Do you think this is a game?

Picture an item of furniture. Was it a table, a chair, or a wardrobe? Our ideas of furniture are not oriented around what it does, or even its essential nature, but rather around all the common examples we see around us and the cognitive web of interrelations that builds in our head.

This fictional furniture is just an analogy. Supervised by Prof. Gordon Calleja, I investigated how language affects our preconceptions of what games are and what they should do. Our ideas about games are not related to their potential or their openness but to constructions in our mind.

John Harrington

My research was mostly within the philosophy of language. I explored how our ideas of what a thing is are not grounded in what it does or is, but around a cognitive image, created by what we often see and label it as.

My research was mostly theoretical. It showed how other game researchers might have been misguided or had counter-intuitive results. Their research tried to define what games are and did not realise that this went against how we used the word ‘games’, i.e. as a container for all the things we collectively consider game-like.

That said, I also had the opportunity to test-drive this work in a game I am currently developing with Dr Stefano Gualeni, which analyses what the word soup means.

Apart from answering the long-standing question of what a game actually is, this research also shows how games would benefit from being more inclusive and experimental. By creating these types of games, we can attract people whose cognitive model of a game is different from the norm. Similarly, by designing games that are more open, we can stretch the web of interconnections in people’s minds, potentially showing how games are more akin to life than we realise.

Are you ready to play?

This research was carried out as part of the Masters in Digital Games, carried out by the Institute of Digital Games at the University of Malta.


You don’t know what soup is: digital game as philosophical artefact

In the early days, storytelling played a big part in philosophy. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato exhibited the difference between the perception of reality and its true form with the use of fire and shadows. Experiments followed. Wittgenstein’s thought experimentabout a beetle in a box which no one can see but youis meant to demonstrate that our use of language and its functionality is not affected by the fact that, ultimately, we do not know what is in one another’s box. Now, however, there is a new game in town.

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Mighty Origins

There was once a group of sharp young teens looking for some fun. But all the games they toiled to purchase had a plethora of plot holes and problems. They joined forces and gave themselves one mission: to make the best game in the history of games! They called themselves Mighty Box… and this is their story. Words by Cassi Camilleri.

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An Automatically Tailored Experience

Digital games need to keep players engaged. Since games are interactive media, achieving this goal means that game designers need to anticipate player actions to create a pre-designed experience. Traditionally, developers have achieved this by restricting player freedom to a strict set of actions thereby curating player experience and ensuring the fun factor. However, games are taking a different route with more users making their own content (User Generated Content, UGC) through extensive creativity tools which make it hard to predict player experience.

Vincent E. Farrugia
Vincent E. Farrugia

To overcome these challenges Vincent E. Farrugia (supervised by Prof. Georgios N. Yannakakis), merged game design and artificial intelligence (AI). He developed a software framework for handling player engagement in environments which feature user generated content and groups. The three pronged solution tackles problems during game production, playing the game itself, and making sure the framework is sustainable. To maintain engagement within groups he analysed data for a particular person within the group but also patterns common across the whole group. Farrugia created software tools, autonomous AI aids, and tools to test and support the framework.

The software framework is made up of inter-operating modules. Firstly, an engagement policy module allows designers to specify theories to express their vision of positive game engagement. Player modelling then shapes this backbone to specific player engagement needs. The module can autonomously learn from player creations as reactions to game stimuli. Individual and group manager modules use this mixture of expert knowledge, AI learnt data, and player game-play history to automatically adapt game content to solve player engagement problems. This procedural content generation (PCG) is tailored for a specific player and time.

The framework’s abilities were showcased in a digital game also developed by Farrugia. Various technologies were incorporated to encourage player creativity in group sessions and to enhance networking. The setup also allowed the AI to quickly learn from each player via parallelism. Initial testing used a simulated environment with software agents. Preliminary testing on real players followed. The simulation was through a personality system to validate the underlying algorithms under various conditions. The resulting diverse game-play styles provide suggestions for AI model improvement. Farrugia is enthusiastic about future work for this AI framework and giving developers better tools to allow player creativity to flourish while maintaining positive game-play experiences. 

This research was performed as part of a Master of Science degree at the Institute of Digital Games, University of Malta. It was partly funded by the Strategic Educational Pathways Scholarship (Malta), which 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’.