Monday, July 14, 2014

Blips: Crowdplayed Out?

Source: Was Twitch Plays Pokémon an anomaly or the way of the future?
Author: Dan Solberg
Site: Kill Screen

My apologies for the extended absence on this blog, but moving halfway across the country will shift your priorities around for a while. But now things are near back in order and actually looking quite promising. With any luck I'll have some exciting announcements forthcoming on Low Cutoff in the near future. Until then, let's get to the blips.

Gonna lead this off with a story of mine that was published on Kill Screen during my hiatus. It's about Twitch Plays Pokemon and the phenomenon of crowdplay. I'm not convinced that crowdplay is the way forward, but I do think it could be a way forward for thinking about play structures on a larger, sociological scale. Many of the tools being put in place to make crowdplay development tools more accessible feel aimed at recapturing TPP's energy, but I'm sure there will be folks who get their hands on those tools and use them to totally subvert that system in interesting ways. Thanks again to the people at Overwolf for contributing to my piece.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Blips: Intercapital Dilemma

Source: Big E versus Little e
Author: Josh Ling
Site: Medium

In December I wrote up a list of horrible video game buzzwords and "eSports" was included, in part because of its try-hard intercaps. That said, any hate I had was mostly due to the term, not necessarily what it stands for. Still, I found it pretty interesting to read this article by Josh Ling wherein he researches the etymology of "eSports" and why it's written so many different ways. The principal contenders are "eSports" and "esports," but there are plenty of others involving hyphens and spaces and creative capitalization. Thinking about "esports" as on a similar terminological path as "email," made me a lot more comfortable just ditching all of the caps for just simply "esports." I mean, Ling's Wikipedia link writes it that way, so it must be correct, right?

Actually, it's not a right or wrong issue, but, as Ling explains, a signifier of how long a game or organization has been in the electronic sports scene. Older groups tend to go with "eSports" while newer ones choose "esports," which falls in line once again with the "email" timeline. It's clear that branding has a lot to do with which designation is chosen as it's an instance where a decision has to be made for the sake of messaging consistency. Ling wrote his article after the company he works for made the choice too. I think this is part of what makes some outsiders reluctant to get in on esports though; the perception being that esports is about people trying to make money while a bunch of players fight for attention on their platforms. I'm not all the way on the cynical bandwagon, but I can't fault people for thinking that and seeing "eSports" as a callous cash-in. However, at the same time as the term's evolution to drop the intercaps, esports has outgrown those initial fly-by-night operations to become something much more established. I don't know, I'm still looking at this from the outside, but for what it's worth, that's the view from here.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Blips: Girly Games

Source: Girly video games: rewriting a history of pink
Author: Leigh Alexander
Site: The Guardian

Back when the NES was a current-gen console, my whole family shared it, though my older brother and I played it way more then anyone else. We had dozens of games, including two "girly games" that were supposed to be mainly for my little sister to play (she was pretty little at the time too). However, I still think my brother and I spent more time playing Barbie and The Little Mermaid than she ever did, even though she felt particularly betrayed when we eventually traded them in at Funcoland for newer titles. The Little Mermaid is a solid sidescrolling action game, and Barbie is a super weird, surprisingly tricky action-adventure title, and had I not had a sister, I doubt I'd have ever played them. That'd be kind of shame, seeing as "girl's games" are routinely dismissed as trite, poorly made, and unworthy of serious consideration. Yet ironically, Barbie and The Little Mermaid are actually pretty interesting.

In 2012, Rachel Simone Weil founded the Femicom Museum, an archive of games containing feminine design elements. Some of this archive was shown in a recent exhibition at The Visual Arts Center in Austin, Texas, where Weil constructed a kids bedroom TV setup as an image of an imaginary past, serving as a shrine to girl games and pop culture of the 90s. In a recent profile in The Guardian covering the show, Weil states that "works by or for women are so often deemed marginal or embarrassing or inadequate or inappropriate, and therefore omitted from history. And then decades later, we're wondering, ‘Where were the female writers, politicians, artists? Where were the girly games?" Weil's exhibition and the Femicom Museum come out of a desire to preserve a facet of gaming history that, even in the 90s, wasn't really given the time of day in the Western press or larger cultural recognition of the medium. Girly games are still around to some degree, and they have a genealogy. It's great that Weil is intent on providing resources for better understanding that lineage.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Blips: Energy Hogs

Source: Video Game Consoles Cost Americans $400 Million per Year — When We Aren’t Even Using Them
Author: Mandi Woodruff
Site: Yahoo Tech

At first, I wasn't surprised when I read the above statistics about the PS4 and Xbox One's gluttonous power consumption, but the more I thought about it, I wonder how they can get away with being so against the grain of the energy efficiency movement. As Mandi Woodruff notes in her report, the power usage during gaming sessions is to be expected, and runs on par with a PC, but it's the standby mode and energy drain during non-intensive tasks that's a bit bewildering. The PS4 uses 45 times the electricity of an AppleTV to run Netflix and similar video streaming apps. If console makers really want to push for their machines to be "always-on" and multi-purpose, they should really figure out ways to allow them to run at appropriately proportional power levels. Until then, all we can do is as Woodruff suggests: change your system settings to make the machine turn off when not in use and switch to a dedicated streaming box like Roku or AppleTV for simple video watching. Sheesh, even the PS2 used to have a full-stop power switch on its back. Whatever happened to those?

