Samuel Flores

Samuel Flores is a San Francisco based artist that often sells stuff through Upper Playground.

Samuel Flores

His work is very distinctive, often including characters with enlarged heads and hands. I like this image as the bridge reminds me of the bridge in the Tea Gardens in San Francisco. I was amazed by the city and hope we can go back soon.

My Top 5 Feminist Games

Feminist is such a loaded word I almost didn't use it in my title. But really it is about equality nothing more and nothing less, so I think it is appropriate for what I want to write about. I want to take a look at some of my favourite games, that also managed to handle gameplay related gender in a new way or that made me think, hopefully both.

Portal

This game is amazing, it also happens to have an all female cast, but this is no Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball or the Newton defying girls therein, our heroine wears an asexual orange jumpsuit. It is a FPS games, so you aren't aware of your gender in the game at first, but most FPS games have male protagonists if not an all male cast and involve lots of shooting and killing. In portal you don't shoot bullets, but large portal holes which seems almost so obviously pseudo-sexual as to be crass, and perhaps would be if they weren't such a beautiful and fundamental part of what makes this game outstanding; it shifts the aim of the game from killing your opponents to outwitting the AI that has you trapped. Ultimately any game that offers cake as a reward knows exactly which of my buttons to press.

Primal

Primal turns the traditional Mario plot on it's head. At the beginning of the game Lewis is abducted, and it is up to his girlfriend and our heroine Jen to find him and rescue him. Not afraid to kick ass Jen literally morphs into a formidable warrior across the course of the story and thanks to some great voice acting from Hudson Leick and Andreas Katsulas and a descent script we get a much more well rounded character than someone like Samus from the Meteoroid Prime series. The game is based over a series of elemental worlds that thematically support the Gaia hypothesis, named after a Greek mother goddess. Also there is a yin yang relationship between order and chaos throughout the game.

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Tomb Raider

Much has been written about Lara Croft, but the original game was great fun and ground breaking. Released in 1996, a year after TV's female action hero Xena: Warrior Princess hit the screen, gaming saw it's first female lead, one that would give Indiana Jones a run for his money. Unfortunately the Tomb Raider series has failed to develop significantly enough to retain it's leading status in gaming culture, we have seen Lara's exaggerated figure fall foul of ridiculous physical design changes that pander to the fan-boy pin-up fantasy, rather than any real character development. Even the latest instalment which takes some interesting lessons from Assassin's Creed in terms of character movement falls short of the innovative seen in Mirror's Edge.

Screen shot of Jade from Beyond Good and Evil
Jade in Beyond Good and Evil

Beyond Good & Evil

In Beyond Good and Evil, Jade is our main character, but we also see female characters in positions of power throughout the game. In the game, although you can use martial art skills and a Dai-jo stick your main tool is a camera to collect information, document creatures, solve puzzles and ultimately to look for the truth. The story is also interesting because it deals with a corrupt government and notions of the freedom of the press. The characters are well developed and the subtlety of Jade's character is offset by Double-H who is an archetypal masculine hero with a code of honour and a preference for brute force solutions, but he's not dislikeable.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Dreamfall is a sequel, but since I haven't played the original I shall not comment on it. I really enjoyed this game, mostly because of the depth of the plot and the characters in the story. It has obvious comparisons to Beyond Good and Evil; our main heroine is also 20 years old, street smart and trying to crack open a massive conspiracy. April Ryan, the character from the original game, also appears in Dreamfall, but Zoe Castillo is our primary character, who is searching for her missing boyfriend in a similar fashion to Primal and who also travels across multiple worlds to reach her goal. The story also examines themes of religious fanaticism through the third character that you play in the game; Kian Alvane who's faith in his Azadi rulers offers him a means to justify his acts of violence.

So there it is my top five, there are however a few games that deserve an honourable mention; Urban Chaos, released in 1999 was a game with a black woman, Darci Stern, as the main character. However gameplay was lacking and I never finished it, so I can't include it on my list. It was also filled with hookers as Darci was a cop who's task it was to clean up the streets. But nearly ten years later and there is still a very real lack of black female characters in games, all the women in my list are light skinned and dark haired, to the point where it has almost become its own stereotype. Only in Beyond Good and Evil is her ethnicity vague, and while I have seen Jade being described as a black female character, to my mind it is ambiguous rather than explicit. Sexuality is also marginalised, with very few examples of lead characters being explicitly gay. Fear Effect is one game where there is a lesbian relationship alluded to, but since I've not played it I can't comment on its portrayal. Most games are passive about same sex relationships, such as RPG games that allow the gamer to decide, for example The Sims or Fable 2. Jade Empire allowed you to play from a selection of set male and female characters, which can romance different male and female characters depending on your gender, however even with the set characters it is at the gamer's discretion.

