About admin

Josh Whitkin is a Lecturer in the School of Media, Communication and Culture at Murdoch University. His areas of expertise include mobile device design and computer graphic content production.

edge flow reduction – two simple tricks from topology

If a 3d modeler needs to get rid of polygons in a 3D mesh, but don’t want to add triangles, here’s two good ways. I call them “3-to-1” and “2-to-1 corner”.  I worked these out in 1988 with Joe Formicola and Ken Fedeson, building finite element models for CFD and FEA.  Many other 3d artists have discovered or learned these topological tricks, since (and probably before then, too).  I just noticed how the first one resembles the shadow of a hypercube.


my favorite code advice

Is it gauche to repost my comment on my own blog?

I wrote this on this blog (which I enjoy), then decided it’s good enough to post here.

My favorite code advice is “if you need something >3 times, make it a function/object. Otherwise, re-code it inline.” Without this rule, I 1) underestimate the cost of developing reliable objects; 2) overestimate the effort required to code the same thing a second time; and 3) overestimate the likelihood that I’ll need to that function again (in that language/context) in the future.

What’s yours?



Flow in real-time physical prototyping of video games

Can we achieve flow states by using real-time mechanics in physical prototypes of video games?  I did a very quick investigation and convinced at least myself that the answer is “yes”.


In “Game Design Workshop,” Fullerton et al acknowledge the problem:

People who are not used to physical prototyping might argue that this method does not accurately represent the player experience on a computer. They might think a pen and paper prototype might work for a turn-based game, but not for an action-based shooter because gameplay is integrally tied to the 3D environment and the ability of the players to act in real time. 

Their answer, however, didn’t explain why it’s not often done:

“We are not arguing that physical prototyping replaces those things. What we are saying is the overall gaming system can benefit tremendously in its early stages by building a physical prototype.”

While, for many types of design questions, turn-based is sufficient; however, Csikszentmihalyi notes the player’s skewed perception of time during flow states:

“…in general, most people report time seems to pass much faster. But occasionally the reverse occurs: Ballet dancers describe how a difficult turn that takes less than a second in real time stretches out for what seems like minutes.”

If we could extend the range of physical prototyping to include flow states, I believe it would be very useful to video game designers.

I’m convinced it’s not too hard to achieve flow states with physical prototypes.

A brief search for real-time board games found only these:

  1. Counter – Selfpublished in 2011, it’s a real-time, hex-grid miniature battle – sounds ideal for RTS prototyping. Rules here.  Students and I will build, playtest and report back.
  1. Call of Duty RT is a real-time card game with a map. The video around 8:00 shows a “semi-realtime” play experience. Lots of pauses and rules execution.

These sources are related and useful to real-time prototypers:

  1. There are some wargames that have the player issuing troop controls in a somewhat real-time mechanic (cite and more research needed)
  2. Real-Time Chess (RTC) offers design ideas that could apply to common physical real-time problems (Chaboissier 2009 video)
  3. Hungry Hungry Hippos (video). It has a territory, it’s realtime, and while there’s no real strategy , it’s fun. for kids. for a short while anyway. (OK, I admit it’s not really relevant– I just love it!)

I would appreciate any suggestions for this list, provided they:

1. have some strategic or tactical element;
2. have a map or territory;
3. give a flow experience, like a real-time video game.

I’ve excluded mapless real-time card games. e.g. Jab Frenzy Brawl Fightball; Slapjack, Spit, etc.  I believe the spatial design element is crucial to the RTS video game genre, which these lack.


This project has been done on stolen time, so I used autoethnography as my method. I assessed the flow state by simply noting that I met the conditions for flow and strongly felt flow while playing.  I freely acknowledge that from a scientific point of view, my method is highly prone to bias and is weak on many obvious fronts (sample size, for a start), but I believe it is sufficient to justify further work.

My students and I created two real-time versions of Checkers.  The first version was “standard Checkers rules, except no turns.”  Four students watched and took notes as G and I played.  I estimate that we made 1 to 3 moves per second, and about 90% of our moves had some kind of purpose or plan (neither accidental, nor random / stalling). I recall two “breathers” – five-second periods where neither moved in about 5 minutes of play.

With Version 2 we added two rules:

  1. You must touch your nose after moving a piece one space.  This prevented long, continuous zigzag slides from one end to the other of the board, giving the other player the opportunity to break a run by jumping them, while still keeping most of the flow feeling of a run.
  2. collide=slapjack: If two pieces collide (ie we tried to move to the same place at the same time), then a “slapjack” minigame determined the winner: with the other hand, each player touched a certain spot on the table next to the board. Whoever’s finger was at the bottom, gets the spot.  The other player takes their move back.  Play does not stop during this.

