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Human Factors Psychologists at Microsoft Games November 28, 2006

Posted by Johan in Cognitive Ergonomics.
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If you’ve got even the slightest case of teh Nerd, you may enjoy online gaming magazine The Escapist, which is like PCGamer, except written for people with brains. In today’s issue, there is a story on the Human Factors Psychologists that Microsoft employs in their Gaming division. On this side of the pond, “Human Factors” is known as Cognitive Ergonomics, and it’s one of those terribly dry and applied fields of Psychology that I would never normally consider. To sum it up, Human Factors Psychologists are the guys who have the task of designing the emergency evacuation guidelines that you find in the seat pocket when flying. Note that this is not simple, and it’s clear that there are plenty of reasons other than the fact that these guys aren’t trained artists that make these things look like they do: basically, anyone deemed fit to fly has to be able to grok what to do in the event of an emergency by following these guidelines. So you can’t use words, you can’t use colours that protopagnosiacs or other colour-blind individuals can’t discriminate between, and above all, you can’t freak anyone out, even though you have to draw people crawling out of a burning airplane. That’s not going to be easy.

Anyhow, respect for the profession aside, it just doesn’t seem terribly exciting. Enter the previously linked article, and that picture changes. The need for Psychologists in game development may not be obvious, but it’s definitely there: in the end, beyond the bells and whistles of HDR lighting and Pixel Shaders, the ultimate goal of a game is to entertain the player. So it might be handy to employ someone who knows a lot about what people generally like and dislike.

A long quote from the article illustrates what kind of work these guys do:

“The development team worked hard to make the game consistently fun throughout (no small task in such a huge, free-roaming game), though it turned out to only be fun if the users played as the designers intended. Which, of course, they didn’t.

The Group’s solution to this problem deviated from normal error counts and pass/fail criteria by bringing the actual game developers into the procedure to simply observe the tactics employed by users. The game had been designed with the assumption that players would be combating enemies in close quarters, but the shrewd users immediately discovered the targeting system allowed them to remain at a distance and pick off the enemies from long range.

Not only did this circumnavigate the deliberately designed “fun” aspects the developers had worked so hard to create, it also left the players bored and frustrated as they never actually saw the combat and felt their weapons were highly inaccurate from being used at such a long distance.

This time around, it was effectively the developers who were undergoing evaluation as they observed an unquestioned usability group. Their task became finding ways to encourage users to play as intended without forcing decisions upon them. This was achieved by adjusting enemy intelligence to dodge shots taken from long range and by advancing on the player to a position within the intended “fun zone.” The targeting

system was also adjusted to have a range limitation, thereby influencing users to discover the enjoyment of close-quarters combat.”

Pretty cool, but don’t give up on that career in Cognitive Neuroscience yet… A final quote gives away the catch:

“I have friends with similar educational backgrounds who are testing how users interact with copiers or microwaves”

It’s kind of like how people study Architecture with the hope of designing the Burj-Al-Arab, but find themselves drawing communal restrooms instead.


Getting Progressively Better Organised… November 26, 2006

Posted by Johan in Off Topic, Self-Management.
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As my course moves on, I find that keeping all my notes, articles and other random stuff organised is proving quite difficult. From the start of my degree, I’ve kept a tidy folder structure where everything I do is sorted by module, but this is not always intuitive, when you’re trying to find some random article that you vaguely remember reading last year.

I’ve found that, looking back, I’ve progressively gotten better at achieving some kind of order (though I don’t know if my improvements match the rate of new material that gets added). In true Piagetian fashion, I will outline a developmental trajectory:

The 3 Stages of Organisation

1. Ignorance
For almost all of my first year, I was actually in the habit of deleting PDFs that I had read, in some insane cleaning mania. This is really the one mistake that you cannot correct through later re-organisations – if it’s no longer on your harddrive, it’s gone. I learned this the hard way when a recent article in Wired about Daniel Langleben’s use of fMRI for lie detection prompted me to remember a meta-analysis by Ben-Shakhar and Elaad on the Guilty Knowledge Test, which I had read about a year before. I spent the better part of an afternoon scouring my harddrive, but no… Apparently I had, despite finding the article fascinating, decided to delete it after reading it. Fortunately, I stumbled upon the article again, casually referenced in a blog somewhere. Next time I don’t count on being so lucky.

Lesson learned: Save everything. PDFs aren’t that big, you can afford to gather up a few thousand.

2. Elaboration
It turns out that even if the article is on your harddrive, a cryptic title like “Ben-Shakhar2003.pdf” is not always going to be enough to jog your memory. Since I use a Mac, I can use the built-in Spotlight feature in OS X to search any text on the harddrive, including text in PDFs (similar features are available to PCs through Google Desktop Search, I hear)… But this doesn’t work with older articles, which are typically scanned as images. You can tell that this is the case if you are unable to highlight text for copying.

In addition to this, sometimes even searchable articles refuse to be found because your search terms are based on your own version of psychobabble, which may be subtly different from the psychobabble used in the article (e.g., short-term memory versus working memory).

And let’s face it – some researchers just don’t know how to write. There are plenty of important articles that I would just never want to attempt to decipher again.

Lesson learned: Write your own notes on articles. Jot down a few bullet points on the key findings, and save as a text file with the same name as the pdf.

3. Integration
At some point, sooner rather than later, this “note and PDF” system will become a little unwieldy, no matter how good your folder organisation is. My folder system is now four levels deep (e.g., Psychology/Perception/MAE Storage/Sources). Since this system is based on the current module, I’m fine as long as I stay within perception, for example. But as soon as I need to integrate findings from different modules, I end up jumping up and down folder structures like mad.

