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Honesty in “State of Decay”

Wednesday, November 27th, 2013

(or, Simulating a Simulation)

This is the second post in a series on teaching about games in higher education. See also: the first post (Writing the Casual Games Syllabus).

As you’re making your way through the end of the first level of Bioshock [2007] (one of the most critically-acclaimed video games of all time and one that defined its own genre: objectivist FPS), you’ll be abruptly trapped in a small room when your enemy (Atlas) slams a remote-controlled door.

The lights go out. (Dramatic!)

Through a wall of safety glass windows, a television monitor lights up and delivers a preening speech from your antagonist–a speech worthy of a James Bond super-villian in a closing scene. He says:

So tell me, friend, which one of the bitches sent you, the KGB wolf or the CIA jackal? Here’s the news: … Andrew Ryan isn’t a giddy socialite who can be slapped around by government muscle, and with that, farewell, or Dasvadinya -– whichever you prefer.

At the speech’s conclusion, a gang of “splicers” (think: zombies) runs up to the other side of the safety glass and starts pounding on it and screaming. (Very dramatic!) You’re still trapped in the room, and if it is your first play-through you probably don’t want to fight this mob.

Then the glass starts to crack. (Ultra dramatic!)

Scene from bioshock, level 1

They’re breaking through! in BioShock [2007]
(Click to enlarge.) 

When I played this, I frantically searched for something to do. I guessed that the game wouldn’t kill me outright at this point… but who knows? So it was with a rising sense of panic that I scoured the walls, desperate for a tooltip, for escape, for anything.

Luckily, just as it felt like the splicers would break through, the sometime-ally and narrator (Atlas) managed to open the locked door of my trap by radio or something and I was free to run away. Whew. That was close.

But was it close? If you stay in the room you’ll quickly discover that the whole thing was a sham of interactivity. The door opens on a timer. The splicer/zombies never break through the glass. They’re on a short loop of repeated banging and screaming that it is easy to see, if you stand and look. It’s actually a cut-scene disguised as gameplay. 

It’s the same situation in State of Decay, the open-world zombie apocalypse survival game that has broken all sales records since its release on Xbox 360 arcade last June. It is an excellent game that has also reviewed well. I evaluated it for my Play and Technology syllabus (see the last post). I like the game, it is a terrific achievement.


State of Decay game logo
State of Decay logo [2013]

Why are people excited about it? It gets a lot of credit for emphasizing gameplay as opposed to wordy narrative (cf. The Last of Us and The Walking Dead [The Game]), and many reviewers have praised the basic concept of a “zombie survival sim.” As Tom Chick writes in praise of this game at Quarter to Three:

The best type of storytelling in a videogame is the type of storytelling that makes videogames unique: me in a sandbox of possibility, making stories out of my own choices.

I agree! Sounds great!

Also, the idea of a “zombie survival sim” is itself an achievement. Simulation is a fascinating and important topic in relation to games. So, I thought: Why not teach about simulation with a zombie survival sim?  Seems like a novel approach that would usefully get us away from SimCity. And State of Decay looked good — in the words of the producer, “The game is basically a giant simulation.”

State of Decay screen shot

Forget SimCity — there’s no tame discussion of municipal zoning rules here! State of Decay [2013] (Click to enlarge.) 

Certainly everything else in State of Decay isn’t novel. Every concept in there is ripped off from some other zombie media franchise, sometimes with a wink (Twinkie snacks! Rule #1: Cardio!) and sometimes not. The achievement here, as is true for many other popular games like Grand Theft Auto, is really in execution — bringing together a lot of things that have existed in games before, but getting them to work well together.

As I eagerly waded into my second play-through, I hit a speed bump. After a while, my ally and narrator Lilly told me: “I really don’t think we should be getting into bed with the Wilkersons.” She goes on in this vein for some time.

For me, this was a jarring bit of NPC dialogue.

Wait, I thought, I just told the Wilkersons to go to hell! Doesn’t Lilly realize that?

Unlike my first play-through, I had done everything possible to be against the Wilkersons. I was the anti-Wilkersons. Yet Lilly’s dialogue was the same as in my first playthrough, when I was pro-Wilkersons. As I was puzzling over this, the Wilkersons gave me some gifts. It seems like the story in “State of Decay” is continuing on without me at the helm.

