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Friday, Mar 20, 2009
Facebook has changed itself once again, this time with more than just a little influence from the upstart social networking site.

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.


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Thursday, Feb 26, 2009
The recent release of NOBY NOBY BOY cements the PS3 as the most reliable destination for "play" with or without the "game".

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.


Right.


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.


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Thursday, Feb 19, 2009
Several interesting studies on the impact of video games on the subconscious and dreams.


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


all

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.


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Wednesday, Feb 11, 2009
A new art game that takes less than 5 minutes and poses an interesting question.

Andy Chalk over at The Escapist has a great column on Art Games and the interesting direction they’re moving in. What is continually being pushed is not so much games that have beautiful art or meaningful plots, but rather exploring the very definition of play and gaming. Games don’t really tell stories like a film or book does since the player discovers this element through interaction, so it’s logical that ground zero would be pushing that to the limits.


The column goes through the usual tail-chasing that games undergo when trying to convince people that abstract interaction has merit: there’s no challenge, there’s no goals, there’s no meaningful choices, etc. It all starts to echo of “But that’s just not how it’s done!”, which naturally just goads people into making more of it. Of particular interest was a game I’d never heard of before, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness. The game is simple: a black screen with a white progress bar appears when you start. It then goes around the internet checking to see if other people have the game turned on. If you can go 4 minutes and 33 seconds without anyone else playing the game, you win.


The funny thing about interaction is that you’re basically exploring two different things: the action and the effect. Whereas a game like The Graveyard is an experiment in action with no effect, 4 Minutes and 33 Seconds of Uniqueness is an exploration of effect with no action. Is it possible for a person to generate a meaningful result by not doing anything? Vice-versa? I don’t really know. There are only a handful of games out that are really pushing these concepts and it remains to be seen where it’s all going. A game design like this might feel flat on its own, but combined with other elements it could potentially be quite profound. As far as I know, no one has managed to beat these games just yet.


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Text:AAA
Wednesday, Dec 3, 2008
I found this link thanks to Rock, Paper, Shotgun.

Some very clever folks have put together a web browser version of Doom that does a decent job of recreating the original via Flash. The turn speed isn’t quite right and you can’t adjust the controls, but they still managed to put the entire first episode of the game online. Any doubts people may have about the inevitability of players streaming their games online in the future only need to give this a swing to realize the potential. Keep in mind that this technology is improving at an exponential rate.


Playing Doom again is a fairly interesting experience. Design-wise, we now have a huge variety of FPS titles to contrast it with. Since the game does not typically rely on aiming with a reticle, it automatically adjusts your shots to go up and down in conjunction with where an enemy is located. The lack of control is a bit stifling at first but eventually you start to recognize that the design essentially removes one of the essential skills we come to associate with an FPS: aiming. You still have to point your gun in the general direction of the opponent but the game will handle the rest. The level design handles this by generally focusing on corridors and large rooms, but the spatial limitation becomes a perk rather than a handicap. Maintaining health, ammo, and effectively strafing is all you really need to excel at to play the game. Ducking, aiming, or jumping are not even options. The end result feels decidedly minimalist but obviously still has a lot of appeal. It isn’t quite appropriate to call Doom a casual FPS but by today’s standards it qualifies. As outlined by the success of Wii Sports minimalist design, all you’re really doing in a casual game is taking out chunks of game design so that a beginner can grasp it. You take baseball and you trim it down to batting and pitching. You take boxing and trim it down to waving you arms in vague coordination. You don’t expect them to do fifty things at once, you start them off with five. Adopting that presumption, it seems reasonable to presume any genre of game could find ways to stay interesting while cutting down their game design to simplified but elegant levels.


Which is why having Doom in Flash, a place where many simple games find a home, is actually quite appropriate. I don’t think this version is quite there yet and the lack of multiplayer is going to keep most players restricted to nostalgia and brief distraction. The lack of music and some side effects also keeps this from becoming a definitive Flash version of the game. But given enough time, games like this could be the beginning of something very interesting for video games.


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