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Faculty Spotlight: Jichen Zhu

December 3, 2014

Dr. Jichen Zhu is serious about gaming. The Assistant Digital Media Professor conducts innovative research into the use of artificial intelligence in computer games and interactive storytelling, collaborating with colleagues from a variety of Drexel Schools and Colleges to build games that can be applied for educational and health purposes. Professor Zhu is currently at work on a number of diverse projects that push this research forward and which have received major funding.

Among these many projects is a mobile app that utilizes interactive storytelling to help children with autism to develop social skills, specifically helping them generalize and universally apply the skills to any number of contexts and situations. The app, supported by the Drexel Social Science Research Fund, is in collaboration with Drexel’s Autism Institute. She is also in the second year of work with Digital Media Professor Dr. Glen Muschio and Dr. Aroutis Foster, Assistant Professor in the School of Education, on an adaptive educational game based on Charles Wilson Peale’s Museum of Art and Science. Funded by the National Science Foundation, the game responds to different types of learning behaviors—for example, an “explorer” versus a “goal-seeker”—to better personalize the learning environment and meet students’ individual needs. And just recently, Professor Zhu has started a new collaboration with Dr. Evan Forman and other faculty from Drexel’s Department of Psychology and College of Engineering on a smartphone app that has received funding from the Obesity Society. As a companion to the Weight Watchers app, the tool will use machine learning to detect when a user might diverge from his or her diet plan and intervene with warnings before the user goes astray.

For the past decade Professor Zhu has researched the use of computational algorithms to tell stories in ways we haven’t before, creating more meaningful, personalized, and engaging game experiences. “It used to be that we just had storytellers who would tell stories in a linear way, and it was a passive experience,” Professor Zhu says. She is interested in not only giving players the ability to decide what will happen in the story, but in giving their actions more meaningful responses. This has to do with removing the focus on external actions—like slaying a dragon or rescuing a princess, as Professor Zhu illustrates—and instead developing the characters’ rich inner lives. In the Riu system she is creating (Riu meaning “river” in Catalan) with Professor Santiago Ontañón from Drexel’s College of Computing and Informatics, instead of a narrative driven by plot points, the game is driven forward by the characters’ memories, internal conflicts and even stream of conscious thoughts. In short, this is accomplished by using computational analogy to connect stories through association, rather than causality.

Professor Zhu is currently leading a senior project in the Digital Media program, where undergraduate Game Art & Production, Animation & Visual Effects and Interactive Digital Media majors converge for capstone senior group projects and, naturally, her team of students is working on an interactive storytelling game to explore the concept of unreliable narrators in games. Next term she will teach Thesis Development for second year Digital Media masters students, as well as Advanced Game Design I.