Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Sound-centric game ideas

1. A Legend of Zelda-style game. However, there is no sound inherent to the gameplay--all is user-created. It would be played with a guitar controller, or something similar. This would be a re-purposing of this type of controller, and thus a completely new gameplay experience. One note would move your character forward. One for left turn, one for right, etc. Chords for attack. Different enemies are effected by different chords. It's an old type of game played in a new way.

2. Another Zelda-style game. This time, the gameplay is as we've come to expect from a Zelda game. However, when the Link-character plays the ocarina-thing, it changes the setting. For example, when he plays a futuristic kind of music, he travels to the same room, but in the world of Tron. When he plays Japanese music, the same room becomes feudal Japan. The changes in environment can provide items not present in other musics/rooms/times to allow the character to solve the puzzle.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Think Positive

I am a cautious optimist. I believe that ten years from now the world will be a more stable place. In my opinion, the only unpredictable event in the past decade was the attack on the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, this one event changed the world as we (Americans) know it. Were it not for that, the Department of Homeland Security would not exist, John Kerry would have recently won his second election (even though I like Obama better), and our economy would not be stretched to its limit by a meaningless war.

The world ten years from now is bound to be affected by the events of September 11th as well. With any luck, the next few years will be remembered as a time of rectifying some terrible mistakes. The war in Iraq will finally end, and the War on Terror will take on a more metaphorical tone as have all the War on [Idea]s before it. I also believe the economy will bottom out, but with time, effort, and good ideas will recover. In other words, the country I was born in will come back to us, with maybe a bit more airport security, which never bothered me so much anyway. Again, I’m an optimist, and Obama’s election is a direct cause of a lot of that. I truly believe that mankind has grown past being a race of slack-jawed, knuckle-dragging savages, and I find that being continually disappointed is more tolerable than abandoning this belief.

As for myself, my future has always been determined one step at a time. The SDE program at UB is the first long-term goal I’ve set for myself in my 5-year college career. But as it stands now, in ten years I hope to be found good enough and lucky enough to be writing for some wildly successful game company. I will be working on my masterpiece, something deeply socially introspective in ways that most people don’t like to think about. After that, I plan on kicking back and accepting the first-ever Nobel Prize for Literature given to a video game script. Ok, maybe that’s unrealistic. I’d take a Pulitzer.

I will be forcing people to communicate with me cryptographically, at least online. I will either have found someone special or resign myself to being a cat lady. I will be living in the city or at least very close to one. I’ll have gotten laser eye surgery as soon as I’m convinced it won’t wreck my night vision. I’ll be driving a hybrid car (maybe hydrogen-cell, keeping my fingers crossed). I, maybe foolishly, believe that my life will always be my own, because I have the intelligence and the skills to make it that way, and the stubbornness to refuse any other way.

I realize these predictions are all fairly mundane. The apocalypse is not coming in 2012, Coca Cola’s private army (yes, they do have one) will not take over the world, we won’t be eating food in pill form or willing objects into existence. This is because I think that the world resists change. It takes a very long lever and a well-placed fulcrum to move it, and even when that happens, the world generally settles back where it was, strikes some sort of balance. There are a lot of forces in play: political, technological, economic, social, etc. But all people are fundamentally driven by a desire for stability. Like the “return to normalcy” of the 50s, in the next ten years people will find themselves getting sick of the way things are heading, scrap the unstable aspects and revert to a (relatively) simpler existence.

The interesting decade will be the one following. If the next decade is analogous to the 50s, then the 2020s will be the decade of social reform. That is when I believe a lot of today’s issues will be actively addressed. Global warming will be causing enough deaths that it can no longer be ignored. Privacy rights as related to technology will come to a head after the blood-borne iPod Yocto unwittingly creates a new STD—one that plays every song you’ve ever hated directly into your brain, commonly diagnosed as Nickelbackitis. Genetic engineering, especially in agriculture, will become much more regulated and standardized. Viable renewable energy sources will finally be implemented on a large scale, gradually phasing out coal and oil.

