Desert of My Real Life

{August 19, 2008}   Honorarium

More proof of Ian Bogost’s brilliance comes in the form of an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  It describes his new game Honorarium.

{August 18, 2008}   Technology, Sports and Cheating

A lot of the Olympics news coverage has focused on the fact that so many swimmers set world records in their events, partly because of advances in swimsuit technology.  Speedo’s LZR Racer, a full body swimsuit that reduces drag by using ultrasonic welding rather than stitching and by streamlining the 2% body fat of elite swimmers (it takes even the leanest athlete a half hour to shoehorn his body into the suit), has been worn by athletes setting dozens of swimming records.  The reduction in drag is reported to be 5% over the previous state-of-the-art swimsuits and 40% over a traditional swimsuit.  Filippo Magnini, an Italian swimming champion, has said that wearing the suit is equivalent to “technological doping.”  The OCC apparently disagrees since it allows the use of the suit.  Because of this official sanctioning of the suit, no one accuses a swimmer who wears one of cheating despite the fact that the rules state: “No swimmer shall be permitted to use or wear any device that may aid speed, buoyancy or endurance during a competition”.   Clearly, this swimsuit aids in speed by reducing drag.  But the Olympic committee has decided that wearing the suit is allowed.

Meanwhile, Korean pistol shooter Kim Jong-Su won silver and bronze medals in pistol shooting at the Olympics but was expelled (and therefore lost his medals) after he tested positive for a banned beta-blocker called propranolol.  Beta-blockers block the effects of adrenaline on beta receptors and are used to treat hyper-tension and heart-related problems.  Adrenaline, of course, can cause hands to shake and heart rate to increase.  When an athlete such as a pistol shooter uses these drugs to control his “nerves”, his hands may be steadier and therefore, his shooting will be more accurate.  So the Olympic committee has banned the use of these drugs for athletes in sports such as pistol shooting.  When propranolol was found in Kim Jong-Su’s system, he was accused of cheating and was stripped of his medals.

So what’s the difference between using the technological doping of the LZR Racer and the chemical doping of propranolol?  I have two ideas about why the Olympic committee might see these two situations differently.  First, the swimsuit is worn outside the body and the effects of the suit are gone as soon as you take the suit off.  Propranolol is ingested and affects the athlete’s entire system.  There’s no way to simply take something off to remove the effects of the drug.  Second, the LZR Racer was designed for swimmers.  It has no other use than to make swimmers more effective.  Propranolol, on the other hand, was designed for a medical use.  So when Kim Jong-Su took the drug, he was misusing it, that is, using it for a different purpose than it was designed for.  (Unless, of course, he has high blood pressure or a heart problem.)

These two reasons for why the Olympic committee has problems with one technology and not the other fall apart, however, when we look at the case of South African runner Oscar Pistorius.  Pistorius is a paralympic athlete who runs with the aid of Ossur’s Flex-foot carbon fiber lower legs.  In 2007, he began to compete in able-bodied competitions and set records in a number of events.  The International Association of Athletics Federations, whose rules govern the Olympics, examined Pistorius’ performances and changed its rules to ban the use of “any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.”  That wording sounds eerily similar to the rules for the swimming competitions but in this case, Pistorius was told that he couldn’t wear the Flex-foot prostheses in able-bodied competitions, including the Olympic games.  That ruling was overturned in a court (which said that the IAAF hadn’t shown that Pistorius had an advantage over other athletes not using the prostheses).  Pistorius then became eligible for the Olympics.  The immediate controversy died when Pistorius failed to make South Africa’s Olympic team.  But since he is only 21 years old, the controversy is not likely to have ended permanently. 

