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Colm's Blog

Full of games, programming and overblown opinions

What is Art? Wikipedia tells me “Art is the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects one or more of the senses, emotions, and intellect”. This seems to be the ‘modern’ definition of Art. However in only a few lines this statement is made “Traditionally, the term art was used to refer to any skill or mastery”.
What happened? When did art become this?

What puropose does art serve if it gives no enjoyment in both the sense of a benefit and deriving pleasure. That picture above is neither intellectually stimulating nor is it enjoyable. This can only be described as a real life instance of what is referred on the internet as trolling.

Now to my point, if that above is considered art then why is this not?

What does that pathetic piece of ‘art’ above that is so much greater than Flower could have? I believe that the idea of art has truly been forgotten in modern times and is just being used as an excuse to put forward the most insane idea that the “artist” can come up with and make a claim that they are pushing boundries. What is the purpose of a message if you have to explain it to people, if they cannot derive it from what you resent.
As Lewis Carroll once wrote “Why is a raven like a writing desk”, he never intended that it have an answer however people think it does and strive to work it out. In todays understanding of art this may be considered groundbreaking and new. People will see it as meaning something even though it was never truly a question. The only way I can classify these examples of art is as a social experiment similar to the Milgram Experiment [see the variations using puppies for my true interpretation]. This is the only purpose I see it serving.

I’m not saying that all modern art is useless, there have been some very nice examples of it where maybe a pile of junk makes a shadow model when light is cast on it at a certain angle. However for every example of this there are examples of pointless conceptual art.

This may seem a very harsh interpretation of Art but as I see it if Art cannot do what it says it does or what it sets out to do then what is the purpose of it?

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What is Gamification. According to Wikipedia it is “the use of game play mechanics [Popkin, Helen (June 1, 2010). “FarmVille invades the real world”. MSNBC] for non-game consumer technology applications”. This really seems to simplify again as clear and immediate feedback and obvious goals.  This is particularly evident in a lot of modern websites that are trying to gain a large base or trying to convince their users that they want to do some function on the site.
This can benefit the website if used correctly but randomly throwing these elements into a site or even product promotion can severely harm the item in question. It has worked for many years on forums as people gain ranks depending on how many posts they have made as well as Karma style points and systems that the person must be smart about their posts to gain Karma as well as racking up the posts they make.  I have one personal experience of where gamification doesn’t quite fit and one where it does work quite well.

LinkedIn

Recently I was on my LinkedIn account when something on the right caught my attention. It was a progress bar. This initially didn’t make me want to do anything however as time went on the incompleteness of this bar began to bug me a bit. I promptly logged out.
The progress bar was being used to help me finish my account on this professional website however it annoyed me more than it made me want to complete the profile. The website is used to keep track of connections that you have made in business or your career. This lends a certain air to what the website feels like, its design is minimal which further enforces this and then suddenly progress bars. Something doesn’t quite fit about it, I think in its place a checklist would have fit the tone better.
Simply adding this function to the website made it more annoying to use because filling up the bar would mean doing tasks that I did not want to do just yet, it was at odds with my agenda for the website. I felt like I was being told, in a rather amusing internet terms,“You’re doing it wrong”. This was quite an off-putting thing so I felt it was better if I just left it till later.

Cars

So if you have ever noticed most cars have a little light that tells you when you’re driving economically and saving fuel. This has in recent times become more advanced with certain cars employing a little green leaf that will get larger or smaller depending on how economically you’re driving. This can be extremely satisfying, I know when I drive I challenge myself to get to my destination as quickly as possible (within legal limits) as well as economically as possible.
If I manage to do so I feel good, I get a little undeclared reward as well as saving fuel without being really slow. This could be improved with a little research and application testing however there are examples here of how certain elements work better than others for example BMW apparently had a function built into their in-built GPS unit that would send the route you were on to a website and how efficiently you were driving it. This seemed like a good idea at first since it would encourage people to be as fuel-efficient as possible over any given route. This however later turned out to be disastrous as people started to run red lights so they wouldn’t have to brake and lower their efficiency.

TL;DR a.k.a Summary

In summation Gamification has it’s place however it must be used sparingly and it must be applied with a little common sense and intelligence. It must be used in the correct style for the context surrounding it. I will leave you with a video of Jesse Schell talking about how Gamification can be used to improve interactions if done right.

http://g4tv.com/lv3/44277

Gaming Communities

Gaming communities have existed for a long time even before the internet became a veritable breeding ground for them. While it’s likely when you think of game communities you think of World of Warcraft (WoW) and Counter Strike among some of the other large communities but gaming communities have existed in the physical world or IRL in the form of Dungeons and Dragons (D&D) communities and chess clubs.
These sort of communities have existed for a long time for example Chinese chess or Xiangqi has been played for centuries and probably had a community that used it, albeit functionally at the time. This later evolved into a past time with its own community and dare I say culture.

