2011

A Year in Toronto

Toronto Map

First off, a bit of backstory. In July of last year I graduated from Liverpool John Moores University with a degree in Interactive Media. Straight away I had a two week placement working at Conker Media on content for the Hollyoaks Music Show (which was weird seeing as I refuse to watch anything to do with Hollyoaks). After that I kept up the job search and had another two week placement at Creative Lynx but no solid job offers.

Around the same time as the placement at Creative Lynx I became aware that I could apply for a 12 month Canadian work visa through BUNAC. Canada is a country I’ve visited many times as I have relatives near both Vancouver and Toronto as well as a very good friend who is also from Toronto. So after rushing through the application process I was granted a visa.

So now it is my last weekend before jetting off to the mysterious land of Toronto, Canada (yes I have watched Scott Pilgrim way too many times already) and I have decided that while I’m there I will try to take at least one photo per day and make at least one blog post per week. Maybe if I get into the routine I’ll actually be able to keep this going. I’m well aware that I’ve had a few ideas like this in the past which have lasted all of three days. Hopefully I will stick with this one because it would be nice to document this year abroad not just for myself, but also for friends and family.

I’m counting this as the first of the weekly blog posts. I’ll start doing the photos on Monday when my trip begins with a drive down to London (the flight itself isn’t actually until Tuesday but I have to check-in at 9am and not staying the night in London would mean an annoyingly early drive from Liverpool). I’m also tentatively planning on redesigning this blog bit-by-bit as I go.

I’m really excited for the trip but there is definitely a small part of me which is slightly nervous (although planning has gone pretty well so far in terms of a place to live and possibly even a job already). If I fail to keep up with this Project 365/52 thing I give you permission to beat me with sticks.

08/01/2011

Posted in Toronto

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Are Games “Beneath Popular Culture”?

An Interactive Media Essay

Almost since their inception, videogames have been met with rampant prejudice, legislation and stigma. Indeed, they are often “beneath popular culture”. This is usually related to violence, children and education, or diminished social skills.

(Southern, 2001)

Introduction

In 2009, UK videogame software sales totaled £1.612 billion with console hardware sales amounting to £1.06 billion, while in 2008 US entertainment software sales reached $11.7 billion.

In this essay I will argue whether games can now be considered a part of popular culture, as opposed to “beneath”, it after the industry’s rapid growth over the past few years. I will also look at the negative portrayal of videogames in the press due to tragic incidents such as the Columbine High School massacre and controversial games such as Manhunt and the Grand Theft Auto series. I will also look at the lack of proof for a link between children playing violent games and exhibiting violent behavior, and the possibility of confusion between statistical correlation and causation.

The social aspect of videogames is another important topic with the popular Massively Multiplayer Role Playing Game “World of Warcraft” surpassing 11.5 million users in late 2008. I will discuss this topic in terms of co-operative and competitive play and whether this can have a positive or negative effect on children. I will also look at the opportunities for using videogames in educational environments and how games could be used to enhance the learning experience for children.

Are Games Really “Beneath Popular Culture”?

In its beginnings, cinema and film were considered a novelty by many people. The movies of the time were mostly seen during travelling exhibitions or as acts in vaudeville shows. Kinetoscope viewing parlors began to open in a similar way to videogame arcades did almost 100 years later on.

Films were considered by many to have little artistic merit and struggled to gain respect among academics of the time. However, over the years the popularity of cinema exploded and became a major part of the popular culture of the time. The comparisons which can be made with the videogame industry are obvious: Many people refuse to believe that videogames should be considered an art form and academic interest in the industry has only taken off in the last decade.

It can also be shown that videogames have exploded into our current pop culture in the past few years. Videogame software sales in the UK have increased every year, apart from a dip in 2009 which can be attributed to lower average retail prices and the worsening of the economy. However, “total sales of all videogames software amounted to £1.621 billion” (ELSPA, 2010) and consistent sales indicate that this is not a decline in the industry. “Overall, in 2009 UK consumers bought a total of 74.6 million videogame units – which works out at more than one per person in the UK” (ELSPA, 2010).

Further proof that videogames are becoming more ingrained in pop culture comes from the release of Activision’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 which became the first videogame ever to top amazon.com’s best-sellers chart in 2009 selling 1.23 million units in the UK during its first 24 hours on sale (ELSPA, 2009). Activision claimed that the launch of Modern Warfare 2 was “the biggest launch in history across all forms of entertainment”.

Nintendo managed to spur on the popularity of videogames in 2006 with the release of the Nintendo Wii. This console brought gaming to a whole new audience with its innovative motion control system and simple, pick-up-and-play style games shipping 56.14 million consoles as of 30th September 2009 (Nintendo Co., Ltd., 2009).

These monumental sales figures clearly indicate that video games should be considered part of popular culture; however videogames are still met with prejudice in terms of violence, social skills and their effects on children.

