Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Category: Games (page 1 of 3)

Indigenous People in Video Games

The Raven and the Light starts with a car crash. It ends with an almost dream-like ascent to a state of transcendence, narrated by the myth the title describes—a Northwest folk tale. Everything in between thrusts the player into a world that for some will be foreign, but for North America’s indigenous population, is and has long been painfully real.

Your character in this horror game (mostly unseen and unheard throughout) explores a fictional residential school called Mother Mary’s Residential School for Indian Students….

Not many video games would dare venture into a subject as touchy as Canada’s dark history of residential schooling and the damage that it inflicted upon hundreds of thousands of indigenous students…. The purpose of The Raven and the Light is to introduce this history. And it does this with a story that is both fictional and not. Its invented details (characters and places) might not be real, but the horror of the experience is. To wit, it uses fictional horror to teach its players about the experience of a real-life terror.

Source: The Difficult History of Indigenous People in Video Games

Rockin’ it old school: Atari Battlezone on the iPad

My brother, who's an acupuncturist in New York City, sent my kids an Atari game console for the iPad for Christmas. It's essentially a dock with a joystick and four buttons. Like many iPad games, the basic setup is free, and extra games are available as in-app purchases (i.e., not through the iTunes store, but through the app itself).

I downloaded Battlezone, and the kids spent some time playing it. I then gave them a little masterclass in how to play; put another way, I blew away all their high scores. Though I spent more of my college hours in front of one of those machines than I really want to recall.

Rocking' it old (and new) school: Atari Battlezone for the iPad
via flickr

It's impressive how well the game plays on a completely different platform.

The World Game as a paper space

From the 1970 Mother Earth News article about Buckminster Fuller and the World Game:

I spent part of the morning talking to one of the people who'd worked with Fuller in 1970s at Southern Illinois University, and learned quite a bit about Fuller's use of paper spaces.

As he recalled, there were about fifty people working in Carbondale that summer, and they were all in a 30-foot geodesic dome on campus.

We had a big Dymaxion map of the world in the center. You had to take your shoes off before you walked on it.

We would have certain teams assigned to different parts of the dome, and we'd put our stuff there and it would be our. The map was common space, and you'd have people meeting on it. There were things representing oil, coffee, water, energy, and other resources on the map. You'd walk the planet with other people and say, "what if you did this?" and move the tokens around. That's where all the collaboration would happen. People would meet there, would move resources around the planet. There was a great kinesthetic element to it.

There were people who didn't know Fuller or his work in detail, but what grounded us was being in the dome, and the Dymaxion Map. It was a transformative environment, one that opened you up to thinking in new ways. You would look at a Mercator projection of the world, and the Dymaxion map, and it would be like "Wow! The fog is raised from my eyes." You were put in an exploratory frame of mind, because something you'd seen all your life was transformed: you could see the world in a different way.

Is there are better example ever of a space that better combines media, architecture, and symbolism? Meeting with other groups on a giant map of the earth. Effectively turning the planet into a collaborative space. Even having to take your shoes off– an act of respect in many cultures– before you walked on the earth.

My plan with this article is to talk about the World Map and a couple other things as examples of paper spaces, to complement the expert workshops case, and then to talk more broadly about the long history of paper spaces– essentially to bring an HCI and architectural history sensibility to the history of the book and scholarship. Watch this space.

Avatar Days

Avatar Days: Online Role Playing in Dublin.

Game features in the real world

When I've spoken about the end of cyberspace, and the displacement of the idea of cyberspace as a Platonic plane of information, separate from and superior to the real world, someone's almost asked, "But what about Second Life?" (or World of Warcraft, or Everquest, depending on what year we're talking about). The idea is that these kinds of games and game-worlds represents a continuation of the vision of cyberspace as alternate world.

