Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Blog Hop

June 25, 2010

I started this blog last November as an exercise in reflective practice, and it was my first experience in blogging. I have enjoyed this endeavor, but I have decided to move the blog for the time being. Until further notice, you can follow my writings at The content and themes of the blog will not significantly change — just the service provider.

Search for game design advice brings me back to Tim Ryan

May 26, 2010

In the Spring, I team-taught a colloquium on history education game design with my respected colleague Ronald Morris, a professor in the History Department at Ball State. Regular readers may have noticed that I have not written much about this experience. I’ll get to it. Or not.

This colloquium explored the design of a game for Indiana 4th grade students. The production of a high-quality educational game remains Ron’s main focus in the project, while I am also specifically interested in exploring how students can learn directly from the mechanics of the game as opposed to the layer of story atop the mechanics. My interest in this question goes back several years to when I first read Raph Koster‘s Theory of Fun for Game Design, which is the first book I recommend to anyone who expresses interest in Fun. (That’s “Fun” with a big “F”, by which I mean the serious study of fun.)

The students in the colloquium created some compelling physical prototypes in the first half of the semester, and the goal was to create a high-quality design document from these experiences. Unfortunately, the final document does not meet production standards. We are still planning to build a game, and specifically, my Game Programming students will be building it in the Fall. The task of finalizing the design document therefore falls in my lap, and it’s not unwelcome.

In the colloquium, we used Wave to start the document, but performance was not adequate for our purposes, and so the document moved to Google Docs. I do like docs for quick and dirty documents, but years of wysiwym editing in LaTeX have left me with very little patience for wysiayg editors. A lot of the advice I encountered online recommended the adoption of wikis for design documents, and so my first step was to import the existing Docs file into Google Sites, a general-purpose Web site creation utility that has convenient wiki-like features. The two main advantages of Sites are that (1) I already know it well and (2) I don’t have to configure a wiki server.

I quickly found, however, that the format of the original document was not empowering my creativity. I felt like I was mechanically creating pages but with no real end in sight. I decided to invest an afternoon to find the best practices for design document creation and management, beyond the technology and into the realm of content.

Suffice it to say that you can find a lot of advice about game design on the Internet. I bounced from site to site and eventually ended up on’s General Game Design page. There, I downloaded some templates and started tinkering. The one that stood out happened to be based on Tim Ryan’s series of articles at GamaSutra, the first on proposal and concept documents and the second on functional and technical specifications. If you’ve read this far in hopes of finding my links to the best advice I’ve found, and the title of this post didn’t give it away, there you go.

The funny thing about these articles is that these are the same ones I read four years ago in my first foray into serious game development (serious development, that is, not serious games at that point). The articles themselves are from 1999, and a lot has changed since then in both the games industry and the academic treatment of games. I’ve read many books on game design and design theory since then, and Ryan’s articles still stand out as having just the right balance of practical advice and theoretical soundness. They have also helped me identify my Summer path more clearly:

  1. Write a concept document and share it with my stakeholders, who are Ron and a few key undergraduates whom I will be trusting with high-responsibility tasks in Fall. The concept document is essentially complete and I am awaiting feedback.
  2. Write a functional specification.
  3. Write a technical specification, while concurrently developing the milestone schedule.
  4. If necessary, develop any core software architecture that will be required before the Fall semester begins. After all, I will be managing a team comprised entirely of novice developers.

That leads me to my next great quandary: how do I manage a team of 30 novices on a critical project? But that’s a topic for another day.

On People

May 19, 2010

I’m at Google I/O 2010 right now and having a good time. The best story so far, though, is from the flight out here.

A passenger comments to the flight attendant, “It must be hard to smile and be nice to people all the time.”

The flight attendant shrugs and responds, “People are good.”

An inspiring philosophical lesson at 30,000 feet.