Violent Games in the Media

To seek evidence of ‘the effects of media violence’ is to persist in asking simplistic questions about complicated social issues.

(Buckingham, 1997)

On 20th April 1999, at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, Eric Harris (18) and Dylan Klebold (17) killed 13 people and left over 20 injured in a 47 minute massacre. It was widely reported that both Harris and Klebold were fans of the games Doom and Wolfenstein 3D and Harris often created his own levels for Doom which were widely distributed.

Two years after the incident families of Columbine victims filed a lawsuit against 25 companies, including Nintendo, SEGA, Sony, id Software, Acclaim, Activision, Capcom, Interplay, Eidos and GT Interactive, seeking damages of $5 billion. The lawsuit was dismissed by US District Judge Lewis Babcock.

The explanations for the killers’ actions provided by the FBI were that of psychopathology and depression, however, Jerald Block, a US psychiatrist, argues that their actions are not well explained by these diagnoses.

…these explanations for the attack have merit. Yet, one critical explanation for their rage is missing. Harris and Klebold had one thing in common, something that set them apart from others—both were immersed in the world of technology.
(Block, 2007)

Since the events in Colorado several other incidents have been speculated to be related to video games which have helped to fuel controversy around the industry. In February 2003 a 16-year-old American named Dustin Lynch was charged with aggravated murder and made an insanity defence, claiming that he was obsessed with Grand Theft Auto III. Former attorney and anti-videogame activist Jack Thompson encouraged the father of the victim to pass a note to the judge that said “the attorneys had better tell the jury about the violent video game that trained this kid [and] showed him how to kill our daughter, JoLynn. If they don’t, I will.” (Hudak, 2003) Lynch later retracted his insanity plea and his mother commented, “It has nothing to do with video games or Paxil, and my son’s no murderer.” (Hudak, 2003)

In 2007, false reports claimed that Seung-Hui Cho, the killer in the Virginia Tech massacre was an avid Counter-Strike player. However, police reports said that Cho’s roommates had never seen him play any video games and no video games were found in his room. Despite this Jack Thompson continued the claim the videogames were to blame for the incident stating “This is not rocket science. When a kid who has never killed anyone in his life goes on a rampage and looks like the Terminator, he’s a video gamer.” (Benedetti, 2007)

Despite these claims there is no definitive proof of a link between playing violent games and exhibiting violent behaviour. In fact, in the United States between 1996 and 2006 violent crime decreased dramatically while video game sales soared.

The strong link between video game violence and real world violence, and the conclusion that video games lead to social isolation and poor interpersonal skills, are drawn from bad or irrelevant research
(Kutner & Olson, 2008)

It is also interesting to note that some authors have argued that the consequences of playing violent video games are more harmful than that of other media due to the interactive nature of games. The viewer of film and television violence is perceived as a passive spectator, whereas a gamer is engaged in controlling a character and therefore has increased identification with the character and their actions and as such this may underpin the replication of such behaviour.

It should be clear that the fears about violent games are unfounded considering the number of children and adults who play these games when compared to the small minority of those individuals who commit violent crimes. The press however prefer to run with sensationalist stories as their attention grabbing headlines are more likely to sell copies of their newspaper.

It can also be argued that the results of studies which claim to show a link between violent games and violent behaviour could be confusing correlation with causation. Questionnaires use correlations to compare two measured variables and conclude whether or not there is a significant relationship present. However, although there may be a relationship between violent games and violent behaviour in this instance it may not prove that this is a causal relationship.

Our current culture is one which is obsessed with quickly finding someone or something to blame rather than looking at the circumstances behind the occurrence.

People ask why, but they never ask it right. “Why oh why did that isolated, neglected, ostracized kid with little supervision, documented psychological problems, and access to guns shoot up that school?” people ask. “It must have been the video games.”
(Sakey, 2009)

Root Cause Analysis is often used in business and consists of tools and mechanisms to identify the cause of a problem because when looking for a cause it is important that a symptom of the problem is not accidentally identified as a cause. It seems that in many cases violent games are more likely to be a symptom of a problem rather than a cause. It seems reasonable to assume that people who are predisposed to violent behaviour would also enjoy violent videogames.

While looking for things to blame perhaps it is worth looking at the parents of children who are playing violent games. Almost all videogames are age classified in a similar way to films, as such there is an easy indicator of whether or not a game is suitable for a child of a certain age. However, many parents ignore these age ratings and buy games for their children which are not age appropriate. Many violent games are not aimed at children in the same way that violent films are not aimed at children.

Parents may also be ignorant as to what kind of content the games their children are playing contain. If parents were with their children when they played certain games they may be able to provide their children with extra context or a historical framework for the events taking place within the game and as such give their child a better understanding of the game they are playing.

