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Art History of Games Recap

Posted in Columns by Simon Ferrari on February 23, 2010

Two weeks ago, the Georgia Institute of Technology Digital Media program co-hosted the Art History of Games symposium with SCAD-Atlanta. The event opened with a panel by its three co-coordinators, Michael Nitsche and Ian Bogost of Tech and John Sharp of SCAD. They began with a number of provocative questions about where the art of games might come from: is it found in their visual elements, in their virtual worlds, in the creative exploitation of technology, in their design and programming, or in the activity of their players?

John Romero, famous for his work at id Software on early FPS games such as Doom and Quake, delivered a reflective opening keynote on some of the pioneers of digital games. He reminded us about the amount of work lost over time from Mozart’s oeuvre, cautioning the game industry to remember vital contributions from the many designers and programmers who have already begun to fade from popular memory. Later in the conference, he explained his thought process during the transition from false to true 3D engines. Another attending industry designer, Richard Lemarchand of Naughty Dog, inquired in a hushed voice, “Did you have any idea what your work would mean to us now?”

In their lectures, Celia Pearce and John Sharp both covered the representation of games throughout art history proper. Sharp focused on famous paintings that captured games as they were played by aristocrats. He highlighted the importance of swinging and guessing games in the sexual lives of young Europeans, contrasting this with the academic place of Go in Japan. Pearce primarily discussed how the Dada and Fluxus movements produced games alongside their experiments in performance and readymades. She also ran through a short history of independent game developers who strive to make art, asserting that “if you make something, and you call it art, then it’s art.” Marcel Duchamp factored heavily in both discussions, becoming something of a “patron saint” of the symposium

Digital Media PhD candidate Brian Schrank and his graduate advisor, Professor Jay Bolter, presented a model for the avant-garde in games, distinguishing between the formal and the political avant-garde in art history. The formal avant-garde questions the assumptions of mainstream art, while the political avant-garde confronts the place of art in society. Schrank holds the mods of Jodi, an art collective known for deconstructing famous games until they are unrecognizable, as the ideal of formal avant-garde games that manipulate the player’s flow state. The political avant-garde in gaming is represented by virtual world griefers and alternate-reality games, which call into question the magic circle that divides the “real” world from the games we play.

Jesper Juul of the NYU Game Center discussed competing efforts to arrive at the essence of games, dividing thinkers and designers across a spectrum between “purity” and (for lack of a better word) “subterfuge.” He associates purity with the procedural focus of designer Chris Crawford and the ludologists. Antagonistic to this are those who strive for immersion, or “those who want to hide the gaminess of games.” The scholarly impulse for this comes from Janet Murray’s ideal of the holodeck, while designers Chris Hecker and Clint Hocking manifest the approach through their respective focuses on the ludic contract and hyper-realism. Juul chose no explicit champion here, instead encouraging us to keep making theories and proving ourselves wrong.

Area/Code founder Frank Lantz managed to explain the mindset of a brilliant game designer without really talking much about games at all. He discussed the passions of Nabokov for butterfly collecting and of Wittgenstein for architecture, hobbies seemingly unrelated to the work they’re remembered for, that show us something about the way they understood and dealt with the world. It was an argument against the codification of games into art or even into a series of stock design patterns. Lantz explains that avoiding the “domestication” of games requires looking outside of the field for inspiration, embracing things that are messy, wild, and inexplicable.

Henry Lowood, a professor and archivist at Stanford University, chided academics for not taking a close enough look at the creative output of players. He controversially asked, “Who is the artist, James Naismith (the designer of basketball) or Michael Jordan?” He then compared Dr. J’s virtuoso around-the-backboard layup versus Kareem Adbul-Jabar to a famous Warcraft 3 match where the underdog, 4K.Grubby, won by using a defensive spell in an unexpected way. The “are games art” question holds little interest for Lowood, who reflected that over the course of the past century most people have come to distrust art while relying more and more on games in their daily lives.

Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey of Tale of Tales, the enigmatic indie developer of The Path and The Graveyard, announced the formation of a “Not Games” movement with four messages emblazoned across the screen:

GAMES ARE NOT ART
ART IS DEAD
VIDEO GAMES ARE NOT GAMES
MAKE LOVE NOT GAMES

Tale of Tales explained the initial disillusionment with the high art world that led them to express themselves on the web and through games. Unfortunately, their experience with games has left them somewhat jaded, because the mainstream industry fails to exploit so much of the potential interactions afforded by the medium. “We want you to know: we’re just as evil as you are. We’re just evil in a different way,” Samyn clarified.

The closing keynote came from Christiane Paul of the Whitney, who explained the difficulty of her work trying to get videogames and other interactive media into a gallery setting. She explained why technically significant, critically celebrated videogames often fail to make the “fine art” cut. Her work is a careful balancing act, attempting to introduce traditional museum patrons to the medium without going completely over their heads. Paul’s fear is that, without the archival support of museums, many important games will eventually be lost to history.

Accompanying the talks were a collection of commissioned games on display at the Kai Lin gallery. Eric Zimmerman and Nathalie Pozzi combined their design and architecture backgrounds to produce Sixteen Tons—a game of tactical peg maneuvering with an added mini-economic dimension, played with heavy iron pieces and encircled by a beautiful paper wall. Their presentation raised the question: is the essence of Sixteen Tons in the design of its ruleset, in its architectural elements, or in the content of its social message about indentured servitude?

Jason Rohrer brought his new Sleep is Death, an uneven networked game with one player filling the role of an “actor” and another that of a “director.” This design mirrored his talk about the pipe dream of the singleplayer immersive, interactive narrative. Following an earlier argument by Michael Mateas, Rohrer argued that we should focus on interactive drama rather than a classical narrative arc. Tale of Tales unveiled their new non-game, Vanitas, in an installation crowned by a beautiful bell jar filled with the fragments of a shattered iPhone and a swarm of ladybugs.

Perhaps as a counterpoint to their argument, but really more close to exactly what Tale of Tales wants to see from the game industry, Brenda Brathwaite stole the show for many when she stood up and declared, “I’m an artist, and I’m sensitive about my shit.” Her Train was on display along the commissioned works at Kai Lin, and her speech covered her own mental processes while working on her “The Mechanic is the Message” series of games. Brathwaite shared details on her newest project, called One Falls For Each Of Us, about the Trail of Tears. One aspect of the design stood out as particularly memorable: in this game about displacing an entire people, you’re going to have to move one game piece for each of them.

That’s right: Brathwaite is currently hard at work painting 50,000 game pieces. She’s an artist, and she’s sensitive about her shit.

Are games art? Where is the art in games? Does it matter? None of these questions were answered conclusively. In fact, the presentations and commissioned works only served to muddy the waters. Which, as Juul and Lantz argued quite convincingly, is exactly what these events are supposed to do. At the end of the day, the field is better for all our confusion, wild energy, and playful theorization. We study and makes games, after all.

I should say that, all of the lectures aside, the most fulfilling experience I had was in meeting people I’d known online for some time but had never gotten the chance to talk with in person: Charles Pratt, Frank Lantz, and Mike Treanor (to name a few). At the climax of the conference, a group of people descended upon my apartment to play Space Giraffe and make fun of Demon’s Souls. Those people were: Kirk Battle (LB Jeffries), Mike Treanor, Charles Pratt, Frank Lantz, Eric Zimmerman of GameLab, Jason Rohrer, and Richard Lemarchand of Naughty Dog. A good time was had by all, except maybe Zimmerman because I kept spitting on him and saying stupid things because I’m his biggest fan ever. Then a few hours later I got the AHoG stomach bug and threw up for the first time in over five years.

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A Case for Mods

Posted in Columns, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on August 14, 2009

Written for Sande Chen’s “Game Design Aspect of the Month” blog. A reply to this post by Reid Kimball.

Reading Reid’s article, I found myself agreeing with everything he was saying (except perhaps the knock on physicians for their love of pharmaceuticals, which I’m sure he and I can debate heatedly some other place, some other time). That said, I found it sorely lacking in one practical consideration: convincing a publisher that it would be worth their money investing in an advocacy game. Although The Sims shows that a boring game can move units, Maxis takes a decidedly apolitical stance incongruous with the idea of making a game strictly for advocacy. I’m a fledgling academic and designer, so I don’t have the industry experience to speak here with certainty; however, even in academic game design emphasis is placed on the proof-of-concept. I imagine this works quite the same when pitching a game commercially—a working prototype does persuasive wonders that even a thorough design document could only dream of. I’d like to suggest a form of one-session game that would make strides toward convincing people that advocacy games are commercially viable (at least on a small scale).

One relatively early text in the theory of political games is “Ephemeral Games” by Gonzalo Frasca, who later went on to design the first newsgames September 12th and Madrid. In the article, Frasca asks a question that has been circulating in game design blogs (especially Clint Hocking’s and Manveer Heir’s) recently: how does it affect the impact of a game’s ethical decisions if we allow the player to take them back by loading a save? His answer was the “OSGON,” or “one-session game of narration.” The idea was to make it clear to the player that they would only be allowed to play the game once, after which their copy of it would lock them out. This, he thought, would ensure that players made decisions carefully and would forever reflect on the consequences.

