Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Why we must support Serious Games

by Anand Ramachandran

Let's face it, except within a few select demographics and a few specific geographic pockets, video games are widely regarded as a waste of time, meant mainly for kids or nerds. Cultured, intelligent, successful people don't play video games - so goes the perception. And nowhere is this perhaps truer than in India.

Nobody says the same thing about movies. Or music. Or books. Why?

I believe it's because, by way of being more evolved and mature media, they are no longer viewed as purely entertainment. Think about it. Movies (documentaries, newsreels, instructionals) are often used to educate, inform, provoke thought. Ditto books, obviously. Music is used in teaching tiny tots a range of things - who doesn't remember the A-B-C-D tune, or those nursery rhymes that taught us how to count? Even comics have bridged the gap better than games have managed to do - TINKLE and Amar Chitra Katha being shining examples of products parents would happily buy for their children.

People tend to devalue anything that is purely recreational. For the mainstream to embrace a medium, it must be perceived as something that can be used to actually help people grow as individuals. Become smarter. Or more cultured. Or wiser. Or healthier.

While there are stray instances (America's Army, Civilization) of games that can be held up as products that are designed to educate and instruct, an overwhelmingly large majority of commercially made games are principally entertainment-oriented. Fun is the mantra - and rightly so.

In fact, I'm a great believer in the ability of games to build skills, teach and educate - I'm talking about commercially available, regular games here, and not games built specifically for educational purposes. Playing games can enhance, among other things, skills like hand-eye coordination, decision making, strategic thinking and memory. However, the fact remains that all this learning is hidden under a layer of entertainment. Hence the lack of understanding among the general populace. You can't really expect them to understand the hidden, subtle benefits of a game that, to all outward appearances, is about shooting things with insanely overpowered weapons. It's not even reasonable to expect them to take the effort to connect - the effort must undoubtedly come from the gaming community. Namely gamers, developers, and the gaming press.

This is where Serious Games come in. Serious Games are, for the uninitiated, games that are designed for purposes other than just entertainment. These games use the medium as a vehicle to educate, train or inform. They're used in areas as diverse as military, healthcare, agriculture, politics, environment and education. America's Army is probably the one everyone knows.Darfur is Dying is another that has gained popularity.

It's an important movement, and it's gaining momentum. Which is good news for all of us.

Because once Serious Games break through and begin to get mainstream press, people will begin to look at gaming as a medium, and not simply as recreation. A medium that can be used for purposes other than filling the minds of children with violent thoughts. And, as we well know, perception is everything. The same reality suddenly begins to look different - and as a result, more people buy, play and talk about games. And yes, more people have fun playing them. Just like movies. And books. And all that other stuff. Yay!

For this very reason, more of us need to support the Serious Games movement. By participating in the community. By talking about Serious Games. By working on projects, however small.

Consider the possibilities in India - simply enormous in my opinion. Make a game that teaches children to use fireworks safely at Diwali. Or an RTS that promotes communal harmony where factions must work together to win. Or a game that demonstrates the effects of pollution in cities, and how citizens can help control it. I believe that the press will give you quite a bit of coverage - it's an interesting story angle for them as well. When a simplistic crap-mountain like 'Kargil' can appear on India Today . . . enough said.

So that all those sceptics will stop regarding us as some sort of cultish group of outsiders. Yes, even Roger Ebert.

More on Serious Games here.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Real Ghosts and Fake Heart Attacks

Shane Watson is the best ever. The Australian team's leading fraidy cat and worst sledger is at it again.

On cricinfo.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Next Gen? Here's a Wishlist.

by Anand Ramachandran

Ooooh – let's get all excited everyone! The Next-Gen is here. Yuvraj and Akshay are plugging 360s already. It's going to be in every village, they tell us. The PS3 and Wii will soon follow.

And what's the fuss all about? Of course, it's eye candy, mainly. Graphics. Ooooh – look at those orgasmic hi-polys. Aaaaah – look at those ultra-detailed textures. Prettier than all the girls. More realistic than your dad.

