"The French Democracy" (also here) is a short film about the Paris riots made entirely inside of a computer game. The game, developed by Peter Molyneux's Lionhead Productions and called simply "The Movies," throws players into the shark pool of Hollywood where they get to manage a studio, tangle with investors, hire and fire actors, and of course, produce and distribute movies. The interesting thing is that the movie-making element has taken on a life of its own as films produced inside the game have circulated through the web as free-standing works, generating their own little communities and fan bases.
This is a fascinating development in the brief history of Machinima, or "machine cinema," a genre of films created inside the engines of popular video game like Halo and The Sims. Basically, you record your game play through a video out feed, edit the footage, and add music and voiceovers, ending up with a totally independent film, often in funny or surreal opposition to the nature of the original game. Bob, for instance, appeared in a Machinima talk show called This Spartan Life, where they talk about art, design and philosophy in the bizarre, apocalyptic landscapes of the Halo game series.
The difference here is that while Machinima is typically made by "hacking" the game engine, "The Movies" provides a dedicated tool kit for making video game-derived films. At the moment, it's fairly primitive, and "The French Democracy" is not as smooth as other Machinima films that have painstakingly fitted voice and sound to create a seamless riff on the game world. The filmmaker is trying to do a lot with a very restricted set of motifs, unable to add his/her own soundtrack and voices, and having only the basic menu of locales, characters, and audio. The final product can feel rather disjointed, a grab bag of film clichés unevenly stitched together into a story. The dialogue comes only in subtitles that move a little too rapidly, Paris looks suspiciously like Manhattan, and the suburbs, with their split-level houses, are unmistakably American.
But the creative effort here is still quite astonishing. You feel you are seeing something in embryo that will eventually come into its own as a full-fledged art form. Already, "The Movies" online community is developing plug-ins for new props, characters, environments and sound. We can assume that the suite of tools, in this game and elsewhere, will only continue to improve until budding auteurs really do have a full virtual film studio at their disposal.
It's important to note that, according to the game's end-user license agreement, all movies made in "The Movies" are effectively owned by Activision, the game's publisher. Filmmakers, then, can aspire to nothing more than pro-bono promotional work for the parent game. So for a truly independent form to emerge, there needs to be some sort of open-source machinima studio where raw game world material is submitted by a community for the express purpose of remixing. You get all the fantastic puppetry of the genre but with no strings attached.
gaming and the academy 11.28.2005, 10:36 AM
So, what happens when you put together a drama professor and a computer science one?
You get an entertainment technology program. In an article, in the NY Times, Seth Schiesel talks about the blossoming of academic programs devoted entirely to the study and development of video games, offering courses that range from basic game programming to contemporary culture studies.
Since first appearing about three decades ago, video games are well on their way to becoming the dominant medium of the 21st century. They are played across the world by people of all ages, from all walks of life. And in a time where everything is measured by the bottom line, they have in fact surpassed the movie industry in sales. The academy, therefore, no matter how conservative, cannot continue to ignore this phenomenon for long. So from The New School (which includes Parsons) to Carnegie Mellon, prestigious colleges and universities are beginning to offer programs in interactive media. In the last five years the number of universities offering game-related programs has gone from a mere handful to more than 100. This can hardly be described as widescale penetration of higher education, but the trend is unmistakable.
The video game industry has a stake in advancing these programs since they stand to benefit from a pool of smart, sophisticated young developers ready upon graduation to work on commercial games. Bing Gordon, CEO of Electronic Arts says that there is an over-production of cinema studies professionals but that the game industry still lacks the abundant in-flow of talent that the film industry enjoys. Considering the state of public education in this country, it seems that video game programs will continue flourishing only with the help of private funds.
The academy offers the possibility for multidisciplinary study to enrich students' technical and academic backgrounds, and to produce well-rounded talents for the professional world. In his article, Schiesel quotes Bing Gordon:
To create a video game project you need the art department and the computer science department and the design department and the literature or film department all contributing team members. And then there needs to be a leadership or faculty that can evaluate the work from the individual contributors but also evaluate the whole project.
These collaborations are possible now, in part, because technology has become an integral part of art production in the 21st century. It's no longer just for geeks. The contributions of new media artists are too prominent and sophisticated to be ignored. Therefore it seems quite natural that, for instance, an art department might collaborate with faculty in computer science.
some thoughts on katamari damacy:
everything bad is good for you, part 3.5 10.24.2005, 8:02 AM
Responding to Bob's "games provide much more than a cognitive workout"...
