Molleindustria’s Top Games of 2012

In no particular order.

Dys4ia

There have been a few overtly autobiographical games in recent years (Jason Roher’s Gravitation and Papo and Yo come to my mind) but nothing has been as direct and vivid as Dys4ia.
Anna Anthropy’s playable diary revolves around her experience with hormone replacement therapy. Every chapter is a minimal game that cleverly employs low-level systems of interactions (controls, collisions, movements in space, micro-challenges and so on) to express a range of visceral states like frustration, stress, humiliation or relief.
Beside being a powerful piece in itself, Dys4ia is also a perfect proof of concept for Anna’s book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters a passionate call to embrace game-making as mean of empowerment and self-expression. And we are not talking about the narcissistic kind of self-expression, or the bourgeoisie idea of investigating the “human condition” through the Author’s personal journey. Anna’s experience is still quite uncommon, not often told, and hotly contested. The idea of a multitude of DIY game makers performing their identity through games, connecting with their communities with games, speaking in games, is the ultimate challenge against a games industry that is still unacceptably white, male and privileged.
The personal is always political, but in some cases more than others.
Link

Proteus

The commercial success of Dear Esther this year proved the mainsteam palatability of not-games, a loose category of game-like works not centered around rigid goals. In most not-games the lack of gameplay has to be balanced with a high quality storytelling, a powerful soundtrack and a visually stunning environment to make the exploration intrinsically rewarding.
Like Dear Esther, Proteus is a first-person exploration game set on an island, but that’s where the similarity ends: you won’t find an elaborate spatial narration, ultimately linear like a Disneyland ride; you won’t traverse a beautiful photorealistic landscape, ultimately dead like a Hollywood set.
Ed Key and David Kanaga’s creation is a colorful, highly stylized synesthetic universe to explore freely in time and space. Walking into a spring shower will add a layer to the droney soundscape, approaching the shore will awake pixelated crabs producing generative percussion… For the task-anxious gamer, there’s not much to do, beside discovering the rich ecosystems of sounds and witnessing some time-warping magical events.
For everybody else, this is a new way to experience an immersive virtual environment.
Link

Dog Eat Dog

I instinctively kickstarted this game earlier this year and quickly forgot about it until I met the designer Liam Liwanag Burke at the Allied Media Conference. After a couple of intense sessions I completely changed my opinion on role-playing games.
Dog Eat Dog is a story-game, a kind of short-form RPG that doesn’t require continuous dice rolling, tedious character creation, tacky miniatures, rummaging through manuals and enduring campaigns. It doesn’t even need a devoted dungeon masters or pre-game preparation since the setting is defined collaboratively.
Dog eat dog provides a simple system to enact a colonization scenario, with one player assuming the role of the “colonizers” (as a whole) and all the others playing as “natives” (each one playing one character). The features of both cultures are negotiated at the beginning and further developed during the game. Although the author designed the game as a way to reflect about his Pacific Island heritage, there’s no built-in historical constraint to the setting: we’ve played sci-fi stories reminiscent of Avatar as well as anthropologically-correct fantasy scenarios.
The colonizer tends to take the initiative describing the first contact and forcing the natives to react. Conflicts are resolved by consensus of, more rarely, by dice rolling. After each narrative arc the actions of each players are evaluated according to a developing set of “rules” typically representing the colonizers’ worldview. The first rule is always “The Natives are inferior to the Colonizers” and new ones are added to the list on the basis of the events happened on each scene. For example a new rule may state that “trees are unlimited resources” after the colonizers clear-cut an entire forest and dismissed the concerns of the villagers.
A simple economy of tokens makes sure that the conflict is always tense without encouraging excess on each part (you can read a more detailed explanation here). In fact the most interesting stories are the ones in which colonizers are not looking for direct confrontation and the natives are tempted to assimilate. The ambiguous and fluid gameplay also ensures that no player approaches the game with the competitive gamist mindset. After all, the goal of the game is to develop a meaningful, tragic, compelling story together.
Link

Diamond Trust of London

Jason Rohrer’s long-awaited Nintendo DS game has been penalized by many factors: a long and difficult approval process, an end-of-the-cycle hardware, the unusual 2-player local setup, the grave-sounding theme, and -possibly- the author’s reticence to create his own little hype-machine and compete in the increasingly crowded, over-kickstarted, white-noisy indie scene.
It’s a shame because Diamond Trust of London is Jason’s most elegantly designed game to date. It plays like a euro-style boardgame: few explicit rules (that you have to know before you start), short game sessions, and a deep mathematical core made more digestible by a recognizable theme.
Instead of the idyllic merchant society of Settlers of Catan or the edulcorated colonialism era of Puerto Rico, Diamond Trust is set in a very precise historical moment: Angola in the year 2000, specifically in the last months before the Kimberley Process establishes stricter regulations for diamond trade in Africa.
However, you won’t be lectured about the ugliness of blood diamonds and on the nefarious European influence on the continent. Diamond Trust delivers the “message” exclusively through a gameplay of deception and bribery. Diamonds simply appear on the market, money and gems pass from a pocket to another quietly… don’t ask any questions.
It’s a very tight psychological game that presents the world from the cynical, detached perspective of the Homo Economicus. The harsh reality left out of the simulation is what really matters, but it’s also what can’t be easily reduced into a formal system.
Link

