“Night of the Living Fed”

By Mona Malacane

Six years ago, Travis Ross started a Halloween tradition that has become a legend. You overhear musings about the party during the orientation gathering, it had its own website, and the costumes are seriously creative (I highly recommend stalking some photo albums on Facebook). In fact, I think I overheard some of my fellow grad students in the grad lab planning their costumes as far back as July.

I put a spell on you

The party hasn’t always been the staple Halloween shindig though. Travis faced some stiff competition in the first few years he threw the Halloween party.  Travis explains:  “Halloween is one of those great things that somebody on campus is always going to be throwing a party. For the longest time I had to compete with other Halloween parties. There were like four years where I was just selling [my party] so hard just to try to get that critical mass that you need to make a party feel crowded enough to make the party feel like it is a good party.” Travis had to stop people in the halls and drop into classes before they started and advertise the party those first few years. The tradition eventually caught on and became a department staple.

Sadly, Travis and his wife Emily moved on to greener pastures (literally, they live on a farm), which left us pondering who will take over the party?! A few names were thrown around, and multiple people said they were willing to continue the tradition … but no one made any definitive moves. That was, until September 30th, when Rachel Bailey stepped up and made it clear that she is picking up the baton and throwing this year’s party.

I asked what possessed her (I channeled Edo for my pun there) to throw the Halloween party and her reply makes me believe that this year’s party is going to be epic: “Well, I love throwing parties. I like the details and the planning and having a theme to stick to and work towards. And Halloween is so fun … in general I go above and beyond for holidays of all kinds, but those who know me know I generally pull out the stops for Halloween especially.” Travis also mentioned that Rachel is a great hostess and likes to incorporate food into her themes.

When I asked Rachel if she will be doing anything different this year, she explained,  “My party will be a good time, I’m sure. Will everything coalesce into the most magical, scarifying, awesome Halloween party ever? I have no idea … part of the thing about parties is you can plan everything to the tiniest detail and the dynamics just don’t come together. I’ll handle all the details – you guys just come ready to have a good time and we can’t miss.” She does, however, live in a home with a fire pit and plenty of land so there will be plenty of parking and “room for high jinks of various kinds.”

Travis will miss throwing the party but is happy that Rachel is continuing the tradition, telling me he is “glad it is going into good hands.” He has given his blessing but passes on a few tips: (1) have good lighting, (2) have plenty of spirits, (3) try and achieve the critical mass of people needed to feel like a good party, (4) keep the music going, and (5) “Watch out for Senia because she is a Spotify hacker.”

Bad things happen when Halloween parties run out of alcohol.

Bad things happen when Halloween parties run out of alcohol.

Blogging About Game Research

By Edo Steinberg

"Motivate. Play.", a blog about social scientific game research.

“Motivate. Play.”, a blog about social scientific game research.

When Telecom Ph.D. candidate Travis Ross co-founded the blog “Motivate. Play.” in the fall of 2010, his expectations were modest. He and his co-founders, Cognitive Science Ph.D student Jared Lorince and former Telecom MA student and current Stanford Ph.D. student Jim Cummings, wanted to create a space where they could write about their shared interest in games and social scientific research. According to Travis, they wanted to express ideas “that we didn’t think were necessarily publishable in a journal but that we wanted to communicate.”

“Motivate. Play” started with the three founders writing about game-related research. Then, they started inviting guest authors to contribute to the blog. Most of them have been from different departments at IU, including Isaac Knowles, Teresa Lynch, Ken Rosenberg and Matt Falk from Telecom, but some are from other universities. The different contributors come from different backgrounds and are interested in different aspects of games. Ethnography, psychology, economics and cognitive science are just some of the diverse perspectives from which this topic is explored on “Motivate. Play.”

The blog has a lot of unique content that cannot be found anywhere else. Some of its posts have been featured on Reddit. Travis and other contributors have also had their articles featured on the main page of Gamasutra, a leading video game industry website. The founders have encouraged contributors to get their content featured by high-traffic sites, since it significantly increases traffic to “Motivate. Play.” When posts are featured on Reddit or Gamasutra, or when big game industry events are covered by the blog, readership can reach between 500 and 5000 hits a day, compared with 15 to 100 hits on a regular day.

