Transmedia PBS project on Arab Culture and Islamic history launches

THE 99PBS has launched a new film, Wham-Bam-Islam (a bit unfortunately named, IMHO) to teach viewers about the values of moderate Islam. The film supports an existing comic book series, “THE 99,” and — more interesting to me — in turn is supported by a game, Hunt for the Noor Stone.

Hunt for the Noor Stone seems to be a fairly straightforward adventure-style game, typical of most transmedia projects, which is well-executed but not really replayable. Then again, the film itself is also a one-shot deal, so the game needn’t have a long tail of replayability.

The game was developed by Playwala, which roughly means “play business” in Hindi.

All that Jazz: Major Minor’s Majestic March

Major Minor's Majestic March

Major Minor's Majestic March

At the dawn of the music game genre, Parappa the Rapper set standards for original art style and gameplay that today’s Guitar Hero cohort has yet to match. Here was a game that valued your creativity, awarding you points for not just mastering rhythmic patterns, but stringing them together in novel flows. Parappa took the feature that make arcade games so attractive, this remixing of set patterns, and married it to its natural partner, music.

The result was no less jazz than hip-hop, and by comparison today’s music games are Simon Says with plastic guitars. Music was meant to be made, not recited, after all. Rock Band lets you pretend to make music; Parappa pointed the way to game consoles as musical instruments. If anyone was to offer an alternative to the narrowing of the music game genre into karaoke with points, it would be the original Parappa team – developer Masaya Matsuura, artist Rodney Greenblatt, and studio NanaOn-Sha, with the long-awaited spiritual sequel Major Minor’s Majestic March.

Sadly, while MMMM retains the hand-drawn charm and nutty characters of Parappa, its gameplay goes in entirely the opposite direction, amounting to little more than keeping the beat with a Wiimote. Gone is the creative license to mete out freestyle flows; instead you’re reduced to a human metronome.

Even that small premise might offer some dose of fun – kids, after all, seem to have an innate ability to rock a hot beat. But MMMM‘s rigid interface sucks the soul out of the rhythm. Sure, not everyone daydreams of being a drum major, but those who do probably don’t imagine themselves just pumping their fist up and down (a gesture uncomfortably in an unfortunate similar to an obsene gesture). And even such an activity as robotic as this might still offer a bit of amusement if it didn’t also demand such precision. Deviate from an exact up-down path and your band members split like groupies in a drug bust.

Like their peers in this generation, the creators of MMMM have lost the spirit of improvisation. (Wii Music lets you re-arrange public domain tunes, but the activity isn’t very natural, nor much of a game). Rock Band drum solos are about all you’ll find these days in terms of freestyle play in music games.

“Flow” – a state of selfless, almost meditative immersion – describes the most absorbing aspect of game-playing and music-making alike. Guitar Hero and Rock Band made this connection so successfuly that they have changed pop culture itself. But what of the pleasures of musical creativity? A few months ago I watched the Princeton Laptop Orchestra performing with synthesizers controlled by a modified joystick (a “joyful noise” indeed!). It didn’t sound like jazz, nor did it look like an arcade game, but it shared the improvisational qualities of both. In so doing, PLOP inherits from Parappa the possibility that game hardware can function as musical instruments. Sadly, the direct descendant of Parappa instead illustrates why, in games as much as in music, it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.

The virtual and the real Washington, DC

Having so recently finished Fallout 3 (review coming soon!), I found myself contrasting images from today’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial with that same location in the virtual, post-apocalyptic Washington DC portrayed in Fallout. The game had generated some minor controversy when its marketers plastered the real Metro Center subway station with ads that included an image of a bombed-out Capitol Building. (Metro Center appears in the game as well).

Update: Here are contrasting images related to yesterday’s Inauguration:
The Mall in Fallout and in real life

The Fallout series satirizes the Cold War and in particular the aesthetics and politics of the 1950s, as seen through the lens of the Regan era (it was inspired by the 1988 title, Wasteland). And it’s cynical in a late Cold War, 99 Luftbalons kind of way, depicting both government and society as dysfunctional, greedy, and selfishly tribal. This was politics à la mode, but the hundreds of thousands gathered today around the Reflecting Pool attest to a new zeitgeist, one that makes the old cynicism seem out of place.

After our likeness : “Spore”

In Will Wright’s Spore, your task is to take a primordial life-form and evolve it to stand upright, form tribes, and ultimately traverse space. If this sounds complicated and ambitious, it’s because it is: Spore is a veritable five-course meal of a title – five “phases,” each built around a different game genre, all packed into one box. You start out in phase one helping a single microbe become the big fish in a little pond, and you wind up in phase four directing a civilization to conquer the world. The corresponding gameplay also progresses from arcade to shooter to strategy. Whether Wright is mapping the history of video games onto biological evolution or vice versa, in his universe life began when a seminal meteorite plunked into a receptive pond, and video games began with a coin dropping into Pac Man.