The Flex-Foot prostheses don’t seem very different to me than the LZR Racer swimsuit.  Both were designed for the purposes that the athletes are using them for.  Both are worn outside the body and the effects of them are gone when the device is taken off.  So perhaps the difference that the Olympic committee sees has to do with access.  Anyone can put on a swimsuit while someone who has legs cannot wear the prostheses.  Only amputees can wear them.  In fact, the issue of access is hinted at in looking at how the rules are worded.  The swimming rules do not mention advantages over other athletes while the rules for the running competitions use the phrase “an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.”  But if access is the issue, then all of this technology should be banned.  Athletes from poorer countries will never have the same access as athletes from wealthier countries.  The swimsuits cost over $500 each, which would be prohibitively expensive for some athletes.  It seems that economics-based access has never been an issue for Olympic committee rulings so why would other types of access be an issue?

The rules governing which technologies are allowed and which are not seem to be quite arbitrary.  Until some objective principle is developed to decide what is cheating and what is not, we can expect this controversy to continue to rage.

In yet another step toward hyperreality, it has been revealed that the opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics were (partially) faked. If you watched the spectacle on television, you were probably amazed by the fireworks display. There was indeed a fireworks display during the ceremony but you weren’t watching it. Instead you were watching an animation of a fireworks display that took nearly a year to create. Apparently, the creator of the animation even added a little “camera shake” to the animation to enhance the impression of watching a real recording of what was happening in the stadium that night. The official explanation from Beijing about why this little deceit was necessary is that it was too dangerous to film the real fireworks display from a helicopter. Since when is that an acceptable justification for journalistic deception?

Some of the stories about the incident actually muddy the facts of the deception, saying that the controversy occurred because some portions of the show were “pre-recorded.” This statement implies that the deception involves “live” performance vs. “pre-recorded” performance. But actually, this particular deception is about something that never happened. What we television viewers saw was something that never happened. It was an animation that was created on a computer. As a viewer, I never thought I was watching something live. The opening ceremonies started at 8am EST on August 8 and were not broadcast on NBC until 7:30pm EST on August 8. So the whole ceremony was “pre-recorded.”

Although the animation was not created by NBC, they did show it without disclosing that it was not what was actually happening in the stadium. In fact, Matt Lauer said during the ceremony, “This is actually almost animation. A footstep a second, 29 in all, to signify the 29 Olympiads.” Bob Costas responded, “We said earlier that aspects of this Opening Ceremony are almost like cinema in real time. Well this is quite literally cinematic.” Does that sound like they were coming clean about this portion of the ceremony being an actual animation? Why were they being so coy?

Clearly, this is not the first time that images have been manipulated for dramatic effect. The most famous example of such manipulation is probably the OJ Simpson Time Magazine cover showing his mug shot after his arrest for the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman. His skin on the cover was darkened to make him appear more menacing. And there are examples of manipulation all the way back to the beginnings of photography. The oldest example I could find was from the 1860s when Abraham Lincoln’s head was superimposed on the body of John Calhoun. So this is certainly nothing new. But the ease with which such manipulation can be accomplished now that digital is everywhere should give us all pause before we believe what we see in a photo or even in a video. Luckily, there is also a growing field called digital forensics, pioneered by Hany Farid, a faculty member in the very same Dartmouth College Computer Science Department where I got my undergraduate degree. He and his team are developing tools and techniques to allow us to discover manipulation of photos and videos. I think their work is increasingly necessary.

{August 10, 2008}   FaceBook Revisited

In honor of the recent release of the remake of Brideshead Revisited, I thought it might be interesting to revisit FaceBook.  I’ve been using FaceBook for nearly a month now and my feelings about it have evolved just as Charles Ryder’s feelings about Brideshead evolved.  (Don’t think too much about the analogy between Brideshead and FaceBook–it doesn’t really fit very well.)

