Thursday, April 21, 2011

How does play enhance our world through humanitarian focused games?

Reality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Change the WorldReality is Broken: Why Games Make Us Happy and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jane McGonigal wants to change the world by getting us all to play games more. She has already established a reputation for generating play around basic ideas and putting them to work with the support of many multi-national corporations and non-profit organizations. I think she has very admirable goals and she certainly has the enthusiasm to promote them, but will this book really solve the most pressing problems in the world?

"Reality is Broken" is a manifesto. McGonigal is convinced that by playing games mankind can attack the most troubling of social issues, from poverty to hunger, and solve them through play. She lists the ways that we can do this and often sounds like a self-help guru; "do more satisfying work", "participate wholeheartedly wherever, whenever we can", and "have more fun with strangers".

I like her ideas and she been actively putting them to work in her career as a game designer and social engineer. Designing games that can encourage and teach people is a noble idea and McGonigal has worked on many projects that seem to have accomplished this. But where are the results? Unfortunately, McGonigal has only saw fit to list Internet sites where she's implemented these games. Where is the statistical data that shows the real effects of these games? Where are the first person stories of how playing these games really changed people's lives? Only online apparently because they are not in this book.

Modern humans are already playing games more and yet global problems still persist. I think the failing of this manifesto is that the gaming community is not unified in the same humanitarian values McGonigal clearly espouses. Also, while McGonigal acknowledges criticism that games can be used to escape reality, her rebuttal focuses only on the positive aspects of games and sidesteps any negatives of gaming addiction. It would make sense to design games to minimize these potentials, but that is outside the scope of this book.

I do want to watch her career for the next decade and see if she manages to attach herself to any project that applies itself to real world problems and manages to solve some of these dilemmas. It would indeed be a coup for the modern commercial world for a game designer to win a Nobel prize as she asserts is a personal goal. Unfortunately, this book has not changed my gaming habits and fails to convince me that we are really entering a new era of gaming. I'd like to be proven wrong.

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Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Mad Violinist (an unfinished project), part Three: Planning

This is the third posting about this unfinished animation project I started back in the early Nineties. Here I'll share with you some of the sequences of the film that I began to plan out.

This is a sketch of an image I planned to use to first introduce the violist. The idea is the protagonist hears music and is clearly annoyed. He looks out his window and sees the shadow of the violist cast on the building opposite.

Here are notes and thumbnails I jotted down to begin thinking through the process of the story. In them the protagonist attempts to sleep and begins to dream. The camera pulls away from an overhead shot of the man sleeping. As the sleeping man recedes architectural columns and other features like stairways appear, getting more elaborate. On the right I began to jot down ideas for a narrative, although I really had no intention of including any voice overs:

"It is past midnight and I dread the music. I hate my neighbor with a passion that haunts me when I wake and torments me so I cannot sleep. I am not a vengeful man, yet the evil music insinuates itself into my life so that I am desperate to free myself from it. Every night like clockwork it pierces my dreams and wakes me mercilessly. Twisted and jarring music, haunting and compelling are the only way to describe the horrific effect it has on me, perverting my dreams with its own reality. I cannot sleep. He robs me of my rest. I must fight him for my sanity. I must destroy his vile instrument. The music of Ehric Zahnn must be no more."

Here are a few more notes indicating a transition during the dream sequence when a clock face becomes superimposed by the sleeper's face. At another point I wanted the camera to zoom backwards through a door-less hallway of columns, each set from a different era and design. Eventually they would devolve into a Dali-esque open field dotted with columns and ruins at odd angles.

This is a sketch for the final scene where the protagonist bursts into the garret of the violist and discovers the man playing to a broken window behind which is a swirling maelstrom. To the left is a metronome which I wanted to be the size of a wardrobe, perhaps indicated by super-imposed images. I was also inspired by Van Gogh's painting of his room in Arles to develop this scene.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Mad Violinist (an unfinished project), part Two: Characters

There are primarily two characters in Lovecraft's story, the protagonist and the violist. At one point he does describe a conversation with the building owner, but only as a reference point, so I never really considered it a part in my story. But I didn't want my story to be only about the protagonist and the mad violist, I wanted there to be something more that would point to the early surrealists. One of my favorites was the photographer Man Ray, who often created arresting imagery with simple visual juxtapositions that illustrated how we recreate our worlds with words and phrases that do not translate logically to visual mediums.

For example, I was always taken by the idea of the relationship between a musician and their instrument as a love affair. Man Ray illustrated this in a famous portrait of a nude woman viewed from the back. He'd pasted two "f-holes" in black paper on her back to play with the connection between the human form and how stringed instruments are shaped. F-holes are not what you are thinking, but are sound amplifiers which are very recognizable on the front of most stringed instruments. I played with this notion in relation to the violist by drawing him as seducing a woman who was interposed with the instrument.

In this last image, I was playing with the idea that the protagonist might see the violist as an idealized figure, more cartoony and sinister. I have to admit I was inspired by Tim Burton's Beetlejuice, as it was interpreted as a cartoon show. There is a skeleton character that I believe had spirally eyes, which I modeled this character on.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Mad Violinist (an unfinished project), part One: Cityscape

This was an animation project that I've thought about off-and-on-again over the past many years. What I'm presenting here are mostly sketches and ideas, notes I've taken and the general mood that I hoped to create with my story. I was originally inspired in 1990 when I first read H.P. Lovecraft's short story, "The Music of Erich Zann" and most of these sketches are from that early time.

I had a definite visual story that I wrote out as an outline and then created images to match the story. My story deviated from the original story, including a dream sequence suggested by the weird music the protagonist hears playing above him in the garret apartment.

I was greatly influenced by Lotte Eisner's book "The Haunted Screen: Expressionism in the German Cinema and the Influence of Max Reinhardt" which focused on Germany's silent screen history. The only films I had viewed from that period were "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" and "Metropolis", which I believe is reflected in the imagery. Also, having recently moved to Seattle, I intended to include an iconic tower. I vacillated between wanting to include the Eiffel Tower which would place the story in Paris, France or including the Space Needle which would place it in Seattle.