Thursday, May 28th, 2009...20:50

On Learning

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Earlier this year on Facebook, a few of my friends started playing a game called Geochallenge. The game creators had implemented a viral feature such that whenever a friend played, I received updates e.g. “So and so’s city knowledge is improving, test yours!” I played a few times, and beat all but one of my friend’s scores and then my interest waned. Most of my friends were in the 11k and below range, but one had scored over 27k. At the time, 27k seemed insurmountable or at least would require more time and effort than I was willing to give.

A couple of weeks later, 2 things changed. Work had gone from mind numbing to mind melting; I would return home from work lacking motivation to do anything constructive. I’d try to force myself to read or exercise and usually failed. At the same time, two other friends had caught the Geochallenge bug and bested my score. It turned out the friendly competition was the right type of motivation and my mind was able to “learn” such that my score improved. When I broke 20k, I thought that would be enough to remain #2 amongst my friends and at the same time found my computer’s speed seemed to be hindering my advancement.

Soon enough, I dropped from #2 to #4 and started searching the web for ways to improve my game. Setting the Flash Player’s quality to low temporarily removed my computer as a performance bottleneck. Reading about the game’s scoring structure allowed me to tailor my play and soon I had cracked the 30k barrier and was #1 amongst all my friends.

The game is split into 4 sections, each with a 60sec timer. The first, Suitcase Shuffle, displays a country name along with suitcases that each display a flag. The user simply has to click on the suitcase with the flag that matches the country. If you don’t answer quickly, suitcases disappear, 2 at a time (it starts with 6) until only 2 are left. Every 5 correct answers in a row results in a score bonus and every 10 correct answers results in a 5sec bonus. The score bonuses increase if you get 10,15,20 etc. correct in a row.

My initial algorithm was linear, O(n). My brain would process the country name and then I’d scan the flags one at a time until I found the correct one. Sometimes I would be unsure and have to re-scan them and sometimes I’d have to guess. As I kept practicing, 2 things happened. The first was that I learned all the flag/country pairs and could recall them quickly. The second was that my brain adopted a constant time algorithm, O(1). I found by staring at the center of the 6 suitcases, much the same way one stares at a “magic eye” picture, I could pick the correct suitcase without having to scan them individually.

In many cases, the correct flag can be discerned purely on color alone; however, there are cases where more fine grained analysis takes place. Belgium and Germany appear to have the same colored, striped flag, but one has vertical stripes and the other horizontal. Slovenia and Croatia have the same background colors, but the size and placement of a shield/icon differs. Puerto Rico and Cuba look almost exactly the same, but one flag is brighter than the other. Because of these subtle differences, I tweaked my gameplay further. If I have gotten 30+ correct in a row working as fast as possible, I slowed down just a bit in order to consciously acknowledge that I was about to pick the correct flag.

Eventually one of my friends dropped out of the running but the other was still competitive and if I didn’t better my score every few days, he would pass me. Geochallenge provides you with your best and average scores. I used this information to abort in progress games if I wasn’t on pace to have a shot at besting my all-time high. This had the side effect of disproportionately exercising my knowledge/gameplay of the first two rounds; however, since I naturally did better in the latter two, the overall effect was a balancing out of my game.

The second section displays the outline of a country to the user and then presents 4 country names. If the player doesn’t select a name quickly, the surrounding countries begin to fade in, giving some context. The same linear to constant time evolution occurred here. Soon I was scoring over 20k between the first two rounds which enabled me to consistently score around 45k total. At that point the last of my friends stopped playing and I was alone at the top. I’m not sure what the preoccupation is with round numbers, but I suffered from it in this case and figured it was within the realm of possibility to score 50k.
After a few more days, including my fair share of “chokes” where I’d be on pace and then screw up at the last minute, I breached the 50k barrier. “Phew, I set a goal and attained it, game over”, I thought. Not so fast…Geochallenge also allows you to see your rank within your Facebook geographical area (East Bay, CA for me) as well as the world. The top 10 scores in the world were well into the hundreds of thousands, clearly the work of bots as evidenced by YouTube videos and programs for sale. The East Bay tab was more modest and I was already in the top 15. Scores were so tight that if I could score a few hundred more points I’d crack the top 10. If I could get close to 52k points I’d be ranked 7th. To best the 6th place player, I’d have to score almost 56k. Clearly I needed to be #7.

The third and fourth sections are variations on the map/pushpin interface. First you’re given a city and you have to click as close to its location as possible on a map of the world. The closer you are, the more bonus points you get. If you’re not close enough it doesn’t count as a correct answer. If you don’t answer soon enough, it tells you what country it’s in. In the last round, you’re shown a photo of a landmark instead of the name of a city. Not answering fast enough reveals the name of the landmark. Contrary to the first two rounds where perfection was key, I found in the last two rounds speed was key since you were still awarded a correct answer for being close and just missed out on a few bonus points which were peanuts when compared to consecutive correct answer bonuses. This actually hindered my learning a bit since if I knew something was in Western Europe, it was better for my score to just click quickly in the general area than learn the exact location. For example, there was no point trying to click in the north/central part of France for the Eiffel Tower and the southern part of England for the Millennium Wheel, when I could click in the English Channel for both and get a good score without moving my mouse.

I reached my goal of placing 7th about 2 months ago and haven’t played Geochallenge since. My computer’s speed was starting to hold me back again as I could answer questions fast enough such that I’d find myself waiting for the next question while an animation announcing a particular bonus score was stuttering along. Unfortunately when the animation pauses, the timer does not. I recently purchased a new motherboard and CPU to speed up my ability to process large image and video files so perhaps perhaps I’ll try to crack the top 5…

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