Once again, perhaps I’m being too optimistic. However, I simply cannot fathom a world that continues for too long in its current downward trend. I honestly believe that mankind will not survive the 21st century if we do not abandon fossil fuels, at the very least, and soon. That is why I have no choice but to believe that the next two decades are going to be years of recovery and progress. Barring, say, a terrorist attack on the Bay Bridge.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

They're Reading This

This is going to be a hard journal to write, since at no point during this novel was I not thinking something. The first 75 pages of this book were intense—really intense—a trend that continued for another 200 pages (I didn’t enjoy the ending). I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that made me so consistently angry, depressed, and generally amazed. It’s easy to tell that “Little Brother” is a young adults’ novel from the characters, the story arc, and the general writing style. However, Doctorow expertly infuses it with an incredible number of profound ideas and startling information. So expertly, in fact, a dissenting view could easily categorize his work as propaganda or subliminal messaging. I, however, am not a dissenting view.

There was very little that actually surprised me, which is surprising in its own way. I understand how every element of the story could happen (except the romance. That was unnecessary, but I realize he was writing for teenagers. Which doesn’t make reading about 17-year-old sex any less awkward). I’m not sure if any of the technology in the book doesn’t already exist; only gait-detectors and WiFinders were new concepts to me, and even gait-detectors seem plausible. It even makes sense that game consoles will be free in the near future; all the money is in selling the games. I just hope this means the Xbox 360 will go under $200 in the very immediate future. More frighteningly, I had no problem believing in a world where the CIA, NSA, DHS, or whatever other iteration of the same institution could do that. I haven’t been living under a rock for the past 6 years; I know that kidnapping, torture, and suspension of rights is pretty much par for the course these days.

Which brings us to how very, very much this book made me absolutely furious. It has probably become clear by now that I enjoy a good debate, but even these have to follow certain rules to be valid (not from a legal or ethical standpoint, either, just logically). First, it is impossible to prove a negative. Second, an argument is invalid if there exists no situation in which it would be wrong. The first is one of the foundations of our judicial system: innocent until proven guilty, not vice versa. “Prove to me you are not a terrorist” is an impossible argument, which is why in a court of law it is the duty of the state to prove you are a terrorist. This directly leads into the second rhetorical issue in the book: the flaw of infallibility. “Yes” cannot be the answer to every question. If you find yourself giving the same answer to every question, you need to seriously reconsider how you look at the world.

“What do you think about foreign policy?”
“What do you think about the sovereignty of the Constitution?”
“What did you have for breakfast this morning?”

Most frightening of all, to me, is how perfectly intelligent, well-meaning people can become absolute mirrors to these fundamentally flawed philosophies. In fact, halfway through reading the book I started expounding upon a lot of the more expository ideas in “Little Brother” to some of my friends, and was unequivocally astounded by their reactions. I could have sworn they were quoting Drew Yallow. And I will admit that it is at times very hard to put into words the value of privacy over safety, having unquestioningly accepted the former over the latter for so long. L’espirit d’escalier particularly applies in these situations.

This of course brings us to the other predominant emotion present in “Little Brother”: depression. In all the conversations I had with my friends “They can’t do that! They aren’t allowed to keep track of where we are and what we do!” is always trumped by “But they are doing it. And if I have to walk through a metal detector so they can arrest the guy behind me, what’s the big deal?” Faced with this kind of status-quo cultural and intellectual hibernation, I can’t help but feel depressed.

Even just writing about the I-don’t-have-anything-to-hide mentality makes my blood boil. Doctorow makes it clear that there is a difference between something shameful or illegal and something private. And yes, I would let serial murderers go free if I could be assured I got the privacy I expect. If the system can’t catch the serial murderer with due process, then that’s the system’s fault, not mine, and I shouldn’t be punished for it. Of course, if the system fails on too regular a basis, then that needs to be changed too. It’s all about basic utilitarian philosophy—the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Under no circumstance do universal screenings accomplish that, as proved by Doctorow’s explanation of the false positive paradox.

All this being said, I enjoyed three quarters of the book, even if I had to put it down several times to regain my composure. I learned a lot of things from it, a lot of things were put into perspective, and a lot of ideas were put to me in new ways. Of course, many of the claims in the book should be taken with a grain of salt, and bear further investigation. However, I am proud to say that after further investigation, I now have the capability to encrypt my IMs (even if no one I talk to does), and am working on encrypting my e-mails. I’ll post my public key once I get everything working.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Interactivity in MMOs

Interactivity is my single biggest complaint about the entire theory of MMOs. Games have a hard enough time making themselves a legitimate art without every hormone-crazed 12-year-old on the planet testing out newly-discovered profanities. While I believe wholeheartedly in freedom of speech, I also reserve the right to consider the speaker an absolute moron. That is why we have implicit rules, cultural norms, and unwritten taboos in the real world to govern how we behave. In this paper I will react to the questions posed in the assignment, namely, how MMOs differ from Times Square and how Lynn Hershman is…wrong.

