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.

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.

On Playing Video Games in Iraq

Simon Parkin, writing in The New Yorker, chronicles how video games have become a welcome refuge in the war-torn Iraq. For many kids, it’s a way to spend significant time at home and staying safe in the process:

The rise of video games in Iraq is a relatively recent phenomenon. During Saddam Hussein’s rule, it was difficult to buy them, and only relatively well-off, professional-class families like Mohammed’s could afford to import titles from Europe. Until the advent of disc-based video games in the mid-nineties, it was too difficult to pirate game cartridges. “The industry is still in its infancy in Iraq,” said Omar M. Alanseri, the owner of the Iraqi Games Center, one of only a small number of dedicated video-game retailers in Baghdad, which opened sixteen months ago. “But each year, more people get involved. I’ve seen the audience vastly increase, especially among teen-agers.”

Nevertheless, finding stock for Alanseri’s store shelves can be a challenge. “It’s not easy for me to get new games,” he said. “Mostly we import from online sites like Amazon.” Relatively few video games have been created by Iraqis. “Many games created here are not good enough to be published,” said Abdulla. “There is one title called Labaik Ya Iraq, which means ‘Iraq, We Answer Your Call.’ It is a strategy game, but not as good as, say, Command & Conquer.” Consequently, piracy remains rampant, and many copied games can be purchased for around a dollar.

This is unsurprising:

Some of the most popular video games in Iraq, as in America, are military-themed shooters, in which the player assumes the role of a soldier and blasts through waves of virtual enemies. “Almost all of my friends play video games like World of Tanks [and] Battlefield 3,” said Abdulla. “In fact, we have some of the top-ranked players in the world here.” The interest in military games stems from the local environment as much as, in the case of many players, male vanity. “Growing up, my life was completely military-focused,” Abdulla said. “It is the way we are raised. For example, I was taught how to use an AK-47 when I was in elementary school. Younger players who are not so affected by Saddam’s agendas play other game types more easily than we do, like Minecraft and other non-military games.”

Many of these first-person shooters, often created with input from U.S. military advisers—a handful of Navy SEALs was punished for consulting on the 2012 video game Medal of Honor: Warfighter—are set against the backdrop of fictionalized real-world conflicts, often within Middle Eastern countries. Some have entire sections set within Iraq, like the Battlefield series.

Read the entire piece here.

Myst, Twenty Years Later

Grantland looks back at the iconic game Myst, on its twenty year anniversary:

The premise was deceptively simple: You are The Stranger, a person of inconsequential gender, race, or origin, minding your own business when a book falls into the black starlit void you call home. When you open it, you are transported to a mysterious island, and as you explore it you begin to uncover its history; the story of its caretaker, Atrus; his art of creating worlds, called “ages,” including Myst Island itself; and his two sons, Sirrus and Achenar, who beg you to release them from the confines of their prison ages, where they have been entrapped for some unknown crime. This sets you off on a journey to four more ages, unraveling innumerable (some might say infuriating) puzzles and gradually piecing together, almost entirely from environmental clues, what happened to this family, and whom among them you can trust. You do this entirely by yourself. You encounter nobody else and you are neither helped nor harmed — though that doesn’t keep a creeping sense of dread from permeating these otherwise benign worlds. You have no weapons or tools at your disposal aside from the physical journal that came packaged with the CD-ROM. When you “win,” there are no fireworks or rewards. You are merely told the island is yours to wander for as long as you like. For nearly a decade, this was the best-selling computer game of all time.1

Twenty years ago, people talked about Myst the same way they talked about The Sopranosduring its first season: as one of those rare works that irrevocably changed its medium. It certainly felt like nothing in gaming would or could be the same after it. If you remember the game, you remember that feeling of landing on Myst Island for the first time, staggeringly bereft of information in a way that felt like some kind of reverse epiphany, left with no option but to start exploring. This was a revolutionary feeling to have while staring at your PC screen. And the word-of-mouth carried — people who had never gamed before in their lives bought new computers so they could play Myst. “It is the first artifact of CD-ROM technology that suggests that a new art form might very well be plausible, a kind of puzzle box inside a novel inside a painting, only with music,” came the impassioned, if grasping prophecy from Wired’s Jon Carroll. “Or something.”

