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Games and play

David Cameron, age 13, programming a VIC-20

David Cameron, the new Prime Minister – and Nick Clegg, the new Deputy Prime Minister of our coalition (or guild?) government are both 43 years old. Which means they were born in 1967, and grew up in the 1970s and 80s. I mean – they’re not much older than me (38) and they’re the same age as my lovely sister, Emma.

Emma and I grew up through the birth of the home computer industry (our first computer at home was a Vic-20), with programmes such as “Making The Most Of Your Micro” on the telly, and of course BBC Computers appearing in our classrooms.

So it’s not too much of a leap to imagine that Dave & Nick had the same experiences, right?

They would have been 16 when Manic Miner came out. Maybe a bit old to be swept up in it so much (my sister was too busy being cool and listening to Einstürzende Neubauten for instance) but I imagine they might have been quite nerdy, rich kids (they went into politics, after all) – probably BBC Model B households.

So, they were probably playing Elite

They might have got the bug – who knows. Perhaps they started playing god games and in ’91 when Civ first came out they would have been 24. Maybe some post-grad nights lost to it?

I’m stretching. I have no idea.

But wouldn’t be brilliant if we had gamers governing us at last?

Peter Molyneux

Went to the Design London STIR Lecture by Peter Molyneux this evening, and came away disappointed.

Actually, I didn’t have very high hopes in the first place, as I’ve seen Molyneux before, and although he’s certainly passionate, found his charm ran out pretty quickly – but worse, he had little insight to offer.

But the over-riding thought I kept having was that he didn’t have the critical language to describe what he (or more correctly, his teams) had created. He isn’t nearly as literate in why his own games work as the current generation playing his games.

Based on events like EIGF, this seems to be the case, at least amongst Molyneux’s generation of industry veterans. Bedroom-programmers-done-good, pioneers to be sure, but not able to form a critical appreciation of what they are doing or have done beyond the commercial impact.

This is something that reoccurs with every new medium, of course.

The next generation on from them – e.g. Jonathan Smith, Doug Church and of course Greg Costikyan (from whose classic essay on developing such a critical language the title of this post is lifted) are always eloquent, passionate and insightful speakers and spokespeople for their medium.

Unlike Molyneux.

peter molyneux / lionhead / stir lecture
19.11.08

i think i might have heard him do this talk before… this will be far from a transcript…

the constraints of his programming skill led to some of the core mechanics
some of sound effects for populous were created by throwing wet sponges into baths
what did people enjoy? the graphics were not good, the sound effects were awful, and the game play was repetitive: people believed there was more in the game than there was.

“there are only about 8 million gamers tops, and there are 6 billion of everybody, so games for everybody are better to make”

people got obsessed by the “AI” but it is ‘soft, simulational AI, not real AI’ – a sufficently-complex feedback system is seen as an AI.

again people believed there was more in the game (theme park) than there really was.

B&W: the creature -> initially made it humanoid, but realised that the first thing that anyone did was fiddle with the creature’s genitalia… the more humanoid you make something, the less-believable it is (uncanny valley) the closer we got to realism in B&W, the less believable the world became

the creature was prototyped to have desires, which could be satisfied by actions… creates a ‘real’ illusion of mind. Internal needs, wants, motivations – first one we gave the creature was to satisfy it’s hunger.

11pm one night… developer (richard) said “we’re ready to turn on the brain”

allowed the player to play with the mind of the creature – teach…

fable 2: dog (avatar, daemon) learnt from mistakes of B&W creature. Dog has a set of rules in it’s head, much like the asimov robot rules. prime directive: ‘i must not aggravate the player’

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After reading Jane’s post about using time people spend fiddling with Facebook for solving problems with other (gaming) networks, I wondered whether there were other things you could do with all those idle hands.

What about Folding@home or Mechanical Turk tasks, as shown rather sketchily above.

Back in May, referring to Sony’s announcment that the folding@home client would be installed on the PS3, Alice wrote about “Games that do good”

“Are there games or game mechanics that could be used to fund-raise or awareness-raise?”

My quick mock up is not all that enticing or interesting, though touches like sparklines, league-tables and scoring could rapidly turn such things into more of a playful and engaging activity, turning all those idle hands to good causes.

Know of anything like this going on?

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Just came back from the Edinburgh Interactive Festival – a curates egg, I think it’s fair to say.

Revealing, fascinating sessions such as an interview with stage actors about how they approached motion-capture work for Heavenly Sword on the PS3, bumped up against unrevealing corporate slideware and old boy’s club self-indulgence.

Apart, of course, from my boss at the BBC’s spiel (ahem), other stand-outs included Ren Reynold’s virtual societies panel (which wasn’t just about Second Life! Hurrah!) and Hilmar Petursson of Eve Online’s funny and thought-provoking talk on emergence in online societies and breaking the Dunbar number.

He also revealed he was on a secret mission from the Icelandic government to find the Scottish rats that had gnawed through a cable depriving Iceland of internet in the past…

But, it was often more frustrating than entertaining.

A few of us gathered over beers at the end of the first day and came to the conclusion that, now that in various forms there has been an interactive entertainment festival in Edinburgh for five years; it’s time for there to be a ‘fringe’ – where risks can be taken, old boys clubs can be left behind, and up-and-coming creators can have a platform.

Except.

It so happens that it already exists… Sort of.

Just before I had to go to the airport I skipped out of the last session and kidnapped a couple of colleagues to visit the Dare Protoplay event, where young teams of games creators were showing playable demos of their efforts – I guess a bit like the indie games jam.

