abcurlew

abcurlew has written 31 posts for Play Till Doomsday

On Doomsday, CultureGET and the Nerdiest of Mafias

Over the past few months, I’ve been left radio silent for a host of not so interesting reasons.  But now I’m back, ready to provide more insights into the intersections of digital games, play and culture for which Play Till Doomsday has come to be known.

I’ve also started contributing to CultureGET, a catchall blog site covering the wide swath of “pop-culture awesomeness” in Toronto.  I’ll be primarily writing about games, but may try to sneak in some posts about music, books, movies and food, my schedule permitting.  Check out my first post, featuring my impressions of Microsoft Canada’s recent Gears of War 3 Beta event.

Finally, I’m happy to support (and join) the Toronto Nerd Mafia initiative, as spearheaded by the guys from Slothy Productions / Lazy Reviewzzz, in an effort to create a collective that empowers the amateur and/or independent pop culture media scene in Canada.  See the Nerd Mafia Facebook page for more info.

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NPR’s ‘On the Media’ Covers Gaming

The latest episode of WNYC/NPR’s On the Media radio show concerns the cultural and technological influence of digital games.  The show features input from New York Times Magazine technology writer Clive Thompson, games historian Steven Kent, and Kill Screen’s Jamin Brophy-Warren, among others.  Like CBC.ca’s “Pushing Buttons” feature last fall, it is very nice to see digital games addressed in the mainstream press with thoughtful attention.  Archived audio, in .mp3 form, as well as episode transcripts are available now.

Part 1: The Influence of Gaming                                                                                                            
Part 2: How Nintendo Saved the Video Game Industry                                                                     
Part 3: The Culture of Gaming                                                                                                               
Part 4: The Future of Gaming

From the Halls of Gamercamp 2010: An Impromptu, All-Star Video Podcast

The recording process. Photo © Ryan Couldrey

On November 14th, from the bustling halls of Gamercamp Lv2, some key members of Toronto’s games media sisterhood came together to record an impromptu video podcast.  Featured here is Toronto Thumbs’ Jorge Figueiredo, Don Tam of GameNorth, freelancer Dana Russo, who contributes to both Thumbs and GN, Comics & Gaming Monthly’s Eric Weiss, Electric Playground’s Shaun Hatton and me, Brady Curlew’s Brady Curlew.  Look out for epic cameo appearances by Zen Rankin’s Super Mario Bros. vest and chiptuners Anamanaguchi.

Since this recording was rather spur of the moment, it’s a nice mix of playful irreverance and insightful, in-the-moment commentary about this year’s Gamercamp.  Indeed, we share our thoughts on everything from Mathew Kumar’s pointed Gamercamp keynote which furiously critiqued the state of the gaming press to the corporate evils of those who manufacture Lucky Charms cereal.  Residents of Moose Jaw, SK should observe the following with several grains of salt. 

Above photo courtesy of Ryan Couldrey.  Check out more of Ryan’s Gamercamp photos on Flickr.

The Retroist of Rebirths: Tennis for Two

Tennis for Two, developed in 1958, is among the candidates for the world’s first video game.  However, outside of a modified, necessarily-inauthentic reconstruction from original circuit schematics in 1997, Tennis for Two has not been playable in its original form since the late 1950s.  According to Peter Takacs of the Brookhaven National Laboratory, where the original game was developed by physicist Willy Higinbotham and engineer Robert Dvorak a half-century ago, that is about to change.

Takacs posted today on Brookhaven’s Bits & Bytes blog that after some rigorous searching and restoration work, authentic vacuum-tube computer components are being added to the 1997 retrofit.  This will recreate Tennis for Two in its “original 1958 state.”

Here’s hoping the end product is made publicly accessible.  If it is through history that culture is grounded, then there is no better way to strengthen cultural acceptance then revisiting the catalysts that make it so.  For digital games or otherwise.

Pilgrimage to Upton, New York anyone?

2011 Canadian Game Studies Association Conference CFP

The Canadian Game Studies Association’s annual conference will take place in Frederiction, New Brunswick from May 30-31 as part of the wider Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences.  The annual CGSA event is the premier digital game studies gathering in this country.  This year’s theme is “Coasts and Continents: Exploring People and Places.”  See the call for presentation proposals below for more info:

We invite both national and international paper proposals on digital games research, broadly defined. In keeping with this year’s Congress theme, we also encourage work that examines game and player boundaries and boarders, spaces and places, whether that be in Multiplayer Online Spaces or in the space and place of everyday lives, from couches in living rooms to massive gaming LANs or the furthest reaches of mobile augmented reality play.

Please send an extended abstract of no more than 500 words for paper proposals, or a summary of a proposed panel of no more than 1,000 words to your 2011 Conference Co-Chairs, either Suzanne de Castell or Nick Taylor by Feb 10, 2011.

