Tag Archives: thesis

The Finish Line Is Back There a Bit

I submitted my PhD thesis the other day.

This is a rather excellent development.

I think I’m happy with how it turned out. Though, of course, I’m not really willing to re-open it and check just yet. I’ll wait and see what the examiners say, and in the meantime, I will try to recover from the final stretch. I took six weeks off work to finish the thesis—a time period in which I took about three days off thesis work, not including the time I spent preparing and presenting a paper at the Games Research Methods Symposium at Sydney Uni (a really interesting conference, but from a timing perspective it wasn’t my greatest decision). I worked myself beyond exhaustion, lost track of the day several times, and still had to make compromises on several aspects and processes. I had to avoid Twitter to keep my mental health above water. I had to employ several fine-toothed combs, including one to remove spaces around em-dashes (a bad habit), one to ensure the use of Oxford commas (easy things to miss, it turns out), and one to switch out the singular ‘they’ (a good habit, but a PhD thesis isn’t the time to fight that battle). EndNote caused a day of intense frustration when it started changing citations of its own volition. And while most aspects of the formatting style I’d previously used for my honours thesis could be re-used to save trouble, I did have to switch the font in the end. But all told, I think it turned out well.

My initial plan, going into this PhD, was to study the intersection of thematic and gameplay genres. However, I soon found semiotics to be a more interesting and less well-trod path. My thesis ended up being a very substantial development of the work I started in my “Meaningful Play” article: a semiotic framework capable of analysing the initial composition and interactive configuration of game music separately (because there are some quite different processes going on in each). I was quite impressed by the idea of the player’s authorship of their experience—a concept which is not new in studies of games, but which had yet to be fully applied to game music, and which gets really interesting when comparing gameplay to other forms of play. With the exception of some work on Microsoft Flight, all of the analysis and writing I’ve done over the last five and a half years has made it into the thesis in some way. However, there are several avenues of investigation that came up during my study that I didn’t have time or space to pursue. I dropped four potential chapters, and still nearly hit my word limit.

In between afternoon naps, I’ve been trying to think of things to do with my reacquired freedom. I’m presenting a conference paper in December, but I’ve decided not to do any academic work until September to give myself a break. I’ve been reading for leisure again, which is nice. I’ve got time for photography, including astro and analogue. And there’s a mountain of unplayed games in my Steam library to play through. But I’ve also completed my strategy of encouraging thesis progress through self-bribery. I found that I was much more likely to write when I set myself goals with tangible rewards, and for the ultimate reward I decided to aim for a MIDI controller. I’ve been itching to make music, to play some piano, and even to compose. So I’ve bought a device with plenty of scope for productivity and experimentation, and am having quite a lot of fun playing around with music again. I might even try my hand at making some game music—coming at my object of study from the other direction, as it were.

Anyway, thanks for reading up to this point. I plan to keep writing (who knows? I might even do so more frequently), because games and music are excellent things. Somehow, writing my thesis hasn’t crippled my ability to enjoy either. I think that must be some kind of miracle.

Don’t Leave Things for Later

Don’t leave things for later.

I’m nearing the end of my thesis. After I finished my literature review chapter I did an audit of what’s remaining. I rediscovered some parts of chapters I had left ‘for later’, things that I didn’t feel like writing in more detail at the time. Having expected to be wrapping things up by now, I’m strongly yet ineffectually rebuking my past self for my inaction. Instead of methodically checking references, spelling, grammar and fonts, I’m frantically writing, splicing, deleting and correcting.

Don’t leave things for later.

One of those things is my EVE Online chapter, which needed a lot of work. In the course of patching up the holes, I’ve been observing how much EVE has changed over the last year. Having not played it much since my corp lost its wormhole, I’ve missed a fair bit. DUST 514 is no more, Valkyrie and Gunjack are released but unattainable (VR hardware is not cheap), and EVE being what it is, both the game and its players have continued their evolutions. EVE is no longer a familiar place in a distant sky.

Don’t leave things for later.

