Desert of My Real Life

{June 16, 2008}   Unplugged Vacation

We’re leaving for Spain tomorrow. For the first time since 2000, we are not bringing a computer on vacation with us and so we will be completely unplugged. I’m looking forward to it although I dread the fact that I will have to deal with all that email at once when we get back.

Apparently, whether or not to unplug while on vacation is a serious question that people write about, especially when contemplating going on such a vacation or when having just returned from one. It actually was an easy decision for us–we didn’t want to have to carry a laptop. We’re traveling lean and mean.

{June 15, 2008}   Dr. Mario Online Rx

My latest addiction on the Wii is Dr. Mario Online Rx. It’s a puzzle game (very similar to Tetris) that came out as WiiWare on May 26, 2008. WiiWare games are developed specifically for the Wii and can only be purchased and downloaded from the Wii Shop Channel. The coolest thing about WiiWare games is their price–all between $5 and $15. Dr. Mario Online Rx costs $10. Contrast this to the titles that are sold on disk. I was in Best Buy last night and the cheapest Wii games were $20 but most were between $40 and $50.

If you’ve never played Tetris, the appeal of Dr. Mario Online Rx might be difficult to understand. The idea of both games is that shapes drop from the top of the screen. The player’s goal is to move the shape as it falls–moving it horizontally and flipping it around. The goal is to get a sequence of blocks in a row. In Tetris, the goal is to get an entire row filled in while in Dr. Mario Online Rx, the goal is get 4 blocks of the same color in a row or column. When you make the goal, the row (or blocks of the same color) disappear. If you aren’t able to get things to disappear, the screen fills up and eventually there’s no room for anymore blocks to fall. That’s when you lose the game.

Dr. Mario Online Rx has an additional premise that makes the goal a little more difficult to achieve. The premise is that the screen is covered with colored viruses. Dr. Mario is at the top of the screen dropping colored pills. Your real goal is to make all the viruses disappear by getting the colored pills to line up with the viruses so that you have 4 pill parts/viruses in a row or column of the same color. If you clear the screen of viruses, you move to the next, more difficult level.

One of the nice features of Dr. Mario Online Rx is that you can play over the Internet with other players (the Online part of the game’s name). You can play with strangers from around the world who have purchased the game but you also have the option of allowing friends who haven’t purchased the game play via your game. Greg and I played the other day and it seems that the speed of the game doesn’t suffer when you play online, even when one of the players has not purchased the game.  This is a great feature that I hope more games incorporate.  It’s nice to be able to share titles and I’d bet it would result in sales because people can try out games that they haven’t yet purchased.  If they like the game well enough, they would probably want to be able to play on their own without having to wait for someone else to invite them to play.

I love these kinds of puzzle games. In fact, Tetris helped me get through my dissertation. Each day when I sat down to write, I would allow myself to play three games. The challenge, of course, was to stop after three games. Because these games are so simple (some would probably say repetitive, perhaps even tedious), it’s instructive to think about why they’re addicting. I think Janet Murray (in Hamlet on the Holodeck) was on the right track when she suggested that Tetris (and games like it) allow us to feel that we are in control of our hectic, chaotic lives. The game throws blocks at us just as life throws things at us. We manipulate the blocks to put them in order and if we do it well, the blocks disappear. We are metaphorically sweeping things off our desks, accomplishing tasks and maintaining order. For me, this explanation feels accurate. I do feel in control while I’m playing and I definitely like being in control. The ironic thing, of course, is that the more time I spend playing Dr. Mario Online Rx, the more things accumulate on my real desk.

{June 14, 2008}   The Real No Longer Exists

We went to Alpine Adventures in Lincoln, NH yesterday with a group of friends to ride the ziplines that they have set up in the woods on Barron Mountain. We had a great time. Traveling through the woods at speeds of about 25-30mph suspended by a harness from a steel cable is an awesome way to spend an early summer afternoon.

So what does ziplining have to do with technology and society? Sometimes I tend to think of technology pretty narrowly, thinking only of computing technology. But there is an amazing amount of engineering involved in setting up a canopy tour that will allow a wide variety of tourists to move safely from tree top to tree top. But that’s not the technology connection that interested me most about yesterday’s adventure.

