MIT Undergraduates: Make Games with Us this Summer as a UROP!

The MIT Game Lab, MIT Education Arcade, and “Shenkar – Engineering. Art. Design” (of Tel Aviv, Israel) are partnering up this summer to run a Game Development Summer Workshop!

We are hiring current MIT or Wellesley undergrads, eligible for an MIT UROP, to participate in the workshop and to make video games with us!

We are looking for enthusiastic students who want to practice their game design, production, and programming skills in a challenging environment!

Students will work full-time (40 hours/week at the standard $10/hour UROP rate) during the Summer (early June thru late August). Part-time work is also available in the Spring if you are free then as well. Students from both MIT and Shenkar will work together in multi-disciplinary teams to make games for social change. The work will take place on MIT campus, guided by staff mentors from the Game Lab and Education Arcade (our games: http://gamelab.mit.edu/games & http://education.mit.edu/projects).

Does all this sound interesting to you? Are you ready to make some amazing games? This is a great opportunity to network with other like-minded students, to add a completed and shipped project to your portfolio, and to possibly even find folks you might want to work with in the future!

Candidates will be able to demonstrate applicable skills depending on the type of role we’re hiring (design or programming). Students who have done a UROP to create new software or games, or who have taken game design classes taught by the Game Lab or the Education Arcade, will be preferred.

Please send the following to Sara Verrilli, MIT Game Lab (gamelab-request@mit.edu) by April 15th:
– Updated resume/CV
– Cover letter (statement of interest: why do you want to work with us? what kinds of games have you made?)
– Link to portfolio of work if you have one (previous games made, applicable classwork)

Interviews will be given through April 25th with all positions filled by the end of April.

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Deep narrative: the next evolution of the Escape Room experience

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A guest post by Joanne Reay, producer at Terra Mater Studios and speaker at our Escape Room Game Jam this month:

My great-uncle Alfie tackled the Times crossword puzzle every day for forty years. What began as a battle to solve the clues evolved, over time, into a battle of wits and wills between himself and the roster of anonymous cruciverbalists who compiled the daily puzzles.

He came to recognize the style, fields of reference and foibles of each of the compilers and this added another layer of engagement to his experience. Not only would Alfie have the fun of cracking the clues, but he could also wrestle with guessing which of the compilers had created the puzzle and – using that knowledge – get an additional insight into the solution.

Like a detective perceiving a modus operandi — he enjoyed an added advantage.

Proving as addictive as crossword puzzles, Escape Rooms exploit our fascination with finding solutions. The format is simple: 3 – 8 players are voluntarily locked in a room and, within a given time-span, they must solve a series of puzzles in order to escape. To date, most rooms offer only a scant narrative, usually a defined location (a pharaoh’s tomb, a mafia mob-house, a nu-clear bunker). I believe however, that the next generation of Escape Room will offer a compelling narrative in which an understanding of the story-world delivers an added advantage and insight into the solving of the clues.

If this is proves to be so, an additional aspect might come into play: our minds operate differently when we follow a story. Logic falls into step alongside intuition and our ability to imagine the impossible is stimulated. The deep pulse of an unfolding story, resonating around the puzzles, may trigger different parts of our conscious and subconscious mind to engage with the puzzles and the methods by which we solve them could take a new turn.

One further fresh dynamic to consider: in the traditional Escape Room, the puzzles are the masters and the players the pawns. If we enter a room where the story is woven into the warp and weft of the experience, it could be that the solution of a particular puzzle affects the narrative and steers the story in a new direction, leading to an alternate set of puzzles. A more fluid expe-rience would result, eventually breaking the bounds of the Escape Room and generating story strands that travel across other media, such as film.

At the Game Jam, we’ll witness the story-world of the movie DxM and explore how it can worm-hole into an Escape Room experience.

Finally, if we look at video gaming – so often the path-finder in entertainment evolution — we see something that began as simple hand-eye coordination puzzles and rapidly evolved into a pleasure-dome of narrative, Escape Rooms stand on the tipping point of becoming an immer-sive experience and so, once again, the art of story-telling finds a new arena.

About the Author:
TERRAMATER, Joanne Reay hochJOANNE REAY is a screenwriter and producer, now heading up Terra Mater Studios, the new cinema division of Red Bull Media House. She is also an author of “Romeo Spikes”, the first novel in the Lo’Life trilogy, published by Simon & Schuster.

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Playing Live-Action Escape Rooms in a Competitive Mode?

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You might have heard of the rapidly growing trend of escape room games. In escape rooms, groups of 3-8 players voluntarily get locked into a physical room. By exploring the space, discovering hints, following traces, and solving puzzles they try to escape within a restricted amount of time. The idea is routed in different game genres like point-and-click adventures, puzzle hunts, theme parks, and live-action role playing games. As the games scholar Scott Nicholson highlights in his first exploration of the phenomena (2015) these live-action team-based games offer a variety of fascinating insights into game and level design, player cultures, business models, and technologies. We would like to enrich the discussion by asking how these games could be played in a competitive tournament style – as a (e)sport.

