Friday, October 30, 2009

Volkswagen's Fun Theory

I learned from Andrew Sullivan's blog about Volkswagen's initiative for motivating positive change through fun innovations. They've produced a few neat inventions and invite you to submit your own ideas for the chance to win an award.

I think that by adopting digital distribution, the gaming industry has already made progress in this field even though that was not the intent. Gamers want their fun; digital distribution gives them that fun more quickly and conveniently than retail and mail-order distribution. Game publishers and distributors, in turn, spend less on packaging and shipping. The benefits extend to the environment as an afterthought, but they are there.

One of Volkswagen's inventions is, in fact, a simple arcade game. I'm trying to think of other ways that games can be used to encourage environmental stewardship.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

PSP Go Green?

The buzz on the PSP Go, Sony's new handheld gaming console, is that it's the latest of Sony's many missteps this console generation. Ars Technica finds it to be a poor value compared to the older versions of the PSP, while Destructoid struggles to find the positives.

I've never been interested enough in the PSP to buy one, but I hope that the Go succeeds. It is, to my knowledge, the first gaming system with an expanding library that does not use physical media. I would like to see all video and computer gaming systems abandon physical media in favor of the environmentally better option of digital distribution. Perhaps the PSP should have and could have done this from its first launch in 2005 rather than burden stores and users with a whole new (and eventually failed) physical medium, the Universal Media Disc.

It's unfortunate that the game acquisition process on the PSP Go is apparently cumbersome, that owners of UMD games cannot transfer the games to the Go for free, and that the Go requires its own proprietary cables (another environmental failure). But if I wanted a PSP, I'd probably get the Go. The lack of physical media appeals to me. And there does seem to be significant progress in making the PSP library available online; of the five PSP games I'd consider buying (Disgaea: Afternoon of Darkness, Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions, Jeanne D'Arc, Patapon 2, and Yggdra Union), four are available on the PlayStation Store. That's not bad.

Even if the Go fails, it is notable as a gaming system that requires no cartridges or discs. I hope that Sony is able to improve its digital distribution infrastructure to make the Go more attractive to gamers. Perhaps Sony could have countered some of the criticism by proposing the Go as an environmentally safer handheld system.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Crunchy Katamari

Here's an old article about remarks made by Keita Takahashi, creator of Katamari Damacy. He notes that videogames are a luxury, enjoyed by those untroubled by problems such as poverty and pollution. And if those problems continue to grow, we may all lose that luxury.

His point is well-taken, but it comes from observing the real world beyond games. This blog seeks to learn lessons from the games themselves. So what can be learned from Katamari Damacy?

The object of Katamari Damacy is to fill the night sky with stars, accomplished by rolling up various things on Earth into large balls that are launched into the sky. The game is gleeful about clearing the landscape of animals, people, houses and monuments, rolling them up into balls that eventually become so large that their individual components are insignificant and forgotten. Is the game being nihilistic toward all Earthly stuff? Maybe. Katamai Damacy seems heavily inspired by Japanese monster movies in which great and terrible beasts lay waste to everything they see, smashing mankind's petty achievements into a homogeneous ruin.

I think there's more to the game than mere nihilism, though. Look at how bad things are on Earth even before the Prince begins his ball-rolling journeys. Towns and cities are strewn with out-of-place animals and fruits. Wildlife lives well outside its normal habitat (what are penguins doing at a seaside park?), and there are tacky displays of commercialism everywhere - trophies, marquees, bento boxes, coin-operated arcade games, the works. In rolling all these things up, the Prince is telling people and animals alike that they have forgotten their places in the natural order. He cleanses the landscape of all such detritus (it's fascinating how sane a level looks when it's empty), presents the katamari to the King of all Cosmos, and watches as the King turns it into a star and casts it among the other stars in the sky. The chaos on Earth is thus brought to order. All Earthly things are returned to their source, the stars.

Katamari Damacy is a warning that there is a natural order of things that will be enforced whether we like it or not. If we don't abide by boundaries, we may eventually be bound by forces beyond our control. Either way, from a King's-eye perspective, there's beauty to be found and joy to be had.

Monday, September 28, 2009

On Calling Oneself a Consumer

We're consumers, right? That's just the reality of it. Is there anything inherently wrong with thinking of ourselves as consumers? Maybe there is, if the self-assessment ends there.

Episode 34 of the Humanist Network News podcast features an interview with Gurinder Singh Azad, a humanist activist in India who works as a telemarketer to Americans. At about minute 54 in the podcast, the activist talks about how the rising economic success of call center employees has given them a thirst for material luxuries. The interviewer, Duncan Crary, comments that consumerism is like a drug being exported from America to India.

