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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
— Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von Münchhausen

Morality and Evolution

I'm a staunch evolutionist. Ever since I read Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, I began to understand the subtlety and power of the the idea that incremental changes brought about through natural variation can produce complex structures when under the influence of selective forces. Think about it: imagine you have a bunch of different machines that generate numbers. Each one generates numbers in diffent ways. Now imagine that you decide that machines that generate the number 666 are evil and should be destroyed. So you destroy a machine whenever the evil number comes up. Eventually, you will be left only with the machines that don't generate that number, or are so unlikely to generate it that maybe you didn't notice.

The idea is so simple it seems almost obvious. Like Einstein's general theory of relativity, evolution as a concept is one of those ideas it seems amazing we didn't discover earlier. And it seems that despite the vocal minority of those who feel threatened by science, evolution as a concept has proven more and more predictive since Darwin's seminal The Origin of Species written in 1859. Now, according to an article in today's New York Times, this model is even being applied with scientific rigor to the realm of ethics.

Biologist Marc D. Hauser has released a new book called Moral Minds in which he argues that human morality is the expression of a "moral grammar" that has been written into human DNA through the process of "group selection". This is not to say that the ideas are not controversial, but it represents a daring exploit of biological science into the realm of inquiry once reserved for religion and philosophy. It's theoretical work to be sure, but could represent a new way of looking at human behavior in an evolutionary light.

Dr. Hauser presents his argument as a hypothesis to be proved, not as an established fact. But it is an idea that he roots in solid ground, including his own and others’ work with primates and in empirical results derived by moral philosophers.

The proposal, if true, would have far-reaching consequences. It implies that parents and teachers are not teaching children the rules of correct behavior from scratch but are, at best, giving shape to an innate behavior. And it suggests that religions are not the source of moral codes but, rather, social enforcers of instinctive moral behavior.

New York Times, "An Evolutionary Theory of Right and Wrong"
Hauser's use of the term "grammar" to describe the appartus within the human animal that inform his moral decisions is no accident. He wrote a paper in collaboration with Noam Chomsky (famous for his work on grammar's "deep structure" embedded in the human brain) and Dr. Tecumseh Fitch about the possible evolution of animal communication systems as adaptations of navigation systems. He believes that moral systems, like language systems, benefit societies of animals as a whole and thus promote the survival of its members. This process of "group selection," while still controversial, is particularly applicable to human beings, who Hauser believes show a penchant for social conformity.

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Was Mohammed Illiterate?

I was having a discussion about Islam with my friend this morning. She doesn't blog anymore, which is a pity, because I found her blog was an inspiration to me; I started the Red Bull Diary partially because I liked her blog so much.

We were discussing Mohammed's retreat to the cave, and the revelation of the Koran to him. I was taught by the excellent Dr. William C. Chittick while getting my degree in Religious Studies that the Muslims regard it as a miracle that the illiterate Mohammed could have produced the magnificent poetry in the Koran. My friend told me I was flatly wrong and that he never wrote the verses himself. This puzzled me because it directly contradicted something I had learned, but certainly seemed reasonable when discussing it as a matter of fact as opposed to an article of faith. Naturally, I decided to look it up and respond on my blog so that I could use my virtual pulpit to refute the point.

It seems that the issue is somewhat contentious. Several sources I was able to find (like, who discusses the issue here and here and also these others) contest the idea that Mohammed was illiterate, but do not seem to back the idea that someone else wrote the Koran.

