On Monday 14 October, games students from across the department came together for our very first ‘Tea & Testing’ session.
Created by games lecturer Alan Zucconi, the event is an opportunity for students in different years and on different courses to test out their games, and explore the games that are being made by their fellow students. What’s more, there’s tea and biscuits, an important part of the testing process.
As a bonus addition to the first session, a guest visitor was invited. Award-winning game developer Alan Hazelden came along to get some feedback on a new game he is developing. The room was buzzing and many different weird and wonderful games were played, and plenty of chatting and mingling alongside.
The event highlighted that alcohol isn’t a necessary ingredient for testing sessions. Alan Zucconi said “Most social events that give students an opportunity to playtest their games tend to revolve around pubs, which are rarely accessible and not always promoters of an inclusive environment.
“The people who don’t feel comfortable in those environments are the ones we need to hear the most. The idea to switch to tea instead is to provide students with a safer and more inclusive space.”
If you’re interested in attending the next session – either because you have a game you would like to playtest, or because you want to play some games – the next sessions are….
Goldsmiths library, 3pm-6pm Friday 8 November
Room 219, Whitehead Building, 5pm-7pm Monday 25 November
Dr Simon Katan, Director of Undergraduate Studies, recently published this Medium post on the gamification of learning. We reprint it here.
When I was 14 I took my French GCSE. My French teacher, Madame Percival, had studied the exam and mark scheme intricately. She taught us just the right grammatical constructions to achieve the highest marks. ‘Au bord de la mer’ was worth a particularly high number of marks, so we were all to use this phrase as much as possible.
In my exam I stitched together these little memorised passages to score maximum points — ‘Hier soir, je suis allé à la crêperie et j’ai choisi une crêpe au jambon mais c’était trop salé, j’ai décidé d’acheter un verre d’eau … oh yeah … au bord de la mer.’
I got an A. I can’t speak French. I’m not proud.
Such behaviour is called ‘gaming the system’ and it is the scourge of university lecturers everywhere. In Introductionary Programming it takes numerous forms ranging from the pragmatic to the malevolent. Some examples are selectively attempting assignments to achieve a minimum pass, reverse engineering projects around grading criteria, abstaining from programming roles in group work, exam cramming, manipulating teaching assistants to write their code, superficially adapting copied code, and sharing exercise solutions on Whats App groups.
The problem of course with these behaviours is that they result in poorer learning. Whilst we can adapt our assignments to close loopholes and can reprimand and inform those we catch in the act of gaming, a significant portion of students persist. Achieving a minimum pass at introductory programming with scant knowledge of how to program a computer, such students find themselves facing increasingly insurmountable challenges as their course attempts to scaffold on faulty foundational knowledge.
I’m in no doubt that this scenario is a major contributor to Computer Science’s status as the worst performing subject with regards to undergraduate non-continuation in the UK.
This isn’t the fault of our students. It’s not surprising that they game the system in this way. Our students are gamers. Outside of education, they have been brought up on a rich diet of commercial video games informed by forty years of industry experience in optimising for maximal engagement.
This cultural fact is immutable, but we needn’t view it negatively. Jane McGonigal says that “… when we’re in game worlds, I believe that many of us become the best version of ourselves — the most likely to help at a moment’s notice, the most likely to stick with a problem as long at it takes, to get up after failure and try again.”
Viewed through the eyes of our students, university degrees look just like games; they have rules, challenges and goals, points, levels and competition. The problem is that they’re bad games. Just imagine if computer games functioned like exams. Super Mario Bros with no feedback, no stats, no lives, and no replays probably wouldn’t be so much fun.
It is with all this in mind that in 2016 I first began work on developing gamified assessment for teaching programming rudiments. Over three years, in collaboration with my colleague Edward Anstead, we have developed Sleuth, a series of film-noir gamified code puzzles. Students access Sleuth via a web-app themed as a detective agency ‘Sleuth & Co’ in with them playing the character of a fledgling detective. They are guided by ‘the Chief’ who gives them feedback on individual puzzle attempts as well as their general progress in the game. You can give it a go here .
Our design uses procedural content generation to provide students with as many opportunities to practice their coding rudiments as possible, and uses simple game dynamics to encourage them to do so. A key feature is instantaneous feedback. Students can upload a puzzle attempt at any time for immediate grading and feedback from the Chief. Students get five goes at solving a particular puzzle before the Chief suspends them from the case and prescribes some cool down time.
However, such suspensions have no penalties attached — we want our students to try and fail as many times as they need to achieve mastery. On their return from the cool down period , students are presented with a procedurally generated variation of the puzzle which they can attempt afresh. As students progressively solve puzzles, so they see their score increase in real time. In negating any opportunity for over-estimation of their performance such mechanics put students firmly in control of their final grade.
The environment we have created has undoubtedly fulfilled its primary aims of motivating and facilitating practice. In the initial on-campus run students made a total of 42534 code submissions — an average of 138 per student over a ten week period. Despite perceiving the task’s level as between fair and difficult, the class’ achievement was high with an average grade of 90.67%. We’ve now had over 2500 students play Sleuth both on campus and online with Coursera, and we’ve had similar responses across the different scenarios.
