Signing Off for Summer

by Edo and Teresa

As another academic year comes to a close, we’re wrapping up the blog for the summer break. We wanted to take a moment, though, to thank you (dear readers) for reading and supporting the blog by giving us your thoughts, ideas, and sharing your stories with us. Notably, as we wrap up for summer, we are also bringing the third year of the blog to a close. In that time, the blog has hosted six writers. We’ve all contributed different styles and flavors that have now mixed to become something representative of the department in and of itself.

We’ve tried new ways to present Telecom graduate life this year. We took the silly road and the visual road. If you have any suggestions for new things to experiment with here, feel free to tell us.

Finally, we’re proud to announce the winners of our first photo contest!

The winning photo for the category “Life in the Department” was submitted by Garrett Poortinga.

Photo submitted by Garrett J. Poortinga

Photo submitted by Garrett J. Poortinga

For the category “Life in Bloomington,” we had not a two-way, but a THREE-way tie! The winning photos were submitted by Garrett Poortinga, Ashley Kraus, and Nic Matthews.

Photo submitted by Ashley Kraus.

Photo submitted by Ashley Kraus.

Photo submitted by Nic Matthews.

Photo submitted by Nic Matthews.

Photo submitted by Garrett J. Poortinga.

Photo submitted by Garrett J. Poortinga.

Congratulations to the winners and thanks again to all who submitted, you all made the blog better this semester! Starting next week, we’ll have an interactive collection of all the photos submitted this semester hosted here for you to click through.

From both of us here on the grad blog, have a great summer!

Comps. Comprende?

by Teresa Lynch

For doctoral students, when classes are complete there comes a point when efforts turn toward a different type of task. Comprehensive exams, the four days of four-hour blocks answering questions from each of the members of your committee, mark that point. Tamara Kharroub and Nic Matthews just took their exams. Tamara has already finished the final portion of the exam process, which is defending her answers. Nic still has that part to go.

Although they focus on different programs of research, Tamara and Nic have been very much in sync with one another. They began and ended doctoral coursework in the same semesters, share the same committee chair and advisor (Andrew Weaver) and minor (Psychology), and even took their comprehensive exams within a week of one another. “The funniest thing about our similarity is that for years, we didn’t even realize it. It didn’t hit us immediately that we were always checking things off the list at pretty much the same time. It’s probably part coincidence, part guidance from our committee members…who are mostly the same,” said Nic with a laugh.

That similarity meant that they were readying for the exams simultaneously. For Nic it was the two weeks prior to beginning that involved the most intense preparation. In that time frame, Tamara says what helped her wasn’t just reading, but “thinking beyond the material while reading, trying to connect different readings and ideas together, constructing arguments, and thinking about how they might inform my dissertation.”

The hardest part, we’re always told as junior classmen, is actually going and sitting in the room. For Tamara, that was true. “.. sitting in that small room for 4 hours and knowing that I [would] have to do the same thing the next day – for 4 days! I soon realized how difficult it was for me to think, remember, and write under time pressure and space constraints…also, being a little claustrophobic [didn’t] help the situation.”

Although they both say they feel relieved at having the daunting portion of sitting in the room and writing furiously for days on end behind them, there is still more to go to achieve the doctorate. Tamara admits she does feel a bit overwhelmed, “because now I have to start working on the next serious steps; dissertation, finishing research projects, job, etc.” And those next steps have begun for both of them immediately in prepping their dissertation proposals.

“I had a basic idea of what I wanted to study [in my dissertation], but it was a nebulous concept. As I read more and more, that nebulous concept fundamentally changed into something more concrete and it fundamentally changed my ideas…and it was really, really useful. You read all of this work over years, but it’s really hard to put it in a frame until you have comps to help you organize it all in a flash. You start re-reading all these concepts with theory and philosophy so fresh in your mind that new connections are made,” says Nic. His general dissertation direction will use video games as environments to test and explore our understanding of morality. For Tamara, prepping for the exams meant expanding and refreshing her knowledge on social identity and relationships with media characters ultimately to inform her dissertation proposal.

