Category Archives: Culture

Violence in games

The full story of last night’s descent into debauchery is told by this series of pics, but the sad and brutal truth is that what started as a black-tie, five-course dinner party took less than two hours to turn into a drunken, high-altitude skinny-dip, and less than fifteen minutes after that to turn into a mounted cosplay rampage in which we skinned baby dinosaurs for sport and punched each other in the face for happy eternities.  I don’t intend to leave the house with less than three ninjas ever again. Endless thanks are due to Munch for the eats and Crys for the dress and everyone else for the larks.


* Is it cosplay if you dress up in game as game character from the same game? How can it not be?

Edit: Oh, god, I forgot about the naked conga.


Educational games

lost-cities A while ago I posted a rather uncharitable thing about board games, in which I confessed to the world that I hated them, and ever since then the world has been queuing up to tell me why I’m wrong. I’ve missed a fair few playdates since, but today I finally had the first lesson in my much-needed re-education, courtesy of Lost Cities. There could hardly have been a better candidate for helping change my mind, since it takes less than 3 hours (a lot less) to play, doesn’t involve batteries or any cheap bits of plastic, isn’t stupidly dice dependent, and takes all of 20 seconds to set up. So today turned out not just to be the first time I played a board game and liked it, it turned out to be the first time I played a board game three times in a row and liked it. I could explain to you how it plays, but it would be entirely redundant – partly because it’s dementedly simple, but mostly because you can just go and download it on Xbox Live and find out for yourselves.

There’s an irony there, of course – that my new favourite board game is actually also a videogame – but I’m going to ignore that for now, just as I’m going to ignore my nagging worry that Lost Cities is really a card game not a board game, so I haven’t broken my jinx at all. Instead, I’m going to revel in the discovery that board games have brilliant stories. Who knew? Lost Cities tells its across the glorious time-lapse pictures that decorate its cards, but my new Favourite Game Story Ever (taking over from New Zealand Story’s ‘Drat! A walrus has stolen my friends!’) is that of Lost Cities stable-mate, Igloo Pop:

The young ice giant has a big problem: he wants to buy fishsticks, but he cannot remember how many and he has nine shopping lists in his basket. So he goes from igloo to igloo and shakes each. In each he listens to the delicious fishsticks bouncing off the igloo walls. When he thinks that the igloo in his hand has the same number of fishsticks as one of his shopping lists, he takes it home. When he gets home, there are no fishsticks in the igloo. Instead, wild and laughing Eskimo children tumble out of the igloo. Excitedly they shout, “Shake us again!” “That was great fun!” “This is super”, thinks the young ice giant. “Now, I have found some new friends to play with!” And, he promptly forgets all about his shopping lists.

What could beat that? Well, I’m hoping 1960: The Making of a President will, since it’s the game I’ve been most frequently recommended since I ‘fessed up to my board game humbug last year. But 1960 won’t be my next piece of gaming re-education. Tomorrow I’m heading down to the South Bank to see if the Hide and Seek festival can cure me of the cripplingly British self-consciousness which tends to ruin pervasive games for me. Jane McGonigal will be running a session of Cruel 2 B Kind, and bunch of other games will give you – if you come along, and why wouldn’t you? – a chance to be a freemason, a beachcomber or a bee. Kazoos, I’m assured, will be provided.

[Photo credit: Library Gamer]

Hallo Utrecht

baywatchcreatures NLGD conference report:

Swag haul: sweet fisheye camera, sisal friction mitt, two new T-shirt ideas, another Euro plug adapter, Smints, biros.

New big ideas: control and freedom are opposites; puzzle and strategy games are the same genre; creativity is best enhanced by limiting tools not increasing raw materials; games are disproportionate feedback loops.

New English words: aboutness, enculturated, Spornography.

New Dutch words: bluff (bluff), zwanger (pregnant), burgervader (mayor), success (good luck), slagroom (whipped cream).

Life-changing top tip: the thing that plugs into a MacBook adapter is secretly just a vanilla figure-of-eight cable, so if you’re feeling brave you can leave cable *and* country-plug-adapter at home, and just cannibalise something in your hotel room.

Unforgettable moment face off: discovering I’m exactly the same height as Ralph Baer vs popping my Rock Band cherry on a gold dump truck in the town square.