Continue reading

Empathy for pixels

Intriguing quote in recent Escapist review of Multiwinia:

In some crucial ways, Multiwinia’s sound design establishes a stronger emotional connection with the on-screen carnage than some gory AAA first-person shooters. Perhaps simplicity breeds empathy, but in any case I felt more guilty sending mobs of rudimentary sprites into the teeth of rapid-fire gun turrets than I ever have realistically gibbing an opponent’s face with a flak cannon.

Are we supposed to feel empathy for casualties in FPS’s? And is sound design effective in Multiwinia because of novelty or because of something more primal than visuals?

Morality and “Gamer Guilt” in Fable 2

by David Nieborg (

Fable 2 combatDoes Fable 2 live up to its promises? That depends on the player. Those willing to play the game several times will find a well-designed, deeply engrossing, morally challenging game. Conversely, the casual gamer will see ‘just’ see a well-designed action game. The game’s biggest problem though, is its lack of immediate feedback. Every ingame action – being good, evil or anything in between – does lead to a reaction, but it is not always clear which reaction is the result of a particular decision made by the player.
Continue reading

Budget games largely lack human engagement

Budget Game, New YorkNancy Scola of TechPresident recently excoriated a budget calculator put out by NY Governor Patterson, primarily on the ground that it’s “more a dull-edged hatchet than a scalpel” and ignores revenue options. Strangely, though, she ignores the glaring fact that the tool is painfully meaningless to any normal taxpayer. Never mind how ugly it is (though that matters); its numbers are not only grossly general but also inhumanly abstract.

Scola also mentions the Obama-Biden tax calculator, which presents an interesting contrast. It, too, is a calculator — raw numbers stacked up — but it has the distinct engagement advantage of being about your money. Its designers don’t need to provide context or background; presumably, you know exactly what another $1,000 in your pocket would mean.

Such lame attempts at public education (or, as Scola argues, “pretend participation”) ignores the basic problem that for most taxpayers, issues of government taxes and spending are emotional, not rational, and not because we are innumerate but because such systems are too big and too remote for most of us to comprehend. This is a point that Prof. Henry Jenkins makes in his essay, “Complete Freedom of Movement,” which contrasts the play spaces of boys and girls. Whereas a game like Sim City allows players to mold physical territory, in girls’ games and stories like Harriet the Spy “the mapping of the space was only the first step in preparing the ground for a rich saga of life and death, joy and sorrow – the very elements that are totally lacking in most simulation games.”

Stated differently: cutting $10M from the state’s Department of Mental Health means something real for real human beings. The essence of a true public policy debate is to capture human reality in the discussion, not abstract it into numbers. (To those who argue that this would merely lead to an exploding debt, it’s up to deficit hawks to describe the issue as compelling drama, not formal logic).

Budget Game - MAA different contrast can be made with the Massachusetts Budget Calculator Game, Question 1 edition. As in the original version of this spreadsheet game, each top-level line item is explained with ample text — which requires players to be both numerate and literate. This “game” is no better than Patterson’s effort — except that the point isn’t really to balance the budget. The point is to show just how absurd repealing the budget is. It turns out that it’s pretty much impossible to eliminate the income tax without destroying practically all of the Massachusetts government, which an overwhelming majority of voters ultimately agreed was reckless. Rhetorically, then, the Globe’s budget game was less a simulation and more an exercise in futility, much like the message embedded in Ian Bogost’s “editorial games” for the New York Times.

Budget HeroBut what about a game that actually helps the player understand a budget and make difficult tradeoffs? Possibly the best example out there is Budget Hero from American Public Media. (Read Ben Medler’s review). Among its stronger features is the ability to choose particular values that your budget should maximize (e.g. “national security” or “energy independence”). As your budget fulfills those values, the corresponding “badge” fills up. It’s a relatively elegant way to convey the idea that budgets aren’t just abstract numbers but expressions of our collective social values — moral and meaningful choices writ large. It also doesn’t hurt that the design is colorful, noisy, and generally attractive.

Most intriguingly, Budget Hero also compares your results with peers (assuming, as Medler points out, that the players are truthful). It’s a step in the right direction towards an engaged and informed public dialog.

Profound games: metaphors to convey meaning

Akrasia - euphoriaAt last night’s monthly meetup, Doris Rusch shared with us the game her GAMBIT team built this past summer (Doris was the product owner). See Doris’s own writeup of Akrasia — a game about addiction. Her presentation largely covered the points she made on her blog post, but here are some major takeaways from her experience:

  • A rhetorical game should have a clear perspective: something specific to say.
  • When developing a game around a vision, meaning must precede mechanics — in contradiction to the usual approach to game development.
  • In playtesting and iteration, it’s important for the keeper of the vision to hold the team to the message rather than just respond to player feedback. The goal isn’t merely to get the game to “work;” if it’s to succeed at the core theme, it must hew to it as well.
  • One of the major questions that arose is: How do we know that the game is “successful”? (1) When players “get” what the game is about, or (2) When they “get” the experience? Ultimately, Doris concluded that the game need not be understood in the way the creators intend — “Interpretive richness is important for profundity.”

Several of us at the meetup had played with the game in beta state during the summer and were excited to see how it turned out. It’s worth trying — download Akrasia here.