It has been part of the Muslim’s belief, based on traditions, that Prophet Muhammad was illiterate. God says in verse 29:51 that the Quran itself is the only miracle of the prophet. By alleging illiteracy for him, traditional Muslims were trying to make the claim even "more miraculous," for a book of such literary quality was sent down through an illiterate man. This is despite the many assertions in the Quran to the contrary. The first Quranic revelation that came down to Muhammad is, "Read! In the name of your Lord who creates...." (96:1) It is clear that this is also a commandment. To all of us, including the prophet, God stresses the importance of literacy in the very first revelation. Furthermore, the second revelation is "The Pen" which indicates again the importance of written communication. This makes the importance of literacy even more compelling. If indeed Muhammad was an illiterate man when the Quran was first revealed to him, how could he not make himself learn to read and write during the twenty some years of his mission? Perhaps a more poignant question should be, "How dare he not to obey his Lord’s clear commandment to read and write?"
The Claim of Muhammad's Illiteracy: Another Look
So to bring this back to the point I was discussing with my friend, it seems that the bulk of the sources I have been able to find dispute not whether Mohammed wrote the Koran, but instead contend whether his doing so was miraculous or not. Some seem to think that it was written without him at all, but this view seems to be in the minority.

So I'll call the issue open, and simply point out that both the scholarship and the tradition say that it is certainly possible that the prophet wrote the Koran himself.


Friday Free Game, One-Button Edition: Air Monkey

As I continue to explore the idea of exploiting a simple user interface as a way of increasing a game's fun-factor, I've learned a bit about how the dynamic interaction between the game system and the player determine much about the fun of a game. It's not only about what's in the player's direct control; the way that the game manipulates the environment, presenting obstacles and rewards, is also a major factor.

Take last week's game, for example. If you haven't played it yet, you should. I found a larger version of the game on another site. Helicopter is about as stripped down as you can get. There's one goal: survival, and one kind of obstacle: the cave walls themselves. The movement of the helicopter is automatic: you scroll right and move down automatically. Clicking the button offsets the downward movement for a time, and the whole gameplay is based on how you balance your clicks against the pull of gravity. Now I also found an extremely similar game called Aeroplane, which adds a few elements: instead of simply trying to survive, you can pick up green gems and blue shields while avoiding the red bombs. It's a much nicer-looking and more interesting version of the same game, but at heart, the basic mechanics are the same: click to rise.

So why is Aeroplane more interesting if the mechanics are the same? The difference is not in what you can directly control, but in the way the the game itself manipulates the environment. The game determines the placement and frequency of the bombs, much like Helicopter's walls, but there's also the gems, which give you another goal. Since your score is not based on time in Aeroplane but instead on collecting gems, you now have a more interesting dynamic: where is the gem in relationship to a bomb? to the sides of the board? to the shield that you want to pick up? There's no penalty for missing the gems, but you can't get a high score without them. This presents the player with a hard choice, and as everyone knows making each option seem equally attractive is at the heart of creating the tension that makes a game fun. has a sample chapter from Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris on the subject entitled "Achieving and Enhancing Gameplay in Game Design", where the authors address this subject in some depth.

One-button games have a real challenge in presenting the player with difficult choices. As we saw with Aeroplane as compared to Helicopter, one way of forcing these choice is by varying the proximity of rewards and obstacles. In Helicopter, since the reward was a constant (time), then the only way the game could challenge the player is by varying its obstacles. And Helicopter chose to do that in really two ways: stationary and mobile walls. Aeroplane, by scattering gems and shields around and placing bombs at strategic points, forced the player to choose whether to attempt to gain a reward, have to time his approach, and then have to execute by clicking.

But you can go further. This week's installment of the Friday Free Game, "One-Button Edition" features a game called Air Monkey. It's a particularly good counterpoint to the flyers because while it has arguably even less control than those first games, it's harder and presents more interesting choices.

Air Monkey's goal is fairly simple: help the monkey jump up the tree, swinging from vine to vine, in order to reach the treehouse so he can have a brew with his monkey pals. Simple enough, right? You're about to find out. Here's a hint: the monkey shifts on the vine as he swings, so timing is very important. Go check out Air Monkey. Next week, we'll review.


Free Game Search Engine

As part of the their "Google Co-Op" service, Google has launched a brand new product this week, called Google Custom Search Engine. This allows users to create custom search engines by providing context information, such as lists of websites to search and annotations that will guide the user to the content they're searching for.

For example, suppose you are doing research on how to become a restaurant critic. If you were to go to Google and type "restaurant critic", you would likely find many links to working critics and their reviews, but would be hard-pressed to find information how to break into the business. Now, suppose someone were to create a search engine that focused on careers. Type in "restaurant critic" there, and you'll likely find what you want.

