Jens Schroeder

Crowfunding the Public Interest

I originally penned this post for a newsletter of The New Zealand Initiative Think Tank.  In his book, The Great Degeneration, Niall Ferguson describes how the West’s six ‘killer applications’ (competition, science, property rights, medicine, consumerism, and work ethic) are on the decline.

"Our democracies have broken the contract between the generations by heaping IOUs on our children and grandchildren. Our markets are increasingly distorted by over-complex regulations that are in fact the disease of which they purport to be the cure. The rule of law has metamorphosed into the rule of lawyers. And civil society has degenerated into uncivil society, where we lazily expect all our problems to be solved by the state."

The result is slow growth, strained social systems, complacency, and disinterest.

At the same time, the creative industries were shaken by the principle of crowd funding. Privately owned for-profit websites like Kickstarter allow individuals to pool their money to support projects initiated by other people.

Creators set deadlines and a minimum funding goal, and describe risks and challenges associated with the project. Once the project receives funding, the creators are expected to supply regular progress updates.

According to Wikipedia, since Kickstarter's launch nearly five million people have funded more than 50,000 projects. Examples include video games, films and a 3D printer. In fact, in 2012, Kickstarter channelled more money into the US arts scene (US$323.6 million) than the Federal Government (US$146 million).

These numbers raise the question of whether the answer to Western society’s ills could lie in adopting this model.

A small percentage of taxes would go into essential services, and what happens with the rest is for the electorate to decide.

Any tax-funded project must justify itself, and it would need to persuade people, give detailed timelines, manage risks, and show that it has the appropriate staff. Any delays and extra costs would have to be communicated and explained immediately. Lobbyism would become more public as it needs to inform a broader audience.

For example, single mothers could choose not to pay for upper class students to attend university. Tax-funded nanny state tendencies based on vocal special interest groups, solely focused on helping themselves to our wallets and freedoms, can be curbed and a sense of personal responsibility re-instilled.

Theoretically, this would lead to less waste, and lower taxes.

Of course, this approach is not without its problems, the biggest being how to make sure that all projects are equally represented and considered by the electorate.

Still, the idea would make for a much more explicit contract between the state and its people that would make for more engagement by appealing to responsibility, and being able to directly influence outcomes. Maybe the West can crowd fund itself back to glory.

Life, Work and Gaming in Sydney

Ever since I moved to Sydney I haven't really been active on Blogcampaigning. So what have I been up to? (Editors note: Easy question. The answer is "complaining about living near the beach and having a real job") Last year I became the Academic Coordinator for a private multimedia college. It offers, amongst other things, a bachelors degree in game design, programming and animation.

Seeing what students come up with is one of the most rewarding aspects of the job – some projects include great ideas and have commercial potential.

For example,  a group of graduates was able to recently acquire seed funding from Asia to work on a game that helps Asian students learn English. Another project revolves around the gamification of our curriculum by taking advantage of the data in our student management system. Another group is working on a game that helps to drive the agenda of one of Australia's most influential think tanks.

It's not only the students, however, who learn a lot. In the process of supervising these projects, I have learned a lot myself, the more so as they touch upon areas that only just opened up to the possibilities of games and game design.

One can tell that the interest in games is growing, they are more and more asserting themselves as a disruptive technology. I'm confident that in a couple of years the application of gamification principles – beyond their current superficial application – for any form of deeper and meaningful engagement will be the rule rather than the exception.

In this respect, the being able to design these systems will become a very valuable skill. On one hand it's easy to create a game; to create a good game, however, to achieve that delicate balance of a rule based system that fosters great experiences, is very hard. This applies to their traditional commercial application, but even more so to their "serious" application where they have to hit that sweet spot between instructional design and motivation.

I really hope that my students will see these opportunities and take advantage of them. While the Australian game development scene is certainly is flux, there are some amazing opportunities that present themselves, the more so in a country that was traditionally always very open toward the possibilities of new technologies.

Another perk of the job is being able to be in touch with the burgeoning Sydney game development scene. Traditionally the centres for game development in Australia were – and still are – Brisbane and Melbourne. Sydney, however, is catching up.

Not only are there professional studios starting up, attracted by new government funding models, but there is also a growing, very enthusiastic indie scene. Held together by regular meet-ups, a supportive atmosphere and the will to get something off the ground, it gives the impression that something exciting is going to happen rather sooner than later.

If it is, you will hear from me. I promise!


Jens and Parker in the News

Jens Schroeder, our occasional contributor on the topic of video games, was recently interviewed by the Australian division of Kotaku about whether or not industry-specific schools led to actual careers at video game companies:

To an extent Jens Schroeder, Campus Academic Coordinator at Qantm, sympathises with both.

“I think you’ll always get this contrast in any institution and admittedly I can sort of see where some of the students are coming from,” he says.

“During orientation I’m always trying to make clear to students that this is a pathway. Parents come in for open days and they ask, ‘will our children find a job?’ It’s a fair question. The spiel I give them is probably yes — if they work really hard, show the right attitude and entertain possibilities outside of the more hardcore side of things. You have to think outside the box — games for health, games that rehabilitate old people through dance mats! You know?

“A lot of the students still find it difficult to get used to the idea that they might not be working on the nextCall of Duty.”

You get the sense that Jens struggles with the naïveté of some students, the sense of entitlement.

“No one is waiting to recognise their inherent genius,” laughs Jens, “which is what I think a lot of students believe. One of the things I’m really trying to encourage is to get students to attend networking events — like the IGDA stuff. You ask them to attend, and you go there and it’s the same five people! I’m like really? Those are some of the basic skills you have to learn. That can be a little disheartening.

“Maybe it’s an age thing — some of them come directly out of high school. They just want to make games, they don’t realise the effort needed to succeed.”

And while I wasn't necessarily quoted or mentioned by name, Business Insider used a photo of me from my trip to Puerto Rico for their article on "Crazy Ad Agency Office Perks That Make Us Think We Chose The Wrong Job." 




