Book Review: Screen Play: The Story of Video Games (George Sullivan, 1983)

September 23, 2012

Published in 1983, George Sullivan’s Screen Play: The Story of Video Games is one of the earliest books about the medium and its history. Despite its age, Screen Play contains lots of useful information for game historians, including interviews with Ralph Baer, Dona Bailey, George Kiss (Director of Sofware Development at Atari), and Ronnie Lamm (early videogame opponent).

Screen Play is an 88-page book for children and young adults about the videogame industry, divided into eight chapters describing what games are, their history, how they are made, and their future. The book is written in a journalistic style, heavy with facts and information, but presented in a very readable fashion. Read the rest of this entry »

The Snowfield (Or, Why I Need a New Computer)

March 5, 2012

So a few days ago, I opened up this nice Gamasutra interview with Matthew Weise from MIT’s GAMbit lab, who produced a game about World War I called The Snowfield. The game has been nominated for the Independent Games Festival and promises to be one of the top titles of the show.

The game has a gritty aesthetic fitting with the theme, and opens with a haunting harmonica melody and cinematic fade-in of the title screen.

Unfortunately, that’s about where my experience with it ends because my hardware is so ancient – you need at least a dual core machine to run this (Pentium 4 just doesn’t cut anything these days, and runs The Snowfield at about 6FPS). Looks like I’ll have to borrow a machine to play it or wait until I get a new one.

However, I did gather the primary verbs: walk, pick up, drop, and give. They are clearly trying to produce some sort of positive relationship between the player and NPCs. Looks like there’s a sizable space to explore that’s filled with devastation, but I don’t think it will feel like battlefield tourism based on the interactions. Judging by the screenshots and video, you slowly freeze to death through the course of the game unless you’re near a heat source (hence why Sun Tzu tells us to never launch a campaign in the middle of winter).

Oddly enough, the research statement has everything to do with telling narrative through gameplay and nothing to do with WWI.

Anyway, here’s the trailer:

Hmm… Also makes me wish I’d been at GDC this year. Daniel Pinchbeck will also be there showing off Dear Esther.

If you’re like me and don’t have a good machine, you can also try out Bay12 Games’s World War I Medic (he also authored Dwarf Fortress). I also need to do a writeup on this sometime, so this is more an FYI.

Medium Difficulty’s “Call of Apathy”

March 5, 2012

Game criticism website Medium Difficulty recently posted an article, “Call of Apathy” by “W”, an ex-Marine-turned-military-contractor who is concerned with the way soldiers are presented in war games. W states that the US military is 100% volunteer, and so (at least in the Marines and Special Forces), about 80% of the military is made up of people who like to kill things (i.e. sociopaths). Games, on the other hand, depict the modern-day version of the Hollywood hero, the stone-cold loner who can take on the world, but does everything for good old American values. As W states:

None of the stereotypes exist. They are put in place by a media and a military that hates the wars we fight but loves the men fighting in them.

While W is speaking from a particular perspective and basing his information on real-world experience from that perspective rather than systematic analysis, this raises an interesting point.

America is at war and has been for more than a decade now. The military is all-volunteer, with no draft, and there is no war tax, so the average American doesn’t have to give anything for it. This has resulted in a sharp division between the soldier and the civilian where the civilian has no clue of what the military actually does.

At the same time, support for the war in the Middle East has dwindled while the respect the average American has for the US serviceman continues to rise. Support the troops, not the war, appears to be the new slogan.

However, while we profess to hate war, our media is saturated with it. While part of it is there is a war going on, and whatever happens to be going on at the moment is whatever is picked up by the popular media, the other part is that while we say we hate war, we sure love to play it.

And this is the crux of the matter. The games we play tell us a lot about who we are as a society. What does it mean when modern American masculinity is partly defined through the vicariousness of simulated and TV soldiers (and football players)? What does it mean when a culture wants to end a war yet sells more copies of Modern Warfare 3 in a month than the Bible sold all of last year?*

War games may not be realistic, and W certainly gives us some idea of what a realistic war game would actually be like. However, if realism is defined as a quality of a good war game, but war itself is not fun, then at what point do we hedge the realism for the sake of entertainment? The term ‘realism’ ultimately ends up as another word to sell things.