AirplaneAdventures
Interestingly, in the past few weeks two such games were created. One by Terry Cavanagh, called Airplane Adventures, asks the player not to release their mouse. When they eventually do, their plane crashes; on reloading, players receive not another chance to play the game but a message, “YOU HAVE CRASHED.” Another game by raitendo, You Only Live Once, tells the story of a Mario-type who goes on a quest to free his girlfriend from a Bowser-type; when the player dies and tries to hit continue, they are treated to a series of humorous cartoons depicting the aftermath of their avatar’s death. Neither of these games can be played again without clearing out your Flash caches. Raitendo explored the same idea with Free Will, which endlessly cycles the player’s failed attempt at the game after they die (though this can be reloaded). Note that neither of these games feature ethical decisions, cues that the game cannot be replayed, or could be considered models for profitable advocacy games. To my knowledge, a politically-minded OSGON has never been created. Frasca himself opted for games that almost demand replaying.

Putting aside the idea of an OSGON, I’d like to suggest another type of small-scale project that, if successful, would serve as a proof-of-concept for the public’s willingness to engage seriously with an advocacy game: the mod. Mods have always enjoyed a curious existence on the fringes of mainstream gaming. One reason for this is that they are, to date, available only to PC gamers. The other is that they are only advertised on personal blogs and forums. Every once in awhile, a publisher will observe the quality and quiet success of a mod and decide to purchase the idea—the best example being Counter Strike. The makers of another mod, Killing Floor for Unreal Tournament 2004, found funding after the mod gained popular attention in gaming magazines; eventually the makers polished the mod into a standalone game and sold it on Steam this year.

Of course, you can see some problems here: the best examples of profitable mods are shooters, and as online games they demand the kind of replay addiction Reid avers. What hope does a political or educational game have in such a market? On the other hand, mods have been popular in the academic and artistic game design circles for quite a while. Mary Flanagan’s [domestic] is another Unreal mod that takes players through the interior of one of her traumatic childhood memories. One day, while walking home from church, she saw smoke billowing from her home in the distance… she knew her father was inside. [domestic] allows players to move through an expressive 3D recreation of her burning home, the walls textured with prose and the ever-present FPS gun replaced by a fire extinguisher. Escape From Woomera (Source mod, I believe) was designed by an Australian art collective in order to expose the machinations of a government-run camp for illegal aliens. The press wasn’t allowed inside the camp, so the game was pieced together from accounts by those who had been interred there. Finally, Medieval Unreality (Unreal mod) is an abstract trek through a nightmarish landscape designed collectively by some of the victims of the infamous Albanian blood fueds.

domestic
All of these games take less than an hour to play, and the replay value is fairly little. Also, they fall into the problem of being a bit too “serious” or “boring” for the average player (with the exception, perhaps, of Woomera). Another possibility would be to build the political mod into the existing structure of an open-ended game. Humana, the health insurance company, recently realized that it pays to keep their customers healthy rather than letting their health deteriorate to the point that supporting them becomes cost-prohibitive. Thus, they have begun inviting student interns to design health advocacy games for them. Many of these are ARG-types, but one is a mod for (you guessed it) The Sims that helps elderly men and women understand the importance of basic monitoring and medication. The mod also makes it easy for the player to understand the purposes and uses of any medical devices the insurance company or doctors may have suggested for them. Again—this is an admittedly boring example, not exactly what you’d show a publisher to pitch a larger game. But who’s to say that somebody like Reid couldn’t make a similar mod that simulated the lifestyle choices he had to make on learning that he had Crohn’s disease? Such a mod could be used, at the very least, to prototype mechanics that would prove that it would be intriguing to have a AAA protagonist with a disability, disorder, handicap, or disease (this was, I believe, attempted in Condemned 2 with alcoholism).

One of the reasons I only have boring examples to show you is that, for the most part, these mods weren’t made by working game designers. Although the lives of most designers are already strained by hours on the job, more and more professionals are leaving the big companies to start their own or work independently. In the coming years, I think we’ll see more short-length mods with mainstream appeal and “serious” aspirations coming down the pipe. People are already willing to pay between $1-$8 dollars for an iPhone game… so I think the acceptance of micro-sized, niche-interest games can only be considered to be on the rise. Thanks for reading, and if I’ve gotten any specifics of the life of working designers and publishers incorrect here I hope you’ll take the opportunity to educate me instead of flaming!

Desert of the Real

Posted in Columns, Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on June 8, 2009

Today we take a slight detour from our series on editorial games to celebrate an editorial machinima of exceptional quality, produced by everyone’s favorite editorial game creator: La Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini. Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games blog.

InTheSand

It isn’t easy writing about thinking, talking, or writing about machinima. One of my professors (Michael Nitsche, who I just found out is heavily cited on the Wikipedia entry on the subject) is hopelessly obsessed with augmented reality and digital performance, so last semester he dragged us through the “serious” machinima canon in an effort to inspire us into creating cinematic experiences within the 3D prototype worlds we were creating. I can honestly say that I don’t remember a single one of them, except perhaps the fact that many featured Half Life 2‘s G-Man. Comedy is there, as evidenced by the broad popularity and honing of craft achieved by Rooster Teeth’s Red vs. Blue, but I’ve yet to see a dramatic or serious piece that worked for me.

I admit that I’m being a snob about this—I can’t quite get past the fact of my film history and video editing education, and I know I’m judging these works unfairly by cinematic standards. Even when they’re made by people who are serious about pushing what’s possible with the form, they’re not made by filmmakers—they’re made by videogame fans with their own goals, standards, conventions, and communities. (Author’s Note: This is me prodding you to write about machinima if you care about gamer-based videogame interpretations, by the way.) Sometimes, they’re made by artists who already have the skills to make mods and games of their own, yet choose to express themselves in machinima form. This work is a vital counterpoint to the fan-based production that drives the bulk of machinima development (we must attack the middle-brow from both above and below, as they say).

FaithFighter2
Paolo Pedercini, the mind behind the anti-entertainment videogame cooperative La Molleindustria, recently revamped his brawler about religious hatred, Faith Fighter, to accommodate complaints from numerous Islamic organizations and news media companies. The result was Faith Fighter 2, a parodic appropriation of Gonzalo Frasca’s “commemoration mechanic” from Madrid: click on numerous gods from the first game to feed them with love and prevent their memories from fading away. When you fail, you’re treated to the claim that many made against Paolo himself: “Game Over: You failed to respect a religion, and now the world is a total mess!” Contrary to popular belief, it was in fact possible to “win” Madrid by filling up a meter in the bottom of the screen. It may be possible to keep a game of Faith Fighter 2 going indefinitely (I certainly can’t click fast enough to do so), but it doesn’t appear to have an end. At some point the player must slow down or give up, prompting the Game Over. This is clearly a self-deprecating rhetoric of failure from Paolo: when you deal with religion, you’re going to “lose” no matter what you do.

I applaud Pedercini’s ability to swiftly respond to the demands made of him with such intertextual snark, but I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t eagerly awaiting a legitimate follow-up to his Oiligarchy, which I see as his most significant work to date (largely because of the winning condition he snuck in). Last week I revisited his website to play some of his games that I’d missed (including an Italian-language “propaganda game” called Embrioni in fuga made before a national referendum on embryonic stem cell research… it is a Lemmings-like that I’ll examine in future discussions of the “editorial line” in games), and I was surprised to find out what he’d been working on lately: two videos and an installation!

The first video is an incisive, wistful, and often beautiful look at urban ecology and Craigslist’s “missed connections.” I love everything about it except the robotic voices used for reading the original Craigslistings in voiceover (which, if Paolo stumbles upon this, I’d enjoy reading the explanation for). The installation piece, called The 21st Century Home, appears to be a black-lit tarpolin wigwam zig-zagged with neon tape in order to replicate the aesthetics of Tron. Visitors (or players) stumble around in the “real virtuality” to another roboticized voice spewing pop philosophy about our transhumanist digital future. I think the robot voice works much better in this one, but I can’t really judge it all without experiencing it firsthand. Finally, to the subject of this article, the second video is (as you probably guessed by now) a machinima.

Sights

Welcome to the desert of the real isn’t the first politically-charged machinima; however, it is probably the first one to compliment an identically-titled collection of essays by Slavoj Zizek. Zizek named his seminal essay on the mainstream US reaction to September 11th after a quote from Morpheus about the nature of The Matrix, which (of course) further referenced the Simulacres et Simulation of Baudrillard. Here Paolo filters his commentary on the Iraq and Afghanistan wars through another two layers of simulacra: a videogame, and the machinima filmed within that game. The subject of the work is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is a “counter-propaganda” video, recorded within the America’s Army wargame/military recruiting tool.

I know that I’m assessing a new form with an outmoded vocabulary, but I can conceive of no greater praise than to say that this 6-minute machinima feels like a distillation of Errol Morris’s Fog of War and Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (one of the greatest films of all time).  Spoilers follow.

An American soldier crawls forward over a dune with a sniper rifle (in third person perspective). We cut to a first-person point-of-view through the rifle’s sight, following an enemy combatant lazily traversing a ridge. Just when you think the protagonist (who is you, now) isn’t going to fire, a loud crack rings out and the screen fades to black. Returning to third-person, the protagonist leaves his rifle laying in the sand. After this follows a hallucinatory trek through the desert intercut by a series of questions, in text form, from the handbook on self-testing for PTSD in American veterans.

InquiringNuns

Call-and-response is a popular mechanic in documentary film: the earliest example I can remember of this sort is the 1968 film Inquiring Nuns, in which two nuns walked the streets of Chicago asking people, “Are you happy?” Pedercini replaces the call portion of the call-and-response with those from the PTSD checklist, and he replaces the response with a segment of the aimless trek through the desert.  He essentially subverts the rhetorical query (“Are you happy?”)—to a viewer who could either be a gamer or a veteran—with a suggestive one: “You aren’t happy, are you?” I can personally relate to the question pictured below, having suffered for years now from increasingly violent nightmares that force me to wake up suffering from heavy breathing and chest pain (of course, I don’t think that Paolo is saying these questions apply equally to gamers, or that all gamers endure the same dreams that I do). One of the questions “Feeling emotionally numb and incapable of loving feelings?” reminds me of the problem of Everquest Divorces.