Games change, they grow old, they die. They get reborn as curios, as museum pieces, as academic objects of study. Or they’re forgotten. I stumbled over the Microbee Software Preservation Project while I was researching dead and dying games for a paper on Microsoft Flight. I had pretty much forgotten about the Microbee until that point, but I had been thinking for a while that a preservation project for Australian video game music would be a worthwhile endeavour. Who else would do it? There are Australian game preservation efforts, and video game music preservation efforts, but not much overlap. And game hardware is the limiting factor—the computers that run them, and the disks and tapes the software is stored on. These are becoming rarer each year, and while much has been preserved by fantastically awesome volunteer types, there is still a risk that much could be lost.

Don’t leave things for later.

Literally a Long, Long Time

Last night I finished the first complete draft of the literature review chapter of my thesis. It’s 10,455 words long, and according to my versioning system it’s the 20th draft file. The first draft file is dated 26 August 2014.

Writing a literature review is an interesting exercise. In my experience at least, there’s not a great deal of official information out there about what a literature review is, or what it should contain. I’ve found it a constant challenge to find out what’s required of me throughout this PhD adventure (pro tip: try not to be left off the mailing list when you start a new degree), but even accounting for that there’s a dearth of information on literature review formats or expectations. Perhaps it’s the relatively self-explanatory title of the concept. “A literature review is… a review… of the literature…? Duh.”

Anyway, early on I was dreading the thought of the anomalous excercise of writing the lit review. And when I started, I kept getting hung up on it. So many times I’d start doing work on it, then flounder so completely that work on the whole thesis would stagnate. This is my excuse for the chapter taking almost three years to complete. Three to four years is the regular timeframe for a full-time PhD in Australia, and while I’ve been part-time since early 2015 this chapter has still been an excruciatingly long endeavour. When something is repeatedly difficult, it becomes difficult to even pick up your work on it, let alone to get it finished.

Something changed this year, though. Or started to change last year. I took some time off work mid-2016 so that I could get deeper into the study mindset for a while, and wrote 20,000 words in a month. So, I did it again late-2016 and it didn’t work quite so well (not sure why). I tried it again over Easter and got sick twice in two weeks, the frustration of which seems to have extended my fervour for thesis work beyond the typical pattern (finally!). But something that did happen in these attempts was that for some bizarre reason I was kind of having fun.* There is an art to collecting, collating, and presenting information concisely. It requires a certain amount of creativity to determine what to include, how to include it, and how to relate it to everything else that’s included. Ludomusicological semiotics draws on a lot of fields — semiotics, musicology and game studies at the very least. The process of diving into each of these fields, threshing the salient points from the gritty details, weaving them into a coherent representation within 2,000 words or so, then dashing on to do the same thing for another entire body of work, is kind of a rush when it’s done at the pace of the final stages of a PhD.

But I think I also just enjoyed seeing a snapshot of the full context of my work. In a young field, it’s easy to feel as though you need to justify your choice of study before you can even discuss it. Reviewing the literature gave me a perspective on my work that relates it not only to the ludomusicological literature of the last decade and a half, but to the literature of several well-established fields that go back much further. The most encouraging part of that is to see that my work is not an outlandish endeavour; similar things have been done before, in similar ways and for similar reasons.

But, said work is not finished yet. There’s still a fair bit to do before my submission date (early August), and I’ve no doubt it will not be fun. Bloggings may well be as sparse as they have been lately. But hey, the end is now certainly in sight, and there’s one less seemingly insurmountable hurdle in the way.

 

*This statement is possibly the nerdiest thing I’ve ever written.

Formatting for Fun and Profit

One of the most valuable writing techniques I’ve picked up from my supervisor (there are several) is the habit of using simple and obvious formatting to mark out what needs editing. These are basic things that are simple to implement in Word, but which let you see immediately what needs doing to a block of text. While it’s sometimes convenient to use comments or similar markup, comments a) require more work to add, and b) require you to read them to know what’s going on. The simplest method I’ve found is to use colour.

My editing markup consists of a few main colours:

  • I use orange when I don’t know if I want to keep some text because it’s silly or whatever. This is the best one, because you can just write stuff, mark it as questionable, and keep writing. Allows increasing the efficiency of your word count gains.
  • I use red when something msut be canhged beacuse its worng.
  • I use red in square brackets for:
    • Referencing at the end of sentences when I’m lazy.[reference Hart, 2016]
    • Telling myself what to do because [finish this sentence when you’re less lazy]
  • I use bold blue for headings that I’m not 100% sure on
  • I use purple for text that I’m adapting and need to revise (e.g. when I’m adapting a paper into a thesis chapter)

It’s simple stuff, but it stands out immediately. It’s also a good way to remind yourself that you’ll be editing things later and the important thing right now is to just write already.