Mr. Azad disagrees with this, saying that Indians have developed consumerist attitudes on their own. Other countries are not to blame if Indians are increasingly embracing wealth over health.

Mr. Crary then observes: "People refer to themselves, a lot of times, as consumers. It's a very unhealthy thing to refer to oneself as a consumer. Because a consumer has no responsibility to do anything but consume."

On that, the two agree, as do I. When I'm merely a consumer, I only care about whether that new product--whether it's a hamburger, game console, or car--fulfills its function and serves my private needs. I don't think about how that product might be affecting me beyond its intended purpose. I don't think about the costs borne in its manufacture or its disposal.

We should think of ourselves as more than consumers or end-users. Our willingness to buy stuff is the reason stuff exists. We're the effectors. Imagine playing a "god game" sim, moving that hand around to dig the ore, put it in a factory, create products, and move those products to stores. That's the consumer's Hand of God doing the work, changing the landscape and perhaps bringing on disasters.

It's great when companies give us ways to reduce our environmental impact, such as digital distribution and "green" household products. We might find it easy to dismiss these options as having minuscule effect or as mere marketing ploys. But they're a start and, as people who are much more than just consumers, we should take advantage of them.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Pancakes vs. Nuclear Bombs

We had been doing so well with the downloadable content for Fallout 3. Fine, there were glitches and disappointments, but at least the add-ons were downloadable rather than packaged and shipped to retail stores. But then they put the first two add-ons on store shelves, and did the same with the next two. What's more, they're going to release everything again in a Game of the Year retail package in mid-October. I know that making the add-ons available for retail purchase helps those who cannot download the them, but isn't it wasteful and unnecessary to release these intermediate packages between the regular and GOTY editions?

Manufactured, packaged, shipped and sold without good reason, these retail add-on packs are a waste of resources. Of course, I'll be contributing to the problem by purchasing the GOTY edition "just to have it," even though I have the collector's edition and can download the add-ons.

Pancakes are delicious. They can be made in a variety of flavors, or even plain. A stack of pancakes in the morning will makes you happy, satisfied, and ready to take on the day. Nuclear bombs can cause severe burns, hemorrhaging, and death.

Pancakes are easy to make. Even if you make a mistake, it's no big deal. Just clean up and try again! Nuclear bombs are very hard to make. You really need to know what you're doing because if you add too much of this or that ingredient, your day is probably ruined.

Pancakes are inexpensive. Even those of modest means can afford to whip up a batch of pancakes for Sunday brunch. Nuclear bombs are very expensive to buy and then you have to worry about storing them. You might have been able to afford nuclear bombs through financing options once upon a time, but in this economy? Come on.

Pancakes make you popular. If you say, "Look everyone, I have pancakes," people will want to be your friends. That's because everyone loves pancakes. If you say, "Look everyone, I have nuclear bombs," people will get really mad at you. They won't want to be your friends anymore, even if you later serve pancakes.

Pancakes are fun. You can make them in a variety of shapes, like hearts and stars. Kids like that. You can make them thick, thin, or normal. You can eat them one by one or stack them up and dig into them like that. It's even fun to pour syrup on pancakes and watch as it expands in a pool and drips down the side in little rivulets. Nuclear bombs aren't as fun. Pouring syrup on them just makes a sad mess. They don't encourage much creativity and only come in shapes that kids don't like.

I think I've made the case for pancakes pretty well. So instead of buying some nuclear bombs or Fallout 3 retail add-ons this morning, why not enjoy some pancakes?

Pancakes. They're on the plate.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Join the Brutesquad

I mentioned trying to find the unlimited version of Atomic Bonds, the game created by an administrator of the defunct Gone Gold website. I've not been successful in my search, but at least now you can download the 7-day trial instead of emailing me for it.

Download Atomic Bonds trial version

In this case, "7 days" seems to mean you can play it on 7 different days, not that you have 7 consecutive days to play it. For reasonable fun and challenge, I recommend going to the Options screen and choosing Elimination mode with Allow Diagonals, Timer, Difficulty 4, Extra Atoms 4, and Blockers 2. I challenge you to build and clear a molecule of this size:

Important undocumented tip: right-clicking rotates the atom you are about to place.

Here's one of the fun nag screens:

That final "quote" demonstrates Joel Mathis's fascination with Cthulhu. Many other Gone Golders shared this fascination, which I believe is why we're now the Octopus Overlords.

As a bonus, I'm also making available another of Mathis's creations: Gone Gold Brute Squad. I guess you could call the Brutesquad the militant wing of Gone Gold. (Here is a possible explanation of its origin.) Featuring characters designed by Gone Golders (who based the designs on themselves), this turn-based strategy game depicts the Brutesquad's adventures in killing all the idiots that have ever inconvenienced us.

