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." 




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!

Fashion Friday: Traditional German Drinking Hats

On Thursday afternoon I joined my Toronto Tribal DDB/Radar DDB colleagues at a local pub to wind down the work week. After ordering a pint of Labatt Blue, the owner of the bar brought over some samples of a German wheat beer, and told us that if we ordered a pint we'd be entered into a draw to win an authentic German drinking hat as well as a sausage on a bun.

I liked the sample, and was planning on ordering a pint of the beer anyways when the waitress told us that the owner was mistaken: I wasn't entered into contest to win the sausage and hat. They were included with the beer!

As Ed Lee pointed out, this is one particular case where these types of free promotions were worthwhile for the brewery: I Tweeted about it (mentioning Jens and Malte in my Tweet, two German friends who are probably likely to at least try drinking this beer if they hadn't already), and Ed posted a picture of the deal on his influential and widely-read gastronomy/business blog "Marketing Chef."

So how was it?

The sausage was well cooked, with a great sauteed onion and mustard topping.

The beer, Weinhenstephan, was amazing.I'm a fan of these "Weiss" beers and this one was particularly good. I'd definitely order it again, even without the promise of a hat and sausage to accompany it.

And the hat? Pretty awesome.

It might not become part of my everyday wardrobe, but I like to think I pull it off pretty well.

What do you think? When is the right occasion for wearing a traditional German drinking hat? And what do you think about theses types of give-away promotions? Are they worth it?


PS: Thanks for reading another edition of Fashion Friday on BlogCampaigning!

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).


Snobs of Old Europe (Jens Schroeder in Australia)

Behind the scenes of BlogCampaigning, I'm often giving Jens a hard time for not contributing more often. Some of it is good-natured ribbing about how he's lazy, some of it is a little more serious. The reality is that for the past few months he's been busy finishing up his PhD, and is now on a speaking tour of Australia, so I really shouldn't be so hard on him. (Espen, however, has no excuses.)

Part of Jens's hard work has paid off in the form of recognition by the Sydney Morning Herald, which published an excerpt from the abstract of one of his presentations:

"For Europeans, as the Swiss banker father of a friend of mine once said, Australians are the plebeians of the Western world.

"The clichés were presented by the editor-in-chief of the German broadsheet Die Welt, Thomas Schmid, last year in an editorial. He argued that Australia lacks civilisation, everyone is dressed informally, there is a lack of social differentiation and the only thing setting the upper class apart from the middle is its higher income.

"It is an empty place with nothing in the middle—in geography nor identity. These are prejudices Australians have had to deal with almost since the arrival of the First Fleet, a fate they shared with other New World societies such as the United States."

Read the full article here.


BlogCampaigning: Movin' On Up

Congrats to a few members of the BlogCampaigning crew: The official notice of Heather Morrison's new position at Sequentia Environics went out (over the newswire, no less) last week, saying that she'll "supervise the daily operations and performances of client service teams." A good move indeed; Sequentia is  a digital communications firm that "focuses on the online relationships between companies and their customers." It's also part of the Environics Group.

In other celebratory news, Jens "Schredd" Schroeder sent me an email last week to say that he handed in his doctoral thesis last Monday. "I can't really believe it's over... " he wrote. "But I suppose you never reach the point where you're convinced that it's the right moment to hand in a project of this size." The paper is titled 'Killer Games' versus 'We Will Fund Violence' :The Perception of Digital Games and Mass Media in Germany and Australia, and Jens is hoping to make it available here on BlogCampaigning sometime soon.


Back to Down Under

I'm on my way Australia again. After a twelve hour flight from Frankfurt I currently get to spend some time on the Singapore airport, getting ready for another nine hours of flying.

So what brings me to the antipodes? Mainly research for my Ph.D. (which, I might add, is financially supported by the German Academic Exchange Service).

As some readers might know I'm looking into the differences of digital game discourses in Germany and Australia and how these relate to the socio-cultural history of both countries – an old "Kulturnation" such as Germany obviously has a different attitude towards mass media – and therefore digital games – than a young nation such as Australia.

One part of the plan is to make the work I've completed so far more coherent and factor in some of the advice fellow students gave me or that I received at conferences.

