Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Checkpoint IV

Checkpoint IV

As we leave the eighth week of classes and head into the final scramble to earn our grades and our pride, there is only ever one thing to do: it. What is 'it' you ask? An astute question, and one that I myself found pondering, rejecting, resenting, understanding, and finally accepting.

For anyone well-versed in Greek  and Roman mythology, Nike is the goddess of victory. For all other purposes it is a shoe brand, a shoe brand which borrowed Victory's name align itself with success. But Nike's well honed motto has nothing to do with the Greeks, Romans, Olympics, gods, or even victory itself. The brand's motto is: 'Just Do It.'

What the devil is 'it' and why is doing it so important?

Let's apply this to work, education, or creative problem solving. How does one suppose it feels to be in the depth of despair over how to develop a creative product in a very short period of time with no right answers and an unfathomable burden of work to do once 'pretend' answers are guessed at? One assumes it is life draining, frustrating, paralyzing, heart wrenching, and just plain difficult.

But one also assumes, given a hard working person of quality, pride, and fighting spirit, that anyone in such a position is working very hard every moment of their lives on the project, or at least thinking about it in those rare instances it cannot be worked on. How  must it feel then  to be told that the solution to one's dilemma, the way to get more work done, the method for solving those difficult problems is to, simply, 'just do it'?

Last year I downloaded an app called Unstuck. The goal of this app is to help a person diagnose where they were stuck on a project and what they needed to do in order to break free and accomplish what they originally set out to accomplish. Perhaps I was hoping for some insight into the human condition, some psychology or workflow 'secret' that everyone else knew but somehow I didn't.

Why were people able to complete projects I couldn't, to a level I couldn't? Why was I always frustrated and stressed; how could I avoid falling into huge pitfalls where I spent large chunks of my time solving problems that maybe really didn't need to be solved for the project to have a meaningful impact? How could I think properly and increase my own efficiency?

After I had answered its questions and gone through its exercises, Unstuck revealed the answer it presumed I had been waiting for: "Just Do It."

I was mad.

Earlier in the week, two separate people who I'd talked to about my difficulties getting the work done had both said the answer was to, "Just Do It," and I'd gotten similarly upset on both occasions. What do you mean?! I thought in offended exasperation. I've been doing nothing but working! I'm working so much I'm working in my dreams!

For you see, "Just Do It," rather implies that you haven't been doing what you're supposed to have been doing. The sound of those words implies that you were off playing video games, partying with friends, hanging with the BF, or skipping class to visit an amusement park, and that the secret magic answer to your problems is simply to stop goofing off and actually work.

Add this to a situation in which a person has actually deprived themselves of all games, comfort, companionship, and relaxation in order to slave and slave over their work, and "Just Do It" is an undeserved slap in the face. Anyone might be entitled to be a little mad.

And yet....

Perhaps, one might imagine, the problem is not in the advice itself, but the interpretation of the words. Maybe the problem is that when we hear 'Just Do It' we hear 'You're not trying,' but the advice being imparted to us is something different all together.

Let's look at each of the words in sequence. The first word is 'Just.' This word has a few meanings, but its connotation includes overcoming some kind of hurtle. That is to say that we use 'just' when we are trying to get past objections and uncertainties and throw down a finalized answer that undermines all opposition and distractions. Therefore we can already see that "Just Do It" implies that something, some kind of antagonist or unpleasant cloud is getting between us and our work.

Consider how a mother might say, "Just do your Homework," to a child who is playing video games. This is not the first thing she announces when she walks into the room and finds her gaming bundle of joy. Probably she said, "Do your Homework" first, and then the child offered some feedback ("But I'm fighting Dr. Zorgan! But I don't want to! But I did it yesterday!"). It is this obfuscation, this cloudiness, this set of distractions to which she then applies the 'Just.'

Consider this second example. "Mother, I don't know how to do this problem," says a child, to which the mother responds, "Just do it to the best of your ability, and then come to me when you're done." IN the first example, its easy to see how the word 'Just' could be misinterpretation as a termination of pleasure (And therefore "Just Do It" implies you've been goofing off.)

But here we see 'just' in a different light. 'Just' is used to banish apprehensions. It clears the way by some means or another, for action to occur. The problem, "I don't know how to do this," is shut down by simple means of the word 'just.' 'Just' negates the stopping points (And everything that follows after 'just' clarifies that no consequences exist for failure to perform perfectly, only failure to perform at all.)

This brings us to our second word, 'Do.' 'Do' is a powerful word, but it implies some kind of physically manifested action of some sort.  When we 'do' something, we create, we instruct, we attack, we bowl, we jump, we fish, we write a paper, we ask a person out, but we don't just sit in a windowsill with our fist on our chin and think for a long while.

However, I was already not in a thinking phase. I was in a working phase, and work simply was getting done incorrectly, inefficiently, unnecessarily, or just simply not fast enough. How could I overcome this with the word 'Do?'

Let's look at Nike brand shoes. The name of Nike brand suggests that victory follows in its wake, yet the company motto does not promise victory. The slogan isn't "Just do it and you'll succeed," or "Just do it and your dreams will become true." It is only, "Just do it." And yet the connection of Nike to its motto suggests that "Just do it" and victory are somehow linked.

They are. Unless you do something, you can't succeed. Nike doesn't promise success because it know there are lots of wrong answers. IN fact, you are going to fail to shoot a basketball a great many times before you learn to shoot it 'right.' Furthermore, in many cases we are looking for 'right' answers, when there are no right answers. Just variations on a theme. And some are more pleasant to us than other; but rarely is there a single optimal solution for any problem.

