Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Vacation Day 2: The Game Professor and the Cave

The Game Professor

In the morning I navigated the Boston MTA, made famous by The Kingston Trio in their 1950s song about poor old Charlie stuck on train due to a proposed fare increase to charge people an extra nickel for getting off the train. Today's MTA uses the "CharlieCard" on all of its services. They're free. With one, I took a bus to the subway and then the subway back to a bus for $2.55 (more than Charlie would have paid, but reasonable by today's standards); without one, the cost would have been significantly higher.

I met the brilliant and gracious Sebastian Deterding at the Pavement Coffeehouse on 44 Gainsborough St in Boston. Sebastian wrote several important sources about gameful design that I used for research on my book. I wrote to him as a stranger, asking if I would be able to catch him lecture or if he would be willing to meet a fan for coffee, and he agreed to coffee.

I wasn't sure what the conversation would be - maybe I would interview him for my blog - but it ended up being about the central tenets of my book. He is the first person in my field with whom I have discussed my ideas. He is not only more educated that I; as a professor he is able to discuss it with a depth that I struggled with, since I live outside of academia. It was awesome (for me, at least).

We talked for 90 minutes. He asked deep questions that presented deep challenges. My ideas held out pretty well, but I need to address these challenges - in the book, or at least for my own sake, in order to be sure that I know what I'm talking about. For example:

I propose a new definition of "game" that I feel captures the essential aspect of game more rigorously than any previous definition. For one thing, my definition describes what a game "is", not what it contains. Sebastian asked me if, in my definition, a game was a) a fundamental reality, in which case "game" pre-existed mankind and humans discovered it, or b) a
human construct, in which case game could be more or less different from culture to culture, or c) my own convenient grouping of ideas/activities, in order to provide new insights into the other topics I cover in my book.

Although I had already written a bit about why I was attempting to define "game" in the book, I had not thought about asking these questions, and thus I had been moving back and forth among these usages without thought. This is the kind of insightful analysis you get from years of experience in defending and presenting your thoughts in academia, and which Sebastian generously shared with a complete stranger in a coffeehouse. I am very grateful.

When I got home, Tal told me that my hair was sticking up and my shirt was on backwards and inside out.

New England

We bought a BBQ, and some kosher food at The Butcherie, and ate at the nearby Taam China kosher Chinese restaurant for lunch. We headed out for what was supposed to be a three hour drive but ended up being a five and a half hour drive through beautiful New England. Once we were far away from Boston, most of our drive was through small towns and one lane highways through the woods. Very beautiful. However, without GPS, we still either got lost or occasionally thought we were lost and had to stop to figure out where we were going.

In one of those stops we managed to connect to Wi-Fi for around 4 minutes, and during that time Saarya was able to download the destination, the navigation, and many of the maps on the route. The phone's GPS works even without Wi-Fi or cellular connection, so long as all of that is pre-loaded onto the phone and so long as you stay on route. It helped us get back onto my pre-printed route. If we were not scheduled to meet the person whose cabin we were renting at a particular time, I would have stopped several more times to wander around in antique stores, roadside vegetable stands, and several pretty lakes and streams. Once you get into Vermont, the vegetable stands become maple product stands. We met the guy and he was willing to wait while we picked up some more food items.

The Cabin

It's really a cabin in the wood that the guy had built himself. Stunning setting and a beautiful property, it lacks only Wi-Fi, telephone, and a bathroom. It uses an outhouse. There is only cold water piped in from the stream into tanks. He provides a bathtub to use - outdoors - with only cold running water. For hot water, you have to fill up some buckets, lower heating coils into them, and wait. This kind of setup might be a first for my kids, and it's been a long time for me, too. We were able to use the Wi-Fi from the house next door, which also  belongs to him.

Dinner was BBQ'd chicken and farmer's market vegetables.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Vacation Day 1: A Laser Light Show in a Toxic Atmosphere

Tal, Saarya, and I were not overly impressed with Alitalia.

I have never flown and spent less time in the airport terminals. We were delayed by traffic on the way to the airport and had only five minutes spare before security and maybe ten minutes after security. I have free business credit card access to the Dan Trackline lounge, which I thought we could all use, but it turns out I would have had to spend 90 NIS each for the kids for those 10 minutes.

Our first flight to Rome was delayed getting out of the gate, though it was unclear why since everyone was onboard and seated. Because of that delay, we missed the take off window and had to wait for another. We lifted off an hour late. No screens on the small plane (Airbus 321), but we did get a meat meal for breakfast (both corned beef and lox, in separate containers), which surprised me; a positive mark for them, but meat? Many of our neighbors didn't eat their breakfasts (I don't know if it was not kosher enough, or just that it was meat for breakfast), so we ate some of theirs as well.

