Dissertation: The Decision Draws Closer
September 30th, 2013

On Tuesday I need to hand in a summary of my chosen subject/question for my dissertation. Yesterday I decided to completely scrap my research and chosen subject of piracy / freedom of internet in favour of pursuing the direction that I’d really like to take my career in – game design.

Currently I’m in a bit of a research frenzy trying to get something together by Tuesday – I’m after a subject in which researching it will help inform my game design, which I plan to ruthlessly practise wherever I can throughout my final year. I’d also like to bring in what I’ve learnt from my time studying graphic design, as that’s the skill set which I hope to bring with me into game design and development.

I reached out to a Reddit-based game design community asking for guidance – texts, books and lectures to get me started, areas which are over-saturated with research which I should avoid writing about, and to spark general discussion. I’ll talk about what I’ve been advised on:

Eric Zimmerman
I’ve since read his essay Narrative, Interactivity, Play, and Games: Four naughty concepts in need of discipline, which was fantastic. I’ll write a post about it soon.
Jesper Juul
Appears to have a lot of publications which will be great to look at.
Gonzala Frasca
Appears to be an influential figure who works with serious and political videogames.

Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation by Steve Swink

While this appears to be an excellent book that I should (and will) read, I don’t expect it to be the avenue that I’ll explore for my dissertation – perhaps I can pull ideas from it into the text, however.
Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell
Again, a book which seems fantastic for the fundamentals/mechanics of game design which I’m sure I’ll get, but not really a specific avenue to explore.

I’ve actually been watching this already, great source for people getting into game design.
Appears to be a very extensive source for game design.
Game designer’s blog – appears to write interesting articles.
Another game designer
Video Game Theory, Criticism and Design

I came across another graphic design student who is also looking at crossing over to the games industry and is writing his dissertation on game design, “I’m basing my thesis on how video games can tell stories that other media cannot. It’s looking into mechanics as metaphor mostly, but it takes the assumption that games do tell stories (which, as you’ll find the more you look, there’s a huge debate surrounding that…).”
This is exactly what I read about in one of Eric Zimmerman’s essays – an extremely interesting debate. I’d be very tempted to jump into that as my chosen subject, but I’m sure that further reading will bring more subjects better toned to me to light. Also, knowing that another graphic design student is writing about it already makes it much less appealing!

Another user commented, “investigate how immersion in games compares to the subjective experience that you can get from religion, art, or psychedelics. There may be some parallels. In more depth how said experience plays into design or graphic decisions if at all. I’m not sure if it’s been investigated.”
Although I doubt that I’ll explore this area without a solid understanding of psychology / psychoanalysis or something, it really does interest me – I read the other day about Roger Caillois, who talks about altering perception being a form of play, and how this can be related to the use of hallucinogenics (as mentioned briefly in my previous blog post).

I’ve got some solid starting points – I’ll be spending the most part of tomorrow looking for something that I can hone in on. What I’ve decided I should look at most is some crossover between game design and graphic design. It’s astonishing how so many games appear to completely neglect graphic design, and I’d like to help bring that change to the industry. It’s certainly something for me to think about.

“Uncertainty in Games” by Greg Costikyan of Playdom
September 28th, 2013

This was a fantastic lecture to watch – the many sources of uncertainty in games isn’t something that I had really thought about in the past. To sum up the video:

“If you’re not uncertain of what’s going to happen in a game, why even bother playing?”

Every day of our lives we’re trying to reduce uncertainty – trying to keep a schedule or keep things organised, staying on top of bills, just generally trying to reduce the stress of uncertainty. Games however require some level of uncertainty to be fun, and perhaps that change in our lives is something that makes them so appealing.

Look at Tic Tac Toe – we’re all tired of it because we know exactly how to win. If both players know the old trick, then it’s a draw. Most adults are certain that a game of nought’s and crosses will result in a tie, and so it is not fun. The game relies on the naïve to be fun, and when they learn to win they’ll get bored of it too.