The Story of Sasha

May 14, 2010

This past semester, I have served as an external evaluator for a high school student’s independent study project, the creation of a graphic novel called The Story of Sasha. I got into this role almost accidentally: I met a girl at a friend’s 40th birthday party, and somehow we got to talking about comics. Turns out “Anna” is a senior and needed an evaluator, so even though it’s a bit beyond my scholarly expertise, I agreed to it.

The student created a blog at, and I encourage you to check it out. I have shared it with some professional artists and designers, and they all agree that it’s phenomenal for a high school project.

Although comics are not my area of expertise, I am a longtime fan of the medium and I’ve done a bit of light reading on the form, the most relevant of which is Understanding Comics. (See also Scott McCloud’s excellent TED talk on the topic.) During the Q&A after the presentation, I got the feeling that most of the crowd was not actually interested in deep discussion, so I suppose I’ll have to schedule a coffee meeting with Anna to dive into such topics. (It is worth noting that her writing and art instructors, who were giving her the independent study credits, did not know anything about graphic novels, which I think left me as the “expert” in the room. Not the first time, but never in this subject!)

Two things struck me about the project that I want to write about here: the project-as-capstone and the presentation itself. I’ll start with the latter, since quite briefly, it was excellent. No bullet points, no gratuitous animations. Anna clearly has a good sense of style and design, even if she was not aware of their application to effective presentation delivery. She was well-prepared, speaking confidently from her knowledge of the topic, clearly showing adequate preparation in terms of both the content and the delivery. I found myself wishing that my Computer Science majors could have been there to see a truly excellent presentation. As I’ve written about before, I fear that many of our university students actually get worse at presentations during their time in higher education due to both exposure to and indoctrination in ineffective techniques.

It became evident during Anna’s presentation that the project itself was a capstone in the fullest sense. She  cited her art, writing, and biology classes as being explicitly influential on the project. When I asked for elaboration, she mention also math, history, and other science classes as being places where she was able to both explore and expand on her work. This is a phenomenal example of the power of intrinsic motivation and cross-cutting projects. It’s not that her school is any less bureaucratic than any other, but she made the opportunity to explore The Story of Sasha wherever she could. I get the feeling that within the University, there may be less opportunity for this: students get loaded with “other peoples’ work” rather than being able to bring their unique interests and background into cross-cutting experiences. (Originally wrote “learning experiences”, which is redundant, since all experiences are learning experiences.)

I look forward to tracking Anna’s progress as she moves on to art school and from there, to a successful career.

Emerging Media Initiative Faculty Symposium Interviews

April 21, 2010

A few weeks ago, we had an Emerging Media Initiative Faculty Symposium at Ball State. A few of the participants were invited for interviews to discuss the impact of the Symposium on the University community. They’re kind of fun to watch.

Here’s Mahesh Senagala, one of my favorite people on campus. I am always impressed by the lucidity of his extemporaneous commentary. Then again, maybe he cheated and actually prepared…&l=1

Here are Petra Zimmerman and I. At this point in the day, I had a ripping headache and had lots of coffee to try to counteract it. (Didn’t help.) However, watching this again, I don’t make as little sense as I feared I would. Clearly, I expected them to cut out some of my hemming, hawing, and wristwatch commentary, and right at the end I get cut off just as I am asking them to do some editing to make me make sense. Oh well, at least my tirade against the plans for the commercialization initiative were not caught on camera. I do not know Petra very well, but she’s quite friendly, from Geographical Sciences, and a climatologist (IIRC).,symp_zimmerman&w=800&h=450

For all ten of you who read this blog, my statements about the relative values of ideas and execution were directed against the last session of the symposium, which was a discussion of institutional commercialization plans. In a nutshell, the plan as presented was that a professor takes an idea from scholarly work and hands it off to undergraduate entrepreneurship majors for business development. Undergraduate education needs to be a “safe fail” environment, and if I have potentially commercializable intellectual property, the last thing I’m going to do is hand it over to a group of 20-year-old non-experts. That’s the sideways point I was trying to make during this interview: that if you have an idea and you want to commercialize it, the right thing to do is hire the best people you can afford to make it happen, not to give it to students for a learning experience. I don’t know if that changes your interpretation of the interview, but that’s a little backstory on my mental state at the time.