At first I thought this surprising non-interactivity only applied to the hypertext, or what gamers call the “story line missions,” but I was surprised to find that the enforced linearity of the plot also applies to the open world elements and the simulation components as well — in a very ambitious way.

In a sentence, this game is presented as Night of the Living Dead meets Lemonade Stand. Check out the resources screen:

State of Decay resources screen

Here’s part of the map:

State of Decay map screen shot

So far so good, right? Any sim gamer is drooling, let me assure you. It screams, “sim! sim! sim!”

Here are the stated rules if you care for that sort of thing.

In State of Decay’s “apocalypse survival simulation,” you control a band of survivors (the community). You can locate them at any of eight home sites on a large map, which you must defend against zombie hordes. A game day is represented by two real-life hours (one daylight, one night). Each game day your group uses some of five basic resources: food, ammunition, medicine, building materials, and fuel.

You must loot buildings to find these five basic resources, and can construct some of nine facilities at your home base that modify your use of the resources. There are also other groups of survivors who have their own home bases, and they will potentially trade resources with you, or join you. The zombies also have home bases (called infestations) that spawn zombie hordes. You can build “outposts” that eliminate hordes, or you can destroy zombie home bases (infestations) but they will randomly recur.

A few more details: Each day, there is a chance that a member of your community will fall ill, go missing, throw a tantrum, or even be killed. You can potentially recruit neighboring survivors or strangers you encounter to join your group to make up any losses. A variety of other things are also tracked: the morale of your group, your group’s reputation with each individual neighboring group, your community’s overall renown in the game world, and more.

It’s a great formula, I’m itching to play it. Because, you see, I thought that I was playing it when I played State of Decay but it turns out I was not. Most of the information in the box above comes from in-game dialogue and explanatory text. And it’s mostly false. The game told me that was how the simulation worked, but how does it actually work?

Let me show you:

In the game, Sgt. Tam told me to “stockpile resources” — now I see why the NPCs have to say these things because it actually doesn’t matter if I stockpile them or not. It’s not just that these are score points with no consequences, they aren’t even score points as they are disconnected from my actions. It appears to be impossible to deplete some of the resources very much. I decided to not collect any resources at all and learned that resources can vary in a manner that I experienced as random. Some of them will decrease to zero, but when they do, no one even mentions it. Then they’ll go back up as the NPC gather them for you.

The game pop-up warns me that “Morale is low.” But so what? I dropped it to zero and I could not detect any consequence. If anything, game messages like “Grady is sad” appeared more often when my morale was high. Running out of food entirely for a long period produced a modest stamina penalty for 2-3 of my team members (“Grady is hungry”).

The premise of the game is that I have to defend my home base from zombie hordes. But I removed all of my outposts and fortifications. Then I systematically killed all of my characters that were good at fighting, while they were holding all of my most valuable weapons. I left two noobs in the base and they fought off eight waves of zombie hordes with a single frying pan between them.  In other words, the point of the game is to defend your base, but if you don’t defend your base nothing happens.

So basically on my first play-through of State of Decay I was the six-year-old on the Autopia ride at Disneyland. I had a great time turning the steering wheel right and left, sure, but I thought I was driving a car when I was actually riding a train along a track. State of Decay is attached to a metal rail and the steering wheel is disconnected. I thought I was good at the game the first time I played it (blush), but now I know this is what I deserve:

participant ribbon

This is a daring game design decision. In a sense all games are on that metal rail, but Undead Labs has really pushed it by creating an elaborate user interface for a nonexistent simulation game. I worry that some of it may have been inadvertent. That is, some of this stuff feels like the hooks for the simulation that Undead Labs intended to build but didn’t get around to. That would explain this Friday’s release of the first downloadable update to the game, a simulation mode (“sandbox”) called “Breakdown.” I guess most players (like me) thought that we already bought that the first time, but we did not.

I thought that State of Decay would be a game I might use to teach about simulation, but actually I think it is useful as a way to teach about honesty. I took the things in State of Decay that seemed random and imagined them to be spinning cogs of an awesomely complex simulation engine I could enjoyably reverse engineer at my leisure. But the engine in the original State of Decay seems random because is consists of a few wires connected to a random number generator.

