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.