PTSDIntertitle

Remember that Molleindustria’s stated goal is to subvert the entertainment industry’s influence on the videogame medium. This is a very Zizekian mission in itself—the scabrous philosopher holds that dominant ideology completely structures the subject even in an era when we’re increasingly cynical and aware of its functioning. One could argue that a machinima about PTSD is irrelevant by now, that we’ve all known about it for years now. But Pedercini asks us to recognize an analogous condition: gamers also suffer from a kind of PTSD, a mental dulling following prolonged exposure to videogames that encourage violence without reflection. The America’s Army games, in which the mission is never justified nor questioned and everyone plays “the good guy” (American troops) in various roles, are an obviously egregious contributor to this ludic ideology (as detailed in Bogost’s Persuasive Games and Halter’s From Sun Tzu to XBOX).

Fog of War isn’t an exact match for how the intertitles work in Welcome, but I feel that they are relatively close in spirit and form. Morris’s work is composed of a series of lessons (as opposed to questions) from former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, focusing on what he has learned after a lifetime of studying and waging war. McNamara’s final lesson from his original eleven on the Vietnam War is as follows:

“We failed to recognize that in international affairs, as in other aspects of life, there may be problems for which there are no immediate solutions … At times, we may have to live with an imperfect, untidy world.”

This in fact roughly equates with the message of Zizek’s writing on post-9/11 U.S. foreign policy: America must recognize its cultural imperialism and acknowledge that the choices and solutions we’ve established to the event thus far are completely reactionary, obscuring the reality of the situation and the way out. It’s possible that Paolo is saying something similar about mainstream games and their solutions to the demands to “grow up” from academics and highfalutin critics. On the one hand we get “tactical shooters” that replicate the immediate physical repercussions of gunfighting while still ignoring other consequences and assumptions. On the other, we could argue that something like Bioshock attempts to reflect on the nature of violence through the form of the shooter, but we’d be lying to ourselves if we asserted that the game didn’t end up valorizing it in the end—plasmids don’t provide ways around direct conflict, but different flavors of mutual slaughter. Neither tactical nor pseudo-philosophical violence is the answer to the goal of making games more serious, honest, mature, artful, etc. As the original Faith Fighter argues, violence as a primary mechanic must be subverted instead of “improved.”

TasteCherry

Welcome to the desert of the real reminds me of Taste of Cherry mostly because of its minimalism, spare color palette, meandering non-narrative, and extreme take length (which are typical of many of his films). Most machinima adhere to what we would identify as a postmodern editing style of incredibly short takes: taking a look at a random selection of works on Machinima.com, I clocked an average take length of 2 seconds. Red vs. Blue, having been refined and developed over time, has a longer average at around 5 seconds. Welcome features an 11-second average shot length, truly the machinima equivalent of the extremely long take practiced by Kiarostami (at least by current standards). The takes pulse like a cardiogram: they begin at around 8 seconds, reach a crescendo of over 20 seconds just prior to an intertitle, and then drop back down.

Taste of Cherry deals with problem of suicide in the Muslim world. Suicide is incredibly taboo in predominately Muslim countries, especially those with theocracies (Kiarostami is Iranian). Having decided to take his life, the protagonist (Mr. Badii) of Taste of Cherry wanders the dusty landscape for roughly two hours trying to find someone to cover his body after he dies. Badii has crossed a religious Rubicon with his decision, leaving him in a walking Purgatory between life and death. A similar problem confronts the protagonist of Welcome—once a soldier has killed for her country, what is the rest of her life going to be like? Once a gamer decides to put the gun (controller) down, what is there to think, say, or do? Taste of Cherry finishes with a short meta-documentary on the filmmaking process cued to Louis Armstrong’s Saint James Infirmary Blues, while many veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars find themselves dealing with mental and physical health issues by the end of their tours of duty.

I’m not saying the experiences of war and war gaming are the same, only that they are essentially subject to the same dominant ideologies. Once you’ve begun to combat the structuring of your subject, how long will it be before you find a new social frame to latch onto? “What comes next” is the nagging question La Molleindustria continually strives to answer for our medium.

Horizon

Welcome to the desert of the real ends where David Byrne’s True Stories begins: a frame split like a Rothko painting, the horizon line perfectly dividing ground and sky. Such a shot connotes new beginnings and infinite uncertainty for the future. I’m left with one lingering question: Pedercini uses the PTSD checklist as a cinematic and  metaphorical framework, but would we actually want to try to make a videogame that emulated a light form of PTSD in the player? How would we go about doing this? Would it be ethical to do so, simply to make a political point or allow empathic access to the mindset of the mentally damaged veteran? I wonder if these are questions Paolo asked himself before deciding to create a machinima instead.

Newsgame, or Editorial Game?

Posted in Columns, Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on June 2, 2009

Continuing the thread on editorial games from my history, part one. Published simultaneously for Bogost’s News Games blog.

Author’s note: While I was finishing up this piece, Ian forwarded me an upcoming DiGRA paper by Michael Mateas and Mike Treanor of UC Santa Cruz on *roughly* the same subject (though they focus much more on further defining the shared qualities of both genres). It thus became difficult to round off the article without seeing almost every claim as an argument made against their position. I’m not going to reply directly to any of their assertions, nor am I going to include any further insights into the subject that I may have gleaned from reading their piece. When their paper is presented at DiGRA, I hope you’ll take the opportunity to contrast my definitional stance with theirs. We will be incorporating and replying to their article directly, and in long form, much later on down the road. Thanks for reading!

The line between “newsgame” and “editorial game” is fuzzy no matter how you slice it. Basically, our suggestion is that most games called “newsgames” don’t have the same intentions or goals as traditional reporting, or “the news,” but rather those of the op-ed piece: to persuade; therefore, we should label these digital opinion pieces as “editorial” rather than “news.” Most people are probably inclined to ignore the possible distinction, because there doesn’t seem to be enough proof that we need one in the first place (we can’t exactly place a finger on what a “properly journalistic” newsgame would look like, as Paolo Pedercini has pointed out to us before). By the end we will (hopefully) have a slightly better understanding of the relationship between editorial and newsmaking, as well as a firmer grasp on how procedural rhetoric is used in editorial games.

Kabul_Kaboom
Miguel Sicart provides a constraining set of attributes in our quest to find exact definitions for these terms. He claims that newsgames, like the news, should be “timely” and “ephemeral.” First we’ll address timeliness. Gonzalo Frasca was able to produce Madrid within 48 hours after the train bombings, and he made Kabul Kaboom within a few hours on an airplane trip. There’s also the example of Raid Gaza! that Ian recently wrote about, released only a few days after Israel’s most recent offensive. But in the same article, Ian shares his experience that it personally takes him at least two weeks to craft a quality newsgame, such as those he created for the Arcade Wire series. I’ve already hinted that I see the Arcade Wire games as more editorial than news (for obvious reasons, including the fact that they only sometime comment directly on a news event).

Perhaps one distinction between news and editorial game is that the latter isn’t bound by Sicart’s strict criterion of timeliness? Simplistic opinion pieces are easy to craft directly in the wake of a news event, but a more refined editorial stance requires time to develop and be iterated upon (much like a videogame). We could then see news and editorial games as developing along the rough timeline that Alberto Cairo provides for his infographics workflow: at first the important thing is to present all the facts to the reader (a newsgame proper), and over time more information is added and synthesized (the editorial game). In this light, we can see quickly-produced editorial games such as Hothead Zidane as strange, partially developed hybrids of the two genres: the game presents us with the basic fact of the headbutt and the red card (the news), as well as providing fleeting, unsubtle commentary on the shame that Zidane should be feeling for his actions (the editorial).

jon-stewart
Moving along, Frasca provides us with his own rough definition for the genre whose name he coined himself in a paper he presented to Vodafone. Frasca sees newsgames more as an extension of the editorial cartoon than the written op-ed; therefore, he cites the attractive and satirical flash games by Molleindustria as the pinnacle of the genre. Political cartoons hold a special place in Gonzalo’s heart, because the cartoons in French textbooks were the only thing that made secondary public school education tolerable for him. Just as public school takes itself “too seriously,” Frasca asserts that print journalism is too stolid for a new generation of readers—he posits this as one of the primary insights that led to the success of The Daily Show. This isn’t to say that the news isn’t serious business, but rather an indictment of a monolithic institution that has largely failed in adapting to contemporary trends in media distribution and tastes—largely because of what many perceive as its steadfast belief that what has worked in the past (or what has developed gravity through shared values over time) should continue to function unchanged into the future.

In Persuasive Games, Ian discusses the difference between “visual rhetoric” and “procedural rhetoric.” Procedural rhetoric is basically how a designer/programmer can use computational processes and tools to express an idea or persuade others. Comics are not procedural, so they fall wholly within the sphere of visual rhetoric – the study of how images persuade or express. Neither one of these rhetorics is inherently “stronger” than the other, but they do function differently enough for us to question the indiscriminate equation of political comics and newsgames. (Author’s note: This is exactly where the Mateas and Treanor piece shines most—it lays the groundwork for how we can break down editorial cartoons and adapt their thematic qualities and goals into procedural expression.) Right now we are reading a few books on the subject, which we will return to in the future once we understand thoroughly. For now, our biggest takeaway from Frasca’s excitement about the future of the genre (and the medium as a whole) is that procedural representation has the potential to speak directly to contemporary media consumers without taking itself too seriously—both newsgames and editorial games have the ability to tackle serious and disturbing issues playfully.