Growing up in the 80s, video games were much less sophisticated and probably less effective as a matrix for training consumption. TV performed that role. I remember watching on Nickelodeon competitions between children in a toy store in which each contestant had 60, or 120 seconds to fill a shopping cart with as many toys as they possibly could. The winner -- whoever had managed to grab the most -- got to keep the contents of their cart. The physical challenge of the game was obvious. You could even argue that it presented a cognitive challenge insofar as you had to strategize the most effective pattern through the aisles, balancing the desirability of toys with their geometric propensity to fly off the shelves quickly. But did that excuse the game ethically?
I've played a bit of Katamari lately and have enjoyed it. It's a world charged with static electricity, everything sticks. Each object has been lovingly rendered in its peculiarity and stubbornness. If your katamari picks up something long and narrow, say, a #2 pencil, and attaches to it in such a way that it sticks out far from the clump, it will impede your movement. Each time the pencil hits the ground, you have to kind of pole vault the entire ball. It's not hard to see how the game trains visual puzzle-solving skills, sensitivity to shape, spatial relationships (at least virtual ones), etc.
That being said, I agree with Bob and Rylish that there is an internal economy at work here that teaches children to be consumers. A deep acquisition anxiety runs through the game, bringing to mind another Japanese pop phenom: Pokémon. Pokémon (called "Pocket Monsters" in Japan) always struck me as particularly insidious, far more predatory than anything I grew up with, because its whole narrative universe is based on consumption. "Collect 'em all" is not just the marketing slogan for spinoff products, but the very essence of the game itself. The advertising is totally integrated with the story. Here's Wikipedia (not a bad source for things like this) on how it works:
"The Pokémon games are role-playing games with a strategy element which allow players to catch, collect, and train pets with various abilities, and battle them against each other to build their strength and evolve them into more powerful Pokémon. Pokémon battles are based on the non-lethal Eastern sport of fighting insects, but the Pokémon never bleed or die, only faint. The game's catchphrase used to be "Gotta catch 'em all!", although now it is no longer officially used."
Similarly, the Katamari backstory involves the lord of the universe getting drunk one night and shattering the solar system. Each level of the game is the reassembly of a star or planet. If you succeed, a heavenly body is restored to the firmament.
After an hour playing Katamari, having traversed a number of wildly imaginative landscapes (and having absorbed a soundtrack that can only be described as Japanese chipmunks on nitrous) I re-enter the actual world in a mildly fevered state. The cardinal rule in the game is that to succeed I must devour as much as possible. No time is afforded to savor the strange, psychedelic topography, to examine the wonderful array of objects (everything from thumbtacks to blue whales) scattered about in my path. Each stage is a terrain that must be gobbled up, emptied. A throbbing orb of light in the upper left corner of the screen, set within concentric rings representing target diameters, measures my progress toward the goal: a katamari "n" meters in size. The clock in the upper right corner pressures me to keep rolling.
Video games today may not be as blatant as the consumerist spectacle of the Nickelodeon game, and they may provide richly textured worlds posing greater problem-solving challenges than any electronic media that has preceded them. But it seems to me that many of them do not differ ideologically from that shopping cart contest.
Posted by ben vershbow at 8:02 AM
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tags: Education , Games , capitalism , children , cognitive , everything_bad_is_good_for_you? , japan , katamari , katamari_damacy , nickelodeon , pokemon , steven_johnson , video_games
games provide much more than a cognitive workout:
everything bad is good for you, pt 3 10.21.2005, 3:46 PM
games may be helping to raise raw IQ scores, but much more importantly they also also reinforce the dominant culture's norms of material rewards and consumerism and one of the most interesting games of the past year, katamari damacy, praised for being both witty and non-violent, basically rewards players for consuming as much material goods possible.
the following is slightly edited analysis of the game by rylish moeller, an english prof who is very active on the techrhet listserv.
katamari damacy is an extraordinarily interesting game. the game's lead designer had as one of his top goals to "make a game that would appeal to people who have become disillusioned with recent games and rekindle their passion." for more, read the game's postmortem in the december 2004 issue of gamedeveloper. my point is that most games support models of consumerism and monopoly capital through internal economies (collecting stuff, money, power-ups, etc.), gameplay (viewing objects and people as consumables as in katamari), and even at meta-levels such as this one where the lead developer wishes to rekindle lost passion for consuming (er, playing) games. while this doesn't really surprise me, i am surprised that when we discuss what we learn by playing games, we are not (often) discussing these very interesting, ideological issues that stem from the very social relationships and cultures of production that engender the games in the first place, those that we willingly subject ourselves to as we play.
