Game of Thrones Characters as Video Game Consoles

This is probably the nerdiest thing I've ever put together, but I couldn't let this vast stock of Game of Thrones facts that've been piling up as I make my way through the books go to waste. This list is not conclusive; it's missing Robb and Catelyn specifically, but I couldn't think of a good console parallel for either. Also, it's supposed to be a joke, so there's that. What I enjoyed the most about putting it together was how just looking at the character next to their console made sense, like the way dogs supposedly look like their owners. So, without further adieu:

Joffrey – Wii – Rules the land, but many seek to defy him. Has broad reach, but not much respect.

Sansa – PS3 – Bold and naive. Thinks everyone will love her because of her noble bloodline.

Arya – Genesis – A dark horse with a rebellious spirit. Proved that she can hang with the boys.

Eddard – Dreamcast – Head of a strong household killed off too soon, many claim unjustly.

Jaime – PS1 – Brash and confident, with the strength to back it up. Dethroned previous ruler.

Tyrion – 3DS – Has a rough go at first, but gains power through cunning and persistence

Petyr – Xbox One – True motivations unclear. Purportedly powerful. Will spy on you.

Bran – Game Boy – Can’t do everything his big brothers can, but has other abilities that none of them have. Green dreams.

Cersei – Xbox 360 – Orchestrated the greatest seize of power for her family in recent history. Loved and feared in equal measure.

Jon – Xbox – Powerful for his years, but also awkward and a bit clunky. Wears black like it's going out of style.

Daenerys – PS4 – Descendant of once dominant dynasty bent of returning to power. Fan favorite.

Jorah – Vita – Desperate for affection. Best hope is to latch on to more respected up-and-comer.

White Walker – Wii U – Everyone has forgotten it exists except for a few, weirdly obsessed folks.

Stannis – N64 – Stubborn and traditionally-minded. Decided to go it alone, and has little outside support. Heard from infrequently.

Melisandre – N64 Expansion Pak – Dons a red hood and empowers her liege. Not really sure how she does what she does.

Tywin – PS2 – Powerful reputation with an enormous warchest. Decimates all whom he faces in combat.

Sam – Gamecube – Gets little credit for what he’s good at. Really into connectivity, but not a great communicator.

Theon – 3DO – Thinks he’s cool, but no one really likes or supports him.

Brienne – Saturn – An outlier, fierce and loyal. A bit awkward, but dependable for those that seek her out.

Robert – NES – Claimed the throne by force when the opportunity presented itself. Ended the old dynasty and began a new one.

Renly – PSP – Little sibling to powerful stalwart. Defenses are easily compromised.

Ygritte – Ouya – Free of the rules that most obey, an outsider of questionable credibility.

Varys – Kinect – Loyal to the realm, in service to his liege. Cordially bows to his master. Watches your every move.

Viserys – Virtual Boy – Comes from a strong pedigree, but squandered all goodwill with his off-putting manner.

Dragons – Steam Machines – Legends speak of their coming, but little is known outside of rumors and speculation claiming what they’re truly capable of. Could bring about a new era.

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Authentic Authenticity

"It's as close to the real thing as you can get without being there!" has become the philosophy behind use of the term "authenticity" as it pertains to video games. Notably, the word was used as part of a public relations strategy in promotion of the recently released modern military shooter, Medal of Honor: Warfighter (MoHW), which came under fire from critics citing laundry lists of features that detail the gulf between the game and real world combat situations. Amidst some other PR follies, developer Danger Close set the record straight on what they define as authentic in their game: weapon models, field equipment, and squad chatter, among other largely aesthetic categories. War games like those in the Medal of Honor, Tom Clancy, and Call of Duty franchises take criticism on issues concerning authenticity, but the vagueness of what makes a game "authentic" is not genre specific.

This semantic gray area is problematic when the word "authenticity" is co-opted for deployment by marketing teams in a fallacious, occasionally hypocritical manner, as was the case with MoHW. When you see a trailer for a game or hear a publisher's spokesperson hyping their upcoming title, it's in the service of selling a product to consumers. "Authenticity" is a buzzword, used primarily when speaking about how a game has adapted elements from another work or from real life. When potential players are told that a game is supposedly authentic, it's easy to react with skepticism. In most cases, using "authentic" as part of a marketing campaign for a video game either sets up players to think that they will actually have an authentic (insert game inspiration) experience when in fact the game only offers a visual sheen of realistic tropes, or it places the bar for authenticity so low that the game easily hits its mark. These possibilities will produce players who are either cynical toward game marketing or who develop lowered expectations for what qualifies as authentic, or both.

Contextual authenticity is a crutch when true historical reenactment is an impossibility. Since history happens one way, even if witnessed from multiple perspectives, it can pose a problem for game developers that seek to offer player agency in historical contexts. If you're designing a game set in 1944 where players command Allied forces as they storm the beaches of Normandy, you have to challenge players to succeed, but ultimately, a string of very specific actions need to happen for the sake of historical accuracy. One way to ensure that an event happens in a game is to narrowly script it, taking a certain amount of control away from the player. Commonly this results in plot devices such as non-interactive cutscenes, areas where you can't draw a weapon, locked doors, and forced prompts. These moments can add authenticity in a more cinematic execution, but they ignore the strengths of the video game medium.