Returning to Sicart, I believe there’s reason to disagree with his criterion of ephemerality—the notion that a newsgame should be thrown away as easily as an article on the same subject. For instance, a newspaper story with the headline, “Tactical Missiles Strike Hospital”—essentially covering the same topic as September 12th—isn’t an artifact that one keeps around. September 12th, on the other hand, is a game that can be played time and again and used to reflect on future events. So before Raid Gaza! came out, I sat and watched the news of Israel’s latest offensive while playing September 12th. Something about putting the argument and the event into code has the chance to make it timeless. This appears to be another point at which we can distinguish editorial games and newsgames—perhaps a newsgame can be thrown out (or recycled, if we take one of Bartle’s suggestions to heart) with the paper, but an editorial bears numerous readings and reflections over time. In this way, we see that a good editorial game shares almost as much with documentary games such as JFK Reloaded as they do with quickly produced, ultra-shortform newsgames.

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Both Sicart and Frasca end up asserting that objectivity is not an explicit goal of what they call a newsgame (remember that, according to R+K, striving for objectivity is a fundamental tenant of journalism). For Frasca this seems to just be a working, practical method: newsgame creators care enough about on issue (read, they have a strong enough opinion about it) to spend their time working on these comparatively unprofitable ventures in order to both persuade/express and to develop the burgeoning genre. Sicart is considerably more specific in his explanation, and it stands to take a close look at his view of the “editorial line” in a game. For him, what the newsgame designer chooses to include and exclude determines the game’s editorial line. Bias is taken for granted in Frasca’s chosen model of the editorial cartoon, which never claims objectivity; however, in Sicart’s model—where the newsgame equates roughly to a news story—this privileging of bias conflates the functions of the “factual” news story and the op-ed, thus confusing possible distinctions between editorial games and newsgames.

What does it mean when Miguel Sicart says that “the editorial line” of a game is determined by what is included and excluded? It’s easy to state this, but somewhat harder to understand exactly how to design around the idea. Going back past Bogost’s explication of procedural rhetoric in Persuasive Games, we can look to what he writes in Unit Operations: simulation games are already about such a selection process of inclusion and exclusion.

When creating a simulation game, as opposed to an actual useable scientific model, one must understand that not every fact or possibility can be included when procedurally modeling a system or event. Instead of hard-coding each important aspect, the game programmer crafts algorithms that will, when generalized, create an impression of the system one hopes to represent. Specifics can be derived by tweaking the algorithms until the two systems match up even closer, but there will always be a “simulation gap” between the real system and the game system.

The goal of an editorial game creator would thus be to narrow the simulation gap as much as possible in order to convey their “line” on the issue, while a newsgame creator would strive to close the simulation gap in such a way that as little bias sneaks through as possible (for Sicart asserts that newsgames “do not persuade” or have “political interests”). For an example, let’s take a look at Frasca’s September 12th. The game generally works well as a political game, because it effectively delivers its argument against “tactical” bombing; however, as an editorial game one can see a gap in Frasca’s line. Essentially, one could read it as a call to military invasion—bombing creates more terrorists, and they’re not going away on their own, so a ground strike seems called-for. An admittedly unfair reductio ad absurdum such as this shows the difficulty in designing around the idea of exclusion and inclusion.

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Perhaps the key for an editorial game is to be as blatantly one-sided as possible? In the case of Raid Gaza!, almost everything is excluded: Palestinian terrorists’ reasons for shooting missiles at settlements and the motivations of rogue Israeli settlers—two of the many important problems ImpactGame’s Peacemaker attempts to explore—are not addressed at all. All that the player understands by the end of the experience is that Israel is using undue force and that the United States will seemingly never cease military and fiscal support for their efforts. The game carefully picks its fight and then plumbs the depths of possible, relevant consequences.

In either case, the “simulation fever” that Bogost warns us about in Unit Operations is just as likely to strike the players of newsgames and editorial games as it is the players of a work such as Sim City. For instance, the simulation gap between what I saw as actual McDonald’s business practices and the hilarious hyperbole of Molleindustria led to my somewhat negative reflections on playing the game. While it is by no means a goal to please everybody, another distinct line between newsgames and editorial games seems to be the level of inclusiveness sought (and earned) by the designer. News strives to present information as objectively as possible in order to reach the widest possible audience, while editorial refines its scope in order to persuade or inflame.

Thus, we’ve established three possible distinctions between newsgames and editorial games: limitations of timeliness, ephemerality, and the simulation gap (and the different ways to close it). I recognize that I’ve covered and justified these in unequal amounts, and I hope that if you have any detracting comments you’ll present them in a constructive manner so that we might move forward with more rigorous definitions in the future. Next time we’ll return to our history of the editorial game with an examination of the Arcade Wire series. Thanks for reading.

The History of Editorial Games, Part One

Posted in Columns by Simon Ferrari on June 1, 2009

Simultaneously posted on Bogost’s News Games blog.

The history of the editorial game began not with a bang, but with three. The first (the Big Bang of editorial games, as well as a couple other genres, so to speak) was the wide adoption of Flash in the creation of casual webgames. We can date this as sometime around August 2000, when Macromedia released Flash 5 with ActionScript 1.0, XML functionality, and SmartClips (an early form of components). Flash 5 and Flash MX were instrumental in the popularization of gaming portals such as AddictingGames.com (which we will return to near the end) in late 2001.

The second bang occurred on September 11th, 2001. Al-Qaeda’s attack on American soil plunged the country into what seems today to be a perpetual war, becoming the most visible public issue (until, perhaps, our most recent economic downturn) both in the United States and abroad. The war on terror is a polarizing issue, leading to an explosion of opinion-based publishing on the Internet. Opinions are cheap, and we’re quick to form them. Flash isn’t incredibly cheap unless you’re a student, but it is relatively easy to quickly make a game with it if you have any knowledge of keyframe animation or basic object-oriented programming.

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Finally, the prior currents converge in late September of 2003 (I’m now finished with the “bang” metaphor): Gonzalo Frasca launches newsgaming.com with a controversial “toy world” entitled September 12th. Frasca had casually created a political game called Kabul Kaboom during a transcontinental flight at the beginning of the war in Afghanistan, and the game’s unexpected viral popularity led him to develop September 12th—an elegantly simple game about the dangerous assumptions of tactical missile strikes on terrorist pockets—over the course of the next few months. It employs an early example of what Ian Bogost calls “the rhetoric of failure”—a game that can only be “won” by not playing it at all. September 12th became wildly popular, gaining mainstream media attention and inspiring almost a decade of political Flash games (recently winning the Knight Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement award for newsgames at this year’s Games for Change).

Next week I’m going to write a post that will explain exactly why I’m calling September 12th an “editorial game” instead of a “newsgame.” This post skips on a lot of theoretical jargon and definitional hair-splitting so that readers new to the idea of political games might come to understand how a fledgling game genre is developed and refined over time (from a design perspective), forged in the heat of playful experimentation as opposed to through top-down formalist definitions—meaning that, if this were an academic paper, we would be able to show how most editorial games are built upon common unit operations carried over from other forms of casual games (something I argue a bit at the end of an article on relevance).

Water Cooler Games, a website maintained by Frasca and Bogost, tracked the development of what they labelled “newsgames” (which we can now separate into the sub-genres of newsgames, “editorial games,” “political games,” and “documentary games” with the benefit of hindsight) from 2003 until today. The year 2004 saw the creation of Madrid—Frasca’s follow-up to September 12th that we’ve covered elsewhere—an editorial game that simply asks one to remember a tragic event, an early entry into the documentary genre called John Kerry’s Silver Star Mission by Kuma/War, and the controversial doc game JFK Reloaded, wherein one tries to mimic the exact shots fired on President Kennedy (supposedly) by Lee Harvey Oswald. Ed Halter notes the popularization of Osama bin Laden whack-a-mole games in the mid-2000s, but no other prominent editorial games appear to have popped up until early 2006.

Here begins a series of chronologically-ordered micro reviews, for which I will provide meta-commentary throughout and at the end of the article. For the most part, I will be embellishing on the notes made by Frasca and Bogost as they documented the editorial games made through the bulk of 2006.

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Dick Cheney Quail Hunt
Produced by the Huffington Post in February of 2006, this artifact barely deserves to bear the name “game” (as Bogost points out here). Cheney stands in front of three onlookers (a little girl, another hunter, and a Secret Service agent?) with a shotgun. A bird eventually flies onto the screen, at which point you can click a button that says “Shoot.” No matter when you click the button, Cheney will turn and randomly shoot one of the three onlookers. Following a prominent news fiasco following Dick Cheney’s shooting of a fellow hunter, this game employs the rhetoric of failure to poke fun at how bad a shot Cheney is. When you inevitably fail, the creators provide two educational links for you: one about Cheney and canned hunting, and one to an “animal-friendly” vegan podcast. Strangely, the text bubble above these links encourages you to try playing again and “aim better next time.” Perhaps the only interesting touch is the score tally in the bottom left corner, which will never rise past zero. Ian noted at the time of its release that this can truly be called a “newsgame” in Miguel Sicart’s sense of the word (“ephemeral and timely,” explored fully in my next post), because it was released so soon after the news event.