We went out for a drink after the adventure and we learned that one of the women in our group is deathly afraid of heights. In fact, her family was doubtful that she would be able to jump off the platforms to do the ziplining. Someone said to her, “It’s a good thing we took lots of pictures because otherwise your family wouldn’t believe that you did it.” It was her response that I found most interesting. She said, “I’m glad we took pictures because otherwise I wouldn’t believe I did it.” In other words, the pictures will serve as proof to herself that she experienced her own experiences.

This is an example of what Jean Baudrillard meant when he said that the real no longer exists. (Thanks to Ann for helping me to understand Simulacra and Simulation–in fact, she dragged me through that book). What this provocative statement means is that in contemporary society, the copy has replaced the original in importance. So in order to experience the zip line, the woman who was so deathly afraid actually needs to see the copies of the experience (the images) because they are more real than reality. Baudrillard would say that they are hyperreal.

The hyperreal, the need for a (re)mediation of an experience in order for the experience to feel “real”, is something that I’ve encountered in my own experiences. For example, the day that New Hampshire’s famous Old Man of the Mountain fell off Cannon Mountain, Liz, Evelyn and I were driving to have breakfast at Polly’s Pancake Parlor in Sugar Hill. As we drove through Franconia Notch, I looked for the Old Man and never found it. We joked that perhaps it had finally succumbed to gravity but didn’t believe, despite the evidence before us, that this could actually be true. When we got to Polly’s, we heard that it had indeed fallen. On the way home, heading south through the Notch, I couldn’t believe my eyes–no granite face, police cars and helicopters everywhere. I remember saying that we needed to watch the news to be sure it really had fallen. I needed the experience to be mediated, copied, simulated, in order for it to feel “real” to me.

{June 11, 2008}   Wii Fit

We recently bought Wii Fit and have been spending a fair amount of time exploring all it has to offer. There are many things that the game does well and a few things that could be improved (without much effort, it seems to me, which makes me really wonder why these things were not part of the original design).

For those who haven’t heard any of the hype about this new game for the Wii, I’ll give you a summary. The game comes with a new input device called a balance board. The balance board looks something like a scale without the numbers (and it does indeed function as a scale). The game is comprised of sub-games in four categories: yoga, strength training, aerobics and balance games. In addition, there’s a possibility to do a body test once a day. The body test gives you a Wii Fit Age which is similar to the Wii Fitness Age from Wii Sports. When you first register your Mii in Wii Fit, you have to go through the body test, which includes weighing and calculating your Body Mass Index in addition to a balance test. Depending on who you’re playing with and how you feel about others knowing your weight (and BMI), this process can be a little awkward. The first balance test that you do involves shifting your weight from left to right and trying to hold steady at a particular spot. The amount of weight placed on each leg is represented by a blue line that moves up and down as the weight on that leg changes. The test presents you with 5 pairs of red lines into which you try to move your blue lines and hold there for 3 seconds. You have 30 seconds to complete the 5 sub-tests. Once the 30 seconds has elapsed, your Wii Fit Age is calculated based on your real age, your BMI and how well you did on the balance test. As I’ve confessed in these postings in the past, I’m a sucker for this kind of random testing of how “good” I am, especially if I do well. So you can imagine that I was quite happy that my Wii Fit Age was 38 the first time I went through the process.

Once your Mii is completely registered, you’re ready to start getting fit, that is, playing the sub-games. There are too many sub-games to list here but I do have a few favorites. I enjoy many of the balance games. The first one I like is a soccer-based game. As a player, you stand on the balance board and see the back of your Mii’s head. As you shift your weight on the board to the left and to the right, you see your Mii’s head lean to that direction. Other Miis then line up to kick soccer balls at your Mii. The goal is to lean in the correct direction (left, right or middle) so that your Mii heads the ball. When the game starts, this is quite easy. It gets difficult, however, when the Miis begin to kick shoes and panda heads (of all things) at you. You need to avoid these because they smack you in the face and cause you to lose points. The smack is quite funny, accompanied by an appropriate sound effect and the visual of your Mii’s head snapping backward. The first time I played the game, I had no idea about the panda heads and because they look like soccer balls (round, black and white) until they get close to you and because I also thought that I had to lean my weight forward in order to head the ball, I did horribly (I got 20 points–to put that into context, Evelyn got over 100 the first time she played). It turns out that you don’t have to lean forward to head the ball. Instead, you just have to get your Mii’s head in the correct position. Now that I’ve figured out the game, it is quite fun. It’s also hilarious to watch other people play it.

