Travis’ GDC, Stories from the Studio, Toth and Herber’s Award, Brown Bag

Travis’ Game-Defined Career, by Ken Rosenberg

Being a video game scholar is fantastic, but nothing further down the career path can rival that initial discovery: academics can study video games. It’s an overwhelming realization in its own right, but doctoral student Travis Ross had one of the best introductory periods of any gamer-scholar I know. As a master’s student—right about the time he realized the magical synthesis was possible—Professor Castronova took him to the Game Developer’s Conference (GDC). Unlike the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), which is a commercial affair geared more toward players and retailers, GDC is for the press, academics, and developers. It’s the Epcot to E3’s Magic Kingdom: focused on hard realities of making games, explicitly celebratory of science, and mindful of the future. The first time he went, his experience was akin to that of being in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory.

Of course, that was three conferences ago.

Years later Travis has a much different perspective.  He has learned more about the industry and found a role for himself. Developers are able to get more and more information from their players, but feedback through telemetry data is not enough. It still takes creative scholarship to interpret in-game behavior and then design systems to manage players’ experiences. Travis’ dissertation research provides insights into how game developers can cultivate social norms that enhance experience of playing multiplayer games. His research affords him authority as an academic which, in turn, bolsters the reputation of his blog, Motivate.Play—and, as a co-founder and editor he is able to apply for a press pass to each GDC.

“For me, being able to go to GDC affiliated with the press is awesome,” Travis said. “At the same time, it’s not like we get to go to all the sessions and then come back to our rooms and have downtime between sessions. It’s filled with writing.” However, as strenuous as all that writing may be, obtaining the material to write about often serves multiple ends. “Being a press member is really great because it gives you a reason to annoy people,” Travis quipped. “At a conference like that, it’s all about networking.” Finding a comfortably plausible pretext is awkward and the press pass “saves you that. After a session, they’re swamped by people—after some sessions, you’ve got fifty people trying to walk up to this person. You walk up to somebody and you want to talk, but how do you first connect? I have the ability to do that, if I can get them into an interview situation; you’re asking questions, but you also have the opportunity to exchange ideas.”

Travis says that, for most GDC newbies, it’s “exciting but painful;” in a sea of people, your résumé is casually tossed into a box in the corner—you’re “just another number.” Equipped with business cards, not résumés, Travis doesn’t spend much time on the expo floor; he’s meeting with specific people.  Now, when he goes to GDC, he goes to meet with his own kind. “It’s way more enjoyable now,” Travis said, “because I’m ‘in’—you know? It was enjoyable back then, too—it really was—but now I feel like I’m part of it, instead of just a wide-eyed onlooker.” Still there are varying levels of “in,” as—in true gamer fashion—conference-goers earn ribbons for their badges according to status and performance. Someone like Raph Koster, famous for writing as well as developing games (see A Theory of Fun and the virtual economy of Ultima Online, respectively) has six or so.  Just give it a little more time, though, before Travis has a “speaker” ribbon of his own; that’s his goal for next year’s GDC.

In the meantime, Travis has set goals for both his research and blog. He wants more people to contribute to the blog; he’s looking for more diversity in general but, specifically, for the addition of a female voice. The most significant evolution, though, involves rethinking his approach to studying social norms. “At GDC, there’s a practical element to it. Sure academic experiments are interesting, but they want to know how that can design better games.” Unspoken but expected, this often translates to ‘show us how to make people give us more money.’ “When you enter the industry, there’s a lot of pressure to demonstrate how you can help the bottom line,” Travis says. “The more I thought about it, I don’t want to just make money—I want to be able to make the world a better place.” This includes things like creating systems that encourage mentorship. Since games are a playful way to learn, this means the two goals might not be as exclusive as one might initially imagine. He believes that “the behaviors that are good for a game can be good for society, as well.”

Stories from the Studio: Matt Falk Audio Engineer, by Mike Lang

The can of bear mace explodes in his pocket. Eddie Ashworth, the engineering mastermind behind the band Sublime was preparing for the arrival of the band to record their new album, Second Hand Smoke. With the recording taking place in a cabin up in the mountains, Ashworth’s wife, worried about the recent bear sightings, equipped Eddie with a can of protective bear mace right before he left for the session. Arriving early he noticed a big fire pit in front of the cabin. What a great way to greet the band:  build a fire, present them with some high quality spirits, and make a night of it.  After building the fire, he sat down to relax and wait for the band. From nowhere he hears popping and hissing sounds and then notices a wetness in his pants. Then the searing heat hits. The band rolled up just in time to see Ashworth, stripped naked and screaming, running circles around the fire trying to wash off the burning pain of the bear mace from his nether regions.

