Video Games

GamerCamp Toronto: November 1st-3rd

I'm not a coder, developer or even really a hard-core gamer, but if you've been reading this blog long enough you know I've got an interest in Video Games, and how they fit today's culture.

That's why I love Gamer Camp, a yearly and unique Toronto event curated by Jaime Woo. It's not about showcasing the blockbuster hits, it's about the spirit and creativity between creating games and playing them.

There will be a board game cafe, an arcade of great indie games, and some great talks by people from different parts of the games industry.

This year, Gamer Camp has also added an extra day, The Interactive and Games Conference, that I'm excited for:

"The Interactive and Game Conference will feature 20 inspiring, useful talks from organizations and individuals bringing fresh looks to both fields in hopes of cross-pollinating and sparking cool, new ideas. (Gamercamp itself, for example, sprung out of drawing inspiration from tech, art, and culture events like TED, Come Up To My Room, and TIFF.)

Attendees can expect interesting takes on the interactive and games space including: An in-depth session on the game design lessons from DrinkBox Studios' critically acclaimed Guacamelee (pictured below) National Film Board producer Gerry Flahive sharing on the award-winning interactive documentary Highrise Mission Business, the team behind the spooky and successful interactive theatrical experience Visitations at the Drake Hotel, and A first-look at Stringer, an immersive journalism first person videogame that places you in the middle of an Afghanistan battlefield using the Oculus Rift and Hydra technologies—a collaboration between George Brown College and Cinema Suite Inspirations from the curator of TIFF's innovative and popular media experience DigiPlaySpace Demonstrations on using the creativity tools Lua and ZBrush"

If you're in Toronto, try and attend. Details are here.

PS: The fashion/video game mashup images that will be displayed at the festival, Double Flawless, are also super cool


Family Tree of Video Game Controllers

If you played video games growing up, or play them now, you might want to check out this fantastic infographic detailing a family tree of video game controllers.

It's interesting to see how the dial-based controllers of the early days evolved into joysticks, and that these then fell from favor until the N64 had that little, but rarely-used joystick on the centre hull. It also seems like controllers from way back when called for more asymmetrical hand positioning.

I also feel that Sony has really nailed it with the PS3 controller. All the buttons are perfectly placed, and it just feels right in your hands.

For more great video game information, check out

What's your favorite video game controller?




Some Non-essential Thoughts on "Essential Facts" About Video Games

The Entertainment Software Association of America posted their 2011 Essential Facts about the Computer and Video Game Industry today, and while nothing in it seemed essential to me, there were a few interesting nuggets of information: 1.) The average game player is 37 years old

I'm sure that despite this, the stereotype of the sedentary, lonely-but-trash-talking teenager will prevail.

2.) Women age 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (37%) than boys age 17 or younger (13%)

Seriously - this stat surprised me. I guess when I think about games, I'm guilty of not taking into consideration casual games.

3.) Starcraft Battle Chest is the 20th Best Selling Computer Game of 2010

This package was originally released in 1999! (Thanks, to my friend Richard for pointing this out). The fact that it is still one of the best selling pieces of entertainment says a lot about how good this game is. Quality gameplay goes a lot more than flashy graphics, I guess.


4.) Parents See Positive impact of Computer and Video Games

I've been an advocate for the positive benefits of video games for a long, long time (seriously - I wrote that post in 2007!). However, I never thought that parents would see things the same way. I'd like to see these stats compared to how parents see television in their household. Are video and computer games seen more positively? My guess is yes.

Grab the whole report for yourself here. Props to Joystiq for pointing it out.


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.


RIP Jerry Lawson

Last week one of the pioneers of the gaming industry passed away. This man engineered the modern console. It was only in March that he was honoured by the International Game Developers Association.

And yet you probably never heard of Jerry Lawson, the creator of the first cartridge-based videogame console.

Something that set Jerry apart from most people working in the gaming industry is that he was black.

Jerry was born in 1940 and grew up in a federal housing project in Queens, New York. As a kid, he operated a ham radio; as a teenager he earned money by repairing his neighbors’ television sets.

In the 1970s, living and working in Silicon Valley, he was the only African-American to join the Homebrew Computer Club, a group of early hackers that included Apple co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.

He went on to design the Channel F console for Fairchild Semiconductors, the first gaming machine to use interchangeable cartridges.

 And he went on to become the industry's best kept secret.

The gaming industry certainly has liberal roots. Take Atari for example, Nolan Bushnell had a beer tap in his office and employed a bunch of hippies to assemble arcade machines. When Atari was sold to Warner and the technology of Battlezone was to be used for military purposes, some developers refused to contribute to the project.

In the early days Apple had countercultural sensibilities about it, just look at the 1984 commercial.

But despite this liberal outlook, the gaming/ computer industry dominantly favoured white male subjects. This was the origin of the industry – young educated "hackers" (think of Space War and its creators or Ralph Baer).