Another lacking representation of women in games is in age. Old women just don't exist in games as far as I can tell, and certainly not as primary characters. If there is an old woman she will often take a narrative role, such as in Fable 2, but even then age isn't explicit. Given that older women gamers is a huge growing market, I wonder if this will change as casual gaming becomes even bigger. But I imagine as with other media, where women over fifty seem to disappear as though consumed in a modern day Logan's Run, it will take some time for this to be addressed. Second Life may have unleashed a plethora of virtual furries but few want to play as old people, after all no-one likes to think about getting old.

With the increasing flexibility of RPG characters or gaming avatars and the increase in MMOGs, perhaps we will see this change on-line first. We can use these tools to create change and to challenge our own expectations of our gaming experiences.

The Magic of Interface Design

While reading Derren Brown’s book 'Tricks of the Mind' (thanks Simon) I began to see some overlap between performing close-up magic and designing user interfaces; it comes down to understanding and predicting your audience’s attention.

The approach however is from opposite sides of the problem; while the interface designer tries to focus the attention of the user to enable them to achieve a task, the magician relies on our inability to focus on everything to perform their trick. Especially when we are concentrating on something we can easily miss even the most obvious things, so while we are looking to see how the trick is done it distracts us from how it is actually done.

Try this awareness test:

It makes it clear that if there is a lot going on then not only is it harder to find the information you want, but you can miss important information you didn’t know you needed. In the context of interface design it can be frustrating for a user and ultimately may prevent them from being able to achieve their goal.

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Learnt Blindness

We also learn not to see things through experience and expectation. An example of this I saw recently was putting a quick link to an F.A.Q. page in an area of a page normally reserved for advertising, as a result few users saw the the new link; we have become conditioned to expect advertising and therefore don't look at that area of the page. See Nielsen's research on this banner blindness.

As interface designers we need to consider that to break with expectation can mean we create something that can stand out, because it breaks from the it's surroundings conventions, however it might never get seen, such as when we put important navigation elements where we expect to see advertising. So we need to understand when it's appropriate to use the audience's own expectations to help them find the information they need.

Keep it simple

When dealing with an audience's attention it helps to remove distractions. Keeping an interface as simple as possible and removing unnecessary distractions, can help make it clearer and easier for the user to focus. But it's important to not throw out the baby with the bathwater, if you remove too much information then there aren't enough cues to know what to do next.

One time performance

This is important if it is an application that is used rarely or as a single experience. The reason you will rarely see a magician repeat the same trick is because it gives the audience the opportunity to see it in a different way, we know what is coming and we've already studied the trick once, if we see it again it makes it easier with each consecutive performance to see how the trick is achieved. This is the same for interface design if we know what to expect, through repeat use, it is easier for us to know what to do over time as we can handle more information and learn the interface. In which case we can adopt more complex interfaces, that offer more functionality, but take longer to learn.

TaDa…

In conclusion we need to understand that our awareness and attention are often compromised and easily distracted, and take this into consideration when designing user interfaces. A good experience is like a magic trick, we might not be aware of exactly how we got there, it seems easy, but we are delighted we did.

If only you were here by Audrey Kawasaki

Audrey Kawasaki is a talented artist from Los Angeles. Her beautiful artwork is jaw dropping and I really recommend checking out her website. Although not explicit some of her art could be considered NSFW, so perhaps save the link for viewing from home. Her work is for sale at various galleries, but it in high demand, so your best bet it to sign up to the newsletter and wait for the next print sale to be announced. I've also seen her art for sale from Gelaskin to cover your laptop or iPhone.

Audrey Kawasaki's If only you were here

If only you were here by Audrey Kawasaki

Role of Social Media in the Credit Crunch

The one good thing about this recession is that I can actually walk around and get my Christmas shopping done in relative peace. But it is a little alarming to see most shops offering 20% off and yet still find shopping centres quiet.

As a strange form of torture at work, Sky News is broadcast all over the place and offer repeated and constant coverage of the financial crisis (NB: Why CNN find it hard to cover – can also be applied to Sky News). In fact the press has been doom and gloom about the economy for some time now, with some making comments about the Web 2.0 bubble bursting. We all know that between the rising fuel and food costs and the house prices sinking things are pretty gloomy right now.

Financial Tracking charts from Wesabe

Wesabe charts personal finances.

