Archive for Periodicals

Excerpts from Ben Jackson’s essay in the upcoming ‘Distance’

FarmVille, a Zynga property

My friend Nick Disabato recently founded a quarterly print publication called Distance, which pledges to underscore “longform essays about design and technology.” It launches next month.

Nick himself is something of a comparative media Renaissance guy, and on the whole I trust his judgment. Last week he recommended I skim an excerpt from one of the magazine’s first essays. The piece was written by somebody named Benjamin Jackson. Nick suggested I might find Ben’s work “interesting.”

Um, yes. Yes, I found it interesting. Why, a week and a half earlier I had hemorrhaged something passingly similar to Ben’s excerpt, albeit nothing so cohesive.

You owe it to yourself to read Ben’s essay, too, because it connects seemingly disparate ideas about patternicity, carrot-dangling, “gambling,” and the ethics of the con:

It was later revealed that the machine, more commonly known as the Mechanical Turk, was an elaborately constructed ruse, where a highly-skilled human chess player of extremely small stature was hidden in the cabinet. Openings on the sides revealed gears, levers and machinery designed to misdirect the viewer into thinking that the Baron had devised some mechanical means of intelligently responding to a player’s moves.

The Mechanical Turk is an early example of unethical game design. Later examples include three-card monte, in which a spectator is shown a card, is asked to follow it with their eyes, and is then misled into following the wrong card. Many casino games are unethical: for example, slot machines usually randomize their payouts to ensure that players keep coming back, even when they’re clearly losing money. But unethical traits can appear in any game, no matter how subtle, and a recent crop of games shows a fuzzier moral ground.

The primary characteristic of unethical games is that they are manipulative, misleading, or both. From a user experience standpoint, these games display dark patterns: common design decisions that trick users into doing something against their will. Dark patterns are usually employed to maximize some metric of success, such as email signups, checkouts, or upgrades; they generally test well when they’re released to users.

For example, FarmVille, Tap Fish, and Club Penguin take advantage of deep-rooted psychological impulses to make money from their audiences. They take advantage of gamers’ completion urge by prominently displaying progress bars that encourage leveling up. They randomly time rewards in much the same way as the slot machines described above. And they spread virally by compelling players to constantly post requests to their friends’ walls.

This trend is not just limited to social games, though: many combat games, like America’s Army, are funded by the U.S. military and serve as thinly-veiled recruitment tools5. Some brands have launched Facebook games like Cheez-It’s Swap-It!, and they serve as tools to sell more products. These techniques can be used in any sort of game, in any context.

What, with all these concurrent ideas about “scams,” is Ben readying to describe to us?

ZYNGA. He is about to discuss ZYNGA.

A longer excerpt appeared this afternoon at The Atlantic. Now you can really see how cohesive Ben’s piece is. It is all about the maturation of the con, how Zynga lands us, hook, line, and sinker.

Here is an especially magnetic aside about “what” makes a “game” “good,” and why we might choose to invest in any game the way we do (it strongly borrows from the sociological idea of “cost,” wherein every human relationship is a type of transaction):

At IndieCade in October 2011, Adam Saltsman, Canabalt’s creator, discussed the notion of “time until death.” All of us have a finite amount of time on earth, and any time we spend on a particular activity is time that we can’t spend doing something else. This means that the time we spend gaming represents most of a game’s cost of ownership, far more than any money that we spend. If that time is enjoyable (or rather, if its benefits outweigh its costs), then the game was worth our time.

Really exciting stuff; I can’t wait to see what the entire essay contains.

You can help Nick Disabato kickstart Distance over here.

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On writing for print

A painting of an eye-in-the-sky, looking over a city, by artist Jose Luis Olivares

I am about to try something really new. I’ve said that before, but this time I definitely totally mean it.

Lately, I have been getting messages from friends (Allan) about an essay of mine that appeared in Kill Screen Magazine, Issue 3: Intimacy. People, this thing was published in April. Come on.

Obviously I think you should buy the US$15 magazine, which is still available. I know a lot of people get irritated at the idea of spending that kind of money on printed media, which baffles me, but some people believe everything should be online for free. They’ve gotten used to a certain type of accessibility, and I guess that’s OK.

There are a lot of reasons you should buy the magazine, though. For one, it isn’t that old, and it’s a really good issue, and $15 isn’t that much money, and you will have this magazine forever, unless you lose it. For two, we need to support print media right now. (This is very much like a plea I meant to post back in April.) For my own part, I was already paid for my contribution to the magazine, so just buy the magazine, already. For another, we owe the person who ably and singlehandedly edited the piece, writer Chris Dahlen, because he really did do most of the work. Without a good editor, I A) would have given up, or B) would have written something much longer/shorter/worse, but probably just option A.

I wrote this essay, “All the Spaces Between Us,” very specifically for Kill Screen Magazine. It had occurred to me to pitch it to Chris one night in the car, I think in October 2010, when I was going down the highway. (This is how the magic happens, you guys.)

