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Q&A: Dr. Ruth Aylett, Heriot-Watt University

Ross Miller

Ruth Aylett is a professor of Computer Sciences in the School of Maths and Computer Science at Heriot-Watt University. She is also leading up a group of nine universities in developing a game virtual drama to help children cope with bullying.

Dr. Aylett was kind enough to answer some of our questions about the project. Among other details, Aylett confirms that the project is in no way a reaction to Rockstar's upcoming title Bully, and that plans for their anti-bully simulation have been in motion since an earlier work starting in 2002. Full interview after the break:

What are the nine universities involved in the program?

They are:

[Ed: With the exception of Augsburg, all other parties are partners in the ECIRCUS project.]

Will you be seeking any outside help from game developers?

Our funding is from the EU and for research; it doesn't allow us to pay for any external effort. However, though what we are doing is not in fact a game (rather it's a virtual drama) we do, whenever we can, talk to people in the games world for whose technological capabilities we have the greatest respect.

When you describe it as a simulator, to what extent will it be interactive? (i.e. what will its interface be, how will imagery / graphics be tackled?)

It's a simulator in that intelligent graphical characters interact in a virtual school: one of the characters is bullied by one or more of the others in an unscripted dramatic episode that is generated by interaction between the graphical characters.

The child user is asked to act as the 'invisible friend' of the victim and between episodes interacts using free text to give advice about how to deal with the bullying. This advice influences the behaviour of the victim in the next scene, so that the drama acts as a means of exploring anti-bullying strategies in an unthreatening environment.

We use 3D cartoon-like characters and stories that we have collected from children themselves as the basis for our scenarios. We have already shown that this approach does allow our target users -- children aged 8 to 12 -- to empathise with our victim characters.

When do you estimate completion of the project?

We are funded to end February 2009.

Why make an anti-bully simulator now?

In fact we started this work in an earlier project 2002-2005, motivated by the seriousness of the problem and a desire to apply our AI and graphical skills to a worthwhile application domain. In this project we aim to take our first research prototype into evaluation in schools so we can see if it has the desired educational effect.

Does the project have any relation to the Rockstar title Bully, which is due out next month (now renamed Canis Canem Edit)?

None whatever. We aim to educate against bullying; the game aims to make money - and in our view by trivialising in a fairly thoughtless and tasteless way a serious problem that ruins the lives of many thousands of children.

Are you aware of the game, and have you read about any of the mainstream press reactions, which have described the game as surprisingly calm?

Yes, of course: we keep a close watch on software relevant to our domain. I suspect it will fall between two stools: not violent enough for those who like violence and minus the characterisation and narrative drive that might allow it to be appreciated dramatically.

Good shock-value and lots of free publicity of course...

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