My response has been twofold. First, despite claims about the utility (or potential utility) of Second Life to business, or the number of hours devoted players spend in World of Warcraft, so far as I can tell, nobody argues that these constitute alternatives to physical reality that will lead to the death of the office or the transformation of travel. They have their appeal, but their appearance is not a sign that the tectonic plates of reality are starting to rumble. Second, it looks more likely that with the coming of ubiquitous computing, some of the kinds of interactions and feedback that make games compelling are going to migrate into the real world, but with serious social and economic implications.

This evening I ran across a piece by Brett McCallon on the growing pervasiveness of games in everyday life that echoes this last point:

"Lexulous", and the game's incredible popularity on Facebook, does say something about the way that gaming is infiltrating the experience of seemingly non-gaming-related activities. As gaming becomes more mainstream, and as designers learn to use gaming mechanics to enhance our work, education and relaxation, we can envision a time in which nearly every experience offers the possibility, if not the requirement, for play….

Exercise is only one of the non-gaming areas into which gaming has intruded in recent years. Games that teach foreign languages, cooking and other skills are also becoming increasingly popular…. Even such mundane activities as household chores can be made less onerous through the addition of gaming mechanics. A free, web-based game called "Chore Wars" lets players apply traditional role-play game rules to their laundry, dishwashing and vacuuming duties. For each completed task, players are granted "experience", "gold", etc, which helps their characters advance through imagined quests. It's a fairly basic system, but as a means of motivating lazy spouses and housemates to pull their weight, it could be quite helpful.

I think McCallon's argument is inaccurate but in a revealing way. It's inaccurate in the sense that while we are going to see the growth of feedback and incentive systems around everyday activities, they're not going to really be games. They may borrow some bits and pieces from games– familiar visual tropes, rewards, and the like– but they won't turn housework into a game, any more than my offering my son a quarter to clean his room turns my family into a labor market.

But what's revealing about the piece is that it suggests how likely we are to embrace the language of games when thinking about, and interacting with, these technology. I saw something of this when I was interviewing people about the impact of the Prius MPG estimator on driver behavior. As I wrote in 2008,

Interestingly, many drivers describe efforts to boost their fuel efficiency as a kind of game. One driver, a former Silicon Valley tech executive and car afficionado, recalls that "When I got my Prius, it absolutely felt like I was piloting a large, rolling video game, seeing how to optimize the mileage." Another, a Valley educator, reports that driving her Prius has "become a game for me. I always try to improve the mpg over the last trip." When I gave my end of cyberspace talk at IDEO last week, I brought up the Prius MPG estimator, and one personal immediately said, "It's like a game!" Game designer Amy Jo Kim recalled, "When I first got my Prius 4 years ago, I was completely transfixed by the real-time MPG display. Multi-scale feedback! I could see my mileage per tank, in 5-minute increment, and moment-to-moment. I experimented with my driving style, trying to beat my "high score" each day." A 2006 Cnet article described the Prius as "a mobilized video game… surely the most expensive, biggest gaming machine built… so far."

This may sound like a distinction without a difference, but think about how many times we borrow bits and pieces of phrasing from one realm and apply it to another, and how those borrowings have but a limited influence. We talk about business as war, or coworkers as teams, but we understand that these metaphors don't mean we should bomb a competitor's offices. Doubtless we'll be able to learn some things from game designers about how to improve the interfaces for, say, home energy monitoring systems, but it's not clear that creating an entire game– complete with characters, more elaborate rules, goals, etc.– would be necessary or even desirable to achieve substantial energy savings.

[To the tune of Peter Gabriel, "Intruder (Live)," from the album Plays Live (I give it 2 stars).]

Standage on GTA for DS

Tom Standage has the best line about a video game… ever:

“Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars”, the latest instalment of the most notorious of video games, is available on the DS. It’s like putting vodka in a baby’s bottle….

The action, set in the murky underworld of Liberty City, a stylised version of New York, is rendered in a cartoonish graphic style which cleverly remains true to previous versions of the game without overtaxing the processing power of the DS. And it’s great fun. Better still, you can play it on the train—there’s an extra illicit thrill in doing all this on the 8.39 to Charing Cross.

