale in the future how such video game + reading material such books or in-game text support learning history also in formal learning settings (or if there’s something that ruins this), and what sort of a role personal characteristics might play.

I don’t often enjoy the discussions about the educational value of games, especially when it often goes to the “either or” stance of if games are better than reading (“because nobody reads anymore!!!”). And then there’s the people saying “books will be replaced by blaa blaa [your favorite future prediction here]”. Book is a technological concept that gathers text that communicates something. A book is not important in itself, but what it as a construct affords. Papyrus left the building already a while ago, and we don’t write on boards of clay boards anymore – although I sometimes feel blackboard gets quite close to this antiquity. Still I do not think text and writing somehow vanishes from the picture. Format of books might change, but communication stays – or I might be totally wrong, and in the future we communicate only through Minecraft-style sounds and odd avatar gestures that have become the new norm.

Real, realer, too much?: Why aren’t all NPCs made equal?

FarCry 3 - The Weekend Playlist – 12th January 2013

Here’s a short self-reflection about when my soul wept for the non-player character (NPC), a great cat, I had to slay and skin in Far Cry 3 to create a mobile phone pouch or whateverhell bag it was.

OK, so let’s start this off with a short personal description: I am not the most faint hearted person in the world. I grew up watching all sorts of gore movies from Cannibal Ferox to whatever sleaze from when I was quite little – and perhaps not even allowed to watch them. I have indeed killed a living being (I used to fish quite a lot while in Finland), I used to work in a place that produces all sorts of meat products, and I am not the best conservationist in this world – although I support the efforts of Australian Marine Conservation Society as I think they are on an important mission which is not publicly well supported.

Still, I have come to realise I dislike killing (some) virtual animals in (some) video games. This thought dawned on me in the early hours of Far Cry 3 where I basically needed to create all sorts of stuff from animal hides. From virtual animals that I needed to hunt and kill.

So, what’s the big deal here?, one could ask – and I am asking! Throughout my life as a gamer from NES to Xbox360 I have slain all sorts of virtual beetles, ice wolfs, sheep, dragons, angry fish, and animals whose name is just too strange or mythical to recall. Still, the fact of life is that I had to return Far Cry 3 back to the store as I didn’t find it engaging especially because of this aspect.

Now, my question is: why does the being Marko care? Why does this move him even an inch? They are just virtual animals! In contrast, I enjoy first person shooters (FPS) almost every day. You bloody kill people in these games all the time (well, lately mostly aliens for me)!

An Interlude:
And a word of reason to all you video game haters and non-players out there: no, it’s not about quenching some sort of thirst for death and killing. It’s about the challenge, the action, the play, the narrative and many, many other things. Mechanics that FPSs often have, are just a moderately easy way to create challenging interaction and antagonism. And no, majority of research at least I have read shows violent games do not result in more violent people in real life by default. Well, this isn’t the topic of this post anyway, So, onwards.

Also in contrast, I’ve recently been playing Skyrim and the newest Borderlands. In both of them, especially Skyrim, you end the lives of all sorts of life forms, for example angry ice wolfs and dragons. I never got this feeling of disgust of slaying virtual animals in Skyrim.

So the questions is: are Far Cry’s animals too real? Is the so called fidelity, lifelikeness, too high (for me)? Is this the reason? Or the fact that the game requests and depends on a systematic use of animals as an integral part of the game: instead of bypassing it somehow you need to slay as part of a mission, take the hides and prepare stuff like a bag or whatever – well, you need to pick berries, herbs and all whatever other stuff too.

Anyway, something in this process clearly reduced my game play engagement and enjoyment. Based on what I know, I will not be playing Far Cry 4 either, as it has similar kind of mechanics. At the same time I acknowledge many people playing these games don’t sacrifice a single thought on such matters. It is just a game, and killing an innocent virtual animal that does actually exist does not do anything. So does this mean they actually exist too much to me then or what? Hell, I guess asking such questions is the reason I am still stuck at the academia and pondering such matters…