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Brain Scanners (1)

By Mar.03, 2013

mauro1

So Albino Mosquito have the first brain scanner. This is the one they’re using:

This EEG brainwave scanner from Neurosky comes with tons of functionality straight out of the box. The software included applications that could tell you how hard you were concentrating, or how meditative you were and there were a variety of mini games and apps (like a brain visualiser) that all offered different experiences with the hardware.

Although the programs are simple, it’s the interface that is most exciting, along with the novel interaction that it brings. As far as I can tell, the Mindwave offers the following inputs:

Concentration

The Mindwave can measure the amount of Beta Waves your brain is generating and Beta Waves are apparently often associated with concentration and attention. An onscreen meter shows how concentrated you are and the software offers the following advice for ‘driving focus’:

– Identify and maintain a single thought

– Stare at a specific subject

– Calculate math

– Sing a song silently

– Imagine the action that you are trying to accomplish (like the meter rising)

Calmness

The Mindwave can also measure the amount of Alpha Waves your brain generates and these waves are associated with calmness and meditation. Tips for ‘driving meditation’ include:

– Take a deep breath and slowly exhale

– Deliberately relax all muscles 

– Clear mind of specific thoughts when they enter

– Let your mind wander and drift

– Close your eyes

Blinking

Amazingly, the Mindwave can also measure when you deliberately try to blink. Please don’t ask me how. It’s magic.

Although I enjoyed the thrill of using my power of concentration (quite literally) to set fire to and then explode a virtual wooden barrel, the application that caught our attention most was Zombie Pop.

Mindwave Mobile Zombie Pop game

As the video from earlier shows, Zombie Pop is essentially a simple ’90’s style’ game. Look for the zombies with something in their heads on the X-Ray machine, use your power of concentration to focus in on the desired target, focus more to blow up it’s head and then blink – just at the right moment – to explode the zombie’s brains. Of course it’s the interface where the novelty lies though and we all seemed to think that it was actually quite fun.

One interesting observation is the way in which the game mechanics are actually woven together with the emotional state of the player. Don’t get me wrong, Zombie Pop is not going to scare the crap out of you or make you weep like a baby (see The Walking Dead: The Game for that) but it does remove the physical interface we are accustomed to when utilising ‘special powers’ in a video game. This is to say that in order to use your ‘focus ability’ you don’t need to press a coloured button on a joypad as it is actually your ‘special’ ability. The game asks you to focus and you actually focus – your intent isn’t communicated through a third party, such as a joypad, keyboard or mouse.This means that when you want to ‘let a zombie go’ because the X-Ray shows that he is clear, you simply ‘feel’ that sensation of disinterest and your mind wanders, probably decreasing the level of Beta Waves you are generating and signalling to the programme that you don’t want to blow up that particular zombie’s head. Similarly, when you do have a target, your sense of intent increases as the increasing Beta Waves signal to the software your desire to focus in on that particular zombie.

rich & maria

Rich attaching the small metal clip to Maria’s ear. Apparently this helps to dampen the signal of other electrical activity in the body (muscles, etc) – allowing the Mindwave to focus on the brain.

It was surprising how involving this simple 2D ’90’s style game’ was and it is clearly due to the personal nature of the interface. We were left thinking that if this is the experience for a simple zombie game like this, what other, richer, experiences might we be able to create using this sort of technology? What if a player/audience member could have a piece of work respond to their emotional state in someway? What if actions for participants could be tied to their emotional state?

So there are a range of experiments that we could do. I guess the next thing to do will be to hack the device and get usable information from it into a computer. Maria is about to start working on this and essentially she’ll be able to turn the brainwaves that the device reads into Open Sound Control information that she can then programme into a variety of applications and functions. Once we know what’s possible we can begin to try some experiments out and we will definitely need some play testers to try this stuff out – so watch this space!

More soon.

 

 

 
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The Virtual Camera Experiment…

By Feb.15, 2013

cctv

Cameras

My relationship towards cameras is usually straightforward. For instance, I know that when I pose for a photograph I will probably appear on my friends’ Facebook walls and sometimes, unwittingly, on other peoples’ walls, caught in the background – usually just a blur.  I know that every time I leave my house, there will be several CCTV cameras, in various locations, capturing my image. What I’m getting at here is that when I see the lens of a camera pointing at me, I’m not usually surprised to see myself represented somewhere else and usually on a screen of some sorts. When I see a video or photo image of myself It’s like my mind says, ‘I get it – the camera caught me there, at that angle, at that distance, – I understand.’

Whilst playing with Albino Mosquito at their studios in Manchester, my ‘mind’ was decidedly tricked by a rather clever concoction of an iMac, an iPad and a Microsoft Kinect. Essentially what Maria (Albino’s resident hacker) had created with all of this…is a ‘virtual camera’.

I’ll try and explain it as best as I see it…

virtual camera

Virtual Camera

So you’re standing in front of the Kinect sensor and on the screen of the iMac you see a three dimensional outline of yourself (in incredible detail), entirely made up of thousands of tiny white cubes. The image is real time and so you start to play with it by moving your hands and arms around, stepping back and forth and stepping in and out of the view of the Kinect.

