Discussing the experience–and meaning–of video game interaction

We often talk about video games the way we talk about cinema, but games principally draw us into their worlds via avenues not available to traditional, narrative media–such as offering players, in a stylized fashion, the kind of agency and interaction we often experience in everyday life. In a video essay for the online media journal [in]Transition, scholar Ian Bryce Jones explores how the concepts of affordance and effectivity (terms coined by J.J. Gibson to discuss our own embodiment in the world) operate within games–and how games conspire to embed us in digital worlds as agentive beings that transcend (or at least pre-empt) traditional notions of identification through narrative causality or visual representation. I had the profound pleasure of peer reviewing Jones’ excellent video essay and contributed some thoughts on the topic (one that very much animates my own research into interaction and the experience of gameplay). Check out the video and my remarks here: http://mediacommons.org/intransition/special-effectivities.

Get the book How to Play Video Games!

Yet another publication has forgone taste and judgment to include my work: the wonderful anthology How to Play Video Games (NYU Press, 2019), edited by the amazing colleagues Matthew Thomas Payne and Nina B. Huntemann. In this book I write about the invention of Nintendo’s D-pad button scheme (the now iconic “+” sign), which not only graced almost every handheld game device Nintendo ever made, but also appeared on most console game controllers–thereby unifying how we play video games across devices (and decades, as the D-pad continues to take up controller real estate in various iterations to this day). Go get the book… it’s good stuff for scholars, students, and gamers alike!

UCLA Game Art Festival – Nov. 14 – Hammer Museum

Something games exhibition-related I’ve been working on (a lot!) recently…. Come join the fun 7-10 p.m. Tuesday, November 14, at the Hammer Museum. Bonus points: it’s free!

UCLA Game Art Festival returns with exciting, eclectic collection of games and game art

One night only! Tuesday, November 14, 7-10 p.m. @ the Hammer Museum

Festival to feature more than 50 playable exhibits

Videogames, tournaments, live performances, board games, screenings, and more!

Los Angeles, CA – Now in its fifth year, the 2017 UCLA Game Art Festival returns with an exciting and eclectic collection of curated games and game-based art from around the world. Presented in a playful format, the UCLA Game Art Festival will feature more than 50 digital and tabletop games, live performances, screenings, VR/AR works, and other game art installations. The festival will be held 7-10 p.m. Tuesday, November at the Hammer Museum in Westwood, CA. Admission is free.

Presented by the UCLA Game Lab in collaboration with the Hammer Museum, the UCLA Game Art Festival will feature playable digital and tabletop games, large-screen projections of game art, a curated board-game lounge, a cinema installation, live stage performances, music, refreshments, and food trucks just outside the museum. This year’s festival is curated and organized by Eddo Stern, Isla Hansen, Tyler Stefanich, and David O’Grady of the UCLA Game Lab.

As with previous festivals, the focus remains on showcasing an eclectic mix of independent, game art projects that may not otherwise reach the public. To that end, more than 1,500 people attended the last festival in 2015—an indication for Festival Director Eddo Stern, UCLA Design Media Arts professor and artist, that the event is fulfilling its mission.

“This year’s festival reflects our ongoing commitment to expanding the concept of what gaming means for many people,” Stern said. “The games we exhibit transcend conventional notions of digital gaming: many of them combine physical and digital media, employ new aesthetic language, or use one-of-a-kind controllers, to deliver political, polemical, and emotional play experiences—terrain often avoided by more industrial, mainstream games.”

One of the most exciting aspects of the festival is the live stage show, which will feature a three-hour program of games, music and live performances that explore intersections among games and theater, puppetry, and other arts. Highlights include a performance by the Future Ladies of Wrestling (aka F.L.O.W.), a live, multimedia wrestling event, and a tournament-style presentation of Gecko Ridemption, a videogame developed by artists in the UCLA Game Lab that was commissioned by Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim.

Returning to the festival is the much beloved UCLA Game Lab Arcade Backpack, our popular, human arcade machine, which will be roving throughout the festival. To double the fun, this year’s festival will feature two backpacks, both offering a rotating series of games to play throughout the evening.

Live music will be provided by the Game Music Ensemble at UCLA, a student-run orchestra, choir, and chamber ensemble dedicated to performing and celebrating original video game music. The ensemble will be performing throughout the festival on the balcony level near the board game lounge, as well as taking the main stage to conclude the festival.

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Share information, save the world? Some thoughts on The Shockwave Rider

I finally got around to reading John Brunner’s prescient The Shockwave Rider (1975), a sci-fi novel many credit for breaking ground on what would later become the cyberpunk genre. Inspired by Alvin Toffler’s highly influential book Future Shock, Brunner grapples with the consequences of an Internet-like connected society on the nature of identity, power, and most importantly, information itself. (It even contains an oblique reference to the Magnavox Odyssey videogame system of the early 1970s!)

