Archive for May, 2007

More Harry Potter Links

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Henry Jenkins is my academic hero in large part because he busts out 3,000 word essays for breakfast. Check out his recent post on Harry Potter as the “last gasps of the old mass culture” or the “emergence of new forms of niche culture.”

Also, there will apparently be a Harry Potter theme park.

Also also, I really regret that I won’t be around to shoot some video of Enlightening 2007, an event that will have families gathering at my own university to dress up like wizards, attend magic classes, and participate in all kinds of other Harry Potter fan activities.

More Gaming Links

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

A couple quick links from Gamasutra look interesting enough to get back to later (I think I found them both on Kotaku): Ubisoft’s Clint Hocking on “exploration,” and game designer/theorist Ian Bogost on why we need more boring games.

Also, Game Politics has had a lot of extensive coverage of legislation that would regulate video games. The latest news out of New York is that the state senate passed a bill in just four days, and the state assembly passed a bill (backed by the governor) in just one day. These would fine or imprison retailers for selling certain games to minors. They’re not the exact same bill, though, so the senate and assembly will be looking to compromise on a bill before the legislative session is up on June 21st.

I was inspired to write about this when I noticed some of the wording of that latter bill, which would make a felony out of selling games to minors which depict “rape, dismemberment, physical torture, mutilation or evisceration of a human being.” Actually, that would include quite a few games; I’ve never seen rape in a game, but you can see (even cartoonish) evisceration and mutilation in a variety of games, I think. What is really worrisome about this, though, is that the only games I can think of offhand which show “physical torture” do so for meaningful purposes, or including to unsettle the player. These include F.E.A.R. (the demo has you coming upon a torture scene which eerily disappears as you get close); Metal Gear Solid (in which your ability to withstand torture determines whether your ally lives or dies); and Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (in which you come upon bad guys torturing a scientist to death, and then have the option to lay his body down to offer him some “dignity”).

Note that all of these examples feature torture that you witness or experience, but don’t perpetrate. The bill as written makes no distinction between these. I’d write more about this, but I just sent an entire paper about this sort of thing out for review last night, so I’ll let you know how that goes eventually.

Too Many Links

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Please pardon me while I get a little more rambling than usual: I have a window full of open tabs waiting to be blogged about, but I don’t really have the time or inclination to blog about them right now. (I haven’t even finished my write-up on the ICA conference from last weekend!) So, here’s a mish-mash of interesting links worth taking a look at sometime, with a minimum of commentary.

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Because I Don’t Have a License for Rocket Tanks

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Here’s a (probably pretty spot-on) piece on why the average computer user has no interest in Linux (assuming the average computer user even knows what Linux is). In summary:

  1. People don’t mind Windows as much as Linux users think they do.
  2. There are too many types of Linux to choose from.
  3. Hardware and software compatibility is a big deal to most people.
  4. The command line is not a superior alternative to graphic user interfaces for most people.
  5. And finally, to quote directly: “Linux is still too geeky.”

I think that last item pretty much sums up the previous four, though. Some die-hard Linux users seem totally baffled that the average computer user would choose the OS equivalent of a clunky station wagon over a free, rocket-powered tank (to borrow Neal Stephenson’s metaphor). The truth is, though, that you need to be interested enough in computers—no, not just interested, but dedicated to a certain kind of computing experience—to choose Linux over one of the “default” alternatives. Most people don’t want to know how their computers work—they just want them to work. Most people don’t want to take the time to learn and customize.

Once you get used to a new OS, using it doesn’t really have to be a hobby. Learning to use a new thing that doesn’t hide the complicated parts so much, without phone tech support, would essentially require taking on a new hobby for the average computer user.

I will say this, though: when the Open Source community starts attracting (and deferring to) talented designers in matters of user interface, I may be willing to take all that back.

Geeks, Fans, and the Changing Face of Music

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

Clive Thompson writes a longish article for the New York Times Magazine about artists connecting with fans through the internet. He devotes a lot of space to describing Jonathan Coulton, a “geek troubador” (in the words of the Boing Boing link that alerted me to this).

Having been to his web site (via a link from Penny Arcade, downloaded some songs, and seen him live with John Hodgman, I knew Jonathan Coulton was all about the geeky music: not only does he give away dozens of songs for free on his blog, a good number of them are about things like shy programmers and zombies. The above-linked article really drives home just how linked in he is to fan cultures, though:

His fans need him; he needs them. Which is why, every day, Coulton wakes up, gets coffee, cracks open his PowerBook and hunkers down for up to six hours of nonstop and frequently exhausting communion with his virtual crowd. The day I met him, he was examining a music video that a woman who identified herself as a “blithering fan” had made for his song “Someone Is Crazy.” It was a collection of scenes from anime cartoons, expertly spliced together and offered on YouTube.

“She spent hours working on this,” Coulton marveled. “And now her friends are watching that video, and fans of that anime cartoon are watching this video. And that’s how people are finding me. It’s a crucial part of the picture. And so I have to watch this video; I have to respond to her.” He bashed out a hasty thank-you note and then forwarded the link to another supporter — this one in Britain — who runs “The Jonathan Coulton Project,” a Web site that exists specifically to archive his fan-made music videos.

Clive Thompson casts this as the changing face of music and film, but I wonder how much the geek image has to do with this. Sure, the Hold Steady has an “appointed geek” to handle fan relations online, but does he spend as much time on that as the fellow who’s writing songs about the Mandlebrot Set?

Who Can Learn to Program?

