Tuesday, August 10, 2010

We've moved!

Check out the brand new blog: NIGHTMARE TACO. Aren't those fishies neat?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Videogames Have a New Enemy: The Terminator!

Governor Schwarzenegger recently tried to ban selling violent video games to minors. The courts ruled against it because of free speech laws, and the fact that there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that violent games are psychologically damaging to children.

The problem here is not if kids should play violent video games or not. Supporters of this bill have good intentions – they just want to protect their children – but there is something much more serious at stake. Government censorship. There is no government censorship on movies, books, or other forms of art, because this country has freedom of speech. Supporters of the bill are not looking far enough ahead – if the government is able to censor whatever game they fill like censoring in the name of protecting children, what will stop them from placing censorship on movies? And then after that… books? If this trend is allowed to start in the first place, it is not impossible to think that the government will not allow anyone 18 or over to read The Crucible, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, A Clockwork Orange, The Diary of Anne Frank, or other novels that just so happen to have violence in them. Should the government be allowed to shield someone’s eyes from everything a little violent in the world until someone turns 18? Did anyone read 1984?

Of course, there is a lot of confusion floating around. The government, to some degree, is allowed to censor works of art when it comes to pornography and the like. But, the MPAA is not a government institution – it is a very successful, non-profit censorship association, not unlike videogames’ ESRB. In other words, institutions and rules are already in place without government control. If the government does step in, they will create their own rules concerning violence, and it will do little to keep violent video games out of children’s hands anyway. Should parents be the ones to decide if a child gets to watch Kindergarten Cop at 13, or should the government decide?

Also, this is coming from Arnold Schwarzenegger. The irony that one of the late symbols of violence in movies is supporting a government ban against violence is overwhelming. It is also ironic that Schwarzenegger is a Republican, while the general Republican consensus is that the government should be small and restricted when it comes to governmental control. Government controlled censorship is the complete opposite of this ideal. This is also happening as California sits in a terrible state, and demands attention from its local government.

Things are looking optimistic, though. Judge Consuelo Callahan, who presided over this case, said something that every gamer, or even every advocate of free speech, should hear with a sigh of relief: video games “are a form of expression protected by the First Amendment.”
So, California, or anywhere this may come up again, do not listen to Schwarzenegger, Clinton, or Lieberman. Supporting their bill if it were to come up again would be supporting government censorship, which, in essence, can nullify free speech. This will not help to protect your children; it will only chip away at the U.S. Constitution, destroying what was set up to protect us over two hundred years ago.

Sources: San Francisco Chronicle, ZDNet

Thursday, December 4, 2008

What does the Future Hold?

Journal Entry No. 10

So, if I got a crystal ball, probably operated by millions of little nanobots, and looked inside, what might it tell me about the future? I think the change that could happen in a decade would be as drastic as the changes that have happened in our world since 1998.

If you look at a website made ten years ago, it is easy to see that it is substandard, and probably rather ugly. In ten years, everyone will be able to make a pretty website, at least by today's standard. Today, anyone can boot up Dreamweaver or use preexisting website templates to make a good looking website. In ten years, the standard for websites will rise dramatically. They will become more interactive. But, instead of designers worrying about what happens if a user with 26” screen and a resolution of thousands of pixels logs on, they will be worrying about the many more users who will be accessing the internet from their phone. If I am being optimistic, internet will become more available to everyone, everywhere. If I am more pessimistic, than the internet will be floating around everywhere, but internet companies will have found a way to charge you for hopping onto to their floating wireless signal.

Everyone will be watched a bit more closely in the future. Already, cars are being installed with black boxes that tell whom it may concern if you were speeding at the time of an accident, or at least turning a bit too quickly. Suddenly, your insurance is void. Speeding cameras are already becoming more commonplace. The EZPass company will flourish when they combine forces with motor vehicle administrations and start issuing license plates that have scannable UPC codes in addition to numbers. (I think we will have to leave the numbers for the sake of hit-n-runs. Though maybe cameras will be everywhere by that time and we won't have to worry about that.). In a decade every passport and driver's license in America will have a computer inside it. God knows what that will do. I am sure there will be fights about whether or not it is unconstitutional to be able to track down people by installing GPS into their driver's licenses.

The government will not change that much. I say this because the government has not changed much in the past few decades. If we're lucky, there will be healthcare for everyone, HMO's will be out of existence, and the draft will be abolished. If we're not lucky, we will receive a draft, and we will be taxed for every bag of trash we place outside. Either way, the government will have to deal with more technology related issues, but mostly the government is too stiff and rigid to change much.

