Category Archives: Models, Simulations and Games

Jonesy…here Jonesy…

For psychological reasons that I’m rather reluctant to explore, I’m very partial to video games that scare the absolute stuff out of me. It’s no doubt got something to do with the fact that the interactivity of games lends them a particular intensity of immersion that other forms can’t quite reach. The scariest game I’ve ever played is Project Zero II, where at one point, a cup falling off a table at the top of a set of stairs nearly finished me. Creative Assemly’s “Alien Isolation” however, released in 2014, runs it a close second.

This 2015 GDC talk, given by Alistair Hope, the company’s creative director, was a fascinating insight into the game’s development. He showed an early piece of demo footage which ultimately got the game green-lit, seen from a first-person viewpoint aboard the Nostromo spacecraft. Several positives came from the feedback on this demo. These were; the game was about survival – not killing, the player was underpowered an under-prepared in a “pressure cooker” environment, and there was only one alien. The design team was careful to retain these principles during the development of the full game.

An authenticity and respectfulness to the source material was also insisted upon. The development team were given full access to the original 1979 movie’s art assets, and were careful not to include references to any tech after that date. As well as providing a very faithful homage to the movie, this approach also paid off in that the informed player already came with an understanding of the environment as well as the abilities of the main antagonist, adding to the intensity of the experience. There were some crucial aspects to the design of the Alien’s AI. It’sbehaviour was never scripted or predictable, but was at all times sense-driven and reactive to the player’s movement and noise levels. This resulted in some very tense situations when the creature was close by, stalking the area, waiting for the player to panic and move suddenly. This was augmented by some brilliant 3d sound design, in terms of both environmental effects and musical score, which I now realise was designed to fade in and out depending on the creature’s proximity. This I feel counts as a great example of Ian Bogosts’s idea of “procedural rhetoric”. Many computational processes are clearly at work driving the simulation of the monster and its environment, but the affect produced by it all feels very real indeed.

A very enlightening video shows an early build of the game, where the protagonist was shown in third person view, still probably the preferred viewpoint for the genre. It’s amazing the difference this makes to the level of immersion. Being able to see the character’s movements and partially see her face breaks the direct connection with the world. The emotional reactions become hers, not yours. As Alistair Hope himself put it “third person felt like an Alien game, first person felt like Alien.” There was a brief Q&A at the end, which I found a little disappointing. Hope was quite dismissive of a question regarding the length of the game, and whether he felt the intensity of the Alien encounters was compromised by some unnecessary padding in later sections involving different enemy types. Having completed the game I agree with this criticism myself, and feel that the game gets more than enough right to justify a frank discussion of its few failings.


OpenStreetMap is a free to use, collaborative mapping project continually updated by a large community of contributors worldwide.  As it is open data, it is allowed to be used for any purpose, but has come to play an increasingly important role in the area of humanitarian aid. In the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, it was quickly used to build a very complete digital picture of the terrain, buildings and roads in the worst affected areas, proving an invaluable resource to aid workers in the region. Since then, primarily through its tasking manager site, humanitarian crises are tracked and prioritised so the large number of subscribed mappers can use satellite imagery and other resources to get important geographical information to aid workers on the ground.


I recently set up an account with OpenStreetMap in order to begin contributing to the project. The prospect of getting to grips with the tools was a little daunting at first, but there are some excellent tutorials and introductory videos available on which I found to be a great help. Despite the gravity of the work being done the tutorials successfully get across how much the organisers want people to become involved, stressing the value of even a minimal level of involvement, which I found very reassuring.

The process of becoming a contributing mapper is essentially quite simple. After having signed up to the project, you are free to begin contributing to the map of any part of the world you like, by simply searching for the desired location, and choosing to edit it, which can be done with a set of intuitive mapping tools accessible from within your browser. The user interface provides several tools which you can use to add information of different types to a map. With a little practice these provide the means to intuitively trace out and identify a full range of geographical features including houses, roads, residential areas, coastlines and so on. Additional information on the mapped features (if known to the user) can be added using a panel on the left of the screen. I found the interface responsive, uncluttered and user-friendly, with handy keyboard shortcuts mapped to many of the more commonly used functions.


Having practiced a little with the tools I visited the OSM Tasking Manager at in order to contribute to the ongoing humanitarian work. I decided to work on some regions of the map of Botswana, particularly in Mochudi and Sephare. For each region, there is a detailed description of the type of relief work being carried out in the area and instructions on the particular geographical features to be prioritised. In Botswana, there are many parts of the map where buildings and roads have not yet been marked out. This information is vital to facilitate the ongoing treatment programs which are tackling the high incidence of HIV/AIDS and TB in the country. I’ll admit to a strong initial sense of apprehension before beginning the mapping process,  after all, this work may well have consequences in the real world. However, the process is truly collaborative, and there’s a strong sense of support there. Firstly, the regions are divided into tiles of a manageable size, which can be further subdivided into smaller zones if needed. Secondly, you can save your work at any time and come back later. The tiles are also validated and modified if necessary by more experienced mappers when they are declared finished, (who may well possess more detailed local knowledge), so you never feel that you are working alone.

