Updating the Bechdel Test for video games

If you are not familiar with the Bechdel Test, it is a simple test to apply to films; (i) there must be at least two women in it, (ii) who talk to each other, (iii) about something besides a man.

Many films still fail this test, though it was made popular back in 1985. The test only goes as far to look at the visibility of women in film, and to examine that they are defined by more than their relationship to a man. It doesn’t examine how the women are portrayed and a film that passes the test may in no way be a feminist film. It’s simplicity is both it’s strength and it’s weakness.

I’m interested in how this could be applied to the context of video games. But in order for it to work I think there needs to be some changes. So here is my version:

(i)There must be a female character with whom you can interact, (ii) who doesn’t need rescuing, (iii) and isn’t a prostitute.

Such a test comes with the assumption that there are gendered characters within the game. Some games, such as Flow or Space Invaders, do not have any characters of gender.

Samus Aran from Metroid

Samus Aran from Metroid by Ivan Flores

Conversation vs. Interaction

In film, the story is conveyed to a passive audience primarily through the dialogue of the cast. But in gaming, the game is defined by interactions that the player controls. Whether it is shooting, fighting, flying, walking or talking, different games draw on different actions, but it is the the player that performs these actions.

So in creating a test suitable for video games, I am less concerned about women talking to each other, but rather the actions performed to, with or by them. As it’s through these actions that we experience the game. Read More

GameCity 6

Another amazing GameCity, we are in year six now and I’ve attended every year in some form or other. Each year the festival grows and develops in new and interesting ways and this year was no exception. There is no other event like this one, it offers a unique experience to explore and celebrate games, playing, art and their cultural significance. As such it draws a diverse audience from all over and it is these amazing people that really make GameCity the highlight of my year.

So here are some of my highlights and feelings about this year:

Journey and Robin Hunicke

Robin Hunicke presents the development of Journey at GameCity

One of the most profound moments in GameCity history was when Robin played Flower in the arcade behind the Council House, then her talk on creative minds in the same year inspired this blog post. So I was elated to hear she was joining us again this year to play Journey, the latest game from That Game Company.

This year we had beanbags in preparation, with the addition of consoles set up around the tent to play along. Given the collaborative nature of Journey this seemed a great idea and was a natural progression from observer to participant.

Beforehand Robin spoke of the process of creating a game that allowed and encouraged co-operative play, and how to encourage the desired behaviour, instead of griefing and competitive play, so often found online. I always enjoy this insight into the design of the user experience in games. Read More

User Interfaces in Games

Games UI Series

For some time I have written about both my professional and social interests on this blog; covering user experience and gaming, but I want to combine them and look at user interface design in games. I think this is an oft-neglected part of games, especially with the usual budget and time constraints, however as with any software design the usability of the user interface can have a profound effect on the user’s experience.

World of Warcraft screen with massive campaign detail

An advanced user experience on World of Warcraft

Usability in games is not restricted to on screen interactions, there is a such diversity of ways to interact with your gaming platform of choice; be it joypad, keyboard, touch screen, or no controller at all. This makes the platform and method of interaction a key part of the user experience in games, as such I will explore the strengths and weaknesses of these human-computer interfaces.

Some games designers and developers think that creating games is completely different to creating other software, because they are creating entertainment rather than tools. However recently as we have seen an increasing overlap between games and applications e.g. Epic Win we can see that these lines are far more blurred than previously considered. Software development has only recently realised the commercial value of user experience, but games developers often consider themselves the audience as well as the creators, failing to realise that their familiarity with their game hampers their ability to see their product impartially; perhaps more frustrated by the focus groups that require them to “dumb down” games than they are in the issues that may cause that confusion in the first place. While games do need to offer challenges in order to evoke a sense of achievement, these challenges should be designed and deliberate and not a hurdle of a poorly designed interface.

I was delighted to see that Edge has added to its staff Graham McAllister; the CEO of Vertical Slice, the UK’s first usability testing company to focus solely on games. This recognition of the need for usability in an industry leading publication can only help raise the profile of the value of understanding your users.

I’m hoping to write a series of game reviews, which look specifically at the UI and give a heuristic review on their strengths and weaknesses as well as offering possible alternative solutions where appropriate. Read More

GameCity 5

I have just about recovered from the annual whirlwind event that is GameCity. I’d like to cover the highlights of this year’s games culture festival.