My goal is to work in the video game industry next year. In ten years, I can only imagine what kind of work I will be doing. The capability of graphics have almost reached their peak, but by then we will have 200-core processors that will let us process all of these graphics much better. More importantly than that, I think soon companies will start moving towards virtual reality and holographic images. Nintendo will come out with it first, but a week later every other company will have the technology. 3D artists really will have to worry about what something looks like from every angle. Massively multiplayer games will become huge. Bigger than they already are. MMO's are already appearing on kids' sites and the like. Normal games will have the opportunity to have gigantic multiplayer battles. I can only hope that in ten years I will be running around in a holographic Grand Theft Auto world with hundreds of other people running around in the same city. It would be so hectic it would be amazing.

We will also have to be a little paranoid, we will always have to fight against the steam, against our government, and protect our rights. The future will be no different. Wars will start and I will be there to protest them. Companies will start charging people for anything and everything. Still, because I know that video games are going to better, phones are going to get cooler, and cars are going to get sleeker, I am genuinely looking forward to being in the future. The next decade does not scare me: I will be right there, creating innovating games for new hardware, amidst an unavoidable onslaught of crap, even in a virtual-reality-holographic-surround-sound world.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Love Potion No. 9... I MEAN Journal Entry No. 9

I have read another novel. It left me feeling paranoid about the possibilities that could come into our reality very soon. It was a tale about how technology was abused by the government to take over people's privacy, using technology that exists that today, and some technology that could easily exist next year. Yes, I have read another cyberpunk tale. This time, it is Cory Doctorow's Little Brother.

The story follows an experienced teenage hacker around after the government had done terrible things to him and several other people, only because America's own Department of Homeland Security wanted to find some terrorists. The tale unites the words “cyber” and “punk” in a way I have not seen before. If the government does become more and more privacy-invading, there will be a backlash against it, in a punk sort of way that will rely on technology similar to the way that could happen in Little Brother, but this time the revolution would have to be led by people who are already very tech-savvy. This is cool for me to hear, as I stare at a screen connected to a desktop I built myself, a laptop with a paranoid fingerprint scanner and password combo, and every entertainment console of recent years. While it is fun to see the geeky guy get ahead, the story brings up some interesting issues, many that are already relevant today. Basically, the government can spy on you. The ability of the government to spy on you is still dependent on how many people and much money they throw into surveillance of the nation, which the novel touches upon, but the American government, as seen especially in recent years, is not afraid to throw lots of resources around to protect the nation. That itself is not a bad thing, but I have often envisioned that our country could end up one of two ways: either the Patriot Act is abolished, or it is expanded upon. In Doctorow's tale, the government releases the “Patriot Act II”, and allows the government more accessibility to spy on everyone through the use of cameras pasted all around the city, new, tracking metro cards, the already in place wire tapping, and the ability to look more throughly through people's computers and internet conversations. For some, they also use technologies that are already present today, like keyboard loggers. It is a very real look at something that could happen... tomorrow.

The technology mainly used the novel was fun – as it was directed toward gamers. Perhaps aimed at younger gamers, it was entertaining nonetheless. There were many references to some popular video game titles, such as Halo and Castle Wolfenstein, and in fact one of the main “computers” the protagonist uses is a new “Xbox Universal” that has an illegally installed operating system. It is already a fairly well known fact that Xbox 360's and Playstation 3's are just computers with their firmware and OS on them, that is in fact possible to remove. In fact, if I knew my phones were being tapped, I might use an Xbox 360 to talk to my friends. I already use it to avoid long distance charges when talking to friends in different states. It is a powerful social networking utility, and is made up of somewhat like minded people – well, at least people that all like to play video games. It would not be a bad place to start a revolution, anyway. President-elect Obama even advertised himself in video games this year.

One thing that scared me was the possibility of spies and creeps interacting with you on video games. It already happens on social networking places like Second Life and Facebook, wouldn't video games be the next logical step? Also something I found very intriguing was the explanation of the 99% rule. If the technology used to find terrorists in a city is 99% accurate, in a city of a million people, 10,000 would come up as a "terrorist," even though they are probably only looking for one or two people, if they are even a part of that 10,000 (why would terrorists hang around a city after coming in from another country and comminting the terrorist act?). 10,000 people would have to have their privacy invaded "for the sake of safety." It goes on to say terrorist counter-measures are not 99% accurate, which I believe is true today, it must be more like 60, or even 40 percent accurate. So, it is it worth it to spend all the extra effort, time, and resources towards a likely unsuccessful, privacy invading investigation?

