Chungking Espresso

Announcing: The Cartoonist

Posted in Newsgames, Projects by Simon Ferrari on September 2, 2010



The Cartoonist, our winning entry in the 2010 Knight News Challenge, emerged from two research programs. For the past two years, my research group at the Georgia Institute of Technology has been cataloging and analyzing the burgeoning genre of “newsgames” — videogames about current and past real-world events. That research produced a book, Newsgames, which will be published next month by MIT Press.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, professor Michael Mateas and his Expressive Intelligence Studio at UC Santa Cruz have been working on the problem of game generation by creating artificial intelligence tools to create a virtually infinite number of games.

The goal of our two-year Knight grant is to create a tool for generating newsgames on the fly, making it viable to create a videogame about a breaking event. This is done by identifying the issue and an angle for editorial or reporting, boiling the story down into its constituent agents and their relationships, and selecting from a range of rhetorical archetypes. Anyone who understands how to use the tool will be able to create a newsgame, remixed from the structures and mechanics of popular arcade games, within five minutes or less. The game will output to Flash and HTML 5 for instant uploading to the web, where it can be paired with reportage, columns, video, infographics, and cartoons covering the same current event.

Read the rest of the post here at MediaShift Idea Lab.

LARP field study: Mafia

Posted in Game Analysis, Projects by Simon Ferrari on October 26, 2009

brokemyheart

For my LARP field study I played a night full of Mafia with Paul, Pauline, and Jenifer from class (along with a number of their friends). Doug Wilson of IT Copenhagen calls Mafia “the most political game ever conceived.” The game is an ideal LARP for non-traditional roleplayers, because there are no combat rules to remember or stats to track. Typically the game is played with between 10 and 20 people, seated in a circle. We had ten for our session, a number which lends itself to a more intimate and competitive experience.

One player takes the role of the narrator (game master) who randomly doles out roles at the beginning of each play experience, tracks the state of the game, and provides a narrative context for every game action. There are two cycles in the game: night and day. The game begins at night, with all heads bowed. Six players were assigned the role of basic townsperson; they have no special abilities or duties. Two players constitute the Mafia, and each night they raise their heads to select one person to kill. One player is the detective, and each night they can point to one person, asking the narrator if that player is in the Mafia. Finally, one player is the doctor, able to select one person per night for protection. Nobody knows what role the other players bear.

During the day stage, the results of the Mafia’s activities are reported. If the marked player was not protected by the doctor, they die. If the detective accurately discerned a Mafia member, she may want to declare the fact. But if she reveals her identity, she becomes an easy target for the Mafia if the doctor is unable or unwilling to protect her. Then the townspeople begin accusing each other of being in the Mafia, stating their (usually tenuous) reasons for believing so. Players can choose not to condemn anyone, but usually the Mafia players will attempt to sway the townspeople toward killing each other (which leads to counter-accusations, etc.). An accused player gives a defense speech, then the players vote on which person to lynch.

When the Mafia murder somebody, the narrator does not reveal what role the dead player bore; however, when the townspeople lynch a player they are told what role the dying player held. The game ends when either all townspeople or all Mafia members are killed.

It took awhile for us to get the game started. During the first round, I forgot which role I had been given and ruined everything. Everybody forgave me when the narrator forgot what was going on during the second round and spoiled that one. The third attempt was a success, especially for me. Because I knew what roles everybody had been assigned during the first two unsuccessful attempts, I used fuzzy math to try to discern which players were the most likely to be Mafia. Basically I went on the false mathematical assumption that the chance of three successive “heads” in a game of coin-flip is 1/8 instead of 1/2 (I still want a look at the theorem that establishes that bit of nonsense).

As it turned out, my fuzzy math worked! I successfully picked the two Mafia even though I was only playing a lowly citizen. The first time I nominated one of the suspect players, nobody believed me and didn’t vote for him to die. So during the next round, I falsely stated that I was the detective and that I knew the second suspect was mafioso. The healer was dead at this point, so I knew I would be killed after the round was over. I gave an impassioned speech about self-sacrifice, everybody bought it, and we lynched the suspect player. I was right about the pick, and I was also right that the remaining Mafia player would off me that night. But the real detective was still alive, and he found out who the second murderer was in time to win the round for the townspeople.

The next round, I was killed straightaway. I assume it was because I had such good hunches during the first game. This is similar to the experiment of iterated prisoner’s dilemma in game theory, where bias from previous plays affects how the players within the dilemma choose in subsequent rounds. I watched the players to figure out if any of them had tells, and I discovered that one of the players giggled whenever he was in the Mafia. During the third game, I heard the distinctive giggle on the first night and outed him to everyone during the day. After I explained my reasoning, a few players believed me and we successfully lynched him. Then I got killed the next round. Playing Mafia too well usually means you’re going to get axed.

