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by Mike Schiller

4 Jun 2009

Nintendo's Wii Music

Nintendo’s Wii Music

Wii Music is where it started, I think.

Somewhere along the way—sometime in the first year during which Wii Sports was starting to show up in retirement homes, schools, and libraries across the nation (not to mention more homes than any game, like, ever), Nintendo came up with a strategy to try and maintain their new constituency, an audience that defied easily-formed generalizations.  Namely, they decided that it was in their best interest to not offend anybody with their first-party software.

Wii Music was derided, and rightly so, for being a joke of an entrance to the world of music.  As a little toy for me and my kids to fire up when we were bored, it was fine, but even in that context, its replay value was terribly limited.  The point of Wii Music was to be as inclusive as possible, to give anyone the opportunity to pantomime—and, in effect, “play”—any instrument pretty much immediately.  “Playing” the violin was easy as moving the Wii remote like a bow, “playing” the drums involved flailing around with the Wii remote and nunchuck (and, optionally, the balance board), “playing” a trumpet involved holding the Wii remote up toward the player’s mouth and alternating the ‘1’ and ‘2’ buttons.  It was all terribly easy to “master”, if “mastering” it was the goal, and those looking for some sort of challenge—some sort of game—were left disappointed.

It would have been easy to believe that this was some sort of one-off, a case of Nintendo’s pandering teaching a valuable lesson, but the recent beginnings of the coming flood of Fitness apps for the Nintendo systems is telling a different story:

Nintendo’s too nice.

Nintendo's Wii Fit

Nintendo’s Wii Fit

Look at Wii Fit, the one that started it all.  It starts off well enough, by measuring your weight and turning your Mii into a distorted, roly-poly version of itself if you’re in the overweight or obese categories, and it allows you to set a goal for yourself, to lose (or gain) however many pounds you like in a certain amount of time.  And after that…what?

On my second day, I gained weight.  Wii Fit was still being nice to me.

On my third day, ashamed as I am to say it, I gained a bit more weight.  Wii Fit was still being nice to me.

On the fourth day, when I held constant to the previous day’s weight, Wii Fit‘s only admonition was the acknowledgement that maybe, just maybe, I might not meet my weight loss goal.  And then I was free to keep doing as many (or as few) of Wii Fit‘s “exercises” as I wanted. 

Nintendo's Personal Trainer: Walking

Nintendo’s Personal Trainer: Walking

Personal Trainer: Walking, on the DS, suffers from the same problem.  It sets a goal for you, records your progress, and is full of encouraging words.  If you meet the daily goal (which starts at 3,000 steps, which is actually obscenely easy to reach if your ass hasn’t grown roots in your sofa yet), it says “hooray for you!” and your Mii does a little dance.  If you miss the goal, the shortcoming is barely even acknowledged, and the game just moves on.  The only penalty?  A red stamp on your calendar instead of a green one and slower progress toward unlocking the little treasures in the game’s cutely-designed “Walk the World” and “Space Walk” (the latter of which owes a tip of the hat to Noby Noby Boy if I do say so myself) diversions.  Other than that, it just moves on.  No “what happened?” or “what the hell is wrong with you?” or “what, you didn’t even have it in you to pretend to want to get in shape today?”  Just a “hey, whatever!” and the game goes on.

Now, these games are not meant as standalone weight-loss tools; I can respect that.  They’re tools, guides to help you along the way, but not full-fledged plans.  Fine.  This seems all well and good until you start up with something like EA Sports Active, whose goal seems to be to kick you in the ass and get you into shape if it kills you.

Electronic Arts' EA Sports Active

Electronic Arts’ EA Sports Active

EA Sports Active will, on your first workout with it, very likely make you sweat, huff, and puff more than all of your “workouts” with Wii Fit combined.  It places particular emphasis on the upper legs toward the beginning, building muscles that are going to make running long distances seem like much more feasible an activity.  It does this by telling you it’s going to put you on a program based on your current weight, giving you a set of 20 or so workouts to do back-to-back, and making sure you do them in a manner that will maximize the return on your investment, as measured by muscle mass (not to mention the ache you’ll have the next day).

The point is that by not being afraid to crack the whip a bit, EA Sports Active feels like far more effective a “tool” toward fitness than Wii Fit‘s software component ever could.  It offers a lesson that Nintendo might do well to learn: stop pandering to us.  Most of us are mature enough to take a little criticism, to be offered a challenge.  In fact, we crave a challenge, and without being challenged, all we’ll take your products for are disposable toys.  While they’re very slick, very well-designed toys, they can’t help but leave a bad taste in our mouths when our expectations are so dramatically better fulfilled by third-party entries into the same arena.

