Google maps goes NES for April Fools

If you get the chance, make sure you click on “quest” in Google Maps today.

ann arbor 8-bit google map

When Mario met GLaDOS

I love fan-created games, and this one looks fantastic. Someone built a fully playable version of Super Mario Bros. crossed with Portal. It’s called Mari0, and not only can you download and play it, but it also includes a multiplayer mode and tools to edit your own levels.

My only complaint is that this is making the rounds on gaming blogs on the day we come off of break. I have too much work to do to play it!

Fictional Gamers: Invader Zim’s Gaz

Let me introduce you to Gaz, one of my favorite fictional gamers.


image of Gaz from ZimWiki (click for the entry on Gaz)

You’ll find her in episodes of the wonderful cartoon, Invader Zim, including two video game-centered episodes: “Nanozim” and “Game Slave 2”. The first half of the latter is below (upside down for copyright reasons. Full episodes are available streaming on Netflix).

Virtual Worlds in Novels, Movies, and TV

second life class meeting

Now that we’ve had our class meetings in Second Life, this would be a good time to talk about virtual worlds in novels, movies, and TV (‘cuz that’s how I roll). Long post after the cut.


Fukushima workers controlling robots with Xbox controllers

Discover is reporting that workers at the Fukushima nuclear plant are using Xbox 360 controllers to control robots as they continue their dangerous cleanup efforts.

Meet the Talon robots, which were sent to Japan by a Virginia-based tech company called QinetiQ North America. With Xbox pad in hand, Fukushima workers can now remotely drive these robust bots around the plant, where it would be far too dangerous for human workers to go. Without putting themselves in danger, operators can peer into the darkest parts of the plant using Talon’s night-vision cameras. They can also gauge the temperature and air quality around the plant, as well as identify over 7,500 hazardous substances using the robots’ chemical,  biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) detection kits (as long as they’re within the robot’s over-3,000-foot operating range).

Read the whole story here:

The Angry Birds User Experience

My specialization for the degree I’m pursuing is Human-Computer Interaction. This means that I’m studying user experience and interaction design. Because of this, I found this piece on the user experience of Angry Birds interesting indeed.

Why is it that over 50 million individuals have downloaded this simple game? Many paid a few dollars or more for the advanced version. More compelling is the fact that not only do huge numbers download this game, they play it with such focus that the total number of hours consumed by Angry Birds players world-wide is roughly 200 million minutes a DAY, which translates into 1.2 billion hours a year. To compare, all person-hours spent creating and updating Wikipedia totals about 100 million hours over the entire life span of Wikipedia (Neiman Journalism Lab). I say these Angry Birds are clearly up to something worth looking into. Why is this seemly simple game so massively compelling? Creating truly engaging software experiences is far more complex than one might assume, even in the simplest of computer games. Here is some of the cognitive science behind why Angry Birds is a truly winning user experience.

The article goes on to discuss at length the ins and outs of the user experience of playing Angry Birds. Now if only someone could tell me why the pigs stockpile ham (it’s so disturbing).

The kind of video game movie that works

Two recent posts to this blog have talked about video games and movies. One asked why movies based on video games are always bad. Another talked about plans for an Inception game and expressed skepticism about whether it would work as a game. Both movies that adapt video games and especially video games that are based on movies have their problems, at least where quality is concerned (though I would argue that there are examples of both that work–I’ll get to those at the end of this post). Another kind of video game movie that works better is those that aren’t adaptations but feature games as an important part of the story being told.

I’ve been planning to post about video games and movies for a while, so I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and I keep coming back to movies like Tron or Scott Pilgrim vs. the World as being the best approach to video game movies. These movies are about games (or in the case of Scott Pilgrim, informed by games), but they’re not based on games. When I first decided to post about movies and video games, I asked some friends about their favorites. I also did a search to see what the Internet would bring me. My own choices, my friends’, and this column at the Escapist all pretty much agreed that in addition to Tron and Scott Pilgrim, you can’t talk about video game movies of this type without talking about The Wizard, WarGames, The Last Starfighter, and eXistenZ. I’m going to talk about Tron, WarGames, eXistenZ and Scott Pilgrim in this post, because those are the ones I have watched a million times know best (after the cut. Long post is long. Also, if you’re the TL;DR type, skip to the end for the part about a class poll). Feel free to leave comments about the others.


The Diamond Age (Or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer)

When we were talking about novels that featured augmented reality, Anthony brought up one of my favorite novels in the comments: Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age (Or a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer). In it, a girl named Nell gets a world class education through the use of an interactive book (the illustrated primer of the title). I’ve been thinking about The Diamond Age a lot as we’ve been talking about Ender’s Game as both use video games as teaching technology. They also both use tablet-style computing of the iPad variety (Ender’s “desk” sounds a lot like an iPad to me).  Most significantly to me, they both incorporate direct interaction with another person in ways that appear to be simulations (the bit at the end of Ender’s Game where it’s revealed that one of the Bugger queens was trying to communicate with Ender through the psychological game). These interactions are part of what makes the experiences rich. Particularly in The Diamond Age it appears to be a statement about needing interpersonal interaction regardless of how complex and immersive a given simulation might be (or at least that’s always been my interpretation–if anyone else has read it and wants to weigh in, I’d love your take on it).

Speaking of The Diamond Age and teaching technology: I saw video of the PhoneBook product below from Mobile Art Lab for the first time a few years ago. As these videos were going around, a lot of the comments mentioned that it made viewers think of The Diamond Age. In fact, when I was searching for a video to add to this post, I looked for “diamond age iphone interactive book” and got one of the videos as the first result in a Google video search:

Some of the gameplay still seems to be of the spinach sundae variety, but it’s still pretty cool.