Before we dive into the question of what aspects an escape room competition might involve, lets first tackle the question what makes a game a sport. By following Bernhard Suits definition of games, escape rooms are games as they involve a clear goal (escaping the room), a rule-based means of achieving the goal (solving puzzles) and a lusory attitude (the whole team agrees on pretending they are actually trapped). But not every game can be played as a sport. Suits (2003, 14) defines four components a game needs to address to fall into the category “sport”: “(1) a game of skill, (2) that the skill be physical, (3) that the game have a wide following, and (4) that the following achieve a certain level of stability.” When it comes to escape rooms, the sportiness is clearly given by the physical (and mental) skills involved along with the time pressure. However, each room is different, involves different rule sets and hardly any of them are played in a competitive mode or with a stable professional following.

So what elements would have to be adressed to make playing an escape room a competitive sport?

1. Comparability
“Well, my team made the Mind Boggling Escape Room in Vienna in 35 minutes and 36 seconds, and you?” “We did Munich Hold’em in 40 minutes and 20 seconds”. Which team is better? We will never know because the two rooms are completely different game spaces and involve different analytic, social, and visual puzzles. If you would want to make escape rooms competitive they would have to be comparable in terms of the teams starting conditions, team size, rules, and goals. Some escape rooms already have two teams compete simultaneously in two identical rooms or multiple teams within a single room. However, after wining your challenge the competitiveness has reached its end. The room can’t be replayed and no leagues and following exist.

2. Scalability
So let’s say team A was better in solving the room than team B. Good for them – but beside the team members of the room or maybe the local highscore-list it is impossible to compare the success on a global basis. To allow players to compete on a global level, exactly the same room would have to be replicated at different venues world-wide and allow a comparison on a global basis, or different rooms would have to the evaluated in terms of their difficulty level with a well defined assessment system (like f.e. in golf). Also, the question arises how one could be assured no cheating is involved, in particular based on the fact that the core activity in escape rooms is solving puzzles.

3. Cheat-Proof
When you pay to play an escape room there is no real benefit of cheating and already knowing all the solutions. The moment escaping the room gets competitive that situation changes! So how could you prevent teams from cheating and whistle-blowing the solutions of the challenges to competing teams? One way to go, would be changing the puzzles based on a randomized system. Thereby still allowing the comparability might get tricky. Another way would be to run the rooms simultaneously, so nobody ever had the chance to communicate the results to another team. Alternatively, people could already know what the puzzles are, but the way to solve them changes and the skill involved focuses on skills other than solving the puzzles themselves. Cheating is indeed a tricky problem when we are thinking about the competitiveness of escape rooms.

4. Feasibility
Let’s say someone runs a number of identical escape rooms at different venues at the same time and teams compete in getting out of the room the fasters with the least hints taken. The quality of an escape room strongly depends on its game design and physical environment. Many escape rooms take weeks or month to built and creating the same room at many different venues does not seam practical because of the enormous costs and time spent. In particular if the rooms would have to played simultaneously, this option does not seam feasible. The solution to this problem could be the usage of technology. Players could compete in a semi-virtual challenge – like an eSport – or technological devises are used, that replace an extensively designed physical room. It stays questionable how the key elements of team-communication, physical discovery and exploration will work within virtual settings.

5. Stability
A final interesting restriction – if we follow Suits definition – would be the stability of competitive escape room playing. If solving escape rooms in a competitive mode should ever get a sport, the conditions would have to reach a level in which teams want to improve their skills and compete on a local and global level.

We followed the question how games as sports offer a broader cultural momentum before (Consalvo, Stein & Mitgutsch 2013). However, the question arises, why would one would even want to play an escape room competitively? Without wanting to close this question, it could be argued, that escape room sports could offer a novel ground to reach from a local and business-driven sector to a broader and global exploration of adventure game challenges. One of the design challenges our first Escape Room Game Jam will address is the exploration potentials for scalability and feasibility of escape room challenges.

Consalvo, M. / Mitgutsch, K. / Stein, A. (Eds.). (2013) Sports Video Games. NY: Routledge

Nicholson, S. (2015). Peeking behind the locked door: A survey of escape room facilities. White Paper available at http://scottnicholson.com/pubs/erfacwhite.pdf

Suits, B. (2007). The elements of sport. In: Morgan, W. J. (Ed.) (2007). Ethics in sport (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 9-19

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Escape Room Game Jam Keynote Speaker: Scott Nicholson

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To kick off our first ever Escape Room Game Jam, we’ve asked Scott Nicholson, Associate Professor from the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University and director of the Because Play Matters game lab, to speak to us about escape room games!

