Desert of My Real Life

{March 24, 2011}   Moving to Apple

I got a new “toy” today.  It’s an 11.6 inch Mac Book Air.  I have never owned an Apple computer although in the last few years, I’ve become a fan (mostly) of Apple’s iPod products.  A few months ago, my friend Julie showed me her new Mac Book Air, which she had gotten for Christmas.  I am not usually someone who gets particularly excited about new technology.  I’ve seen (and purchased) too many “solutions” to think that any one tool is going to change anything about my life.  I did, however, get really excited about the Mac Book Air.  I have never thought that it is going to “change my life.”  But I thought it was pretty cool and could see that it provides a level of convenience that I haven’t seen in other products yet.  I was particularly excited about its use of flash technology for storage.  There are no moving parts for the hard drive of the Mac Book Air.  Instead, it has a large flash drive, similar to the thumb drives that have become so ubiquitous, as its hard drive.  The lack of moving parts in the hard drive means that the computer boots almost instantaneously.  It also means that the hard drive doesn’t generate much heat, reducing the need for large cooling fans.  All of this leads to the thing that excited me most about this new computer.  It is SMALL!

There are smaller computers available.  My iPod Touch, for example, is a much smaller computer than this new Mac Book Air.  But the iPod Touch does not include a full-sized keyboard.  Instead, it uses a touch pad key board which I find somewhat cumbersome to use.  I would never try to write a blog entry on my iPod Touch, for example.  It would be much too tedious.  I could get a Bluetooth keyboard but then it seems stupid to carry the iPod Touch AND its Bluetooth keyboard around with me.  The Mac Book Air, on the other hand, is an actual laptop with a full-sized keyboard and an 11.6 inch screen.  So it feels much more like a computer.  But because of the lack of a regular hard drive, it is much smaller than an ordinary laptop.  The main thing that excited me about this computer is its weight–it weighs less than 2.5 pounds.  What does that mean? Go find a 5 subject spiral bound PAPER notebook.  That is about what this laptop weighs.  And its dimensions are smaller than that.  It is significantly less than an inch thick.  And its height and width are smaller than an 8.5X11 inch piece of paper.  In other words, this is a computer that I can see carrying with me and using in a lot of situations where I have used paper up to this point.  And that excites me.

Although this is probably not a laptop that can completely replace every computer you use (mostly because the flash drive on the 11.6 inch version is only 128GB), there are some other nice features that Apple provides that will make it extremely useful.  The main tool to help with the small flash drive size is a product called Mobile Me.  This product also solves the problem of having multiple devices and wanting access to the same set of files, an issue that anyone who has both a personal computer and a work computer has probably encountered.  Mobile Me is Apple’s “cloud” solution which provides space on the Internet for you to store your files and folders.  It also provides a syncing function so that when you change something with one computer, it automatically updates your space in the cloud so that your other devices have access to the changes.  I just signed up for a 60 day free trial, after which it will cost me $99 for a year’s worth of access to 20GB of space in the cloud.  I’m still loading my space with files from my PC so I can’t review how it works yet.  I will say that Apple was having some major technical problems with new users and Mobile Me just when I was signing up for the service.  Although I wasn’t happy with those glitches, everyone at Apple’s customer service was great and didn’t make me jump through stupid hoops when I made it clear that I had already tried a whole bunch of stuff to fix the problem.  Within about 3 hours, they had the problem resolved.  Although I think the idea for Mobile Me is brilliant, I’ll reserve judgment on this particular implementation until I’ve had time to use it.

So, I’m a happy geek with a new toy!  Now I just have to figure out how to use this Multi-Touch trackpad with no right or left mouse buttons.

{March 9, 2011}   We Are Playing a Game

One of my blog buddies, the fabulous Caroline Bender (she of Drawing In fame), wrote an entry yesterday about the “game” she and I have been playing on Facebook.  I put “game” in quotes because one of the questions she asks is whether we are actually playing a game.  So here is my response to her opening move in this blogscussion.

Several weeks ago, Ms. Bender made an off-hand comment on Facebook about having started to play online Scrabble.  This is one of the two games that I continue to play on Facebook (the other is Go).  She had warned her potential Scrabble opponents by posting a status update that she “knows you all thought I would better at Scrabble. (Well…all but 2 of you, I think).”  How could I resist?  I challenged her to a game. 

We’ve now played several games and she does not get very high scores.  We have had a couple of snippets of conversation concerning the differences in our styles of play.  My style of play typically leads to high scores while hers does not.  All of that is fine with me.  Whether I win or lose, I just like to play.  So, to get back to her question, are we playing a game?  To answer it, I’ll look at what I think are her reasons for asking the question.

