Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Ladies and Gentlemen

War of the Words

So yeah, that was a thing. I don’t usually do follow up posts, but the response to my sexism piece was so extraordinary, I don’t think it’s right to ignore it. So here, a week later, is a brief post to follow up on what happened before I go back to musing about the future of things like an idiot.

Gottle of gear

I got 1000 times more traffic than I usually do. The link has been retweeted well over 100 times. There have been some excellent follow up pieces, one from my good friend Margaret Robertson, discussion on Forbes, Edge, Reddit and numerous blogs and forums. And that’s only what I’m aware of. 

I wasn’t expecting any of those things to happen.

My predictions about the comments proved largely accurate. I received little abuse, and certainly none for it was based on my gender. Largely, people have agreed with me. Some people just claimed there wasn’t a problem, some detractors claimed that actually trying to do something about it was a bad idea, or impossible, and a few said that men suffer from sexism too! These excuses have been fully addressed in the comments.

The Lynx Effect

I received a lot of messages, mostly from women saying thank you. That made me happy to have done something seemingly right and sad that a bunch of intelligent women would feel the need to thank a random guy on the internet for writing an article that took maybe two hours to put together. There is no doubt at all that I believe what I wrote more now than I did when I wrote it. 

If this wasn’t a problem, or if doing something was worse than doing nothing, none of these things would have happened.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

Monday, 12 December 2011

Dear Men, Please Listen. Love, Man

To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends

I‘m going to talk about something I am evidently unqualified to talk about. Women. I have met some and they seemed very nice people on the whole. I read, seemingly more and more often with every passing day, about the way that women are treated online, particularly in the game community and their lack of representation in the game industry. It makes me angry. So here, I will write about that.

To crush your enemies, see them driven before you
I will not be accused of being a shrill moaning harpy. I won’t be asked to make anyone a sandwich, nor will I be accused of being a lesbian, asked to suck anyone’s cock or be threatened with rape. Partially, this is because those who have met me understand that I view other humans as lunch with a temporary stay of execution. Let the Wookie win, as they say. Mostly, it’s because I’m a man and so people will read what I have to say rather than switching off their brain and spewing out some astonishingly unimaginative sexist bullshit. 

It strikes me as incredibly bizarre to think that men talking about the mega-sexism in the game industry, pointing at it and screaming and banging their ham-sized fists on the metaphorical game-table and bellowing that “this will not stand!” could have more effect than the same outrage expressed by the women actually suffering it. However, it seems very likely true. So here I will stand and bellow.

I am bellowing

So first up, is this a problem at all? Yes. Yes, this is a problem. The gaming community contains an incredible number of idiots. Go here and read this article about Saint’s Row 3 by Emma Boyes. It’s a good article, well reasoned and the complete opposite of anything aggressive or hectoring or provocative. It defends a game that has been attacked for sexism. It’s a great piece.

Then read the comments and it’s just a roll-call of complete fucking bullshit. Angry, shouty, stupid, illogical, emotional, insecure ranting, brought forth from the depths of the internet’s prick cabinet. If that exact same article had been written by a man, not a single one of those comments would have been written. That’s because they have absolutely nothing to do with anything that’s said in the article and, more importantly, because men don’t get handed this shit. That said, it didn’t stop The Hulk coming under attack for daring to call a sexism a sexism. 

and to hear the lamentation of their women

The even worse part are all the articles I can’t link to because they were never written. There is a gathering number of smart and interesting women who state that they don’t write what they want to write because of the abuse they will get for doing so. Read this to see what I mean. When they do write, they don’t speak their minds because of the abuse they will get for doing so. There are even more smart and interesting women who don’t admit to doing this, but secretly self-censor to keep themselves out of the crosshairs of the legion of poisonous clowns that would otherwise ladle depressing filth upon their good work.

It’s really bad for the game industry to have an atmosphere where women have to self-censor in order to avoid or placate a bunch of duck-brained super-ninnies. How can it be good for games to have the opinions of half the entire world cut-short or cut-out entirely, because the other half are peppered with socially-handicapped dick-weasels, determined to spoil everything for everyone because fuck you, that’s why. I remember when trolling was a art. On this subject, in this arena, it’s a disease, and not a very good one at that.

