Kelma Kelma


With a massive following of 25,000 people, Kelma Kelma is the Facebook page that has taken Malta by storm. From a simple collection of linguistic curiosities borne from one man’s love of the Maltese language, it has developed to become an unconventional but highly effective teaching tool. This is the journey of Kelma Kelma from the man behind the computer screen, Dr Michael Spagnol.

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How can a video game ask questions about life, art, and frustration? Giuliana Barbaro-Sant met up with Dr Pippin Barr to tell us about his game adaptation of Marina Abramović‘s artwork The Artist is Present.

In each creative act, a personal price is paid. When the project you have been working on so hard falls to pieces because of funding, it is hard to accept its demise. The feeling of failure, betrayal, and loneliness is an easy trap to fall into. This is the independent game maker’s industry: a bloodthirsty world rife with competition, sucking pockets dry from the very beginning of the creative process.

Maltese game makers face a harsher reality. Not all game makers are lucky enough to make it to the finish line, publish, and make good money. Rather, most of them rarely do. Yet, if and when they get there, it is often thanks to the passion and dedication they put into their creation — together with the continuous support of others.

Dr Pippin Barr always had a passion for making things, be it playing with blocks or doodling. His time lecturing at the Center for Computer Game Research at the IT University of Copenhagen, together with his recent team-up with the newly opened Institute of Digital Games at the University of Malta, only served to reincarnate another form of this passion: Pippin makes games. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York he exhibited his most well known work: the game rendition of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present. He thought of the idea while planning to deliver lectures about how artists invoke emotions through laborious means in their artworks. In The Artist is Present, artist Marina Abramović sits still in front of hundreds of thousands of people and just stares into their eyes for as long as participants desire.

There is more to this performance than meets the eye. Beyond the simplistic façade, Barr saw real depth. Through eye contact, the artist and audience forge a unique connection. All barriers drop, and human emotion flows with a great rawness that games are so ‘awful’ at embodying. Yet, paradoxically, there is a militariness in the preparation behind the performance that games embrace only too well. Not only does the artist have to physically programme herself to withstand over 700 hours’ worth of performing, but the audience also prepares for the experience in their own way, by disciplining themselves as they patiently wait for their turn.

“It’s a pretty lonely road and it can be tough when you’re stuck with yourself”

Pippin Barr

‘Good research is, after all, creative,’ according to Pippin Barr. By combining his academic background with his creative impulse, he made an art game — a marriage between art and video games. These are games about games, which test their values and limits. Barr relishes the very idea of questioning the way things work. His self-reflexive games serve as a platform for him to call into question life’s so-called certainties, in a way that is powerful enough to strike a chord in both himself and the player. He is looking to create a deep emotional resonance, which gives the player a chance to ‘get’ the game through a unique personal experience. Sometimes, players write about his games and capture what Pippin Barr was thinking about, as he put it, ‘better than I could myself’, or read deeper than his own thoughts.

As far as gameplay goes, The Artist is Present is fairly easy to manoeuvre in. The look is fully pixellated yet captures the ambience at the Museum. The first screen of the game places the player in front of its doors and you are only allowed in if you are playing the game during the actual exhibition’s opening hours in America. Until then, there is no option but to wait till around 4:30 pm our time (GMT+1). The frustration continues increasing since after entering you will still have to wait behind a long queue of strangers to experience the performance work. This reflects real world participants who had to wait to experience The Artist is Present. If they were lucky, they sat in front of the artist and gazed at her for as long as they wanted.

Interestingly, Marina Abramović also played the game. She told Barr about how she was kicked out of the queue when she tried to catch a quick lunch in the real world as she was queuing in the digital one. Very unlucky, but the trick is to keep the game tab open. Other than that, good luck!

Despite that little hiccup, Abramović did not give up on the concept of digitalising the experience of her art. After The Artist is Present, Barr and Abramović set forth on a new quest: the making of the Digital Marina Abramović Institute. Released last October, it has proven to be a great challenge for those who cannot help but switch windows to check up on their Facebook notifications – not only are the instructions in a scrolling marquee, but you have to keep pressing the Shift button on your keyboard to prove you are awake and aware of what is happening in the game. It is the same kind of awareness that is expected out of the physical experience of the real-life Institute.