Video games can present alternate, what-if histories that can offer a degree of insight, via roleplay, into various cause and effect relationships throughout time. In authentically reenacting history, the Civilization games wildly miss the mark, (Montezuma vs. Gandhi: not historically accurate, turns out) yet they are one of the few go-to titles for social science educators. All entries in the Civilization series put players into virtual leadership roles, asking them to consider and act upon variables consistent with the depicted eras of history to ensure the continued existence and prosperity of their citizenry. The lack of real-world chronological beholdenness unchains Civilization's gameplay from following a strict timeline, and instead focuses play on decision points and resource management that actual national leaders must consider, albeit in simplified form. Civilization has proven that it's not necessary to force a historically accurate narrative in a game in order to say something significant about history. In contrast, MoHW's use of the word "authentic" rang hollow not because the game lacks realism, but rather, the areas chosen to tout as authentic are ancillary to the nature and quality of the gameplay experience.

Some games merely claim authenticity, but true simulations are most likely to legitimately earn the title of "authentic." Simulations acquire this status because they focus on authentic mechanics above secondary aesthetic details. Take the Digital Combat Simulator (DCS) line of flight sims for example. In DCS games you sit inside a virtual cockpit and must flip all the switches and turn all the dials in the proper, real-world order to get your plane in the air, at which point you fly it using a control stick built to mimic the steering interface of an actual aircraft. This is an authentic video game adaptation of something that exists in the real world. You could say the same for the act of driving with a racing wheel in a game like Gran Turismo or even performing classic dance moves in front of a Kinect in Dance Central.

The aforementioned simulation mechanics have the benefit of unique controller interfaces that speak directly to the game experience instead of mapping actions to button presses on a DualShock. Control schemes are the first layer of abstraction from authenticity that most games have to tackle. Some players will never make it over that hurdle and will always note the artifice of the controller as an obstacle that makes otherwise realistic stories trivial or unbelievable. The fact that with standardized controllers the same physical actions are required of the player to accomplish wildly different tasks from one game to the next can amplify the inauthenticity of those mechanics. If pressing the "X" button means saying "Hi" to a character in one game and "stealth killing" a character with a knife in another, then the potential corollary meaning of pressing the "X" button is negated.

Even if authenticity can be achieved, to what end? Flight simulations are used to train would-be pilots and the US military has their own crop of combat simulators for tactics and strategy. There is a very direct relationship between playing a simulation and improving a real-world skill. The virtual act of killing, specifically gun violence, is at the real heart of the controversy surrounding consumer-ready war games and authenticity, not Danger Close taking some heat for a marketing pitch.

If first-person shooters (FPS) like MoHW were to explore more authentic mechanics they'd risk the ethical dilemma that players could get better at shooting real guns by playing their games. Light-gun games, which require players to hold plastic firearms and aim them at the screen, have been around for decades, and footage of them, framed accusingly, was included in many post-Columbine media packages about violence and video games alongside the now primitive-looking FPS pariah, Doom. Light-gun games have the potential to approach more authentic gun-shooting mechanics, but developers usually take measures to assure that the interactivity isn't "too authentic." In arcades, guns are painted bright colors or have sci-fi twists that serve to break the illusion of holding a real firearm, and the games themselves are comically over-the-top and formatted for short bursts of fluffy entertainment. No developer wants the kind of critical scrutiny that ends in lawsuits like those filed against id Software (creators of Doom) and other game companies in 2002, and it's clear that producing games that offer truly authentic gun-shooting mechanics would approach an ethical threshold that's yet to be crossed in mainstream gaming.

Without authentic mechanics, MoHW can only get so close to putting players "directly in the boots of the soldier," especially with the inclusion of a multiplayer mode that has more in common with football scrimmages than real warfare. In these multiplayer modes, the gloss of any overarching narrative or character motivation is replaced with the player's basic desire to win competitive matches and rank up their persistent statistics. It's much more like a sport than a military campaign. Modern military FPS games like MoHW succeed or fail at market by their multiplayer modes, leaving the "authentic" single player campaigns to be seen as bonuses, if played at all, by the most ardent of the genre's fanbase. These multiplayer modes are big business for mega-publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision (this whole discussion came from PR-talk, remember), scheduling new releases annually that only slightly tweak gameplay rather than disrupting the successful formula. When "team deathmatch" is going to be your game's most popular mode because it was that way last year, not only are you strictly obligated to a very specific control scheme, but it becomes very difficult to paint a picture of authentic, introspective wartime struggle when the most popular, time-engrossing section of your product screams otherwise.

There is room for games to approach the subject of authenticity from a multitude of credible angles, but above all else, the final product needs to be able to speak for itself and have something worthwhile to say. Games that are adapted from real life subjects and events, especially those striving for authenticity, should be held to high standards, both for accuracy and for the ethics of their social impact. MoHW's big mistake wasn't its mixture of real guns and unrealistic mechanics, it was billing itself as authentic and failing to deliver.

Reposted on Medium Difficulty

Originally posted on Low Cutoff

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Wii U as Portable Console: Lessons from Sega's Nomad

The Wii U has launched and Nintendo loyalists are busy testing out the console with their non-gaming loved ones. One of the big selling points of the system is its ability to play full games on the Gamepad controller's built-in touchscreen, without the need to turn on the TV. According to the marketing pitch, this feature frees up the TV for other members of the household and makes it possible to play Wii U games in otherwise TV-less rooms. Word on the street is that the Gamepad can be taken about 20 feet away from the console and still hold a strong enough connection to function. So, within a moderate range of the Wii U game box, the system has the ability to act as a portable home console video game system.