Moreover, I'm planning to look deeper into game discourses in Australian media; something that I obviously have done already but something that I feel I need to elaborate on – especially now that I had a chance to do some more research in Germany that brought my attention to angles I didn't consider before.

E.g. discourses about digital games in Germany until the early 1990s were often embedded in a broader discussion about the (supposedly negative) impact of computers. In no Western country the fear of rationalisation, surveillance and reduction to binary thinking by means of cold, soulless technology was as pronounced as in Germany.

Accordingly computers and digital games, similar to film, were confronted with antimodern, anti-capitalistic, anti-American sentiments, independent of their content. They were regarded as escapist trash that threatened national cultural assets as well as creativity and fantasy, two of the main pillars of artistic autonomy.

Will I find similar patterns in Australia? From what I've gathered so far, probably not. Australia always showed a very high acceptance of mass media and technology and "has yet to experience a moral panic generated by a politician around games to score some cheap political points with the conservative lobby."

This is a quote by my second supervisior, Brett Hutchins of Monash University whom I'm looking forward to meeting to further discuss my work. Moreover I'm planing to see my old lecturer and friend Jason Nelson who always supported me generously; other people I'd like to meet include Helen Stuckey, Games Curator at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image and some members of the Australian game industry, but that will eventually depend on how the research goes.

If you happen to be a reader of blogcampaigning and live either on the Gold Coast or Melbourne drop me a line because it would be great to meet you too!

Ok, I gotta go, several more hours of hanging around at this aiport demand my attention...


Germany Retains Hypocritical Stance

As you might have read, a teenager went on a rampage at his old school in Germany, slaying at least 15 people before turning his gun on himself during a shootout with police.

As usual in my Vaterland, German media are having a field day accusing so called "killergames" of inciting such horrible acts. I won't go into these discourses in detail as that would only bring me to the brink of an heart attack.

But I just couldn't pass up on this one: German tabloid Bild is calling for a ban of violent games (by citing "Germany's most important media analyst") yet runs huge ads for Tom Clancy's H.A.W.X, a game that "promises to revolutionise the way players think about combat in the sky."


Not really that violent you say? Fair enough. We might as well go for the real stuff and buy Counterstrike (the game officials love to blame), GTA IV or Gears of War 2 (officially banned in Germany because of its violence) in the official shop!


On a similar note: Another brilliant idea on how to curb youth violence by making the access to videogames more difficult comes from the UK. Reports Destructoid:

A tax on videogames would combat knife crime in UK, claims a government advisor who lost his own son to inner city youth crime. According to the rather outrageous suggestion, videogames are "too cheap" and this makes it easy for children to buy them, which in turn causes them to become violent psychopaths. Typical logic from a man thinking with his heart and not his brain.

And another politician taking a convenient shortcut… Ban instead of educate, prohibit instead of looking into deeper reasons that might result in questioning one's own policies.


How German Intellectuals Don't Understand the Nature of the Internet. Or rather: Germany = Internet Development Country

I recently came across the so-called 'Heidelberg Appeal' initiated by some professor for German language and literature studies. In it, more than 1600 German authors, intellectuals and publishers lament that:

[A]t the international level, intellectual property is being stolen from its producers to an unimagined degree and without criminalisation through the illegal publication of works protected by German copyright law on platforms such as GoogleBooks and YouTube.

They mix this criticism with a condemnation of the open access initiative, a portal which offers the free use of scientific articles. One of the arguments for public access to scholarly literature is that most of it is paid for by taxpayers, who therefore have a right to access the results of what they have funded. This, in turn, would cut publishers out of the equation.

The undertone of this appeal is quite characteristic for the current mood in the Vaterland: The Minister of Family Affairs wants to introduce mandatory blockage of child pornography via a black list, a system potentially open to political abuse and economic pressure. In fact, the music industry would like to extend this list to 'P2P link sites' (whatever that means) in order to protect its intellectual property. Meanwhile a branch of the youth organization of the two conservative German political parties CDU and CSU seriously suggested that users must register themselves on youtube with their personal id-number. The reasoning for this measure: It is supposed to curb youth violence. I kid you not.

In short, as this excellent article on the German blog netzwertig (which I'm very much in debt to for the following points) explains: The basic quality of the internet as a space for open communication is threatened.