Additionally, this system still relies on me knowing what I’m looking for. This only works if I remember every single source I have ever saved.

Lesson learned: time to switch to an organisation program. Fortunately for Mac users, there are plenty of solid options. The most “Pro” alternatives are perhaps DEVONthink and Boswell. I tried both, and they are both improvements over a straight folder structure… However, I ended up settling for the decidedly non-pro VoodooPad, because hyperlinks are awesome.

Let me explain: Voodoopad is essentially a personal wiki (as in Wikipedia), that you keep for yourself. Without any scripting, you can create pages and link them together. It’s also easy to create outside links to locations on your harddrive. The really cool thing about this is that if I have a page where I sum up all my stuff on Behavioural Genetics, basically anytime I type those two words they are automatically linked to said page. You can set up aliases for each page, so I tend to create an alias for each article that I summarise in that page, e.g., Turkheimer, 2003. Now, every time I cite (Turkheimer, 2003), that citation becomes a link to my notes on the original article.

As you might imagine, this becomes extremely intuitive, once you get used to it. When typing out an essage plan, the plan itself contains direct links to every article I’ve used, and if I want to relate my writing to another area, I just type in something like “this is similar to the heritability estimate used in Behavioural Genetics”, and poof, I have direct links to my writing on heritability, and Behavioural Genetics.

I’ve only started to tap the full potential of Voodoopad. When you first start to enter data, obviously you get very few links lighting up, because there is no other data to link to. It is only once you go through the trouble of importing all your old notes into Voodoopad and giving them appropriate aliases that you start seeing what the application is capable of.

I’m under no illusion that I’ve now reached organisation nirvana. Stages 4 and 5 are out there, and I’m sure I’ll get there eventually. There is also an issue of optimal self-management to consider here. In other words, it’s easy to forget the time you spend figuring out how to self-manage better, when estimating how much productivity you can gain from switching to a new system. More on that in another post.

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Self-Management November 24, 2006

Posted by Johan in Learning, Raves, Self-Management.
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Mindhacks has an interesting post up on how Skinner was not a fascist, which deserves to be said in itself… But the really interesting bit is the article that is linked: Skinner as a Self-Manager, by Robert Epstein.

Self-management, for those unfamiliar with the Psychobabble, is basically how you get yourself to achieve your goals. If your goal is to write an essay, self-management would involve setting aside time to write, ensuring that your topic is appropriate, and so forth. By extension, self-management is the stuff that productivity websites like Lifehacker are concerned with. And it turns out that decades before GTD reared its ugly head, Skinner was already on it:

“a few examples and a brief analysis can’t begin to capture how pervasive self-management was in his life. It was much more than a few gizmos and timers. It was what many would call an attitude. He managed his own behavior almost continuously. When I was in graduate school, a fellow student mentioned that Fred seemed to dispose of envelopes and junk mail in an especially efficient way. I had never noticed this before, but it was true. When he opened his mail in the morning, he usually positioned his chair and trash can so that the very slightest flick of his wrist did the job. This was no accident, and it was part of the reason he was able to reply to virtually every letter he ever received, even until the end (Vargas, 1990).” (Epstein, 1997, p. 547)

More specifically:

“Fred kept lists of things to do, because people who keep lists of things to do do more things. He made schedules for himself to keep himself on track. We all use daily and weekly schedules, but Fred made longterm schedules as well —even 10- and 20-year schedules (Skinner, 1979, 1983b). “ (Epstein, 1997, p. 554)

“He knew that the best ideas are often fleeting, so he developed special ways to capture them. He kept a notebook or a tape recorder by his bed and by his pool, for example. He knew that writing was a delicate and easily disrupted activity, so he took pains to shelter it from disruptions. He built special shelves so that his dictionaries and other reference books were always at arm’s reach. He used his writing desk for serious writing only; he answered letters and paid bills elsewhere.” (Epstein 1997, 554)

Skinner was proud of his self-management skills, as he considered them a direct application of Behaviourism. And of course, this could be related to other scientific paradigms:

“Freud was unable to stop smoking cigars, up to 25 a day, though smoking must have been obviously related to the heavy ‘‘catarrh’’ he suffered from most of his life, as well as to the protracted cancer of the jaw in his last years . . . an astonishing lack of self-understanding or self-control. Was he not bothered by it, or did much of his theory spring from the need to acknowledge that the habit was ‘‘bigger than he was’’?
(Epstein, 1980, p. 341)

Of course, poking fun a psychoanalysis is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel. A final quote sums up the core of Skinner’s self-management:

“Fred’s most important self-management practice is implied in his writings but is nowhere clearly stated. He always spent a few minutes each day, often scattered throughout the day, searching for and analyzing variables of which his behavior seemed to be a function. It is not enough to live your life, he told me; you also need to analyze it and make changes in it frequently and regularly.” (Epstein, 1997, p. 559)

On reading Epstein’s article, you do not get the impression that this was an ascethic, disciplinarian lifestyle that Skinner imposed on himself. Self-management was a source of joy, a constant pet project that was carried out because it was a positive reinforcer, not a negative one.

I believe that this kind of constant, critical re-evaluation of your lifestyle is crucial, if you aim to achieve anything beyond the norm. Epstein goes as far as suggesting that this self-management skill was the crucial factor that enabled Skinner to achieve as much as he did. I’m not sure about that, but it’s nevertheless inspiring to see that at the base of it, it may not be just an abstract “genius” quality that separates those who achieve something from those who don’t. There is a method here, and it can be applied to just about anyone.

I will outline my own self-management attempts in a future post.

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