Costikyan suggests that there are 7 types of uncertainty used in games (I’m sure that I missed one or two though – I’ll have to rewatch it):

Performative Uncertainty
Uncertainty is based on the player’s skill. The original Super Mario Bros. is a good example of this – the entire game is made to be predictable, but uncertainty comes from your own ability to get around the difficult terrain and enemies.

Solver Uncertainty
This is largely evident in puzzle games – the uncertainty of whether or not you’re capable of solving a particular puzzle.

Player Uncertainty
Greg described Rock, Paper, Scissors as the platonic ideal of player uncertainty, as the whole game relies on you not knowing what your opponent will do.

Schedule Uncertainty
This type of uncertainty exists in games like Farmville – it relies on your time commitment (e.g. harvesting crops at a particular time), and your schedule can have an impact on how well you do in the game. Although this kind of game is brilliant as a business model – mechanics are made so that players will nag their friends into playing, and the main mechanic is to get you obsessed – it is generally considered unethical game design.

Narrative Uncertainty
Not knowing where the story will take you.

Semiotic Uncertainty
This is an interesting one. Greg talks about a Japanese game (I couldn’t quite hear the name), where at the end of a level there’s a flag pole. If you’ve ever played Super Mario, you’ll probably jump onto it to get points, but instead it kills you – it relies on your understanding of games to throw you off. Another interesting example was a game which appeared to be another boring train simulator, where you eventually come to realise that you’re delivering victims to death camps.

Feature Uncertainty
This is where the developer promises updates in future, and so players continue to play in anticipation of new features (look at Minecraft, Don’t Starve, Terraria, and just about any game following the Minecraft pre-release model).

Whilst watching his lecture, his mention of Roger Caillois’ book Man, Play and Games sent me off on a bit of a research tangent – I’d like to read it soon. What I could find was very relevant to the talk however – he talks about four play forms within a game –

Agon (competitive play, such as in chess)
Alea (chance-based play, such as slot machines)
Mimicry or Mimesis (role playing)
Ilinx  or Vertigo (altering perception)

He suggests that all games involve at least one of these – this was written in 1961 and despite the monumental development in games since then, it still appears to be true.

It has me very interested in this area.

Dissertation: Wild Change of Direction.
September 28th, 2013

I had planned on writing my final year dissertation on piracy and the freedom of the internet – I’ve just published the lit review which I wrote back in May, and since then the subject has exploded due to the public’s discovery of the NSA and the Edward Snowden ordeal. The fact is that due to this abundance of new information I’ve become a lot less interested in writing my dissertation on the subject – news on it is developing like mad on a weekly basis, and it’s something that I’d prefer to write about once it has settled a little.

As I’ve made quite clear, I’m very interested in steering the beginning of my career towards independent game design and development. I’m currently trying to learn to code games, produce music and sound effects, work as a freelance designer and get through my final year of university. I’d rather not have to keep up with this freedom of the internet business too – it would be much more beneficial for me to spend the time researching game design instead, as this will allow me to become much more informed in the industry that I would like to go into. Performing research for my dissertation which will assist everything else that I’m doing over the next year (and hopefully beyond) just makes much more sense.

So currently I’m trying to come up with what exactly I’d like to write about within this field. I’ve started on my list of books to read – work by Roger Caillois, Johan Huizinga and Brian Sutton-Smith seem like great places to start, a lot of it is about the absolute basic mechanics in any games (not just computer games), most of their work being published in the 50’s – 80’s. I’d really like to get a historic understanding for my dissertation.

I’ve also been watching a lot of lectures by developer and designer Jonathan Blow on the ethics of game design, although I’ll have to re-watch them again after everything that I’ve learned over the past 3 months. There has been a lot more research done, but I’ll really need to get my head down if I really want to write something worthwhile on the subject.

