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

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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Yulia Brodskaya – Papergraphic

Yulia Brodskaya has rejuvinated the old craft of quilling and added her own style and flair. I’m not aware of anywhere to buy her work yet unless you are lucky enough to pick up one of the multiple publications who have commissioned her work.

However you can get a gorgeous theme for Google Chrome or a T-shirt with her work on.

The beauty of these images comes not only from the fantastic work she creates, but the very skilled way in which they are photographed with diffused light. I’d love to learn more about her creative process and the logistics of the creation and photography. There has been a real resurgence of papercraft graphic art recently including some amazing work from Su Blackwell.

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.

Stella Im Hultberg

Stella Im Hultberg is a New York based, Korean born artist who creates amazing feminine artworks of raven haired skeletal women. Created using mixed media, particullarly oil and ink, often on tea stained paper. Emotive and striking, the images explore the fluidity of the media used and with subtle use of colour create a flowing and evocative and feminine images. In particular I love how she paints hair, exploring and accentuating the organic forms that the media offers, to create striking contrast and movement within her images.

Nuri. Oil and ink on tea-stained paper

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You can buy Stella’s work from her website and she quite often has shows on in the US. If you like her art you might also want to look at the work of Amy Sol and Audrey Kawasaki with whom she has frequently collaborated and held several shows. Please be aware that some of her work may be considered NSFW.

Google Wave

I loved the Google Wave demo, but probably for all the wrong reasons. I loved the fact that it was an honest demo, ok so that means it breaks, but I prefer to forgive a few bumps in the demo than see canned demos that are so slick I'm left wondering if it was all faked up.

Google Wave made a lot of noise when the demo video was released, and understandably, anyone with an ounce of geek in them keeps an eye on what the big guys are up to. I love how Chrome has changed the way I browse the web and I'm interested to see how Wave might change behaviours too.

For the most part Google Wave, while technically a huge accomplishment, is really the next generation of the web (whatever we might call it), it is a natural evolution from where we are now.

I like the concept of simultaneous conversations; I’ll often have at least two concurrent conversations with an individual via instant messaging, and being able to thread that could be really useful. However I can imagine not wanting to share everything I type straight away. I find the thinking time typing allows me to be really useful. Interestingly I might not turn off the functionality – and give the game away – but rather think more before I type. Typing becomes more transparent like talking, but still lacks the other sensory cues we use in communication.

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I’m interested in the concept of collaborative working, with multiple people working on the same document at the same time. I can’t think of another example where people could work so dynamically together in a virtual space. However this level of collaborative working raises its own issues. The goal of any collaboration needs to be clear for it to be effective, but this is even more so when working in the context of Google Wave.

Enabling sharing of photos, media and information is a fundamental part of how we interact online. Wave seemed to offer some some nice tweaks to improve this experience. But the demo didn’t really explore for me the relationships between the people that are interacting. Are they all already established contacts that are part of your network? How to you grow your network? It maybe that you don’t, that you just use existing networks such as Facebook and Twitter and consolidate them in Wave, but for such an application that is fundamentally social it would be odd to not support a means of growing your network in a more direct fashion.

Overall Google Wave looks very impressive; it has certainly broken some technical barriers and shown us what the next step for the internet holds for us. But for the most part it is an evolution, rather than a paradigm shift. Although I imagine it will change the way we collaborate online and our expectation around web interactivity and responsiveness.

Girl Geek Dinners is relaunched in Nottingham

At last the ball is rolling…

I'm really excited that at last I have managed to get the ball rolling and Girl Geek Dinners are back up and running in Nottingham. I have to say a massive and huge thank you to everyone who has been really supportive. I've never run an event like this before, but what I lack in experience I make up for in enthusiasm and a willingness to ask questions.

If you want to be kept up to date about these events then either email me or follow @NottsGirlGeeks on Twitter.

Blaine Fontana

Long overdue is a post on another of my favourite artists, Blaine Fontana. His work is beautiful and mixes two of my favourite styles of art; Japaese prints and graffiti. I discovered his work at the same time as Samuel Flores in San Francisco's Upper Playground gallary: Fifty 24SF.

The Last Koi Chapter #1 • 48

The Last Koi Chapter #1 • 48″ x 48″ acrylic on canvas

The print is also available as a Gelaskin for the geeks out there who like to customise and protect their laptops and iPhones.