"Do" in "Just Do It" Means don't permit paralysis. Even if you must make a decision by flipping a coin, make it. Then stick to it. (This advice itself is problem-rift, you should always be able to quickly evaluate if a switch is going to yield you net profit or failure', but it's very important to realize that if you change your mind you're redoing work, and sometimes when you have a certain amount of work done you need to quickly re-scope and make something different than what you already planned that still meets your needs.)

"Do It" means you constantly have to act. You need to make decisions and then act on them. You need to constantly be putting yourself into a state of Flow, and minimize frustration between flow states.

"It." The final word is "It." It deserves a paper all its own. "It" is an undefined noun, genderless. Deciding what "It" is, that is, what you are making, what you are getting into Flow over, what you are carving away haziness and uncertainty in order to fail and succeed over, can be very difficult.

"It" needs to be simplified, reduced, possible, managed, recorded, and analyzed. Nothing stinks more than getting into a Flow state over the wrong "It"- except never getting into a Flow state at all. "It" needs to be decided quickly, decisively, with vision, and also furthermore it needs to be small and concise enough to be doable, with the core always visible. Before getting into a Flow state, know if "It" is really what you need, or if this is just you trying to make a perfect 'right' choice instead of the one that is going to get your project done.

Ah. After all that. We can now see that, "Just Do It," doesn't mean, "You've been goofing off and need to buckle down." Rather it means something bigger. Something about banishing fears, accepting the possibility of failure, identifying the core components, and falling into a flow state

Monday, May 6, 2013

Checkpoint III

It's checkpoint III and the stress has begun to roll in!

As per usual, I'm feeling a sense of general malaise concerning... well, conferring just how vague my game feels to me. That is to say that there is and always has been a lot of work to be done in defining the exact shape of my gameplay mechanics. Not only are there a significant number of technical hurtles to overcome, but those hurtles must be overcome in very programmatic and exceptionally creative ways.

My experience working with Augmented Reality allowed me to really familiarize myself in working with strange and difficult to define problem sets that have difficult to locate and difficult to implement answers. But, at the same time, the problem set still posed some very rigid constraints, and that greatly helped to get me up and going.

Constraints? Made it easier? Of course! Human beings don't work well when you give them too many choices. They get overwhelmed by all the potential options, particularly if they don't have any means of evaluating which ones are better, or if their initial assumptions have just been greatly questioned. Constraints give a person a foundation; an unmoving pillar on which they must base their design. Constraints concerning game mechanics, visual assets, multiplayer experiences, item usages, and monetization can all help inform the game design process.

I can give a few examples of this. For instance, assume two restaurants with menus that have only written titles, no pictures.  Is it easier to order an optimal or even acceptable choice from a restaurant menu that has five pages, or one with five hundred pages? What if neither are organized into categories?

The five hundred paged menu takes a lot longer and a lot more effort (research) in order to understand the range of options available to the customer and select one. In fact the easiest way for them to select an item may be for them to artificially restrict the menu to a smaller number of choices by only reading a few items on each page.

So it is that I am having difficulty designing my game. With the infinite range of all possibilities open to me, how am I to design a game that wants to do a thousand things, all of which have no definite constraints attached to them? I want to design a game for women, but saying so does not provide unconditional constraints for what I'm about to make. Saying "This game must be a platformer" helps definitively eliminate a huge range of options. But Saying "This game must be fore women" still leaves all options open, provided that they are executed properly. This is to say that the range of possibilities is not meaningfully narrowed down until at least five or six major choices have been made. And how can one know if any of those choices were the 'best' ones?

Part of answering this problem comes down to the simple fact that there often aren't any 'right' answers, just 'flavored' ones. For instance, the choice to make a first person shooter for women has a distinct flavor to it, and will result in one very unique outcome. And the choice to make a strategic knitting game for women also has a very distinct flavor. Neither is particularly optimal; though both feed different tastes.

One the problem at hand when speculating what women will want most is that everyone has a different idea than you; and truth be told you are all just speculating. When you specifically go out of your way to speculate that everyone else is wrong, (ie, you're not making a casual game for women and you're making a type of game that's never been successful with them before) you are not setting yourself up for an easy job to support your speculations. It doesn't really matter that everyone else 'going with the flow' is guessing just as much as you are.

In fact, their idea is the worse idea. If you were making a casual game that satisfied everyone's expectations and everyone already agreed your speculations were correct, you wouldn't be doing anything particularly interesting. Or opening new markets. Heck you probably wouldn't be making much money, either.

So one supposes that as long as one can quote everything I just said from an authoritative source in the realms of entrepreneurship and business, this argument/support is Thesis-worthy. But still.  That's a whole lot of research and quoting necessary when the argument boils down to: "The future of everything inevitably lies in the hands of Research and Development."

Alright let me backtrack because I do love to rant. I believe I was saying something about just how much the vagueness of my own project was torturing me. The thing is that I worked on Augmented Reality for a very long period of time, and while I understand that doing so was important, I don't always believe myself when I say it aloud. The truth is that I feel I have spent an utterly unacceptably small stretch of time working on the back end of my AI; and that I think my advisers take for granted just what sort of complex creation I'm interested in making. It even came out in my thesis proposal: Everything I've done has been related to AR when what I actually want to do is build an affective AI-driven adventure game that promotes gender equality.

I need/want/crave/lust-after more time to play with code and game mechanics, and now right after working with AR I've had no time to play and immediately have to work on my Thesis. But I don't feel like I have an accurate grasp on even what kind of game I'm proposing- not really- not how it works, not how it feels, not what it's capable of, not why people want to play it, not why they're going to have fun with it- so how can I possibly research how to improve it or write about how to build it?

I still don't get it. I want to play with it, and I don't have time. I need time to nurture it, not just think. I'm exhausted by thinking, by planning. I need to tinker. And for God's sake, I don't want to tinker with AR anymore!