How We Spent Our Summer Vacation

Once again, it's been over a month since I wrote the last post on BlogCampaigning and I'm scrambling to explain how we spent our summer. In late July, I broke my collarbone playing soccer so I spent a lot of time in the past few weeks sitting on my patio and watching Game of Thrones. I also changed roles at DDB, and am now a Social Media Planner. I'll elaborate more on that in a later post.

Jens Schroeder got a real job, and is now the Campus Academic Coordinator for Qantm College's Sydney Campus. For a guy who lives next to the beach in Australia and whose job is basically telling people about video games, he spends a lot of time complaining about how tough his life is.

Heather Morrison continues to work for Sequentia Environics, but she also got to got to Florida and Vancouver this summer.

Espen Skoland has written a post for BlogCampaigning in years, and considering him and his wife Hanne had a baby this summer, it'll probably be a while before we hear from him again.

We're all excited have more updates for you soon here on BlogCampaigning! Don't forget to follow @BlogCampaigning on Twitter, too.



Us and THem - How does my city integrate?

Here's my latest post for the Goethe Institute's Cityscape's blog: “Us and Them - How does my city integrate?" 40% of Sydney's residents were born overseas; the people I work with have Indian, German, Polish, British, and Lebanese backgrounds.

As I explained in last month's entry, one of my colleagues is of Anglo-Indian origin, he was born in India but later moved to the UK. It was in Sydney however, that he finally felt home as everyone here has an "uprooted" background.

Given Australia's history – for a long time the the White Australia Policy was essence of antipodean nationalism – Sydney integrates remarkably well.

Several migration schemes and the final denunciation of the White Australia policy under Whitlam meant that Australia faced the highest rate of incoming migration in the OECD.

Within a very short amount of time Australia and its small and homogeneous base became a diverse country in which 22 per cent of the population were born overseas and another 18.3 per cent have at least one overseas born parent.

This meant that for governments from the 1970s onwards presiding over a multicultural Australia, new representations of identity were required. Waves of migration multiplied the complexities of identity and consequently led to the acknowledgment that any future constructions of the Australian 'national character' had to be plural.

Australia's culture became perpetually emergent, as are all 'new world' nations formed in the cusp of poly-ethnic migration.

However, I would argue that there still is a distinct element of "Australianess", the one element that actually helps to accommodate all these people to their new home.

Australia has always been proud of its egalitarianism, it was the country of the "fair go". The Becoming an Australian Citizen booklet which serves as a preparation for the naturalisation test, explains that "Australia prides itself on being an egalitarian society where no one is regarded as better than anyone else"

It is questionable in how far this egalitarianism expresses itself in social terms. Then again, Australia's egalitarianism was not simply an empty ritual. Australia's democracy centred around an egalitarianism of manners, the only egalitarianism to still exist today.

The manners of public life were traditionally direct, open and non-deferential making Australia's democracy first of all a democracy of manners. It is the way Australians blot out social differences when people meet face to face. It is the feel of Australian society that is so markedly egalitarian, not its social structure.

In contrast to the past, where the fair dinkum Aussie was based on exclusion, this egalitarianism makes makes for a populism of Australia in the multicultural era. It is a non-antagonistic mobilisation of a sense of community.

The only qualification for membership was that you were ordinary and unpretentious. There are some people inhabiting the country that were not really Australian: the pretentious, personalities whose codes of dress, speech and conduct are held to be artificial and distant.

In contrast to the 'primordial' national traditions of the more 'established' European nations with their long history of highbrow culture, the strongest core of Australia's identity was easy to share: anybody could be unaffected and open.

Admittedly, it is an egalitarianism of manners, social division are still strongly translated into spatial divisions, ask the residents of Sydney's west – a part of the city that also sees people living side by side in parallel societies that do not always conform to ideas of democracy and freedom.

And yes, there is also opposition to further migration, some are afraid of a "big Australia" and proclaim that the country is full. Not only do they oversee the potential benefits of a growing population, there's also a certain irony in proclaiming that a continent with 22 million inhabitants is "full".

Overall Sydney came has come a remarkably long way, for the most part its "us and us" than "us and them"


Killer Games vs Violence: My Second Book

Last month my second book was released: 'Killer Games' Versus 'We Will Fund Violence' The Perception of Digital Games and Mass Media in Germany and Australia". Where my first book was my German Master's thesis (and was about gaming behind the Iron Curtain), this one is my Ph.D.

So what is it all about?

While the assessment of digital games in Germany was framed by a high-culture critique, which regarded them as an 'illegitimate' activity, in Australia they were enjoyed by a comparatively wide demographic as a 'legitimate' pastime.

In the thesis I analysed the social history of digital gaming in both countries and related it to their socio-cultural traditions and their effects on modes of distinction. Basically, you can tell why Germany has issues with this type of media by looking into why Australia does not.

Germany, as a European Kulturnation, had a different history and different 'foundational dynamics' than Australia, a New-World society built on premises which consciously distanced themselves from their Old-World heritage.

Foundational dynamics signify the socio-cultural and historical forces which shaped a distinct national conscience and dominant identity constructions during the countries' founding phase. These constructions did not stay without an impact on the perception of different kinds of aesthetics.

Closely related to the uptake of culture was the issue of distinction, the cultural demarcation between social groups: By a conspicuous refusal of other tastes, a class tries to depict its own lifestyle as something superior. A country like Germany, whose national self-conception was closely related to groups which perpetuated an idealistic notion of Kultur and later integrated it into a rigid class system, exhibited a different form of distinction than Australia.

To put it differently: A country which based its national archetype on the myth of the bushman developed a different national conscience than a country whose ruling class defines itself very much in terms of high-cultural achievements.

The thesis demonstrates how forms of distinction, shaped by different foundational dynamics, asserted themselves regarding the perception of mass culture to the point where digital games were the latest medium to be surrounded by established patterns of criticism and enthusiasm. To make this point clear it gives a detailed history of previous introductions of mass culture and with which reactions they were met on part of Germany and Australia and their modes of distinction.