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Dick Cheney’s Texas Takedow
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A day or two after the game by the Huffington post was released, another came out that was slightly more gamelike. Cheney, donning a Confederate flag baseball cap, wanders an empty field shooting at clones of Harry Whittington (holding their arms above their heads as though in a stick-up) that walk back and forth horizontally. As Ian notes, it would have made sense to have Cheney actually trying to shoot quail instead of gunning down scores of Harrys that appear to be wandering where they shouldn’t. You receive ten points every time you shoot down Harry. If you score well, a cartoon Devil-Cheney appears and the designers ask you how you plan to carry out the Apocalypse. If you don’t shoot at all, Cheney appears as a Fairy Godmother, a banner shouts “You Suck,” and the menu tells you that “we solve our problems with violence in America, remember?” Unlike the Huffington Post “game,” this one isn’t really a direct critique of canned hunting; on the other hand, it is also more gamelike and doesn’t preach as much through text and hyperlinks. It seems to be much more generally interested in making fun of Cheney’s (and America’s) bellicose nature (which may or may not have anything to do with the Whittington shooting).

In March of 2006, Paolo Pedercini (the personal hero of everyone who studies political games) premiered The McDonald’s Game at a festival in Torino—an important milestone in the history of the political game—which we have covered elsewhere (his games skirt the fine line between editorial and political game, and they don’t really fit in neatly with the short-form games we’re covering in this particular history).

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Hothead Zidane
Hothead Zidane was created by an Italian football fan soon after Zidane’s disgraceful headbutt during the World Cup finale. Frasca asserts that it must have been thrown together in a few hours considering the lack of a score or any difficulty. The player controls Zidane, who roams through a small bit of field as clones of his Italian adversary (Materazzi) come at him waves. After a few successful headbutts, Zidane is thrown a red card and the game is over—an example of the rhetoric of failure being used to comment on the fact that a past event cannot be altered. One last news image shows Zidane with his back to the Cup, head bowed in shame. Frasca notes the “crude graphics,” but I believe the designer actually captured the quality of watching a soccer game on a small CRT screen quite well. The character movement, repetitive attack, and sound effects all reminded me of a Shinobi game (an early ninja brawler for the Sega Genesis). Played with the mouse, I think it provides a closer level of identification with the Zidane avatar than the keyboard-controlled Cheney games. Within a week, Addicting Games had revamped the game with a score system that had multiple levels of hit detection (more points for upper body, bonus points for a headshot), faster scrolling of Materazzi clones, higher graphical clarity, and enhanced sound effects. They also released the source code so other gamers/modders/designers could make their own version.

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Israel-Lebanon Wargames
“No security-political situation is complete without its idiotic web games, which allow tensions to be released,” states an article by Israeli Culture news source Ynet. In July of 2006, Frasca posted (by way of Ed Halter’s blog for his book on wargames) two games about Israel’s war with Lebanon’s Hezbollah leadership—Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah in particular. The first game, simply called Nasralla, is a whack-a-mole game featuring Nasrallah’s head popping up over what Frasca thinks is a Google Map of Beirut. The game apes Frasca’s own missile delay mechanic from September 12th, leading the player to end up spamming random missile strikes in order to successfully land a bomb (one strategy is to aim near the bottom of the screen in order to cheat the delay mechanic). This is arguably almost as sophisticated as Frasca’s initial use of the delay, because (as the Ynet article suggests) it “encourages guessing”—placing the player in the mindset of a zealous IDF leader. Of course, nothing else about the game is as interesting or well-crafted as Frasca’s original. When the player scores a hit, a message in Hebrew pops up to declare: “Very good, chief of staff. Come back to work now.” It is unclear whether this game is sarcastically critical of Israel’s administration or enthusastically in support of the war on Lebanon.

Halter connects the first game to the Whack Osama games that hit the net over the course of the mid-2000’s, positing them as successors to the earlier form of the “celebrity assassination” game. Bogost makes an observation on the prominent role of whack-a-mole in political games, which Frasca ascribes to the fact that it is relatively easy to use a face for a Flash game because it cuts down on the need to animate a body.

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The second game, also called Nasralla, is similar to Cheney Quail Hunt from the perspective of control. Nasrallah, animated to move and sound like a grotesque vaudeville chicken, runs back and forth horizontally at a constant pace; players hit a red button in order to drop a variety of items (bombs, dead doves, toilets) on his head as he passes below them. Frasca notes that one of these, a severed pig’s head, is a symbol of disrespect to Muslims (because of Halal eating practices). Each successful hit nets a chicken-squawk from Nasrallah, and after scoring ten hits the player is treated to a message from the two creators: “U did it! We luv u! xxx” The mix of racist caricature and children’s text message-speak is truly disturbing, perhaps highlighting the childlike glee that some zealous Israelis feel at the prospect of war (in propaganda or actual violence) with their Muslim enemies.

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Bush Backrub
In early August of 2006, Bogost reports that a Flash game has been produced rather quickly after Bush performed an “impromptu backrub” on German chancellor Angela Merkel. Bush creeps behind three world leaders—Kim Jong Il, Vladimir Putin, and Merkel—during a UN assembly. Meters below them slowly empty, and the player must lead Bush behind each leader with the mouse, click to place Bush’s hands on their shoulders, and then jerk the mouse back-and-forth to perform a “Texas backrub.” This seems to be a new mechanic in newsgames at this point, one that I’ve seen used to perform a similar action in gay sex games made in Flash (NSFW, commentary by Denis Farr). When the “comfort” meters on each world leader hit certain low levels, slightly amusing (read: slightly offensive) thought bubbles appear above their heads. The player is scored for how long they keep the game going, but I didn’t perceive any quickening in the pace of the game (I simply tired and let myself slow down after awhile). As Ian notes, this isn’t really criticizing the Bush administration in a serious way but simply recognizing the hilarity of a prominent fluke of world news.

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Terri Irwin Stingray Revenge
On September 7th, a celebrity tabloid newsgame was released, returning the genre to its popular roots in games created about Hollywood sleaze (remember: Halter traced whack-a-mole mechanics back to such games). Tabloid newsgames seem closer in design and purpose to editorial games than to proper newsgames, because they have little to no journalistic intent. The game deals with the recent death of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin. Frasca begins his post on the game by explaining that he and Ian had talked the day before about what such a game might look like before deciding definitively that it shouldn’t be made. The next day, a game was posted online wherein the player controls Terri Irwin slaughtering stingrays to avenge her husband’s death. Unfortunately the game has been removed from all original hosting sites, and I couldn’t find a rogue copy of it to play. Apparently the game was taken down after numerous negative reactions from the public (even WCG got a lot of comments arguing for censorship). Mechanically it appears to have been most like the Hothead Zidane and Cheney Texas Takedown games—waves of stingrays swim horizontally toward Terri, who can swim up and down to shoot them with a harpoon. Frasca saw this as providing a kind of societal catharsis for the tragedy, while many commenters protested the content of the game on the basis of the Irwin family’s continued love of and support for wildlife (even the violent kind).

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So you think you can drive, Mel?
Following hot on the heals of the Irwin game, Gameology came across another celebrity tabloid game about Mel Gibson’s widely publicized drunk-driving-and-ethnic-slurring incident. Oddly enough, this artifact is by far the most technically sophisticated editorial game from this period (as Ian notes, it was made by The Game Show Network, which explains the production values)! A caricature of Mel’s face hangs out the right side of his car (Hollywood and Australia are basically the same place) as he speeds down the highway. The screen scrolls to the side (slightly uncommon at this point in the genre), and players can only control Mel’s car on the vertical plane. One’s score rises slowly as the game goes on; grabbing bottles of whiskey increases the score considerably, but it also raises Mel’s blood alcohol content. As his BAC rises, it becomes more and more difficult to control one’s movement as the car lags behind, jump forward, and bounces up-and-down. There are two enemies: Jews and cops. Jews throw stars of David at Mel’s car from the top of the screen, and if one hits the player loses 25 points. Hitting a cop doesn’t decrease the score, but once the player hits five of them the game is over. The rhetoric is clear: Mel has a single-minded obsession to drink, he despises the ever-present Hollywood Jews (while playing, I vocally cursed my own tribe as they threw stars at me), and he sees the law as little more than an obstacle to be blown through. Of all the editorial games we’ve looked at that serve as indictments of character (the Bush and Cheney games), this one comes closest to accurately proceduralizing and conveying the negative attributes of a personality.

On September 19th, Bogost announced that Persuasive Games had inked a deal to produce a series called The Arcade Wire games for Addicting Games (told you we’d come back to them) and Shockwave. It was an effort to show what a newsgame might look like it it were a deep, procedural interpretation of the news—a return to the level of craft established by Frasca with September 12th. The series began with Airport Security. By the end of the month, Jane McGonigal came across a NYTimes article detailing a newsgame, called Counter Strike, funded by the Iranian government, which shows players how to disrupt the world oil supply by destroying a US tanker in the Straight of Hormuz. Jane and Ian wondered aloud if this were in fact the first ludic “geopolitical act.” By no means ushering in the death of the one-off editorial or tabloid newsgame, this at least marks a good place for us to pause.

We can observe that, over the course of only half a year, an explosion of creative energy divorced from the admittedly academic attitude of Frasca and Bogost has occurred (which, of course, they were incredibly enthusiastic to watch over and comment on). This period marks the time between the creation of Madrid, after which Frasca ceased making newsgames, and the return to form for the genre that we see in the Arcade Wire games. Unlike Frasca’s games and the Arcade Wire series, it is unclear whether these casually created editorial games have any journalistic intent whatsoever. They certainly make no attempt to hide the fact of their bias or to present any meaningful “facts” (in the journalist’s sense) to the player. These artifacts are opinion pieces, in the truest sense of the word (and often not incredibly articulate). In some cases, they represent early steps toward ludic citizen journalism: games made by ordinary (non-industry, non-journalist) people who know how to program and care enough/find enough stuff funny about a news issue.