Overall, it was a fun book that glorified programming, making you want to create some new programs, if you could, and learn how to hack a little bit. The book realizes that revolutions often start with the young, and the young in this generation, and the next, are going to be more than connected to the internet and technology. If a young person needed to start a rebellion, fast, a good place to start would have to be Facebook or MySpace. As the rebels proclaimed in the story, “don't trust anyone over 25!”

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

I'd Rather Be In My Virtual World

Journal Entry No. 8

After recently reading Halting State by Charles Stross, I can't help but think about the future of gaming. Stross is praised for his ideas on how future inventions and games will look, and I think he is not far off. Advances in technology, the internet, and the rapidly growing market of massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORGPs) hint towards a future not unlike that found in Halting State.

I have played many, many MMORPGs. They have literally taken months from my life. Still, I keep going back. Playing a MMORPG is like entering into a different universe, where real life problems take a backseat. In my experience as a MMORPG player, I have noticed that there is an economy that affects gameplay. Blizzard, the creators of the world famous World of Warcraft, have admitted that they need to keep creating more and more ways for players to spend in-game money to level the economy. The gaming economy described in Halting State is profoundly similar to MMORPG economies living today. The economies take a hard hit when cheating goes on. In Final Fantasy XI, the auction house, where you can buy items just like almost any other MMORPG, you can see a history of prices people have paid for a single item. After a surge of gil sellers hit the game – people trading real money for in-game money (gold farmers in other games) – you could watch the price of items go up: up to ten times the normal rate. Suddenly, the rewards from quests mean a tenth less, and the regular player cannot afford necessary items. The items you do have go up in value as well. Similar to a real economy, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There is a huge divide between new versus experienced players that was not meant to exist. The same happens in in other MMORPGs. It is interesting to watch the economies in these virtual worlds. In Guild Wars, some item prices are influenced by how many people buy that item. The price of black dye goes up every day; an ever popular item. Most people would rather have dark, black clothes than orange threads. But, for the people who can't afford that black dye, where can they get the money if they don't want to spend the time playing? It comes from gold farmers. More money than the economy can handle is shot in. The MMORPGs I have played have been much more pleasant when there is active resistance (from the developers) against gold farmers.

An interesting economy can also be viewed in Second Life. In Second Life, there is a perfect “Linden” dollar to real-world money exchange rate. By way of gold farmers, there is an exchange rate for other MMORPG worlds as well. Virtual money and real money being confused and intertwined, as in Halting State, is already a reality.

Some of the technology in Halting State is also very interesting, and I expect (and hope, a little bit) to see it in the future. There are glasses that people can wear, allowing them to access a HUD or desktop kind of interface wherever they are, and especially allowing a screen with video games images to be that much closer to the eyes, bring you into the world. Glasses already exist that project what seems to be a huge screen to the eyes, but they are still cumbersome, and you could not wear them, say, while walking down the street. In Stross's future, you can access you e-mail using your glasses as a screen, and your fingertips as a virtual keyboard – as long as there is internet floating around. I think the virtual keyboard will take more time to create, but internet being readily available all over the world (and having trouble finding in in places) is already a reality. Employees need to check their e-mail whenever they can, and gamers want to be that much closer to the action. Similar to many other computer technologies, I think that these glasses will be first made for gaming, then will be acquired by others to use for military reasons or business reasons.

Another technology talked about in Stross's future is “CopSpace”. A play on words off of MySpace, CopSpace allows the police to access the internet for retrieving information about an area, and then display that information over their glasses and thus onto the whole world, in perspective. As the internet becomes more and more filled with accessible information, the police and higher defense forces will have to rely more and more on the internet. I think that data being access from multiple terminals (namely, a paying users) will also soon become a reality because of the huge cost of server space. The technologies explained in Halting State do not seem that far off from what the near future might bring us. What is most likely to happen very soon, as in Stross's future, is an influx of MMORPG players. This, we have already started seeing in recent years, especially as we sit at the tip of the upcoming release of yet another expansion to World of Warcraft. The Koreans have developed dozens of MMOGs, from sword-slasing to kart racing to golf – realizing the income value of these games. The Americans, and the Japanese to a smaller extent, have developers spending millions in designing these games, only to get all of the money back, perhaps more than tenfold. Gaming is enhanced tremendously when you throw real people into the mix. Suddenly, you are not just saving a princess, you are saving your friend that you have quested with for years; you stormed keeps with her, you discovered new towns with her, you know her life story. The connectivity and the huge, alternate universes available to gamers will only increase as time goes on.