Oh, and since I started the 30-day program in EA Sports Active?  Four pounds down and counting.

by L.B. Jeffries

16 Apr 2009

Konami’s recently announced decision to publish Atomic Game’s Six Days In Fallujah has been making the controversy rounds and for good reason: it aims to recreate one of the worst battles in the Iraq War. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal the creators explain, “We’re not trying to make social commentary. We’re not pro-war. We’re not trying to make people feel uncomfortable. We just want to bring a compelling entertainment experience. At the end of the day, it’s just a game.” The creators are interviewing marines, civilians, and insurgents who were involved with the battle to recreate it as closely as possible.

by L.B. Jeffries

20 Mar 2009

The new Facebook bears an eerie resemblance to Twitter in both function and appearance. Instead of asking for our status, we are asked to post what we are thinking. Whereas the old website broke everything into categories, everything is lumped together in a gushing stream of information. Like Twitter, Facebook is now aggregating information without prejudice.

It’s an interesting shift because on the surface Facebook would seem to have every advantage over Twitter. The culture of birthday greetings, posting links, and clever away messages is just as prevalent as ever. Facebook is also currently the number one social networking website, beating out myspace both in terms of active users and monthly visits. The crux for any of these websites is figuring out a way to keep people coming back. How do you make the incessant flow of information more presentable and easy to consume yet still need to be checked constantly? How do you make a website become a necessary part of someone’s life?

It’s tempting to automatically dismiss Twitter as standing no chance in this struggle but its rise in popularity has been incredible. Going from being ranked 22 in social networks to 3 in such a short space of time is no small task. As a user of both websites, I also use them for very different purposes. My Facebook account has always been an elaborate yearbook and text message service. Twitter, on the other hand, is where I talk with people about video games. What’s striking is that I have never met almost all of the people I exchange tweets with. Twitter has a distinct advantage over Facebook in this regard because it encourages meeting and linking with strangers. You don’t disclose personal information in your profile, so you don’t really care who reads it.

There are also several problems that Facebook’s culture is going to have when adopting Twitter’s information distribution method. It would be nice to think people have gained some sense of internet etiquette over the years, but you still encounter folks who seem to think we need to know what they’re having for breakfast. Combine this with people actually posting interesting links or comments and that girl who incessantly needs to tell me she won a free laptop and you start to encounter information overload. There are only so many people you can follow on Twitter before you just start focusing on certain people and ignoring the rest. The issue is that de-friending someone on Facebook is often taken personally, un-following someone on Twitter is just business.

Which brings up the issue of functionality that is going to dominate 2009 for both gaming and the internet as a whole. The website that is going to become a part of a person’s life, as opposed to just an escape from work, is the one that is the most useful. After four years of using Facebook, the majority of people I’m friends with no longer live near me. I don’t really need to know about their day to day lives except for the occasional nostalgia bender. Twitter and the discussion it provides with a group of likeminded people is, by comparison, something I rely on daily for news and insight. Grouping people by common interests, instead of who they know, seems to generate more traffic.

by Mike Schiller

26 Feb 2009

What NOBY NOBY BOY does for you is entirely dependent on two things.

First, it depends on your tolerance for the utterly bizarre. Its entire color palette is made up of pastels—no primary colors, really, but never quite reaching the unnatural glow of pure neon. You start as a peanut-shaped thing but quickly turn yourself into a worm with a disproportionately large head and backside. You crawl around a floating, rectangular patch of land, the danger of falling off ever-looming, while you eat and poop everything you can in an effort to make your worm-like body more stretchy, and by extension longer. There’s something called a space squirrel involved. If you zoom out far enough, you get to see a space-eye view of the planet you’re on, complete with a little character of some sort sitting on the top. And, in an oddly phallic twist for an E-rated game, you (as BOY) report your length to something called GIRL whenever you feel it necessary, contributing along with the rest of the NOBY NOBY BOY community to her own eternal stretch through the solar system.


If you’re still interested, then, there’s one other thing that will determine the extent of your affinity (or lack thereof) for NOBY NOBY BOY: your willingness to self-motivate. Yes, there are trophies, but all except for one of them are hidden, and almost all of them are the sorts of things that will happen naturally through the course of exploring the game (though at least one of them is so obscure that it seems to work as a tipoff that GameFAQs was consulted for the sake of its capture). There is no death state, no love of BOY’s life to rescue, no world to save; there simply exists the directive to “explore! Have fun!”, with the cooperative objective of growing GIRL into new planets to explore.

For the most part, what this means is that there is no “game” to NOBY NOBY BOY; there is only “play”.

This sort of mechanic is becoming something of a habit for the PlayStation 3, particularly in the PlayStation Network’s library of downloadable titles. In the week before NOBY NOBY BOY was released, we saw Flower, the hype for which is actually stealing the thunder from this week’s release of Killzone 2; though we know who’s going to win in sales between those two, I don’t see Killzone getting a gushing writeup on Entertainment Weekly’s blog any time soon. Preceding Flower was flOw, another non-game with a dubious set of “goals”, and even the early PSN title Pain is little more than a sandbox in which to play. The trophies are here to satiate those who would try to wring a “game” out of these titles (and some of them present themselves as more linear and game-like than others), but the game is not the point. Simply being a part of these games’ respective worlds is the point. Even Home, the PS3’s answer to Second Life, falls into this category, giving PS3 users something else to do even as they’re not strictly gaming.