It's simple. It's fun. And it's free. That's right, baby, no trial period here!

Download Gone Gold Brute Squad

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Gaming's Citizen Kane Found!

I closed my games as art article with what I thought were the prerequisites for gaming's Citizen Kane. But Jim Sterling of Destructoid has revealed that we've had our Citizen Kane for a long time. It's a terrible game, but I admit that "rise from your grave" correlates nicely with "rosebud."

Monday, August 10, 2009

World of CO2

We talk a lot about how our dependency on oil pollutes the environment and screws up our politics. But has anyone asked how the oil feels? World of Goo would like to know. This wonderful little game, which challenges the player to link little balls of goo together so they can overcome obstacles and find their destiny, touches on the environment, energy, corporatism, and commodity. The story has a light touch, so I don't know what the underlying message is or whether there is one. I think, though, that those goo balls would want us to understand them and not take them for granted.

In addition to whatever moral lesson one can find in it, World of Goo teaches the physics of bridge building. Since the game appeals to kids as much as adults, it may be oblique and simplistic as a physics tutor. But once you watch your half-completed bridge sway desperately under wind shear and its own weight, you'll quickly appreciate the importance of trusses and abutments.

The connected goo balls look at bit like molecular models, reminding me of another game. Way back when Octopus Overlords was Gone Gold, one of the website administrators, Joel Mathis, created a game called Atomic Bonds. This shareware puzzler gives you atoms to join with each other. You earn points and clear the board by forming complete molecules.

Like World of Goo, Atomic Bonds isn't a deeply realistic game and doesn't expect the player to have a scientific background. I'm not even sure what kind of "molecule" I'm trying to make in that screenshot. But one can see the educational potential of the game. What if one level of game had said "make benzene," or only gave you points for making cis instead of trans isomers? How about a power-up that allows you to form double and triple covalent bonds? The organic chemistry teaching possibilities are endless.

(If you'd like to play the 7-day trial of Atomic Bonds, which is the only version I have, please email me. I'll send you the 1.8 MB installer. In the meantime, I'll look into whether the full game can be made available.)

That brings me to environmental issues. With global warming being a hot topic of discussion, I think it's important for everyone on both sides of the debate to understand the science of climate change. Once people see how it works on a molecular level, they can better understand how natural and human activities contribute to it on a global scale. And what better way to teach the science than with a game that combines World of Goo and Atomic Bonds?

Such a game could give you various atoms (all squealing cutely) to link together and molecules to break apart. If you create a chemical reaction that yields a useful product, such as energy, you get points (or money) for it. However, if the chemical reaction also results in a greenhouse gas, that greenhouse gas molecule floats to the top and stays there. (There might already be some greenhouse gas molecules there to represent nature's contribution.) As the game goes on, you inevitably create more and more greenhouse gas molecules, thickening the layer at the top and causing climate change. Adverse environmental effects or regulators would compel you to invest your money in pollution control devices to reduce your impact and continue playing the game.

Plenty of other important chemical phenomena can be explored this way. Let's look at acid rain. You run a power plant that produces useful energy but emits sulfur dioxide. The sulfur dioxide molecules rise in the atmosphere and cause acid formation. If you're lucky, prevailing winds carry the acid far away and make it Somebody Else's Problem. If you're unlucky, the acid might rain down on your plant and damage it!

Green-minded software developers are creating games to educate and inspire us about environmental issues, and I will review some of these games in this blog. But I hope the developers don't miss the opportunity to explore what environmental issues all boil down to: science!

Friday, July 31, 2009

Do-It-Yourself Solar Power

Here are instructions for building a solar powered cell phone charger. It seems to be a pretty simple process. Hardcore gamers who've built their own PCs should find it even simpler. If we can handle the inconveniences of finding sunlight and waiting a little longer for our batteries to recharge, we could take our cell phones, iPhones, DSi's and PSPs "off the grid."

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Games Aren’t Art After All

(This article was my entry in Call for Writers 2009 at the Gamers With Jobs website. There were over 100 submissions, and mine was not chosen. The winning articles are here and here.)

Roger Ebert was right. At first, I smoldered with rage like all other gamers when he denied our hobby admission into the family of arts. Who was this guy, a film critic who gave three-and-a-half stars to The Phantom Menace, to judge a pastime in which he doesn’t partake? How can he say that games are not an art when there are masterpieces such as Planescape: Torment, Grim Fandango and ... others, I’m sure?

