2013 Postmortem

At the beginning of 2013, I wrote on an old marker board what I planned on doing that year, and now that 2014 is in full swing let’s take a moment and see what were the successes and failures of 2013.


TEDx Columbia

It was definitely an honor being picked as one of the speakers for this event.  I met many wonderfully talented people who were so much fun to chat with and even grab a drink or two.  I put a lot of time into my presentation, and it was difficult to condense all I wanted to say to only 17 minutes.  Reducing all of my work for that past 6 years was not easy, but I did like the end result.  While it didn’t have my normal brand of humor in it, the presentation painted games in a different light for people, and showed that they are serious fun.  This year I will be on the other side, and will just be attending the even, and I know I won’t be disappointed in talent that this city possesses.

Indie Grits Game Showcase

Indie Grits Game Logo

I have worked with Indie Grits, a regional independent movie festival, for a few years now, and have started to bring an independent gaming component.  Ultimately what I would like is to have a large regional independent game festival, but we have to start small.  We managed to get a couple of hours last year to display some local game developers work, and it caused quite a buzz.  Now this year we have been asked to fully expand it.  Expect more posts about this upcoming festival!

Engineering Week (eWeek)

I’m usually asked to create something for our college’s celebration of everything science and engineering, since games definitely draws a crowd.  This year I wasn’t able to create anything new, but I did manage to rewrite and fix some older games like Kinect Pong and VR Pac Man.  I did have one experimental demo that used the BrainWave, a consumer EEG, to show how to play games with your brain.  I’ll probably be getting an email soon about helping out with this week, and I’ll probably have some new demos to show off.

Linus, IT-Ology Game Classes, Tough Shit Tournament

These were lumped together, because disappointingly none of them got off the ground.  With work on everything else I did not have time to invest much into these.  In my spare time I continue to work on Linus and hopefully this year I’ll be able to work on it more.

The Tough Shit Tournament took a hiatus for the early part of the year since I was working on TEDx Columbia and Engineering week.  Also I wanted to reorganize it in a new format, called Gauntlet, that ended up utterly failing.  Can’t win them all, but this year I have rebranded it, and have gone back to what works and what makes these events fun.  Soon enough we’ll be crowning the first TST Champion of 2014.

As for the IT-Ology game classes, what can I say?  I never started the dialog to even start this.  I still believe it would be interesting to host game design classes to the public, but as of now with my other duties it doesn’t seem feasible.

Hosting Karaoke for my High School


This is actually a long story that I’ll post one day, but long story short I was banned from my high school reunion because I was a jerk to the organizers on Facebook.  I’ll go ahead and say I regret being so nasty to them, but I don’t regret calling them out on nonsense.

I wanted to do something to show my appreciation for the programs at my high school that got me to where I am today, so I hosted a percent night where I also did karaoke.  It was a lot of fun and while we only raised $200 it still was nice to give back.

Dissertation / PhD Get

This was where the bulk of my time and effort went, and was full of some successes and but mostly failures.  At the beginning of the year I had a rough idea of how my dissertation was going to be formatted, and it actually resembled my TEDx talk.  My adviser asked me to construct it so that the Chinese Game (Lost in the Middle Kingdom), the Aphasia Game (Say It!), and the genome browser (Genome Browser).  While the first two games have a common thread in language acquisition, the genome browser felt extremely out of place.  The only way I figured to make sense of this was to take a step back and use the only component they had in common: they were all games.

However what was a game?  This started a long journey down the rabbit hole trying to figure out the answer to this question.  Turns out finding the answer to this question is similar to answering the questions, “what is art?” or “what is love? Baby don’t hurt me“.  After venturing out and reading many different books and papers, ranging from the 1930’s to today, the conclusion I have come to is there’s really no good definition for this expansive and ever changing medium.  Yet still I had to take three seemingly unrelated projects and create one coherent hypothesis that tied together the three chapters.  I realized the only way I was going to be able to do this is to create another chapter that explains the different definitions of games, define what I felt most accurately described games, but also introduce a new idea called Gamesque.

Game Relationships

A game I defined as being interactive, having adversaries, has a defined goal, and has rules.  Gamesque is a system that has properties of a game, but isn’t quite a game.  It may have a couple of those attributes missing but it still must be interactive and have a goal.  This is how I used to explain how the Genome Viewer fit into this project as it used game properties but by definition wasn’t a game.

You tell me

You tell me

This still left me with what was my hypothesis?  After all of the readings, I realized that two of the games fall into two of the three definitions of a serious video game, which are games that teach, train, or persuade.  The Chinese Game teaches and the Aphasia Game trains, but still where does the Genome Viewer fit?  I came up with an idea to expand the definition of a serious game and added in “games for discover”.  Now I had it!  A way to make it all make sense.  I was going to show empirically with my evidence and cobbled that together with many more pieces of evidence that game are effective for teaching, training, persuading, and discovery!  In short they were good for multidisciplinary research.  But… Now I needed a game that could persuade.