While their initial goal was to build a web presence, Travis, Jared and Jim quickly discovered that being a media outlet has its advantages. As a blog covering video games, they were able to obtain press passes to conferences such as the Game Developers Conference (GDC), the largest annual professional convention for video game developers. Without a press pass, one all-access ticket to the conference would have cost $1800.

It is not known who the blogs’ readership is, but it is aimed at gamers and researchers alike. Travis would like to know more about the people who visit “Motivate. Play.” One of his short-term goals for the blog is “figuring out how to get people to start commenting on our posts without having to push our content away from our site to other sites, such as Gamasutra.”

There are also a few other goals Travis and his partners have set for the site. In the short-term, they would like each contributor to post at least once a month and to continue receiving press passes to important conferences. In the long-term, Travis has other plans once all co-founders receive their Ph.D’s. “It’s not an official plan yet, but I have this idea of possibly setting up a consulting service on the side of this, to have people who are available to talk to companies that are interested in the area of expertise that we have. I think we can have a wide range of expertise.”

In addition, Travis is planning a “Motivate. Play.”-themed panel at the Digital Games Research Association (DiGRA) conference.  The panel would be cross-disciplinary, featuring research from the diverse perspectives of blog contributors.

When asked whether or not other graduate students should establish a blog about their area of interest, Travis is ambivalent. “It was a great experience for me. I used it as a tool for networking and getting press passes. I also know that our writing has been read by some pretty important people and that we’ve been contacted by individuals for opportunities based on having the blog. It took a lot of work, though.” It takes a lot of time to manage contributors and conduct web programming. “If you have the time, it’s definitely worth it.”

Telecom grads and faculty members, if you have a personal or professional blog, tell us and we’ll add it to the blogroll.  Who knows, we just might write a story about it, too! Just e-mail us at edostein@indiana.edu or lyncht@indiana.edu.

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.

How to Play: Learning Game Design with Travis

by Ken Rosenberg

Travis Ross, fifth-year doctoral student, has had plenty of experience both teaching and gaming. Over the summer, he worked at the intersection of the two as a game moderator for a group playing the tabletop role-playing game (RPG) Shadowrun. This semester, he is again combining both sets of knowledge to teach his first full-fledged class, T367: Theory and Practice of Game Design. The course was originally designed and taught by Professor Ted Castronova, who decided to integrate game design principles into the structure of both lessons and grading. To teach novel material, it is vital to adopt an innovative teaching style. Since games are an interactive medium, the most effective way to appreciate their design is to play them! Game rules are best learned through experience; game design is best taught through structured play.

Almost every one of the eight games featured in T367 is considered a “Eurogame,” a broad category of board and/or card games that have become very popular in recent years. Why board games, as opposed to digital games? Video games are more mainstream and most students want to develop software, not tabletop experiences. However, while video games offer flashier, more visceral fare, board games force players to learn design principles as they play. Video games naturally constrain players and create infallible rule sets; the only actions possible in a virtual environment are ones the developers allowed for in the design process. With board games, players must read through every rule and moderate their own experience; each action must be understood before it is performed.

Though some are enthusiastic gaming hobbyists, frequently visiting places like The Game Preserve (a local game shop), most students enrolled in Travis’ class have never played a board game more exotic or complex than Monopoly or Risk. There the most important course objective is to increase gaming literacy, to make students aware of titles, genres, and rule sets that more fully explore the potential of gaming. Still, though over half the class time is spent playing in groups, “it’s not ‘just come in and play a board game,’” Travis explained. Students are required to read – among other things – The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses, currently the most comprehensive book on game design fundamentals. Furthermore, each play session is tied to a specific design principle, and to a related assignment that asks students to appreciate and manipulate the principle. Assignment prompts ask students what they would change about an game’s rules, what elements they might take from an existent game to craft their own game, or how they could change a game to reach a new audience.

Travis started them off with Wits and Wagers, a betting-based trivia game. Then, they proceeded to Dominion, a card game that doesn’t use a board at all. “One of the best games of all time,” according to Travis. Dominion is used to teach students about feedback loops and how to create a set of cards with tightly compatible (and balanced) abilities. Next, Pandemic, featured mainly to present fully-cooperative gameplay. In Pandemic, all players are working together to try and contain and cure the spread of disease across the globe; they compete against the negative states induced by the game’s trending-toward-worse system, which acts like an enemy AI.

