PTD Original

This category contains 21 posts

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.

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.

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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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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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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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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IN|10 Interview: Kevin Ping Chang, on the ‘Shadow of the Colossus’ movie

Along with good friend Don Tam, Editor-in-chief of GameNorth, I recently chatted with Kevin Ping Chang, production executive at Misher Films, currently developing a Shadow of the Colossus movie for Sony Pictures Entertainment.  We spoke to Kevin last week at the Interactive Exchange 2010 conference in Toronto, shortly after he was part of a panel called ‘Concept to Screen‘ which dealt with exploiting digital game IPs across multiple media forms.  Here Kevin discusses the challenges of attending to fan expectations when adapting a beloved game as a movie, Misher Films’ relationship with Team Ico and its creative leader Fumito Ueda, and whether or not Ico or The Last Guardian could get the same filmic treatment as Colossus.

It should be noted that the HD re-release of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus for Sony’s PlayStation 3, hinted at in the interview, was confirmed in Japanese gaming magazine Famitsu just a day after we spoke with Kevin.

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Diversion of the Day: ‘Sexy’ USC Video Game Survey

The pic above is a snapshot of the first few questions I was asked after opening a University of Southern California survey that aims to collect data on why and how people play digital games.  As Bugs Bunny would say: Look out for that first step, doc.  It’s a lulu.

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Culture Confirmed?: Talking Games & Culture with Jeff Cannata

Jeff Cannata might be the hardest working man in popular culture.  Besides being an actor and improv performer, Cannata is a movie reviewer, alongside Miri Jedeikin, for Greedy Productions’ Reviews on the Run.  On internet network Revision3, he is one of the co-hosts of The Totally Rad Show (TRS), a creative exploration of all things good and bad offered by the popular media environment.  If that wasn’t enough, he is part of the regular cast of Shacknews’ Weekend Confirmed gaming podcast.

Such a description might seem to put Cannata into a ‘Jack of all trades, master of none’ situation, but there is no doubt that he knows video games – which he started reviewing professionally as a teenager – and there is no doubt he has insights to offer about the cultural significance of games and their players.

Jeff Cannata sat down with Play Till Doomsday to talk about gaming culture at Fan Expo 2010 in Toronto.  With help from Comics and Gaming Monthly’s Eric Weiss, we discussed the cultural significance of shows like Fan Expo, what Scott Pilgrim suggests about the current influence of geek culture and the challenges faced by producers trying to monetize online media content, among other topics.

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IN|10 Feature: Emotional Engagement in Games

Can video games make you cry?

That was the question being asked at an Interactive Exchange 2010 panel I attended on Monday.  Admittedly, the conversation was made somewhat awkward, as panelist Mathew Kumar pointed out, by being an exploration of games as emotionally engaging objects, but also an exploration of how the games industry can exploit such engagements with those objects.   What is required for the industry to tap into potential consumers looking for emotionally stimulating experiences?  Are producers ignoring the female audience by not pushing themselves to find ways to engage the audience emotionally?

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Girls & Games: Electric Perspectives from Fan Expo 2010

How the politics of gender intersect with cultures of video gaming is something that the Play Till Doomsday project is dedicated to addressing.  This is the first in a series of features that aim to elicit perspectives on gender issues that exist within the contemporary mediascape surrounding digital games from girls and women who make, study, play, or report on games.

Of course, this topic has not gone unaddressed in academic spaces, as the wonderful work of Brenda Laurel, Mary Flanagan, Suzanne de Castell and numerous others attests, nor gone ignored in more popular spaces thanks to efforts of writers like Leigh Alexander, sites like WomenGamers.com and organizations like Woman in Games International.

However, it is undeniable that the spaces of gaming culture are not always welcoming and tolerant toward women and girls.  This reality is apparent in mainstream game designs that still feature frequently sexualized female stereotypes, the under-representation of women as playable characters, and continued usage of archaic damsel in distress archetypes.  Outside these design contentions, the place of women in gaming is also challenged, as highlighted by recent news stories about the limited role of women in game development and the all too recurrent rejection of female voices and judgements within enthusiast games media.