There, I've gotten that out of my system now too. The truth is that this point is a constant weight on my mind, a great burden, a source of suffering.

But let's break down my suffering and look at the truth. The truth is that I'm paralyzed. The truth is I don't know where or how to start, and that everything I put forward as a starting point seems hollow an ineffectual at capturing what I want. The truth is: If I knew where to start, I would make time for my game. It isn't that no one's allowing me to play; its that I haven't come up with the very first toy I want to play with. And that scares the hell out of me, because I'm midway through writing a thesis paper and 2/3 of the way through my graduate program. Playing with Augmented Reality was easy by contrast; I knew what the end form had to look like. This? This  really don't get. And no amount of research or writing or drawing seems to be helping me get it.

Firstly, I'm paralyzed. Secondly, I'm exhausted. I'm exhausted by just how many times I've sat down and written out diagrams and explanations of my system. I'm exhausted by the sheer number of times I've done the same work over and over again in ever-different ways. I'm exhausted by the idea of sitting down again and working from the ground up all over in the newest draft- which I probably will get distracted from halfway through and never finish- and I'm terrified and exhausted by the possibility that the answer just might not come to me.

However I think that I know what to do now. I think I realize where I have to go next. The teacher feels like I need to be working on my thesis because I need to be able to think like a master's student. I get that. I understand it. I need to research. I need to grab sources. I need to organize my thinking process. I need to keep a journal. I need to track my progress. Okay. I do get that. And he's right that I need to work on the form of the research thinking, on the methodology, on the testing, on the citation.

At the same time, it is unacceptable that I go any further with my work without having something to implement, test, and iterate like Augmented Reality. It is unacceptable to continue onward without relieving some of the pent up stress, anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and paralysis surrounding the form of my game. It's impossible to go on without addressing these things; It simply can't happen. This paralysis and fear is giving me excruciatingly painful writer's block, it's stuffing up my thought process, and its making me second guess myself at every turn. As a result of this not-tinkering, I have been creatively handicapped and I can't think. I'm suffering.

What I need to do right now is make choices; even if they're guesses. And to make those choices, I need to narrow down the options.  I did a lot of research leading up to this point and a lot of thinking; I've absorbed a lot of information and even though I'm not going to use it all properly the first time, I need an initial base form off which I can iterate. I need to set the bounds for a work I can complete, test, and evaluate in a year's time. I need it feasible and on the ground instead of in the clouds. I need to be able to reach my hands around and inside its shape and feel it completely such that I know every part of it. I need an intimate knowledge of my own design that I don't yet have.

In sum, I need to take charge of my time and use not just to 'get work done,' but to work creatively at all times. I need to write, read, implement, test, tinker, and enjoy. I need to alleviate the stress; remove the bottlenecks, so as to let energy flow more smoothly. And part of that is in accepting that I need to be able to do multiple tasks at once and to manage my time for all of them; and if I can't or I think I'm bad at it, then I need to learn. Starting now.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Checkpoint II

Checkpoint II is our midterm 'review' of our thesis progress. My biggest concern at the moment is that I am behind with background research. After reviewing my research progress for the last few days, I have come to the conclusion that it is specifically the nature of the background process that is causing me headaches.

For example, I have considered the fact that I work best when 'free writing' and then retrospectively researching. That is to say that I work best when I have a 'story' to tell, I define the beginning and end of the story to scope myself, and then I write freely what my ideas are and what points I want to bring up and prove. After writing, I review the document I have made and I begin to see areas that need 'proof.' I can look at each of these statements that need 'proof' and answer the question "What was I getting at here? What was my intention?" The answer to that is what I end up researching.

After spending some time with research papers, I either realize my gut feeling was wrong and I need to go back and alter my approach (which has to be done with free writing, again, because more research will just exhaust me at this disheartening point) or I am able to find references, or alternatively I am able to construct an argument to support myself, but that requires additional writing in its own right.

This process works really well with me, and it is the means by which I will be able to write my design process, reasoning process, personal research methodology, etc. However it does not work for a field in which all of my preconceived notions are nebulous. Because a significant chunk of my research have either been black and white facts (need citation) or lengthy explanations of whole methodologies and theories which I've never even heard of before, it is impossible for me to free-write and then go back for a 'research pass.'

And so my research inevitably gets untargeted. Because I can barely articulate where my research begins, much less imagine where it is going to end, I have difficulty staying focused and on the point as to what's really relevant to me. Do I need picture-perfect depression rates stats? Will ones from 2008 work next to anxiety stats from 2013? I start worrying about the big picture. Then I wobble. Then I end up reading very interesting papers about the psychology of dogs. And then I realize I just speant the last four hours researching a statistics question that I just can't find an answer to through all the haze of business, leadership, and investment articles.

However, as my teacher has told me, I cannot stay on the background forever. Even though my background analysis is incomplete- and in fact does not yet make a coherent argument- I have to let it lie. I need to move on to my reasoning process.

I believe this shift will help me. By forcing myself out of exploration mode and into 'thinking' mode, I begin asking a lot more concrete questions. Because I'm not allowed to research anymore, I can't say to myself "I don't have a research methodology, I need to go research that." Instead I have to pull out a paper and some pencil and go:

 "Well since I can't research it, I guess I'll have to reason it. So what are my inputs and outputs? My inputs are an interest in women not gaming enough, culture, and the gender gap. So I guess that means my outputs have to measure cultural changes. No no no, that's impossible... Okay perhaps they have to measure cultural perceptions? And then if I really want to change culture, the game has to make the target demographic want to play it. So I have to evaluate their willingness to a) pick up the game b) play the game and c) spread the game. I also have to see if they simply like it."