But but but but but but but but but

‘Ooh, if you can’t take it, get off the internet’ comes the call from over clutched handbag. Well if you can’t speak to a woman without resorting to wholly unimaginative sexist copypasta, how about you get off the internet? He who repeats sexist tropes wins? I think not. Sexism can be funny, same as racism, homophobia and so on. But only when it’s used to actually say something. You look at Stewart Lee or Louis CK and they will take sexist concepts and wield them to carve great ideas, explain great truths. They won’t use them to make women feel bad for no fucking reason, they usually use them to make men feel like shit for being fattening idiots. Just as it should be. But if you get it wrong, then face up to it. Don’t do this.

Take these broken wings and learn to fly.

And if you’re thinking ‘well I’ve never said anything like that’ then I don’t care. What have you done to stop it? When this happens, what will you do? What have you done to help the tiny handful of women in the game industry that you do know get their point across without being swamped in blandly, endlessly iterating threats, insults and bile? It’s really bad for the game industry that women don’t feel able to talk openly, so it’s now your job to help them do that, however you can. That’s your job, that’s what you have to do, because that’s what a decent person who cared at all about either women or games would do.

ur a fag

On a completely different note, this shit doesn’t even make any sense from a commercial perspective. From the perspective of a lizard-like being that cares not for people and only for money, the sexism that rides the industry like a pernicious, whispering, idiotic jockey is still a really bad thing.

Social games are often played by more women than men. PopCap reports about 54% women playing its games. But the number of women employed in the industry is, depending on who you listen to, between 7% and 15%. I suspect the 7% is probably closer to the truth.

The game industry is happy to lobby for tax credits, happy to lobby for better computer science teaching in schools (something that will probably help address the gender gap, admittedly) but seem to be doing close to nothing to get more women involved. 

Every day I'm levelling.
And this isn’t some white knight bullshit. This is just business. The more diverse your team, the more diverse your products, the more attitudes and angles will be considered and the better your product will be. The more money you will make. In a world of freemium, of mass-market gaming, of digging out those few whales that will bring money and fame to your game, you need to have as broad an appeal as possible. More diversity in your company will bring more diversity to your product. So form a more diverse team. And if the people just aren’t there for you to hire, make damn sure you’re pressuring everywhere you can to ensure that these people do exist in the future.

Diversity doesn’t mean women making games for women, by the way. I don’t believe that you have to be your customer. But more diversity just makes everything better, more nuanced, more knowing, more understanding. Better.

Even if you don’t think that fairness and equality are intrinsically valuable things to fight for, it’s still by far a better idea to be as inclusive as possible just to make more money. There is simply no excuse, beyond laziness and fear. Don’t be scared and lazy, it’s not very manly.

It just sort of vandalised itself

And worse still, if we don’t do something about this ourselves, one day the big bad government will get involved and make us do it. Norway already insists on quotas of women at the highest ranks in companies. It might not be the last place to do so. Hate speech will come to include sexist language and censorship will weigh heavy on the internet. If you won’t moderate yourselves, eventually people with guns and courts and locks and keys will come and moderate the shit out of you. 

The city this hero deserves.
So men, this is important and it needs you to do something about it. Of course women need to keep doing what they’re already doing, but we should be helping them and we are not doing enough. This is me trying to do something about it. It may not be quite the right thing, it may be very small, but I’m damn well going to find out.

This is my straw. I hope the camel is suffering.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Uncle Computer, Tell Me A Story

This is why we can’t have nice things

‘Content is king’, that’s what they say. They don’t say ‘good content is king’ because that would be silly. If good content were king, then the Venn diagram of ‘things that are good’ and ‘things that sell a lot’ would be a circle. It’s not. We wouldn’t bother with different words for excellent and profitable, unless they were different things. In business terms, I’d rather have a shitty product and a great salesman then a great product and a shitty salesman. So what they should say is ‘Content that is good enough, is king.‘

Hiatus going to hiate.

If I like something, then I probably want more of it. This is how the TV channel Dave works, and it works very well. All of Top Gear, all of QI, that’s about it. This is also how piratebay works, because that means I can watch all of a thing in one go instead of being drip-fed it at the rate the advertisers and broadcasters have agreed on without ever even asking me once, the bastards. If, however, it costs a lot of time and money to make that thing that I like, then there’s going to be a disappointingly small amount of it for me to consume. Production is expensive.