Dr. Nicholson has recently been researching the design and development of Escape Rooms and will share with us some of his findings, as well as introduce to us what Escape Rooms are!

His Keynote will be Saturday, March 28th at 10:30am. Register for the Escape Room Game Jam today!

From his Because Play Matters website, he talks about why he is interested in studying Escape Rooms:

He has also started “Google Group and Facebook Group where enthusiasts (fans and designers) can talk about Escape Rooms. Come join in the conversation before the Jam starts!

Dr. Nicholson will also be with us the entire weekend to guide participants in their Escape Room designs!

gameprofessprsqDr. Scott Nicholson is an Associate Professor at Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies and the Director of the Because Play Matters game lab and the Game Designers’ Guild of Syracuse. He was a visiting professor in 2011-2012 at MIT in Comparative Media Studies and the Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab. He focuses on the development of transformative games and play for informal learning and training. Dr. Nicholson is a published recreational board game designer, was the host of Board Games with Scott, and wrote the book Everyone Plays at the Library.

More about Dr. Nicholson’s work can be found at Because Play Matters.

The Escape Room Game Jam will be held on MIT campus from March 27-29, 2015.
Register for the Escape Room Game Jam today!

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The Sudden Fandom of Amiibo; Or, “I’m Really Feeling It!”

Retrieved from https://scottcruddas.wordpress.com/2014/12/21/amiibo-buyers-guide-everything-you-need-to-know/
Our friend Percival

Our friend Percival

A couple months ago I found myself in the best version of a familiar scenario: in line at my local game store early on a long-awaited launch day. I was picking up Super Smash Bros. For Wii U for the Game Lab in what was expected to be the least eventful part of my day, in which I had one of the first opportunities to flex my event-planning muscles in the name of my burgeoning career in video games. After an odd moment with unexpected tensions over who would be picking up an adapter for the ever-popular Gamecube controllers (the Lab got ours easily enough), off I went to start unlocking characters with a few fellow graduate students, all in the name of science and community-building. I had also come bearing a Yoshi Amiibo; Yoshi’s just so adorable, and I was curious about how these near-field-communication enabled figurines worked anyway. The Lab’s Smash event went swimmingly, and between a myriad of control options and a now quite talented red Yoshi named Percival saved onto our Amiibo, the Game Lab has a nice Smash setup for further play and research.

Typically work in the Lab leans towards researching game design, and for that, Smash has much to offer. It’s a study in beautifully rich learning curves and depth, as well as tweaking and fine-tuning a core concept into an experience that is maniacally fun over a decade after its first iteration and that breathes new life into even older characters, feats at which Nintendo’s development teams have proven to be particularly adept. Oddly enough though, my ongoing fascination with the latest Smash release has extended beyond its virtual limits into a game of a different sort.

Just a night after our Smash event, I came across an article from gaming website Kotaku that listed, discussed, and investigated soaring prices for the Gamecube controller adapters. Apparently an overarching “they,” the usual names in gaming retail, had sold out. I mostly found this interesting due to my own brief problems with but ultimately good fortune in picking one up, so we continued our Smash-capades without thinking too much of the situation.

Indeed, my labmate and I were having a ball training our Amiibo avatar Percival into a recklessly dangerous fighter, and with a more cheery and rather nice-looking Yoshi statue adorning the Game Lab, I started seeing the appeal of these Amiibo. They aren’t really that expensive, after all. They look so nice. And hey, they can make for a good time in-game too! I wanted to be careful, though; my gaming backlog (a burden I bear not alone) reminds me that I am susceptible to the slippery combination between a collector’s streak, a wallet that is slightly more flexible than my time, and a penchant for hyped games and the colorful things related to them. But what would be the harm in picking up a few Amiibo? I’ve been playing so much Fire Emblem and Animal Crossing in the last year, so just Marth and the Villager would do.

Well, that’s that then.

And that’s where the rabbit hole begins. Couldn’t find them locally, so I looked online. But… sold out? Ah, here’s some listings, yet… The Gamecube controller adapter tale had been woven again as third-party sellers marked up Amiibo (Especially the very rare Marth, Villager, and Wii Fit Trainer. Joke’s on me, as it turned out.) to upwards of four times their MSRP. Wowzers. Suddenly the prospect of having a few more cute statues around the Lab became a point of inquiry: Just what in blazes is going on with Amiibo?

Oh, Percival, if I had the time, you too could be Solid Snake.

As it turns out, there is a whole community (which is, like many of the internet, highly active on Reddit) dedicated to the Amiibo collector’s market. A subsection of that community creates custom Amiibo that compound value atop figures already in high demand. Others have taken to scalping (a loaded term that is likely misleading) or becoming frustrated by scalping, and as further sets, or waves, of Amiibo are released, scalping via carefully timed bulk preorders has intensified, along with anger, upset, and even malice. (That particular story has since been debunked. Regardless, anyone else notice that list of “hatred and disdain” only consists of female characters?)