Wow. After all that, does it look like researching my methodology is going to be such a big, vague, confusing chore after all? Or does it look like I'm going to be a research huntress with a very specific quarry and the means to identify it and track it down?

The background exploration phase was important to me because it opened my mind to the realm of things I could research (for example, for some reason it never occurred to me to look up theoretical frameworks for how a) games generate emotions other than Flow and sadness/frustration/admiration in players or b) how to use emotions in order to generate long lasting mood effects in players.

But now its time to free write and reason. If I can't free write it, I have to write out my reasoning process and then spend tiny chunks of time hunting specific answers. If I can't find those answers, I have to alter my reasoning.

I really think I can do this. I'm looking forward to what I come up with

Monday, April 22, 2013

Preparing for Checkpoint II

Checkpoint II, or the midterm, will be our 'thesis' (our 'written component' for Studio II). I'm not exactly sure what this entails. Obviously it is impossible to have done all the research necessary for writing a thesis paper that isn't to be done until the very last quarter of our masters' degree (which is a year away for me), on a project that we haven't done yet! But I'm assuming that this Checkpoint II will be an evaluation of whether we've done our background work/literature review, our basic reasoning, our criteria for what constitutes a finished thesis, etc.

Basically, I'm assuming that our teacher is instructing us on the how of writing the thesis. Some of us barely even have a thesis yet! So I believe that what he's looking for is to help teach us to think like graduate students, and to write like graduate students, and to research like graduate students. My assumption is that the midterm Checkpoint II will be a document that shows we're on the right track in terms of thinking, writing, and researching our final thesis project. This will lay a solid foundation on which we will actually be able to produce and evaluate some end implementation.

Still, that's going to be a hard checkpoint to reach for me. I believe I am one of a minority of graduate students in the major who currently has a very solid grasp of what her current thesis is and what her current thesis project will be. But that just means more is going to be expected of me. My academic inclinations and my very thorough understanding of my topic warrants a document that shows just how much thought I've put into my work. This is a thesis I've already been working on for a year and a half, and which has deep ties to my own experiences of being a female gamer and suffering from anxiety/depression.

Right now I'm concerned because according to my schedule, I'm already supposed to be working on my reasoning process- the process that will determine what my design principals for the new genre will be. However, I'm currently in a writing phase, and I'm still very much focused on background research.

It is to my great fortune that I seem to be getting better at researching. I'm less distracted by interesting statistics and information that do not directly support or effect my arguments. And I'm also getting a lot better at hunting down the 'missing links' between my logical reasoning bastions, and getting the data I need in order to support my claims.  But at the same time, a lot of the background research I have to do is very difficult to lock on to. Sifting through countless articles on mental illness is something of a chore, but its necessary in order to get the data I need to construct my arguments. On the other hand, sifting through this data also reveals a lot of important factors I need to be thinking about when designing my game, as well as tips for what a well-designed game will actually look like.

For example, it wasn't until I started doing my background psychology research that I realized there was already a discipline of psychology (positive psychology) that was closely linked with studies on play, and which already understood that the mechanisms in games can be used to promote human happiness. That's a ton of pre-existing data I can use in order to structure my game in such a way as to promote joy. Furthermore  researching the gender gap in depression really draws attention to not only what makes women happy, but also the stressors that they face, and the difficulties I'm going to experience in designing products that both fit their busy schedules and also encourage them to take more time for themselves.

I learned some very valuable things. I should be designing a game that is very moral in how it treats its player. The game should not encourage play outside twenty hours a day, so as to avoid gamer regret and accusations of 'addiction.' The game can and should encourage the player to experience happiness-producing actions outside of the game (recommending that players take breaks, meet up with friends in real life, or which offer praise and incentives for doing things like household chores.) My game can actually help gamify a woman's life, and like games like Superbetter, it can improve both her relationship with the game and her overall mental wellbeing. How could I have known that my main character should reward the player for doing her real-life chores, if I hadn't studied these things?

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.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

The "Hit List"

Today at SCAD Hong Kong (Savannah College of Art and Design) the subject is the "Hit List." According to the very brief summary in the syllabus, assignment 2 is "The Industry and Hit List (Choose ten companies and decide on a focus.)"

Now most students operate on a strange form of hearsay. We don't really know much about the world, and to be honest its kinda huge and unfathomable and vague at the moment, so our opinions concerning what our job opportunities are and where we will be happy is built from the opinions of other people.

And so most students, when confronted with the Hit List assignment, would end up engaging in a process somewhat similar to this.

  1. Start with empty document
  2. Place studio of favorite game at top of list (Skip this step if suffering from low self confidence)
  3. Place studio of several lesser known artistic games on list
  4. Activision and EA are tyrants
  5. Getting into a Japanese company is too hard because they are too insular
  6. Put Ubisoft and Bioware on list
  7. Realize you haven't filled in the list, just start putting down 'cool' games companies who did games you like
  8. Hand in & move to the west coast
Let me tell you about my class's experience with the Hit List.

The first thing you need to know is that my professor makes a strong argument for the case that not everyone is supposed to go out and get a job working for a big name company. A lot of students are going to want to try and launch their own studios. Some of them just don't like being told what to do, others want creative freedom, some want to choose the projects they'll work on, and still others will simply have a knack for it. 

From this vantage point, if we aren't interested in getting a job, our experience might be more like taking a look at our 'environment' as game designers. We need to look at everyone around us who a) can help us or b) has a good example of 'how it's done' that we can reference.