We can generalize a bit on their formal qualities, noting that editorial games are usually quickly-produced and mechanically-simplistic (Dick Cheney Quail Hunt and Hothead Zidane); use static photographs or caricatures of faces in order to avoid costly animation; often come in pairs (the Cheney and Nasrallah games); their mechanics tend to derive directly from more popular Flash games (whack-a-mole from the “celebrity assassination” sub-genre) or earlier editorial games (Nasralla #2 borrowing the delay and reticle from September 12th); and although similar in graphical quality and play, they cover a range of topics from serious political issues (war in the Middle East), the embarrassing foibles of unpopular politicos (Bush Backrub and the Cheney games), and celebrity news or sleaze (Terri Irwin Stingray Revenge and the Mel Gibson game, respectively).

The level of thought that has gone into the conception and the design of these games varies wildly, which I would argue is incredibly healthy for the genre as a whole. Releasing the source code of some of these games—as Addicting Games did for Hothead Zidane, and as a documentary game developer Overdog did for a game called Silence Variations on the theft of a few Edward Munch paintings—is another important and under-explored phenomenon (which I will be covering in my Master’s thesis next year). In the next article, I will analyze the definitional distinctions made between Frasca and Miguel Sicart on “the newsgame.” After that, I will analyze the Arcade Wire series produced by Persuasive Games and continue on to the next stage in the history of the editorial game.

Stone Librande & Galactic Adventures

Posted in Columns, Gaming by Simon Ferrari on April 14, 2009

(spoiler alert: don’t read this if you’re planning on attending Stone’s lecture… I give away all his secrets)

Stone Librande visited my program last Friday to share some words of wisdom on game design (and the job of a game designer), as well as to show off a beta of Spore: Galactic Adventures. Stone was an exceedingly eloquent and friendly guy. I’d spent the morning preparing some snarky comments to make about Spore, but his disarming charm and humility made me quickly shape up and realize that he was somebody whose words I should actually listen to.

Stone got into game design from a past career in programming and an ongoing hobby of creating board games for his friends and family to play. One of the first slides he showed were these cute “board games” he made as a kid because his parents wouldn’t let him see PG-13 movies. His sister’s boyfriend would come home and tell him what happened in the movies, and he’d make a game out of it.

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He started off the presentation with a controversial claim: if you want to be a game designer, you should be equally happy working on projects such as Spore, Braid, Disney Princesses, Ponyz, match-3 games, and board games. Of course, there’s a lot to be said for this sentiment: most of the time, unless you strike out as an indie and take on a significant amount of debt to fund your first (or second, or third) project, you’ve got to earn your chops in the industry working on projects you might hate. Andrew Stern worked on the AI in Babyz and Petz before teaming up with Mateas for Facade… and there are cool board games, like Catan and Twilight Imperium… right?

His main lesson was that if you’re meant to be a game designer – if it’s your core desire and joy – you’ll be able to work on a variety of different projects and understand how they all contribute to your understanding of how games and gamers work. Apparently the Spore team hired a designer who had worked on Ponyz, because he could articulate what he learned about design from working on the project.

My main takeaway from Stone’s presentation was the fact that iterative design is alive and well at some companies. We read plenty of pieces by Eric Zimmerman and Tracy Fullerton advocating the importance of iteration and playtesting, but the lack of case studies on their part (usually confined to small indie, serious, or academic artifacts) leaves one asking “but is this how the industry actually works?” At Maxis it certainly does. I remember reading an article by Chaim Gingold (one of our program’s graduates, and a Spore designer) that described numerous early prototypes of Spore built into other Maxis games. Stone used a paper prototype to help the team behind the Civilization stage of Spore balance the tank/airplane/ship units, and he constructed this sweet wood block game called NanoBots to figure out how the Cell stage would work.

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Stone also worked on an early build of Diablo 3, and while working at Blizzard he attempted to create a Magic-style card game based on Warcraft 3. Every day he would tweak the cards a bit and bring a new stack for people to play with during lunch. After a week or so he realized that nobody was taking the Troll Berserker cards, so he decided to tweak their stats a bit. People started using the Berserker cards in their decks. Somebody alerted the Warcraft 3 dev team to this fact, and when they looked at their data they saw that nobody was using Troll Berserkers on Battle.net either. That week, a patch went out balancing the damage on the unit. For Stone, and for everybody in the room, this showed the value of paper prototyping and iterative design. The Warcraft 3 team had literally millions of data points to work with, but they couldn’t see the glaring fact that one of their core ranged units was underpowered… until someone made a hobby-level card game during lunch!

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He also worked as a design lead (I might be wrong about the “lead” part) on The Simpsons Game. This part of the lecture was a lesson in level/world design. While designing the game, they had access to every episode of the Simpsons. Even with all this information, they couldn’t figure out exactly what Springfield looked like from an objective point-of-view. There were some fan-made maps that attempted to lay out the geography and compile exactly what happened at each location, but there were some glaring errors and blind spots in them. Then they found one episode with a tiny, super-rough sketch of the town, and they went from there. One thing they noticed was that in almost every exterior shot of the town in the show, one has a clear view of the power plant far in the background. They designed their map around this fact.

Their workflow worked thus: they cut out pieces of cardboard and placed them on a table. Every day when the team came in to work, they had to pass the table to get to their cubicles. Over the course of a few weeks, the sum effort of hundreds of tiny tweaks gave them a decent 3D layout of the map. Then they made some sketches in Illustrator (Stone tried pioneering a method of using shadows to display height, which did and didn’t work) and sent it off to the 3D team. Using the Illustrator file, Stone laid out all the hidden Duff bottles for the game and color-coded them based on difficulty. Having these maps helped the team coordinate their activites. All the design documentation was kept on a Wiki so that people could edit it as they came up with improvements. Seeing what went into the design of the game made me want to play it right away (and you can get it on Newegg.com for $10 new right now).

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Librande brought five copies of Galactic Adventures, and we broke up into groups to design a mission in it using the Mission Creator. Stone was excited to see what a bunch of game design graduate students would do with the tool set. The package is incredibly robust. You can basically create up to eight independent Acts within each mission, and each Act can have numerous objectives (all of which you script yourself). You can tweak the stats, behaviors, and dialogue on every unit you place. There was also a team devoted solely to creating environmental effects for the Creator: by far the coolest effect was a Star Wars-style red-and-blue laser battle that you can criss-cross your level with. Terraforming planets is incredibly satisfying, and the architectural options are top-notch. I hadn’t played Spore for awhile, and the bank of community-generated creatures has grown so immense that you can basically find anything you want with a little searching.

I’m not going to lie to you, though: the level creator, and the scripting tool, are not really created for people who already know how to code/make their own games. Just as with any user-gen game (such as LittleBigPlanet), experienced designers are going to want to do things that the tool just can’t handle. Your captain avatar can’t ride vehicles (something we wanted to do for our little Spore remake of Lord of the Rings), and you can’t design cut scenes to link acts. The AI is good at appearing to know what it’s doing, but it’s still kind of buggy and sluggish (maybe this will be improved in the QA phase). But for both casual and core gamers ages 4-110, there are multiple levels of detail that one can go into, develop, and enjoy. I could definitely see using it to prototype missions for other projects.

Let this be a lesson to other game companies: during the time between beta and gold, when your QA people and programmers are busy fixing bugs in your game… send your designers around to educate and share their knowledge! You’ll get better recruits in the long run, and giving workaday industry folks some face-time does wonders for your company’s image in the eyes of students and the general public.

Documentary Games & the Life and Death of the Saga Song

Posted in Columns, Newsgames by Simon Ferrari on April 1, 2009

Originally written for Bogost’s News Games blog.

In looking for proof-of-concepts for the success and creation of documentary and editorial games, I came across a historical movement in country music that I think bears exploration. Country music became popular music in the United States after World War II, because so many training camps were located in the South. Soldiers from around the country were introduced to the genre then, and they brought it home with them when they returned from war. An accompanying reason for the meteoric rise of country music was the “saga song” – a prominent sub-genre in the 40’s and 50’s that openly explored tragedies such as war and murder.

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Preceding the wide popularity of country music was a ballad about the “Wreck of the Old 97.” The engineer, Steve Broadey, had to make up for a one-hour delay in the delivery of a Fast Mail shipment for the USPS by traveling at unsafe speeds between Monroe and Spencer. Broadey lost control of the engine while descending a gradient toward the Stillhouse Trestle; he de-railed the train, which fell into the Cherrystone Creek ravine killing all nine passengers. Broadey was blamed for the tragedy, but as a contributor to the Wikipedia article on the song explains:

{The ballad clearly places the blame for the wreck on the railroad company for pressuring Steve Broadey to exceed a safe speed limit, for the lyrics begin, “Well, they handed him his orders in Monroe, Virginia, saying, ‘Steve, you’re way behind time; this is not 38 it is Old 97, you must put her into Spencer on time.’” }

From the point of view of editorial, this is a case of the songwriter including information that determines an editorial line: Southern Railway caused the accident by enforcing reckless driving in order to satisfy their contract with USPS.

Nashville Skyline, a column for CMT News by Chet Flippo, discusses the saga song in connection to a recently-released compilation titled “People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs 1913-1938.” Flippo goes through a short history of the sub-genre before editorializing on the disappearance of the saga song in contemporary country music. He seems particularly interested in understanding why country music has shied away from addressing the Iraq War directly.

