Joho the Blog » games

October 13, 2015

Games as art

Naomi Alderman makes a compelling case in The Guardian for looking at video games to find the first examples of digital literature.

Authors of articles don’t get to write their own headlines, and the Guardian’s headline goes too far: Naomi doesn’t claim that games yet have turned out “great works of digital literature.” Her own claim is more modest:

…are there video games experimenting with more interesting storytelling than any “digital literature” project I’ve seen? Yes, certainly. And if you want to think of yourself as well read, or well cultured, you need to engage with them.

I agree. There are many video games I enjoyed but am embarrassed about; these are what we mean by “guilty pleasures.” But the best of them deserve to be taken seriously. “Games are where digital art will emerge. And has emerged.”Games are where digital art will emerge. And has emerged.

I don’t know that we have examples of digital “high art” yet. Perhaps we do and I don’t know about them or don’t appreciate them. Perhaps it’s a silly concept. Or perhaps we won’t think we’re playing a game when we experience it. But it’s likely at least to come out of the rhetorical forms games have already created:

  • It will be a space in which the user dwells, not simply an object or experience unfolding in front of the user.

  • It will be interactive.

  • It will require the user to make choices that affect it in significant ways.

  • It won’t be the same for everyone.

It is a sign of the originality and importance of games that it’s not always clear what to compare them with.

For example, most digital games lend themselves to comparisons with movies. After all, they are composed of sound, flat visuals, and movement. That’s the apt comparison for Portal 2. (Naomi cites Portal, but I think the sequel is a better example.) Portal 2 is loads of fun to play. But it is more than that. The story that unfolds is as clever and well worked out as any movie’s. The characters are broad, yet reveal subtleties. We care about them. Most famously, we care about a particular inanimate cube. The “set design” is stunning. The voice acting is world class, and in fact includes JK Simmons who went on to went a Best Actor Oscar. “…the details are fully imagined, right down to gun turrets that coo.”Perhaps most remarkable is the extent to which the details are fully imagined, right down to gun turrets that coo plaintively. (You can see them rehearsing in this Easter egg.)

Naomi doesn’t mention Bioshock, but I’d count it as a hybrid movie and novella. The premise is original and political. The setting is beautifully done. The science fiction is well-imagined. And the plot contains some meta moments that reflect on its form as a video game. (Those who have played the game will recognize how non-spoilery I’m being :) The third and last in the series, Bioshock Infinite, has a premise, characters, plot, and setting that could make a successful movie, but the movie is unlikely to be as good as the game. For one thing, we get to play the game.

Other games work as reflections on the medium itself, a sign of the forming of an artistic sensibility. Naomi mentions The Stanley Parable and Gone Home. I’d add Spec Ops: The Line and even the Saints Row series. These are all successful, well-known games. All, except the last, can be taken seriously as statements inspired by artistic intentions. (Saints Row is self-aware, bad-taste burlesque.) The ferment in the indie game field is quite spectacular.

If movies can be an art form, then why not digital games? And all this is before virtual reality headsets are common. I have no doubt that digital games as immersive worlds in which users have agency will blow past movies as the locus of popular art. And from this will emerge what we will call serious art as well. We’re already well on our way.

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December 27, 2014

Oculus Thrift

I just received Google’s Oculus Rift emulator. Given that it’s made of cardboard, it’s all kinds of awesome.

Google Cardboard is a poke in Facebook’s eyes. FB bought Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset, for $2B. Oculus hasn’t yet shipped a product, but its prototypes are mind-melting. My wife and I tried one last year at an Israeli educational tech lab, and we literally had to have people’s hands on our shoulders so we wouldn’t get so disoriented that we’d swoon. The Lab had us on a virtual roller coaster, with the ability to turn our heads to look around. It didn’t matter that it was an early, low-resolution prototype. Swoon.

Oculus is rumored to be priced at around $350 when it ships, and they will sell tons at that price. Basically, anyone who tries one will be a customer or will wish s/he had the money to be a customer. Will it be confined to game players? Not a chance on earth.

So, in the midst of all this justifiable hype about the Oculus Rift, Google announced Cardboard: detailed plans for how to cut out and assemble a holder for your mobile phone that positions it in front of your eyes. The Cardboard software divides the screen in two and creates a parallaxed view so you think you’re seeing in 3D. It uses your mobile phone’s kinetic senses to track the movement of your head as you purview your synthetic domain.