That means my teaching questions would be these: In the original State of Decay I felt a big letdown when I worked out that there was nothing to work out. Is that an acceptable game design risk to take, as long as most players never find out they were tricked? At the same time, I was happy to be tricked when locked in BioShock’s little room. Later on, I found out that Bioshock tricked me, but that doesn’t bother me. What’s the difference?

Data Dealer is Disastrous

Monday, July 15th, 2013

(or, Unfortunately, Algorithms Sound Boring.)

Finally, a video game where you get to act like a database!

This morning, the print version of the New York Times profiled the Kickstarter-funded game “Data Dealer.” The game is a browser-based single-player farming-style clicker with a premise that the player “turns data into cash” by playing the role of a behind-the-scenes data aggregator probably modeled on a real company like Axciom.

Currently there is only a demo, but the developers have big future ambitions, including a multi-player version.  Here’s a screen shot:

Data Dealer screenshot
Data Dealer screen shot (click to enlarge.)

One reason Data Dealer is receiving a lot of attention is that there really isn’t anything else like it. It reminds me of the ACLU’s acclaimed “Ordering Pizza” video (now quite old) which vividly envisioned a dystopian future of totally integrated personal data through the lens of placing orders for pizza. The ACLU video shows you the user interface for a hypothetical software platform built to allow the person who answers the phone at an all-knowing pizza parlor to enter your order. 

(In the video, a caller tries to order a “double meat special” and is told that there will be an additional charge because of his high-blood pressure and high cholesterol. He complains about the high price and is told, “But you just bought those tickets to Hawaii!”)

The ACLU video is great because it uses a silly hook to get across some very important societal issues about privacy. It makes a topic that seems very boring — data protection and the risks involved in the interconnection of databases — vivid and accessible. As a teacher working with these issues, I still find the video useful today. Although it looks like the pizza ordering computer is running Windows 95.

Data Dealer has the same promise, but they’ve made some unusual choices. The ACLU’s goal was clearly public education about legal issues, and I think that the group behind Data Dealer has a similar goal. On their Kickstarter profile they describe themselves as “data rights advocates.”

Yet some of the choices made in the game design seem indefensible, as they might create awareness about data issues but they do so by promulgating misguided ideas about how data surveillance actually works. I found myself wondering: is it worth raising public awareness of these issues if they are presented in a way that is so distorted?

As a data aggregator, the chief antagonist in the demo is public opinion. While clearly that would be an antagonist for someone like Axciom, there are actually real risks to data aggregation that involve quantifiable losses. Data protection laws don’t exist solely because people are squeamish.

By focusing on public opinion, the message I am left with isn’t that privacy is really important, it is that “some people like it.” Those darn privacy advocates sure are fussy! (They periodically appear, angrily, in a pop-up window.) This seems like a much weaker argument than “data rights advocates” should be making. It even feels like the makers of Data Dealer are trying to demean themselves!  But maybe this was meant to be self-effacing.

I commend Data Dealer for grappling with one of the hardest problems that currently exists in the study of the social implications of computing: how to visualize things like algorithms and databases comprehensibly. In the game, your database is cleverly visualized as a vaguely vacuum-cleaner-like object. Your network is a kind of octopus-like shape. Great stuff!

However, some of the meatiest parts of the corporate data surveillance infrastructure go unmentioned, or are at least greatly underemphasized. How about… credit cards? Browser cookies? Other things are bizarrely over-emphasized relative to the actual data surveillance ecology: celebrity endorsements, online personality tests, and poster ad campaigns.

Algorithms are not covered at all (unless you count the “import” button that automatically “integrates” different profiles into your database.)  That’s a big loss, as the model of the game implies that things like political views are existing attributes that can be harvested by (for instance) monitoring what books you buy at a bookstore. The bookstores already hold your political views in this model, and you have to buy them from there. That’s not AT ALL how political views are inferred by data mining companies, and this gameplay model falsely creates the idea that my political views remain private if I avoid loyalty cards in bookstores.

A variety of the causal claims made in the game just don’t work in real life. A health insurance company’s best source for private health information about you is not mining online dating profiles for your stated weight. By emphasizing these unlikely paths for private data disclosure, the game obscures the real process and seems to be teaching those concerned about privacy to take useless and irrelevant precautions.

