Logo: University of Southern California

The Puzzler

July 19, 2012 —

Marc Spraragen, who will receive his Ph.D. in computer science in a few months, cheerfully admits that he is not someone who learned programming in fifth grade and marched steadily toward a computer science career. The native of upstate New York majored in English at Harvard and has a master’s degree in Anglo-Irish literature from Trinity College in Dublin. After not finding the job market welcoming to English majors, he was inspired by a concept advanced by Patrick Winston at MIT who was researching the transformations between a spoken sentence and a visual picture. Working with Winston, along with a growing interest in artificial intelligence, vaulted Spraragen into the doctoral program at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, where he is studying the effects of emotions on cognition at the Information Sciences Institute (ISI) in Marina del Rey.

This is a topic being studied by several researchers at USC, including Jonathan Gratch, Stacy Marsella and Skip Rizzo at USC Viterbi’s Institute for Creative Technologies, fellow Ph.D. student Jerry Lin at ISI, Antoine Bechara at USC Dornsife, and Michael Arbib in computer science at USC Viterbi.

Spraragen’s advisor is Mike Zyda, and the two have applied for a patent for Cosmopolis, a framework of serious multiplayer online games for which Spraragen is the lead designer. One of the games, a role-playing exercise that models social and tribal relations in Sudan as UN representatives deal with various levels of hostilities, was funded by the U.S. government’s Office of Naval Research. Another game studies team negotiations on a virtual USC campus to see how behaviors online differ from behaviors in real life.

Marc Spraragen
Spraragen’s dissertation involves development of an emotional-cognitive architecture called EmoCog, which models how emotions affect human decision-making. (One such phenomenon is that the less time you have for an important decision, the more you rely on gut instincts.)

A Ph.D. and a patent are two prestigious achievements for a young researcher, but that’s only part of Spraragen’s story. The two-time "Jeopardy" champ and former writer for other game shows is a puzzler at heart. Growing up with parents who liked crosswords and other puzzles, he was introduced by a cousin to the National Puzzlers’ League, a group that started in 1870 as an organization devoted to word puzzles. These days, the league holds annual conventions where attendees stay up all night playing pickup games of complicated collaborative puzzles. Spraragen has gone to the national convention annually for a decade, and attends mini conventions every few months in Los Angeles.

Spraragen, like many of the attendees, creates puzzles to debut at the conventions. These are not simple undertakings. One puzzle he designed was a “dungeon crawl”-style maze exploration. Inside the maze were small challenges that when solved, would slowly reveal to the players that they were inside a giant crossword puzzle. Other challenges in the puzzle played off connections with items the players collect in the course of moving through the maze.

His English degree helps in coming up with characters, story lines and gameplay, Spraragen says, but he uses it more often in writing white papers, proposals and editing. “It’s necessary to have people with innovative backgrounds,” he says, “but to create a game you probably need only one English major for every 5-6 engineers. Too many designers can get in each other’s way and make the engineers’ tasks impossible.”

After he receives his doctorate, he plans to stay in Los Angeles and continue his research, teach and consult for video game companies that want to add puzzles into games. “I’d like to be the go-to guy for that,” he says.