When I saw this, I just had to give it a try. I decided to catalog about 100 sites that offer free, playable games on the web, and used Google's new service to create a pretty hard-core free game search engine. It's still bare-bones but already very useful. Try searching for "diablo" or "word jumble" or "geography" and you'll instantly find hours of free entertainment. You can use this search box below:

Free Game Search:
Happy searching!

Lego Star Destroyer

Check out the Lego Star Destroyer on Treasure Tables:

With 1,367 pieces and 75 steps, it took me about 3 1/2 hours to complete, this is easily the most involved Lego kit I’ve ever put together. It took me 3 1/2 hours to build, and the finished ship is two feet long.

This Star Destroyer is a smaller version (scaled for use with Lego figures) of the 3,000-piece beast Monte Cook built a couple of years back.

That's friggin cool. I want one. Amazon has it for about a hundred bucks, which seems excessive, but it's a Star Destroyer, man! How much is Imperial, ass-kicking Lego-ness worth? You can't put a price tag on that!

On the overall scale of geekiness, building one of these is as geeky as:

Now where did I put my hydrospanners...?

The Eye of Mordor In Iraq

Many thanks to Agent 139 for pointing out a quote from Rick Santorum (Republican senator from Pennsylvania, 139's stomping grounds):

In one sparkling turn last week, Senator Rick Santorum, Republican of Pennsylvania, said that he would rather be fighting terrorists in Iraq than in the United States. Only he put it this way: "As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else. It’s being drawn to Iraq."

As is clear to fans of J. R. R. Tolkien, Mr. Santorum was comparing the rationale for combat in Iraq to the plan to distract the evil Lord Sauron in "The Lord of the Rings." Sauron was seeking the magical ring that would secure his power over Middle Earth. (Mr. Santorum merely wants to secure his Senate seat.)

At the very least, give Mr. Santorum points for appealing to an untapped constituency of potential supporters, "Lord of the Rings" lovers, a few of whom might even be old enough to vote.

The New York Times, "A Jeopardy Question for the Nov. 7 Crowd"
I don't know if I'm amused or frightened.
  1. I am old enough to vote
  2. I'm a fan of the Lord of the Rings
  3. I think Rick Santorum is evil, even if he does cite Tolkien
And why oh why did the author of that piece (from the Times!) insist on quoting the name of a novel?

I've said my peace. I've shared. Now we can all move on without contemplating any of the above too much.

Friday Free Game, One-Button Edition: The Helicopter Game

There's a philosophy of game design that says that the simpler the game is, the better. The idea is that a learning curve is something that stands between the player and fun, and so a game is more fun if it makes that learning curve as shallow as possible. Some of the most popular games around are popular by virtue of their very simplicity: tic-tac-toe, checkers, rock-paper-scissors and the like.

The trade-off, of course, is that a simple game often lacks the depth to stay engaging for very long, and the holy grail of game design is achieving great depth without increasing overall complexity. The prototypical examples of these sorts of games are Chess and Go, with a small set of rules but highly involved game play.

But what about video games? In this case, the simplicity of the rules is not nearly as important. Sure, the player should understand the flow of the game and not be confused as to what's going on, but the actual mechanics of the rules are run by the computer, not the players. In this way, video games can achieve the appearance of being very simple while actually being quite complex. But there is another factor in video games that can prove an obstacle to new players: the user interface.

Many new players are turned off to modern video games because they feature a large set of inputs. Look at any modern first-person shooter (e.g., Counterstrike or Half-Life or Doom or Halo or Ghost Recon or F.E.A.R. or any of the umpteen remakes of Wolfenstein 3D made in the past ten years), and look at how many controls there are. You have two analog sticks (one to move, one to look), often a D-pad input (for equipment selection, for example), and no fewer than eight buttons or so. The newbie often doesn't have a chance to have fun because he can figure out how to play.