However, much of the chatter about Amiibo boils down to collaborative guesswork around a shared passion. Many have been wondering what Nintendo’s distribution model or even aim is here and with the controller adapters, as it doesn’t seem profitable to have demand consistently outstrip supply. The most recent Nintendo Direct (i.e. the company’s video broadcast series for news and announcements) detailing the North American release of the newest edition of the 3DS handheld console, the fourth Smash wave and new line of Amiibo, and numerous upcoming games, has sparked further disappointment amongst the most vocal of Nintendo’s North American fanbase as the region misses out on console versions seen almost everywhere else globally and the more desirable preorder opportunities that remain sell out nearly instantly.

Even if Nintendo’s business decisions are unclear (although there are some ideas floating around), the Amiibo craze has interesting things to show about the people who play and love games. Games, particularly Japanese ones in my experience, spawn plenty of merch, though usually in collector’s editions and limited batches. Yet, those who collect these artifacts seem to do so for the love of the game– both the game inspiring the merch and the game of finding, procuring, and displaying those pieces. The communities that arise out of that love not only provide means of participating through distributed knowledge, cognition, and work, like in many multiplayer games, but they also ideally provide safe spaces for members to share the stories and memories behind their collections. In the case of Amiibos (and their community of Amiigos/Amiibros/Amiibras), Nintendo’s oddly distributed figures have created a microcosm of the good– and some of the ills (as a warning, this video and its comments are not the most pleasant and are in fact riddled with offensive content)– of today’s gaming communities, which is awesome in a thoroughly left-field, Nintendo kind of way.

And thanks to this community’s outcroppings, my own preorders of Ike, King Dedede, Toon Link, Sonic, and a suddenly restocked Pit (!) will be ready to pick up pretty soon. Cheers, Amiigos!

You very well may be, Shulk, but so are those who won’t be able to get one of your Amiibo.

 

 

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Emotion and Play in This War of Mine

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I don’t typically review games. If anyone asks me for a specific recommendation for a game based on themes or gameplay, I gladly contribute suggestions, but I almost never recommend a game to absolutely everyone. This War of Mine has hit that status. If you have an hour or two to spare, pick up this game. It is a grounded and eloquent take on some raw emotions that I would argue can’t be captured in other media quite as well as they are in this game. Kudos to 11 Bit Studios for creating a game with feeling that doesn’t beat players over the head with it.

This War of Mine is a survival game in which the player is tasked with helping a group of civilians survive a modern day siege. The game was inspired by the Bosnian civil war in the early to mid 1990’s and asks the question, “How would you make it through a modern day war?” As you play, you answer that question in some unpredictable ways. The game is dark; it is grim, and completely unforgiving. But what makes this game different from other games? Let’s take a look at player choice and player effect first. Role playing games often give the illusion of choice through dialogue options. Occasionally, they’ll let you alter the game world through action, but even when they do, they tend to overuse or over emphasize the mechanic. This War of Mine works because it is subtle, incredibly subtle. It never gives you a prompt which explains “If you do X, Y will happen” (example: Dishonored prompts the player throughout that if they kill people, more rats will spawn and there will be more plague victims). It just happens.

Some people may look to this feature and just laud the game for not holding its players’ hands. There has been a ton of praise going around for games being more ‘hardcore’ or ‘old school’ when they leave out the instructions and prompts. This War of Mine is not Dark Souls and that’s not the goal. The lack of hand-holding feeds into the game’s motif, it works. Quick, a war breaks out in your town tomorrow, did you remember to pack your instruction manual? Finally, This War of Mine is deeply emotional without overdoing it. Games can capture emotion incredibly well, but often, they fall flat when they try too hard. 11 Bit Studio doesn’t force the player to feel anything. There is a reciprocal relationship with the player. You get emotions out of it by reflecting on the implications of what your characters are doing, not going through a bunch of gameplay so that you hit a cutscene which inserts the emotional counterpart to rather grindy gameplay (many many examples of this).

From the opening scene to your almost inevitable demise, the game challenges you to make tough decisions through gameplay rather than dialogue choices. Where role playing games often lack the freedom of choice associated with actions, players of This World of Mine don’t rely on a series of responses in dialogue to help shape the game world around them. This War of Mine has few dialogue choices and gameplay is shaped through reactions from the player’s decisions.

I played This War of Mine a few different times, restarting after my group had died. The most poignant lesson I learned was that there is no such thing as a hero in a situation as ugly as this one. I, like many others, tend to think that I’d do well in survival situations. I also feel like I’d be able to keep my moral compass pointed in the right direction. If need be, I could be a hero. This War of Mine showed me the depth of my delusion. During the day, your group has a few options: do work around the hideout, sleep, or relax. During the night the game asks you to assign each member a task: scavenge, guard, or sleep. The tasks are  pretty intuitive, so I won’t explain them here. Once your choice is made, you play as whichever member you sent to scavenge resulting in some of the most nail-biting, spine-tingling, suspenseful  moments I’ve experienced in gaming.

