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Game Over













Photo: Mykl Roventine

After almost three years of documenting the perpetually morphing gaming industry, this is the final post in The Sandbox. We are moving all of our game coverage to Spectrum's Tech Talk blog and Sandbox will not be updated again. Veteran Sandbox bloggers David Kushner and Harry Teasley will continue to give Spectrum readers the inside perspective on game development and culture. Look for Kushner's new feature on Valve Software's ongoing battle against cheaters and hackers, coming to a screen near you on February 16, 2010.

Gamer 911

A mom in Roxbury, Massachusetts figured out how to get her 14-year-old boy to stop playing Grand Theft Auto.

She called the (real) police.

Yes, she called 911 and reported that her son was obsessed with GTA, and she didn't know what to do.

Astonishingly, the cops actually showed up at the house to help.  And, according to the mom, told her son to "chill out, go to bed."

I'm not sure what's more incredible - the police taking this seriously, or the mom thinking they'd take it seriously in the first place.

Either way, this holiday story perfectly illustrates the generational divide between gamers and their parents.

Can you imagine if parents called the cops to stop their kids from playing too much TV?

Avatar and the Singularity

Yes, Avatar is dazzling.  Make sure you see it in IMAX 3-D, as I did fortunately this weekend.  It is without a doubt the trippiest movie ever made - or since the Wizard of Oz at least. 

It's not perfect, though.  The story thins out too much in parts, and Cameron frequently sacrifices drama for wonderment. 

I was more impressed by something in the subtext - the portrayal, intentional or not, of life in a virtual world.   Cameron is what Ray Kurzweil would call a Singularitarian.  Kurzweil talks about the moment (in our lifetime, he thinks) when humans will essentially upload into the Matrix, and live forever.  Whether you believe that or not, this is what happens in Avatar. 

(Spoiler alert). 

The protagonist is a parapalegic marine who leaves his wheelchair (and body) behind in the end to inhabit his synthetic avatar self.   He uploads for good and possibly forever.  It's not clear whether the aliens can transfer  bodies too.  If so, then they could just keep transfering every time their bodies become sick or boring.  But we humans certainly have the upgrade option when we land on Pandora.  All we have to do is lay down under a phosphorecent tree, and get ensarled by brightly-colored weeds.  Then...snap.  Our eyes open inside a bright blue 10 foot tall Eco.T.

Despite Avatar's incredible - and incredibly expensive - effects, it is sort of a rehash of this quaint old sci-fi idea. Avatar falls neatly in line with all the other VR fantasy films - from Videodrome to Lawnmower Man, Tron to (next year) Tron Legacy.  But it  does the finest job yet of conveying what it feels like to live in a virtual world.

Avatar and the Virtual Camera

Filming computer-generated scenes is usually a big - and time-consuming - pain.  Enter the virtual camera.  This new technology used in James Cameron’s 3-D sci-fi epic, Avatar, (which I'm seeing tonight!) and Capcom’s Resident Evil 5 videogame marks the next generation of animation creation.  Programmers first create a virtual environment which serves as the set.  But instead of peopling the world with animated characters, a director shoots a scene on the fly on a handheld screen using actors in motion-capture bodysuits.  In the deft hands of a filmmaker like Cameron it brings a freshly – and fleshly - organic feel to the CG process. It'll be interesting to see future applications of this in film and games.  

Protests Over the Army's Gaming Center

From Doom to Full Spectrum Warrior, the military has long been using videogames to train and recruit soldiers.

Last year, Philadelphia saw the opening of the Army Experience Center, a 14,500 square foot facility that, according to its site, is "a twenty-first century destination for people to get accurate information about the Army directly from the source. Conceived and built over a ten-month period in the Franklin Mills Mall in Philadelphia, the and education center is fast becoming a model for Army recruiting nationwide. Touch screen kiosks, state-of-the-art presentation facilities, community events and high-action simulators are just a few of the AEC features helping to shatter outdated stereotypes and start new career conversations."

But the AEC is now a subject of protest.  A group called the United for Peace and Justice-Delaware Valley Network has been holding vigils outside the center, accusing it of using games to lure kids into joining the military.  "War is not a game," the group has said in a statement.  They hope to convince the Franklin Mills Mall to shut the facility down.

MIT Gets in the Motion-Sensing Game

2010 is shaping up to be the Year of Hands-Free Controls.

Last week I blogged about a patent from Sony for a new motion-sensing videogame controller.

This comes after several months of hype/speculation about Microsoft's Project Natal:  a motion-sensing camera for the Xbox 360.