Due to its history and cultural traditions, Germany strongly opposed mass media – as can be seen in the uptake of the cinema, radio and television – whereas Australians were always comparatively enthusiastic about the latest iteration of mass art, games included. It was something that confirmed Australian identity whereas it threatened Germany's.

The thesis is the first social history of gaming in both countries.

On the other hand it also offer unique insights into the national unconscious of the two countries by means of analysing the uptake of mass media.

So if you're interested in digital games, media history, the social history of Germany and Australia, demographics and target groups in these countries or their capacity to produce internationally appealing media content, this book is for you.

Get it here or here.


Adventures in Sydney

As some of you might have noticed, I haven't contributed much to Blogcampaigning lately; not only was I busy sorting out paperwork in order to be able to stay in Australia, but I also started a new job (editor's note: Oh, I've noticed!) As of this month, I started work as a lecturer for game design at Qantm college. It sure feels good to turn a life-long passion into a job.

As you can imagine, talking in front of 80 students in a second language and helping to develop part of the curriculum is pretty exciting. Experience in public speaking certainly helps, but when you walk in your first lecture, all eyes on you, people in the back complaining about not being able to hear anything, other students explaining that there's a microphone you don't know how to use – that's when your heart skips a beat.

A couple of lame zombie jokes later and the ice is broken. Hopefully they're enough to motivate the students to do work. Getting them to actually do something for the course is not going to be too easy, given its rather dry content: project management… Not the most electrifying lecture, but certainly necessary. Somehow I'll get them there!

I also started blogging for the Goethe Institute, Germany's global cultural institute. Their Sydney office started the CityScapes blog. This blog:

aims to make visible what unites us and what may divide us, to create an awareness for the necessity to act locally in response to global issues. It endeavours to research the human condition of the young urban dweller in the 21st century.

Every month three bloggers in 12 cities all over the globe write about different aspects of these cities. There's a text blogger (me), a video blogger and a photo blogger.

Step by step, they will create a kaleidoscope of impressions, opinions, ideas and… plain fun.

In January we covered “My year in the city - Work, Play and get out of here!”; this month we looked into “Going Local - Neighbourhood, Kiez and Suburb in my city”; March will be about a theme you've all been waiting for: "Sex and the City."

You can find my first posts here and here.


Emulation Elation

Playing emulated games can be a pain. There's the problem of legally acquiring ROMs, and often emulators need some tweaking to function properly. (Did you ever try to play Amiga games on a Mac?)
This is where Arcade Retro Gaming’s MCC-216 comes in. It utilises an FPGA (Field Programmable Gate Array) core, which – as far as I can tell – means that it can accommodate several systems on a chip.
The devices can be hooked up to any screen or monitor and comes with the classic Competition Pro joystick. Pure "click, click" bliss! Most importantly it comes with a good amount of licensed C-64 games and demos. Ironically, some of these even have the hacked/trainer front-ends, a good reminder of how hard some of the classics were.
Best of all, the device comes with the possibility to install multiple cores. Currently C-64 and Atari 2600 cores are available, and an Amiga core is in beta.
Sure, if you want to you can get your hands on retro games: you can play them on your iOS device, download them from the Wii's virtual console or buy compilations. None of these solutions, however, offer the flexibility and versatility of the MCC-216. Or a Competition Pro joystick.
Beginners can happily play away, pros have something to tinker with. It's ultraportable, hooks up to pretty much anything, is not crippled by any DRM and even supports keyboard input.
Most importantly, it keeps the legacy of the classics alive. After all, what is a medium worth if it is not conscious of its own history?
-Jens Schroeder
PS: Props to Toronto Thumbs for inspiring this post!

Game Development – Canada vs Australia

A couple of weeks ago Parker sent me a link to a video about the Canadian games industry (via VillageGamer). In the video someone explains that if you want to make a great movie you're going to Hollywood, but if you want to make a great game you're going to Canada.

Canada's industry is impressive, some of the world's biggest studios are located in development hotspots like Montreal or Toronto. Recent blockbusters like Assassin's Creed Brotherhood were made in Canada.

In my new home of Australia, on the other hand, the industry experienced a downturn in the last years. The latest victim is Krome, the country's largest developer, which went bust last month.

It's an interesting development because Australia has some decisive advantages in terms of games development, a lot of which also apply to Canada.

Encouraged by the small domestic market, Australian studious successfully positioned themselves as international players.

Given the media history of Austrlia, the entry into the political economy of the game industry was facilitated by pre-existent patterns of a close integration into a globalised audio-visual trade. Australia was always very active in importing and exporting media.

The post-Fordist nature of game development and the industry behind it was reflected by the country's long history of post-Fordist practices in other media fields. Post-Fordist in this case meaning a lean mode of organisation and contracting out work as well as creative freedom and the absence of any "localism".

In addition, a tradition of a pronounced commercial awareness encouraged a mindset that was conducive in terms competitiveness and creating outside markets.

Australia's socio-cultural traditions helped to facilitate the creation of content which by means of its accessibility had a wide appeal. Due to Australia's egalitarian traditions, not only in terms of consumption but also in regard to production the priority was given to games which were comparatively easy to pick up and play.

This constituted an advantage on the crucial US market which, for example, shunned German games as too complicated. The more accessible titles of Australian game studios, on the other hand, stood closer to American sensibilities.

An important aspect in this regard is that Australia is an English-language production centre. This, in combination with its cultural alliances, made it easier for developers to take advantage of predispositions which appealed to important markets. Similar to other media, Australian studios could easily 'play' at being American and British.

Together with a small national market and the accompanying necessity to open markets abroad, this caused developers to not really see themselves as specifically Australian developers. Their standards were set by international criteria. They marketed themselves like game developers in the UK or the US.

Similar to previous media, this meant that locally produced content was not so much valued with reference to itself as with reference to imported product. Australian studios had to conform to international models and standards in order to succeed locally. While this posed a challenge it also meant that it was easier for them to internalise international best practice.