*Note, if you doubt this, Google the sales figures. MW3 really did outsell the Bible.

Giant Tank Postmortem

February 29, 2012

Giant Tank Postmortem Four Years Later

Giant Tank was produced as part of my MFA thesis which was the research, critique, and design of antiwar games. In the game, a lone soldier with only a rifle is fighting an enormous tank. You are not the tank.

Antiwar games are games that critique the nature of war and conflict. They can be opposed to a particular war, such as an antiwar game about the Afghanistan War, about war prevention, such as a game protesting hawkish sentiments about a future war with Iran, or they can be a critique of war in general. I made Giant Tank as the latter because I didn’t want my game to be recognized as belonging to a particular movement in games, similar to how the Vietnam Antiwar Movement is often affiliated with hippies and flower power.

Giant Tank was part of a thesis project that consisted of three games and a lengthy essay on antiwar games. This was all bundled together in a single box. I have since shown Giant Tank in an art gallery and published a revised version of my writing. But I have not done a postmortem of it until now.


Things that went right.

1.      Scratch is fast, has limitations, but these can be overcome

Giant Tank was built in Scratch. Scratch at first glance looks well below the manliness of hardcore game development tools like Flash and C++, but that is because the tool is meant to show kids how to program. That is why it has a cartoony interface and a big, ugly cartoon cat in the main window.

At first I was very reluctant to use this tool. However, I quickly realized how powerful Scratch could be, primarily through its ease of use. With Scratch, you can get a character moving in about 30 seconds. If you don’t know anything about programming, it might take you five minutes. I don’t know of any other program where you can do that from the ground up. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ambiguity of Holocaust Games and “Suicide Bomber”: Training or Coping?

March 27, 2011

Several weeks ago, a YouTube video of children acting out a suicide bombing mission was discovered on YouTube. The video takes place somewhere around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border; the children were determined to be part of a pashtun, or religious school, based on their clothing. It has since been picked up by the press – days later by the New York Times, and recently again by the BBC. In the video, young children – some perhaps no older than three – enact a suicide bombing mission in a game that we shall refer to here as “Suicide Bomber”:

A brief synopsis: A child dressed as a bomber walks before a line of other children. He embraces his smiling friends as a final farewell – several of them grin at the camera. Then he proudly walks forward and confronts another boy dressed in white who, acting as a checkpoint officer, puts his hand up to signal ‘Stop!’ The first child lifts his clothes to reveal explosives and rushes forward towards the fleeing guard and three other boys in a cluster. One of the children (one of the victims, the boy dressed in yellow) throws up a huge cloud of dust and everyone collapses in a heap; the other boys rush up to see. The camera moves over them to focus on the faces and show the results of the attack. The child playing the bomber cannot contain his grin, but quickly becomes serious again. The music being played is a favorite war song of the Taliban about a young man going off to war and how good he looks while carrying his machinegun.

The press’ coverage has interpreted the video as training children to become suicide bombers. UNICEF and other groups according to the BBC have rightly condemned the video while a Taliban spokesman, though denying they produced it and saying he was “saddened” that the children were playing this game, gave a propagandistic response that “they should do it because this is a war that was imposed upon us.” The spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, stressed to the New York Times that they accept children as young as 18 to become suicide bombers, but this runs counter to reports and arrests of children – one as young as 14 – arrested for attempting to blow themselves up. So children suicide bombers is certainly something that our soldiers and the Afghan security forces are worried about, and – particularly given the recent trends in ‘serious games’ to teach soldiers and civilians new skills – is inevitably feared as a propagandistic training video. As the New York Times puts it, “the message is clear: This is something to aspire to.”

But is the “message” of this game really that “clear”? One of the things that strikes me about this coverage is that the play itself is ambiguous, and yet most people have accepted this as a training video. One thing that appears missing from the discussion is the critical and historical perspective.