You may recall that my initial reactions to FaceBook were all about freaking out.  I was especially overwhelmed by the amount of information that FaceBook was sending me via email.  I knew that I had the option to turn some of those emails off but as a new user, I was unsure about which ones it made sense to turn off.  I ended up turning them all off.  So I no longer receive any notifications about FaceBook in my email inbox.  Instead, I just receive the notifications of various updates within FaceBook itself.  I guess as a new user I had been worried about missing something but I realized that I wouldn’t miss anything if I got notified within FaceBook.  Since I visit FaceBook less often than I check my email, my notification of FaceBook happenings is not as immediate as if I were getting email updates.  But I don’t want immediate notification of what’s going on in FaceBook.  Instead, I want to be able to control when I receive those notifications.  In other words, I want to receive them when I’m interested in knowing what’s going on in FaceBook.  That is, I want to know what’s happening in FaceBook when I visit FaceBook!  Perfect.

Although I do visit FaceBook less often than I check my email, I have been visiting FaceBook several times per week.  This surprises me because my initial reaction to the social environment was not a particularly positive one.  But now that I am not being overwhelmed by information from FaceBook, I have mostly enjoyed using it.  In fact, I find it to be somewhat addicting.  I’ve been thinking a lot about why and although I don’t have any answers about that question, I do have some observations.

I currently have 43 “friends” on FaceBook.  Of these, there are probably 20 who are quite active, posting something or interacting with me several times a week.  I am most interested in the activities and communications of about 8 of these 20 active friends.  I think it’s because of these 8 that I visit FaceBook as often as I do.  What do these people have in common?  These are all people that I actually am good friends with in real life or that I could imagine being good friends with if our real life circumstances were to change.  Even though I still find the use of the word “friend” problematic in FaceBook, the way we understand the word in real life is similar to the way it actually plays out in my use of FaceBook.  

One of the most interesting aspects of FaceBook so far has been the way in which I “communicate” with most of my friends.  Very little of our interaction is directly targeted at each other.  That is, most of my friends do not post communications that are meant for me in particular.  Instead, they update some part of their FaceBook profile (such as their status) to tell all of their friends what they are currently doing.  I then read that information and find it interesting because I then know a little bit more about their daily lives.  It’s a way of touching base that would not happen without FaceBook and as a result, we get to know each other a little bit better.  And because I already like them in real life, I want to get to know them a little bit better.  In other words, the immediacy (the focus on “now”) of FaceBook, which felt so problematic when I first joined, is actually something I enjoy and look forward to.  What’s different between when I first joined and now that makes me enjoy the immediacy?  I think the main difference is that I have now gotten my FaceBook life “caught up” with my real life.  What do I mean by “caught up”? 

The rhetoric of FaceBook assumes that life begins when you join the social network.  So you are “now” friends with someone you’ve known for a long time simply because FaceBook “now” knows about that relationship.  Each time you add some detail about your life to FaceBook, the rhetoric reminds you that your life has “now” begun, that everything before either didn’t exist or was somehow not quite “real”.  The feeling that your FaceBook life is more “real” than your BFB (Before FaceBook) life is disconcerting.  But once you get the details in to your profile, FaceBook has “caught up” to your actual life and so the things that you do in FaceBook really are happening “now”.  So for me, the rhetoric no longer feels like a mismatch with my “reality”.  Now that my FaceBook life is more closely aligned with my real life, I appreciate the “nowness” of FaceBook.  The “nowness” means I’m learning current tidbits about these friends of mine.

Although most of my friends and I interact in this indirect manner, reading each other’s general updates, there is one friend with whom I have had an ongoing direct conversation.  This friend is an ex-partner of mine with whom I have maintained inconsistent email contact for the past 15+ years (since our break-up).  Now that we are both on FaceBook, we have been using its messaging system to engage in a long, intimate conversation.  The messaging system is similar to email but because it is embedded in FaceBook, I also get to see the frequent (or infrequent, depending on the friend) updates that my friends make to their profiles.  And so when a friend posts a new photo or a link she finds interesting, I can see those things which contextualizes our FaceBook messages in a way that isn’t easily accomplished via email.  So far, this long conversation with my ex has been the most surprising aspect of FaceBook for me.  Until I experienced how different this kind of direct contextualized communication via FaceBook is compared to regular email, I wouldn’t have believed that it would matter so much.  The other interesting thing about this aspect of FaceBook is that although I’ve enjoyed our online communication, I am not tempted to meet in real life for a face-to-face conversation about the break-up or about our current lives (both of which are topics in our online conversation).  FaceBook provides a useful buffer, or maybe it’s a cover, without which I’m not sure I would be comfortable enough to keep the conversation going.