The crucial missing link is the absence of any depiction of the combination of disparate data to produce new insights or situations. That’s the topic the ACLU video tackles head-on. Although the game developers know that this is important (integration is what your vacuum-cleaner is supposed to be doing), that process doesn’t exist as part of the gameplay. Data aggregation in the game is simply shopping for profiles from a batch of blue sources and selling them to different orange clients (like the NSA or a supermarket chain). Yet combination of databases is the meat of the issue.

By presenting the algorithmic combination of data invisibly, the game implies that a corporate data aggregator is like a wholesaler that connects suppliers to retailers. But this is not the value data aggregation provides, that value is all about integration.

Finally, the game is strangely interested in the criminal underworld, promoting hackers as a route that a legitimate data mining corporation would routinely use. This is just bizarre. In my game, a real estate conglomerate wanted to buy personal data so I gathered it from a hacker who tapped into an Xbox Live-like platform. I also got some from a corrupt desk clerk at a tanning salon. This completely undermines the game as a corporate critique, or as educational.

In sum, it’s great to see these hard problems tackled at all, but we deserve a better treatment of them. To be fair, this is only the demo and it may be that the missing narratives of personal data will be added. A promised addition is that you can create your own social media platform (Tracebook) although I did not see this in my demo game. I hope the missing pieces are added. (It seems more unlikely that the game’s current flawed narratives will be corrected.)

My major reaction to the game is that this situation highlights the hard problems that educational game developers face. They want to make games for change, but effective gameplay and effective education are such different goals that they often conflict. For the sake of a salable experience the developers here clearly felt they had to stake their hopes on the former and abandon the latter, abandoning reality.


(This post was cross-posted at The Social Media Collective.)

Writing the Casual Games Syllabus

Monday, June 3rd, 2013

(or, “I don’t know how to skim a game.”)

Here’s my question: What is the ideal list of 16 games that, if you played them, would give you a picture of all that is possible in gaming? Oh, yeah, and they have to be fast, quick-to-learn, and mostly free (hence the “casual” in the title).

I’ll be teaching a course next Fall at the University of Michigan entitled “Play and Technology.” It’s an advanced seminar that surveys the social science and humanities literature on the idea of “play,” then applies that literature to computer-mediated communication, video games, and other kinds of what we’ll call “playful technologies.” It requires both a midterm and a final project that each require students to craft a conceptual design for a playful technology.  Hopefully we’ll learn something about people and something about designing play experiences.

Still curious? Here’s a printable flyer for the course (PDF).

In the past I’ve taught a similar course. A serious problem with it has been that people come to the topic of play and new media from such a wide variety of practical perspectives. Since it is an elective, usually everyone who enrolls likes games or play or technology — likely all three. And people like particular games A LOT. But… everyone’s a fanatic about a different thing.

So student #1 will let loose in a class discussion with what is probably a brilliant analysis of Aristotle’s Poetics as applied to Escape from Rungistan which he/she plays religiously every evening on an Apple II emulator.  But after they’ve finished speaking, since no one else in the class has ever played Escape from Rungistan (or heard of it)* there is an awkward silence.

Escape From Rungistan Screenshot

Escape From Rungistan, c. 1982


(*Okay actually that’s not 100% true.  I’ve played Escape from Rungistan.)

Then after a long pause, Student #2 will try to explain Piaget using an example from Farm TownFarm Town is the game that FarmVille ripped off, by the way. So no one else — maybe no one else in this state — has ever played it except for student #2.*  But student #2 knows every nuance. Every vegetable.  And student #2 wants to get down and dirty in the details. Student #2 is talking about growing Chamomile vs. Quinoa and their implications for the ontological trajectory of developmental psychology, which is totally a level 112 kind of debate. Since no one else has any idea what he/she is talking about, there is an awkward silence.

Farm Town Screenshot

Farm Town, c. 2009


(*Okay actually that’s not 100% true.  I’ve played Farm Town.)

So what’s the solution? In the past I’ve asked students to try a specific game that we all play together.  It has often been a recognizable game (e.g., once, a long time ago, we played a version of Quake). That’s useful but it really does an injustice to the great diversity of kinds of play that are possible. We get stuck in one play mode (FPS, in this case). It also feels unfair because many students are already experts in any given mainstream title, and I find the novices resent it.