It is also important to consider that the majority of violent games are not violent for the sake of being violent. Violence is mostly used as a signifier of progress through a game, for example the player may have to kill people to progress to the next level. That is the disparity: it isn’t about killing the people; it’s about progressing to the next level of the game. In film and television progress is evident as the plot moves along, however in a game the user is the one driving the plot and so there has to be a way of showing the user that they are progressing in the right direction.

Violence is simply one of the easier ways of showing this progress. If a player is killing other people within the game, and keep finding more people to kill, they know that they are heading in the right direction. However, not all games use violence to show progress or momentum. Games based around the theme of stealth reward players for avoiding conflict and killing others and still manage to convey progress.

It must also be kept in mind that there is a difference between violence as an allegory for progress and violence for violence sake. Games that are violent simply because they can be, such as Manhunt and Postal, more often than not aren’t particularly fun to play and often receive poor reviews in the gaming press. Violence isn’t the only allegory for progress in videogames, it just happens to be one of the more common ones.

Mainstream press reports about the gaming industry are also skewed to the point that violent games are the only ones which are reported on. There is no mention of the hugely popular non-violent games such as Portal, a puzzle game in which the player is tasked with escaping from a testing facility using only physics and a device for creating “portals” which the player can pass through. Sports games are some of the biggest selling franchises in the industry but there is nothing controversial about playing an incredibly realistic simulation of football or tennis and so they are ignored by people who don’t play games.

Social Aspects of Video Games

The stereotype of a video game player being an anti-social loner is no longer accurate. A study in 2008 published by IGN and Ipsos MediaCT revealed that more than 75% of video gamers play with other people either online or in person. Online gaming has grown rapidly in recent years with Blizzard reporting that their Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game World of Warcraft surpassed 11.5 million registered players at the end of 2008 and Microsoft announced that their Xbox Live service had reached 17 million active members in January 2009.

Looking at MMORPG games such as World of Warcraft and Lineage the basic game design forces players to join clans and co-operate to complete quests which would be impossible when playing solo. Some of these clans are small, consisting of people who know each other in real life, however some clans are huge and consist of players from all over the globe who have never met outside of the game world.

Teenage online gamers have developed various mechanisms to cope with complex interpersonal interactions-both among game characters and the individuals who control those characters.
(Lin et al., 2003)

These games also have massive communities of players discussing and debating every aspect of the game from weapon-hit percentages and analyses of characters abilities. In the game EVE Online, the player community persuaded the company running the game to hold democratic elections for a “council” through which players can voice their concerns to the games developers. The first election took place in March 2008 with 66 candidates putting themselves forward for nine positions. In May 2008 the results showed that of 222,422 eligible voters there was a turnout of 11%.

Video Games in Education

Many games currently used in educational environments are specifically created to educate pupils and are often referred to as “Edutainment”. However I believe that “pure” games can prove to be extremely valuable in educational environments as they can be used to model real world examples of the principles or methods which the students are being taught. For example, games such as SimCity place the user in the role of a city’s mayor and their actions have consequences for the development of that city. This could be used to model economic principles and allow students to view the effects that their decisions would have upon a city’s infrastructure.

Another game which could be useful in a classroom environment is RollerCoaster Tycoon. In this game the user is placed in control of a theme park and provides a model of a real world business but in an environment which the students would find fun. In a study conducted in 2003 it was also found that some schools used RollerCoaster Tycoon to aid in the teaching of physics lessons.

This activity will provide students with the opportunity to research the history of roller coasters and the physics behind the operation of roller coasters. After the students have a good understanding of roller coaster physics, the students will use Hasbro’s computer software demo, RollerCoaster Tycoon, to design and test possible roller coasters.
(Kirriemuir & McFarlane, 2003)

There are of course limitations when it comes to using games in a learning environment. The teachers may not be familiar with the software which is used and as such they may have to learn it at the same time as teaching it to their students as well as the cost of software licenses. It may also be difficult to maintain the students’ focus on the intended learning objectives.

It is also important to note that education is not always confined to the classroom, learning occurs at home too. Video games are often described as “stupid” or “mindless” however video games engage multiple senses all at once; and even the most basic games require the player to quickly assess the situation, interpret the information given to them, prioritise that information and then come up with a solution. Games often create abstract, non-linear problem solving scenarios and yet they are often claimed to make children more stupid.

Games which are set in a historical context may also encourage the player to research that time period on their own outside of the game environment. For example, Assassin’s Creed is a game set in 1191 AD during the Third Crusade and if the player finds the setting particularly intriguing they might be encouraged to look into the Crusades in more detail. The sequel, Assassin’s Creed II, is set during the Renaissance in 15th century Italy and features many historical figures such as Leonardo da Vinci, Niccolò Machiavelli and Pope Alexander VI as well as many landmarks including St Mark’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. 