Another thing that I’ve been thinking about is why FaceBook has captured my attention in a way that the other social networking environments I’ve joined (MySpace and LinkedIn, for example) have not.  My nephew is on MySpace and so I’ve spent some time communicating with him there.  But I find these other environments far less compelling than FaceBook.  One reason, I’m sure, is because most of my friends, the ones I’m interested in communicating with, are using FaceBook rather than these other environments.  But I think the main reason is that FaceBook makes it extraordinarily easy to find and communicate with people you know.  When I joined FaceBook, it immediately suggested some people that I might know.  Once I was friends with some of those people, it used their friends to suggest other people I might know.  In contrast, on MySpace, I had to think about who I might know there, coming up with their names out of the blue.  In addition, when I tried to find my nephew on MySpace, I had to weed through several pages of people with the same name, despite the fact that his friends are mostly from Goffstown NH (where he lives) and the fact that I went to Goffstown High School.  It seems like it would be a simple matter to do some sort of matching to determine which Kyle LeBlanc I might be interested in connecting with.  This is actually somewhat of a problem in FaceBook as well although my nephew was at least on the first page of many pages of Kyle LeBlancs.  He should, I think, have been the first Kyle LeBlanc shown to me in both MySpace and FaceBook.  

I also think it’s easier to communicate with your friends in a way that feels most comfortable and appropriate on FaceBook than it is on the other social networks.  For example, my nephew and I were both on MySpace at the same time last night.  I wanted to chat with him but in order to do so, I had to install a separate application (MySpace IM with Skype).  On the other hand, the chat facility is built into the basic FaceBook interface so there’s no extra installation required.  I appreciate that extra ease of use in FaceBook.

I still think there are some interesting problems with FaceBook but overall, I have been happy with my experience there.  Time will tell whether it’s the newness of the tool that keeps me going back or whether it will become something I will wonder how I could have ever lived without.

{August 5, 2008}   We’re Not Telling Stories

One of the aspects of game analysis that my students struggle with has to do with the dramatic elements of a game. According to the text that I use in my Creating Games class (Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton, Chris Swain and Steven Hoffman), dramatic elements are those elements of the game that help to keep the players engaged in the game. There are five dramatic elements but the ones that my students struggle with are premise and story.

The text says that premise sets the stage for the action that will propel the game forward while story has to do with actual plot points in a narrative being told by the game. For example, the premise in Monopoly is that the player is a real estate mogul. But there is no story in Monopoly because there is no action that moves from point to point as determined by the author of the game. Fullerton and her co-authors say, “Plays, movies, and television are all media that involve storytelling and linear narratives. When an audience participates in these media, they experience a story that progresses from one point to the next as determined by an author. The audience is not an interactive participant in these media and cannot change the outcome of the story.” They go on to say that games are different in that the audience (the game player) interacts with a game and can (in fact, must be able to) change the outcome of the game. So traditional storytelling methods will not work in a game system because the player will not have enough of a sense of control if she cannot change the outcome of the game. The game will feel “fixed” or “random” which will result in an unsatisfying game-playing experience. Because of this need to have the player feel that she is in control of the progress of the game, very few games incorporate story as a dramatic element. Instead, most games use some sort of premise. Of course, some premises are more elaborate than others. When a premise gets to be very elaborate, it is called a backstory. Confused yet? Obviously, the boundary between premise and story is blurry.

