Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Video game addictions? I think not.

Are video games addictive?  At first, one would be inclined to think so with the funny and sometimes horrific news stories, forum articles, and crazy addiction videos.  There are thousands upon thousands of stories of video game addictions on the internet.  There are threads about people who forget to feed their children because of a game called Second Life, and people who lose their jobs, families, and dignity because of the game World of Warcraft.  With such obvious examples like this, it would be difficult for anyone to deny the power that video games have to take hold of their users in the form of an addiction.

Sherry Turkle brings up an interesting viewpoint that contradicts with the assumption of video game addictions as actual addiction.  In an article called Video Games and Computer Holding Power, Turkle researches the addiction question.  She examines situations in which, as people play games, they seem more “possessed” by them rather than playing them for enjoyment.  She eventually steers towards the final argument that sums up her article: the video game addiction problem is more about the people than the video games--video games themselves are not addictive.

How can they not be?  People forget to feed their children!  People lose hold of their friends, spouses, families, and sometimes even their lives!

So, why aren't they addictive?  Turkle mentions that you need look no farther than a house's back yard: gardening is the answer.


If you research briefly, gardening can be addictive, just like video games.  The key similarity between gardening and video games, as addictions, lies on the basis that both can be escapes from regular life.

Video games are an escape--an excellent escape.  They require almost no physical effort to get involved.  Note though, that it be too much of a stretch to consider all video games as addictive.  Some games are too short, too difficult, too boring, or just too strenuous to play for long periods of time.  Many of the modern video games coming out require strenuous physical exercise, which most aren't capable of performing for long periods of time.

Of all video games, there are only a few that get targeted over and over as "addictive."  These few video games are meant to be played for hours at a time, and offer great psychological rewards for doing so.  They also have the potential to be self-perpetuating, with extended play of video-games causing real-life circumstances to diminish, which then reinforces the desire to escape into the video game.

In my experience, anything that helps someone escape from the realities of their own life can be habit forming.  The video games that are commonly cited as being "addictive" fall among these tools for long-term escape, but the set of escape activities one can partake in are endless.  I strongly agree with Turkle's thesis: the great distinction that must be made is that the escape is addicting, not the game itself.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Where is the "Too Much Realism" Boundary?

Games are supposed to draw the player in, and immerse them in an experience very far and distant from their own.  In the 1980's and 1990's, people could use their gaming devices to pretend to be a plumber stomping on turtles.  But as graphics become more and more lifelike, games will continue to aim at more and more lifelike situations.

As video game design begins to be more satirical and story based, they often touch on sensitive areas of politics or ethics.  A recent example is Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 where there is a mission that "lets people kill civilians in terror attacks".  The game features a mission where the player, in an attempt to infiltrate a Russian terrorist group, takes part in the slaughtering of hundreds of civilians in an airport.  As would be expected, this has caused outrage among many parents and people across the world.  So, when is too much realism a bad thing?

I recently listened to a podcast about a one-of-a-kind game (not a video game, but board game) called Train by Brenda Brathwaite.  The game was created as an experiment to see if a game could be made about the Holocaust.  As game design goes, Train is very interesting and draws an eerie symbolism with regards to the parallels between the Holocaust and ending of the game.  The design has players attempting to collect as many people in their train cars as possible, and uses drawn "action cards" as the random element of the game.  Some cards help the player progress to the end, or collect people in their train, while others impede their progress.  The punch-line of the game occurs when one of the players reach the end of the track and "win" the game, only to realize that they successfully delivered their train full of people to Auschwitz, and ultimately "lose" the game anyway.  Train was revered as a piece of art, and received praise as being revolutionary and sensational.

A video game that sells millions of copies and includes a realistic scene of terrorism, similar to those experienced by real people around the world, can be seen as "crossing the line" with respect to comfort boundaries, while a board game that subverts its players to pack trains with people bound for concentration camps is considered a revolutionary artistic piece.  Both pieces attempt to draw realities to real life through the playing of the game, and both demonstrate pitfalls and reflections of the darker side of warfare.  However, the video game was marketed to a large general audience and was therefore much more visible, and as a result crossed the "too much realism" boundary.  Train in contrast, only one copy made, and was viewed as something unique and special.  As a result, the message was viewed as something special before people thought to blast it with criticism.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Evolution of the Video Game Console

Wow, what does a box that looks like a car battery and a woman pictured mid-kick have in common?  Well, they are both video game controllers.

