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All posts for the month May, 2008

Yesterday's cover story on Gamasutra was an article I wrote called Designing Happiness, about combining happiness research and game design. Please check it out!

I'm very happy to see design mature from throwing opinionated spitwads at glass to see what sticks to the discipline that it is becoming. It seems like after the Silver Age of gaming in this country, the dedicated designer role disappeared for a while. It wasn't a bad thing, as it forced designers to master other disciplines, to become more technical or more artistic, to gain a more tangible role than the kind that hackers and table-top dungeon masters had. And now, armed with some dangerous knowledge, game design is seizing it's own role again. I think some practices in the past gave pure game design a bad name, but that will change.

In this evolution, I see the next step of it as attuning the plentiful principles of game design into both a science in itself, and a substrate for other sciences. Philosophical taxonomists like Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen did the former in Rules of Play, finding the core features of what games unique systems. Their book helped game designer know ourselves. My article was a small step towards knowing others. With the science of game design defined, I think we should apply them in context, find our motives and our audiences, and cross-reference the vast knowledge of other fields. As long as games are designed for a player, and that player is human, then all the other realms of science that actively seek to improve human life are relevant.

I selfishly "borrowed" the Wii Fit board at work for the long Memorial holiday, although it was more like grand larceny with the kind of looks people gave when I called shotgun. And boy was I sorry to give it back today. I called every single store I could think of, and many no one has ever thought of, and places were sold out within an hour or two. Fry's Electronics emptied their hoard of 80 in three hours. Nintendo stock, Nintendo stock.

Like all things Nintendo makes, if you try it with an open mind and the intention to find something enjoyable, you usually will. The Wii Fit board was no exception, delivering a level of fun and intangible feelgood that I never expected in the three months I had the opportunity to place a pre-order. Along with the Mii channels, Wii Sports, Everybody Votes, and their Brain Age games, the Wii Fit board capitalizes on something that Nintendo has dominated to great commercial success: our desire to discuss ourselves. Everything about the Wii Age and the Brain Age rankings, the nifty progress graphs, the popularity contests, etc. are about finding the personal information we're secretly dying to examine and share. It's that famous saying that our favorite subject is ourselves.

So does it work?

Well, my sore abs, bruised feet, and Xstine's whole aching body can attest that it definitely does more than we ever thought a video game capable of. There is no doubt that with regular use, it can make you fit. That's not to say you can bulk up, or run marathons, but for the average inactive potato, it's great to work out in the fun and comfort of your own living room.

To all those parents out their shocked that the game told your precious spawn that they were overweight or obese… yeah, your kid is probably fat. Or you didn't read the part in the manual where it explicitly states that BMI is not an accurate index if your kid is muscled from all the sports they supposedly do. And most importantly, you haven't taught your kids that their self-image should never be dependent on the non-judgemental conclusions of a mindless toy. Unless your child really is "big-boned," promise.

This post is going to attempt pulling three disparate subjects I wanted to talk about into one coherent rant… ready?

I’m savagely disappointed in John McCain, my candidate of choicelessness, and was dismayed to hear Michael Hollick’s complaints about being underpaid for his voice acting role as the main character of Grand Theft Auto IV. These happened within a week of each other, and got me incensed by how this country is dominated by populist feel-good, and not rational understanding.

McCain, along with the hypocritical bitch whose husband I’ve already written about, is pushing for a Gas Tax Holiday paid for by money the government doesn’t have (until it taxes it out of the people). Like the biodiesel fad that has led to mass starvation in worldwide food shortages, it stokes that unjustified indignation people have who think Big Oil is plundering the common man. Meanwhile, Hollick, telling the NY Times of the “mere” $100,000 he made voicing Nico Bellic, made the presumptuous remark, saying “But it’s tough, when you see Grand Theft Auto IV out there as the biggest thing going right now, when they’re making hundreds of millions of dollars, and we don’t see any of it.”

I’ve been reading Atlas Shrugged recently, after a debate with a co-worker where he felt I didn’t fully understand Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy and had represented it unfairly in my Bioshock article. After reading it, I’ve realized that I was more right than I ever knew. She created a complete strawman for her Atlas’ and now I know I can’t point out any flaw in her logic if I’m in the same room as her fans/cultists. But I did gain an appreciation for how deeply she feels for the great men and women who are assaulted for their wealth and power by the very people who depend on it.

And I have a similar if less fervent feeling for Big Oil. Yes I’m going to defend them. Do you people know that Big Oil has had a declining profit margin since Standard Oil? That Big Oil today has a lower profit margin (7-9%) than most other industries (look up the highest yourself)? And that’s without the reinvestment into infrastructure people damn them for! Did you know that the government’s gasoline taxes rake in twice as much as Big Oil revenues?

