January 20, 2010 Archives

Areas of creative digital expression that relate directly to games.

Games have driven advances in technology that enable creative people to tell stories in ways that would previously have been impossibly expensive. Of course, the fact that the untrained masses can produce content with a few clicks does not guarantee that every creative effort is a masterpiece -- in fact most if it is forgettable. But the right tools do permit ordinary people -- even those who are not programmers -- to create extraordinary things.

Sims Stories

The creators of The Sims did not expect that users would take screenshots, post them to fan pages, and use them as the framework for storytelling. As the developers realized that fans were doing this on their own, they encouraged the practice within the game.

This past summer, Robin Burkinshaw "a student of games design in the UK" created two sims, took away their house, and told a story about what happened to them.  He posted the story in installments on a blog, "Alex and Kev."  If you want to create your own Alice & Kev fan fiction, you can even download the characters and tweak their environment, to try to achieve a different story.  


In its simplest form, modding is creating additional content for existing games. In the 90s, fans of DOOM could create and share their own levels. For much of the 90s, this kind of thing was in a legal gray zone, since copyright owners weren't always comfortable with the idea of other people messing with their files.

But modding also means changing ("modifying") the rules of the game.

Authors of early text-adventure games would encrypt their data files, in order to make it harder for casual gamers to cheat. The additional challenge of hacking the software to look for hidden "Easter eggs" was part of the fun of playing a game.  We see a echo of that historical experience in the concept of "cheat codes" -- built-in power-ups designed to give hard-core gamers additional reason to keep paying a game.

Game designers realized that the longer the hard-core gamers remained interested in a title, the more copies the game would sell.

Half-Life 2 comes with a free editing tool that lets users create their own maps.  Power users can edit the bitmap textures, either by crudely adding smiley faces or targets on their enemies, or adding the faces of people they know into the game world.

HL2 is a sci-fi combat game. The editing tool that comes with the game is so powerful that a group of fans completely rebuilt the game as a World War II simulator  -- replacing the futuristic weapons with historical pieces, the horror- and sci-fi props and settings with realistic historical ones.  The result grew so popular that it was released as a commercial title, Day of Defeat. 

(After I got stuck in HL2 in 2006, I stopped playing the game and dabbled with my own mod.  I reported on my progress over several weeks... see Week 1, Week 6,  and Week 10.)


A very popular do-it-yourself strategy for using a computer to tell a story is to build on the framework of a coputer game -- "machinima" (for "machine" + "animation"). 

The long-running "Red vs. Blue" series uses in-game footage from Halo to assemble a story. It started out as little more than a lark in 2003, but the series has continued for years and been released on DVDs.

Motion Capture

First drawing serious mainstream attention in the character Gollum from the Lord of the Rings movies, motion capture technology involves an actor wearing a special suit, performing motions that a computer records. The angle of their limbs, the position of their body parts, and the speed and direction in which all the parts move can be mapped to a 3D computer-generated character, which can result in animated CG images that convince our brains that what we are watching is more than a cartoon. (But if you've seen any publicity material on Avatar, you already know all this.)

When motion capture works, the effects are breathtaking. Here we see a few stages in the creation of Gollum.

The above image is from a a good analysis of the weaknesses of a motion-capture system that's not employed very well.  The characters in The Polar Express seem stiff and waxy

The Uncanny Valley

When animation is too real for our brain to process it as a cartoon, but not real enough for us to accept it on a deep, instinctive level; something seems wrong.  We're trained to sense trouble when someone won't make eye contact with us, when their facial expression doesn't match their words, when they moving stiffly (perhaps because they've been injured by a hazard we haven't noticed yet). 

If part of you is just a little creeped out by clowns, or china dolls, or you're amused by zombies and other undead, it's because those human-like creations fall along a line. To some extent, the more human-like something is, the better we respond to it. But at some point, when something looks very much like a normal human, but does not act like a normal human, our comfort level drops.

The term was coined by a robot designer, but it applies just as well to digital creations. (See Uncanny Valley.)

File:Mori Uncanny Valley.svg

Assigned Text:

Wilson (with Cody)

Assigned Text:

Reading 6 TBA

Time reserved for brainstorming and troubleshooting the creative term presentations. Post an update and let me know if I can offer you any technical help.