Even from this vantage point, however, we're subject to a lot of hearsay, prejudice, and insular research. Maybe now our intellectual steps in leading to our Hit List would go something like this:
  1. You'd just be treated like a cog in a big name company, and you'd never be able to make decisions.
  2. Small companies have to do stupid 'snack,' Hello Kitty, and movie promotion games, and basically sell their souls to the devil in order to make money. 
  3. If you had to people in suits to financially help you out, you would have no creative freedom and you'd be a slave to the person paying you.
  4. Start off making small apps and iPhone games with help of friend who is interested in going into games business with you. 
  5. So fill the list either with: small artistic companies to join, companies you want your company to be like, and/or friends who can help you start your own. 
Some of these statements may be true or slightly true; others may be false. Whichever they are, they still stem from an incomplete way of looking at things, and a faulty logical reasoning process. Furthermore, they come from a failure to accurately define that thing inside of us- as game designers- that makes us passionate about games.

One of the most important things my teacher does for any new student on a graduate level is to question every statement they make. To us it seems antagonistic, passive aggressive, frustrating, and disrespectful in the face of our passions, hopes, and dreams. But the fact of the matter is that while "I'm passionate about video games," seems to be a complete grammatical sentence, it isn't actually a solid idea. You can't figure out where to go with your life, or what's really going to make you happy, with that statement. 

My professor digs at the route of what makes us who we are. Why do we love games? Why did we first start playing them? What emotional, mental, psychological needs do they sate? When we play, what are we really looking for? And more than that, when we create, what is it about games that we're so fascinated with that we feel we NEED to create anything at all?

He also forces us to examine our emotional drives independent of our artistic drives. As an artist, a character designer might be fascinated with a certain style of shape, movement, or coloration. But as an individual, that character designer might actually be motivated to go into games because they are interested in group dynamics, culture, or international conflict, and they perceive games to be the proper medium, the proper vehicle, for their expressions. 

When we go out and find jobs from SCAD, we aren't just identifying a neat company and sending in our resume. We are much more active than that. First of all, we don't limit ourselves to big American companies. There are local companies in Hong Kong who have ties all over the globe that come in every week to talk to us students. We print business cards ASAP, develop a network, and soon we know a guy who lives next to Steve Jobs (or did, sniff) and might be able to recommend us to a Scandinavian company working on precisely the sort of interesting problems we most enjoy. 

So when we make a Hit List, we aren't just looking for company names. We are looking to do an in depth research-based assessment into the rest of our lives. We are looking at what each company has to say about itself, who the founder is, what the vision of the company is, what idea/theory/artist's-statement holds them united. We want to know who is in charge of each company, what they eat, what they do with their lives, do they travel, are they a member of the NRA, what do they have to say about Starbucks? What company culture is like, and the campus, and overtime?

And more importantly, who do we have to go out and meet who can introduce us to these people and get us a real interview? We weren't researching our environment; we were researching our ecosystem.


When I graduate from SCAD, I am probably going to launch my own studio. At least, that's what I think I'm going to do... ehm... To be honest, when I entered this quarter at SCAD, I was something in a funk. Over Christmas break I had realized I didn't quite know what I was doing or where I was going. I knew that I had gone to the right place- that Hong Kong and SCAD were both right for me- but I was caught by the fact that I really didn't have any idea what I was doing with my life.

The Hit List is specific to the person who writes it. Not just in terms of what companies they pick, but in terms of what they are even looking for. Making the Hit List requires doing a lot of research, and the knowledge available out there to be 'searched' is infinite in nature. It is imperative that the student start with some kind of vision, quest, or dream so that they can limit down the scope of their research. "I'll go wherever the wind blows me," is a good plan B, but it's an attribute of yours and not any way to formulate a Hit List. Not unless you want to find your future job employment opportunities by drawing lots (and then forming a list of all the potential options would take an infinite long amount of time).

So in order to do the Hit List, I had to move from 'free bird' to having a goal again. And I had to take a long hard look at how I feel, what I've been doing, what I've been frustrated about, any emotional discomfort I've experienced that might be shading my judgement, and the core of what makes me, well, me.

I wasn't precisely who I thought I was!

Good thing I like me better. It took a very interesting struggle. Even though I had no hard facts or data obtained as a result, my entire view on my prospects, my current projects, my future goals, and my own value did a turnabout. I realized that I was the sort of person to open my own studio. In fact, I'm entrepreneurial.  I want to start multiple businesses, get each to reach a level of stable success, do something big and new and different with each, and then sell it and start up a new business and repeat. I wasn't who I thought I was at all. I was the problem solving wing of a business partnership; I had it in me to want to be a CEO, and I most likely have it in me to be a good one.  

I didn't truly believe that before this assignment. 

Let me show you some of the Hit List I composited with my professor's aid, so you can get an idea of the base I've started with. My goal was to find creative and business talent that might be willing to help me, that I could partner with, or that I could study and ask questions from:

  1. Two preliminary locations I could mine my teacher for information on: Hong Kong for ease of setting up a new buisness; Canada for business tax credits that can help a new studio in its infant years.
    1. Ontario is trying to attract video games. They recently pulled in a division of Ubisoft, but they're offering up to 40% tax credits and tons of support structures for games to move in and currently have only 14% of Canada's industry. 
  2. Hong Kong Commons (Sheung Wan + Lai Chi Kok) offers cheap office space.
    1. Has an Incubator
    2. Jung Lee, was in American and Chinese Real Estate... corporate Lawyer... Huge Interest in Games. Interested in solving Big Problems like Hunter, Education, and Health. He's overseen a lot of Indie Stuff. He's the incubator for a company by someone else I need to look into (Claus). Studied Columbia University. Helped found the commons. Involved with Pacific Rim Private Equity. Interested in Early stage technological, social, and cross-borders companies. 
    3. Brian Ng- still researching
    4. Charlotte Wu - still researching
  3. Cyberport (Space) 
    1. Incubator called Incutrain
    2. Outplace, a very successful publisher group and games company, run by Yat Lee (Grew up in Austria, at the Conservatory he studied Classical music) He may invest, bring you to his company, help you out, acquire your company, etc
    3. Has Creative Microfund and Incubation program
    4. Enterepenuer, Knowledge, Collaboration portals. (& Success Stories to study)
    5. Will help through Seed (Microfund) STartup (Incubation) and Market Growth.
    6. Lots of discounts, financial assistance, office space (if needed). Peer Group, Consulting, etc. 
  4. Claus: The founder of 3D Avatar School, currently in Jung Lee's Incubator, he's started tons of creative businesses and done consulting work, he is a great person to meet and ask about how to launch a new studio. 
    1. Realized games were important to his kids, wanted to investigate them further.
    2. Has done a lot with using virtual spaces to try and make real world results  such as virtual world businesses, education in virtual spaces, etc.  (Synchronous Communication)
    3. Might be someone I want to Intern with if he has job openings
    4. His investor heard about him through a banker who learned about Claus from a Tedx Conference. 
    5. Has surrounded himself with the talent he needs. He has someone on business  education, foreign language education, a CTO, a chief of production, etc. Clearly I need to know him better. 
    6. Won Hong Kong ICT Award Best Start-Up Buisness (Offered by Cyberport ;)
    7. He likes travel, and recently went on a trip to Sri Lanka where he photographed locals, environments, and elephants. 
  5. Sources of Money in the Government:
    1. Create Hong Kong (CreateHK). Mostly Film, 300 million dollars investment fund in small companies and innovative ideas while employing new people. Jerry Liu.
    2. Invest Hong Kong (Invest HK) Hook you up for free with people, services, makes inquiries for you, helps get things done behind the scenes. Person to know is Wendy Chau for here and Creatieve Industries
  6. Innocenter: Free office space for designers
    1. Science Park: same management, mostly for health, and has game studios that work with health. 
  7. If I want to sell in China, there is a single gate keeper, and behind that the market is arguably very big. But then I have to identify who this person is and find someone who knows them.  I know some people who know this process (Adam)
  8. If I want to continue forward with Agon and Alea (I do, after some soul searching) then I need to know people who buy products for venues frequented by women. Someone to know might be Joyce Ma. How does she buy? I'd need to know a lot about her and how she makes decisions and postures/positions herself in the marketplace. 
  9. If you have selling figured out, then getting a business incubated is easy. You need respect for the fact that the business must grow and that the products must sell to get incubated. 
  10. My strengths/weaknesses: It's very easy to get me into problem solving with my skills, and to point discussions towards the skills I already know.
    1. We need to make sure this strength doesn't come off as 'afraid' of new topics; I need to show how I am unafraid to investigate areas, stay in those areas of discomfort, admit that I'm not sure, admit that I need to investigate more, and still be able to present a strong plan.
I had to know some things about myself to come up with this list, and also to figure out what to do with it next:
  • I have no destination, no perfect studio, and no perfect job. I want to identify opportunities and then explore them, to do and try lots of things. I want to work on many kinds of projects
  • I want to solve many interesting  sorts of problems. The way I solve problems is by injecting life into an area where there is none. I want to turn virtual worlds into personalized make-believe. I want to work with engines of simulation and discover how to pace them and work stories into them. I want to create virtual reality pets. 
  • I want to put myself into many situations with unique constraints and succeed. To always seek out new areas with new boons and new constraints, which need 'life' and to successful work with those constraints and boons to build new life.
  • I want to observe and learn how to be a successful life-long entrepenuer.
  • I enjoy tackling a difficult problem, building it up to a stable level, and then moving on to a new problem.  (I actually play video games this way. I play until my level of satisfaction under difficult circumstances.)
  • I will be the vision holder, the problem-solving creative talent that makes a project work. Will be the CEO. 
  • I will require a lot of help. I need to learn, be taught, and surround myself with advisers mentors, partners, and outside experience.  I need this to get where I really want to be.  You cannot run a company alone, or in a vacuum. 
  • I want to be a polyglot and world traveler. 
  • I want to be able to visit my family at least once yearly.
  • The cat goes where I go.
This translates into a sort of road map for the future, which I can crosscheck with my professor.
  • I need to publish small pieces of my own material, with a 3 or 4 man team, so I can begin to fathom what it's like to have one's own company. 
  • I need to get an internship over the summer semester, which will give me the opportunity to watch how someone else does things. To this end, I know that I want to work in an established small to mid sized studio, which makes games and has several games under the belt, and that I want to be mentored by someone high up to be given a birds eye view of the company.
  • When I graduate, or before I graduate, I will need to go under someone's wing. I need a business partner, and I will likely be going into an incubator. 
Which translates into some website requirements
  • I need to sell myself and my own skills. Myself is: A creative problem solver. Therefore, my website should demonstrate how I solve a wide variety of problems creatively. 
  • To the internship company, I will need to position myself as a high level intern who can handle a lot of responsibilities and a wide variety of tasks, and an interest in discovering what it is that company leaders really do. 
  • For potential sources of grant money, I must show my interest in solving compelling problems, especially because I really am interested in bringing technical jobs to developing economies, working to improve culture (particularly for women), and language and health education through games. 
  • For incubators, business men, and investors, I must show my interest and respect for business, and that I am studying these attributes and sensitive to them when making my design considerations. It is to my benefit that I am interested in making a very wide variety of games (all of which I will be able to make well), because I will be able to pitch myself (and the business plan) as opposed to attaching myself too closely to the game. 