but katamari is an interesting game to discuss since it calls issues like consumerism and environmentalism to the foreground in a very overt sort of way. in another revealing comment, the game's developer (keita takahashi) hopes that this game will motivate other developers to "create something new, without focusing on the bottom line for once." so, we cannot really discuss games and learning and literacy without spending some time grounding that conversation in the economic and cultural environments which drive game production. my worry is not that games are too complicated or too violent or too masculine or too racist but that they are these things in order to perpetuate consumerism.
note: the point of this is not to trash katamari damacy or games in general, but rather to point out that while IQ is possibly being raised, other perhaps more significant lessons are being learned as well.
everything bad is good for you: part 2 10.19.2005, 8:44 AM
it's taken me awhile to write the second installment of this critique (part 1 here) because i've been wrestling with how to expand the terms of the discussion. i've been reading the various reviews and discussions and even listened to the recent MIT symposium on the book. all of the critical energy is spent asking whether the conclusion -- that modern electronic media is raising IQ and certain problem-solving skills-- is based on thorough or good science; if it's "true" or not.
whether people end up believing that Johnson is 10, 20, 30, 70 or 90 percent right about the effect of media on IQ and problem-solving skills, they mostly accept his boundaries of the subject. i seem to be coming at it from another direction. the problem for me isn't Johnson's conclusion which i think is "sorta correct' but rather that by defining the question of media's impact so narrowly the overall effect of his argument is to turn people away from much deeper questions about the role of media in shaping how we see the world and how we behave in it.
i believe that the shallowness of the debate around Johnson's book is an excellent example of ways in which the effect of popular media has indeed been "bad" for us, not good. whether our IQs have gone up or not, the failure of most television and games to deal with moral complexity and the increasing tendency of TV news to entertain rather than inform have had made other more significant changes in our behavior -- most significantly we are increasingly unable or resistant to look deeply and all-sidedly into important questions.
"everything bad is good for you" is really bad 10.11.2005, 10:31 AM
just finished the second book discussion at the institute. first was neil postman's building a bridge to the eighteenth century. second was steve johnson's everything bad is good for you in which johnson presents a contemporary refutation of postman.
johnson's basic premise seems harmless enough. games and tv drama are getting more layered, more complex. the mental exercise is likely making our brains more nimble, might even be improving our problem-solving skills. OK...
but how can you define good and bad simply in terms of whether one's brain is better at multi-tasking and problem-solving. i'll grant that this shift in raw brain power might make us more effective worker bees for our techno-capitalist society, but it doesn't mean that the substance of our lives or the social fabric is improved.
we don't need cheerleaders telling us everything is fine -- especially when in our gut we're pretty sure it isn't. we need to look long and hard at the kind of world we are building with all this technology.
johnson's book has been widely praised, making it all the more important to hold it up to careful scrutiny. over the next several days we're going to launch a serious critique of "everything bad is good for you." please feel encouraged to join in.
Posted by bob stein at 10:31 AM
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tags: Games , TV , book , books , culture , everything_bad_is_good_for_you? , film , future , gaming , iq , media , reading , steven_johnson , stevenjohnson , technology , television , video_games
nyc2123: a graphic novel for psp 09.29.2005, 5:05 PM
NYC2123 is a graphic novel conceived for the 480 by 272-pixel screen of the Play Station Portable video game device. It's a post-apocalyptic tale set in a future, tsunami-ravaged New York in which the city's wealthy have walled off the island of Manhattan against a violent river society of junkies, thieves and outlaw barges.
There are several sequences that read like a flip book, taking advantage of the single-frame interface and the fact that the reader has literally got his finger on the button. Quickly flipping through the panels creates a filmic effect, as here:
(Once again via Infocult - thanks Bryan)
Update: Someone has just developed a .pdf reader for the PSP.
Posted by ben vershbow at 5:05 PM
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tags: Games , Microlit , comic , comics , digital_literature , ebook , gaming , graphicnovel , manhattan , microcontent , newyork , nyc2123 , psp , reading
"imaginative keyword conversations" - playing flickr on public screens 09.23.2005, 1:41 PM
A wonderful hack of public space in Amsterdam. And on the top floor of the PostCS building no less, with breathtaking panoramic views of the city. Kim and I had the pleasure of spending two days there this past January at "A Decade of Web Design."
The diners in bar/restaurant/club 11 will be subjected to the wrath of fellow visitors SMSing whatever keyword they want to the installation that pulls photos from the online community flickr and projects them onto Restaurant 11's huge panoramic screens.