We had a connecting flight in Rome which I thought was scheduled to leave an hour earlier than it actually was. I thought it was supposed to leave at 2:30, but it was scheduled to leave at 3:20. It turned out I was incorrect and it had always been scheduled to leave at that time. Nevertheless, I messaged everyone from Rome that we were going to be an hour late. Which was wrong.

We had to go through security AGAIN in Rome, which made no sense, since we originated outside the country, continued outside the country, both flights were Alitalia, and there was no chance for anyone except for the airport security to hand me an Uzi between getting off the plane and stepping through security again. We had two whole minutes in the airport, and then our flight left ... wait for it ... an hour late (4:30), because a passenger checked in a bag and didn't board the plane, or so they said. So the message I sent ended up being accurate after all.

This flight had no personal screens, but it had about six of those old-fashioned CRT main cabin screens that flip down. Ours didn't until I went over to it and hit it. Then it violently shook until I hit it again (just call me Han Solo). The screen was nearly unwatchable, like watching 1970s VCR recordings on a malfunctioning TV (scrolling bottom to top with static bands across the middle). The screen four in front of us got their own laser light show. Every screen showed the same clips but in entirely different colors.

The safety instructions played: "Welcome aboard Alitalia airlines, where [freeze] ... [unfreeze] your comfort and [freeze] [wobble] safety are our top concerbabburble [freeze] [flash] [blank] Welcome aboard Alitalia, where ..."

The first movie was the new Cinderella (or maybe it was Patton; it was hard to tell). It wasn't bad but it was totally unnecessary for the world to have this movie as it adds nothing new. The second was The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel which I didn't watch.

The first meal was ok (but fish, so not for me), the second was basic. Drinks were available in the back the whole flight. So that was positive, too. The staff was friendly. The flight was otherwise uneventful. Except that Saarya's seat strongly reeked of urine the entire flight, which made breathing difficult. We only figured out it was the seat about mid-way through (since the entire area stank) and then covered it with a blanket and sat in the next seat which was empty. The seat baskets that held the magazines were ripped; just how old is an Airbus 330 anyway?

Boston airport customs was insane: half of us departed the plane, and the other half waited 15 minutes for some of the customs area to clear a bit before getting to depart. There were endless rope lines to passport and face scanning machines that worked for me and Tal but not for Saarya, so we had to wait in line again.

I got a car through RelayRides, and the guy was waiting for me. That seemed to go well: he seemed nice, the car seems nice, so as long as I don't scrape the car and try to blame him, and he doesn't try to blame me for the existing scrape, we should be good.

It is a nightmare to travel without a phone: no phone, no SMS, no GPS. I pre-printed all of the instructions from Google maps, and even so I kept thinking we were going the wrong way (though we weren't). We won't get SIM cards until Wed.

All in all, not too bad, so thank God.


Sunday, July 19, 2015

Status Update - Jerusalem, Book, Vacation

I am happy to be back in Jerusalem, hosting the Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club, attending Jerusalem's uniquely Jewish and Israeli divrei torah and poetry slams, in my new apt, valued by my manager at my new job, back in my Carlebach shul, and close to my Jerusalem friends and family.

Despite intense planning for a major apt renovation and for my upcoming trip with the kids, I have, oddly enough, made some progress on my book. A little about the book:

  • It contains a new and original definition of "game", one that, unlike any definition until now, contains no edge-cases: what is a game is clearly a game, and what isn't, isn't.
  • It presents an extensive new taxonomy of games, entirely unlike any game taxonomy that has ever been presented.
  • It continues the subjects I've explored, on this blog and my other blogs: how games intersect life, including motivation, magic circles, gamification, arts, and ethics.
  • It has a few other surprises, including some original games
But it's still a long way from done, even the first draft. At this rate, at least another year. Bleh.

I won't make any progress on the book over my vacation, but I hope to provide some new pictures and travel stories. Tal, Saarya, and I are going to Vermont and Maine for 11 days and then to Rome for 6 days. The trip starts on July 27. If you're in the area, contact me and let's see if we can get together.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Movie Reviews: Ex Machina, The Age of Adelaine, Pitch Perfect 2, Inside Out, Jurrasic World, Song of the Sea

Ex Machina: Unfortunately, this is a very good movie. Unfortunately, because I'm not entirely happy with the answers to some of the questions raised in the movie, but I admit that they are asked and answered competently and consistently.