The basic maths behind the delivery of digital media is that cost trends towards zero. This means that we end up with the position that media publishers are charging for something that costs nothing - a digital file. Making that file in the first place was of course massively expensive, but copying it? That costs nothing. And yet you, as a consumer, still get charged for it. Distribution is cheap.

The internet’s ability to distribute digital files for close to no cost has already been hugely disruptive and will continue to rework the way that commerce in relation to these files is handled. So what would happen if you could also trend the cost of production towards zero?

I think you’re ok, no matter what anyone says

There are three entities capable of producing content. The first is professionals, the second is amateurs and the third is machines. We are used to professional content, that’s how pretty much everything on TV , the games we buy at retail, newspapers, magazines and books were made. It’s usually quite good, but it’s expensive. A lot of what we see on the internet is amateur content; YouTube videos, blogs, comics, comment threads, all that lovely crowd sourced stuff that hippies get so excited about. It’s cheap, but an awful lot of it is rubbish.

Fly you fools!
Because you’re clever, you’ve realised that I’m saving machine generated content for last because that’s the one I’m excited about. Well done you, you are completely right. See machines that produce content, once you’ve built them, make new content essentially for free. They trend the cost of production towards zero. And that is an astonishing thought.

Computer games have toyed about a bit with procedurally, automatically generated content for about ever. It’s never really worked very well. Puzzle games already sort of do this - you can pretty much play Tetris or Triple Town forever. But they don’t generate stories or objects or landscapes or characters, at least not in the traditional sense.

One day, they will. Computer generated content has to be juuust good enough and it will immediately find a place where quantity is what users want.

If at first you don’t succeed, complete this line yourself

There’s a fantastic snippet from a talk given by Kurt Vonnegut where he plots out some basic stories as graphs, showing how stories can be broken down into arcs where things get worse and arcs where things get better. He invites his audience to put these ideas into a computer. I’m not sure if anyone did.

Here, Dan Harmon, the writer of Community, discusses an algorithmic approach to writing stories, and it’s great. A chap called Dan Benmergui made a lovely little storytelling toy called, well, Storyteller, which lets you move people around and as you do so, the three panel story changes. 

Are you Thor about this?
Stories have a shape, a shape that humans instinctively understand. This has been known for some time. And if that's true - and it seems it is - then it must be possible to get computers to make stories that humans find satisfying. The clues are all there. As yet, the case has not been cracked. If you can teach a computer to tell a story, you have a genuinely disruptive piece of technology. Not only would such a thing be able to trend production costs towards zero, if you have a machine capable of making content, of in some way telling stories itself, then you can make completely new kinds of experience. And that is the most exciting part of all.

If the story is told by a computer, it can be altered on the fly by the computer. These things have happened, so finish the story from here. If that's true, then you have genuinely interactive stories. Like an Uncle adapting his bed-time story to the whims and suggestions of his nieces and nephews, the story can go any way you want, change to suit the desires of the user, turn on a dime and still reach a satisfying conclusion. Is it a story? Is it a game? Who cares?

Ahh, the future. Makes you feel all warm inside, no?

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Advertising’s Social Contract Is Fucked

That’s why nanny has departed for Waitrose

I will never, ever shop at Iceland. I wouldn’t eat food from Iceland during a zombie apocalypse, I’m certainly not going to do it while Waitrose is still around to cater to my petty middle-class whims. As a consequence of this hideously bourgeois lifestyle choice, I do not want to see another advert for Iceland as long as I live. Not that I expect to live very long.

Hello, yes, this is dog

Every time I see an Iceland advert, it’s a waste of my time and Iceland’s money. Yet if I watch TV on a Saturday night, perhaps as a punishment for the many crimes I have committed during the week, then I’ll see over nine thousand Iceland adverts. They will all be awful, they will make me hate Iceland even more and make me hate the entire concept of advertising at the same time. Please stop wasting my time, I am already very good at doing that.

Logically, targeted adverts are better. Logically, not having my time wasted is better for me and not having their money wasted is better for advertisers. Logically, I want to see Waitrose adverts and Waitrose want me to see Waitrose adverts. But it just doesn’t seem to work like that in the real world. 