By the fifth and final match, I’d consumed a bit too much alcohol for my own good. This resulted in me persuading the townspeople to murder two innocents in a row. I’m glad we stopped after that round. So I’ve played Mafia twice now, and I’ve never actually gotten to be in the Mafia. As a result of this, I can’t speak for how to strategize a defense while playing one of them. The rounds that I was the healer and the detective were the rounds where I died the first day, so I also don’t know how to play as those roles. Mostly I’m good at playing a standard townsperson, and I’ve got a knack for picking at least one of the Mafia off before getting slaughtered the following night (healers tend to be very stupid; they never protect me, their star player).

Is there a difference in embodiment while playing something like Mafia over a videogame? I don’t believe so. Identification with avatars in first- and third-person camera views has been well-documented. There’s a palpable, giddy energy to live action play, but for calculating players such as myself the difference seems negligible. This is probably because of the principle Gee calls the “psychosocial moratorium,” or what Huizinga calls “the magic circle”; this is a protection from real-life consequences and harm that some believe is intrinsic to play (perhaps the only exception would be in what Caillois identifies as Ilinx, or “vertigo,” play… there is a real danger present with things like roller coasters and skydiving).

I have no problem sacrificing myself for the team in Mafia, because I know I’m not dying in real life. The act of taking on a role is always a necessary step away from absolute embodiment and identification. I shun anonymity in online play, so I’m always just playing an accentuated fraction of my real self when I play any game. This appears to hold true in live play: I was sarcastic, calm, and reasonable (except when I became inebriated… which can affect performance in online games as well).

As for the strategic difference between NPCs and real human players, I hold, along with Jason Rohrer, that there isn’t much of one. I didn’t know any of my fellow Mafia players exceedingly well, so I tested and prodded them much as I would an alien computer intelligence. As a material and physical determinist, I think people behave with predictable regularity (except in panic situations). I read the one player’s giggle-tell much as I would a sound cue in a videogame. If I’d been playing with family or close friends, this might have been different–but only because I would know them and their personal rulesets all the better. They could act to upset my predictions, but I would probably be able to counter-predict that if I were playing carefully enough.

One notable exception to this rule was that we had a player named Akido who spoke little English. His defense was always, “Why do you think I’m in the Mafia? I am innocent!” It was impossible to read him, because he wasn’t fluent enough to craft different responses based on his current role and situation. I correctly identified him by luck during the first round, but every time after that (if he were mafioso) nobody was able to nail him. We avoided accusing him, perhaps out of fear that we would be discriminating against him. I wonder how this could be simulated in an NPC?

Jenifer made two videos of the experience, but I can’t speak to their quality because I don’t want to download them:

http://jenifervandagriff.com/mafia/VID00001.MP4
http://jenifervandagriff.com/mafia/VID00002.MP4
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End of Life IF

Posted in Newsgames, Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on October 19, 2009

eol

End of Life is an interactive fiction about family life and decision-making. It started as an idea in Ian Bogost’s newsgame project studio. One of the branches of newsgames we have identified for our book is the documentary game. Typically these have a medium-length (20 minutes to two hours) playthrough time and are built as a mod for a 3D engine. There are three major types: spatial, procedural, and personal. Personal documentary games mix spatial and system-based models in order to tell share a story from a unique, subjective point-of-view. End of Life is a text-based adaptation of the documentary game form, addressing the real-world issue of “end of life counseling” or the decision whether to pull life support from a dying loved one.

The high concept pitch for EoL would sound something like, “It’s Ruben & Lullaby meets The Sound and The Fury.” Point-of-view switching is a powerful literary device, but in static texts this typically implies a forced perspective. In EoL, the player can switch back and forth between five family members at any moment and in any order. If they don’t like a character, they can ignore her for the course of the playthrough. The invalid family patriarch is our Benjy Compson (the mentally handicapped member of Faulkner’s fictional family), providing commentary that the active family members do not have access to. Some characters always do the same things in every playthrough; most have branching choices based on their moods at certain points in the day. When there is no choice in action, mood will instead dictate how the character mentally reacts to her situation.