Now add BiDi to the mix.  Developed at the Massachussets Institue of Technology, BiDi is described as "an example of a new type of I/O device that possesses the ability to both capture images and display them. This thin, bidirectional screen extends the latest trend in LCD devices, which has seen the incorporation of photo-diodes into every display pixel. Using a novel optical masking technique developed at the Media Lab, the BiDi Screen can capture lightfield-like quantities, unlocking a wide array of applications from 3-D gesture interaction with CE devices, to seamless video communication."

Will gesturing be the mouse of the next decade?

I spoke about innovations in videogame interfaces on NPR Weekend Edition yesterday.  You can listen here.

Hacking BioShock 2

"Hacking" was a big part of BioShock - the dark and addictive first person shooter.  To progress through the story, you had to solve mini-games, little puzzles that unlocked key portions of the experience.

I wasn't crazy about this.  To me, it stopped the action and took away from the otherwise awesome pacing.

Good news!

The old style "hacking" isn't going to be as goofy in BioShock 2.

Check out this little video interview with the game's lead designer, Zak McClendon.  Hacking has now been integrated more seamlessly into the gameplay experience, so you can solve puzzles WHILE getting shot (how's that for multi-tasking?).

Also, it's commendable that the developers are making hacking a heroic skill.  There's a lot of negative buzz in the media lately about the scourge of game hackers, the people pirating games, online and off.  Of course hacking is not always a bad thing, and BioShock, maybe, is helping to put it back in the geeky and proper light. 

Sony's New Controller?

On December 3, a patent for an "Expandable Control Device Via Hardware Attachment" surfaced on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office site.

Yep, it's Sony's.

Kotaku dug up the patent, and now gamers are pouring over the pictures and descriptions.

The most intriguing bit:  "The attachment can be coupled and decoupled to the connector and allows the gaming system to visually track the location of the handle via the visual interface. In another embodiment, the attachment provides additional communication capabilities"

Motion sensing capabilities, of course, are a new and necessary part of the meta-game of the game industry. 

Next year, everyone will be talking about Project Natal, Microsoft's game-changing motion-sensing cam, and Sony has got to compete.

The real differentiation will not be the peripheral, but the games.  

What will the motion-sensing equivalent of Pong be?

FTC Says the Videogame Industry Scores

How many times have we heard that videogames are corrupting kids?  But despite all the concern, the industry is doing a better job at self-regulation than critics might think.

The Federal Trade Commission released a report this week finding that game makers are doing a better job of protecting kids that those in the movie and music business.  "Retailers are enforcing age restrictions on the sale of M-rated [mature] games to children, with an average denial rate of 80 percent," the report says.  But there are still gaps.  Kids are buying M-rated games using gift cards online, and also accessing them on mobile devices. 

"It will be particularly important to address the challenges presented by emerging technologies – such as mobile gaming – that are quickly changing the ways that children access entertainment,"  FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz says.

Gamer Kids

According to a new study by the NPD Group, a technology research firm, 55.7 million kids in the U.S. age 2 to 17 play videogames - or roughly 82% of children.  I suppose that's not entirely surprising on the surface.  But, hang on - 2-year-olds?   

What are they playing?   

Many are watching older brothers/sisters play Webkinz, the virtual world that kids enter after buying accompanying "plush" toys.  Webkinz is the gateway for virtual worlds to come, and its' reach is astonishing.  I interviewed  the elusive CEO, Howard Ganz, and here's what he had to say - food for though on kids and digital living:

"Generally, we anticipate upcoming challenges by looking forward: we try to imagine what our world will look like 3-5 years out," Ganz said,

"For example, our first successful transition saw us grow from supplying the amusement industry to participating in the larger toy industry. Next, when we saw that many of our bigger customers were going directly to the Orient to purchase, we explored new avenues of growth. This led to our expansion into the giftware industry, where we could develop a broad assortment of product lines which are sold to a wide base of customers. As one category wanes, another becomes ‘hot’, and we can react more quickly to both scenario."

"...We don’t think of our Webkinz pets as a replacement to traditional plush—we still design and create many lines of plush toys—but instead as a new category. It’s not a field for everyone. It requires a big commitment, and a big investment, to develop a website from the ground up...We don’t view Webkinz World, or the experience of children’s virtual play worlds, as a ‘trend’. We think it is a new category of play, along with building blocks, dress-up, coloring books and make believe."



IEEE Spectrum’s gaming blog was retired in 2010, but it is preserved here for archival reference.

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