All posts by pfry

Tea & Testing ☕️🎮

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

Assessment for gamers

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.

Sleuth case 302: Bank heist

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.

Hacksmiths: Ethics in modern AI

Goldsmiths’ student-run tech society, Hacksmiths are running a day of talks about the ways in which ethics are considered and ignored in modern applications of Artificial Intelligence.

When: 11am-2pm, Saturday 12 October 2019
Where: St James Hatcham Building, Goldsmiths. Map
Tickets: Free on eventbrite

Technology is ingrained in most of our lives. So why is it that only a small fraction of us understand how our everyday choices are being steered by others, and the systems they create?

Whether it’s who Facebook is telling you to vote for, or what Amazon is telling you to buy, democracy and freedom are being tested. Academic experts give us their insight on why we should be embedding ethics into Artificial Intelligence in 2019.

11.30am: Professor Stuart Russell
Stuart’s research on the history and future of Artificial Intelligence and its relation to humanity includes machine learning, probabilistic reasoning, knowledge representation, real-time decision making, multitarget tracking, computer vision, inverse reinforcement learning, and the movement to ban the manufacture and use of autonomous weapons.

Prof Stuart Russell

Stuart was born in Portsmouth, England. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree with first-class honours in Physics from the University of Oxford where he was an undergraduate student at Wadham College in 1982, and his PhD in Computer Science from Stanford University in 1986.

12.30pm: Dr Dan McQuillan on Post-austerity AI
This talk will not focus on the long term future of AI but on the political and social damage that will flow from the AI we already have. It will describe the way its concrete operations of optimisation and prediction lead to thoughtlessness, epistemic injustice and segregation, and how that resonates with the wider politics of austerity and the rise of the far right. The talk will propose a route to an alternative AI based on feminist technology studies and forms of direct democracy such as people’s councils. It will call for an approach to AI in the here and now that puts matters of care at its core, and that recomposes the very idea of AI as computation in the service of togetherness.

Dr Dan McQuillan

Dan is a Lecturer in Creative and Social Computing at Goldsmiths, University of London. After a PhD in Experimental Particle Physics, he worked with people with learning disabilities and mental health problems, and was Digital Director for Amnesty International.

12.50pm: Dr Kate Devlin
Kate is Senior Lecturer in Social and Cultural Artificial Intelligence at King’s College London, where she researches how society reacts to technological change.

Dr Kate Devlin

Her book, Turned On: Science, Sex and Robots (Bloomsbury, 2018) has received wide acclaim.

She campaigns for gender equality in tech, and has recently been elected as a Director of the Open Rights Group. She tweets far too often as @drkatedevlin.

1.10pm: Q&A
1.50pm: Stuart’s book signing for Human Compatible: AI and the Problem of Control

Staff profile: Dr Elaheh HomayounVala

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.

Dr Helen Pritchard interviewed on RWM

Dr Helen Pritchard, head of BSc Digital Arts Computing and lecturer in computational and digital arts, was recently interviewed for Radio Web Mocba, an online radio project for popular education.

Listen here

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.

Listen to the podcast

World’s smallest escape room induces claustrophobia and dread

METRO newspaper reported this week on Goldsmiths Computing student George Larkwright’s coffin-like escape room, which exhibited at the MA Playable Experiences degree show. We reproduce it here…

Why spend your weekend watching TV or drinking in a pub when you could be locked in a small box, trying desperately to escape?

We live in a time when ‘fun’ includes pretending to be in prison, smashing TVs, and choosing to go into horribly stressful situations, and so it makes total sense that someone has created the world’s smallest escape room, measuring 120cm by 70cm by 50cm.

Just like any other escape room, the idea behind The Subject (that’s the official name of the room) is to work hard and figure out clues in order to break free. Unlike your average escape room, there are no padlocked doors and dark corridors. Instead, there’s just a box.

The Subject is the creation of Goldsmiths student George Larkwright, 24, who wanted to create a truly disturbing escape room experience to induce claustrophobia, desperation and dread. Sounds delightful.

One player is shut inside and needs to figure out the clues on the box’s walls

Fed up of seeing escape rooms used for corporate team bonding and smug selfies, George designed a challenge to make players leave ‘haggered and almost aged by the experience’.

The room, which is basically just a big coffin, is designed for two players. Player one is locked inside the box, while player two has to help them escape.

Inside the box is a pencil, paper and a torch. The trapped player has to decode a load of cryptic messages and clues written across the box’s interiors. The player outside the box has to look through a load of documents and figure out a code in order to piece information together, solve the puzzle, and unlock the box, freeing their pal.

The theme has some pretty dark sources of inspiration. George first thought of the idea after watching Kill Bill 2, which includes a scene in which a bride is trapped in a coffin. He then drew inspiration from the horrifying histories of wartime human experimentation and the American security services mind control programmes during the Cold War.

George has a load of experience writing for theatre, so was able to pull together these ideas into a tricky narrative that sounds more than a little bit stressful.

The contestant in the box is a prisoner of war locked up in a laboratory, while player two is a secret services operative tasked with freeing them, all under a 30 minute time limit.

As we said, this is supposed to be fun.

George said: ‘I want participants to emerge haggard, almost aged by the experience, but also triumphant, proud of navigating a game that is both physically and mentally taxing.’

The Subject was part of the Experiments in Play exhibition, for students at Goldsmiths at the weekend. The quickest escape thus far took 17 minutes. George now plans to take the box on tour, so keep an eye out for dates if you fancy giving the challenge a go.

Welcome Week 2019

The new academic year begins on Monday 23 September, and we’re looking forward to welcoming all our new and returning undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Monday 23 September

Wednesday 25 September

11am – 1pm: Undergraduate induction events

  • FOUNDATION YEAR, Room LG01, Professor Stuart Hall Building
  • COMPUTER SCIENCE, Room LG02, Professor Stuart Hall Building
  • BUSINESS COMPUTING, Room 306A, Richard Hoggart Building
  • GAMES PROGRAMMING, Room 306A, Richard Hoggart Building
  • CREATIVE COMPUTING, Room 219, Whitehead Building
  • DIGITAL ARTS COMPUTING, Room 208, Whitehead Building

Thursday 26 September

All students are welcome to meet Hacksmiths, our student-run tech society. They’re running an exhibition of games and other tech creations they have made in the past year or so.

  • 11am – 3pm: Meet Hacksmiths, Weston Atrium, Professor Stuart Hall Building
  • 3pm – 6pm: Undergraduate social event at New Cross House

Friday 27 September

Postgraduate induction event

  • 1pm – 2pm: Tea and cake social, Whitehead Building foyer
  • 2pm – 3.30pm: Welcome to the Department of Computing, Ian Gulland Lecture Theatre, Whitehead Building
  • 3.30pm – 4.30pm: About your degree programme
  • 4.30pm – 7pm: Postgraduate social event at New Cross House