Then you notice that the camera view on the screen of the iMac is moving, in fact it’s moving around the side of you and showing your three dimensional profile – from an angle where there doesn’t appear to be a camera looking at you! This is possible because the Kinect sensor is firing thousands of beams of infra red light into the direction it’s facing and anything that reflects back, which is in it’s view, (which is pretty much everything from what I’ve seen), somehow, magically, allows the iMac to generate a three dimensional image that can allow for a ‘virtual camera’ to show a whole range of angles in rich detail. This is where the iPad comes in – as a control device. Essentially the iPad becomes the virtual camera and makes use of it’s accelerometer to change the view of the ‘virtual camera’ in relation to it’s physical position – again in real time. The touch screen is then used to control zooming in and out of the image.

So essentially by moving the iPad around you can change the angle of the 3D real-time image depicted by the static Kinect sensor.

But it doesn’t have an eye!

At one point in our playing around with this cool toy, Rich pointed the iPad straight at me (but flat, with the camera lens pointing down towards the floor – it doesn’t use the camera of course) and then started to circle me, whilst keeping the iPad pointing towards me as he moved. As I watched myself on the screen, the camera spinning around me as Rich walked, the tiny collection of white cubes detailing my every feature, I realised how strange this felt to not intuitively understand how this process was happening. It wasn’t as simple as before, i.e. there’s a camera lens, it captures images and I appear on screens. It felt like there was this confusion in the virtuality of it all. In a strange way I didn’t like the fact that the iPad, indeed the ‘virtual camera’, didn’t have a real, physical ‘lens’. It was looking at me – in great detail – but it didn’t have an eye and that somehow freaked me out a little.

Opportunities

For me there are clear opportunities to make use of this sort of technology in the creation of live interactive experiences that feel playful, dramatic, theatrical and performative. I’m curious about how this kind of experience can be gamified and narrativised and see this as another opportunity to create further interesting computer mediated experiences. What effects do these technologies have on the audience of a live event? Can they be used to create a sense in which reality and virtuality merge, often described as a mixed reality? What narratives might emerge from the exploration of these types of technologies? How do you stop them feeling ‘gimmicky’?

Whether it’s a room filled with hidden messages that can only be unearthed by a virtual camera or whether players/audiences find themselves scanned in three dimensions and merged into live animation as part of a narrative sequence – I’m excited to see what these possibilities might be as we play with this technology further.

Also to consider are the scary opportunities for groups like security companies or governments who might potentially use this type of technology to enable things like computer controlled, ubiquitous, three dimensional scanning systems. A frightening image of futuristic CCTV…soon none of the cameras will have eyes…

Look forward to playing more with them. Bring on the brain scanners.

 

 

 
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More Larkin’ and other projects

By Dec.02, 2012

Just a quick blogpost to update on some of the work I’ve been doing, as well as what my friends at Larkin’ About have been up to!

The Box

This game was developed as part of Oldham Coliseum’s DigiLab project for young people.  Using the brand new local youth centre, MAHDLO, as a setting, ‘The Box’ sees players trying to free a series of characters who are trapped inside a ‘metaphorical’ box. It’s all a bit weird really and invites the players to complete a series of silly tasks in each area of the game. The game was developed in collaboration with young theatre artists interested in exploring digital technologies.

 

The DeCoders – Larkin’ About

Here’s a trailer I made for Larkin’ About’s latest commission for the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester. The game’s called ‘The DeCoders‘ and was designed specifically for the Manchester Science Festival with the aim of encouraging children into the theme of computer programming in a fun and interactive way.

 

 
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Not video games…computer games…

By Dec.02, 2012

Physical Objects

Gamers have always loved ‘tech’ it seems. From the ancient, chiselled out dice of the past to the contemporary motion sensing controllers of today – players have always enjoyed having their playful experiences mediated through a variety of physical objects.

The most obvious modern example is, of course, the video game controller. Video games give their players experiences of a virtual world – mediated by an object in the physical world. The focus of the action is on the screen and it is our physical interactions (thumbs and fingers usually) that provide access to the virtual world on display. Many gamers argue that this sense of control and interaction leads to a sense of immersion, often thrilling the player.

There have been times in the past where video game developers and designers have experimented with how this ‘physical object’ of the controller can act as a bridge between the virtual and physical worlds (at least from the player’s point of view). One such example is this brilliant moment from Metal Gear Solid on the Playstation One:

(watch from 4:21 to see the cool bit where Psycho Mantis uses his Psychokinetic powers to move the kids joypad!)

More recently we have seen what we might call a range of ‘computer mediated games’ being developed, a selection of which were presented at This is Playful by Hide & Seek. Some of the most interesting work in this area that I’ve seen so far comes from the Copenhagen Games Collective who developed the incredible ‘Idiots Attack the Top Noodle‘ which I played at Playpublk, Berlin.

