September 18, 2006

Computer Game Curricula

Last summer an email from Jim Whitehead kicked off an interesting GTxA thread on teaching computer games. Since then, Jim has taught his Foundations of Interactive Game Design and helped launch the new undergraduate degree in computer game design at UC Santa Cruz (where they’ve also recently hired GTxA’s own Michael). I’ve also recently put together a draft of the syllabus for my Fall graduate seminar in computer game studies, where I tried to put into practice some of my thoughts from the conversation we had here last summer.

Recently, in an email exchange with Jim, he and I started talking more concretely about a problem that also came up in our earlier theoretical discussions: getting students access to games. We can’t do what people do with the last generation of “new media” (film and video). We can’t do group showings, because students need to experience the games individually and in small groups. We can’t send students to the library media center, because libraries may be set up for individual experiences of laserdisks, but not game disks.

Hypertextual Excitement on DVD Menus

from Grand Text Auto
by @ 12:14 pm

Memento Flash/HTML/DVD menu thing

Watching Memento again on DVD, I was fascinated to find that the hypertextual police file on the Memento Web site was available not only in Flash and HTML versions, but also on the DVD as a feature. It’s perhaps more interesting as a preliminary set of clues and enticements than an after-movie treat, and doesn’t register as a major 21st century new media effort, but it’s interesting to see that even the non-special-edition DVD that I rented harbored this hypertext.

September 17, 2006

TADS 3 Released

from Grand Text Auto
by @ 10:12 pm

TADS Mike Roberts, who released the original version of TADS: The Text Adventure Development System way back in 1987, posted a wonderful announcement on Friday:

I’m pleased to announce the first TADS 3 General Release, and also a TADS 2 maintenance update.

As long-time raif [] readers know, TADS 3 has been in “beta” for quite some time. Well, we’re finally declaring it ready. The official release version is available immediately from (see below), and has been uploaded to the IF Archive …

This release includes a bundle of documentation, organized into several (virtual) books: Eric Eve’s Getting Started in TADS 3, a tutorial introduction; Eric’s TADS 3 Tour Guide, an in-depth survey of the library, with practical examples of how to use most of the classes; the System Manual, a reference covering the language, run-time system, and compiler and other tools; the Technical Manual, a collection of mostly task-oriented “how to” articles that go into depth on topics of interest to many authors; and the Library Reference Manual, with details on virtually everything in the library and extensive cross-references.

McGonigal Lauded for Technical Innovation

from Grand Text Auto
by @ 7:45 pm

Congratulations to alternate reality gamemaker Dr. Jane McGonigal, who was recently selected as one of the Technology Review 35, a list of innovators under age 35. The Tech Review article about her is online, but the Web version lacks the magazine’s full-page photo-assemblage, done by Polly Becker and showing McGonigal as a marionette in a canister of game apparatus and circuitry.

September 16, 2006

Beall Center Calls for Proposals

The Beall Center for Art and Technology at UC Irvine is a dedicated exhibition space — as well as a producing institution — for art and technology projects. They’ve had exciting game-focused exhibitions, interactive narrative installations, and much more. They’re currently calling for exhibition proposals for 2007-08. The deadline is October 20, and more details follow.

September 15, 2006

Jobs at Georgia Tech and UC Davis

The job ads are coming thick this time of year. Particularly promising ones have just been posted by Georgia Tech (review begins October 15) and UC Davis (review begins November 15).

The Virtual

from Grand Text Auto
by @ 11:19 am

Hi, I’m @ The Virtual 2006 on Rosenön, an island in the archipelago of Haninge, south of Stockholm. Lisbeth Klastrup and I just ran a workshop called “Using the Critical Play Framework: Values in Experience Design” at the conference. The material emerged from my most recent collaborative project concerning values and game design, just funded in the Science of Design program at NSF (hurray!). Most of the conference is focused on developing user experiences; our workshop task was for teams to design a game to get off the island; for the design stage, we assigned the four teams to do their game design with particular human values in mind.

September 14, 2006

Rezvolution / Wiinesthesia?

from Grand Text Auto
by @ 1:13 pm

Confirmed: The Nintendo Wii will arrive in the U.S. November 19, priced just under $250, with Wii Sports and one primary and one secondary controller bundled. (A typical package at a low price, but I wonder: If it’s really for “we,” why not include two controllers of the same type to make the system ready for two-player gaming?) Thirty titles are to be available at launch time.

Rez and Wii? Pure rumor that apparently originated in Electronic Gaming Monthly, but which I can’t resist propagating: A Rez sequel or Rez-like game is in development for the Wii by Tetsuya Mizuguchi. You can read a discussion of Rez in McKenzie Wark’s GAM3R 7H30RY and see the trailer for Rez on YouTube.

September 13, 2006

The Story of Meehan’s Tale-Spin

Most discussions of story generation begin by considering James Meehan’s Tale-Spin (1976) — and deservedly so. Meehan’s project made the leap from assembling stories out of pre-defined bits (like the pages of a Choose Your Own Adventure book) to generating stories via carefully-crafted processes that operate at a fine level on story data. In Tale-Spin‘s case, the processes simulate character reasoning and behavior, while the data defines a virtual world inhabited by the characters. As a result, while altering one page of a Choose Your Own Adventure leaves most of its story material unchanged, altering one behavior rule or fact about the world can lead to wildly different Tale-Spin fictions.