What you are looking at is the evolution of the video game controller from the very first video game console (the Magnavox Odyssey, mentioned in last week's article What Are the Origins of Video Games?) to the latest controller, the Microsoft Kinect.  Ok, so maybe that image isn't exactly representative of the Microsoft Kinect, but with the latest technologies in modern video game consoles, a special camera attached to the console can track a user's movements and gestures, allowing them to control a video game without being in contact with any physical device.  But what about all of the progressions in video game consoles starting with the Magnavox Odyssey and leading up to the latest generation of video game consoles?  It is extremely important to know where consoles came from, to know where they are going.  Knowing the major improvements from the previous generation's technologies also helps provide incite into what has already been done, and what should or will be done in the future.

Here is a brief history of the seven generations of video games:
  • First Generation (1972 - 1977):  The first generation of video game consoles occurred with the Magnavox Odyssey around the beginning of the golden era of arcade games.  Consoles released in this era had awkward controls, and came preloaded with all of the console's games already installed on the devices.  Consoles were typically shipped with companion accessories like play mats, or transparent films that could be placed over the television screen to create grids or slightly distort the TV's projection for special effects in certain games. During this generation, both Nintendo and Atari got their starts, however neither had significant success.  Also, none of the consoles used microprocessors, they instead used simple state based machines specifically designed for the games implemented in their memory.
    Major importance: This was the most important generation since these were the first times that many electronic computer-like devices made their way into consumers households. 
    Generation's major consoles: Magnavox Odyssey
  • Second Generation (1976 - 1984): The first generation was quickly phased out by large technical achievements created in the second generation of video game consoles.  The most prominent feature of the second generation of video game consoles was the innovation and use of the console cartridge (while the Magnavox Odyssey technically had cartridges, they were actually just glorified keys that allowed users to play games that were already hard-wired into the console).  True cartridges used in this era contained entire highly sophisticated games.  Sega released its first console (SG-1000) during this era.
    Major Importance: Cartridges created a separation between a video game and the hardware it was run on.  The video game industry took off to become a major entertainment industry with the Atari 2600.  Some video game themes and genres today can draw their roots directly back to a game invented in this era.
    Generation's major consoles: Atari 2600, Intellivision
  • Third Generation (1983 - 1992): Nintendo and Sega's dominating lead over Atari characterizes this generation, often referred to as the "8-bit generation".  The video game crash of 1983 caused by the flooding of a large quantity of generic and poor quality games resulted in a huge restructuring in the way that console video games were licensed, designed, produced, and marketed.  Video game console producers were now much more picky with who they would license game development rights to, and would require a much higher quality threshold before allowing a game to be released.
    Major Importance: Console licensing forced developers to focus on the quality of the games they produces instead of sheer quantities of games.  Numerous advanced technologies regarding video and sound processing were introduced.  Many video game franchises had their start in this generation (Mario, Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, Legend of Zelda, etc.)
    Generation's major consoles: Nintendo Entertainment System (abbreviated NES, and called "Famicom" short for Family Computer in Japan when initially released), Sega Megadrive, Atari 7600
  •  Fourth Generation (1987 - 1996): Referred to as the "16-bit generation", major technical improvements were done to the video and sound capabilities of video game systems.  Basic 3D characters and environments were seen in video games for the first time.  Additionally, portable gaming devices that used cartridges to store games became available during this time.  Previously to generation four, most hand-held games imitated the methodology seen in the first era of gaming devices with respect to gaming devices being sold with a defined set of games being pre-programmed into the device.
    Major Importance: This generation offered the first true console rivalry between Nintendo's Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES, also called the Super Famicom in Japan), and Sega's Sega Genesis.  This would later be labeled as "the console war."  Portable gaming became popularized as well.
    Generation's major consoles: Super Nintendo Entertainment System (SNES), Sega Genesis, Neo Geo.  Handheld gaming devices: Nintendo's Game Boy and Sega's Game Gear.