Very early ideas for areas to write it on are

All of these are very rough and open areas, but I’d just like to get some ideas down – I haven’t got long to make a decision. What really appeals to me is experimental game design, and pulling computer game design away from the screen. To tear the term down a little, I’m very interested in audio-visual interactive art I guess.

I’ll be researching like mad, and I aim to spew it out all over this blog.

Piracy is Here to Stay, How can we Adapt to it?
September 28th, 2013

Piracy is Here to Stay,
How can we Adapt to it?

Jake Hollands

Written May 2013.

For my literature review I have chosen to look at what needs to change so that we as a society can maintain a free internet where free culture thrives without exploiting the creators of that content. Up until recently we practically had a free internet, but in May of 2012 UK-based broadband providers BT and Virgin Media began to block popular torrenting website The Pirate Bay taking a significant and foreshadowing step toward internet censorship. This was shortly following a protest on the 18th of January 2012 which fought against SOPA and PIPA – two corporately funded United States bills which also sought to heavily censor the internet and came close to passing. The protest gained a lot of media attention before it was shot down, but similar bills are still being proposed today with much less being done to fight them since the hype from the SOPA/PIPA protest quickly faded – the issue requires us to be alert as long as a free internet has not yet been secured.

I have chosen to research this subject because a free and open internet is extremely advantageous to creative content producers, whilst a censored and monitored internet stifles innovation and slows cultural development whilst helping corporations to gain profits and governments to spy on users. Generations and designers after us shouldn’t be restricted any more than we are – they should grow up in a more powerful and vibrant economy rather than a crippled, monitored one. It’s very possible that we are living in the golden days of the internet and that future generations will not be lucky enough to experience the power of free culture.

The two main things that are threatening a free and open internet are censorship and monitoring/regulation of users on the internet. Corporations and governments are trying to push these new laws and systems for reasons which appear reasonable – to restrict access to torrenting websites which allow piracy (piracy is thought to damage sales in the music, film, gaming and perhaps eBook industries), prevent people from buying illegal items and substances online, and monitoring/regulating the internet to catch people searching for or producing illegal and severely disturbing content.

While these are large issues, the current proposals to deal with them have either been ineffective or too extreme. Most ‘solutions’ that governments and corporations push forward are made to solve the problem but gain either extra profit at the expense of the internet user’s freedom, or are made to also collect information or invade people’s privacy unnecessarily. In an attempt to make piracy difficult for users to commit, corporations use techniques such as DRM, tethered software, and piracy ads that you can’t skip at the start of DVD’s – all of these are tactics that make the experience less pleasant for honest customers, and they are also tactics which pirates can easily avoid through cracking DRM, tricking tethered software and providing pirated versions of DVD’s that do not contain irritating anti-piracy ads.

During my research I have come across a number of sources which have been crucial to my understanding of the current climate surrounding my chosen subject. TPB:AFK (The Pirate Bay : Away From Keyboard) is a documentary released in 2013 which follows the founders of popular notorious torrenting website The Pirate Bay through their joint criminal and civil prosecution trials in Swedish courts in 2009. The documentary also introduced me to Roger Wallis, chairman of the Swedish Composers of Popular Music who is a pro-file-sharing researcher. Good Copy Bad Copy (GCBC) is a documentary released in 2007 which looks at what file-sharing across the internet allows musicians to create and how it allows culture to thrive and develop, whilst also considering the legal implications and impact. GCBC also introduced me to Lawrence Lessig, the founder of Creative Commons – a system being developed to change the way that copyright works today. This led me onto Lessig’s book ‘Free Culture’, which looks at arguments for and against current copyright laws. Whilst researching proposed solutions to the problem that I’m looking at, I discovered the Free Internet Act’s Digital Bill of Rights – an international crowd-sourced legislation made to prevent the erosion of our civil liberties in the face of increasing pressure to regulate the internet, especially on behalf of corporations and copyright holders. Unfortunately the development of the unfinished bill was abandoned in late 2012 due to a lack of contributors and diminishing public attention and interest. Through a typo whilst searching for information on The Digital Bill of Rights I came across The Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Electronic Learners, a bill which was passed in the United States in 1993 made to protect internet user’s privacy and right to free speech, which also helps my argument. Whilst looking at statistics surrounding piracy I also stumbled upon a handy report, The Sky is Rising (by Michael Masnick and Michael Ho) and its sequel, The Sky is Rising 2 which looks at sales figures in relation to piracy in Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Russia and Spain.