Conclusions

I believe that it is no longer correct to state that games are “beneath popular culture”. Although they are not covered in the mainstream press, apart from in controversial circumstances, the large, rapid growth of the industry, as evidenced by the amount of money spent, and units shipped indicates that video games are now well and truly part of popular culture. Games may not yet pull in the same numbers of consumers as films and television but the continual yearly growth shows that it may not be long before games reach the same numbers of people as more traditional types of media.

I also believe that it is wrong for people to assume that violent video games are a cause of violent behaviour in children. It is far more likely the violent games are merely a symptom of a larger problem but the press finds it easier to blame video games than to find the root cause of the problem. It is also possible that studies which claim to show a link between video game violence and violent behaviour are confusing statistical correlation with causation. While these studies may show a relationship between the two it is not necessarily a causal relationship.

Online gaming also helps to produce complex social interactions between individuals and while this may not be a sufficient substitute for real world social interactions it could be a very useful complement.

Games can also be used to great effect in educational environments as they allow students to implement principles, theories and methods in a model of a real world environment. Games also challenge users to solve complex, often non-linear, problems in a way which engages multiple senses all at once. However, the limitations of teacher experience, technology and cost are major factors which are likely to limit the effective use of video games in an educational environment for some time. 

Bibliography

15/01/2010

Posted in Essay, Gaming

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Film 2009

Without Jonathan Ross

2008 was undoubtedly a brilliant year for films with the releases of Cloverfield, The Dark Knight, Wall•E, Iron Man, Burn After Reading, Slumdog Millionaire, Milk, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to name just ten.

So how did 2009 do? First of all, I’ll admit that there were some major films released this year that I still haven’t managed to watch (read: Coraline, The Soloist, Public Enemies) but when Film 4 asked via Twitter what everyone’s favourite films of the year were I felt like writing down my thoughts.

Star Trek

Star Trek Screencap

I’m not what you would call a Trekkie by any means. Although I often found my eldest sister watching Star Trek when I was younger, I never became a fan of the series and so understandably I wasn’t as hyped up about this film as a lot of other people I know.

Despite this I really enjoyed JJ Abrams “reboot” of the series. Abrams managed to introduce and develop the characters in a way which allowed him to draw in non-Trekkies like myself without boring the existing fans. This was helped by a good, if at times slightly convoluted, story and some great performances from Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto and Karl Urban.

This is exactly what I wanted from a summer blockbuster and I’m looking forward to Abrams’ sequel.

District 9

District 9 Screencap

Neill Blomkamp was due to direct a film based on Halo. Luckily for everyone that fell through and producer Peter Jackson gave Bomkamp $30 million to make whatever he wanted. The result is a brilliant sci-fi film based on Blomkamp’s original short film Alive in Joburg.

While I did enjoy this film I felt that they should have kept the documentary style throughout instead of ditching it in the latter half of the film. I also felt that the final act was a bit clichéd at times although not enough to detract from the rest of the film. This is far from your standard action sci-fi however as there is a clear message to be found at the heart of the film. The previously unknown Sharlto Copely delivers an excellent performance Wikus Van De Merwe, superbly ad-libbing the entirety of his dialogue in the documentary sections of the film. I often find that having a big name actor in the lead role in a film can have a negative effect as I see them more as the actor than as the character they are playing. After seeing District 9 I’m wondering if more films should use an unknown cast.

Inglourious Basterds

Inglourious Basterds Screencap

All the trailers and marketing touted this film as starring Brad Pitt, but in reality he’s barely in it. The film’s focus is more on the stories of SS Colonel Hans Landa and cinema owner Shosanna Dreyfus with Mélanie Laurent and in particular Christoph Waltz delivering outstanding performances.

With superb dialogue, brilliant pacing, great tension and fantastic humour, Basterds marks a return to form for Tarantino after the disappointment that was Death Proof. This is definitely his best work since Pulp Fiction.

Up

Up Screencap

Pixar have done it again, again… again. In the past, Pixar’s films have seemed to me to be stories aimed at children with some adult humour sprinkled on top so that the parents who are taking their kids to see the film aren’t entirely bored. Up feels to me more like an adult story with elements of childish humour injected into it.

The early montage following Carl and Ellie’s life together is astounding and endears the viewer to Carl who otherwise may have appeared to be a quite grumpy and unlikable character. In fact, this scene was so good that it was listed as “The Greatest Moment in Movie Animation” by Total Film magazine.

Moon

Moon Screencap

Prior to Moon I had only seen Sam Rockwell in two films, his not-so-great performance in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and his pretty decent appearance in Choke. As such I wasn’t entirely sure about him as an actor going in to Moon, thankfully his performance is superb.