I remember playing this game on my first PC. And I agree with this, even if I wasn’t a hard-core gamer:

[M]any hard-core gamers found it obtuse and frustrating, its point-and-click interface slideshow-esque and stifling. Maybe Myst wasn’t for hard-core gamers. Maybe it wasn’t even really a game.

The author’s leap that Myst lead to Grand Theft Auto V is a bit far-fetched, but I do like the overall theme of Myst leading to games that embraced the open-world environments.

How Gang Members Helped Create Grand Theft Auto V

I’m not much of a gamer, but this news of real gang members being used in the upcoming (on what’s bound to be a hit) Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V is fascinating:

Contributing writer, talk show host, and in-game DJ “Lazlow” Jones revealed the information on Chicago’s WGN radio station, explaining: “We get these guys in to record the gang characters because we don’t want a goofy LA actor who went to a fancy school trying to be a hard gang member. There’s nothing worse than that, so just go find the real terrifying people and say ‘can you come in here please?'”

Rockstar recruited a person to find the criminals, including “El Salvadorian gang dudes with amazing tattoos, one of which literally had gotten out of prison the day before.” Jones says this lets the game get closer to reality than otherwise possible, with the actors often given free reign to improvise. “They look at the lines and say, ‘I wouldn’t say that,’ so we say, ‘OK, say what you would say.’ Authenticity, you know?”

Read more here.


Disclosure: I’ve pre-ordered the game from Amazon for my PS3.

Desert Bus: The Worst Video Game Ever Created

I’d never heard of Desert Bus before, so I read with fascination this piece in The New Yorker touting it as the worst game ever created. It is remarkable how the game was able to pivot many years after its release and become a major fundraiser for Child’s Play, a charity that donates video games and consoles to children’s wards in hospitals around the world

The drive from Tucson, Arizona, to Las Vegas, Nevada, takes approximately eight hours when travelling in a vehicle whose top speed is forty-five miles per hour. In Desert Bus, an unreleased video game from 1995 conceived by the American illusionists and entertainers Penn Jillette and Teller, players must complete that journey in real time. Finishing a single leg of the trip requires considerable stamina and concentration in the face of arch boredom: the vehicle constantly lists to the right, so players cannot take their hands off the virtual wheel; swerving from the road will cause the bus’s engine to stall, forcing the player to be towed back to the beginning. The game cannot be paused. The bus carries no virtual passengers to add human interest, and there is no traffic to negotiate. The only scenery is the odd sand-pocked rock or road sign. Players earn a single point for each eight-hour trip completed between the two cities, making a Desert Bus high score perhaps the most costly in gaming.

Fascinating and worth reading in entirety.

MoMA Says: Video Games are Art

The Museum of Modern Art in New York City recently acquired 14 video games to their permanent collection. From their blog post, and perhaps much to the chagrin of Roger Ebert:

Are video games art? They sure are, but they are also design, and a design approach is what we chose for this new foray into this universe. The games are selected as outstanding examples of interaction design—a field that MoMA has already explored and collected extensively, and one of the most important and oft-discussed expressions of contemporary design creativity. Our criteria, therefore, emphasize not only the visual quality and aesthetic experience of each game, but also the many other aspects—from the elegance of the code to the design of the player’s behavior—that pertain to interaction design. In order to develop an even stronger curatorial stance, over the past year and a half we have sought the advice of scholars, digital conservation and legal experts, historians, and critics, all of whom helped us refine not only the criteria and the wish list, but also the issues of acquisition, display, and conservation of digital artifacts that are made even more complex by the games’ interactive nature. This acquisition allows the Museum to study, preserve, and exhibit video games as part of its Architecture and Design collection.

The list of games in MoMA’s permanent collection:

 Pac-Man (1980)
• Tetris (1984)
• Another World (1991)
• Myst (1993)
• SimCity 2000 (1994)
• vib-ribbon (1999)
• The Sims (2000)
• Katamari Damacy (2004)
• EVE Online (2003)
• Dwarf Fortress (2006)
• Portal (2007)
• flOw (2006)
• Passage (2008)
• Canabalt (2009)

Of those games, I’ve played Pac-Man, Tetris, Myst, SimCity2000, The Sims, Portal, and Canabalt (this was a surprise addition to the collection, I think). How about you?

Read the rest of MoMA’s post to discover the criteria for admission of these video games into their permanent collection.