What Sony seems to have hit on here is a way to appeal to mature gamers, likely the ones who’ve been with the Sony brand since the original PlayStation, by providing a counter-argument to the idea that what mature gamers want is bigger, bloodier, and more photorealistic. By providing these open worlds, “games” with an innocence and a distinct lack of competitive appeal alongside things like Metal Gear Solid 4 and the aforementioned Killzone 2, they’re acknowledging that “mature” is a multifaceted concept; that sometimes, all we need is a little bit of peace, a little bit of joy, and maybe a little bit of community.

This last brings us back to what is perhaps the most innovative, and potentially most interesting, feature of NOBY NOBY BOY—space exploration. The length of GIRL, at any given time, is the cumulative length that’s been reported to GIRL by every single player playing NOBY NOBY BOY on the PlayStation Network. This past Monday, four days after the game’s release, GIRL reached the moon thanks to those efforts, and now we have a new playground to play in. Somehow, knowing that those of us who bought the game early were a part of such a monumental task is enough motivation for some of us to start working on the next goal—namely, Mars, which could potentially be a long way off (scroll down to q3c’s comment in the preceding link).

This is not a cooperative goal like those of recent first-person shooters or even the hero-sidekick mechanics of something like Super Mario Galaxy; the quality of the game for everyone who plays it is entirely dependent on the willingness of its entire population of players to play it enough to expand its solar system. If the game’s fanbase quickly diminishes, we may never know the extent to which its programmers planned for GIRL to stretch, and there’s something exciting about having to depend on the rest of a world of players to find out. We may not even ever know what Mars looks like, which would be a right shame given the mass improvement that even the moon presents over the earth in terms of gameplay—the bigger surface on which to stretch and the multitude of new creatures to look at contribute to the sense of just how absolutely vital this aspect of the game is to maintaining player interest.

As such, I implore you: Buy NOBY NOBY BOY. Not because I think you’ll enjoy it—really, there’s no way of telling you whether this game will be your cup of tea or not, other than perhaps your sense of the two factors I presented at the top of this little writeup. No, I want you to buy NOBY NOBY BOY because the more of you who play, the quicker we get to Mars, which I’d like to see before my kids graduate college.

Also, it’s $5, which seems a small price to pay to help promote the sort of imagination present in an experience like NOBY NOBY BOY.

by L.B. Jeffries

19 Feb 2009

A professor of psychology at Grant MacEwan College, Jayne Gackenbach, has conducted several studies on the relationship that gamers have with their dreams. The basic observation is that gaming has a traceable impact on the unconscious and this can often be seen in the dreams of various gamers.

So far the studies have explored three different things: cognitive factors, emotional content, and bizarreness in dreams associated with video game play. The strongest link in the studies found that high-end gamers typically experience more lucid dreams where the subject was aware that they were dreaming and could control their activities. A two-part series of studies found that although gamers were more aggressive (based on interviews) than the average person in their dreams, they also experienced aggressive dreams overall less than the norm. This led to another study, whose data is still being analyzed, but Gackenbach hypothesizes that daytime video game play may serve as a rehearsal for threat function that dreams may serve. This is based on the theory that our nightmares are actually survival mechanisms in which we undergo traumatic events in our dreams to prepare for them in the real world. The surprising discovery during many of these long interviews was that the typical “Being Chased” and “Can’t Escape” scenario of many nightmares did not frighten gamers. As Gackenbach notes in her conclusion to one of the studies, what better way to prepare for a dream than by constantly engaging in an out-of-body virtual reality?

Speaking for myself, not all of this applies to my dreams but a few elements struck a chord. I don’t often dream about things from games but I rarely have anything I’d call a nightmare. I don’t experience anything along the lines of Waking Life, but my dreams rarely feel out of control. Whenever I’m being chased in a dream, I just go someplace safe, wonder why I’m dreaming this weird stuff, get chased again, go someplace else. It’s all instinct and reaction but I rarely find any of it frightening. You can find the PowerPoint presentations and hard data from the research here. What is extremely unusual about


of this data is that typically lucid and out-of-body dreams require a great deal of meditation. Nightmares, which are often the product of real-life trauma such as being assaulted or post-traumatic stress disorder, may be significantly less unpleasant for people who play games.

There were several other observation that need to be corroborated with further data. Gamers may have a higher average number of dreams that feature little to no actual people and instead involve animals or other fantasy creatures. They also might experience more out of body or third person dreams than the average dreamer. It would be extremely helpful to Gackenbach’s study if anyone with a remote interest would fill out the survey offered here.

//Mixed media

Because Blood Is Drama: Considering Carnage in Video Games and Other Media

// Moving Pixels

"It's easy to dismiss blood and violence as salacious without considering why it is there, what its context is, and what it might communicate.

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