I’ll post slides and transcripts and stuff shortly, but for now, here are the games from my talk on Wednesday (links for playable stuff, fun for offline stuff):

God Hand (silly)

September 12th (solemn)

Braid (small team)

GTA IV (large team)

Cat On A Dolphin (rudimentary)

Bioshock (lavish)

Gravitation (emotional)

Dual N-back (abstract)

Perfect Cherry Blossom (reacting)

Advance Wars (planning)

Metal Gear Solid 4 (creator led)

Spore (user led)

And here are the tags I’m using to keep track of all the games, books and sites people recommended to me while I was there:




Thanks to the NLGD team for running such a slick event and looking after us all so well. And thanks to all the exceptionally nice people who I got to drink and talk and think with.

Ignorant oaf

Thanks to all of you who pointed out the colossal maths goof in my BBC column yesterday. I’d love to blame it on some kind of hangover confusion from the great British vs US billion debacle, but I’d still be out by a factor of 100. Or maybe 1000? Loads, basically. Lots and lots. Like tons. Tonnes? Aw, man.

But yes, at any rate, we only squander hundred or so wikipedias a year, not a thousand. At least, I really hope it’s a hundred. Well, inasmuch as it’s 90. Rats. Can we all just agree on loads?

The Nobel Prize for Leetspeak

tenori-onI’ve just finished reading Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, a very good book I can’t in clear conscience recommend to you, because it is, without doubt, the least dramatic novel I’ve ever read. In the course of its 500+ pages fundamentally nothing happens. Our hero goes to school, which he likes; he goes to university, which he likes; he goes to a monastery, which he likes; he goes to another monastery, which is also likes; he gets a job, which he likes; and he makes a decision, which he has no cause to regret. In between, he has interminably genteel, articulate conversations with other genteel, articulate people, whom he likes and who like him. Somehow, along the way, it manages to be an extraordinary and unflinching exploration of the nature of love, authority, regret, responsibility, religion, knowledge, aging, nature, civilisation, war, individuality, fatherhood, history, friendship, childhood, society, music, philosophy and integrity, which is probably why it won Hesse the Nobel Prize for Literature. Oh, what the hell, I’m going to recommend it to you anyway.

And that’s partly because, as the title reveals, it’s all about a game. Who knew there was a Nobel-winning cornerstone of heavyweight Germanic literature all about games? Nor is it just about a game, it’s about a time in the near future when gaming has become the highest expression of scholarship, creativity and intellectual refinement. From our perspective, as games take their first fledgling steps towards being seen as a credible creative outlet, it’s an extraordinarily remote concept. All the more extraordinary then for Hesse, writing in 1943 about the 25th century, to see a time when playing could be viewed as the finest of our arts. Not least since, in the nine years it took him to complete the book, the upheavals underway in Germany and the world must have been continually reshaping his perceptions of how bleak our future might be.

Quite what the Glass Bead Game is is never fully explained in the book. It’s described by the narrator as being based on ‘a kind of highly developed secret language drawing upon several sciences and arts…and capable of expressing and establishing interrelationships between the content and conclusions of nearly all scholarly disciplines. The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture.’ Lofty stuff, but its genesis sounds spookily close to something we already have, something that was invented by a game-maker. The Game’s roots were in a music student pastime of calling out shorthands for motifs of classic compositions, which other students would have to answer with continuations or improvisations. Eventually, to facilitate this, someone constructed ‘a frame, modelled on a child’s abacus, a frame with several dozen wires on which could be strung glass beads of various sizes, shapes and colours. The wires corresponded to the lines of the musical staff, the beads to the time-values of the notes.’ Sound familiar? It should if you’ve encountered the Tenori-On, the totally abstract electronic instrument based around a grid of light-beads, invented by the designer of Electroplankton, Toshio Iwai.

We are, of course, a long way off a time when devising or playing games could (or indeed should) be seen as intellectually challenging, creatively stimulating and spritually satisfying as the Glass Bead Game is portrayed as being. And, indeed, the heart of Hesse’s book is a debate about whether or not something so esoteric and abstracted can ever make a meaningful contribution to human life. But it’s interesting to imagine where we might end up if we’ve already taken the first steps towards Hesse’s future, not least thanks to the Tenori-On. A few brave souls have even tried to create working prototypes of the Glass Bead Game – the most playable of which is here – albeit in a form which is a long way from the calligraphy-and-meditation based displays which are described as forming the height of the game’s evolution. And if you’re still not convinced that Hesse might have been ahead of his time on foreseeing the future of gaming culture, consider this: what are the players of his Glass Bead Game known as? ‘Lusers’. For real, just like that, thanks to a corruption of the Latin. How’s that for futurecasting?

