Thursday, April 4, 2013

Studio II:Checkpoint I

The Prompt
Every few weeks in Studio II, students are expected to put together an update to illustrate what they have been working on, and to help ensure that they remain on task. The prompt for Checkpoint I is as follows:

Present research journal and blog, update on 10 open questions, present
written component outline, task list, research method, schedule. Peer critiques.

The Difficulties of Figuring Out How To Research Effectively

For me, the 'research' part of this blog has taken up the majority of my time. Although I have been working on my thesis and absorbing relative information for a very long time, the truth of the matter is is that I have been researching for the learning aspect, for the creative problem solving aspect, and I haven't paid attention to citing, gathering, and archiving my sources.

It is becoming more and more apparent that keeping an up-to-date, organized, thorough, and valid research journal is very important. But the task of keeping one has been no piece of cake. I often conduct my research in my off hours and save bookmarks into Google Chrome, which I'm then able to reference later. While my brain aggregates the material I've researched and keeps me focused on the right track, it has no interest in tagging that information with website links, names, or statistical data.

All of that's not very useful when you need to go back and write a thesis. Heck, even though you successfully manage to learn the information the 'first' time, you have no up-to-date record of what you justified and what you simply guessed. What happens when you have to remember why you made certain assumptions two to three years ago? A lot of times you might go back, second guess yourself, despair that you did certain crazy things, and rewrite half your idea- just to find out that the new revisions aren't justified and you really did know what you were doing all that time ago.

On the other hand, if I sit down with my research journal in hand and record each and every website I find and visit, and every tiny interesting word I see on every page, soon I have an equally unusable journal filled with nice quotes and reading material, that thoroughly chronicles one exhausting research period of my life, and which is otherwise useful and unsubstantial for basing a thesis on.

Its very hard to figure out what to research. What keywords do I put in? What exactly do I need to know? When am I justified? How do I find authoritative sources when I'm only 50% clear on what I'm looking for in the first place and I don't know how to phase interesting questions? How is it possible to keep a big picture view of my research process so I don't waste time researching useless things and at the same time explore necessary questions to such a thorough level that I turn up useful information?

Research can be exhausting. Frustrating. Emotionally draining. And go nowhere for way longer than we'd prefer. But hey, if anyone could do it, we wouldn't be special, right?

"Research Methodology"

Research methodology can mean several things. When I have something available to prototype and I want to analyze it for data, I need to apply one of countless different research methodologies to it and to some sample target audience. In this context, 'Research Methodology' is actually something that I have to keep researching!

There is another usage of research methodology that I would like to discuss in this context. It is not merely necessary to have a strong methodology for when I am gathering and analyzing my own internally generated data; It is also important to have some kind of living methodology in mind for how to gather external research from papers. 

So in this context, I need a methodology- or a set of rules, principals, and guidelines- for how to expand my newly budding research journal. 

My Current Methodology

Delineate Arenas/Areas

There are two basic kinds of research that I conduct. The first is exploratory  in which I don't really know what's out there and I'm trying to get a greater awareness of the topic. For example, since I am marketing to baby boomers for my thesis project, I ought to know a little bit about the entertainment and leisure worlds of tech savvy baby boomers. Actually, how old are baby boomers, specifically? People conduct a lot of research on what a generation is 'like,' and this can help me get a better handle on my audience. 

The important thing to do when conducting exploratory research is to delineate an area for exploration. It is beneficial to set a time span, and to try and numerically limit oneself in other ways. Limit Oneself? Why? I am a bit of a hoarder. I like to gather things. If I don't numerically limit myself, I'm prone to open 100+ tabs of websites that I'll never actually look at, and then waste time archiving the web address of each one of them 'So I don't lose them.' 

It is VERY important not to catalog the exploration in full, which creates a lot of unnecessary clutter. There is a temptation to archive/highlight every interesting quote, or to provide a description of every website. But this process does not usually help you in any way.  It is important to go out and find one or two good representatives to landmark the exploration you did, to throw down five or six quotes, to nab a few web addresses, but the most important part of the exploratory phase is this:

Digesting what you did.

Not summarizing each website or paraphrasing each quote. Not copy + pasting walls of 'valuable' text. The important thing is to take an hour to explore, jot down a few observations, and then walk off with your notebook and to try and describe the basics of what you found. The digestion process begins sending alternative arenas of exploration to your mind. You think of additional keywords, draw a circle around the kind of information you've been seeing. You can write down in your notebook, "I found out that there are baby-boomer-generation-specific leisure websites, and that they rarely discuss video games. They are more concerned with books and physical activity. They do provide a lot of tidbits about the technology companies they love, however."

That's a lot more useful than cataloging a whole lot of: "2008 study, 78% of wealth controlled by baby boomer generation, which stands to inherit 14 billion as silent generation parents die."

