Desert of My Real Life

{April 5, 2010}   Wii Streaming

A few months ago, Liz bought a Roku so that she could stream Netflix content to her television.  She complained slightly about the $80 price tag for a device that can only do one thing.  But overall, she has been very happy with the Roku.  Netflix has been pushing its users to watch content instantly, without the need for the shipping of a DVD.  Watching instantly is really a win-win situation.  We content consumers win because we don’t have to wait for the US Mail to deliver our DVDs to us and then back to Netflix when we’re done.  It’s a big win for Netflix if we watch instantly because shipping costs have made the company the largest customer of the US Postal Service.  If we watch instantly, no DVD needs to be shipped and therefore, Netflix saves that postage cost.  I’ve watched some content directly on my laptop but I don’t find it as compelling as watching the content on my TV.  But I also didn’t want to spend money on another stand-alone electronic device.

Netflix has the answer!  They have recently sent me a DVD to put into my Wii (which I already own as those of you who have laughed at my Wii injury know) so that I can access my Netflix queue via the Wii.  I set everything up this afternoon, which was amazingly easy. Within a few minutes, Iwatched my first instant content in all its surround-sound glory.  Set up might take longer if you don’t already have your Wii connected to a wireless or wired network.  But if it’s already set up to automatically connect to your home network, the rest of the set up involves the simple insertion of the Netflix DVD into your Wii.  The content that I watched this afternoon suffered no network delays making it indistinguishable from watching on a DVD.  Actually, it might be better to watch instantly since I sometimes get DVDs from Netflix that are so scratched up and dirty that they are virtually unwatchable.  And the amount of content that is available for watching instantly is quite remarkable.

The only complaint I have about the experience so far is that navigating my Watch Instantly queue is a bit different than navigating through it on my computer.  It seems as though items should appear on the Wii in the same order that they appear on my computer but things looked different enough that I don’t think the order is the same.  But that’s a minor complaint since I haven’t really managed my Watch Instantly queue with the same attention to detail that I’ve used on my DVD queue.  Maybe that will change as I switch to using the Wii more often.

And, by the way, Happy Birthday, Liz!

{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 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.

{May 31, 2008}   Back on the Wii Remote

I finally played with the Wii again today after staying away from it since my unfortunate encounter with a post (which you can read about here). My hand still isn’t back to normal–it was a deep bruise! I was a little nervous about playing but I ended up playing for about an hour and a half. The interesting thing is that after being away from it for almost 3 weeks, I gained in my skill level. My Wii fitness age today was 29 and I’m getting closer to being a pro in tennis. I’m already a pro in bowling and I got a score of 213 (my record is 214) in the only game I bowled. I’m back, baby! But you can bet I moved the coffee table far out of the way! I’m also cultivating a minimalist approach in which I don’t really use my entire body as I play. Instead, I just try to flick my wrist a little bit, especially in tennis. It seems to be working pretty well.

{May 13, 2008}   A Tale of Wii Woe

I suffered my first (and, I hope, only) Wii injury last night playing tennis by myself against the computer. Because I was only going to play a match or two and because I am incredibly lazy, I didn’t move the coffee table out of the way before I started to play. You can guess why that might be problematic. There are warnings all over the packaging and even within the games to make sure that you have enough clear space to play these games safely. But I very clearly ignored those warnings.

Our Wii is set up upstairs in the loft. On the left side of the loft is a wooden railing. It has one large post in the center that sticks up higher than the rest of the railing. In a game that I was winning by a wide margin, I tried to make a killer cross-court backhand shot (in other words, I was swinging as hard as I can). The back of my hand impacted the top of that post. As pain shot up my arm, my hand turned dark reddish purple and then started to bleed. My first thought was that I had broken my hand.

Eventually, the pain subsided enough for me to take a quick inventory. I could move all my fingers and rotate my wrist. I put ice on my hand and took some ibuprofen. It hurt to move but wasn’t aching so I started to think that maybe I hadn’t broken it after all. I decided to reevaluate the situation in the morning.

Luckily, the only times the pain woke me up were when I rolled onto my hand. Because I know how much broken bones ache, I was really starting to think that I hadn’t broken it. But I still had some pain that radiated up my forearm as well as a burning sensation down the back of my hand. I also accidentally touched the back of my hand on the inside of the car on the way to work and that nearly sent me to my knees because the pain was so bad. There are a lot of little bones in the hand and I wasn’t sure what breaking one of them might feel like. So I decided to see my primary care physician to see if she thought I should get xrays.

No one at the doctor’s office laughed out loud at my tale of Wii woe but everyone had a story of someone else doing something stupid like this. My doctor felt that I probably had not broken the hand (because I could move it in all the right ways and because it hadn’t really kept me up at night) and that the pain was most likely the result of all that soft tissue damage, including to the tendons that run down the back of the hand into the forearm. But she thought I should probably still have xrays because of the extreme tenderness across the knuckles.

So I walked up to the hospital to get the xrays. I know the xray technician from some volunteer work that I do and he and his fellow tech had a hearty belly laugh when I told the story. He also said that he completely understood how this could happen with this game. I think he was just trying to make me feel better about my stupidity.

Here’s what it looks like today:
Wii Injury

This picture doesn’t give you the full sense of the color of the injury but it does give a sense of the swelling and the abrasions. It turns out that I didn’t break my hand, which I feel incredibly lucky about, especially given how hard I swung that Wii remote! I’m not sure when I’ll play with the Wii again or when my hand will feel better. I’m even less sure about when my ego will feel better. But I am sure that when I do play with the Wii again, I will move the coffee table out of the way.