As with many video games, computer mediated games can often mediate the experience of a player through a physical object of some kind. Sometimes controlled by a computer, these objects can include repurposed video game controllers, motion sensing and I.R. cameras (in devices like EyeToy and Kinect) and even EEG Brainwave scanners. Unlike video games however the focus of the action is on the player(s) and not mainly on the screen – even if a screen is used. Take this further example from Copenhagen Games Collective again. In Aaaargh! the game play experience is mediated by microphones and framed by the action on the screen but the main focus of action is on the players themselves.

Starting Out

Already it seems clear to me that the tool kit for a theatre for the gamified society may well include computer mediation. Therefore, it’s something that I’m going to try and get my teeth stuck into during my practice. My initial investigations, on how to hack into some of this hardware out there, what software to use with it (if I get that far..!) and then what can I possibly do with it, have proven to be quite encouraging…so far…

There is an incredible amount of information out on the internet about many of the hacks people have made on video game technologies and there appears to be a vibrant and communicative community. Added to this wealth of info is an amazing amount of free software that anyone can download and use to start experimenting with.

My mates at Albino Mosquito are also currently looking into some of these technologies and they’ve kindly offered to let me join them at their studio once a week to explore the possibilities of gadgets like Kinect.

Here’s a list of some of the key hardware I’d like to find out more about in the new year:

Microsoft Kinect device

Playstation Move controller

Playstation Move controller

Mindwave – an EEG Brain scanning device

And here’s some of the software I’ll hopefully try and look into…

Quartz Composer (programmer – graphical U.I.)

Max MSP (Visual programmer – graphical U.I.)

Blender (3D animation studio)

N.I. Mate (Motion capture with Kinect)

One more thing…

…Projection mapping! I first saw projection mapping done live quite a few years ago and many of us have seen incredible projections mapped on to things like whole buildings in videos like this:

Recently I discovered that there is at least one fairly powerful and free application for video projection mapping available on the internet. It’s called Video Projection Tools and I’m curious to find out how this sort of idea could fit into an experience with capabilities of the Kinect or other devices.

Take a look at this mind blowing piece of face projection mapping. Brace yourselves, this will blow your mind…

Workshopping…

Another good place to start is with ideas and that’s why I offered to share some of these thoughts around computer mediated games with participants at the latest Larkin’ About event held at Contact. In this ‘Blue Sky Mini Game Jam’ we looked at gaming of the future and I invited participants to look over some of the existing examples out there, consider the technologies and capabilities and come up with some cool ideas for games. We only had less than an hour – but I think the video below demonstrates well how people are really up for being creative in this area. Who knows – we may well be playing some of these games in the future!

 

 
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The illusion of choice: A tool to immerse…

By Oct.29, 2012

Skyrim

It would appear that gamers are seeking more and more choice in their virtual experiences. For some it is no longer enough to simply interact with simulations of action, suspense and environment and there are now many who seek ‘freedom’ in these digital worlds. These people want to be able to choose their own character and see that character develop over a period of time. They want to explore ever more detailed worlds in a non-linear order that they can dictate. As players, they also want to feel like they have genuine choices in how to solve challenges or progress through narratives and they want to see their decisions result in meaningful consequences and outcomes.

In my view this type of audience presents a massive illusionary challenge for the video game designers and programmers. Restricted to code and mathematics with which to build the interactivity of the creative work of visual designers and graphic artists, programmers and level designers are often tasked with the challenge of creating what we might call an illusion of choice for the players. This is to say that ultimately a player can only achieve everything in the game that the game is programmed to be achievable and that some designers and programmers are aiming to mask this fact and immerse players with a sense of choice and freedom.

I would say that this highlights a major difference between live action gaming and video gaming, as in the real world quite literally anything can happen (and usually does!) but in the virtual world only the programmed possibilities are attainable. However, I am curious to find out if there is anything to learn from the frameworks and structures of some of these popular games and consider how they might be applied to live action gaming experiences. For instance, do players actually need rigid structures and frameworks to explore a narrative experience? If so, how structured should it be? Indeed how might the structures and frameworks from video games manifest in real life games?

Here are three examples of contemporary role playing games that have all be lauded for their ability to create a sense of choice and freedom for players.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

Deus Ex: Human Revolution for PS3

Deus Ex actually has a fairly linear narrative and is set in a murky dystopian near future where biotechnology has advanced to the stage where human beings can enhance themselves with implanted augmentations. The politics of this world are fairly divided between two factions: those who see the benefits of such technology for mankind and those that take a more purist view and reject such human augmentations.

With the hallmarks of the story of Robocop and in the art style of Blade Runner, players are cast in the role of Adam Jensen who, early on in the game, has his life saved through this augmentation technology. As Adam tries to uncover a sinister conspiracy concerning this augmentation industry, players are invited to make use of Adam’s many different augmentations to overcome enemies and achieve mission objectives. It is in this aspect of the gameplay where Deus Ex has been hailed at succeeding. Players can choose to play the game in more of a stealth way (requiring calm, logical thought) or they can choose to play more aggressively, (requiring more co-ordination and skill) and there are numerous ways to complete an objective. This allows for variety in styles of game play and results in players feeling a sense of choice in the experience.

