Hunting for aviation obstacles

I may have invented a new sport!

Airplane instrument approaches to airports allow you to fly safely through clouds (or in the dark) without running into terrain or obstacles. They specify the path to fly and the minimum altitude for each segment. Individual obstacles (hills, towers, etc.) are also charted as an additional warning for things to avoid.

KCVO ILS 17One example is the ILS approach to runway 17 at the Corvallis (KCVO) airport. An excerpt is shown at right. You fly along the thick black line from top-to-bottom on this chart (with a heading of 172 degrees) to get to runway 17, which is near the icon marked with the “CVO” bubble (this is actually the VOR but it’s close to the approach end of RW 17).

If you look near the point marked “ZIKDO”, you can see a little pointy icon with “1757” next to it. This indicates an obstacle (tower) that sticks up to 1757 feet above sea level. The procedure specifies that your airplane should be no lower than 2800′ here, and the obstacle shows you exactly why. It’s comforting to know that you have 1000′ of clearance above the highest obstacle as you’re flying along at 100 mph without being able to see the ground.

I have flown this approach several times, and I’ve always either had my foggles on or been in the clouds, so I’d never actually seen the obstacle. It was more of a theoretical entity.

ILS17The other day I was out for a hike and realized that the path I was on went right under the ILS 17 approach course. In fact, as I hiked up a hill, I realized that I might be approaching whatever that tall obstacle must be. I pulled up my Garmin Pilot app (generally used when I’m flying, not hiking) and was able to navigate to the ground location of the obstacle near ZIKDO! The blue dot shows my location. The app reports I’m standing at 1481′, so (depending how accurate that is), the tower would be about 275′ tall.

And here is what I found: an impressively tall tower sticking up on top of the hill and certainly not something I’d like to have in close proximity to my airplane:


It was so cool to see it with my own eyes! Locating the obstacle felt a little like an aviation-themed geocaching exercise :) There was no tangible treasure to be found, but now the instrument approach procedure chart feels a little more “grounded”, and I can appreciate all over again the work that goes into formulating these approaches to keep us safe. There’s more to find on this chart alone! I already know the one at 388′ just north of the airport (it’s a water tower, very cool). Maybe sometime I’ll make my way to the tower at 1316′, the hill/mountain at 2096′, or the tower indicated at 380′ south of the airport. Here’s to finding more aero-obstacles!

In which I explore an MMORPG

For my library school class on Maker Spaces, we were given the following assignment:

Spend at least three hours (not necessarily consecutively) playing a game you were previously unfamiliar with. Analyze your gaming experience, your learning curve, what skills you learned, and whether this game could be used in a library setting.

The games I play tend to fall into two categories: puzzle games on my own (e.g., Tetris, Bejeweled) and board/card games with friends (e.g., Dominion, Agricola, Race for the Galaxy, Galaxy Trucker). For this assignment, I decided to play a game from the MMORPG genre, which is something I’ve heard about but never tried myself.

I was first tempted to try the mother of all MMORPGs, World of Warcraft. However, the free download demanded 23 GB of disk space, which I didn’t have. I therefore downloaded a game called Dofus in which the goal is to quest through the land and (eventually) find a number of dragon eggs.


The game began by putting me into a starting Tutorial mode, which was very welcome since I had no experience with this kind of interface. A man with an eagle’s head (Master Yakasi) told me to go to the next screen (area of the map) and read a story that was inscribed on a stone pillar. I returned to him and he told me to go out and speak to three particular characters. And so on. This process introduced me to the idea of quests and how to interact with my inventory as I collected new items and accomplishments. I continued playing and gained more knowledge of the game, more experience points, and more skills (e.g., I acquired the profession of Farming and learned how to wield a scythe to reap wheat). I also learned how to engage in combat, and I killed a Moskito and an Arachnoid. I found several monuments and read about them (sadly, the writing quality is not very good; it may be translated from a non-English original language). The graphics are quite attractive and often very detailed (down to cups and plates that are only a few pixels in size).

I enjoyed the exploration part of the game, moving from scene to scene. Although there are quests you can take on, the game explicitly noted that you are not obligated to do so. There is no obvious competitive element, so you are free to decide what objectives matter the most to you (Experience points? Exploration? Completing quests? Gaining new skills?).