This movie is in the same cinema space as Moon and Gattaca; if you  liked them, you will like this, possibly more. It has only four characters. One is a billionaire who has built high-functioning human-like robots, that may or may not be conscious. Two is a programmer in his company who the billionaire selects to "test" a robot to see if it can pass the Turing test. Three is the robot, a female (naturally, since the billionaire is a bit of a douchebag). And four is another woman (robot?) who serves and services the billionaire but speaks no English. Allegedly.

Of course, questions about how you can tell actual consciousness from programming are raised, as well as the morality of keeping potentially conscious beings in captivity, and who is or who isn't a robot. I can't give you much more without giving away the answers. I'll just say that it's acted and scripted well. There are a few script problems (why use non-biometric key cards for security when you have ubiquitous face scanning recognition cameras?), but again I can't raise most of them without giving away the answers (email me if you want to hear them). But nothing major. It's an engaging think-piece that I never want to see again.

The Age of Adelaine: There came a point about 1/3 of the way through this movie when I realized that this is a nearly perfect romantic movie. These come along every few years, like The Time Traveler's Wife. There are movie formulas at work, yes, but it's not the formulaic story arc that nearly mars the sweet flow of the movie; it's the formulaic camera work. Because of certain camera angles and framing, some of the "surprises" are telegraphed minutes before they should be. Otherwise ...

Adelaine stopped aging sometime in the early 20th century (through the nonsense of movie science). She keeps herself aloof from romance because she doesn't want to be captured as a scientific freak, but, of course, someone worms his way into her heart. Will she trust him with her secret? Will he freak out? What will happen to them in the long run?

Great acting, fine characters, sweet romance. My favorite movie this year, so far.

Pitch Perfect 2: A pretty forgettable sequel/remake that is still passably entertaining most of the time. The first one seemed fresh, even if it was basically Glee meets Bring It On. It had fresh comedy bits, the judges and Fat Amy were super funny, Anna Kendrick and her cups were ana-amazing, and aca-everything wormed its way into my brain like an aca-earworm.

There is nothing special about this one. Some of the jokes are funny, some of the singing is ok. The conflicts are highly contrived and unconvincingly scripted. The requisite aca-battle was poorly executed. Anna Kendrick was still cute - her running gag of not being able to diss her competition was cute but forced - but again nothing special. Forced seems to be the word I'm looking for. Ho hum.

Inside Out: Pixar has another hit. The film focuses tangentially on a girl traveling to another city because her family moves, but mostly on the five emotions that control her behavior: joy, sadness, disgust, fear, and anger. Joy is in nominally charge, with the others taking the helm when required, although joy doesn't understand why sadness should ever get a turn. She tries to sideline her. Disaster ensues after the move, where joy and sadness get lost in the recesses of the brain, leaving only fear, disgust, and anger in charge.

The absolutely funniest moment are when we get a peek into the control centers of the other people who surround the girl, but these are few. Joy's and sadness' journey is entertaining and they go much further into metaphor than I was expecting, and so create a rich story. Some of the metaphor doesn't quite work: are you telling me that sadness really hasn't demonstrated any use for the first 11 years of this girl's life? Really? Every day has been basically joyful? And how is it that joy experiences sadness, and vice versa?

It's not as good as Wall-E or Up: the characters are unrelatable, and the girl's story is not really the central story, so she doesn't have much of a character. But it's still a good story. I'm looking forward to the sequel after she hits puberty; that will be interesting.

Jurassic World: I watched the first and liked it, though the characters were limited to two-dimensional Spielbergian arcs: setup, spunky behavior, declaration of independence, conflict, odd moment of pathos, joint struggle to survive, denouement with caring looks. I admit that I didn't watch the next movies in the series.

This one is good, but the characters are even less fleshed out: one-dimensional. They exist as plot devices. The effects are great, of course, and the action ... actions. There is a one-dimensional bad guy who gets his one dimensional comeuppance. It's so shallow in the character department that it feels like ... a Marvel movie. Yep, as I type this, that's what it reminds me of: a Marvel movie, but without superpowers, just monsters.

The "taming" of the velociraptors was contrived and unbelievable, but it's hard to complain about unrealistic when you're watching a freakin' dinosaur park movie. The story works well enough to entertain, so there you go.

Song of the Sea:A breathtakingly gorgeous animation that reminds us that Disney and Pixar (and anime) aren't the only options when it comes to animation. This movie uses traditional Irish pictures to create 2-D animation that intentionally lacks perspective, but it's lack of realism doesn't remove you from the story. The music is lovely too, if a bit repetitive.