Anyway, what techniques do you use to help you get words on the page?

HOWTO: PhD Procrastination through Computer Hardware

One of the greatest distractions available when studying a computer-based medium is the computer. And the computer is made up of parts. These parts are cool and totally have thesis-based functions. Here’s how to devote as much of your PhD-writing time to them as possible.

 

Controller

I should have got one of these ages ago. A controller (like this XBOX 360 Controller for Windows) can close the gap between console and PC gaming for ease of use, if you think controllers are easier to use than a mouse and keyboard. They’re not, but whatever. For certain edge cases they’re invaluable: games made with controllers in mind, driving games, and games that have been half-heartedly ported from consoles (this is one of the reasons I only started playing Dark Souls recently). If you don’t have a controller, get one, and then re-play all those games that felt clumsy with a mouse and keyboard.

Procrastiation gain: 2+ weeks.

 

Joystick

The former go-to input device for computer gaming, the joystick is now more of a specialist device for simulations involving movement of a plane or a spaceship. But as anyone who’s ever tried to land a biplane on a grass runway using a keyboard will tell you, the joystick is still really good at what it does. If you don’t have a joystick, get one, load up a flight sim, and feel like a pro instantly.

Ludomusicology trivia: the book Music in Video Games: Studying Play features a joystick on its cover. Its usefulness to the pictured conductor is doubtful, however, given that the joystick is around the wrong way. I question whether the person who photoshopped the joystick onto the standard book series image has ever played a game.

Procrastination gain: 10 minutes per painfully slow runway approach, up to your boredom threshold. Multiply by 100+ if you own a VR headset and play Elite: Dangerous, because that is without a doubt the most amazing thing out there.

 

Mechanical keyboard

Making words flow from your hands is pretty cool, so why not do it noisily? Mechanical keyboards are currently hot stuff among computer gamers and typists alike because they feel better, they’re faster, they sometimes let you hold down more keys at once, and there are plenty of configuration options to suit your preferences. Mine has RGB backlighting with various effects; the “rain” effect set to bright green is currently taking me back to when I was 15 and The Matrix was the most awesome thing anybody had ever seen. I’ve also added o-rings to the back of each key to add some refinement to the clackity-clack.

Productivity gain: A few words per minute.

Procrastination gain: Several weeks research, plus extra time waiting for your perfect configuration to be back in stock, plus extra time for modding it when it’s not quite perfect after all.

 

Headphones

Headphones help you hear things. Mine are old and plastic-squeaky, so moving my jaw/chewing food/speaking to team mates in-game while playing is very loud. Needless to say this is not exactly the kind of thing headphones are supposed to help you hear. However, if you keep your jaw really still you can hear a few things that don’t come through the speakers well, or that would otherwise be muffled by city noise, and you can more clearly observe stereo effects.

Productivity gain: Bonus analytical accuracy.

Procrastination gain: Gosh darn, better play that game again with headphones in case I missed something.

 

The guts

Computers are complex machines that are made up of building blocks that fit together in standardised ways. Like Lego for nerds. They reward endless amounts of tinkering with either significant additions of functionality, slight performance improvements, or crippling system instability. Which of those you get is pretty much down to the luck of the draw.

Until recently I was running an extra video card in order to do more BOINC science tasks. I also run a nice sound card, and I’ve set up the fans to run extra cool and extra quiet so I can hear said sound card’s beautiful work. But I’ve recently stopped overclocking because it was causing random instabilities. I can’t honestly say I’ve noticed the performance drop, but my nerd cred hurts.

Procrastination gain: 1 hour per part installation or upgrade, plus 6 hours troubleshooting per part installation or upgrade. Also add 1 week per overclocking episode.

 

Portable computer

For when the computers at uni are also used by undergrads. A great thing to take with you to cafes, libraries and holidays so you can maintain the self-impression of productivity while chilling out. Basically the same as a desktop computer but less tinker-able. However, keen players can install an additional OS or three for multiplicative software maintenance requirements. Also, due to lower hardware resource overheads there’s often more incentive to spend time “optimising” how it runs.