Over the course of three hours, I was able to rise to level 7 in experience points. I don’t have enough context to judge what that means (a lot? a little?).

dofus-balloonThe game does tell you how many experience points you have and how many you need to reach the next level, so you can seek out ways to gain those points and advance. One feedback element I really liked is that the game tells you when you aren’t ready for something that you attempt to do. For example, I found a hot-air balloon and was offered the option of riding it to a different part of the game world. I agreed, but then was told that I had not progressed enough to go there and that I should spend more time exploring first. This is great feedback since it prevented me from inadvertently taking on problems (or monsters) that I would be unable to defeat. The game is structured as a series of quests, and they are broken into steps you can consult so you know what you need to do next (e.g., “Talk to Brett Ernal” or “Take 6 Wheat to Piwi”). However, it was unclear to me whether they actually progress in difficulty. The quests are split into two categories: “Main Game” and “Incarnum,” which suggests to me that the Main Game ones matter for the general narrative and the others are optional side-quests to gain experience points or resources.

One game aspect that I looked forward to exploring, since Dofus is an MMORPG, was the interaction with other players. The first real player (as opposed to game character) that I encountered was Babygurl, who ignored my tentative “Hi there!” Next I discovered Dark-Kirito, who responded with “hey” and then invited me to join his “group.” I had no idea what that meant, but I accepted. His group consisted of the two of us and Babygurl. At that point I realized that they were levels 27 and 23, respectively, so at level 7 I was definitely a newbie. Here is our conversation:

Me: Hi, I’m new to the game.

Dark-Kirito: lol really.

I was so embarrassed that I went silent for a while, then ventured “What’s your current goal?” which neither of them answered. Meanwhile, the game continued to flood me with details about the battles they were engaging in (at other locations on the map). I tried to join them at those locations and see if I could help, but in each case the battle was over before I made it there. Perhaps the game would benefit from more guidance about how to interact with other players.

I also expected that an MMORPG would provide more opportunity for role-playing. However, interactions with the in-game characters were limited to a choice of two (sometimes only one) pre-written text response(s) to their comments. There was not much opportunity that I observed for acting out your character’s personality, story, and style.

Yet this game has accumulated a devoted following. There are players who create Dofus fan art, post Dofus fan art to Pinterest, post videos of their game play, and more.

I found Dofus to be an interesting world to explore, and no doubt with more time invested I would discover more elements of interest and create more substantial connections to other players.

Game design principles that can facilitate learning

James Paul Gee, a professor of Reading, decided to explore the world of video games. He picked up a copy of “The New Adventures of the Time Machine” (inspired by the work of H. G. Wells) and was surprised by its difficulty. “Lots of young people pay lots of money to engage in an activity that is hard, long, and complex […] and yet enjoy it,” he wrote in a paper titled “Good video games and good learning”. As an educator, he wondered what elements of these video games could be used to improve learning in a more conventional school setting.

Gee identified 16 learning principles that good (effective, successful) games use. I won’t go into all 16 here, but some are interesting to consider, especially in terms of how they might be adopted in schools or universities.

He posits that good games require the player to take on a new identity, inspiring “an extended commitment of self.” The game is a world that you at least partially inhabit. It’s personal. Learning in a class can be the same way, asking you to commit to see the world through the eyes of a physicist or a francophone or a mathematician. Personal investment changes your experience radically from memorizing facts to actively seeing the world in a new way.

Another important principle of effective games is that they give players the opportunity to experiment, and possibly fail, with a relatively low cost. Even if your player dies, you can restart the game. In traditional school environments, failure is often much more public and much more costly: feedback may come in the form of “that’s wrong” instead of “try again.”

Gee also posits that good games are “pleasantly frustrating” in that they keep you within, but right at the edge of, your “regime of competence.” Tasks are doable but challenging. I think this is my favorite regime in which to live, period: challenged but able to make some progress!

A final principle that caught my eye was what Gee calls “well-ordered problems.” Good games give you a series of problems to solve that provide a learning progression: easier tasks first that lead to more difficult ones. In the field of machine learning, some researchers have been studying the best way to present examples to a learner (human or machine). One theory that matches with Gee’s observation is called “curriculum learning”: start with easy examples and progress to more subtle or nuanced ones. Humans tend to use this kind of approach, which perplexes some machine learning researchers since it is provably better to first show the hardest or most ambiguous examples first, because they give you the most information. For example, if I wanted to teach you how to tell whether a child is tall enough to ride a roller coaster, I might point to a boy who is 35 inches tall and say “he’s too short,” and then point to a girl who is 36 inches tall and say “she’s tall enough.” Curriculum learning instead would give you examples like “that man who is 6’4″ is tall enough” and “the 21-inch infant is too short” and only gradually work their way to the harder examples closer to the threshold. However, many learning problems aren’t easy to map to a linear scale in which you just want to pinpoint a threshold, and in those cases, curriculum learning seems to be more natural and more effective.

What else can we learn about learning from how games are designed? Do game designers know something that educators don’t? Not necessarily — but their incentive structure is different, which may lead them to create new kinds of playing, and learning, environments that educators can borrow from.