One could argue that Australia is geographically removed from the centres of Western game production. But this also gives it an advantage in terms of production schedules. Due to the time difference, by the end of the day Australian developers can send their work to other studios whose working day just started.

So why is Canada's industry booming while Australia is facing problems?

One of the main reasons is that Australia's work for hire model doesn't work anymore.

In the current economic climate it is almost impossible to green light games, and the competition for 'work-for-hire' contracts is so fierce that studios are spending months on developing incredibly elaborate prototypes, yet are still not winning the tenders. Also, given many publishers are based in the US where the economic downtown has arguably hit hardest, their priority is to ensure their own internal studios have enough work.

This problem is further complicated by the strong Australian Dollar which makes outsourcing to Australia unattractive. Skill wise, Eastern European developers are catching up and are able to deliver their work at much cheaper rates.

While a lot of Australian developers were working on (often rushed) licensed titles they did not create original IP to base future operations on and improve their cash flow (which is also due to the absence of an Australian publisher who could support local development).

Compared to Australia, Canada also has the decisive advantage of offering generous tax breaks to game developers. So generous in fact that the UK government handed a complaint to the WTO as they believe it constitutes an unfair practice.

Australian developers have long called for similar tax breaks on a federal level; however, so far nothing happened. Australia, it seems, does not take the industry as seriously as Canada.

Tax incentives would certainly not be the white knight that rescues the industry. Yet they would help Australia to gain a competitive edge in the international political economy of game development (It is doubtful, though, that its industry will become as big as Canada's in the next years).

It also needs to be pointed out that there areas of game development in Australia that are alive and well. Especially the development on iOS platforms is thriving. As was often the case, Australians were early adopters of new technologies and quickly made a considerable impact on the industry (not the least due to the reasons mentioned above).

Games by Halfbrick (Fruit Ninja, Raskulls) and Firemint (Flight Control, Real Racing) show that Australia is ready for the future. It is in a very good position to create great content of worldwide appeal. It just needs some help to fully realise its full potential.


My First Book: Gaming Behind the Iron Curtain

Back in 2005 I wrote a master's thesis on the history of digital gaming with a special focus on former East Germany. Whenever I mentioned the thesis people were really interested: "There were games in the GDR? Really?" "What sort of platform did they play on?" etc. Which is why I decided, more than four years after I handed it in, to contact a small publisher to ask if they were interested to issue the thesis as a book. They liked what they saw, I rewrote some parts to account for the the more current history of games, and this month the book was finally released.

So what exactly is the book all about?

It juxtaposes the different development stages of digital games in East Germany and the Western world, giving special attention to the "subsumption" of information technology under the structure of East German social and economic policies. The socialist administration of the GDR prevented private initiative, and instead followed the principles of a planned economy and central control, pivotal developments within the field of information technology. Therefore digital games cannot be explained without a thorough examination of this frame of reference. This approach is supplemented by statements – gathered through interviews – of several contemporary witnesses involved in the production of digital games in the East and West.

For the purpose of a better overview and a coherent structure the thesis is divided into three parts, each of which a period of Western digital game history is contrasted with a period of East German history marked by historical turning points. Because one can identify several of these turning points both in game history and East German history which happened approximately at the same time (e.g. introduction of Pong coinciding with major changes in social politics under Chairman of the Council of State Erich Honecker) this makes for a structuring which does not separate the two groups of themes but moreover, by embedding East German game history into a bigger scope, allows to examine how Western innovations influenced the creation and production of digital games in the GDR.

Consequently the main focus of the thesis lies on the three gaming platforms ever to be produced in East Germany – the BSS01, the KC-computer series and the Polyplay – respectively their integration into the propaganda machine of the ruling Socialist Unity Party of Germany.

The BSS 01 (Bildschirmspiel 01), the GDR's first and only console was introduced in 1980 by the Halbleiterwerk Frankfurt (Oder). Its development however already began in 1977 – on behest of Karl Nendel, Secretary of State in the Ministry of Electronics, whose decision was influenced by the VIII party congress of the Socialist Unity Party in 1971 at which Erich Honecker announced the intention to improve the populationʻs supply of consumer goods in order to enhance the loyalty of the East Germans to their state (a move still influenced by the trauma of the 1953 uprising). Based on an American General Instrument's AY-3-8500 chip the BSS01 was basically a "Pong" clone whose prohibitive price of 500 East German Marks prevented it from appealing to a mass market: due to the fact that the GDR was placed under the COCOM embargo, which forbade the import of electronic devices into the Eastern Block, the main components had to be smuggled at enormous costs which were passed on to the consumers. These are the key points of the description.

True to Honecker's promise to amend the supply of the population with technical consumer goods the earliest models of the KC (Kleincomputer) series were introduced in 1984. Also based on Western technology – their core being the so-called “U880D“ circuit, the first microprocessor system of the GDR and a complete copy of the “Z80“ system by the Californian company Zilog – they quickly became the main platform for computer games. The thesis describes the different development stages of these computers, especially the circumstances of their initiation within the scope of the effort to establish a semiconductor industry and explains how they were utilised by citizen programmers (particularly in terms of content creation) as well as the state which, for example, even released official game collections (mainly consisting of variations of Western arcade games).

The pinnacle in terms of digital games in the GDR was introduced in 1986 with the Polyplay arcade machine which derived its name from its production facility, the VEB Polytechnik Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) as well as the fact that its memory was capable of storing up to eight games. The thesis analyzes the history of the Polyplay's origins; it moreover focuses on the content of the games on offer respectively deals with the question of what motivated the creation of this specific subject matter as well as the social component of the Polyplay, for example the fact that it could be played in the East German parliament.

The thesis closes with an overview of the integration of digital games into the East German administration in which three aspects are addressed: The GDR presenting itself to the world as a country which is capable of producing high technology and supplying it to its citizens; the attempt to have digital games contribute to the development of a socialist personality as well as the ostentation of an alleged moral superiority opposite to the West (in view of the mostly non-violent content of East German games as opposed to the violent "Star Wars" games of the capitalistic enemy); finally, and most importantly, the attempt to attract urgently need personnel for the vital microelectronic industry with the help of digital games in order secure the economic survival of the GDR.