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Near Death and Restoration of an Acer Aspire One

While I was packing to return home for Christmas Break, I was assailed by a sour sensation (I love alliteration too, but that's another story). In Hong Kong I have a power gaming Desktop PC I built from scratch, an ancient 7-year-old Dell Latitude which I'd converted into a Mac using tech magic so that I had a development machine for iPad games (long story), and an iPad2. This was a good setup. I had the gaming, Mac, and portable/mobile note-taking-and-such angles all taken care of.

But I was going home for Christmas. I couldn't bring my PC. My PC, which not only has all of my games, but also is home to all my windows-only versions of creative software. There was nothing for me to use back in America. We hadn't updated our 'family computer' for the last decade. It ran as slow as chocolate pudding. Ugh. How was I going to game? The old 1990s games that ran on my Dell laptop in the past were Windows only, and couldn't run on it now. And how was I going to do anything neat, creative, or productive? Bleck. I'd just have to hope that Dad had one of the other kids' old laptops lying around, or that he'd let me use his own desktop.

It's kind of a sin to touch another person's computer- or to ask to share in it- but what choice did I have?

When I came home I eventually set about looking for my external HDD so I could make a backup of things on the American end of things (also a long story, the HDD is dead /sadface). When I went to pick it up out of my drawer, I realized there was a white tech object in the drawer, maybe ten inches long, five inches wide? What was it?

Oh my god! It was my tiny Acer Aspire One! I remember you, little guy! Oh my goodness, I loved you in college! You were such a relief after hauling around a massive laptop across a huge campus! And- holy crap! Last I remember, I installed all my old Adobe Creative Suite CS3 stuff on you!!! Is it still all there!?

I asked for my Aspire One probably halfway through Junior year, for Christmas, and it was a godsend. Some people have no problem hauling around a book full of laptop gear and textbooks. Not me. I was dying with nothing else in my super-duper-padded-comfy laptop backpack but a single Latitude D630. My Aspire One was like a featherweight, and far more convenient and friendly. I took it everywhere. I took notes on it for everything. I left it behind when I went to Hong Kong because of space issues and apartment hunting.

But there it was, all beautiful and pearly and shiny. I turned it on and it had a bunch of 1990's games all ready for me, and all my CS3 programs. Now an Acer Aspire One is a tiny little cutie pie, so if I wanted to game and draw without straining myself, I would have to hook it up to a monitor and an external keyboard and mouse. But still! It was more powerful than anything else my dad had lying around, and had more hard drive space. Best of all, it was all mine, so I didn't have to invade anyone else's personal computer space to have it.

There's something I should mention.

Both my Aspire One and my Dell-Mac have critically ill batteries. They can't be unplugged, or they power down.

So as I was trying to fix my external HDD (long story, still dead, making clicking noise, probably irrecoverable without making a monetary commitment) I got up to grab a can of cola and eat some dinner. In the process I tripped over my Acer power cord and jerked it right out of the machine, but fortunately the Acer stayed firmly on the table and didn't fall to the ground. Seemed good to me. I came back from eating and settled down to power on the computer.

Boot Normally. Yadayadayada-


...  Oh. Crap.

Boot with last settings. Bluescreen. Safe mode? Bluescreen. Safe mode with command prompt. Networking? Bluescreen Bluescreen Bluescreen.

Oh crap. It's a netbook. There's no CD drive. I can't boot from disk. No! Wait! I know you can boot from a pen drive/USB stick/etc... you just have to set it up, it's a bit of work if you don't buy one straight from Microsoft. Right? I'm sure of it! I start researching on my iPad.

My Mac can't access the internet and my dad has an old laptop whose CD drive doesn't work very well. I start off on the Mac and try to make an .iso and then an .img file from the original disks using the Terminal and burn it onto a pen drive. I try it all out, but the Acer won't even try to boot from it. Hmm. Poopy. Something's up.

I'm worried because I only have a 500 MB flash drive my mother lent me for this task (when you are constantly and rigorously cleaning out your drives, repositories  and clouds like I do, you might not need more space than that, so I don't even own a bigger Flash Drive back in HK). But then I research the problem on my iPad and realize the Bios may need to be flashed, and that the Acer may have trouble booting from anything other than the HDD without that flash.

Flash a Bios? Uhhh... Well... I've never done that. Ever. I mean I think I installed a Bios update once on a Dell, but it was safe and secure and part of some regular update... thing I mean... I mean...

I have no idea what I'm getting into, but I am determined to save my Acer. Because people like me don't just roll over and give up.

I find some extremely complicated sounding instructions on a web forum that say I need to download a bios update from the acer website, rename several of the files inside, pull them into a flash drive, put the flash drive in the left USB slot on the laptop, and then hold Fn+Esc while powering on my computer in order to flash the Bios.

See: (

Okay. I tried that. Now I try to boot from the USB and... DARN! IT doesn't work! What could be wrong? Maybe it has to do with that 500 MB limit. I ask my dad for a bigger Flash drive, which he supplies, and then I transfer over into Windows. Maybe the different 'ideology' behind Windows will help me overcome whatever wall I hit with the mac. I mean, of course it could just be that I was using too small a device when I created the .iso/.img. But on the other hand perhaps I really did need some 3rd party softward like Ubuntu, and the Mac is internet-less, so installing things is more of a hassle.

I pull out the laptop Dad had offered to let me use, which has about the same specs as my Acer despite being a whole bunch larger and heavier, and slower (It's running Windows 7 instead of my Acer's trimmed down XP). I start looking for some information online. A lot of guides want me to manually push around files for whom the download links have already expired. That's no good. At last I stumble upon a program called WinSetupFromUSB. It feels like the creators don't speak English as their first language, and their 'home page' is a forum posting, but on the other hand it should be able to take care of everything I need.