Ever studious – after completing the four days of exams, Tamara and Nic put their noses right back to the grindstone. Although, both said they made it a priority to reacclimatize to “normal life” by catching up with friends and relaxing.

Having so recently completed the entire process, when asked for any tips for success, Tamara modestly admitted with a laugh that she is no expert as she has “only taken the exams once.” Still, she offered a few pointers that helped her along the way, paraphrased below:

  • Know how well you can work under these conditions and prepare accordingly
  • Read with a purpose
  • Sample questions written by the professors on your committee
  • Discuss preparation with your committee members (a few months in advance) so you know what is expected,what kinds of questions you might get, and how to prepare
  • Write and answer potential questions for yourself
  • Write the main points and your ideas and arguments while reading
  • For defending, read your answers very well and be prepared to explain your answers, even beyond what you wrote. The oral defense is also a great opportunity to correct answers, so prepare well if you need to correct something. In both parts, it is important to provide complete answers.

The Science of Morality

by Teresa Lynch

Left to right: Nic Matthews, Andrew Weaver, and Nicky Lewis

Since roughly the beginning of 2012 Professor Andrew Weaver and PhD students Nicky Lewis and Nic Matthews have been meeting with a multidisciplinary group to discuss morality. This group had grown and evolved and is now has a formal name – Science of Morality Interest Group.

The group began not long after Professor John Kruschke of the Psychology department completed teaching a seminar on morality. Nicky says that “[Dr. Kruschke] started [the] moral perspectives research group, where people from all disciplines with an interest in morality could come together and basically bounce ideas off of each other. Since the group is made up of people from all different schools and departments, such as philosophy, drama, business, etc., we all get to share ideas from different points of view.”

The three Telecom participants see much value in such multifaceted thinking.  Andrew noted that “when you dive into the research that’s being done in other disciplines, you’re bound to uncover some worthwhile information. We’ve also found that conducting research using games is a way to address barriers that morality researchers from other disciplines have come up against. For example, philosophers or psychologists using traditional thought experiments to study moral decisions are capturing a type of decision making that is very specific and often much more deliberative/artificial than what one would experience in real life. Video games provide us with the opportunity to study decision making in much more natural contexts. Other members of the group have been very receptive to using games as a means to examine these behaviors.”

And the use games for studying moral choice has been one major contribution from the Telecom contingent. Regarding that contribution, Nic said “it’s great. Talking about games as a method sparks lots of conversation. People genuinely get excited at the thought of simulating moral decision making by embedding participants in virtual environments.”

For Andrew and Nic, their interest and previous work on media violence – sometimes specifically addressing violence in games – offered a natural bridge into research on moral choice. Andrew explained that “the real hook for me, though, was the choice involved with certain types of game violence. A first person shooter where the objective is just to mow down the opposition is one thing, but when a player gets to make real decisions about whether or not to harm another character … well, that sort of input into the aggressive act is something that’s just not a part of other types of media violence  I believe that the shift from observer to actor in this context is an important shift, but we know very little at this point about what the impact of this actually is. Because these kinds of decisions in games were often framed as moral choices, we then jumped into this line of research.”

Nicky’s interest in morality was piqued a bit differently. She explained that although her previous work had largely investigated participation in the competitive environments of fantasy sports, she had some exposure to moral choice but in a different way – “through traditional disposition theory and how that theory informed the behavior of sports fans.”  Her participation in one of Andrew’s projects on moral choice in games got her involved with morality in a more focused way. She says she has been strongly influenced by this line of research in ways she didn’t expect, even beginning to “[ask]different types of questions now, especially as it relates to how individuals form evaluations about others. Working with Andrew has been a great experience and getting our first research project published validated the importance of this research. The opportunities in this area are wide open and the advantages that using videogames have for answering questions related to moral decision-making are palpable.”

Image from Fallout 3, the game used in Andrew and Nicky’s study.