Little Inferno

It’s hard to believe that three of the most talented and successful independent game developers put so much time and love into a game about watching things burn, collecting magical money, and then buying more things to burn. Yet, it makes kind of sense that Little Inferno itself is a finely crafted, sophisticated, and utterly pointless piece of technology to be consumed in few hours nihilistic play.
It’s a sign of maturity when a cultural form starts to interrogate itself. Little Inferno is not a game “about games” in a self-celebratory kind of way, it doesn’t drop nostalgic references nor manipulates familiar gaming conventions. Instead, it forces players to look beyond its fatuous gameplay, beyond the virtual fireplaces. It point inwards, into the dark heart of 21st century gaming, embodying the compulsive drive to monetization and the behaviorist science of rewards perfected by online gambling corporations like Zynga. It points outwards, at the larger schemes of planned obsolescence that drive – and are driven by – the games industry; it points at the social context of games: the fireplace, ancestral center of sociality, which has been replaced by radio, then by television, then by game consoles in an increasingly solitary, mediated and commercialized experience.
Link

Starseed Pilgrim

In the open-minded, novelty-starved, highly-interconnected indie community, innovative titles rarely go unnoticed. Yet, this seems the case of Starseed Pilgrim, a dizzyingly clever “abstract gardening” game lost in an ocean of unremarkable puzzle platformers.
The core gameplay consists in growing convoluted structures in order to reach remote keys while escaping a dark matter devouring the level block by block. The task involves a lot of planning, seed saving, and quick decision making. Explaining all the rules and the properties of the seeds would spoil the joy of discovery; after playing for hours I’m still finding new mechanics and strategies. Deceptively minimalist and finely sonified, Starseed Pilgrim is everything I want to see from a puzzle game: emergent gameplay, dazzling depth, playful exploration, and no pre-designed solutions.
Link

Cart Life

Although technically published in 2011, Richard Hofmeier’s magnum opus only started to get noticed this year, after numerous personal endorsements and in-depth analysis.
In essence, Cart Life is a “working poor” life simulation that puts you in the shoes of a single mom or a migrant man trying to make a living as a street vendor while dealing with your troubled personal life.
Cart Life is not an easy game: hard to learn, impossible to master, open and sprawling like no other indie game, frustrating and gloomy. And yet, it somehow manages to surprise and reward the committed player with fleeting moments of sheer beauty.
The brilliance of Cart Life is in the way it puts storytelling and exploration in direct competition with the brutal resource management gameplay. There is an economy of material necessity made of debt, logistics, paper napkins inventory, swift espresso-making gestures and a completely separated “human economy” (in David Graeber’s terms) of relationship, reputation, love and care. The numeric, formalized, computational core of the game on one side, and the loose, narrative, player-driven component on the other. It’s a great use of the so-called ludo-narrative dissonance for an expressive purpose.
It’s hard to convince you that Cart Life is worth your time because the feeling of wasting your time is a crucial part of the experience.
Wondering if Cart Life is worth playing is a bit like wondering if certain lives right below the poverty line are worth living.
Yes, they are.
Link

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An old school game for a brave new sport

Don’t expect a political punchline: there’s none.

Arcade Bike Polo was created for Fuck This Jam, a friendly game making competition organized by Vlambeer‘s Rami Ismail & Panoramical creator Fernando Ramallo. Gameplay and graphics were completed by the end of the week-long jam but I decided to take some extra time to add sound, menus and other non-core features.

Fuck This Jam challenged creators around the world to make a new game in a genre they hated. From the call:

Through utter ignorance for conventions and hate for the established rules of a genre, beautiful things will happen.

Although beauty has never been and will never be a priority a for Molleindustria, parodying/subverting the most obnoxious game genres (management sims, fighting games…) has been a recurring strategy since the inception of the project.
This time around I wanted to try a more direct approach and make a straightforward sport game. Not a stylized, natively digital multiplayer game like the Sportsfriends ones (that’s definitely not a genre I hate) but instead a digital translation of an existing sport.

The main inspiration for Arcade Bike Polo is Sensible Soccer, a frantic, streamlined and rather hardcore Amiga title from 1992. Sensible Soccer was a product of that awkward period of gaming history suspended between the symbolic/iconic age (i.e. pong) and the forced march toward photo-realism starting from the mid-nineties.

The choice of Hardcourt Bike Polo was obvious since it’s pretty much the only sport I’ve ever liked (full disclosure: I’m a terrible player). Moreover, Bike Polo is still not contaminated by rampant commercialization, exploited by cool hunting marketers, nor dominated by jock culture. On the opposite, it’s strongly connected with bicycle advocates, it’s decentralized and permeated by a DIY/punk(ish) attitude.

