Games:EDU North

30 04 2008

08

Games:EDU North was yesterday, and I’ve posted a few talk summaries on the main website.

There are also photos on Flickr.

The overall dialogue of the day continued the process of settling conflicts between theoretical and vocational content in courses. We’ll be continuing this in Brighton on July the 29th.





Game Design: Scottish Curriculum

16 04 2008

\"wear science\"

An interesting move in Scotland: Game design skills are to be taught as part of the national curriculum there.

A drop in enrolment for university computing courses has resulted in a lack of qualified computer experts when the government wants Scotland to be at the forefront of a knowledge economy. Academics believe the fall is a result of the rise and fall of the dot.com industries.

Maureen Watt, Minister for Schools and Skills, said: “There is huge confidence that Scotland will continue to play an important part in the future of video games and interactive entertainment and we are focusing on establishing firm foundations for lifelong learning and, for some, specialised study and careers.

This seems ideal. Too many courses in the UK are crap, rebranded media courses with games tacked on to sex them up and boost enrollment. Somewhere near the end of their degree, it dawns on the third year students that they have no decent CS training and will probably not be able to get a job working in the industry.

It’s not in the interests of rubbish media courses to expose the nature of game development to prospective students, but “Oooh! Games!” really shouldn’t be such a big part of the decision making process for something as important as a university. Bad games courses are irresponsible with regard to student’s futures and the reputations of institutions.

A bad games degree can be rescued by a disciplined master’s degree, but few students follow that path. Given the age at which most of the UK’s bedroom programmers started to learn to code, it seems a very good idea to expose game development to people much earlier, thus letting kids either get it out of their system at an early age, or learn that they love games and will put in what they need to to become developers.

(Image from Wear Science!)





Online Grief

2 04 2008

Griefers

Bill Fulton has written an excellent (and sweary) article about online behaviour for Gamasutra. He talks about the problem of abusive players, who have plagued multiplayer games in the form we know them for a decade or more. Since the advent of voice communications and online console gaming, have become particularly bad, and the answer often given is basically “grow thicker skin”.

The answer treats the emotional response to griefing very simplistically: even if what a person is saying fails to upset you, they can be an annoyance to the point that playing is no longer relaxing or fun. Fulton talks about engineering social environments to make them more welcoming to players and risker for people who want to be disruptive, and has some clever ideas:

Another example from Shadowrun is how we empowered the players in a game to protect themselves against griefers. Shadowrun’s solution to these two social problems with vote-kick systems was to decrease vote calling in all but the most serious of situations (i.e., when the majority of players are likely to vote to kick). Two specific changes we made to the typical vote-kick system:

We made calling a vote a risky behavior. Typically, voters have two choices: abstain or kick the target of the vote. The wrinkle we added was to give voters a third choice: kick the vote caller. This change meant that if a griefer called a random vote, there was a chance they themselves could end up out of the game.

I find it fascinating that the kind of behaviours common in some online games or servers are taken as givens, when the structure of a game can actually help to mitigate them. Another model that comes to mind is IRC chat, where many servers will allow a lot of content to go unchecked, but also have channels heavily populated by admins, where people new to IRC can get their hand held and learn from some extremely patient people.

Obviously, creating such a social environment would prove to be quite labour intensive for games, but Fulton makes the very important point that the designed environment, even before it has any inhabitants, is a factors that affects behaviour. That’s a crux of level design, why not the structuring of online games too?

(Image is of Hillary Clinton’s Second Life campaign HQ being griefed by a swarm of Marios. Purloined from the seemingly dead Second Choices)





Byron Review Published

27 03 2008

Byron’s Works

The Byron Review has now been published, and so far there are no big surprises. It takes a much more balanced tone than Gordon Brown talking about games and knife crime.

Hardly a day goes by without a news report about children being brutalised and abused in the real world or its virtual counterpart. Some make links between what happens online or in a game, and what happens on the streets or at home.

These headlines have contributed to the climate of anxiety that surrounds new technology and created a fiercely polarised debate in which panic and fear often drown out evidence. The resultant clamour distracts from the real issue and leads to children being cast as victims rather than participants in these new, interactive technologies.

The full report can be downloaded from the DFES website, and the BBC have mirrored it too. From their coverage:

Dr Byron has said games should have just one set of symbols from the BBFC on the front of all boxes which are the same as those for films.

Pegi ratings will now appear on the back of boxes.

It actually makes sense, even though some are bemoaning an extra layer of legislation. The video rating symbols given to cinema, VHS and DVDs are a part of the cultural consciousness of the UK populace. They have more mindshare and impact on people than PEGI labels, and I think adopting them will do more to impress upon people that the games industry is responsible than any amount of PR for PEGI.

Additionally, it lowers the cognitive load imposed on non-media savvy parents choosing games for their kids. The mechanics of rating decisions obviously have to be different from one form of media to the next, but to combine that approach with a single recognisable set of symbols is very sensible. Consumers don’t need to understand rating procedures (though I’m certainly not arguing for any lack of transparency – it is both vital and fascinating), in fact between turning 18 and encountering the issue with games, age ratings are something I forgot about almost completely. It doesn’t matter how good a shiny, new, self-regulatory rating system is if consumers are expected to learn it from scratch. Existing, well known symbols can get the job done much more efficiently by exploiting prior learning.