Andrew’s collaborative study with Nicky titled “Mirrored Morality: An Exploration of Moral Choice in Video Games” was recently published in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. The study has also received recognition in Popular Science, a mixed blessing according to Andrew. Although he appreciates the recognition and realizes that for work in our field to make a difference it must be disseminated to the broader community, he also see the attention as “a double-edged sword.” He says that although many of the journalists he’s spoken with have the best intentions, they are charged with the difficult task of boiling a complex scientific study full of nuance into a brief and generally digestible piece. This often leads to misrepresentation in some way, a problem Andrew says “can be a bit discouraging.”

Still, the future of studying morality in our department and beyond is bright. Drawing from the Science of Morality Interest Group and other sources Nic notes that “the area is ripe for exploration. In our meetings I hear so many great and untapped ideas that I end up with numerous study ideas after each meeting. It seems like the challenge is picking where to start rather than generating ideas.” Similarly, Andrew sees positive future outcomes of the group as he says “there is a lot of brainstorming that goes on in these meetings, and already some of the ideas from other members of the group – things we never would have thought of had we stayed grounded in the comm literature – have been incorporated into the ongoing studies that we’ve been working on. We also have at least one concrete study idea using interdisciplinary collaboration that we’re hoping to get funding to conduct in the next year.”

Regarding the fruitfulness of collaborations within Telecom, Andrew also sees great things happening. He says he has “enjoyed working with both Nicky and Nic on these projects. Great graduate students – and both of them are – bring ideas and motivation that can really energize a body of research. These studies wouldn’t be half of what they are if it wasn’t for their input and effort.”

Demystifying the ICR

by Ken Rosenberg

Lab meetings are a good way to keep current on everyone’s projects … and a great way to make sure YOU keep current on your own!

Last Wednesday, our resident satirist, Edo Steinberg, wrote about weekly lab meetings as if they were a coping group for social science junkies. There is always that haunting nugget of truth at the core of all comedy but, generally speaking, it’s not so bad to be a lab rat. The Institute for Communication Research (ICR) is open to all Telecom grad students. It’s a unique facility and a precious resource for those looking for an appropriate workspace – regardless of career trajectory, chosen methodologies, or level of current expertise. It is run by ICR Director Professor Rob Potter and Lab Manager Sharon Mayell.  Even though it’s practically on the other side of campus, it’s worth the trip.

Professor Rob Potter attaches electrodes to the face of Telecom grad Sean Connolly … without IRB approval! *gasp* (It’s not necessary for fun little demonstrations like this.)

The lab is open to all graduate students and can be a resource for all kinds of scholarship. This includes:

People who are new to lab research. As long as you have IRB approval, you can observe any study in progress. Go behind the scenes and watch researchers collect data from participants – just ask the principal investigator on the study, first.

People who are curious enough to pretest. If you have a research question, you might have a study. Still, it could be wasteful to go forward with a full-fledged IRB-approved experiment without first conducting a smaller version with a handful of people. Fun fact: you don’t need IRB approval to hook up your colleagues to equipment and expose them to media. If you have a few friends in the department who, in turn, have a couple of hours to spare, bring them to the ICR and pre-test your hypotheses … or just have fun learning how to use the equipment. Rob believes that the lab can and should always be running. With plenty of time between ongoing studies, there’s always an opening for curious minds.

People who don’t use physiological measures. The ICR is great for all grads, regardless of their preferred methodologies. The ICR uses MediaLab, which is a great software tool for administering basic audiovisual treatments and questionnaires. Lab software can even be used for content analysis. A multipurpose room can serve as a neutral setting for some in-depth interviews. There are computer labs for research with stacks of methodology handbooks.

People who are new to the program. Don’t have a solidified research question? Need to know how to craft a solid survey? Not sure which classes to take next semester? As they get further into the program, many Telecom grads make the ICR their second home. Even if you’re not there to use the facilities, you can bet that someone will be there – someone with experience and good advice. Seek them out!

People who just need a break. The grad-only rooms in RTV are wonderful havens.  However, if you need an even quieter setting with fewer distractions and a slightly more serious tonality, ask Rob for a key to the ICR and have just the right place to study.

People who want to go places.  Sharon has been long helping people conduct their studies.  Recently, her contributions led to her first publication as a co-author. Rob, an alumnus of our PhD program, went to his first lab meeting at IU a long time ago and met with Professor Annie Lang and a few grad-level colleagues. Now, he is a tenured professor who literally wrote the book on psychophysiological measures in communications research.