Ruben & Lullaby provides the inspiration for the interaction model: the player controls a wisp that can nudge the emotions of one family member per hour. I see this as a direct contradiction of the interaction model of The Sims, where players are cued to a desire or feeling in the Sim that they can rectify or not by dictating action. Players of R&L and Facade are often frustrated when their commands don’t lead to tangible results in game, and I wanted to capture a similar frustration in EoL. Each family member begins the playthrough in a randomized mood. Each is variably susceptible to particular mood swings, leading to healthy dose of guesswork and replay value. The player can also choose to abstain from influencing the characters, letting the drama play out based on the beginning values.

At the end of the game, the family convenes to decide the fate of the patriarch; some will vote to keep him alive if they are in a good mood, some if they are in a bad mood. This decision takes place offscreen, much as in the violent sections of Greek tragedy (mostly because I wasn’t good enough to code it dramatically). The player has gleaned parts of their personalities in the playthrough, but he doesn’t know everything about each family member. Most importantly, their ethics aren’t considered. The game argues that people make decisions based on who they are and the mood they are in. Ethics certainly make up who we are, but they tend to be remarkably malleable under duress. Decisions are also relational; some people, under some circumstances, will take radical action to counteract what they see as the controlling influence of others.

In discussing digital media, we often fall back on an essentialist logic that says that an artifact is aesthetically legitimate if it maximizes the affordances of the medium; however, there is a slightly older aesthetic criterion, coming from Theodor Adorno and the Frankfurt School, which states that aesthetic legitimacy arises not from essentialist qualities but from the reflection of the work’s means of production–it has to reify the cultural milieu of a time and place, adopting a suitable form for conveying it. End of Life draws from the latter school of thought, directly confronting a relevant public issue and encapsulating how one specific family deals with it.

The suggestion that a digital artifact should provide always immersion, embodiment, and agency is perverse. It only makes sense if one views digital media as escapism, created to fully engage the user in the place of the real world around them. A brute fact of human life is that we don’t have control over much of our lives or the lives of others. Aarseth argues that games become more “gamelike” if they are configurative, that the player should be able to see the meaningful influence her actions have on a virtual world. I would argue that agency and embodiment mean more in configurative work when they are directly contradicted in non-configurative work. By taking these essential qualities away sometimes, we make them more cherished. Such qualities should be selected from to suit the work, not the other way around. Defaulting to what is important to us robs it of importance. This is an educational opportunity, an antidote to the intoxicating sense of power that most digital artifacts provide. Some things simply aren’t configurative in the real world; families are a good example.

A week before finishing this project, I finally found published theoretical grounding for my position. In their early work on augmented reality games, Jay Bolter and Blair MacIntyre argue that point-of-view switching provides adequate embodiment in lieu of actual agency in a digital environment.2 I actually don’t find their particular example of this principle compelling; basically they simplified Twelve Angry Jurors to Three Jurors, strapped a backpack computer and a virtual reality visor to a player, and then allowed the player to switch between inhabiting the mindset of one of the three characters as a static drama played out. I think EoL takes point-of-view switching one step further and provides a better proof-of-concept for their argument.

I consider End of Life no small success. My writing is admittedly the weakest element; mentally I finished the piece the moment I finished coding the framework girding the story. This project combines everything I’ve learned how to do in Flash thus far (excepting animation), and it constitutes the first true state machine I’ve ever made completely by myself in the platform. Even though the writing is somewhat trite, pulling from every cliche of everyday family life I’m familiar with, it becomes true in that I pulled it from one specific, real-world family (my own).

There is some room for future development here, both graphically and procedurally. Right now there are two variations for every character in every round based on there mood. Given the way the structure is set up, I could add mood variations to the branching story sections or add a third mood variation (neutral) given enough time and literary inspiration. I would also love to try to remake this project as a true documentary game, in a 3D engine, with unique art assets and dialogue. The current iteration of this project represents the utmost level of my design and programming abilities given the time constraints and the specifications of the assignment.

I should note that this situation didn’t actually happen to my family, and the personalities have been a bit blown own to be more compelling. My grandfather died five years ago from Alzheimer’s disease, asleep in his bed, in the room that I grew up in. This isn’t meant to be a universal story, though it can be generalized to the extent that families are, after all, families; it is a directed experience featuring characters with largely determinate personalities. This is the way I wanted it, and I hope the player enjoys what I crafted for them. A big thank you goes out to Graham Jans for teaching me how to randomize variables in Flash. I’m also indebted to my family for providing me with the strong personalities embedded in the family members of this fiction. Thank you to my father, who used to work as an intensive care nurse, for describing the hour-by-hour care of a comatose patient.

———————-

Adorno, Theodor. Aesthetic Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 16-45.