I’ve written a bunch about definitions of games and analyzing various activities to determine whether they are games.  I most often use Greg Costikyan’s definition, with its six elements that every game must have, as my framework for analysis.  Ms. Bender does an impressive analysis (which I won’t recreate but which you should go read) of Scrabble using this framework.  I think some of the things she discovers in her analysis lead her to question whether Scrabble is a game.  The most interesting item that she raises has to do with goals.  She also raises an interesting possibility of a seventh criterion for making an activitiy a game and I’ll talk about that possibility in relationship to goals.

Ms. Bender rightly points out that Scrabble does indeed present its players with a goal.  But I would state it a bit differently than she does.  She says that the goal of Scrabble is to get the most points and use all the letters.  I would instead say that the goal is to play your letters in order to score points.  The difference is subtle and yet, critical.  Ms. Bender has made the assumption that everyone plays games for the same reason–to win the game.  But I have written a couple of papers (and blog entries)  in which I argue that this common assumption is a problem in game studies circles.  My argument has been controversial.  Anyway, here’s the basic idea.

First, when Costikyan talks about goals, he is not talking about player motivations.  He really means the objective that is set up by the game for the player to achieve.  So in Scrabble, the objective is to score points by laying your tiles on the board.  Some players will be motivated to engage in this activity because they want to win the game.  Other players will be motivated because they want to hang out with their friends.  Yet other players will be motivated because they get pleasure in finding particular types of patterns.  This is what Ms. Bender refers to when she says, after showing that in our current game I am beating her quite soundly, “It’s not that I don’t care.  It’s just not what I care about.”  Her motivation for playing is something other than getting a higher score than her opposition.  And by the way, so is mine.  But more about that later.

So there’s a difference between player motivation and the goal of the game.  What do we know about player motivation?  There is an old, simple media theory called the uses and gratifications theory that is helpful in understanding motivations for using media such as games.  It is one of the first theories that focused on the recipient of media messages.  One of the most famous quotes about the theory comes from a paper by Blumler and Katz in which they say the theory explores

1) the social and psychological origins of 2) needs, which generate 3) expectations of 4) the mass media or other sources, which lead to 5) differential patterns of media exposure (or engagement in other activities), resulting in 6) need gratifications and 7) other consequences, perhaps mostly unintended ones. (Blumler J. G. & E. Katz (1974): The Uses of Mass Communication. Newbury Park, CA: Sage. p. 20.)

In other words, people have needs that they seek to gratify by consuming media that they expect will gratify those needs. The theory goes on to articulate a large number of needs that people seek to gratify by consuming media messages.

What does this have to do with games?  It means that people play games for many, many reasons, to gratify a large number of needs.  We in the game studies field have primarily focused on the need to beat the competition, that is, to win.  But I think the popularity of Farmville, especially among a non-typical gaming population, should make us question this assumption that people play games in order to win.  (And by the way, it was this argument about Farmville in particular that was so controversial at an awesome video game conference in Oxford this past summer–the counter-argument is that there is nothing redeeming about Farmville.)

So when Ms. Bender says that she sees Scrabble as “verbal sudoku,” she is saying that it gratifies a need for her other than the need to win.  The interesting thing is that I feel exactly the same way about Scrabble.  For me, it is all about finding patterns.  It’s just that the patterns that give my brain a little jolt of pleasure are different than the patterns that give Ms. Bender her gaming high.

Ms. Bender also asks: “I am interested to know if #7 criterion should be that we have to be playing the same game, or is it still a game anyway?”  I think my analysis above makes it clear what I think about this.  But in case it isn’t clear, here goes.  We ARE playing the same game.  We simply have different motivations for playing that game.  And that, to me, is fun.  The fact that we have different motivations is indeed PART of the game.  She said that I am not her opposition because she has a different motivation, something other than winning that she cares about.  But I am indeed her opposition because opposition is anything that puts obstacles in the way of the player achieving her goals, both the objective presented by the game and the goal of having her needs gratified.  So everytime I block an area so that she can’t use it to create the word BARGAIN, I present an obstacle.  And THAT is fun.

There is a huge controversy raging in NH this year involving the Northern Pass Project.  According to the project’s web site, the Northern Pass is “a transmission project designed to deliver up to 1,200 megawatts of low-carbon, renewable energy (predominantly hydropower) from Québec to New England’s power grid.”  Despite the apparent “greenness” of this project, many people in the state (including many environmentalists) are fighting this project.

I’ve been having some difficulty separating hype from truth when talking to people and reading articles in the newspaper about this topic.  So I decided to do some additional research about it to see what I think in advance of voting on a resolution about it tomorrow on election day.