The player takes the role of Huang Lee, the son of a murdered Triad boss, who heads to Liberty City to deliver a family heirloom to his uncle and finds himself drawn into the conflict between rival gangs. The script, as usual with “GTA”, is cynical, witty and well written. The game world manages to be large and immersive even when squeezed into the tiny DS. As unlikely as it sounds, given the sorts of game usually found on the DS, this is the genuine, controversial, ultra-violent article, with no corners cut.

[To the tune of Radiohead, “Videotape,” from the album In Rainbows (I give it 2 stars).]

Games without frontiers

[From the Red Herring blog, 2005]


I was about ten when I saw my first video game. As a kid obsessed with science fiction, astronomy, and computers, Nolan Bushnell's Pong seemed like the coolest object this side of a telescope clock drive. Growing up, I would spend more hours (and quarters) playing video games than I like to think about: the worlds of Defender and Xevious came be to as familiar to me as my backyard, but a lot more exciting.

Like most kids of my generation, I thought of video games as an alternative reality. Not only were the games other worlds: arcades were inevitably dark, slightly space-agey places populated entirely by teenagers.

Of course, games have come a long way since then. In technical terms, video games are more complex, realistic, open-ended, and intense than in my boyhood, but they're fundamentally conservative technologies. Despite all the changes around the edges—the better graphics, the spectacular violence, the five hundred-button controllers that you have to learn to use in utero—they're still worlds in boxes, ultrasophisticated versions of arcade games or personal computers of old. Playstation and Xbox are incremental improvements over Galaxian and Pac Man: granted, they're very big increments, but my 10 year-old self would have no trouble grokking a Playstation.


But the game world is poised to undergo a revolution. In the coming decade, everything that I took for granted about video games will change. They won't be alternate realities; they won't be confined to edgy spaces with names like Station Break; and they won't be arcade-like experiences. We'll have games without frontiers.

To appreciate this revolution and what it'll mean, we need to take video games serious. Too often, games don't get no respect. They're easy to dismiss as a social problem, to criticize as a waste of time, or insult as the lowest form of pop culture. But games matter. Video games have driven innovations in hardware, software, and interface design. For better or worse, they're big business, and major sociological phenomena. (This isn't just the case in the United States: the Korean multiplayer game Lineage has about 4 million subscribers—almost ten percent of the population.) Games metaphors are woven through our language, and structure the way we behave at work and approach relationships.

And playing video games isn't always the isolating, alienating experience that some critics make it out to be: LAN parties bring together game players, and Lineage clans will take over Internet cafes for an afternoon, playing together in both virtual and physical space. People can be just as creative around games as they are within them.

Multiplayer games have already capitalized on this fact. There are hardly any successful PC games that don't have multiplayer capability, and massive online games like Everquest are creating a new art form out of persistent, open-ended worlds. They show just how much farther we can take video games before we exhaust their potential.


The future of video games will be driven by two kinds of changes: a proliferation of interfaces between games and players' bodies; and an integration of game-worlds and the real world.

It's strange that video games and exercise equipment have never gotten together. There have been a few exercise bikes with cycling video games, or video game controllers that attach to exercise equipment. But only in the last few years have we seen games that involve players' bodies, not just their thumbs. Dance Dance Revolution, in which players copy dance moves on a sensor-laded pad rather than a handheld controller, was the breakout game in this genre. Previous attempts to marry exercise and video games had been failures: exercise equipment companies couldn't make compelling games, video game companies couldn't figure out how to build interesting alternative input devices, and early products remained too expensive for the mass market. DDR showed that there was a serious market for games that involved more of our bodies, and that such games had an attraction that went beyond video games' traditional young, testosterone-heavy core market. In fact, for some players, DDR isn't a "video game," but serious exercise—a substitute for health clubs, not a competitor to Halo.