This is an exciting revelation, but not the first time something like this has been attempted. Sega's Nomad was a fully functional portable Genesis, released toward the end of the 16-bit era in 1995. The Nomad was short-lived, but it's easy to see some lessons that Nintendo could have taken from the system, and surprisingly, some missteps they failed to avoid.

Console and portable games have traditionally felt very distinct from one another, with portable games usually falling into one of two camps: those built uniquely for the on-the-go experience, focusing on short bursts of play, and games that act as little siblings or sidestories to their canonical console relatives. The Nomad's promise of portability for standard console titles brought a different pedigree of games to this market. I owned one, and often used it to play Sonic the Hedgehog 2 at my brother's basketball games. While there had been some decent portable Sonic games on the Game Gear, those titles never held a candle to to the mainline series on the Genesis.

The Wii U Gamepad allows portable gaming of full console games around the house, designed with an active, social household in mind. Had the Nomad been more successful, it could have set the precedent for this kind of family oriented gaming platform. The Nomad could be plugged into a TV for big-screen viewing, and had an on-board controller port for a second player to join in. Though if the Nomad was not attached to a TV a second player would have to look over the shoulder of whoever was holding the 3 inch screen (the original asynchronous multiplayer?), at least the there was the option. The Wii U Gamepad only offers a solo experience, at least for the time being.

One feature where the Wii U definitely has an advantage over the Nomad is in ergonomic design. Comparing the two is like putting an iPad next to one of those old, bulky cellphones from the 80s. The Nomad was shaped like a brick with a battery block containing 6 AAs stuck on its back, making the system kind of weigh like a brick too. The Wii U Gamepad is surprisingly light and features all manner of contours that make you feel like it was designed to be held by human hands. The Wii U's touchscreen is large and prominent in its design, while the Nomad's LCD monitor is a bit dwarfed by the rest of the machine.

The reports of short Wii U battery life are a bit troubling, but anything was likely to be an improvement over the Nomad's power storage woes. It seems the Wii U Gamepad can last anywhere from 3-5 hours depending on screen brightness, whereas you couldn't expect to last much more than 2 hours using the Nomad's rechargeable pack. However, considering that the Nomad was a full-on game system in handheld form as opposed to the Wii U's mere video relay, the Gamepad's stunted battery life is pretty underwhelming. That said, since the Wii U isn't expected to leave the house, Nintendo seems to be anticipating that AC power will be reasonably accessible if the situation calls for it.

The Nomad's failure was a product of circumstance as much as anything else. It was released at the tail end of the Genesis' lifespan as consumers rallied excitement for the upcoming 32-bit machines. The Genesis hardware was also widely recognized and often derided for its glut of unsupported add-ons like the Sega-CD and the 32X. The Nomad debuted behind these other peripherals and likely suffered from the resulting market fatigue and loss of credibility in Sega's ability to release competent supplemental hardware for their 16-bit machine. Additionally, if you had a 32X, you couldn't even hook it up to the Nomad because it blocked the AC output port.

The Wii U's Gamepad is poised for a greater chance of success. It's a necessary part of the standard Wii U experience, bundled in with the console's launch. The Gamepad is also multifunctional, making its ability to be a portable console not the sole make-or-break feature of the device. Since the Gamepad is billed as an at-home device, it's not up against the iPad in terms of portability. The Wii U Gamepad may not reach true portable console status since it can't leave the house, but it seems to recognize its limits and owns them. With the 3DS and Vita struggling to gain substantial market presence in the face of iOS and Android games, Nintendo certainly doesn't need to make a go at a true Nomad successor. Instead, Nintendo has wisely incorporated Nomad-like features into their Wii U Gamepad to make that controller incredibly versatile and adaptive to a plethora of home gaming situations.

Originally posted on Low Cutoff

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Deep Time (DJ Mix)

It's been nearly 3 years since I made a disco-house mix, but I finally put a sequel together. "Deep Time" is not totally pure disco, but everything at least carries a notable funky vibe (slap bass, disco strings, etc.). I wanted a chance to share some of my favorite tracks of the year ("Inspector Norse"), and also return to a few of those artists from "Building Sensation." This new mix runs almost exactly an hour long, so strap your dancing shoes tight. Thanks for listening.

Gold Skulltulla - Deep Time

Tracklist:

The Avalanches - A Different Feeling (Paperclip People Remix - Avalanches Edit)

MK - Burning (95 Mix)

Ejeca - Pushed

Mungolian Jetset - Smells Like Gasoline

Fort Romeau - Jack Rollin'

Shit Robot - Space Race

Todd Terje - Inspector Norse

The Avalanches - A Different Feeling (Paperclip People Remix - Avalanches Edit)

The Rapture - Sail Away (Cut Copy Remix)

Hercules & Love Affair - Falling

Miami Horror - I Look To You

In Flagranti - Effective Placebo Affect

Holy Ghost! - Hold On

Lovelock - Maybe Tonight (Morgan Geist Vocal Edit)

Golden Bug - Disco Sensation (Bonus Beats)

Jacques Renault - Tuxedo Dance

Escort - Cocaine Blues (Greg Wilson Remix)

Maya Jane Coles - Contradiction

Strip Steve - All The Time

Daft Punk - Something About Us (Cherokee Remix)

Hot Toddy - Down To Love

Roisin Murphy - Simulation

Kenneth Bager - Fragment Two (The First Picture) (Jesse Rose Remix)

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Recap: Bennett Foddy at NYU Game Center

Last night at NYU Game Center, indie developer and ex-Cut Copy bassist Bennett Foddy gave a presentation wherein he detailed several core principles he strives for when creating games. If somehow you've never played any of Foddy's games, do yourself a favor and head over to his website where you can play them all for free. Foddy is most known for QWOP, the game where you use four keyboard buttons in rhythm to propel an Oympic runner 100 meters. Or at least that's the premise. You'll probably spend most of your time banging the runner's head against the ground trying to take your first step. The results are quite hilarious as limbs fly all over the place, but there's always a modicum of understanding that you're figuring out how the system works and could maybe, actually get the runner to, well, run.

