Thursday, March 29, 2007

Tasting Menu

Living Game Worlds III presented a number of game-based or VR projects that involved public policy issues, sometimes in rapid-fire succession.

Keynote speaker Katie Salen of Parsons discussed how competing stakeholders shape the design process of games and how authenticity may often be more important than accuracy when it comes to correspondences with the real world. Given the subject matter of this paper that I will be presented in Delft in two months, I particularly enjoyed hearing about the user testing of Hazmat Hotzone in which players wanted to try out all the mayhem possible in the simulation. Although war games, such as those developed by the Rand Corporation and explicated in classic papers like "War Gaming as a Technique of Analysis," her discussion of the relationship of simulations to lived experience also included dynamic models to understand economic systems, such as the representationally primitive but emergently rich Sugarscape. (For more on how economic distribution can be explained in digital new media, see these non-interactive YouTube videos on the Information Aesthetics blog.)

The other keynote speaker, Tracy Fullerton, gave a talk about "core mechanics" that govern in-game movement, buying and selling, combat, and the scoring of points. Fullerton argued that games like checkers and chess express ideologies about fairness, rationality, the value of strategy, and the importance of strength in numbers, while modern strategy games assume that chance plays a greater role, particularly when information is hidden, multiple players are in the mix, and the etiquette of turn-taking is jettisoned. She argued that "serious games" are not a real game genre because they have no common core mechanic. She drove home this point with the following similarly designed pairs: September 12/Missile Command, Ayiti/The Sims, and Darfur is Dying/Sim City. By way of contrast, Fullerton discussed her work with renowned video artist Bill Viola on the spiritual game The Night Journey, which she nonetheless admits has certain distinctive features of a first-person shooter. As an admirer of Viola's work, I am looking forward to exploring the archetypal landscapes, which include places of infinity (desert and sea) and sites of mystery (mountains and forest). Of course, because of her intergenerational appeal, I've recommended Fullerton's work before, in my 10 Principles for the Digital Family, which is being disseminated now at some PTA chapters as an alternative to the fear and loathing being promulgated by policy makers and anti-media social conservatives.

Rhetoricians were well-represented in the audience. Risk communication expert Rebecca Burnett was there, as was early adopter and YouTube video star, "re-mediation" scholar Jay David Bolter.

The whole conference was streamed both in conventional video format and into the online virtual world, Second Life, but I'll include some highlights from the panels here.

"Playing with Reality: Defining Documentary and Nonfiction Games" featured Ellen Scott explaining the mission of Games for Change and Cindy Poremba unveiling a wiki for researchers who are interested in how documentary games, such as Eyewitness or Brothers in Arms exemplify a post-photography or post-documentary aesthetic of witnessing.

I presented a portion of my paper about debate within the game development community about working for war-funded projects such as Tactical Iraqi on the "Playing with Perspectives: War, Peace & News Panel." After introducing her presentation with the new JibJab video "What We Call the News," fellow panelist Janet Murray discussed the work of her experimental television group in creating new prototypes for how the news could be watched by critical information consumers. This panel included a trailer for Global Conflicts Palestine, which similarly presented news as a compositional assemblage, although creator Nick Price was unable to attend the conference. I was particularly interested to hear Jackie Morie's account of the recreation of Iraqi villages by Fort Irwin, where Iraqi Americans live in boxcars in the desert and stage emergent behaviors such as riots, and how her research group -- as a more cost effective alternative -- has created a virtual Iraqi village in Second Life.

Another panel, which included an abashed Slamdance alternative videogame festival organizer Sam Roberts, performed a postmortem on the controversy over the exclusion of onetime finalist Super Columbine Massacre RPG from the competition.

In the "Playing with History Panel" Matthew Weise talked about the "genre wrangling" that occurred when the MIT Education Arcade created the historical learning game Revolution from the commercial game engine for Neverwinter Nights. Weise also discussed how the viral spread of news was modeled by nonplaying characters in the game, how authenticity had to be sacrificed because characters couldn't remove hats indoors, and how the scantily clad original virtual women needed to be CGI clothed in keeping with the decorum of colonial Williamsburg. Another revolution, albeit a failed one, is dramatized in the game FF 56: Fight for Your Freedom, which commemorates the Hungarian uprising against the Stalinist Soviet regime that had occupied the country. Andrea Lauer Rice, a descendant of actual freedom fighters, explains how the bilingual game negotiates movement through a tumultuous city in which players choose between going to the radio station where the first shots were fired or heading to where a statue of Stalin was toppled. Of course, certain problems of representation invariably are manifested by such games, such as how to depict the historical lynching of secret police.

From my work on the rhetoric of social marketing, I was familiar with several of the products on the "Playing with Health & the Environment" panel, but there were still some interesting revelations about government-funded games and simulations. I enjoyed hearing about the work of my colleague Bill Tomlinson with the Eco-Raft project for teaching children about ecological interdependence. Tomlinson is also developing "green scanners" for mobile phones, which can be used to get more data about supermarket goods, or tracking devices on e-waste. The crowd favorite, however, may have been the discussion of the virtual reality cannabis party (complete with brownies and pizza) by Ken Graap of Virtual Better, which included a USB scent device to make the audio and projection through a head-mounted display even more compelling. On this panel Erin Edgerton of the Centers for Disease control discussed their Why-Flu program with the kid-centric virtual world Edgerton also alluded to other new media projects in their health marketing portfolio. Dorothy Strickland also gave a demo of her boundary-teaching game for children with developmental disabilities. For more on the ideology of health games from this blog go here, here, here, and here.

After a good presentation by Michael Nitsche on "Machinima Documentaries" such as the Paul Smith Battle, built with America's Army, or the much lauded "The French Democracy," the last content-oriented session before the final reflections was on "Playing with Power: Games of the Repressed," which presented Ayiti: The Cost of Life from Global Kids (which online comes complete with MySpace page) and Darfur is Dying.

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