Guardian Breakfasts

Keith Stuart from the Guardian kicked off each morning with a discussion around video games, looking at the new technology, the most important games so far, emotional impact of games and the possible future of gaming. Despite my sleep deprived state these were so good that I still managed to get into Nottingham city centre bright and early and a big thanks to Broadway cinema for putting on a slap up breakfast to help me get started for the day ahead. Unlike me Keith however was lucid and spoke intelligently about each subject, and had a changing panel of guests from speakers at the festival to give their two pence worth.

Limbo

Limbo screenshot

The eerie world of Limbo

Often in games that move me the audio will affect me, even if I’m often unaware of the impact that it is having as it adds to the game without distracting from the game-play. Limbo is just such a game, and Martin Stig Anderson did an amazing job of the audio for the game. His discussion and demonstration of the audio work for Limbo was really enlightening. He detailed how he had created the sounds, rerecording them through wire in order to distort them until the source was no longer decipherable. As Anderson spoke about how the transitions were handled in the platform game, in order to give areas of the game an identity and atmosphere, it really opened my mind to the complex possibilities of audio in games as the usually linear nature of music is turned on it’s head if placed in the context of a nonlinear game where the user controls the journey both in time and space. In Limbo Anderson used the environment of the game to create the soundtrack, rather than overlaying the game with a piece of music.

He also spoke about how audio offers us the most “temporal nuances” compared to our other senses, which tied Jonathan Blow’s earlier talk in the day about Braid and learning the rhythm of platform games, such as Super Meat Boy in order to be able to play them. We can learn to play some games by ear.

James Hannigan

Photo of St Mary's church with choir for GameCity

Photo of the James Hannigan event at GameCity kindly permitted by zo-ii

This event was astounding and a fine example of what GameCity do amazingly well and you experience no where else; the convergence of cultures in a way that is both theatrical and emotive. Last year we saw Robin Hunicke perform Flower in a shopping centre complete with falling petals. This year we had Pinewood Choir in St Mary’s, the oldest church in Nottingham, performing soundtracks from games such as and Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, Warhammer and Harry Potter the Deathly Hallows, complete with live owls. There is something profound about hearing an talented choir perform in the reverberating acoustics of an old gothic church, but when the music they are singing takes to back to a moment in a game they combine in a way that gives a sense of grandeur to an often underrated part of the gaming experience.

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Games Based Learning: Alice Taylor

Alice Taylor, Commissioning Editor for Channel 4 (and Wonderland blog) talked recently at Game Based Learning, looking at how gaming enables Channel 4 to engage with their target audience of 14 to 19 year old. But also looks at how gaming mechanisms can be used to engage large numbers with an educational agenda.

Video of Alice Taylor

To see the full selection of videos go the the Games Based Learning forum. I’d also recommend Matt Mason’s talk on pirating and how it adds value to the original, touching on how game modding evolved.

Ada Lovelace Day: Robin Hunicke

This year I was really sad to see that the Women in Gaming conference has been cancelled due to low delegate numbers. I am an avid gamer and I think the games industry is sometimes behind other areas of technology, where it could really benefit from getting more women involved in games development. Often women go for the human focused areas of development, such as user experience or copyright, which are often sadly overlooked in games development. Instead there are a steady stream of churned out games like Imagine Babies and its ilk, lacking original gameplay and creativity. While I am glad that the games industry is finally realising gamers are girls and women too and I value a diverse set of games to choose from, I don’t think it all needs to be Barbie dolls and toy soldiers in electronic form. Obviously this isn’t just due to a lack of women, but by cultural stereotypes and an industry that has increasingly large budgets and monolithic development houses. Independant games development however still have a wealth of opportunity.

There are however some amazing women involved in games development, one of whom is Robin Hunicke who is a games designer and producer. While at EA she worked on My Sims and Boom Blocks and their sequels before recently moving to ThatGameCompany, who developed the truly awesome Flower. She combines this with academic study on Artificial Intelligence and Video Games, building bridges between the theory and the application. Her research on dynamic difficulty examines different techniques for representing and reasoning about uncertainty, to see how these approaches can be extended and combined to create flexible interactive experiences that adjust on the fly.

Robin Huckine and her cat Mika

I was lucky enough to see Robin talk at Gamecity last year and she spoke about how in order to be a better game designer you need to do much more than play games that you need to look outwards and experience as much of life a possible, reading and travelling. I think this is great advice no matter what your role, especially where you want to explore creativity. She also spoke passionately about using sketchbooks to capture ideas, to allow you to externalise ideas, and as creative people to capture ideas and work through some concepts, something which has definitely been true in my experience.