If you want to find out more about the ICR, check out the website (props to grad Nic Matthews for his assistance in the design). Rob is also happy to give tours. Additionally, attending the brown bags on Fridays can provide glimpses into the ongoing research at the ICR and the forthcoming publications.

Rob sends out an email at the beginning of each semester. Sharon recommends getting on the mailing list, even and especially if you don’t intend to regularly attend lab meetings (she sends out notes from each meeting).

The ICR is not some imposing laboratory, it’s a resource for all Telecom students. So, head over to Eigenmann Hall (6th floor—take the elevators on the right) and see what the ICR can do for your academic career. Who knows … maybe, in time, you could be running the lab!

Students in Rob’s psychophysiology course begin to turn the tables and test his eye-blink startle response.

It’s a Trav-IGANZA

by Ken Rosenberg

“I have always enjoyed Halloween and dressing up, the whole role-play aspect of it,” said Travis Ross, PhD student and party-throwing master. “Growing up, I was into D&D and that kind of stuff, so the idea of getting to put on a costume – to make a costume – it’s all really fun. So, to have an excuse to do that, I decided to start hosting Halloween parties.” With his wife, Emily, on board, Travis had his first party in 2007, the first year of his PhD program.

Things started out small but, over the past few years, Travis’ Halloween party has become a staple of graduate social life. There used to be competing parties; some people left early. Now, “we’ve earned our place,” Travis said. Word of mouth and a years-long reputation have made the party an unofficial Telecom event for grad students.

Graduate student Steve Burns and his wife have attended every party, as have Steve’s sister and her husband—who drive from Michigan to Bloomington every year. “It’s extremely flattering.” Travis said. “That sort of stuff makes my day. The fact that people would drive from Michigan for my party, it’s cool. Since they’re driving all that way, though, I don’t want to disappoint them.” Travis and Emily have been hosting for 40-plus people the last three parties. Surely, Steve, his sister, and everyone else have a great time.

The night before each party, friend and colleague Matt Falk comes over to the house to help prepare. “I always say to Matt, there are three things that make a party good: lighting, lots of people, and music. “I’m a big proponent of lighting,” Travis said. “If you want to have a good party, you should have good lighting, and so we’ve accumulated tons of strip lights for the party, as well as different colored light bulbs.” Travis enjoys selecting music and making playlists for himself and others, and the party is a great way to share his passion. Though he now uses a computer, Travis has had turntables for several years and used to play DJ with them. “Emily has always been helpful,” he said, “and we’ve collected more and more decorations each year.”

Of course, since it’s a Halloween party, there is another oft-unspoken prerequisite: costumes! Plenty of people get costumes just to attend Travis’ party. “That’s cool,” Travis said. “I make mine just to go to my party, too.” He has gone as a Rubik’s cube and Jack Skellington (from The Nightmare Before Christmas) and, this year, he’s going as the prodigal son of Gallifrey.

The scariest costume, without contest, belongs to Teresa.

“She wasn’t in the department at the time and a lot of people didn’t know who she was,” Travis said. Quickly, she made an impression. She dressed up as a nurse from the horror video game Silent Hill (as seen in the photos) and it “scared the crap out of a lot of people that year,” Travis said. “She would just stand next to people and stare at them. It was so scary, it was downright terrifying. She had a mask, so you couldn’t see her – and it looked like human hair. Creepy, creepy stuff.”

“Nic and Teresa always have great costumes, though,” Travis said. Last year, they went as Margo and Richie Tenenbaum .

The scariest music? Well …

“Every year, Bridget Rubenking always requests the worst songs, at the worst times – and then demands that I play them. And so, I play them. Sometimes, they’re okay but, sometimes, it’s the most inappropriate song at the most inappropriate times – which is, was, a good thing for the Halloween party. I guess we won’t have that this year.”

“The new class seems like they’re excited about it, so I hope it works,” Travis said.