Moral dilemmas are also prominent in Deus Ex with the player constantly being forced to think about the ethical pros and cons of augmenting the human body. The choices you make around these issues, as Adam Jensen, do seem profound and immersive and you do feel like they are choices that have meaning and require thought.

Deus Ex is however a linear narrative and some may argue that the lack of freedom to explore the world in your own way does result in the breakdown of immersion and reminds the player that they are playing with an interactive and virtual experience.

Skyrim

Skyrim

The Eldar Scrolls V: Skyrim is probably one of most comprehensive, detailed and overwhelming game worlds ever created. Set in the fantasy world of ‘Tamriel’ (Skyrim being a northern provence of this fictional continent) players develop a character from scratch by choosing a myriad of details like their race, gender and eye colour. After a short introduction to the world and the main narrative set before you, the game invites you to explore the features found in the landscape (all sixteen square miles of it) in any order that you wish. You can choose which direction you want to go, which characters you would like to speak to, what you would like to pick up or throw on the ground, what you would like to buy or sell in a shop, what you would like to craft at a blacksmiths, amongst many, many other options.

As with Deus Ex You can also choose how you would like to play the game and you can specialise in numerous different skills, abilities and approaches to conquering its challenges. However, this specialisation is far more in depth than in Deus Ex in that there are many different ways players can navigate the challenges. For instance, different races in the game have different special abilities that affect the way you will play the game. High Elves for example are better at using magic where as Nords are better at using swords and axes.

The narrative experience of Skyrim is very non-linear and results in players often feeling like they have had a unique experience. Again choices are meaningful and have consequences for story and the way in which one narrative thread can interrupt, overlap or collide with another again conjures this sense of freedom and choice.

Some may argue that Skyrim is simply too overwhelming and there is just too much choice on offer. In someways I think this is the point of Skyrim as it tries to mask the binary computer world it’s all built upon and genuinely feels like an ‘epic fantasy world’ where the players have agency.

Dishonored

Dishonored Screenshot 3

Described as a ‘painting in motion’ by IGN, Dishonored is set in a steampunk Victorian style dystopia where corruption, plague and violence run rife. Players play in the role of Corvo Attano who was formerly the lord protector of the land before being framed for the murder of the Empress and hunted down as a fugitive by his own countrymen. On escaping prison Corvo finds that he has allies in the nation as well as a mysterious magical character who marks his hand and grants him special powers to achieve his vengeance.

So unlike Skyrim and more like Deus Ex, Dishonored does have a fairly linear narrative. There is no open world to explore and there is limited freedom with which to explore the narrative of the game. However, I would argue that this game is still dealing with this notion of an illusion choice.

As with Deus Ex, this game offers you rich and varied ways to overcome objectives and complete missions but it ties these approaches to the overall narrative of the game. Playing the game too violently (i.e. going on a vengeance fuelled blood bath) will have darker consequences for the main narrative of the game than playing it through more stealthily. Ultimately though the choice (illusionary as it may be) is yours and, as a player, you do feel a sense of your actions affecting the world you are moving through.

It may well be the case that creating a feeling of freedom and choice in a video game is key to creating an immersive experience. I wonder if this may also be true for creating a live game?

I don’t have too much more to say on Dishonored at this point, as I am still playing it through, but suffice to say that there are many concepts and game mechanics deployed that I will be interested in revisiting over the course of my research. One such example concerns the way this game fuses the design notion of ‘scaffolding’ with the development of plot and narrative. In most games there is usually a tutorial-like event that teaches you the correct buttons to press in certain situations but in Dishonored there is an example of this being used to also deepen the narrative experience and give a sense of agency.

Early on, before you are framed for the murder of the Empress and are essentially welcomed home as a returning hero, the game teaches you how to use stealth by inviting you to play a game of hide and seek with the Empress’ young daughter. This experience not only teaches you a vital skill for succeeding in the game later but it also ties this skill to an emotional anchor, as the young girl is actually then kidnapped after witnessing the murder of her mother. So when the player witnesses these events and has this emotional experience they are dramatically motivated to utilise and develop their new found skills.

My goal over the coming months will be to draw techniques and frameworks from video games like these and consider how they might be adapted or applied in the development of live interaction games/performances. Some companies like Larkin’ About and possibly Coney have already started to experiment with such ideas and they will prove a useful reference point as I continue my research on these themes.

 
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This is playful…

By Oct.20, 2012

So last Friday I enjoyed the opportunity to volunteer for Mudlark’s event This is Playful held at London’s Conway Hall. The conference brings together a wide range of practitioners, from a diverse set of fields, to talk about how they utilise play and games in their work.

Fortunately I got to see most of the talks. Here are a few thoughts I had about the various presentations.