When the Byron Review (so far) seems to be so balanced, it’s unfortunate that people will misread it as an irresponsible industry getting a well deserved kicking. Some people will even read it that way and trumpet it as a success, but you know what? Screw those people. Just about every case of anti-game media coverage in the last few years has illustrated just how unreasonable and prone to fantasy the anti-games lobby is. They can tell whatever stories they like, but they are not and still won’t be the people driving these policy decisions.

“The games industry is reasonable” is a much stronger statement to make to the public on the basis of the Byron review than “the anti-games lobby scored a point”. They didn’t, the games industry is just going through some admittedly uncomfortable steps on the compromise-riddled road to public credibility and de-facto acceptance.





Henry Jenkins Interview

19 03 2008

Henry Jenkins

Henry Jenkins has been interviewed by Steven Johnson at SXSW, and Gamasutra has a piece up on it. As ever with Henry Jenkins, it’s a torrent of incredibly valuable insight, and I recommend you read it. While his blog is prolific, the Gamasutra piece creates a nice snapshot of some of his thinking:

Asked Johnson, “Do you ever look at a new technology and think, that is just stupid?”

“It’s a momentary flash in my mind,” admitted Jenkins. “But people don’t do things, in the end, that are meaningless. We may couch potato out sometimes, but that’s meaningful to us as well. So the challenge is to dig in and figure out what is meaningful about it to the person doing the activity. It may not be meaningful to me, but it’s clearly meaningful to the people engaging in it. People aren’t idiots. They do things for a reason. And the reason is usually very interesting. “

On TV and work:

Whereas Lost seems to push us in a new direction in terms of what it is to engage in a television experience. “

“It’s amazing how much time people have,” Johnson added. “One person creates a map from 45 freeze frames – it must have taken 3 days – and they put it in the discussion frame, and then other people chime in with corrections and additions. But the time commitment is amazing. “

“Rather than pathologize that, and say what’s wrong with these people that they spend so much time this way, let’s ask what’s wrong with America that these incredibly intelligent people are given so few opportunities to demonstrate their intelligence in their workplace,” said Jenkins. “Right?”

Johnson is not someone I’m very familiar with, but he too has some great insights. He says of moral panic:

“The young people who grew up with these interactive media – what are they like?” Johnson asked. “If you look at the broad demographic trends, they are incredibly good. They are the least violent since the 1950s, they are the most entrepreneurial on record, and the most politically engaged generation since the dawn of the television. Do we have a crisis here or an incredible opportunity? People seem to be more engaged generally than they’ve been since the rise of mass media. The idea that there’s some kind of reason for a moral panic at this time is very strange.”





Infogrames/Atari – New Appointments

7 03 2008

Phil Harrison

First reported as Phil Harrison becoming director of Infogrames, he has actually become director of Atari. Additionally, Mathias Hautefort has been promoted to head of global distribution for Atari in the US, EU and Asia.

Dave Gardner was appointed CEO of Infogrames not long ago, and brought Harrison on board. It’s an interesting change of direction:

“The business and the industry is moving online on a global basis. It’s moving at different speeds in different countries, but it’s pretty clear to me that the whole way that people are going to want to buy their games, play their games, interface with their games is network centric,”

“That’s where we need to get a lot smarter, a lot quicker, and use this famous brand.”

These are definitely the people who get it, but until now Atari has been a company that doesn’t.

(CC image from Hachimaki)





Mass Effects

24 01 2008

Mass Effect

Mass Effect recently received a proper hatchet job from Fox News and a writer named Cooper Lawrence, who’d never seen or played the game but leveled various accusations at it. EA have actually mounted an incredibly cogent defense, first seen here at Kotaku:

Your headline above the televised story read: “New videogame shows full digital nudity and sex.” Fact: Mass Effect does not include explicit or frontal nudity. Love scenes in non-interactive sequences include side and profile shots – a vantage frequently used in many prime-time television shows. It’s also worth noting that the game requires players to develop complex relationships before characters can become intimate and players can chose to avoid the love scenes altogether.

FNC voice-over reporter says: “You’ll see full digital nudity and the ability for players to engage in graphic sex.”
Fact: Sex scenes in Mass Effect are not graphic. These scenes are very similar to sex sequences frequently seen on network television in prime time.

FNC reporter says: “Critics say Mass Effect is being marketed to kids and teenagers.”
Fact: That is flat out false. Mass Effect and all related marketing has been reviewed by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) and rated Mature – appropriate for players 17-years and older. ESRB routinely counsels retailers on requesting proof of age in selling M-rated titles and the system has been lauded by members of Congress and the Federal Trade Commission. In practical terms, the ratings work as well or better than those used for warning viewers about television content.

At the very end:

The resulting coverage was insulting to the men and women who spent years creating a game which is acclaimed by critics for its high creative standards. As video games continue to take audiences away from television, we expect to see more TV news stories warning parents about the corrupting influence of interactive entertainment. But this represents a new level of recklessness.