  • Fifth Generation (1993-2006): Often referred to as the "32-bit generation" this time span began to show discrepancies in using the CPU's word length (i.e. the ##-bit) as a metric of capability.  64-bit systems were released during this era (e.g.: the Nintendo 64), which demonstrated that an increase in processor capability did not necessarily equate to dominating performance.  Compact Discs (CDs) as forms of video game media were introduced in this generation as well. Though users of consoles using CDs would experience frequent load times, that cartridges did not experience, the CD offered over six times the capacity over that of the largest cartridges.
    Major Importance: Sony entered the console wars.  CDs used in some fifth generation consoles allowed larger potential for game possibilities, specifically with respect to game content, the inclusion of non-synthesized music, and full motion video.  Production of CDs was much cheaper than cartridges as well.
    Generation's major consoles: Nintendo 64, Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, Atari Jaguar.  Handheld gaming devices: Nintendo Game Boy color, Neo Geo Pocket.
  • Sixth Generation (1998 - current): This generation marked the beginning of all games progressing to disc media.  Also, this was the last generation of consoles to use the bit-to-system-power metric as a marketing tool.  As such, it is only informally called the "128-bit generation."  This generation also offered the first consoles to have Internet network connectivity, allowing users to play games with other users across the Internet.  This generation also introduced devices with large amounts of internal storage (hard drives).  Until this generation, almost all game-saves had been stored either directly on the cartridge or on ejectable memory cards.  Sony offered the first dual-purpose gaming console + DVD player combination.  The Microsoft Xbox offered the feature to play DVDs, but only as a costly add-on.
    Major Importance: Cartridges were phased out of use with the much cheaper Compact Disc media.  Digital Video Disc (DVD) media used with some consoles, providing another six-fold increase of data capacity over the previous generation's CD media.  Sega discontinued console hardware production in 2001 and converted to a software-only company.  Microsoft entered the console wars.  The concept of Internet network gaming was introduced.  The hard drive was introduced as a primary game-save location as opposed to ejectable memory cards.  Though unsuccessful, the first attempt at a mobile gaming device/cell phone/music player was introduced with the Nokia N-Gage.
    Generation's major consoles: Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox, Nintendo GameCube, Sega Dreamcast.  Handheld gaming devices: Nintendo Gameboy Advance, and Advance SP, Nokia N-Gage.
  • Seventh Generation (2005 - current): This generation marked a large divergence of techniques to set each manufacturer's consoles apart from the others.  The new Microsoft and Sony consoles attempted to maximize the video performance of their devices and included high-powered computer and graphics processors, and high-definition display capability.  Sony again offered a dual-purpose gaming-device + Blu-ray Disc option (without additional cost).  Nintendo chose to remain with the standard-resolution capabilities used in previous generation's consoles in exchange for drastically altering the player's gaming interface: it introduced a revolutionary kinesthetic approach to interact with games, and featured a controller that focused on physical movements and gestures of a player rather than simple button pushing.  Because of the lack of expensive console technology, Nintendo was also able to release its new console at a much lower price than Sony's or Microsoft's.  All three major game consoles included an online component, with Microsoft requiring a paid subscription to play over the Internet, and Sony and Nintendo offering free online play.  They also offered online stores where players could purchase full games which could be downloaded from the Internet directly to their consoles.  Updates and "content packs" were also available on these online stores, allowing players to expand owned games with new weapons, game modes, and sometimes entirely new levels and stories.  A blurring and eventual combination of previously separate features provided by numerous mobile devices began to create major competition in the realm of dedicated handheld gaming devices.  
    Major Importance: Elimination of competitors left Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo as only seventh generation console manufacturers.  Internet connectivity was included with all consoles.
    Generation's major consoles: Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii.  Handheld gaming devices: Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, Apple iTouch and iPhone.
Into the future:
Original gaming devices brought us the knob, the button and the joystick.  Cell phones, once barely able to make a long phone call, now have capabilities and features comparable to those of desktop computers.  Additions to modern consoles are causing a large shift in the ways that users interact with games.  And now all modern video game consoles feature a controller (or in Microsoft's case, a camera) that use a largely kinesthetic approach to interact with video games.  At the advent of the Magnavox Odyssey, it may have been hard to imagine a console like the Kinect would someday follow.  It may also be interesting to see if the explosive growth of the gaming market due to mobile game distribution systems like Apple's App Store will cause a repeat of 1983's video game crash.  Given these past 40 years of advances in video game technologies, the next 40 years promise to be an exciting experience in the video game industry.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

What Are the Origins of Video Games?