I took a look at the plans for building the holder and gave up. For $15 I instead ordered one from Unofficial Cardboard.

When it arrived this morning, I took it out of its shipping container (made out of cardboard, of course), slipped in my HTC mobile phone, clicked on the Google Cardboard software, chose a demo, and was literally — in the virtual sense — flying over the earth in any direction I looked, watching a cartoon set in a forest that I was in, or choosing YouTube music videos by turning to look at them on a circular wall.

Obviously I’m sold on the concept. But I’m also sold on the pure cheekiness of Google’s replicating the core functionality of the Oculus Rift by using existing technology, including one made of cardboard.

(And, yeah, I’m a little proud of the headline.)


June 20, 2014

[platform] Denmark recreated in Minecraft

According to an article in PC Games (August 2014, Ben Griffin, p. 12), two people from the Danish Ministry of the Environment “have recreated Denmark on 1:1 scale” in Minecraft. Although the idea came from observing their children playing the game, the construction required non-child-like automation. “By using standard open-source components, it was possible to break this down into a few thousand lines of code, most of which remaps various geospatial objects into Minecraft blocks…In total it took less than a week to calculate all 6437 files,” they said.

Yes, griefers have come, in tanks, blowing up landmarks, and planting their own country’s flags. But, the creators (Simon Kokkendorff and Thorbjørn Nielsen) point out that the vandals only destroyed “a few hectares.”


[platform] Unreal Tournament 2014 to provide market for mods

According to an article in PC Gamer (August 2014, Ben Griffin, p. 10), Epic Games’ Unreal Tournament 2014 will make “Every line of code, evert art asset and animation…available for download.” Users will be able to create their own mods and sell them through a provided marketplace. “Epic, naturally, gets a cut of the profits.”

Steve Polge, project lead and senior programmer, said “I believe this development model gives us the opportunity to build a much better balanced and finely tuned game, which is vital to the long-term success of a competitive shooter.” He points out that players already contribute to design discussions.

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June 1, 2014

Oculus Riiiiiiiiiift

At the Tel Aviv headquarters of the Center for Educational Technology, an NGO I’m very fond of because of its simultaneous dedication to improving education and its embrace of innovative technology, I got to try an Oculus Rift.

They put me on a virtual roller coaster. My real knees went weak.

Holy smokes.

wearing an Oculus Rift


Earlier, I gave a talk at the Israeli Wikimedia conference. I was reminded — not that I actually need reminding — how much I like being around Wikipedians. And what an improbable work of art is Wikipedia.

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June 2, 2012

Distribution models that work. Are we finally getting it (them) right?

Is it just me, or are we in a period when new distribution models are burgeoning? For example:

1. Kickstarter, of course, but not just for startups trying to kickstart their business. For example, Amanda Palmer joined the Louis CK club a couple of days ago by raising more than a million bucks there for her new album. (She got my $5 :) As AFP has explained, she is able to get this type of support from her fans because she treats her fans honestly, frankly, with respect, and most of all, with trust.

2. At VODO, you can get your indie movie distributed via bittorrent. If it starts taking off, VODO may feature it. VODO also works with sponsors to support you. From my point of view as a user, I torrented “E11,” a movie about rock climbing, for free, or I could have paid $5 to stream it for 10 days with the ability to share the deal with two other people. VODO may be thinking that bittorrenting is scary enough to many people that they’ll prefer to get it the easy way by paying $5. VODO tells you where your money is going (70% goes to the artist), and treats us with respect and trust.

3. I love Humble Bundle as a way of distributing indie games. Periodically the site offers a bundled set of five games for as much as you want to pay. When you check out, you’re given sliders so you can divvy up the amount as you want among the game developers, including sending some or all to two designated charities. If you pay more than the average (currently $7.82), you get a sixth game. Each Bundle is available for two weeks. They’ve sold 331,000 bundles in the past three days, which Mr. Calculator says comes to $2,588,420. All the games are all un-copy-protected and run on PCs and Macs. Buying a Humble Bundle is a great experience. You’re treated with respect. You are trusted. You have an opportunity to do some good by buying these games. And that’s very cool, since usually sites trying to sell you stuff act as if buying that stuff is the most important thing in the world.

4. I’m hardly the first to notice that Steam has what may be the best distribution system around for mass market entertainment. They’re getting users to pay for $60 games that they otherwise might have pirated by making it so easy to buy them, and by seeming to be on the customer’s side. You buy your PC game at their site, download it from them, and start it up from there. They frequently run crazy sales on popular games for a couple of days, and the game makers report that there is enough price elasticity that they make out well. If I were Valve (the owners of Steam), I’d be branching out into the delivery of mainstream movies.