Looking forward to seeing you in the Maritimes!

– Your friendly neighborhood CGSA

Gamercamp Lv2 Wrap Up Interview: Mark Rabo & Jaime Woo

On Sunday November 14th, as Gamercamp Level 2 was winding down, Comics & Gaming Monthly’s Eric Weiss, GameNorth’s Don Tam and I spoke with event organizers Mark Rabo and Jaime Woo.  For the uninitiated, Gamercamp is a now-annual celebration of the art, creativity and community involved with games in Toronto, featuring everything from developer presentations to retro gaming stations to a nostalgic cereal breakfast at which attendees were encouraged to wear pyjamas.  Over the course of our time with Mark and Jaime, we discussed the roots of Gamercamp, their thoughts on the Toronto video games community and what the future holds for their event.  Finally, the pair revealed details to us about the recently announced Gamercamp Jr.

Brady Curlew: We’d like to have a general, post-event discussion with you guys to get your impressions about Gamercamp Level 2.  How do you think the weekend went?

Jaime Woo: Mark and I are very proud to have organized this year’s Gamercamp.  We tried to listen to what people wanted, and it seems now like people liked what they experienced. 

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Guest Thoughts: The Play is the Thing

By Eric Weiss, Comics & Gaming Monthly

Back in August, Brady and I conducted an impromptu interview with Jeff Cannata (Reviews on the Run, amongst other things), and certain parts of that conversation have been kicking around in my head for a while now. For reference, Brady said:

Games in general…are already accepted as culture and recognized as having social meaning and value.  They’ve been around as long or longer than visual representation, if we see that as the root of art, and are tied to an inherently natural system of play.  Games are the formalization of play, and play exists beyond human behaviour since it’s found in animals. 

As a game journalist, I get paid to dissect and comment on all manner of games and game-related news. It’s a fun job, but it’s still a job, and I spend most of my day doing things other than playing games in order to justify a career that involves playing games.

I bring this up because while the impulse to play may be natural, our actual process has become increasingly artificial, especially when measured against other living creatures. For instance, one of my current roommates happens to have a puppy, and her uncomplicated daily routine makes video gaming seem arbitrary.

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Signs of Doomsday: The Games & Culture Week in Review

In order to focus on providing original content for readers without missing news and insights from other sources, Play Till Doomsday will now feature a regular “week in review” post each Saturday linking to recent stories about digital games and their cultural implications.  This is not necessarily an endorsement of the perspectives taken or ideas expressed in each link, just that they are nonetheless worth sharing.  So here we go:

If you feel something is missing or have a suggestion for a link to include, send a tweet to @abcurlew!

Exserpico 2: Sierra’s ‘Disney’ Issue and the Selective Limits of Conceptual Influence

“I sincerely hope that Activision-Blizzard can appreciate this tribute to these game franchises (as their original creators such as Al Lowe do), and not ask me to close down the site due to copyright issues.” Martin Kool, creator of Sarien.net, a website which allows in-browser emulation of classic Sierra adventure games

What follows is another short excerpt of my academic work on games, ripped from its analytical context! This piece is taken from a chapter of my PhD Dissertation, entitled Play / Counterplay: The Cultural Politics of Digital Game Modification. It mentions the cease and desist challenges faced by The Silver Lining, a fan made extension of Sierra Entertainment’s King’s Quest series. What appears here was written in fall 2009 and spring 2010, when the fate of The Silver Lining was in question. It has since been released in episodic form.

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Gamercamp Plays With Toronto – November 13-14

In 2001, author Ray Bradbury gave an interview to Salon.com in which he suggested video games were “a waste of time for men with nothing else to do.”  Since Bradbury’s judgement is undeniably true, it means the many men who invest time in the culture of digital games are free on the weekend of November 13-14, 2010.  I wonder if women players are free then as well?

Let’s hope so, because that just happens to be when Gamercamp Level 2 plays out in Toronto.  The enchanced sequel to last year’s inaugural event, Gamercamp 2010 promises to be an insightful and entertaining celebration of games, game makers and game players.  

The weekend includes twenty-five speakers, including keynote presentations by Jim Zubkavich, creative mind behind UDON Entertainment, Stéphane Boutin, artist behind the look of Ubisoft’s recent Scott Pilgrim game, exp publisher and journalist Mathew Kumar, as well as the dream team behind the upcoming Swords and Sworcery iOS game.  Also featured are talks by, among others, Untold Entertainment’s Ryan Henson Creighton, OCAD’s Emma Westecott, IGDA Toronto’s Lesley Phord-Toy and a host of local indie game development talent.