Photo credit: Kyle Casteline

The beauty of Bike Polo is in being both elegant and messy at the same time. At first it may appear as a dangerous, clanging wreck of wheels and ski poles, but then comes the realization that hitting a small ball with a section of ABS pipe while riding a bike is not any more absurd than running around bouncing a basketball: it’s just a series of artificial constraints from which patterns, tactics and strategies emerge.
I wanted to create a videogame that, without any pretense of simulation and “realism”, captured some of the core dynamics of the sports. Namely: the fluidity of action resulting from the lack of fixed roles and from the bikes’ affordances (you can’t instantly stop and change direction), and the asymmetry created by players with one strong side (the one with the mallet).

Some crucial aspects like collisions, wrecks, and “dabs” are intentionally downplayed or removed to produce a more fluid gameplay. A real-life polo game tends to have a hobbling kind of flow, with frequent pauses charged with tension, and sudden breakaways; mallet-to-mallet contact (sword fight) is common and frenzied; players get constantly cornered to the side of the court. These are characteristics you won’t find in the game.
Those familiar with bike polo will notice some other artistic licenses: the court is over-sized, there’s no distinction between “hit” and “shuffle”, it’s possible to ride through the goal backward and then score, and so on… each of them would require a justification I’d rather spare you.

I hope this silly videogame will introduce Bike Polo to a few uninitiated.
If you are one of them, trust me: the real deal is much more fun.
Chances are there is already a bike polo club in your own town!

Fucking polygons, fucking pixels: On procedural representations of sex

Arse Elekronika (not to be confused with the similarly sounding, slightly more established new media art festival in Linz) is the most important conference investigating the intersection of sex and technology. The past six editions revolved around themes like porn as innovation driver, sexuality in science fiction or body enhancements. This year the emphasis was on games and the three day festival included performances, workshops, and an eclectic mix of lectures: from the challenges of simulating sexual intercourse in Nordic LARPs to the dating strategies among volunteers in disaster zones, from the physics of vibrators and sex machines to the auto-ethnography of masturbation…
My talk simply dealt with the procedural representation of sex in videogames. I publish the presentation here, along with most of the images and videos I screened. The text is a transcript quickly adjusted to the written form so forgive me for the colloquial style, the repetitions and the wonky grammar.

Summary
What is the role of sex in the functionalist worlds of videogames? How come that modeling intercourses through cybernetic systems seems only to produce hilarious, problematic and delightfully reductionist outcomes?
In this gonzo survey of playable coitus, I descend from the prudish polish of AAA games to the subappreciated subterranean genre of interactive pornography (so you don’t have to) and then re-emerge to envision alternative design approaches for healthy, sex-positive, post-pornographic, radical games.

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Indiecade 2012: my highlights

Like in all good conferences, at Indiecade most of the fun happens outside and around the programmed events. The lectures, the exhibitions, and the goofy award ceremonies are only frames for a multitude of fluid interactions around dinner tables, in the waiting lines for beer, during improvised logistical negotiations, after tense game sessions.
That’s the stuff you won’t get from the video recordings and from this very biased and incomplete report.

The super dull Space Invaders sculptures always end up symbolizing Indiecade because games and talk in dark rooms don’t show well on camera…

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Fantastic Arcade 2012


Soon people will stop referring to Fantastic Arcade as “The best indie gaming event you’ve never heard of”. Integral part of Fantastic Fest (Über-hip arthouse sci-fi and horror film festival), happening in sunny Austin TX just a couple of weeks before Indiecade, the 3-years-old, 4-day-long festival, seems destined to become a fixture in the calendar of indie game people of all kinds.
Aside of the diverse selection of games, the informal talks, the relaxed and alcohol-fueled atmosphere, the great movies, and the great people that were part of the package, I’ve seen a couple of remarkable things I wasn’t quite expecting to see.

Dancingularity

Pioneering art/games collective Kokoromi presented the Dancingularity party, possibly the first experiment in dance floor gamification. Party-goers occupy a 3×3 matrix of Dance Dance Revolution pads producing a kind of heat map on a corresponding grid projected on big screen. The visuals are further processed in real time by a “Dance Master” who can trigger events and switch stages in relation to the music or the crowd.
Good music kept the party going, but dancers tended to stay confined in their own cells while lurkers like me speculated in the dark about the relation between video and input. I wonder if a more meaningful interaction and a slightly more complex set of rules could have produced some fluidity, emergent behaviors (in a self-aware game-of-life dancing cells kind of way), or a new type of bodily negotiations on the dance floor.
I’m looking forward to see further developments of this format.

