On the Minecraft Phenomenon

Clive Thompson, writing in The New York Times, profiles the gaming phenomenon that is Minecraft. It’s a really interesting read on the appeal of the game for both children and adults:

Minecraft is thus an almost perfect game for our current educational moment, in which policy makers are eager to increase kids’ interest in the “STEM” disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math. Schools and governments have spent millions on “let’s get kids coding” initiatives, yet it may well be that Minecraft’s impact will be greater. This is particularly striking given that the game was not designed with any educational purpose in mind.

 On how the game teaches kids autonomy, negotiation, and empathy:

But Minecraft is unusual because Microsoft doesn’t control all the servers where players gather online. There is no single Minecraft server that everyone around the world logs onto. Sometimes kids log onto a for-­profit server to play mini­games; sometimes they rent a server for themselves and their friends. (Microsoft and Mojang run one such rental service.) Or sometimes they do it free at home: If you and I are in the same room and we both have tablets running Minecraft, I can invite you into my Minecraft world through Wi-Fi.

What this means is that kids are constantly negotiating what are, at heart, questions of governance. Will their world be a free-for-all, in which everyone can create and destroy everything? What happens if someone breaks the rules? Should they, like London, employ plug-ins to prevent damage, in effect using software to enforce property rights? There are now hundreds of such governance plug-ins.

Worth clicking through to see the illustrations done by Christoph Niemann.

The Green Bay Packers and Settlers of Catan

As the Green Bay Packers take on the Seattle Seahawks in tomorrow’s NFC Championship game, I found this story interesting about how part of the team spends its time playing Settlers of Catan:

There may not be a more unusual bonding tradition in the NFL than the gang of Packers who get together regularly to play a boardgame called “Settlers of Catan.” For the past two months, it’s been the talk of the lockerroom. The number of players that have devoted a long night to the game is in the double-digits—including most of the team’s starting offensive line, among others. And don’t let the words “board game” fool you, this is not Candy Land.

packers

On any day in Green Bay’s locker room, you can find starting tackle David Bakhtiari, who introduced the game to the team, rounding up players for a Settlers get-together that night—and there’s no shortage of willing participants. But players may not know what they are in for. Backup quarterback Matt Flynn said he was interested in the game because it was “a nonviolent version of Risk,” referring to Parker Brothers’ notoriously lengthy game of world domination. But Flynn said the players take it so seriously that when he stopped by to play for the first time after a win last month, he was shocked by what happened when he attempted to turn on some celebratory music.

I visited Green Bay in December and it is true what they say: there isn’t much to do in the city when it gets too cold.

Buried Atari Games Unearthed in New Mexico

From a 1983 article on Atari, The New York Times noted:

With the video game business gone sour, some manufacturers have been dumping their excess game cartridges on the market at depressed prices.

Now Atari Inc., the leading video game manufacturer, has taken dumping one step farther.

The company has dumped 14 truckloads of discarded game cartridges and other computer equipment at the city landfill in Alamogordo, N.M. Guards kept reporters and spectators away from the area yesterday as workers poured concrete over the dumped merchandise. An Atari spokesman said the equipment came from Atari’s plant in El Paso, Tex., which used to make videogame cartridges but has now been converted to recycling scrap. Atari lost $310.5 million in the second quarter, largely because of a sharp drop in video game sales.

Turns out, this is no longer a legend. Construction crews have unearthed a huge cache of Atari games in New Mexico:

Today’s dig became a reality thanks to an upcoming documentary, produced by Microsoft’s Xbox Entertainment Studios. The documentary, which will focus on the changing landscape of the video game industry, is expected to come out next year, and it is part of a broader push by Microsoft to produce original video content for Xbox 360 and Xbox One owners. Its biggest project is a live-action Halo TV series connected to Steven Spielberg.

I wonder if any of the games are still playable.

Life as a Video Game

A fun, thoughtful post by Oliver Emberton, likening life to a game:

Every decision you have to make costs willpower, and decisions where you have to suppress an appealing option for a less appealing one (e.g. exercise instead of watch TV) require a lot of willpower.

There are various tricks to keep your behaviour in line:

  1. Keep your state high. If you’re hungry, exhausted, or utterly deprived of fun, your willpower will collapse. Ensure you take consistently good care of yourself.
  2. Don’t demand too much willpower from one day. Spread your most demanding tasks over multiple days, and mix them in with less demanding ones.
  3. Attempt the most important tasks first. This makes other tasks more difficult, but makes your top task more likely.
  4. Reduce the need to use willpower by reducing choices. If you’re trying to work on a computer that can access Facebook, you’ll need more willpower because you’re constantly choosing the hard task over the easy one. Eliminate such distractions.

A key part of playing the game is balancing your competing priorities with the state of your body. Just don’t leave yourself on autopilot, or you’ll never get anything done.

Worth clicking for the 8-bit character representations alone.

On the Strange Transcendence of Flappy Bird

Curious to find out what the big deal was, I downloaded a game called Flappy Bird on my iPhone. I’ve been playing the game for a total of about two hours or so, and yes, it is very addicting (and difficult!). In a great piece for The Atlantic, video game critic Ian Bogost explains why Flappy Bird is popular, difficult, and addicting:

Flappy Bird is a perversely, oppressively difficult game. Scoring even a single point takes most players a considerable number of runs. After an hour, I’d managed a high score of two. Many, many hours of play later, my high score is 32, a feat that has earned me the game’s gold medal (whatever that means).

