Game Eaters

Friday, March 25, 2005

Jack Thompson.

I was trying to think of a more clever title for this entry, but nothing came to mind. Merely the name Jack Thompson should fill gamers' hearts with disgust. I was naive to think that perhaps because the Jeff Weise shootings (no relation!) didn't involve any reference to videogames whatsoever that would prevent idiots like Thompson from spinning their bullshit. But no. Apparently, this kid made some violent flash movies a while before he went on his killing spree. And, of course, like a fly on shit, Thompson is claiming the movies were modeled after Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt (surprise, surprise... does Thompson know any other violent games?)

I spoke to Jack Thompson once. It was scary. It was like talking to Hannibal Lecter on the phone. I called him out of the blue when I was a student at MIT. I'd read some crap of his where he claimed that adolenscents brains were "underdeveloped" and not able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality... hence they don't deserve to be treated like sentient beings with, you know, the ability to make decisions and stuff. He'd cited a Harvard study, but didn't give any details. So I called the phone number on his website. I wasn't sure if he'd answer at first, but eventually he did pick up.

His voice was... creepy. Maybe he gets lots of calls from gamers who scream at him and tell him what a dick he is. He sounded very tentative, like he wasn't sure why I was calling. Like he wasn't sure if I was on of "them." His tone of voice gave the impression of a guy sitting in his office with a loaded gun looking out the window. I didn't want him hanging up on me, so I played the student card. I explained how I was at MIT doing research on videogames (although I didn't mention Henry Jenkins) and that I wanted to know what the full citations were for the studies he cites, complaining, gently, that there didn't seem to be any references on his website. I remember him getting slightly defensive and explaining that his website wasn't meant to be taken as a hardcore research document. He said he did have citations for all the research he mentioned, he just hadn't posted them online... where people could, you know, read them. He told me the department where the Harvard study took place, and I thanked him and hung up. I felt weird. Cold, sort of.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Living Game Worlds - Round Two!

Unlike Clara I didn't get to attend both days of the GeorgiaTech conference with Will Wright. (I had to work.) But I did attend the second day, and there were some interesting bits.

Spore is amazing. It is one of those epic game designs that people endlessly talk about but no one seems to be able to pull off. It's a game that begins like Black & White and ends like Master of Orion, all involving one smooth, simple interface that a child could use. I love Wright's designs, but curiously his games have never held my attention. They do for plenty of people, and that's great. But I'm still waiting for the Will Wright game where playing the game is more interesting that hearing Will Wright talk about how he designed it. I'd still much rather attend a lecture by Will Wright about The Sims than play The Sims. His Spore demonstration had me drooling, but I'll have to wait and see if my own experience of playing Spore is as exciting and delightful as Will's presentation.

Another bit that sticks in my mind is the Storytelling panel--YET ANOTHER storytelling panel. They seem to be at every game-related event. This one was more of the same, but it was shaken up a bit by some guy from EA Sports. God knows what he was doing on a panel with Michael Mateas and Chris Crawford. Don't you hate it when some mega commercial schmoe comes to one of these academic conferences and shows a "demo reel" that is basically an advertisement? I just felt embarrassed. Here we are trying to have a serious discussion about storytelling and the medium of games, and I'm hearing "YEAH! MADDEN 2005 RULZ! EA IS YOUR GOD!" coming out of the speaker a foot from my ear. Feh. At the end of the video I and the small crowd around me tried to stifle our laughter, but the feeling of hokiness was just too overwhelming. So yep, there it was, going from Madden's "innovative" feature stacking to Facade's indie sass. Would you like some chocolate syrup on your steak?

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Will Wright receives the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize at Georgia Tech

So let's start the entries of this blog in style.

Today was the day for the main events of Founder's Day in the Ivan Allen College, at Georgia Tech. The morning was dedicated to a panel on Community and Games, and the afternoon was dedicated to the award ceremony to Will Wright, as this year's recipient of the Ivan Allen Jr. Prize. These events are part of the Living Game Worlds Symposium here at Literature, Communication and Culture, today and tomorrow. As someone who missed GDC, I'm happy my department is organizing the symposium :)

The morning panel was really interesting: Ian Bogost compared videogame communities with soup (he actually has something for food and computers, as the students in his class can testify). He continued with the culinary example by showing The Grocery Game, where people compete to save the most in their grocery shopping in the real world. Then Celia Pearce did a presentation on how a group of gamers from Uru, the on-line version of Myst, have recreated some of the spaces in that game in other on-line games, such as There She did her whole presentation through her avatar in There, and the final touch was that she got to interview one of the players in the game, and he greeted the whole audience. In her configuration she could talk and be heard by the other player, and we could hear the other player too; if it had been rehearsed if would not have resulted so well. Finally, Michael Mateas spoke about code and expression, and put his finger on the question of how to make digital expressive tools accesible to people who can't code. Will Wright joined as a respondent to the panel, agreeing with the necessity of filling the gap between hard-core modders and casual gamers that Mateas highlighted.

Some of the questions got very interesting responses from the speakers, starting with the statement that virtual enviroments may not be real, but the communities that are built around them are. Pearce spoke about how MMO players seem to be first attracted by the game and the ideology that its procedures propose, to then shift their focus to the people they meet in the game. Copyright was also tackled, given that players are given the tools, but also the opporunity to modify the game--The Sims is famous for fostering this, though they have had to add a clause to sort of waive some property rights in order to allow these modifications. It was also mentioned that the MMO Second Life has actually granted IP to their players of whatever games or objects they built within the game. Finally, it was also pointed out that game designers do not really have the capacity to control what the players are going to do. As Wright mentioned, the fist thing that some players did in the happy-happy Sims Online was to organize a mafia that hit and harassed other players. He said that there is no need to design any crime-oriented activities in MMOs, because grievers will find the cracks in the rules and terrorize the gameworld.

The award ceremony at noon was a nicely organized event, where other people received recognition for their work at and after Georgia Tech. Will Wright was the star of the event, with a presentation where he talked really fast (and those of you who have already heard him talk know that he's a fast speaker already). The title of his talk was 'Stealth Communities', a flashy name for a great talk on how to reproduce real world events and systems in a computer, reviewing different theories that have been applied to computing (from Math to Chaos theory), and making it actually interesting. Will Wright armed with a Powerpoint is a guarantee of a good, enjoyable talk.

For those of you who want to emulate Will Wright, here are some hints:
- if you're getting a lifetime achievement award, dress elegantly, but do not forget your black sneakers. You're a geek, but you're also a genius, so it's okay.
- change your university major at least four times. If you also change your school, that's even better.
- Look for inspiration in movies. Watch 2001: An Space Odyssey, because that's what the future was going to be like when you were born in the 60s. The movie also teaches you that computers can be potential psychotic killers. Watch Earth vs. the Flying Saucers too (yeah, it's an actual film).
- make jokes about llamas in your games. It's a Monty Pythonesque reference (the original was probably the moose in Monty Python's Holy Grail).

We need more people like Will Wright. So start working on it.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Game blog... STAH-TOH!

Hello. This is the first entry in Game Eaters, the blog for people who love videogames so much they eat them. Not sure what's comin' up next, but Clara and I will do our best to bring you game-related content worth reading. So until then...