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Daniel Rehn, an artist and designer in Southern California, is collaborating with Jeremy Douglass, a postdoctoral fellow at UCSD, on a research project they call the Video Gameplay Database. Noting influences from people like Ben Fry and John Maeda (among others), the “database is organized around two core objects: video recordings of game play and representations of those sessions.” Rehn expects games scholars to contribute observations, video and the like to help create data visualizations that will also encompass a range of information from storyboards to recorded gameplay sessions. He also seems to intend to make this work available for download and alteration, which opens up other possibilities for archived gameplay sessions and studies to be built on and uploaded by others.

Rehn’s blog has some entries showing the sorts of images he hopes to add to the database, but little hard information about what the VGDb will actually look like or how those interested in contributing will do so. Nor does he mention the possibly horrifying copyright implications.  Still, it’s a tantalizing idea for the possibility of building out an index of remixable data on assorted games across a variety of platforms and game types.  Given the widespread global usage of games and the increasing amounts of time and money spent on playing them by people of varied demographic groups, it’s likely we’ll see more projects like this looking to take a hard look at how people actually use the pastime as we go forward.

A post over at Bot Junkie points out a Popular Mechanics piece detailing the Defense Department’s development of the Vigilante unmanned helicopter, an unmanned device that carries an on-board shotgun and is controlled with a familiar input device:

The rifle currently mounted on the ARSS is a RND Manufacturing Edge 2000 Rifle firing .338 Lapua Magnum cartridges at up to 10 rounds per minute. The key feature of the ARSS system, though, is the turret mount, which is actively stabilized to allow for precision shots in flight. The mount includes dual zoom cameras, and the entire system is controlled remotely with an Xbox 360 controller.

Reactions to videogame violence often careen between two extremes: moralistic proselytizers who scream that videogames cause the Colombines of our modern world or game playing apologists who scoff at the idea that letting off steam playing games can possibly have any real world consequence.  Whether either group’s position is grounded in reality (and granting that there is a continuum of nuanced views in between those polarized camps), what is inarguable in this case is that the armed forces are interested in designing their killing machines to use a high quality input device that legions of recruits trained on a steady diet of home console games are clearly familiar with. The way in which you view this development can be refracted through your own political prism to determine just how you feel about it.

The Danger in Cloud Computing

April 20th, 2009 | Posted by Alex Myers in Link-out - (Comments Off)

In his ‘Ragdoll Metaphysics’ column for Offworld, Jim Rossignol mulls over the tradition of science-fiction to predict the next great technical/social revolution.  The Cloud-sourced service that OnLive is offering has been speculated upon in the past.  We’re even seeing the first few attempts climb out of the primordial pool to lie gasping on dry land.  Digital Download services such as PSN, XBLA, Steam and Impulse are becoming ubiquitous and irreplaceable and Cloud-gaming is the next evolutionary step.  Though the implied dangers for the consumers are a huge step backwards in terms of digital intellectual copyrights.

Cloud-computing values the rights of the company over the consumer.  Like Rossignol, I’m a tad nervous about placing all my eggs in one basket.  Some trundling idiot might just come by and step on all of them at once.  It’s happened before. (CF: this walmart music service story)

All Your Bayeux Are Belong To Us

Welcome to the first week of This Week in Videogame Blogging for Critical Distance – for the week to 19th April, 2009. Let’s get into it.

This week the gents from Eegra wrote a critique of the body of work of a certain game journalist and his propensity for overusing food metaphors in reviews. ‘Who is Kevin VanOrd and Why Is His Jaw Tired‘ is a must read for anyone involved with game reviews, or anyone sick of poorly written reviews (I’m lookin’ at you L.B. Jeffries). After that, check out the follow-up ‘Kevin VanOrd is a Remarkably Cool Dude‘. Lovely to see people with a sense of humour.

Pulling one from the ‘obliquely related to game criticism’ pile, here is an interview with one quarter of Rock, Paper, Shotgun and otherwise generally famous games writer Kieron Gillen. Interesting how he talks about how his work on comics informs his work with games, and vice versa. Quite the creative gentleman that Gillen.

Tom Chick is in my top 5 current writers about games when it comes to writing about experiences with games. Here he is talking about Demigod in game Diary ‘Meet Sedna.’

L.B. Jeffries put up a new piece in his Videogames and Dreams series this week, which as a series I highly recommend. I’m going to link to this latest one even thought I rather strongly disagreed with portions of it – I think he leans a bit more heavily on Freud than he should – but there’s gold in there and it’s worth searching around for it.