There is a tradition of such super-difficult games, sometimes called masocoreamong the videogame-savvy. Masocore games are normally characterized by trial-and-error gameplay, but split up into levels or areas to create a sense of overall progress. Commercial blockbusters like Mega Man inaugurated the category (even if the term “masocore” appeared long after Capcom first released that title in 1987), and more recent independent titles like I Wanna Be The Guyand Super Meat Boy have further explored the idea of intense difficulty as a primary aesthetic. Combined with repetition and progression, the intense difficulty of masocore games often produces a feeling of profound accomplishment, an underdog’s victory in the dorky medium of underdogs themselves, 2d platformer videogames.

flappy

On what makes Flappy Bird so difficult:

Contemporary design practice surely would recommend an “easy” first pipe sequence to get the player started, perhaps a few pipes positioned at the bird’s initial position, or with wider openings for easier passage. More difficult maneuvers, such as quick shifts from high to low pipe openings, would be reserved for later in the game, with difficulty ramping up as the player demonstrates increased expertise.

But Flappy Bird offers no such scaffolding. Instead, every pipe and every point is completely identical: randomly positioned but uniform in every other way. A game of Flappy Bird is a series of identical maneuvers, one after the other. All you have to do is keep responding to them, a task made possible by the game’s predictable and utterly reasonable interactions. Just keep flapping.

This is a very introspective analysis:

What we appreciate aboutFlappy Bird is not the details of its design, but the fact that it embodies them with such unflappable nonchalance. The best games cease to be for us (or for anyone) and instead strive to be what they are as much as possible. From this indifference emanates a strange squalor that we can appreciate as beauty.

And then Bogost gets transcendental:

Flappy Bird is not amateurish nor sociopathic. Instead, it is something more unusual. It is earnest. It is exactly what it is, and it is unapologetic. Not even unapologetic—stoic, aloof. Impervious. Like a meteorite that crashed through a desert motel lobby, hot and small and unaware.

I flap, therefore I am.

On the Morality and Self-Awareness of Cards Against Humanity

This is an excellent post that categorizes the infamous Cards Against Humanity game as not a game that is “morally corrosive” (as argued in this post) but rather simply distasteful and provocative:

Cards Against Humanity is a type of humor-oriented carnival space in which norms about appropriate discussion, and appropriate topics of humor, are reversed. It may be acceptable to relax the rules within this space, but there is little danger of what Leah fears is a “leakage” of these rules into everyday life, just as there is little danger that a jester would seriously try to become a pope in everyday life. The fact that a theology school would defend such orgies is a testament to the fact that they serve to uphold the establishment.

It is key that Cards Against Humanity is a highly self-aware game. This is apparent in the tagline (“A free party game for horrible people”) and descriptions: “Unlike most of the party games you’ve played before, Cards Against Humanity is as despicable and awkward as you and your friends.” By pairing the game and its brand of humor with words like “horrible,” “despicable,” and “awkward,” it shows, again, that these are things we should not laugh about, despite doing so anyway. This self-awareness is at the heart of every, “I know I shouldn’t find this funny, but…” statement. ”Virginia Tech Massacre” is funny in this “Opposite Day” world. It’s really not funny in other contexts or in the “real world.” This is also why it’s generally OK for Jews to make Holocaust jokes when it is more frowned upon for others to do the same—it is far more likely that the non-Jew would have less awareness of the consequences of the Holocaust than the Jew, and therefore the lack of self-awareness makes the attempt at humor far less palpable.

I welcomed 2014 with a game of Cards Against Humanity. While certain cards make me uncomfortable, as argued in the post, I don’t take the view that the game has or is able to corrupt me.

The Cards Against Humanity Black Friday Sale

For Black Friday, the creators of the wildly popular card game Cards Against Humanity decided to do something different. They would get in contact with Amazon and convince them, that for one day only, they would raise their price from $25 to $30. Here’s how it came to be:

After some discussion, Ben came up with the idea of raising the price for Black Friday and that was so outrageous that I fell in love with it instantly. Two books I read recently that informed my decision were Malcom Gladwell’s David and Goliath and Marty Neumeier’s Zag, which are both kind of shitty business/science books that make the somewhat-obvious point that being small and nimble can give you advantages that huge lumbering opponents don’t have. Anyone can do a sale for Black Friday, but nobody but us could get away with raising their prices and risking a ton of sales just to make a joke.

The other guys were pretty skeptical, but Ben and I convinced them one by one, 12 Angry Men style, until they agreed to let us try a truly insane pricing experiment. The final piece needed to convince everyone was the mockup of the landing page that I designed, with the glowing “consume!” button. Once everyone saw how funny that looked, they knew we had to go through with it.

According to the post:

The sale made people laugh, it was widely shared on Twitter and Tumblr, and it was the top post on Reddit. The press picked it up, and it was reported in The GuardianUSA TodayPolygonBuzzFeedAll Things DChicagoist, and AdWeek. It was even the top comment on The Wirecutter’s front page AMA, which had nothing to do with us.

They ended up doing a little better than last year and maintained their #1 spot on Amazon for toys/games. Bravo for the brilliant idea.