The technology seen in Stross's novel are very likely to become a reality, sooner rather than later. Halting State's fears will become more of a reality as well. The line between virtual space and real life will become more blurred, especially as more and more people spend their time in virtual worlds instead of real ones. Virtual worlds are becoming a source for income as well as entertainment – and these virtual worlds cannot avoid being victims of criminals – something that will affect the real world. It won't be so bad, though, you can always start up a new game. Right?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Painting with a New Kind of Paintbrush

Journal Entry No. 7

After a long wait, LittleBigPlanet has finally been released. I have been involved in the community of LittleBigPlanet recently, both in forums and on some official websites. The game, developed by Media Molecule, is a video game that relies heavily on user created content, so it is not surprising that a strong community has been born because of the game, and several issues about creativity and good content have also arisen.

LittleBigPlanet is a video game for the Playstation 3 that allows anyone to create their own levels. The game is a 3D platformer, and initially comes with a good number of developer made levels – all very complex, creative, fun, and interesting. Each one has a very different feel or theme to it – whether it be strolling through the jungle, riding a taxi in the city, or helping two skull people to get married, each one has its own feel. Even though there is variety, everything feels “constructed.” A car is not a car: it might be a cardboard box, painted to look like a car, that moves when a switch is pulled to make the wheels spin. Suddenly, you might realize it: every level is created with the same tools they give the player for user creation. The tools are vast and varied, but simple enough to allow anyone to access them. Suddenly, level creation feels like a game.

This is good and bad. Suddenly, thousands of people who have no experience with level design are suddenly level designers. There are already dozens and dozens of levels published, accessible to anyone who plays the game. There is a surprising amount of ingenuity to be found, but there is also a lot of poorly put together, dysfunctional messes. Of course, there has been a community response to this. It is interesting to see so many definitions of creativity. Many levels are based completely on level designs from other games: Mario Bros., Mega Man, etc. Is it creative, or should it be praised, to only recreate levels from other games using different tools? Is level design an art form - like painting or, perhaps more closely akin, like creating in 3D? There are also an incredible number of "fan-boy" levels that do not steal from another game, instead they take some general ideas from another game, or perhaps movie, and incorporate into their levels. For example, a user created Metal Gear Rex monster from Metal Gear video games, or a DeLorean in a Back to the Future themed level. Some fantastic work has been put into several of these themed levels, but some (not all) of the community agree that the best content are the designs that comes straight out people's heads. It is easy to tell if a user has spent a lot of time creating his or her level – even this early on. Some levels rely only on the user's imagination – and a few of those are some of the most impressive levels to be seen in the world of LittleBigPlanet.

The community of LittleBigPlanet have also been through some other issues. The game was originally dated to be released on October 21st, but because of some arguably malicious lyrics quoted from the Qu'ran in a licensed song, Sony decided to recall all of the discs and release the game a week later (in the U.S.). So, discussions of acceptable content, especially in a game with an “E” for everyone rating, began. There are ways to report user created levels if people use the tools to create offensive content, but it is unfortunate that these limits have to exist. Give a hundred people a pencil, and some of them are going to draw something vulgar. But what about the rest of the lot? Are people generally creative? If you give someone the tools to make a masterpiece artwork, would he be able to do it?

I'm optimistic about LittleBigPlanet's future. Before the game was released, many critics argued that general players would not have the creativity to develop enough interesting levels to keep the game alive. So far, I am seeing that the critics are very wrong. Amazing creativity is still a rarity, as in any art form, but LittleBigPlanet shows that just because you are not a professional does not mean it cannot be done well. It is, however, difficult to find a well created level, like finding a needle in a haystack, but the developers have said that “the cream will rise to the top.” After enough time, the best levels will be seen more often than the poorer ones. I hope that in the future the users that really put time into creating the most creative levels possible will have their chance at LittleBigPlanet stardom, and everyone else will be able to find and enjoy these gems.