In my first playthrough, I sent one of my group members to a nice area of the city rumored to be untouched by the war. When I broke into a house, I found an old couple sitting in the livingroom. The old man heard me enter and yelled at me to leave. Not expecting to find people in the house, I turned to leave. “But wait, I thought, I can’t go back to the hideout empty handed, the group doesn’t have enough food to make it through another day.” So I tried to sneak into the house without the old man noticing this time. He caught me while I was trying to leave the basement. I thought the old man would attack me, so I struck first. I hit him, but he didn’t hit back. I wasn’t sure what he would be coded to do after I hit him, so I hit him again-killing him. I felt bad, but it’s a war game, after all.

In the morning when I returned to the stronghold my character had changed. He was wracked with guilt. Unable to believe what he had done, he slipped into depression. The mood of the whole group blackened quickly. The next evening, I sent another member of a group back to the house since I wasn’t able to loot everything the night before. When I got there, I found the old woman dead. Without her husband and without the food I stole the night before, she wasn’t able to survive. I hadn’t expected that. I just assumed everything would carry on in her little video game world. I had killed two people over a day’s worth of food. My group had slipped into crippling depression and soon couldn’t survive any more. I never meant to hurt anyone. I thought I could be the hero.

In my next playthrough, I came across an even more difficult situation. As I was trying to loot a grocery store, I came across a soldier harassing a young girl. He held her at gunpoint and was leading her to the back of the store planning to rape her. They hadn’t noticed me yet, so I could have just continued to loot the store and get the supplies my group needed. But how could I leave? I always told myself that I could be a hero in these situations. If I feel like I can do that in real life, surely I can manage a simulation, right? I silently followed the two of them, picked up a shovel, and hit the soldier square in the back without any damage to his body armor. I tried again for the head, but he was wearing a helmet. A second later, my character was dead, two shots to the chest. For a brief moment, I considered the character’s death was for a good cause, but I know that isn’t true. The game carried on. My two remaining characters waited that morning and received no supplies. They were dead within three days. Thanks to my act of heroism, three people died, and I hadn’t prevented a thing.

On my third play through, I knew that This War of Mine had won. I entered the scenario with a hardened heart. I would help no one. Only my group mattered. Scavenging was efficient and unapologetic. If someone needed help, they could look elsewhere. If they had left their supplies unguarded, I would take them without remorse. My group lived a long time. They were a well-oiled machine, but they had lost their humanity. Now I was just playing a survival game. I had removed the emotion from it. Is this what it takes to survive?

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We Are Living Our Lives: Persona and World-building

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Heads up: There are some minor Persona 4/Persona 4 Golden and Persona 3 Portable spoilers in the images below, but much more so in the sites from whence they came. You’ve been warned!

I have so many games to play. My backlog is daunting for each console I have, as I’m in the bad habit of buying without having time to play, a problem naturally aggravated by entering graduate school while still following gaming release schedules. So on those rare days that I have hours to spend on a game, I think about all the games I ought to get to… and then I boot up Persona 4 Golden.

 

The main cast of Persona 3 Portable

One of the last games I really undertook was Persona 4 on PS2, clocking in at around 100 hours spent in Inaba. I loved it, and my friends who were watching me play loved it— enough to ask for updates from sessions they missed. This summer I got a Vita with P4G, and my fate was sealed. Back to Inaba I go, no matter how many worlds await me elsewhere. One of the games I picked up recently is Persona 4 Arena Ultimax, and although I am massively terrible at 2D fighters (wowzers, like, super horrible. Too many years of Soul Blade/Calibur means I can’t seem to break those 8-way habits), I just can’t pass up another chance to hang out in P4’s world. I had a similar experience several summers ago, in which I spent well over 100 hours staring at my PSP screen, absolutely engrossed in Persona 3 Portable. And for a few days now I’ve been listening to the P3 soundtrack and have been contemplating another playthrough there.

 

Choosing your avatar’s gender in Persona 3 Portable

Right, so, I like these games. There’s something about them, that pull that Jesper Juul mentions. Part of that is the itch of the more traditional gameplay; I love a good, tough, dungeon-crawling, turn-based JRPG, as the genre gives me a fun way to exercise many of the thought processes that are useful to me as I go through grad school (I’ll save an explanation of that for another time). Even more powerful than that, though, are the other parts of the game, the time spent deciding if I’ll hang out with my buddy Yosuke, or which girl I’ll flirt with this playthrough (an interesting bit for the performance of gender, which could be yet another post), or if I’ll study early to get ahead in school, or if we’ll go train in the dungeon as that last boss was really hard, etc. I can’t wait to see the other characters, the ones this iteration of the main character (Yu Narukami in canon, Felix Kazumi for me) has yet to meet but of whom I have fond memories. These moments and memories were there for P3 as well, and I’ll certainly own up to both digital and non-digital crushes on Akihiko when I played a few years back. (Atlus, if you’re out there listening: having a choice of gender in P3 Portable was amazing. More please.) Couple that with the brilliant, unique visual and aural aesthetics of each, and we have me plugging in hundreds of hours… again.