Mark Sorrell – Hide & Seek

This presentation was all about computer games. Notice it’s ‘computer’ games and not ‘video’ games. Mark is really interested in computer mediated games and experiences, where spectators can look at people playing a computer game in the real world and are not looking at video games being played out on a screen.

The games he showcased and used to exemplify his points all saw computer technology, often technology from games consoles in fact, applied in a physical space resulting in the action taking place away from the screen.

One fun example of this is the game ‘Joust’ where the motion sensing capabilities of the ‘Playstation Move’ controllers are repurposed to create a live game, in a physical space.

Mark also went on to reference the Copenhagen Game Collective who experiment with these sorts of technologies in a variety of weird and wonderful ways. I actually met up with these guys at the fantastic Playpublik event (held in Berlin last August) and got the chance to play the brilliant ‘Idiots Attack the Top Noodle’. In the same way ‘Joust’ had done, this too repurposed ‘Playstation Move’ controllers by exploiting their motion sensing capabilities, except they also made use of an incredible piece of brainwave monitoring technology called ‘Mindwave’.

The madcap story to the game is as follows: In a world controlled by a small left wing liberal elite, the amount of idiots is ever increasing. These idiots are everywhere, but, they don’t want to be idiots any longer and they think that if they can catch one of these elitists (The Brain as they call them in the game) and eat their brain, they will gain intelligence and no longer be idiots!

Essentially it’s a technologically enhanced version of ‘tig’. The idiots are trying to capture ‘the brain’, without moving too quickly and therefore changing the colour of their ‘Move’ controller from blue to red – meaning they they have been killed! If they can catch ‘The Brain’ and tig them, without moving too quickly, they win and are no longer an idiot! However, ‘The Brain’, who wears the Mindwave technology, can move freely with no issues surrounding motion control. Instead, they have to quite literally try and focus their brain waves to charge their own ‘Move’ controller, turning it a brighter and brighter yellow, until it turns white and they can pull the trigger and kill one of the ‘idiots’ in the game!

Completely bonkers I know – but brilliant fun and amazing innovation with the technology. I caught up with collective member, Amani Naseem, whilst at This is Playful and had some really interesting chats about the work. I really hope I get to play more of their games in the future!

This notion of a computer mediated game makes me consider what a computer mediated theatre experience looks like. Is that also free of action on a screen perhaps?

Hannah Donovan – Product Designer

The second presentation I’d like to talk about on this post concerns the interesting idea of ‘digital craft’. Hannah Donovan, who previously led design at Last.fm, made me consider how, many of us, may be engaging in ‘digital craft.’ I felt that a good example she used to describe this was Myspace and also, more recently, things like cover photos on Facebook. Hannah described how in the culture around popular music, the ‘craft’ that we used to decorate our bedroom walls (posters, collages, pictures, etc) had now moved to ‘the walls of the internet’ and that online design frameworks were increasingly allowing us to craft our own presences online, albeit within solid frameworks that allowed varying levels of customisation.

Hannah described this activity of crafting something, in response to media content, as a dialogue between artist and audience. This reminded me very much of the attitude of the cosplayers I had met at Play Expo the week before. When they craft their costumes and props, they too are perhaps entering into that dialogue between artist and audience.

However, Hannah did point out a major difference between this digital craft and the physical craft of glue, materials and paints. She said, ‘digital craft is hand made – but not one of a kind’. This sentiment very much reminded me of something said in a piece of reading I have just set my current undergraduate students. In Walter Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproductionwritten in 1935, one view he considers when thinking about mechanically reproduced works of art is ‘that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the work of art.’ Benjamin describes how if something is not ‘one of a kind’ then perhaps it loses importance in someway because it lacks a history. Of course, Benjamin was not theorising in the digital culture we have today and I feel that there’s something further in this idea of a ‘one of a kind’ to explore, particularly in relation to the concept of liveness.

Annette Mees – Coney

I met Annette in Berlin last August, where I saw another one of her presentations about the work of theatre company Coney. It’s fair to say I’m absolutely fascinated by Coney’s work and I’ve not even really seen or experienced much of it yet! I did get to play test a work in progress in Berlin but my first, full on, Coney adventure is still to come!

However, from what I can gain from Annette’s style of presentations, the way she talks about the work of Coney and from the conversations I have had with her, I feel like Coney could be a key example of something that might look like a theatre for a gamified society. I say this because, to use her own words, Coney make ‘stories that are completed by the audience’.

First, this statement implies that the audience will have to do something and that that ‘something’ is linked to the development of a narrative. Second, Coney will start a story and the audience will have to finish it. It’s the bit in between where I think the games come in and luckily for Coney, there is an audience who are playing more and more games. I get the feeling, from my little experience of their work so far, that as an audience, we will just know what to do, even if it we start out feeling difficult, challenged or even uncomfortable. Above all it seems like an audience will have agency at a Coney event and they will not be encouraged to be passive throughout.

What really interests me though are the ideas I heard Annette talking about in Berlin concerning the way Coney develop game mechanics alongside their narrative, sitting comfortably across both of these spheres, often collaborating with game designers. I’m really going to need to experience it understand this further and I’m looking forward to seeing as much of their work as I can in the near future.