Any colour, so long as it’s wack

Advertising is the mass-production of salesmen. When the industrial revolution and the assembly line made mass-production happen, the same thing had to happen to sales. If you have a million doohickies in a warehouse, you’d need to have a veritable fleet of door-to-door salesmen to offload them onto the general public.

Hello dog, this is, umm, eagle? Hawk? Falcon maybe?

So instead, all that lovely human-to-human connection was replaced by a poster summing up the benefits of Doctor Monroe’s Particular Ointment For A Range Of Ailments. Then some stuff happened and radio and television and finally the entire industry just gave up caring and made the Muller advert. Do you remember anything at all? Do you? You do? Then buy yogurt!

Not only this, but also, the internet! The internet makes it possible for that one-to-one connection to become a thing again. There is no longer the absolute requirement to have one message for everyone, like say, WERE YOU ONCE A CHILD? THEN BUY YOGURT! Now diversity and personalisation is possible again. I never have to see another Iceland advert again, because I’m me and advertisers can show me adverts for me, and I can marry Waitrose and great. But it just doesn’t seem to work like that in the real world.

Screw you guys, I’m going home

As soon as I start to think that I’m having adverts targeted at me, I get angry and shake my fist at the godless sky. How do they know who I am? Who told those people that I am me? How dare they, how very dare they? I suddenly don’t care that someone gave a shit who I was and sent me a personal message just for me, I care how the hell they found out who I was in the first place.

Oh look, how adorable! BUY YOGURT!
So you should ask me first, right? You should ask me if it’s ok to show me personalised adverts just for me, lovingly crafted for my personal eyes. The problem with that is that you’re advertisers. You’re the worst people in the entire world. I trust advertisers less than I trust bankers. At least they have the common decency to point at me and laugh as they set fire to some money with some more money, rather than pretending to be my best friends ever, then selling me yogurt in the most creatively bankrupt way I can possibly conceive of.

The problem boils down to this. If you track me, without telling me you’re tracking me, then I get scared and I hate you and I wish you were dead. If you ask me if I want to be tracked, I say no, because I’m scared and I hate you and I wish you were dead. So if you show me adverts for just everyone, that’s awful. If you show me adverts just for me, that is also awful. So what to do?

When you get to the end, do it over again

Remember where all this started? With a knock at the door and a display of highest quality pans or a vacuum cleaner with powers quite out of the ordinary, madam. Advertising is the mass-production of the salesman. The salesman, see he was a man. A person. A human being. He wasn’t a brand, he wasn’t every nostalgic IP imaginable being whored onto my television set to get me to buy fucking yogurt, he was just some guy.

The plan is simple, gentlemen. We kill the Batman!

I like men’s tailoring. I can’t afford to like it very much, so I read about it on the internet and imagine myself striding into Anderson and Sheppard to order a selection of bespoke suits. While that would be the height of luxury today, go back a couple of hundred years and that’s how all clothes were made. By a person, just for you. One day last year, I decided to throw my credit card to the wind and go to Mr Jonathan Quearney of Windmill Street for a jacket. It was made just for me and it is marvelous and I love it in a way I love nothing else I own. 

A couple of months ago, he contacted me on LinkedIn and asked if I’d write a personal review of his business. I did so and with great gusto. I was overjoyed to say exactly how much I loved that damn jacket and how much I’d recommend his services. I didn’t engage with his brand, I wrote a little piece about how great he was. It was like going back in time, except with the internet.

rip mr gadaffi

I’d be amazed if a whole bunch of you weren’t following the Shippams Paste Twitter account. It was set up by just some guy and, it turned out, had nothing whatsoever to do with Shippams Paste. He’d picked up over nine thousand followers in his two weeks of existence, and, I dare say, he’d shifted some paste. The guy behind it wasn’t being honest about his real identity, he was pretending to be the world’s most inept social marketer.

But check this out. He wasn’t interrupting anything. There was no advert. There was no targeting and no brand guidelines. There was a guy, called Ben, tweeting about stuff and also #paste. And I, along with a whole damn bunch of other people decided that we would choose to follow him and read what he had to say about a range of fish based sandwich spreads that I would never otherwise have considered buying.