There are two publications that already do a good job of telling us about Tale-Spin: Meehan’s dissertation (The Metanovel: Writing Stories by Computer, 1976) and a chapter in Inside Computer Understanding: Five Programs Plus Miniatures, 1981 (edited by Roger Schank and Christopher Riesbeck). But these sources don’t tell us much about Tale-Spin‘s story. Reading these publications we don’t learn many behind-the-scenes details about Tale-Spin‘s development, or get much sense of the process of Meehan’s work on it.

So, with help from his former student Walt Scacchi, I recently got in touch with Meehan. Now at Google, he was willing to take the time to write up a short narrative of Tale-Spin‘s development. The result was so good that I asked him if I could post it here for the wider GTxA readership, and he kindly agreed. He wrote:

Roger Schank arrived at Yale in the fall of 1974 as a charismatic hot-shot in natural language processing, pushing the idea that everything you know about language is wrong (more or less). Language was not essentially about grammar and other formalisms; language was intertwined with cognition. If I don’t understand what you’re talking about, it doesn’t matter whether I recognize the structure of your sentences. Moreover, if I do understand what you’re talking about, it doesn’t matter whether your sentences are well-formed.

September 12, 2006

Jackson’s Rad Half Life

from Grand Text Auto
by @ 5:29 pm

Half Life... book coverA Review of Half Life: A Novel
Shelley Jackson
HarperCollins Publishers
440 pp.

Shelley Jackson puts on a very intriguing and fetching hat or two to write of a conjoined twin in her novel Half Life. Narrator Nora Olney shares much of her spine and all of her limbs with Blanche, who has been slumbering for a decade and a half; these two share their status as a “twofer” with quite a few others in a more radioactive but otherwise similar alternative world. The narrative, which incorporates clippings and lists and has the circuitous wobble of Tristram Shandy, matches its jaded tone to events that are sometimes outrageous, sometimes perfectly true to the typical American experience, and sometimes both. While it takes a while to narrate the conception and birth of Nora and Blanche, the novel is given its impetus by the document that is included first: Nora’s authorization to undergo “The Divorce” and to become an ordinary “singleton” by having Blanche surgically, and fatally, removed.

Perhaps surprisingly, given the overt bodily obsessions and explorations that permeate Half Life (and Jackson’s earlier work – her hypertext Patchwork Girl; her short story collection The Melancholy of Anatomy; her story “Skin,” tattooed on volunteers), it is the spaces and structures of this novel that seem most remarkably compelling and vivid. While the play of the body, Nora’s quest, and her relationship with other characters work well, the landscapes, cities, and towns (along with an intricate and intimate dollhouse) seem to out-strange even the physiognomy of the protagonist. The addition of a twofer scene to San Francisco and London splits these cities from themselves in an uncanny way. Also intriguing are a small Nevada town, Grady, and a nearby place, Too Bad, that hovers on the edge of ghost status, not to mention the desert plot called Penitence with its curious purpose.

Half Life is a deft and deep work; the narrator’s understated, Victorian pen is, oddly, perfectly apt for what is at the core of this book – not sinistrality, politics, or philosophy, which are all certainly to be found among the many layers, but a sense of wonder at human life and the world. Plus, there is a conversation about squid, inadvertent marmite-throwing, and a complete textual delivery of the interrupting cow knock-knock joke.

But it is with more than one twinge that I read Half Life, for I recognized the mapping that Jackson had in mind for her roman à clef. Twofers congregate in San Francisco, where they have film festivals and seek to foster acceptance of their culture. When Nora seeks a clinic for her twin-severing procedure, protesters bar the way and threaten her safety. Important distinctions are found between twofer “pre-ops” and singleton “post-ops.” At the risk of belaboring the obvious, I will unfold the most important correspondences that are intended by the author: Twofers represent authors of electronic literature while singletons signify traditional print authors. Thus, Nora’s quest for “The Divorce” is the story of Shelley Jackson’s forsaking the computer for the book.

September 7, 2006

Two E3 Fantasies

from Grand Text Auto
by @ 10:42 pm
Noah fantasizes America's Army

We can look at games as fantasies. When I play a game I operate in a world in which I have abilities far removed from those in my daily life — whether I’m making gravity-defying maneuvers to slice through sand monsters in Prince of Persia: Sands of Time or making executive urban planning decisions in SimCity, the game lets me act like someone I’m not.

So one question for the game industry is: “Who do gamers want to be?” Tim Schafer points to this as part of the problem that Psychonauts had in the marketplace. Did gamers want the fantasy of being 10-year-old boys?

Most games don’t take such risks, and offer variations on the fantasy of being a gun/sword/spell-toting tough guy. So the question becomes how to present that fantasy. What’s the most effective way of getting gamers to imagine the experience of playing the game will be a good fantasy of this sort? Obviously, it’s not the only question — Psychonauts had good word of mouth both about its fantasy and about its gameplay — but it’s a key question.

This year, at E3, I got to see two organizations with access to exceptional resources offer spectacular answers to this question.

September 2, 2006

Semiotic Disobedience

from Grand Text Auto
by @ 11:42 pm

Disobey The quirky weekly “Consumed” column in the NYTimes Sunday magazine this week focuses on Ian Bogost / Persuasive Games’ Disaffected!, as well as Molleindustria’s McDonald’s Videogame, both blogged previously on GTxA (1 2). From the article:

Skepticism about, and mockery of, the claims of commercial persuasion has a long history. And “Disaffected!” shows how the sophistication, goals and tactics of both admakers and anti-admakers have escalated in tandem. It can also be seen as an example of what Sonia Katyal, a Fordham University law professor, calls “semiotic disobedience” in an article to be published this fall in the Washington University Law Review.

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