Yes, and it is kind of fun to have been mentioned in all three, but fame is a carrot, and I’m busy defibrillating my intrinsic motivation.

A student levels up

April 20, 2010

The following quotation comes from the end of one of my student’s recent reflections. This was private correspondence, but the student gave me permission to quote it here.

On an unrelated note, working on the exercises you’ve given us has presented me a sort of humbling fact: I have no idea how ANY of the stuff I’ve actually put together works. I mean, it certainly works, but if I were asked on the spot how certain practices directly impact the design of my program, I’d be more or less speechless. Obviously, I’m learning these things now, but I wonder how much of the design process would have been more smooth had I actually followed these best practices on the spot. I’ve basically been applying the practices as seen from certain examples I’ve pulled inspiration from, but it dawns on me that I didn’t actually realize they were there. I’ve read a bunch of the materials you gave us access to, but it really didn’t hit me as to how effective the practices can be in your program.

This is one of the most honest and inspiring expressions I’ve read in any of the reflections. It is a heartfelt admission of vulnerability. This is humility. This is gazing up at the night sky and realizing how much there is out there. This is demolition of the ego. This is victory over second-order ignorance. This student is ready to learn.

Colossally Bad

April 19, 2010

I was at the last meeting of one of my committees this morning, when someone from the Humanities mentioned that traditional higher education has worked pretty well for the last hundred years or so.

I replied that we are colossally bad at higher education.

The rest of the committee was a little taken aback by my comment, so I briefly tried to justify it, though I admit I did not do a good job. I still believe that, for the most part, students learn despite higher education and not because of it. We know that humans have a limit to their attention and capacity to learn, and yet we insist on putting students through an industrial education model. We are glad that our students get jobs and make money, but we talk very little about quality of life and preparation for lifetime learning. This is knowledge work, not factory work.

Given the amazing and accelerating interconnected complexity of the world’s problems (many “wicked problems”), I am more and more convinced that teaching students a smidgen of any one topic is really not worth the effort — whether that’s literature, computing, architecture, etc. If students cannot grok the interconnectedness of problems, they will continue to be tools of those who do.

Glad not to be needed

April 8, 2010

This morning was the Emerging Media Initiative Faculty Symposium at Ball State. I gave a very brief talk in the “research/education-related projects” session about my experiences teaching Android application development first with non-majors using App Inventor for Android and now with majors using the Android SDK. I think the talk went well, and I’ve received some nice feedback. It may be visible online, but it’s not working for me at the time of this writing.

The event was scheduled to go until 12:30, which is when my class starts. I agreed to be interviewed about the role of emerging media and the symposium, and so I knew I was going to be late to class. I notified my students, asking them to use it as “consulting time”: to work on their projects in teams, help other teams, and generally be productive.

The event and interview went longer than planned, and so I didn’t get to my class until 70-minutes into it, and it’s a 75-minute class. How wonderful to walk into the room and see all my teams sitting in groups getting work done! Thanks to these students for inspiring me with your diligence and dedication to your learning. It’s a great feeling to know that I have done my job: setting you up so that you can get it all done without me.

User-Centered Design

January 12, 2010

Here’s an image I created for my introductory presentation in CS345/545. I quite like it.

Child using Android phone with the caption "User Centered Design"
Creative Commons License
User Centered Design by Paul Gestwicki is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.


November 19, 2009

A few weeks ago, I attended a presentation at the BSU Tech4U event, at which an English professor discussed her use of blogs to enforce reflection among students. I am an advocate of reflective practice, and I thought that perhaps starting a blog would be a good way for me to reflect on what I’ve done.

Let’s see how this goes. Of course, I’m also trying to learn the tools, so there will be tinkering for a bit.