Persona 3 Portable: A little bit dating sim, a little bit dungeon-crawler

Thus, what I really, really love about these games, and likely all of the games I consider favorites, are the worlds built within. I am a player of the exploration persuasion, so I love diving in and finding out as much as I can about a game world. Give me that lore, those character backstories, the nooks and crannies, the little touches and the overarching drivers that make a game world an experience. I share this fascination with fans of other media as well. I recently listened to a couple of fans’ retelling of how the DC Comics universes fit together, and I then had the chance to hear how a former writer for and director of DC sees its characters as transmedia, world-centric phenomena that live and breathe through the settings and situations in which they find themselves. I’ve also heard of detailed theories linking all of the Pixar movies and fan fiction accounts of interpersonal relationships across gaming universes, which reminds me of the stories I made up with the characters of Legend of Mana (which is a great but now lesser known Square entry, by the way). But I’m certainly not the only one who loves finding and creating patterns that imbue a world and its denizens with vibrancy and vitality. 

Despite my long history of playing video games, I am just now learning about game design processes, and from what I can tell thus far, sparking that life into a world is an extraordinary difficult undertaking. It’s a combination of successfully designing gameplay mechanics, writing a story and (more crucially) characters (or not as much), and creating an aesthetic, all of which need to be built and harmonized so that a functioning and compelling game results.

But those results are magical things: games which have your audience invested to the point of sincere laughter and tears, to the sense of imagining themselves as a part of that world. Playing Persona 4 not only sees me smiling in the tender moments of virtual friendships, but it also sees me wondering what shape my own Persona would take, or, in other words, how the darker side of me I hide from others that, when understood as perhaps a weakness but nevertheless a part of the whole that is me, would become the strength that shields my friends.

Virtual friendships with warmly realistic characters in Persona 4

This is a powerful mode of self-reflection, one that I think is most possible and potent through an emotional buy-in to a richly detailed world. This works well in several forms of media, with literature, comics, and television shows springing first to mind, but my deepest experiences as an explorer and creator of worlds have been through games and the investment of thought, actions, and time that they elicit. For that, the medium will always hold fascination and inspiration for me.

What inspires you about games? What is that pull that keeps you playing? Which games have stayed with you the most? I’d love to see some tweets about the best and most beautiful of gaming, so hop on that Twitterscape! Thanks for reading.

Posted in Research, Thoughts Tagged with: , , , ,

Gamer Identity

Recently in a course I’m assisting, I asked the students to go around the room and choose which one of Richard Bartle’s (1996) player types they identify most strongly with. Bartle’s types include the achiever, the explorer, the killer, and the socializer. The article focuses particularly on Multiple User Dungeons (MUDs), but the player types are easily applicable to almost any variety of game.

Achievers are the type of people to go through a game with the goal of completing everything the game has to offer. If there is an award to be won, the achiever is going after it. Explorers are 371x168xI-Love-Gaming-300x136.jpg.pagespeed.ic.vxSMo2OKe0less inclined to competitiveness and instead spend their time finding the outer edges of the game. Easter eggs and secrets are paydirt for explorers. Killers are pretty much exactly what they sound like. Related quite closely to griefers, they spend their time hunting down other players, preying on the ‘weaker’ types. Finally, the socializers are those players who spend their time chatting with or helping others. They may be a knowledgebase for the other players or they may simply enjoy spending time with others instead of seeking their own rewards.

As the exercise unfolded, the entire class identified most strongly with the achiever role with a few leaning towards the explorer role. Not a single student identified themselves as a killer or a socializer. After some more questioning a few students admitted to inhabiting either of those roles when the mood suited them, but still, none strayed from the path of the achiever for very long. Whether the result of the exercise was a byproduct of having a class full of MIT students or if most people just identify more with the achiever role is impossible for me to tell. The fascinating part, though, is that I knew several of the students don’t typically play video games, yet they all were able to identify their player type quickly and easily. I was intrigued and decided to keep digging. “By a show of hands, how many of you play video games?” All but a few hands went up. “Ok, how many of you consider yourselves to be gamers?” Only a small handful of students kept their hands in the air. Interesting.

