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Give a Penny, Save a Penny

July 10, 2012 2 comments

Penny Arcade announced today that they initiated a Kickstarter project to completely remove ads from their site. There’s been a fair amount of hate and outrage over this decision.  Most of it comes down to the fact “for three hundred dollars the penny arcade guys will install adblock plus on your browser” (courtesy of @dogboner) or “Penny Arcade breaks rule one of Kickstarter” (courtesy of @misterbrilliant).

Well @dogboner, @misterbrilliant, and others: you’re kind of missing the point that money kills journalism.

Sure, you can just install ad blocker to not see the ads.  That doesn’t mean those ads away and the reason they exist remains.  Journalism on any topic, especially in a huge industry like gaming, is an invaluable public service. Given how much money we all collectively spend on games these days, I’d hope that more people would appreciate the kind of honest feedback and criticism that PA offers its fans.  I personally value their opinions and love that they are trying to be transparent about conflicts of interest. Giving them some money to help that goal is the least I can do given how much money they have saved me thanks to their coverage. [Incidentally, thanks for encouraging me to skip Prometheus, Tycho… that was $20-30 saved right there on a trip to see a bad movie.]

I was an analyst for the government and military for the past five years, so I absolutely appreciate the necessity of knowing who or what is influencing the sources information you rely on. No one can play and test every game out there, so we all rely on people like the writers Penny Arcade supports to do some of the leg work for us, finding the good games and criticizing the bad.  Penny Arcade goes one step further and gives us humor too (and for free). They’re like Steven Colbert compared to Fox and MSNBC of the gaming journalism world, complete with a Penny-Arcade Nation thanks to conferences and scholarships they sponsor.

Maybe the critics prefer game coverage that reads like the author is on the company payroll and takes jabs at viewers asking questions answered in coverage they may not have read among the hundreds of websites clamoring for attention around a game’s announcement.  That is totally their prerogative.   If you don’t want to support the site or don’t have the means to do so, that is completely within your rights. I personally don’t pay for the New York times because I don’t think their writing is shoulders above many other news sources, but I would pay for Penny Arcade compared to many other gaming sites. I think they offer unique and useful coverage and would hate to see them succumb to the whims of advertisers.

So today I am going to be one of those people pledging help Penny Arcade achieve their goal. Choose not to if you want, but just remember to thank those of us who do when the quality of the site improves and you reap the rewards for free.

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HireIt

March 8, 2012 1 comment

Thanks to my friend Sarah for bringing this article to my attention.  The article discusses how games are being used to effectively crowdsource and solve scientific problems.  In light of my previous post about the educational and social value of games over other forms of entertainment, I think it’s worth highlighting here.

Slate’s article continues the story of FoldIt, an experiment by the University of Washington that offered a game to the general populace which challenged players to build proteins into specific enzymes.  “Within hours, thousands of people were both competing against (and collaborating with) one another.  After three weeks, they had succeeded where the microbiologists and the computers had failed,” by identifying an elusive enzyme used by viruses like HIV.   Rather than simply discuss the medical puzzle at the heart of the game, the article highlights a personnel puzzle by showing that often the best people to solve a sophisticated problem did not have and, in fact, did not need background in the field.  This challenges conventional wisdom that a certain amount of experience, training, or education is needed to excel in a particular position.  That’s not to say these measures are unimportant, but as the FoldIt case displays, a PHD or experience with a certain problem set did not correlate to the cognitive skills necessary to solve certain issues despite that these items are more easily highlighted on a resume:

Some gamers have a preternatural ability to recognize patterns, an innate form of spatial reasoning most of us lack. Others—often “grandmothers without a high school education,” says Popovic—exercise a particular social skill. “They’re good at getting people unstuck. They get them to approach the problem differently.

Human resource representatives are able to quickly and efficiently match people to jobs based upon data-points from game-play.  The game acts as a vehicle to capture and measure soft skills that are usually difficult to quantify and prioritize them over hard skills that usually show up on a resume, but may not actually reflect a person’s aptitude for the kind of work needed.