This is Matt Falk’s musical lineage. Studying under Eddie Ashworth at Ohio University, Matt adopted not only Eddie’s propensity for audio engineering, but his propensity for sharing stories. This week I had the pleasure of sitting down with Matt to listen to him recount some of his stories from the studio.

Like most audio engineers, Falk’s interest in music started young. He grew up on Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, Elton John, and the monsters of classic rock and roll. As a teenager in Ohio he volunteered to lug around equipment for his friends’ band, took photos of their shows, ran their Myspace pages, and helped them record their demos. As they started playing larger shows  where money was involved, Matt would step into the manager role, arguing with club owners over pay. Matt thrived behind the scenes, but never on stage under the lights. Try as he might to learn guitar, for whatever reason,it just wasn’t happening.

At Ohio University some of Falk’s most memorable work came from working with his roommate’s punk band The Facials.

The Facials – Round 2

On one particular night, Falk and The Facials had the studio reserved from 8pm to 4 am (the studio ran 24/7). After blistering through recording and mixing, Falk cranked up the huge monitors in the tiny room and let it rock. Ecstatic with the mix, the band decided to celebrate in typical punk fashion, going to the bars.  It was early, and Falk slapped a sign on the door that read “out to dinner, you can’t steal our studio time,” to ward off any studio poachers.  At 2 o’clock the band gathered up anybody who would listen and invited them back to the studio to hear the new mix. With 75 people crammed into a room no bigger than the grad lab, when Falk fired up the mix, the place went nuts. They played the song over and over, and Falk made sure to break up the mini mosh pits, prevent the fans from tearing down the sound baffling, and make sure people didn’t trip over the bass traps in the corners. At 3:30 everyone was leaving, waving  to the crew in the hallway waiting for their 4am studio time.

The Facials and Eddie Ashworth

In many cases, audio engineers have to expect the unexpected. Ashworth had enlisted Falk’s help with a group of crazy California guys who were always high and/or inebriated. On the fourth day of production, the band was driving back to house they were staying at up in the mountains of Appalachia. As they passed the cemetery, they swerved off the road and over a cliff. Fortunately, a small outcropping just below the ledge caught the van, preventing a fatal disaster. The inebriated band members stumbled out of the van, unsure of what to do, and walked back to the house. In the morning Matt received a phone call from the state police. They had found the van and wanted to question the owner in person at police headquarters. Matt, always the reasonable one, approached the band leader and asked what had happened. As the band was driving past the cemetery, they were startled by an apparition. They had seen a ghost. Not just any ghost, but a ghost of a horse’s head. It appeared out of nowhere, scared the driver, and caused them to swerve off the road and over the cliff. Terrified the horse head ghost was lurking, the band mustered up the courage to climb back up over the ledge and run back to the house.

The Scary Horse Head Ghost Guys

While some sessions are unexpected, some are just plain bad. Working with a older jazz quintet, Matt grew increasingly frustrated with the xylophone player. The band would record amazing takes that everyone would agree sounded great. Except of course he Xylophone guy who would nitpick at the most minute elements in his particular section. Despite the urging of the band that the takes were fine, Xylophone guy would insist they do the entire take over again. After a few needlessly done retakes, the band leader started getting vicious. The re-recorded takes were never used.

That session led to numerous problems. Divided into numerous different rooms, the band members each had their own section in the studio, with the drummer shoved in a tiny room in the back. After playing drums for close to 50 years, the drummer’s hearing was shot, and to make matters worse, the tiny room only increased the decibel levels. After the first take, Matt fired up the playback, and one of the members noticed what sounded like Rock Lobster by the B-52s playing in the background. After isolating each separate track, Matt found the culprit in the drum track. Despite the contractor’s assurance that the studio was soundproof, sound from the radio station had bled into the drum room, where the poor drummer was too deaf to hear it. Matt walked over to the radio station and found it unmanned. In case  of an event like this, the radio station left a series of phone numbers someone could call for help. After calling all the numbers on the list to no avail, Matt dialed the campus police. Unwilling at first to come out, Matt told them that if they didn’t let him in, he would shatter the glass and shut their sound off completely. The police came, let them into the building, where they found the monitors turned all the way up. Just as he turned the volume down, the first person on the contact list showed up in a huff, demanding to know what was going on. Matt thinks he saw a frown on her face when she realized why Matt was in the radio station, before he unleashed a torrent of built up frustration and anger. She turned the speakers down, wrote a number of angry emails, and apologized profusely. They saw each other at parties afterwards occasionally. Needless to say they aren’t friendly.

