Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Best of the past few months!

Hey reader! I've been writing stuff on other sites, and some of it is good reading.

Nightmare Mode:
I'm a contributing editor here. I wrote about how eating in videogames should mean more than just food; it can be a way for the game to introduce players to a unique fantasy culture (games should have that too). I also wrote an article on the ethics of killing people in videogames; my conclusion was that it depends on your intent. I'll be publishing on Nightmare Mode on the first Saturday of every month.

Kill Screen:
I finished up my internship! I wrote a butt-ton of headliners; 3-5 a day the six months I worked there. Now I'm trying to spend less time reading game news online and more time on actually playing games, editing, and being a good housewife. My favorite headliners were on psychology research related to videogames; how enjoying your leisure time is a sign of maturity, how kids who play games are more creative in writing and drawing, how playing a 3D first-person game can improve women's spatial reasoning, and how videogames relieved one girl's Tourette's symptoms. I also wrote a review for them on Gravity Rush, where I discussed the game's magical realism elements.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

HEY ICE KING: Why'd you steal our garbage? Review

I've been anticipating this game with much excitement! I played through it yesterday and this morning and it is excellent (if a bit short)! The Adventure Time DS/3DS game is fun for any fan of the series. My husband who is not as big of a fan said it looked fun too. It's a 2D action/adventure game, and I think an old-school game deserves an old-school review. So here we go!

THE GAMEPLAY: People have been saying it's a lot like Zelda II. The enemy encounters and walking everywhere on the minimap are like Zelda II, but the difficulty is not. It was easy enough for me to beat, and I suck at Zelda games. For those who like more challenge, supposedly the New Game+ is a little more difficult. You hit enemies with one of several moves to do damage; if you can't avoid them you take a hit.

Food lying around gets you health back, as do the numerous save points. You can combine condiments with food to make it better, but only if you find the right combination (I put wildberry jam on a royal tart and it actually hurt me when I ate it). Oh, and I think apple pies are probably the best healing thing in the game.

There were lots and lots of items to give you temporary powers. I tended to save them up instead of using them... the only ones I was glad I saved was a bomb for a boss, and some wings to get to a certain area sooner. The others I think I should have used as soon as I got them so I could have had more room in my inventory for food.

I loved the save points in this game. They were always there when I needed one, and since they give you full health, they cut down on the need to constantly chomp down on hamburgers.
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THE STORY: You're running around on fetch quests trying to find the Ice King, who stole your garbage. You get to interact with many characters from the TV show, and it's hilarious. I laughed out loud several times.

A few times I was feeling stuck and almost stopped playing, but I thought "I'll just go back here or explore this next area" and that always worked. Like I said, the game wasn't very long, but I'm actually glad it didn't get much harder. It might have been cool to have one more area in outer space or something, but the arc of the game felt good, and I wasn't sick of playing when it ended.

THE MUSIC: I loved it. I think my favorite was the little remix of the theme song for the victory music. I didn't care for the song playing on the title (the theme only covered by a different band), but the rest matched my expectations for zelda and megaman-themed music. The final boss theme song was also hilarious and awesome.

THE GRAPHICS: Cute and perfect.

THE COLLECTOR'S EDITION: The map was the map from the game and... not all that cute, although I guess they were going for a retro feel, which I understand. The little monster guide booklet had some cute copy in it. The sword stylus is cool, but this game doesn't use the stylus that much, so I might have to use it for some other game. The Enchiridion case is awesome, and since I'm a big fan it was worth the extra $10 to get some goodies. Otherwise it's probably not worth it (like most collector's editions).

PERFECT FOR: Children with a 3DS who are old enough to read and understand information (it's all text), and fans of Adventure Time.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Play Therapy and Asperger's Syndrome

A while back I wrote a post about "ludotherapy," or using videogames as a springboard for discussion in psychotherapy. Kevin Hull, who wrote the dissertation I discussed there, e-mailed me and mentioned he wrote a book related to his dissertation, and I asked him for a copy in exchange for writing about it. My bachelor's is in psychology, and I worked with children in high-conflict divorces for a brief time, which often included playing with them. This was my first time reading an entire book about play therapy, and it makes me want to read more.

The structure of Play Therapy and Asperger's Syndrome is highly organized with specific play therapies recommended for the problems children with Asperger's typically encounter. Hull's approach is anecdotal (with a few citations where needed), and he stresses the need to adapt techniques to each individual. There's no one chapter on videogames, but rather, the book is organized by problem type with videogames as a resource for addressing several different problems. I was struck by Hull's high level of respect for children and teens with Asperger's, which seems fitting of a child therapist. My own eye-rolling to the constant reference to "these remarkable young people," made me think I should stop being such a cynical reductionist about certain types of people.

So what is play therapy? It's more than a way for a child to feel comfortable talking with the strange adult who is their therapist. It's also a safe, nonverbal space for them to express their fears and insecurities. With videogames, it often becomes a way to teach children that they can transfer their skills of persistence and problem-solving to the real world.

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Reading about play therapy made me excited to see children and try out some of the techniques myself—things like telling a child what they're doing to let them know you're watching them, or with older children (and adults), talking about how the themes from a videogame can help us cope with our anxieties and other problems. With videogames specifically, the "game as metaphor" technique was the most common Hull mentioned. Here's an example:
The "clones" from Lego Star Wars that constantly try to attack the player and thwart progress can illustrate bullies. Challenges that have to be completed to get to the next level can be used as metaphors for conquering fears and getting through situations that the child diagnosed with AS views as unpleasant. When a metaphor presents itself, I push the pause button on the controller to stop the action to explain the metaphor.
Merely playing a videogame is usually not enough to be therapeutic. It's the discussion of the game and how it applies to real life that makes the experience meaningful to a child. Hitting the pause button and saying "there, right there, you were brave."

Hull has another technique where he has the child play Tetris on a very high level, with the intent of frustrating the child. The frustrating experience provides a setting to learn and apply principles of relaxation and controlling your emotions that is a real test of those skills! I find these examples of teaching and practicing coping skills to be an excellent example of what applied psychology/psychotherapy should do well. I wonder if teaching adolescents to think about game design (why a level was made the way it is) could help them think more about how other people think and feel.

As adults, we are in a similar situation with videogames. We can play them "just" for fun, though some games are positioned to teach specific lessons. But I would argue that for any game, discussing the experience will make it more meaningful and applicable to our daily lives. I think that's why I feel passionate about videogame criticism; it's not just that I love videogames, but that thinking about them makes my own life richer. It's a way for me to contemplate life while still focusing on an experience in itself (playing a game).