 
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Play Expo

By Oct.16, 2012

Like heaven…but with cables…

Play Expo is the only UK video games expo which caters for every aspect of video games – from console, PC and mobile to classic gaming (including arcade and pinball) right through to pro gaming/eSports and even cosplay. Play Expo features four distinct events: re.playnow.play,pro.play and cos.play.’

www.playexpo.net

So last weekend I was lucky enough to find myself at Play Expo, an event held at Event City (I know…imaginative eh?) in Manchester. The description above (from their website) pretty much sums it up and I was curious to find out more about each of the four categories on offer, as I ventured around the mammoth warehouse hosting it all.

It turned out that Play Expo proved a fantastic research opportunity for me, as it presented four different areas of the video game experience – all useful avenues for my work. Here are some of my observations and experiences from each one of the four events.

re.play

Spectrum +2 – Where it all began for me…

This event was all about nostalgia. On entering Play Expo I was presented with row after row after row of virtually every games console and computer that was ever made. There were classic 80s and 90s arcade machines and dozens of old school pinball machines too. Immediately I sought out my first ever computer – the Sinclair Spectrum + 2 – and was greeted by its owner who explained to me that Manic Miner had just nearly finished loading off the tape deck…after 35 minutes…Ha! Those were the days! 😉

It wasn’t long before I then found another very special machine to me – the Amiga 1200! By this point we had moved on from tapes to floppy disks – meaning quicker and better games!

My second computer – so many great games…

It was fantastic to be able to revisit some of those experiences that had left such an imprint on my younger self. Even better, I was surrounded by people who had grown up with the same things and everyone was keen to reminisce and talk about their favourite games.

All in all, re.play was a fantastic trip down memory lane and it got me thinking about the importance of community in gaming, something that doesn’t often get associated with playing video games. Aren’t we the ones locking ourselves away from the world, only to come out for snacks and    beer? During this event however, I have to say that I noticed the theme of community pervading all four of the areas. It’s fair to say that everywhere I looked I saw groups of gamers, sharing their varying experiences, passions, skills and insights around video game culture.

now.play

Moving from the very oldest video games to the newest and most technologically advanced, now.play showcased some of the latest games either just released or soon to become available.

‘Hello Commander…what are your orders?’

I got the opportunity to try out the fantastic new XCom: Enemy Unknown – where the world is being attacked by aliens and you must show calm and tactical cunning to guide humanity to salvation. Featuring great graphics and conjuring a real sense of a world in peril this game is definitely going on my list of games to get.

I queued for around 40 minutes, pointlessly it seems, for the terrible Metal Gear Rising: Revengence (what a stupid name) from Ubisoft, which I can safely say was the biggest pile of poo I’ve experienced from a games console for a long time. The gameplay was not intuitive at all and the graphics and camera angles were all over the place in my view. I truly wish I had spent my time playing in the Sensible Soccer tournaments being held on the Amigas. Gutted. Enough said.

The Wii U has a pretty nifty controller/pad thingy…

I also got the chance to have a go on Nintendo’s new Wii U – which was fun for Mario and Rayman but I saw little else to convince me to not save my £300 (or so) for one of the next generation consoles from Microsoft or Sony. Having said that, the video game community is diverse and Nintendo will definitely make a killing from the people who love playing games on their machines. I did catch a glimpse of ZombieU though, a zombie survival horror for the new Nintendo console. It did look quite promising, so I’ll be interested to see how the final game turns out, particularly with regards to the integration of the 2 screen technology available with the new, iPad like, Nintendo controller.

pro.play

This is where things got serious. Yes that’s right – video games are becoming a full blown sport it seems. Complete with league tournaments, commentators, spectators and stars, pro.play saw people gathering to watch teams battle it out in arenas such as Call of Duty, Halo and FIFA.

Professionals

I was lucky enough share an in depth conversation with a consultant on the event called Nick Bakor. Nick explained to us how there was a real sense of community around these events and that everyone who came very much treated it like going to the football or rugby. Everyone knew each other and all shared the same passion for the particular game. Rivalry was fierce amongst the teams but good natured, with one team coming all the way from America for the event. Again, the teams often knew each other and would stay in touch whilst they practiced online.

Epic gaming…

What intrigued me the most though was the way that the event was set up using a stage and an audience – often the hallmarks of a theatrical experience. No – this wasn’t theatre, it was sport. However, it was theatrical though, in it’s scale and presentation.

Nick also pointed me in the direction of the various ‘Barcraft’ events on offer, where people gather in a bar (again as if to watch the football) and watch people play Starcraft on the flat screens. Popular in Korea no doubt and I’d be keen to go and have a look at one in the future.

 

 

cos.play

‘Why, so, serious…?’

Cosplay (costume play) involves choosing a character from video game, anime or other fictional worlds and creating a costume to wear at events like this. Many Cosplayers make their own costumes from scratch and I even found them giving talks to each other on how to improve their creative skills. Once again we see community in the video game world, only this time it’s much more flamboyant.