Magistri Ludi

You Have To Burn The RopeI’m a juror for Indiecade, a roving festival which celebrates, promotes and rewards independent games and their designers, which means I’ve been horribly remiss in not publicising the call for submissions for their 2008 tour. If you’re a game-maker who isn’t funded by a major, ESA-member publisher you have until April 11th to check out Indiecade’s exceptionally hospitable eligibility criteria and get your game submitted. And if you’re not a game-maker, but you’ve spotted something of late which you think deserves to be paraded round the world and showered in glitter, then lose no time in firing off an email to its creators encouraging them to get involved. I’ll be doing just that to Kian, who made the epically satisfying You Have To Burn The Rope, which if you haven’t played, you should at once. Me? I’m off to watch a video.

Playing godparent

Pel and Pika

How many things have you named? A dog and a couple of rats or hamsters, maybe. Perhaps your car. Hopefully no parts of your anatomy. And that’s usually about it.

But think again. Dozens of RPG heroes. Hundreds of Pokémon. Squads of worms, phalanxes of chaos soldiers – heroes, pets, sidekicks, nemeses. Gamers have more experience naming things than all the world’s entymologists, rabbit breeders and orphanage mistresses put together.


So, the chances are you’ve been through all the systems. System one is usually naming everything after your friends and family. System two is usually naming things after parts of your anatomy, just to see if you can. System three is when you start to get cute, reckoning that it’s worth going through the entire game with a character called ‘Cancer’, just for the moment when ‘You’ve been killed by…’ pops up on your mate’s screen and all the politically correct people in the room heads explode. Stage four is when creative fatigue starts to kick in, and you start sticking with the defaults – not least because checking GameFAQs is a ruinous bore when you can’t remember whether your SpottleBrink was originally Balthier or Basch. Stage five is when you start devising your own systems, naming things alphabetically, or theming them by character class. Stage six is when you start categorising all your different naming systems, all the better to cross-reference.


There’s no doubt that getting it wrong can ruin a game – indeed, the better the game the more ruinous the introduction of a goofy character name can be. And in some games taking over naming duties feels almost sacriligeous. I’ve shared Zelda carts where everyone was so determined to be purist that one save had to be ‘Link’, one ‘LINK’ and one ‘link’.


But after decades of finding names for dinosaur hunters, FOmarls, space pirates and chewnicorns, here’s my question. Are gamers better or worse at naming their kids than normal people? Does our experience pay off, now that we’ve got all the dumb names out of our systems, and have learned the hard way how being kooky and original starts to pall after 300 hours? Or are we over-confident, straying from the ‘A-Z of Baby Names That Grandparents Will Know How To Spell’. Will we give rise to a generation of Sarias and Dantes and Bastilas who’ll never forgive us? And if we do, will they rebel by calling all their Pokémon things like David, John, Mary and Ann?


choc castle I have a new obsession. I intend to be the first person in the world to exhaustively catalogue all the games in the world you can play while doing what you’re doing in the game. Here’s my complete list so far:

– Eating chocolate while playing Chocolate Castle*.

I had a genuine moment of meta-existentialism as I glanced away from the game to rearrange my chunks (a 3-brick and a 2-brick of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut, if you must know. I’m not proud), and then scarfed them, leaving only crumbs. The world, sadly, did not then erupt in a glorious shower of 16-bit chip-tune victory music, but I still felt like I’d poked my very own tear in the fabric of reality.

That’s pretty much it, so far. If I was a bit more adventurous I might try to emulate Randall Munroe and take up double-frontside-360ing, but I’m probably marginally worse at Tony Hawk’s than I would be at skate-boarding and might well break my nose on my DS. Does hunching over a laptop in a darkened room at 3 in the morning to play Uplink count? Or would I have to wait till 2010 for that to make the list? Are there train drivers who sneak one-handed goes on Densha-de-Go to while away long straights?

As you can seem this isn’t going to be easy, so I need your help. Both in suggestions for additions to the list, and for a name for the whole damn idea. It’s like how we need a word for words when the word itself is an example of the thing that it means – like how ‘portmanteau‘ is a portmanteau word in its own right. And, while you’re at it, I’d be equally happy to receive additions to my long-floundering list of homographic homophonic autanonyms – T-rex explains just what those are better than I ever could here. So far I’ve got cleave, dust, fast, several, overlook, sanction and quite. And yes, I know how many of those are highly debatable.

Basically, what I really need is someone to write me a Pokemon clone, where the Pokemon are actually the complete contents of the OED, and I could hunt for the word for playing a game while doing the same thing in real life while playing a game about hunting for words, and then I could add that game to the list, right under playing Chocolate Castle, and then world would explode and we’d never have to talk about it again.