Ebert amended his position to say that games can be art but not high art. Maybe he didn’t need to. The harder I have to look to find games that surprise me, and the harder it is for gaming journalists and podcasters to talk about anything except unlockables and achievements, the more I agree with Ebert’s original view. Games lack, and perhaps will never have, the qualities with which true art affects people and society.

Games are missing textures. I’m not talking about what happens when your graphics card overheats. I mean those perceptible things that reveal the pain and process of creation. For example, you can step close to a painting to see the brushstrokes and details. You can figure out where the painter spent the most effort and the repeatedly painted-over areas that gave him or her the most trouble. There is hand-drawn art in video games, but it is scanned, edited, and often lost in the action and scenery.

Others arts have textures, too. While watching a film, you can observe how the camera angles and lighting create a particular mood or direct your attention to something. You might be willing to watch an otherwise mediocre film to appreciate an actor’s standout performance. While playing games, on the other hand, you don’t tend to notice camera angles and lighting unless they hamper your vision. Acting performances in the form of voice work and motion-captured movement are usually unnoticed or not good enough. Even Tachyon: The Fringe isn’t worth playing just to hear Bruce Campbell.

Games are missing the shared experience of art. In an art gallery, you observe not only the sculpture, but also how people step up to it, linger, whisper about it, and hesitantly move on to the next exhibit. Even while quietly watching a theatrical or musical performance, you’re sharing a moment of reverie with the audience. Your reactions become magnified around other people, and you’ll laugh a little louder at the mistakes or funny moments than you would alone. Gaming, by contrast, is a solitary experience for most. You’ll sometimes be sharing the couch and controllers with a few others, but your loud reactions are usually inspired by the player’s antics rather than what the game is expressing. Even “massively multiplayer” games are shared experiences only in an interactive, collaborative sense rather than an emotional, intellectual one. You don’t see many architectural tour groups in World of Warcraft.

Games don’t have the social relevance of art. Real art is a reflection of its time and people, a reflection that ripples forward to touch future generations. Picasso’s Guernica and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture capture the feelings of war’s participants and victims. How does Call of Duty 4 portray modern warfare? It does so in MTV/CNN style (back when MTV played music videos and CNN told news) with cardboard characters and a clichéd ending. Sure, that AC-130 gunship level was clever and some of the explosions were life-affirming. But will the game tell our children what modern warfare does to people? No.

Even those who aren't familiar with the arts can at least identify legitimate examples. If you ask someone to name some important paintings, he or she will tell you about the Mona Lisa and The Scream. In music, it’s the "Die Hard song" (Beethoven's Symphony No. 9) and the "fireworks song" (1812 Overture). In movies, Casablanca and Gone With the Wind. In games ... Pac-Man and Grand Theft Auto.

That’s not to say that Pac-Man and Grand Theft Auto don’t have artistic elements. Pac-Man, having a canvas of limited size and a palette of few colors, made the most of early 1980s technology with iconic characters, cool blue maze lines, and just a few sound effects. The yellow chomper and his ghostly pursuers became the new "Kilroy Was Here" blackboard graffiti across the world. And while you’re cruising in Grand Theft Auto, you might, now and then, observe how all the sights and sounds coalesce into a living, believable, satiric vision of the American city. But the person on the street knows about Pac-Man and Grand Theft Auto because of their notoriety in pop culture, not for their artistic merit. They’re not the great games; they’re what the kids are playing.

Perhaps because they see the problem with calling games an art, gamers have asked, “Where's our Citizen Kane?” I ask, “Can we have a Citizen Kane?” Can we have a game in which we can appreciate the textures of those “rosebud” lips and the pieces of a shattered snow globe? Can we have a game that lets us exchange a knowing wink when someone talks about a momentary glimpse of a girl that changed his life forever, or that lets us share a somber silence when we understand what “rosebud” means? Can we have a game that reflects on a man’s life and his times, makes us reflect on our own lives and times, and compels us look for these reflections in every subsequent game we play? If we can, we’ll not only have our Citizen Kane. We’ll have art.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Zombie Appeal Explained

In my Green Zombie post, I mentioned several possible reasons for the popularity of zombies in games. But I've heard the most sensible reason yet in episode 90 of the RetroforceGO! podcast. At 31:30, Reverend Anthony says this about shooting a zombie:

"I might be, like, screwing myself over by saying this, but it gets you the benefits of, like, shooting a person without any guilt."

Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Recycling Old Rabbit Ears

On June 12, 2009, television stations in the U.S. switched to digital signal broadcasting after more than 60 years of regular analog service. So what do you do with that old analog TV?

