Games shift dimension

Sunday 7th February 2010
White Space and circling pools. Courtesy: Abertay University.

Game theory combined with legal knowledge and ‘second order thinking’ provides an effective structure around which to build business strategies advises intellectual property legal expert Alexander Carter-Silk. With a thesis on games theory under his belt, not to mention an economics and a law degree, he expounded his arguments recently to a crowded Scottish Society for Computers & Law meeting in Edinburgh. Barely sixty miles away, the young Institute of Arts Media & Computer Games facility in Dundee should have been logged in. Both their approaches are starting to shift games and game theory, with visuals and data which morph and segue sociology, science, business and politics into quite another dimension.

Game theory: it’s all bunkum? Carter-Silke’s first slide didn’t just quote Von Neuman, Nash and nobel prize winner names, but tagged in the comment that when “In the British 3G telecoms auction, Ken Binmore devised a games strategy which parted the teleco’s from $35bn, it was described by Newsweek as the most ruthlessly effective strategy ever deployed in an auction!”

Among the game strategies that he worked through and expounded, using his audience as game players (being lawyers, many of them kept winning) were the Cortez strategy, Solomon’s dilemma, the Prisoner’s dilemma, Battle of the sexes, Chicken the Zero Sum game, Rousseau the Hunter’s paradox and Tragedy of the Common.

The thinking routes were intriguing. Carter-Silk, with agility did not demur to propose a game, get it settled in the audience head and then (thanks to death by PowerPoint) change the rules and the stakes on the next slide.

You might know that when an altruist is set against rational self interest, the latter usual dominates, and also that the irrational dominates the rational, but how would you fare in Prisoners’ dilemma?

And have you committed to heart 500 BC Sun Tzu'sThe Art of War?

It makes you realise Machiavelli’s Mirror for Princes came late to the game.

Carter- Silk’s summation was that “It’s all about people and teaching why 'outcomes' are not the 'best' but the 'dominant'.”

It should probably be engraved in the entrepreneurs’s heart, as it is in the politicians’.

Games at Abertay University’s new Institute
Early in the year University of Abertay Dundee was awarded its third games course accreditation by the creative media industry body Skillset. The University now runs three of the eight accredited games courses in the UK.
Its Master of Science (MSc) degree course in computer games technology is the latest to be formally approved by Skillset, making Abertay the only institution in the UK to have multiple courses accredited, as well as being Scotland's only Skillset Media Academy

Taught within the university's new Institute of Arts, Media and Computer Games, the latest MSc course began in 1997. The institute - the UK's first centre excellence in games education - was established in early 2009 with the help of a £3m grant from the Scottish government.

In December, Abertay won a further £3.5m from the UK Government and the European Union which, together with £1.5m from Abertay's own resources, is being invested in a business support and prototyping framework for start ups and small to medium sized enterprises within the games industry.

HIVE pulls science into the game
The Human Interactive Virtual Environment (HIVE) facility at Abertay University is a modest, dark or lit environment bare room with one large wall-length-screen, allowing one or two scenarios to develop. Overhead are sensor rails. Against the back wall is a computer rack set. In all it’s a cool £350k of kit, not including the building work spend.

Dr Kenneth Scott-Brown, (left) psychology lecturer at the Abertay School of Social and Health Sciences explains, “All our projects are made to support human decision making.” Developer John Isaacs, (right with Dundee background) whose PhD is to create the engine (ScityVT using XNA) puts the HIVE through a limited few of its very extraordinary paces, some requiring 'Avatar'-style 3D glasses.

First is the 3D model of Dundee city spread across the whole screen, drawing on the Dundee Redevelopment Plan data. On this are superimposed graphic interpretations, as to building heat retention efficiencies of brick versus glass, or the impact of traffic noise on different housing locations. Given on a visual two comparative screen basis, that instant information, graphically absorbed, is easily worth a thousand detailed words.

And it’s possible to use the data vision tool to import CAD information, swap buildings in and out to appreciate the impact of new development on an existing city, or alternately to assess the impact of likely flooding on proposed developments.

Isaacs hasn’t forgotten the attraction of game play for interesting children in science. His seagull (left) creation used in a recent Science festival, allows the controller to fly the gull, centred between the screens, around the city and out towards the port and the River Tay. The development is currently being transformed into a game.

