Clive Thompson, writing about finding the cruise ship that crashed in Italy last year on Google maps (Maps link here), made a really interesting point about how we interpret strange visuals in the age of digital technology and video games:
I remember, back when the catastrophe first occurred, being struck by how uncanny — how almost CGI-like — the pictures of the ship appeared. It looks so wrong, lying there sideways in the shallow waters, that I had a sort of odd, disassociative moment that occurs to me with uncomfortable regularity these days: The picture looks like something I’ve seen in a some dystopic video game, a sort of bleak matte-painting backdrop of the world gone wrong. (In the typically bifurcated moral nature of media, you could regard this either as a condemnation of video games — i.e. they’ve trained me to view real-life tragedy as unreal — or an example of their imaginative force: They’re a place you regularly encounter depictions of the terrible.) At any rate, I think what triggers this is the sheer immensity of the ship; it’s totally out of scale, as in that photo above, taken by Luca Di Ciaccio.
Growing up playing video games I definitely know the feeling. I do wonder, though, whether this is actually a new feeling or we could have said the same about feeling like something was a movie when that was still transforming how we saw the world. When I was in Hong Kong in December, for example, I felt like it was more a reflection of Blade Runner than anything else, for what it’s worth. Either way, though, it’s an interesting notion.
Super Mario Brothers is Getting Harder
It may come as a shock to some of you that most gamers today can not finish the original Super Mario Brothers game on the Famicom. We have conducted this test over the past few years to see how difficult we should make our games and have found that the number of people unable to finish the first level is steadily increasing. This year, around 90 percent of the test participants were unable to complete the first level of Super Mario Brothers. We did not assist them in any way except by providing the exact same instruction manual we used back then. Many of them did not read it and the few that did stopped after the first page which did not cover any of the game mechanics.
UPDATE (7/7/13): As Rafi points out in the comments, it looks like this is satirical. One of the other stories on the site is CHILDREN WHO PICK A SIDE IN CONSOLE WARS ARE 90 PERCENT MORE LIKELY TO JOIN A GANG. Sorry about that.
This was a little tidbit I picked up at the Most Contagious event in London. Turns out EA’s FIFA 13 is set up to work with Xbox. Specifically, if you swear at the TV while you’re playing the game you’ll be penalized:
But the system will also listen for players whose frustration gets the better of them. Swearing at the referee will influence their decision-making, possibly leading to more bookings. EA says that in Fifa 13’s career mode, gamers will find that storylines will develop if they acquire a reputation for abusing referees.
Two interesting nuggets in Ezra Klein’s story about studying economics in video games. First, a question I’ve asked myself many times about Facebook and currency:
“Just for example,” Castronova says, “Facebook has an entire currency system that isn’t taxed or regulated. At what point does that threaten what the Federal Reserve does?”
Next it’s a broader point about what effect video games have on the economy-at-large:
There’s also a question of whether actions in online worlds count as real-life economic activity. “Say someone is playing Eve Online for a whole week and not providing services in real life,” Guðmundsson says. “That would hurt GDP [the measure of real-life economic growth], but it would increase the Gross User Product in the virtual world. So did overall value creation really decline?”
[Editor’s Note: Prepare for some jumping between thoughts here.]
First off, I’m trying to blog more, which you’ll be able to tell by the fact I’ve written a few things over the last few days. Whether this actually stays consistent only time will tell.
Second (and actual point of this post) thing, I want to connect a few pieces together about video games I’ve run in to. I don’t have answers, but I think it’s interesting. So here it goes.
Nicholas Carr linked to a scathing review of the effects of casual/social games and gamification by Rob Horning:
Gamification is awful for many reasons, not least in the way it seeks to transform us into atomized laboratory rats, reduce us to the sum total of our incentivized behaviors. But it also increases the pressure to make all game playing occur within spaces subject to capture; it seeks to supply the incentives to make games not about relaxation and escape and social connection but about data generation. The networked mediation of games — in other words, playing them on your phone or through Facebook — undermines the function of games in organizing face-to-face social time, guaranteeing presence in an unobtrusive way. Instead we typically take our turn in mediated games on our time and play multiple games at once, to cater to our convenience and our desire to be winning at least one of them.