It took decades to overcome this hardcore technicity mindset, the Wii was the first console to successfully challenge this outlook. While gaming reaches new demographics, it'd be interesting to look into who is actually responsible for its contents.

If my students are anything to go by, games are still predominantly made by white men.

Video games might have a comparatively liberal background, but their (Western) history is almost exclusively Caucasian at the expense of other ethnics.

They represent a culture that makes it difficult for other influences to assert themselves and perpetuate the ideal gamer of the 21st century as likely being male – and white.

All this make Jerry's achievements even more impressive. Hopefully he will receive the recognition he deserves!


Games and Music: The Soundtrack of the Game

A few days ago, I started thinking about the music in my favourite video games. What started as a brief post on the subject grew to what I'm hoping will be a short series on the interconnection between video games and music.

Music has always been a part of video games, from the earliest bloops and beeps, right through to today's sweeping cinematic scores. As we've replayed level after level, so too have we listened to the same game sounds again and again. I'll bet that most of the readers of this blog still have the Mario or Tetris songs stuck in their head. These were simply, and partly so memorable because there was only so much music that could fit onto a game cartridge before it got in the way of memory needed to play the game.

As technology improved, so did the music. I remember liking the soundtrack to the original Wipeout game almost more than the actual game. Wipeout XL one-upped this by having a soundtrack with music by The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Orbital.

That's why it comes as no surprise to read that games are still turning to some heavy-hitters when it comes to recording soundtracks. Apparently, the new Medal of Honor game was scored by the guy that did Iron Man while my go-to favourite, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, was scored by Hans Zimmer (peep those stats!).

Not surprisingly, Wikipedia is a great resource on this subject and even identifies game music as a genre with the following typical characteristics:

-Pieces designed to loop endlessly

-Pieces lacking lyrics, and designed to be played over game sounds

-Limited polyphony (though this last one probably more applicable to old-style video game music due to the limitations of the systems)

NPR has an excellent article and accompanying audio piece about the subject of video game soundtracks, and suggests that one of the goals of the first video game soundtracks, Space Invaders, was designed to get the users heart rate to increase as the game progressed. I think this line of thinking can certainly be seen in today's games, with their atmospheric soundtracks.

What do you think about the music in video games? Do you have a favorite video game song? Is there one that is particularly stuck in your head?


PS: If you're looking for that classic video game tune, you can probably find it at

Protoss Soup for the Korean Seoul

Earlier today, my friend Richard Yum posted a Tweet saying that Starcraft 2 sold 3 million copies last month and that he "bet like 90% of those were sold in Korea." Its a smart bet for Richard if history is anything to go by. According to the infographic below, 50% of copies of the first Starcraft were sold to South Koreans, but that was ten-years ago. Since then, interest in the franchise has exploded: Online Schools - Starcraft

I've never played Starcraft - how good is it?


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

Oh, the Games We'll Play!

When I used to play dodgeball, I always found that my best games came after I'd ripped a few rounds of Armored Core for PlayStation 2. If you've ever played either, the similarity is obvious. In both, you're primarily facing your opponent with nothing really in between. Shots are lobbed from shoulder level, and there is lots of sideways shuffling or jumping to avoid being hit. The only difference is that one takes place in a gym and is co-ed while the other takes place in your living room and involves controlling giant robots. Now that I'm playing soccer, the guys on my team are urging me to start playing FIFA 10. "It'll help you understand the game better," they said, and they're probably right. They are all huge soccer fans, and understand the ins and outs of the strategy. I just like to run, and I never watch professional soccer games.

In related news, there is an actual race car league that pulls its members from the top ranks of Gran Turismo players (Gran Turismo being probably the best, most realistic racing game ever). I'm willing to bet that within the next five years, there will be at least one professional race car driver that got his start in one of these Gran Turismo contests (and I'm also willing to bet that within 10 years a computer-driven car will be able to best the top human driver).

A few months ago, I read a great article in Esquire about the unmanned planes operated by the American military. Shortly after reading the article about the guys that piloted these planes flying over Iraq and Afghanistan from an air-conditioned room in the States, I started playing Modern Warfare: Call of Duty 2. There are scenes in that game where you are able to call in missile strikes from these drones, and your ability to control them is almost exactly what is described in the Esquire article.

While some might see the military applications as a negative impact, I'm urging you to look past that and see that video games will play an increasingly large role in our lives. Chances are, champion sports teams are going to spend part of their time reviewing strategy using an interactive system like games. People of my generation will probably have major surgery done on them by a doctor that has been trained primarily by video games.


PS: My roommates, neither of whom really likes games, said they wished there was a game where you just sit and have coffee with your friends. "Call of Do Tea" was the name they eventually came up with.

Driving Under The Influence (of Video Games)

From the Honolulu Advertiser today comes the news that it is still legal to play video games while driving on the island of O'ahu. I don't know what happened that prompted the vote, but last month the island's city council voted 7-1 in favor of a bill that would make it illegal to play video games; or write, send and read text messages.