Super Hexagon as spectator e-sport

Terry Cavanagh is so DIY that he’s also World’s champion at his own game

Terry’s minimalist avoidance game is receiving universal acclaim and becoming an instant iPhone/iPad classic. As it turns out, it can mesmerize spectators as well. There is something profoundly alien (or maybe profoundly human) in a crowded room gasping and cheering at one pulsating shape on the screen. What makes such a simple and brutal game an enjoyable spectacle? Is it the hypnotic visuals coupled with music? The absolute clarity of presentation? The sense of being constantly on the edge of failure?

Frobisher Says

Part of the Sony-sponsored section of the exhibition, this little punk game may simply be the only thing that justifies a monstrosity called Playstation Vita. Frobisher Says is a collection of absurdist WarioWare-like minigames where the main task is to quickly figure out what to do, rather than mastering certain mechanics. I assume it was conceived to demonstrate all the technical features of the PS Vita, but in my eyes it felt like a clever prank ridiculing its own platform. The protagonist, an annoying British brat, assigns you a series of nonsensical tasks that involve operating on one of the maaany available inputs: buttons and directional pads, analog stick, multi-touch screen, front camera, back camera, dorsal buttons, tilt sensors, microphone, and the baffling secondary touch screen on the back of the device. The player ends up juggling and groping the baroque gizmo, frantically looking for the appropriate sensor. So insane. So meta.

Panoramical

Oddly, one of the best works I’ve seen in Austin wasn’t part of the festival but was demoed informally during a party. Panoramical is a collaboration between Argentinian (although Mexico-based) developer Fernando Ramallo and Proteus composer David Kanaga. The software toy uses an 8 channel mixer as input device: every analog slider and knob controls an element of a generative virtual landscape and a track of a multilayered ambient soundtrack. The result is a beautiful, rich, synesthetic experience and/or a promising tool for real-time audio-visual performance.

And yes an “arcade” cabinet of Unmanned was there as well.

Picture taken early in the morning with nobody around, I suppose.

Gatekeeper and the rise of the Total Apple Consumer

Somewhere in UK, a dialog box pops up on the screen of a Mac computer.

The user contacts me asking for an explanation I can’t quite provide. The same file (a downloadable version of Phone Story) works perfectly on my machine, also a Mac. It turns out the “file damaged” message is produced by Gatekeeper, an anti-malware feature of the new OSX Mountain Lion, which I haven’t bothered to install yet. Gatekeeper, by default, blocks every application that is not coming from the official Mac App store or from certified Apple developers.

I read a few articles about Gatekeeper, all of which are praising Apple for this long-sighted move to prevent the malware epidemic that plagues Windows users. More informal reactions from independent developers are along these lines:

“Yeah, it happened to me too. It’s a stupid message”

“No big deal, just go to the preferences panel and change the security settings”

“I agree with the goals of Gatekeeper, but that dialog box feels wrong. It’s very un-Apple-like.”



I certainly don’t expect the tech press to say anything against Apple, but I’m surprised by the lack of debate (outrage?) within Mac users and developers.

I’d like to make the case that this kind of trick is indeed very Apple-like, and that Gatekeeper is a reason for concern.


The Total Apple Consumer

It’s not too hard to understand why Apple’s innovations and branding strategy conquered millions of users in the last decade. But in order to turn groundbreaking products such as the iPod or the iPhone into monopolistic leverages, Apple had to go beyond mere product design and marketing to devise a smooth, seamless user experience among its platforms and devices. To become a vertically-integrated computing company and control hardware, software, content (iTunes / App Store), and personal data (iCloud) at the same time, Apple had to create a new kind of user, an ideal user which I’ll simply call: Total Apple Consumer.

The Total Apple Consumer is awesomely rewarded for its loyalty, while the impure one is punished. Using an iPod or an iPhone without adopting iTunes as mp3 player for your computer is a major annoyance. To be precise, it’s a carefully designed annoyance. Transferring files to an external device via USB doesn’t technically require a cumbersome online shopping application like iTunes. It’s the digital equivalent of those airport terminals that force you to walk though a labyrinth of duty-free shops in order to reach your flight.

Of course, things are way more functional and easy to manage when there are no junctions and no conflicts. It’s getting increasingly more appealing to adopt Apple’s monoculture, leaving behind an ecosystem of manufacturers, developers and services – often in competition between each other – like a PC+Windows set up. The risks of relying on one all-encompassing system (such as having your account hijacked) are negligible in comparison to a perfectly efficient, streamlined digital life.

A newspeak for the post-PC era

In the process of reshaping our relation with computing machines, Apple also had to exert control on computing language. For example: the concept of “synching devices” replaced the more intuitive and technically precise expression “copying files”. This brilliant semiotic move inscribes the notion of artificial scarcity into our daily interactions.
Synching obscures the very fact that you are copying files around. The idea that digital information can be freely duplicated and shared is dangerous – a gateway to piracy. What you are supposed to think instead, is that you acquired the right to consume a song, a video, or a piece of software, via a certain number of sanctioned devices and/or for a certain amount of time. And you shouldn’t really bother about how this affects your file system. In fact, your file system may not even exists.

Like the newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984, Applespeak is subtle and gradual.