Simply put, children play games in war zones all the time – play appears to be essential to a child’s well-being and as Brian Sutton-Smith tells us in his seminal Ambiguity of Play, the absence of play within children is a symptom of something terribly wrong with that child. Though is all too easy to think that play could not exist within such terrible circumstances it inevitably does – even within concentration camps.

George Eisen’s 1990 book, Children and Play in the Holocaust: Games among the Shadows describes and analyzes several types of games that were played in the ghettos and concentration camps. One of these was “gate patrol” where children would reenact Jewish workers returning to camp, trying to smuggle food in under the watch of other children playing as guards. Yet another was “Klepsi Klepsi”, or ‘stealing’, where one child would be blindfolded while the others would slap him as hard as they could and then when the blindfold was removed, playing innocent. The goal of the slapper was to escape punishment while the child who was slapped had to read the body language of the other children to identify who hit him.

Eisen describes these games as a reflection of the culture that surrounds them as well as an attempt to gain control over that environment:

Play provided the children with a “buffered learning,” an activity frame in which one could learn to be safe in an abnormal situation, without worrying about being out of control. Thus children took into their lives naturally even the death that surrounded them. In spite of their elders’ desperate efforts to shelter them from the atrocities, their games in the ghettos and camps reflected, inevitably, the surrounding horror.

Thus, “Klepsi Klepsi” might be seen as both a reflection of the brutality and conditions in which the children lived but also as a means of learning techniques that could help them, such as being able to identify who was guilty in a situation and how to hide guilt. In addition, it helped give the children an escape mechanism through imagination.

This puts “Suicide Bomber” in a slightly different light and highlights the ambiguity of the game. Is it, as the Taliban and the press want us to believe, a training video? Or is it the equivalent to “Klepsi Klepsi” and other ghetto and concentration camp games, as a means of finding means to cope with a horrible situation through the safety of play? The children in the video express joy and laughter, both at the absurdity of the situation and the presence of the camera. There is certainly an element of chaos within the dramatically billowing cloud of dust that would appeal to what Roger Caillois defined as ilinx, or vertigo, the form of play that finds joy in chaos, not unlike the dancing and tumbling of “Ring around the Rosie”. (Of course there is also mimicry present here as well through the costumes and reenactment, and this is where the concerns of the authorities lie).

Here it is important to note that the cameraman’s identity is unknown, though given height of the camera angle, it seems to be an adult man – probably the same person who added the Taliban song and posted it on YouTube. What is unclear, however, is whether the man is encouraging them to play this game or merely recording a game that was happening anyway.

The bottom line is that the play is ambiguous, and as a result, everyone finds their own interpretation, and the video put to serve the agenda of any party whether it be the Taliban, UNICEF, or police and security forces in Afghanistan. The one part of the discussion that is missing and that we ultimately will probably never know is what the children think of “Suicide Bomber”. If there is one thing that is clear about the video though, it is that the children of Afghanistan and Pakistan – and likely in Iraq as well – will play “Suicide Bomber” because terrorism is a fact of life for them.

Oregon Trail Ver. 3 (BASIC 3.1, 1978)

November 7, 2010

As part of a research project on computer games produced prior to 1973 (the date of 101 BASIC Computer Games), I have been conducting research on The Oregon Trail, which originated at Carleton College in Minnesota in 1971 by Don Rawitsch, Paul Dillenberger, and Bill Heineman. The game was played in one of Rawitsch’s history classes and in programming and simulation classes taught by Dillenberger and Heineman, then put in storage until Rawitsch copied it onto the MECC computer system in 1974, with a revision in 1976 based on new research. It was alter copied and published in the July-August 1978 issue of Creative Computing. The 1978 version is thus fairly close to the 1971 original, only with more accurate data. The original version also contained more jokes to make the learning process more interesting, but the data was still fairly accurate. Rawitsch testifies to the value of a simulation for teaching:

Although students can find out about the Oregon Trail by reading books, visiting museums, watching movies, and similar activities, the simulation allows them to learn from actively participating in the simulated experiences of people from another era.