I asked the only “expert” on country music I knew, Dirt Roads and Honkeytonks DJ Sarah Fox, this same question. She explained to me that country music as we now know it is closer in spirit to pop music than to blues as a result of the manufacturing of pop during the 70s and 80s. This makes sense, in that this era also buried the protest songs of the 60s under heaps of mind-numbing disco beats and escapist love songs; however, it doesn’t explain why a popular sub-genre such as the saga song all of a sudden became un-popular. This, it would seem, is simply a natural result of the eternal shake-up of the music industry that comes with every new generation of music listeners and purchasers.

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Does this mean that popular art addressing social issues is “out” across all media, and that the goals of editorial games will never reach fruition in this generation? I’d like to suggest that perhaps the issue here is simply a shifting of expectations in consumers of various media. For instance, in the film industry “war” and “issues” movies are still released in droves each year. To name a few recent ones,  we can see how Syriana, Jarhead, and Lamb & Lion continue this tradition. Instead of turning on our radios to hear songs about the news, we’re going to theaters to watch movies about them. As it turns out, the decline of saga songs in the 70s and 80s roughly coincides with the emergence of the New Hollywood period in American cinema. Cimino’s Deer Hunter (1978) effectively replaces the anti-Vietnam songs of the late 60’s.

This leads me to tentatively conclude that as a medium becomes the primary vehicle through which ideas are transmitted, the popularity of editorializing artifacts in that medium rises. We can see how, in general, both the American and gaming publics are not entirely ready for political or editorial games because movies are still our primary expressive medium (despite losing ground to the games industry each year). Tracy Fullerton cites an example of this preferential reception of the dominant medium when she discusses the backlash against JFK Reloaded. The game does something that movies cannot: based on physics and a 3D space, it shows just how hard it would have been for Oswald to have fired all the shots on Kennedy’s limo. Despite this unique experience it provided, popular backlash against the game found it exploitative. Fullerton asks the question, “Why don’t we have the same reaction to a film like Oliver Stone’s JFK, which goes so far as to use the much-derided filmic ‘recreation?’”

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Another editorial game suffering a similar fate was Super Columbine Massacre RPG. This game released roughly around the time that Gus van Sant’s Elephant won the Palme D’or at Cannes; the game, on the other hand, was famously rejected from an indie game festival despite winning the jury prize – showing that even among the art game movement such works were not yet ready to be accepted by some people (this was also the first time many industry outsiders were introduced to the genius of Jon Blow, who withdrew an early build of Braid from the same festival in protest of SCMrpg‘s dismissal). It should also be noted that infanticide was also a popular subject of the saga song of early/mid country music (and true crime novels such as In Cold Blood).

Certainly a big part of all this is a presentation issue: have you ever seen the websites for JFK: Reloaded, 9/11 Survivor, or Super Columbine RPG? Talk about poor marketing and image control. Gus van Sant’s career is particularly important to understanding this aspect of artistic creation. From among all the members of the New Queer Cinema, only van Sant and, to a lesser degree, Todd Haynes have managed to build lasting careers on the edge of the mainstream film industry. They do this by mixing up the topics of their work and tireless promotion at festivals – something aspiring documentary or editorial game developers can learn from.

Of course, there’s no reason that the evolution of videogames as an artistic medium will follow the rules set by previous media. Ian suggests that documentary game developers can simply build on the reputation of documentary film in order to gain leverage as a shared genre–as opposed to a disparate medium. In any case, I hope that I’ve shown that we have reason to believe that games dealing with serious issues will not always remain self-funded projects on the far boundaries of the games industry. Strangely enough, popular reception of these games might rely less on their own intrinsic value than on the increased cultural cache of mainstream games in the coming years.

Readin’ the Paper for the Puzzlers

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 17, 2009

UPDATE: Now published here, with hyperlinks to all the sources!

Everybody knows now that eBay and Craigslist did a number on newspaper revenue. We’re told that newspaper producers were caught completely offguard by these online classifieds. One thing Ian wanted to know is: what would happen to the circulation of a newspaper if its game-playing constituency also migrated to the Internet?

This leads to a tacit first question: what number of newspaper-subscribers buy the paper just for the puzzles? There are some difficulties acquiring statistically significant numbers here. First, most newspapers don’t do regular surveys of their readers to actually find out why they’re buying the paper. Will Shortz at the New York Times shares an interesting figure – he does after all have a lot at stake here as the world’s current Dean of Crossword Puzzles. In a 2004 interview Shortz discussed a survey from earlier in the decade that found 27% of newspaper readers playing the crossword occasionally. That numbers isn’t particularly compelling for our purposes, but there is one other number dropped by Shortz that does carry some weight: 1%. That’s the percentage of Americans who named crossword-solving as “their favorite activity in the world.”

Another study by Richard Browne of The London Times estimated that ten percent of their readership did the crossword regularly. For their readership that comes out to 75,000 daily puzzle-solvers. Over 7,000 of those take part in crossword competitions. Browne conjectures that these percentages (10% and 1%) are approximately the same for every major paper. On the other hand, he cites British culture as uniquely interested in crossword puzzles: “many [British] people will take a paper for its crossword even it they don’t like that paper’s political stance.”

On top of these findings, there’s also reason to believe that many readers of more “serious” papers would be reluctant to admit that they buy them just for the puzzles. Internet anonymity helps: 54% of 3500 surveyed at About.com’s puzzle section buy a newspaper “all the time” just for the puzzles. Archimedes-Lab.org claims a much higher number because only 13 percent of their readers answered “never” to the question, “do you buy a newspaper just to do the puzzles?” People are also significantly more open when talking about their local papers.

In 2001, Kristin Tillotson of the Minneapolis Star Tribune cited an industry estimate that 25% of readers considered the crossword a part of their daily routine. This number didn’t surprise Tillotson, because of the violent reader reaction to the Star Tribune’s decision to syndicate the New York Times crossword instead of the LA Times. One comment stood out for me: “This puzzle makes me feel very, very stupid. I am not stupid. I am a physician. … You have ruined my morning. You have ruined my ritual.”

A 2004 article from the Bluefield Daily Telegraph confirms the importance of the puzzles for local paper subscribers, describing it as “a bedrock element.” These findings are both encouraging and frightening, because it shows that local newspapers – which are more vital to the life of “the average American” than national papers – stand more to lose if the population of puzzlers emigrates completely to the Internet. For more insights – to the Internet we go!

One blogger named Russell Beattie wrote a piece in 2003 that predicted crosswords as “the prototypical mobile killer app.” He makes some nice observations along the way. One of these is that “fresh, local, and topical content is key.” Even though every Barnes & Noble has an entire rack of puzzle books, this hasn’t posed a serious threat to newspapers. Why? Because people want today’s crossword, no matter the quality. It’s a shared human experience, part of the collective unconscious. Playing networked games over the Internet makes this shared experience explicit – but it also often robs it of its magic. The idea of tailoring daily mobile puzzle releases to localized audiences is daunting. Ian’s Jetset iPhone game localizes its content procedurally by identifying which airport that player is near – customizing the particular security standards that each different airport holds. Writing a series of processes to both generate a crossword and integrate terms or themes from local news seems to be a bit beyond the abilities of existing data-mining mobile games.

I’ve mostly addressed crosswords so far, and some of you might be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the Sudoku craze. Now that we’re on the topic of possibly generating local crosswords by brute force processing, we might as well mention the fad-tastic number game. Wayne Gould, who popularized the 1980’s Japanese game in 2004, wrote a computer program to generate the puzzles. Part of Sudoku’s appeal is the opposite of the local, temporal qualities of the crossword: numerical in nature, they transcend language boundaries. So why did they only enjoy a brief flourish of popularity in papers before being quickly replaced by Internet versions and bookstore puzzle compendiums? One of the major reasons is the simplicity of programming a generator such as Gould’s, and the fact that Sudoku is public domain (legally, anybody could copy Gould). This led to a glut of the puzzle, a lack of uniqueness, and a passing importance in newspaper gaming.

What can we take away from all this? We have reason to believe that the people who buy newspapers just for the puzzles (especially the crossword) – whatever the percentage – are not going anywhere anytime soon. If it’s true that the local and topical qualities of crossword puzzles are their greatest strengths, then we have no reason to fear that the latest re-skinning of Grid Defender or Bejeweled will rob papers of their business. I believe that the throwaway comment I made about the collective unconscious is key here as well. There’s something magical about knowing that others are struggling against the same word puzzle as you at 6 in the morning while you’re getting ready for work. There’s significantly less magic in playing casual Internet games, which mostly appeal to the “coin drop” addiction of arcade games (keeping players around to suck up more advert banners).

More on this subject to come in the future, especially if we find more games like Ian’s that can procedurally generate local experiences.

Ethics of Care & Alt Journalism Games

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 11, 2009

Originally written for Bogost’s Journalism & Games.

The ethics of care is a moral system devised by feminist philosophers who wanted an ethics based on a more “relational” mode of thought. Their basic criticism of typical ethical systems is that philosophers premise them on the idea of the light of reason – a fundamentally Western, male construct. Instead, they develop a system for ethical decision-making based on casuistry and storytelling (what Socrates would probably deride as a kind of “sophistry” because of its close relation to expressive rhetoric). First let me explain what is meant by casuistry and storytelling here; then, I’m going to suggest how this field might help develop a different kind of newsgame in the future.