I really think LittleBigPlanet is as close to a new art form as a video game title can hope to get. This seems like an evolution from Nintendo's Mario Paint, and even Maxis's recently released title, Spore. I hope more titles appear in this same vein, allowing games to hang on the user's creativity. Whether it's using a paintbrush or using virtual rods and gears to get a monster machine to roar, there are creative people out there, and I think LittleBigPlanet, and the community supporting it, is proof of this.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Online Interactivity and Social Networking: Warhammer Style

Journal Entry No. 6

Social networking has improved tremendously over the past recent years. I think massively multiplayer online games are an extension of this growth. First, in the early days of AOL Instant Messenger, people could jump into different chat rooms that are separated by different tastes. For example, car mechanics could join the same chat room and instantly have something in common with everyone else in the chat room. Forums were (and are) the same idea. Second Life, I believe, was another step. People suddenly had three dimensional avatars to portray themselves: and, instead of chat rooms, there were huge, 3D worlds to socialize in. Car mechanics could suddenly go to a world full of other car fans, and people interested in virtual slavery could find a world for them. Still, all of these tools still allowed people to be anti-social. What if a tool, or a game, forced you to be social?

I think MMORPG's have successfully done just that. Of course, there is the way MMORPG systems link people together in parties: damage dealers need tanks, tanks need healers, and healers need tanks. Playing Warhammer Online, I have realized that other systems exist in MMORPG worlds: and in Warhammer, the system is really cool.

As my little goblin character, I eventually made it to the gigantic hub of all evil characters: The Inevitable City. Despite the morbidity of the dark city, it felt very alive. Monsters lurked just outside the city walls, which were made up of huge black spikes; shopkeepers stood waiting and calling for you; people bustled all over; goblins were seen tricking some orcs in a game of dice. After exploring the city a little bit, I found some fellow guild mates. I also saw some players were of other guilds, with whom we had sort of a rivalry (though, later, we would end up forming an alliance with them. Keep your enemies close and all that). Soon afterwards, there was a lot more talking in the area. The forces of Destruction (that's us) were very successful, since the launch of the game, to be able to capture most of the keeps in the game. Anyone can check on the keeps at any time on the map: red for Destruction, blue for Order. Suddenly, as people in the Inevitable City were clamoring over, many of the red symbols were blue. First, it was just one. No problem. But then there was one right after the other – in a span of about 15 minutes, Order had become organized enough to take over the forces of Destruction in four different keeps. Parties were soon being formed in the City: my guild members and I were soon a part of warband of two other guilds, but our goal was the same. Get back the keeps.

We were lucky enough to first go after a keep with relatively low defenses. Soon afterwards we ran to another keep, and entertainingly enough defenders of the last keep died trying to follow us. After some great battles and some good leadership we knocked down the door of the next keep and took it over after a bit of work. We got three keeps back that night, but by the time I went to sleep, the forces of Order were already pushing back. After our third keep, though, the first keep we got was already blue again. On our march back there, we had encountered a gigantic Order war party. Our little band of heroes was no match for them, though we kept trying. As fun as success was, I felt that the defeat brought our three guilds even more so together, and the main similarity between us grew even stronger: we needed to kill the other guys.

Many people still feel that feelings can never be represented on a computer, and that no one can really socialize with a computer. An article about the first interactive video art installation states that “some people feel that computer systems will eventually reflect the personality and biases of their users. Yet these systems only appear to talk back. That they are alive or independent is an illusion. They depend upon the architectural strategy of the program” (The Fantasy Beyond Control, Lynn Hershman, page 3). I think things like Second Life and Warhammer Online have drastically changed this outlook: no long is there a false illusion of computer systems talking back. Now, experiences can depend totally on other people, on totally organic living people, perhaps on the other side of the world. One person is looking at another person's 3D avatar, made by a 3D artist and programmed by a programmer, existing on computer functions, but the feelings and actions of that avatar are led completely by its user. Thus, personality and biases are reflected in these avatars, in these computer systems. Programs like Warhammer Online bring people together towards a common goal, and force people to socialize. The more people talk, the better organized the team will be, and the more likely that team can take over a keep or whatever needs some good taking over. This comes close to being even more of a social interaction that some real life experiences. Walking in the middle of New York City, for example, no one talks to you unless you talk to them first, usually. The same as in the Inevitable City. But in the Inevitable City, a large portion of the City might suddenly band together in defense of their keeps. Still, these avatars are still goblins and dwarves. In the future, avatars, I think, will become more responsive and controllable to the user's personality with appropriate, smooth, facial expressions and the like. Often times, though, I feel more at home being a goblin anyway.