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Blips: New York's Finest

Source: The NYU MFA Showcase was not your average student art show
Author: Dan Solberg
Site: Kill Screen

Just putting out a bit of self promotion here: I covered the recent NYU Game Center Student Showcase for Kill Screen, and I got to play a ton of inspiring games and talk to some cool people. It was my first MFA games show, and it was pretty fun. I'd definitely attend another.

Anyway, so I ended up leaving some of my personal experience with NYU Game Center out of the article because it wasn't the proper tone, but part of the meaning behind that opening line about a lot changing in two years is that it's also the length of time I've been living in New York City. My time learning my way around the boroughs and trying to build up some kind of games coverage portfolio ran parallel with the the Game Center's debut MFA class that just graduated. Throughout the past two years, I've attended a bunch of video game events (many of them Game Center related), held all over the city, and actually got a feel for what a cultural community around games can feel like. I came here for art, but what I ended up getting the most out of NYC was games, and I think that's a testament to the openness and inclusivity at work in New York's gaming scene. Not to say that video games in NYC is a homogenous entity, but there are definitely common threads.

Now I'm getting ready to leave town, head back to the Midwest and teach art. Having spent two years in New York immersed in games, and the 2.5 years prior in DC working in informal education, I've never felt more prepared to enter the austere world of collegiate art education and try my best to offer an alternative experience to my students. When I came out of art school, I hoped, like many of my classmates, that I could find work doing something, anything that was remotely connected to art, knowing that being a full-time artist is just not in the cards. I feel tremendously lucky in this regard (despite my inability to land an art museum job in NYC, though I've interviewed at most of them) that the experiences I've had have led me to be so uniquely prepared for my position this Fall. I've spent a lot my time in NYC cursing this place, but the gaming community here was always a bright spot, and it made my stay here something I truly value.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Blips: Theatrically Inclined

Source(s): At the gates of Temple Studios: Where gaming and theatre collideThe immersed audience: how theatre is taking its cue from video games
Author(s):Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Thomas McMullan
Site(s): Eurogamer, The Guardian

Starting off the week, here are a couple articles from across the pond that center the Punchdrunk theatre group, whose recent performance, The Drowned Man, is finding common ground within the video game community. As both Jakob-Hoff and McMullan's pieces report, theatre and games actually have quite a bit in common, especially in staging/level design, making crossover function rather naturally. Punchdrunk has been putting on performances with interactive elements for years, and even inspired certain aspects of Gone Home, but The Drowned Man appears to be their most ambitious project to date.

Not only are there interactive components to The Drowned Man, but the performance takes place in a 4-story complex, with actors on different floors performing simultaneously (if I'm understanding the description correctly). So you could be opening a "prop" drawer and reading a note for additional narrative context while a soliloquy takes place above you, and another viewer is selected and pulled into a room next door for a one-on-one performance. It's the sort of show that you can't see the entirety of in just one go. And that's a key difference between working in digital and real world "theatre;" in games the action can be programmed and instanced to always make you the center of attention, and thus able to have every actor wait on your arrival to begin. But I also like the idea in live theatre that the world doesn't revolve around you; in some ways, I find there's more immersive potential in that arrangement.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Bonus Feature: Interview with Ian Cheng

Kill Screen magazine Issue #8 is currently available for purchase over here. The theme this time around is virtual reality; probably the most narrowly focused subject the magazine has tackled, but it does offer the chance to examine the technology from past, present, and future perspectives. I've contributed a piece to this latest issue as well, about how the Oculus Rift VR headset could potentially be a democratizing force for creators, the same way Sony's Portapak camcorder was for video art.

For my article I interviewed artist Ian Cheng, who works in a variety of media, digital and physical. I was particularly drawn to Cheng's work because of his use of the Oculus Rift for his piece Entropy Wrangler Cloud in which viewers don the headgear and look around in a world full of floating debris, each with its own weight and momentum, among other characteristics. As a viewer you can only exert minor influence on the objects as they bounce off of and around you. I spoke to Ian over email about Entropy Wrangler Cloud and how the Oculus Rift could fit into the art world. You can check out the full transcript of our conversation below.

LOW CUTOFF: For starters, just looking to confirm that "Entropy Wrangler Cloud" was the title of the piece you showed at Frieze that used the Oculus Rift. Have you done any work with the Rift since then?