(via Smart Mobs)
Posted by ben vershbow at 1:41 PM
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tags: Games , SMS , amsterdam , cellphone , flickr , hack , keyword , mobile , photo , photography , postcs , publicart , socialsoftware , tagging , tags
thoughtful intertextuality 09.10.2005, 11:18 AM
New Orleans DoubleQuotes by Charles Cameron plays with juxtaposition, cleverly pairing bits of text in ways that illuminate Katrina and all that flows from it:
Think of these paired quotes as twin thoughts dropped into the mind-pond -- not so much for their own sakes as for the sake of the ripples and resonances between them. I invite you to read these DoubleQuotes one pair at a time, slowly, slowly, so that the multiples ironies and quiet nuances that have come together in the weaving of this tragedy have room to breathe.
(thanks, Bryan Alexander of Infocult)
Posted by ben vershbow at 11:18 AM
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tags: Games , hurricanekatrina , interesting , intertextual , intertextuality , juxtaposition , katrina , louisiana , neworleans , quotes , text , txt
play station portable as online reading device 08.25.2005, 4:12 PM
The new updated Sony PSP portable gaming device will include a web browser. That gives it games, film, photo and web - the most comprehensive pocket instrument out there. But for the time being, it's read-only. Without a stylus, or virtual keyboard, many of the web's more interactive elements will be unavailable.
is the future of the book a video game? 08.12.2005, 2:30 PM
"What ultimately sets gaming apart from prefabricated media like television and books is that the consumer is in control of the action; the consumer is the protagonist of whatever story the game might tell."
Seth Schiesel affirms this in an article on The Godfather video game coming out early next year ("How to Be Your Own Godfather," NY Times, July 10, 2005 - also audio slideshow narrated by Schiesel). Schiesel's article intrigued me from the view point of the movie junkie and the book lover. The Electronic Arts team that created this video game, used scenes and characters from the first Godfather to create a virtual universe where the players can manipulate the plot and create their own narrative. This player becomes the ideal reader that Flaubert and Borges dreamt about, and that the French literary theorists wrote about. Reading/playing becomes writing. The desire to directly involve the reader/audience in the creative act can be traced to the notion of catharsis in Greek tragedy, to Shakespeare's play inside a play, to the second part of Don Quijote and so on, but it is now, thanks to electronic media, that the concept becomes reality, a virtual reality with all its possibilities yet to be explored.
Much has been said about the difficulty to faithfully adapt books to film. García Márquez, whose first love is film, defends his refusal to sell the rights of One Hundred Years of Solitude to Hollywood, saying that the screen robs the viewer the freedom of completing the characters of the novel in his imagination. His readers can, for instance, identify José Arcadio Buendía with an uncle or a grandfather. But, he argues, if that character were to be played by Robert Redford, that freedom of association would be lost. It would also be quite difficult to re-create on film the complex time structure of García Márquez's novel, or to render credible the many instances of magical realism that, when reading, one doesn't doubt for a second. Could this be done using electronic media?
The executive producer of the Godfather video game, David DeMartini, talks about time linearity in film, usually limited to 80 -120 minutes, in which the director has to provide his narrative version of a book. What is interesting in the use of a movie, based on a novel, as a video game is that the player actually goes through the story living it. Here, he doesn't only complete the characters in his imagination; he is his own character. Time is not limited or externally imposed upon the player/viewer as in film, he actually has 20, 30, 40 hours to experience and deal with the many choices he has as a character of the narrative. What we have here is not only the ideal reader; it's the ideal fiction. Brando, who absolutely bought into this project, puts it clearly; "It's the audience, really, that's doing the acting." Incidentally, the BBC reports today that a similar video game franchise is to be made from the Jason Bourne novels of Robert Ludlum - or rather, from the popular films starring Matt Damon adapted from Ludlum's books.
Francis Ford Coppola, on the other hand, disapproves of the game as a typically violent kill and get killed video game. Seth Schiesel makes an important argument in favor of games bringing the Grand Theft Auto series as a parallel to the Godfather, by saying that there is something more than just violence in these kinds of video games.
What is exciting is the game's form. In G. T. A. the player has an entire city to explore. There are missions and a story available, and plenty of violence, but there is also the freedom one has to experience an open-ended virtual urban environment. I dare to add: what I see here is the book of the future.
computer games in british schools, and, death by gaming 08.10.2005, 5:57 PM
Four secondary schools in Britain (ages 11-16) are to incorporate computer games into daily classroom activities as part of a one-year trial run. Researchers are looking to begin drafting a "road map" for game integration in schools across Europe. See BBC: "Games to be tested in classrooms."
(image is a screenshot from Starcraft)