I’ve been thinking about the word story a lot lately because of FaceBook. Every change that is made to your profile is called a story. So, for example, every time I change my status, a story is posted to my mini-feed as well as to the newsfeed for each of my friends. And then I can look at all my status stories. In fact, here are my status stories:

Saying that each of these items is a story is confusing to me. If you were to say that together these items make a story, each item being a plot point developed by me, the author, then I would understand why the word story is used. But how is each of these items a story by itself? I think this is yet another example of FaceBook coopting a word and changing its meaning.

{August 3, 2008}   A Lipshitz by Any Other Name

Here is one of the most amazing stories about an unthinking reliance on technology that I’ve heard in a long time.  Verizon does not allow the setting up of accounts that have profanity in the name of the account.  This might sound reasonable on its face since you can imagine a young English major deciding it would be cool to have their email address set up to be as an homage to her favorite faculty member at PSU (although I’m not sure why anyone would really care if that was indeed someone’s email address but apparently, Verizon does care and I suppose that is their right).  So the problem is not that someone at Verizon thought it would be good to have automated checks for such things.  The problem arises when there is an unthinking application of the rule so that legitimate requests are denied.

And that’s exactly what happened to Dr. Herman Lipshitz when he tried to set up an Internet account with Verizon.  He was told that because his name contains the word shit, he could not use it as his username for the account.  Like any good customer with a legitimate complaint, he asked to speak to a supervisor.  When the supervisor insisted that the rule must stand (and that perhaps the good doctor should misspell his name in order to get around the rule), Dr. Lipshitz called the billing department and spoke to another supervisor.  That supervisor said that the only person who could deal with it was someone in Tampa who would have to call India to have the computer code changed to allow an exception for this account.  The person from Tampa would call him back.  No one called but eventually, Dr. Lipshitz received a letter telling him that his name could not be used for his email account because it violates Verizon’s policy for allowable usernames.  So Dr. Lipshitz called the Philadelphia Inquirer and after Daniel Rubin published an article about the incident, Verizon relented, saying, “As a general rule (since 2005) Verizon doesn’t allow questionable language in e-mail addresses, but we can, and do, make exceptions based on reasonable requests.”  Dr. Lipshitz points out that he gets phone service from Verizon, is listed as Lipshitz in Verizon’s phone book and, perhaps most importantly, Verizon regularly cashes his checks with the name Lipshitz prominantly displayed on them.

About 15 years ago, I purchased something at a grocery store.  The total came to $2.37.  I gave the cashier $5.37 but she had already put $5.00 into the cash register which told her the change should be $2.63.  Despite five minutes of arguing, I could not convince her that it would be ok to take my $5.37 and give me $3.00 in change.  Until now, that had been my best story of an overreliance on technology.  That has now changed.

{August 2, 2008}   Kinds of Fun

Sit10 commented on my last entry that a friend had once told her that there is a difference between what men and women find funny. Men laugh because they think, “That’s so ridiculous.” Women laugh because they think, “That’s so true.” She then asked what I thought of that and how it might be related to game design.

The first thing that I wondered after getting Sit10’s comment is whether it really is true that men and women find different things funny. Sit10 pointed out that many more men than women find The Three Stooges funny and I have to agree with that observation. On the other hand, I’ve observed that it is often the case that opposite gendered siblings find similar things funny. So what role does gender play in what we find funny?

It turns out that there is a large body of literature that examines gender differences and humor. According to Thorson and Powell, an individual’s sense of humor is made of the following elements: 1. recognition of oneself as a humorous person; 2. recognition of others’ humor; 3. appreciation of humor; 4. laughing; 5. perspective (which is the idea of a personal outlook on life that is consistent with being good-humored); and, 6. coping humor. An individual sense of humor is comprised of varying levels of each of these elements. Most of the older studies that I found suggested that women were much less likely to be creators of humor but were more likely to use humor as a coping mechanism. More recent work has suggested that the results of these older studies were biased by the methods and materials used in the experiments and that, in fact, there is no difference between men and women in terms of their ability to create or to appreciate humor. A study from 2006, however, showed that there are gender differences in the kind of sense of humor desired in a partner. The typical man wants a woman who is able to appreciate the humor he creates and is not attracted to a woman who is herself very funny. The typical woman, on the other hand, values humor creation and apprecation equally in a partner.