Here is the proposed path of the power line.  You can see that it goes right through Groveton, Lancaster, Lincoln, Campton, Plymouth, Ashland and Bristol.  These are towns that depend heavily on tourist dollars for their economic vitality.  And much of the argument against the project focuses on the impact of the project on tourism.  According to the project’s own web site, the towers along the project’s path will stand between 80 and 135 feet in the air.  The web site compares these towers to a typical cell phone tower, which stands 180 feet tall.  This seems to me to be an irrelevant comparison since cell phone towers are typically singular whereas the criticism of the project’s towers is that there will 140 miles of them.  These towers will run through some of the most scenic areas of the state and the fear is that this will detract from the beauty of the state, meaning that tourists will not want to vacation here anymore.

Another criticism of the project is that the electricity originates in Quebec, which means that we will be purchasing this power from Canada.  I was in a local business recently where the owner was expressing his discontent about the project with an official of the project.  I overheard him say that this project represents a “wholesale invasion of New Hampshire by Canada.”  This seems a bit overblown to me but the answer to the question of why we should buy power from Canada on the FAQ of the project seems to be a non-answer.  They say that the New England states must buy renewable energy in as cost-effective a manner as possible.  There is nothing in the answer that explains why this is the most cost-effective manner possible.  The answers in the FAQ do, however, make it very clear that we are indeed buying this electricity from Hydro-Quebec.  We are still relying on foreign energy.  This is not necessarily bad but I don’t really see how it helps New Hampshire to do so.

Another of the arguments in favor of the project is that it will create jobs in the North Country of New Hampshire.  But if you read between the lines, it’s clear that these jobs are construction jobs.  Once the transmission lines are built, those jobs disappear.  So this is a very short-term benefit with a long-term negative impact.

I have just relied on the information provided by the people involved in the Northern Pass project and they really have not convinced me that this is good for the people of New Hampshire.  I haven’t even spent any time reading the web pages of the critics of the project.  They are planning to deliver this electricity to the southern part of New Hampshire and south of that (Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island), where the largest population base is.  And yet, it seems that the largest negative impact will be on the people of northern and central New Hampshire.  How is that fair?  Unless someone comments with a compelling argument, I am going to have to vote in favor of the resolution against this project.  What do you think?

{March 4, 2011}   Game Design Education

I belong to the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) which has a fairly active listserv.  The most recent discussion on the listserv was prompted by Brenda Brathwaite‘s rant at the most recent Game Developers Conference, which ends today.  Brathwaite is a well-known game designer, educator, IGDA board member, and author.  She wrote one of my favorite game design books, Challenges for Game Designers.  So people pay attention to what she has to say.  And what she had to say in this latest rant has been quite controversial.

The title of her rant is Built on a Foundation of Code.  Her basic point is this: “Game design programs must be firmly rooted in a foundation of code.”  What she means is that students graduating from a game design program must be good programmers.  They must learn to create digital games from scratch.  Code is the tool of the trade and if we game educators do not teach our students to program, we are doing them a huge disservice.  She makes this point as a game designer who started in industry, went to academia, and is now back in industry.  She sees thousands of resumes and wants us all to know that she will not hire entry-level game designers who have not created their own digital games.  That is, she will not hire game designers who can’t code. 

I’ve heard this kind of argument before but it usually comes from computer scientists who think that their discipline is the most important one for the multidisciplinary field of game development.  But Brathwaite is not a computer scientist and so her argument is a bit surprising.  And it’s also why no one is simply dismissing what she is saying–she’s not saying MY discipline is the most important. 

At the risk of sounding discipline-centric, as a computer scientist, I think that the training that computer scientists go through is extremely important for anyone who wants to create any sort of procedural content.  What do I mean by that?

Procedural content is any artifact that is executed by a computer, any artifact that is comprised of a series of instructions that are to be run by a computer.  For example, this blog entry is digital content but not procedural content–it does not contain instructions for the computer to execture.  The blog software that I’m using (wordpress) IS procedural content–it is comprised of instructions that are executed by the computer as I write my blog entry.  Creating procedural content requires a particular way of thinking about that content.  Creating procedural content also requires the development of debugging skills because no one writes procedural content that works perfectly the first time.  Making this content work properly can be tedious and frustrating and the developer needs to be persistent and detail-oriented, while also being able to take a step away from the content to think about the obstacles in new ways.  It takes practice to implement this cycle of creating the content, testing to find bugs, planning a fix for the bugs, implementing the new content, testing to find bugs, planning a fix, and so on.  And the ability to think in a way that allows you to go through this cycle over and over seems important for anyone who wants to work in game development.

Notice that I’m saying something a bit different than Brathewaite.  She says she wants all game developers to be able to code.  I’m saying I think game developers need to be able to think like coders.  But perhaps it boils down to the same thing, perhaps the only way to teach someone to think like a coder is to teach them to code.  In any case, I think this is an interesting question, one that I’ve thought about quite a bit as I’ve tried to teach game design and development to non-computer science majors.  I’m still trying to figure out the best way to teach this kind of thinking.

et cetera