But wait – that's what's supposed to happen, innit? I love souped-up graphics just as much as the next gamer, but that's just par for the course for the Next-Gen consoles. What more can we expect from these bodacious machines? We know about the beauty, what will the brains be like?

Here's what I wish we could see?

Less 'Artificial', More 'Intelligence'

Here's to developers who try to make NPCs more interesting, believable and complex. I'd like to meet opponents who feel fear, become enraged, make mistakes and surprise me. Developers who finally realize that 'improved AI' doesn't just mean bad guys who can sidestep, take cover or toss grenades. Games with an adventure element, especially RPGs, could do with a more complex emotional layer that controls NPC actions, to replace the rather lame 'hostility level' or equivalent that most of them use currently. Things that NPCs could do on the fly, depending on the game situation : Lie. Make, and break promises. Go insane. Fall ill.

Controller Innovation.

Sure, I'm excited about the Wii-mote (but not quite so much about Sixaxis – it seems like an afterthought, shoehorned into a design. Prove me wrong, Sony, please.). But why stop there? If Eye Toy, Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution were such big hits, it perhaps says something about intelligent controller innovation being an important tool in breaking through to new gamers. How about a controller accessory that can measure heart rate or blood pressure, and interpret it into the game, altering the player's abilities in some way? How about an oxygen mask like thing, which can check if players are holding their breath (Think Kabaddi. Think underwater sequences. Think stealth sequences) ?

A good cricket game

Okay. It's time. I've had it with playing second fiddle to football, tennis, golf, basketball and sundry other sports. I WANT a good cricket game – a true simulation. Brian Lara is fun, but it's nowehere near the quality of experience games like Pro Evolution Soccer and Top Spin deliver to fans of their respective sports. Go on, ICC cretins. Fund this one. We'll buy. Hell, we even buy EA's crappy game, even though we know it's not cricket!

Stuff I don't want

I hope no-one's working on bringing a real 'smell' component to the gaming experience. I don't want to smell rotting corpses and fresh blood. I don't want to smell sewers. Thank you very much. I sincerely hope there are no efforts on to extend 'force feedback' to include things like electric shocks and real burns. I don't want a role-playing game based on Jack Thompson. No, wait . . .

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

25 Years a Gamer

by Anand Ramachandran

Just realized that I've been gaming for quarter of a century! That's longer than many of my gamer friends have been alive! Grumpy. OLD. Man.

So perhaps I'll rather self-indulgently go off on a stroll down the old lane, and try to pick up some of the best gaming memories in all that time. Younger gamers, perhaps you can mine the following micro-memoir and try some of the oldies mentioned – you'll certainly be glad you did. Fellow dinosaurs, you may find something that has you nodding in agreement, while your eyes mist over. You have been warned.

Earliest memories of gaming

The world-famous Nintendo Game and Watch handhelds. Mickey Mouse. Parachute. Fire. Popeye. Old pong machines – I had a poppy TVG-4, which was a black and white unit, and a SOUNDIC TVSPORTS, which featured four brilliant colours. Tennis, soccer (I hate that word), basketball. Wheeee! And of course, the inevitable ATARI VCS (later known as the 2600). Not the nooB silver version. The true-blue, wood finish beauty. Oh, and before I forget – the coin-op Pac-Man at sleazy burger joints all over the US highways. When I was about seven.

Addiction Alert

Game and Watch titles such as Fire, Octopus and Parachute were pretty much unputdownable. Diablo. Baldur's Gate 2. The Sims. Halo. Tetris. Civilization (your version number here). KOTOR. The Minish Cap. I think these were probably the worst.

Adrenaline Rush

Turning up the speed to 'high' on the SOUNDIC, and then playing an impossible furious basketball game against a friend. The final, tense scramble as Master Chief tries to escape from Halo. Taking down a dragon for the first time in Shadows of Amn. Drunken Soul Calibur 2 parties. A headshot with the Ripper in Unreal Tournament.

Moments of WOW!