Kickstarter as Entertainment

The latest Kickstarter darling is OUYA: “a new kind of video game console” that connects to your HDTV like a PlayStation but allows anyone to publish games for it. The company behind the device raised their $1 million target in eight hours, and at the moment, more than 40,000 users have contributed more than $5 million to the campaign. Ian Bogost, a video game designer and professor at Georgia Tech, has an interesting theory about Kickstarter and its backers:

Kickstarters are dreams, and that’s their strength rather than their weakness. People back projects on Kickstarter to fund the development of a new creative work or a consumer product that might never see the light of day via traditional financing. But what if Kickstarter is more about the experience of kickstarting than it is about the finished products? When you fund something like OUYA, you’re not pre-ordering a new console that will be made and marketed, you’re buying a ticket on the ride, reserving a front-row seat to the process and endorsing an idea. It’s a Like button attached to your wallet.

The fact that OUYA raised so much money so fast speaks more to our fantasies than the market reality. Whether or not OUYA will disrupt the console business is beside the point–no one could predict such a thing anyhow–the pleasure we get from imagining that possibility is highly valuable.

Citing a pen for which he paid $100, Bogost concludes:

When faced with the reality of these products, disappointment is inevitable–not just because they’re too little too late (if at all) but for even weirder reasons. We don’t really want the stuff. We’re paying for the sensation of a hypothetical idea, not the experience of a realized product. For the pleasure of desiring it. For the experience of watching it succeed beyond expectations or to fail dramatically. Kickstarter is just another form of entertainment. It’s QVC for the Net set. And just like QVC, the products are usually less appealing than the excitement of learning about them for the first time and getting in early on the sale.

Myself? I’ve only funded one Kickstarter project. And I was sorely disappointed with the final product. So Ian Bogost’s post resonated with me.

Virtual Reality and Pain Relief

In “Burning Man,” Jay Kirk tells the incredible story of Sam Brown, who was set on fire by an improvised explosive device while on tour in Afghanistan. He survived, only to find himself doomed to a post-traumatic life of unbearable pain. When hallucinogen-grade drugs offered little relief, he turned to virtual reality. And partaking in a video game called SnowWorld helped Sam Brown cope with pain more than anything else he tried:

Last July, Maani and Hoffman published the results of the study in which Sam Brown had participated. Echoing the civilian studies, soldiers reported significant drops in pain while immersed in SnowWorld. Time spent thinking about pain, which is an inextricable contributor to actual pain, dropped from 76 percent without SnowWorld to 22 percent with SnowWorld. Amazingly, some of the biggest drops were for the most severe levels of pain, which went against every previous expectation. Since then, SnowWorld has received a good deal of enthusiasm from several well-lit corners of the Pentagon. At least one four-star general, after seeing the results from the ISR study, has gone so far as to say that he foresees a day coming soon when VR pain distraction might become standard care. There is nearly equal excitement about Hoffman’s other applications, including one called IraqWorld, a virtual-reality exposure therapy he built to treat soldiers with PTSD.

Hoffman knows that more studies need to be done before VR becomes a regular part of a medic’s field kit. To that end, he and his colleagues at HITLab are now using $7.5 million in NIH grants to further investigate how VR affects the mind and how better to apply it in clinical situations. One part of the study is looking at using small doses of ketamine to enhance the sense of presence. But he is confident that eventually, as the technology becomes more sophisticated, VR will be exponentially more effective. Soon, he predicts, VR worlds will be customized, personally tailored, and as in social networks or Second Life, they’ll allow patients to bring along other people—a vet’s mother, girlfriend, buddies. Hoffman imagines programs that will tap into a patient’s happy memories—of a ski vacation or a honeymoon or a morning rowing on a river, sunlight dripping from the oars.

Hoffman can also see battlefield applications. Customized VR worlds will be pre-programmed right into the soldier’s eye gear. He’s already experimenting with piezoelectric crystals to that end. It doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine a near future in which combat patients could simultaneously distract themselves from their own pain while inflicting it on a virtual and remote enemy. A soldier could put his mind inside a drone instead of watching as a medic changed his bandages. In such a future of techno-utopian warfare, at least for those combatants equipped to fight outside the pain matrix, victory will indeed belong to those who have rid themselves of the inconvenience of being men and who, for all we know, may as well bleed snow.

An incredible story.