“Every year,” he said, “I think about whether or not we’re going to have enough people. I think there’s a threshold of people that makes it feel like a party. If you don’t have that, it’s not crazy enough. I always want that. Every year I worry – except this year.” Right now, Travis is working on his dissertation. “I haven’t really worried at all,” he said. “I hope people hear about it, because of the reputation and the fact that it should, hopefully, have its own legs by now.”

“There’s a lot of buildup for me,” Travis said, “because I enjoy planning and, now, I’ve got a system in place. I think my favorite parts are getting ready for it and setting up. The party itself is great. I enjoy DJi-ing. It flies by, it happens so fast. Then, the next morning – well, everybody’s been helping with cleanup the last few years, so it’s great, too. There are a couple of spots on the floor, but that’s about it and they’re totally worth it.”

His advice: “Have as much fun with it as you can, because Halloween only comes once a year and it’s a great excuse to let go – not in the sense of losing control, but of letting your barriers down to meet people. Let yourself have a good time. Laugh, and dance – and dance! Every year, I work so hard to get people dancing.”

“I hope that people in the department can get to know each other better,” Travis said, “and reflect on having a good time spent together. I know people are already doing that on their own, but I think that this is a great opportunity to get everybody together and just have an event we can all enjoy.”

The sixth annual Spooky-Scary Halloween Costume and Dance Em ‘N’ Trav-IGANZA will be on October 26.

Georgia on Their Minds

by Ken Rosenberg

When most people hear the song “Georgia on My Mind,” they are very likely to think of Ray Charles’ 1960 rendition but, actually, the song was composed by Howard Hoagland “Hoagy” Carmichael, 30 years earlier. Hoagy played piano and his jazz-influenced pop songs have placed him in the annals of music history. He was a Bloomington native and a graduate of Indiana University, where he studied law. In memory of her beloved son, Bloomington hosts a plaque downtown, as well as a statue next to the IU Auditorium, complete with piano. So, whenever you pass by the bronzed figure of a man intimately playing at the keys and wondered about his story, now you know: Hoagy was a man with great talent – and had a sister named Georgia. His co-author, Stuart Gorrell, wrote the lyrics (Hoagy composed the music) for Carmichael’s sister but, to the public, the ambiguous lyrics quickly linked the sweet sentiments to the state, as well.  In fact it is now the official state song of the state of Georgia.

Telecom building overlooks Hoagy’s statue. This is fitting, as our cohort most certainly has Georgia on their minds. Hundreds of miles away from the state of Georgia, four grad students cheer for the Bulldogs: Teresa Lynch, Mona Malacane, Nic Matthews, and Sade Oshinubi. They have a rare bond, borne of a common set of backgrounds and cultural references. I sat down for some roundtable reminiscing last week with Mona, Nic, and Teresa (and a follow-up phone call to Sade), in order to understand just what their home state means to them.

Mona and Sade are both taking T501 this semester and, during the requisite round of first-class introductions, Sade perked up when she heard that Mona had arrived from the University of Georgia (UGA).  “I remember sitting there,” Sade said. “I couldn’t wait to talk to her about it.” Mona, like Sade before her, was about to find out what it means to be a fellow Georgian at IU. Sade’s sister went to the same college as Teresa, Armstrong Atlantic State University – a small institution of about 3,500 students – and, in Teresa’s experience, “I don’t know anybody outside of Savannah that knows about that college,” she said. Mona got her degree only twenty minutes drive from where Teresa and Nic grew up.

In the beginning many grad students try to return home for each break, “but the longer you’re away,” Nic said, “you realize it’s just not possible. You have to get this new group to share your successes with, because the phone can only do so much.” Every student who moves away from home must adopt a new social circle, but it helps to have friends who know about what things were like ‘back home’ because “there’s this weird disconnect in leaving and coming here, then meeting all these people,” Teresa said. “They’re from all over the world … and that’s great, and it’s an incredible experience but, at the same time, it’s really awesome to get to meet people from a similar area, that get you in that way. You can make references to places that you’ve been, or things that you’ve experienced that are similar.”