I observed, but did not play, Version 2.  Players appeared to be as deeply engaged as I was.

Data (Realtime Checkers – player experience summary)

As I played version 1, I felt flow from the first move, and continued to feel it all the way until we stopped playing.  The 5 minute playtest felt like 20. My heart was pounding. My brain was in full game-strategy mode.

However, Checkers ruleset is too simple for RTS.  It felt more like novice multiplayer FPS experience: a pretty close match on decisions per second, and complexity of decision-making, to a beginner practicing against NPCs in TF2 or a friendly Unreal Tournament deathmatch.

I can imagine the reader might be snorting at the idea that Checkers could  “feel like multiplayer FPS.”  Here’s what I mean:

I felt the familar burden of low-grade performance stress, trying to keep an eye on the shifting sands of opportunities and threats, peppered with little sharp stabs of joy when I found a good move, and micro-dispair when I missed something important.

Because I was new to the game, I trialed, discarded or improved tactics, all in real time flow state, with little regard to long-term strategy (of which I doubt there is much).  I thought ahead two moves which enabled me to create crude move-jump combos, rather than move-by-move. I tried lame-duck tactics (to tempt her out when she was turtling).

I tried an online single-player version (“extreme checkers”  here …warning: lots of popup ads), but the unnatural speed of piece motion and mouseclicking made the first few minutes frustrating made the experience pretty weak.  The physical experience actually brings the game closer to FPS than the digital version.


I strongly believe flow states can be achieved with physical prototypes and believe there is reason to hope that physical prototypes might be able to model flow states in video games.  This study is far too limited to say much beyond that.

Returning to Fullerton’s observation on the gap between physical prototypes and video games: Obviously, much was missing between a FPS and realtime checkers:

  1. able to see the entire territory (birds-eye view)
  2. no range attack
  3. no theme
  4. no music

Some of these are easily testable. I look forward to future playtests with the stereo cranked and Warhammer figures.

Future research directions

There are two directions that this research suggests.

The first question is: is it possible to achieve a flow state in a map-based tabletop RTS?  While Checkers is too limited in strategic options to offer much insight on this question, I think games like CODRS and Boxing show that realtime play in phyiscal games with deeper strategy are combinable, and I feel there was enough promise to try it.

A larger and more crucial question is:  Does a flow experience in a physical prototype have any relation to a flow experience in the subsequent video game design?   In other words, if a prototype has flow, does this predict anything useful for the digital game?   I would dearly love to find out, though it might requires a much larger effort than a quick investigation such as this. As academics are so fond of saying, this is clearly a question for future research.


The Unit Guide Tutorial Game

The Unit Guide Tutorial Game

This learning game is a fun way to avoid the dull Week 1 lecture, where deadlines and criteria for a new university class (or “unit” in OZ/NZ university parlance) are given.  This game has three advantages:

1. instead of being talked at, students tell each other the most important parts of a new unit.

2. It is a great way for students to meet each other in tutorial, and get some idea of each others’ personalities (in preparation for group work later)

3. It generates a ‘crowdsourced’ list of what students regard as most important elements of the unit guide.

The rules:

The tutor points to the nearest student and announces “Player 1”.  Then the tutor points to the student’s neighbor and announces “Judge.” Next student is announced “Player 2”.  The next is “Player 1” again.  The tutor continues around the room in this manner.  Students are told to group themselves, and arrange their groups around the room.    (Player 1 –  Judge –  Player 2)    — (Player 1 – Judge – Player 2)  — (Player 1 – Judge – Player2).

Tutor tasks are: call out start and stop times, update the list of “Most Important” topics (on a whiteboard, so all can see), and final arbitrar, if needed.

When Tutor says “go”, each player has 30 seconds to picks the most important thing in the unit guide.  After the first round, players cannot choose anything already chosen from the “most important” list.