Procrastination gain: An hour a month per OS for software updates. Several hours over the length of the PhD trying to connect to various WiFi networks (I’m looking at you Eduroam).

 

Printer/scanner/multifunction device

Invaluable for printing articles and for communicating with university departments that haven’t yet digitised any of their paperwork. A mainstay of any home office, the multifunction device (literally: the thing that does all of the things) can also help budding academics to do all of the things. Keen observers will note that I am employing a Hart Industries Make-a-Multifunction Adapter Kit (literally: three pieces of wood and some screws) to minimise device footprint while maintaining full functionality.

Productivity gain: Lets you print and scan things, so you don’t have to trek to a library just to renew society memberships.

Procrastination gain: Kit construction ~1/2 day. Maintenance and upkeep: a few hours whenever you can least spare them (see also Office Space, Mike Judge, 1999).

 

Raspberry Pi

For when your thesis doesn’t contain enough Linux. Useful for nearly any task, but often less useful for any of those tasks than a device created specifically for that task. But look at them, they’re such cute little computers! And a high cable/LED/footprint ratio, so they look like serious business. I have an RPi model B that runs as a print server and a VPN server, and an RPi 2 than does automated backups of my thesis every hour or so. Both also run BOINC science tasks (very slowly, but they’re always on so at least they’re doing something).

Procrastination gain: If you already know how to Linux, 2+ hours every time you think of something else you can make them do. If you don’t know how to Linux, this is a procrastination goldmine of indeterminate depth — good luck.

 

Lo-fi information storage and communication devices

There are three kinds of books: 1. books that tell you stuff, 2. books that tell you stuff that isn’t real, and 3. books where you tell them the stuff. All of these smell better that computers and only require a source of light to be usable (and in case 3, a writing implement). So, in the inevitable event that one of the various proposed apocalypses occurs and worldwide electricity grids go down, you can still complete your PhD on video games the old-school way. Except for the case study chapters. And now with more of a historical than a theoretical flavour. And with a near-crippling suspicion that you’re wasting your life and should probably be out gathering resources (which may or may not be standard anyway).

Productivity gain: Can enable your thesis work to proceed post-apocalypse. At least until you get eaten by a zombie because you were reading and not running — reverts to an interminable state of procrastination at that point

Procrastination gain: You could read a thousand books a day for 100 years and still not get through all the books in the world. Go nuts.

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The Difficulties and Delights of Dark Souls

I’ve been getting into Dark Souls lately. I’ve been playing the Prepare to Die Edition of the first one by myself, and have been playing Dark Souls III with my bro-in-law. Both are excellent. Both are huge. Both are really hard.

What initially made me realise the difficulty of these games was actually coming back to Skyrim after playing Bloodborne which, let’s face it, is basically a Dark Souls game. After having difficulty battling mid-range monsters in Bloodborne, returning to Skyrim and accidentally becoming arch-mage of the Mages’ Guild really highlighted the differences between the difficulty gradients. It seems to me sometimes that Skyrim is so easy that it’s basically about collecting sweet loots. But Dark Souls is so hard that it rewards learning, and that’s really not something you can say about a game very often. The game rewards noticing the patterns that enemies take, and is brutal in its punishment when you don’t. And although I get really frustrated with having to re-play so much after dying so often, I do also really appreciate how much Dark Souls makes you work for your progress.

The one thing I don’t particularly enjoy is how far it is (geographically) between bonfires and boss fights. I don’t find it enjoyable having to fight my way back through 5+ minutes of enemies only to encounter certain death, 10+ times in a row. Grinding is one thing, but this isn’t grinding, it’s just walking. I’m sure there’s a good reason for it somewhere, and I deal with it just fine, it’s just not my preference in a game activity.

I find the use of music in Dark Souls interesting. My best guess at the moment (and I think I’m well under half way through) is that music is used a. at the Firelink Shrine, and b. at a place where you can join a covenant (which also includes the Firelink Shrine atm). But I’m far from sold on this theory. The Ash Lake area is one of these — the first in-game area I’d heard music after Firelink Shrine, and such grand music at that — and it’s huge compared to where you meet Quelaag’s Sister. I also like that when you’re entering Ash Lake the music only begins intermittently, when you’re looking directly at one of the shafts of light descending from the “sky”, and then when you’re on the beach the music becomes constant.