Referring to applications as “apps” is not just a branding technique but a necessary linguistic reduction to conceptualize a lesser type of application. A little piece of software that sits in its little sandbox and doesn’t try to compete with the overarching platform.

For decades, digital artists and videogame developers have fought to elevate the status of software to that of any other cultural artifact. Apple overtly reject this idea.
The second paragraph of the guidelines for app developers reads:

We view Apps different than books or songs, which we do not curate. If you want to criticize a religion, write a book. If you want to describe sex, write a book or a song, or create a medical app.

An app is primarily a commodity and a functional tool. After all, freedom of speech doesn’t apply to screwdrivers or compasses.
Still, they’re not excluding the possibility of some kind of meaning emerging from an app, they just reserve the right to censor what doesn’t comply with their inscrutable moral standards:

We will reject Apps for any content or behavior that we believe is over the line. What line, you ask? Well, as a Supreme Court Justice once said, “I’ll know it when I see it”. And we think that you will also know it when you cross it.

The term “gatekeeper” in Information Technology is generally used as a negative term to refer to entities in a position of control over crucial services. In Applespeak, Gatekeeper becomes the friendly bouncer that knows when somebody “crosses the line”.

Designating all the applications that are not Apple-approved as “damaged files” to be trashed is an even bolder linguistic intervention. Users who want to decide what software runs on their machines have to change the default setting and go through another intimidating message.

Beware: the Internet outside Apple’s digital stores is a scary, scary place…

Boiling the frog

In terms of security, Gatekeeper is a remarkably lazy approach. Instead of making a “black list” of bad software like anti-virus programs generally do, Gatekeeper starts from a presumption of guilt and performs a “white list” check. If you sell through the Mac App store, paying a yearly fee and 30% of the revenues for this privilege, you are on the list. Unless, of course, your products violate their arbitrary guidelines.

You’d have to be the most clueless Apple believer to buy into this narrative. If developers’ certification was really the key to security, a third-party validation by companies in the business of detecting malware would be more appropriate.
A complementary approach could involve educating users to recognize suspicious files – which unfortunately it’s at odds with Apple’s tendency to strategically obfuscate the internal structure of their systems.

As depressing as it can be, it’s more logical to think of Gatekeeper as a step toward the exclusive control of content in that shiny post-PC era envisioned by Steve Jobs. The monopolistic App Store for iPhone and iPad turned out to be so profitable, it would be foolish for them to not extend the system beyond mobile devices.

Needless to say, Apple already has the capacity to block all non-approved software running on “their” machines.
Some Total Apple Consumers may welcome this as a another time-saving, stress-reducing service, but such a swift, uncompromising move is likely to cause an insurrection among power-users and software developers. That’s why they can only attempt a gradual shift. For now it’s just a security setting you can change but who knows what will happen with the next update. The message to developers is clear: if you make software for Mac you’d better look into this whole Mac Store thing, or you may suddenly be cut off.

Personal Computer = Personal Liberation

Techy people may find these remarks obvious. Apple’s 360º expansion strategy is rather transparent if you bother to observe it in perspective. But many computer users can’t even tell the difference between a browser and a search engine. They certainly aren’t going to mess with their System Preferences to make their computers “less safe”.

Why should we care about them? Shouldn’t we welcome more constrained systems for those who are so dumb as to not recognize malware and online scams? Isn’t the iPad the most appropriate device for the 21st century couch potatoes who only need to check their email, watch some cat videos, and post pictures on Facebook?

If we care about being surrounded by active, informed and empowered citizens, we should be concerned about Apple’s post-PC vision, and fight for the right to control the software that runs on our devices. Apple is on the front line of what writer and commentator Cory Doctorow calls The Coming War on General-Purpose Computing.

This isn’t an entirely new struggle. The first book about personal computers was written by Ted Nelson in 1974. Its title was Computer Lib/Dream Machines, a fist on the cover, with the emphatic call: “You can and must understand computers NOW”.

The double cover of Computer Lib / Dream Machines

For pioneers like Nelson, the creative and political potential of computing machines and informational networks was immediately evident. The challenge was to make these machines available to everybody and promote a new kind of literacy.

The tyrants to overthrow were the centralized systems, namely: television and mainframe computers. It’s worth remembering that before PCs, people worked with “terminals” which functioned as input/output devices for central entities called mainframes. Systems administrators defined the policies and controlled the software.
These radical ideas of computing freedom were so influential that they became selling points for the emerging IT sector. The famous TV ad launching the first Macintosh computer in 1984 dramatized this antagonism, referencing Orwell’s dystopia:

Obviously, disruptive companies can’t stay disruptive forever. Investors demand increasing returns and impose an endless march of expansion and consolidation. Ultimately, every IT corporation strives to become Big Brother.