However even if these communities existed for a long time communication between them was probably quite limited as they often weren’t formalised with the exception of games like chess which was considered to be a highly intellectual game that was acceptable for people to play widely (if you can).

Then there was the internet.

With the advent of the internet came an explosion in the size and (perceived) number of game communities. They became so large they began to become prominent cultures in themselves developing their own vocabularies and strategies/behaviours.
I’m not saying that the explosion of online game communities is a good or bad thing but it did make the whole experience of gaming more interesting for a lot of people taking part in them. For example a WoW gamer could find a group of people looking to do the same quest as them on community forums or message boards that are specifically made for that purpose.

Taking part in these communities

The way you interact with these communities and what you get out of them really depends on you. For example in the few MMORPG’s that I have played I have gone solo all the time only recruiting those that I needed to complete specific missions in them. I never joined guilds, clans or groups while playing numerous online games. I tended to invite friends I had in real life to play along with every time I played or I kept my interactions with the people there minimal and mostly formal in terms of the game.
However there are thriving communities within these games that is quite influential as they have in themselves come up with different game types, stories and systems to play the game. An example of this was in Everquest there was a points system implemented by the community out of game that let them barter for the 2-3 good items that the major kills within the game dropped. A further description of it can be seen about 12 minutes into this video detailing 7 ways that games reward the brain.

2 examples of developers making new games from these already existing games are Halo and League of Legends.

Halo

Currently there is a game type within the multiplayer games in the Halo games called Infection. This is an adaption of an honor based rule system made by players that they called Zombies. It was initially played thusly:

  1. There were 2 unbalanced teams (1 on the first and everyone else was on the other)
  2. The “Humans” started off with shotguns and the “Zombies” began with energy swords (near instant killing weapons)
  3. When a human was killed by a zombie they switched teams and became a Zombie.
  4. The aim was to be a survivor by the end of the game.

It was a relatively simple game but was immensely fun and so the rules were formalised by the development team of the game and so became a main game mode.

League of Legends

This began it’s life as a player developed mod for the game Warcraft 3 called DoTA Allstars. The object was that there are 2 bases and you had to try to take out your opponents base. Simple strategy.
The resources you had were as follows:

  • Minions created by your base,
  • Towers along the 3 routes to your opponents base,
  • Your Champion.

With these you had to develop strategies based upon your champions and your opponents strengths and abilities. These pretty much dictated where you would send your minions, what equipment you would buy and how you would attack your opponents base.
After a while this became incredibly popular and has now help the development team develop their own game as their franchise.

These communities are powerful to say the least and this is mainly just game communities. There are many more that exist outside games for many different reasons including some malicious ones for example a group that call themselves Anonymous. This is a very fluid, dynamic group composed of internet tricksters with a lot of technical knowledge. Their catch phrase is “For the lulz”. Fortunately they mainly keep to themselves unless you annoy them.
These communities whether they be online or in real life are usually quite influential on those in them and can be very hard to gain access to depending on the size of the community and the traditions that they follow and how strictly they follow them.

What makes the prisoners dilemma such a good example of game theory? Well according to Wikipedia it “demonstrates why two people might not cooperate even if it is in both their best interests to do so”. The situation is as follows

  1. There are 2 prisoners that have committed a crime.
  2. There is not enough evidence to convict either of them.
  3. They are kept in separate rooms and asked to defect (provide evidence of the others crime).

So if they co-operate with each other without being able to communicate they have minor punishments but nothing major. The table below demonstrates the actual results of their actions.

Co-operate Defect
Co-operate P1:5 months, P2:5 months P1:10 years, P2:Free
Defect P1:Free, P2:10 years P1:5 years, P2:5 years

So it’s pretty obvious that it suits both players best to co-operate as it minimises the time both have to spend in prison overall. However frequently people do not chose this as it is a greater risk because we know we might co-operate but the other person surely won’t therefore we won’t either. Defecting carries the lowest risk for the greatest reward as if you co-operate you spend twice as long in there if they defect than if you co-operate. It’s a horrible little problem to think about.

So why do we do it? My answer to you is thusly “I dunno, ask a psychologist”. However I believe that we always want the greatest reward for the least risk and we will always look out for number 1 first. So we are a race of selfish cowards as such, but hey, it’s helped us so far.

What is culture? Culture as far as I have ever known it has been a collection of beliefs, habits and attitudes held by a group of people whether they be local or scattered. One can belong to several different cultures all at once, however as far as I can see it is impossible to be separated from culture completely, as it is said “No man is an island”. While the phrase was never meant about people in cultures it fits this situation as well rather appropriately.