Writing the whole thing was really fun, it was almost like modern archaeology. Not only the technology and the games themselves are interesting, but also what their use can tell us about East German society.

Unfortunately the whole book is written in German. However, if I find the time I might write up a more exhaustive summary or maybe even a journal article. If you're still interested – or can appreciate the charitable cause of supporting starving writers – the book can be bought here.


PS If you want to try some Poly Play games here's a German website where you can play Flash versions of them.

Where It All Began (4 years of BlogCampaigning)

As a follow-up to my post of awesome pictures the other day, I thought I'd post this gem of a picture:

It is a picture of Jens and Espen, taken sometime in September, 2006. Espen had just launched BlogCampaigning as part of his thesis at Griffith University, and Jens and I were just starting to write posts for the site.

In the four years since then, we've gone on to do some different things but the three of us have mostly kept in touch via BlogCampaigning.

Thanks for reading - we hope BlogCampaigning is around for another four years for you. And for us.


Game Based on Germany's Death Strip Stirs Controversy

"1,378 (kilometers)" is a game designed by German media-art student Jens Strobe for the University of Design, Media and Arts in the city of Karlsruhe. Name after the length of the wall that used to divide East and West Germany during the Cold War, the game lets you play either as a refugee fleeing the East German state or a border guard charged with stopping them. Being historically accurate, one of the means by which you have to stop people from leaving the country is shooting them, despite them being unarmed civilians. (The other choices are to arrest them or to join them.) This way more than 1,000 people were killed on the German-German border.

If the player decides to shoot an East German refugee, the regime will award him with a medal; however, the game will then fast forward to the year 2000 where the player has to face a trial for killing a civilian. The player is taken out of the game for about a minute which gives him the chance to reflect on what he did and the inhumane practices of the East German government. Moreover, killing too many refugees will result in a loss of points.

When I first read about the game a couple of weeks ago, I thought it was a great idea. (At a talk I once suggested the development of a game which aims to replicate the terror and paranoia caused by the East German secret police.)

Due to the simulational nature of digital games, players are able to experience the horrors of the inner German border first hand. It's like a documentary, except that it is playable. The difficulty and cruelty of the escape translate directly into the rules of the game, the player gets the chance to ask himself how he would have reacted and can vary his actions accordingly.

Games like "1,378 (kilometers)" are a great way to teach history to younger generations by means of their preferred medium. They are also a good example for how games can incorporate and convey national images and stories in order to keep their memory alive. With some enhancements it might work even better (e.g. the player is confronted with the biography of the person he just killed, or he has to face an East German military court if he fails to stop the refugee).

As such you'd expect a game like this of being able to contribute to the social acceptance of the medium. However, it mostly met harsh criticism.

Despite not being available yet, people like the director of the Berlin Wall Memorial, Axel Klausmeier, called the game “tasteless,” and an insult to the families of those killed along the border while trying to escape. He also said the game was “unsuitable” for teaching historical facts. “The seriousness of what once went on at the border can’t be portrayed in this way,” he said.

Another critic is Rainer Wagner, a man who spent two years in an East German prison following a botched escape attempt and who is now head of an organisation for victims of communist violence. He says the game “appealed to the basest human instincts”, and that “this game…is even worse than other shoot ‘em ups because normally in such games, one shoots at armed enemies – here, it is unarmed civilians.”

Others labelled the game "tasteless", "stupid" or explained how a university was not a suitable place for producing "killer games". Hubertus Knabe, chairman of a memorial place documenting the crimes of the East German secret police, even pressed charges against the maker of the game on the grounds of it glorifying violence.

If find these discussions remarkable for two reasons.

On one hand, it shows that digital games still haven't reached German society. Parts of the populace still don't regard them as a means for the communication of serious ideas – despite believing in their potential to incite violent acts, if the medium is supposedly that powerful why not use it for educational purposes?

There's a general unwillingness to engage with games, this "vulgar" medium; like cinema and television before it it has "the traits of a young street arab; [it is] an uneducated creature running wild among the lower strata of society" (Kracauer).

This cultural conflict – which is very distinct in Germany – is aided by a generational conflict. Despite being several decades old, to some people games are still a new form of technology which did not yet enter their cultural meaning horizon They are therefore destructively criticised as an unwholesome leisure pursuit and idle waste of time. Like every newly introduced technology, digital games cause suspicion and fear and are identified and stigmatised as deviants from the promoted social order by parts of the society lacking the knowledge and strategies to make sense of them.

On the other hand, if critics of the game explain that it should be banned because people can be shoot like rabbits, this is not so much a criticism of the game but of the system it aims to simulate.

The game's creator aims to replicate the horrors of the inner German border; the fact that people can be shoot is not his fault but is a direct result of the policies of the socialist East German regime. They are just reflected by the game's mechanics. In this respect the criticism is rather about getting even with the past, charges are pressed against the system of rules of Germany's second dictatorship.

Still, as a result of the public uproar the game did not get released. It was supposed to come out on 3 October, the 20th anniversary of Germany's reunification, however the release was postponed.

I'm really looking forward to this game, not only because it demonstrates games' potential but also because it has the courage to say something meaningful (in contrast to something like Medal of Honor).


I'm Done! Adventures in Ph.D. Land

As some of you may have noticed I didn't contribute much to BlogCampaigning lately (Editor's note: Yeah, I noticed). Not only was I busy working in my new job but I also prepared for my last Ph.D. exam: the oral disputation of my thesis. Once my supervisors completed their written reports on my thesis, I was a given a date to orally defend it. I had 15 minutes to introduce my thesis to a panel made up of my supervisors, an observer for the protocol, lecturers and other students (it was a "public" event, i.e. any student of the school could attend the disputation). After the 15 minutes were over, my supervisors and the observer asked me questions regarding different aspects of – and issues with – my work.

Overall, the whole procedure lasted a bit longer than an hour. Once everything was over, I was awarded a "magna cum laude".