Having been to Times Square (like, oh, maybe half a dozen other people in history), I can tell you that it is a mixed experience. On the one hand, I find it deeply calming. The sea of people seems something of a return to the primordial ooze, only in large scale. On the other hand, it’s dirty and loud and there are people with funny accents yelling at you because you just called the primordial ooze calming, what’s wrong with you? But it all seems to me to be an ordered chaos; everything that happens is simply a reaction to the things around it, causing new reactions in perfect Newtonian style.

The difference between this and an MMO is that an MMO world won’t collapse if people fail to adhere to what is expected of them. Therefore everyone gets to be the initiator. All action, no reaction, no consequences. The reactions, of course, are expected to come from the system, but the sheer number of people in an MMO all but completely mutes these effects. Nothing can truly change in an MMO, nothing can progress, and that is at the core of an MMO’s failure to be truly interactive.

As to Lynn Hershaman’s article, I consider it something of a tangent, but an interesting one nonetheless. I find her view of interactive systems flawed. To me, an interactive system is one that is meant to reflect real life in some significant way. Talking to a human being will always be the purest form of interactivity there is. To her, it seems that interactive systems are disconnected from the world at large, and contained within themselves. She views them as passive, things to be watched. I would call that a reactive system, since the reactions never affect the viewer in any way other than aesthetically. To the contrary, I believe an interactive system must respond in a way that evokes change in the user. Under this definition, single-player video games are more interactive than either Hershmann’s art or an MMO. The player acts, the system reacts, which evokes a change in the player’s action.

Interactivity is a difficult thing to achieve, and even harder to balance. Life is interactive by default because of, as I mentioned before, simple Newtonian physics. Art imitates life, and has been interactive since the first audience participation in Greek tragedies (again, Hershman shows us that not all art is interactive, but can be). Therefore I believe that games can also be truly interactive, in ways that are ever-expanding. I simply do not believe that MMOs have achieved this yet. Until we can find a way to structure MMO societies, with consequences that affect the user, not just the character, then MMOs will never truly be interactive.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Timeline: '90 and '91

• LOD (Legion of Doom) & Masters of Deception are rival Hacking groups. The Great Hacker War begins, with a swift defeat of the old guard LOD. This is a completely new type of “warfare,” based on information control and cyberspace.
• Hackers penetrate DOD sites. Dutch hackers used university, government, and commercial systems to hack into Department of Defense websites. 34 sites were hacked into by way of vendor-supplied accounts and accounts with guessable or nonexistent passwords. Hacking was so much easier back then.
• “The Difference Engine.” A steampunk novel written by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. Mechanical computers are everywhere, making the British Empire even more powerful.
• EFF founded. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is an organization to protect civil liberties in a digital world. It educates press and policy makers, and funds legal defenses to protect digital freedoms.
• “Ribofunk.” A biopunk collection by Paul Di Fillippo. Biopunk is like cyberpunk, except that it focuses on synthetic biology and genetic information. Human experimentation in a totalitarian regime is a common theme.
• “Total Recall” (film). An Arnold Schwartzeneggar film about a man who purchases false memories as a sort of vacation. It triggers previously-deleted memories about being a secret agent on Mars, but the whole movie is possibly just part of the vacation.
• Steven Jackson games raided. The Secret Service targeted Loyd Blankenship, a well-known hacker who was publishing GURPS Cyberpunk via Steven Jackson Games. GURPS Cyberpunk is a role-playing toolkit, but the Secret Service claimed it was a “handbook of computer crime.”
• Op Sundevil. A nation-wide hacker crackdown. It targeted credit card thieves and telephone abusers.
• Phiber Optik hacks TRW. Mark Abene, aka Phiber Optik, hacked a lot of things, actually. He was arrested and indicted on 11 counts of computer crime, setting a legal example for other hackers.