I would like to start my insight by looking at how my sources address piracy, as this issue is essentially the elephant in the room throughout my research – until I slay this beast it’s going to cast a shadow. In Good Copy Bad Copy, Dan Glickman – chairman and CEO of The MPAA (The Motion Picture Association of America) admits that they’re trying to slow the success of piracy, “we recognise and we know that we will never stop piracy. Never. We just have to try to make it as difficult and as tedious as possible to do.” later, Ronaldo Lemos – Professor of Law at FGV (Fundação Getúlio Vargas) Brazil provides an insight into why they may be doing this, “Society is the biggest competitor for Hollywood, the music industry and the publishing industry. So you have this new competitor that is everyone else. So the law has been consistently changed in the past 12 years in order to protect certain very specific interests. Especially for the North American cultural industry. In order to prevent society from becoming the producer of culture in itself, for itself ”. Of course, you’d probably argue that they’re doing this because piracy unethically ruins profits. Roger Wallis backs up the conspiracy as he leaves the court room in TPB:AFK after acting as witness for The Pirate Bay, stating that pro-file sharing researchers are “hunted down with a whip” by pro-copyright forces. Why is this? Because piracy isn’t quite as bad as it’s made out to be.

These pro-file sharing researchers have been revealing some surprising statistics, according to Roger Wallis and the regional study The Sky is Rising 2. According to an article by Torrent Freak (a website which covered and recorded The Pirate Bay trials in 2009), Wallis was questioned on the link between the decline of album sales and file sharing, responding that his research has shown that there is no relation between the two – in fact, Wallis went on to say that downloading music caused an increase in sales of live event tickets, and that people who download music also tend to buy more CD’s than others who don’t download. The Sky is Rising 2 backs these claims up – between 2007 and 2013 live music revenues have gone up in percentages ranging from 10 – 15 percent, with Russia’s rising by 105 percent and Germany as an exception dropping by 20 percent [p.A2]. Whilst music sales revenue is also rising [p.9], so are authorized online music services (platforms for new and ethical distribution of music such as Spotify or Pandora), with them increasing by 407 percent in the UK between 2007 and 2011 [p.A5].

Ignoring these statistics, the pro-copyright forces claim losses of billions of dollars worldwide due to piracy, using inaccurate methods to work out their lost revenue – such as counting every illegal download as a lost sale, despite the fact that a ‘pirate’ might download an album because he can’t be bothered to find his legally obtained copy (in GCBC, remix musician ‘Girl Talk’ admits that he does this a lot), many people may download it more than once, and downloading an album does not suggest that you would have bought it had you not downloaded it. This kind of incompetence leads me to believe that perhaps a lot of pro-copyright supporters don’t quite understand computers or the internet – an idea which is backed up by the way that they are depicted in TPB:AFK, where lawyers, prosecutors and judges get megabytes and megabits mixed up, need internet-acronyms explained to them, and make crucial mistakes in wildly overestimating the profits that The Pirate Bay had made through ads on their site due to a severe lack of understanding of how pages work on websites.

Not only is piracy made to look like an unstoppable, culture-stomping beast, but as stated in The Sky is Rising 2, it is made clear that while you can’t stop piracy, you can beat it; “In Russia, video game piracy was once thought to be such an overwhelming problem that some distributors would ignore the market. But with some innovative tactics, Steam has grown its service to the point where its Russian customers accounted for more revenue than its sales in any European market except Germany.” Steam is a revolutionary gaming distribution platform which has turned the gaming industry upside-down by accepting that piracy exists, and selling games in a way that is more convenient to the user than pirating them.