Moon takes on the sci-fi genre in a different way to Star Trek, proving to be a much more cerebral experience compared to Trek’s fast-paced action. The twists and turns are all revealed gradually in a way which keeps you guessing and doesn’t resort to simple shock tactics.

It feels very 2001: A Space Odyssey in terms of the overall aesthetics of the film, as well as Sam’s HAL-esque companion GERTY, but it is an homage rather than simply stealing the set designs and when combined with Clint Mansell’s score the atmosphere which is created fits the story perfectly.

So those are my favourite films of 2009, how about you?

09/12/2009

Posted in Film

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The New Xbox Experience

First Impressions on the New Dashboard

It’s that time of year again when the nights start to close in, the leaves begin to fall from the trees and Microsoft releases their annual Fall Dashboard Update (unless you live in the Southern Hemisphere in which case you can ignore the first two points). This year however, something is slightly different, and unless someone has altered the orbit of the Earth while I wasn’t watching it’s got nothing to do with the seasons.

All the talk recently (in Xbox 360 circles at least) has been about the New Xbox Experience. The term Microsoft has coined for the complete revamp of the Dashboard due to be released on 19th November. Being honest, I hadn’t been following its development that closely, but when the opportunity arose to sign up for a chance to get an early preview of the update I gladly filled in my console’s ID and just under a week later I was informed that I had been selected to take part in the preview.

On 31st October I turned on my 360 and was greeted by a familiar “Update Required” screen. After a very short download the console rebooted and I was greeted with another screen stating that an update was available. This update was the important one and after downloading the console once again rebooted. This time, after the usual 360 logo screen I was greeted with an entirely pointless intro animation which had pretty much nothing to do with the update.

Avatars

Scryypy's 360 Avatar
The first thing I was prompted to do was to pick a starting point for my new “Avatar” and was shown a selection of randomly generated characters. A quick press of the X button and a new selection of random avatars appeared. At this point the avatar you pick makes no difference apart from choosing its gender. It does appear to be possible to skip creating an avatar by opening up the new guide (more on that later) and choosing to go to the dashboard although each time you sign in you will be prompted to create your avatar.

There are a large number of customisation options for your avatar with a wide range of hairstyles, eyes, eyebrows, noses, mouths, ears, chins and facial features (freckles, scars etc.) as well as the ability to choose the height, weight and skin colour of your avatar.

After choosing your avatars physical appearance you can then dress them in what I think is a fairly limited number of clothes (although this may change with the full release of the dashboard, however it may not as Microsoft plan on opening a new Avatar Store to sell clothes and items). You are also given the option of taking a picture of your avatar to use as your Gamer Picture although you can keep using your old one instead.

Dashboard

Upon saving your avatar you are taken to the new dashboard and the first thing I noticed was that half of the background image from my dashboard theme was obscured by a large grey area (although this was to be expected if you had seen any of the screenshots which had been released). To be honest though, even on the old dashboard most of the background images were obscured by text and other menu options.

NXE Dashboard screenshot

The first major change to the dashboard is the removal of the blades system (although they’re not completely gone as I’ll mention later), replaced by navigating up and down through a list of the different pages as I’ve decided to call them. The first page to be displayed is a Welcome page with a few options providing information about the new dashboard, and also providing and an option to hide the welcome page. The other pages on offer are My Xbox, Friends, Inside Xbox, Spotlight, Game Marketplace and Video Marketplace. The My Xbox page provides access to the main features of the console, the first tab allows you to load the game currently in the tray, the second provides your Gamercard, and the others provide links to your Game Library, Video Library, Music Library, Media Centre and Console Settings.

As it stands and the minute the Friends page is entirely useless. As no one else on my friends list currently has access to the NXE there are no avatars to display although it still provides the Gamertag and the game they are currently playing. There also appears to be no differentiation between users who are online and offline and as such I find myself using the more traditional friends list accessed through the Guide.

The Inside Xbox page provides much the same as the currently dashboard link to Inside Xbox and the Spotlight page appears to be where the adverts will appear. The first two options on the Spotlight tab are completely superfluous as they are the exact same as the first two options on the My Xbox page and the rest are meant to show dynamic content dependant on your playing habits such as Video or Game Marketplace downloads it thinks you might like. The Marketplace has been split into two separate pages for the Game and Video marketplaces. While this isn’t anything major it provides a nice differentiation between the two.

The Guide

The guide appears to have been given the biggest overhaul; while the dashboard’s update is mainly cosmetic apart from a few features I’ll get into later, the guide has been completely revamped. A press of the button and you are greeted with a screen fairly similar to the old guide allowing access to friends, messages, your party (the dashboard now allows 8 person parties who can play and chat together), Chat & IM and a “Quick Launch” which essentially acts as a link to your Game Library.