Oh! and also, music is used c. in boss fights. I realised this halfway through fighting Executioner Smough, several tens of hours into Dark Souls. After taking out Ornstein you can keep Smough behind a pillar to avoid damage and just take a swing every so often. This takes a while to get through, and I think eventually I calmed down to a point where the link between gameplay tension and musical tension broke. Which made me realise how much music I hadn’t been noticing. And that makes me think that the music for these boss fights must be near perfectly matched to the action. Very cool.

I also noticed that, while fighting Lautrec of Carim, that there’s another layer of ambient sound added in a musical sort of way (i.e. non-diegetic) — a very atmospheric kind of sound. Now, I’m a fellow who likes his single player games quite single-player-y, so I haven’t invaded any other players’ worlds, and I can’t rule out that this sound might just be the “you’re a phantom now” aural cue. I don’t know. But I’ll find out, because I’m planning a thesis chapter on exactly this kind of use of ambient sound.

Also, I really like that these games have such beautiful worlds. For a games with such dark themes they use light, space and colour very well. And grumble grumble falling off things but it is pretty amazing to have such a masterful use of vertical space in 3D video games.

Between the amazing worlds and the amazing challenge these games present, it’s easy to get lost in them. So far, I’m enjoying this a lot more than I thought I would.

Somewhat miraculously, I’ve also been getting a lot of thesis work done lately. The end appears both in sight and achievable, and that’s fantastic. There’s still a long way to go, but I’m liking how it’s coming together, and I’m starting to believe that it might actually be a worthwhile piece of research.

Re-Welcome!

Welcome to the new Eine Kleine Pwnmusik!

Along with a new site there’s a new platform and a redesign! Well, a new blog theme, but hey. It’s taken me about a year to get around to learning how to WordPress, which is part of the reason this blog has been silent. The other reasons are a) work, b) thesis, and c) I’m lazy.

“I’ve never been a particularly good blog updater type”
— Iain, July 2014

I’ve got a bunch of draft posts that haven’t reached publication yet, so I’ll get some of those pushed out soon. I’ll also get into some of my recent game experiences in Skyrim (finally finished the main quest), EVE Online, and a few indie games I’ve tried lately. Stay tuned!

Satisfaction in abstraction

I’m increasingly aware of a preference I have for the study of abstractions. In its current form, this is manifesting as an enjoyment of musical semiotics, which I’ve been studying for thesis and prospective article purposes. This isn’t a new thing for me, I think. When I started to find undergraduate physics too hard because I’d forgotten how to do integral calculus in the year between school and uni, I majored in pure mathematics instead. I’ve always found the application of mathematical models to real-life situations a bit challenging; on the other hand, algebra for algebra’s sake is satisfying, pure geometry or topology fascinates me, and set theory permeates my thinking about anything quantifiable.

Musical semiotics is a little controversial. On the surface of it, music doesn’t seem able to convey meaning; you can’t say, for instance, that middle C signifies a tree, or love, or the number 231. On the other hand, you could say that music can convey meaning within the external framework of a shared musical pedagogy. In that instance, a perfect cadence could convey a sense of satisfaction if there’s a socially-acknowledged precedent of perfect cadences representing satisfaction. But if this is the case in the Western tradition, there’s nothing to say it must hold in other musical traditions. Furthermore, some have argued that it’s possible to distinguish between a ‘meaning’ and a ‘significance’; that is, what a thing means in and of itself, and what significance external factors can give it in people’s minds. It’s fairly broadly accepted that music can connote — it can be made to signify something within its immediate context — but can it denote, or refer to something outside itself? Some say “yes” and some say “no” (and it sometimes seems that each answer is also followed by “of course, that should be obvious”).

This is barely scratching the surface of the question of musical meaning, let alone how (and if) music in games is meaningful. I know it is meaningful, at very least through its context within the audiovisual text, and I’m pretty sure there are even multiple ways in which it can bear meaning. But proving this in my thesis is shaping up to be a significant (and hopefully quite satisfying) challenge. I’m part way there with my current work, but every new text I read seems to open up further avenues for investigation. I guess I’m just glad that I can include some abstract theorising in my studies. Being able to look beyond the texts I study to the bigger issues, the things that inform, shape and permeate all such texts, and even beyond those things to the small glimpses one gets of how humans work through what they create; this is what, for me, makes this study worthwhile.