Of course, not all video games are this way, and I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the most popular video games in history have the fewest controls. Look at Pac-Man, probably the game most individually responsible for the explosion in video game popularity. It's just you and a joystick gobbling dots and chasing ghosts. You essentially have a total of four inputs: up, down, left and right. Doesn't get much simpler than that, does it? Tetris has four inputs, too: left, right, down, and rotate. Simple driving games also use four (left, right, brake, accelerate). So does Asteroids (rotate left, rotate right, thrust, fire). So does Dance Dance Revolution. Space Invaders (left, right, fire), and Joust (left, right, flap) use just three inputs each. Pong and Breakout use just two (left and right).

But a few special games try to do the maximum with the minimum, using just a single input. For the next few weeks, I will spotlight some of these one-button games and talk about how they manage to provide a compelling experience with an extremely simple interface. The first featured one-button game is known only as the Helicopter Game. Click to rise and don't crash. That's all there is to it. Check it out.


Top 50 Books on the Game Industry

This article was making its rounds last week, but remaining true to my own schedule, I figured I'd share it late.

Ernest Adams, author of a number of books on game design, wrote an article for Next Generation entitled "50 books for Everyone in the Game Industry", highlighting 50 of the most influential and insightful works on the topic to date. He breaks them down into twelve categories, such as theory, business, and the history of games, attempting to cover a very broad range of topics that the gaming industry deals with. One of his topics is "inspirations," books "whose influence can be felt in many games" and "have helped make the game industry what it is today":

  1. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  2. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, by various authors
  3. Star Trek, originated by Gene Roddenberry
  4. The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy
  5. Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  6. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
  7. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet H. Murray
This seems like a rather odd set of "inspirational" choices. I think D&D's influence on games of all kinds is undeniable, and it, in turn, owes its inspiration mainly to Tolkien, Moorcock and Howard. But Tom Clancy instead of Ian Fleming? Sure, Splinter Cell and its kin are popular games, but how many incarnations has James Bond seen, including dozens of novels, 22 movies, and countless table-top and video games? Star Trek instead of Star Wars? Puh-lease. How many Star Trek games have there been in the last 10 years, as opposed to the tireless efforts of LucasArts marketing the Star Wars franchise?

As for the rest of the list, I've only read one of the books: Edward Tufte's The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, which I got after attending the author's seminar on visual design a few years ago. I got a lot out of it, and had a chance to speak to the man briefly afterwards. I brought up the topic of user interface design and asked him what he thought of the fact that UI design is not treated as a discipline in its own right. He responded: "That's because it's a solved problem." I was shocked. It was as if, to him, it was somehow entirely clear what the best way to convey information to a user is, and what is the most efficient way to gather input from him. He couldn't have meant that, could he? Even after thinking it over for a good 3 or 4 years since the seminar, it seems obvious that he meant just that. Either he didn't understand my point or he doesn't know what he's talking about.

For those looking for the whole list, I've reproduced it here in title order:

  1. 21st Century Game Design, by Chris Bateman and Richard Boon
  2. A Pattern Language, by Christopher Alexander et al
  3. A Theory of Fun for Game Design, by Raph Koster
  4. Balance of Power: International Politics as the Ultimate Global Game, by Chris Crawford
  5. Community Building on the Web: Secret Strategies for Successful Online Communities, by Amy Jo Kim
  6. Creating the Art of the Game, by Matthew Omernick
  7. Designing Virtual Worlds, by Richard Bartle
  8. Developing Online Games: An Insider’s Guide, by Jessica Mulligan and Bridgette Petrovsky
  9. Digital Game-Based Learning, by Marc Prensky
  10. Dungeons & Dragons Player’s Handbook, by various authors
  11. Everything Bad Is Good for You, by Steven Johnson
  12. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, by Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi
  13. From Barbie to Mortal Kombat: Gender and Computer Games, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins
  14. Fundamentals of Game Design, by Ernest Adams and Andrew Rollings
  15. Game Over, Press Start to Continue, by David Sheff, with new material by Andy Eddy
  16. Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames, edited by Chris Bateman
  17. Gender-Inclusive Game Design, by Sheri Graner Ray
  18. Half-Real: Video Games between Real Rules and Fictional Worlds, by Jesper Juul
  19. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, by Janet H. Murray
  20. Homo Ludens, by Johan Huizinga
  21. Joystick Nation, by J.C. Herz
  22. Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence, by Gerard Jones
  23. Man, Play, and Games, by Roger Caillois
  24. Masters of Doom, by David Kushner
  25. Pause and Effect: The Art of Interactive Narrative, by Mark Stephen Meadows
  26. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd edition by Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister
  27. Pikachu's Global Adventure: The Rise and Fall of Pokémon, edited by Joseph Tobin
  28. Postmortems from Game Developer, edited by Austin Grossman
  29. Rules of Play, by Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman
  30. Smartbomb: The Quest for Art, Entertainment, and Big Bucks in the Videogame Revolution by Heather Chaplin and Aaron Ruby
  31. Star Trek, originated by Gene Roddenberry
  32. Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, by Robert McKee
  33. Supercade: A Visual History of the Videogame Age 1971 - 1984, by Van Burnham
  34. The Ambiguity of Play, by Brian Sutton-Smith
  35. The Design of Everyday Things, by Donald Norman
  36. The Fat Man on Game Audio: Tasty Morsels of Sonic Goodness, by George Alastair 'The Fat Man' Sanger
  37. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell
  38. The Hunt for Red October, by Tom Clancy
  39. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
  40. The Mythical Man-Month: Essays on Software Engineering, by Frederick P. Brooks
  41. The Oxford History of Board Games, by David Parlett
  42. The Ultimate History of Video Games, by Steven L. Kent
  43. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Visual Explanations and Envisioning Information, all by Edward Tufte
  44. The Xbox 360 Uncloaked by Dean Takahashi
  45. Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames, by Steven Poole
  46. Understanding Comics, by Scott McCloud
  47. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, by Marshall McLuhan
  48. Unit Operations: An Approach to Videogame Criticism, by Ian Bogost
  49. Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
  50. What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, by James Paul Gee
And for anyone who's looking to get me a Christmas present, consider this a shopping list.


A Marvel MMO

Cryptic Studios, producers of the popular superhero MMORPGs City of Heroes and City of Villains, have teamed up with Microsoft and Marvel to produce the first massively multi-player online game set in the Marvel Universe for the XBox360 and the PC (a hat-tip goes to Zen of Design via NerfBat for reporting it). This seems odd as Cryptic was being sued by Marvel for copyright infringement not long ago. Marvel claimed that because the game allowed players to create characters much like Marvel's, Cryptic's game had "disrupted 'existing and future' business prospects for licensing its characters in video games". Now, however, it looks like they've made nice-nice. I wonder how much leverage that lawsuit provided Marvel as they muscled their way into the market.

As my WoW-addicted friends can tell you, I don't play MMORPGs. I have other addictions to waste my time with. But I am a sucker for superheroes. I collected X-Men and The New Mutants all the way through High School and played every superhero RPG I could get my hands on, starting with the old-school yellow box Marvel Super Heroes Roleplaying Game, then Villains and Vigilantes (I played a game of V&V as a pre-teen at day camp with Tom Dowd, who later created Shadowrun), Champions, and DC Heroes. If the game is good, and I can create my own superhero and go clobbering bad guys in the name of truth and justice and all that, I may just have to change my tune.

You can read Cryptic Studios' press release here.

Also, for anyone who is a fan of the original Marvel RPG, you have to check out an online version of the entire ruleset for the classic Marvel Superheroes RPG, including both the basic and advanced rulesets, and all of the contents of the Ultimate Powers Book and Realms of Magic supplements!

On Game Design and Sit-Ups

"Juuso" of posted an article last week entitled "Game Production and the Art of Making Sit-Ups". It's a philosophical piece drawing an analogy between working out and working on a game, though it's so basic it can really be applied to anything. As I'm starting to discover, the most productive way of approaching a long-term task is to work at it steadily, over time, and not trying to make it happen all at once.