The quirkiness of Barr’s games reflects their creator. Besides The Artist is Present, in Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment, he adapted a Greek Sisyphus myth to experiment with the frustration of not being rewarded. In Mumble Indie Bungle, he toyed with the cultural background of indie game bundles by creating ‘terrible’ versions with ‘misheard titles’ (and so, ‘misheard’ game concepts) of renowned indie games. One of his 2013 projects involves the creation of an iPhone game, called Snek, an adaptation of the good old Nokia 3310 Snake. In his version, Pippin Barr turned the effect of the smooth ‘naturally’ perfect touch interface of the device upon its head, by using the gyroscope feature. Instead, the interaction with the Apple device becomes thoroughly awkward, as the player has to move around very unnaturally because of the requirements of the game.

This dedicated passion for challenging boundaries ultimately drives creators and artists alike to step out of their comfort zone and make things. These things challenge the way society thinks and its value systems. Game making is no exception, especially for independent developers. An artist yearns for the satisfaction that comes with following a creative impulse and succeeding. In Barr’s case, being ‘part of the movement to expand game boundaries and show players (and ourselves) that the possibilities for what might be “allowed” in games is extremely broad.’

Accomplishing so much, against the culture industry’s odds, is a great triumph for most indie developers. For Pippin Barr, the real moment of success is when the game is finished and is being played. Then he knows that someone sat with the game and actually had an experience — maybe even ‘got it’.


Follow Pippin Barr on Twitter: @pippinbarr or on:

Giuliana Barbaro-Sant is part of the Department of English Master of Arts programme.

Maltish or Engtese

Stick to one language! Was the old maxim. Otherwise, you’ll risk confusing your kids and they will never learn to speak properly. Research by Prof. Helen Grech and her team shows that this is not true: bilinguals usually do better. Teaching your child two languages at a go might delay them initially but helps them in the long run.  Words by Dr Edward Duca.

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Shattering women’s glass ceiling

Prof. Marie Therese Camilleri Podesta

The role of women in academia has always greatly interested me. Several years ago, when I was asked to become Gender Issues Committee chairperson at the University of Malta, I readily accepted. Apart from other tasks, the committee has just compiled a booklet about the profiles of senior female academics. Our objectives are twofold: one is to incentivise junior staff to aim higher and move forward in their career; the other, to help sensitise male colleagues to better appreciate the hurdles women face when pursuing an academic career together with raising a family.Continue reading

Future-Safe Malta

Words by Prof. Saviour Formosa
“Extreme weather leaves Mediterranean countries picking up the pieces. Egypt and Lebanon were the hardest hit with over 1.2 million people displaced overnight. Malta didn’t fare much better. The authorities have reported over 2,300 dead or missing, thousand injured and 74,000 persons displaced. Power cuts have been reported all over the island after Turbine Two tripped at the Delimara Power Station. Enemalta have not replied. The islands have taken a major blow to their infrastructure. Debris has been reported 1 km away from the coasts. The AFM and emergency responses were immediately dispatched and are starting to clear arterial roads. Insurance companies are still counting the costs. Valletta, Floriana and parts of Isla were protected from the storm surge by centuries-old Knight’s fortifications. The following localities have been affected: Birgu, Bormia, Kalkara, Marsa, Gzira, Msida, Pietà, San Giljan, Sliema, Ta’Xbiex, Xghajra, Birzebbuga, Marsascala, Marsaxlokk, Xlendi and Marsalforn. “

The above cutout could become reality if a Category 3 storm lashes Malta with 178 to 208 km per hour winds. The chances are minimal but too probable to ignore, since in 1995 a similar storm formed close to the Maltese Islands followed by others in 1996, 2006, and 2011.  Below are two scenarios that compare Malta as it currently stands against an island with a solid disaster management plan.


The emergency forces have been inundated with calls for help and have few plans to operate a workable rescue effort. Key personnel were lost at home or while rushing to the scene, since the infrastructure has been knocked out, paralysing the island.  Power surges or power cuts have caused fires all over the Islands creating an apocalyptic scenario. With the storm still raging, the lack of a back-end ICT network has rendered communication near impossible.