The Total Apple Consumers (which, again, are the ideal consumers that Apple tries to create) are the subjects of a mainframe model applied to the consumer-side. They store all their personal data in remote iClouds; purchase music, eBooks and newspapers from iTunes; find directions, stores and local services though Apple Maps; they dabble with apps made by Apple’s indentured developers; when tired of tapping and swiping touchscreens, they can enjoy a moment of relaxation, watching TV and movies through Apple TV.
Their post-PC devices could perhaps help them figure out what TV shows they should watch and which ones they should “move to the trash”; which websites are trustworthy and which ones are “damaged” and so on…
Once you control all points of entry to the digital realm, the possibilities are endless.

They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
- Benjamin Franklin

A COMPUTERLESS VIDEOGAME MODDING WORKSHOP

Here is a recipe for a rrradical game design & literacy workshop I had the chance to organize together with Una Lee, Toronto-based activist, designer and all-around awesome person. It was presented at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in June 2012 but you can try it at home, with your own class, club, organization or anywhere, really.

In short, it involved remixing gameplays and cardboard sprites from classic arcade games in response to a pressing social issue or a real world scenario.

“Radical turtles try to convince moderate Goombas to join the fight against the imperialist Mario and Princess Peach…”

Context

Every year, hundreds of media producers, hackers and geeks working in LGBTQ, social and environmental justice movements converge to Detroit to share stories and skills, to create meaningful connections and have a lot fun. As the organizers put it:

At the Allied Media Conference, media creation is not only about personal expression, but about transformation – of ourselves and the structures of power around us. We create media that exposes, investigates, resists, heals, builds confidence and radical hope, incites dialogue and debate. We demystify technology, not only learning how to use it, but how to take it apart, fix it and build our own.

Starting from this year the AMC included a section about games called “Imagining better futures through play” coordinated by Una and Cayden Mak, brilliant SUNY-Buffalo game scholar. Our workshop, awkwardly titled “Designing revolutionary games with verbs” was part of it.

The beautiful people of the AMC

The Workshop

The big challenge was to propose an exercise that could be executed in an hour and a half, by any number of people, of all ages, of any level of game and computer literacy, assuming no equipment at all.

The main inspirations for the workshop were Grow-A-Game, a card deck by Tiltfactor and the research Videogames of the Oppressed projects by Gonzalo Frasca. We basically adapted these projects for a more socially-conscious and (potentially) less game-literate crowd.

We opted for a quick paper prototyping activity, to take the technological aspects out of the equation and to provide a fun, physical tool to brainstorm in small groups.

The Games

Modifying (or modding) pre-existing games prevented participants from spending too much time thinking about the “kind” of game they deemed more appropriate. It also pushed them to deconstruct the rhetoric and the ideological biases that inform commercial games. Before the modding phase we asked them to break down the game mechanics into “verbs” and think about the implicit or explicit “messages” that these formal systems may entail. We selected a handful of games to analyze and remix:

Bomberman
Frogger
Lemmings
Pacman
Space invaders
Super Mario Bros.

Needless to say, the choice was not motivated by 8-bit nostalgia. Classic arcade games in this context have several advantages:

  • They are way more simple, with few elements and transparent mechanics. Many people are familiar with them or they can easily figure out the gameplay by watching a video playthrough.
  • They help to conceptualize games as something more general and diverse than the contemporary dominant genre: a 3D space to be explored by an avatar, peppered by fragments of a story, puzzles and enemies.
  • They are 2D, and that helps a lot when you are working on paper.
  • They are, into some extent, game archetypes. They introduced some of the most basic elements that are still present in contemporary videogames (shooting and avoiding in Space invaders, Maze exploration in PacMan etc…).

Problem Cards

The second creative constraint was a randomly assigned “problem” card that represented an abstract social issue and a more concrete scenario.
Example:

Issue:
Discrimination / Tolerance,
Racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying…
Scenario:
The mainstream media is portraying a minority group as a social disease

We thought it was important to describe issues as tensions and not only as negative or positive values to stimulate a variety of approach. Games can represent a problem, envision a solution, embody an interpersonal dynamic that resonates with the scenario and so on.

The scenario is meant to be an example. Participants were able to choose to approach the problem in an abstract way (e.g. Economic Inequality) or in more geographically or historically specific way (e.g. the Downsizing of Detroit along class and racial lines) or anything in between.

Paper Prototyping

We provided each group with a collection of sprites ripped from the randomly assigned game, printed on cardstock, and pre-cut. The sprites represented the main movable visual modules; for levels and backgrounds we recommended to use markers on big cardboard sheets.

We found that the physical paper pieces compelled participants to reason in visual and spatial terms and, at the same time, allowed a more democratic process since all members of the group (3-4 people) were able to rearrange elements as if they were working on a jigsaw puzzle.

Providing visual elements to start from also discouraged the simple re-skinning approach, namely: changing stories and characters while keeping the mechanics intact.

Bomberman becomes a complex resource management game about the military-industrial complex

Variant?

We didn’t have the time to test it but it may be fun to allow groups to trade elements and incorporate sprites from different games in the same design.