  • When Tutor says “stop”, the players are given 10 seconds each to explain their finding to their judge. This is usually noisy.
  • Tutor then obtains silence, and asks each judge in turn to report.
    • Judge announces what each player found, and picks the more important one.
    • The winning player gets a point.  These are recorded on a bit of paper they keep with them.
    • Tutor writes down the winning answers as the judge reads them off. Players cannot use these again.
      • Players can reuse their answers if they were not chosen.
      • The players then each award the Judge 1 or 0 points, using any criteria they like (typically awarded for fairness of decision).   Judge writes tallies their score on a scrap of paper.
      • Then, the groups are mixed:

      * player 2 moves one group to the right

    * judge moves one to the left

The new players and judge get settled, share their scores and otherwise introduce themselves, until the Tutor announces that new round begins. 

Once all judges have travelled full circle, points are tallied and two winners (one player, one judge) are declared. Celebrations ensue.

The game takes about 45 minutes for a 14-person tutorial.

Credits: Murdoch Games Design Workshop students and tutor, 2012.  Creative Commons licensed.


Sustainability + Zombies = Learning Game?


If you were asked to design a game about sustainability, that featured zombies, what would you create?  That challenge emerged from our www.yaw-crc.org pilot project. The project is best understood through the eyes of its stakeholders:

  • The nonprofit entity, whose goal is to engage their kids around their mission or topic.   In our case, the teacher was quite satisfied with the project because she saw how it motivated at-risk kids she couldn’t reach with normal methods.  She was delighted to see them attending school, participating in discussions, and writing their game design ideas.  At researchers’ request, she role-played a ‘customer’ with a more specific mission: promote sustainability with a video game.
  • The kids, who passionately embrace the opportunity to be co-creators, and are proud that their video game literacy can open doors to adult worlds. They enjoy playing the games, but they are more motivated by the presence of professional game developers in the classroom. They role-play, learn tools, demonstrate mechanics, consider balancing questions, as well as tease, praise, and generally seek a personal bond with the professional game developers.
  • The developers. Their goal is to understand the kids as end users deeply yet time-effectively, and discover innovative learning game designs that emerge from collaboration. They know that the best games are design for designers, and seek experimental alternatives to typical user/designer barriers in standard playtesting methods.
  • The researchers, whose goal is to discover and document innovative ways to increase well-being and resilience among the kids, through this engagement.

The project is in progress now.  As a byproduct, we have developed an exciting concept for a game: “Zombie Pollution.”   Here’s the concept:

Zombie Pollution is a 2D casual shooter/platformer that seeks to persuade “the 99%” to begin to think sustainably.  It puts the player on a tiny, dirty planet, inhabited by careless zombies who are trashing the place as they live their humdrum lives.   The player jumps over buildings on the slowly rotating world, shooting zombies, collecting coins and ‘cleaning powerups’,  which instantly clean the onscreen bit of the planet (this mechanic is the ‘initial hook’, engaging players in the first minute of play).

Money: The coins first fund player’s progression, then buy important gameplay powerups: The player starts with an old house that sucks money from the player’s moneypile.  As they gather coins, they buy a lovely ec0-mansion, which uses LESS money than the old house.  Their polluting, costly rusty car becomes a Tesla-style electric sportscar, nearly free to drive).  As their lifestyle costs less, and as they get better at collecting coins, their cash stacks up.

Persuasion: However, as play continues and the player circles around the planet, they find their clean areas are dirty again. The player eventually realizes that the zombies are dirtying the planet faster than they can clean it. They need to convert the zombies to ‘good zombies’ to win.   To convert, they must first shoot the zombies, then persuade them to become ‘good’. The shot zombies arise again, but with they’re aware that something’s wrong: with an icon above their head, they continue to pollute, but if the player buys community centers (which are expensive), the zombies will go in, learn how to become sustainable, and emerge ‘good’: they help the player by cleaning the planet offscreen. When enough ‘good zombies’ are present, the level becomes winnable, and harder levels are unlocked.

The game is a learning game.  The learning goal for Zombie Pollution is broad.

This game seeks to persuade low-income, blue collar people (the “99%”) to begin to think sustainably, taking the first step towards including sustainability in their life’s priorities.

Unlike a “skill and drill” learning game, This game has a persuasive goal. If successful, the game will change attitudes, not knowledge or behaviours, of players.   There are many elements of the game that address various aspects of the “sustainability” learning goal.  The top three are shown here.

MESSAGE 1: Being sustainable fits you.