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One of the things I’d like to thank Robin for is her focus on making games accessible to a wider audience in creative ways that doesn’t just mean making games easy (and boring). Games like Boom Blocks use complicated physics engines and while it is really easy to get to grips with the gameplay, through the intuitive wii remote and game responsiveness. It doesn’t isolate gamers by being easy or hard, but very cleverly has levels which can be played at a diverse set of skill levels, providing enough of a challenge to keep the most hardcore gamer engaged. It is highly sociable, being a game that begs to be played with friends and one I always get out to play with the non-gamers who come to visit. In addition it allows me to share levels I’ve created online with my friends. All of this adds up to a very accessible and sociable experience that is quite different from most games on the market. I think this a real reflection of the kind of gameplay that should be encouraged in game development when they are looking to widen their appeal.

She said in her letter to Kotaku about her move to ThatGameCompany:

“All my work is united by a single thread. I want to reach new people, with new experiences, via the medium of games and the language of game design.”

Robin’s second area of research also reinforces this, by examining how to evolve game narratives to the next level. Something that I think is essential to help broaden the appeal of gaming and for games to engage their users and to really find its feet as an art form in its own right. She says on her website:

“I’m also interested in how notions of fate, meaning and consequence can be communicated via video games. I believe that consequence is the key to expanding their narrative repertoire – for without consequence, actions have no weight and choices can do little more than satisfy our basest instincts and curiosities.”

I think a great example of this is seeing how Robin moved the Sims franchise along with the MySims release. If you look at the original Sims games you spent your time trying to manage your time between needing a wee and going to work to allow you to buy more stuff for your house. MySims made it less about this sort of capitalist aspiration and more sociable, focusing on developing relationships and creating things to give away, to support a mayor who needs to attract more people to his town. I think one of the things we can learn from the success of Facebook is that if you want to engage a female audience in your games that to make it sociable is a really great way to do it.

Let’s hope we see more people like Robin in the games industry, working as advocates for the indie games industry, as well as growing appreciation for the more user focused aspects such as writers and user experience designers. I highly recommend her UX2009 presentation which really shows how she has exposed the UX role within games development. Thanks Robin.

GameCity Squared

I’ve been attending GameCity since its creation, and before that the Broadway’s Screenplay games festival that which ran from 2000. Each year it gets bigger and raises the bar. This year was no exception, with some amazing and large scale events.

This year saw the event take place mostly in the Council House and a large tent pitched outside in Market Square, so the event had its highest public presence to date, which can only be good for the festivals future.

Highlights

The best part of a games festival for me is in exploring new games and new ways of playing, which is evident in my selection of festival highlights.

Sandpit

This was my first experience of pervasive gaming, and I’m totally hooked. I only managed to register for two games due to demand, but this wasn’t really an issue because there were lots of other people waiting too so we were able to start an impromptu game of Werewolf (http://www.eblong.com/zarf/werewolf.html) which needs 7+ players. One of the things I loved was that the people had an open attitude towards play.

I played two games, Hipsync and Moveyhouse, which were great fun and interesting experiences. There is something elevating about reclaiming a space with play and people not taking themselves too seriously. http://sandpit.hideandseekfest.co.uk/events/

Gambling Lambs

Gambling Lambs is a monthly gaming event in Nottingham, which held a special event as part of the festival. There was a great atmosphere and in the same way as Sandpit having a group of friendly strangers willing to play games together is a great experience. It takes place the first Thu of the month and I highly recommend it. http://www.gamblinglambs.com/

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Indiecade

Each year Indiecade offers a selection of new games to play and explore. Each year usually holds a gem or two, last year I played the recently released http://machinarium.net/demo/ The indiecade was set up in the tent in the city centre, which means loads of lovely exposure for those games, but unfortunately there was no sound which is a big part of the experience.

This year a couple of games stood out; Papermint which is a colourful MMO had lovely art inspired by Parapa the Rapper. A surreal game based on Little Red Riding Hood called The Path that had a nice ethereal feeling about, with a dark twist. Moon Stories had some nice narrative based game play. Finally, Classic Night had a beautiful childish gothic art style, a bit like Invader Zim. To find out more any of the games from Indiecade check out their website: http://www.indiecade.com/index.php?/games

Night Blooms

Robin Hunicke played through the whole of the game Flower, to an audience in the arcade behind the council house, while the screen was projected on muslin hung from the ceiling and rose petals occasionally fell from above.

The experience was as close as I’ve seen video gaming come an art installation, and it was an amazing experience. It started off with everyone stood around, but as the performance progressed the audience became increasingly horizontal. The game is very relaxing and hypnotic, while the audio is amazing and the architecture made it all the more dramatic. It was really interesting to experience a game in a totally different context.