MacIntrye, Blair and Jay Bolter. “Single-narrative, multiple point-of-view dramatic experiences in augmented reality” in Virtual Reality 7 (London: Springer-Verlag, 2003), 10-16.

Reset, a gamelike/comiclike poem thing

Posted in Papers, Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on August 31, 2009

reset

Old school project.

Brief Interlude, RTB

Posted in Miscellany, Projects by Simon Ferrari on May 4, 2009

I’ll probably be able to finish the second (slightly longer) piece of my response to the hipster discussion between Jeffries and Pixel Vixen later tonight, but Ian just sent me another proofreading job:

racing-the-beam

The opening chapters of the book, about Stella and Combat, absolutely brutalized me the first time I read them. I’m hoping that it won’t happen again, but it’s a lot harder to do this kind of thing when you’re trying to quit smoking. Pray for me.

Schooled! postmortem (final)

Posted in Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on April 27, 2009

ABSTRACT
Schooled! was created for Michael Nitche’s “Design, Technology, and Representation” class (LCC 6312). Creating the game was a group effort undertaken by Simon Ferrari, Thomas Lodato, and Audrey Whitman. Schooled! is built into Unreal via UnrealEd. The game is a general reflection on the individual’s struggle to create their own identity in an environment that threatens to control that individuation—it is a game about the American Dream. Lighting is decidedly chiaroscuro, and the sound design creates an aura of pervasive mania. The player controls their movement and action in the space with a Guitar Hero controller. By locating sound objects within the game’s level, an elementary school, the player is able to activate or deactivate them in order to create their own personal aural space.

schooled4

INTRODUCTION
Schooled! is a game about the American Dream, specifically its public education system and impulse toward cultural homogeneity. Education is a struggle between the individual’s need to gain knowledge and the organizational and intellectual hegemony of the board regulating each yearly curriculum. Players move through a 3D recreation of an elementary school with a Guitar Hero controller. The space is almost pitch black, expressively lit by spotlights of different color. The space is inundated by the din of almost 20 audio tracks playing simultaneously. Players set their own goals for themselves by navigating the space at their leisure, deactivating or re-activating sound objects as they see fit to construct their own aural space.

Thomas Lodato took the role of project lead, focusing on scripting, lighting, and object creation/placement. Simon Ferrari worked on level design, texturing, and the guitar controller peripheral. Audrey Whitman drew all the concept sketches and took the role of sound designer, constructing three distinct sound spaces composed of at least six clips each.

Our Concept and Backgrounds
The original concept was to create a completely abstract, black space. A constant, bass drone—representing the drive toward cultural homogeneity—would dominate the soundscape. Players would wear headphones in order to be able to hear slight differentiations of sound levels, cuing them on how to move through the space. Using their voices, players would be able to shoot at hidden objects emanating the drone, thus activating the object and causing it to play a different tune. An activated sound object would create a particle field of light, making part of the level visible and allowing players to orient themselves enough to move onto their next goal. Eventually the sound objects would decay and become de-activated, shrouding the player in darkness and defeat—a cynical ending we later redacted.

Inspirations and Source Texts
Visual inspiration for this concept came from a Battles music video for their song Tonto. The game was also to act as an aural counterpoint to the upcoming game The Unfinished Swan by Ian Dallas, in which the player will navigate a completely white space by shooting black paint at the level geometry. We follow Walter Murch’s assertion that “the most successful sounds seem not only to alter what the audience sees but to go further and trigger a kind of conceptual resonance between image and sound” (Murch xxii). A tight coupling of visual/sound space is what we were after.

Ferrari’s background is in race/gender representation in east Asian cinema. Lodato studied mathematical modeling and North American abstract film. Whitman majored in technical writing, but she also learned quite a bit about the sociology of education as an undergraduate.

Frame Analysis
Whitman drew from Erving Goffman’s Frame Analysis to bring sociological considerations to bear on the project. Goffman explains how one understands what is going on in a situated context through “frames,” “keys,” and our reactions to them. A frame is a schema of interpretation that people rely on in order to contextualize an event or space. Keys are prior points of reference that allow one to identify and select from an array of possible frames. We read spaces using the same tools we use to read events and people; a space feels real based on how successfully it conveys its frames to a viewer/interactor. Our game partially dissociates keys and their frames in order to create a deliberately disorienting environment which must be navigated and experimented with carefully in order to be understood. Reading and writing a space is a process of “key” creation.