HIVE is also invaluable for training purposes. Strathclyde Police are using the facility for a ‘proof of concept’ to develop a fully-fledged arms training system. The engine graphics, with narrative augmentation are recorded for real life scenario simulation.

Yet another current HIVE project is land use that includes soil modelling for underlying structures, and the impact of different land usage. As science increasingly focuses on micro and nanostructures, which the eye can’t see, the HIVE approach opens the promise of being microscopically visionary, with 3D haptic touch ‘vision’ predicted to be added within two IT generations time.

 Abertay no slouch in science
Former research student Dr Rashmi Chand (now a process engineer with Jacobs, Glasgow) and Abertay’s Professor David Bremner won the Willy Masschelein Award from the International Ozone Association for best PhD thesis submitted within 4 years. They (right) devised a method of killing bacteria in water using microbubbles and ozone. It succeeds in destroying 99.9999% of E.coli bacteria in a given volume of water, a thousand times greater than existing methods. It's generated high level interest in manufacturers needing to ensure ultrapure, bacteria-free water for food processing, without using chemicals.

Fascinating and full of potential as HIVE is, it’s only one aspect and one level of Abertay’s approach to games education, which is enthusiastically explained by Dr Louis Natanson, academic director of the five month old Institute of Arts, Media and Computer Games at Abertay University (still being built - and suffering some leaks in the interim.)

Dr Natanson (left) introduces the “White Space” not simply as an extension of open plan with white sound, but as a concept on how to educate through learning ‘spaces’ rather than by simply teaching a module at a time.”

Environment to segue mindsets
He walks through a huge room divided into sectors, housing circular groups of computer screens equipped study work places for students. There's another half partitioned swathe for the lecturing staff, visible and reachable to students.

We go past an alcove (right) given over to advanced research, initially with a BBC Scotland project, now prototyping for others as a ‘radar to the future’ as he puts it, and on to look at another still open grouping, this time the commercial interests being worked on by specific graduate students for the next games in embryo.

Dr Natanson has some interesting comments on how the environment and the circular work place settings help the students to gain confidence, share their specific expertise, get to meet each other and learn how to interact.

His wife, he says, is a play writer so he’s acutely aware of the fact that the words are only part of something that includes directors, actors, stage sets, lighting and sound, a whole multidisciplinary exercise, combining several forms of hard won expertise that have to be morphed together.

“The current ratio of young men to women is 55 to only 3.” He comments later “that girl there we’ve just passed in one of those three, and she will be first class honours.”

The Dare to Dream driver
At this point, Elaine Russell, (left) the coordinating face behind the Dare to be Digital Project Office comes over to talk. Her Office is calling for teams of talented student programmers and artists with games ideas targeted for any platforms including social networking sites, mobile phones, pc and any consoles, to apply online apply for this year’s competition.

She says that 2010 is looking good for sponsorship from both government and commercial interests, and it seems that China, India and Scandinavia will be participating and sending teams.

The backdrop to the conversation is a high mounted flat screen projection that relentlessly draws the eye, as discussion turns to the double Bafta award for short “pop up book” animation film (left), Happy Duckling already awarded best animation in the BAFTA Scotland awards, now nominated for a BAFTA film award this year.

Moving along the building, includes an amazing, long wall visual, (below) devised by divional leader for computer arts Gregor White. The London underground-style time maps digital games development (presenting another dimension to wonder about!).

Time line on digital games

By now the tour has reached the mezzanine IC Cave games lab, given over to programming, a plethora of Sony console games development, machine technology, and audio programming for sound games.

“Originally,” says Dr Natanson, “the space housed finance and administration which have been split up and scattered around to accommodate the games professional Masters, those are the teams who are prototyping for outside company needs.” Some companies participating want to be involved here physically. For others logistics mean they are too far away, "but they visit instead,” he adds.

Team development here has advanced. The circular arrangement of work places is giving each student their own unique machines for their own current projects.

Exploring the corridors of power
One intriguing aspect, unexplored as yet, is what impact, if any, this ‘White Space’ approach by Abertay University will have or is having on the inevitable University ‘politics’ so absorbing to CP Snow in Masters that explored the questions of political and personal integrity, with the mechanics of exercising power.

Now that is one of the biggest games, with the most far-reaching implications. Certainly the Scottish Parliament building not only rejected the idea of using the virtual for its processes, but is also uncontaminated by White Space.

It might make a rewarding experiment in animation?

Gail Purvis.

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