• “Cultural logic of late capitalism.” A book by Frederic Jameson critiquing postmodernism from a Marxist perspective.
• 1,000 viruses exist in the world. Computers have become universal, and with them more and more viruses have cropped up. Such is cyberpunk: with technology comes hardship and irresponsibility.
• Debut of the WWW. The Web is a series of documents linked via hypertext and accessed on the Internet, viewed with browsers. It makes the internet a much more accessible place, since it can now be navigated by simply clicking.
• “Terminator 2” (film). Arnold is back from the future to protect John Connor, since he will grow up to save humanity. The movie plays with the idea of robotic emotion, as well as other Asamovian concepts.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Random Thoughts on "Diamond Age"

Let me first admit that in order to gain a workable knowledge of The Diamond Age’s plot, I did have to skip large chunks of reading, and so I haven’t been able to completely connect everything. I truly enjoy the book, and will re-read more thoroughly when I have time, but I am an exceptionally slow reader, and I have other classes, too, you know. As another disclaimer, when you asked us to just write what we were thinking, you did so at your own risk. I don’t think there’s anything too bad; I’m just abdicating responsibility just in case.

Armies of little girls. It had to happen. Unfortunately, no teddy bears with skull guns, but maybe that’s just as well.

Now for thoughts on the Primer. Lots of them. First, I started thinking about the whole book-within-a-book thing, which took me outside Stephenson’s story to look at the book as a whole a bit more critically. Obviously, Stephenson has a slightly-too-grandiose view of himself to make a book without some perceived profound message, but I still can’t bring myself to believe that he thinks The Diamond Age is a tome of infinitely malleable wisdom and knowledge. Which brings us, of course, to:

The Bible. Thank god (pun intended) for stories whose roots are lost in history and are therefore subject to whatever interpretation the current body of power wishes to imbue it with. My senior prediction in high school was that I would found a new political party based on a platform of cynicism, as a random aside. Now, the idea of an electronic bible is fraught with meaning as it is (what with worshipping technology, giving science a metaphorical meaning that by definition as an objective pursuit it’s not supposed to have, blah blah blah). But that would make Stephenson god, as the creator of the author of this new bible, and that simultaneously makes me chuckle and makes me not want to give the idea too much credence, so I’m going to move on.

The Primer obviously has a much more profound effect on Nell than it has on Elizabeth or Fiona (or the hordes of Christians, I mean… small Chinese girls, for that matter). There are two obvious explanations for this. First, as far as I can tell, Nell’s Primer is the only one with a live* human being at the other end of it. I know the Chinese version is synthesized, and I couldn’t tell with the other girls’, but I’m making an assumption. The second explanation is that Nell is the one who actually needs to use the more down-and-dirty street sense the Primer has to offer. For the others, it’s just a particularly addictive ractive/boot camp/whatever.

*The idea of ractors kind of irks me. It seems to be a logical extension of a lot of the cinematic technology used today with movies like “The Lord of the Rings” and “Beowulf.” It just struck me as ironic how those stories, with their background and setting, are the ones that most heavily use modern technology, but that’s beside the point. Anyway, it makes sense when you want to create a non-human character with more organic motions (as with Gollum), or want to create a universal aesthetic when everything BUT the people is computer generated (as with Beowulf, even though this is a pretty bad example of…everything). It also makes sense when you want to do real-time theatre on a global scale, or want to make cosmetic changes that makeup and costumes can’t accomplish. You know, the more I talk about it, the more it makes sense logistically and culturally, but as an actor it still just bugs me, ok? *grumble*

It also kind of amuses me what Hackworth’s idea of “subversive” is. The Primer teaches Nell martial arts, viral programming, how to start a fire, to name a few. What she does with this knowledge is another thing entirely, but it still makes me chuckle to see Hackworth teaching someone to be naughty. The programming is a result of his own profession, but much of the other information could be found in a boy scout’s handbook.

Also, Rob was right, the Drummers are freaky. The whole wetware thing is once again reminiscent of the Borg and the Matrix and everything else. I do think it’s clever how sex was repurposed, even though it gives rise to a slew of dirty geek jokes. (“Oh, baby, I’m going to import some data through your USB slot. Yeah, you are universal service, aren’t you?”)

Oh, and before I forget. What the hell. Just…what the hell.