Ian Cheng: Yes, it is called Entropy Wrangler Cloud. The work grew out of a larger series of live simulations I have been making called Entropy Wrangler. It's a set of objects and beings each with assigned with basic properties and behaviors and left in a closed system to influence each other. Entropy Wrangler Cloud takes place within the Entropy Wrangler simulation, but instead of seeing the simulation from an overview perspective, you are within it, one object among the many. The head tracking native to the Oculus is used by a viewer to assert some influence within the ecosystem, but unlike a hero-centric video game, you are an extremely minor influence among many other influences that are out of your control and affect your VR perspective.

LCO: Are there other artists that you know of, specifically outside of the "game" sphere, using the Oculus Rift in their work?

IC: No but I'm sure someone is making a 360 degree live action movie, or a 360 degree porn orgy, or a concert film. I can imagine artists, architects, and landscape designers using the Rift to previsualize an exhibition layout or space. I'm sure the Rift is being used for virtual reality therapy to treat PTSD.

LCO: I'm trying to get a feel for how widespread the influence of the Rift is in the art community, and whether or not it's the sort of device that could explode in popularity the way the handheld camcorder did for video art, or if it's too niche and destined for a quick burn. Any thoughts on this?

IC: The Rift, Avegant Glyph, and other VR devices will have to prove themselves on their own terms in their own markets to simply sustain themselves. As for the world of contemporary art, I believe more and more its task is to develop and act as interface to allow humans to relate and feel non-human experiences. The best art invents inside of us new patterns of feelings that exposes us, beyond rational consciousness, to ecosystems and abstractions that we have no other way of feeling. VR for me is an innovation to facilitate this. Whether Oculus Rift the company evolves to stay in the game or quickly burns in hype fire I have no idea. But as an innovation idea, the idea of sensorially entering a subjective perspective that is not your own, this is here for us to finally use and grow from.

LCO: Also, you hinted at this in the dis interview but it does feel like there's this window of opportunity for Oculus Rift creations prior to it's official launch that won't exist in the same form once it's commercially available. How do you reconcile the novelty of the gallery VR experience with the ideas you seek to convey in the piece itself?

IC: VR as an idea has been marinating inside us for a long time. People are conceptually ready for it. At Frieze London last year, I presented a Entropy Wrangler Cloud using the Rift. Beyond the Rift's novelty, the real trick was designing a comfortable neutral couch, very low to the ground, that helped remove the psychological barrier of stepping into the Rift. Like the way massage tables are designed, or how Freud covered his therapy couch in blankets to allow his patients to feel immersed in comfort and open. By making the Rift experience surrounded in comfortable normality, it was much easier for people to just focus on the experience of the work. The field of normality is really important with any new technology because it is what allows us to relate to its otherwise alien newness. This is usually the job of a marketing department, interface designers, and app makers, but since the Rift has not been officially launched yet and there is so few apps available for it, how this normality field is defined and who defines it is up for grabs.

LCO: It's interesting that you spoke about the couch you used for Entropy Wrangler Cloud and the idea of establishing "comfortable normality" because the Rift is such an enveloping experience that overtakes much of your real-world sensory awareness. Would Entropy Wrangler Cloud lose something essential if it were made widely available for Oculus Rift owners to download and interact with in their homes instead of within your particular installation?

IC: No, not in terms of experience of the actual work. The installation at Frieze was specific to setting the scene and luring one into the experience of the work within the context of the peak attention crisis one is subject to at an art fair like Frieze. At home, comfort and privacy are not a problem. Although it is fun to think about what the ideal furniture for VR really is and how it smells. Your body primes itself before going blind to its context and it continues to sense even when you are consciously engaged in something else.

LCO: Because of its interactivity (even if that just means putting on the headgear), art that uses VR seems very viewer-centric. While it's a long way off from the experience of a video game protagonist, viewers are still given a certain degree of agency to activate virtual spaces. Would you consider those who experience Entropy Wrangler Cloud "viewers," "players," or something else entirely?

IC: With Entropy Wrangler, people experiencing the work are also influencing the work. They are not players like in video games-- where all the action is designed around the experience of the player -- but more agents or influences. The difference is when no one is using the Rift, Entropy Wrangler the simulation continues on. You are then just dead matter to be played with in the eyes of all the other influencing agents inside the simulation.

LCO: It seems like the Oculus Rift has granted a large number of people access to VR development that hadn't dabbled in the field prior. Do you feel that the Rift provided you with an opportunity to work with VR that wasn't otherwise easily available? Was the technology easy to work with?

IC: Yes, both the cultural and technical conditions of entry into VR were too quarantined for me before. Two years ago there wasn't the same ecosystem of support--Unity, a growing audience for VR experiences, the Oculus itself -- to justify the energy and time cost to work with VR. I'm not an engineer, and I've seen too many artists get absorbed into building a technology from scratch that they lose sight of what really matters. As an artist, I have to create a situation for myself where I cannibalize and setup the tools needed with some sweat and effort, and then play can happen with relative fluidity. Whoever invented the idea of APIs had the potential of creative play in mind.