It is very easy to get distracted during the exploratory phase, and its the time you're most likely to end up on a totally unrelated website like Wikipedia studying a totally unrelated question, like what exact temperature does acetylene ignite at, and is it possible that a hypothetically bio-engineered dragon could act as a living blowtorch? Taking frequent breaks is important, because information is easiest to digest in chunks. Breaks also help to avoid distractions by providing natural points for refocusing research.

Forming Questions

The next part of my research methodology is to start formulating questions. During this phase, it is very important to have some notebook on hand at all times, because questions will come to you while you're eating or trying to sleep, and a good number of them tend to escape you. In fact, I never have my notebook on me, so I have to try and remember all of them, and let me tell you it is an EXHAUSTING experience.

There are a lot of ways to start raising questions about your project. Once you've explored an arena/area, questions are necessarily going to come to mind. If you've found that most websites don't seem to include the information you need, ask specifically "Does there exist a website of type A, or doesn't there?" If the website doesn't seem to exist, forming a question that will get you to exactly where you need to go can be hard, and it may be necessary to conduct a large series of mini explorations.

Eventually, however, as a thesis grows and peers critique what you've done, questions naturally begin to flow. "Why did you make this green?" "I feel that green will have effect A on my audience." "Do you have any evidence to support that?" Well now it's time to start forming some questions. What are the effects of green on a target audience? What products already use green and what was their reasoning process? Do other things initiate effect A on the audience? Is effect A needed by the audience? Is it possible that effect A yields some additional benefits that you assumed existed, but that need some proof in order to stand firm in court?

Take a Break; Refocus

Taking breaks is the single most important aspect of my research methodology. Without breaks, research goes nowhere for a very long time. And by breaks, I don't mean times in which you stop research and start writing in your research journal. I mean: Go eat. Sleep. Play volleyball. Hang out with someone. Drink a beer. Hunt a snowboarder. Ride a seal. Live, damn you, live!

Breaks are necessary because the outside stimulus helps form new questions and raise new areas for exploration. Talking to a friend about what problems you're working on can raise glaringly obvious solutions that you've overlooked (why do you have a single equal sign in the if statement? *asks the statistician standing behind the programmer, slurping on her smoothie* doh!)

Breaks are also important for refocusing. The mind starts to wander, jumping from idea to idea and eventually ending up too deep down an unnecessary rabbit hole or so far off topic that nothing of value is being researched. Breaks can either put the mind back on topic, or pull the mind out of an unnecessary rabbit hole and put it down a more necessary one.

Fragment the Question

No answers as to the effects of video games on the emotional well-being of middle aged women? Start to break the question down, and ask it in chunks. Do women play games? Do women suffer from depression? At what rate compared to men? Is it true that women have less leisure time? What do they spend their leisure time on? What is the effect of play on depression? In adults? Is there no research on that? Very well then; on children?

And what kind of play is best for them? Freeform or structured? Is leisure time linked to depression? Can we construct a reasonable, logical pathway that pulls the effects on children and fairly extrapolates them to adults? What pieces are missing? Is there another angle we can come at this from? What constitutes freeform play? If the only existing studies involve physical activity, can we find another study that talks about the differences between physical and cognitive freeform play and their effects on a person?

Do casual games assist with depression? Violent games? Social games? Role-playing games? Does 'online interactive play' assist with self confidence building? Do women like social simulation more than men?

Read the Blog Posts of Other Masters and PhD Students

Concerned you're researching 'wrong'? Constantly going down dead ends and don't know what's wrong with you? Read the blogs of other graduate students! Don't worry, it's normal to feel disillusioned, helpless and confused! 

My Personal Progress

My Research

My research has taken a turn for the better over the last week, with much more getting done than during the initial week of studies. My research journal is currently filled with the results of my first exploratory study, which turned up a lot of interesting quotes and background information but didn't lay out anything substantial to build a thesis on. 

At the end of week one, my exploratory studies began to streamline themselves as I took more breaks and varied my keywords from search to search, focusing on the first few websites found by Google instead of opening countless tabs and exhausting myself.

Perhaps one of my most important finds was a game called Seaman for the Sega Saturn which validated my original game-play loop (something I had been questioning and attempting to rewrite, feeling that it would never be acceptable). Seaman helped me think about my gameplay in another way. 

The initial questions in response to my 'thesis work thus far' presentation at the end of the first week helped me move into my second week of research. The questions people had to ask about my research and about my beliefs were very obvious, but I was unable to form them on my own, submersed as I was in my field of study. These questions I was able to fan out into series of research questions.

Lately I've been able to focus on specific areas of exploration and questions to ask, which has led me to some very interesting papers supporting many of the techniques I intuitively assumed would work, and suggesting areas I should focus on and develop further in order to get the greatest benefit from my work.