When I first started working on Space Avenger, I was so impressed with my ability to get something done quickly that I expected things to continue at this same rate. Naturally, as the design has evolved, there's an awful lot of refactoring and refitting that needs to be done to keep the game together and keep the code organized. This is, of course, exacerbated by the fact that as a development environment, Flash is way behind what I'm used to.

So, the game is going through some growing pains as I'm trying to move from a stat-based system to an equipment-based system. This has necessitated major changes throughout the code. So rather than staying up until 4 AM every night trying to get the changes done in a week, I'm trying a new strategy: putting in a few hours each night, and getting it done when it gets done. It'll be better for my sanity.

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Friday Free Game: Swords and Sandals

For the triumphant return of the Friday Free Game, I present Swords and Sandals, a great game on its merits of fun, personality, and replay value. Maybe I just like it because it appeals directly to the old-school gamer geek in me, but I can't deny the sheer pleasure of the old hack-slay-loot-powerup cycle. You know the one: kill the baddies, loot their corpses, get better stuff, kill bigger baddies. It's a tried-and-true formula that never ceases to amuse. And this game plays it to the hilt.

You're a gladiator. That means that you fight for the crowd's amusement until you die for their amusement. You create your gladiator, customizing his hair, skin, beard and characteristics, then you're off to buy your newbie equipment and head into the ring to spill some blood.

The combat system is a sort of turn-based affair, with a number of options for moving, taunting and attacking your opponent in various ways. Personally, I found the dancing around a rather pointless waste of energy and usually opted to just run in and starting beating the snot out of the other guy (this could also be why I never made it that far in the game). If you win, you get more money for better equipment, and additional levels to increase your stats. Every so often, you face an arena champion, who usually stomps me into the ground. No problem, whip up another gladiator in three seconds flat, rinse and repeat.

What's great about this game is all of the little things. The title song always makes me laugh, and the graphics have a sort of South Park-meets-Spartacus quality that fits the humorous theme perfectly. There is abundant help text throughout the game, making it easy for new players to get the idea, and there's just enough variety to keep it interesting As a temporary distraction from whatever else you're supposed to be doing, Swords and Sandals fits the bill perfectly.


A Coding Error

Many thanks to Bruce Schneier for pointing out this wonderful little blurb that boils down Bush's "I-can-hold-anyone-I-want-without-a-trial" Bill to a simple programming error:

if (person = terrorist)
The coders out there, I'm sure, spot the error right away, but for the non-geeks in the audience... executing this code automatically makes person a terrorist, and always executes the code to punish_severely(). Welcome to the new America.

Ambushed on Donahue is a blog I read regularly, written by self-described "game theorist" and 2006 Robbie Award winner, David Sirlin. Like everything else in my life, I had fallen quite a bit behind in my reading when I dove head-first into my new job and my new game, so I spent some time today catching up. And as usual, he had some interesting stuff.

This past Saturday, he posted a link to a Salon article from about four years ago. And since it's a good read and since I am always a bit behind on these things, I thought I'd show research-slacker solidarity by passing along the outdated link. The article was written by the head of MIT's comparative media studies program, Henry Jenkins about his experiences talking about violence in video games on a nationally-televised talk show. Entitled Coming up next: Ambushed on "Donahue"!, Jenkins talks about how he should have known better than to try to have an intelligent debate in that forum:

The first thing I told my wife after I got off the phone from my first conversation with the "Donahue" producers was that I was flying to New York to get beaten up on national television. She asked if she should have my head examined.

But the producers were so, so reassuring. They wanted to have an intelligent discussion, to avoid sensationalism, to give me a chance to make my arguments. They would have some representatives of the games industry and someone from one of the media reform groups. One producer almost convinced me that "Donahue" was a serious news discussion program.

...I should have known better. I did know better, sorta. I did it anyway. And after the fact, the only person I could kick was myself. I was ambushed, and forgot how to fight back.