One of the cos.play events that intrigued me most was the ‘Masquerade’ in which Cosplayers paraded their costumes onto a stage, whilst a panel of judges deliberated on which player had the best costume. Many of them had even perfected a short movement routine to represent their characters, adding even more theatre to the whole event. What fascinates me though is this need to make real that which is virtual. To bring the dream to life, as it were. I heard a cosplayer in America, on this documentary, describe how they use costumes and prop design as a means to bring the virtual to life, to bring it off the screen and into the real world.

Who ya gonna call?

For me, this sentiment resonates so clearly with the predicaments of artifice that live theatre makers experience. It’s certainly something to look more into as I begin my research.

Some cosplayers at the event were more performative than others. Many simply enjoyed getting their costumes on for the day, whilst others wanted to try and bring their characters more to life by adopting stances, poses and even changing their voices for the cause. However, it seemed that virtually everyone in a costume wanted to have their photo taken, which was great for the on hand professional photographer offering their services for the weekend.

next.play…?

It has to be said. I absolutely loved Play Expo and I’ll definitely go back again next year. It’s been a fantastic opportunity for me to delve into the world of video games in a focused, interactive and social way and I think it’s given me some real sign posts for certain aspects of my PhD research.

I’m also interested in thinking about the way that ‘live play’ might fit into a context like Play Expo, so there’s conversations to have with folk and perhaps plots to hatch.

I imagine being told when I was 7 years old, that in the next century, the computer games I was playing then, would be revered as almost relics of the digital past, lovingly preserved for posterity. I think to myself that I would have scarcely believed it. If you’d have shown me the development in games technologies and game experiences, it would have blown my mind. In fact, it still does blow my mind!

So all in all, a big thanks must go to Replay Events for a fantastic weekend. It’s been fun, informative and emotional (like a good game really) – so THANK YOU!

I’ll leave you all with this brilliant bit of Cosplay, from Ryu and Ken.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
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First day of teaching down…

By Oct.05, 2012

TESS Reflection

So I wanted to break down this blog post into 2 bits of reflection. Firstly my thoughts on some of the things we talked about in class on Wednesday morning and secondly a few thoughts on my first day of teaching on Thursday!

Wednesday TESS class:

In this weeks class we looked at various different learning theories coming from all sorts of angles. For me, the most provocative and interesting theories revolved around the neuroscience and the revelations that scanning our brain gives us when talking about learning. For example, as I understand it, the brain apparently physically changes when we learn things and also actually changes when we forget! Hence the phrase ‘Use it or lose it!’ I’m not going to pretend to fully understand how all of this works in terms of neurones, brain cells, etc, but I do find it interesting that physiological evidence is now being used in the development of learning theory. This idea that learning something new makes somethings in our brain grow or change (as I say – I don’t really get it) seems to me to represent probably one of the few times humanity has been able to actually ‘see’ how learning might work at a physical level. Clearly this science is amazing and profound and shouldn’t be ignored by those wishing to teach.

However, I am keen to retain a certain amount of skepticism toward such science whilst developing my role as a teacher. Just because there is physical evidence as to how some of these things work in the brain does not mean we should let it blindly guide our teaching and learning theories. After all, in my view we are not simply advanced biological computers that can be programmed, rewired and changed simply at a physical level to develop our skills in learning or indeed other things. What about spirit? Or dare I say it…soul? Those things that the science can’t see? Are we not more than the sum of our parts as human beings? Also, the science seems to change so much as things develop and as Prof. Brian Cox said once, ‘We know more about the Universe than we do our own brains…’ This really seems to put the scientific data around learning and the brain into perspective for me, i.e. there’s just so much that we still don’t know.

As I say though, this sort of science clearly shouldn’t be ignored and I’m curious to see how any more knowledge I gain in this field might impact my teaching styles in the future. What does anyone else think of this brain science? Is it really useful? How accurate is it? How valuable is it to understanding and developing teaching and learning?

Thursday – Creative Media Analysis 

So Thursday marked my first day of teaching here at Salford. Working alongside Dr Yuwei Lin and with 2 groups of around 70 first year Television & Radio students, I was actually surprised as to how comfortable I ended up finding the whole thing. Let me explain.

As many of you know, I was a little nervous of this session as media convergence is not my area of academic expertise. Luckily, I was greatly surprised as to how much my previous professional experience might help me out on this module. I won’t go into too many details here – only to say that it really wasn’t as scary as I thought it might be.

Also – I realised that all those classroom management skills that I had developed whilst working alongside secondary and primary school teachers over the past 5-6 years were really quite valuable tools and assets to draw upon in this context. For example, I felt immediately comfortable in addressing the large group (this might also be due to my experience of performing to large groups) and I found that when I was asked to split this massive group into smaller groups (in which they will work for the rest of the semester on their assignments) I seemed to just know how to organise this and make it happen. All the nerves that I had before just seemed to dissipate and I was actually enjoying it all!