However, Sleuth has also engendered some unexpected and somewhat dysfunctional behaviours. Sleuth has a partially open level design which allows students to progress in a non-linear fashion. In designing this we imagined students setting aside levels which they found difficult, and returning once they had built confidence on other levels.
Contrary to our expectations, students make little strategic use of this design. The majority progress doggedly in sequence often at the cost of many failed attempts at the harder levels as they fixate on individual problems. The resultant frustration finds its expression through increasingly angry VLE forum posts as deadlines loom.
This obsessive behaviour also carries over into attitudes about grades. Much to our surprise, despite a pass threshold of 40% and a first class threshold of 70%, around a third of students expect, indeed demand, a grade of 100%. I have found myself dealing with student demands for deadline extensions to increase their grade from 85% to 100% and late night angry emails from students with a grade of 97% who can’t solve the final puzzle.
This is borne out in the final grade distribution which, as opposed to being normally distributed or bimodal, peaks sharply at 40%, 70%, and 100%. We could characterise the students at these peaks as being respectively pass-orientated, grade-orientated, and game-oriented.
All of this raises quite a few dilemmas for Edward and me in where to go next with Sleuth. Our encounters with obsessive behavioural patterns might tempt us to iterate on our game design to engineer them away, but in doing so do we risk robbing students of an opportunity to develop autonomy ? How as pedagogues can we be sure that the behaviours we are engineering are more desirable than others ?
Similarly the strangeness of our grade distributions could lead us to raise the difficulty of some puzzles or the use of other available metrics to improve grade differentiation, but what pedagogical or behavioural improvement would such a change serve ?
For me, such questions expose the contradictions at the heart of current approaches to assessment in higher education. Game mechanics are a powerful tool for motivating shifts in student behaviour, but be warned, such power has disruptive potential.
In this post, we meet Dr Elaheh HomayounVala, a lecturer in Computer Science at Goldsmiths, University of London. Her research looks at how people interact with technology and how to adapt technology to needs and preferences of people.
Growing up in Iran, Elaheh’s passion for tech began in high school, when she would travel by bus to one of the first computing companies in the city to study IT. She later became one of the first women in the country to graduate with a master’s in Philosophy of Science.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced has been finding the right career path for me. When I was at school most of our teachers advised us to study medicine or electrical engineering, but I knew that I wanted a career that would allow me the flexibility to be a wife and a mother as well, and computing offered that.
“While I enjoyed my undergraduate degree in Computer Science, I had other interests I wanted to explore – like psychology and the humanities – which was why I chose Philosophy of Science as my master’s subject. It was a really new programme and I was one of only two women in a class of 10 students”
When she moved to London, she undertook her PhD at King’s College. Elaheh combined her tech skills with her interests in people and psychology to begin researching user modelling and personalisation – looking at how people interact with computers and how technology can be adapted to suit both individuals and groups.
“I like the unpredictability of humans as users of computers, and I’m very interested in how we can personalise technology to suit such diverse users. It was a relatively new field when I began, so I’m proud that I recognised early on that this was going to be an increasingly popular area – 15 years on many big companies are really investing in personalisation.”
As part of the Goldsmiths Computing team, Elaheh firmly believes that students should have the opportunity to use their computing skills in the areas that interests them.
“One of the biggest misconceptions about Computer Science is that it’s only suitable for people who love maths and are very techy and therefore that it can’t have anything to do with fields like art or psychology. That is completely untrue. Areas like Human Computer Interaction rely on a multidisciplinary team, with computer scientists working alongside graphic designers and psychologists.
“One of the best things about the Computing department at Goldsmiths is that people working here come from all kinds of different backgrounds. We have students who are interested in management and entrepreneurship or artificial intelligence and medicine and they combine those passions with technical skills. What we’re showing our students is that just because you’re interested in more than one field of study, you don’t need to choose between them. You can use computing skills to support you in any area you care about.”
As technology increasingly intersects with every element of our lives, Elaheh believes it is becoming even more important to redress the balance between men and women in the tech sector.
“Technology is changing the world we live in and more than that, it is changing the world our children will live in. We need both men and women to help shape that world. We add our own perspectives – as sisters, mothers, wives. That’s not to say we have a better perspective, but we all benefit from considering lots of different views, particularly regarding ethical issues surrounding areas of computing like artificial intelligence, which will have such a big impact on future generations.”
As her own daughter prepares to start her undergraduate degree in Computer Science at King’s College London (where she herself began her PhD 18 years ago), Elaheh has some pertinent advice for young women everywhere who are wondering if tech is for them.
“Start by thinking about yourself. Know what your interests are and what you enjoy doing. Have a look at the range of jobs available now but also at where future trends are likely to go – you will enter the job market in a few years’ time and computing is always changing so can you imagine yourself working in any of these future trends?
“But most importantly, remember it’s okay not to be sure. You can start your journey and adapt it along the way. The flexibility offered in Computer Science will allow you to make your own unique career path.”
This article was adapted from an interview published in the University of London’s online magazine, London Connection.
In the podcast, Helen speaks about her work as an artist and researcher operating in the grey area in which computing intersects geography, design and cyberfeminist technoscience.