So what then does gamer mean? It clearly isn’t just ‘one who plays games’. It is much more complicated than that. It comes with a whole set of characteristics that aren’t easy to pinpoint. It’s the classic  ‘know it when you see it’ identification. With issues like #gamergate and other re-defining moments in the video game industry, it is time we look at the term gamer and either discard it or reshape it.

I’ve long held the opinion that anyone who plays a game is a gamer. It’s been a matter of inclusion for me. I want the term gamer to be less strange. If more people identify as gamers, it somehow validates my own longtime gamer identification. After speaking with this class though, I had to change how I define gamer. Take a moment to think of what gamer means to you.

gamer

So, is gamer a negative term? More than likely, you’ve conjured up a very particular image in your head. What are some of the characteristics there? We can toss out the negative stereotypes right away: antisocial, dependent, detached, lazy, and perhaps even misogynistic. Those are some of the words that I associate with gamer, yet as a gamer I would argue that I’m nothing like that. I would also say that the vast majority of people I play games with are nothing like that. In fact, most of the players I know are inventive problem solvers who care a lot about other people. As far as I’ve noticed, that archetypical image is very rare yet the word gamer still holds that stigma. If we toss out all of those negative stereotypes though, would more people self-identify as gamers? I doubt it.

Even with the realization that the stereotypes are pretty far off base (as stereotypes tend to be) there is still a deep seated negative association with the term gamer. I’d argue that this negativity comes from the medium itself. The industry has been associated with misogyny for quite a long time at this point. #gamergate churned up a huge amount of animosity around gender in the video games industry. The industry definitely does not have the best track record when it comes to the representation of anything outside the realm of white, male hegemony. It’s very slowly getting better, but #gamergate definitely shows the impetus for more change. For a long time, the argument has been that games are ‘for boys by boys.’ It’s long past time to throw this argument out. Almost everybody plays games so it’s time that everyone have a chance to both make and be seen in games. Some people discard the fact that most people (men, women, and other) play games as irrelevant by saying something along the lines of, “yea everybody plays games, but they aren’t real gamers.” What’s a real gamer though?

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That statement typically sets the stage for the creation of a dichotomy between ‘casual’ and ‘hardcore’ games, as if somehow one game is more canonical in the gaming world. Nothing irks me quite as much as this separation, especially considering it’s almost impossible to actually distinguish ‘harcore’ and ‘casual’ games when you actually sit down and try. Hopefully people are spending their free time doing whatever they want to do. To argue that anyone can spend time playing games ‘harder’ than someone else is just ludicrous. Is someone participating in a four hour raid in World of Warcraft somehow more legitimate than someone spending their four hour plane ride crushing some candy? No. I also wouldn’t argue that both of these people are gamers though.

mobile-gamer

One student in class posited that a gamer is anyone who prioritizes games. I find this definition to be perfect. We often use this same logic when referring to other pastimes: movie buff, quilter, bird watcher, sports fan. While it might not be fair to apply these labels to people without their consent, they definitely do not come with the same negativity.

Even without all the negative associations with the term gamer though, many people probably would not want to admit that they prioritize games over other aspects of life. Video games have existed for decades, they’re the largest entertainment industry in the world, and many people now make their living playing games, yet somehow we still have not legitimized games as a pastime. They’re so fundamentally similar to sports to have evoked the term e-sports, but most parents would happy to let their child participate in a soccer or volleyball tournament for an entire weekend but would get upset to think their child might spend that same amount of time playing video games. It’s not my place to argue for or against the legitimacy of sports playing (physical fitness and socializing being just two of many examples in support of sports), but I would argue that as a pastime, video games are incredibly similar. Perhaps it’s just a matter of time before we start to see video games alongside sports as legitimate pastimes. Until then, the term gamer will continue to be a problematic identity.

It might instead be better to get rid of the term gamer altogether. It’s long history may be too hard to wipe away. As more people continue to play games, perhaps other (less problematic) terms will emerge. The industry continues to grow every year without signs of stopping, so as I mentioned earlier, it might just be a matter of time before the legitimacy of gaming wipes away the stigma of the term gamer.

 

Reference

Bartle, Richard (1996) Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades. Players who suit MUDs. Journal of MUD Research. Vol. 1 (1), June 1996.

Images

wtfgamersonly.com : http://www.wtfgamersonly.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/I-Love-Gaming.jpg

http://hntb.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/gamer.jpg

seanpaune.com : http://www.seanpaune.com/images/blog/people/computergamer.jpg

venturebeat.com : http://venturebeat.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/mobile-gamer.jpg

Posted in Thoughts Tagged with: , , ,

SC2 Notifications GIF extravaganza

Much has happened since we demoed the “Workers Killed” notification panel for StarCraft 2! Thanks to the combined efforts of GameHeart and DreamHack, this past month has been the fastest turnaround from unveiling to production code on our MIT Overseer research project to date. Thanks to everybody who helped us test the code, find bugs, and especially to MiTNicketh (Nick Mohr) for implementing the feature in the first place!