He was a person. And people, just some guy or girl, standing there and asking you to buy a thing is the most effective way of selling that there has ever been. Not brand ambassadors, not carefully coached PR spewing machines, just some person saying what they think. Like Steve Jobs did.

If you want to sell me something, then you, personally, should sell me something, Not your company, not your brand, you. That’s the power of social media. It’s a bunch of people, talking to each other. It lets us rediscover how things used to be, lets us remember how millions of years of evolution have shaped us to be, lets us remember that we’re just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to buy some crab paste.

Friday, 28 October 2011

The Importance Of Toys

What games aren’t

Definable. That’s one. The world of media is an infinite sphere of infinite dimensions and within it, we’ve laid out a few boundaries and declared them to be meaningful. We decided that if you wrote about news we would call it journalism. And if you printed those words, we’d call that a newspaper. Brilliant!

Really, in real life, you can educate people about what is happening in the world in pretty much any way you like. A poem, a drawing, interpretive dance, machinima, an FPS, billboards or mime. And you can mime about anything you like. Drugs, love, bison, firework safety, trigonometry or the phone-hacking scandal. The need to put things in boxes doesn’t make the boxes real.

I'm on a horse
When you’re seeking to tell a story or play a game or teach someone or sell something, you can take pretty much any combination of things from that gigantic toy-box and make a new thing. Some of those things will stretch the words ‘ill-advised’ further than they were designed to stretch, but some of them will sparkle and glow like hot, buttered diamonds.

Furthermore, when you make a new thing from two old things, the old things don’t just suddenly cease to exist. Largely, media forms don’t change, they grow. When photography happened, it didn’t stop people painting. In fact it probably made painting a lot more interesting, because now there was another, largely better and certainly more convenient way of fulfilling one of painting’s original uses. Now painting was free to go off and examine what it was to paint, rather than do an eerily accurate copy of a big man’s face. This was good for everybody in the whole world.

What games are

So, that said, I want to talk about what games are. I want to do that because I want to talk about what toys are. My favourite definition of games is ‘toys with rules’. It’s my favourite because it’s short and it works. It also ignores the fact that toys already have rules.

oh god how did this get here I am not good with computer
A ball has the rules of physics. If you drop it, it bounces. It doesn’t have rules like ‘if it bounces that high, you win one billion points’ but it does, none the less, have rules. It has intrinsic rules, the rules that define it as a ball. If you get a certain kind of ball and give it to 22 grown-men on a big field, and only let them kick it, add goalposts and a man with a whistle and some casual racism, you have the game of football. And well done you.

The ball is a toy and it has intrinsic rules. Football is a game, that results from adding extrinsic rules to the ball’s intrinsic rules. So we can now say that games are ‘toys with extrinsic rules’. 

To infinity, and beyond

'I'm just a toy. A stupid little insignificant toy.'

This is how we think of toys. We think of toys as childish playthings. Toys are afforded even less social currency and clout than games, and games are rubbish. I collect games and from a distance they look a bit like books, so I can let people come inside my house occasionally. If I had endless shelves of action figures and toy cars, then visitors would either presume that they would never be allowed to leave or, at best, that they would never be coming back.

‘Whoa. Hey. Wait a minute. Being a toy is a lot better than being a...a Space Ranger.’

The thing is, much like gamification’s battle between intrinsic rewards (yay!) and extrinsic rewards (boo!), toys’ intrinsic rules make them fabulously good fun to play with. Game makers - despite being toy makers by default - want to make games. Often times, the game bit, the extrinsic rules bit, overwhelms that first point, that crafting of a supremely awesome toy. Again, like gamification, it’s concentrating on the extrinsic rewards (boo!), not the intrinsic ones (yay!).

Guess I got my swagger back
Toys need to get much more respect than they do. People shouldn’t be so keen to say they are game designers or that they want to make games, and should spend their time making beautiful toys. After all, what would you rather have contributed to the world of games, Zelda or dice? Grand Theft Auto or the pack or cards? In a thousand years, people will still be throwing balls around, they are far less likely to be playing Mass Effect 2.

It’s toys that make play happen, it’s rules that make toys into games. While there’s skill in both, making great toys is vastly under-appreciated. The battle over ‘are games art’ has been won and now they are. But if they are, then toys are an even greater art.