Which reminded me a lot of this article from late last year about Cow Clicker, a satire of games like Farmville that against the designer Ian Bogost’s hopes actually became popular itself. Here’s how Cow Clicker worked:
The rules were simple to the point of absurdity: There was a picture of a cow, which players were allowed to click once every six hours. Each time they did, they received one point, called a click. Players could invite as many as eight friends to join their “pasture”; whenever anyone within the pasture clicked their cow, they all received a click. A leaderboard tracked the game’s most prodigious clickers. Players could purchase in-game currency, called mooney, which they could use to buy more cows or circumvent the time restriction. In true FarmVille fashion, whenever a player clicked a cow, an announcement—”I’m clicking a cow“—appeared on their Facebook newsfeed.
And what happened next:
And then something surprising happened: Cow Clicker caught fire. The inherent virality of the game mechanics Bogost had mimicked, combined with the publicity, helped spread it well beyond its initial audience of game-industry insiders. Bogost watched in surprise and with a bit of alarm as the number of players grew consistently, from 5,000 soon after launch to 20,000 a few weeks later and then to 50,000 by early September. And not all of those people appeared to be in on the joke. The game received its fair share of five-star and one-star reviews from players who, respectively, appreciated the gag or simply thought the game was stupid. But what was startling was the occasional middling review from someone who treated Cow Clicker not as an acid commentary but as just another social game. “OK, not great though,” one earnest example read.
Which brings me to this snippet from a pretty good Atlantic profile of video game designer Jonathan Blow:
As a developer whose independent success has emancipated him from the grip of the monolithic game corporations, Blow makes a habit of lobbing rhetorical hand grenades at the industry. He has famously branded so-called social games like FarmVille “evil” because their whole raison d’être is to maximize corporate profits by getting players to check in obsessively and buy useless in-game items. (In one talk, Blow managed to compare FarmVille’s developers to muggers, alcoholic-enablers, Bernie Madoff, and brain-colonizing ant parasites.) Once, during an online discussion about the virtues of short game-playing experiences, Blow wrote, “Gamers seem to praise games for being addicting, but doesn’t that feel a bit like Stockholm syndrome?” His entire public demeanor forms a challenge to the genre’s intellectual laziness.
Now I’m not sure how I feel about any of this really. I’ve found myself trapped by games, unable to put down the controller until my hands were so sore I was worried about doing permanent damage. I’m not proud of the fact that I was totally obsessed with Ski Safari (I’ve almost broken the habit). I think it’s good that there is another side to the endless games are great conversation (other than the side that says the people who talk about gamification are dumb). Not sure I have more of an answer than that at the moment.
One more thing from the article about Blow before I’m done. I particularly liked this explanation of how video games are really like movies. We frequently talk about how when a new medium is created the first thing people try to do is recreate the old medium. It’s logical and the examples people trot out (first TV broadcast was radio in front of the camera), it’s never really well explained. Thought this was pretty good:
Blow’s refusal to explain the meaning of his games, after all, stems from a profound respect for his art. Ever since modern technology first made sophisticated video games possible, developers have assumed that the artistic fate of the video game is to become “film with interactivity”—game-play interwoven with scenes based on the vernacular of movies. And not just any movies. “The de facto reference for a video game is a shitty action movie,” Blow said during a conversation in Chris Hecker’s dining room one sunny afternoon. “You’re not trying to make a game like Citizen Kane; you’re trying to make Bad Boys 2.” But questions of movie taste notwithstanding, the notion that gaming would even attempt to ape film troubles Blow. As Hecker explained it: “Look, film didn’t get to be film by trying to be theater. First, they had to figure out the things they could do that theater couldn’t, like moving the camera around and editing out of sequence—and only then did film come into its own.” This was why Citizen Kane did so much to put filmmaking on the map: not simply because it was well made, but because it provided a rich experience that no other medium before it could have provided.
I’ll leave you with that. Lots of thoughts about video games. No answers.