With Settlers of Catan, probably the most well-known Eurogame, students are forced to think about the communication aspect of board games. Players can trade raw resources with each other, and it is often necessary to do so in order to continue producing properties and other victory-earning constructions. Effective traders are savvy enough to make seemingly fair offers, while simultaneously downplaying the advantages of what happens when someone accepts their superfluous Lumber in trade for some precious Ore.

Travis added a card game to the course’s list of games, the most popular trading card game in the world: Magic: The Gathering. Not only is it pervasively popular and fundamental to any game designer’s ludography for reasons of game design, the business model is quite notable, as well. Magic has been around for almost 20 years and, in that time, its creators have added hundreds of new cards while balancing them with existing cards and slowly phasing out older sets. Though it isn’t absolutely necessary to own the latest batch of cards, Travis explained that the game’s designers have effectively created an economy based on demand for new cards. Most students have not yet considered this meta-game aspect of the games industry, and Travis believes it is important to understand how and why players continue to invest – mentally and financially – in an ongoing game phenomenon.

Speaking of meta-games, Ted designed the grading system for the course, which uses a non-punitive system based on experience points – something that is familiar to anyone who has ever played a traditional RPG. Instead of a linear list of uniformly-prescribed tasks, a large set of potential assignments is available, with which students can earn the set total of points required to earn the grade of their choice. Yes, while students earn their own grade in any given class, T367 is explicitly a choose-your-own-grade course. At the beginning of the semester, students draft a list of assignments they will accept, then submit a signed contract – even going so far as to tell the instructor precisely the grade they intend to earn.

There are fifteen types of assignments, including exams, and each type can be completed multiple times. The point distribution across grades is multiplicative; it is harder to go from an A to an A+ than it is to get from a C- to a B, for instance. The two “big” assignments are to play an RPG and design a game – doing just these two will allow students to accrue enough points for a C-level grade, even without any other work. Exams exist, but are optional. Even so, this semester, most students’ contracts include all four exams– much to Travis’ surprise. “I thought they’d want to do more game-like activities,” he said.

Most importantly, completing assignments is an iterative process. Games involve task repetition to increase mastery, and game design needs plenty of play-testing and feedback. The course was designed with this in mind. “You don’t make the perfect game the first time you submit it,” Travis said. Nobody “fails” their task on the first attempt – the work is handed back, with feedback, for resubmission. Travis stressed how this model of grading required detailed rubrics and plenty of examples, so students know what they need to achieve and how to get there.

Travis loves the classroom. Most enjoyable for him has been the social aspect of connecting with his students. One of the lessons he learned while assisting with T101, another Telecom class, was to make time to interact beyond just lecturing. Travis says he teaches best in small group settings and one-on-one interactions; that’s why he memorizes everybody’s names at the beginning of each semester. Travis has been enjoying how the open course design creates a unique classroom atmosphere. “The great thing is that the games really help teaching,” he said. Lectures take a backseat to gaming, and Travis has found himself playing the role of helpful moderator, more than stoic pontificator. “A lot of the teaching comes in the form of helping them,” he explained. As the students play and discuss games, Travis makes rounds through the room to ask questions and suggest points of interest. He is excited at their insights; “they’re saying things I haven’t thought of,” Travis said, “pointing out feedback loops I haven’t seen. Then, I ask them why they think it works. It’s actually a whole lot of fun.”

Well, maybe T367 is just all fun and games, then – but, since everyone is learning and participating, perhaps that’s not such a negative description for a classroom, after all.

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)

Skyrim, Dissertation-style Resolutions, Brown Bag

The Call of the Dragonborn: Skyrim, by Mike Lang

A collective groan filled the room. In the throes of the December crunch Professor Mark Deuze, curious about the hype, played the official trailer for Bethesda’s fifth installment in the Elder Scrolls series – Skyrim. Released on November 11 to the detriment of every gaming graduate student with some hope of remaining in good academic standing, watching the trailer just salted the wound, a fresh reminder of what we couldn’t yet have. In the following weeks, the internet, buzzing with arrow the knee memes and screenshots of epic dragon battles just added to the sting of Skyrim celibacy imposed by end-of-semester deadlines. December 15th loomed. Circled in red ink, the date not only signaled the end of the semester, but the beginning of my adventures in Skyrim.