Now the definition I have always held can be generalised to a series of learned behaviours. The website below has some very good information on culture and I quite agree with the authors opinions.

http://anthro.palomar.edu/culture/culture_1.htm

However since I am not a sociology or psychology student or researcher I have no real basis in the terms and techniques for adequately summing up what culture is. Instead I shall deal with my opinions and experiences of culture.

As it is Culture has 2 meanings. One is related to “bring cultured” which is being familiar and frequently take part in enjoying forms of art such as poetry, classical music and art. However some other forms of art that does not fit the “traditional” forms of art, such as the art of movement or video games, are not considered in this “being cultured” paradigm.
However this way of thinking does have it’s place, as it was said by Andre Malraux  “Culture is the sum of all the forms of art, of love, and of thought, which, in the coarse or centuries, have enabled man to be less enslaved”. It’s a nice way of thinking about it.

However I think the big Culture issue is not the “being cultured” one but the series of learned behaviours. These cultures change and adapt, even if it is to become more entrenched, or they die as demonstrated by the quote in the title from a little known philosopher called Mahatma Gandhi. Cultures can define our prejudices, our likes and dislikes and overall help shape who we are. A person can be part of many cultures simultaneously. I have experienced many polarised cultures such as the restrictive Middle Eastern culture and the free(ish) Western Cultures. The more I experience the less I find I tie myself to any particular culture.
I really have no more insights into what culture is or how I can define it, not that I really have. It is a fluid and difficult thing to pin down and I don’t see any real gain from understanding what it exactly is but to paraphrase Potter Stewart on pornography “I cannot define it but I know it when I see it” which is exactly how I feel about culture.

Before I begin my little rant today I would first like to draw attention to quite an in-depth research done into video games and violence. This study was conducted by the co-founders of the Center for Mental Health and Media in America. The book is called Grand Theft Childhood. It deals with the myths about video games where they are truly linked to violence as well as long-term effects on children. The Myths section can be found here.
The authors credential as well as research papers can be found on this site as well.

To perhaps read this as it truly is mean to be read you might want to tack on “In my humble opinion…” to the start of most paragraphs or sentences.

War has been a fascination of humans for many a year now, I would imagine it really began as the territorial disputes that we would have taken part in when we were lower down our evolutionary tree (or higher up if you’re a computer scientist and like using upside down trees). When we started to think as a society more similar to the one we have today we realised that if we moved and attacked in a certain way we gained the upper hand. Then they realised it too. We kept competing to be the best at this organised movement. We developed different methods of moving around different terrain and we kept looking at flaws in enemies patterns. This later would become strategies, we learned as well that if we kept our troops in a certain mood we gained a bit more of an edge in taking down out opponents. We developed tools and techniques to be more efficient as we evolved. We started doing unexpected things that they were not prepared for and so we expanded our “game”.
If you were paying attention to the above paragraph you may realise the amazing similarities to video games and even just games in general. This is because war is really just a game, albeit a violent and mostly unnecessary game it is still a game. We define the rules and sometimes break them. When we break them the rest gang up to reinforce them. We define our strategies by how much we can gain and how little we need to sacrifice for it. As our society has grown we have strived to eliminate this game as, to put it simply, it is bad for our health despite producing some of the most impressive examples of human fitness. So as an alternative to actually killing each other we have created these simulations where, for the most part, we are safe and secure in the knowledge that we will not actually kill or severely harm another.
We strive to make these simulations more realistic and accurate while still keeping it safe. For the adrenaline rush we created paintball, for the strategy we developed tabletop war games and RTS games and for the pure experience we created the FPS genre. We will vent our need to war on each other through these new mediums while also taking into account what we are truly doing for example RPG’s (Role Playing Games) such as Dark Heresy a Warhammer 40,000 table top game pits you and friends as a team against a universe and story that is harsh and unforgiving. However you still need to navigate political pitfalls and create alliances properly to survive in this place. Unless you become all powerful which will never happen in context.

Firstly I would like to point out that while our fear of violent video games causing violence is at an all time high the actual connection is very weak, so weak that it almost looks like violent video games are reducing violent crime. I shall demonstrate this through an image that I found in another blog though I unfortunately find the original source of the chart but perhaps it is linked through Paul Spoerry’s blog the image is as follows.

Violent video games will be the end of civilisation!!!

While it may not be amazingly clear I think you get the idea.