This paradigm could revolutionize the way other career areas are staffed, particularly in an knowledge- and information-based economy where many fields place a high emphasis on cognitive ability.  For instance, the title “analyst” (near and dear to my heart) does not tell much about a person’s ability to actually analyze an issue or problem.   Supplemental details in an analyst’s resume cannot show how the person thinks, rather they tell a story about the kinds of things the person has previously thought about.   An interview might provide a better glimpse into an applicant’s particular aptitudes, but probably not in a single conversation where often the skills being showcased are the applicant’s negotiation skills.  Those skills may be useful if you’re looking for a political analyst or hostage negotiator, but they are probably useless if you need someone to find a pattern in shipping documents when investigating an illicit network.   Events designed to allow applicants to show their work, either through specific scenario questions or in an applied exercise are more revealing.   Artists keep portfolios to show their work, but it can often be difficult for someone in knowledge- or information-based job to do the same – especially if they cannot carry their work from one field to another due to proprietary or classification conflicts.  On the other hand, a game emphasizing specific cognitive processes needed for certain tasks could go a long way to identifying the right people to fit the job.

We may be a ways off from that future, but I doubt it’s completely beyond our reach.  In the meantime, if I ever start a company, I’m pretty sure the interview process will include a trial by pixelated fire.

See spot game…

February 15, 2012 10 comments

When you first tell someone that you’re a gamer, one of the questions that usually seems to pop into people’s heads soon after is “why do you waste your time playing games?”  I don’t think I have to explain that to anyone who found this blog on their own… most of you probably get it.  However, in the event that someone stumbles in here and doesn’t understand, I thought it would be appropriate to start off with a few thoughts about not just why I enjoy games, but what I feel I’ve gotten from them over the years.

The short version is that games taught, teach, and continue to teach me to solve problems.  Too often, the act of playing a video game is lumped in with activities like watching T.V. and eating junk food.  While it’s true that plenty of gamers do also watch T.V. and eat junk food, I find the grouping a bit naive because even the most basic games designed only for entertainment can impart some  educational benefit on the player.   Unlike watching T.V. r even a movie where you are just the passive recipient of a stream of information, games require complex interaction that can teach lessons.   These lessons will rarely be the same between games, but if the player is observant enough and internalizes what he or she is doing, very often those experiences can help solve real problems outside of virtual space.   There are very few “healthy” pastimes that I can think of offer anywhere near that level of potential positive impact.

Now, to be clear, I’m not saying you can learn anything you ever need to know from a healthy sampling of various video games.  There is no substitute for real experience.  In the absence of real situations to learn from, however, games provide a laboratory of scenarios that teach a host of problem solving tools.  Social games can teach group dynamics.  Puzzle games can teach problem solving.  Word games teach language.  Difficult games teach trial and error and perseverance.   Many games combine lots of these lessons to provide fairly complex lessons.   As a personal example, massively multi-player online role playing games taught me leadership.

Towards the end of college, I was charge of two organizations.  The first was the Air Force Reserve Officer training program at my school – a formal leadership training pipeline approved by the U.S. military.  I was responsible for designing and executing a training program over the course of a semester for 50+ cadets.   Once a week we met as a group to execute our training, usually performing some kind of prescripted exercise as a group; during the rest of the week, my peers and I worked on the upcoming weeks.  Shadowing my real world leadership training, I was also gaining virtual leadership experience as a raid leader in a guild of players for World of Warcraft, a massively multi-player online role-playing game.  Our guild had to bring together 40+ people from around the world multiple nights a week to a single location in the game and then coordinate their activities to defeat challenges presented in the game.   I had to get very comfortable not only solving the problem presented by the computer game opponents themselves, but also the problems created by having over forty personalities all competing for very scarce rewards following sometimes fruitless nights of “work.”    Toss in a bit of complexity in that we could only use chat tools and voice-software to communicate and it gets even harder.

After graduation, I commissioned into the Air Force and was put into a variety of leadership positions.  I also went onto  additional leadership schools.   I performed very highly, often ranked in the top 10% of my peers.   But throughout my time in the Air Force, when faced with new problems, more often than not, it wasn’t my AFROTC experiences that I leaned on.  Instead, I found that the experiences I had leading World of Warcraft raids offered me the answers for how to diffuse conflict, solve problems related to resources, manpower, and time, and generally keep organized in the face of a changing work environment.  It’s not fair to say that WoW was my only source of experience… but it certainly augmented and framed my experience in  ways I  found — and continue to find —  useful as a metaphor and template for real-world scenarios.

In an increasingly digital and networked age, many of the problems we face on a day to day basis start to move into virtual space and the lessons games teach become even closer to real life.  Where I had to use voice-software to communicate with friends in WoW, companies now have to organize virtual conference calls with partners all over the world.   Simulators are used to teach people real skills to do important jobs (which may make for an interesting future topic).   As long as games continue to become more complex, I see myself always playing them because I think they will always have something to teach me.   And if someday I have to choose between letting my kids play a game or watch T.V, you can bet there’s going to be a controller, keyboard, or mouse in their hands and not a remote.