  • Sustainable is common sense. Earn money, eat well, don’t be wasteful, don’t trash your home, and convince other people to do the same.
  • Normal people live sustainably.  Players are rewarded for making in-game choices that both fit sustainability goals, and don’t conflict with players’ existing worldviews.
  • Sustainable lifestyle ideals are cool.  Westerners’ materialistic lifestyle (with a ‘rock star’ ideal) is well established among kids, and usually features unsustainable objects such as gasoline-consuming sports cars, and wasteful McMansions.  This game gives an updated vision of success and wealth:   cool, fast electric cars;  stunning modern mansions with a clever design that uses less resources than normal suburban houses; healthy sustainable food in upscale fancy restaurants (e.g. Chez Panisse).

MESSAGE 2:  It’s up to us.

Unlike many sustainability stories which pit a few brave souls against giant, faceless corporations, this game encourages small, grass roots thinking about both its problems and solutions.

  • Normal people are the problem…and the solution.
  • One heroic person is a catalyst, not the solution.
  • To really solve the problem, lots of people must change their behavior.

MESSAGE 3: We can save the planet.

  • By making the game winnable, players get an optimistic message about the problem of sustainability. Optimistic attitudes are known to boost self-efficacy and increases motivation to engage with a topic.

Sustainability is  broad movement, with various goals, not always aligned.  For example, promoting an eco-mansion, and other fancy material lifestyles conflicts with ‘consume less’ and land use values, and clashes with the typical “hippie” radical lifestyle ideals of the old-school sustainability movement.  We chose it because it serves as a cultural scaffold: To persuade low-income, blue collar people to choose sustainability as a world view, the ‘rock star lifestyle’ message is too well established to attack directly. This game scopes its persuasive mission to redefine ‘rock star lifestyle’ to reflect sustainability ideals. The ‘consume less’ message is left for future work.

Zombie Pollution is exciting concept because it may be a game that many people enjoy playing, Building it is beyond the scope of this pilot project.  I look forward to future projects where we can let kids experience the real payoff in video game design: The shock, pride and connectedness when thousands of people around the world enjoy a video game they co-designed.    I believe that experience could change their lives.

title screen for Zombie Pollution concept



Food Fight – prototype phase finished!

We’ve done prototye playtesting for the key features of Food Fight, a 3D multiplayer shooter that lets you make your friends fat. We dare to aim for “feature complete” in a month or so…at which point polish commences!  It’s going to be fairly different than I initially imagined, but I’m still happy with it, and looking forward to seeing real people play it.


Food Fight and deep intrinsic learning

Food Fight is a 3D multiplayer shooter that lets you throw food at your friends to make them fat.  It didn’t start this way.  It started as a 3D psuedo-shooter hiding a RPG style simulation of nutrition.  The journey has been long and interesting.  I’ll share the full story once we’re out of the woods on development.  Right now, the story’s still being written… 🙂

One Over Gamification, Times Minus 1.

Gamification is fun to attack, as we’ve seen, but I’m trying for another approach: solutions as a form of criticism.  I’ll start with a grand idea, then explain how it could happen.

Grand idea: Serious games could be a revolution in persuasive media: one where people are convinced by intrinsic properties of the idea being promoted, not the aesthetic or base qualities.

How it could happen: 

I’ll explain using competing business plans for a learning game design and development company. As you read, ask yourself: Which one is the fatal “hammer in search of a nail” flaw?

Plan 2 is the standard model today: If you want to build a learning game business, you must find funding sources who wish to get a message out.  This is a random assortment of entities in society – from the Red Cross to Coke to the Pat Buchanan for Pope movement – who wish their message to be heard by today’s youth.   A small subset of these entities are ready to build a game.  (see related post, or Clark Aldrich’s many, detailed posts on this).  Many such companies exist and are doing reasonably well (e.g. http://www.3rdsense.com/).

Plan 2 has a few obvious drawbacks, such as having to do work for companies whose message you don’t agree with, but the bigger problem is the game design.  More on that later: what’s the alternative?

Plan 1 is a quest for simulations.  We start with ongoing research effort to uncover mathematically based models of our world that are suitable to underly game engines.  Newtonian Physics, for example, has been well fairly thoroughly explored as the core mechanic behind many, if not most, video games. Other fields such as Chemistry and Economics have not, and I believe there is huge potential for genuinely fun games based on their models.  My idea is to explore the fields through partnerships with subject matter experts; identify opportunites, and brainstorm game concepts around these.  These 1-page summaries are collected and agitate for development, as irritating as angry cats in a burlap sack, in our brains.  We then seek funding (this is the tricky bit).  Our ideal partner has funds and desire to get people to really grok the fundamentals of their field.

OK, there’s the two approaches. Let’s consider them.