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Market Researcher: 17% of Social Game Players are Self-Proclaimed “Addicts”

Market data company Lightspeed Research has released the results of a recent survey pertaining to the gaming habits of players of FarmVille and other micro games found on social networking platforms like Facebook.

Along with the expected information concerning the demographic breakdown and differing motivations of those playing these “social games” comes the more interesting point that 17% of survey participants consider themselves addicted to such games.

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Fallout from a Giant Bomb?

The most devoted gamers are, unsurprisingly, also heavy consumers of games-related podcasts, videos, commentary and reviews, all things that make up the fabric of game culture to those who immerse themselves within it.  The problem for the individuals and companies who produce such content for online audiences is figuring out how to monetize it and keep themselves afloat.   Traditionally, such web-based content has been freely available, and even when supported by advertising revenue where audience attention is sold to marketers, free to access.  However, for one games media outlet, that may be changing, at least in part.

The folks behind Giant Bomb, a popular American site offering original digital games coverage and a huge, editable games database, have recently decided to implement a paid membership service, revealing that their flirtations with an ad-supported business model have not worked for them up to now.  Such attempts by a website to see positive return on its producers’ initial investments via subscription fees are not unique to this instance and other games media outlets have tried it in the past, but Giant Bomb’s fees are higher than many expected ($50 USD a year) and the perks for becoming a member are weak incentive for some, if only because they resemble features gaming enthusiasts have freely-accessed in the past.

Giant Bomb’s editors are touting their subscriber content as value-added, meaning much of their regular content will still be featured as is, remaining freely available to all.  However, they have drawn significant criticism for plans to alter one of their site’s biggest draws: The Giant Bombcast.  This podcast, which is part of a weekly ritual for thousands of gamers around the world (a fair number of whom are Canadians, according to the listener feedback), may be cut into two parts, the second of which may only be accessible to paid users, at least for the first week it is available.

A NeoGAF thread showing the severity of some of the negative fallout from this plan has generated, at the time of this writing, nearly 2000 posts in just sixteen hours.

This, more than anything else, becomes an opportunity to talk about what hardcore gamers, many of whom have grown up with freely-available, web-based games content, many of whom have never paid for a magazine or cable TV subscription, are willing to pay (if anything) to continue accessing their favourite cultural products.  Do we who immerse ourselves in the culture of digital games, enough so it usurps much of our attention from ad-supported media like television or radio, expect too much from the producers who create this content for us? Is it time, as some in the debate have suggested, to pay up or shut up?

[UPDATE: Sept 11, 2010] Whiskey Media, parent of Giant Bomb, has recently tweeted this: “The Bombcast is officially free for everyone… Forever. Thanks everyone! A replacement for subscribers (something new!) coming next week.” Bomb diffused?

Interview: Ian Kelso, president and CEO of Interactive Ontario

I spoke with Ian Kelso on Sunday, August 29 at Fan Expo 2010, shortly after he was featured as part of a panel addressing the state of the local games industry in Toronto.  Ian is president and CEO of Interactive Ontario, an interactive media industry trade organization dedicated to fostering the growth and prosperity of digital content creators within Ontario.  We discuss here the role and mandate of Interactive Ontario, government funding opportunities for interactive media creation, digital games as cultural products, the state of games at Fan Expo and industry events like it and how changing models of digital content creation and distribution may encourage more social acceptance of video games as forms of cultural expression.

Brady Curlew (BC): Can you please introduce yourself, your organization and its mandate.

Ian Kelso (IK): My name is Ian Kelso, I’m the president and CEO of Interactive Ontario, which is an association of 250 companies in Ontario working in interactive entertainment, creating intellectual property for digital platforms.  These companies make not only video games but also mobile media, online media and e-Learning products.

In terms of our mandate, Interactive Ontario is a non-profit organization and our purpose is to primarily serve our members.  Our membership is made up of all growth companies, so a lot of what we are concentrating on is finding ways of accessing public-sector and private-sector financing for them, and we work a lot with the government on programs and tax credits but we’re also trying to train investors and venture capitalists about the industry.  We’re also involved with cultivating talent and making sure our schools and universities are putting out the right kind of talent for the industry.  Those are the two main functions – we do some marketing, working with the Interactive Ontario brand, going to different markets and shows around the world.

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Pleasant Curmudgeon