We’re not done yet, and we do need more help with testing and feedback. If you’re in a hurry, this is all you need to know:

  • Start up StarCraft 2 and invite a friend (or three) to a party
  • Click on “Custom Maps”
  • Select any 1v1 or 2v2 melee map
  • Click on “Create Map with Mod.”
  • Search for and select “GHMITTest”
  • Play a 1v1, 2v2 or FFA melee game
  • Watch the replay
  • Let us know if you see any bugs!

With that, here are the changes we are testing:

Dropship Alerts on the Minimap
NewDropIf a dropship (warp prism, overlord or medivac) picks up a full complement of healthy troops, observers will see a ping and exclamation mark on the minimap that tracks the dropship for five seconds, alerting viewers to incoming drop shenanigans!

Orbital Scans on the Minimap
StarCraft 2 Proleague introduced their own version of Upgrade Notifications, as well as a really nice minimap representation of orbital scans. It’s a great idea, so we’re trying that out with GameHeart, with a smaller ping and a little more transparency to the animation.
NewScan

More colors for Workers Killed Notifications
The Workers Killed Notifications got a lot of testing in DreamHack. We noticed that observers (such as the talented FunKa) still continued to open the 1v1 Workers Killed panel at the end of skirmishes, which displays worker deaths in the colors of the aggressor. Prior to DreamHack, we knew that our notifications, which highlight the color of the player hurt by the attack, might clash with “more color = more advantage” design principle behind Blizzard’s standard interface.

NewWK

We didn’t notice anyone seeming too upset by the clashing colors, but we certainly felt a little uncomfortable every time the 1v1 panel appeared on the stream. To address that, we have tinted the background in the color of the aggressor and made it slightly darker and translucent. We hope this still makes it completely clear which player’s base is being attacked during worker harass, while establishing a visual connection to the attacker’s colors in the 1v1 panel.

Our system can handle up to 4 panels, one for each player who could take damage in a 2v2 or 4-player free-for-all game. This means that if two players attack the same mineral line at once, the background color of a single panel may alternate between two colors. If one player attacks two opponents at once, you would see the same background color for two separate panels. We think the transparency will reduce the cognitive dissonance, but this is certainly a place where more feedback would help us tremendously.

The panels now automatically disappear 15 game seconds after the last worker death instead of the 20 seconds shown in DreamHack. And if you hate the Workers Killed Notifications, you can always hide them as an observer using Control-Shift-W. Even in replays!

Tweaks to Upgrade Notifications
upgradestweakFinally, we’ve made a few changes to Upgrade Notifications, which only appear in 1v1 games.

The countdown is now one decimal place and we’ve adjusted the fonts a little. It means it takes slightly less computation (our code runs once every 0.1 seconds instead of 0.01 seconds) and we fixed an elusive display bug in the process. As seen in Proleague and DreamHack, new notifications now push old notifications upwards instead of stacking above existing panels, so there’s less “bouncing” up and down as multiple upgrades complete.

NewDeniedWe’ve also gotten a good response to the “Denied” notification when a research building is destroyed while an upgrade is in process. Previously, “Denied” would show up only in the last 15 seconds of research completion. Now they’ll appear whenever an upgrade is destroyed.

What’s Next?
We’re planning to provide details on how Custom UI creators can customize the look of the Upgrade and Workers Killed Notifications, so if you really like the gradients of Proleague or the brushed metal aesthetic from Blizzard, or just want to reposition them on your observer screen, we’ll have more news for you soon.

Posted in Research Tagged with: , , , , , ,

Friday Games: SC2VN the StarCraft Progaming Visual Novel

sc2vnss

This Friday, we will be video chatting with Team Eleven Eleven, creators of SC2VN, the StarCraft Progaming Visual Novel.

sc2vnalphabattleStill in development, SC2VN is a fascinating marriage of the visual novel game genre and eSports. You play through the daily dilemmas of an aspiring professional gamer who has moved to South Korea to break into the highly competitive scene. The protagonist must not only face the challenges of the world’s best StarCraft 2 players, but also the issues that come with leaving everything behind to pursue a dream in an uncertain industry. Players interact with progamers (some fictional, some based on real professional players), team managers, and fans.

Team Eleven Eleven, consisting of Vogue, Shindigs, Hikariix, Irahi, Zircon5 and Temp0 (aka TJ, Tim, Stephanie, Alli, Virgil and Kwame), will be giving us a look behind the scenes in the development of their game. We will start with a few words from the developers over Skype, followed by a playthrough and read-along of their latest 30-minute demo.

Bring your voice acting skills to MIT building 26, room 153 at 4pm on Friday May 9th, then stay for discussion and Q&A with the developers of the game! We will also stream the event on Twitch.TV channel.

Posted in Events Tagged with: , , , , ,