Data on the Oregon Trail was collected from books and diaries and provided accurate information regarding the cost of goods, types of supplies to buy, and the frequency of disasters (i.e. bad weather occurs 20% of the time and injuries 5% of the time in the diaries, so they occur at the same rate in the game). The code also detects where the player is on the trail and adjust random events accordingly (i.e. it snows in the mountains and river disasters occur on the plains).

Unlike the graphical version we are more familiar with, the original version was text-based. Each turn, players would type their choice (stop, hunt, or continue; eat well, moderate, or poorly) and the game would load an event subroutine to let you know what kind of disaster occurred this turn. After making a choice in the event sequence, the game tallies up the results and continues until the player either dies or reaches Oregon. Also unlike later versions of The Oregon Trail, the 1978 version does not keep statistics of whether a family member dies and you cannot name your family members or yourself. Finally, the popular hunting sequences involve typing a word such as “BANG” quickly into the computer, with accuracy based on speed.

One of the things I’ve noticed by looking at the code is that there are many disasters that can either deplete bullet stock or be overcome by using bullets. This means that success might rely on a large supply of ammunition. Rawitsch also suggests that players spend $200-$300 on oxen and at least $175 on food as a good initial supply.

Below is a text document containing the code for the program, originally called OREGON. It runs in 3.1 BASIC and was designed for a CDC Cyber 70/73-26 (of which there are apparently many still in operation, and one man is selling a rather expensive emulator of the system to this audience).


I haven’t figured out how to get the code running in a BASIC emulator (say in a presentable version such as Highnoon), but if anyone can help, please let me know! The code is approximately 700 lines long.

This code was found in David Ahl’s Creative Computing May-June 1978 issue.

Welcome to the Desert of the Real

September 30, 2010

While searching through Molleindustria’s site, I came across a link to a machinima called Welcome to the Desert of the Real, created using America’s Army, the military’s free propaganda game. I was quite surprised and intrigued by this, dubbed a “reverse propaganda film” about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The film uses footage from the game along with text from the Army’s official PTSD manual.

I was struck by the aesthetic values of the film, which takes a machine of war and beats its sword into a ploughshare machine of art. Each image is aesthetic, the blocky polygon approximations reduced to Lawrence of Arabia-esque desertscapes with ruins of Middle Eastern buildings, dust storms, and endless spreads of desert where jagged edges of ground textures dance on the edges of vision like a mirage. A piece of war, now a piece of aesthetics. It also suggests connections with war photography, but also with film, landscape, and the surreal. But this aesthetic approach is top notch, with well-polished cinematography and artistic composition of shots.

This said, I find the connections to PTSD seem a little obscure. The lone soldier treads through this surreal dreamscape, a desert void of life, both friend and foe. It is a space he wanders by himself, and yet it does not directly reference any specific PTSD events (aside from a shooting in the opening). While on the one hand, I appreciate the game’s distancing from imagery of violence and death, or even just the leavings of battle, the juxtaposition of words and imagery seems more a space to let the words sink in rather than to suggest a connection between word and image. If anything, the film has to do with PTSD through the loneliness and silent, solitary patrol of the soldier and his lonely battle with the illness. He feels isolated, unable to cope with this demon and afraid he will be ostracized for admitting it. As such, it eats him away like the heat of the desert sands and the baking rays of the sun. However, this connection might be difficult to make for most people, as our images of what PTSD actually is and its effects are obscure to the sheltered mind, the words not directly connected with the imagery beyond tenuous metaphor.

Also…Wordpress does not seem to directly support Vimeo, despite the fact it has better display conditions than YouTube.

The Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah

June 22, 2010

Today I stumbled upon a shocking discovery on, a website devoted to game studies. The article, “Charnel Houses of Europe: The Limits of Play” (1997) discusses a roleplaying game by White Wolf, Wraith, a game about ghosts, and its expansion set, The Charnel Houses of Europe: The Shoah, which covers the ghosts of the Holocaust. The paper, given in 2006, explored the nature of the game and its ethical properties, ultimately suggesting that Charnel Houses of Europe was able to communicate some information on the nature of the Holocaust, though was ultimately unable to provide an “authentic experience” relative to it. Sadly, “CHoE: The Limits of Play” is available mainly in video form, with character sheets below. The audio is poor, and some of the speakers are impossible to hear. It also cannot be paused. The second video has a sample play.

First off, Charnel Houses of Europe (CHoE) describes in its introduction the reason why the book was written. Quite simply, it follows the essay “Mi Yagid Lebanim: Who Will Tell the Children” by Janet Berliner, part of the book’s design team. In this essay, she laments the apathy of the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors (and the world at large), stating that we should tell the story of the Holocaust in whatever way possible, especially if it is in the language of the children – “We must teach them through the tools with which they are comfortable”. For this reason, the authors of CHoE feel that the game is necessary in order to communicate that narrative such that it does not happen again. This is a valid argument that is supported by the curators of the Genocide Museum in Albuquerque. In this case, the medium of the role-playing game, which is about storytelling, further supports the goal of ‘telling the children’ by recounting the Holocaust through storytelling, of perpetuating the narratives of Holocaust survivors and victims through narrative.

What the authors of “CHoE: The Limits of Play” sought to do was analyze the game to determine its effectiveness and its ethical properties. While the game certainly has a valid and lofty goal, it raises several questions. Is it ethical to play the game? Read the rest of this entry »

Antiwar Machinima

June 12, 2010

While stumbling around the web, I discovered an article about an essay published in the April 2010 issue of Continuum titled “Reverbing: The Red vs. Blue machinima as an anti-war film” by D. Bruno Starrs. Now I try to be on the top of articles about war (and antiwar) and games, so this was a pretty exciting discovery. It’s a pretty interesting thesis, but unfortunately, one that doesn’t really hold much water. Gamepolitics provides a nice summary of the article, which is free to read online.

Red vs. Blue is the most well-known machinima ever created. Machinima are films created using a game engine, and RvB is created using Halo. The series sprang up as an independent operation but later got the green light from Bungie and even some official support in the way of custom game discs. The series (like most machinima) is known for its bawdy humor, and isn’t something that most audiences would associate with antiwar rhetoric.

What Starrs does very well is compile a series of characteristics defining the pro-war film, compiled from several books on the American war film. These include hijinx during basic training, the reverence for military war victims, contributions of racial minorities, the prominence of the flag, self-sacrifice, and justification for the cause. Starrs adds to this list reinforcement of masculine values, particularly through misogyny (?) or more precisely through absence of women. To this list, Starrs compiles a series of components often found in antiwar films, such as tragedy of war communicated through images of brutality, the extent of death and suffering, incompetent commanders, waste, and futility. Read the rest of this entry »

Early(er) Computer Games: Babbage and Nimatron

May 18, 2010

Digging through an early book on computer games titled Game Playing with Computers (Donald D. Spencer, 1968) and discovered two early computer games that have so far been almost completely ignored in the literature (which is kind of odd, considering one of them is well documented in an oral interview – though Judd Ruggill published an article referring to it in the Spring 2009 issue of Cinema Journal).

The first of these is a little more light on the previously re-rediscovered Tic-Tac-Toe game by Charles Babbage (Spencer refers to it as well). The only additional information I have to add here is that Babbage wanted to design a Tic-Tac-Toe playing computer he could use to help fund his more serious project – he would charge gawkers a fee to play the game (making it the first computer game designed for a profit). However, the machine was never built. So according to Spencer, Babbage had more than simply a prefigure of the idea.

The second – and this is VERY surprising – is the Nimatron, designed by Edward U Condon in 1939 (displayed in 1940). Condon (apparently better known for his UFO studies) had the idea to build a machine that would play Nim at the New York World’s Fair to help enliven the Westinghouse booth, where it was enjoyed by over 50,000 people Read the rest of this entry »


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