I set out creating a new game which would demonstrate through the mechanics the correlation between race and gender and the pay gap.  This game was called “Disparity”.  The player started off as an abstract color and shape, and then they were tasked to pick mini games to earn the most points.  Depending on which shape and color that was randomly picked your score would be adjusted.  If you were lucky enough to get the most privileged race and gender you were rewarded with all the possible points your earned.  However if you were not so lucky, then the points you earned would be weighted down by a percentage.  This was determined by taking the mean income for that race and gender and dividing it by the largest mean income from the most privileged race and gender.  Once the player completes a mini game they are shown a leader board with the points earned by other players.  It is from that they are then suppose to take away that some characters have more advantages than others.  I began developing this game, and wrote out the chapter for it.

Now I had a rough draft of my dissertation, which had 6 chapters: Introduction, What is a Game, Chinese Game, Aphasia Game, Disparity, and Genome Viewer.  It was 60 pages and had 68 citations through out it.  Now I was set to do my proposal.  Turns out that wrangling professors is nearly as hard as herding cats.  It took me pushing it back until the end of July, but I was ready to finally show off my work and what I hope to accomplish.


The proposal was… A nightmare.  The one committee member that kept pushing back the proposal day did not show up because of stomach issues, so we went ahead an pressed on.  What should have been an hour long presentation turned into a near 3 hour argument.  Everything was going fine up until I hit the section about the Genome Viewer.  I described my argument the best way I could, but still many of them were confused by it.  The chair of our department, who is one of my committee members, asked me, “What is the hypothesis for this project?  What is its purpose?”.  I looked him and answered very honestly, “I don’t know”.  Besides the fact I was told to put it in my dissertation, I really didn’t know why it belonged in my work.  This is besides the fact that the Genome Viewer has been an absolute mess from the beginning; with changing requirements, unclear descriptions, and general communication problems. Next they tore apart disparity because it was far too humanities based, hard to test, and more of a qualitative instead of a quantitative study.  It was clear that my hypothesis had fallen apart, and all of the effort I had put into this work was dead.

One of my best presentations

One of my best presentations

All is not lost though, and I haven’t given up on getting my PhD yet.  After that I decided to make some big changes.  First the Genome Viewer was taken out of the project, and I got rid of the committee member associated with it.  Next Disparity was removed, but I’ll probably still work on that one day.  Finally, I reconstructed my hypothesis from the ground up.  Now it’s focus is on using games for language acquisition in which I still have the Chinese Game and the Aphasia Game, but now I added a Programming Language game.  I’m working on having them fully tested then putting them into the hands of students very soon.  By the end of this year I will be a doctor.

Teaching Media Arts 581D

Gave my class LSD

Gave my class LSD

Not all was bad though.  This was not even on the board as it was from left field that my friend Simon asked me to teach this class for him.  It was my dream to teach game design at a college level and now I finally had a class of my own.  I also secretly wanted to prove to my adviser that I was the better game design professor.  Nothing like healthy competition!

I worked very hard on the structure of this class, and taught it mostly based on my experience as an indie game developer.  I went over the three roles needed to make a game: Game Designer, Programmer, Artist.  This is how I structured the class was going through each three of these roles.  The first part of the class was teaching about how the game designer is the visionary and mostly writes a lot of documents to flesh out a game before passing it off to the programmer and artists.  From there I taught a class, in which most of them had no programming experience, 2 years of software engineering, a semester of 3D programming, and a semester of vector calculus with some physics.  After that I taught them how to create 3D art; modeling, texturing rigging, and animation.  From there the class became workshop based as I helped them create their visions.  I am a firm believer that the best way to learn how to make a game is to simply make a game.  I was their to guide them along the way.

I really enjoyed the class and I was blown away by the results.  This was definitely the highlight of 2013.


In the end 2013 wasn’t bad year.  It had its ups and downs, but for the most part it wasn’t terrible.  I do regret putting in so much effort into a flimsy dissertation that clearly wasn’t going to work instead of trusting my instincts and changing it earlier on.  I also regret I wasn’t there as much as I could have been for my friends and my family, but I’m at the home stretch now.  I realize how much I need them to help me push forward, and I will be much more visible in this upcoming year.  2014 you best watch out.


About boomboxguyjj

I know a little bit about everything, but not enough about anything.
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2 Responses to 2013 Postmortem

  1. Great post! I think you will accomplish many awesome things this year.

  2. Pingback: A rant about being a PhD student and advice | Boombox Guy JJ

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