In short, play therapy sounds like an excellent way for children and teens (and I would argue, adults) to express themselves. If you are a parent, I would encourage you to take a little time to play with your children, even if it seems awkward or you don't have a lot of time (children are impressed when you play with them! Even once a week can make a difference). I highly recommend this book to any child psychologist who deals with clients with Asperger's, and also parents of children with Asperger's and anyone interested in play therapy. It's a little on the expensive side to read on a whim, but if you're in college you can probably get the book on ILL. Next time a child asks "can you play with me?" think of it as an opportunity to enter their imaginative world! :-)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Traditional Halloween means more ghosts

In true hipster fashion I have been ruminating on the true meaning of Halloween. I read up on some old
customs, and I was struck by what has changed and what hasn't.

Things that haven't changed:
-dressing up
-bobbing for apples/eating donuts on a string
-drinking cider
-jack-o-lanterns (granted, some were made with huge turnips, but same idea)

Things we don't do anymore:
-we don't go door-to-door for flowers to put on the graves of our ancestors so they won't haunt us
-we don't make cakes with objects that indicate our future luck (one tradition baked a key, ring, and thimble into a cake. If you got one in your piece, they represented a journey, marriage, and spinsterhood respectively).
-we don't do weird stuff with mirrors/apples to find out the initials of the person we'll marry
-tell ghost stories

In short, I wish our Halloween traditions were more superstitious!

One tradition gamers have is playing horror games (because duh!). I generally dislike horror--it's full of surprising, gruesome, and inexplicable things. And sometimes they're really scary, although I have yet to play a game that has me scared like books or films I've seen. What I would really like to play during Halloween times are games that deal with the supernatural.

Ghosts figure prominently in Blackwell Deception (still available for cheap at the Fall Indie Royale bundle). It's startling to see a ghost, because it means that person has died, but they aren't out to get you, necessarily. The ghosts act like regular people who don't know they're dead yet, for the most part. I also love the rumors in Persona 2 (well, I would love them if I could get anywhere in that game) and how the devils have little personalities. Less scary, more weird!

(my information on Halloween traditions came from The Halloween Book, which you can download for free from Forgotten Books. Or you could buy it on Amazon. The image is from the concept art for Guild War 2's Halloween update coming up on the 23rd.)

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Academic Interlude: Videogames as therapy for mental disorders

Last month I blurbed a study that made a videogame that senses various physical states and treated anger and anxiety. This game has been haunting me with how revolutionary it is. It's not just detecting brain waves like those cool moving cat-ear headbands. The game is connected to a system that measures sweat, blood oxygen levels, heart rate, skin temperature, and breathing. From these data, the game can tell what mood you're in (I think there are also facial and speech recognition tools in the software, but that's an even bigger piece to chew).

The researchers used a system called MobiHealth Mobile. This is what it looks like:

It's a lot less bulky than some biofeedback devices I've seen. Those little sensors probably go on your fingers. 

Okay, so you have data about what the player's mood is. What can you do with that data? Well, you can tell when they're getting frustrated, and send them to meditate until they physically calm down. 
When high undesired emotional and/or physiological reactions (e.g. anger feelings, impulsiveness, non-relaxed reactions, frustration, quick and unplanned responses) are detected by the video game, the game immediately directs the avatar to a relaxed area with the goal to calm down. During the whole game session, higher undesired emotional and/or physiological reactions are coupled with greater difficulty to reach the end goals of the video game (e.g. while diving the fishes are more difficult to catch, more obstacles appear in the mini-games). More relaxed and self-controlled reactions are positively reinforced by the game, making the situations easier to handle and the end goals easier to reach.
In their game PlayMancer, the frustrating minigame is trying to collect things underwater while maintaining their oxygen level. In the calming game, more stars appear based on how relaxed you are.

Now, what if there were a game that undermined these goals? You could make a boss get tougher and tougher based on how frustrated (or how calm) the player was. Or a game where you don't die until your palms are sweating with anger. Or a dating sim that only gives you the suave lines if you're really calm. THINK OF THE POSSIBILITIES. Think of how immersive this would be combined with the Oculus Rift.

Here's a short gameplay video of Playmancer, which looks like some kind of a college senior project, but the impressive part about this game is the inputs, which unfortunately you can't see.

Source: "Video games as a complementary therapy tool in mental disorders: PlayMancer, a European multicentre study" by Fernando Fernandez-Aranda et al.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Orson Scott Card on writing in videogames.

The Orson Scott Card writing in videogames workshop was today! It went from 8:30-5:30... so it was a long day. Luckily Card is funny and engaging. The workshop was made possible from a grant a UVU faculty member applied for... so good on him!

Highlights: Card is so amazingly fun to brainstorm with. I found myself being critical of other people's ideas, whereas he ran with them to make some really interesting scenarios (see the notes for details). Maybe I need to work on brainstorming more, since turning my critical mode off would really be useful once in a while.

I'm a fan of the Ender series, so hearing an author I like talk for a while was kind of mind-blowing (authors are real people!). I admire that he's done so much on his own and how he tries to show both sides of issues, and how there isn't always a right and a wrong to a situation, which I think videogames could really use (thanks, Bioware). But then again, since combat is such a big part of so many genres, there's kind of a need for an everlasting, ever-spawning enemy, which limits the kinds of stories you can tell.

Drawbacks: Card kept complaining that he hadn't seen any awesome SF/Fantasy writing in videogames... but he's not all that into videogames. He's content to play Civilization II, which is fine, but he made a lot of generalizations about the industry that I felt weren't as accurate as they might have been ten years ago (he hadn't heard of Skyrim or Minecraft... just sayin'). He was aware of Kickstarter though, and how the publishing model is dying, so he's not completely behind the times. 

Card is a writer and as such, was pretty focused on linear storytelling in games. It's what he does best! But I'm also interested in how story and gameplay can merge. 

I've scanned in my notes below in the interest of archival-ness and maximalism. 

Proof that this actually happened

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Making a videogame is... really fun.

I participated in Adventure Time Game Jam! I made a game called When Sneezles Attack. I used the engine Twine, which was really easy to work with. If you'd like to make a game in Twine, Anna Anthropy/Auntie Pixelante made an excellent tutorial (and look my game is totes on her list of sample twine games I am proud/flattered).

