Looking back on GAME ON: Reclaim the Game – 25th November 2014
“The right man in the wrong place can make all the difference in the world” (Half-Life II).
This quote could have been written about William Latham, the charismatic computer art visionary and pioneer who arrived on the digital art scene way ahead of it’s time in 1986. Instead of burning bright but short, as many early tech pioneers did, waiting for the audience that just was not there yet, William decided to make his own audience. He provided excitement not just for geeks on early Siggraph in the 80s, when he and Polish-born, Cambridge-based Benoit Mandelbrot were the magicians-in-residence, sprinkling computer graphic miracles on us – the dazed and amazed disciples of the new, emerging computer art.
Arthur C. Clarke commented that “Mandelbrot’s Set was on of the most astonishing discoveries in the entire history of mathematics”. Arthur clearly has not seen William’s Mutator!
At Cybersalon, William described how he introduced his unique blend of computer art and gaming to the new disciples, this time the ravers and clubbers from the late 80s. His designs for Shamen records and projections for the London clubs in the early 90s were legendary, impacting the aesthetics of the rave culture for many years to come.
Those covers were generated by a code named Mutator, which was based on a system generated variance, letting the computer ‘evolve’ the organic-looking forms in beautiful and unpredictable ways. He was also an early AI pioneer as his system could breed architecturally creative buildings, cheekily suggesting that it does better job than architects.
Watching the games work that William achieved during his Hollywood-based game development is like watching Neil Armstrong landing on the Moon – how did they managed those enormously beautiful games with technology that now looks like using shoestring and sellotape to launch Sputnik?
William’s early games, such as The Thing (2003), were built with graphics where the number of polygons was truly minimalistic, but somehow creativity filled the tech gaps and the games were not only wonderfully playable but also visually stunning. Note to today’s game designers – less is more, and tech limitations are just a challenge for a creative mind!
His current work is focused on using games to crack medical problems. He is on the team that created crowd-sourced Protein Docking Game, helping bioinformatics experts to involve players to dock protein structures and speed up the development process of new drugs. William advocates games for good, creating fun and collaborative process that has socially positive outcomes.
But since he is ever William the Subvertor – there is also a project on developing a program to simulate human aesthetics. Un-picking what makes an image beautiful, he tracks the role of asymmetry, clarity of sillhuettes, fractal dimensions, shapes and many other aspects that together can ‘create’ the unique ‘pleasing’ creations.
We wonder if the machine that can make pleasing images or render beautiful sequences, create a narrative and compose aesthetically pleasing soundtrack can ultimately replace game designers? Would game designers code themselves out of existence? Of course they would – as AI is turning into a snake that slowly but surely eats his own head.
On the positive side, William’s belief is that games are preparing people for dealing with the fast rate of information change and the ability to collaborate online remotely with a large number of people – both skills that are critical for survival in the 21st century.
But he also comments that games are highly addictive. William made a personal decision not to let his six children play games before they were 12 years old. He comments that there is a lot of simple mechanics in the game to make it addictive to the point where human brain can’t control the desire to play on, very much like the mechanics that make gambling addictive.
He notes that the regulation of games is required and is likely to be soon in line with the regulation of online gambling industry, for the simple reason to protect the players and the society from the overwhelming attraction of an addictive gaming.
When William was busy with introducing art-forms to computer games, Richard Bartle was engrossed in creating game as art.
The co-inventor of the first MUD, he described the process of text-based narrative forming as an attempt to explore his own utopia. The key point was to create an environment where merit was all that mattered, contrasting with Britain in the late 70s when the class system was still going strong and if you sounded like a “Yorkshire peasant” there were not many avenues or careers open to you at that time, regardless of the number of degrees or the IQ possessed.
His response to this rather disappointing real world was to create one where you had to ‘earn’ your rank, earn your trust and power, not just be born in to. He tracks the origins of reward systems in later games like DikuMud (Copenhagen 1990) and World of Warcraft (1999), but notes that they took on the process but were not aware of the philosophy behind it.
We wanted to know why he decided that the settings would be a fantasy environment. His answer was that he was looking for anywhere but modernity, as it was the modern world that he was having a go at and if it was good enough for Tolkien, it was good enough for MUDs.
Richard and Roy wanted to make a place that you were familar but not to which you could attach pre-existing RL familiarities, not set in a fixed period and to allow for some powerful characters like wizards and heroes, invite the imagination to wonder in the world inhabited by dragons lazing around in the Sun on a ring of stones.
But the key was the earning of the awards system, merit and skill based. As the early MUDS were a political statement and attempt to create a ‘better’ world, later MMOs after them did not know why the levels were put in!
Richard also explores the nature of guilds, explaining that they rose out of the need to widen the base of players who could experience the higher levels of the game. That was often only possible if a group of between 2-250 got together. Again, this need to collaborate facilitated the technical people to learn early and well how to cooperate remotely, leading then to beyond-gaming successes like Open Source movement.
Morality is a core issue to gaming and Richard advocates letting the user ‘experience’ morality, making actions available and linking the choices to outcomes that would illustrate moral values. Now he is more interested in embedding enough richness into the structure of the game to allow an immersive experience, such as Eve Online, for players to experience these moral decisions and aspects on their own.
Non-player character followers are part of the framework of eliciting moral judgements and linking them to the bad or good outcomes for other people, under the control of the player.