QWOP has gained a high enough profile to be visible in mainstream pop culture (making a cameo in this year's season premiere of NBC's The Office, for one), but Foddy's other games operate in similar fashion, enlightening players of the physical actions needed to control the characters in the games. The immediacy of these games, one of the subjects Foddy's lecture focused on, allows for even a simple button press to result in a satisfying in-game consequence. In CLOP, a QWOP-like game with a unicorn, each of the four control buttons kicks out one of the unicorn's corresponding four legs. The animation of even one leg kicking out is so unlike anything that a real horse would do that I can't help but crack up at the mere sight of it, not to mention once you really get the beast "going." I found it interesting that Foddy didn't directly mention humor in his discussion, since I find it to be part of the prominent appeal of his titles.

Foddy's outlook on game design shares much in common with contemporary art practice, conjuring the notion that there is a rich middleground between the two that takes into account player interactivity and artistic practice in corollary measure. In games, designers have to choose their controller/platform. In art, artists select their medium, which for the past half century could acceptably be pretty much anything. Only recently have game designers been fiddling with new ways of using traditional and standardized controllers in new and exciting ways (see Johan Sebastian Joust). Yet, art has often struggled to stretch out of the austere, institutional art/viewer relationship by limiting patrons to actions like "standing," "looking," and "walking around," A game/artwork that bridges the gap between the two would likely also confront these issues from both sides. Foddy seems to be on this track as he's been hanging out with some of the JS Joust creators, developing some kind of trampoline-powered Move controller game.

The principles Foddy presented weren't without their own self-conflict though, making them more aspirations than hard and fast rules. For example, if a designer is creating a game that asks players to hold DualShock controllers backwards, a prompt to inform them of how this is supposed to work might be needed, but that would sacrifice some degree of immediacy. A minor criticism of Journey was that an outline of a controller with some arrows is displayed at the beginning of the game to let players know that they can tilt the controller to rotate the camera. The necessity of these sorts of prompts is debatable; the point being that there is no one correct solution. However, I think Foddy would argue that it's best to attempt the game that adheres to principles of immediacy and fully-integrated worlds, and only make concessions when there don't seem to be any better options.

Foddy came off as a game designer on the bleeding edge of the medium, in terms of his games as well as his production practice. He said that he hopes to show the trampoline game at Indiecade, so keep an eye out for that. In the meantime you can always try and get to the top of this wall. Um, good luck?

Photo by Finn Taylor for Wired

This blog was originally posted here.

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Recap: Soundplay Game Jam

Last night at the New Museum, Pitchfork and Kill Screen teamed up to offer an evening of free drinks, video games, and music. The main impetus for the get together was an extension of the Soundplay project that commissions indie game talent to craft interactive experiences based on songs from indie musicians. Yes, the whole thing was pretty "indie," but that's not a bad thing. This particular event was structured around a game jam that happened over the two days prior. Four teams had 48 hours to produce games based off of music from the band Passion Pit's new album Gossamer. The night of the party was a chance for attendees to play all of the Soundplay titles, including the ones made during the jam, while also taking in a live performance by Chromatics and a DJ set by Oneohtrix Point Never. Since you're the sort of person who would read a blog entry like this, that billing should all sound pretty great.

I sat down to play all of the game jam titles, and though all four mostly matched the upbeat, candy-colored vibe of the band, each took markedly different gameplay approaches to the source material. In the first one I played, you control some Katamari-looking dudes and press the spacebar to juggle approaching objects. Higher scores are awarded for the more objects you keep off the ground until certain checkpoints in the song. The next game had a flowery, psychedelic setting with a figure on a tightrope that walks towards you as you toggle the "left" and "right" keys for balance. If you fall off, the song stops and you must start over. Beside that game was one that told the story of a sad bunny that you cover with candy to make happy again. Shelves of sweets are on both sides of the stationary rabbit, and you drag and drop them into place. The candy blocks have physics programmed into them, so making a perfect stack that doesn't tip over was quite the challenge. Music played in the background, but at climax points of the song, a quake strikes and probably undoes all your hard work. Lastly, the fourth game was a forced-scrolling don't-hit-the-walls navigation exercise that seemed like it was supposed to be incorporating video from the computer's webcam in the background, but it wasn't working when I played it.

While tonally these games kept in line with the vibe of Passion Pit music, they seemed more inclined to simply take inspiration from the music than to really incorporate it as a part of the mechanics. The notion of games as promotional material for music in the vein of music videos is a concept in its early stages. Should these games be "music games" as we understand them? They could take inspiration from the likes of Guitar Hero and Rock Band and challenge players to replicate the songs they hear. They could draw from Dance Dance Revolution and Dance Central and co-opt body movements that correspond to beats. Recently, Soundshapes has further evolved concepts born out of games like Rez where playing a more traditional genre game, such as a platformer or shooter, generates music just by going about as usual. But we're talking about game jam games here, and design docs that can be written and delivered quickly and completely are paramount. I did really like it when the music triggered screen-shake in the rabbit game though.

