“What’s your PhD about?”

Such a simple question, and one so difficult to answer. I believe that one must be ready to explain it in 30 seconds, no more. If you can’t explain it in one breath, then it’s probably not clear enough even to yourself.

This week marks the end of my first year of the PhD, and only now I can finally say what I want my PhD to be about in the elevator-pitch format. But – there’s always a but – I’ve been working in so many apparently unrelated topics that it gets a bit complicated to explain how do I intend to get from A to B within the 3 years of my program.

I’m having the opportunity to participate in an academic conference, and I’m getting asked this question all the time, over coffee and lunch break, so I thought it was more than the time to get my pitch straight.

So here’s my PhD topic:

To create a tool to automatically capture and represent over time the emotional states of players in a collaborative Serious Game, using as input their interactions in a chat-room like environment within the game. The tool will be implemented as a service, so that the information is exposed and available for other services, in particular for teaching/learning analytics reporting tools and for real-time in-game adaptation. This data will be modeled and represented in an open way, so that this information can be aggregated with data about players’ emotions coming from other sources (gaze, body language, intonation, etc.), contributing to the accuracy of the model.

I’m still tracing my path to get there, and so far I have been concentrating in smaller parts of this larger goal. Here is what I have been doing in these last 12 months of my studies:

  • Collaboration and cooperation in Serious Games: Although the term “collaboration” seems to be getting more and more in vogue, it seems like in the field of games and SGs there’s some confusion about what exactly does it mean. One of the current focus of my work has been to understand collaboration and cooperation in SGs and how do the game mechanics and learning objectives are interwoven in this specific setting. The next step will be then to define which emotions in Collaborative games would be relevant to try to capture and represent in the service.
  • SGs Analysis and Design: I will need to create a representation of the emotional states of players during the game, and to compare this information to the flow of the game. We have been investigating how to make this representation, representing the game flow and its mechanics.
  • Services for SGs: But for a service for SGs to be useful, it needs to exist in an environment that is fertile for services. There needs to be standards, and common languages, and repositories and meaningful ways of describing services, so that other people can take advantage of them, use them and help improve them. I have also been involved in trying to define this environment, initially represented as a catalog for services for SGs, but that could eventually evolve into some sort of framework(1) for the development of service-based SGs. UPDATE: The Services Catalog is now available online!

So this is what I have been doing. Step by step, hopefully I’ll be able to get to the end of the program with some nice tool to the SG development community to use.

(1) I don’t like the term “framework”, as it sounds too vague and seems to be used way too liberally. Or mostly because I am never sure what exactly is it supposed to mean. But, for the lack of a better term, I’ll stick to it here.

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