I knew what the activists opposed to gaming violence would say -- that computer games are too violent and are bad for young people. I was ready to tear them apart on the evidence. Despite all of the publicity about school shootings, the rate of juvenile violent crime in the United States is currently at a 30-year low. When researchers interview people serving time for violent crimes, they find that they typically consume less media than the general population, not more. A 2001 surgeon general's report concluded that the strongest risk factors for school shootings centered around the quality of the child's home life and their mental stability, not their media exposure.

By writing the article, he got the chance to tell his side of the story, and he gives a compact and illuminating overview of the scholarship on the subject. To summarize: the entire corpus of "media effects" research is limited to about 300 studies of media violence and only about 30 of those deal with video games specifically. While most studies found correlations between violent behavior and violent media, careful researchers found no direct causation between the two, and none of them buy into the "monkey-see, monkey-do hypothesis". He describes an attitude in activism itself that causes a sort of tunnel-vision. They misrepresent the data to further their cause, and their vitriol against an imagined enemy is ultimately in the name of "doing something", even if that "something" is creating more problems that it is solving.

Activists exploit any data point and any tragic event as grist for their cause. They will cite studies which show that 8-year-olds have difficulty separating out fact from fiction and use them to justify restricting 17-year-olds' access to violent entertainment. 90 percent of American boys play video games, so it's a pretty good bet that if the killer is an adolescent boy, they can find the proof that he was a gamer.

Parents are demanding that the government do something even if it's wrong, and once we reach that point, we tend to do all the wrong things. This is doubly dangerous. First, constitutional protections make it unlikely that the government is going to take decisive action against the media industries. So all of the fears get redirected onto the kids who play these games. We may not have an epidemic of youth violence in this country but lots of adults are ready to lock up teenage boys and throw away the key. Second, every moment our government focuses on the wrong problems, they take away time and resources that could be used to combat the actual causes of youth violence. Banning games doesn't put a stop to domestic violence, doesn't ensure that mentally unstable kids get the help they need, doesn't stop bullying in the hallways, and doesn't deal with the economic inequalities and racial tensions that are the real source of violence in American culture.

But, during my 15 minutes on "Donahue," I never got to say any of this. I was intellectually ready for this discussion, but nothing prepared me emotionally. I was the captain of my high school debate team, but debating on "Donahue" is a whole different ball game. The first thing you've got to do is throw away the notecards.

I identified with Jenkins strongly on this one. You can have all of the information, you can know all of the facts, you may even be right, but in the court of public opinion, it rarely makes a difference. Most people indulge in something called "emotional reasoning," an oxymoron that basically says that people think something is actually right if it feels right. Jenkins' opponent was Andrea White, the head of an organization against violent video games called the Lion and Lamb Project, whose 13-year-old son was stabbed to death by a friend as they reenacted scenes from Mortal Kombat. Of course she needs to blame the video game, because admitting the truth is too difficult:
  • Her son should not have been playing a rated "M" game in the first place
  • At 13 years old, you have ample ability to distinguish between what's real and what's not, and
  • Normal 13-year-olds understand that stabbing a friend is wrong
I of course would try to empathize with anyone who lost a beloved family member, but place the blame where it belongs: with the murderer, not a game.

You can read the transcript of the Donahue show here on the Lion and Lamb Project's website. A summary of the legal argument is here, explaining why the case was thrown out of court.

An America We Never Knew

A big thanks to Markus for pointing the way to this grim article entitled "Ten Reasons You Will Not Recognize America in Ten Years". He basically sums up all of the fears harbored by those of us who have been watching carefully... and paints a bleak picture of our nation's future.

He takes them point by point, mentioning several key changes that have taken place under the Bush-Cheney cabal's gentle leadership:

  • The "Enemy Combatant" Law and its truly frightening implications for the broad, sweeping power it gives the President to ignore our Constitutional rights by detaining anyone it sees fit simply by labeling them an "unlawful enemy combatant"
  • The "Patriot" Act and the broad, sweeping power it gives the executive branch to ignore the legislative, giving them unprecedented rights to surveil and monitor the citizenry
  • The "Real ID" Act, the very quiet law that will require all US Citizens to carry a federally-issued identification card in order to do much of anything, further dismantling the states' power and keeping the central government on top of everyone's comings and goings
  • The rise of electronic money, which, once it reaches its logical conclusion, will make all transactions trackable by the government
And while the future may not be as grim as the writer makes it out to be, it's certainly high time that people stood up, took notice, and started fighting back. The government is in power for one reason: because we put them there. The mandate from the people is always temporary. It can be taken back. Refuse, resist.