Because flat panel TVs consume 75% to 300% more energy than cathode ray tubes, it may be environmentally beneficial to keep the old TV and attach a converter box rather than recycle it and buy a new TV. If you have old gaming consoles, you can hook them up to the old TV and making a retro gaming station. (The old console games might look better on the old TV, anyway.)

But if you decide to get rid of the old thing, don't just dump it in the trash. First of all, doing that might be illegal where you live. Second, it's not nice to the environment. An old TV may contain 7 to 10 pounds of lead. Recycle instead.

Some manufacturers are participating in the Environmental Protection Agency's TV Recycling Challenge. Until August 31, 2009, you can drop off your TVs (and some other consumer electronics) for free recycling. See the bottom of that website to find drop-off stations for Samsung, Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, and Toshiba products.

If your TV is not manufactured by one of those companies, or if those drop-off stations won't work for you, you might be able to find a suitable recycling center at

Thursday, June 4, 2009

IKEA for the Undertaker

A fellow Octopus Overlord posted about these custom-built bookshelves that become the owner's coffin when he or she dies. This is an elegant idea that conserves wood, money, and time spent coffin shopping. The designer says that the coffin is more sentimental for having been part of the deceased's life.

I doubt anyone is going to be buried in one of these except the designer. The family of a deceased person probably won't be in the mood to reassemble furniture. And most people would prefer to inter a loved one in something nicer than veneered plywood.

But if the idea has practical merit, maybe computer desks can be reassembled into coffins. If you're a hardcore gamer whose computer desk has outlasted several of your PCs, that thing probably has sentimental value to you. And when you're buried in it, the coffin can be customized like your PCs were. Give it a window so that your calm face shows through, along with LED lighting of your choice of color.

One can even take a cradle-to-grave approach. When you're born, you get a parcel of wood that's shaped into your crib. The crib becomes your first bedframe, your first desk, your bookshelf, whatever you need as you progress through life. Then you're buried in the same wood. To make things even more environmentally friendly and macabre, the cemetery can collect the methane from your decomposing body for use as energy. If garbage landfills can do this, why not human landfills? Maybe each body in the cemetery can power its own eternal flame (for a while).

Writing this made me wonder whether customized coffins exist. In turns out they're an important industry in at least one part of the world.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Confirming McCarthy

In a previous post, I'd mentioned how Senators Inhofe and Barrasso were delaying an EPA official's confirmation because of their opposition to global warming legislation. Yesterday, they lifted the hold on Regina McCarthy and allowed her confirmation as EPA's Assistant Administrator for the Office of Air and Radiation.

What may have swayed them was a letter from EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson conceding that the Clean Air Act was flawed for addressing global warming and lacked statutory flexibility for small sources of air pollution.

Those are interesting, but probably true concessions that didn't require a confirmation delay. Did Inhofe and Barrasso gain any ground by stalling the confirmation, or were they just putting on a show for their supporters? It will be interesting to see how they act during the country's new green movement and how Obama's EPA handles the daunting task of reigning in climate change.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Green Zombie

Ghosts are passé. Vampires have to have kung fu powers or teen angst to earn our attention. But zombies are one form of undead we've come to love more and more.

Recent zombie treatments have departed somewhat from the classic, lurching zombie archetype. For example, in Left 4 Dead, the "infected" are quite fast and have specialized abilities. But the word "zombie" continues to bring to mind the slow-moving, horde-forming, uniformly relentless flesh-eaters from the movies.

Why do such mindless monsters fascinate us so much? Ghosts and vampires at least exhibit human longing and suffering. Zombies just moan, shuffle and munch. The first Google result for "zombie fascination" leads to a page of the Zombie Survival & Defense Wiki that asks this question. One of the offered answers is that zombies reduce the world to a simple kill-or-be-killed state that society and technology, or even emotion and reason, cannot overcome.

I like this theory because of how well it explains the "bad guys," including zombies, in countless games. It doesn't matter whether you're shooting robots in Berzerk or zombies in Burn Zombie Burn; mindless, relentless, numerous targets provide run-and-gun gameplay that hasn't gone out of style.

Such games that pit one against many are, in a way, more believable when featuring zombies rather than intelligent and sophisticated enemies. You wouldn't expect the average person to last long against an army of soldiers, cyborgs, or vampires. But the slowness and stupidity of zombies give him or her a fighting chance. And maybe zombies are a more sympathetic foe. Vampires are powerful, arrogant and intelligent; zombies are clumsy, helpless, and have no idea how they got that way. On a typical day, do you feel more like the former or the latter? With their bulging eyes, green skin, and wayward limbs, zombies are even kind of cute.

