microsoft research talk: robin hunicke


This afternoon I'm at another MSR talk, this one by Robin Hunicke, who's a really interesting woman. Her talk is on increasing diversity and creativity in CS. Here's the formal description:

ABSTRACT: Decreased enrollment in Computer Science has led many universities, businesses and government institutions to take a closer look at the field and how it is perceived. As computers become increasingly essential for education and commerce, how can we shape their image within the popular culture? Is it possible to re-invent CS, and to attract new students with diverse backgrounds, goals and talents?

In this talk I will present a post-mortem of my (non-standard, but incredibly fulfilling) education in CS, AI and video games. I will describe my experiences with art and computer science education, standardized and self-guided curriculums (undergraduate and graduate alike). I will discuss my dissertation research and explain how working closely with the game development community has inspired my research and informed my practice as a student and educator.

Finally, I will explore my work with the IGDA's Education Committee, and show how games are transforming CS programs across the globe. By describing this work in the context of my own experiences, I hope to shed some light on the issues raised above. In particular, how games and CS can work together today, to attract the designers, programmers and leaders of tomorrow.

Robin Hunicke is finishing her PhD in Computer Science at Northwestern University; her dissertation work is on AI for Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment in video games. In addition to her studies, Robin works with the International Game Developer Association (focusing on Education and Diversity efforts), participates annually in the Indie Game Jam, the Experimental Gameplay Workshop, and the Game Design Workshop at the annual Game Developers Conference. Through these efforts, she strives to build bridges between academics and developers, to promote independent, student and women developers, and to evangelize concrete, directed analysis of games and game design. For more information, see her web site.

She wants to "make another me"--she thinks it's mostly because people don't realize that there are opportunities in this space. So, what has to happen to "make another me"?

So, how do we reposition CS? CS is more than a discipline, it's a way of thinking about things in a procedural way.

Starting with "The Wonder Years"--what were her first experiences with technology? Her father was a nuclear engineer, her mother was a historian and artisan. As a child, she wanted to be a tinkerer and an explorer. There aren't a lot of female role models for those activities, but she could do a lot of those activities through games (Atari, NES/SNES, M.U.L.E.). BUT...these were not her machines. These were her brother's machines. She was branded as "gifted" and given a lot of opportunities. But the opportunities wiere in a creative and expressive context, not in the context of procedural learning. Never tied to programming or math or problem-solving.

She felt a tension between science (in school, owned by others), and art (outside of school, personal ownership).

So, 7-12 grade she had a positive focus on humanies and extracurriculars, but her aptitude for math and science wasn't encouraged. Her overall enthusiasm for school waned.

When she got the U of C, she was able to take a class on programming as a liberal art (Bill Sterner & Don Crabb). Aristote and Turing, Turkle and Tversky. Discussions of history and architecture and oral history, but in the context of computing. She began spending hours in the ocmputer lab making things. Again, an internal split--but she was now starting to try to merge these components.

She built her own interdisciplinary program: film, fine art, oral/historical narrative, women's studies, and computer programming. Her focus was on storytelling and memory. Because there was no CS major, she could take classes in an ad hoc way, seek mentors as needed, and experiment. Only later did she realize that this was not typical.

In considering grad school, she got the strong impression from successful women she talked with that she had to love math to be a computer scientist. But she did it anyways. :)

At Northwestern, she's really had an opportunity to do interdisciplinary work, to include things like narrative intelligence, game studies, and game AI in the context of CS graduate study. She discovered a new community, people who could explore with her, learn form each other, share ideas and enthusiasm.

Out of this, came events like the Indie Game Jam, Experimmental Gameplay Workshop, the Game Design Workshop, etc.

There are familiar challenges. There are no famous female game developers, for example. Her experience in CS has bled out into the industry, which has caused her to want to find ways in academia to correct the problems that can in turn bleed out to industry.

There's a "night and day" problem is how we approach all of this, similar to the split she felt as a teenager. How can we correct this?

Suddenly schools are approaching her to develop games-centered curricula.

Why CS? Why should anyone major in it? Is it accessible? Expressive? Useful? Enjoyable? Profitable?

We need to change the identity of CS--it needs to become a core competency and a tool. We need to evangelize ourselves as programmers as well as our other skills.

CS is a tool, not just a discipline or profession! Kids need to learn how to do procedural thinking. We need to expand how kids think about machines, about procedural thinking.

How can we make CS projects more about expression and about choice?? This is the critical, fundamental problem. Your work says something about you. If you choose work over family (I'm not sure why she frames it this way), you really want it to be a positive expression of you.

If you can program, you can help people in a variety of fields to accomplish tasks. CS doesn't just mean being a professional programmer sitting in a room writing code, It's increasingly a component of all kinds of professions and jobs. You're a better finance analyst if you know how to program database queries and spreadsheet macros, or write your own analysis tools.

How can we use interest in other areas as levers into CS. Her cousin is an environmental scientist who would benefit from being able to write a simple Python program to analyze data she's collected.

Trailblazing is nice, but bridges may be better. We need better journals, conferences, web sites, amlinl lists, student groups, travel, and internship programs.

Her advisor is using a "Bauhaus model" for education, using a scheme-based tool for projects. He's demystifying procedural thinking, pointing out that it's got creative components, not just mathematical and scientific components. He points out how people can use these tools to integrate into their interests.

The next generation of computer scientists won't be identifiable by current stereotypes. And this will inspire more women and underrepresented minorities to take CS classes and learn computing skills. New contributors lead to cross-pollination, long-term relationships, and groundbreaking work in the field.

(I'm amazed to hear her say she's never given this talk before--she's funny and passionate and knowledgable and convincing. She needs to be getting this message out all over the place!)

In response to a question she talks about the panic going on in universities about declining enrollments. (Can't replicate her very funny version of what the dialogs sound like in departments...) She says, and she's right, that we need to be thinking about the customer -- but that it's hard to have these conversations when you're panicked about your own existence (I would really love to have her come give this talk to our faculty and administration at RIT...)

"I think we should teach computer science like we teach spelling." Why can't we teach 10-year-olds to program? If they can memorize baseball statistics (and Pokemon characters), they can learn to write code, too. (My 11-year-old has been teaching himself how to program in Javascript for the last year--he's a great example of exactly what she's talking about.)

She blasts (appropriately) the advertising for the recent Microsoft DirectX Meltdown, which showed women as g-string-wearing sideline characters next to powerful male superheroes.

There are all kinds of computer scientists, and we need to learn from each other. We can't generalize form our own experience. None of us knows instinctively what "women" want in games, for example, We need to learn from each other.

We need to acknowledge that there are sometimes advantages to being the only woman, the center of attention--and it can be hard to give up that center stage. But we have to work harder to reach out to other women, welcome them, include them.


The tie between math and computer science is an interesting one. I think that math is important but that the way we teach math all too often turns people off from both math and computer science. I "hate math" and yet I love numbers, statistics and algorithms. I blame the teaching of math for this. (I'm not alone in not wanting to accept blame. :-) ) The idea of using games to make CS more interesting to students is a good one. Both of the programming text books I have written used game programs. That made them interesting (I'm told) to students. The problem with using games to attract female students is that too many of the games used are "first person shooters" and other games that are less interesting to girls. What we need (chicken and egg problem perhaps) is more women (and hopefully men) to develop games and game projects that are interesting to students who are turned off by violent games and/or more interested in games involving team work and planning.

I met her at dinner on Tuesday with the MSR crew. And we talked about the meltdown advertising there, and some other bits and pieces of what she was going to say. I found the conversation very interesting, wish I could have seen the presentation.


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