Dare to be Digital ProtoPlay event, Edinburgh

There were some little crackers there too – ones that stand out for me right now would be the delightful heaven2ocean, a collaborative climbing game who’s name I forget but which I really do hope makes it onto Xbox360LiveArcade, a steampunk pilotwings-a-like using hacked Wiimotes, and a novel stealth game that used sound – amongst many others.

Dare to be Digital ProtoPlay event, Edinburgh

Enthusiasm, fun and actual punters (mainly kids visiting the Dynamic Earth centre) abounded… with a tinge perhaps of disappointment that they hadn’t seen that many industry delegates from the EIF come down there.

They missed out.

They really missed out.

The likes of the Dare Protoplayers should get the assistance for next to mount a real creative fringe to the EIF, where they can talk of SKUs and IP till the cows come home – while the new skool just gets on with delivering the fun that should be the lifeblood of the industry.

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Vero Construc, originally uploaded by toxi.

Toxi found a manual for an East German construction toy:

‘This particular module contained a punch card/stripe reader to control lights and motors. A little nail to program it was supplied too.

The back cover is saying: “Toys with system for the creators of tomorrow’s world”‘

Fantastic.

Often describing what something is not, can be more eloquent than a description of what it is.

Be still like the reed before the storm, young one, while Kermode crys tears of cineaste wisdom that form the dew of truth on the hot, gleaming back of gaming.

At a key moment in Silent Hill, the latest good-looking, badly written schlockbuster to be based on a video game, our heroine is told to memorise a map showing directions to a room which she must reach for reasons that are frankly unmemorable. As actress Radha Mitchell quietly recites her instructions (‘right, left, left, right’) one can briefly imagine an enthusiastic gamer, console in hand, navigating their way through the labyrinthine matrix of the film’s highly acclaimed, computer-generated source. The crucial difference, of course, is that the gamer is in control of the story, deciding which way the wanderer should turn, writing each new chapter as it progresses. ‘The video game is extraordinarily popular,’ enthuses Silent Hill movie producer Samuel Hadida, ‘because each gamer experiences something unique when they play it.’ Not so the poor old movie-goer who is left experiencing the same dreary tosh as every other disgruntled audience member. Without the luxury of a joystick in our hands, the viewer has no chance to make the incoherent on-screen antics any better – or worse. We just sit … and stare.

Aaaand…

Why? Because, unlike cinema, computer gaming is a medium which requires the player to make things up for themselves. An individual game may be laden with ‘plot points’ but its narrative is always up for grabs. It is a format of scenarios rather than stories, elements which can be bolted together in differing orders with varying outcomes. Cinema, on the other hand, is designed for people who like to watch and listen, and who expect the film-maker to get their story straight before the movie reaches the theatres. Viewing a film based on a computer game is like hanging around in an amusement arcade, peering over the shoulders of other people playing video games. It has less to do with story-telling than conceptual shelf-stacking. And it is symptomatic of the painful death of the art of narrative cinema.

Time to join the NGJNUJ, Mark…

In response to an essay on why console gaming does not bode well for raising future generations of hackers, Mike Sugarbaker hits upon an idea of pure molten genius: a pokemon-style collecting game, where what is collected traded and battled with is code:

“Instead of blocks, cards. Instead of Pokemon or collectible monsters and magic items on the cards, commands. Or types of loops, or even objects with multiple slots for properties and other commands. That’s right, I said collectible programming commands. Make the powerful, difficult-to-grasp ones rare, have some server-mediated market for getting them, and provide an anime-like story shell about being the greatest hacker. Then just let the kids loose and let ‘em fight each other with code.”

This is just fantastic.

Instead of Fred Harris and Ian McNaught-Davis in cosy, chunky jumpers, I imagine the next generation would want a hyperkinetic saturday morning show full of begelled young turks and turkesses in directional topshop clothing gunging youngsters who have careless with their memory handling.

Alice, Tom and the other BBC skunkworks-types should be on the phone to Mike today to ask where they should throw the money to make this happen.

Sony's magic wand patent

Via Jim Rossignol’s Esoteric Beat (Reg. Reqd) comes this news of a patent registered by Sony for what sounds like an extension to Eyetoy.

“Sony’s new idea is to plug a webcam into the console, and give the gamer a handheld wand similar to a pocket flashlight. The wand has a battery, a few mouse-like buttons and several different coloured LEDs that can be switched on and off in various combinations.

By pressing the buttons and waving the wand towards the webcam, the gamer can click to shoot aliens, drag-and-drop images on screen and navigate menus.”

Moreover – the affordances of a wand give a whole pallette of gestural interface for games developers to work with – adding ‘compositional’ control to rhythm – and possibly a whole other level of emotion to interface.

Sounds perfect for god games or RTS games, and even action games with elements of ‘compositional commands like Okami or even Darwinia if it ever made it to Playstation.

Doug_playfilm
^ Doug Church on “play”

I’ve been working on the subject of “play”, in its sense of a human universal drive, for the last few months at Nokia.

As part of this, during October, with the assistance of Ludicorp, we were able to gather a diverse, interesting group of ‘players’ together for a discussion on the subject – during which Justin Hall interviewed a number of them, resulting in this short film.

More play this week – I’m heading to the Other Players conference in Copenhagen, where the programme features Richard Bartle and TerraNova’s Nathan Combs amongst others.

If you’re there, I’ll be the guy with the iBook covered in Pete Fowler stickers…

Gene points out that the first spacetime coordinate of the whole ‘ilovebees.com’ alternate-reality thing is today, in Silicon Valley…

—–
Update at ARGN:

“While many were expecting Halo 2 demo disks, what they got instead was one of the largest, most complicated distributed interactions in ARG [Alternate Reality Gaming] history. Hundreds of people around the country descended upon over 200 locales, working as a team to answer phone calls correctly, in order to unlock a series of audio clues.”

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