What students seem to need is a variety of ideas that they can use to template their own projects, not an in-depth, semester-long study of a mainstream title. And many mainstream games are LONG. I once required that an undergraduate class play Civilization IV. I thought it would be great (bestselling, award-winning game, right?), but a lot of students absolutely hated the fact that it was so involved.

One student summed it up by saying: “If you assign a game instead of a reading, I don’t know how to skim a game.” It takes hours and hours of work to get anything out of Civ IV. Come to think of it, it takes hours and hours of work to finish a single game of Civ IV.

So here is my challenge to you, dear reader. I have sixteen weeks in the semester. Let’s say we assign a game a week. For the reasons specified above these games would have to be short (“casual”) or at least you should be able to get the idea in the first level (or in a demo). Honestly I think these games should ideally be obscure so that everyone starts on the same page. The set of games as a whole, as befits a syllabus, would emphasize the diversity of different kinds of games that are possible.

Being required to do something can completely drain the fun out for some people. So this isn’t supposed to be a list of super fun games, since as soon as I require them I will drain the fun out (at least for some students). Instead, each game should have something unique to say about the art and science of game design. Each should have something to say about human behavior. If the game isn’t particularly fun (hello, Ian Bogost’s brilliant Cow Clicker), so what? It’s required. It’s important. There’s something to learn from it. We can have a productive conversation about it.  This is not a “T0p 16 Cazual Games EVAR!!!1!!1!!” blog post.

The games would have to be free or cheap. Just as I try to keep assigned textbook costs down, I want to keep assigned game costs down. I would feel OK if a few weeks of the class required a game purchase — we can set the game up in a computer lab for those unwilling or unable to pay. But a console title per week? Impossible. That’s a $700 textbook budget for one class.

I have some key dimensions in mind that it would be great to explore with this list: e.g., social vs. not social, narrative vs. non-narrative, violent vs. non-violent, historical vs. contemporary, etc.  But I think rather than giving you an exhaustive list I’d rather hear what you are thinking and adapt this to my own purposes.

However, to get things started here is a draft of what I am thinking about. What are the areas that I’ve left off?  What are the games that are better exemplars in their category — however you define their category?

Example Syllabus (DRAFT)

  1. Passage. A free art game that defies simple explanation and takes just 5 minutes to play.
  2. World of Tanks.  Quick online team combat with strangers. Likely they’ll be some weird lobby talk (“Hetzer gonna Hetz!”). A standout in the freemium realm, it would helps people experience an FPS-like game even if you suck at shooting and running around — just pick a slow tank.
  3. Escape From Rungistan. (You saw that coming, right?) The text/graphics split screen adventure game has died out. Playing it via an emulator would be an interesting way to comment on history, genre, and technological limitations of a platform. Not a particularly fast game but we can play just the first few screens and get an idea of things.
  4. SpaceChem. We have to have a puzzle game, and I think it would be interesting to put in one game that is just terribly and intentionally hard for most people. It’s a great game but it’s an interesting design choice to make a game that most players will never be able to finish. Also there’s a free demo.
  5. (or 4.5?) Lego Junkbot. Another ingenious puzzler. Could be paired with SpaceChem so that there is a simple puzzle alternative to SpaceChem’s insanity. However I can’t find Lego Junkbot online anymore. Is it dead?
  6. Diner Dash. Classic. Quick to play and you get to experience the real time management genre.  I see that I’m on a bit of an Eric Zimmerman theme now but that’s only because he is brilliant. It looks like you can play it for free with a trial subscription.
  7. (or 6.5?) Atom Zombie Smasher. Also a real time management game but quite a different take on things. And so much style! It has a free demo, at least on Steam.
  8. Façade. Fast to play, free — and great way to talk about narrative. Can be paired with an article talking about the game.
  9. (or 8.5?) Thirty Flights of Loving. Oooh, this could be assigned along with Façade. Another interesting take on narrative. Another art-y, indie blast of freshness. Now I’m on a Brendon Chung roll here. But I may have to repeat some game designers due to their absolute brilliance. 
  10. Electro City. Simple and obscure city simulator that has a green power agenda. Free online, quick to learn, quick to play, and speaks to G4C and simulations.  Not a great game though — maybe there is something better?
  11. Some sort of children’s game that is supposed to teach you something? My gaming repertoire is too antiquated to know what to put here.  Lemonade Stand anyone? Not sure.
  12. Something from GWAP (Games With a Purpose)… maybe The ESP Game — a free online multiplayer anonymous guessing game that serves the strict master of human computation.
  13. Some kind of game of chance or gambling.  Hard to think of one that would be unfamiliar and not illegal, but this is such a big domain of human play it seems important to include.
  14. Some kind of multiplayer game with really simple rules that leads to very complex gameplay, so that we can talk about how to write rulesSiSSYFiGHT 2000 would be perfect if it is finished in time. But that would be my third Zimmerman.
  15. Habbo Hotel or another social environment without much gameplay per se. Hopefully class members will not be arrested as stalkers.
  16. Maybe another classic game included because it was historically significant in the development of games?  Hard to think of one right now.  A kind of “this was the first game to do X” kind of game. Not sure.  You can see I’m running out of ideas at #16!