However I am interested in what role the web will have in helping us deal with this. We’ve had recessions before, but like American elections I don’t think we’ve had one where the web will play such a significant role, especially in how we cope with it. Firstly there is our connection to the internet both emotively and economically; while fuel bills sore the cost of broadband costs continue to fall, also we feel the internet is essential and not a luxury we can cut to save costs. So we aren’t going to us the web less now.

We already know that the internet has made us more informed consumers, thanks to price comparison sites and communities offering advice. But now most of us are feeling the pressure to have more control over our finances, so what tools can the web offer us to help us manage our financial affairs? There are some good free tools that offer some helpful budgeting and financial management services, here are some for the UK:

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Wesabe / money.telegraph

Wesabe has been around for a few years now and offers support for most major UK institutions. They offer an aggregation service, allowing you to see all your financial data in one place. There is an active community around the service, as well anonymous data aggregation, allowing Wesabe to offer advice based to you based on your particular spending trends in the context of the wider community. Other functionality includes putting statements in “plain English” and aggregating this information across the community; so if a user identifies retailer TSC1238934 as Tescos, then if you were to shop there you will automatically see Tescos in your statement.

Wesabe have released an API and offer automated tools for downloading statements as well as various widgets to make your information more accessible. Recently the Daily Telegraph has partnered with Wesabe in the UK, further adding to its credibility.

Kublax

Kublax is new to the UK market, however it is powered by Yodlee, who is one of the biggest service providers in account aggregation, having partnered with large corporate banks too. Plus because it is UK specific it supports most of the UK financial institutions. It has similar functionality to Wesabe allowing you to compare spending and to get advice based on your own spending habits, with a focus on localisation. But it doesn’t offer an API for developers to create more tools. It has some inbuilt fraud detection and alerting.

Buxfer

Buxfer’s functionality is limited in comparison, but offers budgeting tools that are particularly good at managing money between people and can automate splitting costs and tracking debt, which can be useful and relieve social tension when finances are tight.

Wigadoo

Wigadoo is a UK service for sorting out events with a group of friends. Although it is not directly about managing your own personal finances, it is a useful tool for when you have to sort out the money for a trip with a group of mates and it avoids one person having to shell out for the cost for the whole group and they then take all the risk that someone will cancel or not pay their share. You no longer have to nag friends for the money they owe you, or have to feel guilty about not paying them back yet. Making these social money situations easier is always helpful when money is short and it is easy for it to become a source of tension.

In addition to better tools to help us manage our finances, the web offers alternative ways of borrowing money to the traditional bank loans; at a time when banks are reducing risks and lending far less, peer to peer lending continue to loan money and offer a way of raising necessary cash.

Zopa

Zopa is peer to peer lending that started in the UK and has spread globally. The principle is that you can borrow or lend money from other individuals rather than from institutions. As a borrower you make a pitch about what you want the money for and how much you need, and as a lender you decide who you want to lend to, how much and at what rate. The borrower can choose the best rate from the offers made.

Although technology will be hit by the financial climate too, you need only look at the staff cuts going on across the board in tech companies to see that, I think that through these Web 2.0 offerings we can better empower ourselves with the tools to help us weather this storm.

Services like Wesabe and Kublux enable us to gather advice from a community as well as from our own actual spending data. By having all your information in one place you get a complete picture of your financial situation. However this isn’t without any risk; since your data is aggregated it is important to be considerate of where you are storing your financial information, but there are huge advantages to be had by participating, both in convenience and in access to information otherwise unavailable. There are plenty of good services out there, but I have tried to look at ones I know will work for the UK, if you know others or have any experiences with any please let me know how you have found them.

Good Old Games coming to a PC near you

If you missed some of the classic PC games of yesteryear, or if you have even tried to reinstall them on your new Vista box only to be thwarted by incompatability, well then I have the site for you… Good Old Games

Good Old Games website

Good Old Games has a growing catalogue of classic PC games guarenteed to work on XP and Vista.

There are some great classics on there including the Fallout series and the early Unreal titles, and they are all DRM free and come with support. At less than $10 or about

Butterfly by noah-kh

While browsing the web I often find images that amaze me, so I'm going to post links to those that I find. The aim is help promote their work and give credit where it is due. It also doesn't hurt to add a bit of colour to my site and if you like the same things as me you can subscribe to the RSS feed and add a little colour to your RSS reader too.

Here is my first submission, it is quite a few years old now and noah-kh has produced some amazing work, but this remains one of my favourites. You can buy a print of it and see in a larger scale on deviantART.

Butterfly by noah=kh

Next generation wishlists for Christmas

Writing letters to Santa has changed over the years… normally about this time of year I have to vet my Amazon wishlist and co-ordinate with my family via http://www.alliwantforchristmas.com/ to swap wishlists. The site works, but it's done nothing new in the four years I've been using it, at best it offers some possible sites you might find the item you are looking for. The advantage it offers over Amazon's service is that you aren't tied to one retailer and you can offer a link to the best place to buy an item.