Much like Asimov’s laws of robotics, Brunner attempts to harness technology’s humanistic potential with positivistic propositions; his novel ends with two declarations for a net-connected, utopian-like information age:

“#1: That this is a richShockwave Rider pic planet. Therefore poverty and hunger are unworthy of it, and since we can abolish them, we must.

#2: That we are a civilized species. Therefore none shall henceforth gain illicit advantage by reason of the fact that we together know more than one of us can know.”

Share information, save the world: This is a very 1960s conclusion to a book that has otherwise only grown more persuasively contemporary for its pessimistic view of information control. If the computers we built to control information, in response to the industrial revolution, have perversely made society post-industrial, they have also made us personally post-control. The recent Pew survey on digital privacy suggests that we have given up on controlling personal information as a society; we trade data about ourselves for the chance to share likes on Facebook. This is not an entirely trivial trade—either in what we gain or lose—but it has led to the consolidation of incredible data about ourselves in the hands of a few.

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Cyberpunk is dead; long live cyberpunk

USC recently hosted a conference on cyberpunk (Cyberpunk: Past and Future), featuring many of the movement’s old titans (such as Bruce Sterling and Rudy Rucker) and new gods (Alex Rivera, John Jennings and Claire Evans). Hosted by Henry Jenkins, the conference was, among other things, a good reminder of cyberpunk’s origins and influences—and of its rapid slide into obsolescence, a fate that engulfs most literature like any other technology (especially a literature about technology).

A brief historical recap: The sunny, hippy narrative of computer lib and communal empowerment through technology in the 1970s darkei_2015_04_24_Cyberpunk_150x200ned into gothic paranoia, corporate domination, and libertarian-tinged resistance in the science fiction of 1980s and 90s. William Gibson’s Neuromancer didn’t christen the era, but it crystallized it; and while many declare cyberpunk dead by the early 1990s, I see The Matrix as an artistic, thematic, and popular endpoint, a transition into a post-cyberpunk world. When Neo morphs from underground hacker into simulation savior, cyberpunk is no longer cyber or punk.

It’s unclear if cyberpunk will ever recover from its success, so to speak, or find new relevance. Like film noir, it seems both hidebound to an historical era and ubiquitous in its influences. For younger generations, cyberpunk remains hidden in plain sight; whenever I mention William Gibson or Neal Stephenson to my new media students, I get blank stares. Younger generations probably can’t be blamed for this blind spot, for much of what cyberpunk celebrated and feared has become the new normal. The computer cowboys hacking the mega-corporations are just another part of the world—a world of digital toolsets, of applications—of endless technology and gadgetry (new device of the week: Apple Watch). There’s nothing inherently punk about tech anymore (see the bro-ification of Silicon Valley as cultural proof). Techno-culture is, essentially, just plain culture, for better and worse; it seems to have consumed cyberpunk’s subversive edge.

Claire Evans’ brief talk at the conference—and her wonderful article on cyberpunk at Motherboard—underscore the definitive death and endless, if fragmented, afterlife of a sensibility that still informs our ideas about politics, aesthetics, society and individualism, augmented consciousness/embodiment, and yes, technology. Perhaps cyberpunk as a cultural brand—and as a conference topic—is going through the standard cultural spin cycle of obsolescence, rediscovery and reification. But cyberpunk’s interrogations of technology and culture remain fertile for modding and repurposing. As cyberpunk’s leading luminary Bruce Sterling contended in his conference remarks, no one interested in writing sci-fi today should create a cyberpunk novel; they should focus on creating visions for the 22nd century. But one could do worse than crack open the case of an old Gibson, Stephenson, Sterling or Rucker literary machine, look under the hood, and contemplate to what future visions and voices those wires might lead.

Brian Sutton-Smith, Scholar of What’s Fun, Dies at 90 – NYTimes.com

Brian Sutton-Smith, Scholar of What’s Fun, Dies at 90 – NYTimes.com.

“The beginning of a revolution in thought:” Remembering Ralph Baer, father of the videogame

Ralph H. Baer, inventor of the Magnavox Odyssey, the first home videogame system, died December 6. Although Baer didn’t create the first videogame, he invented something more important: videogaming as a mainstream medium. BaerPerhaps this would have happened anyway, with the personal computer bringing games and other amusements from the research lab into the home office and living room by the 1980s, but Baer intuited that screens and interfaces didn’t have to wait for integrated circuits or software. Television technology was sufficient to give people screen-based agency in the service of play–but it would take Baer’s insight to blend play and technological know-how into a new cultural object and activity. Recall that, in 1972, most people had no concept of what a videogame was –the name “videogame” hadn’t even been coined yet. Most people at the time still saw the TV set as a fragile, impenetrable device–an appliance that could only receive airwaves from afar, not generate self-controlled images. To remediate TV into a playable device, Magnavox took the unusual step of demonstrating the Odyssey within television’s own ludic context–the game show–as poof of concept. Here’s Rod Serling(!) playing Odyssey Tennis before a befuddled group of panelists on “I’ve Got a Secret” in fall 1972 (go to about 15:40 for the Serling/Odyssey segment):