Here are the project suggestions that appeared in the instructions for section 6 of the presubmission report:

  • A video lecture in which you engage the class in a discussion about your chosen topic.
  • A narrrated playthrough of an important event in a game. Can you freeze-frame and zoom in on important details, and interview the participants about why the event was significant?
  • I used to joke that your presentation could include interpretive dance if you want. In Fall 2009, some students in my literature class did, in fact, dance several different potential interpretations of important scenes from the literary works.  Their presentation was fantastic, because they didn't simply summarize the plot, they carefully chose two or three different but valid ways to interpret each scene, and that made the class think about which interpretation they preferred, and why. (I wish I had a video of their work! Obviously, if you choose this option, you'll need to record it and share it, at least within the class.)
  • You could design your own game, and make a video with paper cutouts on Popsicle sticks, or LEGOS, or sock puppets. The game proposal should serve the academic point you want to make, rather than demonstrate your ability to follow industry trends, or your confidence that the world is full of fools and that one day you will crush them all.

Update, 19 Jan: I'd like to see enough material that would fill about a 10-15 minute in-class presentation. It should be related to the research you're doing for your term project; my hope is that working on this project will actually help you revise your paper. But please, do not just read from your paper into a camera or microphone.

In various e-mail exchanges with students, among the suggestions I have made or approved include:

  • A YouTube video (showing gameplay with your commentary; it doesn't need to be as fancy as the IF videos I made with Peter -- you could do it in the style of the Civlization III and TimezAttack videos, instead.)
  • A podcast (along the lines of the "What is Fun?" audio clip from earlier in the term).
  • An informative, richly-linked, blog entry (along the lines of Leslie Rodriquez's project on Lara Croft)
  • A simple Scratch game, or a series of games that illustrate various issues from the course (there's a passage in the Scratch tutorial where I make the ball say "You killed me!" when you lose a point, and then I change it to say "Let's try again!" Even while I was making the video, I was surprised at the effect of making my creation talk to me like that.)
  • A simple interactive fiction game that illustrates a point you want to make. (Those of you with the skills to do this, you already know who you are.)
  • I am open to suggestions. Be creative; demonstrate your ability to apply what you learned; support a specific, non-obvious argument, rather than just listing interesting things you've found about cool stuff.

Create a web page that links to all your resources, with a brief "how to" that mentions any special tools or techniques you used, or any particular difficulties you're proud of overcoming.

General Comments

I'm glad to see the activity in the student-led discussions.  Let's all do our best to keep the momentum going as we reach the end of the line.

We only have one assigned reading for today, but I have posted a new discussion topic on Modding, Machinima and Motion Capture.  Please take a look and share your thoughts on how gaming technology helps us tell stories in other media.

Yesterday I spent all day marking term paper rough drafts. I really enjoyed reading what you accomplished.  I learned about games that I haven't played, I read your references to academic studies I didn't know about, and I got to wrestle with some challenging and insightful new ideas. 

A Word on Beta Releases

Game developers usually release a near-finished version of a game to a small group of volunteer playtesters.  During the trial run, the developers eagerly look for the flaws their beta testers encounter. Of course, designers hope there won't be any big flaws, but if the testers find them at this early stage, you can be sure that the paying customers will find them, too. Better to catch those problems early, while there's still time to address them.

Your rough draft is a beta release of your ideas.  So, when you do your peer review exercise, think of yourself as testing out the ideas your peers are exploring, and if you run into any weaknesses, tell your peers now, while they still have time to work on the issues (and time to ask for help).

Responding to Feedback

When I submit an article for publication or a report to a committee, of course I'd rather hear "This is fantastic! Don't make any changes, you're finished!" 

When instead I hear, "This is mostly okay, but these parts need more work," I admit that sometimes I get a sinking feeling. 

But in the long run, I realize that people who make substantial, candid suggestions -- especially when they make them in private, so as not to embarrass me -- are valuable resources.  They are not simply trying to point out all my flaws to make me feel bad. They are, instead, giving me secret tips that I can use to improve an end product that has my name on it. 

Any feedback that comes before the deadline tells me what is working and what isn't working, and that helps me plan the time remaining until the final deadline. I can't act on every single suggestion, but I can try to decide what changes will have the greatest impact.

About the Revision Process

I'm glad to see plenty of evidence of students who are taking the peer review assignments seriously.  (Be sure to give yourself enough time -- it takes a while to read and comment on a research paper).

When you get feedback (from peers, and from me), remember that constructive criticism helps you deliver a better final product. 

Any time you have the opportunity to revise a paper, fixing spelling mistakes and moving commas around may get you a few points.

The word "revise" means "to see again." To take the full advantage of the opportunity to revise, recall that -- instead of making local insertions and edits -- I'm asking you to rethink, remove, and rebuild those parts of your paper that didn't help you advance your goal. (Are you summarizing the game plots, instead of analyzing them? Are you summarizing your sources, instead of using them to advance your own ideas?)

As I noted in a few recent e-mails, I would be happy to arrange a telephone conference, to discuss your first steps, as you contemplate your revision assignment.

What can I do to help? Please post your thoughts on this page, or send me an e-mail directly. I'm happy to do what I can to help you do your best work.
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