By the way, here’s a blog dedicated to telling stories of Wii injuries. There are a lot of stories! That should probably make me feel better about my Wii experience. But there are a lot of people who do these kinds of things too. And that doesn’t make me feel any less stupid.

{May 8, 2008}   Wii Fitness Age

The Wii has a lot of features that you can use with the basic set up. One of the most popular seems to be the fitness test that comes with Wii Sports. Once a day, each Mii in the Wii can take the fitness test. The Mii is presented with what appears to be a random set of three games (although every time I’ve taken the test, I’ve been presented with tennis, bowling and baseball) to play to determine the player’s “Wii fitness age”. The fitness age purports to measure speed, balance and stamina. The results of hitting balls back over the net in tennis, being able to knock down pins in a variety of configurations on bowling and being able to hit home runs in baseball result in a “Wii fitness age” somewhere between 80 and 20, 80 being the worst score and 20 being the best. The interesting thing to me about this particular aspect of the Wii is that the ideal age is 20.

I’m not sure why a game that is supposed to be based on experience would be designed to peak at the age of 20. The description of this feature suggests that the player should practice every day in order to bring his/her age down. In what world is the “peak” age twenty years old? For many athletes, their peak age is in the late 20s. In fact, for some athletes, golfers in particular, their peak age is much later in life. Think about Tiger Woods who has gotten better and better as he has aged. Now that he’s in his 30s, he seems to be continuing to get better. So where does peak happen at about age 20? The only thing I could find is that men tend to peak sexually at age 20. Women, however, peak sexually in their mid- to late 30s.

The fitness test says that it will be about speed, balance and stamina. None of the games seems to be about these things. Instead the game seems to be totally about experience within the game. Experience tends to increase with age. The only conclusion that I can come to about this particular aspect of Wii Sports is that the developers of the game were geeky men who tend to think that the peak age in life corresponds to male sexual peak age. Why else would 20 be the age to strive for?

I would love to hear from others about what their Wii fitness age is. My current Wii fitness age is 39, which, as regular readers of this blog (all one of you) already know, is younger than my actual age. Although I am skeptical of the bases for this particular test, I am secretly (not so secretly anymore) proud of the fact that my Wii fitness age is lower than my actual age. This reminds me of the peculiar pride I take in the fact that this test has deemed that I am a “Pure Nerd”. All it takes to help my self-esteem is for an anonymous web site to declare one thing is better than another and I am totally trying to achieve that better thing. How pathetic is that? My current score on the Nerd, Geek, Dork test is 82 % Nerd, 17% Geek, 26% Dork. And I’m a little bit proud of that. Sad and pathetic, I know. Take the test yourself and explain why you’re proud (or not) of your score.

{March 19, 2008}   Buying a Wii

So is it strange for a 45-year-old woman to covet a Wii? I’ve been intrigued by this game system since I first saw one two years ago. So I finally bought one. I’ve been looking around in Best Circuit Shack-type stores but everyone has been sold out. Last week, I bit the bullet and ordered one online. I went all out–extra remote, numchuk, classic controller and so on. And to top it all off–I got DDR to go with it. It arrived today via UPS and it took only about 20 minutes to set it up.

Evelyn and I played all the sports right away. It turns out that I’m really good at tennis but she’s really good at boxing. She’s a brute and I should be eating strawberries and cream at Wimbledon. In the boxing game, I haven’t quite figured out how to protect my face and body but score hits on her face and body at the same time. She beat me in a decision and then in our second match, she outright knocked me out in the first round! We had a blast and were both sweating profusely by the time we were done. We got so tired out by the sports that we haven’t even tried DDR yet. We need to get another dance pad before we really have a great time with it.

One interesting thing to me about the Wii is the how poor the graphics are. For years, game reviews have focused on increased realism in the rendering of the game worlds. The technological challenges involved in rendering a tree blowing in the wind in a realistic manner are great but the average person doesn’t get excited about those challenges. The Wii moves us in the direction of ignoring the graphics to focus on the game play and how the player interacts with the game world. In the baseball game, for example, the Miis run around without any legs. In the boxing game, the Miis’ hands are separated from their bodies. And yet there’s something about the interface that has captured the imagination of all kinds of people, especially people who aren’t typically gamers. While Evelyn and I were playing, we both got into the games with our entire bodies. In fact, when Evelyn would serve in tennis, she would use her left hand to toss an imaginary ball into the air. Her left hand didn’t have any sort of controller in it and so she did that movement solely for her own brain, rather than for anything in the game itself. I think that’s the key to the appeal of the game–your movements in the real world are almost directly mapped into the game world. The manner in which we use the Wii remote (and the numchuk) are mapped into the game world in a way that makes us feel as though the remote is both a part of our world and a part of the game world. It exists on the boundary, the threshold, of the real, physical world and the game world. Like the dance pad in DDR, it is the threshold object (what Janet Murray would call the “liminal object”) that engages us, immerses us in the world of the game.

With the success of the Wii, all kinds of companies are focusing on different ways to interact with games. Ars Technica today has a review of a new game controller that sounds interesting in the way that DDR’s dance pads and the Wii are interesting. It’s called the Novint Falcon. It remains to be seen which of these new hardware interfaces are going to be successful but I think the focus on them is a positive development.

et cetera