Sound as Violent Force
Ferrari drew inspiration from Mary Ann Doane’s critique of sync sound in classical Hollywood cinema, The Voice in the Cinema, in order to question the representation of bodies in game space. Doane explains that speech is an individual property right in the cinema. The cinema traditionally attempts to conceal the fact of its constructed nature by always associating the image of a body with the sound of its voice. Voice is thus how one is both contained by and expressed as an individual inside a film. A body anchors a voice within a cinematic space—disconnecting the two is a way to expose the ideology of organic unity in cinematic representation.

Invisible objects in our game emanate sounds, disconnecting the body from the voice. Players control their movement and action in the space with a guitar, an analogue for the voice. We fragment three distinct soundtracks into individual bytes, calling attention to the constructed nature of the game and allowing players to tear it down and rebuild it as they see fit.

Mathematical Topology
Azriel Rosenfeld’s seminal paper, “Digital Topology,” laid the groundwork for analysis of digital spaces through rigorous theoretical and numerical studies of discrete, countable space. In Thomas’s presentation of Rosenfeld, he linked digital topology to continuous topology in order to explore how space is changed, both conceptually and literally. Lodato saw this as a way of bridging the gap between our real world space and the virtual spaces we have created. The term space, and how we use it, is significantly shifted when we begin considering discrete connectedness. Instead of being a dimensional principle, space becomes a factor on connections of parts. While the methodologies may seem dated with our far more vast colloquial dialog with pixels, the manipulable properties of Maya and Unreal would have never come around without them.

The First Roadblock
Our original high concept adequately incorporated all three of these backgrounds, but there was a critical error in our conception of how to depict the problem of cultural and educational hegemony. Nitsche raised the question: “If your game is about combatting the rigid structure of American society, why are you only giving the player one path to proceed through?” Initial efforts to construct an interconnected system of three rooms that could be navigated in any order the player wished conflicted with our amateur abilities at level design. A new iteration on the idea was required.

Level Design
Whitman came up with an idea for how to make the game space both more concrete and more openly navigable: we would design a school. Henry Jenkins describes game design as “narrative architecture”; the school level needed to convey the fact that this was a game about the American education system and its impulse toward control, while allowing players to create their own story through the play experience. Audrey sketched up an initial layout for Ferrari to execute on, but he didn’t find the space expressive or large enough for their needs. Instead he mentally walked through the schools he had attended as a child in order to pick the most suitable model for their project. He decided on his elementary school, Lake Windward.

schooled1

Unlike most schools he attended during his secondary education, which were oriented along a linear central corridor, Lake Windward was built around a square-shaped corridor intercut by a central library. Considerations of wheelchair accessibility in the school’s construction also led to the creation of strangely expressive ramps—particularly adaptable to the level geometry of a first-person shooter—throughout the school. Players begin in the school’s cafeteria, from which they can head in either direction toward the gym or two hallways filled with classrooms. Ferrari also scaled the level so as to emulate the point-of-view of a child. The end result is a fairly huge space that can nevertheless be traversed quickly due to its central layout and the inner path created by the library.

First Iteration
In Whitman’s original sketch, sound objects were moving actors that would traverse the space along a set course. There would be teacher objects and student objects. The player’s goal would be to figure out which teacher and student went together by listening to a tune emanated by each actor. We wanted to abstract the representation of human actors to avoid numerous criticism about the voyeurism inherent in film viewership, so Lodato created abstract puzzle pieces (to represent the actors) in Maya that would fit together when activated one after the other.

Ferrari was unhappy with the somewhat simplistic puzzle-solving activity this setup would create, and Nitsche criticized the team again for being overly controlling in how they were scripting their interactors (to take a term from Janet Murray). Abandoning the student-and-teacher puzzle pieces, the team moved forward with a more democratic goal: to create a playground filled with sound objects that the player could choose to activate or deactivate to their liking.

schooled2

Second Iteration
Channeling Plato, Lodato conceived of a unique way to light the level and distribute both sound objects and inert mise-en-scene throughout the school. Maintaining the visual aesthetics of the original concept, much of the school is cloaked in darkness. Spotlights emanate from classroom doors, guide the player through the halls, and highlight corners to prompt turning. Initial playtesting showed that players needed extra feedback on where sound objects were located, so colored spotlights were added directly above them. A text prompt also tells players that they are within activation range of the sound objects. Echoing Plato’s Allegory of the Cave (from The Republic), many of the objects in the school are invisible to the player; one can locate them by looking for their colored spotlights and the shadows they cast on nearby walls. Invisible objects still carry a collision map, so navigating classrooms filled with unseen desks is something of a task; these represent the invisible obstacles to a student’s education.