Plan 2 might appear to be a hammer in search of nails, since it’s a serious game business seeking customers, but it’s too strongly customer-driven.  Like a dressmaker, the Plan 2 designers measure their customers’ needs, choose various design patterns from a increasingly standardized shelf of core mechanics, scoring systems, etc, and apply these to the customers’ roll of cloth (the customer’s brand, in this teetering metaphor).

So, Plan 2 does not invent hammers – all good – but will it lead us to revolutionary  learning games?  Seems unlikely.   I read Paul Graham’s 10th point (“avoid distractions”) as applicable here.  Service businesses have little incentive to innovate.   One can milk novelty from mix-n-match game design, but it’s of a certain, incremental, mainstream kind.  Experimental gameplay is not usually in the budget.  Experimental ANYTHING is rarely in the budget.

Plan 1 looks more like “hammer in search of nails”, in that we start with a great game design (the hammer), then search for customers who want it…but I don’t think so.  Hammers are tools. Games are not.  Good games are inherently valuable, as they provide experiences people value.  Plan 1 builds products, not services.

So, Funders vs Customers is a fundamental difference between Plan 1 and 2.  Is this just semantics?  No.  Funders share the vision of the product. Funders don’t have needs.  Customers, in Plan 1, are the end users.   In Plan 2, the end users are mediated by their customer, the company with the message.

I believe it is common knowledge that product businesses generate more true innovation, and create much more value, than a service businesses.  (if you don’t agree, let me know and I’ll defend this).  While many smart people in service businesses imagine funding true innovation with paying work, it’s hard to actually do.

I end where I began: Serious games could be a revolution in persuasive media: one where people are convinced by intrinsic properties of the idea being promoted, not the aesthetic or base qualities.

So, is Plan 1 realistic?  I think so.  Take Chemistry.  Imagine a large nonprofit entity that wants to see kids consider chemistry as a career path. Existing methods (“Consider an Profitable Career in Chemistry) aren’t working.   They need something better.  They hire smart promotion campaign designers, who start by asking “why do chemical engineers enjoy their work?”  and let’s say interviews reveal that there is a genuine joy of discovery that makes the job satisfying.

The campaign designer realizes a game might deliver this experience.  She shops around various serious game developers.

Plan 2 proposes a high-production value engaging RPG game, CSI style, that challenges the player to solve mysteries uses bits of chemistry that are already popular and well understood.  It’s lovely and has mechanics and chemistry knowledge proven in existing games and they can nearly prove kids will love it.

Plan 1 proposes developing a a 21st-century chemistry kit that let kids build new chemical compounds safely and easily.   Players must feel the joy of creation that chemical engineers experience when they work.  This is difficult and risky, and has never been done before. The designers promise to sweat bullets to find a way to remove all the tedium from the chemical engineers job, but keep the satisfaction of problem solving. They freely admit they don’t know what the mechanic is, though they point to Foldit and SpaceChem as evidence that it is possible and fun, respectively.

Which one would you fund?  Plan 2 sounds a lot better, doesn’t it?   There’s only one problem: it won’t work. First, it pits itself against pure entertainment games. It must deliver fun with the millstone of CHOOSE A CAREER IN CHEMISTRY around its neck.  To reach millions of kids, it must fall back to desparate methods like “win a free car” or alternate distribution “get played at school” when kids are desparate for anything entertaining, but getting persuasive games in curricula is very tough, and getting tougher.

Second, even when it gets played, its message misses the mark. Chemical engineers aren’t detectives. The game mechanics don’t relate to the joy of chemistry.  People who like that game, will hate chemistry.  Chemical engineers work in labs, building entities so distant they are nearly abstract… but when successful create wonderful new things that affect the real world.  That’s WHY people become chemical engineers.

So, if even well-built, really fun serious games aren’t enough, what is?    Plan 1’s approach seeks another kind of game – something that delivers a profound experience – that is possible. It is very risky.  Is this a pipe dream?  No.  It happens every day, wherever kids get their dirty hands on  tools that bridge time and scale. Playing with this tool closees the loop between cause and effect and understand everything between.  That’s where the real fun comes from.

Many computer experts were seduced by the power of writing video games, which led to the profound experience of writing equations in BASIC and seeing them DO something. It’s the power of controlling a little universe, which leads engineer types to choose a career in chemistry.

A clever campaign manager, who is measuring the right things (overall uptake in a career in chemistry, as opposed to exposure), will see this type of game as the better investment.