Incidentally, I realized today that I first read both of these novels when I was a junior in college, which is kind of fun since so many of the people taking this class are juniors and seniors. I’ll talk about Stephenson more when we get to Second Life (you can’t talk about Second Life without talking about Snow Crash).

Happy Zelda-versary!

Believe it or not, it has been 25 years since the release of the original The Legend of Zelda. Those of you who are playing Zelda games are taking part in a franchise that’s likely older than you are.

Here’s a tribute to the game over at Wired.

Augmented Reality in Fiction

We’re talking about augmented reality games in class this week. We’re also going to be discussing Ender’s Game soon, which is a novel that explores themes relevant to this class. In that spirit, here are four novels from the last decade that feature augmented reality as themes or important plot features.

The first is William Gibson’s Spook Country, which features augmented reality in the form of locative art. These are art installments, tied to a place by GPS technology, that require a virtual reality rig to access. In the novel, the installments are about augmenting the experience of visiting a given space.

Spook Country is a great novel, but it isn’t about games. The next three are.

Rainbows End Cover

Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End is about games and education. The protagonist is Robert Gu, who at the start of the novel has been cured of Alzheimer’s disease. He has to relearn a lot and to learn many new things including wearable computing and augmented reality interfaces. His granddaughter is well-versed in these technologies and uses them for school and play. Their different takes on the same technology are interesting in terms of what we’ve been discussing in class. Another compelling idea in the novel is the idea of belief circles, which are competing virtual realities.

Daniel Suarez’s Daemon and its sequel, Freedom(tm), are techno thrillers dealing with network security. The second novel in particular is relevant to our interests, as it’s about a shadow U.S. economy that takes the form of a Massively Multiplayer game. People earn reputation in the system, which translates into power. They access the system using wearable computing. It’s life itself as an augmented reality game.

Rainbows End is a novel that takes place in the future, but both Suarez’s novels and Spook Country take place in the present. It’s fascinating to watch the interplay between how available technology plays out in fiction and how fiction influences technology.

The Story Behind Oregon Trail

In honor of the previous post about Oregon Trail & Carmen San Diego coming to Facebook, here’s a story about the origin of Oregon Trail.

Rawitsch, a lanky, bespectacled 21-year-old with hair well over his ears, was both a perfectionist and an idealist. He started dressing as historical figures in an attempt to win over his students, appearing in the classroom as explorer Meriwether Lewis.

By now he’d made it through to the western expansion unit, and he had in mind his boldest idea yet.

What he had so far was a board game tracing a path from Independence, Missouri, to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. The students would pretend to be pioneer families. Each player would start with a certain amount of money and buy oxen, clothes, and food. Students would advance with the roll of a die, along the way encountering various misfortunes: broken limbs, thieves, disease. In roughly 12 turns, the kids would simulate the 2,000-mile journey that thousands of pioneers made to the West Coast in the 19th century.

He called it “Oregon Trail.”

Read the whole story here.

Fans making games

As a class, we’re playing Gamestar Mechanic, a game that teaches how to build games. I just picked up LittleBigPlanet 2, which is a game that also provides in-game tools for building games. Echochrome, one of my favorite puzzle games, comes with tools for players to build their own levels.

My friend Dr. Anastasia Salter writes and teaches about games. In her paper “‘Once more a kingly quest’: Fan games and the classic adventure genre”, she discusses fanmade remakes of games like the King’s Quest games, Maniac Mansion, and others. Here’s the paper’s abstract (you can read the whole thing online at Transformative Works and Cultures):

[0.1] Abstract—The classic adventure games—part of the earliest traditions of interactive narrative—have not disappeared, although they no longer occupy space on the shelves at the local computer store. Even as changing hardware and operating systems render these games of the 1980s and 1990s literally unplayable without emulating the computer systems of the past, fans are keeping these stories alive. Authorship of these games has changed hands: it is now under the control of the fans, the former and current players. Through the online sharing of fan-created game design tool sets and of the fan-created games themselves, these new coauthors create a haven to revisit these decades-old games using fresh eyes and fresh systems. The products of these folk art–reminiscent efforts also offer a venue to reconsider video game fandom in light of genres. They also allow us to understand these “personal games,” productions of one or more people that are not intended for commercial sale, as carrying the heritage of the classic era forward into the next generation of gaming.

Between games that teach games and the availability of tools for gamers to make their own games from scratch, people are not only growing up video games but also with the ability and tools to build their own. So as you’re working on making your games in Gamestar Mechanic, what are your thoughts about gamers as game makers?

AbleGamers Website

AbleGamers is a site and nonprofit organization focused on gamers with disabilities. The site offers news, reviews, discussion boards and much more.  Lots of great information and posts including the site’s 2010 review and this recent post, written by an 8th grader, titled “Learning about Accessible Video Games.”

Story on gaming and cognitive skills

Video Games Boost Brain Power, Multitasking Skills” discusses the work of Daphne Bavelier on gaming and cognitive skills. From the introduction to the story:

Daphne Bavelier is professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. She studies young people playing action video games. Having now conducted more than 20 studies on the topic, Bavelier says, “It turns out that action video games are far from mindless.”

Her studies show that video gamers show improved skills in vision, attention and certain aspects of cognition. And these skills are not just gaming skills, but real-world skills. They perform better than non-gamers on certain tests of attention, speed, accuracy, vision and multitasking, says Bavelier.

In addition to the written story, you can also listen to the radio story.