Other reasons proposed on the Wiki for zombie appeal include the thrill of social upheaval and the chance to examine the meaning of life. Those are fine reasons, but I have another: zombies represent our fear of environmental threats. The root cause of a zombie problem is usually a pathogen, probably a man-made one. People are not only responsible for the genesis of the pathogen; they are also incapable of preventing its spread.

Real-world pathogens haunt our consciences because of our complacency in spreading them and our incompetence in stopping them. The Black Death spread far and quickly because of living conditions that facilitated its transmission and ignorance as to its nature. Today, confined animal feeding operations have been blamed for helping to spread the swine flu epidemic if not starting it outright. The H1N1 virus remains a concern despite advanced efforts to contain it.

Primal and uncontrollable, zombies carry out nature's wrath. They are the agents of Mother Earth, getting back at us for our environmental misdeeds. They are climate change personified, forcing us to give up our lavish and wasteful homes and lifestyles and go back to basics in order to survive. They also represent our fear of overpopulation; the resource needs of other people are so great that they may eventually eat us alive. Knowing how wasteful we have been in the West, we're worried about the teeming hordes in the East that now want cell phones and cars. We see a lifestyle-or-death struggle on the horizon pitting us, virtuous, sophisticated, and full of life, against them, barbaric, burdensome, and multiplying irresponsibly.

However, the earth has a way of reestablishing balance. If humanity becomes overwhelmed by zombiekind, other living organisms won't necessarily sit on the sidelines. The game Plants vs. Zombies offers hope that nature can correct a calamity as terrible as a zombie plague. If climate change is Mother Earth's attempt to reclaim what we've taken from other species, then Mother Earth may intervene on our behalf when a threat become too great for us to handle.

Writing this post has helped me understand our fascination with zombies. By being such primitive and primal reflections of us, they offer an intriguing perspective on our nature and environment. Like a devoted zombie fan, though, I am probably overthinking it. Zombies might represent an environmental problem much simpler than what I've raised above. We're pushing the capacities of our cemeteries, our "human landfills," and the dead just want a more sustainable place to rest.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Are Physical Media Here to Stay?

Digital distribution of games and movies grows in popularity, which gives me hope that that it will one day replace physical distribution altogether. You can already access large libraries of games for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii and PC without buying a single disc. How soon will we see game systems that don't accept physical media at all? Imagine PCs and consoles that don't have disc drives; all software would be downloaded via the Internet. Eliminating disc drives would conserve the mineral and energy resources used to manufacture, transport, and operate them. In an online-only world, companies may need to buy more servers to store and distribute content and consumers may use more electricity to download the content; I think, however, that the resource savings from abandoning physical media would be very significant.

The next time you are at a retail store, look at the shelves of movie and game discs and imagine them disappearing. Imagine all the resources that would be conserved if you could get all your entertainment choices at home.

I've been wondering about the possibility of the next Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo console going media-less. (PCs, having much larger software libraries, would be slow to follow). But a recent episode of Cheap Ass Gamer's podcast forces me to realize the minuteness of this possibility. In CAGcast episode 157, at 1:53:10, Stewart "Wombat" Nacht responds to a listener's fear of a total movement to digital distribution (which he thinks would mean the end of money-saving clearances and coupons) with the following:

"It's not gonna happen! Everything isn't going to move to digital distribution. There's too much space set aside in these big-box retailers for video games and there's so much invested in it and there's so many marketing dollars that are pushed towards it. The companies want their consoles to be sold in these retail stores, where they would lose so much money if they got rid of the disc-based media that they would probably stop selling the consoles in those stores ... Yes, I understand the technology is there to do digital distribution. Yes, it can be done. But it won't be done, because too many companies would have to eat too much money for it to happen."

David "CheapyD" Abrams then points out how impulse buying, important to game sales, would go away if you no longer could browse shelves of video games while you're at Wal-Mart to buy toothpaste or a plunger. I see his point. Even though I rarely buy games these days, I often give game shelves a quick look before I leave a retail store. That, of course, leads me to browse other departments at the store, increasing the chance that I'll buy something. A complete switch to digital distribution would mean the loss of a wing of merchandise. Retailers would fight hard to prevent it.

Shopping at markets is an ancient practice we're not likely to give up soon, even for the very recent addition of video games. But the rise in digital distribution tells me that companies and consumers share an interest in convenience and cost-cutting. This shared interest will keep digital distribution going and growing.

Despite the well-reasoned doubts expressed on CAGcast, I think we'll switch completely to digital distribution someday. It might not happen in time for the Xbox 361, PlaySt4tion, or Wiii, but it will happen. We'll keep buying consoles and PCs at stores, but we'll also increase our acceptance and adoption of digital distribution. There will come a time, perhaps when digital distribution accounts for half of all revenue in software sales, when publishers suddenly become interested in going exclusively online. Will retailers let them? At first, they won't; then, they'll open their own digital storefronts to partake in online distribution so they won't get left behind. The concept of physical media will then go the way of the floppy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Starflight: No Game Was Green Before

Spoiler warning: this article reveals story details from the Starflight games and Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri.