There’s of course much much more going on. But that’s my point: We seem to be figuring out how to manage digital distribution in new and successful ways. The common threads seem to be: Treat your customers with respect. Trust them. Make it easy for them to do what they want to do with the content. Have a sense of perspective about what you’re doing. Let the artists and the fans communicate. Be on your customers’ side.

Put them all together and what do you have? Treat us like people who care about the works we’re buying, the artists who made them, about one another, and about the world beyond the sale.


April 21, 2012

The semi-transparent Prisoner’s Dilemma

A British game show that I never heard offers a version of the Prisoner’s Dilemma. As the host explains at the beginning, if both contestants agree to split the pot, they split it. If one chooses to split and the other to steal, the stealer gets the whole thing. If they both choose to steal, they get nothing. So, here’s the clip in which one of the players injects a new variable. [SPOILERS IN THE REST OF THIS POST]


Why does the guy on the right (Mr. Right) finally choose the way he does?

If Mr. Left believes that Mr. Right will Steal, then Mr. Left will Split, so Mr Right might as well Split. If Mr. Left thinks that Mr. Right will Split, then Mr. Left will Steal, so Mr. Right can either Split (so Mr. Left gets the pot) or Steal (so neither gets anything); might as well Split. If Mr. Left believes that Mr. Right will steal and will break his promise to split the pot afterwards, then Mr. Left might Steal just to screw Mr. Right, in which case Mr. Left might as well let Mr. Left get the money rather than foregoing it for both of them, so Mr. Right should Split. No matter how you slice it, Mr. Left should Split.

If that’s right, and if Mr. Left were given time to work it through, then Mr. Left should have Stolen (assuming his aim is to maximize his share). But I’m pretty sure that I’m wrong about that.


October 8, 2011

The font game

Mark MacKay has created a kerning game that is simplicity itself. Actually, it’s more like a quiz. You’re shown a word in a chosen font and are asked to slide the characters so that it is properly kerned.

It turns out that this is a more complex aesthetic decision than it seems, since it depends on properties such as the weight of the characters and the peculiarities of each face’s design. But you font people knew that already!


September 18, 2011

[2b2k] Gamers solve molecular puzzle

How proteins fold over themselves has a lot to do with how they work. Envisioning such folds is a hugely complex problem for computers that human brains with eyeballs attached happen sometimes to be able to do better. The FoldIt game supplies humans with protein models and asks them to fold ’em.

According to a post by Alan Boyle at “Video-game players have solved a molecular puzzle that stumped scientists for years, and those scientists say the accomplishment could point the way to crowdsourced cures for AIDS and other diseases.” The post is about an article in Nature Structural & Molecular Biology by Firas Khatib et al.

Way to go, human brains!

(I talk about FoldIt in Too Big to Know, which has now gone to press. Ohhh, irrevocably ink-stained paper!)

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September 9, 2011

[2b2k] Difference matters

I still don’t know why I started getting a free subscription to Game Developer magazine, but I sure enjoy it. The technical articles are over my head and frequently completely over my head, but I enjoy reading articles written from a hard-core developer point of view. (The magazine comes to me under the name Johnny Locust at Wild West Ware — not a pseudonym or anynym of mine. I find traces of him on the Net, but none that lets me contact him directly. Johnny, if you find this, I’m enjoying your subscription!)

The magazine opener this month (Sept.) comes from Eric Caoili. It”s about The Difference Engine Initiative, an incubator to encourage and enable women as game developers. Two sessions are planned in Toronto.

One of the founders, Mare Sheppard, says in Game Developer:

“There’s this huge, homogenous, very insular, established set of developers right now in the game industry, and it happens to be mostly white and mostly male. From that, you can really only get a certain amount of innovation…If we had more voices and more opinions and more people coming in, then we would be able to take bigger steps in releasing games that represent different people, because they’re involved in the development process.”

As for the incubator, says Sheppard, “It’s like a crafter’s circle. It’s loose and low-key, and it’s about peer mentorship.” She sees it as just one step that might help some people get over the initial hurdle.

The project is named after Ada Lovelace’s contribution to Babbage’s Difference Engine, but I enjoy the implicit endorsement of difference as a source of innovation. In fact, difference is the source of all value, isn’t it?


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