* Thanks to Simon Carless’ reminder. It is an utter delight – not quite as powerfully happy-making as Peggle, but close.


zorkmapsml I like it when games leak into the real world. While the thing that’s most valuable to me about playing is the lack of reality – I already have enough of that to keep me busy – I find it immensely pleasing when they reach out of their totally virtual, fictional, insubstantial worlds and make real things happen. I like it when Eternal Darkness makes me jump off the sofa to re-plug my spookily unplugged controller, or when Metal Gear makes me feel like a chump for not picking up a CD case. It’s not so much about merchandise – although I’m a sucker for that too – but about things that cross the divide and become real in the process. I’d like to put my hand on my heart and say that I wouldn’t fork out 4000 yen for a Final Fantasy potion, but given a bad enough day I would, and I don’t doubt for a moment that it would revive me. Assuming I wasn’t poisoned or turn to stone or anything.

So here are this week’s favourite bits of game leakage. The first is a stunning map of the first version of Zork. Keen-eyed Zork fans will notice there are locations there from all three Zork games, and that it’s dated before Zork’s original release. That’s because this is the map of the original, non-commercial game, sometimes known as Dungeon, which permeated across university mainframes from its birthplace at MIT in 1977. There’s a nice telling of the story of its creation, and of the founding of Infocom, here. The original PDP-10 version was too hefty for home computers of the time, so the game was split into three installments. This map, by Steven Roy, presumably a student fan at the time, sums up everything I love about games and everything I hate about Zork.

apollo_lg Too old for you? Then how about this marvelously impractical idea to have your car project hologramatic chevrons onto sharp curves, based on data from your GPS? And why stop there? Why not have Forza’s colour-coded racing line projected in front of you to help judge your speed? Why not have the GPS linked into automatic weather station feeds so it can alter the optimum speeds according to real-time reports of rain or frost? Why not have a combo-meter monitoring how ecologically you’re managing your gear changes? Please, no puncturing my enthusiasm with anything as prickly as common sense.

And if that picture is reminding you of something, then you might be glad of a link to Aram Batholl’s Speed, which is what it reminded me of – that real-world installation of Need For Speed’s chevrons on a street in Berlin. And if that‘s reminding you of something, then you might be glad of a link to Benedict Radcliffe’s wireframe Impreza, which is what it reminded me of. Beyond that you’re on your own.

Addendum: Alright, fine – even I admit there are times when game-leakage can be a decidedly bad thing.

I hope you feel bad

We all know games are evil. They twist the minds of our youths with glamorised, consequence-free violence. They cause RSI and whitefinger. They’re racist, sexist and homophobic. They’re ruining the environment. But now we’ve sunk to a new low. We’re extincting stag beetles. Yahoo Asia reports that:

A rare subspecies of stag beetle found only in the Amanos Mountains of southern Turkey is now threatened with extinction as it is being exploited for sale to beetle enthusiasts in countries like Japan, a local conservationist has warned. Nazim Sonmez, of the Amanos Environmental Protection Association, said the beetle is being over-harvested owing in part to the popularity among Japanese children of “Mushiking: The King of Beetles,” an arcade game in which players engage in virtual battles between beetles from all over the world. Sonmez said some Japanese passing themselves off as researchers have come to the Amanos area of Hatay Province to catch or otherwise acquire the rare and distinct beetle, which goes by the scientific name Lucanus cervus akbesianus. Locals are also involved in exploiting them to sell to foreigners, especially Japanese, at exorbitant prices amounting to as much as 1,450 lira (some 13,000 yen). They sell for as much as 40,000 yen on Japanese Internet auction sites.

Now, while I defy anyone – particularly Sega shareholders – to resist Mushiking’s gladiatorial charm, it’s a sobering thought that overkeen beetle-otaku could be responsible for the downfall of an entire species. And what if Mushiking is only the beginning? What if Activision licenses snail-racing? Or squirrel-fishing? What if Rogue Galaxy’s Insectron Tournament has already bred a new generation jonsing for real world arthropod face-offs? We live in troubling times.

If your conscience is pricking you, say in the manner of an understandably agitated Lucanus cervus akbesianus working its way into your undies, you may wish to salve it in the following ways:

  • Back One Big Game, the not-for-profit game publisher looking for specifically developed games to raise charity funds.
  • Do a little early Christmas shopping, for Child’s Play.
  • Get a solar charger for your DS/PSP. Or a hand-crank if you’re feeling energetic.
  • Plant a (real) tree in Second Life.
  • Make sure you’re signed up for Folding@Home.

And with that, you can return to pitilessly slaying Little Sisters with a wrinkle-free forehead and a song-filled heart.