I’m off to change my job title, brb.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

TV Platforms, Not TV Programs

Split attention is fine oh look a pretty flower

Recap. People do stuff while the TV is on. They also to do stuff while the radio is on. They have always done this. It used to be books and newspapers and phone calls and bare-knuckle boxing, now it’s probably internets. The thing that has changed isn’t behaviour, it’s the nature of the device that is distracting people from the telly. The interactive nature of that device means that now the telly people can tempt attention back onto their programs, and thus the delicious advertising that pays for the whole kit and caboodle. Two-screen TV is born.

Lou Dobbs, chilling out

As we batten down the hatches and prepare for a slew of two screen programs of wildly variable quality and vision, one of the many questions troubling those producing such content is how to deal with the issue of split attention. Even if your test subjects are engaging with your TV show, their attention is still split, you just have responsibility for both of the things they are looking at.

If we’ve managed to convince you to synchronise what you’re doing with your personal device with what’s happening on the large glowing rectangle on the wall, how do we then artfully sashay your attention from the small screen and back to the large screen? How do we manage your attention across two devices?


Sometimes this isn’t a problem. In most interactive (the show listens and talks back) rather than participatory (the TV just listens) cases, it will make complete sense for you to be looking one way or the other. If there is a quiz, then you will look at the screen with the question on it, look at the screen where you input your answer, then look at the screen which tells you if you were right or not. That’s not managing, that’s just a natural result of the format.

If you are looking at a more participatory format, one where there isn’t a direct, logical reason to look at one particular screen baked into the format from the get-go, then things become a bit more complicated. This is when split attention and managing that split can start to loom large into the sights of producers.

"If we don't move, he can't see us..."

The solution here is to forget about guiding attention and instead to allow that attention to wander. The behaviour you are seeking to piggy-back by making your two screen product in the first place is that of varying, split, wandering attention. So fit your product into that. If people wanted to do one thing at once, they would be doing one thing at once. Two screen will be more about choice and variety than it will be about a carefully curated experience

Let people pick and choose what they want to interact with and when. Watching TV is a largely passive, sit-back experience. If you want people to move beyond that and actively get involved, you need to fit those moments into your overall experience in a way that lets them choose when to get involved and how to get involved.

Actually, you just can’t please all of the people, ever

The fundamental point behind this is that you can’t make a TV show or two-screen experience that’s great for everyone, because you can’t make any product that’s great for everyone. We are all different people with different desires. Well, except that one guy. If you want to make your show more appealing to more people you need to make it more different, to do different things and let people get to the world you’ve created in as many ways as possible.

What good are words when I have no mouth to scream?

Obviously, doing that takes time and it takes money. And you don’t have either of those things. This stuff should be a profit centre, not a cost centre, right? If you want to make plenty of content around your show, let people access it in lots of different ways and hopefully make money doing so, that’s going to require a lot of experimentation, a lot of up-front cost. So what to do?

The logical end-game for that line of thinking is to make your program into a platform. The big successes of our time are not products, they are platforms. They have APIs and they are open to other people adding onto them. Facebook, Twitter and iOS leap out as great examples. None of these companies make any content at all. 80% of all Twitter content is accessed through third-party applications.

Come on in, the water’s mutually beneficial

What is needed is a platform approach to program, to content, to brands. There’s no question that the more ways to access your ‘thing’ the more people will access it and there’s no question that doing that all in house is prohibitively expensive. So don’t do it in house. Open it up. Let anyone who wants to contribute to the world of your ‘thing’ make a ‘thing’ using all of your ‘things’.

Fascinating. Please, do go on.
By allowing access to the inner bits of your program/brand/content to developers and entrepreneurs, you’re exponentially increasing your chance of discovering really great ways to get your audience more engaged or engaging a new audience. Stop thinking that great ideas for your program/brand/content can only come through the laborious and arcane commissioning, tendering, pitching process. Use the good bit of capitalism and let the market decide what a good idea looks like, not a clever person in a room deciding WHAT IS RIGHT and WHAT IS WRONG. That person will never be as smart as everyone.

Not only is this shifting the discovery, the R&D costs and thinking onto others, it’s still letting you benefit from its successes. And via the power of the brand, it’s helping the creators get access to audiences they would never have otherwise managed.