There will be tougher tests ahead as I start to prepare tutorials for the group and help them understand the assignments they must complete – but that first session has definitely given me a lot confidence with which to go forward!

So, onwards!

 

 
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Hacked Off

By Sep.26, 2012

Gone in 20 minutes festival, National Theatre, London, July 2012.

Larkin’ About have been making games for almost 3 years now, in the playground that they see as the city. Over that time I have been lucky enough to perform and co-design in many of the games and interactive events that Larkin’ About have produced. Hacked Off is one their latest games, recently touring around England and even inviting German players to take up the challenge in Berlin.

The game sees players cast as plucky private investigators, eager to impress ‘The Editor’   (yours truly) whilst undertaking an ‘interview’ process for a job with The Daily Hack. This ‘interview’ process involves each private investigator (PI) donning a dodgy hat, protecting their client’s three pieces of slander-worthy news and attempting to hack the other PIs information in order to get a juicy story back to the editor.

Classic Nokia attached to bollard…

The game is played out in an urban environment, with mobile phones attached to posts, doors, etc for the PIs to find and attempt to hack each other with. For a more detailed explanation of how it works – watch my in-game explanation on this video: (From 15.30mins in)

There is one other problem for the PIs though,’The Editor’ can’t have his hackers getting caught hacking by other hackers and therefore bringing disrepute to his newspaper. So, if any of the PIs see another PI ‘engaging in any telephones activity whatsoever’ they can attempt to ‘pin’ their opponent with a story of their unscrupulousness, by actually chasing up to them and ‘pinning’ them with a clothes peg!

The game lasts about 20 minutes and at the end of the game points are awarded for getting good stories to the editor and deducted for getting pinned too many times. Finally, the players are invited to give ‘video testimony’ of their experience to the Leveson Inquiry..

For me, Hacked Off is a good example of what a ‘gamified theatre’ experience might look like and I’m excited to continue collaborating with Larkin’ About alongside my research.

The next performance/game of Hacked Off is in Sheffield on Saturday 29th September.

Look out for more games and events coming soon.

 
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Is digital technology making us more performative?

By Sep.23, 2012

There was a time, not so long ago, when ideas like talking to your computer or using gestures to control a screen, belonged firmly in the Sci-fi worlds of Star Trek and films like Minority Report. However, over the last 18 months or so this technology has started to come more and more into our ‘real’ everyday lives. We’ve seen voice controlled Bluetooth devices fitted into more and more cars, mobile products like Siri from Apple appearing on iPhones and iPads and Microsoft has attempted to bring a more interactive experience to Xbox users through it’s very clever Kinect device. Not to mention the new smart televisions from companies like Samsung or indeed this exciting new technology from a company called Leap Motion.

All of these technologies invite us to ‘perform’ actions to interact with the software. These actions include using our voice and speech, our bodies to gesture and move and I have even seen technology that responds to your thoughts in gadgets like Mindwave.

Although the technology is still in it’s infancy, in my experience some aspects of it are very impressive. The voice control on both Microsoft’s Kinect device and Apple’s Siri app are remarkably accurate, if not yet perfect. Sometimes words can be misheard or the ambient noise is too loud for the microphones to pick you up, but overall it feels more and more stable and usable. Siri is particularly impressive as you can speak to it in more of a conversational tone (a bit more Star Trek) and it will respond and ask you questions.

The gestural control of the Kinect can be a lot of fun – particularly in games like Fruit Ninja, but again the technology is not 100%, with problems like lack of space or too much/too little light sometimes causing frustration.

What interests me most though, besides this amazing technology, is this question of whether or not this technology is encouraging us to be more ‘performative’? Games like Kung-Fu High Impact involve drama-like activities such as ‘freeze-framing’ alongside high energy martial (in my case) flailing. Skyrim, for the super geeky, allows you to perform ‘dragon shouts’ using your voice to speak a mystical dragon tongue. The Gunstringer very cleverly casts you as the puppeteer of a live, theatrical, Cowboy puppet show and invites you to use your hands to control the onscreen Gunstringer.

Even more basic interactions with this technology are inviting us to ‘perform’ more. Instead of clicking a load of buttons on my phone to look into my diary to the week ahead, with Siri I find myself simply pressing one button and saying ‘What have I got on next week?’ Ok, so this isn’t Shakespeare and I understand that there is no stage or audience present but there is a live action, a voice, some speech and something that understands and responds.

Some might say that this will never catch on, that people will be too embarrassed to ‘perform’ such actions in front of others. But wasn’t this also true of the first time mobile phones became prevalent? When many people were nervous of looking like a ‘Yuppie’ or worse, looking like a geek?

I don’t know what the future will bring for these technologies or what effect it will have on those that use them. There’s little doubt that the technology is getting more and more accurate and that there does appear to be an appetite for it amongst consumers. For me, the technology offers an exciting opportunity to re-examine our ideas around interactivity and concepts of performance and I look forward to looking into this more closely over the course of my research.

 
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