However, officially I can't call myself "Herr Dr. Schröder" yet, the reason being that I didn't yet publish my thesis. This is a usual procedure at German universities, you are only awarded the doctorate once you can proof that your work is available to the public. There are different ways to meet my university's requirement in this regard; however, the most common way is to publish the thesis as a traditional book. Dead trees it is!

The problem is not so much finding a publisher, but rather a publisher with a good reputation – and reasonable prices. The thing is, you have to pay them. There's a constant and huge supply of dissertations, and let's face it, most academic books won't sell like hotcakes. So you basically have to buy yourself into a (reputable) publisher.

So far I have been offered contracts ranging from 0 to 4,000 Euros. If you don't really care about your future renown in the academic world, you might as well go with the lowest offer. However, given that these publishers and their print-on-demand model will spam the market with pretty much everything – including course papers – don't expect much credit for you work. I heard of a uni that won't hire lecturers if they published their work with one of those vanity press companies.

As you can imagine, if the publisher is somewhat renowned, this is also reflected by their prices. These (ideally!) also reflect their services and the advertising measures they plan to undertake. Will they, for example, send out review copies? Which measures do they undertake to announce the publication of your work? Do they offer help in regard to proofreading or formatting your thesis? Can you reach your publisher by phone? (Apparently some publishers regard personal contact as obstructive to their work flow!) Which other marketing issues are planned and do they make sense?

I came across a publisher that was offering to advertise new academic releases on hip postcards. Somehow I doubt that this will help to increase sales. As much as I think that I wrote a good thesis that – for an academic work – is of comparatively broad appeal, I don't think that that this measure will encourage the public to spontaneously buy a 173,000 word book. Basically, it seemed like a good excuse to squeeze out some more money from their authors.

(Considering that my thesis was completely in English, publishers from the English speaking world also seem like an option. The problem is that some of them ask you to change parts of your work to give it more mass appeal [the ones I talked to anyway.] Unfortunately that is not an option as my uni's Ph.D. regulations state that you have to publish exactly the same text you handed in.)

The publisher I'm likely to go with seems fulfills most of the important criteria: Their author's support is good (personal phone calls!), they have several (sensible) marketing mechanisms in place, their prices – while high – are still comparatively reasonable, and they would also make my work available as an e-book; something I attach great importance too considering that my thesis is also of appeal to the Australian market.

There's also some light at the end of the financial tunnel. Some of the money you have to pay to get your work published is offset by the amount you get when you register with the VG Wort, a collecting society for authors. Since your work will get photocopied etc. you get reimbursed via a one-off payment – currently this would cover about two thirds of my costs. However, you only get this money the year after your book is released.

Of course I would also like to make my work available on the net but this is a bit of an issue – most academic institutions still highly value the cultural capital attached to traditionally published books and don't appreciate them being available for free. I will, however, try and find out if I can publish parts here on Blogcampaigning. After all, I want as many people as possible to read my work.

PS If you want to know more about writing a doctoral thesis make sure to check out the illustrated guide to a Ph.D.


My New Job in the Gaming Business

While Parker is wasting away his time I entered the workforce. Last month I started a job at a recently-founded game design studio in Berlin. Currently, my main job is writing the design document. A design document is basically communicating the overall vision of a game to each and every team member. It's goal is to describe the overall concept of the game, target audience, gameplay, interfaces, controls, characters, levels, media assets, etc. In short, everything the team needs to know about the design of the game.

It gives programmers an idea of what modules are going to be used, artists know how interfaces will look like and so on. Basically, as Tracy Fullerton puts it in "Game Design Workshop", a "good design document is like sound blueprints for a building. Everyone on the team can refer to and add comments while they do their separate tasks and understand how their work fits into the game as a whole."

The documents ensures that everyone is directing their efforts towards a common goal and not interpreting what they know about the tittle in their own unique ways.

Accordingly, I have to communicate with the whole team. As we're still preparing the prototype, I mainly talk to the main game designer (my boss and the founder of the studio), the artist responsible for the characters and visual design of the game world and the author of the game's story. This is to agree on the fundamentals of the title.

At the same time, this document will also be the basis of a pitch to the owner of the platform we are planing to release the game on and publishers. As such it also needs to be concise and very visual, containing concept art, flowcharts etc.

The document will end up having between 50 - 100 pages, and it may also include subsections or sub-documents on certain aspects of the game which need a more detailed explanation. There's still a way to go but the job is actually quite fun.

One of the reasons this is so fun because although this document is traditionally written by the main game designer,  this work was delegated to me. This means that I also have some input in regard to the game's design. Yesterday, for example, I spent most of my day trying to think of possible achievements and how they would influence the game play. I loved it.

Of course I'm quite curious  to see how the final product will develop. I can't wait to play the prototype!


Australia got a new Prime Minister - and why you should care

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was ousted by his own party this week; he increasingly lost support because of backflips on election promises, badly implemented policies and the suggestion to introduce a super tax on mining profits. The polls began to worsen and the power hungry, poll-driven Senior fraction of the Labor Party decided to waste him. His successor is Julia Gillard, Australia's first female Prime Minister.

"Why should I care?", you might wonder.

Under Rudd Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Stephen Conroy, tried to introduce his much criticized internet filter, an issue I covered on this blog before. I won't repeat what's wrong with it but just would like to point to this video as an example of Conroy's competence.

Conroy also called Google's Street view snafu "the single biggest breach of privacy in history"; however, this did not stop his department to craft an Orwellian scheme that may require Australian ISPs to log and retain details of all people's online communications and Web browsing activity.

At the same time no one really knows what's going on because the government imposed secrecy provisions on all the parties with which it is negotiating in this matter.

"[T]he process remains completely opaque and we are being asked to agree to the imposition of a generalised surveillance regime with nothing but the vaguest reassurances about its scope, intent and the potential hazards of abuse, misuse, maladministration and outright oppression. (Well, actually, we're not being asked at all. It's just happening."