This threat basically emanates from groups and individuals who are incapable of grasping the digital nature of the medium. All over the world you'll find industries which are incapable of adapting their 'analogue' business models to changing circumstances. Businesses which are threatened try to get rid of the threat by calling for protective legislation. Eventually it comes down to a fight between the supporters of free information, communication, and knowledge and those who are afraid of these new freedoms and would like to curtail them.

The problem with Germany is… well, exactly that: It's Germany. Take the US for example, a country with a strong belief in a free market, freedom of speech and personal freedom. Here you find the same calls for a protection of the culture industry – however, the regulation of the internet is way less strict than in Deutschland.

Viewed under a long term perspective this should not be surprising at all: Germany is a country with very little liberal traditions. Germany did not see a single successful bourgeois revolt in which the concepts of freedom and unity helped to overcome suppressive structures. Instead, the bourgeoisie focused all its hope on the state as the preserver of the social order, though with a growing claim for absoluteness the myth of the nation corrupted a group whose initial core of existence revolved around cosmopolitan and tolerant concepts.

These tendencies were perpetuated by the darker side of German romanticism which the educated bourgeoisie gave itself over to. In contrast to an unscrupulous belief in progress and reckless pragmatism, people enjoyed the 'romantic' because it offered an escape from the rationalism of industrialisation: A romantic anticapitalism arose out of the conflict between humanist culture and capitalist exchange relations.

These specifically German foundational dynamics had a distinct impact of the perception of mass based cultural forms; these were mainly shaped by rejection, a strong control on behalf of the state or an over-enthusiasm which eventually betrayed a deep insecurity.

From its onset in 1923, radio was basically state controlled. After WWII the Allies dictated the Germans an organizational model for public broadcasting – as soon as they left it was thrown overboard in favor of a scheme that allowed more political influence. To this very day, the pressure political parties apply on public broadcaster is immense.

Given the country's spiritual heritage, German intellectuals were notoriously anti-modern, anti-capitalistic and anti-American. A very good example of this is the Frankfurt School whose elitist criticism of mass culture eventually amounted to allegations that weren't too different to conservative criticism.

Given this track record, some of the current developments aren't really surprising: The state trying to gain control over a free space, economic interests calling for the state's aid because they fear a loss of control (something which also betrays their lack of trust in the market), the inflexibility to adapt to technological changes and take them as a chance, the comparatively large technophobia of German society.

The problem of course is that if the internet in Germany is curtailed as heavily as suggested – its advantages getting completely lost in the process – the Vaterland falls even more behind countries where the internet and its inherent qualities change society and economy for the better (and where the legislation reflects this fact).

Germany is hardly prepared for the cataclysmic changes brought about by the internet. The net becomes more and more important – and the more important it becomes, the more Germany closes itself to it. With the according consequences.


The New Music 'Industry': A German Example

As an addition to the Parker's post about the future of the music industry (or lack thereof), here is an example from Germany of how the will to innovate can benefit everyone involved: in order to gain independence from the industry, hard rocking guitar pop band Angelika Express financed its last album by selling 'shares' to fans. To give fans an impression of the new album the Cologne based group first released rough versions of new songs on Myspace on a weekly basis. They then decided to issue 500 'shares' at 50 Euros (which sold out in record time and came with a detailed plan of how the money would be spent). With those 25.000 Euros Angelika Express financed the recording of their album, the album artwork, the manufacture of the actual CDs, and the accompanying promotion. They also plan to fund upcoming singles from this pool.

The thing is: Not only do the people who signed up for the shares get the new album but in return they also receive 80% of the earnings made with CDs sales and downloads (including upcoming singles and EPs) for the next seven years!

I have to say that this is really one of the most innovative and sympathetic concepts I came across so far. The band gained its independence and its fans get paid to support them. Everybody wins!


The Cultural Background of (German) Digital Games

Over the course of the last two weeks I conducted a couple of interviews for my Ph.D. dealing with the was the perception of digital games differs in Germany and Australia. By talking to just a couple of people you can tell how the cultural history of a country also influences the way modern media is dealt with. The first person I spoke to was Malte Behrmann, attorney, secretary general of the European Games Developer Federation as well chairperson of the German developers association, GAME. Malte is also responsible for digital games getting officially accepted as Kulturby the German Kulturrat, the umbrella organization of the German cultural associations. This push always reminded me of the strategy of the early German Autorenfilm.