I test out a few XP disks at home, conscious each time that I am using a computer with an 'iffy' DVD drive now, and that if it goes, I will have no recourse other than to retreat to the Mac and send software to it via the 500 MB USB my mum had lent me. Either that or I could try torrenting, since I already have a XP license. I wonder if it matters what service pack I use, or if all of them will get me equal results. It turns out that a SP3 copy is the only kind that plays nice with WinSetupFromUSB. I get all ready to make the USB bootable with Windows XP. I set up my options following an online tutorial and press "GO!"

WinSetupFromUSB fails from the get go. It tells me can't copy some file from the MBR, which I understand to mean Master Boot Record, and either means that I should be using a different format, or else that the solution I'm looking for is a Fat32 based solution. Eh. I start searching for the error message online, and I come across a forum post. In it, someone is trying to make a USB stick bootable for Windows 7. The replier answers that it doesn't matter what software the user is trying to put on the USB, the problem is with the USB itself. He recommends downloading RMPrepUSB and using it to A) Format the USB stick and B) copy the missing MBR related file over to the USB stick using a button on the RMPrepUSB interface.

Now that I think about it, this is familiar from when I turned my Dell into a Mac. Back then I had needed a boot loader called Chameleon, and it looked like this 'file' for the MBR was also a boot loader (But it went by some crazy name that I couldn't pronounce, much less remember. I download RMPrepUSB, format the USB stick to be XP/Bart bootable (hey I recognize BartPE, I've used it before! But I digress...) and Fat32, and then I press the button to copy over the MBR special ingredient.

Now I head back over to WinSetupFromUSB (Even though it looks like RMPrepUSB MIGHT be able to do something similar to WinSetupFromUSB, I'm using a tutorial, and I don't want to wander off the beaten path for no good reason). I put all my settings back in- location, destination, Fixed, GO! This time there's no error. Everything begins to load into my USB stick.

MUAHAHAHAH, I feel invincible!

I nab my USB stick when finished, plug it into my Acer, and successfully manage to boot from it.

Oh god, it's a disaster in there. First of all it looks like the computer can't even tell Windows was ever installed on it. Tutorials say to highlight my partition with my installation and push R to repair. Snort. Snicker. I don't even get that option. When I try to find it, It let's me know why it won't repair the installation, and it won't try and do a clean install over the space without reformatting and wiping out all my data. It tells me everything is so corrupted and broken inside that it can't make heads nor tails of the situation, and it demands a reformat. No! I'd just found files on that Acer that I hadn't seen in years! I need to back them up! And those programs- I don't have the disks for those programs, they're all in Hong Kong!

I backtrack and go through the recovery console. A few times. In between fiddling with other things. Because I hate command prompts and the recovery console immediately disagrees with me. It doesn't use the commands I learned for Mac and when I type in "DIR"...


I type in "DIR" so that the recovery console will list the contents of whatever folder I'm in. I should start out at C:\ But when I type in DIR, the recovery console tells me there's an error with device enumeration. It displays no information. From top to bottom, my entire drive is inaccessible, broken- in fact it's difficult to even detect the format that data SHOULD be in.

All this... because I tripped over a power cord?

I fiddle around with things like FixBoot and FixMBR, but nothing works. The computer claims to be able to fix the boot record with FixBoot, but the C:\ directory still shows nothing, and of course the computer does not successfully boot to windows without a blue screen. How do I navigate to drive D:\, my usb stick? Ugh I'm so un used to the windows command line, and chdir D, D:, and D:\ are all not working!

I'm told I should use CHKDISK but I tried that out in the very beginning of my list of endeavors  and the computer yelled at me to say AUTOCHK.EXE could not be found on the drive or CD ROM and I needed to supply a path to it. What? I try the default path that Google tells me it should be at: C:\Windows\System32 but ah... well if I couldn't find C, why do you think I can find C\Windows or C\Windows\System32? Remember when I tried that DIR command? Nothin'.  The internet tries to be helpful and tells me there's a backup copy in a dllcache file, which would be useful, if, ya know, my C drive were accessible. But it's not.

Dad comes in and tells me to just type in D: into the console, not chdir D:\ and suddenly I can access my pen drive. Only I can't see any folders into which AUTOCHK.EXE might be. There are two directories that start with a $ character, which I understand usually to be temporary, and which yell "ACCESS DENIED" at me anyway for some reason. There aren't any more sensible directories. This is strange, but a combination of the internet and past experience tells me there should be a directory called I368 or some permutation of those numbers on the original disks somewhere that has files and utilities like AUTOCHK.EXE.

I take the USB stick and plug it back into the windows computer and examine it. Sure enough there's no I### folder on there. I navigate through the installation disks Aha! An I386 folder (I had two numbers swapped, but that's pretty good don't you think?)  I drag it over onto my pen drive to sit with all the other bootable goodies. It takes awhile to copy, but at last I bring it over and plug it back into my Acer.

I turn on the Acer. I boot from the USB stick. I run the recovery console. I run CHKDSK or whatever its called. I try to let it know- from memory, since it keeps all my directories Access Denied from me- where the AUTOCHK.EXE file is. Not that hard, it's just in the I386 folder right? I cross my fingers.


It runs.

I let it run.

I type in DIR when it is finished.

The contents of my C drive display correctly.

I let loose a whoop of excitement, exit form the recovery console, and try to start windows normally.

It works. The Acer is functional. Everything is alive. My programs are fine. My Google Chrome is patiently awaiting my orders. And would you look at that! Flashing the Bios appears to have fixed the Acer's battery! Oh isn't today the most wonderful of days? I need a nap. And a beer. And a cat. Why didn't I bring home my Bamboo tablet to fix that too? I wonder if that hard drive is really dead, or if it's only mostly dead. I need some billows. Goodnight, and thanks be to the Omnipotent: For the Acer was dead, and by the power invested in me it has risen again!