Exploring a huge (for the time) gameworld in 'Raiders of the Lost Ark', on the ATARI 2600. My first view of DOOM. Every single moment of 'Shadow of the Colossus'. Typing 'kiss alien' into Space Quest 2, and discovering that Al Lowe had actually programmed a response : 'You have a dirty mind'. Katamari Damacy. Oblivion.

Adventures in Adventure

All early Sierra games – Space Quest 2 was the first. Sam and Max hit the road. Monkey Island. Grim Fandango. The MYST series – yes, I really DO think they're great games. Out of Order.

Dirty Little Secret

I LOVE the N-Gage QD. I count Pathway to Glory, Mile High Pinball, High Seize, Colin McRae, Rifts:Promise of Power among some of the most satisfying and fun games I've played. And I've played. A lot. My sympathies to biased gamers who bad-mouth a product based simply on hearsay or limited experience and knowledge. A poke in the eye to NOKIA, who was chiefly responsible for shoddy initial design and moronic marketing.

WTF moments

Finally finding the Lost Ark, playing the game on a 2600 emulator, some 22 years after my first attempt!

Multiplayer Gems

Soul Calibur 2. Burnout 3. Pro Evolution Soccer (I hate that word). Unreal Tournament. But the games I enjoy most playing with friends – Worms 2, and Outlaw on the ATARI 2600.

Holes in the Resume

Very little gametime on Nintendo systems (apart from the Game and Watch and GBA). No SNES. No N64. No Gamecube. Will plug the gaps, though.

Next Gen

Don't know. I am excited about all the systems – but the Wii-mote has possibilities for swashbuckler-style swordplay. Bring it on – that's what I want to see. Grrarrrhhh. Maybe a Hellbrandt Grimm game. Shhlunk!

The other Next Gen

My four year old son knows the entire Halo weapon set and creature list by heart. He knows which weapons are UNSC and which are Covenant. He knows how to snipe enemies from afar. I'm SO proud of him. I'm going to be arrested for ESRB violation.


Now that I've greatly reduced my design consultancy work to focus on game design and comic-book writing, more time to keep this blog alive. And to play more games – never again shall my Xbox see a 6-month idle period. Shudder.

Advice to gamers

Play everything. Try out MYST. Have a go at the Sims. Check out the N-Gage (if you can get your hands on one, that is). Prejudices and biases are for wimps and losers. Tell your children to stay away from cheat codes.

Okay, time to go. Have to plan my 25-years-of-gaming party. If you're in Chennai, you'll be welcome. I'll post details on this blog once I'm ready.

P.S. - Other old-timers out there - pitch in and comment. Would love to hear your voices.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Has a comic book made you cry?


Lone Wolf and Cub Cover

Do you cry when you read comics? Have you? Ever?

I've just completed reading the last chapter of the legendary 'Lone Wolf and Cub', created by the revered Japanese Manga masters Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. And I've gone all misty-eyed.

THIS is the joy of comics. The long, arduous redemption journey undertaken by super-assassin Itto Ogami and his baby son Daigoro is an emotional roller-coaster that will amuse, delight, anger and move you like perhaps no other long-running comic series in memory. It's astonishing how writer and artist combine magically to create some of the most gripping and thought provoking sequences ever to grace the pages of popular comics - they combine so well it's almost impossible to believe that two separate people worked on the series. Indeed, sometimes you forget that you're reading a book at all - so powerful is the storytelling that it drags you right into the pages - you walk with Itto, witness his duels, feel the icy wind, want to pinch little Daigoro's cheeks.

And if you, like many readers in India, are used only to American comics, then the experience will perhaps be even more moving. Think of this as the first time for a Manga virgin, if you will. Pages of contemplative, delicately paced sequences suddenly tumble into a mad flurry of bloody, furious combat. Scenes depicting complex human emotions and delicately crafted conversations slowly melt into long sections without a single spoken word. Breathtaking stuff.

And the finale! Let it be enough to say it stands alongside the most powerful, poignant and heart-rending climaxes I've come across in ANY entertainment medium. If you're a comics fan, a fan of Japanese martial arts stories, or simply someone who delights in good fiction, you can't go wrong with 'Lone Wolf and Cub'.