(For the full discussion between three-fourths of the cohort that “bleed red and black,” click here: On Georgia: Mona, Nic, and Teresa.)

clockwise, from top left: Nic, Teresa, Mona, and “Hoagy” Carmichael (pictured here in statue form)

What is referenced most often? Sports, since the whole state is apparently dubbed ‘Bulldog Nation’ and everyone – regardless of the school they went to – hangs a flag to honor the University of Georgia’s football team. “I do miss the solidarity of game days,” Mona said. “Those were so much fun; it was a sea of red and black. But, when you’re away from that … where everyone is a Georgia fan – and then you find fans when you move eight, thirteen hours away, it brings back that solidarity. You feel like you’re part of the group, still. It’s pretty great.” Teresa is not a UGA alum, but she still roots for the Bulldogs. According to Nic, “all of Georgia is called ‘the Bulldog Nation.’ It’s everywhere, anywhere you go. On their porch, everybody has a Georgia flag. It’s crazy.”

Besides rooting for the home team, Georgia denizens identify much more with their local background. “I don’t really think of the state as being where I’m from,” Nic said. “I think of Athens and Savannah, because Georgia to me, I think ’Oh, yeah. Sixteen electoral votes …’ Georgia, to me, it’s just a name and a state. It’s the cities that I really think of, because those – that’s what defined me. Where you stay, and who you stay with.”  It is only the tourists who try to unify Georgia’s essence into a feature-defined buzz word. Many have called Atlanta “Hotlanta,” based on an old marketing campaign. (For the record, when you visit: don’t do that.) While those people were wrong to use the pointless amalgam of words, they were right to choose the word “hot” as a primary component.

“If there’s one thing I don’t miss, it’s the weather,” Mona said. “I love Bloomington. The weather here is incredible. I’m wearing a sweater at the end of September – this is awesome.”

“It’s still beach weather, down in Georgia,” Teresa replied. Weather in the south is “one temperature, one humidity, all the time,” she said. “Bloomington is a beautiful place to be outdoors.”

“Talking about home kind of makes me miss it,” Mona said, “but I do not miss that weather. I only applied to schools that were far enough north that they would get me the heck out of that humidity and heat.” Mona equates walking outside to stepping into a sauna – while placing a hot, wet towel over one’s mouth.

“There are parts of the day where you just don’t go outside,” Teresa said. Mona explained that, during the worst months, the pollen and heat indexes are broadcast every ten minutes.

Another “weather” phenomenon: love bug season. “Yeah, that’s its own season,” Nic said.

Despite the harsh climate, there is still plenty to love about Georgia. “Food is a bigger deal,” Nic said. “It just is.” Fortunately, he and his wife both enjoy cooking. “I love to make southern food,” Teresa said, “and, so far, any time I’ve made southern food for people up here, they love it.” Sade loves when people cook good soul food, and even considers that one of Georgia’s best , most defining features. “I could be anywhere at any time,” Sade said, “and the people I was with would always have good food.” This includes cornbread and greens, as well as a dish that both she and Nic made a point to mention:

As they lived near the coast, Nic and Teresa fondly recall the freshness of catch-of-the-day seafood, as well as the lifestyle afforded by a coastline’s beaches. While Teresa misses the live oaks, Mona misses the ‘tree that owns itself’ (seriously, look it up). Mona is more interested in the facts and stories that surround historic locations – like presidents’ houses and Civil War-era landmarks – while Teresa is more enamored by the macabre tone set by Georgia’s plethora of cemeteries. Sade, on the other hand, misses downtown Atlanta and the culture of its museums, art galleries, and music festivals.

Beyond the cultural trappings, though, “I think there’s kind of a similar hospitality to people, in the Midwest,” Teresa said. The Georgia natives stated that it was difficult to decipher the demeanor of Hoosiers, but that the town now feels like a modern and welcoming place. That new feeling of home, while never quite the same, is part of what makes it possible for people to make it through grad school in a sane, emotionally fulfilled fashion. It’s what unites our whole cohort as a family that, while from many different states and countries, will always have a little peace – with (yup, you guessed it) Georgia on its mind.

Play on, Hoagy.

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)