In an attempt to conform to bourgeois cultural norms and thus demonstrate cinemas' cultural and social relevance, the Autorenfilm (films based on the works of famous contemporary authors or written by them directly for the screen) mobilized national literary and cultural traditions against the Schundfilm ('trash film') by serving as an incentive to 'respectable' artists from the 'legitimate' stage and literature to lend their prestige to the new medium. It was basically an elevation of the medium to adhere to bourgeois tastes and therefore broaden its social basis.

Asked if he saw any parallels between these two instances, Malte Behrman answered that he wouldn't sit in his office like a spin doctor and think about how a game could be made more socially acceptable by means of "nobilitation". A statement I thought was quite remarkable as it shows how on a subconscious level Germany's long high-culture traditions and its specific socio-cultural influences still assert themselves – in a way that is decidedly different to Australia where, due to the country's different history, I never encountered a similar attitude. Here digital games – and non-hierarchical entertainment in general – never needed any form of cultural legitimation.

German ad for Commodore VC20

Moreover, Germany's cultural background allegedly influenced the way games were designed: They were regarded as overly complicated, complex and not very accessible (think complicated simulations, strategy games and management games [Parker's note: only Germans would be into "management games"]). When I was talking about this with Philipp from Yager he made the point that this might have something to do with the fact that for a very long time German developers mainly created games for the PC.

In contrast to consoles the PC was an open platform everyone could develop for without having to obtain licenses and development kids – and Germany has a very strong history of home computing. I suppose this is because the purchase of a home computer was easier to justify as it allowed its user to go beyond the mere pleasures of play. As the classical ad above puts it: "How do you land safely on Jupiter and in the next class?" With the most successful computer of the world of course! The VC20, not only does it allow you to land on Jupiter as part of a game, it also plays chess and connects people in play. Well, that but it also teaches math, physics and biology… So much for the theory, but then again this probably had more appeal to Germany's cultural history of a country defining itself in terms of Kultur and education.

This eventually also might have had an influence on the design of German games: most of them went beyond mere play but offered an 'added value' by, e.g. teaching about complex economic correlations and challenging the player accordingly. I remember people at school telling me how they refused to play Doom because they thought it was too primitive. As Jens from Ascaron put it in the interview I conducted with him: "Germans liked to play with animated Excel charts".

German Atari 400 ad - good for games AND school!

Obviously this was a competitive disadvantage: These games, on account of their design, hardly sold outside of Germany, probably another sign of their cultural specificity. Just like the (mainstream) American market did not appreciate the Autorenfilm with its intellectualized themes of broken identities, alienation and magic, history repeated itself 80 years later when it refused to play overly complex German games.

Of course this changed in the last couple of years, last not least because of a transition to console gaming. The Wii and especially the DS were godsend gifts - cheap and easy to develop for and… well cynics might point out that Nintendo isn't very strict when it comes to shovelware. Also German developers are amongst the leading ones in the field of mobile and browser games. But eventually it is quite difficult to rid oneself off one's cultural background. I suppose that's what Philipp meant when he said that even though you can have lived in the US for three years you're not quite 'there' yet in terms of an American (uncomplicated, commercially orientated) mindset.

My next interviews will be about support mechanisms. I wonder if the influences I just described also have an impact on how local game developers are supported by the state run institutions. What are the rules and regulations? And do they get applied eventually? Which games will be funded which won't? Would something violent yet potentially successful receive support? I already got a taste of what to expect when I informally talked to someone about these things on a party and was told that 'serious games' apparently play an important role when it comes to funding in Berlin. Not only because they demonstrate potential 'transfer-effects' (locally developed engines used for something… well, beyond play) but also because they function as a mental guide for the people giving out the finds: As a cultural/ technology-beyond-play token that helps to set everything in motion, the 'ox that draws the cart' so to speak.