Other companies are building on the concept of video game as an exercise machine. Yourself!Fitness, which was released this fall, is aimed squarely at women. Some of its elements are drawn from exercise videos: it has a peppy soundtrack, encouraging instructor (Maya), and a variety of exotic workout locations (a desert resort, a Matrix-like dojo). But it also creates an exercise program based on your physical shape and fitness goals, chooses exercises that use exercise equipment (hand weights, Pilates ball) you already have, introduces new routines over time, and adjusts its difficulty depending on your performance. It's not a deeply interactive game in the way DDR is, but it uses customization to create an interesting variety, and to deepen the relationship that players have with Maya and the regimen.


Some electronic games are recasting the relationship between bodies and game-play. Others use things in the real world as resources for games that you play partly in the real world, partly in game space.

The great example is geocaching, a game that draws on GPS and the Web. Shortly after the U.S. government sharpened civilian GPS signals (they had previously been kept purposely fuzzy for security reasons), people began hiding "caches"—usually just a few simple objects in a box—in various places, posting approximate geographical coordinates and hints about a cache's precise location on the Geocaching Web site (at People who find a cache may take an object, leave an object, and note their find online.

The game is completely unregulated and unsubsidized, anarchic in the classic sense. It's also growing like mad. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of players and tens of thousands of caches worldwide. The caches themselves now constitute their own field, and are supporting the growth of new games: geobugs, for example, requires players to move marked tokens between caches, with the aim of fulfilling some goal—having a bug visit all 50 U.S. states, for example, or every country in the EU.

Interestingly, in its early days, geocaching was described as a kind of nerd treasure hunt, an activity that would appeal to gadget freaks, or the kind of sportsmen who buy radar for their fishing boat or military surplus laser sights on their deer rifles. More recently, however, as the cost of GPS units has fallen and the number of geocaching sites has grown, the game has been redefined as outdoor family fun—a way to get kids away from the Playstation and into the world.

Other games combine the power of the Web with information that resides in things. In Where's George (, players tag dollar bills with a message to register a bill's serial number online, and to record the date and place they found the bill. The result is a kind of travel history of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even more fanciful is Skannerz, a handheld game based on the premise that warring alien species inhabit bar codes, thanks to an out-of-control nanotechnology weapon (I know, not the world's most linear plot line). Players build characters by scanning UPC codes, which are on virtually everything, and "collecting" weapons and talents (a quest that anyone exposed to role-playing games will immediately recognize).


Geocaching uses the Web and GPS to help players find (and find out about) objects in the real world. Other games treat the physical world as a kind of game-board, and make physical proximity an element of the gaming experience.

Not surprisingly, the most popular of these games are played on cell phones. Mogi is a treasure hunt game in Japan, in which players navigate their way through Tokyo to locations where they can pick up electronic prizes. There's no physical good to collect—the prizes are virtual—but you can't get them sitting at your computer. Scandanavia's Battlebots, in contrast, operates not in specific physical places, but in social spaces: players cluster into cafes or parks to pit their bots against each other.

From a technical standpoint, these are relatively simple games: no one is hooked on Mogi or Battlebots by the bleeding-edge graphics, or the compelling storyline. What seems to be appealing about them is two other things. First, they fill idle time. Lots of Battlebots games happen on trains or buses, and Mogi prizes tend to be near public transportation stops. Second, they find serendipity in the random, often anonymous experience of traveling and living in modern urban cities. The person three seats down on the morning train may become your sworn digital enemy, but at least you've connected.


So what will games look like in the future? Some people will continue to prefer the world of first-person shooters, and will look to their Playstations or Xboxes as a retreat from the world. On the other hand, other players will take electronic games more deeply into the real world, and create new kinds of games.

One obvious move will be to map video games into physical places. Imagine, for example, college students creating Everquest spaces that are only accessible on-campus; overlaying Doom 3 on a building, turning a student center or parking structure into a monster-infested death zone; or creating game challenges that can only be played in subway stops when more than four players are present. Games like Everquest and the Sims have shown that players are capable of exercising remarkable ingenuity creating online spaces and resources; giving them the ability to apply these skills in the real world could exponentially multiply a game's variety, difficulty and appeal. It would also broaden a franchise beyond the console, and bring in players who would never consider sitting down in front a screen.