Wednesday, May 16th, 2007

One of my interviewees recently directed me to an academic paper about programming skills as a function of thinking styles. (Here’s a summary and discussion.) In short, it claims to have found a superbly accurate test to determine whether someone would succeed or fail in computer science classes based on whether that person thinks in terms of abstract rule sets.

It’s an interesting idea, but I’d have to take a closer look at the paper to comment on its methodology, and I’m a little wary of the authors’ implication that this test should be applied as a weed-out mechanism. Introductory computer science classes are already conceived of as weed-out classes at many schools, which leads me to wonder if the high failure rates among CS students and people who took this pre-test say more about people’s response to different teaching styles than about their inherent abilities, let alone their capacity to learn new things.

My line of thinking on this right now, at least, is more in line with the people behind Scratch at the MIT Media Lab. The Boston Globe has an article online about Scratch, MIT’s free programming language developed for educational purposes (link via Slashdot):

The goal: turn a daunting subject usually taught in college and considered the domain of geeks into an integral part of education for the grade-school set. MIT researchers hope the program will promote a broader cultural shift, giving a generation already comfortable using computers to consume content online a set of new, easy-to-use tools to change the online landscape itself. […]

“With Scratch, we get rid of a lot of the overhead and let students sink their teeth into the concepts — literally after a day of programming in Scratch they have their own games and own artwork,” [David Malan] said.

This is a clever idea. I remember working with Logo back in elementary school, but I had no idea what the purpose of those exercises was at the time. Making project goals apparent and letting students see the fruits of their labor early will likely make the experience more rewarding and perhaps compel some to learn more powerful languages.

I’m not entirely dismissing the possibility that there may be some observable psychological habits peculiar to “geeky thinking,” and perhaps I should be exploring such claims further. Another interviewee just suggested to me today that the highest concentrations of people with autism are in Boston, Austin, and the Bay Area, which is reminiscent of things I’ve read before about the prevalence of Asperger Syndrome in Silicon Valley. Even so, I think it’s important not to fall into the trap of thinking that people shouldn’t bother pursuing things that don’t come naturally.

Why Video Games Really Are Linked to Moral Panic

Monday, May 14th, 2007

My friend (and Annenberg officemate) Bill Herman has written a post over at Shouting Loudly about a Slate article claiming that games encourage violence. Bill invited me to contribute to Shouting Loudly many months ago, but I only pop in occasionally because I’m on shaky ground in his areas of research. I had actually been planning to write on this same Slate piece, so I just wrote a ludicrously long comment to Bill’s post. Considering how long it was, I figured I might as well repost it here, edited for accuracy, clarity, and a new context. Head over there to follow the conversation going on in the Comments.

As I’ve previously written about here and elsewhere, connecting video game violence to real-world violence is a tricky game. On the one hand, you seem to have a mountain of evidence in the form of academic research; on the other hand, there must be a reason that legislation to regulate games keeps getting overturned in court. Plus, the lack of popular articles covering opposing evidence seems a bit suspect, such as in a recent Slate article boldly titled “Why video games really are linked to violence.” My argument here, then, is that concern about video game violence has less to do with actual media effects than with a surge in fear and misunderstanding surrounding a new medium. Video games are at the center of a moral panic, and their impact has been grossly blown out of proportion.

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Where to Study Games

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

Terra Nova has a conversation going about where students can pursue graduate study focused on games and virtual worlds. It’s reassuring to see other academics noting that this sort of research is increasingly well regarded at various institutions.

Update: Kotaku linked to this conversation as well, and now has its own conversation going between gamers debating whether game research is pointless and obvious. At the risk of self-parody, I can’t help but comment here about how interesting I find that: here we are, finally taking this medium seriously after years major institutions saying it’s all just kids’ stuff, and now we’re called irrelevant. I don’t know whether it says more about gaming or academia, but it may be the first thing in my own young life to nearly make me throw up my hands and say, “Oh, you kids today!”

Musing on Video Game Literacy

Sunday, May 13th, 2007

Earlier tonight, a small group of my friends gathered to play games together. I made a comment at dinner about how I should’ve brought Guitar Hero, which I haven’t played in a while, and my friend Caralyn, who is less a gamer than others present, warily asked if we would be playing board games or video games. The plan was to play board games, I said, and she replied, “Oh good, I know how to play those.” Being the huge nerd that I am, I commented that this was a pretty interesting comment to me, considering that video games tend to have only a limited number of input mechanisms—the buttons on the controllers—whereas board games have a theoretically limitless number of input methods. “Whatever,” she said, “I haven’t played video games since Duck Hunt.”

My friend isn’t the only one who thinks of playing modern video games as somewhat akin to reading a foreign language (except that when you butcher a foreign language, at least you don’t have to watch a tiny avatar of yourself being helplessly destroyed). As Ernest Adams suggests in a recent Gamasutra article (link via Kotaku), action games are typically only playable by hardcore gamers, inaccessible to newcomers and disabled players. What is it about some games that makes my friend think she knows how to play them, while others seem impenetrable? I’d like to consider for a moment that these sorts of examples might point to a certain “video game literacy” that players are expected to possess, and which might have fairly unique implications for game design.

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The Horse and the Princess

Friday, May 11th, 2007

Some time ago, I told my friend Jordan that he had to play Shadow of the Colossus to completion, and that I wouldn’t tell him what I thought about the game until he was done with it. He finished it last night, and the brief conversation that resulted made me want to revisit an earlier post on trauma and consequences in narrative games. (Spoiler alert for all that follows, of course…)

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