As mentioned previously, Ronaldo Lemos suggests that the pro-copyright forces are fighting against file sharing because it allows society to create culture without the media’s regulation – corporations would lose control. A lot of my sources cry for a change to current copyright laws – the incomplete Digital Bill of Rights states, “We, the Users of the Internet do declare that when copyright is unreasonably applied and/or fraudulently claimed, it is a form of censorship. Current copyright laws are a threat to both human rights and innovation.” [Article II: Freedom of Speech and Expression, Section 2], which protects users from copyright claims which are purely for profit. The Sky is Rising states, “the way forward should focus on adapting to new digital technologies and business models — not looking to preserve outdated distribution methods.” [p.2], in Good Copy Bad Copy Peter Jenner (British music manager and record producer) claims “If the record companies stick to their old business model in the new technology… It will not work. It will only slow down the development.” The Bill of Rights and Responsibilities for Electronic Learners which was published 20 years ago states, “As new technology modifies the system and further empowers individuals, new values and responsibilities will change this culture. As technology assumes an integral role in education and lifelong learning, technological empowerment of individuals and organizations becomes a requirement and right for students, faculty, staff, and institutions, bringing with it new levels of responsibility that individuals and institutions have to themselves and to other members of the educational community” [Preamble, Line 7]. In Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture he states, “A technology has given us a new freedom. Slowly, some begin to understand that this freedom need not mean anarchy. We can carry a free culture into the twenty-first century, without artists losing and without the potential of digital technology being destroyed.” [p.238]

Lawrence Lessig also did a Google talk following the release of his book, in which he describes our current society as a ‘Read-Only’ or ‘RO’ Culture – in the world before technology this worked fine, he says, because “most uses of culture by ordinary people were unregulated (e.g. lending a friend a book) and free because a copy is not being produced – the target of copyright law is the commercial use of culture only”. In the present however, this doesn’t hold up because “it’s not possible to use a piece of culture without producing a copy – no matter how temporary it is (for example, reading a .pdf online will produce a temporary copy on your computer’s RAM rather than borrowing the original), thus every single use requires permission from the creator” for this reason, when you buy digital content you’re usually buying the producer’s permission to use it, rather than buying a copy of the culture itself. He suggests that we aim for a ‘Read-Write’ or ‘RW’ Culture instead – this is where copyright permission is only needed to use something commercially, or the creator gets to choose the copyright permissions on anything that they create (this is what Creative Commons aims to achieve). “The tools developed to kill piracy also kill the potential for a Read-Write internet”. In a RW culture, the potential for creativity is huge – according to The Sky is Rising 2 Regional Study, even whilst being fought by corporations and governments, cultural freedom is succeeding, “we are actually living in a true renaissance period of abundance, with each industry growing in terms of revenue — but even more impressively in terms of content output, often expanding at unheard of rates.” [p.1], and when looking at the content being produced in detail, “It would be easy and simpler to exclude all amateur musicians from official music production figures, but doing so would also grossly underestimate the potential of the music industry and undercount the diversity of the field of music.” This isn’t only the case in the music industry – “Authors are writing books as never before, and the world’s libraries are filled with more new book titles than at any other time in history. In 1999, UNESCO estimated the annual worldwide book production to be on the order of 1 million new titles published per year. Since then, estimates of the annual worldwide book production have more than doubled to over 2 million new books per year — and the rate is still accelerating.” When talking about the controversial remix culture that copyright attempts to thwart in Good Copy Bad Copy, Lawrence Lessig states “You can either call them criminals or pirates and use all the tools of law and technology to block them, or we can begin to encourage them by making a wide range of material available, which gives them a better understanding of their past and a much better opportunity to say something about the future.”, and in his Free Culture book talks about the opinions on the matter from the ‘opposition’, “An insider from Hollywood—who insists he must remain anonymous— reports “an amazing conversation with these studio guys. They’ve got extraordinary [old] content that they’d love to use but can’t because they can’t begin to clear the rights. They’ve got scores of kids who could do amazing things with the content, but it would take scores of lawyers to clean it first.”” [p.238]