Starflight enthralled me 20 years ago with a vast galaxy of perils and wonders to discover. As a child space captain trying not to get brutally killed, I probably overlooked the game's environmental message. The message is clear to me now in my eco-anxious adulthood, and I find it growing more relevant with each passing ice shelf.

You start the game trying to earn enough money to keep your ship profitable and your crew alive, but soon find that you have a bigger problem. Stars at one end of the galactic map are mysteriously flaring, wiping out all life on their planets. The phenomenon is spreading across the map and will hit your homeworld if you don't stop it in time.

When you finally look behind the wizard's curtain, you discover that the stellar flares are caused by the widespread use of Endurium as starship fuel. Endurium, the wondrous crystal that has allowed sentient races to reach the stars, means the death of those races if they continue to burn it.

The real-world parallel of Endurium is, of course, fossil fuels. Coal, petroleum and natural gas are wondrous substances hundreds of millions of years in the making. Incredibly rich in energy and easy to extract, refine, and combust, these fuels have helped humanity expand and develop very quickly. But extracting and refining them cause environmental problems locally, and burning them contributes significantly to global warming. The "stellar warming" in Starflight has exterminated some species and forced others to relocate; similarly, global warming may endanger many species on Earth and even displace human populations.

I asked Greg Johnson, a chief designer of the Starflight games, whether the environmental message was intentional. He replied that although it was, "that theme wasn’t as topical as it is today because we simply didn’t know as much about our effect on the environment." Despite its galactic scale and quirky aliens, Starflight could be the first, most prescient computer game about environmental impact.

By the time of Starflight 2: Trade Routes of the Cloud Nebula, Endurium has been banned and replaced with a fuel called Shyneum. Shyneum is safer to burn but a lot more difficult to obtain, which is a problem comparable to our real-world struggle to find alternatives to fossil fuels. The new threat to the galaxy is an enormous sentient entity that mind-controls other races. Caught up in the drama of the story, I had wrongly assumed that this entity was merely cruel and vindictive. "We and the other life-forms were akin to infections inside of its vast body," Greg points out, "and it would take over entire sentient races and use them essentially as antibodies."

That sounds a lot like the Gaia hypothesis that envisions Earth as an organism, reacting to its inhabitants' actions as it attempts to maintain a surface equilibrium. This hypothesis comes up again in Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri when the planet you've settled emerges as a rival faction to correct your environmental offenses. The way in which you resolve the Gaian threat in Alpha Centauri contrasts quite interestingly with the blazing outcome of Starflight 2, and I will write about its environmental implications in a later post about the Civilization games.

Even while you're exploring a planet in your little rover, Starflight demonstrates the importance of awareness and education to environmentalism. The local flora and fauna are not merely cute little icons. When you scan a life-form, the readout informs you about its size, shape, and behavior. More than just "flavor text," the descriptions indicate the creature's value and role in the local ecosystem. You can capture specimens and sell them to the scientists on your homeworld, but only once per species. These activities remind me of real-life zoos and exploratory activities such as safaris and scuba diving. We might be doing (hopefully minor) damage to habitats by satisfying our curiosity, but what we learn may motivate us to preserve biodiversity and take faster action against global (or stellar) warming.

Incidentally, there's a lot more money to be made in Starflight by mining than capturing life-forms. The richest mineral deposits, however, tend to be far from creature habitats. There are also lots of mineral-dense planets where there is no life to disturb. Perhaps, in the actual future, humanity will be able to satisfy its mineral and energy needs by mining the moon and asteroids, leaving our wildlife alone to flourish.

The Starflight games, like earth science, challenge us to unfold mysteries. In the process of doing so, we challenge our assumptions about our ecosystem and the effect we have on it. We are forced to realize that living here means curbing our other interests, and external threats may be rooted in our own actions. "In both games," says Greg, "I suppose you could say the strongest theme is the one of perspective. We start out assuming something else is evil, only to discover that we simply didn’t understand the perspective of the 'other.'" Only by seeing from the perspective of the other can we fully see, and save, ourselves.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Climate Change Heeldraggers

The EPA has proposed findings that may lead to regulation of greenhouse gases. And it looks like the Washington figures who will lead the fight against such regulation will be Senators James Inhofe of Oklahoma and John Barrasso of Wyoming.