Now we come to the issue of how easy it is to get these violent video games into the hands of children. I mean we have no standards rating ages for these games that is supposed to be used as a yard stick for the discerning adults to buys these games by and determining which ones they will allow their kids to play. I mean in the following the video that I will link you will plainly see that these pesky violent video games reside in your home and no matter what you do you cannot get rid of them. I mean if only you could decide which games you wanted around that were suitable for your kids if you have them, it would be a whole better system. The console manufacturers and government should come up with a system to help with this.

http://www.mefeedia.com/watch/29821183

This kind of discussion frequently bugs me as the anti-violent video game people will constantly provide junk research and ignore the scientifically defendable material, not that I should really speak.

I think that I have really gone a little far on the point that violent video games are not incredibly harmful if properly regulated, not censored, and if people use discretion and that altogether too uncommon thing common sense.
Now time to move onto the defense of the content of these games. We have over many years realised that war or violent conflict is a great way to create a story, most myths and legends are about how a hero defeated the evil villan of the story in some sort of violent conflict. Also there are many films and books about war. How can we say these are any more harmful really than video games. While games are still interactive all mediums will desensitise us to violence especially the more visual ones however video games will make us live with our consequences made in the game so we know what will happen and what we will have to live with after. A movie will never do that, we do not get emotionally invested in the hero from their perspective, we cannot truly know.

That last point had to be succinct as I seem to have built a wall of text. I will probably revisit this topic again several times breaking it down into the constituent sections.
So in closing I will quote quite a violent film “I’ll be back…”

Video games have long had the potential to be used for learning but for the most part have been badly abused when it came to using them to this purpose. I’m sure there are many scientific and empirical reasons as to why these fail for the most part to be effective but since I am no researcher I am not going to try to assemble a logical and flowing argument by gathering evidence and research from legitimate sources to do so. I will of course throw my opinion around and use previous experience and gut feelings.

First I will begin with my experience of learning games from my youth and what I or someone I know has learned from games in general. Some of the games that I remember fondly as a child and sometimes still play are Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis and of course Maths Blaster.
These games focused on different areas of learning or rather subjects as opposed to learning. Carmen Sandiego spent a lot of time teaching (specifically) me to use partial information to create a complete piece of information that was useful. The information wasn’t always obvious not only in relation to the places in the world where people are referring but also in how they would describe a person. This game expanded vocabulary incidentally while directly making the player learn geography.
Math’s Blaster was a game that focused on math based skills. This was a relatively simple game that focused on the skills of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Basic mathematics principles that were combined with traditional gameplay mechanics of the time made this game fun to play. A later iteration of this game almost missed this as they dispensed with combining the shooting with the calculation, they gave you the chance to shoot objects and recharge by doing a series of calculations. This detachment of the 2 elements made it a little less instinctual. While it gave the player more time it brought more attention to the maths part of it and essentially told the player that they are doing maths here and playing the game here. However the game later reverted to its roots and was still fun overall.

Where educational games design becomes hard is when you move away from pure facts. Carmen Sandiego while being inventive in the way it delivered it still relied on “teaching” pure facts. However one game in my humble opinion did quite an admirable effort to impart the less factual skill of logic. The Logical Journey of the Zoombinis was an amazingly fun game when I was 7 and still is enjoyable but is a bit trivial now as I have developed the skill more completely. While the mechanics of this game was not very similar to action styled games of the time like Math Blaster it’s content was not so focused upon in schools so I was interested in doing it because it was not dominating my schoolwork as well (not that I didn’t do schoolwork for fun, I was strange like that). It not only taught the ability to puzzle solve it also taught how to think ahead when you could store some of your troop for later use as well as well as risk assessment and the ability to compromise.

My opinion on modern educational games though is that they are getting less effective by spamming the player with information and rewarding them with gameplay. While this might work it isn’t a particularly fun way of playing and I’ll be honest I can imagine that the player will more often not try and to switch to a pure gameplay based game because thats why they chose to play.
For example Math Blaster made you chose your target by the number associated with it instead of, as an example, colours. It’s merely an attribute to pick out the correct target and why should it be used any differently from colour, sound or shape. I think that the designers may be thinking that the skill trying to be taught must be brought to the fore to be learned properly while I would imagine it becomes more effective when the player does it unconciously.
This is all just my opinion and could be radical and completely wrong but I have a right to it even if it’s wrong. It will never become scientific literature and so I have no qualms about spewing it.

The one interesting point is that all of these games are for children and there seems to be a lack of games aimed for the adult market as it seems to be much harder to teach non-concrete items. Facts are easy skills are hard. There must be a way around this and it is a topic I have frequently thought about.
I will later write the second part to this opinionated argument which will deal with my opinions on the flaws of the current era of design of educational games however I shall end this meandering article and debate with yself how to make these articles more scientific and funny.