Writing the story was really fun. I had some ideas about how I wanted the story to go--I wanted to be able to visit parts of Ooo, I wanted to include some of the regular characters, and I wanted it to have the same kind of bizarre but sometimes logical humor I love in Adventure Time. It's much easier to imitate a style and use someone else's characters than to make my own, and that helped me write it all the faster. At first I wanted you to be Neptr and not realize it right away, and then have to find Finn and then start your quest, but I felt like that would be kind of frustrating. I liked the idea of undermining the expectation that you were playing as Finn though. Adam helped me design the story so you have a goal right away (at first it was just nebulous exploring), and he helped brainstorm a few things with me too.

After I wrote the initial story, I worked on the variables. Basically, if you ever pick up an item or return to a location, I wanted it to make a difference in the story. So the third time you visit Princess Bubblegum, she'll ask how Jake is doing (that one was actually pretty hard... but I found a way for it to work by ordering the text a non-chronological way). Whenever you get an item, the game remembers, so you can use it later on. It was my first time programming a complete game with variables, but this was an excellent place to practice that. It's like magic!

Working on the code was kind of strange... like, after I had read through the game so much I couldn't tell if it was funny or not anymore. It also felt like my brain changed from creative to complete bug-squasher. Coding also reminded me that I'm not a robot (if I were, writing <<endif>> [correct] instead of <<end if>> [incorrect, but a very common error of mine] would have been so much easier).

I feel really excited when people tell me they have played it! Especially if it made them laugh. Like, kind of giddy... is this how all game developers feel about their games? No wonder they keep making them.

I guess making this game, and seeing people enjoy it, reminded me that I can write pretty well, and given the right circumstances I can be funny too! I found it really satisfying. I recommend this experience. :-)

Monday, September 10, 2012

Things games haven't touched: how to get pregnant, mysterious illnesses, and housekeeping.

Blogs of the Round Table, or BoRT, is back. Part of the topic this month is about what subjects games haven't explored and what they should focus on.

One thing games do well is simulation. I can grow a garden in Cultivation and maintain a dam in The Best Dam Simulation Ever. These are complex situations with multiple variables. I think the same technology could be applied to help women learn about their fertility cycles.

This sounds weird, but stick with me. I've been trying to get pregnant for a year and finally stumbled upon the book Taking Charge of Your Fertility, which discusses how a woman's waking temperature and cervical mucus can indicate if she's fertile or not (I discuss it in gruesome detail over on my non-gaming blog). There are a couple of different hormones that contribute to things. And knowing about how these variables are connected can help women understand when they can get pregnant or if they have emotional patterns associated with these variables. Do you see where I'm going with this? It seems like the perfect setup for a simulation! Easy mode could have completely typical hormone levels and simple goals like conception or avoiding conception, while more difficult ones could involve weird illnesses or thyroid disorders.

There are a lot of other topics I find would be good subjects for videogames. The game TRAUMA looks at a woman's experience with some kind of, well, trauma. It's one thing to have a sickness that doctors can identify and treat, but quite another to have real symptoms but no diagnoses. Wouldn't it be interesting to play a game in the shoes of someone who suffers from Fibromyalgia, and feel the frustration of not knowing what your body will throw at you next? I suppose that doesn't sound very fun, but I feel like games have such a potential for us to understand minority or simply unusual circumstances that I'm surprised there aren't more autobiographical games like dys4ia.

Another type of simulation I'd love to see is a relationship simulation with a significant other--someone your character is committed to and has already courted, and preferably they live in the same space. It could even be a roommate I guess. And then figuring out how to resolve various conflicts, like whether or not you want to kill the invading mice or who does the dishes or what kind of budget you have (basically housekeeping things). It just seems like the logical continuation after Princess Maker 2 or any game that ends with your character getting married.

I keep dreaming of a simulation game that involves all these things, but I recognize that I don't yet have the skill to implement it. I know game journalists wanting to make games is kind of cliche, but I'm definitely curious. And studying Python. :-)

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

8-bit sculptures as minimalist homages

It's not enough to have cool/cute pixel art anymore. It has to relate to previous modern art canon. Michael Whiting's 8-Bit Modern shows how the elegant limitations of a pixelated form can make for beautiful modern art. As Whiting puts it:
In my visual experience Pac-Man came before Donald Judd, Carl Andre or even Mondrian. For me Broadway Boogie Woogie will always be an homage to Pac-Man. My current work explores the visual connection between minimalism and early video games.
I took these photos in BYU Museum of Art's sculpture garden here in Utah. Seeing the abstract forms out in nature is surreal. Unlike their videogame counterparts, these sculptures are static and impervious to my actions. I recommend stopping by the museum this fall if you have time, especially since there's a Takashi Murakami exhibit there too. 

Michael Whiting's site and his blog
Plus + gallery has actually professional photos of this exhibit at the MOA.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ghost Trick expertly uses elements of visual novels.

Whenever I have a hard time thinking of what I should write for a blog post, I try to think of a game I have played and not written about. Usually I'm like "ahhh I had things I wanted to say while I was playing this and forgot all about them!" So my advice to myself is: if you play a game, write about it. I've been trying to cover some more obscure things over at Kill Screen (maybe to a fault). And it's kind of hard to find stuff sometimes! I spend a lot of time curating--reading over news from various sites and mulling over whether or not our readers would find it interesting. I should probably get less picky because it's ridiculous how much time it can take (or not take).

ANYWAY, what I really wanted to write about is how Ghost Trick basically addressed all my complaints in my post about what visual novels should learn from comics. Short recap: Things that bug the heck out of me in visual novels are 1) information redundant to the artwork, 2) artwork that doesn't pack much information in it, and 3) a slow pace. Ghost Trick avoided all of these. The narration didn't tell me things I already knew from visual information (though it did review information I needed to make sense of the plot). Characters had unique animations that brought out their personalities:

The game ended about where I was beginning to tire of the mechanics, and had a satisfying, if ridiculous, ending. It was really fun to see a game execute parts of visual novel style in such an excellent way. Some might argue that it's not really a visual novel, in which case I might just have to admit that I don't particularly like visual novels as a genre.

I feel bad about disliking most visual novels... but I think if I'm going to spend all that time reading on a bright screen I want to have some interaction with the story. If there isn't some kind of gameplay (like the puzzle sections in Ghost Trick or 999), or a branching storyline, then I might as well be reading a comic book, in my mind.