It gets even scarier given the government's intention to link the information gathered from monitoring internet activities to identifiers such as pass port numbers.

This opens up...

...the real possibility of mashing together all of the personal information available in your data matching matrix to (your income, your tax history, you bank account details, your medical records for starters) to your online life - your tweets, your Facebook account, your email, your Chatroulette history, your 4square tracking data, your blog entries, the link you clicked not realising it was taking you to a snuff porn site, the link you clicked knowing it was taking you to a celebrity porn site, the comments you leave here today, all of it.

However, now that Rudd is gone there is a chance that things might change. 

Under Gillard the Labor Party is likely to look to move on from all the unpopular policies that have been driving down its popularity; accordingly, rumours are rife that Conroy will be replaced by Senator Kate Lundy.

As Thenextweb points out this is something also Internet users outside of Australia should appreciate:

You should care because of the precedent it creates, and the global flow on effect such a precedent would create.

After all, similar schemes were considered in other countries, one of the being my native Germany.

However, the question remains in how far Lundy is really able to achieve a change in policies and in how far the Labor Party is willing to distance itself from previous policies.

Explains Thenextweb

While the opportunity to replace Conroy may be too good to pass up, the reality for the electorate is that no woman is an island, particularly in Government, and without support for a radical departure from the existing strategy, Lundy will be as effective as the man who preceded her.

At the same time she does seem more competent than Conroy and has history of engaging with new technology and its role in Government. So there's hope of Australia getting over its traditional conservative censorship hangover – something we should all be grateful for.


1172 NASA Pictures

A few years ago, Jens gave me a CD with some files on it that I needed for a school project. Also on the CD was a folder titled "NASA - 1172 Pictures (Black Magic Alchemy Illuminati Nwo)."

Knowing what I did about Jens at the time, I wasn't super surprised. I also thought that the contents of the folder were awesome and, for the most part, exactly as advertised: over 1000 old-school space and rocketry pictures. There are photos of astronauts, galaxies, and the earth from space. There are diagrams of rocket trajectories, and landscapes of the moon and mars.

Some of them seem to be pictures from magazine articles, while others seem to be scans of official slides. They're all amazing.

When I asked Jens where he got them, he said he didn't even know about the folder, and that he'd originally gotten the CD from another friend of his.

Wherever they came from, they were too awesome to keep bottled up on a hard drive and I decided to upload them to Flickr.

Enjoy them.


When Did You Finish Your Last Game?

When I came back from my trip to Australia, I hadn't played video games in about six weeks. Before I went, I started playing Mass Effect 2 for a little while—basically just enough to get an idea of the gameplay and sense why it got rave reviews. Then when I came back, something funny happened. I was reluctant to pick it up again. Instead I played Wario Land on my Virtual Boy. Mass Effect, as brilliant as it is, seemed too much of a commitment. I arrived at a stage where I was asked to scan planets for minerals and cross the universe for quests. Hours upon hours of gameplay lay ahead of me. I refused; my time budget would have been blown.

The next game I played was Heavy Rain, which I got for cheap during my stopover in Hong Kong. I bought it because I was curious about its adult content; but I also bought it because it is linear, it is divided into shorter chapters, and because I could finish it in 10 hours or less.

One thing I liked about Modern Warfare 2 was that the single-player campaign was brief but sweet. It was an intense action-filled six-hour experience with no pause. I loved it. For everyone else there was the multi-player.

The thing is: I'm the norm.

Yes, games get bigger, and yes this ambition is hailed by a vocal part of the gaming public and critics. And really, why wouldn't we want more?

However, John Davison at Gamepro says:

The problem is, the vast majority of gamers don't really behave the way they say they do. How do we know this? Because an increasing number of games incorporate telemetry systems that track our every action. They measure the time we play, they watch where we get stuck, and they broadcast our behaviour back to the people that make the games so they can tune the experience accordingly.

Every studio I've spoken to that does this, to a fault, says that many of the games they've released are far too big and far too hard for most players' behaviour. As a general rule, less than five percent of a game's audience plays a title through to completion. I've had several studios tell me that their general observation is that "more than 90 percent" of a games audience will play it for "just four or five hours."

Moreover, as Davison points out, the game business, unlike any other part of the entertainment business, is maturing at roughly the same pace as its most influential (or at least most affluent) consumers. Not only the players are getting older, but also the designers.

As designers are deciding that they want to make different experiences to indulge their own lives, they can be fairly confident that their audience is in the same boat.

So what could this mean for the future of games?

For once they are going to become more modular, offering a (shorter and cheaper) core experience that can be expanded by downloadable content (DLC) or episodic content, which can accommodate different tastes.

This is something Namco recently recognized:

Namco Bandai’s Vice President Olivier Conte has said that game companies should diversify videogame selling in the future. He even went as far as saying that videogames are “too expensive for the audience” and that “a good price of a game should be around £20.”

He suggested making games cheaper by shortening them to around “four or five hours” and using additional DLC to increase revenue from the titles. “Games just have one model, the sale of the product either as a box or a digital download. So we need to think about how we can develop a secondary business model”.

Of course one of the dangers is that in the long run this gateway to micro-transactions will come with a hefty price tag.

The other change could be to accommodate players' tendency to, as calls Davison calls it, "dick around". How did you spend your time in GTA IV? Doing all the missions or having fun with its open world?

Games could increasingly reward this behaviour and become more of a playground. They might be based on actual player behaviour and not misguided assumptions about it. You don't have to follow certain structures; you will get something you can enjoy in small doses, something that feels less like "work"—follow the rules, get rewarded, move on—and liberating. This is why the GTA series, for example, has a reward system for spectacular car crashes.

What do you think? When was the last time you completed a game? How many unfinished games do you have lying around? What games do you want to play in the future?


Google's Console?

As John "Wardrox" Kershaw observed on his blog: Google is about to release Google TV, a software platform for set-top boxes and HDTV. It will also feature a browser, remote control, and keyboard interface.

Google also released an app shop which allows you to play PC games in a browser.