NXE Guide screenshot
The major change is the addition of the old dashboard’s blades to the guide. There are blades for Games (allowing you to see your achievements and open your Games Library), Marketplace (allowing quick access to the two marketplaces, active downloads and the redeem code option), Media (for videos, music, pictures and media centre options) and Settings to change your profile, notifications, preferences and console settings.

While none of the features of the guide are new it does make it a hell of a lot easier to access some of them (and some options are easier to find through the guide than through the dashboard itself).

Other Features

A major new feature is the ability to install games to your Hard Drive to decrease load times. Another major advantage of this is that it means the console doesn’t have to access the disc drive while you’re playing meaning that the console is quieter and also producing less heat (leading to less RRoDs?). I installed FIFA 09 to the HDD and it took up 6GB of space, so if you plan on using this feature a lot you’re going to either need an Elite, a new Premium console, or you’re going to have to fork out for a standalone 120GB or 60GB HDD.

NXE My Xbox screenshot

Another, less major feature which I’ve come to like is the Gamercard option from the My Xbox page. Choosing this tab loads up a screen with the Gamercard, a link to your messages and the options for editing your profile, customizing your avatar, changing the theme and managing your account. However, what I like most is that each tab on the page shows your achievement progress for each of your games as well as the icons for the last 12 achievements you received for each game.

I can also see the new parties being a very useful option for a lot of people as it allows private voice chat for up to 8 people, which is much better than having to use in-game chat if there are more than two of you wanting to play together.

Final Thoughts

Overall the dashboard appears mainly to be a cosmetic update apart from the addition of avatars and hard drive installs (unless you’re in America in which case you get Netflix too). Personally, I prefer the new aesthetics over the old dashboard (I know a lot of people might disagree) as everything has more room to breathe making it seem less cluttered while still providing all the same options and content as before (although it might take marginally longer to navigate to them, I haven’t found this a problem so far).

Avatars don’t appear to make much impact at the minute (they appear on your Gamercard and the dashboard friends list but I’ve yet to see them anywhere else yet) their use is likely to expand in XBLA games and many of the more casual games due to be released.

Hard Drive installs are definitely a useful feature although you’re definitely going to need one of the two larger HDDs if you plan on have more than one game at a time installed. The fact that the disc no longer needs to spin in the drive (although it does still need to be in there) means that the console runs much more quietly and those with louder disc drives like myself are bound to find this a welcome respite.

In general I’m quite pleased with the new dashboard and although I know a lot of people who don’t like the look of it so far and others who are generally adverse to change (some are still protesting about the Facebook redesign) I’m fairly confident that it will at least grow on people and hopefully they can learn to like it.

P.S. Please excuse the shoddy screenshots but I don’t have a capture card in my PC so they’re all taken on a point and shoot camera (and no, that avatar doesn’t really look anything like me).

03/11/2008

Posted in Gaming

5 Comments

Peripheral Breakdown

Does anyone even test these things?

Last week I was playing Rock Band, and whilst hammering out an awesomely over enthusiastic drum solo my bass pedal snapped in half. While this only caused me a few days of inconvenience (it was surprisingly easy to get EA to send me a new pedal) it got me thinking about the multitude of hardware failures that are reported when new peripherals are released.

Image of snapped Rock Band bass pedal

The recent popularity of the Guitar Hero series of games has meant that living rooms up and down the country have become infested with plastic, guitar shaped controllers. However since the first game these peripherals have been plagued with faults, most notably the Xbox 360’s Guitar Hero II controller. The majority of peripherals shipped with the game suffered a fault out of the box which meant that the whammy bar on the controller wasn’t sensitive enough and barely worked at all. When Guitar Hero III came along the guitar was designed so that the neck of the guitar could be detached to allow for easier transportation. However the designers forgot the fact that this meant the connection between the fret buttons and body would constantly be moved and as such frequently broke. Surely if these peripherals had undergone rigorous testing, the likes of which most consumer electronics are subjected too, then these errors would have been noticed before the games were shipped? Even simple play testing of the game should have brought these faults to the attention of the companies who produced them?

Then along came Rock Band. They introduced a peripheral which you hit repeatedly, hard, and with sticks. It also has a component which you stand on quickly and repeatedly. This peripheral, however, was obviously not subjected to any kind of heavy testing. As stated earlier I’ve managed to snap the bass pedal in half (and I’m not the only person to do so as a quick search of Google will reveal) and many people have reported faults with both under- and over-sensitive drum pads. Surely play testing would also have brought up the issue that repeatedly hitting plastic pads with wooden sticks makes a really annoying noise. These issues have been rectified in the Rock Band 2 drum kit, with a metal bass pedal and quieter pads, but surely they shouldn’t have been issues in the first place? And who has room for a second plastic drum kit anyway?