Let your IP free. Create platforms, not content. 

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

On Telification

I am sorry I said that word, I really am

Gamification is great and all (it isn’t) but it’s all a bit yesterdays news, don’t you think? ‘I remember gamification’ say the elder statesmen of the media world ‘and it was rubbish’ they continue.

Well the problem with it was that it had precisely fuck all to do with games. It was, as Margaret Robertson so eloquently put it, pointsification. Shaving the most insignificant layer of fluff from the exposed flanks of gaming’s prone body and magically exchanging the meaningless word gamification for the meaningless word engagement.

Do you do group discounts?

Of course for real gamification, actually learning from games and applying their sense of agency, loss, learning and self-improvement to anything that stays still long enough, the future is as rosy as it ever was. Those that really understand games are still rare, but they get less rare by the day and their influence will be felt everywhere. Gamification is dead, long-live gamification.

And so to telification. Adding television-like elements to things that are not television. This one can’t possibly get wrongly understood, right?

What this means for television

There are two kinds of broadly interactive television, Participation TV and Interactive TV. 

Participation TV is where the show invites contributions from the viewer, but doesn’t necessarily give anything back. Big Brother and The X Factor both fall into this category, inviting the viewer/player to give their opinion and vote for their favourite, but with no guarantee that their views will be reflected in the show itself. The Million Pound Drop also falls into this category, with the playalong elements, while mentioned as statistics, having no effect whatsoever on the outcome of the show.

This can be seen as the gamification of television. It’s adding game-like thinking to television. In all these cases, the show came first and the game came later. The TV show is by far the most important part of the equation and the game-like elements are there to get the player invested in that show, not to give them a meaningful game-like experience. It works very well, largely because it retains the essential TV experiences of passive, sit-back, almost ambient entertainment. 

Interactive TV is where the show reacts to every viewers input individually. It reflects the players actions back at them and alters their experience of the show accordingly. It is a vanishingly tiny sector of the TV market, in fact the only example I can think of is Dutch show ‘Intuition’. (Disclaimer - we make this show) That is undoubtedly going to change, as more broadcasters decide to take a risk with shows that put the focus on the audience rather than the show itself.

"The Rubik's Cube Show" never got the respect it deserved

This is the telification of games. This is starting with a game and adding in the television elements until you have something that looks enough like a TV show to persuade a broadcaster to pop it on their channel. 

These kind of shows won’t necessarily make for very good television. The problem with making them work is that either the game will make demands of the show which will make the show suffer or the show will make demands of the game which will make the game suffer. Seemingly simple factors such as pacing will be pulled in two totally different directions by the need to provide a good television (slower) or a good gaming (faster) experience.

Getting Interactive TV right will be extremely difficult. It is a whole new type of show and the rewards for getting it right will be vast, but in order to do that, television and game thinking will have to be brought to bear in very even measure. Only teams who can bring a genuine understanding of television and a genuine understanding of games together will be able to make this kind of thing work.

What this means for games

But what if we ignore the television entirely and apply telification to games that intend to remain games? I don’t mean the sort of EA Sports presentationism, where game and TV producers are locked in a dizzying race to make the art of sports presentation so bombastic it literally hurts your face when you look at it. And I don’t mean the idea of episodic content, seasons of content, a ball fumbled so expertly by Valve with their Half Life updates that no-one even knows where it is anymore.

FACT: The Queen is a huge fan of Frankie Boyle

Television has three relevant strengths. It is linear, it is broadcast and it is passive. Games can be linear in the same sense that a single television program is linear, but they are not linear in the same sense that a television channel is linear. Games are broadcast in the sense that many people may be playing the same game on the same server, but not in the sense of many people doing *exactly* the same thing at the same time. And games are passive in the sense of having cut-scenes, but even those bits aren’t truly passive, as you’re actually mashing every single button on the pad at that point, to try and dispel their dreadful interlude. 

These are genuine strengths, do not underestimate them. Television, in case you hadn’t noticed, is a rather popular way of passing the time. How can games take these strengths and use them to forward their own agenda. How do you make linear, broadcast, passive games? And if you could, if you did, would you even call them games anymore?

I think you can and I think we will, but I don’t know what we’ll call them when we get there.