The story is based on a the myth of the selkie (woman who is a seal); a boy resents his baby sister (his mother was lost when his sister was born) and is taken by his grandmother to live away from his father and the sea. He undergoes a heroic quest to get home; his sister tags along, but it turns out that her need to return to the sea may be more important than his.

The story is nice enough for an adult - mythical and sweet - but it takes quite a while to get going and doesn't always present itself clearly. You are not always sure exactly who need to do what, or why, until the middle of the movie. That's kind of sin, and it distinguishes it from other mythical animation films like Miyazaki's. I think kids will be bored during the first half; I only wasn't bored because I was loving the pictures.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Who Did It? The Story of the Clue VCR Game

Tim Labonte writes to tell me about his documentary on Clue: The VCR Game, the first VCR game from 1985 (30 years ago). Tim and co interview most of the people involved in the creation of the game, including the designer, the producers, the actors, and so on. It's very well done and worth the look if you're into the game history at all.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Religion Against Game Variants

It's not the bible. I'm not going to go to hell for changing the rules.

As a game designer, I know how arbitrary a game's final design is. It's a collection of components and mechanisms; they don't come from god (well, maybe Go does, but your game doesn't). If it's a good Eurogame, I'm sure they were play-tested, and I'm equally sure the final result included several arbitrary decisions to end "here" instead of  "there", with 40% of the testers thinking "there" was better.

I like many of the mechanics and ideas of some games, but personally I don't like that little luck mechanic that trashes all of your plans. We can play the whole game taking different paths, playing about equally well or not in each of the different areas of the game, but then the whole game comes down to the die roll or card flip that lets you get 20 points and not me.

There is no reason that I shouldn't take a game, that I would enjoy but for one mechanic that ruins it for me, and tweak it so that I now enjoy it. I test the change for several games until I'm satisfied that the play experience is basically the same but nicer. Then I sometimes post it. Immediately I am hit with "That change destroys the ENTIRE game", "You obviously don't understand how to play", "You can solve your so-called problem by playing in this very specific way", "Why do you want to change the game? Just go play something else". Every time.

Why play this game? Why not? Because I enjoy it. How does it offend you for me to change the design slightly to make it more enjoyable, not only for me but for any other like-minded people?

Yes, it changes the game, but all of this hooplah about HOW MUCH it changes the game is rubbish. My tweak doesn't greatly change the game, and I know because I've actually tested it, and the majority of the game mechanics are left intact. Furthermore, I wouldn't care if it greatly changed the game; it makes the game better. For me. Better for me. I understand that if you like change. Don't play with my variant.

I don't understand this obsession AGAINST tweaking games to make them more enjoyable. Like it's a religion of some kind and I'm sinning.

Bernie, you're obviously not speaking loudly enough.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Movie Reviews: Avengers II, The Imitation Game, Whiplash, The DUFF, The Little Death

Avengers: Age of Ultron: Marvel be Marvel, eh?

The plot: a big fight of some kind with little explanation results in the retrieval of Loki's staff. Said staff is used by Iron Guy and Bulk to create "the ultimate" shield to protect humanity against future extraterrestrial threats, but they somehow didn't anticipate that the AI would decide that the best way to ensure peace on the planet is to exterminate all humans. Which is odd, because that's the plot of every other movie featuring AI that's been made since ever. Of course, there is no sandbox testing environment, no tests, no kill switch, no safety features, no network isolation, etc, etc, etc, like every other movie that apparently knows nothing about computer security. Some more fights, massive destruction of lots of property in the middle of cities without a single death, and roll credits.

The AI mcguffin is as dumb as it was written, but the idea of humans are hoist on their own petard is a little easier to swallow than the extraterrestrial threats of the last movie. And a big part of the final resolution involves trying to minimize civilian deaths, which is unusual. All of the main characters have screen time, including the "humans" Black Bubble and Mawkish who seem so out of place in the group. Then we get a bunch of new X-Men/d/d/d/d/d I mean avengers; it's the same kind of freak show (with some of the same characters) that made up the X-Men. The two franchises now look pretty similar.

Some more nitpicks: I'm still not sure why a god (Sore) is so un-godlike. The smart alec quips come in the middle of every fight scene, erasing any tension in them. I'm not sure why the best "safe house" is Mawkish's actual unprotected family home - with wife and children. The sudden love pairing between Bulk and Bubble comes from out of the blue, especially since I thought one of them had a girlfriend already. The absence of main characters from the specific movies (no Jane from Sore, no Pepper from Iron Guy) is glaring. And sure, everyone has a different special power, but they all amount to the same thing: blasting or blowing things up, so it all kind of washes together.