I started playing around with Ren'Py, the python-based visual novel engine, and immediately I wanted to learn about things like making choices and keeping track of statistics. I think it's more about how the elements of visual novels combine with others that make it interesting (I find reading scripts for plays terribly boring, but generally enjoy seeing them... I see visual novels as a game that's missing vital parts). On the other hand, I can see how for a budding designer, learning one or two parts of a game at a time could be really useful, fun, and instructive. Feel free to share about why I shouldn't give up on visual novels!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

We are revitalizing games journalism.

There's a piece over at Nightmare Mode by Alan Williamson about how people who are writing about videogames for free are killing games journalism. I disagree with the article in multiple ways.

First off, I don't understand why Alan is so down on people writing about games for free, since he's writing for free for Nightmare Mode and has his own games site, which he explicitly states isn't making anyone money (I've contributed to Nightmare Mode in the past, so I'm going to refer to Alan by his first name). I always thought that Nightmare Mode could at least pay its server costs from ads, but it doesn't. I honestly thought the piece was going to end with Alan telling us they couldn't afford to continue publishing like this and Nightmare Mode was going to be a thing of the past, since that's the logical continuation to me. I think he was more frustrated that good videogame criticism often goes unpaid.

Alan's cognitive dissonance notwithstanding, I disagree with him on principle. Full disclosure: I've been working as an unpaid intern for Killscreen this summer, and I've been following videogame blogs for about two years. I believe that videogame journalism needs the casual, amateur, unpaid voices. 

For game reviews, the wisdom of the masses is more useful than the opinion of a rushed journalist. When I'm thinking of buying a videogame, I overwhelmingly trust things like Amazon reviews, which have little vested interest in maintaining a relationship with a PR contact for more review copies. Amazon reviews have a great variety--people who are fans of the series, people who play lots of games casually, and people who bought the game for their offspring. Basically the only thing professional game journalists have over Amazon reviewers is that they get to have the game sooner, and have an excellent grasp of the politics surrounding the publication of certain games. 

Really good game criticism is hard to find. I'm not talking about "yes! you should rent this game!" I'm talking about criticism that makes me appreciate a game I thought was terrible, or that helps me see the world in a different light. To me, reading really good game criticism is almost more fun than actually playing games. I think big game outlets are gradually realizing this, since they've been snatching up my favorite bloggers. Free games journalism isn't killing paid journalism; it is revitalizing it. 

You don't have to pour hours of research into writing a really good analysis of the level structure in Wolfenstein or a feminist critique of Monkey Island. You do need a good background in literary theory, though almost any liberal arts degree can give you that. Basically, I think videogame criticism can be really good even if it wasn't paid criticism. In fact, I think that unpaid articles are often less frought with "what does my editor want to see on the site?" and "what will give us the most hits?" and more concerned with what individuals writers are passionate about. 

It's perfectly possible to create good writing and get paid for it, I'm just saying that getting paid for writing adds a layer of external concerns. Sometimes those external concerns are about maintaining relationships with videogame developers, whereas an amateur who isn't making a career in games journalism might be more free in their criticisms simply because they don't have a working relationship with the publishers.

Alan's best case against free games journalism is when he states that investigative journalism requires more time and research than a casual interest can justify:
Researched writing is valuable. Investigative journalism is an essential check on the powers of the state, and games journalism is vital to protect us consumers from the motives of greedy corporations, never mind moving the artistic medium forward. I love writing, but frankly I can’t carry out that kind of research and hold a full-time job as well. If that research is your full-time job, whether salaried or freelance, your work will be better for it and readers will appreciate it more. Without the insightful criticism and investigative work that paid journalism allows, you’re left with ten thousand trite reviews and a smattering of Top Ten lists.
Alan's correct in that really good investigative journalism requires a lot of effort, and that the videogame industry would benefit from it, but the majority of stories have nothing to do with investigative journalism beyond "oh so-and-so posted this unpolitic thing on Twitter/Facebook." The most recent debacle with OnLive seems like it could have used some investigative journalism. The Escapist, which prides itself on doing journalism right, noticed that PopCap studios was also having some layoffs, but concluded that "the issue may warrant further investigation." It kind of feels like no one is doing this investigative journalism that Alan speaks of. Maybe there is some good investigative journalism out there and I'm not hearing about it?
so much... investigative journalism?

I think the bigger issue is probably that readers simply aren't as interested in company layoffs as they are in the teaser trailers from Gamescom. Sites that have paid content have plenty of top ten lists--to what mythical paid journalism does Alan refer? I believe he's thinking of more "highbrow" publications...

Alan ends in urging us to put our money where our mouth is and pay more money for existing, impressive magazines like Edge and Killscreen. I think that's a great idea, but Mattie Brice's piece on how our monied culture excludes those who can't afford to vote with their dollars haunts me. If we can't afford such publications, why not support good, free writing by reading it, thinking about it, and responding to it? To me, a community of critical thinkers is much more valuable than my subscription to Killscreen. I agree that the features we used to have daily on the Killscreen website were often really good videogame writing, but I also believe that Nightmare Mode has had articles that are just as good. Your voice matters to me even if you are not paid for it.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Summer videogames!

Hello everyone! In gaming I find I tend to cycle between playing lots of games and then not playing games and writing about them a lot. Right now I've been playing lots of games! So here's some games I've been playing in the last month I've decided to start an Amazon affiliate* account, so many links will be to Amazon. Steam has good deals too! :-) Most indie games aren't sold on Amazon, but I'll still talk about them, cause they're also awesome:

Pro Games
Psychonauts -You explore other people's brains in this action RPG from 2005. I love the collection and exploration aspects. Getting different abilities and trying them out in the world is fun too! I want to make a backpack like Rasputin's. The PC port is terrible, but my handy USB xbox controller fixed this problem. There's a lot of superfans of this game, which kind of turned me off for a while, but then a game scriptwriter, Rhianna Pratchett said it was like her favorite game ever.

Catherine -A puzzle/dating sim... I really like the moving-block puzzles, but I find the boss levels kind of ugly and unfun. I kind of wish the story were more upbeat (it's about a man cheating on his girlfriend), but at least it's weird enough to be unpredictable, and the anime cutscenes look good too.

Persona 4 Arena -I suck at fighting games, but luckily visual novel mode (yep! visual novel + a few fights) is easy enough for even my frenzied button-mashing. Some of the writing is a little lame but the fighting system has plenty of depth if I'm willing to put in the time to learn it (I might not be). I admit that I just got this game because I want to be in on all the Persona fandom... though I have yet to beat Persona 3 (I'm in September now!).