Michael Abbott at The Brainy Gamer did a pair of posts this week on voice acting in games, which gained some significant traction in the blogosphere. Chances are, you’ve probably already read the first and the second however there is a much greater chance that you missed this much older post that Michael put together in September of ’08 that gave some truly atrocious voice acting examples. To remind people of older posts: This Is Why We Exist; We Remember. (Oh, and if Michael’s post doesn’t sate your desire for less-than-excellent voice acting, try Audio Atrocities)

For those of us whom discussions of game music get us all warm and fuzzy inside, here’s a nice summary of a GDC presentation by Troels Fohlman. Fohlman is most well known for scoring the newer games in the Tomb Raider series (Think Anniversary onwards) but he is also known for his amazing ‘micro scoring’ game music technique. I wish I had heard of and read more about it when writing my thesis, because it really sounds quite extraordinary.

Another great games writer called ‘Tom’ but this one is Tom Francis and the absolute must read post of the week goes to his alternate ending to Bioshock. This stuff is red hot. I’m sure everyone will have read it soon and then we can all pretend that this is how Bioshock actually ended. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

And now here’s a few links from a week-or-so ago that I was too busy to sculpt into a weekly post at the time:

Another post related to audio – Mike Brothers talks about how the sonic component of Peggle works to keep him addicted.

Graduate School Gamer writes about why graphics in games actually do matter to player immersion. I can attest – I upgraded to Vista to see the effect of DirectX10 for Far Cry 2 and now I wouldn’t dream of going back.

Justin Keverne writes about his fave game development studio and looks at it’s traceable impact on design. Longitudinal studies! (are a waste your life and your money, according to a friend of mine)

John Walker uses words to induce a knowing smile in his readers. Here he is playing as a ‘Bastard of the Old Republic‘.

‘A Games Design Blog’ talks about failure, punishment and player learning through the lens of Team Fortress 2, Far Cry 2 and CLINT HOCKING’s GDC talk on intentionality and player failure.

Semi-Retro – Mitch Krpata schools us on how to use Killzone 2 sniper controls. Isn’t it a bit ridiculous that in our field a blog post from last month is considered old? Another reason Why We Exist.

This was The Week (and a bit more) In Videogame Blogging.

Is Legitimacy Irrelevant?

April 17th, 2009 | Posted by David Sahlin in Link-out - (Comments Off)

Leigh Alexander, News Director at Gamasutra, has an opinion piece which attempts to mellow out the masses.  As the influence of video games continues to grow, so does the desire for cultural acceptance.  She quotes Ian Bogost’s thoughts on the topic, who frankly thinks we have more important things to be worrying about.

According to Bogost, legitimacy simply can’t be judged in the current era in the same way it could when we had few radio stations and fewer television channels, and all art and entertainment existed in individual walled gardens.

“Legitimacy has become distributed, a mesh,” says Bogost. “We should all just work on our little vertex of the mesh, like we’re weaving a big macrame of legitimacy.”

Professionals and fans so involved in the game industry can forget that the uninitiated population may still consider video games as a whole to be worthless or simply juvenile.  It can be frustrating, perhaps even infuriating at times, being unable to just grab and shake these people out of their misconceptions. They can’t be reasoned with.  Though if they were to experience something profound–like playing Flower perhaps–it may change their tune.

We don’t exactly need a standard bearer to rally behind.  Time is on legitimacy’s side, and if we all keep doing what we’re doing eventually there will be no one left to discount the idea.

Matthew Gallant wrote to me the other day and said, “Argh! Exams! I’m freaking out, no time, so hard, need sleep! HALP!” and apologised for not being able to do a proper summary himself up for this link-out. Actually, he didn’t say any part of what I just quoted, but he did say he had exams and was terribly busy, so here’s an interesting little blog post that you can be sure Matthew Gallant thought was interesting.

On the ‘Press Start to Drink’ blog, they’ve been talking about No More Heroes, a game which came out at the start of 2008. Who else but the critical gaming crowd writes about games a whole year after their release? As such, I feel no compulsion recommending ‘No More Feminism: Post-Feminism and No More Heroes‘ to Critical Distance readers. Here’s the money quote:

No More Heroes positions itself as a postfeminist videogame that hails the player as a masculine male and plays on gender and sexual stereotypes of heteronormativity with a tongue planted firmly in cheek and a knowing wink directed at the gamer from behind the yellow pair of hipster shades its protagonist wears, an effect which ridicules the straight, white heterosexual male and his fantasies as much as it celebrates them.