Another of the balance games that I really like is a slalom skiing game. You lean forward to get more speed as your Mii moves down a hill and back to slow the Mii down. You lean left and right to move through the gates. It’s a simple game that is quite addicting because I keep thinking, “I can do better than that.” There’s also a ski jumping game that is addicting. In this game, you lean forward to get your Mii to move down a ski jump. At the end, you extend your knees quickly and try to keep your balance as your Mii flies through the air. The funny thing about this game is that if you miss the jump, your Mii tumbles down the hill head over heels becoming a larger and larger snowball. This is another game in which I keep thinking, “I can do better than that.”

Like I said, there are a ton of other games, some of which I’m sure I’ll talk about in future posts. An interesting question is whether the Wii Fit will actually keep anyone fit (or get them fit if they aren’t already). I think the good thing about the game is that it gets people up and moving, perhaps doing things that they wouldn’t otherwise do. The rewards (seeing your name move up the record holders list, unlocking additional levels and new games) are exactly the kinds of incentives that keep people motivated to continue to do these things (saying to themselves over and over, “I can do better than that.”) And eventually, as you unlock levels, some of the aerobics games can definitely get you sweating and breathing hard (try the hula hoop game at the duration level which is 6 minutes). The strength training games that I’ve tried are pretty difficult. But one major deficiency in the game is the inability to create a training program. You can’t string the sub-games together to automatically do one after the other. Instead, you have to stop in between each game, perhaps listen to an explanation, get your reward, and then select the next game. This lack severely limits the game as a serious fitness tool. Adding such a feature seems like it would be relatively easy to do so I’m surprised it’s missing. But even if this particular game doesn’t get me to be fit, it’s a reminder that I need to get up and move every day and that’s a good thing.

{June 8, 2008}   Wii Weaknesses

A recent positive experience I had with the Wii exposes a couple of weaknesses in Wii Tennis.

Because they enjoyed playing with our Wii so much, Ann and Greg have purchased their very own Wii. We went over to their house with our Wii remotes to play. It was amazingly fun playing Wii Tennis with four people, 2 against 2. In fact, it was much more fun playing 2 on 2 than it has ever been playing either 1 on 1 or against the computer. I was thinking about why the four person game is more fun and I think the reasons expose some problems with the way the game was designed.

Whenever you play Wii Tennis, you are playing doubles. What this means is: if you are playing 1 on 1 or against the computer, you are controlling two characters (usually two copies of your own Mii) with one remote. I think the decision to always have tennis be doubles was a mistake on the part of the designers of the game. One of the reasons that the Wii is so popular is because of its unique (and innovative) input mechanism. By using the Wii remote, a player is able to interact with the in-game characters in a way that feels like interacting with the real world. Rather than mashing keys on a remote, the player moves an arm to hit the ball in tennis, for example. This more realistic interaction with the game has appealed to many non-gamers and is truly what has made the Wii the phenomenon it has become. But the decision to have a single remote control multiple characters in the tennis game means that we lose some of the realism of the interaction. When a player moves an arm to hit the ball, two characters in the game swing their rackets, which is a little disconcerting. It would feel more realistic and be more engaging (and more fun) to be able to play singles if you are playing against only one other player or against the computer. Then your one remote would control a single character within the game.

Of course, I understand why the designers made this choice. Within Wii Tennis, there is no way to control where your character moves. The only thing you can control is when the racket is swung and at what angle. The movement of the characters is controlled by the game itself. By allowing a single remote to control two characters, the game then only needs to control horizontal movement of the characters (they move left and right depending on where the ball is) and does not need to control vertical (forward and back) movement of the characters. Instead, one character plays the front and the other plays the back. This, however, is another weakness of the game. Because you can’t control the movement of your character, there are some shots that are impossible to defend against. For example, Greg has perfected a shot off a serve to his forehand. If the serve is a regular serve (that is, not one of the ones that is really fast), Greg will return it with a cross-court shot in a spot where the front character cannot get to it and the back character (whose left and right movement is controlled by the game) does not start moving fast enough to be able to return the shot. So as a player, there is nothing you can do to return this shot. You’re inhibited by the limitations of the game implementation.

This second weakness concerning the lack of control of the movement of the in-game characters exists when you play 2 on 2 with a separate remote controlling each of the four characters in the game. But the first weakness is not there so that it feels like a more natural interaction with the game, even if other flaws exist. I think this is a lesson for how to design engaging games. The more realistic the interaction, the more closely the in-game characterization represents the real world, the more engaging (and the more fun) the game is.

et cetera