Sound Shapes -Really cute rhythm platformer for the Vita. Okay, you don't really have to have any sense of rhythm to play it (mostly timing... does that count as different?), but it's themed around collecting notes in a song that plays as you play. You can build your own levels too! Reminds me a little of Mutant Space Blobs Attack only more arty.

Indie Games
Long Live the Queen -A time management stat-cruncher! I loved the idea but I found it wasn't as flexible as Princess Maker 2 because it had kind of a story. I really liked how stats affects how you reacted to things, and how some of the classes (like foreign policy, a subcategory of history) seemed to be... really relevant for a queen-in-training. I might give it another go; the mood bonus system for learning actually requires quite a bit of planning.

The Sea Will Claim Everything -I've just been playing the generous demo but the free The Fabulous Screech will give you a good idea of the unique art style, point-and-click mechanics, and zany, Pratchett-like humor in a short, browser-based game. I love reading through the book names for gems like The Importance of Puns in the Release of Magical Energies, by Magister Erasmus of Zauberberg and The Voyage of the Darwin by Peter S. Beagle. Lana Polansky has played more of it and wrote a review praising its slower pace and political commentary.

Run -This experimental game has a soundtrack that's still running through my head! The story is a little weird, but I like that developers are messing around with how minigames can connect to each other.

What games are you playing this summer? Did you really hate a game I liked? Let me know in the comments!

*The deal with Amazon Affiliate links is that if you click an affiliate link, I'll get a 4% commission of anything you buy in the next 24 hours. I have no idea if it will make me any money, but I think it's worth a shot.

Friday, July 27, 2012

A videogame promoting moderation!?

The Act is a vidoegame about controlling your body language. It's experimental and accessible; short yet satisfying.

While so many other games promote extremes of being completely good or evil, killing everyone and finding everything, it's refreshing to see a game promote moderation. There's no correct dialogue option; you actually have to watch the faces of the NPCs to determine how you should act. Originally, the arcade game had a knob to twist your character from shy to gregarious, but the iOS port uses swipes.

A minute in and you can get a feel for the gameplay. The other amazing thing about this game is that it's all animated, old-school Disney-style. While there are some frustrating parts, overall, I was very impressed with the exploration of this new style of interaction. I'd love to see a body-language slider in an RPG, but given how intensive it is to animate, I might have to settle for tone brackets like (sarcastic) and (imploring).

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Jigsaw Puzzle Design: It's about being able to predict what pieces fit

I recently had the pleasure of putting together a wooden jigsaw puzzle. It was so much more fun than the old cardboard puzzles. I got to thinking about why cardboard puzzles suck and thought I could do a little analysis for you. 
Ravensburger puts out like a million of these
mini Japanese puzzle has even fewer piece types
This is from your typical cardboard puzzle. There are about six major piece types, and some rarer border and corner pieces. Since all the pieces look the same, you are pretty much stuck to looking at the colors on the pieces for figuring out where they go (oh, and the border-first thing). Having fun with this kind of puzzle relies heavily on having a diverse puzzle-picture, and having access to that picture. 

Wentworth puzzle
These pieces are from a puzzle I picked up in England. Since each piece's shape is very different from the others, it's possible to build this kind of puzzle by looking at the shapes alone. There are edge pieces, but some middle pieces also have straight edges. The pieces are wooden and have a satisfying feeling of fitting, unlike cardboard pieces where the cardboard gives a little even when you're putting together pieces that fit. There are still some conventional shapes, for which you can usually guess which way is up. Little "whimsy pieces" are shaped like things and it's easy to tell which pieces fit around them (for instance, you can see the silhouette of the horse-rider's head in one of the pieces here). 

the border is scalloped. This is a corner taken apart.
 This last puzzle I found the most devilishly clever. The pieces are all unique shapes, but they're similar in shape and are completely unpredictable in their orientations. Even the pieces surrounding the whimsy pieces weren't immediately apparent. For this reason I found that I was using all the available clues--shape, color, texture, whatever. It was even more satisfying to look at a piece and know it was exactly the piece I needed, before fitting it in (this rarely happens when I put together cardboard puzzles).

This moment of epiphany, when I could see the solution before enacting it, is crucial to a good puzzle game. It's the same feeling I get when I play falling-block games or things like Portal and Catherine. It's what makes puzzles fun for me. 
piece orientation is unpredictable. Artifact Jigsaw. 

Another aspect of jigsaw puzzles is that I've liked is that they're easily multiplayer. If someone else sees you working on a jigsaw puzzle, they can instantly tell how far you are and what kind of puzzle it is. Piecing together a puzzle isn't timed, and it's cooperative. You can start without having to wait for it to load and play for as short or as long as you like (if you're willing to re-do your puzzle). I haven't really found a puzzle game that's as good at multiplayer as a good old jigsaw puzzle.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Of tourism and game-playing

"I'm kind of doing a speed run of Journey," my husband, Adam, explained. For each complete run through of the game (up to... four times?), the decoration on your robe gets more elaborate. A speed run seemed like a logical way to enjoy the game a different way and get the cool robe addition. But yet, somehow a speedrun of Journey seems inimical to the game's aesthetics.

In the same way, my speedrun of England and Paris was completely typical of tourism, but I felt sometimes like I was missing the point of enjoying a new place, or any place. There is an urge to see all the vital sights--sights that, once seen, can be checked off a list; their countries stamped in one's passport. I'm very grateful that I had to opportunity to go to England and Paris, and I realize that everyone who writes feels the desire to write about their experiences abroad as if it is something new that no one else noticed. I know that my experiences are common. I submit that the common problems with tourism are also common to playing classic or popular videogames.
At the Louvre, we must see the Mona Lisa, if only to say we've seen it. Her admirers petition her with cameras, increasing her immortality with each replication. I see other works I recognize; it's like seeing a celebrity, except it frequently looks exactly the same as your mental image does. Sure, the background details come out a bit better, and you can see the frame and the brushstrokes better, but everyone is in the same position. The glass pyramid looks as see-through as ever. Liberty Leading the People still has her breast exposed. And we must take a photo to show that we've been there. Or perhaps all these photos are so we can enjoy the details later, from the comfort of our homes. Taking photos becomes a way to relieve the anxiety that we aren't taking it all in--because maybe the camera is?

And of course, while I'm there at the Louvre, I'm thinking about the sights we'll see in the next few days, because these things must be planned--a simple pain of touring. After my speedrun of the Louvre, I didn't have time to go back and do a hardcore playthrough where I explored every hallway. My time and energy were spent.