Sound Design
The original working sound design of the project followed the model of matching two connected puzzle pieces located disparately in the space. Whitman composed two interlocking tracks, which when placed together would form a chord, to accompany each set of sound objects. When the experience became a more democratic affair following Nitsche’s second criticism, Whitman tasked herself with creating three distinct sound zones for the level. Each sound zone is based on a different genre of film, science fiction, war, and the western—these stand as forward-looking, present-day, and nostalgic aural textures, respectively. The experience of hearing all the spaces concurrently creates the feeling of a carnival—a space of pure play that must be explored and experimented with to be fully understood.

Stockburger describes auditory space as being constantly in flux, linking it to “Lefebvre’s notion of lived space, a kind of space that is ‘directly experienced’” (Stockburger 176). Our game follows Stockburger’s and Doane’s call for an understanding of aural space on equal footing with the representation of visual space. The music of three famous movies was used: Forbidden Planet, Full Metal Jacket, and Shane. These were distorted and mixed with industrial and public noise in order to create the final clips. One song was used from each film; Whitman broke each down into six smaller pieces after augmenting the original track. Whitman couldn’t simply cut the tracks down into underlying pieces, so she made multiple min/max passes through each track to isolate instrumental and vocal strings for manipulation. A baseline track was created for each area, which was then submitted to key changes, effects, reverb, and echo—this conveyed distance between the sound zones, which Unreal 2k4 is somewhat unable to do natively.

Player Control
The original concept for control was to allow the player’s voice to steer their navigation through the level. Ferrari attempted to build a patcher in Max/MSP that would convert pitch to MIDI and then send different MIDI ranges to a Java shell that would funnel keystrokes to Unreal. After about eight hours of fumbling Ferrari realized that he was both out of his programming league and wasting time.

Whitman proposed the solution: maybe we could use a Guitar Hero controller? This idea proved to be both  functionally superior and easier to execute on. Using a program called XPadder, Ferrari created a custom keystroke mapping that would function in the desktop background while the computer ran Unreal. Players navigate the space with the colored fret buttons (mapped to WASD). One can jump (space bar) by strumming up on the strum bar and activate objects (E button) by strumming down. Lodato scripted a guitar sound to play when the player strummed down, and Whitman created a crashing tambourine sound for when the player activated or de-activated a sound object.

schooled3

Lessons Learned
Over the course of our semester in Nitsche’s “Design, Technology, and Representation” class, we’ve learned how to model and animate in 3D with Maya, construct levels and scripts in UnrealEd, and iterate on our ideas about how to depict the American Dream in videogames over the course of three distinct projects (basic modeling, basic level design, and the final group project). We’ve learned that the workflow of creating assets for a game can be trying (modeling in Maya on a Mac, converting the model with axmain on a PC, and then importing it into Unreal on another PC), and that there’s a great need for better documentation on game tools on the web. Overall we’ve grown as critics and designers, and working under someone so passionate about 3D design   (Nitsche) has been a pleasure.

Lodato: Following Kubrick’s candle-power experimentation in the film Barry Lyndon, Lodato explored how to give depth to a space using the lowest possible lighting. He considered the information that a blind person would need to navigate a space: “how many strides does it take to reach the end of a corridor,” “where are doors,” and “how do I know when to turn?” Working on the project, he learned a lot about how to “game” Unreal in order to turn sound objects on and off using scripted triggers. Sound in Unreal cannot be turned on and off, so Lodato managed a workaround by which the sound level of each track could be lowered to zero—he thinks this reflects the fact that one of the only ways to stay sane among others is to develop selective hearing, instead of explicitly ask others to silence themselves.

Lodato thinks that his job as project lead was made easy by the fact that Ferrari and Whitman took their work delegations seriously and always delivered material on time.

Whitman: While Audrey was reasonably comfortable editing sound and preparing it for Unreal, with what she learned in the course of completing this project she feels capable of moving on to more advanced sound design tasks in the future. In the process of placing and laying out the connective sonic tissue between each sound zone, she learned a lot about the relationship between sound design and the scale of a 3D space (the distance, direction, and size of a sound bubble determine in part how big a space ‘feels’ to the player, a perception that can be subtly altered through careful design and script triggering).

She reached a level of comfortability if not proficiently in Unreal scripting by bug-testing with Lodato, and would feel reasonably prepared to do more scripting in that vein. Since so little modeling was required for this level, her modeling skills remained much as they were.