Do you watch the Fox Network? Do you watch Family Guy? Have you ever seen The OC? Do you think the sexual situations in Mass Effect are any more graphic than scenes routinely aired on those shows? Do you honestly believe that young people have more exposure to Mass Effect than to those prime time shows?

This isn’t a legal threat; it’s an appeal to your sense of fairness. We’re asking FNC to correct the record on Mass Effect.

Sincerely,

Jeff Brown
Vice President of Communications
Electronic Arts, Inc.

Emphasis mine. You can watch the original Fox News segment here.

It’s quite astounding to see this letter after years of watching the games industry do an appalling job of defending itself, at best being merely litigious, at worst provocative and childish. It’s quite a big step for EA to take such a reasoned approach.

The same can’t be said of Mass Effect fans, but their reaction is quite a funny fulfillment of the words “Don’t fuck with the internet”:

Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk have recently seen a sudden influx of reader reviews on product pages attributed to Lawrence’s book ‘The Cult of Perfection: Making Peace with Your Inner Overachiever’ after she participated in the scathing attack against Mass Effect.

[…]

Currently 346 ‘one star’ reader reviews have hit the Amazon.com product page in the wake of the FOX News item, with gamers venting their spleens vehemently at Lawrence through a variety of damning criticisms against her and her book – including product picture submissions calling her reputation and credibility into question.





Microsoft Parents Survey

4 12 2007

Kids playing videogames

Microsoft just published a survey of parents with a report written by Margaret Robertson. BBC News have a story on it here:

More than 75% of parents are concerned about the content of video games played by their children, a survey suggests.

Almost half of the 4,000 parents surveyed in the UK, France, Italy and Germany said that one hour of gaming each day should be the limit.

Some 43% of the surveyed parents said they were not aware of ratings systems for games to determine suitability.

I would really like to know more about the 25% apparently not concerned: Are the majority of those already well versed in games, or do they just not care?

The story doesn’t say much new, just confirming how unaware a lot of parents are of the ratings systems for games, but it’s worth pointing out Ask About Games as a new resource for parents who want to know about the content of the games their children are playing. Other good sites include Gamerdad and What They Play.

CC Licensed image by Ed Fladung.





Conditioned Violence?

13 08 2007

Hot Milky Drink is a blog, mostly, about games and education, run by Derek Robertson. This post is a fairly typical worry about games:

I appreciate that the game is a 16+ and that it is aimed at young and older adults and that in general people are not stupid but…I can’t help feeling that games such as these can help construct an implicit acceptance of an ideology that says I’m bigger and stronger than you so I’ll kill your family and rape your daughter, tie you up and lock you up without charge and and steal all your wealth.

It does, however, raise a very important question for anyone extolling the pluses of simulation and games for teaching: How do games affect us? On the one hand, certain viewpoints are saying that violence in games has no effect on people, but on the other, people behind educational games are saying they can have a very profound impact on users.

The post doesn’t offer an answer. Is the distinction that between acquiring knowledge and skills, contrasted with effects on our motivations? I’m not sure, but I suspect while a game can convey knowledge and mental skills, it can only work with the motives that are already there.

One of the commenters mentions Grossman, though as ever when he’s cited, no distinction is made between the ability to kill and the desire to, nor any mention of other techniques used to back up training with human shaped targets, nor that soldiers will still suffer nervous breakdowns and PTSD after too much exposure to combat. We are far more than our conditioned reptilian reflexes.

I get the feeling that very few people on either side of the debate are being completely fair to the views they oppose.

There is also this interesting chunk in the comments:

afterwards one attendee told me of his dilemma when his boy asked if he could have a war game (it may have been Call of Duty, I’m not 100% sure), a game which the parent felt uncomfortable about. However he agreed on the condition that they also studied the events of the game in a wider context, bringing in books and dramas and so on, so that the game content could be experienced in a greater context.

The less context a piece of media puts around mature content, the less mature that piece of media is. Hence age restrictions: Older humans supposedly have greater ability to contextualise for themselves. So the idea seems to go.





Games: Good for Kids

3 07 2007

The pro side of the to and fro over the effects of games just got a shot in the arm from Brunel University. The Scotsman reports:

Researchers from Brunel University spent three years studying 13-16-year-olds who play a leading web-based game.

And far from becoming pale prisoners of their own bedrooms, regular players were found to enhance rather than restrict their imagination, the study found.

Because the game allows them to meet other role-playing gamers, many youngsters also get the chance to find out about different nationalities and races they would not normally come into contact with.

Multi-player online games give children a freedom to explore but without their parents worrying about where they are in an age when, in real life, they are not allowed out by themselves because of safety fears, said Nic Crowe and Dr Simon Bradford of Brunel’s School of Sport and Education.

Here’s the page of the Doctor responsible, and I believe this is the reference:

Crowe, N., and Bradford, S., (2007, in press), ‘Identity in On-Line Gaming: young people’s symbolic and virtual extensions of self’, in Hodkinson, P., and Bennett, A., (eds), Scenes, Subcultures and Tribes, Routledge.