Materials

More Results!

Unfortunately we were too busy to properly document the prototypes but Una did a write-up of a dry-run of the workshop in Toronto. Read it here.

P.S.
If you are interested in proposing a game-related activity for next year’s AMC contact Cayden, Una or me. It’s going to be a blast!

Molleindustria’s fake Apple Store in South Korea

Last summer I was invited to participate to the Gwangju Design Biennale in Korea. Apparently it’s a big deal for designers down there, with over 5,000 daily visitors from all over the world. The art/design section was co-curated by Chinese bad-ass artist Ai Wei Wei, who didn’t actually have the chance to curate that much since he was arrested that year.
Anyway, the sponsors were mostly hi-tech and phone companies so I thought it was the perfect event for the unveiling of Phone Story.

The problem was that I had to fill quite a lot of space with a tiny mobile game so I asked them to build a sort of fake Apple Store, with minimal design and blinding lights. It turned out pretty well.

Note: the first version of Phone Story featured Steve Jobs’ disembodied head talking (in Korean) over an hypnotic spiral. Then, as you may have heard, the real Jobs died and I decided to use a more generic narrator (representing the phone itself) making the whole thing less Apple-centric.

Written by Comments Off Posted in art

The Trouble With Call of Duty’s Scary New War

A couple of months ago, Stephen Totilo from Kotaku read some angry tweets of mine regarding the teaser campaign for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Stephen asked me if I was interested in expanding my 140 character long rants into a 400-600 hundred word article. I gave him 1600 words. I republish the entire article here:

The future is black, announces the trailer for Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.
The next iteration of the popular first person shooter hardly needs any marketing campaign: immediately after the official announcement, the gaming press diligently started to operate as an extension of Activision’s PR department. Small and big media scrambled to produce the most comprehensive list of features, talking polygons and frame rates, revealing plot fragments, speculating on new gameplay additions that may or may not rejuvenate the trite shooting genre.

Given the predicable hype, it is surprising to see among the promotional material a serious, high production value “documentary” about 21st century warfare, touching upon cyberterrorism, robotics and counter-insurgency.
The 6-part video – available here in “interactive” form or here in sequential form – prominently features military commentator P.W. Singer and Oliver North, the key figure of the Iran-Contra scandal that nearly brought down the Reagan administration in the mid 80s.

 

 

Allow me a digression. The Iran-Contra affair is one of those rare cases in Cold War history where it’s absolutely clear who the bad guys are. Oliver North, at the time working for the National Security Council, was involved in the clandestine sale of weapons to Iran (a rather common practice during the Cold War’s proxy conflicts). The proceeds from the sales were then illegally diverted to finance the Contras, a network of CIA-trained guerrilla groups, who opposed the democratically elected government of Nicaragua. Contras were notorious for their human right abuses such as murder, torture, rape and executions of civilians. They also funded themselves through drug trafficking and it’s been alleged that the CIA was supporting, or at least, tolerating these activities. These last allegations were disproved after an investigation led by, well… the CIA.
The story of how Oliver North went from being a convicted felon for these activities, to Republican candidate for the Senate, best selling author, news commentator for Fox News and eventually testimonial/media-stuntman for Activision, is a kind of twisted version of the American Dream that I’m not going to tell.

Back to the trailer: it’s quite unusual to see a major game developer contextualizing a title in relation to current, hotly debated issues; that is, avoiding the notorious “it’s just a game” stance and acknowledging that military-themed games are part of a larger discourse around war. It’s also somewhat gutsy to take a clear political position by hiring a figure like North. I personally would love to see more game companies taking their roles as cultural producers this seriously.

As it turns out, it’s hard to sell a shooter about black operations without glorifying the real black operations. The “documentary” feels like a polished piece of propaganda that may have come straight out of the Department of Defense.
I’m talking about a rather new kind of propaganda here. The post-9/11 triumphalist rhetoric of America’s Army, Kuma War or Full Spectrum Warrior (just to mention other games set in contemporary or near-future scenarios) can only sound awkward after the epic failures of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Hence, the militaristic fable has to assume a different tone – in this case, a dark, apocalyptic – and envision scenarios of unconceivable horror to strike an audience desensitized by a decade of continuous war. As Oliver North puts it in the trailer: “I don’t think the average American grasps how violent war is about to become”.

The bulk of the narrative is provided by P.W. Singer, a prominent military expert and fortunate choice for this type of contextualization. His book Wired for War is an outstanding account of robotic warfare (and, by the way, the main source and inspiration for my latest game Unmanned). The treatise describes the state of the art of unmanned systems and examines the political, ethical and legal issues emerging from this ongoing technological revolution. It inevitably raises difficult questions: How our perception of the frontline changes when we can remotely control a UAV from home? How important is the risk of losing human lives when waging a war? Will robots make us more inclined to use violence in resolution of conflicts? Who is responsible when an autonomous machine kills a human? The personnel who deployed it? The commander of the operation? The engineer? The programmer who made the software?
Of course, all these questions are not even hinted at in the Black Ops 2 “documentary”. Singer is simply used to tell us that “the future is here” and that robots may have dangerous bugs, while North spins his Fox News-style terror scenario.