The fact that the mayor vetoed this vote shows that at least he has some sense - for every specific, dangerous activity like this that is banned, someone will come up with something even more ridiculous to do while driving. Ban video games? Someone will figure out a way to get in a car crash while playing board games.


The whole thing reminds me of that episode of The Simpsons where Homer has a multitude of accessories plugged into his car's cigarette lighter. Since none of the appliances, from a snowcone maker to a fog machine, were video games he'd probably get around the law that the O'ahu council attempted to pass.

It also reminds me of the time that I was living in Japan and once saw a kid playing Gameboy while riding his bike, slowly wobbling back and forth across the road but making forward progress nonetheless.


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.


Videogames Are Our Future

If you've been a BlogCampaigning reader for more than a few weeks you'll know that Jens and I are both quite interested in ludology, the study of video games. I'm fairly convinced that video games are the future of both entertainment and communications. I don't mind that they aren't being taken as seriously as I think they should be - it just means that there will be greater opportunity for people like Jens and I further down the line.

Like many of our activities, games are becoming increasingly social. According to a recent Pew Report, for teens "gaming is a social activity and a major component of their overall social experience."

The report finds that 65% of game-playing teens play with other people who are in the room with them, while only 27% play games with people who they connect with through the internet. I think that those numbers are going to change rapidly, that the teens who are most easily able to connect via the internet to interact with their peers to play games and solve online puzzles will be the ones who are most succesful later in life.

This might be explained by an article in Wired finds that gamers are using the scientific method to complete missions and raids. In one example from the article, a game academic notes that the teenage boys she studied (I'm hesitating to use the phrase "played with" here) "were building Excel spreadhseets into which they'd dump all the information they'd gathered about how each boss behaved" and that they would use these spreadsheets to "develop a mathematical model to explain how the boss worked -- and to predict how to beat it."

And if you're worried about becoming the out-of-shape, pale stereotype of the gaming nerd like Jens, don't fret. According to a recent study gamers are more physically fit than the average American (Jens is just lazy). If that wasn't enought o get you feeling good about video games, a recent article in The National Post reports that a number of retirement centers in Ontario are using the Nintendo Wii to stage a series of competitions.

"It's hand-eye co-ordination, visual stimulation and works as various forms of therapy. If they are in their wheelchair, it gets them excited, gets them enthralled into something that maybe they didn't do before. They are not just sitting there watching something; they are actually engaged," said Chris Brockington, senior marketing consultant for the group of retirement homes.  One of the residents added that the games were "both a wonderful social activity and a great way to exercise."

I've also posted previously about my thoughts on the importance of video games here, and you can read all posts about video games by Jens and myself here.

-Parker Mason

(thanks also to Techdirt for first pointing out some of the links mentioned above)

Guest Post: PR and Video Games – what's the connection?

Longtime readers of this blog will know that Jens and I are big fans of video games as mass-entertainment medium and the effect they have on culture. That's why we asked Rick Weiss, who writes the Playing Games with PR blog to give us his thoughts on the connection between PR and Video Games. The switch to interactivity:

Video games, a huge medium in the North American entertainment industry, continues to grow and develop. Video games represented a huge advance in entertainment when they became mainstream in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s . Movies and television had been great fun for a number of decades but they were only a one-way medium. Video games brought interactivity to the small screen.

Lets take a look at PR and it's evolution over the past century or so. PR began with awareness and propaganda – one way messages being spread to audiences who took them at face value. It was coming from a credible source after all. In the past 20 years, there has been a movement in PR to push for two-way communication between organizations and audiences

Creating communities:

Video games create communities based on shared interests and experiences. One of my favourite video games is Starcraft. If I meet another fan, I immediately have something to discuss with them. And, unlike a shared interest in a TV show or movie, while talking about Starcraft we can discuss things that WE have done while playing games. It's common to talk and compare strategies and gloat about past victories. I've formed long-lasting friendships that began with a shared interest in video games.

PR aims to create communities through various communications strategies. By generating discussion about a desired topic, people are brought together. Earth Hour, organized by WWF, generated a lot of discussion both face-to-face and in the "blogosphere".

As a communications tool:

Video games offer a great communications medium. Games are fun and interactive; people get to DO things in video games, which makes them great potential learning tools. A good game evokes emotion in the player which solidifies the message in the game. By communicating a good message through a well made game, players will be likely to feel favourably towards the represented organization or cause. I'm not saying this is easy, or can be effective for every cause. You really need to understand your audience, but games can make powerful communications tools.

Connection #1: In the past 20-30 years, video games have made entertainment interactive while in the past 20 years PR has pushed to create interactive communications models.

Connection #2: Video games and PR both build communities.

Connection #3: Video games and PR can work together to communicate a message in a powerful way.

-Rick Weiss