A fleet of small aerial drones is monitoring the disaster. The authorities are using them to identify the hardest hit areas and map out corridors that allow access on the ground. Emergency vehicles are being deployed safely. Services will be redeployed after safety assessments and clearing of the main infrastructure. Paramedics, NGO rescue teams, and armed forces help move people to safer grounds and carry out rescue operations. Community buildings on higher ground are converted into temporary shelters. In turn, decision-makers are kept informed using an Emergency Room for effective relief.Continue reading

Choices, Choices, Choices…

Taking the right decision can be a very challenging and daunting process. Designing a mobile phone, a makeup case, or even a pipe needs engineering teams to continuously make important choices quickly. Lawrence Farrugia (supervised by Prof. Jonathan C. Borg) developed a framework that helps engineers evaluate concepts and take these decisions practically. In a typical design process, the design team generates a number of different concepts that fulfil what is needed from the product. These design concepts are then evaluated against conflicting evaluation criteria. Criteria are chosen from the life cycle of the product and can include cost, quality, ease of use, and recyclability (pictured). Evaluation determines the concept chosen for further development.

Although there are design tools that are intended to support engineering design teams in decision making, the reality check is that these tools are rarely used. Such tools are typically too impractical to employ in the real world. Due to the ever increasing complexity of products and the importance of early decision making, this research recognised the need to provide engineering design teams with a practical yet reliable support system.
Farrugia’s research was carried out at the Concurrent Engineering Research Unit (CERU) within the Faculty of Engineering. The framework he developed aids design teams to analyse and rank multiple design concepts against several conflicting evaluation criteria. The proposed framework was then implemented into a prototype computer aided design (CAD) tool named ACADEMI (pictured).

Figure 2

The tool developed by Farrugia allows for design concepts to be mathematically appraised and ranked automatically. The user inputs the various evaluation criteria and the best design is shown in a very short time. This ranking helps the design team rapidly figure out which design concepts should be developed. After the framework and tool were developed the research work was evaluated in the field by engineers from industry and academia. Most industry personnel said that they would be willing to adopt the computer tool in their daily professional work. ï

More information about the research work may be accessed through:

This research was performed as part of an M.Sc. (Research) in Mechanical Engineering at the Faculty of Engineering. This research was partially funded by the Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship (Malta). This Scholarship is part-financed by the European Union — European Social Fund (ESF) under Operational Programme II — Cohesion Policy 2007–2013, ‘Empowering People for More Jobs and a Better Quality Of Life’.

Healthier Fitter Happier through Economics

Dr Edward Duca

People do not always act rationally. They overeat, overspend, and find it difficult to plan for the future. THINK met Prof. Liam Delaney to talk about how a new branch of economics might solve the pension crises, the obesity epidemic, the financial situation, help science, and make us feel better. Words by Edward Duca

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Should Malta Be The Next China?

JonathanCBorgAfter repeatedly visiting Asia, I totally disagree with comments occasionally made that China’s industrial success is wholly attributed to its ability to replicate low quality versions of branded products at rock-bottom prices. In China there are many good examples of good quality products and brands being produced such as Audi, Airbus, and Armani. Based on these facts, what Maltese industry and policy makers should focus on is making our industry more competitive by improving the current situation and analyzing products being developed elsewhere.

The Maltese industry is not really dying. Our industry has indeed changed, for example from textiles to pharmaceuticals. Overall, the number of employees has declined. However, this is either due to industry becoming more efficient hence able to produce more with less, or due to the way statistical data is being collected.

Malta’s industrial sector can become more competitive. However, what does it mean to ‘be competitive’? Goods should be produced with shorter delivery periods, better costs and quality compared to competitors. Since we lack raw materials cost is very challenging to compete on. On the other hand, improving quality provides much more opportunity. Quality can be improved by increasing the external quality of the products manufactured, the product’s functionality, the interactions that take place with clients during product development, the quality of support and after sales services, management of operations, and how operators work. Core to adopting this quality-based approach is the need to focus on shifting from just manufacturing products to designing and manufacturing products in Malta.