While the internet as it stands is a thriving free culture (okay it’s not entirely free, but it technically is as long as our proxy’s still gain access to The Pirate Bay), the risks in taking part in the development of it can be severe. In TPB:AFK, the founders of The Pirate Bay are each sentenced to a year each in prison, with a multi-million dollar fine to pay – they appeal of course, resulting in shorter sentences in prison. The unfinished Digital Bill of Rights would have protected The Pirate Bay, “No User shall be tried for crimes involving the Internet, except in the User’s country of location at the time of commission of the crime” [Article VII: Culpability, Section 1: Residency] the founders were trialled because of pressure from the American government to pursue them. Aaron Swartz, an American computer programmer and internet activist was charged with 50 years in prison in 2011 for downloading scholarly articles from an academic database. Earlier this year – 2 years after sentencing, he was found dead in his apartment due to suicide – his family and friends said that he was “driven to his death by a justice system that hounded him needlessly over an alleged crime with no real victims” [via rollingstone.com]. According to Lawrence Lessig in Free Culture, “Congressmen are talking about deputizing computer viruses to bring down computers thought to violate the law.” [p.238], which violates current privacy laws and “Universities are threatening expulsion for kids who use a computer to share content.” – governments and corporations are aiming to restrict the free internet further, which could eventually put an end to the idea of a thriving creative Read-Write Culture.

To conclude, take a look at the cultural media available online today and you’ll see that it’s clear that recent advances in technology have allowed the quality and quantity of content produced to sky-rocket – have you heard Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’? I can’t say I like it. However, the vintage-style cover by the Postmodern Jukebox? It’s pretty good, but then the Electro Swing remix by Bart & Baker of the vintage-style cover by the Postmodern Jukebox of Macklemore’s ‘Thrift Shop’? I absolutely adore it. We’re only witnessing the start of a vibrant Read-Write Culture, and we can’t take it for granted as long as it’s under attack by dying industries that refuse to adapt. In an ideal world, I feel that corporations as they stand now need to die so that they can be reborn with the understanding of the current culture and technology. Piracy is here to stay – we need to look at how we can adapt to it and use it to our advantage, rather than using it as a escape-goat for unsatisfactory profit margins.

“Freedom provides a more vibrant economy than restriction and control.” – Lawrence Lessig

London, New Studio, New Stuff, Game Progress.
September 26th, 2013

Yeah~ I’m calling my bedroom a studio now. Well I won’t any more – that would be weird. Just sometimes.

Wanted to get some pictures of my new working space, largely because of my new MIDI keyboard which I love. I’d like to become at least a little bit proficient with music production – I have a lot of respect for sound in film and games, and figured that I should get to a point where I’m quite confident with it. Whenever I’ve tried to work with Ableton or anything in the past it has been an overwhelming nightmare, but the MIDI keyboard helps me out a lot.

I’ve also been making a lot of progress on my Android/IOS game.

Most of what you see there are just placeholders while I continue to get it all running nicely – the eye-cancerous background for example helps me get an idea of the player’s speed. Trying to work on creating the illusion of an endless room – it’ll require a seamless transitions between a list of (I expect) 30+ rooms, which will be picked randomly according to progress and inventory. I almost had the problem sorted, but ran into some other issues – should be back on track with it soon. Quite caught up preparing for university and trying to tie up some freelance projects before I’m overwhelmed with uni work, but I expect I’ll have the time to succeed in getting this game out by the end of the year if I stay organised. I’m feeling pretty confident with it.

 Can’t stop listening to Disasterpeace at the moment. Dying to play Fez all over again.