Beyond the Copycats: Getting in Touch with the German Start-Up Scene

I had my friends Malte and Anthony over for the week: not only did the Web 2.0 Expo take place here in Berlin but their company, iliketotallyloveit, also had been selected as one of the top ten finalists in the Zanox Web Services Contest 2008 for 1 Million Euros. During the course of their stay I had the pleasure to attend several events with them which offered me a better grasp of the vibrant local start-up scene. Vibrant for the most part as the impressions I gathered seem to support Matt Marshall's view that a lack of capital keeps German entrepreneurs more conservative than they could be: Rarely are German start-ups working on a visionary, cutting-edge idea but more often than not fall into the copycat run. Many the conversations I had included the words "They already offer this/ a similar service in the US but we...".

It's not all bland and blatant though as the winners of the Zanox contest proved. Unfortunately iliketotallyloveit wasn't one of them but it would be unfair to say that the three victorious companies didn't deserve the attention:

Webtrakk – webcontrolling, helps to measure the performance, control and improve websites' commercial success and online-marketing campaigns Triboo – e-commerce and high definition marketing of some sorts... unfortunately I don't speak Italian Servtagnear field communication based mobile solutions which offers easy and quick access to independent product information; it also allows to share your shopping habits by feeding your shopping habits to social networks

In this Servtag is similar to another interesting start-up I came across after the announcement of the contest winners:

It turns your mobile into a barcode scanner and shows the information you demand e.g. by comparing prices, user ratings, giving information about ingredients of foods and their effects on your health (from the amount of fat to allergies), the carbon footprint of a company etc.

I liked these services for several reasons: – First of all it is an original idea which doesn't blatantly rip off existing sites but on the opposite has the potential to be successful outside of Germany. – I could immediately relate to it: Earlier this year I needed to buy a printer/scanner and was simply overwhelmed by the variety of options; here some orientation through easy to access on the spot information certainly would have been helpful. Another example: You're an eco-conscious shopper doing grocery shopping; with Barcoo you can base your purchases on how sustainable the suppliers' business is. – The idealism in case of Barcoo: Of course financial success is a motivation behind this project but from what I gathered the founders are also personally invested in that they supply a platform which supports consumers in making conscious choices they can identify with.

Servtag and Barcoo also go to show how potential future collaborations between the scientific community and start-ups might work: While Technical University of Munich is involved in Servtag, the Berlin based Humboldt University is associated with Barcoo which received funding under a European Union R&D grant – the tragedy which Matt Marshall laments, namely that Germany has a tremendous basic science research and some of the best engineering in the world but lacks the ability to connect engineers with company builders might still be a real one but as this example shows is none that's unresolvable.

One question remains though: Who would be willing to pay for such a service? While Servtag can monetize on affiliate programs and share valuable information about shopping habits with marketeers in case of Barcoo the industry might not be enthusiastic about too much transparency, consumers not about possible extra costs of a subscription model and an ad-based solution would cost a tremendous amount of credibility.

Whatever the answer may be, Berlin's scene will stay exciting.


The Last Dinosaurs Decided: Google is Violating German Copyright Law by Displaying Thumbnail Previews of Copyrighted Images

As ReadWriteWeb reports a regional court in Germany ruled that Google is violating German copyright law by displaying thumbnail previews of copyrighted images. From the piece:

German photographer Michael Bernhard and cartoonist Thomas Horn had sued the Google and demanded that their images be removed from Google's index. According to the judge at Hamburg's regional court, "no new work is created" by displaying thumbnails.

Google, of course, has no way of discerning whether an image in its index is copyrighted or not. Based on this decision, we would not be surprised if Google decided to block image search for German users. However, we also assume that Google will try to appeal this decision.

Ah ze Germans… Ten years after Google they still haven't figured out the Internet: A conscious decision to prevent people from accesing valuable information about one's visual work, hampering any form of self-promotion that would somehow resemble 21st century practices; all this backed by an unwordly, anti-business court whose ruling could potentially throw the Fatherland back into ze digital stoneage. And you thought having to pay for newspaper articles on the web was a bad idea…

-Jens (Thanks for the link Malte!)

Videogames on Wheels

One of the more interesting pieces of technology depicted in Vernor Vinge's Rainbows End is that which allows users to put a skin over reality, just as we currently choose different themes for our operating systems and web browsers. Thanks to some smart people working out of the Universität der Künste Berlin ("The Berlin University of the Arts"), we're one step closer to making that happen.