Richard wanted to build the real world but just a little better, including integrated moral experience , play as a teaching and game as a character development tool.
On the other end of the gaming spectrum was CEO of AISolve, Davi Kolli who showed the new experiential shopping mall-based gaming booths, bringing the game to physical environment. In four minutes children get face scanned, get an avatar of themselves as a hero, experience a short game and get a 3D printed copy of themselves as the hero.
The Gaming Booths are getting installed currently in Dubai’s biggest mall, Yas Mall, and the kids zone puts Kidzania into shame with the in-depth virtual game simulations in a bespoke environment. This is the first time where the 3D game and real time cinematography meet as the children will also get a four minute movie of them in the game, with their actions and achievement records included. Entertainment – but is it age-appropriate is a question that we struggled with during the discussion.
The direction of travel for games is from highly philosophical early MUDs to fairly simplistic entertainment in the shopping mall.
Could we do better? What is the potential of games for good?
Chris Baraniuk, journalist from Wired and New Scientist starts from Reality is Broken by Jane Gonigal. Her premise is that gamification is good for humans, and we should strive to use it to get us over boring but necessary learning, or to motivate ourselves to achieve more.
He explores the impact of soldiers war-games simulations, the moral dilemmas of killing masses of people during the virtual world war and how that transfers (or not) to the real situation.
Chris notes that we are entirely surrounded by gamification online, including our daily Likes and Shares on social media. The social interaction online is like an ongoing game, where the points are allocated for great content, and deadening silence awards less exciting but sometimes more intimate content.
Snap Chat counting your Snaps and constantly edging you to compete led to the teenage obsession with self-image, an affliction that may with time lead to significant pathologies of perception of self-worth. Facebook gamification is not positive tough as it thrives on anxiety and sense of un-worthiness if the likes do not follow a comment or a picture.
Another alarming development of the type of games-design based on pay-to-win infrastructure, totally against what Richard Bartle and Roy Trubshaw created in their first MUD. In-game payments during the discussion were treated as the ‘devil’s tools’ to take over your soul and we should be wary of them.
Exploring the theme of gamers self-reflection were Seeing-I. Seeing-I is an experiment through which Mark Farid, is gearing up to live for 28 days with an Oculus Rift strapped to his head, living the life of someone else, someone that he does not know personally. He will feed, sleep, drink and shower when the other does, he will live his life as another – but will he retain his sense of self?
“We have grown up with games, assuming games have grown up with us” , except they didn’t, says Mark of Seeing-I. With Augumented Reality technology progressing fast, “the way it is, the division of games and reality is blurring”. We lead lives surrounded by screens and slowly merge the virtual and physical together. The team behind Seeing-I is running a Kickstarter to fund the project and we all should be supporting his pioneering project to scout the virtual and physical new land before we all get there, whether we like it or not, as it is coming and soon.
In summary, it is emerging that the games may need to be regulated more stringently in the same way as gambling, with age-specific content and a lot more transparency to parents than it is provided at the moment.
But with all the caveats, it is clear that games are a fantastic way of connecting us together and in providing a shared cultural experience (see top 100 game quotes on GamesRadar.com if you have any doubt how culturally central to our existence games have become).
Games have a deep educational value, particularly if they are designed with wisdom by wizards aware of the history of the gaming (MUDs award systems and moral experiences of game action outcomes). We leave you with the last quote:
“It’s dangerous to go alone! Take This” – The Legend of Zelda must be talking about the games.
Practice for the future or be prepared to be left behind.
We will continue our Games Season in January, with an event on the Dark Net with Jamie Barlett (Demos) focusing on the underbelly of the Net but also looking at political games and the opportunity for games bring to educate players about surveillance, data protection and excessive government involvement in the private lives of the online users.
MUST SEE: Cybersalon commissioned a special video on Gamergate – exploring the why, what, who of the recent torrent of the gaming world:
- Cybersalon, Open Letter: From the Digital Pioneers to the Digital Natives
- Cybersalon, War is Hell in This War of Mine
- Cybersalon, Vintage Games
- Cybersalon, Cybersalon plays Hotline Miami
- Kickstarter, Seeing-I VR Experiment fund raiser!
- New Statesman, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim used to model the demise of US empire.
- The Creators Blog, An Artist is Turning MC Escher’s ‘Relativity’ Into a Video Game
- All Tech Considered – NPR, Third Graders React To Video Games Tracking Their Play
- Semaeopus Ltd, Off Grid, The Game
- Newsweek, Is GamerGate About Media Ethics or Harassing Women? Harassment, the Data Shows
- BBC, E-Sports takes off in the UK
- CNET, Twitch Plays Pokemon is now a fight for the soul of the internet
- Medium, Why Gamergate Is Actually An Ed-Tech Issue
- Kotaku, A Game About Becoming A Better Person And Claymation Birds
- Yukaichou, Top 10 Gamification Examples That Will Literally Save The World
- Nesta, Using big data to map the UK video games industry
- Guardian, Videogames now outperform Hollywood movies
- Eurogamer, Everything not saved will be lost
- TED Talks, Jane McGonigal – Gaming Can Make A Better World
- Blood Sport Gaming, donating blood through virtual blood loss in war games
- Papers, please, ‘A game of mundane tyranny.’
- Phone Story, Game banned from the Apple Store about the dark side of Smart Phone production
- EVE Online, ‘The Butterly Effect’