However, far from being a simple industry event, Gamercamp taps into games as conduits of play that tie together developers and players.  Unlike events that focus only on the technical or economic side of gaming, Gamercamp provides an opportunity to bridge the distance between creaters and audiences by being designed to provide insight and context about games and their makers, something organizers liken to the DVD commentaries for films.

I asked Gamercamp’s founders Mark Rabo and Jaime Woo about the root motivations behind organizing an event that aims to provide such context and commentary about digital game culture, while providing opportunities for attendees to engage with, learn about, and get inspired to create games. 

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Metroid’s Sexism – A “Cultural Misunderstanding?”

Bitmob community writer Gil Lawrence de Leon has posted an interesting (albeit contentious) article about the recent criticisms that label Samus’ characterization in Metroid: Other M as sexist.  The approach taken suggests Western notions of sexism are not at the root of “new” Samus’ submissive traits.  Her characterization, suggests Lawrence de Leon, is the result of Eastern traditions of adolescent capitulation to established authorities, thus making the “sexism” critiques part of a “cultural misunderstanding.”

When read alongside Abbie Heppe’s Metroid: Other M review and Michael Abbott’s detailing of the backlash to it, does the Bitmob piece, as well as the comments it has so far generated, successfully reconfigure the “sexist” critique? Or does it end up supporting the very cultural dichotomies it aims to challenge?

What a Quarter Century Means: The NES Turns 25

NES ad from The New York Times, fall 1985.

Twenty-five years ago, the Nintendo Entertainment System debuted in the United States, while Canada would see the NES four months later.

Nintendo’s little grey box is significant not only for being a catalyst for digital play for many people who still stomp Goombas today, but for resurrecting what had become a broken industry in North America following the 1983 video game market crash.

The NES would eventually sell over sixty million units worldwide, twice as many as the previous dominant hardware, the Atari 2600.

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Ninja on the Playground: A Conversation with Shaun Hatton

Shaun Hatton is a cultural reciprocator: both the product of and contributor to video game culture.  A life-long player, Shaun is a co-founder of Canadian games blog Toronto Thumbs and a current host and producer for Greedy Productions’ Electric Playground.  Outside of these endeavours, he’s also a musician with Toronto band Cobra, spinner of records as DJ Finish Him and reluctant computer game coder.  Above all, he’s a passionate proponent of the best that pop culture has to offer, as well as an outspoken critic of its downsides.

Hatton was, however, not an easy person for me to interview in a conventional manner.  We are both prone to tangents, prone to meandering thoughts that reflect our ardent perspectives, opinions and judgments about games and gaming.  As such, despite not knowing him before this meeting, my time with Hatton unfolded more like a conversation with a friend than a conventional interrogation.  This is definitely not a criticism, but it does produce more topical twists and turns than my usual interviews.

Here Hatton and I playfully zigzag through a discussion about video games as culture and tools for identity formation, the state of Canadian games media and how to implement Canadian content into game narratives, all the while working in mention of Centipede, Phantasy Star and deer electrocution.  Enjoy!

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Exserpico 1: A Master’s Thesis About ‘The Sims’

 

Simulation offers us the greatest hope of understanding.  When a world, our world, is far too complex to be understood in terms of first principles, that is to say, when the world is too complex for the human mind to build it as a mental construct…  the computer offers us the hope that through simulation we may gain another handle of understanding. – Computer enthusiast “Rafe,” as quoted in Sherry Turkle’s Life on the Screen (1995: 46)

What follows is an excerpt from the introduction of my MA thesis about The Sims and cultures of simulation. It was written in 2003/2004, before the release of The Sims 2. Six years later, how does it hold up?

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Nuit Blanche 2010: Chiptunes and an Arcade Renaissance

Digital games were the focus of at least two Toronto Nuit Blanche events I took in this past weekend, both testament to the cultural reach of games and significance of classic gaming hardware.

Just in front of Old City Hall, a collective of young chiptune artists called the Game Boy Guerrilla’s staged a chiptune “mega show,” featuring nine local acts including bossFYTE, jefftheworld and DJ Eastern Blok.  Chiptune music, for the unfamiliar, is made by using modified game hardware as synthesizers, taking advantage of the unique audio possibilities offered by the sound chips of classic game systems such as the NES, Atari 2600 and Game Boy, among others.

During the mega show sets, the repurposed blips and bleeps of cherished 8-bit video games were more than enough to stoke the interests of Nuit Blanchers, poaching much attention from the thousands of people checking out the Daniel Lanois Later That Night At The Drive-In soundscape next door.

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IN|10 Feature: Speaking with EEDAR’s Jesse Divnich about Business, Culture and Canada

If you’ve read the about page for Play Till Doomsday, you know that the approach we’ve taken to address the culture of digital games is all-encompassing.  This project aims to bring together the different perspectives of all the individuals, communities, institutions and companies that weave together the fabric of digital games culture.