Another move will be to create games that blend virtual and real economies. As economist Edward Castronova has discovered, players in massively multiplayer games may create thousands of dollars of wealth, and build elaborate underground economies in which they trade virtual goods—often using real money. There economies are currently black markets—game companies claim to own everything in their games—but eventually, a smart company will realize that this phenomenon is a feature, not a bug. But this doesn't have to be confined to trades of money for virtual goods: you might redeem frequent flyer miles for Elven chain-mail, earn strength points for your avatar by reaching your real-world fitness goals, or be awarded secret powers after making the dean's list.

The examples of geocaching and Where's George show that we should also take a broader view of what a successful game can be. They needn't be like board games of sports, with end-points and clear winners; geocaching isn't a competitive sport. For example, imagine a courier game consisting of teams of players scattered around the country. The objective of the game would be to get a digital package—which can only be passed between players via Bluetooth-enabled PDAs and cell phones, say—from one end of the country. Each player would be required to make contact with the package (so I couldn't just take it with me on a trip I'd already planned); but teams can recruit others to carry the package from city to city. In such a game, the fun wouldn't be in the rapid-fire play, but in the challenge of enlisting and organizing teammates and friends.

Yet another thing for me to look up

An example of a whole category of objects that cross the line between the physical and digital, seen yesterday at Target:

Internet pets
via flickr

Internet pets
via flickr

Retro Arcade set

For those of you old enough to have played video games in the late 1970s or 1980s– the halcyon days of Defender, Xevious, and Tron, not to mention a Pac Man franchise that rivaled CSI– the terrific retro arcade photset on Flickr is not to be missed.

Perhaps I'm just over-generalizing from my own over-excited teenage reactions to these kinds of spaces, but I think these arcades, with their spaceship or Buck Rogers interiors, darkness lit only by the neon and the light of the games, played an underappreciated role in creating a psychological association between computers and space– or alternate spaces.

called Station Break. The arcade was on the edge of the Virginia Commonwealth University campus, near student eateries, bookstores, and the city's only independent movie theatre. For a teenager, it was a neighborhood that spoke of leisure, freedom, and escape. The arcade itself was like another world.

The appeal of these spaces hasn't disappeared entirely, though most arcades are gone. The memory of the old arcade model was compelling enough to inspire MAME developers to create a virtual arcade, and there's a pretty clear linage from Station Break to Chuck E Cheese to the Pizza Planet in Toy Story. For those who really want the old experience, a Springfield, MO arcade, 1984, is a nostalgic re-creation of arcades from the era, right down to the 50+ classic games.

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The new impetus to literacy

A couple months ago, we bought Nintendo DS machines for the kids. Of course, before we got them, my wife and I talked about whether the kids were old enough for the games, and whether we really wanted them to have access to the technology at all. Finally, we decided to buy them, but to put some firewalls around their game-playing time. (I later learned that they're instruments of Satan, but by then both kids were experts at Mario Kart, and it seemed a shame to waste all that skill.)

One thing I did not expect was this: my son now wants to learn to read so he can play Pokemon Diamond, which is full of captions and written instructions. (Without literacy, he's stuck in the Mario Kart and Lego Star Wars ghetto.) Of course we read to the kids constantly– my son insisted we read the last chapter of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets this morning, rather than watch cartoons– but I think this may be the first practical use of literacy my son has encountered. He doesn't have to pay his own bills, figure out who to vote for, read nutrition labels, or interpret traffic signs. But he does want to conquer the Pokemon world, and to do that, you need to be able to read.

Maybe everything bad really is good for you.

[To the tune of Led Zeppelin, "Rock and Roll," from the album "Led Zeppelin (Disc 2)".]

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