A study done by Mary Crawford and Diane Gressley tested the hypothesis that men and women find different things funny. Using factor analysis to analyze the results of a humor questionaire, they discovered that there are ten dimensions of humor and that there are gender differences in four of the ten of them, which the authors of the study say shows that “women and men are more alike than different.” Men scored higher on hostile humor, jokes (which is defined as the telling of “formulaic jokes”) and slapstick while women scored higher on anecdotal humor. It seems that this study probably supports Sit10’s comments about what men and women find funny.

So what does this have to do with game design? One of the reasons that people play games is because they find them to be “fun.” If we can figure out what we mean by “fun”, then we can design games that people want to play. And if there are differences between what men and women think about “fun”, we might be able to figure out how to design more games that appeal to women.

One of the difficulties in writing about this topic has to do with the word fun. It seems that fun is kind of like pornography–it’s difficult to define but we know it when we see it. We each know when we’re having fun but can we identify the common features in our fun experiences? For example, I have fun when I play poker with my friends. But I also have fun when I go to an Indigo Girls concert and when I discuss literary criticism with Ann and when a class that I’ve planned goes really well. Of course, not all of these situations involve game playing but I think they illustrate the idea that fun is not just one thing. Any theory of fun (even one that we want to apply to game playing only) will have to take into account that there are different kinds of fun.

Several researchers have attempted to delineate different kinds of fun. Probably the most famous taxonomy of fun comes from Marc LeBlanc (no relation to me even though my brother’s name is Mark LeBlanc). He created an approach (called the Mechanics, Dynamics, and Aesthetics approach) to examining, testing and designing games. Ambiguous concepts such as fun fall into the Aesthetics category and he has identified eight different types of fun. Each game uses some combination of these eight types of fun. The eight types are: 1. sensation, in which the game functions as an art object and has some sort of beauty; 2. fantasy, in which the game functions as a vehicle for make believe; 3. narrative, in which the game tells a story that unfolds over time; 4. challenge, in which the game presents the player with obstacles to overcome; 5. fellowship, in which the game provides a social context for interaction; 6. discovery, in which the game presents uncharted territory for the player to explore and master; 7. expression, in which the game allows the player to express herself (for example, via choices in avatar); and, 8. submission, in which the game is simply a mindless pastime that provides pleasure. LeBlanc says that these categories provide a vocabulary for play aesthetics so that as we design a new game, we can identify which type of fun we want and then create a list of criteria that will provide a yardstick for that type of fun in our game.

There is some evidence from a variety of studies (as well as a lot of anecdotal evidence) that men and women in general like different types of games. For example, one study found that women’s preferences for games include lots of opportunities for social interaction (even if only with a virtual character within the game), a non-sexualized role for the female protagonist, and content that is not aggressive. These findings sound similar to the findings about humor and also show why many popular contemporary video games are not very appealing to women.

From a game design standpoint, the lesson from this study is similar to the lesson I take from the popularity of the Wii. Much of the progress in game design and development has been focused on the visual aspect of games–more realistic rendering of the game environment. This means that we can have more realistic visual renderings of in-game characters, including sexualized female characters, as well as more realistic game physics that allow fighting and violence to feel more real. Increases in these areas seem to appeal mostly to hardcore gamers, most of whom are men. To appeal to more women (as well as casual gamers and non-gamers), the game development community should focus on improving other aspects of the game. The Wii shows us that innovative interaction possibilities between the player and the game environment are appealing to a broad new audience. I think the studies I’ve mentioned here show that focusing on artificial intelligence (to create more realistic character behavior within the game) and on facilitating social interactions among players within the game will result in games that more women find to be fun. I hope the success of the Wii means that the game development community will start paying attention to more of these kinds of things. Of course, the number of movies whose humor is aimed at adolescent boys mitigates my hope somewhat.

et cetera