In Senate floor speeches, Inhofe and Barrasso spoke on how climate change legislation would worsen the current economic crisis. Their language evokes a vision of a jobless American landscape, as if the Obama administration or the public would simply allow such a doomsday situation to occur. They express doubt in the scientific evidence of global warming, yet have not offered evidence to support their predictions of massive job loss and debt should greenhouse gases be regulated.

They have gone so far as to stall the confirmation of an EPA official over the issue, saying that they still have unanswered questions on how EPA action on greenhouse gases would affect industries. But since EPA hasn't even proposed a course of action yet, I think those questions would be more appropriately addressed during the drafting and proposal of climate change legislation. I'm sure there will be plenty of discussion and debate opportunities when that time comes since every state could be significantly affected.

The pressure to act on global warming grows every year, as does the evidence. Inhofe and Barrasso could serve their constituents in ways better than dragging their heels as the country finally gives in to the pressure. They can more precisely determine how greenhouse gas prevention programs would affect industries and prepare those industries for the changes ahead. They can find solutions that attain a balance, and perhaps synergy, between industrial production and greenhouse gas control. With their tactics of delay and denial, they are setting up their constituents to become unprepared opponents rather than participating partners in this new environmental movement.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Rainforest Regeneration

A fellow Octopus Overlords forumite pointed me to a New York Times piece on how deforestation may not be as severe a problem as we thought. As people leave their farms for jobs in the city, the farmlands revert to forests. Because these forests absorb carbon dioxide and become new habitats for wildlife, they counterbalance some of the negative impact of rainforest destruction. The effect could be significant because forest growth is outpacing forest loss in terms of acreage.

As some of the authorities quoted in the article argue, though, these new forests are no substitute for old-growth forests. The species displaced by rainforest destruction usually have no way to relocate to the new forests. Even if they did, the new forests may not be sufficiently developed to suit them as habitats. Furthermore, city workers affected by the global recession may move out and raze the forests to build farmland again.

The article didn't mention it, but I wonder whether the global warming phenomenon facilitates the growth of these new forests. Does rainforest destruction, by contributing to global warming, speed the regeneration of forests in other tropical areas?

I also wonder whether the forests you chop down in the Age of Empires games ought to regenerate a bit as you progress through the ages.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rainforest Tropic Salvation

According to a recent Slate article, the current focus on climate change could make the environment worse. We may be overlooking a direr problem, which is the rapid loss of rainforest landscape. In fact, tropical deforestation may affect the climate more than the greenhouse gas emissions caused by human activities.

The deforestation problem reminds me of how we greedily gobble resources in real-time strategy (RTS) games such as Warcraft and Age of Empires. A key strategy for winning an RTS match is building an infrastructure that rapidly harvests resources and produces military units. Cutting down trees not only supplies the crucial wood resource; it also clears land for building and training military units.

This strategy changes a little in the few RTS games that feature renewable resources. In Command & Conquer, for example, the resource tiberium gradually regenerates. If you’re trying to bring down a huge, heavily defended base during the singleplayer missions, it pays to let the nearest tiberium patches regrow.

The environmental effects of building bases, deploying units, and making war are not explored in games. That’s understandable since most RTS games are about the much more pressing, and hopefully temporary, concern of war.

Not every RTS game has to be about war. In 1997, Stardock created an RTS titled Entrepreneur in which the object was to win market share. In order to defeat your competitors in the chosen market (such as soft drinks or computers), you built offices, researched product improvements, and deployed sales reps and marketing campaigns.

With the Slate article in mind, let’s tweak Stardock’s game a bit. Instead of exploring the map for market growth areas, let’s explore the map for rainforests to preserve. Send representatives to these areas not to get people to buy products, but to convince them to make rainforest conversation a top priority. Conduct research and development on products and methods that don’t require the felling of old-growth trees. Your opponents, the agriculture and lumber industries, will try to outdo your progress by rapidly consuming rainforest landscape, marketing the end-products, and funding studies concluding that rainforest loss is not a big deal. You win once a certain percentage of the forest landscape has been safeguarded and CO2 concentrations have fallen to acceptable levels. Call the game Enviropreneur.

Interestingly, the game that launched the RTS genre was probably greener than any of its successors. In Dune II, you had to win a war on the bleak desert planet of Arrakis. Spice, the precious natural resource with which you built your bases and armies, could be destroyed by errant weapon fire. Your bases were fueled by “windtrap power centers.” And the price for encroaching on the sandy wilderness was the occasional unit being eaten by the planet’s native species, the roving sandworm.

Of course, it took an environment as bleak as Arrakis to force such green thinking. Let’s hope things don’t have to get this bad in the real world to change our thinking.