World of Wordcraft

This was a panel of (ex)games reviewers trying to create the perfect games review with musical interludes by Rebecca Mayes. I have to agree with one panellist who kept saying reviews were dead, although I suspect we were coming from different positions. He was looking at aggregated scoring, while I’ve replaced games reviewers with my social network. Rebecca Mayes was fun and I really hope she does play some video games too, but for niche marketing she gets bonus points.

Brickfactor

Playing Lego Rock Band in the centre of Nottingham on a Saturday afternoon in front of a crowd and murdering Katrina and Waves will be a lasting memory. Hehe.

15 Pixels

A pleasant surprise of an event, a lunchtime curry session with Alaskan Military, the guys that made the viral for GameCity and the Lego animation guys Spite Your Face – you know the ones that did Camelot , yup them. Entertaining talks about how they do what they do and their inspiration. Great fun and really creative, art and geekery combined is a sure fire win for me.

Masaya Matsuura’s Marching Band

Margaret Robertson held a brilliant interview with Masaya Matsuura, creator of Parrapa the Rapper, where we got to see some of his games that never got a UK release. This was followed by him conducting an audience rendition of Hey Jude on the Kazoo. Priceless.

The End

So when choosing how to spend Halloween, getting zombie make up complete with latex peeling skin courtesy of local make up students and trying to scare the hell out of people seemed like an excellent way to spend it. I was right and was delighted when my friend came as Zoe from L4D and kicked the hell out of the zombies.

GameCity

GamesCity festival happens every year and I’d highly recommend it to anyone with a playful soul.

Project Natal

Project Natal was announced by Microsoft at E3 as new interface peripheral for the Xbox 360, which removes the need for a joypad, instead body movement, facial recognition and voice are used for interaction.

We have seen similar innovations with the EyeToy for the PS2 and the notion detection in the Wii, but both have severe limitations. The EyeToy is a single lens camera, so it is easily affected by lighting and background, while the motion detection in the Wii is built into the joypad and has limited capabilities by default.

The demo shown at E3 is jaw dropping, showing seemingly natural interaction with a character called Milo, but anyone with any experience of Microsoft demos treats them with appropriate levels of scepticism. Since they haven’t beaten the Turing test there is certainly some smoke and mirrors going on, in the words of Milo’s creator Peter Molyneux “If we had, then applying it to a computer game would be the last of the solutions we’d use it for.”

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Other demos include a painting application and a dodgeball style game. They are relatively low tech examples but the dodgeball game has been demonstrated with journalists and celebrities, and has appeared to withstand their scrutiny. Interestingly Endgadget’s demo turned the lights down to see if it can cope with different lighting, and it had no problems.

Although shy on the details Microsoft have said it contains an RBG camera, an infrared camera, a multi-array microphone and a depth map. New Scientist among others suggested it is using the infrared camera technology by 3DV, an Israeli company that Microsoft purchased. This heat detection allows it to maintain a level of functionality regardless of light sources or obstacles.

Project Natal claims to have facial recognition and voice recognition, but we’ve only really seen this in the Milo demonstration, which could have been entirely scripted. So the extent of this capability is still not fully understood, although the voice recognition is based on Windows 7 functionality.

While Natal does recognise actions sitting down, a notable thing from the demos is the space of the room they were demoing in. When you use your whole body as a controller you need enough space to do so. A bit like Wii Fit, removing the traditional controller can pose logistical problems for the smaller household; for me my living room becomes more like an obstacle course.

Paradoxically playing a game with your body rather than your thumbs can be both more intuitive and harder work. I am old enough that can still remember my initial awkwardness interacting with a computer mouse or a console joypad, even though it seems like second nature now. However this hurdle is removed by Natal, making gaming and potentially all human-computer interaction much more accessible and intuitively responsive to an even wider audience, although it lacks the feedback a physical peripheral affords.

If I sat playing Burnout as it has been demonstrated with Natal my arms would ache after a while. But one thing I do know from marathon Guitar Hero sessions is that I will play through most aches for the right game. Interestingly a great many of the games we play allow us to explore far beyond our own physical limitations, so I wonder where the disparity is between simulation and escapism and what we desire from our gaming experience.

I don’t think we will be getting rid of the joystick anytime soon, but this definitely opens the door to new kinds of games and game play that we haven’t seen before. Its greatest potential is in the creative and imaginative hands of games and software designers everywhere.