Obviously, some of the different parts that make up that culture don’t always see eye to eye.  This is no more apparent than in the relationship between the businesses who aim to make profit from selling games and those who aim to approach games as something more than just consumer goods, as creative expressions or objects of cultural significance.  One of the mandates of the PTD project is to reach out to all sides and get them to share perspectives with each other and foster understanding about how the economic and creative aims of any cultural industry are often intertwined, even if at odds.

At the recent Interactive Exchange 2010 (IN|10) conference in Toronto, I spoke with Jesse Divnich about how the financial side of the digital games industry conceives of games as cultural artifacts, how its analysts may fit into a wider culture of gaming and what impact Canadian consumers have in the games marketplace.

Divnich is the vice president of analyst services for Electronic Entertainment Design and Research (EEDAR), a games industry research and market analysis company based in San Diego, California.  Before joining EEDAR, Divnich worked as an independent consultant and analyst for various clients with financial stakes in the interactive media industry.  By most accounts (if his multiple appearances on and references in Bloomberg, CNN Money, Wall Street Journal, Industry Gamers and Gamasutra are to be indicators of clout) he’s good at what he does.

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Help us Rock Out for Charity in Toronto!

In conjunction with Toronto Thumbs, Play Till Doomsday is working to promote an upcoming charity event supporting Child’s Play in Toronto.  But we need the community’s help (particularly in finding a venue)!  The following is written by Jason Wesley, organizer of the fundraiser:

With the holidays fast approaching, my mind turns to charity. I’m sure that many of our readers are aware of Child’s Play; every year, I have always donated a game or two, always amazed to see my contributions being part of a much bigger machine: one which makes my heart swell.

I’m fairly certain that by relation, our readers are aware of the endurance marathon known as Desert Bus For Hope. Last year, I drew up a charity project in the same vein as Desert Bus, but used Rock Band 2 instead. A couple of friends and I were scheduled to play Rock Band to the tune of $5 per song. We had set up a projector at work and played from 5 in the afternoon until 11 that night, raising exactly $500 and a bag of non-perishable food for the Food Bank. The team had an incredible time playing; knowing that everything went to a good cause just made the evening even better. Rock Band 3 will be coming out in only a couple of weeks, and with that, the playlist expands, as does the number of participants.

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By Any Other Name: Thou Art Thyself, Though Not A “Gamer”

A recent survey commissioned by casual game producer PlayFirst found that 60% of women who play digital games do not self-identify as “gamers.”

This speaks to the stigmas and stereotypes attached to the “gamer” label, as well as the gulf between the imperfect categories of casual players and hardcore players.  The perception of gaming as solely the domain of lonely, overweight men who’ve wasted their lives in front of flickering screens is apparently enough to prevent many female players from wanting to be associated as enthusiasts of the very same medium.

Why is this the case?  The Escapist’s Yahtzee Croshaw puts it better than I can:

“[G]amer” is a label, and whenever a label is used, an image of the stereotype attached to that label flips up unwarranted into your unconscious mind. Anyone who identifies as a “gamer” will create a very specific image in the mind of the layman. Probably something somewhere between one of the Columbine killers and that shouty German kid from YouTube. Or a sweaty, fat, neckbearded manchild weeping over their Aeris body pillows (or is it Aerith? I can never remember)…

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Games, Culture and a Quest for Meaning

A recent Toronto Star story about the accomplishments of the Canadian games industry details how economic support from governments has fostered a strong and growing game development sector within Canada, while tax breaks have enticed foreign publishers to set up shop in cities like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, bringing thousands of highly sought after info-economy jobs with them.  However, after noting the technical competence and multi-billion dollar prowess of the Canadian interactive media industry, the story laments that “the video game is a medium still searching for cultural legitimacy,” in Canada and in general.  The piece wraps up by suggesting that the “video games industry has found the money” but “its quest for meaning continues.”

This perspective supports a very generalized theory about the mainstream acceptance of creative industries that I’ve mentioned here before.  For a form of pop culture to receive mass acceptance and respect, and to flourish financially and creatively, the theory suggests that it must satisfy at least three conditions:

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Canadian University Compiling Video Game Collection

Comics and Gaming Monthly, via the Calgary Herald, has reported that the University of Calgary is currently compiling a video game collection for their library:

The University collection should open in March of 2011, and will include game content ranging from the Atari all the way up through the XBox 360 and the Wii.  Signing out games will be as easy as signing out books, and the library will also be adding enclosed multimedia rooms where faculty and students can join forces for intellectually stimulating games of Rock Band.

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