Ferrari: First and foremost, Simon learned to listen to the suggestions of his teammates. On the very first day that he proposed the idea of constructing voice controls in the then-alien Max/MSP, Whitman excitedly asserted that a Guitar Hero would fit our ideas about the voice in a game space while also providing more efficient functionality for the player. Ferrari didn’t heed her advice, and he ended up wasting quite a bit of their valuable time fumbling around in the exceedingly difficult development environment that is Max.

Modeling a school in 3D is actually rather easy; texturing it is another task altogether. Schools are rather boring places visually, so a lot of work went into making each area in the school have its own unique flavor (to compliment the sound design). Ferrari had been highly critical of “game artists” who translated everyday spaces such as art museums into 3D engines, but he thinks that this project works because the form and function of the game achieve a tight coupling. Simon enjoyed the trip back in time to his primary school days, continuing his ludic exploration of personal nostalgia following the videogame mapping of his childhood neighborhood for DiSalvo’s design class last semester.

CONCLUSION
Schooled! is a game about one’s struggle to construct identity in our culturally homogenous home, the United States. Over the course of two concept and gameplay iterations, our team feels that we have conveyed this experience rather uniquely within a 3D space. The lighting design of the finished product maintains the visual aesthetic of the original concept—an abstract, black space that the player must navigate with their ears. Three distinct sound spaces, drawn from three genres of film music, allow an experimental building of a personal sound space. The setting of an elementary school makes for a space that everyone can relate to while exploring the subject of cultural homogeneity in the United States. The team worked effectively together and with Professor Nitsche to fully flesh out their high concepts and show what they’d learned over the course of the semester.

REFERENCES
[1]Battles, Tonto. Music video from album Mirrored, Warped Films, 2008.
[2]Dallas, Ian, The Unfinished Swan (2009, work in progress).
[3]Doane, M.A., The Voice in the Cinema. Yale French Studies (1980) pp. 373-385.
[4]Goffman, Erving, Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. Northeastern University Press (Boston) 1986, 21-83, 247-300, 345-348, 496-560.
[5]Jenkins, H. Game Design As Narrative Architecture. Henry Jenkins Publications, 2007, 1-15.
[6]Murch, W. Foreword, in: Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, by Michel Chion. Columbia Univeristy Press, 1994, vii-xxiv.
[7]Rosenfeld, Azriel. “Digital Topology” in The American Mathematical Monthly, Vol. 86, No. 8 (Oct., 1979) pp. 621-630
[8]Stockburger, A. PhD Research into the Modalities of Space in Video and Computer Games. 2006, 175-206.

Wave! the life and death of an american protest

Posted in Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on April 5, 2009

Thomas Lodato, Thomas Barnwell, and I are working on a microworld prototype for Janet Murray’s class. We decided to flesh out a game concept I had last semester, modeling the experience of a grassroots sign-waving effort. I found out while reading Persuasive Games that Ian had already modeled this in part with his Howard Dean for Iowa game. The message there is that grassroots politics border on the mundane, and that such efforts steadily grow as more people become interested/involved. I wanted to understand a different phenomenon:

Driving down Peachtree Street, I passed an anti-war protest. This was the same event I’d passed hundreds of times in the past six years: a bunch of crunchy hippies, people dressed as Buddhist monks, elderly women dressed in black, et cetera, all demanding an end to war without any consideration of how exactly to pull off a safe and effective exit strategy from Iraq or Afghanistan. I understand the desire – I’m quite a super liberal myself – but I can’t advocate this kind of unstudied, ineffectual rant. I didn’t beep. Everybody else did.

Traveling with the same caravan on cars, we came upon a labor strike a half-mile down the road. A bunch of African American laborers, dressed in the construction clothes, were picketing a work site. These people had legitimate grievances, and legitimate demands for how their grievances should be addressed (this is the nature of labor disputes). Yet, nobody was beeping. These people were the same liberals who supported an end to war in Iraq. Why weren’t they supporting another liberal stance, labor rights? I laid on my horn, a long-sustained honk in a corridor of silence.

What this example showed me was that the assumption that grassroots outreach was always going to gain ground was false. The success of a demonstration relies on the political climate of the area where it takes place, the politics, race, and socio-economics of the passersby, and other organizational constraints such as time, weather, density of protestors, and frequency/spatial distance of recurring demonstrations. Our game models this, based on a series of algorithms and census/Gallup/Pew/voting record data.

EDIT: Here’s a link to v1.03a of Wave! That means it’s an alpha, so the cars are driving backward. So it goes. It ain’t nearly finished, but I think we’ve shown that an info-vizualization game is possible. For some reason Firefox isn’t reading some of the external files, so try it in Safari if the signs don’t show up above the hands.