Nothing against the games, but I got the feeling from the crowd that the Chromatics performance was probably the main draw for most. I can't really ague with that sentiment either since Johnny Jewel et al put on a moody, energetic show. Readers of this blog can look forward to me gushing about Kill For Love come year-end list time as it's definitely one of the best albums of 2012. I didn't stay for too much of Oneohtrix Point Never's set up on the gorgeous 7th floor sky view terrace, but stuck around long enough to hear "Ghost City" mixed into some hardcore Goa trance, which was pretty amazing. The only thing that would have made the event better would have been the New Museum opening access to its Ghosts in the Machine exhibition, which would have been a nice pairing with all the games and electronic music happenings.

I'm told the game jam games will be available to play online hopefully by the end of the month along with a short documentary about their development process. I'll be writing an in-depth piece on the existing Soundplay games in the near future.

:images 1 & 2 taken by me; Chromatics pic by Eriz Avissar for Pitchfork:

:this was originally posted here. I don't know why the captions on GB don't work for me:

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Recap: Games For Change 2012

The video game industry catches flak from individuals claiming that games are a waste of time, or worse, a detriment to the socio-intellectual functioning of those who play them. It's assuring to know that there is some semblance of luminaries in the field with researched findings to the contrary. Many of these people convene annually for the Games For Change Festival, now in it's 9th year. My attendance at the event (my first time) has come and gone, but what have developers, educators, and gamers taken from the discussions, forums, and demos? I can only speak for myself, so allow me to recount the conference in daily breakdowns. I'm not going to cover every single event that took place, and instead focus on the one's that left the greatest impression on me. The events during the festival-proper on Tuesday and Wednesday were all livestreamed, so you can view archived video of most all of the major presentations given on those days.

Monday

The first day was really more of a "Day 0" since it was billed as a pre-festival summit. Two groups sponsored simultaneous dockets spanning the entire day, each with specific focuses. The Federal Games Working Group (FGWG) focused on intersections between the gaming industry and the government. For what it's worth in the interest of disclosure, I am a member of this group through my Smithsonian affiliation. However, I spent the majority of the summit day at the AMD Foundation's sessions on teaching game design to youth, which are more immediately relevant to my job as an educator.

The AMD session began with a tepid panel discussion featuring the day's lineup of presenters. There was too much surface-deep talk about why games are great for education, and how that relates to their specific organization. It was as if the introduction was the panel, which I understand the purpose of in concept, but it didn't lead anywhere interesting except for a couple decent audience questions that pointed to case study experiences. Based on the crowd of attendees, I think it was safe to assume that everyone was already on board for using games in education, yet the panel was keen on reiterating this inherent understanding. Perhaps this was information that one could take back to their traditionally entrenched institutions in hopes of better conveying more progressive stances on games in education. Perhaps.

Next up was a walkthrough of Gamestar Mechanic, a game design learning tool that removes coding and focuses purely on the design process. It's meant as a low-barrier introduction to these basics, targeted at the middle-school set. The audience was prompted to play through a "level" for teachers that acted as a tutorial. I found the tools pretty impressive in terms of making a side-scrolling or top-down game. The tools for feedback and iteration were the most impressive aspect. Classmates can play one another's games and leave comments on notes in-game ala Dark Souls. When you switch between play and edit modes on the fly, you can act on feedback notes immediately rather than having to switch to a disconnected editor.

GameSalad tools

The Activate! presentation in the afternoon similarly demoed a game design platform for classroom implementation, but this time it was GameSalad. This was the presentation I was most excited for during the summits because I'm developing a workshop framework that uses that very program. I first learned about GameSalad when it was mentioned in coverage of various game jams as a tool that anyone could learn to use. Objectively speaking, the Activate! presentation may have leaned too heavily on GameSalad how-tos, but from my point of reference, it was exactly the sort of information I was looking for. GameSalad definitely feels like a step up from Gamestar in terms of complexity, but even though it gets into code writing, you never have to actually "write" code, just use the drag/drop interface to place pre-programmed commands where you want them and adjust sliders accordingly. Using some ready-made assets, audience members created a functional versions of Breakout in a mere half hour. GameSalad seems like a powerful and empowering tool for high school students or even adults looking to dip their toes in the game design pool.

I jumped back over to the other summit at this point to catch up with some colleagues and shuttle off to attend a FGWG meet n' greet with some game designers who would be speaking during the festival the following two days. I was pleased with my summit choices, but couldn't help wondering if I'd have enjoyed some of the FGWG talks more. I read live tweets as they popped up during concurrent sessions, which seemed intriguing, though I appreciated how grounded and direct the AMD presentations were. Having attended Digital Media Learning Conference (DML) earlier this year, I grew a little tired of the "big philosophical monologue then narrow case study" dynamic. I looked back at the end of those days at DML with little to bring home and implement. After the AMD summit, I definitely had pathways.