From the description of their project: Carcade is a concept for an in-car videogame for the passengers, which captures the landscape and uses it as a videogame environment. Existing objects, for example trees and architecture, are recognized by the camera and enhanced by videogame assets. The game is influenced by the manner of driving of the car. If the driver accelerates, the game becomes increasingly difficult. If the car comes to a stop a different game situation evolves. We developed a small game concept and a functional prototype, with which we did a test drive on the street. A webcam is connected to a laptop running camera tracking software which recognizes the horizon and objects in the environment. The player has to maneuver a spaceship and collect points whilst trying to avoid crashing into oncoming enemies.

It is still early days, but watching their video will help you understand the technology a bit better. As it advances, that boring prairie drive between Calgary and Edmonton could become a lot more interesting if it took the form of a space battle, jungle cruise or otherwise more-scenic route instead.

In order to further cement the relationship between videogames and driving, iTWire reports (via /.) that a car designed for the Playstation 3 game Gran Turismo 5 Prologue has made into real life and was unveiled at the Paris Motor Show. It isn't just a fantasy car, either. Apparently the GTbyCITROËN handles the same in real life as in the the game.

If you've played the Gran Turismo series of games, you'll know exactly how hyper-realistic they are. In fact, I'm pretty sure I learned more about driving through the original Gran Turismo for PS1 than I did from the driving lessons I took when I was sixteen.

I'm probably not the only one that thinks that way, either. According to this CNN story, Allstate insurance will start offering specialized computer games to older drivers and that this could end up lowering their rates.


Using the Web to Discover Talent

A friend of mine who's a prospective movie producer asked me to act as music supervisor for his (yet to be finished) diploma project. He needed some authentic country and 50s old school rock'n'roll for the soundtrack. Unfortunately there wouldn't be a budget – and he would need the worldwide rights for an indefinite amount of time for all kinds of media (DVD, television, cinema…). Confronted with this task I of course turned to the web – to and Myspace to be precise.

As I'm neither to familiar with country nor with 50s rock'n'roll Last FM's function to look for similar artists came in handy (beginning with Johnny Cash seemed like a good idea...) as did Myspace's search functions, the possibility to listen to several tracks and to contact the band. The seedy bottom of the internet seems to be good for something after all. In regards to  presenting and discovering music it still has quite an edge on Facebook.

In short: There's a vast talent pool out there, pretty much all our needs were covered by (mostly) unsigned or young and upcoming bands.

All this – again – made me realize just how important these platforms became for music and which great chances they offer for both parties involved. Even though we didn't have a budget for the soundtrack what we could offer was a worldwide DVD-release which surely comes in handy in terms of exposing music to new markets – we got great tunes and the bands a chance to introduce themselves to a new audience, all without a middle-man or complicated license agreements.

Another example, even though in a completely different league, are my Australian friends from Operator Please, whose career certainly owes a lot to Myspace. Just recently, they were nominated again for two Aria awards (in one category they're up against Kylie!).

So keep on posting your stuff onto the web, you never know when some random German movie person wants you for the soundtrack of his flick.


PS Check out the trailer for my friend's old movie "Die Schwarze Kolonne" (The Black Platoon), a spoof on comic adaptations with German soap actor Tim Sander.

Fostering a Better Understanding of History? The Berlin Wall Mod for Half Life 2

Gamepolitics just directed my attention towards this interesting mod for Half Life 2: Thanks to some talented modders gamers can now experience a virtual recreation of the walled East-Berlin. Explains Garry's Mod:

The anticipated BerlinWall map has been released. The map offers singleplayer experience from the view of an East German citizen, dreaming of living in the West Germany. The gameplay in the map is non-linear, you can take many paths to west. Also, avoid making mistakes, they can be deadly, and remember to check everywhere for some sort of weapons.

The map works the best in Half-Life 2: Episode Two, but like common Source-based maps, it also works in Garry's Mod. Not offering the best gameplay experience in it, but works great for posing and comics.

This is the kind of stuff I love: Using the simulational nature of digital games to foster a better understanding of historical events as they offer a grade of immersion other media don't, fostering much needed respect for the often chastised games in the process.