Luckily, videogames have their entire world in their files. The anxiety isn't that we won't have the opportunity to see everything, but that we won't have time to beat them. Similarly, while playing one game, it's easy to think anxiously about its completion and what exciting game one will play after that one is done with. The text speed is impossibly slow and your character can't run fast enough. Playing the game becomes a chore.

You're familiar with this feeling. I'm trying to become more aware of it. When I feel like playing a game is a chore, I feel like I should stop playing it. But there's a balance to have here--some chores can be soothing in their repetition (like grinding), and sometimes pushing through a boring part of a game lets one enjoy its especially nice parts (like how even though walking seems impossibly slow in Dear Esther, getting to see the caves is completely worth it for the visual spectacle alone).

 Of course, there's a similar problem with tourism. Standing in line for over an hour at Versailles, I felt like tourism was a chore (a chore of the rich and privileged, but a chore nonetheless). But I felt like it was worth it to see the gaudy opulence that spurred a revolution and the stately, over-the-top gardens that went with it. I don't know how to balance being "in the moment" with "planning ahead so you don't get bored/stranded/waste time." But I do know it's a balance I strive for, in tourism, videogame playing, and in the rest of my life. I hope to explore Utah a little more--a place where I have the time and energy to do a "hardcore playthrough."

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Are videogames objects to analyze or experiences to have?

In any art there's a disconnect between "fun" and "analytic" mode. Recently I've been practicing to substitute for our church organist. Music at worship services is usually a spiritual experience for participants. My practicing, which is highly focused on finding where my fingers and feet should go so I can slip seamlessly between notes, has little room for spiritual thoughts. But I don't think all music performance has to be so detail-focused; if I were more proficient at the organ I might find it pleasant and uplifting.

On the other hand, all the self-criticism that enables my practice to actually improve my practice makes me a harsh critic when it comes to enjoying others' performances.

The same problem can apply to videogames. When a game is really difficult at first, it's not all that fun for me. But as I continue playing, I develop some mastery and the game becomes more fun, simply because I've learned a skill.

As I learn more about how games work, I get more critical about small details. In Warp, the rebound from releasing the analog stick sometimes causes the cursor to go in the opposite direction, causing my instadeath a few times. A rhythm game I recently played had no penalty for "wrong" key presses, making it really easy to get a high score through button mashing. Dragon Age has no option to skip combat and dialogue one has already seen after you've beaten the game (okay, I admit that one is a personal preference). If I'm too critical of a game, I'm enjoying it in a different way--as an object to dissect. Sometimes though, I just need to stop looking at games as objects and start looking at them as experiences.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Bad quest design: Things changing because you talked to someone

I like that most of the quests in Dragon Age: Origins are pretty easy to figure out. Go kill some guys or put a red X on their doors and then you're done. I also like it when I need to gather information, but I feel like this just sets up a bad situation.

One example is finding the cartel in the dwarf town. The bandits who have the key you need don't show up in their little room until after you've talked to the lady who knows their leader. Before you talk to her, you can go inside and it's just an empty room. There seems to be no logical connection between talking to the woman and the bandits appearing other than quest progression. The same thing happens a LOT in Touch Detective. If I'm stuck in Touch Detective, it's because I haven't talked to everyone twice. Sometimes someone I'm supposed to talk to doesn't even appear until after I've talked to someone else. It's way frustrating.

I've identified this problem, but I'm not sure what a good solution would be. Have all the pieces of the puzzle laid out already, and risk the player encountering them out-of-order? Put a little exclamation point over someone you need to talk to? A request where you need to gather more information before proceeding makes sense. The thing we need to get rid of is the empty rooms changing unnoticed. But if every change is visible, it damages the conception of the game world as a place that is changing even when the player isn't looking (for some reason this is important, right?).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Playing Dragon Age Origins!

Hey readers!  I'm going to start working as a part-time intern for the Killscreen, which is really close to my dream job! So I'm excited about that. I've already transcribed an interview, which doesn't sound glamorous, but it's still kind of fun to see the other side of a publication and be a part of that.

I wrote two articles for Nightmare Mode: an article on Journey's Parallels to the Mormon Temple Ceremony, and another on Pippinbarr's Pongs and how they criticize video game mechanics WITHIN a video game. I like writing for another site and working on an article until it's a lot better than something I'd just type out in an evening (like what I usually write here). But I still like the spontaneity of writing here. 

don't worry he is not actually as interesting as my husband
I started playing Dragon Age: Origins and I'm beginning to understand more of the Bioware fandom. I wanted to get Alistair to like my character, but in the process I ended up liking him more. I kind of like the dating sim part of the game! Sometimes the characters predictably like the "good" or "chaotic" choices, but you know, people in real life are like that sometimes. 

One thing I wasn't aware of was how the challenge scaling works in the game (basically, how the game determines how difficult the enemies are). I went to the big city as soon as I could, had difficulty beating the blood mages there, and just ratcheted the difficulty down so I could finish it, instead of figuring that I could come back when I was higher level. I thought it would work more like in Oblivion, but there's definitely an order that's best to follow for the enemies to match your level. I kind of wish I had stayed on the normal difficulty, but the casual difficulty is really easy and it's making it less likely for me to get stuck (and therefore I'm getting more time to spend on the parts of the game I like). Maybe it's going to injure my gamer cred, but oh well. Don't even worry, I'm going to get a grease/fire combo going at some point with my mage, even if I don't need to deal that much damage. 

I also regret leaving some things undone in Lothering (? that first town), not realizing it was going to be un-visitable with the encroaching blight. So I didn't get the bard or the prisoner dude in my party. I'm tempted to do another run through to do all the "bad" things (you know, like freeing the prisoner and making deals with demons) so I can see more of the story things. But I also want to get to Dragon Age 2! And all the other games on my shelf.  Those of you who have played DA:O, is it worth doing a second run? 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Devil Survivor 2's dramatic irony and stuff

After much strategizing and frustration I finally beat Devil Survivor 2 (DS2), the tactical JRPG for the DS. At first I was really impressed with the unrelenting difficulty that forced me to actually look at my battle and demon possibilities. I got to know the system better, but by the end I just wanted to be done. I was hoping to have some kind of awesome idea for an article while I played the game, and I took notes. However, no coherent theme emerged. So I'm writing you my thoughts on: 1) DS2's self-consciousness as J-horror, 2) DS2's reflection of Japanese ideals in endings and 3) the coolest in-game explanation for a new game+ I've ever seen (the last two parts will have spoilers).
w-why are all these ladies so busty
DS2 is trying really hard to think about how teenagers would TRULY react in a disaster situation. There are fights about who should get supplies. You friends frequently compare their situation to that of a horror movie: "If this was a monster movie it'd be a dumb cliche to go for landmarks like that" (Joe). Keita, speaking of communist idealism, says, "'comerade,' what fantasy are you living in?" Well Keita, this fantasy I'm living in is one where we're real people and completely aware of the absurdity of our situation as teenagers saving the world by summoning demons through our cell phones (fun side note: instead of killing dissenters, you take away their cell phones. It's basically the same!)!