Pictures from Malta

For those who are interested, you can see pictures from my trip to Malta here.


Retro Game Videos

I was born the same year as the computer role-playing game. dnd was a text-based adventure written for PLATO, a computer-based education system that hosted the precusors to a huge number of modern applications, from MMORPGs and flight simulators, to chat rooms, IM and free cell. Having matured along with video games, I can get misty-eyed when I remember the times when video games were just a joystick and big, shiny fire button.

If you do, too, then you should check out this stroll down memory lane and see how many of the games featured you can name. I think I got 17 out of the 28:

  1. Galaxian
  2. Kangaroo
  3. ?
  4. Moon Patrol
  5. ?
  6. 1942
  7. Joust
  8. Frogger
  9. Pac Man
  10. Space Invaders
  11. Ms. Pac Man
  12. Berzerk
  13. ?
  14. ?
  15. Arkanoid
  16. ?
  17. Defender
  18. ?
  19. Galaga (I may have this one confused with Galaxian)
  20. Missile Command
  21. Donkey Kong
  22. ?
  23. Arkanoid (again)
  24. Asteroids
  25. ?
  26. ?
  27. Dragon's Lair
Bonus points to anyone (gnomie, this one should be right up your alley) who can name the ones I didn't know.

Afterwards, check out these two cool stop-animation homages to classic video gaming: Human Space Invaders, a stop-motion reenactment of a game of Space Invaders using people seated in a theater, and Game Over, a more creative stop-motion tribute to classic video games using candles, rocks, and bugs. Cool stuff for those of us who once saw Battlezone and said "mint!"

I'm Back with Avengeance

Many apologies to my dear readers for my long absence. I've been away for my blog for nearly three weeks, but I am ready to start again. My time has been severely limited because I am just settling in to my new job and I have spent a ton of time working on Space Avenger.

My little experiment in Flash has expanded way beyond its original scope in a number of ways. Graphically, the newest version (beta 2.1) is lightyears beyond the first attempt. I decided to learn how to draw 3D models, which is an entire skillset unto itself. It took me a good two or three weeks to produce models that were worth bringing into the game. To do this I am using two pieces of software: AC3D and Swift 3D.

AC3D is a dream to work with; once I understood the interface, I found that I was far more productive than with other software. When the 14-day trial expired, I happily plunked down the seventy-odd bucks for it. Swift 3D is software that reads 3D models and produces 2D vector or raster representations of them so that they can be brought into Flash. It's the only software of its kind that I know of, but I am very unhappy with it. First, I could not download a trial version at all due to some weird error with their website. I desperately wanted to bring my models into the game, and unfortunately, it seems like Swift is the product that does it, so I decided to buy it outright for the semi-outrageous price of about $250. Its interface is poor, its animation tools are constraining, it hangs and crashes regularly, and has even produced corrupted export files. Right now I don't have another good way of bringing my graphics into Flash, so I'm stuck, but I am searching for a solution so that I can write Electric Rain a harsh letter demanding my money back.

The second major way Space Avenger has changed is in gameplay. I have implemented a stat-based system, much like an RPG, in preparation for allowing the player to customize their ship, but this is not yet implemented. The game starts with a minimal set of stats that the player can slowly improve by collecting bonuses dropped by the enemies. Also, unlike version 1, where there were basically two types of enemies which looked different but acted very similarly, there are now 5 different enmies, each with unique abilities.

I would encourage everyone to try out the latest version of Space Avenger and then join the Space Avenger Announcements group so that you can post your feedback and receive email updates when a new version of the game is released.

Or, if you prefer, leave me comments here on the blog. Don't be shy. I want all of your suggestions, feedback and criticisms.


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The Red Bull Diary Is
The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.