If the rules work accordingly. Unfortunately I haven't yet had a chance yet to play this mod (as I'm using a Mac) but from what I've gathered this might not always be the case.

According users of this forum, parts of the game involve direct armed confrontations with guards. Violence of this sort certainly wasn't part of the process of trying to flee from the socialist reign of terror as this would have been even more suicidal. Apparently it is also possible to run through barbed wire without getting injured, an aspect I find highly objectionable as one of the most gruesome deaths at the wall (or what was to become the wall) was caused but just that: Getting stuck in barbed wire, getting shot, bleeding to death.

These problems are increased by an age old problem: Trying to escape from East Germany certainly involved a lot of arbitrary factors – games rules don't, otherwise that game wouldn't be playable. Or to put it differently: Life's not fair, games (mostly) are.

By speaking speaking of belittlement: Saving the "game" or a God mode weren't options for these people who decided to take the ordeal of escaping upon themselves.

From what I could gather from the screenshots the problematic nature of this games also extends to its representation. Using Combine soldiers as an ersatz for East German border guards again is highly troublesome – just like using the iconic crowbar as a weapon – due to the connotations that spring up in our heads: The first thing I thought of was headcrabs.

As much as the creators of this mod should be applauded for trying there still are massive problems up ahead, but as a glimpse into games' potential as a tool to teach it can be regarded as a thought-provoking – yet problematic – project.


"A game that's impossible to win, meant to inspire thought? Didn't Missile Command do this decades ago?" Playing Douglas Edric Stanley's Installation at the Games Convention

Not only did I get a chance to play Guitar Hero World Tour at the Games Convention (awesome drums, way superior to Rock Band's) and beat my English speaking friend John and two 12 year old girls in a round of a German version of Buzz I also came across Douglas Edric Stanley's controversial Space Invaders Installation that has players trying to fight off the destruction of the World Trade Centre's Twin Towers. Upon me asking what it was all about I was informed by a staff member of the Computergame Museum (the organiser of the exhibition), that it was a statement regarding America's foreign policy respectively that the invaders represented the terrorists who were responsible for the destruction of the WTC. I could kind of see where he was coming from: The attackers as the alien "others", hostile to our culture, blindly leaping forward without any regard for our Western values, fanatical in their compulsion to destroy, the inability to communicate and the fact that we won't be able to win this war despite our wildest gestures (as conveyed by the game's motion controls).

Trying to hit the red UFO (Bin Laden?!) by using arm movements in front of a symbol for one of the biggest tragedies of the 21st century did feel ambiguous to say the least. Eventually it left a shallow impression, I couldn't see beyond a simple juxtaposition nor was I taken by surprise by an interpretation I didn't think about before, a view which possibly could have shed a different, more compelling light on the installation.

Do I agree with the pulling of the piece? Not necessarily, after all freedom of expression is what differentiates us from the invaders. Also the fact that apparently it is OK to commercially – and cynically – exploit 9/11 (+ Pearl Harbour + several wars) by means of movies, books and merchandise while a non-commercial installation draws worldwide negative attention makes for an interesting imbalance – admittedly, in Stanley's abstract work compassion for the victims is largely absent, something which differentiates it from other media deemed more acceptable.

Nevertheless, I still believe that digital games have the potential to make strong, insightful and relevant statements. As Leigh Alexander puts it on Kotaku:

Invaders! actually accomplishes everything we've constantly asked games to achieve - it draws mainstream attention. It provokes thought and discussion. It deals with a real-world issue. It's open to interpretation. It's independently-created art.

And it stings, doesn't it, to see our hopes for the medium twisted into such an uncomfortable, painful shape. But let's not let the pain force us to dismiss it. This is an achievement.

If a shallow, transparently controversial juxtaposition such as Stanley's installation is capable of eliciting such a response then the future for digital expression surely looks bright.