I haven't played through all the endings, but one of the "happy" endings is when you join neither of your warring extremist friends and opt for a compromise position (trying to keep things the way they were). Daichi's philosophy is, "But even peons have a right to choose! Not to be bossed around like pawns on a chessboard!" The irony, of course, is that Daichi is a pawn on the player's chessboard, and he really has no say in what his battle actions are (besides his inherent stats).

 You have the option to defeat "the world's administrator" too. I'm interested in how so many Japanese games see the person in charge as malicious... well, malicious is too harsh. Many Japanese games have a deity that is kind of apathetic about humans, but annoyed that they are trying to have a say in things.

DS2 goes out of its way to make up some lore to explain save games and new game+s. It sees demons and the characters as part of an akashic record (yeah I had to look it up too, but I was pleased that it referred to a real thing). An akashic record is this idea that everything is data that can be deleted or edited (that is how the game explained it). Looking at the wikipedia page, everything being recorded is also a big part of it. What's weird to me is that with keyloggers and cloud storage etc. our digital lives can be basically an Akashic record (am I misunderstanding the concept?). It's like... technology can make this religious idea a reality. STRANGE THINGS.

Monday, April 9, 2012

The attractiveness of portable systems; the inscrutability of game addictions; the stupidity of trophies

I love portable gaming. There are at least two reasons for my preference: 1) It's easier for me to immerse myself in a screen that I'm holding and 2) I feel less anxiety about people watching me and judging my performance or the fact that I'm playing a video game.

I said it was immersion that made me prefer small screens, but I think it's also convenience and immediacy. I find it difficult to set aside time to play my PS3 games, but I usually bring along my phone/Vita/DS if I'm going somewhere. And if I'm waiting in line, I think playing a Kairosoft game is a perfectly good way to wait. And if there's a handiman or carpet cleaner around, I don't really want them to watch me suck at some game that is stereotypically for teenage guys anyway. Portable systems are much lower profile and it just seems in better taste to play something in my hands when other people are doing other things around me.

I wonder if the type of games for portable systems is significantly different than for console or PC games. I like playing adventure games, puzzle platformers, and strategy games, and I prefer them to look cute (as opposed to grisly or hardcore). It's possible that none of my PS3 games are cute enough (one can only play so much Katamari and Little Big Planet), and that portable systems are more likely to cater to my cuteness attraction. I'm mystified about why some games can hold my attention for weeks at a time and then I suddenly stop playing them, and why other games are only interesting for a demo's length of time. Am I just becoming so jaded with games that killing another guy in Assassin's Creed seems like a futile exercise, only to be repeated again?

I wonder if mood has something to do with game taste as well. Some days grinding feels like a relief, while other days I just want to get a move on with stories. I'm interested in how games succeed and fail in psychological reinforcement, and I want to understand what motivates me. I like playing games to see what they are--for the novelty of the act. But after the novelty wears off, sometimes I feel too lazy to keep playing. I think, "okay, I understand that this is going to get harder or go on for five more missions, but will it be worth it?"

I love and hate the trophies system. I love it because I think it's fun to try to do crazy things in games and to encourage experimentation, but I hate it because I feel really dumb when I have 0% of trophies for a game (like the ones I try out and don't really like, like inFamous). I believe I have the ability to finish these games, and I do not have the desire. Maybe I'm just getting old and I'm getting pickier about how I use my time, but beating a game to add to my "gamer cred" seems so stupid! Yet I'm strangely attracted to cultivating a levelled "gamer" trophy persona. I wish I had the dedication to be completest with trophies, but in some games it's just not fun.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Mass Effect: Future of PC Games

My brother, Lance, is a fan of the Mass Effect series, so he's doing some guest posting for me (also, I'm struggling a tiny bit to say something interesting about the games I've been playing, so his timing is perfect). This first post is a reminder about what makes the Mass Effect games awesome, which is sometimes easy to lose sight of. His post:

Now that Mass Effect 3 has finally come out and the outrage over its ending has subsided a little, this is an excellent time to reflect on what a great game series it has been and why. While Mass Effect has many elements of gameplay that attract a wide and varied audience, I believe the greatest strength of the Mass Effect series is that it captures the epic feel and prepared script of a movie while still giving the player a relatively wide range of narrative power and control over the events in the series.

I have been a fan of the series since I played the first game, and what really grabbed me about it is the story-centered nature of it and the narrative power it gives to the player. Shepard shoots aliens, there's no way around that, but you get to decide when, where, and how he does so. You get to decide what he looks like, who he's attracted to, and whether or not he's actually a she. This level of narrative power is not completely unprecedented, but it is rare in visual media. What's even more rare is that Shepard's lines are fully voice-acted, despite the fact that you get to choose what he says. You get to decide whether certain characters in the game live or die, even including some of your own team members.
Commander Shepard (center) prepares to enter Dantius Towers with Grunt (right) and some incredibly boring human male soldier (left).
One of the big strengths of this series is that we all ended up caring about most of these characters. All right, so I didn't think much about Kaidan Alenko from the first game or Jacob from the second. But then I got to chat with Tali and Wrex, hear Mordin sing, spar with James, and flirt like Captain Kirk. I cared about a lot of these characters, and I was emotionally invested in their well-being... even though I didn't do anything to think them up or bring them about! This gave the player a sense of really being a part of the game, even if you're just the angel and devil on Shepard's shoulders, telling him what to do. Once you're done talking to your crew members, you get to explore the world around you and the game even awards you with experience points and credits for doing so.
Even if he doesn't say so in game, the mercenary on the right definitely thanks you for playing Paragon.
Mass Effect crafted a detailed, unique, and interesting game world. Like Star Wars and Star Trek, Mass Effect includes many pages of details on the planets in its galaxy, the creatures that live in it, and the technologies that have been discovered by its peoples. While some of the races and creatures strain believability and other seem to lack depth, they are consistent much more often than not, and I forsee the Mass Effect universe will have plenty of spin-off merchandise. When you enter, you feel that there is still much more to see in this universe than has yet been seen, and that Shepard's journeys are but the tip of the iceberg. And when you feel you've reached the limit of your desire to explore, there's plenty of alien bad guys to blow up in creative ways.