Although not a massively multiplayer online role playing game like World of Warcraft or Everquest, Skyrim is massive. Featuring a main quest line that adopts the “epic hero saves the world from peril” storyline, in which the player must save Skyrim from dragons and their vicious leader Alduin, the main quest represents only a small part of the overall game experience. With an infinite amount of side quests, 300 places to find, 150 unique dungeons, and a monstrous world map that can take hours of real time to traverse, no two Skyrim experiences are the same. Just ask Teresa Lynch and Nic Matthews.

Both Nic and Teresa ignored conventional grad student wisdom concerning Skyrim and purchased the game on its release date. Demonstrating a laudable amount of patience, Teresa waited until Nic came home so they could watch the opening sequence together. With only one copy of the game, Nic got to play first.

After a long introduction, Nic got to design his character. Character options in Skyrim extend beyond just name, gender, race, and hairstyle. Instead, a wide array of sliders allow players to determine the distance between a character’s nose and lips, the coloration beneath a character’s eyes, the shape of a character’s eyebrows, and the perfect tattoo. Between the two of them, Nic tends to devour the pre-release material which provides insights into character builds, game mechanics, etc. Teresa then depends on watching Nic to figure out her options so she can design her character. Teresa’s character, modeled to look like a Native American, pays homage to her Lakota mother.

Despite sharing a copy of the game, both children of Skyrim have invested at least 70 hours into the game, and it is precisely because of this sharing that Nic and Teresa have been able to successfully manage both the demands of grad school and the temptation of Skyrim. Each round of Skyrim requires a substantial time commitment. Most quests require at least thirty minutes to complete, and with the amount of distractions between the start of the quest and its completion, they often take much longer. Between the level of immersion, and the length of quests, hours fade quickly, and where I would have drowned, Nic and Teresa stayed afloat. On somewhat opposite schedules, Nic’s play time would be Teresa’s work time and vice versa. In order to not get distracted while working, both would wear earphones that play white noise.

Like most graduate students, most of Nic and Teresa’s play time came over Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, where they could rack up 10 straight hours of play undisturbed. However, now that school is back in session, the hours alloted to Skyrim have decreased, but that doeesn’t mean there won’t be occasional time for dragon hunting. The game is just too great.  As Teresa states, “it’s worth squeezing in those extra hours.”

Changing the way we say the things that mean we want to change: A (hopefully) humorous spin on resolutions, by Ken Rosenberg

Let’s face it: for all the insistence on clarity and parsimony, academics often confound issues with wordiness. As we exit the first month of this new year, many people have already failed their overly ambitious attempt to alter their life with one simple list. To pay homage to those who have fallen, here is a list of the most popular New Year’s resolutions according to USA.gov… reworded in the vein of theses, dissertations, and other such scholarly works.

  1. Quit smoking / Drink less alcohol OR Lowering consumption: a post-modern look at the “social substance” phenomenon
  2. Eat healthy food OR Effects of nutritional enhancement in relation to attitude and performance
  3. Get a better education OR Back to school: An exploration of pedagogical alternatives after compulsory education
  4. Get a better job OR Important correlations between vocational and socioeconomic variance
  5. Get fit / Lose weight OR An exercise in exercise: an ethnographic analysis of ground-up fitness programs
  6. Save money / Manage debt OR A less-than-zero sum game: plotting out an optimal budget in the context of financial imbalance
  7. Manage stress OR Strategic balance of  positive and negative environmental stressors 
  8. Reduce, reuse, and recycle OR Improving methods for achieving optimal input/output ratio of material consumption
  9. Take a trip OR Leaving on a jet plane: The effect of agency-driven shifting in place and space on well-being
  10. Volunteer to help others OR Self-motivate to participate: motivations for unsolicited societal reciprocation

Brown Bag

Doctoral students Travis and Bridget presented at this past Friday’s seminar, while Dr. Eliot Smith of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences shared his input after their talks. The audio recording of the seminar can be found here: Brown Bag 2 (January 28, 2012 – Travis and Bridget)

Dynamic disgust: Dimensional underpinnings of responses to blood, brutality and politics – by Bridget Rubenking

This preliminary study explores summative and over time measures of dimensional emotion responses (positivity, negativity, and arousal) and the discrete emotion of disgust to disgust-eliciting television messages. Responses to different types of disgust eliciting content – from body products and gory deaths to higher-order, socio-moral disgusts, such as overt racism, and suggestions of sexual abuse are explored across 102 participants. Additionally, individual differences in trait motivational activation, gender, and political ideology are explored in response to these disgust-elicitors, as well as content featuring opposing political viewpoints and gay male characters.