For various technical and industrial reasons, Baer’s vision for the Odyssey was never fully realized–the system would prove more intriguing than entertaining–but history shows that the Odyssey triumphed as a “demo” of the medium’s potential. The New York Times obituary for Baer quotes videogame historian Keith Feinstein, who called the Odyssey “the beginning of a revolution in thought.” This is no hyperbole; Baer changed the way we relate to media forever. Baer foresaw that we could enter the screen and take control within its spatiotemporal frame. The screen no longer was just for “reading” representations; we could make (and destroy) our own worlds in there. We’ve been turning knobs and pushing buttons in the name of play ever since. Baer’s gift to culture–like many gifts–has been both celebrated and abused over the last five decades. Let’s hope that the future of videogaming–as a medium, as an industry, as an art form–embraces the inclusivity, diversity, and creativity that Baer had in mind when he and two other engineers decided to mock-up a hare-brained idea: a TV paddle game that most anyone could play.

Play is a subversive act: UCLA Game Lab featured in Mediascape

VIETNAM_ROMANCE_CARD_SPAZZThe UCLA Game Lab (where I work as a researcher) is profiled by yours truly in the latest issue of Mediascape, UCLA’s Journal of Cinema and Media Studies. My article contemplates how the concept of adaptation—as a biological and cultural imperative—informs game design and play. A number of game lab designers and their games appear in the article, including Vietnam RomanceClassroom AquaticPerfect WomanObjectif, and many others. Check out the complete article at Mediascape.

Simulation from the neck up: A few early thoughts about Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift, a head-mounted, virtual reality interface conceived for mass production and everyday use, is tentatively scheduled for wide release in the next year. But the hype is already here: more than 50,000 developer OR units have been released, and new interactive games and other media designed specifically for OR are emerging. Media culture high and low has also taken notice: OR won a best-in-show award at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, and it’s already inspired (if that’s the right word) several NSFW parodies of the pornographic possibilities for VR (an idea depicted long ago in the under-appreciated 1983 film Brainstorm.)

While early iterations of OR are capturing popular imagination, how well does OR capture virtual reality? I’ve had a chance to play with the device in both videogame and art experience installations, and below I describe a few early observations.

crystal_cove1 (1)

OR persuasively addresses one of the nagging embodiment issues of navigation in simulated environments: the loss of the neck. Anyone who has played first-person videogames knows the powerful, isomorphic relation between the body as an apparatus of mobile perception and the body as a subjective camera position in screenic environments. But there are limits to this immersive quality; one generally can’t “look” in one direction while “moving” in the other (the strafing mechanic perhaps being one exception). Given the loss of proprioception in non-motion-control videogames—all movement and spatial awareness is grafted to the visual plane and translated to the hand controller—it makes sense to lock head and body into the same vertical axis and “become the gun.”

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Does the NSA have its own guild? And other questions we thought we’d never ask

For this week’s new media theory class I had put the subject of privacy on the syllabus—and the universe certainly did respond with a lot of topical material. First, a gaggle of Internet-based media companies released an open letter December 9 calling for privacy reform. The “Reform Government Surveillance” declaration, signed by companies such as Google, Yahoo, and Facebook, encourages establishing clear limits to and conditions for government data-gathering efforts. The open letter likely comes in response to public outrage in recent months about the collusion between the government and digital media and telecommunication providers to tap the information pipelines running through our computers and phones.

But in a more funny-scary vein, news reports confirmed this week that NSA overreach has gone beyond this world to ensnare the fictional plane of Azeroth: government agents are now disguising themselves as elves and dwarves to infiltrate MMORPGs. The New York Times released a video on the subject:

Perhaps the feds have been reading too much Neal Stephenson—or maybe employees just want to play videogames at work. But putting aside the ridiculousness, inefficiency, and creepiness of using game worlds to catch or commit terrorism, there is something Cold-War quaint—even poignant—about the idea of counter-espionage as personal, clandestine actions simulated by avatars in digital spaces. If online gaming is conducive to so many kinds of cultural re-creation (built environment, political and social structures, arts and crafts, interpersonal communication, and so on), then perhaps a more romanticized, 1950s notion of espionage and counter-espionage is also being played out in such fantasy worlds. For many NSA employees, real-world spy games probably involve little more than crunching data. But donning a cloak of invisibility to infiltrate a suspicious party of elves—perhaps that is when a counter-terrorism analyst feels closest to his calling.