What motivates you to play games?

All games are not created equal, and neither are all gamers. Ito and Bittanti, in chapter 5 of “Hanging Out, Messing Around, and Geeking Out: Kids Living and Learning with New Media,” identify five different “genres of game playing” that describe different motivations and modes of play. They are:

  1. Killing time: playing a game while you wait or because you’re bored or want to be distracted (e.g., crossword puzzles, solitaire, Minesweeper)
  2. Hanging out: playing a game to connect with other people socially (e.g., party games, board games, Rock Band, bridge)
  3. Recreational gaming: playing a game for the sake of the game (e.g., first-person shooters or really anything you get immersed in)
  4. Organizing and mobilizing: playing a game that’s grown into a formal structure (e.g., being the dungeonmaster for a D&D game or a guild leader in MMORPGs)
  5. Augmented game play: playing a game and creating additional “paratexts” around the game, such as fan sites, hacks, walk-throughs, cheat codes, or a focus on the creative element of the game (player customization, campaign design, etc.).

Player investment in (and passion for) the game increases along the list, from killing time up to augmented game play.

While some games seem to associate directly with a particular game playing genre, there isn’t a strict mapping. For example, players can enjoy World of Warcraft in any of these modes, depending on their interest in the game, their technical prowess, and their current mood. Bridge can be played socially, with ample table talk, or in a cutthroat competitive mode in which silence reigns outside of the bids. A player’s current genre might even change during the course of a game playing session.

Reflecting on my own game playing, I am not sure I have a particular preferred genre. The time I spend playing games today is limited, due to other demands on my time, and therefore limited to the “hanging out” genre (occasional board games or video games with friends). But during my first year in college, I discovered online communal role-playing games (the text-based predecessors of today’s MMORPGs), and that experience ranged over most of the five genres.

I was quickly captivated by the Pern-based games in which you could create a character who had the chance to be chosen as a dragonrider — every Anne McCaffrey fan’s dream. I spent hours developing my character and role-playing with other people on the game. I was bowled over by the idea of a bunch of people getting together to effectively write a collaborative novel in realtime (!).

Rather than progressing from a social to technical to creative motivation (as suggested if you view the genre list as a progression), it was the creative element that drew me in first (augmented game play). My interest in programming inspired me to learn how to create custom interactive in-game objects. As I developed friendships with other players, the social aspect (hanging out) became more present; sometimes the role-playing would taper off while the players engaged in “out of character” discussions on communication channels that weren’t part of the in-game play but were still social. As my investment and expertise grew, I became more involved in the organization part of the game: helping run large-scale events (such as dragon egg Hatchings) and creating names and descriptions for the next batch of dragons. Eventually, real life constraints placed limits on how much time I could invest in the game, and I moved on to other things.

I would not be surprised if most people find their engagement with any particular game to move between genres as I’ve described here. Over time, what interests you most about a game (and keeps you coming back) may change, due to your own changes in expertise, or a simple desire for variety.

How would you categorize the way you play your favorite game?

Still talking when there’s Science to do

I recently had the pleasure of playing Portal for the first time. It’s precisely the kind of puzzle-game I like: progressively more challenging levels that require innovation, and even after you’ve solved a level, there’s often further cleverness to be employed in finding faster or more efficient ways to solve it. I blazed through the first 13 levels in about an hour and a half, and felt a little disappointed when I learned that there were only 19 total. But then I got to level 14, which was the first time that the goal itself had to be divined, not just the way to achieve the goal. And other players’ comments about the levels getting exponentially harder are now starting to make sense. :)

I’ve been fascinated by the process of adjusting to “physics” in a world where you have a teleportation gun. You can open one portal in a nearby wall, and another at a far-off wall, then walk through them to avoid the gaping chasm that lies between. But you can also open a portal beneath your own feet to avoid having to walk to portal 1, or open a portal under some object to make it drop in front of you (instead of having to walk through the portals to retrieve it). And then some crazy stuff starts happening when you pair portals together and bounce between them — or open one in the roof and one in the floor and fall forever between them — or look through a portal and see your own profile from across the room. Mind-bending fun!

Lack a PS3? You can play the flash version, which retains many of the same mechanics but provides a 2D side view rather than a first-person 3D view. The puzzles are different, too.

Portal was first released nearly 3 years ago… and Portal 2 isn’t due until February, 2011. It will feature a two-player cooperative mode! As with so many types of media, I’m glad that my slow adoption rate means I don’t have to suffer through years of waiting. (It may take me a while to solve the last five levels!) Now if only I could finish season 1 of Battlestar Galactica, or season 3 of The West Wing, and catch up with the present!

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