Which, again, makes me think I should pick up a copy of the game and hi-jack my friends Wii just to play it. It continues like this, into even more intriguing territory:

…like the close-contact sport of football itself, Travis straddles the line between immature heterosexual fantasy and homoeroticism. Throughout the game, Travis is delineated as a sex-starved, horny geek who spends his days watching either half-naked men wrestling or overdue pornography.

In another example of the complex relationship between his hyper-masculinity and a more sensitive new man persona, Travis owns a kitten that the player can stroke and play with…

Which should be enough of a teaser to get you to go read the post.

I was searching my long list of bookmarked webpages earlier today and came across this entry from Corvus Elrod’s Man Bytes Blog. In ‘Amnesia Alternatives’ Corvus outlines two ways that a storyteller (read: anyone setting up their game) can overcome the initial barrier to a players knowledge that a brand new world they’ve never experienced presents.

It's unreasonable to expect every player to read a hefty manual explaining their character's back story, or worse—to subject them to a lengthy game intro which delays their entry into the game itself.

So dumping the player into a situation where they know nothing about the character or world is a perfectly reasonable means of setting them up to learn things within the game narrative proper.

He suggests two approaches, the first is “Relocate the player”, that is, have them start in an area that actually is new to their player as well. The second approach that Corvus suggests is to start the player as a Child or as “child like” characters, which also seems a very untapped alternative. There really is very little excuse for the “amnesia, lol” approach, if there ever was.

Limited by design: history through games

April 16th, 2009 | Posted by David Sahlin in Link-out - (Comments Off)

Luke Plunkett, Associate Director at Kotaku, wrote a Feature column discussing how video games present history.  He spoke with Dr. Cliff Williamson, who teaches Modern British and American history at Bath Spa University in Britain – as well as communications manager Kieran Brigden, from Total War developer The Creative Assembly.

“There is the potential for games to mess it up as badly as the film industry has at times, because for every Das Boot made there is a U-571 just around the corner”, he says. “The tension is always there”.

Knowing how to navigate the line between potential quality and potential disaster can save a designer a lot of potential headaches.  When designers don’t want to find the line, or don’t need to, or simply are unable to, we find ourselves with either shallow games or cultural trainwrecks.  Publishers seem to prefer the former.  It’s a shame really, because games which push the wrong buttons – even if unintended – can still sell very well while fostering needed discussion, reflection, and understanding.

Narrative Synthesis at Girish Shambu

April 16th, 2009 | Posted by Christopher Hyde in Link-out - (Comments Off)

A piece at Girish Shambu’s blog dealing with film criticism for the 21st century raises the issue of there being two separate crowds who consume writing on cinema and looks for examples of critics who can build bridges between the camps:

For Ray, film studies resembles the Civil War in having at least two distinct audiences: academic scholars who only or largely read books and articles written by other scholars; and a non-academic cinema-interested audience of readers who typically don’t read academics. Ray proposes that we need scholars who can devise a “”narrative synthesis” that will “propagate professional knowledge about the cinema” to a non-academic audience-at-large.

What is meant, exactly, by the term “narrative synthesis”? I would say that, in the context of film writing, it names an approach that does two things: (a) it is simultaneously “high-level” (broad in scope–drawing upon a number of specialized subfields within cinema studies) AND “low-level” (paying attention to individual films and their details); and (b) it weaves together a “story” of sorts–just like a good piece of film criticism always “tells a story”–that interests and engages the non-academic reader.

Though videogaming lacks the history and curricular support that film studies have evolved over the years, it would appear that writing about games could also stand to benefit from an increase in the sort of work described here. Shambu goes on to cite some examples and asks his readership to note others that are already extant–and there recieves the usual thoughtful response his commenters are known for. Are there current writers in the videogame arena who are working in a manner described by Shambu for film writing?

In his column at The Guardian today, blogger, novelist and technology activist Cory Doctorow claims that the ability of a player to make money from the time they invest in an MMO has become not only a key marketing point for the developers of such games, but an important part of the realisation of a virtual world. In his own words:

Many games are structured to reward time spent playing with virtual gold stars that act as decoration and play aid, and confer virtual bragging rights. So it’s a sign of a game’s success when one player values a virtual item so much that she’s willing to pay another player for the object, even though it is nothing more than a record in a database.

It is especially interesting to observe this issue from Doctorow’s perspective. For him, the issue forms part of a broader context of the struggle between the existing legal framework of the West and the increasingly convoluted copyright infringements which have become a daily occurrence on the web.