I pledge to you that the most useful response submitted will receive a prize of my choosing, entirely at my discretion. I will actually mail it to you. It will be a physical object. You are welcome to submit a thought, an idea, a criticism, a single game, or an entire syllabus.

If you’d like, please include your suggestions as a comment to this post. Or if you’d prefer to do this privately, email me at  Let the syllabus writing begin!

[This post was also cross-posted to The Social Media Collective.]

The Esquire gamer never shoots for the face.

Wednesday, February 24th, 2010

(or: The dire state of video game criticism.)

Stephen Marche in this post and this month’s Esquire claims that Modern Warfare 2 “may be the first protest game.” Even if I amend his sentiment to be “the first wildly successful protest game” (MW2 has set a number of video game sales records) I still can’t get this to parse.

(MW2 screenshot — click to enlarge.)

Marche sees MW2 as a protest for two reasons.  First, the game comments on your character’s death by displaying jarring anti-war quotes (“Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” –Confucious).

Second, Stephen Marche is personally confused while playing it (he writes: “I keep asking myself: Why am I here? Whom am I killing?”). I think he believes this is a feeling the game intends to evoke in order to demonstrate the pointlessness of war.

This is the kind of commentary that you get when you put an old-media critic on the spot and ask him something about video games.  Given the importance of video games for… well… masculinity, I can see that Esquire magazine (Marche’s employer) would like someone in those pages to write something smart about them.  Yet the rest of Marche’s writing on culture is mostly about movies and TV, and it shows.  He writes about video games as someone who doesn’t seem to know a thing about them.  (The first protest game? Come on!)  And he writes a commentary on a particular game (MW2) without spending enough time with it to know that he sounds foolish.  Would a television critic write about a TV show without watching it?  Yet that’s the state of the art in high-culture game commentary.

Marche seems to have connected MW2 and the Iraq war based on the box art and the introduction.  That’s quite a gaffe for a critic– like reviewing a movie based only on the trailer. The game’s storyline is about a war with Russia, and the most jarring and memorable moments are a scene when the player is asked to kill civilians as an undercover operative storming a Russian airport, and several scenes where the player must repel Russian paratroopers from strip malls and mega-mansions in the suburbs of northern Virginia.  See a big link to Iraq there, Marche?  I didn’t think so.

Red Dawn: The ‘ Burbs (actually MW2; click to enlarge.)

As any player will know, MW2 also quotes Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, and the jarring anti-war quotes include “Principle is okay up to a certain point, but principle doesn’t do any good if you lose” (Dick Cheney).  Earlier games in the Call of Duty series quote Oscar Wilde  and that masterful anti-war commentator Lois McMaster Bujold.  And as you can already tell, I don’t think the pointlessness and confusion is particularly evoked by MW2.  I think Marche would be hard-pressed to find MW2 gamers to agree with him.

There is a lot in MW2 that deserves critique.  I’m sure the MW2 plot of a more straightforward war with Russia and an evil Putin-like figure is a lot more appealing to audiences than the war we are actually fighting.