The interesting question is:

Does this mean Google is entering the console race in the same way the iPhone entered the hand-held race?

Details on the app shop and the integration of games are still light. In any case, this will have huge implications for the industry; here we have Google getting behind cloud gaming with its own console.


Can Video Games Be Art?

Roger Ebert did it again: after watching a recorded lecture about games' artistic potential by game designer Kellee Santiago, he once more stated how he remained "convinced that in principle, video games cannot be art.” The overwhelming reaction: Ebert is passing these judgments because he knows games. Surely he based his criticism—and his vision of the future of an entire medium—on an intimate understanding of the subject matter. Right.

Ebert has never played any games. He isn't familiar with the medium. He doesn't like it, play it, understand it. He has merely watched videos of different titles. As the Globe and Mail points out:

That’s akin to judging a movie’s artistic worth based on stills and trailers. … For him to weigh in on the artistic value of interactive entertainment is like someone who believes the work of Jackson Pollock has no merit or meaning talking about the lack of artistry in splatter painting.

What I find fascinating about Ebert's standpoint is that it also seems to be closely related to a generational conflict. He belongs to a generation which simply lacks the instruments to make sense of a new mass medium. He doesn't even attempt to acquire them.

If someone as knowledgeable and outspoken and competent in terms of (more established) mass media such as Ebert is already affected by this generational gap, you can't really be surprised at the resistance games have to face from parts of mainstream society and media.

While they paint video games as an unwholesome leisure pursuit and idle waste of time ("Murder simulators! Violence! Deviance!"), Ebert is just able to express his misgivings more eloquently.

-Jens Schroeder

Indie Games and the Assertion of Value

A couple of weeks ago, Destructoid's Jim Sterling wrote an article in which he took issue with people who defend (bad) art games: McGarvey's comment ["I'll take a 'pretentious artsy-fartsy indie game' over creatively bankrupt bullshit any day'] was but one of many that shared similar sentiments, but it was a perfect snapshot of the big fallacy among those who stand up for art games—this idea that art games cannot be creatively bankrupt themselves, and that if you are against the indie crowd, you are against originality. This also leads onto a further incorrect but all-too common assumption—the idea that because something is innovative, it is automatically good.

He continues:

We seem to be stuck with this incredibly false idea that indie games = originality and AAA games = uncreative garbage. This is simply not true, and I think it allows indie developers to be incredibly lazy and slapdash with their ideas, safe in the knowledge that their game will get a free pass for innovation, when all they did was follow all the other indie games out there.

Sure, there are examples of beautifully crafted indie games which have helped to widen the means of expression of the medium. But I do believe that Sterling has a point: just because a game purports to be indie does not mean it is automatically good or innovative or some sort of contribution the industry was not able to make.

However, we are much more inclined to regard it as such. I believe the reason for this lies in differences in the attribution of value.

In relation to cinema, Tom O'Regan explains that national cinemas can be evaluated through a limited number of conceptual means. These include a relation with the dominant Hollywood cinema in which the national cinema is situated under the sign of culture and Hollywood under the sign of the profane economy; a division within the national cinema between its mainstream and its peripheral or independent cinemas; and a positive evaluation of Hollywood and its legacy in local markets, which simultaneously values and devalues the local national cinema.

Considering the distinctiveness of the game industry, there is no such thing as an explicit national game culture in the Western world (in the sense of a national cinema). It is a thoroughly international industry, a prime example of a globalized, post-fordist field that hardly knows any localism. However, indie games come close to it in the sense that they belong to a prestige "minor stream". As such, they are situated under the sign of culture.

They are products that were produced in response to the dominant international game culture and dominant industry patterns. They are akin to an international art cinema vehicle that is associated with cultural values—aesthetically and in the sense that they promise a game-making ecology separate from or to the side of the market; they stand opposed to an ecology which promises the utility of the market itself as the conferrer of value.

They might operate in a supranational space but like national cinemas are often attached to larger aesthetic movements and styles or the foregrounding of different agendas, be they related to minorities, environmental issues or other causes. As could be expected, such games find their greatest assertion of value in the festival circuit or on specialized blogs.

They are the games all the cool kids play. However, this does not tell us anything about their actual qualities.

What they do is help a certain milieu with its self-actualization. As something that claims to be counterculture, avant-garde, nonconformist, and edgy, these games dare to not submit themselves under the logic of the market as the conferrer of value. This makes them more "authentic" which in turn suits their players' narcissism way better than "creatively bankrupt mainstream bullshit".

These games contribute to their players' philosophy of life—the perfection of one's self—in two ways: they are "anti-barbaric" in the sense that they are constructed against the "popular", "low", "vulgar", and "common". Their distinctiveness lies in them being "contemplative" and involving reflection upon their object. This is more than just the crassness of Call of Duty.

At the same time, art games are anti-conventional. Not only do their players set themselves apart against the undeveloped and crude, but also against a standardized, deformed psyche which is not identical with itself—a psyche that is as standardized as the mainstream media it consumes. Art game players have a desired perception of themselves as people who are interesting, exciting, and unique. This narcissism tells them that there is nothing more important than oneself. This is a claim that is difficult to support by playing Halo.

By being anti-barbaric and anti-conventional, art games first of all contribute to the social distinction of their players and their self-perfection; this is their main project in a society in which even the most simple, mundane product becomes an "experience" that lets its consumers know just how unique they are. Your breakfast is not, say, bacon and eggs, but made up of some exotic European-style bread and coffee from a country no one has ever heard of but whose farmers are now better off not just because it's organic but also because of the fair trade, etc.

Does this mean it tastes automatically better than Starbucks? No, of course not. It's the same with indie games. Just because they derive their value from something different and therefore they make people feel better about themselves (as in more interesting and unique), this does not make them better games.

Of course these are extremes. It should be pointed out that, similar to the cinema, indie games' relationship to the mainstream is not clear cut as, for example, they are sometimes distributed via the platforms of the big three console manufacturers (Xbox Live, WiiWare, PlayStation Network), making for a fuzziness that is also characteristic of film.