Games Finally Have a Right to Exist: German Cultural Council Accepts them as "Kultur"

After long discussions the German Kulturrat, the umbrella organisation of the German cultural associations, today welcomed the federal association of game developers GAME, as their latest member. The rationale behind this move: Games are sponsoring all kinds of arts and artists, from designer to script writer to composer; they all benefit from the burgeoning industry. Despite this somehow strange reasoning (games being "Kultur" because they help to sustain other arts instead of being accepted as cultural artefacts in their own right) Malte Behrmann, chairman of GAME, describes the decision as a milestone of German media policy. "For the first time an association of the game industry was incorporated in an institution of cultural politics. The game industry finally arrived in the cultural sphere. This is a great day for the German game industry!"

This whole procedure again goes to show show that in Germany new forms of media always need to be legitimised through the concept of Kultur – which on one hand can do miracles in terms of acceptance. After all culture epitomises an anti-barbaric distinction which perfectly serves for bourgeois self-legitimation – but then again this anti-barbaric distinction also prevents Gears of War 2 from being released in Germany and helps to perpetuate the patronising behaviour of the German state in terms of censorship.

Soon to come: Discussions about culturally valuable games whose market share is marginal at best (at least we Germans are trying our best to save the world again, even if it's just the saving the virtual world from unnecessary brutalisation).


The Obamafest in Berlin

Sorry for the delay, but some tummy bug prevented me from writing anything about the Obama visit in Berlin. Anyway, in case someone still cares, here're my impressions: From The Times

And so the Child told his disciples to fetch some food but all they had was five loaves and a couple of frankfurters. So he took the bread and the frankfurters and blessed them and told his disciples to feed the multitudes. And when all had eaten their fill, the scraps filled twelve baskets.

The multitudes were fed indeed as was their thirst quenched. Welcome to Obamafest. I made the mistake to start my pilgrimage a little bit too late with the consequence that I was stuck somewhere in the middle of 200,000 people, barely able to see (not even a screen). But at least I could hear what Obama had to say.

He had to appeal to two very different sensitivities: To the German audience and, more importantly, American voters. In this respect invoking to the shared past and its struggle for freedom was a good strategy. Ernst Reuter was cited, Reagan called upon, and indeed walls came down at least sixteen times during the speech: Not only in Berlin, but also in Belfast, between the rich and the poor, between races and religions.

Yet I couldn't stop wondering: Would the reactions have been as enthusiastic if a German politician – or, God beware, Bush – uttered those words? Probably not, Bush would have been laughed at, a German politician would have been criticised for a number of things. What one has to remember is that Obama did not only appeal to a shared past but also to the responsibilities of a shared future. For him this future, amongst other things, is fought for in Afghanistan. The deployment of German troops in order to rebuild this war-torn country is already controversial amongst the German left; possible combat operations would cause an even greater stir. Obama is going to pursue a more protectionist policy to counteract the recession, he supports the death sentence for child molesters, defends the right of Americans to bear arms. American policies under Obama will see more continuities than his German disciples probably wish for, albeit they chose to ignore it.

Where\'s Obama?

Something which also goes to show the naive romanticism of German sentiments towards the US. Not only would an Obama presidency mean a change in skin colour but also in world views; a sudden change in perception from anti-Americanism towards a promise of salvation, a world without climate change, without a war in Iraq, a dream that somehow must come true because this time one is on the good side (and Germans are especially prone to develop a certain spirituality when it comes to saving the world). McCain all the while remains the great unknown, the average German Obama fan probably doesn't know much about him except that, you know, he's the evil one and some puppet of the war lobby.

On a sidenote: I found it somewhat ironic to be in a crowd demanding "change" when the last time this nation was allowed to vote it opted for a grand coalition of Germany's two biggest parties which is mainly characterised by being extremely inflexible. But then again maybe it's exactly this yearning for modernity that German politics can't fulfil that makes (up) some of Obama's appeal. Cultural pessimism, promises to conserve the state of affairs, a desire for bygone days and clichés shape the political landscape; if Merkel was a man and therefore didn't embody a grain of emancipated modernity some voters probably would have died of boredom by now. Along comes a new icon, young, exciting, promising and somehow progressive, causing people to screen their unfulfilled desires on him.

And there's another argument for the young hopeful: In case Obama wins the presidency American tourists wouldn't have to pretend to be from Canada anymore to avoid being confronted about the alleged evil-doings of their nation by self-righteous Germans and their drive to save the planet by ruling out gas powered heat lamps.