She discusses some of her works and collective projects, and talks about orcas and sensors, fossils and fracking, alpaca and recipes, sheep and data infrastructures. Through her artworks, writing, talks and workshops, Pritchard seeks to articulate a different social political gaze on code and computation, based on the notions of co-research, radical pedagogy and participation as key strategies to “move away from the idea of the expert or the genius” and to bring forward questions about collective learning and knowledge production.
Helen is a member of the European Research Council funded project Citizen Sense, which develops physical computing and sensing technologies to think through and develop new theories of citizen sensing.
In blind people, the visual cortex takes on higher cognitive functions, including language. Why this functional reorganisation mechanistically emerges at the neuronal circuit level is still unclear. Here, we use a biologically constrained network model implementing features of anatomical structure, neurophysiological function and connectivity of fronto-temporal-occipital areas to simulate word-meaning acquisition in visually deprived and undeprived brains. We observed that, only under visual deprivation, distributed word-related neural circuits ‘grew into’ the deprived visual areas, which therefore adopted a linguistic-semantic role. Three factors are crucial for explaining this deprivation-related growth: changes in the network’s activity balance brought about by the absence of uncorrelated sensory input, the connectivity structure of the network, and Hebbian correlation learning. In addition, the blind model revealed long-lasting spiking neural activity compared to the sighted model during word recognition, which is a neural correlate of enhanced verbal working memory. The present neurocomputational model offers a neurobiological account for neural changes following sensory deprivation, thus closing the gap between cellular-level mechanisms, system-level linguistic and semantic function.
Dynamic new interactive technology which visualises the 3D structures inside DNA has been launched by a team of computational artists, game developers and scientists, working together to help the public better understand the cause of diseases.
CSynth is a software platform created by researchers at Goldsmiths, University of London and Oxford University. Described by its designers as ‘bio-visualisation made interactive’, it shows how cell machinery physically interacts with a structure as complex and compact as the genome.
Viewers can watch and explore the 3D models on a screen, or use a Virtual Reality headset to immerse themselves in genetic material and manipulate it themselves.
Traditionally, scientists have only been able to visualise and understand the genome – the complete set of genetic material present in a cell – in 2D presentations, on a screen or through graphs or histograms.
But as researchers gather more data about how cells work it is clear that a 3D structure is extremely important for gene regulation and how cells differentiate. For example, a white blood cell looks and behaves differently to a red blood cell even though its genome is exactly the same.
Subtle differences in the way the genome is folded can impact on whether genes can be switched on and off at particular times, which then dictates what a cell can do. Changes in the way chromatin is folded can cause rare blood diseases, for example, because it impacts on how genetic code is read by a cell.
Understanding this process is vital for seeking the cause of diseases such as diabetes or anaemia, and for the development of treatments for them.
Thanks to advances in genetic techniques, researchers are able to harness more information than ever before from biological data provided by patients and volunteers.
The CSynth software then integrates data from genome sequencing and computer modelling and presents it in an attractive and engaging way, using computer game technology.
The team have launched a complete software package that will also allow the import of public data, and help both the public and medical researchers gain a better understanding of how the genome is folded in a cell, and the complex mechanisms involved.
Professor Frederic Fol Leymarie and Professor William Latham from the Department of Computing at Goldsmiths are the computer artists and software designers behind CSynth, working with Steve Taylor, Head of Analysis, Visualisation and Informatics at the WIMM Centre of Computational Biology, and Professor Jim Hughes at the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine, University of Oxford. They are joined by Professor Stephen Todd, lead software architect at London Geometry Ltd and Visiting Professor in Computing at Goldsmiths, and Peter Todd, senior developer, London Geometry Ltd.
Steve Taylor said: “We have made a web-based interface where any researcher can load in the data from their experiments. Previously the software had to be installed and all the parameters were adjusted in text files by us behind the scenes. Now you can upload or drag and drop the data into a web page, and it will build a model allowing investigators to really get a handle on their data. You also get a fantastic user interface to interact with the model and overlay other data, such as genes and enhancers. We get asked a lot about making CSynth available for teaching and and now we can do this easily.”
Professor Fol Leymarie said: “Our body is made of trillions of cells, each one containing chromatin tightly folded. This very long molecular strand is not static, but rather keeps moving, vibrating, unfolding and refolding locally, more like a molecular dance.
“Furthermore, it keeps interacting with other molecular structures present in the cell and with itself. It is this dynamic nature that CSynth makes visible and interactive, so that a user – a researcher, student or even a curious member of the public – can load different data sequences, try out various parameters, compare various situations, to eventually get a much better, intuitive understanding, which we hope may help lead to new discoveries.”
VR is also popular with our undergraduate students. Last term our third years did our module 3D Virtual Environments and Animation, which includes VR development. They were the first students to use our newly refurbished VR lab which includes Oculus Rifts, HTC VIVEs, Oculus Go and Acer Windows Mixed Reality. At the end of term, they presented their projects for the module. There was a really wide range of fantastic VR experiences, from fairground games, to virtual bar-tending and therapy for fear of heights to virtual photography.