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Physically Embodied Educational Games

Tangible Bots & (Main)Frames Game
Gameplay from Tangible Bots & (Main)Frames, an educational programming game where players use physical blocks to code.

The notion of embodiment stems from the concept that cognition does not only occur in the mind but is also supported by bodily activity; situated in and interacting with our physical and social environment. Recent work on educational systems has shown the benefits of incorporating physicality, motion, and embodiment into designs. For instance, improved spatial recall and mental manipulation, more intuitive interfaces and interactions, increased engagement, greater positive feelings towards learning content and science in general, and enhanced collaboration. However, some studies have faced notable difficulty when attempting to utilize embodiment in their designs for improved learning outcomes due to weak mappings between physical action, embodied cognition, and learning concepts. This ultimately raises questions of how and when embodiment can be beneficial within an educational application.

To examine these questions of embodiment, this work examines two physically embodied approaches towards an educational programming game of particular relevance within both the HCI and Learning Science communities (i.e., tangibles/manipulatives and AR). The primary advantage of tangibles over traditional desktop applications is that they allow for learning concepts to be embedded directly into the physical material and design of an object, as well as through the embodied interactions learners have by manipulating these objects. AR’s primary advantage is utilizing embodied cognition to help learners develop understanding through mirroring or enacting learning concepts with their body. These physical design approaches have also shown beneficial effects on key learning factors such as engagement, enjoyment, and positive feelings towards the learning content and science in general. The goal of this research is to explore if applying physically embodied designs to educational programming games results in similarly successful learning outcomes for programming self-belief and Computational Thinking skills (i.e., Algorithm Building, Code Execution, Simulation, and Debugging).

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Meta-analysis of Games Research

Meta-analysis of Games Research Keywords
Keyword network map of most frequent keywords used in 8,207 games research papers.

In the absence of data analysis, there has been an anecdotal understanding among some game researchers that there are two overarching communities within the field, one with research focused on technical approaches to understanding and developing games (e.g. artificial intelligence, computational modeling, visualization, graphics research, etc.) and another addressing non-technical aspects of games with a range of research approaches from the humanities, arts, design, and social sciences (e.g., narrative, user experience, virtual worlds, role play, design, philosophy, etc.). However, a clear analysis of the interrelations and synergies among subcommunities and research themes that comprise the current academic landscape remains undocumented. In this research, we present our efforts at mapping the topology of games research from 2000 - 2014.

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Past Projects


Scoop! Gameplay
Gameplay from Scoop!, a kinect game designed to reduce math anxiety.

Scoop! is a Kinect-based game that applies research on power poses to reduce math anxiety. High-power poses tend to be very expansive (taking up space) and open (limbs away from body). On the other hand, low-power poses tend to be closed and take up very little space. Recent research has shown that holding high-power poses will cause a decrease of the stress hormone cortisol and an increase of the hormone testosterone. These hormonal changes in turn correspond to feeling more powerful and less stressed. Scoop! aims to take advantage of high-power poses by utilizing them as mechanics of the gameplay where the goal is to place falling fractions in the correct spot on a number line.

Scoop! has been featured at the 2012 World Science Festival Innovation Arcade, 9th Annual Games for Change Festival, and as an interactivity demonstration for the CHI 2012 conference.

You can read more about Scoop! at the Game Innovation Lab website.

Open Sesame

Open Sesame Model
Designs for our gesture-based access controll system, Open Sesame.

Researchers to date mainly frame usability and security only in terms of minimizing frustration. This is because security system designers usually begin their work with the limits of the technology involved rather than an understanding of the behaviors and motivations of their users. Post-It notes of passwords stuck to computer monitors are the consequence of security that users dislike. And so security that is not usable—and thus not enjoyable—is not secure.

With Open Sesame we are working to flip the security world on its head with the notion of pleasurable security. Open Sesame replaces the traditional proximity key card system at our lab’s doorway with a gesture-based system that incorporates a variety of features to maximize pleasure in the security interaction. Existing research demonstrates a strong link between how we move and how we feel. Our system is designed to harness this effect and to purposefully serve our users’ various moods when they enter our doorway. With Open Sesame, we aim to maximize enjoyment and in doing so achieve good usability.

Open Sesame uses a variety of techniques for face matching, body geometry matching, and gesture recognition. The system identifies an authorized user at a distance and recognizes one of several gestures (unique to that user's way of moving through space) to unlock the door to our lab.

You can read more about Open Sesame at the Game Innovation Lab website.