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February 2009
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April 2009

Across the Ocean

Mount As you read this, I am either high above the Atlantic, or already across it. I have become so accustomed to this journey that it feels like a perfectly natural part of my life, crossing vast distances a mile or more above the sea. I still gaze from the window of the airplane and at times get to see incredible sights, like the Alps swathed in clouds so that it seems a mere island in a sea of white foam, or the twisted ice sculptures of Greenland's glacial interior, but for the most part international travel has become routine.

I try to counter the tendency to lapse into feelings of mundanity by consciously marvelling at the amazing course of my life so far. Had it not been for the early MUDs, or my work for a role-playing game magazine, I might have remained an astrophysicist and been working on particle colliders at CERN. Instead, I'm running one of the world's leading videogame consultancies and enjoying the strange schizophrenia of contributing to big-budget console titles that go on to sell millions, while simultaneously working on low budget titles, and even some "art house" games with minimal commercial aspirations - all while being constantly mistaken for an academic! And I never cease to marvel that I only ended up setting up my own company because of the love of the woman who has become my wife.

Strive to treasure each day - the highs, the lows, the little victories and the myriad pointless conflicts, and whatever brief glimpses of joy we can attain in the moments when the stress of living and working are thankfully forgotten. We have but a brief heartbeat of the life of this planet to be who we are, and to be with those we love; it is a bittersweet gift, but only if we allow ourselves to be thankful for what we have, instead of lamenting what we do not.

Only a Game returns in April.

Are You The Longest Running Player?

Who has been reading or commenting here on Only a Game the longest? If it's you, you could be the winner of the new Superlative! minigame over on The Minigame Court. Click here and leave a comment staking your claim to enter the competition and you could have your name inscribed on the Virtual Cup along with a victory link.

And if it's not you, you could still win the companion minigame of Prognosticate by predicting who will win. Click here and leave a comment making your prediction and you could have your name inscribed on the Virtual Cup along with a victory link.

Two minigames - two ways to win - head on over to The Minigame Court and give it a go!

Cut off for entries in Superlative! is 1st April 2009. Winner will be determined shortly after this date. I'll notify everyone here on Only a Game when we are resolving the claims so watch this space!

Sheri Graner Ray: Blogger

It's official - a mere three years after I first obsequiously pleaded for Sheri to blog, Sheri now has her own place to rant! The new blog, FEM IRL (female in real life) has been live for a while now, but I've been waiting for Sheri's permission to host her "coming out ball", as if she were a debutante, and not a Texan tiger.

To celebrate this victory for blogkind, over on ihobo I have an interview with Sheri in which we both rant about the rather short-sighted attitude of the videogames industry when it comes to gender and diversity in general. Here's an extract:

The game industry has long been looking for the “silver bullet” that one magic title that all women will play. They thought they had it with the “pink” Barbie games. Then they thought they had it with the Sims games. Currently they think they have it with the “casual” online games. Each of these categories of games has made money, but each time it results in the same thing, the entire market of “women” is re-categorized as one genre... There is no, one monolithic audience called “Women” who all want exactly the same thing in games. It actually is one million markets… each one with its own tastes and wants in entertainment. The only thing these markets share in common is a particular chromosomal make-up! 

Read the complete interview over on ihobo!

Microsoft Homophobia?

I have read a report of a gamer being banned from Xbox Live because she identified as a lesbian. If this is true, it is a serious allegation against Microsoft, and one that could lead to a class action suit or similar legal action by civil rights groups.

Here's an extract from a report of the incident:

Teresa says that she was harassed by other players and later suspended from Xbox Live because she identified herself as a lesbian in her profile. When she appealed to Microsoft, she says they told her that other gamers found her sexual orientation "offensive." Teresa says: "I just recently saw a thing on your site about someone's gamer tag being banned because it had the word gay in the tag. I had a similar incident, only my account was suspended because I had said in my profile that I was a lesbian. I was harassed by several players, 'chased' to different maps/games to get away from their harassment. They followed me into the games and told all the other players to turn me in because they didn't want to see that crap or their kids to see that crap. As if xbox live is really appropriate for kids anyways! My account was suspended and xbox live did nothing to solve this, but instead said others found it offensive.