As part of my current MA in Digital Arts & Humanities, it is my intention to develop a series of interactive, web-based activities in order to teach people about the principles of design in fine art paintings, with particular reference to the geometric abstraction genre. Although OpenStreetMap is an entirely different proposition, I think aspects of the experience of working with it will inform my research. In particular, for any project requiring user interaction, a well designed, easy to grasp user interface would seem to be vital. Enabling the user to render virtually any type of geographical feature they may encounter would seem to be a very complex problem, yet the OSM interface manages it with just three simple buttons, allowing you to work with points, lines and areas. Each of these behave in distinct ways, providing contextual visual feedback to the user.  Also, there is a tiered structure to the information a user may enter. A traced line may be designated as a road, river or fence, but a road may be further categorised as any one of a number of types of road, and be named. This allows a contributor to engage with the map at a level appropriate to their experience and knowledge. Though my project will hardly feature this level of complexity, I can see how these would be important issues to consider in the design process of any interactive environment.

Also, while using OSM, I was reminded of the work of game designer Jane McGonigal, whose TED talk “Gaming Can Make a Better World” was part of the prescribed content for the Models, Simulations & Games module I’m also taking. In it, she points out that in online multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft, people exhibit certain types of behaviour and attitudes towards solving problems and achieving goals. These include very positive attitudes such as “urgent optimism” – the willingness to throw oneself into a task with great enthusiasm, “blissful productivity” – the feeling of satisfaction that comes from being engaged in hard work, and a willingness to team up and collaborate  with a large community in which you place great trust. She is concerned that these attitudes don’t appear to be as prevalent in reality, and argues that if we could harness gamers’ energy and apply it to actual world problems we could make great progress. Having initially heard her arguments, I concluded that while they were intriguing and well intentioned, they exhibited a degree of naivety. However, having used OpenStreetMap, and sensed all of these attitudes at play there, I now realise she may be on to something.



Sketchup & Google Earth

This was an experiment with using 3d modelling tools to recreate artworks and to locate them in a virtual space. I used the freeware 3d modelling software Sketchup (formerly Google Sketchup) to model versions of physical artworks I’d previously made and exhibited. This was a good exercise in getting to grips with Sketchup, which is a pretty powerful and user-friendly tool. I also indulged in a little blue-sky thinking, and fabricated a very large public sculpture too, eventually making an entire outdoor sculpture pavilion for myself!

As Sketchup’s original use was to enable people to upload 3d models of buildings to Google Earth, I was able to preview my work within that environment, all I had to do was provide a location. I decided therefore, to locate my pavilion in the grounds of the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai (why the hell not?)

Unfortunately, I was only able to view the work on my local machine, those picky Google Earth people not being inclined to include objects online that don’t actually exist. It was fun though.


Experiments with Programming

In 2013 I was particularly interested in exploring the nature of the decision-making process of making art, and the idea of authorship generally. I began to experiment with allowing aspects  of physical artworks to be generated by chance. I started by throwing dice and using other games of chance to decide the length and directions of various lines I would draw on a wall. Soon I realised that computer programming could be an ideal replacement for this, since it can be programmed to generate randomness, and also seemed to me to provide a more active agent in the decision-making process. I had a few early attempts with applications running an old programming language called BASIC, which I’d played about with as a teenager on an old Sinclair computer.

I was able to generate a few interesting things by setting up loops which would run repeatedly and draw sequences of lines, some of the coordinates being randomized by the computer. I wanted something which would allow me to interact more with and influence what was happening on the screen. I soon discovered Processing, an open-source programming language, and did my best to get to grips with it. I wrote some code which made a grid, and plotted lines from one point to another with each key-press. I had made a similar physical grid on a wall with screws, and used coloured wool to trace the design exactly as the computer directed me.

I was able to change the variables in the code to make the program favour particular regions of the grid, or make diagonals etc.

I later tried to write programs that allowed the user to generate their own imagery, giving them a degree of control over where elements were placed by clicking regions of the screen, but having the computer randomise aspects of the design. This one, for example, would place a rectangle of random dimensions and density where the user left-clicks, while right clicking darkens and partially erases what is already on the screen. The colour is randomly generated from a set number of options, to give a sense of aesthetic consistency.

This was interesting, as the user has a lot of control over aspects of the design, but encounters an element of risk in adding to a composition the they might like. An unexpected shape or colour may throw off the balance of the  work. In this way the interaction with the program becomes a sort of game, with elements of reward and penalty depending on the outcome.


Dimensions, Location Variable

DLV is a modular, interactive, open-ended artwork I made in 2013, consisting of several hundred wooden components which can be assembled together in many different ways. I first exhibited it as part of the final show for for the Crawford School of Art & Design fine art masters program. It was designed over the course of several months, and each piece was individually cut with a band-saw  and assembled by hand.

The idea of the piece was to challenge the static, finite status of most artworks, and to explore the nature of creative authorship and decision-making. Essentially, rather than make an individual artwork, I wanted to create a system for art creation, with a number of possibilities for construction, that I, or someone else could use to create their own artworks. During the exhibition, which ran over the course of two weeks, I changed the configuration of the work nightly.

As part of the exhibition, I invited a group of Interior Architecture students from St John’s Central College Cork to interact with the piece for one day, allowing them to create whatever they wanted out of the pieces, which would remain in place for the next day. They ended up making a Christmas tree (it was that time of year!) and a model of a penny-farthing bike. It was a fascinating exercise in which I got to see what other people, from a very specific background, would do collaboratively with the work.

The piece reappeared in 2014 in the Cork Film Centre Gallery, Ballincollig, as a collaboration with Cork-based artist Cassandra Eustace. I made a dome-like structure from the components, and Cassandra projected a moving image piece onto and through the structure, and added additional reflective elements. In the fully light-proofed gallery this made for a very fluid and dynamic installation.