But Big Oil has made so much money! They should give back to the people, cried the looters! Did you know that if you graph Big Oil’s “huge” profits to oil consumption, the correlation damns no one but the oil-gobbling people ourselves? Did you know that Big Oil isn’t even that big? Exxon (the largest of Big Oil) ranks 14th largest in the world, the biggest being ARAMCO which is 12 times its size! Sure, let’s return Big Oil to the mercy of the people, let’s just make it state-owned… like the 13 other oil giants in the world that dwarf “Big” Oil.

So when Hollick says it’s hard to watch GTA make millions, isn’t he right? It’s not like he signed a contract agreeing to all these terms, nor had any idea of the popularity of the world’s best-selling game beforehand. Clearly he was misled. He should have protested the obvious exploitation by letting another unknown actor take the $100,000 blow that was merely better than average for opportunity starved voice actors whose video game work isn’t protected by their own selfless union. :rolleyes:

Where Ayn Rand was wrong was her trust in the utilitarian nobility of the elites in capitalism, a trust not so different than the trust in the working man found in her nemesis: socialism. But her dangerously seductive philosophy was birthed from a real and tragic irony. If you run a business, shall I punish you when people can’t get enough of your product? When the people force profits upon you, shall I force you to give back charitably? Shall I take your right to pursue profit in the name of National Security, along with wire-tapping and waterboarding?

So then, tell me what right Hollick has to feel anymore pain than the hundreds of other people who worked far more for far less pay and fame, whose efforts in anonymity made Nico Bellic possible? Tell me what right Hollick has to the millions GTA made, when any number of elements in that game could have become the clincher to its appeal? Did anyone buy GTA because Michael Hollick was starring in it?

Then tell me what right we have to demand Big Oil’s morality at our feet, when it is us who drank in the prosperity of energy irresponsibility until the mirage began to fade?

The two big swaths of entertainment for us this past week has been Iron Man (which Xstine and I saw for a combined 5 times!) and, of course, Grand Theft Auto 4.

Ah, GTA4… I quickly got bored of the original Playstation one, but somehow this latest entry has really brought back the fun. THere is a certain threshold that the right amount of variety crosses to give you the feeling of an infinitely rich world, and they were finally able to pull it off. Don't get me wrong, there are still obvious repetition in peds and vehicles, and the facial animation isn't nearly as well done as people seem to think, but all is forgiven the moment you enter this beautiful game. They've set a standard in time-of-day lighting, panoramas, and sheer environmental variety. Every part of town has it's own flavor reflecting the virtual "realities" of the local economy, history, and people. It's as close to a living breathing city as we have in video games.

The gameplay interests in a different way. Sometimes, the missions can be unforgivingly hard since the camera is utterly obtuse, and the controls are a mash-up of schemas that just couldn't get along. I suppose they had no choice, but there is certainly little elegance in getting your protagonist Nico Bellic to do a wide range of mundane to violent actions. Somehow, the sandbox play eases up the difficulty scaling by letting you go on murderous tangents whenever you feel frustration rising. It's very self-regulating. I may be en route to a critical mission when an off-the-cuff remark from a sassy pedestrian will send me into a rampage, and an hour later I've accomplished nothing but a trail of bodies. What better way to take out my frustrations at repeated mission failings.

That lack of progress is a bit tiring, and the game's punishment system is too binary (being arrested is worse than dying because you get all weapons stripped?), and the saving is a penalty itself (you can't save mid-mission, you can't quit missions, and you only have one place in a huge town to save). But for once I can overlook fundamental gameplay flaws because the game isn't just polished, it *is* polish. From the endless webpages you can browse to a huge amount of television and radio content, there is no shortage of quality satire of every aspect of our real lives. There's too much to absorb that it's almost paralyzing.

There is even an in-game joke referencing idiot attorney extraordinaire Jack Thompson, who oh-so-cleverly phoned into NPR to voice his misguided attack on the game's content. Unfortunately, the gamer correspondent on the show made for pitiful defense. Gamers need to stop masturbating over the game's features and start talking about the issues intelligently.

It's ignorant to claim games can't incite violence. There is no way that that amount of violent exposure doesn't cause some level of aggressiveness or desensitization. Gamers need to accept that. Then they need to turn around and point out the double-edge sword that treats games as brainwashing kill trainers, but pretends violence in TV, film, comics, books, music, or any other medium is innocuous. Yes, GTA4 will end up in the hands of certain impressionable children, but you can't sue Take-Two for that, you have to blame the retailers. And frankly, they really can't, because game retailers have done a great job controlling sales to minors. Check out the FTC report yourself.

But since stupid lawyers want to reduce games to nothing but murder sims, I see nothing wrong with putting lawyers into games as nothing but sims to murder. After so many violent games, it's not like we have the free-will to think otherwise.