The Impact of Norms on Player Behavior – by Travis Ross

Research regarding player motivation in video games has typically focused on how the content of games taps intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. However games have become shared social experiences, and so it is important to understand how the social context contributes to the perceptions, attitudes, and behaviors of players. Research in sociology and economics has identified that norms serve a number of roles in social/cultural interaction. They can provide information and/or carry expectations of what is, or is not, socially acceptable. Research also indicates that norms are sensitive to contextual factors such as the network connections, incentive structures, and framing, so therefore only have salience under certain conditions. Beyond their interesting cognitive and economic consequences, norms can provide game developers with a plausible motivational tool. However, if this is to be the case then norms must be understood at both the individual and societal-level.  Research at an individual-level should identify conditions where norms will have an impact and contexts where norms are a better solutions than other motivational features. At the societal-level research should examine if and how the norms of an online social system can be changed, and if early adoption and information cascades can lead a community to a preferred outcome. This talk discusses early results from Travis’ Dissertation, which examines the impact of norms on player behavior.


Bridget Rubenking is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Telecommunications at IU. Her research explores the relevant individual differences of media consumers and the content and structural features of media that influence cognitive and emotional processing of media, as well as attitude change and discrete behavior outcomes.

Travis Ross is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Joint Ph.D. Program in Telecommunication and Cognitive Science at Indiana University. He focuses on two research paths. The first examines the motivational aspects of design – particularly decision structures in game and interface design. The second examines how social and institutional forces shape behavior via social norms, rules, and laws.

Eliot R. Smith, Ph.D., is Chancellors Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, Bloomington. His research interests include the emotions that people experience when they identify with social groups and their role in intergroup behavior; the cognitive processes and representations involved in perceiving other people and groups; and embodied and socially situated cognition.  His research has been recognized by the 2004 Thomas M. Ostrom Award for lifetime contributions to social cognition, as well as the 2005 Theoretical Innovation Prize from the Society of Experimental Social Psychology (SPSP).  He is Editor of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Attitudes and Social Cognition.

Betsi’s Sweet Spot, Compositions by Nero, Waveform Art, Brown Bag

Sweet Spots: Betsi’s Bottle Collection

From her time served as Graduate Director, some of the older students in the department may remember the sun room in Professor Betsi Grabe’s home.  An unusual collection of bottles is on display, set on personally crafted shelves that frame the picture window.  Betsi took the time to share with us the story behind the bottles and how her collection came to be.
Betsi began collecting bottles in primary school, by visiting landfills in South Africa.  She would search for buried bottles, wash them out, and then put them on display.  Amazed that they remained intact over time, her collection began to grow.  It now contains bottles from South African Breweries, other drink producers, medicine, and even poison.  Most are unmarked bottles of different sizes.  When she first came to the United States, she picked up a few more, including a Dr. Pepper bottle, but her collection is now complete.  When asked what the bottles mean to her, Betsi replied, “I think human beings are collectors.  Before I brought the collection to the US,  I remember collecting a few bottles for comfort – it was part of making the US my new nest.”  While her collection contains a wide variety, her most prized are the blue bottles.  They are not perfect.  Some have cracks, some have mother of pearl growths, some have both.  All of them have interesting shape and design.  “There is something about light traveling through colored glass that thrills me to no end.  They have a charm about them, a fragility, but have stood the test of time.”

The Compositions of Ashleigh Nero

As fast as you can, try and come up with a list of 5 composers.  Done? Ok. Now look at your list. If your list doesn’t contain Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach, give yourself a point. If your list contains at least  one composer from the 20th century, give yourself another point. If your list contains someone from this department, just forget about points and declare yourself the winner.  Ashleigh Nero, the newest member of the office staff received her Bachelors of Music in composition from the Jacobs School of Music in 2008.

Music has always been a focal point for Nero. Growing up near Pittsburgh she played in community orchestras, and joined the marching band in high school. An accomplished flautist, she discovered the art of composing while at home when an ailment prevented her from attending school. “I found this notation software and I started playing around with it. I knew how to play piano and stuff and I just started getting deeper and deeper into it.”  In her sophomore year of high school she began preparing her application to the composition program at Jacobs, which normally only admits about five students per year.