This issue of a lack of testing isn’t just confined to music peripherals either. When the Wii came out there were a multitude of reports of people hurling their Wiimotes into their expensive television sets during overly enthusiastic games of bowling or golf or tennis. This wasn’t due to a flaw with the Wiimote itself, but rather the small piece of string which attached the Wiimote to the wrist band. Now the Wiimotes ship with thicker straps and more secure clasps on the Wiimote, but surely there shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place? This, again, could have been identified with the same kind of repetition and stress testing that consumer electronics undergo before they go on sale.

The most prominent and widely experienced of all the hardware faults of the current generation of gaming is the dreaded Red Ring of Death, which almost every single Xbox 360 that was sold has experienced. Microsoft is fairly lucky that the PlayStation 3 is quite expensive otherwise I’m sure more people would have jumped ship when they experienced the RRoD on multiple replacement consoles.

We consumers are spending hundreds of pounds on these pieces of technology and really, these faults should be unacceptable. It wouldn’t be acceptable if, after three months of normal use, a leg fell off your sofa; or if you bought a new bike only to find that the handlebars won’t let you turn left. It is this apparently lack of hardware testing that has cost Microsoft millions to extend their warranty on the Xbox 360 and on replacement consoles. It has also cost EA Games and Harmonix a pretty penny on replacement peripherals and free games which were offered to certain customers. Surely this money could have been spent on properly testing the hardware instead of inconveniencing the consumers when their peripherals end up breaking?

29/09/2008

Posted in Gaming, Interaction Design

2 Comments

Upcoming

Films and Games I'm Looking Forward To

The summer, or what little of it we had, is drawing to a close. The nights are getting longer, the weather is getting even worse, and soon Halloween and Christmas decorations will start appearing in the shops. However, the positives to this are that there are a fair few games and films coming out over the coming months in the build up to Christmas. Here then are some of the titles which I’m looking forward to.

Burn After Reading

The Coen brothers return after No Country For Old Men with a comedy thriller in which a disc containing the memoirs of CIA analyst Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) falls into the hands of Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand); two gym employees who intend to blackmail Cox. CIA agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) who is sleeping with Cox’s wife is assigned to recover the disc.

The Coen brothers have a habit of making films which I enjoy (The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou? to name but two) and with a cast that includes Pitt, Clooney and Malkovich I’m expecting this to be a film that gets added to that list.

Choke

Based on Chuck Palahniuk’s novel of the same name, Choke features Victor Mancini (Sam Rockwell), a sex-addicted, medical school dropout who works at a colonial theme park, who has devised a scam to help pay for his deranged mother’s hospital bills: He dines at various upscale restaurants and purposely causes himself to choke mid-way through his meal, luring a “good Samaritan” into saving his life. He keeps a detailed list of everyone who saves him and sends them frequent letters about fictional bills he is unable to pay. The people feel so sorry for him that they give him money, send him cards and letters asking him about how he’s doing, and even continue to send him money to help him with the bills.

Palahniuk is one of my favourite authors, and the film Fight Club (again based on the Palahniuk novel of the same name) is one of my favourite films. Judging from the trailer the film is going to have a different feel to that of the novel but after seeing that it has won a Special Jury Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival I’m still optimistic about it.

Quantum of Solace

Quantum of Solace is one of the few direct sequels in the Bond series and begins about an hour after the end of Casino Royale. Bond (Daniel Craig) is on the hunt for answers after Vesper Lynd seemingly betrayed him and died. The investigation leads him, via new Bond girl Camille (Olga Kurylenko), to a mysterious business man named Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric).

I was always a fan of the Bond films, but after GoldenEye the series began to get stale. Casino Royale refreshed the series although I feel this was partly due to the success of the The Bourne Trilogy and Casino Royale showed that with a similar style of action. The Quantum of Solace trailer shows that the series is keeping the Bourne-esque action whilst also keeping some of the over the top sequences which are a staple of the Bond series.

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed Box Art

Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Being both a sci-fi and a Star Wars fan (believe it or not I do know people who claim to be sci-fi fans and yet don’t like Star Wars) this game has been getting a lot of my attention recently. While I did enjoy the KOTOR games, turn based combat isn’t something I’m a huge fan of, and the amount of random wandering I did in those games did get me bored at times. From playing the Force Unleashed demo I get the feeling that the game is considerably more linear (which some people might see as a bad thing) and that it flows seamlessly into combat from the fact that you’re not limited to only using force powers and your weapons when in a combat situation.

The plot is set between Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and Episode IV: A New Hope and has you playing as Darth Vader’s secret apprentice, tasked with hunting down the last remaining Jedi after they are ordered to be killed by Emperor Plapatine. Described as being “pivotal” in Vader’s history, The Force Unleashed provides a link between the two trilogies of films.