But the rest is fairly solid, as goes Marvel: the acting is fine, the directing is fine, the choreography and effects are top notch, and the story is serviceable.

The Imitation Game: Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing .We see him grilled and booked by the police for the 1950s indecent act of being a homosexual, interspersed with scenes of how he created Enigma to break the German codes ... and then played the mathematical game of how to HIDE the fact that he created Engima from the Germans, so as not to alert them that their codes were broken. This feat was a major component in the Allies winning WWII. Yet a decade later, Alan had to struggle with his orientation in a society that didn't accept it. The movie is ok, and educational if you don't know the history of Alan and Engima, but not a must see.

Keira Knightley plays a spunky anachronistic woman who serves no particular benefit to the movie except to be a woman, and to be Alan's most sympathetic friend; she also has to hide who she is, since apparently being a woman who knows math was as freakish to the 1940s as homosexuality.

Whiplash: Hmm. This move has little plot, which is not a bad thing. Instead it concentrates on the emotional dynamic between drumming student Andrew (Miles Teller), who is ready to endure everything to be great, and band leader Fletcher (JK Simmons), who is ready to abuse everyone in order to a) appear great, or b) find someone great. The performances are amazing and the abuse is highly abusive.

The drumming sometimes seemed pretty awesome, but sometimes seemed rather cacaphonic; from what I've read, it's not as perfect as the movie makes it out to be (but we hear that about every movie that depicts the struggle for excellence, so whatever).

I'm bothered by the movie, for a number of reasons. One, is it really entertaining to watch abuse on film for an hour and a half when the abuser doesn't get any comeuppance at the end? It's painful to watch if you've ever suffered abuse. Two, and this is the biggie: the movie seems to side with the abuser. Spoiler alert: In the end, the movie essentially says that the abuser got what he wanted and was right all along. WTF?

Three, the major plot "twist" of the last half of the movie revolves around Fletcher setting up Andrew to publicly fail on stage. But Fletcher sets him up to fail while he, Fletcher, is conducting, and Fletcher's motivation was supposed to be that he doesn't want anyone in his orchestra who would make him look bad. So it doesn't really make sense that he would do that. Four, it doesn't really make sense that Andrew would go along with it; he could have simply not played, rather than play badly. So I wasn't convinced by the final scenes at all.

But anyway: intense. Well acted. Kind of sickening.

The DUFF: A pretty standard teen romcom, with Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, and the usual cliches. Perhaps the only non-cliche elements is that the two BFFs are pretty and have the vocal patterns and style of bitches, but they never actually act bitchy; instead they're nice and supportive. Which is pretty unusual for a teen movie, I suppose. Otherwise it's fairly predictable, but watchable.

The Little Death: This little 95 minute indie movie is drenched in sex talk (which you should know from the title, which is a translation of a French idiom for orgasm) and pathology (but no nudity). It's a Robert Altman-like film with five distinct couples (all white and straight, sorry) who overlap only very, very briefly; so it's really five different short films about sexual dysfunction.

For the first 70 minutes, we see four of the couples. Some parts are funny, some are predictable and dull, and one is offensive: not because of any prudery on my part, but because it involves a woman lying and manipulating her husband by intentionally causing him to feel sad (which turns her on). I guess this type of cruelty is funny to some people, but I nearly turned off the movie about midway; her scenes were grating. There is also a convicted sex offender who goes around giving everyone homemade cookies and telling them that he is required by law to tell them he is a sex offender, and no one seems to care about it; I wasn't sure what to make of his role in the film. He was kind of creepy, which was the point, I suppose.

I'm glad I stayed to finish the movie, because the last 25 minutes are devoted to Monica (Erin James) who works at a telephone service for the deaf - she answers video calls from deaf people, conveying their conversations to the people they want to talk to - and Sam (T.J. Power), a deaf graphic artist with insomnia who wants to call a sex line.

Think about the premise for a moment and you'll realize how funny this can be, and then multiple that by several factors and add real warmth: this was one of the funniest (and cutest) scenes I have ever seen in any movie. Ever. Erin is phenomenal: she's cute, she's prudish but accommodating, she's perky, she's funny. She's every boy's dream of a fun girl to hang out with. T.J. is similar: cute, funny, warm, and winning. The two have amazing chemistry. The sex worker (I don't know who plays her) and some bit extras complete the scene perfectly. You must see the movie if for nothing else than this scene.