Tuesday

As festival Day 1 began, everyone filtered into an auditorium-style theater, tailor-made for presentations instead of the banquet halls and side rooms of the summits. TED Talk alumnus Jane McGonigal held the opening keynote position and delivered an engaging presentation the covered self-help, design theory, neuroscience, and personal struggle. The easiest reference for Jane McGonigal's game design work is Halo 2's I Love Bees alternate reality game/marketing campaign, where she was the community lead. The driving focus of her speech was in alignment with the philosophy behind her latest game: SuperBetter, which supports players as they build real-world resilience. McGonigal spoke of an incident where she suffered severe head trauma and was faced with a situation that seemed to present her with "no reason to live." In order to help her get through day-to-day existence, she began to gamify her life. She would set challenges for herself that would take concentrated effort, but could realistically be achieved, and used this tactic as a significant contribution to her recovery. McGonigal wants SuperBetter to be a game where players can improve themselves in similar ways, but without having to undergo trauma. I don't know all of the technical details about how you're supposed to "play" the game, but the design philosophy was touching and impactful, leaving me with a desire to explore SuperBetter further at some point.

Before lunch, Cow Clicker creator Ian Bogost took the stage to discuss games as tools for journalism. "Newsgames," as he dubbed them, are games that can be played to consume news stories in a different way than other forms of media. Bogost detailed the history of the relationship between traditional news media and games, and particularly how the downfall of newspapers and emergence of Internet and TV news has squandered the most all intersections of games and news. Bogost is part of a team creating a newsgame tool called Game-O-Matic that allows users to almost instantly create a game based around a news story. The instantaneous element is important since game design normally takes the effort of a small team and multiple hours, and news obviously changes much more quickly. Newsgames need to be more akin to photojournalism in their accessibility and promptness.

The Game-O-Matic presents you with a blank slate where you can make a word-web of nouns and attach them together with verb-laden arrows. The tool only provides a preset list of verbs, but through a little interpretive reasoning, you should be able to find something that will generate the desired behavior. Once this is setup, you simply click a big red "create" button and poof, your newsgame has a ruleset and is ready to go. Sample games were generated using Mayor Michael Bloomberg, soda, and obesity as the elements, to amusing results. By default the insta-games just use colored dots with text labels, but you can sub in icons as you wish. Gameplay options appeared simple, consisting of mechanics that have been around for a long time like "collect all of something," or "exit the screen to the right," but there could be obstacles depending on how complex you make the relationships between objects. Does this lend Game-O-Matic particularly well to handling dourly serious news content? Probably not, but it seems adept at just about subject you can shake an editorial cartoon at.

Sweatshop screenshot

A round of game design case studies was offered in the afternoon, highlighting titles that deliberately seek to be agents of change, each in their own way. The two that stuck out the most to me were both British in origin: Sweatshop and The End. Sweatshop is a tower defense-style game except you have to put together consumer products on an assembly line. The game gets increasingly complex as different workers specialize in different steps of the process and you must keep them hydrated and productive, taking on the role of floor manager. The End is a puzzle platformer that borrows symbolism from various religious traditions in an effort to inform the player about these belief systems. As the name implies, there's a particular focus on the afterlife, and the game has gridded out some historical figures so that depending on how you answer certain questions posed by "boss" characters you are shown to be leaning closer to say Churchill or Einstein.

Having played, but not completed either of these games, I can't say anything with absolute conclusion, but they both do an excellent job of showing effective socially conscious game design, and also showcasing where these kinds of games can fall short. Sweatshop is stylish, witty, and quite fun to play, but I could see the name and subject matter putting people off outright. The End provides an interesting service in its alignment of like-minded historical figures, but I found the platforming gamelplay to be rather rote, even if it did look pretty. Both games also pop up with blocks of text after completing levels that inform you of certain real-world implications or examples of how the game reflects things outside of itself. I imagine the vast majority of players just skip these over, seeing as their tone seems to be coming from outside the game, even if they put it in a word bubble of a recognizable character. I'd be interested to read about the measurable results of these games since they seem both difficult to quantify and boldly ambitious with their goals.

After a day-closing keynote from Nolan Bushnell, everyone sauntered over to a nearby bar for the opening night party featuring free PBRs and a few Kinect games (nothing I hadn't seen before: Dance Central, Sesame Street, and Happy Action Theater). The casual atmosphere and light socializing was a pleasant cap on a full day of sitting in an auditorium listening to people talk while furiously rapping on my iPad with my fingertips.

Wednesday

ASU professor James Paul Gee kicked off the final festival day with a charge for the development of what he termed "Big 'G' Games." This charge calls for the creation of games that truly foster learning by both existing as pieces of software, but also connecting players with real-world people and spaces. Gee claims that to have a good Game, you'll need to provide or facilitate an affinity space (somewhere for people to commune, discuss, problem solve, and innovate) and also follow about 20 or so principles that he went on to detail with the rest of his talk. One of the big points was to focus on not just cognitive intelligence, but also emotional and social intelligences. This was a rallying point for Gee against traditional education systems, which he sees as offering excruciatingly narrow pathways for growth, and I believe he'd argue that growth to be unsupportive of all three realms of intelligence.

"Passion" was a topic that recurringly surfaced during Gee's talk as well. For a game to be a Game, it, like all good art, should inspire passion within those who choose to engage with it. He cited modding communities as people who've developed passion for a game and seek to change it for the better in some way. This behavior is not by coincidence, but rather the tools have been laid out by designers for willing individuals to pick them up and use them. In cases like this the original designers influence over the game will at some point become obsolete, and the collective intelligence of players will push the game into new territories. As designers, the proposition of relinquishing so much control over your creation may be scary, but crafting a Game that encourages this to happen actually presents much bolder and more dynamic learning opportunities for players.