There is a new site in town with appropriate Web 2.0 name too; Wishli.st is a site created for the UK market. It has some great unique features, but also some critical downfalls. It breaks the mold by allowing micro-payments towards gifts on your wishlist, so you can pick the things you really want and allow your friends and family to chip in until you have the funds to buy the item outright. The shortfall is that items have to be chosen fromand puchased at a limited list of retailers, meaning you can't find the cheapest on the market and you are restricted on the items you can actually choose.

The existing retail partnerships are predominantly with the websites like Firebox and I want one of those, sites that are aimed at people buying presents, the problem is the stuff they sell tends to be lowcost or at least fun and frivolous with a wide target audience, rather than the kind of items you want to add to a wishlist i.e. specific and specialist items that often relate to a hobby or an interest – where you need that expert existing knowledge to know which item is appropriate. I don't see the point in adding stuff from Firebox; pretty much all their stock is passable and fun, thats the point, but none of it is stuff I really want – it's the stuff i'd buy someone if they didn't have a wishlist.

The micro-payments concept is a good one, but for the idea to succeed they need remove the dependancy on retailers to allow it's use for niche markets. A Web 2.0 app that ignores the Long Tail needs to reconsider it's approach.

Future of Creative Technology Conference

Today I made a trip to DeMontford University to attend their one day conference on the Future of Creative Technology. The morning kicked off with a technology workshop with Jerry Fishenden from Microsoft. He seemed to have a bit of an agenda to push Surface, which seemed unnecessary given the audience, but he did demonstrate something I hadn't seen from Microsoft Research, that allowed 2D space to be plotted into navigable 3D space, in this case Modern art works. But there was no information given on how the data was extrapolated or an envisioned uses of it were. It lacked the crowd computing factor of Photosynth as it used a single image source.

There was a discussion around institutions versus individuals; with the idea of individuals walking away from luddite institutions to setup their own businesses. However I felt this view was rather na

Evolution of a Girl Gamer

I have been gaming for all of my life; Space Invaders was released in the same year I was born. I’ve been thinking back about not only how the technology has changed but how my gaming habits have also changed. What started with playing arcade tables in pubs and evolved through to Rock Band on an Xbox360.

My early and only console gaming for a long time was Wizard of Wor and Space Invaders on an old Atari 2600. When we got an Amstrad CPC with only one game; a dodgy flight simulator that took three times longer to load on cassette than I could ever make the game last, I taught myself BASIC instead and sealed my geek fate.

This was the start of my PC gaming habits; we got a 386 and discovered Duke Nukem and Prince of Persia back when they were still 2D platform games, shortly followed by Wolfenstein3D and then Duke Nukem 3D.

From then on I was predominantly a PC gamer, only managing to grab the odd game on console when babysitting or at a friend’s house. Mostly I enjoyed the odd point and click adventure game, especially if it was an Eric Idol voiced Rincewind set in the Discworld.

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My uni years were filled with Unreal Tournament and Tekken 3. This was the first time I remember my gender being significant to my gaming, as I would enjoy going to LAN parties and surprising the lads. It wasn’t until much later that the notion of being a “girl gamer” as opposed to being a “gamer” really came into being. Even when I watched Bits religiously each week and loved it, it was more from the realisation that there were other women out there with the same passion for gaming as me, than some notion of being different from other gamers.

However recently with Nintendo’s success at marketing to the mainstream and female audience with casual gaming, a new notion of “girl gamer”or has evolved, with a stigma attached to it, as though not a ‘proper’ gamer.

As games have evolved, so have the games I play. I play less FPS games now; especially as the many titles focus on being war sims. Over time I’ve enjoyed titles like Fallout, Black and White (despite bugs) and Evolva. Then as I got into console gaming I’ve enjoyed a diversity of games including Katamari Damacy, Psychonauts, Burnout and Guitar Hero. Many of these titles might be considered “girl gamer” titles, so despite my passion for gaming, because I don’t play CoD4 I’m not considered a “hardcore gamer” irrespective of the time and diversity of the games I play. There is an atmosphere that some how girls can’t be ‘proper’ gamers, as they don’t like the ‘right’ games.

For me this shows that the games industry still has some way to go to understand what makes a successful game for their female audience, perhaps due to the lack of women in games development. It seems to come almost as surprise to some developers that their games are successful with women aswell as men, where as there are still games released like My Horse & Me that are so gender stereotypical as to be laughable, but at least now there is a diversity of games available.