There are lots of games in which you get to shoot monstrous creatures or save the world. Plenty in which you save humanity, the galaxy, or even the multiverse. None of that is new or particularly innovative. Some of these have rich and well thought-out worlds in which to play, although many don't. Some of these have reasonably well-written dialogue, and some of them have challenging yet engaging gameplay. Very, very few games have player choices that actually alter the flow of the game, or the story events. Most of the time, the player character's actions are effectively determined ahead of time by the game's writers and the game progresses along the only path they provide (and when you don't make progress on that line, you have to load an old game). In some of these games, that's not such a bad thing, but every now and then it's good to have something different. When Bioware made Mass Effect, they were prepared to write some lines, record some dialogue, and craft some missions that you, the player, would never see. And that means you have power, if only a little.

In most games, if the developers make something, they expect you to experience it. You progress through the levels at a predetermined order, and often through a predetermined path. This isn't bad or wrong, but it takes all the power out of the hands of the player, and tells the player that his or her decisions are completely irrelevant to the game itself. A few games break out of this mold completely, and all of these (that I know of) have been recognized as great in some way or another. Star Control 2, Deus Ex, and now Mass Effect all give you the sense that you are stepping into a very real and very large world, and that your actions will have consequences, sometimes far-reaching consequences you can't predict. This was an exhilirating experience for me in all three cases, and all three of these games occupy a very special place in my heart.
This is a loading screen from Mass Effect, cleverly disguised as an elevator. Some of these loading screens would actually give you missions that showed up on your journal via the news.
Personally, I believe that this is the future of computer games, and it is how these games will identify themselves as a unique medium with very special advantages. Games like Mass Effect could be made into movies or television shows, but the experience would be completely different. I believe no medium yet discovered can possibly capture the Mass Effect experience not because of its immersiveness, its rich characters or background, or even because of its action. The reason Mass Effect cannot be perfect duplicated elsewhere is because of its interactivity and player power.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Rise of Video Game Zinesters a demand for more amateur and individual expression in games

Anyone can make a video game, and it is a little harder than drawing a doodle. But amateurs should make games, because it's fun and fulfilling, and because we need more diversity in video games than the cautious, often predictable games big studios put out. These are Anna Antropy's ideas in Rise of the Video Game Zinesters: How Freaks, Normals, Amateurs, Dreamers, Dropouts, Queers, Housewives, and People Like You are Taking Back an Art Form.

Anthropy's book is related to academics, but it's written in an accessible style. The chapters don't build on each other for a linear, climactic thesis, but highlight different aspects of the history and present of self-published games and mods in a collage that makes for a bigger-picture understanding. Anthropy tells her own story of dropping out of college, struggling for a while, but succeeding to make games by herself like Lesbian Spider-Queens of Mars.
Her passion and self-confidence are infectious. The last section on how to make a game was filled with (what seemed to me, the currently non-programmer) excellent advice on storytelling and just getting something on screen.

I liked this book so much that it's hard for me to criticize it, but there were some things I found puzzling. None of the images had captions, though their relevance was usually intuitive. I was also annoyed by the inclusion of a certain ubiquitous Tolstoy quote. The history chapter seemed linear and obligatory, but paid special attention to the role of deep-pocketed publishers and shareware entrepreneurs. The book succeeded in heightening my awareness of how games can be so much more than men shooting things, and in inspiring me to make my own game (which I might describe as craptastic, and I'm proud of it!). If you don't read this book, at least go out and make a video game! Set aside two hours and just make something in Scratch (that's what I did)!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Designing games for 5-year-olds

Many five-year-olds can't read. They have smaller hands and attention spans. They hate dying. We know these things, but I think designing games for the kindergarten age group is more about making deathless constant action games. Children at this age are content to explore even if they aren't "winning." They play their favorite levels over and over. Because of these tendencies, I believe in some ways it's harder to design for small children and difficult to predict what they will like about video games.
about two years older than this. But still, tiny hands!
I have been babysitting a 5-year-old, whom I'll call Pepper, and he plays video games about half the time, sometimes with me. I'll use his experience to back up my suggestions for designing games for five-year-olds,  which can probably extend to 4 to 6-year-olds.

1. Have custom avatars: Kids want to pretend they are in the game, and they want to have an avatar that looks cool, preferably that they can change at will. Pepper's favorite part of Little Big Planet is selecting the "random costume" button and saving them, and decorating his pod. He was reluctant to play Kirby's Epic Yarn because Kirby is pink ("I want to be a guy" "He is a guy").

2. There doesn't have to be a big bad boss, it's good enough to just have a fantasy world to explore. Pepper's favorite LBP levels involve driving, roller-coaster riding, and pretending to swim with the sharks. The cantina in Lego Star Wars, where you can just run around attacking anyone at random, is also a favorite. I'm bored by roller coaster levels ("I'm just pressing down R1 this whole time..."), but he thinks they are fun. I think other kids are similarly motivated by fantasy in the video games they play.

3. Make it really easy. Kids this age can learn to do things more complicated than jumping, but they don't have a very high frustration tolerance. Many of the puzzles in Lego Star Wars are too hard for him to figure out without my help. Not just puzzles, but basic controls should be simple. I feel like the wii is a little nicer for this, but when you add in the nunchuck there are still lots of buttons, which might explain the popularity of ipad games with this group. Having the buttons doesn't mean you need to use them; point-and-click PC games are also really fun.

4. Potty jokes are hilarious, but it should also be exciting (but not actually dangerous)! Things like playing house, pretending to cook, eat, and sleep, come naturally to pretend play without a video game, so it feels natural in a game setting. That said, there should be something attention-catching about a game for this age group--something they already like, like monster trucks, dinosaurs, trains, roller coasters, Mario, sharks, jungles, etc. They want the feeling that the game is dangerous, but they don't want to die in the game (so, some kind of fire-y background is great).

It's easy for adult gamers to keep insisting that video games should be taken seriously and want more serious games, but I think it's also important to remember kids in video games. THEY LOVE THEM.