That’s not Marche’s premise but some of his points have promise.  He argues that The Hurt Locker is almost more of a video game than it is a movie, and that the Iraq War is a video game war.  (The first Iraq war was supposed to be the video game war due to the smart weapons, but whatever.)  But how can you develop these comparisons when you only know about one half of them?

I’ve always liked the kind of manliness that Esquire tries to evoke.  The Esquire man wants to read advice about cufflinks, politeness, and how to order fancy drinks.  Yet video games are now well established as a common domain of men–not boys–and it still isn’t clear how an Esquire man would play them, or comment on them.

Perhaps the Esquire man always uses a silenced weapon and never shoots for the face?  He always uses a bespoke controller and never does any nuke boosting?  To know the answers and to get a meaningful commentary on MW2 we’ll have to wait for some mass audience video game critics who know what they are doing.

Does the Living Room Computer Have to do Everything?

Monday, November 23rd, 2009

As mentioned in my previous post “My Game System is My New Cable Box,” the newest system update for the XBox 360 now includes a number of social networking and Internet applications, including Facebook, twitter,, and Zune (Microsoft’s attempt to compete with the iTunes store).  For me, the integration of these services feels like a kind of weird collision of different neighborhoods and cultures.

Facebook on XBox Live

The neighborhoods metaphor is apt, in part because of the debate earlier this year about the socioeconomic and race connotations of different social networking sites.  Danah Boyd notably described a “white flight” from MySpace to Facebook (here’s a nice overview article of her point).  Facebook, she argues, has been portrayed as a higher-class, safer place by media coverage.

Eszter Hargittai also published a revealing demographic analysis comparing SNSs two years ago in the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, titled “Whose Space?“.  She found a number of interesting differentiations among these sites: “different populations select into the use of different services.”  For instance, Asian-Americans are less likely to use MySpace.

So our Internet applications are like demographically distinct neighborhoods of a city.  Of course we know that all kinds of things are differentiated demographically (see: Stuff White People Like).  But the XBox360 merge combines the XBox’s own social networking system (based on Gamertags) with others systems like Twitter and Facebook and this is a different kind of mixing.  Yes these sites can reach different audiences but that they are used by the same audiences for different purposes in different contexts with different interfaces.  It’s not just that different people live in different neighborhoods (MySpace vs. Facebook demographics), but that when I personally visit different neighborhoods I expect them to look different (many people use multiple SNSs).

Everything is suddenly all mixed into the XBox interface. Having some of this stuff on my TV is actually pretty weird.  Adding Zune to the XBox makes a lot of sense — that’s a store to sell a/v products and I want to buy TV shows to watch on my TV.  But the other services are jarring — they echo Don Norman’s point from ten years ago in The Invisible Computer that single-purpose devices are often preferable to multi-purpose ones (here’s an old interview when he makes this point).

No one seems to be listening to him.  The interface is so much more difficult to get right on a multipurpose device.  Rather than a generic menu system that must fit everything, with a specialized device you can have a streamlined interface that helps you do what you are trying to do.  It makes so much sense to just keep each single-purpose device in the place where you want to do that task.


For instance instead of a smartphone to do everything, you might want a dedicated e-mail device like the Peek (pictured above).  A friend of mine keeps both a Palm TX for the calendaring and an iPhone for mobile web surfing (and occastionally, telephoning).  I think this kind of thing is actually quite widespread.  The specialized devices are often so much better at a particular thing while a generalized device is bad at everything (or mediocre at everything).

So now the XBox is kind of a mishmash of Twitter, Facebook, Netflix, gamertags, etc.  Maybe it will grow on me but I doubt it.  For instance, Zune and Netflix now have to share the awkward XBox menuing system and are only differentiated by the fact that their backgrounds are different colors (Netflix is red, Zune is black).  To continue the neighborhoods metaphor, in their wisdom the XBox Live designers have taken all of the neighborhoods you like to visit in Manhattan and relocated their shops to a bland suburban street grid that stretches to infinity in every direction.

In my earlier post I praised the idea of the game console as the new basic entertainment computer in the living room that could handle a variety of video and gaming functions.  Let’s me temper my enthusiasm.  A game console is a good idea for things a gaming console connected to a TV can be good at!  If we try to cram everything else in there too I don’t think the results will be pretty.

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