Way screenshot

One of the talks that I was most looking forward to was Chris Bell's, who has gained a great deal attention for his work on Journey, and who's previous game, Way, was nominated for a number of awards at Games For Change this year and ended up taking GOTY honors. I hadn't seen Bell's GDC speech, which this one supposedly borrowed from quite a bit, so I was going in fresh. His talk was about friendship, and how games can seek to bring people together as successfully as they can incite competition (I don't think he'd want to imply that the two are opposites though). Bell recounted a touching story that he claims inspired him not just to create innovative game mechanics, but also think differently about basic communication systems that human use to interact with one another. In brief, he found himself very lost in a gigantic fish market in Japan and in need of returning back to his bus in 5 minutes. He had no map, no phone service, and no conversational command of the Japanese language. Bell did have a photo of the shrine where the bus was supposed to be and knew how to say "excuse me," but that was it. An older woman heard him, recognized his look of panic, took his hand and ran with him to the shrine where the bus was, arriving just in time for Bell to board.

Bell spoke of how this incident stuck with him, and the influence of that day in the fish market is explicitly evident in both Way and Journey. More features doesn't necessarily equal better features. This isn't an argument about prioritizing resources, though that one could be made, but rather that meta-game and communication mechanics are often taken for granted, as if there's one path that can be taken towards optimal systems. With this standard in place, it's easy to judge your feature set's range and project resources accordingly, but you'd also be failing to acknowledge all of the options. Both Journey and Way use what have been deemed "limited" communication systems for player interaction, but Bell argues that this actually provides a more stable groundwork for potential friendships to blossom with strangers than the ways online games primarily use headsets and implement player-to-player dialogue. I was able to interpret a lot of these intentions on the part of Bell by simply playing the games he's worked on, but it was that story of the older Japanese woman in the fish market that really surprised me and made me hopeful for the future of the medium, hearing that leading game designers are taking inspiration from those kinds of experiences.

Having gone to school for art, I kind of relish opportunities to participate in formal critique sessions. While I didn't get to go on stage or anything, I did get to witness a Demo Spotlight (not archived) wherein four developers put themselves up on the chopping block in front of an auditorium filled with onlookers, while the likes of Kellee Santiago, Dan White, and the Executive Director of Zynga's philanthropic arm, asked questions, offered advice, and handed out critique. It seemed kind of scary for some of the developers whose projects were either not that far along or required some convincing to get the panel on board. One game was Zombie Yoga for Kinect, which just by the title is a "strike 3, you're out" kind of situation for me. It seemed like the Zombie Yoga team's main goal was to make a game that adds visuals to illustrate what the body/mind is doing with different yoga poses. I don't know anything about yoga, and I don't want to, but the game showed in a way that made even that baseline concept come off as a target that was not exactly being hit. I imagine the Demo Spotlight was more helpful for those teams than ones that have their packages nearly together. An iPad game called Popchilla's World, a digital learning tool for autistic children, seemed like a solid, well-conceived package. Though, since special needs learning is such a specific realm of education, it seemed difficult for the panel to conjure questions of real critique. I get a bit of a nostalgic trip out of seeing those kinds of honest discussions happen though, so I was pleasantly surprised by their inclusion in the festival.

By Tuesday evening, I'd seen dozens of lectures, played a handful of unique indie games, and gotten to hang out with some pretty smart people. I love to hear about how the world of video games is expanding beyond the basic confines of human-computer interfaces, and in particular those efforts that are seeking to improve the world he have. We know that making successful games is difficult, and that making games that instigate social change is equally, if not more difficult, so imagine how tough it is to make one that does both. It's a daunting task to consider, but conferences like Games For Change do their part to retain a sense of optimism that such goals are achievable.

This blog was originally posted here. Apologies for the wonky formatting on GB

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Aftertouch (DJ Mix)

Different musical styles find common ground in their bpms in the latest GS mix: "Aftertouch." The 130 bpm vicinity seems like the place to be these days, and I'm happy to oblige as it gives me a chance to smoothly merge a wider variety of stuff than I usually do. "Aftertouch" sits pretty at an hour and a quarter in length and is chock full of recent heavy hitters and some fun callbacks. I mean, I couldn't write this without trying to back it up in practice, right? Hope you like it, and thanks for listening.

Gold Skulltulla - Aftertouch

Tracklist:

Orbital - Never

Surkin - End Morning (Das Glow Remix)

Objekt - Porcupine

Randomer - Scruff Box

Dark Sky - F-Technology

Danger - 4h30

Tim Berg - Alcoholic

Sinden - Keep It 1000 (Duke Dumont Remix)

Shadow Dancer - Second City

Blawan - Peaches (Coronation)

Salva - Yellobone (LOL Boys Remix)

Congorock - Ivory (Laidback Luke Edit)

Nero - Reaching Out (Fred Falke Remix)

Louis La Roche - The Wall (J Paul Getto Remix)

Russ Chimes - Helix

SBTRKT - Pharoahs

Boddika & Joy Orbison - Dun Dun

Basement Jaxx - Dracula (DJ Edit)

Etienne De Crecy - Beatcrush

ZZT - Vulkan Alarm (Proxy Remix)

Bobmo - Hardbells (Strip Steve & Das Glow Remix)

Handbraekes - Riho

VCMG - Single Blip

Scuba - The Hope

M83 - Reunion (Mylo Remix)

Boys Noize - Adonis

Bicep - $tripper

Addison Groove - Sooperlooper

Photek - Glamourama

Maya Jane Coles - Parallel Worlds

Fort Romeau - One Night

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Now Is The Time: Photek - Solaris

A quick glance through Rupert Parkes' discography shows a visible gap in output between 2000 and 2011. Parkes, better known as Photek, is a drum 'n bass legend, crafting a signature sound in the late 90s that sounded unlike the rest of the genre fare. In interviews, Parkes states that he's remained busy throughout the "downtime," collaborating with the likes of Trent Reznor and producing for other acts and film scores. For those of us who are primarily album-listeners though, he dropped off the map. Yes, he did release a compilation of tracks in 2007 called Form & Function II, but that's more of a collection of scattered material than an actual album, and I just don't think those tracks are any good.