Sample Week 1 Research:

What do they like? Boomers are among the biggest buyers of new technology and new cars. (Especially cars. more than younger folks) Source: AIO  Their Source: According to J.D. Power & Associates

Sample Week 2 Research:

Does there really exist a significant gap between the genders in terms of leisure time? Yes. Source: Aside from physical activity, has depression been linked to leisure time as a whole? This source suggests that non-leisure time physical activity has no effect on depression, posing the possibility that researchers have misdiagnosed leisure time physical activity as stress reducing when in fact the stress reduction component is that women are making more leisure time for themselves: Must research further. This next source not authoritative but provides good vocab and things to think on for forming further queries:

My Written Component 

More Research Necessary

The more I research the more it becomes clear just how much research I have left to do. My written component will end up being the most important part of my thesis project, not just because I have a lot to 'justify' and report on, but also because without this research I cannot possibly hope to product a valid thesis project. 

Due to the scope of my thesis, I am currently focusing my written component research on the relationship between my game, women, and the play that will bind them. I want to know everything about my ladies, why they play, why they feel they can't play, the benefits of play, the relationship between play, leisure time, and stress, and so forth.

Important Discoveries

 I have made an enormous discovery both with Seaman and with the uncovering of data that suggests freeform play is specifically useful for stress reduction. Left alone, I would have assumed that the lack of structure inherent in my game was a gameplay flaw, and that it was something I needed to repair. Now I see that offering optional goals in a freeform playing field is the proper way to go. 

Bejeweled and Peggle are freeform in that there are not specific 'quests' or 'objectives,' only increasing levels of strategic difficulty. 

It would be interesting to see if the game GTA had a stress reduction effect on players who casually drove around vehicles- & Oh wait! Be careful that's off topic. But wow, so interesting. GTA is singled out as specifically good at reducing stress and managing feelings. I wonder, is that specifically because of its freeform sandbox component?

Thesis 'Outline' and Expanding on Open Questions

While checkpoint I asks for an outline of our up and coming written component, I know I'm not yet ready to compose one. I'm still working on expressing my thesis and answering some of the important questions encircling it. If I had written the thesis component two weeks ago, I would have focused on the augmented reality aspect of my game, which was in truth more of a skin and facilitator than the core of my thesis. 

I have, however, done some work in positing together what my final thesis ought to look like, and outlined some important components in order to keep my thesis online. Firstly, I believe that my paper is argumentative in nature; I am making the claim that my game will help promote leisure time in and reduce stress in women. 

Based on this, my thesis statement should be assertive, and I shall make a shot at voicing it here:
Women suffer from increased depression partially as a result of reduced freeform leisure time. Women should be encouraged to play the game Agon and Alea, which uses a wide variety of techniques to specifically meet their freeform play needs and reduce depression.

This two-pronged thesis statement may need additional work in order to streamline it into a single idea. I am not a psychologist, and I am not interested in discovering the effects of games on female depression sans actually developing a game. On the other hand, there is insufficient research to quickly and easily establish the need for my product without laying some preliminary groundwork. 

Some difficulty comes about when trying to phrase my thesis in this light. Am I identifying a need, creating a product, and then making an analytical paper discussing my findings (and indeed whether or not I seemed to have been right about the need in the first place)? Am I simply documenting my process, in which case my paper would be an expository or narrative explanation of my reasoning process and my quest for identifying a difficult-to-see need and then trying to meet it?

Or is my paper truly argumentative in the sense that I am fighting to show that a culture where women do not play games is detrimental to female mental health and that games with freeform play specifically targeted towards women are necessary in order to improve our cultural health?

Looking at it, I can see that writing the narrative of my artistic process, from identifying the need to creating the project, would make for a legitimate, sound, and (For me, given my storytelling attributes) easy to write thesis.

But if I am truly out to change the world, I don't suppose any paper other than argumentative will truly do, mm? In that case, I must reconvene with my peers and mentor in order to pin-point target my thesis before a further outline is possible. I need to make sure I know exactly what argument I'm making, and where the weight of my written material should go and what it should justify, and I need the experience of someone whose already done it and the fresh eyes of those who have no previous exposure to my project.


  1. In Class Decisions:

    Set up problem Space "As is" (Don't invest all the time) Interpret the problem space, show all my own logical reasoning from the problem space forward, A to Z (Because this is basically my 'experiment' that other people have to be able to follow), and then get to the design which exemplifies my reasoning. IN theory, the problem space takes up 20% of the doc, and the reasoning takes the most. Then at the end I do my own 'research' and testing and produce my own data & results, and then a final chapter: I conclude & reflect, And then an appendix with my references.

  2. The last third of class, I should spend in 'production' creating my demo and finishing the document. There is no need for a demo if the document is not ready because then how do I know what I'm working on.

    The next two weeks will be finish my survey. Then the next two weeks will be my reasoning. The next two weeks will be design. The final two weeks will be production. And then at the end we have a document that is starting to look like a thesis.