With the Sony Playstation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii consoles for playing games on your TV, and the new and impressive changes being made to computer games and computer hardware, we lose track of video game origins.  The first video game, computer game, and video game console were the first of the games and consoles we view as commonplace today.  Here is a brief set of "firsts" for the video gaming world:

The first video game:  The first true recorded video game was a game called Tennis for Two (which later evolved into Pong).  It was a tennis-style sports game created in 1958 by William Higinbotham, and actually used a monochrome oscilloscope as it's display!  Higinbotham designed the game with two control boxes with knobs so each player could control their in-game paddles located on the sides of the oscilloscope.  The control also included a button to serve the ball.  The true technical marvel used in Tennis For Two utilized a simple analog computer to display the "tennis ball" as a blip of light on the oscilloscope's screen, and to calculate the ball's trajectory.
The first computer game: Three men named Steve Russel, Alan Kotok, and Peter Sampson, all students at MIT, created the first computer game called Spacewar! in 1962.  It was a combat game which took place in space, where the players fought each other in their own spaceships.  It was built on the DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) PDP-1 computer and featured a moving background, non-player obstacles, and synthesized music.
The first video game console (television gaming apparatus): was the Brown Box invented by Ralph Baer in 1968.  Millions of TVs existed in the United States in the late 1960’s, but they were only used for viewing radio broadcasts.  Ralph Baer determined that he could create a gaming apparatus that could be hooked up to the televisions and allow people to play interactive games with a piece of hardware using their televisions as video displays.  The design was ultimately purchased by a company called Magnavox, which bought the concept device from him, fine-tuned it, and made it into the first commercially sold video game console: the Magnavox Odyssey, in 1972.  Among the first game options were a light-rifle shooting game, a baseball game, a volleyball game, and a racing game.  Other educational options--though not "games" in their definitive sense--were available as well, such as an interactive US States study map.

Source: Supercade- A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971-1984 (Van Burnham)
(Available on Amazon) 

What is a (Video) Game?

Defining a video game is relatively simple: a video game is simply an electronic version of a game that generates its visual feedback on a video monitor.  This leads to the more important and abstract question then: what is a game?”  Knowing the answer to this question forms the core understanding of games structures and essence.  After learning this, you will better understand any game you have played and will ever play at any time in your entire life.  

Difficulty arises when trying to form a distinction to how games are different from every other facet of life.  What purpose should games fulfill that other life activities may not?  

In 1950, a dutch historian by the name of Johan Huizinga gave the first good definition of a game.  The definition could be roughly summed up to describe a game as a “magic circle”, where the player engages in an activity with its own rules and expectations, that stands outside ”ordinary” life, and is ”not serious” but at the same time absorbs the player.  This first genuine attempt to define a game fell short though as too many potential overlaps with "real life" activities that are not games could be made (example: taking a final exam in a University could be taken as a “game” by his definition).  Many other attempts at definitions arose throughout the next fifty years by many people who defined certain aspects of games, such as that they were a psychological escape from every-day-life, as well as four main classifications of games.  However, no definitions made clear what differentiated a game from the rest of every-day-life activities.  Finally in 2003, a man by the name of Jesper Juul analyzed many of the academic papers on games, and published his own paper which summed up the 6 essential qualities needed for a game to be considered a true "game":
  1. Fixed Rules - A game needs a fixed set of rules to be a baseline for every player to play against.
  2. Variable and Quantifiable Outcome - The game must provide different possible outcomes.  The goal/outcome must also be well defined.
  3. Valorization of the Outcome - Some possible outcomes of the game are better than others.  
  4. Player Effort - The game must be challenging and it must allow the player to interact with and change the outcome based on their decisions.
  5. Attachment of the Player to the Outcome - The player must care about specific aspects of the outcome.
  6. Negotiable Consequences - The player must have the option to lose or leave the game at any time, as well as having the option to opt-out of any real life consequences (so losing the game will have no financial or physical impact on the player's real life).
Combining these definitions, we can finally describe a game as:
"A fixed set of rules determining a valorized and variable outcome, which the player is attached to and has to work towards, but has negotiable consequences."

And as stated initially, a video game is simply a game that uses a video monitor for its output.

Jesper Juul’s full paper can be found here: http://www.jesperjuul.net/text/gameplayerworld/