I realized I had some things I wanted to talk about, but if I wanted to go all the way, all-in, I’d have to write for print. That’s because the printed word affords you a freedom you don’t really get with Internet writing. Everyone can see Internet writing and then pass it around, so you have to watch what you say. Plus you don’t want to experiment with putting your whole soul on the line for strangers, and then here comes Joe Dickhead in the comments, picking it apart. Listen, Dickhead! That’s what college was for! OK!

With print, though, people have to pay for the privilege of taking your writing seriously, and because your writing isn’t very muscular anyway, a lot of people are going to flip past your essay. That’s a very freeing feeling, to know that a lot of people won’t stop to read, or else they will get exhausted and stop reading before you ever start making your Very Important Points.

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Kill Screen, issue #1: the No Fun Issue

Hi, mom. Hi! It’s me! Yeah, hi!

What? No, I haven’t taken the GRE yet. Hang on, hey, I was calling to tell you—hmm? My driver’s license? Um, nuh-uh, I didn’t renew it. But I—huh? Well, I mean, probably. No, I mean, I’ll get the oil changed, I think I can do that for twenty bucks at the Car-X. What? Yes, we are. No. Yes. Yes. Probably a movie or something. No, I think I’ve actually stopped losing weight. What? Well, ramen and granola, mostly. OK. OK. OK. I don’t think so? OK.

Hey, I was actually phoning to tell you about my article in the magazine. What? No, my article. Well, the magazine is called Kill Screen—uh, no, it’s a video game magazine, I guess “kill screen” is like a video game, uh, term.

But it’s Kill Screen, issue number one, the “No Fun Issue,” and my column is about gender and sex and sexism and uh genderism, and the magazine is twenty dollars. What? No, I get one copy. No, I just get the one copy of it. No. No, I’m keeping my copy. You have to buy your own copy. No. No. Yes. Hmm? Well, even though you can kind of already read my piece online for free, you know, the magazine is published like quarterly, and it’s ad-free and glossy and ninety-six pages long, so since this is a really nice magazine or whatever, like, I couldn’t just publish the old version of the column. So I added a lot to the original piece and we all workshopped it, and so it’s like a really different article now, in some ways, but I think in good ways.

Anyway, I guess that’s all. OK. OK. I will. Mhm. Yes. OK. I will. I will. OK! Talk to you later. OK. OK. Talk to you later. Bye! OK. OK, bye! Yes. I will. Bye!


The 2600 Post: something old, something new, and something lost


Of course, after a run of 100 issues over 19 years, I can certainly understand why editor Al Backiel has decided to hang up his hat. That’s a very long time, and an awful lot of issues. The 2600 Connection has been a fixture of the Atari fan community for years, a work of dedication celebrating one of the most important game systems of all time. [...]

The magazine’s demise doesn’t mean that the 2600 collector scene is dead, though; far from it. Atari Age and a number of other sites dedicated to the VCS and its siblings are perfectly alive and active. And people are still producing all sorts of interesting new homebrew games for the platform, such as the infamous VCS rendition of Mega Man that’s been making the rounds this week.
-E. Jeremy Parish

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Retro WIRED: Martha Stewart talks computers (1998)

Retro WIRED is a continuing retrospective of WIRED Magazine, 1996-2000.

By the mid-2000s, we’d realized we preferred to hide our game consoles. The 360’s faceplate, for instance, could be made to match the furniture, while the Wii was a slim, discreet box. The PS3 irked consumers: it was big and bold, all black gloss and chrome shine, totally undisguisable.

In the post-yuppie 1990s, though, we brashly displayed our technology. Ikea TV stands, with their frosted glass doors, deliberately paraded every component and console within, concealing only the wiring. Surround-sound speakers were mounted in the corners of the room or perched on willowy spires.

"I don't want my refrigerator talking to me period. I don't want it telling me that I am low on meatballs. I do have a brain."

In Wired 6.08 (August 1998), Kevin Kelly—then Wired Magazine’s executive editor—tried to find the politest way to ask Martha Stewart whether she were actually ashamed of her computer. Stewart, herself an unlikely computer whiz, insisted that computers needn’t be ugly.

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1-Up MegaZine #3

Raina Lee introduces issue #3 of 1-Up thusly:

Welcome to 1-Up MegaZine, Issue #3. For those new to 1-Up, our publication represents the ghost of video game future; a world where secret golden coins and power-ups emerge out of the ruins (broken blocks), and everyone can live as many lives as they earn.

It’s a good introduction, encapsulating the dreamy-eyed intellectualism of the zine as a whole—and, for that matter, shedding light on the wherefores of this very website’s title.

1-Up is targeted at, we suspect, a particular kind of gamer. She is a cradle-to-grave gamer, to be sure, but because of the videogame industry’s current climate, she is cornered into that horrible niche called “casual” (or in Nintendo’s lexicon, “latent”) gaming. She intellectualizes and externalizes the videogames of her youth precisely because they are so internalized: her individual videogame experiences are woven into her earliest memory.

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