Oliver North’s nightmare seems to coincide with the premise of the game: in a imminent future, a supervillain (possibly affiliated with Anonymous) is able to hijack an army of unmanned war machines and attack Los Angeles.
In the game, or in North’s vision (at this point it’s hard to tell) the future of warfare is with black ops. Clandestine Special Forces can be deployed anywhere, in no time, with the most sophisticated weaponry to confront a diffused, unfathomable enemy.
Don’t understand the connection between cyberterrorism and covert operations? Don’t worry, that’s nothing but a non sequitur that serves the purpose of introducing the main themes of Black Ops 2. Nevertheless, this kind of nonsense, especially if repeated ad nauseam in news media and pop culture, contributes to the way we think about conflicts and future threats.

I believe there is a twofold process transforming the way we perceive war. On one hand we have a normalization of images of war: in media, in electronic entertainment, even in viral videos showing robotic Big Dogs or other DARPA-funded marvels. On the other hand, we have a massive deployment of “strategies of separation” such as unmanned aerial vehicles or undercover operations that work together to make the material reality of war as distant as possible from our daily lives.
Black Ops 2 will probably end up contributing to both sides of this equation by trivializing war and celebrating the culture of secrecy at the same time.

You may ask: what’s wrong with celebrating black operations anyway?
In the Ramboesque universe of Call of Duty, black ops are presented as an elite force type of operations, carried out in secrecy by modern ninjas. But in reality, what makes certain operations “black” is not that they go undetected by enemy forces – after all, most of military engagements are meant to surprise or deceive the opponent. The peculiarity of black operations is of being untraceable and deniable by the very institutions which finance and conduct them. This secrecy is desirable whenever the operations, if done overtly, would cause popular uproar, diplomatic crisis or legal troubles. It allows the perpetrators to bypass public scrutiny, democratic oversight and the Laws of War, a complex system of liability under which the “proper” military must operate.
Real-world black operations are often indistinguishable from terrorism. The 1985 Beirut car bombing, in which American and British intelligences failed in their attempt to assassinate an Islamic cleric, resulted in the deaths of about 60 civilians, including children leaving school. Take note Activision and Treyarch: it sounds like a fun mission.
Examples of contemporary black operations include the murder of several Iranian nuclear scientists, the virus Stuxnet, the undeclared drone wars in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, and the Extraordinary Rendition Program that involves the kidnapping of suspected terrorists and their illegal detention and torture in a network of secret prisons operated by the CIA.

The most paradoxical aspect of black operations is that they are mostly invisible to the public opinion here in the West, but not in the countries where these operations take place. Venezuelan people know and remember vividly that the 2002 coup against their democratically elected government was funded by Washington. For the families and friends of the thousands of victims of drone strikes in Pakistan, those operations are not that secret anymore. The news that U.S. drones are deliberately targeting rescuers and funerals may be of secondary importance here, but abroad, it fuels an ever growing anti-Western sentiment.

In the West, we live with constant cognitive dissonance because these practices clearly conflict with our supposed moral high ground and the official mission of “exporting democracy”. We deal with it by quickly forgetting troubling events, by buying into sanitized stories such as the ones presented by videogames, or by crafting elaborate echo chambers where the only news stories we are exposed to are ones that relate with our hobbies and interests.

It’s entirely possible that Black Ops 2 may end up telling a fascinating story, the story of a country that achieved such a complete military supremacy that the only thing it fears is its own arsenal. It could also attempt new forms of gameplay to describe the complexities of asymmetrical warfare and the vaporous world of cyberterrorism, but I suspect we’ll end up with a refinement of the same shooter, this time with robotic enemies as targets.

This coming November, you may be one of the millions who will purchase Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. Before you start fantasizing about a Los Angeles under drone attack and the undercover soldiers who will save us all, you may want to think about the horrifying history of undercover operations and the actuality of drone wars today.

The future may indeed be black, but the present isn’t bright either.

 

P.S. If you want to see a real documentary about the robotics revolution in warfare I recommend Remote Control War produced by the CBC.
There are many good films about United States’ foreign policy in Latin America. A recent one is John Pilger’s The War on Democracy, available on Netflix. This topic is also central to the seminal educational/strategy game Hidden Agenda by Jim Gasperini.

New website?

Sort of.
I had to ditch the old baroque, over-themed and essentially un-updatable Drupal-based content management system for a leaner solution based on WordPress. The Italian section (hundreds of nodes), the game pages, and some old content will continue to exist as static HTML – which has the great advantage of not vomiting errors after every major update like PHP does.

I may blog around for a while until I get tired of this new toy. Then I’ll apologize for not posting, as documented by this poignant artwork by Cory Arcangel, and you, random visitor, will think I’m dead or something.