Matt embodies a strong DIY ethic. He has recorded in half-finished houses, shoved poor singer song writers in unfinished bathrooms, strapped broomsticks to chairs to service as microphone stands, and assembled pop filters out of wire coat hangers and nylons. He even helped build MDIA studios in Athens, Ohio. As Matt says, the engineer is there to keep the rodeo going. “Sometimes you have to be the clown that nudges the bull out of the room. Othertimes you are lassoing all the piggies, sometimes you are just sitting in the stands watching.” As such, engineers get first hand access to the eccentricities which not only produce the music we know and love, but the stories which circulate among anyone willing to listen.

Joseph Toth and Norbert Herbert Win Provost’s Award, by Mike Lang

Joseph Toth, Telecom undergrad, and Professor Norbert Herber were recently awarded the Provost’s Award for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activity, which celebrates student accomplishments and formally recognizes the mentorship of their faculty advisors, for their sound design work on Nathan and the Luthier, a student produced feature film.

The review process took place in two stages. The first stage involved submission to specialized divisions. Toth and Herber won at the first level in the creative category. In the second stage, all of the winners from the various divisions competed for the University prize.  Herber was delighted to receive the email from Vice Provost Sonya Stephens bearing the good news that their work had claimed the top prize.

Toth, who had mainly focused on cinematography, got really interested in doing audio after taking Herber’s classes, Sound Design, and Scoring for Media. Herber had noticed Toth’s exceptional work in both areas, so when Jake Sherry, then IU senior (double-major in Telecommunications and filmmaking via IU’s Individualized Major Program)  and the director and producer of  Nathan and the Luthier, came looking for somebody to do sound, Herber recommended Toth. At first, Sherry enlisted Toth to focus strictly on sound design, working with elements like set recording and dialogue editing. However, at the last minute Sherry needed Toth to score the film as well.  The film called for a minimal score, meaning Toth had the time to do it. However, minimalism comes at a price. Toth had nothing to hide behind. The score had to be good, and function within the story without coming across as heavy handed or too obvious. When Herber first reviewed the rough cuts, he was excited. They were really good. Rather than putting out fires, he focused on helping Toth refine bits and pieces to make his work really shine. “I was completely blown away by his maturity and the choices he made. He just nailed it.”

As Herber explains, the very nature of scoring and sound design poses peculiar challenges when it comes to presenting such work to a review committee. In some ways, sound design and scoring should be invisible, meaning that the audience should leave the theater talking about the characters, the plot, the costumes, etc. The sound should work on a completely unconscious level, matching up so precisely that the audience doesn’t leave with the impression that the sound had to be “designed.” It was therefore really important to communicate to the committee that they were listening to subtleties they wouldn’t normally pay attention to.

Congratulations Norb! Check out a trailer for Nathan and the Luthier, and make a point to see it next time you get the chance.

Brown Bag

Developing a Database of Nonverbal Emotion Expressions

Elizabeth Bendycki

Emotion researchers have historically relied upon basic emotions and facial expressions in studies of emotion recognition (i.e. Ekman & Friesen, 1976). The present study sought to create a nonverbal database featuring both facial and body expressions of a broader range of emotions, including social or self-conscious emotions (i.e. pride and shame). Validation studies indicated that nonverbal expressions depicting Happiness, Sadness, and Shame were recognized at above-chance levels when just the eyes alone were presented; Pride was recognized at above-chance levels once facial cue information became available. The implications of these results for emotion
perception will be discussed.


Skill Gap: Quantifying Violent Content in Video Game Play Between Variably Skilled Users

Nicholas Matthews

The amount of violence in video games is concerning as the highly interactive nature of games demands users’ attention and often forces them to perform violence to progress. However, interactivity also allows for divergent game play between users resulting from their individual differences. One particular difference, user skill level, is the primary interest of this study. If skill is able to alter the user experience, it may also moderate the violent content users generate, which in turn could influence the effects that result. This talk will discuss the approach, findings, and implications of skill as a moderator of violent content.


Elizabeth Bendycki is a second-year doctoral student in the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences. Her current research in Aina Puce’s Social Neuroscience Lab is interested in understanding how emotional cues function as nonverbal social signals. Ongoing research interests include: social cognition, empathy and individual differences in emotion recognition and regulation. As part of the Social Neuroscience Lab, the long-term goal is to combine behavioral and self-report measures with cognitive neuroscience techniques, including EEG and fMRI, to understand emotion and social perception at both behavioral and neurophysiological levels.

Nic is a second-year Ph.D. student at IU Telecom. His research interests center on video games and interactivity. He is currently studying how game realism moderates body attitude and how people’s moral foundations affect game selection and enjoyment.

The audio recording of Friday’s seminar can be found here: Brown Bag 10 (March 30, 2012 – Nic and Liz)

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