As of 2011, Photek seems to have returned to the scene in full force, and by that I mean the popular club scene, not drum 'n bass. In fact he's sidled up to the post-dubstep bass kickers more than anything with his Aviator and Avalanche EPs, plus collaborations with current darlings of the moment FaltyDL, Boddika, and Pinch. So, prior to this recent turn, what's the last product of significance from Photek? It's 2000's Solaris: an exploration of house and techno with only a slight tinge of the dnb sound that Photek staked his name on. Strangely, Solaris comes off as a strong precursor to the kinds of post-dubstep sounds produced by Joy Orbison et al.

I was very hot-and-cold on Solaris when it debuted. I had grown into Parkes' paranoid "intelligent" dnb tropes: cold, complex rhythms evoking imagery of alien overseers in a world of unflinching surveillance (further proof). Solaris has hints and touches of this mood throughout, but with a new sun-drenched sheen. Opener "Terminus" launches into action with the sound of an airplane flyby, which when combined with the crystal blue waters on the album cover, transports the listener squarely to the tropics. The differences between a vocal house track like "Mine to Give" and 1998's slinky "Knitevision" are stark, and my allegiances to the latter were clear. I got the feeling that most other Photek fans felt the same as I, but mobbish dissent has a tendency to be much louder than curious enthusiasm. Pitchfork has removed their old review of Solaris from their site, but a snippet still remains on its Metacritic page. Read for yourself; it's not flattering.

Photek's maneuver with Solaris draws its fair share of parallels to contemporary electronic music, making me slower to judge similar movements by other artists and allowing me to listen to fresh tracks with a renewed historical perspective. One could argue that Scuba's latest full length, Personality, is 2012's Solaris. In both cases, the producer crafted an album that warmed up to more organic, human textures as well as potential dancefloor crossover instead of being mostly for headphone mood-setting. Likewise, Personality has been much maligned by UK dubstep purists for being, well, a techno house album. I think Personality is a weaker work for Scuba, but after revisiting Solaris, perhaps it just needs some time to ripen. Will we still have mp3s in 2024?

On the other end of the spectrum, I come back to a song like "Glamourama" and think it would be a perfect B-side to a Joy Orbison and Boddika collaboration, producers of some of my favorite tracks from the past couple years. How is it that an album as seemingly unimpactful as Solaris could have been a strong enough influence to shape sounds that would surface more than a decade later? Due to Photek pairing up with some of the new talents, I assume there must be some reverence there, but remain skeptical of how far it goes. The reactions to then-contemporary trends likely have had a more apparent impact. Consider that Photek's brand of drum 'n bass was very isolated and moody compared to the majority of dnb bangers of the time, extremely similar to the atmospherics of early branching paths of dubstep like Burial. The aggressive angle of American dubstep came through after Burial made his initial splash, actually putting the reactionary shoe on the other foot from Photek's late 90s situation. In both cases though, the next step was to invite house influences to shed light in bleak dnb and dubstep's dark corners.

Current Photek seems to have caught up to himself and I'm excited to see what he comes out with next. In the meantime, Solaris deserves a replay. It's an album that, for those willing to suspend disbelief, sounds amazingly "now." And I really mean "now" because the tides of these trends shift so quickly. Here's to a late-2012 trip-hop revival! You heard it here first.

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Drifting (DJ Mix)

I know I've been diversifying the kinds of posts on this blog, but I never wanted that to come at the sacrifice of creating new mixes. Regardless of how it has come to pass, I haven't given listeners and readers a fresh mix in close to 8 months. Well, here's the latest one off the decks; I'm calling it "Drifter." It's just over an hour of pulsing techno/house, full of some tunes I've had my eyes on for months. Thanks for listening, and rest assured the next batch won't take near this long. Enjoy.

Gold Skulltulla - Drifter

Tracklist:

John Talabot - So Will Be Now... (feat. Pional)

Luomo - How You Look

FaltyDL - Atlantis

John Roberts - Glass Eights

Gui Boratto - Destination Education

Lone - Re-Schooling

Junior Boys - Banana Ripple (The Field Remix)

Motor City Drum Ensemble - Lonely One

Soul Clap - Kissing Game

Isolee - Thirteen Times An Hour

John Roberts - Ever Or Not

Virgo Four - Let The Music Play

Tom Trago - Dubtopia

Jon McMillion - Saw You Looking Up (Sam Propers U Got That Look Mix)

Para One - Toadstool (Jesse Rose Made To Play Dub)

Tensnake - Something About You

Floating Points - ARP3

Robag Wruhme - Wemmel

Ellen Allien - Ever

Joy O - Jels

SCB - Loss

Julio Bashmore - Ask Yourself (Midland Remix)

Terence Fixmer - Phantoms

John Tejada - Farther And Fainter

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