You can't use as a justification for discrimination that "some people find it offensive" - some people find the existence of non-white people offensive, but we do not kowtow to such bigotry in nations purporting to uphold principles of equality and freedom. If anyone else has been discriminated against by Microsoft for gender, sexuality, ethnicity, culture, religious or non-religious beliefs, please let me know.

Grip: The Biology of Compulsion (ihobo)

Back to back games posts on ihobo this week, starting today a piece on what I term Grip - the compulsion that keeps you playing a game. Here's an extract:

You may have noticed Raph Koster and others linking to a Cambridge University study of the neurobiology of gambling showing that the part of the brain involved in reward – the pleasure centre – lights up when we nearly win, as well as when we win. Interestingly, the researchers report that subjects report this experience negatively, even though the pleasure centre is being stimulated. But of course, even though this may be a negative experience subjectively, most subjects who experienced a “near miss” continued to play on. The researchers note that this behaviour happens in both games of skill and games of chance.

I call this phenomena of compulsion in play Grip, and consider it to be a complimentary behaviour to Csikszentmihalyi's Flow, which I deconstructed in neurobiological terms the other week. If Flow is the constant and steady supply of the “reward protein” dopamine from the pleasure centre associated with a period of intense focus, then Grip occurs as a team-effort between the pleasure centre and the decision centre (orbit-frontal cortex), two parts of the brain that are very closely linked. The decision centre generates rewards (dopamine from the pleasure centre) when we make good decisions, and thus encourages us to learn good strategies and behaviours.

Please head over to the ihobo blog to read the complete post, and to comment.

Quick Thoughts on Recent Games

It's been a while since I've had time to look at demos and the like, but I finally made time this weekend to do so. A few thoughts:

  • There's no doubt the technology behind the Killzone 2 demo is very impressive indeed, as befits a game developed for more than $50 million. It's a great showcase for the PS3's power, but I just don't see how this can shift many units for Sony. It will more than satisfy PS3 owners who play FPS games, and doubtless spark many Killzone 2 vs Halo 3 arguments, but I don't see the undecided players or the Microsoft faithful being swayed by a by-the-numbers FPS, no matter how impressive the tech. Marketing is spending a fortune plugging the game, though.
  • I was rather more impressed personally with the Afro Samurai demo, which was impossibly stylish, making me wonder what Namco-Bandai stumped up to make it... A very bloody and violent game, I can't imagine buying it for myself, but I will certainly play the demo again. One of the nicest constructed demos I've seen.
  • Last week I bought thatgamecompany's newest creation Flower (a PS3 exclusive), but I didn't get to play it until this week. I was really impressed with the beauty and ease of play of the game, and agree with Patrick Dugan's comment that it could be more profitable than Gears of War (bearing in mind, of course, that profitability is a ratio in respect of the development cost). Still, I'm sad because this game means making my own similar project Eden is now a complete waste of time! However, Jenova and his team have done more with Flower than I ever could have done with my own project - bravo!
  • And at a completely different end of the developmental budget scale, I loved Mory Buckman's newest "artlet" entitled The Perfect Color. You can read the notification concerning the game at Mory's blog, or download the game for PC, which is free. I'm reluctant to say anything as it's a strange and wonderful thing that had me both bamboozled and entertained in equal measure (the little people are great fun to mess with!). If you enjoy "art house" games, you should definitely check this out.
  • And I'm being told I must check out Miner Dig Deep, an XNA community game on the Xbox 360, so I will do that as soon as I have a moment. Update: I had a look at this last night, and was thoroughly entertained by its simple, yet compelling play. Wish this was available for my iphone!

Off to the States for a month on Friday, so this week should be the last blogging week until April. See you in the comments!