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Casuistry is more legal practice than ethical philosophy. Instead of deriving right or wrong from moral absolutes, it takes into account every detail of a situation before making a final decision. Under an ethical system such as Kant’s categorical imperative (one acts morally if one wills that the maxim of her actions be enacted as universal law), one cannot kill another in self defense – doing so would require that you willed that all rational creatures took violent means to defend themselves. In legal proceedings, one admits to killing in self defense and then details the situation in an effort to convince the jury that the use of lethal force was warranted.

Philosophical systems are just that – regulatory processes that work in a top-down manner. Casuistry embraces the unit operational approach proposed by Bogost: right and wrong here are determined through the conscious selecting and synthesizing of individual laws, precedents, and situational details.

The storytelling espoused by the ethics of care is especially useful for women, because it helps one work through issues particular to femininity that often are not addressed by male philosophers. For instance, it is easy for a Kantian philosopher or Catholic priest to demonstrate how under their moral code abortion cannot be condoned. But the actual decision-making process of choosing to abort a pregnancy or not cannot usually be reduced to moral absolutes. This choice is tied to a woman’s relationship with her fetus – whether she has built a social connection to it on top of the biological one. Storytelling helps women to explain to others (and themselves) how and why they made their decisions.

Most existing newsgames have an editorial line; that is, they make implicit or explicit arguments through their mechanics and narratives. I’d like to suggest that some newsgames developers might ask whether argumentation is an even playing field; likewise, maybe one wants to contribute to the dialogue on a news issue by making a game but doesn’t find the argumentative nature of many of them appealing.

What first piqued this question for me was an informal article by Henry Jenkins about the journalistic experiences of one of his students, Huma Yusuf. In her coverage of a murder in Pakistan, she noted that she felt the un-journalistic need to mention the fact that one of the men she interviewed scratched his crotch suggestively while talking with her. Including details like this in formal reportage is considered anecdotal and unnecessary. Alternative journalism, such as the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson or the infotainment of the Daily Show, embrace such experiential data and personal viewpoints. I’ve been looking at a lot of newsgames to see if they incorporate a unique protagonist with motivations and personal characteristics through which their encounters with news events might be altered – not so much manipulating the facts but at least allowing players to view them subjectively and thus in a more multi-faceted manner.

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To explain the kind of thing I’m looking for, I’d like to take a look at a recent investigative game, even though it’s neither “serious” nor nonfictional. Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble is a 1920’s flapper girl mystery game. The protagonists are female, and they have a few characteristically post-feminist methods of inquiry with NPCs: fib, taunt, expose, and flirt. The game has minor roleplaying qualities – you choose your main character from about 10 girls, and you form a posse of four as your first task in the game world. Gameplay is composed of fairly simple word games influenced by the stats of the characters. Female and male NPCs are susceptible to different kinds of attacks (flirting obviously works well against most males, but sometimes doesn’t work on a loyal husband). The “point” of the game, besides having catty well-written fun – the game recently won an award for excellence in writing – is to uncover a sinister plot in the small town where the girls go to boarding school.

It is not my intention to assert that a professional female journalist should ever fib, taunt, or flirt their way to  “the facts,” but I think there are a few ways we can look at the inclusion of such post-feminist inquiry in investigative newsgames. If, as Huma Yusuf suggests, men react differently to female reporters, then newsgames seem like an obvious place for this kind of experiential data to be embraced and explored.

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We have more upcoming posts in the works on Global Conflicts: Palestine and South America, and players do get to choose either a female or male avatar in those games. From our discussions, it didn’t sound like the gender change actually influenced the gameplay (someone correct me if I’m wrong). A valid criticism against my idea here would be: “But how does showing how different figures react to a female avatar, or how women might be able to gather information differently from male reporters, help us present the news objectively?”

My only defense against this would be to say that many newsgames have an educative aspect as well as a rhetorical one (Global Conflicts: South America is designed for a younger age group and marketed as an educational tool). Taking Yusuf’s example again, one could learn a lot about other cultures if a game incorporated replay value in the form of avatars of different gender. Playing through the game twice and seeing how the experience changes based on gender, one would learn the subtleties of unfamiliar cultures. Games about Africa would be a particularly apt place for this, since so many Americans run up against a conceptual wall when trying to understand issues such as female circumcision.

Follow Up: Practical Matters of Breaking Newsgames

Posted in Columns, Newsgames, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on February 15, 2009

This was my rough draft of a post that Ian turned into something much better on our blog at http://jag.lcc.gatech.edu/blog/  (see that post for a much better numbers crunch by Bogost including consideration of the Pareto Principal and problems of scale)

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Commenter Elle suggested that the model of Global Game Jam shows that people working concertedly for 48 hours could achieve amazing results; also, she asserted that newsgame developers should not balk at pulling all-nighters to make a breaking newsgame because mainstream developers do the same during crunch-time before going gold.

Certainly the Game Jam is an incredible asset to the development community, so let’s look at how it can and can’t work as a model for newsgame development. First, the groups working together for GGJ (up to five, with an average of four) are typically larger than most studios producing newsgames. We’re talking 1-3 person teams on a lot of the existing artifacts. Second, although a good number of finished pieces that come out of this competition, there’s an extraordinary mass of games that just don’t work. After the two day race is over, they’re completely broken. Many of the working games are basically hacked or jerry-rigged together. Professional game designers need to create something that works when thousands of people are visiting their site daily to play the game.

Ian and I did some calculations on the economic of Game Jam. There were 1600 participants, cramming in roughly a 40-hour work week within two days. This equates to 64,000 manhours. If we average the cost of a game designer at 50,000 dollars a year, we get an hourly pay of around 25 dollars. Multiplying that by manhours, Game Jam would cost about 1.6 million dollars. Three hundred and sixty working games came out of the project. Assuming all of them are “worth playing,” this comes to a rough cost of  $4,500 dollars per game. This happens to be an incredibly appealing and realistic cost for a newsgame (according to Ian); however, the cost becomes quite preventative if you start considering which of these are “worth playing” (50% would be a generous figure). Game Jam’s website doesn’t give us an accurate measure for this percentage, because around 300 of the 360 games post an average of 3/5 stars.

Another dissatisfied comment came from game designer Kriss Daniels. Daniels, because he finds most gamers so daft and most game mechanics so derivative, develops purposefully mind-numbing games as a form of protest and play with the industry. He derided my use of “tabloid games” as examples of quickly-made products following a news event (the Steve Irwin Stingray games are an example of this). He also didn’t like that I was only thinking about the narrative aspect of these games; that is to say, most tabloid games are poorly coded versions of side-scrolling or top-down shooters with crude cartoonish skins pulled from the news event. Even most well-received and -conceived newsgames are often derivative of tried-and-true core mechanics from arcade games. When the mechanics and the purported “purpose” or “message” of a newsgame do not allow meaningful player action, we have what Ian would call a “loose coupling” of mechanic and argument. Needless to say, this is a major obstacle for us to overcome.

In the last post, I attempted to find a way out of this predicament by hypothesizing an independent company that would license regular newsgames out to several traditional news sites. The idea is that this would allow enough coders to be working in the same place to be able to craft game mechanics for newsgames that wouldn’t be so copy-paste. Since this is only a hypothetical solution with no proof of concept, I’d like to develop another way out.

When coding a newsgame, what’s the hardest decision a developer needs to make? The answer to this question seems to be what information and player actions to include or exclude. In the words of Miguel Sicart, what one chooses to include or exclude determines the editorial line of a newsgame.

One highly detailed explanation of how time-consuming this decision-making process can be comes from pioneering geopolitical game creator Chris Crawford. The book he wrote about the design and construction of Balance of Power goes into detail about how he chose what data and player actions to include in the game. Working on a Mac Lisa, the biggest constraint for Crawford was RAM (128k at the time, not including the RAM taken up by the then-new GUI). Working as a freelancer after the collapse of Atari, time was a relatively liquid asset for Crawford. He had the time to program everything he wanted into the game, but he had to make cuts to account for the memory limitations. This iterative trimming and playtesting process appears to have lasted around 9 months for Balance of Power.

The situation is somewhat the opposite today for a newsgame developer: they have an almost unlimited amount of memory to work with (with a limiting factor being that it should not be too large in order to load up relatively quickly in Flash), but time is working against them if they want to release breaking newsgames. Despite this disparity in resources, I think Crawford’s modus operandi can still function as a basic model today.

The key for Crawford, once he had a bunch of data and mechanics that needed cutting, was to decide exactly which actions were necessary in order to convey an argument or a system to the player. Honing in on the idea that the Cold War superpowers were at the greatest risk of nuclear confrontation when drawn into a indirect conflict by their proxies, he settled on only allowing players to provide money, arms, or political pressure to a either a secondary nation’s government or its insurgency. This is an unarguably tight coupling between player action and Crawford’s argument. The goal for a breaking newsgame developer would be to prime her mind in order to be able to generate such a coupling quickly on hearing of a game-able news story.

Now, what does a working programmer have that the average participant in Game Jam does not? Besides, of course, the structure of a paying job and professional experience working specifically on newsgames. An answer to this question comes from an article by Chaim Gingold, one of our recent graduates and a lead developer on Will Wright’s Spore.

Gingold describes the plight of the game coder as this: you come up with a lot of ideas, you try to code them, and they don’t work. Most people take this process as a failure and throw everything away. Gingold suggests another way to use this process: save your code, extract the mechanics you developed, and use them later on other projects. For proof that this works even in a corporate atmosphere, Gingold tells the story of how he found a bunch of algorithms and simulations that would later be used in Spore on modified builds of prior Maxis games kept in storage at their studio. His argument is this: Wright makes games that are critically well-received and commercially successful because he constantly prototypes mechanics and never throws away any of his experiments.

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