Thesis Topic!

Posted in Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 31, 2009

This week I got to plan out the next year of my life. Here’s the thesis pre-proposal I came up with!

“Remediate, Disrupt: Procedural and Performative Responses to Game Rhetorics”

In both Unit Operations and Persuasive Games, Ian Bogost suggests that players might counter the arguments modeled by videogames by responding to them procedurally, or making a “response game”; on the other hand, Celia Pearce and Michael Nitsche elucidate community and performative engagements with these same procedural rhetorics. This paper will draw from both existing artifacts and my own ongoing case studies to develop a practical theory and typology of disruptive responses to videogame rhetorics.

Chair: Ian Bogost
Committee: Celia Pearce, Michael Nitsche, and Fox Harrell (pending taking a class with him next semester)

360 Achievers Widget

Posted in Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 23, 2009

I had to prototype a Dashboard widget for Janet Murray’s “Designing the Medium” class. Since I’m an achievement whore constantly trying to justify to others the value I see in achievements as a new, generalizable reward structure in games and as a meta-game, I hacked together something that would host the kind of discussion around achievements that I’ve been looking for.

The only existant 360-related widgets on Apple right now are Gamercard widgets (pretty simple, usually it just sets up a dummy Live account to redirect requests through and then shows you your Gamercard) and the 1337pwn Friends List widget (does about the same, a dummy account looks up information on Friends you enter into the widget and then shows you if they’re online and what they’re playing). This is what I came up with (oh and it actually works, if I’d just designed the layout in Illustrator it would’ve been a lot prettier, but it was my first venture into J-script):

360widget

Basically I wanted a widget on my Dashboard that would quickly retrieve information that I would usually have to search for for 15 minutes on an achievement site like 360achievements.org. The genre tabs on the top, the game icons on the left, and each individual achievement listed are all coded in slick Javascript (from Scriptaculous) that cascades when clicked – heavy credit goes to Bobby Schweizer, who showed me how to adapt some of his code for the project.When you switch between games, the widget will remember the last achievement you were looking at for any given game.

Everything from “Achievement Comments” down is a wiki. The back end isn’t fully implemented, because I’m not a hardcore coder. On the back there are some RSS feeds and a place to input your Gamertag to pull up your Gamercard. The basic idea is that the widget would read your Tag to see the games you’ve played, which would then grant you access to the wikis for the games you actually know something about.

My basic valuation of achievements is that they both parse games into meaningful units while also highlighting modes of play that might otherwise go ignored by players if they didn’t have an explicit, displayable reason to do so (the achievement). A good example of this notion is the 99 achievements for the Orange Box, which focused me toward playing numerous encounters in the games in ways that I wouldn’t have thought of myself.

Bring on the use-ability complaints, bitches! (here are some: my grid could use some work, the achievement list is a bit awkward and hard to differentiate, and I couldn’t figure out how to make the Javascript show you what achievement you’d selected)

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Maya/Myth: The End

Posted in Projects, Schoolwork by Simon Ferrari on March 6, 2009

So we’re finishing up the Maya/Myth project for our Design, Technology, and Representation class. I got grouped with Thomas Lodato and Audrey Whitman for this one, which is exciting because Thomas is already an Unreal Script pro (with a background in math modeling) and Audrey (a technical writer who researched educational modeling) has experience from her previous project in importing sound to Unreal Editor. My background is in gendered space in cinema, so we’re combining all our previous research interests for this capstone project.

The American myth we’re addressing is the goal of cultural homogenization. Players will begin in a pitch black space. Special objects in the level will be resonating with a constant bass-line drone. By listening for this objects in the darkness and targeting them with their gun, the player will shoot sonic bullets at the object and cause it to resonate with a new tune. Objects resonating with the player’s tune will emit a light field and patches of rumble triggers, allowing players to progress through the level. The idea is that the player is reclaiming an autocratic “male” space by subverting it/generating a personal space.

Players will control head movement (and thus turning) with an xbox 360 controller; this will also allow the rumble patches to be felt in the player’s hands. Moving forward/backward and shooting are controlled with a microphone. Max/MSP will be running in the background, and voice input of different decibels will trigger the keyboard commands to move/shoot in Unreal. We want to have surround sound speakers hooked up in the audience, but this might cause feedback and/or set off the MSP triggers in the game; thus, we’re also holding onto the contingency of stereo headphones being worn by the player so they can pick up the directionality of the aural objects in the game.

Obvious influences on this work:

Unfinished Swan –

Battles music video for Tonto –

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