The act of composing is no easy task, and like much creative work, figuring out what to do is often the most difficult part.  “Every piece is different, and the hardest part is getting an idea, and figuring out what kind of mood you want.” However, once the idea is developed, Nero builds a basic structure, then noodles around with melodies and harmonies to coincide with the story she wants to convey. She works sequentially, starting at the beginning, and working her way through the piece.

In theory composition is limited only by the composer’s imagination, but when the rubber meets the road, one must take into account the people playing the music.  “You have to be really careful with fast passages, making sure the fingering is possible. If you write chords, are they possible?” As such, composers must be familiar with the instruments they are writing for. The sense of limits is one of the first thing budding composers at Jacobs learns. “Jacobs is really good at starting from the beginning, looking at each instrument and deciding what sorts of things are good for this instrument, and what sort of things will players get mad at you for.” For Nero, harps are the most difficult instrument to write for.  Every note in the musical scale on the harp has a pedal that either flattens or sharpens a note. As compositions change keys, harpists must have time to adjust the pedals to match the sharps and flats that correspond with the new key. While a composer may never gain the sense of familiarity with an instrument a player will, composers must rely on players for feedback, and study the work of others to get a feel for the type of things normally written for specific instruments. “You really have to reference things, talk to people who know how to play, be around the instruments, study what other people write, you have to get a feel for things. Flutes and Clarinets handle fast passages better than French horn for instance.”

Nero acknowledges that she and her fellow composers share a strange existence. “Composers are kind of on an island. What you are learning is more modern, so you’re kind of weird for the people into pop and rock, and you’re kind of weird for the orchestral people who are into Mozart and Beethoven.” As such, opportunities to become the next Gershwin or Copeland are few and far between. “You have to find the people who are more interested in going in a different direction, or take what you you can get and alter your style to fit the situation, which is something you should have to learn.”

One opportunity for innovative composition arose when Nero was asked by a professor from Vanderbilt conducting psychological research on fMRI. “He didn’t want kids to get freaked out from the sounds of the machine, so he asked me to compose a 30 minute piece so kids wouldn’t get too freaked out or too bored.” The professor sent her the sounds of the fMRI machine, and she composed her music around those.

Degree in hand, Nero is taking a bit of a breather. She still composes on the side in addition to pursuing other creative outlets, particularly painting and digital art. “I’m all about learning stuff, it leads to more opportunities. You learn one thing, and it inspires you in another way.”

Her showcase work is called The Dancing Elephant, written for piano and narration. It’s charming and whimsical, and you can listen to it right here. To hear more Nero’s work you can check out her blog here.


Norbert Herber’s collaboration with fiber artist Rowland Ricketts, “The Gradual Accumulation of Additional Layers or Matter,” was recently showcased in the Waveforms exhibition at the Grunwald Gallery of Art in the Henry Radford Hope School of Fine Arts.  Running from October 21-November 18, Waveforms exhibition showcased works that explore the  interface between sound and new media technologies.  The exhibited works included “a number of trans-disciplinary interactions and collaborations that include sound in the context of visual and spatial artistic practices, including sound sculpture, installations, and performance works.” In case you missed it, you can get a feel for Norbert and Rowland’s project by following this link.

Brown Bag

This week’s brown bag presentation featured Cognitive Science and Psychology doctoral student Jared Lorince and Telecommunications and Cognitive Science doctoral student Travis Ross.  Jared’s research interests  focus on how the structure of the environment constrains behavior, in particular with respect to search behavior.  Travis research has two streams. The first stream examines the motivational aspects of design – particularly decision structures in game and interface design. The second stream examines how social and institutional forces shape behavior via social norms, rules, and laws.  You can listen to the full audio of their presentation here: Travis and Jared

Play how you want (or not): How the crowd modifies/limits individual
behavior in online games.


As modern games continue to move from single player to shared social experiences it is natural to wonder how the behavior of the crowd influences individual choices. In this talk Jared and Travis will present two avenues of research relevant to this question. Travis’ talk will center around his dissertation topic: Understanding of how norms alter behavior in an online game. In particular it asks the question: can norms push and individual toward cooperative or selfish behavior? Jared will then present examples of his work on spatial and information search, and will comment on its applications to gaming environments.


Nicky Lewis:  Betsi’s Bottle Collection, and Brown Bag

Mike Lang: The Compositions of Ashleigh Nero, and Waveforms