Ada Lovelace Day: Molly E. Holzschlag

If you are reading this then you are probably already aware of Ada Lovelace Day, but just in case; it is a day dedicated to blogging about women we admire in technology:

I'm choosing to write about Molly E. Holzschlag, and why I admire her. (Disclaimer: fangirl moments are therefore to be expected).

Molly Holzschlag

I've been working with the web for all of my professional career and it became very clear, very quickly that web standards were fundamental in making writing code easier, while more importantly being necessary to create an open and accessible web that was capable of what we hoped and imagined it could do. Although she doesn't know it Molly has been with me every step of my journey, writing about best practice and web standards, shaping the way I and many others work. I started way back with a HTML and CSS textbook and A List Apart and WaSP.

Molly was leader of WaSP (Web Standards Project) from early 2004 through to the end of 2006 and in that time drove real change by recognising that it is not enough to be evangelical about your subject, you need to make connections with and influence those that create the tools and the code inorder to affect the change you want. She helped build relations with Macromedia to influence the tool that web designers were using, and connections with Microsoft to help improve the browser that most people were using. Coming from a history of hacking Dreamweaver to try and force it to write valid XHTML while struggling with browser inconsistencies, it was good to know someone was talking to these corporate giants and refusing to be ignored.

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In 2007 Molly worked with Microsoft to help try and improve web standards support in IE, which filled me with hope despite the mammoth task; anyone who has worked in a large organisation will know they are difficult beasts to change. But she was never afraid to ask the awkward questions even to the man at the top: http://molly.com/2006/12/14/who-questions-bill-gates-commitment-to-web-standards/

Last month she moved to Opera, which I can only imagine to be a complete change and I look forward to seeing what work comes out from that, when she can achieve so much in the face of such adversity I really have to wonder what might be done in a company that offers support for those ideals.

However the reason I admire Molly goes beyond her hard work with web standards, it is also about her ability to build connections; her openess and honesty that comes across online. She doesn't fall into the traps of just code samples (although these have their place), single-minded ranting or blindly insisting that everything worked well, but has an ability to see the bigger picture and to enlighten us in such a way that motivates us to join her in trying to make the web better. Thanks Molly.

But Molly isn't the only woman I admire working in technology although she may be among the most renowned, so I'd like to take this chance to give a bit of recognition to a few others as well:

  • Beatriz Stollnitz (nee Costa) – Part of Microsoft's WPF team, and the go to gal on Databinding. Also a lovely person who was kind enough to let me pick her brainss at TechEd 2006.
  • Sarah Blow – Founder of Girl Geek Dinners and developer. Has always been supportive and helpful in my quest to get Girl Geek Dinners in Nottingham up and running again.
  • Leah Culver – developer at Six Apart, but one of the few female technical speakers I've seen at a conference, thanks in part to her work on Pownce with Kevin Rose.
  • Jo Stray – I've worked with Jo for sometime now and her indepth understanding of usability has been a great guiding compass for me.
  • Susan Hallam – A fountain of knowledge about all things SEO.
  • Aleks Krotoski – Games journalist at the Guardian, but it was her work on Bits many moons ago that had the most impact on me personally, as I realised that girl gamers were more prolific than I knew and they were smart and entertaining too.
  • Jemima Kiss – Tech and media journalist at the Guardian and prolific twitterer, she has an understanding of the web and an ability to write about it coherently and convincingly.
  • Nichola Musgrove – The first designer I worked with, when I was just starting out, she was a great mentor.
  • Amanda Gaynor – One of the few women developers I've had the priveledge of working with. Her enthusasm for her subject and her compassion make me honoured to also have her as a friend.
  • Alice Taylor – By day she is the Commissioning Editor for Education at Channel 4, but I have followed Alice more for her fellow game girl status and her ability to blog about the way gaming influences a wider culture, especially crafty gamers. It might be niche, but it's my niche.
  • Leisa Reichelt – I first heard Leisa talk at FOWA about ambient intimacy which beautifully described the changing way in which we interact, but more than that her work and approach have informed my own, especially in regards to her enthusiasm for agile user centred design.
  • Danah Boyd – Writes about the social side of the web, particularly in regards to teenagers. Some very interesting and well informed writing.
  • Emma Jane – The woman to speak to about anything front end Drupal based.
  • Jean Baird – A photgrapher, but single-handedly responsible for getting me interested in semantics, back in 1999, way before I'd even heard of the Semantic Web.