“Goods should be produced with shorter delivery periods, better costs, and quality compared to competitors”

To design their own products, Maltese manufacturing firms need to set up an internal Research & Development unit. At the same time, industry needs support through government policies and incentives. In their publication ‘Vision 2015’ American consultants clearly specify product design as an enabler to higher value added manufacturing. The Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise & Industry has also recommended starting a Malta Business Research & Innovation Body. These recommendations need urgent implementation to shift Malta’s manufacturing industry towards becoming ‘design driven’.

The UoM’s Faculty of Engineering has been actively contributing towards a design driven approach. Our undergraduate engineers are purposely trained in this design-centric approach. Additionally, some final year student projects focusing on design are sponsored by industry: an excellent win-win mechanism. A number of both mechanical and electrical engineers have also benefited through an evening M.Sc. in Integrated Product Development. The Faculty also collaborates with industry through MCST funded Research & Innovation projects. More financial support to University would help every academic active in research to regularly receive decent research funds.

Considering the above, Malta does not and should not aim to be the next China. On the other hand, Malta should nurture its unique strengths such as a highly educated, flexible English-speaking workforce. We should aim to address weaknesses related to Malta’s manufacturing sector. This requires short-term and long-term commitments from our policy makers. Business leaders can also proactively embrace change by aiming to offer quality and innovative solutions, rather than aiming for higher production rates of existing products. The Maltese industry should support continuous training and collaborate on research activities with University. The UoM can help them become more innovative. Like Airbus, Armani, and Audi, Maltese business leaders should exploit, rather than fear, Asian industry. Some Malta based entities, such as Toly Products Ltd, are already going down these routes and are reaping the rewards of growth during a recession. Clearly others should aim to do the same to keep Malta competitive.

Incubator Helps Start-ups take off



The old saying goes: it takes a village to raise a child. In other words, to get it right a community effort is needed, shared by family and friends who pass on their experience and knowledge to the youngster.

The same saying applies to building technology companies. Budding technology entrepreneurs in Malta need plenty of nurturing and guidance to get their innovations off the ground and into the marketplace. A supportive and well-connected entrepreneurial community is what is needed to transform Malta’s innovations into start-up ventures that will expand the economy.

The good news for Malta is that the basic components of a technology start-up community already exist. The University of Malta is a hothouse of world-class scientific, engineering, and creative research that holds the potential to spin out exciting commercial ventures. A new generation of bright, technically-skilled graduates is starting to pursue entrepreneurship as a career path. Malta lacks a professional venture capital investment industry, but does have high net worth entrepreneurs and private ‘angel’ investors. Many of these have valuable experience gained abroad and are hungry to find and fund high-potential technology companies. The government is exploring ways of encouraging early-stage investment by way of tax incentives and seed fund development. Ideas, entrepreneurial energy, and money — the key ingredients for raising technology start-ups — are all here on the island.

“Tucked away in their laboratories, garages, and workshops, Malta’s innovators are not networking”

So, what is holding us back? I recently spoke to Steve Blank, a highly successful Silicon Valley entrepreneur and investor. I asked him what he thought was missing. His reply: ‘much of the Valley’s alchemy lies in connectivity’.

Innovators, entrepreneurs, investors – Malta has got them all. Unfortunately, they are not finding each other. Tucked away in their laboratories, garages, and workshops, Malta’s innovators are not networking. They need skilled and experienced business people to push their technologies past the idea stage. Wealthy angel investors are here in Malta, but they frequently operate ‘under the radar’ and can be hard to access. In the absence of connections, both investors and innovators miss out on potentially rewarding opportunities. Promising young ventures, which might takeoff with a little support and funding, consequently get left to struggle on their own.

The University of Malta Business Incubator will start operations this year and create a platform for new start-ups. Opening its doors to researchers, students, and aspiring technology entrepreneurs, the incubator will provide them with space to plan, launch, and grow businesses. There, a network of seasoned entrepreneurs, business mentors, and angel investors will join them. These ‘parents and village elders’ will be mobilised to concentrate efforts to guide start-ups to create a company, raise capital, and reach the marketplace. We aim to make the incubator a lively hub to create businesses.

Building a company, like raising a child, is a lot of hard work. Bringing the community together under one roof, where it can do the job right, will ease the labour of start-up development, and improve the odds of scoring triumphs.


Ben McClure is Manager at the University of Malta Business Incubator