Telification. It’s going to be rad.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

How To Learn From Games

The four games you meet in heaven

I’ve spent about a thousand hours a day playing computer games since way before I was born. That’s turned out to be quite useful, not because I work in games but because I don’t. Games have a lot to say and if you don’t make games, you can learn an incredible amount from them. The inverse is true for people who do make games, but hey, those guys are a bunch of nerds, right?

People are different and we can learn from each other
The problem is that there are more games out there than there are stars in the sky, so working out which ones can teach you the most is basically impossible. I’ve already played literally every game ever made, so here’s my break-down of THE GAME that can teach you the most, based on your profession.

It’s extremely important to note that you have to actually play these games. If you just read this and think you’ve learned anything except which game you should play, then you are an idiot. A big stupid idiot. Reading a few words written by another idiot about the most important games in the world is no match whatsoever for actually playing them. You spend more than it costs to buy these games and their accompanying consoles on lunch and stupid shirts in less than a week, so go and put the time in. In exchange, you will be hailed as a genius by your tribe. It’s not a bad deal.

Oh god just please go and play this now, oh god please. Way of the Samurai is half sword fighting game, half choose your own adventure. It’s set in 1878, at the end of the Samurai era. The fighting game is fun and the whole thing is very short. 

It’s arranged into areas and each area presents the player with a dilemma and leaves them to decide how to deal with it. Depending on how they react, the situation in the next area they visit may be affected. Because the game is very short, players can and will play through it several times, getting to see what the effects of their actions truly are from many different perspectives.

Typical Samurai dress circa 1878
The fighting bit is highly enjoyable and the desire to see what else might happen is incredibly high. You learn a great deal about 1870s Japan and you bloody love doing it. Go, now, play, now. You’re wasting your time if you haven’t seen how well this can be done. 

If you work in marketing then you are interested in gamification. And, if you are interested in gamification, you’ve heard that games people don’t think gamification is worth shit. Well Demon's Souls is the game that will demonstrate exactly what they are talking about, and it will do so with utterly brutal efficiency. 

Demon's Souls is fucking hard. Really, totally fucking hard. It is a game about loss. About losing. About losing over and over and over again, until you win. And when you win, it is the best feeling since that one time when you smoked rainbows while having sex with god, dressed as a unicorn.

What is this, I don't even...
If you want to understand what actual games rather than the operant conditioning machines of Facebook have to offer your profession, you’ll go home and beat yourself against this game until you finally bend it to your will, by which point you will have become an immortal being, a god among men.

Demon's Souls is the opposite of gamification and will teach you more about what gamification can actually offer than any other object in the known universe. Get on with it.

This one is as effortlessly enjoyable as it is embarrassing to every single person who works in online advertising. As the game is loading, it lets you play Galaga, an ancient 80s arcade shooting game. You play for a few seconds, then the game starts and you play that instead. 
They don't think it be like it is, but it do

It’s incredibly simple and fun. It is the most engaging pre-roll ever made. Literally no piece of pre-roll or interruption advertising has been as good as this was. And it’s been there since 1994, four years before Google existed. Go, get a PlayStation, and play it. Then stop making pre-roll videos, start engaging people through engaging objects and receive a colossal pay-rise and infinite respect from your co-lifeforms.

Oh how I envy you. To be able to go back to a time when I hadn’t played Final Fantasy 12 is a regular subject of my thrice-hourly daydreaming sessions. It’s a gigantic, huge, sprawling epic of a game that takes forever to finish. It’s on a scale with watching the whole of The Wire. That was worth doing and so is this.

The reason is that this is a game that basically plays itself. You tell it how you want it to play and it does that. It’s a game that seems to take control away from the player, but actually gives them greatly more, by giving them a position as director rather than actor.

Owls are both passive and interactive

If you want to know how to do passive, sit-back, yet interactive programming, then go and play this game, then have a good long think. Control isn’t just about pressing buttons and seeing a man jump or an enemy die. From the lightest of touches in the rightest of places, you can give people an incredibly interactive experience. Go and learn how. Now.

This is the end bit

I’ve said here before that we all do the same job, that we all need to look outwards, not inwards. Well now you know exactly where to start looking when it comes to games. The time and money you spend on actually playing these games will repay you a thousandfold. I don’t even have a joke to finish off with here.