Mirror's Edge Box Art

Mirror’s Edge

Mirror’s Edge is a game which has been receiving a lot of hype recently due to its innovative gameplay and visual style. The problem with hype is that it can lead to huge disappointments and it’s because of this that I’m trying not to get my hopes too high for this game. While I am excited about it, I’m worried that the development of the gameplay and visual style may mean that the story which drives the game is lacking, or that it could become repetitive and boring jumping around similar environments all the time. I’m definitely going to give this game a try, but it isn’t something that I’ll be running out to buy as soon as it hits the shelves.

Left 4 Dead Box Art

Left 4 Dead

A game where you play a survivor attempting to escape a zombie apocalypse is always going to entice me (and yet I still don’t own Dead Rising?). Left 4 Dead places four survivors (hence the use of the 4 in the title) in the middle of pandemic against hordes of zombies “Infected”.

While this game looks like it’s going to be a lot of fun, I expect it to really come alive with the four player co-op mode where you and three friends have to help each other battle through the hordes of Infected. That doesn’t just mean helping each other kill as many of the Infected as possible either, but also to heal team-mates, help them climb obstacles or pick them up if they get knocked over.

I see this being a game where I might not give it that much time as a single player game, but that is going to be great with a group of friends.

So there you have it; they are a few of the things I’m looking forward to over the next couple of months. What are you looking forward to? Any games you have your eye on? A film you can’t wait for? Maybe a new album that’s coming out some time soon?

06/09/2008

Posted in Film, Gaming

1 Comment

Control Yourself

A Look at FPS Controls

I was playing Rainbow Six Vegas 2 the other day, and in the middle of a gunfight I ran out of ammo. So naturally I switched to my night vision (which blinded me as I was fighting outside), crouched and back away slowly. Obviously this caused me a huge disadvantage and as such I died. This may cause you to think that I’m terrible at FPS games, and while that may be true, it’s not the main reason I took these actions.

You see, earlier in the day I had been playing Battlefield: Bad Company and if I had pressed the same buttons in this game as I had in Rainbow, I might have survived. The issue here is the different control schemes between the games. Pressing the same buttons as I had in Rainbow in Bad Company would have caused me to switch weapon and then sprint. If I had been playing Call of Duty 4 I would have thrown a grenade and then sprinted and if I had been playing Halo 3 this combination would have caused me to attempt to reload the empty weapon, before crouching.

Battlefield: Bad Company screenshot

I had a look at the default control schemes for each of these four games and found that, aside from the obvious move and look being assigned to the left and right analogue sticks, and having fire assigned to the right trigger, there was no button which performed the same function in all of the games.

I’m well aware that each game needs different controls as they each have different features, but surely common functions such as melee, sprint and switch weapon could be standardised across most games? I know that some games do allow you to change the control scheme, but there are usually a limited number of options and they only allow major changes, rather than letting you change a single button here or there.
Rainbow Six Vegas 2 weapons menu

Personally I prefer the controls used in Bad Company and Call of Duty for sprinting, and Bad Company’s simple system for changing weapons is far easier than that of Rainbow. One of the most annoying things I find about Rainbow is the grenades/gadgets. My normal outfitting contains frag and incendiary grenades, however, if I run out of my primary grenades Rainbow doesn’t automatically switch to my secondary grenades. Instead I have to hold down ‘Y’ until the menu comes up, and then switch the grenades using the (terrible) d-pad.

So is it just me being rubbish at adjusting to control schemes, or have you encountered this problem too? Should there be a standard layout for basic controls? What’s the best control scheme you’ve encountered in an FPS so far?

30/07/2008

Posted in Gaming

3 Comments

It’s Alive!

A Short Introduction

A full year and a half after the last post on the old blog, I finally kicked my arse into gear and got round to creating my new blog. A few things have happened in the last year and a half that are worthy of some kind of mention. I dropped out of my Computer Science course at Loughborough University, I moved back up to Liverpool and I started a new Interactive Media degree course at Liverpool John Moores University.

A few of the things you can expect to see cropping up on this site are posts about gaming on the Xbox 360—although PC gaming may make the occasional appearance, design, films, television, music and anything else I feel like rambling on about. Currently this site consists of the blog, an about page and a contact page. At some point in the, hopefully near, future a portfolio should be added to the list of links along the top of the page, but when exactly that will occur I’m not entirely sure.

As this is my first foray into the wonderful world of WordPress—my past sites were built on Textpattern—I’d like you to browse around and point out any kind of bugs or missing features that I may have overlooked.

If you’re one of those slightly stalker-ish internet types you can read a bit more about me and the site on the about page, check out what music I’ve been listening to recently and which games I’ve been playing in the footer on each page. Along with this you can also check my last 3 Tweets and view my Twitter profile by following the “more updates” link.

So that’s it for this short introduction. Please browse around and notify me of any bugs or oddities you encounter either with a comment, or via the contact form.

26/07/2008

Posted in Sporadic Rambling

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